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Watford 4 Huddersfield Town 0 (19/01/2013) 19/01/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Five thunks from a snow-bound Vicarage Road…

1-The first surprise was that the game was on at all.  Yesterday’s rather testing weather conditions had made that seem highly unlikely (even if it’s difficult to judge quite how the rest of the world is getting on from the arctic isolation of a cul-de-sac, media updates or otherwise). So… big respect to those who answered the call and turned up with shovels early in the morning, and to all others involved in getting the game played.

Praise and thanks wouldn’t have been quite as effusive half an hour in, mind.  After an open start to the game which had seen us carve Huddersfield open a couple of times without capitalising the game had settled down into a slightly stodgy stalemate.  There was no more snow, much as dusty clouds blown off the empty Main Stand gave the illusion of snowstorms in the blustery wind, but it was bitterly cold. Huddersfield were doing a reasonable job of pursuing the Forest/Charlton template of getting stuck into us and closing us down very high up the pitch; both sides were creating occasional chances but nothing so clear cut that a goal felt anything more than a vague possibility.  An update from behind us suggested that virtually every game in the top two divisions was goalless.  “And everyone’s watching the same game as us…” was the resigned follow-up.

Except they weren’t, as it turned out.  In its own way, this performance was just as satisfying as the win at Middlesbrough and boasted comparable hallmarks.  Here, as a week ago, we were faced with a challenge and dealt with it, waited for our chance, took it and never looked back.  At Boro we were on the back foot in the first half;  here it was a case of being patient, keeping our cool and, yes, waiting for that chance.  And as a week ago, as so often now, once we’d got the first goal we were gone.

2- Simon Grayson pointed to the penalty decision which resulted in our first goal as the moment that changed the game.  Certainly it was pivotal, and if Callum Woods’ tackle was outside the area then we doff our cap to fortune and mentally, irrelevantly, cross it off against Vydra’s red card against Boro, the iffy penalty at Cardiff and so forth.  But actually Huddersfield’s game plan was already creaking thanks to indiscipline that increasingly characterised their performance. James Vaughan was the chief perpetrator;  having just avoided censure after going through the back of Nathaniel Chalobah, his clumsy, rather uncontrolled aggression saw him plough into Manuel Almunia as the keeper collected a ball that he was always favourite for.  As the referee took a rather casual approach to dissolving the ensuing kerfuffle, Vaughan approached Almunia and took issue, no less aggressively.

Referee Scott Duncan generally officiated well, and consistent with an approach that saw him err on the side of keeping his cards in his pocket a yellow for the original challenge on Almunia (and no more) was probably about right but the event worked against the visitors’ strategy by agitating both the home side and the shivering stands.  Perhaps significant that on being substituted in the second half Vaughan wasn’t even acknowledged by his manager.

Nor was this the last or most memorable lost rag of the afternoon.  That honour went to visiting keeper Alex Smithies at the start of the second half, hereby providing the comedy highlight of the encounter.  Harry the Hornet had been making the most of a rare prop, belly flopping on several occasions into the mounds of snow shovelled beyond the edge of the pitch. The half time interval had concluded with target practice as the front rows of the Rookery launched a barrage of snowballs first at the hapless mascot, then at the reasonably cheerful and tolerant Terriers coaching staff as they prepared to warm their keeper up.  Smithies was far less happy with proceedings, and when a snowball coincided with him letting a dolly shot through his hands as he prepared for the half he reacted furiously to the catcalls behind him, collecting a ball and clouting it high into the stand.  Disappointingly this resulted in only very moderate barracking during the second half despite Smithies absolute refusal to come off his line or risk any contact with the patchy snow on the turf contributing to both of Vydra’s goals, executed with customary ruthlessness.  Nonetheless, his name joins those of Crewe’s Chris McCready, Sheffield United’s Simon Tracey and Tranmere’s Danny Coyne in the pantheon of those who have irretrievably lost their cool against the Hornets.

