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End of Term Report Part 1 29/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

You know the form by now.  A trot through the season’s roster, most of it.  Some will still be here next season, some will go over the summer, some will leave at the end of August…  those that did so this year tend to not feature in this write-up, much as the likes of Almen Abdi, Ikechi Anya and Matěj Vydra all merited more than just slipping out of the door.  They all feel like characters from a story half-remembered, and we watch on in puzzlement at their different flavours of underachievement in the championship.  Anyway…

1 – Heurelho Gomes

It’s been mentioned at this stage before, but in recruiting Gomes from a long way down Spurs’ pecking order three years ago we were working from a tried and tested template.  Manuel Almunia had been similarly discarded at Arsenal, similarly unreasonably tainted in the eyes of the watching public.  As with Almunia, Gomes reminded everyone straight away why he’d been such a prized asset in the first place, that he’s a very fine goalkeeper.

But Gomes has moved beyond that now.  Beyond simply a goalkeeper who proved to be a better player, with more left to offer than many had lazily concluded.  He’s a leader, and suddenly in our hugely transient squad he’s a stalwart, three years in.  You wouldn’t have it any other way.  Throughout all of our ups and downs in form this season Gomes has been a constant; he started every League fixture and at the times when things were getting a bit edgy, when the side was at its less convincing the sight of Heurelho between the sticks exhorting teammates and fans to further efforts was hugely reassuring.  Like Tommy Smith in the Vialli season, a reason to believe that Everything Will Be Alright In The End.  At the end of games, whatever the result, Troy and Heurelho saluting the crowd; in interviews manifestly evident that he gets it, fully professional and a thoroughly decent bloke.

Next Season:   This season has seen Heurelho make more errors than in his previous seasons, which merely means more than one; he was nonetheless indisputably one of the stars of the campaign. With Big Pants seemingly out of favour it seems reasonable to expect stiffer competition to be brought in over the summer, but Gomes remains our number 1. Hurrah.

3 – Miguel Britos

At the end of last summer I took my daughters to the club’s Open Day at the Fullerians rugby club. Long queues had formed by the meet-the-player tents in the sunshine by the time we arrived, queues formed of children and parents more experienced in these events than I was. Foolishly I decided that our time queuing was better spent collecting and printing new home shirts; by the time we decided to join the back of the meet-the-players queues, we’d missed the boat and harried looking club staff were fending people off.

Feeling guilty at making such a gross strategic error and wondering whether an ice cream would quite cut it as compensation I eventually took the girls back towards the big tent to pick up our name-printed shirts and ran into Miguel Britos. The coach was leaving, and Miguel would have been forgiven for apologising politely after an afternoon of relentless autographs and selfies but he was as accommodating as could be. He didn’t know that the girls had been let down by their inept father, that he was the only player they were destined to meet; he gave us his time anyway. The photo is amazing… Daughter 1 retains a semblance of almost-a-teenager cool, betrayed by a giveaway smile. Daughter 2 makes no such pretence, her eyes are about to pop out.

Being a good bloke doesn’t qualify you for playing centre back in the Premier League, but it helps in my book. Or at least, it helps to want to root for someone. Miguel has looked nervy at times this season but there’s context… regularly switching from a three to a four, injuries meaning that the make up of the central defence changed from game to game. Miguel was generally picked when available though, only once slipping to the bench when available. Still a solid option.

Next Season: Left-sided defenders aren’t easy to come by. Might be high on some fans’ hit-lists, but I can see him still being around in August. Good job too.

4 – Younès Kaboul

The signing of Younès Kaboul was a fine thing for a number of reasons. Firstly, signing Younès Kaboul announces you as an established mid-table Premier League club as well as anything I can think of. We Have Arrived, and are here to stay. Second, the reaction on Wearside – nothing against Sunderland, but the ex-club’s messageboards are a pretty reliable indicator. (It can work the other way too… my excitement at Lewis McGugan’s signing lasted as long as it took for me to glance at the Forest reaction. I was expecting hysteria. There wasn’t any).

Thirdly, because big, bootery defenders, particularly big bootery defenders who look pretty scarey, are something that you can’t really have enough of. I’m all for them.

And if Kaboul hasn’t been an unqualified success – whilst he’s terrifying in a back four he’s looked vulnerable as part of a three, particularly in a wide position – he’s still a Good Thing. He’s got a big personality, more than a decade’s worth of Premier League experience and he kicks the ball really hard. What’s not to like?

Next Season: As above, quite how vital Kaboul will be rather depends on how Marco Silva plans to line us up – significantly, his Hull teams appear to have switched between defensive formations too. Difficult to imagine a world in which Kaboul won’t be at the very least a Useful Thing to Have, tho.

5 – Sebastian Prödl

Here’s a strange thing: Seb Prödl isn’t thirty yet.

Pausing only briefly to acknowledge that “getting on” for a footballer really isn’t very old at all and that I should really get on with doing “things that I’ll do when I grow up” rather than vaguely thinking about them… it remains a fact that Prödl isn’t very old, even by a footballer’s standards.

Why, then, does he seem older? Maybe in part because he came to us an established international defender; he’d captained Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga, and was a senior player in the Austrian side. He plays like a veteran, with the absolute assurance of someone who’s been there, done that, dealt with anything you can throw at him before.

But there’s something else, I think. Because the fact is that whilst Seb narrowly, deservedly walked off with the Player of the Season award (and named after GT or not I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable at the unexplained sidelining of the Watford Observer) he was actually looking like winning the award by a country mile halfway through the season, based on that monstrous performance against Manchester United and others like it.

