1- So this time we start with the “taken as read” thunk. The Jamie Hand Booking, the Lucky Chocolate. First… West Brom are great. A proper football club. Second, the Fanzone at the Hawthorns is tremendous… food and drink, a big screen showing the lunchtime game as Sergio Agüero wrote himself out of our game there next week; the generous atmosphere rendered the UB40 cover artist crooning over a microphone something of an irrelevance.
Thirdly it’s bloody cold. Seriously, why? Always? Yes, yes, the Hawthorns is the highest altitude ground in the country and so forth but… it’s next to the M5, not in the middle of the mountains, not some icy tundra. You wouldn’t know it. Jesus. Five layers. Not enough. Not nearly enough. We hide in the Fanzone’s Greggs and try to blend in with the sausage rolls, figuring – accurately as it turned out – that the staff were too busy to police the warmth of their shelter and that much of the populace of the fanzone had more scruples and/or more layers than us.
2- Once in the ground the first question was how we’d line up in the wake of myriad suspensions and injuries. A measure of quite how dramatic our absentee list is came when the news of Janmaat and Mariappa wiping each other out with a head collision in training was met with a shrug. We were already up against it, what did two more matter? Indeed, given that we’ve got a bizarre coincidence of absentees already perhaps it’s better to get all our misfortune out of the way in one go.
In any case, the absentees were largely defensive – four centre-backs, a right (wing) back, the holding midfielder with his deputy presumably half fit on the bench. Little surprise then that we saw the resumption of our hurricane start to the game, get the ball up the end of the pitch where we’re at full(er) strength; Nordin Amrabat cracked a shot that Foster tipped over within the first minute, Capoue and Deeney both had chances and the home side barely got out of their half in the first fifteen minutes.
Thing is, you need to score in such situations. Especially away from home, especially when you’re protecting a botched together defence. Especially against a team that are decent from set pieces…
3- No small frustration greeted the first Albion goal, then. The home side forced a corner, Evans crashed in to score. Gomes should have done better, we had a lot of people standing around watching and taking up space and nobody attacking the ball as aggressively as Evans (or at all, in fact). On another day Evans might have been pulled up for climbing, but if we’d defended attentively that wouldn’t have been an issue.
Of all the patchwork repairs to our side, the enforced employment of Guedioura in a central midfield role felt the most vulnerable; alongside a dependable ratter like Behrami or patroller like Watson he’d have been OK, maybe, but less so with Capoue. The Algerian has many attributes – enthusiasm, positivity, creativity – but footballing discipline is not one of them. Fifteen minutes after Albion had gone ahead he crashed into an untidy challenge giving a free kick away within shooting distance. As the set piece was teed up the Watford wall collapsed on itself, Zuñiga turned side-on to the shot. It still required luck on Albion’s part for the deflection to spin off the Colombian and into the corner, but we shouldn’t have afforded ill fortune that window.
So Albion were two up despite us having much of the play. We might have been called unlucky, but that would do a disservice to the way the hosts play. Their modus operandi doesn’t rely on having the ball very much. Indeed, the set-up is much like that of Sean Dyche’s Watford side but executed with better and much more experienced players… a rock-solid defence, an experienced and disciplined midfield and enough up front to steal breakaway chances and set pieces. They don’t need to have the ball very much. They don’t actually want to have the ball very much.
4- The second half settled into just such a pattern… Watford with the possession and territorial advantage, Albion rattling off threateningly on the break. We were facing an uphill battle, facing the constant risk that the scoreline might head off at some point in the direction of the Bob Taylor or Lee Hughes-inspired results we’ve suffered here in the past.
Nonetheless we kept at it. Nordin Amrabat was back on the front foot after his frustrated outing against Stoke and screamed down the right flank, pulling a cross impossibly back from touch for Deeney to connect with – only a stunning block prevented us from reducing the deficit. Stefano Okaka had spent much of the first half complaining about Albion’s physicality – disappointing really, that the guy who’d presumably been brought in due to his ability to deal with such attention seemed so dismayed and surprised by it. His impact overall was underwhelming, though he too kept going and got better after the break, constantly engaging Albion’s defenders if to limited effect – he bundled goalwards with Deeney and took a half-chance that his captain might have done better with.
Another teasing ball from Amrabat tempted an Albion head to intervene ahead of Deeney; the ball was dropping over Foster who was forced to tip over, a fine stop. From the corner Troy stabbed a loose ball across the face of goal for Kabasele to touch in – game on. Pereyra slalomed through but a combination of Foster’s speed and dexterity and his own tentativeness saw the chance go begging amidst optimistic calls for a penalty from the away end. More defensible appeals minutes later when Okaka was upended as we unsettled Albion’s defence again. Gripping, nailbiting stuff, and for once a pitch-level view added to the drama being performed in front of us.
5- Had the game finished here, and much as nobody likes losing, we’d probably not have been too unhappy. If there’s a way to lose this is it… narrowly, competitively in the face of a patchwork side and a confident opponent away from home. What followed was disappointing then, although it’s difficult to be too harsh on Pereyra. I had no view whatsoever of what had happened from our distance and position (although the guy over my left shoulder seemed to be able to employ the extra six inches or so of elevation to provide an accurate running commentary)… based on TV replays only you’d have to say that McClean went in aggressively and recklessly and whilst Pereyra shouldn’t have raised his hands it’s easy to sympathise. Easy to sympathise too with the view expressed by Mazzarri that McClean can think himself very fortunate to escape with a yellow, so too the likes of Rondon who piled in to no censure whilst Watford’s captain was booked for dissent. Less easy to sympathise with the manager actually articulating this opinion, albeit in the emotional window post the final whistle. I used to think that Jose Mourinho did this on purpose – blow up a smokescreen by drawing attention to his own utterings and shielding his team; now I rather fancy he’s just a bad loser. Mazzarri, certainly, had little to shield his team from after a stout performance that wasn’t quite enough, but plenty to lose by fostering a victim “everything’s against us” mentality. We don’t need that.
Matt Phillips put a full stop on the afternoon’s proceedings with a fine slaloming shot and goal; you’d perhaps have preferred the otherwise reassuringly stout Kabasele to have gotten a bit closer to him but that’s a bit churlish, a splendid goal. Allan Nyom, meanwhile, had put in a performance that was a bit like a highlights video of his Watford spell… careering boldly into attacking positions (and displaying more reliable delivery with his weaker left foot than we ever saw with his right), occasionally slicing the ball out of play and looking eminently get-attable when defending. All that was missing was a reckless booting of Amrabat or Pereyra into the stand. There were a few more catcalls from the away end than his so-so-but-no-worse Watford spell really merited, which had escalated into a relatively witty exchange with the adjacent Baggies (“He left cos you’re Sh*t” / “He left cos HE’S sh*t” / “He’s still beating you” / “He’s still f***ing sh*t”). Any sympathy for the Cameroonian rapidly evaporated as he opted to celebrate the winner in front of the away end. We had some morons in our end, as ever. It appears footballers aren’t above stupidity either.
6- If I’ve sounded critical of our performance then I’ve been unfair. This was vastly better than last week’s sloppy showing against Stoke; Prödl was monstrous again, Kabasele as above did fine alongside him. Deeney was more aggressive and mobile than of late, Amrabat sizzled up either flank, Sinclair had an encouraging cameo. We were bright and positive and if we weren’t tight enough at the back or stiff enough in midfield then we didn’t get the breaks either.
We’re a good side, and those panicking that Sunderland have started winning are being hysterical. Survival remains the primary objective but we weren’t a million miles away from grabbing a point from two-down despite a glut of missing players. We need to keep our cool and our focus. But we’re doing OK.
Watford 0 Stoke City 1 (27/11/2016) 28/11/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- If decent mid-tableness is what we aspire to for the moment, then a degree of balance is to be expected. By balance I mean… games when things go against you as well as those when they go for you, and that means losing games to fair-to-middling clubs as well as to the top sides. Sometimes. It’s no fun, but it’s going to happen. In this division, fair-to-middling sides are all capable of giving you a slap in the face.
But the degree of contrast between this weekend and last was stark. For one thing, Daughter 2 forgot her lucky teddy. For another, rather than flying into our regular car park we mistimed that one and ended up in the backup, stuck behind a minibus of lairy Stokies as it was directed around a corner that was never going to accommodate it. As an added bonus said Stokies had already stepped out of their minibus and were loafing around guffawing at their driver as those of us queued up behind it tried to find corners to reverse into. The voices were bellowing “this is going badly already”, and were difficult to ignore.
