As one of the leading football nations in the world, Argentina can regularly pick from players based at some of Europe’s top clubs. The Albiceleste squad for the recent friendlies against Mexico featured names employed by Manchester United, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Ajax.
There was also a representative from Watford, but on current form, Roberto Pereyra has not looked out of place among his international colleagues. Granted, Argentina are on a low ebb after a miserable World Cup and have arguably their weakest playing pool in at least a couple of generations, but Pereyra’s presence in the squad is a firm endorsement of the performances he has delivered for the Hornets since the start of the season.
Ahead of Watford’s home clash against Liverpool on Saturday, our tactical analysis looks at the Argentine player’s statistics and identifies why he has been delighting the Vicarage Road faithful of late.
Pereyra has netted five of Watford’s 17 Premier League goals this season, the same total as Andre Gray and Troy Deeney combined. It took him just 10 league matches to rack up those five goals, matching his tally from 32 appearances last season and already just one short of his previous best scoring record for a season (he got six with Juventus during a loan spell four years ago).
Indeed, he has six goals in total to his name since August, as one of them came for Argentina in their 4-0 win over Iraq last month, Pereyra enjoying a goalscoring return to his country after more than three years out of the international frame.
He laid down a marker for the season on the Premier League’s opening day with both goals in Watford’s victory at home to Brighton, the Hornets making a mockery of pre-season predictions that they would struggle to beat the drop. He opened the scoring with a cracking volley from a corner, with the above image showing where the players were positioned as the set-piece was taken. There are five Watford players in the penalty area as the corner is initiated, but Pereyra (circled) is not among them. Indeed, his position and posture at this point would suggest that his immediate function is to halt a potential Brighton counterattack.
However, Watford play the corner short, and as soon as the ball is rolling, Pereyra charges into the box unnoticed, the Brighton defenders still focused on what’s happening near the corner flag. By the time he unleashes his volleyed finish, he has surged forward at least 12 yards (see image), watching the ball all the way to meet it sumptuously. The quality of the strike was an obvious highlight, but his movement and anticipation in timing his run perfectly was every bit as impressive. Apart from a momentary sidestep upon arriving at the edge of the box, his constant forward motion enabled him to arrive at the ball just as it dropped kindly for him to score the opener.
Pereyra’s clever movement was also on show for his second goal against Brighton that day. The image shows Jose Holebas about to set him up with the assist. Anthony Knockaert is looking intently at the Greek defender but has no idea about the roving Pereyra behind him. Although the ball breaks kindly for the Argentina international, he had already taken up a dangerous position and, upon receiving the ball, he instantly turns towards goal, knowing exactly what he intends to do while the Brighton defence is immediately playing catch-up. He bursts into the penalty area and, just as he reaches the edge of the six-yard box, he clips a neat shot over the stooping Mat Ryan and into the far corner of the net. Brighton never laid a glove on him that day.
A few weeks later, Pereyra scored the second of Watford’s quickfire match-winning brace against a Wolves team that had been in superb form. It was a goal made possible by the 27-year-old’s excellent technique and vision, turning an unpromising situation into a goal of real quality. The image below shows him about to receive possession, with two Wolves defenders in close proximity.
As the ball is played to him, it would seem that Pereyra would need to control it with his left foot and be promptly closed down by the opposition. Instead, he nonchalantly sweeps the ball ahead of him with his right foot, fooling Ryan Bennett and leaving him with the opportunity for a dinked finish over Rui Patricio. The brilliance of the move was not just his technique to take the ball so casually on his right, but also to have the presence of mind to dupe the Wolves defenders rather than taking a controlling touch and being surrounded by Bennett and Matt Doherty. Whoever is selected in defence for Liverpool on Saturday would be well advised to take note.
The highlight of Pereyra’s season to date was the stunning solo goal he plundered when Watford beat Huddersfield towards the end of October. While you could argue that the Terriers’ defence could have been a bit more robust in their attempts to halt him, and you’d expect that the likes of Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk would not have let him waltz into the penalty box so gracefully, it is again the source of the goal which shows us Pereyra’s strengths.
The image above shows the very moment that he takes possession for the run that would result in that goal. Although the option is available to continue surging down the left-hand channel (indicated by dotted line), he immediately cuts in on his right foot (circled), just as he did for the goal against Wolves.
Also, this is another instance where he has already made up his mind about what to do with the ball before he even receives it. Pereyra tends to be very decisive when he has the ball in the final third of the pitch and he often favours cutting in on his right, so it will be interesting to observe on Saturday if Trent Alexander-Arnold, the most likely choice as Liverpool’s right-back, will attempt to show him onto his left where advisable.
One discernible weakness in Pereyra’s game, though, is his concentration and composure from defensive situations. Looking back to the goal that Southampton scored against Watford (or at least the one that wasn’t scandalously ruled out by the officials) the weekend before last, it came from an awful error by the Argentina winger.
Firstly, as the ball came to him from a Saints corner (see image), he was facing towards goal, his body shape rather questionable. Also, the authoritative Pereyra of attacking positions instead gave way to a panicky version, his abysmal first touch giving Shane Long the chance to mug the ball off him and set up Manolo Gabbiadini for an easy finish.
Jurgen Klopp could use this as a reason for maybe targeting the 27-year-old when Liverpool have promising set pieces. You would think that if the largely toothless Southampton could make Pereyra rue penalty box dithering, the Merseysiders most definitely could profit from this rough edge to his game.
Also, it’s notable that all of the Argentine’s goals this season have come against opposition beneath Watford in the table – Brighton, Crystal Palace, Wolves and Huddersfield. In games against Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal, he cut a far more subdued figure and while that might be expected to some degree, the Hornets were not outclassed in any of those fixtures. Indeed, they beat Spurs and were wasteful against the Gunners (Pereyra had a couple of decent changes in that game), so a question remains as to whether he can stand out for Watford against the highest calibre opposition.
If Liverpool can shackle him at Vicarage Road on Saturday, they will take the Hornets’ most potent attacking weapon of the season so far out of the game and provide an ideal platform for a positive result to keep the pressure on Manchester City at the top of the table.