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Watford 2 Derby County 1 (23/02/2013) 24/02/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. We seem to be serious. We don’t seem to be flinching. For the first time in my adult life, I’m watching a Watford side on the surge towards automatic promotion to the top flight at the decisive end of the season…and it’s quite difficult to make much of a case for realism, pragmatism or caution, there being very little of any of those in the DNA of this remarkable creature.

It’s been said plenty, but as we hit second place after a couple of near misses, you can suddenly feel it: the playoffs would be a massive disappointment now. Yeah, I know…August…hand bitten off…all of that. But for a team that exudes a playful, arrogant superiority which sometimes verges on the infuriating, there’s a need for something decisive and unarguable and tangible to silence sceptics like me; there needs to be more than style and ambition, like the tricksy winger who beats his opponent seven times but then justifies it all by dropping a perfect cross onto the centre forward’s head. Every team needs its own defining moment, its St Andrews, its Selhurst Park. Every team needs to set its own standards. This lot are setting the bar awfully high.

2. But each passing week seems to fill in more of the gap between theory and reality. In particular, we’re acquiring an obstinacy to back up our cosmopolitan flair: when things aren’t going for us, as they very much weren’t in the latter stages of this game, we are no longer anything like a soft touch. Once upon a time, care-free and a little careless, we’d attempt to open up the game so much that defending seemed a bit of an after-thought…and, if I’m honest, I found that rather annoying. Do the washing-up. These days, we seem much more grown-up, much more responsible and substantial. We look like a side with balance, capable of weathering a storm rather than merely whipping one up to see what happens.

Lloyd Doyley was simply born to play in that role on the right of a three, Nyron Nosworthy retains the happy habit of belting the ball into outer space when the need arises, Joel Ekstrand has evidently decided that he wants to be like them more than he wants to be like Neuton, which is the right choice. It is not an impassable barrier, but we are at least making opponents earn their goals…and the ‘goals against’ column since the Charlton debacle reads like that of a hard-working, grittily competitive outfit. Quietly, while everyone’s watching that Vydra bloke and arguing with Ian Holloway, we’re building some of Sean Dyche’s Watford back into the foundations.

3. So you might want to question why we were hanging on for dear life for the final twenty minutes, against a Derby side which appeared the very image of dour Championship functionality. The very same image, in fact, that we constructed under Dyche last season, a team that nobody apart from committed fans would bother to pay to watch…and no shame in that, as long as it gets the job done. Somehow, with a lot of uncharacteristic frittering of several-on-not-many counter-attacking opportunities and a bit of assistance from a referee whose pointing and shouting seemed only occasionally to come into sync with the game itself as if he’d filmed his performance earlier and then been superimposed, we got ourselves into a bit of a pickle.

When the answer from Gianfranco Zola is to reduce our striking options in favour of reinforcements elsewhere – Jonathan Hogg, in this case – you know that all is not well. That attempt at securing the result was only partially successful, leaving Vydra all on his own to the point where, eventually presented with the chance to put the game beyond doubt, he fluffed his first touch as if genuinely startled to find the white round thing at his feet. But we fought for it: we were fortunate on occasions, and you’re always waiting for someone to pick out the top corner from thirty yards or something, but the bottom line is that Jonathan Bond (on for Manuel Almunia, applauded like a gallant war hero for pulling a bit of a muscle) had only one moment of potential glory and that was trying to save a soft penalty. We didn’t let them through.

4. For the rest of it…well, we would’ve kicked ourselves. We have kicked ourselves, often, in the past. This is different, apparently. By the opening goal, we’d managed to waste three sitters: Ekstrand the least culpable for getting excited and clearing the bar from six yards, simply because he’s not accustomed to such things. But Alex Geijo shoveled clumsily wide of an open goal after Vydra had caused enough blind panic to take two defenders and the goalkeeper out of the game in pursuit of a through-ball; Iketchi Anya scuffed into the side netting in similar circumstances later on, and you started to wonder whether this was a script entitled “One of Those Days”, ending with tripping over a kerbstone and dropping your chips in a puddle.