2- Things didn’t get any better once the game started. Last week we blew Leicester away and capitalised on the position that put us in; this one wasn’t quite the same. The visitors were on top from the off… big, physical, pressing us high up the pitch they knocked us out of our stride and we never regained anything halfway resembling the initiative. Initially there was some defiance… bodies on the line, Gomes scrambling to a fine save, ranks being cleared and Janmaat thundering down the middle on the break like a boulder careering downhill, bouncing off trees before smacking a shot too close to Grant. This seemed to crumble with Kaboul’s withdrawal after 15 minutes or so… the big centre-back had been doubtful, supposedly; he hadn’t been desperately significant, replacement Kabasele played no worse than anyone else (although he spent an inordinate preparation for his entrance that even Daughter 1 would baulk at) but the incident seemed to mark the end of our resistance. From there the Potters bossed it, bullying us much as Burnley had done and chasing down our possession high up the pitch. We didn’t tend to retain that possession for very long. On the half hour Charlie Adam met a set piece unmarked; Gomes blocked, the ball hit the post, then the keeper, then apologetically rolled inside the side netting. I’ve not seen it again – it transpires that Adam fouled Behrami en route but whatever. Stoke were worth the lead.
3- By this point another subplot was developing. Prödl rose to a header near the touch line, Arnautovic shoved him in the back. Nothing. Amrabat shielded the ball from his marker further up the same touchline and was pulled up. As frustration with the way the game was going grew, referee Madley channelled the anger in one direction.
Social media has changed the world. It could be argued – and has been – that twitter, which amplifies extreme opinions at the expense of moderation making it easy to filter the views that you hear to re-enforce your own has radically altered the world that we’re exposed to and affected the outcomes of recent elections. Social media’s immediacy also makes it very easy for idiots to fall victim to trigger-finger responses borne of red mist. I am one such idiot, and have had a shitty week as a result of failure to count to ten. This failure to count to ten manifests itself at games on occasion, with a tendency to let rip in a fashion that might be considered yellow-tinted.
Thing is, I’m in the stands and whilst I’d prefer to retain a degree of class (ha) and perspective this release from needing to be rational and reasoned is part of the reason I’m there. The same luxury can’t be afforded to the players on the pitch, and if our number of bookings for dissent were a cause for concern before the game this concern was exacerbated and inflated by the complete lack of discipline that characterised yellows for mouthing off, kicking the ball away… yes, some of the decisions prompting a response were cretinous, no Stoke weren’t being penalised for the same things but grow a brain. A referee having a bad day isn’t going to be reacting with moderation to stuff like that. Amrabat, for instance, was visibly cowed by his yellow for mouthing off about the free kick mentioned above and the tenacity that’s characterised his best performances disappeared as a consequence. This needs sorting.
4- If there’s a positive to be drawn it’s that we didn’t collapse. Despite being clearly second best we were still in the game throughout in the sense that a single goal would have nicked us something. There was a moderate degree of fist-waving as we rallied in the last quarter of the game but despite another encouraging cameo from the bullish Stefano Okaka and despite City visibly tiring and stepping back a bit it was never terribly likely. Nonetheless, we’d clung on sufficiently to render that a possibility.
The question the afternoon presents really is whether the tactical flexibility demonstrated by our ability – and the coach’s willingness – to switch shapes and positions and formations costs us in terms of not having enough in the way of stock moves. Things That We Can Rely On When Things Aren’t Working. Ardley to Helguson. Boom. A cost, perhaps, of that flexibility is that there’s not enough familiarity. It’s all rather hard work when we meet resistance. There’s no reliable crutch to lean on.
5- West Brom, then. Could, perhaps, be ugly. We’ve struggled against teams that have tried to strong-arm us despite Troy, Prödl, Behrami, Kaboul. Now we face them with only three – one assumes – available centre-backs, two of whom have ?one? start between them this season. And no Behrami, also suspended due to one of those witless yellow cards after he’d perhaps been one of the players to pull the performance up by its bootstraps in the second half. Over to you, Walter…
Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (19/11/2016) 20/11/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Football serves many purposes to its audience. Key amongst these is escapism, something to cling to, to hide in when your life is turning to crap. Developments elsewhere in the world since our defeat at Anfield, developments breathtakingly crass and depressing and terrifying, left a lot of us needing precisely this. Seriously, this on top of Brexit? The world’s gone absolutely crazy…
So the return of football was necessary and we were bang up for it. We flew unhindered down the M1, swung round the ring road in record time. The pedestrian crossing switched to green as we approached; we crossed without breaking stride. This was finally going to be a good day. Today we were going to win. Only the fact that ig didn’t have a pen with him to lend to Daughter 2 for ticking the starting elevens off in her programme betrayed that something in the world had changed.
2- There had been a few questions festering over the latest interminable international break. Would any of the walking wounded be available… Gomes, Prödl, Okaka, Success, Cathcart… would Iggy keep his pace, would Watson get a start? Most of all, how would the team respond to the dicking on Merseyside? The answers to most of these questions came with the now ceremonial checking of Twitter feeds over a two minute period either side of two o’clock; the answer to the final question came an hour later. We flew at Leicester from the kick-off in what’s becoming a trademark explosive start… Hull City had withstood similar a fortnight ago but City, crucially, couldn’t and didn’t. Roberto Pereyra’s performance was immediately the sort of thing we’d hoped and dreamed of; he picked up a loose pass, swivelled down the left and stole enough space to sling in a cross. Troy Deeney’s header was no less fine a thing… no vague flick-on this, cushioned into the path of Capoue who did his attacking-the-box thing and flung a bouncing volley past Zieler. There was time for a more eye-catching trick from Pereyra, receiving a pass on the left flank with his back to his marker he backheeled a nutmeg with a single touch and left him standing (Daughter 2 was to describe this to her bemused mother in some detail later in the day). Shortly afterwards he again picked up the ball on the left, seemed to make himself space to shoot by swaying in a threateningly deceptive manner, and curled a shot across Zieler’s grasp and in. Magnificent throughout, for the first quarter hour Pereyra was at a level that almost seemed unfair on the visitors, a quite unreasonable and uncontainable advantage.
3- Quite how the game would have panned out but for the penalty we’ll never know. One possibility of course is that we’d have capitalised further on this extraordinary start, or that Leicester would have come back at us and, on failing to break through, overcommitted leaving us holes to exploit. Another sufficiently plausible maybe is that at 2-0 up our concentration wouldn’t have been quite as sharp as it needed to be later in the game and as such, the goal coming when it did didn’t give us time to relax or get complacent – later on, a goal borne of pressure rather than a silly and unnecessary foul so quickly might have yielded another.
As it was, Mahrez struck the spot kick down the centre and seized the baton from Pereyra, if only briefly… the visitors had a period of good possession and pressure, but not possession and pressure that resulted in a shot on target for the rest of the half. Instead it was the Hornets who can claim to have come closest, Kaboul thumping a header narrowly wide and Deeney playing a ball across to Amrabat that he should have taken with his left but seemed to stab at with his right. The Moroccan continued to make mischief on the flank, however, and twice drew fouls that demanded further sanction but received none, the referee struggling with what was an increasingly feisty encounter towards the end of the half.
4- City had started with what Leicester Paul described as their “Champions League week” team, a “slight groin injury” to Slimani the most significant absentee both in terms of our now fabled vulnerability from crosses and also the way the game played out; City could have used a target man when their preferred counter-attacking approach quickly became a non-starter. For all that, there were only two changes to the starting eleven that we faced here in March – Zieler for Schmeichel, Amartey for Kanté – and whilst those changes made our visitors weaker there’s no doubt that we’ve progressed even over that narrow window. Deprived of any space to attack, City not unreasonably decided that their best chance of a result would come from committing people – running at them and drawing challenges, winning free kicks. Given the pace and quick feet of Vardy, Musa, Gray and the industry of Okazaki that seemed quite sensible but our defending was heroic, particularly in the final quarter of the game.
