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Watford 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0 (18/01/2020) 19/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- The thing about going on a mental run like the one we’ve been on is that you suddenly expect to win every game.  Moderation, balance, goes out of the window.  “I’d take a point today” is a viewpoint I can rarely reconcile myself with at the worst of times, definitely not at the moment.

This feeling, this careless excitement and anticipation that every game will be a rout is a comforting, nostalgic thing.  This is how we used to view each game when we were kids…  partly because we were kids and, you know, that’s how kids view the world.  Partly because we had GT in charge and a rout was, if not  always a racing certainty then at the very least a possibility.

The third anniversary-ish of GT’s passing is a bright, cold day.  Spurs’ support is less wholeheartedly engaged in the scarf-lifting thing than their predecessors as visitors on this occasion in previous years have been.  We get a polite round of applause, but no scarves. Allowances need to be made, of course.  They’re Spurs fans after all.  Similarly disappointing is switching ends such that we’re both kicking towards the Rookery and into the lunchtime sun in the first half.

2- So much for a rout.  You can’t really implement such a thing without the ball, and we don’t see much of that for the first ten minutes or so.  Spurs are without a focal point in the absence of Kane, but they don’t need one to keep possession;  a rout will have to wait.

Relatively unacknowledged during our recent run, however, is our defensive form.  When you’ve got a potent attack you take the pressure off the backline of course, opponents have too much to think about to pile forward in numbers.  This helps.  But in any case, two goals conceded in six Premier League games since Anfield – and only one deflected effort from open play – is pretty extraordinary. “Nobody has kept more clean sheets in the Premier League this season” similarly remarkable. We stood up well to these early questions, and soon asserted ourselves.  Gerard Deulofeu against Serge Aurier looked like it had potential, and when left back Japhet Tanganga was booked for a clumsy foul on the escaping Ismaïla Sarr Spurs were in trouble.  It was a good foul for Spurs though, and a slightly fortunate outcome;  Tanganga was panicked rather than cynical, you rather doubt whether he know quite how close to the penalty area he was, or whether anyone was catching Sarr had he escaped the challenge, “clear goalscoring opportunity” or otherwise.

3- As the game settled down it was the Hornets who began to dominate, through a feature of the game that had been widely anticipated, specifically us kicking ten bells out of the visitors’ lightweight midfield.

One of the many spectacular and bizarre features of our turnaround has been the re-invigoration of that mercilessly effective area of the team.  Étienne Capoue’s level of performance has remained relatively high, relative at least to the lower bar set by many of his teammates, but Doucs had been a shadow of his intimidating best.  Since Pearson’s arrival the pair of them have rediscovered their collective mojo, they’re a monstrous weapon when they’re both on song.  As an aside, they could plausibly have been half a monstrous weapon late in the first half…  Capoue’s high tackle on Tanganga was clumsy rather than malicious but could certainly have been a yellow (or even a red from an excitable referee, a risky challenge anyway), but he followed this up with something that was later cited as worthy of the Paul Robinson scrapbook, ploughing into Lo Celso and earning his booking.  A five minute window to bear in mind next time we feel slightly aggrieved at a decision.

But then there’s Chalobah.  What a bloody joy it is that such a fine footballer, such a patently nice man is absolutely, finally, incontrovertibly not on a slow downward slope to a much more disappointing career than his ability and character deserve but is back on the conductor’s rostrum.  He has been afforded that possibility in part by circumstance and injuries and in part by his manager’s faith but whatever.  His performance level is accelerating dramatically and he’s a joy here, killing long passes with a touch, fooling his markers with a well-timed raising of an eyebrow and stepping away from a forest of legs with the ball.  Just wonderful.

4- So the game settles into a pattern.  Watford have territorial possession, but Spurs are always a theoretical threat, screaming out on the break with spins and twists.  This probably suits them in a way, given their lack of a striker and is reminiscent of how we tried to play at their place with Bobby and Deulofeu up front once Welbeck went off, but they’re just a little bit too potent for you to be comfortable sitting back and counterattacking yourselves.

Before the break there are chances at both ends;  Foster is out adroitly to smother at Moura’s feet, Troy should have done better with a Sarr cross than to head directly at Gazzanigga and then almost gets a lucky break, an unwitting deflection rolling just the wrong side of the post as the half ends.

Troy’s having fun though, as he tends to do against Alderweireld and Vertonghen.  His aerial superiority is such that he tends to be able to get good direction on his headers and as such perhaps its a nagging concern that we don’t make more of that, that Deulofeu doesn’t embarrass the hapless Aurier quite often enough, and particularly that Sarr having Tanganga on toast doesn’t lead to as many attempts on goal as it ought to.  Another post-match suggestion is that we could really use a poacher attacking the near post for some of these crosses.  Either way, Sarr is suddenly the most potent cutting edge of the team and is accelerating upwards…  stuff to be gotten right, rather than any gaping flaws.  He’s huge fun.

Spurs are always a threat, we’re never quite beating the door down.  The closest we come to doing so is in the build up to the penalty, given and largely undisputed for a handball by Vertonghen, which was coming by dint of weight of pressure.  It’s not a great penalty, very savable if the keeper goes the right way…  harsh to blame Troy really who more than pulls his weight throughout, but I’d always prefer he missed by absolutely spanking it if he’s going to miss at all.  Call me childish, but there’s great satisfaction in seeing the ball hit as hard as he did at Wembley.

Spurs come close themselves when Alli gets slightly underneath Son’s rapier cross, and then again when the Korean screams in from the right and slashes narrowly over.  But that we deprive Spurs of many clear chances is down to sterling defensive work, and no greater credit than to Adam Masina.  At the end of last season Masina was regarded as adequate cover for Jose Holebas, with the jury out on whether he had enough to establish himself as the long term successor.  Over the last few games, and much as Kiko was making hay out of position before his own injury, he’s begun to answer that question.  I thought he was the pick of an excellent bunch at Bournemouth (albeit from a viewing point in the Ship in Bedford rather than from Dorset) and he’s tremendous again here… athletic, attentive, brave and potent at both ends of the pitch.  Nige’s approach of not changing a successful team if he doesn’t have to ought to see Adam in situ for the foreseeable on this form.

5- There’s still time for an excitable debut for Ignacio Pussetto, a footnote to the most worrying development of the afternoon.  Sarr had visibly flagged, but chased back admirably to snuff out a Spurs break only to apparently pull a hamstring.  He didn’t look massively uncomfortable as he left the pitch, but even if he only misses Tuesday that’s a huge pain in the backside.

Pussetto, meanwhile, makes a startling first contribution by clearing from all-but-a-centimetre behind the line a scruffy, scrambled effort that would have changed the tone altogether.  As it is, we feel slightly less aggravated at two points lost, if only slightly.  Pussetto, meanwhile, can perhaps best be summed up as “needing time to get up to the speed of the game”, as his brief contribution suggests bravery without the ball but not an awful lot of robustness with it.  The game ends, Jose bleats about the Capoue and about a fictional penalty claim in the first half.  Nobody cares.

The most obvious conclusion is, “haven’t we come a long way to be going toe-to-toe with Spurs and being a bit narked at not beating them”.  And of course this is true.  And we haven’t lost and we’ve not lost ground and so on.  But there’s a risk here.

Comments on Twitter, where admittedly all possible opinions can be found if you look hard enough, suggest that this is already done.  Certainly Spurs fan Hus rolls his eyes at the suggestion that we’re still in trouble.  “You won’t go down playing like that” is the unspoken implication and he’s right, of course.

But while we’re playing “like this” we’ve got to win winnable games.  We’re playing strong mid-table football at worst at the moment, but that’s on top of half a season of, loosely, relegation form.  We’ve pulled ourselves up with the pack and are probably no longer anybody’s favourites to go down.  We’ll probably be OK.  But probably and definitely aren’t the same thing.

Fortunately there’s a monstrous trip to Villa Park on Tuesday to focus everyone’s attention.  See you there.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Mariappa 3, *Masina 4*, Dawson 4, Cathcart 3, Capoue 4, Chalobah 4, Doucouré 3, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Pereyra (for Chalobah, 79) NA, Pussetto (for Sarr, 89) NA, Holebas, Kabasele, Quina, Gray, Gomes

 

Watford 3 Tranmere Rovers 3 (04/01/2020) 05/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- So.  The FA Cup again, then.  Given the mental scars inflicted in Wembley in May you may have considered whether this is all worth it, whether being tanked in a high profile game on global TV is much to aspire to.  Which… just goes to show that thinking about any of this too much doesn’t do any good. If we judged the value of this pursuit in our trophy haul rather than in the enjoyment of the journey, say, (Troy’s penalty in the semi anyone?) neither Watford nor Tranmere would have the followings that they do.

Winning the cup, or getting into Europe via our League position last season would have been particularly timely, mind.  Yesterday saw me reach 25 years with my employer (I celebrated the end of my first week with a trip to a notorious cup tie at Scarborough), and reaching this milestone comes with a significant financial windfall which could justifiably have been spent on frivolous trips to Norway, Lithuania or Belgium.  Ho hum.

