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Watford 0 Liverpool 3 (24/11/2018) 25/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- In the dark, sweaty labyrinth of online messageboards the WSC forum is a relatively intelligent, sane, consistent place to hide.  Topics for discussion are broad, the audience relatively well-informed.

One particular discussion took root in my memory and has remained there, though it may be as many as ten years old.  The instigator of the discussion was an Italian, who asked for insight about the supporters of English clubs.  He explained that whilst he was familiar with the triumphs, the colours, the squads, the detail of the Premier League he didn’t, having never lived in England, have an intuitive feel for what supporters of the clubs were like.  He couldn’t characterise them, didn’t have the same feel that he had for the Italian football landscape and asked for help.

“Liverpool fans”, he was advised, “expect you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”.  Harsh.  But, you know.  Not completely without foundation.  The Liverpool fan who repeatedly berated BSaD for lack of respect during our balloon-laden League Cup semi-final visit in 2005 on what “should have been the biggest day in your club’s history” springs to mind.  I must confess that this mantra, rather than merely reflecting a core of truth, has a tendency to form the basis of pre-judgement on meeting Liverpool fans.  That’s probably neither fair nor healthy.

Can’t be avoided, however, that whilst we weren’t regularly getting 20,000 crowds when we were in the second tier there are an awful lot of people here who were there then, and would be again should fate turn against us.  You know who they are, who you are.  Faces that you see every time you visit, they’d be here for Rotherham or (shudder) Ipswich as readily as for the likes of Liverpool.  A fact perhaps lost on whoever adorned the livery of Liverpool’s club coach, arriving after 1.30 and holding up entry to Occupation Road with its redded-out windows bearing the slogan “Liverpool FC:   This Means More”.  What? More than what? What means more?  Banal twaddle.  Another anecdote:  I’m reminded of erstwhile Reds keeper Sander Westerweld’s response to scousers stopping him in the street and telling him that being an outsider, he didn’t “understand the passion!“.   “Oh f*** off.”

2- The side’s a bit good though, in fairness.  Our approach to handling this seems, as ever, hugely sensible;  the dynamic Capoue back for Chalobah, Troy’s leadership in for Isaac Success and Adam Masina’s discipline in for Jose Holebas.

And we start well.  This is a high water mark in several respects;  the game is never less than engrossing but doesn’t quite live up to the sizzling promise of the opening five or ten minutes, and our disciplined and largely successful insistence upon playing out from the back, on playing our way out of tight corners doesn’t last much longer.  Nonetheless, there’s huge encouragement as Gerard Deulofeu is slipped through and finishes well.  He’s offside, but not by very much.  Later Roberto Pereyra finds an opening and shovels a shot at goal that Alisson propels wide.

As the half progresses though, the pattern is very much one of Watford playing a containment game – squeezing up the midfield and leaving little space for a ball through or over the top to the scuttling Salah or Mané.  Very effective it was too, for the most part, though Daughter 1’s comment that for all Liverpool’s possession and the repetitive “here we are again” of their passing hither and thither in search of an opening we’d had the better chances served to prompt a flurry from the visitors. Wijnaldum swung a boot at a clear shot on goal, Mané swivelled athletically to force a fine save from Foster, Salah ghosted in late and unattended to head a corner inside the bottom corner until Foster, impossibly, clawed it out.  A concerted effort to snatch an advantage before the break, we just about held it together.

3- Of particular interest were a couple of ongoing duels.  The first of these is a regular highlight, that of Virgil van Dijk and Troy Deeney;  Troy has been vocal about van Dijk being his toughest opponent, and the Dutchman has come out on top more often than not since our first trip to Southampton on promotion.  Here, Troy was isolated for the most part but competed well and relished the challenge.

Elsewhere, Will Hughes and Andy Robertson were at hammer and tongs up and down our right flank.  Robertson was a regular threat, more than once arriving late to supplement a reds attack but the two largely kept each other in check.  There was an element of stalemate, that we had Liverpool’s number but couldn’t afford to make a mistake and weren’t really threatening terribly much.  We needed to concentrate and trust to our luck, we needed the breaks and we didn’t get them.  A critical point came when Hughes stole a march on Robertson and drew a challenge from him inside the area.  This wasn’t a stonewall penalty like the Bertrand/Chalobah nonsense at Southampton two weeks ago, even on a replay it’s not completely clear cut but it was probably a foul and it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that fate would decide in our favour.  She didn’t.

The final confrontation came between Isaac Success, on as a bustling, positive, disruptive sub for the slightly underwhelming Deulofeu, and Jordan Henderson who often found himself isolated against the Nigerian and unable to cope with the challenge.  Booked for a foul within minutes of the Nigerian’s introduction he gave Jonathon Moss several opportunities to send him off with inexplicably stroppy, pointless fouls before finally getting his marching orders for a hack at Capoue on the halfway line.

4- All the more bizarre from Liverpool’s captain given that the Reds were two up by this stage.  The Hornets had another decision go against them in Liverpool’s right back position and from there Liverpool broke, Robertson delivering a ball that Salah snapped up, the critical decisive point in the game.  Having kept us alive in the first half Ben Foster didn’t cover himself with glory here, but the margins are fine.  The fact is we did very well for the most of the match, employing a strategy that really wasn’t very far at all from working, but that failed at the last against superior opposition.  No shame in that.

Unfortunate, however, that there’s so little difference between a 0-0 and a 3-0 defeat against a side of this quality, since the game rapidly ran away from us as we tried to regain a foothold.  Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose uncle was Watford’s club secretary not so very long ago, pinged a free kick into the top corner deceiving the goalkeeper before the Hornets were luckless again, Firmino scuttling in a third after Foster had made another fine stop to deny the initial shot.  Firmino would have been offside but for the prone Femenía, stranded on the other side of the pitch having slid in on a challenge earlier in the move.

5- So the first of two home games in ten days against ostensibly the strongest clubs in the country.  Beaten fair and square, but the scoreline doesn’t do justice to our performance which was better than that, or to the strategy selected which asked a lot of us but wasn’t a million miles from earning a result.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, it’s difficult to conceive of an approach that would have had a better chance of success.

Once again, we’re left to reflect that if we’re disappointed at losing to a top side we’ve come a long way.  Still top half, deservedly top half, we shouldn’t let this knock us out of our stride.  There’s so much to like about this team.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 4, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3

Subs: Success (for Deulofeu, 57) 4, Gray (for Hughes, 75) 2, Chalobah, Navarro, Quina, Kabasele, Gomes

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Southampton 1 Watford 1 (10/11/2018) 11/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- “Tell you what Matt, the next time we come here, let’s not park in Portsmouth…?”

Paul’s an affable sort of bloke, not one for unnecessary or exaggerated protest and in fairness he has a point. Our reserved parking space is actually only half a mile or so from the ground as the crow flies but with the River Itchen in the way it’s a good two miles as the Watford fan trudges. This seemed like a reasonable idea without the filter of the pissing rain, and on the way into Southampton the prospect of snarled traffic put us off from looking for something a bit closer. As it is we arrive damp and tired, and that classic football fan’s war wound, the burn on the roof of the mouth thanks to a hastily inhaled balti pie, doesn’t brighten the outlook. Loz materialises, over from gadding it in Spain, this helps, but as the teams come out it’s absolutely hammering it down.

2- Question One of course is quite how we’ll cope with the conditions. Étienne Capoue is the one you’d traditionally worry about of course, the one labelled with the same “he’s fine when the sun’s shining” reputation that Micah Hyde was once rather harshly awarded but he’s missing having picked up a fifth booking of the season in Newcastle. In comes Nathaniel Chalobah for a very welcome first League start for twelve months but eager anticipation of the resumption of his partnership with Doucouré needs to be tempered for a while. Chalobah was magnificent in the slightly less pressured environment of the League Cup win at Reading, but here does look every inch a player who’s barely played in twelve months… ragged, off the pace, trying rather too hard to rectify mistakes exacerbated by the conditions in being rather reckless in the tackle. He’ll get there, props again to Javi Gracia for giving him the full ninety minutes which will help but we looked noticeably flimsier in midfield minus Capoue, one-time Watford target Mario Lemina the dominant figure in a congested central area of the park.

That said the worst example of failing to accommodate the conditions was perpetrated by Roberto Pereyra, whose flame had dimmed overall. Saints enjoyed their first spell of pressure, winning a corner when Stuart Armstrong overlapped well then sending a header straight at Foster from the set piece. From the second corner the ball found its way to Pereyra who dawdled and tried to pick out a pass with the ball stuck under his feet. He was robbed and Saints capitalised. Particularly aggravating in the context of a game which was always going to ask a lot of a team going behind… much easier to be destructive and protect a lead than to chase a game in these conditions.

