Watford 0 Middlesbrough 0 (14/01/2017) 15/01/2017Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. On Thursday morning, unaware of the breaking news, idle curiosity led me to dig up some early eighties albums on Spotify, much-loved during my student days a few years after their release. They sounded distant and diminished, almost comically morose and bleak; they belonged to an entirely different time, both musically and personally, and it was clear during the couple of hours we spent together that we had nothing left to say to each other. A lifetime ago, near enough. Another world. We’ve all moved on.
2. But some things endure. Some things are forever, or near enough. For all that we enjoy watching the clips of yesteryear, were this only about our golden memories of a football team and its manager, it’d be a very different occasion. In the expressions of sadness, pride and remembered joy since the news of his death, it’s evident that the seeds planted by Graham Taylor way back in the late seventies and onwards have continued – and will continue – to grow. That the people who bought into the values he instilled in the club and its surrounding community continue to do so. That the significance of those values in an era of insatiable profiteering is no less than it was in an era of brutal hooliganism.
The idea that a football manager could shape a generation – or one town’s contribution to a generation, at any rate – seems completely preposterous when you write it down. I can imagine Graham chuckling as I type. But you were probably there too, you were probably part of it as well. You know what it meant. If I count the people who showed me how I ought to live my life, what I ought to value and what I ought to aspire to, I get to Graham Taylor very quickly indeed. It’s just there, it requires no thought at all. It’s part of me. I know I’m not alone.
3. This isn’t an easy day for anyone. It comes with the inevitable awkwardness of these occasions, the desire to say it all and the utter impossibility of doing so. We do the appropriate thing: we do our best. The club conducts itself with considerable class, with the restraint and good taste that’s typified this new era. The minute’s applause is intensely moving, almost lifting the stadium from its foundations.
I take reassurance in the fact that he knew, that we told him time and again of our endless gratitude and admiration, that he invariably preferred to graciously acknowledge that adoration before moving onto a proper conversation about something of greater interest. He knew. He got it. Incredibly, it didn’t really change him. But I hope that some kind of comfort is given to his family, to whom we owe almost as much as the man himself.
4. Not an easy day, least of all for today’s crop of players, charged with honouring an occasion of which most can only have a limited understanding. In some ways, a game of football is exactly what you need: something to get lost in, something to carry aloft the songs from the good old days. Elton John’s Taylor-made Army rings around Vicarage Road again, through tears and smiles. In other ways, a game of football is the last thing you need: it’s not as if we can throw four up front and relive those good old days, and the deadening mundanity of a hard-fought mid-winter six-pointer feels distinctly out of keeping with what we wanted today to be about. Squibs don’t come much damper.
5. It quickly becomes apparent that the absence of Nordin Amrabat leaves us with not a jot of creativity. Aware of this, we abandon all interest in passing the ball through midfield – Valon Behrami practically turns his back when possession is with our wing-backs behind him, safe in the knowledge that he won’t be involved until Boro have it back – and thud it long in search of a Deeney flick or, you know, something wherever possible. We were often guilty of over-passing last season, of being content to be tidy rather than incisive; we’ve certainly got that one sorted. It might’ve been kinder just to have given Ben Watson the season off.
Inevitably, we look better when we make progress in wide areas: Jose Holebas can hit a decent cross when afforded the opportunity, Younes Kaboul shows a surprising aptitude for attacking play once he gets through the gears on his occasional forays. Abdoulaye Doucoure, the pick of the midfield, has a drive saved from the edge of the area. At the Rookery end, we’re largely untroubled until Stuani has a close-range poach disallowed for what appears to be a tight offside; he later floats a chip onto the roof of the net when well-placed. Not a game in which you want to concede a cheap goal. Or any goal, come to think of it. Nobody does.
6. Half-time brings chocolate, which tastes almost indecently luxurious in the context of such unsweetened gruel. Of the parade of former players, Luther pays the most heartfelt and touching tribute, the force of his emotions evident in every word. “He was like a father to me. I owe everything in my life to Graham Taylor.” It takes you back to a time when Luther Blissett wasn’t a household name, when all of this magical, wonderful story was yet to unfold. It makes you realise how fragile it all is. How precious.
7. We do more than enough to win the game in the second half, while also failing to do so. It’s a crude assault on the Boro goal, like trying to pick a padlock with a rocket launcher, but it pretty much does the job: we’re a gigantic side and absolutely dominant at set pieces, when we can remember to deliver them rather than trying to be clever. Boro gradually retreat in protection of a point that’s considerably better for them than it is for us, leaving only the threat of it being one of those games where Gestede thumps a header into the top corner in the ninety-third minute. If my memory is to be believed, that’s happened at least four times in the last five years.
We force chances at a steady pace. Valdes saves comfortably from Okaka, Capoue swings a curler very narrowly wide, Cleverley hits the post from a long throw, Deeney breaks clear and is foiled only by a minute deflection as the ball travels under Valdes’ dive. None of it is anything other than agricultural, although Cleverley’s fifteen minute cameo in a supporting forward role suggests some promise of better things to come.
And I have to say that, on this evidence, better things are desperately needed. Yes, injuries. Yes, squad lopsidedness. Yes, I get all of that, I sympathise. Still. You can sustain this kind of football while it’s successful, because none of us care as much about style as we care about winning. But heavens above, it looks ugly as sin without that hazy glow. If you’re going to play like this, if you’re going to abandon aesthetics in favour of brute force, you’d better bloody win. Especially if you’re not going to bother to build a relationship with the supporters.
Thin ice, I suggest.
8. But that can all wait. It’s easy to contrast the past with the present, but nothing will ever match up, let’s face it. In truth, the generosity of the Pozzos to those who built the club before they bought it is uncommon and laudable; there are few people successful enough to buy a football club and yet modest enough not to need to prove how thoroughly they own it by trampling over its history. Today isn’t about them, clearly, but it’s framed by their willingness to cede the spotlight. And when you look more closely, you find those seeds still growing, still branching out: the recent opening of the Sensory Room, for example, feels as if it comes from much the same place, and the same set of values, as the family enclosure once did.
There’s only one Graham Taylor. But there are many of us, and there’s no better tribute than to continue to place the values he instilled at the heart of our football club. And beyond, to continue to make them part of our lives.
Family and community, open and welcoming and inclusive, determined and ambitious, modest and yet proud.
Elton John’s Taylor-made Army.
