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.