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Watford 0 Crystal Palace 0 (07/12/2019) 08/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- We’re at the stadium by 2, for uninteresting reasons. It’s an oddly tranquil experience. Football grounds can exude many different emotions in different situations, you can breathe the mood.  But not tranquility.  Least of all when you’re bottom of the league and floundering a bit.

But there’s a “new broom” air about the place which didn’t really come when Quique returned, partly because he was an old broom in any case and partly because we were still reconciling ourselves to the knowledge that we needed a new broom at all.  The new broom himself passes in front of the Rookery before kick-off en route from the Black Seats in the Upper GT to being presented to the crowd in front of the SEJ stand.  He looks less like the formidable, intimidating ex-centre back of our mind’s eye than he does an accountant… smart suit, specs, and smaller somehow than he should be?  Either way, looking convincing whilst being introduced to the crowd will only take him so far in the job he’s taken on but he does this compellingly enough – I’m cheaply bought, and a raise of both fists to the Rookery with gritted teeth is more than enough.  Good luck to him.

Meanwhile there are more colours in the Rookery than normal as the club participates in the annual Rainbow Laces event.  No, this isn’t something Watford are doing purely off their own back, but it’s a fine thing anyway, as was the particularly prominent display in front of the club shop.  Daughter 2 naturally paused to ask what it was all about, and won’t have been the only youngster to have done so.  There’s no policing the responses to such enquiries of course, but the provoking of the question and the presentation of a strong position on the issue is a fine thing (and helps remind us that a football team can be a force for good whatever division it’s playing in, but we’ll get to that).  The same goes for the likes of Coca Cola, incidentally.  It’s easy to knock big businesses, and certainly Coke have a brand to promote, not difficult to be cynical.  But there are many, many crapper things that they could be doing in pursuit of that objective.

2- The game starts with Daughter 2 not having complained once about her idiot father having got her to the game at such a ridiculous hour, which is in itself a good omen.  It’s not just off the pitch that we’re looking positive, since Hayden Mullins has been true to his word and opted for an aggressively attacking team selection.

Lost in the misery of the late defeat at Southampton and its aftermath was the fact that Ismaïla Sarr’s flame, which had flickered earlier in the season, was beginning to burn more convincingly.  He was our most compelling attacking threat at Leicester also, but on the right of a 4-4-2 was often too far from the goal when picking up the ball.  We needed him in a more incisive position, and this was afforded today by a 4-2-3-1 in which Doucs and Capoue sat deep behind a four pronged attack.  Including Welbeck and Gray under the heading of “attacking players”, Quique typically only started two of these guys (7 times) indulging three attackers 4 times and once, at Manchester City, only Deulofeu. Four felt like an outrageous indulgence.

The first half has been widely reported as attritional and dull, famously crowned with no shots on target by either side.  We’ve seen far worse, in fairness, and if we weren’t ripping Palace up we no longer looked, when attacking, like thirteen-year-olds bumbling through half-understood French on a school field trip*.  Sarr gave us glimpses of what was to come by roaring down the right more than once, and if Palace had the best opportunity of the half – McArthur firing criminally wide with time in the box – then as at Leicester on Wednesday night we were holding our own, and that was progress.

(* – long term readers may be able to guess the name of the future Watford full-back who, on one such school trip to Saint Valery sur mer in 1987 interviewed an unfortunate passer-by.  On being told that his interviewee was “en chômage” (unemployed), said full-back-in-waiting dutifully proceeded with his next question, “do you enjoy your work?”.  He was given a suitably withering response, the second most uncomfortable part of his trip beaten only by the five hour channel crossing back to England just as the October hurricane was coming the other way which lives on in all our nightmares).

3- What this was, in effect, was another game with Palace just like the other ones.  Attritional, bad-tempered, Wilfried Zaha quickly and effortlessly baited into losing his rag and picking up a witless yellow a sulky slug at Christian Kabasele, who had one of his concentrated and bullish days at the heart of the defence.  Zaha, incidentally, really was bizarrely deep for most of the game which suited us down to the ground, Kiko Femenía not least.  This had been identified as a high-risk confrontation pre-match, but Femenía was right up Zaha’s backside whenever he got the ball, disciplined enough to be able to save his booking for when he really needed it, and came out comfortably the winner on points from that encounter.

A typical Watford-Palace game then, with little to choose between two well-matched sides for the most part, lots of energy, lots of aggression and petty squabbles breaking out all over the pitch as long-standing grudges were renewed.  Zaha often at the centre, not always, his histrionics not quite crossing the line that would have earned an uproariously popular second yellow from a beleaguered but generally sensible Martin Atkinson.

