The world has a strange way of reflecting moods. Especially when it comes to sport. Leaving London Road on Saturday, the dreary drizzle falling on the Peterborough’s stubby, uninspiring cathedral, framed by throngs of weary and downcast Watford fans, perfectly encapsulated the feelings of futility amongst the travelling Hornets. There was not anger, not desperation, no effusion of any emotion; just emptiness. Second place had been within touching distance, but suddenly was so far away. Bugger.
Fast-forward a few days and those same fans, quartered in number, stood like cattle on the platform of South Bermondsey station. On the horizon of the still London night sky stood the City, with all its glitz and glamour, majestically lit up like a Christmas tree. Between us rows and rows of council estates, Asdas and the homes of the real people. The chasm between these souls and the bright lights, where the big-wigs guffaw into their £15 drinks and prance in their Armani suits seemed so huge. You could imagine a swarm of red-tied Cardiff fans, knocking on their door, whirling around bottles of Moët and stepping in to their warm embrace.
Truth be told, these two games were vastly different. At Peterborough, Watford came up against a team full of confidence and form, a team who were happy to soak up pressure, to invite attacks and hit on the counter – a Watford of old (well, January). Millwall, fatigued from a year of cup runs and wildly inconsistent form, held a high line, leaving space in behind and giving Watford much more freedom to create varied attacks and play their preferred game. Not that it came to much.
At Peterborough, Watford seemed devoid of ideas. Seemingly incapable of shooting from outside the area and reluctant to cross into a box patrolled by the imperious Gabriel Zakuani, they attacked in great numbers only to pause with eighteen yards to go, playing the ball about and waiting for the Posh defenders – all eight of them – to part and wave them through to goal. Only Fernando Forestieri, at last reinstated to the starting lineup in favour of the jaded Matej Vydra, showed any impetus. While the bulk of the team stumbled through the game, ponderous and stagnant, he buzzed around like a fly circling a hippo snoozing in a swamp.
When Peterborough did break, led by Lee Tomlin, a striker who’s portliness belies a good turn of pace and quick feet, the defence was sloppy and uncoordinated – leading to three goals and a red card for Marco Cassetti – a suspension that could prove costly. Joel Ekstrand was diabolical and, with a yellow card and a last warning to his name, was hastily substituted at half time. Lloyd Doyley was uncharacteristically bamboozled by Tomlin and Dwight Gayle. As the game went on, and we started to pile forward in search for a goal to cling on to our promotion hopes, the defence became more porous; Nathaniel Chalobah was moved to a deeper role that did not suit his cavalier attitude to ball retention and an insurmountable three goal lead was the result.
Watford have missed Cassetti’s influence at wing-back. He may not be the quickest, or the best crosser, but his time-worn knowledge of when to attack and when to hold his position is vital to our way of attacking. The dire situation with our stock of centre backs means that he has had to be converted to the middle, with Ikechi Anya taking up the mantle on the right.
Anya is clearly more suited to being a winger than Cassetti. He has pace to burn, and a few tricks in his locker – but mentally, he isn’t a patch on the Italian. Constantly on the back foot when he receives the ball, he leaves himself too much to do. Against Peterborough he was at his worst: diffident on the ball, hesitant to make a decision, and reluctant to cross. None of these are technical issues, but more a lack of footballing nous. When he’s running with the ball you can see the cogs whirring in his head – nothing is natural. He was better against Millwall, granted, with the acres of space in behind their back line giving him less to think about, but when Cassetti is there, everything flows so much better.
In fact, everyone was better at Millwall. Chalobah, who had one of those days in the Fens, was back to somewhere in the direction of his best. Lots of his passes went awry, but his defensive effort was top notch and he seemed more in control of his trickery. Ekstrand, alongside Doyley and Matthew Briggs in the back three, was solid and prevented the Lions attack (mainly the much less threatening Jermaine Easter) from getting many shots off.
Mark Yeates was introduced to the midfield in the second half of the Posh match, and subsequently kickstarted the all-too-late fight back. His reward was a start last night and he once more proved to be our most efficient attacking outlet. Elegant, effective, not-making-you-want-to-rip-your-eyes-out-and-choke-yourself-with-them: these are all words that I wouldn’t have used to describe Yeates before this season, but last night he was once more revelatory. Cool with the ball with good close control, he brought others into the game and while the midfield seemed completely absent against Peterborough, at Milwall they were our most impressive unit. And half of his crosses and set pieces cleared the first man – unheard of!
There’s no doubting that Watford were the better side at the Den. If the same game had been played a few months ago, the scoreline would have been 4 or 5-0. But the clinicality has gone. Matej Vydra would have been eyeing the space behind the monstrous but un-gazellelike Danny Shittu (who still clearly holds a flame for the club) with sharp eyes, but instead he was on his heels, too deep. He wasn’t bad, but he still wasn’t Vydra.
We won’t dwell on the two penalties that Watford should have been awarded for handballs – nor will we mention the two that we should have had at Peterborough. In my mid-match fury I decided last night that there was a conspiracy; that the Football League wants to pipe down the innovative club trying something different. Now calm, I’ve realise that it’s a simple case of most officials in this country being rubbish. After every game we go on Twitter to find losers calling the Glasgow-born Ikechi Anya a diving foreigner, calling Forestieri a disgrace and coming up with some wonderfully unique “Udinese B” quip. These are real people, not just figments of Twitter’s twisted imagination. Perhaps some referees have the same sort of opinion? Perhaps they have been swayed by some of the media’s less reputable outlets in their derision of Watford’s process? Perhaps the referees are just idiots?
Officials don’t legislate for performances, though. And since mid-February, Watford’s haven’t been up to the standard that they set themselves. With Hull stumbling over the finish line slightly less pathetically than us, it seems that the play-offs beckon. But in Palace, Leicester and Brighton, who have we to fear? The former two are in even worse form than us and it wasn’t too long ago that we were handing out the severest of punishments at the Amex. And lest we forget, last week we played the top two without conceding a goal, and were the fingertips of David Marshall way from getting six points out of six.
God help us if Bolton qualify, though.