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Watford 0 Arsenal 3 (17/10/2015) 18/10/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. During the week, I had cause to reflect on the way that the world changes and, perhaps, leaves you trailing behind. I heard welcome word of a familiar name from the past, someone whose voice used to bring me essential news of events at Vicarage Road in the early nineties. At that time, I spent my Saturday afternoons in my Brighton bedroom chasing an elusive signal from Capital Gold for its live reports; it was one step up from the unbearable tension of waiting for CEEFAX to tick round to Page 3/3 to see whether anything had changed.

These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine that a game in the second tier of English football could take place in such a near-total vacuum, that it could create so few ripples. That faint signal, that distant voice amid the interference, was my only source of information beyond a scoreline and a league position. It was my sole connection to the club. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here and writing this.

The Internet changed everything, of course. Money changed it too. It feels as if there’s been a really fundamental shift even since we were last here in 2007: there’s now so much live coverage available that being at the ground feels like being in the eye of the storm, a slightly unnerving lack of continual analysis, explanation and wanton opinionating. It’s the one place where football can still lose itself in the moment, but you’re still acutely aware of the watching eyes of the world, of the live updates and live streams and live betting and live tweeting and live advertising and live image right negotation and live stat processing and live everything else. It’s probably a lot like being in the studio audience for Strictly or something.

2. “Oh look, it’s Arsenal!” you think, in the same way you might if you passed, say, Dermot O’Leary in the street. Except I get the impression that Dermot O’Leary is a reasonably good egg who might not mind if you smiled and said hello*, whereas Arsenal have long since transcended those kind of everyday niceties and would undoubtedly consider any acknowledgement of your existence beneath them. They’re very much, you know, in the cloud. They’re a football club in the same way that U2 at Wembley is a rock’n’roll gig…that is, very much so or not at all, depending on your point of view. (Go on, have a guess.) Except that they aren’t U2, obviously. They’re some b-list stadium atrocity, overwrought and overblown. They’re Muse.

3. There’s something hugely appealing about sticking it up one of these corporate monoliths, of course, even if we’re hardly an independent trader ourselves these days. It’d be lovely if you didn’t have to queue for fifteen minutes in the newsagents, but this is the first of these fixtures and weariness has yet to set in. There’s a certain thrill in the prospect of seeing your team truly tested too, in looking at an opposition line-up with an involuntary intake of breath. In knowing that the chance of doing something truly memorable is balanced by the risk of being completely, and very publicly, embarrassed.

4. For five minutes, maybe ten, the prospects don’t look terribly good. You always hope that you might catch them in one of their introspective moods, weighed down by their own sense of entitlement, but Arsenal start at a quite absurd tempo, pinging the ball around at a pace which we simply haven’t experienced before and cannot remotely live with. No sooner than we’ve managed to win the ball back than we’ve lost it again and we’re chasing again. The gap is not merely in quality but in intent: they’re quicker to everything, faster to make better decisions, stronger in the challenge. We can’t get near them…and even when we do, we can’t get the ball off players used to doing their work in extremely tight spaces. It’s not as if you can just plough them into the advertising hoardings any more; it’s not as if you can opt to play them on a ploughed field either. Their game, their rules. Walcott glances a wasteful header at Gomes, who then has to punch away a curling shot from the irresistible Sanchez. We’re just not in it.

5. When Troy Deeney determinedly bundles an opponent off the ball to win a throw on the halfway line, his efforts are met with a huge ovation from a crowd looking for straws to clutch at. But it’s only a throw on the halfway line, nothing more.

Except it isn’t. That’s where it starts, and what remains of the first hour is a thrilling demonstration of how to knock a team like Arsenal right out of its stride: Deeney’s bullish efforts are quickly reinforced by Capoue and Watson in midfield, by Anya in an advanced position out on the right of the supporting three, by Ighalo up top. We get a foothold in the centre circle (both holding midfielders have magnificent, if very different, games) and start giving it what can only be described as a right go. Deeney smacks in a drive after wrestling himself free of a defender, then Koscielny has to clear to prevent Ighalo from finishing a break after excellent work from Capoue. Vicarage Road explodes in response. Come on.

