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Watford 0 AFC Bournemouth 0 (26/10/2019) 27/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- It’s not a cold day. No need for layers, not yet. But it’s wet and windy. And it’s wild. I love weather like this. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”… and this is ferocious and invigorating. This is the weather in which heroes are made, the weather in which great deeds are done. The weather in which we claim our first three points of the season, reverse continental shift, put the enemy to the sword. Do stuff worthy of being put to a song, stuff worthy of “do you remember when…” stories in 20, 30 years time.

Or. Or it could be a bit shit and underwhelming. That’s always an option, obviously.

2- The Deulofeu/Pereyra forward line was surprisingly effective a week ago, but always looked likely to be less so against a side that weren’t pushing ponderously forward at every opportunity, lumbering under the weight of expectation. Here the lack of physical presence in attack was more of an issue than it had been at Spurs (and even there it tended to invite pressure in the final minutes due to the fussiness it demanded of any out-ball). We found an effective route out for a while, Adam Masina revelling in his extra inches and bullying Ryan Fraser and Adam Smith in an aerial assault down our left until an overdue Cherries decision to drift the colossal Billing over to that side to stem the tide.

But in general when we fizzed and buzzed we found ourselves wandering down blind alleys borne of the sorry combination of a lack of focal point and a lack of belief. Bournemouth aren’t terrible by any means but they were get-attable here, more get-attable than we exposed.

It might have been very different had Doucouré kept his composure in the opening minutes. Daryl Janmaat – still a force for good if not quite boasting the doggedness that seems to characterise his outings against the loftiest opposition – fed Deulofeu down the right, the Spaniard’s cross was pushed by Ramsdale to the Frenchman who should have scored. That goes in it’s a different game, that goes in and you can see us making hay, actually, much better suited with our newly mean defence to defending a lead and waiting for an opponent to over-commit, as they will surely need to. It didn’t happen.

3- Instead, Bournemouth grew into the game and had by far the better chances in the rest of the half. Jefferson Lerma had the first, wandering in from the right and curling a shot that was carelessly close to the far post and would have been a criminally negligent goal to concede. Later in the half Ben Foster came into his own with a fine low stop to keep out Rico’s drive from distance (the Spaniard taking a break from a succession of foul throws down the left flank, only one of which punished by the arbitrarily fussy Dean), and then again to deny Danjuma with a brave, alert close-range stop. Add Steve Cook twonking a header against the bar from one of a succession of right-wing corners, Masina rather more exposed without the ball than with it, and we were probably a little lucky to be level at the break. The illusion of an upward trajectory based on the last few games was dwindling quickly in the drizzle.

4- In fairness we had the better of the first half hour or so of the second period, our best spell in the game. Gerard Deulofeu bundled his way between two defenders and then left another on his backside before Ramsdale got out well to deny him with a stray limb. Later Will Hughes, who had a pretty miserable time after coming on for Tom Cleverley, another apparent victim of our recent hamstring epidemic, managed to pull out a fine shot with his weaker left foot. As if we’d saved up all our bloody-mindedness and decisiveness for this one moment, so uncharacteristic was this of our attacking play but Ramsdale denied us again, a fine stop extending to his left. Andre Gray, on for Nathaniel Chalobah in the bolder of the two second half changes (unless Adam Masina had a knock it’s not clear what the willing Dmitri Foulquier was going to achieve), did a sturdy job of going toe to toe with the much larger Steve Cook but his lack of confidence was betrayed by slack passes and poor decisions when in possession – nonetheless he was inches away from converting Deulofeu’s right wing cross, and sent a sharp ball across the face that didn’t get a touch after Bournemouth’s defence did one of their occasional jelly things that made you realise that we really ought to be capitalising on this.

5- The game had been peppered with boos for any suggestion of simulation from our spring-heeled friends from the South Coast (and with the odd chorus of “Championes” from the three-man Dorset choir). As so often you’d just got to the stage where you were wondering whether, actually, this was all a bit unfair and that maybe the Cherries’ reputation was causing us to focus unduly on what were marginal calls no worse than happens in any game when they decided to decisively reclaim their mantle. Josh King was clearly winded by Ben Foster’s decisive clearance on our left flank, but quite why he was rolling around holding his face was difficult to understand. Philip Billing was the first of several to collapse on the ground whilst the game continued around him in indifference; this happened to Callum Wilson too, with the exception that Christian Kabasele’s indifference didn’t stretch far enough for him to resist telling him quite what he thought of his cheap lack of professionalism in passing. Wilson seemed to take badly to this, chasing the Belgian back down the pitch and barging him from behind at the cost of a rather stupid yellow card.