Said employment sees me make regular trips to the Wirral… past Prenton Park and Birkenhead on the Mersey Rail. A vast horde have made loosely the reverse journey today, filling the “normal” away section and a significant proportion of the overspill of the Vicarage Road end afforded by FA Cup away allocation rules.  Thought number one is to ponder why Watford away is such a big pull for the support of a side struggling at the foot of League One, big respect in any case.  Thought number two is to ponder that most of those in the away end, even those over the age of 30, are probably completely oblivious of the significance afforded to what, to them, was probably a mundane away defeat here in 1999.  My god.  Thought number three is to wonder how many of our matchday squad weren’t even born in April 1999.  Answer:  eight.  Eight!  With Sarr and Callum Whelan babes in arms.  Thought number four is to Stop Thinking.

2- Nige isn’t messing about as far as the team’s concerned.  It’s the sort of side that many of us would have picked I think, given the desperate need to rest legs that have achieved high intensity wins with ten men twice over the last week but the limited options available in defensive positions in particular.  It looks fun.

Bachmann and Spencer-Adams make debuts and Dele-Bashiru a full debut, with the bench populated with kids of whom Sarr at 21 is both the veteran and the only one with League experience in the UK.  Bayli Spencer-Adams is perhaps the least anticipated; the former Arsenal youngster makes a nervous start, rushed into a sloppy clearance when charged down from the kick-off but settles down and does well.

It’s an untidy opening.  Proper untidy, piles of year-old discarded takeaway cartons and Channel 5 reality-TV shows untidy rather than the odd forgotten tea cup untidy.  But gradually we start to dominate possession and there seems to be a concerted effort to move the ball around, to get Tranmere running.

Tom Dele-Bashiru has already caught the eye.  His tight control is pretty extraordinary, he seems to roll around challenges with the ball in implausibly close proximity to his feet.  Twelve minutes in he’s afforded far too much space on the edge of the box and capitalises, a beautiful strike across the crowded penalty area.  He’s a long way down the pecking order and linked with a loan this window but doesn’t do himself any harm in this first half.

Two minutes later it’s two-nil as Nate Chalobah, who bosses the first half, capitalises on some sloppy Rovers defending to crash home.  Game over.  Fifteen minutes of comfortable possession later it’s three;  Isaac, who is slightly frustratingly fielded out wide rather than straight down the centre, has had a stinking first twenty minutes but gets the ball down here, drops a shoulder to fool his marker and surges goalwards.  He feeds Gray with a precise pass, the ball reaches Bobby Pereyra and it’s three-nil.

3- It’s easy to blame complacency, but there wasn’t a Watford supporter in the stadium who wasn’t wondering how many we might get at this stage.  Admittedly we’re not the ones being paid to do a professional job, we’re the ones paying for the right to come in and get all cocky about games against lower division opposition if such is our preference.  Nonetheless…  we were looking sharp and in control, and cutting through Rovers relatively easily.  We thought the job was done.  We all thought the job was done.

As it stood, the job was done.  So a couple of things changed.  Significantly we lost Nathaniel Chalobah at the break; a groin injury it transpired, one can only hope a precautionary move given that he didn’t obviously suffer during the half. Nate is probably the most vital of the starting eleven to the first team at the moment so we’d thought he was withdrawn to protect him with the match apparently safe.

The great cost was to the physicality of our midfield, so rarely an issue in the normal way with Caps and Doucs involved.  When Dom Quina, erratic with his distribution but combative and adept at burying into challenges, went off too we were left with a lightweight trio of the rather too dainty Dele-Bashiru, the busy but slight Callum Whelan and a rather passive Roberto Pereyra.

The other big change was the visitors’ demeanour.  Any number of flavours of capitulation would have been predictable at this stage;  instead they took advantage of a less focused, less ruthless approach from the Hornets and seemed to figure that they had nothing to lose.  In the first half it was clear that they were better at going forward than defending;  more fool us for allowing the game to gravitate towards the areas of the pitch that they were good at.

That first half had seen veteran centre back Peter Clarke come closest, crashing a far post header narrowly wide from a set piece.  Clarke, as an aside, is one of an odd trio of players on Rovers’ books (midfielder Perkins and the injured Ishmael Miller the other) to have faced us together both for Huddersfield and for Blackpool, including the memorable 7-2 win in the promotion season.  Rovers’ midfield trio, also featuring 38 year-old Neil Danns, had an average age of 34 and I’d expected this to count against them as the second half drew on.

Instead their physicality helped them – many of their players were broad, solid and rectangular – and when the game started to trundle away from us we were unable to obstruct it sufficiently.  The youngster in Rovers’ midfield, 28 year-old Connor Jennings, grabbed a header.  Then Daniel Bachmann, who had had a decent enough debut up to this point, spilled a cross and in the mess that followed the enormous Manny Monthé, who had battered the ineffectual Andre Gray throughout and is reportedly a January target of Kenny Jackett at Pompey, turned in a second.

Our young team began to feel the effects of cramp on their untested legs – Spencer-Adams and Quina had both been withdrawn, the former replaced by another youngster, Mason Barrett.  His rash challenge on the edge of the box was, like Rovers’ first, studied at length by VAR but such was the momentum of the half that the penalty’s (correct) award, reversing the referee’s award of a corner, felt as inevitable as Paul Mullin’s conversion.  The away end went mental.

4- A sideshow in the second half was the debut of the long-awaited João Pedro, whose signing had been arranged in October 2018 and was finally completed on his turning 18 and being afforded a work permit.

I was reminded of a trip to Gresty Road in 2001; pre-match, Crewe fan Kev, when asked about 17 year-old Dean Ashton, already pulling up trees, suggested “well you’d serve him in a pub, put it that way”.  Our Brazilian isn’t quite a man mountain but he’s tall and leggy and powerful for such a young man.  Raw, certainly, but not that raw… confident enough to fly into challenges, strong enough to hold people off.  When Isaac Success, one of few to impress in the second half, roared down the centre and released him down the left, João Pedro stepped neatly inside and fired a shot towards the bottom corner that was deflected narrowly wide by a stray heel.  Quite mouthwatering skill.

Later he switched to the right and fried his Tranmere marker in the area, pushing the ball one side and running the other to the approval of the Rookery.  He’s a young lad in a new country, yes yes.  Raw and inexperienced, yes yes.  But don’t be surprised to see him on the bench regularly between now and the end of the season on this evidence.

5- The biggest frustration, pending diagnosis of Nate’s groin injury, was the red card afforded to Bobby Pereyra which is likely to rule him out for Bournemouth and Spurs as well as the replay.  Not obvious what had happened at the time, only his lack of protest calmed objections from the stands.  On replay there’s a stroppy kick at his marker – unprofessional, unnecessary.  The dismissal a bit harsh, but not harsh enough to be overturned on appeal though I don’t doubt we’ll give it a go.

The game ended with Adam Masina – who did as good a job of any of the senior players of dragging the team along by its bootstrings in the aggravating second half – putting a set piece over.

A replay, then.  Frustrating, irritating.  Sloppy and unnecessary but neither the end of the world nor a foregone conclusion. Another opportunity for fringe players to impress, one suspects, though we could do with a little more physical presence – Troy on the bench, for example, would be no great surprise at Prenton Park.

In the meantime, another massive league fixture in Dorset on Sunday.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Mariappa 3, Dawson 3, Spencer-Adams 3, Masina 4, *Chalobah 4*, Quina 3, Dele-Bashiru 3, Pereyra 2, Success 3, Gray 2
Subs: João Pedro (for Chalobah 45) 3, Whelan (for Quina, 61) 2, Barrett (for Spencer-Adams 77) NA, Sarr, Dalby, Hungbo, Parkes

Watford 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (01/01/2020) 02/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I’ve managed to avoid 606 for a long time.  If there’s not a 5.30 match commentary to fill the hour’s drive home post-match there are podcasts.  Or, you know, silence.  Or opening a window and screaming into the wind.  Any of which are significantly more enjoyable than an inane call-in show.

But I caught a bit of 606 this evening, jumping between stations.  A Spurs fan babbling about not very much, chanced upon some rare insight.  Monkeys, typewriters and so on.  “Spurs are like a ghost of the team of last season, or of the season before….”.

I don’t give a shit about Spurs.  Nobody, perhaps not even Spurs fans, gives a shit about Spurs.  But the phrase is a good one, and describes what we’ve been watching for much of this campaign.  An echo, a ghost of last season’s team – bits of things that look familiar but ineffective, incomplete.  Something you thought you saw, thought you recognised, but then it’s gone again and you question whether it was ever really there at all.

Nige has reanimated that ghost.  And it’s no wispy, semi-transparent spectre.  There’s nothing eerie about this.  Nothing chilling and ethereal.  This is a no-shit poltergeist, throwing plates around, smashing up the furniture.  Nothing half-arsed here.  This ghost is suddenly more real than its original incarnation.  And it’s bloody brilliant.

