Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (21/11/2015) 22/11/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I’d been looking forward to this. A lot. Not, as the away end would have you believe, because “we were only here to see United”. It’s exciting to be at the top table (or near it… United now only one of the top teams), but frankly anyone would have done. Swindon. Barnsley. Palace. Any of our bog standard opponents of yesteryear. We were here to see the Watford, our team, and that’s what was always going to be needed this weekend, after a shitty week at work. That’s the thing, you see, that’s what’s special about English football… the sheer number of clubs with proper support. That matter. Which is why the occasional rumblings proposing reserve teams parachuting into the lower leagues are so misguided. The approach might benefit the national team. Maybe. It would also suit the biggest clubs, which is where any momentum will come from – the Premier League itself is testimony to the success of the national team being worth other people’s sacrifices. But the lower leagues are too important to devalue in the name of England getting back to the position of going out in World Cup Quarter-finals. Or even winning the thing, frankly.
It’s cold. Bloody cold. This sort of detail doesn’t feature in any statistical record of a season, but it should, it can be a defining piece of information. Think… Torquay in the Auto Windscreens Shield. Fulham on the last day of the season in 1998. Any visit to bloody Oldham. Characterised by the weather. Lest this slip through the cracks of your memory, should soccerbase fail to expand their database to accommodate weather conditions, let it be recorded for posterity that it’s cold. “Proper taters”, as ig puts it… so cold that even reasonable precautions in terms of layers, hats, gloves, scarves are nowhere near enough to repel the sudden icy wind that permeates before you’ve even got to your seat. In which circumstances my two daughters were perhaps ill-advised accessories. My word. Love you, girls. I had been looking forward to this. Too much expectation, never a healthy thing.
2- The start of the game is ragged, and it’s impossible not to sympathise. Heaven knows we can barely stir ourselves to clap along, expecting the players to recreate ballet as the wind malevolently drags aerial balls hither and thither is unreasonable. Disappointingly, United are far more aggressive and punchy than we are, and naturally this isn’t how it should be at all. United are allowed to be better than us, they’re not allowed to work harder, get stuck in more. To bully us. But bully us, ultimately is what they do… Capoue and Watson both have decent enough games for the most part but we’re absolutely murdered in midfield for the first half an hour or so, Schneiderlin and the tremendous Schweinsteiger bossing it and forcing us to go long to bypass which asks far too much of Troy and Odion, game as they are to give it a go. Jurado is back in the side for the first time since Palace, and while you can see the thinking – the value of finding space in a busy midfield was never greater – in fact he looks lightweight and incidental, as if he once again needs to get himself up to speed. Anya, also, looks overwhelmed, not strong enough. Eleven minutes in Depay drifts onto a wicked Herrera cross and we’re behind. We’re not in the game for a while, hanging on.
For all that fists were waved at the discovery of the attacking options on our bench, you wonder whether Valon Behrami might have been useful in this situation. It feels like a long way back… but with our shape just about holding out in the face of United possession, their forward line far less impressive than their midfield and the wind a bit of a wild card we have a couple of good chances and have dug in by the end of the half. Capoue mugs Ashley Young, who has had as warm reception as is reasonable to accept in this wind and has predictably been bombing on from right back, and gallops goalwards. His ball to Ighalo is slightly behind him, Ighalo’s first touch isn’t great… he manages to add Schweinsteiger to his list of victims this season but slices his shot into the crowd with Capoue screaming for a square ball. Capoue is later the culprit, blazing over under minimal challenge from the edge of the area after good work on the right by Nyom. We’ve had a poor half, but avoided the game running away from us and there are positive signs.
