Watford’s up and down season continued on Saturday with a good victory against the hitherto high-flying Leicester. The Foxes’ own fortunes this campaign have reflected ours to an extent, good performances balanced out by some dreadful ones, the disparity between the two teams’ league positions showing what a great role a bit of luck plays in an inconsistent club’s results.
This season has produced victories of swashbuckling brilliance and bloody-minded resilience; though Saturday showcased the former in brief cameos, it was the latter that led to the team returning from their post-match lap of honour with three points. Much like the Middlesbrough game last month, a good and hugely dominant start dwindled into a nervy and, at times, desperate battle just to keep the rejuvenated opposition at bay. Unlike Middlesbrough, however, they were.
Watford: Almunia, Hall (Anya 90), Doyley, Pudil, Cassetti, Hoban, Chalobah, Hogg, Abdi (Smith 86), Deeney, Forestieri (Vydra 79).
Subs not used: Bond, Yeates, Battocchio, Geijo
Goals: Abdi 14, Forestieri 68
Leicester: Schmeichel, Konchesky, Morgan, Whitbread, Moore, Drinkwater (Dyer 46), Marshall (Waghorn 62), King, James, Knockaert (Futacs 62) Nugent
Subs not used: Logan, Danns, Gallagher, Schlupp
Booked: Drinkwater, Whitbread
Sent off: Whitbread
Story of the game:
For the first twenty-or-so minutes, possession was even, though it was only Watford that held any threat. As Gianfranco Zola mentioned in Thursday’s Fans Forum, often teams come to Vicarage Road with the sole intention to stifle and frustrate the Watford attack, aiming to sneak a goal on the break or when the hosts, tired and discouraged by their unsuccessful domination, suffer the inevitable loss of momentum. Leicester, however, did try to incorporate an attacking element to their gameplan – with the prolific international goalscorer David Nugent in your team, why wouldn’t you? – and their 4-3-3 gave the front five of Watford room to manoeuvre.
This space was exploited in the 14th minute, when Fernando Forestieri, perhaps guilty of overplaying for most of the game, played a wonderful first time reverse pass through the Leicester back line into the path of the overlapping Almen Abdi. The Kosovan midfielder slotted low past Kaspar Schmeichel with ease to give the Hornets a deserved lead.
The goal discouraged the Foxes, and Watford dominated completely for the following ten minutes. The strength of possession forced Leicester back in numbers, the midfield unable to nip our attacks in the bud. As we have come to expect, this did not result in a wealth of good chances, but there was definitely only one team that was going to score.
Like so often this season, however, this early pressure subsided and we allowed the opposition back into the game. As Leicester started to gain a foothold, they began creating chances: Ben Marshall forcing Almunia into a close-range save and Wes Morgan being denied by Jonathan Hogg’s goal-line clearance.
Suddenly, space was constricted, and though Watford still had their fair share of the ball, there was no room to spread the ball, which suppressed the danger that Daniel Pudil, in particular, was causing down the left wing. There seemed a concerted effort to exploit the inexperience of the 19-year-old Liam Moore, Leicester’s right back, with Fitz Hall sending many a long ball raining down on the youngster’s head, and Marco Cassetti looking to switch the ball often. It didn’t work. Though Pudil did very well at both ends of the pitch, he never found himself in enough space to truly take on Moore on his own, and was most productive when released in behind.
When the half time whistle finally came, it was to the relief of Watford fans and players alike. The last period of the first half had foreshadowed the majority of the second half, with the team struggling to get a foot on the ball and make the most of their goal advantage. For the entirety of the second half against Birmingham – to date, Watford’s most accomplished performance this season – we just played the ball around with impunity, and frustrated an increasingly desperate Blues side. On Saturday, we couldn’t get rid of the ball fast enough, with Troy Deeney as keen as ever to chase everything, but by no means at his best.
The second half was less panicky, but was still short of any discernible confidence. Though we enjoyed early possession, there felt to be no threat up front, with the ball reaching the final third but not creating any sniff of a goalscoring opportunity. David Nugent had a very good shout for a penalty, though Tommie Hoban’s recovery and Manuel Almunia’s instinctive narrowing of the angle had diminished the threat of his one-on-one by the time he was felled in the box, Hoban adjudged to have won the ball.
