Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (21/11/2015) 22/11/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I’d been looking forward to this. A lot. Not, as the away end would have you believe, because “we were only here to see United”. It’s exciting to be at the top table (or near it… United now only one of the top teams), but frankly anyone would have done. Swindon. Barnsley. Palace. Any of our bog standard opponents of yesteryear. We were here to see the Watford, our team, and that’s what was always going to be needed this weekend, after a shitty week at work. That’s the thing, you see, that’s what’s special about English football… the sheer number of clubs with proper support. That matter. Which is why the occasional rumblings proposing reserve teams parachuting into the lower leagues are so misguided. The approach might benefit the national team. Maybe. It would also suit the biggest clubs, which is where any momentum will come from – the Premier League itself is testimony to the success of the national team being worth other people’s sacrifices. But the lower leagues are too important to devalue in the name of England getting back to the position of going out in World Cup Quarter-finals. Or even winning the thing, frankly.
It’s cold. Bloody cold. This sort of detail doesn’t feature in any statistical record of a season, but it should, it can be a defining piece of information. Think… Torquay in the Auto Windscreens Shield. Fulham on the last day of the season in 1998. Any visit to bloody Oldham. Characterised by the weather. Lest this slip through the cracks of your memory, should soccerbase fail to expand their database to accommodate weather conditions, let it be recorded for posterity that it’s cold. “Proper taters”, as ig puts it… so cold that even reasonable precautions in terms of layers, hats, gloves, scarves are nowhere near enough to repel the sudden icy wind that permeates before you’ve even got to your seat. In which circumstances my two daughters were perhaps ill-advised accessories. My word. Love you, girls. I had been looking forward to this. Too much expectation, never a healthy thing.
2- The start of the game is ragged, and it’s impossible not to sympathise. Heaven knows we can barely stir ourselves to clap along, expecting the players to recreate ballet as the wind malevolently drags aerial balls hither and thither is unreasonable. Disappointingly, United are far more aggressive and punchy than we are, and naturally this isn’t how it should be at all. United are allowed to be better than us, they’re not allowed to work harder, get stuck in more. To bully us. But bully us, ultimately is what they do… Capoue and Watson both have decent enough games for the most part but we’re absolutely murdered in midfield for the first half an hour or so, Schneiderlin and the tremendous Schweinsteiger bossing it and forcing us to go long to bypass which asks far too much of Troy and Odion, game as they are to give it a go. Jurado is back in the side for the first time since Palace, and while you can see the thinking – the value of finding space in a busy midfield was never greater – in fact he looks lightweight and incidental, as if he once again needs to get himself up to speed. Anya, also, looks overwhelmed, not strong enough. Eleven minutes in Depay drifts onto a wicked Herrera cross and we’re behind. We’re not in the game for a while, hanging on.
For all that fists were waved at the discovery of the attacking options on our bench, you wonder whether Valon Behrami might have been useful in this situation. It feels like a long way back… but with our shape just about holding out in the face of United possession, their forward line far less impressive than their midfield and the wind a bit of a wild card we have a couple of good chances and have dug in by the end of the half. Capoue mugs Ashley Young, who has had as warm reception as is reasonable to accept in this wind and has predictably been bombing on from right back, and gallops goalwards. His ball to Ighalo is slightly behind him, Ighalo’s first touch isn’t great… he manages to add Schweinsteiger to his list of victims this season but slices his shot into the crowd with Capoue screaming for a square ball. Capoue is later the culprit, blazing over under minimal challenge from the edge of the area after good work on the right by Nyom. We’ve had a poor half, but avoided the game running away from us and there are positive signs.
3- Half time, then, and gentle boos ring out as the teams leave the pitch. I’m conscious that the boos reflect disappointment at the performance (and are influenced by the miserable wind) rather than the fact that we’re one-down to Manchester United but… seriously? Disappointing that after several years of the 1881’s relentless positivity in the face of lesser challenges than these, there are elements of the support who still think that booing a sub-standard performance is productive, intelligent and reasonable. It’s not even about whether the performance merited it (which itself is highly questionable), but what you want to achieve. Booing every weak performance whilst cheering the positive ones is everyone’s right, but is the coward’s way out. “Us” when we’re winning, “you” when we’re struggling… not a million miles away from the implied cheapness with which United supporters are labelled by chants like “we support our local team”, which I’m sure they’ve never heard before.
I have my own confession to make, however. Yes, the concourse is warmer. No, I don’t go back to the girls and drag them into the hubbub, them having turned down a trip to the loo in favour of doing their bit with the lucky half-time chocolate…
4- The second half feels more of an even contest. It’s still scruffy, and is “even” on United’s terms… much easier to spar if you’re already a goal to the good. But whilst Aké’s omission in the wake of a busy international week in his first full season was understandable, we don’t half look tougher with the Chelsea loanee at left-back. Most encouragingly, this isn’t a game that United are ever able to “manage”. And yes, they’re understrength… but with the exception of recent call-up Lingard they’re all internationals, and there are two World Cup finallists on the pitch and another on the bench. Blows are traded at either end, and both of the keepers earn their corn… de Gea perhaps fortunate to find Deeney’s blunderbuss fired straight at him through the crowd… either side and he simply wouldn’t have been able to react. React he does though when Abdi’s mischievous shot through a crowd takes a deflection that requires the Spaniard to claw the ball out of the bottom corner after it has passed him. At the other end, twice Gomes denies Lingard… the second occasion is a bad miss by the youngster, failing to get the ball past the Brazilian’s massive frame. If we were at the other end we’d be thinking “we’re going to regret missing that…”. The suggestion that something is coming is enhanced by Capoue’s ridiculous humiliation of Lingard in the left back position…
And come it does. Ighalo’s been kept fairly quiet, but is an eel in the box and Rojo is tempted into a silly challenge, wrapping his left boot around the Nigerian’s shin. Troy, worth so much more than merely three goals in four games, doesn’t flinch and blasts past De Gea the first goal that United have conceded in over ten hours. The cold is now truly banished, and we’re bouncing. Obi Oularé, poised for a debut against a side he faced for Club Brugge, sits down again.
5- It’s truly aggravating that we didn’t withstand that late pressure. Gomes makes a tremendous stop to deny Smalling, his save from the shot from the next corner is decent enough but Schweinsteiger buys a ticket by driving the ball across the face in hope rather than expectation and Deeney’s tired momentum does the rest. The combined efforts of the side in the second half hadn’t deserved that.
But the fact remains that despite not playing terribly well we nearly nicked a point off Manchester United, and can probably make a case for having deserved to. That we didn’t isn’t an indication that anything is “wrong”. “Wrong” is the state of Newcastle or Villa, or Bournemouth blunted by injuries and incapable of putting away games that they’re dominating, let alone nicking points from the top sides. We’re capable of being our own worst enemies in the stands though, and need to get ourselves sorted before next weekend. Ostensibly we have three games – Villa, Norwich, Sunderland – that we’d hope to get points from, followed by Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and City over the festive period. There’s a pressure suggested by that Christmas fixture list, but we can’t let our expectations, heightened by how well we’ve been doing, work against us. A home game against a newly promoted side will be one that every opponent will pencil in for three points. We need to go into each game with that in mind… this games narrative suggested that we’ve got more than enough about us on the pitch.
Leicester City 2 Watford 1 (07/11/2015) 08/11/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- We’d been in the pub since midday. Chewing the cud, watching the place fill up, enjoying an eighties Indie-ish playlist that hummed along gently enough for This Corrosion not to be too annoying when it made a second appearance and looking forward to the afternoon’s game. A sizable, noisy delegation from second tier German side VfL Bochum were in evidence; the relationship with Leicester, we are advised by one representative on the way to the ground, is based on both sides playing in blue and never winning anything. The morning’s swirling drizzle gave way to blue skies and sunshine twinkles on the dampness. It’s a splendid thing to be able to enjoy a match like this… the Stoke and West Ham results affording us a degree of breathing space. No pressure. It’s rare in our top flight experience, the ability to anticipate a game with neither a sense of dread or of the suspicion that this is a show that we’re not really part of. What this feels is normal, another trip to a frequent adversary with the accompanying “away from home you grab what you can grab” feel. It’s splendid.