2- This is my nephew Emmu’s first football game.  He’s six.  Today is quite possibly the most exciting thing EVER and he seems to be on a mission to not blink for the duration.  If there’s going to be a ghost materialising by a corner flag during a quiet passage in play, you can bet your life Emmu’s going to be all over it.

And he sees a strong start.  Nige has once again only made enforced changes despite the recent flood of fixtures.  Dawson in at right back for the suspended Mapps, his first Watford outing in the position he most frequently filled for West Brom in the top flight.  Chalobah in for Hughes, finally earning another start. We’re trying to take it to them.  We’re aggressive and punchy, but it doesn’t feel like battering a paper bag like against Villa four days ago.  Wolves are resilient, and soon begin to dominate possession.

It could have been a very different game of course.  Fine margins.  One day, when we’re comfortably clear of the drop zone, perhaps when our safety is assured, perhaps when our safety is assured by a margin that would accommodate a points deduction on the basis of Étienne Capoue being too f***ing cool it would be interesting to see how we cope with being behind again.  Maybe.  As an intellectual exercise.

As it is, we avoid that indignity but there’s not much in it.  Particularly when Matt Doherty does that thing where he smuggles himself unseen from right wing-back to centre forward by virtue of some hidden sub-pitch tunnel.  Coady’s through ball peels us right open and we should be behind, but Ben Foster makes his thirty-second critical save of the last fortnight.

Minutes later Raúl Jiménez drags a shot wide.  I’m distracted by daughter 2 asking about the distinction between orange and yellow luminous jackets on ground staff, but it’s a sloppy finish from the Mexican.  Again, the game could have gone differently here.

3- So no, we’re not going to find out how adept we are at coming from behind today, but we do get plenty of new insights.  First, Wolves are not a flabby, shapeless United and they’re not a brittle, limited Villa.  They’re a very decent side and they’re going to dominate possession for most of the game.

But suddenly.  Suddenly after months of having no threat whatsoever we are strong enough and potent enough to take Wolves’ punches and to come back with jabs of our own.  It’s like that scene in Superman 2 (ask your parents, kids) where Zod expects Supe to kneel before him and gets more than he bargains for.  Some sloppy Wolves play, but only a bit sloppy, only commentworthy because Sarr is onto it and Gerry is gone and he opens his body up and finishes brilliantly.   And then he’s taking a ball slightly too early and getting underneath it, firing over but it could have been two.  And then Sarr is off again, dancing onto a Troy pass and holding off two markers and flicking beautifully, narrowly wide.  It deserved a goal for artistry, impudence, comic timing.  It could have been three.

We have an attack.  And by god we have a midfield.  Capoue is stamping all over everything again.  Lyon?  They could mortgage the whole bloody city and not be anywhere close.  Doucs has refound his mojo and the two of them are, as Troy has said, as good as three midfielders between them.  Which releases Nathaniel Chalobah, a fine fine footballer but without perhaps the natural arrogance of his two colleagues, a platform to dance on.   All three are magnificent.

And the back?  The back is holding out.  The back, it turns out, will be a deflection away from a third home clean sheet on the trot.  Key here is Kiko, whose metamorphosis from a fun but slightly flaky right back into a hard-ass left back is exemplified by his bottling up of Adama Traoré.  Traoré is suddenly the extraordinary physical specimen with no end product that we all understood prior to this season, prior to him seemingly becoming a footballer. He’s not permitted an end product today.

The point is that it’s not just a case of a couple of players getting fit, or of Nige sorting out the defence, say, or of one or two finding a bit of form.  Everything looks brilliant.  The big players are playing and – get this – the fringe players are suddenly awesome too.  Chalobah, Kiko, yes, but also Masina who is going to come off the bench and kick what needs kicking late on.  The whole thing suddenly works.  It’s like having too much oxygen.

4- Wolves might have had a plan at the start of the second half but it doesn’t have time to have any impact.  Gerry is dancing through again and finding Doucs and he absolutely spanks it and we get our own helpful deflection that Neto will balance out later and it’s 2-0 and Doucs is beyond delighted.  It’s joy in the stadium, it’s catharsis on his face.

Wolves make two changes, mix their personnel around but almost simultaneously we’re forced into one ourselves as Kiko twists something and goes down.  It doesn’t look good.  Whilst having Holebas back in the fold after a month is great and he does his agitation thing to a tee, he hasn’t got Kiko’s pace and Traoré starts to cut loose.  Almost immediately Neto, who had been booked for the second of two tumbles in the penalty area in the first half, cashes in his deflection which sends his shot beyond Foster.

Wolves bring on Jota, a far bigger nuisance than his moderate goal tally this season suggests he ought to be, and within minutes he’s wriggling free.  Kaba takes him down, we hold our breath.  It’s only yellow.  Then it isn’t.

It’s one he could have rather than should have gotten away with.  As far as VAR is concerned, the only thing the episode proves absolutely is the fallacy of technology being able to sort problems out, since there are a multitude of interpretations of this incident.  And they’re all painfully dull.  Beyond dispute is that we have a hell of a job on.

5- Would you have taken a point at this stage?  I wouldn’t, but then I never would under any circumstances.  A reasonable, rational evaluation would have done.  A goal up but a man down against an excellent side capable of using the ball well, a side who specialise in late goals at the best of times?  In a christmas period in which we’ve already got a decent couple of wins?  A draw wouldn’t have been a disaster.

How has this happened?  How, from being less than the sum of our parts, so much less, have we become this?

We’ll draw a veil over the final twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes of bloody-mindedness, bodies thrown in the way, discipline, nerves, sore throats, fist punching, defiance.  It features Ismaïla Sarr, whose strength is as striking as his speed, emulating Gifton Noel-Williams’ efforts of twenty-one years ago by taking part in a game of keep ball in the corner before being slowed down by his team mates as he makes his away across to be subbed.  Troy is booked for time wasting, slightly harshly.  Ben is booked for time wasting, less harshly.  Wolves huff and puff, Foster saves from Doherty.  And it’s done.

This is a quite ridiculous win.  Yes yes, Wolves have had a sapping couple of games, a small squad, a tough schedule.  But they’re still a very good side, in good form.  It’s extraordinary.  And it leaves us, instead of nine points from safety before United, eight points from Arsenal, who are top half.

We need to keep winning, obviously.  That’s the thing about coming from so far behind, you need to start winning and keep winning.  But nobody in the stadium today will doubt our ability to do so.  Least of all Nuno Espirito Santo who graciously conceded his side’s inferiority but his eyes looked hollow.

Almost as if he’d seen a ghost.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 5, Dawson 4, Femenía 5, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, *Capoue 5*, Chalobah 5, Doucouré 5, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 5, Deeney 4
Subs: Holebas (for Femenía, 60) 4, Masina (for Deulofeu, 72) 4, Pereyra (for Sarr, 92) NA, Gray, Quina, Success, Gomes

The List – January 2020. 30/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the summer window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout January so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 28

IN

Karlan Grant (Huddersfield Town)
Ryan Manning (Queens Park Rangers)
Tobias Pachonik (VVV Venlo)*
Milot Rashica (Werder Bremen)
Haissem Hassan (Châteauroux)*
Ronald Sobowale (Whyteleafe)*
Aurelio Buta (Antwerp)
Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona)*                          – joined Schalke on loan
Oğuzhan Özyakup (Beşiktaş)
Conor Wickham (Crystal Palace)
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Los Angeles Galaxy)                                   – joined Milan
Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese)                                                  – SIGNED
Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş)*
Daniel Opare (Antwerp)
Unai Núñez (Athletic Bilbao)
Ricardo Rodríguez (Milan)
Cheikh Niasse (Lille)
Loris Benito (Bordeaux)
Jarrad Branthwaite (Carlisle United)                                  – joined Everton
Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli)
Mohamed Simakan (Strasbourg)
Sebastián Vegas (Monarcas Morelia)
Prince Goiano (Amiens)
Joe Bryan (Fulham)
Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth)
Lucas Biglia (Milan)
Hassane Kamara (Reims)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Kacper Radkowski (Varsovia Warsaw)

OUT

Gerard Deulofeu (Milan*)
Ben Foster (Sheffield United)
Dmitri Foulquier (Nantes, Granada)                           – joined Granada on loan
Étienne Capoue (Lyon)
Luis Suárez (Getafe)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Udinese*)
Tom Dele-Bashiru (Zulte Waregem)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (West Ham*)
Adam Masina (Milan)
Christian Kabasele (Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, West Ham, Tottenham)
Isaac Success (Nantes, Espanyol, CSKA Moscow)
Andre Gray (Leeds United, Nottingham Forest)

2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer

Watford 3 Aston Villa 0 (28/12/2019) 29/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Folk have different approaches to relative adversity.  In football specifically, since (for instance) my outlook as regards football differs to my attitude to pretty much anything else.  I tend to be on the positive end of the spectrum, partly because I’m so reliant on being able to believe that Watford will continue to be something that I can, well, rely on.

