How powerful is the fear of losing? What Everton's weekend comeback tells us about Watford
It was a catastrophe of a result for Nigel Pearson and his players, who would have been out of the relegation zone had they held the lead given to them by Adam Masina and Roberto Pereyra. But as a study into how football teams can be prisoners of their own state of mind, it was actually fascinating. Awful for supporters, shattering even, but revealing in that slightly uncomfortable, voyeuristic way.
Watford began the game with confidence. Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue were both hugely influential and even the more flaky players, the Deulofeu-types who need to be in a certain mood to produce, were slashing in-field and towards the Everton goal with a real purpose.
Two headers changed that. Twice the home defence seemed to lose a corner in the bright sunlight, twice Yerry Mina took advantage of the uncertainty.
From a pragmatic standpoint, that shouldn’t have changed anything. Mina had brought Everton level when they didn’t deserve to be and that would have been disheartening. But the scoreline didn’t describe anything that Watford had done wrong in open play, nor did it demand that they do anything different.
And yet when the second half began, the game had entirely changed. It was if everything that Pearson had built over the previous weeks, game by game, training session by training session, had been destroyed.
Before the first goal, Watford had enjoyed just 38.9% of possession. But they were still by far the more dangerous side, scoring twice and forcing six shots. They’d also defended resolutely and snapped into their counter-attacks and that was very much the pattern of the game. Between half-time and Fabian Delph’s sending-off, however, the match retained that shape, but with a startlingly different tone.
All of sudden Watford's clearances were being hacked away instead of passed upfield. Inevitably, Everton were then able to recollect possession, rebalance and relaunch. When those attacks did come, they found space and opportunity, feeding off the fear which had infected the home players and, increasingly, was antagonising the crowd. Everything receded; the confidence, of course, but also the communication and the order, and the players' ability to complete simple pieces of play.
What was the difference? Carlo Ancelotti didn’t make a substitution until the 64th minute and his team’s structure didn’t noticeably change. The pace in the game wasn't noticeably different, either, but - still- all the balance had shifted.
In football terms, it was like watching a side respond to the sight of its own mortality. The Mina headers, despite both coming from dead-ball situations and being easy to compartmentalise as a result, seemed to not only remind Watford of their limitations, but draw them face-to-face with their predicament.
This, those few minutes seemed to say, is your place in the Premier League - this is something that just happens to teams like you.
That’s not really true, of course. It was punishment for bad defending rather than anything more mystical, but it did reveal just how fragile a team’s psyche can be. In a broader sense, not specific just to Watford, it also documented the challenges created by under-performance. It showed the difficulties that a manager like Pearson has to overcome and also the extent of those various ailments; recovery depends on curing a very deep psychosis and removing a team, player-by-player, from that psychological mire.
Watford sunk right back into theirs on Saturday afternoon and it was grimly compelling. They were betrayed by their nervous passes and by players who didn't want the responsibility of rescuing the result. And, finally, by Theo Walcott's breakaway goal in stoppage-time. How does that even happen? How did professional players reason that a single covering defender was enough security against Walcott, Richarlison and Moise Keane? Instinctively, that should have felt wrong to every Watford player on the pitch.
Great assist Moise Kean pic.twitter.com/k3blKVgjyO
— Toffee TV (@ToffeeTVEFC) February 1, 2020
But it somehow didn't. It was the kind of ludicrous scenario which showed just how muddled those minds had become within less than an hour. Ultimately, it was a vivid depiction of just how self-perpetuating a fear of defeat can be for sides like Watford, conveying also just how pervasive and powerful these strange little maladies are.
While you’re here, why not take advantage of our brilliant subscribers’ offer? Get the game’s greatest stories and best journalism direct to your door for only £12.25 every three months – less than £3.80 per issue! Save money with a Direct Debit today