3- We’re three up already with only two thunks down.  Frankly, this is because the fourth deserves a thunk all to itself.  I’d been surprised to see Battocchio keep his starting place, much as he’d done a decent enough job up at Middlesbrough; surely these conditions were made for Captain Eustace, a bit of grit.  In all honesty the game bypassed the diminutive Argentine in the first half; too lightweight, his touches were largely incidental… until Vydra seized on his pass before being felled by Woods’ challenge.  As the game opened up after the break Battocchio revelled in the extra space and was involved in everything, spinning and whirling and flicking and finding space.  The final goal was a thing of beauty and wonder, involving a Forestieri dummy, a backheel and a trademark wicked cross from the increasingly commanding Marco Cassetti to which Battocchio applied the daintiest of touches to roll it past the hapless Smithies.  Just sublime.

4- Craig Forsyth’s name in the starting eleven was something of a surprise, even given the absence of Daniel Pudil necessitated by illness of his young son.  Not that Forsyth looked without merit in his outings last season but… you didn’t have him in your list of those who might stay around.  Contrary to expectation he more than held his own, taking advantage of the extra space that wing-back affords him, working diligently and tidily at either end of the pitch and contributing some useful height to the side.  Not a threat to Pudil, perhaps… but an option who may finally have been able to play in his best position.

5- So.  We are now beating solid teams with some comfort, albeit solid teams who quite visibly haven’t been winning many games recently.  We are the leading scorers in the division.  Despite injuries, we have a bench full of real options, allowing us to bring on a new forward line to torment a Huddersfield defence already at full stretch trying to contain what now looks one of the most unplayable partnerships  in the division and still look frighteningly potent. Four points off second with a game in hand, with games at key protagonists Hull and Leicester to come, games that won’t be easy but in which you wouldn’t back against us if our opponents have to come out and play.  We aren’t just cemented in the play-offs, we’re chasing automatic promotion and are in with a real shout. Bring it on.


Middlesbrough 1 Watford 2 (12/01/2013) 13/01/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

Five thunks from a hugely impressive three points on the road.

1- We were worried about the potential for snow.  We were worried about our limited defensive numbers.  We were worried about team selection, no ball winner in midfield.  We were worried about Boro’s home form.  All misplaced, as it turned out, but be under no illusions.  This was far from easy.

Boro bossed the first half, enjoying the lion’s share of possession.  With Nick Bailey and George Friend pushing up on the flanks from full-back, our wing-backs were forced into defensive positions limiting our attacking options.  However, whilst the accepted précis of the first half is that the home side dominated but were profligate that’s only partly true to my mind.  Certainly they had more of the ball, and we were stretched more than once… Joel Ekstrand (twice) and Lloyd Doyley were forced into make or break tackles as Boro’s patient possession yielded openings; Almunia made one very good stop from a deceptive, bouncing Ledesma shot; a moment of hesitation wasted a two-on-two break for the home side. But it’s not as if we stretched and broke.  We played patiently too, and were largely able to cope with what the home side threw at us – they didn’t capitalise on their possession, but nor did they create and waste any clear-cut chances.

Boro were asking questions and it wouldn’t have taken too much, admittedly… a slip at the wrong moment, a badly timed challenge.  But neither came, for which huge credit needs to go to the back three of Doyley, Nosworthy and Ekstrand which the bench revealed as our only three available defenders … the admirable Cassetti presumably the emergency fall-back option in case of injury.  Hall, Neuton, Hoban, Bennett, Thompson, Dickinson all out with various levels of knocks, it speaks volumes that we can accommodate such an injury list and put in such a stout defensive performance against a side who had won 7 in 8 at home.  Doyley stuck to McDonald like a limpet, the Australian dropping deep to try to cause trouble in front of their midfield but always with Doyley in close attendance, not allowing him space to turn.  Nyron Nosworthy was a bull, negating the anticipated impact of the loss of Fitz Hall and looking surprisingly confident bringing the ball forward.  Ekstrand started nervously in the left-sided slot that Tommie Hoban has been filling so admirably but settled, and between them they kept the home side largely at arm’s length as we spent the first half coping, if little more.  And the thing is, as long as we’re coping you know that we’re in with a shout…

