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Watford 1 Everton 1 (09/04/2016) 10/04/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
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1. Bookmakers stopped taking bets on The Best Fact Ever on Wednesday as pop music’s Pete Fij, with a little help from Radio 3, revealed that the 1932 Olympic Games awarded medals for various categories of artistic endeavour, such as music, painting, literature and architecture. In fact, art competitions formed part of the Games from 1912 until they were scrapped in 1948.

(I can already feel you wearily typing “Yes, we already knew that. Everyone knows that. Where the hell have you been?” in the comments box down the bottom. Stop it. Stop it now. Leave me to my dreams.)

Anyway, the list of medalists hints delightfully at so many stories. Since the judges weren’t obliged to find a winner for every medal, there are several occasions when a silver or bronze is awarded but no gold; you can sense the impotent fury of Italy’s Gabriele Bianchi, for example, at only winning the bronze for Vocal Music in 1948 when there was apparently nothing better to take the silver or gold. In 1936, the gold medal for Statues goes to something apparently entitled “Sulky Driver” which beats the altogether more Olympic-sounding “Decathlon Athlete” and “Wrestling Youths” into second and third place. There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing Germany beaten in the Epic Works category in 1936…and something thoroughly chilling about its triumph at Town Planning. There’s a short-lived “Dramatic works” category which I like to imagine involved each piece being performed on stage in front of a panel, an early attempt at Olympics Got Talent. There are medals awarded for making medals. No, seriously.

I can’t tell you how much joy all of this brings me. There is a school of thought which regards it as absurd to apply an order of merit to something as subjective as music or painting; as someone for whom Eurovision is one of the cultural highlights of the year, I don’t belong to that school of thought. Or I do – because it is absurd, clearly – but I’ve been kicked out of school for not giving a toss. Because the absurdity is partly the point, much of the fun; absurdity can be wonderful. It makes me think of Terry Wogan railing hopelessly – and a little xenophobically – against tactical voting and, by proxy, the changes he didn’t understand in the distant corners of Europe. There’s something about asking nations to compete over, frankly, froth and nonsense which gets right to the heart of it all.

I wish there was still a gold medal for “Lyric and speculative works”. It’s better than sodding golf.

2. Evaluating the aesthetic merits of sporting endeavour – rather than vice versa – seems to me to be much more of a problem. Which isn’t to say that beauty has no place in sport, merely that it’s very much second place.

The idea that you’d rather lose elegantly than scratch out an ugly win is born of the kind of naivety that’s never set foot in a football ground on matchday. In the same way as every poll indicates that negative campaigning is deeply unpopular, but is contradicted by every election result, so we’d all advocate an attractive, positive passing game with proper wingers and overlapping full-backs and so forth. Because we all like to think we’re better people than we actually are, and we all like to imagine that we’ll react to defeat with dignity and perspective and understanding until it actually happens.

Clearly, there are circumstances when defeat is taken with pride: if you lose a narrow game in which you’re the underdog, say, or nearly manage an improbable comeback, or fight hard with ten men. None of those have anything to do with aesthetics, though. There are further exceptions, the occasional really dazzling performance that’s cursed with genuine bad luck. But I’d wager that if you took a survey at the final whistle of two crowds that’ve just seen their teams beaten two-nil at home, one set up with defensive midfielders and an emphasis on counter-attacking and the other with a more positive outlook, you’d find pretty much exactly the same set of emotions.

Reading a lot of recent discussion around this labouring Watford side, you get the sense that everyone just wants to feel a bit better about it all. But defeat feels much the same, whatever. Playing a couple of wingers won’t make getting beaten any more palatable…and besides, the coach’s job is surely to put out a side with the best chance of winning, not to make losing look attractive. (Quizzical look at Roberto Martinez.)