One Graham Taylor. 12/01/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
How to add anything. What to add. Eulogies can be so dull. How not to flounder in superlatives? Forgive me if this isn’t coherent…
It’s tempting to list achievements. Promotions, Cup Final, Europe and so on. You know all that, though. How about… pre-GT we had spent three of 96 years in the top two divisions. Since GT arrived we’ve spent four outside the top two divisions. Three of them getting promoted. His legacy includes a permanent shift in status. But more than “mere” achievement on the pitch, dramatic and fabulous though it was, changing our status though it did, was the “how”. The what AND the how were what made him, what made us.
I started coming to Vicarage Road in 1980. The best time, the worst time. The best because we were on the gallop, on the way up. The worst because, by the coincidence of my birth, I joined the party at a time when Watford were fantastic, on the pitch, off the pitch and that left a legacy. Such high standards. In that period, the five seasons that it took us to get to the top flight from the fourth division, we found time to record nine cup shocks. Nine victories against higher-division opposition, including Manchester United (twice), European Champions Nottingham Forest and the overturning of Southampton’s 4-0 first leg lead with a 7-1 second leg. For longer serving Watford fans this was remarkable. For the kids… it was fantastic, but surely how football always was. Beating the big guys. Going out simply trying to score more than the other lot, and expecting to do so.
And more than that, being part of the family. Mike Walters‘ brilliant piece in the Mirror hits the nail on the head; he changed the way the club was. He made it inclusive, safe, fun, and created a legacy that has little parallel. So you have kids of that generation – my generation – growing up with a wonderfully romantic, positive view of how Watford should be. What the family club was like, what it meant. And that filters down. The prominence of red was part of that. Yellow and black, smart, classy. Yellow, red and black, fun.
England. Yes, whatever. Expectations exaggerated by an overperforming – some might say lucky – 1990 team which lost key personnel, had others on the way out. Gascoigne injured, Shearer injured, still had to be horribly unlucky. Whatever. The lazy, armchair view, the pillorying that we’ve all heard too often still makes me bitterly angry more than twenty years on. Except that he had the good grace to get over it, or at least not to let it poison the way he conducted himself, so heaven knows I can manage. And anyway, but for that would we have got him back, to do it all again?
Anecdotes. So many. The one about Elton and the bottle of brandy. The one about ringing up fans who hadn’t renewed Season Tickets. The one about being some stranger’s best man just because he’d asked him to. The ones about the Family Enclosure Christmas parties where all the players turned up (in 1985, for example, the day after a horrible, violent clash with Tottenham) and he had as much time as anyone wanted. The thing that’s really clear, from social media, from your mates, from the radio is that everyone who ever had any contact with him had such an anecdote, or six. The one where he is introduced to someone, meets them again six months later and remembers the name of their wife and kid. The one where he meets a colleague of mine on the starting line of the London Marathon and when the name is shared asks the colleague to thank me for sponsoring him.
It’s all so human. He was brilliant, brilliant at what he did. As extraordinary as a rock star, a leader of industry, a fine artist, a racing driver, a bestselling writer. But he was a real person too, touchable, reachable, quirky, goofy. He replied to every star-struck letter that I sent him from the age of 10 to the age of 37. As Fran put it elsewhere, whenever you met him he made you feel as if the privilege was his. He was brilliant AND human, and that made him truly, truly inspirational.
He was loved by many people, but he was the heart and soul of our club and our town.
We owe him a send-off. We need to pull ourselves together.
See you Saturday.
Watford 2 Burton Albion 0 (07/01/2017) 08/01/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- So the F.A. Cup, then. Not What It Once Was. Maybe. Overburdened with bluster, the same tosh about romanticism that gets trotted out more or less annually around now before the TV companies pick the predictable games. And yes, West Ham getting humped was very funny but just as good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes sometimes bad decisions get lucky.
Either way, the F.A. Cup hasn’t plumbed the depths of the League Cup. The third round IS exciting, whatever, even with an absentee list that’s stronger than the available eleven, even in a no-win fixture at home to a new Championship side. We’re expected to go through, it’s a free punch for the Brewers. Romanticism and David v Goliath is all very well until you’re suddenly Goliath, relatively speaking, on the back of awful form and that injury list.
So, the decision to neglect Season Ticket holder’s right to their seat for the League Cup game against Gillingham was kind of OK. Everyone knows what the first round, our first round of the League Cup is about by now, few enough want to subject themselves to it. But for this? This is supposed to be a big deal, at least a serious game, and I want to be sitting in my seat, with my family and my mates. It’s part of the ritual, being denied “my” seat just pisses me off. Anecdotally a good number of the no-shows were turned off by that decision. Should I come to the cup game? Well I haven’t got my seat, so actually no. The club are well in credit as far as treating support is concerned and heaven knows that there are bigger things in the world to worry about but surprising that the importance of these things to folks is misjudged. Don’t think it’s just me.
2- So we watch developments from the Elton John stand, which adds to the sense of this not being quite normal. Daughter 2 has her eyes on our seats. Daughter 1’s appears to be free, the other two are not and Daughter 2 glowers her disapproval. Fortunately it’s overcast; it’s thirty plus years since I sat in the Family Enclosure, I don’t miss the peaked cap.
The team selection was always going to be a source of fascination; whilst Walter has precious little flexibility it’s slightly surprising that he’s gone for virtually the strongest available selection in the circumstances. We’re pared back enough, perhaps, but you did half expect more than merely Seb Prödl given a rest on the bench, albeit perhaps a few of those unwell or unfit might have been risked for a League game. As it is, Seb is called into action anyway as Cathcart, who had taken a blow early on, is pulled up with what the ref indicates is a head injury. Initially it seems that he’s going off for stitches or something, but Seb’s on the touchline before Cathcart gets there. In fairness, the back three are immaculate throughout and in the first half are more than a match for the tentative questions that Burton throw at them.
But the stand-out selection is Brandon Mason at left back following his debut off the bench in the less forgiving environment of the caning by Spurs six days ago. Yes it’s been forced – it’s difficult to conceive of an alternative selection that wouldn’t have been extremely wonky – but it’s welcome anyway, a Good Thing. And Mason plays his role to a tee on several levels. His relentless positiveness and enthusiasm stands out a mile – he’s clearly having a whale of a time, and is the one pelting up the flank on the overlap to make an option. He gets carried away too… more than once he’s pulled back into position, his eagerness to play as a winger exposing Britos behind him and attracting stern words from senior colleagues, not least the still off-beam Ighalo who is reluctant to indulge the youngster with a pass. On balance though it’s a complete triumph… brave, bold, energetic, robust, tougher than his slight frame suggests. The crowning moment comes with yet another scamper down the left, a vicious low cross and Christian Kabasele is all alone at the far post. Mason’s celebration is a thing of joy, certainly unmatched in the SEJ stand where daughter 1 is aghast at the lack of jumping around.
