Watford 3 - 2 Cardiff. Comment

Last updated : 18 December 2018 By Michael Morris


I had the car radio on last night listening to Radio 5’s weekend football preview programme and when they got around to talking about Cardiff City, it was said that our wage budget for the season was the lowest in the Premier League – not just that, ours is £20 million less than anyone else’s.

That first bit of information doesn’t come as a surprise to me, but the second one does because it really does bring home the self inflicted disadvantage we are operating under – £20 million would pay for a five year contract for a player on £300k a month and still have a couple of million left over or four four year contracts for someone on £100k a month. More realistically for our position, a player on, say, £40k a month for a three year contract would cost us £1,440,000, so four players on contracts like that would only use up just over a quarter of that £20 million.

Of course, there would be transfer and signing on fees etc. to consider, but we’re talking about wages only here – it really does bring home the size of the task that has been imposed on Neil Warnock and I think it is only right that defeats like our sixth consecutive away loss, by 3-2 at Watford today, need to be assessed in that context.

I’ve said a few times this season that I’m reluctant to be critical of the level of spending by the club over the summer because of Vincent Tan’s decision to convert nearly £70 million of club debt into equity and, although it’s harder to maintain such a stance when you hear things like those wage budget figures, I’m going to stick to that line of thinking.


I’ve always thought that the potential was there for an increased level of spending which would still come up well short of the sort of outlay we saw in 2013 when we were signing the likes of Andreas Cornelius, Gary Medel and Steven Caulker. However, if Mr Tan does not feel he can authorise additional spending then I suppose supporters should remember that he must have ploughed in the region of £200 million into the club now when you consider things like the interest payments on loans he has waived.

Nevertheless, assuming the sort of funding available to Neil Warnock in January is along similar lines to what we’ve seen since our latest promotion, then I can only assume a couple of things – first, Mr Tan must be aware of the strong possibility (actually, it’s more appropriate to say likelihood) that we are going to be relegated this season and, second, that he is content to let this happen.

My reaction to today’s defeat is almost contradictory, because, on the one hand, it could be seen as all very predictable, but I also couldn’t help thinking that it throws up questions about our attitude when we play away from home.

We’ve now lost at Watford and West Ham after a run of four away matches against sides in the top third of the division. These last two were supposed to be the easier, potentially winnable, games where we might be able to make our away record look more acceptable.

West Ham and Watford are now in that middle third of the table and this, for me, is the reason why our visits to them were seen by some, like myself, as offering the potential to record our first away point(s) since we drew at Huddersfield  in August, but how realistic was that really?

Even before we get to our “meagre” wage budget, West Ham spent something like four times as much as us in transfer fees in the summer and you only have to have a quick scan of the their squad list to become convinced that it is better than ours. Realistically, West Ham were always going to improve on their sluggish start to the season and, with four straight wins behind them now, their league position (the main reason why our game there ten days ago was considered winnable) is a better reflection of the ability within their squad than it was.

The situation is a bit different with Watford whose spending levels since they got promoted have been on the modest side by Premier League standards. Ever since the Pozzo brothers took over at that club, I’ve found it hard to get a handle, so to speak, on their squad because of the way players move around so much between the clubs that they own.

I’ve watched Watford matches in recent years and didn’t have a clue about so many of the players in their team, they always seemed to be in a transition phase and their line up seemed to vary greatly between one season and the next.

In truth, that’s not as true now as it once was, but the main point I want to make about them is after a great start to the season which included a very impressive televised win over Spurs, I thought we were seeing what has become a typical Watford Premier League campaign in which a fast start leaves them well clear of trouble at the foot of the table, only for a gradual, but sustained, decline to click in which sees them drop close to, but not too close to, the drop zone.

At least, I thought that until I watched them on Monday against Everton. They went into that encounter without a win in five matches and yet took the game to the Merseysiders by working their way through the middle of the park with neat and quick passing which left their in form opponents looking distinctly second best much of the time.

Watford deservedly led 2-1 well into added time only for Lucas Digne to rescue a point for the hosts with a goal from a free kick. I have to say that the optimism I felt about today’s match following our fourth win in five home games last weekend dropped markedly after watching that match at Goodison Park – if Watford attacked us like they did Everton, they could take us to the cleaners.

For most of the game today, that’s precisely what happened with gifted individuals of the type we can only dream of having at Cardiff making the jobs of our defensive midfielders almost impossible with their pace, running angles, dribbling ability and neat passing.

It’s easy to be critical of players like Aron Gunnarsson and Harry Arter in the middle of the park and Bruno Manga at right back, but I think we have to accept that Watford were very good and in Doucouré, Pereyra, Deulofeu (the scorer of a gorgeous goal to put his side 1-0 up) and the preciously talented teenager Quina they have a quartet who could play significant parts in teams a lot more highly rated than the one they are currently with.

Quina’s goal to put his side 3-0 up with a quarter of the match left was a good one, but, for me, the best of the lot was the one scored by left back Holebas after, possibly, the best move of the match to double the lead.

