Bournemouth and Watford’s different approaches yield the same results

When Bournemouth and Watford were promoted to the Premier League last May, many listed them among the favourites to be relegated. The reasons for doing so were numerous, ranging from lack of Premier League experience to insufficient infrastructure around the clubs.

However, with almost two months of the season still to play both are all but safe from the drop. How have these clubs achieved this feat despite utilising such different playing styles? And does either of them provide a blueprint for teams coming up to the Premier League next season?

Let’s start trying to answer these questions by taking a look at their basic tactical approaches.

Bournemouth are heralded as a possession-based side who pass their way forward and try to break teams down by playing on the front foot. The statistics do justice to their approach, with just seven teams seeing more of the ball over 90 minutes on average.

Watford often prefer a more cautious style, with focus on being hard to break down and countering with direct play up to their two exceptional strikers. They have very rarely been the dominant side with the ball and actually sit in the bottom five of possession statistics over the season:

Bournemouth Watford1

Despite their differing styles the two teams sit remarkably close to one another in the table, with Bournemouth just one point ahead of Watford having played a game more. Can it therefore be argued that there is no specific tactical approach that can ensure Premier League survival? Indeed, you need only look at Leicester to see a prime example of a team not needing to dominate the ball to get results.

One interesting similarity between Bournemouth and Watford is how effective they are in the final third of the pitch. Despite all of their possession, Bournemouth only average three more attacking third entries than Watford per game. They are marginally more effective in terms of chance creation thanks to this, making an average of 9.7 chances per game compared to Watford’s 8.6. Both teams also have fairly similar Great Chance conversion rates:

Bournemouth Watford2.png

It could be said that because Watford don’t create or convert as much, they need to be better organised defensively, while Bournemouth can afford to give away a little more as they are a greater threat going forward themselves.

Defensively the numbers do unsurprisingly favour Watford, with their defence giving away fewer chances over a game than Bournemouth. One major difference between the two teams is how goals are scored against them, though. Watford’s opponents convert Great Chances just 32% of the time, the third lowest total in the league. On the other hand, Bournemouth’s more open style leaves them more exposed at the back, with opponents scoring 53% of their Great Chances. This number is second only to Crystal Palace and could also point at frailties in goal for Eddie Howe’s side:

Bournemouth Watford3.png

Seeing this statistic, it’s easy to see why Watford have conceded 18 goals less than Bournemouth over the course of the season so far, with their more organised approach making it much harder for opponents to create truly “great” opportunities.

One major thing that Watford have managed to avoid this season is injuries to key players, particularly in attack. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have scored over 75% of the club’s league goals, with both being involved in every single game played.

This number could be so high because of their rigid tactical approach, with the midfielders rarely making runs beyond the ball and often leaving the forward line to fashion chances for themselves (Ighalo is particularly adept at this). Should either striker get injured or suffer a dip in form in the remainder of the season, Watford’s goals will surely dry up further. This is especially likely because only five other players have found the net this season, none of them scoring more than once.

On the other hand, Bournemouth have had to contend without their top goal scorer for much of the season and as a result their spread of goals is far more evenly distributed. Callum Wilson has been out of action since September and still remains their top scorer with five. The fact they’ve kept scoring is a testament to their bolder approach going forward, with 11 players having scored two or more league goals. The fullbacks and midfielders all willingly contribute to attacking phases of play, while the centrebacks are dangerous from set pieces.

When the teams met each other in the league there was little to separate them again. Indeed, both matches ended in draws, further indicating that there really is little difference in how effective each approach can be.

With Watford short on goals game management has become a big factor for them and each of their ten wins has come after they took the lead. As they are a side who primarily look to be defensively sound they can struggle to open up and attack teams, which is a big reason why they have won just two points from losing positions. Alternatively, while Bournemouth are often involved in more volatile games they themselves have only come from behind to win once, with their other nine victories coming after they struck first:

Bournemouth Watford4.png

Overall there is plenty of evidence to suggest that both Bournemouth and Watford’s playing styles do work and that each team are good at what they do. Watford rely more on a tight defence to keep them in games and their matches average the fewest goals in the entire league as a result. Bournemouth’s more fluid style unsurprisingly yields more goals per game.

In terms of results gained there is virtually nothing to separate the sides and the lesson here may simply be to stick to your overarching tactical principles regardless of opposition. This rigid stylistic approach has served both Quique Sanchez Flores and Eddie Howe well, as another season in the top flight of English football awaits.

Perhaps next year’s promoted teams should also stay true to themselves if they wish to survive in a similarly emphatic manner.

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

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