On the evidence of their first 90 minutes back in the Championship this could be a fun season for Watford, and the only pity is their fans won’t be here to see it. The goalkeeper Ben Foster revealed this week that new manager Vladimir Ivic had been “working the players like dogs” in preseason, and there was plenty on show to suggest they have taken to his attacking philosophy in this impressive if imperfect 1-0 win over Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough.
For all Watford’s sharp passing and movement, it was Craig Cathcart’s early header which proved enough to win a fierce first match of the season, coming only 38 days after Championship play-off final.
At the heart of their performance was the sublime Joao Pedro, the 18-year-old Brazilian signed from Fluminese in January who seemed to conjure some new invention with every touch of the ball. Pedro showed glimpses of his talent at the tail-end of last season, and perhaps now he is out of the Premier League glare he can make his mark.
Pedro put on 7kg over lockdown – not the same seven that you and I imbibed – and his more muscly physique showed as defenders bounced off him and he held up the play. He will have more possession in the Championship and a little more license to make inevitable mistakes, after which he was wonderfully reluctant to chase or rectify.
It was not always easy for him. Aerial threat was clearly lacking as he missed a simple header from eight years, turning into something akin to a recoiling Matt Hancock as the ball neared his face, and later he had the wind knocked out of him by a smashed ball to the stomach. “Joao! Joao!” Foster screamed as he crumpled to the floor. Pedro turned eagerly to look. “Joao. Just get up.”
Watford’s intricate style eventually got the better of Boro’s direct approach, but they were made to work for it. Warnock could take encouragement from a front two in Ashley Fletcher and captain Britt Assombalonga who were a constant menace, finding themselves thwarted only by the extremities of Ben Foster.
But Boro were slow to get going, and they were behind before they could muster a meaningful effort. Watford’s lively Ken Sema delivered a short corner and the unmarked Craig Cathcart headed home in a set-piece which infuriated Warnock.
Boro gradually found their way into the game and Assombalonga had their best chance of the first half, firing at Foster’s legs from a tight angle.
As the second half wore on, Boro enjoyed spells of control without creating a clear cut chance. Assombalonga’s free-kick on the hour was their best sight – “take this in the face,” Foster told his wall – but it was the keeper’s fingertips which diverted the ball over the bar.
Pedro faded and Glenn Murray came on to make his debut in a late reminder of what else Watford have in store. There are expected to be more signings to come, and the very early signs suggest bouncing back at the first attempt must be the aim for Ivic and his talented squad.
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