Watford 1 Hull City 0 (29/10/2016) 30/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Whilst this, our fourth visit to the top division, is proving vastly more successful than the last two it’s not the case that everything has improved in Hornetland since our promotion.
Some things are clearly better. The quality of the football, obviously. The dramatic improvement to the ground and facilities. The size of the crowds, the feel that every game is a big event, a drama. The security to the club and its prospects afforded by our status and the money that comes with it. You’ll maybe think of others.
Other things haven’t changed. Football is still football, your mates are still your mates. It’s still Watford, Vicarage Road, Fry Days and so on. We’re still playing Burnley, Palace, Hull, as we have been forever.
But what’s worse, what’s much worse, is the quantity of football. The accepted line, spouted by those who regard the rest of the Premier League as supporting cast to the top six and for whom anywhere lower down the pyramid barely enters consciousness, is that Premier League Clubs Play Too Much Football. Arrant nonsense.
The top teams, teams in European competition, play a lot of games. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that many of those clubs would have had input into the design of these competitions and ought to have more pride than to bitch too much about busy schedules… that aside, we reached a Cup Semi-final last season but barely played a mid-week game. This season we’ve had Turf Moor because of TV, Man City coming up in December and then Palace on Boxing Day. That’s it for the first half of the season. I resent the loss of midweek games, the loss of that looking forward to a week of work being interrupted by this nugget of excitement (or Rotherham at home, whatever) simply to accommodate Manchester United (for example) losing to some Danish team in a bloated competition that will give them plenty of second chances anyway.
2- Meanwhile, Hull City. I won’t have been alone in being a little nervous in the build up to this one, a rare occasion on which we are confronted with a game that we’re expected to win. Bournemouth, perhaps, we went into with a decent chance of three points… but that’s not the same as being solid favourites. That brings it’s own challenges.
Several of which would have been at the front of Watford minds as we hurtled into this game with a frantic urgency. We created our first noteworthy chance from the kick-off, a ball from the right drifting narrowly beyond the arriving Deeney at the far post, and continued in kind in a frenzied first ten or fifteen minutes. Pereyra, who again failed to dominate a game as we hoped he might but nonetheless sprinkled it with moments of breathtaking composed competence, curled a shot narrowly wide of the top corner. Kaboul thumped a header against the crossbar – in the Rookery we were on our feet, we thought it was in. Daughter 1, her hands gripping the barrier in front, turned to me with her eyes shining. “This is so exciting!”
3- And so it was, but unfortunately it didn’t deliver the opening goal that it probably deserved. Instead the game settled into the pattern that the opening salvo had been designed to avoid.
Hull are extremely limited; the vast majority of pundits predicted relegation at the start of the season (for what that’s worth) and wins over Leicester or otherwise there was little here to challenge the suggestion that it’ll be Sunderland and the Tigers plus one. In any circumstances they would have a challenge on, but that the away fans’ songs as the initial furore calmed down focused entirely on the understandable desire to finally see the club shot of the Allam ownership reflects a sorry backdrop. Frankly I’m surprised that they’ve amassed seven points in the circumstances.
But they’re not cannon fodder by any stretch. They’re solid and organised and difficult to play against in this mood. The 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 thing is new and seems to suit them, vast injury list notwithstanding as the possess three excellent central defenders in Dawson, Davies and Harry Maguire. As soon as they had a foothold the chances that we had created early on disappeared as the gaps in the defence closed up. Hull sat deep and broke, not an overwhelmingly original strategy but one that suited their available personnel. It nearly earned them a point. We chipped away for the rest of the half… Seb Prödl was quickly up supporting the attack, another Amrabat cross found Deeney at the far post, he should have scored. But it was hard work, and frustrating to watch. Both daughters began to read the match programme.
4- In the second half, more of the same. At least initially. Nordin Amrabat, who always looked likely to retain his place given the demands of the game above the returning Janmaat, had Sam Clucas on toast over and over again. Clucas is filling in on the left in the absence of injured duo Adubajo and Robertson and was exposed by the formation – in fairness, for all Amrabat’s success he didn’t create that crucial opening. But it was a chastening, difficult afternoon for the Hull midfielder, who was booked after one frustrated challenge and did well to stay on the pitch as the winger pushed the ball past him and flew after it to cheers and hurrahs.
