It’ll come. It’ll come. Repeating the consoling words to yourself as you plod away from a darkening Vicarage Road is scant comfort when three points have once again left the stadium with the opposition. But it will. Craig Mackail-Smith’s penalty was enough to secure the Seagulls’ fourth win of the season, and consign Watford to their third straight league defeat, but the scoreline did not tell the whole story, as a vastly improved performance warranted so much more.
Another game, another set of full debuts. Fernando Forestieri built on his twenty minutes at Bolton with a start on the flank of the attacking three and Marco Cassetti took the free-scoring Lloyd Doyley’s place at right back. A lot of fans were also getting their first chance to catch a glimpse of Neuton, the swashbuckling partner to Nyron Nosworthy in defence.
Forestieri was good. Really quite good. From afar you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for Lionel Messi – the long sleeves, the scruffy haircut, the short, stubby physique all resembled the superstar who was born round the corner from Forestieri in Rosario; and there was even a similarity in their style – close control, jinking runs, the uncanny ability to leave defenders on their arse. For the first fifteen minutes, the best period of the game for Watford, he ate Bruno, Brighton’s right back, for breakfast. He was extremely unlucky not to score his a massively deflected shot from the edge of the area bounced agonisingly wide of the right post, with Kuszczak wrong-footed.
His involvement waned after half time, especially when the Seagull’s packed their defence and offered Watford’s attacking players no space whatsoever, and was substituted with twenty minutes remaining, but this was a hugely promising debut. There has been question marks over his poor goal-scoring record, but he showed that he will be a strong creative force, and the few pops he had at goal belied his unprolific reputation.
Cassetti only lasted a half. He was brought off for Doyley at half time not for any startling performance issues, but rather because he had already received a caution for a rash late challenge when he pulled back Will Buckley as they contended for a loose ball – another did not look out of the question. Confident going forward, and not afraid to overlap, Cassetti showed that he could be a threat, but Buckley was constantly causing trouble with his pace and verve – traits Watford fans are only too familiar with, and Lloyd’s introduction bought a more rational – if less exciting – approach to attacks down the right hand side. Cassetti was perhaps preferred in an attempt to provide a leader for the back line, which was oh so sorely missing against Bolton. It’s hard to tell if this was achieved, but in the first half there was a lot of patience and incision in the build-up from the back, whilst in the second, with Cassetti absent, the backline were a lot more open to trying to find Iwelumo’s tall frame with hopeful forty-yard clips.
I can foresee a lot of arguments about Neuton amongst Watford fans. He is a player who will defend well for 89 minutes, who will play with an assuredness that has a knock-on effect on the rest of the team. He will bring the ball out, start attacks, occasionally join them, but also track back, make great tackles and keep good strikers quiet. But his calmness and confidence will get him in trouble once a game, and a chance will present itself to the opposition through a lax pass here, or a rush of blood to the head. This is precisely the kind of thing that can sour good players’ reputations, and turn fans against then. He was often clearly very anxious to get forward, only held back by the pesky need to defend, and was once to be found as the most advanced Watford player, playing somewhere on the left wing. He will be lots of fun – his anger at Bruno’s time-wasting reluctance to leave the pitch when substituted was an amusing interlude in an extremely frustrating period of football – but he will also be infuriating.
With Forestieri’s departure we got our first taste of Chelsea youngster Nathaniel Chalobah in a Watford shirt. “Facts” would have it that this was a seventeen year old stepping onto a pitch as a professional footballer for the first time. I don’t believe it. He demanded the ball, he was calm and collected when he got it, and his distribution was first class. He played one beautiful ball into the box that caused a lot of trouble, and was the man brought down for the Hornet’s last, and most vigorous, penalty appeal, after some good movement. And it’s worth remembering, this isn’t even his best position. Jonathan Hogg should be afraid. He hasn’t started the season well, and today once more his distribution was woeful. Hogg provides a link between the Watfords of old and new, and is undoubtedly a great player waiting to happen, but Chalobah’s presence will provide competition for him, and spur him on to rediscover the form that made him the indispensible player he was in the first half of last season.
Steve Beleck came on and put in his best shift in a Watford shirt to date. Whilst previously he has looked sluggish and unfocused, last night he played with a lot more intelligence. A few good runs, a few good touches and some good displays of strength in a crowded penalty area suggested that there is more to come from the Cameroonian. With Chris Iwelumo looking a bit hit-and-miss – he started the game very well, but was isolated by the growing directness of Watford’s approach as the game went on – it is vital that there is a viable option off the bench. Alex Geijo has still not reached fitness, so Beleck growing into Championship football would be most welcome.
