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Watford 0 Crystal Palace 1 (27/09/2015) 28/09/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
20 comments

1. (Meeting room. All characters present. One empty chair. Grant rushes into the room, evidently flustered and attempting to carry a coat, umbrella, laptop, overstuffed bag, overflowing polystyrene cup of tea and half-eaten sandwich. He drops them all onto a chair. Various items fall off the chair. An apple bounces across the floor and ends up underneath the table. He crawls under the table to retrieve it and loudly bangs his head on the way back. He clears his chair and sits down.)

Grant: Sorry I’m late. Been…um…yeah, busy. Um, yeah. (Smiles nervously.) Here now! (Looks around the room.)

(Pause.)

Um. Sorry, who are you?

2. My younger self would’ve cared deeply and passionately and probably lengthily about the callous discarding of our manager and much of last season’s Championship-winning (oh…yeah…bollocks) team. My middle-aged self, not so much. Perhaps, if I’m honest, not very much at all. That squad will remain frozen in time, (nearly) winners always. We’ll never know whether they would’ve fallen short or whether, somehow, they might’ve made the leap. That’s the danger, of course, for the decision-makers: that when we hit a sticky patch in November, Matej Vydra and Daniel Tozser will be The Answer with no possibility of contradiction.

It’s a curious thing to find your team popping up at the end of “Match of the Day” with so many unfamiliar faces and with a manager who appears to have stepped out of an M&S window display. On the telly, the sun’s out, Vicarage Road is full and bouncing, but everyone’s different and I’m not there. Did I slip into a coma, perhaps? Are two years of sleep deprivation enough to induce these kind of hallucinations in a middle-aged man? You get a small insight into what it must be like to be a loyal servant deemed surplus to requirements and suddenly shipped out on loan to, say, Wigan or Cardiff and left to figure out the next move yourself. Such upheaval is an integral part of the lives of those on the pitch; less so, until now, of those in the stands. At least I’ve got Matt to answer my endless questions. Matt’ll know.

Well, some of my endless questions, anyway. Among those he can’t really answer are: am I part of this any more? Is it part of me? Who are they? Who, when it really comes down to it, am I? These are not issues anyone should be grappling with at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, still less four o’clock on a Sunday. A new FA charge of bringing the game into existential crisis would surely be appropriate.

3. There’s one question, though, above all. Is it still fun? I’ve only seen about half of these players before, for us or anyone. They seem to have managed happily enough without me. They’re playing in a competition which is the sporting equivalent of that tosser in a white open-top BMW right up your bumper as you trundle along a country lane on a Sunday afternoon, a perfect storm of first world irritations. When we’ve been here before, we’ve possibly been able to ease our consciences with a belief that we’re working against the system from the inside somehow; now, our aim is purely to disappear into the same mid-table fog into which Palace have slipped since that ghastly day at Wembley.

There’s a life to be had back home. This needs to be fun.

4. It is, of course. It takes no time at all to remember the quiet thrill of approaching ninety minutes of football, outcome completely unknown. Nothing like it. Especially true in this context, for Vicarage Road is brash and eager and urgent; I disapprove of such things, naturally, but you can feel the excitement at being here and doing this and maybe, this time, not being a laughing stock. Occupation Road looks as if you could eat your dinner off it; the concourses are busy and buzzing; I manage to get lost on the way to my seat. It’s bloody loud but, for once, the noise isn’t just from a PA cranked up to eleven; there’s colour too, and smiles, and belief, everywhere you look.

It’s all rather marvellous, actually. Don’t quote me on that. I’ve got a reputation to think of.

5. We allow the atmosphere to fuel five minutes’ worth of brash and eager and urgent attacking football, before Palace spoil things by failing to show any signs of panic. Bastards. As the game settles down, it becomes apparent both that we aren’t out of our depth against a team that might well finish in the top half and, at the same time, that there isn’t an awful lot we’re doing that’s scaring them, especially since they’re the away side. It’s an even contest, but one side is more even than the other.

