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Watford 2 Norwich City 0 (05/12/2015) 06/12/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. I’m getting older. I may have mentioned that; I can’t really remember, because I’m getting older. As I do so, I find that I become less and less certain of anything. I suspect that twenty years of problem-solving for a living have honed my instincts for sniffing out a problem but, perhaps, not done the same for the accompanying solution. As a result, I instinctively distrust any strident argument, any strongly or loudly held position; I pick at it until it frays, until black and white turn to grey. Until it submits to John Harris’s motto of political commentary: “it’s f***ing complicated”. It’s always f***ing complicated.

I’ve also been spending too much time on social media. Not as much as some, maybe, but still too much. I’m drawn irresistibly to its ceaseless clamour, even though I find no more comfort in that clamour than I would in reading the Daily Mail. Different dogma, same degree of certainty. It surrounds me with people sure of their opinions, having them enthusiastically reinforced by others equally sure of the same thing. It isn’t that I don’t share the opinions much of the time. I have doubts, though. I have questions and objections and criticisms and, above all, complications. On Twitter particularly, the sense of being in a crowd which might turn on you at any moment is palpable. I fear society might divide into two halves eventually: those who never voice their internal thoughts and those who never fail to do so. I fear that might’ve already happened.

Much of it reminds me of what Graham Taylor always used to say: that it’s easy to be a manager if none of your team selections get tested by a real football match. Anyone can pick Anthony Macnamee when their job doesn’t depend on the outcome. Of course, Football Manager now skews that equation a little; maybe someone needs to come up with a political equivalent. Or perhaps that’d just make the online world even more insufferable, even more full of people who are certain they’re right because they tried it when they were leader of Veritas.

Perhaps we need a protest, a show of…well, not strength. A show of feebleness. With placards saying things like “I’M NOT SURE BUT I THINK YOU’RE PROBABLY WRONG ON SOME POINTS EVEN IF I AGREE OVERALL” and “WHAT DO WE WANT? POLITENESS! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? WELL, WHAT KIND OF TIME SUITS YOU?”. We could go to the park or somewhere suitably non-confrontational, then mill around a bit in an inconclusive manner. We could fail as badly as everyone else at actually coming up with anything constructive, useful or realistic to solve the world’s woes…but we’d wear that as a badge of honour rather than hide it underneath polemic and vitriol. I’m proud to be uncertain.

While we’re having this little chat, I’d like to confess that I don’t really dislike Bournemouth, that I’ve forgiven Mike Williamson and Brendan Rodgers, and that I’ve never quite grasped the brilliance of Almen Abdi*. Lynch mobs to the usual address.

2. One of the interesting things about being in the top flight is that there are fewer hypothetical questions to worry about. A division down, every performance is measured against what might be required to achieve promotion and then to survive thereafter: “if we can only beat (insert name here) with a deflected free kick/ludicrous own goal/blatant handball/iffy penalty (delete as applicable), how can we expect to compete against (insert name here)?”

Suddenly, that all disappears. It’s rather pleasant. There are inquests after a defeat, of course, but any victory can be treated as if it were an achievement in its own right, a nice big fat tick next to one of the things on our stuff-to-do list. Unless we’re suddenly going to start worrying about how we’ll fare in the Champions League, a win over Aston Villa or Norwich is an end in itself. A little cup final. For once, that cliche about taking each game as it comes has some substance.

3. Having arrived in the Premier League as a team playing reasonably open football on a sensible budget with a fashionable young manager, Norwich have every right to feel a bit peeved that everyone’s fawning over Bournemouth. It’s like they’ve turned up at a fancy dress party as Olaf from Frozen, only to find that someone else had that idea first and had a mum with a fancy sewing machine; they’re now in the bathroom desperately attempting to improvise an abominable snowman costume instead.

It’s only a partial success, if I’m honest. True, they start the game with the frantic fervour of the newly converted, but that doesn’t really last for much longer than it’d take a dozen commentators to note archly that it could be mistaken for a mid-table Championship game, scrappy and edgy in a swirling, gusty wind. Thing is, while we might’ve taken a more mercenary route than Norwich by upgrading much of last season’s side, enough of it remains that we’re not going to be shoved aside without putting up a fight. Without relishing a fight.

Some of those who’ve come in aren’t exactly lightweight either: Miguel Britos appears to enjoy his ninety minutes enormously, treating himself to a couple of bicycle kick clearances high into the late afternoon sky as we defend our lines late on. The entire team receives a huge ovation towards the end of the first half for an exercise in collective pressing which leaves Norwich with nowhere to go but a slice into the stands. We win this because we’re prepared to do the ugly stuff, because we’re every bit as good at it as Norwich are, except with a load more punch in the final third. We win this, but it’s bloody hard work. I mean that in a good way. Well, mostly.

