Watford 0 Yeovil Town 3 (30/11/2013) 01/12/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. As you do, I spend Friday night in Bexhill – whose sleepiness is measured by the fact that Hastings residents can be witheringly sarcastic about it without fear of contradiction – watching Napalm Death attempting to destroy a sound system made from ceramic tiles.
There’s something pleasingly symmetrical about this, a last adolescent hurrah in the face of responsible adulthood. No other band could be so appropriate for this moment: Napalm Death were a formative influence on my adolescence, a rebellious left-turn in mine and many others’ lives. Forced upon us by John Peel, they and their ilk – but they more than anyone – were met with initial incredulity and mirth, before the inherent logic of what they were doing and how they were doing it became utterly irresistible. At the point when all any self-respecting teenager wants is righteous noise to call their own, they were the answer to my prayers. They were my Sex Pistols, my Public Enemy. They defined what music could be, should be; they defined what it could and should say. That definition still stands, I think, even if the radicalism they inspired in my eighteen-year-old self has given way to mortgaged middle age and its inevitable compromises.
Like many good ideas, the evening doesn’t quite work in practice: Keith Harrison’s sculpture proves pretty much unshakeable and unbreakable in the face of the aural assault. A few tiles fall and shatter, the rest stands proud even as the volume increases and the bass vibrates our internal organs. And thus, like many good ideas, it gradually turns into something else, almost as fascinating: rather than watching Napalm Death destroy a sound system, we’re watching a sound system destroy Napalm Death. This isn’t music that’s designed to be played at full pelt for an hour and a half; they don’t really go in for acoustic interludes to have a breather. An unstoppable force is meeting an immovable object. After forty-odd songs, the immovable object eventually wins, and our heroes leave the stage, more shattered and broken by their efforts than most of the tiles.
It’s a noble effort, far more noble than anything I have to describe in the remainder of this report. Our days of being an unstoppable force are over, clearly. We are eminently stoppable; it’s becoming our overriding characteristic. It’d be hard to describe Yeovil as an immovable object, but the effect is much the same: there’s only one winner, only one outcome. The script is as predictable as a sub-standard rom-com, join the dots and roll credits. All we need is to play Jennifer Aniston up front and it’d all be complete. (I’m side-stepping a quip about Diego Fabbrini there, just so’s you know.)
2. The scoreline speaks for itself. It does more than speak: it shouts loudly, peremptory and pompous, like Brian Blessed at a dinner party. The game probably speaks for itself as well, and the performance. But they’re quiet and polite, y’see, and you can’t hear them over Brian bloody Blessed, banging the table and murdering a speech from Shakespeare (“NOW is the WIN-TEEERRRR of our DIScontent”) or somesuch. You don’t want to hear him, but he drowns everything out regardless. A great foghorn of opinions you didn’t ask for. You end the evening feeling browbeaten and bored.
Because if you’ve just lost three-nil at home to the team that’s bottom of the table, nothing else matters. You can’t quibble with that. It’s just there, an uninvited guest, refusing to leave. You can’t house-train it, you can’t grow fond of it, you can’t find its good side; it has no redeeming features whatsoever. Whatever else I say, it matters not a jot next to this: if every game is decided by half a dozen or so moments, those moments all belonged to Yeovil. Every single one, at both ends. That’s it, in a nutshell. The scoreline doesn’t lie.
3. You can pick whichever high-expectation season you like as a comparison: Graham Taylor’s last, Vialli’s one, Boothroyd’s post-Premiership shambles. They’re all the same, in essence: teams without confidence gradually disintegrating in the face of bitter, resentful disappointment. It becomes a vicious circle, if you’re not careful…and we’re never careful.
Halfway through the first half, as we’re gradually growing into the game after an understandably nervous start, you reflect that the first goal has rarely been so important. We just need to keep a clean sheet until we can get ourselves that goal…as we will, given time and patience. We’re doing all right, slowly remembering ourselves. There’s a win here; it’s a game that a more confident, assertive, disciplined side would just about edge before moving forward. Maybe a one-nil win, maybe even two or three once that first has gone in. It’s nothing to do with winning while playing badly; it’s making those decisive moments count.
But, of course, we can’t keep that clean sheet, just as those other expectation-laden teams couldn’t: the style of football might be different, but we don’t half resemble that Boothroyd team, every bit of tentative progress undermined by laughable defensive mishaps. A dismal set piece goal here, forgetting to concentrate on the basics in injury time yet again. We can’t avoid the avoidable, it seems. As if to emphasise the point – as if we bloody need it emphasising, Brian – we do it again after the break, conceding cackhandedly after a right-then-deep-breath start during which you briefly, naively, thought that we might not follow the script after all.
Opponents need do no more than stick around and wait for the inevitable. We’re not capable of forty-five minutes without significant error, and we no longer have last season’s firepower to compensate. It’s a pitiful spectacle. Tidy and concise, Yeovil did nothing wrong…and yet they needed to do very little right either.
4. I almost feel ashamed to bring up the positives. It’s like cracking a rude joke at a funeral; I expect disapproving looks. Thing is, much of this was absolutely fine: the air of utter desperation may have made it seem otherwise, but our passing and movement had more purpose and intent than of late, and much more width too. We continue to lack last season’s cutting edge, and we continue to construct rather than create, and we are sometimes guilty of over-elaborating, and the options on the bench are far too limited for such an extravagantly-assembled squad. None of those flaws need be fatal, if we allow ourselves some time, some room to breathe.
There are still goals here. Even with ten minutes to go, you can’t entirely write off the possibility of a comeback: the floodgates are being held together by bits of string, Yeovil’s defence frequently stretched to the point of relying on desperate blocks and plain luck. That’s our fault for giving them a lead to hang onto, clearly; you can’t play with four forwards all of the time either. Nevertheless, the attractive, expansive passing football we relished so recently hasn’t gone altogether, not yet. Amazing what a bit of confidence can do, what difference a couple of decent results can make. As much difference as a couple of bad ones, as we’ve just found out.
Vicarage Road echoes to the sound of irritated middle-aged blokes. It’s like a haemorrhoid support group without any cushions. Sometimes, that irritation is justified, even if it’s never actively helpful. Much of the time, it merely demands something – anything – other than what we have, principally that we have a facking shot, even if there’s no facking shot to have. This will get us nowhere, obviously. It offers nothing constructive at all; it’s football by numbers. Early in the second half, George Thorne intercepts, moves forward and fluffs a through-pass into Troy Deeney, and the ground erupts in indignation. Have a facking shot. From twenty-five yards, with our centre forward making a perfect, inviting run into the penalty area. We’ve lost our minds, it seems.
5. Which means that the manager must keep his. Having passed one managerial test with flying colours, assembling a squad of strangers into a successful team last time out, Gianfranco Zola faces an even stiffer challenge here. His future depends not on what he’s already done, but on what he can yet do; if he’s the right man to turn this around, he needs to start proving it quickly. The injury list is a fault line through everything; the flaws in the squad (for that injury list doesn’t extend to the forward line) are being revealed too. There are things that he can’t control, but that only makes the things he can more vital. Promises to work hard aren’t enough. It needs to be something more tangible than that.
And I wonder, I have to say. I hope I’m wrong, but I wonder. What we’ve had under Zola has been a team full of loose-limbed, low-slung attitude, built on fabulous attacking intent rather than defensive resolve. It’s always had a rather sloppy quality to it; that’s sometimes been part of its charm, sometimes been utterly infuriating. It’s been great fun to watch and support. But it won’t do now, not if – as we evidently are – we’re defining success or failure on a sustained promotion challenge.
For me, you get back to the basics. You resist the temptation to chop and change more than absolutely necessary, you shut out the incessant din of criticism. You pick the best side available and set it up as it’s most accustomed to playing. That’s where real leadership lies: not in change, but in establishing certainty. More than anything, you start with some clean sheets, for we’re going nowhere but downwards if we continue to concede as we have been: stop that goal from a corner in first half injury time and the whole game looks completely different, looks like ours to win. And then you work on your own set plays to get them beyond the stupefying predictability on show here, for some easy goals would be awfully helpful right now. The rest – about which we’re getting so hot and bothered – can pretty much take care of itself.
