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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Ewan Hughes Army - 18/09/2013

What a fantastic piece of writing Ian! Those scissors are in there somewhere…. I’m sure of it

2. John Samways - 18/09/2013

Even by your high standards, ig, a remarkable report – perceptive, positive and practical with gloriously meaningful illustrations. All served up within 10 hours! When do you sleep?

Ian Grant - 18/09/2013

Sleep is a bit of a sore point, as it happens…I spent much of my train journey home on a replacement bus service rattling around the villages between Tunbridge Wells and Hastings, with a bus driver who didn’t know the way, finally getting home at 2.30am. So, yes…sleep…mmmm….zzzz…

Thanks to you and others for the kind words, by the way. I’m never quite sure whether to publish those kind of comments, whether that qualifies as what Danny Baker would describe as “self-regarding nonsense”. But thanks regardless.

3. simmos - 18/09/2013

Wow! What a great report demonstrating how you can have both elegance and purpose at the same time. The last two matches have been frustrating knowing we are better than the performances and if the team could only capture IG’s poise I think we will be “just fine”.

4. Matt Rowson - 18/09/2013

October smoke, not fog. Tsk. Dad was counting the burger vans on the way back down Vicarage Road, having speculated as to the source…

Ian Grant - 18/09/2013

Yes, I know. Poetic licence. Tsk.

5. Esp - 18/09/2013

Considering your match report was written by the flickering street lights of B roads around Wadhurst in the early hours and possibly by phobe torch I think your report was remarkable; the hacks at the Daily Star and Sun had a tighter desdline but only 100 words to file

You couldn’t cover every aspect of the evening ig but habing sat eith the 1881 lads in the SW corner last night I think they can be commended for injecting some atmosphere into the Rookery and more power to them for the rest of the season and their continued efforts. Thanks Roy Moore

I loved the reference to Forestieri “bounding on like a puppy” and when (in reference to his goal scoring” you alluded to the fact that Troy Deeney can’t even force one out at the moment was I the only reader to wish there was some sort of striker suppository that could be prescribed to alleviate the problem?

It was nice of Troy to gallantly handover penalty taking duties last night but I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the dressing room afterwards to hear the post-match discussion about it!

6. NRC - 18/09/2013

At the risk of raising blushes, let me add my own superlatives for this report, absolutely spot on – take a gold star! Agree totally, the problem was in the midfield, the command (?) of last season missing somehow.

Marathon/sprint etc ….

What was the smoke BTW? I understand you can’t have it without fire?

7. Marcus Shapiro - 18/09/2013

Great report Ian – genius prose: particularly admired “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.”

You have a far more generous and level-headed (and possibly correct) response to Conor Smith’s v poor performance, which had me most agitated. Hope his confidence holds up and Zola gives him continued opportunities when appropriate.

To the positive, another good performance by Pudil (the only returning player (loanee) noticeably improved on last year? Plus Murray of the home-growns). And Ekstrand back to fitness and good form.

You are right re the MF with not only Chalobah and hogg but Abdi sorely missed. The front line should probably sort itself out but the wholeset up is rather worrying atm vs inflated (but in my view justified) pre-season expectations which I think were also shared by Zola, who is much more critical this season. Excellent substitutions yesterday.

Roger Smith - 18/09/2013

Thanks, Marcus. Your first paragraph beat me to it.

I’d like to see McGugan play alongside Deeney. Then for Doyley to get some crosses in. I lost count of the number of times Anya drew several defenders but still managed to get back to Doyley in space – who then returned it!

Amazing support from the Rookery, the more so in the first half when we were so poor. Only Ekstrand seemed to know which goal we were supposed to be attacking.

Marcus Shapiro - 18/09/2013

Yes Anya has been brilliant but not his final ball last night. Doyley comes forward well but then seems to freeze. he doesn’t cross well at all – seems to hit the ball straight straight, rather than curl his foot round it like any normal player would when crossing.

Nick - 18/09/2013

I think Anya has developed into the most improved player on last year. I think if he sorts out his final ball he’ll be absolutely devastating.

8. Nick - 18/09/2013

Smith has been superb this year when he’s played and I’m sure he’ll learn from yesterdays game.

One of the most frustrating parts of last night for me was the lack of striker presence in Doncasters box. I lost track of the number of times the ball was crossed in or available to be crossed in and neither Deeney nor Acuna were anywhere to be seen.

Felt to me that until Forestieri came on we dominated the middle third and didnt have the wherewithal to really cause any issues.

9. Richard - 18/09/2013

What a great report!

