Stoke did a number on the Golden Boys at home for the third second successive season this afternoon, supremely executing their gameplan to chisel out another narrow victory at Vicarage Road.
Darren Fletcher scored the only goal of the game after 16 minutes and the Potters then expertly sat back and invited the Hornets to break them down. Marco Silva’s more progressive side recovered from a tepid first-half to throw the kitchen sink at the visitors in a rousing second half and made all the running but they just lacked the invention, inspiration and lucky break to muster an equaliser let alone a winner.
Watford ended the match with Kiko Feminía at right wing, Will Hughes in the No 10 role and Troy Deeney and Andre Gray together up top in a sign of their forward-thinking approach, but they just couldn’t find a way through and drew a blank for only the second time this season.
They knew it would be difficult against Stoke, who have a habit of making life uncomfortable here, but not quite this difficult. The fact the game finished amid two flashpoints summed up just how frustrated Watford were. Stoke got them in a headlock and didn’t let go.
On the day Anthony Joshua defends his heavyweight title in Cardiff, Watford jabbed and jousted with Stoke in the first half but they never really threw a punch.
Stoke strung five across the back and planted another four in front of them. Mama Biram Diouf, who had scored in three successive matches, was shunted to right wing-back to keep tabs on the raiding Richarlison.
In a huge compliment to the home side, Hughes set his team up to get a point and perhaps pinch something on the break or from a set-piece. They did just that on 16 minutes with a move that also came straight from the training ground. Xherdan Shaqiri picked out the unmarked Fletcher on the edge of the box and he steered the ball past Heurelho Gomes. It was the sort of thing Fletcher would have seen Paul Scholes do time and time again at Manchester United.
Watford huffed and puffed in response but never really looked like blowing the Stoke house down. A couple of half chances fell the way of Deeney while Etienne Capoue didn’t get enough on a header from a Miguel Britos following a corner. But that was about it, the pickings were pretty slim.
Silva must have been tempted to make changes at half-time but he resisted, allowing the XI who started an extended opportunity to put things right. And the signs were promising at the start of the second half when Abdoulaye Doucourè played in the overlapping Feminía with a lovely weighted sliderule pass. The buccaneering Spaniard flashed the ball across the face of goal but Kevin Wimmer just pipped Deeney to it. Feminía was in again minutes later but Ryan Shawcross cleared the danger. This was much more like it.
Richarlison then hit the sidenetting after Carrillo should have possibly done a bit better with a a header from inviting cross from Holebas. It was all Watford and sensing the moment to strike, Silva threw on Gray for Capoue in a move that firmly signaled the Hornets attacking intent. It was the first time Gray and Deeney had been on the field at the same time.
All the attacking was now being done by the Hornets. Jack Butland punched one off the head of Richarlison; the Brazilian should then have scored with a header at the far post that had more than a passing resemblance to the one he missed at Chelsea and then Gray will feel he should have done better with a snapshot from 15 yards out.
Doucoure was next to try his luck in the coconut shy, letting fly with his left foot only to see it hit Shawcross and deflect over. It was all hands to the pump for Stoke.
In a final attacking throw of the dice, Silva introduced Will Hughes for his league debut as he sought to unpick the Stoke defence as well as bash it down. It almost worked in stoppage time when Hughes teed up Gray but his effort from six yards out was deflected wide for a corner. It was just that sort of afternoon.
HORNETS | Gomes, Feminía, Kabsele, Britos, Holebas, Doucourè, Capoue (Gray 58), Cleverley, Carrillo (Hughes, 80), Richarlison, Deeney.
Subs not used: Karnezis, Janmaat, Mariappa, Zeegelaar, Watson.