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Watford 2 Derby County 3 (19/10/2013) 20/10/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- I’m in a play in two weeks’ time.  A Whodunnit, kinda.  I know amdram isn’t for everyone – either watching or participating – but I’m having a whale of a time… the cast learned our lines early, which helped, and now rehearsals are a joy, we’re flying.  The characters, so long just names on a script, have come to life.

Ahhhh, so many opportunities for a cheap metaphor – where to start?  Well how’s about with the fact that when you rehearse a certain scene again after having concentrated on other things for a while it tends to be a bit… rusty and deliberate.  People remembering quite where they were supposed to be standing; vacant, absent expressions as lines are dragged from the recesses of memory.  And so it was here, an impression perhaps exacerbated by Gianfranco Zola’s preference for fielding players not involved in recent internationals after a break (albeit this position was enforced in part by a few knocks picked up by those in question).  The result is a team who’ve not been playing competitively for at least a fortnight and it looked rusty and sloppy, as if the cast knew the general idea, knew what they were trying to do but couldn’t quite make it click.  Unlike the play there’s no mystery to how we ended up losing  this one… far too careless with possession, far too many opportunities ceded to a team with enough attacking nous to take advantage.

All of which has to be assessed in the context of a cruel injury situation that deprived us of a number of key players… critically perhaps, our two most dependable outlets in Deeney and Anya and the genius of Abdi who so often creates an outlet where noone else saw one.  For a side that scores so many goals we have surprisingly few stock moves… Lewis McGugan’s set pieces perhaps, but there’s certainly no “Ardley dumps the ball far post, Heidar throws himself at it” goals in this team.  Coping with those absences in that context was always going to be challenging.

Anya’s absence was exacerbated by Davide Faraoni’s suspension, meaning that Marco Cassetti was restored to a wing-back position having apparently settled into the back three.  It didn’t work… Cassetti’s intelligence and masterful delivery are no longer enough to compensate for his limited mobility.  Ikechi Anya might have given Craig Forsyth, who had a couple of “rabbit in headlights” moments without Anya’s help, a tougher game,one suspects.

2- The best aspect of this season thus far from our point of view has been the entertainment value.  Twelve league games in, plus three in the League Cup… how many have been anything less than gripping?  (Even if, admittedly, some of that excitement has been our own doing in situations where you’d prefer dull defensive competence).  The opening fifteen minutes or so here were suitably mundane…  Derby’s notorious vulnerability at corners was manifest and Essaid Belkalem ghosted in (or as close as a monstrous Algerian can get to “ghosting”) at the far post.  He should have scored.  Two minutes later and Jamie Ward, half Belkalem’s size and with what looked a tougher heading chance, outjumped his marker to put the Rams ahead from Bryson’s brilliant cross.  Another five minutes and Fernando’s levelled it again with a gorgeous dink.  Same old, same old.  From thereon both sides’ limitations were exposed – both keen on attacking with defending a tedious half-hearted chore performed with the attentiveness with which one might clean out the oven prior to, not your parents or in-laws visiting but perhaps a fleeting visit from an old school mate.

3- In the context of which Derby’s pressing game, in which John Eustace again belied the “his legs have gone” bollocks, always looked like it had potential.  Funny how effective a player can look once he’s given a few games.  As it was it was Iriney who was caught flat footed just before the break as the visitors capitalized efficiently.  This capped a disappointing first half for the Brazilian, who had been perhaps harshly booked for handball early on by referee James Linington when he appeared to control the ball with his chest.  Iriney proceeded to exercise no restraint whatsoever for the remainder of the half, not so much pushing his luck as giving it a right good kicking and making a pitch for joining the catalogue of ex-players in bloke-behind-you japery  (Danny Shittu one popular option) who might be employed to flatten what’s left of the Main Stand.  For every challenge in which Iriney roared in and won the ball there was another where the opponent’s leg came first;  perhaps perceiving that he’d unduly penalised the midfielder early on Linington let a couple ride that might normally have earned a second yellow.

Contrast Iriney’s performance with that of Eustace.. all controlled aggression, a driving force.  Not that Zola was necessarily wrong to conclude that Eustace’s time on the playing staff was up – a separate discussion.  But beyond dispute that his influence hasn’t been replaced, and in particular his on-pitch leadership.  In the absence of Deeney, the de facto outfield spokesman for the side, it wasn’t until Almunia confronted the officials at half time that anyone had more than a whinge in the referee’s ear.  Eustace, not County’s skipper, was on Linington’s shoulder throughout, although fat lot of help that can have been, admittedly, if the official’s hearing was on the par with the rest of his faculties.

