Let me preface this blurt of thoughts about the Derby game with these two points:
- Derby are the best team in the Championship. About this there can be no real argument, given what I’ve seen of all the others so far this season.
- Given the boos at half time, and what I’ve seen on Twitter, you most likely aren’t going to agree with this, but I’ll try and back up what I’m saying, so read on if you want someone to argue with…
So then, this was a game played between two good, evenly-matched sides. It was a good game. It had goalmouth stuff, it had tactical intrigue and in the end it had a bit of needle. We had chances, they had chances, both keepers played well, three very good goals were scored. I don’t really know what you’re moaning about.
That’s not true. I do know what you’re moaning about. Team selection. Let me tell you why you’re wrong. Not completely wrong, but not right at least.
Derby, as previously mentioned, are really good. They deserved to go up last year, and like Leicester before them have used a near miss as galvanisation to improve on their clearly high platform, which is something we failed to do massively post-Wembley. Not only are they a very well-organised bunch of lads – with a coach of high pedigree, if not popularity – but they also have a squad full of talented players both young and experienced. In Chris Martin, Johnny Russell, Jeff Hendrick and Richard Keogh they have a spine of players all the right side of 30 but with a lot of playing time under their belt. Supplement this with some nifty young players in Will Hughes and Jordan Ibe and you get the aforementioned ‘really good team’.
When faced with really good teams, you have two options. The first is to play your usual game and hope that your strengths outweigh theirs. The other is to try and nullify their threat. Slavisa Jokanovic – given two weeks to think about it – chose the latter, and had clearly spent a lot of time working on how the side would be set up.
Derek Payne was incredulous on Three Counties after the game that Jokanovic had started four forwards against a team who’s strength was clearly their midfield. He probably saw the team sheet and thought of this:
Ridiculous, said he, that we would completely neglect midfield against such a strong team.
In reality, this was how the side was set up.
Derby have a midfield of guile and creativity. They are Jokanovic’s ideal – a side who can control the ball and use possession intelligently. How many times in the past have we bemoaned the fact that our midfield was simply outrun; that we just hadn’t had a chance to put our foot on the ball? This was the antidote: to compress and win the midfield battle.
The first half was like a game of Pong, with the two paddles set about five centimetres away from each other. When the ball was in play by the halfway line – which was a lot – there was about twenty metres between Bassong, our last line of defence, and Deeney. Every time the ball was allowed to leave the cramped middle third, a chance was carved out, and it was only great performances from Jonathan Bond and Jack Butland that prevented a rugby score. People may point to Bond’s two first half worldies keeping us in the game, but similarly Butland was forced into two smart saves from Deeney and if someone had thought to give Forestieri a ‘man on’ shout when he was played in, would have been forced into trying to make another.
It was combative, it was even and I loved it. I have never seen a Watford side set out to play like that. In the past, ‘defensive’ performances have seen us sitting in our own area waiting for the inevitable, this was a well-thought-out strategy that created solidity whilst also providing a springboard for attacks.
The idea was clearly to compress play, stifle Derby’s creative players and burst forward with speed on the counter. Forestieri was born to play in this game, and was able to retain possession using his ludicrous confined-space movement to start many an attack. Ighalo fought well, and put himself about admirably. With time to play the ball around in an attacking move limited, his movement around Deeney was great, and it was no coincidence that it was always him getting the second ball off the big man. The decision to bring him off was mystifying.
Especially, when you take Lloyd Dyer’s performance into account.
What a bloody waste of space.
When you have acted as unprofessionally as Dyer has in the past, it’s probably for the best if you at least try and back it up when given a chance to “showcase” your “talents”. But instead, the winger stood with his hands in his pockets while everyone around him worked their tails off. He would stand and watch as Lloyd Doyley – who as the keenest of eyes will notice is not the most gifted ball-player in the world – advanced past him, never thinking to make any kind of run with the pace he is alleged to have.
Lazy and arrogant, it was a miracle that he lasted to the second half, let alone past the 70th minute.
Now then, Munari and Vydra.
Last time I wrote, I was not too favourable towards Keith Andrews. His legs have gone, and for a combative midfielder he really hates getting his hands dirty. That being said, his inclusion ahead of Munari was completely fair.
