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Watford 3 Burnley 3 (29/03/2013) 30/03/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. Much earlier in the season, before all of the water went under the bridge, I’d prepared a rather pointed and yet, hopefully, vaguely amusing analogy for a report on our home game with Brighton. It rode a favourite hobby horse, of the type you can use to test how much your partner really loves you: the tendency of restaurants to serve panna cotta, that most gently, kindly delectable of puddings, with some kind of fruit compote, rhubarb or blackcurrant or something similarly sharp. And really, why would anyone who actually likes panna cotta enough to pick it from a menu want that? It’s like writing a piece for string quartet and amplified foghorn. I blame Masterchef.

I quickly realised that the analogy, an attempt at drawing a comparison with the drowning of an essentially mild and likeable Championship side by a new regime and its vast quantity of randomly-imported rhubarb, had a serious flaw. That flaw, of course, was that nobody compares Sean Dyche to a milk pudding and escapes without a thick ear. And besides, the game itself didn’t fit the mould I’d prepared for it.

The analogy fits even less well now. The most tiresome aspect of the recent glib, misinformed controversy is that we went through all of that stuff months ago: there’s an implicit suggestion in much of the criticism that Watford supporters have blindly followed a winning team, oblivious to the wider issues and ignorant of the facts. The reality is that many of the supporters I know wouldn’t blindly follow anything; some of them, and me too, would obstinately and proudly run in the opposite direction at the very suggestion. In short, if this didn’t still feel like Watford, if it just felt like someone else’s kindergarten team or a theoretical exercise, the league table wouldn’t shut many of us up.

But it does feel like Watford. In many ways, it feels more like Watford than anything for many years: this is a club whose identity has been enhanced, not obscured or replaced. A new version, undoubtedly, with much to get used to. But the remarkable achievement of this season, however it ends, has been to pull this club closer together, to turn it into something coherent and comprehensible. The point of vintage Watford – Graham Taylor’s Watford, to be clear – was always to be more than a team on a pitch; the club had ends other than merely producing three points on a Saturday. That, of course, made the three points on a Saturday all the more sweet. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting a lot of things right again.

And so we welcomed Sean Dyche back to a very different club. We applauded him warmly, and quite rightly; he applauded us, which was typically decent of him. And he stood on the touchline with Ian Woan, pointing and shouting and looking as if he’d never left. And then we went our separate ways again. And now we’re here, you wouldn’t change it, would you?

2. Oh, and he took a point with him. A point from the kind of tetchy, irritable, much-interrupted match that ends some time after Grandstand or whatever it is now has been through the reading of the final scores. The kind of match that Adrian Boothroyd briefly turned into a bit of an artform, “managing the game” as if it were some kind of viral outbreak to be contained for the sake of public safety; you’re fooling yourself if you think that last season’s Dyche-built Watford side was any less aggravating than Burnley were here. (Exhibit A: Joe Garner.)

The suspicion all along has been that we might eventually be undone by a lack of streetwise survival skills, that there might be one or two occasions too many when we’d miss John Eustace. We were comfortable winners of the beauty contest, but there were physical and mental challenge to be met too, inevitably, and we definitely weren’t winners in either of those. Instead, we were too easily distracted by irrelevant fussing around minor decisions, by things that we didn’t need or want to get involved in. By whether the ball was exactly in the corner quadrant, for pity’s sake. We didn’t play to our strengths nearly enough. Adrian Boothroyd would’ve been appalled.

3. The end result is that a vital game in which we scored three rather exquisite goals of a very un-Boothroyd class finished with a stunned, desolate silence hanging around Vicarage Road and a hole below the waterline of HMS Automatic Promotion. All of that stuff about scoring one more than the other lot is fine as long as you do. If you don’t, it just looks careless and a bit silly, like you’ve bought the Lamborghini and the mock-Tudor mansion before checking that you put the winning lottery ticket somewhere safe.

