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Wycombe Wanderers 1 Watford 1 (27/10/2020) 28/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- It’s 22:20 on a school night.  We’ve just drawn 1-1 at Wycombe.  You’re damn right this is going to be straight to the point.  None of your drawn-out meandering intros today.  No Sir.  This is a no-bullshit report.

2- And we needed a no-bullshit performance.  A performance that was capable of absorbing what Wycombe could throw at us, meeting the physical challenges head on and letting the quality tell.  We didn’t get one.  Not that we appeared complacent, nor lacking in effort particularly.  But the weaknesses of our team thus far, such as they are and bearing in mind that we’re third in the league, lost one game, conceded four goals and so on and so forth were cast into sharp relief.

3- And cast into sharp relief by a Wycombe side who were far more impressive, focussed and effective than their record hitherto had suggested.  They hurtled around doing the high press thing like shopping trolleys crashing around a slippery car park, not giving us a moment’s peace and, without being dirty, risking physical injury if approached tentatively or half-heartedly.  Both their full-backs caused us issues, Grimmer giving Sema a good old game down the right and Jacobson delivering quality set pieces.  Kashket snapped around feeding off knock downs and chasing everything down.  They had enough about them to make you wonder quite how they hadn’t earned any points until now.

Most of all, they had the game’s dominant player in Adebayo Akinfenwa,  making his first start in the second tier at the age of 38.  A sixteen stone force of nature, almost unplayable and completely brilliant.  And exactly what we were missing for the most part – a focal point to hold the ball up, provide some welly and provide the facility for our attacks to drop anchor rather than needing to be fleet and precise.  Akinfenwa’s in a white shirt, we win the game.

4- As it is, we are happy to be goalless at the break.  Not to say lucky… there’s nothing lucky about your goalkeeper being completely brilliant.  But we’re lucky to have a brilliant goalkeeper.  Foster his out bravely, defiantly, to claim a Jacobson corner and again when the same player is able to send in a follow up. Kashket controls a knockdown with his hand, the officials miss it and Foster’s block is critical.   Akinfenwa forces a shooting opportunity, Foster saves well to his right.

Meanwhile our attacks are the sort of rapier thrusts that we’re used to seeing and it’s not impossible that we take the lead but there’s no heft to our performance.  Capoue could have provided that but he’s disappointingly low key.  Femenía rattles up and down the right flank and is a constant force for good, but it’s not enough.  As the half closes, Troost-Ekong’s sloppiness lets in Kashket who squares for Akinfenwa to shovel over.  Then Wanderers break through on the right and Troost-Ekong redeems himself by thundering in to deny Horgan.  No, not lucky.  Not hanging on.  But, yes, half-time would do very nicely we thought you’d never ask.

5- Second half starts in similar vein until we score.  And of course it’s Kiko and Sarr’s far post header is perfect and suddenly we look like the newly relegated side weathering the storm and then mercilessly killing off the game triers with a moment of quality.  And then Sema’s rolling through challenges, threatening to stick the knife in but doesn’t quite.  Sarr powers in a shot, Jacobson denies João Pedro a tap in.  We have all the possession now and look every inch the better side.  That should have been it.  We should have seen it out.

And that’s the other recurring trend.  Looking good.  Looking solid.  And not quite being good enough.  See also Reading, Sheff Wed, Bournemouth.  We’ve looked vulnerable at set pieces against sides less well equipped to exploit them than Wycombe and there was nothing spawny or half-hearted about Stewart’s equaliser.  Indeed, Wanderers can consider themselves unlucky to have a second disallowed as substitute Samuel tangled with Foster.  It wasn’t a travesty of a decision, but he could certainly have gotten away with a more generous interpretation.

Consolations?  Silver linings?  Glenn Murray putting in his best minutes for us, drifting into space for Kiko to slip him straight through, the shot from nowhere across the face of goal.  In all honesty he could have been on earlier.  Some tactical flexibility, Chalobah on to provide some more controlled passing from the back as Kabasele departed with a shirt spattered in blood from a facial injury.  It didn’t work, it might have done and might do in the future.

We can’t complain with a point, and no away point is a bad point.  An away point at Wycombe might look a lot better in a month or two’s time than it does now.  But we need to be able to score imperfect, scruffy goals if we’re going to be the cruelly effective side that we ought to be.  We need a striker fit.

Bring on the next one.  Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 2, Cleverley 3, Quina 2, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Murray (for Quina, 74) 3, Chalobah (for Kabasele, 74) 2, Garner (for Cleverley, 90) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 1 AFC Bournemouth 1 (24/10/2020) 24/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- Sometimes you just crave something normal.

You’ll have your own favourites.   For me… football, obviously.  That goes without saying.  But more mundane stuff too.  Being able to see family, go to the pub without worrying about it.  Going to the co-op for some milk without having to queue up outside, or wear a mask.  Going to work, actually going to work and seeing people in three dimensions rather than two, and running into people spontaneously rather than everything being timetabled.  Everything.

To be somewhere busy.  With lots of people.  And noisy.  And chaotic.  To hold the door open for someone without wondering if that’s the right thing to do any more.  To shake someone’s hand.  Something normal.  Anything normal.

Except this bollocks, obviously.  That should have gone without saying.

2- I know I’m supposed to hate Luton and I suppose I do but largely out of the same sense of obligation provoked by signing leaving cards at work for people that I don’t really know.  Proper animosity will come, I’m sure, if we spend too long in the same division, the pressurised nature of derbies makes it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy but competitive rivalries such as that with the Cherries, promoted with us and relegated with us having earned a single point more than us over the five years, are more heartfelt at the moment.

There will come a time when this is not so.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with Bournemouth, the Dorset coast is perfectly pleasant, there are years of shared history without there being a Thing and the fanbase no more objectionable than most others would be in the face of such fractious recent encounters.

But now?  Eddie Howe has gone but Jason Tindall was always the High Priest of Bournemouth’s snide, cynical brand of shithousery.  No surprise to see the Cherries bomb out of the top flight with the advent of VAR.  No surprise to see the club’s recent traditions upheld by the new coach.  There’s been plenty of criticism of today’s referee Tim Robinson, who will certainly have better afternoons.  But it wasn’t Robinson making the studs up challenges, not late tired lunges in a high speed contest but deliberate and unpleasant acts of gamesmanship.

3- The last home win in a game between the two sides came at Bournemouth in January 2015, abetted in part by an early (and later rescinded) red card for Gabriele Angella.  There should have been an early red card here…  with a crowd to bellow it’s objection, or had the challenge come ten minutes later then surely the Cherries would have been down to ten.  Tindall was at least candid enough to admit that “on another day it could have been a red card”, but his “not that kind of bloke” follow up in defence of Lloyd Kelly doesn’t hold any water.  You saw the thought process as Sarr threatened to escape… danger man, early doors, will get away with a yellow here, let’s do it.  It was brutal, arrogant and cowardly, and our good fortune was that Sarr wasn’t badly injured as he could have been.

Instead, after an opening ten minutes in which the Cherries had been aggressively, attritionally assertive the Hornets broke with devastating efficiency.  Cathcart swung a tremendous ball from left to right into the path of Sarr, the winger blistered down the right and slid a perfect cross into the path of Stipe Perica’s lunge.  The Croat had had an ungainly, awkward opening ten minutes or so but made no mistake here.

The rest of the half was low on goalmouth incident – our games are likely to be this way – but never less than engrossing. Sarr’s opening 45 was devastating, even if as the visitors briefly reeled in the wake of the goal he could have put Perica away rather than trying his luck from 30 yards.  The visitors began to pick up a head of steam in the final 15 minutes of the half; the largely low-key  Arnaut Danjuma showed a level of awareness of tradition with a “Coxy into the wall” tribute from a free kick.  Jack Stacey continued an emerging tradition of right backs causing us problems, frequently joining attacks and necessitating a fine and acrobatic interception from the tremendous Chalobah late on. Dominic Solanke, still looking a bit like an exchange student who doesn’t really speak the same language as his teammates, found some space but drove tamely at Foster.  Always – again, this will be the case one suspects – we looked a threat on the break whenever Sarr, who was diligent defensively, put the burners on.

An emerging theme, however, was the vulnerability of James Garner who was bullied by Billing and picked up an early yellow card for a silly trip.  As the half drew to a close the only question was whether to replace him at half time or to risk the humiliation of withdrawing him earlier, such was the degree to which he was overwhelmed and, particularly, rattled by his opponent once going through the back of him as the ball departed.  In the pantheon of missed fouls, would not be even handed to neglect to mention this one.

But Billing himself stole that particular limelight as the half drew to a close.   A flying elbow that connected painfully with Perica’s head was a coulda red rather than a shoulda, a benefit of doubt could be afforded.  Less so for me the sneaky lunge at Cleverley’s thigh by the same player in the subsequent passage of play, this looked more deliberate and considered being out of the referee’s line of vision.  Pretty extraordinary that the big Dane finished the game without a card.  We ended the half bruised, but in front.

