Watford has been relegated to the English Football League after five seasons in the Premier League. After beating Norwich and Newcastle, The Hornets needed only two points on their last three games to be safe, albeit they conceded 10 goals without gaining any point. Moreover, only getting one point and conceding three fewer goals would have saved them from relegation.
In this scout report, we are going to do a tactical analysis on the low-block utilized by the Hornets in those last three games. This scout report analysis will dive into the different faults they had in their tactics inside and outside the net of the low-block conceding 7.18 xG in the games against West Ham, Manchester City, and Arsenal.
To start with, we have to say that Watford low-block is a tactical decision implemented by Nigel Pearson, no matter who they are playing against. The low-block would be established as the first defensive action, even though playing against teams that were not superior in quality as we saw on the game against West Ham. Accounting for 41.1% of their recoveries in their defensive third and shallow values of pressing intensity; in the game against Manchester City, they ended the game with a 23.2 PPDA.
The sequence follows by The Hornets to get into the low-block would be stable throughout the game; when the ball is lost, the team will sit down in a low-block, only varying their shape depending on the necessity to score. The main objective of their low-block is protecting the defensive third and creating a numerical superiority in the central zone, gaining a central spatial control. In the next shot, we can see in their game against West Ham positioned in a 4-4-2 with the two forwards defending in their half even though they were losing for two goals.
The Hornets offensively would position most of the time in a 4-2-3-1; in that case, both wing-backs would withdraw to create the second line of the pressure. Depending on the context, the advanced midfielder could also sit deep, creating a 4-5-1 to create an even more compact shape, as depicted in the following shot in their game against Manchester City. This way, they have more players to help in the central area, increasing the numerical superiority. Albeit, they lose one player in the first line of pressing and the options to counter-attack shallow, only generating a 0.11 xG, just counter-attacking once in the whole game.
Internal net faults
The inside of the net should work as a trap: once the ball enters the net, they should fast press winning the ball back. In the next picture, we can notice two mistakes inside the net in the game against The Citizens. The space given to Kevin De Bruyne in between the net is vast; one of the errors relies on providing space in the ball-side. The compactness is narrower on the far-side pocket than on the ball-side. At the same time, the low-block should consider the caliber of the opponents when displaying the compactness, and players of the likes of De Bruyne should be kept in narrower spaces due to his capacity to assist, as he did on the game. The net should work elastically, considering the opponents, space, and ball position to adapt their structure to reduce the chances and win the ball back.
As we said before, ball, opponents, and space should be taken into consideration when positioning in the low block. Faults could come from focusing on just one of these factors, leaving the other two uncovered. In the next shot, we can see a common mistake when defending in a compact block and paying attention just to the ball. If, when supporting, we focus too much on the ball, we can lose reference of the opponents and the spaces left in behind; as shown in the picture with three players focusing in the ball leaving Raheem Sterling unmarked inside the box. Due to these tactical faults, the front three of The Citizens had 16 touches in the penalty box in the game.
When defending on a low-block many of the rival’s attacks would finish on crosses due to a lack of central spaces. We found some weaknesses when Watford defended on these scenarios as depicted in the following shot. The Hornets used their full-backs to support the weak-side on crosses, lacking defensive aerial attributes. If opponents realize this, they could charge on them gaining quality superiority. This superiority occurred in the second goal scored by West Ham using Tomáš Souček charging Kiko Femenía in the second post. In this game, West Ham only generated 3% of its chances through the central channel, with all the rest coming from the wide areas.
External net faults
The low-block has an external component that should also work effectively, controlling the opponents out of the block without options of creating scoring chances. Next, we can see a fault in the external shape of the net in the game against The Citizens. The second line stayed centrally, marking the progression of the defensive midfielder leaving unmarked the best assister and striker of the opponent’s team De Bruyne. The low-block should work proactively, forcing the opponents to play in a certain way and not reacting to how they attack. If the Hornets had been proactive in this scenario, they would have allowed Rodri to progress with the ball, reducing the option of De Bruyne to collect the ball on those areas; in that case, you are forcing the rival to play as you want.
The low-block should also be proactive when pressing in the periphery of their structure. Depending on who possesses the ball and who is close to receiving it, the pressing tactics should be different. The Hornets did it right at the start of the game, pressing with cover when Phil Foden collected the ball in the right flank, but no giving protection to the press on the left side when João Cancelo was in possession being less dangerous. But the problem is shown in the next picture in an attack in the left flank when De Bruyne collected the ball, and Foden underlapped him. In this case, they should have applied the same structure on the left side, giving cover to the one pressing the wide receiver due to the quality of the passer and the receiver. De Bruyne receiving the ball in the extremity of the low-block, accounted for nine passes to the final third.
Also, in the external structure, ball, opponents, and space should be taken into consideration when defending. A defensive fault is depicted in the next shot in the second goal conceded to West Ham. Danny Welbeck playing as a wing-back and being part of the second line of pressure focused just on the ball closing from his position without realizing the spaces and opponents positioned in his back. Souček played the ball into the right-wing with time to centre, scoring the second goal of the game.
Offensive transitions become an essential phase of the game when performing a low-block. As aforementioned, The Hornets used the whole team in their defensive structure positioned in their half; this would require the opponents to use as many players as possible to try to outplay them. In this order, the Hornets could take advantage of their offensive transitions, counter-attacking the backs of the rivals. This transition becomes one of the primary attacking weapons of a low-block exploiting the spaces left behind, albeit this was not the case in The Hornets transitions, only generating 11 counter-attacks in the last three games. This lack of support in the offensive transition is shown in the next picture, even though they needed to score. Their counter-attack was not fast enough and did not involve enough players; Arsenal players recovered faster than Hornet’s offensive transition, outnumbering The Hornets counter.
Some teams might be waiting for counter-attacks to happen to counter-press and find spaces not given in the low-block. Against a side of the likes of Manchester City, which masters the counter-press, the offensive transitions should be performed flawlessly. In the next sequence, we can see The Citizen’s second goal, which came from a counter-press. In the first image, we can see The Hornets launching the counter-attack with a lot of forwarding runs, albeit the ball was counter-press and recover by Foden. In the second picture, we can see the spaces created now that The Hornets were preparing to counter-attack, The Citizens exploited the areas that would not be given when attacking the low-block.
As we have seen, there were many faults in The Hornet’s defensive shape when performing the low-block. Numbers are a fair representation of these flaws, conceding an average of more than three goals and 2.39 xGA per game, not an expected number when defending in a low-block.
Many teams receive the critics of defending in a low-block as it is an easy thing to do, but here we have gone on many mistakes in the Hornets defensive low-block, not being just a matter of defensive numbers the recipe for an effective low-block.