This proclivity can be particularly irritating to those whose instinct is more critical or downbeat when things are going wrong.  I have, in the past, been accused of being a “happy clapper”.

But it turns out that there’s a difference between saying something, taking a positive line, even believing it…    and that positive line actually playing out.  Because saying that this was all in our control, that the gap to safety was surmountable if we sorted our shit out, was no great foresight. It was a statement of fact.

But we have sorted our shit out.  My God have we sorted our shit out.  And now it’s very much on.

2-  We started like a hurricane.  There’s probably no bad time to start like a hurricane, on reflection… but starting like a hurricane today was a Good Thing.  Villa, poor form, injury hit, nervous at the back.  High stakes game, take it to them, take the pressure off us, tip the balance.  I read somewhere that Kabasele had a chance at this stage.  That feels like years ago, you remember it in the way you remember a particularly odd day at primary school.  Vaguely, distorted by time.  It probably happened, though not as you remember.

The start blew itself out and Villa got a foothold.  We continued to dominate possession but weren’t getting terribly far with it… lots of the ball in front of a deep sitting defence.  When Villa broke it was often in the direction of Wesley, large and physical, a great big wall to play things off he didn’t prove  as much of a threat as he suggested in this spell.

At the other end, Sarr was a threat from the off.  Matt Targett isn’t a bad left back, but his decent left foot has always had to be traded off against his lack of pace;  this always felt like a key confrontation and Jack Grealish was often dragged back into the battle to cover his full back.  One early piece of direct play saw Sarr escape only to be tripped cynically by the midfielder;  the lack of yellow felt significant at the time and would feel more so later.

But the pivotal moment of the half came in front of the Rookery.  Quite how Villa fashioned half a chance escapes me (see Thunk 3), but one moment the ball is dropping onto Wesley’s head and the next it’s in the back of the net.  Except somehow it isn’t, since Ben Foster is having a bit of a special week and has pulled off an insane low stop.

We survive that.  Who knows what would have happened otherwise.  How many of those games under Quique would have turned out very differently if we’d managed to burgle a lead somehow, a lead to hang onto and counterattack from.  And we regain control of the ball and the play, and if the game is rattling around angrily like a wasp trapped in a matchbox then at least it’s our matchbox.

3- Villa are terrible.  Truly terrible.  Lots of injuries, yes, yes.  Heaven knows you need to be lucky as well as good when you’ve come up through the play offs, we’ve been there (twenty years ago, yikes).

But Villa aren’t good or lucky, and having spent much of the season not earning many points despite playing well they’ve felt like strong relegation candidates for longer than they’ve been in the bottom three.  Today they look short of ideas in attack, ponderous in defence and overly reliant on their captain in general.  Will Hughes spends a good fifteen minutes snapping at his heels and Grealish very quickly evokes Wilfried Zaha… another extravagant player in a limited team, a cherry on a cowpat, in his cynicism and petulance.

Admittedly it’s got to be difficult being so much the focus of attention, being kicked around the park.  More difficult still on this occasion, needing to maintain that essence of boyish cool, flicking your bleached floppy haircut whilst dragging referee Simon Hooper around behind you as he spends ninety minutes trying to wipe your arse for you.  But the whining and the falling over screams of desperation;  this is not the captain of a side that is happy in its skin.  See also Dean Smith’s pitiable one-eyed post-match assessment.  Villa are in big trouble.

Those defensive frailties are brought into focus as the first half draws to an exhausted close.  It’s telling perhaps, as an aside, that there was no lingering “but we still haven’t scored…” anxiety;  perhaps the confidence that Nige is instilling is reaching the stands too.  In any case, Doucouré squares from the right and Troy really should score but is uncharacteristically tentative, a weak effort easy for Heaton.  No matter.  A couple of minutes later some inept defending from Konsa allows Doucouré, flame back on today after his one match rest, to drive at goal.  Heaton blocks, Troy is onto the rebound and again it’s tentative but we get away with it, the shot squirms underneath the keeper and we’re ahead at the break.  We won’t look back.

4- The second half is monumental and heroic.  It screams of a team finally, definitively, shaking off it’s angst and rampaging in joyous freedom.  You can’t take your eyes off it…  unless, as with Daughters 1 and 2, your eyes weren’t really on it in the first place.  Daughter 1 is engrossed in first her phone and then, once its battery dies, mine.  Daughter 2 has a paperback fresh from voucher shopping pre-match at Waterstones and is four chapters in by half time, occasionally looking up with an insightful, earnest ten year-old’s observation.  She has a future knitting at cricket matches, probably.

Neither of them register Mapps getting a red card, which he does for two yellows within ten minutes. Both yellows are cynical, both designed to halt a break (albeit in less threatening areas than Grealish’s unpunished hack earlier on)…  much is later to be made of the fact that any contact with former teammate Henri Lansbury is minimal and exaggerated but Mariappa put himself in the position to be penalised by making the challenge at all.  No complaints, and a rare and potentially expensive error from someone who’s an unsung hero of this squad.

For the first time since kick off, there’s a bit of anxiety.  A bit of “oh f***ing hell, half an hour to go”.  Villa pick up the pace as you might expect.  Nathaniel Chalobah, on for Will Hughes at half time, is hooked only fifteen minutes in to accommodate Craig Dawson.  Nate has had a bullish cameo and looks distraught to be withdrawn but he’s another trooper, another with his head and his heart in the right place as his Twitter posts later reconfirm.

And if our performance with eleven men had been positive and imposing our performance with ten is irresistible.  We’re sitting quite deep and soaking up Villa’s threat and then rampaging out on the break, somehow overwhelming Villa with numbers despite being a man down.  Often it’s Doucouré leading the charge, sometimes its Deeney in full on confrontation mode.  Sometimes it’s Étienne Capoue who is an absolute monster once again, trampling all over Villa’s sorry midfield and then hoiking impossible, accurate passes into the feet of Sarr or Deulofeu who again are doing as much work defensively as offensively but are still at the vanguard of any attack.

Both daughters are fully engaged by now.  Targett, run ragged by Sarr all afternoon, goes down with a hamstring injury inside Villa’s half.  Villa continue their attack but are dispossessed;  Sarr bypasses his downed marker to release Deeney, who uses the prone Targett to stay onside.  Dean Smith is later to suggest that he’d hope his team would have played the ball out in reversed circumstances, but they’d had the chance to and not done so. More desperation from a lost manager. Troy thunders into the area before being felled by Luiz;  again, Smith is to claim shoulder to shoulder, suggesting once again that he doesn’t know his arse from his elbow since the clumsy barge is with the hip, not the shoulder.  It’s not a dirty challenge, it’s just rubbish.  There’s nothing tentative about Troy’s contribution this time, which Daughter 1 catches on camera.

It’s not something we’ve been in a position to exploit often enough, but you really don’t want to be chasing a game against our lot.  If there’s any complaint at all after this fine, fine afternoon’s work it’s that our superiority doesn’t result in a bigger victory… as it is, we have to settle for one more.  I’m reminded of playing basketball in PE lessons at school thirty (eek) years ago;  teacher Leon Green leaning against the railings at the edge of the gym and bellowing “fast breeeeeaaaak” at each (frequent, often violent) switch of possession.  “Fast breeeeeeaaaak” comes back involuntarily now as Étienne Capoue crashes through the hapless Grealish and hammers down the left. Ismaïla Sarr, who has been devastating with the ball and a disciplined pain in the arse when defending rounds off by far his best afternoon in a Watford shirt to date by howling into the box to finish Capoue’s cross with a perfect finish at speed.  It’s a brilliant, brilliant goal, so good that it makes your head explode.  Grealish, in the aftermath, whines about the Capoue challenge but that’s a bit like complaining about a minor punctuation error in a Booker Prize winning script.  VAR agrees, and dismisses Grealish’s concerns with the contempt they deserve.

5- The game ends with a smile, as Villa’s captain, after ninety six minutes of concerted effort involving that hack on Sarr, repeated screaming in the faces of officials, raising his hand to Troy’s face and countless petulant sulky challenges finally picks up his booking for kicking the ball into the face of the grounded Sarr.  It could have been red, and on the basis of his afternoon’s work he was lucky to still be on the pitch.

But to begin where we started, this is very much on.  Reduced to ten men for half an hour we kept a clean sheet, steamrollered an albeit feeble opponent and could and should have had more goals.  Suddenly we look bloody-minded at the back, potent up front and have rediscovered that bullying magnificence in midfield that defined last season.

If there’s a concern, perhaps, it’s that Nige hasn’t gone for any rotation over the last week – no doubt strategically he’s made the absolute minimal number of changes that injuries and suspensions have permitted.  As well as Mapps being suspended for Wednesday, Will Hughes and Craig Cathcart both went off with injuries and Bobby Pereyra was significantly missing altogether from the eighteen after his outing at Bramall Lane.

