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Watford 1 Wigan Athletic 0 (28/08/2013) 29/09/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. So, anyway, speaking of rude awakenings*…the doorbell went at just before eight o’clock on Saturday morning, and I tumbled out of bed and tumbled down the stairs and fumbled for the front door keys and answered without my glasses on, in my pyjamas and probably with my hair standing on end. I’d expected to be greeted by the postman, thrusting a parcel into my hand and demanding a signature and requiring no more of me in my semi-conscious, barely functioning state.

I wasn’t really expecting a roofer and a barrel-load of scaffolders. It’s difficult at the best of times to maintain an air of authority and dignity when you’re wearing pyjamas; it isn’t really what they’re intended for, and human history would be notably different if it’d been customary to wear them while conducting important affairs of state. When you’re wearing pyjamas and shaking hands with the blurred outline of six-feet of raw scaffolding musclepower, you’re not a man but a mouse.

On the plus side, I don’t usually wear pyjamas. I could’ve been wearing a fluffy dressing gown.

* That’s my introduction. It’s an introduction to a different game and a different report, if I’m being honest, but you can’t turn these things away. Or you can, but only if you want to explain to a bunch of scaffolders that their metaphorical relevance is tenuous, and that’s a long, difficult conversation.

2. And besides, there’s definitely a director’s cut of this game with a different ending somewhere, and that version would fit rather better with our introductory theme. This was nearly – nearly – a rather sobering experience. It was nearly the kind of encounter we’ve been expecting and fearing, in which our attempts at free expression, growing our hair long and running through the long grass and listening to the trees, are subject to a cold hard dose of national service, commanded by a bloke with a loudhailer who looks and sounds an awful lot like Owen Coyle.

In seasons past, even last season, maybe even last month, I suspect that we’d have been picked off here, that we’d have blinked before an extremely disciplined, controlled Wigan side. We came pretty close as it was: the margins are desperately small. There was a delicious moment of uncertainty halfway through the second half when even Gianfranco Zola, usually so bold and so positive when a game is in the balance, appeared unable to choose between the temptation to push forward for a winner and the fear of falling for the temptation of pushing forward for a winner. You could see his dilemma: you almost wanted to pause the video and hold a group discussion, before pressing play and finding out whether we’d done the right thing.

3. Me, I’d have taken the point. You too, quite possibly. Maybe even Gianfranco. That makes it a great win.

Great, above all, because it was so utterly reliant on keeping a clean sheet, something over which Zola’s Watford side has (too) rarely lost sleep until now. But the focus of this incredibly tight, compressed game quickly turned inwards towards the midfield, making every moment in attack and defence vital and potentially pivotal. No room for the slightest error. One lapse and you’ve lost the game without really feeling that you’ve given it your all. A tactical battle rather than a physical one, a contest of nerve.

We aren’t used to winning those, but we’ll need to win plenty of them this season. Few of them, however, will be quite this difficult to chew: Wigan were so composed in defence and the nether regions of midfield, so adept at spoiling our fun, that whole periods went by with barely a whiff of a chance and key players were reduced to contributing only stammering bit-parts. Troy Deeney was a figure in a tactical diagram more than an active participant; Fernando Forestieri was brilliant only in places where his brilliance counted for nothing. Only when we managed to pick out forward runs from the likes of Daniel Pudil, scuffing a vital chance at the keeper early on, and Sean Murray, bright but gradually fading, did we look even slightly dangerous.

As ever, each misplaced pass was greeted with a frustrated shriek from the stands, but genuinely unforced errors were vastly outnumbered by those caused by relentless pressure in midfield and the desire to bypass an almost impenetrable defence. Once again, we had cause to rue the absence of a lack of explosive pace up front, for Wigan’s defensive line was frequently so high it threatened to encroach on our own half. You could’ve fitted three such games onto one pitch.

