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End of Term Report Part 2 24/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

5- Sebastian Prödl

A bit of a contrast for 2016/17’s Player of the Season, who enjoyed nothing like the same success this time around.  Sidelined with a hamstring injury for much of the first half of the season his much vaunted return coincided with our collapse in form in December.  He struggled badly in many of those games looking a clumsy and unhappy shadow of the dominant figure of last season, subsequently suggesting that he came back from injury too early in the light of our injury problems.  When he was dropped for the untested Molla Wagué on Boxing Day we scraped a win, and though our form took longer to settle Seb was largely confined to the bench throughout a busy January.

Back into the side under Javi Gracia he’s looked more solid, more like his old self although he’s never been quite as happy in the back four that the Spaniard prefers.

Next Season:  It will be interesting to see how Seb goes next season.  He’s a big personality, a leader, but the Kabasele/Cathcart partnership looked a strong one.  An massive asset in the right formation, he can look older than his 30 years when exposed.

6- Adrian Mariappa

Those of the 4000-odd that watched a young Mariappa in tears as the Hornets side that he captained bowed out of the Youth Cup to Spurs in 2005 will have taken nothing but joy from the last eighteen months or so of his career.  A last resort under Mazzarri he’s been much more frequently employed this term;  injuries have played a part again, but nonetheless only four players – Doucouré, Richarlíson, Kabasele, Holebas – started more games and seeing Mapps captain the side at Wembley was a fine thing on an otherwise unremarkable evening.

If his performances haven’t been faultless he’s nonetheless been in the side on merit;  ploughing through match programme interviews has him invariably cited as the best trainer at the club, the most committed.  He’s a 100% bona fide asset, and the longer he’s involved in the first team squad the happier I’ll be – it would be interesting to know where he came in the Player of the Season reckoning which, as an aside, seems to drift incongruously further away from the bulk of the support with every season.

Next Season:  You might not have him in your first choice eleven, but his versatility and drive demands a place on the bench.  And home grown to boot, in the very truest sense.  Hurrah.

7 (#1) – Nordin Amrabat

Nordin started three Premier League games for us this season.  That feels slightly extraordinary now, as is often the case when reviewing August departures in these days of a rapidly churning squad.  Indeed, his departure to Leganés on loan was slightly surprising giving his early involvement and was lamented by an already whining Marco Silva, the earliest sign that all was not altogether smooth behind the scenes under the new head coach.

Nonetheless, there’s not a lot to add.  Nordin’s got something, a directness and aggression but it never quite delivered on its promise at Watford, certainly not consistently enough.  He’s featured regularly in Spain this term, but the fact that he scored his first goal in three years against Betis this week tells a story.

Next Season:  A place in Morocco’s World Cup squad gives Amrabat a platform to find a long-term home.  It seems unlikely to be at Vicarage Road.

7 (#2) – Gerard Deulofeu

What a bizarre thing.  Anyone who’s watched Watford – any club, perhaps – for any length of time will be used to the sight of a winger exploding into view with an exciting burst of light, a good line in tricks or the ability to run very fast, only to disappear equally quickly when the characteristics missing from the extensive armoury that a successful winger requires – speed, strength, delivery, decision making, ability to look up now and again – are exposed.

What’s unusual is for this to happen within the space of seven games   (Anthony McNamee, after all, seemed to take a decade to tread this well established path). “Disappearing” is a bit of an exaggeration of course but nonetheless….  after a promising debut at Stoke, the Spaniard – a high profile loan signing, a coup – helped us blow Chelsea away in the most memorable evening of the campaign.  He was the shining star of a glorious night, winning the opening penalty and scoring a ludicrous third goal before departing to an ovation.

And that, pretty much, was that.  He limped out of the game against Everton and onto the sidelines for two months but his impact against West Ham and for an hour against his former club had  already been less startling.  Less startling, certainly than the extraordinary statistic that bears repeating:  those first three goals against Chelsea were the only goals we scored with Gerard on the pitch.

Next Season:  Gerard joined Watford to play his way into World Cup contention and to provide us with some pzazz that we’d been missing.  The move failed on both counts but might not have…  there’s more than enough about him to suggest that he’s still a coup, that we’d benefit more from him than the last few months have suggested – certainly in the decision to forego Barcelona for Vicarage Road suggests a strong character.  The tone of his departure and social media goodbye suggested that this might not be the case, but more encouraging reports appeared yesterday.  Watch this space.

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End of Term Report Part 1 21/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

1- Heurelho Gomes

Had you told us, four years ago, that we’d get three and a half sterling seasons out of Heurelho Gomes, seasons that would see us promoted and dropping anchor in the Premier League with Gomes one of the team’s generals, a huge booming personality who would win Player of the Season… we’d have taken that.  That it’s been three and a half seasons and not four is fundamentally down to a back spasm suffered at Leicester following which Orestis Karnezis was given a chance and, until the tail end of the season, did nothing to warrant losing it again.

But I guess it’s significant that Gomes wasn’t recalled straight away.  I guess…. you bring in a senior, international keeper on loan, you don’t want to discard him when he’s grabbing his chance, but Gomes not being an automatic pick when available would have been unthinkable as recently as a year ago.  I’m not sure it was the right decision with the benefit of hindsight, a defence needs leaders and voices and Gomes is both.  But the fact that we’re even having a conversation suggests that things may have changed.  Certainly, for all that the first half of the season featured some strong performances from Gomes, his celebrated masterclass in the defeat of West Ham not least, he had a few iffier moments too.

Next Season: Gomes has indicated his intention to retire next summer.  We have 12 months to identify a replacement, but are all the stronger for Gomes’ presence in the meantime.

2- Daryl Janmaat

Here’s the thing.  Given that we’re never going to be a Manchester City there’s always going to be something of the imperfect about our players, even our star players, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.  Yes, so-and-so is great but… he does get caught in possession, or he really could use an extra yard of pace, or his decision making isn’t the best or some other bugger’s going to nick him because he’s too good for us and there’s no hiding our gems any more, not even a little bit.

So it is with Janmaat, who has a flaw.  It’s a fairly fundamental flaw for a defender, in that he really isn’t great at defending but in so many other respects he’s tremendous and of course, of course, if he could do all this and defend as well he wouldn’t be playing for us.  So…  the tremendous support he provides to the attack up the right, delivering balls of a dependable quality.  The fabulous, rhinoceros runs that have seen him career through a Chelsea defence twice in the last twelve months, ricocheting off obstacles as he goes.  The wholeheartedness about everything, someone who’s plugged away even when they haven’t been a first choice.  Yes, that’s a big “but” in that first paragraph.  There remains an awful lot to like though, even if smiling a bit more probably wouldn’t hurt his cause.

Next Season:  Right back is no longer a priority recruitment position, you suspect.  Daryl’s going to be thundering up and down our right flank for a while yet.

3- Miguel Britos

It seems that we might have seen the last of Miguel Britos.  It’s possible of course that a new deal was signed without fanfare; Sky’s page listing out-of-contract players suggests that Watford have advised that no senior players are out of contract this summer, one interpretation of which is a rather damning indictment of Britos’ diminishing status.

There’s always been an element of nervousness about Britos, for all that he was all but an automatic pick – when available – for his first two seasons at the club.  Incidents like the ludicrous lunge at Anthony Knockaert in August never felt too far from the surface.  Such isolated incidents paint a distorted picture however, since the Uruguayan would not have held down a place for so long in a defence that, whatever its limitations, has kept us in the Premier League were such incidents typical.  Britos has been at worst a capable option on the left of a pair or a back three but having been ruled out for several months by a foot injury sustained at St James’ Park in November was only used once by Javi Gracia, and that in a thankless task against an irrepressible Mo Salah at Anfield.  One might almost suggest that Britos’ loss of confidence was a calculated one on the part of Gracia, who might have figured that other options could afford a roasting less.  A bit harsh that such is our last memory of him though.

