Another good performance, another set of points snatched from our grasp. Whilst the Brighton game saw Watford dominate in fits and spurts, but fail to turn their possession into chances, Saturday saw them go one further rung up the ladder – lots of possession, lots of chances, few goals. It’s getting closer, but results need to start picking up if this season is going to be anything but an experimental assault on mid-table.
Watford: Almunia (c), Cassetti (Doyley 76), Neuton (Hall 69), Nosworthy, Pudil, Yeates, Murray, Abdi, Chalobah, Vydra, Forestieri (Deeney 55).
Subs Not Used: Bond, Iwelumo, Beleck, Smith.
Bristol City: Heaton, Foster, Fontaine, James Wilson, Bryan, Woolford (Kilkenny 61), Pearson, Elliott (Davies 76), Adomah, Baldock (Morris 85),Taylor.
Subs Not Used: Gerken, Mark Wilson, Louis Carey, Stead.
There were, once again, no obvious weak links in the side on Saturday. It’s hard to tell where the team could be immediately improved personnel-wise (though detractors of Mark Yeates would have you believe otherwise), but once again a series of solid performances failed to combine into a winning performance. There were, however, two players, who stood out form the others.
Nathaniel Chalobah continues to defy his birth certificate. He’s 17. When I was his age I was sat in the sixth form common room, watching Jeremy Kyle and scoffing Sainsbury’s cookies – he’s controlling football matches in one of the most competitive and intense football leagues in the world. For the first half an hour he could do no wrong: the calm and collected persona we were promised by Chelsea youth aficionados was there for all to see as time and time again he collected the ball, beat his marker and moved play on without a modicum of difficulty.
For a ‘centre back’ his ball control is exemplary – by the time he’s received the ball he has his nearest marker beat with small, misdirecting body movements, movements he capitalises on by having the turning circle of a spinning top and neat acceleration. His passing range ain’t bad too. When a young talented footballer emerges onto the scene, it’s hard to tell what “It” is. But he has enough of “It” to bring down a fully grown elephant. It seems remiss to put too much expectation on the boy after only one and a half games in professional football, but I would be extremely surprised if he doesn’t get added to the list of former Watford loanees to pick up an England cap.
From the young and innocent to the experienced and *ahem* not innocent, the second player to make his mark on this game came as quite a surprise. It had been reported that Troy Deeney was in contention for a place in the squad, but as he was on the bench with two other centre forwards, both with a pre-season and game time behind them, it seemed unlikely that he would play too great a role. But with the Hornets failing to capitalise on their domination and the score still 0-0, it was Troy that Zola turned to as a spearhead for the switch to 3-5-2.
And within twenty seconds, only enough time to squeeze in a hearty welcome and a few idiotic chants, he had already carved himself a chance in a fashion that we saw so often last season – shrugging off a host of defenders with brute strength and sheer determination and unleashing a shot that had Tom Heaton sprawling. He got a hand to it, and Matej Vydra should have done better with the rebound, but intentions had been stated, and it was that rag-tag, scruff of the neck perseverance from Deeney, rather than the neat interplay that had filled the previous 55 minutes that got the crowd going, and initiated the five minutes of pressure that resulted in Watford’s opener.
It was quite a sight to see a man less than two weeks out of prison (more on that during the week) get back into the swing of things so quickly, and no matter what your opinion of him as a man, it is hard to deny that he adds something to the team that has been sorely missing for the last seven games.
As for the other players, it was much of the same as the Brighton game on Tuesday. Forestieri, impressive on Tuesday, was in more of a subdued mood, venturing on fewer maze-ups and showing a distinct reticence to use his left foot – fine for a left winger when cutting in and attempting to weave your way through a forest of opposition bodies, but extremely unhelpful when part of a swift counter attack. Too often he had to switch onto his right, slowing down play, or attempted a cross with the outside of his right boot and severely under-hitting a cross.
On the opposite wing, Sean Murray had his best game of the season – making the most of the width of the pitch and exploiting the inexperience of Bristol City’s left back. His crosses were hit and miss, but he got himself involved a lot more, a looked every bit as dangerous as he did in the back-end of last season. Neuton continued to play with supporters’ emotions as he followed up some good attacking passing, including a beautiful deep ball for Forestieri that had the Bristolian defenders and keepers scrambling, with some lax defending, culminating in less-than-inspirational athleticism for Marvin Elliot’s equaliser. He was, in this reporter’s eyes, unlucky to be ruled offside late in the first half when a half-cleared corner was put into an emptying penalty area. From my vantage point – level to the area in the Upper Rous – he seemed to be played a yard onside by a retreating defender, but the linesman, and seemingly the majority of those in the ground, seemed to disagree.
