Match Report: Brighton 1-1 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
The points tally received a boost this evening, not as big a boost as was hoped for and not as big a boost as looked likely, but it was a boost nontheless.
Although the concession of a self-inficted goal on 78 minutes and the concession of a winning position made it feel a bit like defeat, a draw against Brighton helped bring a halt to a run of two straight defeats and got the team back on the horse. Whether this was a must-win or a no-lose game nobody could quite decide pre-match, but the upshot is Nigel Pearson's team are still right in the mix of navigating a way out of this one and learning on the hoof. They completely threw away leads at Villa Park and Vicarage Road in their last two fixtures so they partly learnt the lesson of game management here at the Amex Stadium.
Yes, everybody would have loved three points, especially against a side who are also not finding life easy in the wrong part of the table, but it wasn't to be. You have to work hard for everything you get at this exalted level and the Hornets didn't quite deserve all three from this one. They didn't really kick on after going a goal up through Abdoulaye Doucouré after 19 minutes and didn't really stick or twist. Grabbing a second goal would likely have killed the encounter stone dead but going for it might have left the team suspectible to a break at the other end. In the end, they got caught between two stools, sat a bit too deep in the second half and invited Brighton on.
It was rough that the own goal was scored by Adrian Mariappa as no-one cares more about this club than the long-serving defender. You just had to see the look on his face at full-time as he headed down the tunnel to know how much that one hurt him. He'll bounce back, just like the team need to after the mid-season break.
The first half had shades of Villa away about it. There was a real control about the performance, a real buy-in to the game plan and an energy about the team.
The returning Will Hughes set the tempo and was into his work nice and early, barely looking like a player who has been missing since the game against Aston Villa. He made a crisp pass to Roberto Pereyra, snapped into a tackle in the middle of the park and then crashed into another one with Solly March, a former England Under-21 teammate of his. He loves playing in that deep-lying position and you can see why. It's well suited to his combative nature and ability to read the game.
No-one in the squad telegraphs things better than Étienne Capoue and it was his knack of breaking things up that led to Doucouré slamming in the opener. Capoue read a pass from Aaron Mooy around halfway and that set Doucouré off and running. He had a lot to do from where he picked the ball up but he drove at the Brighton defence, cut in from the left, took a couple of touches and then let fly with one that just sat up nicely for him. It flew past Mathew Ryan who stood no chance. The Frenchman charged towards the bench which erupted in celebration. Everyone enjoyed that one, particularly knowing full well it sat well in the game plan, meaning Brighton had to come out and leave spaces at the other end.
The main Brighton threat came from corners and balls into the box. They hurled in three corners inside the first three minutes but they were dealt with fairly comfortably, mainly thanks to the help of Troy Deeney, who thundered one of them away. Craig Cathcart also learnt some lessons from last week, proving it was a one-off. He was excellent in the first half and one interception on Glenn Murray represented a high-water mark. The tackle of the half, though, belonged to Capoue who made a sensational one on Ezequiel Schelotto by the touchline. It had all the timing of a Swiss watch and the precision of a top surgeon.
Pearson was ahead in the tactical battle with Graham Potter at half-time so the Brighton Head Coach sought to change things up just before the hour, bringing on Neal Maupay and switching to four at the back. Indeed, Potter had made all his subs just after the 70th minute. There was no question the Seagulls were in the ascendancy at this point, with bookings deep in Watford's half for Hughes and Adrian Mariappa in quick succession summing up which way the wind was blowing. Key headers inside the six-yard box from Cathcart and Mariappa were essential during that difficult phase.
Not as defining as the left leg Foster stuck out to deny Mooy on 77 minutes, though. It was the first time Brighton had got in behind the Hornets all afternoon. You wondered how the Seagulls were going to find a way through without a bit of good fortune, how they were going to break the visitors down but they got a bit of a helping when Mariappa put through his own net 12 minutes from the end. The right-back must have thought there was a danger of his man getting on the receiving end of a far-post cross so he took decisive action, but he got too much on his clearance and it flew past Foster. It was a hammer blow as it was difficult to see the home side scoring up until that point.
Thankfully, it was only a part surrender of the winning position and unlike away at Villa and at home to Everton, the team managed to get out of here with a point. It was the least they deserved. Whether it was two dropped or a point gained will only become truly clear at the end of this nerve-shredding season.
HORNETS: Foster, Mariappa, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina; Capoue, Hughes, Doucouré, Pereyra (Pussetto 81), Deeney (C), Deulofeu (Welbeck 85).
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Dawson, Welbeck, Chalobah and Gray.