Quique Sanchez Flores conceded Watford missed the calming influence of Ben Watson at the base of the midfield as the Hornets continue to make hard work of reaching the benchmark of 40 points.
Watson was absent today for the first time since September as Sanchez Flores tinkered with the winning formula at the Emirates, bringing in Mario Suarez to partner Valon Behrami in a 4-4-2 formation. Without their midfield pivot, Watford fell two goals behind to efforts from Jonathan Walters and Joselu before a late Troy Deeney header offered hope where, realistically, there was none.
“We missed Watson today,” said the head coach. “He needs to rest, sometimes players need to rest. Watson is playing every match for the last six months, and he needed a rest, but the feeling is that we missed him.”
Watson operates efficiently in that all-important line between Watford’s defence and their midfield.
“Suarez was too square to Behrami and was too flat,” said Derek Payne on BBC Three Counties Radio. “Watson drops a bit more when he plays.”
It was a surprise Sanchez Flores did not change the personnel or the system at the break.
“In the half time, we talk about everything,” he said. “I think in the second half, we have some reaction, and I call Amrabat and he is good, but we have difficulty to get him the second ball. Amrabat and Mario are learning how is the competition and they are trying their best, but they need to adapt. I feel sometimes that Mario and Amrabat, they are trying to play well but it is different velocity to what these people are playing before.”
Watford’s head coach had few complaints about the result, one that leaves Watford with one league win in seven, two in their last 13 and still nervously looking over their shoulder, particularly after Norwich City won at West Bromwich Albion.
“There are some matches we say we were unlucky, but not today,” he said. “Today we deserve to lose because Stoke City were better than us. With Whelan, with Imbula, they dominate the midfield, so we go late for everything, for the tackle, for the ball. In the final third we won the possibility to create chances.
“I think in the second half the team did play much better. In the first half we are not completely focussed we are taking distractions every time. We forgot the plan in the first half, we are not playing like a team. For one hour, Stoke dominate everything, they dominate the ball, the velocity of the ball, the attack, the second ball, they dominate the match for one hour. In the first half they were impossible to stop, we leave the spaces for all the players, they were impossible to stop.”