3- Burton turn out to be a convenient opponent. Tough and competitive, putting a lot of pressure on the ball they are characterised by a level of aggression that just about stays the right side of the line, a general bluntness up front and a who’s who of familiar names from Championship years past – not the stars, the other guys, the supporting cast. Lee Williamson, who joined the Hornets ten years ago this week, ticks all of those boxes; five years later he received a red card here in Sheffield United’s colours for taking out Lloyd Doyley, here his thunderous challenge on Capoue was as clean as a whistle but left no margin for error and saw the Frenchman sitting on his backside and rubbing his jaw. Elsewhere Albion reveal a decent line in narky little forwards; Jamie Ward is a first half sub, Luke Varney stretchered off on his debut after a collision with Pantilimon. Andy suggests Jamie Cureton would have completed the set.
Overall though there is next to no threat on our goal in the first half. In the second period Albion have a lot more attacking width and have two good opportunities earlier on but are forced onto the back foot and having missed those chances offer little thereafter. We rarely threaten to overwhelm them, but it’s comfortable enough… long spells of possession that occasionally unsettle the visitors when we tease some discomfort from their defence.
4- The second period also sees two other fringe players make a claim. Jerome Sinclair has seen his status escalated from occasional bench-filler in the wake of our current situation. Here, fielded as part of a rotating front three with Troy and Ighalo he failed to impose himself in the first half, often struggling to keep his feet. In the second… at one-up we’re always vulnerable to an equaliser, however stealthily it would have needed to sneak up on us, until Sinclair sets off on a slalom from the halfway line midway through the half and finishes with a flourish. Daughter 1 and I execute the premeditated strategy of celebrating like it’s the Rookery and be damned. Sinclair’s made it look easy – in fairness Burton’s resistance was cursory – but his confidence blossoms thereafter. Now he’s a menace, running at a Burton defence that’s clearly had enough, first releasing Ighalo for a painfully deliberate shot that McLaughlan saves then threatening to reprise his earlier effort with angles, this time, narrowed by the Brewers’ once-bitten caution. Difficult to dispute Mazzarri’s later assertion that getting games is the key thing for him on this evidence.
Meanwhile, the near-mythical Brice Dja Djédjé has made an unheralded entrance from the bench and looks thoroughly accomplished… dynamic, powerful and clearly happy to be playing football at last he comes close to crowning his cameo with a goal, clouting a long range shot enthusiastically, narrowly over. Like Sinclair, his energy and willingness are welcome.
5- Overall, then, reassuringly straightforward. True, an away tie against a Championship side in a better vein of form might have presented more of an issue but all in all and against all expectations – and awaiting news on what will hopefully have been a precautionary withdrawal for Cathcart – the game has proven to be a Good Thing in its own right. Yes, you’d want to see us playing better and creating more and looking more confident but it’s a positive step nonetheless in it’s routineness, in racking up a comfortable win despite everything. Good showings by several younger or newer players, a clean sheet and no replay.
Job Done. Yoorns.
Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 4 (01/01/2017) 02/01/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- It had occurred to us, pre-match, contemplating the magnitude of the challenge that today’s fixture falling where it did might not be a Bad Thing. A huge ask in the circumstances, without doubt… a monumental absentee list, an opponent who would be daunting at the best of times. Perhaps this was what we needed… a backs-to-the-wall, free punch game to quell the wobbles in the crowd. Memories of Sunderland in 1999, when crumbling form was rendered irrelevant as the runaway league leaders arrived in town. Or failing that… perhaps losing against Spurs was something that could be ridden out anyway. Losing to Spurs happened last season despite a sterling performance. Had this been a more moderate opponent perhaps the injury list would cost us more obvious points.
2- Good god this was awful. Let’s not pretend otherwise. For half an hour or so we hung in there… did a reasonable job of keeping the ball up at the Vicarage Road end, dug in in midfield, got the ball to Amrabat. Nothing as reckless as a threatening attack as such, but we were doing OK.
Despite which, there was a suspicion that we felt we were getting away with it. That Heurelho Gomes was quite happy to keep possession and wait to be closed down. That in such circumstances things DO look fine until they don’t, the tunnel at the end of the light. Adlène Guedioura had been our strongest performer in this opening period, taking responsibility, both fighting for possession and making things happen. Unfortunate, if inevitable, that it was he that gave the ball away for Holebas to be skinned down our left, where Spurs were focusing their attacks, and Kane to finish ruthlessly.
That was it. Perhaps I was kidding myself, perhaps they game was always over. In any event, from that point the result was never in doubt and from that minute on anyone in the home stands would have taken the scoreline at the time, no questions asked. Trippier crossed brilliantly in too much space for Kane to finish again. Kaboul haplessly gave the ball to Alli, who struck a third. It felt clinical, but Spurs had missed chances too.
3- Three points to restate from the Palace report, without frippery in the interest of brevity. One. Our injury situation is astonishing and unprecedented. I don’t know whether there’s any “blame” there, but it would be insane to imagine that Duxbury and Pozzo hadn’t considered that possibility. Two. Losing players in the warm-up, during the game, screws things up even if you’re NOT down to the bare bones. Three. 3-5-2 only works when there’s an attacking threat to offset the vulnerability of the defence.
In the wake of this horror show, all sorts of accusations have been thrown at Walter Mazzarri. Amongst these, inevitably, has been his inability to master English publicly, his lack of relationship with the support always likely to be a stick to beat him with when things went wrong. Other than that… of the above, we have to reserve judgement on the fitness thing. I just don’t know. As for formation… difficult. With fourteen available(ish) senior(ish) players, two of whom goalkeepers, our options were rather limited. With four of that number centre-backs the decision to stick with three at the back is at least rationalisable, even if a 4-4-2 might have given us less of a flimsy look.
None of the back three covered themselves in glory, Prödl at fault for the miserable fourth at the start of the second half on which the second half stood before us like a chasm. However the most fundamental problem with the side is in the midfield; it has been all season, as even with all personnel available it’s only ever kind of worked. Here… Guedioura was always the most willing and the bravest, but simply gives the ball away too much. Capoue, in a game where we really needed the senior players to step up, disappeared as Spurs took the lead. Difficult to recall the last time he played well. And Doucouré looked like a half-decent player who hasn’t played all season. Good bits, and lots of iffy, out-of-touch, wonky bits. Difficult to know what could have been done differently… we needed a much more robust option than was available.
4- Lack of passion has been the other criticism. Lack of fight, lack of looking like they cared. With very few exceptions this is not an accusation can reasonably have been levelled before today, whatever else has been going wrong. In this one… with such a limited hand, against an in-tune opponent, at four down with the visitors quite visibly in cruise control, it’s hard not to be sympathetic – it’s not as if the rest of us went into the fixture beating our chests. But you want more than this.