Mark Yeates has come in for a lot of stick from fans. His performances from last season seem to have carried over in the mind of many, and while he was an ineffective winger it is impossible not to acknowledge that he has improved this campaign. Playing more centrally, his strengths are accentuated. In the opening salvo on the Brighton goal, when the ball was camped in their half and the front six were playing the ball around at will at good tempo, Yeates looked as comfortable with the style as any one of the European imports; when the team slowed down, and became a bit less sure of themselves, and the onus was put on Yeates to be the one to initiate moves, he struggled – or shot. He shoots a lot. But if the team is on song, Yeates will contribute – something that many aren’t giving him credit for.
In fact, the weakest member of the attacking corps was Matej Vydra, who had one of those days where nothing came off. Short passes went astray, runs weren’t picked up by teammates and second balls just bounced away from him. He’s a great young player, and he still put in a very energetic shift closing down defenders and tracking back down his wing, but the link-up play was lacking and the Czech international, perhaps a bit jaded after his long run of games, had his least effective game in a yellow shirt.
The team once more lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, with the two ‘wide’ attackers removed from the arrow head (Iwelumo). Cassetti and Pudil started the game very attacking, and were virtually playing as wing-backs, overlapping their midfielders and putting dangerous crosses in. Iwelumo should have put the Hornets ahead from once such cross that whipped towards him at the near post, but fizzed past his onrushing forehead Brighton started the game in a daze, having clearly set up to go and win the game.
As we have seen, when teams try to express themselves, they allow us to do the same, often leading to a good Watford performance. It did not take long for Brighton to address the need to compete in midfield, and after twenty minutes it became harder for the team to get forward in numbers. This meant that attacks had to be carried out more swiftly once they had passed the halfway line, not leaving a lot of time for overlaps. In the second half, with Doyley on the right, Pudil seemed reluctant to commit forward, and only restarted getting to the byline in the last ten minutes, as Watford laid siege to the Brighton rearguard.
The Plan A does not contain any ‘wingers’ per se, which means width is often at a premium. Forestieri and Vydra, ostensibly the wide men, are playing a more compact role, trying to feed off Iwelumo’s hold up play and the short incisions of the midfield trio. When the full backs don’t push up, this means that a huge route of attack – the flanks – is neglected.
With the late substitutions, Yeates pushed up onto the left wing, Vydra was on the right, and Pudil and Doyley were pushed up as wing backs to support them. This meant that there was always multiple outlets out wide when space in the middle was closed down by the retreating Brighton players, which in turn led to the last ten minutes being the most dangerous for Watford since the opening fifteen.
Once they had gone ahead with their penalty – a fairly straightforward decision after Pudil’s rash challenge – Brighton parked the bus. With ten men behind the ball at all times, the space that Watford had hoped to exploit and play their way through in the middle of the pitch was lost, leading to Zola having to pursue other avenues.
It is encouraging that the manager has developed more than one approach, with multiple formations being deployed in the last few games. Results may not be too great at the moment, but performances are picking up. There are some very good players at the football club, and Zola is – I can’t help but feel – on the cusp of getting it right. You’ll notice that we were imperious at defensive set pieces. What a shame Mark Yeates blots his copy book by persisting to take ours!
The referee, Darren Drysdale, was toilet. It’s hard to criticise officials once the dust has settled on a game. If you want to hear my opinions on Drysdale’s performance, you should have been around me when I was blurting out whatever expletive came to mind after the stonewall penalty shout in the last minute was turned down.
There had been others: Almen Abdi was nudged whilst airborne as a cross was being pumped into the box, though he probably wasn’t getting on the end of it anyway. Moments later, Jonathan Hogg’s neat interplay with Steve Beleck seemed to have set the midfielder free in the box before he was bundled to the floor. There was a very strong appeal, with Drysdale seemingly signalling that the ball had been won, though it was at least two yards from any challenging defender.
When Chalobah was taken out when moving play on in the corner of the area there was no doubt whatsoever that a spot kick should have been awarded, but once again the referee waved play-on.
There were several niggles and scything tackles throughout the game that went unpunished, but the decision to only give Ashley Barnes (who it turns out is an Austria under-20s international, who knew?) a yellow card when he allegedly dump tackled Pudil after the defender had closed down a shot from a tight angle was met with stadium-wide derision. I say allegedly as I was jotting down a note in my book when it happened, but my dad was furious, and adamant that the offence warranted a red card.
An annoying result. Watford drop to 21st in the table. And with poor league position comes anxiety and criticism from sections of the crowd. But the team are improving, and with Bristol City at home on Saturday, they have an instant opportunity to right the wrongs that occurred last night. Give it time, and it will come good. I promise*.