Watford 1 West Ham United 1 (25/02/2017) 26/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- After a two week break, and notwithstanding a defeat at Old Trafford that was disappointing but far from humiliating, perspective on games like this has changed. The two wins against Arsenal and Burnley reversed the gentle downwards slide and we are now by general consensus a Mid Table Club… not that relegation is impossible, but we’d have to work pretty hard to achieve it. There have been signs of life at a number of clubs down the bottom – Swansea and Hull in particular – but we’re still ten points clear of the relegation zone. You don’t have to be great to avoid relegation, you just have to be less bad than at least three other teams and we’re certainly that.
West Ham are similarly comfortably irrelevant in mid-table and so this threatened to be an open game with neither side overly under pressure. This suggestion was re-enforced by Walter Mazzarri’s team selection which featured Janmaat and Holebas, neither of whom the most cautious of full-backs, in a back four with Niang and Zárate flanking Troy up front.
2- Our start did little to contradict this suggestion; we flew at the Hammers from the off, and within a couple of minutes Tom Cleverley and Troy had combined to release the vivacious Zárate in the box. He got what looked like a panicky shove in the back from Kouyaté and won the penalty. Troy is such a cool bastard in these situations… how wonderful to be pondering how he’s going to score rather than not being able to watch… this time a perfectly placed finish low inside the post and beyond the dive of Darren Randolph.
The warm-up had involved an exercise that saw our midfielders and forwards practising first-time shots from distance, whether reflecting the wet conditions, the way they expected the game to pan out or reservations about the Hammers’ keeper Darren Randolph. As an aside, Mauro Zárate excelled at this for all his moderate goalscoring record… whilst Daryl Janmaat’s venomous lack of precision necessitated attention from all parents in the lower inter-quartile range of the Rookery. This ambition was visible for the opening fifteen minutes or so also… the “one shot on target” stat isn’t great, but is slightly misleading. Niang’s violent drive was the most eye-catching, narrowly clearing the Hammers’ crossbar and presumably causing damage to whatever or whoever halted its progress in the Vicarage Road end, whilst Zárate’s curling effort looked on its way in before being sent unfortunately wide by a deflection.
3- Gradually, however, we were realising that the game that had been suggested by our early breakthrough – you know, more goals’n’that – wasn’t what we were watching. Key in this was that West Ham are a very good side – albeit a striker short of being a dangerous one. Whilst we enjoyed the better chances of the half Snodgrass was enough of a threat to cause anxiety at the back, and at the other end our attacking options were gradually being negated.
Niang, in particular, put in his least convincing outing since his arrival; this in part reflected the amount of attention he was being afforded… tightly marked, his impact was uncharacteristically limited and he lost his rag on more than one occasion, particularly in the second half. Troy had a more successful afternoon but was nonetheless curtailed by the excellent Fonte, who was the match of much of what our increasingly limited attacking forays had to offer.
Our most potent threat had been Mauro Zárate, but having gone down badly once and apparently recovered he was spotted curled up in pain on the edge of our box as a West Ham attack was repelled, and after a prolonged spell of treatment involving oxygen masks and a large entourage of attendees he was stretchered off. Between then and the break Daryl Janmaat went down too – like Zárate, the Dutchman attempted to continue but was withdrawn shortly into the second half.
4- And it was a second half that the Hammers dominated without ever really threatening to overwhelm the home side. Niang was isolated against Kouyaté on the left of the box and was lucky not to concede a penalty. The Frenchman was now on the Watford left, Doucouré nominally on the right but often dropping inside to stiffen a struggling midfield in which Behrami was in his element. As a consequence Aaron Cresswell was often in miles of space on the left hand side and it was down this side that the equaliser finally came, Antonio charging down the flank, slinging in a shot that deliberated about going in but hit both posts before falling conveniently for Ayew to score. They got the break with that rebound but given our own similar profit from a generous deflection at Arsenal, and the fact that we’d been under pressure for much of the half – Fonte had forced a fine save from Gomes, Antonio had shot narrowly wide – it would be churlish to grumble too much.
