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Watford 2 Arsenal 1 (14/10/2017) 15/10/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  The 1980s, then.  You’ll have a position, no doubt.  Mine tends to depend on what mood I’m in and who’s asking.  Dad’s rather dismissive attitude towards anything since the mid-seventies tends to rather force me into a defensive stance citing the icons of my childhood but there’s little reasonable argument in support of Thatcher, big hair bands or velour tracksuits.

This evening featured some 80s flashbacks of its own, some welcome and some less so.  In the latter category, the outbreak of fighting in the Rookery as some witless Arsenal incursion was met aggressively. This was far enough away from us not to be an immediate issue, but close enough for the always anxious Daughter 2 to dwell upon it despite all that happened after. Slightly depressing that the incursion of away fans in home ends that happens in all grounds at most games, mates sitting with mates and so on, is still necessarily low key because of idiots like these.

On the upside.  Well.  The 1980s was by and large a spectacular time to support Watford, as those of us fortunate enough (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) to be impressionable during this period could testify.  We took on all comers.  We had guts, and style, and bravado.  We won games like this.

There’s another eighties nostalgia detail of course, but we’ll get to that…

2-  We’ve noted this before, but if you were to list the things you missed about the Second Division, floodlit matches at the Vic would be up there.  And no, this wasn’t strictly an evening game but the sun was on its way home for “Strictly” and beans on toast by kick-off and the marvellous focused intensity of such occasions was thick in the air.  The 1881’s latest magnificent flag shrouded the Rookery as the teams came out and then rattled back down the stand like an opening curtain on the spectacle.

Team news had revealed Andre Gray back in for Troy, Pereyra for the jet-lagged Carrillo and a switch to a back three with Miguel Britos returning to the fold.  As an aside, telling that already we look at such a change from Silva and trust it instinctively.  Mazzarri never earned that confidence.

The first half was absorbing, if not thrilling.  With Doucouré loping around the pitch and dictating our play we enjoyed more of the possession and territory…  but the visitors’ attacks had more menace about them.  This arose in part because the Gunners pressurised us high up the pitch and forced us to either move backwards or to resort to longer passes that didn’t suit Gray, once again willing and industrious but limited in his effectiveness.  Much of our penetration came through Richarlíson, Pereyra twisting to try to divert a cross goalwards, but we weren’t getting very far.  At the other end the three/five-man defence generally kept Arsenal at arm’s length, resisting the visitors’ efforts to stretch the play by switching flanks, but as the half went on they were getting closer than we were.  Elneny clouted narrowly over, Bellerín flicked a shot wide.  Five minutes before the break when we’d have gratefully taken all square at half time, Per Mertesacker crashed in Xhaka’s corner.  Aggravating…  we’d done enough, only to stuff up on a set piece.  Half time arrived to a backdrop of grumbles about about zonal marking.

3- In such circumstances, going behind avoidably shortly before half time to one of the big sides, you expect the match to pan out a certain way.  That it didn’t reflects upon both sides.  Our lot we’ll get to, though tales of guts and spirit and ability to hurt teams should already be a surprise to nobody.

But as for Arsenal…  it’s no mystery, and no great insight, but this side is completely gutless.  As ever, Troy put it best…

Ability, yes, even allowing for rested stars and injured defenders.  But no spirit, and no leaders.  No leaders for a long time, actually.  Not even the utterly likeable “BFG” Mertesacker, who showed class by treating Richarlíson’s cramp late on in the midst of what had built gradually to an onslaught in the second half.  Mertesacker is an experienced, respected player but he’s not a warrior.  Arsenal haven’t had one of them for an age.  And we have them in spades…

4- Not least the man who came off the bench on the hour for a tour de force.  Critically, Arsenal’s pressing game that had so disrupted our attempts to build an attack had dissipated instantly on their taking the lead.  Throughout the second period we had loads of space… but had still been struggling to make the ball stick.  Richarlíson, the one dependable source of penetration, did a sterling job in the wake of concerted attention, but the arrival of Deeney with that look in his eyes changed the game entirely.

Mertesacker’s first league start for eighteen months has been cited as a silver lining for the visitors, but he was completely unable to cope with Deeney despite his six inch advantage, and very quickly looked like a player who was out of practice.  Troy was in full battle mode, relishing every confrontation, setting down a challenge and finding no takers.  He added glue to our attacking play and those around him thrived on it.

Arsenal weren’t out of it.  Özil came off the bench and was soon significant in counter-attacks that could have seen us put to bed by Iwobi, denied by Gomes, or by the German himself who fluffed a good chance on his weaker foot. But we were on the front foot by midway through the half, to the extent that even a 1-0 defeat would likely have been met with an ovation.  We didn’t roll over, we gave it some.

But we didn’t lose 1-0.  Because from Özil’s miss, we broke…

5- Whether you think it was a penalty depends rather on who you support, I suspect.  Certainly, the definitive condemnation of Richarlíson that accompanies even the more even handed of Arsenal reports already up on the web are ludicrous, since TV replays don’t reveal the extent of the contact, the extent to which he was tripped or exaggerated.

What’s beyond doubt is that tickets win raffles, and so forth.  Richarlíson had been running at Bellerín all night – that doesn’t earn him the right to a penalty if no contact was made, but it does increase the chances of his marker getting his timing wrong just once.  The Brazilian’s treatment this evening was less brutal than it has been in other games where, equally, he has gotten up again and kept going but nonetheless, his irrepressible refusal to take or give his marker a breather means stuff like this will happen.

Arsène Wenger would have done well to remember the penalty Alexis Sanchez earned in generous circumstances in this fixture last season before bleating too much about this one, but I don’t begrudge him his moan.  Indeed, he contributed to what could hardly have been a more comprehensive eighties tribute had he brought Kenny Sansom on to sit on his arse at left back whilst David Bardsley was jetted in from the US to sprint past him.  Again.  The other thing about the eighties, of course, is that We Always Beat The Arsenal….  P14 W9 D1 L4, if you’re counting, that including an FA Cup Quarter Final in our first season up in the second tier, and a relegation season.  This is now our third win in four.

6- Only one team was going to win this.  That’s not to say that it was always coming… indeed when Étienne Capoue’s drive thudded off Mertesacker’s chest and onto a post we’d clocked that this probably wasn’t going to happen, and when Carrillo rushed a good opening to fire over we’d resigned ourselves to a very respectable point.

So the winner was a thing of beauty in it’s scruffiness, exactly the sort of goal that Arsenal would never have scored.  There was finesse in there too, the unstoppable Deeney with the presence of mind to pull back from wide… but mostly it was pinball and determination and bloody-mindedness.  What a joy it was that it was Cleverley, so meriting and so needing a goal, who clouted the decisive strike through the debris of Arsenal’s defence in a manner that recalled his captain against Leicester four years earlier.  The roof came off;  I had a rush of blood and almost fainted.  Daughters one and two screamed uncontrollably.

7- The mood post-match was special, reflecting the value in this win above “mere” three points.  Hands were shaken in the concourse, embraces were shared.  Grins and salutes, no need to articulate this.  Bloody come on.

We go to Stamford Bridge now knowing that even a defeat is likely to leave us in the top six a quarter of the way through the season.  No flash in the pan, this.  Enjoy…

Yoorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 3, Holebas 5, Mariappa 4, Kabasele 4, Britos 3, Doucouré 5, Cleverley 5, Pereyra 4, Richarlíson 4, Gray 3

Subs:  *Deeney (for Gray, 63) 5*, Carrillo (for Mariappa, 63) 3, Capoue (for Pereyra, 81) 0, Janmaat, Wagué, Watson, Karnezis

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West Bromwich Albion 2 Watford 2 (30/09/2017) 01/10/2017

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

1- Losing your voice.  That’s the one.  That’s when you know that it’s been a belter, that it’s been worthwhile.  Lots of components make up an away day on and off the pitch…  result, performance, excitement.  Journey, company, food.  Some of which might be more important to you and some less, but losing your voice, as a marker, trumps everything.  Doesn’t matter that it was wet, doesn’t matter that I scraped the bloody car again.  It occurred to me as I noticed the rawness in my throat on the way home that this hasn’t happened a lot recently – it used to be a regular thing.  Maybe I shouted more when we were crap, but I’ve never been a ranter and raver.  Maybe I’m getting old; maybe kids demand a degree of decorum.

