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.