2- …because a weapon like Matej Vydra is such a potent one, especially away from home.  Our first-half openings, such as they were, had often resulted from Vydra dropping deep to receive a through ball from Abdi and on the rarer occasions that we put the Boro backline under pressure their nervousness offered cause for encouragement that hadn’t been afforded the home side at the other end.  Williams had already volleyed a vicious Cassetti cross narrowly and slightly unnecessarily over his own bar, whilst Bailey looked uncomfortable when forced to defend at full back, Pudil exploiting bad positioning more than once to get behind the back when he did get forward.  So… it’s easy to say “yes, well, Boro gifted us the lead and we just took advantage”.  But it was more than that… we’d earned the right to still be in the game, Boro creaked and broke under less pressure than we’d been under and Vydra still had to be at his sharpest to run onto Williams’ careless chest down and half-volley home right on half time. We are such a hard side to play when we’re away from home and our opponents have that responsibility to push forward.

And the second half of course was different onions altogether.  Gianfranco Zola expressed greater satisfaction with the display after the break but Tony Mowbray’s candid concession that Boro were forced to “empty the midfield” in search of an equaliser played into our hands and contributed in no small part to our subsequent threat.  Rapier counter attacks gave us far more in the way of chances either than the home side fashioned or than we’ d managed in the first half;  Vydra and Deeney each had two one-on-ones in addition to those converted, the only disappointment perhaps that we should have extended our lead by more than Vydra’s magnificent finish, past the onrushing and overworked Steele and inside the post.

3- The only concern in a second half in which we were comfortably the better side was that the game was now wide open, play stretched from end to end.  This suited the home side rather more than us, however many holes were opening up behind them;  there’s a reason that teams tend to try to slow the game down once they’re ahead, particularly away from home.  There was little of this here although the excellent Almunia was guilty of taking a little too long over goal kicks at the end of the half…  but earlier on, we’d kept the game moving at an insane pace, the keeper looking for the quick roll out to turn the play around whenever he gained possession in active play.  Whilst this communicated confidence, giving the home crowd no nervousness to feed off, you do kinda feel that we could have done with slowing it all down a little bit.

The obvious avenue to this, the wise old head required in the middle, was introduced rather later than I’d have hoped at 2-0 for the subdued Chalobah.  John Eustace’s omission from the starting eleven was perhaps the biggest surprise in the team selection, Zola opting to give a second start (and ultimately a first full 90) to the 20 year-old Christian Battocchio;  the Argentine did well enough, busy and comfortable in possession one sublime through ball split the centre backs and released Vydra for an early second half chance.  Eustace’s first contribution when he came on was not to tighten things up, but to charge onto a loose ball on the left and release Vydra for what really should have been his hat-trick. Whatever, it didn’t matter… the bottom line is that if the midfield has been coping well enough without John Eustace for the most part, the team has no substitute for his leadership and experience in the middle of the park.

4- From the back row of the main stand we were able to enjoy a rare ninety minutes on our feet with a panorama of the entire stadium (and the hills and chimneys above the curve of the arena).  This also gave us a view of the remarkable exodus on 83 minutes;  the 17,500 odd crowd had hardly packed the Riverside as it was, but this – let alone the half-hearted boos that greeted the final whistle – was a remarkable response to a slip from a side with a number of players coming back from injury and a stout home record.  Very harsh.

