Hull City 2 Watford 0 (22/04/2017) 23/04/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Ten days ago we went on a road trip. Only 100 miles or so, so not a vast distance, but the drive from Addis Ababa to Ziway is not to be undertaken lightly. There’s tarmac in Ethiopia now… this is a proper road but it’s still not quite the same as a motorway drive in the UK. Swerving columns of vehicles anticipate the worst of the potholes. Occasionally we pass long-abandoned carcasses of trucks at the side of the road, trucks that have fallen victim to either potholes, poor visibility, tired drivers or khat, perhaps a combination of the four. Roadworks are complicated by single lanes, no lane discipline anyway and nothing to divert onto (there is only one road…)… so diversions head into the bumpy savannah and kick up dust clouds which occasionally conceal hidden surprises.
The drive to Hull is altogether less exciting, which is probably a good thing. It also ends at a working mens’ club in which beer is almost as cheap as it is in Ethiopia. Given that I’m not the driver, this is also a good thing.
2- There’s a possible outcome which is to be dreaded here, borne of the knowledge that not only do the home side have a rather more pressing set of circumstances than we do but also that they’ve been doing rather well at home. At the front of our minds also is the sort of deckchairs-and-flipflops performance that was horribly prevalent at the end of last season (Norwich the best example). We’re braced for such an embarrassment.
But actually, we start OK. Miguel Britos, slightly disappointingly, is straight back in for local hero Mariappa but otherwise it’s the same side and though the Tigers are reputed to have been starting strongly the Hornets are the side who take early charge. This is not limp and passive, it’s assertive and determined and if Hull’s plan is to steam forward from the off they’re never allowed to. In the stands we allow ourselves to drop our mental guard.
3- The more so as Hull go down to ten men. You’ll have seen the challenge by now… over the ball and studs up so careless and silly, foul aside it was an utterly pointless attempt at a tackle that invited the possibility of censure and no possibility of winning the ball. Nonetheless incredibly harsh, obviously, not a stamp and with little force behind the challenge. From our point of view… we nod to fortune and carry on, surely. What else can you do? We’ve been on the receiving end of bad decisions, indeed from the same referee this season. That dose of bad luck is out of your control and you have to deal with the consequences, so when the boot’s on the other foot you have to take advantage. Nothing to feel guilty about (not even in the case of Niang who, for all the home fans’ hysterical and increasingly ludicrous bleating was largely blameless – he was clearly caught, and even a scrape across the shin at that speed would have been painful).
And we did capitalise, up to a point. The rest of the half was largely a coconut shy; the Hornets dominated possession and territory as, significantly, Marco Silva opted not to replace his loan/lone striker initially. Janmaat crashed a violent drive goalwards but into a crowd of bodies. Prödl sent one header over, then a second under the bar only to be clawed out by Jakupovic. Britos met another cross at the far post but failed to get it on target. Capoue danced in the midfield and swung the ball around. There was a patience and a rhythm to us… we weren’t laying siege to the City goal or forcing many chances from a still disciplined defence but we were thoroughly in control and if the Tigers had looked blunt before Niasse’s departure they were utterly without threat thereafter. Only as the players left the pitch at half time did it occur to us that Silva’s apparent conservatism had got the home side to the break level.
4- The interval saw Hull make that switch, reintroducing a spearhead in the shape of Abel Hernandez but initially at least little changed. We were perhaps not quite so overwhelmingly in control but we still had the lion’s share of possession and created another good chance when Capoue bullied himself a shooting opportunity but, falling away from the ball under challenge, stabbed too close to the keeper.
It’s not really as if City were threatening either, not even on the counter. Until, obviously, they did… and removed from the huge frustration of going behind in such circumstances away from home and all that entails, it’s hard not to reflect on the goal as a masterfully executed ambush. It was as if City, rather than throwing bodies forward in inefficient pursuit of a breakaway that would have been costly with ten men, waited for us to overcommit. The very first time that we did they howled out of the back in great numbers and swamped us, unaccustomed as we had become to facing such a threat… Markovic got on the end of Grosicki’s cross and got the break his side’s bloody-mindedness deserved when he received the rebound off the crossbar to prod home. From the away “end” it looked like keystones cops stuff, heads were in hands.
5- For all the subsequent wailing we’d not done an awful lot wrong up to this point. Our performance had been adequate, no worse (if, admittedly, no more). What was utterly lamentable, however, was our lack of reaction to going a goal down. No urgency, no fight, no waving of fists either literally or metaphorically which set what might have been interpreted as our earlier patience in a new light. Our reaction was passive, limp and lazy… reverting to the cautious, measured, possession-based build up that hadn’t quite delivered a goal against a nervous opponent at 0-0 and was never going to wash at 1-0 down against a City side with the bit between its teeth. Harry Maguire, City’s wonderfully “Have It!” bootery centre-back, was on the end of everything, whilst Sam Clucas was unrecognisable from his horror show at left back at Vicarage Road, a monstrous presence in midfield. His was the second goal, an arcing dipping half-volley from outside the area… Gomes blameless, but the midfielder had too much time to line up his exquisite shot.
Success, Okaka and (in the dying minutes) Zuñiga were thrown on in an attempt to change things; of the trio only Okaka had a positive impact, giving us some glue and some welly around the penalty area that Deeney’s unusually low key presence to that point hadn’t achieved. It wasn’t enough. The final whistle brought a howl of boos from the away end.
6- It’s perverse that there’s so much disquiet in the face of what will be, in terms of final position, one of our most successful seasons. It’s something that’s quite hard to rationalise… the two most popular extremes, that we are an ungrateful lot with unreasonable expectations on the one hand versus Walter is a clown who doesn’t know what he’s doing on the other are both trite, lazy, inadequate explanations.
Perhaps a fundamental point is that Watford supporters, whatever the team’s strengths or failings over recentish years, have been accustomed to seeing a bit of effort. Or rather, we’re used to seeing teams built on relatively limited resources thriving or at least overachieving on the basis of spirit, drive, organisation, determination. It would be overstepping the mark to describe the current team as disorganised… but certainly the lack of effort, the being the team that doesn’t always fancy it, is alien and difficult to reconcile. Much less so when you’ve spent a day travelling to Hull (camels or no camels). Not difficult to see why we’ve not shifted many tickets for what should be an attractive away fixture at Leicester, the last away Saturday of the season. Hard to see queues forming for potential gubbings at Everton and Chelsea. As we’ve said before, and much as part of the problem is safety having been achieved, it isn’t half a good job that we won those more winnable games.
As for Mazzarri, he’s clearly not an idiot. He’s guided the team to mid-table (albeit 10th feels like a high water mark) in the face of malevolent injuries with some impressive wins along the way. However as much as he’s failed to build any kind of relationship with the support, you have to question the extent to which the team are on side either. This was not a side inspired by their leader’s comments, fighting for a common cause. You can point the finger at the players too, of course… but significant that our man-by-man squad appraisal on the way up the M1 didn’t identify anyone who we’d willingly throw out on his ear.
7- The journey back was similarly relaxed, if slightly grumpier, enlivened by that Saturday evening classic of a service station stop at Leicester Forest East where myriad football shirts congregated on their way homewards to and from all directions. Sheffield United, York City, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Wimbledon, Watford and others ruminated on the days’ events whilst sucking through straws and chewing on cardboard fries. You don’t get this in Ethiopia, much less on the motorways, even if the food is better… Arsenal shirts proliferate. Why a mid-table club should garner such fervent following is beyond me, but I did spy a Palace shirt too. Takes all types, I suppose.
Meanwhile, Troy’s response to this capitulation was appropriate – and gracious, given the unjustifiable booing of the he and Gomes’ the team’s leaders, as they approached the away support. It’s not unreasonable to expect more against Liverpool, a high profile game in front of the cameras. Whether this would dispel concerns of a more general problem is open to question.
Watford 1 Swansea City 0 (15/04/2017) 16/04/2017Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. I’ll just come right out with it. I’ve been seeing someone else.
2. On Wednesday night, I’m at South Park versus Hastings United. Ryman League Division One South, the eighth tier. It’s my first Hastings away game, one of several landmarks along this road, some passed and others still to come: I’ve yet to don the colours, I’ve yet to refer to “them” as “us” without a twinge of conscience, but it’s only a matter of time. I haven’t bothered to count, but I know I’ve seen more Hastings games this season than Watford games, and I only started going in December. This is me, now.
3. Lost somewhere in a suburb of Reigate, South Park’s ground places the emphasis firmly on “park”: a crowd that only just reaches triple figures and is almost certainly comprised of more away fans than home stretches around the barrier, barely a couple of yards from the touchline. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a properly competitive football match; the pace is relentless, the swearing likewise. Amid all of the urgent clamour, you can even hear what the referee’s saying if you concentrate hard enough. Familiar faces. Chips in polystyrene, served by a nice lady maintaining cheerfulness in the face of absent help and a large queue. A barrier to lean on. A gorgeous sunset.