We know from experience how context affects your interpretation. We’ve just been stuffed 6-1 at Anfield; unpleasant as that was, we know that we’re in a strong position and therefore the odd embarrassment can be taken on the chin. It would have been harder to mentally recover from had we been in the bottom three. Similarly, Leicester’s almighty achievement last season was borne in part of a bloody-minded belief in what they were doing. They didn’t do much different in this one… but their play was tentative, deliberate. For all Vardy’s spinning and twisting City only achieved one shot on target from open play; Kaboul, Prödl and Britos threw themselves in front of things, snuffed out space and suffocated the waves of attacks of increasing intensity. That flying blocks yielded a couple of ball-to-hand (or elbow) close-contact penalty appeals that were noisily, desperately, hopelessly optimistic spoke volumes. Instead it was Nordin Amrabat’s relish in committing Fuchs – on a yellow and a last warning, as so many of Nordin’s markers seem to end up – that made the best chance of the half. Burrowing past the Austrian on the right flank Amrabat laid back for Janmaat to drop a cross on Pereyra’s head. Face with the choice of directing a header to his marker’s left and inside the post or to the bigger target back across goal he chose the latter, making Zieler’s acrobatic save a possibility.
5- This one was significant for a number of reasons. Our first league victory over reigning champions since John Barnes’ ludicrous goal – from the same wing to the same corner as Pereyra’s – against Liverpool 30 years ago. A tactical triumph for Mazzarri, whose early salvo and formation change that saw us play 5-4-1 when defending but had Amrabat and Pereyra supporting the tremendous Deeney – whose ongoing battle with Morgan was an entertaining sideshow – when in possession gave City nowhere to go. Most of all for the cast iron balls of the whole team, particularly the back three, in withstanding the late pressure and in dismissing that Anfield game from concern. We still have Success, Cathcart, Holebas to return for goodness’ sake, not to mention a fit-again Okaka who seems perfectly equipped to play the “pain in the arse sub off the bench” role when protecting a lead such as this.
It occurred to me this week that a marker of how far we’ve come is that we knocked Newcastle, Leeds and Forest out of the cup last season but only the Arsenal game rendered the run remarkable. Ten or fifteen years ago that would have been unthinkable. Now we sit in eighth, behind only seven sides whose resources, successes and infrastructure dwarf our own. And it doesn’t feel like a false position.
Watford 1 Hull City 0 (29/10/2016) 30/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Whilst this, our fourth visit to the top division, is proving vastly more successful than the last two it’s not the case that everything has improved in Hornetland since our promotion.
Some things are clearly better. The quality of the football, obviously. The dramatic improvement to the ground and facilities. The size of the crowds, the feel that every game is a big event, a drama. The security to the club and its prospects afforded by our status and the money that comes with it. You’ll maybe think of others.
Other things haven’t changed. Football is still football, your mates are still your mates. It’s still Watford, Vicarage Road, Fry Days and so on. We’re still playing Burnley, Palace, Hull, as we have been forever.
But what’s worse, what’s much worse, is the quantity of football. The accepted line, spouted by those who regard the rest of the Premier League as supporting cast to the top six and for whom anywhere lower down the pyramid barely enters consciousness, is that Premier League Clubs Play Too Much Football. Arrant nonsense.
The top teams, teams in European competition, play a lot of games. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that many of those clubs would have had input into the design of these competitions and ought to have more pride than to bitch too much about busy schedules… that aside, we reached a Cup Semi-final last season but barely played a mid-week game. This season we’ve had Turf Moor because of TV, Man City coming up in December and then Palace on Boxing Day. That’s it for the first half of the season. I resent the loss of midweek games, the loss of that looking forward to a week of work being interrupted by this nugget of excitement (or Rotherham at home, whatever) simply to accommodate Manchester United (for example) losing to some Danish team in a bloated competition that will give them plenty of second chances anyway.
2- Meanwhile, Hull City. I won’t have been alone in being a little nervous in the build up to this one, a rare occasion on which we are confronted with a game that we’re expected to win. Bournemouth, perhaps, we went into with a decent chance of three points… but that’s not the same as being solid favourites. That brings it’s own challenges.
Several of which would have been at the front of Watford minds as we hurtled into this game with a frantic urgency. We created our first noteworthy chance from the kick-off, a ball from the right drifting narrowly beyond the arriving Deeney at the far post, and continued in kind in a frenzied first ten or fifteen minutes. Pereyra, who again failed to dominate a game as we hoped he might but nonetheless sprinkled it with moments of breathtaking composed competence, curled a shot narrowly wide of the top corner. Kaboul thumped a header against the crossbar – in the Rookery we were on our feet, we thought it was in. Daughter 1, her hands gripping the barrier in front, turned to me with her eyes shining. “This is so exciting!”
3- And so it was, but unfortunately it didn’t deliver the opening goal that it probably deserved. Instead the game settled into the pattern that the opening salvo had been designed to avoid.
Hull are extremely limited; the vast majority of pundits predicted relegation at the start of the season (for what that’s worth) and wins over Leicester or otherwise there was little here to challenge the suggestion that it’ll be Sunderland and the Tigers plus one. In any circumstances they would have a challenge on, but that the away fans’ songs as the initial furore calmed down focused entirely on the understandable desire to finally see the club shot of the Allam ownership reflects a sorry backdrop. Frankly I’m surprised that they’ve amassed seven points in the circumstances.
But they’re not cannon fodder by any stretch. They’re solid and organised and difficult to play against in this mood. The 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 thing is new and seems to suit them, vast injury list notwithstanding as the possess three excellent central defenders in Dawson, Davies and Harry Maguire. As soon as they had a foothold the chances that we had created early on disappeared as the gaps in the defence closed up. Hull sat deep and broke, not an overwhelmingly original strategy but one that suited their available personnel. It nearly earned them a point. We chipped away for the rest of the half… Seb Prödl was quickly up supporting the attack, another Amrabat cross found Deeney at the far post, he should have scored. But it was hard work, and frustrating to watch. Both daughters began to read the match programme.
4- In the second half, more of the same. At least initially. Nordin Amrabat, who always looked likely to retain his place given the demands of the game above the returning Janmaat, had Sam Clucas on toast over and over again. Clucas is filling in on the left in the absence of injured duo Adubajo and Robertson and was exposed by the formation – in fairness, for all Amrabat’s success he didn’t create that crucial opening. But it was a chastening, difficult afternoon for the Hull midfielder, who was booked after one frustrated challenge and did well to stay on the pitch as the winger pushed the ball past him and flew after it to cheers and hurrahs.
Meanwhile Hull’s counters, if not exactly frightening and often ending with an overhit cross or crossfield pass, had enough about them to cause edginess in the home stands, not least when Abel Hernandez was let through on the right but failed to beat the adroit Gomes. We’ve been here before. If the opening salvo might have lead to a game in which Hull had to come out a bit and we racked up a more comfortable win, another possible eventuality was suggesting itself in main home fans’ minds.
Eventually, Daryl Janmaat came on for Kaboul, whose parting shot was a clubbed effort from about 30 yards that only briefly got any closer to the goal than it had started. Janmaat changed the dynamic immediately whilst reminding us what we had been missing, picking up the ball and barrelling towards the penalty area, our change in formation creating spaces that hadn’t been there before. Hull survived that one, just about, heroic limbs in the way as so often… that “no shots on target” stat isn’t a great one but is a little misleading, woodwork and crosses that just needed a touch and twists and turns that were snuffed out by flying blocks meant that it wasn’t that bad. No shots, but plenty of less easily defined and tabulated “nearlies”.
Frustrating, yes. But we kept plugging away, and got our reward. The explosive Janmaat and devilish Amrabat combined down the right, the Dutchman swung in a cross. Deeney and Pereyra both seemed to go for it, it spun off Dawson and dropped into the net. Harsh on the defender, you couldn’t have begrudged City a point if they’d held on. He can get his karmic balance sorted with a goal against Southampton next week.
5- The nervous tension released we played out the game; Iggy, who looked as uncertain and deliberate as he ever has, tiptoed through and clubbed a shot into the side netting. We broke on a suddenly reckless City and should maybe have extended our lead, but the whistle confirmed the win.
In isolation this is three points, always welcome no matter how they come. In context it’s an absolutely massive result. For one thing it sets the last couple of games into perspective… three tight and untidy encounters, if different in their way. Jose Holebas’ goal at Middlesbrough earned that win – no doubt that a moment of quality like that deserves to win a humdrum game. But much more significant that we’ve now ground out a narrow win from another tight encounter, whatever it says about our attacking limitations. We can grind out tight games, that says, Boro wasn’t a one off lucky punch. We now have seven points and three clean sheets from three such games.
