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Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (30/04/2016) 01/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- Well it’s been a bloody awful week.  Sunday, it turned out, wasn’t going to get any more enjoyable in retrospect, not going to be shrugged off and life just got on with. Not yet, anyway.  I’ve been a scowling grumpy argument waiting to happen.

Much as it’s been tempting to regard the existence of a home game, any game with Villa as a banker three points, the scheduling of this one the week after the semi-final always felt a little unfortunate…  ominous, even.  It’s a sad indictment of Villa’s season that even for a (still) newly promoted side, a defeat to this once mainstay top flight club would be an awful blemish, an embarrassment.  Worse, but for that vital win at the Hawthorns it could have capsized us back into the relegation picture.  Whichever way last Sunday had gone – a win would have been as difficult to refocus from – this game was going to be trickier than it might otherwise have been and a defeat at Hawthorns would have seen us going in on 38 points.  Defeat to Villa, to the team that everyone beats and who had lost their last ten, would have left us extremely uncomfortable.

As it is we DID win at the Hawthorns and were already effectively safe before kick off.  It was still an awkward fixture for Quique to have to contend with though given the speculation and suggestions of the past week.  An awkward fixture, or an opportunity…  a pliant opponent, exactly who you’d want to be playing if you were to follow through on your commitment to play more expansively once our status was secure.  His team selection, we thought, would reveal which… and whilst the full back selections of Paredes and Anya suggested positive intent, the retention of Jurado and Abdi in their much-maligned wide roles was far from encouraging.

2- It all started rather well though.  Seems like a long time ago now…  but the sun was shining and we were on the front foot.  Villa looked as hapless as advertised, Ciaran Clark passing the ball obediently to Suárez under no pressure, Cissokho slicing a clearance into the GT stand.  The Hornets pushed forward without quite executing that final pass, converting the chance.  Ben Watson responded to the Rookery’s invitation by clouting a dropping ball against the crossbar from well outside the box.  Ighalo and Deeney went for the same ball and got in each other’s way.  It was coming.  Meanwhile Daughter 2, particularly distraught by last weekend’s result, was happily clarifying how the desire to synchronise the weekend’s final fixtures would accommodate differing amounts of injury time across fixtures.  Jordan Ayew clouted a shot into the Vicarage Road end.  The Villa support, their gallows humour well-practiced and extravagant, celebrated as if they’d scored.

Then they did.  A set piece, Cathcart lost his man but… well executed really, not a criminal offence, Clark’s movement snuck him the narrowest of openings and he exploited it.  Instantly the mood changed,  the sky clouded over and the cold rain returned.  This was a psychological battle as much as a footballing one, our worst fears for the afternoon in danger of being realised.  As we reeled on the pitch Jordan Ayew clouted a shot past Gomes and off the upright.  Straws to cling to for Villa here, I thought…  they weren’t great, but with a foothold in the game they were no longer awful either.  It’s rare that they’ve been in the position of having much to defend for a while and they’ll need more than merely holding it together next season but…  there was a spine there.  Evidence of some kind of spirit.  Mercifully we scored on half time, or the afternoon could have descended much more quickly.  Abdi – livelier, and swopping with Suárez to cut inside on occasions – went down and pinged the free kick himself, right into the bottom corner.  The mood lifted, “game on”.

3- So Villa scoring again before the stands had re-filled after the break wasn’t great.  At the time the great chasm that Ayew was able to exploit made it look like awful defending, on reflection that reaction did the attacking team insufficient credit, it was a terrific finish… but still, too many defenders not doing enough.  And of course it’s as you were, with even Villa, woebegone Villa, coping pretty easily thanks with our four midfielders in a row.  Sit back, get people behind the ball, the very definition of “come on, then!”. We dominated possession but it was the visitors who were closer to scoring on the break, Gestede lamping into the Rookery when he should have hit the target.  Ponderous, cautious, impotent… Jurado had briefly caused mischief on the left when the scores were level but was ineffective against Hutton and Bacuna – whose berating from the visiting support, “Champions League – you’re having a laugh”, faded as the game developed.  Deeney kept plugging, but he and Ighalo had little to feed off.  The turning of the crowd wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but it was happening. Twelve minutes into the half, the woeful Paredes was withdrawn to pathetic cheering from the home stands, and on came Steven Berghuis.

4- In Flores’ position, whether his future is already decided or not, Berghuis suddenly becomes a very significant figure.  Before the turn of the year, as we were flying, Flores’ judgement that Berghuis, then 23 not 17, in the full Dutch squad, £4.5m, “wasn’t ready” seemed merely a bit odd, but something most were prepared to accept on trust.  In the last few weeks that position has changed – Berghuis is now “ready”.  And in fairness, little of what little we have seen on the pitch contradicts Flores’ narrative – Berghuis didn’t pull up any trees in the few opportunities he had, and has looked more potent in his recent outings.  But what’s beyond dispute is that the side has been screaming out for something like Berghuis, this Berghuis, in recent months.  Something different, something direct, a different kind of weapon.  Flores’ caution may have been well-founded, but circumstances have done him no favours.

