The right approach
Report by Ian Grant
Don't believe everything you'll hear about this match. Without wishing to be patronising, it's important
that Watford fans understand exactly what happened against Walsall on Saturday afternoon. Assuming
there are no experienced centre forwards loitering around Vicarage Road waiting for a game, we'll be
seeing a fair bit more of the same.
With Keith Scott back at Norwich and Devon White back at Notts County, we have only Gifton Noel-Williams available
to play the conventional centre forward role. And even Gifton's not really that conventional (plus he's only
seventeen and deserves some time and patience to adapt to senior football). So, after all last season's finger-pointing over
Glenn Roeder's inability to bring strikers to Watford, we're back to playing short-arses up front - on this occasion, it
was Tommy Mooney and Kevin Phillips.
That changes everything. It shouldn't (we ought to be giving our strikers quality service whatever their height and
physical presence), but it does. Quite simply, we can no longer welly lazy balls up to the front two in the hope that they'll get
lucky - it has to be passed to them. Although many people will remember last season for creative stagnation (seemingly
endless hours of watching our midfielders passing the ball sideways), I'd still maintain that the worst games were the ones
when we lost our discipline and resorted to the long ball, expecting our diminutive strikeforce to compete in the air against
strong, tall central defenders - Charlton away springs to mind.
So, in spite of it all, I think that the lack of a centre forward presents us with an opportunity and it's one
we can't afford to waste. In far too many matches this season, we've been playing at the opposition's pace -
Gillingham was a classic example, as they upped the tempo in the second half and we were unable to play
to our strengths. If the absence of height in the forward line means that we're going to pass the ball while waiting
for our strikers to make runs, in the process slowing the pace of the game to something that suits our quality
players a little more, then that's a good thing. It might not make for the most exciting football around but, when the likes
of Stuart Slater, Gary Porter, Gary Penrice and David Connolly return (all players that can either pass intelligently or make
defence-splitting runs; all players that don't thrive when the game's being played at a hundred miles an hour), it'll make for football that has the
odds tipped in our favour.
I won't pretend for a moment that this was a classic performance. There were numerous flaws. But the
intent was there. We tried to do the right thing and that left me in a considerably more positive mood than
when I'd arrived at the ground.
The early goal helped us an enormous amount. Prior to that, Walsall were rapidly retreating into their shells after
a relatively adventurous start and we were beginning to struggle to break them down. We had managed one
good break - a magnificent long clearance by Kevin Miller (yes, you did read that right - and Johnno makes a blinding
pass later too!) sent Kevin Phillips off on a run and, despite being the only yellow-shirted player in the opposition half, he
managed to twist and turn enough to fire in a potent shot that the keeper parried.
The goal came at a time when Walsall had pulled all eleven players behind the ball. To our credit (and in spite of
the crowd's impatience), we stuck to passing carefully and waiting for an opportunity. Eventually, the ball
was played into midfield for Richard Johnson and, from a typically long way out, he fired in a shot. It had the keeper
beaten all the way but it hit the post and rebounded out - fortunately, Tommy Mooney was in the right place at the
right time and beat the scrambling keeper with a fierce low drive into the middle of the goal.
It was a vital breakthrough. Our nerves settled down, the fans became a little less restless, Walsall
knew that they'd have to venture over the halfway line. Other than one attempt to throw it all away - Darren Bazeley
dwelt on the ball in the centre circle, allowing a Walsall player to rob him and set up a break that saw
a striker denied by the post with Miller beaten - we did well until half-time.
And we did very well for half an hour of the second half. I guess it depends on your criteria (I spent much
of the game listening to the demands of the fans - to get it forward, to raise the tempo, to bring Andrews on -
and I rather hoped that the players were wearing earplugs) but I'd like to see more of this, not because
it's great to watch but because it's considerably more likely to get us out of the Second Division.
Patience is the key word. On the rare occasions when a defender (usually Nigel Gibbs or Keith Millen) got
fed up with waiting for an opening and pumped a lazy clearance forward, we lost possession. But most of
the time, we kept our heads and shut Walsall out of the game.
It could have been better, of course. We lacked width - the left wing was vacant on too many occasions and
Darren Bazeley insisted on making inexplicable runs into the central midfield - and the crosses came in
from too deep as a consequence, giving the defenders the edge (although Phillips still managed to
win a couple of headers inside the area). Equally, there were occasions when we were too slow to read situations, missing
opportunities to play early balls up to the strikers and take advantage of their movement.