All around Vicarage Road, muttered comments starting with “if we can’t beat this lot…” attempted to sum up the game. That logic doesn’t hold water, obviously: performances vary, results vary with them. If we can’t beat this lot, let’s beat another lot. Or, at least, let’s start by not letting them beat us. That’d be good enough to be going on with. Over to you, Gianfranco.
Watford 0 Bolton Wanderers 1 (23/11/2013) 24/11/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Unusual to be starting with the “big picture” stuff, normally the domain of thunk 5. Relevant here though., because however dispiriting our recent form has been… things could be worse. No, really. I mean, you know that, right? You remember Bassini? Not being able to afford Keith Scott or a Stevenage-era Barry Hayles in Division One? The financial abyss post-Vialli? This? Whatever’s wrong is small potatoes in comparison. And even if one accepts that there are major problems with the team – we’ll get to that – we have owners with a demonstrably sound plan, and a degree of security. And some very talented players, albeit we’re not seeing the best of them at the moment.
Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of any Watford squad of the past that could have accommodated this sort of injury list as well as we did today. Yes yes, I know, and we’ll get there… but it’s surely beyond dispute that if one considers the players missing by the end of the game, when illness had forced Manuel Almunia’s half-time withdrawal, the absentees could have formed a stronger side than those available. And incidentally, given the signings late this week of Hector Bellerin and Fitz Hall we perhaps shouldn’t be expecting Gabriele Angella, Lloyd Doyley or Ikechi Anya back anytime soon.
We’ve had injury crises in the past of course… there were periods of our 1999/2000 season where you could have made similar statements about the strength of those available versus those missing. We were a top flight club then though, and coped rather less well in those circumstances than we did today, at least until the twenty-seventh minute. We were the brighter side in the opening period; if Bolton had begun to enjoy some possession they’d not threatened, whilst Thorne, McEachran and Acuña had all had half-chances. This wasn’t Brazil 1970 by any stretch… but it wasn’t bad; we’d started smartly enough in difficult circumstances.
2- Which isn’t to suggest that the last hour of the game was anything but sheer bloody purgatory. Quite how much Manuel Almunia’s second expensive slip in two home games owed to the clattering he’d earlier received from Jermaine Beckford, or to the illness that reportedly provoked his withdrawal at the interval we can only speculate. Either way, and more so than against Leicester, it was absolutely pivotal. Whether Bolton are really as limited as they appeared – a considerably less impressive outfit than the side that lost here last season – or whether in sticking rigidly to a successful game plan that always looked a safe bet in the circumstances they simply had no need to showcase what they could do, they came across as a very average side. By gifting them an unearned one-goal lead we had effectively cordoned off a parking bay for their bus in the penalty area and they parked and manned it diligently.
For all that his form has been, generously, variable of late, the loss of Deeney was the greatest challenge in the circumstances. Picking your way through an obstinate and well-organised rearguard has so much greater a chance of success if mixed with a bit of welly, an option that really wasn’t open to us with the personnel available. Acuña showed early willingness and aggression which earned him a yellow card, but again suggested that he too would rather be the creator than the bloke on the end of the cross, and whilst Davide Faraoni was one of our brighter performers in the first half there was too often little to hit with the space he found on the right. Nor was our midfield particularly equipped to pick a lock… in McEachran and Battocchio we had two willing water-carriers; fetchers, bustlers and layers-off but none of the incision that an Abdi, a Murray or perhaps a McGugan might have offered. For all that we had the lion’s share of possession we managed to carve out next to nothing in the way of goalscoring opportunities. It was miserable, futile stuff… almost precisely what a badly-executed passing game looks like, precisely what we’d feared at the start of last season.
3- Which doesn’t excuse some of the idiocy going on in the stands. The low point of this came from an unfamiliar voice behind me who, after first Forestieri and then Pudil had had shots charged down in quick succession implored “when are we going to have a bloody shot?”. On a later occasion successive sideways passes we greeted with wails of “shoot”, and when Battocchio did just that and in doing so failed to find the pinpoint accuracy and power required to test Andy Lonergan from an unsighted position outside the area, he was rewarded with sighs of derision. Here’s the thing, see… if breaking down a packed defence was an easy thing to do, something that was just a matter of mustering the willpower to have a shot irrespective of the number of bodies amassed between you and the goal, opponents would have ceased employing it as a tactic years ago. We weren’t not taking shots out of rejection of the tactic, we were not taking shots because we weren’t engineering, or being permitted to engineer, shots to take. Those cries of “shoot!” actually represented a translation failure between the brain and the vocal chords… instead of “shoot!”, the message was “score!”, which is not quite the same thing and represents even more limited tactical insight.
4- On the bright side, George Thorne looks a bit of a player. Very much in the Chalobah mould, he was physically imposing but comfortable with the ball, bringing it out, finding space and setting the tone like the conductor of an orchestra. During his last season, Adrian Mariappa earned a standing ovation for a Bobby Moore tackle against Leeds…. Thorne executed two of these in the second half, somehow bruising and imperious without making any contact with his opponent at all, an exercise in bullish timing. More to come as he rediscovers sharpness after nine months out, one suspects, and you’re left already wondering whether his loan might be extended. Meanwhile, the return of Nos to the centre of defence was hugely welcome, bringing some of the uncomplicated brutality that our forward play could have done with. He lasted an hour before a positive but fruitless substitution saw Fabbrini enter the fray. Good to see you back, sir.
5- There’s no doubt that, injuries aside and for all that we have greater strength in depth than last season (see 1) there are cogs missing that make the starting eleven, injuries aside, less effective. The loss of Vydra’s pace in particular makes us much easier to defend against; Abdi’s injury and Deeney’s loss of form expose our reliance on key players, something that a relatively clear run with injuries exposed less last year – although which is chicken and which is egg in terms of our injury record and form is perhaps open to debate. Either way, on and off the pitch we resemble a morose teenager who has just been dumped for the first time and is wasting his time moping around and getting all introspective and probably composing awful poetry or something – instead of getting out there and doing something reckless. We need to snap out of it. We need a good slap. And we need a lucky break to turn the tide.
Watford 0 Leicester City 3 (02/11/2013) 03/11/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1a. I wasn’t at that game. I wasn’t there in body…and, in truth, I wasn’t even there in spirit, not fully. It’s quite hard to tune into the frequency of a playoff semi-final, its deafening fever-pitch, when you’re in a tranquil cove at the tip of the Cornish Lizard, waves lapping gently on the shoreline a few yards away. It doesn’t come easily to mind, especially when your only link is a dry, neutral Radio Five commentary. It’s beyond your imagination, another world altogether.
So my memories of that goal are different from yours. They’re of leaping up and down in our cottage, an old lifeboat winch house perched a few yards above the sea, trying not to punch the low ceiling in the process. They’re of hugging Andrea, who’d worked out the bit involving Leicester getting a penalty but was some way behind working out what’d gone on after that point and didn’t yet have a partner capable of explaining it rationally. They’re of seeking out YouTube footage later in the day on a broadband connection made of tin cans and string, watching Troy Deeney jump into the crowd at a rate of a frame every thirty seconds. They’re a curious combination, a double exposure of Vicarage Road in tumult and Church Cove in blissful Sunday afternoon slumber.
I wasn’t at that game, but I don’t regret it, not really. That’s my favourite place in the world; it was the best holiday I’ve ever had. It makes my heart sing just to think of it. The memory is still special. Different, but special.
