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Crystal Palace 1 Watford 0 (18/03/2017) 19/03/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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  The wooden benches have been replaced by blue plastic on tiers barely wide enough to accommodate it.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.

Yoorns.

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Comments»

1. SteveG - 19/03/2017

Not at the game but your report, Matt, chimes with message I got from listening to the 3CR commentary. Less than the sum of the parts certainly sums it up and we can only be left to wonder what Sean Dyche, or indeed Slavisa Jokanovic, might have done with this squad of players if they had been given the chance.

About this time last year I felt that QSF had got into the habit of selecting what he thought were the best 11 individuals and then, almost as an afterthought, considering how he wanted the team to set up. At the start of this season I thought that Mazzari was doing something different, but we seem to have reverted to a team with an odd shape at best, and no shape at worst. Whatever the merits or otherwise of 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 this squad was clearly set up to play with three at the back and using Cathcart and Britos as full backs obviously signals that something has gone wrong with Plan A. I know that injuries have played their part, but it’s not as if plan B or C is a world beater – as you say, there’s a lot of hoof-ball going on.

It also seems baffling that someone who has shown as much promise as Isaac Success has started only one game – either it’s managerial incompetence or the belief that a highly paid professional footballer can’t last for a whole game. Neither seems a great outcome. I’d still fancy a punt on starting him – if he has to come off and we’re 2-0 up that’s still a lot better than putting him on with 10 minutes to go when we’re chasing the game.

2. Robert Hill - 19/03/2017

Nice one Matt. My frustrations are building and have been since the end of November. We have no identity as a team and look disjointed. We have lost points we should have got and I am concerned. I have never been one to question our Manager, well not for a long time, but I am seriously concerned with Walter. I’m not sure he has an identity with the team. We don’t play with any rhythm and consistency. I never know which Watford team turns up. What is Deeney doing defending corners? If we win it we have no target to hit and keep the ball. It just kept coming back and in my opinion the Manager doesn’t have this right. Mazzarri wants perfection but we are a million miles away from having an identity. This is going to be a struggle from now on. When is he going to start Success. Throw him on and see. That will get him fitter. He needs to play. What does he want from Niang? I’m not sure. I think we have a huge task now. Those last 4 games look like a huge mountain climb. Can we get enough points before them? I’m not convinced.

3. george - 19/03/2017

Thank you for raising a few smiles in spite of working with such ghastly material. Sadly I’ll be at the Vic for the next two matches so you can count on some more disappointing results given my track record.

4. mudlark - 19/03/2017

What a lovely phrase “as a whole we are weaker than the sum of our parts”. A perfect description of the team. I wish I had thought of it

5. Roger Smith - 19/03/2017

“We’re so much less than the sum of our parts.” And that, in a nutshell, is why Mazzari has to go. The best managers gel average players into an effective team.

However, I don’t think we’ll need six more points, let alone the oft-quoted 40. The bottom three have 5, 6 and 6 fewer than games played. Even if they get a point a game from now on, that equates to 33, 32, 32 by the end of the season.

And you seem to have misspelt your final thought. Shouldn’t it be “Yawns”?

6. harefield hornet - 19/03/2017

Somebody on another site has made an interesting point about the size of the squad and the fact we have no orthodox defensive full-backs. If we are going to play 4 at the back to counter teams with tricky wingers we need full backs not centre backs playing out of position. That and with the average age of the squad being high and full of players who have been there seen it and done it has not done Mazzari any favours in the player recruitment stakes.

7. Old Git - 19/03/2017

Brentford’s my local team and I never thought I’d be back there so soon – looking forward to it. And I always enjoy going to Loftus Road with my QPR friend Chris, despite the lack of leg room.
I’ll be surprised if we get another win this season. Walter truly has lost it, if those two quotes are to be believed. ‘We were unlucky’. What? And ‘if we continue on this path we’ll be fine.’ Now that is seriously worrying.

Mike - 20/03/2017

WM’s comments need to be taken in context. We were unlucky to lose on Saturday. Neither side ‘deserved’ to win. Calm heads required now, by both players and fans, to see us over the line.

8. Ian - 20/03/2017

Curcic – Johnson – Zaha – SSDD

9. PEDantic - 20/03/2017

I didn’t go all the way to South London to watch a bald eagle fly onto the crossbar and back but sadly, for someone who works at the RSPB, that was the highlight of the afternoon. It was especially frustrating that our fans were right up for this one – Palace are the closest we have to a local rival at the moment – but the players didn’t match our enthusiasm. The team was set up to draw 0-0 and didn’t look like they would score if they played for the rest of the weekend. Palace meanwhile, up until the goal, put in the limpest performance I’ve seen from them for many years and were clearly there to be beaten. Another wasted opportunity.

The calls for Mazarri’s head are now very loud but, whilst I would be amazed if he was to be our manager – sorry, Head Coach – next season, I don’t subscribe to the modern trend of lauding managers for their successes and vilifying them for their failures. I think it’s far more important to assemble the correct players, the best the club can afford, and then for those players to take a high degree of responsibility for their own performances. The manager adds the final 5-10% with his tactics and motivation.

On the first issue, it’s clear to see the makeup of the squad, even taking into account the injuries, is not correct. Whose fault is this? Unfortunately, due to the rather secretive way the club presents transfer business to the fans, we have no idea whether Mazarri has complete, some or no input into recruitment. If he has little or no say, is it fair to totally blame him for not putting together a winning team? Or perhaps he really did say: ‘no, no, I don’t need any fullbacks’.

As for the players taking responsibility, there are only two ways to advance an attack on the opposition goal: either run past a defender with the ball, or pass the ball beyond a defender forwards to a teammate. Of course there are times when keeping possession is necessary but our players so often seem to keep the ball just to be safe, which is simply a waste of time. Capoue is one of the worst culprits but he is by no means alone and the move so often ends with a hopeful punt to the isolated Deeney, who so obviously needs a partner.

10. Dusty - 21/03/2017

Anyone remember our game against Man Utd earlier in the season? West Ham away? Everton? Arsenal? Lets keep a little bit of positivity or we’re certainly doomed. Are there 3 worse teams than us? At this stage of the season it sure looks like it.

PEDantic - 21/03/2017

But isn’t that just the point? We know they can do so much better. I’m certain we’ll stay up, but we had the potential to get in the top half.

Dusty - 21/03/2017

A little fanciful, I know but should we win our game in hand would we not be 10th? I am excited about the next 5 games here’s hoping some others can be as well.

11. David Frost - 21/03/2017

Matt,
I am an avid reader of your excellent ‘thunks’ – they capture the essence of each situation beautifully.
I was not in the Country for this game and went to your report as my primary source of information. Unfortunately you confirmed that two unimaginative, physical and unpleasant teams were never going to provide a spectacle for the crowd and another Hornets match being one of the last games on MOTD was a nailed-on certainty.
Like many, I am a superstitious fan convinced that my rituals directly affect the outcome of each game. I must be mightily disillusioned this season as I am no longer selecting my teacups, socks etc. without reference to the fixture list – Walter should be ashamed of removing the fun from our escapist passion!
David

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2017

What’s chicken and what’s egg David? Are you abandoning your rituals because of the form of the team? Or is it the other way round? Could you live with yourself if we go down because you’ve neglected your socks? Yes, your socks might be irrelevant but what if they’re not?


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