Watford (3) vs Aston Villa (2) – A Disappointing Campaign Opener

While I anticipated a challenging start at Watford, I expected our team to take control by the end of the first half.  In fact, by that point our Villans had not only failed to take control, but they had built themselves a small mountain to climb.

So, what happened?  To start with, post-Covid home fans everywhere were overjoyed and optimistic about their teams and anxious to be heard.  The decibel level around the country had to have been off the scale.  It should have been no surprise that seven of the ten home teams won (even Spurs, without Kane, were able to take down Man City, with Jack Grealish).  As for the three home teams who lost (Burnley, Norwich, and Newcastle), all were seen as candidates to make the drop.

Next, consider that Smith, not knowing who was going to pass the last-minute fitness tests, could not settle on a game plan.  When Ollie Watkins failed his, Villa were missing their favorite outlet from the back.  Mings stymied from his long ball down the left channel, was forced to pass into Young or Buendia as the creative midfield, a new pairing that was missing speed (Young) and match sharpness (Buendia).  The alternative down the right wing was no more effective.  El Ghazi has lots of strength but blazing speed to beat the fullback to the outside is not one of them.  Meanwhile, Villa had no aerial threat and Watford knew that all they had to do was choke off the penalty area.

Against most other teams, Villa’s great keeper and strong defense would have held on for the first half while they figured out how to score.  That was a tall order against this improved Hornets’ squad and a more assured Ismaila Sarr.  As Liverpool found when they last played at Vicarage Road in 2020, an 18-game winning streak was not enough to deter this winger who found a way to score a brace against the best defense in the Premier League at that time.  Matt Targett suffered the same fate that Andy Robertson had – once you let the Senegalese international get a step on you, you’re toast!

That happened early on when Targett contended with Saar for a header at the halfway line.  The ball dropped kindly for an alert Tom Cleverley, and he immediately released the winger with Targett trailing.  Mings was forced to protect against the shot and Saar chose the better option, a pull back to Emmanuel Dennis.  Predictably, Konsa anticipated and, sliding, blocked the shot.  What Ezri could not control was the rebound that came right back to the striker, who, from less than 10 yards, rifled the ball to Emi’s right and under his body.  Watford 1, Aston Villa 0.

The first Watford attack had put them in the lead in the 11th minute.  That did nothing to help the Villa’s composure.  Villa fans everywhere would have been thinking that this was the last thing the team needed to be facing without Jack!  With the crowd in full voice, the home team was energized and repeatedly fed the ball to Saar adding to Targett’s evident discomfort.  Switching El Ghazi to the left wing did nothing to help and Ashley Young stayed focused on the opposite direction, replacing Grealish.

Buendia, meanwhile, could not get into the game while Nakamba was finding that whenever the ball did come his way he was immediately harried by hungry Hornets.  While our boys had plenty of possession, we never got close to getting a shot on goal and were vulnerable to the counter.

Sure enough, just before halftime a high clearance by the Watford defense gave Saar another opportunity to rise higher than Targett and nod-on to Dennis then immediately race ahead for the return pass with Targett stranded.  Still, the winger had a lot to do with passing options covered, so he went for the shot to the far corner with Martinez already diving that way

Not for the first time, Tyrone used his prolific range to block the shot, but instead of the ball rebounding it deflected over Martinez and into the far corner of the net!  Watford 2, Aston Villa 0.  When the whistle signaled the break, a bedraggled Villa team left the field with the home crowd ecstatic.

It was imperative that Smith do something to get Targett some help but, how to do that and add to a sad-looking offense?  Remarkably, the manager made the right choice under the circumstances.  While Young failed to help his fullback, Smith correctly deduced that, with his fullback experience at the highest level, he could be more effective against Saar.  So, Jacob Ramsey came on to take up the number 10 role from Young, while Young took over from Targett.  Sure enough, Saar was all but silenced in the second half while Ramsey added speed and hustle in the middle.

What that did not do was provide much of an offensive spark.  The best option on the bench was Leon Bailey, the new acquisition from Bayer Leverkusen of the Bundesliga.  Even with no opportunity to properly prepare the Jamaican international, Smith thrust him into the fray in the 60th minute.  Sure enough, the youngster (24 years old), lived up to his billing, anxious to join the action and to run at the defense.

Unfortunately, before he could influence the game, Watford took advantage of two consecutive fouls by Villa to play-on and their sub (Hernandez) curved a brilliant strike off the inside of Martinez’s left post – an unstoppable shot. Watford 3, Aston Villa 0. 

It appeared that this was a repeat of Villa’s last visit to Watford in December 1990, when a similarly lack-luster effort against a 10-men Watford squad limped home to Brum with nothing but egg on their faces.  Missing from that Villa line-up were two of the team’s current stars, the aforementioned Bailey and John McGinn.  Barely two minutes after the Hornets’ goal, Bailey took off down the left and noted Ings and McGinn well positioned just outside the Watford penalty area.  His whipped cross was met by our Scottish international with the inside of his left foot on the half volley.  The ball was in the top left corner and Bachman, facing his first shot, had barely moved.

The Watford defenders stood in paralyzed shock.  Watford 3, Aston Villa 1 In the 71st minute.  McGinn continued his run to collect the ball out of the net and carry it back for the kickoff.  John was counting on making the most of the last 20 minutes to make a game of it.  The rest of the team responded and, when Smith replaced El Ghazi with Traore two minutes later, the home team found that threats down each flank were quite a challenge.  Still, the lack of an aerial threat by Villa limited the danger.

In fact, it was Traore’s dribbling skills that caused his marker to panic and throw out a desperate leg.  Masina tried to look innocent, but Mike Dean was not having it and pointed at the spot.  Danny Ings duly dispatched the penalty and Villa regained a degree of self-respect without ever really threatening.  Watford 3, Aston Villa 2 but the there were only seconds left in extra time.

Those goals made the upcoming visit of Newcastle seem less of a big deal.  Surely, Ollie will have recovered from his bruised knee, while Buendia and Bailey will have time to get match fit.  Luiz might be a better option than Nakamba and Young may be the best antidote to the tricky Saint-Maximin.

So, if Ollie’s up-front, who gives way out of Bailey, Buendia, Ings and Traore?  It’s likely to be the latter due to injury.  As for the team’s confidence level, a home crowd and knowing that Newcastle just lost two leads against a claret and blue team (West Ham) should be enough to get our Villans back on track.

Watford (4, 1, 4, 1): Bachmann, Troost-Ekong, Cathcart, Masina, Kabasele, Kucka (Gosling 69′), Sarr, Sema, Etebo, Cleverley (Deeney 79′), Dennis (Hernández 66′).

Unused Subs: Foster, Ngakia, Louza, Fletcher, Rose, Sierralta.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Targett (Ramsey 45′), Mings, Konsa, Cash, McGinn, Young, Nakamba, Buendía (Traoré 72′), El Ghazi (Bailey 60′), Ings.

Unused Subs: Steer, Tuanzebe, Chukwuemeka, Hause, Wesley, Philogene-Bidace

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