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Huddersfield Town 2 Watford 3 (29/09/2012) 30/09/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a dramatic afternoon in West Yorkshire.

1- Another game, another change in formation, shape, line-up. Unlike a week ago however, where the fielding of three diminutive strikers raised eyebrows, the changes applied today made obvious sense… 3-5-2 would enable Cassetti and Pudil to push up without us being so exposed, would add numbers to our midfield stiffening it up and would provide a front two to work each other. And unlike last week, when we got a point from a game that we wanted to win, here we took three points when most would have been happy with one at the start of play, away at one of the form sides of the division. Zola has already demonstrated a willingness to experiment, but here was a solution that clearly suited us and was hugely effective on the afternoon.

2- Not that it started well. Town pelted at us for the opening ten minutes or so and it appeared that our optimism regarding the change in formation was misplaced. We were being turned around far too easily with Simon Grayson, who conceded after the game that he was surprised by our change in formation, clearly having instructed his charges to put pressure on our three-man back line. That back line comprised Fitz Hall, making his full debut for the club; Tommie Hoban, making his full league debut for anybody, and the precarious Neuton. The Brazilian had a particularly sluggish start, uncharacteristically clumsy in possession and apparently unsure of where he was supposed to be and who he should be covering. We rode the storm, the closest the Terriers came in this spell a Keith Southern header from a corner which Almunia blocked sharply having anticipated well. Then, having seemingly gotten away with our poor start, we conceded… a silly free kick given away by the below-par Abdi clouted goalwards by Ollie Norwood. Almunia seemed to react late, got a touch to it but could only deflect inside the near post.

As the game wore on we grew in assuredness at the back as Huddersfield’s threat waned. Neuton settled down considerably, and put in perhaps his strongest 45 minutes to date in the second half – albeit Zola later suggested that he still need to toughen up a bit. Tommie Hoban put in a sound shift, one heroic diving block during the second half denying a goal. Almunia redeemed himself with a stunning first half save to a low drive from Novak. Key, however, was the monstrous Fitz Hall… a huge, uncompromising presence and a much-needed leader, organising, cajoling, and frequently adding his significant height to our attacks, to particularly good effect in the second half.

3- If the change in shape ultimately helped us defensively, it also asked different things of our forward line. Much has been made of the number of goals we have been conceding, but this is really only a problem in context. Set piece idiocy aside, we are playing an open game and are thus always likely to concede chances. That’s only a problem for as long as we’re not capitalising on our often dominant possession. Bluntly, we need to be scoring more.

To this end, it was heartening to see Troy Deeney pick up where he left off last weekend. And then some. A simply colossal performance from the striker, describing it as “Mooneyesque” would scarcely do it justice. When the ball needed holding up, he held it; when it needed laying off he did so, and when no other option presented itself he turned on his marker and ran at Huddersfield, frequently scattering or dragging markers in his wake.

Alongside him, Fernando Forestieri struggled to impose himself in the first half… slightly peripheral, he began to attract the attention of the crowd by exaggerating any contact, a sign both of the different footballing culture in which he has been educated and his frustration at his impotence. As Zola was later to insist, his quick feet were getting him to the ball ahead of his opponent and invited contact… but he did himself few favours with his dramatic tumbling even if, unlike Marco Cassetti, he avoided a card for simulation.

In the second half, however, he turned the burners on and began to run at the backpedalling, nervous Huddersfield defence. The winning of a penalty, the goal that ultimately decided the game, was always a possibility… significant that, perhaps swayed by what had gone before, the referee didn’t give the award, ultimately ceding to his better placed assistant. Despite the hysterical catcalls of many in the stands that greeted the decision and escorted Forestieri off the pitch on his replacement, however, it was the right decision, as Simon Grayson was gracious enough to admit.

Heaven knows what Deeney and Forestieri can achieve if they ever get around to linking up. Or rather, if Forestieri gains some kind of awareness of what’s going on on the pitch around him. As it was they presented very different but ultimately independent threats to Huddersfield’s backline… Forestieri is like the hogger in the playground, aggravating those around both by trying to do it all himself and, ultimately, by often being good enough to do so. The deflection on his shot after another twisty turny run across the box, taking the ball past Smithies, might have been the most significant touch of the afternoon. There was only one winner thereafter.