Then we switched to a back four, which rather exposed the bits that Seb isn’t quite so good at. He’s not the quickest on the turn… in the middle of the three he’s in his element, furiously and defiantly in control with quicker legs doing the running either side of him. In a four… well, he’s almost the ying to Kaboul’s yang. He moves like an older man.

A very fine season nonetheless, and another player you instinctively warm to.

Next Season: He did seem to be waving goodbye when he went off at Stamford Bridge didn’t he? You hope not… and, you know, three years on his contract and everything. But still…

Helping Hands 2016/2017 25/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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I don’t care, I enjoy it.

(insert the standard bit about what qualifies as an assist on this here site)… the last pass, obviously, but also the shot that was parried for a follow-up, being taken down for a penalty, both the flick-on to a cross AND the cross itself, and so on.

Amongst the stories the table tells is that of the contrast between this season and last. Last year Troy and Iggy dominated the charts, being involved in the vast majority of our goals one way or another. This year 18 players provided assists as compared to 13 last season, but whilst Troy tops the table for the third season running his five assists is an unprecedented low to top the table. To set this in context, Mark Yeates got eleven in 2011/12, admittedly from a larger number of games.

This rather sets into context that Nordin Amrabat comes in second with four, albeit four rather challenges the “no end product” theory. Miguel Britos’ three puts him perversely high in the table but three for a centre-back is decent in any season; it rather puts our central midfield to shame, whilst highlighting the lack of creativity that has been a central theme to the season. Abdoulaye Doucouré is yet to contribute in this regard (but he’s ace, so we let him off), ditto Valon Behrami in both respects, whilst Tom Cleverley’s set pieces yield a disappointing one and Etienne Capoue’s tally is three in two seasons, all away from home.

Meanwhile the absent Roberto Pereyra’s rate was a pretty healthy one every four games, which would have put him clearly top if sustained over a season. M’baye Niang’s rate wasn’t much worse, albeit there was less to enjoy in between.

Elsewhere, Juan Camillo Zuñiga’s spasmodic season yielded one goal and one assist, each occurring within twelve minutes in mid-September, whilst the Gillingham League Cup game and the number of kids rotated in later in the season contributed to an extraordinary eleven players turning out for the Hornets but starting no more than once across the campaign.

Will return soon with the End of Term Report.  Enjoy the summer…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Deeney 5 33+7 10 Sot (A), Gil (H-LC), Lei (H), WBA (A), WBA (H)
Amrabat 4 25+4 0 Sot (A), Bou (H), Liv (A), Eve (A)
Holebas 4 33+0 2 Bou (H), Eve (H), Eve (H), Bur (H)
Pereyra 3 12+1 2 WHU (A), MaU (H), Lei (H)
Niang 3 15+1 2 Bur (H), WBA (H), Che (A)
Britos 3 29+0 1 BuA (H-FAC), Bou (A), Sot (H)
Janmaat 2 18+10 2 MaU (H), Hul (H)
Prödl 2 32+2 1 Lei (H), CrP (H)
Capoue 2 38+1 7 WHU (A), Ars (A)
Success 1 2+17 1 Sot (H)
Zárate 1 3 0 WHU (H)
Mason 1 3+1 0 BuA (H-FAC)
Zuñiga 1 6+16 1 MaU (H)
Guedioura 1 11+3 0 Che (H)
Okaka 1 11+9 4 Sot (H)
Cathcart 1 14+2 0  Sun (H)
Ighalo 1 15+5 2 WHU (A)
Cleverley 1 16+1 0 Bou (A)
Eleftheriou 0 0+1 0
Folivi 0 0+1 0
Kenedy 0 0+1 0
Stewart 0 0+1 0
Pereira 0 0+2 0
Hoban 0 1 0
Nyom 0 1 0
Paredes 0 1 0
Anya 0 1+1 0
Dja Djédjé 0 1+1 0
Vydra 0 1+1 0
Watson 0 2+4 0
Pantilimon 0 3+2 0
Sinclair 0 3+4 1
Mariappa 0 7+1 0
Kabasele 0 9+9 2
Doucouré 0 17+6 1
Kaboul 0 24 2
Behrami 0 26+1 0
Gomes 0 38+1 0

Check out the 2015-162014-152013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.

 

The List 2017. 22/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

Let it not be said that we’re glad that’s all over…  but here’s your summer list of players linked with the Hornets since the close of the January window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout the summer so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 93

