It was not hard to spot the team fighting against relegation. While Southampton cruised to another straightforward victory on the road thanks to a finishing masterclass from Danny Ings, Watford were choked by fear and wasted another opportunity to haul themselves away from the bottom three.
Southampton were good value for their second consecutive away win, secured thanks to a typically sharp double from Ings and a trademark free-kick from James Ward-Prowse. The anxiety weighed heavily on Watford, who remain a point above Bournemouth in 18th place, and defeat was not a good look given that Nigel Pearson had to drop three players following an alleged lockdown breach involving Nathaniel Chalobah and Domingos Quina reportedly attending a party hosted by Andre Gray.
The last thing a manager in a scrap needs is to find himself dealing with reports of one of his most experienced players apparently breaching social distancing measures by turning party host before a crucial game. It was hardly the best way for Watford to prepare and it came as no surprise to see no place for Gray in the squad, while the striker was joined on the sidelines by Quina and Chalobah, with the club confirming that the trio were omitted to “ensure the health and safety of all players, staff and officials at today’s game”.
A sense of uncertainty hung over Watford and Pearson’s side were tight from the start, defending poorly, moving ponderously and displaying little imagination on the ball. They were too cautious and their inability to handle the pressure played into Southampton’s hands, allowing the visitors to take control of a game that mattered far more to their opponents.
Southampton, enjoying life in mid-table, played with impressive freedom. Ings was in the mood, always showing for the ball, running the channels, threatening when he fed Shane Long for an early chance. Long fired straight at Ben Foster but Southampton were dominant, pressing aggressively before taking a deserved lead in the 17th minute.
Ings only had one thing on his mind when he received a crisp pass from Will Smallbone in a tight area. The striker had plenty to do but he spun sharply, beat Craig Cathcart with a clever piece of footwork and set off for goal before anyone else in yellow had time to react. Craig Dawson could not get across quickly enough and Ings had space to open up his body before using the inside of his right foot to fizz a lovely low shot into the left corner from 20 yards.
It was an expert piece of finishing from one of the best forwards in the league and Southampton could have scored again when Oriol Romeu released Ward-Prowse, only for the midfielder to hook wide. Watford, riddled with anxiety, froze. They were aimless in possession and too reliant on Ismaïla Sarr to provide a spark on the right. Roberto Pereyra offered nothing on the opposite flank and Troy Deeney was easily shackled by Jannik Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek.
Watford, who have earned one point from their first three games back, mustered a brief response after the break. The end product was far from good enough, however, and Southampton regained a sense of calm as the hour approached, with Romeu an effective shield in front of the back four.
Southampton were the slicker side. Watford were in too much of a rush and they played themselves into trouble when Foster, looking to start a quick counter, threw the ball straight to Ings. Bad idea. The forward set off in pursuit of his 21st goal of the season, darted into the area and moved the ball on to his right foot. The end result was predictable and, although Watford gave themselves hope when Bednarek diverted José Holebas’s cross into his own net with 10 minutes left, Southampton sealed the win thanks to a sublime free-kick from Ward-Prowse.