Both coaches use a back three with differing degrees of success as we win again, Watford 1-2 Spurs at Vicarage Road.
Mauricio Pochettino started with a back three and Quique Sanchez Flores finished with one, as both coaches used the system at different points to achieve different aims.
Spurs back three
When the line-ups were announced, it seemed as if Mauricio Pochettino would be continuing with our tried and trusted formation. The initial surprise was Christian Eriksen’s admittance from the team sheet, but setting up with three centre backs trumped this shock.
We often see Eric Dier dropping in to the back line in order to bring the ball out, but not starting as the anchor in a pure back three. This allowed Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld to split even wider than usual and spray countless long diagonal passes to Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier operating as wingbacks.
The naming of Trippier in the starting eleven was another eyebrow raiser, but as soon as the 3-3-3-1 formation became apparent, his inclusion also became clear. The summer signing from Burnley is a much more dangerous crosser of the ball than Kyle Walker. His service would be one of the routes to attacking a Watford back four that has been susceptible in the left back zone.
Trippier operated for a large chunk of the match in the Watford half and our centre backs were looking to get play out to him at every opportunity. This saw the ball move quickly over great distances to hit him before the Watford defence could get out and cover him.
The naming of three centre backs was to avoid playing 2v2 against Watford’s twin striker pairing and in achieving that objective it stood up very well. But it also allowed our wingbacks greater space versus the Hornet’s central midfield and full backs.
Operating in a 3-3-3-1 formation gave us the extra man at the back versus Deeney and Ighalo. It also allowed us to still press from the front as Mauricio Pochettino likes us to do. Harry Kane and Erik Lamela will usually try and push the opposition to one side and then after cutting down their passing options, the press will move in.
Our first goal came from such a situation. Craig Cathcart had the ball and Kane went over to close and hurry him. Cathcart was initially looking for a pass out to Ikechi Anya on his right, but seeing Dele Alli there and Anya hemmed by the sideline, he pondered.
This hesitation allowed Kane to close in and seal off a pass back. As Cathcart then tried to advance up the field, Tom Carroll saw his panic and also smelled a potential turnover. Carroll moved in causing Cathcart to try and dribble, which allowed Dele Alli to strip his loose touch.
The trap had achieved its aim and now with possession and numbers, Erik Lamela raced forward and calmly slotted home, 1-0.
Deeney and Ighalo
The work rate of Watford’s twin pronged attack is a big reason why the Hornets are having such a good season and they are so difficult to beat. Both players are dangerous when Watford gets the ball forward, but they also work tirelessly without it.
The play of both was a big reason why they remained in the game. We contributed with sloppy passes, but Watford’s pressing from the front was energetic, calculated and caused a number of turnovers in our half.
With the ball, Watford’s plan all season has been to hit Troy Deeney early and have Odion Ighalo work off his headers, knockdowns and through balls. Against our three centre backs, the paring were getting little change until Deeney pulled out on to our full backs, looking to bully Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier.
The ploy brought success as the Hornets levelled the game up just before half time. Deeney pressed and chased down Toby Alderweireld out towards the corner flag, causing the Belgian to clear up the line straight to Nathan Ake. The ball was then worked to the other side of the pitch and Almen Abdi swung it back across towards Deeney who had stayed out wide on Kieran Trippier. Our full back was no match for the Watford man in the air and he sent a speculative header up towards Ighalo.
Ighalo had pushed and forced Dier back towards our goal. The bounce of the ball was really Dier’s undoing. It allowed Ighalo to outmuscle him while he was in the air, pushing Dier off it when he was most vulnerable, just enough to allow Ighalo to turn. The ricochet off Dier and back in to the path of Ighalo was fortunate, but there was nothing lucky about the finish as he stabbed the ball past Hugo Lloris. 1-1.
Ake sees red
The game was finely poised. Our back three, one moment apart, had contained Deeney and Ighalo. We were also controlling possession on what was a tricky pitch and getting our wingbacks forward. The game really changed when Nathan Ake was sent off.
It was a challenge that got worse every time you saw it and changed both coaches tactical thinking. Mauricio Pochettino dispensed with the back three and went to our usual 4-2-3-1 setup. Quique Sanchez Flores moved Deeney to right midfield and went with three centre backs of his own. He had his side drop off and play deep and compact and it looked as if the tone was set for the final thirty minutes.
With Watford playing so deep it forced Christian Eriksen to come far too short looking for the ball. The Dane had come on as a half time sub for Mousa Dembele, but coming so short was negating his impact.
The game was meandering and it looked as if we would again struggle to break down a side sat deep looking to defend what it had. Our passing was going astray and we were becoming frustrated. Mauricio Pochettino brought on Nacer Chadli and Son Heung-Mon. Both are run in-behind forward types and the removal of a lock picking passer in Tom Carroll didn’t seem to be what was called for.
What the arrival of Chadli and Son did do was play higher up the pitch and this actually gave Watford some space to run Deeney and Ighalo in to. Both players had been booked after Ake’s red card for petulant acts and were re-invigorated by their frustration and the backs to the wall situation.
It led to a string of Watford corners as the home side went in search of a winner themselves. They almost got it, as Ben Watson swung a delivery in that highlighted our lack of players on the posts at corners once again. This has been a continued problem this season and it wasn’t the only delivery that caused us problems in the match, merely the closest to scoring.
Watford were suddenly caught up the pitch, they had numbers to press Hugo Lloris on the ball, actually causing our keeper to pass straight out to Valeron Behrami. His touch let him down though and Nacer Chadli recovered. The Belgian sprung forward, releasing Erik Lamela. He slowed play down, allowing Watford to recover, but they were caught far too narrow trying to stop us going through the centre.
Their back three, which had become a back five, was now caught inside, affording Kieran Trippier a vast area of space.
The flag had mystifyingly stayed down, but no one continued to pick Son up, who was free on the initial cross and when Trippier returned the ball. This time the now onside South Korean made no mistake and flicked it home with a deft back heel. Watford 1-2 Spurs and the away end was bouncing in delirious joy as the Hornets cursed the linesman.
Watford 1-2 Spurs overall
The big talking point from this game was the offside/onside nature of Son’s goal, but the operation of our back three was the main takeaway for me. Eric Dier slotted nicely in-between Vertonghen and Alderweireld to offer us a real alternative formation, even if it is only used against teams playing with two strikers.
Final score: Watford 1-2 Spurs.