Well, that was disappointing. After a morale and expectation boosting last minute turnaround at Crystal Palace on Saturday, Watford came back to earth with a bump with a tepid, toothless defeat at home to perennial reverse bogey men Ipswich. So what went wrong?
Watford: Almunia, Hodson, Taylor, Nosworthy, Pudil, Yeates (Beleck 90), Hogg, Abdi, Murray (Anya 68), Vydra, Garner (Iwelumo 57).
Subs Not Used: Bond, Dickinson, Doyley, Smith.
Ipswich: Loach, Edwards, Chambers, Smith, Cresswell, Luongo, Hyam, Carson (Scotland 76), Emmanuel-Thomas (Drury 79), Chopra (Delaney 90), Martin.
Subs Not Used: Lee-Barrett, Stevenson, Murray, Ainsley.
Before you even look about the development of the new style or system, there’s the bread and butter of football, who played well and who didn’t. Placed firmly in the latter category is ‘that boy’ Sean Murray. By far the worst he’s ever played for the first team, he struggled to get involved, and when he did, absolutely nothing came off. It was just one of those days for Murray, who is immensely talented, but there may be worries that the new structure may not suit him, especially after reports suggested that he had similar luck against Palace.
Lee Hodson also struggled. Ipswich were clearly given instructions to press heavily and Hodson proved the least comfortable under such pressure with the ball at his feet. It may have been best to persist with Lloyd Doyley at right back, a man who’s been around the block a few times, and would be able to cope with a change of emphasis more easily than a young player like Hodson. That being said, Nosworthy and Taylor, captain for the evening, seemed similarly uncomfortable with what was being asked of them. On several occasions they and Manuel Almunia played hospital triangles around the penalty area, constantly harried by Ipswich attackers, before launching the ball into touch. As fantastic as these two have been in their respective times at Watford, an improvement on tonight’s performance is needed.
Almen Abdi has himself admitted that he is yet to reach 100%, which is a relief after a pretty sluggish performance. With John Eustace missing, purportedly through injury, the midfield lacked bite and drive. Overrun in midfield, whenever Abdi got on the ball he was slow to make decisions, delaying far too long during one second half break in particular when Matty Vydra and Chris Iwelumo had made very good runs. Abdi also seemed a few yards off the pace, never keeping up with breaks when they did occur. Some good tackles and the odd bit of nice short passing implied that there’s more to come from him, and once he regains the sharpness that we hope he has somewhere in there, he should be ok, but will need an enforcer like Eustace around to dictate the tempo.
Focal point, or lack thereof, up front:
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what this team urgently needs is a focal point in the attacking third of the pitch. Moreover, Joe Garner ain’t it. Last night, just like every night, he hared round the pitch, chasing balls over the top, trying to link up with the midfield, but to no effect. Try as he might, Garner just doesn’t hold any kind of threat, nor any ability to hold the ball up. A big problem was that the front three (though in truth last night resembled a 4-5-1 more than a 4-3-3, such are the fine margins between the two formations) were spread too far apart, so if the ball did ever make its way to Garner, which was admittedly a fairly rare occurrence, he was immediately crowded out by a host of Ipswich defenders, and the ball was lost.
When Chris Iwelumo was introduced in the 57th minute for the hapless Garner, this all changed. Not only did Iwelumo make his presence known to the Ipswich back line, straining every sinew to win every ball that came near him and thus putting them on the back foot and creating space for some Watford possession in a position more advanced than the halfway line, but also led from the front, encouraging and guiding his strike partners, especially Matty Vydra on the left. This is a side of Chris I hadn’t seen before, though he is often talked about as a good man to have in the changing room, and it makes me hope that he sticks around in the side – something I never thought I’d be saying any time last season!
As soon as Chris came on and took the game to Ipswich, almost single-handedly, the crowd grew more confident, the atmosphere was raised and the players clearly held renewed vigour. From that point on, we were on top. Of course, we did eventually concede, for reasons that I’ll get to, but the second half was an immense improvement on the first, and that was due to Chris Iwelumo forming a pivot for the front three to work around.
