Deep down, every Watford fan knew that was going to happen. Watford drew 1-1 against Burnley in a match that painted a perfect picture of their struggles this season. With Burnley chasing a club-record win streak and leaving the rest of the Championship in the dust, many in the Watford camp feared they would be on the receiving end of a Red Wedding-type slaughter. From the first whistle, Burnley displayed the free-flowing style that had brought them so much success. Much of the first fifteen minutes was spent in or around Watford’s eighteen-yard box, but Watford impressively dug in and weathered the storm. The defensive trio of Hamza Choudhury, Ryan Porteous and Wesley Hoedt formed a brick wall, and would occasionally intercept an errant pass. This would set up a blazing counterattack from Joao Pedro, who’s wizardry with the ball was on full display. Watford were beginning to form an identity and finally realize their strength. The more Watford pressed, the more they were able to create quick counterattack opportunities. This finally bore fruit in the 32nd minute, when Burnley goalkeeper Arijanet Muric came forth to catch a cross and inexplicably kneed the ball back into the air. This led to a scrum in the box, causing the ball to ricochet about until Joao Pedro was able to tap home a decisive pass from Ken Sema. For the life of me, I will never understand why a keeper would choose to control a ball with his feet rather than his hands. If Muric reaches up and grabs that ball, all of that chaos would have never happened. Whether or not Watford would have scored another we’ll never know, but that one mind-boggling moment secured us the point.
Starting around the 50th minute of the match, Burnley started acting like a team at the bottom of the table. Ashley Barnes, whom Peter affectionately calls a “Master of the Dark Arts”, led his teammates in trying to slow the game to a halt with antics. This included a moment in which Barnes grabbed Wesley Hoedt’s arm, pulled it over his shoulder, and wrestled him to the ground to try to draw a penalty. Several Burnley players attempted to scuffle, with the aim clearly being to get a reaction out of Watford players and for cards to be handed out. Though nothing really came of that kerfuffle, the time that it wasted was the only reason why six minutes were added on to the end of the game. It could be said that Burnley got exactly what they wanted, since it gave them just enough time to get the equalizer. We’ll get to the reason the equalizer happened, but the antics from Burnley are simply bad for the game. This is the type of thing you would see from a team who knows their opponents are better and thus have to resort to muddying the game grind out a result. That is the type of team Burnley were in the Premier League, but they would do that with tough, in-your-face play. The antics from that game suggest to me that Burnley knew Watford were the better team and felt the need to cheat their way back into the game. I don’t think the EFL will do much to try to curb these tactics, but it just makes the game rotten.
Of course, the overarching theme of Watford’s season would come back to haunt them in the end. As the second half progressed, it became clear that Watford were hanging on for dear life. There were still counterattacks, but Watford placed more of an emphasis on holding their defensive shape. On top of that, the replacement of Keinan Davis and Ken Sema for Henrique Araujo and Matheus Martins eliminated the hard-nosed, physical style that Watford had begun to succeed with. Ismaila Sarr remained on the pitch despite the fact that he was clearly tiring, and is prone to being battered around himself. The nail in the coffin came when Slaven Bilic chose to substitute Joao Pedro, who was on a yellow card, and bring on Christian Kabasele. Watford fans know all too well about his defensive struggles, and the tendency for disaster to strike quickly when he enters the game. In the dying moments, Burnley earned a set piece from the left wing. I couldn’t make out which defenders where in what position when the cross came in, but Kaba did appear to duck out of the way rather than go up for a header. That goal proved to be one of the final kicks of the game, and Watford had to leave Lancashire deflated. Kabasele can’t shoulder all of the blame, but his presence on the field directly contributed to the equalizer. Bless the man, he’s living his childhood dream, he seems like a great person, but his skills are National League standard at best. I hope his stand-up comedy career takes off, but it’s far past time to show him the door.
As for the rest of the team, that game was a sign of what they can be capable of. This team absolutely has strengths and is dripping with talent. Their only remaining obstacle is themselves. By some miracle, Watford still have a threadbare grip on the final playoff spot. A simple choice stands before them. They can continue to wallow in their insecurities and play down to their competition, or they can set the league on fire. Monday’s game against West Brom will give a much clearer indication of what this team thinks of themselves.