At which point, you’ll argue that we wouldn’t necessarily lose. That’s true, obviously. But I question the wisdom of changing a basic formula that’s got us so far this season – hands bitten off, and so on – in favour of one that’s apparently reliant on Will Hosk…sorry, Steven Berghuis. And even if it isn’t reliant on Steven Berghuis, as would seem sensible, I wonder whether the coach is sitting on quite the wealth of attacking riches that is often implied; rather than simply being too frugal to spend those riches, it may be that he’s wise enough to know that our opponents will usually enjoy an open game, and its likely outcome, more than we will. I hear Adlene Guedioura’s name mentioned often, but I don’t quite have the faith the others do. I hear Almen Abdi’s name mentioned often too…and yet it seems to me that Abdi is a far more effective and useful player than he was twelve months ago, even if he’s less likely to win a medal for lyric and speculative works.

3. The season gets older. The introductory waffle gets longer. The match report gets shorter.

4. The mood around Vicarage Road is actually rather brighter than I’d imagined it to be. One should never take too much notice of what’s said on forums and messageboards, perhaps. (Or blogs.) For now, expectations continue to be outweighed by achievements, the complaints are held in check by the league table, and it’s the away fans who unfurl a banner requesting their manager’s removal before kickoff. The Rookery manages to combine flag-waving fervour and idle chit-chat in equal measure; it’s all very Home Counties, all very polite. It doesn’t take long for the most successful season in many fans’ lifetimes to drift into mundanity. It needs something – deserves something – to remember it by.

5. You can take your pick of the halves. You can have the sensible one, in which there are no goals (I’m not counting injury time) and only occasional suggestions of goals; it’s built carefully around line-ups, formations and drills that’ve been subject to the coaches’ deliberations all week and possibly longer. Or you can have the increasingly deranged one, in which all of that is furiously slung out of the window like a cheating husband’s clothes onto the front lawn. Me, I preferred the first, but part of me wishes I was more fun.

6. It isn’t a very good game, but it’s strangely absorbing and the time flies. Everton are evidently vulnerable to a well-deployed long ball, but we can’t quite capitalise on Deeney’s dominance in the air. Referee Kevin Friend’s frequent interruptions serve both to irritate, like the remote control falling into the clutches of an eccentric aunt with a fondness for gameshows, and to draw you into the detail of the contest as you concentrate more intently on the plot when you do get to watch some football between the whistles. An early free kick against Ben Watson in a fifty-fifty contest is the kind of thing that will ruin our beautiful game, reducing it to mere deferential shuffling about. I hate him in a way that I pretend to hate politicians.

7. We undeniably lack a few degrees of confidence, but we’re very far from a hopeless cause. On the right, Valon Behrami’s selection might be a largely negative one, but he plays Juan Carlos Paredes’ straight man to rather good effect. I’ve yet to see Etienne Capoue have the kind of game of which he’s clearly capable, and now doesn’t seem a likely time, but his surges from deep still seem a reliable way of dragging us forward, even if it’d be great if he played in boots rather than rollerskates. Ben Watson is my player of the season and I don’t care what you think, unless you agree. And Jose Manuel Jurado…ah, now, there’s the thing.

Those long balls aside, whatever threat we carry in the first half is by virtue of getting Jurado on the ball, drifting in from the left into the kind of positions where he can pick a pass, drag out some space or, early on, damn nearly smack in a “Goal of the Season” contender. When he drops back to the halfway line to collect the ball from Holebas behind him, it all seems rather a waste of a player and a position; you can see the validity of some of the criticisms levelled at the coach. But when he darts down those little alleyways like a Dickensian pickpocket, it all makes sense. He’s quite a player, I think: so comfortable on the ball, so bright with it. It doesn’t feel as if we’ve really made the most of him. He bears no small responsibility for that, but represents as close to An Answer as I can see from here.

8. We finish the half on the front foot. Everton have had their moments – Barkley drifting about, Lukaku all sulk and menace, Gomes parrying well when called upon – but we quickly regain our defensive obstinacy after last week’s capitulation. We’ve got this far by making our opponents work really hard for their goals; that immediately makes the rest of the game seem a little bit easier. Capoue comes close on the half-volley after a Jurado free-kick hits the wall, then Holebas heads over from the resulting corner. The home stands applaud the effort and the intent.