Next Season:  Sparta Prague were linked with a move for Britos last summer.  That feels about right.  Best of luck to Miguel, wherever he ends up.

4- Younès Kaboul

As ever with a player who has been injured all season, there’s very little to say.  Marco Silva lamented the Frenchman’s loss in particular and it’s not hard to see why;  particularly in a back four Kaboul can be imperious, the sort of leader our defence has missed all season.  Looking back at his track record however isn’t altogether encouraging;  this is not a player who has been run into the ground over the course of a long career.  Only once, in 2011/12, has he racked up as many as 40 competitive games and since then he’s managed 85 across 6 seasons.  Competition for a place at Spurs will have contributed to that low number, but this is not a player whose fitness can be relied upon.  This year he played the full 90 on the opening day against Liverpool, missed three games through injury, returned for an hour at Southampton and then that was it for the season as first muscle problems then a metatarsal fracture conspired to remove him from consideration.  Vague assurances about his impending return to full training and the first team squad never quite materialised, one can only imagine that there are concerns about his long term fitness.

Next Season: Kaboul has one more year on his contract, but that’s rather academic since if he can’t get fit then he’s not going to be any better able to contribute anywhere else than he is here.  If he can return to fitness he’s clearly an asset and a big personality, fingers remain crossed.  It would be a surprise to see him in Javi Gracia’s first starting line-up of next season though.

Helping Hands 2017/2018 16/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Back for an eleventh season of summarising stuff you’ve probably found elsewhere if you’re that bothered in the first place.  Nonetheless…  I enjoy reviewing the goals because they’re largely if not exclusively fun bits, so pausing only briefly to reiterate the generous definitions that I apply to an “assist” (the last pass, obviously, but also the shot that was parried for a follow-up, being taken down for a penalty, both the flick-on to a cross AND the cross itself, and so on) we continue….

Last season’s table told a story of a lack of creativity from midfield, something which has been largely addressed according to the stats below (tho the devil’s in the detail, no goals away from home since Jan 2nd etc etc etc).  Richarlíson stands out a mile of course, as does the unavoidable corollary that those eight assists, like his five goals, all came in 2017.  Reviewing the videos highlights quite how starkly his form has fallen away – he really was extraordinary in the first half of the season – but the End of Term Report is the place for That Kind Of Thing, so we’ll leave it for now…

In second place but with an even more impressive assist-per-game ratio of two every five games rather than four every seventeen (ha!) is the livewire Will Hughes, who has brought the Nicky Wright thing of running himself to a standstill in the name of all that is good back to Vicarage Road.  With Roberto Pereyra contributing at the same steady rate as last year and Tom Cleverley upping his ante from last year, both on half a season’s worth of games, the impression that our midfield is loading the bullets is re-enforced.  Abdoulaye Doucouré excellent campaign yielded only three assists although the first of them – to release Gerard Deulofeu against Chelsea – was arguably the assist of the season whilst Étienne Capoue continues to yield a meagre return.  His “assist” involved clubbing a shot into the chest of Per Mertesacker for Tom Cleverley to gobble up against Arsenal in October – I told you my definition was generous – this his fourth assist in three seasons and first at Vicarage Road.

Elsewhere Marvin Zeegelaar’s two assists came within an excitable half hour at St James Park, gift wrapped by an inattentive DeAndre Yedlin, whilst Gerard Deulofeu’s time on pitch in a Watford shirt saw us score only three times, all against Chelsea in a game in which he scored one, made one, and was subbed to an ovation in the two minute interval between his goal (our third) and Pereyra’s fourth.  Of those not to have contributed, Kiko Femenía is perhaps the biggest surprise but he’s loads of fun so we let him off.

Will return soon with the End of Term Report.  Enjoy the summer…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Richarlíson 8 34+7 5 Liv (H), WBA (A), Ars (H), Che (A), New (A), CrP (A), Lei (H), Swa (H)
Hughes 5 12+4 2 BrC (H – LC), WHU (H), WBA (H), Bou (H), Bur (H)
Pereyra 4 19+15 5 MaU (H), BrC (H – FAC), Che (H), New (H)
Cleverley 4 23+2 1 Sot (A), Tot (H), Lei (H), BrC (H – FAC)
Holebas 4 28+3 0 Liv (H), WBA (A), Eve (A), Bou (H)
Gray 3 17+16 5 Bou (A), Eve (A), WHU (H)
Carrillo 3 18+12 2 Swa (A), MaU (H), MaC (A)
Doucouré 3 39 7 Che (H), Che (H), New (H)
Zeegelaar 2 13 0 New (A), New (A)
Deeney 2 22+9 6 BrC (H – FAC), Sot (H)
Deulofeu 1 5+2 1 Che (H)
Okaka 1 3+13 1 Eve (H)
Capoue 1 21+5 3 Ars (H)
Janmaat 1 23+3 3 Sot (H)
Kabasele 1 30+1 2 BrC (H – LC)
Success 0 0+1 0
Lukebakio 0 0+1 0
Sinclair 0 0+5 0
Kaboul 0 2 0
Amrabat 0 4 0
Chalobah 0 5+1 0
Cathcart 0 5+2 0
Wagué 0 6+1 1
Watson 0 8+3 0
Britos 0 10+2 1
Karnezis 0 15+1 0
Prödl 0 18+4 0
Femenía 0 19+4 1
Gomes 0 26 0
Mariappa 0 26+4 1

Check out the 2016-172015-162014-152013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.

 

The List 2018. 15/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

You know the deal.  Herewith your summer list of players linked with the Hornets since the close of the January window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout the summer so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

January 2018 List / Summer 2017 List / January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 36

IN

Alex Meret (Udinese)
Marcelo Brozović (Inter)
Mattia Destro (Bologna)*
André-Franck Zambo Anguissa (Marseille)*
Joel Asoro (Sunderland)
Joshua Maja (Sunderland)
Yuto Nagatomo (Inter)
Ben Wilmot (Stevenage)                                                         SIGNED
Tobias Pachonik (Carpi)
Walace (Hamburg)
Bryan Cristante (Benfica)
Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona)
Ignacio Camacho (Wolfsburg)
Tom Cairney (Fulham)
Igor Coronado (Palermo)
Souza (Fenerbahҫe)
Andriy Lunin (Zorya Luhansk)
Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)                                                   (signed new contract)
Tom Heaton (Burnley)*
Danilo (Udinese)
Mouctar Diakhaby (Lyon)
Dalbert (Inter)
Fran Sol (Willem II)
Salomon Rondon (West Brom)
Callum McGregor (Celtic)
Rafael Toloi (Atalanta)*
Niclas Füllkrug (Hannover)
Jordan Greenidge (Stoke)
Jefferson Lerma (Levante)
Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)
Matt Clarke (Portsmouth)*
Trezeguet (Kasimpasa)
Angus Gunn (Manchester City)
Grégoire Defrel (Roma)*
Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Sergio Rico (Sevilla)

OUT
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Man U)
Juan “Cucho” Hernandez (Barcelona)
Richarlíson (Arsenal, Chelsea, PSG, Monaco, Man United, Everton, Bayern, Juventus)
Andre Gray (Cardiff City, Everton, Brighton)
Troy Deeney (Newcastle*)
Costel Pantilimon (Nottingham Forest)

Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (05/05/2018) 06/05/2018

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
13 comments

1. On the walk down to my office, there’s an old lamppost. It’s at the bottom of one of Hastings’ many steep hills, as a footpath meets a busy road. So many people have used it to stop their descent before they reach the road that its black paint has worn away to the silver metal at hand-height. All those hands reaching out over all those years. It gives me a sense of contentment in the same way as the small wooden step into our kitchen, which has been worn to a gentle, undulating curve by a hundred years of footsteps. Things that don’t change much. Things that have no need of much change. Things with their own quiet stories.

