On the 29th February, 2020, Liverpool travelled to Vicarage Road to face Watford. At the time Liverpool were on course for an unbeaten season in the Premier League. With Liverpool having swept aside almost every team they had faced in the Premier League to that point little was expected of Nigel Pearson’s Watford side. Watford themselves were in the midst of a relegation scrap and the win was a huge boost both in the league and for Watford‘s confidence that they could beat the drop.
In this tactical analysis, I will take a look back at this tactically intriguing match. At the end of the analysis, I will look to answer the question as to whether Watford have provided the blueprint on how to beat Liverpool.
Under Pearson, Watford have tended to lineup in a more traditional 4-3-3/4-5-1 which has been a move away from the 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 which had been a mainstay of the side under Javi Gracia. Troy Deeney had tended to line-up alongside a strike partner, whether that be Andre Gray or Gerard Deulofeu playing more centrally. Out wide Pearson has preferred to operate with more traditional wingers in Ismaila Sarr and Deulofeu, with Will Hughes able to play in his more natural central midfield role. Liverpool provided no surprises in their tactics as Klopp put out his side in their usual 4-3-3.
As Wyscout’s average position tracker indicates, Watford operated with a clear distinction between the players responsible for attacking and those responsible for the defensive side of the game. As I will come on to highlight in further detail later in this article, Watford attacked with a group of four and looked to hold six players back. Will Hughes, however, often would try to bridge the gap between the defensive unit and the attacking unit.
Before I start the in-depth analysis, I’d like to focus on some of the notable statistics that came out of the game. Liverpool dominated the ball against Watford with a 66% share of possession. However, Watford appeared more than happy to surrender the ball to Liverpool. 16% of Watford’s passes were long balls and the home side had a total pass accuracy of 72%. Despite having the vast majority of the ball Liverpool were quite toothless when it came to their attack. Liverpool only mustered seven shots with only one finding the target. This is particularly notable as Liverpool have averaged around 15 shots per game in this season’s Premier League. What’s more, Liverpool only generated 0.22 xG having averaged 1.94 xG across all their fixtures in the league. This may have been as a result of Liverpool’s average shot distance being 21.1m.
Watford themselves generated 1.59 xG, a slight increase in their average of 1.18. In comparison to Liverpool’s average shot distance, Watford’s was 17.3m suggesting they were taking a much higher quality shot than their opponents. Whilst Liverpool had almost double the share of the ball they only had 17 possessions which reached Watford’s penalty area, Watford on the other hand had 13 possessions which reached Liverpool’s. This implies that well Liverpool had much more of the ball, Watford were much more efficient with their use of it.
Watford’s defensive set-up
When facing Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side the opposition can expect to spend most of their time defending. Liverpool boast the second highest possession statistic with a 62.8% share of the ball. Against Watford, it was no different. Liverpool spent just under 37 minutes of the game with the ball in possession, compared to Watford’s 19 minutes. As a result, Watford’s defensive shape and discipline had to be spot on.
Without the ball, Watford held a 4-4-2 shape. Abdoulaye Doucouré would move ahead of the midfield four to support Troy Deeney. Watford operated in a low block, rarely pressing Liverpool until they reached their final third. An example of this can be shown below as Roberto Pereyra is the only Watford player in Liverpool’s half whilst they have safe possession of the ball.
Although Watford operated with a low block, they held a relatively high defensive line.
This kind of defensive set-up has two benefits. Firstly, the defensive side can easily close the space between the defensive and midfield lines which in turn restricts the space in which opposition attacking players can operate. Secondly, it makes it much harder for the opposition to gain easy access to the penalty area. Whilst the space in behind the defensive line may look inviting to opposition runners, particularly the likes of Sadio Mané and Mohammed Salah, it requires a pin-point pass from a deep position to exploit the space. Watford also have one of the best and most active goalkeepers when it comes to acting as a sweeper. Ben Foster averages 1.03 defensive actions outside the box per 90 which is the third most of all the goalkeepers in the Premier League. In the image below we can see this idea in action.