4. I’d always rather imagined that when I walked away from Vicarage Road, it’d be in a great flouncy sulk about something. Perhaps ever-increasing ticket prices. Perhaps being shunted to one side in favour of more lucrative commercial opportunities. Perhaps some act of vandalism by ego-hungry owners: a change of colours, a change of name. The London Hornets. Perhaps the vapid soullessness of it all, the paucity of openings for young players, those bastard electronic hoardings, the inconsiderate kickoff times, the imminent insertion of video technology into the spontaneously combustible joy of scoring a goal, Robbie Savage. Any number of other things.
And it’s true that many of those do nag away on my now-occasional visits. Transparently, this is not the game that I fell in love with at seven-years-old. That’s hardly a relevation: the world isn’t the same in most other respects either. And it’s also true that something died – well, let’s not be dramatic, it sighed and slouched and grumbled a bit – in me as I watched our football club apparently be content with a day out at Wembley last April when we could’ve had so much more; I’m not in it for the glory, clearly, but I deeply resent an age where glory doesn’t have sufficient value on the balance sheet in comparison to finishing fifteenth or whatever. What a waste of a beautiful game.
But it won’t do to condemn it all, any more than it’ll do to blindly romanticise everything about the lower levels of non-league. There is good and bad at every club, at every level; the balance is different for every supporter. That isn’t it. Instead, I’ve simply realised that the role I need football to play in my life is one of a steady, defining rhythm. What I love about it is its monotony, the sense of continuity and familiarity; the knowledge that we’ll all be back here in a fortnight or less, complaining about the same things, hoping for the same things. That’s at odds with the hysteria of the Premier League, at odds with the marketing of every fixture as an event.
But more than anything, it’s at odds with a busy family life a hundred miles away. Those now-occasional visits don’t really satisfy because they have none of that rhythm, none of that continuity. They’re a slice of cake in place of a three-course meal, a Christmas special in place of a box-set. I’ve found happiness elsewhere and I’ve found it sipping a cup of tea on a shallow terrace, knowing that I’m ten minutes from home, from family life, from where I belong. Knowing that I’ll be back for the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. Seasons coming and going; players and managers coming and going. Being part of something. That’s all.
5. I know, I know, you’re here for a Watford report. Sorry. Forgive me.
6. So, yeah, I’m back. Has it always been this loud?
7. I haven’t been here since that Middlesbrough game and I must admit that I’ve come prepared with a hatchet for, you know, a job. So it rather takes me by surprise when we begin by setting a rather brisk passing tempo, Amrabat and Niang spreading wide, Capoue and Cleverley pushing through the middle; I see more constructive football in the first five minutes than I did in ninety last time around.
But we lose our way quite quickly, like when you enter the supermarket with a shopping list in your head only to find yourself staring blankly at shelves of soup. Swansea are set up to pick us off in midfield and duly do so; Capoue will intervene decisively before the half’s done, but barely touches the ball otherwise and frequently cuts a particularly exasperated figure. We have creativity, which is a step up from last time, but a series of wildly inaccurate cross-field passes betrays the difficulty of bringing it into play; both of the wide players are guilty of squandering what they do receive.
8. Swansea, meanwhile, need to be scored against before they’ll look like proper relegation fodder. Llorente towers above all and needs careful marshalling by the excellent Prodl; Narsingh is quick and impish and draws out a terrifically aggressive ninety minutes from Holebas, disrespectfully and deliciously dismissive of his opponent, stopping just short of clipping him round the ear for his insolence. The real threat, obviously, comes from Sigurdsson, who draws a sharp save from Gomes with an instinctive flash at the top corner; Gomes unredeems himself with a skewed punch shortly afterwards and Fernandes wastes the opportunity. Ki Sung-Yueng shoots at the keeper when released by a swift break. They really aren’t bad. Yet.
You wouldn’t have said that the visitors were on top, exactly, merely that the game was turning out to look more like their gameplan than ours. Maybe that’s the same thing. Never one to stand around and discuss these things, Deeney nearly opens the scoring by meeting a Janmaat cross and requiring a flying save from Fabianski; we’ve created very little otherwise, in truth, and the intensity of the contest has dropped considerably as it’s gone on. It’s become a flabby, vague game; my attention is drawn to the uncanny colour of Ki Sung-Yueng’s hair. The winning goal is a defensive mess, Mawson’s hesitation capitalised upon at the second time of asking by Capoue. A relegation season kinda goal. We know what those look like.
9. We begin the second half well enough, Fabianski clawing out a ferocious, rather Guedioura-ish drive from Janmaat before it breaks the net. We don’t continue it well enough, however, and we don’t have much else besides a disallowed Okaka goal to show for it by the end. Indeed, much of it is spent in gradual, and yet very definite, retreat: as it becomes more and more evident that this will be the lead we have to defend, we withdraw first a visibly irritated Amrabat, then Niang and then Cleverley, which is the equivalent of giving up on your supermarket shopping list and just grabbing milk of various colours because, well, that’s always on the list.
On the one occasion that we let Llorente drift away from Prodl and win an unchallenged header, Sigurdsson whistles a shot wide from twenty yards; he scores two of those every week on Match of the Day. With about twenty minutes to go, you wonder quite how long it’ll be before one of a seemingly endless succession of crosses finds the giant Spaniard’s head rather than going out for a throw-in. The answer is long enough for him to no longer be on the field, presumably withdrawn with a crick in his neck; when Swansea finally deliver a ball worth attacking, it’s Sigurdsson who stretches and heads wide in injury time. He wastes another opening of his own creation immediately afterwards, scuffing a shot at Gomes, and the game is gone. Swansea ought to be kicking themselves. But they’d…yes, ha ha.
10. Immediate thought: a better side would’ve beaten us here. Less immediate thought: it doesn’t matter. You can afford to lose to a better side if you’re consistently beating the ones below you; you can play those percentages. It’s a depressing thought, perhaps, but we need do no more than this. Perhaps this is it, forever. Or at least until something goes wrong and we get relegated and we wonder whether we might’ve used our time rather better.
We’ve attempted much more with much, much less in the past. True, there wasn’t so much to lose. True, injuries. True, West Brom sounded like a lot of fun. True, it seems unbelievably Arsenalish to be turning your nose up at tenth. Even so, I can’t help but feel that there’s a very real danger of television’s billions becoming the only prize at stake, the only ambition to hold. A place at the trough for the feeding frenzy. It isn’t much of a dream. This was an increasingly conservative, cautious and yet oddly casual performance, and while I admit that I haven’t been here very often, I’ve seen nothing else from us this term, nothing to indicate that we have hidden depths.
It isn’t wrong to hope for more. It isn’t ungrateful, it isn’t forgetful. It might – might – be unrealistic. But personally, I’d rather fail trying. I imagine that the next few weeks will tell us whether the owners feel the same.
11. Back in Reigate, Hastings run out comfortable 5-1 winners. The claim for the division’s last playoff place is looking increasingly convincing. The evening is crowned by Simon Johnson’s spectacular thirty-yard strike into the top corner. No instant replays, quite possibly no replays at all; football at this level sharpens your mind’s eye. The crowd drifts into the darkness of the car park and evaporates into headlights and radio static. Everyone’s gone within five minutes. This is no more ‘real’ than anything else, perhaps.
There may yet be glory before the season’s out, though. Don’t tell me that doesn’t raise a tingle at the back of your neck. Don’t let that become a distant memory.
1- When I’m not working, sleeping, chasing children or watching football I enjoy am-dram. A week or two ago, in a restaurant before a show, I tried to argue to some football-sceptic acting friends that football could be thoroughly dramatic, exciting, inspiring, as much so as anything that takes place on a stage. It was a tumbleweed moment; I don’t think I convinced any that weren’t already sold.
Such a shame that they didn’t see Vicarage Road last night during that rarest of treats, a midweek home game under floodlights. I’ve always felt that the stadium transforms when the sun goes down, even when the stands are empty the darkness drapes over the stadium like a blanket. It’s claustrophobic and intense in a way that daytime matches rarely are and tonight, fuelled by Fry Days and a pint of Hornets Ale at the V-Bar, it’s absolutely magnificent.