It’s tempting to say that so much has changed at Vicarage Road since I first visited it as a seven-year-old that I wouldn’t recognise it, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. Part of the wonder of football grounds is how much they and their environs can change to keep pace with the times while retaining the same essential shape and familiarity. The same roads, the same pavements, the same street corners; the same journey home, literally and metaphorically. Different buildings in the same spaces, filling in tightly between the pitch and the surrounding roads. I could still hazard a guess at the spot somewhere near the top of Occupation Road where I stood on that first visit, completely transfixed by the photograph on the programme cover, my first real memory of going to football. I don’t imagine I’d be far out.

2. I haven’t been here since July. Even then, that was over there, in the Graham Taylor stand, not in what is still technically my seat. I haven’t been here since I-could-look-it-up-but-I-can’t-actually-remember. Whenever it was, it didn’t feel like this. It’s a beautiful blue-skied day, t-shirts and shorts weather, and Vicarage Road seems so much more vibrant and vivid than I remember it. Perhaps it’s the contrast with the rest of the season spent in relatively rustic non-league surroundings, but this suddenly feels like a wonderfully compact, enclosed, energetic space for a football match, a stadium truly transformed by the work done by the Pozzos. The atmosphere is upbeat, perhaps aided by the imminent end of a long, hard season. Not worn down by it, at least. Summer’s here. Football’s coming home. And so on.

3. There’s a danger, having been absent for so long, that any opinions I offer come from a position of such detachment that they’re completely inane, in much the same way as when I lent a Sepultura album to someone and the best response they could manage was that all the songs sounded the same, as if they ought to have chucked in an ABBA tribute halfway through for the sake of variety. If you’re closer to it all, I imagine it’s been a season of vibrant highs and awful lows, just as I could’ve named every track on that album from its intro. From further away…well, not so much.

From my far-away place, it seems to me that the relative ease with which relegation has been avoided in each of the last three seasons is both a tremendous achievement and a bit of a curse, for mid-season safety makes for a much less compelling story than late-season heroism. It’s hard to avoid a sense of anticlimax. You hear people ranting about what’s holding us back or what’s standing in our way, as if each defeat nudges us a little further away from our rightful place. It’s the kind of huffy uppitiness which pops up on your Facebook feed amid the photos of other people’s pets and children, a bit like when you’re stood in a hotel lobby, becalmed by pot pourri and muzak, and the lift doors ping open to reveal a red-faced man swearing angrily at a wasp.

Perhaps, though, the price of the achievement is exactly that anticlimax. Perhaps the effort is such that it simply can’t be sustained over a full season, or at least not by a squad of players we can actually afford, and perhaps the kind of effort which could be sustained for so long would bring merely endless narrow defeats and the kind of spirit-sapping relegation you’re probably old enough to remember too. From my far-away place, it seems undeniable that what these seasons have lacked are stories of the kind we’ll hand down to the next generation, but they nevertheless rank among the most successful in our history. You could argue that mediocrity is spreading through the Premier League like a sneaky wee in a particularly expensive hot-tub, but the achievement still stands, testament as much as anything else to the staggering competence and clarity of our owners. The point where West Brom sacked Tony Pulis and got straight on the phone to Slaven Bilic, who’d spent his season until then as a ghostly, tormented presence on the London Stadium touchline, guiding West Ham to a position below West Brom in the table before himself getting fired, showed how much we have to be grateful for. It oughtn’t to be that unusual to have some money, a coherent plan and a well-filled contacts book, rather than just the first of the three, but it evidently still is.

4. So, Newcastle arrive as the tenth best team in the country…which, well, yes. Competence and clarity on the playing side, if not elsewhere. This season feels like it’ll be the subject of pub quiz questions in years to come: name the seventeen teams which didn’t get relegated from the Premier League in 2017/18. Nobody’ll remember either of us. (Yes, I know you will.) That’s both good and bad. This is one of those games which really needs to be a seven-goal thriller to stand any chance of getting any higher than next-to-last on Match of the Day. We’ve blended into the background, them and us. Or, perhaps, we’ve sort of made ourselves at home.

It isn’t a seven-goal thriller, but it does its best. With the 1881 bashing away raucously to our left, we begin with a sunny energy that yields the opener within three minutes, a fine move starting with the inventive Will Hughes on the right, benefiting from a lucky break in the box and finishing with Abdoulaye Doucoure teeing up  Roberto Pereyra to the ball tidily home. We look a real force, solid at the back and urgent in the middle, aggressive in attack. Etienne Capoue is imperious, Will Hughes is impish, Roberto Pereyra is pure mischief. Pereyra gets in and is foiled by the keeper, Capoue has his follow-up deflected narrowly wide; Andre Gray is denied after sneaking down the side of a static defence.

Newcastle simply haven’t turned up. The only threat of any significance comes from Shelvey’s raking passes from deep, ambitious attempts to pick out runners that keep Cathcart and Kabasele on their toes. We’re thoroughly on top as Pereyra twists and turns before lofting a cross to the far post for Gray to add the second while defenders stand and gawp like tourists on Go Jetters. Some Newcastle fans leave at that point; you can’t blame them preferring a pint in a sunny beer garden to sitting through a complete capitulation.

If the penalty goes in, the rest is surely plain sailing. The penalty doesn’t go in. The offence – an ill-advised and rather clumsy attempt to win the ball from Gray – and the award both seem to happen in slow motion, and Troy Deeney’s kick is similarly lame. Momentarily, he appears certain to score on the rebound but that’s smothered too…and suddenly, there’s at least the prospect of it being a different game than the one we thought we had.

5. The second half is absolutely ridiculous. Like the health warning on a packet of fags, a reminder that this football lark isn’t all fun and frolics; by the end, we’re all gaunt and wrung out, and most of the players have collapsed onto the turf like the losing team in a Cup Final. That Newcastle are less terrible, less absent, is to be expected. Our reaction is a defensive rearguard so resolutely negative that we barely register a goal attempt in the entire forty-five minutes. The one attempt I can recall comes from Pereyra, lazily slicing a half-volley high and wide, and he’s immediately substituted for such impertinence and ill-discipline. Well, not quite immediately, for Newcastle pull one back in between, Perez sliding in at the far post to convert with perfect precision.

6. That substitution is followed by another, switching to three at the back and one up front, the ineffective Deeney withdrawn for Adrian Mariappa to low-level disgruntlement from the stands. It strikes me as being the kind of decision that you have to make as a manager, and for which you either get copious blame or next-to-no credit, depending on whether or not your team holds out for victory. That said, it also strikes me that you need to tread a little carefully, for paying punters are much more forgiving of mistakes stemming from positive intent than the other way around.

And I mean, bloody hell…you’ve got to keep some sort of perspective. At the point where you’re taking off both strikers to defend an end-of-season lead at home, you’re at risk of losing people altogether. Hell, maybe you’ve already lost quite a few of them. On such a beautiful day, it feels almost anti-social, like lighting a massive bonfire without warning the neighbours to take in their washing; it’s football dragged from the freezing wastelands of January. Richarlison replaces Gray, who for all his faults is simply built for the task of chasing down lost causes and still appears to have some running left in him, while Hughes is so exhausted he’s practically unable to stand. The Brazilian makes a fleeting pretence of going up front before tucking in to reinforce the midfield…and, yes, we do indeed seem to be playing 5-5-0 at home against Newcastle. Jesus. I double-check to make sure that we haven’t had a player sent off while I wasn’t paying attention. Nope.