Meanwhile Hull’s counters, if not exactly frightening and often ending with an overhit cross or crossfield pass, had enough about them to cause edginess in the home stands, not least when Abel Hernandez was let through on the right but failed to beat the adroit Gomes. We’ve been here before. If the opening salvo might have lead to a game in which Hull had to come out a bit and we racked up a more comfortable win, another possible eventuality was suggesting itself in main home fans’ minds.
Eventually, Daryl Janmaat came on for Kaboul, whose parting shot was a clubbed effort from about 30 yards that only briefly got any closer to the goal than it had started. Janmaat changed the dynamic immediately whilst reminding us what we had been missing, picking up the ball and barrelling towards the penalty area, our change in formation creating spaces that hadn’t been there before. Hull survived that one, just about, heroic limbs in the way as so often… that “no shots on target” stat isn’t a great one but is a little misleading, woodwork and crosses that just needed a touch and twists and turns that were snuffed out by flying blocks meant that it wasn’t that bad. No shots, but plenty of less easily defined and tabulated “nearlies”.
Frustrating, yes. But we kept plugging away, and got our reward. The explosive Janmaat and devilish Amrabat combined down the right, the Dutchman swung in a cross. Deeney and Pereyra both seemed to go for it, it spun off Dawson and dropped into the net. Harsh on the defender, you couldn’t have begrudged City a point if they’d held on. He can get his karmic balance sorted with a goal against Southampton next week.
5- The nervous tension released we played out the game; Iggy, who looked as uncertain and deliberate as he ever has, tiptoed through and clubbed a shot into the side netting. We broke on a suddenly reckless City and should maybe have extended our lead, but the whistle confirmed the win.
In isolation this is three points, always welcome no matter how they come. In context it’s an absolutely massive result. For one thing it sets the last couple of games into perspective… three tight and untidy encounters, if different in their way. Jose Holebas’ goal at Middlesbrough earned that win – no doubt that a moment of quality like that deserves to win a humdrum game. But much more significant that we’ve now ground out a narrow win from another tight encounter, whatever it says about our attacking limitations. We can grind out tight games, that says, Boro wasn’t a one off lucky punch. We now have seven points and three clean sheets from three such games.
As for our limited attacking potency, our injury list is much better populated than it ever was last season and despite this we’re in seventh with one defeat in seven. The depth and quality of our roster has never been more evident, the more so since our injuries have focused on particular areas of our squad. We have been deprived of different flavours of magic dust in Success, Okaka and Kenedy and won games anyway. Seb Prödl’s late injury combined with Cathcart’s absence might test the depth of our defensive cover. You’d be confident on this evidence, Anfield or otherwise.
So whilst the last few games won’t live long in the memory there’s no doubt that we’re in a great place. Those who lazily looked at the end of last season and presumed little Watford to be returning to their “natural level” are already looking rather silly.
Swansea City 0 Watford 0 (22/10/2016) 23/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I lived in Leeds between 1991 and 1994. Once a week, on a Thursday evening, there was an Indie night in the Student Union; unremarkable in itself but at the same time a splendid thing. Held in a black pit of a hall whose name I don’t even remember, it featured dry ice, sticky floors, watered down beer and a reliable set list. Either Going Underground or A Town Called Malice. Either Sheela-Na-Gig or 50 Foot Queenie. And so on.
What made it special was that everyone was there. You didn’t need to make any kind of arrangement with anybody in those pre-mobile phone pre-social media days. Nor had it ever been said, “this is something we should do”. It just grew organically… you could wander it at 9pm and see a load of people that you knew and were pleased to see, and drink beer and jump around for a few hours before buying an onion bhaji bap from the chip van outside and staggering home through the wind across Hyde Park. It was an anchor point of the week.
