Middlesbrough 1 Watford 1 (25/10/2014) 26/10/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- “Uncle Will, is this really the best trip you’ve ever been on?”
It’s been a tough week, all told. Tuesday night’s draw with Forest was sacrificed in favour of an open evening at one of daughter 1’s possible schools next year… by Thursday I needed something to get me through the challenges that Thursday and Friday were going to vomit into my path, and this was it. Not just a trip to Boro, but a trip to Boro with daughters 1 and 2 (aged 8, 5), an epic and reckless gamble with their fledgling enthusiasm built up as an adventure, a road trip.
Two days and minimal coercion later we’re at the Riverside, whose empty stretches of seating tend to lend it an air of moribund discontent – even when, as today, the home fans make a fair amount of noise in response to a positive home performance. Daughter 2 in particular is disconcerted by the unfamiliar imbalance in the stands, accustomed as she is to Watford’s support being dominant.
This is her first away trip, and daughter 1 has only ventured away from the Vic for the play-off final so there’s much at stake here, much that can go wrong. On the pitch, too… an away trip against strong opposition should really come under the heading of “grab what you can get” at this stage of the season, relatively low pressure and no hair to be torn out if the worst happens (see also Norwich), but that’s without the context of Nottingham Forest. No, I didn’t see the game… but dispatches suggested that disappointment at a home draw was alleviated by the quality of the attacking play, the promise of what’s to come. That’s fine and dandy, as long as it leads somewhere. Today’s match might determine whether there’s momentum building or whether we stay in third gear, chugging along at a reasonable pace without really realising what we can do.
2- It’s a bright but cautious start. Two opponents sparring, getting the measure of each other without leaving themselves exposed. Significant in the Hornets line-up are the two changes, one of which late and both enforced; Bond in goal for Gomes, injured in the warm-up, and Anya a slightly surprising choice in the midfield three for Abdi. Surprising, only in the sense that in playing a three in midfield, particularly away from home, you kinda want physical presence… I love Ikechi to bits, but it always felt like a big ask this, much as injuries to Abdi and McGugan and the not-quite-fit-to-startness of Andrews limited our options. Murray, for all that he has struggled in this formation, would have brought a bit more grit; my brother was all for swapping Fernando and Ikechi around. Either way, Boro soon take control of the game and swamp us in the middle of the park. Our attacking play is bright enough; Vydra, a skulking ninja, springing out from nowhere to fling a near-lethal shot low towards the bottom corner, Konstantopoulos diving to his left to push wide. Increasingly however it’s Boro with the possession and the pressure, exposing the lack of width in our formation to isolate Paredes against the constant overlapping threat of George Friend. The home side dominate the final half hour of the half; for all that, Bond only has a couple of saves to make – one a fabulous reflex stop when Bamford should perhaps not have given him any chance at all – but we owe our clean sheet at the break to the foreheads of the excellent duo of Bassong and Ekstrand,, and the diving blocks of the likes of Munari and Tözsér. It’s a successful rearguard action and owes a little to luck, but more to guts and determination in contrast to the slightly sullen atmosphere amongst the team… backs to free kicks, heads down, little communication for all of deputy deputy skipper Tözsér’s encouragement and cajoling. Nil nil at the break, and we’re grateful for it.
3- We look for a change at the start of the second period, frankly. Something to tip the balance back in our direction… a change in formation perhaps if not personnel. There’s no evidence of anything changing in our approach however, and Boro are keen to finish what they’d started by howling out of the blocks. The goal when it comes isn’t particularly elegant, Kike seizing on a loose ball in the box to finish well but it’s been coming long since. It is difficult to see any other outcome from this point than a Boro win, it’s so evident that what they’re doing is working and that our occasional rapier counter-attacks are a weapon, but aren’t adequate. I begin to turn my mind to how to support my daughters through the realisation that a cross-country trek for a defeat, perhaps a heavy defeat, is a joyless pursuit but a rite of passage. I’m wondering how much credence “days like this is what makes the wins good” will get from a five year-old, albeit a five year-old who has spent both pre-match and half-time engrossed in the Boro match programme.
4- Much credit has been given to Troy Deeney’s introduction in changing the game. Certainly Daughter 2 is delighted… players being injured in general is a source of concern, having been at Bournemouth Gabriel Tamas’ knee is a frequent topic of discussion and she’s fully appraised of Deeney’s hamstring injury. There’s no doubt that he gives the team a lift; accounts from Forest suggested that he looked unfit and immobile but here, whilst he certainly looks heavy, he brings a bullishness and a physical presence and buckets of personality to our attack. Odion Ighalo had done a very decent job as a target man in the first half before fading in the second, the ball had stuck to him and he provided an outlet… but he’s still not intimidating in the way that Troy is.
