Affleck's Angle: Praise Not As Good As Points
Kevin Affleck picks apart the Hornets' home loss to Liverpool
Andrew French, the club's former Head of Communications, tells a great yarn about how the Liverpool press pack already had the angle of the match written before a ball had even been kicked in the game at Anfield in 1999. All they had left space for, noticed French after peaking over their shoulders at their laptops, was the margin of the Reds' victory and the scorers. Tommy Mooney, who got the famous winner that day, still remembers how the taxi drivers at Warrington Bank Quay were laughing at Graham Taylor's unfancied team as they got off the train and calling them “lambs to the slaughter.”
How times have changed. No longer are Watford viewed as easy prey. Liverpool have come unstuck here twice since, a 3-0 defeat in 2015 and a 3-3 draw last season, and Jürgen Klopp was taking no chances. He stood on the halfway line in the warm-up with his eyes fixed on the Hornets. He barely looked twice at how his team were limbering up. He could have waxed lyrical about the predatory nature of his side post-match, but he used the first question to go off on a tangent and reveal just how worried he was about this fixture. Check out the level of detail he goes into about the Hornets. And this was all unprompted.
“We had one session to prepare for this match, with the specific demands of Watford’s set-pieces; you saw what they did with routines and how they play around, where they chip the balls and where they block the guys. It’s difficult. You need to work on your own set-pieces and you need to focus on the specific quality of the opponent.
“They defend like they defend, they are really well organised in a 4-4-2, hard-working. Their build-up is pretty direct and you cannot defend Deeney clear always because the ball is dropping down with Deulofeu, Hughes and Pereyra going behind. It’s so difficult. And then Capoue and Doucouré picking up all the balls and playing it direct again in this direction. It’s so difficult to stay calm and we stayed calm.”
Now, I know what you are thinking: so what? We lost 3-0 and you don't get any extra points in the Premier League just because the opposition manager things you are a half-decent outfit. But the point here is that this is an expensively assembled side (the Reds have ploughed £382m in putting this lot together since 2015) who finished runners-up in the Champions League and are gunning for the title, and yet they came to south-west Hertfordshire at the weekend genuinely worried about their unbeaten league record this season.
Klopp demonstrated that in his team selection. Away at Huddersfield in October before a Champions League game, the German benched Gini Wijnaldum, Roberto Firmino and Trent Alexander Arnold. On Saturday he was taking no chances, despite a key tie against Paris Saint-Germain looming on Wednesday. “They're a proper package and for sure the best Watford team since I've been here,” said Klopp. “You don't get a lot of shots against them.”
Klopp was right. The Hornets limited them to just 10, which was pretty good going considering the Reds had 17 against Tottenham, 13 against Chelsea and seven vs Manchester City.
Javi Gracia did not want a repeat of the going over his side got at a snowy Anfield in March and was perhaps more cautious in his approach. Perhaps the most cautious he has been this season.
“Watford's game plan was good and they were disciplined,” said Derek Payne on BBC Three Counties Radio. “It's hard to play the way they did for 90 minutes. The plan was to be tight and use Deulofeu in behind. You can't be too open against Liverpool so it's hard to criticise the tactics.”
In cricketing parlance, Watford wanted to keep wickets in hand so they could have a dart at the end, but the trouble was Liverpool had the bigger hitters in their ranks and they proved decisive in the final third of the match.
“It sounds like a bit of a stuffing, but it wasn't really like that at all,” said Geoff Doyle, the sports editor at BBC Three Counties. “I wasn't sure where Watford were going to get a goal, but 0-0 would have been a good result against a side going for the title.”
While Gracia take can satisfaction from the fact his side did not roll over and have their tummy tickled, he perhaps might wish his side had thrown a few more punches. They only had one shot on target at home and their shot accuracy was right down at 20 per cent. Liverpool, on the other hand, had a shot accuracy of 70 per cent. Perhaps in hindsight he might have kept Gerard Deulofeu on for longer, shifted him out wide and played Isaac Success and Troy Deeney through the middle. But whatever they tried it might still not have been enough to find a way past the mountainous Virgil van Dijk who won every single one of his duels. The Dutchman was absolutely imperious. As a yardstick, Watford's best duel winner was Adam Masina, who won 85.7 per cent of his challenges.
The most contentious challenge of the lot was the one by Andrew Robertson on Will Hughes in the second half. You need every bit of luck you can get against a side like Liverpool and the Hornets were again left bemoaning theirs. Gracia is never going to get involved in criticising referees while Klopp claimed he didn't see, so it was left to the pundits to make the case for the Hornets instead.
“When you look at the challenge, he did hang his leg out there and there is contact. I've seen those given,” said Ian Wright in the Match of the Day studio.
Payne was at the game, saw the challenge live and he was even more certain it was a spot-kick.
“I think it was a penalty and if you get that, it's a different game,” he said. “It was a big decision. It's a stonewall penalty and we are sitting here saying what a masterclass it was from Gracia if we win 1-0. Jon Moss bottled it and didn't make the big decision.”
Martin Keown, who knows a thing or two about the art of defending and who must have given away the odd penalty in his career, also chipped in to the debate.
“It should have been a penalty for Watford,” he said on BBC Sport. “If we had VAR this season... that’s the only reason it hasn’t been given, they have got away with one there. Andrew Robertson has no need to go for that, it’s quite high and catches Will Hughes on the shin. It’s not a sending off but it should have been a penalty.”
Doyle at least tried to see things from Moss' perspective. “The only thing I can think is that the referee thought Hughes was looking for it,” he said. “Maybe he was, but if the leg is out there you are going to fall over it.”
Anfield HQ is one of the more partisan Twitter accounts dedicated to the Reds and even they felt their team got away with one. “Watford unlucky not to get a penalty there,” they tweeted to their 227,000 followers. “Waved away by John Moss. Let off for #LFC.”
It will be interesting to see if Moss is stood down this weekend, like Simon Hooper was after his double mistake at St Mary's last time out.
There is no guarantee Watford would have scored from 12 yards as Troy Deeney has missed his last two, but it would have been nice for the team to be given the chance to get its nose in front and then fascinating to see how Liverpool would have responded. You could have envisaged how Gracia would have thrown on Christian Kabasele to bolster the defence and Nathaniel Chalobah to stiffen the midfield had they taken the lead. Instead he had to sling on Success and Andre Gray and chase the game, leaving themselves open to the counter-attack.
What this result did do, as well as highlight what a smart buy Ben Foster was in the summer and how Craig Cathcart is back to his best, is just how you need to be ruthless in games like the ones at Fulham and Newcastle and harvest maximum points because, sooner or later, you are going to run into one of the big boys where it is just so damn tough to get anything.
“Liverpool wore Watford down,” said Wright.
They were also ruthless, with Mohamed Salah taking his tally to six goals in 186 minutes against the Hornets. Only Ian Rush has scored more for Liverpool against the Hornets. Alexander-Arnold and Firmino then kicked the Hornets when they were down by adding numbers two and three. It was a devastating 23-minute spell.
“It's strange conceding three goals after good defensive work,” said Masina.
Liverpool arrived to Vicarage Road late on Saturday, much closer to 2pm than they would have liked, but they were just thrilled to get out of there with a win. The fact it was a handsome one was a big bonus.
“It's a massive win because it was a really tough game,” Wijnaldum told liverpoolfc.com. “They made it really difficult for us to play our football and find the gaps, find the free men and create chances.”
That's nice to hear and all well and good, but it doesn't make the result any easier to digest.