1b. But it’s time to let go of all of that, isn’t it? It’s time to forget about last season, all of it, good and bad. No point in picking over regrets; equally, nothing to be gained in pining after the days of ruthless counter-attacking and jack-in-the-box surprises. Whether it’s triumphalism over Leicester – who we appear to be playing again, so it evidently didn’t turn out to be that much of a turning point in our respective histories – or frustration at the Wembley anticlimax, it’s no use to us now. It’s all just baggage.
And most of all, it’s time to forget that we promised ourselves the Championship to make up for that disappointment. It wasn’t ours to promise.
2. You could see this coming from several miles – and months – away. Frankly, I’d braced myself for a season’s worth of this back in August. Has there ever been a campaign in the club’s history when the current level of expectation has ended in something other than a train wreck? Certainly not in the Premier League era, when expectation has generally been accompanied by foolhardy over-spending, weighing up the cost of not getting promoted as if it were tangible on the balance sheet, and followed by a grand washing-of-hands by the supporters who demanded it. “Yeah, but we didn’t mean Nathan Ellington.”
We’re not courting ruin this time, at least. We are, however, turning inward on ourselves as before, picking our scapegoats and sharpening the knives. We are preparing for the worst. This could be a very long, very harsh winter.
3. No motivation necessary for a Leicester side which hasn’t needed to change much; not much of a team-talk in the away dressing-room, you wouldn’t imagine, just a belly-full of replays of that goal. We set up the cup-tie atmosphere, but to no-one’s benefit but theirs: we began, as too often, as if we might be afforded time to settle into the game, to find its rhythm and to tinker under the bonnet until the engine purred to our satisfaction. Much of the comment on the Brighton game concentrated its fire on a frustrating second half, but, really, it was the first which should’ve caused more concern: we lack the authority born of conviction and confidence, and slip easily into a kind of vapid sponginess. Brighton weren’t quite good enough to make the most of it; Leicester emphatically were.
What money can buy you at this level is a bunch of six-foot musclemen who’ll guarantee that you won’t get no trouble from no-one, boss. A bit more money, and you might get some who can play a bit into the bargain. It’s a tried-and-tested formula, used to title-winning effect by the likes of Newcastle and Cardiff in recent years. Our formula, on the other hand, is revealing some flaws, most notably that the kind of year-on-year progression which might push us over the line between playoff hopefuls and promotion favourites is hampered by high turnover of players.
We’ve kept many of the loans, it’s true. But partly through key departures and partly through injuries, the spine of the side is notably weaker: no Chalobah, no Abdi, no Vydra, half a Deeney. Would we have been half an hour from promotion last season without them? Doubtful. The replacements have yet to form themselves into anything half as threatening or as potent, and lack the balls to bluff it in the meantime; Leicester looked appropriately unflustered almost throughout. One glance at our bench – a collection of players to politely introduce to a game rather than kick it up the backside – spoke volumes. It’s all a bit too nice.
4. As it happened, one of those politely introduced players did make a substantial impact, for Diego Fabbrini finally gave our opponents a problem to solve. True, he remains a player in need of a haircut and a proper job, and he wanders around with a gait that suggests he’s wearing rollerskates for the first time, but he performed his party tricks in areas previously untouched by our attacking play. Leicester had scored a ruthless, brushed-aside second to put the game beyond reach by then, of course, so please don’t imagine that I’m over-stating our case. We both have near-empty glasses; I’m just trying to top them up a little bit.
After nigh-on an hour of midfield passing with no consistent options in the final third, the Fabbrini substitution gave us that outlet. It gave Josh McEachran – of whom more shortly – the pass he’d been looking for and never finding. And, as at Brighton, it dragged us another ten or so yards up the pitch, into the areas where we can suddenly pick out a pass that splits defenders and make runs in behind. And, again as at Brighton, we’re too bloody sharp in the final third for that kind of pressure not to create chances: three splendid ones here, wasted by Forestieri, Anya and Deeney. The game was gone by then, I know. But the season isn’t. There are ways forward, still.
So, yeah, McEachran. I like him. I like him a lot. He’s not another Chalobah, I grant you, and we continue to miss the wonder kid’s knack of casually swaying around an opponent to unheard cries of “NOT THERE!” before wanging a pass into a space no-one else had seen. We miss that element of inspiration-stroke-chaos. But McEachran lays himself wide open to criticism, particularly based on televised games where the camera follows the ball, by persistently looking for possession when others are hiding from it, by waiting for options if he has to, and by picking a safe pass if nothing else presents itself. If nothing else presents itself – and it didn’t, often – then that’s other people’s bloody fault.
You can build a passing team around a player like that. Give him the options and he’ll find them; he demonstrated that by picking out eye-of-the-needle through-balls to Anya on half a dozen occasions in the second half. He’ll prompt and prod and find the weaknesses, if you can get him beyond the centre circle and get some movement going up ahead. He’ll force the likes of Anya, McGugan and Forestieri into the game rather than leaving them on the margins, and those are the players who’ll win us games.
Or you can bellow “GET ‘IM OFF!” when he misplaces an occasional pass, replace him with someone who’ll hide along with the others, and be the worse for it.
(Yeah, I know, I know. But I love a losing battle….)
5. Anyway, let’s not end on a positive note. The afternoon doesn’t deserve that. We were second best everywhere, well beaten by a much, much stronger and more competitive side. We approached the contest seemingly without any belief that we could win it, and the prophecy was, of course, self-fulfilling.
Wobbly and exposed in defence, caught between over- and under-committing on the flanks, tentative and shy in midfield, frequently non-existent in attack, we were precisely the kind of fragile, edgy, fragmented outfit that we gleefully picked off for much of last season, especially away from home, where the expectant crowd can be used as a weapon against nervous opponents. That Watford would’ve have relished a game against this one, and would’ve made it squirm even more than Leicester did. We’ve grown old, become what we rebelled against. It’s not quite dad dancing, not yet, but it doesn’t burn with any fire or live with any youthful abandon any more.
The freedom has gone. It’s like trying to meditate while someone bellows “RELAX, YOU FACKING IDIOT!” at you through a megaphone. It’s all rather difficult, and the likes of Leicester aren’t going to show any pity. Maybe a long-distance away game, one that’s not on bloody telly, is what we need. We need something. We need it quickly, before it all starts to unravel, before we invite in a crisis all of our own making.
1. Things I’ve learnt in the last two or three days:
a. There’s no sleepless night quite like the sleepless night in a tall house on a big hill next to the sea during a gale. Especially if you’re in the process of replacing the roof and there’s nothing but a layer of felt between you and the raging elements.
b. If you put scaffolding all around your tall house on a big hill next to the sea, the aforementioned gale makes it vibrate like a giant tuning fork.
c. The trees you’d like to blow down are rarely the ones that do. I can do you a poster with that on if you want.
d. The apples borne by our rather ancient apple tree were the last, for it’s now resting its head gently on our lawn.
e. Nobody tells rail passengers anything. It’s only a matter of time before train companies simply hand us pieces of paper with “P.T.O.” written on both sides.
f. Expectations were always likely to drown this Watford squad at some point. That point is right now, that line has been crossed. Time to start swimming, boys…
2. You saw the game, you already know what you think. There are times when writing these pieces requires no more than an attempt to echo the general feeling, to try to capture an essence of what everyone felt. There are other times when, frankly, there’s no point at all if we’re not poking and prodding at some lazy assumptions and half-baked certainties, if we’re not risking pissing people off a little bit. Guess which one this is…
There’s an inevitability to all of this, has been from the moment when that Palace penalty went in at Wembley…but it’s depressing and tedious nevertheless. There’s a bit during the second half when we’re surrounded by blokes bellowing at various players about…well, about what? There’s a lack of specific detail but plenty of fackin’ and cantin’, quite a bit of spittle and sputum. It involves quite a lot of anger management issues, but I bite my lip rather than suggest some kind of therapy group with weak tea and cheap biscuits. I know people who’d have a psychological field day here.
