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Arsenal 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2018) 30/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- It’s an indicator of how far our feet are under the table that this is all so familiar now.  Four of the five visits to the Emirates since promotion and the environs are now as familiar as Borough Market pre-Millwall, as the cricket club at Turf Moor, as the discarded bin bags spewing their contents all over the pavements between Norwood Junction and Selhurst Park.

The forecourt of Highbury and Islington tube station has become a regular rendez-vous point, sun-bathed today, the walk down Holloway Road frequent enough to be able to recognise the invasion of cafes, coffee shops and student accommodation that local resident Kieron describes.

Familiar, too, are the bowels of a stadium built to comfortably accommodate its capacity.  Plenty of space to hang around pre-match, no need to queue for anything much with contactless-only refreshment trolleys.

Familiar, finally, is the bloody terrible view from the cinema seats nine rows back from the corner flag in the shallow bowl.  It all looks lovely.  Unless you actually want to watch the football.

2- What we do get a decent view of is Marc Navarro first Premier League 45 at right-back, the first change to the side this season thanks to Daryl Janmaat’s knee problem.  He does a decent enough job, though as the Hornets dominate territory in the opening fifteen minutes he appears to be taken by surprise by Arsenal’s pressure, a couple of balls back towards Ben Foster asking slightly more of the keeper than might have been ideal.  Defensively however he’s solid, and more than once he makes a significant intervention in denying the home side – on one occasion alive to the lurking threat of Aubameyang as he cuts out a far post cross.

It’s an intense, compelling, boisterous game of football.  Both sides are pressing hard and high, both are holding a high defensive line, both want to win.  Much as we force the home side onto the back foot early on they twice threaten through Alexandre Lacazette;  on the first occasion he is caught in the penalty area by Kabasele, stumbles, thinks about it, and goes down unconvincingly late.  We get away with it.  Shortly afterwards Lacazette robs Craig Cathcart but dinks his effort wide over the onrushing Foster. We get away with it again but… Arsenal are getting away with stuff too. Troy gets on the end of a deep cross and cushions a header back to Will Hughes who drives wide. Kabasele thumps a header that’s blocked on the line. Nil nil at the break is just fine, we’re giving it some.

3- As, incidentally, are Arsenal. The now notorious “cojones” comment of a year or so ago was questionable in terms of whether candidly sharing such opinions was altogether helpful given that we would be playing the same side later in the season but beyond reasonable dispute in terms of veracity. Arsenal had a soft centre, and had had such for a long time. Not our problem of course, but signs here that the Gunners are no longer so overawed by physical confrontation. Whatever the undercurrent of “we should be beating the likes of Watford”, the reality beyond such unhelpful preconceptions is that we came at Arsenal with verve and power and they may have rode their luck once or twice but they held us off and got the break in the end. Not a traditionally Arsenal performance, and the combative Lucas Torreira was at the heart of the change; like Troy, he was slightly harshly booked in the opening period, Troy for stretching for a loose ball in a challenge with Cech, Torreira for a foul that stymied a breakaway.

Troy, meanwhile, has been grabbing headlines once again this week with comments regarding Watford’s management of the gravitationally challenged one. Once again, the real question is not the reasonableness of what he was saying. Any team with any intelligence would pay close attention to Zaha, particularly given his propensity for reacting so favourably to it, and whilst purity of spirit simply oozes from those bin bags en route to Selhurst Park (witness: Ian Holloway, Saša Ćurčić etc) any other club would give some thought to whether there’s an alternative to the same player bootering him over and over again for sustainability reasons.

The question, of course, is whether it’s really helpful for Troy to be saying those things publicly. The answer is no.

4- The Gunners had grown stronger as the first half had progressed, and the start of the second saw more pressure from the home side. It may be a case, again, of perception warping in line with a suspected narrative but we looked tired during this spell, ragged even, and you feared for how long we could keep Arsenal at arm’s length.

