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Watford 0 Bolton Wanderers 1 (23/11/2013) 24/11/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  Unusual to be starting with the “big picture” stuff, normally the domain of thunk 5.  Relevant here though., because however dispiriting our recent form has been…  things could be worse.  No, really.  I mean, you know that, right?   You remember Bassini?   Not being able to afford Keith Scott or a Stevenage-era Barry Hayles in Division One?  The financial abyss post-Vialli?  This?  Whatever’s wrong is small potatoes in comparison.  And even if one accepts that there are major problems with the team – we’ll get to that – we have owners with a demonstrably sound plan, and a degree of security.  And some very talented players, albeit we’re not seeing the best of them at the moment.

Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of any Watford squad of the past that could have accommodated this sort of injury list as well as we did today.  Yes yes, I know, and we’ll get there… but it’s surely beyond dispute that if one considers the players missing by the end of the game, when illness had forced Manuel Almunia’s half-time withdrawal, the absentees could have formed a stronger side than those available.  And incidentally, given the signings late this week of Hector Bellerin and Fitz Hall we perhaps shouldn’t be expecting Gabriele Angella, Lloyd Doyley or Ikechi Anya back anytime soon.

We’ve had injury crises in the past of course… there were periods of our 1999/2000 season where you could have made similar statements about the strength of those available versus those missing.  We were a top flight club then though, and coped rather less well in those circumstances than we did today, at least until the twenty-seventh minute.  We were the brighter side  in the opening period; if Bolton had begun to enjoy some possession they’d not threatened, whilst Thorne, McEachran and Acuña had all had half-chances.  This wasn’t Brazil 1970 by any stretch… but it wasn’t bad;  we’d started smartly enough in difficult circumstances.

2- Which isn’t to suggest that the last hour of the game was anything but sheer bloody purgatory.  Quite how much Manuel Almunia’s second expensive slip in two home games owed to the clattering he’d earlier received from Jermaine Beckford, or to the illness that reportedly provoked his withdrawal at the interval we can only speculate.  Either way, and more so than against Leicester, it was absolutely pivotal.  Whether Bolton are really as limited as they appeared – a considerably less impressive outfit than the side that lost here last season – or whether in sticking rigidly to a successful game plan that always looked a safe bet in the circumstances they simply had no need to showcase what they could do, they came across as a very average side.  By gifting them an unearned one-goal lead we had effectively cordoned off a parking bay for their bus in the penalty area and they parked and manned it diligently.

For all that his form has been, generously, variable of late, the loss of Deeney was the greatest challenge in the circumstances.  Picking your way through an obstinate and well-organised rearguard has so much greater a chance of success if mixed with a bit of welly, an option that really wasn’t open to us with the personnel available.  Acuña showed early willingness and aggression which earned him a yellow card, but again suggested that he too would rather be the creator than the bloke on the end of the cross, and whilst Davide Faraoni was one of our brighter performers in the first half there was too often little to hit with the space he found on the right.  Nor was our midfield particularly equipped to pick a lock… in McEachran and Battocchio we had two willing water-carriers; fetchers, bustlers and layers-off but none of the incision that an Abdi, a Murray or perhaps a McGugan might have offered.  For all that we had the lion’s share of possession we managed to carve out next to nothing in the way of goalscoring opportunities.  It was miserable, futile stuff… almost precisely what a badly-executed passing game looks like, precisely what we’d feared at the start of last season.

3- Which doesn’t excuse some of the idiocy going on in the stands. The low point of this came from an unfamiliar voice behind me who, after first Forestieri and then Pudil had had shots charged down in quick succession implored “when are we going to have a bloody shot?”.  On a later occasion successive sideways passes we greeted with wails of “shoot”, and when Battocchio did just that and in doing so failed to find the pinpoint accuracy and power required to test Andy Lonergan from an unsighted position outside the area, he was rewarded with sighs of derision. Here’s the thing, see…  if breaking down a packed defence was an easy thing to do, something that was just a matter of mustering the willpower to have a shot irrespective of the number of bodies amassed between you and the goal, opponents would have ceased employing it as a tactic years ago.  We weren’t not taking shots out of rejection of the tactic, we were not taking shots because we weren’t engineering, or being permitted to engineer, shots to take.  Those cries of “shoot!” actually represented a translation failure between the brain and the vocal chords… instead of “shoot!”, the message was “score!”, which is not quite the same thing and represents even more limited tactical insight.