When a team wins a game by scoring three such fine goals, it can lead to charges that luck was on their side – “it was as if everything they hit went in”. However, in this case, it does not take account of the fact that Neil Etheridge had what I think may well have been his best game in a City shirt so far.

I’ll admit I thought it might well turn out to be a step too far this season for Etheridge, but not a bit of it – he’s proving himself to be a Premier League quality keeper and today he was the reason why the match had a much tenser ending than anyone could have anticipated when the score was 3-0.

At that stage, our midfield was powerless to stop Watford playing through them and our defenders were being dragged all over the place, it really did look for a while as if we were on for another Manchester City type hammering.

However, this leads me on to to my earlier reference about having contradictory thoughts concerning today’s match. Yes, Watford were very good in certain aspects of the game and no doubt deserved their win, but they were far less impressive when we had a go at them ourselves.

For as long as I can remember (and for a long while before that!), teams have packed their defence to try and thwart what were perceived to be superior opponents and it still goes on today. These negative tactics have been described in various ways down the years, but the most popular one these days seems to be say that a team is “compact”.

Now it seems to me that all season long, City’s approach in away games is to be “nice and compact” with the only time we have enjoyed a sustained spell of attacking play when we were on level terms being at Huddersfield once they had Johnathan Hogg sent off.

Sometimes, for example at Everton and, to an extent at Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool, our defensive tactics have frustrated the more favoured side, but, apart from at Huddersfield, the eventual outcome has always been a defeat.

Therefore, why not try having a go from the start of a match when we play away? Even today, there was the odd moment in the first half when we caused a dominant Watford side problems while we being compact and once we fully committed to attack, goals by Junior Hoilett (the fourth fine one of the match) and sub Bobby Decordova-Reid soon followed.

Of course, a more attacking approach in this league would almost certainly mean that we would take a few hammerings, because nearly every side we meet have enough talent in forward areas to potentially exploit the spaces a more attacking approach would leave. Let’s face it though, being compact isn’t working and with those two goals today meaning that we are now averaging one a game (the best out of all of the sides in the bottom seven), we are proving to be a better attacking team than most assumed we’d be.

Neil Warnock has made defence a priority in our away games and yet this is the same man who went with a back three and Hoilett and Victor Camarasa as wing backs in our home win against Wolves – I couldn’t believe how we were set up that night when I first saw it.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what it is that transforms attitudes between a game played on a pitch in one location and one which takes place on a pitch of exactly the same quality and size, say, a hundred miles away? In the vast majority of cases, teams do better when playing at home compared to what they do in away games, but I’ve often wondered why this should be?

Undoubtedly, there is something about playing away which makes sides less confident and more respectful and I can’t help thinking that our away record would look even more miserable if we went to Palace on Boxing Day and “had a go”, but, with more people talking about the possibility of us going through the season without an away win, it would be interesting to say the least to see what the outcome was if we strayed from our normal approach on the road just the once – maybe I’d be proved wrong in my thinking?

It’s not been a good weekend as far as I’m concerned when it comes to watching football – all three of the teams I wanted to win have been beaten! On Friday night, I paid my second visit of the season to Ton Pentre to see them take on Cambrian and Clydach in a Rhondda derby match with the visitors winning even more comfortably than the 2-0 scoreline suggests. I’m afraid the home team looked exactly what they are, that is a struggling side that has scored just ten times in thirteen matches.

I can only remember one worthwhile chance for Ton and that came at 0-0 when a neat move opened up the Cambrian defence and their number eleven shot narrowly over. Apart from that, it was plenty of huff and puff from the home team, but little in the way of a goal threat against opponents who scored just before half time and midway through the second half of a match in which I gave up counting the number of yellow cards shown when they reached seven

It was similar fare in some ways at a bleak, cold and wet Leckwith (the floodlights were turned on just after noon) as City’s Under 18s were beaten this lunchtime by Ipswich who are one of their rivals at the top of their league.

Once again, the complete contrast between the way City’s first team and youth side play was apparent. While nearly all of the possession and passing accuracy stats show us as being the worst in the Premier League in these aspects of the game, the Under 18s place great emphasis on retaining possession.

They must have had the ball for about seventy per cent of the match today as they passed and passed and probed and probed, but this was one of those occasions where “playing football the right way” was outdone by a more basic approach because, although Ipswich played it around neatly at times, their more direct approach led to George Ratcliffe being the busier of the two keepers.

Ipswich scored twice in a first half in which City, for all of their possession, had to rely on set pieces for the only fleeting goalscoring opportunities they had. The second half saw Ipswich being put under more pressure, but they always were able to get a foot, head or body in the way when City looked like they might finally open them up. However, the truth was that I cannot remember a single decent opportunity created by the home team until Dan Griffiths took matters into his own hands by taking on his shot early from the corner of the penalty area to surprise the Ipswich keeper with about twenty minutes left.

Sensing they could still get something from the match, City stuck to their passing guns, but it was only when they went a bit more direct in the closing minutes that it looked like they might break down a resolute Ipswich defence. The visitors had to defend a series of free kicks and corners late on, but City didn’t have the quality, poise or little bit of luck needed against disciplined and difficult opponents – for me the better side won.

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