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Wolves 2 Watford 0 (28/09/2019) 29/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Forgive me if this doesn’t go on too long. Not in the mood, frankly. Not in the mood at all.

Last week was bad. Profound insight, of course… that’s what you’re here for after all. OK, very bad. A maelstrom of circumstances conspired and we were nothing like robust or confident enough to deal with them. If there was a straw to clutch at it was that Man City away isn’t an expensive place to have a bad day, not in terms of the league table and so forth. That’s not a fixture you’re banking on after all so… even an 8-0 defeat need not be disastrous if you can consign it to history, convince yourself that a bad day against City is always going to look a very bad day. And shuffle along first to a tentative but adequate League Cup win over Swansea and then onwards to the next two League fixtures. League fixtures that could define the rest of the season.

2- The team news that reached us as we received long awaited pub food in a hostelry in the town centre looked great. Despite everything, bottom of the league with no wins and so forth, it’s difficult not to look at our squad and wonder at the depth of talent. And yes, yes, the defence, we’ll get to that. But for today… Janmaat in at right back was probably overdue, Craig Cathart’s return in the centre more than welcome and Sarr and Welbeck up front had been anticipated all season. So why didn’t it work? More generally, why isn’t it working?

It’s natural to blame the defence, heaven knows many have. Harsh, I think, to blame Craig Dawson for not being the commanding defender that we’d been hoping for, or to single him out by virtue of being the new component that has no credit in the bank. He was solid enough in this one, as he has been since those first few games. Much as I wouldn’t venture this opinion to the hysterical young man a couple of rows in front who was vocally challenging everyone in earshot to oppose his particular views on the subject. Digressing further, how easy would it be to construct a skit like the one below based on the regular voices behind you in a football crowd? An entertaining diversion if you haven’t seen it, goodness knows we need one.

So. We could do with better defenders, yes. But the defenders aren’t the problem – and haven’t been all season – as much as, you know, the actual defending. A subtle difference but a significant one. Wolves threatened before they took the lead, and invariably did so by doubling up on a full back. That’s not Janmaat and Holebas’ fault. And when the goal came… defenders were culpable, but the whole team was culpable – Tom Cleverley not least – for not being attentive, not doing their jobs.

3- And so we are once again stuck in an unfortunate maelstrom of coincidental circumstance. Wolves have the away goal, and so are even more at liberty to sit back and break on us. Much easier to do that at home when you’ve got a lead, obvs. Which means we need to play through them, somehow… the lack of Troy as a more direct option painfully evident; even Isaac Success (yes, really) who was extremely effective in this encounter last year, would have helped us navigate this – much more effective as a lone forward than a wide man for me.

Competing with this was an evident instruction to be careful with possession, part of the “defending comes first” mantra. And this we were, hence our very high possession stats, but the combination of the circumstances – Wolves sitting deep with a lead, us with nobody to hit, careful with possession – meant passing it around on the halfway line as much as not. Add to this an understandable tentativeness… understandable, but hugely frustrating… and little wonder that we found it so hard to create (decent) chances.

4- Wolves, truth be told, were little better. More effective, certainly, and deserving of the win but… also tentative, also fallible. Precarious. There are similarities between the two clubs’ situations in that both performed to a very high level last season and both, for different reasons perhaps and in different ways, haven’t been able to sustain that level. There can be an awful lot of air, as we’re seeing, between a half-decent side and a half-decent side off the boil, borne not least of the psychological impact of suddenly not winning football matches any more.

Missing throughout was a bit of bloody-mindedness. A bit of fight. There was more of that at the start of the second half of course, and if José Holebas connecting well with Roberto Pereyra’s cross (albeit he headed it into the ground taking the pace off it) was scant to show in the way of decent chances at least it was something. In Troy’s absence what little belligerence there was on show came from Daryl Janmaat, who does a good line in bloody-minded rampages when such are needed. Of the two right-backs, neither of which stands dramatically over the other in general, you’d rather have the Dutchman’s strength of character when the chips are down. Unfortunate that it was his forehead that deflected the second in, not his fault – perhaps he’s more robust to these things than others might have been. That’s the sort of goal that goes in when things are going badly.

