From relegation favourites to the Premier League’s 4-4-2 darlings Watford have had quite an eventful first half of the 2015-16 season. It’s not necessarily about them being an incredible team or even a team nailed on for a top half finish – Mohamed Mohamed actually looked at how their numbers have been just about perfectly average in the Premier League – it’s about how much fun they’ve been to follow.
In an era where playing with two strikers is seen as arcane and the 4-4-2 a throwback to English football at it’s most unimaginative Watford have managed to both pick up results and entertain while playing a fairly standard 4-4-2. Bobby Gardiner wrote about how we should approach formational choices with a degree of tactical relativism, and that idea that one formation isn’t a priori better than another. A much more important question to ask is how a formation is being used.
So what makes Watford’s 4-4-2 work?
When thinking of 2015-16 Watford my mind immediately jumps to Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo up front. However, what makes the formation work starts much further back.
Watford lead the league in both long balls per game and possession adjusted – adjusting every team’s passing numbers as if they had 50% possession – long balls per game with 82 and 88 respectively. A lot of these long balls start at the back with centre backs Craig Cathcart and Miguel Britos.
Britos averages playing 5 long balls per game, which is the 7th most among non-goalkeepers in the Premier League. Cathcart isn’t far behind on 3.8 long balls per game. Throw in fullbacks Nyom and Nathan Ake and Watford’s back four alone is averaging over 12 long balls per match.
Moving further up the pitch midfielders Ben Watson and Etienne Capoue have similarly high numbers.
So Watford play a lot of long balls, but that doesn’t mean much in and of itself.
What it does mean is that it frees up the midfielders to defend. Capoue in particular has some of the highest defensive action numbers among midfielders in the Premier League averaging both 3.1 interceptions and 3.1 tackles per game. Defensive actions aren’t a great measure of defensive competency, but they certainly signal a level of involvement. From watching Watford this season it’s clear that Capoue is a major part of their defensive set-up.
This tends to be the weak point of the average 4-4-2. With two fullbacks and two wingers in midfield there is very little stability in the centre of the park. The centre midfielders are almost required to make box-to-box runs every attack as they are tasked with both crucial defensive and attacking responsibilities. The in-vogue 4-2-3-1 takes away a lot of these responsibilities by dividing up much of the defensive and attacking duties between the two holding midfielders and the the three attacking midfielders further forward.
This is why the long balls are crucial to Watford’s approach this season. Instead of trying to be everywhere at once and trying to cover more space than is humanly possible, as often happens in a 4-4-2, the central midfielders at Watford are prioritizing their more defensive responsibilities. Even when the midfielders and defenders move forward they are focused on maintaining their defensive shape and not getting caught out of position.
This of course leads to the next problem. If the defenders and midfielders are content to play long balls while focusing on defensive shape it suddenly becomes very difficult to create anything going forward. This is where football’s favourite buddy cop show strike partnership comes in.
If a team’s central midfielders are slow to join the attack and the main service up to the strikers in a 4-4-2 is through the long ball then a lot of pressure is going to be placed on these two forwards. Essentially Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo are being asked to create chances on their own, but luckily for Watford they have more than lived up to the billing.
Usually the danger zone pass leaderboard is made up of creative midfielders and for the most part in the Premier League this season that has been the case, with one notable exception. Troy Deeney.
With 54 danger zone passes Deeney leads all strikers in the Premier League. As a result his strike partner Ighalo has racked up an incredible 0.71 non-penalty-goals per 90 minutes. These numbers are noteworthy enough on their own, but taking into consideration the service they are getting from the players behind them is mainly in the form of long balls makes this all the more impressive.
So how does Watford’s 4-4-2 work? A combination of keeping defensive shape even while in possession, solid defensive midfielders, lots of long balls up to the forwards and a strike partnership that can generate loads of chances all by themselves.
It’s fun to watch a team with such a distinctive style and it’s even more fun to watch any team with Deeney and Ighalo. That being said so much of Watford’s attack relies on the partnership between these two forwards. If that falls apart for any number of reasons – injury, a big money transfer, loss of form – then the whole balance falls apart as much more attacking responsibility will have to fall on the midfielders. But it’s working well right now so sit back and enjoy the enigma of Watford’s “traditional” 4-4-2 in 2016.