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Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (22/01/2022) 22/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1 comment so far

1-  So I had a bit of a lucky break this week.

Having come down with COVID symptoms on the previous Monday (and watched them, mercifully, disappear immediately in the wake of a positive PCR) I had, as  already described, accepted the loss of the trip to Newcastle as a small price to pay all things considered.  “You’d have taken that”, a bit like salvaging a point when down to ten men away from home.

Focus then moved to Wednesday evening.  A much anticipated second visit to “Pride and Prejudice (sort of)” with a gang of 20 in the West End was on the cards, but only if the pesky second line on the test kit went the way of the symptoms (twice, at least 24 hours apart) in the meantime.  On Monday morning the test kit was still flicking fingers at me, positive as soon as I looked at it.  Hopes weren’t high first thing Tuesday… and a dramatic late turn around didn’t seem to be enough, rekindling memories of the end of the 1995/96 season as a faint line at the T appeared to confirm relegation in a Muzzy Izzet kinda way.

The last hope was a free kick deep in injury time.  Keeper’s up for it, death or glory.  Ball’s punted into the box, goes in off someone’s arse.  A clear test at 2pm to lots of shouting followed up by a second 24 and a bit hours later facilitated meeting the others at Bedford station at 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, a raucously received and exploited cocktail happy hour at the pre-show meal and another brilliant performance of the utterly joyful, magnificent play which didn’t suffer at all from a second viewing (indeed the cocktails may have fuelled the enjoyment).  Result.

2- The Gambler’s Fallacy describes that, effectively, chance has no memory.  More specifically, for instance, that the outcome of an independent chance event is not influenced by the outcomes of preceding such events…  if a coin toss comes up heads ten times in a row the eleventh toss is no more likely to be a head (because “your luck’s in”) or a tail (because “these things have to even themselves out”) than if you were tossing the coin for the first time.

Blissett’s corollary to the Gambler’s Fallacy (wiki entry pending) states that as far as football is concerned the Gambler’s Fallacy is bollocks.  All football supporters know this instinctively anyway.  Yesterday evening I was painfully aware that I’d used up the week’s quota of luck on Tuesday and Wednesday (without even factoring in João Pedro’s late equaliser at St James’ Park).  We were on a hiding to nothing.

Which was a problem because, as you’ll be aware this one was quite important.  More than that (and it seems extraordinary to be writing this now, albeit still less than 24 hours on) it was a chance to distance ourselves from the relegation zone.  To define the tone for the rest of the season, to look upwards instead of downwards for the first time in a while.

There was an edginess about the atmosphere at Vicarage Road, not abetted by the fact that plenty will have planned to arrive in plenty of time for a 7.45 kick off and instead arrived very early for 8 (and the magnificent GT scarf display which Norwich, oddly given the cold, were the first visitors on such an occasion not to really join in with).  But expectation too (yes, extraordinary).  We’re not very good at that really, traditionally, winning when we’re expected to but we’ve done well enough against the Canaries in recent years and reports from Norfolk suggested that the eye-catching win over Everton wasn’t borne of some great about-turn in form on Norwich’s part.  They were still pretty awful.  Nonetheless, as the flares warmed our cheeks and the fireworks went off and the yellow smoke dissipated (all of which adornment feels rather desperate in hindsight, though it would of course been a glorious opener to a fine evening if we had won) we were all hoping for an early goal to settle the nerves.

3- Team selection was always going to be significant given the home debuts of the three new signings;  added to those points of interest were Tom Cleverley providing a more attacking midfield option than Juraj Kucka, with Bachmann and Kabasele coming in for the “ill” Foster and Cathcart.

A consequence of these developments was a backline that, if not inexperienced was still rather precarious.  Kabasele, five starts in twelve months.  New signing Kamara two since November.  Samir new to the club.  Kiko hardly a dominant character, Bachmann without Foster’s authority.  As Kabasele shouted and pointed his way through the opening twenty minutes there was no mystery as to his selection above that of Francisco Sierralta, a development that would have been scarcely credible last season (when, lest we forget, we conceded 30 goals in 46 games).

Norwich don’t need reminding that the two tiers present very different challenges of course and having finally concluded that a different problem might need a different man to navigate it (who’d have thought…?) they presented a more obdurate opponent than we had faced at Carrow Road earlier in the season.  The start of the game saw them execute a successful high press that penned us in without every really threatening to do more than that.  The chasing and harrying asked questions of our composure though… the squat, square-shouldered Kayembe was the first to be hurried out of possession, compounding his error by chasing the ball down and giving away a silly early free kick on the edge of the box.  It came to nothing – but Sissoko of all people was the next, playing a suicide ball into the middle of the park that calmed nobody’s nerves.

Kayembe recovered his composure to have a reasonable half which consisted largely of winning the ball and recycling it;  the broader problem was the lack of creativity in the now stodgy unit of which he formed a part, compounded by Norwich’s high press.  Much of a rather uninspiring first twenty minutes or so was spent with Kabasele and Samir trading possession across the backline;  only when the latter began to pull out quarterback-style (get me and my minority sport references…) howling passes over the visitors’ defence and into the feet of runners did the balance of play change and we began to suggest a threat. The second quarter of the game was spent largely at the Vicarage Road end though in truth we scarcely looked any more likely to score than Norwich had during the start to the game – Cleverley’s shot was deflected for a corner, Sissoko couldn’t get a decent contact on a right wing cross, Kamara got free a couple of times but couldn’t find anyone with a delivery.  Nonetheless, for all that it had been a grubby, nervous, ugly 45 minutes of football we had turned the tide, such as it was, and ended the half on the front foot.

4- The second half was horrific.  So horrific that it’s difficult to know where to start.  There’s the goals, of course…  the first in particular critical, but they’re just detail.  Symptoms, not cause.  There was the heavy symbolism of the floodlights going out…  not completely out, not so out that you couldn’t kid yourself that it was all going to be ok but out enough that it wasn’t. Write your own analogy around that.  Again, peripheral.  Mere gaudy decoration to our hearty cake of shit.

There was bad luck too.  We started the half sluggishly (again) but in truth City were no better;  this was a game that didn’t deserve a goal and hadn’t looked like getting one.  Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that had we burgled the first we could equally have gone on to win comfortably, buoyed by the advantage as Norwich were, fuelled suddenly by a relieved crowd with the scarcely-remembered feeling of winning a game looming into view.

It didn’t happen.  The reason that the Gambler’s Fallacy really doesn’t apply here is because a football match isn’t a random process based on chance outcomes, at least not completely or even to any great extent.  Yes, Norwich got a break when Pukki got the better of Samir, Sargent was able to contort his body to propel the ball goalwards and goalline technology confirmed that it had just about crossed the line.  But they made that luck.  Pukki was aggressive enough to tread the line between forceful and illegal in his challenge on Samir and earned the benefit of Mike Dean’s doubt (the most random component of the evening).  Sargent got lucky with the finish but was attacking the box in a manner that our oh so tentative forward line hadn’t managed all evening.  Tickets, raffles.

Norwich grabbed that advantage and never looked like relinquishing it.  The second was horrendous, Kiko Femenía’s abominably neglectful defending in allowing Rashica to put in a ball from the left betraying the degree to which our heads had gone completely.  The game shouldn’t have been gone at this stage, even at two down… Norwich creaked with encouragement every time we pushed forward with any vigour.  That it was over reflected the single biggest problem with the Watford side on the night.

Much has been made of our high turnover of head coaches (if, particularly and tediously, by scarcely interested and uninvested commentators whose motivating consideration boils down to “Watford should get back in their box”).  I’ve got more sympathy with the approach than many, I think… any single decision can be good or bad, but changing the man when the job’s needs change seems reasonable enough and it’s not as if there’s any ambiguity about the way it’s going to work.  If a head coach leaves Watford with a tarnished reputation it will be well earned – being sacked by the Hornets is hardly a blemish in itself.

But if you’re going to manage the club that way, if the stability is going to provided by the surrounding infrastructure of which the head coach is only an element rather than by the head coach himself then you’ve got  to have leadership amongst the playing staff.  We’re missing Troy, of course… this is not and there is no reasonable argument to suggest that he should still be here but he leaves a void.  Earlier than his captaincy still I remember being told a story about two senior players setting a jumped-up loanee straight by asking him to stay behind after training and making their point whilst holding him up against a wall.  Moussa Sissoko is a leader by example and has proven a good recruit despite our predicament… but his calm, quiet demeanour isn’t one of someone who’s going to rattle any cages.

