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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s give it some.

Yooorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

Well, that went well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, it will be fascinating.

Hang in there, and see you at Leicester.

Yoorns.

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

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

Norwich City 0 Watford 2 (09/11/2019) 09/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- We’ve been chatting for most of the journey, the long straight roads from Bedford to Norwich, but as we get close the conversation dwindles. Paul is not a Hornet, he’s on loan from AFC Rushden & Diamonds for the evening but this is closer to Tommy Mooney from Southend, say, than to Andros Townsend from Spurs. He gets it. The stereo is on for the first time as we approach, and the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” thumps out at a wonderfully painful volume. It’s the perfect anthem for the evening.


It’s a cold night, but pleasantly cold. A cold to watch an evening kick off in, a cold to accentuate the prickles on the back of your neck rather than to chill your bones. It’s also fireworks night in Norwich, but the crowds are all headed in one direction. We manage to get seated in the eatery at the stadium, not clear quite how much subterfuge is needed but we don’t see any Watford colours so the coat stays on throughout.

There’s no downplaying the tension. They’ve all been big games of course, all must-win games until we win one but coming before an international break against a struggling opponent… surely now or, you know, if not never then perhaps too late. Significantly some big names are back in training and this announcement had built anticipation over the anxiety… Troy, Caps, Sarr, Seb, of whom Caps starts in midfield and Troy is a very welcome return to the bench. There’s a nervous energy rippling through the away seats.

2- It always felt likely that any opening goal would be difficult to overcome. “First goal wins” might have been overstating it but… nobody needs reminding of the difficulty we’ve had scoring goals and had we been the side to slip behind against an opponent like this on a night like this, a side no less anxiously looking for an outcrop to cling to, you wouldn’t have fancied our chances.

However we’ve done a reasonable job of containing sides in recent weeks despite next to no goal threat. Any goal threat at all, anyone for the ball to stick to, was always going to make the side significantly more credible and potent, and a goal lead always felt like something we would be able to exploit.

So when Buendía fannied on the ball (danger illustrated) allowing punkin’ instigator Gerard Deulofeu to rob him, trundle goalwards whilst casting distracting glances to his right, exploit Pereyra’s decoy run to cut to his left and roll a shot inside Tim Krul’s post the celebration was particularly emphatic. We’d not just scored a goal, albeit a goal that owed a lot to the parlous nature of City’s defence, we’d struck what was likely to be a decisive blow. That’s how it felt. The celebration was joyous more than triumphant.

3- Which isn’t to say that was it, though Dave looked a lot more fraught on brief half time review than I had felt by that stage. The home side recovered themselves quickly and this was a harum scarum half of football – hugely enjoyable chaos if you happened to be a neutral, pretty enjoyable for at least some of us with a stated bias too. City’s biggest threat came down their left where Hernández found a lot of space to either torment Janmaat or get in behind the often advanced wing back. Hernández is a classic winger of a certain type… an Anthony McNamee perhaps in that he had an eye-catching threat that didn’t turn into anything actually threatening as often as the home side might have liked. One very decent ball created a chance which needed an astonishing point blank save from Foster, only to be pulled back for offside – it felt as if he’d wasted his one composed cross on the wrong opportunity.

But we were the stronger side in more than one respect. With the significant return of Capoue as captain alongside Doucs we were physically dominant, much much more powerful than our opponents. More so when Andre Gray came on for the latest hamstring victim, Roberto Pereyra; Andre, as we know, isn’t a target man but he was significantly more combative than the man he replaced and that he more than held his own against City’s makeshift central defence tells you all you need to know about it. City were in a sense fortunate that necessitated personnel changes spared them even ten minutes of Troy Deeney, who would surely have made mincemeat of a lightweight rearguard half-fit or otherwise.

But we were stronger with the ball too. Janmaat’s elevated position exposed Lewis, we pushed City high up the pitch and as we swarmed forward occasionally evoked the better displays of last year. Will Hughes put in his best shift of the season, significantly lasting the ninety, and twice pulled left to put clever balls in from the by-line first to give Deulofeu a chance which went wide, then to feed Gray who span on his marker and fired in a shot that Lewis deflected wide. He wouldn’t be as fortunate with a deflection later in the game. As an aside, Hughes playing wide (ish) under Javi was oft criticised as a flaw in the plan; it will be interesting to see whether his impact is heightened further playing more centrally.

4- As for our hosts… it’s dangerous to make judgements based on one game, particularly a game where for many reasons they’re at a low ebb, but there are many bases for concern here. Most revealing were comments overheard in the strategically low-key plod back to the car in the crowd, young home fans bemoaning the lack of Plan B whilst looking forward to renewing hostilities with Ipswich next season. Lots in that snippet… the apparent acceptance of course, which probably isn’t universal, but also the “we’ve only got one way to play” thing. City looked an extremely lightweight side, a side perhaps that has succeeded on simply playing around other teams. Last season’s Championship table betrays that the scoring of goals rather than the lack of conceding made them remarkable but faced with better players (and less luck with injuries) the decision to limit squad strengthening seems reckless. City now are leaking goals, the confidence of their talented but inexperienced defenders shot to bits. Interesting too that Daniel Farke’s post-match comments reflected that Watford had “switched to a back five”. This happened several weeks ago, slightly alarming to City fans surely that this appeared to be a surprise. A long way back for City you suspect.

Which given the league table obviously suits us fine, with due sympathy. The game appeared to be settled early in the second half when Hughes fed Deulofeu who left Tettey on his backside before dinking in a ridiculous cross at the second attempt, the same “let me just dislocate my ankle then try it” trick that worked so memorably at Wembley. Andre Gray improvised brilliantly, backheeling towards goal and this time getting the favour of the deflection off Lewis.

This was an extraordinary evening’s work from Deulofeu. We’re used to him flitting in and out of games, sometimes brilliant, sometimes flimsy, sometimes irrelevant. But I don’t think I’d seen this before… flame on for all of his seventy minutes, tackling back, cajoling. Leading. Whisper it, a captain’s performance. More please.

We were on top, and bossed the first half of the second half. Gray could have finished it altogether on the break when, with Doucouré square, he lifted a ball over. More generally still short of a target up front we sucked up possession and taxed City’s legs rather than beelining for goal, laying the ball back, sideways, making an angle, making them chase. This is Quique all over of course, and so much more enjoyable when it’s effective.