Foxes boss Nigel Pearson showed his hand after the hour, when he made his second and third substitutions – having brought ex-Watford disappointment Danny Drinkwater off at half time – replacing the menacing Frenchman Anthony Knockaert and Ben Marshall for the giant Marko Futacs and Martyn Waghorn. Not only was it a puzzling decision to bring off arguably the team’s most accomplished and dangerous player, but also to use all three allotted subs with a third of the game remaining. With Lloyd Dyer coming on at half time to provide width, it was a concerted change of gameplan for Leicester, as they tried to exploit the width that was left exposed by Pudil’s attacking runs and the aging Cassetti’s waning fitness. With Futacs now acting as a target man, Leicester’s threat had become aerial and more concerted.
It was Watford who made the first move however, with their first focused attack of the half. Deeney tested Schmeichel at his near post with a stinging drive and his saved looped to Pudil at the edge of the area. If Deeney’s effort was stinging then the Czech’s shot was positively befitting of the Hornet that he purports to represent, exoceting a shot into the top corner. The legendary offspring, scrambling across his goal, produced a fine acrobatic stop, but parried the ball straight to the lurking Forestieri, who prodded home on the volley.
The goal seemed to kickstart the Hornets, suddenly playing the ball around with a renewed confidence. Of course, this is when a team is most vulnerable, and within minutes Leicester had re-halved the deficit. Paul Konchesky looped the ball towards the far post and Nugent, making the most of Pudil misjudging the flight, brought the ball down and struck it through a crowd of bodies past Almunia.
Though the difference was just as it had been three minutes prior, Leicester were rejuvenated, and the remainder of the game consisted of Watford holding onto their lead for dear life. With Cassetti tiring, the defence took on an asymmetrical look: the Italian dropping back to right back to prevent Dyer from getting behind him, and Pudil maintaining his high position on the left in an attempt to take the game to the opposition.
With a bit more composure and vision, Watford could have had two or three goals on the break, but Forestieri, and Deeney in particular, were wasteful. Connor Smith was introduced for Abdi to refresh the now over-run midfield, Vydra was brought on for Forestieri to give legs to chase the desperate clearances, and Ikechi Anya (“Why have we brought on Lenny Kravitz?” – Mrs ITWM) replaced the cramped up Fitz Hall, bringing with him a change of shape.
In keeping with the last few months’ football, there was a sending off. Zak Whitbread’s first yellow was a mystery, turning around to receive a caution from Andy D’Urso after clearing a cross for a corner, but his second was down to some determined and purposeful running from the newly-introduced Vydra. In truth, the red changed very little. It came towards the end of regulation time and at a time when Leicester were pouring forward. Yes, it made the home side a little more dangerous on the break, especially once Anya came on, and may have prevented the Foxes getting another body in the Watford area, but by this point they had no intention of defending a one goal shortfall.
Once the 7 (SEVEN) minutes of added time had gone, there was a gasp of relief from the watching crowd – an impressive 12,954 – and punches of triumph from some of the “loanees”. Nobody watching could possibly say that these players don’t have Watford in their hearts. The second half may have been short of quality, but there was never any shortage of heart and determination.
There were few players who had good games from start to finish. Fernando Forestieri was at his usual tricks, turning defenders inside out. He did tend to take one touch too many, however, which was the downfall of several promising moves. Troy Deeney tried hard but seemed a touch off the pace. He had the beating of Whitbread, but struggled to bring Forestieri into the game, and was a bit off with his attacking runs.
In midfield, Nathaniel Chalobah is perhaps in need of a rest. After showing his age for the first time against Cardiff, picking up his second yellow for kicking the ball away, he struggled to get into the game on Saturday and was guilty of some over-casual play – especially when trying a needless back-heel during a spell of pressure that released Leicester on a dangerous counter-attack that was only stopped by a fantastic Daniel Pudil tackle. Almen Abdi showed his usual classy touches and was the cog in most of the early flowing moves, but faded in the second half when the rest of the team weren’t complying with his calm and collected philosophy. Jonathan Hogg hassled well, but was once more careless on the ball – something he really needs to work on if he wants to keep his place once John Eustace returns to fitness.
Pudil was possibly the star of the show, his competition for the title coming from the once-more faultless Tommie Hoban. The left back was the main outlet going forward, and showed great determination to reach some wayward passes wide, while the young centre back was strong in the air, and terrific with loose balls in the area, pouncing quickly upon a couple of dangerous second balls and prevented good goalscoring opportunities for Leicester.