IN

Elias Kachunga (Ingolstadt)
Alban Lafont (Toulouse)
Tom Cleverley (Everton)*                                                               – SIGNED
M’Baye Niang (Milan)*
Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea)*                                                     – SIGNED
Allan (Napoli)
Mario Lemina (Juventus)*
Stephan el Shaarawy (Roma)
Kiko Femenía (Alaves)                                                                     – SIGNED
Jorge Segura (Envigado)
Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon)
Fred Onyedinma (Millwall)
Hamza Mendyl (Lille)
Patrik Schick (Sampdoria)
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)*
Tom King (Millwall)
Khouma Babacar (Fiorentina)*
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)*
Marten de Roon (Middlesbrough)
Vito Mannone (Sunderland)                                                    – joined Reading
Sofyan Amrabat (Utrecht)                                                   – joined Feyenoord
Steve Cook (Bournemouth)
Eldin Jakupović (Hull City)                                                   – joined Leicester
Francesco Acerbi (Sassuolo)
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ67)
Mattia Destro (Bologna)*
Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)
David Stockdale (Brighton)                                       – joined Birmingham City
Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht)*                      – joined Tianjin Teda on loan
Lee Grant (Stoke City)
Mirko Valdifiori (Torino)
Orestis Karnezis (Udinese)
Jeison Murillo (Inter)
Marcel Tisserand (Ingolstadt)*
James McCarthy (Everton)
Alexandre Mendy (Guingamp)                                             – joined Bordeaux
Nicolas Pépé (Angers)*                                                                   – joined Lille
Omar Colley (Genk)
Florin Andone (Deportivo La Coruña)
Kamil Grosicki (Hull City)
Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiacos)*
Martin Cáceres (Unattached)
Marcel Heller (Darmstadt)                                                   – joined Augsburg
Mamadou Coulibaly (Pescara)                                             – joined Udinese
Ferland Mendy (Le Havre)                                                         – joined Lyon
Ismaïla Sarr (Metz)
Sam Johnstone (Manchester United)               – joined Aston Villa on loan
Rekeil Pyke (Huddersfield Town)                         – joined Port Vale on loan
Steve Mounié (Montpellier)                                           – joined Huddersfield
Davide Santon (Inter)*
Duván Zapata (Napoli)
Dennis Aogo (Schalke)
Rajiv van la Parra (Huddersfield)
Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht)
Giovanni Simeone (Genoa)
Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)
Fernando Forestieri (Sheff Wednesday)
Yannis Sourdis (Panathinaikos)
Tom Huddlestone (Hull City)
Will Hughes (Derby County)                                                             – SIGNED
Norberto Neto (Juventus)                                                    – joined Valencia
Saphir Taïder (Bologna)*
Adrien Silva (Sporting Lisbon)
Josh Tymon (Hull City)                                                      – joined Stoke City
Juan Camilo Zuñiga (Napoli)*
Lazar Marković (Liverpool)*
Kenedy (Chelsea)*
Joshua Brenet (PSV)
Sebá (Olympiacos)
Sébastien Corchia (Lille)                                                          – joined Sevilla
George Friend (Middlesbrough)
Andrew Robertson (Hull City)
Daniel Bachmann (Unattached)                                                         – SIGNED
Rodrigo Aguirre (Udinese)
Hernán Pérez (Espanyol)
Joe Hart (Manchester City)                                – joined West Ham on loan
Vicente Iborra (Sevilla)*                                                      – joined Leicester
Lorenzo Crisetig (Bologna)
Rafael Toloi (Atalanta)
Ashley Fletcher (West Ham United)
Pepe Reina (Napoli)
Ryan Fredericks (Fulham)
Ivan Strinić (Napoli)
Grégoire Defrel (Sassuolo)
Randell Williams (Unattached)                                                           – SIGNED
Britt Assombalonga (Nottingham Forest)                 – joined Middlesbrough
Christian Cueva (São Paulo)
Andre Carrillo (Benfica)
Jordan Ferri (Lyon)
Lucas Tousart (Lyon)
Max Gradel (Bournemouth)*
Maxwell Cornet (Lyon)
Rachid Ghezzal (Lyon)

OUT
Valon Behrami (Sion, Udinese*)
Troy Deeney (West Brom, Everton*, West Ham*, Newcastle, Leicester*)
Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord)*
Christian Kabasele (Anderlecht)*
Stefano Okaka (Udinese. Olympiacos, Shanghai Shenhua)
Isaac Success (West Ham, Crystal Palace)
Sven Kums (Anderlecht)                                                      – joined Anderlecht
Dion Pereira (Newcastle, West Ham, Brighton, Reading)
Costel Pantilimon (Anderlecht)
Tommie Hoban (QPR, Bolton, Sheffield United)
Obbi Oularé (Beşiktaş)*
Nordin Amrabat (Galatasaray, Deportivo La Coruña)
José Holebas (Fenerbahçe)*
Adalberto Peñaranda (Deportivo La Coruña, Roma, Leganes)
Ben Watson (Sunderland)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Toulouse)
Miguel Britos (Sparta Prague)

Watford 0 Manchester City 5 (21/05/2017) 22/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- “Bit quiet, isn’t it?” noted Daz as we ambled down Occupation Road in the sunshine, daughter 1 polishing off the Magnum that she’d negotiated. And so it was, but there had been little surprise in the observation… nobody was under any illusions and a goodly number had clearly opted out. Those of us in attendance approached the game with a mixture of apprehension, obligation and morbid fascination… Manchester City are a tough opponent at the best of times, in other circumstances this might have been an exciting game, an opportunity to bloody a nose in a nothing-to-lose encounter. Nobody harboured such expectations today. That we had little material to play for that City (as it turned out) needed a result to confirm Champions (sic) League qualification, that we’d lost all semblance of form whilst City had rediscovered theirs were challenges in themselves.

But our perverse injury problems turned the contest into a farce from the off. It has become increasingly difficult to sympathise with Walter Mazzarri’s bizarre prognoses as time has gone on, but there can be no disputing the gist of his parting shot. Nobody survives against Man City with their six (six!) senior central defenders unavailable. A thankless task for Mazzarri, whose meagre stock has dropped so low in the last fortnight that it was difficult for any to look at the back four of Janmaat and full Prem debutant Mason either side of midfielder Behrami and full-back-cum-powderkeg Holebas and acknowledge that this was probably as good as he could manage.