2- A spirit that’s helped by two sides freed from the immediate shackles of relegation or prize-chasing concerns. This can be an appalling recipe of course, sometimes such games are anaemic and listless… “on the beach” is a favourite analogy of daughter 2, the first phrase perfected from her football lingo phrasebook two years ago it can so often apply in such circumstances. Not here. Not when we’ve got a fire lit under us by that win on Saturday – however it came – not when we’re playing a side as combative and bolshy and confident as Albion. It’s immediately one of those games in which nobody gives an inch, that’s a saucepan often at the very brink of boiling over but never quite descending into all-out warfare. I’m with Pete, Nav and Lawrence; Pete’s debut was at Millwall and he was completely sold by that monstrosity; there’s to be no going back for him after this.
3- So that win against Sunderland had taken the pressure off this a little bit, which was always a good thing. The more so since, perhaps unsurprisingly, Albion didn’t treat us any differently to the Arsenal and United sides they’ve taken points off recently. Everyone behind the ball, banks of bodies for all but the deftest of attacks to crash off, so well organised that inevitably, before long, a home side is going to get impatient and take a risk or lose its concentration. We’re nearly undone very early, a ball neglectfully through to Chadli who has a difficult angle and an awkward bounce but still should have scored. He didn’t, and that was the theme of the evening… this isn’t going to be a linear narrative, it was too much of a blistering tornado of an evening for that, suffice to say that we deserved every inch of this but it wouldn’t have taken much. Wouldn’t have taken much for this to be a very different outcome altogether.
Instead, we set about them. Sharp and neat and positive… we approached those banks of bodies with swift, snappy, one-touch passing. Ping ping ping ping. If it didn’t always go forwards very far it wasn’t a problem… this wasn’t easy for Albion, they had to be on their game to keep us at bay but there was an inherent confidence in our approach. No, we can’t play through you this time but we’ll keep going and keep moving and keep you moving and we’ll get there. Once again Abdoulaye Doucouré was the playmaker, picking up the ball deep and orchestrating events, pulling the strings, switching first with Cleverley, then Capoue, then Britos, but always the man with his head up looking for an opening. His transformation from misfit to surely one of the first names on the teamsheet has been remarkable.
4- Nonetheless, Albion kept us at arm’s length. We had more of the ball, but we weren’t getting very far with it. Albion’s resilience made a clear statement: If you want to score, you’re going to have to do something a bit special. So that’s what we did. And it was special in any number of ways… Craig Cathcart having the confidence to mix it up by playing a fine long ball forwards, Troy Deeney launched into a terrifying, impossible header that was both brutal and delicate. Niang picking up the cushioned headed pass on the left, cutting inside Dawson and hitting a wailing, arcing drive inside Ben Foster’s left hand post.
Pandemonium. And now West Brom’s game plan, so heavily reliant on not needing to force the issue, began to come apart at the seams. It’s easy and lazy to look at the visitors’ performance and the manager’s identity and fall back on stereotypes but really, it’s so very hard not to when the team turns up parodying their manager’s reputation. Big and solid and brutal, and towards the end of the half they put the boot in. Craig Dawson somehow escaped censure for a nasty foul on Niang, a point not lost on Miguel Britos when he was expensively yellow carded minutes later for hauling down Robson-Kanu. The resultant free kick, central and thirty yards out, was executed in front of a wall comprised of every player on both sides plus Harry the Hornet, half the ball boys and Tony Pulis’ gran. Nonetheless Nacer Chadli arced his shot over and around and off the outside of the post – not as nearly in as it looked, but not very far away either. The game ended with James McClean earning a generous yellow for a characteristically charmless kick out at Holebas, who reacted with the level of restraint we’ve come to expect from the left back. We all needed a good sit down.
5- Because the second half was mental. A tone was set by Troy’s second goal, so very immediately that I was still in the middle of furtively giving myself some half-time insulin which curtailed my celebration to one flailing fist instead of two. Niang sent in the same impossible dipping deep cross that he executed against Burnley – special, but so rare that you feel he must be saving up pocket money for them. It bisected Evans and Foster in indecision and Troy, bullying his way into pole position, prodded it past the keeper and over the line.
And that should have been that, since impressive as Albion had been in amongst the bare-faced brutality there appeared no prospect of them fashioning enough of an attacking threat to recover a two goal deficit. Matt Phillips, returning from injury, was immediately a threat but it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, and we were very much in charge.
Until we weren’t. There were a lot of cards flying around, and this wasn’t a fussy refereeing performance by Paul Tierney by any means. There was always the risk that a careless challenge could earn a second yellow and Albion, as befits all successfully thuggish sides, knew how to share responsibilities around. Rondón escaped from Britos… I haven’t seen it again, I dunno. Consensus seems to be a bit soft, a bit unlucky, Rondón as involved and a bit of a dick for falling over but just a bit silly from Britos, inviting the possibility of a second yellow. In the circumstances, given the atmosphere, given how it turned out, given that he’s still in my good books for that photo with the girls at the pre-season event, we’ll let him off…
6- With the now traditional Cathcart-switch-to-centre trick already executed in response to what looked like a rib injury to Seb Prödl in the first half, on came Aidy Mariappa some five years after his last League game for us. I don’t know why we were anxious… he’s not played a lot, of course, but he left us in 2012 because he was simply too good for the Championship, a Premier League defender in all but name. That he’s sixth cab off the rank is deceptive, and he made a mockery of his status and our apprehension with a bloody-minded cameo that saw off whatever Albion could lob at us. Tremendous. I won’t have been the only one do-do-dooing (we’ve got Mari-appa) their way away from the ground at the end of a very fine evening.
7- Because some games are just splendid things in their own right. Forget context, forget points, forget where we are in the League, this was a self-contained maelstrom that was a drama, a theatrical piece in its own right. But the context is, of course, that we’re all but safe, and suddenly that difficult run in has the look of a load of free punches, of noses waiting to bloodied. Suddenly it bears looking forward to instead of dreading.
I’ll be watching Spurs from a long way away; Ian will be reporting on Swansea. I’ll see you in Hull. Until then… yooooooorns!
Watford 1 Sunderland 0 (01/04/2017) 02/04/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The thing about losing a rubbish game before an international break is that you have two weeks of fidgeting before getting back to it. A period in which you can afford, or pretend, to forget about bloody football for a bit for, what, half an hour or so? Before focusing intently on the forthcoming game. For two weeks. Minus the five minutes or so for which internationals distracted you.
The more so this time. The ominous-looking running stretched out before of us, front-heavy with more obviously winnable games meaning that we can either get it sorted quickly with points in the bag or be left teetering needing to get points from games that didn’t look like yielding many. Our recent form meant that this one, home to the Worst Team In The League, could perhaps have fallen more helpfully. Added to which Troy is poorly, the traditional pre-match restaurant has buggered around with its menu (“refreshing” its offering by, you know, giving you less food for the same money) and there is a tangible edginess on Vicarage Road.
2- Nervous on the pitch too, no sign of the flying start that has become traditional. Sunderland pressed very high, very early… befitting of a side with a predatory Jermain Defoe as a threat and not much else. Five minutes in Januzaj slung a ball in from the left, it was nervously watched by defenders and attackers alike and Gomes fell to his right to push it around the post.
Worst fears were in danger of being realised, but this wasn’t to be the constipated performance of recent weeks. In part this reflected the paucity of the opposition, but either way within five minutes M’Baye Niang was running at the Sunderland defence and we were making chances. Holebas, Doucouré (twice) and Niang all tested Pickford, Okaka got on the end of a cross and sent a header over. It was still awkward and lumpy, a little bit deliberate, but it was positive. At the other end the mythical threat offered by Defoe focused attention; Miguel Britos and Younès Kaboul both flew in to deny the striker a glimpse of goal. It was still anxious, it wasn’t terribly convincing. But we were on top.
3- Sunderland are a particularly odd side. Poor, obviously, but in a wonky sort of way. Defoe, as above, is a menace albeit kept at arm’s length. Pickford is pretty extraordinary… alert to the shots that rattled in on his goal, commanding and authoritative and dropping missiles with laser accuracy deep in the Watford half, some thrown, some kicked.
And the rest of it was bobbins. Adnan Januzaj tripped around aimlessly. Billy Jones looked for someone to have a fight with. Bryan Oviedo spent much of the game watching an unchecked overlap disappearing over his shoulder. It seems inconceivable that Sunderland will be in the top flight next season. It’s similarly unlikely that either Defoe or Pickford will make the drop with them, which really doesn’t leave them with very much. Lots of sides in the Championship have a couple of solid centre backs and a scrapping midfield. There are plenty of clubs knocking around worthier of disdain than Sunderland, but this lot will disappear without trace.