3- Half time, then, and gentle boos ring out as the teams leave the pitch. I’m conscious that the boos reflect disappointment at the performance (and are influenced by the miserable wind) rather than the fact that we’re one-down to Manchester United but… seriously? Disappointing that after several years of the 1881’s relentless positivity in the face of lesser challenges than these, there are elements of the support who still think that booing a sub-standard performance is productive, intelligent and reasonable. It’s not even about whether the performance merited it (which itself is highly questionable), but what you want to achieve. Booing every weak performance whilst cheering the positive ones is everyone’s right, but is the coward’s way out. “Us” when we’re winning, “you” when we’re struggling… not a million miles away from the implied cheapness with which United supporters are labelled by chants like “we support our local team”, which I’m sure they’ve never heard before.
I have my own confession to make, however. Yes, the concourse is warmer. No, I don’t go back to the girls and drag them into the hubbub, them having turned down a trip to the loo in favour of doing their bit with the lucky half-time chocolate…
4- The second half feels more of an even contest. It’s still scruffy, and is “even” on United’s terms… much easier to spar if you’re already a goal to the good. But whilst Aké’s omission in the wake of a busy international week in his first full season was understandable, we don’t half look tougher with the Chelsea loanee at left-back. Most encouragingly, this isn’t a game that United are ever able to “manage”. And yes, they’re understrength… but with the exception of recent call-up Lingard they’re all internationals, and there are two World Cup finallists on the pitch and another on the bench. Blows are traded at either end, and both of the keepers earn their corn… de Gea perhaps fortunate to find Deeney’s blunderbuss fired straight at him through the crowd… either side and he simply wouldn’t have been able to react. React he does though when Abdi’s mischievous shot through a crowd takes a deflection that requires the Spaniard to claw the ball out of the bottom corner after it has passed him. At the other end, twice Gomes denies Lingard… the second occasion is a bad miss by the youngster, failing to get the ball past the Brazilian’s massive frame. If we were at the other end we’d be thinking “we’re going to regret missing that…”. The suggestion that something is coming is enhanced by Capoue’s ridiculous humiliation of Lingard in the left back position…
And come it does. Ighalo’s been kept fairly quiet, but is an eel in the box and Rojo is tempted into a silly challenge, wrapping his left boot around the Nigerian’s shin. Troy, worth so much more than merely three goals in four games, doesn’t flinch and blasts past De Gea the first goal that United have conceded in over ten hours. The cold is now truly banished, and we’re bouncing. Obi Oularé, poised for a debut against a side he faced for Club Brugge, sits down again.
5- It’s truly aggravating that we didn’t withstand that late pressure. Gomes makes a tremendous stop to deny Smalling, his save from the shot from the next corner is decent enough but Schweinsteiger buys a ticket by driving the ball across the face in hope rather than expectation and Deeney’s tired momentum does the rest. The combined efforts of the side in the second half hadn’t deserved that.
But the fact remains that despite not playing terribly well we nearly nicked a point off Manchester United, and can probably make a case for having deserved to. That we didn’t isn’t an indication that anything is “wrong”. “Wrong” is the state of Newcastle or Villa, or Bournemouth blunted by injuries and incapable of putting away games that they’re dominating, let alone nicking points from the top sides. We’re capable of being our own worst enemies in the stands though, and need to get ourselves sorted before next weekend. Ostensibly we have three games – Villa, Norwich, Sunderland – that we’d hope to get points from, followed by Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and City over the festive period. There’s a pressure suggested by that Christmas fixture list, but we can’t let our expectations, heightened by how well we’ve been doing, work against us. A home game against a newly promoted side will be one that every opponent will pencil in for three points. We need to go into each game with that in mind… this games narrative suggested that we’ve got more than enough about us on the pitch.
