EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Watford attack down the wings in an attempt to carve out chances.

It was a fall from grace for Watford when they got relegated from the Premier League last season, while Middlesbrough only managed to stave off a relegation place after Neil Warnock was appointed after the restart. Both the clubs are now looking to dust themselves off from last season’s failures as they look forward to challenging for promotion this forthcoming season. With both the clubs having new managers in the dugout, the season will be more important as the managers would be looking to establish their ethos, as well as achieving the objectives at the same time while they continue to adapt to their squad and its abilities and capabilities.

This is the tactical analysis of the first game of the 20/21 English Championship season played between Watford and Middlesbrough. In this analysis piece, we will take a look at the tactics that were employed by the two managers.

Lineups

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis

Ben Foster started in goal, with Jeremy Ngakia, Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele, Ben Wilmot and Kiko Femenia starting ahead of as they comprised the back 5 from right to left respectively.

Domingos Quina and Ken Sema started on the right and left flank respectively with Tom Cleverly and Nathaniel Chalobah sitting in the middle of the park.

Joao Pedro started up top completing the lineup for Watford FC.

Marcus Bettinelli started in goal for Boro, with Anfernee Dijksteel, Grant Hall and Paddy McNair completing the back three ahead of him from right to left respectively.

Jed Spence and Marvin Johnson started in the two wing-back roles, right and left respectively. Jonathan Howson, George Saville and Marcus Tavernier started in midfield.

Britt Assombalonga and Ashely Fletcher started up top completing the Middlesbrough lineup.

Watford aiding from a disciplined display

Vladimir Ivic is certainly looking to be an astute appointment by the Watford hierarchy as he got off to a winning start against Middlesbrough. A manager who is not very well known in these parts of Europe, he would be looking to impose his tactics and system onto this Watford side who are hoping to secure promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Vladimir has his work cut out as he hopes to avoid getting sucked into the stereotype that has been attached to Watford for so long in terms of their managerial turnover.

He is known for his discipline and the discipline that is portrayed on the pitch by his teams. It was clear from the start that the hornets will be a tough side to beat, as there defending had caught the eye from the very start. They defend as a unit, with every member of that team contributing to the defence as the team looked very compact to the naked eye.

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Watford Players would fall back into their half, and behind the ball to defend the attack from the opposition and to deny any space to the opposition to create and carve out chances.

He had improved the teams’ set-piece ability, as Watford took an early lead from the header by Craig Cathcart from a corner which could easily be understood that it was something, they had worked on at the training ground. The team’s nerves started to settle down as the half progressed, with more composure and calm on the ball. The centre-halves had been attributed to different roles, as Wilmot was the ball carrier among the three, and the other two were more focused on defending and keeping the opposition strikers at bay.

The defensive approach employed by Ivic could be assumed as a no-nonsense approach, as the defending emphasized more on getting the ball clear off of their defensive third. Their defending inside the box still seems to be needing some attention. Their defending was nervy on some level, but they were masking that ably, as the back three were solid and composed, rarely making a mistake.

Ken Sema was more actively involved in defending as he would regularly trackback to support his wing-back. It was more compatible, as Ngakia wasn’t galloping forward every chance he would get, but Kiko Femenia was consistently involved in building the attack out wide for his team and aiding his teammates out wide in the final third. Their system despite being compact wasn’t narrow, as the wing-backs would maintain their width, rather than tucking in and overloading the ball side.

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Kiko Femenia sending his teammate through behind the Boro defence as he participates in Watford’s attack and helps to create chances and avails himself as a passing option.

Quina was afforded the free role among the four midfielders as he would drift around the pitch and often slot himself behind Pedro and roam to get into better positions to receive a pass from his teammates. Quina was successful in making an impression on the game, as at the end of the game, he would be considered as one of the best on the pitch on the night.

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Watford attack down the wings in an attempt to carve out chances.

Pedro was slowly starting to impose himself on the game, as he wouldn’t shy away from a getting into a duel with his opposing man, and was willing to use his physicality to stave off any opposing defenders. Their attack would generally stem from out wide, as their wing-backs would work the ball up the pitch and try to get the ball in the box for any oncoming attackers. Pedro would find spaces and come deep to link play and pick the ball and keep the play flowing. 