Things did get a bit better, once given the room to do so. Undoubted highlight was the introduction of Brandon Mason from the bench. Forced by circumstances, perhaps, but the prudent withdrawal of the overheating Holebas saw the first home-grown debut for I don’t know how long. Well enough he did too, holding his own on the left flank and combing with the lively Jerome Sinclair. Good also to see Troy chatting in his ear when the ball went dead – if heads were down, not all responsibilities were being neglected.
5- Sinclair attacked a deep cross, just as he did at Stevenage pre-season. Headed the ball out of Lloris’ hands, Michael Oliver blew up but it was something. Then we scored, the scruffiest untidiest effort imaginable, officially Kaboul’s but it could have been any one of three or four. Suddenly we looked alive, and ended on the front foot to give the result a lustre it maybe didn’t deserve.
Much as we’re in a bad place, we have to cling to that. We’re promised new recruits and players will come back and so it’s a matter of not getting carried away by however many wins in whatever, or by the depths of this particular afternoon. This is a better squad, a better side than circumstances have allowed us to demonstrate and certainly better than this game afforded, a game in which everything was stacked against us. Yes, it was terrible, a terrible afternoon.
That’s all it was.
Watford 1 Crystal Palace 1 (26/12/2016) 27/12/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Football on Boxing Day is always a little bit disorientating. This one isn’t helped by being shunted to lunchtime; it’s cold and sunny but the ambience of too much food and alcohol being recovered from pervades all four sides of the stadium from the Rookery, where the 1881’s flags are confined to the west end of the stand, to the away end which is full but far from the raucous wall of support that the Eagles pride themselves on.
The disorientation isn’t helped by the resuscitation of Danny Wilson’s “Mary’s Prayer” over the tannoy. In the late eighties and early nineties this was a staple in the home game playlist; someone’s brother was obviously in the band or something as it felt disproportionate even at the time. If you must play banal pop songs at least change it up a bit. However there’s less justification still to bring back a dirge associated with a fairly miserable period in the club’s history, the original single charting during the 1987/88 Bassett season. Chariots of Fire gets a proper airing too – that’s much more reasonable, even if Felix and I can’t decide whether it ever went away. A more subliminal number than Z-Cars, no less cherished. Anyway…
2- Injuries, eh? The volume this season is remarkable in itself and it’s natural to wonder about the coincidence of this with the unexpected summer revamp of the medical department. Based on, you know, a somewhat limited knowledge of physiotherapy, conditioning, the demands on the body of a professional sportsman and so on, and therefore the lack of ability to deduce cause and effect perhaps we should stop at wondering. Nonetheless, natural to wonder. More peculiar still is the systematic focus of injuries on particular areas of the team… central defence a few weeks ago, the creative end of the team now.
The first half hour or so can be summed up by the hung over growl of “FFS” that rattled around the home end throughout. The team selection didn’t inspire confidence… the evident unavailability of Okaka and Success, Deeney on the bench, it looked a cautious selection in contrast to a Palace side which was set up with Allardyce’s trademark bullishness. Things started badly and got worse… first Janmaat, after seemingly overstretching, then Behrami collapsed and were replaced. Janmaat’s replacement was a straight swap but Behrami in the absence of Watson, also injured, necessitated the clarion introduction of Deeney and a complete reshuffle.
Only to be expected that things go a bit screwy as a consequence. Almost immediately Benteke got onto the end of a cross and needed just a little more power. It felt like a portent of things to come – actually it was all but Benteke’s only positive contribution. Such was his ineffectiveness that we debated whether his seemingly impending red card in the second half would be a help or a hindrance. Instead it was Cabaye who broke the deadlock, a rapier thrust abetted by a wobbly offside trap. Nothing new here… we know that three at the back can leave you open an vulnerable. This isn’t a problem in itself… the problem is when you’re not actually providing the threat to offset this risk.
3- The penalty changed everything, obviously. It arose from the lowest point of an increasingly nervous, tentative opening by the Hornets, an appalling back pass from the otherwise exemplary Prödl sold Gomes short and he gave away a spot kick with a wild swing of the boot. Keystone cops stuff. We’d have taken a point, and gratefully, at this stage.
Instead, Benteke lined up the kick and rolled it delicately to the keeper’s left. Having waited for him to make the call Gomes all but fell on it, and with that the veneer fell from Palace’s performance, the suspicion that their lead – certainly deserved and arguably flattering the Hornets – hadn’t asked an awful lot of the visitors firmed up. Suddenly there was a bit of spirit, even if it didn’t materialise into much for the rest of the half. Sleeves were rolled up, the job was taken in hand.
4- Palace are a truly grimy lot. It’s a source of fascination that so many ostensibly talented players – Benteke and Cabaye most obviously, others too – conform to the traditional Selhurst model of conniving, barging, throwing in an elbow which Big Sam seems unlikely to disrupt. Attention post-match was drawn to Harrygate and Zaha’s late tumble… actually I’ve got some sympathy for the winger; quick feet are always going to draw nervous tackles and if you are getting booted around there has to be some temptation to make challenges visible. Britos was probably lucky in that he made a stupid challenge and another referee might have called a pen. The excellent Clattenburg called it right though – Zaha was on his way down. Less forgivable than Zaha was Cabaye’s inexcusable swallow dive in the second half as he fabricated the illusion of a sandwich challenge and curtailed a tentative Watford attack. That’s not survival, exaggerating a challenge so the ref sees it, that’s just plain cheating.
5- By that time we were level, Seb Prödl winning the pen and Troy slashing it down the centre of the goal after Wayne Hennessey made a big deal out of showing Troy how big an obstacle he was facing before helpfully vacating the centre of the goal of said obstacle. We deserved a point too, in the end, much as our attacking play continued to look like hard work. Palace were there to be beaten, their famously porous defence almost demanding to be exploited, the out of position Joel Ward at left back a particular problem. For the Hornets… Amrabat was excellent but necessarily withdrawn to wing back was further from the fun than you’d want. Guedioura was perpetually as likely a source of something as anyone whilst simultaneously demonstrating why we’re much better off using him as an impact sub at best – his ball retention shocking, the randomness of his contribution not suited to a starting role, let alone alongside a sub-par Capoue. But the back three, by and large, did well, the embers of the Deeney/Ighalo partnership glowed again.
So the disorientation lingers, really. Coming from behind, wresting control of the game from the visitors despite the injury set-backs and selection limitations, all brilliant. Not winning at home to a Palace side that is significantly less than the sum of its parts, not good. Bottom line, though, is that we’re still top half despite injuries ganging up on us, particularly in creative areas… any one of Success, Pereyra and Okaka (who I would consider creative, if in bludgeoning opportunities with a mallet rather than carving them) and today’s game would have been quite different. Bottom line, we’re much better than what Palace showed us today, concerns about relegation remain hysterical.