But leadership doesn’t just come from captains in any case.  It’s a matter of personal responsibility and pride, and there was precious little of that on show last night.  Emmanuel Dennis is one case in point…  on review his second booking looks incredibly harsh, but his sulky, petulant performance wasn’t one of a player focused on doing his best for the team.  Claudio Ranieri’s post-match comments questioning the desire of some of the team don’t have many candidates given that the three newbies are presumably spared that early criticism alongside some manifestly game triers (Sissoko, Cleverley).  The decision to block his AFCON participation seems ever more questionable given the lack of contribution we’ve seen in the games since.

Dennis’ red card seemed to pass unnoticed by the away support, whose tone was understandably already celebratory (and was far less triumphalist than we had any right to expect once outside the ground, as an aside).  The home support were already resigned to the inevitability of the outcome and scarcely shrugged, ditto on learning that Moussa Sissoko finally connecting properly in front of goal and getting a fine touch to a left wing João Pedro cross had happened from a marginally offside position.  It was an incredibly tight (if ultimately accurate) call, but no tension greeted the VAR review.  It wasn’t our evening.

We brought on three substitutes at various stages, and whatever their other limitations each contributed some welcome bloody-mindedness to proceedings.  Cucho Hernández in particular will never hold a forward line together like King, doesn’t have the snarl and the touch of Dennis or the poise and technique of the relentless João Pedro…  but he does have a healthy dose of “f*** it” that was already overdue when introduced on the hour.  His was by far the most potent attacking contribution from the home side of the evening, forcing nervy Angus Gunn into flapping, anxious mistakes (and finally looking exactly like a goalkeeper who had shipped 17 goals in his last three Premier League outings but had hitherto passed criminally unbullied and untroubled in this one).  Ken Sema and Juraj Kucka the other two replacements, the latter’s ill judgement resulting in an own goal from an Idah cut back that summed our evening up concisely.

5- In the closing minutes I was wished “good luck” in putting a positive spin on this one.  Well here goes.

We are at the lowest possible ebb, having been thrashed by a mediocre side in a game that we had hoped to win (NB:  that’s not the positive spin, that’s a statement of fact).  Nonetheless, we are no more “down” than Norwich were ten days ago, for all that Newcastle added to our weekend by spawning a win at Elland Road as I wrote this report.  The margins are fine when you’re at this end of the table;  nobody’s earning many points because you’re competing with teams that aren’t very good and don’t earn many points.  It won’t take a lot.  It didn’t take Norwich a lot.

Further, we don’t need to be good to survive, we merely need to be less bad than three other teams and in particular less bad than two teams who remain very bad despite this weekend’s results and against whom we have games in hand.

Of course if we continue to play with the lack of spirit, passion, belief and guile that we saw here we have no chance.  But things will improve.  Louza will return from AFCON to give that midfield some craft.  Sarr will recover to amplify our attacking threat and change the balance of our games by his mere presence.  In the meantime Samuel Kalu looks like giving us a proper right-sided option that our attack currently lacks.

Whether Claudio is around to oversee it seems questionable, and I confess to being conflicted.  A lot of the circumstances he’s dealing with are not of his creation… the squad makeup, AFCON, injuries, COVID and associated postponements.  Not his fault, and the decisions that he makes are broadly sensible, most of the time. But at the same time if you’re going to actively support a team you want to see some determination.  Some fight.  I’ve been criticised before for overvaluing that commodity, “trying hard” (I can hear you).  It’s not enough on it’s own, clearly.  But it’s something to cling to, something to justify trekking across the country, something that’s necessary and something whose absence the head coach can’t absolve himself of responsibility for, as if it’s outwith his control.  He’s not a passenger at a bus stop with the right to complain about the service’s unreliability.  He’s driving the bus.

We’re not done.  But there needs to be one hell of a reaction, whoever is at the helm.

See you at Turf Moor, obviously.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 1, Femenía 1, Kamara 2, Samir 3, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 2, Cleverley 2, João Pedro 3, Dennis 1, King 2
Subs: *Hernández (for Cleverley, 59) 3*, Sema (for Kamara, 84) NA, Kucka (for Femenía, 89) NA, Fletcher, Tufan, Morris, Ngakia, Elliot

Newcastle United 1 Watford 1 (15/01/2022) 15/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-  So it’s not been a normal week, and this isn’t going to be a normal match report.  My COVID ticket came up on Monday;  after a couple of days of feeling dodgy I’m basically fine now and should thus be grateful for fortune, for the benefits of being vaccinated and so on.  As an asthmatic and a diabetic I’ve no real right to have expected such an easy ride.

But if I’m allowed to feel sorry for myself briefly the timing scotched what would have been a fine weekend, including costing me my (and the similarly afflicted Daughter 2)’s first away strike of the season.  I am now counting on LFTs giving me an early pass before a planned theatre outing on Wednesday, else I really WILL be grumpy.

Anyway.  This’ll be a briefer than normal account, reverting to reflections rather than a blow-by-blow because obviously I wasn’t there, and based on the stream that I would of watched if I did that sort of thing which obviously I don’t.

2- Firstly, the team looks a whole lot more credible all of a sudden.  The new boys of course, we’ll get to them… but also Foster and Dennis back in the fold, Cleverley finding his way back, Kabs on the bench.  Believable.  Post-AFCON you add Louza in particular to the mix and Sarr in the goodness of time and we have a team again at last.

And the debutants all looked good.  Hassane Kamara looked a bit excitable but exciting too, quick, dogged, discipline and determined.  One hell of an athlete, his afterburners saw him scorch the St James Park turf a couple of times and the leap that inadvertently took out Ryan Fraser was extraordinary.  Samir, meanwhile was part of a defence that held together well – Newcastle’s “one shot on target” conceals a good number of deliveries into the box in the first half in particular that we just about got away with but we did get away with it.  Nobody needs reminding of how often we’ve crumbled in the face of the merest pressure this season and Samir’s obdurate performance was part of that (peppered with a goodly amount of shouting and pointing in as much as that can be judged from a stream which obviously I wasn’t).  And Edo Kayembe gave us a much more solid presence at the back of the midfield;  he got forward too, playing one fabulous slide rule pass through for Joshua King in the second half and tantalisingly looking as if he was lining up a blind-side free kick around the outside of the wall before Emmanuel Dennis pulled rank in the first half.  Looks perfectly plausible that he and Louza could fit into the same midfield.

Worth noting again how well we’ve done in getting these guys lined up to come in so early in the window.  Contrast this with the lack of activity elsewhere in the Premier League – of the rest, only the urgent and well-backed Newcastle and the less urgent but still well-backed Villa have brought in anyone significant.

3- There are problems still, quite obviously. We got a few breaks in the first half against a side that, for all that they’ve brought in two disappointingly sensible looking signings, have been a bit pathetic for much of the season.  Kieran Trippier is a hell of a weapon… but you’d like to have seen a bit more assertiveness in dealing with those deliveries. 

There’s also got to be a concern that in many ways this was a game made for us, made for us to execute our threat such as it is.  A blunt forward line in front of an expectant crowd is asking to be caught on the break as it was here four years ago and we didn’t do nearly well enough transitioning the ball in the first half.  You want to see King, JP and Dennis spiralling away and forcing Newcastle to look over their shoulders, that wasn’t happening enough.

Perhaps reflecting that we look like a side that hasn’t won in a long time.  On top of the unfamiliarity of three new senior players there’s a tentativeness borne of thinking about things rather too much.  This was evident in much of our attacking play, even in a vastly improved second half (accommodated, it must be conceded, by Newcastle’s own caution in sitting back at one goal up).  So many of those counters were just a little bit of cockiness away from bearing fruit, King and Sissoko in particular overthinking what should have been straightforward finishes.

4- So thank heavens for João Pedro.  The goal, obviously, we’ll get to that, but overall the gradual flowering of the Brazilian continued with a performance full of personality. Not always entirely positively executed, admittedly… when Dennis made sure that everybody knew about Trippier’s snide arm in his chest on the touchline in the first half, JP was getting in faces straight away.  Thereafter he was the focus of the crowd, not to mention the Newcastle defence but composed himself and was a force for good throughout… quick, clever, observant and effective, he is as big an asset as Ismaïla Sarr.

His wasn’t the only strong performance.  Jeremy Ngakia put in a punchy show at right-back despite Newcastle frequently overloading down their left flank…  his mistake lead to Newcastle’s goal, but that was his only blemish and one he gets away with nine times out of ten.  The precocious Saint-Maximin capitalised, making the error seem worse than it was.

5- Nonetheless, in the dying minutes it felt like more of the same.  The variety in our performances of late had only been between games in which we we’ve been murdered and games in which we’ve put up a fight but not quite been good enough or lucky enough or simply enough.  