Though Watford’s first of the afternoon will go down as an own-goal, it was the good work of three home players that caused James Wilson to put the ball in his own net. First there was good work on the halfway line by Murray, holding off two defenders before hitting a perfectly weighted pass on the turn for the overlapping Marco Cassetti. The Italian, by this point playing at right wing-back and looking tired, busted a gut to get to the byline before playing a dangerous low ball into the near post where Wilson, under intense pressure from the newly-introduced Deeney, slid in and nestled the ball into the bottom corner. If he hadn’t done so, it would have been the big striker, who seems to have spent the majority of his two months in prison in the gym, on the scoresheet. It was an excellent, flowing move, which contained a directness and urgency that is lacking in so many of Watford’s counter attacks this season.
Cassetti was perhaps still feeling the effects of his foray towards the Rookery when Joe Bryan breezed past him with far too much ease before standing up a cross to the far post for Marvin Elliot to grab his obligatory goal. At this point, with an hour gone, Cassetti was clearly tiring, and a youthful exuberance of a player seventeen years younger than him (that’s a whole Nathaniel Chalobah) was not what he needed. The cross was a good one, and Elliot, arriving late, was able to get the jump on Neuton. It is undeniably hard to compete with an attacker with momentum, especially when he is putting his weight on your back, but the Brazilian could have done a bit more to make Elliot’s task of heading past Almunia a bit more difficult.
Watford got themselves back into the lead, however, with a goal that was simple in its concept – a long ball from Daniel Pudil at left back launched into Vydra who slotted home – but glorious in its execution. Pudil’s ball soared across the width of the pitch, struck not out of hope, but with genuine placement as it dropped to his Czech teammate from great altitude, just out of the reach of a retreating defender’s leap. It would have been easy for the striker to just take a wild swing at the dropping ball and put it amongst the kids at the back of the Rookery – we’ve seen similar so many times before. Instead, he plucked the ball out of the air with his instep, killing it dead and taking it perfectly in his stride. Without hesitation he wrong-footed the covering defender and with all the time in the world – time he had made for himself – he picked his spot low to Heaton’s left and wheeled off to the corner flag to celebrate. It was a direct goal, not demonstrative of Zola’s modus operandi at all, but one carried out with grace and coolness that the diminutive Italian himself would have been proud of.
Watford were on their way to a deserved win – though the match was still closer than it should have been. Another three points escaped the eager grasp of the Pozzos, however, with seven minutes to go, as another bit of defensive sloppiness gave City their second equaliser. A boot into the box was allowed to reach the far post, where the ball was cut back to a checking Stephen Pearson. He scuffed his shot, but Steven Davies was waiting at the far post – played onside by Lloyd Doyley – and although the striker’s shot was well saved by Almunia, the rebound bounced back onto his leg and dribbled in. There was not one cock-up in particular that led to the goal, but a general inertia which caused all three attacking City players in the box to not be picked up.
Watford once more started with the 4-3-3 that has been Zola’s go-to set-up so far this season. Murray’s return to the fold after a brief injury lay-off meant that Chris Iwelumo dropped to the bench and Vydra moved into the central striking position. Though he linked up well, when the ball was played wide – which happened with a pleasing regularity after the narrowness of the defeat to Brighton – he was not a convincing target in the box, and was not backed up by his fellow attackers in any great number.
Watford dominated in the formation, but struggled to create any clear-cut chances. Instead, they were limited to feasible, if unlikely, long shots, which Heaton dealt with fairly easily.
After the hour, however, Deeney was introduced along with the 3-5-2 formation that we have been privy to in short bursts this season. Vydra and Deeney made up the front line, with Yeates, Murray and Abdi the central three; Chalobah, previously stationed as a holding midfielder, dropped back into the defence alongside Nosworthy and Neuton (who gave way to the debutant Fitz Hall after seventy minutes) with Pudil and Cassetti patrolling the flanks as wing-backs.
The system worked well – both of our goals were provided by the two wing-backs – and the two front men worked well together. Chalobah, who had played so well in midfield, seemed less composed further back, which is to be expected I suppose, but overall the transition was a smooth one.
When Watford went 2-1 up in the 72nd minute, the tired Cassetti was replaced by Doyley, and the wing-backs pushed back to create a 5-3-1-1 formation, with Vydra coming deeper to help the midfield. Of course, these added defensive numbers didn’t manage to hold onto the lead, but the ease with which Watford initial system change occurred – and its effectiveness – was pleasing.
If you haven’t been at the games, you will be getting annoyed at reports telling you that it’s getting better, with no obvious manifestation of improvement; almost as annoyed as those who have been there seeing better performances with no reward. It’s all well and good being patient, but as Good Ol’ Brucie says – points make prizes. Ultimately, success is based on winning games and racking up the points, and though dominating games completely is lovely, it’s getting a winning mentality that’s the biggest part of creating a competitive team.
This was domination. 22 shots, of which 13 were on target, says the BBC. Tom Heaton, so nearly a Watford player this summer, made several good stops, most notably from Almen Abdi in the closing minutes of the first half – tipping the Kosovan’s stinging drive onto the post. The post also denied Deeney and Nosworthy, with Heaton beaten on both occasions. With Troy returning to the fold, and Alex Geijo nearing fitness (!), we can hope that chances will begin to be taken. We have to hope.
It’s getting better – but it needs to get good fairly soon.