5- Elsewhere, the fortunes of those introduced contrasted somewhat. Cathcart, like Dawson, didn’t do an awful lot wrong – Wolves’ threat came down the flanks rather than the centre and the previously formidable Jiménez was quiet. Welbeck worked hard and showed well – still rusty, but a good line in runs down the outside of the outer of Wolves three defenders in the second half and a decent shot carved out that was pushed wide by Patricio. More positive than not. Sadly, the same not true of Sarr who only opened his legs occasionally and was frequently at fault for not putting his foot in where needed. A 21 year-old winger not speaking the language needs time and a bit of patience, but a £30m price tag denies him much of that, unfairly or otherwise.

Wolves’ second took any fight out of us, and there was no praying for minutes as the board goes up, no suggestion of a fightback. Maybe all it would have taken was a goal, home fans suddenly nervous in the closing minutes, we’ll never know. In the same way there are several ways to interpret this game… given this vantage point, given last week, given no wins and such little fight it’s difficult not to be negative. On the other hand… a defeat away at Wolves, even this Wolves, isn’t an embarrassment out of context. Nobody likes to lose but… it’s a tough fixture, albeit one we won last year. Maybe the cautious possession will build towards a greater solidity – arguably only a perhaps four point deficit across Brighton and West Ham is below a moderate “par” so far. As has been mentioned elsewhere, this game buried in the middle of last season might not have raised an eyebrow. If we beat Sheffield United we’re likely to be up with the struggling pack again, it really isn’t very far gone yet and only two weeks since an utterly convincing and convinced draw with Arsenal after which recovery seemed a probability.

That win really needs to come soon though.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Janmaat 3*, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Deulofeu 2, Welbeck 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Gray (for Sarr, 71) 2, Kabasele, Femenía, Chalobah, Quina, Gomes

Watford 2 Arsenal 2 (15/09/2019) 16/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Episode Three of the first Series of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast discusses basketball.  Not a game I can claim any great expertise in;  we played a violent bastardisation of the game at school, but that hardly qualifies informed comment.

Anyway.  Wilt Chamberlain.  Great basketball player, says Malcolm and people who Know About These Things.  Remarkable, amongst other things, for taking his penalty shots underarm.  People don’t do that, says Malcolm.  Chamberlain’s not quite unique, but he’s certainly unusual in this regard…  and unusually successful.  Extraordinary (again, second hand knowledge, take that as read…).

Except at one point, despite his huge success, he stopped.   Reverted to the conventional shooting method with unremarkable results.  Because he felt pressured by the consensus against him, despite the success of the strategy.  Others questioned in the episode concurred… despite being induced to attempt underarm, observing the success, they wouldn’t consider underarm shooting in a competitive game.  Because it would “look weird”.

So when Sam leans over my shoulder and expresses concern that we’re a laughing stock, that our regular turnover of head coaches is, by implication, weird…  unusual… Well, you just gotta shrug and grin. Not that this justifies any such decision on the part of our owners and management but…  five seasons in the Premier League, two cup semi finals and one final in that time is testimony to us not doing too badly by it.  Not sure we should give a stuff what anyone else thinks, whoever they are.

2- And so Quique’s back, and inevitably he’s given a warm welcome because such is the way of things in such situations even if the man in question isn’t a good bloke from recent memory.  His first team selection is encouraging in its shape…  a return to the 4-2-3-1 of Marco Silva’s brief successful period with Tom restored to the buzzing around role in front of two sitting midfielders, Étienne Capoue stepping into the role vacated by Nathaniel Chalobah after his knee injury.  More odd was an extremely conservative bench, no out-and-out striker with Welbeck (reportedly injured in training on Friday) and Success omitted from the squad.