This time, however, we got a break.  And it’s a break that as above Newcastle had invited, and a break that we earned through persistence and a bit of quality, through substitute Kiko pulling out a bomb of a cross under ferocious and aggressive pressure and that man João Pedro leaping impossibly above much taller, much bigger opponents to thump a header past Dubravka.  In a small study in Bedfordshire I would have been wildly celebrating the development with Daughters 1 and 2 had we been watching a stream, which of course we weren’t.

How significant that goal will prove to be, time will tell.  It feels significant, for all that we couldn’t quite capitalise upon our momentum, having had much the better of the last half hour of the game, by burgling a winner.  It feels pivotal.  We remain, somehow, outside the relegation zone.  We (may) have the opportunity to pull ourselves seven points clear of the relegation zone before Newcastle play again.

A point’s a point, “any away point is a good one in the Premier League” and so on.  But recovering this point in these circumstances is more valuable still.  As an aside our second draw of the season backs up the suggestion that we’re suddenly better equipped to grind things out, for all that it comes against the same team against we earned our first.

It’s going to be a tight squeeze.  But we’re far from done.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Kamara 4, Cathcart 3, Samir 3, Kayembe 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 2, *João Pedro 4*, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Femenía (for Ngakia, 66) 4, Cleverley (for Kucka, 77) NA, Hernández (for Dennis, 84) NA, Morris, Kabasele, Sierralta, Tufan, Bachmann

Leicester City 4 Watford 1 (08/01/2022) 09/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- 

                  RENTON
      Good luck, Spud.

                   SPUD
      Cheers.

                  RENTON
      Now remember --

                   SPUD
      Yeah.

                  RENTON
      If they think you're not trying, 
      you're in trouble. First hint of 
      that, they'll be on to the DSS, 
      'This ****'s no trying' and your 
      Giro is ****ing finished, right?

                   SPUD
      Right.
RENTON But try too hard -- SPUD And you might get the ****ing job. RENTON Exactly. SPUD Nightmare. RENTON It's a tightrope, Spud, a ****ing tightrope. SPUD My problem is that I tend to clam up. I go dumb and I can't answer any questions at all. Nerves on the big occasion, like a footballer...

2- This was always going to be weird.  A curio, an odd hiatus between the start of everything changing – AFCON, the transfer window – and the now insanely critical seven days of fixtures that begins next Saturday.  Both sides came into the fixture ostensibly struggling to put credible sides out… and, perhaps, not wanting to for all that City were beginning the defence of the trophy and that we could do with finding some form and confidence as soon as possible whatever the competition.  Not a priority though, very clearly.  Maybe the trick was trying to lose without making it look like you were trying to lose.  Spud would have understood.

I’d tried to explain “bring your boots” to Daughters 1 and 2 on the drive up, Daughter 2 rolling her eyes as her elder sister briefly understood that she might genuinely get a call up.  Despite this, the two line-ups named were stronger than might have been anticipated with only a couple of kids in the Leicester starting eleven and James Morris debuting at left back for the Hornets.  The benches were more haphazard, but significantly still no place in the starting eleven for Dan Gosling.

From the off, any suggestion that this would be a half-hearted affair in which neither side would be putting too much effort into things was dispelled.  We witnessed a far more entertaining game than we had any right to expect which, whilst the end result was fully merited, was far more competitive for far longer than the scoreline might suggest.  There are things that we’re quite good at and there are things that we’re really very bad at.  None of this is news and the club have clearly had some ducks lined up to address the latter.  Today, Kamara had a token place on the bench – presumably insurance in case Morris, who looked punchy and positive, had a less capable debut than he did – but otherwise those solutions, adequate or otherwise, are still to come, whilst the travails of injuries, COVID and AFCON whilst affecting both sides left Leicester with more quality, particularly in midfield, than we could muster.

3- The start to the game clearly didn’t help us.  The smallest of footnotes is that the award of a corner after the ball was contested below the away end was utterly absurd but you’ve still got to defend it.  The delivery was of high quality and Francisco Sierralta grappled with Vestergaard – the Dane made the most of the contact but it was a penalty, the most telling aspect of which was Sierralta being caught cold by the run.  Once again the absence of WTE, error-prone or otherwise, was telling both in the general (lack of) shape of the defence and in Sierralta’s performance in particular.  The Chilean, who has had enough football this season now to be reasonably classified as “a bit disappointing” in the top flight, is a weapon that needs to be pointed in the right direction.  One hopes that Samir is a talker.

Bachmann dived the right way but didn’t get close to Tielemans’ spot-kick. From there an open game saw chances at both ends…  we know that we can hurt teams and Leicester’s patched-up defence was there to be got at.  A decent move down the left – where Morris, as during pre-season, provided a more than adequate supply line – saw Tom Cleverley’s fierce low drive blocked.  Another saw Sissoko crash his trademark effort over the bar at a stage where we were still positive enough about the whole thing to turn around and grin ruefully at strangers at this already established theme.

The focus will be on the defence again and understandably so given the leaden attempts to obstruct City as they swept through for their second, a terrific move that saw Lookman feed Maddison to chip over Bachmann as he had into the same net six weeks earlier.  The midfield’s an issue too though, and as such whilst the signings of Kamara and Samir are welcome and needed, Kayembe’s arrival is significant also.  If you’re going to play a 4-3-3 you’re asking an awful lot of the three…  they need to be a solid, mobile unit with enough quality to be both potent and obstructive.  We don’t have Doucs, Capoue and Will Hughes any more, and whilst Ranieri has achieved a credible midfield when Sissoko and Louza are both available, the loss of the Moroccan (combined perhaps with the ongoing absence of Etebo) leaves us looking flimsy in the middle.  Tom Cleverley wasn’t up to speed today, and whilst Ozan Tufan made more of an impact in attacking areas than previously he still looked heavy and slow both of body and mind.  

4- That second goal would have been miserable enough to kill any spirit in the away end, but for the fact that we struck back immediately.  The three forwards combined to create the opening, with Ashley Fletcher’s critical involvement comfortably his most effective of the afternoon.  He looks far more convincing as a target man with bodies hanging off him than he does loping into space down the flanks, and here his sublime touch under pressure released João Pedro to lift the ball over Ward.

This ignited the away end – indeed both daughters voluntarily stood in excitement for the first time – and whilst the score remained at 2-1 for half an hour or so either side of half time we looked the more convincing side for the only spell in the game.  We moved the ball well and made Leicester look nervous – young left back Vontae Daley-Campbell was generously spared a second yellow on the basis that he slipped as he crashed into João Pedro.  The slip, justification for the leniency or otherwise, was unseen by the away support in the opposite corner of the arena, who were outraged.  Attempts to expose the left back once again before his inevitable replacement at the break saw the relentlessly positive Jeremy Ngakia receive a clever long ball before crashing through the youngster and setting up João Pedro; the Brazilian’s shot and Ngakia’s follow up were both blocked as the home side scrambled to maintain parity at the break.

The third goal, then, was the critical one really.  For all the encouragement we knew that the back door was always open, that we wouldn’t have long to level the scores and shift the emotional pressures of the game.  Harvey Barnes’ tidy finished was briefly interrupted by an offside flag but VAR redressed that error.  

image_50411265 (1)

We made a triple-switch of our own in response, another statistical curiosity to list alongside Cucho’s 100th minute subbing in last week coming when the official arrival times of the three spanned six minutes, interrupted as the substitution was by the floodlights temporarily failing.  At no point did we look like fighting back again however;  Kucka for Tufan was a popular switch but the Slovak was no more impactful, while Dan Gosling’s anonymous performance didn’t challenge his lack of involvement.  When our two most convincing performers, Sissoko and João Pedro, were withdrawn into cotton wool to be replaced by young debutants Kamil Conteh and burly seventeen year-old Shaq Forde Claudio was publicly decreeing that we’d done enough for the DSS.  We weren’t going to chase this any more, the game was up.

5- Understandable as that call may have been, and speaking having only missed the Liverpool debacle thus far, the last fifteen minutes were the most miserable of the season, a circumstance only partly reflecting problems on the pitch.  

It’s argued frequently that supporters who pay to follow their team have the right to express their views as they see fit, within reason.  I have some sympathy with that, but would still reserve the right to judge people based on the views that choose to express and their manner of doing so.  There’s nothing witty or effective in suggesting that Jamie Vardy (in this instance) is a sex offender.  Asking Leicester fans whether they cried when Deeney scored after nine years during which the Foxes have won the Championship, the League title and the FA Cup as well as enjoying three seasons in Europe is as moronic as it is crass.  Not to mention counterproductive.

This was all before the game had really started.  None of it reflected goings on on the pitch.  It came back to bite us, obviously, when Leicester’s support, who can normally be relied upon to be boisterously behind their own side in preference to digging out their opponents – there’s an idea – turned the scarcely more inspired “Luton get battered…” into a noisy “Watford get battered…” that lasted the final ten minutes or so during which we had a bunch of kids, several of whom making debuts, performing a thankless task on the pitch and our own doughnut army had long since disappeared from a half-empty stand, gurning into the night.  