Which, as so often, was partly his own fault. If you could look at that defensive “solution” and say “yes, OK” there was no defending his bench. In such circumstances, when backs are likely to be not so much up against the wall as pummelled halfway through it, you need your leaders, you need senior players to cajole and organise and pull the side along. Our leader, in a final peevish move by his manager, was on the bench (and it’s arguable that in the admittedly ring-rusty Ben Watson, another to have been discarded cheaply by Mazzarri, we had another wise head underemployed). And, of course, we named two goalkeepers… much as we all love Rene Gilmartin this was no tribute to a departing hero (notably, no fawning 26th minute intro/outro for Rene who isn’t nearly a vain enough peacock to have suggested one) but a pathetically self-indulgent sulky statement by the outgoing coach. “Look what I’m left with”. A Charlie Rowan, a Carl Stewart or an Ogo Obi could have filled that space and garnered Mazzarri more sympathy and options.

2- If nobody expected a result then I think we hoped for a bit of defiance before the inevitable, a bit of “hey, we’re still in this, come on lads”. Alas. Indeed, all plans seemed to go astray on a day that confirmed the suspicion that we’re better off with this season ending and never being mentioned again. I’d gone as far as to order a mixed grill at Middletons with the intent of extracting what pleasure there was to be extracted from the afternoon, only to delay everyone else’s food as a result to quite reasonable scowls and sarcasm from friends and family young and old. So much for that. So much for our show of defiance also; four minutes in and Vincent Kompany was afforded space to pitch a tent, time to heat a barbecue in our penalty area and directed a corner inside the postage stamp. Worst fears realised, and not for the first time this season we progressed down a slope at any stage of which we’d have taken the scoreline and no questions asked. Whilst reflecting, again, on our complete inability to defend corners (no height and no defenders didn’t actually make that failing any more complete).

3- Actually there was some defiance.  There was a contrast between the play at the two ends of the pitch;  City were dominant in each, but at least as we attacked it looked less of an unfair contest.  M’Baye Niang nearly scored that goal he scores, cutting in from the left on his right foot but shovelling the shot narrowly over.  Doucouré and Capoue moved the ball quickly and fiercely, Nordin Amrabat found space on the right. And then, inevitably, City broke on us like water and it was men against boys.  Brandon Mason dug in and stuck his chin out, piling Gabriel Jesus into the advertising hoardings.  Valon Behrami, bless his snarling fangs, dived in to deny Agüero but it was all last ditch and desperate.  It wasn’t, in short, a fair fight… City spun and swung and sliced through us, a match for anyone on this form let alone our botched together defence.  And so we draw a veil over the detail of the rest of the half, except to mention that we lost Daryl Janmaat to the three hundred and seventy sixth hamstring strain of the season (nothing to do with our training methods though, naturally) allowing Andrew Eleftheriou to make the debut he probably wouldn’t have chosen.  And that some chose to boo at the half time whistle as if these circumstances compared to Hull or Palace, because “me sad, me boo” is as close to reason as some get.  Oh, and that City scored three more goals.

4- After more brief defiance – principally from Stefano Okaka, who provided much of what was left in that department for the rest of the half and opened the second period by barging himself a space and forcing a fine save from Caballero – City scored again.  And then more or less stopped, for which we could only be grateful.  There was some muted gallows humour, some attempts to recruit both Thierry Henry, pitchside for Sky Sports, and fifties centre-back Bill Shipwright who performed the half-time draw.  The most attention afforded to Mazzarri came when Jon Moss spoke to him on the touchline and the ground exhorted him to send the coach to the stands, but in vain.

The real question for me is why Mazzarri was in the ground at all.  By all accounts his departure was a mutual decision rather than “yet another” Pozzo sacking (the second, I make it?) and so perhaps the end of the season felt more natural… but this has never felt like a respectful, best-thing-for-everyone, no-hard-feelings kind of deal.  There’s bitterness and discomfort on both sides, and the line-up itself betrayed the questionable nature of the decision to retain him for the final game.

5- And so the season ends on six defeats with the Hornets one place above relegated Hull City and as intimated we’re probably best of all round to put the season behind us.  Despite the poor form, despite the miserable low on which we finish, despite the portents of the witless Pleat on 5 Live, and others, who refused to make allowances for the unprecedented circumstances of this game… it really isn’t that bad.  The reality is that we’re in the morass in the middle of the division between which there’s little to choose;  despite our recent tumble we’re as close to eighth place Saints as we are to Hull.  The summer will see a new coach, a new training regime, and undoubtedly another turnover of players… Nordin Amrabat, like Seb Prödl on Monday, seemed to be saying goodbye when he approached the Rookery before the lap of honour.  He’s looked nervous and been thoroughly ineffective since returning to the side… but he’s a trier, and it was good that the waiting crowd responded to his efforts and his own acknowledgement of them warmly.  For all the team’s struggles, the club is still in a good place and we shouldn’t need Daily Express headlines to remind us how lucky we are.

The List, Helping Hands and the Squad Review will follow in the next few weeks.  In the meantime, have a good summer.

Yoorns….

Chelsea 4 Watford 3 (15/05/2017) 16/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- This kind of doesn’t need an intro does it?  Whether you’ve been experiencing the last few months by attending games or watching on from greater distance you can’t have been looking forward to this.  Chelsea’s title having been confirmed on Friday didn’t help matters at all… it removed the final straw to be clung to, the one where there might be a nagging nervousness in the home stands, something that still needed sorting if we could just hold out for 20 minutes or so.

So much for that.  Now it was going to be a party.  The Underground screwing around didn’t improve our mood, nor did the drizzle.  Gallows humour was in full flow by the time we got to Stamford Gate; we navigated a bizarrely well-manned but porous corridor of stewards that seemed to have been planned by the guy who designed games for Gladiators.  Analogies about our defence’s capabilities immediately presented themselves, one thunk sorted before kick-off.  Any lingering good humour was extinguished once inside by news of our starting line-up.  Shackles off, Premier League status finally definitively secured, and no proper striker.  Bloody hell.