In fairness we earned two of our yellow cards for cynical hacks to curtail a break – “good fouls” if there is such a thing, certainly valuable fouls, Dawson and Hughes the culprits. Wilson was the victim of the first, and as above whilst kicking an opponent is never to be applauded, he’d be near the top of your list were it otherwise.

6- The Wilson/Kabasele thing briefly spilled over before the morass of bodies and limbs seemed to think better of it and relocate itself to the penalty area for the wasted corner that ensued. The Rookery was briefly roused by the suggestion of conflict, but what little fizz we had was drowned out by an increase in the deluge which, wind assisted, made the previously uncharted territory of Row SS in the Rookery. Our attacking threat, such as it was, fizzled out but for an optimistic penalty call from a crowded out Will Hughes – the late chances were the visitors’.

Altogether underwhelming to carry so little threat at home but with the absences of Sarr and Welbeck now added to Deeney and Success, any of whom would have made us a much more potent weapon, Quique’s options were very limited. His 2015/16 vintage was a solid base plus enough mischief up front to earn wins. He doesn’t have that mischief up front now, not really, but we shouldn’t start taking that solid base for granted. This fixture last season serves as a reminder of how much worse than a fairly forgettable 0-0 it can get when you’ve got problems at both ends of the pitch.

But a scruffy, lucky win could do with coming along sooner rather than later.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 3, Cleverley NA, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Hughes (for Cleverley, 10) 2, Gray (for Chalobah, 57) 3, Foulquier (for Masina 73) 3, Prödl, Mariappa, Quina, Gomes

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 1 (19/10/2019) 20/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- The thing about things is that they change. Important things, significant things, and mundane incidental things. For instance, I first moved to Bedford 25 years ago; the stumble from the main concourse at Kings Cross down Pentonville Road to the Thameslink station was quickly a familiar one.

Since the station closed and the Thameslink rerouted to St Pancras I don’t need to step outside to connect to the tube and on to wherever. Today, with a bit of time to kill, I did so for the first time in years and years. And didn’t recognise it. The Google office, for goodness’ sake, looks like it’s been dropped into Kings Cross from outer space, and all the swish boutiques and cafes that surround it have spewed from either side of it like a bacterial growth. This isn’t what Kings Cross looks like!

An hour later we’re walking in the sunshine from Seven Sisters towards the venue, which Kieron labels “one of the new Death Star stadiums”, not inaccurately.

It’s pretty smart, as Death Stars go. Well designed to accommodate cordons of stewards manning access to the “turnstiles”, vast numbers of eateries with minimal queuing in the concourse. The stands are pleasingly steep, and if the seats are narrow it becomes clear that they’re not going to be in use very much. There are lean bars – presumably with an eye on safe standing – across the front of each seat and these are a fine, fine thing. Too good for Tottenham this, quite obviously.

2- No football supporter should need reminding that Things Change, Watford supporters less than most. A couple of months ago we had a different head coach, a different means of playing, a different shape. A couple of personnel changes today but… it’s clear enough that this is The Plan for the moment, not merely a solution for last week’s problem. Three at the back, wing-backs, two sitting midfielders. Sitting deep, ceding possession but looking for opportunities to mug the opposition and scramble into the empty spaces behind them.

And frankly there are few more suitable test cases for this approach than this opponent at this time. Spurs away, yes yes. I was at White Hart Lane the last time, the 5-1 win in 1985, “one Danny Thomas” and so on. Not a point in a league tie at Spurs in 34 years. But we were better off playing this Spurs today than a perhaps more limited but single-minded opponent like Burnley. Spurs are precarious, uncertain, suddenly introspective. Badly needing to win this but unable to prioritise with a Champions League game in the week and Liverpool next weekend. Get-attable, flaky in defence, tentative in attack. Perversely given the League table, we have a shout here.