4- Much to be positive about then, but to set the victory in context Huddersfield were disappointing, their performance a shadow of that which saw off Blackpool on Monday. Not our problem of course… but we were aided in no small part by what turned into a ragged and rather indisciplined display by the home side. We were picking up loose passes in the midfield before the end of the first half; in the second, the Terriers sat back and broke slowly, frequently rattled and unsettled by the challenges being put in front of them. Significantly, James Vaughan’s persistant, combative presence was missing, replaced by that of Jermaine Beckford. The former Boothroyd target had been signed late the night before and looked it… clearly keen to impress, he engaged in a first half running spat with Neuton and struggled to impose himself thereafter.

5- The other positive was the amount of heart on display. This was a gutsy victory; Deeney and Hall we’ve already talked about, Chalobah, Hogg and Pudil all worked extremely hard, and if Marco Cassetti’s susceptibility to being run at by Danny Ward looked like it might have been our achilles heel had the home side exploited it a little more, the Italian nonetheless looked more comfortable in the wide midfield role where he could emphasise his attacking threat and had Hoban’s pace as cover behind. Mark Yeates, of all people, epitomised this spirit with his cameo, which involved some positive, aggressive running that we could have done with a little more of from Almen Abdi. As Forestieri was being trodden into the ground by Paul Dixon (and giving some back, in fairness) he released Yeates galloping down the right to cross for Fitz Hall to give us the lead for the first time. Connor Smith, on later for the limping Chalobah, provided a very tidy contribution with a role in the move leading to the penalty, although he was harshly booked for what looked like a clean tackle, the only occasion when the ref looked like losing control of a bad tempered game.

More welly up front, in midfield, at the back, then… and many grinning faces heading back through the idyllic Yorkshire Dales towards the M1. Much, much better.


Watford 2 Bristol City 2 (22/09/2012) 23/09/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from the eventful draw with Bristol City.

1- Much has been made of the size of our squad, of the challenge of keeping everyone happy and forging an identifiable team from the multitude of options. As such a degree of experimentation is to be expected… trying this and that, seeing which combinations work best.

Even allowing for which, this looked like a hell of a long shot. As on Tuesday we fielded a back four containing three men who you feel might be more comfortable in midfield (NB: not Nos). Which… is fine, in itself, an ambitious statement of attacking intent. But perhaps a couple of eager bounds beyond merely “ambitious” in the context of our three man midfield, deprived of the unwell Hogg and recovering Eustace. We’ve discussed this in isolation before, but a three man midfield needs a lot of ability and a good deal of graft. Chalobah looks ridiculously comfortable in possession and, at seventeen, will surely develop into one hell of a player… but he’s spindly and rather lightweight, and doesn’t provide the heavyweight counterbalance that a partner to Abdi and Yeates surely needs for the unit to have half a chance.

Up front, meanwhile, the most peculiar selection decision of all with Big Chris sacrificed in favour of the returning Murray. Big Chris hasn’t looked well suited to our current system but has lead the line, given the side some much needed leadership and given us an antidote to teams sitting deep. This selection left us with a front three of Murray, Vydra and Forestieri… all talented individuals in isolation but rather lacking in size and variety. A Fantasy Football team pick, high on twists and turns and tricks and rather lower on effectiveness as a real life combo. A bit like having three puddings… indulgent and ultimately rather unsatisfying.

The consequence of course was lots of possession and twisting and turning but an opponent comfortable enough sitting back without a reason not to and creating as many presentable chances from their more limited time with the ball in the first half as we did with our lions’ share.

2- The other Big Thing on the teamsheet was the presence of Troy Deeney on the bench (alongside Big Chris and Steve Beleck, presenting the tantalising but unfulfilled prospect of a triple substitution that would yield a wholesale change of approach). I’m torn on this, I suspect I’m not the only one… I can see the argument for giving the guy a break, he having served his time, I can also see the argument that says that this sort of track record doesn’t sit comfortably with the profile of a family club. Academic really, the decision has been made… but either way, whilst I’m happy enough with celebrating his future achievements on the pitch I don’t really see what the round of applause – albeit peppered with boos – that greeted his introduction was all about. What are you applauding him for, exactly?

Whatever your position, however, there was little disputing the magnitude of his impact, surprising in its immediacy. This was not the performance of someone who’s missed pre-season, half an hour’s run-around or otherwise. Deeney provided pretty much exactly what our forward line had been missing… power, aggression, single-mindedness, a focal point. His opening contribution was a clarion call, turning to belt a shot goalwards that Heaton could only palm into Vydra’s path, the Czech striker not reacting quickly enough, waking up to the new reality of our potency like the rest of us.

