Watford 1 Stoke City 2 (19/03/2016) 20/03/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Everyone’s got little jobs that need doing. Things that are kind of ignorable, for now, but need sorting at some point. When they’re got round to. I have bloody loads of them, from not-quite-tidied up DIY jobs to trips to the recycling centre to things that need sorting through. And the longer they hang around the more annoying, the more of a big deal they become. That crack that needs polyfilling sneers at you every time you pass it after a while, as if it knows that your vague intentions are little more than empty threats. Before too long it’s sniggering about you with its mates. Then it just doesn’t bother to acknowledge you at all. The bastard.
We really could do with getting those three points. Sooner, rather than later. This conversation is had around our lunch table, and again with passing friends outside. And again, several times over, by a significant proportion of the home support in the lead up to the game one suspects. 37 points is probably OK. 37 points with 9 games to go, including Villa at home, bound to be OK. Bound to. No worries. Be nice to put the conversation to bed, though. Then we get the team news and purr. Look at the strength of that team. Look at that midfield. Behrami, Capoue, Jurado, Suárez. The midfield looks wonderful.
2- The midfield is bloody awful.
Actually it doesn’t start too badly. The match fizzes from the off, both sides keen to seize the initiative. Our visitors look comfortable in possession but nervous and tentative at the back; Troy is winning everything in the air, Jurado is buzzing around on the left flank. Iggy bursts through on the right and gets a little nudge from Wollscheid as he latches onto a ball… just enough to affect his balance without risking a penalty. It’s not quite there but we’re not far away. And then Jonathan Walters scores, and any semblance of an even scrap disappears.
It’s worth emphasising from the off that we’re not the sole architects of our own downfall. Stoke are excellent… tough and streetwise but clever and deft too. Walters’ goal is comfortably the move of the game to that point – even if there’s rather too much standing off going on – and thereafter the visitors settle down and the much lauded Imbula begins to boss the midfield in which the names we’d cooed over fail to click at all. Capoue’s name rings from the stands, but the performances that earned that adulation are fewer and further between; this wasn’t one of them. Suárez still looks sluggish, and with Jurado and Britos also looking rusty after spells out we’re simply off the pace. Most visibly Ben Watson isn’t there at the back of the midfield, ferrying everything along and tidying up things that go wrong and neither Behrami nor Suárez seem to be delegated to do his job. We look flimsy, and City nearly capitalise again before half time – Arnautovic may be offside (replays suggest not), but we couldn’t have complained in any case.
3- It’s tempting to look at this – and Palace and Everton’s results – and draw a straight line with a big fat marker back to last weekend. Whether or not the energies spent and the focus devoted to beating Arsenal are impacting our performance today is open to debate – although the flatness of the display and indiscipline of the defending are certainly in stark contrast with Sunday’s heroics. More clear-cut still, however, is the contrast in the attitude of the support – not so much of those in the stadium, although there’s a predictable enough lack of tolerance of the dreadful first half suggesting that the credit earned from one of the landmark victories and performances of recent years doesn’t even last a week – but of those who weren’t.
20,700 odd, officially. Unofficially, bunkum… this official number includes all STs and therefore is a reflection of tickets sold rather than seats occupied. Having admittedly missed the Southampton and West Brom games which would have been vulnerable to summer holidays (including my own), this was the first time this League season that pockets of empty seats were visible in all home areas of the ground. It’s very difficult not to think back to GT’s reflections on his decision to leave in 1987, that the Hertfordshire support had dropped to an average of only around 15000 after a few years in the top flight. Yes yes, only one game, no our recent home record hasn’t been great… but really? I’d like to know what the actual crowd was.
4- Any suggestion that Stoke’s fading reputation as ultra-pragmatic cloggers was a justification for the (seemingly) low turnout was dispelled by the second goal. It looks shabby from our point of view… but only, really, because Walters and Joselu both responded astonishingly well to what was no better than a glimpse of a chance from the outset. Yes, perhaps our defenders could have been quicker to respond to Walters’ return ball over the top, no Gomes didn’t help himself by neither backtracking nor charging out to close Joselu’s angle… but it was the merciless execution that made it look awful, Gomes’ weak kick was very far from the worst defensive crime of the afternoon.
