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Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (01/12/2021) 02/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Evening kick-offs are brilliant.

If there’s one thing that’s indisputably worse about being in the Premier League, divorced from how the team happens to be performing, it’s the lack of midweek fixtures.  Not an issue for the elite, who will see European action but for the rest of us midweek is a largely barren landscape from the point at which we stumble out of the League Cup.

At the weekend, walking down Vicarage Road is all about build-up, anticipation.  Midweek the dark envelopes everything, I’m in the long but, as those in the know are aware, high speed queue at Fry Days at ten to seven and I’m already in the zone.  There are people and noise and it’s febrile…. the lockdowns aren’t so far away that this doesn’t feel special.  The geezer in the middle of Vicarage Road by the junction, “I’ll buy or sell tickets”.  The symbolic stumble down Occupation Road, submerging yourself into the evening as you descend.  The chaotic queues at the turnstiles, all the entreaties to turn up early for matchday forgotten in the disrupted routine of a midweek game and an unbalancing 7:30 kick off for TV.  Even the cathartic grumbling that Simon and I indulge in in reflecting on the lack of f***ing coffee in the Rookery has pleasure to be drawn from it (although it’ll lose its veneer of charm pretty sharpish as the winter continues, you suspect).

Not unreasonably there’s a sense of trepidation about this week’s games.  Trepidation, or acceptance, or hoping that it’s not too brutal in the face of two teams so clearly superior to the masses and our newly miserable injury list just as things were maybe coming together.  Against all odds however this will be an evening to be proud of the club, the team included, and for the club to be proud of itself.

This starts before kick off with a rainbow display in support of diversity and deliberately square on to the main TV gantry and in full view of the world.  Well played.  A statement that by it’s very nature gives a positive sentiment the louder voice is always going to be a fine thing.

rainbow

Twelve minutes into the game with Adam Masina prone on the pitch and ultimately on his way to joining that injury list, attention was drawn to some urgent developments in the Graham Taylor upper tier adjacent to the Rookery.  In those circumstances, in that situation you’d have to be one sorry bastard not to do everything you could…  to provide medical support if you were able to do so, to simply get out of the way otherwise, to wait patiently, anxiously, with solidarity as care was applied, to leave the pitch and await developments if that’s where you were.  Nonetheless, everyone did it and it’s no less deserving of fulsome praise for the instinctive nature of the reaction.  Supporters in the immediate vicinity (by all accounts), stewards and staff, medical crews from both camps, supporters in all stands, players on both sides all did their bit.  Fair play.  Trite to say that the stabilisation of the individual’s condition is the most important detail of the evening.  Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  A chant of “yoooorns”, echoing like a prayer, rose from the bowels of the stadium as he was moved out of the stand to the mercifully adjacent hospital.

2- On the pitch we didn’t do too badly either.

Chelsea, too, were without some star turns through injury but as their devastating looking bench revealed they were much better equipped to accommodate such hardships than we were.  Prior to kick-off, as against United, we were switched round to head into the Rookery.  Some dispute in the wake of the United win as to whether the visitors’ kick-off necessarily implies that the switch was our decision, to ignite the Rookery.  I choose to believe it.

For twelve minutes until the interruption, we blew the European Champions away.  Adrenaline fuelled, hyper-aggressive, this was a high press and then some.  Every suggestion of composed Chelsea position was stamped on with glee and to joyous, noisy enthusiasm from the stands.  Tom Cleverley, who was to calm down later on, was absolutely in his element… somehow the first man into every challenge all over the pitch.  His bullishness on the right flank saw him able to pull back from the touchline for João Pedro to slip a shot at Mendy, who was going to have a busy evening.  Quite where the young Brazilian ends up is still up for debate, but in his more withdrawn role we’ve lost his poachers instincts.  Minutes later Kiko swung a cross in from deeper on the right and again João Pedro’s there, forcing Azpilicueta, who like Alonso on the opposite side was also going to be a busy boy, to deflect towards his own goal where Mendy was alert to push the ball wide.

Underpinning all of this was a tacit recognition that if our patched up back line was our weakness, the solution was not to let Chelsea anywhere near it.  For twelve minutes we didn’t, and once the ultimately positive outcome in the Upper GT was confirmed to cheers and attention slowly returned to the pitch, consensus was that the interruption rather suited the visitors, to whom our approach should surely have been no surprise but who had now had a hiatus to address it, and for the wind to be taken out of our sails.

3- So it was extremely reassuring to see the incomparable Moussa Sissoko bite into a tackle and Emmanuel Dennis to bully his way up the right flank on the resumption. If the crowd seemed to lose its early fury after the restart, on the pitch, we didn’t skip a beat to the team and the head coach’s huge credit.

If there’s an area of the pitch that showcases Claudio’s influence it’s the midfield.  The most unbalanced, clumsy department of the team earlier in the season now looks ferociously effective.  Partly this reflects the blossoming of Imrân Louza, for whom the slightly delicate early season outings are a distant memory.  He was tremendous here, the missing link setting the tone from the back of the midfield and snapping rudely into tackles.  Partly this reflects an approach that suits Tom Cleverley down to the ground.  Focused, disciplined, pain-in-the-arseness is his forte.  And partly it reflects Moussa Sissoko who grows three inches with every game and owns the midfield here, lesser mortals bouncing off him or falling at the feet of a well-judged change in direction.  He’s magnificent, and every inch a captain.

But Chelsea have got themselves going, a little bit, and if we’re still asking questions they’re no longer on the ropes.  Mason Mount sounds a warning by firing against the post, it’s the visitors first attack of any note.  Shortly afterwards Chelsea show their quality with a precise, brutally calm move that start on their left and ends with Mount placing a ball past Bachmann.  It’s cruel and undeserved and at the same time it isn’t.  That’s what composed finishing gets you.

Briefly we look a little ragged, balls are going astray.  Havertz has the ball in the net again before being called back by one of those withheld offside flags to general relief.  The evening maybe goes a different way if the visitors are to enjoy a cushion.

4- But that never happens.  Firstly because we retain our focus and a level of conviction that has been erected surprisingly quickly, like a housing estate that suddenly springs from nowhere.  Before long Danny Rose is free on the left of the box after Chelsea have once again looked vulnerable down the flanks.  Too often our crosses have been drawn to the forehead of Antonio Rüdiger but here Rose fashions a shooting opportunity and if, uncharacteristically, there’s not quite enough violence about the effort to trouble Mendy it’s a statement of defiance, of not-rolling-overness.

And if there’s an area of the pitch that showcases Claudio’s influence it’s the attack.  In countless other universes our array of twinkly fun-looking weapons remain just that.  Unfulfilled promises, a shapeless lottery of lets-try-thisses with, invariably, all eyes turning to a beleaguered Ismaïla Sarr if things start to go wrong.

So how great is it, given the enforced absence of Ismaïla, to look back on a game against the European Champions and have cause to consider whether he’d come straight back into the side if a miracle recovery were announced before Saturday.  João Pedro is magnificent and liberated in an attacking role, smooth as silk and tough as old boots, he has the Marlon King thing of being able to control a ball be it fired at him out of a cannon or floated seemingly two feet out of his reach.  Joshua King is less prominent but works like a dog, chasing down everything, occupying everybody, once again the glue that holds it all together.

And Dennis.  Wow.  This is another special performance, first in it’s discipline on the right flank where he’s as busy keeping Alonso honest as he is in his attacking duties.  Second it’s in those attacking duties.  Positive.  Aggressive.  Quick.  Relentless.  Third it’s in the arrogance to not give two f***s who we’re playing or what the score is or how many defenders are lined up in front of him.  As Moussa surges, Vieira-like from the midfield once again and releases Dennis he’s up against three defenders who are wise enough to already be tentative.  He gets into the area, finds the angle and earns every bit of the support of a slight deflection that helps carry it way, way beyond the reach of Edouard Mendy.

The ground explodes, and we’re very nearly in the lead at the break as some dizzying interchanges down the right (this is against the European Champions, mind) sees Dennis tee up an on the charge Moussa but the ball is slightly under his feet and the shot is tame.  More evidence of our growth is how quickly our inability to recover from going behind has been blown out of the water.

5- With a collision of heads between Ruben Loftus-Cheek and William Troost-Ekong extending the half by another six minutes we reach half time several years after the game kicked off.  In the stands society has broken down;  there’s an enclave in the Sir Elton John Stand that have begun worshipping an effigy of Barry Ashby, the Vicarage Road end has its own national dress and in the Rookery there’s still no f***ing coffee.

Almost fittingly Troy makes a welcome appearance with a relaxed, slightly rambling but lovable and self-effacing twenty minutes or so on the mike punctuated by swear-words, apologies, thanks, and a recognition that perhaps he’s old and a fat b***ard these days.  Not a dry eye in the house when he confirms that Birmingham’s “not bad, but this is home”, before trotting off to join a kick-about with the subs as if he can’t help himself.  Watford’s number nine.

When the second half begins it’s in the tacit knowledge that this is going to be hard to sustain.  Chelsea have already cut through us once and we’re going to tire, of course we’re going to tire.

But if there’s an area of the pitch that showcases Claudio’s influence it’s the defence. We have no right to stand up to Chelsea in this way, for all that the whole team takes credit.  We are missing the imperious Nkoulou, we’re missing the personality, the agility, and the counterattacking springboard of Ben Foster.  The fearless booterer that is the Francisco Sierralta of last season has been absent for all of this, Danny Rose is forced into the fray to spin a wheel on his variable performances and, let’s be honest, this isn’t an area of the team that we’re convinced by at the best of times.

And yet here we are.  For all that the spotlight is on Daniel Bachmann and William Troost-Ekong in particular after Sunday’s, erm, excitement this is a defiant performance.  Troost has a couple of moments, but is man enough to stand up in the face of them, to overcome the inherent challenge of a harsh-looking first half booking.  He’s the man that bullies Havertz away from the ball on the goalline, dumping his own goalkeeper on his arse in the process but emerging with the ball at his feet and parity intact.  He’s the one imposing himself on Chelsea’s forwards, getting his head to things he has no right to and he’s the one who takes on the challenge of the admittedly sluggish but still intimidating Romelu Lukaku late on.  Fair play.

Meanwhile Cathcart is less conspicuously effective.  Right place, right time.  Yawn.  Danny Rose is pugnacious and persistent, Kiko shuttles up and down the right flank and Daniel Bachmann is composed and authoritative, not at fault either for Mount’s opener or the winner which Ziyech thumps through after another sharp move down the left but denying the same player the lustre of a second shortly afterwards.

So when Jeremy Ngakia is brought on in midfield in place of the spent Cleverley your first thought is “what the hell” and your second, immediately thereafter, “Claudio knows what he’s doing, doesn’t he?”.  With Jeremy it was the how rather than the what, the ability to do the chasing, harrying, pain-in-the-arse thing more effectively than Ozan Tufan and perhaps even Dan Gosling.

We push back.  Juraj Kucka belts a free kick straight through the wall but straight at Mendy; the keeper’s parry is still far from routine, but he keeps it out.  We end the game with Daniel Bachmann in the Chelsea penalty area, but the sands run out.

6- Brownie points aren’t going to keep us up.  But much as we need actual points sooner rather than later there’s so much to be inspired by here.  The last four games have yielded “only” three points, but each has been glorious in its own way.  Today we had Chelsea’s celebrated head coach conceding that his side was “lucky”, forced to end Thiago Silva’s rest-day at half time, and Chelsea’s support concerned enough to hang onto the ball in the dying minutes.  No actual points, sure.  But suddenly I’m looking forward to every game.

Starting with Saturday.  There’s a monkey on our back, it’s been there too long and it needs a kick up the arse.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Masina NA, Troost-Ekong 4, Cathcart 4, Louza 5, *Sissoko 5*, Cleverley 4, Dennis 5, King 4, João Pedro 5
Subs: Rose (for Masina, 12) 4, Kucka (for Louza, 74) 4, Ngakia (for Cleverley, 85) NA, Kabasele, Gosling, Tufan, Fletcher, Hernández, Elliot

Leicester City 4 Watford 2 (28/11/2021) 29/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “I can’t feel my feet!”

Daughter 2 is a stalwart.  She’s yet to miss an away trip this season and hasn’t been put off by the snap in the weather.  Long before half time however, and despite a fortifying balti pie and cup of hot chocolate from one of the many well staffed windows that make such a difference and reliably render Leicester an enjoyable trip, she’s acknowledging that we’ve miscalled this one.

Getting on for two years since we were in the position of needing to think about such things we’ve lost our edge.  Lost the wisdom of experience that facilitates preparation for cold conditions (whether this includes a blizzard or otherwise).  “There’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s only the wrong clothes“… and today we’ve recklessly left our woolly hats in the car (Daughter 2 doubles down by rejecting her scarf also) let alone adopting such precautions as extra layers.  

And if this much isn’t already obvious, it’s f***ing freezing.  Amateurs the pair of us.  Schoolboy/girl errors all over the place.  At least Daughter 2 has the excuse of, you know, being a schoolgirl but to her credit remains suitably sheepish and relatively stoic throughout.

2- Which is a Good Thing, because despite (and to an extent because of) the weather and the various calamities that will influence the outcome of proceedings on the pitch to our detriment this is tremendous afternoon’s entertainment, a wonderfully stupid game of football.  Pre-match note sharing reaches the consensus that all of our trips here in the Premier League have been the same…  relatively routine, unremarkable wins for the home side in which Jamie Vardy scores a penalty and probably does something kind of annoying.  To all intents and purposes the same game five times.  Not this one.  Hell no.

Despite the inevitability of the focus of the fallout of last weekend’s result being on United’s travails rather than our own performance, I think we all sought reassurance that there was more to that win than just the visitors’ incompetence.  We got that in spades despite the outcome.   Any team will miss Sarr, out today with the knee injury sustained last weekend, but Cucho deputised well…  a different sort of threat, but still a threat.  And the pressing was still there…  hassling, harrying, none of the soporific, bluntness that had characterised our less effective performances.  Until Leicester opened the scoring we were the better side, forcing the issue at Leicester’s end of the pitch with Moussa Sissoko, imperious again, aggressively supporting our frequent progress down the left.