Of the positive aspects, Richard Johnson's performance stood out - having taken a fair (or unfair) amount of stick
earlier in the season, he's kept to his task admirably. On Saturday, with the absence of creative players around him placing
an additional burden on his shoulders, he had a fine game. Not only did he win numerous tackles in the midfield, he contributed
much to our attacking efforts. Aside from his role in the goal, Johnson was slightly unfortunate not to win a penalty in the second half -
he rampaged onto a through ball and, as a defender headed the ball past his own keeper, was comprehensively flattened by the
advancing goalie. It's fair to say that Johnson wouldn't have retained possession had he not been fouled, though.
Johnson was also responsible for the best pass of the match - one of his more ambitious efforts (you know, the ones that usually end
up joining KJ in the dugout) came off, resulting in a glorious ball that skidded along the turf through to Phillips. From that break, Bazeley
attempted a curler with his left-foot a la Northampton (although from closer in), only to see it fly over - he should've crossed for Mooney, really. Later on, Phillips
wasted his best chance of the match, barging a defender out of the way to run clear into the area and dilly-dally on his way until the opportunity went (had it fallen
to his left foot, I think he'd have shot sooner and probably scored).
Regardless of the complaints around me, things were looking pretty good with fifteen minutes left. We were passing the ball around with
reasonable competence - not penetrating that much but still creating the occasional opening - and defending stoutly. By not over-committing
ourselves in search of a second goal, we always had enough players behind the ball to cover for any Walsall attacks - Keith Millen
and Darren Ward looked well in control. The sideways passes appeared to be a negative tactic but they
were effective - as I said earlier, we were playing the game at a pace that suited us.
And then it all went wrong. Walsall suddenly came at us, raised their game and we were hanging on to
our lead. We were fortunate to stay in front - two headers, one of which represented a very simple chance from
close range, went wide - and we ought to remind ourselves that a slow tempo doesn't mean you can relax. Indeed,
despite all the praise I've had for this performance (or, at least, the ideas behind the performance, if not the execution
of those ideas), a draw might've been a fairer result overall - the luck went with us, as is demonstrated by the two differing
results from shots hitting the post.
Something to build on, then. There are things we must do better - for example, getting effective width into the side is a must, since
small strikers need really good quality crosses to score goals. On that issue, I'd like to see a re-organisation to get
Craig Armstrong into the opposition half on a more regular basis since, although I'm unconvinced by much of his play,
his crossing is excellent. But what matters, I think, is that we've looked at the challenge of playing without
a centre forward and approached it in the correct manner. It's important that we continue that on Tuesday - it's
even more important that the fans try to understand what's happening rather than abusing the players for
not storming forward at every opportunity.
A good working performance
Report by Ian Lay
Mad. That's what people called me. Loyal as well. A true fan. But I just like to think it's addiction. One thing I was not however was knackered. You may wonder what I'm talking about. Believe you me many have made the comment. So let me explain. Friday at about 10pm GMT I was getting on a plane in Atlanta bound for Gatwick. I arrived at 7am in London not having had any sleep. Yet despite the rather dull displays we have had this season at Vicarage Road I was still determined to get to the game. I wasn't disappointed. This was no classic encounter don't get me wrong, but it was a good performance which keeps us in touch with the teams above us. And things are now getting tight at the top.
I have to apologise if some of the details maybe inaccurate at times, but hey, I've fallen asleep at Watford games this season even when I haven't had jet-lag!! Only kidding, honest.
I have seen some teams come for a draw at the Vic this season but Walsall must take the prize for the most negative. Until the last fifteen minutes they hardly created a chance and were quite happy to soak up pressure. I was quite convinced at one stage that they had a ten man defence. But when they did attack they did so with the skill that has enabled them to climb the table in recent weeks.
The opening ten minutes was mainly Watford. Good passing and hard tackling in the midfield enabled us to deliver some good pressure even if we didn't create any good chances. We forced a number of corners but even though we didn't make any of them count we were keeping the pressure on the opposition. Our first good chance came from a long clearance from Miller. He sent Phillips clear on the right wing but unfortunately he had to take the Walsall defence on alone as everyone else had been back defending a corner. Two defenders forced Kev wide to the right edge of the box as he tried to cut inside. But as usual he managed to get a shot in on target only for the keeper to palm it away and a defender cleared.
