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Newcastle United 0 Watford 3 (25/11/2017) 26/11/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- It’s a long time since I was last at St. James’ Park.  Previous visits haven’t been particularly enjoyable… in 1992 I experienced my only eviction from a football ground, a very different looking St James’ Park after diabetic hypoglycaemia distorted a conversation with the local constabulary.   And Gerard Lavin got sent off.   Seven years later, ig, Loz and I caught the train up during our ill-fated season in the top flight under GT.  A good day out was rather spoiled by the game in which we struggled manfully, played OK and lost anyway.  A mundane victory for the Magpies, the sort of defeat with a few brownie points but no, like, actual points that that season yielded so often for the Hornets.

How times have changed.  Not just in that we come up to St.James’ Park and win, not just that such a win isn’t a smash and grab or a massive shock in itself, though both of those are remarkable.  The truly monumental thing is that we can come here and not play that well, actually, and win 3-0.  And deserve to. And of course Newcastle themselves have a role in all of the above, they’re not an unmoving benchmark to measure ourselves against; before the game started it was pretty clear that with Newcastle at home but kinda blunt in attack, needing a win against a Side They Ought To Beat against counterattacking as lethal as ours, well…  this wasn’t the least favourable of circumstances to find ourselves in, the least likely of outcomes.   Nonetheless.  Remarkable that, despite the gushing that naturally followed perhaps our most eye catching result thus far, we didn’t play particularly well.

But we won 3-0 anyway.  We are that good.

2- Back to the beginning.  As previous visitors will know, the away “end” at Newcastle isn’t to be braved lightly.  Your vantage point is in the top tier of the Leazes Stand having braved a seemingly endless tunnel of concrete staircases.  Your view of Newcastle (and Gateshead, and Belgium) from up there is pretty spectacular; your Sensible Soccer view of the pitch slightly less so.  The air is thin, and you feel very much like an unwanted guest tucked in a corner out of the way.  The one gents’ lavatory, baffling row labelling and token, indifferent stewards are tantamount to the club looking at their watch and sighing “I suppose you’d better be going?”.  On the up-side, the large screen keeping us company up in the ether chose to display the highlights of a 2-1 defeat here in 1980, a welcome break from the normal diet of swish graphics and montages however arbitrary.

On the pitch we retained the same starting eleven that beat West Ham, one of a couple of changes on the bench seeing Daryl Janmaat’s greater versatility preferred to José Holebas.  One other change just about visible from our distance was a striking white mask sported by Marvin Zeegelaar, protecting whatever Andy Carroll’s elbow left of his nose.

The parallels with the West Ham game were plenty.  Once again, the game looked scruffy to start with;  we weren’t particularly on top, indeed the home side looked more purposeful. Blessed with a little more confidence, more conviction, a sharper cutting edge they’d have had the lead as Joselu spurned a good chance and then Gayle got the ball stuck under his feet as the goal briefly opened up for him.  As against West Ham, we looked get-attable.  As against West Ham Will Hughes popped up with a goal, and the game changed.

3- A fine thing it was, too.  Kabasele hoisted a marvellous diagonal ball to the galloping Zeegelaar on the left, the Dutchman (whose nascent chant, “ooh ah Zeegelaar”, has taken two games to appear, in contrast to to Holebas still waiting after 50) pulled back impeccably for Hughes to sidefoot home.  A merciless goal, the sort of thing that a struggling team concedes and then thinks “oh f*** this”.

Kabasele would be to the fore again as Newcastle regrouped and pushed on towards the end of the half.  It’s been a favoured observation that we’ve done well this season despite (for the most part) the absence of our three best central defenders, but if there was any doubt that Kabasele is now in a back three on merit its surely dispelled after this monstrous performance.  His speed and strength were to the fore in snuffing out the home side’s edgy attempts to get back into it;  in the second half he topped his performance off with an heroic diving block to a Mitrović shot.

We were put under pressure by the home side;  Doucouré and Cleverley, for all the performance’s accolades, were never as dominant as we’ve come to expect this season; Shelvey in particular looked dangerous and Murphy and Ritchie were asking questions.  When we did break, however, it was invariably threatening and invariably down our left.  DeAndre Yedlin has been singled out for criticism, not unreasonably, but more revealing to me was the lack of cover – or botheredness –  provided by Matt Ritchie.  A suggestion, perhaps, of why Bournemouth made the surprising decision to let him move eighteen months ago.

We had acres of space down the left, where Richarlíson would distract but his strength and awareness would release the overlapping wingback.  We got another break just before the interval, another overlap, a lucky deflection and we were two-up.  Slightly flattering, and then at the same time not.  We’d produced the game’s move of high quality, and had exposed our hosts’ limitations.

4- Any grinning sheepishness at our half time lead was dispelled in a second half which showcased our superiority.  As above, a counterattacking side two-up at goal-shy opponents is onto a good thing, the one “but” being that we didn’t capitalise further.

