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Watford 0 Crystal Palace 0 (21/04/2018) 22/04/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

1- Lunchtime, and we’re stuck on the ring road. Everything’s snarled up, it transpires, by a restaurant fire on the Lower High Street but as far as we’re concerned it’s simply a traffic jam. The sun is beating down with the relentlessness of toothache, we have no liquid, no lunch, a situation being tolerated by Daughters 1 and 2 with sullen patience. The latter of the two has painted herself in sunblock, and the smell only adds to the summer holiday feel.

A couple of hours later, inside the stadium, a steward in a high-vis jacket is shaking down some moves to Deee Lite. Whilst there are few more familiar fixtures than Palace at home in the Watford fixture list the afternoon doesn’t feel “normal”, and you can’t help but wonder whether (whisper it) we might even beat them here for the first time since 2009.

2- You’ll have gathered that I wasn’t as down on the Huddersfield performance as many, but there’s no denying that something isn’t quite clicking, to which end Javi’s changes in formation and personnel seem entirely sensible. An extra body up front allowing Troy to drop a little deeper, Mapps plays in his third position in three games either in anticipation of Zaha’s threat on the left or because Janmaat and Femenía, both relegated to the bench, were the unnamed victims of the stomach bug that had already ruled out Sebastian Prödl. An ex-Watford boss is welcomed as a footnote, someone who did a good line in sensible management decisions himself. The diversity of opinion on Ray Lewington’s steadying of a listing ship fifteen-odd years ago has always been baffling, but there’s no dissent in the ovation that welcomes Palace’s assistant boss.

The team come out to a display orchestrated by the 1881, a St George’s Cross flanked by yellow and black. As an aside, I’m all for the reclaiming of the cross from the far right, all for the inherent accompanying diversity message that patriotism, being proud of your country doesn’t necessarily mean hating everyone else. But… I can’t help feel slightly uncomfortable. The 1881 are entitled to hold whatever opinions and make whatever statements they see fit, but the only sentiment that can be assumed of or imposed upon the wider support is that of championing the team? An impressive display, a message I’ve not got a problem with in itself, full marks as ever for doing stuff, but this felt wrong to me.

3- Back on the pitch, we started in a whirlwind and were noisily propelled along by an unprecedented racket from the stands. Whether it was the inebriating effect of the sunshine, the familiarly contemptible opposition or a desire to match the bloody-mindedness displayed in the home stands at Huddersfield the home crowd were on top form, and team and crowd fed each other. We were on the front foot straight away, aggressive and punchy and Palace couldn’t live with us. Will Hughes burrowed into the box and flung a shot across the face of goal, narrowly avoiding Stefano Okaka. Minutes later Okaka himself got onto the end of a Deeney cross, his firm header coming back off the woodwork. Roberto Pereyra had Joel Ward in all sorts of trouble on the left; the right-back was the first in a long list of yellow cards for dumping Pereyra on his arse in frustration. Craig Cathcart missed perhaps the clearest chance, a free header albeit he had a narrow window with the cross in his range of vision. Mamadou Sakho just about held Palace’s back four together as Pereyra tried to isolate Ward and James Tomkins and Patrick van Aanholt did passable imitations of Harry Enfield’s Kevin and Perry, all tantrums and waving arms as we passed through them. Much the better side in the first period, you’ll already have noted the critical oversight, the one detail that we didn’t quite have nailed. A recurring theme; even if we had chances, we still didn’t do enough with our dominance in possession, still didn’t create much in the way of clear cut opportunities.

4- Key in the first half exchanges and throughout was the redoubtable partnership of the newly returned Christian Kabasele and the slightly less newly returned but much missed Craig Cathcart. Our two best central defenders to my mind; whether they form our strongest partnership remains to be seen, certainly they were better equipped to marshal the speed and movement of the slightly wonky forward line of Zaha and Townsend than they might have been to accommodate a more physical challenge. The misfiring Benteke achieved a lot with not very much in his late cameo. Nonetheless… they were imperious today. The first half saw Zaha stamped on as soon as he had possession, and when Palace built up a head of steam in the second period both were significant, Kabasele retaining his composure in difficult situations and Cathcart’s decisiveness dampening the Eagles’ threat more than once.

The match was refereed by Chris Kavanagh. New to the Premier League list this season, his two previous Watford games (at Newcastle, his second top flight fixture, and at home to Leicester) were hugely impressive, demonstrating a willingness to both let things flow and to not take any crap from anyone. Today, both sides were at him for a bit and Palace were certainly bleating for much of the first half but, well-disposed as I already was, I kinda felt he did well enough in challenging circumstances. Wilfried Zaha, for one, makes refereeing a game difficult for anyone, such is his speed of foot and eagerness to draw a challenge, to provoke an incident by barrelling towards the penalty area at every opportunity.

