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Watford 0 Burnley 3 (23/11/2019) 24/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- It’s odd.  Everyone has bad times, I guess.  Everyone has difficult spells, when things get overwhelming.  In such periods, when life’s challenges lurch out of nothing, football is put into perspective.  Quite how little it matters in the grand scheme of things.

And perversely, it suddenly matters more than ever.  It mattered today.

2- It mattered in the more fundamental sense too, of course. The win at Norwich was huge fun and so needed but here’s where we were to get a steer on whether a corner had truly been turned.

And we started well enough.  With Troy still on the bench we couldn’t compete with the visitors’ physicality and so we didn’t try to.  This has been an issue a number of times over the past six months or so when Troy has been missing and we’ve looked far less potent than we did today in such circumstances.  We didn’t create a load of chances – this disciplined, aggressive Burnley side isn’t going to make life easy for anyone –  but criticisms of our inability to convert are slightly unfair here.  That we’re struggling for goals is no secret, but here we worked chances and got behind the Clarets.  Deulofeu was everywhere, simultaneously the man most likely to craft something through artistry and the man most likely to get onto a loose ball and scuttle off in a beeline goalwards.  This he did to open up our best chance as Doucouré did his best to keep out of the way, Pope saving with his feet.  Earlier, Dawson had dropped a header narrowly over from a set piece.  Some snappy passing resulted in an underwhelming finish from a dynamic Capoue.  No, it wasn’t a rout and we didn’t score but we were comfortably on top and there were few in the home stands who weren’t positive as we approached the break.

That the Clarets themselves had offered so little owed a fair bit to the defending and courage of Craig Dawson.  His role at the centre of the three involves getting his head to things;  this he did, despite the not inconsiderable threats of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes.  Much more confident and convincing since we moved to a back three, Dawson bossed the back line here until the second of two head injuries – possibly a broken nose given the amount of blood – forced him off.

Immediately obvious that we were in trouble. On came Masina who wasn’t quite a square peg in a round hole, left of the three you kinda feel he could do.  But we were deprived in terms of make-up of that back three, no big brute to win the headers like Dawson, or Prödl, all the more vital against this opponent.  Centre back was the area that most transparently needed strengthening more than it was over the summer and that was before we switched to three at the back – five men covering three spaces doesn’t leave you a lot of wriggle room.  Let alone when you have players off injured before the break in six consecutive games, limiting flexibility as well as manpower.  For the record – Welbeck at Spurs, Cleverley vs Bournemouth, Quina at Everton, Cathcart vs Chelsea, Pereyra at Norwich and now Dawson.  Quique could be forgiven for thinking the fates were against him.

3- As for Burnley, a win here would take them up into the top six.  In reality they are in the ever-churning mid-table morass that encompasses most of the division and which we gaze up at nostalgically.  They are as likely to finish fifteenth as sixth, but will be absolutely fine anyway on the basis of this resolute performance.

Their biggest threat would seem to be approaching over the Christmas period when their ginger Widow Twankey on the touchline will surely be called up for East Lancs pantomime duty. At the vanguard of the visitors’ militarised, choreographed game management, Dyche sprung forward with arms outstretched in apparent outrage at every perceived slight against his side be it that delicate flower Ashley Barnes rolling over in anguish at the suggestion of bodily contact, or James Tarkowski being pulled up for yet another hack at Deulofeu.  Burnley were slowing the game down from a minute in, kicking the ball carefully out of reach on rotation to prevent quick free kicks.  Ashley Westwood stood in front of every free kick feigning the alignment of a defensive wall until finally booked in the second half, James Tarkowski took a yellow for cynically chopping down Deulofeu on his way into the area.  It was all designed to generate an edginess to the game that the Clarets, with their defensive discipline, less fragile confidence and steady side (this was after all the same ten outfield players that clubbed their way to a 0-0 here in January) expected to be able to cope with better than we would.  It nearly backfired on them as Gerry had the temerity to go down softly in the face of yet another clump and the collective Clarets’ composure wobbled visibly, players losing their collective rag, but only briefly.

