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Watford 3 Liverpool 0 (29/02/2020) 29/02/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- The world’s going to shit, if you hadn’t noticed.  Events of the last few years have meant that I’ve long since ceased listening to the news.  That’s probably irresponsible, but also necessary for my own sanity.  No point being driven to distraction by stupid crap that I can’t do anything about.

Latest chapter in the world going to shit is COVID-19, which even I’ve heard about.  This could turn out to go away as quickly as it appeared, or it could be the devastating virus the advent of the sort of which has long been mooted.

A week ago I drove to Old Trafford with Manuel.  He didn’t come to the game, he just wanted to visit Manchester.  He’d returned from Milan a week earlier.

As stuff developed over the next few days we both self-isolated.  Manu has no symptoms, but our employer is particularly cautious about these things.  Then my sore throat developed.  This morning I had a temperature for the first time.

Given that Manu is still fine, the extreme likelihood is that I have a common and garden cold.  That’s NHS Direct’s view anyway.  But as we’ve discussed many times this season “definitely” and “probably” aren’t the same thing.  I took one for the Rookery, and watched this from my sofa.  You can thank me later… whilst noting that twenty years ago the only away match I missed in 1999/2000 was this one.

2- Watching a game on the TV isn’t like being on the stadium.  You get a better view of the action, replays, camera angles. But… you’re watching a sanitised, incomplete version of events.  Like looking at someone’s holiday photos rather than, you know, going on holiday.  A narrower, less complete view, very much watching it rather than being part of it, breathing it.  Around 20000 of you will have a better chance of doing justice to the atmosphere at the Vic, which must have been insane.

A situation exaggerated by the day’s events.  Much as, rationally, this was our toughest-looking game of those remaining, much as others will have tough fixtures to come, Norwich winning, bloody West Ham winning and Bournemouth getting a point off Chelsea meant that the pressure was on.  Palace had won at Brighton of course, celebrating which just felt dirty.

But Sarr and Femenía both starting will have gladdened the majority of Watford hearts.  Small potatoes against a side as exalted as this, perhaps, but a punch in the air to this news whether you were keeping warm on the way down Occupation Road or sitting on your sofa when it broke.  It gave us a weapon.  It gave us a shout.

3- The first half was great.  Aggressive, focused, disciplined.  Liverpool had nowhere to go, couldn’t get going, weren’t allowed to get going.  Sarr was a threat just by being there, his presence opening up space for Deulofeu on the left who was at his impossible best, cutting inside and giving Trent Alexander-Arnold a very difficult 30 minutes or so.

Gerry’s injury clearly the stain on the evening.  Yet another one where I’d rather have been in the stadium, deprived of the various angles of his knee bending in a direction that it really oughtn’t be bending.  Daughter 2 winced, and was further aghast at the suggestion that this might even be his swansong in a Watford shirt, should we go down.

Positive noises at the break, then, though the applause was surely in part to drown out the voice in the back of your head saying that we really ought to have capitalised if we entertained any hopes of winning the game, and that similar stuff happened in the game at Anfield.

4- I can’t remember why I abandoned the sofa at half time but I came back into the room to see Alisson Becker pushing Sarr’s shot over the bar.  So much for the Reds coming at us and punishing us for our impudence.

We were magnificent all over the park.  Foster was alert and alive. Femenía looked like he’d never been away, Masina was back at his arrogant best, and Cathcart and Kabasele were magnificent, blocking out the light.  Firmino, Salah and Mané were all, extraordinarily, inconsequential.

Will Hughes snapped into challenges. Étienne Capoue stamped all over the midfield and Abdoulaye Doucouré, amongst all the superlatives, stampeded to perhaps his strongest game of the season.

Bobby Pereyra, back on the left where he’s most comfortable, put in his best showing for ages.  Troy opted against another bruising encounter with Van Dijk and took on the brain-dead Dejan Lovren, smashing him both during the game and in his merciless post-match analysis.

