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Crystal Palace 1 Watford 2 (12/01/2019) 13/01/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- So when I was at school, a boys’ school, football was What You Did at lunchtime, at break, before school. Hell, you caught an earlier bus than strictly necessary just to play before school, either with a tennis ball on the concrete or with a proper ball, or something resembling it, on the muddy field. Dom Ludden mocking my Watford-emblazoned contribution to the cause sticks with me for some reason.

But there was another kid.  He was an OK footballer, but not as good as he thought he was.  And he wanted to do it all himself.  Never passed to anyone, ran off with it, tried to beat everyone on his own.  Looking back on this now, I can only wonder whether he did so because he felt his chances of success were better that way (in which case he was a moron – not all the kids were as clumsy as me), or because he simply preferred to try and do it himself (in which case he was an arsehole).  Either way, he surely can’t have been surprised that all the other kids got a bit fed up with him spoiling the game and will surely have regarded him with disdain thenceforth.

2- Fast forward thirty-odd years and here we are, back at Selhurst Park.  Those of you familiar with this corner of Croydon will be unsurprised to learn that today is grey and overcast, though not so grey that it deters us from walking to the ground from East Croydon Station.  Pre-match food is somewhat bland, pre-match conversation involves someone suggesting that it’s a Good Thing that Luton appear to be on their way “back”, that what good are rivals if you never get to play them.

This is not a good start to the day, if a visit to Croydon can ever have a “good start”.  In the all too welcome absence from relevance of them up the road, Palace (and Bournemouth) are surrogate rivals but the anticipated spiteful raucousness is absent as the home stands are uncharacteristically timid.  Instead it’s the visitors making the noise, loudly commemorating the second anniversary of GT’s passing.  Fuelled by this event or otherwise, it’s as boisterous an away end as we’ve enjoyed for some time.

3- If the day has begun badly, the game’s start is almost perfect.  We’re at Palace’s throats before they’ve woken up to the fact that the match has started.  Gerard Deulofeu nutmegs Tomkins and he’s away;  his finish is too casual, beating Guaita but not the woodwork.  Impossibly, when the ball rebounds kindly into Bobby Pereyra’s path he finds the same woodwork when it seemed much easier not to.  Aggravated by his failure, Pereyra drives in from the left flank and is felled on the very edge of the area but gradually the fury recedes from our start.

Palace aren’t an easy side to play against.  They are, famously, blunt; there’s no cutting edge at all.  The side is slightly imbalanced, all the attacking threat coming down the flanks.  However they’re sound enough defensively, and with Milivojevic, Kouyaté and McArthur in the centre of midfield they’re difficult to play through.  One imagines that they’ve had a few dull games of late, it’s very easy to look stodgy and uninspired against them, the more so if you make the mistake of falling behind.

The home side have gone on to enjoy the majority of possession in the first half without doing an awful lot with it.  They’re switching the ball from flank to flank, probing, but don’t look like scoring;  nor, in all honesty, do we after the early excitement.  Will Hughes, the only survivor from the cup win at Woking, hasn’t survived for long having apparently been battered in a challenge and taken off with concussion.  Ken Sema is on to acclaim, but it’s the scampering Deulofeu who provides such threat as we offer.

When Palace score it’s almost by default, a pitiful apology for a goal that arrives via attrition.  Not unsurprisingly it’s an own goal coming after repeated failures to clear conclude with Abdoulaye Doucouré clearing against Cathcart and the ball rebounding in.  The memory of the visit here two years’ ago, won by Palace via an own goal after they registered no shots on target by their own steam, looms large.

4- The home stands wake up for the first time.  As the half ends and the second begins Palace respond and suddenly look confident and assertive.  Arron Win-Bissaka, comfortably the best player on the pitch, bombs down the right as the half closes and sends a ball across which just needs a touch but doesn’t get one.   This theme continues in the second period; it’s not that we’re hanging on, it’s not that one-sided, but we’re doing little more than holding our own.

To which end it’s worth recognising the defensive efforts of those involved. Both fullbacks are forced backwards by Palace’s wingplay but both are diligent, and Femenía in particular, and against all expectation, does a fine and comprehensive job of subduing the notorious Zaha (who will later fashion an appalling miss all of his own at the far end, and get told to get the hell up by referee Tierney to the acclaim of the away end).   Ben Foster, meanwhile, is alert when Zaha capitalises on some sloppy possession as he grows into the game, and later produces a fine stop to deny Milivojevic.