4- The Hornets, meanwhile, took advantage of the situation. Easy to say with hindsight, easy given the result… but perhaps this game didn’t fall too badly for us after all. We weren’t great. This performance wouldn’t have beaten many opponents in this division. But we did win, and we gain confidence and belief… and we were visibly doing so as the game progressed. Cathcart, first at right back and then in the centre after the afternoon’s obligatory injury forced Younès Kaboul off, was absolutely terrific, Miguel Britos similarly assured alongside him. M’baye Niang floated in and out of the game… but when he’s running at defenders he’s a menace, this was a dramatic improvement on recent weeks. Most impressive of all was Abdoulaye Doucouré, the team’s metronome at the back of the midfield. we’re now seeing the imposing midfielder that we thought we’d signed, our man of the match for the second week running.
The scoreline, the scruffy nature of the goal might make this look like a less comprehensive, less accomplished win than it was. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a blessed relief when it came, Britos finally doing what he’s threatened to do at regular intervals over the last couple of seasons and getting on the end of something in the box… the release of tension was evident all over the ground. It was brief, however… Isaac Success, afforded a relatively long cameo, was sent skidding through by the utterly functional Okaka but was foiled by the onrushing Pickford. Later he tiptoed through legs in the penalty area before thumping a low shot goalwards that Pickford again repelled. Okaka attacked Niang’s cross from the left but was denied by O’Shea whose anticipation was a fraction better. Lee Probert, who has had worse days officiating Hornets games, nonetheless missed a penalty shout as Okaka had his shirt dragged round his midriff in full view of an unimpressed Rookery. A one-goal lead never feels secure, whatever the circumstances.
5- As the final whistle neared Sunderland inevitably chased the result. Borini fired in a shot that forced Gomes into an adroit stop; that he was alert to it after such a long time doing nothing is itself worthy of praise. Wahib Khazri, who had given the visitors a bit of much needed welly off the bench, lined up a free kick. It was a microcosm of the game itself, a game the result of which might effectively represent a fork in the road between a relatively comfortable end of the season and a relegation scrap. So too here, almost the last kick of the game… perhaps the most important free kick we’d face this season. If it had flown top corner we were royally screwed. Instead, the most welcome of Neil Cox tributes, it went straight into the wall. Game over. Ridiculously, if briefly, we were in the top half.
Which doesn’t mean that everything’s OK, but our recent travails were thrown into stark relief today. This is what a truly awful side, rather that a side struggling for shape and form, looks like. Even at our low ebb we were plenty good enough for this challenge. There are still things that need sorting, we still have a load of useful looking bits that aren’t quite coming together in a humming machine. But we look a lot better than a relegation side nonetheless. One more win ought to confirm this… would be nice if it was earned on an (all too rare and much missed) night under the lights at the Vic on Tuesday.
Crystal Palace 1 Watford 0 (18/03/2017) 19/03/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Much as there have been few more frequent opponents in recent years that Palace, much as it feels as if we play here every other week I’ve not made it down to Selhurst Park for almost nine years.
So much has changed in that time. So much has changed, period, but particularly on the pitch; this feels like a throwback to a bygone age. Days when we used to travel to watch terrible games in grimy stadiums and travel home wondering why we’d bothered (this is called “setting up a punchline”, btw).
On the plus side, the bottle-top nazis of ten years ago no longer seem to patrol the turnstiles… at any rate, I manage to get the contraband Evian bottle in unchallenged, rendering the precautionary spare lid in my pocket redundant. Having a deceptively cherubic-looking seven year old in tow, hair in plaits, warpaint on cheeks, helps of course, but I must confess that I prefer the charm offensive that is increasingly the norm on the way into away grounds. Maybe I’m getting old.
The Arthur Wait Stand is still where we left it, even if we’ve been shunted along it a bit, away from the Holmesdale End. The wooden benches have been replaced by blue plastic on tiers barely wide enough to accommodate it. The pervasive smell of damp wood is gone and whilst the sky is, as ever in Croydon, grey at least it’s not raining.
2- It’s an extraordinarily bad game. Creatively awful. Sorry if you were hoping for more dramatic build up, more suspense than that. Too bad. I sat through it, if you were hoping for drama then you clearly didn’t bloody do so and you’ll get what you’re given and like it.
To be fair, the appalling level of entertainment on offer is partly by design, no mere accident of incompetence although there’s enough of that. Both sides are set up to be solid first; this is particularly true of the Hornets who line up with centre-backs across the back four in an overt attempt to negate Palace’s threat from the wings (given that, in particular, we built a squad to play with wing-backs and are thus short of full-backs who can defend reliably). It works, too, in that the Eagles are largely kept at arm’s length; the game fluctuates between two moods… calm possession, often Watford possession, in the central half of the pitch and scruffy bedlam in either penalty area. Like a teenager on the pull, all the moves in the early stages but a fumbling mess at the business end of things. All mouth and no trousers. Insert your own joke about “inability to score” here.
3- The low roof of the Arthur Wait Stand and the claustrophobic lack of space afforded by its geography lend themselves to an intense atmosphere, which is the most enjoyable aspect of the game by some distance. Wilfried Zaha wriggles into the penalty area early on and goes down easily; Martin Atkinson is unimpressed but the away “end” is delighted by developments and proceeds accordingly if predictably. The repertoire moves on to cover bad bus-vandalising decisions and the how much of a let-down the notorious Selhurst Park atmosphere was turning out to be; I hope for a reference to the 2006 Eagle Express, but I guess that’s old news now.
The game is tetchy throughout. Maybe the Zaha thing contributes to this, maybe every game at Selhurst is this way in ongoing tribute to Sasa Curcic. Either way, the first half ends in drab-but-more-or-less-satisfactory stalemate, but with Jason Puncheon in heated discussion with Valon Behrami on the way off. The Swiss wouldn’t return for the second half, replaced by a dynamic Abdoulaye Doucouré. As an aside, and discounting our appalling record with injuries, it seems reasonable to question our recruitment strategy and/or our fitness regime given the number of players we have who can’t be relied upon to last ninety minutes… Behrami and Janmaat being simply too fragile, Success and Zuñiga, seemingly, being unable to last the distance.
If that sounds grumpy, it merely reflects the mood of the game. Tom Cleverley lost his cool, refusing Puncheon’s perhaps anxious attempts to make peace whilst demonstrating a stamping action after a challenge. Zaha cuffed Prödl over the head in a tussle to no censure. Milivojevic went in hard and late on Niang without being penalised, Palace broke swiftly down the left and Prödl exacted revenge on Zaha by clobbering him into the stand. From the free kick “Palace scored”, aggravating on any number of levels. First, that we had a strong case for a free kick of our own seconds earlier (but these things happen, decisions go against you sometimes, live with it…). Second that whilst Zaha’s quick feet didn’t yield Palace’s opening his being an obnoxious maggot and provoking a retributional foul, ultimately, did.
4- But mostly because this was a classic game of next goal wins. From the very start of the game. We’d looked relatively untroubled by Palace’s limited attacking threat, until Troy’s lapse of concentration made that academic. Finding ourselves a goal down we were completely unable to change our approach and mount a serious threat; indeed Palace finished the game much the stronger, partly buoyed by their lead and the crowd (who had found their voice) but partly through being able to swarm into the gaps that we were having to leave. I have no doubt that they’d have been equally incapable of overturning a Watford goal, had that emerged.
The four centre-backs thing deprived us of any real threat from wide, since neither Cathcart nor Britos were going to bomb on to provide support making our wide men easier to cope with. As so often recently we fell lazily back on lumping long balls to Troy, who battled on but was left with scraps by Mamadou Sakho who had much the better of that contest. Nordin Amrabat had been re-introduced to noisy acclaim shortly before the goal but looked rusty and offered little, though we will benefit from progressing him towards fitness. Our biggest threat, indeed, came from Doucouré who did the Worrell Sterling thing in saving his best half for the Hornets for one of the team’s worst; our only meaningful attempt on target was awkward slung shot across the face of goal from distance which forced Hennessey into a scrambled save. As the game drew to a close and the Watford crowd bitterly cheered an inconsequential free kick award on the half-way line I was once again taken back nine years as the voice of Don Fraser, who would have been sitting over my right shoulder at the Vic at that time, floated over the sarcastic applause. “Referee, you’re so masterful…”.
5- Most aggravating about our current position is the knowledge that we’re so much less than the sum of our parts. Yes, we’ve had crippling injuries in key positions that have disrupted our ability to build an attacking threat but despite this you’ve got to feel that we ought to be getting more out of what is undoubtedly the most talented squad we’ve ever had. This challenge is embodied by M’Baye Niang, who after a couple of high impact games now looks like a quality player in second gear, never better illustrated than when a rare late opening on the break was curtailed by the Frenchman wandering back from an offside position. I may have sworn at this point.
The whistle went, to boos in the away end. We navigated our way back to Selhurst station, via the landmarks we’d passed on the way… the bin liner of rubbish left, split and spilling its contents across the pavement. The cafe offering takeaway fare, “cheaper than the ground”, which looked as about inviting as a punch in the face. The corner that reeked of marijuana.
