Written by Liam Lam
The Hornets hosted the Canaries at Vicarage Road on Boxing Day. Before the game, Norwich City was sitting at the top of the league with a five-point lead while Watford was sitting at 5th in the league. Daniel Farke’s Norwich was unbeaten in the last five fixtures, whereas Watford suffered a 0-2 loss against Huddersfield Town. Vladimir Ivić, their former manager, was fired afterward. Xisco Muñoz became the fourth manager since December 2019. This is his first game in charge.
This tactical analysis will explain how Norwich tried to utilise their tactics to open Watford’s defence and how Muñoz set Watford up to play against the Canaries.
The home team used 4-4-2, a formation which they have been using in the past 5 games. It is a formation that Muñoz mainly uses in his former team, Dinamo Tbilisi. Muñoz selected a youthful back four with Jeremy Ngkia on the left, Francisco Sierralta and Ben Wilmot on the centre-back, and Kiko Femenia on the right who was by far the most experienced defender among them. Both Christian Kabasele and William Troost-Ekong were omitted from the squad. Tom Cleverley and Etienne Capoue were selected as the centre- midfield. Ken Sema and Ismaïla Sarr were in the wide position and the club captain, Troy Deeney was restored to the starting line-up with Andre Gray playing up front.
The visitor team set up in 4-2-3-1 formation. Farke had only made one change after the win against Cardiff City by replacing Mario Vrančić with Kieran Dowell in the attacking midfield area. The attacking line was led by Teemu Pukki, Emiliano Buendia, Dowell, and Todd Cantwell. Oliver Skipp and Kenny Mclean were deployed in the midfield to connect the team while the back four were Jacob Sørensen on the left, Grant Hanley and Christoph Zimmermann were at the centre-back, and Max Aarons was on the right.
The defensive structure of Watford
Watford mainly used three blocks in the game, High block, Middle block, and low block.
During the high block, Watford would push high up in the pitch when Norwich was trying to build up at the back or the ball was passed back to the defensive third. Their two strikers would utilise their cover-shadow to block the passing lane of the double pivot of Norwich’s midfielders.
Both wide midfielders would stay in the half-spaces area instead of staying out wide to mark the full-backs. This could create a pressing trap by giving spaces on the wide-area for the full-backs to receive passes from the centre-backs or the keeper. Once they received the ball, the wide midfielder and the striker could then press the full-back together. They were targeting to disrupt Norwich’s build-up play by forcing Norwich to go for a long ball.
In the second half, Watford intensified their pressing upfront to further disrupt Norwich’s build-up play to make sure that they could not create chances properly, and to force them to make mistakes. Watford pressed aggressively on the midfielder who dropped back to receive the ball to prevent them from progressing the ball properly.
The below example shows McGovern received the ball, both centre-backs were spreading wide to provide options which opened up spaces for Skipp to drop back to receive the ball. Deeney immediately pressed him and forced him to make a mistake by misplacing a pass into a manager area for Sarr outside the box but they could not extend the lead.
If oppositions beat their high block, they would drop back to create a mid-block near the middle third and defend narrowly. They were using a ball-oriented pressing of which the whole team would move according to the location of the ball, which allowed them to protect the centre and force Norwich to go wide.
Once Norwich got closer to Watford’s defensive third, both midfield and defensive lines would stay close to form a low block outside the box. One of the centre-midfielder would drop in between two lines to negate the spaces between two lines. They would even drop back to fill in the half-spaces drop to form a five-man defensive line to nullify Norwich’s run into the half-spaces.
Build up and attacking phase of Watford
The host’s attacking build-up of this game was simple and direct. They would look for more quick and vertical passes or long balls to the forward. This could escape Norwich’s pressing in the higher up area. They understood Norwich would push their full-backs high up in the pitch, so they were looking to attack the spaces behind them. They would make a through ball or a long ball to the side and let their explosive players like Gray, Sarr, and Sema exploit the spaces.