As for our limited attacking potency, our injury list is much better populated than it ever was last season and despite this we’re in seventh with one defeat in seven. The depth and quality of our roster has never been more evident, the more so since our injuries have focused on particular areas of our squad. We have been deprived of different flavours of magic dust in Success, Okaka and Kenedy and won games anyway. Seb Prödl’s late injury combined with Cathcart’s absence might test the depth of our defensive cover. You’d be confident on this evidence, Anfield or otherwise.
So whilst the last few games won’t live long in the memory there’s no doubt that we’re in a great place. Those who lazily looked at the end of last season and presumed little Watford to be returning to their “natural level” are already looking rather silly.
Swansea City 0 Watford 0 (22/10/2016) 23/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I lived in Leeds between 1991 and 1994. Once a week, on a Thursday evening, there was an Indie night in the Student Union; unremarkable in itself but at the same time a splendid thing. Held in a black pit of a hall whose name I don’t even remember, it featured dry ice, sticky floors, watered down beer and a reliable set list. Either Going Underground or A Town Called Malice. Either Sheela-Na-Gig or 50 Foot Queenie. And so on.
What made it special was that everyone was there. You didn’t need to make any kind of arrangement with anybody in those pre-mobile phone pre-social media days. Nor had it ever been said, “this is something we should do”. It just grew organically… you could wander it at 9pm and see a load of people that you knew and were pleased to see, and drink beer and jump around for a few hours before buying an onion bhaji bap from the chip van outside and staggering home through the wind across Hyde Park. It was an anchor point of the week.
Back to the present day, and after all the years of doing this, of so many of us doing this, it shouldn’t need commenting on. Again. But there’s something thoroughly enjoyable about turning up on the other side of the country and knowing that you’ll run into a load of mates without any more formal arrangement than the fixture list. A four hour drive cross country with two children in the back seat isn’t a risk-free plan by any stretch, it helps that the sun has been shining, we’ve had as clear a run as we could have hoped for and that Swansea City seems such a very hospitable and well-organised club. But most of all it’s good to see Dave, Matt and Miles killing time outside a hostelry on the periphery of the ground. Saying hello to Elvis Mark in passing. Greeting Andy as he and his mates on their way up to the thin-Oxygen top row (where, presumably, he enjoys City running out to the Clash’s “White Riot”). Saying a waved hello to Alice. And all the others we met along the way. It’s a Good Thing.
2- You’ll have noticed that I haven’t, you know, mentioned the actual football yet.
Ten minutes in one of the blokes behind us announced that “this has got nil-nil written all over it”. This was irritating… partly because it felt like a spoiler, partly because he was so obviously right and the sudden realisation, much as it had been staring us in the face since kick-off, deflated enthusiasm.
It’s not that the game was awful, it wasn’t awful. But it was… humdrum, and rather predictable. Both sides were disciplined and reasonably robust defensively – Prödl at his unfussy best for the Hornets, debutant Mawson standing up well to Deeney for the home side. But going forward… there was little pace to speak of in either forward line and so for the most part the game rattled around in a confined box that didn’t involve either penalty area terribly often, or at least not in a consequential way. Such stalemates look worse at lower levels of course… with this much quality on the pitch there was always the chance of something happening, but it remained an outside possibility during the first half. The closest we came were an ambitious turn and shot from Capoue from distance that he did well to get anywhere near the target, and a late free kick teed up for Kaboul to bludgeon goalwards, a deflection taking the shot spinning, almost fortunately but narrowly wide of the post.
3- The shape of the game changed in the second half. Paul described it as a basketball match… my limited exposure to basketball has led me to believe that it involves lots of points being scored, but that aside there was something about the end-to-endness of it that suited that analogy. Modou Barrow was the source of much of the helt-peltness of it all, a strong and direct winger who is incredibly quick but seemed to rely on Holebas (twice) and Britos (once) gambling by diving in with a tackle and being caught by quick movement to give him a big hole to surge into. For all his menace there wasn’t an awful lot of end product.
The home side, nonetheless, had the best of it and Gomes was by far the busier keeper. He made a fine reflex stop to deny Van der Hoorn – we had no view of precisely what had happened from the far end, relying on replays for information – and had to be bold in coming out for a couple of dangerous crosses. The best move of the game came when Sigurdsson surged down the left before having the presence of mind to quickly alter the flow and switch the ball to the right, coming inside to hit the return ball off the outside of the far post.
Meanwhile whilst we weren’t getting shots on target there was increasing potency in our counterattacks, abetted no end by the introduction of Amrabat for Zuñiga. The Colombian had done well enough, but here was some acceleration to frighten Swansea with and several times it threatened to open them up. Odion Ighalo, meanwhile was making a good stab at reestablishing himself in the starting eleven, demonstrating the Marlon King trick of being able to kill a ball stone dead with a touch irrespective of angle and speed of arrival, holding players off, and once selling a couple of scoops to shape a shooting chance which Fabianski fielded comfortably. There were two penalty calls, one for a handball that I didn’t see but which was protested furiously, the other perhaps more credible for a scruffy challenge on Behrami after we got a lucky break in the box that unsettled the Swans defence. Could have been given, wasn’t. Sometimes you get them. Our best move, the closest we came to consecutive muggings on the road, came when Amrabat flicked narrowly over both keeper and crossbar at the end of another fluid counterattack.
4- Despite this counterattacking threat it was beyond doubt that Swansea took hold of the midfield in the second half. Mazzarri has lauded the first half performance… I guess if you acknowledge his qualifier that we need to sort the final third out then you can just about nod at that, we didn’t give them an awful lot. Overall though, the midfield isn’t quite clicking as hoped, and this despite our injury list generally attacking other areas of the pitch. Behrami, Capoue, Pereyra looks like the first choice three but whilst Behrami did his dirty-work job again effectively enough Capoue had one of his off-days and Pereyra, for all his ability, has looked a bit peripheral – ornamental? – in the last few weeks. Guedioura was brought on to bring some welcome randomness to proceedings, but Ben Watson’s ability to recycle possession and just keep us ticking alongside Behrami is being underplayed for my money. Capoue’s surges into the box that characterised the first six weeks or so of the season have all but disappeared – rarely did any of the middle three make runs ahead of the ball yesterday – given which Watson’s economy could have been a more useful tool.
5- Having said all of which it goes without saying that this was a very decent point, and may look like a better point still if Swansea get their act together, as looks quite possible. Consecutive clean sheets, let alone away from home, are not to be sniffed at either. We rolled out of Swansea as the sun set reasonably content with how the afternoon had gone. A quarter of the way through the season we have three wins, three draws and three defeats, plus a zero goal difference; lazy journalists after a headline might find this dull, but if it’s the new normal – humdrum or not – it’ll do me.
Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 2 (01/10/2016) 02/10/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. There’s something delicious about an English autumn. Something charming and old-fashioned and gently melancholic, like daydreamily eating a delicious apple on a park bench in very light drizzle. The lingering sweetness of something coming to an end. I appreciate that many people hold great affection for spring and its tiggery springiness, but if you suffer from hay fever, the promise of sunny days ahead comes with something of a catch; it’s a bit like being mugged by Floella Benjamin. As for winter and summer…well, they just tart themselves out for Daily Express click-bait – the coldest, hottest, wettest, driest on record, at least since the last one – and no-one likes an attention-seeker. You never turn on breakfast news to find Carol Kirkwood talking about the most damply orange autumn since records began. It’s a lovely time of year. I expect it’ll be sold off to Channel 4 soon or something…right, kids?
2. And this is the bit where the real football starts. No, no…I was on holiday for that bit, so it bloody well is. This is the bit where it all begins to sort itself out: where Stoke start to be Stoke, where Arsenal start to be Arsenal, and so on. The musical chairs for billionaires that is the transfer window is all done with, the league table begins to take some kind of shape, the first managers fall like yellowing leaves. Or in the case of this week’s high profile casualty, like great big thudding conkers.
3. Much of the reaction to Sam Allardyce’s departure has expressed different degrees of anger and dismay at the idea of the England manager’s salary being apparently insufficient; the word “greed” has featured prominently, as if, somehow, greed weren’t the foundation upon which the entirety of modern football were built. I’m not sure that greed is quite the right deadly sin, anyway. Hubris, perhaps, is more accurate. An essential part of a manager’s job is, at pretty much all times, to be the most important person in the room. And it turns out that being the most important person in the room might actually be a little bit addictive. Who’d have thought?