It’s true that we’ve built our free-flowing football on a defence that isn’t afraid of the ball, which, by necessity, has a trade-off in terms of security and control. You have to compromise somewhere. But this was a bit much, even so: two desperate goals resulting from people blazing past Marco Cassetti in the first half, then following reorganisation and reinforcement to solve the problem, the bitter blow of seeing the same thing happen to Matthew Briggs when we thought the game was won. As with Neuton, it has to be said that Briggs is the point at which Zola’s cavalier approach to defending starts to descend into self-parody. In truth, I don’t know that I want us to change the compromise, now that it’s been struck…but it shouldn’t become an excuse. This isn’t really the time for excuses.

4. Which leaves us with a well-deserved thunk for the forwards, some positivity to balance out the frustration. It being a team game – a squad game, really – having the best player in the division doesn’t really count for anything on its own; besides, Matej Vydra’s impact has been sporadic, if spectacular, through the course of the season and his last days in the Championship might echo those of Danny Graham, such an evident threat that he almost becomes a decoy. We’ve needed others to step up.

Never any doubt about Troy Deeney, of course. Not since his return to action, so clearly the missing ingredient, have we had cause to think of him as anything other than our first choice centre forward, our line leader…and he was massive here, one of too few who really could claim to have matched finesse with an appetite for the physical battle. Splendid goal, and a mere couple of inches from an almost equally splendid second, just lifting his lob ever so slightly too high and onto the crossbar in first half injury time. For all the focus on our loanees and ex-loanees, it’s Deeney, I’d suggest, who has lit the way for this team, much as John Eustace did for the two previous campaigns.

But if you want cause for optimism – aside from the marvellous Palace scoreline that came in as I was writing this – then you should find it in the rejuvenation of Fernando Forestieri. Another brace of sublime goals…particularly the first, in which Fitz Hall borrowed Almen Abdi’s sliderule and a crowd of defenders wasn’t enough to prevent the little magician from tricking his way into position for an instant, unstoppable finish. An exuberant, glittery party popper of a goal; that’s the football we’ve been playing this season and that should, for better or worse, see us through to the end.

5. At some point in the second half, an errant throw from Jonathan Bond gifted Burnley their clearest opening of the game, which they duly fluffed…and for the next ten minutes, every opportunity to distribute from the back was greeted with insistent howls to avoid a repeat and clout it forward out of harm’s way. But that’s an admission of defeat: we’ve built from the back all season, we’ve accepted that risk, we’ve made it our strength. It’s what we do.

Sometime during April, perhaps even in May, we’ll find out how all of this ends. Modern football is full of people rushing to be first with a definitive conclusion: the must-win game, the title decider, the point of no return. But you’re in the wrong place if you want that: Burnley’s late goal felt like a punch in the stomach, but that’s all it was. It hurt, but we’ll live. Nothing’s decided yet.


Barnsley 1 Watford 0 (16/03/2013) 16/03/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I woke up this morning with a plan.  I like having a plan, I’m that sort of person.  I suppose I should be grateful that the flat tyre was on the side of the car visible from the living room window, caused by a stray nail apparently.  “Oh, and you need petrol too” came the shout from the kitchen.

The fates were trying to tell me something, clearly, but my devotion to The Plan was going to take more disrupting than half an hour flailing gracelessly in the mud and drizzle switching on the space saver, a nervous drive to the service station to fill up and a new tyre.  Trips to Barnsley have tended to be a bit rubbish, it’s almost a tradition, and that hadn’t proven a deterrent either.  It’s not that Oakwell isn’t a good place to visit – a proper football club, a proper ground, easy enough to get to, decent away car park two minutes’ walk from what inevitably becomes the away “pub” (albeit nestled incongruously in a leisure centre).  It’s just that the football doesn’t tend to be particularly memorable.  I must have been to Oakwell a dozen times in the past 20 years or so.  Off the pitch…  aggressive stewards, a freezing night in 2000, a comedy eviction, jump starting a Ford Fiesta on a 45 degree slope without even thinking about it… On the pitch, I’ve got Paul Furlong’s mental goal in 1994 (at the end of the worst game of all time). And that’s it.  This game won’t linger in the memory either.