5- But in the end it got us into trouble. Increasingly frantic, City were charging after possession on the halfway line. Harried, Kabasele put Dawson under pressure with a misjudged pass; Dawson was robbed and Kabs tussled with Drmić as the substitute tried to escape.

On review the yellow looks harsh. There wasn’t a great deal of contact, andthe Swiss striker wasn’t going anywhere. Nonetheless, self-inflicted mind-detonator Kabs was on a yellow after a stupid earlier booking making his decision to make a needless challenge particularly witless. He didn’t stop to debate the issue with the (largely excellent) Andre Marriner.

This set a different tone altogether, and suddenly City were alive again. Mapps came on for Deulofeu and for five minutes it was backs to the wall. The detail of it escapes me beyond a couple of eye-catching stops from Foster to long-range efforts, and a couple of bits of bloody-minded defending from the excellent Dawson. But ultimately more of the from City… lots of suggestion of threat without much actual threat as such. The eye-catching Cantwell had come on early in the second half and looked busy, briefly energising his side before sending a corner straight out and a threatening free kick sailing over the penalty area at which point his chin hit his chest and stayed there. Not long after the red card Ben Foster, inspiring complete confidence on the back of recent performances, reached up to grab a slack cross and the puff went out of the home side. That, it appeared, was that and the game was won long before the final whistle.

6- When that came, the relief was palpable and the change in mood tangible. Étienne Capoue, exhausted, fell intoxicated to the ground. All around fists were punched, bellows bellowed. On the pitch the same. One win, fine, against a limited and struggling opponent. But a third clean sheet in five despite the red card. A win. A gutsy, heroic performance, real character. And players coming back.

Maybe the fire has started.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Dawson 4, Kabasele 2, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, Hughes 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*
Subs: Gray (for Pereyra, 30) 3, Mariappa (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 88) NA, Deeney, Chalobah, Femenía, Gomes

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (02/11/2019) 03/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Tick tock, tick tock.

Ten now then, ten now and limited prospect of it not being eleven despite Dave’s bravado in the concourse where we take early refuge from the deluge, in as soon as the stadium opens to share a beer at the back of the GT stand. A bit of space in the concourse really does make a difference by the way, the back of the GT is quite a nice place to be, unlike the claustrophobic Rookery or (shudder) the Vic Road rat run remembered from 20 years ago.

Tick tock. The girls have opted out… the attractions of hanging out with their mates watching fireworks up here in Bedfordshire too great. Suspect the fact that they’ve each seen us score once this season might have subconsciously weighed in also. Not that us being rubbish would stop them coming per se, not that it would put them off entirely but, you know, when there’s fireworks. Hard to blame them really.

Tick tock.

2- The longer this goes on the greater the pressure of course. There’s a pressure in each game and the fact that it’s Chelsea and it’s a game that we’d never quite expect to win at the best of times doesn’t make the pressure any less.

So when we give away a stupid goal after five reasonably positive minutes, albeit a goal carved by a remarkable through ball you can feel the stadium deflate. “Well, that’s that then”, which it sort of was and sort of wasn’t. But what a half-witted way to concede, no wonder Ben Foster screamed with frustration. When you can’t score goals keeping it tight, particularly against an opponent like this one, one that revels in playing away from home, is everything.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes it didn’t feel tight at all. Chelsea had an embarrassment of space to wander into and if the rearguard, marshalled by Craig Dawson’s most authoritative outing in yellow-and-black halves or whatever we’re calling it, gradually regained shape and denied many options in the final third simply by marshalling the space we were nonetheless in our goalkeeper’s debt on more than one occasion. Craig Cathcart limping off didn’t improve the mood.

3- So the first of the positives to be taken from this is that it didn’t go south from there. We didn’t collapse, the Blues didn’t run away with it. We hung in there. And gradually we lifted our chin from our chests to note that it was still only 1-0. That if we were still looking blunt and aimless we were at least getting the ball up the pitch often enough to register the bluntness and aimlessness. Before we knew it there was even a dash of bravado, some challenges going in and some defiance from the stands and it makes a world of difference to the mood if not to our forward line, ultimately.

But it takes some character, that. To stand up against a buoyant, confident opponent in a situation like ours and not simply shrug and let it slip away. It’s not enough, wasn’t enough, sure. But it wasn’t nothing.

4- Second half, Chelsea score again. It’s pretty dreadful from our point of view albeit the only time that this vibrant, inappropriately likeable Chelsea side cut through us. And this time we sink properly and the defiance disappears altogether. The whining inane voices emerge like meerkats around us and the crowd’s restlessness, kept at bay to this point by the single-mindedness of the 1881, begins to find a voice.

Nathaniel Chalobah was significant in our more assertive spell at the end of the first half, snappy first time passes that were at least brave enough to carry the possibility of turning Chelsea around rather than “merely” retaining possession. But now he loses his composure altogether and from snapping one touch balls to Watford feet he’s anxiously, tentatively giving the ball away too often. Minus Tom Cleverley, even Étienne Capoue we are short a bit of bloody-mindedness in that part of the pitch and it shows. Elsewhere Adam Masina is more resilient of character but lacks the brains to take advantage; assertive and aggressive he’s nonetheless painfully unaware of what’s going on around him, simultaneously significant in our winning and giving away possession.

5- Throughout all of this the patent lack of threat is unmissable. There’s no kitchen-sinking here, no bombardment of the Chelsea goal, not even a spell of the game where you think we might nick something. It’s thoroughly demoralising to watch.

But against that you’ve got to hold the fact that we’re playing one of the most effective attacking sides in the division. A side who have won all four of their previous away league games this season against, you know, teams higher up in the League than us scoring 16 goals in aggregate and at least three in each of these four games. We rode our luck a bit, but Chelsea were excellent and we kept them down to two without being exposed terribly often. You can argue that this reflected in part our approach; Chelsea didn’t score more than two partly because we denied them the opportunity but also because in focusing on shape and defence as Quique is always going to do Chelsea were unlikely to need more than two.

The carping about the approach, let alone the championing of the messainic virtues of assorted young strikers who their proponents have never seen play, is cowardly and unhelpful. Quique wasn’t brought in to turn us into the Harlem Globetrotters. He came in because his predecessor’s more liberated Watford side had regressed to a point where even the most freewheeling of performances was effortlessly subdued by the rate at which we were giving chances away to even the most mundane opponents. Watch the West Ham highlights or read the report again if you need reminding.

