Liverpool headed down south to Watford as they pushed forward toward the Premier League title.
Jurgen Klopp set up his team in their usual 4-3-3 formation, making two changes to the team that beat West Ham as Naby Keita and Joe Gomez were withdrawn with minor injury problems, replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dejan Lovren.
Nigel Pearson also made two changes to his Watford team after they were defeated by Manchester United last time out. Kiko Femenia and Ismaïla Sarr replaced Craig Dawson and Roberto Pereyra in Watford’s 4-2-3-1.
Just like the last time these sides met, Watford’s focus was on defending then counter-attacking, however Pearson has had a lot more time to work with his charges now.
Rather than simply setting up in two banks of four, Watford were constantly alternating their defensive shape. If Liverpool were playing down the right, Sarr would drop back into defence on the opposite flank, forming a back five and denying Liverpool the switch of play over to Andy Robertson on the left. Watford would sometimes even form a back six if Gerard Deulofeu followed Trent Alexander-Arnold as he pushed into attack.
To ensure this didn’t leave Watford understaffed in midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré would drop back alongside the other centre-midfielders, allowing Watford to keep good width across the midfield. If Liverpool tried to work the ball forward down their right though, Doucouré would push up back alongside Troy Deeney, whether it was to get tight to Oxlade-Chamberlain dropping off to receive the ball or closing down Lovren.
Watford basically maintained a very tight defensive shape, constantly shifting to close any gaps that opened, and always kept plenty of players back behind the ball to ensure Liverpool couldn’t catch them out.
When Watford recovered the ball they would look to counter quickly, getting the four attackers running at Liverpool’s backline. The ball would be sent long to Deeney, who correctly fancied his chances better against Lovren than Virgil van Dijk. Lovren has a tendency to overcommit to challenges that frequently means he completely misses the ball, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of Liverpool’s defence. This was on full display against Watford, where he didn’t seem to make a single correct decision. Deeney did an excellent job of baiting these mistakes from the Croatian, dropping off far enough so that Lovren would follow him and get tight but be in a position so that he would get caught under the ball when he went for the header.
As soon as they recovered the ball, Watford would immediately look to get it to Deeney, who played a very intelligent game. If the option was there, he would flick the ball wide or nod it on to a teammate as Watford broke forward quickly. Deulofeu and Sarr would immediately break forward into attack from deep, hitting the space behind Liverpool’s full-backs, and Deeney was an excellent crossing option for them to aim for, while Doucouré held back around the edge of the box, giving them a different angle of attack. Deulofeu was looking particularly dangerous, scaring Liverpool down the left with his direct attacking until he was forced off with an injury.
If the option for that quick counter wasn’t available or Liverpool were recovering quickly, Deeney would put his foot on the ball and take his time holding it up before playing it backwards. Watford would make a show of passing it neatly between themselves, but would gradually play it back to the goalkeeper. The strategy appeared to be trying to bait Liverpool into pressing, then once they had drawn the away side forward Watford would punt it forward to the attackers, who were four-on-four against the Liverpool backline. Deeney always had the better of Lovren in aerial duels so these long balls were a more effective way of attacking than they perhaps should have been.
Liverpool weren’t doing anything particularly special to try to break Watford down. They had plenty of the ball but it was lots of slow passing, moving from one side of the pitch to the other but never really breaking through the lines. Liverpool’s most fruitful moments came down the left: Sadio Mane was able to drag Kiko Femenia up the pitch by dropping off and, although he would track back into deep areas, Sarr was never particularly aware of Robertson making runs behind him, meaning there was space for the Scot to attack in behind. Liverpool mainly played down the right though, trying to work little passing combinations between Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah that never really came off.
The first half had been pretty much devoid of any real chances but Watford took the lead early in the second through Sarr. Getting tight to Deeney, Lovren allowed the ball to bounce straight over his head and then made no effort to turn and clear, instead keeping tight to Deeney. Presumably bemused at Lovren’s “defending”, Van Dijk getting to the loose ball slower than Doucouré shouldn’t be a surprise, but his failure to put a leg out and block the cross was poor. Sarr got to the cross quicker than Robertson, tapping in to finish.
Conceding a goal has often been what’s necessary to shake Liverpool awake and get them playing – against West Ham for example, they often gave the impression of playing with their food before going behind finally focussed their attentions – however Watford scored a second before Liverpool could react. They snuck two passes down the line then in behind Liverpool’s high line. Both Van Dijk and Lovren were slow to react to the pass, allowing Sarr to sprint in behind them and grab a second.
Klopp made two attacking changes, bringing on Adam Lallana and Divock Origi for Georginio Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool moved to a 4-2-4 as Mane moved right, Origi went left and Salah moved up through the centre with Roberto Firmino. This broke up one of the few attacking successes Liverpool had during the game though, with the more static Origi not opening up space for Robertson to overlap as Mane had previously.
This didn’t really matter though, as Watford soon sealed their win with a third. Lovren once again made a complete hash of a header, but the loose ball fell to Alexander-Arnold. The young scouser’s pass back to Alisson Becker was easily intercepted by Sarr though. Despite being on a hattrick, the Senegalese was unselfish, passing back to Deeney to get a well-deserved first goal against Liverpool.
The result aside, the game wasn’t particularly abnormal in terms of Liverpool’s season. Liverpool looked terrible and off the pace, but they put in plenty of poor performances early on in the season only to get rescued by a moment of magic from one of the attackers, while they have looked off the pace in pretty much all of their matches since their return from the winter break yet only lost in the Champions League.
Although excellent, Watford’s performance also wasn’t particularly special. They didn’t stumble upon any great secret to beating Liverpool, they simply defended and countered very well. Plenty of other teams have done that this season – even in their first game, Watford had the better of the opportunities but wasted them with wayward finishing before Liverpool took the lead with a counter-attack – yet they are the first to stop Liverpool’s stranglehold on taking points.
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