The remainder is about as much fun as you’d expect 5-5-0 to be. We wait, tensed and lost in thought, for the announcement of injury time and the inevitable Newcastle equaliser in its final minute. It would be very easy to lose the detail amid condemnation of the tactics, but we shouldn’t, for Cathcart and Kabasele are truly magnificent and Mariappa isn’t far behind; Cathcart, in particular, appears drawn by an invisible force to the precise square yard where he needs to be, snuffing out danger as it flickers into life on countless occasions. The equaliser doesn’t come. In fact, Newcastle are denied at every turn. It’s a genuinely heroic effort, albeit one perhaps suited to another, more momentous occasion.

7. So it’s an odd conclusion, really. Even beyond Doucoure’s rather ill-judged pre-match farewell message and Javi Gracia’s apparent uncertainty over what the summer will hold, it feels emphatically like an end to something. Whatever the circumstances, I’m not sure that you can be so utterly negative in front of your home fans and expect them to forget about it. It’s a taste that lingers, it’s a debt that you’ll have to pay eventually. The Pozzos aren’t the sort to be swayed very much by public opinion, but a reinvention of some sort is required before July, a fresh start, a new vision. More of this won’t do…he said loftily, as if he had a divine right to turn up at the last minute and tell you lot what to think about it all.

And more of this shouldn’t really have to do. As Leicester’s title win fades into history, replaced by extravagantly (in all senses) attacking football with little care for defensive detail, there’s surely a vacancy for another side that picks a small handful of essential things and does them exceptionally well, does them with an intensity and a consistency that others can’t match. Does them to the point of being an art-form, as Leicester did. Does them to the point of being an absolute menace, as Watford once did.

It’s time to write some stories, isn’t it?

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, *Cathcart 4*, Kabasele 4, Holebas 3, Hughes 3, Doucoure 3, Capoue 4, Pereyra 4, Deeney 2, Gray 3; Deulofeu 2, Mariappa 4, Richarlison 2

Watford 0 Crystal Palace 0 (21/04/2018) 22/04/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

1- Lunchtime, and we’re stuck on the ring road. Everything’s snarled up, it transpires, by a restaurant fire on the Lower High Street but as far as we’re concerned it’s simply a traffic jam. The sun is beating down with the relentlessness of toothache, we have no liquid, no lunch, a situation being tolerated by Daughters 1 and 2 with sullen patience. The latter of the two has painted herself in sunblock, and the smell only adds to the summer holiday feel.

A couple of hours later, inside the stadium, a steward in a high-vis jacket is shaking down some moves to Deee Lite. Whilst there are few more familiar fixtures than Palace at home in the Watford fixture list the afternoon doesn’t feel “normal”, and you can’t help but wonder whether (whisper it) we might even beat them here for the first time since 2009.

2- You’ll have gathered that I wasn’t as down on the Huddersfield performance as many, but there’s no denying that something isn’t quite clicking, to which end Javi’s changes in formation and personnel seem entirely sensible. An extra body up front allowing Troy to drop a little deeper, Mapps plays in his third position in three games either in anticipation of Zaha’s threat on the left or because Janmaat and Femenía, both relegated to the bench, were the unnamed victims of the stomach bug that had already ruled out Sebastian Prödl. An ex-Watford boss is welcomed as a footnote, someone who did a good line in sensible management decisions himself. The diversity of opinion on Ray Lewington’s steadying of a listing ship fifteen-odd years ago has always been baffling, but there’s no dissent in the ovation that welcomes Palace’s assistant boss.

The team come out to a display orchestrated by the 1881, a St George’s Cross flanked by yellow and black. As an aside, I’m all for the reclaiming of the cross from the far right, all for the inherent accompanying diversity message that patriotism, being proud of your country doesn’t necessarily mean hating everyone else. But… I can’t help feel slightly uncomfortable. The 1881 are entitled to hold whatever opinions and make whatever statements they see fit, but the only sentiment that can be assumed of or imposed upon the wider support is that of championing the team? An impressive display, a message I’ve not got a problem with in itself, full marks as ever for doing stuff, but this felt wrong to me.

3- Back on the pitch, we started in a whirlwind and were noisily propelled along by an unprecedented racket from the stands. Whether it was the inebriating effect of the sunshine, the familiarly contemptible opposition or a desire to match the bloody-mindedness displayed in the home stands at Huddersfield the home crowd were on top form, and team and crowd fed each other. We were on the front foot straight away, aggressive and punchy and Palace couldn’t live with us. Will Hughes burrowed into the box and flung a shot across the face of goal, narrowly avoiding Stefano Okaka. Minutes later Okaka himself got onto the end of a Deeney cross, his firm header coming back off the woodwork. Roberto Pereyra had Joel Ward in all sorts of trouble on the left; the right-back was the first in a long list of yellow cards for dumping Pereyra on his arse in frustration. Craig Cathcart missed perhaps the clearest chance, a free header albeit he had a narrow window with the cross in his range of vision. Mamadou Sakho just about held Palace’s back four together as Pereyra tried to isolate Ward and James Tomkins and Patrick van Aanholt did passable imitations of Harry Enfield’s Kevin and Perry, all tantrums and waving arms as we passed through them. Much the better side in the first period, you’ll already have noted the critical oversight, the one detail that we didn’t quite have nailed. A recurring theme; even if we had chances, we still didn’t do enough with our dominance in possession, still didn’t create much in the way of clear cut opportunities.

4- Key in the first half exchanges and throughout was the redoubtable partnership of the newly returned Christian Kabasele and the slightly less newly returned but much missed Craig Cathcart. Our two best central defenders to my mind; whether they form our strongest partnership remains to be seen, certainly they were better equipped to marshal the speed and movement of the slightly wonky forward line of Zaha and Townsend than they might have been to accommodate a more physical challenge. The misfiring Benteke achieved a lot with not very much in his late cameo. Nonetheless… they were imperious today. The first half saw Zaha stamped on as soon as he had possession, and when Palace built up a head of steam in the second period both were significant, Kabasele retaining his composure in difficult situations and Cathcart’s decisiveness dampening the Eagles’ threat more than once.

The match was refereed by Chris Kavanagh. New to the Premier League list this season, his two previous Watford games (at Newcastle, his second top flight fixture, and at home to Leicester) were hugely impressive, demonstrating a willingness to both let things flow and to not take any crap from anyone. Today, both sides were at him for a bit and Palace were certainly bleating for much of the first half but, well-disposed as I already was, I kinda felt he did well enough in challenging circumstances. Wilfried Zaha, for one, makes refereeing a game difficult for anyone, such is his speed of foot and eagerness to draw a challenge, to provoke an incident by barrelling towards the penalty area at every opportunity.

The corollary of course is the wide-held belief that Zaha has a tendency to make rather too much of such situations. It’s difficult to envisage that Zaha’s future visits to the Vic will be any less of a pantomime than this was, the crowd meeting his every touch with disdain and derision. Kavanagh gave him short shrift in the first half when he went down optimistically; he could have been booked then and should have had at least a yellow after the break when he went in studs up on Karnezis, a cowardly challenge. Instead he was booked for diving when trying to navigate a forest of legs in front of the Rookery; consensus seems to be that we got away with one there, the replays far from decisive to my mind. Merciful, perhaps, that VAR wasn’t in place to add several minutes’ pondering to an equally arbitrary decision and diffuse a wonderfully explosive atmosphere. Either way, as MotD pointed out last night, Zaha had demonstrably tried to gain unfair advantage minutes earlier when springing into the area after being tripped outside. If he was denied a penalty subsequently, this injustice will garner little sympathy.