As for them… they’d been less attentive than usual.  Daughter 2 in particular seems to have fallen out of love with standing on her seat, and so huddled sombrely in the shadows for the most part.  Daughter 1 seemed distracted too, though she was paying enough attention to ask how it was possible to enjoy so much possession and still be behind midway through the second half.  When it happened though… when it happened they were rapt and then as utterly caught up in the explosion of noise and disbelief as the rest of us.  The first proper mental I’ve had this season (I missed Swansea, perhaps that was similar).  Prolonged yelling, bodies flying around, trying to do justice to the beauty of the moment.  Gomes, up for the corner, able to join in the celebration for once. Come on.  Come on!!!

2- All of which seemed very unlikely ninety minutes earlier.  After a strong opening quarter of an hour or so, a quarter of an hour that had seen us dominate possession without, admittedly, getting terribly close to opening the scoring, Albion had taken the lead.  There had been portents of what was to come, long balls out of that resolute defence designed to catch us on our heels…  and one did.  Kabasele, who had had a wobbly start to the game, got into a horrible mess with Mariappa; Rondón, who was otherwise quiet, bundled through regardless, resisted Kabasele’s feeble attempt to batter him out of his stride and finished from a narrow angle.  Three minutes later we were still coming to terms with the shift in the balance of power when Albion’s trademark set piece involving bodies flying into the box saw them extend their lead.

It could have gone badly in so many ways from here.  In fact it has done, many many times.  I like coming to the Hawthorns but our record here over the years has been rubbish. We’ve been in this position before and seen Bob Taylor or Lee Hughes propel Albion into unassailable leads from just such situations.  We looked briefly woebegone and beaten and, with Man City still fresh in our minds, we feared this could get ugly.  Heurelho Gomes bawled at some slack marking from another set piece.  Tom Cleverley bellowed André Carrillo into shambling vaguely towards his charge at a corner.  We waited for the game that tends to follow in such situations to unravel, our hope that it would be over quickly.

3- So that it didn’t turn out that way speaks volumes about our character.  Quality too, obviously;  we regained the initiative and had a ridiculous amount of the ball thereafter, ridiculous enough for a half-attentive eleven year old to remark upon it.  But Albion’s resolute wall of bodies, a wall which executed an impossible number of blocks as we cranked it up in the second half, doesn’t tolerate or permit much quality.  No, it was our character that was tested, our determination, belief, focus.  No half-arsedness here (after that five minute slump…) whatever our limitations and whatever the frustration of yet another attack foundering on an Albion forehead.  It was ferociously bloody-minded and a point was the least that it deserved.

So it started gently… Deeney’s inclusion over Gray reflected the physical demands of the game, not least in defending set pieces given the relative lack of height that our centre back options afforded us, but as highlighted by the closing minutes at Swansea the “partnership” between him and Richarlison looks a natural one.  The first real opening came from them; Troy releasing the Brazilian into the box and his square ball presenting Carrillo with an opportunity that deserved better than being headed over.  Two minutes later Doucouré, our playmaker throughout the afternoon, surged into space to benefit from more good link-up between Deeney and Richarlison to narrow the deficit, a fine finish with his weaker foot.  The noise in the Albion stands, which had briefly reprised the Nyom nonsense that was already tedious by half time last season, died completely and didn’t return until the 85th minute.  The balance of power had changed again, and we were applauded in at the interval.

4- It would be wrong to describe the second half as one way traffic, but the Hornets dominated possession once again.  Pereyra was introduced for Capoue, which proved critical;  the Frenchman had a decent enough hour and had seen one drive deflected narrowly wide but he looks heavy and our ability – once again – to last the full ninety was to be decisive.  Pereyra danced onto the pitch, quickly executed his “wrong footing the stadium” thing and was crucial to our ball retention thereafter. If we weren’t knocking the door down with a sledgehammer then we were rapping repeatedly and annoyingly…

Our midfield misses Chalobah, but I’m surprised and pleased by the fact that it still functions well without him – less dependent on him than suspected.  If a Prödl or a Kaboul might have rendered either of Albion’s goals less likely, then our midfield at least still works… Cleverley a dynamo, Doucouré at the heart of everything, tremendous support from the wings.  José Holebas executed an heroic block to deny McClean in injury time…

5- …preceding the defining instant of the game.  One can only assume that Tony Pulis isn’t a Sheldon fan since his post-match comments were pitiful, borne of a mind aggravated beyond the capacity for rational thought.  I like Albion, and I like the fact that Pulis exists (managing someone else, natch).  I admire the unashamedly uncompromising approach, sucking the life out of a game and trampling on its carcass.  Yes, we dominated possession but got relatively little out of it…  whilst Albion broke once and converted a set piece and were two nil up.  No accident.

But you can’t reasonably complain about timekeeping when your side have been wasting time since the hour mark and had quickly been warned about such behaviour by ref Michael Oliver.  Leave aside the fact that the board is a minimum, not a stick to beat the ref with, leave aside the fact that you’ve still got to defend (as Pulis, in fairness, conceded).  You live by the sword, you die by the sword.  And the smug, cowardly belittling of the official’s decision to award the free kick at all just made Pulis look like an idiot.  McClean telegraphed his intent with a Britos-esque approach and if he stopped short of taking Richarlíson out and went for the ball then he nonetheless scissored him with both leading and trailing legs.  If there’s anything more gratifying than a late equaliser it’s a late equaliser in injury time provoked by timewasting at the hands of a petulant little thug of a winger.  Lovely.

6- So if Pulis is the muppet of the hour, Richarlíson is surely the hero.  As is increasingly the case, Albion attempted to bully the young Brazilian out of the game; Craig Dawson, all trailing arms and late tackles, the prime culprit. As ever, the youngster didn’t give a damn.  Since coming off the bench on the opening day, Richarlíson has missed ten minutes of football – despite being frequently targeted, despite being four months out of his teens. He’s quick and clever but tough and brave too.  Good in the air, yes, what a perfect header but we knew that too.  What today demonstrated was his resilience since he didn’t get it right every time, he did look silly once or twice.  This is a kid in a new country who doesn’t speak the language, if he’d retreated into his shell you’d have forgiven him.  Instead, he provoked this.

The remarkable thing, perhaps the most remarkable thing, the thing that perhaps defines our opening to the season as we head into an international break is that underlying the euphoria and the defiance is a tinge of disappointment.  We went to West Brom, a tough place to go where we’ve such a miserable record.  We went two goals down in traditional circumstances.  We came from behind to salvage a point with a glorious injury time header.  And yet…  and yet.  We should have won.  We know we should have won.

Enjoy the break.  Bring on the Arsenal…

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 4, Mariappa 3, Kabasele 2, Doucouré 4, Capoue 3, Carrillo 3, Cleverley 4, *Richarlison 4*, Deeney 3

Subs: Pereyra (for Capoue, 62) 4, Gray (for Carrillo, 75) 3, Karnezis, Janmaat, Britos, Hughes, Watson

 

Toddy 25/09/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

We don’t make a habit of sharing writing responsibilities on these pages, as you’ll know.  Special circumstances demand an exception.  We’ll miss you, Toddy.

As Richarlison burst through Alfie Mawson’s wet lettuce of a tackle and delivered the coup de grace on Saturday, you couldn’t help but wonder what Steve Todd would have made of it all.. Toddy set sail for whatever awaits last week and we’re all going to miss him terribly.

Back in the first Premiership (not, not etc) season a thriving regional supporters group community had built up around the Watford team, specifically on the away days. The Norfolk Hornets, with Toddy and the equally much-missed Steve Brister at the helm, were in the vanguard and The Yellow Experience fanzine regularly reported on the various adventures of Toddy and his crew over the following few seasons.

Later, with Look at the Stars in its pomp, Toddy also bought his unique humour and love of sailing to its pages as part of our ‘Since We Last Wrote’ match reporting. With the focus often on anything other than what actually happened on the pitch, Toddy’s whimsical genius was a perfect ingredient for those pages.

As far as words of tribute go, we could have filled Matt and Ig’s blog with glowing reference and stories of one of our best writers and much-loved shipmate. Instead, we present two of his best articles in his memory and hope his many friends enjoy the memories they invoke. If you’re reading and never met or knew him, take our word for it. You’d have loved him, too.

Sleep well, Cap’n,
Your bitchmaster and flooze
TYE, LATS editors/co-editors 1991-2004

 

Watford 0 Manchester City 6 (16/09/2017) 17/09/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
25 comments

1- So.  Fourth in the League.  Early days, yes, but still.  Fourth in the league.  Cool, huh?

It’s got to the point that analysts have to at least acknowledge us.  This lack of such until now bothers me more than it should… I mean, we obviously get more attention than we used to in the second tier where you sort of tacitly accept that nobody (except those directly affected) gives a stuff.  Being a small fish in the Premier League is aggravating since you’ve gotten to the top table and you expect a degree of focus and recognition and then you have to reconcile this with the fact that, still, nobody gives a stuff. Our role is as straight guys for the big clubs.  Incidental necessities, supporting cast.