The corollary of course is the wide-held belief that Zaha has a tendency to make rather too much of such situations. It’s difficult to envisage that Zaha’s future visits to the Vic will be any less of a pantomime than this was, the crowd meeting his every touch with disdain and derision. Kavanagh gave him short shrift in the first half when he went down optimistically; he could have been booked then and should have had at least a yellow after the break when he went in studs up on Karnezis, a cowardly challenge. Instead he was booked for diving when trying to navigate a forest of legs in front of the Rookery; consensus seems to be that we got away with one there, the replays far from decisive to my mind. Merciful, perhaps, that VAR wasn’t in place to add several minutes’ pondering to an equally arbitrary decision and diffuse a wonderfully explosive atmosphere. Either way, as MotD pointed out last night, Zaha had demonstrably tried to gain unfair advantage minutes earlier when springing into the area after being tripped outside. If he was denied a penalty subsequently, this injustice will garner little sympathy.

5- Palace had looked ragged at the interval, but were much more potent in the second half. Our intensity dropped a notch, and whilst Capoue continues to enjoy perhaps his best consistent run of form in a Watford shirt and Doucouré dug in, the two look tired to me and we could really do with Cleverley or Chalobah back in the fold whilst, as an aside, noting the continued absence of the seemingly discarded Didier Ndong from a bench with no midfielders. Zaha was, of course, the focal point of Palace’s attacks although our closest calls came – you’ll be surprised to read – from set pieces, two of which lead to balls off the woodwork dropping in agonising slow motion to space precariously close to the goal line, first Craig Cathcart and then Troy Deeney re-adjusting their limbs the quickest to execute a decisive clearance.

Meanwhile, Richarlíson had been given most of the half in response to a knock which deprived us of Pereyra, our most consistent threat to that point. I’m finding these cameos increasingly aggravating, since whilst I don’t doubt that playing football for so long without a break has an impact I don’t believe that such fatigue prohibits him from giving us at least a little bit of impetus when introduced from the bench. He’s playing, bluntly, like someone who believes his work here is done and if his links to Europe’s biggest clubs have any validity beyond his agent’s imagination then few will mourn his departure, should it involve the mooted fees.

A draw, then, and “fair enough” says everyone except that it isn’t really. This is Palace, and given their start to the season it feels as if we’ve been deprived of something given that their escape from relegation looks likely be more comfortable than it could have been. Quite apart from which… yet another opportunity to win a game tossed aside, however enjoyable the afternoon and the intensity was here. It’s not ALL wrong, we’re not very far away and of course the summer is coming when to a greater or lesser degree all the pieces will be chucked up in the air again. It would be nice to go into the break with some confidence for a change, though.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Mariappa 3, Holebas 3, *Kabasele 5*, Cathcart 4, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 4, Pereyra 4, Okaka 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Richarlíson (for Pereyra, 55) 2, Femenía (for Okaka, 70) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 79) 0, Janmaat, Britos, Sinclair, Gomes

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Huddersfield Town 1 Watford 0 (13/04/2018) 15/04/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- Huddersfield doesn’t look like Watford, feel like Watford, smell like Watford. For one thing it’s tentatively and occasionally gloriously sunny as we arrive, which is something that Watford hasn’t been on matchday for a while. For another it’s, like, hilly and that. Daughter 1 blinks away her sleepiness as we emerge from the car… “is this really Yorkshire?”, as if we were in Narnia or Magrathea.

But as far as the Premier League landscape is concerned there are commonalities between two small(ish) town clubs whose support is very much rooted in their local community… even if the degree of Huddersfield’s smallness becomes a matter of some debate in the Rhubarb Cafe Bar as Wikipedia has decided that it’s the eleventh largest city in the country. Daughter 1 prefers “like London, but smaller”, because there’s traffic.

Similarities or not, there’s a shared purpose in the mutual and wholehearted celebration of Chelsea coming back from behind to cement Southampton in the relegation zone. Celebrating Chelsea goals feels a bit dirty of course, but such moral compromises have to be made at the business end of the season. As Will later points out, given Mark Hughes’ arrival at Southampton there is joy to be taken in many of the potential relegation outcomes. Not all of them, obviously.

2- The Stadium itself is a beautiful thing, whatever it’s called now. The arched stands are distinctive and elegant, woods form a striking backdrop to the stand to our right.

