Just a quick one this (mid-)week. Most Carling/Worthington/Capital One Cups ties these days are fairly pointless exercises in squad depth. Unless you happen to reach the quarter finals or draw a big team – who won’t care about it themselves anyway – a team of Watford’s standing is unlikely to take the tournament too seriously, preferring instead to concentrate on retaining league position. This year, the cup had slightly more significance for Watford. With a squad that could make up three starting elevens, and with a new set of tactics to import into the team’s repertoire, this was a real chance for the second eleven to prove that they deserve a place in the first team, and for Zola to try out his idea of a Plan B.
Watford: Bond; Taylor, Thompson, Dickinson; Hodson, Jenkins, Hogg (Abdi 77), Forsyth; Anya (Murray 80), Beleck, Mujangi Bia (Vydra 57).
Substitutes: Almunia, Doyley, Garner, Cassetti
Bradford City: McLaughlin; Darby, McHugh, Oliver, McArdle; Jones, Meredith (Hanson 75), Jones (Doyle 60), Hines (Reid 58), Atkinson; Thompson, Connell.
Substitutes: Duke, Hannah, Baker, Bass
This game was both a chance to members of last season’s squad to remind Zola that they were still around and for some of the new lot to get some match fitness and to ingratiate themselves to the Watford faithful. The front three were all making their full debuts for the club, and had varying levels of success.
It’s been well reported that Steve Beleck is lacking in fitness. The medical staff have cited a “muscle imbalance” as being the problem. It was because of this that Steve played his first minutes for the club just last Tuesday, despite being in situ since the beginning of pre-season. If we imagine that last night was a pre-season game for him, then his performance becomes a lot more understandable. After Chris Iwelumo’s revelatory showing against Birmingham this was a significant comedown. Nothing seemed to stick to Steve, and though he would often come deep to get the ball, he struggled to get into the game. When he did link up well with Mujangi Bia, his thundering shot from a tight angle forced Jon McLaughlin in the Bradford goal into a great save. That was the only occasion that we saw the powerful and uncompromising striker that reports suggest he could be. Nothing to worry about now, but not an overwhelmingly strong start.
Ikechi Anya is quick. Very quick. What he does with that speed is the issue. Despite being in the mid-20s, he still seems rather raw – probably due to the low level that most of his career has been played at. A great goal (though maybe questions should be asked of McLaughlin) hit first time with ferocious power was of course the highlight of the winger’s night. My feelings are that Anya could benefit from playing with the first team: although when he had the ball the results were varied, he made a number of darting off-the-ball runs that were not picked up on by his colleagues in the second string. Had he been playing with some of the more confident ball players in the squad these runs may have paid off, and we may have seen more of Anya with the ball in good positions. There were a couple of examples of Anya’s pace and determination resulting in loose balls being regained in dangerous positions near to Bradford’s goal. Watford will be up against opposition more professional and adept than the Bantams in the coming weeks, but this was nevertheless impressive.
Of the front three, Geoffrey Mujangi Bia was perhaps the standout performer, especially in the first half. There was not a huge amount of end product, but his play was very neat and tidy, reminiscent – kind of – of Tom Cleverley, in that when he got the ball, he would rarely lose it, twisting and turning his way out of trouble. Add to this some very threatening deliveries from set pieces and the holy grail of modern wingers – genuine two footedness – and you have a promising start for a young winger still finding his feet in the English game.
Of the guys staking their claim for a place in the match day squad on a regular basis, it was perhaps Adam Thompson that shouted the loudest. It was not that he did anything particularly fantastic, but more the constant feeling that everything was OK. Yes, it was just Bradford, but Adam is a fine young defender – playing in a pretty unfamiliar back three of course – who has very few genuine weaknesses. Craig Forsyth was also impressive for the first hour, operating at wing-back: Bradford fans must think he’s fantastic! Held back, perhaps, by the fact that he just doesn’t look like a footballer, Craig could be a handy Championship player. His crossing was fantastic, and his link up play and comfort in possession, often the low-point of his game, was also good. What with the influx of players, there probably isn’t much of a future at Watford for Craig, but he could do a job, especially if we were to utilise this formation again. On the opposite side, Lee Hodson looked more positive going forward than he has in recent games, and looks like he could be an adept, in unspectacular wing-back in the future, and Ross Jenkins boosted his reputation as a neat and tidy central midfielder who can do some very good stuff – a couple of inch perfect balls over the top of the Bradford back line for Anya for example – but is more likely to do not much at all.
When losing to League Two opposition, you would expect there to be a number of underperformers, but oddly that just wasn’t the case. Jonathan Hogg did very little, maybe a bit jaded after featuring in every game so far this season, but he can’t be said to have played badly. His namesake Jonathan Bond was having quite a good day for the first 85 minutes of the game. A fine reflex save after a bit of penalty area pinball at the beginning of the second half was matched by a full-stretch effort to tip a long-range drive around the post twenty minutes later. Then it all went wrong. He failed to come for a looping ball into the box that dropped about eight yards from the goal, after a poor clearance, the ball was lashed home with aplomb by Kyel Reid to consign the game to extra time. Or not, as with another free-kick from deep launched into the box, Bond came and punched tamely into the path of Garry Thompson who shot into the far corner through a crowd of bodies. A game of complete domination, though that in itself did not result in an abundance of chances, was undone by two sloppy set pieces.
Much like the final pre-season game at Gillingham, Zola clearly saw this as an opportunity to bed in what seems to be Watford’s ‘alternative’ formation this season – a 3-4-2-1 set-up. A back three of Thompson, Taylor and Dickinson, with Martin Taylor – MARTIN TAYLOR – playing as a libero, performed capably, with the outer two capable of splitting off wide due to their natural positions as full-backs. Further up, Craig Forsyth and Lee Hodson patrolled the wings, the former focusing on attack while Hodson tended to hold back a bit more, though he was not afraid to join in when the ball was held up on the right. Jonathan Hogg stood back and patrolled the midfield, while Ross Jenkins picked up the pieces and helped the ball on. Steve Beleck was the point of the arrow, with Ikechi Anya and Geoff Bia flanking him. The two swapped positions and glided around with the regularity that the first team showed on Saturday.
As mentioned, there was not a multitude of proper chances, though the ball did at least reach the penalty area quite a lot, which is more than can be said for the Ipswich game a week ago. That we dominated a League Two side – who were not at full strength – was probably more down to the chasm between the calibre of players than the way they were set out, but the wing backs did work well, and with a big more familiarity with each other, the front three could have been more effective, with many moves falling down at the final ball. It would be interesting to see the first team set out in such a way, and no doubt we will before long.
It wasn’t great. When are League Cup games? But there were a few encouraging performances that the few Watford fans who made the journey could take away from the evening. Onwards and upwards to Derby away on Saturday, a game that, sadly, I shall not be present at. So you’ll have to draw your own conclusions from that one!