But being fourth is different.  It might only earn a “they look good, Watford”, or a “I really like the look of their midfield” from someone who’s at least done ten minutes of research, but it’s something.  And people at work, People Who Don’t Really Like Football and must therefore be treated with a degree of caution, will say “hey, I see Watford are doing well”.  And you try to humour them, knowing that there’s no scope for a proper conversation on the subject, by saying something inane and conversation-ending like “yes, and if we beat Manchester City on Saturday we’ll be top, ho ho”.

The title push might need to wait for another season…

2- This had the air of a free punch given our strong start to the season, the edge taken off our bravado slightly by the paucity of centre-back options with Marco Silva, interestingly, picking out that absence of Kaboul as particularly unfortunate.

City started at high speed and with an immediate intensity, clearly hoping to put us to the sword quickly and perhaps influenced by their midweek fixture – best put this to bed early to save their legs.  We withstood this, owing a little to luck when Agüero fired narrowly wide, a little to Raheem Sterling air-kicking spectacularly, but more to our own resilience.  Christian Kabasele executed a fine, precise tackle in the box to rob Sterling, released by de Bruyne (“a Steve Palmer tackle” said Loz, high praise). Daryl Janmaat’s bravery denied Nicolás Otamendi a far post opener at the expense of a painful looking clash of heads. The rain came down ferociously, but we’d weathered the early storm and ventured upfield ourselves, Richarlison getting on the end of a wicked Holebas free kick but directing his header narrowly wide.  This was a game, and we were very much in it.

3- Until we weren’t.  Three goals in eleven minutes and it’s over. It’s tempting to dwell on refereeing mistakes…  the first and third goals offside, the penalty bizarrely denied to Chalobah after a clumsy challenge by Walker that left no room for misinterpretation, the prevalent suspicion that Taylor and his assistant in front of the GT stand rather steeled themselves against the Hornets in indignation at protest against their errors and were far from even-handed in their dealing with marginal calls.  All irrelevant really.

What’s significant about today’s game is the narrow margins between an unremarkable and even competitive outcome and the mauling that the scoreline suggests.  Goal 3 was clearly offside, Goal 1 less obviously so but both are only revealed by replays;  it pains me to say it, but you have to sympathise with Taylor and co, and say “OK, I can see how they missed that”.  So what you take from that is that City’s timing and movement was absolutely precise, that whatever failings we might have contributed to the two goals the fact that the movement was timed perfectly in balancing advantage with what might be gotten away with, that Agüero’s header was absolutely perfect… combined with the fact that the energy and movement was relentless, maybe they weren’t perfect every time but they were close enough to keep us perpetually on edge.  This was never better illustrated than by the fifth goal; you can argue that someone should have put a more aggressive tackle in, maybe taken Agüero down but the obstacles in his way still required a ridiculous shot to curl towards the goal and bounce in off the inside of the post with just about enough oomph to beat the attentions of Kabasele on the line.  Absolutely merciless precision.

4- It would be wrong to suggest that this was all out of our hands.   Daryl Janmaat, in the build up to the second goal, attempted to reprise Brendon Mason’s achievement of shovelling Gabriel Jesus into the hoardings but the young Brazilian has been in the gym over the summer and dispatched his opponent instead.  Then, instead of charging into the space created and mishitting the cross, or seeing his delivery cleared or a header saved as happens nine times out of ten, City capitalised mercilessly exposing Gomes’ only real error of the game in the process.   So… we made mistakes, we contributed to our downfall but City ruthlessly exploited our failings, teased apart the slightest flaws and poured relentlessly through them.

Superlatives are dull, but I struggle to remember a more impressive team performance.  You’re tempted to say “attacking performance” since we weren’t completely shut out, we did have a few chances particularly early in the second half when Carrillo upped a gear.  But if you can’t get the ball and the opposition attack is so formidable defensive limitations don’t matter so much.  Only the Liverpool side of Barnes and Beardsley stands comparison to my mind, and my only first hand experience of that was against Steve Harrison’s beleaguered side – Harrison, like Elton, present yesterday – which hardly acts as a benchmark.  The movement, the precision, the speed and above all the relentless intensity was quite breathtaking.

5- So if we didn’t do a lot wrong, if the opposition were extraordinary and if (some of) the officiating can be forgiven and certainly wasn’t a determining factor – bad decisions, like bad bounces, need to be accommodated – then we should perhaps be grateful for something to vent our spleen at without reservation.

Regular readers will know that I like a good stat as much as the next man and more than most.  The contribution of StatZone, however, does nothing to add to my match-going experience on the best of days and today certainly wasn’t one of them.  A ticker-tape message bar along the back of the electric ad-boards pointed directly at the stands as if it’s occurred to some marketing guru that making the live experience more like television is easier than the more traditional reverse.  Pre-match and at half time this monstrosity declared:

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT WATFORD HAVE FOUND THEMSELVES INSIDE THE TOP FOUR OF THE ENGLISH TOP-FLIGHT

So much wrong with this sentence. Firstly, trivially, factually incorrect as anyone who remembers as far back as 1983 could tell you.  Secondly, the implicit presumption that football before 1992 doesn’t matter… “OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE” would have been similarly irritating but at least it would have been accurate.  The language… “found themselves” implies an accident, something that’s happened to Watford rather than an achievement, temporary or otherwise.  It comes from the same lexicon as “shrewd signing by” and “share your view” popular in clickbait football websites.  Impersonal, indifferent, banal.  “They look good, Watford”.  You’re talking to supporters, for goodness sake, not the lowest common denominator.

Most of all, if a particular website is rubbish I can choose not to view it, if punditry descends too far into pub-bore twaddle I can turn it off.  I resent this imposition on my match day.  A repulsive development.

6- So we got dicked by City.  Plenty of teams will get dicked by City and whilst the margin of defeat negatively effects our goal difference (early days but a 1-0 defeat would have seen us five places better off) this game doesn’t have to be a disaster.

Our reaction is all important, and will be fascinating as well as potentially determining how our season pans out.  Swansea and West Brom away preceded an international break, followed by Arsenal and Chelsea.  Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 2, Mariappa 2, Kabasele 3, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, *Carrillo 3*, Richarlison 3, Gray 2

Subs: Pereyra (for Cleverley, 64) 3, Capoue (for Chalobah, 70) 2, Deeney (for Gray, 74) 2, Wagué, Zeegelaar, Success, Karnezis

Southampton 0 Watford 2 (09/08/2017) 10/09/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- On Friday night the Palace Theatre played host to the latest Tales from the Vicarage event.  The latest of several, the first I’ve been able to get to.  Adam Leventhal is the host and John Barnes is the guest;  it’s a fine evening for a number of reasons.  Barnes is a relaxed and convivial interviewee if a little too rehearsed, as befits someone practised in talking about his career at such events.  These stock stories are occasionally engaging but impersonal;  only when Leventhal leads him onto less routine ground does Barnes become intimate, earnest and genuinely likeable.  When he talks about the influence Graham Taylor had on his career, something presumably less well covered on the Liverpool circuit, the slick laddish wisecracks disappear and he’s plaintively appealing to his interviewer and the audience, desperate to convey the gravity of his sentiment.

The evening features a recital from the voice(s) of Hornet Heaven  Colin Mace, and the recreation of some photos from back in the day, some of whose subjects have been treated more gently by the passing of time than others.  Most of all though, it’s another opportunity to spend time with Like Minded People.  One of the best things about match day itself, of course.  Diverse opinions on most subjects are to be welcomed, even football, especially football.  But sometimes it’s good to be with people who Understand.  The highlight of the evening is Leventhal orchestrating a series of chorusses of “Yooooorns” before the main man even appears.

2- So to matchday.  And bearing in mind what’s gone immediately before it’s tempting to compare and contrast, this team with that.  A thankless task, a fool’s errand.  Scale of achievement versus shift in standard, a top division now drawing talent from a much wider pool.  The best footage of Barnes is timeless, he would have been a star whatever the era but, more generally, how do you compare?  You can’t penalise the current side for playing in a faster league with better players but you can’t penalise the 1982/83 side, say, for playing when they did either.

Actually, if you spend any more time than it took you to read that paragraph thinking about this nonsense you need another hobby.  Learn a language, take up cookery or something.  Whatever.  Such comparisons are moot, this team needs to compete with the Premier League teams of today not the Watford teams of thirty-five years ago.