4- On the bright side, George Thorne looks a bit of a player.  Very much in the Chalobah mould, he was physically imposing but comfortable with the ball, bringing it out, finding space and setting the tone like the conductor of an orchestra.  During his last season, Adrian Mariappa earned a standing ovation for a Bobby Moore tackle against Leeds…. Thorne executed two of these in the second half, somehow bruising and imperious without making any contact with his opponent at all, an exercise in bullish timing.  More to come as he rediscovers sharpness after nine months out, one suspects, and you’re left already wondering whether his loan might be extended.  Meanwhile, the return of Nos to the centre of defence was hugely welcome, bringing some of the uncomplicated brutality that our forward play could have done with. He lasted an hour before a positive but fruitless substitution saw Fabbrini enter the fray.  Good to see you back, sir.

5- There’s no doubt that, injuries aside and for all that we have greater strength in depth than last season (see 1) there are cogs missing that make the starting eleven, injuries aside, less effective.  The loss of Vydra’s pace in particular makes us much easier to defend against;  Abdi’s injury and Deeney’s loss of form expose our reliance on key players, something that a relatively clear run with injuries exposed less last year – although which is chicken and which is egg in terms of our injury record and form is perhaps open to debate.  Either way, on and off the pitch we resemble a morose teenager who has just been dumped for the first time and is wasting his time moping around and getting all introspective and probably composing awful poetry or something – instead of getting out there and doing something reckless.  We need to snap out of it.  We need a good slap.  And we need a lucky break to turn the tide.


Watford 0 Leicester City 3 (02/11/2013) 03/11/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1a. I wasn’t at that game. I wasn’t there in body…and, in truth, I wasn’t even there in spirit, not fully. It’s quite hard to tune into the frequency of a playoff semi-final, its deafening fever-pitch, when you’re in a tranquil cove at the tip of the Cornish Lizard, waves lapping gently on the shoreline a few yards away. It doesn’t come easily to mind, especially when your only link is a dry, neutral Radio Five commentary. It’s beyond your imagination, another world altogether.

So my memories of that goal are different from yours. They’re of leaping up and down in our cottage, an old lifeboat winch house perched a few yards above the sea, trying not to punch the low ceiling in the process. They’re of hugging Andrea, who’d worked out the bit involving Leicester getting a penalty but was some way behind working out what’d gone on after that point and didn’t yet have a partner capable of explaining it rationally. They’re of seeking out YouTube footage later in the day on a broadband connection made of tin cans and string, watching Troy Deeney jump into the crowd at a rate of a frame every thirty seconds. They’re a curious combination, a double exposure of Vicarage Road in tumult and Church Cove in blissful Sunday afternoon slumber.

I wasn’t at that game, but I don’t regret it, not really. That’s my favourite place in the world; it was the best holiday I’ve ever had. It makes my heart sing just to think of it. The memory is still special. Different, but special.

1b. But it’s time to let go of all of that, isn’t it? It’s time to forget about last season, all of it, good and bad. No point in picking over regrets; equally, nothing to be gained in pining after the days of ruthless counter-attacking and jack-in-the-box surprises. Whether it’s triumphalism over Leicester – who we appear to be playing again, so it evidently didn’t turn out to be that much of a turning point in our respective histories – or frustration at the Wembley anticlimax, it’s no use to us now. It’s all just baggage.

And most of all, it’s time to forget that we promised ourselves the Championship to make up for that disappointment. It wasn’t ours to promise.

2. You could see this coming from several miles – and months – away. Frankly, I’d braced myself for a season’s worth of this back in August. Has there ever been a campaign in the club’s history when the current level of expectation has ended in something other than a train wreck? Certainly not in the Premier League era, when expectation has generally been accompanied by foolhardy over-spending, weighing up the cost of not getting promoted as if it were tangible on the balance sheet, and followed by a grand washing-of-hands by the supporters who demanded it. “Yeah, but we didn’t mean Nathan Ellington.”

We’re not courting ruin this time, at least. We are, however, turning inward on ourselves as before, picking our scapegoats and sharpening the knives. We are preparing for the worst. This could be a very long, very harsh winter.

3. No motivation necessary for a Leicester side which hasn’t needed to change much; not much of a team-talk in the away dressing-room, you wouldn’t imagine, just a belly-full of replays of that goal. We set up the cup-tie atmosphere, but to no-one’s benefit but theirs: we began, as too often, as if we might be afforded time to settle into the game, to find its rhythm and to tinker under the bonnet until the engine purred to our satisfaction. Much of the comment on the Brighton game concentrated its fire on a frustrating second half, but, really, it was the first which should’ve caused more concern: we lack the authority born of conviction and confidence, and slip easily into a kind of vapid sponginess. Brighton weren’t quite good enough to make the most of it; Leicester emphatically were.