Leicester City 2 Watford 1 (07/11/2015) 08/11/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- We’d been in the pub since midday. Chewing the cud, watching the place fill up, enjoying an eighties Indie-ish playlist that hummed along gently enough for This Corrosion not to be too annoying when it made a second appearance and looking forward to the afternoon’s game. A sizable, noisy delegation from second tier German side VfL Bochum were in evidence; the relationship with Leicester, we are advised by one representative on the way to the ground, is based on both sides playing in blue and never winning anything. The morning’s swirling drizzle gave way to blue skies and sunshine twinkles on the dampness. It’s a splendid thing to be able to enjoy a match like this… the Stoke and West Ham results affording us a degree of breathing space. No pressure. It’s rare in our top flight experience, the ability to anticipate a game with neither a sense of dread or of the suspicion that this is a show that we’re not really part of. What this feels is normal, another trip to a frequent adversary with the accompanying “away from home you grab what you can grab” feel. It’s splendid.
2- It’s not normal of course. It’s far from normal. Both sides have come an awfully long way in a short space of time and the fixture suddenly constitutes one of the top games of the day in terms of league position with the two clubs exceeding expectations. The game starts with plenty of respect afforded on every quarter… Leicester are the free-scoring rabble-rousers on a fine run of form, we have proven ourselves capable of giving anyone a game, capable of reading and preparing for whatever the division has thrown at us. So the first twenty minutes, with the low sun sitting defiantly above the curve of the stands and shovelling straight into the away end, is a sparring match. A feeling-each-other-out exercise, both sides confident in their own way but only prepared to risk so much. Leicester’s aggression in closing down our possession a long way up the pitch briefly made Miguel Britos and Craig Cathcart uncomfortable but we aren’t bullied onto the back foot. Indeed, we have the best chance of the half… Odion Ighalo’s shot is low to Schmeichel’s left and inside the post and so clearly in that we’re all celebrating heartily by the time it rebounds back off the inside of the post. There’s a good chance on the rebound too, apparently, demanding a fine stop from the keeper but in common with much of the away end I’m still trying to work out why we’re not ahead and only learn of Almen Abdi’s scooped volley on the train home.
3- The game turned on Gomes’ howler, quite obviously, but there was stuff that lead to that. With the game very much all square at half time, Claudio Ranieri made a bold substitution in bringing on an extra attacker for a midfielder and the Foxes rattled at us at the start of the second half. If Gomes’ mistake hadn’t happened perhaps the game would have panned out completely differently… maybe we’d have caught them on the break, maybe we’d have kept them at bay and things would have settled down again. As it was, Ranieri gets to claim credit for executing a change in shape that Quique maybe didn’t anticipate…. history is written by the victors. As for Gomes… what’s perhaps more alarming than the mistake itself was the penalty incident that followed, an excitable and unnecessary challenge on the relentless Vardy. It’s beyond any dispute that the Brazilian has been a tremendous asset for the Hornets since his arrival and has earned us plenty of points, but his Tottenham career suggests a brittle confidence in the face of mistakes. Gomes has been magnificent, nobody else will have a problem with writing today off as just one of those things. His haunted look later on MotD left a concern that he won’t leave it behind as easily.
4- East Midlands supporters seem to have this ongoing delusion that their clubs are something other than fodder. Don’t get me wrong, Leicester’s one of my favourite away trips despite our modest record here… but “Two-nil on your big day out” was slightly divorced from reality. Leicester are third in the league on merit, but we’ve been to your a hundred times before chaps, you’re not Manchester United yet. That said, the “Did you cry when Deeney scored?” chant was old by the end of Leicester’s first return to the Vic two years ago, and didn’t really need another airing here either… and one suspects that Leicester is unusual in these exalted heights in generating noise from all four corners of the ground against “the likes of Watford”, so any criticism needs moderation. Quique made a couple of changes to shift things around; Etienne Capoue didn’t reach the heights of the previous weekend’s masterclass (it’s to be hoped that his monstrous performances being peppered by vastly less effective ones isn’t an ongoing theme) and was replaced by Juan Carlos Paredes. You’d have got long odds on Paredes being preferred as a midfield “change it up” option above Adlène Guedioura, say, at the start of the season, but his wholehearted if slightly ragged physicality did shake things up on the right. Paredes is less careful with possession than is typical of this team, more direct, rougher edges… but that’s no bad thing when you’re trying to change the shape of things. Leicester had only briefly been dominant but were now very much in the box seat… Paredes’ combination of muscle and direct running is the last thing a tiring opponent wants to have to cope with in the last quarter of a game, and won us a much-needed foothold by drawing a penalty from the flat-footed Kante. Troy lined the kick up and it briefly occurred to more or less everyone in the away end that him missing this would seal the afternoon. Instead he executed the calmest of finishes and afforded the scoreline a greater degree of respectability.