The difference of course, the reason that this isn’t just another Watford-Palace game is that we’re bottom of the table with eight (now nine) points and no home wins in eight months.  This is a pressing situation, one in which a worthy home point really wasn’t going to do with Liverpool and United on the horizon.  But you wouldn’t have known, that’s the crucial thing.  Swap last year’s bad-tempered scrap for this one and you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid (but for the fact that we’d be two points to the good, but you get my drift).

4- Because in the second half, and for the first time in a long time, we looked thoroughly compelling.  Sarr was at the hear of it, combining the ability to control with a touch passes that might have been fired at him out of a cannon, an incredibly tight turning circle and searing pace that could have left a comedy burn mark in his wake on more than one occasion.

The other critical factor was Troy.  Heavy and immobile at Leicester, this was much more like it;  he was in a stiff contest in which he can claim no better than equal honours, but it didn’t half make a difference to have a focal point.  Something to aim for, someone to hurl themselves into aerial challenges.  Personality, power, variety, belief.  If Sarr was the biggest threat, Deeney was the biggest enabler.  Welcome back skipper.

Honorable mention too for Bobby Pereyra, who had a quieter game but oiled the cogs with his movement and quick feet.  Gerard Deulofeu – whose work rate was tremendous but decision making less so – came close with an assertive run before driving narrowly wide.  Sarr sent a venomous cross into Gray’s feet but he was falling away from the goal and his effort was tame.  Deulofeu sent a ball in from the right which Sarr was a fraction of a second too late to, Guaita bravely denying him.  A high ball at the far post was met by Sarr but too high, too wide.  The young winger was left grounded by a challenge there before being dragged up by his teammates;  his resilience is increasing, but he’s not there yet.

Troy surged onto a high cross but was denied by Cahill, who appeared to have his arm around Troy’s neck.  The captain reacted furiously to the lack of punishment or review; video clips suggest no small justification.  Wailing about VAR seems less pertinent than simply wondering why we can’t catch a break?  Some will argue that we got one with Vardy’s non-penalty on Wednesday, but that was surely quickly redressed by the soft award in the second half.  A goal here would have made such a lot of difference to everything.

Sarr came closest, and having not watched Match of the Day yet I’m still baffled as to how one minute he was tiptoeing through the area with the ball in front of him just needing a prod, and then the next the ball was gone.  I really don’t understand how we didn’t score.  But we didn’t.  My arms were halfway up.

5- So the critical detail is that we’re still without a win, still only have nine points and may well still only have nine points come Christmas. Many have us relegated already.  Given our problems and lack of points, anyone can be forgiven for that expectation.

There’s a difference between “probably” and “definitely” though, something of which my day-job as a statistician involves considerable contemplation.  “Probably down” and “definitely down” aren’t the same thing.  Two weeks ago we were ahead of Southampton, a Saints side that were out of the relegation zone before today’s fixtures.  Had we beaten Burnley or Saints, neither implausible, we’d be three points from safety.

There really isn’t a lot in it.  It’s not insurmountable yet.  What’s been missing has been a reason to believe, the fact that we didn’t look like scoring let alone putting a run together.  It really doesn’t matter how far behind you are if you can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.

But despite the 0-0 today, that’s changed.  We didn’t boss Palace, but we were more than their equals and we did carry a threat.   We have a new boss who, whilst reflecting in part our predicament is nonetheless a far more convincing appointment than Quique was.  You won’t hear a Leicester fan say a bad word about him, rumours of John Eustace returning to supplement the coaching staff will be a further fillip if true.

It’s difficult, of course it’s difficult.  But supporting your team means just that, not giving way to gallows humour because it’s easier.  We have a squad that shouldn’t be where it is, and we have a shout now.

Let’s give it some.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, *Sarr 4*, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Gray (for Pereyra, 77) NA, Chalobah (for Doucouré, 78) NA, Mariappa, Hughes, Success, Foulquier, Gomes

Turn it off and turn it on again. 01/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

Well, that went well.

Less than three months ago we were reconciling ourselves to the typically decisive decision to remove Javí Gracia and replace him with a returning Quique Sánchez Flores only four games into the season.  It’s practically ancient history now, but for what it’s worth I was comfortable with the first decision and wary of the second.

What I didn’t expect, what surely none of us expected – least of all Scott Duxbury and the club’s ownership – is quite how quickly we’ve spiralled from a position of apparent security in mid-table to being bottom of the pile and odds-on to be relegated before Christmas.  We didn’t lose anybody of desperate significance in the summer, we’ve brought in some seemingly useful players.  Hysterical catterwauling on social media doesn’t alter the fact that in the summer most of us were thinking “well, a bit more in central defence would have been useful” rather than “we’re going down”.  The margin between success (meaning mid-table) and failure has never been thinner, least of all in this season where so many teams have been sucked into the mid-table morass, traditional big guns misfiring, nobody truly terrible.  Not terrible enough for us, at any rate.  Complacency has been mentioned.  Amongst the players, amongst the ownership.  Amongst the support too… hard to criticise when I certainly didn’t see this coming.