And then Ismaïla Sarr.  This was it, the game when he announced himself to the rest of the Premier League.  We knew already, now everyone knows.  Time will tell how he adapts to that, how he accommodates being targeted… today he was lethal.   Quique wanted to play him centrally and he reminds you of Thierry Henry in his ability to skim clear of a defence and finish calmly.   Would be no surprise to see him end up as a centre-forward.

His two goals were both tremendous in different ways, one because he knew when to attack the ball, one because he kept so very cool, but perhaps his best moment was when Alexander-Arnold rounded off a shocking evening by launching a suicidal backpass to Alisson and finding Sarr with the presence of mind and awareness to tee up Troy to finish the contest.  Absolutely beyond belief.

5- Quite evidently this result bears comparison with any in our League history, the stats don’t stop there.   Liverpool’s first League defeat since January 2019.  Our first victory against the side topping the League since 1983.  And so on, and so on.

But more than that, more than an unlikely and unprecedented but hugely valuable and well-timed three points, is surely the belief that this will inject in the side, a belief that was the one thing most obviously missing (along, perhaps, with the acceleration offered by Sarr and Kiko) prior to this evening, eroded by stupid and narrow defeats.

To point out that this counts for very little if we don’t show up at Selhurst next week, say, would be to fail to afford the evening the celebration it deserves in its own right.  Nonetheless, and much as it’s a joy to be out of the relegation zone if only by a goal, this needs to be the start of something. No reason on earth that it shouldn’t be.  Good God, what an evening.  Even from the sofa.

I won’t be at Palace, or at Leicester, with apologies.  We have every reason to be optimistic, and to expect that we’ll be going into the closing games of the season with the pressure off.

Yooorns.

Foster 5, Femenía 5, Masina 5, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 5, Hughes 5, Capoue 5, Doucouré 5, *Sarr 5*, Deulofeu 5, Deeney 5
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 37) 5, Pussetto (for Sarr, 82) 5, Chalobah (for Doucouré, 90) 5, Dawson, Welbeck, Gray, Gomes

Brighton and Hove Albion 1 Watford 1, 08/02/2020 09/02/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
9 comments

“There is no banality within your vicinity. But nobody else will tell you.”

1. I love music which attempts to connect you with a particular place, whether real or imagined. Or real and imagined, possibly: I’ve never been to Orkney but Erland Cooper’s evocations of its landscapes and wildlife are capable of moving me to tears.

William Doyle’s “Wilderness Revisited” is a record whose evocations are less elemental: the place being revisited is Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, the quiet suburban cul-de-sacs of which Doyle moved to as a teenager following the death of his father. It might easily be nostalgic, mawkish or snooty, falling into the traps which await anyone trying to look back upon their youth; it might also be rather sombre, given the circumstances.

It isn’t any of those things, though. Instead, it becomes a rather vivid, colourful celebration of that place and others like it, and of what they hold for those willing to explore them. It suggests that adventures await anyone willing to walk around with their eyes and minds open; Robert Macfarlane for introverted loners, perhaps. There’s something gently political about that, about appreciating all that’s around you, in an age when the toll taken by our desire to see the world has become clearer. It casts fresh light on a childhood growing up in the suburbs of Watford, from which I really couldn’t wait to escape. It does all of that, plus splendid tunes and preposterous saxophone solos. It’s absolutely marvellous.

2. Banality is in the eye of the beholder, then. When we were kicking around in the Championship, we spent many years looking down our noses at the cluster of clubs scrapping to survive in the Premier League, wondering how dull it must be to harbour no aspirations beyond mid-table. It isn’t, of course. It’s a matter of incidental detail, of friendships and rivalries and jokes and arguments and scarves and hats and weather forecasts and service station sandwiches and lucky chocolate and everything else. All of those things survive, even thrive, in seasons which history will skip over.