5. Nope. Vydra’s opener will be entirely familiar to anyone who’s played a football game on a friend’s computer-console-Atari-box (all the jargon, me). The one that they’ve played for hours, days, weeks, months, until the various moves have become more natural than eating. The one where they waltz gleefully through your ‘defence’ with neat one-twos and shots that ping in off the post while you try to remember which button you need to press to hack them down, the only move you’ve even slightly worked out and one that’s resulted in you playing with seven men due to some disciplinary issues. Later in the half, Derby resort to precisely the same tactic, leaving everyone to ponder at what point Vydra+ball+space doesn’t equate to a clear goalscoring opportunity…


Ipswich Town 0 Watford 2 (19/02/2013) 20/02/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Five thunks from the ever reliable three points at Portman Road.  No, it doesn’t get boring.

1- Another away win, another three points.  Tenth away win of the season, 38 away goals a figure only twice bettered over an entire campaign, both in promotion seasons. And any number of other statistics, never forgetting lots related to our record at Portman Road… perhaps now that we’re, you know, good, these parochial concerns shouldn’t matter.  But they do, and I think that’s a good thing.

This wasn’t quite a case of merely turning up, taking the points, going home again though.  As so often, we started like cooped up labradors suddenly released for a roam in the park… full of energy, full of purpose.  That analogy falls down quite quickly actually, because there’s nothing random, indisciplined or wildly excited about it… but in any case, it was too much for an Ipswich side that started slowly.  Jonathan Hogg sounded an early clarion by belting a drive square against the bar three minutes in and almost splitting it.  Would have been a Johnno goal, that one.  Such was the density of the fog at this point, pawing damply at our cold faces, that Dad and I were both able to misread an 8 for a 9 and award that near miss to Troy.  Our early dominance was evident despite the mist, more chances came and went before Ikechi Anya gave us the lead in the 18th minute rounding off a much more elegant move than our position at the far corner enabled us to follow at the time.  “Anya!”, I tweeted informatively, to which my non-football neighbour tweeted back something about Orinoco Flow

The point is, the opening blitz hasn’t always worked for us in the past, particularly where we’ve not capitalised with an opponent pinned back who then gain in confidence. Here, it could be argued, it was crucial.  The one-goal lead was never secure… we were on to for the most part, save a spell at the end of the first half, but it wouldn’t have taken much and would have felt a whole lot different without that lead.  Mick McCarthy already has his stamp on this Ipswich team and significantly opted not to come out and chase the game straight away, whither a whole host of teams have gone in other away fixtures this season.  They lost anyway of course, but in the meantime the game descended into a stodgy mess.  Whilst we had more of the chances, we also rode a penalty appeal as Lee Martin went down – looked a little desperate to me, but it could have been given – and any number of lobbed balls into a congested penalty area by a lively Carlos Edwards, bodies flying, ball bouncing.  Only when Chalobah skated onto one of those Abdi through balls were we able to relax.

2- Much discussion beforehand about the potential for team rotation of course, and whilst there isn’t an automatic causal link between a good decision and a good outcome consensus would probably be that three changes, one of which enforced by Daniel Pudil’s illness, was about right.  Of the new boys Ekstrand slotted straight back in, tough and immaculate, and Hogg had one of his better games on a difficult pitch that demanded graft.  Of Fernando… it’s slightly unfair, however accurate, to highlight that he hasn’t really played well since signing that contract.  Unfair, since Vydra’s form has restricted the Argentine to cameo roles and occasional starts – other than that ill-fated defeat at Bristol he’d managed less than 45 minutes in the past month. But this was still below par, even if he was more involved, more in tune, more connected than we’ve seen for a while.  One move summed his evening up entirely – haring after Deeney’s through ball in the second half he cut from left to right across the box past one marker, dummied to fool a second, and then fired wide.  So nearly brilliant, which describes much of what Nando has offered so far.

As ever the bench betrayed our strength in depth, our greater resilience to the physical demands of the coming weeks than some of our rivals, we hope.  So Craig Forsyth reprised his role at left wing-back, and looked every bit as solid, aggressive and confident as he had looked gangly and awkward last season.  Alex Geijo also got a rare call and looked tidy, strong, cohesive and in his determination to get on the score sheet stood out for his urgency in the closing ten minutes.  The only player who obviously struggled was, unusually, Marco Cassetti who seemed thoroughly out of sorts at wing back before switching into the back three in the second half to resume his utter mastery of any ball foolish enough to stray within his reach.  This switch was first betrayed when we noticed that the support to Troy in another breakaway move was provided by Lloyd Doyley, who gave a predictably energetic and wholehearted interpretation of the wing-back role for half an hour.