3- Although Danny Welbeck collapsing with a hamstring strain after a couple of minutes we could probably have done without. He’d already been getting the bird for his Arsenal connections; “Danny Welbeck, he’s won more than you…” was the retort. On comes Gerard Deulofeu to form a diminutive false-forward line with Bobby Pereyra, perhaps the player least obviously suited to the QSF approach.

And within five minutes we’re ahead. We’d already tried this trick once and weren’t to try it again, either because the imperative wasn’t there or because Spurs were wise to it… Kabasele’s raking ball from right to left had already dropped over Aurier’s head but the move was curtailed. This time it was Cathcart isolating Danny Rose to find Daryl Janmaat rampaging down the right. His perfect ball was tucked neatly in at the far post by Abdoulaye Doucouré, incongruously clinical in this least clinical of seasons. Celebrations were tempered by surprise, and by trying to remember what this was like.

4- The remainder of the game followed a steady pattern of largely impotent Tottenham possession in front of our disciplined and aggressive rearguard. To our left came frantic, anxious shouts of “keep your shape, keep your shape”, but in stark contrast to our defensive calamities of earlier in the season there was little evidence of us doing otherwise. All three centrebacks put their bodies on the line, Holebas and the inhuman Janmaat were focused as Spurs shuffled the ball awkwardly from side to side, unconvinced and unconvincing.

And when we broke we broke with purpose and no less discipline. This was much more incisive than the scruffier breaks carved out against the Blades, this was spinning and turning and attacking the space but not compromising possession and it formed the basis for the best team performance since the Cup Semi Final. Deulofeu and Pereyra aren’t the most obvious forward line but they spun and twisted and found their men and frustrated Spurs at every turn (geddit?). The impatience in the home end took 20 minutes to surface, the half ended with the home side recording only one shot on target and booed off the pitch. All going very well so far.

5- The second half started with a bang that suited the home side rather better than it suited us; Spurs abandoned their three at the back and brought on Son who crashed a shot against the bar via Ben Foster’s probably irrelevant fingertips in an ominous clarion call. From the rebound we rattled forward; Pereyra released Deulofeu, the Spaniard produced a perfectly weighted cut back of all things and an excellent block from Aurier denied Pereyra’s finish. It wasn’t the last breakaway chance we were to enjoy – the otherwise magnificent Doucouré should have punished some extraordinarily pedestrian defending but sliced wide. Janmaat had one good chance on his weaker foot but opted to retain possession, an inevitable choice under QSF. Janmaat again, revelling in his freer wingback role, lead a charge down Spurs throat but dallied and was crowded out; his shot hit Alderweireld’s hand, but that’s not a penalty on moral grounds whatever version of the handball rule we’re using this week.

Spurs’ best chance of an equaliser seemed to be through attrition and persistence, so lacking in cutting edge was their forward line despite Kane, Moura, Son. A succession of home corners came to nothing (the observation that only 2% of corners result in goals takes the edge off the pre-corner “oooooh” at either end), the lively Winks went off to be replaced by the monstrous Ndombele. We defended incredibly well, but maintaining that level of concentration is difficult and the equaliser came, cruelly, harshly. Not harsh in that Spurs didn’t deserve a point, but harsh in its timing, in not rewarding a performance that so deserved a three point reward. Harsh, too, in taunting the away end with an apparently favourable VAR review – such was the verdict suggested by the live screens, denied by the referee.

And here’s the VAR bit. Two big calls. A penalty shout for Deulofeu in the first half, not given. Alli’s goal, not denied despite a handball in the build-up and a shove on Christian Kabasele. No view of either at the time, both at the far end… Deulofeu’s penalty looks nailed on, Alli’s “handball” at least plausibly interpretable as shoulder rather than arm. We didn’t get either decision, it was ever thus away at a big club, these things matter more because we’re so desperate for the points. On balance wringing our hands too much about the equaliser is misguided; Ben Foster should have cleaned it out, Kiko could have been more decisive, and however inspiring our performance and well-judged the strategy if you spend most of the game defending your penalty area you increase the opportunity for such a decision to go against you.