4- The second half was far more positive;  Forestieri and Fabbrini never looked like a terribly… varied forward line – even our twists and turns had understudies, gloriously intricate icing but no cake – but such failings as there were were largely not of their own doing.  Whilst the strength of the squad is manifest, whether our first eleven is as strong as last year’s is very much open to question;  without Vydra’s pace OR Deeney’s presence we’re undoubtedly more limited.  Diego and Fernando both put a shift in though, and if Fabbrini in particular still needs to toughen up this was a more robust performance than we’ve been used to.

But ultimately it was the removal of Iriney and the introduction of Murray that heaved the game back in our favour.  Impish, mobile, assertive and imaginative, Murray was the injection of life that our midfield sorely needed.  McGugan hadn’t been having the best game either so McEachran was fetching and carrying nobody’s water…  now, Murray grabbed hold and started to make things happen.  We looked confident, suddenly, swinging Derby backwards and forwards.  Two last ditch challenges on the edge of the box yielded free kicks, each given too much elevation by McGugan to catcalls from the away end, mindful of his Forest history.  Lewis, as we’ve said, has played much better… but it says an awful lot for him that he can be playing badly, shunt two free kicks into the stand, and then pull out something as perfect as the second equaliser.  Quality like that in the absence of a performance will win us points, even if it didn’t today.

5- And then… yes, we blew it.  Again.  I’d been thinking that we looked in control, that we were chasing a win with the point safe when Sammon was allowed to break away but was hesitant on his weaker side and Almunia rescued the situation.  Five minutes later, with less time to think at the end of a similar break with it’s foundation in, yes, our sloppiness in possession he made no mistake.  Our heads dropped, and for the remainder of the game we misfired as badly as the machine-gunning tannoy.

Gutting and demoralising.   Despite which, care should be taken to assess the result in the context of the players missing.  Difficult circumstances today, this wasn’t merely a disappointing performance.  We need to defend an awful lot better… but that bad defending is less of an issue if you’ve got a target to hit or a winger whose pace and stamina makes an opponent wary of pressing too high up the pitch.  Attention will be paid to whatever information we get on the injury list over the next week, then.  Things will look an awful lot more positive if the senior cast return before the curtain goes up at Brighton a week Monday.


1. Roger Smith - 20/10/2013

Thanks, Matt. Another insightful report covering all of the points I would have made, but with a lot more style: Cassetti’s legs; the lack of a midfield general, and the futility of pumping high balls to FF and Fabrini.

Given the resources available, I would have started with FF wide right, and Acuna and Fabrini in the middle.

2. hornetboy84 - 20/10/2013

Horribly frustrating.

My impression of the game (Although the “highlights” suggest different) was that we were essentially in control and dominant but just self-destructed incompetently.
Onwards and upwards and I did fear this result without the A-list but I do wish Zola would learn one or two lessons.
1) rest players when they are tired – not to save them from being tired.
2) so that in mind…. write Doyley down on your team first every time and then sort out the rest
3) At 2-2 “going for it” means leaving Fabbrini on when Acuna comes on and push Forest wide .. you might be forgiven then if we do lose
4) Cassetti (my player of the season last year) cant play wing-back any more , or at least give the bloke a reprieve after 70 mins. I was expecting him to go back into defense to give some control there (for the hapless Bekalem) when Acuna came on.
5) I have not been an Iriney fan this year. Although he was the vicitim of many horrendous passes from the rear – i have to say he never looks like he is “on his toes” (as my old coach used to say) and with that perm 3 from Abdi, Batto, josh, Murray, McGugan… before he is considered again.

Still – only just shy of 2 points a game !! Club moving in right direction. complaints are because standard and expectations keep rising. All to play for. Guaranteed Bhappy blog from Brighton I would presume! You Horns

Matt Rowson - 20/10/2013

re 3… a bit harsh to accuse Zola of not being positive enough, whatever else you can critise for…

3. Hunsbury Hornet4 - 20/10/2013

No knee jerk reaction from me, as I’ve had all night to think about it. But still feel gutted and robbed. to lose to a team that are nowhere near as gifted as we are, and that goes for every side we’ve played, having seen every one so far. There were enough boobs in this match to fill Brighton’s nudist beach, and if our injury list doesn’t improve before Monday week, that may well be my destination instead of the Amex.

4. mikepeter - 20/10/2013

I thought we did offer Eustace a contract? My recollection was that he turned one down in search of more game time.

Matt Rowson - 20/10/2013

Not a playing contract I don’t think. Coaching staff.

5. Andrew J - 20/10/2013

Two thoughts from me: first, there’s been some debate on the W.O. site about formations. I think our 3-5-2 has its limitations, and if we intend to be playing in the Premiership next season, then we need to be mindful of the prevaling 4-2-3-1 in the Prem. Having said that, we have no obvious left back. Second, for all our goalscoring prowess, teams that get promoted from this division play tight at the back and know the value of a 0-0. QPR, Cardiff, Hull, to name but three. I’m not saying it’s the answer, but I’d like to have the debate.

