An incident packed game at Vicarage Road finally brought Town’s away day travails to a thrilling end. Scoring first with a goal assisted by some terrible officiating was, nevertheless, reward for a bright opening to the game by the visitors who exploited Watford’s vulnerabilities from the off and provided a platform absent in all but the first game of the season.
As disappointing as the Chelsea game had been, the overwhelming impression given by David Wagner before and after it was acceptance of the unlikelihood of success in return for bigger goals. Resting Depoitre and Van La Parra, who may have made a small, but probably not decisive, difference against high quality opposition proved to be, of course, absolutely the correct call. You can add to that the manager’s prescience in giving Hadergjonaj an encouraging cameo to anticipate Tommy Smith’s weekend illness, confirming his genius.
Targeting a Watford side shorn of key players through injury and suspension, suffering from the distractions of Everton trying to prise away their young, talented manager and a slump in their exhilarating early season form, Wagner clearly felt confident enough to commit his team to the front foot and, other than a second half wobble of around 10 minutes, the Hornets were subdued in to submission.
A dominant first half hour saw the visitors play with no fear and no little bravery as they pressed the home side in to error and doubt. Watford’s sleepy start to the game, from which they never really recovered, hinted at a complacency from which they were to be rudely awoken.
Despite multiple disappointments away from the comfort of home, Town’s raucous and magnificent support has rarely faltered throughout their team’s goal drought and their patience and understanding was rewarded with two in the first 25 minutes.
From the away end, it was impossible to see just how far offside Kachunga was as he forced in Quaner’s doubly deflected shot and, frankly, neither would the assembled hoard care after witnessing plenty of poor decisions against Town through the season – including a bad offside call on Kachunga against Leicester.
In the opening 5 minutes, Town had won three corners, with the second a direct result of Kachunga’s determination to keep possession despite the attention of a defender, a fall and Gomez forcing him wide. The third lead to the goal as a deep delivery found Mooy who lofted the ball towards the back post. Quaner just about got the ball under control before taking a swing which hit a defender’s hand near the line, deflected off Depoitre and fell to Kachunga to score from a foot out.
However fortuitous, the goal was massive. Despite Wagner’s sensible philosophies about leaving the past behind, the players – and, indeed, the manager – wouldn’t be human if the drought was not playing on their minds and whatever the size or perception of the burden, it was lifted.
To their immense credit, Town thrived on the breakthrough. Rather than retreating in to a defensive shell, they continually pressed high and disrupted a potentially dangerous opponent to the extent that they had very few opportunities to hurt the visitors – Richarlison snatched at one chance under pressure and a couple of corners caused momentary concern but for the most part, the Hornets’ sting was easily avoided.
Town’s second owed much to the impressive Quaner’s persistence. Zanka played an apparently aimless ball in behind Watford’s left back but the spin on the ball kept it in play allowing Quaner to profit from his decision not to give up what looked like a lost cause and deliver a cross which was poorly defended and fell on to Mooy’s body as he made an excellent run in to the area.
At 2-0, Town’s resilience in defending a lead, which is as predictable as their lack of recovery when going behind was strengthened further.
Delight in the away end was unconstrained; after weeks of waiting their songs were celebratory rather than just defiant and an impressive repertoire was unleashed on the Watford public.
The advantage was fully deserved and, on the half hour, Troy Deeney gave the visitors another lift by flying in to the back of Quaner with a reckless challenge. It was also a completely needless challenge – the Town winger was going nowhere and had two other Watford defenders around him. At best, Quaner may have won a throw in but Watford’s captain decided that a lunge was a good idea. The referee, who got a lot wrong had little option but to reach for a red card and the home side’s lacklustre performance was now hampered further.
The hosts had the ball in the net from a free kick conceded by Hogg with a barely noticeable pulling back of Carillo which somehow deserved a yellow card. Town’s defensive discipline caught most of Watford’s offensive line offside as they often do (the only worry, in light of the Bournemouth debacle, is the quality of the assistants which had already been found wanting in the game).