The question isn’t really whether VAR got them wrong, got them right, whatever. Teething problems, yes yes, time to learn, yes yes. Wrong or right, difficult to imagine that in a world without VAR anything other would have happened than both going against us, we lose nothing. Except… except. The momentum. The pace. The intensity of a game that now doesn’t rumble on with a head of steam but slows down and waits, and watches. A game already distorted beyond recognition by television now becomes a parody of itself… from the point where people watched football on TV with cameras positioned to capture the crowd atmosphere, we now watch a game in the stadium ruled by television assessment that in itself destroys the thing that it purports to police. Ludicrous. I can cope with bad refereeing calls, but not this.

6- Extraordinary that a point at Spurs can feel like anything other than a great result. That’s what conceding a late equaliser will do for you. It IS a great result. But it doesn’t feel like one at the final whistle, less still the morning after.

Some problems that were problems are still there. Maybe they will change it time but… we had the better chances, despite only 30% possession and we were profligate – cautious perhaps, and imbalanced to praise our use of the ball and then complain when we choose to keep possession over going for goal. You can’t have it both ways. Nonetheless… we have a finisher, we win the game.

What has changed is that for the first time this season we have belief. This was a million miles from the listless nothing at Wolves. This was orders of magnitude better than the doughty draw against the Blades, more disciplined, more organised, more potent.

Not there yet. But we’re not half getting there. This was tremendous.

Things are changing.

Yoorns.

 

Foster 3, Janmaat 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Dawson 4, Kabasele 4, Chalobah 4, *Doucouré 5*, Cleverley 4, Pereyra 4, Welbeck NA
Subs: Deulofeu (for Welbeck, 4) 4, Femenía (for Janmaat, 71) 3, Hughes (for Pereyra, 84) NA, Masina, Sarr, Gray, Gomes

Watford 0 Sheffield United 0 (05/10/2019) 06/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Six months ago, as we entertained realistic hopes of European competition, it would not have seemed credible that we’d go into a match at home to a newly promoted side, even a Sheffield United who have started the season in decent form, not being strong favourites to win.

And yet here we are. And, as follows by logical consequence of our tumble in fortunes as above, there are as many problems in people’s heads as on the pitch. Players. Supporters (especially them). And even head coaches. “We are not preparing matches, we are preparing finals”, he was quoted in the build up to this. The gist was right of course, but the choice of words rather overlooked certain sensitivities borne of misfortunes in May. Nobody wants to be preparing for (yet) another one of those any time soon.

No less eye-catching was the emphasis on finding a way of playing that suited us. Challenging if your way of thinking is that Javi didn’t have much wrong, was a bit unlucky. More challenging still if your belief is that everything would have been fine “if only we’d bought some defenders (other than Craig Dawson)”.

The former argument has been backed up this week (and previously) by the demonstration of favourable xG figures suggesting that we’re really making rather a lot of chances. I’ve worked as a statistician in industry for nearly 25 years now, and there’s a difference between using stats to inform a judgement and using them to retrospectively prop up a decision you’ve already made. It’s pretty transparent most of the time. Here, our way of playing under Javi had always exposed the back line but we got away with it as long as the rest of it worked. We carried enough of a threat that the freedom to test our defence wasn’t there, and when that wasn’t enough we scored enough goals, most of the time.

Thing is when that high level of performance slips you’re left with a side not scoring and… not so much a weak defence as a team that can’t defend. And so you get the West Ham game where we look bold and assertive and lose – comfortably – anyway. Something needed to change. We needed to find a new way to play, and Quique was always going to start at the back.

2- So to today’s game against a side who very much are comfortable in their own skin, and in a very well practised way of playing. This is the narrative of the first quarter of the game, in which the Hornets, effectively reverting to the Zola formation, tried to remember how to do it. The visitors were thoroughly on top, hugely more composed in possession as we sat very deep and scrambled and reflected the anxiety of the home stands. Kabasele and Cleverley bawled at each other in the face of one narrowly thwarted attack. A happy, confident camp this isn’t.

And yet. For all of United’s possession, for all their overloading down the flanks and implied threat they really weren’t getting very far. Scant progress this, perhaps, but progress nonetheless… when did we ever look halfway resilient against anyone? The overlapping centre back thing found bodies down either flank. A ball came in. Seb headed it away. Another ball came in, Kabasele or Janmaat prised someone off the ball. Another, Cathcart slices and Ben Foster claws it away. That’s as close as they come (and even that, on review, wasn’t going in). Another ball comes in. Ollie McBurnie throws himself over and waves his arms around. An unacknowledged sign of a foothold being found.