Such movement would increase the difficulties for Norwich’s full-backs to push forward physically and mentally. As they had to constantly be aware of the spaces behind them and make sure that they could trace back to defend. Norwich left full-back, Sørensen, was unable to get forward effectively in this game as he was facing Sarr, one of the biggest threats of Watford who is quick and dangerous with or without the ball.
The below shows Cleverley dropped into the spaces between the right full-back and the centre-backs to receive a pass. He immediately turned to make a long ball towards Norwich’s left-back area for Sarr to run and cross the ball.
Apart from that, the role of Deeney was also a key to Watford’s attacking phase. He would drop deep and wide to receive the ball and hold it up. His movement could create spaces behind him while holding it up, which allowed him to wait for his teammates to get forward to support him. When a long ball was coming from the back, he could also pull one of the centre-backs out of their position and win the duel by flicking the ball to the space behind him.
Build up and attacking phase of Norwich
The visitor is known for their build-up play from their back. They often start their build-up play in their defensive third even if they are being pressed. This method would get the oppositions to push forward and allow them to lure the oppositions out of their default position into Norwich’s half. This would create spaces behind for Pukki to run into.
Below is an example showing Watford formed a high block outside Norwich’s defensive third and Zimmermann made a long ball pass to the right to escape the press. Buendia dropped back to receive a pass on the right and he lured the left full-back out of his position to follow him. Skipp and Dowell came close as a third man to provide passing options for him which attracted four Watford players to the right. Three simple passes between them had got Buendia out of a crowded area with no one around. He then made a through ball for Pukki to run into the channels.
In the first half, Watford did not pressure Norwich’s backline too much, instead, they used a middle block to defend narrowly near the midfield area. Norwich was trying to stretch Watford’s defensive line by maximizing the width of the pitch. They were pushing the full back forward and one of their double pivot midfields would drop back to the full-backs position to form a back three.
After maximizing the width of the pitch, it freed up both sides of the wingers, Cantwell and Buendia, to get into the centre and find pockets between the lines. The below picture shows Buendia was staying in the between the line where he was not closely marked. He could come close to the ball and drop back to free up spaces for his teammates to run in or he could make run into the channels.
To utilise the width they created, they would overload one side by moving more players into one side to create numerical superiority. If the opposition sent more defenders to match their players, they would make a quick switch to the other side. This could stretch the opposition’s defensive line by moving the ball from one side to another quickly to create spaces. The below picture shows Norwich sent four players on the left which pulled six players from Watford to one side. Pukki made a long ball to the right of Aaron who was unmarked. Watford left full-back, Ngakia ran out to defend Aaron which opened up the half-spaces for Buendia.
In the second half, Norwich changed the formation into 3-5-2 to get more players into the box. They continued to use width to stretch the defensive line but since Watford was dropping deeper, more spaces were available at the edge of the box for Norwich to attack. They tried to pass and dribble the ball outside the box to pull the deep defensive out to create spaces. The below picture shows Buendia received the ball on the right near the edge of the box, attracting four defenders to close him down. He turned and passed the ball to Vrančić who was unmarked in the centre outside the box. Vrančić successfully pulled one of the centre-backs out from the box which created spaces for Pukki to receive the pass, unfortunately, he could not equalise the game.
We could see how Muñoz was trying to set his team with a very structured defence and a simple and quick transition to attack the spaces behind. He promised the fans “You will see different things” and from this game, we could see Watford’s players have the quality and potential to go back to the Premier League. Players like Sarr and João Pedro could be the future stars in the game. But the most important thing is that the mentality of the team has changed. The whole team was defending the lead together while they were still looking for chances to extend their lead. If they could continue with this spirit, they could get back on the right track to the top level.
On the other side, Norwich was in control for most of the time but they were lacking intensity and seemed not focused when they were attacking and making runs in behind. The players’ decision-making and passing were sloppy which they were lucky to lose only by one goal. They had the lead and the quality to see all this through but the only obstacle is themselves. Perhaps this loss could bring them back to earth and re-focus back to their winning ways.