And above all, it involves English football’s solutions to absolutely bloody everything: show some fackin’ passion. Everyone on this island ought to be force-fed Jonathan Wilson’s “The Anatomy of England” with its piercing dissection of our national obsession with effort and commitment and urgency. It changes your landscape, that book. Football is a simple game, perhaps, but mercifully not so simple that the only means of attacking is to get numbers in the fackin’ box for fack’s sake. Halfway through the second half, the ancient chant of “fack ‘em up, get into ‘em” goes up and its disconnection with modern football – hell, with modern life - is so vast that it might as well be a crackly music hall recording played on a wonky gramophone. We’ve got some catching up to do, evidently. I include myself in this: I am unable to look at Diego Fabbrini without telling him to get up, even when he hasn’t yet fallen down.
3. Don’t misunderstand: there are indeed things that aren’t yet quite right with this Watford side. But the memory plays tricks if it isn’t watched carefully: you can instantly conjure up Matej Vydra’s superlative goal in last season’s ruthless drive-by, I imagine. Something of a turning point for the season, that…and in late December, pertinently. We didn’t ever look back. But there was no shortage of flaws in that performance, rough edges and work-in-progress and all of that. For example, we were, again pertinently, persisting with Iketchi Anya as a rather frail, vulnerable wing-back in the face of what appeared to be common sense and better options. These things don’t always work out, of course, but there are times when that kind of persistence pays off several times over. There are times when it’s necessary. A team is never finished, and especially not in October.
The quick-quick in our slow-slow-quick-quick-slow was particularly quick that New Year night. We lack that, obviously, and it got us out of plenty of trouble that we’ve probably forgotten about now. We’re trying to push on from last season, but it isn’t as simple as merely turning it up a notch: opponents are wiser and more cautious, our options are different, the second album is always more difficult than the first. We’re developing a more patient, slower style of play to cope with what we’re expecting to come up against; it isn’t as immediately satisfying and it may not even turn out to be as successful, but the process is necessary.
The bloke behind us has a voice as soothing as someone scratching their name on a piece of glass with a rusty nail, amplified over a faulty PA system to a relentless, ear-splitting scree of sound. He has opinions to match. Among them, towards the end of the second half, is the suggestion that Josh McEachran should show for the fackin’ ball. Josh McEachran has done almost nothing but show for the fackin’ ball, an ever-present option for a give-and-go in a way that immediately moves our work-in-progress on a couple of steps. While Fernando Forestieri is nearly the match-winner, it’s McEachran who points the way forward: unless teams happen to defend as badly as Barnsley, we’re going to be trying to shade games, edge them with a bit of carefully-applied quality. We’re going to have to keep probing away, then make the key moments count.
We should’ve won this, y’know. And contrary to inflated expectations, it would’ve been a very good result.
4. I’m a bit bored of the over-the-line discussion already. Thing is, the introduction of video technology changes that incident from something which is judged by the human eye to something which is judged by computer. As in tennis, it becomes a matter of millimetres, the margin of error reduced to nearly nothing. What looks in isn’t necessarily in: whole of the ball, whole of the line. Seeing a bit of grass between the line and the ball isn’t enough; unreliable testimony, your honour.
In other words, I remain completely unconvinced that technology would necessarily have found in our favour. I remain fairly convinced, however, that I would’ve missed my train. That’s progress for you.
4 1/2. Note, reader, how I’m managing to capture the rather disjointed and puzzling nature of the game with a set of thunks that are similarly disjointed and puzzling. Oh yes.
5. I do have two complaints. Sorry, two fackin’ complaints. Firstly, if we’re working on the basis of shading tight games, we ought to be making more of set pieces than this: Gabriele Angella’s two-goal haul against Bournemouth seems very distant, as does the time when Lewis McGugan made up for his sometimes over-casual midfield play with consistently lethal delivery. We currently give the impression that scoring from corners is a bit working class.
Secondly, there are spells – and moments – when we do drop our attention level. It cost us against Derby, a sloppy and avoidable defeat, sublime goals undermined. It should’ve cost us more dearly here too, really: Brighton were guilty of wasting far more opportunities than we managed to create and Manuel Almunia made the key saves of the game. We can’t afford that. We can’t be as defensively slack as last season’s attack-minded team while not being as free-scoring; that doesn’t work at all. We can’t have spells like first half injury time, when we wandered off the pitch before the game had actually stopped, brains in the dressing room three minutes before our bodies.
6. But we can be a team that’s still growing, still developing. We can afford that. And as fans, we can give that a chance rather than writing it off because QPR have got fifty-seven points, or something, already.
Hell, I’d argue that we should want it. It can be good fun, that. If we’re not careful, this isn’t going to be fun at all.
Watford 2 Derby County 3 (19/10/2013) 20/10/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- I’m in a play in two weeks’ time. A Whodunnit, kinda. I know amdram isn’t for everyone – either watching or participating – but I’m having a whale of a time… the cast learned our lines early, which helped, and now rehearsals are a joy, we’re flying. The characters, so long just names on a script, have come to life.
Ahhhh, so many opportunities for a cheap metaphor – where to start? Well how’s about with the fact that when you rehearse a certain scene again after having concentrated on other things for a while it tends to be a bit… rusty and deliberate. People remembering quite where they were supposed to be standing; vacant, absent expressions as lines are dragged from the recesses of memory. And so it was here, an impression perhaps exacerbated by Gianfranco Zola’s preference for fielding players not involved in recent internationals after a break (albeit this position was enforced in part by a few knocks picked up by those in question). The result is a team who’ve not been playing competitively for at least a fortnight and it looked rusty and sloppy, as if the cast knew the general idea, knew what they were trying to do but couldn’t quite make it click. Unlike the play there’s no mystery to how we ended up losing this one… far too careless with possession, far too many opportunities ceded to a team with enough attacking nous to take advantage.
All of which has to be assessed in the context of a cruel injury situation that deprived us of a number of key players… critically perhaps, our two most dependable outlets in Deeney and Anya and the genius of Abdi who so often creates an outlet where noone else saw one. For a side that scores so many goals we have surprisingly few stock moves… Lewis McGugan’s set pieces perhaps, but there’s certainly no “Ardley dumps the ball far post, Heidar throws himself at it” goals in this team. Coping with those absences in that context was always going to be challenging.
Anya’s absence was exacerbated by Davide Faraoni’s suspension, meaning that Marco Cassetti was restored to a wing-back position having apparently settled into the back three. It didn’t work… Cassetti’s intelligence and masterful delivery are no longer enough to compensate for his limited mobility. Ikechi Anya might have given Craig Forsyth, who had a couple of “rabbit in headlights” moments without Anya’s help, a tougher game,one suspects.
2- The best aspect of this season thus far from our point of view has been the entertainment value. Twelve league games in, plus three in the League Cup… how many have been anything less than gripping? (Even if, admittedly, some of that excitement has been our own doing in situations where you’d prefer dull defensive competence). The opening fifteen minutes or so here were suitably mundane… Derby’s notorious vulnerability at corners was manifest and Essaid Belkalem ghosted in (or as close as a monstrous Algerian can get to “ghosting”) at the far post. He should have scored. Two minutes later and Jamie Ward, half Belkalem’s size and with what looked a tougher heading chance, outjumped his marker to put the Rams ahead from Bryson’s brilliant cross. Another five minutes and Fernando’s levelled it again with a gorgeous dink. Same old, same old. From thereon both sides’ limitations were exposed – both keen on attacking with defending a tedious half-hearted chore performed with the attentiveness with which one might clean out the oven prior to, not your parents or in-laws visiting but perhaps a fleeting visit from an old school mate.