Whilst I’d agree we’ve yet to find the right midfield combination, isn’t an in form Deeney the biggest miss at the moment? It was after all his return that coincided with us clicking last season and on the few occasions he didn’t show (e.g Wembley) we always seemed to struggle. Thought he was outstanding for the first two games this season, since when, well shall we say very patchy? And he’s the one player in our squad to whom we don’t have any credible alternative.

10. The Great Big O - 18/09/2013

Perceptive stuff, Ian, brilliantly written.

There was a moment in the first half when a through-ball into the box played in Anya – who’d been lurking beyond a defender’s shoulder. He was caught offside in that instance, but how about Anya as the new Vydra, alongside Deeney? Defences would be terrified, Anya would finish like he did for Scotland, and Troy would make hay like last year.

Simples.

11. David S - 18/09/2013

Many people have beaten me to it but can I just add my congratulations for such a brilliantly written report, capturing last night’s game and the mood perfectly.

On the football front, I think the major issue is our slow tempo which allows teams to simply shuffle across and plug all the gaps. It is only when Fernando is in the mood he was last night that we look like breaking through the massed defensive ranks.

I think Smith seemed very nervous but the biggest disappointment for me was Battocchio, who was out performed by Murray. Angella was once again different class and to my mind should be wearing the captain’s armband, as he seems a real leader on the pitch.

And based on last night I have to admit I would retain McGugan as penalty taker ahead of Deeney…

NickB - 18/09/2013

Can’t argue with any of this.

You’ve written some fine reports in the past ig, often perfectly capturing the zeitgeist (pretentious, moi?), but this must be your finest hour. For f@@k sake, write a book….

Ian Grant - 19/09/2013

Thanks, Nick. I’ve written a long chapter for the second volume of “Tales from the Vicarage”. That’s about as close to a book as you’re going to get!

12. Nige in Oz - 18/09/2013

Spot on with the report Ig, although I had to re-read your kitchen drawer analogy as I was sure you were keeping ladies in there…
Having been able to watch 5 games this season before I return to Oz, I’d agree re the issue being midfield. Too many times we are going sideways, there is no penetrating through ball, no overlapping on the wings and play is just too slow, the sooner Abdi is back the better.
For the first 60 minutes last night I thought Doncaster were the better side just let down by a lack of a decent finisher. However as you say, top six in September and the team is slowly coming together.
I’d like to see Belkalem replace Doyley at the back, I think that would give us more options, for all Lloyd’s strengths passing, let alone quick passing, is not one of them.
Finally, I thought the rookery were wonderful last night, having the one song going on for minutes at a time created a great atmosphere, well done to all involved, more of the same please.

13. Dom - 18/09/2013

Fella

Now I know why you wouldn’t make it as a journalist… You are just too good a writer. Loved the analogies, the metaphors and the insight. I’m amazed the two of you (can’t leave Matt out of this!) still have the wit and class after all these yours. The passion for words never dies. If we get your verbal consistency on the pitch we would rip this league to shreds!

14. petebradshaw - 18/09/2013

It seems to be that whoever comes off the bench plays well and makes a difference but when they start they are ineffectual. Holloway would no doubt have some analogy about marriage and casual relationships…

On the Lloyd v Essaid point above… Doyley everyone for me. Belkalem is too Vega like for my taste… Dangerous in both boxes.

15. Stephen Hoffman - 19/09/2013

Nige Doyley is one of our best defenders and whilst my Dad sponsors Belkalem’s shirt- the beast is not in the same league as Doyley yet. He will be a bloody good player, but he’s still getting used to English football, he is a bit kami-kaze in the tackle and still a bit off the pace, as his performance on Saturday will come. Yes he’s a good header of the ball and the rest will come, but to change Doyley- when he does his main job of defending- I think would be mad. Also his passing has improved a lot over the last couple of years. One bad passing day doesn’t make a season!

16. Olly DC - 19/09/2013

One of the great BSaD reports. A classic. Thank you. Like you say at the end, it’s not a barn-storming start to the season, but enough points for sixth place still. Presumably stats-wise we’re in a far better position than 7 games into last season?

17. Roger68 - 19/09/2013

On the evidence so far none of the new players is an improvement on Chalobah or Vydra, , so that is where the weakness is–in midfield and in attack. . The defence looks better with Angela in it, but we miss the range of passing we got from Chalobah and the pace of Vydra. up front. Early days of course, and eventually Zola will find his best combination of players and a formation, to suit the resources he now has. We are competitive in this division but not a dominant force.


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