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Watford 0 Stoke City 1 (27/11/2016) 28/11/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- If decent mid-tableness is what we aspire to for the moment, then a degree of balance is to be expected. By balance I mean… games when things go against you as well as those when they go for you, and that means losing games to fair-to-middling clubs as well as to the top sides. Sometimes. It’s no fun, but it’s going to happen. In this division, fair-to-middling sides are all capable of giving you a slap in the face.

But the degree of contrast between this weekend and last was stark. For one thing, Daughter 2 forgot her lucky teddy. For another, rather than flying into our regular car park we mistimed that one and ended up in the backup, stuck behind a minibus of lairy Stokies as it was directed around a corner that was never going to accommodate it. As an added bonus said Stokies had already stepped out of their minibus and were loafing around guffawing at their driver as those of us queued up behind it tried to find corners to reverse into. The voices were bellowing “this is going badly already”, and were difficult to ignore.

2- Things didn’t get any better once the game started. Last week we blew Leicester away and capitalised on the position that put us in; this one wasn’t quite the same. The visitors were on top from the off… big, physical, pressing us high up the pitch they knocked us out of our stride and we never regained anything halfway resembling the initiative. Initially there was some defiance… bodies on the line, Gomes scrambling to a fine save, ranks being cleared and Janmaat thundering down the middle on the break like a boulder careering downhill, bouncing off trees before smacking a shot too close to Grant. This seemed to crumble with Kaboul’s withdrawal after 15 minutes or so… the big centre-back had been doubtful, supposedly; he hadn’t been desperately significant, replacement Kabasele played no worse than anyone else (although he spent an inordinate preparation for his entrance that even Daughter 1 would baulk at) but the incident seemed to mark the end of our resistance. From there the Potters bossed it, bullying us much as Burnley had done and chasing down our possession high up the pitch. We didn’t tend to retain that possession for very long. On the half hour Charlie Adam met a set piece unmarked; Gomes blocked, the ball hit the post, then the keeper, then apologetically rolled inside the side netting. I’ve not seen it again – it transpires that Adam fouled Behrami en route but whatever. Stoke were worth the lead.

3- By this point another subplot was developing. Prödl rose to a header near the touch line, Arnautovic shoved him in the back. Nothing. Amrabat shielded the ball from his marker further up the same touchline and was pulled up. As frustration with the way the game was going grew, referee Madley channelled the anger in one direction.

Social media has changed the world. It could be argued – and has been – that twitter, which amplifies extreme opinions at the expense of moderation making it easy to filter the views that you hear to re-enforce your own has radically altered the world that we’re exposed to and affected the outcomes of recent elections. Social media’s immediacy also makes it very easy for idiots to fall victim to trigger-finger responses borne of red mist. I am one such idiot, and have had a shitty week as a result of failure to count to ten. This failure to count to ten manifests itself at games on occasion, with a tendency to let rip in a fashion that might be considered yellow-tinted.

Thing is, I’m in the stands and whilst I’d prefer to retain a degree of class (ha) and perspective this release from needing to be rational and reasoned is part of the reason I’m there. The same luxury can’t be afforded to the players on the pitch, and if our number of bookings for dissent were a cause for concern before the game this concern was exacerbated and inflated by the complete lack of discipline that characterised yellows for mouthing off, kicking the ball away… yes, some of the decisions prompting a response were cretinous, no Stoke weren’t being penalised for the same things but grow a brain. A referee having a bad day isn’t going to be reacting with moderation to stuff like that. Amrabat, for instance, was visibly cowed by his yellow for mouthing off about the free kick mentioned above and the tenacity that’s characterised his best performances disappeared as a consequence. This needs sorting.

4- If there’s a positive to be drawn it’s that we didn’t collapse. Despite being clearly second best we were still in the game throughout in the sense that a single goal would have nicked us something. There was a moderate degree of fist-waving as we rallied in the last quarter of the game but despite another encouraging cameo from the bullish Stefano Okaka and despite City visibly tiring and stepping back a bit it was never terribly likely. Nonetheless, we’d clung on sufficiently to render that a possibility.

The question the afternoon presents really is whether the tactical flexibility demonstrated by our ability – and the coach’s willingness – to switch shapes and positions and formations costs us in terms of not having enough in the way of stock moves. Things That We Can Rely On When Things Aren’t Working. Ardley to Helguson. Boom. A cost, perhaps, of that flexibility is that there’s not enough familiarity. It’s all rather hard work when we meet resistance. There’s no reliable crutch to lean on.

5- West Brom, then. Could, perhaps, be ugly. We’ve struggled against teams that have tried to strong-arm us despite Troy, Prödl, Behrami, Kaboul. Now we face them with only three – one assumes – available centre-backs, two of whom have ?one? start between them this season. And no Behrami, also suspended due to one of those witless yellow cards after he’d perhaps been one of the players to pull the performance up by its bootstraps in the second half. Over to you, Walter…


Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (19/11/2016) 20/11/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- Football serves many purposes to its audience.  Key amongst these is escapism, something to cling to, to hide in when your life is turning to crap.  Developments elsewhere in the world since our defeat at Anfield, developments breathtakingly crass and depressing and terrifying, left a lot of us needing precisely this.  Seriously, this on top of Brexit?  The world’s gone absolutely crazy…

So the return of football was necessary and we were bang up for it.  We flew unhindered down the M1, swung round the ring road in record time.  The pedestrian crossing switched to green as we approached; we crossed without breaking stride.  This was finally going to be a good day.  Today we were going to win.  Only the fact that ig didn’t have a pen with him to lend to Daughter 2 for ticking the starting elevens off in her programme betrayed that something in the world had changed.