9. A minute of injury time. The obligatory minute. Much of the Rookery heads off to beat the refreshment queues, while Britos dallies, slips and allows McCarthy to give Everton the lead. Scratch out part of the preceding paragraph. We suddenly look despondent, heads down and shoulders slumped; the second half looms, unbearable and endless. The Rookery empties further. Odion Ighalo has to find someone to help him take the kickoff; too many of his teammates are already at the half-time inquest. We punt it upfield without much care; Ighalo chases willingly, Stones and Robles contrive to concede a ridiculous corner, and we’re instantly level.

You can see why Everton fans would be so frustrated. The mark of under-achievement: to carelessly chuck away what others would use to build a winning position. If they’d seen out thirty seconds of injury time, I don’t doubt that they’d have won this game. But they couldn’t and they didn’t. You’d get very tired of that, very quickly.

10. That sets the tone for the second half. It begins with the introduction of Guedioura on the right, an attacking move which is perhaps as close as we’ll get to Quique letting his hair down. As ever, Guedioura brings with him tremendous energy and questionable focus; his arrival briefly sees us pushing hard for a second goal and yet also heralds a gradual disintegration in the shape of the game. By the end of it, the play is so frenetic that it sometimes seems as if there are two balls in play, one in either penalty area. There’s a sense of it becoming a sudden death tie, as if the teams are being required to remove players one by one until a winner is scored. It’s all highly entertaining, and a little bizarre.

In between, the football isn’t very good. But it isn’t very good in a cultured way. These errors belong to a different class: when Stones clatters passes into the lower GT twice in the first half, he looks up first, calmly picks his spot. Good players have time on the ball, even if they then wang it full-pelt into the stands. When Paredes lets a pass roll under his foot in the second, he does so while thinking several moves ahead in the sequence of passes; no simple mis-control. We’re very familiar with Championship mistakes, with lower class stumble and muddle. These are very much offshore mistakes, if you know what I mean. (“Hello. Mock the Week? Yes, I’m available…”)

11. Jurado is replaced and, unhappy at the decision with some justification, takes about as long to leave the pitch as he would if it were one-nil in the World Cup final with two minutes left and the team down to nine men. Everton have an air of frailty and vulnerability about them, and it feels like a game we ought to win. I refer you to the comment about an open game suiting our opponents more than us, however. So instead, it’s Gomes who’s called into action, saving low to his right from Lennon and then clawing the ball away from Lukaku, then diverting another Lennon shot around the post.

He gets his moment of luck late on, as Lukaku strikes the bar rather than turning another rebound into an empty net; as often, however, it’s a moment of luck that we earn, forcing the striker to hurry and snatch at the chance. We make it as difficult as we possibly can, and in that we’ve been pretty relentless throughout the campaign. It’s worked.

12. By the end, everyone’s lost their heads and everything’s complete chaos. Nobody wants to settle for a point and somehow that gets lost in translation: anything but a point, anything. Attacks swirl around, players drop with Wembley-threatening injuries, there appears to be infinite space but absolutely no time. Robles saves superbly from Watson’s deflected curler; that’s as close as we get. It’s thrilling, but mainly in the way that kicking a sandcastle into the wind is thrilling. It’s a bit of a mess, a bit childish and it doesn’t really achieve much. It’s not as fun as winning.

13. This is much more like it, though. Not actually it, but like it. Particularly in the first half, we’re recognisable as the rather obstinate, rather tough side that’s earnt a lot of its points simply by refusing to get out of the way. We could do with a lift, but it doesn’t have to come in the form of a radical change of approach; a bit more belief in what we’re doing and a small revival in fortunes would do the job just as well. What we need is something to send us into next season with a spring in our step, something to remind us what we’ve actually achieved this season.

We’ll be all right. We’ll be fine. But the opportunity remains to make this a season for the record books, for the historians, for the grandchildren. We’d have taken this at the start of the season, but who wants it now, eh? Who’d settle for fifteenth and a semi-final now? Bollocks to that. That’s like asking Gabriele Bianchi to be content with his bronze.

