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Watford 4 Preston North End 1 (28/11/2020) 29/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1-  Good day today.  Foggy, but don’t mind a bit of fog.  Hassle-free drive down, podcast on the radio, both girls plugged in happily on the back seat.  Met up with Dad and Paul at Wagamamas on Market Street, lurid glass of juice, pile of stuff and noodles.  Pre match chat, tumbling things around, contemplating team selection and fiddling with the phone as 2pm approaches.  Not long after we were heading towards the ground, pairing up as the narrow pavements and growing throng demanded.  On Vicarage Road we ducked into the newsagent on the corner, temporarily clogging it up by deliberating over lucky chocolate, grabbing drinks from the fridges and back out.  Colin’s on the street selling the latest Treasury; there’s a queue outside Fry Days a cluster outside the Red Lion, people waiting for meet-ups.  We split at the top of Occupation Road and the Rookeryites head down the slope ducking around the Preston team coach parked at the top, once again wondering where the Ancient Turnstile is, dodging the lottery sellers and the folk coming up from Cardiff Road.

Inside the ground it’s cold enough for the girls to demand a hot chocolate and then we’re into the Rookery and despite the fact that everywhere else is rammed the stand is still largely empty and again I can hear my wife saying “why do you have to get there so early again?”.  But as the girls warm their hands on their paper cups I’m able to enjoy the place filling up, watch the warm up, keep custody of the 1881 flag until Daughter 2 is ready to wave it.  Greetings are exchanged as folk arrive. As Z-Cars kicks in Daughters 1 and 2 jump up, and Daughter 2 takes the flag.   Sam bustles up at this stage, briefly queries where I want her to sit to accommodate Daughters 1 & 2.  Dave isn’t far behind, and he’ll always stop; no words exchanged as ever just a firm handshake with eye-contact conveying the gravity of the forthcoming encounter which is never less than profound.

Felix and his crew rock up as the teams are in huddle, Ben Foster claps the Rookery as he takes his place and then everyone’s focus is on the kick-off and following the ball for the next forty five minutes, not noticing the cold chill.

Not really, obviously.  Not next week either, not yet, not quite.  But soon.  And closer next week.  Maybe.

2- If we’re edging closer towards what things Ought To Be off the pitch, we’re suddenly ahead of the game on it.  Today’s shuffling of the deck saw the fielding of the same 20 names that muddled their way to a point at Ashton Gate on Wednesday but with a critical switch bringing Troy in for his first start of the season in place of João Pedro.

The suspicion that this would be a move to that most unfashionable, sneered at formation, the 4-4-2, was quickly confirmed as Deeney provided the first of many cushioned passes to Gray who crashed a shot that deflected wide.  And much as it’s years since we’ve regularly played this flavour of 4-4-2, a wide 4-4-2 with at least one winger hugging the touchline suddenly everything looked… if not fluent, then unforced and instinctive.  There was something that felt right about it.  GT hardly invented the attacking 4-4-2 of course, but it’s a tune that’s been played on this pitch plenty of times before and everyone knows the words.  As Domingos Quina “trapped the back post” on ten minutes after Sarr had swung a deep cross in from the right you could almost squint and see Nigel Callaghan doing the same.  Except, you know.  On the right, not the left.  And squinting really hard.

Preston are severely depleted, and look like a depleted half-decent side.  There are embers of something useful here, smart individuals in different places on the pitch but it’s not nearly cohesive enough to be impactful without a heavy dose of fortune.  Maguire fired a shot across our bows early on, Foster tipped over.  Scott Sinclair made his twelfth senior start against Aidy Boothroyd’s Watford side in an FA Cup Quarter Final a thousand years ago but is still only 31, relatively low-scale weirdness in our troubled times but still unsettling.  He unsettles us further with some direct running, forcing Garner into a heavy tackle on the edge of the box but there’s not enough of it to be a problem.  Indeed, Preston are so depleted that they’re fielding comedian Joe Wilkinson in midfield, presumably wearing Ben Pearson’s shirt because they didn’t have time to get one printed up.