Independently, Boro lost their discipline for the first time in the wake of that second goal and they were there for the taking in the closing minutes.  Grant Leadbitter started to snap sulkily into challenges (prompting the comedy highlight of the afternoon, Vydra offering him a hand in passing that he was demonstrably in no mood to shake as the Czech youngster was subbed with minutes to go) whilst McDonald was booked for an equally bad-tempered tackle before spoiling what would have been our first away clean sheet with an otherwise inconsequential goal.  Zola’s response post match was effectively a shrug – it doesn’t matter if they score as long as we score more.  I remember another manager with a similar attitude…

5- A statement to the rest of the division, finally.  Not our best performance of the season, certainly one suspects that the Brighton result might look more imposing from every angle come the final reckoning, but devastatingly effective once again.  Definitively it sets us apart from the good-but-inconsistent chasing pack, and guarantees that no match in which an opponent is likely to come on to us will be earmarked as “the most difficult game of the season” from here on in.  If we find an equally effective formula at home, the rest of the division is in real trouble.

Watford 3 Charlton Athletic 4 (01/01/2013) 01/01/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Five thunks from an icy wake-up call at Vicarage Road.

1- It’s been a shitty Christmas, frankly. A call from our destination on Christmas Eve confirmed two down with Norovirus already… we were left with a choice between going (and committing ourselves to a week of misery) or not going (and committing ourself to a week of misery, less colourful but noisier).  We chose the former.  My bullet finally arrived on Thursday night, and wiped out the planned trip to Brighton on Saturday. In the meantime, daughter number one went down.  You’ve no idea how much I’d been working towards today…

…which contributed, probably, to going into this one with supreme confidence.  Feeling alive for the first time in a week, daughter number one on the mend, and football thank goodness, on the back of an awesome away win at Brighton, against a side without a win for ages and leaking goals.

Thing is, I’m allowed to be overconfident.  I’m a supporter and as such I have two options: glum pessimism and rampant overconfidence (only a small minority, including my co-editor, manage a degree of objectivity).  Overconfidence is less forgiveable, I think, from the team and management.

To this end I was quite encouraged by the team selection;  five changes (one of which enforced) appeared to head off the danger of coasting in on the back of Brighton;  those coming in needed to stake a claim for next Saturday, surely no danger of cockiness amongst their number.

The stand-out selection however was the introduction of Murray, (in from the cold to the bloody freezing) for Hogg, far from a like-for-like switch which left the midfield short of an obvious ball-winner.  Much as Hogg has been the least conspicuous of the first team regulars, his occasional absences have been as impactful as anyone’s…. at Blackpool, by all accounts, and here again today.  Without his energy and defensive discipline the midfield lost its shape and effectiveness, affording our visitors much more of the ball.  Murray, it has to be said, had a bit of a stinker, a couple of tidy touches notwithstanding he looked like a player making his first start for three months, but it’s the non-selection of Hogg that was more critical than the inclusion of Murray, particularly in the continued absence of Eustace.  As my co-editor, excluded by train timetables and kick-off times, commented afterwards you’d feel a lot happier with the whole thing if you knew for certain that Eustace’s bloody-minded example-setting leadership was still part of the plan.  God we could have used him today.

So… that aspect of the team selection felt cocky.  And, after Pudil’s opener (and boy had that goal been coming) we coasted.  Never in danger, no obvious threat… but we looked like we thought we’d won it.

2- That was rather a long, indisciplined thunk wasn’t it?  Indiscipline must be the day’s watchword, there was very little that was disciplined about the day’s defending.  Hogg’s absence was a big factor, sure, and we know that this is a formation that will always give the other side a chance, that therefore places a big responsibility on the three centre-backs.  A responsibility that the various combinations of Hoban/Hall/Ekstrand/Doyley have been taking on manfully since the end of September by and large, but we saw today what happens when the level drops.

We missed Hall, obviously.  And it’s easy to point the finger at Neuton, largely because whilst he slides forward with the ball looking every bit the stereotypical Brazilian defender who’s a creative midfielder at heart, he plays the same way when not in position and verges on being a liability… lucky to stay on the pitch as one crude hack earning a yellow early in the second half was followed by a number of iffy challenges borne of being back on his heels.  Hoban, too, has had better, less anxious games… as Wilson agitated Almunia, who seemed bothered by a tight hamstring, Hoban nervously sliced the Addicks’ equaliser into his own net for their first equaliser.  Something to sort out, then… good job we’re not playing anyone with any attacking threat at the weekend. Comes to something when Nos feels like a safe option.

