Fresh from confirming their place in the last sixteen of the Champions League with a win away at Red Bull Salzburg, Liverpool hosted bottom of the league Watford. Having sacked Quique Sanchez Flores for a second time, Nigel Pearson took charge of his first Premier League match since he was sacked by Leicester City.
Xherdan Shaqiri, James Milner and Joe Gomez all returned to the starting eleven as Jurgen Klopp returned to the 4-2-3-1 formation he used against Everton, while Watford matched them.
Unsurprisingly given Pearson hasn’t had much time to work with the team, Watford focussed on the basics. They dropped back into two banks of four to defend then pushed up when the ball was sent out to the Liverpool full-backs. Gerard Delofeu and Ismaila Sarr would press Trent Alexander-Arnold and Milner respectively, curving their runs to block the pass down the line.
Sarr’s positioning was a bit odd. Sometimes he would tuck inside when the ball went down Watford’s left and sometimes he would stay wide and stay close to Sadio Mane or Milner. This left a gap between him and Etienne Capoue where Liverpool could have potentially exploited, but they never really did, maybe because the Watford defenders would often follow and get tight to the backs of the attackers when they dropped off to receive the ball.
Despite the relatively compact defending of Watford, Liverpool were finding it quite simple to get the ball into the midfielders. They frequently formed a back three, with either Alexander-Arnold staying back, Jordan Henderson dropping to the right of Gomez, or, in the event of some pressure from the Watford forwards, the centre-backs moving back and splitting wide to the corners of their penalty area and getting Alisson Becker involved in the build-up. Combine this with the fact that neither Troy Deeney or Abdoulaye Doucouré were doing very well at cutting off the passes into Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, allowing the pair to position themselves between them, and Liverpool didn’t find it particularly difficult to progress the ball.
Liverpool were also able to advance down the flanks with simple one-twos. The Watford wingers would come wide to block the pass down the line when the ball was played to the full-back, but the pass inside to the midfielder was often left open, allowing them to bounce a pass inside and run down the line past the winger to receive it back again. This pass inside was available mainly because the forwards would either push up to discourage the pass back to the Liverpool centre-backs or they simply wouldn’t bother to cover the midfielder, while Watford’s holding players generally preferred to stay back and protect the defence.
Although they could advance the ball, Liverpool weren’t creating many chances. This was partly because Watford kept a strong defensive base, the back four rarely venturing forward and the two holding midfielders sitting in front of them, but also because Liverpool were moving the ball around slowly, allowing Watford to shift across and cover before any gaps were exploited.
Watford probably had the better chances of the first half, always looking to play quickly down the flanks and swing in a cross, with Capoue’s passing used to switch sides if the opportunity down one flank dried up. It was nothing complicated but getting four men running at Liverpool’s backline before they could recover caught the league’s leaders out a few times, while the strong wind was making it difficult for the defenders to judge aerial balls. Watford’s finishing was consistently terrible though, ensuring they fluffed anything that came their way.
Liverpool ended up taking full advantage of one of the few times Watford’s defenders ventured upfield. They came up for a corner, Liverpool cleared it and countered, setting up Mohamed Salah to take the lead.
The pace quickened in the second half. Maybe Klopp had said something to his players at half-time or more likely they were forced into moving the ball around with greater zip due to Watford chasing them down in search of a goal. Apart from that, little changed in the second half. The quicker pace meant Liverpool found gaps quicker, and so created more chances, yet Watford were still giving a good account of themselves with their direct running.
Liverpool held out though, adding a second late on with a quick series of passes from back to front as Watford being caught very stretched trying to pressure Liverpool.
It was another lacklustre performance from Liverpool against poorer opposition, yet ultimately another three points without getting out of first gear.