And having hosted one unpleasant mob it’s kinda convenient to have another turning up a few days later. Nobody bother cleaning up, clearing away the beer cans and emptying the ashtrays, the next lot really aren’t worth it.
Happy New Year all. Yoorns.
The List – January 2017. 18/12/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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As we approach the January window our stated intent to have a quiet January hadn’t prevented us from being linked to players even before our latest spate of injuries. Bookmark this page if you want to follow progress up to and throughout the January Transfer window. What does and doesn’t constitute a “rumour” is entirely at my discretion of course but generally “Watford following the progress of…” is in, whether substantiated or not, “I’d like Watford to sign…” is out.
* Indicates player linked in previous windows
Running Total: 35
Paul-Georges Ntep (Rennes) – joined VfL Wolfsburg
Pontus Jansson (Torino)
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Aston Villa)
Danilho Doekhi (Ajax)
Wilfred Ndidi (Genk)* – joined Leicester
Ben Osborn (Nottingham Forest)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Riccardo Orsolini (Ascoli)
Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal)
Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax) – joined VfL Wolfsburg
Sergi Enrich (Eibar)
Romain Thomas (Angers)
Saido Berahino (West Brom)* – joined Stoke City
Yacine Brahimi (Porto)
Henri Lansbury (Nottingham Forest) – joined Aston Villa
Molla Wague (Udinese)
Isaac Cofie (Genoa)
Dale Stephens (Brighton)
Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter)
Scott Hogan (Brentford)
Vicente Iborra (Sevilla)
Keisuke Honda (Milan)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Tom Cleverley (Everton) – SIGNED ON LOAN
Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiakos) – joined Hull City
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)
Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli)*
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Toby Sibbick (AFC Wimbledon)
Jake Livermore (Hull City) – joined West Brom
Marco Sportiello (Atalanta) – joined Fiorentina on loan
Morgan Sanson (Montpellier) – joined Marseille
Mauro Zárate (Fiorentina)
Max Gradel (Bournemouth)
Odion Ighalo (Napoli, Shanghai Shenhua, West Brom)
Jerome Sinclair (Brentford, Reading, Norwich*,Cardiff, Sheff Wed, Ipswich, Derby)
Juan-Carlos Paredes (Tigres, Rangers, Trabzonspor)
Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, Malaga) – joined Malaga on loan
Troy Deeney (West Ham United, Hebei Chinese Fortune)
Christian Kabasele (Anderlecht)
Étienne Capoue (Everton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Nantes)
Costel Pantilimon (Derby County)
Isaac Success (Bursaspor, Beijing Guoan)
Adlène Guedioura (Aston Villa)
Obbi Oularé (Den Haag, Sint Truidense)
Watford 3 Everton 2 (10/12/2016) 11/12/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I had a friend once. I still have friends, in fact, but this particular friend isn’t a friend any more, not because we fell out or anything but because we drifted in different directions. She doesn’t seem to indulge in Social Media to permit the illusion of an ongoing relationship that is actually no more than an echo.
Anyway, she came to a few Watford games. She was at Wrexham away midweek in December 1997, so she can’t be faulted for not giving football a go but she absolutely never got it. Whilst others come along and participate, however temporarily, chanting and singing and being submerged, she just watched on nonplussed. She even went as far as deriding the very notion that football was something that could be “discussed”, when I claimed to have spent an evening with friends doing just that. Discussing football was as inconceivable as discussing a colour, a piece of paper, a stretch of tarmac. It had no nuance, it just was.
She was wrong, of course. Plenty of us spend an awful lot of time discussing football, in mind-numbing detail. The only thing that’s remarkable about this to my mind is how it continues despite how inconsequential such discussion is. Our evaluations don’t change, cannot affect reality… none of our opinions, however well formulated, influence a manager’s decisions or a game’s outcome. Where a crowd influences a game it’s a product of a groundswell of opinion, not a conversation.
There’s a point to this thread. It’s to do with the popular grumble about the distance of any youth products from our first team but I’ve spent a lot of your time not talking about the game so I’ll come back to this later…
2- It was pissing it down with rain. Rob McKenna would be able to offer a more colourful description that captured its dreary, mild, inconsequential boredom but suffice to say that it kinda suited the anxiety of the occasion, with this one against our most established bogey side potentially constituting the tipping point between an iffy run and a bit of a problem.
The game started in corresponding fashion. We had the opening chances but it was… anxious, tentative, half-hearted. As if we were waiting for an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves. It came… a looping ball dropped over our defence; Britos was asleep, Gomes came out and hesitated, Lukaku slipped the ball home and we looked forward to expanding our catalogue of ways not to beat Everton (current entries including spirited draw, low-key bore, aggravating travesty, miserable humdrum defeat, abject humiliation…).
3- So, back to that thing about youngsters. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Almost anyone. It feels wrong that we have no kids near the first team (injury crises excepted), that our closest thing to a first team youth product is on loan at Blackburn, that Sean Murray dwindled so sadly, that Michael Folivi, exciting as he may be, will be conscious that Bernard Mensah, Alex Jakubiak, Uche Ikpeazu were all in his place once.
Thing is, when the chips are down experience has its uses. This game was not so much in danger of drifting off into miserable soul-sapping defeat as halfway down the aisle with a bag of snacks checking its seat number. Everton were buoyed by their goal, and whilst Lukaku’s movement and ability to drop into space continued to be their only threat (and target) they were on top and in danger of dragging the game beneath the surface and suffocating it.
That’s where the experience comes in. The bullishness. Valon Behrami, chasing down dawdled balls as the visitors slowed the game down, setting an example. Sebastian Prödl, monstrous again, bullying Lukaku out of possession. Nordin Amrabat taking responsibility, committing people again and again. Stefano Okaka, a broad-shouldered thunderous force of nature. Troy… just, Troy. Crashing into a header to Okaka, Okaka releasing Amrabat and meeting his cross with a balletic flicked backheel and – here’s the extraordinary bit – at the near post. We have someone attacking the near post. Crazy.
4- Less crazy is the number of leaders we have in this side, in stark contrast to our visitors who looked utterly rudderless. Ashley Williams is Wales’ captain but the defence was fretful throughout; Gareth Barry has skippered his country but beyond his usual trick of more or less judging how hard and frequently he could put the boot in without attracting sanction his influence was limited. This is a side with better, more prominent youngsters than us – Barkley, Deulofeu, Lukaku, Funes Mori – and they weren’t able to hack it.