2- It’s not normal of course. It’s far from normal. Both sides have come an awfully long way in a short space of time and the fixture suddenly constitutes one of the top games of the day in terms of league position with the two clubs exceeding expectations. The game starts with plenty of respect afforded on every quarter… Leicester are the free-scoring rabble-rousers on a fine run of form, we have proven ourselves capable of giving anyone a game, capable of reading and preparing for whatever the division has thrown at us. So the first twenty minutes, with the low sun sitting defiantly above the curve of the stands and shovelling straight into the away end, is a sparring match. A feeling-each-other-out exercise, both sides confident in their own way but only prepared to risk so much. Leicester’s aggression in closing down our possession a long way up the pitch briefly made Miguel Britos and Craig Cathcart uncomfortable but we aren’t bullied onto the back foot. Indeed, we have the best chance of the half… Odion Ighalo’s shot is low to Schmeichel’s left and inside the post and so clearly in that we’re all celebrating heartily by the time it rebounds back off the inside of the post. There’s a good chance on the rebound too, apparently, demanding a fine stop from the keeper but in common with much of the away end I’m still trying to work out why we’re not ahead and only learn of Almen Abdi’s scooped volley on the train home.
3- The game turned on Gomes’ howler, quite obviously, but there was stuff that lead to that. With the game very much all square at half time, Claudio Ranieri made a bold substitution in bringing on an extra attacker for a midfielder and the Foxes rattled at us at the start of the second half. If Gomes’ mistake hadn’t happened perhaps the game would have panned out completely differently… maybe we’d have caught them on the break, maybe we’d have kept them at bay and things would have settled down again. As it was, Ranieri gets to claim credit for executing a change in shape that Quique maybe didn’t anticipate…. history is written by the victors. As for Gomes… what’s perhaps more alarming than the mistake itself was the penalty incident that followed, an excitable and unnecessary challenge on the relentless Vardy. It’s beyond any dispute that the Brazilian has been a tremendous asset for the Hornets since his arrival and has earned us plenty of points, but his Tottenham career suggests a brittle confidence in the face of mistakes. Gomes has been magnificent, nobody else will have a problem with writing today off as just one of those things. His haunted look later on MotD left a concern that he won’t leave it behind as easily.
4- East Midlands supporters seem to have this ongoing delusion that their clubs are something other than fodder. Don’t get me wrong, Leicester’s one of my favourite away trips despite our modest record here… but “Two-nil on your big day out” was slightly divorced from reality. Leicester are third in the league on merit, but we’ve been to your a hundred times before chaps, you’re not Manchester United yet. That said, the “Did you cry when Deeney scored?” chant was old by the end of Leicester’s first return to the Vic two years ago, and didn’t really need another airing here either… and one suspects that Leicester is unusual in these exalted heights in generating noise from all four corners of the ground against “the likes of Watford”, so any criticism needs moderation. Quique made a couple of changes to shift things around; Etienne Capoue didn’t reach the heights of the previous weekend’s masterclass (it’s to be hoped that his monstrous performances being peppered by vastly less effective ones isn’t an ongoing theme) and was replaced by Juan Carlos Paredes. You’d have got long odds on Paredes being preferred as a midfield “change it up” option above Adlène Guedioura, say, at the start of the season, but his wholehearted if slightly ragged physicality did shake things up on the right. Paredes is less careful with possession than is typical of this team, more direct, rougher edges… but that’s no bad thing when you’re trying to change the shape of things. Leicester had only briefly been dominant but were now very much in the box seat… Paredes’ combination of muscle and direct running is the last thing a tiring opponent wants to have to cope with in the last quarter of a game, and won us a much-needed foothold by drawing a penalty from the flat-footed Kante. Troy lined the kick up and it briefly occurred to more or less everyone in the away end that him missing this would seal the afternoon. Instead he executed the calmest of finishes and afforded the scoreline a greater degree of respectability.
5- We never really threatened to grab the equaliser, Leicester managing the closing quarter hour pretty effectively. Alessandro Diamanti, looking more like a hair stylist than a footballer, came off the bench for a cameo… elegant flicks and spins and twiddles but off the pace, and too far from City’s penalty area to be effective. There’s an ongoing issue here which Quique has alluded to a few times… how do you get these guys game time with so few competitive games such that they can make an impact when needed? It’s not just showing you can do it, it’s being sharp enough to try… the introduction of Britos a couple of weeks ago was a bold one that has increased competition, there are other areas of the team that might benefit from having someone demonstrably ready to step in if needed.
So… Leicester played the game out, and we can claim some comfort from the respect we were offered in that regard; a goal up against a newly promoted side, Leicester opted to kill the game rather than chase another goal. They might just about have deserved the win, but it was never a safe thing. The final whistle went, Leicester looked a little relieved whilst the Hornets’ players and supporters’ attention were on their goalkeeper who acknowledged his ovation from the stands. No disgrace this one, and another free punch in our next game in a fortnight. Thereafter our fixture list looks fascinating… three pressure games that we’ll need to harvest points from before an intimidating set of opponents over Christmas. And Chelsea.
Watford 2 West Ham United 0 (31/10/2015) 01/11/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Today, everything changed. Our Premier League season so far has been successful, enjoyable, profitable…. and cautious. Cautious, above all. That’s not the same as cowardly; indeed, the decision to abandon the swashbuckling open style the got us promoted and suited so many erstwhile key players was an incredibly bold one. And that caution has served us well, by and large; we’ve kept clean sheets, not been embarrassed by anyone and picked up points, particularly on the road, by executing this season’s fashion effectively… a solid shape, attack on the break.
Today, everything changed. Up to now we have been gently easing ourselves into the icy water, acclimatising. Quietly settling into our surroundings. Not today. Today we took a great ruddy running leap at it, and landed two-footed with a massive splash. West Ham were underneath us, and sunk without trace.
2- We’d expected a chess match. Feared, maybe. We’ve played well at home but had yet to work out how to adapt our game to turn positive intent into goals. The Hammers have famously an awesome away record that has taken down big guns… City, Liverpool, Arsenal… but didn’t really want to dominate possession either. A game of kabaddi seemed a distinct possibility. Instead, the opening was a thunderous echo of our home game with Brentford last season, a breathless end-to-end basketball with play rattling up and down the pitch like a marble on a fishing trawler.
Initially it looked an even contest. We perhaps had more possession, but the Hammers were breaking quickly and ominously. We made the first of the chances… Aké not making the most of a free header from the penalty spot, Britos flying onto one of a series of excellent deliveries from Watson having been abandoned by Kouyaté and heading over. The grins amongst the oohs and aahs were tempered with the knowledge that we shouldn’t have been missing chances like these. You don’t get to waste chances like these against good teams and win games.