3- Always more noise away from home of course, and the array of chants provided by a noisy near-1000 away following (at an eye-watering £31+ a head) spanned the range from the sublime to the ridiculous.  I haven’t quite sussed the lyrics to the Anya-based recital of the “Heartbeat” theme yet, but the “Doo doo, doo-doo doo” bits are lots of fun.  Craig Forsyth has his own chant, which you’d have got long odds on at the start of the season, a welcome reprise of Allan Smart’s number.  Even Mark Yeates was welcomed to the field in song (yes, Dave).  Scott Loach was asked, in more concise terms, whether he felt that his place on the Ipswich bench reflected negatively upon his ability, our manager’s height and nation of origin were referred to quite a lot.  And then there was the stuff about our playing style.  “Sexy football!” I can accept.  It is, and why not sing about it after all.  But, “we’re Watford FC, we play on the floor”?  Here, of all places?  Where we’ve spent so many years fighting harder and wanting it more than an Ipswich side that has fannied around and whose supporters clung to the “yes, but we try to play in lovely triangles unless you try to stop us you big meanies” straw for all they were worth?  We won because we were the better side, and that included matching Ipswich for effort.  But that we played it on the floor?  Incidental.  Know your history, boys.

4- As for Ipswich… as above, they’re Mick McCarthied, they’re tough and awkward and with a few more bounces of the ball (or decisions from a card-happy referee) weren’t really that far from a result.  Perilously close to the relegation zone or not you kind of feel they ought to stay up… survival is merely a case of being less awful than three other teams after all and even in a season without an obvious basket case they ought to be able to manage that.  Which is probably ok by me, six wins and two draws in eight visits and so forth.

5- Most satisfying is that we showed we can win a different type of game.  We’re lethal on the break, yes, and woe betide a side who tries to play carefree open football against us.  But McCarthy’s approach, slow start aside, is what you’d have prescribed as The Way to Beat Us.  Get in our faces, defend deep, don’t give us space to play around in, much less to play into.  Play on the break, don’t give a stuff about what you’re supposed to do as the home side.  Make it ugly, make it difficult.  It worked for Bristol City.  It didn’t work tonight.  Particularly in the wake of putting Birmingham to the sword so comprehensively this was hugely impressive stuff in its own way.  Again.  You Orns.

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 2 (08/02/2013) 09/02/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. These are the games, my friends. Bursting with possibility…for disaster, for triumph, for all of the stuff in between. For finding out what you’re really made of. A clash between two cresting waves, unstoppable and inevitable; no time for caution or reserve, just a head-on collision at full pelt. For a club like ours, you only really get them when promotion is on the horizon: cup or league encounters with higher forces lack the same balance, relegation six-pointers lack the surging ambition. Not a game that was ever going to end goalless and sterile, this.

2. Quite what Palace were doing in the first twenty minutes is anyone’s guess, although I imagine Ian Holloway might be more willing than most to have a stab at an answer. Something hilarious, no doubt, involving a comedy metaphor about ferrets. (Yeah, I know, glass houses.) What they weren’t doing, without question, is paying much attention to Almen Abdi, who was allowed to walk through the open front door while everyone was nailing boards over the windows in preparation for the coming Vydra-Deeney storm. A storm which turned out to be the one Michael Fish had in mind on that fateful night, a bit of minor dampness and meteorological flatulence; they’ve both had better games.

It’s not as if Palace didn’t have time to sort themselves out, Abdi having had an almost identical sighter to his opener within a couple of minutes. They were slow and sloppy and slack and other things that you simply can’t afford to be against us these days…you almost want to take teams to one side and give them a friendly warning. By the time Nathaniel Chalobah had headed home a second, a rare (sort of) set piece goal from a side that’s almost come to regard such things as a bit gauche, the whole evening threatened to end in glorious anticlimax, like turning up for the clash of the titans to find someone prodding a sleeping dormouse with a pencil. You wouldn’t have minded, naturally, but I must confess that I find some relish in watching this impudent young side tested properly, some pride in the division we’ve all been part of for so long biting back a little; it won’t do them any harm at all.

3. And bloody hell, it bit back here. At around the midway point of the first half, we sucked the Palace midfield towards us, bypassed it with an absolutely glorious, almost casual forward pass from Tommie Hoban, and set in motion a break so expansive and sweeping that it appeared to belong on a prairie more than a football pitch. It ended with Matej Vydra stretching to head wide, pretty much his only sight of goal during the entire match. And we lavished it all with our applause, two-nil up and putting on a show. And for a minute or so, we followed that with some extravagant flicks and tricks, fluttering our eyelashes and blowing kisses at ourselves in the mirror and imagining admirers swooning in our wake as we entered the ballroom. We woke up with a terrible headache.