Watford are holding a reasonably high defensive line and Sadio Mané is looking to run in behind and exploit the space. There is no pressure on Dejan Lovren but in order to find Mané, his pass has to be pinpoint.
Lovren overhits his pass slightly and Ben Foster is already advancing past the penalty spot to sweep up the ball.
Another benefit of having a low line of engagement but a reasonably high line is that it can restrict the number of touches the opposition is able to have inside your box. Liverpool average 34.5 touches in the opposition penalty area in the 2019/20 Premier League. Against Watford, Liverpool only had 21 touches in the opposition penalty area.
With the lines compacted the likes of Roberto Firmino found it difficult to affect the game in the areas he usually likes to.
When Firmino was found by his teammates between the lines he was immediately swamped by two or three Watford players who looked to make the most of any slight mis-control or poor touch.
Liverpool fail to exploit space in the final third
A potential drawback of operating with a defensive set-up such as Watford’s is the space and opportunity it offers to the deeper opposition players to carry the ball into. When Liverpool build-up they often have a player drop into the left and right half-spaces to take the ball from the centre-backs. This movement allows Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to advance down each wing and move into dangerous positions.
This movement usually occurs in the middle third of the pitch as shown above and below.
These movements can also disrupt the opposition’s defensive shape by dragging a marker out of his position and opening up space for a deeper runner to exploit. Watford however would rarely follow the likes of Salah and Wijnaldum when they dropped into the spaces to receive the ball. Watford saw these movements as unthreatening and preferred to hold their defensive shape.
As the game wore on these movements by Liverpool attackers instead began to restrict potential opportunities for Virgil van Dijk, who can be a very dangerous ball carrier, to carry the ball and unsettle the Watford defensive shape.
In the image above we can see that van Dijk has received the ball with a lot of space ahead of him. Watford aren’t applying too much pressure on the ball. van Dijk should see this as an opportunity to carry the ball towards the Watford defensive shape which would force a Watford player to move out of the line to engage him. However, Roberto Firmino makes his usual move into the space to receive the ball from van Dijk which immediately closes the space for the central defender to carry the ball into. Firmino’s run is left untracked and the move breaks down when the forward has to force a pass in behind for Andy Robertson to run onto which runs out of play.
A similar example is shown below.
Throughout the 90 minutes, Liverpool were only really able to breach the Watford defensive line once and it came when van Dijk was able to carry the ball into the aforementioned space.
As he had done numerous times in the game van Dijk received the ball with space ahead of him. On this occasion, though his teammates left the space clear for him to move into. This gave the Watford defenders a choice, whether to press him before he got too close to their box or hold off and risk him moving into an even more dangerous position.
In the end, both Sarr and Femenia choose neither option and got stuck in a no-man’s land situation. van Dijk easily finds Robertson and Liverpool register their one shot on target.
How were Watford able to cause Liverpool defensive problems?
As mentioned earlier in this article, Watford operated with two distinct units, an offensive unit, and a defensive unit. These units were split into four players attacking and six players defending, which is to put it simply.
In the first half, Watford’s attacking unit remained fairly regimented in their positions. Sarr and Deulofeu would keep their width on the respective wings, whilst Deeney and Doucouré would use their clever movement to look for space in and around the box. Whilst Watford were able to generate one decent opening with this set-up, their clear-cut opportunities were limited. When Sarr in particular was allowed more freedom in his movement in the second-half, the home side began to get some joy. This is highlighted by the xG dynamics from Wyscout.
Watford were able to create a number of decent goalscoring opportunities in the second-half and in particular, Ismaila Sarr proved a constant threat.
In the first-half Sarr was somewhat isolated and detached from his attacking partners. In the second half, he played much closer to Deeney and Doucouré, particularly from goal-kicks. In the image above we can see Watford’s attacking unit all in close proximity to one another in an attempt to create overloads and unsettle Liverpool’s back four.