And we start aggressively. Actually, scrub that… we start like what one imagines a pack of dogs looks like. Chasing everything down. Reducers going in left, right, centre. Arsenal are given nowhere to hide as we set up with a solid shape, let the visitors pass sideways inconsequentially on the half way line and mug them brutally should they make the mistake of getting ideas above their station. This yields some half-chances from distance… Holebas drives narrowly wide, Tom Cleverley thumps an effort top corner that Leno shoves over. If there’s a problem it’s that Andre Gray is being asked to do an awful lot. He makes a game effort, his most convincing imitation of a target man to date… hurling himself between incoming ball and opponent, contorting himself to deflect a lay off but he’s too isolated, and too often we’re passing around the edge of the area without much of a focal point to aim for.

3- And then Arsenal score. The visitors have been warming up, Pépé cutting in from the right and curling a shot wide but too close. Then there’s a scruffy tackle on the halfway line in which Hughes is bullied off the ball… there are protests on and off the pitch but having spent much of the game up to this point gauging how much aggression we could get away with and deciding, well, quite a lot actually we didn’t have a leg to stand on here (literally, in Will Hughes’ case). Of more concern is the doziness of the defence and the gaping chasm at Ben Foster’s near post (again), but Aubameyang’s finish is breathtaking.

We go flat, very quickly; on and off the pitch everyone’s thinking the same thing. “But we’d started so well, why can’t we defend…”… and the visitors have their foot on our throat. Aubameyang nearly scores a second before he actually does, and it’s far far too easy, Maitland-Niles slipping in down the right, not for the first time, and finding the Gabonese for a tap in.

The half ends with a bit of a scrap on the halfway line in which Matteo Guendouzi earns a booking for being an idiot, Jose Holebas seems slightly harsher done by but looks in danger of outstripping the big-haired French youngster by taking prolonged and typically forthright issue with the officials on the half time whistle. He gets away with it, and maybe we do too despite the scoreline.

4- The second half, as you’ll know, is a remarkable thing. We owe a lot to our visitors, though, who as it turns out were pretty much ideal opponents for Quique’s first game back. They were miserably undeserving of their win here five months ago; here (with only three of that starting eleven starting here, incidentally) they are more spectacularly inept, and tactically not least.

Quite why a side that excels up front but can’t defend for toffee thinks that sitting on a two goal lead is the way forward is beyond me for one thing. Why, further, a defence that was repeatedly warned off faffing around at the back by being brutally mugged by ever more encouraged opponents in front of a lenient referee continued to faff around is incomprehensible.

Not our problem. In the end, after many occasions in which the nervousness of our attack was measured against the generosity of Arsenal’s defence and came out just wanting, we are given the most extraordinary of clear chances as Sokratis plays another loose ball in the box and Tom Cleverley drives home. The Quique song returns with gusto not, in fairness, that he had much to do with Sokratis’ critical assist.

As an aside, the “third man” in a midfield three is an easier one to impress in. Al Bangura used to look outstanding as the spare man sitting behind Gavin Mahon and Matt Spring when such was necessary and all he had to do was kick whatever came through without any great disciplinary responsibility; similarly the hole behind the striker is a sandpit to play in. Tom doesn’t half do it well though and he’s quite tremendous today combining perpetual motion and relentless positivity with just being bloody sensible, a rare combination.

5- It’s relentless. We swarm all over Arsenal, one minute slinging the ball from wing to wing to find a spare man, then snarling into challenges to reclaim possession. We’d questioned the lack of striking options on the bench; actually all three subs are well judged and a force for good. Ismaïla Sarr is better suited to wide open spaces than the physical confrontation of the penalty area you suspect but does a sound enough job here, controlling an extraordinary sharp pass from Deulofeu, spinning and clipping a shot across the face of goal in one fluid movement. Daryl Janmaat’s cameo is a typically bombastic one, no surprise to see him thunder into the penalty area late on. And if Roberto Pereyra takes a while to warm up himself, once he gets going he really gets going; a tidal wave of a counter attack reaches the Argentine who makes a bee-line for Luiz. Dribbling yourself the hell into the penalty area has been a deliberate tactic and the Brazilian finally obliges, lazily. Leno is graceless and witless in his attempts to slow things down and distract, and gets what he deserves – a fine, composed finish from the Argentine.