We shouldn’t be in a position where we’re looking over our shoulder, but we are very much looking over our shoulder. The stat about losing a game without Palace having a shot on target is perverse and embarrassing if a little misleading – it was the sort of game that a lapse would decide. But it also harks back to dropped points under another Italian manager who came across as distant and slightly supercilious, under similar circumstances.
I don’t think we’ll go down. We need maybe two wins out of the remaining ten games, and whilst there are games in there that can’t be relied on for points we ought to manage six. The frustration is that it’s even in question, and the niggle that a relegation battle being a recent development means that our squad and management might not be as mentally atuned to (or engaged in?) the challenge as some of the others down there.
Three points from our next two games, Sunderland and West Brom at home, are an absolute minimum given what the fixture list leaves us with thereafter.
Watford 3 Southampton 4 (04/03/2017) 05/03/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- It occurred to me this week that I am allowing my life to descend into a mere sequence of events dictated by routines borne of habit and laziness. Every stage, every decision pre-scripted. Middle-age steers you towards such a life, of course… jobs have to be turned up to on time, kids have school hours, gym classes, cello lessons to be navigated. In between these things you have to fit other stuff and because so much is timetabled the other stuff also becomes timetabled… supermarket run happens on a Friday evening when it’s empty. Gym can be fitted in on a Wednesday evening when the girls are at swimming lessons.
As a diabetic statistician – and therefore of reasonably ordered mind – with a propensity to cram in things like writing match reports the pressure to succumb to this demand for routine is almost overwhelming. It sometimes feels as if every step of every day could have been scripted. I wake up at 7 and give myself my first dose of insulin. I get up and empty the dishwasher, prepare a child’s packed lunch. Take various tablets, check my blood sugar, prepare breakfast (Monday: Salmon and Eggs, Tuesday: Cottage cheese with fruit) and then take more insulin. And so on. I might as well not be here. You could stick a stunt double in my place, or a robot with a set of instructions, and not lose anything. Actually, you might get more interesting conversation.
Today was the day I started fighting back. Nothing too reckless you understand… a different menu option at the pre-match meal, a different choice of turnstile on the way into the Rookery. These small acts of rebellion will build up over time, even if my co-editor would warn me of the risks of upsetting the Gods of pre-match routine were he here.
2- I’m not the only one who’s been ringing the changes. The 1881 appear to have revised their flag distribution strategy, today confined to their own home base on the west side of the Rookery. This is a shame, even if it only occurs to me as the pre-Z-cars anthem pipes up and the absence of a flagpole in my hand and yellow and black fabric obscuring my vision jars. Something’s missing. A shame because showing your colours literally – not merely symbolically, by turning up n’that – is a statement of pride and sets a good tone. The wall of colour has been a fine fine thing, but I guess I’m not the one who’s been giving up time to sort it. Thanks to those that have.
On the pitch, Stefano Okaka is the man chosen to fill the space in the line-up vacated by Mauro Zárate; he’s up front with Troy, Niang starts on the right of midfield with Capoue on the left whilst a defensive jumble about sees Seb Prödl come in and Younès Kaboul shunted across to right back.
As last week, we started aggressively. Heaven knows there will be plenty to bemoan about what follows but we’ve made a habit of starting well and shouldn’t lose or overlook that… here, Stefano Okaka bullied open the space to hold the ball up in the area and lay back to Deeney who improvised an excellent volleyed finish with his left foot. He’s scored in five of our last six league games.
3- But as last week, the suggestion that we would canter off into the sunset and record a comfortable win proved illusory. Whilst we retained a modicum of threat after our goal our chances were snatched, or optimistic from range.
Southampton, meanwhile, were very good indeed. It’s always tempting to focus on your own inadequacies in assessing a defeat, but this wasn’t a game in which our failings presented the win to the opposition whatever the scoreline or match highlights might suggest. Southampton’s movement and set-up asked those questions of us.. a tough, efficient midfield, all sorts of width on both flanks stretching us all over the place, and the alertness and mobility of Manolo Gabbiadini down the centre.
And so they flowed at us with increasing inevitability. Kaboul has done a passable job as a makeshift right-back in the past but struggled here as did the entire back four. In midfield we simply weren’t getting enough of the ball…. Behrami was subjected to a couple of heavy early challenges and was a pale form of his usual self. Cleverley was again the best of an underwhelming bunch in midfield but struggled to get hold of the game.
Saints equalised… perhaps we were unlucky, Redmond vaulted Tadic’s shot on its agonising way through, didn’t get a touch but was clearly gaining an advantage by obscuring and potentially distracting Gomes. It could and perhaps should have been called offside, but there was no denying that Southampton were worth parity. More aggravating still was the visitors taking the lead on half time… we thought we’d got away with it, perhaps the players did to.
4- Routine has its place, of course. Part of our problem – in part reflecting the disruption that injuries have wreaked on the side – is that there doesn’t seem to be a routine at all, no “this is what we do”… it’s reliant on pressurising mistakes (and Saints, particularly Soares at right back, weren’t immune from those) but when we have the ball it seems so.. heavy, deliberate and anxious. There’s no rhythm, no familiar way of playing. No stock goals either… no Ardley humping it to Helguson at the far post, as we’ve lamented before. You can’t rely on inspiration indefinitely.
Inspiration came though, and off the bench in the form of Isaac Success. Mazzarri’s press conference quotes implied fitness and form issues; certainly there have been concerns over the former, he’s yet to start at home and even here his introduction was agonisingly prolonged as if we were trying to work out how much injury time would be added and delayed to accommodate it. But I’ve not seen any “form” issues; on his best cameos he’s dominated the games he’s been thrown into; at worst he’s made us look more potent, given the opponent a problem.
He replaced Capoue, who had struggled on the left. His generally patchy form notwithstanding, it’s now over a year since his one good game on the left of midfield – at Old Trafford – so you’ve got to wonder how long that will be fallen back on as a plausible option.
Within ten minutes Okaka, whose urgency stood out even if he did occasionally look as if he simply wanted someone to have a barney with, brought down the ball and released Success down the left. The Nigerian clipped a ball in to the near post where Okaka met it sharply. Two all.
5- It would have been daylight robbery, but we weren’t given long to savour the possibility. Both of Southampton’s decisive goals were calamitous from our point of view; Gomes, in particular, who had kept us in it earlier in the game should have done better on both occasions. Abdoulaye Doucouré’s consolation was almost aggravating – a cross floated in by Niang, more involved than last week but still underwhelming, was allowed to travel miles before being tapped in by the surprised Frenchman. Saints’ defence, albeit perhaps switched off on a two-goal lead, was get-attable, we just never held on to the ball for long enough to capitalise.
Walter asserted that we were worth a point, and that a break at 2-2 which saw Behrami win possession high up the pitch and Okaka briefly through on goal, constituted a match turning moment, an opportunity to win the game. Both assessments seem optimistic. Certainly we could have nicked a point… and the straw to cling to is that despite being outplayed by a very good side we were in it almost throughout. But should have is stretching it, and a bit concerning that he’s done so (again). As for Okaka’s chance… he never looked like pushing clear of Jack Stephens and was on his wrong foot. Weighing this up against the seven Saints shots on target that didn’t find the net is hugely optimistic.
I’m still confident that we’re not in any trouble. Leicester, Swansea and Palace may all have won but will need to keep doing so, and one of the bottom three will need to put in a similarly convincing and unprecedented run of form for us to be worried (although the one or two wins that would probably secure us safety might best be achieved before Easter, with Liverpool and Man City the only visitors thereafter).
I’m not entirely comfortable with “not relegated” being good enough though, or being the only yardstick to judge the season with. Injuries notwithstanding, the squad’s a bit better than that. Hopefully the return to fitness of Amrabat in time for a tasty looking trip to Selhurst in a fortnight will help us demonstrate that conclusively.
Watford 1 West Ham United 1 (25/02/2017) 26/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- After a two week break, and notwithstanding a defeat at Old Trafford that was disappointing but far from humiliating, perspective on games like this has changed. The two wins against Arsenal and Burnley reversed the gentle downwards slide and we are now by general consensus a Mid Table Club… not that relegation is impossible, but we’d have to work pretty hard to achieve it. There have been signs of life at a number of clubs down the bottom – Swansea and Hull in particular – but we’re still ten points clear of the relegation zone. You don’t have to be great to avoid relegation, you just have to be less bad than at least three other teams and we’re certainly that.
West Ham are similarly comfortably irrelevant in mid-table and so this threatened to be an open game with neither side overly under pressure. This suggestion was re-enforced by Walter Mazzarri’s team selection which featured Janmaat and Holebas, neither of whom the most cautious of full-backs, in a back four with Niang and Zárate flanking Troy up front.