2- An aside here to discuss Chelsea’s catering.  You’ll appreciate that as a travelling football fan with a healthy appetite one’s bar of acceptability is necessarily quite low.  Given a captive audience the food is invariably pricey, and the quality hugely variable.  Genuinely, variable… some places get it right, but we’ve generally been trained to accept anything edible albeit at prices that no sensible person in any other environment would ever contemplate.

But this was spectacular.  Will, first to the counter whilst the rest of us addressed other priorities, quickly and darkly warned us off the pasties.  “Inedible.  Genuinely inedible,” he exclaimed whilst brandishing something that looked like an old shoe containing an insole of dry mud.  Forewarned, I went instead for an object advertised as a tandoori chicken roll.  An inner layer of foil wrapping guaranteed that the contents remained hotter than the sun, but absolutely devoid of either flavour or texture.  The closest comparison I can draw is of strands of soggy, watery lettuce and lumps of soft chalk wrapped in baking paper and heated to a point that would strip the plaster off your walls. And I paid six pounds for it.  Naturally, this improved our mood still further.   It was going to be a terrible evening.

3- Which just goes to show how wrong you can be.  The first surprise was quite how warm May suddenly was… we located our seats and removed several obsolete layers until we were in t-shirts.  The home side, as anticipated, were in party mood;  their side contained a vast number of changes as anticipated, but retained a core of the senior side in Kanté, Hazard and Azpilicueta.  It’s tempting to view what follows through that prism of course… “we lost to Chelsea’s reserves”, but that would be misguided.  These are still excellent players, and we were missing a large number of players ourselves, injuries depriving us of four centre backs and two of our more creative weapons.  Chelsea made changes, but had the luxury of picking them voluntarily rather than botching a side together.

Meanwhile, further insight into our trajectory and some of that Modern Football stuff in the fact that the Chelsea line-up contained no less than three former Watford loanees of varying vintage, two of whom have seen significantly more action in yellow than in the blue of their parent club.  Nathaniel Chalobah was making his first Premier League start for Chelsea, four seasons after looking so elegant at the back of Gianfranco Zola’s midfield.  He was the pick of the three on the night, looking far from out of place in his surroundings.  Nathan Aké is a more recent Hornet of course;  his performance was decent enough though not flawless,  a fair précis of his loan spell last season.  Kenedy, the most recent of the three, was afforded an inconsequential fifteen minutes at Turf Moor in his Watford career and did little here to suggest that we’d underutilised his talent.  In contrast, Adrian Mariappa demonstrated that he’s come full circle since the days when he captained Sean Dyche’s necessarily pragmatic Watford side in the second tier.  Via Reading and Palace he’s back at Watford and now “Adrián” Mariappa, with a hispanic flourish, according to the tannoy announcer’s proclamation bellowed mercilessly into the away end.

4- So, that no-strikers thing.  Strictly speaking we weren’t playing with no forwards;  Niang was nominally employed in a lone striker role, albeit he’s rarely suggested that he’s suited to such a job.  He provided no compelling support for the decision here either;  our attacks, such as they were, frequently foundered on no target presenting itself in the box as the Frenchman too often chased involvement and the ball rather than providing that option.

That aside, the formation worked rather well for the most part which once again demonstrates how little I know.  It wasn’t just the formation though, albeit that might have provided a platform.  More remarkable, more rewarding, was the fight.  The guts. The spirit.  There’s been a suggestion, not entirely unreasonably, that whining about being mere also-rans in the top flight is a bit rich.  I can cope with the relatively mundane target of mid-table obscurity if it comes with a bit of welly like this, rather than the soporific acceptance we saw at Hull.  The opening 20 minutes or so were Chelsea’s but we were scrapping and fighting.  Seb Prödl kicked off an eventful evening by decisively winning the opening rounds in a heavyweight battle with Batshuayi, dismissively brutal in extracting the ball from the striker’s feet.  No less aggressive was Mariappa, who flew in with a laser-guided tackle on the briefly bewildered Hazard. Defiance on the pitch bred the same in the away end.

5- All of which could have been rather undone by our complete failure to defend a corner.  Scrapping as we were, Chelsea were nonetheless creating chances when they got the ball wide and from their first corner Mariappa bounced unconvincingly under the ball, others stood around looking lost and John Terry took advantage at the second attempt.  Of course it was Terry.  The inevitable procession suddenly stretched tediously in front of us; fortunately Chelsea’s skipper, who occasionally seemed to be depending on his more nimble minders either side, himself afforded us an immediate route back in.  Capoue was the grateful recipient, it’s quite conceivable that the game wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun if he hadn’t done so.  It was our first attempt of any description, and it was a gift.

Nonetheless we were behind by half time.  A corner, again, after we’d defended slicker, less formulaic threats more competently.  A near post corner this time, Janmaat flicked an inadequate header across the face of goal to where Azpilicueta waited to drive the ball home.  Down, then.  But not disgraced.  We’d probably have taken that.

6- So when Chelsea got a bit of a lucky break and went 3-1 up early in the second half we were once again lurching towards the humiliation we’d feared.  Lucky in the sense that they got a kind deflection from a long-range shot that set up Aké, no luck in him taking advantage and teeing up the finish.  It felt as if we were in danger of being overwhelmed again.