4. And so we won this, really, not in attack but in defence. We won it by not conceding, by buying ourselves enough time for our quality to count. We won it by concentrating, by doing all of the dirty work; it was a victory for competence, diligence, other stout and sensible things ending in -ence. It was an outstanding ninety minutes for the back three, and especially for Gabrielle Angella and Joel Ekstrand, slamming the door shut every time it threatened to come ajar. That we might have other players capable of challenging for their places, rather than merely other players in reserve, is an extraordinary reflection of the investment being made in us. Able contributions from many others too.

But as I say, the margins are small and allow no complacency. An incorrect offside flag ruling out an early goal, as Wigan get behind Iketchi Anya and square for a close-range finish. (You don’t want to see that version of the game. No fun at all, that one.) A solid double-save from Manuel Almunia in the second half as the visitors begin to take some control, the sparky McManaman tormenting Faraoni and his preposterous haircut. And the one real lapse, Iriney and Doyley playing silly buggers in the penalty area, Lloyd’s wild, if slightly curtailed, swing felling Powell for a penalty that’d be given nine times out of ten, except when you’re saved by an inattentive referee. The official’s performance fell apart completely after that moment, perhaps aware that a jovial manner and “Just For Men” hair wouldn’t count for anything when he was cornered by Owen Coyle in the tunnel. Between this and the penalty winner against Doncaster, we’ve surely seen enough to silence the conspiracy theorists and their tedious, blinkered complaints about decisions not going our way.

5.  I love the way we play ‘n’ all. I admire the precision to which we aspire. But if there’s a key element to the winning goal, it’s the little bit of chance introduced by the deflection on Faraoni’s cross, the moment when the ball can go anywhere. A bit of good old-fashioned sticking it in the mixer, if you like; a bit of clouting it clumsily at the first defender, if you’re being less generous. Whatever, that’s the unexpected, and we’d lacked the unexpected. That’s the moment when the entire Wigan defence is caught off-balance for the very first time, when there are suddenly some yellow shirts in space on the edge of the box…and we know what the result of that invariably is.

We were impressively patient and cautious here. We had our luck, no doubt, and that deflection was the last piece of it. But we refused to let Wigan tempt us into indiscretions, refused to be drawn out. We weren’t ourselves, in many ways.

When Zola speaks of maturity, he’s quite right. A difficult game to win. A very easy game to lose.


Watford 2 Norwich City 3 (AET) (24/09/2013) 25/09/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There was a time not so very long ago when watching Watford wasn’t a lot of fun.  Whilst odd games will always test the patience, that hasn’t been the case for a number of years.  This season, as for so much of last, every game is an intrigue;  such is the talent and exuberance in our squad that even the relatively mundane encounters are to be cherished.  Here was another that swept along in moods like I imagine classical music might.  Rolling drums and anticipation at the start of the first half, a thunderclap segueing into a calmer, gentler mood piece as the first half closed.  Strings and flamboyant melodies for much of the second and then a sickening, stunning crescendo as the game closed.  All in all, a spectacle.  At respectably affordable League Cup prices, no one will have left feeling short changed.

The opening was all anticipation, and the drumrolls were provided by the immediate pressure that Norwich put on us a long way up the pitch.  We’ve played City a million times before, this tie had none of the lustre of a Manchester United or a Liverpool… nonetheless, this is a competent top-flight City side, and to see them adopting such an archetypal Championship approach – pressure, pressure, pressure, but with better-than-Championship players – was ominous.  We exhibited a determination to retain possession and play out from the back but whilst this issued a clear “we’re not scared of you” statement to City it was nonetheless precarious.  The back three of Cassetti, Belkalem and particularly Ekstrand were tremendous throughout the 90 minutes but our determination to play through City saw us giving the ball away, perversely, far too often.  Throughout all this, debutant Josh McEachran was a force for good; tidy, efficient and most of all decisive in possession, he slotted in very well indeed before departing with a back strain towards the end of the half – a worrying injury for a young player.

