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Wycombe Wanderers 1 Watford 1 (27/10/2020) 28/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- It’s 22:20 on a school night.  We’ve just drawn 1-1 at Wycombe.  You’re damn right this is going to be straight to the point.  None of your drawn-out meandering intros today.  No Sir.  This is a no-bullshit report.

2- And we needed a no-bullshit performance.  A performance that was capable of absorbing what Wycombe could throw at us, meeting the physical challenges head on and letting the quality tell.  We didn’t get one.  Not that we appeared complacent, nor lacking in effort particularly.  But the weaknesses of our team thus far, such as they are and bearing in mind that we’re third in the league, lost one game, conceded four goals and so on and so forth were cast into sharp relief.

3- And cast into sharp relief by a Wycombe side who were far more impressive, focussed and effective than their record hitherto had suggested.  They hurtled around doing the high press thing like shopping trolleys crashing around a slippery car park, not giving us a moment’s peace and, without being dirty, risking physical injury if approached tentatively or half-heartedly.  Both their full-backs caused us issues, Grimmer giving Sema a good old game down the right and Jacobson delivering quality set pieces.  Kashket snapped around feeding off knock downs and chasing everything down.  They had enough about them to make you wonder quite how they hadn’t earned any points until now.

Most of all, they had the game’s dominant player in Adebayo Akinfenwa,  making his first start in the second tier at the age of 38.  A sixteen stone force of nature, almost unplayable and completely brilliant.  And exactly what we were missing for the most part – a focal point to hold the ball up, provide some welly and provide the facility for our attacks to drop anchor rather than needing to be fleet and precise.  Akinfenwa’s in a white shirt, we win the game.

4- As it is, we are happy to be goalless at the break.  Not to say lucky… there’s nothing lucky about your goalkeeper being completely brilliant.  But we’re lucky to have a brilliant goalkeeper.  Foster his out bravely, defiantly, to claim a Jacobson corner and again when the same player is able to send in a follow up. Kashket controls a knockdown with his hand, the officials miss it and Foster’s block is critical.   Akinfenwa forces a shooting opportunity, Foster saves well to his right.

Meanwhile our attacks are the sort of rapier thrusts that we’re used to seeing and it’s not impossible that we take the lead but there’s no heft to our performance.  Capoue could have provided that but he’s disappointingly low key.  Femenía rattles up and down the right flank and is a constant force for good, but it’s not enough.  As the half closes, Troost-Ekong’s sloppiness lets in Kashket who squares for Akinfenwa to shovel over.  Then Wanderers break through on the right and Troost-Ekong redeems himself by thundering in to deny Horgan.  No, not lucky.  Not hanging on.  But, yes, half-time would do very nicely we thought you’d never ask.

5- Second half starts in similar vein until we score.  And of course it’s Kiko and Sarr’s far post header is perfect and suddenly we look like the newly relegated side weathering the storm and then mercilessly killing off the game triers with a moment of quality.  And then Sema’s rolling through challenges, threatening to stick the knife in but doesn’t quite.  Sarr powers in a shot, Jacobson denies João Pedro a tap in.  We have all the possession now and look every inch the better side.  That should have been it.  We should have seen it out.

And that’s the other recurring trend.  Looking good.  Looking solid.  And not quite being good enough.  See also Reading, Sheff Wed, Bournemouth.  We’ve looked vulnerable at set pieces against sides less well equipped to exploit them than Wycombe and there was nothing spawny or half-hearted about Stewart’s equaliser.  Indeed, Wanderers can consider themselves unlucky to have a second disallowed as substitute Samuel tangled with Foster.  It wasn’t a travesty of a decision, but he could certainly have gotten away with a more generous interpretation.

Consolations?  Silver linings?  Glenn Murray putting in his best minutes for us, drifting into space for Kiko to slip him straight through, the shot from nowhere across the face of goal.  In all honesty he could have been on earlier.  Some tactical flexibility, Chalobah on to provide some more controlled passing from the back as Kabasele departed with a shirt spattered in blood from a facial injury.  It didn’t work, it might have done and might do in the future.

We can’t complain with a point, and no away point is a bad point.  An away point at Wycombe might look a lot better in a month or two’s time than it does now.  But we need to be able to score imperfect, scruffy goals if we’re going to be the cruelly effective side that we ought to be.  We need a striker fit.

Bring on the next one.  Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 2, Cleverley 3, Quina 2, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Murray (for Quina, 74) 3, Chalobah (for Kabasele, 74) 2, Garner (for Cleverley, 90) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 1 AFC Bournemouth 1 (24/10/2020) 24/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- Sometimes you just crave something normal.

