After another long international break, Liverpool traveled to Watford to play their 13th Premier League game of the season at Vicarage Road. Both teams have had an excellent start to their respective campaigns, and all the signs suggested we were in for an interesting battle.
Having left international duty due to a slight hamstring problem, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was back and available. The only absentees, apart from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, were Adam Lallana and Joe Gomez. The former Southampton man and England’s 2016 Player of the Year had a ‘minor fitness issue’, while the young defender had picked up a kick in the ankle in training.
Watford manager Javi Gracia praised the quality of Liverpool players and called for his team to be careful, but he also revealed they would be playing in their usual manner, without any special approach to the game just because of the name of the opponent. An admirable stance, no doubt.
The Hornets were without former Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverly and Jose Holebas. However, midfielder Ettiene Capoue was back after suspension, while Will Hughes and defender Sebastian Prodl were back following minor injuries. Gracia was also able to call upon Adalberto Penaranda, a 21-year-old Venezuelan forward who had just been granted a work permit, but he obviously chose not to.
The First Half
Liverpool again started the game in the 4-2-3-1 formation we’ve become accustomed to recently. Mo Salah played furthest up with Firmino just behind, flanked by Mane on the left and Shaqiri on the right. The duo of Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum was tasked with a double-pivot role.
Watford proved Gracia’s words to be true early on as they tried to attack the Reds as hard as they could, and in the second minute Deeney had released Deulofeu in behind with a great pass, but the former Barcelona man was caught offside before he slotted past Alisson.
Liverpool played a fantastic team move four minutes later, involving Trent, Firmino, Salah, Shaqiri and Mane, but Foster’s quick thinking and reaction saved the home team. Watford hit again as Alisson played a risky pass for Firmino who had dropped very deep, but they couldn’t take advantage.
The Hornets’ attacking duo worked very well and they were giving Liverpool’s defensive players a lot to think about at this point. At the back, they kept a high line and seemed confident with it, focused and calm, despite Liverpool’s pressing reputation. They also kept their lines close together and made it very difficult for Klopp’s men to play through.
On the other hand, Liverpool dominated possession early on and played patiently on the ball, but apart from a few inspired moments, they couldn’t do anything with it. Their moves usually ended by giving the ball away, and Watford were quick to push forward.
But the Reds came close after 18 minutes, when Shaqiri whipped in a great cross for the run of Salah on the far post, and Foster came out and diverted the ball off Salah’s forehead at the last second. The home team hit back quickly again as Deulofeu got behind Robertson and aimed for Deeney in the box, but Trent was quicker that the Watford captain. Then it was Liverpool’s turn once again. Shaqiri whipped in another good cross, this time from a free-kick, but Wijnaldum and Salah failed to get to the end of it. Foster again came to his team’s rescue by clearing out a Wijnaldum cross, but he also took out Kiko Fermenia, which prompted referee Jonathan Moss to halt the play. After receiving treatment, the fullback returned to the pitch.
As time went on, Liverpool grew more into the game and made Watford drop deeper. The moments when the Hornets looked to hit on the break, though still happening, were becoming fewer and further apart. But it seemed the whole game, at least at this point, depended on whether the Reds would break through Watford’s stubborn lines first, or the Hornets would play a more accurate counterattack and get rewarded for their hard and disciplined work.
The game exploded into life late in the half. First Firmino stole the ball just outside Watford’s box in the 39th minute and hit it low to the far corner making Foster the home team’s hero again, and then Pereyra played a great one-two with Deulofeu and smacked it from 15 yards, but Alisson produced a fine save as well.
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Then Mane threatened twice in quick succession; a counterattack stopped by a brilliant tackle from Cathcart and a good volley after Shaqiri found him in the box which Foster saved. From the ensuing corner Salah hit a good header which the former Manchester United ‘keeper barely managed to save.
Watford had a pair of set-pieces after that, but they failed to make any of them count.
The Second Half
The Hornets started the second period a lot more cautiously. They dropped further back and surrendered more of the pitch, thus allowing Liverpool to pass the ball more accurately, but their lines were packed even closer together and even more difficult to break.
However, Robertson and Firmino worked well to set up Mane on 50 minutes, but the Senegalese not only hit the post from close range, but had also drifted offside.
Five minutes later, Watford had a penalty shout as Robertson made what looked like a clumsy challenge on Hughes just inside the box. There seemed to have been some contact, but Hughes’ overreaction was probably what convinced the referee to wave it away. Then Deloufeu made way for Isaac Success.
On the hour-mark, Henderson picked up a yellow card for stopping Success from charging on a counterattack. It was indeed a foul and a bookable offence, but only after Success had a handful of Henderson’s shirt which Moss had missed.
Two minutes later, Lovren stayed up after a corner and played extremely well as a winger, finding Firmino on the far post in a very good position, but the Brazilian mishit the ball completely.
It was then Watford’s turn to spend several minutes in Liverpool’s half and they tried hard, but it came back to bite them in the 67th minute.
Liverpool hit back quickly. Firmino dropped deep and released Mane on the left wing. The Senegalese pulled it back for the incoming Salah who squeezed past Foster and into the net from close range.
Watford quickly recomposed themselves and pushed forward again. They circled around the box for a while and sent in several crosses that were easily cleared, and Capoue had a go from far out and sent the ball sky-high.
Then Shaqiri made way for James Milner and Liverpool’s formation took the 4-3-3 shape from last season.
The Reds had a free-kick just over 20 yards in the 76th minute as Salah got pulled down. Gracia took the chance to replace Hughes with Andre Gray, right before Trent stepped up and bent it straight into the top corner, giving Foster no chance.
Watford were now playing with three strikers, which gave them means to try and fight back.
With 10 minutes remaining, Henderson was penalized for a foul on Success again and warned by Moss. Nevertheless, some 60 seconds later the captain stopped Capoue in his stride and received his marching orders, ruling himself out from the next week’s Merseyside Derby.
The Reds were now forced to drop back and Watford immediately attacked. Klopp did what he could to help his team defend by taking out Salah and sending on Fabinho in the 86th minute.
The home team went forward in numbers now, but their play seemed to lack organization. Despite the advantage in numbers, their strategy came down to lobbing hopeful balls forward, or individual attempts at dribbling and shooting from distance.
And it came back to bite them once again as Robertson suddenly got away down the left. The Scottish international then pulled it back for Mane whose shot was well saved by Foster, but Firmino was on hand to head it home and kill the game off.
As the four minutes of injury time started flowing, Cathcart headed just over the bar after a corner, before Joel Matip replaced Firmino to make the back line stronger. The Hornets still tried, but their motivation was now gone and everything they did was clearly halfhearted.
In a nutshell, it wasn’t a very good game by Liverpool, especially in the first half. Both fullbacks were a bit sloppy and indecisive, just like Wijnaldum in the middle. Firmino and Salah did very little, and only Mane and Shaqiri were trying to make something happen. However, the Senegalese lacked some composure on the ball and the Swiss mostly limited his influence to passes from deep positions; quality passes though they were.
All and all, the final score is somewhat flattering for the Reds and a bit harsh on the home team, who really did put in a lot of effort.
Nonetheless, we’ll take what we can get and be very happy for the team to leave Vicarage with three points safely in their pockets and another clean sheet.
Next up – the Merseyside Derby at Anfield. But before that, there’s a small matter of travelling to Paris to face PSG in the Champions League on Wednesday.
We Walk On.