Game By Game: Pulis' Crime and Punishment
Some things take a while to digest. Dairy, chocolate, sweetcorn. If you want to get a little bit more cerebral, there`s Crime and Punishment*, Gravity`s Rainbow, Infinite Jest. Relevant for today, we have a goalless draw at home to Tony Pulis` West Bromwich Albion to get through - and I`m not sure it`ll actually be fully digested until Sunday evening, or maybe not even until the second Saturday of September. Let me explain.
Last Saturday we faced a relentlessly solid Tony Pulis side whose aim was to come to Vicarage Road and not concede. Secondary to that aim was the carving out of one or maybe two gilt-edged chances. That way, at least one but maybe three points would be winging their way back to the West Midlands. In either case, should Pulis` masterplan be implemented correctly, there would be at least marginally frustrated Hornets heading home after the game, lamenting their side`s lack of cutting edge and West Brom`s lack of entertainment value.
As it turned out, a poor attempt at a header from the precocious Saido Berahino meant that the points were shared, and I`m guessing the West Brom fans were about as exasperated as those watching on in yellow. At best, it was a tactical game won by Tony Pulis` men, with a point away from home valuable wherever it`s won in the Premier League, but at worst it was a football match stifled by a single-minded spoilsport.
After all, some might say, football is entertainment, pure and simple. What`s the point in turning up to watch when what`s on offer from one side is nothing more than game-slowing and endless blocks and clearances? On this point, there are two responses I have.
First of all, I used to hate playing Cardiff. Attrition football, my friend has quite accurately described it as. The process of limiting the amount of time that the ball spends active and in play is how I`d describe it. Malky Mackay oversaw the worst of it if I remember correctly, and I`ve rued at least three trips to the soulless bowl that is the Cardiff City Stadium, wondering why I`d bothered to spend 30 odd quid on a match that must have had short of an hour of actual football being played.
Tony Pulis brings that mindset to the top flight, it seems. And when the referee isn`t in the mood to punish slow play, it works a treat. 'Throw everything you want at us,` the two banks of midfield and defence seemed to cry out, 'we`ll deal with it and then make you wait ages to have another go.`
Secondly, how we dealt with this West Brom team is very interesting. I`d much rather be off my chair, celebrating goals from our strikers and saves from our keeper, of course, but there`s a certain pleasure in the pause for thought that this game gave us. Things like shape, movement off the ball, and where we looked to pick off that stubborn defence is all particularly interesting in a game with this dynamic. Maybe it`s just because it`s been a long time since I`ve seen a 0-0 involving Watford though, meaning this kind of thing is still novel to me.
We probed and we looked to punish any mistake. But no grave mistake was forthcoming. Jurado skipped past an errant swiping leg or two a few times, but his final ball or shot was wayward. Ikechi Anya was industrious down that same left flank but there was no quality in most of his final balls. And Layun, fast becoming Watford`s workhorse, could send nothing but duds into the danger area. The final ball. The final ball.
The final ball. Quique Sanchez Flores lamented those not-quite final balls post match. No matter how many good runs were put in, if no good ball was also put in we would find no joy. Restricted to long range efforts, we were unable to break down that West Brom wall.
A quick aside: the head coach`s reluctance to name Forestieri in any of his match day squads so far has meant that he has missed a lock-picker that can come in and make a difference late on. Berghuis made his debut in the final stages of the game and was ineffective and, unfortunately, totally anonymous, while even Matej Vydra watched on from the bench. The Rookery chanted Vydra`s name with a quarter of an hour to go, restless. They know his knack for scoring at the first time of asking, and the game was crying out for another dimension. The raw pace and clinical finishing of Vydra or the magic in Fernando`s feet would have done the Watford faithful just fine; even if it amounted to nothing, at least we`d have tried something different. But neither player was given that chance to bring their strengths to the increasingly tiresome landscape sculpted by Mr Pulis, and the match ended with no bang.
I said before that this game will take even longer to digest than the almost week I`ve had to think about it. This is because, of course, not every team will come to Vicarage Road and look to play this way. Far from it. We have learned that dogged opponents can dig their heels in up here in the Premier League. And we`ve learned that it can work. At least we didn`t lose, I`ve heard some fans say, but our inability to carve out the best chance of the game in an hour and a half that saw Watford with possession for around two thirds of the match does speak volumes for the need for refinement in our style in the final third.
Yes, we dominated, and yes, there are so many positives to be taken from this game: Jurado ran the midfield when we moved forward, Ighalo looks the part in this league as much as he did in the Championship, Capoue and Behrami are formidable partners in the middle of the park, and so on. But West Brom at home is the type of fixture that is there for the taking - especially when they set up like they did.
Perhaps we`ll know more about this fresh-faced squad after the game against Southampton on Sunday. I very much doubt the Saints will be looking to stifle Watford in quite the same way as West Brom, and if the pundits and armchair commentators are right, Southampton present a challenge that suits the Golden Boys: opposition that looks to move forward and leave space in behind to be exploited.
But even the result this weekend might not tell us what we need to know about the make-up of this squad. We might have to wait until we play Swansea at home on the 12th of September to make a really informed comment on why it was that we were unable to beak down Pulis` stubborn Baggies. Because we have Man City away between Saints and Swans at home, and who knows what might happen up at the Etihad… We have to learn what`s needed this weekend because before we know it deadline day will have passed and we`ll be stuck with what we have.
So, last Saturday was a chin-stroker`s game, if ever I saw one. I`m looking forward to a bit more of a roller coaster on Sunday. Come at us, Ronald. Please.
*Is there a parallel to be drawn between Raskolnikov`s belief that he may commit murder in pursuit of a higher purpose, and Pulis` belief that he may murder a football match in order to win a point away from home?