The most impressive feature of the stadium however is that impossibly, claustrophobically noisy. The home side have been talking up the atmosphere all week; with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City to come in their remaining games a lot was riding on this and the troops had got the message. This racket dwarfs anything we’ve been exposed to this season, quite extraordinary.

It had an impact on the game from the off which after a tentative couple of minutes is similarly oppressive, the home side’s pressing game being bellowed on from the stands. In truth there was a lot of bluster and not much end product, a garbage crusher bluntly forcing the play towards us without much in the way of clear chances coming with it. Principle obstacle was the immaculate Craig Cathcart, making his first start since forever and once again turning simply being in the right place into an unelaborate art form. Our full backs look particularly vulnerable; Daryl Janmaat has three good goes at getting booked before finally sealing the deal, after which he looks surprisingly disciplined and realises neither of the gloomy predictions prevalent in the away end – “he’s going to get sent off” and “he’s straight off at half time”. Meanwhile on the left Aidy Mariappa is standing in for the injured Holebas and looks almost exactly like a centre back playing on his weaker side as full back for fifteen minutes or so, but he too settles down and stifles the Terriers’ threat on their right.

3- The bigger problem introduced by Mariappa being at left back is our lack of balance in attack. Kiko Femenía is our only source of speed, and whilst Roberto Pereyra sidesteps and twists we inevitably come inside from the left; he has no pace, and no crossing option bombing past him. Nonetheless, the biggest achievement of the first half is the gradual subduing of the home crowd to merely boisterous levels; by midway through we are the side making the better chances. Deeney has a vicious shot blocked at close range, Doucouré cuts into the box and drives straight at Lössl. Pereyra draws a free kick to the right of the goal as we attack prompting fanciful speculation about a Neil Cox tribute goal in memory of a freak goal eighteen years ago from the same position, but alas we got a rehearsed move that didn’t quite come off instead, more prosaically.

Nonetheless, come half time there are reasons to be positive. We’ve weathered a storm that has proven to be more of a passing, aimless squall and we’re beginning to get on top – a platform to build on. Instead… the second half never really gets us anywhere. Certainly we’re never under the cosh – and as you’ll have noted, Huddersfield don’t manage a shot on target until, critically, they do. But we’re not getting very far either, albeit we’re not getting very far with an increasing amount of the ball. Our tendency to go long is in part pressured by Huddersfield’s pressing and in part deliberate, seemingly, since such balls are played under little pressure. Perhaps to bypass a midfield in which the still-missed Jonathan Hogg is charging around doing his thing, in part, perhaps, to expose what is perceived as a vulnerable backline. Either way it’s ineffective.

Richarlíson is brought on for the presumably tiring Femenía. Coinciding with another lull in the home stands he gets a noisy ovation; I’m all for this, poor form or otherwise, but can’t help but feel that our captain has earned slightly more patience over the course of several seasons and a very large number of goals. He gets no such support, albeit he’s again entirely ineffective. No more so is the newcomer, whose only strong performance in five months came in the anomalous demolition of Chelsea.

4- We’ve been starting to toy with Huddersfield, moving the ball around tidily and looking like the better side for the first time. We don’t look desperately like scoring, though whirligig Will Hughes once again runs himself into the ground and occasionally dances through promisingly into the box. If someone’s going to score though, it’s us. Except it isn’t.

Which casts a whole new perspective on the game, obviously. Gloomily reviewing email and social media accounts on the way back down the M1 I’m surprised (for some reason) by the negative tone. The game wasn’t of particularly high quality and neither side looked potent but it was intense and there was no lack of commitment on show. We’ve all seen much worse in terms of entertainment, put it that way.

Nor did we play particularly badly, as has been the case in the majority of the recent run of games. Defensively we were absolutely fine at worst for the most part (although someone who shall remain nameless was calling Seb Prödl every name under the sun for his flimsy response to Depoitre’s challenge in the build up to the goal). Nor can Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes, Femenía, Pereyra reasonably be lambasted, though they’ve all had better games.

The problem is that the team doesn’t know how to score goals. This doesn’t really reflect upon Troy either, much as he was ineffective; he competed well with what he had, which wasn’t an awful lot, and neither Andre Gray in his brief cameo, nor Okaka in recent games have done markedly better.

The problem, and the challenge for Javi Gracia, is that we’ve played pretty well over the last three games and earned one point from them. It’s not that we’re playing badly as much as that we don’t have an effective or efficient way of playing, particularly away from home as reflected by no away goals since he took over (and scarcely any decent chances in those games). And whilst it’s true that any one of our missing players would have given us something that might have made the difference here – balance from Holebas, speed of thought and feet on the counter attack from Chalobah, raw terrifying pace from Deulofeu, energy from Cleverley – the problem is more fundamental than missing players.

