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Arsenal 3 Watford 2 (26/07/2020) 26/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- My mate Kieron has on several occasions voiced the opinion that Watford are an exciting team to support in the grand scheme of things.  Not in the sense of the style of football being exciting, a consideration which as with every side ebbs and flows with the passing of time, but with simply by virtue of the amount of Stuff.  Even if we begin history after GT’s first reign (which is a pretty big “if”, those times being what they were) you’ve got 33 years that cover four promotions including two play-off wins and a League One (new money) title, five (now) relegations, three further failed play-off campaigns, a cup final, four further semi-finals, any number of brushes with financial calamity, eight seasons in the top flight, only two in the third tier, a Copa de Ibiza and Dominic Foley.  That’s not bad going by the standards of an average sized small-town team;  plenty of clubs of comparable size have had far less fun over the same period.  Kieron, a Bristol Rovers fan, would expand on this at length given half a chance.

But it’s been a while since we had something like this, a final day with relegation still in the balance.  We have a habit of doing relegation properly when we do it at all and our greatest escapes (1991, 1994) haven’t gone to the final day.  Only 1996 bears comparison and then… not really.  Then we were on thunderous form, trying to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.  Here, the reverse was true.  Then there was a massive sense of anticlimax as the first 20,000+ home crowd since relegation sat sullenly as results elsewhere relegated us anyway and Chelsea loanee Muzzy Izzet propelled Leicester into the play offs and towards promotion.  Here?  Here we gave ourselves a huge mountain to climb, did a reasonable job of climbing it anyway and then didn’t, leaving us in the ignominious position of finishing behind Bournemouth for good measure. In 1996 we dared to believe, propelled by GT’s explosive mini-series (nestled between his two epic screen plays).  In 2020 we had all but given up before kick-off.

2- All but given up.  Not quite.  Beyond doubt our relegation is down to our own failings, we’ll get to that.  But the dismay was borne of the last, miserable week;  you can rank the capitulation to West Ham, the departure of Pearson and the inevitable humbling by Man City as Villa beat Arsenal in whatever order you choose in terms of severity. By the time we got to kick off I’d looked at the league table again, and realised that it wouldn’t take much.  That Villa were perfectly capable of stuffing up.  Graeme Souness’ pre-match assessment made me almost bullish.

Ismaïla Sarr kicking off at the first whistle, forgetting the BLM kneeling ritual, was surely borne of a focus on the job in hand but wasn’t the best of portents.  Less still was a penalty conceded two minutes in when Craig Dawson jumped clumsily with Lacazette.  As an aside, the fact that there is all manner of other horrible and stupid nonsense going on in the world outside football doesn’t make VAR any less atrocious – as a concept, let alone in execution.  The hysterical demands for “accuracy” as the sole measure of adequacy remain a witlessly inappropriate guiding light.  Last season that wouldn’t have been a penalty or even an appeal.  Last season there wouldn’t have been a five minute interruption to the momentum of the game (admittedly limited two minutes in) as the officials understandably strove to make the right decision.  Football is a vibrant, high energy, high paced game fuelled by adrenaline.  It isn’t bloody cricket.

But VAR wasn’t responsible for the extraordinary defending that turned a one-goal deficit into a three-goal deficit after we’d initially done a credible job of responding to the opener.  Plenty to discuss here.  Plenty of factors.  Arsenal had a bit of luck, sure, and Aubameyang finished the third brilliantly but luck happens, and the ball shouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Arsenal skipper.  Hayden Mullins’ bold team selection backfired a little here…  by effectively playing Pereyra in midfield instead of Cleverley (let alone the expensively hamstrung  Capoue) you gain things, maybe, and you lose things.  A bit of cover is one of the things you lose.  Also significant and scarcely mentioned is the ongoing absence of Daryl Janmaat, who started the season as well as anyone amidst the chaotic opening months.  Injured since November, Janmaat is hardly a bastion of defensive solidity himself but he is robust and he is bullish and he is less prone to being done at the right post as Kiko has been so often of late.  He’s also one who tends to roll his sleeves up when things get tough.

More generally though, the failure to adequately resource the defence is one of the criticisms being flung at the club management that I have more sympathy with.  We know they tried – Dawson was transparently the best we were able to get, but the best we were able to get over several years of kinda making do at the back whilst more lavish signings have been made further forward.  Critically, whilst Dawson, Kabasele and Cathcart are demonstrably all capable of playing in Premier League defences (16 seasons as first-choice top flight defenders between them) none of them is a leader, an organiser.  They’re each David Holdsworth to your Glenn Roeder, Jay Demerit to your Neil Cox.  Wayne Brown to your Filippo Galli (shudder).  The best organiser we have is Mapps, who is a Watford legend but should really not have been as high up the options list as he was.