3- Southampton revelled in their advantage, catching sight of a first home win since April. Both sides were struggling to retain possession, but the Saints were having the best of it and came close twice more in the first half, Yoshida heading narrowly wide before Armstrong’s flicked shot forced an excellent reaction save from Foster. At the other end the Saints looked eminently get-attable, but Gerard Deulofeu’s bark was proving worse than his bite once more. His quick feet and scuttling menace is too often let down by bad decision making; the most eye-catching of these instances provoked accusations of selfishness from those around us but the Spaniard has been equally culpable of forgoing opportunities in favour of less well-placed colleagues.

Isaac Success however was having some, um, joy in providing a focal point for the attack, his ability to stick a brick wall in front of his marker whilst gently chesting down an aerial ball not getting old just yet. He was helped further when Troy joined the fray; at the time this was heralded as a bold early substitution, it transpires that the disappointing Hughes had been struggling with a knock. Either way, the momentum of the game changed and we were the side most likely to from then on in. As ever it’s the how as much as the what with Troy, and as so often he dragged his teammates back into the ascendancy.

4- In the grand scheme of things there are more objectionable teams in the Premier League than Southampton, bearing in mind of course that the basic rule of supporting a football team is that there’s your lot and there’s everyone else; we’re talking degrees of objectionable for the most part. Nonetheless, there are more pompous, unpleasant, snide teams around than Southampton. All that really lets them down at the moment is their odious manager, whose notoriously blinkered view of the world is widely parodied. Predictably enough, he was at the vanguard of a one-eyed version of the second half narrative that focused on the second of two eye-catching decisions from Premier League newbie Simon Hooper.

This related to Charlie Austin’s disallowed strike, a fine move down the right out of nowhere giving Austin the opportunity to finish well. We sunk into our seats, it was some time before the assistant raised his flag disallowing the goal to understandable if baffled joy in the away end. Any explanations came via friends who may or may not have been watching streams; on review, there’s no denying that the goal gets awarded nine times out of ten.

It’s not completely cut and dried though. Not ludicrous. MotD’s analysis suggested that the officials thought that the offside Yoshida had touched the ball but there’s a case for saying that the defender was active in that had he leaned towards the ball rather than away from it he would have deflected the shot into the opposite corner. That he chose not to is neither here nor there. Either way, we got away with one since the decision goes with the goalscorer most of the time. Incontrovertibly, however, we were in deficit on the decision front after Ryan Bertrand, already on a yellow, had earlier scythed Nathaniel Chalobah in the area to no penalty. What woulda shoulda coulda happened if if if is academic of course; the pen wasn’t given, Bertrand wasn’t dismissed. Austin’s goal wasn’t given either, you play the circumstances and get on with it. Southampton’s unbalanced, fanciful evaluation reflects their desperation; this is a side in serious trouble. On the evidence of our recent games against struggling sides I’d put them behind Newcastle, Palace (sigh) and even Huddersfield, who whilst blunt had a pattern of play and a togetherness. Saints were handed a lead at home against a mid-table side playing poorly and contrived to screw it up.

5- Since the second half saw us a lot more bullish, Saints struggling with the physicality of Deeney and Success. They held a high line which was effective for a while, but Andre Gray’s snappy cameo did for that. The penalty was only one of a growing number of half-chances bludgeoned out despite the weather, despite not generally playing well. Isaac Success popped up on either flank in defiance of what must have been heavy legs. Troy snapped in a near post shot to an instant Deulofeu ball for which the Spaniard was congratulated. “It was coming” might have been overstating it, but the pitch was being gently tilted our way. In the end we won through overloading and a ball finally breaking favourably, a deflection off Deulofeu giving Holebas a window to slug a shot home via a slight deflection.  The celebration, given rain, given the passage of events,  given the lateness of the hour was perhaps out of proportion with the significance of the goal.  One of Those.

We battered the hosts for the last ten minutes; only one side was going to win it, McCarthy flapping a cross against his own crossbar and Gray narrowly failing to make contact with a late cross. It would have flattered us though. This was a worthy point earned through bloody-mindedness rather than scintillating football. They’re handy too mind, particularly in circumstances such as these when the sexy stuff can’t or won’t come. It comes to something when we’re coming away from home in the Premier League and disappointed with a point, but with Liverpool, Leicester and Man City within ten days after the international break it was a valuable (if damp) one.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, *Mariappa 3*, Cathcart 3, Hughes 2, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 2, Success 3
Subs: Deeney (for Hughes, 40) 3, Gray (for Pereyra, 68) 3, Masina, Kabasele, Wilmot, Okaka, Gomes

Newcastle United 1 Watford 0 (03/11/2018) 04/11/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1 – The big challenge when attending games at this time of year is the bloody weather, and thus judging clothing requirements.  I appreciate that this is becoming a recurring theme, perhaps I’m getting old…  but you know what I’m talking about, right?  Is it going to be cold (like Bournemouth) or sunny?  How much effect will the wind have, how many layers do I need?  Travelling by car you can hedge your bets by loading up the boot to cover all angles.  On the train it’s harder, the more so if you have to weigh up the climate on the other side of the country.

By the time seats were reached, having navigated a stifling carriage, a long breezy walk to a pub by the marina, the interior of this and then another pub, the marvellous flood of humanity upwards towards the ground, the fourteen-staircase ascent to the gods at St James Park (base camp, thermos and Sherpas not provided) and exposure to the elements at altitude only one conclusion was possible.  There was no good decision.

2- It comes to something when you’re coming to St James’ Park in the Premier League expecting to win.  This perverse state of affairs reflects United’s reality as well as ours; nonetheless, it’s odd enough to make us uneasy in itself.  Alice confesses to having a bad feeling about the game in pub 1;  great start, unparalleled squad or otherwise it’ll take a while to adjust to where we find ourselves.

After a minute’s silence in memory of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha which segues hesitantly into a minute’s applause the game kicks off.  Newcastle’s downtrodden support are generally quiet but any suggestion of progress however tentative is encouraged with a wordless bellow.  This very quickly feels like a game of “first goal wins” since the home crowd would clearly rally behind as unprecedented a fillip as going ahead, but their side is so toothless that even a one goal lead (surely leading to two or three) would be decisive.

And such looked the likely outcome after a first half in which Newcastle occasionally threaten but only theoretically, nervous and hesitant when a shooting opportunity materialised.  The Hornets however enjoyed much the greater possession and occasionally snapped into life, passing the ball around in hypnotically comfortable rhythm at the back and probing, probing, before rattling into a much higher gear and slicing into the penalty area.  It was far from the best football we’ve played this season but it nonetheless should have seen us comfortably in the lead at the break… Deulofeu, a constant irritant, repeated his trick of rounding the keeper and missing the target, more forgivably than against Huddersfield, and later stabs a first time effortwide.  Mariappa does well with a far post header that’s blocked on the line, less well when snatching at a good chance that results from the subsequent, scruffy penalty area scramble, Success drove across the face of Dubravka forcing a smart stop (which I make at least two efforts on target, incidentally, not the publicised one?), several sorties provoked nervous, “just get it out” clearances.  Crucially, we didn’t get the goal.

3- Part of the issue was Newcastle’s unashamedly pragmatic set-up.  This was an away performance from the home side, determinedly destructive sitting players behind the ball and breaking.  It’s difficult to look fluid in the face of such an approach, and we did well enough for a while but wilted.  Having reached half time ahead on points if glancing slightly anxiously at the lack of chances taken we were confident that quality would out, that ultimately one of those crackling, overlapping, double-teaming attacks would pay off if we persisted.  We didn’t, so it didn’t.

It was a limp, underwhelming second half performance.  We looked heavy and deliberate before going behind – not complacent I don’t think, but perhaps our relatively comfortable league position lost us a degree of urgency.  Newcastle offered minimal threat before going ahead and next to nothing afterwards but all it took was Ayoze Perez – one of three substitutes necessitated by injury for the home side before the hour – being abandoned at a corner.  The choking inevitability of this miserable development enveloped the away end.

4- Even then, we had chances.  Good chances.   The best of these came to sub Stefano Okaka, who had a reasonable cameo as a battering ram and aerial target but  slung a shot at close range over a gaping goal, the ball across slightly behind him.  Earlier Success had artfully manufactured space for Roberto Pereyra to thump against the crossbar before the Nigerian was withdrawn for a welcome if spiky reappearance from Nathaniel Chalobah.

