FA Youth Cup holders Norwich at home – 1pm. FA Cup favourites and European form team Manchester City away – 3pm. These wasn’t a lot of optimism results-wise around Watford on a Saturday of cup action. For ITWM, the decision between driving for ten minutes and paying a couple of quid to cast an eye over the potential future of the club and spending a day traipsing up to a rainy Manchester to witness a trouncing of Ashes-worthy magnitude wasn’t a hard one.
It’s a shame that the scheduling of the two games led to both being played on the same day. Last year’s one-and-done cup defeat to Leeds brought a relatively big crowd to the Vic; the performance that night was hugely disappointing, but the one that saw off Norwich this afternoon was worthy of a bigger audience.
Norwich came into the game off the back of a 6-1 trouncing of Preston. That followed a 4-2 aggregate victory over Chelsea in last year’s final. Though the three architects of that victory have since moved on – the Murphy brothers to the first team squad and captain Cameron McGeehan on loan to Blue Square Premier side Luton – the Boys from the Broads (© me) presented an intimidating challenge.
Watford stormed into the lead in the first minute. Ryan Hope won the ball in midfield as the Hornets piled bodies forward. An incisive move of quick, short passes ended with Tom Rosenthal (Ronnie’s lad) on the edge of the area playing in Alex Jakubiak, who knocked the ball around a defender before firing past the Norwich keeper.
It was 2-0 after 12 minutes. Centre-half Josh Doherty knocked a looping cross to the far post where Jakubiak, who had got the better of his marker with his strength, was lurking. As he shaped to head at goal, Norwich left back Ben Wyatt – one of only three remaining players from last season’s cup winning side – indiscreetly pulled at his shoulder. Doherty stepped up to take the resulting penalty, and despite employing an ill-advised one-step run-up dispatched it into the bottom corner out of the reach of the keeper.
The young Hornets were enjoying the freedom of Vicarage Road. Up front, Rosenthal and Jakubiak were tirelessly harrying the opposing defence and the ball rarely made it into the Watford half. George Byers grabbed a third after just 20 minutes as he drove a dipping ball in off the left-hand post from 25 yards. The reigning Champions were reeling.
A change of shape from Norwich – who brought on an extra defender and switched to a 3-5-2 to mirror Watford’s formation – stifled the hitherto exuberant Watford midfield. The three City centre backs were able to keep a tighter hold on Jakubiak and time on the ball was limited.
From then on, Norwich found their feet and pressed into Watford territory. Dan Wilks was rarely troubled in the Watford goal, as the defenders were well organised and quick to crowd out Carlton Morris, City’s bruising central striker.
This continued into the second half, with Norwich finally getting on the score-sheet with a soft goal from a corner. A floated delivery found a free Rhys Browne (not our one) at the far post, who nodded past Wilks.
There was to be no onslaught on the Watford goal. Though Norwich dominated possession, they were not allowed to create many chances of note. When the home side did get on the ball, they were sloppy and over-eager to exploit the space created by the ever-advancing City back line. Fitness seemed to be an issue towards the end, but the result was never in any doubt: the youngsters winning through to the fifth round and a home tie against Liverpool.
When assessing individual performances, it’s important to remember that everyone is at different stages of their development. Nobody is expected to be the finished article, so there’s no need to highlight negatives in players who have barely finished their GCSEs.
Last year, for example, I came away from the 4-0 defeat to Leeds (a report of which can be found here) thinking that Hope was significantly below par. After a performance today that, while imperfect, contained a smattering of brilliant passes and movement, it’s clear that he has come on leaps and bounds in the last twelve months.
A lot of the 400-odd spectators at Vicarage Road will have been keen to get a look at Jakubiak. His goal was the 20th of his season, and with the first team struggling in the attacking third, one can’t help but romantically envision a Gifton-esque contribution from an academy striker. He may not be ready for first team duties yet, but the Scot(ish) striker looks like he could be some player. The second-year scholar is not just a goalscorer; his work-rate in the first half was fantastic and his strength and willingness to put his body on the line caused the two large City centre backs a lot of trouble. Most impressive about Jakubiak was his touch. On several occasions the ball fell from the sky and seemed to stick to the striker’s boot as if magnetised. Alex faded in the latter part of the second half, but he will be contending for a place in the first team squad before too long.