Matt Rowson - 20/10/2013

well let’s get promoted first. as for defensive sides getting promotion… QPR haven’t done it yet, Cardiff were hardly negative and Hull only fell back on solidity when Aluko’s injury stymied a previously effective attack – as it was they were lucky to go up. There was a free scoring side who were rather unfortunate not to pip them as I recall…

Not saying we couldn’t do with keeping it tighter. But as for wholesale changes in style – no I don’t think so. We’re hardly set up to contain and destroy are we.

6. mohmohmoh - 20/10/2013

Three times Zola has played Belkakem over Doyley.
Three times it has cost us a result.
Either let the guy play more than once a moth so he resembles a player with match fitness or just play Doyley when Doyley can play.

SteveG - 20/10/2013

Always a danger about commenting on a game on the basis of a radio commentary without being there, but I wondered about this as well. I haven’t been over-impressed with Belkalem (although he seems a decent cover for Angella, that isn’t how he’s being used).

Of course we’ll never know now, but would a jet-lagged Doyley have been a better bet on the day? Or Cassetti at the back with FF at wing back? Injuries clearly limited the options, but there were some alternatives.

3CR gave the impression that we were looking very dangerous going forward, but suicidal at times at the back. Never a dull moment, though!

Matt Rowson - 20/10/2013

I think the radio commentary was about right as you describe it. Ditto the BBC highlights, which for once presented a picture of the game as I perceived it… appallingly sloppy in possession, still with plenty going forward (especially in that second half).

As for Belkalem… he had a bad day yesterday. I still think he’s a very capable defender, but is suffering as others are due to his distribution not being sharp enough. Some of that’s his failing, some of it is down to not having an option presenting itself… we miss Chalobah badly in that regard, but it’s something that Jonathan Hogg was also very good at.

As for keeping a back reliable back three (Tim’s comment above)… this refers back to Zola’s insistence that he doesn’t play players that have been travelling after internationals. To a certain extent you can see his point on another level – what value this extensive squad if we don’t play these players and as such have them going in cold when they’re needed. An advantage, Zola might argue, of a big squad is that down the line our players will have individually played fewer games. As such we should see the benefit later in the season – January, February, March – when others are flagging a bit. We’ll see.

Roger Smith - 21/10/2013

I think we must trust Zola’s judgement regarding the fitness of players returning from international duty, especially if they are also jet-lagged.

Belkalem is getting a lot of stick, but much of the problem stems from Cassetti not getting back quickly enough. Belkalem is then drawn out of position, leaving space in the middle. It’s an obvious weakness that every team we play will exploit if we let them. It’s a shame too that he didn’t convert the free header early on. That may have been playing on his mind.

7. Leavesden 'orn - 20/10/2013


Trouble is that we are in danger of being left behind in the league if QPR and Burnley keep amassing points at the rate they are currently doing and we drift in and out of the playoff positions.

3 goals shipped at home, and sloppy play is not promotion form. Oh for a few more shut outs as per Wigan game.

We may have a big squad but………

Why do we always seem to give the opposition a goal head start?

Still, quite an absorbing game, and I feel some of the attacking play excellent, till Fabbrini came off. Strange one that, as he seems to have the guile and technique to open up opportunities in massed defences that come to visit us at Vicarage Road.


8. putajumperon - 20/10/2013

You clean your oven for old school friends?

Matt Rowson - 20/10/2013

🙂 not really, no. That was my point.

9. Tim Rose - 20/10/2013

It just feels all a bit depressing at the moment. If you include Norwich we have gone win then defeat for our last five games which is a model of inconsistency. I know memory can play tricks on you but I think in our best runs last year we were making changes but very rarely at the back. We had a fairly long run of a back three of Hoban, Hall and Nos and then another one after injuries of Doyley, Ekstrand and Cassetti. I do think he needs to keep a settled defence when everyone is fit which will be a little while yet but a back three of Nos, Angella and Ekstrand or Hoban Angella and Ekstrand will be the way ahead. I also would think about going 4-3-3 as well I do think it’s worth changing it a little more solid is what we need as we score goals even without Vydra. We are crying out for consistency and I really hope I’m wrong but I think play offs is the best we can hope for! Even as I right that I think what am I saying it’s mid October for goodness sake and this time last year we were miles off the top!