So the fact that we came back so strongly was as impressive as it was unexpected. Arsenal’s sub keeper Bernd Leno, on shortly before the break for the injured Cech, could probably have hoped for gentler introductions to the Premier League and looked anxious initially in the second period. Our first chance came from one of a number of wicked deliveries from Jose Holebas, this from a set piece in which Troy ghosted in to attack the ball at the near side of the penalty area and with the delicate touch with which those who never watch him play wouldn’t associate him flicked a shot inside Leno’s left hand post. The German was equal to it, pushing it wide for the corner; from the set piece Nacho Monreal, who had lost his rag late in the first half and not found it again, had a wrestling match with Andre Gray before Leno punched away unconvincingly. This seemed to spur us on.

Andre Gray was keen to profit from Arsenal’s high line and was popped through it by Troy Deeney only to see his effort smothered by Leno. He was removed two minutes later and replaced by Isaac Success, increasingly the player we thought we’d signed after his debut here two years ago, replaced him and he too was put through by Deeney, burning away from his marker but taking an ever so slightly too heavy a touch forcing him slightly wide. His dinked chip was far more convincing than Lacazette’s at the same end in the first half, but still only skimmed the outside of the post on its way out.  As the energy ramped up Torreira and Deeney, both on yellows, clashed after a late Torreira tackle.  A less sensible ref than Anthony Taylor could have sent either off.

5- So, yeah. Then Arsenal scored, twice. A bit of luck for their first perhaps, but Cathcart wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been under pressure. So Arsenal win the game and we record our second defeat, each of which against a traditionally “top six” side.

Naturally there’s a tendency to say “well, we should have taken our chances”. Certainly this is true. Thing is, until such a time as we’re winning every week there will always be something that isn’t quite right. Very much first world problems these. Facts are that we’ve played nine games this season now across the League and the League Cup. Each game has been thoroughly enjoyable, and in each game – if with varying consistency across ninety minutes and to varying degrees – we’ve played well.

I’d maintain that Cathcart and Kabasele is the best central defensive partnership we’ve had in the 35+ years that I’ve been watching, and that midfield isn’t far off a comparable accolade, particularly when one considers strength in depth.

So really, defeat or otherwise, there’s very little to be upset about. The fact is that Spurs and Arsenal have crowed over the last week over a penalty shoot-out win against a reserve side wrongly reduced to ten men, and a helter-skelter league game that would have skidded off in another direction had we grabbed the first goal. There’s plenty of relief mixed up in that.

Now we need to turn good performances back in to wins. And there are few teams you’d wish defeat on more than next Saturday’s visitors. Bring it on.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Navarro 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra, 4, Gray 3, *Deeney 4*
Subs: Success (for Gray, 72) 3, Femenía (for Navarro, 84) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

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Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (15/09/2018) 17/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- May 1985.  I was twelve, the same age as Daughter 1 is now.  You were how ever old you were, perhaps you weren’t even born.  As an aside I was stopped short when talking to a colleague at work this week, having to explain the whole MK Dons thing and realising that he was young enough not to plausibly remember…

Good grief.

Anyway.  May 1985, whether it’s fresh in your mind or in the same box as Henry VIII and the dinosaurs, or whether it’s somewhere in between.  It seems remiss at this juncture not to remember it and revel in it, since there was more to that period than just  finishing second and the Cup Final and the UEFA Cup….

Saturday, May 11th.  White Hart Lane.  Spurs were on their way to their highest League finish for fifteen years, a third place under Peter Shreeves, but the Hornets would win 5-1.  Two days later United visited Vicarage Road.  The Reds had half an eye on the Cup Final six days later, but rested only Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen in a time of smaller squads.  The scoreline was repeated;  new signing Colin West, whose arrival had sparked an end of season surge, Nigel Callaghan and Luther Blissett scored in both games, the latter also suffering an horrific injury at the hands of Gary Bailey and the cost of an impressive scar on his forehead.  Danny Thomas memorably contributed to our tally in the first game, the Spurs full-back finding the top corner from distance.

I was at both.  Even in the context of a time when taking on the big teams and beating them, in Cups and then in the League, was What We Did, this was remarkable.  More remarkable still is the progress made over the last few years.  Not since May 1985 have we gone into a game against United with anyone but us saying “Actually, I fancy Watford to win this….”.