Quique was brought in to tighten things up and that he is done so is beyond dispute. It is far easier to generate wins, points, from a mean but goal-shy team than from a side that can’t stop shipping goals long enough for its potency to matter. Thing is, there’s little joy to be gleaned from a side playing this way unsuccessfully. But while it’s impossible to disentangle cause from effect in our extraordinary injury list it’s surely the case that this team with a Troy Deeney in it, or even an Isaac Success, is orders of magnitude more potent than what we’re watching at the moment. This is hard to watch, but it isn’t nothing.

6- Which isn’t to say that the 75th minute substitution of Daryl Janmaat in favour of Kiko Femenía was easy to digest. Dispassionately, Janmaat has been one of few players to put in a solid shift today and previously; on a yellow card against Pulisic with a wing-back’s miles in his legs and with opportunities to win games more obvious than this from two down coming up, there’s a logic to the change.

But my god, with Andre Gray being asked to do a very un-Andre Gray job, with a target man finally available on the bench, a like-for-like swap was never going to be popular. Perhaps most damagingly the substitution lead to the fragile Femenía being greeted with boos as he entered the fray… directed at the substitution rather than the substitute for the most part, but nonetheless. Not good.

The thing about having very good players on the pitch though, even very good players playing ineffectively, is that there’s always the chance of something. And something came in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, the fizzing firework who you can never quite be sure isn’t still harbouring a spark somewhere and so you stand well back from just in case. And so he’s cutting into the area and going down under a challenge.

VAR is very like Brexit in that everyone has a strong opinion that is of very little interest to anyone else by virtue of overexposure. Whatever. It took a long time. It was a foul. It was a foul that we might not have gotten something for but we did and heaven knows we’re due the rub of the green. Of far greater controversy was Deulofeu’s decision to hang onto the ball in the face of accomplished and appointed penalty taker Roberto Pereyra’s enquiry. Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, the reverse is true also. We’re grateful that Deulofeu’s “twenty million shots without scoring” monkey is off his back, but more that Pereyra’s judgement in not taking too much issue with his childish colleague proved sound. This could have been a disaster.

7- And so there is a bit of gentle kitchen sinking, and when there’s only one goal in it there’s always the possibility, all the more tantalising in the mugging it would represent, of an equaliser. In the event it’s Ben Foster of all people that comes closest, up for Deulofeu’s late free kick and spearing a header bottom corner that Kepa excels to keep out. This, too, is being used as a stick to beat the side with, that the closest we came to a point was by virtue of our goalkeeper rather than a striker. Nobody was complaining when Foster tried a scissor kick in identical circumstances in last season’s fixture on Boxing Day.

Not enough, obviously, and no points is no points whether you’re playing Chelsea, Norwich or Manchester City. We need to turn this around sooner rather than later since however close the nearest flounderers are – and had we won this game we’d have been a point and a place from safety – we will need to sustain good form for longer to pull clear the longer we leave it.

But we’re not done yet. Norwich away next, then home to Burnley (no wins away) and away at Saints (no wins at home).

Now or never, one suspects. Tick tock.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 3, Masina 3, Cathcart NA, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Mariappa (for Cathcart, 13) 3, Hughes (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Femenía (for Janmaat, 75) 2, Holebas, Foulquier, Success, Gomes

Watford 0 AFC Bournemouth 0 (26/10/2019) 27/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- It’s not a cold day. No need for layers, not yet. But it’s wet and windy. And it’s wild. I love weather like this. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”… and this is ferocious and invigorating. This is the weather in which heroes are made, the weather in which great deeds are done. The weather in which we claim our first three points of the season, reverse continental shift, put the enemy to the sword. Do stuff worthy of being put to a song, stuff worthy of “do you remember when…” stories in 20, 30 years time.

Or. Or it could be a bit shit and underwhelming. That’s always an option, obviously.

2- The Deulofeu/Pereyra forward line was surprisingly effective a week ago, but always looked likely to be less so against a side that weren’t pushing ponderously forward at every opportunity, lumbering under the weight of expectation. Here the lack of physical presence in attack was more of an issue than it had been at Spurs (and even there it tended to invite pressure in the final minutes due to the fussiness it demanded of any out-ball). We found an effective route out for a while, Adam Masina revelling in his extra inches and bullying Ryan Fraser and Adam Smith in an aerial assault down our left until an overdue Cherries decision to drift the colossal Billing over to that side to stem the tide.

But in general when we fizzed and buzzed we found ourselves wandering down blind alleys borne of the sorry combination of a lack of focal point and a lack of belief. Bournemouth aren’t terrible by any means but they were get-attable here, more get-attable than we exposed.

It might have been very different had Doucouré kept his composure in the opening minutes. Daryl Janmaat – still a force for good if not quite boasting the doggedness that seems to characterise his outings against the loftiest opposition – fed Deulofeu down the right, the Spaniard’s cross was pushed by Ramsdale to the Frenchman who should have scored. That goes in it’s a different game, that goes in and you can see us making hay, actually, much better suited with our newly mean defence to defending a lead and waiting for an opponent to over-commit, as they will surely need to. It didn’t happen.

3- Instead, Bournemouth grew into the game and had by far the better chances in the rest of the half. Jefferson Lerma had the first, wandering in from the right and curling a shot that was carelessly close to the far post and would have been a criminally negligent goal to concede. Later in the half Ben Foster came into his own with a fine low stop to keep out Rico’s drive from distance (the Spaniard taking a break from a succession of foul throws down the left flank, only one of which punished by the arbitrarily fussy Dean), and then again to deny Danjuma with a brave, alert close-range stop. Add Steve Cook twonking a header against the bar from one of a succession of right-wing corners, Masina rather more exposed without the ball than with it, and we were probably a little lucky to be level at the break. The illusion of an upward trajectory based on the last few games was dwindling quickly in the drizzle.