The drumrolls ceased suddenly after our goal, of which more below.  City seemed cowed by it, although perhaps sitting back was a deliberate strategy aimed at bringing us out and providing space for their deft wide players, who provided all of their threat.  For all that they’d started the game on top, Jonathan Bond, like Bunn in the City goal, had had precious little to do.  Anyhow, if it was a deliberate strategy it didn’t work;  it gave us a foothold, allowed us to start playing, and set the tone for the second half.

2- Digressing briefly, I can’t help but feel that extra points should be awarded for any goal that justifies the use of the word WALLOP in text message dispatches to those AWOL elsewhere.  The first three goals of the game all fall into this category. Javier Acuña had only very recently escaped censure for an utterly unrestrained attempt to win the ball by torpedoing in on a City wide player in the manner of Belkalem against Charlton, missing his target (fortunately) and flying into touch, as if he were a Subbuteo player flicked by an amateur high on power and low on precision.  Minutes later he used his strength to better effect, turning Bennett with his backside Mark Hughes style and belting the ball through two defenders and past Bunn who was simultaneously close to it and nowhere near stopping it.  In the second half Davide Faraoni, in comfortably his most impressive outing to date, went one better, seizing on a slack cross-field ball, advancing to about 25 yards out and spanking it top corner.  Hugely encouraging that whilst, as Zola acknowledges and everyone recognises, it hasn’t quite clicked yet, we’ve still managed 26 goals in 11 games.  Heaven help everyone else when we get it right.

3- We grasped the space that Norwich had decided to afford us and tore into it in the second half.  As so often we were vastly more impressive after the break;  on other occasions you might have attributed this to opponents’ legs tiring, a side set up to disrupt and obstruct running out of steam.  That hadn’t been the story of the first half though, this wasn’t a reflection of Norwich running out of energy, just a turn in the tide of the game that kept on turning.  Diego Fabbrini’s effectiveness has been in question in games where snappier passing has been required to unlock an obdurate opponent, but here with City never playing that kind of game and ultimately needing to commit forwards in the second half he was irrepressible, flowing around challenges with the ball apparently fixed to his boot by an obstinate piece of discarded chewing gum.  The slimline, revitalised Sean Murray was on the front foot too… occasionally guilty of surrendering cheap possession, he was nonetheless perpetually in search of the ball and displayed Anya-like stamina, covering every inch for 120 minutes.  For much of the second half City looked beaten… heads dropped, sub Johan Elmander’s pathetic attempt to recover a misplaced throughball under the attention of the fabulous Ekstrand screamed “sod this for a game of soldiers”.  We rattled out of defence irresistibly, flamboyantly on the counter-attack, olés ringing around Vicarage Road.  All that was missing was another goal…

4- Several factors lead to the game turning again.  The need for Norwich to assert themselves was one, the introduction of Leroy Fer who grabbed the midfield, gave it a good kicking and then sent it trundling in his preferred direction another.  City’s first goal from impressive debutant Murphy was out of nowhere, although seemed close enough to somewhere for Jonathan Bond to have done rather more than watch it whistle past.  Bond made a couple of extravagant stops but was also visibly chastised by captain Cassetti on more than one occasion for not commanding his box, a stark contrast to our senior keeper.  He will have better nights.

Ultimately, it was about concentration.  Credit to City who kept plugging and had the quality in the delivery and the finish to level the game with the last touch of the ninety-plus…. but whilst they’d been applying pressure we weren’t under the cosh.  It wasn’t a case of a bough that was always going to break… with five minutes of injury time rolling away all it took was one player – presumably Pudil – to subconsciously slip into thinking that the game was won, and not close down his man.

From that point, whilst it’s not quite true that we were clinging on for penalties – we had chances in extra time – we were certainly on the back foot with City dominant for the first time in the game.  We suffered perhaps through the injuries to McEachran and Acuña necessitating earlier subs than might have been ideal;  as early as the start of extra time Cristian Battocchio, at 21 the veteran of a very young central midfield, was struggling with cramp and immobile.  City knocked hard at the door, and eventually, inevitably, burst through.  The game ended with frustrated fisticuffs in the box at the Rookery end, an episode from which the officials, exemplary all night (although City fans clearly had an opinion on the linesman at their end) emerged particularly well.  The game wasn’t lost in extra time, it was lost in the dying seconds of the 90.  It was no longer a fair fight.

