City arrived in North London on the back of two wins. Not convincing ones, but enough to kindle a ray of hope that better things may be on the way.
Ashley Barnes was deemed not fit enough for a full 90 minutes after his return on Saturday so Adam Idah got his chance to start, alongside Hwang Ui-jo, as the only change from the victory against QPR.
City started aggressively, pressing Watford. The home team had barely crossed the halfway line in the opening three minutes when Christian Fassnacht easily dispossessed Jamal Lewis and set Jack Stacey free on the right. The City right-back played his cross against Kone and City had a corner.
Gabriel Sara hit the corner long to the back post. Danny Batth and Hwang rose for the same ball but it was the ex-Sunderland player of the season who headed home to give City the lead.
City continued to press hard and dominated the midfield. Kenny McLean nicked a ball but his attempted pass was too heavy for Idah. Even when Watford did make progress, City mopped up easily – Livermore brushed off Hwang and played the ball wide to Lewis, but Fassnacht dispossessed him without breaking a sweat.
It got better. On 11 minutes, Hamer played out to Porteus who was immediately under pressure from Idah. The defender played a lame ball into midfield that was pounced upon by Sara who with one touch found Hwang. The Watford centre-backs were retreating and Hamer off his line but few expected Hwang to unleash the thunderbolt from 25 yards that dipped over the keeper to make it 2-0.
Watford were rocking. Even when they put together a few passes, City were first to every loose ball. Onel Hernandez stole possession after one such move but was fouled as he powered clear with the ball.
Then on 14 minutes, Hwang pulled up with what was possibly a repeat of the issue he had at the weekend. With a bench shorn of quality, Wagner opted to put Ashley Barnes on as a like-for-like striking replacement.
The game then got a little scruffy. Livermore received a yellow card for a stamp on Dimi Giannoulis’ foot, although the Greek rolled around theatrically on the floor clutching his knee afterwards. Then Sara won the ball in a tight spot, escaping the attentions of 3 Watford players before being bundled off the ball by Livermore. But Watford still couldn’t get near City.
It was nearly three. City hit a long ball forward. Barnes knocked it back and Idah had a shot deflected for a corner. This one went deeper than the first and Shane Duffy met it with a looping header that Hamer had to tip over the bar.
In his second game in charge, Wagner watched City race to a three-goal-lead but then described what followed as ‘Wild West Football’ as Coventry struck back with two goals of their own. Well, this was the Wild West too. We had had the Good. Now came the Bad and the Ugly.
It started with an innocuous long ball forward. Duffy headed it away from immediate danger but Stacey had to block it out for a corner, which was taken short. Lewis emerged from Fassnacht’s pocket where he had spent the evening so far, and hit a curling shot from the edge of the box. George Long got down to it but the ball spilled out where Batth reacted first but was unable to prevent Kone knocking it goalwards where it was claimed by the grateful Long.
This sparked a decent Watford spell. For the first time in the game, they were able to string a pass or two together. City dropped off from the high press into a compact shape within their own half and looked solid and organised.
Then on 29 minutes, Watford attacked down the left. Lewis was in acres of space but his cross was blocked by Stacey. The ball fell to Kone who was shepherded infield by Sara, however the Brazilian allowed the former City transfer target to gain half a yard and unleash a shot from the middle of the box, just outside the D. Somehow the shot evaded Long and nestled in the back of the net.
Worse was to follow. Watford came down the left again. Once again Lewis was in acres of space. With Fassnacht jogging back, Lewis was able to twist and turn and hit a looping cross that took the slightest deflection off Stacey.
Long was floundering in no man’s land. Giannoulis was disinterested at the far post. Batth was ball-watching and allowed Rajovic to slip behind him to head home from close range to equalise.
City were rocked. Watford were buoyant. For the last 15 minutes of the half, City were simply unable to lay a glove on them. It took until the 39th minute for City to even get the ball back but Fassnacht was dismissed off the ball too easily as Watford took it back.
That was the Bad. What followed in the second half was simply Ugly.
Watford piled on the pressure and City crumpled. A malaise affected the whole team. Not one player in the purple away kit seemed capable of a simple pass to a team-mate. Hernandez, for all his muscular endeavour, lamely gave the ball away or ran into trouble.
Idah, similarly found players, not space when he had the ball at his feet. Even Sara, superb in the opening 30 minutes, passed to ghosts. Barnes was clearly not fit and barely able to contribute whilst woeful kicking from Long ensured that when he cleared the immediate pressure, the ball fell straight at the feet of an opposition player, yards from the nearest City shirt.
Wagner had to do something and there were long conversations on the bench. In the end, he brought on Liam Gibbs for Idah – the Irishman a pale shadow of the player who inspired the Cardiff comeback, and Kellen Fisher replaced Stacey who had been chasing shadows down the City right since the 29th minute.
The changes did have a slight effect, particularly on the Watford left where Sema and Lewis had been rampant. It was no longer the Alamo, but City weren’t out of Dodge yet.
On 76 minutes, the inevitable happened. Sema battled with Fassnacht, winning a corner, which was taken short to the unmarked Kone. Duffy headed his cross clear but only as far as Hoedt, who, with all eleven City players in or near the penalty box had time to size up a long-range effort.
His dipping shot was again spilled by Long and Asprillia was first to react. Long recovered but bizarrely dived the wrong way and the Colombian easily rounded him to pass the ball into the net past two despairing City defenders.
City persevered for a further five minutes, remaining hapless and hopeless. Wagner rolled the dice, bringing on Marcelino Nunez and Borja Sainz for Fassnacht and Baath, with McLean dropping into the back four.
City offered an all-too-brief period of positive play, McLean spraying some superb pinpoint passes into the wide channels, but by then Watford knew the game was settled and were content to sit back and watch.
It seems that when City are on the front foot, with players to aggressively and energetically press, then they look dangerous. Provided they don’t give the ball away … but once Hwang went off, the levels dropped. Barnes was able to sustain the high press initially but his levels rapidly dropped and after the goals, he became a peripheral figure.
When City drop deep, they rely on the fullbacks going ‘narrow’ and the wingers picking up the wide man. This is the same way Dean Smith tried to make City harder to beat – defend the ball when it comes into the box rather than stop the cross being the mantra.
That’s great, but you have to have players on the edge of the box to get to the scraps. With three goals conceded from positions on the edge of the box, that is where City failed.
Mark Attanisio made a scheduled visit to watch City, with the AGM looming. He will need his Fistful of Dollars to sort out this mess – surely this was Wagner drinking in the Last Chance Saloon?