And much as Troy gets the goal and makes us more potent, the real accountability for the change in the game rests with the home side. Whether intimidated by Deeney’s arrival, exhausted by their high-pressing game or simply the victims of a catastrophically bad tactical decision Boro, having had so much success (and been deserving of more) on the front foot suddenly step off and give us space. The most immediate beneficiary of this is not Deeney, but Ikechi Anya… once, at the end of the first half, he found enough space to do his thing and wriggle off with the ball like a hyperactive eel. More generally he has been forced backwards by Boro’s midfield into an unnaturally contained role. Now, suddenly, he’s unleashed and we’re very much in the ascendancy before the irrepressible Scottish international skips down the left and lays back for Deeney to knock in. Both daughters go completely ballistic as the players head towards the away corner. On the pitch its a remarkable turnaround, and we’re forcing our advantage home. Andrews comes on and stiffens up that midfield, Anya is permanently unleashed. Tözsér’s free kick finds Ekstrand, his brilliant reverse header back across the face of goal crashes off the post. Boro are in danger of losing everything here. It’s not the reverse of the first half… we’re never that dominant and Boro have chances themselves but it’s them on the break now, on the back foot and Deeney, every inch the leader, is leading the charge. Paredes, too, reminds us why he’s such an asset, having had a tough first half he is now a powerful, rampaging pain in the arse on Boro’s left flank. Tözsér comes close with a low, ripping free kick that’s again pushed round… we’re unable to judge from side on along the goal-line quite how close that was, but we’re on our feet and finishing the game with positive energy. The game ends with Boro fluffing a chance themselves, as if to remind us that we really shouldn’t lose perspective on what is a very good point.
5- We’re drawing a lot of games, you’ll have noticed. Five of our last seven having not drawn in our opening nine fixtures. Needs to be borne in mind of course that there are all manner of mitigating circumstances… rule number one of Statistical Process Control, as you’ll no doubt be aware, is that you don’t try to draw any conclusions about a system that isn’t stable and we’ve been far from stable in the context of which two league defeats so far isn’t such a bad thing. One of those defeats was at Charlton, whose supporters harboured concerns as to whether their glut of draws would evolve into wins or defeats, concerns now looking well-founded, but in our case we continue to pick up results from difficult situations and difficult positions. Middlesbrough were terrific, our own limitations exposed by this rather than the cause of it, and we still came away with a deserved point and looking forwards. We got away with that first half, but played some part in that outcome too. I’m more optimistic than those Charlton fans were.
As for the girls, the journey home was interrupted by a prolonged stop at Wetherby services – you can’t hurry two young girls with fish fingers and chips. We pulled in at home in Bedfordshire at 10pm to a tutting from the girls’ mother. Daughter 1 had just about lasted the distance, Daughter 2 was roused from sleep to be carried inside. Despite which, blinking and half-asleep, she responded to enquiry as to the best bit of her big adventure with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. “Troy Deeney’s goal”, was the response.
A very decent result all round.
1- There’s something to be said for mundaneness every now and again. You appreciate the good days more being one argument, a more rounded supporting experience to have sat through the full range of emotions that football can instil. We get to claim that WE were there when we were shit, a badge of honour. If every game is a belter then life takes on a more hysterical edge… that’s the picture that Sky Sports would have you believe in, “this year is the best ever, it’s all terribly terribly gripping and exciting and important”. No it isn’t. Sometimes it’s not painted in primary colours, and today was one of those days. The lunchtime rainstorm that paralysed the roads into Watford as we woke up to official End Of Summer washed them all away, leaving a grey-brown sludge.
2- Brighton started like a side who had just let in two goals in a bigger game against a more daunting opponent than this. Just passing the ball around, keeping possession, trying to get a foothold for their fragile confidence that manifested itself most obviously when they got close enough to the goal to clout a ridiculously optimistic shot in vaguely the right direction, one in a million efforts that didn’t come off. Decisions that screamed of a side that can’t score goals… less risk in taking on a long shot even if it doesn’t get you anywhere, less chance of looking stupid. What they did have was defensive discipline, flooding the midfield and getting bodies behind the ball, and this bought them time against a Watford side that never quite got going, partly in consequence. Had we made the breakthrough earlier on, perversely, we might have stood a better chance of taking the three points; instead, Brighton’s confidence grew as the game progressed and we struggled to create much throughout a stodgy first half.