Quaner, the indisputable star of the first half continued to cause Watford problems down the right as Town finished the half strongly and in control. An Ince free kick over the bar had been the only further opportunity, but Town had had much the better of a feisty and entertaining first half.
Injuries to Kachunga and Löwe took a little shine off the delight at being 2 to the good, with the former worryingly stretchered off the field only for him to return for the post match celebrations.
Town’s superiority continued in the second half. Quaner and Depoitre were combining well and causing problems for the home team and one strong run by the German could have resulted in a third goal only for his pull back to be intercepted before it could reach Ince.
Quaner had a good headed chance which he put wide with the goal at his mercy following a raid by substitute Ince who had forced Gomez in to action.
Within minutes, Town were three up and cruising as the same right side combination saw Quaner burst in to the area only to tangle with Holebas who half cleared before mysteriously falling down clutching his face. As everyone stopped, Depoitre took the loose ball in to the area and smashed it past Gomez from a fairly tight angle with Holebas still writhing on the floor.
Town, it seemed, were home and dry with the home side struggling to achieve any sort of fluency, but on the hour, Hogg’s entirely unintentional kick on Richarlison (who had nipped in on Hogg’s blindside) lead to the ex-Hornet receiving a harsh second yellow and the numbers were evened up.
The midfielder’s trademark harrying had been hugely influential in the visitors’ display, though Wagner was left to rue delaying replacing him with Williams, precisely to protect him from a second booking.
Sensing opportunity, Watford then enjoyed their best spell of the game as they attacked with energy and purpose. With the ball resolutely in Town’s half, the home side sought to exploit the changed shape of Town, and with some success.
Lössl was forced in to a good save as Town failed to clear effectively from a corner and Quaner fouled on the right of the penalty area as pressure increased. Despite clearing the free kick delivery, the ball fell to the lurking Doucoure who hit a wonderfully sweet shot from 20 yards past a motionless Lössl.
With their tails up, the game was back on as the home side suddenly sniffed vulnerability in the visitors’ ranks and for 10 minutes they laid siege.
With the backing of their newly nervous but continuously loud following, Town survived and blocked out the home side’s desperate pursuit of a second and probably game changing goal.
Slowly but surely, the frenzy calmed and Town regained control with Malone (who had replaced Löwe) making good runs down the left to alleviate pressure and by the end, Town looked more likely to extend their lead than concede. With a renewed grip on midfield, Town took several opportunities to run the ball in to corners as their renowned game management abilities kicked in.
They weren’t just holding the ball in the corners however and twice broke out from them to firstly create a chance for Ince which was saved by Gomez. From the subsequent corner something of a nothing ball forced Doucoure in to a touch, by which time Depoitre got in front of him and brought an inadvertent foul by the Watford defender. A rare, if fairly soft, penalty was awarded which Mooy converted with the same aplomb as he had at Wembley in May.
With the win confirmed to unbounded joy behind the goals, Town could even have added to the margin when the ball broke to Quaner in the area following a swift counter only for the games man of the match to see his effort cleared off the line – it would have capped a great day for the affable, unpredictable German.
Tuesday’s rather anaemic capitulation was forgotten as Town had regained all the elements of their identity in a marvellous, important win and both the team and their patient, rowdy following were rewarded on the road at long last.
Targeting a vulnerable opponent at the end of a busy, challenging week made complete sense of Wagner’s approach to the Chelsea game and every player came out with credit. Apart from the influential and delightful Quaner, the back four were solid – Hadergjonaj coped more than admirably with the dangerous Richarlison and is growing fast – Mooy pulled the strings with calm authority, Hogg was, of course, everywhere before his unfortunate sending off and Depoitre’s presence caused massive problems all afternoon to the beleaguered hosts.
The fans were superb.