But we’ll be facing a Wolves side on Wednesday who still have a small squad and will have faced City and Liverpool in the preceding five days.  Could have fallen less kindly.

And in any case, we’ve got our shit together.  Game on.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Mariappa 3, Femenía 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Capoue 5, Hughes 3, Doucouré 4, *Sarr 5*, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Chalobah (for Hughes, 45) 4, Dawson (for Chalobah, 60) 3, Masina (for Cathcart, 85) NA, Quina, Gray, Success, Gomes

Sheffield United 1 Watford 1 (26/12/2019) 27/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- Four days since Manchester United but a very different challenge… the two United’s might occupy similar areas of the table but there’s a world of difference between a vaunted side that’s less than the sum of its parts and a less glamorous opponent fully exploiting theirs, even if it leaves them in the same place.

“I wonder what João Pedro makes of this“, my brother murmurs.  It’s cold.  And it’s wet.  Three rows from the front at virtually pitch level behind the goal we are fully exposed to the fog of drizzle that wraps itself around all exposed faces, necks, its fingers massaging your scalp, reaching down your back.  Nige is on the pitch during the warm-up, prowling. Re-enforcing the intensity, we agree.  Behind him there are very small children with very large flags who look exhausted long before a ten minute delay to kick-off is announced.  Eventually, we’re off.

2- I like Sheffield United.  I like games at Bramall Lane,  this one of several motivating considerations in deciding to gamble the requisite number of brownie points on Boxing Day.  There was a time when we seemed to play the Blades three or four times a season, getting promoted and relegated together but it’s nine years since our last visit, suddenly.  That’s what happens when you stop paying attention.

A “proper” club too.  There aren’t many glory Blades fans, after all and Adam and his mates in the pub beforehand are perfectly affable (a lower key pre-match pub than some of history and legend). This tends to be The Way.  Inside the ground there’s the Leicester/Brighton charm offensive;  welcomes to the stadium, lads in the kiosks all in Watford kits.  If we’re squashed into narrow rows of seats at the front of the stand then at least there’s a bloke handing out chocolate to the kids.  The flat capped steward makes a point of sitting on a low stool beneath the hoardings to prevent making a difficult viewing position impossible.

The side is likeable enough too;  greater than the sum of their parts, as above, direct and aggressive and threatening without being unnecessarily provocative.  As an aside there’s a lot to be said for championing a striker (David McGoldrick) who has yet score in fourteen Premier League starts rather than, you know, the opposite.

3- So.  Two thunks without mentioning the actual football.  You’ll have to forgive me, our angle didn’t lend itself to profound insight (if you were watching the game at the ground or on TV you’ll surely have had a more instructive view) and it wasn’t the most rip-roaring of encounters.  The Blades had the best of it for the most part, much of their threat coming from crosses from well-stocked wide positions;  the mobile and combative Oli McBurnie is the first to threaten, a header towards the bottom corner that requires the first of a catalogue of Ben Foster stops.

But we’re coping.  Kabs is magnificent, not just an accomplished defender now, not just consistently reliable but increasingly the dominant partner in the defence.  Kiko, also.  No mere run of form this;  Nige has resisted the temptation to exploit the attacking instincts of a former winger and curtailed them instead.  The result has been some defensive displays of unprecedented reliability and tenacity.

We’re having to work hard.  There’s an overlap on the right;  a flag goes up, the ball across anyway and John Fleck prods it in at the near post, within touching distance of us.  We’re debating whether the referee had blown and why everyone would have stopped if he hadn’t but VAR confirms the flag and spares everyone the debate.  Fine margins though, we’re a bit stretched.

Ben Foster is already a significant actor in proceedings.  It’s wet, it’s slippery, he’s taking chances in allowing himself to be closed down and since he gets away with it every time we praise his judgement rather than bemoaning his recklessness.  Most significantly a fine long clearance under pressure from McBurnie finds a flick on from Chalobah, and Gerry scampers clear to finish neatly.  It could have been a tap in or a thirty yard daisy cutter from our angle, we celebrate all the same.

4- It’s a shame that it was Will Hughes, so dominant in our last two fixtures.  Less imposing all round today his lack of concentration, his one error of judgement was enough.  In reality George Baldock wasn’t going anywhere;  his run cut across the corner of the area and his touch had been heavy and away from the goal.  I didn’t realise that the penalty had been given, there wasn’t the obvious roar of vindication above the hubbub that greeted the attack; as my brother pointed out though, Hughes’ utter lack of protest betrayed the validity of the call.  Foster went the right way, but not quickly enough.

The half ended with treatment for both Kabs, who recovered, and Sarr, who didn’t.  What looked like a concussion saw the winger, who had again suggested that he was about to explode a couple of times without quite doing so, continue slightly surprisingly only to be hooked at half time.  We discussed the Craig Dawson three-at-the-back option, mimicking Quique’s approach so effective at nullifying United at Vicarage Road but instead we retained the same formation bringing on Bobby Pereyra, with a sensible haircut of all things.

The second half is harder work still.  Ben Foster is called upon to make a number of stops, most startlingly when the warmly welcomed Lys Mousset comes off the bench, screams down the right and pulls over a cross;  Fleck connects, Foster has no right to stop it but does, somehow.  Ben has had a couple of wobbles this season, but on his day has earned us points on his own.  He earned this one.

We’re not completely impotent.  Pereyra adds a sense of mischief and twice creates something from nothing down the right.  He wins a free kick that Gerry curls narrowly wide of the top corner in front of us.  Troy has been throwing himself at everything and winning a lot in the air but is exhausted not long after the hour mark.  When he’s withdrawn it’s for Andre Gray rather than Isaac Success, a little disappointingly – the lone striker is surely Isaac’s game and very much isn’t Andre’s.  Chalobah, at the apex of the midfield, also looks a little bit out of place;  he works hard, and wins the flick on with the goal, but you’d rather see him spraying passes from further back.

After a goalmouth scramble at the far end that we can’t really see but looks a bit hairy, the game ends with a set piece at our end.  Craig Dawson trundles forward and we entertain visions of a last minute mugging, Dawson scoring the header he might have scored in the return fixture.  Instead Hughes’ delivery floats too high and the game ends.

5- This is a less impressive performance than Sunday’s in many ways, certainly a less eye-catching result.  We need wins of course, but in reality this wasn’t points dropped much as any draw is only a lucky break away from a victory.  This is a good, solid away point earned in challenging circumstances from a doughty defensive performance.

Halfway through the season and we’re six points from safety, but being halfway through the season it’s still all about us and our form.  On the way through the Eyre Street Car Park, wearily looking for my carelessly discarded vehicle, someone comments that it’s difficult to find the relegation rivals beyond Norwich and Villa.  Who else are we going to catch, was the implication.  But if we develop a habit of winning games against the weak or the unfocused and digging in to win points in other circumstances we’ll be OK.  That’s the thing about a division like this, with no particularly appalling teams.  Someone will get unlucky, someone will lose form or players.  We just need to hang in there.

We hung in there today.

Big game tomorrow (yikes)

Yoooorns.

*Foster 5*, Mariappa 3, Femenía 4, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 5, Capoue 4, Hughes 3, Chalobah 3, Deulofeu 3, Sarr 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Sarr, 45) 3, Gray (for Deeney, 80) NA, Dawson (for Chalobah, 89) NA, Masina, Dele-Bashiru, Success, Gomes

Watford 2 Manchester United 0 (22/12/2019) 23/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- There’s an edginess. Before kick-off, there’s an edginess. Nige has been around for a fortnight, but we’ve not seen a proper game yet.  Anfield was great but… you know.  As good a performance as could have been hoped for didn’t really scratch the surface.

Meanwhile matters are progressing without us, and defeat today will mean – as well as single-figure points at Christmas, maybe single-figure “goals for” also – a nine point gap to make up.  Yes, I still believed.  Yes, I think it still matters.  The size of the gap isn’t insurmountable in itself.  The fact that we can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo makes it insurmountable.  But… but….  nine points.  “Now or never” might be overstating it.  But not by much.

The near-mythical João Pedro is presented before kick-off.  He’s stashed his cape for the moment, but he does a good line in waving confidently to the crowd.  No diffidence here, that’s a good thing.  A goal machine needs a bit of cockiness.  No pressure, son.

Over the tannoy, Nouvelle Vague’s version of “Making Plans for Nigel” has replaced the XTC original aired before Palace.  It’s a good tune, and apt.  We all want to see more of what Nigel’s plan entails.  It turns out there’s plenty to see.

2- The first and most striking element of which is the level of vigour and aggression in the performance.  Or to put it another way, we kick the living shit out of them from the off and it’s bloody wonderful.  We’re sharp into tackles and pouncing on any semblance of a second touch and it’s just what the team needs and just what the support needs.