Andre Gray is prominent for half an hour.  His Watford career has been a pretty joyless thing over the past eighteen months or so, but whatever his limitations there are things he’s very good at that circumstances have limited over that time.  Playing alongside a target man in general and Troy in particular is one of them, and with more freedom to charge around he does exactly that, rattling after Preston possession high up the pitch, harrying his way into the penalty area on the left hand side,   He also makes an arse of himself with an ill-judged backheel flick on the edge of the area of all things, nearly undoing the steadfast Kabasele’s good defensive work defending a free kick, but gets away with it.  It all looks very promising, doing nothing to dispel their suggestion that they’d rip this division up if allowed to play together but Gray’s hammy goes again after half an hour and that’s that for now.  João Pedro comes on in his place.

The remainder of the half sees us menacing without adding to our total, and the threat is coming from wide.  Kiko releases João Pedro down the left, his slightly ahead of Deeney.  Potts handles in the box after Deeney has clouted the ball in his direction;  no chance of a penalty but it’s pressure.  Kiko sends in a left footed cross and Sarr attacks it at the back post.  Deeney finds space in the box to plant a fierce header goalwards from a corner, João Pedro tucks home from an offside position.  Kiko is released yet again down the left and again finds Sarr on the far side of the box who volleys over.  It’s all a bit ominous for the visitors, you’d just rather be more than a goal up at the break.

3- Troy is forging a media career out of a straight-talking brand of punditry. His candour, you suspect, is less a performance for dramatic effect than it is just Troy being Troy and not really caring who he offends.

That’s fine, up to a point.  It’s not fine if you’re on the receiving end, it’s rather irritating when that happens…  Troy might be simply telling it as he sees it, but someone gaining traction with uninvited, undiplomatic comment on any aspect of people’s lives or careers is going to piss those people off however honest the input and however much people are paid to do the high profile job which is being criticised.  He’s at it in the pre-match interview too, dismissing “little divs” on Twitter for suggesting he only scores penalties these days, it’s as if he can’t help himself or is developing a habit.  Twitter is full of little divs and worse, he should have the cojones to realise that he doesn’t need to be wrong to be stupid for saying it.  Meanwhile writing for the S*n and commenting on Talksport would become less than charming if he wasn’t doing it himself on the pitch, ten years of leading from the front or otherwise.

Fortunately, “do it on the pitch” is exactly what he does.  This isn’t a spectacular performance from Deeney but it’s a vital and significant one.  Most valuable is the less obvious bit, the being there to be the focal point of an attack which hasn’t had much heft or glue to it until now.   Throughout, but particularly in the second half, the ball is sticking where it never stuck, we’ve got possession in and around the box rather than fifteen yards further back in front of massed ranks.  Passes are being found, Preston’s defence is being upset, we are swarming as the best attacks swarm and it feels as natural and easy as much of our attacking this season has felt laboured and deliberate.

It’s not, self-evidently, all down to Troy.  But Troy is the catalyst.  He’s the one occupying defenders but with the strength and the awareness and the touch to receive a ball in the area and to lay it off with a cushioned header or chest or touch and split Preston’s defence in two, if just for a moment.

Inevitably, given the comment in the pre-match interview, his goal comes from the spot after he cushions down (again) for Sarr, lively and positive and bloody dogged defensively to boot, to go down in the box.  We’re fortunate here, the defender is daft for waggling his leg in front of Sarr but withdraws it, Sarr anticipates the non-existent contact and goes down and the otherwise excellent Jarred Gillet gives us a generous decision.  In some ways it’s the most Troy of penalties, clouted dismissively at Declan Rudd’s right ear, the Preston keeper as helpless as if it had been planted in the top corner such was the violence of the strike.

Our progress is challenged by Preston’s goal, which is a bit unfortunate.  Yes, Barkhuizen should have been closed down quicker and no, James Garner shouldn’t have turned sideways to the shot but it still required the most unfavourable of deflections to tuck it inside Ben Foster’s right hand post and out of his reach.  For about ten seconds it looked as if we might wobble, as if maybe things weren’t as sorted as they’d seemed.