4- In fairness we had the better of the first half hour or so of the second period, our best spell in the game. Gerard Deulofeu bundled his way between two defenders and then left another on his backside before Ramsdale got out well to deny him with a stray limb. Later Will Hughes, who had a pretty miserable time after coming on for Tom Cleverley, another apparent victim of our recent hamstring epidemic, managed to pull out a fine shot with his weaker left foot. As if we’d saved up all our bloody-mindedness and decisiveness for this one moment, so uncharacteristic was this of our attacking play but Ramsdale denied us again, a fine stop extending to his left. Andre Gray, on for Nathaniel Chalobah in the bolder of the two second half changes (unless Adam Masina had a knock it’s not clear what the willing Dmitri Foulquier was going to achieve), did a sturdy job of going toe to toe with the much larger Steve Cook but his lack of confidence was betrayed by slack passes and poor decisions when in possession – nonetheless he was inches away from converting Deulofeu’s right wing cross, and sent a sharp ball across the face that didn’t get a touch after Bournemouth’s defence did one of their occasional jelly things that made you realise that we really ought to be capitalising on this.

5- The game had been peppered with boos for any suggestion of simulation from our spring-heeled friends from the South Coast (and with the odd chorus of “Championes” from the three-man Dorset choir). As so often you’d just got to the stage where you were wondering whether, actually, this was all a bit unfair and that maybe the Cherries’ reputation was causing us to focus unduly on what were marginal calls no worse than happens in any game when they decided to decisively reclaim their mantle. Josh King was clearly winded by Ben Foster’s decisive clearance on our left flank, but quite why he was rolling around holding his face was difficult to understand. Philip Billing was the first of several to collapse on the ground whilst the game continued around him in indifference; this happened to Callum Wilson too, with the exception that Christian Kabasele’s indifference didn’t stretch far enough for him to resist telling him quite what he thought of his cheap lack of professionalism in passing. Wilson seemed to take badly to this, chasing the Belgian back down the pitch and barging him from behind at the cost of a rather stupid yellow card.

In fairness we earned two of our yellow cards for cynical hacks to curtail a break – “good fouls” if there is such a thing, certainly valuable fouls, Dawson and Hughes the culprits. Wilson was the victim of the first, and as above whilst kicking an opponent is never to be applauded, he’d be near the top of your list were it otherwise.

6- The Wilson/Kabasele thing briefly spilled over before the morass of bodies and limbs seemed to think better of it and relocate itself to the penalty area for the wasted corner that ensued. The Rookery was briefly roused by the suggestion of conflict, but what little fizz we had was drowned out by an increase in the deluge which, wind assisted, made the previously uncharted territory of Row SS in the Rookery. Our attacking threat, such as it was, fizzled out but for an optimistic penalty call from a crowded out Will Hughes – the late chances were the visitors’.

Altogether underwhelming to carry so little threat at home but with the absences of Sarr and Welbeck now added to Deeney and Success, any of whom would have made us a much more potent weapon, Quique’s options were very limited. His 2015/16 vintage was a solid base plus enough mischief up front to earn wins. He doesn’t have that mischief up front now, not really, but we shouldn’t start taking that solid base for granted. This fixture last season serves as a reminder of how much worse than a fairly forgettable 0-0 it can get when you’ve got problems at both ends of the pitch.

But a scruffy, lucky win could do with coming along sooner rather than later.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 3, Cleverley NA, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Hughes (for Cleverley, 10) 2, Gray (for Chalobah, 57) 3, Foulquier (for Masina 73) 3, Prödl, Mariappa, Quina, Gomes

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 1 (19/10/2019) 20/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- The thing about things is that they change. Important things, significant things, and mundane incidental things. For instance, I first moved to Bedford 25 years ago; the stumble from the main concourse at Kings Cross down Pentonville Road to the Thameslink station was quickly a familiar one.

Since the station closed and the Thameslink rerouted to St Pancras I don’t need to step outside to connect to the tube and on to wherever. Today, with a bit of time to kill, I did so for the first time in years and years. And didn’t recognise it. The Google office, for goodness’ sake, looks like it’s been dropped into Kings Cross from outer space, and all the swish boutiques and cafes that surround it have spewed from either side of it like a bacterial growth. This isn’t what Kings Cross looks like!

An hour later we’re walking in the sunshine from Seven Sisters towards the venue, which Kieron labels “one of the new Death Star stadiums”, not inaccurately.

It’s pretty smart, as Death Stars go. Well designed to accommodate cordons of stewards manning access to the “turnstiles”, vast numbers of eateries with minimal queuing in the concourse. The stands are pleasingly steep, and if the seats are narrow it becomes clear that they’re not going to be in use very much. There are lean bars – presumably with an eye on safe standing – across the front of each seat and these are a fine, fine thing. Too good for Tottenham this, quite obviously.

2- No football supporter should need reminding that Things Change, Watford supporters less than most. A couple of months ago we had a different head coach, a different means of playing, a different shape. A couple of personnel changes today but… it’s clear enough that this is The Plan for the moment, not merely a solution for last week’s problem. Three at the back, wing-backs, two sitting midfielders. Sitting deep, ceding possession but looking for opportunities to mug the opposition and scramble into the empty spaces behind them.

And frankly there are few more suitable test cases for this approach than this opponent at this time. Spurs away, yes yes. I was at White Hart Lane the last time, the 5-1 win in 1985, “one Danny Thomas” and so on. Not a point in a league tie at Spurs in 34 years. But we were better off playing this Spurs today than a perhaps more limited but single-minded opponent like Burnley. Spurs are precarious, uncertain, suddenly introspective. Badly needing to win this but unable to prioritise with a Champions League game in the week and Liverpool next weekend. Get-attable, flaky in defence, tentative in attack. Perversely given the League table, we have a shout here.

3- Although Danny Welbeck collapsing with a hamstring strain after a couple of minutes we could probably have done without. He’d already been getting the bird for his Arsenal connections; “Danny Welbeck, he’s won more than you…” was the retort. On comes Gerard Deulofeu to form a diminutive false-forward line with Bobby Pereyra, perhaps the player least obviously suited to the QSF approach.

And within five minutes we’re ahead. We’d already tried this trick once and weren’t to try it again, either because the imperative wasn’t there or because Spurs were wise to it… Kabasele’s raking ball from right to left had already dropped over Aurier’s head but the move was curtailed. This time it was Cathcart isolating Danny Rose to find Daryl Janmaat rampaging down the right. His perfect ball was tucked neatly in at the far post by Abdoulaye Doucouré, incongruously clinical in this least clinical of seasons. Celebrations were tempered by surprise, and by trying to remember what this was like.