4- The start of the second half could and perhaps should have seen us out of sight.  Étienne Capoue was on for Garner, his first touch of the ball was miserable but thereafter he was tremendous… he dinked a terrific ball to send Sarr through again, the Senegalese perhaps hit it later than he might have done but nonetheless drove a shot that would have gone inside Begovic’s near post had the keeper not pulled off a fine reflex save.

Shortly afterwards Sarr escaped again, and this time was pulled down by Kelly whose earlier yellow card should have proven critical.  It wasn’t a straight red for me, any more than the Kabasele incident on Wednesday night, but was a cynical attempt to curtail an escaping opponent and was a second yellow all day long.  Not given.

From then, it was an odd half.  The visitors dominated possession but their pressure was largely attritional…  comfortable in possession, good at moving the ball around and finding space, not very good at exploiting it.  Their efforts on goal – until the critical one – were from distance and whilst the shots on target stat in isolation doesn’t tell the story of a ball being moved around and across the penalty box, there was a lack of focal point for the visitors.  Josh King, making his first domestic start of the season, might become that figure but he was a largely theoretical threat here.

The Hornets threatened on the break, and Begovic had as much to do as Foster for all of Bournemouth’s rather impotent pressure.  Quina came on for Cleverley and put on a glittering half-hour or so, comfortably his best showing of the season…  the Cherries were the first side to afford him time and space to shoot from distance and a little more precision would have delivered more from two fierce, bending drives that Begovic, twice, nonetheless did well to stop.  On the second occasion João Pedro, on for the uncomfortably injured Perica, wasn’t quite sharp or fortunate enough to meet a rebound but was later involved in another lightning break that should have seen us capitalise on a numeric advantage as the visitors chased the game.

5- If you take the view – and I’m not sure I do in this case – that refereeing decisions are random incidents to be ridden and dealt with then it’s difficult to argue that the visitors weren’t worth a point, such was their unwavering pursuit of an equaliser.  They attacked with the ferocity of Blackburn, if without the potency, but also lacked the great big open gaps behind them as they pushed forwards.  Nonetheless, it’s always galling to concede an injury time equaliser, the more so given Kelly’s prominence in it.  Echoes of (former Cherry) Tyrone Mings’ arse at Villa Park in January when the England defender should have walked before the injury time winner took a critical deflection off his unwitting backside – one can only hope that this one proves less expensive.

I was bloody livid.  I can’t imagine I was the only one.  This report was postponed by the need to drive to Bedford and stomp grumpily around the park in the swirling wind and rain with a very strong coffee.

But having calmed down (a bit), it’s not hard to be philosophical.  Our side is built on a strong defence, and boy did they prove their mettle today – indeed, over the past week – despite the disappointing denouement.  All three of the centre-halves were absolutely tremendous, Cathcart putting in a masterclass of being in the right place at the right time as so often, garnished with his astonishing contribution to our goal.  Kabasele was focused and dynamic, and if Troost-Ekong still needs games and looks less physically dominant than I’d imagined there’s no disputing, once again, that we look a solid old unit.  If you rely heavily on your defence then occasionally, as today, as at Reading, something’s going to break against you.  That doesn’t mean that the whole plan is necessarily bunk, certainly not with the likes of Troy, Hughes, Gray, Masina still to return.

We’re still in a good place.  What matters, after generally kind results elsewhere, is how we respond. How we get back to, well, “normal”. Starting at Wycombe on Tuesday.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3,  Sema 4, *Cathcart 5*, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 5, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 3, Garner 2, Sarr 4, Perica 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Garner, 45) 4, Quina (for Cleverley, 64) 4, João Pedro (for Perica, 82) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Murray, Bachmann

Watford 3 Blackburn Rovers 1 (21/10/2020) 22/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- I have recently discovered Marie Kondo.

At a time when, for various reasons, it’s difficult to do anything extravagant with time off and having plenty of it still to use I’m spending the week sorting out the garage.  That’s living, kids.  And so I’ve been directed towards Marie Kondo’s Netflix show by a friend who knows me rather too well.  The ferociously prescriptive and attractively bonkers how-to-tidy-and-organise-stuff methodology is right up my street and has had a fine impact on my garage, at the cost only of the collateral damage of an unforeseen extra day to be spent emptying my wardrobe and saying goodbye and thank you to, I suspect, a large number of clothes.

Marie Kondo herself is a small Japanese woman high on smiles, energy and personality.  One of the mantras is to only keep stuff that gives you joy, and the character she portrays is consistent with that.  She’s joyful.

Only a visit to her Wikipedia page lifts the veil.  Her Wikipedia pic is…  cold.  Focused.  Severe.  Businesslike.  The illusion is shattered, her on-screen persona is mere performance.  This doesn’t make the approach any less effective it’s just…  harder to trust her.

So it was reassuring to see Vladimir Ivic staying on brand during a largely vanilla fans’ forum on Monday.  “Would you prefer to win 4-3 or 1-0”.  “1-0”, with a twitch of the shoulder that implied that the answer should have been obvious (it was).  It’s not the fun answer, but you know it’s an honest one.  Nobody should be surprised.   What he made of this evening’s fare we can only speculate.

2- Much of the blame for the  thrilling, captivating nature of the evening lies at the feet of the visitors, who were bold, enterprising and very capable.  Comfortably the most potent attacking force we’ve faced so far, their activity at the end of the transfer window suggested a side who’d had a glance around the division, decided they fancied it and told the dealer to twist accordingly.  Of the four deadline day arrivals only the precocious Harvey Elliott started and it may be that we played Rovers at a good time, before the signings have settled, but this was nonetheless a stern test of our back line.

Which isn’t to say that the visitors were infallible.  The prognosis from previews by People Who Know was of a soft underbelly and even as Rovers pushed forward, dominated possession and denied us any control in the early stages a peculiar defensive set up that saw centre-backs Ayala and Lenihan staying back. goalkeeper Kaminski pushing up, but a chasm between themselves and the rest of their side with both full backs attacking aggressively seemed ripe for exploitation.

The early exchanges only served to whet the appetite for what was to come.  As we finally managed to string a couple of passes together six minutes in, Sarr was released and disappeared into the sunset leaving Amari’i Bell in pieces behind him.  Rather than rein in Rovers’ ambition this only seemed to spur them on…  a quick free kick forced Cathcart to concede a corner, the excellent Nyambe fed Armstrong who tested Foster for the first time, the keeper making light of a fierce shot.

It was an engrossing battle, which seemed to take a decisive turn in a five minute period a quarter of an hour in.  The first goal was a rapier thrust;  Sarr fed Garner who played in Kiko on a galloping overlap.  He squared for João Pedro to sidefoot calmly home.  It was a goal savage in its precision, but the follow-up four minutes later was simply savage, Rovers momentarily startled by the turn of events opened up by a ball from Garner and Sarr’s merciless strength and speed.  His shot at an angle was always a big ask, but Kaminski could only palm it away and it dropped kindly for Tom Cleverley, albeit his forehead was where anyone else’s could have been if they’d been paying attention.

3- Very briefly that felt like “it”, so clinical had been our finishing, so keen had Rovers been to push forward and so vulnerable had they seemed to be to the counter-attack.  Going away and being so positive is fine until you fall behind, let alone two goals behind, and it was difficult to see anything other than us scoring more on the break.

To their credit Rovers’ resolve didn’t waver at all and they kept at us.  We had a bit of a break five minutes later as Kabasele was given a yellow as he brought down the lively Armstrong.  The striker had run across Kaba’s path to draw the foul and with Cathcart covering a yellow was the right decision, but not so right that you haven’t seen a red given in those circumstances.  From the resultant free kick Lenihan tested Ben Foster with a header – he should have done better in truth, having been let go by his marker Sema in a slightly concerning echo of the game at Hillsborough.

Another five minutes of pressure on and Rovers had a goal back.  It was a tremendous chest and volley from more than twenty yards, albeit Brereton had more space than you’d have liked, but Ben Foster was deceived by a late bounce and beaten at his near post.

Digressing slightly, it’s an overlooked detail that we didn’t award a Player of the Season last year.  Completely understandable in the circumstances, Things being what they are/were and so on even if it presents something of an unreachable itch for statistical completists like me.  In any event, had such an award been made it seems likely that Foster would have achieved the rare feat of two such trophies in relegation seasons thirteen years apart, for his stoic performances and irrepressible good-blokeness on and off the pitch.  And this despite, it is easy to forget, a rather wobbly start to last season where being beaten at his near post was in danger of becoming a Thing.  He overcame that wobble and here, too, whilst at least jointly culpable for letting Rovers back into the game he recovered to pull off a quite startling performance.