Until Leicester scored.  With the loss of Foster on top of the anticipated loss of Nkoulou it always felt possible that we’d get undone defensively; opinions differ about the relative merits of the two goalkeepers, but two cornerstones of that defensive display against United being unavailable (and arguably, with Sierralta, our two best centre backs) felt precarious.  

So it proved.  We’d already had a warning as Masina allowed Ademola Lookman too much space down the right; he teed up Vardy who shot from a narrow angle, comfortable for Bachmann.  There was no legislating for the opener though.  A ball over the top should have been comfortable for Troost-Ekong; Maddison had darted in behind him and since the Nigerian clearly consciously decided to duck one assumes shithousery on the part of the Leicester midfielder.  We can hardly complain, we have a similar incident in our own back-catalogue (albeit a month before Emmanuel Dennis was born.  Sigh.).  The away end shared a collective “oh for f***’s sake” as Maddison spun the ball past the helpless Bachmann and the home stands woke up.

3- Fortunately the team on the pitch were more resilient.   Our response to this setback, and to the start of the second half, and the fact that we were still pushing at the end of the game are big positives.  If, from the point at which Maddison scored, it rarely felt that we were quite on the edge of turning Leicester over it was never quite out of reach either.  Compare and contrast with any number of our preceding defeats when a goal might not have arrived if offered infinite hours, a written invitation and an armed escort.

Adam Masina got onto the end of a Tom Cleverley free kick but headed wide.  That looked a bad miss, albeit from the far end of the pitch in circumstances which made picking out detail, or anything much at all, difficult as we’ll get to.  Meanwhile you can rely on Cucho for a few things…  boundless enthusiasm, iffy decision making, and the possibility of a scurrying run and a pearler into the top corner.  We got all three this afternoon, the latter remaining mere possibility as his shot took an impossibly long time to rebound off the woodwork.

But the equaliser came, and it came from the spot.  No great surprise that Emmanuel Dennis was involved, his sharp movement in the box fooling his compatriot Wilfred Ndidi who swiped his legs from under him.  Kasper Schmeichel was on Harry Maguire duty, slowing down the taking of the kick but Joshua King’s Bournemouth exposure has perhaps left him used to such shithousery.  We see you, Eddie.  The spot kick was firmly hit beyond the keeper’s dive.

4- Had we hung onto that for a bit perhaps things would have been different.  Certainly it always felt as if there was the possibility of joy as we attacked and building up a head of steam at 1-1 having come from behind would have been interesting.

Unfortunately we never got the opportunity, since our own defensive play offered the downright certainty of misery as Maddison and Vardy, given every encouragement, clicked into gear.  Four minutes beyond the penalty Maddison clipped a pass through and Vardy finished expertly beyond Bachmann’s completely unnecessary charge.  Masina got back to the line, but wasn’t able to keep it out.  Carnage.

Before half time it was three.  A left wing corner…  perhaps less to criticise here than it felt at the time, King wasn’t alert enough to Vardy’s movement but the routine still required a lot of the striker, his flicked header dropping in at the far post.  Bachmann helpless once again.  Nonetheless… the Austrian didn’t do a great deal to back up his reported upset at losing his place.  If only the second goal can be directly attributed to him we lose a lot from Foster not being there, from the authority of the more experienced voice to the accuracy of his throws that complement our zippy forward line so well.  One hopes that the reported groin injury won’t see him out long-term.

The Doughnut Chorus were unfortunately out in force with gleefully moronic songs about Jamie Vardy which were, less unreasonably, shoved back in our faces in response to developments.  The away end retreated en masse to such warmth as the concourse offered to ponder how we’d managed to ruin so much good stuff with so much bad stuff and end up two goals down at the break.  

5- Back outside the half-arsed snow had found its rhythm and was giving it some.  Everyone emerging from the bowels into the body of the stadium after the break would have had the same thought:  “this is going to get called off”.  That it wasn’t must have been a close call – for the third quarter of the game the far end of the pitch was a hypothetical concept and the location of the ball in particular complete guesswork for the most part.  The powdery texture of the stuff must have helped – at one point in the second half a leaf blower was used to clear the near touchline (all agreed that the senior groundsman had this privilege with his skivvies left to uncover the penalty area markings with brooms), whilst any ball along the deck or sliding tackle left a green track in its wake like a replay effect on FIFA, or whatever the kids are playing nowadays.

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The lunacy of the circumstances complemented our gung-ho approach to the second half;  apparently and not unreasonably reflecting that we weren’t very good at this defending lark anyway so screw it, we look off Imran Louza and Tom Cleverley in favour of Ozan Tufan and João Pedro leaving us playing a 4-3-3 that was all too happy to express itself as a 3-2-5 given half a chance.  The Brazilian in particular would come close to relighting the game’s fuse with a couple of firm low drives that weren’t quite accurate enough but not so’s you knew it until they’d decided.  As above, we were giving it a go until the final whisle.

By then we’d traded goals again, Ademola Lookman’s depressing finish after Harvey Barnes had pulled our flimsy defence out of shape once more a retort with the air of a perfunctory exchange of Christmas cards.  “To Watford.  Have a good one.  Leicester”.  Picture of stocking.

But this was preceded by more fun and games from Emmanuel Dennis.  We’ve oft reflected that if only we’d managed to get Sarr, Deeney and Deulofeu onto the pitch at the same time more often we wouldn’t have gone down at all;  Geri and Isma both presented a credible threat meaning that all but the most organised opponents (and sometimes them too) didn’t no which way to look when the three were in tandem.  Here, demonstrably, we have a credible threat of comparable value to occupy minds and attention on the flank across from Sarr.  His combination of aggression and arrogance got us back in the game here, however briefly, as he mugged Castagne and dinked the ball past Schmeichel.  In scoring he became only the sixth player to hit five goals and five assists in his first dozen Premier League games (thanks Dave).  Any early concerns regarding consistency would appear misplaced.  Of greater concern was his limping off to the injured list after failing to shake off a knock after a collision.  One wonders quite how credible a resistance we’re going to be able to put up in the two challenging games over the next week.

6- We emerged from the stadium to find Leicester heavily dumped on with snow, and for all that the blizzard had abated it took us rather long to return to our car than it had to make the opposite journey.

Nonetheless, a lot of fun this one.  Stupid weather, an often ridiculous game of football and despite our defending (and Claudio’s subsequent complaints about lack of aggression) a punchy, credible threat that means that we’ve still got plenty of reason to believe.  Being able to regard today as a missed opportunity is frustrating, but still represents progress.

Wrap up warm on Wednesday.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Femenía 3, Masina 2, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 2, Louza 3, Cleverley 3, Sissoko 4, Hernández 3, *Dennis 4*, King 4
Subs: João Pedro (for Cleverley, 45) 4, Tufan (for Louza, 45) 3, Fletcher (for Dennis, 72) 2, Rose, Ngakia, Kabasele, Gosling, Morris, Elliot

Watford 4 Manchester United 1 (20/11/2021) 21/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1-  This was all about United.

That’s what the world would have you believe.  The radio coverage, the TV, the reports. In fairness, if this had been anyone else outside the top six (whoever the top six are now) dicking United we’d have believed so too.  A cursory nod to Leeds or Burnley or whoever, and then settle back to enjoy United’s capitulation as the main course rather than merely a satisfying side-dish.  United are the story to the neutral.  They were that bad.  It was that funny.  Everyone else gets to share a little bit of that joy.

But they didn’t beat themselves.  They didn’t harangue themselves, close themselves down to within an inch of their lives, crash into tackles on themselves that meant that they were never allowed to settle.  They didn’t break on themselves with terrifying pace on both flanks, Luke Shaw wasn’t looking over his shoulder in fear of Jadon Sancho skimming away from him.  They did concede an inane penalty, but we didn’t need it.

Over the coming days the narrative is likely to be tweaked.  Right now it’s “wow, what a defeat for United, that’s Ole gone, surely?” (yes, it seems) with a bit of “but we must give all credit to Watford”.  This will become “yes, well Watford won but United collapsed basically and Watford are a bit streaky aren’t they?  They’ll probably lose again next week and sack their manager, arf arf”.

Opponents won’t be that complacent, perhaps, but their supporters might.  And here’s our opportunity.  It suits us to be a footnote, to be secondary, to be overlooked here.  If this was another flash in the pan, if the simplistic review were accurate then we have little to gain from the one-sided retelling but it wasn’t and it isn’t.  This was a turning point.  This was a mighty win without an asterisk. We looked like a thoroughly credible Premier League team.

We were bloody awesome.

2- The day hadn’t begun auspiciously.  We were at the ground by 1:30 due to circumstances and stuff.  The coaches (two of theirs because they’re important, one of ours) were late arriving, denying access to Occupation Road for fifteen minutes.  This was unfortunate in combination with ongoing entreaties for supporters to arrive early, a point made unhelpfully if not inaccurately to the stewards attempting to police the situation.  As an aside, the snarl-up on Hempstead Road that probably caused the coaches’ problems is an exceptional event but not so exceptional that it couldn’t happen again.  Disaster was narrowly averted as the last coach vacated Occupation Road, its rear swinging slowly towards packed onlookers with nowhere to escape to as stewards tried and failed to maintain order with the crowds being supplemented constantly by new arrivals ignorant of developments.  Only the ability of those in closest proximity to duck around the back of the coach as it turned left into Vicarage Road released the pressure like water rushing through a hole in a dam, giving people space to escape.  More careful preparation is needed there.

Inside the stadium, the realities of our new catering set-up dawned on me for the first time.  The new pies, it has been established, are a fine if pricey thing but the inability to buy a pie and coffee from the same queue is going to be a serious issue for the cold evening kick-off against Chelsea as December kicks in.  I returned grumpily to my seat, coffee-less and anticipating the sort of result that such irritations generally portend.  Manchester United were in a bad place, but they’re still Manchester United.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Circumstances meant that we had maybe more than a slugger’s chance, but we’re still underdogs.

This… not glumness, because being at football is always great, but maybe unease…  this unease was exacerbated by the end state of the twice-taken penalty after Bruno Fernandes had swiped a clearance carelessly up in the air and McTominay had clumsily felled Joshua King.  You don’t get to fail to convert a penalty once against United let alone twice and still expect it to be your day.  They were poor, poor penalties too and Isma’s longevity in this role has to be questioned.  The second had been necessitated after Kiko encroached before joyfully converting the rebound off the first, the inevitability of celebrations being terminated clear as soon as the exemplary Jonathan Moss put his finger to his ear.  As United cleared the rebound off the second we exhaled and waited for the sucker punch.

3- It never came.  You’ll know that of course.  In fact the tide of the afternoon was already turning, I just hadn’t noticed.  I wasn’t aware of this first detail until half time when Nigel pointed it out to me – he’d noticed, such is the wisdom that comes with age I guess.

As the sides switched ends following the coin toss there was a dissatisfied chuntering amongst the masses.  We kick away from the Rookery first half, everyone knows that.  In my head further evidence that this was going to be a bloody annoying afternoon.  But then… United kicked off.  Which means we had won the toss, and chosen the switch ourselves.

If Claudio Ranieri had wanted to attack the Rookery to get it in full voice early on and put pressure on the visitors it paid dividends.  Vicarage Road was as fevered and febrile as it has been all season, outstripping even the opening day.  This energy was fuelled by the sitting ducks lumbering around in suitably wishy-washy pale blue shirts in front of us who displayed no such energy or belief and by the ferocity in yellow and black.

The tone had been set during the exchanges that preceded both penalties, professionally and cynically extended to increase the pressure on the taker, perhaps successfully.  Harry Maguire’s card was marked at this early stage, Daughter 2 sniffily dismissing him as “entitled” at the half time break.  Beyond this there was a sluggishness of body, mind and will about United that screamed “we really are here to be got at lads, come and have a go”.

4- We came and had a go.   This was a performance to be celebrated throughout the side from back to front…  Will was later to reflect, with a beaming grin, that he was going to enjoy looking back at each individual’s afternoon in turn later in the evening.  No weak links, no caveats.  Claudio Ranieri talked about his “philosophy” post match.  Philosophy feels like the wrong word. too cerebral, too genteel.  To a man Watford were in-your-face aggressive, relentless, focused and arsey.  In terms of attitude this was the archetypal underdogs performance against a classic of the big-club-ripe-for-humiliation genre and the coincidence of the two was a beautiful thing.

And Emmanuel Dennis was at the head of it.  Of the new intake he is a frontrunner in the race to establish a cult following.  There’s nothing to dislike about a spiky striker who makes and scores goals, batters opponents and doesn’t stop running.  In this context, racking up bookings at a rate that Jose Holebas would have baulked at is tolerably lovable rather than irritating, ditto the cockiness to mock Harry Maguire in his later goal celebration as he notoriously had Cristiano Ronaldo when scoring for Club Brugge at the Bernabéu.  He was irrepressible, the most man-of-the-matchy of Watford’s many men of the match, the bold dart to the touchline to pull back for King to turn the ball home for the opener on 28 minutes only the first telling blow.  From behind the goal the shot took a torturous amount of time to roll in, but De Gea’s expression as he saw it go past him was more tortured still.

We’d already been softening United up.  Imran Louza’s corner had been allowed to bounce encouragingly around the box before King had shovelled it over the bar.  At 1-0 King met Adam Masina’s left wing cross unmarked but headed straight at De Gea.  King is clearly not a goal machine, he doesn’t have the ruthlessness or instincts to score 20+ goals in a season but there are echoes of Danny Graham here… a different sort of striker, but comparable in that when he’s not scoring he facilitates.  He makes everyone else better through holding the ball up, stringing everything together, pulling people around.