Matt Rowson - 20/10/2013

I would be happy if, after a year out, Hoban comes back on anything like the same trajectory. See also reply to comment below…

drdavewatford - 20/10/2013

Model of inconsistency is right….it’s not even that we’ve necessarily been turned over by particularly strong sides. People keep pointing to last season and how we’re ahead of where we were at the same stage, but it’s hard to see us putting a similarly imperious run together from now onwards as we did last term with such a patently unreliable defence. Regardless of the opposition I have zero confidence in our ability to keep a clean sheet, and unless we can tighten up we’ll struggle to emulate last season’s league placing – GFZ please just stick with your first choice defensive line-up and stop tinkering with it unless injury or suspensions force you to do so….

10. Esp - 20/10/2013

Not one of our players had an outstanding game and we only really looked dangerous when Murray came on, you were right to highlight Belkalem for particular criticism Matt but I felt that Cassetti’s distribution and lapses of concentration were even more frustrating; to my mind he has ony had one great game this season and I would drop him.
Although it is always a mistake to blame offficials for defeats as it papers over the cracks of the team’s own performance (and Zola refreshingly lays off the officials in post match interviews) I felt that the referee was woeful and played no small part in ruining the first half in particular as a spectacle for this fan.
Finally if Hunsbury Hornet4’s line “more boobs than Brighton’s nudist beach” is not appropriated by your co-editor for a future match report I would be surprised and disappointed as it needs another airing….
ps Good luck with your rehearsals and be sure to advertise the performance dates on BHaPPY!!

Matt Rowson - 21/10/2013

Belkalem wasn’t mentioned by me in the piece ESP… Cassetti was!

Thanks for your rehearsal wishes. Performance dates are on my Fb page.

Roger Smith - 21/10/2013

From what I’ve heard, there are more balls-ups than boobs on Brighton’s nuddie beach.

11. Hunsbury Hornet4 - 21/10/2013

….here’s another one, just to lighten the mood a bit, as we all feel a bit down at the mo……Derby brought on their last sub in the 75th minute, and he scored in the 88th. When my wife gave me this week’s shopping list, I crossed off fresh Sammon….

12. Harefield Hornet - 21/10/2013

The thing that disapppointed me most was the ease in which Derby closed out the match after scoring late. We looked clueless in the extra 5 minutes and barely managed to cross the half way line. Even when we did manage it we gave away silly free kicks. So all credit to Derby for “pushing up” but our lack of penetration and inability to throw the kitchen sink at them in the added minutes worried me. Perhaps one could argue Deeney’s enforced absence conrtibuted to this but that just brings home the fact we have no alternative when he’s injured.

13. James - 21/10/2013

Odd that you singled out Iriney for his fouls but didn’t mention Belkalem at all. I don’t think he made a single challenge all game without conceding a free kick. Most of which were around the edge of the box. Every single time his man received the ball to feet Belkalem went straight through the back of him. Regular as clockwork.

Murray was fantastic when he came on, but I think it was also the removal of Iriney and the moving of McEachran to the defensive role that prompted our period of dominance. Suddenly the midfield were picking up the ball in deep areas and moving it forward quickly, with purpose and a sense of adventure, rather than the slow, nervous, then backward approaches we’d made before. Hopefully Zola will give that midfield three a start against Brighton.

Matt Rowson - 21/10/2013

As I’ve already suggested further up, a lot of Belkalem’s problem I thought was in distribution, where Iriney could do more to make himself available for a simple pass, something Chalobah (and Hogg) did relentlessly). As someone else suggested, Belkalem was covering Cassetti on the right flank and was often exposed. Not that he played well, but there were mitigating circumstances.

James - 22/10/2013

It was noticeable that as the game wore on, McEachran increasingly went back to collect the ball directly from Belkalem, rather than expecting him to play any sort of ball.

Cassetti didn’t help him much, but the endless fouls just outside the box were all his own doing. That kind of thing should be bread-and-butter to a centre-half. Just hold the man up, don’t let him turn, and don’t give him any excuse to go down.

14. JohnM - 23/10/2013

Just a comment on the season in general. I remember a manager (I can’t remember who, off hand) once said what seemed to be obvious, that, to achieve a league position higher than the last season, your team HAS to find better players(as teams will have had a season to ‘suss’ your players and tactics)—even if the existing players have improved their form. I look at this team, which, although with a stronger squad, has not improved the ‘first’ eleven. Yes, arguably, some new players may be better than last seasons players, but against that, have we obtained players that better what Vydra, Chalobah and, arguably, Hogg offered? Personally, as a group, it seems to me the team fails the test—the team has not brought in the better players—certainly not enough to compensate for the ones lost. As such, and without additions, we will be no better than play-offs,

Harefield Hornet - 23/10/2013

early days!

JohnM - 23/10/2013

True! But, as many say, look at the team after twelve/fourteen games for a first, tentative, judgement.

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