“Antifootball! Antifootball!” cheered the away fans with what presumably passes for irony in Burnley.  In reality there’s nothing wrong at all with the way Burnley play – defensively disciplined, robust and direct in attack with enough quality to make it all work.  Great fun to support a team with that work ethic, enjoyable to watch them upset other teams playing that way.  But the cheap, indoctrinated gamesmanship (including the whining about refereeing decisions and how dishonest everyone else is that marred Dyche’s time here also) is very crap indeed.  Few tears will be shed when it’s Burnley’s turn for a season to go against them.

4- The lack of a dominant centre-back was quickly significant.  The second of successive corners saw Tarkowski nod back for Chris Wood to hook the opener with the visitors’ first shot of the game.  Foster appeared to be blocked off on both corners but certainly the second one was his own fault, blocked off by his own player;  there was a nervousness, perhaps in part emanating from the keeper, perhaps a collective awareness of our vulnerability, that hadn’t been there before. The air went out of our performance almost instantaneously.

On came Troy for his much awaited return, and then Ismaïla Sarr.  Dawson’s injury had perhaps increased the urgency for Deeney to be introduced; he’s arguably our most reliable defender from set piece situations in any case.  Unfortunately he looked far too far short of fitness and mobility to live up to our hopes, but he’ll get there.  Sarr meanwhile looked mobile and frightening but simultaneously slight, too easy to bully, and not quite sure where his place was in the whole thing.  With the ball at his feet and running though he’s a threat, the more so when attacking empty spaces behind an opponent forced to come forward one suspects.  More to come, but not today.

The second goal, the penalty, summed up our season in so many ways.  A loose ball in the box, Ashley Barnes so much more mobile and alert than Jose Holebas who swung a boot at where the ball had been and caught the player instead.  It wasn’t a deliberate foul but it was careless and clumsy.  The ball progressed upfield to what would have been a corner only for VAR to call it back.  Paul Tierney’s performance was flimsy in the face of so much contempt from the visitors, but no cause for criticism here.  Ashley Barnes put the spot kick to Ben Foster’s right,  the keeper got both hands to it but could only force it against the inside of the post and in.  Our best efforts insufficient, again.  A third followed, Foster saving well from Tarkowski only for the centre half to knock in the rebound unchallenged.  The most pathetic goal of the three, underlining the answer to the “have we turned the corner or not?” question.

5- Jose Holebas ended the game by dumping Phil Bardsley onto his backside; difficult not to sympathise, Bardsley is typical of the gnarled old boot that filled up Burnley’s bench and squad and had been studiously understudying his manager’s pathetic routine throughout. That Holebas somehow avoided a booking made it the more enjoyable, but precious little to show from a miserable afternoon.

Difficult to be positive after this.  Quique has done a job in making us more solid, but today demonstrated the limits of that in the face of injury and misfortune. Whatever Burnley’s obstructiveness we remain far less than the sum of our parts as an attacking threat.  And whilst 3-0 is a slightly perverse scoreline not reflecting the balance of play, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that, as with the games under Javi earlier in the season we played kind of OK and got stuffed anyway.  That’s not a healthy place to be.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 4, Mariappa 3, Doucouré 2, Capoue 3, Hughes 3, *Deulofeu 4*, Gray 2
Subs: Masina (for Dawson, 45) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 57) 2, Sarr (for Hughes, 67) 3, Foulquier, Dele-Bashiru, Chalobah, Gomes

Norwich City 0 Watford 2 (09/11/2019) 09/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- We’ve been chatting for most of the journey, the long straight roads from Bedford to Norwich, but as we get close the conversation dwindles. Paul is not a Hornet, he’s on loan from AFC Rushden & Diamonds for the evening but this is closer to Tommy Mooney from Southend, say, than to Andros Townsend from Spurs. He gets it. The stereo is on for the first time as we approach, and the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” thumps out at a wonderfully painful volume. It’s the perfect anthem for the evening.