At the vanguard is Will Hughes, redeployed as at Anfield in one of the two deeper central midfield positions.  He’s absolutely everywhere, a blond whirlwind who snarls into challenge after challenge.  The many appeals for him to be employed centrally rather than on the wing, as I understood it, hoped to take advantage of his quick feet and creativity.  Instead we have a John Eustace performance, and there are surely few higher compliments.

Second.  We have full back issues.  Full back issues at the best of times, arguably, but certainly so with one right back and two left backs out of action (or returning to fitness on the bench).  So we have Mapps at right back, where he started his first Premier League game thirteen years ago, and Kiko on the “wrong” side as at Anfield.  Against, you know, Manchester United and that.

And they’re great.  And they’re disciplined.  And the idea that Kiko isn’t really a full back, say, based on some nervy fretful performances earlier in the season, is completely dispelled.  This is aggressive and impressive and bolshy.

And helped by (third), similarly gutsy, disciplined performances by wide attackers Deulofeu and Sarr.  Both play their more traditional attacking roles with varying levels of success, we’ll come to that.  But the other thing, the new thing, the striking thing is the tracking back and the sticking a foot in and the not leaving people alone and then charging back upfield to rejoin the attack.

The first half is tight and scruffy, and United get the better of the chances through Martial, who slips a shot wide, and Lingard, who is played through when a worryingly simple ball over the top peels us open.  His lob is too high.  Perhaps that was a break for Nige, the break that Quique didn’t get when Craig Dawson didn’t score his late header against Sheffield United.  But we look tough and emboldened and up for this, and if the lingering concern is that we still aren’t creating an awful lot then that kicking of opponents up in the air mentioned previously, abetted by a tolerant performance by Lee Mason, is providing entertainment value.

3- United, meanwhile, look a bit like us in some respects.  I mean… not, obviously.  Because however this is going to turn out (no spoilers), we’re still going to be bottom and United’s relative failure still involves being in the top half of the table.  Nonetheless.  If our season can be summed up at all it’s in being kind of OK at some things but critically not OK at others which undermine the half good bits.

And that’s where United are really.  Because the speed and agility of their forwards is quite something, and every now and again it clicks and it’s pretty devastating but only briefly.  Only briefly because we’re in their faces, but also because their midfield isn’t moving the ball anything like quickly enough.  And because they’ve not got anything for the ball to stick to up front, no presence.

At the back, Win-Bissaka is a monster.  He’ll give away the penalty in the second half but one on one he’s tremendous.  Otherwise though… the defence is get-attable.  Good bits, and not so good bits that make the good bits slightly redundant.

A different level of inadequate though, obviously, which is why you have to be a little bit apprehensive as we start the second half.  If we can’t score, can we at least continue to keep United at arm’s length and maybe, maybe snaffle something. Maybe.

4- But as you’ll know that’s not how it turns out at all.  During the interval Felix pleads for a lucky break, the sort of lucky break that we’ve been desperate for all season.  And we observe that if we grab a lead we’re rather well set up to defend it.

And lo.  Merry Christmas one and all.  A Will Hughes free kick from the left (Fourth:  Gerry’s nowhere near the set piece deliveries), and it’s flicked on and then Sarr is contorting himself to propel the ball towards the top corner.  It should be no threat.  It is no threat.  Except that somehow de Gea loses his concentration, perhaps with half a mind on not colliding with the goalpost and the ball has squirmed through his grasp and it’s in.  My God it’s in.  Sarr can’t believe it, we’re remembering what celebrating a goal feels like and de Gea, significantly, is displaying no stoicisim whatsoever.  He’s flat out.

Within minutes it’s two as Sarr takes advantage of United’s evident befuddlement and goes for the jugular.  The jugular reacts rather anxiously to this development and after a brief delay for a VAR check in which David de Gea tries to gain some sort of control over the situation with a bit of gamesmanship but it doesn’t matter.  At all.  I think we’d all been hoping for one of those “Troy hammers the ball through the goalkeeper” efforts but first goal of the season moments are significant, even for Troy, and it’s a more careful slot down the middle and away from the diving keeper.  The effect is the same, and now the roof comes off.

And for the rest of the game, we’re pretty magnificent.  Troy’s flame has burned every more brightly as the game progresses and he’s an absolute monster for most of the second half.  It’s easier to dominate the forward line and win every header when nobody’s anywhere near you of course, but the reason nobody’s anywhere near Troy is that he’s already battered them out of the way.  It’s a huge effort, and something we’ve missed an awful lot.

Changes are made, the most effective of which sees Pogba bring some strength, elegance and grease to United’s midfield.  In there, as throughout, there are blocks and tackles and one particularly startling save from Ben Foster who is big and deliberate throughout.

And then it’s done.

5- So this is all manner of new stuff.  We’ve remembered what it feels like to watch the end of a game with fingers clasped into scalp, waiting for the final whistle.  What it’s like to stumble up Occupation Road grinning stupidly whilst realising for the first time how sore your throat is, stopping to share a bear hug with someone who’s obviously in the same place as you.

We’ve remembered what it’s like to have an effective, aggressive, potent team capable of hurting others.  No, this isn’t a great Manchester United, but it’s still Manchester United and suddenly the gap to saefty is only six points.  And as above, the biggest problem wasn’t the margin as much as our apparent inability to do anything close to attacking it.

That may have changed.

There’s a difference between “probably” and “definitely”.

Merry Christmas.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Mariappa 4, Femenía 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 5, Capoue 4, *Hughes 5*, Doucouré 4, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 5
Subs: Chalobah (for Doucouré, 69) 3, Pereyra (for Capoue, 77) NA, Success (for Sarr, 87) NA, Dawson, Masina, Gray, Gomes

Watford 0 Crystal Palace 0 (07/12/2019) 08/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- We’re at the stadium by 2, for uninteresting reasons. It’s an oddly tranquil experience. Football grounds can exude many different emotions in different situations, you can breathe the mood.  But not tranquility.  Least of all when you’re bottom of the league and floundering a bit.

But there’s a “new broom” air about the place which didn’t really come when Quique returned, partly because he was an old broom in any case and partly because we were still reconciling ourselves to the knowledge that we needed a new broom at all.  The new broom himself passes in front of the Rookery before kick-off en route from the Black Seats in the Upper GT to being presented to the crowd in front of the SEJ stand.  He looks less like the formidable, intimidating ex-centre back of our mind’s eye than he does an accountant… smart suit, specs, and smaller somehow than he should be?  Either way, looking convincing whilst being introduced to the crowd will only take him so far in the job he’s taken on but he does this compellingly enough – I’m cheaply bought, and a raise of both fists to the Rookery with gritted teeth is more than enough.  Good luck to him.

Meanwhile there are more colours in the Rookery than normal as the club participates in the annual Rainbow Laces event.  No, this isn’t something Watford are doing purely off their own back, but it’s a fine thing anyway, as was the particularly prominent display in front of the club shop.  Daughter 2 naturally paused to ask what it was all about, and won’t have been the only youngster to have done so.  There’s no policing the responses to such enquiries of course, but the provoking of the question and the presentation of a strong position on the issue is a fine thing (and helps remind us that a football team can be a force for good whatever division it’s playing in, but we’ll get to that).  The same goes for the likes of Coca Cola, incidentally.  It’s easy to knock big businesses, and certainly Coke have a brand to promote, not difficult to be cynical.  But there are many, many crapper things that they could be doing in pursuit of that objective.

2- The game starts with Daughter 2 not having complained once about her idiot father having got her to the game at such a ridiculous hour, which is in itself a good omen.  It’s not just off the pitch that we’re looking positive, since Hayden Mullins has been true to his word and opted for an aggressively attacking team selection.

Lost in the misery of the late defeat at Southampton and its aftermath was the fact that Ismaïla Sarr’s flame, which had flickered earlier in the season, was beginning to burn more convincingly.  He was our most compelling attacking threat at Leicester also, but on the right of a 4-4-2 was often too far from the goal when picking up the ball.  We needed him in a more incisive position, and this was afforded today by a 4-2-3-1 in which Doucs and Capoue sat deep behind a four pronged attack.  Including Welbeck and Gray under the heading of “attacking players”, Quique typically only started two of these guys (7 times) indulging three attackers 4 times and once, at Manchester City, only Deulofeu. Four felt like an outrageous indulgence.

The first half has been widely reported as attritional and dull, famously crowned with no shots on target by either side.  We’ve seen far worse, in fairness, and if we weren’t ripping Palace up we no longer looked, when attacking, like thirteen-year-olds bumbling through half-understood French on a school field trip*.  Sarr gave us glimpses of what was to come by roaring down the right more than once, and if Palace had the best opportunity of the half – McArthur firing criminally wide with time in the box – then as at Leicester on Wednesday night we were holding our own, and that was progress.