3- Dawson has been one of our more convincing individuals since lockdown but he isn’t your 7/10 every week kinda defender.  There are games where he is tremendous, the Burnley home game where they had to nobble him to navigate him springs to mind.  There are also games when he’s plain awful, and this was one of those.  Even when firmly in the front foot in the second half and Arsenal’s attacks, so effortlessly threatening in the first half, had dwindled to a half-arsed dribble Dawson looked precarious and awkward, once presenting the Gunners with a run on goal that they weren’t particularly looking for, on several other occasions being caught out of position.  Keith Dublin was an endearing distraction in an otherwise beige second-tier team.  Less fun in the Premier League.

As for Arsenal…  well as above, our relegation is all our own fault.  Indeed, it owes a lot to what has seemed a concerted effort to out-rubbish both Bournemouth and Villa (yay us!).  But we’ve been unlucky too.  Having our forward options fit and available for such a narrow window was cruel – Deeney, Sarr, Welbeck all injured early on,  Deulofeu towards the end.  The big wins, the famous wins all started with Sarr on the right, Deulofeu on the left and Troy down the middle; Pearson deserves credit for those of course, but surely no coincidence that our form has been so miserable when one of those cogs has been missing.   We’ve also had more than our fair share of bizarre and expensive VAR decisions (Deulofeu’s non-pen and Alli’s goal at Spurs, Newcastle’s equaliser at St James’ Park, Southampton’s bizarre goal at St Mary’s).  And sometimes the fixtures have not quite fallen for us…  how different would things have been had we played a pudgy Arsenal just after their semi-final instead of an irritated Man City leaving Villa to play them on the final day.

I won’t have been the only Hornet irritated by Arteta’s slightly pious assertion that he had a responsibility to field his strongest side, having demonstrably not done so against Villa a few days earlier.  In fairness to the Spaniard the Gunners were equally terrible here;  amidst all the hair pulling late in the first half as Bournemouth lead at Goodison (cheers for that Everton, nice one) it was unavoidable that even at 3-0 we were still kind of in it.  The thing wasn’t done, simply because Arsenal weren’t so much on the beach as lying in bed asleep not even arsed with the beach, eating Crunchy Nut Cornflakes out of the packet and binge watching “The Good Place” off Netflix (arbitrary example). That we were still in it was all the more evident when the lively Welbeck won a penalty and Troy drove it home.  From that point on I watched most of the game on my hands and knees bellowing at the screen.

4- And whilst the outcome is miserable, it would be wrong not to credit the side’s attacking zeal.  The fightback wins over Norwich and Newcastle showed character but none of this panache. Arsenal were accommodating, sure, but with Sarr, Deeney and Welbeck humming together for perhaps the first time since lockdown we could and perhaps should have made things a bit more anxious for Villa over in East London.  Sarr, clearly having been briefed to both run at players and to send his balls over to the far post, gave comfortably his most venomous performance since lockdown.  Troy was the fulcrum on the pitch that he is in our mind’s eye.  Welbeck now looks lean and hungry…  we’ll get onto “what happens next” to these players over the next few weeks, but given the brevity of the close season and the fact that he’s barely played for two years, you wonder if we’ll be able to hang on to him and quite what damage he might do in the Championship.

Welbeck’s goal was fabulous, Sarr free on the right again, firm low cross, brilliant attacking run from the former Gunner.  He almost scored another, a great backheel forcing an inspired save from Martinez.  Masina got underneath one, not as bad a miss as it looked but still a chance.  Deeney’s violent header took out Holding full in the face without getting a helpful deflection.  Another good chance he headed over.  We tripped and tiptoed our way around their penalty area and… yes, a quarter-arsed Arsenal but still Arsenal and we’re still more than giving them a game, deserving a point despite giving them a three goal head start of all things so how on earth are we getting relegated?

The game ended, almost cruelly, with João Pedro skating down the left against a startled Arsenal defence.  Cruel, because maybe this is all we’ll get to see of him on the left with Sarr on the right.  Wow.  And, no, we haven’t seen much of him and yes, some of those cameos (plus correspondence elsewhere from those who’ve watched his junior games) have suggested that he’s not quite robust enough yet.  But still.  Wow.

5- The Man City game was done as soon as they scored, and you’d have taken the current scoreline at any point as at the Etihad earlier in the season.  Not this one though.  Even with a minute to go a goal would have given us a chance, ignited belief, panicked an already accommodating Arsenal.  It didn’t happen.  And so we go down, despite and because of our best efforts.

