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Watford 2 Derby County 1(19/02/2021) 20/02/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  I went out this morning, without a coat.  There’s a development.  First time this year and… it’s still February, we could still get another bout of cold and ice but this felt significant.  A landmark moment… pleasantly cool, bit of a breeze but you feel more alive without a coat.  Feels as if something’s changed.  Feels as if we’re starting something new.

On the pitch, too.  Like a jigsaw where all the pieces have suddenly fallen into place the question is no longer, “can we find some form” or “can we hang on to a play-off place until we find some form” or “can we hang on to a play off place” or even “how the hell do we still have a play-off place” but, “right, who next?”. It’s a mindset change, an attitude change, it’s a whole load more fun all of a sudden but it brings its own challenges, Derby the latest.

It’s early days, too early for such reckless comparisons really, but there are parallels with 1999 here.  I suspect that most of you are at least old enough to remember, but in case…  those of us who had been impressionable youngsters as GT’s Hornets first assaulted the top flight in the eighties found ourselves at a later but no less vulnerable stage, mid-twenties with disposable income, limited extended responsibilities and a distorted sense of perspective as the newly promoted Hornets tapped a vein of form at a critical point to bundle into the play-offs and earn promotion to the Premier League.  For a couple of months, you didn’t think about anything else. Genuinely obsessed.

Then, as now, a change in personnel (if not shape at that late stage) was pivotal in propelling us onwards.  The success was not quite immediate; Tommy Mooney had made his first start as number 9 (in our last season without squad numbers) a couple of weeks before things clicked after a season and a bit in a back three and then four months of cameos off the bench.  But then as now, a change was transformative and everything fell into place around it.

Then as now the falling-into-place had been preceded with some miserable 0-0 draws and a couple of hapless defeats.  Then as now there was a startling, eye-catching match when everything dramatically clicked.  Then as now, you went into games feeling invincible.

2- Derby have been slumming it at the lower end of the division all season, but came into this on a very decent run of form.  Matt Clarke’s injury left them short in defence in particular but nonetheless… five wins in six, which is exactly the momentum you need going into a game away to a high flying side.  They will have wanted to lay down a marker, to confirm that their new found form represented a more permanent state of affairs and they started, and played most of the game, in that vein;  focused, intense, confident and aggressive.

The Hornets, with Sierralta apparently rotated out, his turn for a rest, counter-punched early as the first of many good overlapping breaks down the right culminated in Chalobah backheeling inside for a galloping Femeníá; minutes later the right-back dinked a ball over Sarr whose violent cross was headed clear.

From here Derby broke themselves through Knight and enjoyed a prolonged period of possession around the Watford box.  They retained the energy and urgency but didn’t penetrate, which became a bit of a theme.  An offside call felt symbolic, we’d weathered that little storm. Sure enough, within a minute Jason Knight went  down squealing like a stuck pig, not for the first time, was ignored by the officials and the Hornets broke down the right to open the scoring.

We got a big dose of luck, again, with the ricochet for the finish, but had earned it with that move down the right side.  You have to feel for nineteen year-old Lee Buchanan, or indeed for any left back facing Sarr and Kiko in this division (not you, Bournemouth).  The young winger’s brutal pace is one thing, but having Kiko overlapping him, providing an option or loading the bullets isn’t really fair.  The Spaniard was at his irrepressible best this evening, but the kudos for the goal goes to Sarr whose explosion of acceleration as he switched from running shoulder to shoulder with his opponent to screaming past him onto Kiko’s ball inside was ridiculous, as if a “burst” button had been pressed on a 20 year-old console game.  His terrific cross deflected first off a defender, then off the unwitting João Pedro to give the Hornets the lead.  Two minutes later with the Rams reeling for the first time a Hughes corner looked likely to result in a Derby break until Cleverley thundered in, another Chalobah backheel freed Hughes into too much space and he finished surgically and decisively.

3- Derby were rocking, we could have perhaps put it to bed at this stage and weren’t far away from doing so…  Kiko swung a pass across the face of goal, no touch at the far post.  Nate dinked a ball over the top, just too long for João Pedro.  The Brazilian was almost played through again, a saving tackle preventing a clean run on goal.

Derby regained a grip however, and re-exerted some pressure.  Having failed to make headway otherwise they caused problems for the first time with a series of well-delivered set pieces, a theme that they would sensibly pursue in the second half.  Bachmann looked exposed, possibly fouled, in punching one cross over his bar.  From the resultant corner the veteran Colin Kazim-Richards headed powerfully home.