3- But instead of being made to regret those misses we watched on as our dominance became increasingly absolute. By the final whistle the only member of the starting eleven whose performance was difficult to eulogise about was Heurelho Gomes, who had been given precious little to do… even during the final 20 minutes where the Hornets chose to sit back and break on a West Ham side that had to push forward and was very much out of its comfort zone. I don’t remember too many games like that… games where mentioning any member of the starting eleven provokes a “wow, he was brilliant today” in the post-match review. It seems wrong to highlight individuals in that context, unfair… since you can’t mention Almen Abdi’s inhuman contribution on the left of a narrow midfield, worthy of its standing ovation as he was substituted, without referring also to Nathan Aké’s monstrous performance behind him, or Ben Watson’s continued defiant refusal to allow Valon Behrami back into the starting lineup, or…
Perhaps it’s easier to replay the match highlights. You’ll all have your personal favourite. Odion Ighalo putting an utterly baffled Carl Jenkinson to the head of the table at his “chops for tea” dinner party (other guests so far this season including John Stones, Phil Jagielka, Artur Boruc). The same player’s stunning finish on his weaker foot at the start of the second half. Troy Deeney’s wicked dummy in the attack that followed, releasing Ighalo for what might have been his hat-trick. Ben Watson beating Andy Carroll in the air in the centre-circle. Craig Cathcart flying in to steal Jenkinson’s cross from Carroll’s head, knocking it over his own bar. Carroll’s clumsy idiocy that provided the opening goal. Carroll’s dive, screaming desperation, after Valencia had failed to capitalise on Cathcart’s rare aberration. Allan Nyom, seeing that Juan Carlos Paredes was about to come on and assuming that he was being pulled, kicking gobby little irritant Valencia up the backside as a goodbye present. Then not going off after all. Deeney chasing back to rob possession from a surprised Payet on West Ham’s right late in the game. Very few Watford performances in recent memory have reached these heights. You’d add James Collins’ red card for an utterly “oh f*** this” Sunday league challenge as the Hammers were being summarily humiliated were it not for Ighalo limping off as a consequence.
4- For all of which, it’s both a blessing and a curse that the two goals came from scruffier play, and featured failings on the part of West Ham players. A curse, since our performance was much better than that. It would have been more than acceptable to have executed the sort of victory that we have so often been on the other side of in previous Premier League seasons… Watford huff and puff and hold their own. Don’t score. Watford make a mistake. Other team scores. Game over.
It wasn’t that sort of game. We sliced West Ham up, crafted elegant chances that weren’t converted. It wasn’t just a matter of capitalising on others’ mistakes. And yet… there’s an advantage to the patronising pat on the head offered by Match of the Day: “Yes yes, well done Watford but what terrible mistakes by West Ham. Of course it would have been different had West Ham played properly“. “Watford have signed so many players“. Yes, Gary, but seven of the starting eleven were here last season. Matt Le Tissier’s line on Sky that Watford “must be starting to believe that there are three teams worse than them” in similar vein. Opposing teams and managers won’t be so naive of course, but the longer that we’re allowed to stay under the radar the more likely the crowds we visit are to be sensitive to signs of resistance from “the likes of Watford” (copyright – Stoke City’s messageboards) which is all to the good.
The other side of the same coin is our own expectation of course, to which end it’s quite helpful to have a trip to Leicester next… a game charged with recent context against an opponent who no travelling Hornets are going to get all presumptuous about given their own fine form.
5- The ongoing work on the North East corner of the ground renders the top of Occupation Road a bottleneck as the majority of the Rookery and Elton John stands shuffle uphill at the end of the game. That’s not a problem on occasions like this, a balmy autumn evening in the immediate wake of a famous victory. There’s the happy hubbub of “did you sees” and “what about so-and-sos” punctuated by the odd song. A celebratory atmosphere, a shared experience.
At the top of the hill the regular meeting of minds as we wait for the crowd to clear sees an occasional visitor reflect on how much has changed… not just on the pitch but off it too. We all know this of course, we’ve seen the stadium change, noted the improved atmosphere, waved our flags. Doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it though, particularly on an occasion such as this. Yes, the team is brilliant. No, the rest of the country hasn’t really woken up to this yet. But it’s the club that has improved beyond recognition.
Enjoy. These are the good old days. Yoooorns.
Watford 0 Arsenal 3 (17/10/2015) 18/10/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. During the week, I had cause to reflect on the way that the world changes and, perhaps, leaves you trailing behind. I heard welcome word of a familiar name from the past, someone whose voice used to bring me essential news of events at Vicarage Road in the early nineties. At that time, I spent my Saturday afternoons in my Brighton bedroom chasing an elusive signal from Capital Gold for its live reports; it was one step up from the unbearable tension of waiting for CEEFAX to tick round to Page 3/3 to see whether anything had changed.
These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine that a game in the second tier of English football could take place in such a near-total vacuum, that it could create so few ripples. That faint signal, that distant voice amid the interference, was my only source of information beyond a scoreline and a league position. It was my sole connection to the club. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here and writing this.
The Internet changed everything, of course. Money changed it too. It feels as if there’s been a really fundamental shift even since we were last here in 2007: there’s now so much live coverage available that being at the ground feels like being in the eye of the storm, a slightly unnerving lack of continual analysis, explanation and wanton opinionating. It’s the one place where football can still lose itself in the moment, but you’re still acutely aware of the watching eyes of the world, of the live updates and live streams and live betting and live tweeting and live advertising and live image right negotation and live stat processing and live everything else. It’s probably a lot like being in the studio audience for Strictly or something.
2. “Oh look, it’s Arsenal!” you think, in the same way you might if you passed, say, Dermot O’Leary in the street. Except I get the impression that Dermot O’Leary is a reasonably good egg who might not mind if you smiled and said hello*, whereas Arsenal have long since transcended those kind of everyday niceties and would undoubtedly consider any acknowledgement of your existence beneath them. They’re very much, you know, in the cloud. They’re a football club in the same way that U2 at Wembley is a rock’n’roll gig…that is, very much so or not at all, depending on your point of view. (Go on, have a guess.) Except that they aren’t U2, obviously. They’re some b-list stadium atrocity, overwrought and overblown. They’re Muse.
3. There’s something hugely appealing about sticking it up one of these corporate monoliths, of course, even if we’re hardly an independent trader ourselves these days. It’d be lovely if you didn’t have to queue for fifteen minutes in the newsagents, but this is the first of these fixtures and weariness has yet to set in. There’s a certain thrill in the prospect of seeing your team truly tested too, in looking at an opposition line-up with an involuntary intake of breath. In knowing that the chance of doing something truly memorable is balanced by the risk of being completely, and very publicly, embarrassed.
4. For five minutes, maybe ten, the prospects don’t look terribly good. You always hope that you might catch them in one of their introspective moods, weighed down by their own sense of entitlement, but Arsenal start at a quite absurd tempo, pinging the ball around at a pace which we simply haven’t experienced before and cannot remotely live with. No sooner than we’ve managed to win the ball back than we’ve lost it again and we’re chasing again. The gap is not merely in quality but in intent: they’re quicker to everything, faster to make better decisions, stronger in the challenge. We can’t get near them…and even when we do, we can’t get the ball off players used to doing their work in extremely tight spaces. It’s not as if you can just plough them into the advertising hoardings any more; it’s not as if you can opt to play them on a ploughed field either. Their game, their rules. Walcott glances a wasteful header at Gomes, who then has to punch away a curling shot from the irresistible Sanchez. We’re just not in it.
5. When Troy Deeney determinedly bundles an opponent off the ball to win a throw on the halfway line, his efforts are met with a huge ovation from a crowd looking for straws to clutch at. But it’s only a throw on the halfway line, nothing more.
Except it isn’t. That’s where it starts, and what remains of the first hour is a thrilling demonstration of how to knock a team like Arsenal right out of its stride: Deeney’s bullish efforts are quickly reinforced by Capoue and Watson in midfield, by Anya in an advanced position out on the right of the supporting three, by Ighalo up top. We get a foothold in the centre circle (both holding midfielders have magnificent, if very different, games) and start giving it what can only be described as a right go. Deeney smacks in a drive after wrestling himself free of a defender, then Koscielny has to clear to prevent Ighalo from finishing a break after excellent work from Capoue. Vicarage Road explodes in response. Come on.
You’ll see few better goalless halves of football than this one. Goalless because Ramsey somehow scooped a chance over the bar from close range, because Ighalo scuffed wide when sent clear, because Nyom dived in to clear as Sanchez readied himself to score, because any number of nearlies weren’t quite. Beyond the goalmouths, the contest ebbed and flowed beautifully: they’re still Arsenal, with all of their extraordinary riches, but they’re no longer having it all their own way. Crucially, we carry a tangible threat in the final third which prevents them from settling things down for any length of time; we’re direct and quick and aggressive, and they don’t like it up ’em. It just needs a goal. It deserves a goal. It’s bloody brilliant.