It’s a cold night, but pleasantly cold. A cold to watch an evening kick off in, a cold to accentuate the prickles on the back of your neck rather than to chill your bones. It’s also fireworks night in Norwich, but the crowds are all headed in one direction. We manage to get seated in the eatery at the stadium, not clear quite how much subterfuge is needed but we don’t see any Watford colours so the coat stays on throughout.

There’s no downplaying the tension. They’ve all been big games of course, all must-win games until we win one but coming before an international break against a struggling opponent… surely now or, you know, if not never then perhaps too late. Significantly some big names are back in training and this announcement had built anticipation over the anxiety… Troy, Caps, Sarr, Seb, of whom Caps starts in midfield and Troy is a very welcome return to the bench. There’s a nervous energy rippling through the away seats.

2- It always felt likely that any opening goal would be difficult to overcome. “First goal wins” might have been overstating it but… nobody needs reminding of the difficulty we’ve had scoring goals and had we been the side to slip behind against an opponent like this on a night like this, a side no less anxiously looking for an outcrop to cling to, you wouldn’t have fancied our chances.

However we’ve done a reasonable job of containing sides in recent weeks despite next to no goal threat. Any goal threat at all, anyone for the ball to stick to, was always going to make the side significantly more credible and potent, and a goal lead always felt like something we would be able to exploit.

So when Buendía fannied on the ball (danger illustrated) allowing punkin’ instigator Gerard Deulofeu to rob him, trundle goalwards whilst casting distracting glances to his right, exploit Pereyra’s decoy run to cut to his left and roll a shot inside Tim Krul’s post the celebration was particularly emphatic. We’d not just scored a goal, albeit a goal that owed a lot to the parlous nature of City’s defence, we’d struck what was likely to be a decisive blow. That’s how it felt. The celebration was joyous more than triumphant.

3- Which isn’t to say that was it, though Dave looked a lot more fraught on brief half time review than I had felt by that stage. The home side recovered themselves quickly and this was a harum scarum half of football – hugely enjoyable chaos if you happened to be a neutral, pretty enjoyable for at least some of us with a stated bias too. City’s biggest threat came down their left where Hernández found a lot of space to either torment Janmaat or get in behind the often advanced wing back. Hernández is a classic winger of a certain type… an Anthony McNamee perhaps in that he had an eye-catching threat that didn’t turn into anything actually threatening as often as the home side might have liked. One very decent ball created a chance which needed an astonishing point blank save from Foster, only to be pulled back for offside – it felt as if he’d wasted his one composed cross on the wrong opportunity.

But we were the stronger side in more than one respect. With the significant return of Capoue as captain alongside Doucs we were physically dominant, much much more powerful than our opponents. More so when Andre Gray came on for the latest hamstring victim, Roberto Pereyra; Andre, as we know, isn’t a target man but he was significantly more combative than the man he replaced and that he more than held his own against City’s makeshift central defence tells you all you need to know about it. City were in a sense fortunate that necessitated personnel changes spared them even ten minutes of Troy Deeney, who would surely have made mincemeat of a lightweight rearguard half-fit or otherwise.

But we were stronger with the ball too. Janmaat’s elevated position exposed Lewis, we pushed City high up the pitch and as we swarmed forward occasionally evoked the better displays of last year. Will Hughes put in his best shift of the season, significantly lasting the ninety, and twice pulled left to put clever balls in from the by-line first to give Deulofeu a chance which went wide, then to feed Gray who span on his marker and fired in a shot that Lewis deflected wide. He wouldn’t be as fortunate with a deflection later in the game. As an aside, Hughes playing wide (ish) under Javi was oft criticised as a flaw in the plan; it will be interesting to see whether his impact is heightened further playing more centrally.