And then we were off again, carving out our best team goal of the season to date culminating in Chalobah laying off to Deeney with a touch and the skipper dinking an outrageously delicate ball over the defence and back into Chalobah’s thundering path for the midfielder to scythe a volley in off his shin from the left hand side of the area.  A tremendous finish to cap a confident and – get this – assertive performance from Chalobah; his skipper meanwhile, having talked the talk, was walking the walk.

4- From here on in it’s a coconut shy, a question of how many we’ll score.  In my head the morning after it’s been elevated to Brazil 1970 levels of fluency which is a grotesque exaggeration, but borne of the contrast with our attacking play up to now which has looked so hard work, requiring a bit of brilliance or a bad mistake to carve something despite a system which doesn’t have a natural load of goals to it.

But we look merciless and overwhelm an opposition, as described, for the first time this season.  My notes are an excited page of half-legible scrawl but the word POTENT Is there in capitals…  Riis is sandwiched in our area, a penalty shout but Preston aren’t getting those today and are buried under a deluge of chances.   Wins in the Premier League aren’t like this… many were impressive, but only rarely have we been so dominant in games since 2015. Rudd saves from Deeney after good work from João Pedro.  An evil, deep cross from Ngakia who has craft to match his energy and loves a game where he doesn’t have to defend finds his skipper at the far post, Deeney heads wastefully over.  Occasionally it looks like a rugby forward line, howling forward, running onwards and slipping sideways along the line just as the challenge comes in. Quina scuttles through but is blocked.  Garner shoots across the face of goal, deflected wide.  Quina finds Sarr who volleys over, Ngakia shovels a shot at goal, also deflected over, Sarr curls a shot wide after tiptoeing around the box.  It should and could have been more than four, the final goal telegraphed to me by a mischievous and deliberate “Woooooooooopooooooo!!!” texted from a club representative at the ground, designed to beat the time lag of the broadcast.  As such, given the lack of peril in the match at this stage, Cathcart’s flick to Garner’s corner and João Pedro, tucking in are all the more enjoyable for the fact that I know they’re coming.

5- The 4-4-2 will have stiffer tests than a severely weakened Preston side;  heaven knows we can empathise with having a glut of injuries that at least partly focus on players in the same position, the full backs in this case.  That said we’ve looked far less convincing against similarly limited sides before now this season, and are hardly at full strength ourselves.  Few Championship squads can boast a midfield of the quality of Étienne Capoue, Will Hughes, Tom Cleverley, Tom Dele-Bashiru and Ken Sema.  Fewer still would expect to pull off a thunderous three-goal victory against anyone in the division in the absence of such a midfield.

And of course there’s the lack of a left-back, that most prominent squad deficiency of recent years.  The lack, indeed, of any left footed player in the side beyond goalkeeper Foster.  It hampered us here, too often Quina, Femenía or Garner were forced to slow down a counter by cutting back onto their right foot.

For the first time this season, we overwhelmed our opponents anyway.

We’re in a good place.  That’s what football used to be like.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 4, Femenía 4,  Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Sarr 4, Garner 4, Chalobah 4, Quina 4, Gray 3, *Deeney 4*
Subs:  João Pedro (for Gray, 31) 4, Perica (for Deeney, 71) 3, Wilmot (for Femenía, 71) 3, Sierralta (for Cathcart, 87) NA, Phillips (for Garner, 87) NA, Crichlow, Bachmann

Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (25/11/2020) 26/11/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
14 comments

There’s a point a minute or so into Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” when it becomes clear that it’s less of a pop song and more of a collective attempt at levitation. Each of the dozen or so members, even those who could easily get away with slouching at the back and holding down the groove, are up on the balls of their feet. Every beat is lifted up into the air, raised skywards in an attempt at take-off. Every moment ascends another step on some kind of cosmic stairway, and you can put an ironic “man” on the end of that sentence if you like, but don’t feel obliged. Sometimes it glides and soars as if it’s hit a thermal. Always, it ascends, ascends; upward, upward. Hedonism and spirituality collide. The entire thing is an act of devotion, of pure ecstatic belief.

