Having a broken phone is rubbish. Nowadays Football and Twitter go hand in hand to the extent that arriving at the ground not knowing the team was extremely disconcerting. That being said, I’ve got home following the 1-0 defeat to Bolton completely oblivious to what the general feeling is towards it. That, friends, is fantastically liberating. So liberating that I’m going to bestow upon you my initial reaction, unskewed and untainted by outside thoughts.
1. That was much better. I gather from the boos that met the half-time and full-time whistles that this won’t be a universally-held belief, but after the completely spiritless performances of the last month or so this was a significant step in the right direction. Ignore the result: it was an anomaly. Bolton had one chance, which was as gift-wrapped as a bear’s alarm clock, and didn’t threaten to create any more.
At the back the return of Nyron Nosworthy solidified what has been an increasingly fragile back three. He was clearly rusty as far as kicking a ball goes, but his dignified presence alone meant that Joel Ekstrand’s continued crapness was limited to a few duff passes and a missed interception here-or-there.
George Thorne is exactly what we need in the fulcrum of the midfield. He’s strong in the tackle, he’s unambitious and, setting him apart from Iriney, he can move. He is, frankly, a taller Jonathan Hogg. Which is great.
Even the attack was alright. When facing forwards, Javier Acuña and Fernando Forestieri looked like making things happen, and combined well to bring the ever-improving Davide Faraoni into the game. Faraoni’s crossing was fantastic, and were there anything resembling a centre-forward on the pitch would have yielded a couple of goals. There was however, as is often the case, no focal point at all. One striker. One striker is all we need. It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would make the world of difference. Both of the front two have a range of defence-splitting passes in their locker, but with opposition back lines holding firm deep in their own territory it will take a specialist striker to take advantage of them.
But we lost. And here’s why it happened.
2. The end of a number one. Half an hour into the match I took my notepad out of my pocket and wrote two words. Almunia’s done. Not even I, wisest of the wise, thought that the process of replacing him would take place so quickly.
When he arrived at Watford, Almunia’s ignominious Arsenal career was ringing in the ears of Watford fans. He had garnered a reputation as something of a ricket machine – chucking them in with alarming regularity and looking particularly glum doing so. So imagine our delight when he proved to be sturdy, reliable and occasionally inspirational during our annus mirabilis last year.
Towards the end though, there were inklings that his body may be weakening. Injuries to his hamstring ruled him out of a few games and even his greatest moment in a Watford shirt (you needn’t ask) showed him to be getting a bit cumbersome.
This season his aging body has come to the fore again, and far from the rock that we came to know in his debut Hornets campaign, Almunia has reacted by reverting to Arsenal form – looking like the world is on his shoulders and pushing down hard.
Today’s error could partly be blamed on Jermaine Beckford, going in incredibly hard and unfairly on Almunia minutes before the goal; a foul for which the sugar cane chewin’ striker was booked. Perhaps this was playing on the keeper’s mind when he dropped a routine cross collection at the feet of Beckford, but it was the latest in a string of errors and signalled the beginning of the end for the Spaniard.
The executioner’s blow came swiftly. Five minutes into the interval, Jonathan Bond trotted out to the Rookery goalmouth, marking the moment – one would think – that Manuel Almunia’s stint as Watford’s number one ended. After inflicting the humiliating blow of a purely performance-based substitution of such a senior goalkeeper, Gianfranco Zola seems to have made his decision.
The Sword of Damocles passes to Bond.
3. Awful, awful changes. If only he made his decision as swiftly in other areas. Mainly this one: Diego Fabbrini is not a Championship footballer.
There was little doubt in my mind going into the second half that the one goal deficit would be overturned fairly easily, and the passage of play immediately following the interval backed that assumption up. Then came Fabbrini.
Now, to be fair, the complete downfall of Watford’s performance following his introduction was not all the Italian’s fault. Moving Acuna out to a peripheral role on the right wing was an idea of unspeakable idiocy on Zola’s part, as was plonking Fabbrini in the middle; and the change of formation completely deprived Watford of any width, virtually removing Daniel Pudil and Faraoni from the game.
