Stevenage 0 Watford 2 (14/07/2016) 15/07/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Call me old fashioned, but there are certain things that I feel I’m entitled to expect from a pre-season friendly.
High on this list are the ability to rock up two minutes before kick-off, saunter in and choose a row of seats to spread out over in the sunshine whilst something halfway between proper football and cricket meanders on somewhere over there. What you don’t expect, therefore, is long queues and a rammed stand. Nobody’s fault… the Stevenage staff were perfectly affable and the queues moved briskly enough. But this was Not What It Was Supposed To Be Like.
2- As for the remainder of my expectations, they were at least not significantly upset for the first forty-five minutes. The Hornets, still in last season’s kit and in the much-advertised 3-5-2 formation, dominated possession fairly inconsquentially. Chances came and went, one such resulting in a penalty claim for a handball that Troy in particular seemed utterly convinced by and protested at length to the official in a manner that confirmed that “not quite at full pelt – it’s only a friendly after all”, in Troy’s case, means mere utter commitment rather than demonic possession. We had no basis to judge said penalty call, sitting as we were low down at the far end in the dead zone behind the crossbar that requires a lot of stretching and ducking to as much as follow the path of the ball and this contributed to a sedate atmosphere consistent with all reasonable expectation, fuelled by the lazy pace of the game. A few things weren’t working – Nordin Amrabat, in a performance that echoed Des Lyttle’s notorious pre-season outing at Wealdstone in 1999, didn’t look like a wing back against this relatively limited opponent. Tommie Hoban, who it was tremendous to see in a yellow shirt again, tried to bring the ball out and struggled once or twice to navigate Stevenage’s energetic closing of options. Mostly, however, it was comfortable enough but utterly pre-season.
Stevenage hadn’t read the script. Towards the end of the half the challenges – always more competitive and aggressive than our own – began to cross the line. Darren Deadman, who refereed throughout with the air of a supply teacher who’d really rather be in the pub, rarely strayed from the centre-circle and, unhindered by any interference from the official, Stevenage proceeded down this path with several Watford players hitting the deck and the positive Holebas amongst those needing treatment. One particularly aggressive sequence of unpunished challenges down our left flank saw Steven Berghuis channel the indignation spilling over behind the goal and dive in with an air of “if that’s how it’s going to be…”. Berghuis, who looked reasonably lively if a little wasted in a role behind the forwards, would surely have been carded in other circumstances; instead, after a prolonged spell of shoving and pointing which Deadman, again, watched from a bored distance, Stevenage were awarded a free kick and everyone got on with it.
3- The second half was different. Both sides made extensive changes throughout and we were much the stronger for it – partly because of the added vitality provided by our new introductions – of whom more below – and partly because the home side switched half of their team at the break and the remainder fifteen or so minutes in. With the notable exception of Chris Day, given a warm reception by the away end, this looked a fairly inexperienced bunch by any standards and they were put to the sword in a second half that should have yielded more goals. Étienne Capoue capped a magnificent performance (in qualifying, I remember him being extraordinary at Wimbledon a year ago too…) with a splendid cut inside and fierce shot, celebrated in the fashion of someone relieved to get off the mark at last, even in a pre-season friendly. Ighalo, with a sharp turn and shot, and Deeney, sent clear and wide, were both unfortunate to hit the woodwork, and there was plenty of movement and plenty of chances.
Our squad looks tremendous. Priority for recruitment given this formation, as it was at the start of the summer, remains the wing-back positions where Holebas looks strong and Anya will do a decent job but otherwise we lack convincing cover. In any event, the width of our attack was the starkest contrast with our often narrow attack last season. Anya, Holebas and, in the later stages, Almen Abdi found no end of space down the flanks and Stevenage staged a stout rearguard action to keep the scores down.
4- The other requirement of pre-season friendlies is evaluating the new blood, of course. Of these, Abdoulaye Doucouré made the earliest appearance, a half-time replacement for the steady but less dynamic Mario Suárez. Doucouré looked more than encouraging… tall and leggy he got around the pitch and was robust to challenges, but was also able to pick a pass. They didn’t all work, but we’ve got a real asset here on this evidence… an excellent all-round midfielder. More eye-catching still, arguably, was Jerome Sinclair who came in for Ighalo on the hour. Bright and quick and lively his movement was absolutely excellent, he fully deserved the second goal which was scored with the last touch of the game, a flying header to Almen Abdi’s cross that was celebrated with enthusiasm and a brief sequence of high fives along front of the stand. Only Success didn’t completely convince, but in fairness to the burly forward he was fielded in a more withdrawn position than expected, a move necessitated by Adlene Guiedioura’s premature departure with more conventional midfield options already having been used. He looked powerful and tidy, but was less effective – not to be judged on twenty-odd minutes out of position in a pre-season friendly.
5- All in all, and despite the expectation of a comfortable evening out not quite being met, a good workout and highly encouraging on many levels. It remains to be seen quite how Walter Mazzarri (Waltzing Matilda?) intends to make the formation less get-attable than we were with a similar shape under Zola – unlike then, we can’t expect to outclass our opponents to the point where our vulnerability down the flanks becomes obsolete. Such questions will only properly be answered with something approaching our full defensive quotient available… Britos will surely be a mainstay, Hoban and Nyom both did well enough but that all three lasted the ninety reflects the continued absences of Euro 2016 trio Cathcart, Prödl and new boy Kabasele as well as the injured Watson. Other than those three, the only player to last the ninety was the imperious Capoue, who collapsed on his back with a grin at the final whistle. Pre-season friendly, yes yes. But if the formation suits him as well as it seemed to today, he’ll be even more of a key cog in the season ahead. Yooorns.