Dance.

(No, I haven’t been getting out much. You?)

There’s a point in a perfect football match when it becomes clear that it’s less of a sporting contest and more of a collective attempt at – look, I’m going to say “transcendence” here, so brace yourself – transcendence. Or it might, if you were standing aloof from it all, if you weren’t screaming yourself hoarse, lost in the moment. Evening kickoff, difficult opponents, vital points at stake, seesawing scoreline. The way that the sound seems to become liquid, thicker and slower than the night air; the way that it seems to cascade in waves down the stands towards the pitch. The way that the game and the crowd’s reaction to it become locked in a spiralling dance, ascending, ascending. The way that the goal which has been promised for ten or fifteen or more minutes finally arrives, and the way that nothing else matters in those precious, flammable seconds.

(And very much not the way that those precious, flammable seconds are undermined by the possibility of having to stand around in the cold for five minutes while someone stares at a monitor and draws lines to decide that your centre forward’s nose was ahead of the last defender’s arse.)

Clearly, most football isn’t like that. Most football isn’t like that at all. Most football involves sitting in dampish cold while a bloke three rows behind bellows “LINO! WHERE’S HE GOING? WHERE’S HE GOING?” as the opposition left-back takes a throw in his own half. But the possibility is always there, latent, imagined. (Of course, sometimes that’s the bloody worst of it: there’s a version of hell in which our attempted, imagined comeback at the Emirates in the last half of the last game of last season stretches on into eternity, always just out of reach. Descending, descending. We get the third in about a millennium’s time, fail to get the fourth in ever more torturous ways.) But the possibility…sometimes that’s nearly enough on its own. Just the thought of burying a week’s worth of cares in celebration of a last-minute winner. What a wonderful thing it can be.

All of which is a long-winded and pretentious – cosmic stairway, for pity’s sake! – way of saying that football in front of empty stands really doesn’t float my boat. It made a certain amount of sense last season, when it was a way of finishing what’d been started, which unfortunately, in our case, turned out to be the production of a massive steaming pile of poo. But starting afresh with no identifiable end point has seemed very odd to me, and especially jarring contrasted with the boisterous atmosphere at the Pilot Field, and I must admit that I lost interest some time ago.

I’m not a “Football Without Fans…” fundamentalist. As a very, very occasional attendee nowadays, I think I forfeit the right to be too opinionated (and that’s obviously a rule which is respected by everyone right across everywhere, especially social media, so that’s excellent). I salute my co-editor for covering it all so well when there’s been nothing away from the pitch in which to dress it up. (I also salute him for letting me continue with the title of “co-editor” when I only write one piece a year, and that of a generally grumblish quality, and never actually edit anything.) And I applaud the club for making all of this seem in any way fun, when it might so easily be as enjoyable as eating raw spaghetti with a plastic teaspoon at the birthday party of someone you had a bit of an unresolved argument with a few months ago. But I haven’t seen us play since the Luton game, which was like watching a grindcore band play an acoustic set, disconcertingly pleasant. I have no idea whatsoever where Bristol City are in the table until someone tells me. I couldn’t pick Billy Troost-Ekong out of a line-up unless the rest of that line-up comprised Derek Payne, Andy Hessenthaler and Worrell Sterling. I’ll be your host tonight.

There’s an obvious gag here: this was football which deserved to be played behind closed doors. That old Shankly quip about closing the curtains if Everton were playing down the bottom of the garden. But there’s something lurking underneath that too, a sense of how football re-shapes itself when it isn’t so conscious of the public gaze. It’s hard to believe that Bristol City could be quite this cautious in front of a stadium full of their own supporters; unless the opposition is particularly illustrious, and sometimes even then, home fans tend to want to see their team do more than line up in defensive banks. They don’t touch the ball for the first two minutes, content to get their shape and sit tight. In real life, you just can’t do that without a rising restlessness in the stands.

