Burnley 2 Watford 0 (26/09/2016) 27/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Ahhh, how to start. What to write. Those of you who were there know how it was, those of you who weren’t probably had better views of the brushwork if not the canvas, none of you will be particularly inclined to spend time reflecting on the occasion.
So let’s just get on with it and where better place to start – indeed, where better place to start anything much – than Burnley cricket club. I don’t “do” minority sports, as regular readers may know, but a cricket club in the absence of actual cricket is a fine thing. It’s perhaps unreasonable to be overly harsh about Burnley, a town which I’ve visited rarely, fleetingly and not terribly recently (Sean Dyche’s Watford bow in 2011 the last)… but one can’t help but feel that much of the pleasantness that this area of East Lancashire has to offer has been concentrated into this relatively small establishment. There are many fine ales at £1.50 a pint, a splendid pie, chips and gravy, and affable company and atmosphere. All is well with the world at 7.30.
This feeling of bonhomie extends to the ground, where stewards check tickets in a cordon ahead of the turnstiles but cordially so, and don’t go for the body searches. This is a relief, as Daughter 2’s Watford teddy – who you may remember from the West Ham report – was in my pocket and would have taken some explaining in the absence of an accompanying seven year-old. Inside the ground the kiosk staff were decked in yellow t-shirts sporting Watford badges, and the intimacy of the venue – not to mention the understandable sparsity of the nether regions of stands in the circumstances, recalled times that were less successful but enjoyable enough in their own way.
Then, the football started.
2- The concern voiced by plenty – including, encouragingly enough, players and head coach – and contemplated by all was that the success achieved in higher profile, we’re the underdog, let’s get up and at ’em games wouldn’t necessarily translate to lower profile fixtures against The Sort Of Sides We Ought To Look To Take Points From. Complacency was the concern, or rather that the adrenaline, the focus that characterised the win over United wouldn’t be visible tonight against less glamorous opposition. As Dave reflected before kick-off, there has never been and will never be a circumstance in which Burnley away is an easy game – heaven knows we’ve been dicked here often enough not to head up to Turf Moor under any illusions.
But problems were evident from the kick-off. Immediately, and for the vast majority of the 90 minutes, the home side exercised a strategy that was uncomplicated and thoroughly effective… flood the midfield, hare down possession, force us into hurried passes that our forwards never looked mobile or – yes – strong enough to make anything of, and hit lone striker Sam Vokes as often as possible to play off the scraps. It’s not a novel strategy, but Sean Dyche’s side executed it to perfection and our lot really didn’t like being on the end of it. We couldn’t get out for much of the opening half hour, and the validity of our worst fears was confirmed by the pathetic bookings of Roberto Pereyra and Jose Holebas for mouthing off to the ref at the indignity of it all.
3- Nothing was working, anywhere on the pitch. The midfield was overrun and Valon Behrami, who you’d want to be in full beast mode in such circumstances, seemed to tamely acquiesce. Defensively we were porous and unsteady, Vokes doing far better than he ought to have been able to as one striker against three centre-backs; Nordin Amrabat was targeted, and willing as he’s been to adapt to the wing-back role – now as deputy for the injured Janmaat – he was horribly exposed here, looking almost exactly like a forward trying hard to be a defender but failing.
As for Burnley, their concern will maybe that they dominated the game and deservedly won… but didn’t really create an awful lot for all their domination; it wouldn’t have taken much to change the course of the evening, and there wasn’t much to challenge the pre-season suspicion that Burnley will give it a good old go this term but struggle anyway. Nonetheless, the spine was very strong, from Ben Mee at the back who had the better of Deeney, to Hendrick and the terrific Defour in midfield to the combative Vokes. They finally took the lead from a set piece, and having gotten away with so much it was aggravating to concede so cheaply. Nonetheless there was no disputing the merit of their half-time advantage, even if we briefly flirted with the suggestion that we might steal half time parity for a second away game running after a late rally.
4- Of the few positives to emerge from the evening, one is Walter’s continuing ability to positively influence the game with his substitutions. The corollary to that is that he’s not getting it right to start with, rather in the way that a centre-back specialising in saving tackles might be a bit of a concern. Nonetheless, a happy habit to have… here he made a very deliberate change at the break by switching to a flat back four such that Amrabat pushed up on the right flank with Zuñiga now filling the space behind him. The Colombian had a decent enough half looking largely neat and tidy in possession and as forceful and deliberate as he had last weekend; the new shape seemed to work too as we looked much more aggressive, potent even. Until, of course, we took a generous-spirited approach to marking at another set piece and the Clarets were two-up.
