The Senegal winger owned
champions-in-waiting Liverpool, and offers a blueprint for the Hornets’
continued stay in the top flight
It remains difficult to fully capture the context of Watford’s humbling of Liverpool on Saturday night.
Some of that is to do with the fact that so much has already been
said and written about this Liverpool side, genuinely one of the finest
the English top flight has ever seen. Their lead at the top of the
table, unassailable for all intents and purposes, attests to their
greatness, but also to just how relentless and superior they have been
this season. Until Saturday came…
There is also their run of league games without defeat, truncated at 44. This reverse preserved a crumb of delight for Arsenal faithful, stopping the Reds in their tracks just when it seemed their march toward an unbeaten season was inevitable.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is to be believed, the weight of the
expectation and the talk in the media will now die away, freeing his
side up to return to the fluency they have lacked for a couple of weeks.
However, he may well find that once that aura of invincibility is
gone, the emotional comedown can be abrupt—Arsenal discovered precisely
that when their run ended, but even beyond the deflated psyche of the
players, there is the instructive nature of this latest defeat.
Watford were not hanging on, even though they maintained a
disciplined shape and restricted the space the champions-in-waiting had
to work in. Neither was it a smash-and-grab: the Hornets kept the
visitors to one shot on target, while racking up five of their own. Not
only did Nigel Pearson’s side win, but they did so in emphatic fashion,
and have now created a blueprint for the rest of the league to follow.If there is any consolation for the Reds, it is this: the rest of the league does not have Ismaila Sarr.
Many sides have set up in similar fashion to Watford, but few sides have had the same result.
On the very opening day of the season, newly-promoted Norwich City rocked up to a raucous Anfield and caused Liverpool problems with angled balls in behind their defensive line from wide areas. They got spanked 4-1, a scoreline that meant it was easy to dismiss the overall approach, but a closer look was more revealing: Norwich created openings. They just did not have Sarr.
Of course, the Senegal winger is by no means a unicorn.
He is quick, versatile in his starting position across the front line, and his movement in behind has improved in leaps since moving to Europe, but the same can be said for a number of attacking players in the Premier League. However, too few teams have been able to support these attributes with the sort of concentration, discipline and clarity of execution that Watford did.In doing so, they created the perfect storm – time and again, Watford looked to hit Sarr in the space behind the full-backs, and for the first time this season, Virgil Van Dijk looked less than his usual zen self, frazzled by the acceleration of the man signed from Rennes and reduced to grasping at air and almost careering head-first into the upright.
Potentially damaging as it could be for Liverpool and the fear-factor
that has seen many sides beaten before the ball was kicked, it also has
the potential to be a turning point for Sarr and Watford.
Saturday marked the day the winger truly arrived in the Premier League.
Sure, he had already scored three in an injury-punctuated first
season, but against Liverpool he produced a trademark performance to
outline the full extent of his menace. This is genuinely how good he can
be in a system that plays to his strengths.
Sarr only got two on the day, but he realistically could have had
four: he drew a save from Alisson before breaking the deadlock, and ran
clear yet again later on before curling wide.
For Watford, that bodes extremely well for their survival hopes.
There seems little else Norwich, Aston Villa and Bournemouth can do to significantly alter their fortunes, but for the Hornets the plan is simple: play for Sarr and his quality could prove the difference between a continued stay in the top flight and relegation. Much as Watford (and their owners) are known for intervening quickly in a crisis, the solution in this case could really be that simple.