(* – long term readers may be able to guess the name of the future Watford full-back who, on one such school trip to Saint Valery sur mer in 1987 interviewed an unfortunate passer-by.  On being told that his interviewee was “en chômage” (unemployed), said full-back-in-waiting dutifully proceeded with his next question, “do you enjoy your work?”.  He was given a suitably withering response, the second most uncomfortable part of his trip beaten only by the five hour channel crossing back to England just as the October hurricane was coming the other way which lives on in all our nightmares).

3- What this was, in effect, was another game with Palace just like the other ones.  Attritional, bad-tempered, Wilfried Zaha quickly and effortlessly baited into losing his rag and picking up a witless yellow a sulky slug at Christian Kabasele, who had one of his concentrated and bullish days at the heart of the defence.  Zaha, incidentally, really was bizarrely deep for most of the game which suited us down to the ground, Kiko Femenía not least.  This had been identified as a high-risk confrontation pre-match, but Femenía was right up Zaha’s backside whenever he got the ball, disciplined enough to be able to save his booking for when he really needed it, and came out comfortably the winner on points from that encounter.

A typical Watford-Palace game then, with little to choose between two well-matched sides for the most part, lots of energy, lots of aggression and petty squabbles breaking out all over the pitch as long-standing grudges were renewed.  Zaha often at the centre, not always, his histrionics not quite crossing the line that would have earned an uproariously popular second yellow from a beleaguered but generally sensible Martin Atkinson.

The difference of course, the reason that this isn’t just another Watford-Palace game is that we’re bottom of the table with eight (now nine) points and no home wins in eight months.  This is a pressing situation, one in which a worthy home point really wasn’t going to do with Liverpool and United on the horizon.  But you wouldn’t have known, that’s the crucial thing.  Swap last year’s bad-tempered scrap for this one and you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid (but for the fact that we’d be two points to the good, but you get my drift).

4- Because in the second half, and for the first time in a long time, we looked thoroughly compelling.  Sarr was at the hear of it, combining the ability to control with a touch passes that might have been fired at him out of a cannon, an incredibly tight turning circle and searing pace that could have left a comedy burn mark in his wake on more than one occasion.

The other critical factor was Troy.  Heavy and immobile at Leicester, this was much more like it;  he was in a stiff contest in which he can claim no better than equal honours, but it didn’t half make a difference to have a focal point.  Something to aim for, someone to hurl themselves into aerial challenges.  Personality, power, variety, belief.  If Sarr was the biggest threat, Deeney was the biggest enabler.  Welcome back skipper.

Honorable mention too for Bobby Pereyra, who had a quieter game but oiled the cogs with his movement and quick feet.  Gerard Deulofeu – whose work rate was tremendous but decision making less so – came close with an assertive run before driving narrowly wide.  Sarr sent a venomous cross into Gray’s feet but he was falling away from the goal and his effort was tame.  Deulofeu sent a ball in from the right which Sarr was a fraction of a second too late to, Guaita bravely denying him.  A high ball at the far post was met by Sarr but too high, too wide.  The young winger was left grounded by a challenge there before being dragged up by his teammates;  his resilience is increasing, but he’s not there yet.

Troy surged onto a high cross but was denied by Cahill, who appeared to have his arm around Troy’s neck.  The captain reacted furiously to the lack of punishment or review; video clips suggest no small justification.  Wailing about VAR seems less pertinent than simply wondering why we can’t catch a break?  Some will argue that we got one with Vardy’s non-penalty on Wednesday, but that was surely quickly redressed by the soft award in the second half.  A goal here would have made such a lot of difference to everything.

Sarr came closest, and having not watched Match of the Day yet I’m still baffled as to how one minute he was tiptoeing through the area with the ball in front of him just needing a prod, and then the next the ball was gone.  I really don’t understand how we didn’t score.  But we didn’t.  My arms were halfway up.

5- So the critical detail is that we’re still without a win, still only have nine points and may well still only have nine points come Christmas. Many have us relegated already.  Given our problems and lack of points, anyone can be forgiven for that expectation.

There’s a difference between “probably” and “definitely” though, something of which my day-job as a statistician involves considerable contemplation.  “Probably down” and “definitely down” aren’t the same thing.  Two weeks ago we were ahead of Southampton, a Saints side that were out of the relegation zone before today’s fixtures.  Had we beaten Burnley or Saints, neither implausible, we’d be three points from safety.

There really isn’t a lot in it.  It’s not insurmountable yet.  What’s been missing has been a reason to believe, the fact that we didn’t look like scoring let alone putting a run together.  It really doesn’t matter how far behind you are if you can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.

But despite the 0-0 today, that’s changed.  We didn’t boss Palace, but we were more than their equals and we did carry a threat.   We have a new boss who, whilst reflecting in part our predicament is nonetheless a far more convincing appointment than Quique was.  You won’t hear a Leicester fan say a bad word about him, rumours of John Eustace returning to supplement the coaching staff will be a further fillip if true.

It’s difficult, of course it’s difficult.  But supporting your team means just that, not giving way to gallows humour because it’s easier.  We have a squad that shouldn’t be where it is, and we have a shout now.

Let’s give it some.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, *Sarr 4*, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Gray (for Pereyra, 77) NA, Chalobah (for Doucouré, 78) NA, Mariappa, Hughes, Success, Foulquier, Gomes

Turn it off and turn it on again. 01/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

Well, that went well.

Less than three months ago we were reconciling ourselves to the typically decisive decision to remove Javí Gracia and replace him with a returning Quique Sánchez Flores only four games into the season.  It’s practically ancient history now, but for what it’s worth I was comfortable with the first decision and wary of the second.

What I didn’t expect, what surely none of us expected – least of all Scott Duxbury and the club’s ownership – is quite how quickly we’ve spiralled from a position of apparent security in mid-table to being bottom of the pile and odds-on to be relegated before Christmas.  We didn’t lose anybody of desperate significance in the summer, we’ve brought in some seemingly useful players.  Hysterical catterwauling on social media doesn’t alter the fact that in the summer most of us were thinking “well, a bit more in central defence would have been useful” rather than “we’re going down”.  The margin between success (meaning mid-table) and failure has never been thinner, least of all in this season where so many teams have been sucked into the mid-table morass, traditional big guns misfiring, nobody truly terrible.  Not terrible enough for us, at any rate.  Complacency has been mentioned.  Amongst the players, amongst the ownership.  Amongst the support too… hard to criticise when I certainly didn’t see this coming.

There was logic in Quique’s appointment, and that logic was based in a proven ability to organise a defence.  This was Javí’s failing in the end, to my mind.  Not sufficiently clinical yes, but that is only a major problem when you have no defensive structure to fall back on whatsoever, and such was the problem at the start of the season.  Quique, we hoped, would sort that.

And to an extent he did.  Or rather… he made the defensive structure of the side more solid.  Three clean sheets, Craig Dawson looking increasingly bullish at the centre of a three-man back line.  Quique was unlucky in many respects too, I think…  Dawson’s failure to steal a winner in the last minute against Sheffield United felt crucial at the time, a performance that deserved more at Spurs stymied by bizarre VAR decisions.  Having that Man City game when he had it, a monstrous blow to our confidence before he’d got going.  Injuries, of course.  I have a friend who tuts whenever I roll this excuse out, “every team gets injuries”.  Yes.  But they matter more when the margins are so fine, when the level is so high, let alone losing a player in the first half of six consecutive games. And, yes, when there’s a vulnerable area of the squad – whether or not we needed better central defenders to come in in the summer we were manifestly ill-equipped to play with three centre-backs.  With five in the squad you have very little wriggle room, as we’ve discovered.

So Quique was unlucky in many respects.  Or rather, things haven’t gone favourably for him.  But chief amongst his crimes I think has been the almost total abandonment of attacking threat.  We have perhaps the best array of midfielders that a Watford squad has ever had, but have sacrificed our creativity at the altar of defensive shape.  Shape we needed, but our midfield weapons are wasted on a strategy which has amounted to little more than keeping it tight and snaffling what we can on the break.  A team low on confidence was unlikely to rediscover its mojo when employed in a way that, for all that the likes of Dawson and Kabasele have flourished, misused or wasted its attacking players.  Injuries have played a part, forced a hand, but one doubts that Sarr or Gray in particular are too unhappy at the latest development.

The games since the international break, Burnley and Saints, sealed the deal.  A win at Norwich – Quique’s only league win in his second spell, in the fixture that represented the nadir of his first time in charge with a perverse kind of symmetry – offered the suggestion of a corner turned.  Against Burnley , again, things went against Quique… reliant on Dawson in the absence of Seb Prödl we looked horribly vulnerable as soon as Dawson went off and Burnley demonstrated just how fragile our confidence was.  And yesterday…  I watched on TV, delayed having opted for “Charlie’s Angels” with Daughter 2.  Insert your own punchlines.  But the laziness, the lack of courage or wit in the decision making both on and off the pitch in a game that had to be won and was there to be won was criminal.  No sign of any growing resilience for one thing.  Not bringing on Troy when any semblance of direct play had Saints’ defenders collectively bricking it was another.