But there are some absolutes.  Barnes, as above, is one. A performance like this is another.  An absolute that is what it is irrespective of time.  We’ve played well at times since we’ve been promoted.  We’ve won impressively and deservedly against intimidating opponents.  But we’ve not won like this.  It’s not that we merited the win; that’s beyond dispute but not unique.  It was the way we crushed Southampton between our jaws.  The way that, more than merely deserving to win the game we were much, much better than our opponents.  Play this game a hundred times, we win ninety nine times.  Away to Southampton, a side who it could be argued are a reasonable target for our ambition in some ways. The victory is absolute, awesome, magnificent and magnificently straightforward.

3- The game starts as it’s going to continue.  We’re absolutely in charge and it’s that extraordinary midfield that’s crucial, the rock on which everything else is based.  There’s another historical comparator here;  that Boothroyd team that got promoted in 2006 when, even if we didn’t have the best players man-for-man we had a way of playing and individuals who had been expertly picked to make that system work.  So you had a solid defence and a hard working midfield that could soak up pressure, Foster’s distribution, King’s pace and aggression and so on.  Here, it’s the midfield.  It’s Doucouré striding across the pitch like he owns it (because he does), with adulation thundering from the away end.  It’s Chalobah one moment sashaying into space the next mincing an opponent and emerging with possession and a diffident shrug.  More than once he’s taken down off the ball as the move that he engineered escapes, they can’t live with him.  It’s Cleverley the dynamo, the duracell bunny, he’s fetching and probing and ferrying and providing an option.  This is the bedrock that will continue to provide Richarlison and Carrillo and Pereyra the licence to do whatever the damn they please.

If there’s a problem it’s that we’re on top but not actually creating much.  The 22nd minute’s applause in honour of a Saints fan who recently passed away risked being punctuated by a Richarlison goal as he wriggled into space but otherwise we’d not tested Forster.  Southampton, it should be noted, create nothing either but are holding us at arm’s length and with Femenía twice being caught flat footed by overlaps that went nowhere we don’t look invulnerable early on. Having missed Bournemouth the last win I saw was the West Brom victory and this was reminiscent of that in that we were going to need something special.  So we generated something special.  Half a second before which, Daughter 2 demanded my attention;  I’ve long trained myself to respond to such enquiries as patiently as possible irrespective of timing, for karma purposes.  You’re welcome.  For what it’s worth, she wanted to know whether Emma Watson was an adult or not.

4- We cut and thrust for the rest of the half, trying to capitalise on the spectacular development which had provoked a ferocious reprise of that chant, as if any excuse were necessary.  Chalobah drove at Forster, Doucouré got on the end of another fine move and did the Darren Bazeley thing of trying to recreate his fine strike but this time crashing a volley over the bar.

The second half started, predictably, with a bluster of pressure from the home side.  A bluster of pressure high on energy but short on conviction, the greatest injury we suffered was, predictably enough, injuries to personnel as Kaboul’s hamstring clocked off again and Femenía went off simultaneously.  Aidy Mariappa and Daryl “made of biscuits” (© Mike Parkin, FTRE) Janmaat came on to replace half of our defence and we caught our breath for the first time.

Here, for perhaps the only time in the game, we relied on a little fortune.  The timing of this goal was crucial and in that sense we curtailed any impending kitchen-sinking that the home side might have mustered in response to this development.  As it was, Daryl Janmaat galloped to the edge of the box and clouted a drive beyond Forster.  Game Over;  we stomped all over the rest of the game with Mariappa looking comfortable alongside the majestic Kabasele, who has surely nailed down a starting place over the last couple of fixtures.  If there was going to be another goal it would have been ours; André Gray, who had worked tirelessly and thanklessly throughout, scampered onto a through ball and outmuscled one chaser-back before being outdone by the second.  Carrillo screamed down the right making up a quarter of the pitch outside the touchline such was his momentum before cutting inside, leaving Bertrand on his backside and curling a shot wide.  Troy came on to an ovation and looked more mobile and combative in ten minutes than he has all season so far.  If a Southampton midfielder stuck a nervous head above the parapet, Nathaniel Chalobah stamped on it. It was a full back that finally registered a shot for the home side, Gomes fielded comfortably.

5- Returning to John Barnes, then.  It’s been clear for a long time that kids like mine who have gotten into it over the last few years will be cursed in the same way that those of my generation were.  By the time they realise that Watford Doing Well, scoring goals, winning games, isn’t the default state of affairs it’ll be too late.  There will be no going back.  For all of us…  this suddenly looks like a very special team, and whilst maintaining a Champions’ League position might be a little overambitious there can be no dispute that these are the new good old days.  Enjoy it.  This side looks really rather special.

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Femenía 3, Holebas 4, Kaboul 4, Kabasele 5, *Chalobah 5*, Doucouré 5, Carrillo 4, Cleverley 5, Richarlison 4, Gray 4

Subs: Mariappa (for Kaboul, 61) 4, Janmaat (for Femenía, 62) 4, Deeney (for Gray, 84) 0, Success, Watson, Capoue, Karnezis

Watford 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 (26/08/2017) 27/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
25 comments

1- So.  August Bank Holiday, then.  End of the first bit of the season prior to the first international break, first chance to take stock.  End of the transfer window approaches too, a transfer window during which we’ve been linked to well over 100 players and have revised the squad significantly.

Little wonder that my co-editor struggles to keep up, feels less connected on the odd occasion that he makes it to Vicarage Road these days;  there are long-serving members of the squad but the turnover is extraordinary and unprecedented, and in this window in particular we appear to have made a conscious decision to up the ante, to start trading at a higher table.  You won’t need reminding that times have changed somewhat, that not so long ago we were grateful for Paul Mayo and Mark Yeates.  Some of us were.

Does it matter?  The high turnover affects Ian’s ability to keep up but does it make it harder for those of us attending more regularly to feel a connection?  Or is Ian’s detachment a consequence more of his occasional participation than of the ever-changing make-up of the team?

The happy bedlam of our pre-match meal offered no doubt.  A table for sixteen including eleven Rowsons of three generations, laughter, discussion and plenty of yellow shirts (my better half excluded, her first visit for over a decade sufficient sacrifice).  This is what it’s all about.  This is why it matters little who’s on the pitch really.  The Watford we support is more than a badge or a multinational list of names.  It’s us.

2- After a positive start to the season one of the questions posed by Tuesday’s defeat was to what extent our early optimism was enabled by our two League opponents to date both coming onto us and giving us some space to play.  Bristol hadn’t done that, and Brighton’s early reports could be summarised as “little up front, hard to break down”.  And “got broken down anyway”, I guess.

Our initial approach to this was hugely positive, the opening ten minutes or so purposeful and aggressive. For the most part Brighton’s defence held up fine, although Mat Ryan flapped excitedly at a cross and Nordin Amrabat found himself in a position where aggression was all that was needed, mugging Suttner on the right and bundling free.  He put across a decent ball that wasn’t converted;  it should have been. Meanwhile Brighton’s armoury had been strengthened by the return to the side of pantomime villain Anthony Knockaert, who proved largely indifferent to the crowd’s booing (as my brother pointed out, surely laughter would have been more appropriate) and provided the visitors’ most consistent threat.  He cut in from the right and fired a shot against the post which seemed to alarm us sufficiently for the game to settle back into some kind of equilibrium.  And then that equilibrium was irreversibly altered.

3- I say irreversibly, but their remained until half time the possibility that Bruno, already booked for hacking down Richarlison, would even the score.  His withdrawal for Liam Rosenior was only rivalled in predictability by his being booked in the first place.

But the big event was the Britos thing, of course.  This was a telegraphed weak point, telegraphed by Marco Silva having publicly decried our lack of cover at left back in the days prior to José Holebas removing himself from consideration in this fixture.  Before kick-off a discussion point was whether Britos, Brandon Mason or perhaps Brice Dja Djédjé would be asked to fill in.  Silva went with the Uruguayan, and much as his afternoon couldn’t really have gone much worse in this respect and much as the reluctance to field a youngster is in itself perhaps regrettable you can understand why he did it.  Mason has looked decent, but the most decent bits have not been the bits that would give you confidence in facing him off against the likes of Knockaert.  Not unreasonable to suggest that an experienced defender who has played left back in the past might be expected to do a better job.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Nor does Britos’ performance condemn him to exile or demonstrate his inadequacy, as some of the more excitable social media postings have suggested.  There are reasons for him being a more or less automatic pick since we got promoted (suspensions permitting…).

