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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 27/8/01
Open play
By Ian Grant

There's a certain irony here.

When we blew the top half of the First Division apart back in '99, there were a few noses put out of joint. Thinking back, there are memories of familiar criticisms levelled at Graham Taylor's style of play, its alleged reliance on big strikers and set pieces. Not just Trevor Francis either.

We all know the truth, though. That our strikers, while dynamic and powerful, weren't at their best when receiving long balls from deep, that the team functioned best when it played with width and a bit of poise. That, aside from a couple of well-remembered goals in the playoffs, we weren't greatly successful at corners and free kicks. That, deliberately or otherwise, people took our resilience for the kind of dourness that, in reality, would've left us languishing in mid-table rather than dancing in ecstasy on Wembley Way.

Everything's different now, of course. With a new manager, a cavalcade of stylish signings, and an apparently more attractive approach, those accusations are in the past. Especially at home, each Watford game has offered plenty of pleasant viewing - passing that's neat and crisp, players moving for each other, possession retained for long spells. Things have changed.

Back to that irony, though. For all of this, just one of the six goals scored by Vialli's Watford so far has come from anything that could reasonably be described as "open play". While that solitary Tommy Smith strike was absolutely glorious, the rest - two from free kicks, one from a penalty, one from a corner, one from a gigantic defensive cock-up - seem to belong in that mistaken version of our past. Curiously, our lack of attacking penetration, coupled with a general increase in height, has led to exactly the kind of reliance on set pieces for which we were once roundly and wrongly condemned.

So, while memories of Monday's victory over Walsall will probably be of attractive football and sunny weather, the reality was rather different. In fact, this was a game that was going nowhere, until both sides fell back on dead ball situations as a way of doing something, anything, in the opposition's penalty area. Despite our apparent devotion to aesthetically pleasing football, we emerged triumphant because we were better at thumping the ball into the box from free kicks and corners.

Just an observation. Although the arrival of players like Marcus Gayle, Ramon Vega and Filippo Galli has not yet produced a team of anything more than theoretical quality, it has had the potentially life-saving side-effect of offering another source of scoring opportunities. Yesterday, having failed to destroy another set of determined opponents with flair and pass-and-move and one-twos and all that fancy stuff, we might've buried Walsall simply by using corners as a way of clattering the ball into the six yard box for big blokes to jump at. It's not exactly what we were promised, granted. It'll get us out of a few holes, though.

In that respect, it was another extremely inconclusive afternoon. A great deal of moderately enjoyable football to watch, all of it rendered irrelevant and made to seem slightly foolish by three basic, thoroughly direct goals. Like elaborate cuisine smothered in salad cream or Low opening for Limp Bizkit, the sophisticated, delicate subtleties of our flowing football were obliterated by something altogether more basic and familiar. We won, so it doesn't really matter. It just makes report writing that bit more difficult.

Again, the final ball eluded us. Whether attempting to thread passes through crowds of players on the edge of the Walsall box or trying to beat defenders with crosses, we found neither good fortune nor sufficient accuracy. In terms of possession, we were utterly dominant and thoroughly impressive for long periods...yet the assumption that we'd turn all that into goals began to appear ill-judged as time wore on, especially once the visitors had gained the lead shortly after the interval.

Defensively, the partnership of Filippo Galli and Neil Cox - whose start in an unfamiliar position and eager, confident performance indicates a possible rehabilitation - dealt well with occasional Walsall breaks. Indeed, particularly after being felled and bloodied by a vicious elbow from Goodman in the first half, Galli was the very epitome of control and composure, not only winning hard-fought aerial battles but repeatedly cushioning the resulting headers to nearby colleagues. As before, only the understanding is lacking, as immediately demonstrated by Goodman's diving header from a free kick, which skidded across Espen Baardsen's goal and narrowly wide after just two minutes.

That was Walsall's only notable effort of the half, however. The rest was all about passes criss-crossing the field, about neat one-touch triangles, and about trying to turn it into something decisive in the final third. Frequently, the margin between success and failure was minute. In the fourth minute, Nordin Wooter and Micah Hyde combined splendidly on the left, leading to a succession of crosses swinging into the box and frantic battles on its edge. Shortly afterwards, Hyde's perceptive centre curled just beyond Allan Nielsen's mischievous near post run. At other times, such as when Nielsen failed to find an accurate finish to Tommy Smith's pacy break and merely chipped a frustratingly indecisive cross into the space behind Wooter, we simply didn't make the best of the opportunities that came our way.

Perhaps appropriate, therefore, that the clearest opening of the half came from a random ricochet, as Paolo Vernazza's attempted through-ball bounced off a defender and into the path of Tommy Smith. But, although he managed to nip around Walker's dive, Barras was back to block the eventual shot on the line and deprive us of that much-anticipated break-through. Immediately, the game reverted to its original pattern.