4- Any concerns that the second half would calm down a bit were allayed within five minutes of the restart.  An underhit Chalobah pass towards Sema was cut out, and Wilmot was caught slightly flat footed as Brereton escaped only to be pulled back by a welcome offside flag.  That could have been a different second half.

As it was, and with so much of our threat in the first half having come via the burning pace of Sarr and Femenía on the right, Blackburn telegraphed what was to come by giving Ken Sema all sorts of space to put a cross in on the left.  He’s already demonstrated that he needs no space at all to cause damage from wide positions, so it was little surprise that a minute later his vicious cross was turned in by Lenihan.  Unfortunate for Rovers, but only up to a point – this wasn’t a freak turn of events, a gift… Sarr was attacking the space behind Lenihan forcing the Irish defender to (try to) deal and would have converted if he hadn’t.

Back to a two goal cushion, but still not game over.  Foster saved brilliantly from a Corey Evans volley, then again when another underhit pass towards Sema, this time from Sarr, saw Rovers escape. Armstrong beat the offside this time only to be denied by Foster’s extendable fingertips, a save he had no right to make.  Only, finally, when Holtby won himself a penalty with a well-timed tumble and Foster went the right way to deny Armstrong yet again were we able to relax.  For all Rovers, potency, this was clearly our night.

And for all Rovers’ potency, for all that they dominated possession and made so many chances, the scoreline doesn’t flatter us in the slightest.  Having a tremendous goalkeeper isn’t “lucky”, having defensive players doing what’s necessary to make those chances difficult for the most part isn’t fortunate.  Instead the main concern from the evening was that we didn’t win more comfortably given the unreasonable pace in our attack and the great big spaces that were afforded behind Rovers’ backline.  For all that the visitors were impressive and huge fun – “everyone likes a plucky loser”, as my Dad would say – there were echoes of the dying days of Javi’s reign here at the start of last season (about twenty years ago).  Rovers were attacking and enterprising, but carved open far too easily.

5- For the remaining twenty minutes or so the visitors were kept at arm’s length and it looked more likely that we’d extend our lead than that we’d concede again, João Pedro and Sarr both coming close in blistering breaks.  Key in this, the cherry on the icing on an already very respectable cake this evening was a swaggering half hour from the quite brilliant Étienne Capoue.

And here’s the thing.  If we were perhaps catching Rovers on a good day, a few players missing and new signings not bedded in, then every side that plays us at the moment is playing us on  a good day.  We are only going to get better. All of our midfielders played well in isolation today…  Chalobah does some silly things sometimes but only because he does so much destructively and creatively.  James Garner looked absolutely fabulous again, dynamic and energetic and ferocious and still absolute class with the ball at his feet.  Cleverley is leading the team, and for me far, far more effective in an attacking role.

And yet Capoue will take that midfield to a whole new level, a Rolls Royce of a midfielder in this or any division.  Will Hughes still to return.  Wow.  At the back, if we looked less comfortable, more tested and stretched today it’s in part due to the fact that we were facing a much more potent opponent – conceding one goal here as impressive as some of the clean sheets that preceded it.  And up front…  the two young forward players are both extraordinary and if they’re not quite in tandem yet then you kinda feel that with a tweak in formation, attacking from slightly deeper either side of a Perica or a Gray, (let alone a Deeney, at his freewheeling Russian Roulette best in the Hornet Hive studio) they’re going to cause no end of havoc.

Most of all, there’s the head coach’s ferociously prescriptive method.  Marie Kondo would approve, I suspect. A long way to go, but we look well set-up, well stocked and well prepared for this.

Another big test Saturday.  Bring it on.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 4, Garner 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Cleverley, 61) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 71) 3, Quina (for Sarr, 89) NA, Troost-Ekong, Perica, Murray, Bachmann

Derby County 0 Watford 1 (16/10/2020) 17/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- The boredom’s bloody awful.

Most specifically, the lack of excitement.  The lack of adrenaline.  Working in isolation, bingeing on TV series, cooking curries, Zoom calls with friends, all fine.  Enjoyable, to varying degrees.  Not exciting though for the most part, not really.

Walking’s good.  That’s not exciting either, but living rurally it’s something I can do without reservation whatever the state of lockdown is, whatever the R number is.  In the fields out the back I can walk for miles with a good few hundred metres warning of anyone approaching and as Billy Connolly amongst others has noted there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong type of clothes.  Normally I’ll have a podcast in my ears, but last week I went for music instead on a ten mile loop up to there, across to there through a wood full of indignant muntjac and back home again.  I prescribed myself a diet of stuff that I haven’t listened to for ages…  Blondie, Cinerama, the Wonder Stuff.  All live albums…  listening to a live album isn’t the same as being there, as feeling your ribcage vibrating as PJ Harvey launches into “Dress”, but it’s not without value as a substitute.  The Pretenders were rejected as soon as it became clear that their live acts involved playing everything at half the usual speed, the opposite of what a live performance is supposed to be.  Soon I had a spring in my step, a little burst of adrenaline borne of losing myself in the music.  Half an hour later I was in tears as the wrong lyrics tripped me up.  A high risk strategy, evidently.

2- Speaking of excitement, the transfer window’s just slammed shut.  Long enough this one, I think, and I’m speaking as someone who finds the ludicrous toing and froing and speculation relatively enjoyable as you might have gathered (and see above, anything approaching excitement…).  In truth it’s long been a landmark that we’ve been desperate to see pass, not just because it means the portcullis dropping on the possibility of losing the likes of Sarr and Hughes, at least until January, but just in that it might finally show our hand (whatever that might be).  As it turned out it passed relatively uneventfully, the “no news” being good news in that we retain everyone we were desperate to keep (not you, Craig).  If their heads are in the right place the guys who’ve stayed when they might not have are huge assets.  Quite how big a caveat that is only time will tell, but the suspicion that not all of those who were slated as likely exits would leave proved well-founded.

Nonetheless, the announcement of the starting eleven was underwhelming.  No Troy, no Hughes, we knew that, but no Sarr either.  The club may have been aware that he wouldn’t realistically be back in time (despite Senegal’s Tuesday game with Mauritania having been scratched, so a little difficult to reconcile) but we didn’t.  And no Capoue, despite the suggestion that his return was a possibility.  The first eleven, certainly the attacking side of it, looked a bit botched together and the bench, flimsy. Vladimir Ivić had picked a side based on what he had available, but it was a side that looked even more focused on defensive solidity, asking an awful lot of two young attacking players in João Pedro and Domingos Quina.

Little surprise then that the first half was pretty turgid.  The midfield was ferociously congested, any possession hared down by whoever didn’t have the ball meaning that either side stringing more than a couple of passes together felt a little anomalous.  Defensively we looked solid, as ever, William Troost-Ekong having a relatively inconspicuous debut (save for a slightly alarming sliced attempt at a clearance that Foster had to be attentive to) but was also talking constantly and from the opening minutes.  Good.  Going forward though very little was sticking up front. There were occasional glimpses of life, João Pedro demonstrating surprising strength to hold off a defender here, Sema breaking from his constrained central position to get wide and get a ball over there, but these sparks didn’t ignite anything too often let down by a bad pass or a bad decision forced by the lack of time and space.

The biggest threat to either goal in the first half was Wayne Rooney, whose decline I had greatly exaggerated in my head having viewed only from a distanced and labelled Derby a bit of a basket case – also an exaggeration.  Whilst his mobility has reduced his physicality and awareness gave the home side’s attacks some cohesion and his set piece delivery their biggest threat.  Also the best demonstration of our defensive resilience since we stood up to it well.

3- The thing is, solid is a very decent start.  Easy to be smart with hindsight of course… this game could certainly have finished nil nil, we’d have a different view if more generally we’d had a few more unlucky but decisive breaks such as the deflection on Pușcaș’ shot two weeks ago in our generally tight games to this point.  But it didn’t and we haven’t…  and so it’s not unreasonable to credit a head coach who has looked at the bit that’s stable and works, and looked at the bit where the sands have been shifting most unpredictably and prioritised accordingly.

It was argued after the game that we’ve not played anyone decent yet, but that’s not strictly true by the standards of the division.  Three of the five teams we’ve played are top half as I write and another would be, just about, but for their points deduction despite us taking points off most of them. It is difficult for a side to look good against our suffocating defending.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good chances we’ve allowed opponents across the five league games, and whilst we’ve made mistakes – Cleverley passing carelessly across the box, Wilmot making a rash challenge later in the game – they’re isolated incidents, we’re solid enough to ride them and the Championship isn’t merciless enough to punish them most of the time.  We have a strong first four from which to perm three (or two) at the back, and Sierralta getting good reviews for Chile in the week makes a fifth.  Sean Dyche’s Watford side did a good job of being solid with a bit of magic dust eight years ago, this – without the absentees – is the same formula with vastly better players.