5- Palace had looked ragged at the interval, but were much more potent in the second half. Our intensity dropped a notch, and whilst Capoue continues to enjoy perhaps his best consistent run of form in a Watford shirt and Doucouré dug in, the two look tired to me and we could really do with Cleverley or Chalobah back in the fold whilst, as an aside, noting the continued absence of the seemingly discarded Didier Ndong from a bench with no midfielders. Zaha was, of course, the focal point of Palace’s attacks although our closest calls came – you’ll be surprised to read – from set pieces, two of which lead to balls off the woodwork dropping in agonising slow motion to space precariously close to the goal line, first Craig Cathcart and then Troy Deeney re-adjusting their limbs the quickest to execute a decisive clearance.

Meanwhile, Richarlíson had been given most of the half in response to a knock which deprived us of Pereyra, our most consistent threat to that point. I’m finding these cameos increasingly aggravating, since whilst I don’t doubt that playing football for so long without a break has an impact I don’t believe that such fatigue prohibits him from giving us at least a little bit of impetus when introduced from the bench. He’s playing, bluntly, like someone who believes his work here is done and if his links to Europe’s biggest clubs have any validity beyond his agent’s imagination then few will mourn his departure, should it involve the mooted fees.

A draw, then, and “fair enough” says everyone except that it isn’t really. This is Palace, and given their start to the season it feels as if we’ve been deprived of something given that their escape from relegation looks likely be more comfortable than it could have been. Quite apart from which… yet another opportunity to win a game tossed aside, however enjoyable the afternoon and the intensity was here. It’s not ALL wrong, we’re not very far away and of course the summer is coming when to a greater or lesser degree all the pieces will be chucked up in the air again. It would be nice to go into the break with some confidence for a change, though.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Mariappa 3, Holebas 3, *Kabasele 5*, Cathcart 4, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 4, Pereyra 4, Okaka 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Richarlíson (for Pereyra, 55) 2, Femenía (for Okaka, 70) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 79) 0, Janmaat, Britos, Sinclair, Gomes

Huddersfield Town 1 Watford 0 (13/04/2018) 15/04/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- Huddersfield doesn’t look like Watford, feel like Watford, smell like Watford. For one thing it’s tentatively and occasionally gloriously sunny as we arrive, which is something that Watford hasn’t been on matchday for a while. For another it’s, like, hilly and that. Daughter 1 blinks away her sleepiness as we emerge from the car… “is this really Yorkshire?”, as if we were in Narnia or Magrathea.

But as far as the Premier League landscape is concerned there are commonalities between two small(ish) town clubs whose support is very much rooted in their local community… even if the degree of Huddersfield’s smallness becomes a matter of some debate in the Rhubarb Cafe Bar as Wikipedia has decided that it’s the eleventh largest city in the country. Daughter 1 prefers “like London, but smaller”, because there’s traffic.

Similarities or not, there’s a shared purpose in the mutual and wholehearted celebration of Chelsea coming back from behind to cement Southampton in the relegation zone. Celebrating Chelsea goals feels a bit dirty of course, but such moral compromises have to be made at the business end of the season. As Will later points out, given Mark Hughes’ arrival at Southampton there is joy to be taken in many of the potential relegation outcomes. Not all of them, obviously.

2- The Stadium itself is a beautiful thing, whatever it’s called now. The arched stands are distinctive and elegant, woods form a striking backdrop to the stand to our right.

The most impressive feature of the stadium however is that impossibly, claustrophobically noisy. The home side have been talking up the atmosphere all week; with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City to come in their remaining games a lot was riding on this and the troops had got the message. This racket dwarfs anything we’ve been exposed to this season, quite extraordinary.

It had an impact on the game from the off which after a tentative couple of minutes is similarly oppressive, the home side’s pressing game being bellowed on from the stands. In truth there was a lot of bluster and not much end product, a garbage crusher bluntly forcing the play towards us without much in the way of clear chances coming with it. Principle obstacle was the immaculate Craig Cathcart, making his first start since forever and once again turning simply being in the right place into an unelaborate art form. Our full backs look particularly vulnerable; Daryl Janmaat has three good goes at getting booked before finally sealing the deal, after which he looks surprisingly disciplined and realises neither of the gloomy predictions prevalent in the away end – “he’s going to get sent off” and “he’s straight off at half time”. Meanwhile on the left Aidy Mariappa is standing in for the injured Holebas and looks almost exactly like a centre back playing on his weaker side as full back for fifteen minutes or so, but he too settles down and stifles the Terriers’ threat on their right.

3- The bigger problem introduced by Mariappa being at left back is our lack of balance in attack. Kiko Femenía is our only source of speed, and whilst Roberto Pereyra sidesteps and twists we inevitably come inside from the left; he has no pace, and no crossing option bombing past him. Nonetheless, the biggest achievement of the first half is the gradual subduing of the home crowd to merely boisterous levels; by midway through we are the side making the better chances. Deeney has a vicious shot blocked at close range, Doucouré cuts into the box and drives straight at Lössl. Pereyra draws a free kick to the right of the goal as we attack prompting fanciful speculation about a Neil Cox tribute goal in memory of a freak goal eighteen years ago from the same position, but alas we got a rehearsed move that didn’t quite come off instead, more prosaically.

Nonetheless, come half time there are reasons to be positive. We’ve weathered a storm that has proven to be more of a passing, aimless squall and we’re beginning to get on top – a platform to build on. Instead… the second half never really gets us anywhere. Certainly we’re never under the cosh – and as you’ll have noted, Huddersfield don’t manage a shot on target until, critically, they do. But we’re not getting very far either, albeit we’re not getting very far with an increasing amount of the ball. Our tendency to go long is in part pressured by Huddersfield’s pressing and in part deliberate, seemingly, since such balls are played under little pressure. Perhaps to bypass a midfield in which the still-missed Jonathan Hogg is charging around doing his thing, in part, perhaps, to expose what is perceived as a vulnerable backline. Either way it’s ineffective.

Richarlíson is brought on for the presumably tiring Femenía. Coinciding with another lull in the home stands he gets a noisy ovation; I’m all for this, poor form or otherwise, but can’t help but feel that our captain has earned slightly more patience over the course of several seasons and a very large number of goals. He gets no such support, albeit he’s again entirely ineffective. No more so is the newcomer, whose only strong performance in five months came in the anomalous demolition of Chelsea.

4- We’ve been starting to toy with Huddersfield, moving the ball around tidily and looking like the better side for the first time. We don’t look desperately like scoring, though whirligig Will Hughes once again runs himself into the ground and occasionally dances through promisingly into the box. If someone’s going to score though, it’s us. Except it isn’t.

Which casts a whole new perspective on the game, obviously. Gloomily reviewing email and social media accounts on the way back down the M1 I’m surprised (for some reason) by the negative tone. The game wasn’t of particularly high quality and neither side looked potent but it was intense and there was no lack of commitment on show. We’ve all seen much worse in terms of entertainment, put it that way.

Nor did we play particularly badly, as has been the case in the majority of the recent run of games. Defensively we were absolutely fine at worst for the most part (although someone who shall remain nameless was calling Seb Prödl every name under the sun for his flimsy response to Depoitre’s challenge in the build up to the goal). Nor can Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes, Femenía, Pereyra reasonably be lambasted, though they’ve all had better games.

The problem is that the team doesn’t know how to score goals. This doesn’t really reflect upon Troy either, much as he was ineffective; he competed well with what he had, which wasn’t an awful lot, and neither Andre Gray in his brief cameo, nor Okaka in recent games have done markedly better.

The problem, and the challenge for Javi Gracia, is that we’ve played pretty well over the last three games and earned one point from them. It’s not that we’re playing badly as much as that we don’t have an effective or efficient way of playing, particularly away from home as reflected by no away goals since he took over (and scarcely any decent chances in those games). And whilst it’s true that any one of our missing players would have given us something that might have made the difference here – balance from Holebas, speed of thought and feet on the counter attack from Chalobah, raw terrifying pace from Deulofeu, energy from Cleverley – the problem is more fundamental than missing players.