Nonetheless, and for avoidance of doubt, this was the most ridiculous, disgraceful challenge on any number of levels.  Accounts differ only in their choice of adjective, insert your own if you have an alternative preference. To give him the most generous benefit of the doubt, you could imagine as Knockaert put the burners on down the right that Britos approached the challenge intending and expecting to be able to win the ball.  Within the space of a fraction of a second, a fraction of a second exaggerated by slow motion replays, it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen and Britos made the decision to execute the challenge anyway and, by the way, much higher than the ball was ever likely to have been.  No decision for Graham Scott to make (else, on the evidence of his rather hands-off approach to the rest of the game, he might not have made one).  As an aside, something of a shame that Nordin Amrabat’s Watford career should surely be brought to an end in such a fashion as he was sacrificed.  His performance had dipped since that early high water mark but whatever his recent ineffectiveness his time at the Vic has been characterised by effort if not belief or end product, and deserved a little better of a denouement.

4- So the tone of the game changed, and if it didn’t suit us then, perversely, it didn’t really suit Brighton either since despite having the better of the rest of the game on the whole and creating more and better chances, they threatened relatively little.  Nothing in their performance – not even the lively irritation of Knockaert – challenged the suggestion that they will go the same way as Middlesbrough, tough and organised but with a hugely conservative outlook and without a cutting edge.  That lack of penetration will get them down after a while, indeed there was already evidence of it in Chris Hughton’s rueful post-match acknowledgement that they will rarely have a better chance to score a goal (let alone win a game) in the Premier League.  Many better teams would have penalised us, so in that sense we got away with it.

But that we did so owes loads to two things that were sadly lacking last year and have been evident so far in this.  The spirit of a side that buckled down and battled and battled and battled for the remaining three quarters of the game.  And the midfield.  That midfield that has never quite worked since our promotion despite the quality that it contained now looks absolutely magnificent.  The bedrock of Chalobah and Doucouré is extraordinary, already a thing of pure joy.  Chalobah edges the Man of the Match thing for me purely on the basis of that impossible headed clearance on the run off the goal-line, the closest Albion came to breaking the deadlock.  There’s been some tediously ignorant wittering about how unreasonable his England call-up is by people who’ve never seen him play and would rather call up someone plainly inadequate than blood a youngster who very clearly will be.  Both were tremendous.

Meanwhile as tantalising as the possibility of Richarlison, showing his physical strength and hold-up play more than tricks here, Pereyra and Carrillo, whose immaculate tackle and charge upfield was a late highlight, is across the front three of the midfield, it would be a brave man to drop Tom Cleverley at the moment.  He’s not stopped moving all season, and his dynamism here was employed ultimately at right-back in the end as yet another injury forced another re-jig; two unplanned disruptions to the team, albeit one of which self-inflicted, accommodated much more successfully than we managed last season.

5- If there’s a concern it’s the lone striker position; André Gray’s ask was thankless from 20 minutes onwards, he ran around a lot but was unsuited to the job he had to do.  He couldn’t get hold of it, he couldn’t hold up the play and provide relief and, more concerningly, there’s a fatalism about the way he responds to missing a chance already.  This isn’t Luther missing a sitter, not caring and being there to score the next two, this is eyes to the heavens “how did I miss that”.  Some complained that he was left to be ineffective for so long, but with ten men in the heat you can understand Silva wanting to conserve his one unenforced change in case of tiring legs in the engine room.

Meanwhile Troy looks combative but heavy and continues to be linked to any sub-top six club that needs a big stiker whilst Stefano Okaka, so effective against Liverpool, is significant by his absence.  His hold-up play would have been invaluable today in a game that you fancy we’d have won had it stayed eleven against eleven, even if we weren’t quite able to answer that “how will we do against this sort of team” question.  Brighton’s best tricks were inadequate against ten men, albeit new signing Izquierdo only got a cameo;  our attacking shape was limited by Britos’ dismissal.  We’ll see what the squad looks like in a week’s time.

But in any event, whatever the names, it’s still Watford, the things that are important won’t have changed.  Amongst the many Rowsons were nephews Toby and Jacob making their competitive debuts, two of our latest new signings.  Their enthusiasm, exercised down the front of the Sir Elton John stand, was undiminished by a goalless draw against Brighton that won’t look any better on paper by the end of the season but was a great, inspiring point in context.

Yoorns.

 

Gomes 3, Femenía 3, Britos 1, Prödl 3, Kabasele 4, *Chalobah 4*, Doucouré 4, Amrabat 3, Cleverley 4, Richarlison 4, Gray 2

Subs: Cathcart (for Amrabat, 28) 3, Carrillo (for Cathcart, 47) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 83) 0, Success, Watson, Capoue, Pantilimon

Book review: A Natural by Ross Raisin 24/08/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
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Aside from the obvious fact that you really couldn’t make some of it up, there are myriad problems with making football the subject of fiction. Sitting at the top of the myriad – if myriads have tops – is that football in many respects already exists in the realms of the fictional. We daydream about it, we romanticise it even as it remorselessly exploits us in return; it lives and breathes very happily in our imaginations without any help from a well-meaning author or screenwriter. The advent of elaborately realistic video games, or whatever the kids call them nowadays, means that you can easily act out your fantasies of scoring a last-minute winner at Wembley in the comfort of your living room. So, really, what’s the point?

Ross Raisin’s recently published novel “A Natural” has a truly dreadful title. It also has a point. In telling the story of Tom Pearman, graduate of a Premier League academy rebuilding his career at a small League Two club in a nondescript town while coming to terms with a homosexuality so private that he hardly dare confess it to himself, it clearly has issues to tackle. Perhaps Raisin’s most remarkable achievement is to turn this into a worthwhile literary endeavour rather than merely an idea or a discussion point: a less restrained author would’ve created something more openly confrontational, or perhaps more bitterly cynical, and lost the novel in the process.

It helps enormously that Raisin has a keen eye for detail. There is no room in a fictional description of something as familiar and as beloved as football for anything to be misplaced, for anything to jar you awake; it must all be just right. Bar a very few occasions when, as nearly always happens, the narrative requires fans to chant things that fans wouldn’t chant, this feels like football. Indeed, some of it is outright beautiful: the build-up to a new season, with all of its hope and its energy and its freshly-mown grass, is made to sing really quite exquisitely.

More, you get the impression that Raisin has done his research. Much of the novel is set at the training ground, in the dressing room and on the team coach, and has a sense of sending messages back from a private, closed world. It’s hard to draw a firm line between what the author has been told off the record and what he’s made up; I don’t doubt that some of the more, um, exuberant bits fall into the former category. Again, there is some fine writing here, particularly in capturing the desperate fragility of a football career, the brusque horror of the announcement that you’ve been cast aside and that there might be nowhere to fall except into part-time obscurity. It’s over. Shut the door on your way out. The bitter isolation of the long-term injured is also drawn vividly, painfully.

But the novel’s foundation is Raisin’s skill in making us live in the space between someone else’s ears, and particularly in capturing loneliness and insecurity in a crowded, boisterous room. He writes simply and economically, and with considerable empathy; his best prose has a stillness and a silence that’s uneasy and powerful, and that’s well-suited to the blank walls of unconfessed depression. Even without its central thread, without its protaganist’s homosexuality, that would make it a fine read. It will make you think about the people you watch on a Saturday afternoon, about their private lives, about their inner lives. About their well-being.

In truth, the central romance is less satisfactory. In choosing the club groundsman as the other half of the illicit affair, Raisin appears to deliberately echo Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he’s clearly intent on there being an awkward hesitancy to their encounters; the problem is that it becomes difficult to separate the echoes from cliche and the characters’ awkward hesitancy from that of the author’s prose. It isn’t his strong suit, and one wonders whether there might’ve been a less easily defined but potentially truly great novel lurking in the background, one which sacrificed or perhaps marginalised the affair in favour of a quieter reverie. The same is true for the final twenty or thirty pages, which start to feel a bit like a narrative stuff-to-do list, lacking the courage simply to drift into contemplation. It deserves better.

Despite all of that, “A Natural” is a rare thing indeed: a fictional rendering of the game we all love, its innards falling out before us, its soul laid bare. It has much to say, but it says it gently, with restraint and with a good deal of love. It isn’t always comfortable, but neither does it fall prey to the temptation of being relentlessly uncomfortable. It shines light into some extremely dark places. And no, it doesn’t make you believe that a footballer with an active career will come out any time soon…

Watford 2 Bristol City 3 (22/08/2017) 23/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- You have to ask yourself, at what point does an odd pattern stop being an odd pattern and start becoming accepted as “the new normal”, to adopt a horrible phrase.  When does it stop being surprising?  I suppose it depends on the circumstances…  Britain’s naval supremacy was unchallenged until the advent of the submarine, which changed the game entirely but at least there was an event.  Something to point at and say “this has changed because of that”.  Difficult to accept, difficult to reconcile to, but nonetheless cause and effect.  Easy to understand.