Meanwhile Prödl snarled into an immaculate challenge on Lukaku. Okaka flew in decisively on Coleman. There was only one direction this game was travelling. Perversely it was set pieces, so often our bugbear, that got us there… the comically bad-tempered Holebas swinging in a corner for Prödl to thunder home and another for Okaka to flick in with Troy there to confirm. In and around that Prödl got underneath another, Britos ghosted in to a deep cross to force an impossible save from Stekelenburg. We could have been further ahead.
5- It doesn’t pay to get carried away. This was a mighty win that spoke volumes for our character and the options in our squad but it was thrilling rather than high quality… the defence was get-attable throughout, Lukaku pulling one back having been afforded an exclusion zone in the penalty area as Koeman’s changes afforded the visitos some options.
But thrilling and seventh in the table will do, for now. As above, this was a pivotal game, defeat would have been four in five with Man City on Wednesday. Now, having come from a goal down, that’s a free punch. And we do pack a punch.
But don’t discuss it with anyone will you?
This is likely to be the last BHappy report before Christmas, so have a good one…
1- So this time we start with the “taken as read” thunk. The Jamie Hand Booking, the Lucky Chocolate. First… West Brom are great. A proper football club. Second, the Fanzone at the Hawthorns is tremendous… food and drink, a big screen showing the lunchtime game as Sergio Agüero wrote himself out of our game there next week; the generous atmosphere rendered the UB40 cover artist crooning over a microphone something of an irrelevance.
Thirdly it’s bloody cold. Seriously, why? Always? Yes, yes, the Hawthorns is the highest altitude ground in the country and so forth but… it’s next to the M5, not in the middle of the mountains, not some icy tundra. You wouldn’t know it. Jesus. Five layers. Not enough. Not nearly enough. We hide in the Fanzone’s Greggs and try to blend in with the sausage rolls, figuring – accurately as it turned out – that the staff were too busy to police the warmth of their shelter and that much of the populace of the fanzone had more scruples and/or more layers than us.
2- Once in the ground the first question was how we’d line up in the wake of myriad suspensions and injuries. A measure of quite how dramatic our absentee list is came when the news of Janmaat and Mariappa wiping each other out with a head collision in training was met with a shrug. We were already up against it, what did two more matter? Indeed, given that we’ve got a bizarre coincidence of absentees already perhaps it’s better to get all our misfortune out of the way in one go.
In any case, the absentees were largely defensive – four centre-backs, a right (wing) back, the holding midfielder with his deputy presumably half fit on the bench. Little surprise then that we saw the resumption of our hurricane start to the game, get the ball up the end of the pitch where we’re at full(er) strength; Nordin Amrabat cracked a shot that Foster tipped over within the first minute, Capoue and Deeney both had chances and the home side barely got out of their half in the first fifteen minutes.
Thing is, you need to score in such situations. Especially away from home, especially when you’re protecting a botched together defence. Especially against a team that are decent from set pieces…
3- No small frustration greeted the first Albion goal, then. The home side forced a corner, Evans crashed in to score. Gomes should have done better, we had a lot of people standing around watching and taking up space and nobody attacking the ball as aggressively as Evans (or at all, in fact). On another day Evans might have been pulled up for climbing, but if we’d defended attentively that wouldn’t have been an issue.
Of all the patchwork repairs to our side, the enforced employment of Guedioura in a central midfield role felt the most vulnerable; alongside a dependable ratter like Behrami or patroller like Watson he’d have been OK, maybe, but less so with Capoue. The Algerian has many attributes – enthusiasm, positivity, creativity – but footballing discipline is not one of them. Fifteen minutes after Albion had gone ahead he crashed into an untidy challenge giving a free kick away within shooting distance. As the set piece was teed up the Watford wall collapsed on itself, Zuñiga turned side-on to the shot. It still required luck on Albion’s part for the deflection to spin off the Colombian and into the corner, but we shouldn’t have afforded ill fortune that window.
So Albion were two up despite us having much of the play. We might have been called unlucky, but that would do a disservice to the way the hosts play. Their modus operandi doesn’t rely on having the ball very much. Indeed, the set-up is much like that of Sean Dyche’s Watford side but executed with better and much more experienced players… a rock-solid defence, an experienced and disciplined midfield and enough up front to steal breakaway chances and set pieces. They don’t need to have the ball very much. They don’t actually want to have the ball very much.
4- The second half settled into just such a pattern… Watford with the possession and territorial advantage, Albion rattling off threateningly on the break. We were facing an uphill battle, facing the constant risk that the scoreline might head off at some point in the direction of the Bob Taylor or Lee Hughes-inspired results we’ve suffered here in the past.
Nonetheless we kept at it. Nordin Amrabat was back on the front foot after his frustrated outing against Stoke and screamed down the right flank, pulling a cross impossibly back from touch for Deeney to connect with – only a stunning block prevented us from reducing the deficit. Stefano Okaka had spent much of the first half complaining about Albion’s physicality – disappointing really, that the guy who’d presumably been brought in due to his ability to deal with such attention seemed so dismayed and surprised by it. His impact overall was underwhelming, though he too kept going and got better after the break, constantly engaging Albion’s defenders if to limited effect – he bundled goalwards with Deeney and took a half-chance that his captain might have done better with.
Another teasing ball from Amrabat tempted an Albion head to intervene ahead of Deeney; the ball was dropping over Foster who was forced to tip over, a fine stop. From the corner Troy stabbed a loose ball across the face of goal for Kabasele to touch in – game on. Pereyra slalomed through but a combination of Foster’s speed and dexterity and his own tentativeness saw the chance go begging amidst optimistic calls for a penalty from the away end. More defensible appeals minutes later when Okaka was upended as we unsettled Albion’s defence again. Gripping, nailbiting stuff, and for once a pitch-level view added to the drama being performed in front of us.
5- Had the game finished here, and much as nobody likes losing, we’d probably not have been too unhappy. If there’s a way to lose this is it… narrowly, competitively in the face of a patchwork side and a confident opponent away from home. What followed was disappointing then, although it’s difficult to be too harsh on Pereyra. I had no view whatsoever of what had happened from our distance and position (although the guy over my left shoulder seemed to be able to employ the extra six inches or so of elevation to provide an accurate running commentary)… based on TV replays only you’d have to say that McClean went in aggressively and recklessly and whilst Pereyra shouldn’t have raised his hands it’s easy to sympathise. Easy to sympathise too with the view expressed by Mazzarri that McClean can think himself very fortunate to escape with a yellow, so too the likes of Rondon who piled in to no censure whilst Watford’s captain was booked for dissent. Less easy to sympathise with the manager actually articulating this opinion, albeit in the emotional window post the final whistle. I used to think that Jose Mourinho did this on purpose – blow up a smokescreen by drawing attention to his own utterings and shielding his team; now I rather fancy he’s just a bad loser. Mazzarri, certainly, had little to shield his team from after a stout performance that wasn’t quite enough, but plenty to lose by fostering a victim “everything’s against us” mentality. We don’t need that.