Chief culprit was Andre Gray.  There’s something of the Danny Graham about him in that his relentless movement is valuable to the team, even when he’s not scoring goals.  Tom Cleverley was a chief beneficiary of this during his loan spell however many years ago, and all of our midfield have similarly benefited from Gray dragging defences around. Here, his movement and alertness twice had him through on goal and twice executing extraordinarily feeble finishes breaking in from the left.  We’ve talked about Newcastle’s forwards’ lack of confidence but on both occasions Gray’s finish screamed of a lack of belief.  Perversely, up until now he’s not really wasted too many chances.  Not many bad misses… it’s not as if the way the team plays requires him to be on the end of every move.  Nonetheless, when you splash out a club record fee for a striker and he manages one goal in his first three months or so you expect a little more grace and sense than for him to cup his ear to the crowd as he did after completing the scoring.  In all honesty he’s not had  a lot of stick in the grand scheme of things;  little surprise perhaps that someone so thin-skinned displays such brittle confidence in front of goal.

At the other end, the other key development of the second half was the re-emergence of Sebastian Prödl in place of Miguel Britos, who hadn’t shaken off an injury inflicted by a bizarre foul from Jonjo Shelvey before the interval.  Another marker of How Far We’ve Come that we can do so well despite the absence of our Player of the Season for three months but we didn’t half know he was back.  Suddenly there’s a centreback looking like a centre-back ought to, dwarfing Dwight Gayle, getting his head on crosses, organising his defence with trunk-like arms.  He even thundered forward to drop a ball over Newcastle’s by-now clocked-off defence to provide Gray with his second spurned chance.  Welcome back, Seb.

5- An eye-catching win, then.  Not our best performance of the season by a long chalk, but an effective one in a game that suited us and that demonstrates that we’ve become something quite different, something more than a side punching above our weight by hanging around in the top flight.  We’re not a big club – not like Leeds, say, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday.  Everton.  But we’re a very good, very potent one. Good enough, now, to win 3-0 away from home without being on our game.  Good enough to pick up points from more winnable games that make visits of Man United and Spurs games to be relished.

Yooorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 3, Zeegelaar 4, Mariappa 4, *Kabasele 5*, Britos 3, Doucouré 4, Cleverley 3, Hughes 4, Richarlíson 4, Gray 3

Subs: Prödl (for Britos, 52) 4, Pereyra (for Richarlíson, 79) 0, Carrillo (for Hughes, 84) 0, Janmaat, Watson, Capoue, Karnezis

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Watford 2 West Ham United 0 (19/11/2017) 20/11/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

1-  I love the Park Run.  I’ve never been a runner, not my thing at all but it’s become a weekly ritual nonetheless.  A thing we do.  Aching limbs I can do without, but getting your heart rate up is good, being outside early in the morning is good.  Even being humiliated by Daughter 1 as she tolerates my sedate pace throughout and then sprints, sniggering away from her wheezing father as the finishing line at the end of the 5km approaches, that’s good too.  Best of all, the everymanness of it…  all sorts of people are out.  Proper runners, big lumps like me.  Old people, young people, fit people, unfit people, people with dogs, people pushing kids in push chairs.  All manner of football shirts.  This weekend, a gentleman in a checked shirt and business trousers who’d come to stay with friends for the weekend, not planning to run.  It’s the common purpose, the shared intent.  It’s magic.

…and is something that’s common to the football experience, the Watford experience.  Sharing something with a load of people.  Not knowing them individually, not all of them, but having the same purpose.  Wanting the same thing.  I value that too.  And so… anything that threatens that, any strong discord amongst the support, spoils the thing for me.  Perhaps more than the worst possible outcome of the thing causing the discord itself.  This was a concern today, as someone pointed out beforehand.  Given the week we’ve had, the speculation and – in some quarters – mistrust of Marco, what happens if the game goes against us?

2- There was a Sunday afternoon feel about it all, to start with.  A sort of simmering sleepiness.  That lasted a matter of seconds, long enough for Andy Carroll to launch into his typical aggressive, aerial, flailing challenge and take out Marvin Zeegelaar, surprisingly given a debut in preference to Holebas.  Welcome to the Premier League.  Carroll avoided a card, somehow, perhaps by getting his assault in so early that if the “too early to book someone” line ever had any credibility to it he had to get away with it.

The game stopped immediately for prolonged treatment, not for the last time.  A nervous, chill stillness took hold again, edgy shuffling in seats. When the game resumed it was scruffy and shapeless.  There was an ominous purpose about West Ham;  no great quality, but an in-your-faceness that didn’t bode well.  We needed a goal, badly, and with our first proper attack we got one…  more scruffiness in the West Ham area, Will Hughes was alert and finished adroitly.  Perhaps the game would have always ended up the way it did but… this change in tone felt definitive.  We settled, straight away, and looked composed and confident from that point on.

3- Whereas West Ham were a shambles.  It was noted later that this must all have seemed pretty familiar to David Moyes… time will tell whether West Ham go the way of Sunderland, but they’ve certainly got big, smelly problems.  A lingering smell of damp, evidence of knotweed in the flowerbeds.  That early show of determination dissolved with Hughes’ goal and never returned;  there was no energy and little discipline to the Hammers’ play and one, single focus.

