1) Stoke’s best league performance of 2016
Vicarage Road has been a pretty happy hunting ground for Stoke in recent times; The Hornets have managed just two victories over us on their own patch in the last 10 meetings stretching back to April 1990.
This encounter, however, was no raging certainty. We’d witnessed in painful close-up how dangerous Quique Sanchez Flores’ side could be when they humiliated us at the Brit in October, and the momentum resided very much with them after their (hilarious) cup heroics at The Emirates last Sunday.
Stoke, however, served up yet another reminder that they are an altogether more dangerous opponent on their travels, and by the time Watford came to from their sweet dreams of Wembley and snored themselves awake from a prolonged, 75-minute slumber, the damage had been done.
For their part, The Potters were superb for the vast majority of the contest. They took a stranglehold on the game from the moment they took the lead and could and should have won by a much wider margin.
This was by some distance Stoke’s best league display of the new year. We defended well, the midfield was balanced and turned defence to attack effortlessly, and the front four caused no end of problems for the home back line.
Stoke being Stoke of course (surely the most used phrase in this blog’s short lifespan), for all our superiority we did our best to throw it away in the last 5-10 minutes, an affliction common to Potters teams throughout history. At this point it seems not such much a compulsion as a fetish.
Nevertheless, we recovered to keep the ball at the right end of the pitch in the dying seconds. That’s about as close to ‘professionally seeing the game out’ as we get.
The team Mark Hughes selected didn’t exactly fill you with confidence. The back four comprised of essentially the only fit defenders at our disposal, but nevertheless, the sight of those names on paper next to each other resembled a cure for constipation.
The selections of Joselu and Walters would prove to be masterstrokes, but pre-kick off, it appeared we’d sacrificed pace in two-thirds of our front three for no apparent reason.
The early exchanges saw Ighalo spurn Watford’s best opening under pressure from Philipp Wollscheid, while Stoke played some tidy football and grew into the game, with the final ball continuing to elude us.
We would get it right however, in some style, and from an unlikely source. Phil Bardsley spent the first half playing like the glorious progeny of some unholy union between Cafu and Johnny Butler. Attacking with impunity down the Stoke right, he raced into space in the 18th minute to collect Afellay’s clever pass after yet another insane 40-yard run from Imbula, and delivered a curving, slide-rule ball across the six yard box for Jon Walters, who couldn’t miss.
13 passes, another great contribution from our new midfield behemoth, clever vision from Afellay and a great cross, this might just have been Stoke’s goal of the season…
Walters almost went immediately from hero to villain when he lost Troy Deeney at a corner, and was relieved when the chunky hitman could only head over. Stoke were quick to reassert their dominance. The goal meant we’d get many more opportunities to counter attack, and with one of our next chances we repeated the trick. Bardsley dropped his shoulder and again got into the box, delivering an even pacier cross that Marko Arnautovic was on hand to stick away, only to see the linesman raise his flag. It was a close call, later revealed to be incorrect.
Not that the disallowed goal disheartened Stoke. We continued to have all kinds of joy in the final third, with the usually well-drilled Watford back line all over the place and Afellay, that slippery maestro, finding space and turning the screws.
Things might have been different had Jose Manual Jurado hit the target just before half time, as he capitalised on an Imbula error to jink into the box. The little Spaniard shot well over however, and we went into the break very pleased with ourselves.
Determined to finish the job, Stoke made a strong start to the second half. An offside call resulted in a free kick from Heurelho Gomes that sailed over to Walters on the right. The number 19 reacted fast to knock the ball straight back into space for Joselu to run onto, and the Spanish striker chipped the ball calmly and precisely over the out-of-position Brazilian to double our lead. We were left purring by two beautiful pieces of quick thinking from our forwards; Gomes was left to count the cost of his error…
We were now enjoying the best of both worlds, having plenty of possession but also finding the space to create more chances. Joselu got above his marker but couldn’t get power on his header. Arnie teed up Afellay, but his 20-yard drive was pushed away.
With 20 minutes to go, the hosts belatedly began to show us something, with tricky sub Amrabat at the heart of their good work. It was the Moroccan who had their first shot on target in the 71st minute, and he who, after a mazy run, dinked a delightful ball over the defence for Ighalo in the box, only for Marc Muniesa to brilliantly pick the striker’s pocket and make off upfield.
Arnie then wasted a great chance to seal things, as Cathcart’s short backpass put him through on goal, only for our number 10 to scuff his shot straight into the grateful Gomes’ arms.
Stoke were tiring, becoming lax in their passing and starting to chase shadows. The arrivals of Diouf and Ireland from the bench were supposed to inject some energy, but the ex-Villa man just sort of flapped around in a panic giving the ball away. His two feeble interventions contributed to The Hornets grabbing an 85th minute lifeline. Deeney caught Geoff Cameron ball-watching, meeting Anya’s cross with a free header from close range that seemed to take Butland by surprise, the ‘keeper only managing to push the ball into the net.
