I’ve put off writing this article for most of the morning. If I could, I’d skip it altogether because my opinion on the game has changed more often Watford change their manager.
On the one hand, I’m looking optimistically at the result. We were the better side in the first half, we did have good control of the game for 45 minutes, and, crucially, we still have no out-and-out strikers available. That is the safety net that I often find myself landing in, the ‘yeah, but‘ moment whenever my pessimistic mind starts to wander off down dark corridors. I remember those warm summer days as we stuck three past Blackpool and Wycombe and wonder if we had the full squad, how different could things be? We’re still closer to the play-offs than the bottom four, and I’ve never been one for a knee-jerk reaction.
Then there’s the other hand, the niggling doubts that have grown slowly over the last few weeks. Is the lack of a striker too much of a safety net? Is there an argument that with the talent we have in the squad, we should still be doing better than we are against sides like Burton? Do these moments of madness, the individual errors that we seem to turn to each week, add up to something a little more in the squad? Normally, after a game, I’m a doom scroller, trying to avoid out-there opinion that makes me angry and despondent. Last night, I felt a resonance with some of that doom. That’s unlike me.
Here’s a fact – I expected the first half yesterday, and it’s hard to get too het up about a lack of creativity when you’re playing against a 6-3-1 with a winger in the middle of your attack and a central midfielder on the flank. I called a 0-0 draw before the game, and every inch of me thinks that would have been the outcome had we stayed 11 v 11. Would that be a good result? Yes, I think so. No strikers, an obvious lack of attacking cutting edge and a team on a good run who make life difficult – I’d have taken that. Maybe not with House and Walker fit, but certainly, as we are now, a clean sheet and a point would have felt like a bit of a win.
If you look at the attacking momentum, we did control the game in the first half. We were short on clear-cut chances, absolutely, but aside from Kwadwo Baah, I felt they had very little to offer. We didn’t get at goal all that much, but we did have five shots, one on target, compared to their three off target. It was tepid, but I never felt we’d lose the game. Sadly, I didn’t think we’d win it, but was that because we were bad? No, it’s because we’re two-thirds of a team going up against six at the back. Officially, they played a 4-1-4-1, but it felt a lot like a 6-3-1, and when we were in possession, they had a definite line of six. Anything going in the channels was pointless, and without any natural width in our attack, it led to a really poor spectacle in terms of viewer satisfaction.
Credit to Burton; they did their job well. Let us have the ball; make us ask questions. That was their approach, and they were excellent at it – we had 58% possession, unusual for us, but that was the visitor’s strategy. I’m not going to be critical of them in any way; we know what they do and how they do it, and I respect a team with a game plan that is implemented as well as they did yesterday. They set up not to be beaten, and they weren’t, so that’s the job done!
In the first half, there was a total of 0.25 xG spread between the two teams, 0.15 to us and 0.10 to them. That means we could have played 180 minutes, and only then would there have been enough scrappy half-chances for a goal. It was a tough watch, but I’m not sure anyone was under the impression it would be any different; I wasn’t. I am going to be critical about the second period, but certainly not the first.
Our best chance fell to Jack Burroughs, a rare lapse in the Burton defence saw him get a chance from just inside the area. It was a ball from Paudie, one I feel may have been misplaced, which found the on-loan defender in space, and his snapshot was well saved by the Burton keeper. Part of me wonders if he had time for a touch, but then time wasn’t a commodity in top supply against the Brewers, so perhaps it is harsh to judge Burroughs.
We did have other chances – Danny Mandroiu had two, including one deflected on 38 minutes. I’ve watched them all back and they’re exactly what I’d expected to see before the game – a wall of yellow shirts defending stoicly and doggedly against a slightly stodgy attack lacking cohesion. Remember, we lack that cohesion because of our striker situation, or at least it’s fair to perceive it that way. Some might say we should still be a little bit better, and I can see why they may say that, but I am happy to use the injuries as a little bit of a shield – the optimist in me still remembers those games against Wycombe and Blackpool.
It could be argued that perhaps a 3-5-2 would have suited this game a little better, trying to push the wing backs up on the overlap. Without natural width, we weren’t able to stretch the back six at all – not that stretching a wall that runs the width of the field is all that easy. I just felt lots of our play went into the middle, and we weren’t able to widen the game at all. Bishop and Mandroiu both wanted to cut inside – could we have found a little more joy with (for instance) Mandroiu and Hackett in the middle, occupying more defenders, but Burroughs and Sorensen overlapping, and Bishop dropping in the pocket? Ted was anonymous yesterday for large parts of the game, which I think was a symptom of playing wide rather than in his usual position.
Look, it’s easy to sit in the stands after a week doing whatever jobs we all do and criticise the management for doing their full-time job. Everyone is a critic and a pundit, and whilst we all think we know better, the likelihood is we do not. The honest shout is 0-0 at half time was not only fair but also wholly expected.
I said at half time that a goal wins the game. That’s all it would take. We’d never break down six at the back if they scored, and they didn’t have the keys to unlock us if we got a goal. As it transpired, they didn’t need the keys, we unlocked the door for them.