Well, that’s not quite fair: we should take quite a bit of pride in certain aspects of the remaining ninety minutes, to my reckoning. If you want grumbling, you can find it elsewhere, I’m sure. (I’m writing this on the train and I’ve just found some stray chocolate coins from Christmas in my bag, so I’m in the mood for looking on the bright side.) Anyway, thing is…when we began all of this back in August, and for quite a while beyond that, and possibly until quite recently, we were often guilty of a frivolous, carefree and sometimes rather silly attitude to defending. That whole you-score-five-we’ll-score-six thing seemed like terrific fun when we were sticking it to the toffs under GT, but it smacks of a certain dismissive arrogance now that our side is populated with imported talent, riches we couldn’t have dreamt of before the takeover. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it properly. Let’s break a sweat. Let’s earn it.

So, you might not think that throwing away a two-goal lead is anything to be proud of. But I suggest that little was thrown away here: on the contrary, only conceding two goals, and comparatively few other chances beyond that, and emerging with a draw in the face of such a sustained onslaught represents something of a triumph in its own way. It’s not merely that lesser teams would’ve lost; lesser teams would’ve been pulled apart altogether. For the absolute entirety of the second half, a Palace tidal wave swamped our midfield and pushed on towards our back three and beyond; it was relentless and undeniable and there was nothing for it but to cling on. A side built on possession, we couldn’t retain the ball for long enough to get over the halfway line without punting hopefully in the direction of a largely irrelevant Deeney. Chalobah, our outlet and playmaker, was surrounded, dragged into a dark alley and unceremoniously mugged as soon as he ventured into the areas he’s used to strutting around like he owns; Hogg fought hard against the odds but could supply nothing constructive; Abdi was typically immaculate once every ten minutes and utterly lost otherwise. There must’ve been space somewhere, bits of the pitch that were safe from the marauding hordes, but we seemed too exhausted to find them, and wasted our rare moments of respite with rash choices and over-eagerness, particularly once the frustrating Forestieri had replaced Vydra.

We didn’t hold firm, obviously. But we didn’t collapse either. Tellingly, we conceded the best chances, including the equaliser, when we followed our attacking instincts and pushed Pudil up into the final third; that was the space Palace needed and they exploited it ruthlessly. For the most part, though, our defence was immense, following Lloyd Doyley’s lead in a way that, frankly, it’s never needed to before. We didn’t pass the test, perhaps, but this was no failure.

4. Nevertheless, one or two regrets. Given that we spent the second half not so much on the back foot as flat on our backs with a pillow over our faces, and given that we particularly couldn’t match our opponents’ furious aggression in midfield, it seems absolutely extraordinary that we only used one substitute in normal time. It was as if Gianfranco turned round as the fourth official prepared his injury time board, saw Christian Battocchio sat in his coat on the bench and exclaimed, “Oh shit! Haven’t we done that yet?”

And more to the point, I simply have no idea why you’d finish a match of such intensity without putting John Eustace into the fray. No bloody idea. Forty-five minutes that screamed out for leadership and courage and strength…and the club captain, a man who embodies those things to a slightly terrifying degree, is watching it all from the sidelines. I appreciate and applaud our commitment to these honourable new principles, but you can take the unarmed missionary act too far…

5. These are the games, then. But it feels as if Vicarage Road no longer responds to them as it once did…it’s never been a ground with any inherent atmosphere, perhaps, but special nights under lights have always brought something out, the importance of the occasion or the surge in the performance echoed in the crowd. Here, the Rookery mustered as close to fervour as now seems possible, but was thoroughly drowned out by a ninety minute sing-song from the visitors in red and blue. In truth, it’s nothing like fervour. It’s not even anything like the noise that we know can cascade from the stands when the time is right, when the moment catches us all.

If not now, then when? And how? Silence is not golden.

Watford 2 Bolton Wanderers 1 (02/02/2013) 03/02/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Right on cue, right when we needed it, the clearest indication yet of how far the project might take us, how high it might be aimed. And I use the word “project” deliberately, for the sense of a work-in-progress involving multiple, and potentially changeable, parts is very clear; it extends further than “team” or “squad”…or even “club”. It is new and unknown and weird and, yes, rather exciting. And there’s still a lot to get used to.

