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Watford 1 West Bromwich Albion 0 (03/03/2018) 04/03/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- The one item that I associate with Ethiopia, my wife’s home, more than anything else is the Gabi. A vast white cotton sheet with a braided hem. It has many uses, from blanket to dressing gown, windshield to sunblock… comparable to the ubiquitous towel in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Everyone has one, and you don’t leave home without it.

Mine was in the back of the car as I braved the journey to Vicarage Road today. That, and a number of other precautions. The week’s extraordinary weather had dumped itself rather heavily on my village further north and a relatively undisturbed cul-de-sac always looks arctic under such circumstances, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the rest of the world is similarly buried. The journey to Vicarage Road was like emerging from winterlocked Narnia to, well, a rather damp and rather chilly but not terribly inconvenienced town in Hertfordshire. I’m not Ethiopian, the Gabi isn’t a regular travelling companion and must have felt rather underwhelmed by the trip.

2- This was a precarious match for both sides. For Albion, for their manager, surely a last chance. Easier to sympathise with the former than the latter, a supercilious preening charlatan. But as discussed in last week’s report the season’s story is one of a lot of fairly rubbish clubs jostling for position and in the absence of a truly rubbish side three relegation places would go to whoever didn’t have a chair when the music stopped. Albion slowly slipping away from the pack have dropped that number down to two.

For the Hornets meanwhile and bearing in mind our forthcoming trips to Arsenal and Liverpool this was perhaps the difference between spending the rest of the season scrambling away from the relegation places, and being able to enjoy those high profile away trips rather more. Javi Gracia’s games so far have showcased a flexibility with styles, but if a consistent pattern is emerging it’s of patience in possession, containment as a first priority and allowing that continuing teasing around of our opponents will yield chances. We look an awful lot more solid, and a few more games like this are a reasonable price to pay for that.

3 – Such was the pattern of the first half. The Hornets had more possession without ever taking enough risks or moving the ball quickly enough to turn that possession into chances. Albion looked to counterattack and did so successfully early on, Rodriguez dancing down the left and being only partly waylaid, the resultant deflection falling to Krychowiak. His low drive from the centre of the penalty area was denied by a fearless block from Mariappa who crowned his 250th Hornets appearance with a first half masterclass. It’s been said before, but we had no right to expect this level of performance from a nominally sixth choice centre-back who has nonetheless been a regular in the squad since this fixture last season. Given the limitations imposed by our injury list we’d have been in serious trouble had he not been up to the task.

The other characteristic of the first half was the lingering influence of Pulis in our visitors, and Craig Dawson in particular, getting the odd reducer in early doors. Étienne Capoue in particular seemed derailed by this and spent ten minutes or so wincing at and avoiding potential challenges before settling back in and doing a solid enough job alongside Doucouré. The best of the Hornets’ chances came to Janmaat, whose cross-shot brought a crucial fingertip from Ben Foster on one of few occasions that we moved Albion out of shape in the first half, otherwise Prödl headed over from a corner, Pereyra saw a stabbed effort deflected to safety and the half ended very nil nil without an awful lot to distinguish it from the first half against Everton a week ago.

4 – Albion were more impressive than Everton in many ways, not that that’s saying much. More fight about them, certainly, and solid and organised defensively. That’s all, though. They looked horribly blunt, low on confidence or of any reliable means of scoring a goal, at least from open play. The likes of Craig Dawson and Matt Phillips are decent players, stalwarts, but the sort of player that you build a promotion side around. Even the Albion support, admirably filling their allocation despite the weather and their team’s form and in boisterous voice had a relegated air about them… not gallows humour, as such, but the sort of “we’re making more noise than you” theme that has to be relied upon when you know that your team’s not going to give you much to sing about themselves.

As against Everton we gradually imposed ourselves in the second period, and as a week ago substitutions were effective and generated a threat. Albion did have chances… a wasted header by Rondon, a scruffy shot from a narrow angle by Evans but it was all a bit desperate and stretched, as if this was the most they had and even that was an effort. Okaka replaced Richarlíson, who worked hard and had more impact than of late but still looks forlorn. We could all have done with his ambitious scissor kick dropping the other side of the post; instead he was left to react with frustration as his number came up ten minutes into the second period, Okaka again a force for good and Roberto Pereyra much happier on the left flank than he had been down the centre as we switched to 4-4-2.

But it was the arrival of Hughes that was the catalyst for the victory. As with Femenía’s return last week, the Spaniard missing ill today, it was gratifying that the transformative effect that injured players are inevitably imbued with in our mind’s eye had a basis in reality. Hughes announced himself with a resilient holding off of aggressive Albion attention, and then set about his nimble, clever, precise work from the right flank. It set a tone… Okaka was unlucky not to score, receiving Holebas’ cross, stepping across a challenge and slamming a low drive past Foster only to find Gibbs on the line. Either side of him and it was in, such was the ferocity of the drive. Then Krychowiak and Brunt were getting into a mess in the middle of the park and whilst it’s natural to highlight their mistake it was an innocuous error they’d have gotten away with but for the alertness and belligerence of Hughes nipping in between them and quickly getting the ball out from his feet to release Deeney…

5 – He looked offside. That was our first thought from the Rookery, how could he possibly have found so much space? Had it been the other way around folk would have been screaming blue murder, but Thierry Henry’s breakaway goal in 2000 was the one that taught me to hold fire on such snap judgements. That one was miles offside in real time, but not, as it turned out, in reality. This wasn’t offside either.

Deeney isn’t Henry, but he does have one thing worth highlighting early in a week in which “cojones” are likely to enter sportswriters’ vernacular once again. Plumber Gaz came over this morning. He’s a good bloke, the sort of bloke who would give up his Sunday morning to sort out a dodgy boiler despite being a Spurs fan. “What’s Deeney doing still playing?” was the question. I didn’t ask him to expand on that, to clarify whether he meant “not good enough” or “not scoring enough” or “too old”… there are all sorts of answers of course but a lot of them are tied up in that goal. There’s nobody, absolutely nobody you’d sooner place in a position where holding your nerve is a prerequisite. Keeping your temper, another conversation. But holding your nerve… he had so much time. With any number of other players you’d be watching through your fingers fearing painful and expensive deliberation but there was never any doubt whatsoever here in his mind, in ours, in the outcome. He finished it perfectly, his post-match assessment revealing a calm and rational decision making process at odds, presumably, with Gaz’s picture of him. We had fifteen minutes or so to survive which we did comfortably, an uncharacteristically underhit Mariappa backpass as close as Albion came to altering the result.

A huge win. The Chelsea result was spectacular, but our resilience in picking up two scruffy wins and two clean sheets over the last two weekends is as significant and as important. Anything less and we’d still be going into these next two games edgily hoping that the chasing pack will be dropping points. Now, instead, we’re looking at maybe taking the margin between us and Arsenal down to a mischievous six points.


Karnezis 4, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, *Mariappa 5*, Prödl 4, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Carrillo 3, Pereyra 3, Richarlíson 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Okaka (for Richarlíson, 54) 4, Hughes (for Carrillo, 66) 4, Britos (for Holebas, 95) 0, Gray, Zeegelaar, Lukebakio, Gomes