4- The remainder of the game followed a steady pattern of largely impotent Tottenham possession in front of our disciplined and aggressive rearguard. To our left came frantic, anxious shouts of “keep your shape, keep your shape”, but in stark contrast to our defensive calamities of earlier in the season there was little evidence of us doing otherwise. All three centrebacks put their bodies on the line, Holebas and the inhuman Janmaat were focused as Spurs shuffled the ball awkwardly from side to side, unconvinced and unconvincing.

And when we broke we broke with purpose and no less discipline. This was much more incisive than the scruffier breaks carved out against the Blades, this was spinning and turning and attacking the space but not compromising possession and it formed the basis for the best team performance since the Cup Semi Final. Deulofeu and Pereyra aren’t the most obvious forward line but they spun and twisted and found their men and frustrated Spurs at every turn (geddit?). The impatience in the home end took 20 minutes to surface, the half ended with the home side recording only one shot on target and booed off the pitch. All going very well so far.

5- The second half started with a bang that suited the home side rather better than it suited us; Spurs abandoned their three at the back and brought on Son who crashed a shot against the bar via Ben Foster’s probably irrelevant fingertips in an ominous clarion call. From the rebound we rattled forward; Pereyra released Deulofeu, the Spaniard produced a perfectly weighted cut back of all things and an excellent block from Aurier denied Pereyra’s finish. It wasn’t the last breakaway chance we were to enjoy – the otherwise magnificent Doucouré should have punished some extraordinarily pedestrian defending but sliced wide. Janmaat had one good chance on his weaker foot but opted to retain possession, an inevitable choice under QSF. Janmaat again, revelling in his freer wingback role, lead a charge down Spurs throat but dallied and was crowded out; his shot hit Alderweireld’s hand, but that’s not a penalty on moral grounds whatever version of the handball rule we’re using this week.

Spurs’ best chance of an equaliser seemed to be through attrition and persistence, so lacking in cutting edge was their forward line despite Kane, Moura, Son. A succession of home corners came to nothing (the observation that only 2% of corners result in goals takes the edge off the pre-corner “oooooh” at either end), the lively Winks went off to be replaced by the monstrous Ndombele. We defended incredibly well, but maintaining that level of concentration is difficult and the equaliser came, cruelly, harshly. Not harsh in that Spurs didn’t deserve a point, but harsh in its timing, in not rewarding a performance that so deserved a three point reward. Harsh, too, in taunting the away end with an apparently favourable VAR review – such was the verdict suggested by the live screens, denied by the referee.

And here’s the VAR bit. Two big calls. A penalty shout for Deulofeu in the first half, not given. Alli’s goal, not denied despite a handball in the build-up and a shove on Christian Kabasele. No view of either at the time, both at the far end… Deulofeu’s penalty looks nailed on, Alli’s “handball” at least plausibly interpretable as shoulder rather than arm. We didn’t get either decision, it was ever thus away at a big club, these things matter more because we’re so desperate for the points. On balance wringing our hands too much about the equaliser is misguided; Ben Foster should have cleaned it out, Kiko could have been more decisive, and however inspiring our performance and well-judged the strategy if you spend most of the game defending your penalty area you increase the opportunity for such a decision to go against you.

The question isn’t really whether VAR got them wrong, got them right, whatever. Teething problems, yes yes, time to learn, yes yes. Wrong or right, difficult to imagine that in a world without VAR anything other would have happened than both going against us, we lose nothing. Except… except. The momentum. The pace. The intensity of a game that now doesn’t rumble on with a head of steam but slows down and waits, and watches. A game already distorted beyond recognition by television now becomes a parody of itself… from the point where people watched football on TV with cameras positioned to capture the crowd atmosphere, we now watch a game in the stadium ruled by television assessment that in itself destroys the thing that it purports to police. Ludicrous. I can cope with bad refereeing calls, but not this.

6- Extraordinary that a point at Spurs can feel like anything other than a great result. That’s what conceding a late equaliser will do for you. It IS a great result. But it doesn’t feel like one at the final whistle, less still the morning after.

Some problems that were problems are still there. Maybe they will change it time but… we had the better chances, despite only 30% possession and we were profligate – cautious perhaps, and imbalanced to praise our use of the ball and then complain when we choose to keep possession over going for goal. You can’t have it both ways. Nonetheless… we have a finisher, we win the game.

What has changed is that for the first time this season we have belief. This was a million miles from the listless nothing at Wolves. This was orders of magnitude better than the doughty draw against the Blades, more disciplined, more organised, more potent.

Not there yet. But we’re not half getting there. This was tremendous.

Things are changing.

Yoorns.

 

Foster 3, Janmaat 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Dawson 4, Kabasele 4, Chalobah 4, *Doucouré 5*, Cleverley 4, Pereyra 4, Welbeck NA
Subs: Deulofeu (for Welbeck, 4) 4, Femenía (for Janmaat, 71) 3, Hughes (for Pereyra, 84) NA, Masina, Sarr, Gray, Gomes

Watford 0 Sheffield United 0 (05/10/2019) 06/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Six months ago, as we entertained realistic hopes of European competition, it would not have seemed credible that we’d go into a match at home to a newly promoted side, even a Sheffield United who have started the season in decent form, not being strong favourites to win.

And yet here we are. And, as follows by logical consequence of our tumble in fortunes as above, there are as many problems in people’s heads as on the pitch. Players. Supporters (especially them). And even head coaches. “We are not preparing matches, we are preparing finals”, he was quoted in the build up to this. The gist was right of course, but the choice of words rather overlooked certain sensitivities borne of misfortunes in May. Nobody wants to be preparing for (yet) another one of those any time soon.

No less eye-catching was the emphasis on finding a way of playing that suited us. Challenging if your way of thinking is that Javi didn’t have much wrong, was a bit unlucky. More challenging still if your belief is that everything would have been fine “if only we’d bought some defenders (other than Craig Dawson)”.

The former argument has been backed up this week (and previously) by the demonstration of favourable xG figures suggesting that we’re really making rather a lot of chances. I’ve worked as a statistician in industry for nearly 25 years now, and there’s a difference between using stats to inform a judgement and using them to retrospectively prop up a decision you’ve already made. It’s pretty transparent most of the time. Here, our way of playing under Javi had always exposed the back line but we got away with it as long as the rest of it worked. We carried enough of a threat that the freedom to test our defence wasn’t there, and when that wasn’t enough we scored enough goals, most of the time.