5- It’s hard to begrudge Huddersfield their win, much as I’d argue they didn’t really do much to deserve it on the pitch, much as being trapped in the stand to witness the celebration by slow-flowing aisles was something we could have all done without. There was a single-mindedness to their support that’s rare in a home crowd and could only be borne of a situation in which everyone knows they’re punching above their weight and mucks in accordingly. We’ve lost that a little bit I suspect, which is where the parallels with Huddersfield fall down, at least for now, and the complaints borne of unreasonable expectations start.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to think that we could enjoy the end to a season for a change, and confirm our safety through our own actions. “More or less safe” and “Absolutely safe” aren’t the same thing, and the distinction becomes more critical as the number of games dwindles. We’d have to work very very hard to go down from here, but getting nothing out of reasonable performances isn’t the best platform.

Yoorns.

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 4, Mariappa 3, Prödl 3, *Cathcart 4*, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Femenía 3, Hughes 4, Pereyra 3, Deeney 2
Subs: Richarlíson (for Femenía, 58) 2, Gray (for Deeney, 81) 0, Sinclair (for Hughes, 90) 0, Gomes, Britos, Kabasele, Okaka

Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 2 (31/03/2018) 01/04/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- I’m in a play this week.

I love acting. Being someone different is amazing, escaping completely into a story and thinking like someone else, getting into someone else’s head. Better still, doing it with a bunch of idiots who laugh at the same things as you do and have done this enough, done this together enough to know how to help each other and when to suggest things. It’s awesome.

It can become all-consuming. Enough of a focus to completely dominate your waking thoughts, quite apart from the practical considerations of a rehearsal schedule that is necessarily focused on evenings and weekends.

Enough of a focus that, whilst I was able to make both Arsenal and Liverpool I knew that I wouldn’t have the clarity of thought let alone the time to pen words. Hell, three paragraphs in and I’m still talking about the play. I’d apologise, but you know I wouldn’t mean it…

2 – So two weeks after that painful and memorably cold evening in Liverpool the question was how we would react. All of us… team, support, head coach. The Everton and West Brom victories had made the two subsequent defeats if not entirely affordable then at least not a disaster but the closing scenes of the last couple of seasons haven’t been particularly engrossing. A positive, vibrant finish, particularly from the point and assuming that safety is confirmed, would be a welcome thing.

The cast list revealed a return to 4-2-3-1 and most significantly the much-discussed-amid-awkward-shuffles-of-the-feet benching of the long-since wrung-out Richarlíson with Will Hughes starting behind Troy. The curtain rose to a bright and breezy encounter, but it was the visitors on the front foot from the off; quick movement earned a free kick on the right, an orchestrated slight of hand earned an angle to get a cross around the “wall”, Nathan Aké was ahead of the defence and should probably have done better than twonk a header off the bar and out. Minutes later and Stanislas slung a shot from left to right which Karnezis pushed away.

A statement of intent, so it was encouraging that we settled very quickly and were on the front foot, as ready and capable as our visitors of capitalising on an open game. Our first rattle into the open spaces in Bournemouth’s half seemed to make them slightly nervous and the game took on a new shape with the Hornets dominating territory and possession, but the Cherries screaming out on counter-attacks. One of these briefly saw the visitors escape beyond our backline only to be denied by a combination of Prödl and the flawless Karnezis.

Instead it was the Hornets that took the lead, José Holebas sent in a cross following a corner and Kiko Femenía, whose dynamism continues to remind us how much we missed during his spell out, took it on the volley. It would have been a routine save for the keeper, but Kiko was rewarded for his ambition and execution by King not having time to set himself and his crucial deflection left Begović helpless.

3 – Key in all of the good stuff that followed and the biggest plus in what remains a positive afternoon despite the galling finish was the performance of Will Hughes. Long in the wings waiting for a chance to play the lead role but denied by selection and injury, he’s looked great in virtually every minute he’s been afforded and here he was an absolute joy. Full of energy and movement, capable of deft one-touch lay-offs when moving at high speed thanks to his dexterity, balance and awareness but also willing to put his foot in, to work and to hound after possession. What’s not to like, frankly; this was his fifth start of the season and he’s already a hero.

As an aside to which, you can’t help but look at that midfield, add Chalobah, Cleverley and Deulofeu (fingers crossed) to it and feel rather comfortable with the murmurs coming out of the forum this week that the traditional summer flow of ins and outs might be more restrained this year. Sure, Doucouré may not stay (and to reiterate, I feel cheated that we might only get five games’ worth of Chalobah and Doucouré at the back of the midfield) but if he does go it’ll be for a great big wedge and you’d be confident in our ability to dig up a replacement. What an array of talent we have available.