5- We never really threatened to grab the equaliser, Leicester managing the closing quarter hour pretty effectively. Alessandro Diamanti, looking more like a hair stylist than a footballer, came off the bench for a cameo… elegant flicks and spins and twiddles but off the pace, and too far from City’s penalty area to be effective. There’s an ongoing issue here which Quique has alluded to a few times… how do you get these guys game time with so few competitive games such that they can make an impact when needed? It’s not just showing you can do it, it’s being sharp enough to try… the introduction of Britos a couple of weeks ago was a bold one that has increased competition, there are other areas of the team that might benefit from having someone demonstrably ready to step in if needed.
So… Leicester played the game out, and we can claim some comfort from the respect we were offered in that regard; a goal up against a newly promoted side, Leicester opted to kill the game rather than chase another goal. They might just about have deserved the win, but it was never a safe thing. The final whistle went, Leicester looked a little relieved whilst the Hornets’ players and supporters’ attention were on their goalkeeper who acknowledged his ovation from the stands. No disgrace this one, and another free punch in our next game in a fortnight. Thereafter our fixture list looks fascinating… three pressure games that we’ll need to harvest points from before an intimidating set of opponents over Christmas. And Chelsea.
Watford 2 West Ham United 0 (31/10/2015) 01/11/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Today, everything changed. Our Premier League season so far has been successful, enjoyable, profitable…. and cautious. Cautious, above all. That’s not the same as cowardly; indeed, the decision to abandon the swashbuckling open style the got us promoted and suited so many erstwhile key players was an incredibly bold one. And that caution has served us well, by and large; we’ve kept clean sheets, not been embarrassed by anyone and picked up points, particularly on the road, by executing this season’s fashion effectively… a solid shape, attack on the break.
Today, everything changed. Up to now we have been gently easing ourselves into the icy water, acclimatising. Quietly settling into our surroundings. Not today. Today we took a great ruddy running leap at it, and landed two-footed with a massive splash. West Ham were underneath us, and sunk without trace.
2- We’d expected a chess match. Feared, maybe. We’ve played well at home but had yet to work out how to adapt our game to turn positive intent into goals. The Hammers have famously an awesome away record that has taken down big guns… City, Liverpool, Arsenal… but didn’t really want to dominate possession either. A game of kabaddi seemed a distinct possibility. Instead, the opening was a thunderous echo of our home game with Brentford last season, a breathless end-to-end basketball with play rattling up and down the pitch like a marble on a fishing trawler.
Initially it looked an even contest. We perhaps had more possession, but the Hammers were breaking quickly and ominously. We made the first of the chances… Aké not making the most of a free header from the penalty spot, Britos flying onto one of a series of excellent deliveries from Watson having been abandoned by Kouyaté and heading over. The grins amongst the oohs and aahs were tempered with the knowledge that we shouldn’t have been missing chances like these. You don’t get to waste chances like these against good teams and win games.