After a reasonable first half  in which he’d again displayed his expertise at controlling the ball with his chest and head and at occasionally spotting and executing a wicked through-ball, Success had struggled in the second in common with most of the team.  His failings were particularly visible, as he seemed to tire and was bullied by Newcastle’s defenders, suddenly unable to hold the ball up and give our attack a focus.  Pre-match discussion had suggested that Troy might struggle to win his place back;  evidence here of the value of Troy’s forcefulness of personality, his strength of character.  Isaac might get there, but isn’t there yet.

Nonetheless, the young striker is well in credit for the season having scored three and contributed plenty in four starts before today, three of which wins plus the draw with Spurs.  So the cheering of his substitution, of the substitution of a 22 year old who had continued to plug away, peppered the mistakes with good stuff and refused to hide despite the direction his afternoon was taking, was fuckwittery of the highest order comfortably eclipsing in terms of banal stupidity anything that happened on the pitch.

5- Yeah.  Defeat, then.  A bloody long way to come for an underwhelming outcome.  If there was a consolation it was that there are worse places to visit than Newcastle with its admirable carpet of proper pubs.  We visited a third before braving the train journey home.

As for getting used to being This Good?  Well here’s the answer:  we’re not that good, yet.  Not good enough that we can come to somewhere like this and fail to take chances and not expect to get a bloody nose.  It’s not black and white though, (not even in Newcastle).  Not just “good” (win) and “bad” (lose).  We’re still a good side and this is still remarkable.  Even the shitty away defeats are to be cherished.

Just… not too often.  Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, *Cathcart 3*, Mariappa 3, Hughes 2, Doucouré 3, Capoue 2, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Success 2
Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 66) 2, Okaka (for Hughes, 76) 0, Chalobah (for Success, 85) 0, Kabasele, Sema, Masina, Gomes

Watford 3 Huddersfield Town 0 (27/10/2018) 28/10/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- “Well I’d like to think we can get a point but… I can’t really see it”.

Such was the glum prognosis of the Huddersfield fan accompanying us for navigation purposes pre-match.  He was taking his lad to as many away games as possible, he explained.  The unspoken subtext was that such an opportunity perhaps best not be taken for granted.  Difficult to argue.

Nonetheless, here was a challenge we’ve rarely experienced before, certainly since the 1980s.  That of being the side… not just favourites but comprehensive favourites, odds-on favourites, expected to win in a top flight game.  As with all unfamiliar things it doesn’t feel altogether comfortable, as positive an indicator as it may be of the status to which we’ve elevated ourselves.  You’re much less open to disappointment – and pressure – as the underdog.  Nor had this edginess been improved by finding ourselves placed at exactly the same spot in Wagamama as we had been pre-Bournemouth.  Or by discovering, now as then, that it was much bloody colder than anticipated necessitating hat purchase for the second home game on the trot.  (Or, as an aside, that the hat was too small.  The costume fitters of the Adhoc theatre group will roll their eyes, full of complaints at the the prohibitive size of my head.  Nonetheless…  a one size fits all hat shouldn’t be too small…).

Only in the ground, at our seats, were nerves assuaged.  Pre-match pondering over selection was answered decisively.  Same team.  Holebas and Kabasele return from suspension to a place on the bench.  You get yourselves suspended, you’ll have to win your places back.  As soon as we heard we knew it was the right call, too damn right. And the 4-2-3-1 retained, despite suggestions that this was specifically to counter Wolves’ midfield.  Our own midfield riches need to be accommodated, it seems.

2-  The start of the game certainly didn’t suggest that a comfortable win was on the cards.  After Bobby Pereyra made brief early inroads the visitors came right back at us with World Cup winner Erik Durm twice finding aggressive space on the flank stretching us wide and Aaron Mooy warming Ben Foster’s gloves.  This looked in danger of becoming the game we’d feared as Huddersfield appeared aggressive, purposeful and together in the way that a team without a win in late October really shouldn’t have;  grumbles reflecting as much began to echo around the Rookery.  Not for the first or last time, this game could have headed off in another direction altogether.

That it didn’t was due, essentially, to the quality with which this squad is liberally sprinkled (and some tentative defending).  Pereyra, the source of magic as on so many occasions this season, uncovered Huddersfield’s greatest failing by simply running at them.  This was a strategy that was to pay off repeatedly, since for all their character and discipline the visitors simply couldn’t cope with being committed in this way.  From the Rookery it became impossible to follow his scampering beyond the bodies left in his wake, the outcome clear as the ball hit the net with the full detail of what preceded it only revealed by the replay.  My brother’s vantage point in the Upper GT gave him a better view, his description citing Pele’s tactical input to “Escape to Victory” as below.

Within ten minutes it was two, and this time there was no mystery about the passage of events, Deulofeu skinning one Huddersfield defender to his right, another to his left before cruelly slugging a shot through Jonas Lössl.  As at Molineux a week earlier we’d put ourselves into complete control with two goals of the highest quality.

3- The thing is, Huddersfield weren’t that bad.  Blunt, certainly;  short of goals but critically also short of a source of goals.  I know that I over-rely on this comparison but…  Neal Ardley dumping a cross to the far post for Heidar to propel in somehow, anyhow, was a stock goal that was there for a fairly limited side to fall back on.  Huddersfield have nothing like that, and not nearly enough angel dust to generate enough special goals like the Bobby Pereyra one, or even halfway to it, to sustain them.

That said they came closer and threatened more frequently than the scoreline suggests.  Chris Löwe nearly pulled a goal back straight away, his fierce drive nicked onto the bar by Ben Foster.  Philip Billing clubbed a shot towards the top corner, clawed away.  Less spectacular but dealt with in wonderfully unfussy fashion were a number of low drives that all required concentration and the awareness not to spill the ball to an opponent.  A magnificent performance from Foster.

As for Huddersfield, for all that Javi Gracia’s warnings that they were better than their results suggested were backed up and despite strong competition it’s difficult to see them staying up.  This was a side playing to the limits of its ability;  admirably single-minded despite their poor results, defensively capable (fragility when committed notwithstanding), competitive in the midfield but beaten 3-0.  They won’t always play this well.  As above, they just don’t have any goals…  when you see that there’s a long throw expert you think maybe that’s an option, except that the long throw expert and the 6’6″ target are the same bloke.  They’re screwed.

4- Into the second half and the game continued to toe a line between several possible outcomes.  Certainly a series of bad decisions at the last moment – and a couple of bad finishes – were all that was between us and a more decisive win.  Often we screamed out from the back with the last pass agonisingly lacking as Huddersfield scrambled back.  On one such occasion Deulofeu hared beyond the defensive line and touched the ball around Lössl only to find Schindler a sufficiently large and patient obstacle, the Spaniard’s attempt to curl the ball into the empty net not quite good enough.  An elegant move concluded with Pereyra darting across the ball to apply a masterful flick with his heel to leave Hughes in front of goal.  He couldn’t have been more dramatic with a wand and a puff of green smoke, but Hughes too seemed surprise and his stabbed left foot shot was much too comfortable for the Terriers’ keeper. Ken Sema, desperate to make a positive impression, bundled joyously into the box only to slug a shot wide.

Another possible outcome remained a much tighter, nervier finish and as Huddersfield gained in confidence again the third goal appeared increasingly to be a necessity rather than a cherry on the cake.  I was about to suggest that “fortunately it arrived”, but fortune had nothing to do with it.  This was a set piece as exquisitely borne of discipline and teamwork as the first two were of individual brilliance and owed nothing to tentative defending.  The moved concluded with Étienne Capoue arcing a looping ball to find Kiko Femenía barrelling down the right; his scuffed ball across the box fell perfectly to Isaac Success; Huddersfield’s defence completely blindsided.  The big Nigerian had been as guilty as anyone of bad decision making but his performance was nonetheless a tour de force;  impossibly powerful but deft and clever and aware too.  Uniquely suited to the lone striking role, his goal was well earned.

5- Game over, then.  And get us, we can play moderately well against limited but spirited and competitive opposition and make it look easy.  So much for struggling when expected to do well.  And because it’s fun, because it emphasises quite how stunning a job the club management have been doing, let’s roll off some of the names not involved today: Deeney, Chalobah, Cleverley, Holebas, Janmaat, Prödl, Gomes, Navarro.  The youngsters, Quina, Wilmot.  Goodness me.

Two away games to come next, different challenges in their own way but both against sides struggling to score goals but in front of home crowds who will expect a result against The Likes Of Watford despite what the League table suggests.  With our dizzy, spinning brilliance on the break – and one or two more sensible decisions – that ought to suit us.  Let’s see.

Yooorns.

