Swansea’s Kyle Bartley and Jordi Amat should be on red alert over the weekend, ready and waiting for Alan Curtis, the Swansea City caretaker manager, to give either of them the nod and tell them they are playing in a new-look back three, alongside Ashley Williams and Federico Fernandez, on Monday night.
Swansea, like most teams, play with a back four but if Curtis has done his research, which he should have done really if he wants to keep the job beyond the end of the season, he will have noted the tactical tweak made by managers of two of the last three teams to have played Watford in a Premier League game.
Mauricio Pochettino moved Eric Dier from his role as a deep-lying midfielder to the meat in the central-defensive sandwich between Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in the match three days after Christmas at Vicarage Road. Odion Ighalo muscled his way through for an equaliser but, apart from that, he and Troy Deeney were kept relatively quiet.
They were completely muted on Wednesday night at St Mary’s as Ronald Koeman deployed Jose Fonte, Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand in a fortified triumvirate at the heart of his defence. Deeney and Ighalo were anonymous and the one time Ighalo did get free, after pulling off his trademark scoop on Fonte, Bertrand was swiftly round on the cover to snuff out the danger.
Crystal Palace tried something slightly different, asking Joe Ledley to screen the back four and barely move from that deep holding role. Watford fired a blank. So, is it a case of stop Deeney and Ighalo and you stop Watford?
“People are putting three at the back and two holding midfielders to try and stop us so yes, we have to come up with different ways to score goals,” said Deeney in the immediate aftermath of the defeat on the south coast.
It’s been a long while since Deeney was so comprehensively outplayed by his marker, van Dijk doing a similar job on him to the one Fonte performed at Vicarage Road.
“Ighalo and Deeney were non-existent,” said Paul Walsh on Sky Sports’ Soccer Special. “I’ve never seen them so quiet.”
Koeman replaced Sanchez Flores at Valencia and he won the tactical battle in midweek.
“I prefer to play with three at the back against two strikers,” said the Southampton manager. “We caused them mistakes because we did some good pressing on their midfield. We knew their qualities and how they play football. Tactics wise it was a very good game from Southampton. Watford are haing a great season. They are difficult to beat. It is not easy to create against Watford. They are physically strong but we punished them in our pressing and created problems for them.”
Although the defeat was the first time Watford had failed to turn up for an entire 90 minutes, the manner of the defeat would have set alarm bells ringing and showed how reinforcements are needed for the second half of the season if Watford are to avoid becoming a one-trick pony and being found out. It maybe more than just a coincidence that the interest in Nordin Amrabat, the all-action Malaga forward, has been stepped up towards the end of this week.