For the first time we looked much the better side, rather than merely the side with the ball. City were reeling, unable to cope with this new dimension to our game. Murray’s brilliant clipped pass released Cassetti into space down the right, the Italian squared the ball from the by line and Wilson, forced to intervene by Deeney’s presence, bundled the ball into his own net…

3- And having whinged a bit so far, it’s worth dwelling briefly on one of the subtler positives of the afternoon. If there were any lingering fears about the team spirit of this rapidly assembled squad of players they were surely dispelled by the furious celebration that met the opening goal, the outfield players sprinting to bundle Cassetti. One of the defining characteristics of the Vialli season, that dangerous but obvious comparator, was the report of old boy and new boy camps in the dressing room. Not this season, not on this evidence.

4- The danger of us scoring too early in this sort of game, at least for the moment, is that you let the cat out of the bag. Forced to commit numbers forward for the first time, City realised pretty quickly that we had neither the personnel to win the ball back in midfield, nor a defence remotely capable of stopping them from scoring. Marvin Elliott’s a big, tough bloke but there’s no excusing the ease with which he dominated Neuton to meet Bryan’s unchallenged cross. Just pathetically easy. From then on the game was slightly chaotic… City had further chances, we still looked potent. Ultimately a magnificent Pudil ball found Vydra; the younger Czech had done a better job than you’d have credited of leading the line but this is where you want him, ball at his feet, teasing the keeper and finishing brilliantly. A goalscorer. And then we screwed up at the other end again, having brought on two proper defenders in Doyley and the colossal Hall (Onesize is XXXL, it would appear) to protect our lead poor organisation saw City beat the offside for Davies to score a critical goal off the bench at the Vic for the second season running.

5- I’m on board, genuinely. In calmer reflection the frustration is borne of the fact that it’s quite evident that the players we have are capable of an awful lot better than this. We’re really not very far away from being an excellent side… Eustace and Hogg back in midfield at the expense of Yeates in particular, whose willingness to make forward, ambitious runs when others were simply providing sideways options didn’t compensate for bad decision making and bad execution when he got there, would be expected to yield similarly dramatic improvement to Deeney’s introduction. Given the size of the task Zola has been given, patience is required. That’s easy enough to say… it’s after games like this that the following through with actions becomes a little more difficult.

Watford 0 Brighton and Hove Albion 1 (18/09/2012) 19/09/2012

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Of all the things in the world, the most precious by far is the little red straw which comes with a can of WD40. So easy to lose and so utterly impossible to find, that little red straw is the difference between the bit where you identify the problem, fix the problem, stand back and momentarily feel like a grown-up in a DIY advert and the bit where you haphazardly spray your precious possessions with oil and it all goes a bit sweary. It’s the difference between theory and application, failure and success. It’s the difference between this and the rest of Nordin Wooter’s Watford career.

And if we’re not rather careful, it’s the sizeable difference between having one of the most richly, variously talented squads in the club’s history and having one of the most successful squads in the club’s history. No question that we suddenly have the former, but a transfer policy which seems to have thrown players at the manager like wet sponges at an “It’s A Knockout” contestant* hasn’t, in my view, been entirely wise. What we are supposed to do with them all? Build a human pyramid? Form a male voice choir? Let them all take turns as Harry the Hornet?

1b. * Courtesy of @TheSonicMole, an absolutely brilliant alternative metaphor for our transfer policy: a Katamari video game.

2. It’s only a matter of time before kickoff is preceded by a “PREVIOUSLY ON…” round-up for those who missed the last episode or, like me, have been waiting for it all to slow down before they start paying proper attention, in case they start feeling a bit giddy. What did happen to Ikechi Anya? Who bumped off Martin Taylor? Is he the new bloke from them or is he the other new bloke from the others? Why the hell is Sharon back again? Why is Darcey Bussell’s nose so pointy?

At present, the extraordinary thing is that it evades any single narrative. It cannot be summed up by any one-dimensional view; it’s defined almost entirely by uncertainty and unknowns; it defies expectation at every turn. Here, a fixture that you couldn’t help feel a sense of foreboding about, as if you’d been warned away from the moors by some odd-looking folk in the local pub. It had a sense of unspoken dread about it. Or maybe that was just last night’s curry.

And yet we launched ourselves at it like we were riding the crest of a wave, swarming all around the Iwelumo totem pole and threatening to overrun Brighton completely in the early minutes. Really aggressive football, pushed forward by a defence suddenly comfortable in possession, forcing itself into the corners of the pitch via overlapping full-backs and beyond the target man via the attacking threat of Vydra, Abdi and the energetic, complicated Forestieri. It was a terrific and stirring opening, and it only needed a goal to lift the roof off.