The injuries thing is a well-beaten drum but you can’t help but wonder with frustration what we might have achieved this season with a bit of a clearer run. If in this game, for instance, we’d had Nordin Amrabat available to replace Zárate off the bench, or Roberto Pereyra in midfield for everything to flow through, we’d have been so much stronger. Our brief resurgence at the end of the game had something to do with the Hammers going down to ten after Antonio racked up his second silly booking of the afternoon, but also to do with the eight minutes afforded to Isaac Success which afforded us precious little time to enjoy his disruptive randomness. Aggravating that we’re not confident enough in his fitness to unleash him – he’s still only started the once.
5- So the game ended with a goalmouth scramble that I’d have been interested to dissect in more detail than Match of the Day permitted, but in any event a point was as much as we could possibly have laid claim to. For all that the game slipped away from us we had enough about us to hang onto the point – kudos to the defending in the face of lots of zippy movement if no focal point.
On reflection I guess there’s a lot to be said for a “meh” game at this stage of the season. Not terrible, never less than interesting and a perpetually bubbling-under narkiness that held your attention. But not gripping, and but for a point that has us creeping towards confirmation of safety largely irrelevant. This is the grey area of irrelevance in the Premier League between the teams that might win something and the relegation scrap. Fulham and Charlton have both taken root in the shadows here in years past and being here makes you realise that it’s only dull from the outside looking in. Being here – not least with a side that’s capable of fine things on a good day (or given a clean bill of health) – is a very fine thing for a side like ours. For the moment.
Watford 2 Burnley 1 (04/02/2017) 05/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Sunshine makes such a difference. Any nonsense lined up for the day seems less important, it’s possible just to step outside, feel the glow on your face and be happy. I work in a rural environment, that helps I guess. But I think it holds anyway. Sunshine is a good thing.
It’s a gorgeous day, bright and fresh. Fittingly so, since Tuesday’s game cast a new light on the outlook for the rest of our season. Bright new signings, players coming back, a stunning win and now the sun’s shining again. Now a home game against a side that can’t win away. Bring it on.
2- As Evo grinned later, it says a lot that our three January signings have all been pitched in at the earliest opportunity; says something about the deficiencies in the squad given available personnel, says more about the quality of those signings. Early days, but so far so very good… Zárate’s suspension having been served he started on the left with M’Baye Niang switching to the right.
And actually it could have gone horribly wrong… Niang flew into a clumsy early challenge and picked up a yellow, but the speed and mistiming of the incident briefly left you worrying about what colour was coming out of Michael Oliver’s pocket. He got away with it (rightly, as TV replays reveal loss of control but no studs up or intent) but Jeff Hendrick, former Hornets target and scorer in the game at Turf Moor in September, didn’t. His challenge on Holebas was stupid and violent – in the middle of the pitch, studs up and over the ball. No decision for Oliver to make. Burnley travelling support booed the left back’s every touch from then on, presumably for having the temerity to get up again. The sun’s glow took on extra warmth.
3- All three new boys were terrific. Cleverley, again, was a whirling, spinning dynamo in the centre of the midfield, getting his foot in, covering ground, picking up the ball and slipping short passes, swinging long passes. Bossing it. Zárate… perhaps overkeen to do it himself, but capable of committing players, sashaying past them. A threat, a new option, he came within inches of crowning his debut with a goal after yet another cut inside saw him chisel out the space to curl a shot around the post, but narrowly so.
And Niang. Wow. Any concerns that Tuesday might have been a flash in the pan were dispelled very early indeed as, faced with two opponents on the right flank and a third closing in he simply put the burners on and flew off down the wing. Overall the first half performance was excellent; we looked confident and fluid, dominating possession for a change and looking capable of scoring. Niang himself made the first… perhaps he was afforded too much space as Burnley struggled to adjust to their numerical disadvantage but it was still an evil ball from a deep position that somehow allowed Deeney to batter Matt Lowton and crash us into the lead.