4. The tension builds minute upon minute after Troy Deeney’s opening goal. By that point, we’re not so much knocking on the door as attempting to prize it open with a crowbar; we’re not really having much joy, but we’re eventually rewarded for our persistence. Thereafter until half-time, we’re so much the better side that it suddenly feels like there’s an awful lot at stake: this is a winning position, far too good to throw away.

We fail to make the most of some very promising positions, particularly when Jurado drifts more centrally and becomes involved in the interplay around the box. He has a pleasing afternoon, justifying his selection: in a game where the ball is frequently flying around like a crisp packet in a whirlwind, he’s sometimes the only player who looks truly comfortable bringing it down and finding himself some space. Norwich waste a free header from a set piece in injury time and everyone goes a bit pale.

5. They waste an even better chance shortly after half-time, Brady driving wide when freed by a rare Cathcart lapse. The tension continues to build. You can’t fail to win games like this…except, obviously, you can, all too easily. The game becomes stretched as it enters its final half hour, which only makes our position feel more perilous: Norwich persist in banging high balls into the far post; Ake and Gomes take knocks in dealing with crosses; there’s more than one occasion when I find myself involuntarily screaming as I would if I were ever brave enough to go on a rollercoaster. They don’t actually get very close to scoring, but that’s hindsight talking.

6. These past weeks, I’ve heard too little praise for Ben Watson. One of those you imagined might not keep up with the pace of progress, he’s now among the most vital components of this side. He’s done that by taking on every dirty job going, from being the out-ball (and thereby getting stick for passing it sideways or backwards when required) to constant patrolling in the depths of midfield while others have more roaming licence to, recently, taking set pieces. The team dogsbody. I imagine he does the laundry too. An unsung hero, and a significant part of why we’re in the top half of the table. Someone give him a song, for heaven’s sake.

7. But let’s get to the point. The decisive difference between the teams was one man: Odion Ighalo. In this month’s When Saturday Comes, Harry Pearson devotes his column to the cliche of the striker who’s “unplayable on his day”. It’s difficult to avoid that phrase. Somehow, he’s managed to harness all of the energy that could sometimes lead him to be erratic and awkward. The imperfections in his all-round game now seem like ticks on a stampeding rhino.

He absolutely comes alive in the moment where the ball is played in behind defenders: there isn’t a single occasion when he doesn’t win that contest, even when faced with two or three opponents, even when he’s second or third favourite to get there. So physical, so determined, but with an instinctive sense of where the loose ball might drop, where the chink in the armour might appear, and with such quick reactions to every ricochet and rebound. He wins a soft penalty through sheer force of presence. He scores the late clincher, holding off a defender with astonishing strength before beating the keeper. He has another disallowed for a tight, probably incorrect, offside. He ought to have more.

He’s dumped onto his arse on the halfway line late on, having rolled a defender who has no option but to commit the foul before he’s done for pace yet again. That’s the only way of stopping him, that’s all they can do. Think of your favourite striker from yesteryear, someone who Graham Taylor would send out with a message to give them hell for ninety minutes, never let them get comfortable. That good.

On this day, completely unplayable. Simply unstoppable. I’m not certain of much, but I’m certain of that.

* Although there’s a moment, as the ninetieth minute approaches and the tension becomes virtually unbearable, when Abdi drives the lively Brady all the back over the halfway line by hacking at his heels and nudging him in the back, like an irritant in the school corridor. He finally gets a reaction, Brady gets a yellow card, and Almen Abdi is my hero.

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Comments»

1. Paul - 06/12/2015

Ref: a song for Ben Watson. I heard ‘Super, Super Ben’ ring out a fair few times yesterday, from lining up to take his corners and harassing Norwich into wayward clearances. It’s no ‘Ighalo-Oh’ but there was a clear show of appreciation. I’d still love to see a bit more of Behrami though, might get a game once fit and Watson picks up an inevitable suspension…

Ian Grant - 06/12/2015

Didn’t hear that but glad to hear it. If you see what I mean.

2. Stephen Hoffman - 06/12/2015

Glad to see someone else recognising the importance of Watson. There are a number of people near to me in the Upper Graham Taylor Stand who spend the game moaning whenever Watson passes the ball sideways or backward- forgetting that this is done often when there are no better options going forward. My frequent rejoinder is would you rather we lose the ball!

