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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Middlesbrough 0-1 Watford | Watford counter effectively

Raghunandhanan Narasimhan writes a detailed tactical analysis of the Premier league match that ended Middlesbrough 0-1 Watford.

Boro came into this game looking for their first win of the season at home and were visited by Walter Mazzarri’s Watford. The match promised to be a tactical battle between the two talented managers who were new to the Premier League.

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M’boro: 26.Valdes; 17. Barragan, 25.Gibson, 6.Chambers, 3.Friend; 19.Downing, 8.De Roon, 14. Fornshaw, 18.Stuani, 21. Ramirez; 10.Negredo.

Watford: 1.Gomes; 4.Kaboul, 5.Prodl, 3.Britos; 7.Amrabat, 25.Holebas, 11.Behrami, 29.Capoue, 37.Pereyra; 10.Success, 9.Deeney

Boro dominate possession but lack penetration

Middlesbrough dominated possession having 64% of the ball in their 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape with Downing and Stuani staying a bit narrow than usual. Downing operated a bit towards the inside of the pitch with Stuani being instructed to stay wide on the other flank to provide width. They did not create much with their possession though, with the ball being circulated in the midfield a lot with an eye to avoid losing possession and be prone to counters. Watford defended in a 5-4-1 shape and stayed compact and defended without much fuss.

One of the main reasons as to why Boro were not able to provide was because there was not much running off the ball. There is very less positional freedom offered in this system Boro are playing with only Stuani and Ramirez enjoying creative freedom while Negredo, being the player he is, worked hard.  Only Gaston Ramirez ran at Watford’s defense  and stretched them a bit but the shield of Behrami in front of the defense gave Watford enough protection. Boro were very passive in their build up play with minimal vertical passing. There were hardly few passes being played in between the lines and both Negredo and Stuani in particular, struggled to create an impact in the game. There was not enough width to stretch the banks of 5 and 4 of Watford’s and this meant opportunities were hard to come by with Watford happy to concede possession and play on the counter.

Watford defended with a back 5 with Amrabat and Holebas slotting in. Behrami was intelligent in his positioning and drifted a bit towards the left at times to help Holebas out with Stuani. As a result the Uruguayan had a very quiet game and struggled to make an impact. Stewart Downing, as has been the feature of Boro’s games so far this season, played a bit towards the half space with Stuani staying out on the other flank.

The above dashboard shows Boro’s attacks. As said, vertical passes into the final third were almost non -existent from their play with a lot of aimless passing in midfield. The chances created by Boro were seen when Negredo showed movement to create space for Ramirez around Zone 14 who was the lone bright spot in Boro’s attack. They were poor attacking wise throughout the game and struggled to break down Watford with their passive movement and passing.

Watford play on the counter with Boro defending with a compact center


Though Watford played on the counter with Boro dominating possession, they did not create many clear cut chances from these counters as De Roon and Fornshaw double pivot combined with a lack of risk being taken by the Boro team meaning opportunities to score were hard to come by. Karanka’s men were focused on a compact center and played in two banks of four.  Roberto Pereyra, along with Etienne Capoue aided in the transition from defense to attack but this was not incisive enough. The main outlet for Watford was to get the ball to Isaac Success on the left flank to hurt Boro with his direct running and get the ball high up the pitch quickly. With Stuani and Barragan pushing up on the right flank, Success had a lot of space down that flank and was regularly in between the lines trying to cause Boro’s defense problems.

Weak transitions from Watford


Success gave Barragan, usually a very reliable player, a torrid time with his trickery and the Spaniard was lucky to see out the time he was on the pitch without seeing a red card. Success was bright throughout the game and was very direct in his play. Whenever Watford tried to counter their main outlet was Success who tried to operate in the space highlighted above.  Watford typically played a lot of long passes out from their defense. They were unable to create goal scoring opportunities in general though mainly due to weak transitions. Watford are still in their early days under Mazzarri and it showed in their weak transitions with Watford unable to create overloads. When they attacked, Watford played in a 3-4-2-1 similar to his days from Napoli and Mazzarri’s preferred formation. The 2 attacking midfielders behind the lone striker (Deeney), Success and Pereyra were afforded freedom in movement during transitions with both the players trying to operate in between the Boro lines. Success mainly operated in the space highlighted above in the image above, trying to disorganize the Boro defense to indulge in a player wise press. But there were not much options going into the final third and everytime Pereyra or Success drove at the heart of Boro’s midfield they were fouled, with breaks in play being instrumental in stopping Watford gaining any sort of momentum when going forward.

The circled area shows how Behrami covered for Success, who was a bit forward in order to initiate counters. Stuani did not manage to take advantage of the half space which was never vacant with Holebas and Behrami working in tandem with Britos to close down the space in that side.

Relatively Watford’s play in the final third was better but a combination of Boro’s midfield and defence cancelled out Watford’s attacks. The goal understandably came from a piece of individual brilliance from Jose Holebas’ stunning strike from outside the box.

One telling stat from their play was that the maximum pass combination between any two Watford players was from Gomes to Deeney with the goalkeeper finding his captain 9 times. The worrying thing would be that their attacking players did not find each other on a regular frequency with Deeney being often isolated.

Though very poor offensively, Karanka has instilled defensive discipline in them with the compact center making life hard for Watford to afford space in the final third. One issue with the system though is that there is no effective second line of pressure from the midfield having been instructed to be compact in their positioning. This means there is no one to aid Negredo in his pressing of the opposition defenders with Ramirez not following suit and a gap being created. For a team that is rigid and compact, this is sure to be an issue with better ball playing sides sure to take advantage.


The match was a tight affair with both teams cancelling each other out. Aitor Karanka must surely be worried with his side’s inability to create goal scoring opportunities despite vast majority of the possession. Even after the goal there was real lack of urgency from Middlesbrough with no real change in their approach or tempo.

Boro were very poor with Watford just about doing enough to secure the three points with a 1-0 win. It will surely be a blow for Boro as this was one of those games they should have won if they look to avoid the drop. Watford were poor going forward with Isaac Success being their only bright spot and deservedly the player of the match too. Mazzarri will be delighted with the 3 points and will look to improve their offensive play in the coming games while in all honesty their defense never really being tested much.

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Raghunandhanan Narasimhan
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