On the pitch, Daniel Bachmann – whose good days aren’t nearly reliably frequent enough – pulled out a couple of smart saves but the second of those saw a kind rebound fall to Albrighton to complete the scoring.  At the other end, Cucho spent the last fifteen minutes scampering around after scraps.  His persistence saw him through on goal in the dying minutes, a lack of confidence borne of however many defeats on the hop now meant that he didn’t apply a finish that would have been automatic and instinctive in happier times.  The contrast with Leicester’s kids, who were visibly growing in confidence in the light of their experience, couldn’t have been starker.

The best thing about a football crowd is its unifying nature.  Folk from all walks of life behind a a common goal.  It’s illusory, of course.  That cross-section of society contains all sorts, some of whom are morons at each club.  This season we seem to be carrying more than normal.

See you at St James’ Park.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Ngakia 3, Morris 3, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 2, Tufan 2, Cleverley 2, Sissoko 3, Hernández 3, *João Pedro 3*, Fletcher 2
Subs: Sema (for Fletcher, 58) 3, Gosling (for Cleverley, 63) 1, Kucka (for Tufan, 64) 2, Forde (for João Pedro, 74) 2, Conteh (for Sissoko, 74) 3, Agyakwa, King, Kamara, Elliot

Watford 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (01/01/2022) 02/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- I’m very conscious that writing and talking about football professionally (rather than writing about it in my spare time and talking about it at work when I’m being paid, in theory, to do something else) wouldn’t bestow the gift of extra hours in the week.  One wouldn’t have the capacity to watch all of the Premier League games and keep up with the Football League and the European Leagues, and everything else.  And do a job.  Wouldn’t happen.

Nonetheless.  If you’re being paid to talk about football you kind of owe it to the world to do more than recycle pub bore level clichés.  You’re being paid to provide insight, no?  To add something, even if it’s just your opinion.  Watford aren’t going to be many neutrals’ priority when it comes to Premier League coverage… but there’s been astonishing laziness available in this week’s podcasts, not for the first time.  Read off statistics… “Claudio Ranieri’s lost eight of his ten games in charge…   so he’s really struggling…  Fulham…  he’s 70 you know….” before falling back on “Watford, they sack managers don’t they… hur hur… is it your turn next week Dave…”.  And so on.

I’d argue that there have only been four bad defeats under Claudio, and two of those were in his opening three games where some leeway has to be given.  Unfortunately the other two were our two most recent fixtures.  So there was a sense of trepidation before this one amongst those more invested and informed than those pundits.  Vicky’s face darkened at the prospect, her partner a Spurs fan.  Dad cited his 94 year old mother’s temporary presence in the household as a reason to opt out given associated risks.  Will decided against ferrying his two young herberts down the M1 from Leeds.  All completely understandable.  This was not a fixture that screamed “here’s where we turn the corner”.

Those of us who made it went in with zero expectations, which can be a liberating experience.  Nothing to be lost when you’re presuming nothing and who knows?  Perhaps we’d pull something out of the bag.

2- We didn’t pull anything out of the bag,  but this was destined to be a great deal better than advertised. The availability randomiser dealt William Troost-Ekong back into the mix with Clevs and Jeremy Ngakia fit enough to be back on the bench but Kiko slipping out of the reckoning; the headline news however was a very evident change in emphasis.

Attack pretty good, defence very bad.  In fact, on Tuesday defence very very bad.  So here comes 4-4-2 with the availability of one senior full back countered by, effectively, casting two full backs on each side with Ken Sema and Juraj Kucka doubling up in front of Masina and Cathcart respectively.  “Come and have a go if you think you’re imaginative enough”.

It felt like a big ask, sacrificing as it did any semblance of attacking threat in the first half. That, it appeared, was the trade-off…  but we’d have taken it for a point.  Nonetheless, the crowd was subdued despite the approach’s early successes.  Spurs had almost all of the ball of course but we looked a far more stubborn outfit all round with Kucka in particular, who had been a passable deputy at right back against West Ham, revelling in his role as Senior Assistant to the Right Back in perhaps his best 45 minutes in yellow since the opening day.  Ken Sema did a similar job on the left, but Ken’s a nice bloke whilst Juraj is a bastard.  This was a time for bastards.

Spurs were to fashion chances.  Reguilón shot from outside the box and forced a smart save by Bachmann to his left.  Kane shot straight at the keeper.  But these were the increasingly impatient efforts from a side that couldn’t penetrate because there was no space to penetrate. Any crosses that did find their way into the box were met by the head of Francisco Sierralta, so much more convincing today with WTE next to him telling him when to do what.

There was one proper chance for Spurs in the first half, this created by the combination of us making a rare sortie upfield and the visitors undertaking some rare pressing.  Daniel Bachmann underhit a pass to Louza, Skipp seized on the lack of control and fed Kane who, in keeping with a largely tranquilised performance, slid his shot wide of Bachmann’s post to the relief of the Rookery, fingers embedded in scalps.

3- The big caveat was that we hadn’t looked remotely effective as an attacking unit.  Reduced from a three to a two and with only the rampaging Sissoko offering any suggestion of bodily support Joshua King and Emmanuel Dennis had been chasing scraps and rarely doing as much as holding the ball up.  Dennis was particularly subdued and ineffective – this wasn’t his game at all, and whilst he is capable of being many things a target man is not one of them.  Nonetheless, it was difficult not to view his performance through the prism of the week’s surprise development, the capitalising on the Nigerian FA’s seemingly sloppy admin in calling him up late.  A bold call, understandable if his destiny would have been warming a bench for Nigeria given our next two League fixtures but counterproductive if the player’s not on board.

In any event, forty five minutes of that was already an achievement.  Another forty five of the same with a limited number of strong, fully fit options on the bench, tiring legs and minds and no ability to give the defence a breather felt horribly ambitious despite the small victory of half time parity.   Interesting, then, that we chose to spend one of those options at the break, bringing João Pedro on for Dennis.

This heralded a much more open second half…  as the brakes came off the breaks were on and the crowd ignited.  In the context of 13 points and however-many-it-is-now defeats we’ve had more than our fair share of fun this season, and bellowing “gowooooooooooooon!!!” or similar as we scream forward on the break is right up there, even when (as in this game) it ultimately comes to nothing.  In the first half the one instance of lack of togetherness had come when Bachmann collected in a congested penalty area and looked for an escaping runner to throw to, bellowing in frustration on seeing only the triple-marked Dennis on the move.  Here we’re more potent from the off, Joshua King the first to threaten with a smart low shot across the face from left to right that forced Lloris into a fine save.

4- Spurs  have a bit more space to move in too, of course, and come close when Moura lifts a ball through for Son to volley across goal prompting the stop of the game from Bachmann.  Kane swings his left foot at a dipping shot that forces a push over.  They’re still not getting much of a sight on goal however, in stark contrast to Tuesday when any West Ham amble towards the penalty area seemed to provoke a parting of the waves.

The biggest change in the second half is the ambition and swagger in our attack, infused in no small part by the arrival of João Pedro.  Dennis, it seems, may have picked up a knock – but either way the Brazilian’s deceptive physicality as much as his touch gave us a threat that hadn’t been there before.  One buccaneering run saw him zigzag across the pitch, twice emerging from apparently hopelessly crowded out positions with the ball at his feet.  On the second of these occasions the official had been as duped as anybody, believing that the Brazilian had lost control under illegal pressure and blowing up just as the forward burrowed out of the tangle of legs.  Unfortunate, and an error from the official.

Referee Robert Jones was to attract the irritation of the home stands in the second half as he had from the away end in the first but in truth he had a decent enough game for the most part.  Most of the criticism resulted from what was perceived as leniency but we’d benefitted from this in the opening period as we had, in general, from the same official’s approach at Carrow Road in September.  I’ve got no problem with a referee erring on the side of letting the game flow, particularly when it spares us two soft but “you’ve seen them given” penalties in the first 45 and discourages Harry Kane from looking for more.

The two biggest Watford bones of contention were a ferocious challenge from Davies on Louza midway into our half (and replayed instantly and irresponsibly on the big screen) where the defender appeared to go over the ball under the nose of the referee, and a later Watford break that saw King feed João Pedro through on goal.  Lloris reacted quickly and came out to meet the attack – the arrival of both parties at the ball was simultaneous enough to justify a loud penalty appeal but in truth, on viewing the replay, it was neither a penalty nor a dive.  Contact of both players with the ball at the same moment sent the ball wide and the striker onto the deck, the frustration in the away stands at the reaction speed of the goalkeeper that denied us an improbable win.  A point and a first clean sheet, however, would still have been a positive outcome.

