Crystal Palace 1 Watford 0 (18/03/2017) 19/03/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Much as there have been few more frequent opponents in recent years that Palace, much as it feels as if we play here every other week I’ve not made it down to Selhurst Park for almost nine years.
So much has changed in that time. So much has changed, period, but particularly on the pitch; this feels like a throwback to a bygone age. Days when we used to travel to watch terrible games in grimy stadiums and travel home wondering why we’d bothered (this is called “setting up a punchline”, btw).
On the plus side, the bottle-top nazis of ten years ago no longer seem to patrol the turnstiles… at any rate, I manage to get the contraband Evian bottle in unchallenged, rendering the precautionary spare lid in my pocket redundant. Having a deceptively cherubic-looking seven year old in tow, hair in plaits, warpaint on cheeks, helps of course, but I must confess that I prefer the charm offensive that is increasingly the norm on the way into away grounds. Maybe I’m getting old.
The Arthur Wait Stand is still where we left it, even if we’ve been shunted along it a bit, away from the Holmesdale End. The wooden benches have been replaced by blue plastic on tiers barely wide enough to accommodate it. The pervasive smell of damp wood is gone and whilst the sky is, as ever in Croydon, grey at least it’s not raining.
2- It’s an extraordinarily bad game. Creatively awful. Sorry if you were hoping for more dramatic build up, more suspense than that. Too bad. I sat through it, if you were hoping for drama then you clearly didn’t bloody do so and you’ll get what you’re given and like it.
To be fair, the appalling level of entertainment on offer is partly by design, no mere accident of incompetence although there’s enough of that. Both sides are set up to be solid first; this is particularly true of the Hornets who line up with centre-backs across the back four in an overt attempt to negate Palace’s threat from the wings (given that, in particular, we built a squad to play with wing-backs and are thus short of full-backs who can defend reliably). It works, too, in that the Eagles are largely kept at arm’s length; the game fluctuates between two moods… calm possession, often Watford possession, in the central half of the pitch and scruffy bedlam in either penalty area. Like a teenager on the pull, all the moves in the early stages but a fumbling mess at the business end of things. All mouth and no trousers. Insert your own joke about “inability to score” here.
3- The low roof of the Arthur Wait Stand and the claustrophobic lack of space afforded by its geography lend themselves to an intense atmosphere, which is the most enjoyable aspect of the game by some distance. Wilfried Zaha wriggles into the penalty area early on and goes down easily; Martin Atkinson is unimpressed but the away “end” is delighted by developments and proceeds accordingly if predictably. The repertoire moves on to cover bad bus-vandalising decisions and the how much of a let-down the notorious Selhurst Park atmosphere was turning out to be; I hope for a reference to the 2006 Eagle Express, but I guess that’s old news now.
The game is tetchy throughout. Maybe the Zaha thing contributes to this, maybe every game at Selhurst is this way in ongoing tribute to Sasa Curcic. Either way, the first half ends in drab-but-more-or-less-satisfactory stalemate, but with Jason Puncheon in heated discussion with Valon Behrami on the way off. The Swiss wouldn’t return for the second half, replaced by a dynamic Abdoulaye Doucouré. As an aside, and discounting our appalling record with injuries, it seems reasonable to question our recruitment strategy and/or our fitness regime given the number of players we have who can’t be relied upon to last ninety minutes… Behrami and Janmaat being simply too fragile, Success and Zuñiga, seemingly, being unable to last the distance.
If that sounds grumpy, it merely reflects the mood of the game. Tom Cleverley lost his cool, refusing Puncheon’s perhaps anxious attempts to make peace whilst demonstrating a stamping action after a challenge. Zaha cuffed Prödl over the head in a tussle to no censure. Milivojevic went in hard and late on Niang without being penalised, Palace broke swiftly down the left and Prödl exacted revenge on Zaha by clobbering him into the stand. From the free kick “Palace scored”, aggravating on any number of levels. First, that we had a strong case for a free kick of our own seconds earlier (but these things happen, decisions go against you sometimes, live with it…). Second that whilst Zaha’s quick feet didn’t yield Palace’s opening his being an obnoxious maggot and provoking a retributional foul, ultimately, did.
4- But mostly because this was a classic game of next goal wins. From the very start of the game. We’d looked relatively untroubled by Palace’s limited attacking threat, until Troy’s lapse of concentration made that academic. Finding ourselves a goal down we were completely unable to change our approach and mount a serious threat; indeed Palace finished the game much the stronger, partly buoyed by their lead and the crowd (who had found their voice) but partly through being able to swarm into the gaps that we were having to leave. I have no doubt that they’d have been equally incapable of overturning a Watford goal, had that emerged.