Andy Carroll was a parody of himself from the off, a bad tempered flying limb waiting to connect with the back of someone’s head.  Following his early assault on Zeegelaar he picked up a yellow for an off the ball clash with Richarlíson as West Ham adopted the radical and almost novel strategy of testing whether the winger could be bullied into submission.  Later he provoked further ire from the front of the Rookery by seeming to lash out at Adrian Mariappa in pretending to lever himself off the ground.  By this point, West Ham’s discipline had gone, the Hornets well on top… Femenía’s deflected shot snuck past the post, Richarlíson seemed to be able to dance through the Hammers’ defence at will and was twice denied.

And yet we didn’t score, and the Hammers continued to rely on their blunt instrument up front.  We’ve seen this before ourselves, last season more than once… a team low on confidence opting for the easy option to their target man too often.  Carroll, in fairness, is a formidable weapon and if he was too isolated to cause havoc – excepting smacks to the head, punches to the kidneys and so forth – then he was still a threat.  Shortly after our goal his knock down was inches away from a tap-in conversion; later in the half first Kouyaté and then Arnautovic were denied by Gomes’ astonishing reflexes, and a little luck.

4- If there’s a lesson from the last couple of games it’s that for the moment, we’re far from watertight enough to be able to take our foot off the pedal.  Even with a two goal margin.  We miss Chalobah badly, that rock-solid midfield partnership with Doucouré that looked so wonderful early on.  For now… we have to make do with triangles from Doucouré, Hughes and Cleverley whilst wondering how we found ourselves with such a marvellous squad and trying desperately to enjoy it as much as it deserves.

After an interval in which the legendary Ann Swanson made an overdue return to centre stage the second half was ours.  In charge, in control, sometimes toying patiently with the ball in front of opposition that was physically, mentally, emotionally shot, sometimes ripping into them with abandon.  Such was the second goal in which Hughes, who was dynamic and bright and sharp throughout, hurtled onto a loose ball, survived a handball appeal and played in the irrepressible Richarlíson, who the beleaguered Zabaleta got no closer to all night than he did to the better days of his career when he could actually run.  The Brazilian’s finish wasn’t convincing but we’ll take that all day long, heaven knows he’d deserved a goal.  Gray, who ran tirelessly all afternoon, came close twice.  Mariappa had a header pushed away by Hart.  At the other end an acrobatic clearance from Kabasele denied the Hammers, but such threat as they had departed with Carroll midway through the half.

5- As for Marco… well.  It seems clear that we won’t release him from his contract irrespective of the money offered.  The Pozzos, as so often, making the right call… if we’re really aiming to establish ourselves in the top half of the Premier League then we should expect to be at a level where the top clubs want to pinch our best players and, maybe, our coach.  If we capitulate now then game over;  agents, players, clubs will know that a deal will always be done with enough pressure.  Our model could never survive that way.  If Silva wants to leave now he’ll need to break his contract, and can’t expect to walk into Goodison as a consequence.

But that aside, you’d have to say that for all you can understand Silva being tempted by the dramatically increased salary that’s suggested and by a bigger club, if he’s stupid enough to want to go then we might be better off out of it.  He has an awful lot to lose if he forces the issue;  after brief spells at Hull and Watford he’s in danger of accelerating the Peter Principle. If he reaches his level of incompetence at Everton, having walked out on Watford, what then?  If he’s sacked after eighteen months at Goodison, say, will another Watford or Hull be keen to hire damaged goods who have demonstrated a propensity to stray whenever a better offer flutters their eyelashes? On the back of what suddenly looks like fleeting success a couple of years earlier?

It’s not as if Everton is a stable environment, a well-run club in which Silva can expect to flourish.  This is a club who’ve just spunked an extraordinary amount of money on players who play in the same position, a position in which a precocious incumbent already has them pretty well covered.  Your average Football Manager enthusiast doesn’t make that sort of mistake.  Compare and contrast with Watford’s environment under the Pozzos.  Consider the fact that other, bigger clubs than Everton will be looking for a new boss themselves over the next year or so.  To repeat, if he’s stupid enough to force the issue perhaps Everton are welcome to him… though I rather hope and suspect that the worst we’ll suffer from this episode is another load of mind-numbingly fuckwitted commentary, of which the BBC’s Steve Wilson was a surprisingly vacuous case in point.

6- A vital, vital win, obviously.  Yes we’ve played OK for much of those three defeats, but they’re still three defeats and we still had three fixtures on the other side of this one that we wouldn’t have wanted to rely on to break a losing run.  Now, the perspective changes and we look forward to those games in a new light.

Yoorns.

*Gomes 5*, Femenía 4, Zeegelaar 4, Kabasele 4, Mariappa 4, Britos 3, Doucouré 5, Cleverley 4, Hughes 5, Richarlíson 5, Gray 4

Subs: Pereyra (for Hughes, 84) 0, Holebas (for Femenía, 86) 0, Carrillo (for Gray, 90+7) 0, Capoue, Prödl, Okaka, Karnezis