2- The first half opened in briefly encouraging fashion, rattling from end to end in what looked as if it might end up an engaging, competitive game.  Instead, our considerable possession foundered, as against Blackpool, on the flimsiness of our midfield.  Cristian Battocchio has impressed intermittently since his arrival but tends to do so only when the team is playing well around him – he’s a good cog in a functioning team, but hasn’t suggested the maturity to influence a performance rather than merely participating in it.  He was all but anonymous here.  Mark Yeates was even worse, having an absolute stinker for 45 minutes (give ball away, run after it, commit silly foul, repeat) such that his withdrawal at the interval for the inevitable introduction of Chalobah was no surprise, despite Battochio’s lowprofile.  And whilst Hogg fetched and carried as ever our attacking play was too slow, too deliberate, and short of confidence and ingenuity.  All three have had better days.

3- Barnsley contributed to this by hounding down our possession relentlessly, crowding the ball when we had it and attacking with purpose when they did.  Watford’s back three largely impressed and stood up well to the challenge but it took some last gasp interventions to deny a ponderous Jason Scotland, first Lloyd Doyley and then Nyron Nosworthy on separate occasions swooping in to dispossess the Trinidadian striker before he could get the ball out from his feet to shoot when through on goal.  Jonathan Bond was twice called into action, producing one point blank save and then flying out to snatch the ball from the feet of O’Brien.  The winger was bowled over by the challenge but had the candour to congratulate the goalkeeper with a slap on the shoulder on his way up off the turf – not that this prevented a few misguided catcalls demanding a penalty. Ultimately Hassell’s header to Mellis’ cross after the rusty-looking Cassetti’s silly foul gave away a free kick on the left gave the Tykes a deserved half time lead and refuelled their charging around for the second period. It had been coming.

4- The second half was better, even if it took Nathaniel Chalobah ten minutes of grotesquely giving every ball away under Barnsley’s lunatic pressure before he tuned in and started knitting our attacks together.  Our play was still too deliberate, but Cassetti and particularly Anya were now being released into space, and the hardworking Deeney began to see more of the ball than hurried punts towards his head (albeit he courted controversy by twice going in aggressively on goalkeeper Steele in frustration at his lack of space and opportunity).  Forestieri and Mujangi Bia were introduced for Anya and Hogg, the former on the left of a front three and the latter in a three man midfield.  For the final twenty minutes we had the home side on the back foot for the first time – we’d visibly been stretching the play, hugging the touchlines, testing the legs of our adversaries who inevitably weren’t closing down quite as attentively in the final period of the game.  It wouldn’t have taken very much – Forestieri tricked and twisted, Chalobah glided around looking for a gap, Vydra – still out of touch and not given nearly enough opportunity to grab the goal he needs – on the shoulder, Deeney dragging the team along.  The rebounds didn’t fall for us, Vydra’s one, fine drive was anticipated by Steele.  It wasn’t our afternoon.

5- One week on not a lot has changed – in particular our need for the international break is very real.  We need to get our shit together again, we need Chalobah, Abdi, Cassetti, Hall fit and firing.  But the most depressing aspect of today was that the home side wanted this far more.  Much easier to stay on message when things are going for you – Barnsley got the lead, and were able to limit our effectiveness.  Their gameplan was working, of course they were going to keep their heads up.  But for all of our increased threat as the game drew to a close the body language was poor.  Both sides looked tired;  we looked beaten.  Not for the first time this season, probably not for the last, you find yourself wishing for a bit of John Eustace’s bloody mindedness, we really needed a leader out there today. We’re going to need to withstand this sort of relentless pressure as the season draws to a close – it’s not as if the formula is particularly complicated, however well executed.  We’ve been adapting and improving all season.  We need to adapt again, and quickly.

Watford 1 Blackpool 2 (09/03/2013) 10/03/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- What an odd afternoon…  and what an improbable outcome on the basis of the first half.  We had been far from rampant and Blackpool had threatened, particularly late in the half, with the irrepressible Ince Jr an evident threat… but our side, weakened by significant and largely enforced absences, was being given a far easier ride than we had any right to expect.