The four centre-backs thing deprived us of any real threat from wide, since neither Cathcart nor Britos were going to bomb on to provide support making our wide men easier to cope with. As so often recently we fell lazily back on lumping long balls to Troy, who battled on but was left with scraps by Mamadou Sakho who had much the better of that contest. Nordin Amrabat had been re-introduced to noisy acclaim shortly before the goal but looked rusty and offered little, though we will benefit from progressing him towards fitness. Our biggest threat, indeed, came from Doucouré who did the Worrell Sterling thing in saving his best half for the Hornets for one of the team’s worst; our only meaningful attempt on target was awkward slung shot across the face of goal from distance which forced Hennessey into a scrambled save. As the game drew to a close and the Watford crowd bitterly cheered an inconsequential free kick award on the half-way line I was once again taken back nine years as the voice of Don Fraser, who would have been sitting over my right shoulder at the Vic at that time, floated over the sarcastic applause. “Referee, you’re so masterful…”.
5- Most aggravating about our current position is the knowledge that we’re so much less than the sum of our parts. Yes, we’ve had crippling injuries in key positions that have disrupted our ability to build an attacking threat but despite this you’ve got to feel that we ought to be getting more out of what is undoubtedly the most talented squad we’ve ever had. This challenge is embodied by M’Baye Niang, who after a couple of high impact games now looks like a quality player in second gear, never better illustrated than when a rare late opening on the break was curtailed by the Frenchman wandering back from an offside position. I may have sworn at this point.
The whistle went, to boos in the away end. We navigated our way back to Selhurst station, via the landmarks we’d passed on the way… the bin liner of rubbish left, split and spilling its contents across the pavement. The cafe offering takeaway fare, “cheaper than the ground”, which looked as about inviting as a punch in the face. The corner that reeked of marijuana.
We shouldn’t be in a position where we’re looking over our shoulder, but we are very much looking over our shoulder. The stat about losing a game without Palace having a shot on target is perverse and embarrassing if a little misleading – it was the sort of game that a lapse would decide. But it also harks back to dropped points under another Italian manager who came across as distant and slightly supercilious, under similar circumstances.
I don’t think we’ll go down. We need maybe two wins out of the remaining ten games, and whilst there are games in there that can’t be relied on for points we ought to manage six. The frustration is that it’s even in question, and the niggle that a relegation battle being a recent development means that our squad and management might not be as mentally atuned to (or engaged in?) the challenge as some of the others down there.
Three points from our next two games, Sunderland and West Brom at home, are an absolute minimum given what the fixture list leaves us with thereafter.
Watford 3 Southampton 4 (04/03/2017) 05/03/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- It occurred to me this week that I am allowing my life to descend into a mere sequence of events dictated by routines borne of habit and laziness. Every stage, every decision pre-scripted. Middle-age steers you towards such a life, of course… jobs have to be turned up to on time, kids have school hours, gym classes, cello lessons to be navigated. In between these things you have to fit other stuff and because so much is timetabled the other stuff also becomes timetabled… supermarket run happens on a Friday evening when it’s empty. Gym can be fitted in on a Wednesday evening when the girls are at swimming lessons.
As a diabetic statistician – and therefore of reasonably ordered mind – with a propensity to cram in things like writing match reports the pressure to succumb to this demand for routine is almost overwhelming. It sometimes feels as if every step of every day could have been scripted. I wake up at 7 and give myself my first dose of insulin. I get up and empty the dishwasher, prepare a child’s packed lunch. Take various tablets, check my blood sugar, prepare breakfast (Monday: Salmon and Eggs, Tuesday: Cottage cheese with fruit) and then take more insulin. And so on. I might as well not be here. You could stick a stunt double in my place, or a robot with a set of instructions, and not lose anything. Actually, you might get more interesting conversation.
Today was the day I started fighting back. Nothing too reckless you understand… a different menu option at the pre-match meal, a different choice of turnstile on the way into the Rookery. These small acts of rebellion will build up over time, even if my co-editor would warn me of the risks of upsetting the Gods of pre-match routine were he here.
2- I’m not the only one who’s been ringing the changes. The 1881 appear to have revised their flag distribution strategy, today confined to their own home base on the west side of the Rookery. This is a shame, even if it only occurs to me as the pre-Z-cars anthem pipes up and the absence of a flagpole in my hand and yellow and black fabric obscuring my vision jars. Something’s missing. A shame because showing your colours literally – not merely symbolically, by turning up n’that – is a statement of pride and sets a good tone. The wall of colour has been a fine fine thing, but I guess I’m not the one who’s been giving up time to sort it. Thanks to those that have.
On the pitch, Stefano Okaka is the man chosen to fill the space in the line-up vacated by Mauro Zárate; he’s up front with Troy, Niang starts on the right of midfield with Capoue on the left whilst a defensive jumble about sees Seb Prödl come in and Younès Kaboul shunted across to right back.
