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Brighton and Hove Albion 1 Watford 3 (29/12/2012) 30/12/2012

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
22 comments

1. At some point in the first half, as possession starts to deaden an initially open and promising game, I wonder quite what the purpose of writing about televised matches is, quite what I can add that you can’t see perfectly well for yourself from the sofa. Often, you can take in the whole picture from high in the stands, what’s happening off the ball rather than just a window onto a small rectangle of the pitch…but if the Amex stadium were someone’s living room, then we’d have the seat in the corner that you only clear of mess and muddle when the whole family’s round, with a view of the telly that’s a bit squinty. “Can you see all right from there, Mum?”

In which case, I must be here to report on The Matchday Experience. The sights, sounds, smells of live football. The noise, the buzz, the electricity in the air. But I have to report that, courtesy of a pre-match downpour, The Matchday Experience consisted mainly of having a damp arse. And it’s hard to take much enjoyment from life with a damp arse.

2. And then, of course, there’s the bit when mere seconds after scoring our heavily deflected second, Matej Vydra is roaring clear of the Brighton defence and you have time to think “He doesn’t ever miss these, does he?” and even time to think “Bugger, I hope I haven’t tempted fate there” before the ball is whistling into the bottom corner courtesy of a finish so emphatic that it could’ve been fired out of a cannon…and Vydra continues his unstoppable trajectory to its natural finish in front of the away end…and the roar which escapes from your lungs doesn’t care if you’ve got a sore throat from the cold you always get at Christmas. It doesn’t care about your damp arse. It doesn’t care about anything much except this acute, perfect moment. (Apart, possibly, from briefly remembering and again savouring another two-goals-in-two-minutes celebration on 4th October 1997. These things live long in the memory.)

And that, obviously, is why you’re there…

3. Like finding out that your genial Uncle Terry from Leatherhead who drinks sherry and wears a brown cardie leads a double life as an assassin for hire, there’s something more than a little unnerving about all of this. We have watched many Watford teams win many away games, occasionally via decisive scorelines…but rarely have we glimpsed a version of our Golden Boys as ruthless and lethal and remorseless as this one.

At home, where we play teams freed from the demands of their own paying punters, we are only sporadically allowed to see what happens if you don’t, for example, stop Nathaniel Chalobah from ambling into spaces beyond the halfway line. Here, in front of a record Amex crowd, our opponents are obliged to do more than worry about us…and yet worrying about is precisely what they ought to be doing. Worrying about the pace and accuracy of Matej Vydra, the force and muscle of Troy Deeney, the craft and vision of Almen Abdi, and so on, and so forth. Worrying even more about the combination of all these things, attacking interchanges so swift and fluent and precise that defenders are twisted into knots. Not switching off for a second; not letting that space appear for us to exploit, not letting it appear there or there or there. And definitely not there.

But if you must be seen to be positive, you cannot hope to contain us for the whole ninety minutes…and we will punish you for it. Maybe a couple of warning shots first, just to be fair…but then, wallop. An away win as blistering and ferocious as the ones you hardier travellers have all been going on about.

4. If we want to keep our feet on the ground, then we ought to note that there remains much room for tightening up in certain areas. Were we – and let’s not get too carried away just yet – to be encountering higher quality opposition on a regular basis, we would find them ruthlessly exploiting our lapses just as we’re currently exploiting others’. The penalty, clearly, was a nonsense…but there’s plenty of detail to attend to elsewhere, a tendency to get caught in possession in exposed areas in particular.

We have a casual, over-confident air about us sometimes, a touch of the cavalier, easily and quickly deflated when you come up against teams with even more raw fire-power. We’re currently a desperately exciting side. But a great team comes through challenges that we haven’t yet even earnt the right to face. We’d do well to remember that. And, in passing, I’d be reassured to see our club captain there to remind us in his own inimitable way.

