Overwhelmed, outclassed and outgunned.
It is difficult to see Sheffield Wednesday beating Watford at home anytime soon.
In their last three trips to Hillsborough, the Hornets have triumphed by 4-1, 4-1 and 3-0 scorelines. Their patient, slick passing style causes the Owls all sorts of problems on a big pitch and it was a similar story on Saturday.
Stuart Gray’s troops failed to keep Watford’s dynamic front three of Matej Vydra, Fernando Forestieri and Odion Ighalo under control all afternoon. Their clever movement off the ball and link up play troubled Wednesday’s backline throughout.
Losing Sam Hutchinson to injury after six minutes undoubtedly rattled the hosts. It was the former Chelsea player’s first outing in two months but his comeback was cut short by a knee problem he picked up following an aerial challenge. The disappointment was etched all over Hutchinson’s face as he trudged off the field with Wednesday’s medical team.
“Sam went up for a header and just as he came down he rocked his knee,” said Gray, who confirmed Lewis Buxton was left out of the matchday squad after tweaking his knee in training on Friday. “We will have to see on Sam.
“It was a huge lift having him back but I think that knocked a few of the boys. It is disappointing for Sam but injuries are part and parcel of football. It is how you react to them.
“It affected the whole atmosphere of the stadium when Sam went off but that’s when you want your guys to say ‘come on, we’ve had that setback, let’s push on’.
It is pretty rare that Gray blames the match officials after a result has not gone his team’s way. Criticising the referee and linesman is not his style.
But Gray was incensed by some of the decisions, insisting they contributed to the heavy defeat.
The Owls head coach felt Vydra, the Championship Player of the Year in 2013, was “blatantly offside” for Watford’s 21st-minute opener. TV replays appear to support Gray’s argument. Czech Republic international Vydra, a constant threat, raced on to Forestieri’s pass and burst forward at pace before squaring to Ighalo, who tapped home.
“I have seen their first goal and the boy is blatantly offside,” he said. “As soon as it was played through I thought the linesman was just going to stick his flag up and I think 10,000 fans appealed at the same time.
“Vydra was clearly offside and so too was Ighalo. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. That was disappointing.
“But the officials can only give what they see and we didn’t get the decision.”
Wednesday suffered a third and fatal setback in the 38th minute when Almen Abdi’s weak effort from distance slipped through Keiren Westwood’s fingers as Watford doubled their advantage. As Gray pointed out, it was an “uncharacteristic” and “unusual” error by the Republic of Ireland international.
“He had taken a nasty knock a few minutes before and I don’t know whether that’s affected him, but I’m not going to criticise Keiren because he has been outstanding for us all season,” said Gray. “Your forwards can make several mistakes and get away with it. When your goalkeeper makes a mistake, you more or less get punished, so it can be a lonely place.
“Keiren has probably been our best and most consistent player this season. It’s an unusual mistake and he will be beating himself up over it.”
Wednesday were much improved after the break but the damage had already been done.
Gray handed Hallam Hope his first start since arriving on loan from Everton. Hope, primarily a striker, was deployed on the right flank but he struggled to make an impact, prompting Gray to throw on Royston Drenthe. The Dutchman’s introduction perked up Wednesday’s attack and Heurelho Gomes produced a smart stop to deny Jacques Maghoma’s piledriver before Gary Madine header over Drenthe’s inviting centre from close range.
But Watford always looked dangerous on the counter attack and Ighalo somehow volleyed over Vydra’s pinpoint cross before Forestieri hit the post.
Gomes produced a fine save just after the hour mark to foil Drenthe, who was the Owls’ one bright spot on a miserable day.
Gray: “Royston has proven what quality he’s got. He gave us a lift and had a couple of shots on goal.
“He hasn’t been fit and not played a lot of football. He was bombed out at Reading. We brought him in here, so we had to get him fit.
“Royston has been a bit unlucky because Maghoma and Chris Maguire have played well.
“I was delighted with the 45 minutes he gave us.”
Oozing quality and confidence, Watford’s final goal was a gem. Vydra, who was a constant threat throughout, deftly lifted the ball over Westwood after playing a lovely one-two with substitute Juan Carlos Paredes.
Drenthe, Madine and Loovens all came close to reducing the deficit in the final quarter of an hour. To compound the hosts’ misery, Drenthe was yellow-carded for diving in the 88th minute for diving following a challenge in the area.
Gray said: “How the referee can book Royston for diving in the box I just do not know. It was a nailed-on penalty.”
Wednesday have now gone five matches without a win but Gray took heart from their second half showing.
“We had a go,” he said. “Royston came on and did well.
“We got crosses and shots in but we played against a team against whom you have to be switched on defensively all the time too because they can get up the pitch very quickly with the pace they’ve got.”
It was a dream start to Watford boss Slavisa Jokanovic’s reign. Victory moved them to the top of the Championship and there is no reason, judging by their performance at the weekend, why they can’t stay their all season.
Gray acknowledged: “Watford are a good side who play one-touch football. They play on the shoulder and have got players who’ve got the pace to get away from you.
“We have probably faced one of the best teams in the Championship.
“Watford are set up to counter-attack. They have got good players and they punished us.
“They suck you in. Even when they are defending corners, they bring everybody back but they can counter-attack very quickly.”
Eight of Watford’s starting line-up have sampled international football and it was less than 18 months ago they reached the Championship Play-off Final.
The gulf in class and resources between the Hornets and the Owls was there for all to see.
Wednesday: Westwood 5, Palmer 6, Loovens 5, Lees 5, Mattock 5, Hope 5 (Drenthe HT 7), Hutchinson (Semedo 6, 5), Lee 5 (Nuhiu 68, 5), Maghoma 5, Madine 6, May 5. Substitutes not used: Coke, Helan, Dielna, Kirkland.
Watford: Gomes 7; Doyley 6, Ekstrand 7, Bassong 7, Pudil 7; Abdi 7 (Dyer 79), Tozser 6, Munari 6; Forestieri 8 (Paredes 68, 6), Ighalo 7 (Deeney 81), Vydra 9. Substitutes not used: McGugan, Murray, Bond, Hoban.