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Nottingham Forest 4 Watford 2 (30/01/2014) 31/01/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- It feels a long time ago… but at the start of the evening there were grounds for optimism.  The Manchester cup tie was always going to be an anomaly, but whilst City’s second half comeback turned the game from a miracle to a curio in the eyes of the national press – coo, look at what plucky little Watford managed, bless them – it nonetheless constituted something significantly more positive than what we’d expected, let alone feared.  If Sannino’s plan is to be effective then a stabilising, sort-the defence-out period is to be expected – even if not very exciting to watch.  A corner would be turned at some point. Perhaps this was it.

And there was nothing in the first half that seriously challenged that optimism. Forest started aggressively, but we looked solid and disciplined and largely kept them at bay.  The home side’s clearest chance was a Collins header that smashed against the bar after a soft free kick, one of several borderline decisions that would topple the home side’s way, but this represented a decent return for the Watford rearguard away to a strong opponent.  They were getting the ball in wide positions but Paterson would try to beat one man too many as he cut in from the right and Abdoun wasted the space he found on the left. When Angella scored, an extraordinarily elaborate flick to a Murray corner, we looked in control and confident.  The second half started as the first, but again we drew blood… Deeney was felled as he attempted to release Anya on the break and Murray’s near-post free kick was met by an unchallenged diagonal run from Angella.  His celebration in front of the away end, the only one of twelve goals in the last week that travelling Hornets would have a close-up view of, was heartfelt.

2- We were cruising, and the home crowd began to turn.  They’re getting better at the City Ground in this regard… ten or fifteen years ago they’d have been on the grumble before the end of the first half…  nonetheless, the audible discontent had started and there was precious little sign of what was to come despite Billy Davies’ half-time switch in of Simon Cox for the less mobile Halford.  So… perhaps a shame that the goal came when it did, but either way it was a portentous.  The ball game from deep, the impressive Moussi lost his man at the far post and headed across to where Cox was far more alert than whoever should have been marking him.  After so long making life difficult for Forest, this was far too easy.

With the benefit of hindsight, you have to wonder what sort of difference having Onesize in there might have made.  A big lump to get his bloody head on the end of things; Forest’s first three goals all involved sloppy marking and lack of a decisive intervention as a ball came in from Forest’s left.  So too the flexibility within the squad to have introduced a plug at the back of the midfield, a role that Al Bangura fulfilled for a season or so, just to block the midfield up.  Or equally the much-vaunted quick striker, who might have given Forest cause to look over their shoulders once or twice when pushing forward… instead, the hardworking but isolated Deeney was dropping deep in search of the ball.  Forest smelled blood, and in the absence of any of those things the tide of the game turned irreversibly.

3- There’s an awful lot of quality in the squad.  A squad which is certainly lopsided…  lack of pace or variety in attack, lack of a ballwinner in midfield… but quality nonetheless.  You do have to wonder about fitness though.  The parallels with Saturday are of course startling and remarkable, and you can read too much into the strength of the weekend opposition.  Twice in a week we’ve been two up away from home with half an hour to go and conceded four… but not since Cristian Battocchio’s late winner against Wigan in September have we improved upon a half-time result and last night’s utter capitulation saw more than one set of weary legs far too early in proceedings.  If this is a problem then it’s hardly something that Beppe Sannino can be held accountable for – the seeds are sown in pre-season, and he’s had a relentless fixture list to accommodate.  But it will continue to be an issue, particularly in the light of new signings coming in from the cold and pressure on key positions.  By all accounts the tiring of Murray and Battocchio (and the withdrawal of the former) was a factor in Saturday’s developments; asking two young players – both of whom are lightweight, cogs not engines, to play the same role was optimistic.

4- More than anything, we’re in a funk.  The lack of belief is evident, the brittle lack of resilience astonishing.  My co-editor warned at the beginning of the campaign that every season in Watford’s recent history that has been preceded by expectation – principally in the summers of 2000, 2001 and 2007 – has been followed by abject misery. His words have proven prophetic (and he’s not even having to bloody sit through any of it) as yesterday’s match finds us in a trough every bit as low as the lowest points of those seasons. The context, the expectation, doesn’t help off the pitch or on it.  This isn’t a side set up for a scrap.  We need to find a win from somewhere rather urgently, some bit of flotsam to build on.