5. But enough caution. Somehow, after clawing our way up to sixth before Christmas, we kicked off last night in the same position, nobody stamping on our fingers or hanging onto our boots despite having played twice more. It felt like an opportunity, a potentially significant moment. My word, what a response…decisive, potent, nerveless. Jesus. We are a coiled python of a team, and you really don’t want to blink in our presence…

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Watford 2 Nottingham Forest 0 (22/12/2012) 23/12/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

Five festive thunks from a damp Vicarage Road…

1- It wasn’t necessarily going to end up this way.  Virtually the first opening of the game saw Danny Collins afforded a free header from a set piece, he should have done far more than glance it wide.  Joel Ekstrand was asleep as a ball from the right reached Sharp at the far post, he shanked clumsily past the post.  Simon Cox snuck in behind a static defence at another set piece… everyone froze in confusion, including Cox who screwed a header back across the face of goal.  Hoban and Ekstrand both looked uncomfortable and slightly precarious to the point that we briefly glanced at the bench (and remembered that Neuton was hardly an option to bring on to tighten things up again and rapidly returned our attention to the pitch).  That’s not to say that Forest were ever on top of us – for the 90 minutes we were never less than holding our own – but we rode our luck early on, mobile front men Cox and Sharp both looking like causing us problems whenever they received the ball to feet.

2- And thus the defining characteristic of the game, our utter dominance of midfield, was significant at both ends of the pitch.  Hogg was busy and aggressive, Chalobah enjoyed a fabulous first half that echoed his best performances earlier in the season, Cassetti and Pudil were tremendous, hugging the touchlines even before Forest were reduced in number by Ayala’s stupid challenge on Deeney.  And Abdi was utterly magnificent;  back in the groove after his return to fitness last weekend, he set up both goals (shovelling the attack for the second straight down the hole that Ayala had just vacated), finished a marvellous second half move exquisitely only to be denied by an offside flag and was irrepressible for a good hour before flagging late on.  Such were his exploits that an otherwise sleepy Rookery offered two novel chants in tribute, the Proclaimers’ “500 miles” adaptation competing with a “2 Unlimited” tribute (the former a clear winner for those of any taste and discretion, all it needed was a terrace to jump around on).  Forest’s three man midfield were overrun in the first half, ultimately denying their strikers of the service that had been causing us problems.  We were well on top and worth the two-goal half time lead.

3- The second half has to go down as a bit of a disappointment, much as Forest were kept at arms’ length until a late but impotent flurry that yielded their first shots on target of any note.  The game was over at the sending off of course… as we’ve suggested before this really isn’t a Watford side to fall a man behind to.  And we stretched Forest, made them run, could have extended our lead – Abdi’s disallowed goal, the questionable booking of Beleck when he appeared to be fouled on his way into the area.  And yet Forest were never put to the sword as they might have been.  A stiffer resistance on their part contributed, a desire to limit damage, but ultimately this was a post-Huddersfield, pre-Leeds sort of performance from Watford, excellence for half the game not sustained throughout. To make beating an above-average Championship side look routine in the circumstances no mean achievement.

4- Forest’s stiffer resistance, then.  Stiff resistance in a sort of putting-the-boot-in, let-them-know-you’re-about, lets-see-you-shimmy-your-way-round-this-sonny sense.  It appeared to be sulky peevishness at first, borne of the impotence of being given the run around with fewer bodies to do the running, but the middle-aged bloke behind me in a rare moment of sobriety pointed out the systematic sharing of hatchet duties between miscreants, brutality by directive, Chalobah, Vydra, Abdi and Beleck all on the receiving end.  Igor Stimac, Rio Ferdinand and Stuart Pearce did a similarly transparent job on us for West Ham in the Prem in 2000; unlike that occasion, today’s ref was quick to his pocket. Nonetheless, eighteen months since Billy Davies’ departure Forest haven’t become any more likeable.

5- A decent cameo from Steve Beleck, whose absence from recent consideration in combination with the richness of the alternatives and perhaps injudicious use of social media had caused us to perhaps write him off prematurely.  Very effective and yet another species of threat was suggested, another weapon.  Powerful like Deeney with a good touch, but a more brutal instrument, his sheer volume suffocating opponents as he competed for high balls.  Welcome to the party Steve.

Merry Christmas all.  We won’t be at Bristol, you’ll hear from us again after Brighton next weekend.