It would be wrong to paint his introduction as the only turning point, it clearly wasn’t.  But suddenly we had someone picking up the ball on the right and attacking Villa.  Going left, going right, whipping in crosses.  It wasn’t totally effective but it was something and it was positive and it stood out a bloody mile.  Villa were looking uncomfortable again.  Amrabat appeared on the left flank and added to the threat. The second significant incident came in the 73rd minute… and it was a throwback to nearly 20 years ago in Kenny Jackett’s season in the third tier.  We’d have one chance per game to unleash Wayne Andrews’ brutal pace – which was all it was – before the opponent wised up and treated him accordingly.  And here, as if we’d spent the whole game lulling Villa into a false sense of security, Ben Watson – under par again – dropped a pass behind their defence and there was Ikechi Anya, breaking beyond the strikers of all things.  How it would have ended we’ll never know, Aly Cissokho sliding across in a reckless fashion not entirely at odds with the rest of his performance.  He won the ball, but took the man as well.  Red card.

It still wasn’t quite backs to the wall for Villa.  It would be nice to be able to report that those two late goals were the inevitable consequence of late pressure, it wasn’t quite like that.  Instead it was a missile of a cross from Berghuis, perfect, undefendable.  Deeney’s header equally accomplished, a goal of beauty.  Relief all round.  Minutes later, Villa now rocking, Troy was there again.  A good day for him, a victory for persistence.

5- It wasn’t great though, as you’ll have gathered.  In the end, in the end we won the game; two late goals suggest “luck”, I don’t think it was a lucky win.  It was a case of us taking too long to find a way to demonstrate our superiority, “sign of a good team is…” and so forth and so forth.  But that miserable twenty minutes or so at the start of the second half demonstrated what has been painfully evident for weeks – that unless Iggy is on his game, which he hasn’t been for a while, our offensive set-up is horribly easy to defend against.  How Quique sets his team out in the remaining games – not to mention what happens afterwards – will be fascinating.



1. Roger Smith - 01/05/2016

We may be safe, but for long periods we made the rock bottom side look good. What do you make of Suarez? His lack of cover for the back four might be compensated by a stream of cultured passes to set up attack after attack. Instead, the game seemed to paass him by. And to give Iggy some much needed credit, what is described in many reports as a loose ball was in fact a perfect chest down for Deeney to lash home.

Matt Rowson - 01/05/2016

Not sure what to make of Suárez yet. A very good player not fully exploited yet, I think. Given his fitness etc etc you’ve got to wait until next season to pass judgement but he’s not lived up to his billing yet, even if he’s shown suggestions that he might do.

Iggy. Yes.

James - 02/05/2016

I think the problem with Suarez is that he and Watson are just too similar. They are both primarily destructive and don’t provide the central outlet that Capoue does. With the two of them in they just get in each other’s way and both end up looking poor.
At this time of the season we can afford to experiment so I’d like to see Suarez given a chance to take the defensive role on on his own, with Abdi the other central midfielder providing the outlet.

2. jeremy ottman - 01/05/2016

In the first half of our dire performance against Bournemouth away (in the much-lauded first half of the season) Capoue (he of the `better than Zidane` fame) gave the ball away for the umpteenth time. Watford were hopeless.
My son opined `another Flores masterclass`. Boric gave us a point which Gomes preserved.
Which, allied to Ighalo`s goals, a solid defence and Deeney`s wholehearted and often effective performances have ensured another season of Premiership football.
But the Villa game yesterday showed , if there were any doubt, that this team, in the formation that we are playing, will not be enough to keep us up next season.
We got out of jail by the impetus introduced by Berghuis, a player who has been mostly ignored and , arguably,mistreated by Flores.
Has Flores done well keeping us up?
Yes, he has.
Is he likely to keep us up next year on the basis of what we witnessed yesterday and the tactics he employed?
In the harsh world of modern football, there is only one decision that can be made.

Matt Rowson - 01/05/2016

Bournemouth away was awful, and Capoue had a very poor game but it was a pretty isolated poor performance in that half of the season.

Your conclusion… I dunno. I’m really torn. Not that my opinion is likely to determine any outcome, mind…

3. Harefield Hornet - 01/05/2016

Amrabat on the left,Berghuis on the right. Has to be the way forward now. When the latter came on at West Ham the other Wednesday I couldn’t believe I was watching the same player as I’d seen play a few bit parts earlier in the season. I noticed how much encouragement Troy was giving him at the Boleyn ground. A word here and an arm round the shoulder etc. His cross for Prodl’s volley that night was as good as the cross yesterday. The captain obviously sees goal signs when he’s on the pitch. And to the miserable people on the other chat sites that are moaning we were lucky because we scored two late goals ? – How come the bigger teams are lauded for doing the same thing so often. Makes a welcome change as far as I am concerned.