2- Our start did little to contradict this suggestion; we flew at the Hammers from the off, and within a couple of minutes Tom Cleverley and Troy had combined to release the vivacious Zárate in the box. He got what looked like a panicky shove in the back from Kouyaté and won the penalty. Troy is such a cool bastard in these situations… how wonderful to be pondering how he’s going to score rather than not being able to watch… this time a perfectly placed finish low inside the post and beyond the dive of Darren Randolph.
The warm-up had involved an exercise that saw our midfielders and forwards practising first-time shots from distance, whether reflecting the wet conditions, the way they expected the game to pan out or reservations about the Hammers’ keeper Darren Randolph. As an aside, Mauro Zárate excelled at this for all his moderate goalscoring record… whilst Daryl Janmaat’s venomous lack of precision necessitated attention from all parents in the lower inter-quartile range of the Rookery. This ambition was visible for the opening fifteen minutes or so also… the “one shot on target” stat isn’t great, but is slightly misleading. Niang’s violent drive was the most eye-catching, narrowly clearing the Hammers’ crossbar and presumably causing damage to whatever or whoever halted its progress in the Vicarage Road end, whilst Zárate’s curling effort looked on its way in before being sent unfortunately wide by a deflection.
3- Gradually, however, we were realising that the game that had been suggested by our early breakthrough – you know, more goals’n’that – wasn’t what we were watching. Key in this was that West Ham are a very good side – albeit a striker short of being a dangerous one. Whilst we enjoyed the better chances of the half Snodgrass was enough of a threat to cause anxiety at the back, and at the other end our attacking options were gradually being negated.
Niang, in particular, put in his least convincing outing since his arrival; this in part reflected the amount of attention he was being afforded… tightly marked, his impact was uncharacteristically limited and he lost his rag on more than one occasion, particularly in the second half. Troy had a more successful afternoon but was nonetheless curtailed by the excellent Fonte, who was the match of much of what our increasingly limited attacking forays had to offer.
Our most potent threat had been Mauro Zárate, but having gone down badly once and apparently recovered he was spotted curled up in pain on the edge of our box as a West Ham attack was repelled, and after a prolonged spell of treatment involving oxygen masks and a large entourage of attendees he was stretchered off. Between then and the break Daryl Janmaat went down too – like Zárate, the Dutchman attempted to continue but was withdrawn shortly into the second half.
4- And it was a second half that the Hammers dominated without ever really threatening to overwhelm the home side. Niang was isolated against Kouyaté on the left of the box and was lucky not to concede a penalty. The Frenchman was now on the Watford left, Doucouré nominally on the right but often dropping inside to stiffen a struggling midfield in which Behrami was in his element. As a consequence Aaron Cresswell was often in miles of space on the left hand side and it was down this side that the equaliser finally came, Antonio charging down the flank, slinging in a shot that deliberated about going in but hit both posts before falling conveniently for Ayew to score. They got the break with that rebound but given our own similar profit from a generous deflection at Arsenal, and the fact that we’d been under pressure for much of the half – Fonte had forced a fine save from Gomes, Antonio had shot narrowly wide – it would be churlish to grumble too much.
The injuries thing is a well-beaten drum but you can’t help but wonder with frustration what we might have achieved this season with a bit of a clearer run. If in this game, for instance, we’d had Nordin Amrabat available to replace Zárate off the bench, or Roberto Pereyra in midfield for everything to flow through, we’d have been so much stronger. Our brief resurgence at the end of the game had something to do with the Hammers going down to ten after Antonio racked up his second silly booking of the afternoon, but also to do with the eight minutes afforded to Isaac Success which afforded us precious little time to enjoy his disruptive randomness. Aggravating that we’re not confident enough in his fitness to unleash him – he’s still only started the once.
5- So the game ended with a goalmouth scramble that I’d have been interested to dissect in more detail than Match of the Day permitted, but in any event a point was as much as we could possibly have laid claim to. For all that the game slipped away from us we had enough about us to hang onto the point – kudos to the defending in the face of lots of zippy movement if no focal point.
On reflection I guess there’s a lot to be said for a “meh” game at this stage of the season. Not terrible, never less than interesting and a perpetually bubbling-under narkiness that held your attention. But not gripping, and but for a point that has us creeping towards confirmation of safety largely irrelevant. This is the grey area of irrelevance in the Premier League between the teams that might win something and the relegation scrap. Fulham and Charlton have both taken root in the shadows here in years past and being here makes you realise that it’s only dull from the outside looking in. Being here – not least with a side that’s capable of fine things on a good day (or given a clean bill of health) – is a very fine thing for a side like ours. For the moment.
Watford 2 Burnley 1 (04/02/2017) 05/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Sunshine makes such a difference. Any nonsense lined up for the day seems less important, it’s possible just to step outside, feel the glow on your face and be happy. I work in a rural environment, that helps I guess. But I think it holds anyway. Sunshine is a good thing.
It’s a gorgeous day, bright and fresh. Fittingly so, since Tuesday’s game cast a new light on the outlook for the rest of our season. Bright new signings, players coming back, a stunning win and now the sun’s shining again. Now a home game against a side that can’t win away. Bring it on.
2- As Evo grinned later, it says a lot that our three January signings have all been pitched in at the earliest opportunity; says something about the deficiencies in the squad given available personnel, says more about the quality of those signings. Early days, but so far so very good… Zárate’s suspension having been served he started on the left with M’Baye Niang switching to the right.
And actually it could have gone horribly wrong… Niang flew into a clumsy early challenge and picked up a yellow, but the speed and mistiming of the incident briefly left you worrying about what colour was coming out of Michael Oliver’s pocket. He got away with it (rightly, as TV replays reveal loss of control but no studs up or intent) but Jeff Hendrick, former Hornets target and scorer in the game at Turf Moor in September, didn’t. His challenge on Holebas was stupid and violent – in the middle of the pitch, studs up and over the ball. No decision for Oliver to make. Burnley travelling support booed the left back’s every touch from then on, presumably for having the temerity to get up again. The sun’s glow took on extra warmth.
3- All three new boys were terrific. Cleverley, again, was a whirling, spinning dynamo in the centre of the midfield, getting his foot in, covering ground, picking up the ball and slipping short passes, swinging long passes. Bossing it. Zárate… perhaps overkeen to do it himself, but capable of committing players, sashaying past them. A threat, a new option, he came within inches of crowning his debut with a goal after yet another cut inside saw him chisel out the space to curl a shot around the post, but narrowly so.
And Niang. Wow. Any concerns that Tuesday might have been a flash in the pan were dispelled very early indeed as, faced with two opponents on the right flank and a third closing in he simply put the burners on and flew off down the wing. Overall the first half performance was excellent; we looked confident and fluid, dominating possession for a change and looking capable of scoring. Niang himself made the first… perhaps he was afforded too much space as Burnley struggled to adjust to their numerical disadvantage but it was still an evil ball from a deep position that somehow allowed Deeney to batter Matt Lowton and crash us into the lead.
Throughout the half we went direct often, Troy murdering Michael Keane in the air and all sorts of options flying in around him. Burnley couldn’t cope with it so we kept doing it; Capoue smashed in a shot that hit Ashley Barnes prompting brief penalty claims, Niang flung in a curling long-range shot that wasn’t quite in the corner enough to trouble Heaton. If there was a problem is that we’d dominated without really stretching the Clarets and so Niang’s second, a carbon copy of Isaac Success’ goal against Bournemouth earlier in the season, was well timed as he expertly directed Holebas’ header into the bottom corner. So our tricky winger, who can hold off a challenge, is also good in the air? And we have the right to buy in the summer, you say?
4- Two-up at half time against ten men, the expectation was that we’d go on to run up what Chris Waddle would at one stage have referred to as an aggregate victory. Burnley’s first half had been far from tame… Joey Barton had gone into the back of Valon Behrami in an attempt to provoke a reaction but just got an icy stare, Ashley Barnes continued to make better use of his arse and his elbows than his feet. But there wasn’t an awful lot to suggest that they had the weapons to claw their way back into it; Gomes had saved well from an excellent Barton free kick after Boyd had earned a generous call but that had been more or less it.
And Tuesday night reprised itself in an undesirable and mercifully, ultimately, inconsequential way. We did the Arsenal thing of playing the game that we expected to be faced with rather than the one that we actually were. It was all a little bit too casual, a bit lacking in focus and urgency whereas Burnley, every inch in the image of their manager, refused to accept their scripted part in proceedings at all and managed to make light of their numerical and psychological disadvantage. It wasn’t one-way traffic… a fine switching ball from Cleverley found Niang who fed Deeney, Heaton performing heroics to keep out his prod back across goal. Closer still, however, was Michael Keane’s monstrous far post header which Gomes, impossibly, got down to to push away from the bottom corner. Barnes looped a shot over Gomes which Cathcart cleared from the line; in the same passage of play a driven shot hit Prödl’s hand… you get the benefit of the doubt with those sometimes, not this time. Barnes took the penalty himself, resisted what must have been a strong urge to take the thing with his backside and proved himself surprisingly adept with his feet by striking an unstoppable shot in off the post.