3- Meanwhile our attacking play looks less coherent altogether. No surprise this, however disappointing; if you’re going to change things, things are going to get changed and sorting out the defence was always going to be Quique’s priority. You don’t have to like it, but don’t feign surprise. Whether the back three was a one-off or a more permanent state of affairs it suits some players rather more than others. Seb Prödl, back in from the cold, is always going to look more viable in the middle of the three. Kabasele revels in his role on the left of the trio, slightly less discipline required as he rampages all over whoever is unfortunate enough to enter his radius.

You kinda think it ought to have suited Andre Gray too. Or at least, that playing alongside a partner rather than as a lone man ought to suit him – even if any of our forwards or forwards-ish – Gray, Welbeck Deulofeu, Sarr – are going to look better alongside Troy as and when. Gray works hard here, feeding off not very much as we persist in sitting deep… but lacks composure at critical times, most obviously when the lively Pereyra hares down the right and squares. An awful miss, albeit the ball was slightly behind him, that speaks volumes. This is the sort of chance we’re creating – scrappy on the break, burgled rather than constructed.

4- Another player struggling in this formation is Abdoulaye Doucouré. If Pereyra is in the Abdi role, and Cleverley is doing a decent enough job of Jonathan Hogg’s fetching and carrying then Doucouré is doing the Chalobah job at the back and he doesn’t like it. He seems uncertain of his duties throughout, and only looks convincing when he sheds his mantle and surges forwards. His form this season hasn’t been great all round but this was a new low, perhaps the most forlorn on the pitch albeit he never hides from possession. Having the real Chalobah as an option for the Chalobah job is an unavoidable consideration.

Nonetheless, we start the second half on the front foot. More assertive, if still wonky. Going forward the challenge is going to be how to accommodate all these square pegs into whatever formation(s) we settle on and the danger is that there are so many imperfect jewels in the squad that there’s always going to be multiple Answers on the bench and beyond to beat Quique with until the form turns around. Sarr, more combative in his cameo today, is one such – quite how you accommodate a winger in a 3-5-2 isn’t obvious. Ditto Deulofeu despite that his every touch, of which little were of any consequence, was cooed at by the voice over my shoulder. Dawson in contrast, who had a perfectly adequate half hour in for the injured Prödl, remains firmly in the can-do-no-right seat.

Welbeck seared clear but was too deliberate, running straight at the keeper rather than giving himself an angle and allowing Henderson to make a good save. Then, in the final minutes, Dawson had the chance to be the hero and to surely send us roaring into the international break with a snaffled winner. Deulofeu’s freek kick found him without a marker… he did the right thing but not enough of it, not far enough back across the keeper, not hard enough. It would have been a beautiful thing.

5- Nil nil then. Satisfactory, just about, in this context in this game after two away defeats and so many years without a clean sheet, so many games without an obvious shape. We will look back on this game in one of two ways; a 0-0 draw at home to a contemporary is kind of a relegation result after all, that’s one possibility. The other is that this is a stepping stone, a rot-stopping clean sheet that gives us something to build on.

Either way, this is where we are and whilst – heaven knows – none of what’s happened is beyond criticism and there are twice as many opinions out there as there people offering them this is when supporting your team is both most difficult and most important. The sort of voice that hysterically decries the decision to change manager, for example, is often a cowardly one, disassociating itself from the decision as if that excuses the perpetrator from the sort of positive outlook that’s needed if this really is to be a stepping stone.

After all, it’s not terribly even handed to champion our underdog status on the one hand whilst on the other wailing at a failure to beat The Likes Of Sheffield United.

Today was small progress in a necessary direction. Not “sorted”, not enough (yet), challenges to come. And not desperately exciting. But progress.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Prödl 3, *Kabasele 4*, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, Pereyra 4, Welbeck 3, Gray 2
Subs: Dawson (for Prödl, 57) 3, Deulofeu (for Gray, 59) 2, Sarr (for Welbeck, 77) NA, Femenía, Chalobah, Hughes, Gomes