Not difficult to sympathise with referee Tim Robinson.  From at least one angle in a crowded penalty area it looked as if Bachmann had been impeded by Andre Wisdom.  He clearly wasn’t, however; one to bear in mind next time one goes against us.  We got away with one there. Worth reflecting also that you’d fancy that neither this one nor the cross that lead to the corner would have caused as many problems with Francisco Sierralta underneath them.  Good that we got away with resting him here, just about, but he’s gone from 0 to 60 startlingly quickly, our key centre-back now having started the season fifth in line.

4- With Hughes and Cleverley both picking up bookings in the first half many Hornets will have been speculating as to which would make way for Dan Gosling at the break.  Hughes in particular looked to be sailing close to the wind and committed another foul at the start of the second half.  As it was Gosling had to wait until the hour to replace not Hughes or Cleverley, but Nathaniel Chalobah, one booking away from a two match ban if a tenth arrives between now and the Rotherham game in a month’s time.

The midfield trio were once again tremendous;  Hughes hugely influential, pulling the strings, Cleverley busy, Chalobah enjoying perhaps his best hour of the season, sure-footed and confident as the occasionally frenetic game flowed around him.  Gosling already looks a fine signing, once more stepping in for one of the leading trio at no obvious cost to the team. A concern iremains quite how limited the cover is in central midfield with a three, but to this end Ben Wilmot plays in Will Hughes’ role at the base to very great effect for 15 minutes, a rare senior opportunity to play in the role which, it has been speculated, is his ultimate destination.  No evidence against that here.

On with Wilmot came Philip Zinckernagel, who was exposed not doing very basic defending once again as Byrne was allowed to send in the cross that Willam Troost-Ekong, who also looked edgy, propelled past the helpless Bachmann.  Both here, with Kazim-Richards in an offside position, and when Sema was prevented from meeting Kiko’s evil cross across the box minutes earlier, the imbalance in refereeing decisions was evened out a little.  Of more consequence is that Zinckernagel, for all the deft attacking threat he suggests, doesn’t look like he can be trusted with any defensive responsibility just at the moment.  That’s restrictive.

5- Derby kitchen-sink it in the closing minutes.  Bachmann reacts well to claw Byrne’s vicious corner away from the top corner of the net,  David Marshall comes up for two late corners and the visitors make us look a bit nervous for the first time.  Our threat has been more spasmodic in the second half – we have one late chance when some magnificent keep ball culminates with Sarr breaking into the box and teeing up Zinckernagel for an underwhelming left foot shot. The game to great relief with us manning the barricades.

Wayne Rooney will claim post-match that his side deserved something from the game.  The lack of full stop to many of their attacks counts against that, but you’d fancy we’d be feeling similarly hard done by in his position.  Derby looked a good side and made us work.  We beat them anyway.

Saturday’s startlingly helpful results will have buoyed Hornets’ hearts still further;  Brentford’s recent collapse in particular having looked irresistible a couple of weeks ago perhaps a warning against getting too carried but we look formidable, and at this point of the season with shallower squads than ours suffering badly we have a real opportunity.  Of our first choice eleven only perhaps Hughes and Sarr would be critical misses in isolation.  The momentum is building, the conviction and the energy that we’ve been so badly missing is there, we have the squad and we’re strong all over the pitch.

Bring it on.


Bachmann 3, *Femenía 5*, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Masina 3, Hughes 5, Cleverley 4, Chalobah 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 4, Sema 2
Subs:  Gosling (for Chalobah, 60) 4, Wilmot (for Hughes, 76) NA, Zinckernagel (for Sema, 76) NA, Sierralta, Lazaar, Ngakia, Perica, Gray, Elliot


1. Harefield Hornet - 20/02/2021

Great result again and brilliant 6 days but I’m not sure if it’s fair to expect Pedro in particular and Sarr to maintain this momentum and be relied upon until the end of the season to get us over the line. With Troy injured and Gray seemingly hopelessly out of form we’re going to need reinforcements up front at some stage and I’m not sure where that’s going to come from?, Perica being the only other option. If the midfielders can start scoring more regularly and increase their contribution all well and good, but I think that must happen for us to have a realistic chance of finishing in the top
2. Good to see Swansea’s luck finally run out today though. It’s going to be interesting that’s for sure!

2. NickB - 20/02/2021

There’s an elephant in the room. Or was. In his absence there’s a sense of liberation. Coupled with the re-emergence of Hughes, we look a totally different side.