At what point does our recent inability to compete in the League Cup stop being worthy of comment?  For avoidance of doubt, and whilst you’ve no doubt been made painfully familiar with these stats since 10pm or so last night, that’s nine seasons in eleven that we’ve gone out to lower league opposition (for the record, City, Gillingham, Preston, Doncaster, Bradford, Bristol Rovers, Notts County, Leeds and Southend). Only once, Brendan Rodgers’ side’s run to the Quarter Finals before defeat to Spurs nine years ago, have we put together a “run”, and that felt as much of an aberration then as it does now.

2- Nontheless…  at kick-off there was a positive vibe.  There’s no denying it.  By half-time my brother, with a masochistic gleam in his eye perhaps prompted by the fact that he really doesn’t get here very often and resents this being one of the rare occasions, was proclaiming that he would henceforth only turn up for the League Cup second round.  But at kick off, we were buoyant.  We’d put one over on Bournemouth, and looked exciting and positive and vibrant in the two League games so far.

Further, squint at that Watford side and – despite the whole “we only made six changes to their nine” thing – if one puts the most ambitious spin on how the rest of our transfer window will go that’s not too far from a second string eleven.  Of the “first choice” players in the eleven Gomes, Holebas and Amrabat are all at risk of being ousted if the players we’re linked to are any guide, Deeney and Prödl might already be second choice (I maintain that Kaboul/Britos is our likeliest pair in a four) and whilst Richarlison is wonderful  you do fancy that Pereyra/Cleverley/Carillo might be the first choice three for the moment should the latter come off.  So… that’s a reserve side, and quite a fine one.

3- It wasn’t a fine performance tho.  You know that, you don’t need me to tell you that.  A couple of qualifiers, though.  Firstly, for all that this was a “lower division side” it was in some ways the most exacting test so far of our new system, our new zip.  Bristol City are “a lower division side” in that they’re lower than us but they’re a decent enough Championship team, no Cheltenham or Cambridge this (from other nightmares of League Cup past).  Yes, they made changes too and yes, we should still have expected to beat them on our own patch but nonetheless… no mugs.  More to the point there’s a world of difference between executing a zippy passing game against a Liverpool or a Bournemouth that are going to offer you space to do so, and against a side putting banks behind the ball, and with a monstrous centre-half in the coveted Aden Flint (one of the many “team changes”) who seemed to have a magnet on his head.  Not that we shouldn’t have done better, but let’s not pretend that this was easy for a side with limited competitive action between them thus far.

As it was, the first half offered warnings of what was to come.  We dominated possession, but didn’t get terribly far with it.  Aidy Mariappa crashed a joyful shot well wide early on, very much in the spirit of  “we’re going to enjoy this”.  And then… and then…  faced with a solid and disciplined barrier, faced with a lack of sharpness, it all became too deliberate, too cautious, too slow.  Richarlison stood up well to being given a couple of understandable “trick your way out of this, son” kicks up the backside and was our likeliest weapon throughout but was often double marked and unable to turn his ability into a reliable supply of crosses.  Meanwhile whilst City barely threatened either they did expose our defence more than once, Kabasele too easily pulled out of position, Prödl too easily turned, Holebas expensively booked for a rather sulky lunge.  Had Diedhiou reacted more sharply to being given a glimpse of a run at goal we might have been made to pay earlier.

4- As it was we were level at half time.  Silva has criticised his team for lack of professionalism, lack of taking City seriously, expecting to win being the unspoken addendum.  I think the crowd were guilty of that too…  there was no fretting at the interval, a rueful nod to the reliably unsatisfying stage of this competition but no panic. It was going to happen.  As Isaac Success prepared to make an entrance my brother and I pondered whether the unproductive Amrabat or the joyful but vulnerable Richarlison would be withdrawn…. the former, as it turned out.  “Tricks and Chaos” we exclaimed, and daughter 2 was in no confusion as to which was which, screaming “Chaos” gleefully at Success as he made his first slaloming run.  (As an aside, both daughters making their evening debuts, both of their enjoyment continuing to be unrelated to events on the pitch – daughter 2 spilling her fish and chips more of an issue than the football).

And it would be wrong to paint this as a thoroughly miserable evening because it wasn’t.  Our opening goal was a fine, fine thing… Hughes and Success combining to send Capoue through.  No failing on City’s part, just an excellent piece of lock-picking.  And again… if the team relaxed then so did we.  I certainly thought “job done” at that stage, since City hadn’t threatened much.  And so whilst a lot of what we saw was inadequate we nearly got away with it.  The decisive moment was former Luton teenager Freddy Hinds picking up the ball in the centre circle and galloping off with it.  At that stage, Ben Watson might have kicked him over, he didn’t.  Perhaps that’s a good thing, we can comfort ourselves with his integrity in considering the cost of Holebas executing two similar fouls.  Nonetheless… off Hinds scampered before placing a fine shot low to Gomes’ right which, nonetheless, you rather feel he should have done better with.

5 – And then it all ran away from us.  True, we made a few more chances – as above, not an evening without any merit.  The best came when Richarlison struck an evil cross-field ball with the outside of his right foot to find Success galloping in from the left.  Success sent the ball to the far post where the Brazilian somehow teleported himself to crash a header, neck muscles stretched, against the foot of the post.  A thing of beauty, so nearly magnificent.

But City had the bit between their teeth.  A nothing to lose game for them in which it was clear that their set-up and personnel combated our limitations very effectively.  Two more goals on the break, the second of which prompted a mass exodus.  This was the highlight of daughter 1’s account later, largely because we stayed and we got to see Adrian Mariappa’s goal.  Cold comfort for most but, as above, at least the girls enjoyed the evening which got significantly worse on the toss of another coin;  Holebas must have had visions of pulling us level with a fine volley at 2-1 down but air-kicked, and within seconds was slouching off having hacked down the escaping red shirt in frustration.

6- So what do we learn?  Firstly that it’s not going to be a cakewalk, and much as we knew that already it’s maybe good that the bubble was burst in the League Cup rather than the Premier League given that we’re always rubbish in it anyway.  Two, that whilst Aidy Mariappa is a decent centre-back the days when we could pretend he was a right back are probably behind us.  Three…. well.  Troy.  What have we learned?  Heavy and immobile he is certainly short of fitness and so 90 plus mins here was a Good Thing.  But you wonder whether he has the mobility to operate effectively in that central role.  Best judged when fit, perhaps.  Beyond that… harsh to judge individuals based on this, the team didn’t work and you wouldn’t rule many of these out of doing a job in a first team that already looks much more proficient under Silva than this lot.  But then, you wouldn’t suggest that anyone really made a case either.

And so to Saturday, when Brighton come calling with a new winger and a freshly fit old chum in Anthony Knockaert, whilst we have one available full back.  Another test.  Yooorns….

Gomes 2, Mariappa 2, Holebas 2, Prödl 2, Kabasele 2, Watson 3, Capoue 2, Amrabat 2, Hughes 3, *Richarlison 3*, Deeney 2

Subs: Success (for Amrabat, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 70) 3, Cleverley (for Capoue, 79) 0, Britos, Chalobah, Cathcart, Pantilimon

Watford 3 Liverpool 3 (12/08/2017) 13/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
21 comments

1- Football, eh?  Blimey.

It’s a classic First Day of the Season.  Sunshine on your face walking down Vicarage Road.  Touts after tickets, programme vendors, charity buckets.  50/50 scarves on sale for a tenner (“who buys them?”).  Friends rock up, you’ve not seen them for three months…  “how was your summer?”.  Albert is here for the first time in even longer, it’s good to see him.  He’s stunned by how tall the girls are, they are nonplussed but grin anyway.  There are flags, and noise, a tremendous montage on the big screens.  And then, then the football.  As has been said many times if you rely solely on the sport itself for your enjoyment you’re going to be disappointed more often than not but still, football.  And it’s just brilliant…

2- There’s a caveat of course.  Pete, slightly tiresomely, called it almost perfectly… “I’m giving Janmaat twelve minutes…”, he’d said, in anticipating the season’s first injury.  Actually Janmaat lasts closer to 14 minutes but it’s still an extraordinary echo of last season’s bizarre injury track record when he limps off after a brief period of lumbering forlornly around on the right of the attack with Amrabat covering behind him.  By the end of the game Roberto Pereyra, alarmingly, has also been replaced and Younès Kaboul has gingerly re-entered the pitch with three subs already used.  New Performance Director Gavin Benjafield will hopefully be taking notes…