And this is where this stopped being just another game, a game in which we put up a bit of a fight but got dicked anyway, and entered the sphere of games that just need to be enjoyed independent of context.  Stuff the result, if you can’t enjoy nonsense like this just go home.  It turns out that Chelsea didn’t touch the ball in the two minutes between their goal and Daryl Janmaat bundling through to skim the ball into the net but that detail didn’t register at the time.  What registered was that we weren’t rolling over.  This is what Watford have been about, what we’ve missed.  Not bloody giving up.  Janmaat has had ups and downs and bumps and bruises over the season, he’s manifestly a better attacking wing-back than he is a defender, but with this one we passed the point where we give much of a toss about what he’s good at or not.  This was bloody-minded take that you bastards.  We rose from our resigned stupor as he progressed into the area and as the ball hit the net we were screaming again.  More of this. More of this.

7- At this point detail becomes fuzzy since we re-entered what was always the traditional away-day mindset, the anything’s a bonus determination to enjoy ourselves.  So the stuff on the pitch was incidental, although I suspect that this was the bit where Heurelho Gomes excelled himself.  Eventually, we brought on a proper target man…. Stefano Okaka and Troy had staged a particularly half-arsed warm-up on pitch during the interval but there was nothing half-arsed about the Italian’s approach to his twenty-odd minutes.  The game had descended into that very British high-speed wide-open frenzy; within a minute GT was getting his minute’s ovation (with significant Chelsea acknowledgement), within another Okaka was thumping a neglected ball low past Begovic. In the stands, all hell broke loose.  On the pitch, it all got a bit narky… Pedro added himself to the list of people you’d like to kick up the arse, given half a chance.  Batshuayi got off without censure when Prödl opted against collapsing in a heap on getting the Belgian’s forehead in his face.  The Austrian eventually saw red, cruelly if not undeservedly.  His was a Trojan’s performance in a side suddenly short on muscle;  he waved as his season ended, what flavour of goodbye we’ll find out in time.  It’s Mapps, Holebas and Walter Mazzarri at the back for Man City.

8- By which time Cesc Fabregas had struck the decisive goal.  Cesc Fabregas is a dick.  Not because he struck this fine and deserved winner, painful as it was.  Not because there’s any question about his playing ability.  But because he’s a dick.  Stop by on Sunday and I’ll explain why, and my daughters will think I’ve got a load of mates’n’that.

9- Not a lot to be drawn from this.  A unique game in unique circumstances.  A feather in Walter’s cap in this most bewildering of seasons, despite the result.  A decent showing, we’re still capable of it.  But most of all, this was fun.  That’s what I want from a night out.  A good bellow and a sore throat.  Give me a proper pie next time and I’ll be well happy.

Yoorns.

 

Leicester City 3 Watford 0 (06/05/2017) 07/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
27 comments

1- There are days when it’s just a bad idea all round.  The great empty swathes of seats in the away end for what should be a popular trip – local-ish, easy to get to, against the League Champions to boot – suggested that plenty had had the same thought.  Dad nearly didn’t make it, Daughter 1 pondered whether she should forego the afternoon in favour of preparation for her forthcoming SATs.  Meanwhile the pre-match pub turned out to be closed;  we opted for an alternative next to the station, but beat a disorientated path from the pub in entirely the wrong direction until we sorted ourselves out.  Sometimes the world is trying to tell you something.

2- Whilst appreciating that survival in itself is an achievement, and the injuries, and the fact that winning away in the Premier League is a very difficult thing to do I can’t tell you how bored I am of this.  Of games like this.  Our season has been an extension and elaboration of Niang’s loan spell…  occasional sparks of brilliance with quite a lot of drab, shapeless nothingness in between.  You have to imagine that the rest of the Premier League wouldn’t really have missed us had we gone down, for all that everyone likes a routine home win against a toothless opponent. Why on earth would you spend time, money watching such miserable, spiritless inevitability?  (On the money front, incidentally… East Midland Trains.  Good God. I can get the three of us to London and back for under £20.  Three times that for a shorter distance to Leicester.  Criminal. Bastards.)

3- Actually the first half wasn’t that bad for the most part.  For much of the season our midfield hasn’t ever seemed quite right and it still doesn’t, but nonetheless it’s the bit that kinda looks closest to fully functional at the moment.  Doucouré, again, was majestic and looks like the engine of a much better side.  Tom Cleverley’s form has wandered off of late but this was his most dynamic outing for a while… and we were well in the game, having more of the possession.  It was scruffy and untidy and the final pass was inevitably missing but we were holding our own.

The thing is, an opponent competent enough to dominate possession but too blunt to do anything with it is pretty much exactly what this Leicester side, defined by their ability to counter-attack, would choose to play against.  Stefano Okaka, restored to the side in eye-catching fashion in place of Troy, worked hard in displaying a willingness to take on all comers but in similar fashion to Deeney against Liverpool was too isolated, the flickering Niang always happier pulling wide.  When we got bodies into the box we looked vaguely threatening but our best chance of recording our first away goal since January came when Cleverley latched onto a ball and thundered a rising drive goalwards.  Had it been a bit further from Schmeichel it would have caused problems.

Instead, the breakthrough came at the other end where Leicester’s attacks were already looking more venomous than our own. So they didn’t really need the helping hand of a silly free kick conceded by Prödl on bar-of-soap Okazaki, nor of an inexplicable leaden touch by Capoue to the resulting corner that teed up Ndidi.  All he had to do was swing a leg at it.