You’ll have your own favourites.   For me… football, obviously.  That goes without saying.  But more mundane stuff too.  Being able to see family, go to the pub without worrying about it.  Going to the co-op for some milk without having to queue up outside, or wear a mask.  Going to work, actually going to work and seeing people in three dimensions rather than two, and running into people spontaneously rather than everything being timetabled.  Everything.

To be somewhere busy.  With lots of people.  And noisy.  And chaotic.  To hold the door open for someone without wondering if that’s the right thing to do any more.  To shake someone’s hand.  Something normal.  Anything normal.

Except this bollocks, obviously.  That should have gone without saying.

2- I know I’m supposed to hate Luton and I suppose I do but largely out of the same sense of obligation provoked by signing leaving cards at work for people that I don’t really know.  Proper animosity will come, I’m sure, if we spend too long in the same division, the pressurised nature of derbies makes it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy but competitive rivalries such as that with the Cherries, promoted with us and relegated with us having earned a single point more than us over the five years, are more heartfelt at the moment.

There will come a time when this is not so.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with Bournemouth, the Dorset coast is perfectly pleasant, there are years of shared history without there being a Thing and the fanbase no more objectionable than most others would be in the face of such fractious recent encounters.

But now?  Eddie Howe has gone but Jason Tindall was always the High Priest of Bournemouth’s snide, cynical brand of shithousery.  No surprise to see the Cherries bomb out of the top flight with the advent of VAR.  No surprise to see the club’s recent traditions upheld by the new coach.  There’s been plenty of criticism of today’s referee Tim Robinson, who will certainly have better afternoons.  But it wasn’t Robinson making the studs up challenges, not late tired lunges in a high speed contest but deliberate and unpleasant acts of gamesmanship.

3- The last home win in a game between the two sides came at Bournemouth in January 2015, abetted in part by an early (and later rescinded) red card for Gabriele Angella.  There should have been an early red card here…  with a crowd to bellow it’s objection, or had the challenge come ten minutes later then surely the Cherries would have been down to ten.  Tindall was at least candid enough to admit that “on another day it could have been a red card”, but his “not that kind of bloke” follow up in defence of Lloyd Kelly doesn’t hold any water.  You saw the thought process as Sarr threatened to escape… danger man, early doors, will get away with a yellow here, let’s do it.  It was brutal, arrogant and cowardly, and our good fortune was that Sarr wasn’t badly injured as he could have been.

Instead, after an opening ten minutes in which the Cherries had been aggressively, attritionally assertive the Hornets broke with devastating efficiency.  Cathcart swung a tremendous ball from left to right into the path of Sarr, the winger blistered down the right and slid a perfect cross into the path of Stipe Perica’s lunge.  The Croat had had an ungainly, awkward opening ten minutes or so but made no mistake here.

The rest of the half was low on goalmouth incident – our games are likely to be this way – but never less than engrossing. Sarr’s opening 45 was devastating, even if as the visitors briefly reeled in the wake of the goal he could have put Perica away rather than trying his luck from 30 yards.  The visitors began to pick up a head of steam in the final 15 minutes of the half; the largely low-key  Arnaut Danjuma showed a level of awareness of tradition with a “Coxy into the wall” tribute from a free kick.  Jack Stacey continued an emerging tradition of right backs causing us problems, frequently joining attacks and necessitating a fine and acrobatic interception from the tremendous Chalobah late on. Dominic Solanke, still looking a bit like an exchange student who doesn’t really speak the same language as his teammates, found some space but drove tamely at Foster.  Always – again, this will be the case one suspects – we looked a threat on the break whenever Sarr, who was diligent defensively, put the burners on.

An emerging theme, however, was the vulnerability of James Garner who was bullied by Billing and picked up an early yellow card for a silly trip.  As the half drew to a close the only question was whether to replace him at half time or to risk the humiliation of withdrawing him earlier, such was the degree to which he was overwhelmed and, particularly, rattled by his opponent once going through the back of him as the ball departed.  In the pantheon of missed fouls, would not be even handed to neglect to mention this one.

But Billing himself stole that particular limelight as the half drew to a close.   A flying elbow that connected painfully with Perica’s head was a coulda red rather than a shoulda, a benefit of doubt could be afforded.  Less so for me the sneaky lunge at Cleverley’s thigh by the same player in the subsequent passage of play, this looked more deliberate and considered being out of the referee’s line of vision.  Pretty extraordinary that the big Dane finished the game without a card.  We ended the half bruised, but in front.