And in adversity too. This is my first Watford game since the Cup Final, my first league game since our ten men thrashed Arsenal 0-1 last April. Because…life. Oddly, or possibly not, I’ve felt more absent as we’ve struggled than I did when it was all going rather well. I’ve spent far more time watching different degrees of failure at Vicarage Road than anything else, and have spent the last few years attempting to carve myself a little niche amid the club historians as the chronicler of the dismal and the squalid. It feels as if I ought to be there to share the anguish, as if my powerlessness ought not to be so remote. Instead, I’ve been watching Hastings, who are currently top of their league (but lose 3-0 to their nearest rivals earlier in the afternoon).

3. For a little while there, it appeared as if we might be able to aspire to mid-table banality by…well, if not now, then not too far hence. But the last two results have the unmistakable whiff of relegation about them, that feeling of being the punchline to someone else’s cruel joke. When I wrote about the 1999/2000 season for The Watford Treasury, I was surprised to discover that we didn’t, in fact, lose every game 3-2 courtesy of a last minute own goal. Bloody felt like it, though.

The nature of relegation is that, unless you’re extraordinarily rubbish, it takes a very, very long time. Everyone inches along at an average of three or four points per month, and even though the prophets of doom proclaim the inevitability of it all after every single defeat, you can still eye up the team in fifteenth well into March, possibly beyond.

Brighton are fifteenth and three points away as we kickoff, having spent their season cooing appreciatively at football which does adventurous and modern things, things that Chris Hughton would never countenance, while everyone else coos appreciatively over Sheffield United, who are adventurous and modern and rather better. There’s a dartboard with Chris Wilder’s face on it in Graham Potter’s spare room, I reckon. “Should’ve been me!” through gritted teeth as each dart hits home.

4. Let’s not stand on ceremony. This is a wretched game of football, if measured by any objective standards. We’re not here to apply objective standards, of course. Sometimes sheer desperation can lead these relegation six-pointers to disintegrate into thrilling, terrifying fragments; here, it’s all held firmly together by tension, by the nerves which keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a game played in the slack, dead water between each team’s hopes and their worst fears. It’s so lacking in incident that I can’t even give you the righteous rant about VAR that I had planned, and I know you’re going to be very disappointed about that.

The hosts make a better start, pushing us onto the back foot. (It’ll become clear that we would’ve been on the back foot anyway, but let’s not spoil the moment.) Will Hughes blocks Burn’s bouncing half-volley, Murray meets a cross but is sufficiently impeded by Kabasele. There are a couple of corners. It’s a flurry rather than a storm, and it’s over in five minutes or so. We deal with it well, calm and diligent in defence, snappy in midfield. The game settles into a pattern from which it’ll never escape, of Brighton having great acres of possession and not really knowing how to harvest it, of Watford suffocating it all by sitting deep and gradually pushing each attack backwards, guiding a toddler out of a toy shop.

It has the dramatic intensity of someone prodding a damp sponge with an old toothbrush.

5. Thing is, you can see where Graham Potter’s trying to get to. Brighton are comfortable on the ball, and they have a few bright, lightweight players who’d frustrate a pragmatist like Hughton but would excite a coach interested in cultivating something more high-brow. What they don’t have is any kind of cutting edge. There’s the potential for goals from Murray, obviously, but he sits atop all of this like a cat on a Christmas tree; the rest of the team isn’t set up either to supply or support him. We happily force Brighton into wide areas and even when we can’t disrupt their crosses, nobody’s remotely interested in joining Uncle Glenn in the penalty area. It all goes very flat very quickly.

As for us, we’re in danger of becoming a little too reactive as the half meanders on. The best bits – the midfield three ferreting about, the centre backs dominating – are genuinely praise-worthy, but there’s a danger of concentrating on them so much that you forget to provide a challenge to your opponents. I’m chewing on this as Etienne Capoue intercepts on halfway and sets Abdoulaye Doucouré free, his loping, confident run ending with a precise finish into the far corner. It’s a fine goal which looks even better on a replay, the poise and drive of the run, the perfect timing of the shot as defenders circle around him. It’s our one moment of genuine quality.