What Andrews does really well is point. Gavin Mahon and early John Eustace may have been derided for their liking of a good bit of gesticulation, but we’ve seen over the last few seasons that a pointer is something we really need. This was set up as a tactical battle by Jokanovic, and Andrews was forever telling his teammates where to be, when to makes runs and to stop being so bloody stupid. Much of this was done towards Dyer, incidentally.
On top of this, if you wished to pick Andrews out of the crowd, you would often have to look at our back line. Our primary outlet during the game was quick breaks, and more often than not this includes JC Paredes doing his headless chicken thing upfield. In fact, Ekstrand and Bassong also often found themselves taking the ball up the pitch, and it was always Andrews covering for them.
When Munari was introduced for Andrews – to admittedly great effect going forward – he did no such thing. At one point in the second half, Bassong went on a maze-up deep into the Derby half, and in his place stood a big old expanse of grass ready to be attacked.
Munari is a better player than Andrews. This, in fact, was probably his best game in a Watford shirt. He is usually the player that does the simple stuff without pulling up trees, today he was swinging oaks round his head while larking all over the place playing great passes and opening up all kinds of gaps in the Derby defence, but with that being said, for the game that was set out at the outset of the game, Andrews was the logical choice.
The decision to play Dyer ahead of Vydra was less defensible. I guess it has something to do with the fact that the Czech, like Danny Pudil who was completely absent today, has been away for the two weeks that the squad has been planning for this game. You wouldn’t know it from watching Dyer’s insultingly crap performance, but it’s entirely possible that he just wasn’t considered game-planned up enough.
And when he came on he wasn’t very good, so it doesn’t make a whole heap of difference in the end.
To reiterate, this was not the selection of a coach who has no idea what he’s doing, or who doesn’t know anything about this mystical thing we call the Championship, it was a calculated move by an experienced coach trying to stifle a team who in their last game gave Wolves – also a fairly nifty team – a right good kicking.
And I think the plan worked fine. Derby’s chances weren’t really down to structural problems as much as individual errors. Bassong was fine generally, but he has a supreme, and misplaced, confidence on the ball and tends to assume that other defenders do too. He is too regularly caught on the ball, or plays hospital passes to others when he has played himself into trouble. Alongside him, Ekstrand was in one of his bad moods. Sluggish and slow to react to issues he was targeted by Martin to great effect. As often happens when he’s having a bad game, the Swede’s head went down and the rest of the game was spent walloping the ball away as soon as possible and generally looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
To the right toiled Paredes. I have no doubt he’ll come properly good once he’s all settled in, but at the moment he is too prone to completely leaving his man on his own or waving him through with no much of a defensive play to hinder, and when that man has the pace of Ibe there will be problems. For Derby’s first goal, it was only the frantic tracking back of Forestieri that held up Ibe before he brilliantly lofted a shot over Bond and into the far corner from the edge of the area, with Paredes nowhere to be seen.
Only Lloyd (the good one), back at left back after his great stint there under Brendan Rodgers, looked completely at home, even though Dyer’s lethargy often meant he had to deal with two or three defenders at a time.
Bond, in goal, was undoubtedly Watford’s standout performer. He hasn’t really pushed on in the way we might have hoped since he emerged as a talented 18 year old, but his lack of game time will have something to do with that. It’s also worth considering that whenever we’ve seen him in the last couple of years, it’s as a last-minute replacement for an injured first choice. This was probably the first time he’s been able to spend more than half an hour to prepare for a game in some time, and he was flawless. Quick to leave his goal-line to snuff out a chance, even when a reoccurrence of his brutal clash against Leeds was a possibility, and agile enough to make several outstanding saves to his left, right and… um, up; there was nothing he could have done better, and he certainly had no chance with Ibe’s curling finish or Craig Bryson’s long range strike.
In the end, we lost a match against a really good team. This really good team are going up. But to beat us they needed to score two really good goals. And, frankly, I think the really good team couldn’t have had too many complaints if we had drawn with them, which suggests we weren’t too bad really. Oh, and we didn’t have a really good player of our own, but he’ll apparently be back soon, so that’s really good. Gabrielle Angella’s not quite really good yet, but he’s good-er than Joel Ekstrand, so…
Maybe in time we’ll be really good. We’re not quite there at the moment, but we, and most importantly Jokanovic, are nowhere near as bad as some people seem to think.
Got it? Good.