Throughout the half we went direct often, Troy murdering Michael Keane in the air and all sorts of options flying in around him. Burnley couldn’t cope with it so we kept doing it; Capoue smashed in a shot that hit Ashley Barnes prompting brief penalty claims, Niang flung in a curling long-range shot that wasn’t quite in the corner enough to trouble Heaton. If there was a problem is that we’d dominated without really stretching the Clarets and so Niang’s second, a carbon copy of Isaac Success’ goal against Bournemouth earlier in the season, was well timed as he expertly directed Holebas’ header into the bottom corner. So our tricky winger, who can hold off a challenge, is also good in the air? And we have the right to buy in the summer, you say?
4- Two-up at half time against ten men, the expectation was that we’d go on to run up what Chris Waddle would at one stage have referred to as an aggregate victory. Burnley’s first half had been far from tame… Joey Barton had gone into the back of Valon Behrami in an attempt to provoke a reaction but just got an icy stare, Ashley Barnes continued to make better use of his arse and his elbows than his feet. But there wasn’t an awful lot to suggest that they had the weapons to claw their way back into it; Gomes had saved well from an excellent Barton free kick after Boyd had earned a generous call but that had been more or less it.
And Tuesday night reprised itself in an undesirable and mercifully, ultimately, inconsequential way. We did the Arsenal thing of playing the game that we expected to be faced with rather than the one that we actually were. It was all a little bit too casual, a bit lacking in focus and urgency whereas Burnley, every inch in the image of their manager, refused to accept their scripted part in proceedings at all and managed to make light of their numerical and psychological disadvantage. It wasn’t one-way traffic… a fine switching ball from Cleverley found Niang who fed Deeney, Heaton performing heroics to keep out his prod back across goal. Closer still, however, was Michael Keane’s monstrous far post header which Gomes, impossibly, got down to to push away from the bottom corner. Barnes looped a shot over Gomes which Cathcart cleared from the line; in the same passage of play a driven shot hit Prödl’s hand… you get the benefit of the doubt with those sometimes, not this time. Barnes took the penalty himself, resisted what must have been a strong urge to take the thing with his backside and proved himself surprisingly adept with his feet by striking an unstoppable shot in off the post.
Robbie Brady was on to provide a new challenge… you had to give Burnley credit, they were making this much harder than they had a right to. It’s worth adding of course that their failure to rescue a point makes it much easier to give credit… everyone loves a plucky loser. Instead the Hornets had the ball in the net again, Success eventually warming into his cameo and setting up Deeney, the referees whistle for handball beating the ball into the net.
5- Slightly frustrating, then, since at half time the rare suggestion of a big win had presented itself. On balance, however, still a fine thing… a very different game against a much tougher opponent than their away record might have suggested. And we won it anyway. In the sunshine.
Beyond which, somewhat inevitably, we now look at our squad, our returning players and new signings, and marvel at the riches suddenly available in attacking positions. Nordin Amrabat is Player of the Season according to some; where would you fit him in when he’s back? Suddenly good problems to have ahead of another free punch at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (31/01/2017) 01/02/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Bloody Hell.
2- A friend had given me a lift to the station from work…
“So where are you heading off to?”
“Who’s playing?” (not a football fan)
“Arsenal against Watford. Ummmm… it could be ugly. I think these things are supposed to be character building…”.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that. It was a free punch, but a free punch with the lowest of expectations. We’ve been struggling – plenty of qualifiers, reasons, but we’ve been struggling and nothing about our recent form – least alone on Sunday, albeit with a scratch team – suggested that this was on the cards. Arsenal, meanwhile, have been flying. This was only going to end one way – the passing up of the opportunity to bounce this to Wednesday night spoke volumes about where this week’s priority was. Vicarage Road, Saturday, Burnley.