Now we were wobbling, and for one heart-stopping moment Amrabat looked set to go through on goal. He was stopped by Muniesa – some felt illegally (which would probably have resulted in a red card and a free kick in a dangerous area) – others, your correspondent included, felt it was a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other…
Either way, that was Watford’s last big chance, and with the likes of Joselu and Walters shielding the ball high up the pitch, we ate up the time to claim a deserved win.
The perfect tonic after yet another home disappointment last weekend, Stoke, for all their late panic, demonstrated again that they are a match for anybody on the road. We go into the last international break of the season very much still in the hunt for Europe.
2) Second-string full backs put in first-rate showings
I did a cartoon gulp of fear on seeing the team sheet, and particularly at first sight of a back four that didn’t exactly scream ‘safe as houses’. In the event I did them a grave disservice. Despite the odd dodgy moment, each of them played very well.
From a Stoke perspective Phil Bardsley will deservedly scoop the headlines and rightly so. In his last few appearances the right back has begun to recapture the good form of his early Potters career. Against Watford he brought plenty of his trademark tenacity and bite, but also an attacking prowess we haven’t really seen too often from him since he rocked up in ST4.
Bardsley was a constant threat throughout the first half, surging forward whenever he felt like it and exploiting the oceans of space he found down the Stoke right. His cross for the goal was worthy of Glen Johnson, a super assist that could not have been judged or weighted any better, teasing its way beyond the reach of interceptions and putting a goal on a plate for Walters. That he followed it up with an even better one 15 minutes later for Arnie is testament to his confidence as the afternoon wore on.
He demonstrated a surprising range of passing as well, pinging some fine balls into space, the best being a great lofted first-time pass for Joselu. Involved in the game’s top two passing combinations, with only one Stoke player winning more tackles and one player in the entire game making more clearances, that’s a pretty influential game for a full back.
In some ways Muniesa’s selection at left back was the biggest concern; though Erik Pieters was sorely in need of a rest, full back was never been the little Catalan’s strongest suit, his lack of pace and positional issues proving his undoing. Neither would be an issue at Vicarage Road however, as Muniesa had arguably his best game of the season. He was neat and tidy in the early stages, his clever movement and passing opening up space, while he also managed to get forward and put in some good balls from the left.
The second half saw defensive duties taking priority, and he managed those admirably as well, putting in some strong challenges and memorably stopping Ighalo in his tracks as the Nigerian was about to pull the trigger. He did have that late scare with Amrabat that exposed his pace problems, but the decision wasn’t nearly as clear-cut as Dean Sturridge on commentary tried to make out.
Neither Bardsley nor Muniesa is likely to usurp the respective first choices at full back when everyone is fit. However, having questioned our strength in depth recently, it was nice to see the fringe players proving their worth in the midst of our defensive crisis. Well played lads.
3) Joselu makes the most of an unexpected opportunity
What striker crisis? Since earning a point at Stamford Bridge at the start of the month, four of the five strikers on the books have found the net, with even Peter Odemwingie bagging on his home debut for Bristol City.
Mame Diouf was, in my opinion, harshly dropped for this game. He’d been excellent at Chelsea and though he’d done little of note last week against Southampton, he wasn’t entirely to blame for that, given he had little to work with in a thoroughly moribund attacking effort.
Still, the manager chose Joselu, and the big striker himself could perhaps feel aggrieved not to have seen more action this season, given his very respectable goals-to-minutes ratio and some well taken finishes since opening his account at Everton in December.
Joselu completely justified his inclusion. A big criticism since his arrival has been that he hasn’t regularly got into dangerous positions, but he showed at Watford that he’s starting to get the hang of this, not just with a superbly taken goal, his chip oozing confidence and class, but with his movement to get another couple of decent chances over the course of the afternoon as well.
He also demonstrated that he is a cultured footballer with an excellent touch, linking well with the wide players and Afellay and doing well in tight spaces both offensively and defensively. There was one moment of quality during the first half when he received the ball on the right touchline with two defenders around him, and he managed to turn and deftly roll the ball away from both of them to set up an attack. Towards the end, his protecting the ball near the corner flag helped to eat up some crucial seconds.
Moreover, Joselu put in the hard yards, something that is perhaps not always associated with him. No Stoke player covered more ground; no player on either side won more tackles, which is quite a stat for a striker.
A lone striker has to be able to link the play, and he does this better than any of our other centre forwards, sometimes dropping deeper, sometimes moving wide to allow the likes of Arnie and Walters to move into the space he vacates. As we search for more fluidity at home, it will be interesting to see if he can bring this attribute with him to the Brit.
Our forward line has been chopped and changed almost as often as the defence, and Saturday has surely earned Joselu the latest crack at making the role his own. Let’s hope he’s cranking out ‘the waving cat’ when Swansea come to town…
4) Some timely reminders from the Ws
It was a good day to be a W if you were wearing red and white. Walters, Whelan and Wollscheid all have their detractors, but all offered sizeable reminders of what they bring to the table.