4- As for our hosts… it’s dangerous to make judgements based on one game, particularly a game where for many reasons they’re at a low ebb, but there are many bases for concern here. Most revealing were comments overheard in the strategically low-key plod back to the car in the crowd, young home fans bemoaning the lack of Plan B whilst looking forward to renewing hostilities with Ipswich next season. Lots in that snippet… the apparent acceptance of course, which probably isn’t universal, but also the “we’ve only got one way to play” thing. City looked an extremely lightweight side, a side perhaps that has succeeded on simply playing around other teams. Last season’s Championship table betrays that the scoring of goals rather than the lack of conceding made them remarkable but faced with better players (and less luck with injuries) the decision to limit squad strengthening seems reckless. City now are leaking goals, the confidence of their talented but inexperienced defenders shot to bits. Interesting too that Daniel Farke’s post-match comments reflected that Watford had “switched to a back five”. This happened several weeks ago, slightly alarming to City fans surely that this appeared to be a surprise. A long way back for City you suspect.

Which given the league table obviously suits us fine, with due sympathy. The game appeared to be settled early in the second half when Hughes fed Deulofeu who left Tettey on his backside before dinking in a ridiculous cross at the second attempt, the same “let me just dislocate my ankle then try it” trick that worked so memorably at Wembley. Andre Gray improvised brilliantly, backheeling towards goal and this time getting the favour of the deflection off Lewis.

This was an extraordinary evening’s work from Deulofeu. We’re used to him flitting in and out of games, sometimes brilliant, sometimes flimsy, sometimes irrelevant. But I don’t think I’d seen this before… flame on for all of his seventy minutes, tackling back, cajoling. Leading. Whisper it, a captain’s performance. More please.

We were on top, and bossed the first half of the second half. Gray could have finished it altogether on the break when, with Doucouré square, he lifted a ball over. More generally still short of a target up front we sucked up possession and taxed City’s legs rather than beelining for goal, laying the ball back, sideways, making an angle, making them chase. This is Quique all over of course, and so much more enjoyable when it’s effective.

5- But in the end it got us into trouble. Increasingly frantic, City were charging after possession on the halfway line. Harried, Kabasele put Dawson under pressure with a misjudged pass; Dawson was robbed and Kabs tussled with Drmić as the substitute tried to escape.

On review the yellow looks harsh. There wasn’t a great deal of contact, andthe Swiss striker wasn’t going anywhere. Nonetheless, self-inflicted mind-detonator Kabs was on a yellow after a stupid earlier booking making his decision to make a needless challenge particularly witless. He didn’t stop to debate the issue with the (largely excellent) Andre Marriner.

This set a different tone altogether, and suddenly City were alive again. Mapps came on for Deulofeu and for five minutes it was backs to the wall. The detail of it escapes me beyond a couple of eye-catching stops from Foster to long-range efforts, and a couple of bits of bloody-minded defending from the excellent Dawson. But ultimately more of the from City… lots of suggestion of threat without much actual threat as such. The eye-catching Cantwell had come on early in the second half and looked busy, briefly energising his side before sending a corner straight out and a threatening free kick sailing over the penalty area at which point his chin hit his chest and stayed there. Not long after the red card Ben Foster, inspiring complete confidence on the back of recent performances, reached up to grab a slack cross and the puff went out of the home side. That, it appeared, was that and the game was won long before the final whistle.

6- When that came, the relief was palpable and the change in mood tangible. Étienne Capoue, exhausted, fell intoxicated to the ground. All around fists were punched, bellows bellowed. On the pitch the same. One win, fine, against a limited and struggling opponent. But a third clean sheet in five despite the red card. A win. A gutsy, heroic performance, real character. And players coming back.

Maybe the fire has started.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Dawson 4, Kabasele 2, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, Hughes 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*
Subs: Gray (for Pereyra, 30) 3, Mariappa (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 88) NA, Deeney, Chalobah, Femenía, Gomes

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (02/11/2019) 03/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Tick tock, tick tock.