5- It wasn’t to be.  And you can focus on Kucka’s ill-judged foul as Spurs once again tried to find a way into our penalty area, or Sierralta being outjumped by Sánchez, or Bachmann flying out and getting nowhere near the cross.  There was always a chance of this happening…  tickets, raffles.  The strategy of ceding possession and blocking space relied on absolute concentration and a bit of luck and in the 96th minute, after an interlude for a fan to receive treatment, both failed us.  The defeat also owes a lot, in fairness, to the relentless focus of the visitors – something not always associated with Spurs teams in the past.  Very few histrionics here, very few tantrums as the frustration at lack of progress must have built, not much in the way of testing the referee after he’d set a tone in the first half.  Just a concentrated belief in what they were doing, something that was true of both sides.

The outcome was a punch in the guts, the despair evident on all our players’ faces at the final whistle.  By this time Cucho had achieved the rare feat of coming on as a sub in the 100th minute;  Aasha and Sammy were in attendance for the first time since the opening day, but the Colombian wasn’t able to pull a scorcher out on this occasion.

Six defeats on the hop then, and maybe Claudio is in trouble but I don’t think we’re very far away from being a much more effective side.  What the head coach has achieved is to fashion a credible midfield despite the rotating pieces, to deal with limited defensive options that are themselves hit by injuries and to cope without Ismaïla Sarr since his first few games in charge.  Sarr is good enough to change the balance of a game either by his contribution or by the theoretical threat that dissuades opponents from overcommitting…  but his absence is so forgotten that those same pundits refer to Emmanuel Dennis as our “one hope”.

Whether Sarr is genuinely a hope depends on quite how bad this injury is, but a forward line boasting Sarr, Dennis and King with João Pedro and Cucho as options is huge fun.  A midfield marshalled by the tremendous Sissoko with Louza pinging balls around and delivering quality from set pieces is more than credible.  We know that there will be surgery to the defence – indeed for a number of reasons the side that travels to St James Park in a fortnight will bear little resemblance to this one.

But we’re past the stage where encouraging performances are enough.  We’d all take a spawny win at Newcastle earned by a dodgy penalty over another honourable defeat.  Get yourself up there if you possibly can, it’s a mission but a fabulous experience.  Daughters 1 and 2 have a back seat covered in duvets already booked.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 4, Cathcart 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Kucka 4, *Sissoko 4*, Louza 4, Sema 3, Dennis 2, King 3
Subs: João Pedro (for Dennis, 45) 4, Cleverley (for Louza, 91) NA, Hernández (for Sema, 100) NA, Gosling, Fletcher, Morris, Ngakia, Angelini

Watford 1 West Ham United 4 (28/12/2021) 29/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- It’s been a while, what with one thing and another.

In the meantime, there’s been stuff.  Christmas, specifically, and I hope yours was acceptable.  Also panto,  an annual thing the significance of which in the calendar the word “panto” almost utterly fails to convey. From a distance there’s (normally) a traditional story and dames and “it’s behind you” and other familiar tropes.  These conceal a cathartic satire focused on our employer (a satire that said employer is smart enough to encourage, let alone tolerate), no kids whatsoever, a social activity that’s the focus for much longer than the festive season and the year’s most dependable piss-up.

Panto 2020 was kyboshed like everything else, so this one had been two years in the making.  The build up is always a slow burn, gradually getting stuff ready, keeping plates spinning, building up to a crescendo.  This year the filter provided by the world we’re living in made things all the more precarious… rehearsals, costume fitting, prop building all restricted by hybrid working patterns.  As the day approached cast and crew pursued rigorous LFT programmes that would permit the show to go on.  All clear, negative tests results confirmed with relief every two days on the team WhatsApp.

Until the day of the show.  Two positive tests.

2- Back at Vicarage Road then, finally.  But while we benefitted at the start of the season from kicking off at home to Villa on the opening day, riding the wave of delighted relief at the resumption of football to three points it feels before kick off as if we might suffer here.  Suffer from resuming at home after our eighteen day break.  It would be different, perhaps, if there was a sense that the unicorn variant was “done”, if it was finished.  Then we’d be looking forward optimistically but it isn’t, so we’re not.

The new normal had prompted some novel routines even before our recent hiatus.  The most tiresome of these is to find ourselves kicking our heels once again at the top of a blocked off Occupation Road as coaches duck up and down the hill and discharge their contents.  The whole process is safer and better supervised than it was a few weeks ago but the lack of jeopardy doesn’t make it any more exciting.  We opt, instead, for entry through the GT stand;  this presents Daughters 1 and 2 the opportunity to pick up a margherita for lunch, so they’re happy enough but the Rookery, as we reach it, is not.

At every stage of the build up the stand is significantly emptier than it should be.  There’s an anxiety, even amongst those at the more cavalier end of the “attitudes to this sort of thing” spectrum that no masks can conceal.  As far as the on-pitch stuff is concerned we suffer further from having Brentford freshest in our minds, arguably the only real disaster of Ranieri’s command to date.  We are not coming into this on a high, and a fortnight’s “rest” has to be weighed up against the impact of COVID on a squad that was looking flimsy in certain positions in any case.  The available roster has seen the names Ngakia, Rose, Troost-Ekong, Cleverley and Elliot struck from it, presumably by the virus.  We name eight substitutes, only one of whom – the untried left back James Morris – a defender and two other youngsters making up the numbers.

There is no defiance, no “come on”-ness, no move to swell the efforts of the 1881.  Meanwhile the away end is both fuller and noisier than the home stands.  Travelling support tends to be more bloody-minded and less analytical, both of these properties serve the Hammers well.

3- So Emmanuel Dennis’ fine early strike is particularly welcome, the more so since it involves Craig Dawson being left on his backside before the Nigerian pumps a shot into the top corner.  Daughter 1 celebrates more than most – through a combination of stuff, things, circumstances and a particularly unfortunate choice of games she hadn’t seen us score in almost two years and was long since convinced that she was the cause of this particular drought rather than merely the subject of it.  “Already?!?” was her first beaming reaction, a blank scorecard a given in her head.

“Already” was the long and short of it, since this was as good as it would get by some distance.  We didn’t even get a happy afterglow to bathe in, since within thirty seconds of kick-off West Ham were ploughing what was to be a well trodden path down our right flank.  The ball stumbled its way via Kiko’s first alarming catastrophe of a difficult forty minutes, to Jarrod Bowen, unmarked and startled plumb in front of goal.  The ball was stuck under his feet in his surprise at finding himself unmarked on the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot at Bachmann.  Such breeze as there was died in our sails.

We held the lead for 23 minutes, none of them comfortable.  West Ham gained in belief as they kept coming at us; our supine midfield didn’t lay a punch on theirs and the lack of defensive shape was such that the most perfunctory of attacks caused yellow shirts to scatter like marbles.  Much play continued to be focused down West Ham’s left, either because of the threat posed by Benrahma – who provided the nearest thing to an equaliser before there was one, smacking a shot off the top of the bar – or because of a perceived vulnerability in Kiko or both.  There’s got to be dollops of mitigation ladled in here by the way, since however horrific we don’t know who and how much and in what way individuals were affected by viruses;  given the absence of Ngakia from the bench, the drop in Kiko’s level from the kick-off and the Spaniard’s withdrawal five minutes before the interval, it’s difficult to suppose anything other than a case of “well I’ll give it a go, boss”.

But by the time Kiko left the fray we were behind.  The equaliser when it came was suitable calamitous; Cathcart was drawn left, Sierralta failed to cover, Sissoko let his man, Souček, wander through and prod the ball almost apologetically inside Bachmann’s near post.  It was a goal that left no room for doubt as to the destiny of the result and so it proved as within a minute the ball found its way to Benrahma on the edge of the box.  It’s all too easy, and yes it gets a deflection that deprives Bachmann of any opportunity to react but the best way of preventing an unlucky deflection is by not leaving yourself with a left back feeling the need to stand in front of his goalkeeper on the right hand side of the box in the first place.  West Ham took their foot off the pedal immediately.  Their work here was done.

4- Our defence has been a problem.  This may not be news to you.  Our defence has been a problem even in circumstances other than being down to the last five (four-and-a-half?) senior candidates for a back five position.

In such circumstances – and particularly given that our forward line retains such manifest threat even in otherwise miserable performances like this one – a functioning midfield is essential.  This season, the only times we’ve approached having one of these have been with Imrân Louza sitting at the back of the midfield.

