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

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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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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Comments»

1. Harefield Hornet - 28/09/2015

AAARGHHH! Palace are like a recurring nightmare – Zaha, Holloway and Philips (in tv studios) and your fans incessantly cocky chirpy chanting – please just **!! off and leave us alone!!!!!!!

Sorry, needed that!

2. Adam Segal - 28/09/2015

I actually though Jurado had his best game for us against Palace.. He was creative and obviously was very unlucky with the free kick.I’m warming to him ever so slightly after being fairly critical of his light weightiness early on!

Nyom had his toughest and most difficult game to date. He is clearly a better attacker than defender and looked laboured against Palaces speedy front line.

This league is so tough, Troy looks a shadow of his former self whilst still playing well he doesn’t look scoring in a month of Sundays. I just hope we can improve on our attacking threat in the weeks to come as it is becoming a little predictable. That being said we have still had a decent start. Three points at Bournemouth will be just what the doctor ordered with Deeney breaking his duck!

Ian Grant - 28/09/2015

Don’t disagree about Jurado, who was the brightest of our creative players. But the end product wasn’t there, even if the positive intent definitely was. Great free kick, though.

Harefield Hornet - 28/09/2015

And absolutely without wishing the boy harm or any long term damage – at least Wilson will not be there throwing himself on the deck!

hornetboy84 - 28/09/2015

I think Deeney might look like scoring ion a Sunday or Saturday if he actually gets back to chancing the odd shot.

Also the key difference (as a QPR fan keeps reminding me) is that defences close you down so much quicker… we have to be 1/4 second quicker with off-loading shots – keep an eye on the “shots blocked” counter – it’s high !

3. Vaughn Smith - 28/09/2015

Thunk 9 sums it all up for me – I can see every visiting team using exactly the same 2 banks of 4 to defend, marking the hell out of Ighalo, squeezing Deeney wider and wider rendering him redundant, letting us keep the ball in our own half, and picking us off on the counter. Lots of 0-0 and 0-1 scorelines looming. On the flip side though the away performances suggest plenty of points coming our way on the road.

4. hornetboy84 - 28/09/2015

Didn’t deserve to lose. Didn’t deserve to win. Wembley all over again except both teams were better and our fans were much better. Pardew continues to stick 2 fingers up at Newcastle but at least I can respect him vs Hollowhead.

But most importantly … its the advert with the dog walking round the pitch that gets me everytime …. and the one that projects virtual pigeons into the 18 yard box…. surely that has to stop.

Ian Grant - 28/09/2015

It won’t stop. It won’t stop until the entire pitch is one big advert and we all have to wear blindfolds to save our eyeballs from burning.

5. James - 28/09/2015

I think we got our tactics wrong and went too direct. (and even more so as the game went on)
The only times we looked like causing the centre-halves any difficulty was when we got it into Deeney or Ighalo’s chest or feet.

I don’t know if it was the plan to play that way or whether the players just ran out of patience or composure, but either way, it played right into Palace’s hands.

You mention Vydra and Tozser, but if anything we missed Angela yesterday. Our current centre-halves are reasonably comfortable on the ball, but neither can reliably hit the kind of precision long balls our tactics demanded of them. That said though, they’re probably stronger than Angela defensively.

RGW - 28/09/2015

Too direct is absolutely right. You would have thought that once Hangeland had won his 20th consecutive header we might have wised up.
An occasional cross that actually threatened wouldn’t have hurt either.

Harefield Hornet - 29/09/2015

He’s not made a very good impression so far at QPR. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by some of my Rangers supporting mates that we can have him back tomorrow!

6. mudlark - 28/09/2015

A 1st class match report I agree with every word. A bit of variation desperately needed in attack especially when you look at our next 3 home fixtures.

7. Gerard in Oklahoma! - 28/09/2015

I think this is the first result this season that left me feeling disappointed. We should be capable of getting a result at home against the likes of Palarse.

Onwards and upwards!

Adam Segal - 29/09/2015

Palace are a bloody good side and are probably aiming for Europe this year. You are getting confused with the palace under Hollowhead!

8. Stephen Hoffman - 29/09/2015

James we are not missing Angella, especially considering one of our best passes in the match comes from Catchcart who does look comfortable on the ball. If you look at our defensive pairing over the course of this season they look as solid as ive seen from a Watford centre back pairing, and whilst I’m a fan of Angella, especially when it comes for being turned by a player he simply is not as good as either Catchcart or Prodl and he wasn’t happy being third choice.

Agreed yesterday we played it too long ball, especially considering the size of Hangeland – that’s why Deeney and Ighalo were subdued, completely different to how they were against Swansea and Newcastle.

On the plus side, I was impressed by Ake when he came on.

James - 29/09/2015

I did say that they are better defensively. The point I was making is that we have to play to our strengths. Playing 50 yard balls right into someone’s chest or just in behind the defence isn’t a strength of Cathcart or Prodl. They are defenders first and foremost.

It’s swings and roundabouts. We would probably have made more chances if Angela were there, but then again, we would probably have given them more chances too.

I agree with you on Ake. He looked lively and combative, while still maintaining control.

9. Stephen Hoffman - 29/09/2015

Over the course of season so far – it’s too early to say they definitely are the most solid pair of Watford centre backs ive seen, but the omens are good. Mind you, Matt Sadler initially looked a good left back, so I won’t count my chickens!

10. ourtimeisnow - 29/09/2015

Wold have been a great time to bring on Guediora instead of Berghuis for Abdi. I know Berghuis could bring width, but AG’s mix of doggedness and creativity would have suited the situation, with the added incentive of sticking one up Palace.

Also thought Palace the best of the teams that have been to the Vic so far, by a mile. Annoying mix of tenacity, speed and street wisdom.

Worried of W3 - 30/09/2015

I read thunks 2 and 3 and they completely encapsulated my feelings when the Pozzos bought the club, Dyche was relieved of his position and Zola took over. Maybe my kids are just 3 years older than Ian’s but I never found a place in my heart for Pudil, Vydra or any of the many others.
I fear I just don’t like football much anymore, perhaps it’s my personal situation but I am still one of those who still can’t quite climb on board the happy wagon.

11. Old Git - 02/10/2015

Anya….and his ‘little motorbike’.
Brilliant!


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