2- A play in three acts, this.  The Hornets lined up in the now conventional eleven;  United kicking towards the Rookery in an alternative kit of nondescript colour which looked, as Cathal later observed, like it might be inside out.

This was a relatively low pressure game for the Hornets of course, low pressure in the sense that the tally already accumulated let us into the fixture without the burden of an iffy start.  United, twice defeated already, were probably in more urgent need of a result.  After an opening chorus of “One Harry Hornet” in recognition of the retirement of the mascot’s ten year incumbent an edgy opening half hour developed.  The visitors dominated possession, but were only allowed glimpses of goal;   Sánchez wriggled in down the right before thumping a drive towards the top corner which Foster repelled.  At the other end any hint of an attack sparked the crowd;  Bobby Pereyra set up Troy who put power above precision and shovelled his shot too close to de Gea, making a clawing save possible. Otherwise our attacks were trying to hit the strikers early and put United’s centrebacks under pressure – Troy has bossed Chris Smalling before, and Victor Lindelof has looked get-attable.  Troy will rarely play a game in which so many of his touches are with his chest, but for this period the two sides were keeping each other at arm’s length.

3- This changed on the half hour.  Étienne Capoue picked up his fourth booking in four home games this season for cynically curtailing Jesse Lingard’s progress on the break.  In the same fixture last season we’d regretted Tom Cleverley’s decision not to do something similar in the closing minutes.  From the passage of play resulting from the set piece United knocked us out of our defensive shape for the first time, and as we scurried and chased Ashley Young floated a cross in which Romelu Lukaku propelled into the net with his stomach.  Appeals aplenty – for offside from the stands, for handball, perhaps, from the players, but all in vain.  Difficult to see how Foster was fooled by the cross at the time and on replay, a rare blemish for the keeper.

Within three minutes it was two, Chris Smalling hooking home expertly after chesting down in the box.  You can criticise Daryl Janmaat for being on the wrong side of him but it was a fraction of an opening that still required a fine finish.

We could have caved in at this point, and looked a bit ragged for perhaps the first time this season.  United, as good teams are wont to do, tried to capitalise and surged at us;  Pogba came closest with a fine volleyed finish to a deep Lingard cross, Foster redeeming himself with a flying stop that left the French midfielder with his head in his hands. For the second home game in succession we were grateful for the interval; grateful, in this instance, to still be in it.

4- And so the second half was magnificent.  Yes, United sat back and invited it, invited us to find our feet but we showed no signs of needing that invitation.  It was a mild evening, and it’s not quite late enough in the year for half six-to-seven to be properly dark.  But there’s something special about the Vic in a late kick-off with the Hornets kicking towards the Rookery.  When United wandered forward early in the half we’d snatch possession and fly outwards… Doucouré, Pereyra, Hughes in tandem, Gray turning and twisting and chasing and getting buffeted by finally earning his reward with a composed finish.  Janmaat and Holebas both ran themselves into the ground and were replaced, Femenía and Masina providing further evidence of how far we’ve come.  These are our back up playernow, the fact that half of United’s support won’t have heard of them half the point.  If their very limited world view encompassed Kiko or Adam they would already be stars and wouldn’t be playing for Watford.  As it was they’re merely very very good players; both gave us a boost in the closing encounters.

If there’s a complaint about the second half it’s that the kitchen sink didn’t quite come out early enough.  There was always a risk of course… Anthony Martial’s pace twice launched counterattacks that first Cathcart and Kabasele had to be precise and urgent to repel – it may be that Gerard Deulofeu will soon be doing that “running off with the ball” thing for us”.  But from Gray’s goal onwards there was a sense that United really weren’t comfortable, than the game plan really hadn’t involved us scoring and yet we didn’t let it all rip until Matic, who was excellent for the most part, earned a second yellow card for a foul on the tireless Hughes.  The free kick was swung in and Kabasele’s fierce header was in…. until it wasn’t, de Gea vaulting to his left to deny it.  From the resultant corner Masina sent over a low missile that just needed a touch, de Gea ending up in the back of the net and the game was up.