5- It’s hard to begrudge Huddersfield their win, much as I’d argue they didn’t really do much to deserve it on the pitch, much as being trapped in the stand to witness the celebration by slow-flowing aisles was something we could have all done without. There was a single-mindedness to their support that’s rare in a home crowd and could only be borne of a situation in which everyone knows they’re punching above their weight and mucks in accordingly. We’ve lost that a little bit I suspect, which is where the parallels with Huddersfield fall down, at least for now, and the complaints borne of unreasonable expectations start.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to think that we could enjoy the end to a season for a change, and confirm our safety through our own actions. “More or less safe” and “Absolutely safe” aren’t the same thing, and the distinction becomes more critical as the number of games dwindles. We’d have to work very very hard to go down from here, but getting nothing out of reasonable performances isn’t the best platform.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 4, Mariappa 3, Prödl 3, *Cathcart 4*, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Femenía 3, Hughes 4, Pereyra 3, Deeney 2
Subs: Richarlíson (for Femenía, 58) 2, Gray (for Deeney, 81) 0, Sinclair (for Hughes, 90) 0, Gomes, Britos, Kabasele, Okaka

Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 2 (31/03/2018) 01/04/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- I’m in a play this week.

I love acting. Being someone different is amazing, escaping completely into a story and thinking like someone else, getting into someone else’s head. Better still, doing it with a bunch of idiots who laugh at the same things as you do and have done this enough, done this together enough to know how to help each other and when to suggest things. It’s awesome.

It can become all-consuming. Enough of a focus to completely dominate your waking thoughts, quite apart from the practical considerations of a rehearsal schedule that is necessarily focused on evenings and weekends.

Enough of a focus that, whilst I was able to make both Arsenal and Liverpool I knew that I wouldn’t have the clarity of thought let alone the time to pen words. Hell, three paragraphs in and I’m still talking about the play. I’d apologise, but you know I wouldn’t mean it…

2 – So two weeks after that painful and memorably cold evening in Liverpool the question was how we would react. All of us… team, support, head coach. The Everton and West Brom victories had made the two subsequent defeats if not entirely affordable then at least not a disaster but the closing scenes of the last couple of seasons haven’t been particularly engrossing. A positive, vibrant finish, particularly from the point and assuming that safety is confirmed, would be a welcome thing.

The cast list revealed a return to 4-2-3-1 and most significantly the much-discussed-amid-awkward-shuffles-of-the-feet benching of the long-since wrung-out Richarlíson with Will Hughes starting behind Troy. The curtain rose to a bright and breezy encounter, but it was the visitors on the front foot from the off; quick movement earned a free kick on the right, an orchestrated slight of hand earned an angle to get a cross around the “wall”, Nathan Aké was ahead of the defence and should probably have done better than twonk a header off the bar and out. Minutes later and Stanislas slung a shot from left to right which Karnezis pushed away.

A statement of intent, so it was encouraging that we settled very quickly and were on the front foot, as ready and capable as our visitors of capitalising on an open game. Our first rattle into the open spaces in Bournemouth’s half seemed to make them slightly nervous and the game took on a new shape with the Hornets dominating territory and possession, but the Cherries screaming out on counter-attacks. One of these briefly saw the visitors escape beyond our backline only to be denied by a combination of Prödl and the flawless Karnezis.

Instead it was the Hornets that took the lead, José Holebas sent in a cross following a corner and Kiko Femenía, whose dynamism continues to remind us how much we missed during his spell out, took it on the volley. It would have been a routine save for the keeper, but Kiko was rewarded for his ambition and execution by King not having time to set himself and his crucial deflection left Begović helpless.

3 – Key in all of the good stuff that followed and the biggest plus in what remains a positive afternoon despite the galling finish was the performance of Will Hughes. Long in the wings waiting for a chance to play the lead role but denied by selection and injury, he’s looked great in virtually every minute he’s been afforded and here he was an absolute joy. Full of energy and movement, capable of deft one-touch lay-offs when moving at high speed thanks to his dexterity, balance and awareness but also willing to put his foot in, to work and to hound after possession. What’s not to like, frankly; this was his fifth start of the season and he’s already a hero.

As an aside to which, you can’t help but look at that midfield, add Chalobah, Cleverley and Deulofeu (fingers crossed) to it and feel rather comfortable with the murmurs coming out of the forum this week that the traditional summer flow of ins and outs might be more restrained this year. Sure, Doucouré may not stay (and to reiterate, I feel cheated that we might only get five games’ worth of Chalobah and Doucouré at the back of the midfield) but if he does go it’ll be for a great big wedge and you’d be confident in our ability to dig up a replacement. What an array of talent we have available.

Hughes’ effervescent calmness was at the centre of our second goal as Bobby Pereyra, once again looking far happier and more potent on the left flank, squirrelled in a shot to restore the lead surrendered meekly at the end of the first act. There’s been disbelief at Holebas’ actions but misjudged as they were it seemed to me that he was simply surprised by the trajectory of the ball, lost his bearings and decided that the threat of Jordon Ibe getting a decisive touch was greater than it probably was. So… a bit crap from Holebas who otherwise had a decent enough game, but not baffling… not like the ongoing bawling at the referee from those around us who clearly hadn’t seen the handball (fair enough) but lacked the self awareness to pick up on the comments and shrugs around from those who had.

4 – There’s a lot to like about Bournemouth. They’re positive and bold, try to win games with their actions rather than merely by default, and what this game showcased was two sides who were expected to be relegated on promotion (nearly) three years ago but weren’t and have dropped anchor in mid-table. That doesn’t guarantee you anything of course (ask West Brom) but nonetheless… an enjoyable engaging game from two clubs with every right to feel pleased with themselves that betrayed some limitations but also a lot of positives. For the visitors, Lewis Cook was absolutely terrific, a dextrous, nimble fulcrum in the centre of the park. Aké got his head to everything and looked like the centre-back in everyone’s heads and Ryan Fraser did a dynamic, purposeful job of filling in at right back. So… lots to like.

The reason that we don’t like them, then, is because they’re a bunch of cheating scumbags. Or to put it slightly less pejoratively… there’s something in the mentality of the club (the coaching?) that will grab any advantage that’s going. You can argue that every club does that (and Aidy Boothroyd isn’t far enough away for us to be getting too self-righteous), perhaps that they should… but with Bournemouth it’s so systematic that you can’t help but feel that it’s coached into the team. So… if cutting towards the edge of the penalty area as a ball-winning tackle comes in is merely giving yourself a chance then returning the ball to the opposition after a stoppage by kicking it halfway to the opposing keeper, forcing him to emerge into his own half is deliberate and cynical, and of course the repetitive throwing oneself down over tackles and springing up when a foul has been won is well established over recent seasons. One positive to come from this today was in Daughter 1’s reaction… she has a tendency to drift through games, combining attention to the matter in hand with contemplation of the social ins and outs of every eleven year old and any number of other things. Ryan Fraser’s swallow dive in front of us in the second half grabbed her though and she was potently outraged to the extent that she insisted in re-enacting the moment to her bemused mother in the living room later in the evening, several times, and accompanied by her younger sister who had been paying no attention at all but found the whole thing quite fun.

Dad had drawn a comparison with the Australian cricket team which those of you who know and care about such things might be able to comment on. I don’t, and so can’t.