*Foster 5*, Femenía 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 5, Mariappa 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 4, Pereyra 4, Success 4
Subs: Sema (for Deulofeu, 65) 3, Gray (for Success, 83) 0, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 85) 0, Wilmot, Holebas, Okaka, Gomes

Watford 0 Bournemouth 4 (06/10/2018) 07/10/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
20 comments

1- Waking up to bad news is an unpleasant thing.  You feel cheated, somehow, as if the day’s shit has stolen a march on you before you’ve even brushed your teeth.  You may be able to think of a couple of examples of the not too distant past of waking up and thinking “what?  what?  but today hasn’t even started yet!”.

But if waking up to bad news is unpleasant, being woken up to bad news is worse.  Specifically, woken up an hour after you went to bed to the fraught words “there’s a rat in the house!!!”…

It’s been an atrocious week, frankly.  Our unwelcome house guest has carved out it’s own niche in my head also, never far from the front of mind whether at home, or work, whether I’ve been wondering whether that noise was the washing machine or not or whether the little bastard has been parading across our kitchen behind the glass windows that separate it from the living room in a manner befitting of a top hat and tails.  If you’ve been there, I guess you’ll know.  Anyway…  as we’ve discussed on these pages before, football serves a variety of purposes dependent on circumstances and catharsis is certainly one such.  I needed the weekend to come.  I needed something to shout at.

2- Perhaps we all did.  Despite the vicious cold and miserably persistent rain that had snuck up on early October (and indifferent to the fact that having been preoccupied with locating their coats I’d forgotten my own. Again.), daughters 1 and 2 insisted that we adopt position in the Rookery shortly after 2pm.  By kick-off Daughter 2 was standing on her chair vigorously waving an 1881 flag, giggling as the wind caught it and almost took her off her seat and pausing only to ask what had happened to Ben Watson, whilst Daughter 1 was using Siri to identify “Hard Men” by DJ Vickers off the tannoy.  This may sound mundane, but it’s a level of pre-match involvement in matters in hand which is slightly unusual.

It was also the highlight of the afternoon.  Line-ups revealed our third right-back in as many League games, Femenía now in for the injured Navarro, but an eleven otherwise unchanged since the opening day.  And the first 14 minutes were OK… Bournemouth dropped deep and invited us into congested areas, but we did an encouraging enough job having accepted said invitation.  This culminated in Andre Gray’s shot being blocked as he span away on the right hand side of the area, and shortly afterwards the cumulative attritional effect of a series of attacks peeled open a space for Will Hughes to have a go.  It was a relatively comfortable ask for Begović, who held the ball down to his right, but as an opening salvo it was perfectly acceptable.

Our complete bloody doziness in dealing with Bournemouth’s counter-attacking that saw them burst out like speedskaters and quickly overload us was less acceptable.  As an approach it’s designed to catch you on your heels, to capitalise on any sluggishness in attention but it’s as old a strategy as the game itself and it’s what Bournemouth do.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop but good God you’ve got to to do better than this.  You’ve got to be ready for it, alert to the possibility, Étienne Capoue, that Ryan Fraser might be looking to steal a march on you.  90% of Watford supporters’ pre-match analyses would have featured the sentiment, “we’ve got to watch them on the break”.  We did watch them.  We watched them scream out down the left and find a man free on the far post.  Ben Foster hurled himself across goal to make an outrageous save that was entirely lost in the fact that he could only parry the ball to David Brooks, who finished unfussily.

3- Eddie Howe would acknowledge post-match that Christian Kabasele’s red card was pivotal.  It could equally be argued that we had our backs to the wall as soon as we went behind in conditions like these against this particular opponent.  I’d further suggest that we lost this game before we conceded as soon as we got all lackadaisical in midfield.

But certainly it’s true that if there’s one thing worse than being 1-0 down at home to an expert counterattacking side it’s being 2-0 down at home to an expert counterattacking side, and if there’s anything worse than that it’s going down to ten men in the bargain.  Craig Cathcart’s missed header in the interim was perhaps another sliding door moment, a cruel glimpse at a different game but it came and went as chances have done in preceding weeks.  And suddenly Christian Kabasele, who had already picked up a stupid booking for a clumsy challenge on Begovic, found himself the wrong side of Josh King.  It was a horror show in retrospect, losing his man and then not even doing a good enough job of bringing him down outside the area – if you’re going to grab his shirt for god’s sake don’t let go again – before swinging a leg in the manner of a child who already know’s they’ve lost the game and are making a sulky pretence of playing it out.  At the time I thought he’d taken the ball; very quickly the lack of on-pitch protest revealed this to be nonsense.  Kabasele departed, King sent Foster the wrong way and we were looking down the barrel of a horrible hour of football.

4- It’s tempting to draw a veil over the rest of it.  But before we do, a word for the rather odd decision to drop Étienne Capoue into defence and maintain a two-man forward line.  Bold, certainly… but whilst pausing to acknowledge that it’s much easier to make such calls after the event, bizarre also.   Capoue showed a brief glimpse of what the idea might have been;  a rare moment of unhurried possession saw him rake an extraordinary crossfield pass to the galloping Kiko Femenía wide on the right; this, as with too many of Femenía’s gallops down the right, came to nothing.  More frequently Capoue was simply not looking like a defender; harsh to blame him for that, but the fourth goal just after the break made an already evident problem unignorable as Callum Wilson wandered into the space that Capoue should have been monitoring and almost apologetically completed the scoring.

On came Mapps and Isaac Success and the ship was steadied, albeit with the game gone and the performance so low it was perhaps less difficult to make some kind of positive impression.  There’s something to be said for the fact that we kept plugging away… I think you’d be stunned, given the character of the side this season, with anything else but perhaps not to be taken for granted.  Abdoulaye Doucouré for one seemed willing to take hold of the ball, to take responsibility for trying to make something happen.  Equally, there’s no avoiding that Bournemouth came much closer to adding to their tally than we did to opening ours in what was left of the second half.

As for the Cherries… the addition of Jefferson Lerma is significant in the midfield; he’s the heavyweight anchor that allows the likes of King, Wilson and Fraser to spin off with a degree of abandon.  Hugely effective today, albeit that the day panned out pretty much as they’d have chosen, but no more likeable than ever despite, for a change, not being faced with a tight game in which to manipulate any advantage that was going.  Adam Smith, who collapsed in prolonged paroxysms of agony after Gerard Deulofeu coughed on him in passing in the final minutes, epitomised the snide nature of Eddie Howe’s side.

5- Looking forward, it will be interesting to watch how Javi responds to what is his first major setback as manager;  his placid “we lost four-nil; forget the ref, we’ve clearly got stuff to sort” on MotD was encouraging but there have been plenty of managers – Alex Neil springs to mind – who’ve looked great when everything’s humming and dramatically less so once it’s stopped.

But today the cold rain has gone and the sun is out again.  Difficult to reconstruct quite how miserable yesterday was. And that’s the way I’m going to think about it for the next two weeks;  we’ve had a brilliant season so far – even if the cost of not winning when playing well is now all the more evident – and getting all stroppy about our first bad performance won’t do anyone any good.  It’s not stretching credibility too much to say that this was a day in which absolutely nothing went our way, from conceding on the break to two yellow cards for Kabasele either of which might have been passed over on a good day, to Jonathan Moss huffing and puffing around the centre circle.  Perhaps this is the world getting back into balance, payback for Joel Ward’s last minute miss against Palace, for Spurs and Burnley… not in terms of fortune, but in terms of good and bad has to even out and we got all of our bad out of the way in one go.  There’s stuff that needs sorting.  But a lot of stuff that doesn’t.  As for our intruder… it, too has been absent for a few days, the hope that the poison laid down by The Man has taken effect.  I may even re-enter the kitchen this afternoon.  Horrible things are always a tunnel to get through after all.

Next up Molineux, without three-quarters of our first choice backline, but with a clean slate.

Bring it on.  Yooorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 1, Holebas 2, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 1, Hughes 2, Capoue 2, *Doucouré 3*, Pereyra 1, Gray 2, Deeney 2
Subs: Success (for Gray, 55) 3, Mariappa (for Hughes, 55) 3, Deulofeu (for Pereyra, 74) 2, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Arsenal 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2018) 30/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- It’s an indicator of how far our feet are under the table that this is all so familiar now.  Four of the five visits to the Emirates since promotion and the environs are now as familiar as Borough Market pre-Millwall, as the cricket club at Turf Moor, as the discarded bin bags spewing their contents all over the pavements between Norwood Junction and Selhurst Park.

The forecourt of Highbury and Islington tube station has become a regular rendez-vous point, sun-bathed today, the walk down Holloway Road frequent enough to be able to recognise the invasion of cafes, coffee shops and student accommodation that local resident Kieron describes.