Thing is when that high level of performance slips you’re left with a side not scoring and… not so much a weak defence as a team that can’t defend. And so you get the West Ham game where we look bold and assertive and lose – comfortably – anyway. Something needed to change. We needed to find a new way to play, and Quique was always going to start at the back.

2- So to today’s game against a side who very much are comfortable in their own skin, and in a very well practised way of playing. This is the narrative of the first quarter of the game, in which the Hornets, effectively reverting to the Zola formation, tried to remember how to do it. The visitors were thoroughly on top, hugely more composed in possession as we sat very deep and scrambled and reflected the anxiety of the home stands. Kabasele and Cleverley bawled at each other in the face of one narrowly thwarted attack. A happy, confident camp this isn’t.

And yet. For all of United’s possession, for all their overloading down the flanks and implied threat they really weren’t getting very far. Scant progress this, perhaps, but progress nonetheless… when did we ever look halfway resilient against anyone? The overlapping centre back thing found bodies down either flank. A ball came in. Seb headed it away. Another ball came in, Kabasele or Janmaat prised someone off the ball. Another, Cathcart slices and Ben Foster claws it away. That’s as close as they come (and even that, on review, wasn’t going in). Another ball comes in. Ollie McBurnie throws himself over and waves his arms around. An unacknowledged sign of a foothold being found.

3- Meanwhile our attacking play looks less coherent altogether. No surprise this, however disappointing; if you’re going to change things, things are going to get changed and sorting out the defence was always going to be Quique’s priority. You don’t have to like it, but don’t feign surprise. Whether the back three was a one-off or a more permanent state of affairs it suits some players rather more than others. Seb Prödl, back in from the cold, is always going to look more viable in the middle of the three. Kabasele revels in his role on the left of the trio, slightly less discipline required as he rampages all over whoever is unfortunate enough to enter his radius.

You kinda think it ought to have suited Andre Gray too. Or at least, that playing alongside a partner rather than as a lone man ought to suit him – even if any of our forwards or forwards-ish – Gray, Welbeck Deulofeu, Sarr – are going to look better alongside Troy as and when. Gray works hard here, feeding off not very much as we persist in sitting deep… but lacks composure at critical times, most obviously when the lively Pereyra hares down the right and squares. An awful miss, albeit the ball was slightly behind him, that speaks volumes. This is the sort of chance we’re creating – scrappy on the break, burgled rather than constructed.

4- Another player struggling in this formation is Abdoulaye Doucouré. If Pereyra is in the Abdi role, and Cleverley is doing a decent enough job of Jonathan Hogg’s fetching and carrying then Doucouré is doing the Chalobah job at the back and he doesn’t like it. He seems uncertain of his duties throughout, and only looks convincing when he sheds his mantle and surges forwards. His form this season hasn’t been great all round but this was a new low, perhaps the most forlorn on the pitch albeit he never hides from possession. Having the real Chalobah as an option for the Chalobah job is an unavoidable consideration.

Nonetheless, we start the second half on the front foot. More assertive, if still wonky. Going forward the challenge is going to be how to accommodate all these square pegs into whatever formation(s) we settle on and the danger is that there are so many imperfect jewels in the squad that there’s always going to be multiple Answers on the bench and beyond to beat Quique with until the form turns around. Sarr, more combative in his cameo today, is one such – quite how you accommodate a winger in a 3-5-2 isn’t obvious. Ditto Deulofeu despite that his every touch, of which little were of any consequence, was cooed at by the voice over my shoulder. Dawson in contrast, who had a perfectly adequate half hour in for the injured Prödl, remains firmly in the can-do-no-right seat.

Welbeck seared clear but was too deliberate, running straight at the keeper rather than giving himself an angle and allowing Henderson to make a good save. Then, in the final minutes, Dawson had the chance to be the hero and to surely send us roaring into the international break with a snaffled winner. Deulofeu’s freek kick found him without a marker… he did the right thing but not enough of it, not far enough back across the keeper, not hard enough. It would have been a beautiful thing.

5- Nil nil then. Satisfactory, just about, in this context in this game after two away defeats and so many years without a clean sheet, so many games without an obvious shape. We will look back on this game in one of two ways; a 0-0 draw at home to a contemporary is kind of a relegation result after all, that’s one possibility. The other is that this is a stepping stone, a rot-stopping clean sheet that gives us something to build on.

Either way, this is where we are and whilst – heaven knows – none of what’s happened is beyond criticism and there are twice as many opinions out there as there people offering them this is when supporting your team is both most difficult and most important. The sort of voice that hysterically decries the decision to change manager, for example, is often a cowardly one, disassociating itself from the decision as if that excuses the perpetrator from the sort of positive outlook that’s needed if this really is to be a stepping stone.

After all, it’s not terribly even handed to champion our underdog status on the one hand whilst on the other wailing at a failure to beat The Likes Of Sheffield United.

Today was small progress in a necessary direction. Not “sorted”, not enough (yet), challenges to come. And not desperately exciting. But progress.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Prödl 3, *Kabasele 4*, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, Pereyra 4, Welbeck 3, Gray 2
Subs: Dawson (for Prödl, 57) 3, Deulofeu (for Gray, 59) 2, Sarr (for Welbeck, 77) NA, Femenía, Chalobah, Hughes, Gomes

Wolves 2 Watford 0 (28/09/2019) 29/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Forgive me if this doesn’t go on too long. Not in the mood, frankly. Not in the mood at all.

Last week was bad. Profound insight, of course… that’s what you’re here for after all. OK, very bad. A maelstrom of circumstances conspired and we were nothing like robust or confident enough to deal with them. If there was a straw to clutch at it was that Man City away isn’t an expensive place to have a bad day, not in terms of the league table and so forth. That’s not a fixture you’re banking on after all so… even an 8-0 defeat need not be disastrous if you can consign it to history, convince yourself that a bad day against City is always going to look a very bad day. And shuffle along first to a tentative but adequate League Cup win over Swansea and then onwards to the next two League fixtures. League fixtures that could define the rest of the season.