5 – So the closing scenes here were demoralising for a number of reasons. Firstly because Richarlíson, who had entered stage left with ten to go, had looked vibrant and determined and quite capable of extending our lead as well as wrapping the aggravated Charlie Daniels in knots, but didn’t. Second, because a last minute equaliser is a last minute equaliser what every the context and the visiting support rightly celebrated accordingly – we’d have been pissed whatever. Thirdly because of our failure to just hold the line from a long ball for a few more bloody seconds. But also because of Steve Cook’s predictably over the top reaction to Okaka’s challenge which conned Andy Madley. It should have been innocuous, a challenge in the middle of the park and we should still have bloody defended it (see point three) AND it was a more aggressive challenge on review than the non-event we perceived at the time. Nonetheless, it was the latest in a growing list of such incidents against Bournemouth in recent years and we were particularly sensitised to it.

Instead, the natural gravity of the draw between these two sides prevailed – the seventh in the ten League meetings since Bournemouth’s promotion from the third tier in 2013. Consequently we’re still a few points from that mystical 40 point threshold (and yes, of course, 40 might not be necessary but “probably safe” is where we are already, “Safe” is better). It would take an awful lot though, and most Watford supporters will already have their relegation thoughts occupied with Palace and West Ham – the latter with a stinking run in despite their result yesterday.

When the curtain comes down on the season, you suspect that these two dropped points won’t matter much; the fact is that it was a good game and with more to like than to not. Doing the double over Bournemouth would have been a fine thing though. Next time.

Yooorns.

Karnezis 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Prödl 3, Mariappa 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, Femenía 4, *Hughes 5*, Pereyra 4, Deeney 3
Subs: Cathcart (for Prödl, 64) 3, Okaka (for Hughes, 75) 3, Richarlíson (for Femenía, 81) 0, Ndong, Gray, Lukebakio, Gomes

Watford 1 West Bromwich Albion 0 (03/03/2018) 04/03/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

1- The one item that I associate with Ethiopia, my wife’s home, more than anything else is the Gabi. A vast white cotton sheet with a braided hem. It has many uses, from blanket to dressing gown, windshield to sunblock… comparable to the ubiquitous towel in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Everyone has one, and you don’t leave home without it.

Mine was in the back of the car as I braved the journey to Vicarage Road today. That, and a number of other precautions. The week’s extraordinary weather had dumped itself rather heavily on my village further north and a relatively undisturbed cul-de-sac always looks arctic under such circumstances, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the rest of the world is similarly buried. The journey to Vicarage Road was like emerging from winterlocked Narnia to, well, a rather damp and rather chilly but not terribly inconvenienced town in Hertfordshire. I’m not Ethiopian, the Gabi isn’t a regular travelling companion and must have felt rather underwhelmed by the trip.

2- This was a precarious match for both sides. For Albion, for their manager, surely a last chance. Easier to sympathise with the former than the latter, a supercilious preening charlatan. But as discussed in last week’s report the season’s story is one of a lot of fairly rubbish clubs jostling for position and in the absence of a truly rubbish side three relegation places would go to whoever didn’t have a chair when the music stopped. Albion slowly slipping away from the pack have dropped that number down to two.

For the Hornets meanwhile and bearing in mind our forthcoming trips to Arsenal and Liverpool this was perhaps the difference between spending the rest of the season scrambling away from the relegation places, and being able to enjoy those high profile away trips rather more. Javi Gracia’s games so far have showcased a flexibility with styles, but if a consistent pattern is emerging it’s of patience in possession, containment as a first priority and allowing that continuing teasing around of our opponents will yield chances. We look an awful lot more solid, and a few more games like this are a reasonable price to pay for that.

3 – Such was the pattern of the first half. The Hornets had more possession without ever taking enough risks or moving the ball quickly enough to turn that possession into chances. Albion looked to counterattack and did so successfully early on, Rodriguez dancing down the left and being only partly waylaid, the resultant deflection falling to Krychowiak. His low drive from the centre of the penalty area was denied by a fearless block from Mariappa who crowned his 250th Hornets appearance with a first half masterclass. It’s been said before, but we had no right to expect this level of performance from a nominally sixth choice centre-back who has nonetheless been a regular in the squad since this fixture last season. Given the limitations imposed by our injury list we’d have been in serious trouble had he not been up to the task.

The other characteristic of the first half was the lingering influence of Pulis in our visitors, and Craig Dawson in particular, getting the odd reducer in early doors. Étienne Capoue in particular seemed derailed by this and spent ten minutes or so wincing at and avoiding potential challenges before settling back in and doing a solid enough job alongside Doucouré. The best of the Hornets’ chances came to Janmaat, whose cross-shot brought a crucial fingertip from Ben Foster on one of few occasions that we moved Albion out of shape in the first half, otherwise Prödl headed over from a corner, Pereyra saw a stabbed effort deflected to safety and the half ended very nil nil without an awful lot to distinguish it from the first half against Everton a week ago.

4 – Albion were more impressive than Everton in many ways, not that that’s saying much. More fight about them, certainly, and solid and organised defensively. That’s all, though. They looked horribly blunt, low on confidence or of any reliable means of scoring a goal, at least from open play. The likes of Craig Dawson and Matt Phillips are decent players, stalwarts, but the sort of player that you build a promotion side around. Even the Albion support, admirably filling their allocation despite the weather and their team’s form and in boisterous voice had a relegated air about them… not gallows humour, as such, but the sort of “we’re making more noise than you” theme that has to be relied upon when you know that your team’s not going to give you much to sing about themselves.

As against Everton we gradually imposed ourselves in the second period, and as a week ago substitutions were effective and generated a threat. Albion did have chances… a wasted header by Rondon, a scruffy shot from a narrow angle by Evans but it was all a bit desperate and stretched, as if this was the most they had and even that was an effort. Okaka replaced Richarlíson, who worked hard and had more impact than of late but still looks forlorn. We could all have done with his ambitious scissor kick dropping the other side of the post; instead he was left to react with frustration as his number came up ten minutes into the second period, Okaka again a force for good and Roberto Pereyra much happier on the left flank than he had been down the centre as we switched to 4-4-2.

But it was the arrival of Hughes that was the catalyst for the victory. As with Femenía’s return last week, the Spaniard missing ill today, it was gratifying that the transformative effect that injured players are inevitably imbued with in our mind’s eye had a basis in reality. Hughes announced himself with a resilient holding off of aggressive Albion attention, and then set about his nimble, clever, precise work from the right flank. It set a tone… Okaka was unlucky not to score, receiving Holebas’ cross, stepping across a challenge and slamming a low drive past Foster only to find Gibbs on the line. Either side of him and it was in, such was the ferocity of the drive. Then Krychowiak and Brunt were getting into a mess in the middle of the park and whilst it’s natural to highlight their mistake it was an innocuous error they’d have gotten away with but for the alertness and belligerence of Hughes nipping in between them and quickly getting the ball out from his feet to release Deeney…

5 – He looked offside. That was our first thought from the Rookery, how could he possibly have found so much space? Had it been the other way around folk would have been screaming blue murder, but Thierry Henry’s breakaway goal in 2000 was the one that taught me to hold fire on such snap judgements. That one was miles offside in real time, but not, as it turned out, in reality. This wasn’t offside either.

Deeney isn’t Henry, but he does have one thing worth highlighting early in a week in which “cojones” are likely to enter sportswriters’ vernacular once again. Plumber Gaz came over this morning. He’s a good bloke, the sort of bloke who would give up his Sunday morning to sort out a dodgy boiler despite being a Spurs fan. “What’s Deeney doing still playing?” was the question. I didn’t ask him to expand on that, to clarify whether he meant “not good enough” or “not scoring enough” or “too old”… there are all sorts of answers of course but a lot of them are tied up in that goal. There’s nobody, absolutely nobody you’d sooner place in a position where holding your nerve is a prerequisite. Keeping your temper, another conversation. But holding your nerve… he had so much time. With any number of other players you’d be watching through your fingers fearing painful and expensive deliberation but there was never any doubt whatsoever here in his mind, in ours, in the outcome. He finished it perfectly, his post-match assessment revealing a calm and rational decision making process at odds, presumably, with Gaz’s picture of him. We had fifteen minutes or so to survive which we did comfortably, an uncharacteristically underhit Mariappa backpass as close as Albion came to altering the result.