4- The start of the second half could and perhaps should have seen us out of sight.  Étienne Capoue was on for Garner, his first touch of the ball was miserable but thereafter he was tremendous… he dinked a terrific ball to send Sarr through again, the Senegalese perhaps hit it later than he might have done but nonetheless drove a shot that would have gone inside Begovic’s near post had the keeper not pulled off a fine reflex save.

Shortly afterwards Sarr escaped again, and this time was pulled down by Kelly whose earlier yellow card should have proven critical.  It wasn’t a straight red for me, any more than the Kabasele incident on Wednesday night, but was a cynical attempt to curtail an escaping opponent and was a second yellow all day long.  Not given.

From then, it was an odd half.  The visitors dominated possession but their pressure was largely attritional…  comfortable in possession, good at moving the ball around and finding space, not very good at exploiting it.  Their efforts on goal – until the critical one – were from distance and whilst the shots on target stat in isolation doesn’t tell the story of a ball being moved around and across the penalty box, there was a lack of focal point for the visitors.  Josh King, making his first domestic start of the season, might become that figure but he was a largely theoretical threat here.

The Hornets threatened on the break, and Begovic had as much to do as Foster for all of Bournemouth’s rather impotent pressure.  Quina came on for Cleverley and put on a glittering half-hour or so, comfortably his best showing of the season…  the Cherries were the first side to afford him time and space to shoot from distance and a little more precision would have delivered more from two fierce, bending drives that Begovic, twice, nonetheless did well to stop.  On the second occasion João Pedro, on for the uncomfortably injured Perica, wasn’t quite sharp or fortunate enough to meet a rebound but was later involved in another lightning break that should have seen us capitalise on a numeric advantage as the visitors chased the game.

5- If you take the view – and I’m not sure I do in this case – that refereeing decisions are random incidents to be ridden and dealt with then it’s difficult to argue that the visitors weren’t worth a point, such was their unwavering pursuit of an equaliser.  They attacked with the ferocity of Blackburn, if without the potency, but also lacked the great big open gaps behind them as they pushed forwards.  Nonetheless, it’s always galling to concede an injury time equaliser, the more so given Kelly’s prominence in it.  Echoes of (former Cherry) Tyrone Mings’ arse at Villa Park in January when the England defender should have walked before the injury time winner took a critical deflection off his unwitting backside – one can only hope that this one proves less expensive.

I was bloody livid.  I can’t imagine I was the only one.  This report was postponed by the need to drive to Bedford and stomp grumpily around the park in the swirling wind and rain with a very strong coffee.

But having calmed down (a bit), it’s not hard to be philosophical.  Our side is built on a strong defence, and boy did they prove their mettle today – indeed, over the past week – despite the disappointing denouement.  All three of the centre-halves were absolutely tremendous, Cathcart putting in a masterclass of being in the right place at the right time as so often, garnished with his astonishing contribution to our goal.  Kabasele was focused and dynamic, and if Troost-Ekong still needs games and looks less physically dominant than I’d imagined there’s no disputing, once again, that we look a solid old unit.  If you rely heavily on your defence then occasionally, as today, as at Reading, something’s going to break against you.  That doesn’t mean that the whole plan is necessarily bunk, certainly not with the likes of Troy, Hughes, Gray, Masina still to return.

We’re still in a good place.  What matters, after generally kind results elsewhere, is how we respond. How we get back to, well, “normal”. Starting at Wycombe on Tuesday.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3,  Sema 4, *Cathcart 5*, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 5, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 3, Garner 2, Sarr 4, Perica 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Garner, 45) 4, Quina (for Cleverley, 64) 4, João Pedro (for Perica, 82) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Murray, Bachmann

Watford 3 Blackburn Rovers 1 (21/10/2020) 22/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- I have recently discovered Marie Kondo.

At a time when, for various reasons, it’s difficult to do anything extravagant with time off and having plenty of it still to use I’m spending the week sorting out the garage.  That’s living, kids.  And so I’ve been directed towards Marie Kondo’s Netflix show by a friend who knows me rather too well.  The ferociously prescriptive and attractively bonkers how-to-tidy-and-organise-stuff methodology is right up my street and has had a fine impact on my garage, at the cost only of the collateral damage of an unforeseen extra day to be spent emptying my wardrobe and saying goodbye and thank you to, I suspect, a large number of clothes.

Marie Kondo herself is a small Japanese woman high on smiles, energy and personality.  One of the mantras is to only keep stuff that gives you joy, and the character she portrays is consistent with that.  She’s joyful.

Only a visit to her Wikipedia page lifts the veil.  Her Wikipedia pic is…  cold.  Focused.  Severe.  Businesslike.  The illusion is shattered, her on-screen persona is mere performance.  This doesn’t make the approach any less effective it’s just…  harder to trust her.