In different circumstances, this would be the cause of much angst in the stands. Understandably, it isn’t here…at least for now. Because you can see what we’re trying to do and the underlying logic (particularly the faith in a consistent system – any consistent system, frankly – to use as a mould) seems sound. We’ve got to build something substantial, something stable, from all of these bits and bobs. That starts from the back, particularly in a division so overloaded with counter-attacking opponents.

6. But there are problems, inevitably. Palace attack with width and pace and, notably, without leaving themselves open to a counter. They quickly identify the space behind Nyom as a target for both Bolasie and Gayle, and he’s fortunate to avoid an early booking from a lenient referee. The task for Nyom and Anya in this formation is a formidable one: regular full-backs in a back four without the ball and supporting wing-backs for an otherwise desperately narrow attack with it. Two places at once, essentially. It’s less of a problem for Anya, who can simply get on his little motorbike; Nyom, however, has a very difficult ninety minutes indeed.

Further forward, we struggle for penetration. Capoue stamps with frustration after over-hitting an ambitious cross-field towards Anya, but it’s a symptom of our malaise rather than an individual error. Palace are tight, disciplined and used to dealing with more potent front-lines than ours. When you think of the Premier League, you think first of the wealth of attacking talent, the players who can hurt you; it’s easy to forget just how difficult some of these units are to break down. Palace don’t make any mistakes, don’t even hint at where the mistakes might be made.

We can keep the ball, but only on their terms. Tellingly, Abdi’s main contributions are a splendid bit of back-tracking to clean up a Palace break and the half’s only yellow card for a shin-high hack; he sees almost none of the ball in the positions we’d want him in. Jurado flits about with purpose but little effect; Ighalo has a number of strengths but absolutely nothing to help us here; it’s been months and months and months since I’ve seen Deeney look so subdued.

We manage a couple of vague attempts but nothing remotely resembling a chance. At the other end, the monstrous Hangeland is foiled by a fabulous flailing Gomes save from an early corner but that aside, we don’t look much like conceding either, and nil-nil is about right at half-time. It’s been an engaging, thoughtful and somewhat technical half of football. Here, possession isn’t everything; waiting for and then taking chances is everything. There’s no sense of being the “better side” or having the “upper hand”. Once upon a time, scoring a goal required a relentless, determined assault like a toddler trashing a sandcastle; now, they can just arrive at any moment, probably at the very point when you think you’re the better side with the upper hand.

7. First goal wins, clearly. And thus we begin the second half by hitting the underside of the bar with a looping Jurado free kick which looks in all the way and then isn’t. We’re a little more direct, for a bit. And it works, for a bit. And then, as before, Palace calm it all down. They hit the woodwork themselves, Nyom turned on the halfway line before Gayle fails to hit a looming target with Gomes advancing at his feet. The game settles back into the same balance as before, caution and patience and, increasingly, shades of frustration too.

When the winning goal comes, it’s sent from the heavens to taunt us: a penalty as cheap and silly as the one which beat us at Wembley. I’d tell you more, but we’ve inevitably lined the pitch with those accursed electronic hoardings, so my view of the game’s key incident is partially obliterated by a piercingly bright advert telling me that Barclays Bank is “championing the true spirit of the game”. Nowhere is the true spirit of the Premier League better captured than in lurid adverts flogging betting websites to the far east at the expense of paying punters actually being able to see the action properly. Do let us know if we’re in the way, won’t you? (Yes, I do find that more irritating than the penalty. Yes, I am gradually turning into Alan Green.)

8. Thereafter, a complete mess. The game immediately becomes stretched which, theoretically, ought to suit us by buying us a bit more space but, in reality, just leads to an awful lot of “taking one for the team” on both sides. Abdi is withdrawn before he takes two for the team and, while our changes give our attacks a tad more width, no-one looks terribly comfortable out there, nobody can win a header against Hangeland, and collectively we look no more likely to score from open play than previously, especially when we become more direct with desperation.

