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Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (20/08/2016) 21/08/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. At some point in my experiments as an amateur photographer, it became obvious that a greater element of chance was required if the final result was to be in any way interesting. My photographs improved immeasurably when I switched back to film, intentionally depriving myself of the ability to review what I was doing as I was doing it. They improved further when I started ignoring the viewfinder, and I still find that the shots of which I’m most proud are taken instinctively, with the camera at arm’s length, or on the ground, or anywhere other than pressed to my face.

It isn’t that I can’t compose a pleasing photograph. But something in the process of deliberately placing my subjects inside that square or rectangle imprisons them, deadens them, makes them lifeless and small and inconsequential. No matter how attractive the images, they communicate too little, they come across as tentative and uncertain. I’d get away with it if my subject matter were truly arresting, but I’m fortunate to have a comfortable enough existence that dramatic events rarely cross my path, and I’m much too timid to seek them out. Photos of allotments it is, then.

So, chance is my saviour. Because chance is never tentative, never uncertain, always absolute. (I say this in the knowledge that m’colleague is a statistician who’s likely to pull this half-arsed drivel to bits while huffing with annoyance. I keenly look forward to him penning an introduction based around Samuel Beckett’s late prose works to get his own back.) It lends a conviction to my photos that they otherwise lack; it frames them in a different, much more compelling way. And it frees me of grown-up responsibility: I can flit about with my camera, waving it around and pressing the shutter whenever the time seems right, and the results hopefully take on some of that spirit. These days, I take nearly all of my photographs using an old bakelite camera whose only controls are a shutter button and a winder; no focusing, no light metering, no depth of field, nothing to fiddle with. Choose a picture, press the button. It makes me very happy.

2. Watching the European Championships over the summer, it struck me how vital a significant element of chance is to the spectacle, and how the relentless clamour for consistency risks leaving us with something as exotic as a picnic in a car park. As another match settled into an extended game of cat-and-mouse, I became aware of how little I was watching hadn’t been carefully planned out on a tactics board beforehand.

Because the similarly relentless clamour for skilled players to be allowed to play skilfully, rather than forced to do battle physically, meets inevitably with a tactical riposte. Put simply, if you can’t kick ’em up in the air any more, you’d better stop ’em from having any space. It becomes a logic problem, and the thrilling cut-and-thrust of the best game you can bring to mind is ever less the ideal and ever more something to be guarded against by work on the training ground.

Many of those games were screaming out for something random, something genuinely unpredictable. No coincidence that one of the few proper games, the French defeat of Germany, was sent hurtling spectacularly off-course by a daft penalty; similarly, Wales’s tumultuous win over Belgium was made to seem even more dramatic, even more precarious, by crucial decisions missed, a red card and a potential spot kick. But elsewhere, the stultifying greyness of individual errors ironed out and covered for, of well-drilled systems, of well-officiated games. Oh, for a rush of blood to someone’s head, for a blown fuse or a ruptured gasket. Oh, for someone leading a cavalry charge, for someone on a pig-headed crusade. Oh, for a self-righteous prick of a referee, all rehearsed show and excruciating stubborness and spectacularly upset applecarts.

Oh, for Anders Frisk.

3. Oh, for Troy Deeney.

If there’s a difference between the version of the game that we get and the version of the game that we’d tell our grandchildren about, it’s that: someone forcing their way into history in the way that Tommy Mooney once did, simply by refusing to accept anything else, damn the consequences. That cavalry charge, that pig-headed crusade. In between lies the version of the game which seemed to be within our grasp but is ultimately just an illusion: the routine win over Chelsea, forgotten by the end of the season. Imagine that.

4. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We haven’t mentioned the new Hornet Shop yet, looming above the entrance to Occupation Road with its promise of yellowness in so many forms that the mind boggles and the wallet shrinks in fear. It looks like something from one of those new grounds they have nowadays; I expect they just read your mind on the way in, hand you a carrier bag with all your dreams in it and point you to a self-service till. Bet it doesn’t smell as tantalising as the old one in the Vicarage Road precinct, though. Yes, that old.

Nor have we mentioned the presence of Nathaniel Chalobah on the Chelsea bench. There was a player. Could still be, I guess, or could be destined for a season on loan at Huddersfield. I hope not. Of all the sporadically infuriating talents to have passed through our doors in recent seasons – and there have been quite a few – he remains among my favourites, and it’d be a terrible shame if all of that naive arrogance and arrogant naivety was gradually drained out of him by the system. Had he the hunger and the opportunity, he could conquer the world. Or give it a shot, at any rate.

And then there are our two new signings, paraded into the centre circle with their newly-minted shirts to receive the crowd’s welcome, a courtesy never afforded to Kerry Dixon or Mick Quinn back in the good old days. Those of us who pay next to no attention over the summer and then spend the first few weeks of the season catching up are grateful for the absence of new faces from the starting eleven. Nevertheless, if we were being cynical, we might suggest that this parading of the week’s recruits is an attempt at reassuring the punters that the matter is in hand…

5. Because if you ask me, the squad looks a little bit thin. There are players here who will undoubtedly be grateful for a fresh chance under a new manager, but the leap from having a chance to taking it is a considerable one. Some of those players – you can fill in their names yourselves easily enough – have no small amount of responsibility placed on their shoulders as it stands. At some point, preferably soon, the recruitment needs to start hitting a winning streak.