So it was reassuring to see Vladimir Ivic staying on brand during a largely vanilla fans’ forum on Monday.  “Would you prefer to win 4-3 or 1-0”.  “1-0”, with a twitch of the shoulder that implied that the answer should have been obvious (it was).  It’s not the fun answer, but you know it’s an honest one.  Nobody should be surprised.   What he made of this evening’s fare we can only speculate.

2- Much of the blame for the  thrilling, captivating nature of the evening lies at the feet of the visitors, who were bold, enterprising and very capable.  Comfortably the most potent attacking force we’ve faced so far, their activity at the end of the transfer window suggested a side who’d had a glance around the division, decided they fancied it and told the dealer to twist accordingly.  Of the four deadline day arrivals only the precocious Harvey Elliott started and it may be that we played Rovers at a good time, before the signings have settled, but this was nonetheless a stern test of our back line.

Which isn’t to say that the visitors were infallible.  The prognosis from previews by People Who Know was of a soft underbelly and even as Rovers pushed forward, dominated possession and denied us any control in the early stages a peculiar defensive set up that saw centre-backs Ayala and Lenihan staying back. goalkeeper Kaminski pushing up, but a chasm between themselves and the rest of their side with both full backs attacking aggressively seemed ripe for exploitation.

The early exchanges only served to whet the appetite for what was to come.  As we finally managed to string a couple of passes together six minutes in, Sarr was released and disappeared into the sunset leaving Amari’i Bell in pieces behind him.  Rather than rein in Rovers’ ambition this only seemed to spur them on…  a quick free kick forced Cathcart to concede a corner, the excellent Nyambe fed Armstrong who tested Foster for the first time, the keeper making light of a fierce shot.

It was an engrossing battle, which seemed to take a decisive turn in a five minute period a quarter of an hour in.  The first goal was a rapier thrust;  Sarr fed Garner who played in Kiko on a galloping overlap.  He squared for João Pedro to sidefoot calmly home.  It was a goal savage in its precision, but the follow-up four minutes later was simply savage, Rovers momentarily startled by the turn of events opened up by a ball from Garner and Sarr’s merciless strength and speed.  His shot at an angle was always a big ask, but Kaminski could only palm it away and it dropped kindly for Tom Cleverley, albeit his forehead was where anyone else’s could have been if they’d been paying attention.

3- Very briefly that felt like “it”, so clinical had been our finishing, so keen had Rovers been to push forward and so vulnerable had they seemed to be to the counter-attack.  Going away and being so positive is fine until you fall behind, let alone two goals behind, and it was difficult to see anything other than us scoring more on the break.

To their credit Rovers’ resolve didn’t waver at all and they kept at us.  We had a bit of a break five minutes later as Kabasele was given a yellow as he brought down the lively Armstrong.  The striker had run across Kaba’s path to draw the foul and with Cathcart covering a yellow was the right decision, but not so right that you haven’t seen a red given in those circumstances.  From the resultant free kick Lenihan tested Ben Foster with a header – he should have done better in truth, having been let go by his marker Sema in a slightly concerning echo of the game at Hillsborough.

Another five minutes of pressure on and Rovers had a goal back.  It was a tremendous chest and volley from more than twenty yards, albeit Brereton had more space than you’d have liked, but Ben Foster was deceived by a late bounce and beaten at his near post.

Digressing slightly, it’s an overlooked detail that we didn’t award a Player of the Season last year.  Completely understandable in the circumstances, Things being what they are/were and so on even if it presents something of an unreachable itch for statistical completists like me.  In any event, had such an award been made it seems likely that Foster would have achieved the rare feat of two such trophies in relegation seasons thirteen years apart, for his stoic performances and irrepressible good-blokeness on and off the pitch.  And this despite, it is easy to forget, a rather wobbly start to last season where being beaten at his near post was in danger of becoming a Thing.  He overcame that wobble and here, too, whilst at least jointly culpable for letting Rovers back into the game he recovered to pull off a quite startling performance.

4- Any concerns that the second half would calm down a bit were allayed within five minutes of the restart.  An underhit Chalobah pass towards Sema was cut out, and Wilmot was caught slightly flat footed as Brereton escaped only to be pulled back by a welcome offside flag.  That could have been a different second half.

As it was, and with so much of our threat in the first half having come via the burning pace of Sarr and Femenía on the right, Blackburn telegraphed what was to come by giving Ken Sema all sorts of space to put a cross in on the left.  He’s already demonstrated that he needs no space at all to cause damage from wide positions, so it was little surprise that a minute later his vicious cross was turned in by Lenihan.  Unfortunate for Rovers, but only up to a point – this wasn’t a freak turn of events, a gift… Sarr was attacking the space behind Lenihan forcing the Irish defender to (try to) deal and would have converted if he hadn’t.