Robbie Brady was on to provide a new challenge… you had to give Burnley credit, they were making this much harder than they had a right to. It’s worth adding of course that their failure to rescue a point makes it much easier to give credit… everyone loves a plucky loser. Instead the Hornets had the ball in the net again, Success eventually warming into his cameo and setting up Deeney, the referees whistle for handball beating the ball into the net.
5- Slightly frustrating, then, since at half time the rare suggestion of a big win had presented itself. On balance, however, still a fine thing… a very different game against a much tougher opponent than their away record might have suggested. And we won it anyway. In the sunshine.
Beyond which, somewhat inevitably, we now look at our squad, our returning players and new signings, and marvel at the riches suddenly available in attacking positions. Nordin Amrabat is Player of the Season according to some; where would you fit him in when he’s back? Suddenly good problems to have ahead of another free punch at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (31/01/2017) 01/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Bloody Hell.
2- A friend had given me a lift to the station from work…
“So where are you heading off to?”
“Who’s playing?” (not a football fan)
“Arsenal against Watford. Ummmm… it could be ugly. I think these things are supposed to be character building…”.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that. It was a free punch, but a free punch with the lowest of expectations. We’ve been struggling – plenty of qualifiers, reasons, but we’ve been struggling and nothing about our recent form – least alone on Sunday, albeit with a scratch team – suggested that this was on the cards. Arsenal, meanwhile, have been flying. This was only going to end one way – the passing up of the opportunity to bounce this to Wednesday night spoke volumes about where this week’s priority was. Vicarage Road, Saturday, Burnley.
I’d settled myself into a zen-like state of acceptance on the train down. When your expectations are lowest anything’s a bonus, obviously, but this wasn’t mere self-preservation. With a view to enjoying the evening it was a case of scratching out the positives, looking for things to build on. Anything that wasn’t awful would be enjoyable. Better teams than us will get gubbed by Arsenal.
3- The line-up was a minor fascination. Four centre-backs across the defence was interesting… Slav had tried the same at home to Rotherham in the promotion season resulting in a game that was brutally effective if thoroughly forgettable. Brutally effective would do here, but this was a completely different ask. Niang’s debut had been widely trailed, Isaac Success on the bench less so. Through his staccato first season in England Success has managed to prolong his status as well-kept secret for an unprecedented period – most such treasures get found out and their bubble diffused, or become public knowledge by now. Also back in the starting line-up were Behrami, to patrol in front of the back four, and Janmaat with Tom Cleverley partnering Capoue in the centre of midfield. The game started in heavy rain, illuminated into a veil by the stadium lights. We stood reclining into the backs of our comfy chairs, applauded dutifully and defiantly and awaited the inevitable. Arsenal, too, seemed to have expected to turn up, do their thing and record an unremarkable win… whilst their failings were manifold it’s surely beyond dispute that had we played our scripted role, turned up, put up a tentative and nervous backs-to-the-wall resistance that’s exactly what would have happened.
4- Instead we howled into them with the force of a wrecking ball into a dolls house. It would be difficult to overstate the magnificence of that first half… it was as if all our vigour, energy, verve, bloody-mindedness had been saved for this moment, like a child saving up pocket money for a special occasion. The disconnect between what was expected and what was happening on the pitch was evident in every challenge that saw an Arsenal midfielder hassled out of possession; the more so when, having won possession, we thundered past with options overlapping and Arsenal players scrambling. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down.
It helped that we got the goal. Of course it did. In fact the whole thing was contingent on that early breakthrough, much as the bouncing disbelief after the second three minutes later was tempered with a look at the clock and “oh crap, there’s still 75 minutes to go…”. There’s a world of difference between a bloody-minded Watford side and a bloody-minded Watford side with a lead to defend. It didn’t make our job easy, but it made Arsenal’s extremely difficult.
That we got that break was all down to us though, down to the positiveness and aggression that saw Niang flying down the centre of the pitch. The free kick looks a bit soft on the replay but whatever… tickets, raffles. He was there to win it, that’s what being positive gets you. Younès Kaboul did his trademark rocket-launcher thing, we got another break with a deflection but heaven knows those deflections have been going against us, about time for some redress of that I think. Plus, Aaron Ramsey. Yes it’s very hurty if it hits you because he’s a big scary man who kicks the ball very hard but to quote Steve Morison, if you don’t like it, go home.
5- Pulling out individuals is wrong, because there wasn’t a performance that was anything less than outstanding, extraordinary. So let’s pull out all of them.
Étienne Capoue. My word. This was the force of nature that we remember from the beginning of the season, but with booster rockets and go-faster stripes. Foot in every tackle, driving forward relentlessly as epitomised by the second goal… disdainfully bypassing opponents first with a drop of the shoulder, then through brute force, then through “well if you’re not going to challenge me I’ll keep going”. Smacked a shot that Cech could only block, Troy gobbles up, two-nil. Magnificent, and if he was quieter in the second half that rendered him merely fantastic.
Tom Cleverley. Doesn’t give the ball away. Ever. Not by operating in safe areas of the pitch where he’s got time and space, but despite pushing on and being bold. Others have had that knack of retaining possession no matter what – Jonathan Hogg springs to mind – but not in combination with this verve. His confidence must have been knocked by his fall from grace but no sign of that here… he’s back home.
M’Baye Niang. You’re used to seeing a young forward, especially a wide man, come in and be exciting, that’s not new. Then over time you realise that he is easily bullied, or he doesn’t know how to pass the ball, or he’s all tricks and no end product. No danger of that here. Those boxes are already ticked. Quick and clever, yes, already a weapon that makes our attack so much more potent with speed and slight of foot, a snake slithering cruelly through opponents legs. But he’s clever too, he knows where to run and – best of all? – he can hold the ball up, he can handle himself. We have a player.
Less spectacular but just as welcome on the other flank, Daryl Janmaat. An ostensibly defensive set-up was rendered potent by having Janmaat and Niang invariably hugging the touchlines every time we broke; we signed Janmaat as a full-back but he’s an attacking threat first and foremost and he was perfectly at home on the right of midfield, bundling into challenges and forcing Cech into a clawing save towards the end of the half.
Valon Behrami. Doing what Valon Behrami does, blood dripping from his jaws, slightly lunatic smile, this game was made for him. He stamped all over it too, a royal pain in the arse of every home attack until being taken off twenty minutes into the second half.
5- By then the game had changed. Reports suggest that “Arsenal improved in the second half” whilst nonetheless describing the team’s performance as “below par”. It didn’t feel below par for that opening 20 minutes. It felt very much as if we were going to get blown away in Arsenal’s whirlwind. You wouldn’t have put money on us getting anything from the game at that stage, not a point, not anything. Walcott was on for the lumpy Giroud and the home side were all twists and turns, and darting runs that nobody in the stadium anticipated. We stood up to it well, the incomparable Gomes making one stunning save from Walcott in a face-off after the winger was found free on the right of the box and another from Iwobi who had switched flanks with Sanchez. Bodies were put on the line, crucially nobody panicked and put in a stupid challenge – Nacho Monreal had already sounded a warning klaxon with a feeble dive in the first half for which he was booked. No further opportunity could be offered and wasn’t, although Prödl’s murderously precise challenge on Sanchez had hearts briefly in mouths. Shortly afterwards Arsenal got their goal regardless. It felt like a matter of time, and we began to steel ourselves with the knowledge that even glorious defeat was so much better than we’d feared.
In my head, things changed again with the Behrami substitution. Kieron leaned over and suggested that his well-judged trudge to the touchline constituted the longest interruption to Arsenal’s onslaught of the half. He was joking, but he was right… and they never quite had us under such pressure thereafter. Doucouré and Okaka both gave us much needed legs off the bench, the latter replacing the relentless Deeney whose lone furrow had been ploughed deep into the earth’s molten core. But Success was the triumph, the icing on a very ample cake. True, he twice exposed us to potential disaster not by overplaying, but simply by not being defensively aware enough as Arsenal’s urgency ramped up in the closing ten minutes. At the other end of the pitch, however, he induced panic… and one outrageous flippy-flappy trick on the edge of the box had him skating clear of an utterly confused Arsenal defence, ready to slide the ball under Cech… except that Troy, too, had been confused by Success’s brilliance and had inadvertently blocked the Nigerian’s pass through for himself.