3- In the context of which Derby’s pressing game, in which John Eustace again belied the “his legs have gone” bollocks, always looked like it had potential. Funny how effective a player can look once he’s given a few games. As it was it was Iriney who was caught flat footed just before the break as the visitors capitalized efficiently. This capped a disappointing first half for the Brazilian, who had been perhaps harshly booked for handball early on by referee James Linington when he appeared to control the ball with his chest. Iriney proceeded to exercise no restraint whatsoever for the remainder of the half, not so much pushing his luck as giving it a right good kicking and making a pitch for joining the catalogue of ex-players in bloke-behind-you japery (Danny Shittu one popular option) who might be employed to flatten what’s left of the Main Stand. For every challenge in which Iriney roared in and won the ball there was another where the opponent’s leg came first; perhaps perceiving that he’d unduly penalised the midfielder early on Linington let a couple ride that might normally have earned a second yellow.
Contrast Iriney’s performance with that of Eustace.. all controlled aggression, a driving force. Not that Zola was necessarily wrong to conclude that Eustace’s time on the playing staff was up – a separate discussion. But beyond dispute that his influence hasn’t been replaced, and in particular his on-pitch leadership. In the absence of Deeney, the de facto outfield spokesman for the side, it wasn’t until Almunia confronted the officials at half time that anyone had more than a whinge in the referee’s ear. Eustace, not County’s skipper, was on Linington’s shoulder throughout, although fat lot of help that can have been, admittedly, if the official’s hearing was on the par with the rest of his faculties.
4- The second half was far more positive; Forestieri and Fabbrini never looked like a terribly… varied forward line – even our twists and turns had understudies, gloriously intricate icing but no cake – but such failings as there were were largely not of their own doing. Whilst the strength of the squad is manifest, whether our first eleven is as strong as last year’s is very much open to question; without Vydra’s pace OR Deeney’s presence we’re undoubtedly more limited. Diego and Fernando both put a shift in though, and if Fabbrini in particular still needs to toughen up this was a more robust performance than we’ve been used to.
But ultimately it was the removal of Iriney and the introduction of Murray that heaved the game back in our favour. Impish, mobile, assertive and imaginative, Murray was the injection of life that our midfield sorely needed. McGugan hadn’t been having the best game either so McEachran was fetching and carrying nobody’s water… now, Murray grabbed hold and started to make things happen. We looked confident, suddenly, swinging Derby backwards and forwards. Two last ditch challenges on the edge of the box yielded free kicks, each given too much elevation by McGugan to catcalls from the away end, mindful of his Forest history. Lewis, as we’ve said, has played much better… but it says an awful lot for him that he can be playing badly, shunt two free kicks into the stand, and then pull out something as perfect as the second equaliser. Quality like that in the absence of a performance will win us points, even if it didn’t today.
5- And then… yes, we blew it. Again. I’d been thinking that we looked in control, that we were chasing a win with the point safe when Sammon was allowed to break away but was hesitant on his weaker side and Almunia rescued the situation. Five minutes later, with less time to think at the end of a similar break with it’s foundation in, yes, our sloppiness in possession he made no mistake. Our heads dropped, and for the remainder of the game we misfired as badly as the machine-gunning tannoy.
Gutting and demoralising. Despite which, care should be taken to assess the result in the context of the players missing. Difficult circumstances today, this wasn’t merely a disappointing performance. We need to defend an awful lot better… but that bad defending is less of an issue if you’ve got a target to hit or a winger whose pace and stamina makes an opponent wary of pressing too high up the pitch. Attention will be paid to whatever information we get on the injury list over the next week, then. Things will look an awful lot more positive if the senior cast return before the curtain goes up at Brighton a week Monday.
Watford 1 Wigan Athletic 0 (28/08/2013) 29/09/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. So, anyway, speaking of rude awakenings*…the doorbell went at just before eight o’clock on Saturday morning, and I tumbled out of bed and tumbled down the stairs and fumbled for the front door keys and answered without my glasses on, in my pyjamas and probably with my hair standing on end. I’d expected to be greeted by the postman, thrusting a parcel into my hand and demanding a signature and requiring no more of me in my semi-conscious, barely functioning state.
I wasn’t really expecting a roofer and a barrel-load of scaffolders. It’s difficult at the best of times to maintain an air of authority and dignity when you’re wearing pyjamas; it isn’t really what they’re intended for, and human history would be notably different if it’d been customary to wear them while conducting important affairs of state. When you’re wearing pyjamas and shaking hands with the blurred outline of six-feet of raw scaffolding musclepower, you’re not a man but a mouse.
On the plus side, I don’t usually wear pyjamas. I could’ve been wearing a fluffy dressing gown.
* That’s my introduction. It’s an introduction to a different game and a different report, if I’m being honest, but you can’t turn these things away. Or you can, but only if you want to explain to a bunch of scaffolders that their metaphorical relevance is tenuous, and that’s a long, difficult conversation.
2. And besides, there’s definitely a director’s cut of this game with a different ending somewhere, and that version would fit rather better with our introductory theme. This was nearly – nearly – a rather sobering experience. It was nearly the kind of encounter we’ve been expecting and fearing, in which our attempts at free expression, growing our hair long and running through the long grass and listening to the trees, are subject to a cold hard dose of national service, commanded by a bloke with a loudhailer who looks and sounds an awful lot like Owen Coyle.
In seasons past, even last season, maybe even last month, I suspect that we’d have been picked off here, that we’d have blinked before an extremely disciplined, controlled Wigan side. We came pretty close as it was: the margins are desperately small. There was a delicious moment of uncertainty halfway through the second half when even Gianfranco Zola, usually so bold and so positive when a game is in the balance, appeared unable to choose between the temptation to push forward for a winner and the fear of falling for the temptation of pushing forward for a winner. You could see his dilemma: you almost wanted to pause the video and hold a group discussion, before pressing play and finding out whether we’d done the right thing.
3. Me, I’d have taken the point. You too, quite possibly. Maybe even Gianfranco. That makes it a great win.
Great, above all, because it was so utterly reliant on keeping a clean sheet, something over which Zola’s Watford side has (too) rarely lost sleep until now. But the focus of this incredibly tight, compressed game quickly turned inwards towards the midfield, making every moment in attack and defence vital and potentially pivotal. No room for the slightest error. One lapse and you’ve lost the game without really feeling that you’ve given it your all. A tactical battle rather than a physical one, a contest of nerve.
We aren’t used to winning those, but we’ll need to win plenty of them this season. Few of them, however, will be quite this difficult to chew: Wigan were so composed in defence and the nether regions of midfield, so adept at spoiling our fun, that whole periods went by with barely a whiff of a chance and key players were reduced to contributing only stammering bit-parts. Troy Deeney was a figure in a tactical diagram more than an active participant; Fernando Forestieri was brilliant only in places where his brilliance counted for nothing. Only when we managed to pick out forward runs from the likes of Daniel Pudil, scuffing a vital chance at the keeper early on, and Sean Murray, bright but gradually fading, did we look even slightly dangerous.
As ever, each misplaced pass was greeted with a frustrated shriek from the stands, but genuinely unforced errors were vastly outnumbered by those caused by relentless pressure in midfield and the desire to bypass an almost impenetrable defence. Once again, we had cause to rue the absence of a lack of explosive pace up front, for Wigan’s defensive line was frequently so high it threatened to encroach on our own half. You could’ve fitted three such games onto one pitch.
4. And so we won this, really, not in attack but in defence. We won it by not conceding, by buying ourselves enough time for our quality to count. We won it by concentrating, by doing all of the dirty work; it was a victory for competence, diligence, other stout and sensible things ending in -ence. It was an outstanding ninety minutes for the back three, and especially for Gabrielle Angella and Joel Ekstrand, slamming the door shut every time it threatened to come ajar. That we might have other players capable of challenging for their places, rather than merely other players in reserve, is an extraordinary reflection of the investment being made in us. Able contributions from many others too.