5- So.  We lost to Manchester United (again).  Quite obviously the run was going to come to an end at some stage, and it goes without saying that this is quite high on the list of ways you’d chose for it to happen.  Against a top side, and giving it some, and with fire in our bellies to take to Fulham.

Best of all was watching that second half and, for all that it wasn’t quite enough in the end, watching a side that is comfortable in its skin and utterly unphased by being two down to Manchester United.  We’re a side that can be in that position at half time and yet entertain genuine hopes of retrieving the game. And have the players and the coach to do so.  “Deserved” is an odd word in the context of a football match and ultimately United deserved to win because they scored twice and we didn’t.  But I don’t think many in whatever-colour-that-was could have complained if we’d grabbed the equaliser.  We look like a Premier League team now, of all things.  A good one.

And so to Fulham and Slav and another fascinating encounter.  Interesting to note their division-high 12 goals conceded thus far (albeit heavily at the mercy of opposition faced after only 5 games) in the context of the theory that Jokanovic ultimately left Watford because it was felt that his football was too open for us to survive in the Premier League.  A huge test of our own mettle, too.  Spirited defeat is one thing… spirited defeat being two or more things might feel less comfortable.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Gray 4*, Deeney 3
Subs:  Femenía (for Janmaat, 72) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 84) 0, Success (for Cathcart, 88) 0, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (02/09/2018) 03/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- So it’s been a fun week.  Fun to be patted on the head like the child allowed to stay up late when the adults have had a glass of wine or two.  “So Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and… oh yes, surprisingly, Watford have a 100% record….”.

This mutated as the days passed.  “Actually I still fancy Watford to be relegated,” suggested a bookmaker’s rep on a podcast this week, confusing a radical, roguish, controversial opinion with stupidity.  “In a couple of month’s time everyone will have forgotten about Roberto Pereyra” was another sage observation on the same podcast.

I suspect the tone of this week’s observations might be slightly different.

2- It’s summer again.  Proper hot.  Necessary precautions have been taken to navigate the traffic snarl up heading to the Krishna festival at Aldenham (thanks Paul) and we’re parked up early, giving me time to deliberate over whether I’m sufficiently certain that my lucky Primitives t-shirt is at the heart of our good run to go with an extra layer under the club shirt (I am, I did, you’re welcome).

Vicarage Road is navigated at the cost of an Ice Cream spillage and many tears from Daughter 2, finally assuaged by face painting and tattoos outside the club shop.  We’ve mentioned this before but the party atmosphere being cultivated on this corner is a fine thing, the more so in the sunshine, and is noted by Daughter 1 who sometimes gives the impression of the world, our world, passing her by but not here.  By the time we head down Occupation Road Daughter 2 is busy looking for the ancient turnstile and once in the ground she, like the rest of us, is fully focused on the matter in hand.  And after three (and a half) wins, the arrival of a proper big gun is a fascinating prospect rendered low risk by the nine point cushion.

3- The first half is deemed “intense” by Daughter 2, not inaccurately.  Others elsewhere, others not emotionally involved, called it dull, “lacking in incident” or similar.  And I suppose if you weren’t emotionally involved then that would be true but we were, all of us, and it wasn’t.

Spurs had the best of it, indisputably.  We had the occasional foray forward and looked vibrant, the crowd sparking at the slightest provocation and came closest when Deeney met a deep Janmaat cross and headed over.

But most of the action was at our end and for the second weekend running we demonstrated our new-found defensive resilience.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a better central defensive pairing for Watford than Cathcart and Kabasele, certainly not since John McClelland left, and both were in full effect here.  But Janmaat and Holebas are suddenly solid and reliable, and the gang of four between them repelled Spurs’ albeit slightly hesitant probing.  Most spectacular was Janmaat’s diving header (“like a superhero” – Daughter 1) to cut out a cross pass beyond the far post;  most fortunate Alli’s point-blank miss when (mistakenly) flagged. Closest, a header from the same player which didn’t drop quickly enough.