2- The team news that reached us as we received long awaited pub food in a hostelry in the town centre looked great. Despite everything, bottom of the league with no wins and so forth, it’s difficult not to look at our squad and wonder at the depth of talent. And yes, yes, the defence, we’ll get to that. But for today… Janmaat in at right back was probably overdue, Craig Cathart’s return in the centre more than welcome and Sarr and Welbeck up front had been anticipated all season. So why didn’t it work? More generally, why isn’t it working?

It’s natural to blame the defence, heaven knows many have. Harsh, I think, to blame Craig Dawson for not being the commanding defender that we’d been hoping for, or to single him out by virtue of being the new component that has no credit in the bank. He was solid enough in this one, as he has been since those first few games. Much as I wouldn’t venture this opinion to the hysterical young man a couple of rows in front who was vocally challenging everyone in earshot to oppose his particular views on the subject. Digressing further, how easy would it be to construct a skit like the one below based on the regular voices behind you in a football crowd? An entertaining diversion if you haven’t seen it, goodness knows we need one.

So. We could do with better defenders, yes. But the defenders aren’t the problem – and haven’t been all season – as much as, you know, the actual defending. A subtle difference but a significant one. Wolves threatened before they took the lead, and invariably did so by doubling up on a full back. That’s not Janmaat and Holebas’ fault. And when the goal came… defenders were culpable, but the whole team was culpable – Tom Cleverley not least – for not being attentive, not doing their jobs.

3- And so we are once again stuck in an unfortunate maelstrom of coincidental circumstance. Wolves have the away goal, and so are even more at liberty to sit back and break on us. Much easier to do that at home when you’ve got a lead, obvs. Which means we need to play through them, somehow… the lack of Troy as a more direct option painfully evident; even Isaac Success (yes, really) who was extremely effective in this encounter last year, would have helped us navigate this – much more effective as a lone forward than a wide man for me.

Competing with this was an evident instruction to be careful with possession, part of the “defending comes first” mantra. And this we were, hence our very high possession stats, but the combination of the circumstances – Wolves sitting deep with a lead, us with nobody to hit, careful with possession – meant passing it around on the halfway line as much as not. Add to this an understandable tentativeness… understandable, but hugely frustrating… and little wonder that we found it so hard to create (decent) chances.

4- Wolves, truth be told, were little better. More effective, certainly, and deserving of the win but… also tentative, also fallible. Precarious. There are similarities between the two clubs’ situations in that both performed to a very high level last season and both, for different reasons perhaps and in different ways, haven’t been able to sustain that level. There can be an awful lot of air, as we’re seeing, between a half-decent side and a half-decent side off the boil, borne not least of the psychological impact of suddenly not winning football matches any more.

Missing throughout was a bit of bloody-mindedness. A bit of fight. There was more of that at the start of the second half of course, and if José Holebas connecting well with Roberto Pereyra’s cross (albeit he headed it into the ground taking the pace off it) was scant to show in the way of decent chances at least it was something. In Troy’s absence what little belligerence there was on show came from Daryl Janmaat, who does a good line in bloody-minded rampages when such are needed. Of the two right-backs, neither of which stands dramatically over the other in general, you’d rather have the Dutchman’s strength of character when the chips are down. Unfortunate that it was his forehead that deflected the second in, not his fault – perhaps he’s more robust to these things than others might have been. That’s the sort of goal that goes in when things are going badly.

5- Elsewhere, the fortunes of those introduced contrasted somewhat. Cathcart, like Dawson, didn’t do an awful lot wrong – Wolves’ threat came down the flanks rather than the centre and the previously formidable Jiménez was quiet. Welbeck worked hard and showed well – still rusty, but a good line in runs down the outside of the outer of Wolves three defenders in the second half and a decent shot carved out that was pushed wide by Patricio. More positive than not. Sadly, the same not true of Sarr who only opened his legs occasionally and was frequently at fault for not putting his foot in where needed. A 21 year-old winger not speaking the language needs time and a bit of patience, but a £30m price tag denies him much of that, unfairly or otherwise.

Wolves’ second took any fight out of us, and there was no praying for minutes as the board goes up, no suggestion of a fightback. Maybe all it would have taken was a goal, home fans suddenly nervous in the closing minutes, we’ll never know. In the same way there are several ways to interpret this game… given this vantage point, given last week, given no wins and such little fight it’s difficult not to be negative. On the other hand… a defeat away at Wolves, even this Wolves, isn’t an embarrassment out of context. Nobody likes to lose but… it’s a tough fixture, albeit one we won last year. Maybe the cautious possession will build towards a greater solidity – arguably only a perhaps four point deficit across Brighton and West Ham is below a moderate “par” so far. As has been mentioned elsewhere, this game buried in the middle of last season might not have raised an eyebrow. If we beat Sheffield United we’re likely to be up with the struggling pack again, it really isn’t very far gone yet and only two weeks since an utterly convincing and convinced draw with Arsenal after which recovery seemed a probability.

That win really needs to come soon though.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Janmaat 3*, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Deulofeu 2, Welbeck 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Gray (for Sarr, 71) 2, Kabasele, Femenía, Chalobah, Quina, Gomes

Watford 2 Arsenal 2 (15/09/2019) 16/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Episode Three of the first Series of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast discusses basketball.  Not a game I can claim any great expertise in;  we played a violent bastardisation of the game at school, but that hardly qualifies informed comment.

Anyway.  Wilt Chamberlain.  Great basketball player, says Malcolm and people who Know About These Things.  Remarkable, amongst other things, for taking his penalty shots underarm.  People don’t do that, says Malcolm.  Chamberlain’s not quite unique, but he’s certainly unusual in this regard…  and unusually successful.  Extraordinary (again, second hand knowledge, take that as read…).

Except at one point, despite his huge success, he stopped.   Reverted to the conventional shooting method with unremarkable results.  Because he felt pressured by the consensus against him, despite the success of the strategy.  Others questioned in the episode concurred… despite being induced to attempt underarm, observing the success, they wouldn’t consider underarm shooting in a competitive game.  Because it would “look weird”.

So when Sam leans over my shoulder and expresses concern that we’re a laughing stock, that our regular turnover of head coaches is, by implication, weird…  unusual… Well, you just gotta shrug and grin. Not that this justifies any such decision on the part of our owners and management but…  five seasons in the Premier League, two cup semi finals and one final in that time is testimony to us not doing too badly by it.  Not sure we should give a stuff what anyone else thinks, whoever they are.

