Sébastien Haller off mark with two goals in West Ham’s victory at Watford

Nick Ames at Vicarage Road on 24 August 2019

For Watford, the danger signs are clear. For West Ham, who knows? A breathless contest, in which defending was a dirty word from the outset, deservedly went the visitors’ way and suggested their evident frailties might be counteracted by attacking potency. That was provided by Sébastien Haller, their record signing from Eintracht Frankfurt, who opened his account with two poacher’s goals after Andre Gray had equalised Mark Noble’s penalty. His new team have their first win but Watford, who will rue an extraordinary miss from Will Hughes at 1-1, remain pointless and must perk up urgently.

A downbeat Javi Gracia knew it, admitting his team “have to be more clinical”. Watford produced 23 of the game’s 39 shots but only three hit the target. Only Hughes will know how he did not improve that ratio when, in the 55th minute, he met Gray’s fizzed centre at the far post after the striker had skipped around Lukasz Fabianski. It was a sitter but, perhaps seeing the ball late, Hughes turned it wide from a matter of inches. These things happen but Watford, who disintegrated thereafter, are in such desperate form that he may not see the funny side for some time.

“The dynamic is not good; we need to improve something,” said Gracia, whose team have lost seven games in a row and gone 18 without a clean sheet. Even then, Hughes’s miss showed how fine the margins can be and it typified an encounter that was frayed, rattling fun throughout.

For a manager it must have verged on the shambolic at times and, during the first of two cooling breaks in the 25th minute, Manuel Pellegrini could be seen talking animatedly with his back line.

His side had already ceded the lead. A minute had passed when Haller fudged a goalscoring opportunity but managed to chip across the area to Manuel Lanzini. Like his teammate, Lanzini appeared to have overcomplicated but salvation came via Abdoulaye Doucouré’s clumsy foul. On the 15th anniversary of his debut, Noble beat Ben Foster and Vicarage Road hummed with concern.

The stadium almost erupted in relief when Gerard Deulofeu clipped the bar but Watford, who lost 3-0 to Brighton here a fortnight ago, were already running the risk of a similar fate. It was postponed, at least for an hour or so, by the fact that this week’s opponents were so loose. The chasms in West Ham’s defence begged to be exploited and they were when Gray, running behind Arthur Masuaku, whipped a fine strike across Fabianski.

Mark Noble makes no mistake from the spot early on.
Mark Noble makes no mistake from the spot early on. Photograph: Arfa Griffiths/West Ham United FC via Getty Images

Still the chances came. Tom Cleverley twice miscued while Felipe Anderson headed against the inside of an upright from Lanzini’s corner. “The fans saw a very good game, two teams that play in an open way,” a satisfied Pellegrini said, and at half-time the score hardly reflected the entertainment.

The interval appeared to have knocked some sense into everyone until Hughes lost his bearings. “It was impossible to miss,” Gracia said. Haller soon showed how to score a tap-in. It came from a similar move, Anderson making ground down the left and squaring for the simplest of finishes. Four minutes earlier, the teams had stopped to take on more fluids; perhaps Pellegrini had this time offered choice words to his attack.

They were now rampant. Foster saved from the substitute Michail Antonio and, from the resulting corner, flipped the same player’s header against the bar. This time Haller was poised again, converting acrobatically.

“It’s a new league for him and it’s not easy, those goals will give him a lot of confidence,” Pellegrini said. “I trust a lot in him.” Norwich await West Ham next weekend; on this evidence, four goals from that fixture might seem a conservative prediction.

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