“Not much in it” was occasional visitor Ian’s verdict at the break.  Me, I was glad to have gotten to the interval.

4-  Having had to man the barricades at the end of the first half, Spurs’ goal came from nothing eight minutes into the second.  A loose clearance, an aimless low cutback from Moura and a freak deflection off Doucouré that wrong-footed Foster. The sort of goal that would normally be a hammer blow.  “You don’t give away goals like that against teams like this.  It can’t be our day.  They haven’t had to do much to earn that…”.

So it speaks volumes that we fought our way back.  Not propelled by the crowd, the crowd responded ferociously to the performance but the performance came first.  Not the easy, the smart, the lucky way – coming straight back at Spurs and grabbing a goal before they’d reset themselves.  The equaliser was fifteen minutes in coming, and arrived on the back of a display that was the match of any Watford performance I’ve seen for single-mindedness, for strength of personality, and for sheer ability in the face not of a top class opponent having an off day but of a top class opponent having the initiative wrested unwillingly from their hands as they were clubbed over the head and left writhing in a ditch.  My God, we were magnificent.

We could so easily have rolled over.  So easily have… if not given up, you’d not have believed that of this side, but allowed doubts to colour our positivity.  Not for one minute.  The defence held strong and persisted in playing the ball out, allowing us to break.  The midfield were asked to chase as much as to control possession, but they won a close battle on points, whilst Troy and Andre had maybe their best twenty minutes in tandem, belligerent and tireless.  Spurs had moved us around in the first half, but it was the visitors that seemed to wilt in the sun.

Troy was an absolute monster.  Let nobody be in any doubt that we’ve got our centre forward back, all those suggestions that he’d run his race have long since been forgotten by the briefly faithless.  He chased down Davínson Sánchez on the right wing and left him on his backside.  He smacked a low, hard cross into the box, Alderweireld stuck his head out and deflected it past Vorm and off the inside of the post and crossbar.  Shortly afterwards he met Holebas’ delicious free kick and flicked a header home.

The place erupted, and we went for the kill.  Spurs were reeling, and didn’t have much of an answer.  As we lined up a corner Troy, in full beast mode now and playing off the intensity of the crowd, emptied a bottle of water over his head before returning, shoulders hunched, to the fray.  A statement, but a theatrical decoy.  Cathcart it was who leaned through unnoticed to win the game.

5- Impossibly, there were still around 15 minutes of regular play to go.  The magnitude of the spectacle had seemed to fill hours and in the insane heat with Spurs having to push on nobody was taking anything for granted.  More than one “Oh I can’t watch this” was overheard from various voices behind me.

But again, evidence of how much this team has matured, of how much more in control of this we are than the lucky chancers that many accounts have painted us.  Spurs did come at us;  Harry Winks came on (to a few witless “who”s from local intellectuals incapable of recognising a Hemel Hempstead boy and England international) and he provided a scampering, thrusting urgency.  More entertaining to Ian was the introduction of Llorente, “throwing the big lad on up front” not beyond the elite either, it seems.

But we retained control.  We held possession in the corner, we held out not merely by setting our backs squarely against the wall (tho that was needed, particularly when Kane’s header skimmed over) but by smuggling the ball off and hiding it, by not giving Spurs the chance to hurt us, by cutting off the threat at source, sub Success in another strong cameo as significant as anyone.

And then the final whistle went and we bellowed.  We screamed at the sky.  This isn’t another trophy win, a shiny adornment to a mid-table season, fine though that would be.  This was us going up against a side who, like us, had a 100% record but who, unlike us, were expected to have one.

And beating them.

And deserving it.

Bring on United.

Yooorns…………

Foster 4, Janmaat 5, Holebas 5, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 5, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra 5, Gray 4, *Deeney 5*
Subs:  Success (for Gray, 70) 4, Chalobah (for Hughes, 86), Mariappa (for Pereyra, 90), Sema, Femenía, Masina, Gomes