In the home dressing room at the Liberty Stadium, Paul Clement prepared two substitutions in an attempt to turn the game. In the away dressing room, Silva anticipated the changes and reacted by ditching the four-man defence Watford had used in every minute of the season so far to play three at the back.
“We changed at half-time as we know they will do this change to three up front,” Silva reflected. “They started to react in the last minutes of the first half. They changed in the second half to two strikers with [Jordan] Ayew in behind – three strong players to challenge in duels. We changed things in half-time as well, to prepare for this situation.”
At first it seemed Silva’s gamble would fail. The Mali defender Molla Wagué came on for his debut, replacing the midfielder Étienne Capoue, and for a while Watford struggled to get to grips with the new system. The pressing and rapid transitions into counterattack fell away and Swansea soon equalised. “We changed the formation and sometimes when you change formation you need more minutes to come in a good shape again,” Silva said. “When more minutes passed … we controlled our opponent more.”
Eventually they began to settle. Ayew’s influence dwindled as the Watford defence became more dominant. Silva used a break in play to convey a flurry of instructions to Tom Cleverley in midfield. Finally, in the 90th minute, that signature pressing forced a late mistake and set the impressive Richarlison through to crash home the winning goal. It was Watford’s third away win in succession and the captain, Troy Deeney, credited his coach. “Fair play to the manager, he got it right. He would have got a lot of stick if we hadn’t got the result.”
Perhaps they would have won anyway, perhaps not, but Silva is clearly not the type to wait and see. Even in his short time in English football, the Portuguese has already proved plenty of doubters wrong. When Silva arrived at Hull City in January, hardly known in England, Sky’s Paul Merson dismissed his achievements – such as a 17-game winning run at Olympiakos (“that can happen”) – and Phil Thompson said the Hull job was like “manna from heaven” for a man with Silva’s CV. Yet Hull’s performances under Silva were night and day from those before his arrival and Watford have started with swagger.
It has not all been good, of course, and the 6-0 defeat by Manchester City underlined the inherent risk in an admirable style of play. Watford committed to short passes from defence to midfield, even deep in their own half, and City quickly swarmed around them to steal the ball. The performance could be put down as a one-off against rampant opponents if it was not for some similar displays by his Hull side last term, who shipped three or more goals seven times in four months.
A penchant for the occasionally disastrous was a memorable trait of Wigan Athletic under Roberto Martínez, who took several major Premier League scalps and won the FA Cup playing easy‑on-the-eye football, yet also presided over the club’s heaviest defeats – 9-1 at Tottenham Hotspur and 8-0 at Chelsea – and eventual relegation. Silva has shown more than enough in his career to date to suggest Watford will not develop a similar flaw in the long term – and will have the chance to prove it against higher quality, with Arsenal and Chelsea on the October fixture list.
For now, though, Watford will revel in a third consecutive away win in the top flight for the first time and Silva’s proactivity from the sideline, which could become a defining weapon.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010