There’s a lot to admire and enjoy and – digressing slightly – it seems worthwhile dwelling on the fact that this stuff is quite enjoyable and has value in it’s own right. It might suit the big six to pretend that it’s their bit that’s important, certainly suits them to build in anticompetitive barriers to protect themselves from upstarts like Leicester and Wolves in the same way that the Premier League’s creation guarded against the Wimbledons and the Champions’ League’s inception guarded against the Steaua Bucharests, but it doesn’t suit anyone else.  And yes, Things Being What They Are something needs to be done but further closing a shop, further tilting the unlevel playing field isn’t it.  Delighted that the thing was voted down, some kind of deal that recognises the symbiosis of the football pyramid and involves, you know, the big six giving something up rather than making concessions that don’t cost them an awful lot whilst clawing away at any risk to their dominance hopefully the end game.  It has been argued that this was merely an opening salvo, that the proposal was so ludicrous that it can only have been a negotiating position to row back from to the actual objective but I don’t buy the implied inevitability of it.  Match 39 was, eventually, beaten off after all.

4- Back on the pitch and as so often we got better in the second half.  And, yes, it would be nice if we were great for ninety minutes but evidence of a manager smart enough  to know what to change is encouraging.  It was still not quite there, the ball was still not sticking enough but fifteen minutes in we were undeniably on top for the first time.  Ken Sema rolled Evans, the weak link of the Derby backline.  João Pedro got yet another exquisite touch to tee up Chalobah who slammed the ball goalwards…  Evans blocked with his hands but a coulda rather than a shoulda penalty for me.  Cleverley put an outrageous ball across the pitch, well cleared.  Kabasele met a Quina corner well but a deflection killed the momentum of the header.  Derby were all hands on deck now, not least the excellent Matt Clarke, a frequent appearance on The List in recent years.

And then it happened.  And Ben Wilmot had a big role in it tp crown what was already perhaps his strongest performance in a yellow shirt;  the surge on the ball from the left that disrupted Derby’s shape was worthy of a Holebas or a Doucouré, not a 20-year-old centre back playing on his weaker side.  He continued his run pulling Shinnie away from João Pedro and…. well.  You’ve surely watched it a dozen times by now, you don’t need me to describe it.  There was a bit of Deulofeu at Wembley about it but rather than dislocating his ankle to achieve a ridiculous curl the Brazilian did his thing where he makes himself space not by touching the ball but by stepping away from it and then stroking an impossible shot arcing through the eye of the needle and into the top corner.  Completely outrageous.  João Pedro has arrived.

And THAT is what excitement feels like.  Our third winner of the season, fourth if you count Perica’s penalty against Oxford, but the first bellow.  The first roar, eyes closed limbs extended ungracefully from my starting position on my stomach in front of the TV on the living room floor, making a degree of noise that didn’t go down well with all members of the family.  Get.  In.

5- I started emptying out the garage today. the morning after the night before, the first stage of an overdue project that is having a week off devoted to it, at least in part.  No, not exciting, but I got my excitement in last night in that hugely cathartic moment.  I finally emptied the last of the boxes from our move from Watford, umm, eleven and a half years ago.  Yes, I should have just binned it, but I found this…

 

Which is a good thing.

As for the game…  yes, it could easily have been nil-nil although Philippe Cocu, whose Derby side were limited and imbalanced rather than awful – had a touch of the Viallis about him in his fanciful post-match assessment that his side had been dominant and deserved “at least” a point.  No mate.  Both sides were solid, made it difficult.  We had some angel dust, and scored a goal, you didn’t.

A goal with our first shot on target admittedly, but as above Vlada is playing his hand and playing it well.  There’s an array of attacking talent missing that will give us an awful lot more than just angel dust.  Indeed, a line-up of Bachmann, Navarro, Masina, Cathcart, Sierralta, Capoue, Hughes, Garner, Sarr, Deeney, Gray gives today’s starting eleven a hell of a game and doesn’t feature Perica, Murray, Success or the criminally injured Dele-Bashiru.  Indeed, to requote an earlier statistic… if the Premier League couldn’t cope with a forward line of Sarr, Deeney, Deulofeu (L2, D3, W5 inc Liverpool, United, Wolves when starting together) then the Championship might struggle with Sarr, Deeney, João Pedro.

This game wasn’t a thriller, but was the stuff that promotions are made of.  We look a bit good, boys and girls.

This could be quite exciting.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Wilmot 4, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 3, Sema 3, Quina 3, *João Pedro 4*
Subs:   Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 72) 3, Murray (for João Pedro, 86) NA, Garner (for Quina, 89) NA, Stevenson, Phillips, Hungbo, Bachmann

Reading 1 Watford 0 (03/10/2020) 04/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- In my day-job, I’m a statistician.

This involves making sense of data.  Drawing reliable conclusions, building models, quantifying variation.  Is there a relationship between this and that?  What are the consequences of changing this, this and this all at the same time?  What are the factors that influence this outcome?

There is a characteristic of this role, of roles like this, that may not be immediately obvious.  When the penny drops the cold reality smacks you in the face. It’s absolutely terrifying.  People expect you to know what you’re talking about.  Your judgments are treated as gospel. Careless words run away from you and develop a life of their own.

This risk breeds a certain carefulness.  Caveats, qualifications, fences to be sat on, “on the other hand” and so forth. An inherent caution.  Which goes out of the window completely outside work.  Don’t tell anyone.

I don’t know what it is.  If I was at work I’d be full of warnings not to draw conclusions from a small sample size, not to extrapolate from this to that. This morning?  Clearly we weren’t going to concede a goal or lose a game all season.  Difficult game?  Pah.

2- The team started as if they were just as convinced of their own invulnerability.  Vlad’s selection was ostensibly a little conservative, Cleverley and Sema’s niggles this week seeing them relegated to the bench in favour of Tom Dele-Bashiru and Kiko Femenía, but we were punchy and aggressive from the off.

Sarr squirmed out of a tackle , tripped from right to left across the face of the box and released Dele-Bashiru breaking down the left, his fierce ball across the face just missing a touch.  Kiko overlapped and forced a ball across, Ngakia was attacking the far post but shanked a shot wide.

Reading were positive also, but seemed to be pushing themselves further than they wanted to be pushed, to the ragged extremes of their capabilities. Balls quicker than they could be accurately directed.  We swung the ball from flank to flank, Nathaniel Chalobah the conductor in chief swooping first time passes to either side where the wing-backs were pushing on. We won a free kick on the edge of Reading’s area, James Garner made light of the traditionally treacherous “too close to get it up and down” dangerzone to crash his shot off the underside of the bar.

It was all going rather well.  Too well.  And then two things happened.  Firstly the hosts switched formation to drop an extra body into their increasingly ragged midfield.  Secondly, Tom Dele-Bashiru twisted his knee awkwardly in a fall.

It’s preposterous to suggest that the side was reliant on a midfielder thirty minutes into his full league debut, but such was his irrepressible dynamism and influence on proceedings that it’s difficult to conclude anything other than we suffered for his absence.  He lasted another five minutes, during which Nathaniel Chalobah wandered across the edge of the Reading box, was robbed by a fine tackle and as the home side tried to break out Garner hurtled in with a blocking tackle.  It was heroic, but signified a shift in the game.

3- We’d been warned, and not just today.  We’re still work in progress, the sands are still shifting, it’s not “finished” and there’s already plenty to like.  But right at the moment, right now, we’re not potent enough.  The return on all the impressive, often elegant use of the ball and composed possession is too little punch at the business end.  Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro are both fabulous, Sarr’s will be the dominant thread of the many threads to be resolved over the next couple of weeks, but playing them up front together is like having two puddings and no main course.  A nice idea, but overly indulgent and ultimately unsatisfying.  You might get away with it on special occasions but on a regular basis it’s just not going to work.

We were better than Reading over the piece in the sense that we had more of the ball, more chances, and defended better but not so much better that we could get away with not having many shots or scoring any goals.  And as I said, we were warned…  Cathcart got away with a lucky deflection that saw him accidentally bypass Meite’s challenge on the edge of the area.  The same player got onto the end of a cross swung from right to left, thumping a volley at Foster who did well to block and then to repel a rebound.  Eventually Pușcaș, who did an endearingly belligerent job of charging around up front for the home side, attempted an unconvinced and unconvincing shot which took a deflection off Cathcart to wrong-foot Foster.

We were a bit unlucky with that incident.  If you manage to engineer shots and goals from possession when you have it you can afford such misfortunes when they come along.

