Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Staring down the barrel of a ninth defeat in 11 games, Eddie Howe’s injury-ravaged Bournemouth stood up to be counted. In normal circumstances, rebounding from two goals down to secure a point would usually be seen as a good result. But seven big chances created, to Watford’s one, suggests the Cherries should, in fact, have taken all three.
No Premier League side defends more passively than Bournemouth; none attempt fewer tackles per game, and only two intercept the ball less frequently. Since the early stages of last season, Howe has eschewed the pressing, possession-based game the Cherries displayed upon promotion in favour of a deep-lying, counterattacking style. This very much suits the Englishman’s rapid front four. But it very much does not suit his mostly unfit-for-purpose rearguard.
Above their level
The likes of Steve Cook, Charlie Daniels and the injured Simon Francis have played above their level for some time now; a credit to Howe. But regularly fielding them in a side that practically invites the opposition into the final-third is simply asking for trouble. Cook’s decision to go to ground for Watford’s second, directing the ball into Troy Deeney’s fortunate path, rather underlines that uncomfortable fact.
Dan Gosling, himself just back from injury, had gifted the ball to Cook’s target, Gerard Deulofeu, just seconds prior. There is a sense, too, that Gosling is apter for a more humble engine-room than that of a mid-table Premier League side; hence the summer signing of Jefferson Lerma to add some much needed bite.
Lerma evinced his usual barely-controlled aggression here (and some questionable shot choices, too), as the Cherries set about dominating midfield from the off — a relative rarity of late. Aided and abetted by the industrious wide pairing of Ryan Fraser and David Brooks, the Colombian midfielder joined Gosling in winning the upper hand over Watford’s midfield four. But, crucially, Fraser failed to reassume his position in a timely manner following an early corner-kick, allowing Kiko Femenía to instigate the Hornets’ opener. Ken Sema, hardly a revelation since his arrival from Ostersunds, skinned Daniels to tee up a typically brilliant Deeney header.
Although Deeney’s brace arrived somewhat against the run of play, it was well-earned by the burly target man. Watford’s talisman bullied both Cook and Nathan Aké, whose shared part in a deep defensive-line played into the striker’s hands. No surprise, then, when Deeney’s route-one-tempting presence facilitated Watford’s third; Sema nipping ahead of Daniels to deposit the second-ball.
However, by that point, Bournemouth had conjured two quickfire goals of their own — both from set-pieces. Javi Gracia has not yet entirely resolved the dead-ball chaos that Marco Silva left in his wake; cue a pair of Fraser free-kicks that produced four free Bournemouth headers between them. And, damningly for Gracia, both set-pieces were also conceded in a very similar manner.
Keen to press high at goal-kicks all season, Watford haven’t exactly been wonderful at transitioning into their defensive shape when the opposition bypasses their efforts. Here, there are two obvious worst offenders, and both regularly left holding midfielder Etienne Capoue completely unflanked in front of his defence.
Abdoulaye Doucouré’s box-to-box prowess is a marvel to behold, and the midfielder’s boundless energy renders the reputed interest in him from PSG totally unsurprising. But the Frenchman’s keenness to both press and make frequent third-man runs is as much a curse as it is a blessing. Doucouré was, admittedly, key to Watford’s first goal, running beyond Gosling to feed Sema’s assist. But his continual absence from Watford’s first notional bank-of-four, along with Roberto Pereyra’s equally indefensible languidity, often left Capoue with no choice but to take illegal action.
It is from that very weakness that Bournemouth’s second goal originated: Capoue fouling Brooks between the lines. And it was Deeney, running back to fill someone else’s gap, who conceded the first killer free-kick with a cynical foul to arrest Fraser’s counterattacking charge. Doucouré himself was lucky to stay on the pitch after an assault on Fraser, and by the time of his 56th-minute departure Watford had committed 12 fouls to Bournemouth’s two. Each of the Cherries players who like to play between the lines — Fraser, Brooks and Joshua King — had suffered three apiece.
Still, Sema had bailed his central midfielders out by restoring Watford’s lead, right? Wrong. Or, at least, right for all of two minutes anyway. Bournemouth struck again before long, this time from open play, with Pereyra’s reluctance to transition proving decisive. Junior Stanislas, a winger-by-trade who played in central midfield against Manchester United, capped a man-of-the-match performance by completing a sweeping back-to-front move with a wonderful overlap and cross. Fraser did the rest, making up for the Stanislas cross he failed to convert at 0-1. And King should have headed yet another Stanislas centre into the net two minutes later.
Fielded here at right-back, Stanislas enjoyed more touches at right-back than any other player, a testament to his versatility and a shocking indictment of Pereyra. There’s no doubting the Argentine’s ingenuity, but when he’s not producing in the final-third, his rank indolence is impossible to justify.
One half, nine shots on target and six goals. Yet all the excitement belied yet another poor-quality festive football spectacle, in which neither exhausted side broke the 80% pass-completion barrier and just a paltry four dribbles were attempted. And anyone hoping for an equally goals-laden second-half was likely to be disappointed, too: only three prior Premier League games stood at 3-3 at half-time, and none saw more than one further goal.
In truth, although Watford were denied a clear injury-time penalty for handball, Bournemouth should have notched that winner. The Cherries wasted two further clear-cut chances after the break, as the Hornets continued to ride their luck. Ben Foster, whose choice reflexes kept out nine shots on target, clawed away another Wilson header (stemming from another Fraser free-kick). Once again, a Watford midfielder had been forced into remedial action in front of his defence; this time substitute Tom Cleverley arresting Gosling’s roll.
Only Craig Cathcart, with two last-ditch interventions, came close to matching his goalkeeper’s heroics. But the Northern Ireland defender’s slip almost gifted King a late winner, were it not for the striker’s second brush with wasteful finishing and Foster’s improbable point-blank save. Stanislas, unsurprisingly, had played the key pass. Pereyra, even less surprisingly, was nowhere to be seen.
And so Watford move up to eighth, level on points with Wolves but ahead on goal difference; a decent outcome for Gracia, who has marginally improved this cohort of Hornets players. But the task of resolving issues at both set-pieces and defensive transitions remains very much a work-in-progress. One defeat in the last six, however, with Watford primed to confront a relatively charitable run of fixtures, suggests that better times may lay ahead for the Spaniard. Especially if he can reintegrate the injury-hit Will Hughes, whose industry and ingenuity should improve both his side’s attacking and pressing fortunes.
As for Howe, whose Teflon reputation continues to shine, two wins out of 11 should be setting alarm bells ringing. Twelve goals shipped in the last three games, by a side bearing the fourth-worst defensive record in the league, suggests that the current soak-up-pressure-and-see approach — whether it’s intentional on his part or not — is not working. A slightly more proactive approach, designed to keep opposition strikers like Deeney further away from goal, is surely called for on occasion.
Having said that, the counterattacking prowess possessed by the likes of Fraser, Wilson, King and Brooks is fearsome. And Howe is not, in any way shape or form, possessing of the central midfield options required to regularly dominate possession in the opposition half. Quite the conundrum facing the highly-rated 41-year-old, then. Still, at least the Cherries’ next league meeting, against Marco Silva’s wide-open Everton, offers Howe’s side the chance to do what they do best: break at will.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112