Matt Phillips put a full stop on the afternoon’s proceedings with a fine slaloming shot and goal; you’d perhaps have preferred the otherwise reassuringly stout Kabasele to have gotten a bit closer to him but that’s a bit churlish, a splendid goal. Allan Nyom, meanwhile, had put in a performance that was a bit like a highlights video of his Watford spell… careering boldly into attacking positions (and displaying more reliable delivery with his weaker left foot than we ever saw with his right), occasionally slicing the ball out of play and looking eminently get-attable when defending. All that was missing was a reckless booting of Amrabat or Pereyra into the stand. There were a few more catcalls from the away end than his so-so-but-no-worse Watford spell really merited, which had escalated into a relatively witty exchange with the adjacent Baggies (“He left cos you’re Sh*t” / “He left cos HE’S sh*t” / “He’s still beating you” / “He’s still f***ing sh*t”). Any sympathy for the Cameroonian rapidly evaporated as he opted to celebrate the winner in front of the away end. We had some morons in our end, as ever. It appears footballers aren’t above stupidity either.
6- If I’ve sounded critical of our performance then I’ve been unfair. This was vastly better than last week’s sloppy showing against Stoke; Prödl was monstrous again, Kabasele as above did fine alongside him. Deeney was more aggressive and mobile than of late, Amrabat sizzled up either flank, Sinclair had an encouraging cameo. We were bright and positive and if we weren’t tight enough at the back or stiff enough in midfield then we didn’t get the breaks either.
We’re a good side, and those panicking that Sunderland have started winning are being hysterical. Survival remains the primary objective but we weren’t a million miles away from grabbing a point from two-down despite a glut of missing players. We need to keep our cool and our focus. But we’re doing OK.
Watford 0 Stoke City 1 (27/11/2016) 28/11/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- If decent mid-tableness is what we aspire to for the moment, then a degree of balance is to be expected. By balance I mean… games when things go against you as well as those when they go for you, and that means losing games to fair-to-middling clubs as well as to the top sides. Sometimes. It’s no fun, but it’s going to happen. In this division, fair-to-middling sides are all capable of giving you a slap in the face.
But the degree of contrast between this weekend and last was stark. For one thing, Daughter 2 forgot her lucky teddy. For another, rather than flying into our regular car park we mistimed that one and ended up in the backup, stuck behind a minibus of lairy Stokies as it was directed around a corner that was never going to accommodate it. As an added bonus said Stokies had already stepped out of their minibus and were loafing around guffawing at their driver as those of us queued up behind it tried to find corners to reverse into. The voices were bellowing “this is going badly already”, and were difficult to ignore.
2- Things didn’t get any better once the game started. Last week we blew Leicester away and capitalised on the position that put us in; this one wasn’t quite the same. The visitors were on top from the off… big, physical, pressing us high up the pitch they knocked us out of our stride and we never regained anything halfway resembling the initiative. Initially there was some defiance… bodies on the line, Gomes scrambling to a fine save, ranks being cleared and Janmaat thundering down the middle on the break like a boulder careering downhill, bouncing off trees before smacking a shot too close to Grant. This seemed to crumble with Kaboul’s withdrawal after 15 minutes or so… the big centre-back had been doubtful, supposedly; he hadn’t been desperately significant, replacement Kabasele played no worse than anyone else (although he spent an inordinate preparation for his entrance that even Daughter 1 would baulk at) but the incident seemed to mark the end of our resistance. From there the Potters bossed it, bullying us much as Burnley had done and chasing down our possession high up the pitch. We didn’t tend to retain that possession for very long. On the half hour Charlie Adam met a set piece unmarked; Gomes blocked, the ball hit the post, then the keeper, then apologetically rolled inside the side netting. I’ve not seen it again – it transpires that Adam fouled Behrami en route but whatever. Stoke were worth the lead.
3- By this point another subplot was developing. Prödl rose to a header near the touch line, Arnautovic shoved him in the back. Nothing. Amrabat shielded the ball from his marker further up the same touchline and was pulled up. As frustration with the way the game was going grew, referee Madley channelled the anger in one direction.
Social media has changed the world. It could be argued – and has been – that twitter, which amplifies extreme opinions at the expense of moderation making it easy to filter the views that you hear to re-enforce your own has radically altered the world that we’re exposed to and affected the outcomes of recent elections. Social media’s immediacy also makes it very easy for idiots to fall victim to trigger-finger responses borne of red mist. I am one such idiot, and have had a shitty week as a result of failure to count to ten. This failure to count to ten manifests itself at games on occasion, with a tendency to let rip in a fashion that might be considered yellow-tinted.
Thing is, I’m in the stands and whilst I’d prefer to retain a degree of class (ha) and perspective this release from needing to be rational and reasoned is part of the reason I’m there. The same luxury can’t be afforded to the players on the pitch, and if our number of bookings for dissent were a cause for concern before the game this concern was exacerbated and inflated by the complete lack of discipline that characterised yellows for mouthing off, kicking the ball away… yes, some of the decisions prompting a response were cretinous, no Stoke weren’t being penalised for the same things but grow a brain. A referee having a bad day isn’t going to be reacting with moderation to stuff like that. Amrabat, for instance, was visibly cowed by his yellow for mouthing off about the free kick mentioned above and the tenacity that’s characterised his best performances disappeared as a consequence. This needs sorting.
4- If there’s a positive to be drawn it’s that we didn’t collapse. Despite being clearly second best we were still in the game throughout in the sense that a single goal would have nicked us something. There was a moderate degree of fist-waving as we rallied in the last quarter of the game but despite another encouraging cameo from the bullish Stefano Okaka and despite City visibly tiring and stepping back a bit it was never terribly likely. Nonetheless, we’d clung on sufficiently to render that a possibility.
The question the afternoon presents really is whether the tactical flexibility demonstrated by our ability – and the coach’s willingness – to switch shapes and positions and formations costs us in terms of not having enough in the way of stock moves. Things That We Can Rely On When Things Aren’t Working. Ardley to Helguson. Boom. A cost, perhaps, of that flexibility is that there’s not enough familiarity. It’s all rather hard work when we meet resistance. There’s no reliable crutch to lean on.