Back to the present day, and after all the years of doing this, of so many of us doing this, it shouldn’t need commenting on. Again. But there’s something thoroughly enjoyable about turning up on the other side of the country and knowing that you’ll run into a load of mates without any more formal arrangement than the fixture list. A four hour drive cross country with two children in the back seat isn’t a risk-free plan by any stretch, it helps that the sun has been shining, we’ve had as clear a run as we could have hoped for and that Swansea City seems such a very hospitable and well-organised club. But most of all it’s good to see Dave, Matt and Miles killing time outside a hostelry on the periphery of the ground. Saying hello to Elvis Mark in passing. Greeting Andy as he and his mates on their way up to the thin-Oxygen top row (where, presumably, he enjoys City running out to the Clash’s “White Riot”). Saying a waved hello to Alice. And all the others we met along the way. It’s a Good Thing.
2- You’ll have noticed that I haven’t, you know, mentioned the actual football yet.
Ten minutes in one of the blokes behind us announced that “this has got nil-nil written all over it”. This was irritating… partly because it felt like a spoiler, partly because he was so obviously right and the sudden realisation, much as it had been staring us in the face since kick-off, deflated enthusiasm.
It’s not that the game was awful, it wasn’t awful. But it was… humdrum, and rather predictable. Both sides were disciplined and reasonably robust defensively – Prödl at his unfussy best for the Hornets, debutant Mawson standing up well to Deeney for the home side. But going forward… there was little pace to speak of in either forward line and so for the most part the game rattled around in a confined box that didn’t involve either penalty area terribly often, or at least not in a consequential way. Such stalemates look worse at lower levels of course… with this much quality on the pitch there was always the chance of something happening, but it remained an outside possibility during the first half. The closest we came were an ambitious turn and shot from Capoue from distance that he did well to get anywhere near the target, and a late free kick teed up for Kaboul to bludgeon goalwards, a deflection taking the shot spinning, almost fortunately but narrowly wide of the post.
3- The shape of the game changed in the second half. Paul described it as a basketball match… my limited exposure to basketball has led me to believe that it involves lots of points being scored, but that aside there was something about the end-to-endness of it that suited that analogy. Modou Barrow was the source of much of the helt-peltness of it all, a strong and direct winger who is incredibly quick but seemed to rely on Holebas (twice) and Britos (once) gambling by diving in with a tackle and being caught by quick movement to give him a big hole to surge into. For all his menace there wasn’t an awful lot of end product.
The home side, nonetheless, had the best of it and Gomes was by far the busier keeper. He made a fine reflex stop to deny Van der Hoorn – we had no view of precisely what had happened from the far end, relying on replays for information – and had to be bold in coming out for a couple of dangerous crosses. The best move of the game came when Sigurdsson surged down the left before having the presence of mind to quickly alter the flow and switch the ball to the right, coming inside to hit the return ball off the outside of the far post.
Meanwhile whilst we weren’t getting shots on target there was increasing potency in our counterattacks, abetted no end by the introduction of Amrabat for Zuñiga. The Colombian had done well enough, but here was some acceleration to frighten Swansea with and several times it threatened to open them up. Odion Ighalo, meanwhile was making a good stab at reestablishing himself in the starting eleven, demonstrating the Marlon King trick of being able to kill a ball stone dead with a touch irrespective of angle and speed of arrival, holding players off, and once selling a couple of scoops to shape a shooting chance which Fabianski fielded comfortably. There were two penalty calls, one for a handball that I didn’t see but which was protested furiously, the other perhaps more credible for a scruffy challenge on Behrami after we got a lucky break in the box that unsettled the Swans defence. Could have been given, wasn’t. Sometimes you get them. Our best move, the closest we came to consecutive muggings on the road, came when Amrabat flicked narrowly over both keeper and crossbar at the end of another fluid counterattack.
4- Despite this counterattacking threat it was beyond doubt that Swansea took hold of the midfield in the second half. Mazzarri has lauded the first half performance… I guess if you acknowledge his qualifier that we need to sort the final third out then you can just about nod at that, we didn’t give them an awful lot. Overall though, the midfield isn’t quite clicking as hoped, and this despite our injury list generally attacking other areas of the pitch. Behrami, Capoue, Pereyra looks like the first choice three but whilst Behrami did his dirty-work job again effectively enough Capoue had one of his off-days and Pereyra, for all his ability, has looked a bit peripheral – ornamental? – in the last few weeks. Guedioura was brought on to bring some welcome randomness to proceedings, but Ben Watson’s ability to recycle possession and just keep us ticking alongside Behrami is being underplayed for my money. Capoue’s surges into the box that characterised the first six weeks or so of the season have all but disappeared – rarely did any of the middle three make runs ahead of the ball yesterday – given which Watson’s economy could have been a more useful tool.