Nonetheless, we’re second best at this stage, don’t look like equalising let alone turning it around, and are anticipating yet another miserable trip back through London after yet another congested, clunky game here which we’ve again managed to lose.  We’ve been here before, let’s face it, we’ve seen this game many times.

5- Until, midway through the half, we go off script.  Jose Holebas lines up a corner;  this is not a great source of excitement, we’ve had half a dozen of these without coming terribly close to scoring although in fairness to Holebas a couple of his crosses had hit fine spaces with nobody in them rather than merely being underhit.  On this occasion however a deep, deep delivery tempts out Wayne Hennessey, introduced from the bench following an injury to Guaita, and Cathcart redeems himself with a fine, fine header at the far post.

A bubble bursts.  Everything has suddenly changed, changed irrevocably, and everyone in the stadium knows it.  Every football fan knows the dangers inherent in giving it large too early, the risks in counting your chickens, and the home stands are very, very subdued as the taunts they’d been lobbing over come back with interest.  On the pitch we’ve grabbed the match by the throat and aren’t about to let go.  This is fuelled by the equaliser, but re-enforced by the introduction of Tom Cleverley who gives us a control in midfield that we never look like relinquishing.  We’d called this substitution five minutes earlier, but to be fair there are few circumstances in which introducing Tom Cleverley off the bench wouldn’t be a sensible thing to do.

And of course, of course, there’s a crowning moment.  A glorious crescendo, a sucker punch.  It’s been coming;  Palace have been applying frantic and fairly aimless pressure, we’ve been screaming out at them.  An inhuman tackle from the covering Win-Bissaka has halted our progress on the right as we broke;  later Troy, who is back in beast mode, throwing himself at every aerial challenge, is denied by a last ditch block from the same player.  But there’s no denying Tom Cleverley.  A Holebas throw comes in, isn’t cleared, drops towards Tom on the edge of the area and is suddenly flying towards the top corner.  Cleverley, sent off in the dying minutes of this fixture last season and starting in the League for the first time since last January, heads for the corner flag followed by every one of his teammates.  In the stands, our support floods down the stairways to the detriment of anyone in their way;   the home stands have never looked more disconsolate.

6- It’s tempting to say that we would have lost this last season.  In fact we DID lose this last season.  And the season before.  And coulda, shoulda this time too.  But there’s more to us now…  good enough that our bad days aren’t that bad, good enough that when we flame on we’re irresistible, plenty enough to blow Palace, albeit a blunt, stunted Palace, right out of the sky.

The walk back to East Croydon is not unpleasant.  We grab a tea and as we arrive on the platform a delayed Bedford train is pulling in.  We don’t need to break stride as the doors open.  We’re seventh in the Premier League, in poll position for the Everton Cup, and today has been a very good day.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 4, Mariappa 4, Cathcart 3, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Sema (for Hughes, 19) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 67) 4, Masina (for Pereyra, 87) 0, Britos, Quina, Success, Gomes

 

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Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (29/12/2018) 30/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1 – There is a danger in preconceptions. In making assumptions, not judging things at face value. The human race wouldn’t have survived without a degree of educated guesswork of course… “that wolf/precipitous path/large drunken sweary man looks iffy, I’ll give it a swerve” and so forth. But as a general rule, you don’t broaden your perspective by presuming that you know it all. To do so would be tantamount to believing that you are blessed with perfect knowledge. That you can’t be surprised, you have nothing to learn.

Easy to say. Worthy. Harder to live by, despite the best of intentions. On Friday evening we were invited to a gathering at the home of a pastor of my better half’s church. I’m not a christian, rarely attend said church, didn’t expect to know many if any of the guests and the prospect was a little daunting. I guess socialising in a crowd of people who know each other and not you, who have something in common that you don’t share, is only something that the most confident would look forward to.

On the drive over my better half mentioned that the pastor’s daughter makes music, and did I want to listen to some? Dutifully I agreed. I don’t know what I expected… not that it should be awful necessarily. Perhaps I subconsciously, stupidly expected that people who, in my head, were “churchy people” only did churchy things, that it would be an overtly religious piece. Gospel, maybe. Not that that’s a problem – each to their own and so forth. But anyway. It wasn’t. And it was stunning.

2- In some circumstances your preconceptions are entirely reliable of course. Take, for example, our shared beliefs about the nature of a home game against a Newcastle United side, a Rafa Benitez side, stung by a 4-0 whupping at the hands of Liverpool three days earlier. A cynic, one liable to pre-judging, might anticipate a frustrating encounter against a joyless, mercilessly well-drilled outfit, a bit like trying to breathe with your head wrapped in a sodden towel weighed down with rocks. If you’re somehow ignorant of how the game turned out and wish to retain a modicum of mystery you can pretend that this isn’t (necessarily) how it turned out if you like.