6. The second half offers another fifteen minutes of this stirring, inspiring attempt at flying a hang-glider to the moon before reality comes crashing in. Those fifteen minutes are pretty special, though. As the sun sets, the manager’s name echoes around the ground, the chant drifting from end to end as if carried on the wind; mobile phones light up the home stands. There’s something really rather magical about it all, something surreal too. The team rolls towards the Rookery in slow, steady waves which don’t seem to meet with much resistance. It’s as if everyone’s fallen into a dream.
You had to be there. It was lovely. It was us, at our best.
7. We’re rudely awoken by a slap in the face. No room for romance in the Premier League; cut that out, you lot. As we drop off for a crucial second, Arsenal smuggle Ozil behind the lines, Sanchez finishing the job. You know it’s all over as soon as you see the ball hit the net. It shouldn’t be, perhaps, but it is. There’s nothing left: we’ve given it all, not a chance that we can pick ourselves up and go again. Arsenal are far, far too good to let the lead slip and have little pity for our tiring legs. The remaining half hour is painful and tedious and inevitable and not worth bothering with here. I don’t care, you don’t care; let’s leave it for others to pick over, especially if they’re foolish enough to judge a game by its end result.
8. We should be bloody proud of what went before. More than that, we should take it with us: we need that to be more than just a one-off performance in a cup tie, more than valiance in defeat. When I saw us last, against Palace, we looked a side capable of holding our own, compact and competent and yet distinctly uninspiring. Here, there was a real threat, some complete commitment, some belief in ourselves. There is no way of guaranteeing a win against substantially stronger opponents, but there are plenty of games to come in which this kind of sound and fury, this new-found positive spirit, could do some serious damage. In short, we need to be this at it against Stoke and West Ham and Leicester.
* I may be wrong, of course. He might be a complete bastard. Leave me with my dreams intact, though, reader. We all need our little comforts.
AFC Bournemouth 1 Watford 1 (03/10/2015) 04/10/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- It’s been seventeeen years since I came to Dean Court. That was a very different time, a different set of circumstances altogether. Everything’s changed since then, the teams, the sport, the profile of the fixture. Hell, even Dean Court itself has been picked up, rotated ninety degrees and plonked down again. It’s small, of course… small for it’s current lofty status. Half the capacity of the Vic, which is hardly a colosseum in this environment itself. And as such it feels almost as if it belongs in 1997, back when we played at stadiums this size, nestled into a well to do area of large houses and shady avenues as a sort of afterthought, a discarded multi-vehicle garage abandoned between the houses. Bournemouth aren’t above their station… they deserve to be where they are. They got to the top flight by scoring lots of goals and winning a lot of football matches (note to Leeds, and similar. Bigness not enough). That they’re doing so on the back of an infrastructure that never expected to have to cope with all this is evidenced not just by the size of the ground but by the vague air of disorganisation as the turnstiles remain unopened as two’o’clock approaches, as the mislabelling of the away tickets. In other circumstances we’d be rooting for the Cherries… good luck to them, sticking it to the man, upsetting applecarts that deserve upsetting. But these aren’t other circumstances, and there’s been too much recent water under the bridge for much in the way of mutual respect.
2- The Hornets began with Nathan Aké making a first League start for us at left back, and Ikechi Anya pushed up into hamstring victim Jose Jurado’s spot in midfield. With the away end on its feet and noisy the visitors started purposefully and aggressively, but this encouraging feel dissipated quickly. Bournemouth began to dominate possession in midfield, as is their wont, and feverishly chased the ball down higher up the pitch. These factors, combined with the ongoing isolation of our forward players, were a recipe for disaster… the Hornets in possession would find no space in front of them and shepherd the ball backwards and sideways in search of some control. Bournemouth’s forwards denied us that control with their pressing and soon had the game pretty much exactly where they needed it… their threat, with Glenn Murray in for the unfortunate Wilson, came largely from crosses from the flanks but there was plenty of that. Anya and Abdi were set up wonkily right and left respectively, our two sitting midfielders were impotent, Troy worked as hard as ever but looked tentative and hesitant and even Gomes, whose heroics were to come, courted disaster by dwelling on a backpass in the absence of options in front of him. Midway through the half Ritchie cut onto his left foot on the right and found Murray stepping back off the sleeping Prödl’s shoulder to head home. This had been threatened several times.
Our side were not only impotent, they looked thoroughly miserable. There was none of the spirit and vim that has characterised this team over the past season and a bit… indeed if anything this was resonant of the miserable Huddersfield game at the end of the previous season, as if we had dirty linen to be hung and scowled at in public. How much of that was to do with the extent to which we were being outplayed and how much to do with the backstory of the ostracism of first Holebas and now, seemingly, Berghuis we can only speculate… two players whose public assessment of their arrival in Hertfordshire had felt, to varying degrees, somewhat less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic now seem to have paid the price for that apathy. I’m all for Flores maintaining a hard line on such things, it would be somewhat surprising if such an approach to outing bad attitudes had a negative impact on the rest of the squad… but we didn’t look happy.
Nor did the travelling Hornets, nominally the hardcore with the highest stock of brownie points in the club’s furiously determined quest to ensure fairness in allocation of scarce tickets, cover themselves with glory. Singing about a rival striker’s injury isn’t particularly classy, even in response to jibes about the destiny of a contested championship. Even less classy was the pitiful booing that greeted our frustrated flailing around towards the end of the half. There’s a wider and less clear cut discussion about the rights and wrongs of booing your own team in general… but in these circumstances seven of the starting eleven had been in the promoted side last season and had earned a little more patience. All in all, a forty-four minutes to forget.
3- Weakest of a poor bunch in that first half was Etienne Capoue. It’s been three-and-a-half games now without Valon Behrami alongside him – I’m both excited and terrified by the fact that he gets re-released from his cage against Arsenal of all teams in a fortnight – and more than any other period this half lent credibility to our pursuit of Abdoulaye Doucouré over the summer. Ben Watson is terrific and has done fine as a stand in… but the roles in a Capoue/Watson partnership are less well defined than when, in general, Behrami is winning the ball and Capoue is feeding off his many scraps. The Frenchman had a horrible half, largely bypassed and looking a little bit lost. As it drew to a close he was involved in an altercation with goalscorer Murray on the touchline, ostensibly kicked off by a provocative challenge by Capoue. Murray reacted angrily, and could have seen red for his retaliatory assault as the game finally restarted. Next to me, Dave fretted that we didn’t need this, didn’t need to be sucked into bad tempered nonsense as we have done here in previous years. He was wrong.
It would be generous to credit Capoue with the forethought to deliberately upset Bournemouth’s applecart by starting a barney – more likely he was taking out his frustration at his own performance on an opponent who has never been shy with physical contact. But we absolutely needed something to disrupt the Cherries’ total control on the passage of the game and there was a lingering tetchiness in the air as Ighalo chased down what should have been comfortable Bournemouth possession deep in their half. Artur Boruc, truth be told, had looked nervous with the scant responsibilities he’d had that far, something we’d done precious little to test further, but Odion is the last person you want to gift the ball in front of goal at the moment. It wasn’t quite a gimme, Boruc was still well positioned and Ighalo had something to do, but he dropped a shoulder, Boruc followed up his first gaffe by diving needlessly across Ighalo’s path in anticipation of a quick shot that didn’t come rendering the increasingly inevitable conclusion all the more comical from the away end. In case this isn’t clear, Bournemouth should have been out of sight. In drawing level at the break we had gotten away with it, big time.
4- So the second half was all about whether we would take advantage of this unexpected ushering back into the contest. The answer was evident at the start of the second half as Nathan Aké, who had struggled to contain Ritchie, went in strongly and instantly on his charge. “This shit is changing”. He was penalised for a foul, which looked a bit harsh… but either way it was a statement that was echoed all over the pitch. Words had been had. We were much quicker, more mobile, more aggressively into every challenge. Game was back on.
