There are always shouts in the first half of the season that “the table is never set at this stage.” Well, fair enough. Especially in a league whose landscape has changed so much over the course of the past few seasons, there’s no telling where any one match might go.
In dichotomous fashion, the teams sitting in 7th and 9th respectively both before and after the match, Watford and Liverpool denied history while maintaining their positions in the table.
Whatever shine left on the trophy that has been the Jurgen Klopp coup for Liverpool has been buffed out by a Watford side that took advantage of their form to pummel the Reds for a full ninety. In their first win against Liverpool since 1986, Watford asserted their 7th place spot at Vicarage Road.
Post match interviews with Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo told all that’s needed to know about this match – both men smiling, their telepathic relationship finding much fruit in the Premier League. “This man’s on fire,” Deeney said with a quick gesture towards his forward partner. The Nigerian added his 13th and 14th goal to his tally this season, the first coming after a brilliant through ball from Deeney. They are a pair, indeed.
The match started quickly with an error in the Liverpool defence that lead to a third minute goal. A cross into the box came too close to backup keeper Adam Bogdan, who filled in without warning for Simon Mignolet. The catch was made, then dropped to the ground. As it bounced back up, Bogdan attempted to regain possession of the ball before on-loan full-back Nathan Ake poked the ball over the line.
From a bystander perspective, the goal probably should’ve stood. Though Liverpool fans’ reaction sounded more like &:#*>*|<€!!!, the keeper did not seem to have possession long enough for a foul to be called.
Reds’ heads drop.
Watford had control from there on. While Liverpool took too long with the ball at their feet, Watford reacted quickly and effectively in possession, countering their opposition with ease. The Hornets moved the ball forward to Deeney and Ighalo and let their feet do the attacking work against a Liverpool back line that looked thoroughly confused for the entire match.
The narrative of the afternoon came from the aforementioned strikers. A friend told me that Deeney and Ighalo are “a bargain bin version of Suarez and Sturridge,” but week after week they improve their net worth to their club. Deeney played deeper for the majority of the match, ranging forward only when necessary. But the tactic was effective, as the Englishman provided an assist for Ighalo in the 15th minute. Muscling off an ineffective (and maybe soon-to-depart) Martin Skrtel, Ighalo had a pop across Bogdan’s body and into the far corner – a wonderful strike that bounded just over the keeper’s hands and off the post.
Reds’ heads drop.
The return of Mamadou Sakho on the back of a nasty Dejan Lovren injury provided some hope for Liverpool fans coming into the fixture, but the French centre-back was given plenty to do against an in-form Ighalo. Many times, Sakho was unable to handle the pacy forward while being outmuscled on a few occasions by Deeney. What was heralded as more stability at the back turned into botched slide tackles, misplaced passes to the center of the park, and slips on a less-than-impressive pitch at Vicarage.
As the first half was coming to a close, Skrtel pulled up lame after having to redirect his body to clear a ball into the box. Misjudging the position of the ball, the clearance required the centre-back to twist his leg unnaturally. Coupled with a knock after an aerial duel, and the Slovakian international was replaced, rather strangely by Belgian striker Divock Origi.
Jurgen Klopp placed Lucas in the back line and moved a sloppy Emre Can into holding midfield in order to increase the side’s options going forward. Watford remained unchanged and unshaken, and a 2-0 score line ended the first half.
- Wide-play tactics by Klopp were a bit strange. Liverpool’s width, typically coming from full-backs, had been re-jigged into a rotating circle on either side. Much in the style of Princess Leia’s haircut, Clyne, Lallana, and Henderson constantly interchanged positions on the right-hand side while Coutinho, Moreno, and Can did the same on the left. Ineffective going forward and causing attackers to be in defensive positions when Watford broke on the counter.
- Almen Abdi and Allan Nyom completely eradicated the Liverpool left-heavy attack. Coutinho found no room to create and Nyom had Moreno in his pocket for the entire ninety. A brilliant defensive display that, paired with Ighalo floating to their side, offered a two-man defence with a quick forward to punt the ball to when necessary.
- Not that there was much trouble to be had, but Miguel Britos and Craig Cathcart locked down the central defence for every Liverpool surge forward.
- Though massively effective against Manchester City and Chelsea, the false nine setup of Coutinho, Firmino, and Lallana found no joy. Firmino disappeared, Coutinho was constantly closed down, and through balls were played to Lallana with the expectation that he could run onto them. Two things there: Lallana is not fast, and Nathan Ake is very fast. How that was thought to be a good idea is beyond me.
Watford found less going forward out of the gates, but the way Deeney and Ighalo played together was a bit reminiscent of 2013/14 Liverpool. Though the bargain bin comparison has been made, the fashion in which the two forwards constantly hampered the Reds’ defence brought on extreme déjà vu. The difference, of course, is the back line for the Hornets was far more stout than Glen Johnson, Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Jon Flanagan.
Origi became much more effective going forward in the second half, and settled into getting a few shots on goal. None threatened goalkeeper Huerelho Gomes, but the out-and-out striker brought more hope to Liverpool fans than the false nine role that Roberto Firmino had previously inhabited. The other noticeable performance going forward in the second half was skipper Jordan Henderson, who found his way into the channels after being moved into the more natural central midfield role. Bombing forward, usually between Britos and left-back Ake, Henderson got himself into good positions. His biggest chance came after the hour mark when a fortunate touch allowed him past Ake. Gomes provided a decent save for the attempt on goal.
The substitutions were sound tactically by both sides – Klopp trying to urge his team forward and Quique Sánchez Flores solidifying his defense. A double substitution of Christian Benteke and Jordan Ibe for Adam Lallana and Firmino came in the 74th minute, but neither provided much for their time on the pitch. José Jurado, who had asserted himself much better in the second half, came off just after for the more defensively-minded Ikechi Anya. The aforementioned Abdi went off with applause for Valon Behrami, who made an instant impact.
The third and final goal came from brilliant team play in the Watford attack. Ighalo shook Emre Can to play a short ball to Deeney, who spread the Liverpool defence by hitting a surging Behrami down the right-hand channel. The ball played back in was a crisp cross just outside Sakho’s body and onto, once again, Odion Ighalo. Bogdan, trying to predict the placement of the header, got it wrong as Ighalo placed it back across goal to complete his brace.
Reds’ heads drop, this time for the remainder of the match that closed 3-0 to Watford.
In a downswing, Liverpool missed yet another chance in what’s been called an “easy” Christmas period. A month ago, Watford would’ve been punching above their weight in a result like this. At the moment, however, the table seems properly set.
There was a shot of Jurgen Klopp in the middle of the match with his finger pressed against the bottom of his chin, forcing his head up in a gesture to his players: “Heads up, stay strong, push on.”
Flores never once had to reciprocate to his side.