As Saturday’s 3-2 defeat to Derby wound down, I sat thinking to myself how hard it would be to review. Here was a game in which one team played poorly and lost, whilst the other one was better and won. No ‘what could have been’, no big talking points, no dodgy refereeing. An open and shut case.
It was when meeting up with my brother post-game that the façade of win-some/lose-some dropped and a furious hour of deconstruction ensued.
There are real problems here.
First, that old caveat: everything is remediable. A player not being good enough doesn’t mean he’ll never be and a few poor performances doesn’t doom a season, just as putting five or six past a team every now and again doesn’t crown you champions.
Second, it was good to see a certifiable Watford legend back at Vicarage Road today. The home crowd was raucous in its reception of the bloke, and a neat and tidy performance showed that he’s still got what it takes at this level. And beside the lanky Scot, John Eustace also made his return.
Third, the bulk.
Where to start? As I said, it’s not so much as a glaring hole in Watford’s play, but a sieve of pin pricks that combine every now and then to allow a deluge of sloppy footballing goop to pour through.
The main problem is the defence. It’s hard to say for sure what was the bigger mess today, the half-demolished rubble of the East Stand or the three blokes in yellow who could be intermittently spotted standing in exasperation, wordlessly arguing over who was meant to be covering that massive space from which Derby had just scored.
The visitors’ first is hard to analyse without seeing again. The initial reaction to a forward who wouldn’t be allowed on half the rides at Alton Towers scoring a header from the penalty spot is that the defence switched off, but from my view it was simply an excellent bit of attacking play. Belkalem was quickly out to the winger, but the cross just evaded his foot and fizzed onto the head of Jamie Ward – one of those players who ALWAYS seems to score against us – who directed a great header just inside the far post. Not unpreventable, but we’ll allow it.
The second two were less excusable. Iriney was robbed of possession (more on him later) and Chris Martin was played through into acres of space wide in the Watford area. Manuel Almunia was too quick to rush out and took a poor angle, but perhaps he considered that as nobody had tracked Martin into the box, perhaps they’d be tidying up in the middle. Instead, the Coldplay frontman screwed his shot and Ward was again left alone and able to poke in from close range. No question of offside, much question of crap defending.
As time ran down, the ball was again lost in midfield and played straight through the backline to Connor Sammon, a massive, slow hunk of a target man who you shouldn’t lose in a Siberian snowstorm. But there he was, all alone – as he had been moments prior – and with plenty of time to find his spot for the winner.
There wasn’t that much defending to do in this game – Derby can’t have had more than five or six shots all game (BBC will generously tell you they had 15) – but it was done rubbishly. The back three play as individuals, without the remotest sense of understanding, so it’s only right to rate them as such.
Belkalem had been improving of late after a completely understandable slow start to his English career. After his torrid, penalty-heavy time on international duty in Africa last week, the Algerian was all at sea in the first half. He skewed an unopposed attacking header wide early on, setting the tone for his performance. Mason Bennett, one of the Rams’ two teenage wunderkinds, ran round him with ease and dragged him all over the Hornet’s defensive third. Sammon then did the same in the second half. And Sammon ain’t quick. Gabriele Angella was good, as per usual, and retained a calm when the walls of Jericho crumbled around him. How involved he was in the failures that led to the goal will have to be looked at when highlights are available (I’m writing this in the heat of passion, you see), but at least he has the ability never to be obviously at fault for a goal. Joel Ekstrand hasn’t impressed so far this season, and was again poor. He’s getting beaten very easily in the air and his positioning alongside Angella has been woeful.
Most of this frailty is to do with a lack of familiarity with each other. The same back three has played in consecutive league games ONCE so far this season. Eleven games have started with at least one change to the most important unit on the pitch. I’m no renowned football coach, but that, I am sure, is not how you build a solid defence. All three are fine individual defenders (well, Angella and Ekstrand are, and I’m sure that Belkalem will prove to be one sooner or later, and we all know how great Lloyd Doyley is), but a defensive line is about synergy and compatibility and at present Watford are completely bereft of both.