Ten now then, ten now and limited prospect of it not being eleven despite Dave’s bravado in the concourse where we take early refuge from the deluge, in as soon as the stadium opens to share a beer at the back of the GT stand. A bit of space in the concourse really does make a difference by the way, the back of the GT is quite a nice place to be, unlike the claustrophobic Rookery or (shudder) the Vic Road rat run remembered from 20 years ago.

Tick tock. The girls have opted out… the attractions of hanging out with their mates watching fireworks up here in Bedfordshire too great. Suspect the fact that they’ve each seen us score once this season might have subconsciously weighed in also. Not that us being rubbish would stop them coming per se, not that it would put them off entirely but, you know, when there’s fireworks. Hard to blame them really.

Tick tock.

2- The longer this goes on the greater the pressure of course. There’s a pressure in each game and the fact that it’s Chelsea and it’s a game that we’d never quite expect to win at the best of times doesn’t make the pressure any less.

So when we give away a stupid goal after five reasonably positive minutes, albeit a goal carved by a remarkable through ball you can feel the stadium deflate. “Well, that’s that then”, which it sort of was and sort of wasn’t. But what a half-witted way to concede, no wonder Ben Foster screamed with frustration. When you can’t score goals keeping it tight, particularly against an opponent like this one, one that revels in playing away from home, is everything.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes it didn’t feel tight at all. Chelsea had an embarrassment of space to wander into and if the rearguard, marshalled by Craig Dawson’s most authoritative outing in yellow-and-black halves or whatever we’re calling it, gradually regained shape and denied many options in the final third simply by marshalling the space we were nonetheless in our goalkeeper’s debt on more than one occasion. Craig Cathcart limping off didn’t improve the mood.

3- So the first of the positives to be taken from this is that it didn’t go south from there. We didn’t collapse, the Blues didn’t run away with it. We hung in there. And gradually we lifted our chin from our chests to note that it was still only 1-0. That if we were still looking blunt and aimless we were at least getting the ball up the pitch often enough to register the bluntness and aimlessness. Before we knew it there was even a dash of bravado, some challenges going in and some defiance from the stands and it makes a world of difference to the mood if not to our forward line, ultimately.

But it takes some character, that. To stand up against a buoyant, confident opponent in a situation like ours and not simply shrug and let it slip away. It’s not enough, wasn’t enough, sure. But it wasn’t nothing.

4- Second half, Chelsea score again. It’s pretty dreadful from our point of view albeit the only time that this vibrant, inappropriately likeable Chelsea side cut through us. And this time we sink properly and the defiance disappears altogether. The whining inane voices emerge like meerkats around us and the crowd’s restlessness, kept at bay to this point by the single-mindedness of the 1881, begins to find a voice.

Nathaniel Chalobah was significant in our more assertive spell at the end of the first half, snappy first time passes that were at least brave enough to carry the possibility of turning Chelsea around rather than “merely” retaining possession. But now he loses his composure altogether and from snapping one touch balls to Watford feet he’s anxiously, tentatively giving the ball away too often. Minus Tom Cleverley, even Étienne Capoue we are short a bit of bloody-mindedness in that part of the pitch and it shows. Elsewhere Adam Masina is more resilient of character but lacks the brains to take advantage; assertive and aggressive he’s nonetheless painfully unaware of what’s going on around him, simultaneously significant in our winning and giving away possession.

5- Throughout all of this the patent lack of threat is unmissable. There’s no kitchen-sinking here, no bombardment of the Chelsea goal, not even a spell of the game where you think we might nick something. It’s thoroughly demoralising to watch.

But against that you’ve got to hold the fact that we’re playing one of the most effective attacking sides in the division. A side who have won all four of their previous away league games this season against, you know, teams higher up in the League than us scoring 16 goals in aggregate and at least three in each of these four games. We rode our luck a bit, but Chelsea were excellent and we kept them down to two without being exposed terribly often. You can argue that this reflected in part our approach; Chelsea didn’t score more than two partly because we denied them the opportunity but also because in focusing on shape and defence as Quique is always going to do Chelsea were unlikely to need more than two.

