After picking up 14 points from his first seven Premier League games after achievement Quique Sánchez Flores, that your correspondent was one of those eating humble pie.
A left-field appointment at the moment, the prior Leicester City boss had given the Hornets hope in which it was all but extinguished. But, throwing away six points in back-to-back matches against Aston Villa and Everton was an unwelcome return to reality.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Brighton & Hove Albion was yet another opportunity wasted, though Watford were offered next to nothing after moving forward through Abdoulaye Doucouré’s rasping drive.
The complete extent of the damage won’t become evident until relegation rivals Aston Villa and West Ham United play this weekend at the other half of the Premier League’s’winter break’. Luckily, teams in the base keep letting one another off the hook.
All isn’t lost. Far from it, actually. The belief that had long since vanished by the time Sánchez Flores’ gloomy second spell came to an end has returned. The Hornets are just a point behind 16th-place Villa — the boot could have been on the other foot had Pearson’s been able to cling onto their lead at Villa Park.
There are a few lessons to be learnt, however.
It’s tough to imagine a straight talker such as Pearson entertaining the notion of ifs and buts. Whichever you paint it, however, Watford should be on more things than they are. Even if they just held on to draw at Aston Villa and at home to Everton. That would be two more points than they have. The draw in the Amex was, on reflection, a point gained awarded Watford’s second-half screen.
Watford sat too heavy, had no socket and the replacements came too late. Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu had obviously waned long before being hooked at the 82nd and 86th minute respectively. Watford didn’t test Albion keeper Mat Ryan after in the second half, had two shots incomplete and finished 97 passes.
Something must change — and fast. The Hornets have failed miserably to hold onto the feeling is that their defensive strategy is to blame. There was absolutely no attacking intent against Brighton and while Pearson threw caution to the wind against ten-man Everton, it finally ended up coasting Watford.
It’s not tricky to pinpoint the moment it fell apart.
Villa rallied and had four shots in the rest of the time. Watford had one and finished only ten passes to Villa’s 21 in the last third. The wave was clearly one way and if Tyrone Mings deflected home Ezri Konsa’s goal-bound attempt, Villa could have felt they had deserved it.
Refreshed by their break for the FA Cup, Watford roared to a two-goal lead at Everton only to concede two set-piece goals in a minute to hand the Toffees a path back in the game.
Pearson later affirmed the England international was withdrawn as a preventative measure.
However, Watford fell apart and despite handling five attempts, they failed to reach the target. Everton, who were down to ten men for the last 19 minutes, managed four.
Pearson couldn’t have been accused of negativity in that case. After all, Watford were enjoying a sort of 4-2-4 with just Doucouré and Étienne Capoue holding the fort.
It was confused, disjointed and did not pay off.
They are currently nearing 0.91 goals (per 90) as opposed to the 1.54 before his appointment. But that owes a significant amount to the remarkable form of goalkeeper Ben Foster.
Their anticipated goals against per 90 (xGA 90) have Watford exceeding 1.27 times per game. The fact they have bettered that figure is down to a combination of good goalkeeping and poor finishing from their opponents. But those factors can’t be relied upon.
Having sorted out his side’s problems facing goal, the Hornets are now scoring 1.18 times per 90 from open play instead of 0.77 beneath his predecessors, Pearson must find a way to defend the overworked Foster. What has not helped are harms to Kiko Femenía and Daryl Janmaat in right-back whilst Christian Kabasele has needed to serve a suspension, robbing Pearson of one of the two first-choice central defenders.
One of the huge successes of Pearson’s tenure has been a change in the midfield composition. Saturday’s goalscorer Doucouré had mostly played in the based of midfield as part of a double pivot throughout his period at Vicarage Road. However, Pearson has introduced the Frenchman to play further forward as a No.10 and was rewarded with a gorgeous solo attack against the Seagulls.
The prior Derby County midfielder returned to the starting XI after a spell in the treatment area and picked up where he left off, getting through untold amounts of defensive work in a deeper position.
Given his slight frame, it would be easy to confuse the 24-year-old to get a more attack-minded midfielder. However, as his three complete tackles, supporting only Capoue (5) and Adam Masina (4), prove he is more than capable of playing a more defensively-minded function. His form is another victory of Pearson’s short reign.
The best test of the relationship will be if Pearson can keep the Hornets in the Premier League. There is enough there to indicate that this marriage won’t end in a different divorce.