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Watford 0 Sheffield United 0 (05/10/2019) 06/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Six months ago, as we entertained realistic hopes of European competition, it would not have seemed credible that we’d go into a match at home to a newly promoted side, even a Sheffield United who have started the season in decent form, not being strong favourites to win.

And yet here we are. And, as follows by logical consequence of our tumble in fortunes as above, there are as many problems in people’s heads as on the pitch. Players. Supporters (especially them). And even head coaches. “We are not preparing matches, we are preparing finals”, he was quoted in the build up to this. The gist was right of course, but the choice of words rather overlooked certain sensitivities borne of misfortunes in May. Nobody wants to be preparing for (yet) another one of those any time soon.

No less eye-catching was the emphasis on finding a way of playing that suited us. Challenging if your way of thinking is that Javi didn’t have much wrong, was a bit unlucky. More challenging still if your belief is that everything would have been fine “if only we’d bought some defenders (other than Craig Dawson)”.

The former argument has been backed up this week (and previously) by the demonstration of favourable xG figures suggesting that we’re really making rather a lot of chances. I’ve worked as a statistician in industry for nearly 25 years now, and there’s a difference between using stats to inform a judgement and using them to retrospectively prop up a decision you’ve already made. It’s pretty transparent most of the time. Here, our way of playing under Javi had always exposed the back line but we got away with it as long as the rest of it worked. We carried enough of a threat that the freedom to test our defence wasn’t there, and when that wasn’t enough we scored enough goals, most of the time.

Thing is when that high level of performance slips you’re left with a side not scoring and… not so much a weak defence as a team that can’t defend. And so you get the West Ham game where we look bold and assertive and lose – comfortably – anyway. Something needed to change. We needed to find a new way to play, and Quique was always going to start at the back.

2- So to today’s game against a side who very much are comfortable in their own skin, and in a very well practised way of playing. This is the narrative of the first quarter of the game, in which the Hornets, effectively reverting to the Zola formation, tried to remember how to do it. The visitors were thoroughly on top, hugely more composed in possession as we sat very deep and scrambled and reflected the anxiety of the home stands. Kabasele and Cleverley bawled at each other in the face of one narrowly thwarted attack. A happy, confident camp this isn’t.

And yet. For all of United’s possession, for all their overloading down the flanks and implied threat they really weren’t getting very far. Scant progress this, perhaps, but progress nonetheless… when did we ever look halfway resilient against anyone? The overlapping centre back thing found bodies down either flank. A ball came in. Seb headed it away. Another ball came in, Kabasele or Janmaat prised someone off the ball. Another, Cathcart slices and Ben Foster claws it away. That’s as close as they come (and even that, on review, wasn’t going in). Another ball comes in. Ollie McBurnie throws himself over and waves his arms around. An unacknowledged sign of a foothold being found.

3- Meanwhile our attacking play looks less coherent altogether. No surprise this, however disappointing; if you’re going to change things, things are going to get changed and sorting out the defence was always going to be Quique’s priority. You don’t have to like it, but don’t feign surprise. Whether the back three was a one-off or a more permanent state of affairs it suits some players rather more than others. Seb Prödl, back in from the cold, is always going to look more viable in the middle of the three. Kabasele revels in his role on the left of the trio, slightly less discipline required as he rampages all over whoever is unfortunate enough to enter his radius.

You kinda think it ought to have suited Andre Gray too. Or at least, that playing alongside a partner rather than as a lone man ought to suit him – even if any of our forwards or forwards-ish – Gray, Welbeck Deulofeu, Sarr – are going to look better alongside Troy as and when. Gray works hard here, feeding off not very much as we persist in sitting deep… but lacks composure at critical times, most obviously when the lively Pereyra hares down the right and squares. An awful miss, albeit the ball was slightly behind him, that speaks volumes. This is the sort of chance we’re creating – scrappy on the break, burgled rather than constructed.

4- Another player struggling in this formation is Abdoulaye Doucouré. If Pereyra is in the Abdi role, and Cleverley is doing a decent enough job of Jonathan Hogg’s fetching and carrying then Doucouré is doing the Chalobah job at the back and he doesn’t like it. He seems uncertain of his duties throughout, and only looks convincing when he sheds his mantle and surges forwards. His form this season hasn’t been great all round but this was a new low, perhaps the most forlorn on the pitch albeit he never hides from possession. Having the real Chalobah as an option for the Chalobah job is an unavoidable consideration.

Nonetheless, we start the second half on the front foot. More assertive, if still wonky. Going forward the challenge is going to be how to accommodate all these square pegs into whatever formation(s) we settle on and the danger is that there are so many imperfect jewels in the squad that there’s always going to be multiple Answers on the bench and beyond to beat Quique with until the form turns around. Sarr, more combative in his cameo today, is one such – quite how you accommodate a winger in a 3-5-2 isn’t obvious. Ditto Deulofeu despite that his every touch, of which little were of any consequence, was cooed at by the voice over my shoulder. Dawson in contrast, who had a perfectly adequate half hour in for the injured Prödl, remains firmly in the can-do-no-right seat.

Welbeck seared clear but was too deliberate, running straight at the keeper rather than giving himself an angle and allowing Henderson to make a good save. Then, in the final minutes, Dawson had the chance to be the hero and to surely send us roaring into the international break with a snaffled winner. Deulofeu’s freek kick found him without a marker… he did the right thing but not enough of it, not far enough back across the keeper, not hard enough. It would have been a beautiful thing.