Hughes’ effervescent calmness was at the centre of our second goal as Bobby Pereyra, once again looking far happier and more potent on the left flank, squirrelled in a shot to restore the lead surrendered meekly at the end of the first act. There’s been disbelief at Holebas’ actions but misjudged as they were it seemed to me that he was simply surprised by the trajectory of the ball, lost his bearings and decided that the threat of Jordon Ibe getting a decisive touch was greater than it probably was. So… a bit crap from Holebas who otherwise had a decent enough game, but not baffling… not like the ongoing bawling at the referee from those around us who clearly hadn’t seen the handball (fair enough) but lacked the self awareness to pick up on the comments and shrugs around from those who had.

4 – There’s a lot to like about Bournemouth. They’re positive and bold, try to win games with their actions rather than merely by default, and what this game showcased was two sides who were expected to be relegated on promotion (nearly) three years ago but weren’t and have dropped anchor in mid-table. That doesn’t guarantee you anything of course (ask West Brom) but nonetheless… an enjoyable engaging game from two clubs with every right to feel pleased with themselves that betrayed some limitations but also a lot of positives. For the visitors, Lewis Cook was absolutely terrific, a dextrous, nimble fulcrum in the centre of the park. Aké got his head to everything and looked like the centre-back in everyone’s heads and Ryan Fraser did a dynamic, purposeful job of filling in at right back. So… lots to like.

The reason that we don’t like them, then, is because they’re a bunch of cheating scumbags. Or to put it slightly less pejoratively… there’s something in the mentality of the club (the coaching?) that will grab any advantage that’s going. You can argue that every club does that (and Aidy Boothroyd isn’t far enough away for us to be getting too self-righteous), perhaps that they should… but with Bournemouth it’s so systematic that you can’t help but feel that it’s coached into the team. So… if cutting towards the edge of the penalty area as a ball-winning tackle comes in is merely giving yourself a chance then returning the ball to the opposition after a stoppage by kicking it halfway to the opposing keeper, forcing him to emerge into his own half is deliberate and cynical, and of course the repetitive throwing oneself down over tackles and springing up when a foul has been won is well established over recent seasons. One positive to come from this today was in Daughter 1’s reaction… she has a tendency to drift through games, combining attention to the matter in hand with contemplation of the social ins and outs of every eleven year old and any number of other things. Ryan Fraser’s swallow dive in front of us in the second half grabbed her though and she was potently outraged to the extent that she insisted in re-enacting the moment to her bemused mother in the living room later in the evening, several times, and accompanied by her younger sister who had been paying no attention at all but found the whole thing quite fun.

Dad had drawn a comparison with the Australian cricket team which those of you who know and care about such things might be able to comment on. I don’t, and so can’t.

5 – So the closing scenes here were demoralising for a number of reasons. Firstly because Richarlíson, who had entered stage left with ten to go, had looked vibrant and determined and quite capable of extending our lead as well as wrapping the aggravated Charlie Daniels in knots, but didn’t. Second, because a last minute equaliser is a last minute equaliser what every the context and the visiting support rightly celebrated accordingly – we’d have been pissed whatever. Thirdly because of our failure to just hold the line from a long ball for a few more bloody seconds. But also because of Steve Cook’s predictably over the top reaction to Okaka’s challenge which conned Andy Madley. It should have been innocuous, a challenge in the middle of the park and we should still have bloody defended it (see point three) AND it was a more aggressive challenge on review than the non-event we perceived at the time. Nonetheless, it was the latest in a growing list of such incidents against Bournemouth in recent years and we were particularly sensitised to it.

Instead, the natural gravity of the draw between these two sides prevailed – the seventh in the ten League meetings since Bournemouth’s promotion from the third tier in 2013. Consequently we’re still a few points from that mystical 40 point threshold (and yes, of course, 40 might not be necessary but “probably safe” is where we are already, “Safe” is better). It would take an awful lot though, and most Watford supporters will already have their relegation thoughts occupied with Palace and West Ham – the latter with a stinking run in despite their result yesterday.

When the curtain comes down on the season, you suspect that these two dropped points won’t matter much; the fact is that it was a good game and with more to like than to not. Doing the double over Bournemouth would have been a fine thing though. Next time.

Yooorns.

Karnezis 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Prödl 3, Mariappa 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, Femenía 4, *Hughes 5*, Pereyra 4, Deeney 3
Subs: Cathcart (for Prödl, 64) 3, Okaka (for Hughes, 75) 3, Richarlíson (for Femenía, 81) 0, Ndong, Gray, Lukebakio, Gomes