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.