It’s very easy to watch from a distance and pass judgement of course, deprived of full knowledge, without the responsibility associated with making decisions.  That’s half the fun.  But given that caveat, I find the benching of Louza for the last two games difficult to understand.  His run of four league starts – for all that we only one won of them, for all of the aggravations of Leicester – produced as consistent a run of credible performances as we’ve managed all season, form that he was a pivotal part in. Contrast his impact with that of the miserable Ozan Tufan, who has scarcely influenced a match in a positive way; something is clearly wrong there, since a player with his reputation whose few bright spots have seen him threaten to dominate a game completely, has been a passenger far too often.  You can’t carry passengers in a three-man midfield.

With Louza on the pitch – and Juraj Kucka doing a committed if rather one-dimensional job of standing in at right-back – we carried a threat in the second half.  West Ham would extend the scoring eventually…  Jarrod Bowen found the net before being pulled back by VAR for a foul on the halfway line which David Moyes bafflingly chose to question after the game.  The reversal prompted the first semblance of a roar from the sparsely occupied stands since the goal, the reprieve having energised the home support.  Seven minutes later another defensive calamity – to which Daniel Bachmann contributed significantly in a generally passive performance – saw the same player’s quick thinking and movement win a penalty.  Mark Noble converted from the spot for the third successive iteration of this fixture.

Perversely, at 3-1 there were shards of light… the first suggestion that we might take something from the game since the ten seconds following Dennis’ opener.  Louza’s presence – and Tufan’s withdrawal, albeit for a rusty Ken Sema – energised our forward line and West Ham suddenly looked heavy legged and vulnerable.  Who knows what a goal might have provoked, but we weren’t destined to find out.  João Pedro had come on at the break in another trade-up for the willing but impotent Cucho and was involved in much.  His decision making wasn’t always the best, but he provoked opportunities simply by demonstrating some determination sadly lacking elsewhere in combination with a magnetic touch.  He was involved in a spinning, spiralling break that saw Sissoko twice involved before forcing a decent save out of Fabianski.  His positive break released King whose shot across Fabianski’s face from the right was on target but lacked power to trouble the keeper.  With Louza’s set piece delivery giving us the suggestion of a threat against a very tall West Ham team the Brazilian flicked on a header that the ever-willing King was unable to nod the right side of the post.

It was a straw to cling to as far as what comes next is concerned, but nothing more.  Instead West Ham broke to score a fourth that reflected their superiority, the difference in mindset between the excellent Bowen and the horribly exposed Sierralta clear as the winger danced past the leaden Chilean to set up Vlašić.  A final break which saw João Pedro break free before teeing up Dennis who was smothered by Fabianski summed up both sides’ afternoons quite succinctly as a footnote.

5- Returning from the circus to the panto.  Conscious of general unicorn-related anxiety amongst our potential audience we had already arranged for the afternoon show to be live streamed.  Improvised understudies in place the decision was made to perform to an empty theatre… not the easiest thing for a panto, but better than no show at all.  340 signed in to the live stream, a number of which broadcasting to full meeting rooms back at the ranch.  Those offstage did their damnedest to fill the void, hollering and cheering and booing from behind the flats.  It wasn’t what you’d have chosen, but it was a fine thing.

Digging ourselves out of our current circumstances is going to require similar levels of co-operation, determination, making do and bloody going for it.  It’s going to demand more than that of course; more bodies in the building for one thing, both a return to fitness of the injured and waylaid and the much dreamed of squad strengthening.  See the List for the vast number of centre-backs and left-backs we’ve been associated with in recent weeks.  As an aside, for all of William Troost-Ekong’s recent challenges it’s significant perhaps that, playing without him, we looked less organised than ever (if no less error-prone).  A bit of reliable leadership is needed back there.

But to reiterate.  Staying up, as unlikely as it feels after that performance, only requires us to be better than three other teams.  Our forward line is such that this remains more than a theoretical possibility.  We remain, after all, outside the relegation zone, and many sides are going to struggle with availability as we have.

Hang in there.  That post-panto piss-up was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Oh yes it was.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 1, Femenía 1, Masina 2, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 2, Kucka 2, Sissoko 3, Tufan 1, Hernández 2, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: *Louza (for Femenía, 40) 3*, João Pedro (for Hernández, 45) 3, Sema (for Tufan, 62) 2, Gosling, Fletcher, Morris, Conteh, Angelini

The List – January 2022 27/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the summer window. To be kept up to date until the closure of the window 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.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.  Lots of left backs and centre backs in the in-tray this time, weirdly…

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 41

IN

Bruno Praxedes (RB Bragantino)
Valentin Mihăilă (Parma)
Beto (Portimonense)
Andrea Cambiaso (Genoa)
Phil Jones (Man United)*
Joe Aribo (Rangers)
Amadou Diawara (Roma)*
Anthony Caci (Strasbourg)
Tom Lawrence (Derby County)
Daniel Amartey (Leicester City)
Steve Cook (Bournemouth)*                           joined Nottingham Forest
Thomas Strakosha (Lazio)
Omar Colley (Sampdoria)*
Morten Thorsby (Sampdoria)*
Sead Kolašinac (Arsenal)                         joined Marseille
Joe Rodon (Tottenham)
Eliaquim Mangala (Free Agent)             joined Saint Étienne
Romain Saïss (Wolves)
Levi Colwill (Chelsea)
Borna Barišić (Rangers)
Sorba Thomas (Huddersfield Town)
Josh Doig (Hibernian)*
Hassane Kamara (OGC Nice)*                                         SIGNED
George Bello (Atlanta United)
Issa Diop (West Ham United)
Calvin Ramsay (Aberdeen)
Kortney Hause (Aston Villa)*
Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş)*
Edo Kayembe (Eupen)                                                SIGNED
Samir (Udinese)                                                   SIGNED
Pape Habib Gueye (Kortrijk)
Lee Buchanan (Derby County)
Malang Sarr (Chelsea)
Jed Wallace (Millwall)
Nathaniel Phillips (Liverpool)
Alexis Flips (Reims)
Layvin Kurzawa (PSG)
Samuel Kalu (Bordeaux)
Ollie Tanner (Lewes)
Ludovic Blas (Nantes)
Emmanuel Agbadou (Eupen)

OUT

João Pedro (Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona
Myles Roberts (Portsmouth, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham, Charlton, Leyton Orient, Sutton United)
Ismaïla Sarr (Newcastle United, Liverpool*)
Emmanuel Dennis (Manchester United, Liverpool)
Nicolas Nkoulou (Udinese)
Christian Kabasele (Udinese, Kasımpaşa)
Ken Sema (Udinese)*
Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahçe)

2021 Summer January
2020 Summer January
2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer  

Brentford 2 Watford 1 (10/12/2021) 11/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- I live in a village.  Not a town, a village.  As such the driving that I’m used to is the careful navigation of rural lanes, village streets, and the more or less predictable monotony of the motorway to and from Vicarage Road.

The A406 is something else.  The stretch from Brent Cross anticlockwise towards Brentford is like descending into the meridian trench in the Death Star, a rattling narrow channel where it’s everyone for themselves and a wrong move, an ill-timed exhale could prove fatal.

Stay on target.

That we’re making the rare step of heading into London by car reflects the practicalities of an evening kick off with an already exhausted 12 year-old and a stadium whose nearest tube station will be closed after the game.  That, and the fact that Nem and Nick have offered a parking permit, a warm welcome and a hearty plate of macaroni cheese to fuel pre-match reflections.

I haven’t seen Nem since she, Kieron, Paul and I navigated A-Level French together.  Thirty years on, Kieron still resents the imposition of French A-Level upon his teenage years while Nem is a French teacher.  Go figure.

Nem is another to have learned football since school, her and Nick follow the Bees home and away. She’s also developed a healthy level of football fan’s superstition which manifests itself in walking to the ground down the middle of the street, though this obligation appears to be relaxed, mercifully, as we approach busier thoroughfares and the M4 causeway looms over us.  The walk from their home to Brentford’s new ground has taken us past what’s left of Griffin Park, plus two of the famous four pubs on the corner.  One, The Griffin, still thrives;  another’s doors are closed, perhaps for good.  I ask about the heartache of leaving Griffin Park without being able to “say goodbye” during the pandemic.  Nick is philosophical;  goodbyes had been anticipated, and the new ground’s attractions cast such sentiment aside very quickly.

2- As with much that Brentford do, that new stadium is a well-thought out, expertly designed thing despite being squeezed into a tight fit adjacent to the north circular like a novice’s first go at Minecraft (I imagine) with access routes that will, one suspects, need to be passed on down generations for fear of being forgotten.  It strikes a fine balance;  modern but cosy, attractively wonky without being weird and with a decent array of kiosks if you’re prepared to look for them.  Daughter 2 turns her nose up at her “hot water with a bit of chocolate” but otherwise it’s a fine venue for her first evening away trip.