A huge win. The Chelsea result was spectacular, but our resilience in picking up two scruffy wins and two clean sheets over the last two weekends is as significant and as important. Anything less and we’d still be going into these next two games edgily hoping that the chasing pack will be dropping points. Now, instead, we’re looking at maybe taking the margin between us and Arsenal down to a mischievous six points.

Yoorns…

Karnezis 4, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, *Mariappa 5*, Prödl 4, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Carrillo 3, Pereyra 3, Richarlíson 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Okaka (for Richarlíson, 54) 4, Hughes (for Carrillo, 66) 4, Britos (for Holebas, 95) 0, Gray, Zeegelaar, Lukebakio, Gomes

Watford 1 Everton 0 (24/02/2018) 25/02/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- This was supposed to be a grudge match. Borne of the fact that five months ago we had a manager that Everton wanted and pursued rather gracelessly. Following which he was betrayed to be as precious and narcissistic as his compatriot at Old Trafford, our form disintegrated and unexpectedly Marco Silva was on neither touchline which, for all his evident coaching ability, both sides might have cause to be grateful for.

Any sense of blood and thunder and scores to be settled was short lived. The teams arrived to a particularly densely packed wall of flags in the Rookery and an unexpected cannonfire of yellow and black streamers from the base of the stand. Briefly this had the desired effect as the crowd roared the Hornets on, until it became clear that said streamers had been fired with sufficient welly to reach and entangle themselves into the hooks and anchors in the ceiling of the stand which has never received more attention during a game as the tendrils of streamers blowing in the wind provided an unusual frame to the action, a garish new Instagram filter for the rest of the evening. Occasionally one would detach itself and float serenely down into the stand, distracting from the action on the pitch.

2- Which in all honestly didn’t take a lot of distracting from. Further tension was sucked from the event by a few seconds waiting in the merciless cold, presumably for a BT Sport commercial break; when the game was finally permitted to commence a casual glance at the pitch (or, indeed, a TV screen) might not have revealed that much had changed. Everton employed a pressing game, congesting the centre of the pitch and allowing our centre backs to patrol with the ball without yielding space or avenues for them to attack. Adrian Mariappa in particular twice fell foul of the need to switch play quickly to beat Everton’s covering by placing hurried balls into touch. It was a pressing game of sorts from Everton, if only executed from a certain point, but never has a pressing game been so soporific. No better summary of the half can be provided than an early Toffees free kick, from memory the only one yielded in a threatening position by a disciplined defensive display. As Sigurdsson’s ball came over en route to somewhere inconsequential Wayne Rooney shoved Jose Holebas two handed in the back. The ball drifted off somewhere. Not to suggest that Rooney in particular or Everton in general were particularly dirty – although Doucouré was taken out by one vicious tackle later in the half – but that was the motif of the first forty-five minutes. Lumpy, shovey, lack of quality.

The principal exception to which was Gerard Deulofeu who flew at Cuco Martina relentlessly and was our best hope of Something Happening, of upsetting the ugly, stable nature of the half but it didn’t happen. The game was balanced in the way that a skip full of dung is balanced. A skip full of dung with “nil nil” spray painted grumpily all over it.

3- On the subject of faeces, this Everton incarnation is a fetid turd of a football team. Yes, yes… you can read too much into one game, an Evertonian who knows only yesterday evening of Watford might level similar accusations. However we don’t have a squad half-filled with, to use a well-worn but appropriate analogy, Fantasy Football picks from five years ago (and a manager from longer ago than that). Even that rarest of things, a home grown kid or two, doesn’t relieve the stench. What a joyless thing to be an Everton fan with aspirations of being one of the big six (seven?) but with a team as lumpy and leaden and wonky as any we’ve seen this season. Not awful… just, in common with much of the division, not very good. Burnley, eleven games without a win and stillseventh, tell a story.

Gueye was an exception, a fine little metronome ticking away at the back of the midfield. Niasse too charged around endearingly, propelling himself between the path of the ball and the incumbent Watford defender but the rest was ghoulish, and even Niasse as the spearhead betrayed the side’s limitations. A bloke that charges around a lot is a fun thing in a bad side, but that’s all. Meanwhile in Theo Walcott you’ve got another vital component of a bad team, a quick inconsequential winger, and Cenk Tosun’s second half cameo was hilarious. Jonathan Wilson’s take on the advisedness or otherwise of big strikers coming to the Prem from places where Big Blokes are a rarer thing and thus less capably defended against seems prescient – Tosun looked bemused by proceedings, crumbling under challenge, giving up on the escaping Capoue… that’s what £27 million gets you in the current market it seems.

4- Mercifully, we improved in the second half. It didn’t happen straight away, and Everton had the best chance of the game to that point when Keane’s header drifted wide… but after a bit we noticed that Everton hadn’t crossed the halfway line for a while. Then, the subs happened.

When in the grips of an injury crisis it’s tempting to imbue the missing players with superhuman qualities that would undoubtedly propel the team upwards if only, if only… then said player comes back, runs into someone, falls onto their backside and gets sucked into the morass. Heartening then to see Kiko Femenía’s flame on so quickly after the best part of three months out. His rusty, “getting back into it” spell lasted a matter of minutes rather than games and he provided us with a real outlet down the right. No less impactful was Stefano Okaka, on like Femenía after barely ten minutes of the half and re-introduced to the fold after his failed attempts to secure a move and more gametime in the window. This was the Okaka suggested by his cameo debut at West Ham eighteen months ago and glimpsed occasionally since… combative, abrasive, direct, irrepressible, a wrecking ball of a performance that Everton couldn’t cope with.

Sadly, we only got to see seven minutes of the vaunted link-up between Femenía and Deulofeu before the latter limped off, ominously, providing the biggest downer of the evening. We cross our fingers and wait… in the meantime, a bleach-blond Andre Carrillo entered the fray and gave a decent account of himself. Now, for the first time, we were demonstrably the better side… Janmaat tried to reprise his Chelsea goal by bludgeoning his way through Everton’s defence but found slightly stiffer resistance than the Champions had offered. Pickford cleared carelessly and Femenía screamed onto it and down the flank, opting to shoot instead of squaring to his unimpressed skipper. A minute later Femenía was involved again as he and Okaka combined to find Deeney who took a touch around a defender, span on the ball and slugged a violent shot past a partly unsighted keeper. Everton’s fightback was pathetic, non-existent. Game over.

5- A massive win. Really, really important. We all know how tight it is down at the bottom, much as we’ve not dropped any lower than twelfth, and the Chelsea result showcased what this team is capable of. Nonetheless… our fixture list for the rest of the season is peculiarly unbalanced and picking up the points we need at home takes any pressure from the challenging away fixtures. If Javi Gracia manages to secure his third home win on the hop against Albion next Saturday we’ll be on 36 points going into trips to Arsenal and Liverpool. Not safe, not quite… but you’d fancy us to do what’s necessary in our remaining home games, rendering those two trips a free punch to be cherished.

An ugly, horrible, forgettable game. But you’ve got to win those too, and we did.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Mariappa 3, Prödl 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 4*, Richarlíson 2, Deeney 3
Subs: Okaka (for Pereyra, 56) 4, Femenía (for Richarlíson, 56) 4, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 63) 3, Zeegelaar, Gray, Britos, Gomes