Back to a two goal cushion, but still not game over.  Foster saved brilliantly from a Corey Evans volley, then again when another underhit pass towards Sema, this time from Sarr, saw Rovers escape. Armstrong beat the offside this time only to be denied by Foster’s extendable fingertips, a save he had no right to make.  Only, finally, when Holtby won himself a penalty with a well-timed tumble and Foster went the right way to deny Armstrong yet again were we able to relax.  For all Rovers, potency, this was clearly our night.

And for all Rovers’ potency, for all that they dominated possession and made so many chances, the scoreline doesn’t flatter us in the slightest.  Having a tremendous goalkeeper isn’t “lucky”, having defensive players doing what’s necessary to make those chances difficult for the most part isn’t fortunate.  Instead the main concern from the evening was that we didn’t win more comfortably given the unreasonable pace in our attack and the great big spaces that were afforded behind Rovers’ backline.  For all that the visitors were impressive and huge fun – “everyone likes a plucky loser”, as my Dad would say – there were echoes of the dying days of Javi’s reign here at the start of last season (about twenty years ago).  Rovers were attacking and enterprising, but carved open far too easily.

5- For the remaining twenty minutes or so the visitors were kept at arm’s length and it looked more likely that we’d extend our lead than that we’d concede again, João Pedro and Sarr both coming close in blistering breaks.  Key in this, the cherry on the icing on an already very respectable cake this evening was a swaggering half hour from the quite brilliant Étienne Capoue.

And here’s the thing.  If we were perhaps catching Rovers on a good day, a few players missing and new signings not bedded in, then every side that plays us at the moment is playing us on  a good day.  We are only going to get better. All of our midfielders played well in isolation today…  Chalobah does some silly things sometimes but only because he does so much destructively and creatively.  James Garner looked absolutely fabulous again, dynamic and energetic and ferocious and still absolute class with the ball at his feet.  Cleverley is leading the team, and for me far, far more effective in an attacking role.

And yet Capoue will take that midfield to a whole new level, a Rolls Royce of a midfielder in this or any division.  Will Hughes still to return.  Wow.  At the back, if we looked less comfortable, more tested and stretched today it’s in part due to the fact that we were facing a much more potent opponent – conceding one goal here as impressive as some of the clean sheets that preceded it.  And up front…  the two young forward players are both extraordinary and if they’re not quite in tandem yet then you kinda feel that with a tweak in formation, attacking from slightly deeper either side of a Perica or a Gray, (let alone a Deeney, at his freewheeling Russian Roulette best in the Hornet Hive studio) they’re going to cause no end of havoc.

Most of all, there’s the head coach’s ferociously prescriptive method.  Marie Kondo would approve, I suspect. A long way to go, but we look well set-up, well stocked and well prepared for this.

Another big test Saturday.  Bring it on.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 4, Garner 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Cleverley, 61) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 71) 3, Quina (for Sarr, 89) NA, Troost-Ekong, Perica, Murray, Bachmann

Derby County 0 Watford 1 (16/10/2020) 17/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- The boredom’s bloody awful.

Most specifically, the lack of excitement.  The lack of adrenaline.  Working in isolation, bingeing on TV series, cooking curries, Zoom calls with friends, all fine.  Enjoyable, to varying degrees.  Not exciting though for the most part, not really.

Walking’s good.  That’s not exciting either, but living rurally it’s something I can do without reservation whatever the state of lockdown is, whatever the R number is.  In the fields out the back I can walk for miles with a good few hundred metres warning of anyone approaching and as Billy Connolly amongst others has noted there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong type of clothes.  Normally I’ll have a podcast in my ears, but last week I went for music instead on a ten mile loop up to there, across to there through a wood full of indignant muntjac and back home again.  I prescribed myself a diet of stuff that I haven’t listened to for ages…  Blondie, Cinerama, the Wonder Stuff.  All live albums…  listening to a live album isn’t the same as being there, as feeling your ribcage vibrating as PJ Harvey launches into “Dress”, but it’s not without value as a substitute.  The Pretenders were rejected as soon as it became clear that their live acts involved playing everything at half the usual speed, the opposite of what a live performance is supposed to be.  Soon I had a spring in my step, a little burst of adrenaline borne of losing myself in the music.  Half an hour later I was in tears as the wrong lyrics tripped me up.  A high risk strategy, evidently.

