What's Behind Watford's Solid Start?
They are nine points back of fourth place Arsenal with a favorable schedule ahead. Their current standing is a bit of a surprise, but it comes down to solid players buying into a unique system that is still a bit new to the Premier League.
Liverpool may have shown how to beat Watford with their thrashing of the Hornets just before the international break. However, the upcoming fixtures provide Watford with an opportunity to build on the solid start. That start has been a combination of three factors.
La celebración de Mazzarri >>>>>>> pic.twitter.com/o4lVvfdDOp
— UnitedLieber (@Rooneysismo) September 19, 2016
Talk of manager Walter Mazzarri's different system started over the summer. His preference in his previous managerial runs has been to play with three at the back. He immersed himself in English football after losing his job at Inter and prepped to bring his system to the Premier League. Mazzarri was putting in the work to try to gain trust with future players.
As The Guardian piece by Simon Burnton points out, the manager is very faithful to his players. He spends time with his players. Mazzarri's preparation and plan has elevated the threat level of many of the strikers on his teams. Cristiano Lucarelli still considers Mazzarri one of the best Italian coaches.
Mazzarri has a good coaching record as well. He rescued Reggina from an 11-point deficit to keep their place in Serie A. His Napoli side made the knockout stage of the Champions League and then finished second in the league in 2013. He also had a profound impact on Livorno and Sampdoria. Mazzarri has only lost more games than he won one time.
KEY POINTS: "They're very good friends & they want to improve" - Mazzarri on #watfordfc's Holebas & Capoue. Watch 👉🏼 https://t.co/gNgNpi9fwz pic.twitter.com/VNcnJZRHoP
— Watford FC (@WatfordFC) October 21, 2016
Perhaps the most telling example of the type of manager Mazzarri is was his reaction to a perceived argument between Etienne Capoue and Jose Holebas. He said they are good friends and the argument shows they want to improve. That is a great response to diffuse the situation.
Mazzarri is known for his counter-attacking style with three at the back. It is not an easy system to perfect, making Mazzarri's hands-on approach understandable. The midfield is congested with two strikers available, and it can outnumber the opponent through the center of the park. If pressure needs to be absorbed, then the wing backs drop back to track the ball in essentially a back five.
The defense was playing well before the encounter with Liverpool. Watford had kept three consecutive clean sheets. Liverpool was able to isolate the attackers and build out of the back easily. Watford players kept dropping further and further unable to spring a counter attack. It was an excellent example of what to do against the 3-5-2, and Mazzarri will need to make adjustments.
Liverpool may have been the best team Watford has faced, so it is back to the drawing board to make sure the defensive pressure creates more chances on the counter for Watford.
🎥 #watfordfc training continues for those not on international duty - and here's a tidy goal from @tucupereyra37 to prove it ⚽️ 🐝 pic.twitter.com/azTTrfxTKV
— Watford FC (@WatfordFC) November 10, 2016
With the middle of the field clogged, the central midfielders are tasked with flipping the field and putting Watford on the offensive quickly. On offense, there must be width and productivity from the edges of the field. The change in system has led to 15 goals, which is in the top half of the league thus far. However, some may point to the low number of crosses as a sign of continuing growing pains.
It should be noted that the team has talked about two or three systems they can play, showing that they could adapt should other teams following Liverpool's blueprint.
In order for a system to work, the players must buy in and play at a high level. Statistics show that the personnel are excelling in some areas. Watford is fourth in aerials won and seventh in fouls received per game and are scoring the majority of their goals from open play. Of course, there is room for improvement. However, some of the statistics point to good individual play.
Capoue had four goals in the first five games after failing to score one goal last year. He also led the team in distance covered, a stat that shows work ethic.
Others have contributed to Watford's success. Holebas is rated higher than Capoue by WhoScored. Sebastian Prodl is among the league leaders in blocks. Heurelho Gomes is tied for seventh in the league in saves.
Those players will have a chance to continue to show their quality in the upcoming games. Five of the next seven matches are against teams that are below them in the table. The first two are at home.
Troy Deeney will be looking to score his 100th Watford goal against Leicester City after the international break.
If Watford can turn their solid start into good results heading into the Boxing Day fixtures, the discussion could be about potential Europa League qualification.