There was logic in Quique’s appointment, and that logic was based in a proven ability to organise a defence.  This was Javí’s failing in the end, to my mind.  Not sufficiently clinical yes, but that is only a major problem when you have no defensive structure to fall back on whatsoever, and such was the problem at the start of the season.  Quique, we hoped, would sort that.

And to an extent he did.  Or rather… he made the defensive structure of the side more solid.  Three clean sheets, Craig Dawson looking increasingly bullish at the centre of a three-man back line.  Quique was unlucky in many respects too, I think…  Dawson’s failure to steal a winner in the last minute against Sheffield United felt crucial at the time, a performance that deserved more at Spurs stymied by bizarre VAR decisions.  Having that Man City game when he had it, a monstrous blow to our confidence before he’d got going.  Injuries, of course.  I have a friend who tuts whenever I roll this excuse out, “every team gets injuries”.  Yes.  But they matter more when the margins are so fine, when the level is so high, let alone losing a player in the first half of six consecutive games. And, yes, when there’s a vulnerable area of the squad – whether or not we needed better central defenders to come in in the summer we were manifestly ill-equipped to play with three centre-backs.  With five in the squad you have very little wriggle room, as we’ve discovered.

So Quique was unlucky in many respects.  Or rather, things haven’t gone favourably for him.  But chief amongst his crimes I think has been the almost total abandonment of attacking threat.  We have perhaps the best array of midfielders that a Watford squad has ever had, but have sacrificed our creativity at the altar of defensive shape.  Shape we needed, but our midfield weapons are wasted on a strategy which has amounted to little more than keeping it tight and snaffling what we can on the break.  A team low on confidence was unlikely to rediscover its mojo when employed in a way that, for all that the likes of Dawson and Kabasele have flourished, misused or wasted its attacking players.  Injuries have played a part, forced a hand, but one doubts that Sarr or Gray in particular are too unhappy at the latest development.

The games since the international break, Burnley and Saints, sealed the deal.  A win at Norwich – Quique’s only league win in his second spell, in the fixture that represented the nadir of his first time in charge with a perverse kind of symmetry – offered the suggestion of a corner turned.  Against Burnley , again, things went against Quique… reliant on Dawson in the absence of Seb Prödl we looked horribly vulnerable as soon as Dawson went off and Burnley demonstrated just how fragile our confidence was.  And yesterday…  I watched on TV, delayed having opted for “Charlie’s Angels” with Daughter 2.  Insert your own punchlines.  But the laziness, the lack of courage or wit in the decision making both on and off the pitch in a game that had to be won and was there to be won was criminal.  No sign of any growing resilience for one thing.  Not bringing on Troy when any semblance of direct play had Saints’ defenders collectively bricking it was another.

And so the trigger is pulled again.  The usual accusations and “jokes” will be forthcoming, largely from those without the attention span or breadth of perspective to recognise that despite (because of ?) the high turnover of head coaches, Watford are in their fifth season in the Premier League and our first relegation battle in that spell.  Hardly precedented.  Hardly worthy of ridicule.  Good decisions or bad (and there will be relatively few criticisms of this one from amongst supporters one suspects – unsuccessful defensive football really leaves you with nowhere to go) the fact that Duxbury and Pozzo are so reassuringly indifferent to the likely media outcome of their decisions is a very fine thing.  Oh that our politicians had such courage.

The decisiveness reflects the facts both that we really don’t want to get relegated (!) and that staying up is likely to be easier than being promoted again.  Because the fact remains that, as above and whatever relative deficiencies we have a very very good squad of players (injuries notwithstanding), the team significantly less than the sum of its parts thus far.  Surely an attraction for any potential head coach – a low base to start from but plenty of tools to build with.

Perhaps we’ve appointed someone by the time you read this and so all speculation is moot and (by now) irrelevant.  But for what it’s worth…  much as the dinosaurs dominating the speculation are terrifying, only perhaps Pardew and Hughes would I find it difficult to reconcile myself to given a few days to calm down.  Hughton, early favourite but dismissed by at least one report, I could live with, but this model of old school English manager seems at odds with The Way We Do Stuff.  One can only hope that the speculation is dominated by journalists’ mates in the absence of any actual insight.  On that basis, ‘arry Redknapp’s name appearing would probably be reassuring.

As ever, it will be fascinating.

Hang in there, and see you at Leicester.

Yoorns.