As for Sarr, his penalty taking was poor but our reaction – specifically his – to that little episode contrasted starkly with that of United.  Any side, let alone a top side, should have reacted to an opponent twice missing a penalty by going for us, by exploiting the voice whispering “that was our chance” somewhere in our collective subconscious.  There was precious little of that from the visitors… their attacks did showcase their ability, the cross that fed Rashford who forced an acrobatic stop from Foster was magnificent.  But it was an afterthought, a staccato moment in the first half.

Sarr meanwhile got his head quickly back in the game, perhaps helped by the fact that he was being carried along on the back of what was already a terrific team performance without having to provoke it himself.  This was crowned just before the break when Cleverley’s belligerence and Femenía’s persistence on the right found Sarr with the ball just inside the corner of the penalty area and a clear shot on goal, albeit from an angle.  He capitalised mercilessly, shooting with ferocity and precision across the face and into the inside side-netting.  Unsavable and the most important goal of the game, rescuing half time from the suspicion of a missed opportunity given our dominance.

5- The game lasted bloody hours.  Not just the second half as we protected a single goal lead, but the whole thing.  I was exhausted by half time, drained by the emotional demands of the spectacle that rolled across the pitch in front of us.

That the second half lasted even longer than the first reflects developments five minutes in.  Jadon Sancho almost certainly never envisaged a Vicarage Road debut quite like this during his days at the Harefield Academy but he was a threat in the second half and put in the ball that Ronaldo headed back across goal for half time sub and the other “everything that’s wrong with United” poster boy Donny van de Beek to bundle home.

Manchester United’s travelling support can be relied upon to make an absolute racket during all but the most trying of times.  Admittedly this probably constituted the most trying of times, but the reaction to this rapid start to the half was noisy and ominous.  We endured a very hairy ten minutes, Bruno Fernandes flinging a shot across the face of goal, Ronaldo waking up to threaten to undo us with rapid, brief bursts of brilliance.  He screamed onto a through ball and the Rookery held its collective breath but Ben Foster did what he needed to do, asked a question that Ronaldo wasn’t able to answer.  The shot was beaten over the bar by an outstretched arm.  There is a danger in taking Ben Foster for granted.

The defence held firm.  Nicolas Nkoulou is a significant figure here… as FTRE identified this week he’s far from the “best fifth choice centre back available on a free” extra body that we might have suspected. He’s a proper footballer and with his calm authority and ability to make things move as and when he wants them to it’s almost like having Yoda at centre back (Yes, thank you, proud of that. “A force for good” – A.Matthews).  Craig Cathcart continues to resume his career as Craig Cathcart alongside him, rather than the slightly nervous pastiche that he’s been while playing on the left of a pair and William Troost-Ekong enjoyed half an hour in place of Nkoulou whilst only once causing anyone to think “christ, Nkoulou’s not there is he?” and then fleetingly.  On the right Kiko was full Kiko, galloping joyfully up and down the flank, overlapping, giving an option, another one of those Men of the Match.  On the left Masina did more than fine;  the closest United came to retrieving the game was when Ronaldo flew through again and then responded expertly to Masina’s hand on his shoulder in the penalty area.  An offside flag saved us and Masina on that occasion;  later in the game the Moroccan evened the score making an absolute arse of United’s totem and leaving him on his backside.  No, I didn’t expect to be typing that either.  “Ole’s at the wheel” once again echoed sarcastically from the Rookery.

The clarion call for us to dig in and start fighting back came on the hour with the minute’s applause for the late Kev Norman that Ben Foster also had time to participate in.  I never knew Kev, but I’m glad that I support a club that doesn’t think it’s above marking the passing of one of its own in this way.  Fittingly, the applause broke into defiant chants before the end of the minute and propelled the crowd onto its feet again.  A minute later and Isma was floored on his way into the box by an increasingly sulky Harry Maguire, who was booked.

6- So.  The forwards are great.  This is not news, not really.  We’ve seen evidence of this.  The defence and the goalkeeper were great;  perhaps more of a development.  But the midfield was the difference both in winning the game against United – I didn’t realise that Nemanja Matic was playing until I checked their line-up after the game to work out who I’d forgotten – and in contrast to previous outings.

Moussa Sissoko is the one constant and this was a statesmanlike performance, his best in a Watford shirt.  Absolutely in his element.  Behind him Imran Louza looked like the player we hoped we’d signed, and here’s the bit that was truly transformative.  He tired later and was withdrawn to an ovation – the presence of a deep midfielder who wants the ball (alongside a central defender in Nkoulou who’s happy to receive, bring down, lay-off) changes us completely.  And then Tom Cleverley, who was Tom Cleverley and did Tom Cleverley things.  Never more so than in the 68th minute, snarling onto another half-arsed bit of lumpiness from Maguire he found his legs taken from him in a pincer movement and United’s captain was trudging dolefully off the pitch.  Daughter 2 waved him off as eagerly as anyone.

Before we could take breath there was a further resetting of scales as a heavy Van de Beek tackle saw Sarr grounded and ultimately withdrawn.  That he was on his feet and contemplating continuing offers encouragement, we’ll see.  The delay allowed us to appraise the situation, and I was reminded of the epic play-off game at St Andrews in 1999.  We were up against it (to a far greater extent than in this watered down but still worthy cover version) until ex-Hornet David Holdsworth got himself sent off.  After which… we were still up against it, but the threat was tamed.  We could cope with this.

Despite Ronaldo wandering through to “score” before being called back for offside, we more than coped with United’s remaining efforts such as they were.  A duller but valuable aspect of the win was the composure with which we got the ball rolling and the United players chasing; even the less leaden of the men in whitey-bluey-stuff like Van de Beek and Sancho would struggle to cope with that.  Meanwhile we’d brought João Pedro and Cucho off the bench for Louza and Sarr;  if you can’t capitalise on having a surfeit of exciting, zippy forwards in this circumstance well when can you?

João Pedro had forced a smart save from De Gea seconds before being fed by Dennis and rifling straight through the United keeper to seal the win in the opening minutes of added time.  He burst into tears as the roof came off of Vicarage Road.  Minutes later with the game all but done and the away end emptying Dennis scored a fourth, capitalising on the sort of thing that only happens when it is finally, definitively, your day… he and Cucho went for the same ball, Dalot was confused, Dennis bashed past him and slung a shot contemptuously across the face of goal and in.  Richard Walker on tannoy duties and virtually indistinguishable from predecessor Emma Saunders in every respect has the timbre of Ray Winstone at the best of times.  At the end of his throaty acknowledgement of the final goal his voice collapsed completely, as did the rest of us.

manu1

7- As far as our prospects are concerned… today was tremendous but we need to be able to execute it against more obstinate, obstructive, aggressive opponents.  Louza looks like The Answer in midfield, but didn’t like being battered at Brighton.  The most ridiculous of statistics is that we have scored 15 goals in our 4 wins this season but only 1 in the other 8 (and none in defeat).  So… if you go behind against us you’re kinda screwed, but we’ve not been clever enough to break down a high press.

Maybe that changes after today, maybe the Nkoulou/Louza thing gives us enough to be able to bypass that.  We’ll see.

For now though…   we just dicked Manchester United.

Enjoy.

Yoorns.

manu2

Foster 5, Femenía 5, Masina 5, Nkoulou 5, Cathcart 5, Louza 5, Sissoko 5, Cleverley 5, Sarr 5, King 5, *Dennis 5*
Subs: Troost-Ekong (for Nkoulou, 63) 5, Hernández (for Sarr, 68) 5, João Pedro (for Louza, 77) 5, Ngakia, Rose, Gosling, Tufan, Fletcher, Bachmann

Arsenal 1 Watford 0 (07/11/2021) 08/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- I don’t boast an extensive wardrobe. Shorts for the summer, jeans for the winter.  A nice Italian suit that I got married in.  A pair of smart black trousers.  I imagine.  And that’s about it for legwear.

Definitely jeans for the winter, or when it’s more that way than the other.  These tend to accumulate at a rate dictated by the inevitable appearance of a hole in the right knee after a certain period of wear…  a development that doesn’t render the garment wholly unusable but probably not ideal for work (even now that I’m back in full time, the ability to wear jeans on all but the specialest of occasions remains one of the things that I like about my job which I should remember when things that I don’t enjoy are front of mind).

Every now and again the jeans drawer will be reviewed; heading down to London on this bright Sunday morning it became clear that this exercise is possibly overdue as I discovered that a the long established hole in the knee of this particular pair had been joined by a gash in an altogether less socially acceptable area.  

Options were weighed up.  Daughter 2, on being asked for advice, contemplated possibilities with the gravity that one might associate with discussing a family crisis.  It was, in any event, not a good sign.  Not a suggestion that Everything Was Going To Go Well Today.

On a similar note, our opening five minutes here was chaotic.  We were unpeeled effortlessly in the opening exchanges as the ball wandered over to the Arsenal right where two attacking players were waiting apologetically before Sissoko dived in front of Lacazette to deflect away.  Not long afterwards a calamity of errors saw Arsenal open the scoring;  Sarr was too casual in a deep position and was robbed aggressively by Tavares, the ball worked its way across from Arsenal’s left to right again and this time Aubameyang fed Saka who tucked home in all sorts of space.  A shambles comparable to the one that saw us concede a soft early goal at Goodison and once again the portents for enjoying the rest of the afternoon weren’t great.

2- Both of which incidents go to show that you shouldn’t give up too readily.  Having baulked at the likely implications of a pair of jeans without a price tag at the boutiques at St Pancras I was assured by friends at Highbury and Islington that any issues were well concealed by my long fleece.  I survived the rest of the day well ventilated but no worse.

Meanwhile whilst the defending WAS catastrophic it was, fortunately, catastrophic enough to render Saka offside as acknowledged by another of those late VAR corrections.  VAR remains a miserably pedantic thing whilst an honest individual would have to concede that we would have been a goal down had our defending been slightly less inept, leaving Ben Foster somewhere closer to his unguarded goal line.  We silently, briefly acknowledged both of these facts before celebrating our reprieve in the manner that the moment deserved.

A rumbustious, noisy, combative match developed and saw us capitalise on our early good fortune to an extent.  Yes, we lost the game and probably deserved to.  But this was a far, far stouter performance than had seemed credible in those opening minutes offering some encouragement in facing what’s to come.  Apart from anything else, it’s perhaps the first time this season that we can feel genuinely rueful about a game that we’ve lost.  We need actual points rather than brownie points, of course, but at this stage of the season brownie points are still better than nothing.

3- We rode our luck on occasions here but there’s nothing lucky about a good goalkeeping performance.  There was certainly no luck in Ben Foster’s tremendous penalty save after Rose’s clumsy challenge had felled Lacazette…  Aubameyang’s prancing run-up was one of a man who expected to score, which made what was effectively a double save – Foster blocking with his legs and quickly recovering the loose ball – all the more enjoyable and startling.  But this was only the most striking contribution from Foster, who was alert and proactive with his distribution, pulled off a terrific stop to deny a powerful downward header from Gabriel Magalhães at the end of the half, and parried a ferocious drive from outside the area from Lokonga after the break.  And… that was it really from Arsenal in terms of (legitimate) non-trivial on-target efforts.  Which, considering that they’re a confident, capable side who’ve won eight and drawn two of their last ten is not insignificant.

The defence has come in for a lot of stick and, as suggested last week, more than it has probably deserved… but here the bold switch of three of four personnel from last weekend largely paid dividends.  Nkoulou, on his full debut, was a calming influence, Cathcart enjoyed being back on the right of the pair in the centre and Kiko was lively and ebullient, offering us a much needed outball breaking forward.

The midfield remains the issue however for all that Juraj Kucka offered a chink of light by tiptoeing through Arsenal’s backline before seeing his shot through Ben White’s legs deflected narrowly wide.  We looked sturdier today, Tufan and Sissoko both put in a shift but we still have precious little attacking shape, no stock goals or stock moves and little attacking conviction.  The lack of clean sheets is seen as damning.  The lack of threat is the bigger problem;  it’s not just the lack of goals, it’s the relatively limited risk the opponent takes in piling on pressure which in turn impacts that ongoing clean sheet stat.

Nonetheless, we finished the half level and reasonably defiant.

4- Kieron would subsequently describe the game as a bit of a throwback – boisterous, aggressive, perpetually on the verge of boiling over, tackles flying in, cards being waved around.  Kevin Friend’s refereeing performance matched that feel.

It’s sometimes suggested that refereeing standards have dropped – certainly post-match emotional hyperbole will often cite appalling officiating.  I don’t think that’s true, in general.  Maybe I’m just getting old, but I certainly don’t find myself exercised by officials very much any more.  1999-2000 was the nadir, I think.  Rob Harris’ masterclass against the Gunners at Vicarage Road in which David Seaman was allowed to rugby tackle Heidar Helguson only one of an extraordinary number of refereeing catastrophes that season.

The Kevin Friend game, in case you’ve forgotten, the reason that he’s on that particular List was the 2008 play-off semi first leg against Hull City.  On reflection this isn’t his biggest crime though.  Anyone can have a bad day.  Even the notorious Stuart Attwell – indeed, perhaps particularly Stuart Attwell – has had a pretty innocuous time of it officiating the Hornets since his most notorious hour against Reading.  

Innocuous has never been a word used to describe Friend, whose pompous low-level bubbling incompetence means that he’s far too prominent a feature of any game that he officiates.  That’s the bigger issue.  Here his dishing out of yellow cards for borderline aggression on both sides was at least consistently applied but the delineation between what was and what wasn’t a foul less so.  The sense of outrage in the away end was palpable and bubbling and the game retained a sense of never quite being under control.

Nonetheless, if Friend contributed to the mood that facilitated the game’s decisive moment he wasn’t directly responsible for it.  Arsenal had started the half more purposefully, we’d started to throw some attacking punches ourselves, if inconsequentially.  Then approaching the hour with Ozan Tufan on the deck, Danny Rose played the ball out to allow treatment.