5- Having said all of which it goes without saying that this was a very decent point, and may look like a better point still if Swansea get their act together, as looks quite possible. Consecutive clean sheets, let alone away from home, are not to be sniffed at either. We rolled out of Swansea as the sun set reasonably content with how the afternoon had gone. A quarter of the way through the season we have three wins, three draws and three defeats, plus a zero goal difference; lazy journalists after a headline might find this dull, but if it’s the new normal – humdrum or not – it’ll do me.
Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 2 (01/10/2016) 02/10/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. There’s something delicious about an English autumn. Something charming and old-fashioned and gently melancholic, like daydreamily eating a delicious apple on a park bench in very light drizzle. The lingering sweetness of something coming to an end. I appreciate that many people hold great affection for spring and its tiggery springiness, but if you suffer from hay fever, the promise of sunny days ahead comes with something of a catch; it’s a bit like being mugged by Floella Benjamin. As for winter and summer…well, they just tart themselves out for Daily Express click-bait – the coldest, hottest, wettest, driest on record, at least since the last one – and no-one likes an attention-seeker. You never turn on breakfast news to find Carol Kirkwood talking about the most damply orange autumn since records began. It’s a lovely time of year. I expect it’ll be sold off to Channel 4 soon or something…right, kids?
2. And this is the bit where the real football starts. No, no…I was on holiday for that bit, so it bloody well is. This is the bit where it all begins to sort itself out: where Stoke start to be Stoke, where Arsenal start to be Arsenal, and so on. The musical chairs for billionaires that is the transfer window is all done with, the league table begins to take some kind of shape, the first managers fall like yellowing leaves. Or in the case of this week’s high profile casualty, like great big thudding conkers.
3. Much of the reaction to Sam Allardyce’s departure has expressed different degrees of anger and dismay at the idea of the England manager’s salary being apparently insufficient; the word “greed” has featured prominently, as if, somehow, greed weren’t the foundation upon which the entirety of modern football were built. I’m not sure that greed is quite the right deadly sin, anyway. Hubris, perhaps, is more accurate. An essential part of a manager’s job is, at pretty much all times, to be the most important person in the room. And it turns out that being the most important person in the room might actually be a little bit addictive. Who’d have thought?
4. For a while, it was terribly fashionable to admire Eddie Howe for appearing to be someone capable of holding a conversation rather than merely delivering a lecture. And then, for a while and possibly still now, it was terribly fashionable to sneer at all of that as middle class fluff, the superficial gloss over a less flattering profile, just Aidy Boothroyd in a wig. But this week’s events ought to remind us that simple humility isn’t cheap: among managers, both past and present, there are very few who’d think that anything even slightly interesting might occur during the bit when you’re talking and they’re pretending to listen.
I’m projecting onto Eddie Howe, of course. I’ve never met him, probably never will, and might find him an insufferable pardew if I did. But he seems like a man who might not require a massive desk to lord it behind, who might speak quietly sometimes, who might enjoy a cup of tea rather than, say, a pint of wine. Perhaps the day will come when there are too many of those people in football, but it seems unlikely. I bet he’s about to pop up and say something utterly infuriating on Match of the Day now. Bastard.
5. There’s little to the mini-rivalry with Bournemouth, really. It isn’t that there’s nothing of substance. Rather, it’s that there’s nothing but substance: any proper rivalry requires an element of the patently unreasonable and flagrantly irrational to stoke its fires, it requires something to pass down to the next generation. Wash your mouth out, son. Nevertheless, games with Bournemouth have been terrific fun since their arrival in the Championship a few years ago: the pleasing openness of their football and the apparent decency of their manager don’t obscure more than an element of the irritable and irritating. There’s not no Boothroyd in their DNA.
6. Most of the first half was spent digesting a lunch consumed in great haste barely half an hour previously. The football had a certain indigestible quality itself: we began intently and earnestly in the manner of a side wishing to right some of Monday’s wrongs, bright and confident in possession and disappointed at Odion Ighalo’s failure to convert an early opportunity. Different game if that goes in. Obviously.