5- West Brom, then. Could, perhaps, be ugly. We’ve struggled against teams that have tried to strong-arm us despite Troy, Prödl, Behrami, Kaboul. Now we face them with only three – one assumes – available centre-backs, two of whom have ?one? start between them this season. And no Behrami, also suspended due to one of those witless yellow cards after he’d perhaps been one of the players to pull the performance up by its bootstraps in the second half. Over to you, Walter…
Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (19/11/2016) 20/11/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Football serves many purposes to its audience. Key amongst these is escapism, something to cling to, to hide in when your life is turning to crap. Developments elsewhere in the world since our defeat at Anfield, developments breathtakingly crass and depressing and terrifying, left a lot of us needing precisely this. Seriously, this on top of Brexit? The world’s gone absolutely crazy…
So the return of football was necessary and we were bang up for it. We flew unhindered down the M1, swung round the ring road in record time. The pedestrian crossing switched to green as we approached; we crossed without breaking stride. This was finally going to be a good day. Today we were going to win. Only the fact that ig didn’t have a pen with him to lend to Daughter 2 for ticking the starting elevens off in her programme betrayed that something in the world had changed.
2- There had been a few questions festering over the latest interminable international break. Would any of the walking wounded be available… Gomes, Prödl, Okaka, Success, Cathcart… would Iggy keep his pace, would Watson get a start? Most of all, how would the team respond to the dicking on Merseyside? The answers to most of these questions came with the now ceremonial checking of Twitter feeds over a two minute period either side of two o’clock; the answer to the final question came an hour later. We flew at Leicester from the kick-off in what’s becoming a trademark explosive start… Hull City had withstood similar a fortnight ago but City, crucially, couldn’t and didn’t. Roberto Pereyra’s performance was immediately the sort of thing we’d hoped and dreamed of; he picked up a loose pass, swivelled down the left and stole enough space to sling in a cross. Troy Deeney’s header was no less fine a thing… no vague flick-on this, cushioned into the path of Capoue who did his attacking-the-box thing and flung a bouncing volley past Zieler. There was time for a more eye-catching trick from Pereyra, receiving a pass on the left flank with his back to his marker he backheeled a nutmeg with a single touch and left him standing (Daughter 2 was to describe this to her bemused mother in some detail later in the day). Shortly afterwards he again picked up the ball on the left, seemed to make himself space to shoot by swaying in a threateningly deceptive manner, and curled a shot across Zieler’s grasp and in. Magnificent throughout, for the first quarter hour Pereyra was at a level that almost seemed unfair on the visitors, a quite unreasonable and uncontainable advantage.
3- Quite how the game would have panned out but for the penalty we’ll never know. One possibility of course is that we’d have capitalised further on this extraordinary start, or that Leicester would have come back at us and, on failing to break through, overcommitted leaving us holes to exploit. Another sufficiently plausible maybe is that at 2-0 up our concentration wouldn’t have been quite as sharp as it needed to be later in the game and as such, the goal coming when it did didn’t give us time to relax or get complacent – later on, a goal borne of pressure rather than a silly and unnecessary foul so quickly might have yielded another.
As it was, Mahrez struck the spot kick down the centre and seized the baton from Pereyra, if only briefly… the visitors had a period of good possession and pressure, but not possession and pressure that resulted in a shot on target for the rest of the half. Instead it was the Hornets who can claim to have come closest, Kaboul thumping a header narrowly wide and Deeney playing a ball across to Amrabat that he should have taken with his left but seemed to stab at with his right. The Moroccan continued to make mischief on the flank, however, and twice drew fouls that demanded further sanction but received none, the referee struggling with what was an increasingly feisty encounter towards the end of the half.
4- City had started with what Leicester Paul described as their “Champions League week” team, a “slight groin injury” to Slimani the most significant absentee both in terms of our now fabled vulnerability from crosses and also the way the game played out; City could have used a target man when their preferred counter-attacking approach quickly became a non-starter. For all that, there were only two changes to the starting eleven that we faced here in March – Zieler for Schmeichel, Amartey for Kanté – and whilst those changes made our visitors weaker there’s no doubt that we’ve progressed even over that narrow window. Deprived of any space to attack, City not unreasonably decided that their best chance of a result would come from committing people – running at them and drawing challenges, winning free kicks. Given the pace and quick feet of Vardy, Musa, Gray and the industry of Okazaki that seemed quite sensible but our defending was heroic, particularly in the final quarter of the game.
We know from experience how context affects your interpretation. We’ve just been stuffed 6-1 at Anfield; unpleasant as that was, we know that we’re in a strong position and therefore the odd embarrassment can be taken on the chin. It would have been harder to mentally recover from had we been in the bottom three. Similarly, Leicester’s almighty achievement last season was borne in part of a bloody-minded belief in what they were doing. They didn’t do much different in this one… but their play was tentative, deliberate. For all Vardy’s spinning and twisting City only achieved one shot on target from open play; Kaboul, Prödl and Britos threw themselves in front of things, snuffed out space and suffocated the waves of attacks of increasing intensity. That flying blocks yielded a couple of ball-to-hand (or elbow) close-contact penalty appeals that were noisily, desperately, hopelessly optimistic spoke volumes. Instead it was Nordin Amrabat’s relish in committing Fuchs – on a yellow and a last warning, as so many of Nordin’s markers seem to end up – that made the best chance of the half. Burrowing past the Austrian on the right flank Amrabat laid back for Janmaat to drop a cross on Pereyra’s head. Face with the choice of directing a header to his marker’s left and inside the post or to the bigger target back across goal he chose the latter, making Zieler’s acrobatic save a possibility.
5- This one was significant for a number of reasons. Our first league victory over reigning champions since John Barnes’ ludicrous goal – from the same wing to the same corner as Pereyra’s – against Liverpool 30 years ago. A tactical triumph for Mazzarri, whose early salvo and formation change that saw us play 5-4-1 when defending but had Amrabat and Pereyra supporting the tremendous Deeney – whose ongoing battle with Morgan was an entertaining sideshow – when in possession gave City nowhere to go. Most of all for the cast iron balls of the whole team, particularly the back three, in withstanding the late pressure and in dismissing that Anfield game from concern. We still have Success, Cathcart, Holebas to return for goodness’ sake, not to mention a fit-again Okaka who seems perfectly equipped to play the “pain in the arse sub off the bench” role when protecting a lead such as this.
It occurred to me this week that a marker of how far we’ve come is that we knocked Newcastle, Leeds and Forest out of the cup last season but only the Arsenal game rendered the run remarkable. Ten or fifteen years ago that would have been unthinkable. Now we sit in eighth, behind only seven sides whose resources, successes and infrastructure dwarf our own. And it doesn’t feel like a false position.