Next followed a bit of football from Watford which would have graced any stadium. The build up was patient. The ball being passed around for about two minutes from one wing to another (Liverpool eat your heart out). Then Johnson played a ball into Phillips on the edge of the box, and Kev returned the ball first time to Richard. He took the ball forward a couple of yards and then unleashed a low powerful drive which eluded the keeper but rebounded of the right hand post. Luckily Tommy Mooney sweeping in from the left wing picked up the ball and drove another low fierce shot under the keeper. 1-0. And even though we have had a few good goals this season, this will among the contenders for goal of the season come the beginning of May.
Shortly afterwards Walsall had their best chance. Another low drive which eluded Miller and again hit the inside of the post and bounced out to be cleared by Millen for a corner.
Half time came and went and we continued to control the game without quite getting the second goal we needed. Mooney was obstructed in the area and although it was a foul it was never the penalty everyone was screaming for. It should have been an indirect free kick but it wasn't given. Phillips was also floored when going through. Though he probably was going to reach the ball it was a good shout and many refs would have given it. Kev also had a header just wide after some good work and a cross from Bazeley. It amazes we whole often Phillips wins headers when he is so short. He reminds me of Robbie Fowler in that respect and certain taller people would be wise to take note.
Kev had an additional chance when put through on the right wing. He tried to cut inside to make the angle better for himself but it allowed three defenders to get back and cover him. He had a chance to shoot but chose to round a defender to make the angle better and was tackled.
Bazeley had a good chance again cutting in from the right wing but he sent his chance over the bar when he would have done better to pass.
We were then treated to fifteen minutes of nail biting anxious waiting as the Horns did their normal trick of sitting back and attempting to soak up pressure. If Walsall had people could head the ball better then we would not have taken the three points. They had two free headers, one of which was a glaring miss from probably only eight yards out. What was worse was the ball was sent about eight yards wide. The other was slightly more difficult. A cross from the right was met firmly by an attacking Walsall player. However, he couldn't angle the header and the ball went safely wide of Miller's left hand post.
Talking of Miller, he really didn't have to make a save of note all afternoon. The defence was generally sound. Gibbs, who isn't attacking full back at any time (I wish people would realise this and get off his back), had a good game. Millen and Ward seemed to have a better understanding going than of late, the latter having his best game for some time. Armstrong, though, looked out of sorts. I know he is not really a left back. But even some of his attacking play was disappointing. I hope that, like his last loan spell, he improves as the games go by.
In the midfield Easton had useful but not spectacular afternoon and Bazeley, after having a rather nondescript first half, improved greatly in the second. Palmer (one of my favourite players) had a very good game. He controlled the midfield with Johnson, breaking down many Walsall attacks. My only gripe was that he didn't get forward enough. But this allowed Johno a bit more freedom. Lots of people may disagree with me, but Johnson was man of the match. He worked hard, hardly missed a tackle and although he still miss hit a few passes he was better than normal. He was a major contributor in our goal. Although I still believe that having Palmer and Johnson in the same side makes us a bit defensive, you can't hide the fact that as a defensive midfielder he does his job well.
Up front Mooney did very well as the target man. He never stopped running and was unlucky not to add to his goal tally for the afternoon. Super Kev also had a pretty good game, but lacked a little bit of service from the midfield. But with Penrice, Porter and Slater all injured this was to be expected.
Okay, so this wasn't a truly convincing performance which people keep wishing we would deal out. But it was a good working performance. These are the kind of performances that are going to get us out of the second division I'm afraid. When it comes down to it three points is all that matters at the moment. Entertainment?? Great if you can win as well. But call me a manger if you want, but three points with and ordinary performace against no points and a breathtaking display of passing, running and shooting. Hey, I know which one I'd pick. I know which one gives me that warm fuzzy felling (no vulgar comments please).
And let us not forget that Walsall are no pushover. They have been playing very well in recent weeks and were never going to be easy. But when you look back at it we coped fairly well, got three points and closed the gap on the leaders. And we still are not playing our first choice team.
I'm happy for the moment....But if we don't get three points against Bristol Rovers I'm going to slag Johnson off so much that…….Only joking Richard. I know you are a frustrating player at times, but so was Ramage and people loved him. So I think I can learn to appreciate you. You may not be able to win games for us like Ramage did, but you sure as hell keep us in games which we might lose.