5-  And in the light of everything, naturally the Pozzo model has been questioned.  This model that has seen such a high turnover of players and a now disjointed and rudderless team, devoid of the fighting spirit that has characterised even the most limited Watford teams of recent memory.  For all of this though, for all of the problems, such criticism is unwarranted.  The model can be sound, but if the execution is flawed you’ll still end up in shtuck…  the scouting network, the buy-low-sell-high approach don’t guarantee success, they merely facilitate it and can’t mitigate for lack of fitness or failure to replace key cogs of the team.  So let’s keep our criticism balanced, and limited to the messageboards.  The last thing this team needs at the moment is further disunity.


Watford 2 Bristol City 0 (14/01/2014) 15/01/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- It does come to something when the prospect of playing a top side in the next round really doesn’t provoke any excitement at all.  I don’t remember ever feeling this before in such a circumstance… we’ve gone into ties as massive underdogs of course, but always with a puncher’s chance and a nothing-to-lose skip in our step.  And yet here…  if we beat Bristol and if Man City overcome Blackburn… well.  Ho hum. Last season’s tie doesn’t help, of course.  We were pretty good then, City beat us comfortably without getting out of second gear anyway.  We’re not playing particularly well now, if you’ve not noticed.  We could probably do without this…

Such seems to be the prevailing mood, based on an attendance of 7300 which includes a respectable 1500 or so from Bristol.  The mood is damp, unexpectant; one comment recalls similar sized crowds in the early nineties, an impression that we build upon by “switching ends” at half time – after half-hearted objections from a steward – and sitting in the Vic Road end for the first time, in my case, in 15 years.  The Rookery looks even emptier from here than it did when we were sat in the centre of it.  Whatever cup fever is, there doesn’t seem to be much of it on offer at Vicarage Road.

2- City started brightly, and created the first clear chance of the game when Emmanuel-Thomas played in Baldock who was thwarted one-on-one by Bond.  Hearts in mouths time – instinctive that, a subconscious reaction.  I’m not sure defeat would have been met with much more than a shrug.  But as it was, a good stop from the young keeper, alert early in the game… and that was pretty much as good as it got for City, who gave a much more passable impression of side in the relegation zone in the third tier than they had done at Ashton Gate.

Which isn’t to say that we were terribly impressive, at least not for the first half.  Attacking, certainly, it was all a bit ragged…  too deliberate, but like  a dance routine conducted out of time.  No rhythm section to guide everyone along…  passes sent to where teammates had been half a beat earlier, or where they might have been if they’d been thinking the same way.  Increasing amounts of possession, but not a lot in the way of end product until Lewis McGugan’s long corner found Davide Faraoni at the far post,  a combination of Faraoni and Karleigh Osbourne seeing the ball tucked into the net.  Deliberate, that delivery, and not the last time the trick was tried… Faraoni was lurking at the far post for a deep corner in the second half too, thwarted on that occasion.  Defensively we looked quite tight though… Onesize back in the defence and joyfully bootering anything or anyone that got within range.  We’ve said it before, but if you could be confident about his fitness there’d be no decision to make.  This releases Angella onto the right hand side of the three with ostensibly more freedom to swagger upfield with the ball; joining in the early nineties retro feel he’s a sort of Colin Foster tribute act.  Once more, he’s our most impressive performer.  We end the half on top, but unconvincingly so.

3- As the second half progressed, our superiority became evident.  You wouldn’t go as far as to say we bossed it, but we were clearly too strong for City and finally making it show.  City’s back three – including the suitably named Adam Flint – had coped well enough with high balls and physical confrontation, but as at Ashton Gate didn’t like the ball moving around them on the floor, not a bit of it.  Lewis McGugan, more assertive and industrious than of late, began to enjoy himself; our passing began to work openings although the finishing-off betrayed a forward line short of confidence – particularly in the Forestieri, whose relentless energy closing down a defence that didn’t want to be closed down helped us stay on the front foot even if the occasions when he was on the end of a move were best forgotten.  Troy Deeney, too, although his best chance was denied him by an astonishing save from Parrish which the striker was quick to acknowledge.   In the end it was McGugan who made the game safe, sauntering into the box to finish decisively.  We could have had more, but could probably also have done with a 1-0 win with something off Deeney’s backside, say, to get our strikers going again in preference to this,but beggars can’t be choosers.