Tufan wasn’t badly hurt, his subsequent removal almost certainly tactical.  As the ball went out he was already rising to his feet and declining what looked like an offer of medical attention from the official, something which rather spoils the subsequent “yes but they were just wasting time” justifications overheard in queues for the tube.  Watford anticipated the ball being returned and Arsenal didn’t do so.  Not only that, but they took a quick throw with the defence not set up, further capitalising on the confusion.  Friend should perhaps have pulled them up, but the act wasn’t his – this was cheap, classless opportunism on Arsenal’s part.  The ball worked its way across the box (via a collision involving Sarr, prompting optimistic calls for a foul on the Watford winger) and Smith-Rowe, perhaps the best outfield player on the afternoon, struck home.  

5- Bearing in mind our own fortune in the opening minutes we shouldn’t grumble too much at the outcome.  The manner of it however is aggravating.  Difficult not to sympathise with Ranieri’s frustration, you’d rather be undone by a piece of skill than by gamesmanship.  

Arsenal would find the net once again and once again, promptly this time, be pulled back for offside.  By and large though they sat off – there was some immediate pressure applied but yet further frustration arrived in our inability to apply a sucker punch to a side who were so patently inviting one.  That we didn’t really deserve the point would have made it all the more enjoyable – but rather than putting their foot on our neck, frustrated and volatile as we were, Arsenal stepped back apprehensively.  We should have capitalised, we didn’t.

Josh King came closest, thanks to a kamikaze run out to the Arsenal right by the excitable Ramsdale which bypassed ball and player leaving King goalside with the ball at his feet.  On review… this wasn’t as easy as it looked in my head the first time round when time slowed down as King pulled the trigger.  Then it appeared that he could have teed up Sarr or lined himself up a kinder angle rather than ambitiously trying to thread the ball in from a narrow angle and failing to do so.  Actually, neither alternative was trivial with defenders in attendance but that was the moment.  Otherwise, whilst we clawed back some territory the threat was largely hypothetical.  Cucho swung a number of crosses and set pieces into the arms of the keeper or onto the foreheads of defenders taller than the men they were marking.  There was no kitchen-sinking, no suggestion of it despite the late introduction of Fletcher for Cathcart.  Instead the footnote was a red card for Juraj Kucka for a slightly harsh second yellow after a clumsy but hardly malicious challenge on the edge of our box.  And that was that.

Whilst Kevin Friend’s performance harked back to 1999/2000 our own performance thus far doesn’t.  For all its challenges and limitations this isn’t a side obviously destined for relegation.  There’s more too us than that, I think.  But nor are we destined for the relatively inconspicuous security of mid-table that characterised the first four years of our last spell in the Premier League.  We’re genuinely in a relegation battle, a relatively unusual thing in our recent past there having been precious little battle about most of our relegations going as far back as GT’s first arrival.

Claudio needs to sort aspects of the team out, but there were positive signs today.  We’ll need guts and a bit of bloody-mindedness too.  Positive signs on that score also.

The jeans are now in the bin.  The season isn’t.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 5*, Femenía 4, Rose 2, Cathcart 3, Nkoulou 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Tufan 3, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: João Pedro (for Tufan, 62) 3, Hernández (for Dennis, 74) 2, Fletcher (for Cathcart, 94) NA, Masina, Cleverley, Ngakia, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Bachmann

Watford 0 Southampton 1 (30/10/2021) 31/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1-  It’s been a good week, all told.  Everton was, you know, fun. Much discussed… lots of goals, first win at Goodison, jumping around, bosh.  The woman behind the till in the Co-Op was one of several to report startlement at their Match of the Day viewing being punctuated by an unscheduled appearance.  Restrained and Dignified in the circumstances, I thought.  She’ll survive.

Then Dune on Tuesday.  Half term and that, at least one cinema trip with Daughters 1 and 2 is traditional.  And it’s tremendous, a landmark piece of cinema.  None of us had read the book, I had only vague memories of Sting and David Lynch.  A big screen masterpiece, all of us watched on in wonderment.  The highlight of any normal week.

Then Thursday.  My better half’s birthday celebration.  The four of us spent the day doing Stuff, culminating in a preview showing of “Pride and Prejudice (sort of)” in the West End.  Being in a theatre again is great in any case, of course… but this was astonishing.  A five-woman cast covering all roles, retelling Jane Austen’s novel at high pace punctuated by Elvis Costello, Pulp and Carly Simon and more visual gags than you could shake a stick at whilst staying faithful to the narrative and the sentiments of the original.  Better half wasn’t keen on occasional dramatic swearing, which was obviously the highlight for Daughters 1 and 2… Mr Darcy’s final verdict on Caroline Bingley had them both in stitches under their seats.  Quite, quite brilliant. Going again.

It occurred to me, driving down the M1 on Saturday morning, that expecting too much from the Saints game might have been greedy.

2- Which is of course just as well.  One-nil defeats like this, miserable affairs in which a mediocre opponents really doesn’t have to do very much to deserve to win, in which spoiling tactics are all the more aggravating for their inevitable effectiveness, in which it rains sulkily and persistently, these are the stuff that relegation is made of.  They practically defined the Dave Bassett season in which we lost ten of 40 League fixtures 1-0…  these included both games against the Saints although the home game, archetypal of the genre as I remember it, came on Steve Harrison’s watch and was otherwise significant only as Trevor Senior’s last lumbering outing in yellow. As an aside, it’s oft said that you have to endure the bad days to enjoy the good ones.  I’ve said as much to at least two Man United fans this week.  Evidence of the truth of this here, since however unsatisfactory this afternoon was we’ve had far, far worse seasons.  I’m feeling better already…

One change to the Everton line-up saw João Pedro in for his first start for Tufan, with Rose returning to the bench in place of the suspended Emmanuel Dennis.  It was an attacking selection, and getting the Brazilian properly involved ought to be a priority so no complaints on that score.

It didn’t work though.  We’ve looked wobbly at best against any sort of pressing thus far, and the visitors were on top of us straight away. For all of the good press that right back Livramento has been getting the visitors were focusing their attack down their left, with the out-of-position Kyle Walker-Peters giving Ngakia a miserable time.  Twice in the first few minutes the Saints profited down that side… first Craig Cathcart turned a cross towards Ben Foster with a firmness that gave any of us who were here last time Saints visited in front of fans palpitations.  Then another move down the left saw Adam Armstrong curl a shot over.

The game didn’t quite proceed in this vein… the visitors were the stronger side without ever threatening to overwhelm us.  But it was no surprise when Che Adams scored a brilliant opener midway through the half, reminiscent of João Pedro’s similarly decisive strike at Derby last season…  allowing the ball to stop dead and then turning sharply around it to curl over the helpless Foster into the top corner.

3- Popular wisdom has it that our defence simply isn’t very good, not up to the task.  I’d dispute that.  Our defending is certainly inadequate, we’ll  benefit from the returning options at centre-back as and when.  But the defence itself, the unit, conceded 31 goals in 46 League games last season (albeit against a different standard of opposition) and whilst we’re still awaiting a clean sheet both here and at Leeds the defenders stood up well to what was asked of them.  Craig Cathcart had his best game of the season, Adam Masina was decent and for all their dominance, particularly in the first half, Southampton only managed the one shot on target.  In part this was down to their own profligacy;  Che Adams found a creative way to avoid adding to the scoreline, heading into the ground and over from not very far at all (though the pace and approach of the cross meant he’d done well to get to it, in fairness).  But otherwise it was blocks and bodies on the line, general getting in the way which restricted the nature of their chances on all but one critical occasion.

So I’d argue that our defenders are adequate at worst.  The problem, as intimated last week, is the midfield which can’t be relied upon to protect the defence by shielding it or by mustering enough threat at the other end.  Looking back two years to our relegated squad… we were spoiled with Doucouré and Capoue, both of whom startlingly successful since their departures.  Last season Will Hughes was absolutely critical; agonising that he’s yet to see the light of day for Palace while there remains a big Hughes-shaped hole in our midfield.  Even the ostensibly back-up options feel like big losses…  Nathaniel Chalobah, for all his frustrating inconsistency, could turn defence into attack in a manner that we’re missing now and Roberto Pereyra, despite that he was primarily an attacking player, could dig in in midfield in extremis.

Admittedly it took a while to build that midfield, a midfield that I’d maintain was unlucky to be relegated.  But we’re way off that now.  Only Sissoko looks like he could form part of a functioning machine…  Louza, Tufan have something about them but are missing physicality and application respectively before they can feature regularly.  Even Kucka, for all his endearing charging around and chest-beating, feels like an adornment to a successful midfield rather than a cog in it.  Certainly a forward line, for all King’s cohesion and Sarr’s devastating speed, that’s essentially full of baubles and fireworks needs a very solid base to build from, a foundation that will allow all of them to flourish.  We don’t have that, and that’s Claudio’s biggest single challenge, probably his most decisive challenge.

To the head coach’s credit though, he’s playing his existing hand pretty well.  Certainly there was evidence of conscious forethought in our biggest threat of the half, such as it was, with Ben Foster launching deliberate, precise, low trajectory missiles into the escaping paths of first King and then Sarr.  The second of these was worth a round of applause for ingenuity all of its own, with the players fooling Saints by lining up for a drop-kick to the left flank before Foster delivered to the right where Sarr, the quickest player on the pitch, knew to expect it and was haring into space accordingly.  The first was more productive though… King roared onto the path of a ball down the left and squared for Sarr to finish well from a difficult angle, an excellent goal line clearance denying us by millimetres.  The whole of the ball has to cross the whole of the line and so forth, goal-line technology deprives of us of any misplaced sense of outrage, but it wasn’t far away.  A crumb of comfort from a pretty desperate half.

4- That 1-1 draw with Saints two and a half years ago, the Shane Long game just a fortnight after the Wolves semi, was characterised by the absence of a player rather than the presence of one.  Troy had been sent off against Arsenal a week earlier and was suspended;  Southampton scored early and pressed aggressively; our get-out-of-jail long ball option to Troy wasn’t there.  We kept playing it anyway as a sort of forlorn tribute, but we missed our out-ball.

Here, Isma was the out-ball.  The get-out-of-jail card.  Thing is, everyone knew it – not least Southampton.  Twice when picking up a head of steam he was taken out by “for the team” challenges by first Salisu then Ward-Prowse (who with Romeu had been bossing the midfield).  Both were booked in response, but if their decisions represented a conscious train of thought that reflected that these threats weren’t going to crop up terribly often they were well-judged.

Sarr was at least persistent and remained our likeliest threat in the second half.  The frustration came when, on the occasions that he was given an opportunity one-on-one of which there were several, he either got an inch on his man but sent a cross into the arms of McCarthy or hesitated to push the ball and run when big spaces yawned in front of him.  The flaw isn’t just his by any stretch – Saints were perfectly capable of standing up to a collective threat which amounted to “go on then Isma, do something” – but he looked sullen and withdrawn and his lack of progress attracted some criticism from the less patient in the stands.

The other threat came from another sound-looking strategic decision from Ranieri, that of withdrawing two of our damp sparklers in Cucho and João Pedro – whose 45 minutes had concluded with the booking that had been on the cards, so to speak, since kick off – in favour of a bit of welly in Clevs and Ken Sema.  This greater physicality started to claw us some openings – not much, but better than nothing.  Juraj Kucka clouted an early shot over, and later drilled low and deliberately towards the bottom corner from a similar position on the right outside the box.  It would have taken a deflection or a mistake from the keeper but neither was inconceivable in increasingly challenging conditions with the rain now teeming down.

Later in the game Ashley Fletcher was brought on for Ngakia in another bold move, and one which sowed a degree of chaos in a Saints defence who now had a very different problem to address, an agent of chaos.  Masina swung a cross narrowly in front of King’s forehead and then Sissoko, sort of stepping in for Ngakia-ish, reminded everyone that he used to be a winger by rampaging down the right, slipping the ball inside to King who ushered it on towards Fletcher.  Fletcher turned neatly and fired at goal but McCarthy was equal to it making the only fine save by either keeper of the afternoon.

The visitors countered the threat of Fletcher by bringing on an ogre that was officially the Brazilian Lyanco with whom we were linked over the summer but could easily have been AFC Rushden and Diamonds stalwart Liam Dolman, a colossal individual even by non-League standards.  Had the game been allowed to proceed for another ten minutes we might have nicked something – for the first time in the game this looked like a possibility.  We wouldn’t have deserved the point but Saints would have merited little sympathy for spurning two, least of all the jelly-ankled Livramento.  It didn’t happen.

5- Defeats like this are necessary but not sufficient conditions for relegation. We’re not done yet, for all the afternoon’s unhelpful results elsewhere.  The reality is that nothing much has changed.  We know we have a challenge on.  We know that the midfield isn’t right, we know that we’re not clever enough to respond to a high press and that we’re going to struggle if we have little opportunity to counter-attack.  None of this is new.  But none of this is finished either, and we need to take care not to talk ourselves downwards after every setback.  A bit of bloody-mindedness is required here, as goings on elsewhere demonstrate it’s far too easy to propagate a narrative, bullshit or otherwise, when people are fed up and looking for someone to blame.

Meanwhile, the second half had been preceded by a farewell to Emma Saunders, who moves on to Sky Sports.  Two things to note here… first, it’s entirely appropriate that the wider Watford family are recognised in this way.  Players and prominent coaching staff will sometimes get this stuff, ex-players too including the ever more rock’n’roll Ross Jenkins, also wheeled out here.  But “the likes of Emma” (and those less visible still) deserve their recognition;  those that find this a bit parochial can go screw themselves.

But Emma in particular, along with Tommy Mooney, Jon Marks and everyone else involved, deserve one final round of applause for providing something to look forward to last season.  Doubtless her star will continue to rise, but she deserves to be remembered fondly for her part in that whatever else she goes on to achieve.

As for the team… there’s obviously stuff to be done, but we have a club to be proud of and one that deserves our support.  The team will need it over the next run of games.