3- But that aside it’s a splendid afternoon, and is already going well when Pete’s call is proved accurate.  An early, visible statement of intent has been executed by Janmaat who hounds Sadio Mané towards his own corner flag with a disciplined bit of belligerence that typifies our approach.  This is one performance, one game, and lots can happen between now and May;  the preceding two seasons both had, to varying extents, high points before crumbling in the dying stages.  But if this is a template for how we’re going to be then there’s an awful lot to like…  we’re tough and aggressive but disciplined with it, keeping the Reds at arms length by hassling them out of space – wasn’t this supposed to be their thing?  Key in this is a fine performance by a midfield that suddenly has a convincing shape…  whilst it’s great to have Ben Watson back in the fold, there’s no doubt that Chalobah and the majestic Doucouré are going to take some shifting on this evidence, whilst Tom Cleverley puts in an impossibly dynamic display “in the hole”.  Roberto Pereyra has slalomed in from the left, his crisp shot deflected wide. In front of him Stefano Okaka looks mobile and brutal and gets little protection but keeps coming back for more.  He’s also there to convert José Holebas cross on eight minutes.  Helps if Liverpool can’t defend for toffee of course, but we’ve missed open goals before…

4- I mentioned after the Sociedad game that we looked as if we’d learned the verse of Marco Silva’s song but were struggling with the chorus.  Here there was clear evidence of further intensive rehearsal since, significantly, we had kept the Reds at arm’s length until they prised the space for the irrepressible Mané to equalise.  It was a patient unpicking on Liverpool’s part, a sliding around of tiles on a child’s puzzle until the picture revealed itself and the Senegalese was through on goal.  Too deliberate, our defending, a method being recited line by line rather than instinctive but that will come.

Impressively, we bit back straight away.  Ringleader Doucouré began the move, releasing Amrabat on the right.  The ball found its way to Cleverley bundling towards the touchline, his square ball found Doucouré who unfussily tucked it away, restoring our lead almost before we noticed we’d lost it.

4- If there was an annoyance it was Nordin Amrabat.  Increasingly a target for frustration at the end of last season, an olive branch was offered with a rendition of the na-na-na-na-na… song early in the first half.  Some characteristic hesitancy lost him the crowd’s goodwill in the second half, but the greater crime for me was his inability or unwillingness to challenge for the ball without giving away a foul – a tug on the shirt here, a shove there.  Further evidence of a lack of confidence in his own ability, but also a laziness… it’s the first day of the season for goodness’ sake, give it a bloody go man.

Greater annoyance still was offered by our visitors, who seemed determined to scorn me for suggesting that they’d become halfway likeable in our season preview. You can forgive Jürgen Klopp for being narked at losing a lead at the death, less so for bleating about his side’s rough treatment (check this Jürgen, we didn’t even pick up a booking, unlike Sadio Mané who might not have got away with a yellow) and for two “offside” goals that were optimistic and very marginal calls respectively.  The offside law is there to prevent goalhanging not for use as a defensive weapon;  if you rely on it for the latter then you’re going to get burned sometimes.  Live with it.

Alberto Moreno meanwhile left onlookers in yellow comfortable with the outcome of our reported attempts to sign him, a narky little gobshite who responded to periods in which the game went against Liverpool with petulant and occasionally nasty confrontation.

5- So the second half starts, and here’s the evidence that we’ve still got some lines to learn.  Actually, in fairness, the first blow is the loss of Pereyra in his first competitive game since limping out of his last one in Manchester six months ago.  The home stands swore in unison and the players can be forgiven for being deflated by the development momentarily.

That’s all it took.  Liverpool may have looked ponderous defensively but going forward they were quick and mobile. They got themselves level when Salah, who had a little run in the first half of getting himself onto the end of a move and finding new ways to miss the target, first drew a foul from Gomes to win a penalty converted efficiently by Firmino, and shortly afterwards bundled in a looping ball to give the visitors the lead for the first time.  We looked rattled, we lost our focus and surrendered the initiative – but as an aside, yet another positive from the game was Marco Silva’s blunt assessment of our failings.  Not wishing to rake over old ground, a candid and accurate account inspires more confidence than the alternative.  Whatever,  in truth Liverpool could have had more once released from their mental funk

6- So it’s to our huge credit that they didn’t run away with it and the three subs, all new boys, all played a role.  Kiko Femenía was as advertised… quick and positive going forward but exposed defensively – two of the three goals against originated from his position, and Alberto Moreno shouldn’t have been allowed to take a pot shot that Gomes pushed over at 3-2… nonetheless, he got stuck in.  Richarlison, on for Pereyra, looked hugely exciting… clever and quick but strong  and physical also, more to come from him. And Andre Gray, on to give Liverpool’s defence something else to think about after a bruising hour from Okaka, demonstrated what we’ve got with aggression and mobility.

The theme of the afternoon however was character.  This is a bunch of scrappers and no mistake, a big tough team capable of bullying opponents but with a sharp and deft knife to stick in as well, no blunt instrument.  That we were still in the game in the dying minutes meant that this would have been a positive match report whatever, but the fact that Miguel Britos’ swivel and shot won a corner and that the same player was able to capitalise from Richarlison’s bullishness in the box reflected hugely well on the team’s effort.  It was a goal that echoed Nathan Aké’s opener in this fixture two seasons ago…  a goalkeeper exposed and flapping and fumbling at the ball, a scruffy conversion, an explosion of noise from an already boisterous home crowd.  Everyone deserved it.

It’s only a point, obviously, albeit against a strong side.  But the personality of the team and the manner of the performance matter more at this stage as an indicator of what is to come.  There were empty seats in the Family Stand, in part another annual feature of the first day of the season and holiday time.  Those seats won’t be empty for long on this evidence.

Yoorns…

 

Gomes 4, Janmaat 0, Holebas 3, Kaboul 4, Britos 3, Chalobah 3, *Doucouré 4*, Amrabat 2, Cleverley 4, Pereyra 4, Okaka 4

Subs: Femenía (for Janmaat, 18) 3, Richarlison (for Pereyra, 49) 3, Gray (for Okaka, 63) 3, Prödl, Watson, Capoue, Pantilimon

Season Preview 2017 – Part 5 11/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: None

OUTS: Kyle Walker (Manchester City, £45,000,000), Federico Fazio (AS Roma, Undisclosed), Clinton N’Jie (Marseille, Undisclosed), Connor Ogilvie (Gillingham, Season Loan), Josh Onomah (Aston Villa, Season Loan), Pau (Espanyol, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes, Younès Kaboul

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two maulings, the first with the emphasis on us being bad and the second rather more a function of Spurs being good.  Painful as that is to say.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17  1-4
2015-16  1-2
2011-12 0-1
2008-09 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-4
1998-99 2-5
1994-95 3-6 / 3-2
1982-83 1-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Trippier       Alderweireld      Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Son                           Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

VERDICT: So.  Bridesmaids again, then.  Shame.

The headline this summer has been the lack of headlines, or rather the lack of incoming transfer activity.  You can look on this a couple of ways;  one, that Spurs already have one of the best sides in the country and whilst they’ve lost Kyle Walker they have a perfectly adequate replacement in Kieran Trippier.  Good kids coming through, a young and vibrant team, kudos to Spurs for being bold enough to say “we’re happy, we’re sticking with what we’ve got”.

The other way to look at is is that Walker has gone to a direct rival prepared to pay him much more money.  That’s got potential to be disruptive all on its own (EDIT: Helloooo Danny Rose), and Kieran Trippier’s pre-season injury, however serious or not it turns out to be, underlines why its not quite as simple as having a ready-made replacement for Walker.  There still isn’t proper cover for Harry Kane either, unless Vincent Janssen’s second season is significantly more impressive than his first.  And then there’s a new stadium to pay for, and a season at Wembley which will be… weird, surely, at best.  It’s soulless to visit, it’s not going to develop character and closeness by virtue of Spurs playing there every other week.

Spurs will be top six, obviously.  You can’t see them chasing the title again though.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: Jay Rodriguez (Southampton, £12,000,000), Yuning Zhang (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), Ahmed Hegazy (Al Ahli, Season Loan)

OUTS: Darren Fletcher (Stoke City, Free), Craig Gardner (Birmingham City, Free), Stéphan Pocognoli (Standard Liège, Free), Jack Rose, Jack Fitzwater (Forest Green, Season Loan), Yuning Zhang (Werder Bremen, Two Season Loan),  Brendan Galloway (Everton, End of Loan), Marc Wilson (AFC Bournemouth, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Jerome Sinclair (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster, Allan Nyom

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A stout performance undone by set piece calamities at the Hawthorns and a magnificent win under the lights at Vicarage Road.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 2-0 1-3
2015-16 1-0
2009-10 1-1
2007-08 0-3 1-1
2003-04 0-1 1-3
2002-03 1-0
2001-02 1-2 1-1
2000-01 3-3 0-3
1998-99 0-2 1-4
1995-96 4-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Dawson         Evans       McAuley           Brunt
Phillips       Livermore         Morrison     Rodriguez
Chadli
Rondon

VERDICT: So this is familiar.  Another team from the bottom-half morass.  Another team who haven’t been able to strengthen much yet.  Another team who finished the season in stinking form (two points from the last nine games of the season), another team fretting about relegation.