What happens next?  We’ll see.  Actually we’ll see pretty quickly, since the new season starts in under seven weeks’ time.  I wonder who this suits.  Much has been said about the need for a major overhaul, but a major overhaul in a regular summer is a tall order let alone over an abbreviated close season with everyone playing wink murder.  I suspect that several of those whose names are on Twitter exit lists will still be with us come September 12th, and whilst we need some new stuff I suspect that might be a good thing.  Will Deulofeu pass a medical?  Will the Pozzo’s be able to hold out for what they deem Sarr to be worth?  Will anyone gamble on Welbeck?  We’ll find out very quickly.

Meanwhile, 2020 has been the worst year in many people’s memories for obvious reasons.  Certainly mine.  I could really have done with a shot in the arm from this, from being able to bellow in abandon at the TV screen at 17.45 for purely cathartic reasons.  But relegated or otherwise, this is still our club.  The club that looked after the hospital and the community during lockdown.  The place where you used to go with your family and your mates to feel part of something, and hopefully will soon go again.  The place that provides joy and anger and excitement and frustration and sadness and life for so many of us.

The club that’s the best club in the world, whatever division we’re in.

See you next season.  Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Masina 3, Dawson 1, Kabasele 2, Hughes 3, Doucouré 2, Pereyra 2, *Sarr 4*, Welbeck 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Mariappa (for Femenía, 47) 3, Chalobah (for Hughes, 81) NA, Cleverley (for Doucouré, 81) NA, João Pedro (for Pereyra, 88) NA, Cathcart, Quina, Pussetto, Gray, Gomes


1. Chris Bell - 26/07/2020

The last paragraph nails it for me and despite relegation it’s the only thing that brought a lump to my throat apart from Gomys tears at full time. See you all at Rotherham!!

2. Aberd’orn - 26/07/2020

One more year would’ve matched Graham Taylor’s record of 6 years in the top division. Re thunk 1- In 53 years of watching Watford we have a change of league every 3.5 years on average!! At least it’s not boring. 😬

Old Git - 27/07/2020

At Watford we still talk about ‘the manager’ even though we know that we have a ‘head coach’ who has nothing to do with player recruitment etc. That is the Pozzo way.
In this country it is deeply ingrained that owners and directors do not interfere in matters on the pitch. Never. Ever. Pearson arrived with a record that indicated he does not take kindly to any backroom meddling. Everyone knew that. Whatever happened, we’ll never know because another part of the Pozzo way is to not to trouble themselves to communicate with us, the fans. And despite Matt’s reasoned arguments, I agree with paullbaxter that the sacking of Pearson with two games to go was plain dumb.
It strikes me as petulant. ‘It’s my club and I’ll do what I want with it’ Pearson was never going to be a yes man, nodding respectfully at unwanted suggestions. And he’s just the sort of ‘manager’ a club like Watford need to succeed in Division Two.
Sorry, I mean the Championship.

Ian Grant - 27/07/2020

The kind of manager, maybe, in terms of a CV. But the actual manager? Not so sure.

3. Peter Smith - 26/07/2020

As usual you have put everything into perspective after a disappointing season, yes we are a small club “punching above our weight” but it is “our club” and long may that last.
See you all next season and every season

4. David - 26/07/2020

The next 46 days are going to be more tumultuous than any close season we have seen before. This extends to WFC staff who will be dreading the “consultations” that will be cropping up in their diaries over the next fortnight. These people do not count their salaries in thousands per week.

RS - 27/07/2020

I agree totally regards the sentiment towards staff at the club that said, really, only 46 days?

Without doing the research that’s presumably a typical pre-season?

On that basis (and currently managerless, unless HM gets the job, and why not?) then you’ve got to worry for the club.

Assuming there’s going to be a clear-out of those at the end of contract and then those that get sold-on that leaves precious little time to form a rounded, balanced squad. I fear some serious management of expectations about any immediate return will be required.

The Premier League is incredibly tough and in the games I saw this year (most of the home games and a sprinkling away) it became increasingly obvious that the whole team needed to be on its game to get even a point. There were of course the successes but then the heart rending lulls between those successes were painful as we failed to maintain the levels.

Time to move on and, as others have said, look forward to those Tuesday nights under the lights.

Lets get the squad sorted and go for it; no time to feel sorry for ourselves.

Finally, thank you to Matt and Ian for the ever so perceptive, rational, viewpoint that often chimes with my own.

Bring on normal!

Matt Rowson - 27/07/2020

About half the normal close season I think

5. paullbaxter - 26/07/2020

If only the team had shown this commitment in the previous games.

Trying to analyse my feelings, I’m most upset that we won’t see Sarr develop as a Watford player. He has incredible pace and with more refinement will be top class. I hoe we keep Pedro as he looked like a real prospect. Time for a lot of the older players to go.