OK, so it seems that’s a fairly large issue, but I like the sieve analogy, so I’m leaving it in. That’s alright with you, right?
Up the pitch we proceed.
Iriney (or Ir-INEY as Richard Short would have it). I don’t know if the Upper Rous is an accurate sample of the whole of Watford fandom, but there’s a lot of love for the afroed Brazilian; and a lot of derision of referees who pick on him just because he’s all-action. I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong: referees pick on him because he is completely inept in the tackle, and is incapable to reaching the scene of a tackle less than two seconds after the ball has moved on. He’s perfectly alright in other capacities, but after spending time in the much slower Spanish leagues, he is struggling with the pace of the English game, and should not have been risked on the pitch as long as he was today. That he’s gone ten starts without a red card is nothing short of a minor miracle, and yet again today he could have been off a couple of times. George Thorne, sort your knee out and get over here.
McGugan. Lewis McGugan. The man makes me feel like Cassandra. He’s just not good enough – most of the time. When he’s not wasting every dangerous set piece, he drifts around refusing the easy pass and scorching thirty yard shots miles over the bar and then disappears. Twice in the first ten minutes he lost the ball in his own third and didn’t bother trying to recover it; the second time it led to Derby’s opener. He’s lazy, mostly ineffective (nice ball for Forestieri’s goal acknowledged) and a waste of a place that could be taken up by the much more proactive Sean Murray. And then he scores a belter and is absolved of all sins. One day you’ll believe me: see that he’s not what he’s cracked up to be. Today’s not that day.
At some point last season I spoke glowingly of Almen Abdi, calling him to metronome dictating the rhythm to which the team around him was orchestrated. His foot injury, which depending on who you believe could be anything from a verruca to a high-ankle amputation, has kept him out for nearly two months, and has left the midfield in something of a state of chaos. It’s not horrible, but it’s missing the knowing dictation of last year’s player of the season.
When Abdi’s around the Watford attack is akin to the Paul McCartney’s verse of ‘A Day in the Life’. It’s fast-paced and jaunty but sticks to a regimented pulse as Abdi leads the midfield on a march up the pitch. Without him, it’s all a bit Lennony. It’s either slow and soporific or a haphazard crescendo that builds at a ferocious pace and climaxes in the echoing defiance of a defender booting the ball upfield.
There’s a joke to be made about the four thousand holes in our defence, but I’ll let you work it out for yourselves.
Murray was good though.
We’ve reached the strikers. Or rather the area that would conventionally house the strikers. Forestieri was excellent, and has been for some time. We’re being negative, so I won’t dwell on that too much, but he has become much more than a novelty – his work-rate is astounding, whilst he retains that ludicrous ability to do the unexpected. He lost the ball for the third goal, and gave up the chase too easily, but his finish for the first was excellent.
Diego Fabbrini was like the Forestieri of old. His touch is phenomenal and he can breeze past opposition with ease. Sometimes.
But he cannot, and will not, pass. How many times does he have an easy ball to play to send through a teammate, only to waltz into a defender’s face and lose the ball? How many times does he have a plethora of options to his left, but twist and turn to his right to try and eke out a shooting opportunity that never comes?
Having the tricky duo up top was nice for a bit, and when Marco Cassetti and Daniel Pudil were getting forward and playing it around it worked quite well. But when the Derby backline retreated, and attacks had to progress more quickly, productivity ceased. Pudil would be played down the left and be forced into a drilled cross into the box, but neither of the aforementioned fancy dans are the type to muscle their way in front of a defender and squeeze in a header at the near post.
Deeney will come back into the side when he’s back to fitness, but the lack of an adequate replacement is a problem, especially if the Brummie doesn’t get back to last season’s form. If you allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment, Britt Assombalonga would be a fine number two. But there we go.
So there, briefly (!), are some of the problems facing Gianfranco Zola and his backroom staff. It’s early in the season, and the issues regarding new players will hopefully diminish as they play more football for the club, but for Pete’s sake, Franco – pick a back line.