Ighalo wriggled through on the left, his shot blocked rather nervously by a defence who suddenly had something to cope with. Almost a victim mentality in the whites of their eyes, a nervousness that they’d blown it, that on the back of Gradel, Wilson and the rest the world was against them. From the corner the ball broke to Watson who crashed a shot off the crossbar. Anya floated through onto a breathtaking ball from Abdi but couldn’t beat Boruc on his weaker foot. Ighalo got his head down and drove at the penalty area, going down under challenge as soon as he was over the line. He was trying to draw a penalty, he didn’t get it and optimistic as the claim looked his reaction wasn’t the sheepish roll of someone who’d been trying it on, chasing Michael Oliver down the pitch in furious frustration.
Bournemouth found a footing, but there was none of the dominance they’d enjoyed in the first half. Murray has long looked like a pub footballer (in appearance if not in impact or ability) and began to play like one, Running into the Watford half and seemingly shooting when he ran out of puff, a flimsy daisy cutter from thirty yards that Gomes gobbled up. Greater challenges were to come… first from a magnificent scissor kick from Cook that prompted an even better save from the Brazilian, the ball having dipped over him the custodian had to reach down and behind to claw it out of the corner. And then, the penalty.
Much has been spoken about the number of penalties that the Cherries have been awarded over the last few years. These statistics (Bournemouth have earned four more penalties since the start of last season than anyone else in the league) can be a little misleading… if you’ve got players with quick feet and are dominating games you’re going to be inviting nervous tackles, no different to what Ighalo was trying to achieve earlier in the half. The difficulty is where the desire to commit players into making mistakes crosses the line into seeing the award of a penalty to be the be-all and end-all by fair means or foul. This is the fourth penalty we’ve had awarded against us at this stadium in three seasons, three of which soft (Mark Pugh got the echoes of stick for his swallow dive two years ago as he patrolled in front of the visiting fans in the first half) and this one was ludicrous, as it turned out, a cynical attempt to buy a penalty that didn’t even involve a tackle on the part of Capoue but we knew nothing of the detail of the scramble from our location. With our heads in our hands we watched Murray wheeze up to the ball, and for Gomes to push his shot out, Cathcart clearing in the ensuing scramble. Disproportionate celebration in the away end, Gomes continues to put in performances that defy his Tottenham reputation.
5- It should go without saying that this was a much better point for us than for Bournemouth. We were the away side for one thing of course, but the game could have been scripted to eat away at Cherries’ nervous concerns… their blunt edge contributing to failing to capitalise on their first half dominance, failing to pick up maximum points in a home game they must have pencilled in as a win. Tougher opponents to come, if they can’t even beat Watford after that woeful first half… when is Wilson back again… who do you think we might attract in January (Will Hoskins?)
An away win would have rubbed the salt deeper, of course. Much as any away point is a good point, much as we have no claim to anything more after that first half, there was an opportunity here that went begging. For all of Bournemouth’s late flurry there was an opponent here desperate to feel sorry for itself as the game swung around in the second half. We weren’t cruel, or ruthless, or clinical enough to ease them into fretful self pity We continue to make progress, but can’t be turning down points when on offer too often.
Watford 0 Crystal Palace 1 (27/09/2015) 28/09/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. (Meeting room. All characters present. One empty chair. Grant rushes into the room, evidently flustered and attempting to carry a coat, umbrella, laptop, overstuffed bag, overflowing polystyrene cup of tea and half-eaten sandwich. He drops them all onto a chair. Various items fall off the chair. An apple bounces across the floor and ends up underneath the table. He crawls under the table to retrieve it and loudly bangs his head on the way back. He clears his chair and sits down.)
Grant: Sorry I’m late. Been…um…yeah, busy. Um, yeah. (Smiles nervously.) Here now! (Looks around the room.)
Um. Sorry, who are you?
2. My younger self would’ve cared deeply and passionately and probably lengthily about the callous discarding of our manager and much of last season’s Championship-winning (oh…yeah…bollocks) team. My middle-aged self, not so much. Perhaps, if I’m honest, not very much at all. That squad will remain frozen in time, (nearly) winners always. We’ll never know whether they would’ve fallen short or whether, somehow, they might’ve made the leap. That’s the danger, of course, for the decision-makers: that when we hit a sticky patch in November, Matej Vydra and Daniel Tozser will be The Answer with no possibility of contradiction.
It’s a curious thing to find your team popping up at the end of “Match of the Day” with so many unfamiliar faces and with a manager who appears to have stepped out of an M&S window display. On the telly, the sun’s out, Vicarage Road is full and bouncing, but everyone’s different and I’m not there. Did I slip into a coma, perhaps? Are two years of sleep deprivation enough to induce these kind of hallucinations in a middle-aged man? You get a small insight into what it must be like to be a loyal servant deemed surplus to requirements and suddenly shipped out on loan to, say, Wigan or Cardiff and left to figure out the next move yourself. Such upheaval is an integral part of the lives of those on the pitch; less so, until now, of those in the stands. At least I’ve got Matt to answer my endless questions. Matt’ll know.
Well, some of my endless questions, anyway. Among those he can’t really answer are: am I part of this any more? Is it part of me? Who are they? Who, when it really comes down to it, am I? These are not issues anyone should be grappling with at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, still less four o’clock on a Sunday. A new FA charge of bringing the game into existential crisis would surely be appropriate.
3. There’s one question, though, above all. Is it still fun? I’ve only seen about half of these players before, for us or anyone. They seem to have managed happily enough without me. They’re playing in a competition which is the sporting equivalent of that tosser in a white open-top BMW right up your bumper as you trundle along a country lane on a Sunday afternoon, a perfect storm of first world irritations. When we’ve been here before, we’ve possibly been able to ease our consciences with a belief that we’re working against the system from the inside somehow; now, our aim is purely to disappear into the same mid-table fog into which Palace have slipped since that ghastly day at Wembley.
There’s a life to be had back home. This needs to be fun.
4. It is, of course. It takes no time at all to remember the quiet thrill of approaching ninety minutes of football, outcome completely unknown. Nothing like it. Especially true in this context, for Vicarage Road is brash and eager and urgent; I disapprove of such things, naturally, but you can feel the excitement at being here and doing this and maybe, this time, not being a laughing stock. Occupation Road looks as if you could eat your dinner off it; the concourses are busy and buzzing; I manage to get lost on the way to my seat. It’s bloody loud but, for once, the noise isn’t just from a PA cranked up to eleven; there’s colour too, and smiles, and belief, everywhere you look.
It’s all rather marvellous, actually. Don’t quote me on that. I’ve got a reputation to think of.
5. We allow the atmosphere to fuel five minutes’ worth of brash and eager and urgent attacking football, before Palace spoil things by failing to show any signs of panic. Bastards. As the game settles down, it becomes apparent both that we aren’t out of our depth against a team that might well finish in the top half and, at the same time, that there isn’t an awful lot we’re doing that’s scaring them, especially since they’re the away side. It’s an even contest, but one side is more even than the other.
In different circumstances, this would be the cause of much angst in the stands. Understandably, it isn’t here…at least for now. Because you can see what we’re trying to do and the underlying logic (particularly the faith in a consistent system – any consistent system, frankly – to use as a mould) seems sound. We’ve got to build something substantial, something stable, from all of these bits and bobs. That starts from the back, particularly in a division so overloaded with counter-attacking opponents.
6. But there are problems, inevitably. Palace attack with width and pace and, notably, without leaving themselves open to a counter. They quickly identify the space behind Nyom as a target for both Bolasie and Gayle, and he’s fortunate to avoid an early booking from a lenient referee. The task for Nyom and Anya in this formation is a formidable one: regular full-backs in a back four without the ball and supporting wing-backs for an otherwise desperately narrow attack with it. Two places at once, essentially. It’s less of a problem for Anya, who can simply get on his little motorbike; Nyom, however, has a very difficult ninety minutes indeed.