Pride and Prejudice both required.  Sort of.

See you at Arsenal.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, *Sissoko 3*, Kucka 3, João Pedro 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Hernández 2
Subs: Sema (for Hernández, 45) 2, Cleverley (for João Pedro, 45) 3, Fletcher (for Ngakia, 82) NA, Rose, Louza, Gosling, Tufan, Bachmann

Everton 2 Watford 5 (23/10/2021) 24/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
36 comments

1- Sometimes you wake up and the world feels different.

I love this time of year anyway.  You can step outside in the morning and the air is surprisingly cold without being cold.  You feel alive.  But the more so on this particular morning, there’s an unnatural silence as we leave the house, a stillness.  Like we’ve stepped out in between days and everything else is frozen.

Daughter 1 was deterred by the prospect of a 9am start – which, given how her previously documented choices have gone this season should have been encouragement in itself.  But Daughter 2, isn’t letting me get past “do you fancy going to…” at the moment and is briskly purposeful as we set off.  She’s not missed an away trip yet and this is a significant milestone – at twelve years and three months, her one hundredth game.

9am because as any seasoned veteran knows, the M6 is not to be trusted.  Today is relatively benign, the hold-ups frequent but tame.  We float through them all in a eerily serene bubble.  This will not be a normal day.

This will be the day that we cash in all of our Goodison chips.  This is for Chris Powell, and the ultimately decisive penalty given against him for having the ball smashed into his face in 2005.  This is for Lucas Digne’s 96th-minute free kick three years ago.  For Alice breaking down on the M6, for me taking out the side of the Qashqai in a hurried attempt to park in 2015.  For Felix’s puncture in 2000, the insane jacking up on the side of the motorway before rushing to Goodison to see us get effortlessly dicked.  Again.  For Gomes’ injury and Cleverley’s missed penalty.  For Steve Terry in 1983, one of six defeats in six visits in our first top flight spell.

You wouldn’t have chosen to cash in all those chips at once.  But given that we were to go whole hog, it would have been rude not to enjoy it.

2- Any instinct to rub the outcome of the afternoon into the noses of the watching (or reading) Toffees is severely tempered by a thoroughly agreeable pre-match pint of Guinness at the Abbey on the edge of Stanley Park.  Pubs very close to away grounds are best avoided as a general rule, but this place comes recommended by Tony who drops in for a swift pint and for comparison of pre-match notes before we head to opposite “ends”.  The Abbey and its patrons are good natured and likeable, despite the very obvious threat posed by my brother’s young herberts as they march in in full colours.  One local apologises earnestly for unwittingly stepping ahead of me at the bar, another offers to dance as we try to negotiate passage down a narrow corridor.  Tony assures Daughter 2 that her latest discovery and new obsession, the Chicken Balti pie, is on the menu at the ground.  He’s wrong, as it turns out… they’re down to Steak and Ale or Scouse as the noisy concourse rattles through a back catalogue championing Almen Abdi and Fernando Forestieri amongst others.  In the context of the afternoon Daughter 2 agrees to let him off.

Which isn’t to suggest that the afternoon passed without mishap or mis-step.  Far from it.  Three minutes in and our early punchiness was undermined by a bold but criminally under-bootered Everton attack down the Watford right.  The sprightly Anthony Gordon was at the centre of this…  our viewpoint is low-ish and looking down the goalline as Demarai Gray made the most of a fortunate bounce in front of us to get past William Troost-Ekong and square for Tom Davies to shovel home despite Masina, Cathcart and Foster being in the vicinity.  All much, much too easy.

That air of serenity descended again.  The back of my neck felt suddenly cold as the development sunk home, the futility of another trip to Goodison, memories of last week’s misfortunes which I’d followed on a phone screen extrapolated to what seemed to be beginning in front of us, the prospect of Daughter 2 finally deciding that this is all a bit of a pain in the backside.  “It’s going to be a long season” said the bloke behind me;  I was more focused on a long afternoon, reflecting that the forlorn possibility of a positive outcome could have lasted a little longer.

The only thing that could realistically have made the situation more miserable was the Doughnut Chorus chirping up from their infiltrated positions above and behind us.  Gleefully leaping at the possibility of gallows humour, “How sh*t must you be, it’s only one-nil” descending into songs about Gylfi Sigurdsson and, if in admittedly tamer numbers, telling Ben Foster where to stick his go-Pro.  That’ll be Ben Foster who, still Watford’s top keeper or otherwise, ill-judged sharer of tickets or otherwise, has been part of some of our best days over 16 years, 200-odd games, ex-Player of the Season.  We’ve not reached the tenth minute yet. Pitiful.

3- So the next development was hugely significant both in its timing and outcome.  I was reminded of that VAR decision at Wembley in 2019 , the VAR decision upon which the outcome of the semi-final against Wolves seemed to hang.  The last minute penalty is denied and surely the gig is up… but it was given, Troy was never missing that penalty, the inevitability of ultimate victory was sown in that moment.

The VAR delay to the confirmation of Josh King’s equaliser after he gobbled up a knock-down from a right wing cross wasn’t perhaps quite as decisive, but it felt pivotal.  We went through the charade of celebrating, then being derided by the home stands for celebrating, then the home stands simmering down as the ongoing precariousness of the situation became apparent.  Then the verdict,,, the veracity of which, the likely outcome of which, we had no basis to judge beyond increasing confidence in a favourable outcome as it dragged on.  The direction of travel of the game, for all that we’d reacted positively to going behind, was dramatically arrested, the negative sentiment in the away end quelled (although the Sigurdsson chants would resurface, inexplicably, in the closing celebrations).  Game on.

It was 1-1 for quite a long time, on reflection; the crazy denouement would distort any subsequent recollection of time and space.  The remainder of the first half was one of those periods with mood phases, like a piece of classical music.  I’m guessing.  Buoyed by the equaliser, we continued to play on the front foot and here’s the biggest contrast from last week.  We could easily have lost this game, in many other universes we do lose this game, but the aggressive, pushy, bolshy in-your-faceness of our defiance was a world away not just from the Liverpool performance but from those that immediately preceded it.  There’s been much criticism of our defending, but the midfield has been the bigger issue for me, the bit that we’ve spent so much time trying to get right since promotion in 2015, the bit that’s helped us look so convincing once it’s been sorted.  A midfield that can be relied upon to either protect the defence or fuel a threat in the other direction takes the pressure off of that defence;  too often ours has been doing neither.

But here we’re getting a boot in and had we lost this game 2-1, say, then this would have been the very large consolation to take from the performance.  We look like a team.  We’re fighting for each other, we’re moving the ball around.  It’s not perfect, it’s not finished, and it’s not entirely consistent – Ozan Tufan occasionally needs encouragement to track back – but there’s a plan.  Sissoko punched in a low shot that flew wide but might have felled the goalpost had it connected. Cucho cut in from the left and slung a ball in with his right foot;  it’s deflected but not kindly enough for the onrushing red shirts.  

Everton reasserted themselves.  This is a flimsy and understrength Toffees side… two goalkeepers on an eight-man bench, a manifestly unfit Allan trundling around in midfield in the absence of Doucs, Rondón toiling on like an ageing seventies rocker churning out the old hits to keep himself in beer money.  We’re not Brazil 1970 ourselves though, and in passing should probably acknowledge the contribution of referee Graham Scott.  Having oft cursed Peter Walton for his appalling misjudgement here that got Aidy Boothroyd’s Prem season off to the worst of starts it’s only fair to acknowledge the hard line which Scott took with Everton’s increasingly desperate attempts to win themselves a penalty.  Anthony Gordon was the first, a foolish challenge in the box gave him a leg to throw himself over and this he did but Scott, mercifully, told him to get up and stop being so silly.  In the second half Allan would be booked for similar optimism at the far end; an increasingly sassy Daughter 2 meeting this with the derision it deserved – “I could see that was a dive from here”.  This ranks just below “Why is there an Everton player playing for England?” and “Why isn’t he (Gordon) doing his GCSEs?” as her most acidic of the afternoon.

So Everton finished the half on top, but the character of the reaction to going behind and the vastly more credible performance earned the Watford team and staff a suitably persistent ovation as they paraded off into the corner in front of us at the break.

4- The hat-trick and the backdrop to it gets the plaudits of course, but there was far more to like about Joshua King’s performance than these details, a five star showing even without the goals.  The start to his Watford career has been in fits and bursts;  this was only his third full ninety minutes, niggles and fitness have interrupted his progress.  Nonetheless, we’ve looked far more credible as an attacking unit with him in the side, the glue that holds it all together.  

At Goodison Park, whether fuelled by indignation at his treatment here last season or otherwise, all those encouraging signs came together in a magnificent centre-forward’s performance.  He battled for the ball, He held it up, he held people off.  He orchestrated our attacking play. He brought players into the game.  Oh yes, and he scored a hat-trick.

He could have scored more.  Early in the second half Sarr wriggled away down the right and sent a low, firm ball into the centre; King attacked it well but shouldn’t have given the unwitting Pickford, who benefitted from the speed of his reactions but didn’t know much about the save, a chance.

Instead it was the home side that took the lead, following the first of a number of significant substitutions.  Transparently Benítez is on a hiding to nothing at Goodison.  His successes will be celebrated, but he has a very steep and possibly endless hill to climb before he can get away with anythingThe simmering anxiety at his charges’ failure to roll us over culminated in booing at his replacement of livewire Gordon with the returning Richarlíson;  Rondón would have been a more popular exit.  From our point of view Gordon’s early vim had faded, and Benítez does like to retain a big man up top – Digne, Townsend and Gray loading bullets from the flanks provides at least a theoretical threat.  In any case, it was a significant change in tone from the very flat atmosphere that Tony had warned us of pre-game.  

And of course Richarlíson scored three minutes later as his movement surprised Cathcart and he met Keane’s fine cross to leave Foster stranded and helpless.  Tempting to mock the hypocrisy of the Everton celebrations, were it not for the Doughnut Chorus’s own comparable volt-face earlier on.  Every support has its idiots.

5- There was an inevitability about Richarlíson doing us again from a Watford perspective, but this never felt like the death-knell that Davies’ opener had.  The tone of the game, the fragility of both sides, was long evident.  This wasn’t over until it was over, and it wasn’t yet.

The next substitutions were equally striking, however.  João Pedro is indisputably a force for good, and knowing quite where and how to use him the only issue.  Expectation was that either a tiring King or a willing but volatile and erratic Cucho would be pulled.  Instead, Sarr was removed along with Tufan, with Emmanuel Dennis moving into the attack and the Brazilian at the apex of the midfield.   Risky stuff – Ranieri wouldn’t have gotten credit for his bravery had it backfired.

It didn’t, though the breakthrough wasn’t immediate.  You’ll have seen the stats by now, so no need to emphasise them….  but the corner that provided the pebble that set off the avalanche didn’t arrive until the 78th minute.  Our vantage point – as previously, low and looking down the goalline – afforded us a perfect view… Cucho’s bomb of a corner swung over the masses at near post and dropped for Juraj Kucka.  The Slovak had had one of his more assertive, irresistible days – in my mind’s eye he rises in front of us with the sun behind him, leaping impossibly, hovering high and craning every neck muscle to power a header past Pickford.  A bit like the Pele scissor-kick in Escape to Victory, a theatrical moment.  Match of the Day suggests it was a bit more prosaic than that but a fine header nonetheless and the point at which the destination of the game was definitively determined.  Kucka thundered towards us with a delirious, fist-clenched roar and the rest of the team followed. 

This was to be a recurring theme.  Emmanuel Dennis, fitfully effective in recent weeks, enjoyed a brutal cameo; two minutes later he combined with João Pedro down the right and fed King, alone in the centre.  A gorgeous left foot touch set up a right foot shot, giving us the lead for the first time.  In the away end the response was restrained, dignified and contemplative.

everton

In reflecting upon what followed, it’s tempting – natural even – to focus on Everton’s defensive collapse which was both striking and comprehensive.  Nonetheless.  As noted previously, “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  We were pretty terrible last week.  But we were playing an exceptional side, who played a significant role in us looking terrible.  Comparable themes here.  Everton fell apart; obsessed with the outcome that was generally anticipated they overcommitted forwards in panic and seemed incapable of defending…  but only in the face of a counter-attack executed with merciless precision.  I was later reminded of the 3-0 win at Newcastle four years ago – few more accommodating challenges for a side in need of a win than a trip to a blunt opponent burdened by the pressure of expectation of an easy victory.  

Dennis’ sharp turn and shot forced a fine save from Pickford low to his left.  Minutes later Cucho’s surge down the left concluded in a clumsy lay-off that Everton proved comically incapable of dealing with.  The ball broke to Dennis who fed King, criminally onside and growing in composure with every goal, like progressing to higher levels on a computer game.  An icily controlled touch wrong-footed Pickford and sealed the hat-trick.  In the dying minutes of a dizzy denouement Emmanuel Dennis added to his two assists by rounding off the scoring in a touching tribute to his compatriot Odion Ighalo, reprising Iggy’s goal here in 2015 with Seamus Coleman in John Stones’ “hapless sliding idiot” role.  

6- It was a glorious drive home, punctuated with more service station stops than strictly necessary and exchanges with the plentiful shirts of other clubs travelling up and down the country.  Dave left Sandbach in a state of some disquiet, civil – even friendly – exchanges with not one but two Wolves fans confirming that football was broken, there was something very weird about the whole day.  We got in at 10pm, Daughter 2 declaring herself more than satisfied with her 100th game.

We weren’t a lost cause after Liverpool a week ago.  We’re not world beaters, or even a solid mid-table side, after this one.  But we have proven ourselves capable of smashing down the doors of a a so-so team on a bad day.  That might be enough.  It’ll certainly do for now. 

But today wasn’t about the wider context.  Today, for all its scruffy imperfections, was a gem in it’s own right.  A day on, I’m still grinning my stupid face off.

