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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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