2- There had been a few questions festering over the latest interminable international break.  Would any of the walking wounded be available… Gomes, Prödl, Okaka, Success, Cathcart… would Iggy keep his pace, would Watson get a start? Most of all, how would the team respond to the dicking on Merseyside?  The answers to most of these questions came with the now ceremonial checking of Twitter feeds over  a two minute period either side of two o’clock;  the answer to the final question came an hour later.  We flew at Leicester from the kick-off in what’s becoming a trademark explosive start… Hull City had withstood similar a fortnight ago but City, crucially, couldn’t and didn’t.  Roberto Pereyra’s performance was immediately the sort of thing we’d hoped and dreamed of; he picked up a loose pass, swivelled down the left and stole enough space to sling in a cross.  Troy Deeney’s header was no less fine a thing… no vague flick-on this, cushioned into the path of Capoue who did his attacking-the-box thing and flung a bouncing volley past Zieler.  There was time for a more eye-catching trick from Pereyra, receiving a pass on the left flank with his back to his marker he backheeled a nutmeg with a single touch and left him standing (Daughter 2 was to describe this to her bemused mother in some detail later in the day).  Shortly afterwards he again picked up the ball on the left, seemed to make himself space to shoot by swaying in a threateningly deceptive manner, and curled a shot across Zieler’s grasp and in.  Magnificent throughout, for the first quarter hour Pereyra was at a level that almost seemed unfair on the visitors, a quite unreasonable and uncontainable advantage.

3- Quite how the game would have panned out but for the penalty we’ll never know.  One possibility of course is that we’d have capitalised further on this extraordinary start, or that Leicester would have come back at us and, on failing to break through, overcommitted leaving us holes to exploit. Another sufficiently plausible maybe is that at 2-0 up our concentration wouldn’t have been quite as sharp as it needed to be later in the game and as such, the goal coming when it did didn’t give us time to relax or get complacent – later on, a goal borne of pressure rather than a silly and unnecessary foul so quickly might have yielded another.

As it was, Mahrez struck the spot kick down the centre and seized the baton from Pereyra, if only briefly… the visitors had a period of good possession and pressure, but not possession and pressure that resulted in a shot on target for the rest of the half.  Instead it was the Hornets who can claim to have come closest, Kaboul thumping a header narrowly wide and Deeney playing a ball across to Amrabat that he should have taken with his left but seemed to stab at with his right.  The Moroccan continued to make mischief on the flank, however, and twice drew fouls that demanded further sanction but received none, the referee struggling with what was an increasingly feisty encounter towards the end of the half.

4- City had started with what Leicester Paul described as their “Champions League week” team, a “slight groin injury” to Slimani the most significant absentee both in terms of our now fabled vulnerability from crosses and also the way the game played out; City could have used a target man when their preferred counter-attacking approach quickly became a non-starter.  For all that, there were only two changes to the starting eleven that we faced here in March – Zieler for Schmeichel, Amartey for Kanté – and whilst those changes made our visitors weaker there’s no doubt that we’ve progressed even over that narrow window.  Deprived of any space to attack, City not unreasonably decided that their best chance of a result would come from committing people – running at them and drawing challenges, winning free kicks.  Given the pace and quick feet of Vardy, Musa, Gray and the industry of Okazaki that seemed quite sensible but our defending was heroic, particularly in the final quarter of the game.

We know from experience how context affects your interpretation.  We’ve just been stuffed 6-1 at Anfield;  unpleasant as that was, we know that we’re in a strong position and therefore the odd embarrassment can be taken on the chin.  It would have been harder to mentally recover from had we been in the bottom three.  Similarly, Leicester’s almighty achievement last season was borne in part of a bloody-minded belief in what they were doing.  They didn’t do much different in this one… but their play was tentative, deliberate.  For all Vardy’s spinning and twisting City only achieved one shot on target from open play; Kaboul, Prödl and Britos threw themselves in front of things, snuffed out space and suffocated the waves of attacks of increasing intensity. That flying blocks yielded a couple of ball-to-hand (or elbow) close-contact penalty appeals that were noisily, desperately, hopelessly optimistic spoke volumes.  Instead it was Nordin Amrabat’s relish in committing Fuchs – on a yellow and a last warning, as so many of Nordin’s markers seem to end up – that made the best chance of the half.  Burrowing past the Austrian on the right flank Amrabat laid back for Janmaat to drop a cross on Pereyra’s head.  Face with the choice of directing a header to his marker’s left and inside the post or to the bigger target back across goal he chose the latter, making Zieler’s acrobatic save a possibility.

5- This one was significant for a number of reasons.  Our first league victory over reigning champions since John Barnes’ ludicrous goal – from the same wing to the same corner as Pereyra’s – against Liverpool 30 years ago.  A tactical triumph for Mazzarri, whose early salvo and formation change that saw us play 5-4-1 when defending but had Amrabat and Pereyra supporting the tremendous Deeney – whose ongoing battle with Morgan was an entertaining sideshow – when in possession gave City nowhere to go.  Most of all for the cast iron balls of the whole team, particularly the back three, in withstanding the late pressure and in dismissing that Anfield game from concern.  We still have Success, Cathcart, Holebas to return for goodness’ sake, not to mention a fit-again Okaka who seems perfectly equipped to play the “pain in the arse sub off the bench” role when protecting a lead such as this.

It occurred to me this week that a marker of how far we’ve come is that we knocked Newcastle, Leeds and Forest out of the cup last season but only the Arsenal game rendered the run remarkable.  Ten or fifteen years ago that would have been unthinkable.  Now we sit in eighth, behind only seven sides whose resources, successes and infrastructure dwarf our own.  And it doesn’t feel like a false position.