In some ways, I'm being unfair. Because there was a greater sense of urgency here, allied with the patience of Tuesday night. Our moves were less predictable - short and long passing, getting the ball wide as well as darting through the centre, picking up pace nearer goal - and our dominance was perhaps even more complete than against Plymouth. But none of this applied to anything that happened inside the Walsall area, sadly. As the half ended with Hyde's weak curler at Walker and Wooter whacked his umpteenth cross against a nearby defender, you started to feel the first signs of frustration. We might've been frightening our visitors, but we really weren't hurting them.

And, somewhere along the line, we seemed to forget that they might be able to hurt us. Three minutes into the second half, Keates' free kick from the right, impressive substitute Leitao left unmarked in the six yard box, a glancing header past Baardsen, one-nil. We stood around and wondered what had happened, perhaps expecting the referee to enforce a new law to the effect that a goal can't be scored unless it's been touched by every member of the team at least three times along the way. Walsall celebrated furiously. They also visibly grew in stature.

In a disturbing reversal of the first half, the away side began to gain the upper hand. Pushing us back and gaining some control in the midfield, they started to look confident and capable where previously they had been somewhat nervous and apprehensive. The success of their campaign will surely depend upon whether they can build on such moments, something that ought to be familiar enough to Watford fans with memories longer than a year. Thankfully, that building process didn't start at the Vic.

The comeback was laboured and painful, though. For the first time, angry, irritated voices demanded faster delivery of the ball to the forwards...and, naturally, the same voices complained bitterly when it was occasionally belted upfield and possession was lost. For the first time, the new manager found that one of his substitutions - the removal of a subdued Tommy Smith - was not at all popular with the fans. At home, this was the most severe test yet, our first chance to see the extent of the players' faith in Vialli's ideas, to see whether they'd crack under the strain. They didn't.

During the twenty minutes after the goal, they just about kept going. As before, promising moments were allowed to slip away and half-chances weren't pounced upon. Hyde's long pass towards Wooter found Smith via a defender's head, and he failed to get sufficient power on his shot to give Walker problems. Then Nielsen's low shot after a powerful burst from his own half by Vernazza also went straight at the keeper. Getting closer, as we managed to find some width and put some decent balls into the box - Gifton Noel-Williams was desperately close to making decisive contact with Marcus Gayle's fantastic cross, then Gayle was similarly near to a Wooter centre. Not quite happening, impatience building, struggling to keep hold of the belief that we'd score in the end.

We did score, mercifully. With the supply of crosses finally meeting the demand, we had too much aerial power for the Walsall defence. When that defence was breached, Walker was equal to Gayle's mighty header from Stephen Hughes' cross and tipped the ball acrobatically over the bar. But, from the second resulting corner, no-one picked up Galli's dash from the edge of the box and the captain sent the ball steaming unstoppably into the top corner. Such relief.

We'd mapped our escape route. For, although Leitao was again allowed to escape inside the area and Baardsen was forced to make a scrambling save from his downward header, we were to repeat the corner routine and find that it damn nearly worked again, as first Galli and then Gayle rose higher than their markers and glanced headers wide.

As it turned out, the three points were won by a set piece of a different kind. As on Tuesday, Marcus Gayle proved that hitting the ball really bloody hard is an excellent idea. As on Tuesday, the keeper will feel that he should've done better...but that's in hindsight, without a pacy, accurate shot whistling in his direction. On this occasion, Walker ought to have managed to divert the ball over the bar. Instead, he could only push it onto the woodwork and was dismayed to find that Allan Nielsen had timed his run to perfection, scoring with what looked like his knee on the rebound.

Pleasingly, we managed to preserve the lead with considerably less fuss and bother than twice previously. Why, there was even time for a moment of comedy from the exuberant Paul Robinson, going down under Leitao's challenge, grinning at the Rookery from the turf while the referee took the Walsall striker's name, then bouncing up to continue. Which isn't the kind of thing that BSaD can possibly condone, of course. And, while Goodman skied an effort on the turn, Noel-Williams came closer to completing the scoring, bringing a rather over-elaborate diving save from Walker with a rising shot at the near post after Cox's surprise appearance in the final third.

Five games in, and a ten day break to reflect on it all. Actually, it feels as if we're still ploughing through the pre-season friendlies, such is the inconclusive, vaguely suggestive nature of what we've seen so far. Predictions are impossible, even now.

You'd settle for starting out with three wins already chalked up, I suppose...but there will come a time when we'll no longer be able to avoid being judged on what we're actually doing rather than what we're capable of doing. In particular, our passing football has to start yielding goals as well as pleasure, it has to become effective as well as attractive. After all, there's always work still to be done, always stuff to improve.

The season has to start somewhere. Might as well be here.