Alongside him, Rosenthal began the game at a roaring pace. The Belgian youth international was all over the pitch, getting on the ball and moving it on at pace. He fizzled out after about 20 minutes, and faded into the background, but was very impressive in the game’s pivotal opening stages. Young Dennon Lewis replaced Rosenthal in the second half. He found it hard to see too much of the ball as by this point the Watford ranks were stretched and largely incoherent going forward, but was very keen and saw a late header go wide.
In the midfield three, Hope shone in brief bursts. A glorious cross-field pass to Jakubiak caught the eye in particular: perfectly weighted, it showed the range of passing in the midfielder’s repertoire.
Byers was deployed in the holding role. In a generation of stepped haircuts and shaved-in partings, it’s always a relief to see a rubbish, floppy-curtained do like his. Similarly refreshing was his ability to use both feet confidently. Though his optimistic passes did not always come off, his ability to notice a run and quickly make a pass was encouraging, and his brilliant goal should be shown to certain members of the first team as an example of composure and execution when faced with a long-range sight at goal.
To their right, the notoriously-monikered Jazzi Barnum-Bobb worked hard to neutralise any attacks coming down his flank. The wing-back’s crossing was slightly erratic but his defending was fantastic – especially when the pressure was laid on in the second half. Brave in the tackle and in the air, JBB looks a very solid wing-back.
The lack of production down Watford’s right meant that they focused much of their attention on the opposite flank. Here, Harry Kyprianou, who almost made his debut at Bristol City earlier this month, at wing-back and Chris Dillon on the left side of the central three, largely struggled. The former seemed extremely frustrated with his performance, while the latter did suggest at better things to come with a neat turn and bent pass to play in Jakubiak after winning possession with industrial graft.
At the back, captain Jorell Johnson – back in action after a long lay-off with an ankle injury – put in a strong display. If I had to choose one player from this Watford squad to put money on to become a professional it would be Johnson. Though he struggled to keep going after a few knocks emphasised his lack of match fitness, he soldiered on for almost 70 minutes before he was replaced by Matthew Hall. The afroed centre-half has good size and is dominant in the air as well as quick to read situations.
Either side of him, Alfie Young and Josh Doherty supplemented his power with considered defending. Both were solid without standing out, but didn’t put many feet wrong. Towards the end of the game, when Norwich were sending bodies forward, the defence remained organised and seemed nigh-on impenetrable with their good reactive movement and considered approach. A lot of credit must go to Dave Hughes and his side for instilling this sense of defensive patience and shape in his young charges. Because of them, Wilks was restricted to largely routine stops, though he was on hand to tip wide when a City attacker did finally get a good sight on goal.
In all, it was an oddly fulfilling match. Coming away from Vicarage Road having seen some fine attacking football and a professional performance at the back was a welcome change to normal proceedings. Indeed, I raced back to the car to listen in on the first team’s attempts to replicate this “cupset”, fully expecting to be met with aural scenes of defensive chaos at The Etihad.
That was not to come, and the day’s Watford action – 5-5 in total against two much-preferred sets of opposition – suggest good things to come both in the club’s near and distant(er) future.
Watford: Wilks; Barnum-Bobb, Young, Johnson (Hall, 69), Doherty; Hope, Byers, Dillon, Kyprianou; Rosenthal (Lewis, 62), Jakubiak
Subs not used: Martin, Cox, Bawling
Norwich City: Killip; Wyatt, Lokko, Awuah (Efete, 83), Norman; Grant (Burgess, 26), Hodd, Randall (Heath, 61), Eaton-Collins; Browne, Morris
Subs not used: Oxborough, Byrne-Hewitt