But as I say, the margins are small and allow no complacency. An incorrect offside flag ruling out an early goal, as Wigan get behind Iketchi Anya and square for a close-range finish. (You don’t want to see that version of the game. No fun at all, that one.) A solid double-save from Manuel Almunia in the second half as the visitors begin to take some control, the sparky McManaman tormenting Faraoni and his preposterous haircut. And the one real lapse, Iriney and Doyley playing silly buggers in the penalty area, Lloyd’s wild, if slightly curtailed, swing felling Powell for a penalty that’d be given nine times out of ten, except when you’re saved by an inattentive referee. The official’s performance fell apart completely after that moment, perhaps aware that a jovial manner and “Just For Men” hair wouldn’t count for anything when he was cornered by Owen Coyle in the tunnel. Between this and the penalty winner against Doncaster, we’ve surely seen enough to silence the conspiracy theorists and their tedious, blinkered complaints about decisions not going our way.
5. I love the way we play ‘n’ all. I admire the precision to which we aspire. But if there’s a key element to the winning goal, it’s the little bit of chance introduced by the deflection on Faraoni’s cross, the moment when the ball can go anywhere. A bit of good old-fashioned sticking it in the mixer, if you like; a bit of clouting it clumsily at the first defender, if you’re being less generous. Whatever, that’s the unexpected, and we’d lacked the unexpected. That’s the moment when the entire Wigan defence is caught off-balance for the very first time, when there are suddenly some yellow shirts in space on the edge of the box…and we know what the result of that invariably is.
We were impressively patient and cautious here. We had our luck, no doubt, and that deflection was the last piece of it. But we refused to let Wigan tempt us into indiscretions, refused to be drawn out. We weren’t ourselves, in many ways.
When Zola speaks of maturity, he’s quite right. A difficult game to win. A very easy game to lose.
Watford 2 Norwich City 3 (AET) (24/09/2013) 25/09/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- There was a time not so very long ago when watching Watford wasn’t a lot of fun. Whilst odd games will always test the patience, that hasn’t been the case for a number of years. This season, as for so much of last, every game is an intrigue; such is the talent and exuberance in our squad that even the relatively mundane encounters are to be cherished. Here was another that swept along in moods like I imagine classical music might. Rolling drums and anticipation at the start of the first half, a thunderclap segueing into a calmer, gentler mood piece as the first half closed. Strings and flamboyant melodies for much of the second and then a sickening, stunning crescendo as the game closed. All in all, a spectacle. At respectably affordable League Cup prices, no one will have left feeling short changed.
The opening was all anticipation, and the drumrolls were provided by the immediate pressure that Norwich put on us a long way up the pitch. We’ve played City a million times before, this tie had none of the lustre of a Manchester United or a Liverpool… nonetheless, this is a competent top-flight City side, and to see them adopting such an archetypal Championship approach – pressure, pressure, pressure, but with better-than-Championship players – was ominous. We exhibited a determination to retain possession and play out from the back but whilst this issued a clear “we’re not scared of you” statement to City it was nonetheless precarious. The back three of Cassetti, Belkalem and particularly Ekstrand were tremendous throughout the 90 minutes but our determination to play through City saw us giving the ball away, perversely, far too often. Throughout all this, debutant Josh McEachran was a force for good; tidy, efficient and most of all decisive in possession, he slotted in very well indeed before departing with a back strain towards the end of the half – a worrying injury for a young player.
The drumrolls ceased suddenly after our goal, of which more below. City seemed cowed by it, although perhaps sitting back was a deliberate strategy aimed at bringing us out and providing space for their deft wide players, who provided all of their threat. For all that they’d started the game on top, Jonathan Bond, like Bunn in the City goal, had had precious little to do. Anyhow, if it was a deliberate strategy it didn’t work; it gave us a foothold, allowed us to start playing, and set the tone for the second half.
2- Digressing briefly, I can’t help but feel that extra points should be awarded for any goal that justifies the use of the word WALLOP in text message dispatches to those AWOL elsewhere. The first three goals of the game all fall into this category. Javier Acuña had only very recently escaped censure for an utterly unrestrained attempt to win the ball by torpedoing in on a City wide player in the manner of Belkalem against Charlton, missing his target (fortunately) and flying into touch, as if he were a Subbuteo player flicked by an amateur high on power and low on precision. Minutes later he used his strength to better effect, turning Bennett with his backside Mark Hughes style and belting the ball through two defenders and past Bunn who was simultaneously close to it and nowhere near stopping it. In the second half Davide Faraoni, in comfortably his most impressive outing to date, went one better, seizing on a slack cross-field ball, advancing to about 25 yards out and spanking it top corner. Hugely encouraging that whilst, as Zola acknowledges and everyone recognises, it hasn’t quite clicked yet, we’ve still managed 26 goals in 11 games. Heaven help everyone else when we get it right.
3- We grasped the space that Norwich had decided to afford us and tore into it in the second half. As so often we were vastly more impressive after the break; on other occasions you might have attributed this to opponents’ legs tiring, a side set up to disrupt and obstruct running out of steam. That hadn’t been the story of the first half though, this wasn’t a reflection of Norwich running out of energy, just a turn in the tide of the game that kept on turning. Diego Fabbrini’s effectiveness has been in question in games where snappier passing has been required to unlock an obdurate opponent, but here with City never playing that kind of game and ultimately needing to commit forwards in the second half he was irrepressible, flowing around challenges with the ball apparently fixed to his boot by an obstinate piece of discarded chewing gum. The slimline, revitalised Sean Murray was on the front foot too… occasionally guilty of surrendering cheap possession, he was nonetheless perpetually in search of the ball and displayed Anya-like stamina, covering every inch for 120 minutes. For much of the second half City looked beaten… heads dropped, sub Johan Elmander’s pathetic attempt to recover a misplaced throughball under the attention of the fabulous Ekstrand screamed “sod this for a game of soldiers”. We rattled out of defence irresistibly, flamboyantly on the counter-attack, olés ringing around Vicarage Road. All that was missing was another goal…
4- Several factors lead to the game turning again. The need for Norwich to assert themselves was one, the introduction of Leroy Fer who grabbed the midfield, gave it a good kicking and then sent it trundling in his preferred direction another. City’s first goal from impressive debutant Murphy was out of nowhere, although seemed close enough to somewhere for Jonathan Bond to have done rather more than watch it whistle past. Bond made a couple of extravagant stops but was also visibly chastised by captain Cassetti on more than one occasion for not commanding his box, a stark contrast to our senior keeper. He will have better nights.
Ultimately, it was about concentration. Credit to City who kept plugging and had the quality in the delivery and the finish to level the game with the last touch of the ninety-plus…. but whilst they’d been applying pressure we weren’t under the cosh. It wasn’t a case of a bough that was always going to break… with five minutes of injury time rolling away all it took was one player – presumably Pudil – to subconsciously slip into thinking that the game was won, and not close down his man.
From that point, whilst it’s not quite true that we were clinging on for penalties – we had chances in extra time – we were certainly on the back foot with City dominant for the first time in the game. We suffered perhaps through the injuries to McEachran and Acuña necessitating earlier subs than might have been ideal; as early as the start of extra time Cristian Battocchio, at 21 the veteran of a very young central midfield, was struggling with cramp and immobile. City knocked hard at the door, and eventually, inevitably, burst through. The game ended with frustrated fisticuffs in the box at the Rookery end, an episode from which the officials, exemplary all night (although City fans clearly had an opinion on the linesman at their end) emerged particularly well. The game wasn’t lost in extra time, it was lost in the dying seconds of the 90. It was no longer a fair fight.
5- But ultimately, not a bad night for Watford and plenty of cause for optimism. Not only did we give a Premier League side a good game, not only did we come very close to beating them but we would have beaten them by outplaying them… not destructively and based on blood and guts alone, although there’s plenty of joy in that manner of victory, but by beating them at what ought to have been their own game. With Wigan to come on Saturday, we are able to cushion the impact of extra time by reintroducing Almunia, Doyley, Angella, Anya, McGugan, Iriney, none of whom featured this evening; realistically, only two or perhaps three of those who lasted the duration ( a wingback, a defender, perhaps a midfielder) will be in the starting line-up on Saturday. Rather a better preparation than being stuff 5-0 in Manchester. Yes, it’s frustrating to lose in these circumstances. But as frustration goes, we’ve known far worse. Yoooorns.
