The relief for Leeds United was that their collapse against Watford did not threaten imminent consequences. In different circumstances an experience like Saturday would have shaken the club badly but the Championship has given Leeds a bit of spare rope.
It was, regardless, a telling juncture with lessons aplenty. Lessons which, when the dust settled, were all about next season and the holes in the jigsaw the club need to plug. “If you look at Watford’s previous games, they’ve done this to a few others,” said Neil Redfearn after Watford fought back from two goals down to win 3-2. That in itself was largely the point.
United’s head coach bemoaned a back four which bowed to a quick and aggressive front three but it was that front three – Troy Deeney, Matej Vydra and Almen Abdi – which forced the issue. Watford are adept at forcing the issue. Stoic defences barely exist in the Championship and the teams who escape it generally score goals. Watford have registered 69 already, more than two a game. Leeds’ record shows 36.
Watford also possess a squad brimming with options and recently replenished. Redfearn has asked his club for new signings ever since the emergency window opened but United are either struggling to nail down his suggested targets or failing to make the effort. Watford recruited two players last week; speculating to accumulate at the business end of the season by investing in Adlene Guedioura and Marco Motta. Their class eventually told at Elland Road.
It figures that Leeds might be more reluctant to throw money at their team until the season finishes. They expect to be in the Championship next term and an influx of emergency signings now would help to hold up Redfearn’s record as head coach as much as anything else. But on a day like Saturday there was no denying the amount of the work needed to take United forward. They have a squad requiring some surgical treatment, a coaching team who are not tied down beyond the summer and a de facto owner in Massimo Cellino who is absent indefinitely.
Redfearn, nevertheless, was forced to accept that his team buckled from a position of great strength on Saturday. Two goals up after a bad error from Ikechi Anya and a blockbusting finish from Rudy Austin, Leeds had Watford on the ropes with 38 minutes gone. The visitors were aware of their own woeful contribution and anxiety seemed to be kicking in when a Vydra pass cut open United’s defence and Deeney used his strength to reach the ball and score. That reprieve was a shot in the arm which Watford thrived on after the interval.
Vydra levelled the game early in the second half and then won it nine minutes from time, bundling the ball home at the second attempt after Sol Bamba stood and stared at Marco Silvestri’s parry rather than sliding in and clearing the ball out.
“You can’t afford to defend like we did,” Redfearn said. “That’s what let us down. We were the better side for 40 minutes and we got our game plan right. We played right up the pitch and put them under pressure, forcing the error.
“We squashed their diamond and they struggled but then our back four dropped off and gave them space to play. Give a good side space to play and they’ll hurt you. We’d talked about defending one-v-one because Watford play that way and we needed to make good decisions. Instead we’ve made too many poor decisions.”
Watford were as guilty of that for most of the first half. Leeds opened the scoring in the seventh minute when Anya, a weak link at left-back, met Luke Murphy’s pass towards Byram with a rash, backwards header which Heurelho Gomes could only push into space. Billy Sharp – chosen as a lone striker in place of the injured Steve Morison – pounced on the rebound and slotted it into his empty net, converting one of the easiest of his 150 career goals.
In the 19th minute Anya was exposed again, though only by a spellbinding piece of skill from Austin. The midfielder read a poor headed clearance and knocked it into space on the corner of Watford’s box before lashing an improbable volley over Gomes’ head. The comparisons were a toss-up between Tony Yeboah and Marco van Basten. “It must be one of the goals of the season,” Redfearn said. “I don’t even think the keeper’s angles were bad.”
Watford had the look of a side who’d been badly ambushed but they recovered their nerve before the day got out of hand. Silvestri had already made one sharp save from Juan Carlos Paredes when Vydra threaded a 39th-minute pass between Bamba and Scott Wootton and invited Deeney to run at it. The striker outpaced Bamba and nudged Wootton aside before slotting the ball beyond Silvestri.
“We’ve got a defender goal-side and a defender chasing Deeney and he still manages to get himself right in front of goal,” Redfearn said. “That’s poor defending. You’ve got to be better than that.”
It was followed by a few ropey moments before the interval but Leeds allowed a third goal to slip through their fingers at the very start of the second half. Gomes denied Austin one-on-one and Gabriele Angella appeared on the goalline to stop Austin scoring at the second attempt. Sharp then failed to connect with the ball when Austin guided a low cross into his slipstream.
“At 3-1 it would have been a different game and a really tall order for them,” Redfearn said. But on 56 minutes Abdi controlled a horrible pass with a sublime touch inside United’s half and prompted an exchange of passes between Vydra and Deeney. Deeney tore down the right and swung the ball to Vydra who, like Sharp before him, could not miss from an identical position.
That pair were also responsible for Watford’s winner but Bamba played a part too by allowing Vydra a second opportunity to strike inside the box after Deeney threaded the ball through another hole in Leeds’ defence. Redfearn had introduced Adryan by then but without much conviction, and neither Edgar Cani nor Mirco Antenucci were able to turn the contest in the dying minutes. It is plain to see which members of his squad United’s head coach truly believes in and some of them are running on empty.
“We’re short of players, that’s a fact,” Redfearn said. “We’re short of Championship experience and we looked a little bit inexperienced.
“You’ve got to remember that there are four players from our academy out there. Watford have gone into the market and paid millions.
“We’ve played well at points today but it’ll get masked because of the result and the manner of it.”
Slavisa Jokanovic, Watford’s Serbian coach, seemed to agree. “We started badly,” he said, “and in the end we’ve won another strange game.”
Strange it was, from start to finish, but the reasons behind the result at full-time were not a mystery.