Matt Rowson - 01/05/2016

I was astonished that the formation you describe wasn’t tried from the start in this one. Given Anfield away and then two games that are likely to be significant and hotly contested, this was the game to give it a go.

4. Adam Segal - 01/05/2016

Berghuis was a breath of fresh air. I hope he starts the three remaining games, with Amrobat on the left. It gives us a cutting edge for a change but will our lovable stubborn mule of a manger concur ? Great report as usual Matt and it will be fascinating to see the team that faces Liverpool. Nothing to lose now so I hope we go out all guns blazing.

5. Ramsgate Horn - 01/05/2016

Agree with comments.We got out of Jail, Flores has done a great job keeping us up. and a semi final place to boot, But this game showed offensive frailties. Jurado is skilful and maybe has been unlucky not to score in some games before,but Amrabat looks tougher and produces more, not perfect yet by any means as sometimes driibbles round in circles but gets the odd great assist we looked far more potent when he and Berghuis came on.
Berghuis gives us another option which we need badly shades of Rick Holden on one of his good days [ Mainly for Oldham rather than us] that wicked direct first time cross more British in style than Jurado who mostly doesnt get enough good balls in.
Last few games should see some more options explored
Hats off to Trot for some great finishing

6. Martin G - 01/05/2016

I’m torn too. Given we are 3 points and a 14 goal difference better off than the much lauded Eddie Howe it seems very harsh that Quique could be replaced, but 2016 has been largely tedious and the sideways/backwards passing is not a good watch. So a great achievement to keep us up and well clear of relegation but following the same approach next year – will it work? Yesterday was pretty poor. Some of the passing was absolutely atrocious. Probably the least engaging 5 goal game I’ve ever seen, but the Abdi goal and the cross by Berghuis for the second were some compensation.

7. Stuart Campbell - 01/05/2016

Just a thought about Villa. Yes, a miserably broken team and club. And rather sad. But they had one player who, for me, shone above the rest. A Premier League class forward who looked so much better than his team mates. We need another decent forward or two next year. What price Jordan Ayew?

Matt Rowson - 02/05/2016

Didn’t think they were that bad. Didn’t think Ayew was that good.

Stuart Campbell - 02/05/2016

Probably right. Recent switch to drinking Bovril at the game has probably affected my fading judgement somewhat. And Britos didn’t exactly have a commanding game. Hope we’re more coherent in the remaining games and finish with some style. Look forward to seeing more of Berghuis.

8. Steve Maguire - 02/05/2016

Another brilliant post Matt.

Have to say I am also torn on Quique – 1/ he seems a lovely bloke and a gentleman and 2/ he has probably done what Pozzo asked of him (albeit a season of 2 halves).

I don’t want yet another manager with the media circus/ laughing stock that will follow. However, am I convinced that Quique can turn it around and play with a different approach or a plan b? I’m not I’m afraid. I think he can, but I just think this lacklustre style Is “his style” of play which is probably more suitable to working in Spain.

I couldn’t believe we played negative football in a one-off cup game at Wembley and was even more astonished when I saw the line up versus Villa.

Do you think Pozzo will change their tune if the last 3 games resemble a more attacking style of play with players playing in the correct positions ?

9. Richard - 03/05/2016

Regarding Plan B and the ability to change a game, an interesting stat from Match of the Day – Saint Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth have ‘only’ won 4 points this season from losing positions. Agree that the approach to the Wembley semi was amongst otherthings too negative and that Berghuis at least should have started against Villa.

As far as the more attacking style is concerned, what are people expecting? Leicester have won the league with possession stats typically around 40%. If we want gung-ho attacking football, I think we’re in the wrong division.

SteveG - 03/05/2016

Not ‘gung-ho’, which suggests that we would neglect the defensive duties that have served us well – but making the best of the possession when we have it and looking to pick the best team rather than the best individuals and hoping to find a system that fits them after the event. Jurado is almost certainly a ‘better’ player than either Holebas or Guedioura, but he’s never looked the right person to be a wide midfielder.

Another thought – with all the comments about players who would strengthe the current squad (and personally I’m not convinced that Vydra would have added much), there’s been no-one who’s lamented the loss of Danny Drinkwater after his uneventful loan spell a few years ago. And yet … in the right place, at the right time, in the right team? Leicester have absolutely made the best of the talents at their disposal with excellent team spirit and a very effective use of counter attack to go along with a well organised defence.

We’ve done well this season, but there’s still that nagging feeling that in the second half of the season in particular the whole has been less than the sum of the parts.

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