Barnsley welcomed Watford at the Oakwell Stadium in the EFL Championship‘s latest round of fixtures looking to grab their first win under their new manager Valérien Ismaël. Having held Milwall to a one-all draw an in their previous game Barnsley were hoping they had their tactics spot on for a solid performance and earn points at home against the Hornets. On the other hand, Watford were hoping to continue their good run of results, having gone unbeaten in their last four competitive games they were hoping for a stellar performance and with the absence of club captain Troy Deeney due to injury, Vladimir Ivić had to make some changes to his starting eleven. Having been relegated from the premier league last season, the Championship newcomers were looking to gather momentum and get back to the top tier of English football as the season gets into the hectic schedule.

In this Tactical Analysis, we try to explain how Barnsley against Watford was a game of few chances and how both sides cancelled each other out with strong defensive setups and how it was going to take something special from someone to win this scrappy game.


EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tacticsBarnsley lined out in 3-4-2-1 formation just as they did last time around, with their new manager Valerien Ismael who had taken over the Tykes before their game against Millwall. Having taken over the reins Ismael seems to be stamping his mark, doing an in-depth analysis of his squad and fielding out the similar formation for two games running. They were looking for a positive result against Watford after their draw against Milwall a week before in which the club captain Mowatt was on target. Ismael went with J.Walton in goal who had the three centre-backs in Jue Andersen, M. Helik and M. Sollbauer protecting him in front of him. The majority of the width was supposed to be provided by C. Styles and C. Brittain both of which had enough chances to bomb forward and join the attack. The midfield pairing of Mowatt and M.James was sitting in front of the back three and providing them with cover defensively with C.Chaplin and D. Freiser playing in the more advanced positions. Schmidt was chosen to lead the line for Barnsley. They had set out to overload the midfield and were successfully able to that through the major portion of the game.

Watford after their decent run of games having avoided defeat in four previous games, fielded their regular starting eleven in 5-3-2 formation. Former Manchester United custodian Ben Foster started in goal with Troost-Ekong playing in the centre of the back three alongside B. Wilmot and C.Cathcart. Kiko Femenia and K.Sema were acting as a right wing-back and left wing-back respectively. E. Capoue sat in front of the back three playing the Makelele role who was supported by Tom Cleverly and Nathan Chalobah who was later replaced by James Garner who is on loan from EPL side Manchester United. Ismail Sarr and Joao Pedro were given the responsibility of leading the line for the Hornets who were looking to avoid defeat in the fifth match running.

Barnsley’s crowded midfield

Valérien Ismaël the Barnsley Manager set out his team in a very compact 3-4-2-1 formation and the first whistle they were looking to set up in low blocks of five and two
in order to stop Watford from finding any penetration through the centre of the field. When out of possession the back three shifted to a more compact back five with the two defensive midfielders in captain Mowatt and James sitting deep to provide cover to their wingbacks. Barnsley were more than happy to let Watford have the majority of the possession, their pressing game was limited to pressing Watford’s midfielders and wing-backs. The Centre-backs were allowed an ample amount of time and space on the ball. But as soon as the ball arrived at either one of the Watford’s midfielders, the Barnsley midfield of Frieser, James, Chaplin and Mowatt quickly closed down on the ball. The four midfielders in Barnsley colours had a very disciplined game and always were able to stay compact to each other and create 2v1 and 3v1 situations in midfield.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tactics

They were well drilled in midfield to win back possession. Barnsley’s first and the only goal of the game came courtesy of a well-fought duel which Capoue lost to Mowatt who raced through Watford’s non-existence midfield with support on either side of him pulling the defenders away which invited the long-range effort. Mowatt took the invitation with open arms and struck a sweet left-foot
strike which was only one of  2 shots that they took on target, that flew into Ben Foster’s right-hand side top corner after clipping the inside of the post, giving Barnsley the precious first goal of the game. For the rest of the game, Barnsley did not have much freedom going forward but they did threaten Foster’s goal again after winning the ball back in midfield but Chaplin scuffed his shot and it ended into the safe hands of Foster.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tacticsBarnsley’s Pressing

Whenever Watford got the ball played into the feet of anyone of their midfielders, the four workhorses in Barnsley colours in Mowatt, Jones, Chaplin and Frieser were onto it, forming a diamond shape to trap the ball player preventing any of the Watford midfielders from playing the ball to the feet of the forward line. This forced Watford to
play most of their forward passes in air. Out of the total 508 accurate passes that Watford played 111 of those were in the air which accounts for 21.8% which is one in every
five passes. This resulted in the Barnsley Centre-backs to defend their slender lead with conviction and hold on to the 1-0 lead. Watford’s average length of the pass to the
final third accounted to be 36.6m which further states how many long balls were attempted by the Watford midfield and defence in trying to find the frontline.
Barnsley from then on settled in their back five from back three and set another low block of two defensive midfielders right ahead of the defensive line to provide even more compactness to the Barnsley setup. They went on to win 67% of their defensive duels and provided very less opportunity for Watford to attack. Barnsley went on to register
just 5 more shots after going ahead further stating their comfort with sitting and defending the one-nil lead.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tactics

Barnsley decided to sit back as deep as they could and absorb all the pressure Watford were to throw at them. They had started with a back three but switched on to back five and defended till the final whistle.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tacticsWatford in transition

Vladimir Ivić set out his Watford side to play through the Barnsley midfield, he set out his defence was wide three centre-backs who had the freedom to look up and try to pick a pass to one of the two forward runners. The three centre-backs when in possession were spread out quite extensively as we see in the context below and Copue played
the holding midfield role being in line with the two wing-backs. Watford easily rolled around possession when in their defence as there was very little pressing on the centre-backs by the Barnsley forwards. They were primarily set out to look for Ismail Sarr down the right-hand side, but as service to his feet was limited he couldn’t do much with his head.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tactics EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tacticsAlmost 60% of the Watford attacks came through the right-hand side of the pitch, through Sarr. He was the focal point of most of the attacks that Watford created. Having blocked the midfield play through jam-packing the centre of the pitch Watford were forced to play long balls from behind. All their three centre-backs had the freedom to look up and pick passes out. The three centre-backs played a total of 36 long passes from the back out of which only 20 found a teammate and in most cases did not result in a substantial sequence of play.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tactics

Watford in attack

On the few occasions where Watford were able to get in behind the Barnsley wing-backs they deployed the old school tactic of flooding the box with midfielders hoping someone to get on the end of crosses into the box. Watford attempted a total of 19 crosses into the box but could not muster up a telling effort on goal as they were denied
by the low block of Barnsley’s defence time and time again. Watford’s Tactic was well-read by the Barnsley midfield and they prevented Watford from winning any second balls while they try to block the passage of play. Watford were unable to find their rhythm throughout the game and could not play against the two blocks of five and two set up by Barnsley. As seen in the frame below there was a moment for Watford to put in a low cross for which they had three players arriving, but chances like this were few and far in between.

EFL Championship 2020/21: Barnsley vs Watford - Tactical Analysis tacticsConclusion

Considering how both the teams tactically cancelled out each other, it was always going to require something special from someone to win the hard-fought battle, which the
Barnsley captain provided in the 6th minute itself.