Good vibes continue to echo throughout south-west Hertfordshire after Watford’s good run of form continued with a tight-ish win over a stuttering Wolves side at Vicarage Road on Saturday.
After a good start to the season, Ståle Solbakken’s men haven’t won a game since October 6th, and arrived in the South desperate to reignite their promotion push. Standing in their way was a side flush with confidence and swagger. The stats may say that Watford’s unbeaten run only extends for four games (three before yesterday) but ever since the win away at Huddersfield at the back-end of September the entire feeling around the club has been transformed from that of a work-in-progress, essential to endure before results pick up in a season or two, to a very realistic play-off contender.
Even in defeat, there have been signs of progress – the bravery of nine men at Cardiff, the domination of Middlesbrough before Steve Rushton got involved. Last week’s 6-1 destruction of a diminished Leeds side was as attributable to clinical finishing and incisive breakaways as it was to Neil Warnock’s strategic naivety. It was a result that announced to part of the media, that this was a side that was gelling, that could turn over big sides and could threaten the business end of the league table.
Which is why it was so surprising to see so many changes to the starting line-up.
Matej Vydra, coming back into the side after a stint playing second fiddle to Fernando Forestieri, bagged himself two impressive counter-attacking goals, in the Yorkshire rout, assisted by two others more used to coming off the bench – Alex Geijo and Ikechi Anya.
Anya was standing in for the suspended Daniel Pudil, and the latter’s return for the visit of Wolves, faltering but still dangerous, was expected. The win at Leeds was a masterclass in exploiting space and being lethal on the counter. When this is the intent, Anya’s skills are put to great use. He is a winger with few frills: he’ll get the ball, run vertically in an extremely ungraceful manner, and be at the other end of the pitch in seconds. At home, this is unlikely to be the first choice of strategy. With sides looking to sit back a bit more and soak up the pressure, it is imperative to build attacks and try to wash away the defensive numbers with an attacking flood. Thus, Pudil’s more ponderous approach (at times, aggravatingly so) is more suited to a controlled attack, and his defensive capabilities help to keep the left side quiet – as former Hornet Jermaine Pennant will attest.
Geijo’s absence from the bench suggests that he may have been carrying a knock, which permits him losing his place in the starting line-up, but it would be nice to see him get a good run out in front of his home crowd soon. He has received good reports at Cardiff and Leeds, where he has been a creative source for his attacking partners, but has not been afforded a regular go by Zola and his fitness issues. It may be that the lack of space in attack may count against him too. Where Troy Deeney will pull up his sleeves and clatter his way around the final third for a sniff of the ball, often taking on three men at a time to do so, Geijo is probably more used to getting his foot on the ball and looking to bring teammates into play. The roughhousing role is Troy’s bread and butter, but for Geijo it may take a while to get used to the aggressive keenness of Championship defenders to harry attackers.
So while those two changes can be excused by the different set-up for the games, it is puzzling to see Vydra, the club’s top scorer, so often demoted to the bench after his performances away from home. In the current system, with two men up front, it would be extremely difficult to accommodate both the Czech and Forestieri, neither of whom have the presence to lead the line themselves, so a choice has to be made between the two. Dropping the whizz-kid that certain sections of support have labelled “Fessi” (for the uninitiated, a portmanteau of his and a certain other Argentine’s name) would be harsh, but so too is the exclusion of the more direct and productive Vydra. Having to choose between two players of such talent is an amazing problem to have at this level. Gianfranco Zola suggested to the Watford Observer that Vydra needs to improve his defending and hold-up play – areas in which, yesterday in particular, Forestieri excelled – but he will surely be wondering what else he can do to get a good run of games – perhaps we are starting to see the problem of having such a large squad of first-team calibre players?
As it happened, Wolves didn’t park the bus. Indeed, they started much the better team, holding the ball, and limiting our possession. When we did get the ball, we were forced to spend prolonged periods playing it around at the back. When such a thing happens, grumbles quickly resound around the ground, but fans must remember that there are always two teams on the pitch. Wolves pressed well, giving no space for progression along the ground. This meant, however, that to limit space between the lines, they had to hold a high line. Their flat back four, with the hapless Irish fullback Stephen Ward on the left, Christophe Berra and Roger Johnson in the middle and Richard Stearman on the right, is not one blessed with an abundance of pace and was often stationed near the halfway line when in possession, leaving an awful lot of space behind them. I tweeted early on in the game that this would be their downfall, despite Watford setting up to control rather than counter, and so it did (no one likes a smartarse, right?), with two of the match’s main events coming from that set-up.
In the opening exchanges, Forestieri was finding it very difficult to get involved, with little service coming his way. Having noticed that the ball over the top might be an effective mode of attack, Troy Deeney was running the channels determinedly, to some success. It was when he was lurking on the shoulder of Berra, however, that he got the drop on the Scotsman, running onto his Argentine strike partner’s ball in behind. Unable to catch up, Berra took hold of Deeney’s arm, and did not let go until the striker had got a weak shot away. Though he had not directly prevented a goal-scoring opportunity, he had unfairly sought to greatly reduce Deeney’s chances of scoring and by the letter of the law was rightfully given a red card.
It was the correct decision. Had Troy gone down, there would be no debate over whether the sending off was warranted. That it was given despite him staying on his feet is just reward for the honest approach that we have come to expect from the rehabilitated striker, and the referee, Graham Scott, should be given a lot of credit for making the decision as quickly and assertively as he did.