After which, so much bluster. We did get better… Isaac Success was brought on for Amrabat and immediately added some much-needed menace to our attacking play. We’ve described him before as a heavyweight boxer who moves like an ice skater, and the weather conditions – a steady, contemplative shower lasted much of the evening – contributed further to this suggestion by creating a slick surface that he slid across effortlessly. He’s young and he’s raw but he was bright and positive again; difficult to escape the reflection, given Ighalo’s miserable and immobile evening, that for competition from the bench to have its desired impact on the squad it needs to be exercised when someone’s off his game. Iggy’s had a few too many games like this. We had a good spell after about an hour, the best of the chances falling to Deeney who was first denied by a fine saving challenge, then failed to get enough power to a header after Pereyra had swivelled into space and dropped in a peach of a cross. Burnley were still threatening further punishment, the faultless Gomes denying Defour, but when Kenedy debuted for Pereyra – who was perhaps lucky not to have received a second yellow shortly before for a bad challenge and whose removal was being urged from the away end with Saturday in mind – we were on top for the first time. Briefly, inconclusively, but with Kenedy on the right and Success on the left both slaloming through to cut inside onto their weaker feet we looked a threat at last. Not enough, not nearly enough on the night. But something.
5- The gents in the back of the stand after the match was rammed and silent, but for the contemplative hiss of urine against urinal. From somewhere against a distant wall someone offered encouragement: “At least it’s not a six and a half hour drive home or anything”, to much laughter.
We did it in closer to five, creeping in at 3:15 after taking time to escape from the claw of Manchester (thanks, Dave) and an unscheduled detour on realising that the Satnav was heading us towards Snake Pass in the pissing rain, which had returned with a vengeance. As my brother later pointed out, it could have “got all Caradhras on us”.
The trip was survived by means of recital of club-themed obscure eighties footballers (“Rob Hindmarch”…. “Gordon Chisholm”….) and by very loud music. As has often been the case, a good day out spoiled by a terrible performance. This has happened before, often at Burnley, and will happen again. Enduring this is what makes trips like West Ham special. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
On the pitch, of course, we need a reaction. Saturday would be nice. Yooorns.
Watford 3 Manchester United 1 (18/09/2016) 19/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I should perhaps preface this piece with a warning; specifically, surprisingly and somewhat contrary to the popular line I’m not going to concentrate on the visitors. It’s not that Mourinho isn’t newsworthy (he is), or that Rooney wasn’t shocking (he was), or that Pogba wasn’t comically ineffective (he was). It’s just that there was another team on the pitch (no, really) and we’re really rather more interested in them. You’ll find that there are plenty of other places to read about the team in red of varying degrees of shoutiness and one-eyedness. Unless, of course, coverage of the last week’s football has left you – understandably but incorrectly – suffering from the misconception that West Ham and Manchester United both managed to comprehensively lose games despite the absence of any opponent. This would in any case be a bigger story than our humble blog could hope to cover.
2- So the other team, then. Not the team in red, the other lot. Bit good. Bit bloody wonderful, by the way. We’ve got used to looking back at the early eighties as our golden period, the highlights and the details etched on the memories of those old enough to remember. Last season… last season was brilliant. You can look at it and say… yes, well, different era. Tougher now. Standardise, normalise, put in context and “it’s as big an achievement as the eighties thing. Bigger”. There may be something in that, in a dull kind of way. But some things don’t need context. This is bigger than dicking Liverpool last season. That was great, of course, but was special because we beat a name. This time we beat a team – yes a name too, but a team that had been talked about as title contenders. Hell, competing with them would have been an achievement. But we didn’t just compete.
3- We’re a bloody massive team all of a sudden. Even without hamstring victims Kaboul and Okaka – the fact that Kaboul, who looks like some kind of Marvel comics supervillain, doesn’t stand out in a line-up says it all. And even those that aren’t huge – Behrami, Pereyra, Ighalo – are hard as bloody nails. This was key today. United are no shrinking violets, they’re a huge side too. But we set about them with menace, energy and vigour and bullied them into submission. Behrami tormented Pogba. Holebas and Janmaat thundered up and down the flanks like angry rhinos. And Chris Smalling must have done something pretty grievous to upset the skipper. Troy enjoys a good scrap of course, but most of the time he only runs through the opponent when he absolutely has to. Today every run seemed to involve ploughing through the hapless United defender, as if wherever Troy needed to be just happened to be on the other side of Smalling and demanded urgent attention.