3. That goal didn’t come (obviously). Which is all right, it happens. At that point, it’s up to the rest of the side to take some of the strain, to prevent the whole thing sliding away. And at that point, it all becomes very much less positive…because we are terrible defensively. We are a ragged, indulgent shambles, like a pissed-up Muse tribute band in your local boozer. (Or, hey, like Muse themselves.) We are Will Buckley’s wet dream. We are Sean Dyche’s worst nightmare.

Some part of the team needs to be its centre of gravity. If you’re going to field abundant creative players to delight and excite, something solid and tangible and reliable is going to have to underpin it all. We were as far from that ideal as Hastings is from Brighton (it’s an hour away, Dave) and should’ve been punished more harshly. I do see that Neuton is wonderfully at home on the ball, all flicks and chips and forward sorties…but is there room in a Championship unit for the reincarnation of Craig Ramage as a centre-back? And I have no doubt that Marco Cassetti in his pomp would’ve swatted Will Buckley away like a fly…but those days are sadly gone, on the evidence of these red-faced, breathless forty-five minutes.

And maybe it all just needs time…but I’m still waiting for the moment when I look at this Watford side and see some real determination to do the boring stuff, on the touchline and the pitch. Not the dirty stuff – there are plenty of hard-working players here, regardless of how long they’ll be wearing the shirt – but the boring stuff, the stuff that doesn’t get any applause and doesn’t fit into a “philosophy” and does get points on the board. Until then, we’re a soft touch. Until then, we’re not taking our opponents seriously enough. We shouldn’t settle for that.

4. Their goal did come, eventually. If Craig Mackail-Smith, with all of that lethal pace and movement, ever learns to finish consistently, he’ll turn into a pre-injury Andy Johnson and Brighton will suddenly be in the Premiership. Mercifully, it didn’t happen last night, allowing us to at least continue forcing the issue until the end, aided by a very elegant, fluent substitute appearance by Nathaniel Chalobah (he’s the one from Chelsea). A very great deal of sideways passing in front of a packed defence, inevitably, but we will play worse and win, once we’ve learnt how to defend.

5. The penalty claims, then. Here’s what I say: referees don’t merely have a difficult job, they now have an impossible one. Literally impossible. Impossible by design. It was merely difficult when the task was to evaluate a real event…whether the ball was won cleanly, whether contact constituted a foul, whether a player had control of the ball. Then it became acceptable for players to exaggerate contact – “he’s entitled to go down there” – and now there is nothing substantial to go on at all. There are only different versions, different fictions. The con artist’s victim can’t tell real from fake until it’s too late…and the con artists’ union has no grounds for complaint if he gets it wrong sometimes.

So Jonathan Hogg bustles his way into the penalty area, into a crowd and to the ground. Did he fall or was he pushed? Bit of both? How much of either? Turning away from goal, Nathaniel Chalobah claims the loose ball marginally ahead of a defender’s tackle and flies three feet up in the air. It’s a wildly exaggerated reaction, obviously, but is he exaggerating a genuine foul? Is he exaggerating insignificant contact?

Does even he know any more, I wonder?

Here we are, then. 05/09/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

In the future, we will know how this has all turned out.

There may not be a consensus. Even GT has his detractors, the more so at the time, and there are takes on Ray Lewington’s spell in charge that contrast starkly with those held on this blog. One suspects that any two Watford supporters would argue over whether they agreed on any given subject.

But stuff will have happened, stuff which will formulate opinion. We have opinions now, based on a little bit of evidence, judgements, suspicions. But we don’t know. Now, right now, in the wake of this most extraordinary of summers and most bizarre of transfer windows, the ball is about to start rolling…

What we know so far is the plan, at least in general terms. And as far as that goes… I think I’m on board. Tentatively. Kind of. Almost certainly. Beyond dispute is that, in any case, the preceding status quo was not somewhere we wanted to be, and not somewhere we would have remained for long in any case. Bassini’s reign concluded with the club every bit as precarious and uncertain as his public appearances; put the two situations, the continuation of the Bassini regime and this new model, next to each other as options and there’s no decision to make. We should be grateful for Lord Ashcroft’s bond provisions, without a doubt, and for the previous board’s boldness.

But even in isolation, the new approach has a lot going for it. Access to the Pozzo’s extraordinary scouting network, an asset that they understandably want to sweat, and to a pool of players already identified and recruited. No coincidence that so many of our loan signings are youngsters, this seems to be the approach – recruit them very young, develop them in training, by loaning them out, by playing them, and then sell them on for maximum profit. Cynical? Not really, just an extension of what we already did, but with bells on.