Familiar, too, are the bowels of a stadium built to comfortably accommodate its capacity.  Plenty of space to hang around pre-match, no need to queue for anything much with contactless-only refreshment trolleys.

Familiar, finally, is the bloody terrible view from the cinema seats nine rows back from the corner flag in the shallow bowl.  It all looks lovely.  Unless you actually want to watch the football.

2- What we do get a decent view of is Marc Navarro first Premier League 45 at right-back, the first change to the side this season thanks to Daryl Janmaat’s knee problem.  He does a decent enough job, though as the Hornets dominate territory in the opening fifteen minutes he appears to be taken by surprise by Arsenal’s pressure, a couple of balls back towards Ben Foster asking slightly more of the keeper than might have been ideal.  Defensively however he’s solid, and more than once he makes a significant intervention in denying the home side – on one occasion alive to the lurking threat of Aubameyang as he cuts out a far post cross.

It’s an intense, compelling, boisterous game of football.  Both sides are pressing hard and high, both are holding a high defensive line, both want to win.  Much as we force the home side onto the back foot early on they twice threaten through Alexandre Lacazette;  on the first occasion he is caught in the penalty area by Kabasele, stumbles, thinks about it, and goes down unconvincingly late.  We get away with it.  Shortly afterwards Lacazette robs Craig Cathcart but dinks his effort wide over the onrushing Foster. We get away with it again but… Arsenal are getting away with stuff too. Troy gets on the end of a deep cross and cushions a header back to Will Hughes who drives wide. Kabasele thumps a header that’s blocked on the line. Nil nil at the break is just fine, we’re giving it some.

3- As, incidentally, are Arsenal. The now notorious “cojones” comment of a year or so ago was questionable in terms of whether candidly sharing such opinions was altogether helpful given that we would be playing the same side later in the season but beyond reasonable dispute in terms of veracity. Arsenal had a soft centre, and had had such for a long time. Not our problem of course, but signs here that the Gunners are no longer so overawed by physical confrontation. Whatever the undercurrent of “we should be beating the likes of Watford”, the reality beyond such unhelpful preconceptions is that we came at Arsenal with verve and power and they may have rode their luck once or twice but they held us off and got the break in the end. Not a traditionally Arsenal performance, and the combative Lucas Torreira was at the heart of the change; like Troy, he was slightly harshly booked in the opening period, Troy for stretching for a loose ball in a challenge with Cech, Torreira for a foul that stymied a breakaway.

Troy, meanwhile, has been grabbing headlines once again this week with comments regarding Watford’s management of the gravitationally challenged one. Once again, the real question is not the reasonableness of what he was saying. Any team with any intelligence would pay close attention to Zaha, particularly given his propensity for reacting so favourably to it, and whilst purity of spirit simply oozes from those bin bags en route to Selhurst Park (witness: Ian Holloway, Saša Ćurčić etc) any other club would give some thought to whether there’s an alternative to the same player bootering him over and over again for sustainability reasons.

The question, of course, is whether it’s really helpful for Troy to be saying those things publicly. The answer is no.

4- The Gunners had grown stronger as the first half had progressed, and the start of the second saw more pressure from the home side. It may be a case, again, of perception warping in line with a suspected narrative but we looked tired during this spell, ragged even, and you feared for how long we could keep Arsenal at arm’s length.

So the fact that we came back so strongly was as impressive as it was unexpected. Arsenal’s sub keeper Bernd Leno, on shortly before the break for the injured Cech, could probably have hoped for gentler introductions to the Premier League and looked anxious initially in the second period. Our first chance came from one of a number of wicked deliveries from Jose Holebas, this from a set piece in which Troy ghosted in to attack the ball at the near side of the penalty area and with the delicate touch with which those who never watch him play wouldn’t associate him flicked a shot inside Leno’s left hand post. The German was equal to it, pushing it wide for the corner; from the set piece Nacho Monreal, who had lost his rag late in the first half and not found it again, had a wrestling match with Andre Gray before Leno punched away unconvincingly. This seemed to spur us on.

Andre Gray was keen to profit from Arsenal’s high line and was popped through it by Troy Deeney only to see his effort smothered by Leno. He was removed two minutes later and replaced by Isaac Success, increasingly the player we thought we’d signed after his debut here two years ago, replaced him and he too was put through by Deeney, burning away from his marker but taking an ever so slightly too heavy a touch forcing him slightly wide. His dinked chip was far more convincing than Lacazette’s at the same end in the first half, but still only skimmed the outside of the post on its way out.  As the energy ramped up Torreira and Deeney, both on yellows, clashed after a late Torreira tackle.  A less sensible ref than Anthony Taylor could have sent either off.

5- So, yeah. Then Arsenal scored, twice. A bit of luck for their first perhaps, but Cathcart wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been under pressure. So Arsenal win the game and we record our second defeat, each of which against a traditionally “top six” side.

Naturally there’s a tendency to say “well, we should have taken our chances”. Certainly this is true. Thing is, until such a time as we’re winning every week there will always be something that isn’t quite right. Very much first world problems these. Facts are that we’ve played nine games this season now across the League and the League Cup. Each game has been thoroughly enjoyable, and in each game – if with varying consistency across ninety minutes and to varying degrees – we’ve played well.

I’d maintain that Cathcart and Kabasele is the best central defensive partnership we’ve had in the 35+ years that I’ve been watching, and that midfield isn’t far off a comparable accolade, particularly when one considers strength in depth.

So really, defeat or otherwise, there’s very little to be upset about. The fact is that Spurs and Arsenal have crowed over the last week over a penalty shoot-out win against a reserve side wrongly reduced to ten men, and a helter-skelter league game that would have skidded off in another direction had we grabbed the first goal. There’s plenty of relief mixed up in that.

Now we need to turn good performances back in to wins. And there are few teams you’d wish defeat on more than next Saturday’s visitors. Bring it on.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Navarro 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra, 4, Gray 3, *Deeney 4*
Subs: Success (for Gray, 72) 3, Femenía (for Navarro, 84) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (15/09/2018) 17/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- May 1985.  I was twelve, the same age as Daughter 1 is now.  You were how ever old you were, perhaps you weren’t even born.  As an aside I was stopped short when talking to a colleague at work this week, having to explain the whole MK Dons thing and realising that he was young enough not to plausibly remember…

Good grief.

Anyway.  May 1985, whether it’s fresh in your mind or in the same box as Henry VIII and the dinosaurs, or whether it’s somewhere in between.  It seems remiss at this juncture not to remember it and revel in it, since there was more to that period than just  finishing second and the Cup Final and the UEFA Cup….

Saturday, May 11th.  White Hart Lane.  Spurs were on their way to their highest League finish for fifteen years, a third place under Peter Shreeves, but the Hornets would win 5-1.  Two days later United visited Vicarage Road.  The Reds had half an eye on the Cup Final six days later, but rested only Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen in a time of smaller squads.  The scoreline was repeated;  new signing Colin West, whose arrival had sparked an end of season surge, Nigel Callaghan and Luther Blissett scored in both games, the latter also suffering an horrific injury at the hands of Gary Bailey and the cost of an impressive scar on his forehead.  Danny Thomas memorably contributed to our tally in the first game, the Spurs full-back finding the top corner from distance.

I was at both.  Even in the context of a time when taking on the big teams and beating them, in Cups and then in the League, was What We Did, this was remarkable.  More remarkable still is the progress made over the last few years.  Not since May 1985 have we gone into a game against United with anyone but us saying “Actually, I fancy Watford to win this….”.

2- A play in three acts, this.  The Hornets lined up in the now conventional eleven;  United kicking towards the Rookery in an alternative kit of nondescript colour which looked, as Cathal later observed, like it might be inside out.

This was a relatively low pressure game for the Hornets of course, low pressure in the sense that the tally already accumulated let us into the fixture without the burden of an iffy start.  United, twice defeated already, were probably in more urgent need of a result.  After an opening chorus of “One Harry Hornet” in recognition of the retirement of the mascot’s ten year incumbent an edgy opening half hour developed.  The visitors dominated possession, but were only allowed glimpses of goal;   Sánchez wriggled in down the right before thumping a drive towards the top corner which Foster repelled.  At the other end any hint of an attack sparked the crowd;  Bobby Pereyra set up Troy who put power above precision and shovelled his shot too close to de Gea, making a clawing save possible. Otherwise our attacks were trying to hit the strikers early and put United’s centrebacks under pressure – Troy has bossed Chris Smalling before, and Victor Lindelof has looked get-attable.  Troy will rarely play a game in which so many of his touches are with his chest, but for this period the two sides were keeping each other at arm’s length.