2- Speaking of excitement, the transfer window’s just slammed shut.  Long enough this one, I think, and I’m speaking as someone who finds the ludicrous toing and froing and speculation relatively enjoyable as you might have gathered (and see above, anything approaching excitement…).  In truth it’s long been a landmark that we’ve been desperate to see pass, not just because it means the portcullis dropping on the possibility of losing the likes of Sarr and Hughes, at least until January, but just in that it might finally show our hand (whatever that might be).  As it turned out it passed relatively uneventfully, the “no news” being good news in that we retain everyone we were desperate to keep (not you, Craig).  If their heads are in the right place the guys who’ve stayed when they might not have are huge assets.  Quite how big a caveat that is only time will tell, but the suspicion that not all of those who were slated as likely exits would leave proved well-founded.

Nonetheless, the announcement of the starting eleven was underwhelming.  No Troy, no Hughes, we knew that, but no Sarr either.  The club may have been aware that he wouldn’t realistically be back in time (despite Senegal’s Tuesday game with Mauritania having been scratched, so a little difficult to reconcile) but we didn’t.  And no Capoue, despite the suggestion that his return was a possibility.  The first eleven, certainly the attacking side of it, looked a bit botched together and the bench, flimsy. Vladimir Ivić had picked a side based on what he had available, but it was a side that looked even more focused on defensive solidity, asking an awful lot of two young attacking players in João Pedro and Domingos Quina.

Little surprise then that the first half was pretty turgid.  The midfield was ferociously congested, any possession hared down by whoever didn’t have the ball meaning that either side stringing more than a couple of passes together felt a little anomalous.  Defensively we looked solid, as ever, William Troost-Ekong having a relatively inconspicuous debut (save for a slightly alarming sliced attempt at a clearance that Foster had to be attentive to) but was also talking constantly and from the opening minutes.  Good.  Going forward though very little was sticking up front. There were occasional glimpses of life, João Pedro demonstrating surprising strength to hold off a defender here, Sema breaking from his constrained central position to get wide and get a ball over there, but these sparks didn’t ignite anything too often let down by a bad pass or a bad decision forced by the lack of time and space.

The biggest threat to either goal in the first half was Wayne Rooney, whose decline I had greatly exaggerated in my head having viewed only from a distanced and labelled Derby a bit of a basket case – also an exaggeration.  Whilst his mobility has reduced his physicality and awareness gave the home side’s attacks some cohesion and his set piece delivery their biggest threat.  Also the best demonstration of our defensive resilience since we stood up to it well.

3- The thing is, solid is a very decent start.  Easy to be smart with hindsight of course… this game could certainly have finished nil nil, we’d have a different view if more generally we’d had a few more unlucky but decisive breaks such as the deflection on Pușcaș’ shot two weeks ago in our generally tight games to this point.  But it didn’t and we haven’t…  and so it’s not unreasonable to credit a head coach who has looked at the bit that’s stable and works, and looked at the bit where the sands have been shifting most unpredictably and prioritised accordingly.

It was argued after the game that we’ve not played anyone decent yet, but that’s not strictly true by the standards of the division.  Three of the five teams we’ve played are top half as I write and another would be, just about, but for their points deduction despite us taking points off most of them. It is difficult for a side to look good against our suffocating defending.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good chances we’ve allowed opponents across the five league games, and whilst we’ve made mistakes – Cleverley passing carelessly across the box, Wilmot making a rash challenge later in the game – they’re isolated incidents, we’re solid enough to ride them and the Championship isn’t merciless enough to punish them most of the time.  We have a strong first four from which to perm three (or two) at the back, and Sierralta getting good reviews for Chile in the week makes a fifth.  Sean Dyche’s Watford side did a good job of being solid with a bit of magic dust eight years ago, this – without the absentees – is the same formula with vastly better players.

There’s a lot to admire and enjoy and – digressing slightly – it seems worthwhile dwelling on the fact that this stuff is quite enjoyable and has value in it’s own right. It might suit the big six to pretend that it’s their bit that’s important, certainly suits them to build in anticompetitive barriers to protect themselves from upstarts like Leicester and Wolves in the same way that the Premier League’s creation guarded against the Wimbledons and the Champions’ League’s inception guarded against the Steaua Bucharests, but it doesn’t suit anyone else.  And yes, Things Being What They Are something needs to be done but further closing a shop, further tilting the unlevel playing field isn’t it.  Delighted that the thing was voted down, some kind of deal that recognises the symbiosis of the football pyramid and involves, you know, the big six giving something up rather than making concessions that don’t cost them an awful lot whilst clawing away at any risk to their dominance hopefully the end game.  It has been argued that this was merely an opening salvo, that the proposal was so ludicrous that it can only have been a negotiating position to row back from to the actual objective but I don’t buy the implied inevitability of it.  Match 39 was, eventually, beaten off after all.