There’s a formula that has emerged over recent weeks and months, a Way To Play to give yourself a puncher’s chance against Watford.  It involves chasing down all over the pitch, defending deep and then breaking and trusting to luck.  It’s not foolproof;  Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich both tried it and lost anyway, but others have profited.  Blackpool ignored this strategy altogether, opting instead to stand off us in midfield and operate a precarious high defensive line that appeared to be patched together with sellotape and dried-up bits of used blu-tac.  It made no sense whatsoever, neither limiting our greatest threats – the use of the ball in midfield, pace on the break – nor sucking us in to permit Blackpool’s only obvious threat – the pace of Phillips and Ince – to be fully utilised.

Given the metronomic Chalobah or the mercilessly incisive Abdi the first half might have finished with a more conclusive scoreline.  Absences aside we should still have been further ahead, Jonathan Hogg spurning one outstanding chance when he attacked the box well, got his head to Anya’s cross and thumped it wide.  So we only had Cristian Battocchio’s divine finish after Deeney’s bullish aggression had won possession to show for the first 45.  It didn’t feel narrow or nervous, we were much the better side.

2-The game changed after the break. Blackpool altered their formation to put an extra man in midfield and enjoyed more of the ball, albeit largely inconsequentially.  We’d hardly been racking up the chances ourselves, but whilst still in the lead were better suited by an increasingly sterile encounter.  Until they scored, of course… the recalled Doyley and debutant Briggs, who did well enough for the most part, had been selected for pace and we’d coped well, the visitors had barely had a sight of goal.  Ince Jr’s quality meant that they only needed the one, Crainey finding a gap down the left for the only time in the game, playing a ball firmly across the area for Ince to tuck in at the near post.

That’s the risk in a one goal lead, of course.  Now level, the limitations of the available personnel were more evident.  None of Hogg, Battocchio or Yeates had a particularly bad game – Yeates, indeed, was arguably our stand-out player in a first half performance that was crowned with a brutal yet surgically precise dispossession of Ince that his club captain would have enjoyed.  But none of the three of them offered the guile of Chalobah or Abdi, and as Anya tired our attacking play was becoming increasingly laboured and impotent.

It got worse…  Ince’s right-wing corner was swung into a heavily congested box, Mackenzie stabbed home as Bond claimed he’d been impeded.  Difficult to judge, even from directly above the incident there was all sorts going on in there… but this wasn’t an afternoon to be relying on the decisions of the officials…

3- …on which subject and digressing only slightly, I feel the game has lost something in the field of notorious officials.  Stuart Atwell’s still knocking around of course but we’ve only really been exposed to one instance of his incompetence, albeit one stunningly memorable. Where are the Roger Milfords, the Rob Styles, the Derek Civils?  Andy d’Urso is a watered down alternative, a pastiche only introduced to a series as the original cast have moved on to better things.  There have always been instances of bad refereeing of course, and it’s always been easier to spot when you’re on the receiving end.  But now it’s perpetrated by people whose names I don’t remember…

This was a corker, of course.  That Gianfranco Zola, unfailingly courteous to opponents and officials alike throughout the season, saw fit to let fire with both barrels for the first time speaks volumes;  perhaps we paid the price for having a smiling affable manager instead of an aggressive obnoxious little weasel (quite what had prompted Ince Sr’s gesturing to the Rookery at the end of the game escaped me).  Beyond that, one just has to take refereeing like this as part of the fabric of the season, a random obstacle to be navigated in the same way as a hamstring strain to a key player.  Two penalty decisions stand out, for the record – Deeney, in the first half, was hauled down at a corner kick – the referee may have been unsighted, his assistant less so.  And in the dying minutes Lloyd Doyley, of all people, popped up on the edge of the area, attempted to wrong foot his opponent and had his foot taken from under him.  No danger of being unsighted this time, clear as day even from the opposite end of the stadium, but no decision – the official bottled it, plain and simple.  Other calls didn’t go our way either, but were less clear cut;  Pudil had another penalty shout in the first half, but in a congested penalty area with all sorts going on.  Blackpool’s second goal, as already described, featured some rather brutal targeting of the goalkeeper.  These things are often pulled up – not today.

