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Watford 3 Blackburn Rovers 3 (25/03/2014) 26/03/2014

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. So, this is all a bit weird. For the first time in twenty-odd years, I’m visiting – definitely feels like visiting – Vicarage Road with almost no context in which to place the game I’m about to see. Last time around, a little person’s lifetime ago, it was all George Thorne and Diego Fabbrini and getting stuffed at home by Yeovil; our habit of wandering around with immaculate hair and shoelaces undone had, inevitably, led to us plunging head-first towards the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. All of last season’s joie de vivre had gone, leaving only the witless confusion of that ridiculous, disastrous second half against Leeds, the pivotal moment of Gianfranco Zola’s reign. It wasn’t any fun.

I looked up briefly from a dirty nappy to note Zola’s departure, which felt inevitable and essential and regrettable all at once. He’d created the side which convinced us that this project was possible, that a very new-fangled squad could produce an old-fashioned team; never under-estimate how difficult that must’ve been and how easily it could’ve failed. But he gave no suggestion of an appetite for creating its successor, a team steely and streetwise enough to deal with an entire division’s worth of other managers’ carefully-devised game-plans. Different job, that, for a different manager. And, really, for some different players.

Since Christmas, I’ve lost touch almost completely. I can usually manage to catch the scores, grunt sagely at the clean sheets and disapprovingly at the away defeats. I can attempt to watch the goals on the Football League Show by fast-forwarding to them with Fred’s bottle wedged under my chin during his Sunday morning feed. I can read Matt’s reports in several inattentive, distracted instalments. Beyond that, the frantic noise surrounding modern football is overwhelming. Once upon a time, there would’ve been a definitive opinion, probably belonging to Oliver Phillips, and a similarly definitive source of news you actually needed to know with the guff stripped out. These days, it’s like trying to get a consensus from a hedge-full of sparrows.

So, forgive me, but I come to this game with about as much knowledge of what’s been going on as your mate who comes every five years when he’s at a bit of a loose end and it’s not too cold or raining or anything. I have often been proud to bring you what was hopefully a considered, intelligent, balanced, knowledgeable perspective on Watford Football Club. That was then. Now, my brain has been replaced by an empty space with a half-remembered version of “Nellie The Elephant” echoing around in it, my eyes tend to linger on an indistinct nothingness somewhere in the middle distance, everything aches, and I smell a bit of sour milk. You’re on your own, basically.

2. Back in December, the problem was entirely obvious: that whole thing of scoring one more than the other lot is tremendous fun up to a point, that point being where the other lot work out that they only need to defend well and the game is theirs. Then, it all looks a lot less like a fairground ride and a lot more like a village fete in the rain, damp bunting and runny icing. Everyone loves free-flowing football, but everyone loves winning even more.

The solution was no less obvious: tighten up at the back, dictate the terms on which the game would be played, do the basics properly. Focus, focus, focus. Obvious, but not necessarily easy: promising seasons, most notably Boothroyd’s post-Premiership campaign, have foundered hopelessly on an inability to correct an accident-prone defence. Not for the first time in the Pozzo era, all of this has been dealt with in a straightforward, businesslike way, without any of the usual faff and rancour. Get it sorted, move on.

3. For a short while here, between an early Blackburn flurry and their daft equaliser, it all looks extremely impressive. Gianfranco Zola’s Watford was characterised, for better and worse, by a certain relaxed arrogance. This is something very different, the result of several shots of espresso and a long hard look in the mirror. The defence and midfield fairly twitch with nervous energy, messages are passed to and fro via almost constant pointing and talking; spaces are roped off and confined; attacks are absorbed, smothered, buried. The whole tone is so different to what I saw back in December. It’s urgent and convincing. It’s excellent.

Our own forward forays are few and far between, but there’s a real threat from Anya’s pace, from Tozser’s vision, from Deeney’s strength. We appear to be concentrating so intensely on our shape and organisation that the ball is almost incidental at times; as Marco Cassetti lamps a clearance across the pitch and into the Lower Rous, I reflect that possession is no longer all. We’re better for it. We look like a Championship side, but in a good way. We look like we can handle ourselves.

We score early, require a couple of fine saves from Manuel Almunia , and build from there. After twenty minutes or so, the game looks won: we have Blackburn penned in like a woodlouse in a matchbox. It’s not even slightly pretty, not very entertaining either…but we’re that good, that tight, that secure. I’m sold. I love it.