4- Back on the pitch and as so often we got better in the second half.  And, yes, it would be nice if we were great for ninety minutes but evidence of a manager smart enough  to know what to change is encouraging.  It was still not quite there, the ball was still not sticking enough but fifteen minutes in we were undeniably on top for the first time.  Ken Sema rolled Evans, the weak link of the Derby backline.  João Pedro got yet another exquisite touch to tee up Chalobah who slammed the ball goalwards…  Evans blocked with his hands but a coulda rather than a shoulda penalty for me.  Cleverley put an outrageous ball across the pitch, well cleared.  Kabasele met a Quina corner well but a deflection killed the momentum of the header.  Derby were all hands on deck now, not least the excellent Matt Clarke, a frequent appearance on The List in recent years.

And then it happened.  And Ben Wilmot had a big role in it tp crown what was already perhaps his strongest performance in a yellow shirt;  the surge on the ball from the left that disrupted Derby’s shape was worthy of a Holebas or a Doucouré, not a 20-year-old centre back playing on his weaker side.  He continued his run pulling Shinnie away from João Pedro and…. well.  You’ve surely watched it a dozen times by now, you don’t need me to describe it.  There was a bit of Deulofeu at Wembley about it but rather than dislocating his ankle to achieve a ridiculous curl the Brazilian did his thing where he makes himself space not by touching the ball but by stepping away from it and then stroking an impossible shot arcing through the eye of the needle and into the top corner.  Completely outrageous.  João Pedro has arrived.

And THAT is what excitement feels like.  Our third winner of the season, fourth if you count Perica’s penalty against Oxford, but the first bellow.  The first roar, eyes closed limbs extended ungracefully from my starting position on my stomach in front of the TV on the living room floor, making a degree of noise that didn’t go down well with all members of the family.  Get.  In.

5- I started emptying out the garage today. the morning after the night before, the first stage of an overdue project that is having a week off devoted to it, at least in part.  No, not exciting, but I got my excitement in last night in that hugely cathartic moment.  I finally emptied the last of the boxes from our move from Watford, umm, eleven and a half years ago.  Yes, I should have just binned it, but I found this…

 

Which is a good thing.

As for the game…  yes, it could easily have been nil-nil although Philippe Cocu, whose Derby side were limited and imbalanced rather than awful – had a touch of the Viallis about him in his fanciful post-match assessment that his side had been dominant and deserved “at least” a point.  No mate.  Both sides were solid, made it difficult.  We had some angel dust, and scored a goal, you didn’t.

A goal with our first shot on target admittedly, but as above Vlada is playing his hand and playing it well.  There’s an array of attacking talent missing that will give us an awful lot more than just angel dust.  Indeed, a line-up of Bachmann, Navarro, Masina, Cathcart, Sierralta, Capoue, Hughes, Garner, Sarr, Deeney, Gray gives today’s starting eleven a hell of a game and doesn’t feature Perica, Murray, Success or the criminally injured Dele-Bashiru.  Indeed, to requote an earlier statistic… if the Premier League couldn’t cope with a forward line of Sarr, Deeney, Deulofeu (L2, D3, W5 inc Liverpool, United, Wolves when starting together) then the Championship might struggle with Sarr, Deeney, João Pedro.

This game wasn’t a thriller, but was the stuff that promotions are made of.  We look a bit good, boys and girls.

This could be quite exciting.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Wilmot 4, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 3, Sema 3, Quina 3, *João Pedro 4*
Subs:   Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 72) 3, Murray (for João Pedro, 86) NA, Garner (for Quina, 89) NA, Stevenson, Phillips, Hungbo, Bachmann

Reading 1 Watford 0 (03/10/2020) 04/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- In my day-job, I’m a statistician.

This involves making sense of data.  Drawing reliable conclusions, building models, quantifying variation.  Is there a relationship between this and that?  What are the consequences of changing this, this and this all at the same time?  What are the factors that influence this outcome?

There is a characteristic of this role, of roles like this, that may not be immediately obvious.  When the penny drops the cold reality smacks you in the face. It’s absolutely terrifying.  People expect you to know what you’re talking about.  Your judgments are treated as gospel. Careless words run away from you and develop a life of their own.

This risk breeds a certain carefulness.  Caveats, qualifications, fences to be sat on, “on the other hand” and so forth. An inherent caution.  Which goes out of the window completely outside work.  Don’t tell anyone.

I don’t know what it is.  If I was at work I’d be full of warnings not to draw conclusions from a small sample size, not to extrapolate from this to that. This morning?  Clearly we weren’t going to concede a goal or lose a game all season.  Difficult game?  Pah.

