There is a distinct air of uncertainty wafting around Vicarage Road this August. Watford fans, once bitten twice shy, are reticent to approach the coming season with anything resembling outward optimism, fresh from finally getting the last remaining egg from their faces after a relatively disastrous campaign last year.
This despite the re-signing of two of the strongest Watford performers of the last two years, as well as a player who played a large role in guiding Leicester to the Championship title last season and a guy who was ever-present in Ecuador’s recent World Cup campaign (should he ever turn up). Last year’s squad has been improved, and the passage of time should mean that the embryonic form that we started to show at the back end of last season should have some legs going into this one. But until we see some results, we’re saying nothing.
That is, in part, due to a less-than-stellar pre-season campaign. We will have more on that in the next couple of days, but draws against Chemnitzer and Shrewsbury and more pertinently a defeat away at Coventry’s humble Borehamwood home ground haven’t stirred any kind of juices among those who have witness them.
This then, a Vicarage Road curtain raiser at home to Udinese, was the chance to get rolling and to prove to the fans that the club stands a chance of going somewhere this year.
It was also a chance to connect and pit our wits against a club that have been both a gift and a curse in the last few years; while we wouldn’t be in the strong position we are now without loans and free transfers off le Zebrette, we are doomed to be reminded of the fact whenever success might follow. Having climbed a rung by dispatching Granada last year, here was a chance to claim some sort of parity.
One of the reasons that the club offered £3 for this match was surely to get a crowd that impressed the visiting players and staff. Considering Udinese have in the past travelled to Serie A games with one lone supporter, to see upwards of 11,000 for a second tier side’s friendly would surely have given them the impression that we are ready for success, however true that may actually be. The fans played to this script and responded to Udinese subs and goals with polite applause and gave elder statesman Antonio di Natale a rapturous reception. Who wouldn’t want to play for us?
The Italians didn’t seem to have the same enthusiastic approach to the match, although they present themselves as a well-run club they weren’t even prepared enough to pack a kit, having to take to the pitch in Watford’s new away kit. Though by the time that Luis Muriel had been treated for cramp by Harry the Hornet, I think they got it.
Watford: Gomes; Angella, Tamas (Hoban 75), Ekstrand; Anya (Dyer 59), Abdi (Fabbrini 75), Andrews, McGugan (Battocchio 59), Pudil (Doyley 81); Deeney (Ranegie 66), Vydra (Ighalo 59)
Watford substitutes: Bond, Tozser.
Udinese: Brkic (Scuffet 66); Heurtaux, Danilo, Domizzi; Widmer, Guilherme (Allan 59), Bruno Fernandes (Lopez 88), Pinzi (Badu 70), Riera (Silva 65); Muriel (Thereau 66), Di Natale.
Udinese substitutes: Belmonte, Bubnjic, Pasquale, Zielinski
After a month of tinkering, Beppe Sannino set the side out in a 3-5-2 formation, and left it so throughout the match, suggesting that Plan A is remains untouched – for now at least. Troy Deeney, relegated for whatever reason to the bench for the last few matches, started in a front two with Matej Vydra, a partnership that proved so fruitful a few years ago.
Not so much today. Despite an Instagram campaign showing evenings spent cycling or ‘going hard’ with his personal trainer, Troy looked a yard or two off his ordinary pace. It could be that his absence of late has been down to a knock and that the lack of match action means he’s not as sharp as he could be, but there could be something more sinister in it. Who knows?
Vydra by his side looked a bit better. Having struggled to make his mark on games when deployed in a wide position, the prodigal son did get into the odd move, but mainly as a link-up man with Almen Abdi and rarely on the shoulder of the last man – when he’s at his most devastating. He did look to latch onto one ball over the top but was thwarted by a flying leg from Thomas Heurtaux.
Although Watford had the lion’s share of possession in the first half, they went in at the break with absolutely nothing to show for it. The final ball was clearly lacking, bar only a beautifully weighted through-ball from Lewis McGugan that Deeney would have latched on to if not loitering offside.
McGugan and Abdi toiled behind them, not having much of an effect on the match. Nothing was clicking in the Udinese half, with Ikechi Anya – who was playing much higher up the right flank than accustomed to – not providing much of an outlet on the right, and every flurry of short, incisive passes being crowded out by the Italian back three.
Keith Andrews, signed last week on a season’s loan, sat back in the Daniel Toszer role (the Hungarian sat this one out with a knock, though he was fit enough to make the bench) and looked out of place. Of the midfield three it was Abdi that put himself about the most, once risking the wrath of his pay masters by going in pretty hard on di Natale. Andrews held his position just in front of the back three, but couldn’t get his passing going and was caught in possession more than once.
