After a 14-year hiatus, the Beds-Herts derby returned on Saturday afternoon in one of the EFL Championship‘s early kick-offs. Fans of both Watford and Luton would have been yearning to be in the stands facing off against each other, unfortunately, COVID has determined otherwise.
Vladimir Ivić’s Watford came into the game unbeaten after a win and a draw in their first two league fixtures, with Luton Town holding a perfect record before facing their Hertfordshire rivals. João Pedro’s deflected effort was enough to separate the two sides in the end, with the Brazilian’s goal coming in the 35th minute of the game. Although having the slight majority of possession, Luton were mostly outplayed by the Hornets, with Ben Foster not having to make a save throughout the entire game. This tactical analysis will cover how both sides performed over the 90 minutes.
Watford lined up in their favoured 5-3-2 formation, which Ivić’s side has successfully utilised so far this season. Frontmen Ismaila Sarr and João Pedro started their first game alongside each other, with a midfield three of Tom Cleverley, Nathaniel Chalobah and James Garner sitting behind them. An identical back five was fielded to the one against Sheffield Wednesday, along with Kiko Femenía being named back on the bench. Ben Foster started his 79th game for the Hornets.
On the other hand, Nathan Jones used his 4-1-4-1 formation that we have seen applied twice to Luton during this campaign. Simon Sluga started between the sticks for the Hatters, with a back four of Martin Cranie, Matty Pearson, Sonny Bradley and Rhys Norrington-Davies in front of him. Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu was the pivot in midfield for Jones’ side, along with Luke Berry and Ryan Tunnicliffe sitting slightly further up the field. Elliot Lee and Harry Cornick were on either wing, with the 18/19 League One top goal scorer, James Collins, upfront.
Watford on the attack
When going forwards, Watford used their centre-backs to foster attacks against Luton. The Hatters only played with one striker against the ex-Premier League side, therefore Watford’s defenders had plenty of space in front of them to drive into. This, ultimately, is what happened during the build-up to João Pedro’s goal, where Craig Cathcart nearly found himself on the halfway line before switching play over to wing-back Ken Sema. He was then able to provide the assist to Pedro’s first goal of the season.
Above is an example of Watford’s centre-backs being able to drive into Luton’s midfield. Ben Wilmot carries the ball past the centre circle before playing it to Ken Sema, with former Manchester United midfielder Cleverley and João Pedro also offering support. Pedro comes short asking for the ball at his feet, which drags the Luton centre-back out of position. This then creates spaces in the Luton backline which Cleverley exploits.
Sema picks the ball up near the touchline and plays it into the space João Pedro created. However, the through ball is hit just too hard for Cleverley to latch onto and the goalkeeper collects. This sequence happens in just the fourth minute of the game and shows early signs of Watford’s game plan. As stated earlier, Watford manages to score from a chance much similar to the one above, showing this was how they chose to pick apart Luton’s defence.
Here we see the chance that Watford scored from. Craig Cathcart, much like Wilmot previously, can drive forwards into Luton’s midfield and pick out Sema by switching the ball. This time, Sarr is the one who shows feet, but the defenders don’t follow him so therefore the ball is played to the other side. Sema goes on to drive into the 18-yard box and cross it to João Pedro who places his shot on goal, taking a deflection and beating the Luton goalkeeper.
Watford’s build-up play and transitions
Whenever Watford won the ball back in their defensive third, they created triangles amongst their players to then clear it up the field. These tactics allowed them to try and create passing sequences and play on the floor, but also get it long when under too much pressure.
Here we see the triangles Watford created using their centre-backs, midfielders and wing-backs, respective to the side of the field play were on. Doing this gave them opportunities to retain possession against Luton, as The Hatters only played with one forward in last weekend’s game. Luton had to use their centre midfielders to increase the press on Watford’s defence, which then created gaps that Ivić’s side could play through.
When Watford lost the ball high up against Luton, they aimed to press as quickly as possible. Above we see an example of this, where Wilmot switches it to Jeremy Ngakia and he loses possession. Ngakia and centre midfielder, James Garner, then press the Luton player instantly as he moves up the pitch. As he passes the halfway line, centre-back Cathcart also joins in the press and play is forced towards the touchline. By doing this, Watford prevents Luton from playing back out into the midfield and eventually a misplaced pass results in a throw-in for Watford.
When up against Luton’s attack, Watford tucked their wing-backs in to defend with a flat back five. As we can see above, The Hornets also told their midfielders to drop back in which made it harder for Luton’s players to breakthrough. Substitute Tom Dele-Bashiru presses the left wing-back, forcing him to cross a rushed ball into the box which nobody connects with. This tactic was very effective for Ivić’s men, as they didn’t concede a single shot on target throughout the whole game.
