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Watford 1 Peterborough United 0 (20/10/2012) 21/10/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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Five thunks from a much needed home win…

1- Tradition has it, of course, that Family Day is a damp squib, a perpetually missed opportunity. Nonetheless this fixture last year was a Family Day too and five goals in the first half of that one will have won a few youngsters over – my daughter included. This game was less extravagantly exciting, but those with a year’s experience and savvy under their belts were able to enjoy a more thoughtfully engrossing encounter. Rahelle, now a sage six years old, spent much of a stodgy first half in which two heavily packed midfields largely cancelled each other out either lying on my lap or with her fleece over her face. The second, however, was far more engaging and had her rapt and focused, and able to revel unreservedly in a last minute winner, something that needs no explaining to anyone let alone a six year old veteran. A late highlight of this particular Family Day was catching Harry the Hornet making the ill-judged decision to navigate the Rookery concourse against the tide on the way out. On a normal day this may have been merely awkward; on a Family Day it was a non-starter, mobbed by a crowd of youngsters with Rahelle at the vanguard.

2- One key theme has to be gradual improvement. The mantra of the Vialli season was “time to gel”; this side that has been subject to an even greater overhaul is displaying much greater evidence of steps in the right direction than Vialli’s ever managed. Post Derby, the policy of bringing back Chris Iwelumo to organise a novice defensive line at set pieces tightened us up prior to Fitz Hall’s emergence as a leader at the back. Since then every game has seen changes made – some clear cut, altering personnel and formation, some subtler – which haven’t all demonstrably worked but have largely had a bit of sense about them. Today, Jonathan Hogg was visibly making aggressive runs to get up and support the forwards. Not his natural game perhaps and it never quite paid off, but with Chalobah hungry for possession all over the pitch and patrolling in front of the defence you could see the thinking. Further encouragement that although this game didn’t follow the Middlesbrough template of us flying out at our opposition and putting them under immediate pressure we probed and pressed and made plenty of presentable chances after the break; if we owed something to fortune in Kane Ferdinand’s loose defending ultimately presenting us with a spot kick, we’d earned it through earlier endeavours.

3- Another popular wisdom is that this is the season that Lloyd Doyley becomes surplus to requirements; “he’s not the sort of player we’ll be looking for at the back” was the gist of one suggestion in the first half from a buffoon nearby who ought to know better. Such pronouncements have been at regular intervals over the last eleven years, often coincidental with a new manager’s arrival, none have come to fruition. Even Brendan Rodgers, having initially advised Lloyd that he wasn’t his sort of player, saw fit to give him a three year contract within months. Today Lloyd demonstrated his value in a formation that rather suited him; with a simple pass to either Cassetti, Chalobah or Hall always on his most notorious limitation was less of an issue, whilst his pace and nous on the cover was always going to be an asset in a three-man backline. Not that Tommie Hoban, in another hugely encouraging display – is any slouch… but whilst Posh had good chances, this wasn’t a defensive opponent afforded goalscoring opportunities every time they broke forward (see below). Without wishing to single out Neuton, this was much more solid defensively, another small positive step. As for Doyley, whilst he might not be a first choice under Zola his willingness and flexibility (not to mention nationality) make him indispensable as a substitute.

4- Admittedly it’s much easier to be generous about Peterborough in the wake of a late winner. Whatever… as inferred above, and contrary to what you might expect from a club stuck at the bottom of the table Posh did anything but park the bus. The first half was congested, but this didn’t reflect a destructive emphasis on the part of the away side. In the second half, having conceded plenty of chances, changes in shape resulting from substitutions by both sides left the visitors on the front foot, and the side more likely to for around quarter of an hour. They didn’t capitalise, but it’s difficult not to hope for better for them in future weeks. My co-editor asserted that he wouldn’t back against them staying up and despite their poor start that’s far from a foregone conclusion, there’s lots to like here… but despite the narrow scoreline, Posh are a side that prioritise the “Goals For” column. Whilst this makes for entertaining football matches, there will come a time when they have a bad season, injuries, luck… and it’s got to be easier to arrest a poor run on the back of a tight defence.

5- After a quiet first half Fernando Forestieri was much livelier in the second. Consistent with the Pozzo model, the majority of our loan signings from the Udinese pool are rough diamonds; Fernando simultaneously more exotic and yet less refined than most. His footwork is extraordinary, he’s astonishingly quick and yet… much as there was evidence of another positive nudge-in-the-right-direction in his desire to look for a pass at least some of the time his decision making is still ropey, he and Deeney remain on different wavelengths and the delivery isn’t quite there. And yet here, as my co-editor has implied, is further evidence of this brave new world not being so very different from the old one. In the likes of Tom Cleverley and Adam Johnson we’ve seen raw-ish potential develop into something a lot more than that in the past. Forestieri’s development will be a whole lot of fun to watch at close hand, one suspects.

Watford 1 Middlesbrough 2 (06/10/2012) 07/10/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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Five thunks from an aggravating afternoon at Vicarage Road.

1- It’s fair to say that a quarter of an hour or so in few will have been anticipating this kind of scoreline. We were aided in no small part by the very early opening, resultant from a weak backpass from the Centre Back Formerly Known as Bikey… Vydra latched onto it, Steele blocked his shot but the ball broke for Troy Deeney to loft the ball into an empty net.