4- One disturbing extension of an already disturbing trend was the lack of contribution from Matej Vydra on his introduction.  Blackpool’s high line looked like it was made for him, and yet the only involvement I recall in his 22+4 minutes was an ill judged attempt to run through three opponents,  heralded by someone behind me as his first touch a some time after his introduction.  We’ve noted before how the predecessor that Vydra most resembles, in his relentless movement and effortless finishing is Kevin Phillips.  Unlike the young Phillips, whose Watford career was peppered with periods of apparent introspection and self-doubt, Vydra has appeared mechanically consistent – until this little run, which has gone on too long to be down to tiredness. Whether he’s carrying a knock, whether he’s suffering from the attention borne of his higher profile or whether he’s simply low in confidence, perhaps a combination of these, he was all but anonymous during his time on the pitch.

5- So bringing all of that together… we have what amounts to an extraordinary injury crisis by any normal standards.  I’ve heard comments along the lines of “we’ve been lucky to avoid injuries”, but the truth is that we’ve had a few players out throughout.  The current list includes Almunia, Abdi, Chalobah, Eustace, Hoban, Hall, Neuton, Smith with Ekstrand and Cassetti not fit to start.  That’s a more than decent defence/midfield, arguably stronger than what we fielded yesterday.  We have key players looking tired and out of form – worth bearing in mind the next time that Zola opts to rotate his squad.  We had a number of key refereeing decisions go against us, a couple of them quite perversely so as discussed.

And yet we were still unlucky to lose the game.  We could do with the international break a week sooner than scheduled, perhaps.  But in the grand scheme of things, we’ve demonstrated that we can not quite be on our mettle and still win games.  Quite a lot went against us yesterday.  We should have won anyway.  Things aren’t too shabby really, are they?

Watford 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (05/03/2013) 06/03/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. We all needed this, I think. Individually, in all kinds of different ways, and collectively too. Ninety minutes of nonsensical technicolour bedlam…and every successful season ought to have its fair share of nonsensical technicolour bedlam. (I’d typed ‘promotion season’ in the preceding sentence, then I thought better of it. But tempting fate seems a bit irrelevant in the current circumstances: it feels as if we’ve spent most of the season tempting fate, then dancing away from it while chuckling to ourselves…)

Anyway, somewhere amid the slightly hysterical reaction to the Wolves result was the unmistakable sense of having something to lose, a feeling that this was suddenly an opportunity too good to waste with careless finishing, lapses in concentration, and wafty nether regions. A bit of a wake-up call, if you like. A bit of a millstone round our necks, if you don’t like. Suddenly, up to second and down to business and all that, we ought to be taking it rather more seriously and responsibly…which is exactly what I’ve been banging on about for the last few months, attempting to chuck a well-aimed board rubber at the cocky kids at the back of the class, because sometimes we ought to be listening to the lesson rather than sniggering and passing notes. I’m talking about you, Mr Chalobah. YES, YOU, MR CHALOBAH.

But it doesn’t feel quite right, does it? As with many things about this season, it’s all upside down: the received wisdom might be that this is the time for knuckling down, tightening up and so forth, but I find it hard to think (it is half past midnight, so please make allowances) of a single way in which received wisdom has been proved correct by the events of this extraordinary season. Much as we might’ve fluctuated between inspiring and infuriating, often within the same match, we’ve got to second by being ourselves, first and foremost. Back in August, after the summer upheaval, we didn’t even know what “being ourselves” meant any more, but we’ve established a remarkably strong identity since then, we’ve pulled together a tight, progressive and rather splendid little football club around this brilliant, patchwork squad.

In short, we’ve got to second by playing with freedom. By following our attacking instincts even when coaching manuals, common sense and British fair play say we ought to back down. By honouring a commitment to passing football even when it gets us into trouble (NOT THERE, FERNANDO). Especially when it gets us into trouble (NOT THERE, FERNANDO). By scoring goals and making mistakes and having fun and not losing too much sleep when it doesn’t work out. This is the least constrained Watford side any of us have ever seen…and there’s no sense in fetching the harness and whip now. If we’re going to do this, it won’t be by heaping pressure on ourselves or by bowing to convention. Let’s face it: the best possible outcome of the season is one hell of a peak; the worst possible outcome ain’t much of a trough….

