Southampton end poor run with comfortable defeat of Watford
Southampton impressively outplayed and outworked Watford to secure a 2-0 Barclays Premier League victory that should signal the end of their poor run.
On an evening when Watford were as poor as the hosts were intense, goals in each half from Shane Long and Dusan Tadic took Southampton into 12th place and within two points of their underwhelming visitors.
Ronald Koeman began with a 3-5-2 formation - and with Ryan Bertrand one of his central defenders - and w ith England international goalkeeper Fraser Forster returning from a long-term knee injury.
Throughout much of their disappointing recent run - they had lost eight of their previous 10 fixtures - Southampton had begun games encouragingly before their confidence deteriorated upon harshly conceding the opening goal or not converting their chances.
It therefore came as little surprise that they were the more energetic of the two teams immediately after kick-off, even if the reality is their opening goal arrived when the threat appeared minimal.
Matt Targett, playing as a wing-back, received possession on the left wing before curling an accurate, 17th-minute cross into the penalty area towards Long - from where the forward neatly headed beyond goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes and inside the right post.
Watford's response was to become even more sluggish, and erratic, and to allow Sadio Mane to run near-unchallenged from the left wing and to the edge of the penalty area before shooting and watching Gomes palm his effort wide.
From the resultant corner, Targett - demonstrating his team's growing confidence - shot from distance before watching the ball being deflected off-target, and while Odion Ighalo provided an isolated response with a run and shot that was also deflected, the hosts otherwise remained in control.
The concern remained that with Watford's talent a one-goal lead would not be enough, and had they secured an equaliser, Mane - more than any other - would have felt responsible. After intercepting a rare misplaced pass from Jose Jurado, the forward found himself immediately in front of goal but instead struck the outside of the post.
This was the worst performance the otherwise-impressive Quique Sanchez Flores has overseen since his appointment as Watford's manager, and he will know that had Mane not missed further chances, and Steven Davis' classy finish not been ruled offside, his team would have lost more heavily.
Pressure had been building on his counterpart, Koeman, but as if to highlight Southampton's poor run had reached its conclusion and that he remained firmly in control, the manager substituted Mane for Dusan Tadic and was almost instantly rewarded with a goal.
Controlling possession after Davis' header, Tadic ran into Watford's penalty area, created space, and classily finished low beyond Gomes from in front of goal in the 73rd minute.
In doing so, a crucial victory was secured, and unlike in the 4-0 defeat of Arsenal, this time winning appeared far from a one-off.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
"Watford losing puts me in such a bad mood." - Reading striker Helen Ward was unable to hide her disappointment after Watford's defeat.
Fraser Forster: 5
Jose Fonte: 6
Virgil van Dijk: 7
Matt Targett: 7
Oriol Romeu: 7
Jordy Clasie: 7
Sadio Mane: 7
Steven Davis: 8
Ryan Bertrand: 7
Shane Long: 8
Maya Yoshida: 5
Graziano Pelle: 5
Dusan Tadic: 8
Heurelho Gomes: 6
Allan Nyom: 5
Miguel Britos: 5
Sebastian Prodl: 5
Jose Holebas: 5
Almen Abdi: 5
Etienne Capoue: 6
Ben Watson: 6
Jose Jurado: 4
Troy Deeney: 4
Odion Ighalo: 5
Victor Ibarbo: 5
Craig Cathcart: 5
Ikechi Anya: 5
Shane Long. Southampton are a far better team when Long starts instead of Graziano Pelle. As is usually the case when he plays, his intelligent runs and ability make Southampton far more fluid in the final third and also make Sadio Mane more of a goal threat. His impressive work-rate was also complimented by another fine finish for his team's opening goal.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH:
Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores introduced Victor Ibarbo as a 68th-minute substitute, so shortly after insisting he had no place in his plans. It said much about how poor Watford were that he would then turn to him for some unexpected inspiration, and perhaps also about how he felt about his other substitutes.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH:
Unusually, given the extent to which they have impressed during Sanchez Flores' time at Watford, his team appeared unmotivated and unprepared, but the manager has earned more than enough credit for he and the club to consider the poor nature of their performance a one-off. Southampton, perhaps for the first time this season, maintained the intensity they so often show in the opening periods of matches. Particularly given the return to fitness of Fraser Forster, the pressure that had been growing on Ronald Koeman suddenly seems in the past.
MOAN OF THE MATCH:
Sadio Mane's finishing. The forward may well have been linked with a transfer to Manchester United, but he was incredibly wasteful in the final third. Had his finishing been more accurate, Southampton could have secured victory by half-time and their biggest victory of the season throughout the second half. Instead, for much of the second period, the threat always remained that Watford could swiftly equalise, and in other games he will not receive so many glorious chances.
WHO'S UP NEXT
Southampton v West Brom (Premier League, 16 January)
Swansea v Watford (Premier League, 18 January)