4- The second half was a little bit miserable.  We were still trying most of the better things that had been going on in the first half but suddenly it looked a little bit deliberate, a little bit hard work.  Reading were playing with more confidence and did a good job of just getting in the way and threatened from set pieces, where we looked a little bit vulnerable. Much of the good stuff involved James Garner, whose set piece delivery is tremendous and who seemed keen to move the ball quickly which, in the absence of the physicality to threaten a large, solid defence was kinda essential.  Sema moved from an awkward looking spell in the centre to the left after another personnel switch and briefly looked like a get-out-of-jail card with his delivery from wide, but it didn’t happen… we ended the game looking quite forlorn, and quite unlike scoring an equaliser.

5- As was reflected in the post-match Hive discussion, a Troy Deeney in particular would have been useful for the other two to play off, to batter spaces for others to exploit.  To enable goals that weren’t entirely dependent on precision.  Or a Perica.  Or a Gray.  Glenn Murray had a brief cameo, but it’s fair to say that we haven’t worked out what to do with him yet.

Beyond that… an annoying defeat, but nothing to get overly stressed about.  There is still an awful lot more good than bad about this side which is extremely young, extremely fun and still being moulded.  The second of the two transfer windows, the domestic one, closes a couple of hours before we kick off against Derby and by then we’ll know who caught their plane, who was turned back at the gate and who never wanted to leave anyway, honest.

And then, finally, we’ll know where we’re at.  Probably.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 3, Dele-Bashiru 4, *Garner 4*, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Sema (for Dele-Bashiru, 37) 3, Cleverley (for Femenía, 69) 2, Murray (for Sarr, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Quina, Pussetto, Bachmann

Watford 1 Luton Town 0 (26/09/2020) 26/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1-  So there’s a guy who lives in my village.  We won’t name him, let’s call him “George”.  I know him well enough to stop and chat – about football, typically, which may be no surprise.

I ran into him a couple of weeks ago and he wasn’t wasting time with niceties.  “I watched your lot on the telly”, he started, without a “hello”.  “What are they all doing kneeling before the kick-off?”.

It went downhill from there.  From “When I saw your guy holding his fist in the air I turned it off” via “That sort of thing’s why I don’t watch much football any more” to “Why they’re allowed to do that but they can’t put a poppy on a shirt I don’t know” before I was afforded a word.  I briefly suggested that I didn’t share his point of view and took his leave.

The point is, there are wankers.  They’re out there, hiding in plain sight. This probably won’t be news to many of you.  Some of them will support Luton.  Some will support Watford.  George supports neither, as it goes. With particular relevance to this week, the fact that it was deemed necessary to bring the match forward to lunchtime, to box up the GT statue, can only have been based on police advice – you don’t put yourself to that sort of trouble on a whim, because you’re at a loose end.  At the time of writing it seems that nothing “went off”.  That doesn’t make these decisions ill-advised.

There are wankers.  Empty vessels make the most noise.  Yes, it’s pathetic, but there are wankers.  That’s as interesting as it gets.

2- Meanwhile, the first local derby for however long.  I found it significant, in the build up, to reflect that there aren’t anti-Luton songs any more.  I don’t remember the last time “Wings of a Sparrow” or any of the less witty, more banal, “insert-name-of-your-local-rivals-here” chants got an airing.  As you’ll have gathered, I don’t really miss it.

Tied in with that is the fact that local derbies matter more when your teams are competitive rivals (which we haven’t been for a while) and particularly when both teams are rubbish (ditto, at least in our case). Add the fact that anyone under the age of 30 won’t remember the two sides being frequent opponents and the lack of it being quite such a thing any more is easier to understand.

Which isn’t to say that the game was anything other than hugely significant.  In the last week I’ve been reminded of that feeling you used to get, the excitement mixed with apprehension that it was them and we were probably going to lose because that’s what happened.  I hadn’t felt that for more than twenty years, but it was a staple twice-a-season thing once upon a time.

This lasted until the team news, which was a bit like the team news before the Palace quarter final eighteen months ago when Zaha’s absence was confirmed.  The anxiety washed away in blinking, grinning joy.  Suddenly there was no peril, just excitement.  Suddenly you knew we were going to win, like on that day in October 1997.  Ismaïla Sarr may still leave over the next few weeks, but that’s no reason not to enjoy whatever minutes we get.  At this level, he’s a cheat code.

3- Characteristic of too many of our League performances since the lockdown has been a poor start, to the extent that it’s been something worth noting in every game in its own right.  There’s no point taking the gamble of starting Sarr and not beginning on the front foot though, and whilst the opening fifteen minutes of a derby, any derby, is traditionally frantic chest-beating and “Hold on, did anyone bring a ball?” harum scarum, the lack of a crowd and therefore absence of noisy angst from the stands allowed a very entertaining game of football to break out.

In terms of vibe our performance was similar to that in the second half at Hillsborough…  verve, energy and movement lacking only an end product.  With Sarr in the mix however there’s all manner of extra potency;  his pace and threat alongside João Pedro’s awareness and deceptive strength seems almost unfair in the Championship.

For ten or fifteen minutes it was still a little incomplete.  We looked nice and tidy until the final third, but couldn’t get any controlled possession at the business end of the pitch, Sema coming closest by playing through Cleverley with a smart first touch.

But we were soon producing our most fluid football of the season, and whilst the squad remains up in the air there are all sorts of things to be excited about.  Sarr skating at opponents, combining deft touches with brutal physicality and ferocious speed.  No signs of rust whatsoever.  Ngakia uncontainable once again, always available on the overlap and putting in quality with either foot, a horrible player to have to mark.  Tom Cleverley, released from his sitting role by James Garner’s inclusion, in the more advanced ferreting position which has always seen his best stuff.  João Pedro, as above surprisingly resilient, tougher than his spindly frame suggests ought to be possible.  He received plenty of attention from his markers but stood up to all of it – there was a tendency to go looking for a foul but referee John Brooks did a decent job of letting the game run and not blowing up when he didn’t have to.

So with Ngakia and Sarr rampant, it was a bit of a surprise that the goal came from an attack down the left, Ken Sema once again demonstrating that he doesn’t need any space at all to get a cross in and João Pedro adjusting quickly to a deflection to prod home. His first goal in England on his nineteenth birthday.  Not the last.

4- Whilst we were on top it would be wrong to paint this as a completely one-sided contest. The visitors were the strongest side we’ve faced thus far, defended well for the most part, desperately on occasions but doggedly enough to stay in it and always looked dangerous on the break where their attacks were neat and tidy.  Harry Cornick was the biggest threat in the first half, too often finding space down the right.  His ball across was smacked off the underside of the bar by Collins with Foster doing well to come out and force the Luton striker to lift the ball.  That goes in it’s a different game;  as it was we broke and scored, and never really looked back.

At half time of that game at Kenilworth Road in October 1997 I met my now co-editor (as well as the estimable Nick Grundy) for the first time.  This time, things being what they are, I had to settle for grabbing a sandwich.

5- The visitors attempted to seize the initiative at the start of the second half, but this barely lasted beyond an opening corner.  Thereafter it was the Hornets with the greater threat, even if the concern remains that one-nil doesn’t reflect our superiority, that for all the flicks and tricks and movement we’re making scoring goals harder than it should be.  There are no stock goals.

That will come though.  Indeed at the rate at which the kids – and the team as a whole – are improving, that will come very soon.  This one should have been more… from one of a number of excellent James Garner corners Chalobah glanced a header that needed slightly more contact and went wide.  Cleverley fed João Pedro whose flick released Garner, his drive was saved and the Brazilian’s snapshot on the rebound went wide.  Tunnicliffe was sloppy in possession, Sarr put the burners on and Pearson was forced to concede the first booking of the game (in the 75th minute of all things).

By that point Chalobah – excellent and forceful for an hour – had gone off to be replaced by Tom Dele-Bashiru, a less conspicuous addition to the “available” roster.  Briefly it looked as if Chalobah’s physicality might be missed again as we entrusted the back of the midfield to the 21 year-old Nigerian and his 19 year-old Scouse partner in crime, but any concerns were misplaced.  Dele-Bashiru has impressed in fits and bursts with the few chances he’s had since his arrival a year ago, but this was for me his most convincing half-hour in a Watford shirt…  composed under pressure, stingy with possession, direct and purposeful when Luton really wanted to be allowed to have the ball a bit more than they were.  If Dele-Bashiru was bypassed, Garner too proved to be made of much tougher stuff than you’d credit, hurling himself at loose balls, holding off much bigger opponents, and again being mean and rapid with possession.

There wasn’t much of a kitchen sink, much as an equaliser and a distinct change of mood wasn’t entirely off the cards.  Instead the Hornets should again have extended their lead, João Pedro and Sarr combining on the left to allow Dele-Bashiru a shot which Sluga did well to save.  To round off the show, Troy came on like a pantomime dame, barely featured in the play but provided a comedy battering of Luton’s frustrated left back who had made the mistake of taking out his anger on Ngakia.  A “Gifton at the corner flag” moment.  We finished the game well on top, and if Luton look unlikely to be facing a relegation battle this season they were outplayed and outclassed here.  Yes, it’s nice to write that.