Further forward, we struggle for penetration. Capoue stamps with frustration after over-hitting an ambitious cross-field towards Anya, but it’s a symptom of our malaise rather than an individual error. Palace are tight, disciplined and used to dealing with more potent front-lines than ours. When you think of the Premier League, you think first of the wealth of attacking talent, the players who can hurt you; it’s easy to forget just how difficult some of these units are to break down. Palace don’t make any mistakes, don’t even hint at where the mistakes might be made.
We can keep the ball, but only on their terms. Tellingly, Abdi’s main contributions are a splendid bit of back-tracking to clean up a Palace break and the half’s only yellow card for a shin-high hack; he sees almost none of the ball in the positions we’d want him in. Jurado flits about with purpose but little effect; Ighalo has a number of strengths but absolutely nothing to help us here; it’s been months and months and months since I’ve seen Deeney look so subdued.
We manage a couple of vague attempts but nothing remotely resembling a chance. At the other end, the monstrous Hangeland is foiled by a fabulous flailing Gomes save from an early corner but that aside, we don’t look much like conceding either, and nil-nil is about right at half-time. It’s been an engaging, thoughtful and somewhat technical half of football. Here, possession isn’t everything; waiting for and then taking chances is everything. There’s no sense of being the “better side” or having the “upper hand”. Once upon a time, scoring a goal required a relentless, determined assault like a toddler trashing a sandcastle; now, they can just arrive at any moment, probably at the very point when you think you’re the better side with the upper hand.
7. First goal wins, clearly. And thus we begin the second half by hitting the underside of the bar with a looping Jurado free kick which looks in all the way and then isn’t. We’re a little more direct, for a bit. And it works, for a bit. And then, as before, Palace calm it all down. They hit the woodwork themselves, Nyom turned on the halfway line before Gayle fails to hit a looming target with Gomes advancing at his feet. The game settles back into the same balance as before, caution and patience and, increasingly, shades of frustration too.
When the winning goal comes, it’s sent from the heavens to taunt us: a penalty as cheap and silly as the one which beat us at Wembley. I’d tell you more, but we’ve inevitably lined the pitch with those accursed electronic hoardings, so my view of the game’s key incident is partially obliterated by a piercingly bright advert telling me that Barclays Bank is “championing the true spirit of the game”. Nowhere is the true spirit of the Premier League better captured than in lurid adverts flogging betting websites to the far east at the expense of paying punters actually being able to see the action properly. Do let us know if we’re in the way, won’t you? (Yes, I do find that more irritating than the penalty. Yes, I am gradually turning into Alan Green.)
8. Thereafter, a complete mess. The game immediately becomes stretched which, theoretically, ought to suit us by buying us a bit more space but, in reality, just leads to an awful lot of “taking one for the team” on both sides. Abdi is withdrawn before he takes two for the team and, while our changes give our attacks a tad more width, no-one looks terribly comfortable out there, nobody can win a header against Hangeland, and collectively we look no more likely to score from open play than previously, especially when we become more direct with desperation.
We look no more likely to score from a dead ball either: Jurado’s brush with the crossbar aside, our set pieces manage to be both poorly conceived and poorly executed throughout, which is irritating in such a tight game. A few cheap goals would not go amiss. Ledley’s colossal block tackle late on is notable for its contrast with everything else: Palace have had to resort to last-ditch defending very rarely indeed. We stick at it as we should, but it feels like we’re a spent force long before injury time.
9. You can take a lot of positives from this. We’re competitive, unquestionably. This is a totally different proposition to the hapless, naive and rather more romantic attempts on this summit in the past.
Still, you have to wonder what’ll stop every other visitor to Vicarage Road from doing exactly as Palace did and, more often than not, with similar results. The conservatism of the approach – narrow the gap to a fine margin and hope for a Jurado free kick that’s two inches lower, essentially – is understandable, partially successful so far and yet risks becoming rather unenticing. On a fine autumn day in September, with a couple of wins behind us and a comfortable league placing, there’s little to grumble about. When we’re all freezing our tits off in January, we may well require something that stirs the spirits rather more, something more than good intentions and a couple of half-chances.
It’s a decent start and we don’t look out of place. That’s damning the performance with faint praise, but I can’t help feeling that that’s exactly what it deserves. There’s nothing wrong with taking the positives. But there’s nothing wrong with demanding more either.
Watford 1 Swansea City 0 (12/09/2015) 13/09/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The question is, which way will it go from here. If you’re flicking back in this blog, revisiting this match report some time in the future, you’ll know how everything shakes out. For now… Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary appointment as leader of the Labour party could lead to any number of futures but whatever your politics it’s undeniably interesting…
The same could be said for our future after this three points, hard-fought but well earned. This could be a flash in the pan, an isolated victory that offers brief encouragement… Middlesbrough in 2006, Chelsea in 1999. Or it could be a significant step on a remarkable path. Either way it’s interesting, more interesting than the season might have turned out if we’d laboured manfully through this run of four games between international breaks without getting that win. Had that happened our season could easily have been the equivalent of another generation of Tory-lite Labour politicians… dull, wearying and leading to a somewhat inevitable conclusion. Chelsea provide evidence of what a once solid defence can collapse into once belief disappears.
As it is… we shall see. But a colossal hurdle overcome, irrespective of the game itself.
2- And the canvas was a game and a performance that was as bright and welcome as the bright late-summer sunshine. It started with both sides chasing down possession, desperately trying to out-compete each other. We’ve seen this game a number of times in the second tier and such starts can lead to scruffy, congested battles but the quality here was higher… and the outcome was a fast moving encounter that was always watchable. Critical for the Hornets was the more advanced positioning of Odion Ighalo, effectively playing up with Deeney for an hour. This appeared in part to be aimed at disrupting Swansea’s ability to build from the back, but also saw Deeney have some much needed support in and around him. In both respects Ighalo’s performance was a tour de force, his relentless muscular pain-in-the-arseness causing problems for the Swans’ centre-backs all afternoon.
But the most eye-catching performance was that of Étienne Capoue. This is what you daydream about when you break your club transfer record for a central midfielder… somehow involved in everything at both ends of the pitch but not characterised by that. Often when you get a midfielder who is significant defensively and offensively that’s how you define them… “he’s here, he’s there…”, and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with that, we’ve had some iconic players in that mould. But Capoue’s contributions at either end were magnificent in their own right, always available to receive a pass, or closing down, or nicking the ball and finding space… or involved in our best attacking moves and sprinkling all of this with moments of outrageous skill. An extraordinary, impossible pass with the outside of his foot to bend the ball to Deeney in Swansea’s half, a dragback and spin into space to create a second half breakaway, and the deft but unflashy layoff that created an opening for Deeney to drive narrowly wide in the first. This one of several close-ish calls in the first half that saw us reach half time happy enough at nil-nil… we were not only holding our own, even edging the game, but we were creating stuff too. So far so good.
3- I have two lingering impressions from previous spells in the top flight which were perhaps one-eyed in the first place and may in any case have had the rough edges smoothed off them by the passage of time leaving them oversimplified representations, see what you think. One… in our first spell in the top flight in the eighties, much of which I watched from the Family Enclosure having been nine on promotion in 1982, the other lot were always filthy. Teams used to turn up and kick us. Two, in 1999-2000 we didn’t get a lot of decisions. Indeed, we seemed to come up against referees who had a pre-determined view about How Things Ought To Be.
Swansea were nothing like as violent as the 1986-ish incarnation of Tottenham that exists in my head. Not was Robert (“Bobby”) Madeley in Rob Harris’ league (see here for a discussion of naming preferences of people called Robert). But I was surprised, with their reputation for elegance and flowing football, at the extent to which they put the boot in… Federico Fernandez spent the first half committing late niggly challenges, Ashley Williams cast his weight through Odion Ighalo, flattening the Nigerian striker in the wake of his critical intervention, Eder knocked Heurelho Gomes flying with a challenge that was, generously, clumsy as the visitors chased the game, and Madeley seemed determined to keep his cards in his pocket. Unreasonable to pass judgement after a single game, and that an unheralded defeat after such a strong start to the season… but Swansea didn’t cope terribly well with the challenges the situation presented.