Watford 2 Doncaster Rovers 1 (17/09/2013) 18/09/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. A brave and possibly telling team selection in the continuing search for a balance within our selected eleven. That the squad has breadth is undeniable, but we’ve yet to find genuine depth: it currently resembles that drawer in the kitchen which contains an impenetrable tangle of whisks, spatulas, ladles and wooden spoons but never, never ever, has a pair of bloody scissors in it. We’ll work it out; we worked it out last season, and there’s no reason to believe that we won’t do so again. But we might have to empty it all out onto the kitchen floor to see what we’ve really got.
In the meantime, you could see the sense here. While certain players – this is your bit, Mr Fabbrini – have an illustrious, high class elegance about them, they’ve struggled to impose their authority, like an Etonian head-boy sent to a young offenders’ institution by an administrative error. (“Please help me. There’s been a terrible, terrible mistake.”) This is not their world, not yet. And so this line-up, very much less flamboyant and more functional than the last, perhaps represented an attempt to tool up, to slip a knife down our sock in the canteen at lunchtime. Were he still around the place, it’d very much be a job for Jonathan Hogg.
2. You could see the sense, but the practice didn’t entirely follow the theory: Bournemouth weren’t available on this occasion, but Doncaster did an ample job of filling their boots, and doing most things right before mercifully missing their chances. It didn’t take very long at all for this to become a game to be got out of the way, destined for a thorough post-mortem, fuel for the work-in-progress. We were perhaps less cavalier, but still rather vulnerable to a burst through midfield, still very capable of falling asleep at a set piece, still testing our luck as we went along. It held, as it generally has.
3. Where we continue to fail, rather too obviously, is in making our possession count for anything much. We’re caught between simple ball retention, knocking it around without much purpose, and trying to penetrate opponents who’ve been afforded the time to get themselves in order. Occasionally, we stumble on what might be a way out of the cul-de-sac: here, Gabriele Angella launched a sublime, far-reaching pass to find an advancing Anya, cutting through the banks of four in an instant. But, inevitably, that simply led to repeated attempts at the same thing with diminishing results, and it wasn’t long before Angella’s missiles harked back to Jay Demerit trying to fulfil childhood dreams of being a quarterback in the Boothroyd years.
Doncaster policed us well, without being unnecessarily negative. We can be troubled, and at least for now the brief for visiting sides is to do that, to engage with the game, rather than simply to stifle us. Connor Smith, one of those unfashionable midfielders who’ll be a player if he can perservere through the long months of getting it a bit wrong and being shouted at, probably learnt as much in his eighty-odd minutes as he would in eighty-odd years on the training ground. Christian Battocchio continues to be a neat, useful player without a hint of the devilment or malice that might make him into a great one. Lewis McGugan comes and goes, sometimes taking the game with him and sometimes not. Javier Acuna does not look full of goals. Troy Deeney does, but he can’t quite force them out.
It’s all a bit slow and a bit polite, a bit blandly cosmopolitan. If it were a restaurant, it’d be Ask. There’s a moment just after we score our opener when we catch a gust of something spicy, snapping into some midfield challenges, rudely pinning Doncaster back and appearing to enjoy ourselves for the first time, but then we concede a daft goal from an Almunia error and it all evaporates into the autumn mist. We’re not awful, no. We’re just rather predictable. As if to illustrate the point, Almunia scuffs a poor clearance into the heart of midfield and unwittingly opens up the chance, albeit squandered, for a quicker break. Those are the occasionally silly risks that Nathaniel Chalobah used to take, the bits where we’d attack the game from an angle nobody had thought of before and the opposition hadn’t rigorously planned against.
4. As soon as Fernando Forestieri bounds onto the pitch like a puppy set free in the park, we’re no longer missing what we were missing. That we were still missing it on Saturday when Forestieri was on the pitch is, I imagine, the kind of thing which turns managers from normal people into Ian Holloway.
“EASY PASS!” comes a bellowed request from somewhere behind as yer man tries something elaborate which doesn’t come off. That misses the point entirely: there’s no fun in inviting Fernando round to play if he’s not going to bring his box of tricks with him, if you’re just going to sit and watch telly. It’s for others to do the easy things, to get the ball moving briskly; the whole purpose of that stuff is to get us into positions where the likes of Forestieri – yes, and Fabbrini – can try to beat people, work space, twist and turn, get a shot away, everything that doesn’t constitute an easy pass. Do that enough and the percentages are in our favour: they’re brilliant enough, imaginative and skilful enough, to turn a game for us.
It nearly wasn’t enough…but for twenty minutes, Doncaster were only just hanging on. A sudden deluge of chances follows Forestieri’s arrival and, notably, also stems from Daniel Pudil’s repeated involvement in the final third, a real force when freed of defensive responsibility. We miss those chances more than they’re denied by opponents, but we recover some of our joie de vivre, losing ourselves in the attacking surge rather than over-thinking everything in the centre circle. It’s fun.
And then, just as it appears that we haven’t made it count, Sean Murray – yeah, him – declines one of those easy passes in favour of taking a couple of people on. That final playing of the percentages, coupled with a bit of a funny turn from the officials, is all we need. And you know what, Mr Dickov? If he’d given a free kick instead, we’ve got Lewis McGugan to stick that in the top corner anyway. Jog on, sunshine. Jog on.
5. The problem is not in the final third, not to my eyes. It wasn’t on Saturday, it wasn’t here either. We’re all kinds of dangerous in the final third; not yet as many ways as last season, granted, but plenty nevertheless. It’s that midfield we need to get right, somehow.
And besides, there are games you just have to win. Three points, move on. We’re in danger of setting the standards for this campaign based on last season’s highlights video, particularly the footage of Battocchio’s wonder goal against Huddersfield. But these are new and different battles; in many ways, they’re tougher battles. That goal was scored at three-nil up, game already won. We still have that goal in us, unquestionably. It’s the goals which win games that are proving harder to find.
Patience, patience. Sixth after seven games is just fine for a team still in transition. Just fine.
Watford 1 Charlton Athletic 1 (14/09/2013) 15/09/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- We commented on the way to the ground that, in the wake of the peculiar Blackpool defeat we could probably have done without the international break. It’s almost a cliché now of course, a stock line offered up by every player or manager of a beaten club prior to the two week hiatus… but with good reason. We played some great stuff against Blackpool by all accounts, didn’t make it count and left it possible for the second half to play out the way it did. Given the outcome, a quick turnaround and a struggling opponent on whom to take out the frustration would have been welcome.
Odd then, notwithstanding the injury to Abdi that forced some kind of decision, that Gianfranco opted to change formation at this stage. Admittedly it’s not really clicked yet, and it’s to the manager’s credit that he’s willing to try things, to experiment with options rather than clinging doggedly to his preferred approach. Heaven knows his open-mindedness with formations paid rich dividends last season as we switched to 3-5-2. Here, however, with Forestieri and Fabbrini, two similar players in many ways, played just off Deeney in a sort of 3-4-2-1 formation. Our opening felt… overly deliberate. Careful. As if the change in formation gave us another format to feel our way into… when what we actually needed was a bit of bloody mindedness, a waved fist on the back of the Blackpool setback.
2- And the last thing that this Watford team needs right now is any slowing down. Charlton were unremarkable but diligent and hardworking… and industry alone is getting opponents rather too far down the line at the moment. The loss of Vydra’s pace has been significant and the benching of Anya after his star turn for Scotland in midweek hardly helped in that respect… but it’s more than that. The passing is not nearly fast or sharp enough, and without that pacy outlet on the break either we’re playing all of our football in front of two banks of four, patiently passing around at keeping possession, but giving ourselves an awful lot to do whilst looking susceptible on the break. All far too easy to play against.