3- This changed on the half hour.  Étienne Capoue picked up his fourth booking in four home games this season for cynically curtailing Jesse Lingard’s progress on the break.  In the same fixture last season we’d regretted Tom Cleverley’s decision not to do something similar in the closing minutes.  From the passage of play resulting from the set piece United knocked us out of our defensive shape for the first time, and as we scurried and chased Ashley Young floated a cross in which Romelu Lukaku propelled into the net with his stomach.  Appeals aplenty – for offside from the stands, for handball, perhaps, from the players, but all in vain.  Difficult to see how Foster was fooled by the cross at the time and on replay, a rare blemish for the keeper.

Within three minutes it was two, Chris Smalling hooking home expertly after chesting down in the box.  You can criticise Daryl Janmaat for being on the wrong side of him but it was a fraction of an opening that still required a fine finish.

We could have caved in at this point, and looked a bit ragged for perhaps the first time this season.  United, as good teams are wont to do, tried to capitalise and surged at us;  Pogba came closest with a fine volleyed finish to a deep Lingard cross, Foster redeeming himself with a flying stop that left the French midfielder with his head in his hands. For the second home game in succession we were grateful for the interval; grateful, in this instance, to still be in it.

4- And so the second half was magnificent.  Yes, United sat back and invited it, invited us to find our feet but we showed no signs of needing that invitation.  It was a mild evening, and it’s not quite late enough in the year for half six-to-seven to be properly dark.  But there’s something special about the Vic in a late kick-off with the Hornets kicking towards the Rookery.  When United wandered forward early in the half we’d snatch possession and fly outwards… Doucouré, Pereyra, Hughes in tandem, Gray turning and twisting and chasing and getting buffeted by finally earning his reward with a composed finish.  Janmaat and Holebas both ran themselves into the ground and were replaced, Femenía and Masina providing further evidence of how far we’ve come.  These are our back up playernow, the fact that half of United’s support won’t have heard of them half the point.  If their very limited world view encompassed Kiko or Adam they would already be stars and wouldn’t be playing for Watford.  As it was they’re merely very very good players; both gave us a boost in the closing encounters.

If there’s a complaint about the second half it’s that the kitchen sink didn’t quite come out early enough.  There was always a risk of course… Anthony Martial’s pace twice launched counterattacks that first Cathcart and Kabasele had to be precise and urgent to repel – it may be that Gerard Deulofeu will soon be doing that “running off with the ball” thing for us”.  But from Gray’s goal onwards there was a sense that United really weren’t comfortable, than the game plan really hadn’t involved us scoring and yet we didn’t let it all rip until Matic, who was excellent for the most part, earned a second yellow card for a foul on the tireless Hughes.  The free kick was swung in and Kabasele’s fierce header was in…. until it wasn’t, de Gea vaulting to his left to deny it.  From the resultant corner Masina sent over a low missile that just needed a touch, de Gea ending up in the back of the net and the game was up.

5- So.  We lost to Manchester United (again).  Quite obviously the run was going to come to an end at some stage, and it goes without saying that this is quite high on the list of ways you’d chose for it to happen.  Against a top side, and giving it some, and with fire in our bellies to take to Fulham.

Best of all was watching that second half and, for all that it wasn’t quite enough in the end, watching a side that is comfortable in its skin and utterly unphased by being two down to Manchester United.  We’re a side that can be in that position at half time and yet entertain genuine hopes of retrieving the game. And have the players and the coach to do so.  “Deserved” is an odd word in the context of a football match and ultimately United deserved to win because they scored twice and we didn’t.  But I don’t think many in whatever-colour-that-was could have complained if we’d grabbed the equaliser.  We look like a Premier League team now, of all things.  A good one.

And so to Fulham and Slav and another fascinating encounter.  Interesting to note their division-high 12 goals conceded thus far (albeit heavily at the mercy of opposition faced after only 5 games) in the context of the theory that Jokanovic ultimately left Watford because it was felt that his football was too open for us to survive in the Premier League.  A huge test of our own mettle, too.  Spirited defeat is one thing… spirited defeat being two or more things might feel less comfortable.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Gray 4*, Deeney 3
Subs:  Femenía (for Janmaat, 72) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 84) 0, Success (for Cathcart, 88) 0, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (02/09/2018) 03/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- So it’s been a fun week.  Fun to be patted on the head like the child allowed to stay up late when the adults have had a glass of wine or two.  “So Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and… oh yes, surprisingly, Watford have a 100% record….”.

This mutated as the days passed.  “Actually I still fancy Watford to be relegated,” suggested a bookmaker’s rep on a podcast this week, confusing a radical, roguish, controversial opinion with stupidity.  “In a couple of month’s time everyone will have forgotten about Roberto Pereyra” was another sage observation on the same podcast.

I suspect the tone of this week’s observations might be slightly different.

2- It’s summer again.  Proper hot.  Necessary precautions have been taken to navigate the traffic snarl up heading to the Krishna festival at Aldenham (thanks Paul) and we’re parked up early, giving me time to deliberate over whether I’m sufficiently certain that my lucky Primitives t-shirt is at the heart of our good run to go with an extra layer under the club shirt (I am, I did, you’re welcome).

Vicarage Road is navigated at the cost of an Ice Cream spillage and many tears from Daughter 2, finally assuaged by face painting and tattoos outside the club shop.  We’ve mentioned this before but the party atmosphere being cultivated on this corner is a fine thing, the more so in the sunshine, and is noted by Daughter 1 who sometimes gives the impression of the world, our world, passing her by but not here.  By the time we head down Occupation Road Daughter 2 is busy looking for the ancient turnstile and once in the ground she, like the rest of us, is fully focused on the matter in hand.  And after three (and a half) wins, the arrival of a proper big gun is a fascinating prospect rendered low risk by the nine point cushion.

3- The first half is deemed “intense” by Daughter 2, not inaccurately.  Others elsewhere, others not emotionally involved, called it dull, “lacking in incident” or similar.  And I suppose if you weren’t emotionally involved then that would be true but we were, all of us, and it wasn’t.

Spurs had the best of it, indisputably.  We had the occasional foray forward and looked vibrant, the crowd sparking at the slightest provocation and came closest when Deeney met a deep Janmaat cross and headed over.

But most of the action was at our end and for the second weekend running we demonstrated our new-found defensive resilience.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a better central defensive pairing for Watford than Cathcart and Kabasele, certainly not since John McClelland left, and both were in full effect here.  But Janmaat and Holebas are suddenly solid and reliable, and the gang of four between them repelled Spurs’ albeit slightly hesitant probing.  Most spectacular was Janmaat’s diving header (“like a superhero” – Daughter 1) to cut out a cross pass beyond the far post;  most fortunate Alli’s point-blank miss when (mistakenly) flagged. Closest, a header from the same player which didn’t drop quickly enough.

“Not much in it” was occasional visitor Ian’s verdict at the break.  Me, I was glad to have gotten to the interval.

4-  Having had to man the barricades at the end of the first half, Spurs’ goal came from nothing eight minutes into the second.  A loose clearance, an aimless low cutback from Moura and a freak deflection off Doucouré that wrong-footed Foster. The sort of goal that would normally be a hammer blow.  “You don’t give away goals like that against teams like this.  It can’t be our day.  They haven’t had to do much to earn that…”.

So it speaks volumes that we fought our way back.  Not propelled by the crowd, the crowd responded ferociously to the performance but the performance came first.  Not the easy, the smart, the lucky way – coming straight back at Spurs and grabbing a goal before they’d reset themselves.  The equaliser was fifteen minutes in coming, and arrived on the back of a display that was the match of any Watford performance I’ve seen for single-mindedness, for strength of personality, and for sheer ability in the face not of a top class opponent having an off day but of a top class opponent having the initiative wrested unwillingly from their hands as they were clubbed over the head and left writhing in a ditch.  My God, we were magnificent.

We could so easily have rolled over.  So easily have… if not given up, you’d not have believed that of this side, but allowed doubts to colour our positivity.  Not for one minute.  The defence held strong and persisted in playing the ball out, allowing us to break.  The midfield were asked to chase as much as to control possession, but they won a close battle on points, whilst Troy and Andre had maybe their best twenty minutes in tandem, belligerent and tireless.  Spurs had moved us around in the first half, but it was the visitors that seemed to wilt in the sun.

Troy was an absolute monster.  Let nobody be in any doubt that we’ve got our centre forward back, all those suggestions that he’d run his race have long since been forgotten by the briefly faithless.  He chased down Davínson Sánchez on the right wing and left him on his backside.  He smacked a low, hard cross into the box, Alderweireld stuck his head out and deflected it past Vorm and off the inside of the post and crossbar.  Shortly afterwards he met Holebas’ delicious free kick and flicked a header home.