The need for a defensive leader has been pressing for some time. In Gabriel Tamas, we have acquired a talker and pointer, and he was comfortable playing the ball out of defence, not afraid to be given the ball under pressure. When he had the chance he also took the opportunity to venture forward – treating the crowd to an exciting brand of drilled, over-hit crosses. But he looks a good signing.
Joel Ekstrand and Gabrielle Angella were their usual selves, good defenders who look completely untroubled, peppered with sporadic periods of doziness. It was one of these that let Silvan Widmer in for the opening goal of the afternoon. The Swiss wing-back ghosted onto a clipped ball into the box and directed a header past the reach of Heurelho Gomes and inside the far post. The goal was met with a chant of ‘sign him up’ from the Rookery – which given the ‘international clearance’ issues of Juan Carlos Paredes might not be such a bad idea.
For all the talking that Tamas or any other defensive leader would bring, these moments are going to come, so engrained are they in the DNA of Angella and Ekstrand.
Gomes, like Almunia before him, was also very vocal, and did what little work he had to do very well. He bravely collected a cross off the head of di Natale and then later got up quickly to grab the Udinese captain’s header after Giampiero Pinzi’s blistering volley had clattered off the bar. He certainly had little chance with either goal – the second coming when two Udinese substitutes, Allan and Cyril Thereau, fresh from a Scott Fitzgerald novella, linked up to allow the latter to slot underneath Gomes.
Pinzi’s volley, the goal and an optimistic and weak long-range drive from Deeney were the only events of any note in the first half. The visitors did not impose themselves on the game to any great extent, relying solely on balls looped over the top. At half time with the score 1-0, that muted approach to Watford’s promotion chances remained deafeningly silent.
Beppe Sannino’s improved English may have contributed to the rapid improvement that greeted the start of the second half: both Vydra and McGugan had good chances to equalise after a cut-back from Anya and knock-down from Deeney respectively.
It was a burst of pace just before the hour from Vydra that forced a Udinese defender to scythe the driving attacker down. McGugan stepped up and swept the ball over the stretching arms of Zeljko Brkic and into the top corner.
There was further improvement with three changes immediately following the goal. Both players involved in the goal were replaced; Vydra, whose second half energy was encouraging, gave way to fellow Udinese-loanee Odion Ighalo, and McGugan to Cristian Battocchio. Lloyd Dyer also made his Vicarage Road bow, replacing Anya. Daniel Pudil, who had hardly had a kick on the left, was moved over to Anya’s right, with Dyer taking on his natural left wing role.
Dyer and Ighalo instantly impressed. In Dyer we have a player that Anya can really learn from: the veteran recognises his physical advantage over his defender and exploits it, driving at defenders with pace and putting them on the back foot. Though Ketch has the ability to do that, he doesn’t seem to have the confidence, much preferring to cut back and play a percentage pass than try to beat his man.
Ighalo meanwhile almost scored with his first touch, drilling into the side netting. Not big and not small, he looks to have great feet. On several occasions he turned away from pressure with a neat turn or managed to emerge from a crowd of defenders in possession having switched the ball quickly from foot to foot.
Watford were now using their greater possession more effectively and progressing into Udinese territory with a lot more confidence. The visitors’ second goal was against the run of play, and the lead didn’t last long.
Diego Fabbrini, long-time scourge of ITWM, had replaced Abdi in the 75th minute and was stationed on the left when he took possession of the ball. He drove at the space between Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and the byline, and shaped to knock the ball back with the outside of his boot before executing a perfect flip flap that sent the Ghanaian down the river, into the estuary and halfway to Norway. His cross was stood up to the penalty spot, Daniel Pudil met it with a header that brushed Mathias Ranegie, on for Deeney, on its way in.
We had chances to win the game. A backpass sold Simone Scuffet, the 18 year old goalkeeping prodigy on as a sub for Brkic, short and Ranegie was able to beat him to it. Forced wide, the Swede had time to turn and feed the arriving Ighalo but his pass wrong-footed the impressive striker and the ball ran harmlessly past.
A few bursts into the box from Lloyd Doyley, appearing at Vicarage Road for the fourteenth straight season, amounted to nothing and the game finished level with Watford on the attack.
Thus ends another pre-season. Bolton arrive in six days’ time. The depth of this squad is probably the greatest we’ve seen, definitely since I’ve been around, and the second half today showed that we can cause good teams – though given ones who are a few weeks behind in the preparation game – a fair bit of trouble.
It’s not enough yet for Twitter to be awash with fans smugly announcing what odds they got on us for promotion a few months back (12/1 FYI), but it’s a start.
ITWM’s lineup for Bolton (pending fitness of Toszer):
Tamas Ekstrand Angella
Pudil Toszer Dyer