4- Which isn’t to say we had it all our own way. Indeed the first half saw the visitors afforded plenty of chances, too many. Smalling had the first and perhaps the best of that period, crashing an early header narrowly wide from a set piece in the first few minutes. Pogba, with no space and outside a crowded area, lazily slung a shot into the narrow postbox over Gomes and back off the bar. Valencia broke down the right and sent in a cross… Ibrahimovic was hovering at the far post, poised. The ball never reached him; Seb Prödl, on the penalty spot, wallop. Zlatan slouched. Not for the last time. The Austrian produced a masterclass to comprehensively blunt United’s focal point, the highlight coming when a rare slack pass from Behrami released the Swede and a flying challenge that was both brutal and immaculate denied him.
But at the other end, once we got onto the front foot we stayed there. Iggy enjoyed the first opening when Smalling – who looked as unlike a commanding centre-half as is possible to conceive throughout – collided needlessly with De Gea to present Ighalo with an open goal. He scooped his shot nervously wide in attempting to avoid the grasp of the scrambling goalkeeper and you thought “this is going to be one of those days”. Iggy seemingly thought the same, briefly losing his focus and making bad, deliberate decisions before settling down into an industrious if unspectacular job holding the ball up and often breaking wide. Prödl headed a deep cross back across goal, Deeney narrowly failed to get a touch. Janmaat sent in a missle, Deeney ferocious header was clawed away. Meanwhile, hared down by Behrami, Capoue, Janmaat, Holebas United were increasingly rattled. Passes flew into touch, to jeers from the stands. This culminated in Martial being dispossessed by Britos on our right… I’ve not seen it again, reports seem to suggest that it was a clean tackle, “could have been given” at worst. It seems that only United are permitted to benefit from such narrow calls… but on this occasion Oliver gave us the benefit of the doubt. I was surprised, United too… Janmaat pulled back from the touchline and Capoue, precisely, fiercely, crashed us into the lead.
5- At half time we were happy but nervous. Sam confessed that she wanted to go home. Many of us would have taken a draw. Unsurprisingly the visitors came at us after the break and eventually equalised after a quick break in which Zlatan’s sudden urgency transmitted the genuineness of the threat; Rashford finally got the finish at the second attempt and the stadium exhaled. We’ve been ahead at home to Chelsea, at Southampton, would this be more dropped points? Ibrahimovic finally got on the end of a deep cross and Gomes was equal to it, pulling off an impossible reflex stop that provoked a standing ovation. We’d all have taken a draw at this point.
6- We didn’t fold, as you’ll have noticed. At West Ham we pulled ourselves back from the brink, turned a game around. If anything this was more impressive still… a game that we’d been on top of suddenly slipping away, a belief that we’d blown our chance but done OK would have been, if not forgivable then understandable. Not a bit of it. As last week, each of the substitutions was completely brilliant… Amrabat came on for Janmaat, who appeared to have hurt his shoulder after being piled into an advertising hoarding in the first half, and relished the hovering-on-the-edge aggression of the afternoon. In the move of the game he released Pereyra down the right who pulled back for the second sub, Zuñiga. The Colombian hasn’t had much of a window to show us what he can do, but grasped this one. His finish, first time with the ball running across him, was sublime, unexpected and utterly marvellous. Few, suddenly, were taking the draw.
7- The rest was just tremendous. United picked up a rack of bookings as they visibly, comically, gave up on composure altogether. Wayne Rooney, a fishwife who expended more energy bitching at the officials than he did in pursuit of the ball, was tormented by Pereyra as we calmly retained possession around the corner flag. Echoes here of one of those 1980s highlights, Steve Williams of Arsenal in meltdown as we won the Cup quarter final at Highbury. In that game, Luther’s late breakaway goal sealed the win and relieved all tension. Here Isaac Success, the third sub, broke down the left and turned Bailly inside out before cutting back for Zuñiga who fooled Fellaini into giving away a penalty. At that moment we knew, and now nobody was taking a draw. The away end couldn’t get out fast enough.
8- Superlatives are dull, but I’m not sure I’ve seen us play much better than this. Certainly not within the window, twenty years maybe, that makes comparison halfway feasible. From five opening games that could have left us pointless we’ve taken 7 and a positive goal difference. That’s ludicrous. Now comes a different type of challenge… games that range from those that we might reasonably expect to win to those in which we’re the outright favourites, a rare privilege but the outcome not to be taken for granted.