4. For a while, it was terribly fashionable to admire Eddie Howe for appearing to be someone capable of holding a conversation rather than merely delivering a lecture. And then, for a while and possibly still now, it was terribly fashionable to sneer at all of that as middle class fluff, the superficial gloss over a less flattering profile, just Aidy Boothroyd in a wig. But this week’s events ought to remind us that simple humility isn’t cheap: among managers, both past and present, there are very few who’d think that anything even slightly interesting might occur during the bit when you’re talking and they’re pretending to listen.
I’m projecting onto Eddie Howe, of course. I’ve never met him, probably never will, and might find him an insufferable pardew if I did. But he seems like a man who might not require a massive desk to lord it behind, who might speak quietly sometimes, who might enjoy a cup of tea rather than, say, a pint of wine. Perhaps the day will come when there are too many of those people in football, but it seems unlikely. I bet he’s about to pop up and say something utterly infuriating on Match of the Day now. Bastard.
5. There’s little to the mini-rivalry with Bournemouth, really. It isn’t that there’s nothing of substance. Rather, it’s that there’s nothing but substance: any proper rivalry requires an element of the patently unreasonable and flagrantly irrational to stoke its fires, it requires something to pass down to the next generation. Wash your mouth out, son. Nevertheless, games with Bournemouth have been terrific fun since their arrival in the Championship a few years ago: the pleasing openness of their football and the apparent decency of their manager don’t obscure more than an element of the irritable and irritating. There’s not no Boothroyd in their DNA.
6. Most of the first half was spent digesting a lunch consumed in great haste barely half an hour previously. The football had a certain indigestible quality itself: we began intently and earnestly in the manner of a side wishing to right some of Monday’s wrongs, bright and confident in possession and disappointed at Odion Ighalo’s failure to convert an early opportunity. Different game if that goes in. Obviously.
But gathering irritation at Mike Dean’s petty interventions culminated in a booking for Sebastian Prodl and a ticking-off for Walter Mazzarri, and it felt as if we began to lose our focus. A certain fragility was revealed by our willingness to become the victims; we needed to brush it off and get back to the football, but we fell into squabbling and quibbling, and it was one of those occasions when a home crowd doesn’t really help very much. At the umpteenth contentious free kick, Bournemouth caught us napping, and Wilson snuck ahead of Prodl to meet a deflected cross and, predictably, wind up the crowd a little further with his celebration. We needed to take a few deep breaths. We needed a bit of a break.
7. There wasn’t much sign as it kicked off, but the second half was an absolute belter. Our efforts to get Nordin Amrabat into the game – very much the key, in the absence of any real threat on the left and significant congestion in the middle – eventually paid off as excellent work in wriggling out of a challenge and cutting to the by-line was tidily converted by Troy Deeney. I’ve been frustrated by Amrabat until now, by his frequent failure to influence the game rather than merely enthusiastically participate in it, and his name would’ve been among those bearing a question mark a month ago. But he more than delivered on this occasion, quality and quantity and variety. Add consistency to that and you’d suddenly have quite a player. (Yeah, six million. Times have changed.)
8. Of the new faces – to me, at least – the most obviously eye-catching is naturally Robert Pereyra, not least for his striking resemblance to Craig Ramage on one of his bothered days. The same low-footed sway, head aloft, ball held under a spell, challenges brushed aside. I found Ramage exasperating, but I confess to a shiver of nostalgia. Something wondrous about a player so in command of his art.
But then all of that is cast into shadow by the arrival of Isaac Success, who somehow manages to get involved in virtually everything during his half hour on the pitch, as irrepressible as Eric Morecambe with a trombone. The Pozzo era has brought us no small number of very large forwards, several of whom have made no impact whatsoever. But Success looks like a different prospect altogether: he’s nigh on unplayable here, a remarkable combination of fleet-footed winger and massive centre forward, equally happy skipping past tackles out wide as hurling himself at crosses in the middle. The only flaw is that he can’t cross to himself. Bournemouth simply don’t know what to do with him.
9. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Deeney’s equaliser really starts the fun. It’s been a sensible, coherent and slightly boring game of football, the kind that’d wear matching socks from M&S. From here on, it’s a descent into joyful chaos, end-to-end bedlam, trousers hurled to the wind, shoes in a gutter, asleep in a roundabout flowerbed. It’s thrilling and splendid. As we digest the idea that we might be onto a win, Wilshere cuts inside, picks his spot and hits the base of the post. He hits pretty much exactly the same spot again later for good measure, before strolling off for a rest. (I got the memo about Wayne Rooney, but I seem to be have been out of the room when everyone decided that Jack Wilshere was a bit of a laughing stock. Still, boo and so forth.)
The order of events starts to blur; there’s too much going on at both ends. Deeney meets another cross, just a little short of the desired power, Boruc saves low. King wanders forward after Holebas misjudges a high ball and his low drive takes a deflection and careers past Gomes. Success wins a free kick and converts it to level again, gliding a beautiful near post header into the top corner. A free kick wallops against the bar with Gomes beaten. There are scrambles, scares; Deeney attempts to score with what can best be described as an overhead backheel. It’s hectic, chaotic, not a little fractious too. It deserves a winning goal, something to crown the final fifteen minutes whether for good or ill. Something to bring the house down.
10. It doesn’t get it, but still. We’d have shut up shop with ten minutes to go last season, brought on an extra holding midfielder to help the valiant Behrami, taken the point. There may come a time when that seems appealing again; there’s nothing fun about throwing a game away, after all, and much of our defending here was somewhere south of precarious. But for now, the lack of caution, and the sense of conviction, is really rather wonderful. Both dismissed as cannon fodder only recently, but neither of these sides ought to struggle, neither ought to be looking downwards in January.
11. A spectacular cloudburst floods the streets on the way back to the station. Autumn is fleeting; that’s part of its charm. Winter soon enough. Long months. But nothing to fear. Surely, nothing to fear.
Burnley 2 Watford 0 (26/09/2016) 27/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Ahhh, how to start. What to write. Those of you who were there know how it was, those of you who weren’t probably had better views of the brushwork if not the canvas, none of you will be particularly inclined to spend time reflecting on the occasion.
So let’s just get on with it and where better place to start – indeed, where better place to start anything much – than Burnley cricket club. I don’t “do” minority sports, as regular readers may know, but a cricket club in the absence of actual cricket is a fine thing. It’s perhaps unreasonable to be overly harsh about Burnley, a town which I’ve visited rarely, fleetingly and not terribly recently (Sean Dyche’s Watford bow in 2011 the last)… but one can’t help but feel that much of the pleasantness that this area of East Lancashire has to offer has been concentrated into this relatively small establishment. There are many fine ales at £1.50 a pint, a splendid pie, chips and gravy, and affable company and atmosphere. All is well with the world at 7.30.
This feeling of bonhomie extends to the ground, where stewards check tickets in a cordon ahead of the turnstiles but cordially so, and don’t go for the body searches. This is a relief, as Daughter 2’s Watford teddy – who you may remember from the West Ham report – was in my pocket and would have taken some explaining in the absence of an accompanying seven year-old. Inside the ground the kiosk staff were decked in yellow t-shirts sporting Watford badges, and the intimacy of the venue – not to mention the understandable sparsity of the nether regions of stands in the circumstances, recalled times that were less successful but enjoyable enough in their own way.
Then, the football started.
2- The concern voiced by plenty – including, encouragingly enough, players and head coach – and contemplated by all was that the success achieved in higher profile, we’re the underdog, let’s get up and at ’em games wouldn’t necessarily translate to lower profile fixtures against The Sort Of Sides We Ought To Look To Take Points From. Complacency was the concern, or rather that the adrenaline, the focus that characterised the win over United wouldn’t be visible tonight against less glamorous opposition. As Dave reflected before kick-off, there has never been and will never be a circumstance in which Burnley away is an easy game – heaven knows we’ve been dicked here often enough not to head up to Turf Moor under any illusions.
But problems were evident from the kick-off. Immediately, and for the vast majority of the 90 minutes, the home side exercised a strategy that was uncomplicated and thoroughly effective… flood the midfield, hare down possession, force us into hurried passes that our forwards never looked mobile or – yes – strong enough to make anything of, and hit lone striker Sam Vokes as often as possible to play off the scraps. It’s not a novel strategy, but Sean Dyche’s side executed it to perfection and our lot really didn’t like being on the end of it. We couldn’t get out for much of the opening half hour, and the validity of our worst fears was confirmed by the pathetic bookings of Roberto Pereyra and Jose Holebas for mouthing off to the ref at the indignity of it all.