You can kind of see the concern.  There are a lot of maybes at the attacking end of the pitch… Rondon’s great, maybe, if he recaptures the form of the first half of last season.  Chadli’s great, maybe, if he turns up. Rodriguez if he can recapture his pre-injury Saints form.  Not much in the way of bankers.  A solid defence is more Tony Pulis’ thing, but that failsafe has been called into question by that end of season run.  Albion’s answer has been to bring Gary Megson back to the club onto the coaching staff;  he still appears to be revered at the Hawthorns, though from the outside it looks a bit liking having Pulis twice.

The thing about Pulis is that, wherever he is, the football his sides play means he’s not going to have a huge amount of credit in the bank when results go against his side.  There would appear to be teams worse off than the Baggies, which is a good thing cos it’s a great away trip, but yet another side who could struggle if the odd thing goes against them.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Marko Arnautović (Stoke City, £24,000,000), Javier Hernández (Bayer Leverkusen, £16,000,000), Sead Hakšabanović (Halmstads, £3,000,000), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City, Free), Joe Hart (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough, £6,500,000), Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough, £5,000,000), George Dobson (Sparta Rotterdam, Undisclosed), Sam Howes (Watford, Undisclosed), Håvard Nordtveit (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Enner Valencia (Tigres UANL, Undisclosed), Kevin Knoyle (Swindon Town, Free), Alvaro Arbeloa, Reece Burke (Bolton Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Reece Oxford (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Season Loan), Jonathan Calleri (Deportivo Maldonado, End of Loan), Josh Cullen (Bolton Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Gökhan Töre (Beşiktaş, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Valon Behrami, Sam Howes, Hayden Mullins, Mauro Zárate

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gloriously scripted overturning of a prematurely celebrated West Ham lead at their chilling new ground, and a less memorable 1-1 draw at the Vic that interrupted Mauro Zárate’s fledgling Watford career.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 1-1 4-2
2015-16 2-0
2011-12 0-4 1-1
2008-09 1-0
2006-07 1-1
2004-05 1-2 2-3
2003-04 0-0 0-4
1999-00 1-2 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hart
Zabaleta       Ogbonna        Reid          Cresswell
Obiang           Noble

Antonio                 Lanzini            Arnautović
Hernandez

VERDICT: A rare thing in this pre-season, a mid-table side with no real danger of going down.  West Ham have recruited ambitiously and, given the age and experience of their signings, probably expensively in wages as well as fees, but that ballast ought to given them the security of residence in the Premier League that ostensibly similar sized clubs can’t quite rely on.   Spending that much money on older players – Arnautović is 28, Hernandez 29 – feels a bit short-termist and you’d be worried perhaps about the robustness of that midfield but that’s being picky.  West Ham will be fine and look a reasonable bet for an inconsequential top half place.

The stadium is shit though.  Just dreadful.  Take all the most negative misgivings about modern stadia, add a questionable backstory and stands so far from the pitch that they’re in a different postcode and you’ve got something that many of those who Did It Once last season won’t be prioritising a second time.  Ninth.

WATFORD

INS: André Gray (Burnley, £11, 500,000 rising to £18,000,000), Richarlison (Fluminense, £11,200,000), Tom Cleverley (Everton, £8,000,000), Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, £5,000,000), Will Hughes (Derby County, £4,500,000), Daniel Bachmann (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Harvey Bradbury (Portsmouth, Undisclosed), Sam Howes (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Kiko Femenía (Alavés, Free)

OUTS: Uche Agbo (Standard Liège, £2,000,000), Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord, Undisclosed), Sven Kums (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Aly Mallé (Udinese, Undisclosed), Mario Suárez (Guizhou Zhicheng, Undisclosed), Rene Gilmartin (Colchester United, Free), Juan Carlos Paredes (Emelec, Free), Mathias Ranégie, Pervis Estupiñán (UD Almería, Season Loan), Juan Camilo Hernández (Huesca, Season Loan), Dennon Lewis (Crawley Town, Six Month Loan), Sulayman Marreh (Real Valladolid, Season Loan), Obbi Oularé (Royal Antwerp, Season Loan), M’baye Niang (Milan, End of Loan), Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Janmaat          Kaboul          Britos            Holebas
Chalobah      Doucouré
Pereyra                         Deeney                   Richarlison
Gray

VERDICT: Let’s begin by acknowledging that this would have been a very different piece if written a few days ago.  The Arsenal bit must have been composed at the beginning of last week, a long time at this time of the pre-season, a long time when you make two startling signings in the interim that make significant steps towards addressing the most striking limitations of the side in warm up games.

Such has been the theme of the summer’s recruitment.  We don’t know if they’ll work, of course… good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Hell none of us had heard of Richarlison a fortnight ago (A young Brazilian attacker who looks like an olympic sprinter though – what’s not to like?). But it’s been almost surgical attention to the side’s deficiencies…  defensive midfielder, check.  Creativity, check.  Width, check.  Speed in attack. Check.

More than that.  Reducing the age of the squad, check.  Building a core of good young English players, check check check.  This seeks to address a popular criticism of the transient nature of the squad, that there’s little that defines  Watford, little to associate with… my co-editor turns up a few times a season now and has to be talked through the team.  I think this issue is slightly overstated… plenty of players in more stable eras have become icons very quickly, and/or only lasted a year or so and revelled despite brief Watford careers.  But there’s no question that a stable group will be of benefit to the club on the pitch, on the training ground and in maintaining an identity and relationship with the support, two things tarnished by last season’s experiences.  These English players might not work out, or might not hang around…  but on the face of it we’ve not half done well.  Just read this Nathaniel Chalobah interview if you have any doubts about the character of a pampered midfielder who’s grown up in the comfy surroundings of Stamford Bridge.

So what’s changed in a few days?  Rather than looking at the players brought in and thinking “so far so good” we’re now looking at the side and thinking “actually this looks rather good doesn’t it?”.  Comparing our side, the business we’ve done, with that of some of the apparent rivals that we’ve talked through this week, knowing that the club will be looking to bring in more signings from a strong position, augmenting a squad that already looks strong rather than desperately needing to bring in bodies, all feels rather good.

If there’s a question mark it’s about figures.  André Gray, in particular, seems to have cost us a big wedge, even if the details of quite how much for what will, as ever, remain hidden rendering the detail of “record signing” an ever vaguer notion.  The thing is, in the current climate, all notion of how much a player is “worth” is up in the air.  Is André Gray, a young English striker with a decent season in the top flight in a somewhat frugal team, “worth” £18m?  Or whatever?  Is he bollocks.  Is he worth a million?  These numbers don’t mean anything, if they ever did.

What matters is two things.  One, can we afford it.  Two, is he an asset.  The second, we’ll see.  The first… we have to trust those running the club and heaven knows that they’ve given us precious little reason not to.  Good decisions, almost every step of the way.

The exception, maybe, and only maybe, is in our appointment of head coaches.  The most generous interpretation is that each coach has been signed to do a job and by and large, with a couple of circumstantial exceptions, they’ve done them.  As I said, the generous interpretation.  Flores and Mazzarri both kept us up – you can argue about how much their role in each was, how much you credit the players, the recruitment vs their melding into a team.  In both cases their seasons tailed off and big chunks of the squad were alienated by the end of the season. Flores leaves, Holebas is back in the fold.  Mazzarri leaves and Ben Watson is suddenly a vice-captain. Even if your only aspiration is survival that pattern can’t be healthy.

And so the fact that this is Marco Silva inspires further confidence.  Anyone who was at Hull in April will be in no doubt about his ability to instil a common purpose amongst squad and support.  He’s a young manager, with limited experience in this country… but it wasn’t just us that was interested in him.  Like Chalobah, like Gray, like Hughes, like Ricarlison the fact that he chose us tells you something.

So, back to the beginning.  Timing is everything.  A week or so ago this would have been more cautious, less excited.  This is the honeymoon period between bringing in new stars and, you know, actually seeing them play when anything is possible.  A wonderful and essential part of being a fan but not best suited to objective preview pieces.

Screw it.  We’re going to be great.  Yoooorns…..