4. Ah.

As if to prove quite how completely it all hinges on the lapses to which we became so prone under Zola, the game changes as Almunia’s miscued punch lands for Dunn to knock in from the edge of the area and level the scores out of nothing. That lapse, and we’re suddenly mortal again, worried by misplaced passes and poor decisions. Previously, we’d managed to turn our attacking deficiencies into something of a strength, a tightly clenched fist; now, you shift your attention to the disappointingly anonymous Merkel, to Anya’s tendency to drift into the wide areas he’s more familiar with, to the lack of anyone really threatening the penalty area with any intent, to a bench completely devoid of attacking options like a Scrabble hand with no vowels.

People start to grumble, understandably. If you’re going to play this way, especially at home, you have to accept that the lack of thrills doesn’t buy you much patience from the crowd. Blackburn grow in confidence, but are fortunate to be saved by the offside flag which rules out our second coherent attack shortly into the second half: one of those delightful dancing runs from Anya, a quick interchange with Merkel to get behind the defence, before squaring for Deeney to tuck home. Would’ve been a fine goal, that, and a reminder that not all here is industry.

5. Instead, we find that we are simply unable to cope with the physical presence of Rudy Gestede. Blackburn’s second comes from much the same  approach as their first: force Almunia into a slightly desperate punch by sticking the ball under the crossbar, react more quickly to whatever happens next. The three centre-backs, including Tommy Hoban, have fine, authoritative games in all respects other than the one which costs us three goals; we get bullied too easily by an old-fashioned centre forward’s game, all elbows and aggression.

You see less and less of that at this level: even the strugglers tend to want to play football these days. Even so, a team looking towards promotion is going to need to deal with it much better than we did. It comes as no great surprise when Blackburn’s injury time equaliser is a Helguson-esque header, in off both posts, from Gestede, flying in where others are merely jumping.

6. Hard to deny them that, really. It’s not been a game with very much quality and its six goals have come from not very many more chances (plus a rather soft penalty). The best of those goals ought to have won it, though: Deeney’s strength as a Blackburn corner is cleared, the threat of Anya’s pace terrifying the life out of those charged with stewarding him, and an absolutely superlative run and finish from Battocchio, hurtling through the centre circle as if emerging from the field to breast the tape in the ten thousand metres, blowing kisses as he crosses the line. It’s a joyous moment, worth the price of admission alone. Defence to attack in five blinding seconds.

7. I feel reasonably confident about booking a holiday in May this time around. There’s too much work-in-progress here for a last-ditch surge…and I’m encouraged by that, in many ways, for this is exactly the right time to re-build and re-think. We have games to do that. We have the manager to do it too, on this evidence. It’s up to the owners to make sure that we have the players – and, crucially, the continuity – to do it across the summer and into next season.

But I’m optimistic. Back in December, this was a club on the slide. I never felt that we were in any danger of getting into trouble at the bottom, but we were very definitely in danger of losing confidence in what we were doing, pulling ourselves apart with pointless squabbles about why we couldn’t recreate last season’s success.  It was a month or two from falling to pieces completely.

Now, we’re looking forward. We’ve got our heads up and we’re building again, literally and metaphorically. Sometimes, that’s all you should ask for.

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Comments»

1. Andy Woodard - 26/03/2014

Good to see you back Ian…..I thought the most disappointing aspect of the evening was the inability of Hoban to win anything at all in the air – not even counting his culpability for the first two goals, his performance was fairly awful. When you add to the mix how poor Murray was yet again, it’s concerning how few really decent players are coming through at Watford.

That said, we weren’t at our best but it’s nice to see football being played in the right way, especially when you compare us to the poor man’s Stoke we played last night

Ian Grant - 26/03/2014

Harsh on both, for me. Hoban looked a very, very good prospect before his injury and needs to be given time to get back up to speed; in that respect, his return is perfectly-timed, with some end-of-season games to build fitness. I thought he coped with Gestede no worse than anyone else.

As for Murray…that’s an interesting one. I haven’t seen him for three months, obviously, but I thought he looked rather good during that twenty minute first half spell when we were in total control, when Tozser was knocking it around comfortably and leaving him lots of space to flit about in. Thought that was a fine combination. He had a poor game after that point, certainly, but so did Tozser, not coincidentally. So I’d say that we’re trying the right thing, even if it didn’t completely click last night.

keithdowding - 26/03/2014

“how poor murray was yet again” – man I must be missing something as I think murray has had a good season. Realised where he was going wrong last season and kicked on. And bearing in mind he had missed the previous 3 games I didn’t think you should expect him to come back at the top of his game. But hey what do I know

2. The Great Big O - 26/03/2014

Great report. No rustiness at all from the boy Grant after a four month absence. Back on song immediately.