After which the game changed somewhat. Stoke still threatened more than we did, but gradually sat back in recognition that we really hadn’t been hurting them very much. Arnautovic and Afellay being withdrawn was a bit of a statement, it was difficult to argue with the logic. Jack Butland began to slow the game down, referee Pawson spending much of the half with his hand in the air waving play on without actually doing anything to follow up on his empty threats or even actually looking at who he was gesturing at… you wanted to summon the spirit of John Eustace to start badgering in his ear about the number of times Stoke were leaving a boot in, the length of time Butland was taking on drop kicks. Pawson, who was also officiating at what remains our worst show of the season at St Mary’s, didn’t leave the centre circle if he could help it and Troy was perhaps a little far away to do that job.
Bright sparks appeared in the form of Amrabat and Guedioura, which gave us a much more offensive looking 4-4-2 than the flatter shape we’d had previously. Most of it was ineffectual, but at least we had a knife, something to threaten with if only theoretically. Stoke stepping onto the back foot helped… but when third sub Anya combined with the other two replacements, beat Bardsley in the area and dinked a cross for Deeney to thump home the visitors suddenly looked very fragile again. The crowd suddenly rallied, the team were on the front foot and if we didn’t really come terribly clear to burgling a point from the visitors you were rather left wondering why it took so long to capitalise on what looked a very get-attable central defence.
5- So what, then. The next few games will tell, I think. It’s easy to look at the selection and read it is a strategic one – not with a view to sacrificing this fixture, but more a recognition that certain things needed to happen to maximise our chances of success in the rest of the season. In other words, with a two week break to come, the introduction of Suárez, Jurado and Britos was more about getting minutes into legs than giving the likes of Watson and Prödl a rest. But to end where we began, that awkward almost-thereness of 37 points will jeopardise our enjoyment of the rest of the season for as long as it fails to tick up to 40. The mood of the whole place changes when we get that win, and we’ll look forward to games as opportunities to bloody more noses… rather than looking at three games left at home and thinking Everton – capable of being excellent, Sunderland – could be playing for their lives and Villa – yes yes, but less than a week after the semi-final? Based on this performance?
I’m polyfillaing that crack this afternoon…
Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2016) 14/03/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- It’s 4pm. We’ve opted against the scrum for the tube in favour of a leisurely walk in the sunshine back to Kings Cross. There’s a workman painting a doorway on Caledonian Road, the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” rumbles out of his radio. It’s a perfect soundtrack for what is a necessary but overlooked feature of stunning days like this one… the dazed post-match taking-it-all-in thing. Sometimes alcohol interrupts, distorts, blurs – not today, I’ve just opened a token first can at 9pm – but there’s always a point where you sit or walk or stand in reflection and your head goes “Wow!”. Our reverie is only interrupted by occasional discussion, fist-waving and encouragement from “neutrals” (presumed Spurs) and one affable group of Gooners who, it seems, were amongst the earlier departures and have been making good use of their time since.
If the post-match hiatus is a constant there’s much which has changed over the years… specifically since 1987 which is a natural reference point for all who were there, who are old enough to remember that last glittering landmark of GT’s first spell. Slightly less celebrated than that Bardsley-fuelled afternoon at Highbury is the bedlam of the previous round’s three games with Walsall; the first of these, at Fellows Park, featured the rare privilege of wading in urine several centimetres deep in the gents. Today, in the facilities at the Emirates high up in the Gods, people are actually queuing to wash their hands. That’s the gentrification of football, right there. I mention this contrast to ig before kick-off, who reflects that not all things have improved for the better, have they? Actually I do kinda prefer the toilet facilities at the Emirates, cramped as they are, to the more demanding offering at Fellows Park but I let the comment pass. This, after all, is a day for single-mindedness and defiance, not for frivolous debate.