As if to prove the point, we play much of the match as if Jose Manuel Jurado had been selected but had just popped to the toilet. There are some good things to report from our midfield: Valon Behrami, in particular, has the satisfied look of a square peg firmly walloped into a square hole. But there is also a vast space where all of that lovely neat link-up play used to be, and getting service into Messrs Deeney and Ighalo is like attempting a game of frisbee across the M1. I found Jurado intolerable for many reasons, but someone, whether scout, manager or player, urgently needs to fill the gap he’s left. Therein lies the possibility of being a better side than last season. Or a worse one.

6. The first half split tidily into three parts: pre-downpour, downpour, post-downpour. A bit like punk, then, except with rain. That it was so defined by the weather says much about the football, which had neither the fury of a really good contest nor the comedic value of a really bad one, and which very much fell into the category of games planned out on a tactics board. Very high quality mundanity, but mundanity nonetheless. Organic artisan mundanity, with a salad of foraged hedgerow leaves, on some sort of wooden board.

We could definitely argue that we had the better of it: early on, we managed to get Jose Holebas a sight of goal, albeit from a narrow angle, before a terrific, obstinate run from Nordin Amrabat on the right found Odion Ighalo at the near post, unable to get the decisive touch. In a game of few going on no chances, a couple of openings represented a measure of domination, particularly as our resistance to the prodding and probing of Chelsea’s army of little buzzy small-named people, who I find very easy to confuse, remained strong. We had little creativity of our own, but obstinately sat on theirs.

The half continued for about fifteen minutes longer than seemed strictly necessary, talking to itself long after everyone had stopped listening, although Walter Mazzarri’s (justifiably) furious reaction to the award of an injury time free kick suggested fun to come. There’s a moment during the full BBC post-match interview when he looks straight into the camera and it’s like he’s eating your soul with a teaspoon.

7. The second half briefly threatened to be no more stirring than the first, except with relentless commentary from a new arrival two seats along, a hugely enthusiastic young man who insisted on referring to Jose Holebas as “Hollers” in the manner of Test Match Special and who expressed, repeatedly and repeatedly, an eagerness for the arrival of Matej Vydra which began as youthful optimism, quickly crossed the border into delusional and was last seen heading off into obsessive with only a torch and a hunting knife.

And then the football started. Out of nowhere in particular, Guedioura’s arcing cross, Deeney underneath it, Etienne Capoue striking a half-volley that looked for all the world as if it was flying wide until it smashed into the top corner. And suddenly, this most unmemorable of matches had a reason to exist, and we were on our feet urging the team towards a victory that seemed…if not improbable, then somehow remote. And Chelsea were throwing on substitutes in a bid to save the day, and we were retreating and retreating, further and further, and the ball was flying around our area…and this is the bit where someone needs to drag the team over the line, by sheer willpower alone, if necessary. Troy Deeney at Brighton, that kind of thing.

8. But there’s no answer. Because Deeney is isolated and absent, hampered by a frustrated booking, largely removed from the game. No-one else can get a foothold. We miss some of Ben Watson’s tidy give-and go; on the other side, the wondrous Kante clicks like a metronome. Chelsea ruthlessly wrestle the game from our grasp, prising our fingers open. Batshuayi scores after Gomes fails to hold a Hazard shot, then Adlene Guedioura’s ill-judged pass sets up a ruthless break for the winner. They hit the bar late on for good measure. We have no answer. (No, hugely enthusiastic and now despairing young man, we don’t: Matej Vydra is thrown on for the last five and barely has a touch.) These are individual errors, sure, but we lose any control of the game; we lose the game.

9. Much to be satisfied with and encouraged by, unquestionably. But when I wrote about our narrow-ish defeat to Palace last year, I suggested that we needed to concentrate on the negatives while there was still some credit in the bank. It’s no good waiting until the wheels fall off. Same applies, I think.

The manager’s right: for seventy-five minutes, we were impressive, robust, consistent. But any coach worth his corn would be looking more closely at what was mostly missing: creativity, possession, threat. The player willing to take a chance, to do something unexpected or instinctive. The player who can change the game. That player is often Troy Deeney, of course, but not if he isn’t involved. That player might be Robert Pereyra. Maybe someone else.

But it needs to be someone.


1. SteveG - 21/08/2016

It’s a characteristic summary of AG’s time in a yellow shirt that he was responsible for both the moment of creativity that set up the goal and the misplaced pass that led to the winner being conceded. But as you imply at the end Pereyra’s arrival almost certainly signals his return to the bench.

Always careful about offering an opinion based on written accounts and the 3CR commentary, but given that we did appear to be doing well for 75 minutes, might we have held on with some earlier (and possibly different) substitutions?

As so often in the Premier League, we have got very close to a hugely impressive result only to end up frustratingly with nothing to show. But we knew the first few weeks would be tough.