I’d settled myself into a zen-like state of acceptance on the train down. When your expectations are lowest anything’s a bonus, obviously, but this wasn’t mere self-preservation. With a view to enjoying the evening it was a case of scratching out the positives, looking for things to build on. Anything that wasn’t awful would be enjoyable. Better teams than us will get gubbed by Arsenal.
3- The line-up was a minor fascination. Four centre-backs across the defence was interesting… Slav had tried the same at home to Rotherham in the promotion season resulting in a game that was brutally effective if thoroughly forgettable. Brutally effective would do here, but this was a completely different ask. Niang’s debut had been widely trailed, Isaac Success on the bench less so. Through his staccato first season in England Success has managed to prolong his status as well-kept secret for an unprecedented period – most such treasures get found out and their bubble diffused, or become public knowledge by now. Also back in the starting line-up were Behrami, to patrol in front of the back four, and Janmaat with Tom Cleverley partnering Capoue in the centre of midfield. The game started in heavy rain, illuminated into a veil by the stadium lights. We stood reclining into the backs of our comfy chairs, applauded dutifully and defiantly and awaited the inevitable. Arsenal, too, seemed to have expected to turn up, do their thing and record an unremarkable win… whilst their failings were manifold it’s surely beyond dispute that had we played our scripted role, turned up, put up a tentative and nervous backs-to-the-wall resistance that’s exactly what would have happened.
4- Instead we howled into them with the force of a wrecking ball into a dolls house. It would be difficult to overstate the magnificence of that first half… it was as if all our vigour, energy, verve, bloody-mindedness had been saved for this moment, like a child saving up pocket money for a special occasion. The disconnect between what was expected and what was happening on the pitch was evident in every challenge that saw an Arsenal midfielder hassled out of possession; the more so when, having won possession, we thundered past with options overlapping and Arsenal players scrambling. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down.
It helped that we got the goal. Of course it did. In fact the whole thing was contingent on that early breakthrough, much as the bouncing disbelief after the second three minutes later was tempered with a look at the clock and “oh crap, there’s still 75 minutes to go…”. There’s a world of difference between a bloody-minded Watford side and a bloody-minded Watford side with a lead to defend. It didn’t make our job easy, but it made Arsenal’s extremely difficult.
That we got that break was all down to us though, down to the positiveness and aggression that saw Niang flying down the centre of the pitch. The free kick looks a bit soft on the replay but whatever… tickets, raffles. He was there to win it, that’s what being positive gets you. Younès Kaboul did his trademark rocket-launcher thing, we got another break with a deflection but heaven knows those deflections have been going against us, about time for some redress of that I think. Plus, Aaron Ramsey. Yes it’s very hurty if it hits you because he’s a big scary man who kicks the ball very hard but to quote Steve Morison, if you don’t like it, go home.
5- Pulling out individuals is wrong, because there wasn’t a performance that was anything less than outstanding, extraordinary. So let’s pull out all of them.
Étienne Capoue. My word. This was the force of nature that we remember from the beginning of the season, but with booster rockets and go-faster stripes. Foot in every tackle, driving forward relentlessly as epitomised by the second goal… disdainfully bypassing opponents first with a drop of the shoulder, then through brute force, then through “well if you’re not going to challenge me I’ll keep going”. Smacked a shot that Cech could only block, Troy gobbles up, two-nil. Magnificent, and if he was quieter in the second half that rendered him merely fantastic.
Tom Cleverley. Doesn’t give the ball away. Ever. Not by operating in safe areas of the pitch where he’s got time and space, but despite pushing on and being bold. Others have had that knack of retaining possession no matter what – Jonathan Hogg springs to mind – but not in combination with this verve. His confidence must have been knocked by his fall from grace but no sign of that here… he’s back home.