3. Stuart Sharkey - 06/12/2015

Love report, thanks Ian.Travelled from my sick bed in deepest Dorset to watch the game. Boy was it worth it if only to watch Ighalo. Time and time again he got to balls into the box he had no right to get too and managed to get a shot away. The thing I am unable to understand is how he is now a proven goalscorer yet before he joined us, his goal his scoring record was average at best. What’s has changed?

JohnF - 07/12/2015

Troy Deeney!

4. Goldenboy60 - 06/12/2015

A very professional performance all round. Not always classy, but yes at times outstanding. But we are a TEAM, and we make it difficult for the opposition. Last season Norwich strode in with an arrogance and Hoolahan with his cheating dive conjured up a trick which the referee fell for and we didn’t deal with it at all well after that.

Not so much this time. We have steel and a new determination, and by rights we could have won by 4 or 5 yesterday. But still Mr Neil rode into town with an arrogance that this would be 3 more points for them, no problem.

I think enough said and only to add that Mr Flores is so cool and confident in his job. Quiet, professional and humble too.

5. Marc - 06/12/2015

The first part reminded me of this Mitchell and Webb skit…

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015

I’m unable to watch anything that Mitchell and Webb do, together or apart, without thinking of poor Cheesoid…

6. Tybalt - 06/12/2015

Because there may be Norwich fans popping round I want to mention that I think (hope) all Watford fans who frequent BHaPPY are really, really godawful sorry about the stones thrown at the Canaries’ supporters coach. That’s not anything remotely like what this club is about; hope they are caught, dealt with appropriately by the authorities, and certainly banned for life from the Vic.

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015

I hadn’t been aware of that. But yes, absolutely.

7. HB84 - 06/12/2015

Great report. Love it. For me, Ighalo = a skilful Luther Blissett.

Super Benny Watson was indeed sung at Villa and during this game … Personally I’d prefer the same tune replacing Super with Ginger.

On Abdi. I have been in unconditional love since Charlton away in his first year and consider him the finest midfielder for us ever. Even better than Derrek Payne. That bastard Capoue however is making me question my loyalty.

And no mention of Capoues nutmegs? In danger of filling a 15 minute DVD bonus section all on their own.

These are indeed the best of times.

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015

Re: nutmegs. No, I can’t be doing with that sort of carry-on. It’s not Strictly Come Dancing, you know.

NickB - 07/12/2015

Hope the Luther reference is tongue in cheek; his first touch wasn’t always the best, but Ighalo has some way to go before he’s worthy of that eulogy.

Adam - 07/12/2015

Igahlo is a better player than Loofer. No disrespect to the legend (and by hec he is a legend) but it’s just plain fact!

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015

There’s only one way to find out…

8. qm - 06/12/2015

Thanks for a lovely piece. We do need songs, for Watson and others. Song for Etienne is hard to come up with!

Matt - 07/12/2015

I think the closest you’ll get to Etienne Capoue in song form is Electric Avenue… “He’s gonna nut-meg you, Et-ienne Capoue!”

HB84 - 07/12/2015

I’m in !!

9. James - 06/12/2015

Completely agree with your first point, things certainly are complicated (Usually. Within reason. The available data tends to suggest. Maybe… )
The fact that things are generally so complicated, vague, and downright mushy, means I feel a bit better about sort of partially disagreeing with or at least debating most, some, or fewer of your other points.

I can’t, of course, speak for everyone, but the reason I hold Norwich in a lower regard than Bournemouth is that they are the dirtiest team I’ve seen in years. Even dirtier than Palace. I agree with you though that this Watford team is capable of dealing with that sort of threat, much more so than any in the recent past.

Describing Ake’s collision as ‘a knock’ is underplaying it somewhat. I’m not suggesting the challenge was a foul, it looked within the rules, but nevertheless, it could have broken his neck.

Can’t disagree with point 6. Watson has been immense, and his set piece delivery has plugged a hole that’s been gaping since the departure of Tozser and McGugan. I don’t know if that is something he always had in his armoury, or something he’s worked on as the need arose, but either way, it’s most welcome.

Can’t agree with you on point 7 though. Ighalo was brilliant, at times. Breathtakingly so, occasionally. But frustratingly wasteful at times as well. Selfishness is something to be expected in a striker, it’s a necessity even, but sometimes you just need to square it to the guy for a open goal, rather than trying to fire it under the keeper from a narrow angle. We could have been out-of-sight early in the second half.
I think the difference between the teams was control. Both in terms of controlling the ball – (Capoue exemplified this, but all over the pitch we had better touch) – and staying calm – Cathcart and Bristos dealt with high balls in the wind far better than their opposite numbers.

