For the first time in quite a while, the Toffees go into a match as favourites, even more unusual in that Frank Lampard’s team are the visitors tonight at Vicarage Road and their record as the away team over the season is dreadful. This is mitigated by the fact that the Blues are coming off their first road victory since August, a 2-1 win over Leicester City on Sunday and the opponents are Watford, who were officially relegated at the weekend. Everton have hit form over the last month and those efforts have pulled the club clear of the relegation zone. This run has been built on a gritty, disciplined approach, rather than playing teams off the park and certainly Lampard will have ensured his players retain focus for tonight’s game, as any easing off - even against weaker opposition - could prove disastrous. Here, we take a look at Roy Hodgson’s Watford in a little detail.
Not unusual for the Hertfordshire club, they enter tonight’s match under their third manager of the season. The newly-promoted outfit added plenty of new personnel for their Premier League campaign and started out reasonably well, but fired the man who taken them up, Xisco Munoz anyway, after only seven matches, of which he’d won two. The experienced Claudio Ranieri was drafted in as replacement, but after 13 games he was shown the door also, having secured only two victories, most notably (to Blues fans) a stunning turnaround at Goodison Park, where his team came from behind to somehow bury Everton 5-2 in a shocking turnaround. In came fellow veteran Roy Hodgson, seen as something of a specialist in relegation battles over his long career.
The ex-England boss had only left his position at Crystal Palace last summer and many expected him to work his magic once more and to see an uptick in results from Watford. Initially there was a marginal improvement, the Hornets picking up eight points from nine fixtures, but subsequently they fell off a cliff and enter tonight’s match on a run of six straight defeats, which has seen them lose their Premier League status with three games left to play. On the face of it, their 1-0 loss to Palace at the weekend was not particularly bad, but in the aftermath there’s been much rancour, with goalkeeper Ben Foster questioning the attitude of some of his teammates and Hodgson making no efforts to acknowledge the travelling fans at Selhurst Park, whilst doing so with Eagles supporters; not a good look, considering the circumstances!
Style of Play
Hodgson has gone with a 4-3-3 since arriving at Vicarage Road. He sets his team up in a low block and looks to play on the counter. He’s tried to improve Watford’s shape and turn them into a more disciplined defensive outfit, but with mixed results. The Hornets have at least managed to keep three clean sheets under the veteran, which they had not done under Munoz or Ranieri, but defensive errors still abound and this is simply down to a lack of player quality, which the boss cannot really do much about. The team try to get men behind the ball, but are still giving up far too many chances on goal; the last time they kept an opponent to less than 1.0 xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) was against Wolverhampton Wanderers in mid-March, a match in which, ironically they shipped four goals. Somewhat unusually, Watford concede more goals at home than away, including a league-leading 30 from open play.
Offensively, the team play on the counter and they have some useful players, but have rarely been able to create enough chances, or show consistency in taking them, generating only 10.4 shots per game, joint 18th in the league. In terms of possession, Watford hover down the lower reaches of the league (alongside Everton) at 39.8%. They go direct, hoping to use the pace of their mobile wide attackers, such as Emmanuel Dennis and Ismaila Sarr, so passing accuracy is consequently low at 72.4%. Watford have a number of players that can carry the ball, offering 10.4 dribbles per match and this probably offers their major threat.
A large number of Watford’s players are listed as injury doubts, or late calls for tonight’s match, so I’ll deal with those who I feel may be impactful should they play. Moussa Sissoko offers a physical presence in the Hornets’ engine room and though now 32 is still a capable box-to-box midfielder. The host’s captain - once almost an Everton player - is probably Watford’s most effective and reliable defensive player, having operated at a higher level than any of his teammates.
Dennis has had an impressive debut campaign in English football, scoring ten league goals, though his form has slipped since the New Year. He offers pace, agility and an eye for goal and will be a test for whoever lines up on Everton’s right hand side. Sarr is the major threat on the other flank. The Senegalese winger caught the eye two seasons ago as Watford were again relegated, but he’s failed to kick on this term. He’s very quick and dangerous cutting inside with the ball, but has failed to find the back of the net in the last ten league games.
In theory this is an easy match, but as Everton fans we all should know better than that! The Blues have played so poorly - especially away from Goodison - and for so long that there can be no expectation that they can just turn up anywhere and win in low-gear. Watford are a shambles, both on the pitch and apparently in the dressing room, going off Foster’s remarks at the weekend, but they are a Premier League outfit, at least for the next couple of weeks and must be respected. Lampard may be tempted to play a more open game than the Blues have favoured over recent weeks and to a degree this can work, but we can’t see a reversion to the high line and overly aggressive counter-pressing the team utilised in those disastrous early away games under the new manager. Everton have plenty of weaknesses that even a side as poor as the Hornets can exploit, if given too many opportunities. Structure and concentration have papered over many cracks and that cannot be abandoned tonight. By all means, the back five can be shelved in favour of a 4-3-3, but a slightly conservative game plan should be retained.