But gathering irritation at Mike Dean’s petty interventions culminated in a booking for Sebastian Prodl and a ticking-off for Walter Mazzarri, and it felt as if we began to lose our focus. A certain fragility was revealed by our willingness to become the victims; we needed to brush it off and get back to the football, but we fell into squabbling and quibbling, and it was one of those occasions when a home crowd doesn’t really help very much. At the umpteenth contentious free kick, Bournemouth caught us napping, and Wilson snuck ahead of Prodl to meet a deflected cross and, predictably, wind up the crowd a little further with his celebration. We needed to take a few deep breaths. We needed a bit of a break.
7. There wasn’t much sign as it kicked off, but the second half was an absolute belter. Our efforts to get Nordin Amrabat into the game – very much the key, in the absence of any real threat on the left and significant congestion in the middle – eventually paid off as excellent work in wriggling out of a challenge and cutting to the by-line was tidily converted by Troy Deeney. I’ve been frustrated by Amrabat until now, by his frequent failure to influence the game rather than merely enthusiastically participate in it, and his name would’ve been among those bearing a question mark a month ago. But he more than delivered on this occasion, quality and quantity and variety. Add consistency to that and you’d suddenly have quite a player. (Yeah, six million. Times have changed.)
8. Of the new faces – to me, at least – the most obviously eye-catching is naturally Robert Pereyra, not least for his striking resemblance to Craig Ramage on one of his bothered days. The same low-footed sway, head aloft, ball held under a spell, challenges brushed aside. I found Ramage exasperating, but I confess to a shiver of nostalgia. Something wondrous about a player so in command of his art.
But then all of that is cast into shadow by the arrival of Isaac Success, who somehow manages to get involved in virtually everything during his half hour on the pitch, as irrepressible as Eric Morecambe with a trombone. The Pozzo era has brought us no small number of very large forwards, several of whom have made no impact whatsoever. But Success looks like a different prospect altogether: he’s nigh on unplayable here, a remarkable combination of fleet-footed winger and massive centre forward, equally happy skipping past tackles out wide as hurling himself at crosses in the middle. The only flaw is that he can’t cross to himself. Bournemouth simply don’t know what to do with him.
9. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Deeney’s equaliser really starts the fun. It’s been a sensible, coherent and slightly boring game of football, the kind that’d wear matching socks from M&S. From here on, it’s a descent into joyful chaos, end-to-end bedlam, trousers hurled to the wind, shoes in a gutter, asleep in a roundabout flowerbed. It’s thrilling and splendid. As we digest the idea that we might be onto a win, Wilshere cuts inside, picks his spot and hits the base of the post. He hits pretty much exactly the same spot again later for good measure, before strolling off for a rest. (I got the memo about Wayne Rooney, but I seem to be have been out of the room when everyone decided that Jack Wilshere was a bit of a laughing stock. Still, boo and so forth.)
The order of events starts to blur; there’s too much going on at both ends. Deeney meets another cross, just a little short of the desired power, Boruc saves low. King wanders forward after Holebas misjudges a high ball and his low drive takes a deflection and careers past Gomes. Success wins a free kick and converts it to level again, gliding a beautiful near post header into the top corner. A free kick wallops against the bar with Gomes beaten. There are scrambles, scares; Deeney attempts to score with what can best be described as an overhead backheel. It’s hectic, chaotic, not a little fractious too. It deserves a winning goal, something to crown the final fifteen minutes whether for good or ill. Something to bring the house down.
10. It doesn’t get it, but still. We’d have shut up shop with ten minutes to go last season, brought on an extra holding midfielder to help the valiant Behrami, taken the point. There may come a time when that seems appealing again; there’s nothing fun about throwing a game away, after all, and much of our defending here was somewhere south of precarious. But for now, the lack of caution, and the sense of conviction, is really rather wonderful. Both dismissed as cannon fodder only recently, but neither of these sides ought to struggle, neither ought to be looking downwards in January.
11. A spectacular cloudburst floods the streets on the way back to the station. Autumn is fleeting; that’s part of its charm. Winter soon enough. Long months. But nothing to fear. Surely, nothing to fear.