With Rahelle (now aged 6 and lisping through the gap recently vacated by her milk incisors) making her competitive season debut I was distracted, not for the last time, and pieced half of that from others’ descriptions. Attention grasped (Rahelle’s too, mercifully) we were able to enjoy the Hornets flying at their leaden, hapless visitors. Cassetti and Pudil were giving us lots of width patrolling the touchlines and we were finding them and using them leaving the Boro startled and on their heels, in danger of being out of the game before it had even got going. The closest we came was when Vydra skimmed the crossbar having been found by an extraordinary long ball from the ever-more-astonishing Chalobah. (Seventeen. SEVENTEEN.)

We were almost toying with the visitors, and paid for not capitalising on this spell but this wasn’t the first time this season that we’ve looked all but irresistible. If we can extend these spells for longer then teams really are going to struggle to live with us.

2- Boro clung on, and gradually eased themselves into the game. The first frustration of the afternoon (albeit dwarfed by what came after…) was that they didn’t really have to do much more than tentatively venture over the halfway line to cause us problems. A “lets-give-this-a-go” lofted ball to the far post found Jutkiewicz powering through Neuton’s theoretical challenge but sending his header wide. George Friend’s raid down the left exposed us, forcing Almunia into a smart save. From the corner, Emnes seized on a knock down and that was that. Our screaming, howling opening twenty minutes and Middlesbrough’s tentative, deliberate attacks had amounted to the same thing.

A recurring theme is how terribly soft our underbelly looks when we retreat from hurtling at the opposition. The combination of this and a tendency not to capitalise on periods of dominance isn’t a happy marriage. There’s a risk in imbuing absentees with superhuman powers of course… nonetheless, John Eustace’s presence in the central three (whose incumbents yesterday had an average age of 22) wouldn’t have hurt.

3- So the second half was shaping up reasonably well. We’d played well enough in the first twenty minutes to look forward to it positively, even if Boro had built their way back into the game and steadied the scores. And then the red card happened.

There’s really very little value in describing the detail, as you’ll have seen it, or not seen it, or heard accounts of it. I couldn’t see the challenge well at the time and still haven’t seen a replay but the lunacy of the decision was betrayed by Boro skipper Nick Bailey’s reaction. Moved to right back to cover Justin Hoyte’s injury, his had been the challenge on Vydra that lead to the incident. As the referee blew up and indicated a free kick, Bailey was protesting his innocence and had his head in his hands as the referee reached for his pocket. Not that a red for Bailey would have been at all sensible, but his take on Vydra’s “stamp”, reportedly a hurdle to avoid a prone opponent, clearly wasn’t the same as the official’s. Bafflement all round, and with apparent consensus from all sides (bar the critical one) there’s little more to say (except to doff one’s cap to the tannoy team, who dug Madness’s “Embarrassment” out to accompany the ref’s exit on 90 minutes).

Obviously this blew the script for the second half completely. It’s lazy to say that we were “cheated”; misleading too, since the destined outcome was hardly clear in any case. But all concerned were cheated out of what looked like an enthralling second period. What transpired was a lot more predictable… the visitors now with the lion’s share of possession, poking and probing and trying to find their way through. Briefly, a perfect re-run of Tuesday night seemed on the cards; denied once again of Troy Deeney’s smaller, trickier partner by a red card on half time, we held our breath as Almen Abdi once again lined up a free kick… but Jason Steele was just about equal to his vicious, curling shot. We countered, sometimes dangerously, and then just as Boro were getting a little desperate in their attempts to score the odious Scott McDonald, of all people, produced a bit of quality to decide the game.

4- The other notable incident of the second half was the long-awaited introduction of Alex Geijo for his Watford debut. The surprise was that this came at all, in the circumstances, just as we were wondering whether the Vydra development had scotched his intended unveiling. Instead, he was introduced for Troy Deeney remarkably early in the lone striking role that must have been pretty unforgiving for a striker short on match fitness and who, like Marco Cassetti, played precious little football last season either.

An odd call, then. Two ninety minutes within five days, half of which as a lone striker in a ten man side would surely have proven beyond Troy Deeney, but he was far from a spent force when withdrawn for a player who looked far less well suited to that role. Clearly desperate to do well and mortified each time he conclusively failed to do so, Geijo’s contributions suggested a decent touch but the circumstances and his fitness betrayed little else. Visibly ring rusty, he backed out of a challenge soon after his introduction and was on a downward spiral thereafter, done no favours by his manager.

5- A disappointing defeat then, but if we’re not yet completely convincing on a number of levels we’re certainly a lot further forward than we were going into the last international break following the Derby debacle. Despite this defeat, and despite still looking vulnerable as described, we’ve gotten six points in three games playing 3-5-2, two of which away and two of which without a player for 45 minutes. Cassetti’s legs and Neuton’s flimsiness are still issues, but both are better accommodated by the formation… and its worth noting that without exception all of the new signings, these two included, have either maintained a high level or steadily improved as games have progressed. Above all, the fact that we have a large number of (presumably) senior players, including Geijo, still to make a proper contribution is a reason to be positive. The size of our squad is ludicrous, but presents us with clear advantages in the short to medium term. Eustace, Bia, Batocchio, Geijo, Ekstrand and Fanchone have barely featured; in any other season, missing that many senior players would have seen us up against it.

Still positive. See you at Peterborough.