Watford were comfortable playing out from the back and preferred it that way as they could use Wilmot’s ball-playing abilities to their advantage. Their defending was disciplined and strict as they would get almost everyone behind the ball to keep Boro’s attack from finding ways past their defence. Although not impenetrable, Watford were very good at defending even if they were giving away spaces and the ability to create chances to the opposition. They would develop a gritty tenacity to their game as it would continue to progress, which somewhat worked against them as they were giving away cheap freekicks seldom.

They were finding it a bit hard to maintain their attacking threat as they were getting trapped quite often as Middlesbrough would pile pressure onto them. But the hornets were always ensuring that they find a way out of their own half, to keep Boro on their toes defensively.

Middlesbrough paying the price for their momentary lapses

In Neil Warnock, Middlesbrough have an experienced manager who knows the championship thoroughly. And one who had helped them avoid relegation into League 1 last season after the restart. With him at the helm, Middlesbrough would be hoping for a battle for the playoff spots. A determined, capable and respected manager, Boro have secured a man who will be looking to add another promotion to his promotions tally.

Boro started on the front foot in the early stages of the game, as the front two were sniffing for opportunities to put them ahead as quickly as possible. They are an expansive side who play spreading the pitch wide, as a result of which they tend to leaves spaces unmarked and open for the opposition to get into and exploit them to their advantage.

Robust and fluid, they are a very silky side who play slick football and appear very sleek in terms of their play to the naked eye whenever they are on the attack. They have the firepower in attack as the two strikers seemed to gel and get along very well and threaten the opposition defence very capably. They are fluid in terms of the passes they play while in the opposition half, and the chances they carve when they get to the final third of the pitch. Their attacking prowess is better than their defensive capabilities which doesn’t look like a great proposition for them in terms of the length of the season.

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Middlesbrough players committing to the attack as they search for an equalizer.

As the game would develop in the first half, they would enter spells when they wouldn’t be able to get the ball and would be left chasing the game and the Watford players. Boro are adventurous in terms of their passing and aren’t shy to play a very risky pass which seems to be appreciated as it portrays an emphasis of a more attack-minded side. But they relied more on long balls to get the ball in dangerous positions and it allowed the team to use their superior aerial ability against a team who wasn’t very dominant in the air. 

Their defending wasn’t the most solid either, as they would back off when an opposing player came at them even if they were defending in their defensive third. They would press Watford man for man as it allowed them to maintain their shape in attack and midfield. They were gritty in defending as they weren’t afraid to get stuck into their challenges and were tough and physical whenever they challenged for the ball and got involved in any duels. It did mean that they would give away odd free-kicks now and then. Their set-piece defending was very unconvincing as they gave away the only goal of the game from a defensive lapse during a corner.

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Boro forwards press the Watford backline in an attempt to pressure an error out of them.

They maintained the width of the pitch to avoid getting caught out by Watford on the other side of the pitch if they switched the play while they were busy overloading the ball side. Jed Spence was the more adventurous of the two wing-backs as he was more actively involved in the attack in a comparison between them. They would often mix their attack by playing it from out wide or going through the middle.

EFL Championship 20/21: Watford vs Middlesbrough - tactical analysis
Boro attacking through the wing and through the middle to get the equalizer.

Their centre-halves played with risk and adventure as they weren’t afraid to venture upfield from deep. But once the second half started, they became a little cautious in terms of getting up the field, as they were afraid to get caught out at the back if they overcommitted in their attack. Boro would try to impose their dominance on the game as well, as they were starting to gain confidence while attacking and they were improving defensively too. McNair would appear to be the ball carrier from defence late in the game as Boro were looking for inroads to a way back into the game. In their attempt to get an equalizer they would try to trap Watford in their own half and aim to camp in their half.

Conclusion

An even match, when looked at from retrospect with some glaring differences. Of the two teams, Watford had the lower XG of the two with 0.58, while Middlesbrough had an XG of 0.81, but Watford were more clinical with the one chance they needed to get the one goal and they got the win because of it. With an almost even share of possession between them 51%-49% (Watford vs Middlesbrough), it isn’t hard to understand why both the teams had such an average pass completion percentage at 75% and 72% for Watford and Middlesbrough. Both teams were very active in terms of their pressing as they both maintained a PPDA of (Watford) and 5.1 (Middlesbrough). The attacking prowess for both teams was on display as Watford took 8 shots and kept 2 on target while Middlesbrough took 9 shots and kept 4 on target.