“And one day we will win here.  We’ll cash in the debt of luck we’re owed at this ground (a very small extension of Everton’s credit here today courtesy of that deflection) and we’ll absolutely dick them.  And we’ll be there to see it.”

BHaPPY report, Everton 1 Watford 0, August 2019

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Tufan 3, Sarr 3, Hernández 3, *King 5*
Subs: Dennis (for Sarr, 64) 5, João Pedro (for Tufan, 64) 4, Nkoulou (for Ngakia, 76) NA, Sema, Cleverley, Fletcher, Gosling, Louza, Bachmann

Leeds United 1 Watford 0 (02/10/2021) 03/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I studied in Leeds for three years.

It was a great place to learn and to live and I made a lot of friends there.  These include the guy who I sit next to at Vicarage Road who I first ran into in the Old Bar while he was making the questionable fashion choice of wearing the old chessboard Bukta away kit in public, and another friend who I met on an early Otley Run (before new pubs expanded the traditional pub crawl from Headingley to life-threatening dimensions) – she was on a three-legged crawl, roped to a friend in yellow, red and black scarves.

You live an odd life as a student, resident in the city but not really part of it a lot of the time, in your own little bubble.  Nor was there any great affinity with United for all that I could see Elland Road’s huge main stand below me in the far distance from my attic room in Headingley (no double glazing, no central heating, coldest room in the world).  Nethermoor Guiseley, Leeds Road Huddersfield and Oakwell were all ticked off before we headed to United’s ground out of a sense of obligation in our final year.

But for all of Leeds’ hard edges, for all that the wind has a brutal relentlessness about it for much of the year, it’s a fine city home to many warm people.  These include Will, with whom we stay on Friday night, passing my old street en route (“I used to…”, “YES DAD, WE KNOW!”) as well as a more recent addition, Jon Moss’ “The Vinyl Whistle” record store on Otley Road.  

This warmth is reflected in the chatter overheard both before and after the game on the route between the ground and our lofty parking spot in Beeston.  Families, or groups of mates, or an older Dad and adult son chewing the fat.  Reflecting on the prospects, on injury lists, on what transpired and how much it means.  It’s all civil, likeable, normal.

It’s not remotely reflected by the populace of the Norman Hunter stand behind the goal to the right of the away “end”, tucked away as we are as an afterthought in the upper tier of the adjoining stand in seats that cramp anyone above 5’10”.  Plenty of clubs retain “an element”, heaven knows some of our lot have their moments, but very few if any others have this bizarre menagerie of gormless, banal aggression, as much an anachronism as the “Champions of Europe” chant that gets an occasional airing between the droning repeats of “Marching on Together” (“you’ve DONE that one!”).  Daughters 1 and 2, veterans by now of countless away trips, watch on with mild curiosity.  Will’s kids, younger primary school age with faces covered in Nutella pre-match thanks to wise application of the “you can’t bring on too many snacks” rule, stare on in slightly anxious wonderment, as they would at a furious wasp stuck under an overturned pint glass.

2- Yes, I’m trying to avoid discussing the football.

Any kit lives or dies in the annals of history by virtue of the things achieved in it.  Any third kit (and I’m not really convinced there’s any moral argument in favour of third kits really, aesthetically pleasing green and gold numbers or otherwise) is going to have relatively few chances to stake its case (less still, you’d have hoped, with a primarily yellow and therefore non-clashing first kit).  On the basis of which, this one’s going to need to go some in whatever opportunities it gets in the future.

Because this was pretty dreadful all told.  For all that there were nods of approval in the extensive queues for sustenance as the team news broke pre-match, Sierralta making a welcome return and Tufan’s first League start the most sensible looking solution to our midfield challenges, we never looked remotely equipped to cope with Leeds’ aggressive press, tamer versions of which we’ve struggled with already this season at Brighton and last week most obviously.

Danny Rose continued his steady upward trajectory with an early, encouraging show of defiance, dumping Raphinha on his backside in front of the visiting fans’ corner but, as advertised, the white wave kept coming.  Defensively, for the most part, we looked okay…  bodies were put on the line, last ditches were barricaded, but we were doing the jobs we needed to do.  Sierralta extended a long leg precisely to scoop a left wing cross away from the waiting Rodrigo.  Rose continued to face down all comers.  Foster was brave and decisive in coming for things.  

The problem was further forward with a midfield that has rarely looked right this season.  Peter Etebo’s injury is expensive and unfortunate, but we’ve looked at best wonkily making do before the Nigerian’s absence and on this occasion were neither obstructive enough interrupt Leeds’ progress nor deft enough to capitalise upon the gaping holes they left behind them.

And the problem with that set-up is that if you can’t stem the flow then at some point you’re going to get a misjudgement or a mistake or an unlucky bounce that no amount of resolute defending or ponderous finishing is going to save you from.  In the 18th minute we got two of those in the same exchange as Foster came out for a cross that swung away from him, Kucka misjudged his header in a manner eerily reminiscent of Sierralta’s error against Wolves and Llorente was more alert than either in turning the ball home.  Elland Road errupted, the chorus of grunting from behind the goal was deafening.

3- The goal was rapidly followed by a noisy penalty call as James went down in the box.  Here, as with a call at the other end that infuriated Josh King (though it might have been outside the box anyway) and with our “equaliser” in the second half VAR appeared to be scantly employed by referee Simon Hooper.  It’s possible of course that a season’s practice has simply made the checking process much more seamless, less obvious than the long standing around deliberating.  In any event, if making quicker less disruptive decisions comes with a greater proportion of “mistakes” I’m all for it.  You therefore have to take the rough with the smooth – not very fair to complain that VAR slows everything down and object when things go against you once the technology’s on a less forgiving leash.  Give me good old-fashioned refereeing incompetence over dawdling over replays any day of the week.

Meanwhile as Leeds continued to dominate without adding to the scoreline, our attempts to clamber back into the game were pretty feeble.  Will, over my shoulder, suggested after half an hour that we should probably bring Tufan on; at this point the Turkish midfielder broke the surface and swung a majestic pass wide to Sarr.  Minutes later he was the beneficiary of some slack defending, charged into the box and fired excitedly over the bar.  This was much more the idea, in as much as there was one, but for the most part Tufan was woefully ineffectual.

So too Ismaïla Sarr, who as against Newcastle struggled to have any impact on the game despite wandering away from the right on occasions and even swapping wings briefly in the second half.  Joshua King was toiling away manfully, his value most evident after his departure with injury on half time when our attacks lost any semblance of cohesion in the second half.  Sema replaced King with Dennis moving to the centre, but the Nigerian is an irritant rather than a line leader.  If Sema had any pace at all he’d be a top player;  as it was he put in a sturdy and workmanlike shift on the left, where alongside the relentless Rose he was our biggest threat in the second half.

4- Earlier in the day a high energy training session had taken place elsewhere in the city.  Head coach-cum-herder of cats Will instigated an imaginative exercise that involved the twenty-odd six-to-eight year olds divided into three teams in coned corners of an astroturfed pitch.  The exercise began with an ostensibly similar number of balls clustered in the centre circle;  on the maestro’s whistle the three teams of “pirates” charged, shouting in piratey voces, the winning team being the one that salvaged the largest number of balls into their corner via legitimate footballing means.  By the head coach’s own admission the tactical value of the exercise was questionable, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.

There are parallels to be drawn with the home side’s approach which, in the absence of any cutting edge at all and for all that they were by some distance the better side and worthy winners, didn’t amount to much more than running around and shouting.  For all the triumphalism that interrupted the posturing of the trolls in the stand to our right (not to mention that barracking of local boy Rose as stewards, presumably used to this, yawned and waited for it all to stop) Leeds didn’t have an awful lot to show for their dominance.  Only when Sierralta cleared off the line and Roberts followed up with an acrobatic shot against the bar was the scoreline threatened; the other two shots on target yielded routine saves.  This was the tone of the reflection in the chat around us as we clambered back up to Beeston after the game.  Leeds will be fine, you suspect, but not so fine that there aren’t issues to be addressed, or that couldn’t leave them in trouble if the wrong players – not least the prominent Raphinha – pick up injuries.

They nearly got the come-uppance that our play hadn’t remotely deserved.  For much of the second half as we’d floundered around not looking as if we knew quite what we were supposed to be doing we looked sullen and listless but, perhaps fuelled by Leeds’ nervous awareness of the scoreline and propelled by a suddenly furiously driven Juraj Kucka, we applied something resembling pressure late on.  From a corner – the build up to which had seen a full bottle hurled at Danny Rose from, well, you know – there was, from our angle, an almighty scramble which resulted in the ball trickling apologetically into the net.

The celebration was brief, curtailed by a very quick whistle.  Highlights review suggest that it’s a harsh call, Kabasele’s tangle with Cooper was fifty-fifty at worst and plausibly a straight foul by the Leeds skipper.  We didn’t get the call.  We hadn’t remotely deserved the call of course, but it would have been very funny.  As it was the most distraught person in the stadium was daughter 1, whose unfortunate record is maintained – she’s still watched every minute of every game in which we’ve failed to score, but none of the games in which we’ve (definitively, permanently) found the net.  She won’t be at Liverpool – indeed, none of us will – and I’m sure you’ll agree that such superstition carries far more weight than the knowledge that we’re facing a team who are quite good at the pressing that we seem so unable to cope with and have a bit of a cutting edge also.

5- We’re not the only ones who won’t be at the Liverpool game, of course, the not entirely unexpected news that Xisco has been made to walk the plank breaking somewhere during the composition of thunk 2. This has at least meant that I had to spend even less time discussing a match which now descends into history as part of the life experience of all the youngsters in the away end and nothing more.

“Not entirely unexpected” because this is what we do.  What our ownership does.  Not so much overreact to a few bad results as appoint someone to do a job and replace them with someone else when you need a different job doing.  The argument has been made – including by my co-editor – that this being the case perhaps the change should have been made in the summer, as bold and startling as the same decision six years earlier.  Personally, I think there was enough about our persistent defensive resilience last season to suggest that Xisco was worth a spin, that his tactical capabilities might be up to what turned out to be his key task – that of reshaping our midfield.

He wasn’t up to it.  Someone else gets that job, we might know their name by the time you’re reading this.  Never dull, is it?  Meanwhile, I’ve not dived into the general response to the announcement but can guess the tone of much of it.  I would further suspect that there’s precious little acknowledgement of the fact that six years of the last seven in the top flight is almost unprecedented, and would certainly be something that a load of traditionally much more established clubs (including Leeds not so long ago) would have jumped at.  It’s not like it isn’t working, for all that the wisdom of the approach and the wisdom of specific appointments aren’t quite the same thing.

This will be a less boring international break than many.  Hang in there in the meantime, “what other people think” is of course very low on any reasonable list of priorities, or things that are interesting.

See you at Goodison.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 2, Sierralta 3, Sissoko 2, Kucka 3, Tufan 1, Sarr 1, Dennis 2, King 3
Subs: Sema (for King, 45) 3, João Pedro (for Tufan, 59) 2, Kabasele (for Sierralta, 68) 3, Masina, Cleverley, Ngakia, Gosling, Hernández, Bachmann

Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (25/09/2021) 26/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-  Everything’s going to pot.

I’m accused, whilst innocently making my way to my seat pre-kick off, minding my own business and that, of becoming “very political”.  It’s difficult to be otherwise I think?  Despite reasonable, if not best efforts on my part.  Nonetheless, on the assumption that you’re here to read about a football match and its periphery we’ll steer clear of the how and why and whose fault it is and reflect instead upon the absolute carnage on the nation’s forecourts.

Our journey down avoids the chaos at the Sainsburys roundabout in Bedford, where access to the supermarket is blocked by people queuing for fuel and everything’s snarling up around it.  On the M1 there are queues tailing back onto the motorway from Toddington Services…  perhaps it’s a rush on falafel balls at the M&S but I have my doubts.  Someone is overheard on the radio breathlessly explaining that they’ve been driving around for four hours looking for fuel as they’re running out. Yes. The witless selfishness of people is beyond all reason.  You kind of suspect that if there was one sapling left in the country, it would get trampled in the stampede of idiots wanting to get a selfie taken with it.

2- This sense of not being in control, of things kind of running away from you, of trying to make sense of unprecedented carnage is kind of appropriate to a football match that has the chaotic air of a game being played during an earthquake.  I should acknowledge from the start that I’ve long since abandoned the practice of taking notes during matches…  you can get the blow-by-blow factual account in any number of more reliable places and if I aspire to do this too you get the match experience of a bloke scribbling illegibly into a notebook and missing out on the very experience he’s trying to describe.  For the most part the chosen approach has few drawbacks, but on a day like this on which loads of stuff just happens it’s difficult to keep track of what, when and by whom so apologies for factual errors, wouldn’t be the first time.

There are a number of agents of this particular chaos and one of them, to get this more or less out of the way early, is the referee.  To be clear, it’s almost inevitable that officials will become a focus when your opponent employs a provocative, spoiling, frustrating, approach, all the more so when they do so successfully.  It is also easy to superimpose a narrative over the convenient detail that said official is one of them there foreigners, “not used to our football” in the same way that foreign players and managers once weren’t when it was convenient.  Australian Jared Gillett is, if you believe the popular narrative, “the first overseas person to referee a Premier League game”, which as has been pointed out elsewhere was presumably news to Dermot Gallagher.  But Gillett is no novice, and has refereed nearly 40 senior games in this country including three at the Vic last season.

However. Both of these things can be true – a provocative approach makes life hard for a ref, the novelty of his foreignness is a convenient stick to beat him with – and yet, after allowing for them, he still makes a pig’s ear of things anyway.  This begins very early on when Matt Ritchie puts his boot through Sarr in the Newcastle left-back position, leaving the winger’s ankles wrapped around his ears.  The die is cast from the moment that the official fails to card the protagonist.  Most transparently, when Sarr puts the burners on around half an hour later and the same player hauls him down unceremoniously he “takes one for the team” that would have been nothing like as straightforward a decision had he already been on a yellow.  Most likely outcome there is that he opts against the cynical foul and Isma is away.  More generally a marker has been put down, the referee is there for the taking.