The highlight of the half undoubtedly came with the introduction of Almen Abdi, verdicts on whose prolonged absence have veered between “he’s almost back” to “he’ll never play again”.  Actually seeing him enter the fray was rather odd, then, like Lord Lucan showing up or something, but suitably every touch was cheered however insignificant;  appropriately he played one luscious through ball before playing a wild pass into touch, presumably as an attempt to be “part of the team”.

4- Increasingly difficult not to see Marco Cassetti as the Godfather of the squad.  Been there, done that of course. Bought the t-shirt, chucked it out in favour of a Versace suit.  Not involved today through injury, the last time we saw him was an uncomfortable wing back at Ashton Gate… uncomfortable both due to the injury he’d picked up, further limiting his mobility, and the harum scarum relentless pestering of City wing-back Joe Bryan.  A wing back who, in unrelated developments, saw himself executed twice in this game, on each occasion by one of Cassetti’s compatriots… first by Davide Faraoni in the first half , who somehow escaped a booking, and then late in the second by Gabrielle Angella, who didn’t.  You mess with Marco, and we have to have a conversation. Or kick you into the stand.

5- A win.  Full stop.  And we did need that.  City weren’t great, didn’t do that terribly annoying “haring around closing us down” thing that we’re really going to have to come to terms with at some point.  But we won the game, our first win against eleven men since early October.  That’ll do, for the timebeing.

Watford 0 Reading 1 (14/01/2014) 12/01/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- There’s an extra game-show-presenter bounce in Richard Short’s exuberance this afternoon, and you just want to punch it.  “Enjooooooooooooy the game” lasts an extra few syllables, with yer man still on the pitch looking as if he’s sizing up whether he’s got a half chance of a high five with any of the team before he finally exits the stage and lets everyone get on with the game.  Profoundly irritating – like Alan Partridge, but not funny.  It’s going to be that sort of afternoon.  By six pm I’m at my Gran’s watching “Reflex”, the latest astonishing depth plumbed by early-evening Saturday evening TV.  It’s breathtakingly inane bollocks that makes Deal or No Deal look like University Challenge. Two incidents that bookend the afternoon perfectly and not much has happened in the interim to lift the mood; it’s been a playlist of different flavours of bloody nonsense from start to finish.

2- Reading didn’t help, in all honesty.  Millwall were more civil visitors, taking their shoes off in the porch, asking permission to use the lavatory, getting a centre-half sent off early… it was perhaps unreasonable to expect the Royals to follow suit.  Instead they swaggered in, grabbed the TV remote and proceeded to channel hop whilst picking their nose and wiping the yield on the arm of the sofa.  In our faces from the off they were closing us down well inside our own half, no chance of building anything, no chance of gently easing into a rhythm. Instead it was Reading who took an early lead, bigger and more alert than us from a set piece, not for the first or last time.

If you’re in the position of building from the back, of course, in the work in progress stage where the defensive bit is getting sorted but you’re struggling to score then what you don’t do is give away an early goal against big, robust opposition.  Reading continued to hassle us in possession whilst Pogrebnyak was every inch the pressure-relieving target man, winning every ball that went anywhere near him.  Our own attacking play seemed concentrated on putting pressure on Chris Gunter at right back with long balls over his head;  the highlight was an imperious arcing flick of the brush from the excellent Angella which dropped onto Pudil’s foot a good forty yards away but much of the rest was gormless and without end product.  Once again the front two in particular failed to suggest much of a threat, Deeney fighting a lone battle against two uncomplicated centre halves whilst Diego Fabbrini mystifyingly persisted in dropping into an already congested midfield rather than providing an option in the box.