5- But ultimately, not a bad night for Watford and plenty of cause for optimism.  Not only did we give a Premier League side a good game, not only did we come very close to beating them but we would have beaten them by outplaying them… not destructively and based on blood and guts alone, although there’s plenty of joy in that manner of victory, but by beating them at what ought to have been their own game.  With Wigan to come on Saturday, we are able to cushion the impact of extra time by reintroducing Almunia, Doyley, Angella, Anya, McGugan, Iriney, none of whom featured this evening;  realistically, only two or perhaps three of those who lasted the duration ( a wingback, a defender, perhaps a midfielder) will be in the starting line-up on Saturday.  Rather a better preparation than being stuff 5-0 in Manchester. Yes, it’s frustrating to lose in these circumstances.  But as frustration goes, we’ve known far worse.  Yoooorns.

Watford 2 Doncaster Rovers 1 (17/09/2013) 18/09/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. A brave and possibly telling team selection in the continuing search for a balance within our selected eleven. That the squad has breadth is undeniable, but we’ve yet to find genuine depth: it currently resembles that drawer in the kitchen which contains an impenetrable tangle of whisks, spatulas, ladles and wooden spoons but never, never ever, has a pair of bloody scissors in it. We’ll work it out; we worked it out last season, and there’s no reason to believe that we won’t do so again. But we might have to empty it all out onto the kitchen floor to see what we’ve really got.

In the meantime, you could see the sense here. While certain players – this is your bit, Mr Fabbrini – have an illustrious, high class elegance about them, they’ve struggled to impose their authority, like an Etonian head-boy sent to a young offenders’ institution by an administrative error. (“Please help me. There’s been a terrible, terrible mistake.”) This is not their world, not yet. And so this line-up, very much less flamboyant and more functional than the last, perhaps represented an attempt to tool up, to slip a knife down our sock in the canteen at lunchtime. Were he still around the place, it’d very much be a job for Jonathan Hogg.

2. You could see the sense, but the practice didn’t entirely follow the theory: Bournemouth weren’t available on this occasion, but Doncaster did an ample job of filling their boots, and doing most things right before mercifully missing their chances. It didn’t take very long at all for this to become a game to be got out of the way, destined for a thorough post-mortem, fuel for the work-in-progress. We were perhaps less cavalier, but still rather vulnerable to a burst through midfield, still very capable of falling asleep at a set piece, still testing our luck as we went along. It held, as it generally has.

3. Where we continue to fail, rather too obviously, is in making our possession count for anything much. We’re caught between simple ball retention, knocking it around without much purpose, and trying to penetrate opponents who’ve been afforded the time to get themselves in order. Occasionally, we stumble on what might be a way out of the cul-de-sac: here, Gabriele Angella launched a sublime, far-reaching pass to find an advancing Anya, cutting through the banks of four in an instant. But, inevitably, that simply led to repeated attempts at the same thing with diminishing results, and it wasn’t long before Angella’s missiles harked back to Jay Demerit trying to fulfil childhood dreams of being a quarterback in the Boothroyd years.

Doncaster policed us well, without being unnecessarily negative. We can be troubled, and at least for now the brief for visiting sides is to do that, to engage with the game, rather than simply to stifle us. Connor Smith, one of those unfashionable midfielders who’ll be a player if he can perservere through the long months of getting it a bit wrong and being shouted at, probably learnt as much in his eighty-odd minutes as he would in eighty-odd years on the training ground. Christian Battocchio continues to be a neat, useful player without a hint of the devilment or malice that might make him into a great one. Lewis McGugan comes and goes, sometimes taking the game with him and sometimes not. Javier Acuna does not look full of goals. Troy Deeney does, but he can’t quite force them out.

