Watford 1 Blackpool 2 (09/03/2013) 10/03/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- What an odd afternoon… and what an improbable outcome on the basis of the first half. We had been far from rampant and Blackpool had threatened, particularly late in the half, with the irrepressible Ince Jr an evident threat… but our side, weakened by significant and largely enforced absences, was being given a far easier ride than we had any right to expect.
There’s a formula that has emerged over recent weeks and months, a Way To Play to give yourself a puncher’s chance against Watford. It involves chasing down all over the pitch, defending deep and then breaking and trusting to luck. It’s not foolproof; Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich both tried it and lost anyway, but others have profited. Blackpool ignored this strategy altogether, opting instead to stand off us in midfield and operate a precarious high defensive line that appeared to be patched together with sellotape and dried-up bits of used blu-tac. It made no sense whatsoever, neither limiting our greatest threats – the use of the ball in midfield, pace on the break – nor sucking us in to permit Blackpool’s only obvious threat – the pace of Phillips and Ince – to be fully utilised.
Given the metronomic Chalobah or the mercilessly incisive Abdi the first half might have finished with a more conclusive scoreline. Absences aside we should still have been further ahead, Jonathan Hogg spurning one outstanding chance when he attacked the box well, got his head to Anya’s cross and thumped it wide. So we only had Cristian Battocchio’s divine finish after Deeney’s bullish aggression had won possession to show for the first 45. It didn’t feel narrow or nervous, we were much the better side.
2-The game changed after the break. Blackpool altered their formation to put an extra man in midfield and enjoyed more of the ball, albeit largely inconsequentially. We’d hardly been racking up the chances ourselves, but whilst still in the lead were better suited by an increasingly sterile encounter. Until they scored, of course… the recalled Doyley and debutant Briggs, who did well enough for the most part, had been selected for pace and we’d coped well, the visitors had barely had a sight of goal. Ince Jr’s quality meant that they only needed the one, Crainey finding a gap down the left for the only time in the game, playing a ball firmly across the area for Ince to tuck in at the near post.
That’s the risk in a one goal lead, of course. Now level, the limitations of the available personnel were more evident. None of Hogg, Battocchio or Yeates had a particularly bad game – Yeates, indeed, was arguably our stand-out player in a first half performance that was crowned with a brutal yet surgically precise dispossession of Ince that his club captain would have enjoyed. But none of the three of them offered the guile of Chalobah or Abdi, and as Anya tired our attacking play was becoming increasingly laboured and impotent.
It got worse… Ince’s right-wing corner was swung into a heavily congested box, Mackenzie stabbed home as Bond claimed he’d been impeded. Difficult to judge, even from directly above the incident there was all sorts going on in there… but this wasn’t an afternoon to be relying on the decisions of the officials…
3- …on which subject and digressing only slightly, I feel the game has lost something in the field of notorious officials. Stuart Atwell’s still knocking around of course but we’ve only really been exposed to one instance of his incompetence, albeit one stunningly memorable. Where are the Roger Milfords, the Rob Styles, the Derek Civils? Andy d’Urso is a watered down alternative, a pastiche only introduced to a series as the original cast have moved on to better things. There have always been instances of bad refereeing of course, and it’s always been easier to spot when you’re on the receiving end. But now it’s perpetrated by people whose names I don’t remember…
This was a corker, of course. That Gianfranco Zola, unfailingly courteous to opponents and officials alike throughout the season, saw fit to let fire with both barrels for the first time speaks volumes; perhaps we paid the price for having a smiling affable manager instead of an aggressive obnoxious little weasel (quite what had prompted Ince Sr’s gesturing to the Rookery at the end of the game escaped me). Beyond that, one just has to take refereeing like this as part of the fabric of the season, a random obstacle to be navigated in the same way as a hamstring strain to a key player. Two penalty decisions stand out, for the record – Deeney, in the first half, was hauled down at a corner kick – the referee may have been unsighted, his assistant less so. And in the dying minutes Lloyd Doyley, of all people, popped up on the edge of the area, attempted to wrong foot his opponent and had his foot taken from under him. No danger of being unsighted this time, clear as day even from the opposite end of the stadium, but no decision – the official bottled it, plain and simple. Other calls didn’t go our way either, but were less clear cut; Pudil had another penalty shout in the first half, but in a congested penalty area with all sorts going on. Blackpool’s second goal, as already described, featured some rather brutal targeting of the goalkeeper. These things are often pulled up – not today.
4- One disturbing extension of an already disturbing trend was the lack of contribution from Matej Vydra on his introduction. Blackpool’s high line looked like it was made for him, and yet the only involvement I recall in his 22+4 minutes was an ill judged attempt to run through three opponents, heralded by someone behind me as his first touch a some time after his introduction. We’ve noted before how the predecessor that Vydra most resembles, in his relentless movement and effortless finishing is Kevin Phillips. Unlike the young Phillips, whose Watford career was peppered with periods of apparent introspection and self-doubt, Vydra has appeared mechanically consistent – until this little run, which has gone on too long to be down to tiredness. Whether he’s carrying a knock, whether he’s suffering from the attention borne of his higher profile or whether he’s simply low in confidence, perhaps a combination of these, he was all but anonymous during his time on the pitch.
5- So bringing all of that together… we have what amounts to an extraordinary injury crisis by any normal standards. I’ve heard comments along the lines of “we’ve been lucky to avoid injuries”, but the truth is that we’ve had a few players out throughout. The current list includes Almunia, Abdi, Chalobah, Eustace, Hoban, Hall, Neuton, Smith with Ekstrand and Cassetti not fit to start. That’s a more than decent defence/midfield, arguably stronger than what we fielded yesterday. We have key players looking tired and out of form – worth bearing in mind the next time that Zola opts to rotate his squad. We had a number of key refereeing decisions go against us, a couple of them quite perversely so as discussed.
And yet we were still unlucky to lose the game. We could do with the international break a week sooner than scheduled, perhaps. But in the grand scheme of things, we’ve demonstrated that we can not quite be on our mettle and still win games. Quite a lot went against us yesterday. We should have won anyway. Things aren’t too shabby really, are they?