4- In the stands, we entered a sort of Twilight Zone.  Our afternoon had already taken another downward turn in the discovery that our seats located us behind an explosively angry, foul-mouthed gentleman who persisted in berating both teams and all officials loudly and crassly and, in the absence of a companion with whom to share his opinions, turning and elaborating in our direction.  We relocated in stages and watched as successive groups took up temporary residence in the same seats.

As the game progressed there were more and more angry men dotted around the stands, if none as spectacularly unpleasant.  Mariappa was having the first poor game of his second wind in the side, albeit he was slightly unfortunate that the beneficiary of his error was the elegant Mahrez;  he might have gotten away with it with half a second more to recover.  Gomes, also, bore no small responsibility having been beaten at his near post.  But the core problem was the lack of spirit, of ideas, of fight in the Watford ranks.  It wasn’t as stark or miserable as Hull but it was the same narrative.  Out for the first time came the “Quique Sanchez Flores” chant (and, more arbitrarily, odes to Aidy Boothroyd and Al Bangura), ostensibly provoking angry disputes within the stand. Nordin Amrabat – whose second half performance showcased the frustrating contradictions of his Watford career, willing running combined with hesitancy and hugely variable end product – became the focus for the boo-boys, the first in a few years.  Calls for his removal – and the introduction of the underused Success – were ignored as Niang was withdrawn for debutant Dion Pereira.  His first contribution was an instant, arcing left footed cross from the right that Okaka couldn’t quite get over.  He got a raucous reception in response, but there was never a suggestion that we’d get back into the game.  Instead Leicester got another fine goal on the break.  The stand emptied.

5- If the treatment of Amrabat, however inadequate his performance, seemed harsh – he was a potential player of the season before his injury – the resurrection of the Flores chant is revealing.  Looking back, Flores’ departure could not be justified based on our league performance;  45 points and 13th place absolutely more than fine.  What did for Flores, ultimately if not exclusively, was the trajectory of the season.  29 points in the first half, 16 in the second with performances that didn’t suggest that we’d merited any more.  There’s been no such schism this time (22/18 as we stand) but the recent performances have been poor, the defeats more absolute than the victories with few exceptions.  The trajectory argument still holds, I think… I’m certainly very happy that we’ve already got 40 points; if we had as few as 38 at this stage I think we’d be in serious trouble.  That’s not beating Swansea, for example, in particular.  Fine margins.

But that doesn’t justify chanting Flores’ name in itself.  You can argue that both sides nosedived, but what makes Flores a more attractive prospect?

The answer, beyond the grass-is-greener argument that always holds, is that Flores was manifestly a nice bloke.  Mazzarri may be a nice bloke but we just don’t know, we have no relationship with him and therefore no instinct to side with him.  A big element of supporting a team is being part of it, feeling you’re on the same side.  Mazzarri simply hasn’t prioritised that, it’s not important enough to him.  You can argue that it’s not his job to be everyone’s mate, but a consequence of the path he’s chosen is that nobody instinctively sides with him when the going gets tough.

6- And critically that appears to include the team.  These recent performances haven’t been as poisonous as the notorious Huddersfield game under Sannino in 2014 but there’s a manifest lack of team spirit, lack of belief, lack of evidence of everyone singing from the same sheet.  The discord is most evident in the relationship between head coach and captain in particular…  it seems inconceivable that both Troy and Mazzarri will be at the club next season, and for all that Troy has had a few of his less effective games recently, he was still there at the end of the game ushering Dion Pereira towards an ovation that completely changed the tone in the away end where boos had been echoing again.  The point is, Troy gets it…  he’s a great captain but a better diplomat than Mazzarri.  I want to root for him, I’d rather support a team captained by Troy than one managed by Mazzarri if that’s the choice.

Either way, it seems quite possible that we’ll end the season with six straight defeats.  Something needs to fundamentally change over the summer… it’ll be fascinating to see what decisions Pozzo and Duxbury make.

Yoorns.

Watford 0 Liverpool 1 (01/05/2017) 02/05/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
7 comments

1. I had intended to begin proceedings in rib-tickling and topical fashion with some sort of mock election manifesto. However, I quickly realised that my policy platform comprised little beyond a desire to roll back thirty years’ worth of progress: no substitute goalkeepers, an offside law that Alan Shearer can understand, compulsory Bovril, proper kickoff times, proper tackling, proper pitches, that sort of thing. Common sense. Back to basics. Take back control. Make football great again. You can do your own punchline.

I had second thoughts. Partly because it’s essentially just the same old guff that I’ve been writing and re-writing for the last decade or more. That clearly hasn’t stopped me before, though, so there must’ve been something else. And that something else was this: it struck me that I’ve come to really actually believe in at least some of this stuff and that perhaps I ought to challenge it more before it turns into ranting at strangers on a bus. Before I start denouncing anyone apologising for the backpass rule as a stooge of our capitalist oppressors and refusing to pass through the turnstiles unless I can pay in those triangular vouchers you used to cut out of the programme. After all, if I’m going to point out to others that everything else wasn’t a dish of peaches in the good ol’ days, I should apply the same critique to my own views on football: piss-flooded toilets, barbed wire, racism, violence, Bradford, Heysel, Hillsborough. Never again.

It seems that football has formed itself into a small but significant enclave of conservatism in my largely liberal, outward-looking world. The modern game has left me behind, bitter and betrayed and boring. I’ve become a dyed in the wool Plexiteer. I need to lighten up. I need to live in the moment rather more.