2- That single-mindedness comes to the fore in a first half in which the home side dominate possession and throughout much of which there seems an awful sense of inevitability about proceedings, the suggestion of a point from which the afternoon might spiral downwards as such big games at big grounds have done in the recent past. A tone is set from the off as Arsenal try to get a rhythm going, passing it around at the back and our midfielders and forwards hare after the ball in rotation, as if to formally share and thus minimise impact of chasing-down duties on energy levels. Amidst talk of the home side’s injury concerns it’s been easy to overlook our own defensive precariousness… but Craig Cathcart, like Gabriel and Mertesacker in the home ranks, is fit enough to start and plays his part in a hugely impressive defensive display. Seb Prödl looks ill-suited to the Britos role of playing the ball out from the back, and Nathan Aké is uncharacteristically exposed once or twice as Arsenal focus their energies down their right, but in the face of Arsenal’s nimble passing and flicking and the boldness with which they seek and find forward passes in offensive areas we’re being thoroughly examined and these are minor transgressions. Despite all their movement and ability and despite Elneny ticking away like a clock in the centre of midfield, the home side don’t create an awful lot and such chances as there are are never clean… there’s always someone closing, hassling, harrying, no time for Arsenal to gather their thoughts. They will need to be excellent to play through us and they nearly are, nearly. But not quite. Allan Nyom has a stonking afternoon amongst many stonking afternoons, Alexis Sanchez the first amongst the home ranks to shrug and stamp and look a bit less than happy.
3- The recent problem has of course been at the other end of the pitch, since there’s a considerable difference in effectiveness between a very solid side that nicks a few goals to boot and a very solid side whose main source of goals is going through something of a crisis of confidence. To chastise that source of goals for his difficulties is rather short-sighted, not that this stops Mr Angry in the rows behind us as Ighalo scampers onto the end of the first of a large number of potent looking breaks, only to deliberate and try to squeeze a ball across to his strike partner. As ig observes, the problem with Ighalo being encouraged to pass more is that passing has never really been his thing and as such these entreaties are kinda imploring him to do more of the thing that he’s not very good at at the cost of his best party trick. His lack of confidence manifests itself in these very painful attempts to weave balls through, deliberate and careful enough to be visible to us several staircases up and considerable distance behind the far touchline in this most beautiful and sterile of stadia some weeks in advance, let alone to those detailed to deny our chances.
Little surprise, then, that when the goal comes it involves Iggy having no time to think at all and acting on instinct. It’s pure catharsis, his grin dizzy with relief as much as exaltation. It’s also criminal defending… a long throw, a battling flick from Troy, Iggy doing what he does by turning Gabriel and feeding hungrily off scraps in the box. We have seen Arsenal in full effect this afternoon… elegant and bold and clever and nimble and utterly gutless. Gabriel’s appalling challenge on Deeney is as cowardly as they come – Troy appeared to wave a mischievous red rag in the Brazilian’s excitable direction by suggesting that he (Troy) likes to “let his marker know he’s there” early doors. Having successfully duped his opponent he was entitled to expect a card being waved in the miscreant’s face. Either way… Deeney is precisely what Arsenal haven’t got. There are a number of leaders on the pitch, and none of them are in red… Troy, as ever is at the vanguard. Yet another monstrous performance from a man who has four goals from open play this season, and yet remains the most vital member of the team.
4- Quickly on the back of that one came another one. We’ve talked in a recent report about the satisfying nature of a ball being twatted really hard… well it turns out that a ball being twatted really hard into the top corner is more satisfying still.
That shot from almost exactly our angle…
Words can’t do it justice, so I won’t try… but a joyous thing on so many levels, from it falling to a player so relentlessly positive in everything he’s done despite his limited opportunity to the way ig shouts “Biff!” as the Algerian makes contact to the enormous, jaw-dropping significance of the moment. Two-up at Arsenal, and about to knock the holders out of the Cup.
5- At which point the longest half-hour in any of our lives begins. Whatever the limitations of Arsenal’s performance, they didn’t just roll over and we needed what luck was going. With the benefit of hindsight you look at Iwobi hitting the post and another shot deflecting ferociously and wrong footing Pantilimon but away from the goal when it might have been in and Welbeck, having reduced arrears with a lethal strike that had the remaining Arsenal fans making almost as much noise as they had when whistling Costel’s goal kicks, spurning an open goal… you look at that lot and you think, this was supposed to happen. This was our day. There was of course no such certainty in the upper tier at the time.