6- As suggested during the week, a result in this one makes all the difference to your perspective but the performance on top of that gives real grounds for optimism.  “Building from the back” is hardly a radical strategy, but it’s significant that we’ve conceded (generously) four decent chances across our first three League games.  We won’t go far wrong if that continues;  Cathcart, Kabasele and Wilmot looked very solid indeed and if Troost-Ekong’s signing is as imminent as Twitter seems to believe we seem well catered for here.  Our attacking play sparkled at times today, and whilst the pieces are still sliding in and out of view we have plenty of options – and of course if we do hold on to Sarr, even until January, an outrageous talent by the standards of the Premier League let alone the Championship.

And, a footnote, we beat our local rivals, in the League, here, for the first time since 1987.  It should remain a footnote.  Should beating Luton become one of the more significant details of this season then this team will not have fulfilled its dizzying potential.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 4, *Ngakia 5*, Garner 5, Chalobah 4, Sema 5, Cleverley 5, Sarr 4, João Pedro 5
Subs: Dele-Bashiru (for Chalobah, 63) 4, Deeney (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Quina (for Sarr, 90) NA, Dawson, Femenía, Murray, Bachmann

Newport County 3 Watford 1 (22/09/2020) 23/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- So the most pleasing thing about this evening is the shade of amber of Newport’s shirts. It’s…. not quite as orange as Wolves, not quite as yellow as Bradford. It’s what Newport’s shirts should be.  I guess Shoot League Ladders have a lot to answer for, since we’ve not played Newport since 1978, so I’ve nothing really to base this instinct on.

And actually, it’s arguable whether we played Newport in 1978.  I don’t mean that in a if-Sam-Ellis-falls-over-in-the-penalty-box-and-nobody’s-there-to-hear-him-did-he-make-any-noise kinda way but… we played a Newport County in 1978.  But not this one.  Maybe.  That version of Newport County went out of business in 1989 having dropped out of the league nine months earlier.

They were reformed immediately, and consensus seems to be that this is the same club, which is surely true morally and spiritually, whether or not it would stand up to any legal scrutiny.  But such quandaries are a minefield I tell you… if Newport is a relatively clear cut case, what about Berko and Berko Town? Burton United and Burton Albion?  Folkestone Town became Folkestone in 1968 but there was an earlier “perhaps unrelated” Folkestone before WW2.  What are you supposed to do with that?  I hope your evenings are more productive than mine are.

2- Oh go on then.

The argument was made, more or less a week ago, that in the Current Circumstances a League Cup run would be a more useful thing than it might have been in previous years.  Clubs haven’t had a pre-season to speak of, no time to hone things, to try things out.  It’s like a pre-season with bells on, a competitive pretext.

Our line-up betrayed what we thought of that idea.  Daniel Bachmann, it appeared, was punished for generating another midweek fixture with the captaincy, and our selection was even more threadbare than it had been at Oxford a week ago.  We didn’t even bother to bring an extra body to fill the bench.

The wider question is the current treatment of the squad, which we’ve touched on but not really discussed.  We clearly have players that are injured.  We also have players that are “injured”, either than or we’ve been struck by a injury rampage that disproportionately disables players that want to move or who we want to move.  The commitment to only field “our” players, long-term players, is a bold one from Ivic.  Given the current state of flux, however, there was always the danger that it would lead to a shitshow like this.

3- Forgive me, but I really can’t be arsed to relive that miserable two hours.  I worked my nuts off all weekend, took Monday off to try and reclaim some brain space and saw Monday screwed over as well.  I could have done with something positive this evening.  Jesus.

The first half was as soporific and inadequate as anything we suffered under Pearson after the lockdown.  Different context altogether of course, far more forgivable here but a miserable viewing experience nonetheless.  Defensively we were a shambles;  Craig Dawson, nominally the wise head at the back, seemed to be perfecting the art of playing lazy, aimless passes into the midfield. All the poise of Marco Cassetti’s ball to Vyds against Leicester, none of the end product.  The loose balls were eagerly picked up by Newport’s focused and bullish side, everything that we weren’t, who quickly cottoned on to the fact that there was nothing much to fear here.  Nothing much at all, actually.  Toby Stevenson got caught on the wrong side of his marker, not for the last time, committed a foul in trying to retrieve the situation and the home side were ahead from the spot.

We were no better going forwards.  Glenn Murray, worryingly, looked leaden once again and we failed to build anything much off him – though significantly the one ball that he received to his feet saw him roll his marker and move the ball on.  What good stuff there was was sharp and aggressive but fizzled out like a firework as quickly as it started, Sinclair standing out from the morass with a surging run and then sinking back into it by committing a foul as the ball came back across.  The strongest performer in the first half was Derek Agyakwa in the middle of the three at the back, who had the confidence to surge forward and more finesse than his frame suggested, playing decent balls through Newport’s midfield to feet, our greatest success in navigating the home side’s aggressive press.  Nonetheless, by the break we were two down.

4- I didn’t rush back for the second half, deciding that I wasn’t desperate enough to see the first five minutes to spend brownie points on asking my wife to bring my dinner up when it was ready.  I had to piece together a change in formation to four at the back, Agyakwa now looking less comfortable at right back, and with two changes that saw Peñaranda and Perica replace Murray and the ineffective Hungbo.

Nacho Pussetto switched wings in the change, and looked dynamic and aggressive on the left in stark contrast to much that the team had offered in the first half.  His charge into the box brought a clumsy, ill-advised challenge and a Watford penalty. Peñaranda, keen for the ball but rather playing his own game for his own ends throughout, grasped the spot kick to the chagrin of Stipe Perica whose remonstration with the bench seemed to go unanswered. The Venezuelan’s successful conversion wasn’t celebrated by anyone, no congratulations offered.

Nonetheless, we were looking decent at this point.  James Garner began to look like the metronome that he’s been lauded as, dropping deep to receive the ball and spread it onwards far more fluidly than anything else we managed.  We were on top and suddenly looking like hurting the home side.   Until a loose Dan Phillips pass across the face of the area was seized upon by Padraig Amond and the game was over.

5- Harsh to be too critical of the kids, many of whom struggled.  If as much effort has been devotable to preparing the team as the chosen line-up would suggest they were on a hiding to nothing.  Tommy Mooney’s assertion that they will have benefitted from it is borne of experience, but feels like a very positive spin to me.  A humbling by a team two divisions lower, much the better side on the evening, doesn’t feel like a great preparation for anything much to my mind.

Most of all they were let down by the few senior pros around them;  Murray was quiet and ineffective, Dawson looked a lot happier in a back four in the second half but created all manner of problems for us in the first, Nacho Pussetto went from being our most potent threat to the likeliest recipient of a red card as the game ran away from us, yellow carded and several times told to calm down by the referee until he was subbed for a lively Crichlow.  The dismissal instead went to Stipe Perica for an idiotic, sulky and completely deliberate swing of the elbow into his marker’s jaw.  Once again looking a far more credible line-leader than Murray he will not now be available until beyond the international break.  Criminal, and far more expensive than this League Cup exit.  He knew it, too, his level of embarrassment and frustration at his own stupidity his one saving grace.

An almost entirely miserable evening.  If it’s followed by a win on Saturday of course nobody will remember by next week, unless it’s to praise the decision to bench the senior players that made it possible.  Right now, at 11pm two hours after the final whistle that possibility feels a long way off.

Ho hum.  Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Sierralta 2, Agyakwa 3, Dawson 2, Pussetto 2, *Garner 3*, Phillips 1, Stevenson 1, Sinclair 2, Hungbo 1, Murray 1
Subs: Perica (for Murray, 45) 1, Peñaranda (for Hungbo, 45) 2, Crichlow (for Pussetto, 84) NA, Ngakia, Cathcart, Parkes

Sheffield Wednesday 0 Watford 0 (19/09/2020) 20/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
18 comments

1- If, as has often been observed, and with relevance to the times when travelling to games was possible at all, you only went for the football you’d have a pretty miserable time of it.  There’s other stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Particularly for away games like this one.  The anticipation for one thing…  and, yes, I look forward to the games anyway but it’s not the same as the build up to a trip across the country.  There’s getting up early in the morning to facilitate such a trip, not remotely the same as getting up for work even if it boils down to essentially the same thing.  The sense of mission as you start your journey.  The Ginsters break on the motorway.  The conversation en route.  The visit to a local hostelry before the game, the burger or chips from a van on the way to the ground.  The anticipation as the ground fills up… and then the celebration or rumination and swearing at roadworks and 606 callers as you head back again.

We don’t get that right now, quite obviously.  Our experience is pared down to the focal point without any of the accompanying kerfuffle, and even then it’s on a screen and not in a stadium, with limited company rather than thousands of like-minded individuals.