4- All of which probably contributed to the outraged reaction to Behrami’s dismissal. I had no view of the incident, less through distance than through this coinciding with my need to retrieve the latest item of confectionery from our bag for one of the girls. On review, the most generous possible interpretation is that Behrami was unlucky, lifting his legs to avoid Ayew coming in at pace and landing in the wrong place. A more reasonable interpretation is that this was a ridiculous and witless challenge from a player who really ought to know better in a circumstance, one nil up and ostensibly in charge, that could have been hugely (more) expensive. The only reason to offer the alternative explanation is that Behrami’s performances thus far, not to mention his relatively moderate disciplinary record, do not suggest the gross stupidity of such an act… this exemplified at Everton, where he was the model of disciplined, effective aggression. Now we miss a vital player for three games. Idiot (probably).
As an aside Allan Nyom, for all the thoroughly positive and terrifying contributions he’s made so far, is beginning to look like he might be someone of whom a random descent of red mist might end up costing us. At Man City he needlessly (if entertainingly) kicked Raheem Sterling out of the air. Here, with an overhit Swansea pass already in touch behind the goal line, he chose to batter the ultimately miserably ineffective but recently introduced Jefferson Montero with his shoulder, inside the penalty area, sending the winger flying. A ridiculous thing to do, bafflingly met with a handshake from the Ecuadorian.
5- By which time of course we were ahead, and what a fine thing it was both in its deliberate precision and as a tribute act to the last encounter here between these sides in which an aerial assault almost saw the visitors surrender a three goal lead. The long pass from Gomes, brilliantly aware header from Deeney and the movement and composure of Ighalo made Swansea look very leaden indeed.
Thereafter… we should bear in mind that this was a situation, even allowing for Behrami’s dismissal, that rather played to our strengths. Keeping our shape to stifle a disrupted and edgy opponent to protect a lead is a situation that New Watford was made for… harder challenges are to come. Given that nod to common sense… it was bloody minded and brilliant. The support, noisy but not frantic up to that point, upped the volume. The team dug in… beyond those already mentioned Ikechi Anya suddenly looked like a terrific left back rather than a slightly awkward stopgap, Berghuis made a punchy and positive cameo from the bench, Cathcart, Prödl and Gomes did what they’ve been doing all season, we should take care not to take that for granted. Even Jurado, for all that he has yet to convince with his end-product – and for what it’s worth he appears to be trying rather too hard – displayed an ability to turn into space and relieve pressure through composure.
Most of all, this didn’t feel like a smash and grab win that a plucky underdog might hope to snaffle a handful of times a season. Yes, we dropped deep in the dying minutes but there was no desperation, no lack of composure. We took on a side that has beaten Manchester United, drawn at Chelsea, gotten everyone cooing. And beat them. No knocking that.
The question then is, where do we springboard from here? Going to be interesting. Yooorns.
Manchester City 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2015) 30/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Another trip to the North West, another grotesque encounter with the M6. Compounded by taking the wrong route through Manchester as road closures and gridlock conspired to turn what should have been a comfortable day out featuring the traditional generous buffer between arrival and kick-off into an out-of-breath ascent into the oxygen-thin atmosphere of the upper tier with effs having been effed and blindings blinded and ten minutes already on the clock. That the refreshment kiosks had closed during the game didn’t improve our mood, although in fairness, the City stewards had overheard my brother’s anxious phone conversations as he waited for us and his ticket by the turnstile, facilitated his entry and thus end up well in credit. Nonetheless, bah.
2- I tried watching cricket during the summer (not one for minority sports normally) and suffered through my lack of feel for the sport. I know the rules, more or less, and can follow the progress of a game mathematically but I can’t watch a game (match? tie? whatever) and understand what’s going on, what the balance of power is, in the same way as I can in a football game. Turning up late to a football game screws that feel up a little bit. It’s like you’re trying to catch up with a story having missed the first couple of chapters. Nonetheless… the thread in this one was pretty clear from the outset, the storyline already well established. City, slick and strong and aggressive, swarmed at us and we manned the barricades. This was already the biggest test yet of the defensive shape on whose altar so much is being sacrificed.
And for the most part it stood up pretty damn well for that first forty five minutes. City flicked and span and danced and swivelled and didn’t get terribly far for all that… the dominant side, but with precious little in the way of clear cut chances given that domination. We rode our luck, certainly, but on the odd occasion when a clear sight of goal was carved out City were denied, most memorably by an inhuman blocking tackle by Cathcart to deny Raheem Sterling. Elsewhere Behrami was energetic and vital, whilst Abdi’s flourished for the first twenty minutes (that we saw…), reminding us that there’s a fair bit of grit to complement that grace. There was an awkward five minutes that saw Nyom kick Sterling out of the air and Capoue go in late on Touré and we looked at each other and wondered whether raising the temperature of the encounter was really in our interests, but 0-0 at half-time made it very easy to overlook both this and the fact that we’d really offered nothing going forward in what appeared to be a 4-6-0 formation with Troy the falsest of nines on the right wing.
3- Which was great, at far as it went. Problem with an ultra-defensive formation is that you’re kinda stuffed when you go behind. Sterling’s goal, he having been moved to a central position, has been hailed as rewarding a tactical masterstroke but actually we lost concentration at the start of the half to allow the forward to drift in unchecked. That’s the Premier League for you, let alone away at City, and certainly didn’t reflect any great failing in a Plan A that had stood up pretty well to a first half onslaught. Nonetheless, Plan A having failed it was slightly concerning that it took quarter of an hour for Flores to make any kind of personnel change, in which time Fernandinho had smacked City two up and all but out of sight. Our defensive shape, so inspiring a thing when it was kinda holding out, now became a source of frustration – no out ball, no means of grabbing a foothold or providing a threat.
When the change came it saw Anya replace Abdi and briefly we seemed to adopt a conventional 4-4-2. On the front foot for the first time we suddenly had some controlled possession in City’s half for virtually the first time in the game and if City threatened to catch us on the counter this felt like a necessary risk that came with the territory. It was exhilarating and invigorating and got the visiting ‘orns – most of whom were hidden from our view in the half-full upper tier section – roaring for the first time. Anya soon had our best – only? – chance of the game, Jurado’s ball from the right being met with a brilliantly selfless dummy by Deeney on the edge of the box. Anya seemed momentarily surprised as well, allowing Sagna to fly in and emulate Cathcart’s crucial block of the first period. And then… and then… off went Ighalo, on came Layún and we settled back down into 4-2-3-1 again. Our threat, such as it was, dissipated immediately.
4- We had possession still, but largely on City’s terms and rarely in threatening positions. Occasionally either the dogged Alain Nyom on the right or Ikechi Anya down the left would get to the byline and sling a ball across but it’s difficult to hit a lone target. To this end Matej Vydra’s name got some airing, and there was brief excitement in the upper tier as the forward appeared to prepare to come on; sure, never a lone striker but if we’ve nothing to lose then why not go 4-4-2 and give Troy someone to play off, someone to move and disrupt City’s painfully comfortable defence. Instead – the distance had deceived us – Ben Watson took to the field to replace Capoue in defensive midfield, a move greeted with the first open and angry dissent of our Premier League season. Losing by a moderate margin at City is no disgrace and there’s a lot to be said for avoiding a demoralising dicking… but a 2-0 defeat is not something to defend. Predictably enough, the game finished with only theoretical further threats to City’s goal.