We see out the rest of the half without great concern. Aided by an understandably restless home crowd, our job is now so much easier than theirs; we have no need to make the running, if we ever did. Mooy shoots over, Murray shoots over, March shoots over; no other players beginning with M are available to shoot over. Schelotto goes down in the box under a vague challenge from Deulofeu…and yeah, maybe, perhaps, when it’s really your day. That’s all they’ve got, though, and everyone here knows it all too well.

6. No changes at the break. No change after it.

With about fifteen minutes remaining, during treatment to Adam Masina, Matt and I have a cryptic conversation in which we try very hard not to tempt fate by remarking on the home side’s toothlessness. Well, that’s what I imagine Matt was thinking, at any rate. Neither of us actually said it. By that point, Potter was throwing on attacking substitutes with great abandon, and perhaps some desperation, but it continued to lack any kind of focal point, merely adding more of what they already had in abundance. They’re a nice side. Polite, tidy, please, thank you. But you have to think that they’re a sitting duck if anyone in the bottom three ever manages to get their shit together. (Preferably us, obviously.)

Tellingly, the most substantial spell of pressure comes midway through the half, when Ben Foster fluffs a kick and we’re caught on the hop a little bit, for a little while. We deny them that space, and that sense of having the initiative, the rest of the time. Schelotto’s driven cross is a bit beyond Murray’s far post slide. There’s not a lot else, until a fine, intricate interchange lets in Mooy and Foster saves well with his legs. We waste what little of the ball we have in the final third: Pereyra and Masina both make poor decisions in good positions, Deulofeu skates inside and then drags a tame shot wide of the post. There isn’t a lot to cheer about. It’s all very tense. At least it isn’t cold.

7. It’s all very well sitting in a bush and waiting to launch an ambush. Planning, listening, watching. Waiting, waiting. Waiting. After a while, you’re just sitting in a bush.

My point is that we don’t do enough to win this. We might’ve won it anyway, of course. The sense of frustration is not really at the nature of the equaliser – the midfield momentarily vacating its space, Mariappa panicking and smashing Jahanbakhsh’s cross into the roof of his own net – so much as our failure to be sufficiently assertive in that final half hour. Perhaps it’s understandable, given recent setbacks, but it felt as if we were passive, as if we retreated into our shells, as if we bided our time so much that our time ran out. We spent the remainder of the game caught in indecision, unsure whether to go for a winner – and if so, how the hell to go about it – or to protect the draw. That we managed the latter represents some progress, I suppose.

8. Five or six years ago, I started developing an intolerance to alcohol. These days, I can drink no more than a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Perhaps slightly more if I’m feeling foolish, but if I go any further than that, the results are unpleasant. I’ll spare you the details. I’m coming to terms with the idea that whatever I do in the rest of my life, I’ll have to do it sober. I’ll never be drunk again. Even a bit tipsy is pushing it.

And now that they’re behind me, I regret not having made more of my drinking years. Not the debauchery so much. I just wish I’d enjoyed it all a bit more. I wish I’d savoured a few more beers; I wish I’d worked my way through those fine bottles of single malt that are now gathering dust. Like anything can, it became banal, routine. I forgot to notice.

There’s a lot still to play for. A lot of football left. Let’s make something of it.

Foster 3, Mariappa 2, Masina 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Hughes 4*, Deulofeu 2, Pereyra 2, Deeney 3
Subs: Pussetto (for Pereyra, 82) NA, Welbeck (for Deulofeu, 86) NA, Dawson, Chalobah, Holebas, Gray, Gomes

Watford 2 Everton 3 (01/02/2020) 02/02/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Bloody hell.

2- People believe all sorts of crazy shit.  By “people” I mean everyone, yours truly included. In all sorts of contexts from the profoundly consequential to the thoroughly banal people can convince themselves of the validity of a wide range of inane twaddle. The need for certainty, for an unequivocal position often trumps all considerations rendering nuance, balance and complexity all inconvenience.