Our approach to it was distinguished by a raft of team changes; one enforced by Christian Kabasele’s spectacular injury on Boxing Day (this having prompted Daughter 1 into gushing eulogy about his fortitude), five more apparently prompted by the congested, demanding schedule of this chunk of the fixture list. To which… it’s difficult not to be slightly excited. A little trepidatious, yes, but… this is us. Watford. At home to Newcastle… if not Premier League royalty then certainly a big club, whatever Bigness means. And we’re resting players. Taking advantage of what is surely the most lavish squad we’ve ever had, if still slightly imbalanced. Get us.

3- The game starts and we’re bright and positive. In charge of possession quite quickly, and if headway is hard going there’s patience to balance our zest. And there is headway. Isaac Success, ostensibly the target man with Troy on the bench, is pulling left and has DeAndre Yedlin in all sorts very quickly, committing him and drawing fouls. Not the first time that the American has looked a ropey excuse for a defender against us. Then Gerard Deulofeu’s skidding away from Newcastle’s defence and if he doesn’t capitalise, if the finish isn’t quite there, again, then at least we’re making tracks. It will come. We just need to be patient.

Except it doesn’t. Instead, Newcastle hit us with their stock goal and it’s a Neal Ardley to Heidar Helguson tribute act. Matt Ritchie swings a beast of a cross in from the left to our far post and Rondón rises to dump a header past the helpless Ben Foster. Newcastle aren’t a great side, Ray Lewington’s Watford side weren’t great either however lovable but that goal more than kept us up and it’ll keep them up too.

4- And suddenly we look a bit of a mess. Our “new guys” to a man look rusty… Will Hughes digs in but is well short, Daryl Janmaat will play himself up to his imposing full speed in the second half but doesn’t start that way at all. Domingos Quina is brave, takes responsibility but is now drowning in the midfield morass, twisting when he should stick and sticking when he should twist with the help of a good kick up the arse from Mo Diamé. Aidy Mariappa looks anxious and tentative, and Adam Masina is completely unlike the heir apparent at left back that his brief forays have encouraged us to believe hitherto.

At half time, slightly surprisingly, Daughter 1 turns to me with shining eyes and proclaims her passion for all things football. She has, in the relatively recent past, seemed to float distractedly through the most thrilling of games so this is no small triumph, unjustified as it seems by the 45 minutes that preceded it. We start the second half with a vigour to match my mood, but it’s the introduction of Troy and Doucouré ten minutes in that tips the tide. Suddenly we look potent, and slightly unexpectedly the game opens up a bit. Troy has dragged us along by our bootlaces so many times, this is no exception; fuelled by his inhuman hurtling we’re the better side now, and if the final ball is still wanting and if we’re struggling to get Deulofeu involved then there’s nonetheless renewed belief and energy in the stands from which listless half-hearted booing had emerged at half time. By the time Deulofeu finally picks a ball which Doucouré flies onto to noisy relief we just about deserve it.

5- The final ten minutes don’t quite see us pick up enough of a head of steam to convince that we’re going to win the game. Bobby Pereyra tiptoes through the area and doesn’t quite get the break. Isaac Success’ afternoon deserves to be crowned with a winning goal for sheer perseverance – never hiding, all twists and turns and muscle and determination and bad decisions and bad luck. But he doesn’t hide, he keeps at it and in a fairer world his closing shot has a bit more venom to it, we win 2-1. In this universe Dubravka fields easily and it’s a 1-1 draw.

It’s tempting to reflect that the wholesale changes cost us two points, but even if you believe that’s true then the decision’s reasonableness can only be judged on the basis of how Bournemouth, Woking and the rest of the season rolls out. Let’s not forget that the failure of Gracia’s predecessor was as much in the dearth of energy (and ideas) in his squad come this time of year as in the more publicised stuff. I’m happier with a coach who Does Stuff, all things considered.