Luton Town going forwards
At the beginning of the game, Luton used their 4-1-4-1 system to try and create chances against Watford. Unsuccessful, and going into the break 1-0 down, Jones changed their system and went to three at the back. Jordan Clark was subbed on in 58th minute at right wing-back, and Luton started playing with a similar tactic compared to Watford’s, with Norrington-Davies on the other side. As the game progressed into the last ten minutes, and with Luton still losing behind, Jones changed his setup yet again and substituted Kazenga LuaLua on to play using a 3-4-3. However, a front three of Cornick, Danny Hylton and LuaLua was still not enough to break down Watford’s solid defence. The tactical analysis below explains how.
Above we see Luton using their 4-1-4-1 system during the first half. The midfielders progress up the right side of the pitch, which draws Watford into that area leaving space on the left. Berry travels into the midfield with the ball and, using the open space, plays in Norrington-Davies on the wing.
The left-back is then given two options to play the ball forwards. Elliott Lee comes short to show feet, dragging the Watford midfielder with him. This creates extra space behind Watford’s defence and Norrington-Davies chooses to play in Tunnicliffe. The three of them create a triangle and keep possession on the left wing, only to lose the ball when they fail to put a successful cross into the Hornets’ box.
After Luton’s 58th minute sub to bring on Jordan Clark, they change their formation to a 3-5-2. This meant that Cornick now played as a striker alongside Collins instead of on the right side of midfield. Above, we see the instant impact of the tactical change as Norrington-Davies is now able to push further up the pitch and beat the Watford defender. Berry becomes the fourth player in attack during this phase, being the more attacking midfielder between him and Tunnicliffe.
After failing to score using the 3-5-2 now, Jones changes his setup yet again to a 3-4-3 in a bid to get as many players forward as possible. Above we see five of Luton’s players in Watford’s defensive third, causing The Hornets to bring seven players behind the ball. Luton is now going man for man with Watford’s defence. Norrington-Davies once again receives the ball on the right wing, however, he is now much higher up the field due to the formation. Within this phase of play, he can whip a cross into the box, which is now more populated due to Luton pushing players forwards. Ultimately, they are not able to create anything from the chance and the goalkeeper collects.
Luton’s possession and transition phases
When chasing the game in the second half, Luton instantly pressed the Watford defenders after losing possession. Ivić’s players were put under pressure in their own half, sometimes losing the ball due to this. As we see above, Luton’s forwards are quick to put the Watford defender under pressure and end up winning the ball back high up the pitch. Luton then had a better chance to attack after gaining possession.
Above, we see how Luton played out from the back after winning it in their defensive third. Centre-back Sonny Bradley has the ball outside his own 18-yeard-box and plays it to left midfielder Elliot Lee. Luton do this to try and get the ball over Watford’s wing-backs, giving their wide midfielders chance to run with the ball in the created space. Tunnicliffe also provides the defender with an option to play to the midfielder’s feet, however, he is pressed by the Watford player so Bradley goes long instead.
Luton Town defending
As stated previously, Luton defended with four at the back during the first half. A result of this was Watford being reduced to only two shots on target, one of them being João Pedro’s deflected effort.
Here we can see Luton’s structure when defending against a Watford attack. The back four pick up both of Watford’s strikers, along with three midfielders covering the area outside the 18-yard-box. This prevents any low crosses into that space, along with being able to shut down any Watford players near them. The cross ends up going into that defensive triangle made of Luton midfielders, who then press the attacker and rushes his shot wide.
After changing formation in the second half, Luton were forced to defend with five at the back as they had wing-backs not full-backs. Here we can see how Luton pushed back The Hornets during a defensive phase by getting 11 men behind the ball. Watford attack down the right side and Luton’s three midfielders press them, so to keep possession they play backwards. As the passing lanes are cut off down Luton’s left-hand side, Watford switch the ball over and Jones’ men then shuffle across to do the same. Doing this prevents Ivić’s side from progressing down the wings, which is what their aim was throughout the game. Luton’s new formation allows their five defenders to go man for man with Watford’s attackers, and in the second half, they didn’t concede.
To summarise, this tactical analysis shows that Watford deserved the three points against Luton on the weekend. This can be seen by looking at some of the statistics for example, with the Hornets convincingly outshooting their opponents 14 to four. As this analysis has shown, Watford were able to easily fashion chances down Luton’s wings, which is how they scored their only goal of the game. João Pedro picked up his first goal of the campaign, the Brazilian expected to tally up many more as the season goes on. The Hornets stay unbeaten in the Championship this season, and come up against Reading next week who currently have a perfect record. As for Luton, Jones will want his players to bounce straight back with a win during next week’s game against Wycombe, who are new boys to The Championship.