Jarred Gillett, then, doesn’t have a good day.  This cuts for us as well as against us…  Joshua King will escape reprimand for removing his shirt after he “scores”, Craig Cathcart will go unpunished when, as Alain Saint-Maximin threatens yet another of the alarming number of runs through on goal that the visitors engineer through a combination of aggressive high press and a lack of options for defenders to hit, the centre-back takes him out with an elegant two-handed shove in the centre-circle.

Ultimately Gillett’s performance is an extremely nervous one.  His performance is nowhere near brave enough for a fixture like this in which every Newcastle corner threatens to descend into a brawl.  This antagonises because we’re behind for half of the game but ultimately, he’s an agent of chaos, a source of variance.  He’s refereeing a game taking place in an earthquake.

3- Because our bigger problem is our initial inability to cope with Newcastle’s game plan.  We start brightly, Emmanuel Dennis rabbiting in on the left of the box and forcing a smart double save from Darlow, but very quickly Newcastle have us squashed into places that we don’t want to be with nowhere to go and little time to think about it.  Logic dictates that the out-balls must be there, and one of them is provided by Moussa Sissoko who frequently drops into an accessible hole behind whoever is closing a centre-back down at the base of the midfield to relieve pressure and drive the play back where we want it to be.  Otherwise it’s ambitious balls over the top to Danny Rose attacking the right full-back position who is perhaps more mobile than Newcastle had counted on or remembered.  Rose, like his fellow ex-Mag Sissoko, is given the bird by the visiting fans throughout much as Daryl Janmaat always was, though in Rose’s case the references to a season spent at Sunderland nine years ago are slightly baffling.  In any case, if one of your two out-balls is an ambitious pass to a galloping full-back you’ve got a problem.

If there’s a positive to take from the first half it’s that we fashion chances despite being swamped, Kucka swinging a free kick past the Newcastle wall to force Darlow to push away, Sarr – seemingly subdued by his battering – getting himself going and cutting into the middle to send a low, firm shot close enough for the keeper to block but not so close that we wouldn’t have profited from having someone alert to the rebound.  No bad thing to still have a threat while being overwhelmed.

But we are overwhelmed, and the threats come from several directions.  Fernández in the first half and Clark in the second will both threaten with headers, just the sort of chance that you’d expect a big ugly Chilean centre-back to mop up in what one hopes is still the normal way.  The ongoing omission of Francisco Sierralta is slightly baffling; some revisionist stuff on Twitter about how he was never that good anyway doesn’t begin to answer the question, particularly against an opponent who, deprived of their main goalscorer, were always going to try to exploit high deliveries from set pieces.  That he plays against Stoke but doesn’t make the bench again here suggests Stuff and Things about which we can only speculate.  A secret agreement with the Chilean FA?  Undiscussed fall-out from what looked on the face of it a clumsy but forgivable own goal against Wolves?  One can only hope that whatever it is gets Sorted, because there’s quite enough chaos going on without us imposing even more on ourselves with silly decisions.  In danger of getting political again.

Newcastle also enjoy too many unchallenged shots from outside the box where Sean Longstaff gets two sighters before pinging one past Ben Foster.  It ends up in the top corner but only with the help of the goalkeeper’s fingers…  it’s slightly beyond his reach rather than, as the initial audio clue suggested, squeezing between his hands but his reaction betrays that he should have had it.

The other Newcastle threat, as already suggested, comes from a porous high line, exposed for the first time when Cathcart gets himself into trouble on our left flank and plays a weak backpass into the feet of Saint-Maximin.  The winger gallops away, but not for the last time a Newcastle break is curtailed by Ben Foster reacting quickly and not panicking.  Saint-Maximin dithers slightly when presented with a big obstacle and a decision to make and is forced to lay off untidily to Longstaff as Cathcart tries to redeem himself, the shot scooped over.  Foster will arrest similar breaks from Willock and Murphy in the second half, and you do wonder whether our decision to go with a high line against a pressing side with a lot of pace in it is borne of a recognition that their finishing, minus Wilson, minus the confidence borne of a win this season, isn’t great.  Either way we get away with being one down at the break.

4- Whilst this game, for as long as it’s reflected on at all, will not be looked back on terribly positively there’s an awful lot to like about the fact that we were second best for at least three-quarters of the game but finished much the stronger, much the likelier side to break the deadlock.  We got away with stuff, sure, but we engineered solutions and many of them came from the bench, all four substitutes improving our lot.

Tom Cleverley had had a frustrating first half, unable to instigate as much as he had at Carrow Road against a more pliable opponent.  He survived the first half without being booked, somehow, but was removed at the break via a “concussion substitution” having collided heavily with Karl Darlow towards the end of the half.  In his place came Ozan Tufan, looking every inch the Rolls Royce that our midfield needed.  Suddenly we had someone capable of conducting and shaping what was going on in front of him and our attack had something to glue itself to.  This was Gandalf arriving with Erkenbrand at Helm’s Deep, a game changer.

Whilst we’re still ceding chances, we suddenly look potent and controlled in attack.  We add to our armoury with the welcome return of João Pedro, whose deftness and deceptive strength will surely find a home in this starting eleven.  Jeremy Ngakia is introduced for an apparently ailing Kiko Femenía;  the Spaniard has been a shadow of the irresistible force on show at Norwich, but as the balance of the game starts to tip towards our favour Ngakia is in his element…  a situation which demands character, bullishness, and not terribly much looking over your shoulder against a team playing a narrow attack suits him down to the ground and this is a fine cameo.

We’re still fighting for a foothold, we haven’t turned the tables quite yet but again display the resourcefulness to fashion a chance – and a goal this time – from a planned set piece…  Rose’s delivery from the corner is excellent, the industrious Joshua King executes his flick-on perfectly and Sarr is exercising his neck muscles at the back post where the visitors on the line don’t stand a chance.  Amidst the celebrations King, significantly, grabs the ball from the net and exhorts his teammates towards a renewed assault.

Within minutes Peter Etebo is on for Emmanuel Dennis, and suddenly having been so much second best in the first half, we look a far, far better side than Newcastle.  Etebo patrols the back of the midfield contemptuously, Tufan is restored to the apex having briefly dropped back to accommodate João Pedro who now moves to the left.  This, you suspect, may be the shape of things to come in the front six for all that the pieces are still shifting around.  We look more than ready for the final fifteen minutes or so.

5- If there’s anything more enjoyable than scratching and fighting and shithousing your way to an away win it’s depriving an opponent of doing so.  The few seconds between Joshua King tucking away the loose ball after João Pedro’s tidy lay-off had set up Sissoko to drive at Darlow were a wonderful thing but  it wasn’t to be.  Referee Gillett rubbed salt into the wound unnecessarily by getting his handpointing all wrong and invoking a second abortive goal celebration, but VAR confirmed that Newcastle’s offside trap was in better working order than ours had been and King had stepped beyond it.

Nonetheless.  This report, written in its entirety on Sunday, has turned out far more cheerful than it probably would have done last night.  We obviously need to be able to cope better with a high press but we did so, in the end, and got ourselves into a position where we could really have won the game at the death.  Dead losses don’t do that.  Not winning a winnable home game is disappointing, but four points from the last two no worse than par. Even Peter Etebo limping off with a hamstring injury having galloped after Jacob Murphy may not prove to be a disaster if it means that he rests up during the forthcoming international break and is back for Liverpool.

As for everything else…  ongoing lack of fuel would prohibit a match report from Elland Road next weekend but in the grand scheme of things that’s fairly small potatoes.  The sky is blue, and worrying about things outside your control is never terribly productive.  Watford rode their luck in this one, but took advantage of having done so and looked a far more compelling outfit at the end of the game than we had at the beginning.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Rose 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 2, *Sissoko 4*, Kucka 2, Cleverley 3, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Tufan (for Cleverley, 45) 4, João Pedro (for Etebo, 64) 3, Ngakia (for Femenía, 67) 3, Etebo (for Dennis, 75) NA, Masina, Sema, Hernández, Kabasele, Elliot

Norwich City 1 Watford 3 (18/09/2021) 19/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1-  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

Such is the prevailing sentiment at the Redwell Brewery in the lunchtime sunshine.  Freshly made pizza and craft beer are delivered to picnic benches arranged in an open courtyard.  Trains trundle apologetically along the adjoining track.  A gentleman with an impressively long beard and a bandanna is taking photographs for the website.  The unobtrusive murmur of pre-match chatter proliferates.

There are more or less exactly the right number of tables for the clientele, and all bar ours betray home colours.  Nonetheless, as above, there is a common tone borne of two seasons of shared experience and a build up to a big game which, if in slightly different ways, is being approached with a degree of apprehension on both sides.  

This illusion of bonhomie and commonality might be easier for me to delude myself with as a visiting supporter given that all four of the encounters over the last couple of season have gone our way, three of them behind closed doors.  If the home support regard us with less goodwill it isn’t evident;  only Julian’s “you always beat us, I have no expectation of anything different” betrays the slightest hint of animosity amongst our affable hosts.  It’s all very agreeable.  Nonetheless, as we reflect on leaving, whilst you wouldn’t object to both Watford and Norwich staying up, if it comes down to us or them making the drop then let’s face it, it’s them.

2- “It’s going to be tight and nervy” is one opinion overheard on the walk to the ground in what was pleasant warmth when sitting around drinking beer but altogether less pleasant when walking up and down hills is involved.  The “nervy” bit at least reflects the position of both sides…  the Hornets have barely threatened a goal in the League since the opening day whilst the Canaries are without a point.  Admittedly their fixtures thus far haven’t been terribly accommodating, but those who remember our 1999/2000 season will remember coming out of a run of tough games to face Cov and Boro, ostensibly more realistic sources of points, and being stuffed by them, too.  This is a huge game, but probably bigger for the home side.

Our recent performances have been characterised by an ability to hold opponents off whilst ceding possession, undermined by an inability to capitalise when we break.  Today, subtle changes in team selection and attitude facilitate almost a complete inverse.  That “tight and nervy” prediction is blown out of the water immediately as both sides start positively and aggressively.  Off the pitch, in the circumstances we may benefit from being the away side;  a travelling support in general, let alone on a sunny afternoon in late summer, generally boasts less angst and more bloody-mindedness than a home support, all other things being equal.  This is only fuelled by an early assault on the City goal, adjacent to the away block in the first half, which culminates in Kucka hurling himself like a human missile at a right wing cross.  His opponent holds him off on this occasion, which takes some doing, but this is fuel to the boisterous fire kindling in the away end.  The flipside of this is that having looked generally difficult to manoeuvre through up until now we’re ceding chances a little too easily in what little foothold we afford the home side.  This will not be dull.

3- Daughter 1 has not joined us on the trip to Norfolk.  She is later to bemoan her ongoing 100% failure rate this season in attending none of the games in which we find the net and all of those in which we strike out.  “I just want to see us score” she protests plaintively to a tough crowd, her mother thoroughly unsympathetic and her father and younger sister still buzzing after a two hour trip from Norfolk.  She will learn, in time, that the only way to cope with what she would call FOMO is to attend every game but some lessons need to come from within and cannot be taught.

The reaction to the first goal is exactly what she’s talking about though.  The cathartic celebrations on the opening day were fabulous, but almost… not tainted, tainted is the wrong word because they were thoroughly enjoyable. Unusual, maybe.  Unnatural.  Fuelled by and inextricably linked to being back in the stadium at all.  This was different.  This was all about footballing context and was deafening, furious and prolonged, abetted by the goal going in in front of us and a multi-player fist waving bundle at the foot of the away stand.  There was an Emmanuel Dennis somersault in there too, but I was oblivious to that until a photo was shared during a dazed, grinning encounter with a fellow traveller in a petrol station on the way westwards after the game.

The build-up featured two of those subtle but critical team changes.  Less subtle, less obvious and presumably enforced were the unexplained absences of both Sierralta and the still unseen Tufan.  But Kiko Femenía is one of those things that you’ve been imagining, hoping, might give us a little bit more of an edge… Sarr is the threat but if he’s the only threat most teams will subdue him at this level.  Kiko bombing on gives you two speed-demons to worry about.  Slightly less straightforward.  And then there’s Cleverley… Peter Etebo hadn’t done an awful lot wrong to necessitate his dropping to the bench, but the mix wasn’t right against Wolves.  Cleverley brings experience of course, and an ability to calm everything down, but he also brings the dynamism to get into mischievous areas and the courage to play a quick one-touch pass where a more cautious second touch would give the opponent chance to get set.  More than once this courage is crucial in opening City up, and this is the case here as Sarr, Clevs and Kiko play a quick game of pinball before Kiko finds space to put in a cross.  It’s a Beckham crossing position rather than a lay-in from the byline and the full back will get one badly wrong from a similar spot five minutes later but this one is on the money.  Dennis ghosts in between two defenders to meet it with a directed header and Krul doesn’t have a chance.  It’s a magnificent goal in both its significance in the game and in the reassurance it provides about our fledgling forward line. The roof comes off the stand. 

The goal also reenforces the suspicion that whilst, as two years ago, there’s things that Norwich are good at there’s also plenty of stuff that Norwich aren’t good at and defending remains one of them.  As the game settles down a little we’re still pushing forward aggressively, and in contrast to earlier games the ball is largely in the opponent’s half.  We’re speculating that perhaps we perceive a lack of pace in Norwich’s attack, a lack of threat on the break when the silver-haired Normann drops a ball over the top for Pukki to gallop onto and finish calmly, giving a lie to that theory.  There are further chances at both ends, not least from Sarr with whom Brandon Williams is struggling manfully but to whom Kiko is affording extra freedom.  The half ends, the away end sits down collectively and Daughter 2 sums up concisely.  “That was intense!”.