We look no more likely to score from a dead ball either: Jurado’s brush with the crossbar aside, our set pieces manage to be both poorly conceived and poorly executed throughout, which is irritating in such a tight game. A few cheap goals would not go amiss. Ledley’s colossal block tackle late on is notable for its contrast with everything else: Palace have had to resort to last-ditch defending very rarely indeed. We stick at it as we should, but it feels like we’re a spent force long before injury time.

9. You can take a lot of positives from this. We’re competitive, unquestionably. This is a totally different proposition to the hapless, naive and rather more romantic attempts on this summit in the past.

Still, you have to wonder what’ll stop every other visitor to Vicarage Road from doing exactly as Palace did and, more often than not, with similar results. The conservatism of the approach – narrow the gap to a fine margin and hope for a Jurado free kick that’s two inches lower, essentially – is understandable, partially successful so far and yet risks becoming rather unenticing. On a fine autumn day in September, with a couple of wins behind us and a comfortable league placing, there’s little to grumble about. When we’re all freezing our tits off in January, we may well require something that stirs the spirits rather more, something more than good intentions and a couple of half-chances.

It’s a decent start and we don’t look out of place. That’s damning the performance with faint praise, but I can’t help feeling that that’s exactly what it deserves. There’s nothing wrong with taking the positives. But there’s nothing wrong with demanding more either.

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Watford 1 Swansea City 0 (12/09/2015) 13/09/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1- The question is, which way will it go from here.  If you’re flicking back in this blog, revisiting this match report some time in theIMG_1660 future, you’ll know how everything shakes out.  For now…  Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary appointment as leader of the Labour party could lead to any number of futures but whatever your politics it’s undeniably interesting
The same could be said for our future after this three points, hard-fought but well earned.  This could be a flash in the pan, an isolated victory that offers brief encouragement… Middlesbrough in 2006, Chelsea in 1999.  Or it could be a significant step on a remarkable path.  Either way it’s interesting, more interesting than the season might have turned out if we’d laboured manfully through this run of four games between international breaks without getting that win.  Had that happened our season could easily have been the equivalent of another generation of Tory-lite Labour politicians…  dull, wearying and leading to a somewhat inevitable conclusion.  Chelsea provide evidence of what a once solid defence can collapse into once belief disappears.

As it is… we shall see.  But a colossal hurdle overcome, irrespective of the game itself.

2- And the canvas was a game and a performance that was as bright and welcome as the bright late-summer sunshine. It started with both sides chasing down possession, desperately trying to out-compete each other.  We’ve seen this game a number of times in the second tier and such starts can lead to scruffy, congested battles but the quality here was higher…  and the outcome was a fast moving encounter that was always watchable.  Critical for the Hornets was the more advanced positioning of Odion Ighalo, effectively playing up with Deeney for an hour.  This appeared in part to be aimed at disrupting Swansea’s ability to build from the back, but also saw Deeney have some much needed support in and around him.  In both respects Ighalo’s performance was a tour de force, his relentless muscular pain-in-the-arseness causing problems for the Swans’ centre-backs all afternoon.

But the most eye-catching performance was that of Étienne Capoue.  This is what you daydream about when you break your club transfer record for a central midfielder…  somehow involved in everything at both ends of the pitch but not characterised by that.  Often when you get a midfielder who is significant defensively and offensively that’s how you define them…  “he’s here, he’s there…”, and so forth.  There’s nothing wrong with that, we’ve had some iconic players in that mould. But Capoue’s  contributions at either end were magnificent in their own right, always available to receive a pass, or closing down, or nicking the ball and finding space… or involved in our best attacking moves and sprinkling all of this with moments of outrageous skill.  An extraordinary, impossible pass with the outside of his foot to bend the ball to Deeney in Swansea’s half, a dragback and spin into space to create a second half breakaway, and the deft but unflashy layoff that created an opening for Deeney to drive narrowly wide in the first.  This one of several close-ish calls in the first half that saw us reach half time happy enough at nil-nil… we were not only holding our own, even edging the game, but we were creating stuff too.  So far so good.

