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Watford 3 Aston Villa 0 (28/12/2019) 29/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Folk have different approaches to relative adversity.  In football specifically, since (for instance) my outlook as regards football differs to my attitude to pretty much anything else.  I tend to be on the positive end of the spectrum, partly because I’m so reliant on being able to believe that Watford will continue to be something that I can, well, rely on.

This proclivity can be particularly irritating to those whose instinct is more critical or downbeat when things are going wrong.  I have, in the past, been accused of being a “happy clapper”.

But it turns out that there’s a difference between saying something, taking a positive line, even believing it…    and that positive line actually playing out.  Because saying that this was all in our control, that the gap to safety was surmountable if we sorted our shit out, was no great foresight. It was a statement of fact.

But we have sorted our shit out.  My God have we sorted our shit out.  And now it’s very much on.

2-  We started like a hurricane.  There’s probably no bad time to start like a hurricane, on reflection… but starting like a hurricane today was a Good Thing.  Villa, poor form, injury hit, nervous at the back.  High stakes game, take it to them, take the pressure off us, tip the balance.  I read somewhere that Kabasele had a chance at this stage.  That feels like years ago, you remember it in the way you remember a particularly odd day at primary school.  Vaguely, distorted by time.  It probably happened, though not as you remember.

The start blew itself out and Villa got a foothold.  We continued to dominate possession but weren’t getting terribly far with it… lots of the ball in front of a deep sitting defence.  When Villa broke it was often in the direction of Wesley, large and physical, a great big wall to play things off he didn’t prove  as much of a threat as he suggested in this spell.

At the other end, Sarr was a threat from the off.  Matt Targett isn’t a bad left back, but his decent left foot has always had to be traded off against his lack of pace;  this always felt like a key confrontation and Jack Grealish was often dragged back into the battle to cover his full back.  One early piece of direct play saw Sarr escape only to be tripped cynically by the midfielder;  the lack of yellow felt significant at the time and would feel more so later.

But the pivotal moment of the half came in front of the Rookery.  Quite how Villa fashioned half a chance escapes me (see Thunk 3), but one moment the ball is dropping onto Wesley’s head and the next it’s in the back of the net.  Except somehow it isn’t, since Ben Foster is having a bit of a special week and has pulled off an insane low stop.

We survive that.  Who knows what would have happened otherwise.  How many of those games under Quique would have turned out very differently if we’d managed to burgle a lead somehow, a lead to hang onto and counterattack from.  And we regain control of the ball and the play, and if the game is rattling around angrily like a wasp trapped in a matchbox then at least it’s our matchbox.

3- Villa are terrible.  Truly terrible.  Lots of injuries, yes, yes.  Heaven knows you need to be lucky as well as good when you’ve come up through the play offs, we’ve been there (twenty years ago, yikes).

But Villa aren’t good or lucky, and having spent much of the season not earning many points despite playing well they’ve felt like strong relegation candidates for longer than they’ve been in the bottom three.  Today they look short of ideas in attack, ponderous in defence and overly reliant on their captain in general.  Will Hughes spends a good fifteen minutes snapping at his heels and Grealish very quickly evokes Wilfried Zaha… another extravagant player in a limited team, a cherry on a cowpat, in his cynicism and petulance.

Admittedly it’s got to be difficult being so much the focus of attention, being kicked around the park.  More difficult still on this occasion, needing to maintain that essence of boyish cool, flicking your bleached floppy haircut whilst dragging referee Simon Hooper around behind you as he spends ninety minutes trying to wipe your arse for you.  But the whining and the falling over screams of desperation;  this is not the captain of a side that is happy in its skin.  See also Dean Smith’s pitiable one-eyed post-match assessment.  Villa are in big trouble.

Those defensive frailties are brought into focus as the first half draws to an exhausted close.  It’s telling perhaps, as an aside, that there was no lingering “but we still haven’t scored…” anxiety;  perhaps the confidence that Nige is instilling is reaching the stands too.  In any case, Doucouré squares from the right and Troy really should score but is uncharacteristically tentative, a weak effort easy for Heaton.  No matter.  A couple of minutes later some inept defending from Konsa allows Doucouré, flame back on today after his one match rest, to drive at goal.  Heaton blocks, Troy is onto the rebound and again it’s tentative but we get away with it, the shot squirms underneath the keeper and we’re ahead at the break.  We won’t look back.