One of the visitors’ effective strategies, whether designed for us or a regular trick, was to follow any goal for or against by piling straight at us and refusing to let the game settle.  As we reeled in confusion and disbelief at the rug being pulled from under us, they capitalised on the shambles at the back again very quickly and we were suddenly behind at the break.

3- The other clear strategy, bluntly, was to put the boot in, an approach employed less successfully by Forest in our last home fixture.  Such was the crudeness of many of the challenges that you really do suspect that this was for our benefit rather than the Addicks’ default approach.  Players practised in midfield aggression would have been rather… more precise about it.

There’s no denying the approach’s effectiveness.  A brutal assault on Ekstrand in the first half seemed to unsettle the whole defence, and this was far from the only late challenge offered by Charlton’s midfield.  They were permitted to pursue this approach by an indulgent performance from referee Trevor Kettle… whilst we’ve suffered (and benefited) from some bad individual decisions this season, I don’t recall many bad refereeing performances, not in the completely losing control sense  that we saw today – briefly the match was on the verge of imploding as the tackles flew in during the second half.  Both sides got away with things, but Charlton’s approach was much the more aggressive… as already noted, Captain Eustace would have been less of a pushover, more of a voice, a big factor in countering it.

It’s lazy to point the finger.  Actually Charlton’s brutal approach combined with lax refereeing probably was the difference between us getting a point or points and not.  But as already noted, the role we played in our own downfall was higher up the billing.

4- And in the interests of balance, let’s finish with a couple of positive points.  The first being that, contrary to some of the grumbling overheard on the way out, revising the forward pairing despite Saturday’s magnificence was far from the problem. Forestieri and Geijo made limited inroads in the first half (other than Fernando picking up his third booking in – to that point – an hour against the Addicks this season with an aggravating handball) but their linking up as we got a grip in the second half was a joy.  Geijo does the Marlon King thing of sucking in any ball fired at him at whatever angle, whatever speed, and controlling it instantly.  Forestieri playing off him was veering towards his irrepressible best after the break (albeit his finishing continues to let him down, a gorgeous piece of interplay thwarted when the Argentine, through on goal, played his shot straight at the keeper).  Fernando won a penalty, Abdi dispatched with customary aplomb;  Hamer knew where he was going to put it, Fuller tried some gamesmanship by appearing to spot a dropped set of car keys on the turf and trotting distractedly across Abdi’s path pointing at them as he lined up, neither proved relevant.  And then Geijo and Forestieri linked up again for perhaps our sexiest goal of the season so far, Forestieri’s stunning pass setting Geijo up for a clipped finish.  Geijo was mobbed, Forestieri took personal acclaim grinning in front of the Rookery, and I was composing thunks about how well we had overcome yet another set of challenges.  We know what happened next (see 1, 2 and 3 above), but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that four terrific forwards is definitely a Good Thing.

5- The other Good Thing of course was the afternoon’s entertainment.  I’ve lost my voice for the first time, I think, since Leicester last season.  And despite everything, despite all of our failings and despite other circumstances conspiring against us we were really very unlucky not to take anything from the game.  Chris Powell trotted out statistics needlessly in his post-match interview – his side’s 10 efforts to our 5 apparently, needless since surely his side’s victory needs no justification – but in any case his stats don’t come close to telling the story.  Two goals were disallowed as we chased yet another game-changing goal – both offside, both correctly, but neither really very far from being pivotal – misjudgements that spoiled valid goals rather than goals that were only scored because players were gaining an unlawful advantage.  And… as Zola accurately reflected, we need to learn from this as we’ve learned from so much already.  Personally, given how quickly we’ve improved throughout, I’m confident that we will.  In any event, overconfidence is unlikely to be an issue next Saturday.