My first away game this season was the 6-1 demolition of Leeds in November. The second was today’s defeat at Peterborough, making it 12 goals I’ve seen in just two away matches. But apart from the high scorelines, the two games had little in common.
Whereas the game at Elland Road was one of those where almost everything seemed to go right for Watford (to the point where, every time a player tried a speculative shot from outside the area, it fizzed into the net), today’s was the opposite. I lost count of the number of times that a Watford player blocked a pass or shot, only for it to rebound straight into the path of an opponent. We suffered from the bobbly pitch, too, and don’t get me started on the referee.
But beyond all that, the team today was almost unrecognisable from the one that was so effective against Leeds, and throughout the winter. Lord knows they’re trying their damnedest, but they’re collectively around 20% less effective than they were in their pomp, and that’s the difference between winning and losing games.
Put simply, some of them just look knackered. It’s not that surprising; Udinese weren’t going to loan us players who’d been first-team regulars, so we got the guys who’d spent most of last season warming the bench and playing the occasional reserve match. Vydra is a shadow of his former self, and looks like he could do with a rest until August, and it’s a while since Abdi produced one of those laser-guided through passes to unlock an opposition defence. His dead ball striking was poor today, too.
Age plays a part, too. It’s easy to forget that Vydra, Forestieri, Battochio and others are still young and relatively lacking experience of first-team football. Chalobah in particular is starting to look his age, a cocky boy who can’t understand why he can’t dribble round anyone he likes, in any part of the pitch, the way he could in the under-18 team. He’s another who could do with a rest.
Meanwhile, the defence is down to the bare bones; if I’d had to guess at the start of the season who’d end the match in the centre of defence at London Road, Doyley and Thompson would have been a long way down the list. Frankly, they’re looking creaky, and it’s not going to get much better, even if Fitz Hall does get fit again.
Finally, there’s a tentativeness in attack that wasn’t there when we were scoring for fun. Some of the sequences of passing around the edge of the Peterborough area today, with player after player shunning the chance to shoot in favour of a safe pass, reminded me of the days of Lewington and beyond, when no one would ever take a chance. More and more in recent games, promising attacks break down as the man on the ball hesitates, checks back and plays the easy pass. The elan and confidence of the winter have long gone.
I never bet against my own team, but if I did, I’d be prepared to wager that Watford will be playing in the Championship again next season. Automatic promotion is looking like a very long shot after today’s results, and unless Zola works a miracle, I can’t see us going into the playoffs as anything but a tired, disillusioned shadow of the team we were in the winter. As in Aidy Boothroyd’s last season, I suspect that, if we come up against a team that ends the regular season in form (Bolton, say), we’ll get taken apart in the way Aidy’s side were by Hull.
None of this is intended as a criticism. Zola’s team have exceeded expectations this season (I thought somewhere around 8th would be a good finishing position), and provided plenty of entertainment in the process. Next season, given some judicious strengthening in the summer, we should have a good chance of doing what Cardiff have done this year and leading from the front. And, if and when we do go up, maybe we’ll have a better chance of staying in the Premiership. After all, can you honestly say that you’d relish the prospect of seeing the defence that shipped three goals against Peterborough today taking on Arsenal or Manchester United?