It’s for this reason that exposing oneself to a range of perspectives, opinions, cultures is a Good Thing.  Allowing your own belief system to be challenged on your own terms, in an unexposed and unthreatening way, is healthy.  It weeds out some of the crazy shit.

But there are situations where absolute certainty, total belief, can be advantageous.  Not all situations, obviously.  Total belief in crazy shit can and does result in all sorts of dangerous and witless circumstances.  But sometimes, sometimes, believing in something absolutely is a strength and a comfort.  That’s what makes it so attractive of course.  And in such circumstances that fact that you believe in something is more important than what you actually believe in.

3- Everton, then.  The latest massive game in the parade of massive games that will stretch from now until our fate is decided one way or another.  It has that feel to it too, today…  intense sunshine but cold, biting, ferocious wind.  It feels pivotal.  It feels as if stuff is about to happen.

Stuff happens pretty much immediately too in a game which has a buffeted around feel to it consistent with the conditions;  uncontrolled, a little wild, never quite allowed to settle down but invigorating and never dull.  We start strongly;  both sides are set up offensively, Everton in a positive looking 4-4-2, the Hornets with the increasingly settled looking 4-2-3-1-ish but with a bench packed with forwards.

But whilst there’s a little bit of getting-to-grips in the opening minutes – a tentative attack sees Calvert-Lewin head gently into Foster’s arms, Chalobah finds an early free kick swept over the penalty area on an unpredictable gust – the Hornets have the early territorial advantage and the first glorious move of the game produces a goal on ten minutes.  A break that starts with a majestic block by Kabs on Richarlíson sweeps down the right, Capoue’s crossfield pass does an only passable job of navigating the gusts but is brought to heel impossibly by Deulofeu.  Masina lopes onto his layoff and his cross-shot bounces happily past Jordan Pickford.  The left back has been afforded the accolade of his own song and looks every inch the first choice left back.  He is mobbed.

Most of the first half is a comfortable thing.  The sun is shining, any nervousness has gone and we’re knocking the ball around and retaining possession with the swagger that only a lead can bring.  The same actions at nil-nil would yield a much less patient reaction.

There’s a brief exchange between Laurent Digne and Roberto Pereyra.  The former comes through the back of the Argentine in turning over possession.  Not a reckless challenge but a dangerous one, albeit it isn’t punished by Craig Pawson.  Two minutes later Pereyra takes the first opportunity to kick Digne up the arse in retribution – in front of the away end no less.  He gets away with it and we grin.  We’re one-up, today is a good day.

Everton are far from the worst side we’ve seen this season but they’re not Brazil 1970 either. As Troy, who is beating the crap out of Yerry Mina, plays a ball through for Bobby Pereyra to plant a gorgeous finish for 2-0 we don’t have a care in the world;  the Toffees’ best efforts haven’t yielded an effort on target since that flick from Calvert-Lewin.  Everton earn a late corner, it’s an afterthought.  Our defending is scruffy, the ball breaks unfavourably, it’s a tight thing but Mina stabs home.  Two minutes later, deep into injury time now, another corner and Mina is criminally allowed to nod in at the far post by a sleeping Cathcart.  There’s so much wrong with this…  Mina being allowed to dominate the area, our heads not being in it.  Some of these things would be abetted with a big ugly centre back, a Ben Gibson or a Craig Dawson maybe, but not all.  It’s a maddening and horribly expensive two minutes.

4- The second half takes some time to settle down, but gradually we remember that we were the better side for most of the first and regain the initiative.  This is abetted with twenty minutes to go when Fabien Delph, comfortably the best player on the pitch to this point, picks up a second yellow card for an ill-judged attempt to rob Capoue.  It looks a soft one, but his expression as soon as it happens betrays that he knows what’s coming.