Walters had made a decent start to the year with strong performances against Liverpool, Norwich and Bournemouth, but having played his way into the side, his anonymous showings up front against Villa and Newcastle (though, like Diouf, not entirely his own fault) ensured he played his way back out again. Indeed, it was a surprise to many and a disappointment to some that he started this game, given Afellay’s steady game out wide against Southampton and the possible first green shoots of a Bojan renaissance.
The Ireland international always bounces back though, and he ended the day with a goal and an assist – a thoroughly decent day’s work. Playing basically as a striker operating from the right, he dovetailed beautifully with Bardsley and Joselu to lend a real fluidity to our counter attacking. As Joselu dropped off, Walters moved into that central space, leaving Bardsley with attacking duties down the flank. This totally and continually confused Nathan Ake and opened up space all over the Watford back line, working most effectively when the two right-sided players combined to produce the first goal.
His assist for Joselu was expertly executed, his awareness only matched by the precision of his first time ball straight into the striker’s path, again demonstrating that he is a better footballer than he gets credit for. He faded thereafter, but not before he’d again underlined his value as a squad player and a steady source of goals in a squad that isn’t exactly bursting with them.
Glenn Whelan has the armband once more, and he was the team’s lionhearted leader. Off the ball he was outstanding, a human roadblock in the way of the hosts’ attacking ambitions. He organised, shouted, cajoled, harassed and pointed, and when they didn’t do as they were told, he did it for them, throwing himself in front of whatever came his way. The team remained solid even when the full backs went forward, or when Imbula, again leading the way in terms of dribbles, went on his various productive expeditions, in large part thanks to Glenn plugging the gaps. Our frailties and panic surfaced around the same time his injury began to affect him in the second half. Hard as nails.
Wollscheid, in the unfamiliar position of being the senior partner in the back line, was an oasis of calm. He read the game customarily well, positioning himself to cut out the danger before it really materialised with a well-timed header here, a striker forced wide there. Most impressive though was his strength, another quality not readily associated with this particular player, as he looked after a strike duo who bullied us remorselessly at the Brit with a minimum of fuss. His rise from fifth-choice centre half and punchline to stalwart continues apace.
It’s always nice to answer your critics, and the trio entitled themselves to a smirk or three during the post-match celebrations.
5) Watford are a better side than they showed
Quique Sanchez Flores had plenty of nice things to say about us before and after the game. In the aftermatch he praised the pace and intensity of our performance; beforehand he’d described us as the benchmark for clubs like Watford to emulate.
Aspects of that blueprint have been visible this season. They’re usually well-organised at the back; they possess a considerable aerial threat in the daunting form of Deeney; and they have a bit of the required nastiness running through the team, roughing up the leagues fancy dans with a relish.
Some of those qualities were even evident during their shambling, punch-drunk display on Saturday. True, their defence, which didn’t give us a sniff the last time we played them, was all over the place, with Cathcart noticeably hesitant and Ake lost. Yet theirs was not a display devoid of good performances. Deeney impressed again, winning more aerial duels than anyone, creating chances for Ighalo and getting on the scoresheet himself, his power and movement a frequent headache.
He can count himself unlucky not to have been called up for England yet – there’s surely more mileage in him as a target man option than Andy Carroll.
In midfield Etienne Capoue was quite the rapscallion – a horrible studs-down-the-calf foul on Imbula might have been punished with more than a yellow card on another day – but he was also probably Watford’s best player on the day, making the most passes and attacking third passes, being at the heart of the few good moves The Hornets put together, and generally doing the kind of job Imbula does for us. It was a surprise Spurs let him go so readily, as he’d have offered considerable depth to their title challenge, which always likeliest to come off the rails in Mousa Dembele’s absence.
At the back, right-back Allan Nyom was similarly ‘robust’, laying a few reducers to try and take Arnie out of the game and making more interceptions than any other player, while sub Nordin Amrabat made a difference after coming on during the second half, his skill and invention opening us up for the first time in the contest. It’s testament to Watford that even in an otherwise woeful display, they showed glimpses of the side they can be.
You wonder about their longevity. Flores cited us as a good example but Stoke’s success is built on stability; Watford, against conventional wisdom, have so far thrived on instability – Flores is the club’s sixth manager in three seasons. The beyond-dodgy Pozzo family Championship Manager cheat-code system of swapping players between the various clubs they own has sucked a lot of the romance out of their rise and their forthcoming Wembley sojourn.
Nevertheless, there are enough fairytales – from the immensely likeable Flores himself, who still plays seven-aside every week, to Deeney’s redemptive arc, to the club’s history, from Elton John and Graham Taylor to the tragedy of young Jimmy Davis – to wish them well and hope they are the ones lifting the cup on 21st May.
In the oddest season in Premier League history, Watford are perhaps the oddest club, and in some ways are all the better for it.