You’ll see few better goalless halves of football than this one. Goalless because Ramsey somehow scooped a chance over the bar from close range, because Ighalo scuffed wide when sent clear, because Nyom dived in to clear as Sanchez readied himself to score, because any number of nearlies weren’t quite. Beyond the goalmouths, the contest ebbed and flowed beautifully: they’re still Arsenal, with all of their extraordinary riches, but they’re no longer having it all their own way. Crucially, we carry a tangible threat in the final third which prevents them from settling things down for any length of time; we’re direct and quick and aggressive, and they don’t like it up ’em. It just needs a goal. It deserves a goal. It’s bloody brilliant.

6. The second half offers another fifteen minutes of this stirring, inspiring attempt at flying a hang-glider to the moon before reality comes crashing in. Those fifteen minutes are pretty special, though. As the sun sets, the manager’s name echoes around the ground, the chant drifting from end to end as if carried on the wind; mobile phones light up the home stands. There’s something really rather magical about it all, something surreal too. The team rolls towards the Rookery in slow, steady waves which don’t seem to meet with much resistance. It’s as if everyone’s fallen into a dream.

You had to be there. It was lovely. It was us, at our best.

7. We’re rudely awoken by a slap in the face. No room for romance in the Premier League; cut that out, you lot. As we drop off for a crucial second, Arsenal smuggle Ozil behind the lines, Sanchez finishing the job. You know it’s all over as soon as you see the ball hit the net. It shouldn’t be, perhaps, but it is. There’s nothing left: we’ve given it all, not a chance that we can pick ourselves up and go again. Arsenal are far, far too good to let the lead slip and have little pity for our tiring legs. The remaining half hour is painful and tedious and inevitable and not worth bothering with here. I don’t care, you don’t care; let’s leave it for others to pick over, especially if they’re foolish enough to judge a game by its end result.

8. We should be bloody proud of what went before. More than that, we should take it with us: we need that to be more than just a one-off performance in a cup tie, more than valiance in defeat. When I saw us last, against Palace, we looked a side capable of holding our own, compact and competent and yet distinctly uninspiring. Here, there was a real threat, some complete commitment, some belief in ourselves. There is no way of guaranteeing a win against substantially stronger opponents, but there are plenty of games to come in which this kind of sound and fury, this new-found positive spirit, could do some serious damage. In short, we need to be this at it against Stoke and West Ham and Leicester.

* I may be wrong, of course. He might be a complete bastard. Leave me with my dreams intact, though, reader. We all need our little comforts.


AFC Bournemouth 1 Watford 1 (03/10/2015) 04/10/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- It’s been seventeeen years since I came to Dean Court.  That was a very different time, a different set of circumstances altogether.  Everything’s changed since then, the teams, the sport, the profile of the fixture.  Hell, even Dean Court itself has been picked up, rotated ninety degrees and plonked down again.  It’s small, of course… small for it’s current lofty status.  Half the capacity of the Vic, which is hardly a colosseum in this environment itself.   And as such it feels almost as if it belongs in 1997, back when we played at stadiums this size, nestled into a well to do area of large houses and  shady avenues as a sort of afterthought, a discarded multi-vehicle garage abandoned between the houses.  Bournemouth aren’t above their station… they deserve to be where they are.  They got to the top flight by scoring lots of goals and winning a lot of football matches (note to Leeds, and similar.  Bigness not enough).  That they’re doing so on the back of an infrastructure that never expected to have to cope with all this is evidenced not just by the size of the ground but by the vague air of disorganisation as the turnstiles remain unopened as two’o’clock approaches, as the mislabelling of the away tickets.  In other circumstances we’d be rooting for the Cherries… good luck to them, sticking it to the man, upsetting applecarts that deserve upsetting.  But these aren’t other circumstances, and there’s been too much recent water under the bridge for much in the way of mutual respect.IMG_1715

