Davinson Sánchez breaks Watford’s resolve with 96th-minute Spurs winner

Sport

New year, new dawn? As it turned out, not quite. For a long time, it seemed that history might be made at Vicarage Road on Saturday – a first clean sheet for Claudio Ranieri as Watford manager, his first Premier League clean sheet for three years and three days. Watford have had five managers since they last kept a Premier League clean sheet and Davinson Sánchez’s injury-time winner means that number could soon increase to six.

Six points from 11 games since Ranieri took over is not an encouraging stat for Watford. For the Italian, pretty much all that can be said is that his win percentage is higher than it was during his disastrous stint in charge of Fulham – although anything but a win at Newcastle in a fortnight would change that. Ranieri lasted three months and two weeks at Fulham; he would have to survive beyond 18 January for his Watford reign to last longer.

While there have been the remarkable victories over Everton and Manchester United, it’s very hard to argue that there has been an improvement since Ranieri replaced Xisco Muñoz at the beginning of October. This was Watford’s sixth defeat in a row; an unprecedented run of poor form under the Pozzos.

“I am very proud,” said Ranieri. “Also our fans should be proud because the team played a fight until the end. What was unbelievable was to concede a goal with a header with all our tall players. We are alive! We will survive!” Given present form, that seemed an optimistic take.

From a clean sheet, though, could perhaps have grown belief – and there had not been much of that at kick-off. Rather there was a sense for much of the first half of an acceptance of fate, something encapsulated by the sight of Harry the Hornet forlornly banging a drum in the corner to general indifference. Perhaps the hundreds of empty seats were down primarily to Covid, the complications of festive travel and new year hangovers, but it can’t help that this Watford offer so little incentive to make an effort.

Until João Pedro came on to offer a threat with his direct running, there was a grim meekness to Watford. Their resistance consisted largely in simply being: existing in a relatively organised 4-4-2. But again and again possession was wasted. Clearance after clearance went to a Spurs player or out of play. Pass after pass was misplaced. And the result was that Spurs kept coming in wave after wave. Perhaps this was defiance but it was the defiance of an unremarkable sandstone cliff against the sea: eventually erosion was always going to take its course.

Not that Tottenham offered much. Like so many high-pressing teams, they are at their best against sides who come out at them, which Watford, with their two banks of four dropped deep, simply didn’t do. This was similar to the Southampton game, as Spurs lacked the creative spark to break through against increasingly dogged opponents. Forced to try to play their way through an opponent or to rely on the wayward crossing of Emerson Royal, Tottenham looked a little one-paced and lacking in imagination.

“It was difficult because we didn’t score but created chances and when you find an opponent who is well organised it is not simple,” said Antonio Conte. “When we find a very narrow team we have to improve.”

And that perhaps suggests the limitations of this squad. For all Tottenham have improved under Conte, for all they look better organised and more motivated, they remain the same group of players, and they are a group that, since the departure of Christian Eriksen, has lacked much in the way of magic or unpredictability. Tanguy Ndombele has at times suggested he could provide it, but Conte made fairly clear this week that he is no fan: Ndombele’s unpredictability is the wrong kind of unpredictability.

Conte’s importance is obvious. As the game was delayed with five minutes remaining while a fan received treatment in the Graham Taylor Stand, he gathered his players and issued yet further instructions. When the game began again, Spurs came with renewed vigour, earning them the free-kick wide on the left that Son Heung-min arced in for Sánchez to glance home. A win is a win and it lifted Spurs, despite their shortcomings, to within two points of Arsenal with two games in hand.

Watford, meanwhile, are sinking fast and under the Pozzos, that usually means only one thing. Ranieri, it feels, is already on borrowed time.