As last week, we started aggressively. Heaven knows there will be plenty to bemoan about what follows but we’ve made a habit of starting well and shouldn’t lose or overlook that… here, Stefano Okaka bullied open the space to hold the ball up in the area and lay back to Deeney who improvised an excellent volleyed finish with his left foot. He’s scored in five of our last six league games.
3- But as last week, the suggestion that we would canter off into the sunset and record a comfortable win proved illusory. Whilst we retained a modicum of threat after our goal our chances were snatched, or optimistic from range.
Southampton, meanwhile, were very good indeed. It’s always tempting to focus on your own inadequacies in assessing a defeat, but this wasn’t a game in which our failings presented the win to the opposition whatever the scoreline or match highlights might suggest. Southampton’s movement and set-up asked those questions of us.. a tough, efficient midfield, all sorts of width on both flanks stretching us all over the place, and the alertness and mobility of Manolo Gabbiadini down the centre.
And so they flowed at us with increasing inevitability. Kaboul has done a passable job as a makeshift right-back in the past but struggled here as did the entire back four. In midfield we simply weren’t getting enough of the ball…. Behrami was subjected to a couple of heavy early challenges and was a pale form of his usual self. Cleverley was again the best of an underwhelming bunch in midfield but struggled to get hold of the game.
Saints equalised… perhaps we were unlucky, Redmond vaulted Tadic’s shot on its agonising way through, didn’t get a touch but was clearly gaining an advantage by obscuring and potentially distracting Gomes. It could and perhaps should have been called offside, but there was no denying that Southampton were worth parity. More aggravating still was the visitors taking the lead on half time… we thought we’d got away with it, perhaps the players did to.
4- Routine has its place, of course. Part of our problem – in part reflecting the disruption that injuries have wreaked on the side – is that there doesn’t seem to be a routine at all, no “this is what we do”… it’s reliant on pressurising mistakes (and Saints, particularly Soares at right back, weren’t immune from those) but when we have the ball it seems so.. heavy, deliberate and anxious. There’s no rhythm, no familiar way of playing. No stock goals either… no Ardley humping it to Helguson at the far post, as we’ve lamented before. You can’t rely on inspiration indefinitely.
Inspiration came though, and off the bench in the form of Isaac Success. Mazzarri’s press conference quotes implied fitness and form issues; certainly there have been concerns over the former, he’s yet to start at home and even here his introduction was agonisingly prolonged as if we were trying to work out how much injury time would be added and delayed to accommodate it. But I’ve not seen any “form” issues; on his best cameos he’s dominated the games he’s been thrown into; at worst he’s made us look more potent, given the opponent a problem.
He replaced Capoue, who had struggled on the left. His generally patchy form notwithstanding, it’s now over a year since his one good game on the left of midfield – at Old Trafford – so you’ve got to wonder how long that will be fallen back on as a plausible option.
Within ten minutes Okaka, whose urgency stood out even if he did occasionally look as if he simply wanted someone to have a barney with, brought down the ball and released Success down the left. The Nigerian clipped a ball in to the near post where Okaka met it sharply. Two all.
5- It would have been daylight robbery, but we weren’t given long to savour the possibility. Both of Southampton’s decisive goals were calamitous from our point of view; Gomes, in particular, who had kept us in it earlier in the game should have done better on both occasions. Abdoulaye Doucouré’s consolation was almost aggravating – a cross floated in by Niang, more involved than last week but still underwhelming, was allowed to travel miles before being tapped in by the surprised Frenchman. Saints’ defence, albeit perhaps switched off on a two-goal lead, was get-attable, we just never held on to the ball for long enough to capitalise.
Walter asserted that we were worth a point, and that a break at 2-2 which saw Behrami win possession high up the pitch and Okaka briefly through on goal, constituted a match turning moment, an opportunity to win the game. Both assessments seem optimistic. Certainly we could have nicked a point… and the straw to cling to is that despite being outplayed by a very good side we were in it almost throughout. But should have is stretching it, and a bit concerning that he’s done so (again). As for Okaka’s chance… he never looked like pushing clear of Jack Stephens and was on his wrong foot. Weighing this up against the seven Saints shots on target that didn’t find the net is hugely optimistic.
I’m still confident that we’re not in any trouble. Leicester, Swansea and Palace may all have won but will need to keep doing so, and one of the bottom three will need to put in a similarly convincing and unprecedented run of form for us to be worried (although the one or two wins that would probably secure us safety might best be achieved before Easter, with Liverpool and Man City the only visitors thereafter).
I’m not entirely comfortable with “not relegated” being good enough though, or being the only yardstick to judge the season with. Injuries notwithstanding, the squad’s a bit better than that. Hopefully the return to fitness of Amrabat in time for a tasty looking trip to Selhurst in a fortnight will help us demonstrate that conclusively.