2- The Hornets began with Nathan Aké making a first League start for us at left back, and Ikechi Anya pushed up into hamstring victim Jose Jurado’s spot in midfield.  With the away end on its feet and noisy the visitors started purposefully and aggressively, but this encouraging feel dissipated quickly.  Bournemouth began to dominate possession in midfield, as is their wont, and feverishly chased the ball down higher up the pitch.  These factors, combined with the ongoing isolation of our forward players, were a recipe for disaster… the Hornets in possession would find no space in front of them and shepherd the ball backwards and sideways in search of some control.  Bournemouth’s forwards denied us that control with their pressing and soon had the game pretty much exactly where they needed it… their threat, with Glenn Murray in for the unfortunate Wilson, came largely from crosses from the flanks but there was plenty of that. Anya and Abdi were set up wonkily right and left respectively, our two sitting midfielders were impotent, Troy worked as hard as ever but looked tentative and hesitant and even Gomes, whose heroics were to come, courted disaster by dwelling on a backpass in the absence of options in front of him.  Midway through the half Ritchie cut onto his left foot on the right and found Murray stepping back off the sleeping Prödl’s shoulder to head home.  This had been threatened several times.

Our side were not only impotent, they looked thoroughly miserable.  There was none of the spirit and vim that has characterised this team over the past season and a bit… indeed if anything this was resonant of the miserable Huddersfield game at the end of the previous season, as if we had dirty linen to be hung and scowled at in public.  How much of that was to do with the extent to which we were being outplayed and how much to do with the backstory of the ostracism of first Holebas and now, seemingly, Berghuis we can only speculate… two players whose public assessment of their arrival in Hertfordshire had felt, to varying degrees, somewhat less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic now seem to have paid the price for that apathy.  I’m all for Flores maintaining a hard line on such things, it would be somewhat surprising if such an approach to outing bad attitudes had a negative impact on the rest of the squad… but we didn’t look happy.

Nor did the travelling Hornets, nominally the hardcore with the highest stock of brownie points in the club’s furiously determined quest to ensure fairness in allocation of scarce tickets, cover themselves with glory.  Singing about a rival striker’s injury isn’t particularly classy, even in response to jibes about the destiny of a contested championship.  Even less classy was the pitiful booing that greeted our frustrated flailing around towards the end of the half.  There’s a wider and less clear cut discussion about the rights and wrongs of booing your own team in general… but in these circumstances seven of the starting eleven had been in the promoted side last season and had earned a little more patience.  All in all, a forty-four minutes to forget.

3- Weakest of a poor bunch in that first half was Etienne Capoue.  It’s been three-and-a-half games now without Valon Behrami alongside him – I’m both excited and terrified by the fact that he gets re-released from his cage against Arsenal of all teams in a fortnight – and more than any other period this half lent credibility to our pursuit of Abdoulaye Doucouré over the summer.  Ben Watson is terrific and has done fine as a stand in… but the roles in a Capoue/Watson partnership are less well defined than when, in general, Behrami is winning the ball and Capoue is feeding off his many scraps.  The Frenchman had a horrible half, largely bypassed and looking a little bit lost.  As it drew to a close he was involved in an altercation with goalscorer Murray on the touchline, ostensibly kicked off by a provocative challenge by Capoue.  Murray reacted angrily, and could have seen red for his retaliatory assault as the game finally restarted. Next to me, Dave fretted that we didn’t need this, didn’t need to be sucked into bad tempered nonsense as we have done here in previous years.  He was wrong.

It would be generous to credit Capoue with the forethought to deliberately upset Bournemouth’s applecart by starting a barney – more likely he was taking out his frustration at his own performance on an opponent who has never been shy with physical contact.  But we absolutely needed something to disrupt the Cherries’ total control on the passage of the game and there was a lingering tetchiness in the air as Ighalo chased down what should have been comfortable Bournemouth possession deep in their half.  Artur Boruc, truth be told, had looked nervous with the scant responsibilities he’d had that far, something we’d done precious little to test further, but Odion is the last person you want to gift the ball in front of goal at the moment.  It wasn’t quite a gimme, Boruc was still well positioned and Ighalo had something to do, but he dropped a shoulder, Boruc followed up his first gaffe by diving needlessly across Ighalo’s path in anticipation of a quick shot that didn’t come rendering the increasingly inevitable conclusion all the more comical from the away end.  In case this isn’t clear, Bournemouth should have been out of sight.  In drawing level at the break we had gotten away with it, big time.