Watford 1 Hull City 2 (08/12/2012) 09/12/2012

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
17 comments

1. Dearest Reader,

I write to you from the lofty smugness of a job well done, for I have today finished insulating the loft with that fibreglass stuff which looks all lovely and pillowy and turns out to be made of needles and poison. Our experience of living in this lovely old house with its original windows and original doors and original roof and original draughts (we prefer to call them “indoor wind”, for that is a more accurate description) has been that a sea view does much for the soul but little for the freezing toesies. I do most heartily hope that my efforts today will be beneficial, for it was an unpleasant task not even the most rugged and grubby tradesman would relish and I trust that it will not have been in vain.

It was with great delight, however, that I discovered in my labour a suitable metaphor for our football team’s disappointing show in yesterday’s match. I confess that I may have been unduly excited by the prospect of seeing our continental starlets take on more of the soot-caked industrial folk of Yorkshire and teach them another lesson from finishing school. But I had forgotten my humility, for as in sport so in life, there is joy to be found in earning reward through hard work and honest endeavour. Before you can relax in front of a metaphorical log fire with toasted marshmallows, there are metaphorical lofts to insulate with stuff made of needles and poison…!

2. Sorry, had a funny turn for a moment there. Um…

3. Yes, anyway, I know that Steve Bruce looks an awful lot like the play-dough model of the Queen I made when I was seven, but this afternoon was a serious lesson in proper grown-up football. For if we’re being as demanding of ourselves as we ought to be, then we should conclude that we were sloppy and complacent for much of the game against Barnsley…and that we got away with it because our opponents weren’t good enough to take advantage. None of that here: Hull set themselves out to stick a spanner into every single one of our stock passing moves, while remaining patient and watchful and quietly potent when possession came their way. They were far too much for us, and that made for a fascinating tussle between what we are and what we might yet be, a revealing insight into how close we are to being the finished article.

4. For the first half in particular, we were so thoroughly second best that the pre-match confidence in our upwardly-mobile trajectory seemed like embarrassing teenage bullshit. Only our defence emerged with any credit, having just about resisted a rising tide of Hull pressure until the breakthrough was eventually made. The midfield spent its time attempting to thread intricate passes through an impenetrable wall of perfectly-organised blue shirts; the forwards made no headway with anything that we tried to send via more direct means. We are a stylish, exciting team, but there’s a danger we could also be one that never gets beyond half-baked: we were exposed here, made to look lazy and shabby and a bit shambolic. We ended it all a goal down without having had a meaningful shot…but, more than that, with a keen sense that these are the challenges of which promotion seasons are really made, that a crucial part of the season started here.

5. The response to that challenge was telling, fascinating…and ultimately rather confused and confusing. By the end, we’d thrown all caution to the wind, lobbed most of our common sense after it and were rooting around for some sanity to chuck away too. There is, of course, something laudable about a commitment to attacking football which extends to using a fidgety winger (Iketchi Anya) as your sole defensive presence at attacking corners and playing two at the back for the final half hour in an attempt to claw back a deficit…but it has a certain desperation to it as well, a sense that we’re employing tactics more suited to the cauldron of a cup tie than to the weekly grind of the league. It all feels a bit, well, silly.

6. Take a moment, though, to consider the fact that even though it was basically Tommie Hoban against the rest for a third of the game, we didn’t concede again. That boy, more reminiscent of Richard Dunne by the week, is quite a bloody prospect.

7. By the end, we’d hit the post and had one cleared off the line and all of that, and we’d looked a lot more threatening for the craft and touch of Almen Abdi. But we were still firing on too few cylinders: Matej Vydra was lost without spaces to stretch his legs, Anya frustrated again, Troy Deeney gave us too little until finally getting us a goal by, as far as I could tell, forcing the ball so far down Stockdale’s throat that it came out of his bum. Fernando Forestieri’s close-range trickery was what we really needed, I guess, but we have a vast enough squad that you’d hope for more method and less madness in solving these problems.

8. But it’s no fun if it’s easy, right? Seriously, no fun. We can do this, but we have to earn it. The best teams – the ones you remember in an instant – are the ones who came through fire to triumph. We have some growing up to do yet.