6- So we held out. Kaboul and Prödl monstrous and defiant, Cathcart and Britos so much more confident, assured, unpanickable than recent performances have suggested.
At half time I’d run into Lionel, with whom I’d shared grumpy reflection at London Bridge post-Millwall on Sunday. We’d both been full of how dreadful it all was (it was) and what a grim place the world had become (it had). No words were necessary in the concourse at the Emirates, we just laughed. Too much analysis surely ruins the enjoyment. What did we know, anyway?
Today is Graham’s funeral in Watford. An important, significant day in memory of an important, significant man. The win was dedicated to his family and his memory both by Troy and by Walter Mazzari… something that’s easy enough to say but important, too, and they’d earned the right to say it. Fitting, too, since in GT’s time, famously, “We Always Beat the Arsenal”. This win, this performance bears comparison with any by a Watford side since that era, and many of those of that time too.
So what a magnificent evening. Suddenly we can look forward to the rest of the season with no small optimism. And all rendered ever so slightly more enjoyable by the fact that nobody, least of all Arsenal, not ourselves either, saw it coming.
Millwall 1 Watford 0 (29/01/2017) 30/01/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I was reminded once again today of the trite 6-0-6 throwaway, “fans just want to watch their team win“. As previously discussed, this is fundamentally incorrect. Fans want to watch their team win, yes. They don’t just want to watch their team win. Fans, largely, want to watch their team. This is taken for granted, but as such is far weightier a concern than the triviality of victory, at least for active supporters who attend games. A relief, then, to learn of Lewisham Council’s retreat from a threatened compulsory purchase order of, amongst other things, the New Den site under the auspices of a questionable (and, consequently, questioned) property deal. Whether or not the very future of Millwall was threatened its location – being dumped out in Kent a real possibility – certainly was and as such that taken-for-granted bit was in danger of being whisked away. And yes, sure, as we saw today the Lions have above their quota of the sort of buffoon whose xenophobia, boorishness and ignorance recent world developments seem to legitimise… but they’re also a club rooted in their community. Good that they’ve seen this off. This is relevant, I’m coming back to it, promise…
2- Pete came to the game today. He’s not a big football fan, interested enough to ask reasonably informed, polite questions about the ‘orns progress at work but little more. When he asked what I thought of the cup draw I invited him along. I’ve since apologised, naturally.
We’d discussed on the train down the possibility that something like this would happen, on this weekend with so much of This Sort Of Thing going on. What with Millwall already having dumped one top flight side out who thought they could get away with anything less than full throttle, with us still clawing a team and any kind of form back together. It was always a possibility, but I don’t think many of us expected it to be quite this bad.
Indeed, if there’s was a positive to be taken from the afternoon it was the knowledge that this would be a straightforward set of thunks with no call or place for balance, perspective or “on-the-other-hand”…
3- Good God this was lamentable, on so many levels. As someone who has spent a sleepless night and a considerable time in the dentist’s chair this week I feel qualified to describe it as a painful experience.
The team selection, first of all. Certain things out of anyone’s immediate control… injuries, suspension, international clearance, and so on. Nonetheless, the relegation of the FA Cup to some sort of irritating sideshow, some trivial inconvenience not worthy of proper attention is repulsive and cowardly. It’s not something that Watford are guilty of in isolation, it’s a negligence that many clubs share and not just in the top flight. It’s easy to cite the money tied up in League status, “this has to be the priority”. Had we played our strongest team and picked up an injury, or sapped legs further, questions would have been asked.
But for me, this is a side that needs to remember how to win. There have been contributing factors to our poor form, but now we need to start stringing results together. Bournemouth was cautiously encouraging. We needed to build on that today. A stronger team would have guaranteed nothing, but this was eminently winnable. Had we lost giving it a good go then any failure would have been more forgivable and Arsenal on Tuesday less daunting because there would have been some spirit. Quite apart from the fact that the FA Cup is a prize in its own right, with big guns tumbling we might have had a shot. It’s not like our trophy cabinet is overburdened with such achievements.
4- The first half was a complete bloody fiasco. We know that three at the back can leave you vulnerable, and it can make you potent. Amongst other things it relies up wingbacks pushing up to provide width, and some venom in midfield to provide threat. Here, Brice Dja Djédjé and Brandon Mason were seemingly under instruction to push up to a point and no further… Mason in particular had displayed his eagerness to bomb on and overlap against Burton, so this was no instinctive caution. It resulted in everything coming down the centre through a midfield trio that put in a performance that was comprehensively ineffective. No need to pull out individuals – Watson has barely been permitted to string his laces, Guedioura just back from Africa, Doucouré must wonder whether he’s coming or going. It just didn’t work at all, no energy, no movement, no attempt to address it – all three played the ninety minutes although, and I’m conscious that I’m lapsing into qualifiers here, injuries to Pantilimon and Dja Djédjé limited flexibility.
Pete had welcomed the trip as a vastly more attractive way to spend a Sunday than hanging wardrobe doors, his default option. Can only imagine that Stefano Okaka’s immobile, lazy performance reminded him unhelpfully of his wardrobes… we’ve seen Okaka display a menace and an energy on occasions, terrorising opponents. On others, particularly when he’s receiving it rather than dishing it out, he’s of very little value – though at least he was visibly inept, unlike Jerome Sinclair.
Meanwhile, Millwall were doing what they were scripted to do. Coming at us, hounding us… physical, yes, overphysical sometimes. But this is a cup tie for goodness sake, what do you expect? Any lingering irritation at the Lions’ strong-arm tactics disappeared with Steve Morison’s post-match comments. “If you don’t like it, go home”. Spot on, and fair enough. We didn’t like it. We somehow got to half time at nil-nil regardless, in part due to luck, in part due to an opposing attack that was more bluster than finesse, in part due to some decent defending – good to see Mapps back in the fold, he didn’t let himself down whilst Younès Kaboul was comfortably our standout player, full of welly and decisiveness, the defender we thought we’d signed.
5- In the second half things got better, which as you’ll have gathered isn’t really saying an awful lot. The tempo that was utterly absent from our play in the first half had evidently been a talking point and our passing suddenly had a bit of snappiness, urgency. Nothing dramatic, we hardly took the home side to task but it was something. Meanwhile Dja Djédjé and Mason had finally been given licence to push on… the youngster had a tougher task than against Burton and his inexperience was exposed more than once but he kept at it and was arguably our biggest threat, sending in half a dozen or so worthy crosses in the second period from wide on the left. Okaka wasn’t enough of a target and too easily marshalled… I was reminded of a Wolves supporter (and the accent doesn’t come across in print, so superimpose that…) describing new signing Robert Taylor’s aerial threat: “When he joomps in the air, ye can’t get a ciggy paper oonderneath him…”.
Nonetheless, we were beginning to dominate, finally. Troy came on to loud hurrahs and now there was some urgency too, a weapon in attack. Let’s not start taking his attitude for granted, dips in form or otherwise. Millwall were looking leggy, I can’t have been the only one thinking we’d gotten away with it – would this be a replay, an unspectacular win at the Vic in ten days after which we put the whole sorry mess behind us much as we did Bristol City three years ago, or would we grab a thoroughly unmerited winner. Neither, as it turned out.
6- We got to the station platform having made it through a hastily constructed police safety cordon just before it was closed. Our relief was short-lived; timing had awarded us the honour of not-quite-squeezing onto the first train and spending the next fifteen minutes – including a futile hunt by staff for the puller of an emergency cord in an unspecified but sardine-rammed carriage – in the cold drizzle on this iconic football-followers’ station. A cup shock, yes, two divisions, yes yes. But Millwall and Watford… not cut from the same cloth, exactly, but certainly used to being stocked at the same class of retailer. Let’s not get above ourselves.
The train northwards from St Pancras was no better. We missed a quick one, so caught a stopper. It being Sunday, when nobody travels, there was engineering’n’that and limited trains. So all those people who don’t travel on a Sunday were rammed into this one. When we got to West Hampstead, the passengers on the preceding train – the fast one, it’s windscreen having been smashed in the interim – joined us, often indelicately. A fitting end to the day.
Pete, surprisingly, declared himself satisfied with a good day out despite everything. He’s a lifer, natch. Which takes me back to my original point. Watching football, watching your team, is a good thing. Shouldn’t be taken for granted, not by anyone. Not us, not the players, not the manager… who’s bizarre post-match assessment echoed his countryman, Gianluca Vialli, in their surprising perspective.
Arsenal, on Tuesday, looks ugly. The players we’ve signed look decent – Cleverley a great fit, Zaraté and Niang apparently offering some much-needed magic dust. But we’re going to need to see an awful lot more than this.