4- The second half is monumental and heroic.  It screams of a team finally, definitively, shaking off it’s angst and rampaging in joyous freedom.  You can’t take your eyes off it…  unless, as with Daughters 1 and 2, your eyes weren’t really on it in the first place.  Daughter 1 is engrossed in first her phone and then, once its battery dies, mine.  Daughter 2 has a paperback fresh from voucher shopping pre-match at Waterstones and is four chapters in by half time, occasionally looking up with an insightful, earnest ten year-old’s observation.  She has a future knitting at cricket matches, probably.

Neither of them register Mapps getting a red card, which he does for two yellows within ten minutes. Both yellows are cynical, both designed to halt a break (albeit in less threatening areas than Grealish’s unpunished hack earlier on)…  much is later to be made of the fact that any contact with former teammate Henri Lansbury is minimal and exaggerated but Mariappa put himself in the position to be penalised by making the challenge at all.  No complaints, and a rare and potentially expensive error from someone who’s an unsung hero of this squad.

For the first time since kick off, there’s a bit of anxiety.  A bit of “oh f***ing hell, half an hour to go”.  Villa pick up the pace as you might expect.  Nathaniel Chalobah, on for Will Hughes at half time, is hooked only fifteen minutes in to accommodate Craig Dawson.  Nate has had a bullish cameo and looks distraught to be withdrawn but he’s another trooper, another with his head and his heart in the right place as his Twitter posts later reconfirm.

And if our performance with eleven men had been positive and imposing our performance with ten is irresistible.  We’re sitting quite deep and soaking up Villa’s threat and then rampaging out on the break, somehow overwhelming Villa with numbers despite being a man down.  Often it’s Doucouré leading the charge, sometimes its Deeney in full on confrontation mode.  Sometimes it’s Étienne Capoue who is an absolute monster once again, trampling all over Villa’s sorry midfield and then hoiking impossible, accurate passes into the feet of Sarr or Deulofeu who again are doing as much work defensively as offensively but are still at the vanguard of any attack.

Both daughters are fully engaged by now.  Targett, run ragged by Sarr all afternoon, goes down with a hamstring injury inside Villa’s half.  Villa continue their attack but are dispossessed;  Sarr bypasses his downed marker to release Deeney, who uses the prone Targett to stay onside.  Dean Smith is later to suggest that he’d hope his team would have played the ball out in reversed circumstances, but they’d had the chance to and not done so. More desperation from a lost manager. Troy thunders into the area before being felled by Luiz;  again, Smith is to claim shoulder to shoulder, suggesting once again that he doesn’t know his arse from his elbow since the clumsy barge is with the hip, not the shoulder.  It’s not a dirty challenge, it’s just rubbish.  There’s nothing tentative about Troy’s contribution this time, which Daughter 1 catches on camera.

It’s not something we’ve been in a position to exploit often enough, but you really don’t want to be chasing a game against our lot.  If there’s any complaint at all after this fine, fine afternoon’s work it’s that our superiority doesn’t result in a bigger victory… as it is, we have to settle for one more.  I’m reminded of playing basketball in PE lessons at school thirty (eek) years ago;  teacher Leon Green leaning against the railings at the edge of the gym and bellowing “fast breeeeeaaaak” at each (frequent, often violent) switch of possession.  “Fast breeeeeeaaaak” comes back involuntarily now as Étienne Capoue crashes through the hapless Grealish and hammers down the left. Ismaïla Sarr, who has been devastating with the ball and a disciplined pain in the arse when defending rounds off by far his best afternoon in a Watford shirt to date by howling into the box to finish Capoue’s cross with a perfect finish at speed.  It’s a brilliant, brilliant goal, so good that it makes your head explode.  Grealish, in the aftermath, whines about the Capoue challenge but that’s a bit like complaining about a minor punctuation error in a Booker Prize winning script.  VAR agrees, and dismisses Grealish’s concerns with the contempt they deserve.

5- The game ends with a smile, as Villa’s captain, after ninety six minutes of concerted effort involving that hack on Sarr, repeated screaming in the faces of officials, raising his hand to Troy’s face and countless petulant sulky challenges finally picks up his booking for kicking the ball into the face of the grounded Sarr.  It could have been red, and on the basis of his afternoon’s work he was lucky to still be on the pitch.