3- Nothing was working, anywhere on the pitch. The midfield was overrun and Valon Behrami, who you’d want to be in full beast mode in such circumstances, seemed to tamely acquiesce. Defensively we were porous and unsteady, Vokes doing far better than he ought to have been able to as one striker against three centre-backs; Nordin Amrabat was targeted, and willing as he’s been to adapt to the wing-back role – now as deputy for the injured Janmaat – he was horribly exposed here, looking almost exactly like a forward trying hard to be a defender but failing.
As for Burnley, their concern will maybe that they dominated the game and deservedly won… but didn’t really create an awful lot for all their domination; it wouldn’t have taken much to change the course of the evening, and there wasn’t much to challenge the pre-season suspicion that Burnley will give it a good old go this term but struggle anyway. Nonetheless, the spine was very strong, from Ben Mee at the back who had the better of Deeney, to Hendrick and the terrific Defour in midfield to the combative Vokes. They finally took the lead from a set piece, and having gotten away with so much it was aggravating to concede so cheaply. Nonetheless there was no disputing the merit of their half-time advantage, even if we briefly flirted with the suggestion that we might steal half time parity for a second away game running after a late rally.
4- Of the few positives to emerge from the evening, one is Walter’s continuing ability to positively influence the game with his substitutions. The corollary to that is that he’s not getting it right to start with, rather in the way that a centre-back specialising in saving tackles might be a bit of a concern. Nonetheless, a happy habit to have… here he made a very deliberate change at the break by switching to a flat back four such that Amrabat pushed up on the right flank with Zuñiga now filling the space behind him. The Colombian had a decent enough half looking largely neat and tidy in possession and as forceful and deliberate as he had last weekend; the new shape seemed to work too as we looked much more aggressive, potent even. Until, of course, we took a generous-spirited approach to marking at another set piece and the Clarets were two-up.
After which, so much bluster. We did get better… Isaac Success was brought on for Amrabat and immediately added some much-needed menace to our attacking play. We’ve described him before as a heavyweight boxer who moves like an ice skater, and the weather conditions – a steady, contemplative shower lasted much of the evening – contributed further to this suggestion by creating a slick surface that he slid across effortlessly. He’s young and he’s raw but he was bright and positive again; difficult to escape the reflection, given Ighalo’s miserable and immobile evening, that for competition from the bench to have its desired impact on the squad it needs to be exercised when someone’s off his game. Iggy’s had a few too many games like this. We had a good spell after about an hour, the best of the chances falling to Deeney who was first denied by a fine saving challenge, then failed to get enough power to a header after Pereyra had swivelled into space and dropped in a peach of a cross. Burnley were still threatening further punishment, the faultless Gomes denying Defour, but when Kenedy debuted for Pereyra – who was perhaps lucky not to have received a second yellow shortly before for a bad challenge and whose removal was being urged from the away end with Saturday in mind – we were on top for the first time. Briefly, inconclusively, but with Kenedy on the right and Success on the left both slaloming through to cut inside onto their weaker feet we looked a threat at last. Not enough, not nearly enough on the night. But something.
5- The gents in the back of the stand after the match was rammed and silent, but for the contemplative hiss of urine against urinal. From somewhere against a distant wall someone offered encouragement: “At least it’s not a six and a half hour drive home or anything”, to much laughter.
We did it in closer to five, creeping in at 3:15 after taking time to escape from the claw of Manchester (thanks, Dave) and an unscheduled detour on realising that the Satnav was heading us towards Snake Pass in the pissing rain, which had returned with a vengeance. As my brother later pointed out, it could have “got all Caradhras on us”.
The trip was survived by means of recital of club-themed obscure eighties footballers (“Rob Hindmarch”…. “Gordon Chisholm”….) and by very loud music. As has often been the case, a good day out spoiled by a terrible performance. This has happened before, often at Burnley, and will happen again. Enduring this is what makes trips like West Ham special. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
On the pitch, of course, we need a reaction. Saturday would be nice. Yooorns.
Watford 3 Manchester United 1 (18/09/2016) 19/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I should perhaps preface this piece with a warning; specifically, surprisingly and somewhat contrary to the popular line I’m not going to concentrate on the visitors. It’s not that Mourinho isn’t newsworthy (he is), or that Rooney wasn’t shocking (he was), or that Pogba wasn’t comically ineffective (he was). It’s just that there was another team on the pitch (no, really) and we’re really rather more interested in them. You’ll find that there are plenty of other places to read about the team in red of varying degrees of shoutiness and one-eyedness. Unless, of course, coverage of the last week’s football has left you – understandably but incorrectly – suffering from the misconception that West Ham and Manchester United both managed to comprehensively lose games despite the absence of any opponent. This would in any case be a bigger story than our humble blog could hope to cover.
2- So the other team, then. Not the team in red, the other lot. Bit good. Bit bloody wonderful, by the way. We’ve got used to looking back at the early eighties as our golden period, the highlights and the details etched on the memories of those old enough to remember. Last season… last season was brilliant. You can look at it and say… yes, well, different era. Tougher now. Standardise, normalise, put in context and “it’s as big an achievement as the eighties thing. Bigger”. There may be something in that, in a dull kind of way. But some things don’t need context. This is bigger than dicking Liverpool last season. That was great, of course, but was special because we beat a name. This time we beat a team – yes a name too, but a team that had been talked about as title contenders. Hell, competing with them would have been an achievement. But we didn’t just compete.
3- We’re a bloody massive team all of a sudden. Even without hamstring victims Kaboul and Okaka – the fact that Kaboul, who looks like some kind of Marvel comics supervillain, doesn’t stand out in a line-up says it all. And even those that aren’t huge – Behrami, Pereyra, Ighalo – are hard as bloody nails. This was key today. United are no shrinking violets, they’re a huge side too. But we set about them with menace, energy and vigour and bullied them into submission. Behrami tormented Pogba. Holebas and Janmaat thundered up and down the flanks like angry rhinos. And Chris Smalling must have done something pretty grievous to upset the skipper. Troy enjoys a good scrap of course, but most of the time he only runs through the opponent when he absolutely has to. Today every run seemed to involve ploughing through the hapless United defender, as if wherever Troy needed to be just happened to be on the other side of Smalling and demanded urgent attention.
4- Which isn’t to say we had it all our own way. Indeed the first half saw the visitors afforded plenty of chances, too many. Smalling had the first and perhaps the best of that period, crashing an early header narrowly wide from a set piece in the first few minutes. Pogba, with no space and outside a crowded area, lazily slung a shot into the narrow postbox over Gomes and back off the bar. Valencia broke down the right and sent in a cross… Ibrahimovic was hovering at the far post, poised. The ball never reached him; Seb Prödl, on the penalty spot, wallop. Zlatan slouched. Not for the last time. The Austrian produced a masterclass to comprehensively blunt United’s focal point, the highlight coming when a rare slack pass from Behrami released the Swede and a flying challenge that was both brutal and immaculate denied him.
But at the other end, once we got onto the front foot we stayed there. Iggy enjoyed the first opening when Smalling – who looked as unlike a commanding centre-half as is possible to conceive throughout – collided needlessly with De Gea to present Ighalo with an open goal. He scooped his shot nervously wide in attempting to avoid the grasp of the scrambling goalkeeper and you thought “this is going to be one of those days”. Iggy seemingly thought the same, briefly losing his focus and making bad, deliberate decisions before settling down into an industrious if unspectacular job holding the ball up and often breaking wide. Prödl headed a deep cross back across goal, Deeney narrowly failed to get a touch. Janmaat sent in a missle, Deeney ferocious header was clawed away. Meanwhile, hared down by Behrami, Capoue, Janmaat, Holebas United were increasingly rattled. Passes flew into touch, to jeers from the stands. This culminated in Martial being dispossessed by Britos on our right… I’ve not seen it again, reports seem to suggest that it was a clean tackle, “could have been given” at worst. It seems that only United are permitted to benefit from such narrow calls… but on this occasion Oliver gave us the benefit of the doubt. I was surprised, United too… Janmaat pulled back from the touchline and Capoue, precisely, fiercely, crashed us into the lead.