But that’s for tomorrow. For now… well you just enjoy these moments. As much as you can. Suck it all up. We’ve said it before, but these are the good old days. Enjoy.
West Ham United 2 Watford 4 (10/09/2016) 11/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Well it’s not Upton Park.
At one’o’clock it was pissing it down with rain. We’d arrived early, partly because That’s What We Do, partly because I felt the need to justify Daughter 1 missing her gymnastics. Partly because, you know, football. Come on.
An away trip with the girls is still a gamble, a reckless dice roll. Now we were sheltering from the rain on the vast Olympic Park next to something that looked like a melted helterskelter outside a bar that only admitted home fans. The girls were starving, the only food on offer that didn’t involve getting drenched was a barbecue put on by the bar. Fortunately there was a cashpoint too. We were a captive audience, and charged accordingly.
The stadium. Well… imagine Upton Park. Its claustrophobic, intense scruffiness. Now imagine something diametrically opposite to it. We were nine rows from the front, and bloody miles from the pitch. There’s acres of space between the edge of the pitch and the front of each stand. The lower tier is itself a bracing walk from the concourse across walkways suspended above the permanent but concealed and unused seating, some sort of ghost town. There are still bubble machines, woefully incapable of creating any atmosphere in this vast bowl. Fittingly, the bubbles sink listlessly to the floor.
2- There are bloody loads of people here, though. “Where were you at Upton Park?” emerges grouchily from the home stands during the first half, but it’s an intimidating sight nonetheless. This was, we were told all week, when West Ham would spark. Their big guns – Payet, Lanzini – were back, the new signing – Zaza – in place. The Hammers had had a tough start to the season, their points total reflecting this. This was when their season would start. “West Ham will win this,” opined Michael Owen. “Watford might struggle this season”. Someone pays him.
Much of that applied to us too, of course, but we’re still small fry, not top flight establishment, so few cared. There’s part of us thinking that maybe some of this week’s papers might have made it onto our dressing room wall, so to speak. All of which was forgotten as the Hammers started the game with exactly that thought – that this is game one, the game they must win, the game they will win – at the front of their minds. They hit us like a train, and the stands made a complete racket.
3- We looked slow. Or maybe West Ham just made us look slow. We were behind almost immediately, a corner, one flick – two? – and Antonio’s angling his header past a helpless Gomes. How did he get to that header? Why was there nobody on the far post? Too easy. It’s a long way back already.
Actually we rallied a bit at 1-0. Ighalo had already had half a chance at nil-nil… now the lively Pereyra suckered Masuaku on the right of the penalty area – with hindsight, a portent of what was to come – and Ighalo was teed up again, his shot deflected wide. This didn’t last though. The home side simply made it look easier, they were on top and enjoying it, like a dog being let out for it’s first run in ages. The achilles heel of a three-man defence – someone, Holebas, being caught upfield and leaving the flanks exposed – caught us out. The devilish Payet hugged the right touchline, Britos was too slow out to him and an outrageous cross found Antonio stealing in at the far post.
4- The most redundant thunk of the season, but one of those that needs saying anyway. We didn’t see the result coming at all at this point. West Ham were worth the two goal lead and were heading off into the sunset, or would have been if it hadn’t still been grey and miserable. One of those where you feel the stadium closing in on you and just want it all to end. It could have been anything at this point.
Here’s the thing though. West Ham came at us. Zaza wanted a goal and tiptoed across challenges looking for an opening. He didn’t get one. Antonio sniffed a hat-trick and galloped in from the right. Payet lined up a free kick ominously after Noble drew a foul. It was blocked. We were stretched, but we stood up to it… blocks and tackles; you’ll have gathered that things got better in the second half but Valon Behrami’s masterclass lasted ninety minutes, he was magnificent. Kaboul was a wall, Troy was getting his head to things. We definitely, defiantly, weren’t lying down. And by standing up we gave ourselves a chance. By not folding, we made it more than a footnote, more than a mere detail when Ighalo chased Capoue’s deft flick and his shot deflected beyond Adrian. We made it possible for Deeney to capitalise majestically on a complete catastrophe in West Ham’s defence. Suddenly it’s half time and it’s 2-2. How? Because unlike West Ham, whilst we made defensive mistakes we didn’t fold. Our heads were in the game. You suspected that West Ham never contemplated the possibility of such resistance. The presence of one Manuel Britos (sic) in the programme’s player list, of a pic of Capoue captioned as Holebas, was consistent with the national press’s billing of the Hornets as bit-part players, a supporting act. West Ham believed their own publicity and found themselves level at the break in a game that they should, could, have had in the bag.