Watford 4 Barnsley 1 (01/12/2012) 01/12/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
26 comments

Watford 17 Yorkshire 5.  The latest instalment…

1- I think that the first point to make is that Barnsley weren’t terrible.  Defensively precarious, certainly… ig commented that alarm bells were ringing in the first half every time the ball approached their box.  But not a horror show on a par with Sheffield Wednesday’s second half performance in the week,  and going forward there was a real threat; we were the better side in the first half following Troy Deeney’s excellent opener, but the Tykes were well in the game, creating chances and forcing some important and occasionally spectacular defensive interventions.  No worse than your typical second tier team, then… good bits and bad bits in equal measure.  We beat them comprehensively anyway.

2- As the visitors penned us back at the start of the second half I was reminded of this game during Malky Mackay’s last season.  Having flown at Barnsley early on that day we flagged, dropped the pace of our game and end up clinging desperately on for a point.  We were briefly on our heels here and it looked a little dicey, but this threat and any uncertainty in the destination of the points ended with Mark Yeates’ terrific second goal.

What on earth has happened to Yeates?  It’s not news that this formation and this position suits him far more than the winger’s role that he didn’t entirely convince in last year… but he’s actually doing everything far more effectively.  Three assists this week, his delivery is infinitely more reliable… and prior to his second goal, his second stunning goal of the week, he took on players and beat them.  Yes, really.  And then hit the upright with a late free kick.  Far from the only fine performance of the day… Deeney was bullish, Almunia produced arguably the best, the timeliest, the most critical saves of his Watford career, Battocchio put in a splendid little cameo, Cassetti and Pudil were a constant threat on either flank, Hoban continues to astonish, Chalobah was back on top of his game, Forestieri was Forestieri.  But Yeates’ role in our current run, Almen Abdi’s shoulder notwithstanding, is the most unheralded success.

3- But the man of the match for me, perversely, was the man who ended the game with a dreadful cock-up.  Joel Ekstrand has grown into his role, appears to be more comfortable alongside Fitz Hall’s massive presence and this was as eye-catching and effervescent as a defender is allowed to be – make no mistake, the back three is beginning to look as competitive as the central midfield trio and forward positions.  It wasn’t just his defending that caught the eye either;  with a first half flick of the heel he came close to emulating perhaps his manager’s finest moment.  Is this to become the “Ardley dumps ball at far post for H to crash home” stock goal of this generation?

In the second half a period of Barnsley pressure was repelled by Ekstrand playing a first time pass out, to feet, under pressure… and then sprinting the length of the pitch to get on the end of the move.  It would have been goal of the season in a month full of candidates, but Steele tipped his bomb of a shot over the bar.  Outrageously inappropriate that the game should end with the Swede staring despondently at the ground as his captain strode past him furiously having just seen his clean sheet soiled.

4- For all that each of the back four were splendid today, our defensive vulnerability remains the slight concern.  It’s a function of the playing style, formation and emphasis on attacking that Zola has been so keen on of course and in a way it’s endearing… the ethos of “it doesn’t matter how many goals we concede, as long as we score more” feels historically Watfordesque and allied to 3-5-2 is always going to leave us open.  Which is fine, as long as we keep scoring goals.  It has been asked elsewhere what Sean Dyche might have achieved with this squad of players.  A moot point… but without a doubt it would have looked very different.  Our previous manager’s emphasis on defensive shape above all else has been utterly blown away over the course of one short summer.

5- There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s the potential for a points deduction as a consequence of this week’s revelation of a Football League misconduct charge.  It may be that knowledge of the potential for – or inevitability of – such a development influenced the reticence of the new regime with regard to our prospects this season.  It’s not in our interests to brag about our chances of course – proclaiming that we are the Manchester United of the division, for example, would have been ludicrously counter-productive.  But the firm insistence, even during this startling run of form, that promotion isn’t a requisite this season had seemed a little odd.  Not being remotely capable of assessing these things, however, my preference is to worry about it if and when it happens.  Football this good is too special to be distracted from for one thing.  “We! Are! Go-ing Up (subject to a possible points deduction, terms and conditions may apply)” doesn’t really scan, for another…