Such moments are special. When you’re going through extremes of emotion that don’t need communicating with those around you because they’re going through exactly the same thing. After more stoppages extended injury time beyond the advertised four minutes, after we’d persuaded ourselves twice, three, four times that this one had to be the last attack we’d have to withstand, tunnel vision… we were going through an extreme together again. Us, the players on the pitch, as the rest of the stadium emptied. What a bloody achievement.
The special games, the special days feature a number of moments that you’ll remember looking back. Think about St Andrews 99 and you remember the noise as you entered the stadium, the gut-wrenching awfulness of Adebola’s early goal, the bloody-mindedness of Johnno diving at people’s feet, the penalties and so on and so on. Well the last of today’s moments came on Caledonian Road, with those affable Arsenal fans. As we walked off, having posed in a daze for selfies, one of these lads grabbed my shoulder and said “win it now. bloody win it”.
We’ll see. Yoooooorns.
Watford 0 Leicester City 1 (05/03/2016) 06/03/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. By nature, I’m someone who cries rather easily. Although I’m not ashamed of that, it does mean I need to steel myself against disproportionately strong displays of emotion in some situations. It’s not the done thing to disintegrate into a howling wreck at the funeral of someone you barely knew, for example, nor do your fellow cinema-goers really need to hear you sobbing your little heart out at the end of “Toy Story 3”.
Similarly, nobody wants to be the fan who’s loudly blowing their nose on their scarf during the end-of-season lap of honour, especially if the “honour” involved is of the mid-table-in-the-Championship-could-do-better variety. As far as I can recall, I’ve only openly wept at one football match – that Allan Smart goal, so I was hardly alone – but I’ve been just a kindly word away from full-on waterworks countless times, most commonly at moments of triumph rather than disaster, and often when the triumph involved is so paltry that it’d barely merit a firm handshake or a hefty pat on the back. Swallow hard, look for something in your bag, stare at the pigeons in the Rookery roof, hold it all in. Sniff.
First thing in the morning, all bleary-eyed and semi-conscious with Fred sitting on my lap drinking his wake-up milk, I’ve found that I’m increasingly incapable of showing sensible emotional restraint when faced with whatever breakfast telly might throw at me. I’ve misted over at all manner of things: the maiden journey of the Flying Scotsman, little Harry’s antics, a Davis Cup victory I didn’t care enough about to actually watch at the time, the episode of “Hey Duggee” where the Squirrels got their Teddy Bear badges, and so on, and so forth.
Oh, and the bit where Jamie Vardy scored that goal against Liverpool.
2. Perhaps the defining moment of the season, that. So far, at least. At that second, slumped on the sofa watching the previous night’s “Match of the Day” without having seen the scores, I suddenly realised quite how badly I wanted Leicester to win the league. A goal by Jamie Vardy, who’s essentially the product of a laboratory experiment involving Andy Johnson and a sewer rat, brought me to the verge of tears. Bloody get in.
So vivid is our recent history with Leicester, it’s difficult not to see them as somehow ours, an old flame that’s still smouldering. An ex from a somewhat tetchy affair who’s suddenly shown up as a Best Actress nominee at the Oscars, still wearing an outfit bought in the Top Shop sale. They’re just like us. You can take the team out of the Championship, and all that. If you’ve got any imagination at all, you know how they must feel at this moment, how many sleepless nights there must be. Promotion in ’99 seemed to occupy every waking thought, every last nerve-end, seemed to sharpen every sense. That, and then some.
3. Thing is, we’re meant to be satisfied with meagre crumbs from the top table: the possibility of doing something in the cups, perhaps even qualifying for the Europa League if we push hard enough. If we dream, it’s supposed to be of somehow finishing in the top four, of qualifying for the competition they invented for themselves. That’ll never happen, of course, but it’s something to waft at us like a wad of notes out of a limousine window when we need some encouragement. And that’s it. Know your place.
Know your enemy. We aren’t exactly the grubby, dispossessed under-classes ourselves, quite clearly. But as the money-spinning elite continues to explore ways to close off entry to its little club, nothing could say a louder “f*** you” than Leicester winning the title. Not qualifying for the Champions League; that’s their world, in which money matters far more than trophies, in which a couple of those wafted notes might be caught by the wind and carried into the street to be fought over. No. Big fat bollocks to that.