5- We are in the position of having to take an awful lot on trust at one time. The change in manager. The change in players. The change in playing style. This happened once before of course, three years ago… but Sean Dyche’s success and his team’s achievement in finishing mid table had only been triumphs in context (and thus less sparkly), the adoption of a swashbuckling playing style unlikely to alienate anybody. Here… the combination of changes will appear courageous and visionary if successful in the unforgiving Premier League. If not… there’s an awful lot to get pissed off about. Even ostensibly sensible and necessary developments like the departure of Fernando Forestieri to Sheffield Wednesday today – a striker who struggled to contribute to our promotion was hardly going to be a fixture – becomes a source of bitterness and acrimony. To put it another way, one tweet on Saturday afternoon suggested that the author would rather watch Nando score the winner at Huddersfield than see us put 10 behind the ball in the Premier League. Similar sentiments were expressed less eloquently in the away end. On the same theme, the traditional annual League Cup fiasco becomes something to get pissed off about, a bit like blaming your new boss for it being Monday.
These are early days, the squad being formed and moulded by the hour (’til 6pm Tuesday). Nonetheless, this will surely be as crucial an international break as we’ve had for many years. Flores may claim to be unconcerned with our lack of goal threat, but one attempt on target in three games isn’t going to convince many to fork out for a Newcastle ticket (even if it doesn’t involve braving the M6). Jurado, for all his ability, looks lightweight and has made minimal impact, whilst Berghuis didn’t even make the bench today. Abdi looks wonky, Deeney looks heavy, isolated and miserable and Ighalo only effective for nuisance value. Perhaps they’re not suited to this new formation either, but one can’t help but feel that the guys for whom promotion to the Premier League was part of the attraction in the first place deserve rather more. A similar lack of potency when Swansea visit in a fortnight may see a marked change in tone at Vicarage Road.
Watford v West Bromwich Albion (15/08/2015) 15/08/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
Sorry, folks. Because of illness (me) and other commitments (him), you’ll have to do without us for this one, and for Southampton too. Normal service will resume shortly.
Everton 2 Watford 2 (08/08/2015) 09/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Daughter 1 has just turned 9 but is already occasionally experimenting with the taciturn sullenness more associated with your average teenager, heaven help us. In my head she’s also the less fanatically committed of the two… something good to do of an afternoon for her, a reason for existence for her younger sister. So when Miguel Layún’s joyful volley hit the back of the net and our end of the Bullens Road Stand was going completely berserk and she turned to me with eyes like stars and proclaimed that “this is turning into the best day of my life“, it all seemed worthwhile… the agonising queues on the M6 (ostensibly caused by Alice breaking down in the outside lane… so we could have been worse off…), the uncomfortable mingling with Bedfordshire’s emissaries at a rammed Norton Canes services, the scratch down the side of the car caused by hurried parking in our pre-booked driveway… a thunderous return of Football that blew away the lingering memories of those miserable last few minutes against Sheffield and any angst we had going into the new season. What followed (and preceded) it was a noisy, breathtaking, cobweb-flushing afternoon’s entertainment. Welcome back.
2- Our first half was awesome. Layún’s goal was a fine thing, a fully merited decoration to a lively, sparky performance from the Mexican that was very nearly duplicated with a punched shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide just before half time. More impressive altogether was our much advertised defensive shape… in evidence against Sevilla it was heartening to see us looking so robust in a challenging competitive fixture, never behind in a game away from home and therefore under constant inspection. Less bodies thrown in front of the ball and last-ditch defending than the calm, absolute and brutal effectiveness of a car crusher, closing in on Everton’s pensive possession from all sides and squashing the air out of them. Protagonist in chief was the extraordinary Valon Behrami whose count of snarling, wholehearted but clean tackles in the first half alone was well into double figures. It was pointed out afterwards that there’s something heartwarming about a bearded number 8 throwing himself into battle for the cause… and the parallels with John Eustace are there, not least in the degree of control to match the aggression that saw Behrami pick up only 6 yellow cards in two and a half years at West Ham despite our fears. There are differences too, though… John Eustace’s menace was in the depths of the blue of his eyes. Valon Behrami’s is more overt, from the shock of fierce yellow in his hair to the slightly unhinged facial expressions he could hardly look more intimidating with a cutlass between his teeth. His partnership with Capoue, simultaneously deft and strong, silk and steel and keener to push up in support of the attack, looks a fine bedrock.
3- The old “will take time to gel” thing drifts from being a source of concern to a reason to be excited in the wake of the opening fixture. Because there were deficiencies, several of them actually, and yet we went and got a result despite them in a challenging away game, twice taking the lead in the process. This team is only going to get better (and worth noting, as an aside, that Jose Mourinho was enthusing in reviewing the season’s prospects, about the quality of players that the newly promoted clubs have been able to attract from abroad. Norwich have signed nobody from abroad, Bournemouth Max Gradel and a Portuguese loanee…). Inevitable that after our terrific first half that saw us dismantle Everton’s attacking play whilst threatening, if largely on the break, the home side would reshape and rethink and ultimately apply more pressure. Nonetheless it took a miscommunication between Behrami and Holebas, each leaving a bouncing ball to the other before the Swiss midfielder’s clumsy attempt to deal, to create the opening for Everton’s equaliser. That’s the sort of thing that happens when players don’t know each other but will get better… and faced with the imposing wall that was Sebastian Prödl and Craig Cathcart it still took a fine strike from Barkley to capitalise. Going forward, too, it doesn’t look quite right… and again, if Quique has prioritised defensive shape (to good effect on this evidence) then the attacking verve will develop in time. Jurado, certainly, was a little disconnected for all his obvious skill… catching the eye with a nutmeg of Barkley here, a clever flick over an opponent there but only rarely interacting with his teammates to good effect and not sufficiently physically robust, yet, to buy himself the time to work with. That’ll come. Ighalo, too… despite his wonderful goal being huge fun and betraying that for all John Stones’ evident attributes in what was otherwise a fine performance by the defender he’d forgotten (or never received) the brief on Ighalo’s favourite trick, the Nigerian looked a little unsure of his role, not quite up supporting Deeney, not quite back in the midfield. The second half in general saw us having to withstand a barrage of pressure, particularly in the opening 20 minutes as Everton changed formation and the relentless sun sapped the legs of Nyom and Holebas who had both been eager and energetic outlets from fullback; you’d rather we didn’t have to cope with that every week.
4- Everton, for their own part, were far more agreeable than some of their visits to Vicarage Road in recentish years have suggested. Affable stewards, friendly supporters stopping us in the street to shake hands and reflect on the game. Perhaps I’m getting old but this stuff matters… or is appreciated at any rate. Admittedly a drawn game in the sunshine helps… I’d have not been in the mood for anything much had we lost, as has been the tradition at Goodison Park, and I’m sure we wouldn’t have found the locals as cheerful if the reverse had been true. Being accompanied by two young girls probably doesn’t hurt either… something about the presence of children that rather alters any perception of threat as those who were on the same trip as I was to Carrow Road in 2006 will surely remember. Most of all, yet another boisterous and bouncing performance by the support in the spirit encouraged by the 1881 was tremendous, and being focused on supporting our lot rather than antagonising the opposition (for the most part) alienates nobody. There are, of course, significant exceptions for whom directed comment will be appropriate, but for now another sterling performance by the travelling Hornets.
5- As a building block, as a start, as a statement of intent this was tremendous. It’s only a point, and much as it might have caused immediate revision of the widely held view that Watford will struggle and finish bottom we’ve only made a single, positive step along the road. Significant, though, both as regards our own prospects and our own sentiment that whereas in the past Premier League seasons we’ve been the ones reflecting on a positive performance undone by a late goal, or bemoaning decisions that went against us (whilst ignoring the two goals we conceded by dint of standing stock still in our own penalty box, speaking hypothetically) we’re now able to look back on the moments of Premier League quality from the opposition – Barkley’s finish, the build up to Kone’s equaliser – and recognise that it took these to deprive us of victory at a ground where we’ve only ever tasted defeat in nine previous visits. Those moments – the bad decisions, the unrewarded performances – might still come. On this evidence, we shouldn’t expect them to be decisive in determining our season. Yoooorns.