The place erupted, and we went for the kill.  Spurs were reeling, and didn’t have much of an answer.  As we lined up a corner Troy, in full beast mode now and playing off the intensity of the crowd, emptied a bottle of water over his head before returning, shoulders hunched, to the fray.  A statement, but a theatrical decoy.  Cathcart it was who leaned through unnoticed to win the game.

5- Impossibly, there were still around 15 minutes of regular play to go.  The magnitude of the spectacle had seemed to fill hours and in the insane heat with Spurs having to push on nobody was taking anything for granted.  More than one “Oh I can’t watch this” was overheard from various voices behind me.

But again, evidence of how much this team has matured, of how much more in control of this we are than the lucky chancers that many accounts have painted us.  Spurs did come at us;  Harry Winks came on (to a few witless “who”s from local intellectuals incapable of recognising a Hemel Hempstead boy and England international) and he provided a scampering, thrusting urgency.  More entertaining to Ian was the introduction of Llorente, “throwing the big lad on up front” not beyond the elite either, it seems.

But we retained control.  We held possession in the corner, we held out not merely by setting our backs squarely against the wall (tho that was needed, particularly when Kane’s header skimmed over) but by smuggling the ball off and hiding it, by not giving Spurs the chance to hurt us, by cutting off the threat at source, sub Success in another strong cameo as significant as anyone.

And then the final whistle went and we bellowed.  We screamed at the sky.  This isn’t another trophy win, a shiny adornment to a mid-table season, fine though that would be.  This was us going up against a side who, like us, had a 100% record but who, unlike us, were expected to have one.

And beating them.

And deserving it.

Bring on United.

Yooorns…………

Foster 4, Janmaat 5, Holebas 5, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 5, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra 5, Gray 4, *Deeney 5*
Subs:  Success (for Gray, 70) 4, Chalobah (for Hughes, 86), Mariappa (for Pereyra, 90), Sema, Femenía, Masina, Gomes

 

Reading 0 Watford 2 (29/08/2018) 30/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

This is, by necessity, a half hour report.  Apologies for consequent scruffiness…

1- There are certain prerequisites when it comes to the early stages of the Rumbelows Cup.  Some of these are met in sunny Berkshire tonight…  a half-empty stadium (albeit a respectable enough 2500 make the short journey from Hertfordshire), much-changed starting line-ups (eleven changes for the Golden Boys in the green away kit’s first outing).  Check, check.

In other respects, Javi and the team haven’t got the memo at all.  This is, notoriously, a high-risk fixture.  For many years we postulated that the first round of the Milk Cup existed in some sort of time warp, a vortex of slow, dull, half-arsed football against interchangeable lower division opposition.  We dip into the same fixture once a year, some of us make it out alive, others lost in action.  Collateral damage, lost somewhere chewing their fists in an abandoned corner of time and space.

Should add as an aside that Reading are hardly cut from the same cloth as the stuff of our nightmares… you can dig around and find match reports from games against Cheltenham, Accrington, Cambridge, Notts County if you’re sufficiently motivated. Not to disparage such clubs or their support but… these games have been atrocious. I won’t provide hyperlinks for fear of sucking in the carelessly curious.  These are things that should only be taken on by those committed enough to live with the consequences.

Anyhow, as above, the Hornets haven’t read the brief.  This is actually rather fun.

2- I won’t dwell too long on the actual cut and thrust.  This was a painfully one sided game for the most part, as a game between the reserve side of a three-years-in Premier League club and a scratch side of a struggling Championship side ought to be, perhaps.  Only at 2-0 down, fuelled by a couple of second half subs, did the home side threaten very much ;  even then McNulty’s gentle lob over the onrushing Gomes gave the impeccable skipper Mariappa time to do a couple of stretches whilst waiting for the ball to drop and be cleared.  By that time we should really have been further ahead.  Make no mistake, this was comfortable and the margin of victory should probably have been greater.

No side is flattered when viewed through the prism of an early Worthington Cup tie of course, albeit that someone was overheard to observe that the Madejski Stadium is greatly enhanced by an absence of Reading fans.  But the place felt very flat, very tatty, and not at all upwardly mobile – an impression not enhanced by their side’s almost complete lack of cutting edge.  Never was the contrast greater than when Abdoulaye Doucouré rolled off the bench to replace the tiring Quina, a true heavyweight in the context of this game with an aura to match.  He didn’t (have to) do a lot, one thunderous run through the centre which was harshly if inconsequentially curtailed for a foul.  But his presence underlined the degree to which these two regular sparring partners have, for the moment at least, drifted apart.

3- Of particular interest was a chance to see the new boys in action, players whose introduction has been particularly cautious in the context of the strong start to the season under the old(er) guard.  It could be argued of course that both Marc Navarro and Adam Masina, both making their first appearances here, have already had an impact in that their presence has contributed to much more disciplined performances by our regular full backs.  Here, both did well enough;  Navarro perhaps the more impressive.  The young full back looked strong and athletic, growing in confidence as the game went on, you wouldn’t worry about needing him in the first team already.  On the other flank Masina contributed the cross to Success’ impudent goal, but was less of a bully than his imposing frame suggested he might be and was beaten to a far post cross by Reading skipper Liam Moore despite being 6’3″.

Perhaps most impressive of the new players was the relatively unheralded Ben Wilmot, who appeared to start at the back of midfield before dropping into the centre of a defensive trio.  He looks slight of frame but almost unnervingly composed for an eighteen year old, a thoroughly encouraging performance from the youngster.  Only during Reading’s late rally did he resort to thumping clearances out of defence, perhaps due to fatigue, but you wouldn’t question his decision making there either in the circumstances.

Ken Sema has featured off the bench, and did an adequate if less flashy job here, a tidy but less conspicuous contribution he seemed to tire early.  And then there was Quina;  conspicuous by his diminutive stature, he was full of tricks in his central role displaying tight control, tenacity, and a degree of healthy arrogance.  His decision making wasn’t always the best, he seemed to rein in a desire to do it all himself after an early touchline conference with his manager, but hell he’s 18 and he doesn’t half have some ability.  And the goal was ridiculous of course, picking up a loose clearance from a corner and shovelling it into the postage stamp with his left foot from 30 yards.  Not dull.  Not dull at all.

4- For me, the highlight however was Nathaniel Chalobah.  No mystery about this, no surprise.  Of all our missing star midfielders he’s the one that you’d still be tempted to crowbar straight into the first team despite our excellent start.  But after a year out, a year that saw an innocuous injury wipe out his season and his chances of going to the World Cup it wasn’t half good to see him on the pitch again.

And he was magnificent, albeit against limited opposition.  Twice he dropped outrageous passes over the bamboozled Reading defence, once onto the head of the industrious Femenía steaming in at the far post, another picking out a clever run from the persistent Success that Reading’s defence hadn’t seen at all.  Late in the second half a rare frustrated challenge by an opponent in a game that was relatively free of such stuff saw the unfortunate aggressor simply bounce off Chalobah, who barely seemed to have noticed.

Only as the game drew to a close was there cause for concern, as Chalobah’s slight limp became increasingly pronounced, clearly hampering his mobility to the point where he signalled to the bench to be replaced.  Our hearts were in our mouths;  cramp has been suggested, it really didn’t look like cramp.  The sight, therefore, of Chalobah making a late solo return to the pitch to acknowledge the crowd, grinning his face off and unencumbered by icepacks or the like, was the highlight of the evening.

5- Onwards and upwards then.  Confirmation of Chalobah’s fitness nothwithstanding this couldn’t really have gone any better. Decent-to-strong contributions from all of the new boys, unquestionably greater strength in depth all round;  our “second eleven” didn’t feature the injury Cleverley, Deulofeu, Britos, Kaboul, the mythical Peñaranda.

We’re in a very good place.  Someone rubbish at home in the next round of the Coca Cola Cup please (“someone rubbish away” – a club spokesman).

In the meantime, the small matter of Spurs on Sunday.  Bring them on.  Yoooooorns….

Gomes 3, Navarro 4, Masina 3, Prödl 3, Wilmot 4, Mariappa 4, Femenía 4, Quina 4, *Chalobah 5*, Sema 3, Sucess 4
Subs:  Okaka (for Sema, 65) 3, Doucouré (for Quina, 82) 0, Hughes (for Chalobah, 86) 0, Cathcart, Janmaat, Gray, Dahlberg

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (26/08/2018) 27/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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1- At the top of Occupation Road there’s a steel band, a lad in a Watford shirt doing an impressive round of ball juggling and an affable gentleman on stilts.  The atmosphere would be jovial.  If it wasn’t pissing it down with rain.