Win the title. Make proper old-fashioned history, on your own terms. They can never, ever take that away.
4. So at the risk of being condemned as a cry-baby turncoat, there have been games of football I’ve wanted us to win more than this one. If we’re being flippant, we could say the same for the team, for Leicester’s newly-minted set of household names were that little bit hungrier for every ball from first to last. It’s easy to say that the other lot wanted it more, but Leicester play like they’ve considerably more at stake. “Hungrier” as in more aggressive, then…but also “hungrier” as in keener, sharper, more alert. The difference is marginal, but marginal is enough.
Spurs were supposed to be three points ahead by this point, with a better goal difference; Leicester start like condemned men given a reprieve and let loose in the pub at happy hour. We have some excuse: Britos is injured in the warm-up and Ake* takes his place in the centre, something we can’t have done that much preparation for. Our first proper injury crisis of the campaign, I guess, but there’s something throughly willing about Ake* and, to his great credit, he’s very much a fish in water here. Nevertheless, we’re thoroughly exposed early on, Vardy careering away from a lumbering Prodl* with extraordinary ease on a couple of occasions before Ake*’s last-ditch tackle saves us as Gomes’ save leaves a potential tap-in. For a bit, and not for the last time, they’re absolutely all over us.
5. And then, also not for the last time, they retreat into their shell. But let’s be clear about this: there are parts of the contest which are more even than others, but there are none – simply none – which aren’t played almost entirely on Leicester’s terms. It’s their game throughout. They’re not the kind of side to make a grand show of their dominance: possession is conceded willingly, and we spend large periods of time staring at the ball and wondering what we should do with it as if someone’s handed us a lost puppy and some feeding instructions before scarpering round the corner. Unlike the puppy, however, we find it easy enough to give the ball back.
Our opponents are obstinate, organised and extremely adept at picking us off. We haven’t built an especially creative side for this campaign, by choice. It’s an approach which has served us well and which we have no reason to regret, but it can look bloody horrible in these circumstances, as we forlornly search for inspiration against a team confident in its ability to pick us off on the break. It’s not even as if we’re that bad, and it’s certainly not that losing to the league leaders is cause for a finger-pointing inquest. We merely fall short, with a grim inevitability matched by the creeping cold of the early evening.
6. For quite a bit of the game, it’s like watching someone bang two stones together until one of them cracks. There’s a period at the start of the second half when both teams invent a version of Battleships, powering long balls upfield in the hope of hitting something. “Vardy, behind Prodl.” “Miss. Deeney, against Morgan.” “Miss.” None of it suits us, all of it suits Leicester. We fail to take our very few chances – Ake drifting a header onto the roof of the net, Deeney unlucky to find a placed shot deflected straight to Schmeichel – in the way that you always fail to take your chances in these kind of defeats. Leicester waste some too – Vardy prods the best one wide of the near post after picking Prodl’s pocket – but carry a confidence in their ability to create more and finish one that we can only envy.
They’re happy to retreat for long periods, but tellingly, they’re also happy to push on when the time seems right, and the only goal is the culmination of a concerned spell of prodding and probing before Fuchs’ searching cross is only half-cleared by Holebas and Mahrez curls home an unstoppable finish. They briefly threaten to smash our faces into the canvas: Huth heads wide, Gomes claws another header away, Ake clears a ball squared by Vardy across the six yard box with King awaiting an open goal. Their midfield is everywhere, Drinkwater ubiquitous. And then they settle back again and leave us to it.
7. If the game had previously been frustrating, it becomes fairly unbearable from here. We have no answer. None at all. Nordin Amrabat provides some much-needed energy and attacking intent, which, even if it doesn’t amount to an awful lot, is enough to make his the stand-out attacking contribution in a field of one. We need some goals from elsewhere, badly.
Our set pieces are terrible, almost without exception. Ighalo finishes an unhappy week by heading the only chance of note straight at Schmeichel from six yards; he barely touches the ball otherwise. Abdi and Anya replace more defensive-minded starters, to little effect. We’re reduced to lumping the ball into a crowded box by the end, our lack of conviction betrayed by a strangely lethargic pace; it feels as if any urgency is more likely to bring about a second Leicester goal on the break than an equaliser. We know how it ends. Leicester stifle our screams with a pillow.