Chief culprit here was Fabbrini, whose grace, control and awareness can be absolutely unplayable against a backpedalling opponent but whose aggravating insistence on taking a touch, stepping sideways across a challenge and most of all just holding onto the ball for too long was the very heart of the problem. Zola has had a similar conundrum in the Forestieri of early last season of course, but there’s another challenge here for the manager. Certainly Javier Acuña, a different type of striker admittedly but one prepared to work rather harder for his team, is pressing for inclusion from the start after a cameo here that refreshed our play with, frankly, a bit of welly.
3- The second half got off to a shocking start of course… someone lost his man and Belkalem threw himself across like a missile, cleaning out the attacker. Much of Belkalem’s encouraging League debut was similarly wholehearted… but Cassetti is a cause for concern again. Digressing slightly, Cassetti is undoubtedly the best footballer in the backline of a side in which being comfortable in possession is a prerequisite… but there’s a big part of me who fancies that we might be a bit better off with one or two more functional cogs. A striker who just puts the ball in the net, a midfielder who just kicks people, a defender who just defends…
We responded to the penalty well enough; quicker and slicker certainly but also more willing to hit Deeney with long diagonal balls and play off him, and approach which paid dividends rapidly as the Addicks backline struggled to handle him. Anya’s introduction gave us an extra dimension and his flaying of Pritchard was the game’s highlight, culminating in a clipped pass to Deeney that the big striker, for all that this was his best outing for a while, should have done better with. We ended the game on top, frustrated at the referee’s decision to blow up as we had controlled possession in the Addicks’ penalty area but having taken so long about so much of our attacking play for much of the game we were hardly in a position to complain.
4- And for all the whinging up to this point, there remain plenty of reasons to be cheerful. It’s not a brand new thing, but it’s splendid to hear the subs bench announced and to think “wow, I wish he was playing”. To each name. Encouraging also that, as ig and I grumbled about the limited number of obvious leaders in the side, Gabriele Angella seized the initiative by surging forward down an inviting right flank – Belkalem had done the same earlier, but more by following his nose than by making a statement which kinda said “this shit ends now”, as in the Italian’s case. Noticeable too, that as the Watford players bundled after Daniel Pudil to celebrate his goal it was Angella who forewent the exercise to retrieve the ball from the back of the net. Angella’s early displays suggested that we had somehow acquired a blend of the best bits of Rio Ferdinand (calm and confident in possession) and John Terry (brutal in the air) without any of the obnoxious irritating bits that you want to punch. Yesterday was another strong showing from the Italian.
Most of all, of course, the improvement in the second half which again evidenced both the management’s willingness and ability to change the course of a game and our players’ ability to respond to it. There are good things here which shouldn’t be taken for granted.
5- Having said which… we kinda need a win. The League Cup has disguised the fact that we’ve not registered three points in the league for over a month, and after two good wins and two kind of OK draws, the last two results don’t suggest an upward trajectory. To be expected at this time of the season, playing with this set-up… a new swathe of players coming in (every?) summer will inevitably need time to settle in. But Tuesday night suddenly feels rather more significant than Tuesday night at home to Doncaster felt when the fixture list first came out.
Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 0 (28/09/2013) 29/08/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. On close inspection, it turns out that the feeling I haven’t quite been able to pin down throughout the day is one of anticipation. That’s not right on all kinds of levels: whatever the division, the early rounds of the League Cup have always been a reliable touchstone, as everyday as puddles and socks and farts and equally unlikely to inspire anticipation. And yet, here we are. Anticipation. That’ll teach me.
Thing is, it’s not merely that recent games have been terrifically entertaining. They’ve been that, but they’ve had a chess-like fascination too: the need to stop us from playing in key areas is now a given, the ability to do so is very much up for discussion. The result is an engrossing cut and thrust, contests in which attempts at controlling us have met with varying degrees of success, our attempts at slipping free likewise. Contests which have ended without really feeling as if they’ve been settled.
And so the prospect of a second game against the same opponents in such a short space of time is unusually appealing, somewhat intriguing. Bournemouth took a kicking in the latter stages of the league game, but their approach was pretty successful until then, and they might well have squeaked out a lead to defend with more decisive finishing. No need to dig out Plan B just yet. As for us, even with a second-string line-up, there’s enough here to expect some artistry and adventure….
2. We don’t get much artistry and adventure, in truth. We don’t really get that cut-and-thrust contest either, in any comprehensible sense. Instead, we discover that we accidentally recorded whatever was on the other side: the end of a documentary about hippos and some adverts for shoes and holidays and washing powder and a bit of a new sit-com with that bloke with the beard from that panel show and then ten minutes of the test-card. It’s not simply that the scoreline doesn’t accurately reflect the game. Rather, it doesn’t seem to belong to it at all. Someone stuck a label saying “TWO-NIL WATFORD WIN” on it, but they’ll spot the mistake when we take it to the counter to pay.
There were momentary flashes, of course. You don’t put Fernando Forestieri on a pitch without momentary flashes, and his acrobatic cross-field pass to launch a first half attack was worth the effort alone. Early on, this was a tidy, patient game between two tidy, patient teams, but there was never any question which side was the more potent. We began to throw a few live rounds into the training exercise; we scored an elegantly worked, if comically finished, goal; we waited for the fun to start.
2b. Why do players only “put through” their own net, by the way? Why don’t they put through the opposition net too? Why’s that, then? There you go, I can do quizzes too.
3. To make a mistake once is forgivable. Twice, blah blah blah. We took the lead against Bournemouth in the league too, then squandered it by bunking off to the pub when there was hard work still to be done. Much the same here, really. That we weren’t level or worse by half-time had precious little to do with us, beyond one fine Jonathan Bond save to divert a low free kick onto the inside of the post. It had rather more to do with the visitors’ lack of conviction in front of goal, the one thing which stands between them and being a very decent outfit indeed.
It’d be easy to fall into the trap of putting the result down to a certain amount of quality at vital moments. As if to sell that con, we scored the most exquisite counter-attacking second: Acuna’s ripe peach of a through-ball, Battocchio’s dainty chip back-spinning its way in off the underside of the bar, game over. But we produced little else of note, our midfield disappearing into cloudy nothingness with two in-and-in strikers, playing in holes but not in a good way. We didn’t do much to soothe worries about losing Troy Deeney, to be frank; all perfectly pleasant, but not a lot of goals here, not a lot that actually threatened the penalty area. I’d be interested to know how many times we were caught offside; my guess is not more than a couple, which perhaps reflects where our forward line wasn’t playing.
4. Meanwhile our goal led a charmed life at the other end, Bond again outstanding and again grateful for the absence of a confident striker as a succession of chances came and went. We know all about Joel Ekstrand, but his positioning between Reece Brown and Essaid Belkalem led to some awkward moments, none more than when MacDonald was allowed to wander onto an uncharacteristically direct through-ball and was prevented from equalising only by Bond’s athleticism. As clean sheets go, this one had rather a lot of suspicious-looking stains on it.
When people say “we’ll play worse than that and win”, they mean this one. Walking away from the ground amid the contented chatter of victorious fans, you couldn’t help but chuckle at the fickleness of it all: we were a post’s width away from this being a bit of a fiasco, from that contented chatter becoming angry inquest. On another day, on Bournemouth’s day, our two moments of quality wouldn’t have been enough. I hope they have that day, I have to say. They must be sick of the bloody sight of us.
5. As unsatisfying as it was, the evening demonstrates the value of the cup, and the gradual transformation of this particular tournament from an inconsequential distraction to something useful and interesting in its own right. With a squad large enough to produce a reserve team of real substance, and with a number of players either settling in or pressing a case for a step-up, this isn’t a waste of anyone’s time. These players need football; we’ll be calling on them at some point between now and May, and we’ll hope for something more substantial than this.
Beyond that, a bit of a cup run would do us no harm at all. And it’d be jolly good fun.