Not the same, obviously.  Some have argued that football shouldn’t be played under these circumstances, “football without fans is nothing” and so forth. Leaving aside the likelihood that football without football won’t be retrievably football for very long…  I’d suggest that if said folk are lucky enough to have lives that are well-rounded and full enough not to have been compromised, butchered, restricted by circumstances such that they can take this version of football or leave it at the moment then good for them, but wish they didn’t feel that they had to deprive the rest of us of a bit of something that’s a bit like normal if you don’t stare too hard.  Cheers.

2- Given the tantalising talk of Ismaïla Sarr and Luis Suárez maybe coming into consideration and in the light of Liverpool seemingly filling their Sarr-shaped hole with Diogo Jota I won’t have been the only one the have been slightly disappointed by a line-up which saw one change, Glenn Murray effectively replacing Kiko Femenía with Ken Sema dropping to wing-back.  We were facing Wednesday at perhaps a slightly unfortunate time… a squad that has lost a large number of players over the summer will feel the pinch of numbers at some point but having recorded an impressive win in Cardiff will have a bit of tunnel vision in chasing down that twelve point deficit.

The start of the game was scruffy in the extreme.  We started slowly, and as at Oxford struggled to get much of a foothold for the first half.  The home side were pressing aggressively and we struggled for controlled possession all over the pitch.  For half an hour we scarcely ventured out of our own half, although Wednesday rarely looked like capitalising on their territorial advantage.  Their closest calls came from two generously awarded free kicks each taken by Izzy Brown on the edge of the box.  First Dominic Iorfa and then Tom Lees failed to take advantage of a free header in the box – Ken Sema, it appeared, the culprit on each occasion.   On another occasion Josh Windass went down in the area – described on comms as having anticipated a challenge, not found it and gone down because he didn’t know what else to do.  As an aside, I try to avoid other people’s opinions as far as is reasonable before writing this stuff – if there’s any value in these reports it’s not in reproducing second-hand verdict – but in the case of the Yorkshire Post’s hilarious “blatant penalty” I’ll make an exception.  Other than this however we again managed to navigate a period of inferiority without looking like being punished for it.

3- And having gotten a foothold towards the end of the first half we started to push on in the second.  Glenn Murray had a combative but largely ineffective hour or so with João Pedro alongside him starved of the ball, a problem since the Brazilian’s quick feet and nimbleness seemed as likely a way of navigating Wednesday’s press as any other option that we had.  With the introduction of Stipe Perica that balance of power shifted more absolutely and irretrievably;  the Croat succeeded in holding the ball up where Murray had been less effective, and suddely João Pedro was sparkling alongside him.

As we picked up steam the home side began to look ragged, and were relying increasingly on the sort of last ditch tackle that in-control defending ought to render unnecessary.  That Wednesday weren’t in control reflected our growing confidence more than any ineptitude in their part.  We were sparking into life with increasing frequency as the games progressed – it’s wasn’t enough, but it was something.  A breathlessly deft move saw four or five players combine, a blink-and-you-miss-it rattling attack that concluded with João Pedro playing a ridiculously deft flick into Chalobah who lifted a ball to the unmarked Perica.  Slightly ahead of the ball, Perica got the elevation to head downwards but straight at the keeper.  Another quick exchange, again involving Perica, saw Quina brought down on the edge of the area, Sema thumping the free kick over.  João Pedro juggled wide on the left to release Cleverley who put his shot too close to Dawson as defenders closed in.  Sema crossed from the left, Kabasele fired narrowly over.  Sema down the left again broke into the area with some clever footwork only to be denied by Rhodes. We ended the game well in the ascendancy, but over the piece while we looked solid enough and could have won the game we didn’t quite do enough in the final third to feel hard done-by with a point.

5- So what have we learned?  Hardly news given Ivić’s reported stylistic preferences but we look an awful lot better at stopping the other lot than scoring ourselves.  But for our marking at set pieces we looked pretty impenetrable today, as you’d hope from that extremely proficient back three with Cleverley and Chalobah sitting in front of them.  Chalobah, as an aside, is becoming a candidate for that all-but-forgotten mantle of boo-boy, a role largely unoccupied for a decade or so but was excellent today, strong defending and effective supporting attacks.  Better.  All that’s stopping him dominating football games at this level is a need for a bit more assertiveness.

Meanwhile wing-backs are a fine thing in general but particularly when one of them is Jeremy Ngakia, someone who only operates at full speed and puts in a beast of a cross.  On the other side, Kenzema remains a force for good and whilst it’s still not clear exactly where he fits someone who can whip in a cross like that with his left foot given no space to do it is always going to have a role if Stipe Perica is waiting in the centre.

This issues are further forward, where the periods of slower passing followed by lightning quick interchange to penetrate seem to demand Pedro’s ongoing inclusion.  Perica looks tidy and convincing. Quina was more effective today, Murray has a role but overall it’s not potent enough, not yet.

On the plus side, Deeney, Deulofeu, Welbeck and Sarr are waiting in the wings.  Each is likely to leave, but perhaps it’s unlikely that all four will, Sarr the name we’re watching as the clock ticks down.  Any one of them would render our forward line vastly more potent.  Then there’s the less familiar Suárez and the much maligned but still vital threat of Gray.

We’re not in a bad place, it’s coming together and we’re picking up results as we go.  Work in progress.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Cathcart 3, *Kabasele 4*, Wilmot 3, Ngakia 4, Sema 3, Cleverley 3, Chalobah 4, Quina 3, João Pedro 3, Murray 2
Subs: Perica (for Murray, 58) 3, Garner (for Quina, 73) 3, Pussetto (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Sierralta, Dawson, Sinclair, Bachmann

Oxford United 1 Watford 1 (0-3 on pens) (15/09/2020) 16/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- I’m starting thunks at 22:08.  This is not going to be in-depth analysis…

2- So the thing is, the point at which I stop dwelling upon how weird it is and how different it is and how, you know, we wish things were the way they ought to be is the point at which the current state of affairs becomes normalised.  On the other hand, repeating these themes may become a little dull.  It’s a fine line, I tell you…

Pausing only briefly, then, to wonder what manner of Hornet lives in a Hive, Live or otherwise, it’s worth noting the pretty stunning job that the club have done of pulling this together.  No it’s not perfect and yes it helps to have terrific commentators and presenters on hand, not to mention the excellent Tommy Mooney…. and yes of course we’d rather be watching it in an actual stadium (or even a tree…great work lads…)

But to turn around an effort like this, even if not from a standing start, over a six week break or so is tremendous.  However inadequate watching a stream is vs, you know, actually being there not watching it would be far worse. On researching the season preview it was impossible to miss that the vast majority of Championship messageboards contain a thread entitled “iFollow” containing the same complaints about the standard provider that many clubs employ rather than doing it in house.  We’re not badly off I don’t think.

3- Some might question the wisdom of forking out a tenner for a stream to watch a single-camera view of the early stages of the League Cup.  Those same people would probably leave early at the end of a 6-0 pasting, or opt against long drives across the country to watch irrelevant end of season dead-rubbers in the rain.  This is a fundamental part of the process.  To skip it would be like skipping puberty.

Aside from which, those who didn’t fork out missed the spectacle of both sides apparently materialising onto an erstwhile empty pitch during Jon Marks’ intro, as if beamed down from the Starship Enterprise.  The Hornets were in the Sevilla-like all-white-with-red-trim away kit for the first time due to Oxford’s yellow and (dark) blue colours, which confused my instinctive desire to propel the yellows forward for the first half hour or so.  The side featured a predictable mix of youngsters, newbies and fringe players, in as much as these definitions mean a lot at the moment.

And we started OK.  Jerome Sinclair’s bullishness down the right set up a chance for Perica, his neat touch repelled by Oxford keeper Jack Stevens. Shortly afterwards a bomb of a cross from Toby Stevenson on the left, signed earlier in the day having been released from Charlton and perhaps with half an eye on Masina’s injury, again found Perica, who got slightly underneath it and crashed a header off the top of the bar.

This was a recurring pattern with Perica, incredibly tall without being ungainly but perhaps less of a bully than you’d like him to be.  Playing as we’re playing the width is generally coming from the wing backs and therefore the crosses often come from deeper.  Which isn’t easy for a target man, let alone one who’s not played competitively for months.

4- Defensively we looked wobbly, which was hardly surprising with three debutants and the other three of the back six boasting ten starts for the ‘orns between them before tonight.  Oxford, fielding a less-than-full-strength side themselves, were a good mix of tough and tidy, but there was all sorts wrong with their goal from our point of view… Sierralta, who had a shaky first half, Phillips and Chalobah could all have done better but Rob Hall surged onto his chance and thumped past Bachmann from range.