8. Far from a disaster, but you can sense the growing impatience with this style of football. We’re hard to beat and we’re really very resilient; neither of those things seems to mean very much if you end up losing anyway, with ‘nil’ to your name yet again. You can see the temptation to aim for something more expansive and luxurious next season. You can see the dangers in that too, the perils of raised expectations for the difficult second season. You don’t have to look hard for examples of that going spectacularly pear-shaped.
And you don’t have to look hard for an example of how far an essentially conservative approach can take you, if everything slots into place. Leicester’s own difficult second season seems to be going quite well, all things considered. Same basic template – hard to beat, extremely resilient – except with a well-oiled counter-attacking operation welded on top; they look like quite a side here, powerful and lean and intelligent. We’d do well not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Conventional wisdom has it that Leicester, built for defending and breaking as they are, are likely to struggle in a run of fixtures that’ll see them up against teams unwilling to come out to play. Me, I’m not so sure. They might not find it easy, but there’s something unbelievably determined about this side. Something that was forged in the fires of a relegation battle, of six-pointers with entire careers at stake. Something tough and streetwise. Something of the grubby, dispossessed under-classes.
9. Come on, Leicester. Come on, Leicester.
10. (We’ll just settle for winning the FA Cup, shall we?)
* Look, it’s half seven on Sunday night and I’d like to have my tea. I’m not doing the accents. Fill them in yourselves.
Manchester United 1 Watford 0 (02/03/2016) 03/03/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I’ve done three trips to the North West this season and the journeys have, without exception, been rubbish. It doesn’t matter how much of a buffer you leave for the M6, it always bites you in the arse… this occasion, as the previous two, featured what ought to have been comfortable buffers whittled away in traffic jams, swearing at the SatNav’s helpful updates and trying not to think about how much we needed the loo. I’m sure Altrincham’s got a lot going for it, but if the purpose of the trip had been to spend an hour crawling through the town in the rain I wouldn’t have forked out £46 for the match ticket.
We arrived. We parked – mercifully, a pre-booked slot close to the ground, in time if barely so. And we joined the swarm of people, a dark amorphous mass heading towards Old Trafford, cathedral-like in the dampness. And we queued through several cordons of stewards, all perfectly affable and of course you understand the justification… I’m even reasonable and polite when a steward confiscates my pocket torch – a present from my Mum to help me navigate the unlit walk home from walk in the winter months and resident in my coat pocket – because it probably was on the list of prohibited items that I should have given a bit more thought to. It was only on the way up the steep staircase to the congested gangways and overpriced kiosks selling creatively terrible pies that it occurred to me that slogging all the way up here and paying through the nose for a ticket is questionable enough behaviour without having to put up with being treated like an idiot also.
2- And then we step out into the magnificent arena and everything changes. There’s a vigorous wind with none of the icy malice that characterised the return fixture earlier in the season; this bluster adds to the sense of wild expectation, the dark sucking in and creating a bubble,of insulation against whatever’s going on in the rest of the world. The away end, as away ends tend to be, is buoyant and loud and defiant. And it’s like a drug, the whole thing… as the teams come out, it’s a hit… and all the stress and irritation disappears to be replaced by anticipation and utter focus on what’s about to transpire. You don’t want to be anywhere else.
It helps that we’re great, of course. This is not the Manchester United if yore in many respects, but this line-up in particular is full of kids, necessitated by injuries. Shame. And, talented kids, sure, but kids nonetheless. Tim Fosu-Mensah, as Dave points out, could have wished for an easier opponent on his full debut than Troy Deeney; he picks up a booking early and though he stands up to the challenge he’s second best throughout. We are not going to be humiliated here as we have been on recent visits. Indeed, with United’s attack looking lightweight and samey the home side look getattable. And we get at them.
