The case against 'two up top'

The logical conclusion, following Stefano Okaka’s introduction as a 57th-minute sub and Troy Deeney’s 80th-minute winner against Everton, is that Watford should start the next home game against West Bromwich Albion with two centre forwards. After all, it stands to reason that having two men up front increases the chances of scoring and that at home, when the onus is on the Hornets to attack, it is essential to have a second striker on the pitch from the start in order to get on top and stay on top. Doesn’t it?

Not necessarily, and the evidence so far suggests that Javi Gracia will stick with his methods despite West Brom’s terrible form.

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Since taking over as Watford’s head coach, Javi Gracia has started every game with one centre forward. At Southampton in the FA Cup that man was Andre Gray and ever since it’s been Deeney.

However, in all but the Chelsea match, which ended in a resounding 4-1 win, Gracia has added a second striker in the second half, keeping the original front man on the pitch each time. Okaka came on for Etienne Capoue at half-time at St Mary’s, Gray replaced Richarlison at Stoke and West Ham and Okaka replaced Roberto Pereyra against Everton. Only against Chelsea did he leave the formation broadly untouched when he replaced Deeney with Gray in injury time.

Okaka’s impact against Everton was undeniable. The Everton defenders, who had kept Richarlison and Pereyra so quiet suddenly had to cope with a different type of threat. After almost an hour playing one way, suddenly they had to think and act completely differently, and that change of gear, and Okaka’s awkward, unconventional style, caused them problems. But just because both Richarlison and Pereyra did not enjoy much success last Saturday does not mean their contribution can be overlooked. They still needed to be dealt with – Everton frequently doubled up on Richarlison and they forced Pereyra deeper and deeper, from where he played the pass of the match after picking up the ball in his own half and landing it at Gerard Deulofeu’s feet on the right flank. Even when it looks like they are coping comfortably with the task, all that marking and monitoring work costs defenders physical and mental energy and softened them up for Okaka’s introduction. The adjustment required by the defenders is not to be underestimated, which is what made Okaka's introduction as a substitute so effective.

Supporters would no doubt love to see Watford come roaring out of the blocks and put the match to bed in the first half but even against wretched, downtrodden opposition that is not easy. Think of the way Swansea City played at Vicarage Road at the end of December. They were broken, demoralised and seemingly all set for a return to the Championship but they refused to lie down and turned the tables on Watford in the final minutes. West Brom are in even worse shape and in a sense have nothing to lose. So Watford’s first job is to ensure they stay in the match, assert themselves on West Brom and discourage them from any notion that this will be the match to kick-start some sort of revival.

Like the old comedy double-acts such as Morecambe and Wise, football history is brightened by the legendary strike partnerships. Watford have had several down the years – Cliff Holton and Dennis Uphill shared an incredible 84 league and cup goals in the 1959-60 season; Luther Blissett and Ross Jenkins scored 65 between them in 1978-79; and for a while Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo bucked the Premier League trend of playing with a lone striker, a false nine, or a decoy ten, or two supporting wide players, to great effect.

Of course, having written all this, Gracia will now buck his early trend, pick both Deeney and Okaka and attempt to bludgeon West Brom into submission in the first half-hour of Saturday’s game. I’d love to be proved wrong but I can’t see it happening because the cautious, cagey nature of so much Premier League football, particularly that played by teams outside the top six, means that the pragmatic way to win a game is to ensure it’s not lost first.

And the thing about football is that not only do none of us know what will work best but neither does Gracia – not for certain, anyway.


The countdown of 100 Greatest Watford Wins continues with matches No. 88, No. 87 and No. 86.