Quique Sanchez Flores shook his head in disbelief, dismayed at how Watford allowed Southampton to wriggle free. Southampton scored two goals in four second-half minutes to complete an unlikely turnaround and condemn Watford to a third league defeat in four matches and heighten pressure on Flores. Just as Southampton seemed resigned to plunging to the bottom of the Premier League at Watford’s expense Danny Ings struck a lifeline before James Ward-Prowse bent a peach of a free-kick into the top corner.
For long Southampton had struggled to get to grips with this occasion. Watford’s £30m record signing, Ismaila Sarr, finished with aplomb to give the visitors a deserved lead. But back came the hosts, who survived six minutes of second-half stoppage time, during which Andre Gray volleyed narrowly wide, to earn a first home win in the league since April.
The magnitude of this match was not lost on either manager. The apprehension from the stands seemed to transmit to the players but, whereas Watford overcame the early jitters, Southampton wilted and not for the first time. More than a month has passed since Leicester helped themselves to nine goals here and by the time Sarr lashed home into the roof of the net things had taken a familiar turn.
The opening six minutes set the tone from a Southampton perspective; Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s sloppy pass sent a ripple of anxiety through St Mary’s before the goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy, overcooked a simple ball out to Cédric Soares, gifting Watford a throw-in high up the pitch.
If Southampton’s confidence was brittle, then it was shattered when Watford opened the scoring. Étienne Capoue played a wonderful first-time ball from a throw into the right channel for Sarr to gallop on to and the forward, having comfortably eluded Jack Stephens, kept his cool to fire in his first league goal.
Abdoulaye Doucouré helped the visitors make strides in key areas and Sarr almost doubled Watford’s advantage after peeling away from Ryan Bertrand at a free-kick. Will Hughes flighted a wonderful cross in from the left and Sarr powered a volley at goal, forcing McCarthy into a smart save.
Next week marks a year since Hasenhüttl replaced Mark Hughes as Southampton manager but they appear to have the same old problems. They were tentative in possession and repeatedly retreated towards their own goal in a desperate first half.
They did go close when Ward-Prowse showed some invention, with his cute flick from Soares’s cross rolling narrowly past Ben Foster’s right post but, if anything, Watford should have cemented their advantage. Will Hughes freed Gerard Deulofeu down the right and his subsequent cross flashed across goal, with McCarthy slapping the ball to safety with his left hand.
Hasenhüttl resisted changes at the interval but introduced Sofiane Boufal and Shane Long soon afterwards, with both providing some much-needed vim. Long scored inside eight seconds in this fixture last season and almost made an instant impact off the bench, heading wide from a Ward-Prowse corner.
Up the other end Sarr took matters into his own hands, again brushing off Stephens before darting inside Ward-Prowse and blasting wide. Hasenhüttl’s substitutes undoubtedly woke Southampton, with Boufal and Long neatly combining inside the box, only for Foster to push a sweeping effort on to the crossbar.
Watford, though, were playing with fire and eventually came unstuck. Moments after Craig Cathcart made a magnificent goal-line intervention to prevent Long from levelling after Ings’ hooked Ward-Prowse’s cross into the six-yard box, Southampton did find an equaliser. Moussa Djenepo sashayed beyond José Holebas before sliding the ball into the front post, allowing Ings to do the rest. Suddenly Southampton were in the ascendancy and, when they won a free-kick on the edge of the area, Ward-Prowse dispatched the winner.