BORO were stung by a well drilled Hornets side staging a shrewdly scripted counter-attacking display.
Watford soaked up the first half pressure and pounced on a defensive blunder to plunder the lead then, as increasingly frantic Boro chased the game, the visitors broke out sharply and clinically to sealing it.
Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen.
And for the first 45 minutes there was no real sign that it would. In the first half it looked like it was Tony Mowbray’s carefully prepared plot that was unfolding rather than Zola’s.
The Hornets were forced to work hard to resist a dominant Boro who bossed possession and created – but wasted – enough clear cut chances to take control of the game and probably to it win too.
Twice Lukas Jutkiewicz was slotted into the box by perceptive well weighted Josh McEachran passes and twice his first touch was poor and he needed to take an extra step to control before he could unload and his shot flew off target.
Scott McDonald also broke into the area from the right but his low shot was just deflected by the outstretched boot of a Watford defender and it squirted into the side netting.
And in the most frustrating – and typical – moment, Boro missed a golden chance set on a diamond encrusted and engraved silver platter.
Jutkiewicz carried it forward then pushed a ball into the box for McEachran who was free and clear and bearing down on goal but with the target looming and the Boro crowd willing for him to shoot from eight yards, he checked inside for a better angle and a stronger foot and that fractional hesitation gave a defender the chance to nick it away.
He almost recovered and poked the loose ball through to Jutkiewicz but it looped at an awkward angle and the defence was back in place before he could profit. The moment was gone and the danger scrambled away.
Had Boro scored when they were dictating the pace and imposing the shape then the visitors, previously wedded to a deep sitting defensive set-up, would have had to change their mentality and come out from their trenches to open up in a bid to salvage the game.
That would have allowed more space for Boro’s fluid, penetrating patient passing and movement to scythe through and the crowd would have hailed Mogga’s tactical nous.
Even if the game had remained as an ingrained stand-off going into the second half, Boro still would have looked the more likely to grab a goal.
That was the plan anyway. But the plan was balanced on the pivotal first goal going Boro’s way… and that’s where it went horribly wrong.
“We stressed the importance of not going behind because Watford are probably the best team in the division in that situation,” said Mowbray as he explained how the game had drifted away.
“Away from home they are as good a team as there in this league counter-attacking and if we had to chase the game it would make us vulnerable. They had won eight games and scored more goals away from home than anyone else in this league so it was important not to give them a cheap goal.
“But then we shot ourselves in the foot and did it at the worst possible time.”
Now, Boro are no strangers to self-inflicted bullet wounds through their collective size tens but this one was a classic of the genre.
Three minutes into first half injury time a harmless looking Cassetti cross floated in from the right and Rhys Williams – still far from up to match sharpness – nonchalently tried to chest the ball back to keeper Jason Steele without checking his blind spot and his weak touch fell disastrously short leaving alert Mataj Vydra to nip in and stab home.
“That has probably cost us the game because of the nature of the team we were playing,” said miffed Mowbray. “You could argue we should have taken one of the chances in first half but that was a frustrating and disappointing goal to lose.”
After that Boro were forced to commit more men forward and leave space for sharp Watford to exploit ruthlessly with a string of quick breaks that sent Vydra flying forward.
Had it not been for some superb stops from Jason Steele – and that’s been a familiar phrase this season – the visitor’s victory could have been far more emphatic.
Naturally the Boro supporters trudged away angry and dejected and the mandatory search for a scapegoat began in earnest: Bailey, out of sorts and out of position as a rickety right-back; profligate Jutkiewicz faced flak for needing six touches; Ledesma’s over-elaboration and lack of end product; McEachran’s rapid fade out after a bright start; Seb Hines; Ishmael Miller; and naturally wobbly Williams came in for stick.
But there were accusing fingers pointed at Mogga too for getting his tactics and selection wrong, for bring back too many men from injury too soon, and more specifically – and marking out a philosophical opposition – for setting out his team to accommodate Watford’s style and shape.
The charge is that Mogga is a Teesside tinkerman who over-thinks his tactics and sets to much store in the opposition, that he spends too much time fretting about the strengths and weaknesses of the other lot rather than settling on a side and style and letting them worry about us.
But that is a simplistic view. The Championship is a tough division where anyone can beat anyone – look at the results any given Saturday – and where being tactical predictable makes you vulnerable.
Unless you are light years ahead of the rest – and Boro are not – it makes perfect sense to look for fatal flaws to exploit and take precautions against match-winning men and moves and give yourself an edge wherever you can, even if it just a few per cent.
That is Mowbray’s approach. There were few complaints about it during the 10 game unbeaten run that put Boro in the running. And as the team is still two points off the automatic spots it is hard to argue convincingly argue it is fundamentally wrong.
Mowbray has switched formations, styles, tempos and tactics from game to game since the day he arrived in a bid to get an edge over the opposition and the record over the past two years shows he has got it right more often that he has got it wrong.
There have been times it didn’t go to plan, most notably at home to Bristol City this term but even then he put his hand up to the error He understands the risks inherent in the approach. Sometimes you are out-thought. Sometimes you get it right tactically but the team are out-fought anyway. Sometimes it comes down to a mistake. Fine margins.
And it is hard to argue too that he got the tactics wrong against Watford. In fact, the evidence of the first half is that he got the tactics bang on.
Had he gone for the jugular from the off – as some of his critics suggest Boro should do in every game no matter what – the second half sting scenario may have arrived sooner and more brutally with Watford punishing a cavalier approach.
The game plan was sound – it was just undone by individual errors in both boxes.