At which point we fell apart.  We had become a little apathetic anyway… standing off Oxford, not chasing down but without the resilience to allow the home side to run themselves into the ground.  Such a strategy is far less credible when you fall behind and we struggled for a foothold…  Quina continued his rather desperate flailing from Friday, Perica failed to hold the ball up and defensively we were a bit of a shambles.  Oxford went for the kill and weren’t very far at all from getting it, denied on one occasion by the post, on others by unkind bounces and more than once by the custodian, but we’ll get to him.

5- The half-time switch of Sema for Chalobah may have been pre-planned, but bringing Kabasele in for the Dutch youngster Derek Agyakwa was emergency surgery.  Agyakwa was no more culpable than anyone else in that first half and had put in one stout challenge to stem an early attack, but we needed someone in there who knew what they were doing and whilst acknowledging that Oxford already had the lead and that we didn’t exactly deny them any opportunities in the second half the Belgian’s impact was nonetheless pretty immediate and we looked an awful lot more solid.

And aggressive, thank heavens.  A game and a half in you’re wondering how we ever coped without Ken Sema, whose broad hunched shoulders are very un-wingery but yet who looks a pretty vital cog in this season’s squad.  Dom Quina got hold of the ball a bit and started to exert some control.  We pushed back on Oxford and Stevenson provided another superb arcing cross.  João Pedro came off the bench and is half-a-second here and a metre-or-so there away from being completely brilliant.  We looked better.  Credible.

But when Marc Navarro pulled first a shirt and then a hamstring in trying to snuff an Oxford attack it really did look like the jig was up.  Instead we seemed to get stronger… Sierralta became a very lanky but reasonably effective right-winger.  João Pedro sent an impossible pass through that didn’t quite find it’s target.  The biggest criticism was…  a lack of goal threat, despite Perica’s very obvious prominence and threat in the air.  You kinda feel that will come…  he got his head to everything.

And in the end, that’s how the goal arrived, another good ball from Stevenson and this time Perica’s cuhsioning it down at the far post, João Pedro should probably score himself but scuffs his shot to Sema who tucks home in the last minute of the 90.

6- And the rest is all about Daniel Bachmann.  He was already Watford’s man of the match before the penalty shoot-out, a number of saves ranging from an instinctive block with the legs to athletic stretched blocks to a quite impossible save to deny Hall a fine headed goal.


But the penalty shoot-out was ridiculous.  You hope we’ve not spent our perfect penalty shoot-out at too inauspicious a time but it was a perfect penalty shoot-out.  That vibe, that sense you get of which way it’s going to go as the first spot kick is lined up was screaming in his favour before the first kick after the game he’d had.  He made three saves, two to his right and one to his left, meaning that after Kenzema and Quina had converted confidently Stipe Perica was able to slide us into the third round and a trip to Newport.  Bachmann, undisputedly, the hero of the hour.  If there were any question regarding his ability to step into Heurelho Gomes’ shoes (and the rather desperate, unbecoming conduct of Robin Olsen’s agent notwithstanding) that question remains no longer.

As for the bigger piece…  after the first couple of games, if this were the end point you probably wouldn’t be banking on promotion.  But this isn’t the endpoint, or anything close to it.  We’re fumbling our way towards mid-October by which point, one way or another, we are likely to be significantly stronger and picking up results along the way.

So far so good.

Yooorns.

*Bachmann 5*, Navarro 2, Stevenson 3, Sierralta 3, Agyakwa 2, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 3, Phillips 3, Quina 3, Sinclair 3, Perica 3
Subs: Sema (for Chalobah, 45) 3, Kabasele (for Agyakwa, 45) 3, João Pedro (for Sinclair, 60) 3, Pussetto, Ngakia, Murray, Parkes

Watford 1 Middlesbrough 0 (11/09/2020) 12/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- “Heidi’s climbing on my head.  She’s just got back.  She says she won at ballet”.

This was always going to be a season like none that went before it, and the pre-match conference with my brother is fittingly unusual.  By this time we’d seen the team, and blinked several times.  The Spurs eleven was already sparse but never felt consciously experimental… this is where we are, at least for now.  But from that side we lost Estupiñan, Dawson, Dele-Bashiru and hamstring victim Gray with Perica also missing despite his signing having been confirmed in the week.  Jerome Sinclair is on the bench for goodness sake, which is something that none of us thought we’d see again.  As of maybe three years ago.

The official justifications for our many, many absences – 17, reportedly… that it’s hard to keep track tells you everything – range from injured to ill to unfit, often vague and understandably so.  There’s injured and there’s “injured”, one suspects. Twitter rumour claims that Craig Dawson has refused to play, which if true given his miserable half-arsed effort against Spurs is comparable to Andy Cole’s notorious retirement from international duty.

As for whoever has had their agent whining to the Daily Mail about having to work too hard in training….  underperforming last season, being part of a relegated side is a stain on anyone’s reputation but far from beyond redemption.  Not at the very least being prepared to put a shift in whilst you’re still at the club, risking undermining the rebuilding of the side in the process by publicly clutching at your pearls at the prospect of hard work?  Weak.  Shut the door on your way out.

2- Back on the pitch, if the cast has changed then the set-up is unrecognisable from last season.  A back three, wing-backs, two sitting midfielders and two attacking midfielders loosely either side of the forward.

And we look OK.  We look get-attable certainly, at least initially…  Assombalonga and Fletcher have scruffy half-chances but too many of them, and scruffy half-chances can become scruffy goals if you concede too many of them.  Nonetheless… when Wilmot strides forward or Femenía screams down the left we attack like sandsnakes, wriggling into space and opening Boro up during this opening period.  From one of a number of corners Quina changes the angle by laying off to the dynamic Sema who is quickly closed down, but not quickly enough to prevent a beast of a cross. Cathcart thunders in, brutally exposing and ripping open a moment’s lack of concentration.  The merciless precision of the move made Hall’s transgression look worse than it was.

3- We’re going to be quite good at being a goal up, I suspect.  Here we are after the most chaotic of pre-seasons with a squad spinning like a mobile in the breeze, with a new boss running his first training sessions in a new language without his assistants in tow just yet.   And for the rest of the game… no, we don’t look significantly better than a tough, dogged Boro side but we don’t look significantly better whilst being one-nil up and rarely looking like being anything else.  That’s a hell of an achievement on the part of the new boss.

The second half sees us sit much deeper.  The occasional rapier runs are much less frequent, but so is any suggestion that Boro will equalise.  It’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility…  Hall sends a volley over, there are a couple of awkward bounces in the box and probably more set pieces than you’d like to be facing but Cathcart, Kabasele and Wilmot keep the visitors at arms length for the most part.  We concede a single yellow card when Britt Assomablonga tussles his way past Ben Wilmot via a grip on the most delicate of leverage.  You can’t unsee that, approach replays with caution. Rather that than being on the receiving end though, an understandable transgression on the young defender’s part.

4- Looking at individual performances, there’s a lot to like from the new(ish) faces.  Wilmot, as above, digs in and is much more robust than his 20 years and slim frame suggest.  Ngakia’s passing is wayward but his energy is tremendous, and he’s involved at both ends of the pitch.  Quina is mobile but gets smothered too easily, too often the point at which attacks break down.

But João Pedro is the surprise package.  Sort of, and not really, obviously… he’s been in our minds since long before he was allowed to sign, long before Liverpool and Barcelona were sniffing around but we got him anyway.  Just a surprise in that…  such prodigies haven’t always quite become the superstars that they were going to be in our heads.  The Brazilian still might not, but this wasn’t half a promising full league debut.  Eighteen and slim but somehow spinning and holding the ball up and battling and sweeping through balls and getting kicked but lasting ninety minutes.  If by some miracle we hang onto Sarr – and reports today suggest that Liverpool will have to save all their pocket money in order to sign him in January – then my word.  Sarr running off the Brazilian?  Yes please.

5- Whilst there are other strong performances from experienced players – Chalobah has his best game for what, given the last six months, pretty much equates to living memory, Tom Cleverley is again every inch a captain alongside him – the collective whole only works up to a point.  Defensively, as above, we look as good as could possibly be expected in the circumstances.  Going forward, the good bits – and there are good bits – don’t quite fit together.  Don’t all quite lock in place.

But good god.  This is the very definition of work in progress. We needed a win any which way today, a win with so much to admire about it is more than good enough in the circumstances.  We have a list of absentees that is, perhaps goalkeepers aside, vastly superior to the squad we were able to put out. We won the game anyway.  A team, playing a game, under a manager that was completely unfamiliar.  We won at ballet. For the timebeing, that will more than do.

Bring on the next one.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, *Cathcart 4*, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 4, Ngakia 3, Cleverley 4, Chalobah 4, Femenía 3, Quina 2, Sema 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: Murray (for Sema, 66) 3, Navarro (for Femenía, 76) NA, Phillips (for Quina, 89) NA, Sierralta, Pussetto, Sinclair, Bachmann