3- Reading’s aggressive approach did at least dispel any illusions Alexander Merkel may have had regarding the sort of football games he’s going to be involved in.  Nominally an attacking player he sat deep in the midfield in this one, Iriney’s decent run-out at Ashton Gate obviously not pushing him back up the pecking order. The German took a while to settle, twice giving the ball away in circumstances that suggested he’d have preferred rather more thinking time.  As the game went on, particularly as we got onto the front foot on the second half, he became increasingly influential… comfortable in possession, happy to receive the ball in tight corners and find space, find the pass and as he stepped forwards Reading, looking leggy after their first-half efforts, began to creak.  Slight of frame, he nonetheless demonstrated early and with some gusto that he likes a tackle…  already on a yellow, his silly, reckless challenge on Nick Blackman late on was always going to see him departing early – a straight red, it turned out. Irritating.  As was the smattering of applause he received.  Quite what was to applaud about a needless high tackle in the centre circle was beyond me.

4-  The second half did constitute an improvement though, and much of it stemmed from 55th minute replacement of Hector Bellerin with Fernando Forestieri.  The Argentine did well, but it was the change in formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 with Forestieri and Fabbrini either side of Troy Deeney that stretched the visitors and made the difference.  The chances started coming… Deeney perhaps missing the best of them as the marauding Doyley squared to him on the edge of the box.  He had a clear shot at goal but scooped over.  Deeney provided a chance for Forestieri from the right seizing on some dawdling on the Reading left to break down the wing and cross to the far post;  the Argentine had hurtled in from somewhere near the halfway line and got underneath the cross.  Three times Alex McCarthy was forced into a save… McGugan down the right set up a move which lead to Deeney acrobatically stabbing at goal, the keeper’s reactions pushed it over.  A long throw from the left dropped over Forestieri’s shoulder, inviting him to shovel a drive inside the near post which was pushed wide, and in the last minute a McGugan free kick swerved low towards the bottom right hand corner, but was pushed round.  Not enough, not convincing, much as we probably did enough to have deserved a point… we’ve seen too many games like this of late.  We know how the plotline goes.  What differentiated this one was a fractious atmosphere and a greasy surface;   referee Keith Stroud was under pressure throughout and lost all semblance of control with an erratic final fifteen minutes, the low point perhaps booking Forestieri for a dive after he’d been crudely sandwiched on the edge of the box.  Irritating.

5- If you’re the bloke who sometime last season asked us to stop wittering on about John Eustace, you’d better stop reading now.  As so often over the last eighteen months you found yourself wondering what a bit of bloody-mindedness might have achieved in these circumstances.  Rarely has a Watford side appeared to amount to so much less than the sum of its parts;  in the likes of McGugan, Fabbrini and even the still-improving and positive Forestieri we have three players whose contribution is so much less than their natural ability suggests they ought to be capable of.  Oh for someone to be driving us on from the midfield, for someone to be cajoling and encouraging and propelling the team in the right direction rather than scowling and sulking at bad decisions or bad executions.  Oh for a bloody leader.  The WObby tells us that the club are still after a nippy striker and a midfield destroyer, and that’s all to the good.  If the latter has cold blue eyes, battle scars on his shins and an upper arm with an indentation where a captain’s armband should be, so much the better.

Bristol City 1 Watford 1 (04/01/2014) 05/01/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- When I got up this morning it was raining, as it has been forever.  The complex logistics of family life with one car meant that me swanning off to Bristol involved being dropped at the railway station at 8.45 (in the rain).  This, in turn necessitated getting the children in the car by 8.30 which, in turn, involved peeling one of them reluctantly out of bed and channeling the other’s haphazard energy in the vague direction of the vehicle.  In the rain.  The point being that sometimes you get a feeling that the world is trying to tell you something.  Like, don’t bother, for example.  Particularly not when it’s pissing it down with rain.

2- Actually, it wasn’t that bad.  A good day out, anyway, and by the time we got to Bristol we’d left the relentless rain behind somewhere near Swindon.  There were still showers, occasionally heavy showers, but as the covers came off the pitch there was barely a man with a fork in sight.  And whilst what was to follow isn’t going to enter the annals of Watford’s history on the same page as Old Trafford 1978, Sofia 1983 or Wembley 1984 there’s solace to be taken in the fact that we at the very least didn’t lose the game – no small achievement in the context of a quite stunning injury list.  Even a squad as extensive as ours can’t accommodate the loss of three wing-backs to injury.  Plus a loan wing-back not available for cup ties despite being here for the season.  The loss of Marco Cassetti at the end of the first half saw Cristian Battocchio, filling in as an awkward but wholehearted left wing-back for ninety minutes, joined by the equally out of place Connor Smith on the right.  He too made a fair fist of it, but this really is pushing the limits of the available bodies.  Lloyd Doyley’s relegation to the bench, where he stayed despite Cassetti’s injury, suggests that he too wasn’t fully fit, adding himself to the absences of Hoban and Belkalem in central defensive positions.  And we still miss Almen Abdi, badly.  And have lost George Thorne, and can’t yet feature our new men.  In that context, not a bad result at all.