3- I have two lingering impressions from previous spells in the top flight which were perhaps one-eyed in the first place and may in any case have had the rough edges smoothed off them by the passage of time leaving them oversimplified representations, see what you think.  One…  in our first spell in the top flight in the eighties, much of which I watched from the Family Enclosure having been nine on promotion in 1982, the other lot were always filthy.  Teams used to turn up and kick us.  Two, in 1999-2000 we didn’t get a lot of decisions.  Indeed, we seemed to come up against referees who had a pre-determined view about How Things Ought To Be.

Swansea were nothing like as violent as the 1986-ish incarnation of Tottenham that exists in my head.  Not was Robert (“Bobby”) Madeley in Rob Harris’ league (see here for a discussion of naming preferences of people called Robert).  But I was surprised, with their reputation for elegance and flowing football, at the extent to which they put the boot in… Federico Fernandez spent the first half committing late niggly challenges, Ashley Williams cast his weight through Odion Ighalo, flattening the Nigerian striker in the wake of his critical intervention, Eder knocked Heurelho Gomes flying with a challenge that was, generously, clumsy as the visitors chased the game, and Madeley seemed determined to keep his cards in his pocket.  Unreasonable to pass judgement after a single game, and that an unheralded defeat after such a strong start to the season… but Swansea didn’t cope terribly well with the challenges the situation presented.

4- All of which probably contributed to the outraged reaction to Behrami’s dismissal.  I had no view of the incident, less through distance than through this coinciding with my need to retrieve the latest item of confectionery from our bag for one of the girls.  On review, the most generous possible interpretation is that Behrami was unlucky, lifting his legs to avoid Ayew coming in at pace and landing in the wrong place.  A more reasonable interpretation is that this was a ridiculous and witless challenge from a player who really ought to know better in a circumstance, one nil up and ostensibly in charge, that could have been hugely (more) expensive.  The only reason to offer the alternative explanation is that Behrami’s performances thus far, not to mention his relatively moderate disciplinary record, do not suggest the gross stupidity of such an act…  this exemplified at Everton, where he was the model of disciplined, effective aggression.  Now we miss a vital player for three games.  Idiot (probably).

As an aside Allan Nyom, for all the thoroughly positive and terrifying contributions he’s made so far, is beginning to look like he might be someone of whom a random descent of red mist might end up costing us.  At Man City he needlessly (if entertainingly) kicked Raheem Sterling out of the air.  Here, with an overhit Swansea pass already in touch behind the goal line, he chose to batter the ultimately miserably ineffective but recently introduced Jefferson Montero with his shoulder, inside the penalty area, sending the winger flying.  A ridiculous thing to do, bafflingly met with a handshake from the Ecuadorian.

5- By which time of course we were ahead, and what a fine thing it was both in its deliberate precision and as a tribute act to the last encounter here between these sides in which an aerial assault almost saw the visitors surrender a three goal lead.  The long pass from Gomes, brilliantly aware header from Deeney and the movement and composure of Ighalo made Swansea look very leaden indeed.

Thereafter…  we should bear in mind that this was a situation, even allowing for Behrami’s dismissal, that rather played to our strengths.  Keeping our shape to stifle a disrupted and edgy opponent to protect a lead is a situation that New Watford was made for…  harder challenges are to come.  Given that nod to common sense…  it was bloody minded and brilliant.  The support, noisy but not frantic up to that point, upped the volume.  The team dug in…  beyond those already mentioned Ikechi Anya suddenly looked like a terrific left back rather than a slightly awkward stopgap, Berghuis made a punchy and positive cameo from the bench, Cathcart, Prödl and Gomes did what they’ve been doing all season, we should take care not to take that for granted.  Even Jurado, for all that he has yet to convince with his end-product – and for what it’s worth he appears to be trying rather too hard – displayed an ability to turn into space and relieve pressure through composure.

Most of all, this didn’t feel like a smash and grab win that a plucky underdog might hope to snaffle a handful of times a season.  Yes, we dropped deep in the dying minutes but there was no desperation, no lack of composure.  We took on a side that has beaten Manchester United, drawn at Chelsea, gotten everyone cooing.  And beat them.  No knocking that.

The question then is, where do we springboard from here?  Going to be interesting.  Yooorns.