It’s all a bit slow and a bit polite, a bit blandly cosmopolitan. If it were a restaurant, it’d be Ask. There’s a moment just after we score our opener when we catch a gust of something spicy, snapping into some midfield challenges, rudely pinning Doncaster back and appearing to enjoy ourselves for the first time, but then we concede a daft goal from an Almunia error and it all evaporates into the autumn mist. We’re not awful, no. We’re just rather predictable. As if to illustrate the point, Almunia scuffs a poor clearance into the heart of midfield and unwittingly opens up the chance, albeit squandered, for a quicker break. Those are the occasionally silly risks that Nathaniel Chalobah used to take, the bits where we’d attack the game from an angle nobody had thought of before and the opposition hadn’t rigorously planned against.

4. As soon as Fernando Forestieri bounds onto the pitch like a puppy set free in the park, we’re no longer missing what we were missing. That we were still missing it on Saturday when Forestieri was on the pitch is, I imagine, the kind of thing which turns managers from normal people into Ian Holloway.

“EASY PASS!” comes a bellowed request from somewhere behind as yer man tries something elaborate which doesn’t come off. That misses the point entirely: there’s no fun in inviting Fernando round to play if he’s not going to bring his box of tricks with him, if you’re just going to sit and watch telly. It’s for others to do the easy things, to get the ball moving briskly; the whole purpose of that stuff is to get us into positions where the likes of Forestieri – yes, and Fabbrini – can try to beat people, work space, twist and turn, get a shot away, everything that doesn’t constitute an easy pass.  Do that enough and the percentages are in our favour: they’re brilliant enough, imaginative and skilful enough, to turn a game for us.

It nearly wasn’t enough…but for twenty minutes, Doncaster were only just hanging on. A sudden deluge of chances follows Forestieri’s arrival and, notably, also stems from Daniel Pudil’s repeated involvement in the final third, a real force when freed of defensive responsibility. We miss those chances more than they’re denied by opponents, but we recover some of our joie de vivre, losing ourselves in the attacking surge rather than over-thinking everything in the centre circle. It’s fun.

And then, just as it appears that we haven’t made it count, Sean Murray – yeah, him – declines one of those easy passes in favour of taking a couple of people on. That final playing of the percentages, coupled with a bit of a funny turn from the officials, is all we need. And you know what, Mr Dickov? If he’d given a free kick instead, we’ve got Lewis McGugan to stick that in the top corner anyway. Jog on, sunshine. Jog on.

5. The problem is not in the final third, not to my eyes. It wasn’t on Saturday, it wasn’t here either. We’re all kinds of dangerous in the final third; not yet as many ways as last season, granted, but plenty nevertheless. It’s that midfield we need to get right, somehow.

And besides, there are games you just have to win. Three points, move on. We’re in danger of setting the standards for this campaign based on last season’s highlights video, particularly the footage of Battocchio’s wonder goal against Huddersfield. But these are new and  different battles; in many ways, they’re tougher battles. That goal was scored at three-nil up, game already won. We still have that goal in us, unquestionably. It’s the goals which win games that are proving harder to find.

Patience, patience. Sixth after seven games is just fine for a team still in transition. Just fine.

Watford 1 Charlton Athletic 1 (14/09/2013) 15/09/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We commented on the way to the ground that, in the wake of the peculiar Blackpool defeat we could probably have done without the international break.  It’s almost a cliché now of course, a stock line offered up by every player or manager of a beaten club prior to the two week hiatus… but with good reason.  We played some great stuff against Blackpool by all accounts, didn’t make it count and left it possible for the second half to play out the way it did. Given the outcome, a quick turnaround and a struggling opponent on whom to take out the frustration would have been welcome.

Odd then, notwithstanding the injury to Abdi that forced some kind of decision, that Gianfranco opted to change formation at this stage.  Admittedly it’s not really clicked yet, and it’s to the manager’s credit that he’s willing to try things, to experiment with options rather than clinging doggedly to his preferred approach.  Heaven knows his open-mindedness with formations paid rich dividends last season as we switched to 3-5-2.  Here, however, with Forestieri and Fabbrini, two similar players in many ways, played just off Deeney in a sort of 3-4-2-1 formation.  Our opening felt… overly deliberate. Careful.  As if the change in formation gave us another format to feel our way into… when what we actually needed was a bit of bloody mindedness, a waved fist on the back of the Blackpool setback.