You can come full circle back to that basketball analogy again if you want, since the end of the game is ridiculously open. The visitors start to venture upfield again and the stupidity of their reluctance to do so earlier is betrayed by Joe Willock’s progress in running half the length of the pitch before being scruffily halted (having missed a chance to release Aubameyang). The bulk of the business is at the other end though. Chance after chance to the backing track of Elton John’s Taylor-Made Army on what would have been the great man’s seventy-fifth birthday… the relentlessly penetrative Deulofeu slugs a shot a hair’s breadth wide, Tom Cleverley pumps another shot top corner that is blocked, unwittingly, by David Luiz’s head. Doucouré rampages through the midfield and releases Sarr, who threads a ball back to the Frenchman who just needs to put his laces through it but doesn’t, steering a shot too close to the keeper before collapsing with his head in his hands.

It isn’t quite enough for the win. But it’s more than enough in the grand scheme of things. This is huge fun and a massive result in the heroic, bloody-minded combativeness of the second half that dragged us back from two goals down. Quique’s got things to sort, clearly, but this was already significant progress all over the pitch. The wins will come.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Cleverley 5*, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 5, Gray 3
Subs: Sarr (for Gray, 54) 4, Pereyra (for Hughes, 63) 3, Janmaat (for Holebas, 78) 0, Foulquier, Mariappa, Chalobah, Gomes

In with the even older 07/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

International breaks.  Dull as hell, aren’t they?  Particularly this one, not even a month into the season.  We’ve barely got going. And having chosen not to spend brownie points on Newcastle it’s two weeks into a three week slog.  Driving back from a thing with the wife and kids, half listening to the England game and the news breaks.

Whatever your reaction, to Javi’s departure, it’s surely not surprise.  As countless pub-bore pundits have no doubt already reminded you, this is What Watford Do.  (One might be forgiven for thinking that this is ALL Watford have done, since getting promoted, such is the limited range of opinion of such pundits.  Chelsea, Huddersfield, Fulham, Southampton and West Brom have all had three managers during Javi’s Watford reign, incidentally).

If there’s a surprise it’s that the change comes halfway through the break rather than at the beginning of it.  If a change was being made then the decision was surely already made and so little to gain by delaying appointing an out-of-work replacement.

But the decision itself, I think, was always coming.  Javi Gracia has been a successful, utterly likeable, gracious and unpretentious head coach but problems with the team have been evident and are down to him.  The poor results at the end of last season came with all sorts of mitigating factors and context – the Cup Final, the suspension to Troy which was all the captain’s fault and which we struggled to accommodate as we’re struggling in the wake of his injury now.

But this season’s form has been miserable.  In particular the defensive shape of the side has been, well, indefensible. The back four have all been criticised individually, but a set-up that asks full-backs to provide all the width, effectively playing as wing-backs with two centre-backs behind them is only going to end one way.  We have the greatest array of attacking talent we’ve ever had but haven’t looked like exploiting it.  We’ve been far, far too easy to hurt.

Too soon?  Too harsh?  Maybe.  But we know the drill by now.  We know that Scott and Gino aren’t going to sit on their hands and see how things turn out, we know that they believe a head coach has a limited shelf life. And in reality they can’t afford to prevaricate; after four games from which we might have expected, say, seven points we have one with tougher challenges to come.

Then half an hour later, the confirmation that Quique was back.  And this took a bit more time to get my head around.  On the plus side…  lovely bloke.  Knows how to sort a defence, very quickly drilled a side that had been playing open expansive football four years ago and took us to mid-table and a Cup semi.  On the minus…  his tendency towards favourites, ostracising faces that didn’t fit (José Holebas must be delighted). The pathetic tailing off of our first season after he felt his job was done – the defeat at Carrow Road that season remains perhaps the weakest since promotion.

But against that…  he’s being hired by the people that employed him then.  They know what happened, and they know what they’re getting.  And nothing speaks for the sound structures that we’ve all boasted so comprehensively of, the way that a head coach is a cog at this club rather than defining the machine, that both Duxbury and Flores are happy to resume their partnership.

Some kind of change was clearly needed.  How this one turns out will be fascinating.

Yooorns.