Watford's rut continues. It's now three losses in a row to begin the new Premier League campaign after Saturday's defeat to West Ham United at Vicarage Road, a result which made the gloomy clouds catch the eye on a sweltering day in Hertfordshire.
Arguably enough, the scoreline wasn't totally indicative of the performance of either side. In a match of countless opportunities the Hornets had their fair share, but fell victim to their opponent's clinical edge and their own lack thereof.
The improvement of the Watford players was noticeable as they produced the most promising display of the season to date, but the end of the afternoon brought a forlorn sense of helplessness. Head coach Javi Gracia often looked powerless on the touchline as a game which felt so within reach slipped further and further away.
Why didn't it quite go to plan? Did the Hornets shoot themselves in the foot, or were they merely unlucky? The latter won't serve as a plausible explanation for midfielder Tom Cleverley, who asserts that the fault of the recent adversity can only lie with the players.
“I wouldn’t say that," he responded when asked if he thought his side had been unfortunate. "I think everyone has to be held accountable for their own performance, and that’s the first place to start when you’re on a bad run.”
With the bigger picture in mind, some semblance of optimism can be afforded from Watford's point of view despite the alarmingly poor start to the season. Certainly, the showing against West Ham was a far cry from the utter capitulation at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion on the opening day, and the appearance of an upward curve is one silver lining as the Hornets steam head-first into a challenging run of fixtures.
But within the context of each 90 minute encounter, football is a game of goals, and that is precisely where Watford were lacking at Vicarage Road.
“The positives were that we created the chances, the negatives were I don’t think we were good enough in either box," said the 30-year old. "It was an open game, going both ways. I think creating all those chances is a good thing but you need to stop them at the other end as well. We’ll be working on that; we’d all agree that we were too exposed both in the full-back areas and in our own box.”
It's not difficult to identify the moment at which the match started creeping away from Watford. Early in the second half, just as they were in the ascendency with the crowd bellowing them on, Will Hughes scuffed his kick at the can with an open net gaping.
But the Hornets had no shortage of opportunities to take the lead prior to or after that miss, and the profligacy might not have been so detrimental had the defence offered more in the way of stability. It was a collective defeat, and Cleverley, for one, knows his own shortcomings played a part in the result.
“No one’s more disappointed than Hughesy. For me personally, I’m disappointed with the one from the corner in the first half, the one on my left foot in the second. They were much more clinical than us. We were missing quality in the final third today. The lads are all disappointed and it just makes next week’s game even bigger.”
Perhaps a shining light of the afternoon from a Watford perspective was the participation of Cleverley who, despite enduring a torrid injury record in recent times, worked tirelessly in an encouraging shift, and his first start for over five months.
Fitness issues aside, the midfielder has witnessed a reduction in his minutes on the pitch due to the consistently exceptional pairing of Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré in his preferred position, but was given the green light to feature further forward against West Ham in the absence of Roberto Pereyra.
Cleverley did well in the more advanced position and will be delighted to earn a sizeable chunk of minutes after his staggered spell on the sidelines, but insists that he can do even better as he and his teammates continue the search for those elusive points.
“I think I lacked a bit of quality with my chances," he conceded. "But I felt fit, and it was great to be back on the pitch playing in the Premier League. There are a lot of points I can take from it but I would’ve done anything for three points today, so I’m disappointed really.”
Fans will no doubt be concerned about the poor start to the season. Last year's feat of winning the first four league games has faded into distant, almost unfathomable memory, and the fact that those 12 points proved so vital to Watford throughout the rest of the campaign has prompted something of an inquest into the extent of the on-field problems.
Goalkeeper Ben Foster steadfastly debunked the theory that a wider issue is appearing at Vicarage Road despite an apparent continuation of the abject form at the back end of last season into the beginning of the new campaign, and Cleverley joined his teammate in the assertion that this is merely a period of trial and tribulation.
“I think we’re just in a bit of a sticky patch," he said. "All I can say is that we’re working so hard to come out of it, the confidence hasn’t gone. We have a good team spirit, and we’ve added to that with [Craig] Dawson, [Danny] Welbeck and [Ismaïla] Sarr; they’re all good lads, all willing to work hard.
"The one thing that can never be questioned about this squad is the work ethic; we’ll be in early at the next session trying to put things right, and that’s the belief within us. I’m sure things will turn if we work as hard as we should.”
Those Watford players have no time to ponder. They will be back in action again on Tuesday night to host League One outfit Coventry City in a potential banana skin of a Carabao Cup clash, but one which could do presence of mind the world of good if it goes to plan.
September yields a challenging run of fixtures, with Arsenal, Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers all set to lock horns with the Hornets across the month. The possibility of yet another run of three games without picking up points only makes winning the next league game, a trip to fellow early strugglers Newcastle United, an all the more critical task.
“First we’ll be focusing on Tuesday night, but we’ll hopefully get the result and after that everyone’s got to be on it. We all know the size of that game at Newcastle, even more because you’ve got two weeks to mull over the result as well. We’ll be as positive as we can.”