Watford's new formation leaves out-of-form Odion Ighalo on the sidelines
By Peter Smith
Last Updated: 23/11/16 11:59am
Walter Mazzarri has struck upon an exciting new-look formation for Watford but there appears to be no room for out-of-form striker Odion Ighalo. Peter Smith takes a look at the Hornets' system and what it means for the Nigeria international…
What a difference a year makes. 12 games into last season, Odion Ighalo had seven goals for newly-promoted Watford. He was set to score six times in his next six games - goals which would ultimately help him win December's Premier League player of the month prize.
But this season, with the busy Christmas period approaching, Ighalo finds himself out of form, out of the Watford starting XI - and manager Walter Mazzarri turning to a formation which doesn't have a space for the striker.
It's been coming. Ighalo scored 29 goals in 38 appearances in 2015, making him the most prolific forward in the country but his return in 2016 is just six goals in 34 appearances across all competitions. He's scored just three Premier League goals this year and only one this season.
Ighalo's 2015 heroics - which included vital goals in Watford's charge to promotion from the Sky Bet Championship, as well as key strikes in the top flight - won him favour with Mazzarri. The manager, who replaced Quique Sanchez Flores in the summer, was prepared to stand by the out-of-form forward up until last weekend.
Odion Ighalo goals - all competitions
"All strikers go through spells when they are more in form than at other times," he said at the end of last month. "I hope it will take only one episode, one incident, and Ighalo will be up and running for the season. I've been happy with his performances, apart from one or two exceptions - now we hope he can become the Ighalo we know."
There was plenty of foundation to Mazzarri's faith in his frontman and he had revealed his relief in September when the summer transfer window closed with Ighalo still at the club, despite a £37.5m from Chinese side Shanghai SIPG.
But the Ighalo of 2015 has yet to resurface. His partnership with captain Troy Deeney, which yielded a combined total of 50 goals in 60 games, has failed to click this term. Mazzarri has been forced to search out an alternative solution.
Ighalo was first dropped for Watford's trip to Middlesbrough. He was back in the side for their next three games but his absence against Leicester City on Saturday - and his team-mates' performance in a new-look formation - suggests his return may not be so immediate this time.
Antonio Conte has transformed Chelsea's fortunes and expectations this season with a switch to 3-4-3 and Mazzarri appears to have been inspired by his compatriot.
At Vicarage Road last weekend, with Ighalo on the bench, Mazzarri pushed Etienne Capoue further forward, and brought summer signing and former Champions League finalist Roberto Pereyra in from the left wing to operate closer to target man Deeney.
With Nordin Amrabat offering pace and runs beyond on the right-hand side, and a three-man defence providing cover, Watford struck upon a formula for disrupting Claudio Ranieri's visitors.
The shift from the 4-4-2 employed in the 6-1 thrashing by Liverpool before the international break benefited Watford's forwards. Capoue and Pereyra were both on the scoresheet within 13 minutes of kick-off.
For the opener, Argentina international Pereyra wriggled clear of two markers before crossing for Deeney to flick on to Capoue. Pereyra then scored a superb second, cutting inside his man from the left before bending a right-foot shot into the far corner.
Only a brilliant save from Ron-Robert Zieler denied Pereyra another and the stats made for impressive reading at the final whistle.
Pereyra was a nuisance for the Leicester defence throughout, proved by the four times he was fouled - no player was fouled more. He also topped the Watford stats for shots on target (two) and dribbles (four).
Capoue, meanwhile, produced five key passes (that's more than twice as many as Leicester goalscorer Riyad Mahrez and five times more than any other player), and topped the pile for crosses (six) and passing accuracy (77.3 per cent).
Knitting it all together was Deeney, who won six aerial duels and extended his club record assist tally in the Premier League to nine.
Mazzarri seemed particularly pleased with the tactical switch when he spoke after the game. "I'm very happy," he said. "The team played as I wanted and they gave me the answers I wanted so I am satisfied with this win.
The team played as I wanted and they gave me the answers I wanted.
"We prepared very well for the game, not only technically but also tactically. Everyone played as I wanted."
It was the first time Watford had beaten a reigning top-flight champion in a league game since December 1986, when they saw off Liverpool. It also maintained their impressive eighth place in the Premier League and gives them platform to push on from during a busy Christmas period, starting with this weekend's Nissan Super Sunday clash with Stoke.
But for Ighalo, Saturday's result - and more importantly its method - leaves him needing to find a way back into Mazzarri's plans.