10. Nigel - 06/12/2015

Beautiful Ian, summing up the feelings for so many I am sure. So many fantastic incidents to appreciate, my favourite the pressing of Norwich by our forwards that led to the sliced clearance and the standing ovation, oh the goals and the result too I guess.

11. Iwozthere - 06/12/2015

Glad you added the footnote. I can understand the comments about Bournemouth, Williamson and Rogers but that 90th minute run was the epitome of what makes Almen Abdi great.

12. Adam Segal - 07/12/2015

Thoroughly entertaining and well written. I thought Troy deserves a special mention for being everywhere again but you are so right about Ben Watson. He’s really the man of the hour right now.
Anyway you may be getting older but so am I. Your writing however continues to get better and better! Thanks again.

Adam

13. Old Git - 07/12/2015

You haven’t forgiven Roger Milford, have you?

14. BH - 07/12/2015

Great stuff Ian, thank you.

On the twitter front, some truth at least was spoken this weekend when one person said “imagine the noise if Eddie Howe had taken Bournemouth to 22 points and 9th place after 15 games?”

I like our anonymity in the national media relative to Bournemouth and Leicester but that should not mask just how good the fare is that we are watching.

As for Saturday, I was actually quite grateful to Alex Neil for saying there was no difference between the teams because it made me think of some of the differences. For example:
– Capoue
– Jurado, Norwich had no one of with their level of skill nor intelligence
– Ighalo’s incredible menace and goal threat (the Match of the Day film was basically the Odion show.)
– Deeney’s focus and craft (his assists are fantastic)
– Abdi and Guédioura joining from the bench (I don’t quite count Paredes!)
– Cathcart and Britos are hugely impressive, especially compared to Bassong & Bennet
– Watson, as you so rightly point out
– and two full-backs who are growing every game in Ake’s case; and coming back to his best in Nyom’s case.

Thanks to our owners, we have moved on in the last six months in a way that Norwich simply haven’t so far.

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015

Yes, I thought the same when I heard Alex Neil’s comment. To be fair to him, it’s the sort of thing you say in post-match interviews if you want to talk up your performance a bit; it was a tight game but, as you say, there were key differences all over the pitch. I don’t imagine for a moment he wasn’t aware of that.

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015
15. Worried of W3 - 07/12/2015

I’m not certain if IG isn’t a little too certain that other people are certain about their opinions.
My experience suggests that many of the people of whom he speaks merely repeat views that they have already heard in the media. This bird-brained parrot-fashionista tend to be the ones who ring ‘Greenie’ (who definitely is certain about his opinion (and certain it is right)) and present his idiotic commentary back to the nation all over again.
I’m dubious that they are not sure whether they have any opinions at all. Or not.
Moreover, these airheaded “views” change on the breeze. This week’s cliché regarding “work rate” will be next week’s “lack of quality in the final third”.
Me? I just can’t make up my mind.
Take that Watford Football Club. I was adamant I was a ‘lifer’ but have managed to go just once this season. Naturally sceptical, I’ve been in a spin ever since the Pozzo revolution.
I was fortunate enough to meet Sir Elton John exactly a year ago, two days after the footballers who represented the club at the time (the school of the first two weeks of December, 2014 if you like) had thrashed Fulham away. Like a giddy schoolgirl, I stuck a thumb up and said “Elton, see the game on Friday?” to which he replied “Yeah f**king terrific, you going Saturday?” Taken aback I said “Er no, I was rather hoping you’d buy my club back.”
He then told me, in forthright terms, that I was completely wrong, that the Pozzos were thoroughly decent and that I had no reason to worry.
This positive was reinforced in the summer when Richard Walker quite spectacularly helped my octogenarian father renew his season ticket after Dad had underestimated demand. When I told him it was sorted, I saw a tear in his eye for the first time (Dad not Richard).
Then I read that we have signed another new team and players across Europe are Googling ‘Watford’ to find out who their agent has “moved them on to” and worry that if all clubs were run on the Pozzo model (sorry), the game I love would be chaotic with nobody knowing who was playing for who on any given Saturday. Or should I think “sod every other club (except Udinese) this is “us” and we’ve got the best squad of players we’ve ever assembled?”
I just don’t know any more. At least I don’t think I do.

Ian Grant - 07/12/2015

I’m going to show this to my wife as evidence of the fact that I’m not the only one who over-thinks things which probably don’t need over-thinking…

16. Old Git - 07/12/2015

Well, when I met Elton he never mentioned anything about his confidence in the Pozzos.
Granted, this was at Rochdale in 1973 and I suppose that might have had something to do with it.

NickB - 08/12/2015

He was similarly tight lipped at Halifax, I recall


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