And so the trigger is pulled again.  The usual accusations and “jokes” will be forthcoming, largely from those without the attention span or breadth of perspective to recognise that despite (because of ?) the high turnover of head coaches, Watford are in their fifth season in the Premier League and our first relegation battle in that spell.  Hardly precedented.  Hardly worthy of ridicule.  Good decisions or bad (and there will be relatively few criticisms of this one from amongst supporters one suspects – unsuccessful defensive football really leaves you with nowhere to go) the fact that Duxbury and Pozzo are so reassuringly indifferent to the likely media outcome of their decisions is a very fine thing.  Oh that our politicians had such courage.

The decisiveness reflects the facts both that we really don’t want to get relegated (!) and that staying up is likely to be easier than being promoted again.  Because the fact remains that, as above and whatever relative deficiencies we have a very very good squad of players (injuries notwithstanding), the team significantly less than the sum of its parts thus far.  Surely an attraction for any potential head coach – a low base to start from but plenty of tools to build with.

Perhaps we’ve appointed someone by the time you read this and so all speculation is moot and (by now) irrelevant.  But for what it’s worth…  much as the dinosaurs dominating the speculation are terrifying, only perhaps Pardew and Hughes would I find it difficult to reconcile myself to given a few days to calm down.  Hughton, early favourite but dismissed by at least one report, I could live with, but this model of old school English manager seems at odds with The Way We Do Stuff.  One can only hope that the speculation is dominated by journalists’ mates in the absence of any actual insight.  On that basis, ‘arry Redknapp’s name appearing would probably be reassuring.

As ever, it will be fascinating.

Hang in there, and see you at Leicester.

Yoorns.

Watford 0 Burnley 3 (23/11/2019) 24/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- It’s odd.  Everyone has bad times, I guess.  Everyone has difficult spells, when things get overwhelming.  In such periods, when life’s challenges lurch out of nothing, football is put into perspective.  Quite how little it matters in the grand scheme of things.

And perversely, it suddenly matters more than ever.  It mattered today.

2- It mattered in the more fundamental sense too, of course. The win at Norwich was huge fun and so needed but here’s where we were to get a steer on whether a corner had truly been turned.

And we started well enough.  With Troy still on the bench we couldn’t compete with the visitors’ physicality and so we didn’t try to.  This has been an issue a number of times over the past six months or so when Troy has been missing and we’ve looked far less potent than we did today in such circumstances.  We didn’t create a load of chances – this disciplined, aggressive Burnley side isn’t going to make life easy for anyone –  but criticisms of our inability to convert are slightly unfair here.  That we’re struggling for goals is no secret, but here we worked chances and got behind the Clarets.  Deulofeu was everywhere, simultaneously the man most likely to craft something through artistry and the man most likely to get onto a loose ball and scuttle off in a beeline goalwards.  This he did to open up our best chance as Doucouré did his best to keep out of the way, Pope saving with his feet.  Earlier, Dawson had dropped a header narrowly over from a set piece.  Some snappy passing resulted in an underwhelming finish from a dynamic Capoue.  No, it wasn’t a rout and we didn’t score but we were comfortably on top and there were few in the home stands who weren’t positive as we approached the break.

That the Clarets themselves had offered so little owed a fair bit to the defending and courage of Craig Dawson.  His role at the centre of the three involves getting his head to things;  this he did, despite the not inconsiderable threats of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes.  Much more confident and convincing since we moved to a back three, Dawson bossed the back line here until the second of two head injuries – possibly a broken nose given the amount of blood – forced him off.

Immediately obvious that we were in trouble. On came Masina who wasn’t quite a square peg in a round hole, left of the three you kinda feel he could do.  But we were deprived in terms of make-up of that back three, no big brute to win the headers like Dawson, or Prödl, all the more vital against this opponent.  Centre back was the area that most transparently needed strengthening more than it was over the summer and that was before we switched to three at the back – five men covering three spaces doesn’t leave you a lot of wriggle room.  Let alone when you have players off injured before the break in six consecutive games, limiting flexibility as well as manpower.  For the record – Welbeck at Spurs, Cleverley vs Bournemouth, Quina at Everton, Cathcart vs Chelsea, Pereyra at Norwich and now Dawson.  Quique could be forgiven for thinking the fates were against him.

3- As for Burnley, a win here would take them up into the top six.  In reality they are in the ever-churning mid-table morass that encompasses most of the division and which we gaze up at nostalgically.  They are as likely to finish fifteenth as sixth, but will be absolutely fine anyway on the basis of this resolute performance.

Their biggest threat would seem to be approaching over the Christmas period when their ginger Widow Twankey on the touchline will surely be called up for East Lancs pantomime duty. At the vanguard of the visitors’ militarised, choreographed game management, Dyche sprung forward with arms outstretched in apparent outrage at every perceived slight against his side be it that delicate flower Ashley Barnes rolling over in anguish at the suggestion of bodily contact, or James Tarkowski being pulled up for yet another hack at Deulofeu.  Burnley were slowing the game down from a minute in, kicking the ball carefully out of reach on rotation to prevent quick free kicks.  Ashley Westwood stood in front of every free kick feigning the alignment of a defensive wall until finally booked in the second half, James Tarkowski took a yellow for cynically chopping down Deulofeu on his way into the area.  It was all designed to generate an edginess to the game that the Clarets, with their defensive discipline, less fragile confidence and steady side (this was after all the same ten outfield players that clubbed their way to a 0-0 here in January) expected to be able to cope with better than we would.  It nearly backfired on them as Gerry had the temerity to go down softly in the face of yet another clump and the collective Clarets’ composure wobbled visibly, players losing their collective rag, but only briefly.

“Antifootball! Antifootball!” cheered the away fans with what presumably passes for irony in Burnley.  In reality there’s nothing wrong at all with the way Burnley play – defensively disciplined, robust and direct in attack with enough quality to make it all work.  Great fun to support a team with that work ethic, enjoyable to watch them upset other teams playing that way.  But the cheap, indoctrinated gamesmanship (including the whining about refereeing decisions and how dishonest everyone else is that marred Dyche’s time here also) is very crap indeed.  Few tears will be shed when it’s Burnley’s turn for a season to go against them.

4- The lack of a dominant centre-back was quickly significant.  The second of successive corners saw Tarkowski nod back for Chris Wood to hook the opener with the visitors’ first shot of the game.  Foster appeared to be blocked off on both corners but certainly the second one was his own fault, blocked off by his own player;  there was a nervousness, perhaps in part emanating from the keeper, perhaps a collective awareness of our vulnerability, that hadn’t been there before. The air went out of our performance almost instantaneously.

On came Troy for his much awaited return, and then Ismaïla Sarr.  Dawson’s injury had perhaps increased the urgency for Deeney to be introduced; he’s arguably our most reliable defender from set piece situations in any case.  Unfortunately he looked far too far short of fitness and mobility to live up to our hopes, but he’ll get there.  Sarr meanwhile looked mobile and frightening but simultaneously slight, too easy to bully, and not quite sure where his place was in the whole thing.  With the ball at his feet and running though he’s a threat, the more so when attacking empty spaces behind an opponent forced to come forward one suspects.  More to come, but not today.

The second goal, the penalty, summed up our season in so many ways.  A loose ball in the box, Ashley Barnes so much more mobile and alert than Jose Holebas who swung a boot at where the ball had been and caught the player instead.  It wasn’t a deliberate foul but it was careless and clumsy.  The ball progressed upfield to what would have been a corner only for VAR to call it back.  Paul Tierney’s performance was flimsy in the face of so much contempt from the visitors, but no cause for criticism here.  Ashley Barnes put the spot kick to Ben Foster’s right,  the keeper got both hands to it but could only force it against the inside of the post and in.  Our best efforts insufficient, again.  A third followed, Foster saving well from Tarkowski only for the centre half to knock in the rebound unchallenged.  The most pathetic goal of the three, underlining the answer to the “have we turned the corner or not?” question.

5- Jose Holebas ended the game by dumping Phil Bardsley onto his backside; difficult not to sympathise, Bardsley is typical of the gnarled old boot that filled up Burnley’s bench and squad and had been studiously understudying his manager’s pathetic routine throughout. That Holebas somehow avoided a booking made it the more enjoyable, but precious little to show from a miserable afternoon.

Difficult to be positive after this.  Quique has done a job in making us more solid, but today demonstrated the limits of that in the face of injury and misfortune. Whatever Burnley’s obstructiveness we remain far less than the sum of our parts as an attacking threat.  And whilst 3-0 is a slightly perverse scoreline not reflecting the balance of play, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that, as with the games under Javi earlier in the season we played kind of OK and got stuffed anyway.  That’s not a healthy place to be.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 4, Mariappa 3, Doucouré 2, Capoue 3, Hughes 3, *Deulofeu 4*, Gray 2
Subs: Masina (for Dawson, 45) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 57) 2, Sarr (for Hughes, 67) 3, Foulquier, Dele-Bashiru, Chalobah, Gomes