5- At half time we were happy but nervous. Sam confessed that she wanted to go home. Many of us would have taken a draw. Unsurprisingly the visitors came at us after the break and eventually equalised after a quick break in which Zlatan’s sudden urgency transmitted the genuineness of the threat; Rashford finally got the finish at the second attempt and the stadium exhaled. We’ve been ahead at home to Chelsea, at Southampton, would this be more dropped points? Ibrahimovic finally got on the end of a deep cross and Gomes was equal to it, pulling off an impossible reflex stop that provoked a standing ovation. We’d all have taken a draw at this point.
6- We didn’t fold, as you’ll have noticed. At West Ham we pulled ourselves back from the brink, turned a game around. If anything this was more impressive still… a game that we’d been on top of suddenly slipping away, a belief that we’d blown our chance but done OK would have been, if not forgivable then understandable. Not a bit of it. As last week, each of the substitutions was completely brilliant… Amrabat came on for Janmaat, who appeared to have hurt his shoulder after being piled into an advertising hoarding in the first half, and relished the hovering-on-the-edge aggression of the afternoon. In the move of the game he released Pereyra down the right who pulled back for the second sub, Zuñiga. The Colombian hasn’t had much of a window to show us what he can do, but grasped this one. His finish, first time with the ball running across him, was sublime, unexpected and utterly marvellous. Few, suddenly, were taking the draw.
7- The rest was just tremendous. United picked up a rack of bookings as they visibly, comically, gave up on composure altogether. Wayne Rooney, a fishwife who expended more energy bitching at the officials than he did in pursuit of the ball, was tormented by Pereyra as we calmly retained possession around the corner flag. Echoes here of one of those 1980s highlights, Steve Williams of Arsenal in meltdown as we won the Cup quarter final at Highbury. In that game, Luther’s late breakaway goal sealed the win and relieved all tension. Here Isaac Success, the third sub, broke down the left and turned Bailly inside out before cutting back for Zuñiga who fooled Fellaini into giving away a penalty. At that moment we knew, and now nobody was taking a draw. The away end couldn’t get out fast enough.
8- Superlatives are dull, but I’m not sure I’ve seen us play much better than this. Certainly not within the window, twenty years maybe, that makes comparison halfway feasible. From five opening games that could have left us pointless we’ve taken 7 and a positive goal difference. That’s ludicrous. Now comes a different type of challenge… games that range from those that we might reasonably expect to win to those in which we’re the outright favourites, a rare privilege but the outcome not to be taken for granted.
But that’s for tomorrow. For now… well you just enjoy these moments. As much as you can. Suck it all up. We’ve said it before, but these are the good old days. Enjoy.
West Ham United 2 Watford 4 (10/09/2016) 11/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Well it’s not Upton Park.
At one’o’clock it was pissing it down with rain. We’d arrived early, partly because That’s What We Do, partly because I felt the need to justify Daughter 1 missing her gymnastics. Partly because, you know, football. Come on.
An away trip with the girls is still a gamble, a reckless dice roll. Now we were sheltering from the rain on the vast Olympic Park next to something that looked like a melted helterskelter outside a bar that only admitted home fans. The girls were starving, the only food on offer that didn’t involve getting drenched was a barbecue put on by the bar. Fortunately there was a cashpoint too. We were a captive audience, and charged accordingly.
The stadium. Well… imagine Upton Park. Its claustrophobic, intense scruffiness. Now imagine something diametrically opposite to it. We were nine rows from the front, and bloody miles from the pitch. There’s acres of space between the edge of the pitch and the front of each stand. The lower tier is itself a bracing walk from the concourse across walkways suspended above the permanent but concealed and unused seating, some sort of ghost town. There are still bubble machines, woefully incapable of creating any atmosphere in this vast bowl. Fittingly, the bubbles sink listlessly to the floor.
2- There are bloody loads of people here, though. “Where were you at Upton Park?” emerges grouchily from the home stands during the first half, but it’s an intimidating sight nonetheless. This was, we were told all week, when West Ham would spark. Their big guns – Payet, Lanzini – were back, the new signing – Zaza – in place. The Hammers had had a tough start to the season, their points total reflecting this. This was when their season would start. “West Ham will win this,” opined Michael Owen. “Watford might struggle this season”. Someone pays him.
Much of that applied to us too, of course, but we’re still small fry, not top flight establishment, so few cared. There’s part of us thinking that maybe some of this week’s papers might have made it onto our dressing room wall, so to speak. All of which was forgotten as the Hammers started the game with exactly that thought – that this is game one, the game they must win, the game they will win – at the front of their minds. They hit us like a train, and the stands made a complete racket.
3- We looked slow. Or maybe West Ham just made us look slow. We were behind almost immediately, a corner, one flick – two? – and Antonio’s angling his header past a helpless Gomes. How did he get to that header? Why was there nobody on the far post? Too easy. It’s a long way back already.
Actually we rallied a bit at 1-0. Ighalo had already had half a chance at nil-nil… now the lively Pereyra suckered Masuaku on the right of the penalty area – with hindsight, a portent of what was to come – and Ighalo was teed up again, his shot deflected wide. This didn’t last though. The home side simply made it look easier, they were on top and enjoying it, like a dog being let out for it’s first run in ages. The achilles heel of a three-man defence – someone, Holebas, being caught upfield and leaving the flanks exposed – caught us out. The devilish Payet hugged the right touchline, Britos was too slow out to him and an outrageous cross found Antonio stealing in at the far post.
4- The most redundant thunk of the season, but one of those that needs saying anyway. We didn’t see the result coming at all at this point. West Ham were worth the two goal lead and were heading off into the sunset, or would have been if it hadn’t still been grey and miserable. One of those where you feel the stadium closing in on you and just want it all to end. It could have been anything at this point.
Here’s the thing though. West Ham came at us. Zaza wanted a goal and tiptoed across challenges looking for an opening. He didn’t get one. Antonio sniffed a hat-trick and galloped in from the right. Payet lined up a free kick ominously after Noble drew a foul. It was blocked. We were stretched, but we stood up to it… blocks and tackles; you’ll have gathered that things got better in the second half but Valon Behrami’s masterclass lasted ninety minutes, he was magnificent. Kaboul was a wall, Troy was getting his head to things. We definitely, defiantly, weren’t lying down. And by standing up we gave ourselves a chance. By not folding, we made it more than a footnote, more than a mere detail when Ighalo chased Capoue’s deft flick and his shot deflected beyond Adrian. We made it possible for Deeney to capitalise majestically on a complete catastrophe in West Ham’s defence. Suddenly it’s half time and it’s 2-2. How? Because unlike West Ham, whilst we made defensive mistakes we didn’t fold. Our heads were in the game. You suspected that West Ham never contemplated the possibility of such resistance. The presence of one Manuel Britos (sic) in the programme’s player list, of a pic of Capoue captioned as Holebas, was consistent with the national press’s billing of the Hornets as bit-part players, a supporting act. West Ham believed their own publicity and found themselves level at the break in a game that they should, could, have had in the bag.
Incidentally it was also at 2-0 down that Sofia had remembered that her yellow Watford teddy, whose match-influencing powers seem to wane when left forgotten in my backpack, had not been brought out to witness the game…
5- The second half was the best football Watford have played for some considerable time, certainly since Arsenal in the cup, arguably this calendar year. We took the bag that West Ham thought the game was safely tucked away in, emptied it, clubbed them round the head with it, popped Dimitri Payet inside and lobbed it to Younes Kaboul who drop-kicked it into the stinking River Lea.
Front and centre of this masterclass was the midfield trio of Behrami, Capoue and Pereyra. Valon and Capoue have looked utterly content in their new roles this season already despite our modest points total to this point. Behrami is the pit-bull, cut out to do the dirty work. He was fearsome and magnificent, full of ferocious blocks and tackles with his best lunatic stare and blood dripping from his jaws. Capoue is relishing the licence to get forward a bit more, and loves the box-to-box role of the three. He clubbed in a third to put us ahead for the first time after teasing now fretful West Ham defenders on the edge of the box.
And now there is a conductor, a string-puller, someone to tease things apart and let the liquid flow through the cracks. Pereyra’s 45 minutes against Arsenal had been hugely encouraging, but in the context of a game against a side who also (perhaps more credibly) believed their game was won and of us being desperate for him to prove his worth there was the concern that we’d imagined his impact, over-egged the pudding in our minds. Given him an impossible billing to live up to. Not a bit of it. Elegant, mischievous, industrious, class. An absolute joy. These three are now the core of the team, and we won’t go far wrong if they stay fit.