But, once again, the unnecessary introduction of Diego Fabbrini completely ruins the entire team’s shape.
My opinion of the Italian is well-documented. I shan’t go on too much. But it strikes me that the bloke’s bow is held together by one single string: that string being ‘has a name that makes him sound like a good footballer’. Robin Hood he ain’t. He is so unbelievably predictable on the ball that he makes every fluid in my body boil. There simply isn’t a point to him.
But nobody’s skills were put in position to excel after the change in shape. Forestieri was made to try too hard to get involved out on the left; Fabbrini’s nothingness was merely highlighted by his isolation in the middle; Acuña’s directness was wasted on the wing and Bernard Mensah (that’s Bernard Mensah – tall, quick centre forward) was left to feed off scraps in the Paraguayan’s place on the wing.
The midfield also suffered. No longer capable of simply providing the flying wing-backs with ammunition, they had to push further forward, restricting themselves space and leaving the middle third dangerously undermanned. Thorne’s first half performance levels dropped as he was forced into less comfortable tight spaces and Josh McEachran disappeared.
4. Josh McEachran. It’s not that McEachran isn’t an un-bad player: he’ll more than likely have a perfectly respectable Championship career. But with Thorne in the team, and proving so far that he deserves to be there, there isn’t a place for the lad from Chelsea.
Allow me to explain. Thorne sits and mops. He’ll maraud every now and then, but his role is to sort out all the gubbins that gets through the midfield. With him taking up one of the three midfield spots, that leaves the other two to do all the advanced leg work. They’ve got to be all up in the opposition’s grill, helping the attack, try to be Almen Adbi. When we’re playing two ‘kind-of’ strikers like Forestieri and Acuna this becomes all the more important – they’re going to drift and someone’s got to step up into that vacated space.
McEachran won’t do this. In fact, McEachran won’t do a lot of things. Except take an inordinate amount of time to do anything. All breaks reach him, and slow down while he first puts the ball onto his left foot and then thinks of something to do. He does this, whilst in the minds of all watching the ghost of Nathaniel Chalobah collects, twists, beats a man and pings a perfect pass in one fell swoop. We need more dynamism from McEachran’s shirt.
The other issue with him is that he quite clearly doesn’t give the slightest toss.
A problem with this new generation that hero-worships Barcelona is that all they want to do is, as they say, “pop it”. All that tracking back nonsense isn’t for our Josh. Don’t you know that the image of brave-hearted English players is so passé? Get out of the dark ages.
Except there’s more to it than that. People get bogged down in the tight passing and don’t worry enough about all the pressing that Barca do. Many times today McEachran could be seen jogging without a care in the world as play passed him by, and when his teammates have the ball he won’t make a run, he’ll stand and wait for the ball to be played to him. Because he just wants to pop the sodding ball.
5. Vibe. Sabrina’s got it. Rochelle has got it. Gladys got it. And Fontina’s got it. Vicarage Road hasn’t got it. It seems that we shuffle in on a Saturday and wait to be disappointed. There was no noise from anywhere today. The Bolton fans were fairly raucous and good-humoured, but there was no retort, no encouragement from our lot. This isn’t anything new, but it isn’t just a lack of noise – the Vic feels like an unpleasant place to be at the moment, and it seems to reflect on the players.
These aren’t bad players. But they look like they think they are. They’re scared to try anything too outlandish for fear that they’ll be lambasted for fannying around with the ball. They’re playing well below the sum of their parts.
I considered it thus: if Cristian Battocchio had taken the ball in the 90th minute, decided against a two yard pass to someone hemmed in by three defenders and just wellied the ball into the top corner, would the ground have exploded in delight? Would players and fans alike united in a great big hug? Or would everyone have just rocked back into their seats with a curmudgeonly ‘I should bloody well think so too’?
There’s a weird air around the place, and it’s one we need to vanquish soonish. A few wins on the bounce will do it – but that doesn’t seem such a simple proposition at the moment. But this, though you may not think so, was a step in the right direction, we just need to stop making silly mistakes and making stupid changes.