2. And, indeed, this was a moment which promised to be worth living in. The season’s main objectives already achieved; famous opponents with well-established weaknesses rather dovetailing with our well-established strengths; an away hammering to avenge; an away capitulation to make up for. The floodlights are on, although modern floodlights can hardly be…oh, for pity’s sake, I can’t help myself. Ross Jenkins is here, with a grandson in tow and full of high spirits and brilliant memories. The scene is set.

3. And cue Watford.

4. And cue…Watford.

5. And…

6. Perhaps we should begin by saying that there ought to be no shame in being out-played and out-thought by a team with superior players and by a club with vastly superior resources. The truth is that we tend to forget that most encounters with top four-ish sides turn out like this, preferring instead to remember the occasions when logic is overthrown and everyone dances barefoot on its grave. We remember those occasions because they’re relatively rare: for a mid-table side like what we appear to be, once a season is about par, and we’ve already had that Manchester United game back in September. We’re owed nothing.

The form book is not re-written, then. Instead, we spend really rather endless periods of this match playing second fiddle to a confident, cohesive Liverpool; there are other bits where we’re doing nothing more than sheepishly shaking a tambourine somewhere at the back. There’s not a single spell of the game when you could argue that we’re the better side, even if the scoreline remains tight and there’s nearly an unexpected twist in the tale. It’s the game it ought to be, the gulf in class and stature laid out before us. Like I say, there’s no shame in that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t criticise it either, of course.

7. The good news is that we do plenty to ensure that this isn’t another 6-1 annihilation. We set out – rather optimistically, if I’m honest – to play out from the back of our three-man defence; we get chased about relentlessly, hunted down with a regularity that becomes tiresome within fifteen minutes and leads to us largely abandoning the whole idea within twenty. Barely able to get the ball over the halfway line without losing it, we’re under almost ceaseless pressure once the game settles into a pattern; for twenty minutes either side of half-time, we’re doing nothing more than stopping the ship from sinking, all hands to the pumps.

That we very nearly survive is admirable, especially bearing in mind the early departure of Miguel Britos. Liverpool lose a hobbling Coutinho too, but replacement Lallana, even short of fitness, is hardly any easier to police; he hits the bar with a dipping volley from a half-cleared corner, Can forces the first of countless strong saves from Gomes with a swerving drive from distance. But that’s all, that’s the sum total. Lucas is booked for a ludicrous, shameless dive on the corner of the box, and you realise that this is all starting to look a little bit desperate. We’re doing absolutely nothing ourselves – Troy Deeney might as well be in the pub – but no matter, we’ll take a goalless half, we’ll see what we can build on that.

Then Lucas drifts a cross into the box, and Can drifts into a couple of yards of space, and somehow twists his body upside down and inside out, and his overhead is directed very precisely and rather gently into the top corner. Overhead kicks of old used to be products of athleticism, a spring let go, a somersault with a flailing leg. These days, players seem capable of defying gravity altogether, and this is purely balletic rather than acrobatic, the Guardian’s photo perfectly capturing the poise and the grace. Good toes, naughty toes. A goal worthy of winning a far better game than this one, in all honesty. Yes, the marking could’ve been better. Yes, yes. A thing of exquisite beauty nevertheless.

8. Whatever’s said in the dressing room at half-time, whatever tactical tweaks are made, there is absolutely no change in direction: if anything, Liverpool strengthen their grip on the game and our forays into their half become even less frequent. We continue to defend purposefully, but need to call upon Gomes with increasing regularity. His final save of the evening, a reflex fingertip stop low to his right to prevent Sturridge from squeezing in the decisive second, is most astonishing of all.

When we do find ourselves with the ball, when we sometimes even find ourselves with the ball and a yard of space, the mistakes – unnecessary offsides, poor touches, over-ambitious passes – are amplified and echoed back by the crowd, desperate for something to get behind and frustrated by its absence. Referee Craig Pawson offers a masterclass in getting nothing important wrong while being really sodding irritating.

9. This ought not to have been a close game. But it is, still. Eventually, triumphantly, we force ourselves up the pitch enough to claim a part in it all. We bring a couple of saves from Mignolet, tipping over a rising drive from Capoue and just reacting quickly enough to avoid being caught out by a cheeky dart at his near post by Janmaat. We bring on first Success and then Okaka, big bloke changes which are immediately matched and negated as if foreseen by the highly animated, occasionally furious Klopp, who often appears as if he’s doing an impression of himself doing an impression of himself. We fall some way short of really giving it a go, but do at least raise the possibility, pencil it in the diary. It’s a bit of a contest, at last.

10. And then, finally, as time is nearly up, we expose their failings at set pieces, and Seb Prodl swivels to bang a fierce half-volley against the face of the crossbar. All of that hard defensive graft and commendable goalkeeping is nearly rewarded with a ludicrous point and a joyous bundle of celebration. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t deserve to. Nobody would’ve cared, clearly. Rightly.

11. And so I feel as if I’ve probably been more charitable in defeat than I was in victory last time, sniffing haughtily at our failure to beat Swansea more convincingly. If you’re of a critical bent, you could have a bloody field day here: we were utterly disjointed in midfield and scratchily ineffective in attack, leaving only the defence (and I include the terrific Doucoure in that) and the goalkeeper emerging with much credit. And I realise that my desire for more ambition to be shown, to avoid simply playing the percentages in the hope of finishing thirteenth every season, means that these are very fixtures on which we ought to be making more of a mark.

But still, but still. We’re well beaten here. We barely manage to lay a glove on Liverpool; we’re not at their level, not in their class. Somehow, I don’t mind that so much. We ought not to be satisfied with it, but it feels honest, at least.