6- You’ll have heard about the disturbances in the crowd, none of which were terribly near to us but plenty of which was clearly visible. Blog posts from home supporters pre-match confirm that this was far from being a one-off… segregation both in the stands and in the concourses was grotesquely inadequate. Complacent, even. Yes, football has become a politer, more pleasant thing over the years. But this isn’t cricket. People are going to get over excited and in a fifty-odd thousand crowd you’re going to get some idiots by the law of averages. If you’re raking in revenue from this enormous and extraordinary level of interest having taken advantage of an unusually generous set of circumstances then the very least you can do is ensure that the vast majority who want to simply go and watch their team are able to do so safely. West Ham lost a two goal lead at home, but their biggest embarrassment was off the pitch.
7- Meanwhile, Jose Holebas snaffled a fourth as West Ham backpedalled, completely incapable of changing the direction that this game had decisively decided to travel in. Much of the rest of it consisted of Watford possession, passing the ball out of reach of their wearying opponents. The Hammers had possession too but their chances were remote, half-glimpses of an opening. Even when Fletcher, on as a sub, won a knock-down to create a clear chance Gomes was there to block before the offside flag was noticed. At that point the game was up, and the home stands were emptying.
In front of us, Pereyra slalomed through the Hammers’ defence and would have brought the house down (or our little bit of it) but couldn’t quite find the finish. The subs were all significant – Prödl replaced Kaboul to get his head onto ever more hopeful crosses, Success and Okaka demonstrated another big improvement on last term – attacking threat from the bench, options that allowed Troy and Iggy a rest. Both had chances… Success screamed in on goal but flicked his effort narrowly wide. Okaka bundled Kaboul’s knock-down into the roof of the net and celebrated for half a second before seeing the flag. Burdened with relatively low expectation (a multi-million pound signing with low expectation. Jesus) he was a muscled, boisterous pain in the arse; with huge upper body strength he had the physique of Johnny Bravo and was precisely what West Ham didn’t need in the circumstances, until doing his hamstring and leaving us to see the game out with ten men. He’s a favourite already.
8- So much for the tough start to the season. We’d all have taken four points, I think, and United on Sunday suddenly becomes a free punch. Whilst we’re always going to be vulnerable defensively the magnitude of the achievement, wresting what should have, could have, in so many other seasons would have been a runaway cathartic home win from their grasp is every bit as immense as it sounds. Michael Owen’s column next week will suggest that Watford might surprise one or two people. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a team.
Watford 1 Arsenal 3 (27/08/2016) 28/08/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I’m a right grumpy bastard in the summer. I don’t do heat anyway… how do you walk to work in sunshine, even relatively tame 8.30am sunshine, with a laptop bag and not get there ready to go home again? Football is many things, amongst which it’s something to work towards at such points. At points where you’ve got to work feeling hot and flustered, or been confronted about a piece of work that you’d completely forgotten about or just feeling a bit low, the prospect of playing Arsenal, or whoever, at the weekend is something to put a spring in your step. Come on.
2- So giving away a penalty after less than ten minutes was a bit of a pisser. It featured a slow motion dawning, a realisation amongst the crowd after an oddly protracted, delayed award complicated by Sanchez lying prone in the penalty area and…has he given a penalty or is he calling the physio? Was there a foul? Is it our free kick? Cazorla seems convinced, he… he’s given a penalty. Oh f***.
The week’s anticipation fizzles out there and then. There’s brief, half-hearted straw-clinging as a succession of delaying tactics hold up the penalty but there was never any suggestion that it wouldn’t be converted. It was a game-defining moment; Arsenal, as the build-up to the game on Radio 5 had reiterated, needed the result. The penalty gave doubts and anxiety no opportunity to take root, and much as what followed later in the half could have perhaps been avoided the pattern of the game unravelled from this point. For fifteen minutes or so we weren’t in it at all, chasing the play, the out-ball a thump up to Troy to flick on to nothing, ragged. Then we grabbed a foothold, pushed on, pushed Arsenal back. Kabasele’s header from a set piece was angled narrowly wide. We were giving it some. Until Arsenal broke, ruthlessly, seeing an opportunity to shake off the “we haven’t won yet” monkey and taking it. It was over the line, then it wasn’t, but there was no doubt as to what the technology verdict would be. Mercilessly it was three before the break as all semblance of resilient defence crumbled. Game over.
3- Going back to that penalty call, two thoughts having seen it again. First, this was always a risk. That Nordin would be caught in a defensive situation that he wasn’t adapted to and that it would cost us. No doubt that he’s done a sterling job as a converted wing-back but there are some bits that he’s better at than others. The wing-back roles always looked like priorities for recruitment given our mooted change in formation, they’re positions that the 3-5-2 asks an awful lot of. Amrabat’s conversion is a success on balance, but even if he continues to improve and adapt to the role such mistakes are inevitable – this one was expensive.
And the other thought was that it was clearly a penalty on review, as was clear at the time from social media feedback provided by those who’d seen a replay. Not everyone uses social media as a check in such situations of course and amongst those living the moment was the Despairing Young Man from ig’s Chelsea report last week who let Sanchez and referee Friend know in concise and repetitive terms what he suspected about their sexual habits for the rest of the half.
Nonetheless, Friend deserves no sympathy. The standard of refereeing seems to me to have improved pretty dramatically in the top flight, certainly since the bizarre days of the 1999/2000 season but Kevin Friend is a throwback, a peacock, the headmaster’s son who owns the ball. His display was extraordinarily unbalanced and provocative, one of many second half highlights being Nordin Amrabat being harshly penalised for a foul on Wilshere and, being about to be substituted, walking off angrily remonstrating at the referee to be summoned to the pitch to receive one of an extraordinary number of yellow cards for the homeside, still chuntering. Difficult not to sympathise.
4- Half time had been pretty grim. Much as these things can happen against such high quality sides, particularly quality sides in need of a win who get the relief of an early penalty, nobody was looking forward to the second half. Despairing Young Man failed to reappear for the second half and frankly I’d have taken that at the break, anything else was a bonus. Instead, what followed was hugely encouraging.
Our league games to date have been remarkable in that none of our army of impressive new recruits had started. Here we saw an array of new talent gradually introduced. Kabasele and Kaboul started the game and despite the calamity at the end of the first half both impressed; Kaboul looks great with the ball at his feet, and if he looked a little slow to be playing one of the two wide roles that bear significant responsibility in covering our attacking wing backs this must surely be mitigated by the knowledge that he will in general be competing with Prödl for the central role.
Pereyra warmed up at the break. No pressure, Roberto, but if someone going to come on at 3-0 down having been hailed as The Answer by his coach, let alone the support, you’d back someone with a (kind-of) mohican. Expectation was so high that it’s difficult to conceive of something that would meet that expectation without being worthy of a Roy of the Rovers strip, but my word he came very close. It’s like when you trade up in Masters League on Pro Evo (I’m talking about 5 years ago, it’s a long time since I was down with the kids) and suddenly have a much much better player in the side. Deft, clever, quick but industrious he looked every bit the part. The mouth waters.
He gobbled up a loose ball to narrow the deficit too; by then we’d moved to 4-3-3 with Janmaat coming on as right back behind Amrabat. He looked decent too, quick and aggressive with an ability to deliver curling crosses from deeper than the touchline. And finally Success, an extraordinary specimen who looks like a heavyweight boxer but moves like an ice skater. Our attacking play for much of the rest of the half was fabulous and potent, albeit against an Arsenal side who were never quite put under enough pressure by the scoreline.
5- The fixture list, in a sense, hasn’t been kind as I’m sure you’ve noticed. One point from these three games isn’t far short of par; you’d take a point at West Ham and anything from United is a bonus on current form which gives us two points, say, after five games and the need to win at Burnley and the more obviously winnable games that follow.
On the other hand. It was always going to take time to bed these players in. The Pozzo approach has traditionally been to be cautious in this regard, Quique’s immediate blooding of Jurado a year ago the exception rather than the rule. We have, on the evidence of this second half, quite an array of talent, without having seen Sinclair, for instance, in competitive action yet. We have two weeks further to sort things out and two more games to bed things in, games which at any stage of the season would be challenging.
And then we’re up and running for those winnable games. And on this evidence, running like a train with defences scattering in our wake. Keep the faith. This could be fun.