It’s tempting to say that the same goes for loans… that we’ve long since relied upon borrowing high quality players for our (limited) successes; without checking, I don’t remember the last season that didn’t feature a successful longish term loan. I’d guess it was a while ago. A popular criticism of course is the inherent short-termism, that in borrowing players of the quality that we have to make us more competitive we sacrifice places for our own, perhaps less talented players and become all the more dependent on that loan market as our own players don’t develop as quickly, a vicious circle. Now… we’re borrowing players, predominantly, from Udinese and Granada, clubs owned by the same group that own us. Whatever the degree to which you adopt them as your Italian/Spanish favourites, there’s no denying that we benefit to a greater degree in the longer term by developing Udinese/Granada’s players than Manchester United’s.

But actually there’s more to it than that. No coincidence surely that so many of these players nominally reside with Udinese. That much was confirmed, if it were ever in doubt, by the Marco Cassetti signing; why bring a 35 year-old veteran to Udinese only to move him to Watford? This is not a rough diamond that Udinese need polishing, this is a seasoned veteran, an international. Why not just sign him to Watford if that’s his destination? Whether the benefit is tax-based, or whether we are navigating the Financial Fare Play rules by paying salaries through our sister clubs, there is clearly a benefit to the Pozzos of the registrations being held in Italy, the talk of the recent raft of signings being with an “option to buy” next summer surely just window dressing. Selling players to each other? Why?

The bit that sticks in my craw a little, the development that I find hardest to accept, is the implied lack of opportunity for our younger players. The downgrading of the academy reflects changes external to the takeover, at least in part, and serves as only the most recent demonstration of the point my co-editor has made on here of late; that the rules of the game are continuously being changed by those at the top table, and not in the favour of clubs the size of Watford. So the choice is either to keep trying to make do with the increasingly difficult hand that you’ve been afforded, or you try to change the rules.

As far as the kids are concerned though… we have secured the two brightest lights of our current crop; hugely encouraging on every level that Sean Murray and Tommie Hoban have seen fit to sign five year contracts. But for the rest? Massey, who perhaps hasn’t exploded as quickly as hoped but still looked promising, has gone. Assombalonga, Thompson, Bennett on loan (again). Any number of erstwhile maybes who won’t get anywhere near our team any more. Do we really expect to continue to bring through localish talent, or are the next young players as likely to come from Rio as from Rickmansworth? And does it matter if so? I think it does… it’s part of the identity of the club that the incoming regime committed to protect.

Meanwhile it’s perfectly defensible to separate the model from the execution. If the model looks a good thing, probably, on balance, then it can still be executed badly. Far, far too early to be making any kind of judgements there yet of course… any manager needs time to bed in, even in a relatively straightforward new role which this certainly isn’t. That aside, the wake of a 5-1 tonking at bloody Derby wouldn’t be the most balanced position from which to be taking stock. Hell, I wasn’t even at the game…

There are certainly causes for concern, though. I don’t think that’s a premature statement. I struggle to reconcile losing Martin Taylor with building a side to get out of the division, whatever style of football you want to play and however many defenders you’ve signed. Given that he went though, and went the day before the Derby game, a degree of disorganisation is only to be expected. Nor, without having seen the game, does Zola’s insistence that he called the team right overly concern me… he may know stuff that we don’t; perhaps Hoban isn’t quite ready, Cassetti was only a very reluctant centre back at Roma. One game can be excused, in the circumstances, particularly with so many new faces coming in at the back.

What’s harder to write off is the increasing frailty of our three-man midfield. The Ipswich debacle saw Jonathan Hogg frantically trying – and failing – to close down all available space effectively on his own. Abdi, for all his obvious ability, is not a workhorse and whilst Yeates’ lack of pace has been less of an issue centrally he’s not going to put a foot in either. Such seems to have been the issue at Derby also and you can’t get away with that. Not any passengers in a three man midfield, certainly not two. Encouraging that John Eustace appears to remain a cornerstone, but in his absence surely a Jenkins, capable of breaking things up and keeping possession, was a better bet than Yeates. Worrying, also, that a lack of fitness has been widely reported as evident, an anathema – when could we last accuse a Watford side of that? With the best will in the world, these spectres of the Vialli season will continue to haunt Zola until he proves them irrelevant.

The last few months have been extraordinary, and given all of the above it would be wholly unreasonable to expect everything to fall into place straight away. Watford supporters are probably as patient as any set of football fans (not very, rather than not at all, then) and the recently announced Fans Forum can only help assuage short-term concerns through its very existence. Assuming the protagonists all show up, of course.

The next few months won’t be dull, one suspects; the Bolton match, the new team, the new players, has a rather pivotal feel about it. History is about to be written. The ball has started rolling…