What a difference a few days make. In the time between Tuesday’s lacklustre defeat to Ipswich and Saturday’s consummate victory over Birmingham, everything seemed to click for Watford. The team was not majorly different – though the changes that were made had a huge impact – but the display, disjointed and generally lacking in all areas of the pitch in the previous game, was fluid, energetic and a joy to watch. The opening day win at Crystal Palace may have been exhilarating, but this one was all the more impressive for the sheer dominance that Watford paraded over the Blues – movement and verve that Birmingham had no way of controlling in the first half and a professional control of the second: worlds away from the panicky seeing out of matches that we’ve been privy to at Vicarage Road in the past.
Watford Almunia; Doyley, Taylor, Nosworthy, Pudil, Yeates, Hogg, Abdi, Murray (Hodson 89), Vydra (Dickinson 77), Iwelumo (Beleck 81).
Subs: Bond, Forsyth, Anya, Garner.
Birmingham Butland, Spector, Davies, Caldwell, Gordon (Morrison 81), Burke, Mullins, Ambrose (Gomis 55), Redmond, Zigic (Lovenkrands 55), King.
Subs: Doyle, Ibanez, Elliot, Rooney.
We’ve got it! The elusive attacking focal point! Chris Iwelumo has had a turnaround of mythic proportions at Watford. Ironic cheers at his substitution and boos when his name has been announced have transformed into standing ovations after superb displays of leadership, experience and no little ability. Charged with bringing the forward line into the game, something that Joe Garner has struggled with in recent weeks, Iwelumo pressed and harried and jostled, he held the ball up brilliantly, he won flick ons and released team-mates with deft flicks, and, most importantly, he never stopped talking – more impressive than his all-action performance was the way that he led the likes of Matty Vydra, Sean Murray and even Mark Yeates through the game, encouraging and advising constantly. It’s one thing to play well yourself, but Iwelumo’s positive impact on the rest of the attacking corps should not be underestimated.
The other change made from the Ipswich game consisted of Lloyd Doyley taking up his coveted right back spot from Lee Hodson. Hodson struggled on Tuesday, he was double-teamed by Ipswich throughout the night, and found it hard to switch from defensive duties to offensive ones when on the ball. Lee is undoubtedly a fine defender, and showed in his early career that he has plenty of attacking ability, but when I watch him going forward, I can’t help but feel that he’s holding something back, that he doesn’t have the confidence to leave his domain and venture upfield. Lloyd does not hold back, and that’s why we love him. Birmingham didn’t offer much going forward, especially in the first half, and their attacking moves were quickly swallowed up by the Watford defence, when they were subsequently spat out on the counter, Lloyd was there flying up the wing. He’s not the most adept of attackers, but his energy going forward gets more bodies in attacking areas, putting the opposition on the back foot and stretching defences. Against Ipswich, any attacks that we got past our halfway line were snuffed out easily as our outnumbered forwards were smothered by defenders. On Saturday, the additional presence of Lloyd on the right and Daniel Pudil on the left, who had an excellent game overlapping his nearest winger, whoever that happened to be at the time, gave us strength in numbers and contributed to our ability to build attacks.
This increasing of attacking numbers meant that Vydra had a lot less to do, which in turn made him far more effective. Chasing down lost cause after lost cause in the previous game, trying to hassle every Ipswich defender into trouble just to get a touch of the ball, he tired quickly and when Watford were in possession he was often out of position, having gone looking for the ball. On Saturday, with other members of the team stepping up and holding onto the ball, Vydra could pick his moments, make fantastically timed runs off the shoulder of the last man and baffle defenders with his sudden change of pace, exemplified by his cool finish after latching onto Mark Yeates’ inch perfect ball behind the back line.
Yeates himself was a revelation. One swallow does not a summer make, but on this evidence, there just might be a future at Watford for the frustrating winger. This season’s deployment not as an out-and-out winger but as one of a fluid front four has allowed him not to focus on not running at his man or beating the first defender with crosses, and instead act as a link between midfield and attack. On many occasions he took up the position he took up for Vydra’s goal, in the space between Birmingham’s banks of four, and it was from here that he orchestrated proceedings. A few too many long range shots, but we’ll allow him them after such a surprisingly good performance.
To be honest, every player is worthy of praise – not one underperformed. Hogg was destructive in the midfield, Taylor – whom I last week suggested wasn’t up to the possession game – was completely composed on the ball and still kept Zigic and King silent for 90 minutes, Almen Abdi was superb. Though not an all-action midfielder – he rarely seems to be haring around the pitch – he seemed to be everywhere in the middle third of the pitch. He was the first to every second ball around the Watford penalty area and expertly moved the ball up the pitch with ease and poise.
Perhaps more important than how we set ourselves out was the difference between Birmingham’s game plan and that of Ipswich, who completely nullified Watford passing game. By no means was the improvement in performance solely down to Brum’s inadequacy, but their complete lack of presence in midfield allowed Watford to blossom. Ipswich’s five man midfield suffocated Abdi & Co on Tuesday, we couldn’t get men forward because we couldn’t hold the ball in the opposition half for more than three touches. The central two on Saturday consisted of Darren Ambrose and Hayden Mullins, the former an attacking wide man who has perhaps seen better days, the latter a passable holding midfielder who definitely has. On either side was Chris Burke, a Don Cowie-esque Duracell Bunny, always working hard and liable to cause full backs a lot of trouble, and Nathan Redmond, the young star-in-waiting, exciting to watch and tough to defend against. This is undoubtedly a potent attacking force, but is lacking on the defensive side – especially when the two strikers the mercurial Marlon King and the carthorse Nikola Zigic aren’t tracking back with too much regularity. This imbalanced engine room opened the gates for Watford, and they didn’t hesitate in bursting through and storming the fort.
Not only is this a defensive weakness, but it also made them suffer in the second half. Watford played the ball around amongst themselves, letting Birmingham know that if they wanted the ball, they’d have to come and get it. And they couldn’t. Mullins was the only ball-winner on the pitch, and that wasn’t enough.
Burke is a match-winner, and that Pudil kept him so quiet is testament to his ability to combine attacking and defensive responsibilities. Ex-Hornet King touched the ball about ten times, none of which were especially telling.
Most of Watford’s tactical improvements have been mentioned already. More men committed forward meant our passing game could be utilised around the box. The most pressing issue is formation. What were we playing? Was it 4-5-1? 4-4-2? 4-3-3? It was pretty impossible to say, as every time you’d start to get an idea of shape, it would change. Vydra, Yeates and Murray would switch with rapid regularity, all perfectly at home wherever they were. It was a joy to watch. The fluidity and movement of this team is exciting, and though we know that this is a “work in progress”, such an effective showing of the new philosophy so early on in the season is extremely encouraging. We must be calm of course; there’ll be bad days like Ipswich among the good days like this one. But this was an almighty step in the right direction.
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