4- So the second half was all about whether we would take advantage of this unexpected ushering back into the contest.  The answer was evident at the start of the second half as Nathan Aké, who had struggled to contain Ritchie, went in strongly and instantly on his charge.  “This shit is changing”.  He was penalised for a foul, which looked a bit harsh… but either way it was a statement that was echoed all over the pitch.  Words had been had.  We were much quicker, more mobile, more aggressively into every challenge. Game was back on.

Ighalo wriggled through on the left, his shot blocked rather nervously by a defence who suddenly had something to cope with.  Almost a victim mentality in the whites of their eyes, a nervousness that they’d blown it, that on the back of Gradel, Wilson and the rest the world was against them.  From the corner the ball broke to Watson who crashed a shot off the crossbar.  Anya floated through onto a breathtaking ball from Abdi but couldn’t beat Boruc on his weaker foot.  Ighalo got his head down and drove at the penalty area, going down under challenge as soon as he was over the line.  He was trying to draw a penalty, he didn’t get it and optimistic as the claim looked his reaction wasn’t the sheepish roll of someone who’d been trying it on, chasing Michael Oliver down the pitch in furious frustration.

Bournemouth found a footing, but there was none of the dominance they’d enjoyed in the first half.  Murray has long looked like a pub footballer (in appearance if not in impact or ability) and began to play like one, Running into the Watford half and seemingly shooting when he ran out of puff, a flimsy daisy cutter from thirty yards that Gomes gobbled up.  Greater challenges were to come… first from a magnificent scissor kick from Cook that prompted an even better save from the Brazilian, the ball having dipped over him the custodian had to reach down and behind to claw it out of the corner.  And then, the penalty.

Much has been spoken about the number of penalties that the Cherries have been awarded over the last few years.  These statistics (Bournemouth have earned four more penalties since the start of last season than anyone else in the league) can be a little misleading… if you’ve got players with quick feet and are dominating games you’re going to be inviting nervous tackles, no different to what Ighalo was trying to achieve earlier in the half.  The difficulty is where the desire to commit players into making mistakes crosses the line into seeing the award of a penalty to be the be-all and end-all by fair means or foul.  This is the fourth penalty we’ve had awarded against us at this stadium in three seasons, three of which soft (Mark Pugh got the echoes of stick for his swallow dive two years ago as he patrolled in front of the visiting fans in the first half) and this one was ludicrous, as it turned out, a cynical attempt to buy a penalty that didn’t even involve a tackle on the part of Capoue but we knew nothing of the detail of the scramble from our location.  With our heads in our hands we watched Murray wheeze up to the ball, and for Gomes to push his shot out, Cathcart clearing in the ensuing scramble.  Disproportionate celebration in the away end, Gomes continues to put in performances that defy his Tottenham reputation.

5- It should go without saying that this was a much better point for us than for Bournemouth.  We were the away side for one thing of course, but the game could have been scripted to eat away at Cherries’ nervous concerns…  their blunt edge contributing to failing to capitalise on their first half dominance, failing to pick up maximum points in a home game they must have pencilled in as a win.  Tougher opponents to come, if they can’t even beat Watford after that woeful first half…  when is Wilson back again…  who do you think we might attract in January (Will Hoskins?)

An away win would have rubbed the salt deeper, of course.  Much as any away point is a good point, much as we have no claim to anything more after that first half, there was an opportunity here that went begging.  For all of Bournemouth’s late flurry there was an opponent here desperate to feel sorry for itself as the game swung around in the second half.  We weren’t cruel, or ruthless, or clinical enough to ease them into fretful self pity We continue to make progress, but can’t be turning down points when on offer too often.