2- And so Quique’s back, and inevitably he’s given a warm welcome because such is the way of things in such situations even if the man in question isn’t a good bloke from recent memory.  His first team selection is encouraging in its shape…  a return to the 4-2-3-1 of Marco Silva’s brief successful period with Tom restored to the buzzing around role in front of two sitting midfielders, Étienne Capoue stepping into the role vacated by Nathaniel Chalobah after his knee injury.  More odd was an extremely conservative bench, no out-and-out striker with Welbeck (reportedly injured in training on Friday) and Success omitted from the squad.

And we start aggressively. Actually, scrub that… we start like what one imagines a pack of dogs looks like. Chasing everything down. Reducers going in left, right, centre. Arsenal are given nowhere to hide as we set up with a solid shape, let the visitors pass sideways inconsequentially on the half way line and mug them brutally should they make the mistake of getting ideas above their station. This yields some half-chances from distance… Holebas drives narrowly wide, Tom Cleverley thumps an effort top corner that Leno shoves over. If there’s a problem it’s that Andre Gray is being asked to do an awful lot. He makes a game effort, his most convincing imitation of a target man to date… hurling himself between incoming ball and opponent, contorting himself to deflect a lay off but he’s too isolated, and too often we’re passing around the edge of the area without much of a focal point to aim for.

3- And then Arsenal score. The visitors have been warming up, Pépé cutting in from the right and curling a shot wide but too close. Then there’s a scruffy tackle on the halfway line in which Hughes is bullied off the ball… there are protests on and off the pitch but having spent much of the game up to this point gauging how much aggression we could get away with and deciding, well, quite a lot actually we didn’t have a leg to stand on here (literally, in Will Hughes’ case). Of more concern is the doziness of the defence and the gaping chasm at Ben Foster’s near post (again), but Aubameyang’s finish is breathtaking.

We go flat, very quickly; on and off the pitch everyone’s thinking the same thing. “But we’d started so well, why can’t we defend…”… and the visitors have their foot on our throat. Aubameyang nearly scores a second before he actually does, and it’s far far too easy, Maitland-Niles slipping in down the right, not for the first time, and finding the Gabonese for a tap in.

The half ends with a bit of a scrap on the halfway line in which Matteo Guendouzi earns a booking for being an idiot, Jose Holebas seems slightly harsher done by but looks in danger of outstripping the big-haired French youngster by taking prolonged and typically forthright issue with the officials on the half time whistle. He gets away with it, and maybe we do too despite the scoreline.

4- The second half, as you’ll know, is a remarkable thing. We owe a lot to our visitors, though, who as it turns out were pretty much ideal opponents for Quique’s first game back. They were miserably undeserving of their win here five months ago; here (with only three of that starting eleven starting here, incidentally) they are more spectacularly inept, and tactically not least.

Quite why a side that excels up front but can’t defend for toffee thinks that sitting on a two goal lead is the way forward is beyond me for one thing. Why, further, a defence that was repeatedly warned off faffing around at the back by being brutally mugged by ever more encouraged opponents in front of a lenient referee continued to faff around is incomprehensible.

Not our problem. In the end, after many occasions in which the nervousness of our attack was measured against the generosity of Arsenal’s defence and came out just wanting, we are given the most extraordinary of clear chances as Sokratis plays another loose ball in the box and Tom Cleverley drives home. The Quique song returns with gusto not, in fairness, that he had much to do with Sokratis’ critical assist.

As an aside, the “third man” in a midfield three is an easier one to impress in. Al Bangura used to look outstanding as the spare man sitting behind Gavin Mahon and Matt Spring when such was necessary and all he had to do was kick whatever came through without any great disciplinary responsibility; similarly the hole behind the striker is a sandpit to play in. Tom doesn’t half do it well though and he’s quite tremendous today combining perpetual motion and relentless positivity with just being bloody sensible, a rare combination.

5- It’s relentless. We swarm all over Arsenal, one minute slinging the ball from wing to wing to find a spare man, then snarling into challenges to reclaim possession. We’d questioned the lack of striking options on the bench; actually all three subs are well judged and a force for good. Ismaïla Sarr is better suited to wide open spaces than the physical confrontation of the penalty area you suspect but does a sound enough job here, controlling an extraordinary sharp pass from Deulofeu, spinning and clipping a shot across the face of goal in one fluid movement. Daryl Janmaat’s cameo is a typically bombastic one, no surprise to see him thunder into the penalty area late on. And if Roberto Pereyra takes a while to warm up himself, once he gets going he really gets going; a tidal wave of a counter attack reaches the Argentine who makes a bee-line for Luiz. Dribbling yourself the hell into the penalty area has been a deliberate tactic and the Brazilian finally obliges, lazily. Leno is graceless and witless in his attempts to slow things down and distract, and gets what he deserves – a fine, composed finish from the Argentine.

You can come full circle back to that basketball analogy again if you want, since the end of the game is ridiculously open. The visitors start to venture upfield again and the stupidity of their reluctance to do so earlier is betrayed by Joe Willock’s progress in running half the length of the pitch before being scruffily halted (having missed a chance to release Aubameyang). The bulk of the business is at the other end though. Chance after chance to the backing track of Elton John’s Taylor-Made Army on what would have been the great man’s seventy-fifth birthday… the relentlessly penetrative Deulofeu slugs a shot a hair’s breadth wide, Tom Cleverley pumps another shot top corner that is blocked, unwittingly, by David Luiz’s head. Doucouré rampages through the midfield and releases Sarr, who threads a ball back to the Frenchman who just needs to put his laces through it but doesn’t, steering a shot too close to the keeper before collapsing with his head in his hands.

It isn’t quite enough for the win. But it’s more than enough in the grand scheme of things. This is huge fun and a massive result in the heroic, bloody-minded combativeness of the second half that dragged us back from two goals down. Quique’s got things to sort, clearly, but this was already significant progress all over the pitch. The wins will come.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Cleverley 5*, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 5, Gray 3
Subs: Sarr (for Gray, 54) 4, Pereyra (for Hughes, 63) 3, Janmaat (for Holebas, 78) 0, Foulquier, Mariappa, Chalobah, Gomes