This gives us the upper hand, the initiative.  In the stands we’re keeping track of the toing and froing in the games around us but a win today was always going to take us out of the relegation zone and everyone could feel it.

With retrospect, there is criticism of Pearson’s decision making here.  Certainly his earlier choice of replacement for the worryingly fragile Chalobah could have been Will Hughes, whose tigerish snapping at the back of the midfield had been a feature of successes before his injury.  Thing is…  for all our positive play we hadn’t mustered a chance on target ourselves since our second goal, and much as Gerry had found himself one-on-one with Sidibe a couple of times we hadn’t really looked like doing so.  So Pearson changed something, rather than making a more like-for-like swap. No problem with that.

Welbeck will take games to get fully up to speed (Pete, rather cruelly, nails his colours to eight minutes before Danny crocks himself again) but he looks hugely impressive here.  Quick, clever, mobile, intelligent, perhaps the biggest positive from this afternoon.  Further attempts to mix things up follow… Isaac Success, looking heavier than ever, was expected to be elsewhere by now but Nige still has some faith in his role as an agent of chaos.  His willing thundering around is no more ineffective than anyone else’s in reality, but his backstory counts against him and there are more voices on the way back up Occupation Road blaming the afternoon’s developments on him than there are to bad defending.

Pussetto’s on too, for perhaps his most convincing cameo to date.  We’re applying pressure and knocking on the door (albeit politely and with every intention of slipping away quietly if we don’t get an answer) when Everton break.

It’s easy to pick holes in our behaviour here.  The otherwise excellent Masina gives the ball away, critically, and neither brings Richarlíson down straight away nor gets close enough to him to put in a break-stopping challenge afterwards.  Cathcart, again, could have played a more assertive role than he did.  But in truth this was Everton’s most convincing attack of the game, a lethal breakaway perfectly executed.  It left the home stands shaking collective heads in disbelief.

5- And that lack of belief, that lack of conviction in direction of travel is perhaps the most concerning aspect of the afternoon.  When Nige took over we surged with that common purpose;  others might have called it a new manager bounce, but it felt like more than that in that we’d seen play like this from these players last season, it felt more like refinding form.

Where’s that belief now?  Why were we not surging all over Everton’s midfield with an extra man in the middle and Gylfi Sigurdsson eminently tramplable?  Why did Gerry fail to square for Danny Welbeck in the second half, why did Troy give him two barrels for it, why did Gerry slouch away in a sulk walking past the ball that needed quickly ferrying sideways for a quicker corner to accelerate the pressure?  Deulofeu was subbed soon afterwards;  he hadn’t played particularly badly, but that demonic shared purpose has vanished.  Concerning, too, that having failed to strengthen at the back in the window Craig Cathcart puts in his worst showing in memory.

As ever, this report has spilled over from Saturday evening into Sunday morning and I’m not as despondent after a night’s sleep.  It was a horrible afternoon, sure, another criminally wasted opportunity that feeds a potentially self-fulfilling belief that we are get-attable… opponents believe it and come at us with, you know, more belief and so it continues.

But looking at the table, we’re still only a win away from escaping the relegation zone.  It’s been said repeatedly that, the top one or three teams aside, this is a poor Premier League…  it’s poor at the top end but relatively strong at the bottom.  Norwich are the worst team in the league, but no basket case and comfortably stronger than the three that went down last season.  Much of the rest of the division is much of a muchness.  We just need to avoid being in the worst two of the rest, and as many will have noted amidst feverish overanalysis of Nige’s choice of words, Ismaïla Sarr’s recovery is a game changer at both ends of the pitch.

But we really could do with rediscovering that belief.  Preferably before Brighton next Saturday.  See you there.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Mariappa 2, *Masina 4*, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 3, Capoue 3, Doucouré 2, Chalobah 3, Deulofeu 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Welbeck (for Chalobah, 57) 3, Success (for Pereyra, 75) 2, Pussetto (for Deulofeu, 82) NA, Holebas, Hughes, Gray, Gomes