Incidentally it was also at 2-0 down that Sofia had remembered that her yellow Watford teddy, whose match-influencing powers seem to wane when left forgotten in my backpack, had not been brought out to witness the game…
5- The second half was the best football Watford have played for some considerable time, certainly since Arsenal in the cup, arguably this calendar year. We took the bag that West Ham thought the game was safely tucked away in, emptied it, clubbed them round the head with it, popped Dimitri Payet inside and lobbed it to Younes Kaboul who drop-kicked it into the stinking River Lea.
Front and centre of this masterclass was the midfield trio of Behrami, Capoue and Pereyra. Valon and Capoue have looked utterly content in their new roles this season already despite our modest points total to this point. Behrami is the pit-bull, cut out to do the dirty work. He was fearsome and magnificent, full of ferocious blocks and tackles with his best lunatic stare and blood dripping from his jaws. Capoue is relishing the licence to get forward a bit more, and loves the box-to-box role of the three. He clubbed in a third to put us ahead for the first time after teasing now fretful West Ham defenders on the edge of the box.
And now there is a conductor, a string-puller, someone to tease things apart and let the liquid flow through the cracks. Pereyra’s 45 minutes against Arsenal had been hugely encouraging, but in the context of a game against a side who also (perhaps more credibly) believed their game was won and of us being desperate for him to prove his worth there was the concern that we’d imagined his impact, over-egged the pudding in our minds. Given him an impossible billing to live up to. Not a bit of it. Elegant, mischievous, industrious, class. An absolute joy. These three are now the core of the team, and we won’t go far wrong if they stay fit.
6- You’ll have heard about the disturbances in the crowd, none of which were terribly near to us but plenty of which was clearly visible. Blog posts from home supporters pre-match confirm that this was far from being a one-off… segregation both in the stands and in the concourses was grotesquely inadequate. Complacent, even. Yes, football has become a politer, more pleasant thing over the years. But this isn’t cricket. People are going to get over excited and in a fifty-odd thousand crowd you’re going to get some idiots by the law of averages. If you’re raking in revenue from this enormous and extraordinary level of interest having taken advantage of an unusually generous set of circumstances then the very least you can do is ensure that the vast majority who want to simply go and watch their team are able to do so safely. West Ham lost a two goal lead at home, but their biggest embarrassment was off the pitch.
7- Meanwhile, Jose Holebas snaffled a fourth as West Ham backpedalled, completely incapable of changing the direction that this game had decisively decided to travel in. Much of the rest of it consisted of Watford possession, passing the ball out of reach of their wearying opponents. The Hammers had possession too but their chances were remote, half-glimpses of an opening. Even when Fletcher, on as a sub, won a knock-down to create a clear chance Gomes was there to block before the offside flag was noticed. At that point the game was up, and the home stands were emptying.
In front of us, Pereyra slalomed through the Hammers’ defence and would have brought the house down (or our little bit of it) but couldn’t quite find the finish. The subs were all significant – Prödl replaced Kaboul to get his head onto ever more hopeful crosses, Success and Okaka demonstrated another big improvement on last term – attacking threat from the bench, options that allowed Troy and Iggy a rest. Both had chances… Success screamed in on goal but flicked his effort narrowly wide. Okaka bundled Kaboul’s knock-down into the roof of the net and celebrated for half a second before seeing the flag. Burdened with relatively low expectation (a multi-million pound signing with low expectation. Jesus) he was a muscled, boisterous pain in the arse; with huge upper body strength he had the physique of Johnny Bravo and was precisely what West Ham didn’t need in the circumstances, until doing his hamstring and leaving us to see the game out with ten men. He’s a favourite already.
8- So much for the tough start to the season. We’d all have taken four points, I think, and United on Sunday suddenly becomes a free punch. Whilst we’re always going to be vulnerable defensively the magnitude of the achievement, wresting what should have, could have, in so many other seasons would have been a runaway cathartic home win from their grasp is every bit as immense as it sounds. Michael Owen’s column next week will suggest that Watford might surprise one or two people. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a team.