3- Consensus seems to be that we bossed the first half. I didn’t see it that way… certainly we had the better of the chances, we’ll come to that, but although Memphis Depay made himself look an idiot twice by entertainingly skewing shots that were designed for the top corner but got badly misdirected en route there was no escaping that United were creating things too. Many of our own chances in that opening period fell to Iggy, desperate to do well and suffering from a lean spell that’s reach the stage where every snatched chance, every bad decision provokes someone within view to lean to their mate and say “he really needs one to go in off his arse or something”. Which he does. He gallops into a free shot on goal… and snatches at it weakly with his left foot, de Gea fields easily. He hares clear on the right and shoots when he should have squared. And so on. And the stewards behind us are openingly questioning whether their interest in him – such as it is, seemingly generated by his own reported support of United – is such a good thing. Such thoughts are going on in many United heads, one suspects, perhaps Iggy’s too.
Thing is he’s doing most of it right. He’s working bloody hard, and in both halves he’s getting himself into positions. It’s just not going in for him at the moment. Lest we forget, whilst his electric form in the first half of the season was wonderful I don’t imagine that many of us really expected that level of impact. His reliability has been a bonus, but more than that it’s meant that Quique’s defensive emphasis has worked, since there’s been a reliable source of (a few) goals to capitalise on that defensive solidity. Very well it’s done us… but now, with Iggy in a lean spell, the lack of goals from elsewhere, the lack of attacking emphasis – Almen Abdi, for all his diligence, has scarcely been permitted to bomb on to support an attack all season – it’s more visible. That’s not Iggy’s fault, something that escapes a critic behind us who bellows his impatience at the striker. On a night of retro chants in which EJTMA gets a good airing, I like to think that this bloke was shouting “Get your chequebook out Tayla!” back in the day. Maybe.
4- Ighalo’s current limitations are visible, but equally so are the gusto and welly that the whole team are giving it, him included. Valon Behrami couldn’t look more menacing with a cutlass between his teeth (“Ray Train with no morals” was Dad’s view, one for the older supporters to critique…). Allan Nyom is back with vigour and has his best outing for months, Holebas and Britos are on top of their games, Troy batters anyone who makes the mistake of getting in the way. Ben Watson is just tremendous, his set pieces defying the swirling wind and causing havoc in a penalty area where we have the physical advantage… Sebastian Prödl, whose bulk is unmatched by anything United can offer, thumps in a near-post header that’s blocked on the line, and then has a strong penalty call as he bundles a far post cross wide with a marker hanging round his neck.
But the star is Étienne Capoue. As obviously off his game as Iggy over the last few months, it was widely speculated that this game might see him given a rest with Mario Suárez, whose sumptuous late through ball bounces off Iggy’s heels, taking his place. Instead he lines up on the left of midfield and puts in a virtuoso performance combining skill, aggression and a lot of balls. The first half sees him have a penalty appeal which the BBC describe as “a good shout” but which we couldn’t really see – in any case since, you know, nobody died, he’s not going to get a penalty in front of the Stretford End from any ref let alone Mike Jones this evening. Capoue is our creator in chief, tormenting Varela… the away crowd sing his name and whilst I’m still kinda uncomfortable with taking other team’s songs and inserting-name-of-choice-here, it works this time and “We’ve got Étienne Capoue…” is the loudest bellow of an evening in which many players get their own chorus. He responds by thundering a second half shot narrowly over from 30 yards. Flame on.
5- So Mata’s exquisite free kick, as the Watford pressure was ramping up after United’s spell in the second half was repelled, was a choker. Simultaneously worthy of winning a game and yet delivering three points that the home side hadn’t merited… we’d been on our feet, anticipating the mental when we finally claimed a big scalp. It didn’t happen. I didn’t leave feeling downcast though, as many others seemed to. Losing is never good, but there are many worse ways to do so than this. We were mugged by United (for the second time this season)… which feels crap, but, you know. We were mugged by United. They had to be lucky. We went up there, took the game to them, remained tight, created a load of chances. We lost the game; trivially, if you don’t take your chances at any level blah blah blah. But this was perhaps our best performance since at least the similarly choking defeat to Man City at the start of the year. United got away with one. Every right to be proud of our team… I was still humming “I just don’t think you understand…” as we pulled in at 1.30 this morning. You ‘orns…