6- Meanwhile, and as a slight aside, the event on Friday evening was perfectly fine of course. More than fine. I met Navina, the pastor’s musical daughter, and she spoke compellingly and passionately about the challenges of “making it” as a female soloist in the age of streaming, how even live gigs have limited mileage when competing against a noisy band with a fuller sound. Anyway… if you want to cheer yourself up after this stodge then watch the video below. Self-written, performed, produced. And if you don’t, listen to it anyway. Do me a favour, do Navina a favour. Enjoy it and share it. Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Masina 2, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 2, Hughes 2, Quina 2, Capoue 2, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 2, Success 3
Subs: *Deeney (for Hughes, 58) 3*, Doucouré (for Quina, 58) 3, Holebas (for Masina, 78) 0, Britos, Cleverley, Sema, Gomes

The List – January 2019. 19/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Here we are again.  Don’t know about you, but I hold even the players that we were linked with but never signed in a sort of reverent awe which is probably unreasonable.  Yves Bissouma will be brilliant for Brighton at some point.  Meanwhile, here’s your list of players linked with the Hornets since the summer, a list that will be kept up to date until the end of January so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Summer 2018 List / January 2018 List / Summer 2017 List / January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 36

IN

Divock Origi (Liverpool)*
Filip Stuparević (FK Voždovac)                                                           SIGNED
Chris Willock (Benfica)
Adam Lovatt (Hastings)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
João Pedro (Fluminense)                                                                   SIGNED
Mateo Musacchio (Milan)
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)*
Hector Herrera (Porto)*
David Bates (Hamburg)
Tom Heaton (Burnley)*
Diego Demme (RB Leipzig)
Fyodor Chalov (CSKA Moscow)
Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny)
Noah Smerdon (Gloucester City)
Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)*
Efthymios Koulouris (PAOK)
Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest)
Ibrahim Meité (Cardiff City)
Ronald Sobowale (Walton Casuals)
Youssef Msakni (Al Duhail)                                     – joined Eupen on loan
Philip Billing (Huddersfield)
Szymon Żurkowski (Górnik Zabrze)
Adrien Tameze (Nice)
Dominic Solanke (Liverpool)                                       – joined Bournemouth
Grégoire Defrel (Roma)*
Stanislav Lobotka (Celta Vigo)
Denis Suarez (Barcelona)
Vittorio Parigini (Torino)
Ozan Kabak (Galatasaray)                                        – joined VfB Stuttgart
Declan Drysdale (Tranmere Rovers)                          – joined Coventry City
Maxwell Cornet (Lyon)*
François Kamano (Bordeaux)
Marcus Thuram (Guingamp)
Kim Min-Jae (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Harry Arter (AFC Bournemouth)*

OUT
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Arsenal*, PSG, Tottenham*, Liverpool*, Everton*)
Roberto Pereyra (Chelsea, Torino*)
Stefano Okaka (Fulham*, Monaco, Beşiktaş*, Udinese*)
.                                                                             – joined Udinese on loan
Dodi Lukebakio (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
Randell Williams (Brentford, Bristol City, Portsmouth, Wycombe Wanderers)
.                                                                             – joined Exeter City
Sebastian Prödl (Fenerbahçe)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Udinese)                            – joined Udinese on loan
Ryan Cassidy (Everton*, Derby County, Aston Villa)

 

Watford 3 Cardiff City 2 (15/12/2018) 16/12/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- Panto week. No, not that sort of panto. Not for kids. For colleagues. In jokes, that sort of thing. Written from January to June, cast in July, rehearsed from September onward. Not for everyone. It is for me. Really. Lots of good things… from spending lunchtimes laughing solidly, an oasis of joy in the middle of the working day. Raising money for charity. Doing something creative. The most monumental and magnificent post-show piss-up. Making friends and being part of something. Especially that.

There are parallels with following a football team, I think. A bit. Particularly that last point. It’s a drum I’ve banged before, no apologies for that. It’s the answer to that question we used to ask when we were in the second tier. “What’s the point of being a mid-table Premier League side?” Of being (Fulham/Stoke/West Brom/insert your choice here). No hope of challenging, limited peril until there is, then it stops. We are now that side. The side that are the go-to name for throwaway lines about mid-table irrelevance.

Leicester answered that question in part of course. But there’s more to it. Being Watford (any team, but Watford more so, obviously) is great because it’s us.  It’s being part of something.  And being us is great wherever it is.  Being good is fun.  But it’s not all of it.

2- Meanwhile, it’s wet and it’s cold.  And here are Cardiff in the drizzle.  Being Cardiff is great too, if you’re a Cardiff fan and I’m quite comfortable with there being a bunch of bruisers in the Premier League that stick out like a sore thumb given that we have to watch them, at most, twice a season.