It feels more like March than August bank holiday weekend.  Palace have brought the traditional Croydon microclimate with them and it dampens our quick start before it gets going.  Only the hissing, spitting hot fat of this fixture burns on unperturbed, and it hadn’t needed Roy Hodgson ambling into a Harry-shaped animal trap in the visitors’ pre-match press conference to ignite it.  Our encounters have a bad-tempered, even spiteful undercurrent all of their own.

Wilfried Zaha was receiving his traditional welcome long before kick-off (albeit Harry was keeping a sensibly low profile); within five minutes of the start the venom had spilled onto the pitch as Capoue caught Zaha’s achilles, receiving a yellow card.  It could have been red.  The consequences of this incident were manifold;  Zaha himself vaulted into an angry challenge with Holebas five minutes later and was himself carded, for recklessness rather than actual contact.  Anthony Taylor, who was excellently positioned, seemed to be angry with himself for allowing his reticence to send someone off early colour his judgement and gave us very little thereafter in an admittedly difficult game to officiate.  And every postmortem of the match was given the qualifier,  “…of course, if Capoue had been sent off it might have been different”.  True.  And, simultaneously, the dullest most valueless lack of insight.  If this player had been fit, if that decision had gone the other way, if it hadn’t been raining, if the shot had come off the other side of the post….  parallel universe theory is a long way down the list of ways in which football will be tinkered with.  Until that time arrives you play the circumstances you’re given.  Perhaps we got away with one;  we’ve been on the receiving end before.  Then as now you deal with it and get on with it.  And stop bleating.  If Capoue had gone Palace would have faced a different set of circumstances.

2- Meanwhile in this reality, Palace were having rather the better of it.  There was a school of thought that suggested that Palace might struggle this season but, disappointingly, not on this evidence.  Make no mistake, this wasn’t another case of an opponent looking poor (or being made to look poor) and us taking advantage;  the Eagles were a level above the Brighton side of two weeks ago.  We were already being moved around by the time Townsend’s cross found Benteke’s ample forehead to bring a fabulous point-blank reaction save from Ben Foster.  Shortly afterwards James McArthur was played through and Foster’s speed of response saved us again (“If Foster hadn’t been playing, we’d have been ahead at the break” – a peevish Roy afterwards, implying that a good goalkeeper was some kind of crazy voodoo shit).

In front of him, our defence were being worked but were up to the task.  Christian Kabasele gave a masterclass in unflustered defending, ushering his charges into quiet corners where their crushed momentum saw them yield possession almost apologetically.  Jose Holebas and Daryl Janmaat were both excellent…  the thundering up and down the flanks we’re used to, the defensive dependability we’re not. Holebas crowned his performance with a meticulously precise sliding challenge to deny McArthur (again).  This was the toughest half hour of the season so far, and whilst it was also the least elegant with attritional challenges going on all over the park as the two sides pressed each other to death it was perhaps our most impressive, the half hour that has taught us the most.  Brighton was great, but we’d have won that last season in the same circumstances.  Burnley impressive but, you know, the Europa League thing.  Here…  we were under pressure and we withstood it, our defence held together and whilst Foster was twice called into action that was it.  No bad misses from the visitors.  They didn’t get a chance to miss.

3- Which provided the platform for us to claw our way back into the game.  Some decent interplay on the right flank saw Janmaat released on the overlap, his cross found its way to Pereyra whose volley was deflected over the bar – it could have gone anywhere.  Shortly before the break another fine move clawed a gap open for Janmaat to hammer a shot across the face of goal and wide.

We didn’t want the interval to come but it didn’t interrupt our momentum.  Hughes was soon forcing Hennessey into a block at the near post in front of the Rookery.  Minutes later Capoue rampaged through the middle of the park battering away some flimsy attempts to knock him off the ball and drawing people to him.  He released Pereyra on the left who scored his stock, beautiful goal by curling a shot inside the far post out of Hennessey’s reach.

Palace pushed back, but we were in the ascendancy and you really, really don’t want to be forced to attack us and let us play on the break, not with this midfield.  Andre Gray, who had struggled to get into the first half, hadn’t stopped working and his movement found him through on goal only to be denied by stand-in centre back Kelly whose determination perhaps earned the fortune of his clumsy challenge taking ball but not player, he knew little about it.  Kabasele sent a header from a set piece so, so narrowly wide. We were on top now, the better side all round and were two ahead when Jose Holebas doubled the lead, dummying onto his weaker right foot and looping in a ball which dropped into the top corner.  It was a fluke, an intended cross, but tickets, raffles and so forth.  Two up on bloody Palace and one goal away from the top of the table.

4- Goodness only knows what Javi will do if and when we ever have a full armoury of midfielders fit and available.  Of the four that have started every game so far, only perhaps Doucouré would have been guaranteed a start in such circumstances at the start of the season.  He’s been perhaps the weakest of the four up to now, hampered no doubt by lack of pre-season, but the form of the other three has allowed him to play his way back to fitness.  Hughes had a quieter game today but remains magnificent, perhaps not physically resilient enough to hold down a central role in the face of such competition but plenty good enough to cause havoc from the right side of midfield.  Étienne Capoue looks reborn under Gracia;  there will be some in the stands (I could name one) who retain the doubts sown by two and a half years of hot-and-cold-and-sometimes-not-fancying-it-ness but this is the player, surely, that Spurs thought they had signed five years ago.  An absolute monster, I won’t tire of the sort of surging run that made the first goal.  And Pereyra, also, is showcasing his best bits… the quick feet, the control, the wit and the audacity that make him such a threat.

Thing is, a “second string” four would be just as strong.  Ken Sema had a hugely impressive half hour cameo today displaying confidence and belligerence as we protected our lead.  No shrinking violet, this lad.  Then you have the majesty of Chalobah, the dynamism of Cleverley and the merciless speed of Deulofeu.  My word.  The team selection at Reading on Wednesday night will be very interesting.

5- Reports have suggested that Zaha was “subdued” for much of the game, and on reflection perhaps the catcalls at misplaced passes outweighed the actual threat.  It didn’t feel like that at the time though; whatever else the gravitationally challenged one is he’s a magnificent footballer and Palace have done very well to keep him happy when more lucrative offers would surely have been made from elsewhere.  On 78 minutes he scored a perfect goal, timing his run perfectly to avoid the offside trap, cutting past hesitant challenges and slamming the ball past Foster.  This set up an extremely anxious final fifteen minutes, but a fifteen minutes that we managed superbly;  not so much by timewasting (though Taylor was quick to book Holebas at the suggestion of it) but by game management, keeping possession, making Palace run.  Isaac Success, hearteningly, was as disciplined in this respect as anyone in his brief outing.

So…  a win that in any number of parallel universes might not have gone our way.  If Capoue had got a red, if Holebas’ cross had wandered over the bar, certainly if Joel Ward’s late, late header had dropped inside the post.  And all the more enjoyable for it, for two reasons.

Firstly, cos it’s us getting the win.  That sounds obvious but…  this is the sort of win that established top flight sides have in their locker.  Teams like Palace (and us) can’t get away with not winning when they’re playing well that often.  Here Palace played well and lost and it was thanks to our bloody mindedness, that ugly half hour in the first half, as much as to the brilliance of Pereyra and the, um, opportunism of Holebas.  Looking back to 1999-2000…  one of the starkest memories of that miserable season was of our better performances being crushed regardless by sides that were just a bit smarter, just had a bit more.  We are now one of those sides.  A bit meaner, a bit crueller.  A bit more streetwise.

And the other source of joy is that it’s Palace, this putrid pile of vomit on the Premier League pavement.  We’ve a long history with Palace borne of often being at the same level at the same time, but we have a similar history with Leicester, say, without the same sort of bitter enmity (2013 notwithstanding).  And we still owe them plenty by my reckoning…  even leaving the play-off final and the cup semi aside, there’s the bitter rancour of the repulsive Saša Ćurčić, of Ian Holloway’s cynical bleating.  Of George Ndah‘s late late winner at Selhurst in 1995, of this and this and this.  The bill’s not paid, this was merely a first instalment.

On to Spurs and United then.  Winning three games is winning three games, a footnote is that we’ve “only” beaten Brighton, Burnley, Palace (ha). Not one of the big six.  On the flip side, we go into these two games, both at home by virtue of Spurs’ stadium issues, with a hell of a cushion, a lot of momentum and nothing to lose.  Tough games at any time.  But tougher still with any fewer than nine points from nine.

Bring them on.  Yooooorns.

*Foster 5*, Janmaat 4, Holebas 5, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 5, Hughes 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Pereyra 4, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs: Sema (for Gray, 73) 4, Success (for Deeney, 94) 0, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina, Femenía, Gomes