In the lead-up to the third goal (above) we can again see that Sarr has come off his wing and is looking to run onto a flick-on from Deeney.
Whilst the goal ultimately comes from an error from Alexander-Arnold, Sarr’s central positioning puts him in a position to seize on the error and Watford to punish Liverpool.
In a previous article which I wrote for our dedicated Liverpool analysis website, I noted a particular frailty down Liverpool’s right-side. This isn’t a groundbreaking discovery as many teams have looked to exploit Alexander-Arnold’s perceived defensive deficiencies. Watford had also clearly noticed this and tried to exploit it at every opportunity. In the image above we can see that Watford have three players situated around Alexander-Arnold and Lovren, looking to take advantage of the space that is often left in the right-back channel.
Sarr is able to maintain his position between RB and RCB and is never picked up by either Alexander-Arnold or Lovren and can be easily found by Capoue.
With Sarr coming in from his wing and operating much closer to Troy Deeney, he was able to be a presence inside Liverpool’s penalty area. Sarr registered 8 touches in Liverpool’s box alone. To put this into perspective, Liverpool’s two most dangerous players inside the area, Salah and Mané, managed just 9 between them.
Bypassing Liverpool’s press
It is well documented that Liverpool have one of the best pressing games in the world. Their counter-press is a huge weapon in their arsenal and overcoming it can be very challenging. If a team likes to build play through the thirds they often encounter problems when Liverpool decide to lay their traps and pounce on any stray pass or poor touch. In the Premier League, Liverpool boast the most pressures in the opposition attacking third with 1424 so far this season whilst also having the highest pressure success rate at 31.7%. However, against Watford, Liverpool only registered 30 ball recoveries in the opposition half.
In order to bypass Liverpool’s press, Watford looked to play long and direct towards Deeney and over the top of the defence for Deulofeu and Sarr to run on to. This avoided giving Liverpool the opportunity to win the ball during Watford’s transitions. To emphasise this point, according to Wyscout’s match report 52 out of 80 of Watford’s open-play possessions lasted between 0 and 10 seconds. Watford were happy to surrender possession to Liverpool in Liverpool’s half but avoided any danger of losing the ball in their own half.
This factor of Watford’s play was even more evident when you look at Ben Foster’s goal-kicks.
The Watford stopper played all but two of his passes long towards Troy Deeney. Watford looked to use goal-kicks as an opportunity to not only bypass Liverpool’s press but apply their own pressure to Liverpool’s right-back channel, as noted above. Whilst goal-kicks aren’t a set-piece in the way a corner or a free-kick might be, they are still a dead-ball situation and can provide lesser sides the opportunity to move the ball quickly and directly into the opposition final third and when you have a player who is as dangerous in the air as Troy Deeney and willing runners either side of him in Sarr, Doucouré, and Deulofeu it can be a very effective tool.
When considering the question I posed in my introduction, it can be very difficult to determine whether a team has provided the ‘blueprint’ to beat another side. Following the defeat to Watford, Liverpool did struggle and lose twice against Atlético Madrid who are another team who like to defend in a compact 4-4-2 and play with quick transitions. Whether or not this suggests this is how every team needs to play to beat Liverpool remains to be seen.
Having said that, Watford have highlighted some potential weaknesses in the Liverpool side. If you can challenge Alexander-Arnold physically and overload the RB-RCB channel this can lead to openings. If you are able to bypass Liverpool’s initial counter-press with direct and quick transitions they can show a softer underbelly. Whilst it does require total concentration from all parties for 90 minutes, Liverpool can be contained by a strict defensive set-up which does all it can to keep a relatively high-line to prevent touches in the area but is also compact enough to restrict space between the lines. A lot of this is of course easier said than done as proven by Liverpool’s hugely impressive points total at this point in the season. It will be interesting to see if in the coming few weeks, following the return to Premier League action, teams look to take a leaf from Watford’s book and how effective they can be at it.
(All data are taken from Wyscout/fbref.com/StatsBomb)