But to begin where we started, this is very much on.  Reduced to ten men for half an hour we kept a clean sheet, steamrollered an albeit feeble opponent and could and should have had more goals.  Suddenly we look bloody-minded at the back, potent up front and have rediscovered that bullying magnificence in midfield that defined last season.

If there’s a concern, perhaps, it’s that Nige hasn’t gone for any rotation over the last week – no doubt strategically he’s made the absolute minimal number of changes that injuries and suspensions have permitted.  As well as Mapps being suspended for Wednesday, Will Hughes and Craig Cathcart both went off with injuries and Bobby Pereyra was significantly missing altogether from the eighteen after his outing at Bramall Lane.

But we’ll be facing a Wolves side on Wednesday who still have a small squad and will have faced City and Liverpool in the preceding five days.  Could have fallen less kindly.

And in any case, we’ve got our shit together.  Game on.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Mariappa 3, Femenía 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Capoue 5, Hughes 3, Doucouré 4, *Sarr 5*, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Chalobah (for Hughes, 45) 4, Dawson (for Chalobah, 60) 3, Masina (for Cathcart, 85) NA, Quina, Gray, Success, Gomes

Comments»

1. Harefield Hornet - 29/12/2019

Great stuff! Thought Hughes had pulled his hamstring initially but seemed to be feeling his lower back before half time? Either way let’s hope for the best. Cathcart jogged off in the end so hopefully that was a precaution. Onwards and upwards. Watford doing well – said Lineker through gritted teeth!!

2. J T Bodbo - 29/12/2019

I do like how your reports express the feeling and flow of the game, not just the acts facts and obvious emotions at specific points. I’d add one thing to all the selr-evident reasons we are on the up – a bit of luck, Not seen at all until Man u. (Think Newcassel, spurs and even Liddypool). De Gea’s horrible mistake may just have been the turning point in our whole season – a bit of luck from which all else flows. Yesterday, the wretched VAR could have changed the game in Villa’s favour. It’s so useless that the outcomes of VAR are more down to luck than any sensible judgment. But hey – let’s enjoy this one – we have certainly waited long enough to enjoy the last 15 minutes of a game!

Matt Rowson - 29/12/2019

Thanks JT. Little value in just reporting “facts”, you can get them from more reliable sources… 😉

SteveG - 29/12/2019

I was going to make a comment about luck, but you’ve got in first so I’ll agree with you! Matt – you made a comment in your Observer piece about fine margins and that remains the case, even in what was ultimately a comprehensive victory yesterday.

In a parallel universe De Gea makes a simple save, Heaton gets his body in the way of Deeney’s less than convincing effort and the cross runs a few centimetres in front of Sarr. And of course Foster’s brilliance is skill rather than luck – but still, this week could easily have seen us with another couple of draws and a defeat.

Having said that, I’d also agree that this isn’t just about a few lucky breaks – the spirit and energy has been excellent and the belief is starting to return. There’s no such thing as a team that’s too good to go down, but it’s always been the case that this is a squad that’s good enough to stay up – and now we are starting to play like it as well. Let’s hope the luck continues to go our way.

3. davewatfordnil - 29/12/2019

Awesome read! And what a fantastic deconstruction of the boy Grealish!

4. Jim - 29/12/2019

Thunk one really does some it up brilliantly. I’m a natural pessimist, and saw little difference in Konsa being lazy for our first goal, and Capoue being lazy in the centre circle for the Wesley header. Likewise, a tigerish, gritty performance like Saturday’s would be punished more by a different referee, play like that away to Bournemouth and we’ll get more cards than I saw at Christmas.

When the breaks go our way, we’re magnificent, but it’s still on a knife edge for the rest of the season. At least it’s more exciting to watch than the first four months were.

5. RS - 30/12/2019

As ever a great summary. I had assumed Etienne Capoue was to be suspended after his booking from the way he was reenergised and went into full burn-out mode afterwards (him knowing he wouldn’t need to recover for Wolves). Yet it seems not. Just an all round superhero performance.

Well it looks like we’re in for an exciting 2020; Happy New Year everyone!

6. David - 30/12/2019

I bow to your statistical hinterland Matt, what it is the likelihood of us staying up?

Matt Rowson - 30/12/2019

Large margin of error on any prediction at the moment…

RS - 30/12/2019

I assume too large a human factor? (If that counts as a thing?) Witness the last few games.


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