Watford 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (05/03/2013) 06/03/2013Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. We all needed this, I think. Individually, in all kinds of different ways, and collectively too. Ninety minutes of nonsensical technicolour bedlam…and every successful season ought to have its fair share of nonsensical technicolour bedlam. (I’d typed ‘promotion season’ in the preceding sentence, then I thought better of it. But tempting fate seems a bit irrelevant in the current circumstances: it feels as if we’ve spent most of the season tempting fate, then dancing away from it while chuckling to ourselves…)
Anyway, somewhere amid the slightly hysterical reaction to the Wolves result was the unmistakable sense of having something to lose, a feeling that this was suddenly an opportunity too good to waste with careless finishing, lapses in concentration, and wafty nether regions. A bit of a wake-up call, if you like. A bit of a millstone round our necks, if you don’t like. Suddenly, up to second and down to business and all that, we ought to be taking it rather more seriously and responsibly…which is exactly what I’ve been banging on about for the last few months, attempting to chuck a well-aimed board rubber at the cocky kids at the back of the class, because sometimes we ought to be listening to the lesson rather than sniggering and passing notes. I’m talking about you, Mr Chalobah. YES, YOU, MR CHALOBAH.
But it doesn’t feel quite right, does it? As with many things about this season, it’s all upside down: the received wisdom might be that this is the time for knuckling down, tightening up and so forth, but I find it hard to think (it is half past midnight, so please make allowances) of a single way in which received wisdom has been proved correct by the events of this extraordinary season. Much as we might’ve fluctuated between inspiring and infuriating, often within the same match, we’ve got to second by being ourselves, first and foremost. Back in August, after the summer upheaval, we didn’t even know what “being ourselves” meant any more, but we’ve established a remarkably strong identity since then, we’ve pulled together a tight, progressive and rather splendid little football club around this brilliant, patchwork squad.
In short, we’ve got to second by playing with freedom. By following our attacking instincts even when coaching manuals, common sense and British fair play say we ought to back down. By honouring a commitment to passing football even when it gets us into trouble (NOT THERE, FERNANDO). Especially when it gets us into trouble (NOT THERE, FERNANDO). By scoring goals and making mistakes and having fun and not losing too much sleep when it doesn’t work out. This is the least constrained Watford side any of us have ever seen…and there’s no sense in fetching the harness and whip now. If we’re going to do this, it won’t be by heaping pressure on ourselves or by bowing to convention. Let’s face it: the best possible outcome of the season is one hell of a peak; the worst possible outcome ain’t much of a trough….
2. That was all one thunk, apparently. If that was one, then this is one too. Post-modernism! Yeah!
3. So, the second half was joyous and redemptive…and it was celebrated in a way that Vicarage Road hasn’t celebrated for a long old time. Players and fans alike, we seemed to find something we’d lost. We need to cling onto it; if we do, we’ll be absolutely fine, come what may.
It was an extraordinary forty-five minutes, really. Extraordinary and implausible, because any normal Watford side would’ve allowed itself to be overwhelmed by the significance of it all, to lose sight of the simple things and to start doing complicated things badly, to play into the hands of resolute opponents at every turn. We’ve seen it all before: you’ve sat and watched the disintegration often enough that I barely need to describe it. You can hear the howls of frustration as someone misplaces a pass all too clearly. Sort it out.
Instead, we seemed to stop over-thinking it all. Even as we were supposedly closing the game out – the very phrase seems absurd – there were moments when we’d be caught with our entire midfield excitedly gamboling around in the opposition half, chasing dreams rather than merely a third goal. There was one absurd passage in which Fernando Forestieri over-elaborated in a perilous position near the halfway line (NOT THERE, FERNANDO) and lost possession to set off a Wednesday break…and then, as if to demonstrate how thoroughly he rejected the lesson, did exactly the same thing all over again on the edge of our penalty area within a minute. And then got booked for doing the same thing again and fouling his escaping opponent, rugby-tackling him to the ground like a have-a-go hero apprehending a handbag thief.
And you know what? I’m finally coming to love all of that, to see it for what it is. Because that carefree exuberance, much as it’s the stuff of palpitations and frustrations, isn’t something to grow out of. That carefree exuberance is, I suggest, what won us this game when we were doing a pretty good job of losing it; it’s what allowed us to shake off the first half when lesser teams would’ve been dragged under by it. It’s only part of what makes this team special…but it’s a vital part, and we’re a shadow of our true selves without it.
4. To prove the point, our attempts at a much more familiar game floundered in the first half. You could see the sense in it: hit the front men early to catch Wednesday before they’d had a chance to set themselves. Less precision, more surprise. But the reality was very different, usually resulting in a misplaced pass losing possession before we’d had a chance to set ourselves. This Watford side is pretty much incapable of going forty-five minutes without conjuring up something of substance, and Matej Vydra scuffed the best chance of the game wide, but we spent most of the time playing to none of our strengths while covering none of our weaknesses.
Let’s acknowledge that we were extremely fortunate to get away with it. Our second half performance might’ve been many things, but it would’ve needed to be an awful lot more if we’d gone in two or three goals down…and we would’ve had little argument if that’d been the case. Even beyond a goal that seemed to belong on a pinball table, that moment when you get your flippers in a tangle and the ball dribbles pathetically away from your reach before you can react, we were an awful mess at the back: no command from the (young) keeper, despite a string of fine saves; no command from the back three either, badly missing the due diligence of Lloyd Doyley. Wednesday looked competent, strong and focused; we were all over the place. We got lucky.
5. It’s not merely the absence of particular players: Nathaniel Chalobah, Lloyd Doyley, Fernando Forestieri, Manuel Almunia. It’s the absence of the balance struck by this side at its best. And that’s a balance between hard graft and that carefree exuberance, for you’d miss Troy Deeney every bit as much as we missed Chalobah. It’s a balance between necessary caution and those attacking instincts. Between over-playing and under-playing. Between patience and impatience. Between extravagance and ruthlessness. Between how good we could be and how bad we can be.
At its best, this side is very different from the well-honed unit that’s been the Championship’s holy grail for many a long year. It isn’t a “unit” at all. It has all kinds of distinct personalities, none of them compromised. The team brings out the best in its parts as much as vice versa. It’s a bizarre menagerie, but it seems to work…and it’s an awful lot of fun to watch. We just need to be ourselves, that’s all.