Let’s not beat around the bush. Not winning when 2-0 up after 13 minutes is poor. Not winning when 2-0 up at half time is criminal. Putting aside Palace’s strengths and their considerable second-half improvement for one moment, a team of our quality should be closing games like that out. This was two points dropped because of our inadequacy, not because of Palace’s “bouncebackability”.
After a first half hour in which we should have found ourselves more than two ahead, Palace gradually found their feet, started building attacks rather than aimlessly chucking the ball to Wilf Zaha and became a threat to our lead. Still, on several occasions this campaign Zola’s side have found themselves holding precarious leads at half-time, only to put the game to bed after the break by frustrating the opposition with composed passing, resilient defending and an entirely professional attitude. Last night, these things were nowhere to be found.
The midfield presence of Chalobah and Abdi, backed up by the ferocious return of Jonathan Hogg, were hardly touched in the first half. Abdi in particular had free reign over the midfield, putting in a performance of unbelievable quality. Not only was he devastating with the ball, dictating the tempo with his effortless range of passing and always looking a threat to Julian Speroni’s goal as he lurked outside the area, he was the main springboard for counter-attacks, pouncing on numerous misplaced passes by the Palace midfield to catch the Eagles on the back foot.
In the second half, all of this dissipated. Palace were pressing forward and the defence, instead of coolly standing on the ball until the right opportunity for a pass presented itself, would hurriedly poke the ball to the areas that Chalobah and Abdi would usually patrolling. They were, however, nowhere to be seen.
Some credit for this must go to the teenaged Jonathan Williams, possibly the finest opposition player that I’ve seen this season, who was introduced at half time to the considerable delight of the raucous Palace faithful. He seemed to be everywhere and provided the attacking impetus that sparked the hitherto rubbish Zaha into action and got the entire side playing with confidence and interest.
When we did manage to get the ball to the midfielders, it didn’t stay there long. Abdi was a shadow of his first half self, misplacing short passes and getting caught on the ball too often. In the first half, a few attacks went awry as the attacking players tried to be too clever with their flicks and short layoffs; in the second, this was replaced by nerves, as every pass was played too short. Swagger had been replaced by a tentativeness that is hard to shake. Many of the points that have lifted the side to third in the league have come through displays of sucker-punching counter-attacking, and with Palace playing with renewed vigour, there should have been the confidence among the Watford ranks that chances to get a third would come if we stayed calm and played our usual game. Instead, we retreated into a shell, unable to do even the simple things right, and rather than containing the constant underlying threat of breaking and getting a decisive third goal, we looked completely numb going forward – something that will have spurred Palace on even further.
Up front, the two strikers who have been taking the league by storm both had off days throughout. Vydra snatched at a few chances, including a glanced header from six yards that really should have hit the back of the net, and Deeney seemed a bit cumbersome and was persistently too slow to release Vydra as the Czech made darting runs behind the high Palace back line. Nothing came off for the two. This happens. After a period of having an undisputed first choice front two, perhaps it’s time to reinstate the rotation that was in order a few months ago. Were Alex Geijo, a man with a penchant for first time through balls, on the pitch instead of Deeney yesterday, I have no doubts that the result would have been different.
The defence, to their credit, weathered the storm as best they could. Tommie Hoban, on his return from injury, was fantastic, as were Lloyd Doyley and Manuel Almunia – for the most part. At half time I was torn between Abdi and Marco Cassetti for man of the match. The Italian was having his best game in a Watford shirt, he was bursting forward with the pace and keenness of a player half his age and was coping well with whichever of Palace’s two flying wingers were on his side of the pitch. But with Holloway’s half time changes, which included pushing full-backs Jazz Richards and Dean Moxey higher up, he was stifled by having to deal with two players. With full-backs looking to attack the space beyond the half-way line, the Watford wing-backs were stuck between going after them and staying on the always dangerous, if misfiring, Bolasie and Zaha. The latter revelled in the increased space and time on the ball that this switch created. Daniel Pudil couldn’t cope with him. Lloyd’s experience as a right back meant that he was able to help cover Cassetti, and Palace’s left wing was kept relatively quiet; but with the young Hoban alongside him, Pudil was too-often left in no-man’s land as he bombed forward to support doomed attacks, only to leave the never-tracking back Zaha in acres of space.
It was a mess, in short. With Williams ruling the roost in midfield, Zaha running rings around Pudil on the right wing, and no attacking threat forcing the Palace defence to stay on their toes, the goals that came were inevitable. Peter Ramage, of all people, who had looked so shaky in the game’s opening exchanges, slotted in after some defensive waffling, and then Super Kevin Phillips ghosted in at the far post to convert a low Zaha cross. Weariness from a few of our players after a short international break may have played a part – it would certainly explain Chalobah‘s waning, but it simply wasn’t good enough.
In the end, Watford were lucky to come away with a point – though some dubious refereeing did see a seemingly fine Troy Deeney goal, our only real chance of the half, ruled out for no apparent reason. Twice now, we have passed up the opportunity to go second. There’s plenty of time left, but if we are going to go up, we need to start taking our chances.