3- But there’s not much polishing up the game itself. The start was positive; both sides seemed intent on taking the game to the opposition… in our case, the chief protagonist was Lewis McGugan whose direct running cut straight through City’s back three.  Given this, it’s a shame that our attacking play was to look like such hard as the game went on… there was hay to be made there.  City built momentum more gradually, but were soon creating the better of the chances and were more effective than bottom-half-of-League-One might suggest.  The home side suggested an inattentiveness to closing down in shooting range outside the area… it nearly cost them when McGugan had time to line up a curled shot which was heading for the postage stamp until Parrish clawed it two-handed around the corner of post and bar.  Bobby Reid had one chance for City, slipping a low shot narrowly wide of Almunia’s right-hand post, and then fed the excellent Joe Bryan, an energetic left wing-back, whose low drive inside the same bottom corner was pushed around the post by the Spaniard.

As the game went on it got stodgier and stodgier.  Our own attacking play looked particularly laboured – Sannino has warned Troy Deeney (and us) that chances might be fewer and farther between as he prioritises sorting out the defence.  As it stands, we’re difficult to watch and too easy to defend against;  Deeney looked particularly isolated, smothered by the deep-sitting Marlon Pack in front of the City defence, and cut an increasingly sullen figure.  Diego Fabbrini continues to struggle to channel his undoubted ability;  often dropping deep to pick up the ball he then doesn’t move it quickly enough.  When picking up the ball on the edge of the area his ghosting-past-three-players thing is effective – this happened a couple of times, on one occasion unfortunately concluding with him treading on the ball and tumbling.  There wasn’t much of an appeal, but City fans gave him the bird for the rest of the game anyway. However when picking it up deep there’s too much time afforded for an opponent to get sorted, and not enough movement behind that defence.  An indicator that things aren’t really working up front is when Sean Murray starts charging around after the ball trying to force the issue.  That’s all to his credit, but when this happens at the end of the first half you know things are getting a bit desperate.

4- Being positive, we do look solid enough defensively, which is no small progress.  Iriney deserves some credit from this one – he’s not always looked comfortable, and made one conspicuous cock-up in the first half here when, on winning the ball with a fierce, well-timed challenge to curtail a City break, he played a square ball without looking straight to Sam Baldock, allowing the door to bounce back open so to speak.  The destructive part of his role, however, he conducted pretty much flawlessly, and the back three generally stood up well to the questions asked of them.

It looked like we’d pinched a win, of course;  Connor Smith cut in from the right in the 84th minute, made to cross it from the corner of the box and then squared to Murray.  Marvin Elliott didn’t get close enough to him and the midfielder, probably the Hornets’ stand-out player over the ninety, picked his spot leaving Parrish unsighted.  Frustrating, of course, that we didn’t hang on for the requisite five minutes but credit to City too… their quickfire equaliser was more their good work than our bad. An excellent pass spread the ball to Burns flying down the right, he pulled back from the byline and Emmanuel-Thomas finished.  All things considered, fair enough.

5- In the grand scheme of things, as above, not a disaster.  We assume that as a minimum, Merkel and Ranégie will be available for the replay…  a wing-back or two would be helpful too.  On the assumption that City won’t turn up at the Vic with their finger as firmly on self-destruct as Millwall had, the assumption that we’ll be too strong for lower division opposition at home merits at least a second glance though in the context of our recent form at the Vic.

The greatest concern perhaps is quite how patient we’re going to need to be in waiting for this rebuilding job to get as far as our attacking play.  This one unusual, and not abetted by the injury situation… but it wasn’t particularly exciting.  The momentum, the enthusiasm that was built by last year’s elaborate, carefree approach might not be carried particularly far by this pragmatism.