And, yes, ig, as if you needed the confirmation, your perspective on Watford Football Club has always been considered, intelligent, balanced, and knowledgeable. And always brilliantly put.

Welcome back.

Ian Grant - 26/03/2014

(Blush.)

3. simmos - 26/03/2014

Welcome back IG. It is a shame that you haven’t seen the full performances against lesser sides in Blackpool and Barnsley so that you can draw comparisons. Last night was a step up in terms of quality of opposition which put into perspective exactly where we are. However like you, I agree that this team has something to build upon rather than bemoan the careless dropping of more points.

I really think you summed things up perfectly when you described the bench as being “like a Scrabble hand with no vowels”. I felt that about a lot of the performance last night as a whole. I hope you have no copyright over that line as I intend to plagiarise it for my own use.

Ian Grant - 26/03/2014

Loads to build on. The bottom line is that if we’d had an answer to the physical threat of Gestede – which is a challenge, no doubt, but hardly an impossible one – we’d have been in full control of the game. That’s a good place to be at this stage, I would’ve thought.

Plagiarise away. I’ll be asleep anyway…

4. Paul Caruso - 26/03/2014

As a northern Hornet in the days before t’internet, some of us didn’t even have the benefit of Oliver Philips’ definitive weekly sagacity, left merely with the £1.50 per minute Mike Vince Hornet hotline. My pocket money was swallowed up by the village phone box before I even got to the line-ups (I longed to reach the post-match interview!) Thank goodness for Bhappy now my definitive source through the clamour of ‘hedge-full of sparrows’, lovely stuff.

5. MartinG - 26/03/2014

That was a bit of a throwback to the past with the lumping the ball into the box to a giant centre forward and the 40 yard throw ins. Quite entertaining watching two styles clash.

Hoban has been slagged off but he’s trying to play football and build from the back, and it was his first full game in over a year. I’ll watch that any day of the week rather than blootering the ball as far as it can be kicked. Maybe last night wasn’t his best game but he’s a class act.
The third goal for us was a nice reminder of what we are capable of.
A faster forward, Abdi back, Tozer signed ( though he was off the boil yesterday ) and we’ll be a threat.

6. straightnochaser - 27/03/2014

I really don’t think we’ll get to keep Tozser beyond this season. I’d be delighted to be wrong, but can’t help thinking that teams with bigger budgets (& European qualification) will be in the market for him…

7. hornetboy84 - 27/03/2014

Ian. 99 times out of a 100 I am firmly with you and I’m normally the glass half full kind of guy.
But im in that 1 in 100 mode so here goes.
I’m so struggling to be a Bepe fan or anywhere close to being in love with this current side.
I see the “Pozzotives” to such an extent that i would have been happy with last years footy and mid table obscurity.
But the 90th minute summed it up for me. We have a free kick out wide and a chance to deliver into the box. The board goes up for 6 mins injury time ( or whatever they call it these days – let’s be done and call it overtime) and we try to keep the ball in the corner. WHAT for 6 minutes !!! In a game we have failed to keep possession for more than 30 seconds. So the goal was inevitable from a side that only needed the ball somewhere on the pitch and you knew it was heading down Almunias throat. Now I’m not against a bit of time wasting keep ball and remember well a massive Gifton Noël Williams planting the ball on the corner flag and holding off at least 7 opposition players from being able to get within 3 yards of the ball – but this was a time when I’d hoped Bepe had learned that attack is the best form of defence.
As for the players and potential – my 2 Leicester.mates told me today the only watford player they would see being an addition to their squad is Anya – although I’d say they have probably missed seeing Tozser and Angella . And hopefully everyone else has – as I fear we will lose both plus Deeney next year so the spine of the team is once again splintered.
We so urgently need 2 more players with an injection of pace- one us A fit forestieri and surely somewhere something more up front.
Oh well – back to the Leeds chat rooms to keep pointing out that the league rules mean a 20 point deduction if they go into administration this year – as too close to last one. As I said – it could be worse – I get to see the stand go up and know that more happy days are not too far away. HB84

8. Mark S - 27/03/2014

Tozser is 29 and evidently likes it at Watford alongside his good mate Pudil.He will not be on a huge wage either.
Do you honestly think that a premiership club will come in for him ?
I will be surprised if he does not sign for us.

straightnochaser - 31/03/2014

Like I said, I’d be delighted if you’re right. I made no mention of Premier League clubs, mind. I was thinking more of the plethora of mainland European sides who could offer Tozser Europa or even Champions league football next season. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t interest in him from some of them.


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