2. That was all one thunk, apparently. If that was one, then this is one too. Post-modernism! Yeah!

3. So, the second half was joyous and redemptive…and it was celebrated in a way that Vicarage Road hasn’t celebrated for a long old time. Players and fans alike, we seemed to find something we’d lost. We need to cling onto it; if we do, we’ll be absolutely fine, come what may.

It was an extraordinary forty-five minutes, really. Extraordinary and implausible, because any normal Watford side would’ve allowed itself to be overwhelmed by the significance of it all, to lose sight of the simple things and to start doing complicated things badly, to play into the hands of resolute opponents at every turn. We’ve seen it all before: you’ve sat and watched the disintegration often enough that I barely need to describe it. You can hear the howls of frustration as someone misplaces a pass all too clearly. Sort it out.

Instead, we seemed to stop over-thinking it all. Even as we were supposedly closing the game out – the very phrase seems absurd – there were moments when we’d be caught with our entire midfield excitedly gamboling around in the opposition half, chasing dreams rather than merely a third goal. There was one absurd passage in which Fernando Forestieri over-elaborated in a perilous position near the halfway line (NOT THERE, FERNANDO) and lost possession to set off a Wednesday break…and then, as if to demonstrate how thoroughly he rejected the lesson, did exactly the same thing all over again on the edge of our penalty area within a minute. And then got booked for doing the same thing again and fouling his escaping opponent, rugby-tackling him to the ground like a have-a-go hero apprehending a handbag thief.

And you know what? I’m finally coming to love all of that, to see it for what it is. Because that carefree exuberance, much as it’s the stuff of palpitations and frustrations, isn’t something to grow out of. That carefree exuberance is, I suggest, what won us this game when we were doing a pretty good job of losing it; it’s what allowed us to shake off the first half when lesser teams would’ve been dragged under by it. It’s only part of what makes this team special…but it’s a vital part, and we’re a shadow of our true selves without it.

4. To prove the point, our attempts at a much more familiar game floundered in the first half. You could see the sense in it: hit the front men early to catch Wednesday before they’d had a chance to set themselves. Less precision, more surprise. But the reality was very different, usually resulting in a misplaced pass losing possession before we’d had a chance to set ourselves. This Watford side is pretty much incapable of going forty-five minutes without conjuring up something of substance, and Matej Vydra scuffed the best chance of the game wide, but we spent most of the time playing to none of our strengths while covering none of our weaknesses.

Let’s acknowledge that we were extremely fortunate to get away with it. Our second half performance might’ve been many things, but it would’ve needed to be an awful lot more if we’d gone in two or three goals down…and we would’ve had little argument if that’d been the case. Even beyond a goal that seemed to belong on a pinball table, that moment when you get your flippers in a tangle and the ball dribbles pathetically away from your reach before you can react, we were an awful mess at the back: no command from the (young) keeper, despite a string of fine saves; no command from the back three either, badly missing the due diligence of Lloyd Doyley. Wednesday looked competent, strong and focused; we were all over the place. We got lucky.

5. It’s not merely the absence of particular players: Nathaniel Chalobah, Lloyd Doyley, Fernando Forestieri, Manuel Almunia. It’s the absence of the balance struck by this side at its best. And that’s a balance between hard graft and that carefree exuberance, for you’d miss Troy Deeney every bit as much as we missed Chalobah. It’s a balance between necessary caution and those attacking instincts. Between over-playing and under-playing. Between patience and impatience. Between extravagance and ruthlessness. Between how good we could be and how bad we can be.

At its best, this side is very different from the well-honed unit that’s been the Championship’s holy grail for many a long year. It isn’t a “unit” at all. It has all kinds of distinct personalities, none of them compromised. The team brings out the best in its parts as much as vice versa. It’s a bizarre menagerie, but it seems to work…and it’s an awful lot of fun to watch. We just need to be ourselves, that’s all.