Watford have exceeded all expectations this season but if you were wondering if this group of players could do it on a bitterly cold Wednesday night in Southampton then you were given an emphatic answer tonight: No.
The only consolation from this defeat, which is about as comprehensive as a two-nil gets, was that the Hornets were not on the end of a real beating. An excellent Southampton side won with goals from Shane Long and Dusan Tadic and their winning margin could have been at least three times that. Watford were all at sea on the south coast.
There must be something in the sea air in this part of the country as Watford were similarly anaemic at Bournemouth in the first half but they got away with it and recovered in the second half. They started badly here and got worse. This was one of those evenings to forget and the players have built up enough credit in the bank to be excused the most awful night at the office. Only Heurelho Gomes emerged with any credit whatsoever.
It was largely down to the Brazilian that the visitors were not four goals down at the break. After Long nipped in front of Miguel Britos to glance in the first after 16 minutes, Watford unravelled and collapsed like a house of cards. It was a most un-Quique like performance from this lot.
It was one-way traffic. In the first half alone Gomes pulled a save out of the very top drawer to deny Sadio Mane, clawed away another Mane effort from an acute angle, Jose Holebas almost scored an own goal and Jose Manuel Jurado seemed to think he was playing for the other side when he sent Mane clear to chip past the left-hand post. And that was just the clear-cut chances.
Watford were sloppy in possession, played football in all the wrong areas and were so off the pace it looked they were running a different race. Even Deeney, the heartbeat of this side, stopped running at one point in the first half and was bullied by Virgil van Dijk. The best and only chance of a wretched first 45 minutes inevitably fell to Odion Ighalo who fooled Jose Fonte with his trademark scoop but not Ryan Bertrand, who got round on the cover to read the danger.
Sanchez Flores has had very little cause to criticise his players this season but the mild-mannered Spaniard was perfectly entitled to lose his cool at the break and start throwing tea cups around. The fact he didn’t make any interval substitutes was staggering, a sign of the faith he has in this group or the lack of trusted options he has on the bench. If ever there was a match for Valon Behrami to start rattling into tackles this was it.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse after a dreadful first period, Gomes was flattened in a challenge with Mane and it looked, for a horrible moment, like Giedruis Arlauskis was going to have to come on. Thankfully, Gomes recovered in what was one positive to emerge from the first 47 minutes.
It was a shame the club’s head of medical Richard Collinge didn’t bring on a remedy to cure the the mis-placed pass disease which spread through the side like an epidemic. The lackadaisical Etienne Capoue was the next player who seemed determined to gift-wrap a goal for Mane, playing the umpteenth pass backwards by a Watford player to allow the Senegalese forward to run at the under fire Watford back four.
Abdi made way just after the hour for Ikechi Anya but it could have been any of the outfield players the head coach dragged off. It failed to stop the rot. The impressive Steven Davies had a 65th-minute effort ruled out for offside but the yawning gap between Holebas and Britos he ran into to collect a raking pass was alarming. The overworked Gomes then had to repel a stinging drive from Oriol Romeu. Boy did the former Tottenham keeper earn his money tonight.
The fans sang Adlene Guedioura’s name but it was, to great surprise, that Victor Ibarbo was the next change as Sanchez Flores tried to do something, anything, to stem the tide. It was in the space that the replaced Allan Nyom vacated that Mane and Long both narrowly missed tapping in a shot across the face of goal from van Dijk.
Then another turnover of possession involving Jurado allowed Long and Mane another chance to run at Watford’s retreating back four. Sanchez Flores sent on Cathcart in a vain attempt to shore things up but the Northern Irishman, unforgivably, ducked under a long pass, allowing Tadic the chance to cut inside Prodl and Anya to beat Gomes. It was the very least Southampton deserved but it was difficult not to feel sorry for Gomes.
It was a relief when Ronaldo Koeman took off Mane to prevent any further embarrassment. Deeney became so frustrated he picked up a yellow card for an over-zealous challenge and it kind of summed up the night when Cathcart was jeered by the home fans for what was just about Watford’s only attempt on target.
Southampton: Forster; Soares (Yoshida 82), van Dijk, Fonte, Bertrand; Romeu, Clasie, Davis (Pelle 81), Targett; Mane (Tadic 71), Long.
Watford: Gomes; Nyom (Ibarbo 68), Prodl, Britos (Cathcart 72) Holebas; Watson, Capoue; Abdi (Anya 61), Jurado, Deeney; Ighalo.