Some of it feels plain wrong, especially to a generation brought up with Graham Taylor’s amplified version of 4-4-2. For me, the idea that a midfield trio of Christian Battocchio, Nathaniel Chalobah and Almen Abdi might be capable of winning football matches at this level rather than being bossed around by bigger, stronger, harder opponents, stealing their lunch money and making them buy fags from the corner shop, runs counter to every instinct and all experience; it couldn’t be further from Les Taylor and Kenny Jackett if it were comprised of Martians in tutus. And yet here it is, a win conjured up by being smarter and quicker and lighter than often dominant opponents, out-thinking them rather than out-fighting. A win achieved without a ball-winner and, often, without the ball.

Similarly, I see us flicking passes around and taking chances with possession in precarious places…and I want to grab people by the ears and shout at them to NOT DO THAT. I pine for an Andy Hessenthaler to put a stop to it all. And I want to offer grave wisdom about how you can’t do that in the Premiership because the ball will be nestling in the top corner before you’ve blinked. And yet…am I right? Are the occasional, and very visible, cock-ups merely an affordable price to pay for the attacking fluidity which has got us up to fourth in the table and threatens to take us much, much further? Is this, perhaps, just a means to an end, a percentage game disguised as cavalier conceit?

2. So, for much of the first half, we look like a team that’s believed all of the counter-attacking hype, as if we need take no responsibility for setting a tempo or marking out territory; leave the other lot to do all of the hard labour, then pick ’em off when they fall asleep around the fire. We reek of that cavalier conceit, all ill-conceived cross-field passes and daft attempts to take people on when there’s no earthly need. Frankly, we’re a bit irritating, a smart-arse student incapable of answering a straight question with an answer that isn’t at once flippant, ironic, arrogant…and, annoyingly, correct.

We invite Bolton to have a go, which they duly do. And they’re a very tidy and confident outfit, driving at us from a solid midfield base with enough up front – hello, Marvin – to produce some nervous moments. They win and convert a soft penalty. We start to get a bit ruffled for the first time, shaking off our indolence and finding some urgency…and they’re done for. The remainder is an irresistible illustration of our recent class upgrade, for we attack infrequently and yet with such lethal quality that little stands between us and a bit of a rout.

We appear second best in lots of respects. Perhaps we are second best…although I struggle to know, now that my instinct and experience seem so out-dated. Regardless, we are so much better in the final third that the win is undeniable and ultimately rather emphatic. There was a palpable gulf in class here, between our work-in-progress and theirs. Extraordinary, when you think about it, when you consider how likely that might’ve seemed back in August.

3. The idea that this particular line-up is The One will last only until it’s challenged from without, by opponents, or within, by the extraordinary strength-in-depth that we possess. It’s not very long at all since Matej Vydra was a habitual substitute and Ferdando Forestieri an automatic starter, and that wasn’t because the manager had got it wrong. The breathtaking potential is within the resources available to Gianfranco Zola, now and moving forward.

That said, Vydra is extraordinary. A couple of months ago, he’d tend to disappear if the game didn’t suit his party pieces; he had to make an impact beyond the sudden sprints into spaces behind an offside trap. As with lots of things, that assumption now seems old, weary and redundant: he’s become such a lethal threat when facing goal anywhere that the whole game is stretched and distorted by his presence. Watching our equaliser – spin, gone, wallop – you can only conclude that our opposition now treads on impossibly thin ice, a defensive line and an offside trap and a goalkeeper and nothing else between them and oblivion. It’s like playing Buckaroo at gunpoint. Only a stupendous flying block from Tim Ream prevented another two-goal haul. He is frightening, unstoppable like nothing else we’ve seen at the Vic…well, ever, I venture.

Spin. Gone. Wallop.

4. The second was a joy too, somehow smuggled through enemy lines and over the border by a combination of Vydra and Abdi, moving silently under cover of night and sleeping in hedgerows by day. We have scored fine goals in years past…most recently, the goal-of-the-season competitions from Malky Mackay’s two campaigns contained some thrillingly concise, crisp football. But nothing like this. Every part of me wants to caution against allowing aesthetics to become the be-all and end-all. I desperately want to shrug and remind you all that it’s about moments…and those moments sometimes involve the ball deflecting off a defender’s arse…and that can be just as fantastic as any sculpted masterpiece.

But it is beautiful stuff, undeniably. Beautiful and successful.

5. Daniel Pudil is Kenny from South Park. “Oh my God! They killed Pudil! You bastards!”