4- Danny Rose is a significant protagonist in proceedings not for the first or, one suspects, the last time, and awarding him a representative mark out of five almost impossible.  On the plus side of course a formidable strength of body and will and a footballing ability, a mixture of capability and confidence that betrays his pedigree.  Case in point at the end of the first half when an insane, scorching through ball frees Sarr and Krul does exceptionally well to come out and deny what would have been a stunning, merciless strike at the end of the half.  The pass was breathtaking in its imagination and its execution, and was merely the most startling example of Rose’s positive contribution.

On the downside…  he’s unavoidably heavy and immobile.  A Danny Rose that could still thunder up and down the left flank, one supposes, wouldn’t be playing for us…   but nonetheless.  His trips up the left flank seem to require some form of self-funded period of isolation in a hotel before returning such is the time that he takes to drop back into position, perhaps a footnote in the latest convolution of the COVID travel rules.  This is accommodated for the most part by Norwich’s lack of threat from wide positions and by what can only be a pre-planned covering plan since we are rarely exploited here, but a second half penalty shout looks hairy as Rose seems to clatter his opponent from behind in the box below us.  In any event the travelling support have come down vociferously on one side of the argument as the player himself acknowledges with a thumbs up over his shoulder late in the game.  One hopes that increased game time will see his mobility improve – if it does, we have a monster on our hands.

And monsters are another dominant characteristic of the performance.  This has been discussed before, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re bullying Norwich, particularly in midfield.  Concerns about a lack of physicality given the departures of Doucouré, Capoue and now Chalobah in recent years seem a distant memory;  Norwich aren’t going to be the last relatively lightweight side that we overpower, you suspect.

A key protagonist here is Moussa Sissoko, another with an instant fanclub, who is indirectly involved in the second goal.  He airkicks in attempting to set off a counterattack to guffaws from the stands but recovers to set the play in motion anyway, its ultimate success all the more damning on City’s defending for the fact that he took time for a second go.  Kiko has limped off with what may prove to be the one negative mark against the afternoon (though he’s agile enough to come all the way over to the support at the end of the game, reassuringly) and Ngakia got his defiant head to a cross within seconds of coming on.  Now he’s galloping upfield and releases Joshua King on the right of the box.  King is an interesting focal point… not a Jamie Vardy, not an out-and-out goalscorer by any means but increasingly the glue that holds this forward line together.  He pulls back from the touchline and Sarr has dropped around Hanley to finish superbly.  We look lethal, Norwich look lead-footed.

4- The second Watford sub follows ten minutes later and sees Dennis replaced by Sema on the left flank.  We drop to what appears to be a more conservative formation…  Sema and Sarr much more withdrawn in a midfield four with Clevs now buzzing around with King.  This feels precarious, offering the home side more opportunity to do the stuff they’re quite good at and demanding less of the stuff they’ve been struggling with.  We look a little bit ragged for the first time in this period, and are more than once grateful to Ben Foster’s attentiveness. His rapid and accurate distribution, a feature of his game since his first debut for us all of 16 years ago, is another vital characteristic of the afternoon, as helpful in achieving quick turnarounds as Cleverley’s sharpness.  Bachmann has retreated to the bench in what can only have been a precautionary move if it was genuinely fuelled by a knee injury as reported, but as in the Palace tie Foster looks thoroughly on his game. The Stoke fixture falls quite nicely as one assumes he’d have been back in for that in any case but barring disaster there it’s not difficult to see him reclaiming his throne here.

Meanwhile our third goal is almost as out-of-the-blue as City’s equaliser had been an hour earlier… McLean slices a ball upwards but unlike Sissoko doesn’t get away with his misjudgement… Cleverley is onto it, King is put through, Krul again does well to deny him but Sarr finishes the rebound expertly, a much more accomplished finish than the almost apologetic roll into the net makes it appear.  We celebrate, we see the flag, we feel a bit silly. 

I’m not a big fan of VAR, I think you lose a lot more than you gain in general, but the current minimalist incarnation seems far less obtrusive and therefore objectionable to me for as long as it lasts.  The offside rule is still an issue though…  and it’s nobody’s fault really.  An idea that was introduced to discourage goalhanging has been hijacked as the basis for defensive strategy.  It was certainly never conceived to be something that cameras could adjudicate on with such arbitrary precision.  You do kind of feel that a striker that’s more-or-less level with the last defender ought to be onside, even if “more-or-less” isn’t nearly specific enough for our current reality.  At any rate…  if there’s a time that a VAR delay can be enjoyed it’s when you’re maybe going 3-1 up in a critical match away from home with ten minutes to go.  There are “ooooos” and vibrating outstretched arms in the away end before the referee delivers the verdict.  Somehow Tom Cleverley, who played the pass that was the focus of attention, is now in his own half and perfectly positioned to celebrate the end of the match as a contest in front of the now jubilant travelling Hornets alongside his goalkeeper who, like him, was a Player of the Season for us over a decade ago.

5- And it is over, indisputably; Norwich are as flat as a pancake for the last ten minutes.  Ken Sema’s One Run is as dependable a fixture of every game as the Jamie Hand Booking was twenty-odd years ago;  here his barrelling charge down the left sees him go down in the box.  From our unfavourable distance and angle it looks like a good shout, but in any case it perhaps only evens out the Danny Rose call at the other end.  Sarr threatens a hat-trick and a cherry on the icing on the ample afternoon cake, but is denied.  The game ends.

And doesn’t the world look different today.  We should be mindful of recency bias of course…  we are no more the irresistible force today than we were a blunt, hapless object 48 hours ago.  But in wreaking havoc once again at Carrow Road, and arguably more decisively than in either of the previous two meetings, we’ve shown what’s already possible, and suggested a direction of travel.  No illusion of progress this, this really is something that’s coming together at the point that we needed it to.  

Equally we’re only five games into the season, and Norwich aren’t out of this.  You wouldn’t back them though. Most of all it’s difficult to watch a Daniel Farke interview without thinking “we got rid of Jokanovic six years ago because we didn’t think he could organise a Premier League defence…”.  The Norwich support are no less affable outside the ground, but they’re not smiling. 

Enjoy the journey.  So much easier after an away win though.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 4, Rose 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Cleverley 5, *Sarr 5*, Dennis 4, King 4
Subs: Ngakia (for Femenía, 59) 3, Sema (for Dennis, 73) 3, Etebo (for Cleverley, 83) NA, Masina, Louza, Fletcher, Hernández, Kabasele, Bachmann

Watford 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (11/09/2021) 12/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- I was back in work this week.

I’m one of those desk jockeys fortunate enough to have been able to push on from home during the pandemic and various stages of lockdown, pretty much without breaking stride.  It’s been a bit rubbish, obviously, but in the grand scheme of things you’ll take “a bit rubbish”.  I’ve had a laptop, I’ve had an internet connection and Zoom-y kind of tools to talk to people through so…  fine.  Critically, I’ve still got paid.

My employer has been cautious as far as folk coming back to the “office” is concerned.  Not an office really, strictly speaking;  a research laboratory.  650-odd people are employed there, nominally, so it’s a big place.  Some folk have needed to be back more than me, some of the proper scientists need laboratories and that.  But this week, with controls and ifs and buts and with no coercion whatsoever the great unwashed were permitted in as well.  Many didn’t, but I don’t have a commute to speak of.  I was in every day.

It was kind of the same, but kind of different.  No surprise of course… buildings are still in the same place, most of them.  The site still looks brilliant in the sunshine.  It takes me the same amount of time to walk home.  But after everything that’s happened, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to have been left how it was, to be as I remember it and to work right away.  Rooms have been rearranged and refurbished for one thing, much more easily achieved when the place is empty.  Repurposed for “hybrid” working, whatever that turns out to be.  The people are different…  folk have come and gone,  some of the newbies have been back on site for months, I’m the newbie in their eyes.  It’s still very empty compared to what normal used to be.

Kind of the same, but kind of different.

2- You’ll have guessed where this is going.

We’re sort of, kind of, almost getting back into the swing now with the football.  Not really…  it’ll take longer, too much has happened… but kind of, almost, getting there.  Daughters 1 and 2 are both here today; Daughter 1 also has Kate with her, an occasional if enthusiastic visitor over the years and possibly the last person to bemoan the demise of Chimichanga on Market Street, part of the ritual she remembers.  Daughter 2 has slightly less catching up to do, but nonetheless hasn’t been here since the ghostly game against Cardiff last season, Daughter 1 not since we lasted hosted Wolves (which was only New Year’s Day last year, though it could equally be a decade ago).  Only Isma, of our starting eleven, was involved that day which tells a story.  In contrast seven of Wolves’ starters today were in that matchday squad.

This highlights again the challenge inherent in the colossal overhaul of the squad not just over the last transfer window but since supporters were last regularly in the ground.  We could do with a few more Aston Villas to build those fledgling emotional investments as much as our points tally.

3- The head coach, at least, has built a rapid connection with supporters – a ready smile and a promotion don’t hurt of course – but his request for a barrage of noise to fuel an early assault on the visitors never looks remotely like coming to pass as Wolves dominate possession for the opening ten or fifteen minutes.  Jeremy Ngakia is one of two new faces in the starting eleven…  I’ve never quite decided in my head whether he’s destined for great things or somewhat less great things, and the same conflicting evidence is on show here.  In the opening minutes Traoré, ostensibly the greatest threat (Jiménez, a shadow of his former self, is regaining fitness and confidence), twice loses Ngakia on the Wolves left before slipping a simple pass to a team-mate presumably deemed to boast more reliable end product.  It’s all very sensible but rather underwhelming, like hiring a michelin-starred chef to pour you some corn flakes.

Thereafter however Ngakia gets to grips with his opponent to such an extent that the interval will see Traoré and the rather dainty Trincão switch wings.  On the evidence presented thus far it looks as if maybe Connor Roberts was the aberration, with Zaha/Traoré suggesting that the young full-back has enough about him to bottle up challenging opponents.  His success mirrors our own, as we more or less succeed once again in keeping our opponents at arm’s length despite their almost complete possession.

When we do retaliate it’s swift, aggressive and startling…  Sarr’s poise and awareness on the right allow him to slip a ball inside to Sissoko; his effort is all power and no precision and from a wide angle at a comfortable height José Sá is never seriously troubled but it was on target, a lapse of concentration and it would have been in.  From the subsequent corner Etebo lamps the first of a couple of long shots high, wide and handsome.

We’re physically much more powerful than Wolves, and begin to bully them all over the park.  Sissoko manages to combine power with balance, and more than once wrong foots one opponent whilst holding off another.  He combines with Sarr again for the winger to roll a ball across the face of goal and narrowly beyond King’s toe.  Danny Rose, the other newcomer, is no less prominent than Ngakia.  He does the Robbo thing of not settling for a neat, clean tackle when there’s energy spare to make sure that the opponent feels it….  if he’s less of a threat hurtling up and down the flank than in his heyday and despite looking pretty fed up throughout he does more than enough to justify his selection.  Etebo once again patrols behind the midfield despite the challenge of an early card.

4- Thing is though, whilst we do well to reclaim a foothold in the first half and can make a case for being level on points as well as on goals at the interval, and whilst there are good individual things and a very enjoyable amount of bootering, we’re not nearly coherent enough in attack.  There’s some good stuff there, some good bits but there’s no whole.  No shape, no pattern, no cheap stock goals, not yet.  We’re like a lion cub with teeth and claws that we don’t quite know what to do with, needing to work it all out before the law of the jungle tears us apart.  Not that lions live in jungles…

When King (of the jungle) hobbles off shortly into the second half any sense of a focal point disappears altogether.  This is Emmanuel Dennis’ weakest game so far… he keeps running, but to little effect.  Cucho is a box of tricks and wins a couple of decent aerial balls against taller opponents but he surely needs to be the decoration on a more solid structure whilst Sarr has all the ability and acceleration but isn’t Troy Deeney, isn’t ever going to be the leader.

This lack of shape and purpose – for now at any rate – has two consequences.  Firstly, our attacking falters in the second half… not a lack of effort for me as much of a lack of conviction, a resignation to the futility of the exercise which is probably worse.  Secondly, and partly as a consequence, by not realising your threat you give your opponent no reason to moderate their attacking ambitions.  This was already evident at the end of the first half when right wing-back Semedo was put through at the death with the Hornets busy claiming for a foul on the subdued Kucka at the other end of the pitch.  Bachmann denied him on this occasion, but the same player was put through early in the second half and shot wide.  Jiménez found space in the box and headed narrowly off target.

Tickets, raffles, and we were selling too many tickets.  It’s a bit of a shame that it was Sierralta, up to that point the head on the end of any optimistic high ball that Wolves had lobbed into the box;  as two Watford bodies went up in front of him, reaching for a left wing cross, he can only have been unsighted and slightly disorientated in deflecting the ball home under minimal pressure.  It was no more than Wolves deserved by that point, and Bachmann was unable to prevent a scruffy second ten minutes later.

5- Kind of the same, kind of different.  And because it’s different, all different, it’s unreasonable to expect it all to gel straight away.  There are good bits.  Even the bits that don’t work as a collective have things about them that offer encouragement.  Thing is, we don’t have a huge amount of time to develop those patterns given the unforgiving nature of the Premier League and the circumstances of our fixture list.  We need points out of our next couple of games, on the back of not really having looked much like scoring since Villa.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back in work next week for all that it’s weird, for all that it’s kind of the same but kind of different.  I can only remember one comparable instance in what have been many years working at this place, one time when everything seemed to change and you wanted to drop to the floor to regain your balance.  That was in September 2001;  we’d just gotten back from our honeymoon in New York and Boston.  We’d been on top of the World Trade Center as England were putting five goals past Germany in Munich.   One of the best things about football, as we’ve suggested before, is how it can matter so much whilst not mattering at all.  But it doesn’t matter at all, not really.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 4, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Hernández (for King, 53) 3, Sema (for Etebo, 77) NA, Louza, Cleverley, Masina, Cathcart, Tufan, Kabasele, Elliot