My main hope is that the Pozzos get a grip. Unless Pearson punched Gino getting rid of him with two games to go was plain dumb.

Whatever happens we are still punching above our weight. When I started supporting the side in 1968 we were a third tier side. Since that time we have pretty much been a second tier side. These are still the good times.

6. Vaughn Smith - 27/07/2020

If only Danny Welbeck had been fit all season…

7. Harefield Hornet - 27/07/2020

Great summary Matt. I think most of us deep down suspected the worst after the West Ham defeat/Villa win last week. From a personal perspective I didn’t feel as down after the final whistle as I was expecting to? – just an overwhelming sense of relief that this awful season is finally over for the reasons you’ve so eloquently stated above. And then cheered myself up by making a top ten of victories since we got promoted list in my head . And it worked! So in no particular order – the two 3-0 home victories over Liverpool and the home wins over Man United. The wonderful 4-1 spanking of Chelsea, finally beating Spurs at home after a long wait. The away victory at Arsenal after the abject cup exit at Millwall. The last minute home victory over Arsenal. And finally the 2 victories at the London Stadium – the 4-2 being a particular favourite. There you go! These will live long in the memory when this last week fades into oblivion. You Horns!

8. Buckstops - 27/07/2020

Thank you Matt.
Relegation is hard to take no matter what the circumstances are. The increasingly desperate moves the owners made this season suggest they were trying to wing it/have just enough to stay in the division ahead of the overhaul that should have taken place last season. But we are where we are. Personally, I want to see the average of the team to come down by 7/8 years (worked well for Chelsea), home grown players given a chance and a playing style that is constantly pleasing to the eye. One can always wish! Come what may, we’ll be there….

9. MG99 - 27/07/2020

As always, about the best summary of things you’ll find anywhere Matt, so thank you. Yesterday was almost cathartic, like you I briefly believed the comeback was on when we scored the second, but it wasn’t to be – there were plenty more reasons than the last 10 mins for why we went down. I’m actually quite looking forward to the Championship, hugely competitive league, more games for our money and most importantly more Tues nights under the floodlights. I hope the squad isn’t ripped apart but accept that there will be some leaving I’d have liked to see more of in a Watford shirt (and hopefully a few I’ve seen the last of). So bring on the next season (in no time at all) and hope to see all the real supporters back at The Vic very soon. I’ve missed it and I’m just looking forward to watching Watford again no matter who we’re playing (and at least it won’t be Man City!)

Matt Rowson - 27/07/2020

Amen. Actually I kinda enjoyed the 6-0 under Silva where we played really quite well and they were just magnificent. But being stuffed did get old…

Harefield Hornet - 27/07/2020

And there’s the small matter of reacquainting ourselves with the lot from just up the road!

Matt Rowson - 27/07/2020

Deep Joy

10. JohnF - 27/07/2020

Great stuff Matt and not long to go before it all starts over again with more games. I agree that perhaps a proper overhaul was needed last close season with a re-balancing of the squad. It is remarkable how informative hindsight is. Last summer I didn’t hear many calls for a change in head coach in spite of the fact that the end of the season was a bit of a disaster (again) but that might have been the right thing to do. As it was loyalty to the coach, which so many pundits and outsiders were calling for, was probably a costly mistake with things going from bad to worse. Whoever the coach is next season will need to be strong to make sure the players do what they are supposed to do. It can’t be easy communicating during the game with so many nationalities and languages. Having said that, it is the future that now matters. I’m sure Gino and Scott have plans and, to be fair, they have done really well by us since they took over the club. We mustn’t forget that. We have infrastructure without the financial security of the club under serious threat and although these are strange times we go again in September. No fans to start with and reduced numbers thereafter but we will see how that pans out. Much will depend on Covid-19.

I’m just looking forward to reading your close season contributions and when it all kicks off, your brilliant reports and hopefully Ian will help out occasionally. I remember how much work was involved from my occasional contributions to BSad.

I hope you manage a break with the family and enjoy what remains of the summer.

11. Kieron - 27/07/2020

Thanks for the thunk-1 shout out, Matt. It is sadly very true that not all of that excitement can be positive! But I still believe you need the downs to enjoy the ups, which supporters of many teams even now struggle to appreciate.
And given that the only Watford game I saw with you this season was one in which Spurs were extremely lucky to salvage a point, I’m honestly still a little shocked by it all but thanks for the great writing as ever and good luck for next season.
I’d really been enjoying my annual trips to the Emirates with you & the ‘orns too – but safe to say neither of us would have enjoyed this one.
Look after yourself,

Matt Rowson - 27/07/2020


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