2- And the last thing that this Watford team needs right now is any slowing down.  Charlton were unremarkable but diligent and hardworking…  and industry alone is getting opponents rather too far down the line at the moment.  The loss of Vydra’s pace has been significant and the benching of Anya after his star turn for Scotland in midweek hardly helped in that respect… but it’s more than that.  The passing is not nearly fast or sharp enough, and without that pacy outlet on the break either we’re playing all of our football in front of two banks of four, patiently passing around at keeping possession, but giving ourselves an awful lot to do whilst looking susceptible on the break. All far too easy to play against.

Chief culprit here was Fabbrini, whose grace, control and awareness can be absolutely unplayable against a backpedalling opponent but whose aggravating insistence on taking a touch, stepping sideways across a challenge and most of all just holding onto the ball for too long was the very heart of the problem.  Zola has had a similar conundrum in the Forestieri of early last season of course, but there’s another challenge here for the manager.  Certainly Javier Acuña, a different type of striker admittedly but one prepared to work rather harder for his team, is pressing for inclusion from the start after a cameo here that refreshed our play with, frankly, a bit of welly.

3- The second half got off to a shocking start of course… someone lost his man and Belkalem threw himself across like a missile, cleaning out the attacker. Much of Belkalem’s encouraging League debut was similarly wholehearted… but Cassetti is a cause for concern again.  Digressing slightly, Cassetti is undoubtedly the best footballer in the backline of a side in which being comfortable in possession is a prerequisite… but there’s a big part of me who fancies that we might be a bit better off with one or two more functional cogs.  A striker who just puts the ball in the net, a midfielder who just kicks people, a defender who just defends…

We responded to the penalty well enough;  quicker and slicker certainly but also more willing to hit Deeney with long diagonal balls and play off him, and approach which paid dividends rapidly as the Addicks backline struggled to handle him.  Anya’s introduction gave us an extra dimension and his flaying of Pritchard was the game’s highlight, culminating in a clipped pass to Deeney that the big striker, for all that this was his best outing for a while, should have done better with.  We ended the game on top, frustrated at the referee’s decision to blow up as we had controlled possession in the Addicks’ penalty area but having taken so long about so much of our attacking play for much of the game we were hardly in a position to complain.

4- And for all the whinging up to this point, there remain plenty of reasons to be cheerful.  It’s not a brand new thing, but it’s splendid to hear the subs bench announced and to think “wow, I wish he was playing”.  To each name.  Encouraging also that, as ig and I grumbled about the limited number of obvious leaders in the side, Gabriele Angella seized the initiative by surging forward down an inviting right flank – Belkalem had done the same earlier, but more by following his nose than by making a statement which kinda said “this shit ends now”, as in the Italian’s case.  Noticeable too, that as the Watford players bundled after Daniel Pudil to celebrate his goal it was Angella who forewent the exercise to retrieve the ball from the back of the net.  Angella’s early displays suggested that we had somehow acquired a blend of the best bits of Rio Ferdinand (calm and confident in possession) and John Terry (brutal in the air) without any of the obnoxious irritating bits that you want to punch.  Yesterday was another strong showing from the Italian.

Most of all, of course, the improvement in the second half which again evidenced both the management’s willingness and ability to change the course of a game and our players’ ability to respond to it.  There are good things here which shouldn’t be taken for granted.

5- Having said which… we kinda need a win.  The League Cup has disguised the fact that we’ve not registered three points in the league for over a month, and after two good wins and two kind of OK draws, the last two results don’t suggest an upward trajectory.  To be expected at this time of the season, playing with this set-up… a new swathe of players coming in (every?) summer will inevitably need time to settle in.  But Tuesday night suddenly feels rather more significant than Tuesday night at home to Doncaster felt when the fixture list first came out.