Momentum shifts in football can be sudden and outrageous – in our case
the Oxford/ Bury/ Tranmere/ Birmingham/ Bolton continuum being the most memorable example. You’re right, this is beginning to feel rather similar.

3. paullbaxter - 20/02/2021

I am really enjoying the change in intensity over the last 3 games. I can accept a defeat when the team puts in this effort. Of course, it is even better when we win. The second half was probably more nerve wracking than it needed to be as we found Derby’s decision to press harder to deal with but at least we managed to tough it out. The results today have opened things up and out deep squad may give us an advantage in the coming weeks. Who expected Swansea to be well beaten by Huddersfield? Looking forward to the run in whether it results in the playoffs or automatic promotion.

4. Kevin Shanahan - 21/02/2021

Wisdom pushed the defender out of the way and backed into Dan making to attempt to go for the ball; just to create space for Kazim without Dan being able to get to the ball.

Not the first time this corner set piece has been used by Derby recently – but the Ref spotted it this time.

Matt Rowson - 21/02/2021

Thanks Kevin, I’ll have another look

5. Jim Bullen - 22/02/2021

Some really good observations, as usual, there. Personally felt very uncomfortable with Bachmann’s flapping – not really seen that from him before but he literally got worse as the game went on (with the exception of the outstanding save from the direct-shot corner). That won’t do and he needs to be claiming balls like those that came at him rather than aiming weak punches into the air to out us under unnecessary and avoidable danger.

Also wasn’t blown away (again) with Wilmot or Zinck both of whom look a few levels below the rest of the squad, but totally agree about Gosling who looks like a Taylor-Made Hornet through and through.

Matt Rowson - 22/02/2021

A bit harsh on Bachmann I think. The quality of the deliveries was exceptional and he’s used to having Sierralta cleaning stuff like that out. Wilmot isn’t Hughes but I thought he was perfectly fine as a cork up the backside of the midfield in the way Bangura briefly was under Boothroyd. Zinc is a concern though.

6. Steve G - 22/02/2021

It’s an interesting characteristic of human nature that over the last few weeks the number of comments on each report has almost been in inverse proportion to the points gained per match – and before a statistical pedant points it out, I know that taken literally that would imply that the number of comments after a loss would tend to infinity, but you know what I mean. Anyway, this one gets us slightly closer to the February average of 10 comments for a win.

I’m more than happy with Wilmot given that he is arguably 5th choice at the moment for CB and can also do a perfectly adequate job in a similar place in the pecking order in midfield. How long he might be happy sitting on the bench is another matter, but this to me emphasises the strength in depth of the squad – despite the injury to Kabasele we can rotate the centre back pairing and still leave Wilmot out of the starting 11.

And speaking of adequate centre backs, much as I am surprised by the plaudits that Craig Dawson is getting at West Ham, I’m still not sure that he’d be a first choice if he were part of our squad at the moment. This may be one of those moves that’s worked out well for the player, the new club and for us – he clearly wasn’t going to bust a gut in the Championship.

7. Mark Scholfield - 22/02/2021

The one thing that concerns me greatly is if we get injuries/suspensions. In my opinion the only current subs who can step up to the plate are Gosling, Cathcart and Wilmott ( at centre back and possibly left back ) and maybe Perica.Ngakia whilst promising, often flatters to deceive and was very poor at left back.Maybe Success at this level will be okay.

Matt Rowson - 22/02/2021

I think we’re a lot better off than most. We haven’t really seen Lazaar or Elliot, but seeing as they came from Prem clubs they should be ok. Ngakia I think is fine as cover on the right, agree he’s not a left back. Kabasele, surely. So GK/DF we’re fine. MF Gosling and Wilmot, maybe Sema if Zinc delivers. And yes, I fancy Success at this level. Nobody wants injuries of course, but I think we can cover in post positions in isolation.

Jez Fayerman - 24/02/2021

I always thought we looked better with Kiko on the left and Ngakia on the right then vice versa but agree that Lazaar should give us more cover for Masina. It’s in midfield that I think we may be a bit short. 4 players to cover 3 positions doesn’t seem enough – hopefully we won’t revert back to 442 just because of a lack of options. It makes Quina’s loan seem ever stranger to me. We’re still in a stronger position squad-wise than most in the Championship though, even if nowhere near as strong as the first squad number announcement of the season implied.

Matt Rowson - 24/02/2021

Agree with all of that. As above, Wilmot I think can do a job in midfield at the very least. Not the same job as Hughes, but then having adequate backup for Hughes is a little greedy.

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