5- Nil nil then. Satisfactory, just about, in this context in this game after two away defeats and so many years without a clean sheet, so many games without an obvious shape. We will look back on this game in one of two ways; a 0-0 draw at home to a contemporary is kind of a relegation result after all, that’s one possibility. The other is that this is a stepping stone, a rot-stopping clean sheet that gives us something to build on.

Either way, this is where we are and whilst – heaven knows – none of what’s happened is beyond criticism and there are twice as many opinions out there as there people offering them this is when supporting your team is both most difficult and most important. The sort of voice that hysterically decries the decision to change manager, for example, is often a cowardly one, disassociating itself from the decision as if that excuses the perpetrator from the sort of positive outlook that’s needed if this really is to be a stepping stone.

After all, it’s not terribly even handed to champion our underdog status on the one hand whilst on the other wailing at a failure to beat The Likes Of Sheffield United.

Today was small progress in a necessary direction. Not “sorted”, not enough (yet), challenges to come. And not desperately exciting. But progress.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Prödl 3, *Kabasele 4*, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, Pereyra 4, Welbeck 3, Gray 2
Subs: Dawson (for Prödl, 57) 3, Deulofeu (for Gray, 59) 2, Sarr (for Welbeck, 77) NA, Femenía, Chalobah, Hughes, Gomes

Comments»

1. JohnF - 06/10/2019

Thanks for a thoughtful and balanced report Matt. It would be easy to simply despair but the time isn’t now. We need to get behind the players and support them to try and improve confidence. Confidence is what is all about.
With regard to Sarr, I have to wonder at the recruitment policy unless they see him as a striker rather than a winger as we haven’t had an obvious role for an out and out winger for quite a while. A week off and hopefully no-one injured on international duty will allow Deeney a bit more time to be back being bloody-minded and bullying the opposition defence and then who knows. It’ll be tough against Spurs because they really need the win but they will be under pressure.

Matt Rowson - 06/10/2019

Ditto, probably, Norwich and Everton. If there’s going to be a turnaround now is kind of a good time.

Barry Cottrell - 06/10/2019

As usual an excellent summary on the current position we find ourselves. Tottenham away will no doubt be tough, but they are exactly firing on all cylinders themselves, so fingers well and truly crossed

2. PEDantic - 06/10/2019

Thanks for the report, Matt, which pretty much aligns with my own thinking. With the defence looking so much better we must assume that QSF will persist with this formation for the time being. His challenge will be to sort out which combination of attacking players, which after all are our strength, fits in best. Like you I can’t see Sarr being one of them, so he might have to settle for coming off the bench and utilising his speed on the wing. Personally I think you should try and get your best players on the pitch, so that must include Deulofeu, probably in some sort of free role where he can link well with others once confidence returns. Many will bemoan the return of Deeney when it happens but you have to hope he will inspire the team without them resorting to constant long balls to him from the back.

3. Roger Smith - 06/10/2019

“Welbeck seared clear but was too deliberate, running straight at the keeper rather than giving himself an angle and allowing Henderson to make a good save.”

The keeper closed Welbeck down, but a pass to Gray would have left him with a tap in. By all means criticise his glaring miss, but with Watford relying on breakaways out of a solid defence, at least he was up there and available.

4. Jim Bullen - 06/10/2019

Playing Doucoure right now is as good as fielding a ten man team. He stalls any forward momentum we do generate, is passing the ball below the standard of a National League player and is lacking in positioning when we are having to defend from the front. That’s before we even mention his complete lack of urgency whether we are going forward or back.

He needs to be dropped for the sake of the team and his own game, and as you say Chalobah is tailor made for the role and must be sat there wondering what he has to do to get a crack when AD literally appears to in the worst form of his Watford career by a mile.

5. Paul - 06/10/2019

David James showed composed footwork on Saturday. Good to see Sebastian back towering in the middle, what on earth did he say to Javi to be overlooked for so long.

6. Ray Knight - 06/10/2019

Have always liked Prodl so good to see him back. 3-5-2 was used by Wolves to good effect against Citee and could give us more security at the back. The loss of Capoue obviously impacted on Doucoure’s more defensive role. I would like Quina given more of a chance. QSF will need to perm his more creative front players to keep it fresh but Gray’s first touch is poor so for me he is no more than a sub. We will need to accommodate Sarr if we are going to rely more on the counter. We need to give it a proper go at Spurs as even Newcastle have started to do better. There is absolutely no charity in the EPL so must create our own luck.

7. Peter - 07/10/2019

“There are many problems in people’s heads … especially supporters”
– I couldn’t agree more. Good to read your usual balanced report as an antidote to the hysteria on social media. We are and always will be a small club, even after a few years of punching above our weight. Grinding out a nil-nil against a promoted team is the hard work that we have to put in so that we can enjoy days like the Wolves semi-final as much as we did. I never want to be the supporter who takes success for granted or leaves before our captain lifts the trophy because “I’ve seen him do it before”. The day when our captain does lift a trophy, I shall look back on 0-0 against Sheffield United at home as one of the days we earned that joy.

Matt Rowson - 07/10/2019

Amen to all of that.


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