The carping about the approach, let alone the championing of the messainic virtues of assorted young strikers who their proponents have never seen play, is cowardly and unhelpful. Quique wasn’t brought in to turn us into the Harlem Globetrotters. He came in because his predecessor’s more liberated Watford side had regressed to a point where even the most freewheeling of performances was effortlessly subdued by the rate at which we were giving chances away to even the most mundane opponents. Watch the West Ham highlights or read the report again if you need reminding.

Quique was brought in to tighten things up and that he is done so is beyond dispute. It is far easier to generate wins, points, from a mean but goal-shy team than from a side that can’t stop shipping goals long enough for its potency to matter. Thing is, there’s little joy to be gleaned from a side playing this way unsuccessfully. But while it’s impossible to disentangle cause from effect in our extraordinary injury list it’s surely the case that this team with a Troy Deeney in it, or even an Isaac Success, is orders of magnitude more potent than what we’re watching at the moment. This is hard to watch, but it isn’t nothing.

6- Which isn’t to say that the 75th minute substitution of Daryl Janmaat in favour of Kiko Femenía was easy to digest. Dispassionately, Janmaat has been one of few players to put in a solid shift today and previously; on a yellow card against Pulisic with a wing-back’s miles in his legs and with opportunities to win games more obvious than this from two down coming up, there’s a logic to the change.

But my god, with Andre Gray being asked to do a very un-Andre Gray job, with a target man finally available on the bench, a like-for-like swap was never going to be popular. Perhaps most damagingly the substitution lead to the fragile Femenía being greeted with boos as he entered the fray… directed at the substitution rather than the substitute for the most part, but nonetheless. Not good.

The thing about having very good players on the pitch though, even very good players playing ineffectively, is that there’s always the chance of something. And something came in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, the fizzing firework who you can never quite be sure isn’t still harbouring a spark somewhere and so you stand well back from just in case. And so he’s cutting into the area and going down under a challenge.

VAR is very like Brexit in that everyone has a strong opinion that is of very little interest to anyone else by virtue of overexposure. Whatever. It took a long time. It was a foul. It was a foul that we might not have gotten something for but we did and heaven knows we’re due the rub of the green. Of far greater controversy was Deulofeu’s decision to hang onto the ball in the face of accomplished and appointed penalty taker Roberto Pereyra’s enquiry. Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, the reverse is true also. We’re grateful that Deulofeu’s “twenty million shots without scoring” monkey is off his back, but more that Pereyra’s judgement in not taking too much issue with his childish colleague proved sound. This could have been a disaster.

7- And so there is a bit of gentle kitchen sinking, and when there’s only one goal in it there’s always the possibility, all the more tantalising in the mugging it would represent, of an equaliser. In the event it’s Ben Foster of all people that comes closest, up for Deulofeu’s late free kick and spearing a header bottom corner that Kepa excels to keep out. This, too, is being used as a stick to beat the side with, that the closest we came to a point was by virtue of our goalkeeper rather than a striker. Nobody was complaining when Foster tried a scissor kick in identical circumstances in last season’s fixture on Boxing Day.

Not enough, obviously, and no points is no points whether you’re playing Chelsea, Norwich or Manchester City. We need to turn this around sooner rather than later since however close the nearest flounderers are – and had we won this game we’d have been a point and a place from safety – we will need to sustain good form for longer to pull clear the longer we leave it.

But we’re not done yet. Norwich away next, then home to Burnley (no wins away) and away at Saints (no wins at home).

Now or never, one suspects. Tick tock.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 3, Masina 3, Cathcart NA, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Mariappa (for Cathcart, 13) 3, Hughes (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Femenía (for Janmaat, 75) 2, Holebas, Foulquier, Success, Gomes