We find ourselves up in the gods, a couple of rows forward from the peak of the away “corner” underneath a low metal roof that will amplify the considerable noise around us as the evening progresses.  Nem and Nick will later comment on the volume, “the loudest of the season”, and this is fuelled no doubt by the proximity of the venue and the fuel of Friday night drinking.  There is a precarious rowdiness in the concourses and I have cause to hold Daughter 2’s arm on the way through before she throws me a look to remind me that she’s no longer six.

brentford

3- Claudio Ranieri’s line-up yields a couple of surprises, not least the absence of Imran Louza.  The Moroccan’s renaissance after his early season false start has nonetheless seen him withdrawn early by and large, and perhaps in this and the benching of João Pedro he had half an eye on a busy week of games.  In Louza’s place came the formidable figure of Juraj Kucka.

This development in particular painted a clear picture of how the football itself, now that we’ve gotten around to having to talk about it (and let’s face it, you all watched it and none of you want to relive it any more than me), would develop.  So it proved.  The first half’s action was straight out of a cheese grater, neither side able to exert control over proceedings any more than one might control a stray carrier bag in a hurricane.  Occasional moments of quality rose above the morass – Baptiste fashioned an acrobatic shot to force Bachmann to tip over, Mbeumo curled an effort around an attentive Troost-Ekong for the keeper to make a slightly showy save – but given that he was playing in front-ish of a wildly receptive gallery we’ll forgive him the flourish.  

That attack came down our left where Jeremy Ngakia, despite his willing and physicality, was becoming the latest candidate not to look much like a Premier League left back.  The untidiness of the game suited us the better however, particularly once we’d taken the lead.  This followed Joshua King wandering in from the right to plant a shot onto the foot of the post; from the corner that followed Emmanuel Dennis headed home.  This reflected no Watford superiority in terms of the balance of play.  There was no “play” to balance.  Instead it reflected the game’s moment of quality to that point, the Les Ferdinand leap into the air from a standing start, check your WhatsApp whilst waiting for the cross to arrive and still thump home.  Individual moments of quality will decide games at this level, even rubbish games like this one.

So the remaining 20 minutes or so of the half were conducted to a celebratory cacophony from the away corner.  Accompaniment was provided by an improvised percussion using some form of reverberating metal mesh alongside the wall of the stand.  It was impossible to persuade the resultant noise to obey the rhythm of the chant, in the context of which the efforts of those responsible were nonetheless appallingly unsuccessful.  The resultant din matched the chaos on the pitch which, as above, suited us down to the ground.  Any further goals were only going to arrive by accident, and we had the lead.

4- Whilst Claudio Ranieri’s record since taking over isn’t particularly impressive when summed up in terms of points per game, the reality is that these figures are distorted by the strength of the opposition in recent fixtures in particular and the paucity of options open to him.  It’s difficult to pick out failings in strategy or decision on the coach’s part;  we’ve lost games either because we’ve been playing very good teams, or because the options open to Ranieri were inadequate.

Until today.  As discussed here previously, the rapid “sorting” of the midfield has been Ranieri’s most immediate achievement but it’s a precarious thing.  In the context of a high pressing game a metronome (Louza), a ball-carrier (Sissoko) and a terrier (Cleverley) is a sound formula.  In replacing Louza with Kucka you sacrifice a lot of creativity in favour of brutality.  Nonetheless, it looked like being enough.

There may be Other Stuff that we don’t see.  Scratch that, there will certainly be Other Stuff that we don’t see, but it would have to be pretty significant stuff to justify the decision to withdraw Cleverley in favour of a newly bleached João Pedro on 57 minutes.  To be balanced… it’s unreasonable to gasp in breathless admiration at the audacity of this attacking move, an extra forward in João Pedro at the front of the midfield, when it works and then to complain the first time it crashes and burns.  Nonetheless, this was the outcome we’d all feared when this was first given a spin.  It was just weird.  

Brentford were compromised to a similar to degree to ourselves by injuries, COVID tests and suspensions.  Nonetheless, with a more accommodating midfield in front of them they channelled the urgency that they’d shown since the start of the half and started to dominate the game.  Immediately it wasn’t a scruffy bunfight any more, it was a rear-guard action.

We managed to fashion a couple of chances, the first by exploiting an obvious weakness on the left of Brentford’s defence where Vitaly Janelt was a makeshift centre-back.  A rare contribution from João Pedro, whose performance lacked any of it’s usual tenacity, saw Dennis take control as we broke.  He fed Joshua King whose overcautious finish, easily fielded by Fernandez, summed up his willing but unsuccessful evening.  Later King broke down the left and played a ball into space for Sissoko – to whom kudos for still seizing the reins even when he wasn’t having his best game either.  As Sissoko burst onto the ball he was grappled to the ground by Jansson, whose track record suggested a reliable recklessness.  A yellow, not a red, just about, but there won’t have been much in it.  Whether Michael Oliver factored in the consideration that Moussa with the ball at his feet in front of goal barely constitutes a goalscoring opportunity only he will know.

But the heavy traffic was at the other end.  That our defending is appalling is accepted, but this is only true sometimes.  Sometimes is often enough of course, but there would have been stuff to admire here if only we’d gotten away with it.  Bodies in the way.  Questions asked. Decisions forced, that sort of thing.

We didn’t get away with it.  Jansson’s conversion of Goode’s flick-on went to VAR, so maybe we were a little unlucky there – not in the decision itself, offside was invented to deter goal hanging rather than marginal infringements in any case – but in that it wouldn’t have been very far from a visible infringement and the penalty doesn’t happen if the first doesn’t.  And then the penalty itself which seemed to result in Ghoddos standing on Troost-Ekong’s leg on review.

All of which irrelevant.  We’d handed initiative to the hosts, they’d seized it and capitalised.  That penalty was preceded by five minutes of “wise old head” Juraj Kucka losing his composure completely and charging around in a manner that screamed “make it stop, make it stop”.  We’re allowed to do that in the stands Juraj, but we’re paying for the privilege.  And then Troost-Ekong’s lunge in itself was wild and invited inadvertent contact, another rash decision from a supposedly senior player. The final frustration was watching Bachmann, otherwise all but faultless, sell himself far too readily as Mbeumo converted the spot kick.  We lost the game, deservedly so.

5- It’s difficult to constructively vent your frustration in such circumstances.  Difficult to convey or provide positive conduit to the profound emotions that result.  Some of those around us, again even allowing for this difficulty, failed dismally.  One philosopher standing next to Daughter 2 bellowed “f*** off” repeatedly at each of the Watford side who had the temerity to approach and acknowledge the support.  We were trapped amongst this at the top of the stand as it emptied underneath us and once again I was concerned at Daughter 2’s staying power.

“That was a bit disappointing, wasn’t it?” was my completely inadequate if perhaps less obnoxious attempt to channel that same frustration.  There followed a couple of seconds of silent contemplation as we trudged back towards our rendez-vous with Nem and Nick.  “It was a cool experience”, she eventually replied, quietly.  That’s my girl.

Nem and Nick had by far the worst of the arrangement as it turned out.  Given the lack of any real controversy or contention in the game, sulking quietly and (I am assuming) unprovocatively wasn’t very difficult on my part.  Nem and Nick, however, were deprived of the joy of revelling in a late and unlikely victory by our presence – at least until we got back to the Griffin where Nick, having politely invited us in for a drink, said his goodbyes and dived inside.

A game that we’d set up as pivotal in our heads went against us.  It nearly didn’t.  In the cool(er) light of Saturday, the rattle back down the trench having been navigated at much higher speed than was possible on the way, after a night’s sleep… however catastrophic, it was one game.  For all that we’ve gained three points in six games that’s three more than “The Other 14“‘s survival rule (lose against the big six, otherwise win your home games) mandates.  As Daughter 2 confirmed, it was a cool experience however frustrating.  Whatever your Friday night would have otherwise entailed it surely wouldn’t have encompassed such peaks and troughs (and, in my case, the chance to meet up with an old friend).

On to Burnley, where we’ll find out how consequential this one was, perhaps.  For the first time this season we won’t make an away trip.  Good luck to those that are.

Stay on target.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 3*, Femenía 3, Ngakia 2, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 2, Kucka 1, Sissoko 3, Cleverley 3, Dennis 3, Hernández 3, King 2

Subs:  João Pedro (for Cleverley, 57) 2, Sema (for Hernández, 76) NA, Tufan (for Dennis, 91) NA, Rose, Kabasele, Louza, Fletcher, Angelini, Elliot

Watford 1 Manchester City 3 (04/12/2021) 05/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1-  August 2011.  In London and elsewhere there are riots, looting, lawlessness.  It’s the first headline on the news for a week, and captures attention internationally too.  My in-laws call anxiously from Addis Ababa to make sure that we’re OK.  We gently explain that the riots haven’t reached the quiet villages of north Bedfordshire just yet – someone was a bit grumpy at the length of the queue at the Post Office but that’s been about it.