M’Baye Niang. You’re used to seeing a young forward, especially a wide man, come in and be exciting, that’s not new. Then over time you realise that he is easily bullied, or he doesn’t know how to pass the ball, or he’s all tricks and no end product. No danger of that here. Those boxes are already ticked. Quick and clever, yes, already a weapon that makes our attack so much more potent with speed and slight of foot, a snake slithering cruelly through opponents legs. But he’s clever too, he knows where to run and – best of all? – he can hold the ball up, he can handle himself. We have a player.
Less spectacular but just as welcome on the other flank, Daryl Janmaat. An ostensibly defensive set-up was rendered potent by having Janmaat and Niang invariably hugging the touchlines every time we broke; we signed Janmaat as a full-back but he’s an attacking threat first and foremost and he was perfectly at home on the right of midfield, bundling into challenges and forcing Cech into a clawing save towards the end of the half.
Valon Behrami. Doing what Valon Behrami does, blood dripping from his jaws, slightly lunatic smile, this game was made for him. He stamped all over it too, a royal pain in the arse of every home attack until being taken off twenty minutes into the second half.
5- By then the game had changed. Reports suggest that “Arsenal improved in the second half” whilst nonetheless describing the team’s performance as “below par”. It didn’t feel below par for that opening 20 minutes. It felt very much as if we were going to get blown away in Arsenal’s whirlwind. You wouldn’t have put money on us getting anything from the game at that stage, not a point, not anything. Walcott was on for the lumpy Giroud and the home side were all twists and turns, and darting runs that nobody in the stadium anticipated. We stood up to it well, the incomparable Gomes making one stunning save from Walcott in a face-off after the winger was found free on the right of the box and another from Iwobi who had switched flanks with Sanchez. Bodies were put on the line, crucially nobody panicked and put in a stupid challenge – Nacho Monreal had already sounded a warning klaxon with a feeble dive in the first half for which he was booked. No further opportunity could be offered and wasn’t, although Prödl’s murderously precise challenge on Sanchez had hearts briefly in mouths. Shortly afterwards Arsenal got their goal regardless. It felt like a matter of time, and we began to steel ourselves with the knowledge that even glorious defeat was so much better than we’d feared.
In my head, things changed again with the Behrami substitution. Kieron leaned over and suggested that his well-judged trudge to the touchline constituted the longest interruption to Arsenal’s onslaught of the half. He was joking, but he was right… and they never quite had us under such pressure thereafter. Doucouré and Okaka both gave us much needed legs off the bench, the latter replacing the relentless Deeney whose lone furrow had been ploughed deep into the earth’s molten core. But Success was the triumph, the icing on a very ample cake. True, he twice exposed us to potential disaster not by overplaying, but simply by not being defensively aware enough as Arsenal’s urgency ramped up in the closing ten minutes. At the other end of the pitch, however, he induced panic… and one outrageous flippy-flappy trick on the edge of the box had him skating clear of an utterly confused Arsenal defence, ready to slide the ball under Cech… except that Troy, too, had been confused by Success’s brilliance and had inadvertently blocked the Nigerian’s pass through for himself.
6- So we held out. Kaboul and Prödl monstrous and defiant, Cathcart and Britos so much more confident, assured, unpanickable than recent performances have suggested.
At half time I’d run into Lionel, with whom I’d shared grumpy reflection at London Bridge post-Millwall on Sunday. We’d both been full of how dreadful it all was (it was) and what a grim place the world had become (it had). No words were necessary in the concourse at the Emirates, we just laughed. Too much analysis surely ruins the enjoyment. What did we know, anyway?
Today is Graham’s funeral in Watford. An important, significant day in memory of an important, significant man. The win was dedicated to his family and his memory both by Troy and by Walter Mazzari… something that’s easy enough to say but important, too, and they’d earned the right to say it. Fitting, too, since in GT’s time, famously, “We Always Beat the Arsenal”. This win, this performance bears comparison with any by a Watford side since that era, and many of those of that time too.
So what a magnificent evening. Suddenly we can look forward to the rest of the season with no small optimism. And all rendered ever so slightly more enjoyable by the fact that nobody, least of all Arsenal, not ourselves either, saw it coming.