Walter Mazzarri began life as Watford head coach with a hard-fought draw at St Mary’s against Southampton to kick off the new Premier League season. The result stretches Watford’s impressive record of being unbeaten in the season opener, dating back a decade to 2006 and banished a run of four successive games without a goal against today’s opponents.
Etienne Capoue’s first strike for Watford gave the visitors the perfect start when the Frenchman ghosted in to finish a fine move involving Nordin Amrabat and Troy Deeney, but the Hornets were made to work hard for their point with Southampton having the better of both halves on balance.
That Capoue strike came after Watford avoided a scare when Dusan Tadic’s second minute free-kick forced Heurelho Gomes into a routine save, but the Brazilian would have been grateful to see the rebound, which struck Miguel Britos, land safely in his clutches.
Watford’s tempo and tried and tested 3-5-2 gave Mazzarri’s charges the ascendancy in the midfield area with both Adlene Guedioura and Amrabat, two surprise starters, pulling the strings alongside the combative Capoue who put in arguably his best shift since his arrival from Spurs last summer. It was certainly up there with his displays against West Brom and West Ham last season.
For all their play in the centre of the midfield, the visitors failed to generate too many more clear-cut openings in a first half that saw Claude Puel’s Southampton grow with every passing minute. While displaying better rigidity and turn of pace than we witnessed during an indifferent pre-season campaign, Watford looked most at risk when Jose Holebas set off on one of his trademark runs but Mazzarri would surely have been pleased with how well Watford seemed to suffocate the threat of Shane Long and new recruit Nathan Redmond.
But that threat grew as the half wore on and it was the hosts who looked more likely to grab the next goal. Cedric stung the palms of Gomes from range and the tricky Dusan Tadic threatened to get in behind, and did, when he waltzed past three or four Watford players before standing up a cross for an arriving Saints attacker.
Yet all the pre-match concerns regarding the pace and mobility of Watford’s back three was quickly dispelled. Sebastian Prodl and Craig Cathcart combined well to snuff out a Saints counterattack while Britos was on hand on a couple of occasions to cover for Holebas.
Southampton’s strong start to the second period was to be rewarded, however, when debutant Nathan Redmond fired home. Having missed a string of half chances, Watford were punished when Gomes came, but didn’t collect, and the former Norwich City winger showed tremendous composure to fire home.
Claude Puel’s side began to dominate the midfield area and a second looked on the cards but for tremendous defensive work from the back three. That came to the fore when Ben Watson, on as substitute, cynically tugged down Long following a Saints counter-attack and was duly given his marching orders.
A succession of efforts came and went for Southampton who continued to pepper Watford’s goal. Debutant substitutues Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg, who impressed, and Jeremy Pied each went close for the hosts whose supporters continued to sense an opportunity to begin the season with the three points.
Mazzarri introduced Juan Camilo Zuniga and Ikechi Anya in a bid to reinforce Watford’s defensive rearguard amid a barrage of efforts from the hosts who continued to create and fluff their lines. By this point the Hornets were firmly camped in the Saints half and throwing bodies at every available opportunity. It was truly the stuff of heroism to deny Southampton what looked a certain win.
There were a few nervy moments as the game ticked towards full-time, but it was clear that Southampton were growing more and more frustrated with every passing minute as chances came and went.
However Watford required a major slice of luck to take a point back to south-west Hertfordshire when Redmond again breached the backline and tucked away only for the linesman to rule out for offside. The footballing gods were certainly shining on the visitors.
Puel responded in kind by throwing on Charlie Austin to bolster the hosts’ attacking armoury, and he went close with a sharp header. But Watford would ultimately hold on to begin the season with a crucial point – only heightened by the tough run of games to come.
The defensive organisation and resilience ought to have pleased both Mazzarri and the travelling Watford fans who celebrated the draw like it was all three points. And in the circumstances, it certainly felt that way.
Southampton: Forster, Soares (Pied 78), Yoshida, Van Dijk, Targett, Ward-Prowse (Hojbjerg 55min) Romeu, Davis, Tadic, Redmond, Long (Austin 84)
Watford: Gomes, Cathcart, Prodl, Britos, Amrabat, Capoue, Behrami (Watson 64), Guedioura (Zuniga 73), Holebas, Deeney, Ighalo (Anya 81). Not used: Pantilimon, Vydra, Sinclair, Nyom
Yellow cards: Van Dijk, Guedioura, Gomes
Red cards: Watford: Watson
Referee: R East
Attendance: 31,488 (3,300 away fans)