What money can buy you at this level is a bunch of six-foot musclemen who’ll guarantee that you won’t get no trouble from no-one, boss. A bit more money, and you might get some who can play a bit into the bargain. It’s a tried-and-tested formula, used to title-winning effect by the likes of Newcastle and Cardiff in recent years. Our formula, on the other hand, is revealing some flaws, most notably that the kind of year-on-year progression which might push us over the line between playoff hopefuls and promotion favourites is hampered by high turnover of players.

We’ve kept many of the loans, it’s true. But partly through key departures and partly through injuries, the spine of the side is notably weaker: no Chalobah, no Abdi, no Vydra, half a Deeney. Would we have been half an hour from promotion last season without them? Doubtful. The replacements have yet to form themselves into anything half as threatening or as potent, and lack the balls to bluff it in the meantime; Leicester looked appropriately unflustered almost throughout. One glance at our bench – a collection of players to politely introduce to a game rather than kick it up the backside – spoke volumes. It’s all a bit too nice.

4. As it happened, one of those politely introduced players did make a substantial impact, for Diego Fabbrini finally gave our opponents a problem to solve. True, he remains a player in need of a haircut and a proper job, and he wanders around with a gait that suggests he’s wearing rollerskates for the first time, but he performed his party tricks in areas previously untouched by our attacking play. Leicester had scored a ruthless, brushed-aside second to put the game beyond reach by then, of course, so please don’t imagine that I’m over-stating our case. We both have near-empty glasses; I’m just trying to top them up a little bit.

After nigh-on an hour of midfield passing with no consistent options in the final third, the Fabbrini substitution gave us that outlet. It gave Josh McEachran – of whom more shortly – the pass he’d been looking for and never finding. And, as at Brighton, it dragged us another ten or so yards up the pitch, into the areas where we can suddenly pick out a pass that splits defenders and make runs in behind. And, again as at Brighton, we’re too bloody sharp in the final third for that kind of pressure not to create chances: three splendid ones here, wasted by Forestieri, Anya and Deeney. The game was gone by then, I know. But the season isn’t. There are ways forward, still.

So, yeah, McEachran. I like him. I like him a lot. He’s not another Chalobah, I grant you, and we continue to miss the wonder kid’s knack of casually swaying around an opponent to unheard cries of “NOT THERE!” before wanging a pass into a space no-one else had seen. We miss that element of inspiration-stroke-chaos. But McEachran lays himself wide open to criticism, particularly based on televised games where the camera follows the ball, by persistently looking for possession when others are hiding from it, by waiting for options if he has to, and by picking a safe pass if nothing else presents itself. If nothing else presents itself – and it didn’t, often – then that’s other people’s bloody fault.

You can build a passing team around a player like that. Give him the options and he’ll find them; he demonstrated that by picking out eye-of-the-needle through-balls to Anya on half a dozen occasions in the second half. He’ll prompt and prod and find the weaknesses, if you can get him beyond the centre circle and get some movement going up ahead. He’ll force the likes of Anya, McGugan and Forestieri into the game rather than leaving them on the margins, and those are the players who’ll win us games.

Or you can bellow “GET ‘IM OFF!” when he misplaces an occasional pass, replace him with someone who’ll hide along with the others, and be the worse for it.

(Yeah, I know, I know. But I love a losing battle….)

5. Anyway, let’s not end on a positive note. The afternoon doesn’t deserve that. We were second best everywhere, well beaten by a much, much stronger and more competitive side. We approached the contest seemingly without any belief that we could win it, and the prophecy was, of course, self-fulfilling.

Wobbly and exposed in defence, caught between over- and under-committing on the flanks, tentative and shy in midfield, frequently non-existent in attack, we were precisely the kind of fragile, edgy, fragmented outfit that we gleefully picked off for much of last season, especially away from home, where the expectant crowd can be used as a weapon against nervous opponents. That Watford would’ve have relished a game against this one, and would’ve made it squirm even more than Leicester did. We’ve grown old, become what we rebelled against. It’s not quite dad dancing, not yet, but it doesn’t burn with any fire or live with any youthful abandon any more.

The freedom has gone. It’s like trying to meditate while someone bellows “RELAX, YOU FACKING IDIOT!” at you through a megaphone. It’s all rather difficult, and the likes of Leicester aren’t going to show any pity. Maybe a long-distance away game, one that’s not on bloody telly, is what we need. We need something. We need it quickly, before it all starts to unravel, before we invite in a crisis all of our own making.