3- But instead of being made to regret those misses we watched on as our dominance became increasingly absolute. By the final whistle the only member of the starting eleven whose performance was difficult to eulogise about was Heurelho Gomes, who had been given precious little to do… even during the final 20 minutes where the Hornets chose to sit back and break on a West Ham side that had to push forward and was very much out of its comfort zone. I don’t remember too many games like that… games where mentioning any member of the starting eleven provokes a “wow, he was brilliant today” in the post-match review. It seems wrong to highlight individuals in that context, unfair… since you can’t mention Almen Abdi’s inhuman contribution on the left of a narrow midfield, worthy of its standing ovation as he was substituted, without referring also to Nathan Aké’s monstrous performance behind him, or Ben Watson’s continued defiant refusal to allow Valon Behrami back into the starting lineup, or…
Perhaps it’s easier to replay the match highlights. You’ll all have your personal favourite. Odion Ighalo putting an utterly baffled Carl Jenkinson to the head of the table at his “chops for tea” dinner party (other guests so far this season including John Stones, Phil Jagielka, Artur Boruc). The same player’s stunning finish on his weaker foot at the start of the second half. Troy Deeney’s wicked dummy in the attack that followed, releasing Ighalo for what might have been his hat-trick. Ben Watson beating Andy Carroll in the air in the centre-circle. Craig Cathcart flying in to steal Jenkinson’s cross from Carroll’s head, knocking it over his own bar. Carroll’s clumsy idiocy that provided the opening goal. Carroll’s dive, screaming desperation, after Valencia had failed to capitalise on Cathcart’s rare aberration. Allan Nyom, seeing that Juan Carlos Paredes was about to come on and assuming that he was being pulled, kicking gobby little irritant Valencia up the backside as a goodbye present. Then not going off after all. Deeney chasing back to rob possession from a surprised Payet on West Ham’s right late in the game. Very few Watford performances in recent memory have reached these heights. You’d add James Collins’ red card for an utterly “oh f*** this” Sunday league challenge as the Hammers were being summarily humiliated were it not for Ighalo limping off as a consequence.
4- For all of which, it’s both a blessing and a curse that the two goals came from scruffier play, and featured failings on the part of West Ham players. A curse, since our performance was much better than that. It would have been more than acceptable to have executed the sort of victory that we have so often been on the other side of in previous Premier League seasons… Watford huff and puff and hold their own. Don’t score. Watford make a mistake. Other team scores. Game over.
It wasn’t that sort of game. We sliced West Ham up, crafted elegant chances that weren’t converted. It wasn’t just a matter of capitalising on others’ mistakes. And yet… there’s an advantage to the patronising pat on the head offered by Match of the Day: “Yes yes, well done Watford but what terrible mistakes by West Ham. Of course it would have been different had West Ham played properly“. “Watford have signed so many players“. Yes, Gary, but seven of the starting eleven were here last season. Matt Le Tissier’s line on Sky that Watford “must be starting to believe that there are three teams worse than them” in similar vein. Opposing teams and managers won’t be so naive of course, but the longer that we’re allowed to stay under the radar the more likely the crowds we visit are to be sensitive to signs of resistance from “the likes of Watford” (copyright – Stoke City’s messageboards) which is all to the good.
The other side of the same coin is our own expectation of course, to which end it’s quite helpful to have a trip to Leicester next… a game charged with recent context against an opponent who no travelling Hornets are going to get all presumptuous about given their own fine form.
5- The ongoing work on the North East corner of the ground renders the top of Occupation Road a bottleneck as the majority of the Rookery and Elton John stands shuffle uphill at the end of the game. That’s not a problem on occasions like this, a balmy autumn evening in the immediate wake of a famous victory. There’s the happy hubbub of “did you sees” and “what about so-and-sos” punctuated by the odd song. A celebratory atmosphere, a shared experience.
At the top of the hill the regular meeting of minds as we wait for the crowd to clear sees an occasional visitor reflect on how much has changed… not just on the pitch but off it too. We all know this of course, we’ve seen the stadium change, noted the improved atmosphere, waved our flags. Doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it though, particularly on an occasion such as this. Yes, the team is brilliant. No, the rest of the country hasn’t really woken up to this yet. But it’s the club that has improved beyond recognition.
Enjoy. These are the good old days. Yoooorns.