I was ready to say that there’s a disarming honesty about the unabashed negativity of the approach, but that doesn’t really ring true having watched the side in action.  Considerably less brutal but more cynically unpleasant than advertised, as exemplified by Callum Paterson’s early employment of the Poleon manoeuvre, a cowardly shove on Cathcart into his onrushing goalkeeper.

But bloody-mindedly destructive they were, and for all that the Hornets dominated possession the visitors retained their shape and were effective at denying space and options.  It was imperative to score early, it was likely to require something a bit clever and we got it as Deulofeu’s directness forced fatal hesitation from City’s defence.  He slipped it home, one-nil.  Defiantly, City refused to change their approach, and as they twice threatened through long throws it was clear that there was a cold logic to the negativity.

3- Which doesn’t mean that it worked.  Neil Etheridge produced a string of athletic saves to deny Bobby Pereyra in particular;  one of these came from a free kick at the tail end of the half which was going in but then didn’t, a quite remarkable save that drew applause from Etheridge’s opposite number at the far end of the pitch as the half term whistle blew moments later.

But even Etheridge couldn’t hold back the storm as the second half developed.  Gerard Deulofeu’s decision making is ropey at best, profoundly aggravating.  Thing is, if he made consistently reliable decisions he’d still be playing for Barcelona and in a game like this a Deulofeu who makes the wrong choice two times out of three will still produce a man-of-the-match display, following up his terrific opener by dragging City’s defence into a blind alley before producing Jose Holebas out of a hat on the edge of the area.  The left back’s finish was exquisite.

4- Significant again had been the retention of Sema and Quina in midfield following the qualified success of the draw-that-was-nearly-a-first-win at Everton.  It’s beyond any reasonable dispute that this is the greatest array of midfield options we’ve ever had.  The fact that Ken Sema’s tidy, efficient, occasionally boisterous but generally low key performance suggested a player capable of stepping in and doing a job but not really being anywhere near a first team eleven speaks volumes.  We’ve got steady Premier League players on the fringes of our first team squad.  Jesus.

Quina, meanwhile, looks extraordinary.  A teenager thrust into the centre of a Premier League midfield… not a winger, peripheral.  Not a cameo role as sub.  Not an encouraging performance, suggesting  that there might be something in there, which would be a result in itself.  But a gem.  Here.  Now.  Tenacious, tidy, elegant, clever, brave.  Brave enough to volley a driven pass through to Troy – too hard, not everything was perfect, but applauded for its intent in what was a clear strategy of playing straight through City rather than around them.  Tidy enough to burrow into challenges and spin away into space on any number of occasions.  Deft enough to apply an impossibly so-on-top-of-this finish to yet another terrific move.  Étienne Capoue, Player of the Season elect, is available at West Ham.  Extraordinarily, his return is not guaranteed.

5- We swarmed at City, and it really should have been the first proper thrashing that we’ve dished out since promotion.  Etheridge (again) denied us, one or two bad decisions – not least when Deulofeu attempted to chip the keeper rather than squaring to an unmarked Doucouré.  City, by now, definitely didn’t know whether to stick or twist and were caught between the two frequently scattering like rabbits in headlights as we screamed down the pitch on the counter.

So Junior Hoilett’s extraordinary finish was a bit of a blow. Not undeserved; under no circumstances would a finish like that not merit a goal.  But… a shame.  Taking the shine off a performance that deserved a shine.  When City followed that up within three minutes by scoring the goal that they’d threatened to score twice earlier – Morrison now on throw-in duties with Gunnarsson removed, someone else gets the flick on, Bobby Reid capitalises on the scruffiness – it’s simply insulting.  Offside too, apparently, though less consequentially than previous episodes in this series.

Despite the predictable and hysterical anxiety in the home stands and despite Colin’s rather optimistic post-match assessment that there was only one team in it from this stage it was never in doubt.  City didn’t have enough threat to muster a corner for the duration, the best they offered in the closing minutes was the bluntest of high balls into the box, fielded by the exemplary Foster.  Tom Cleverley made a welcome return after ten months out and looked like he’d never been away, instantly calming everything down and nearly scoring with his first touch after a great lay-off from Okaka.  Doucouré and Holebas took advantage of Andy Madley’s manifest refusal to issue a yellow card for anything short of GBH.  And then it was over.

Closer than it had any right to be.  This was a 6-0 win in the next universe along.  But plenty good enough to be going along with.  And still us.

Merry Christmas all.  Yooooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 3, Sema 3, Quina 4, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Deulofeu 4*, Deeney 4
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) 0, Okaka (for Deeney, 81) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 87) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Chalobah, Gomes

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

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