2. Roger Smith - 21/08/2016

That someone who could have changed the game was Matej Vydra – when we were 1-0 up with 15 mins to play, and their back line was 10 yards into our half. Instead, he wasn’t introduced until they’re 2-1 up and not needing to push at all. Your new neighbour was far from alone.

“Many of those games were screaming out for something random, something genuinely unpredictable…Oh, for a self-righteous prick of a referee.” Oh, for Atwell? Maybe not!

JohnF - 21/08/2016

I agree that he is well worth trying because his pace on to a ball behind the defenders would at least force them deeper. That changes the dynamic. An impact player in the prem perhaps.

Ian Grant - 22/08/2016

On Vydra…yeah, maybe. I can certainly see that the player we once saw would’ve come in very handy, and it’s certainly true that the inaction on the bench wasn’t cast in a flattering light by the last fifteen minutes. Never a good look to be throwing on substitutes to rescue the game in the last five minutes. But the Vydra thing is much more than tactical, isn’t it? There’s a faith in him that he’s scarcely justified since his first six months; in lots of ways, that faith is admirable, but I wish others were afforded the same level of patience and understanding…

Roger Smith - 22/08/2016

The faith in Vydra hasn’t been repaid because managers and the team haven’t played to his strengths. He is poor at keeping the ball when it is played to his feet and he is closely marked. He is good at finishing one-on-one situations when the ball is played over the top into acres of space. Saturday was one such window of opportunity, but it closed once they scored.

Ian Grant - 22/08/2016

Fair enough. For me, his strengths are too easily nullified and the rest of his game is far too fragile, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. As you say, Saturday would’ve been an opportunity to do so; my comment about his lack of impact in the last five minutes was a little unkind.

3. Goldenboy60 - 21/08/2016

To me Troy still looks overweight unless it is the new kit that accentuates his build, and he ended up making very little happen for himself and the team. Ighalo at the moment ends up fighting the centre halves in a physical battle rather than moving them around, which made John Terry’s job yesterday very easy. And yet we looked in control until Chelsea turned on the squeeze in the last 25 minutes.

But up until that point, the threat was growing, and yet for many a moment it looked like we could perhaps hold out, until Batshuayi popped up with the equalise because he was willing to run in behind us. Something that Costa could not do all game.

You couldn’t fault our effort, but perhaps our naivety in dropping off too deep ending in defending around the penalty spot will usually ensure you get punished, especially at this level. That always invites trouble. The suicidal square pass from Guedioura started the downfall. He knew his decision was so badly wrong when he was laid prostrate on the ground in Chelsea’s half after the 2nd goal had gone in.

And this where the Premier League is not kind, but very very ruthless. Have we got enough this season? I suggest that at the moment, the answer is MAYBE. But the mistakes of some decision making make us very vulnerable. I feel the Premier League has gone up another notch this season, and our second season will be harder, but we will see. Our opening fixture list is very tough, and we could quite easily lose our first 3 home matches, with another very tough away game at West Ham’s new venture in the Olympic Stadium in addition. It is important that we do not lose a good mentality or confidence in this period, and that we take advantage of the run of fixtures starting at Burnley at the end of September. This is a much bigger test this season. Maybe the additions of Kaboul and Pereyra may help. I sense that Kaboul and his experience would not have let us drop off too deep at the death, and one hopes that Pereyra can give us more invention and improved decision making going forward.

It will be interesting.

Roger Smith - 21/08/2016

I was actually encouraged by our performance. We were undone only because Chelsea brought on fresh legs when it mattered, and we didn’t, until it was too late.

4. Lou W - 21/08/2016

Well said. I think the club thinks Robert Pereyra is that player. Will be interesting to see. In the meantime it will all be forgotten as Hull City’s improbable march to the title continues to build steam. 🙂

5. Sequel - 22/08/2016

Fantastic summary Ig, of a frustrating afternoon AND Euro 2016. Glad I’ve not been the only one grinding his teeth all summer long.

6. matt prout - 22/08/2016

We mustn’t forget that Chelsea are a top 4 team and we made them look ordinary for the most part which only adds to the frustration that mistakes cost us a win or even draw. Ighalo seems to think he doesn’t need to put the effort in which made him so successful, Deeney isn’t fit and it was clear to most people we needed fresh legs when Chelsea made changes to personnel and formation which didn’t happen. The worry is where will confidence be by the time we get to Burnley away and an “easier” run of games.

Modern football does seem boring though I agree with you IG.

7. Harefield Hornet - 23/08/2016

Re Matej Vydra – I do hope he gets a start tonight. Maybe I’m blinkered by the stunning goals he scored for us in the Championship but in 38 years I’ve never felt so sure about anyone having the potential to perform at this level as I have about this lad. It’s been nagging me since he came back after the summer and I’ll be gutted if he’s shipped out again without at least being given a proper chance. He gives us an alternative way of cracking defences and just needs to be used properly. TD is right – he’s the best finisher we’ve had at this club for years. Fingers crossed – come on Matej we all know you can do it – and I told him that to his face at the open day!

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