Fast forward ten years and there’s a civil war raging in Ethiopia.  East Africa isn’t the most stable part of the world but it’s funny how much more significant a war in a far off land seems when your friends and family are affected.  Now it’s us relying on the manifold streams of information, some of which appear to be wilfully misleading.  The BBC’s coverage majors on the plight of the Tigrayan rebels; there is famine in Tigray, the people of Tigray are fundamentally farmers and not wealthy but a war like this is rarely as simple as goodies and baddies.  The BBC doesn’t seem to want to ask how a militia from this poor agricultural background has managed to arm itself so comprehensively and therefore what the motivations behind the thing actually are, or why the British and American governments are so keen to prop up and support the largely Tigrayan administration that was voted out of power in democratic elections in 2018.  As the BBC reports breathlessly  of the rebels being 20 miles from Addis Ababa and US and UK government officials gravely talk of the need to “get their people out”, my wife growls from the sofa that they can surely just book a flight like anyone else.  Whilst the conflict is impacting the whole country there’s no fighting in or anywhere near Addis.  My mother in law flew back in from a trip to the US last week.

The thing is of course that where you’re in the rare position of having insight into these things, of knowing that the coverage is bullshit, you wonder what other accepted truths might not be as reliable as presented.  Sometimes it pays to challenge the narrative.

2- There are times of course when if you weren’t prepared to challenge the narrative you might as well not get out of bed.  Case in point at Vicarage Road against Manchester City.  Such is our recent track record – and much as I love stats there’s no value in repeating them here – that if you weren’t prepared to shut your ears to it and reassess the plot for yourself you’d be lost before kick off.

I wonder what was going through Kiko Femenía’s head in the dressing room.  Kiko is no mystery to us after four-and-a-half energetic seasons.  Thoroughly committed, an indisputably good egg, a great attacking outlet who links up particularly effectively with Isma but gets caught out of position and is prone to letting the ball drop over his head. Pep Guardiola has his number too, and had it in plenty of time for the Cup Final two years ago.

The support were affected too.  We were all at Wembley.  We all remember the horror show under Quique.  And for all the encouragement offered by recent performances this game would require more than mere continuation of the same.  A less emotional, more rational assessment of the challenge before us identifies that whilst the rabid high press worked a treat against United and didn’t do us half badly against Chelsea it was up against a different beast in a City side who’ve made having a spare man an art form, let alone three days after chasing Chelsea down with an injury-hit squad that offers little in terms of viable rotation options.  Danny Rose for the injured Masina was the only change from Wednesday, Morris replacing Rose on the bench.

3- The worst of all possible starts, obviously.  Psychologically impossibly challenging.  Had City rampaged forward and scored straight from the kick-off you’d have had the same tremors of impending doom; this way they were supplemented by a cruel inevitability as the blue wave wasn’t repelled at the setback of João Pedro clearing Laporte’s early header off the line.  They kept coming, kept passing, kept probing.  Sterling headed Phil Foden’s cross in unmarked after four minutes – we’d scarcely touched the ball and had had no controlled possession.

That Sterling was unmarked was the responsibility, with the benefit of subsequent replays, of Danny Rose.  He would be involved in all three of City’s goals but only this one, for me, was badly negligent on his part.  He would jump in on Grealish on the half-way line (and earn a booking) as the second built up leaving men over on City’s right, and would see Silva float past him before curling in the third, but these were both smaller failings, failings that one might get away with on a normal day against lesser players.  Faults and weak seams pulled apart by City’s relentlessness and quality.  Nonetheless, left back is The Issue at the moment and would be, given what looks like a long term absence for Masina, even if Rose’s performances were more consistently reliable.  Adam Leventhal suggested on FTRE this week that an Nkoulou-like left back free agent might be incoming – if so you have to credit the boldness of leaving two squad slots open in the knowledge that the number of free agents would make focused patching-up of the squad between windows viable.

And City are, were, brilliant obviously.  Quite how we’re in a place where a Manchester City (or a Newcastle, or an anyone else) can engineer such a remarkable squad is a separate question – you’d walk away altogether if you pondered that too deeply and I’m not able to cope with the ramifications of that I don’t think.  But yes.  Brilliant.  The passing is almost soporific from the stands, requiring the utmost concentration from our players and, crucially, offering them so little reward for their considerable efforts.  It’s not Tom Cleverley’s fault that Bernardo Silva is a better footballer than him.  All Tom can do is stand up to the challenge but when he gets a foot in, earns a small victory, the rewards are so brief before the blue wave comes back at him.  Crueller still that when City do add to their score it’s after we’ve shown the first signs of having a threat of our own…  their defence isn’t quite as comfortable playing the ball around as their midfield is, they do get mugged in possession and the Rookery is tentatively on its feet, “Yellow Army” echoing with conviction for the first time before they break and Silva is impossibly composed before sliding a shot past Daniel Bachmann.

4- A blow-by-blow account is slightly redundant.  There were few defining incidents in the game – arguably only the goals that bookended the scoring and in between a lot of stuff during which time City converted twice and were denied on many other occasions.  These outcomes of these incidents could have been interchanged perfectly plausibly.

But we did challenge the narrative.  How easy would it have been for heads to drop on the pitch, for the relentless scurrying around and denying space and doing whatever it was that we could do to make it harder for our opponents to slow up, to slip into helplessness.  Those deflections that sent shots spinning over, those bodies that impeded progress weren’t accidents.  Craig Cathcart deserves particular credit here for a remarkably calm head in trying circumstances… standing up to Sterling and forcing him slightly wide didn’t deny him the shot but it gave the excellent Bachmann half a chance of saving it.  Five minutes later he was calmly getting in the away again, forcing Sterling backwards to Gündoğan who shot over.

If we allow ourselves to think “well this is screwed, we’re done” at any point then City pull us wide open and there’s another cricket score going on.  Absolutely admirable strength of resolve in the circumstances, not least from Bachmann whose point blank save from Laporte in the second half is the pick of a decent portfolio over the ninety minutes, and Moussa Sissoko who is confident and capable enough to retain possession in midfield, to say “yeah but I’ve won a World Cup by the way and I’m not taking this” and to swerve us upfield and onto the offensive.  His only flaws are two long range efforts, one in each half, which we’ve already established are particularly low probability endeavours.

5- We’ve mentioned this before, but the rebuilding of our forward line over the summer for two-and-sixpence in Premier League terms is pretty remarkable from a recruitment process getting far more flak than is merited.  To be missing Sarr and still have Cucho to come rampaging off the bench is startlingly good fun; the Colombian was even less bothered than Sissoko by the profile of the players he was facing.  In the ten seconds that it took him to smack a shot against Ederson’s left hand post, respond sharply and athletically enough to the rebound to turn it in and then to allow his momentum to carry himself into the net to retrieve the ball rather than celebrate the moment he settled any ongoing debates about his value to the squad.  Terrific work.

We were probably flattered by the score, but screw that.  What all of this achieved, this chasing, closing, hanging in there, keeping your heads, not giving up, defiantly changing the tone of the scoreline when the chance came, not accepting the narrative was to give ourselves a chance of getting lucky.  It would have been daylight robbery of course, but a fun last few minutes with Dan Bachmann surely making another sortie to the Vicarage Road end were a possibility as King’s snap shot to Cucho’s low right-wing cross flew wide and odd job man Ngakia, on at left back this time, bobbled a deflection-inviting shot through a crowded penalty area late on.

That would have tested City’s mental strength.  It didn’t happen.  But we weren’t humiliated here either, in the end.  And much as those who lived through October 1999 will be particularly wary of any assumption that points will inevitably follow as we exit a difficult spell of games the reality is that pending Sunday’s fixtures we’ve emerged from this run outside the relegation zone, something which we’d have taken with both hands at the start of it, and with a side that has somehow emerged stronger at the other end despite the challenges of the last few weeks.

Bring on the Brentford.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 3, Rose 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 4, Louza 3, *Sissoko 4*, Cleverley 3, Dennis 3, King 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: Kucka (for Louza, 45) 3, Hernández (for Cleverley, 45) 4, Ngakia (for Rose, 71) 3, Kabasele, Gosling, Tufan, Fletcher, Morris, Elliot

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- Evening kick-offs are brilliant.

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

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

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

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

rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “I can’t feel my feet!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap up warm on Wednesday.

Yoooorns.

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