Sometimes one is enough. One shot on target; one goal; one away win. Che Adams’s deft first-half finish was all Southampton needed to delight their travelling faithful. Oh, how they enjoyed their marching-based evensong, having seen their team win on the road for the second time in 18 attempts.
It was three points that should have been more comfortable, with Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side exerting control for large periods and guilty of missing opportunities. “It was a very deserved win,” he said. “The one criticism is we didn’t score more to be honest. One-zero is normally the result the manager likes the most. From this result, you can criticise what you have done but still know you have a positive atmosphere in the team.”
Watford have gone from the ridiculous, to the sublime, to the substandard in a fortnight. The substitute Ashley Fletcher almost earned what would have been an undeserved point – Alex McCarthy clawing away his late effort – but otherwise they went down with a whimper. Boos rang out at the final whistle; much for Claudio Ranieri to tinker with, perhaps. “We must be patient,” said the Watford manager. “Our fans must be patient, take us with love and support us.”
Southampton started brightly and retained their sheen throughout. Returning from suspension, the captain, James Ward-Prowse, was the heartbeat alongside Oriel Romeu. Pre-game murmurings that Ibrahima Diallo might be retained proved false; Hasenhüttl was never going to leave out a man who had completed 7,546 consecutive Premier League minutes before his red card at Chelsea.
Ward-Prowse’s presence gave the right-back Tino Livramento even more attacking licence; he and Kyle Walker-Peters on the opposite flank ventured forward with alarming frequency and freedom. “The first half was too easy for them to find a solution on the flank,” Ranieri admitted. “We arrived always late.”
Livramento was Chelsea’s academy player of the season last year, and turned down a new contract in favour of a £5m move to St Mary’s. Having never played a senior minute before his Saints debut, his award could conceivably be upgraded come June. “To play at this level at 18 years old, the way he does, you have a big future,” Hasenhüttl said.
Southampton’s issue since the departure of Danny Ings has, to put it simply, been goals. Adams was supposed to be a ready-made solution but began the afternoon without a Premier League goal this season. But having netted in the Carabao Cup midweek, he grabbed the winner with a lofted shot that nestled in the top corner.
Quite how he failed to add a second shortly afterwards only Adams will know, after he contrived to nod Adam Armstrong’s cross down and over from five yards.
Armstrong – who arrived from Blackburn after a prolific Championship campaign (28 goals in 40) – has just one Premier League strike himself. Recalled only due to Armando Broja’s ankle injury, his drought continues but only his finishing let him down: five times he failed to find the target. On other days, his wastefulness will prove costly.
Watford’s sole opening of the first half came seconds before Adams’s glaring miss. Ben Foster set Joshua King racing down the left and Ismaïla Sarr’s shot beat Alex McCarthy, but Walker-Peters cleared on the line.
Booed off, Watford improved slightly after the interval but created little until Fletcher’s late chance. McCarthy was largely engaged in gentle catching practice that mirrored his pre-game routine; Sarr was particularly guilty. “He is a champion,” said Ranieri. “All the champions have some matches where it is not easy. Then suddenly everything they touch is fantastic.”
The space Adams was afforded in the penalty area to turn and finish will worry Ranieri. Watford’s promotion was built on making Vicarage Road a fortress and a frugality in defence. Having kept 14 clean sheets here in the Championship – conceding 12 – they have already leaked 11. Every visiting team has scored.
Plus, there was a lack of time on the ball. Ken Sema and Tom Cleverley were introduced at the break simply to press; at times the visitors played walking football. “We were too passive in the first half,” Ranieri said. “I didn’t want this; I wanted to put them under pressure.”
His programme notes talked up the importance of belief. Watford will need that and plenty more if the season is not to become a slog.