There’s a line about going for gold here, but it’s too corny to write with a straight face. You know what I mean, though.

Come on.

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Comments»

1. petebradshaw - 10/04/2016

Chapeau sir. Chapeau.

2. Roger Smith - 10/04/2016

“By the end of it, the play is so frenetic that it sometimes seems as if there are two balls in play, one in either penalty area.”

Brilliant and succinct as usual, Ian. Of course I go to every game wanting Watford to win, but I also go to be entertained. So give me end-to-end football every time, if the alternative is merely to keep possession until we give it away.

3. drdavewatford - 10/04/2016

Anything’s better than sodding golf.

4. Goldenboy60 - 10/04/2016

Yes totally agree about the game. Enthralling, challenging, unpredictable, end to end, and no let up in tempo. But certainly not technically the best by a long way. For me this was like a cup tie, end to end, mistakes, chances, but enthralling.

A draw was a fair result, and for weeks now I have been thinking that Holebas could play the left hand side of midfield in front of Ake. He is a very good athlete, can beat opponents in 1 v 1 and has a great left foot. And he is always a threat going down the outside but he can also cut in and cause so many problems. With Guedioura on the other side it gives us pace to go and support the front players. I totally take your point on Jurado. Clearly the most technically gifted player in the squad by a long way, and often keeps the ball for us. BUT, he is not generally creating chances let alone scoring them, and I feel in this Division you need a little more in terms of bringing something special to the party, other than keep the ball for the team.

Suddenly from many people there is a view and criticism against Flores. For me he has done brilliantly this season. We are organised and defensively very sound and have battled our way into staying in this League by playing this way with the players we have.

Me thinks that next season, we will see a turn round in players. Better technical players to build on what we have and keep, and to improve our week to week performances.

The last thing is there seemed to be so many empty seats once again yesterday. I just don’t get it, but perhaps do. Perhaps people who can, buy season tickets for £500, and can afford not to worry about the games that are not against the big 5 or 6 clubs. I wish for the club to try and do something about this.

Ian Grant - 11/04/2016

Yes, I agree about Jurado: the end product doesn’t match the promise. But the promise is unmatched by anyone else in the squad, unless I’ve missed something. My take on it is that he should be given the kind of strong backing that’s been beneficial for others; I don’t see that taking him off after an hour really gets us anywhere. I imagine that others would say that he’s already been given enough rope.

5. Andrew Hinds (@andrewhinds) - 10/04/2016

Thunk 13: For those feeling cheesed off with our recent form, take a look at those hanging signs in the Upper Rous concourse for some perspective. At the very least, this season deserves to replace 1999/2000 on one of them. That makes it one of the best seasons in our 135 year history.

6. Marc - 11/04/2016

My brother in law is Portuguese and a massive Benfica fan. At the start of the season when I excitedly told him that QSF was going to be our new manager he was less than impressed. Apparently he did ok during his tenure at Benfica and when he was replaced, the new manager, with the same players, did much better.

Given the drop in form recently and as you allude to, the misuse of players (Jurado) I wonder if QSF might be let go of over the summer. He has done his job (kept us in the prem) and I do like him. However I feel that there is much more potential that he is just not tapping into.

I cannot hazard a guess as to his replacement but I wonder what names Pozzos have up their sleeves.

Ian Grant - 11/04/2016

Just to clarify, I don’t think we are mis-using Jurado. I think we’re under-using him, which isn’t quite the same thing. I may be mis-reading the situation, but I’d like to dump a load of responsibility on his shoulders – you’re in the team, you’re not coming off after an hour, make it happen for us – and see how that turns out. It all feels a bit indecisive to me at the moment.

7. Tim Turner - 11/04/2016

Cut a couple of syllables and thunk 3 would make a rather poignant haiku.

8. NickB - 11/04/2016

Better than sodding golf? Last nights spellbinding back nine of the Masters was a damned sight more exciting than sodding football…

Ian Grant - 11/04/2016

Yes, I wasn’t watching (obviously), but I realise that quip could’ve been better timed…


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