Style needs refining:
We may not have been the Watford that the media like to portray – aimless long balls/playing the percentages – for a good few years now, but imposing such an uncompromising passing style housed in an unfamiliar formation was always going to take time. Last night didn’t get off to a good start: the plan to build from the back was scuppered by a heavily watered pitch (first sprinkled by the groundsman, then drenched by a sudden downpour) that played quicker than the greens at Augusta National. Almunia, Noswothy and Taylor found themselves in trouble on several occasions in the first twenty minutes, and when they did get the ball wide to Daniel Pudil and Hodson, their misweighted passes, caused both by the rapid pitch and the heavy Ipswich pressing, were often wayward or uncontrollable. This difficult start set the tone for the game, and I think heads went down rather quickly, with Pudil and Hodson reverting to clips down the line to inadequately-sized and over-matched wingers.
When the ball was played around, the tempo was always off. To begin with it was too fast – in trying to keep possession, the midfield were playing early balls, passing and moving, which is great when you’re passing to your own player or not moving away from the ball. What was needed at that stage was for somebody to put their foot on the ball, calm everybody down, and build. Of course, this is what John Eustace has been doing for some years, but in his most keenly-felt absence this was visibly lacking.
In contrast, when we broke away from an Ipswich attack, the tempo was too slow. Too often Yeates or Vydra would receive the ball and be so unsupported that they had to turn and play the ball backwards, allowing Ipswich to regroup. On the night, it just didn’t click.
Another issue that has been prevalent throughout pre-season is the lack of fitness of our players. With newcomers like Alex Geijo and perhaps Fitz Hall, who joined long after the players had gathered for training, this is admissible, but for those who are playing it is still an issue. With such a doctrinal swing in playing style to be enforced, Zola was perhaps too keen to get playing rather than building once a solid base of fitness had been gained. By the time Ipswich broke down the right in the 90th minute and crossed for Michael Chopra to score the winner, Daniel Pudil was running on fumes and was unable to keep up with the break. In fact, without wishing to single out the new players – I feel that an ‘us and them’ mentality could begin to appear among fans if on-pitch performances don’t improve – Abdi, Pudil and Vydra did seem to be lacking a bit of pace. Abdi says he’s not 100%, and Vydra was absolutely everywhere on the pitch last night, chasing lost causes like the Anti-Priskin he is, so their tiredness can be excused somewhat, but it was evident that none of them seemed quite up to 90 minutes just yet.
Ipswich, or rather, Scott Loach:
All the attention coming into the game was on the all-too-soon return of Scott Loach. In the past, the weaker sides of his game have been exploited by previous managers of his – this was not to continue last night. The three times a cross went anywhere near him, he struggled: first, unopposed, he punched an untroubling cross straight up in the air; second, he caused panic when hesitating on a ball into the box that led to Aaron Cresswell heading against his own bar; and third, he stood rooted to his line as Yeates whipped a ball in that Abdi headed wide from six yards. Clearly, this was an opportunity missed. And it was missed due to a general lack of width, with Murray, Vydra and Yeates either too deep with no support, or coming inside to try and receive a two yard pass from the central midfield. The action was always too congested, with a wide option never available. Once Iwelumo was on, and we began to win set pieces deep in Ipswich territory, we began to look far more dangerous – all because we were getting balls into the box.
We won’t dwell on Scott Loach – apart from those three crosses he had precious little to do – and after the direct and over-the-top abuse he has received from certain parts of the Watford fan base, he had every right to celebrate a last minute winner for his childhood team.
The other ten men of Ipswich performed well, dominating the midfield, giving our ball players not room to breathe and shutting down our moves at the source. Creatively, Massimo Luongo, on loan from Spurs, impressed, and although the majority of their attempts at goal were pot shots from outside the area, with only one on target, let alone troubling Almunia, if they had their finishing boots on, the win could have been much more decisive.
In general, there were glimpses of what could be a good Championship team. Once the squad have settled down and grown in confidence, more coherent displays will follow, though Alex Geijo can’t get fit quickly enough.
On to Birmingham, where another of the Rookery’s favourite sons, Marlon King, makes a joyous return to the Vic…
What did you think about the game? Let me know by leaving a comment below…