Down to ten, Wolves took a more conservative attitude, but maintained their high line, replacing Berra with the young Danny Batth. It was unsurprising, then, when Watford’s first goal came from a similar line of attack. Mark Yeates, again resplendent in his central position, played a perfectly weighted ball over the full-back for Forestieri to run on to and after taking a touch to drive into the area and commit two backtracking defenders, the Argentine squared the ball to Nathaniel Chalobah, who was arriving in such a vast ocean of space that he had enough time to mess up his first shot and still gobble up the rebound. By taking an attacking approach to the game, Wolves had stifled Watford’s build-up play, but had played with fire, and were duly burned.
After the red, Watford attacking with more confidence and regularity. Pudil had before been very patient in his build up, preferring to turn inside and hold possession than to look down the byline to a crowded-out Forestieri, this allowed him to stay back to keep Pennant silent; a silence that was perpetuated by his substitution for Batth.
Jonathan Hogg has of late been criticised on these pages for not contributing enough in attack. With the extra man in midfield, he was free to surge forward, and had a number of good shooting opportunities. Never again will I call for him to get forward! Chalobah, after a couple of unconvincing performances before his involvement with the England under-21 side, was back to his best, dropping shoulders here and there and leaving his opponent pressing against air. It has always been said that he will end up playing at the back, but to put him there would be a massive waste of his talents. England has always cried out for a deep-lying playmaker, which in turn has led to Michael Carrick getting a ridiculous amount of caps for someone as limited as he is. Chalobah is the player that the country is really looking for, somebody who can effortlessly switch from defence to attack and orchestrate proceedings from deep.
The second half brought a change. For whatever reason, Marco Cassetti was replaced by Vydra, heralding a return for the early season’s 4-3-3. The switch showed the ruthless nature that saw the team continue scoring until the 97th minutes against a depleted Leeds – a man and a goal up, we brought on an attacker for a wing-back and went to run up the score. Vydra was stationed wide on the left, with Forestieri taking up a more withdrawn position on the right.
By now we are used to the little forward putting in mercurial performances of sublime skill and typical South American flamboyancy, but his display on Saturday was great for a different reason. Starved somewhat of many opportunities to get on the ball, he had to go looking for involvement. That he did showed that Zola’s preference of his defensive abilities over Vydra’s might hold water. On several occasions, a Wolves wide player (often the very impressive Bakary Sako) would seem to be making easy progress up the wing, when from nowhere a bolt of short, stubby yellow mass would sweep in from behind him and whip the ball away – often putting his own body at risk. His performance was massively impressive, and for a reason that I don’t think anybody would have foreseen when he was hurling himself at the floor in his first few outings.
The 4-3-3 didn’t change the game particularly. Watford continued to create, but were pegged back by an uncharacteristic (forgetting his time at Arsenal) howler from Manuel Almunia. The Spaniard has been rock solid since arriving in the Summer, and has bred a confidence that sweeps through the back line. His misjudgement of Sako’s deep free-kick should be accepted and forgotten, much like Tomasz Kuszczak’s debut slip-up that preceded his great end-of-season form.
In front of Almunia, Joel Ekstrand, Tommie Hoban and Lloyd Doyley were once more unflappable. It’s hard to analyse their defensive play too greatly, as nothing ever seems to happen with them at the back. Ekstrand has slotted in for Fitz Hall perfectly, assertively batting away anything that comes his way aerially and shepherding all other pressure out with ease. Players like Jay DeMerit are obviously talented defenders due to their powers of recovery and speed to react to trouble; players like Hoban are less conspicuous because they never allow things to get that far. He’s just a young lad, and the real test is in maintaining this form for the next 15 years, but he plays with the head of a centre back with many more years as a pro behind him, and is greatly deserving of all praise coming his way.
The game was a lot closer than it should have been. After the red card, the result never seemed in doubt, but the habit to not wrap up games despite domination threatened to rear its ugly head until Deeney stooped to head home Yeates’ perfect cross from a short-corner routine.
Mark Yeates is a weird one. There are many that thought he wasn’t fit for a place in the matchday squad last year, let alone after the arrival of some 14 further players – who would have thought that we’d be here, with him a fixture in a successful squad, and not without merit. He was pivotal in both Watford goals and has proven to be a much greater creative force in his central position than he was out in his usual position out on the wing. With this is mind, do we think it’s about time the cacophony of groans that greet his name being called out before the game stopped?
The game was better for Watford’s lack of finishing quality. Wolves piled men forward looking for an equaliser, but were unable to eke out any clear cut chances. Almunia only had to deal with a couple of tame long range shots that nestled easily in his gloves throughout the game, so Watford were clearly worth the three points.
The Hornets take their good form to another set of pre-season promotion hopefuls that have lost their way of late next week, heading to Bloomfield Road to take on Blackpool. Sitting one point off the play-offs, it’s getting very tempting to start dreaming.
WATFORD: Almunia, Doyley (Thompson 72), Ekstrand, Hoban, Cassetti (Vydra 46), Yeates (Smith 70), Hogg, Chalobah, Pudil, Deeney, Forestieri.
Subs not used: Bond, Leleck, Murray, Anya.
Goals: Chalobeh 35, Deeney 68
Booked: Hogg, Pudil
WOLVES: Ikeme, Stearman, Johnson, Berra, Ward, Pennant (Batth 27), Doumbia (Davis 75), Edwards, Sako, Doyle (Ebanks-Blake 86), Sigurdarson.
Subs not used: De Vries, Nouble, Forde, Foley.
Sent off: Berra
Referee: Graham Scott