3- Another issue, as on Tuesday, was Heurelho Gomes’ reluctance to kick the ball out. Brentford did a better job of haring down our possession at that end of the pitch to put Gomes under pressure to kick, but our need to break quickly when the keeper picked up possession to give ourselves half a chance of getting in behind before Albion got set up put extra emphasis on the need to find a quick throw. Early on there was evidence of Lloyd – the original Lloyd, back in the side as we work through our stockpile of centre backs to general approval in our corner of the Rookery – and the splendidly functional Gianni Munari doing Gomes’ scanning, looking for a throw for him as he collected a low ball and directing him to save precious seconds. A sound enough ruse on the odd occasion, but this limitation remained an issue and will do so until we can work opponents hard enough to get them running too far and for too long to persist in closing down space high up the pitch for the duration.
4- A word for the new Community Stand, part-opened for the first time. Thank goodness. Thank the Pozzos. At long last after so many missed opportunities. ig might miss the Main Stand, but once you’ve said goodbye to something, you know, you want it to go, you want it to be replaced. I miss Luther and Richard Johnson and the green bucket I used to stand on on the North West terrace in 1981 but I wouldn’t want any of them back. Not now. Fantastic to see supporters in it, even if only part full. Remember now why my Family Enclosure years featured a baseball cap tho…
5- We almost got away with it. And had we done so there really would have been cause for optimism, to build upon Tuesday’s last thunk. At the end of a chaotic few weeks we could look back on five games from which we had, in each case, harvested perhaps more than we deserved, or more than we easily could have done. Much as you’d rather be wiping the floor with teams, taking points when you’re not playing well in the absence of key players would have been a hell of a good marker. Albion started the second half well; it had been evident from the first half that their one attacking threat came from right-back Bruno against the uncomfortable looking Tommie Hoban out of position down the left, they hit the former with a screaming cross-field ball early on that came to nothing. From there we got a foothold and enjoyed our best spell of the game, culminating in that free kick, a clinical exploitation of a flaw in Albion’s defensive wall. At which point, I thought we had the match won… but Lualua had given them an attacking edge and they were well worth that equaliser in the end. Our last, fine chance came when McGugan’s effervescent cameo saw him release Vydra on the left; the Czech beat the offside and crashed a violent shot goalwards that Stockdale reacted brilliantly to parry. That was, from memory, the only non-trivial save made by either keeper all afternoon. Which is an adequate footnote for the game really. For the sake of our injury list, our head coach, our team’s shape, we really need this two week break.
Watford 2 Brentford 1 (30/09/2014) 01/10/2014Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Sometimes games fall in a helpful way, sometimes not. Sometimes you get the opponent at a low ebb, sometimes just after the new guy has come in and they’re on the bounce and you’re left thinking “why couldn’t we have played you a couple of weeks ago when you were rubbish?”. This one fell for us, for reasons that were nothing to do with our visitors. True, we could all perhaps have done with a day or two to get our collective heads around the events of the last week or so – Billy McKinlay not least. Given that there WAS a game though, what better than a rattling, high-speed local derby, just the thing to focus the attention and demand that most essential of qualities, simply getting on with it. Under the floodlights this was a non-stop adrenaline rush of a football match, one where it was essential – and not terribly difficult – to overlook shortcomings, hold on and enjoy the ride. Watford’s formation made a clear statement – Vydra playing slightly behind Ighalo, Fabbrini and Dyer hugging the touchlines, it wasn’t a formation that suggested containment. Brentford for their part were no less ambitious, the tone set when Watford’s first attack ended in the arms of David Button, who then sprang up to deliver a long throw to a posse of scampering, escaping forwards. I could almost hear my old PE/basketball teacher at school, Leon Green, bellowing “FAST BREEEEEEEAAAAK…..”. It was 15 minutes before anyone made what could have been construed as a conservative pass as both defences manned their last ditches from the off.
