Devil’s Advocate – Derby County (H) 22/11/14

Let me preface this blurt of thoughts about the Derby game with these two points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

derby team

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 actual

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 Bonds 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.

Clearly a hammering. Taken from BBC.

Clearly a hammering. Taken from BBC.

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.


  1. It amazes me that your account of the game was SO different to mine and of those around me at the game. If we have any ambition to compete for promotion then surely it shouldn’t be a case of we either play to our strengths or try to nullify theirs. How about a mix of the two? As far as the team selection/tactics go, it was blatantly a 4-4-2 playing Forestieri as a right midfielder. Being a forward player he never tracked the runner leaving Paredes constantly exposed and then ultimately allowed Ibe to easily skip past him for the first goal. Igahalo was anonymous for the entire time he was on the pitch and even Deeney didn’t seem to be interested in putting his usual shift in causing many of us to question whether he was carrying an injury. Cathcart has been back fit for weeks now and hasn’t got into the team during Angella’s absence despite being a much better option then Ekstrand. Pudil was ‘rested’ for the game? If so that was stupid as despite everyone having a soft spot for Doyley he’s simply not good enough at this level especially having lost a yard or two of pace over the last couple of seasons + constantly having to come back onto his right foot just narrowed our formation. Also where was Abdi? Supposedly back in training and ahead of Angella in terms of fitness as stated by the manager during the week yet Angella makes the bench and he’s nowhere to be seen!! As for Munari, he’s had several great games since he arrived at the club and by playing both Tozser and Andrews as two holding midfields it just allowed players like Will Hughes to have time and space on the ball to dictate the game. Once Munari was on pressing that space the Derby defence looked shaken and no better then half of the defences we have played against this year. A high energy Battocchio is a miss to our squad when Abdi doesn’t play in my opinion. I think the only thing i agree with you on is Lloyd Dyer’s extremely poor performance but why was he playing anyway having not shown anything other then a bad attitude all season? Maybe that was part of Jokanovic’s master plan!???????

  2. Few thoughts from me:

    I thought in the first half we were overrun in midfield, and although the back four made the best of a bad job, the fact the ball wasn’t sticking up front (mainly because the balls weren’t to feet, but rather to head) it was coming straight back. Derby put us under all sorts of pressure on the ball and I think that actually started to tell in the second half when we’d pinned them back in their box.

    It’s worth saying I thought Fernando actually did a terrific job tracking back in the first half – the only reason he was left isolated against Ibe for the goal was because JCP had done his best “Nordin Wooter running down a blind ally & giving the ball away” impression, and not actually got back.

    Second half, generally, was much better. Fernando was much more influential, and Munari was brought on at just the right time to really swing the game.

    Shame we didn’t bother to really try and shut Bryson down for the winner, which seemed to rather knock the stuffing out of the team.

    Couple of other things: Ekstrand was strange – pretty good for parts of the game, but unlike some centre backs who have catastrophic moments, he seems to fall apart for ten minutes at a time. I didn’t actually cost us today, but probably only due to Bond’s bravery. At the moment, Ekstrand, I reckon, should be our sixth choice centre back. I’d have him nowhere near the first team.

    Dyer was a disgrace, and should be shipped out as soon as possible. It’s disappointing that a signing which signalled a renewed pragmatism has turned out to be such a waste.

    I thought Lloyd Doyley made the best of a bad job – first half in particular he made a number of brilliant runs into space that were ignored, and a super pass into Dyer who wasted it by shooting rather than crossing…..

    Anyway, I absolutely agree Derby are the best team we’ve seen this season. Probably for a few seasons, in fact, in this division.

  3. I really like this article and thank you for helping me get my head round what happened. I did leave the ground thinking that we had made Derby work really hard for their points, and we did look good for a spell, but as I’m married to a Derby fan I’m just gutted that they are marginally and essentially better than us at this stage of the season. In fact I think they will go up as convincing and deserving champions. I agree with above poster about Ekstrand. Can be a decent player and looks good on the ball. But we need consistency and he’s not consistent. No fan of Dyer before this game and even less so now. What else? Fernando is a wonderful player and I think he does need to start all matches. His form last season was a massive factor and losing him for a while to injury was tough. Glad Bond had a good game he deserves it because he’s been a good no2. Maybe Slavisa will give him a run of games.

  4. You couldn’t have been watching the same game as me. We played 4-4-2. Even Jokanovic admitted that. You must have systems going round your head.

  5. All this analysis is fine, and spot on on many ways. But, it’s only one aspect of the game and why it has become so frustrating watching Watford. The players don’t looked committed, don’t seem to have any passion. Too many heads drop too quickly. The defence looks anxious and worried all the time. They don’t look like they are having fun/ enjoying it – they are not being inspired by the management/ coaching team. Plus, there are far too many moaners in the crowd who start complaining in the most over the top manner when the smallest thing goes wrong. This head coach as he’s called is not the one to get us out of this rut.

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