2- The team started as if they were just as convinced of their own invulnerability.  Vlad’s selection was ostensibly a little conservative, Cleverley and Sema’s niggles this week seeing them relegated to the bench in favour of Tom Dele-Bashiru and Kiko Femenía, but we were punchy and aggressive from the off.

Sarr squirmed out of a tackle , tripped from right to left across the face of the box and released Dele-Bashiru breaking down the left, his fierce ball across the face just missing a touch.  Kiko overlapped and forced a ball across, Ngakia was attacking the far post but shanked a shot wide.

Reading were positive also, but seemed to be pushing themselves further than they wanted to be pushed, to the ragged extremes of their capabilities. Balls quicker than they could be accurately directed.  We swung the ball from flank to flank, Nathaniel Chalobah the conductor in chief swooping first time passes to either side where the wing-backs were pushing on. We won a free kick on the edge of Reading’s area, James Garner made light of the traditionally treacherous “too close to get it up and down” dangerzone to crash his shot off the underside of the bar.

It was all going rather well.  Too well.  And then two things happened.  Firstly the hosts switched formation to drop an extra body into their increasingly ragged midfield.  Secondly, Tom Dele-Bashiru twisted his knee awkwardly in a fall.

It’s preposterous to suggest that the side was reliant on a midfielder thirty minutes into his full league debut, but such was his irrepressible dynamism and influence on proceedings that it’s difficult to conclude anything other than we suffered for his absence.  He lasted another five minutes, during which Nathaniel Chalobah wandered across the edge of the Reading box, was robbed by a fine tackle and as the home side tried to break out Garner hurtled in with a blocking tackle.  It was heroic, but signified a shift in the game.

3- We’d been warned, and not just today.  We’re still work in progress, the sands are still shifting, it’s not “finished” and there’s already plenty to like.  But right at the moment, right now, we’re not potent enough.  The return on all the impressive, often elegant use of the ball and composed possession is too little punch at the business end.  Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro are both fabulous, Sarr’s will be the dominant thread of the many threads to be resolved over the next couple of weeks, but playing them up front together is like having two puddings and no main course.  A nice idea, but overly indulgent and ultimately unsatisfying.  You might get away with it on special occasions but on a regular basis it’s just not going to work.

We were better than Reading over the piece in the sense that we had more of the ball, more chances, and defended better but not so much better that we could get away with not having many shots or scoring any goals.  And as I said, we were warned…  Cathcart got away with a lucky deflection that saw him accidentally bypass Meite’s challenge on the edge of the area.  The same player got onto the end of a cross swung from right to left, thumping a volley at Foster who did well to block and then to repel a rebound.  Eventually Pușcaș, who did an endearingly belligerent job of charging around up front for the home side, attempted an unconvinced and unconvincing shot which took a deflection off Cathcart to wrong-foot Foster.

We were a bit unlucky with that incident.  If you manage to engineer shots and goals from possession when you have it you can afford such misfortunes when they come along.

4- The second half was a little bit miserable.  We were still trying most of the better things that had been going on in the first half but suddenly it looked a little bit deliberate, a little bit hard work.  Reading were playing with more confidence and did a good job of just getting in the way and threatened from set pieces, where we looked a little bit vulnerable. Much of the good stuff involved James Garner, whose set piece delivery is tremendous and who seemed keen to move the ball quickly which, in the absence of the physicality to threaten a large, solid defence was kinda essential.  Sema moved from an awkward looking spell in the centre to the left after another personnel switch and briefly looked like a get-out-of-jail card with his delivery from wide, but it didn’t happen… we ended the game looking quite forlorn, and quite unlike scoring an equaliser.

5- As was reflected in the post-match Hive discussion, a Troy Deeney in particular would have been useful for the other two to play off, to batter spaces for others to exploit.  To enable goals that weren’t entirely dependent on precision.  Or a Perica.  Or a Gray.  Glenn Murray had a brief cameo, but it’s fair to say that we haven’t worked out what to do with him yet.

Beyond that… an annoying defeat, but nothing to get overly stressed about.  There is still an awful lot more good than bad about this side which is extremely young, extremely fun and still being moulded.  The second of the two transfer windows, the domestic one, closes a couple of hours before we kick off against Derby and by then we’ll know who caught their plane, who was turned back at the gate and who never wanted to leave anyway, honest.

And then, finally, we’ll know where we’re at.  Probably.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 3, Dele-Bashiru 4, *Garner 4*, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Sema (for Dele-Bashiru, 37) 3, Cleverley (for Femenía, 69) 2, Murray (for Sarr, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Quina, Pussetto, Bachmann