2- In the continued absence of Troy Deeney – who would have made hay amidst yesterday’s chaos one suspects – another chance for Odion Ighalo to show us what he could do. Word from Granada was that he was hugely popular despite not having the best goalscoring ratio, and it’s easy to see why on both counts. For all that he appeared reluctant to throw himself into aerial duels in the manner that’s a prerequisite in England, Ighalo is a trier, a scrapper… but not the most confident finisher. Nothing reluctant about the way he threw himself at Lloyd Dyer’s left wing cross midway through the first half, mind, as our attacks focused through the winger… I thought at the time that the fierce, angled header was blocked by the keeper who was certainly right behind (or underneath) it… consensus from reports is that it came back off the woodwork. Brentford’s rapid counterattacking was always a threat but Watford had the better of the first half and took the lead following a break from Vydra who released Ighalo on the left of the box. James Tarkowski offered a challenge, Ighalo went down, penalty. It was certainly soft, but whilst my co-editor would probably wish to remonstrate about contact not equalling a foul I’ve got no sympathy with Brentford’s protests on this one, much less with Warburton’s one-eyed assessment of the incident. Contrary to his assertion that the players were running side by side and no contact was made, Tarkowski approached from the side and stuck his leg half across Ighalo to disrupt the striker’s movement. No trip, no hack, but an attempt to obstruct the attack whilst making it difficult for the referee to call a penalty. Such was Brentford’s approach all night in fairness and I’m not knocking it… indeed, a gutsy and committed team that stays just the right side of the line is surely an easy thing to love. But you live by the sword, you die by the sword and sometimes those borderline calls are going to go against you. Imbalanced to whinge about it, it comes with the territory – much as Brendan Rodgers memorably refused to condemn Angel Rangel for giving a goal away by trying to play out when Swansea were first promoted. Ighalo summed up his Watford career to date succinctly with a thoroughly unconvincing penalty that Button should perhaps have not permitted to rebound to where, with instinct and desire now foremost above technique and confidence, the Nigerian bundled home. Tarkowski’s cheap claw in his face from the restart did little to endear Brentford further and reinforced the suggestion of brittle discipline in the visiting ranks.
3- Despite which the Bees look a thoroughly sprightly side with pace to burn and in Andre Gray a striker from the Mark Hughes school of using your arse as a potent weapon; more than enough about them to stay up comfortably in short. The second half started with the Hornets looking sluggish and the visitors as dominant as either team would be at any point in the contest. Juan Carlos Paredes continues to settle and looks an absolute beast going forward but does push up an awful long way; having the utterly forlorn and not-terribly-defensively-diligent-at-the-best-of-times Diego Fabbrini as his partner down the right left an awfully large hole in behind. As at the start of the first half much of the play was concentrated in the corner between the Rookery and the ever blossoming Community Stand as first Jota and then the excellent Bidwell threaded efforts precisely between onrushing forwards and the far post. Eventually they did get the goal, and it was a fine thing… I’ve read complaints that they cut us open as if that implies some failing on the part of our defenders but sometimes you just have to hold your hands up; the Bees speed and movement finally coincided in a move that saw Jonathan Douglas through on goal; Gomes got a good hand to the shot that was well aimed to be difficult to get down to, but could only palm it inside the far post. Things looked decidedly iffy at this point.
4- So all credit to the Hornets for first edging their way back into the game, and then finding a goal, and then asserting ourselves again comprehensively… even if the points weren’t secure until the whistle went. Indeed, there were some looking over their shoulders for a last Brentford counter-attack as we made our way up Occupation Road. Of a number of decent individual performances, including those of Ekstrand – again looking far more reliable in a back four – and the majestic Kaiser Tözsér, the stand out was Matej Vydra even before the game’s decisive moment. He’s looked nervous and pallid since his return, but recent games have seen his flame start to burn again and this evening’s performance was pure devilment… movement, confidence, aggression, technique and then an absolute rip-snorter of a finish, dug out of nowhere on the half volley and worthy of the last Hornet to score a winning goal against the Bees. The overdue introduction of Anya for Fabbrini had already renewed our threat, but the appearance of Abdi for Ighalo poured oil over what had been a scratchy second half performance and our attacks purred from that point onwards. Brentford’s slightly hysterical threat wasn’t quelled, and Odubajo got the wrong side of Pudil to force the Czech to take a second yellow card. A professional foul in the truest sense but not denying a goalscoring opportunity and so a clear (second) booking. Relief and exhilaration greeted the final whistle.
5- All told, then, we’re not in too bad a place. The performances still leave something to be desired… but we’re as close to top as dammit despite having had four different senior coaches since the start of the season. We won this one despite the absence of key senior players – our best centre-back and what has been up to now our first choice forward pairing for starters – and displayed no little resilience in the process (even if, as McKinlay acknowledged, you’d prefer that we’d managed the closing minutes rather more effectively). Warburton complained that his side were worth a point, and certainly we couldn’t have complained at they come away with one. As at Blackpool, however, it’s about having that little bit of quality to win these games, that thing that separates you – even if, in this one, enough goals could and perhaps should have gone in at either end to make that piledriver obsolete. Brentford could have deprived us of the win. But they didn’t, we got the three points. Again. Going to be fun when things settle down and we start to fully exploit our potential, isn’t it?