Quique Sanchez Flores said his decision not to let Steven Berghuis and Nordin Amrabat off the leash from the start at Anfield on Sunday was tactical, but denied suggestions that his overall outlook has been very conservative and risk averse.
There were plenty inside and outside the club who were keen to see Berghuis, in particular, get a full run from the off against Liverpool in what was a free swing of a game. Berghuis had changed the course of the game in the previous match, albeit against league whipping boys Aston Villa. Yet those with an intimate knowledge of how Sanchez Flores operates knew the head coach would not twist and start the Dutch winger on Sunday, preferring instead to set Watford up nice and compact.
The lack of faith in the likes of Berghuis, coupled with the the decision to only hand Amrabat just four league starts since he recommended the club sign him for a fee that is pushing £7m given the exchange rate, are two of the factors behind the board’s decision to look for a new head coach.
“They [Berghuis and Amrabat] are really offensive players and they sometimes forget to reduce the space and stop the gaps,” said Sanchez Flores. “They obviously prefer to play in attack but we needed to be consistent and look like a pack. Jurado and Abdi have played since the beginning and they know how to use the system. For us, it is more safe in terms of the balance.”
Again, note the use of the word safe. Yet Sanchez robustly defended the suggestion this team is always set up with one eye on the back door and that he is more concerned with damage limitation. He feels, quite rightly, Watford need to play like this to bridge the quality gap in their first season back in the Premier League, but the argument wears thin now they are safe.
“We are playing all season with two strikers,” he said. “We are practically the only team in the Premier League who is doing this all season, except at Tottenham [when Troy Deeney was left on the bench]. We cannot complain about that [the lack of attacking intent]. We are really offensive because Jurado is offensive, Abdi is offensive and we play with two strikers. I think we are a completely offensive team in terms of the players we choose. We need to work like a pack as there are a lot of teams better than us, so we need to reduce the distance and the distance between the lines.”
Rene Gilmartin, who sees Sanchez Flores operate on a daily basis, might not agree with the likes of Berghuis being kept on the bench with the pressure off, but he at least understands it. In fact, he sounded like Sanchez Flores when offering, more articulately, a reason for Berghuis’ ten substitute appearances.
“He has attacking intelligence,” Gilmartin said in his role as an excellent summariser on BBC Three Counties Radio. “He just needs to know what you have to do defensively to start the game. He’s definitely a threat and a good option off the bench.”
You could argue Sanchez Flores has got his handling of Berghuis spot on, accepting he was never ready for Premier League football when he arrived and, now he’s more acclimatised, drip-feeding him into action (34 minutes against West Ham and 33 against Aston Villa and Liverpool) is the best course of action.
“Berghuis was good,” said Gilmartin. “He had plenty of opportunity to get on the ball. He got on the ball on halfway as Liverpool did press higher. It wasn’t like Villa where they dropped off and allowed him to get at the full-back. He has good delivery, he had a shot saved and is always a threat.”