TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) shares his thoughts on Saturday's showdown between Watford and champions-elect Liverpool.
Watford v Liverpool | Saturday 29th February 2020, 17:30 | Sky Sports
Watford host Liverpool on Saturday with Nigel Pearson’s hosts looking to arrest a run of form which has seen them slip to 19th, without a win in five Premier League games and a six-game winless across all competitions.
Jurgen Klopp’s visitors suffered a scare on Monday, as West Ham pushed the Reds to the brink, taking a shock lead before two late goals extended the Merseysiders’ lead at the top and put them one step closer to the title. Liverpool will be keen to move one step closer to their inaugural Premier League with victory here.
It won’t be plain sailing for Klopp’s side mind, as they come up against a side fighting for their lives at the bottom, much like West Ham, but with confidence still sky-high at the Anfield club, it’s hard to see past another Reds victory.
Watford to play on the counter and to the flanks
The reverse fixture saw Liverpool come out on top 2-0 in Pearson’s first game in charge of the Hornets, and whilst Watford are still in the relegation zone, their playing style has continued in the same vain, and a lot can be drawn tactically from that encounter.
Sitting deep and counter-attacking has been indicative of the style Pearson has looked to employ, and this brought about a number of opportunities at Anfield, as Watford wasted a number of chances before the ever-clinical Liverpool pounced on their profligate nature in front of goal.
An Expected Goals (xG) output of 1.01 on its own is often commendable this season against the Premier League’s top defence, and it will give Pearson faith his side are well-equipped to cause Liverpool problems once again.
Troy Deeney will lead the line, and long balls up to the target man will be the out ball that Pearson will look to utilise, before getting his three attacking midfielders to press on quickly and pick up the loose ball before the covering Fabinho can do so.
However, coming up against the imperious Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez in the air, the tactic Pearson employed at Anfield was to move Deeney wide and try hit long balls into the channels, up against Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, where Deeney could receive the ball, often holding up the play unopposed.
Pearson will look to target these areas again, especially with the high pressing nature of the two full backs leaving these channels exposed, and could help to drag Fabinho out of position as he looks to help cover these areas. This would leave space for those in behind to join the attack, particularly Abdoulaye Doucoure in central areas.
Hornets on-guard against Liverpool’s flying full-backs
The Watford full backs will be expected to play more restrained, covering the threat of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, so the wide players will also be required to join attacks quickly to avoid being dominated in possession. These are the crucial areas for Watford to create, particularly with the right flank having the out of position Adrian Mariappa at right back, who doesn’t possess the energy to get up and down.
However, the risk is that if this avenue is cut off, they will struggle to get out their own half, and as West Ham found out on Monday like many other sides this season, when Liverpool press on and up the tempo, it can be unrelenting and cause a whole host of problems to the backline.
That pressure can often be too much. Klopp’s side showed how dangerous they are when playing at a higher pace, and it should be expected to see them looking to start quickly on Saturday after struggles in breaking down opposition in their previous two games.
Concerns on the right-side of defence
The two wide men, Gerard Deulofeu and either Ismaila Sarr or Roberto Pererya, will no doubt be targeted by Klopp, as their defensive contributions and concentration can at times be called into question. This is particularly the case for Pererya, and if Sarr isn’t fit, it will mean that Mariappa could find himself exposed against Robertson and Sadio Mane, and this could be where Liverpool cause the majority of their problems.
Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum’s fluid movement will drag the central midfielders across looking to help cover, and this could cause problems by creating an extra man in central areas, especially if Roberto Firmino continues his fine form playing as a false nine and drops into these spaces, forcing Doucoure to drop deep to help cover.
As alluded to before, this would mean that Deeney would quickly become isolated and the pressure unrelenting, so Watford will need to find a way to avoid this, potentially by opting for a more reserved right winger. But the issue Pearson will have is the balance between conceding too much possession and allowing Liverpool too much control.
Balance key for Pearson
He got the balance correct in the away game, but whether he is able to do this once again awaits to be seen, and it could be a long evening for Watford if they can’t tactically find a way out.
Liverpool have shown their vulnerability to the counter, highlighted by Pablo Fornals’ goal on Monday, and this gives Watford a glimmer of hope, but it is still a big ask for a side bereft of confidence and down the wrong end of the table to shock the Reds.
Despite conceding twice to West Ham, the xG of the Hammers was 0.56, and this does highlight the task ahead for Watford, and the requirement to take any chances that come their way, something they have particularly struggled with.
The Hornets’ alarming underperformance of xG this season by 9.81 goals will to be reversed in this clash if they are to stand a chance against the rampant Reds.
The betting angles
Two options standout in this clash, and they both originate on the card markets. With Michael Oliver refereeing, he has shown in recent weeks a leniency, but after last week’s VAR controversy at Chelsea, it could be roles reverse coming into this clash.
Watford’s disciplinary record has seen them rack up 57 yellow cards to Liverpool’s 26, and I was surprised to see you could get Watford to have the most cards at 4/5 (Bet365).
The tenacious side under Pearson has been clear for all to see, and the Hornets will follow the approach of West Ham on Monday of getting stuck in and trying to unsettle the opposition.
Going behind leaves Watford vulnerable to the counter, and whilst Oliver’s leniency has been factored into the price, Watford to have Over 1.5 Cards at 9/10 (Bet365) also caught my eye.
A niche angle to consider, VAR was a feature of Oliver’s last game, and with Mike Dean taking charge from Stockley Park, the VAR specials on this game could be worth a look, as the reputation of Dean taking centre stage could be too good to ignore.
BetVictor have priced up this market, with a penalty being awarded via VAR after not being given at 5/1, whilst a red card overturning the referee’s decision is at 18/1, and considering the pair on show, it certainly catches the imagination.