And for us, well, there’s more than a whiff of the training ground, of football played in theory, of diagrams and flip-charts. That stuff has its place, of course, but there’s a curious lack of a nervous edge which doesn’t appear entirely healthy, and hasn’t since Nigel Pearson had us all getting in touch with our inner chi. Again, supporters generate a restlessness which tends to raise the pace of it all, and perhaps to prompt someone to do something a little more daring. Tellingly, Hornet Hive pairs the ever-excellent Jon Marks with Tommy Mooney, and you can sense his own restlessness through the wires, and you can see the glint in his eye even though he never appears on screen. Oh, for a bit of that.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, and we wouldn’t want to miss any of the excitement. We begin with an awful lot of the ball and a light simmer of attacking, Jeremy Ngakia and Domingos Quina combining brightly on the right; the sum total of it is ‘mildly promising’ and ‘mildly promising’ is fine for now. As will become the pattern, however, City use thin fragments of possession to much greater effect, and Ngakia’s defensive weaknesses are quickly exposed by a break down his flank which ends with Semenyo shooting over when he ought to do better. There is to be much carping at the home side’s conservatism, but let’s be clear about one thing from the off: this is a game they should’ve won. They executed their gameplan with a compact intensity; we executed ours as if it was just one of several options on the table, a browsed buffet.

More football happened. I try to resist the urge to do some light pottering; my office is in desperate need of a tidy. I notice that Daniel Bentley, City’s flamboyantly-clad keeper, has a beard and try to think of other keepers with beards. It’s not a very beardy position, really, is it? Is there a reason for that, I wonder? While I’m chewing this over, the advertising hoardings flash up “BEARD” along the length of the pitch and I momentarily have a really unnerving sense of Truman syndrome.

We probably should be ahead by half-time, but we don’t do nearly enough to make that actually happen. I feel as if I’ve written that sentence before. Quina darts onto a stray cross-field throw and is denied by a saving tackle; he later flashes a shot over after a sharp turn, and comfortably wins the ‘man of the match’ award simply for doing more to make things happen than anyone else. There are moderately good things going on in various areas of the pitch: Nathaniel Chalobah is reasonably authoritative in front of the back four; Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele win their battles comfortably; James Garner is positive with the ball and supplies the half’s one moment of potentially decisive quality, drilling a pass into Andre Gray, before Ismaila Sarr’s shot is deflected over. We end the half with Cathcart only just failing to direct a header inside the post from a free kick, and a feeling that we can and must do more.

Half-time lucky hot chocolate. Distracted, I fail to stir it sufficiently; it has unpalatable powdery lumps in it as a consequence. Metaphor klaxon.

We can and must do more, and we don’t, by and large. I have yet to type João Pedro’s name and only typed those of Gray and Sarr a moment ago; the involvement of the front three is fitful at best, non-existent at worst. Of them, Gray tries more and fails more; he thoroughly fills the grid squares for well executed bad ideas, badly executed good ideas and badly executed bad ideas, leaving the fourth square untouched. I’ve no doubt that there will be those who’d like me to be more critical of that, and it’s true that he has the first touch of a mountain goat, but I’d prefer to shine the spotlight on the anonymity elsewhere: Sarr, in particular, coasts blankly through the game as if a bit bored by it all. You’re not the only one, sunshine. It isn’t a matter of expecting more from him especially; it isn’t anything to do with reputations or price tags. You need much more from those positions, whoever’s filling them. Without it, you’re effectively playing one up front, with no width.

In fact, it’s Sarr who has the half’s first threatening moment, racing onto a long ball from Ngakia, being forced slightly wide and seeing his cross-shot blocked. Part of this is about service, of course, and we really ought to have been able to supply more of those inviting balls down the side of City’s three-man defence. It’s true that we need the game to stretch in order to do that, but it does, and we don’t. The home side much more effectively exploit our weak points, with Semenyo targeting Ngakia and twice nearly creating the opening goal: the first of these, in which Ben Foster’s toe diverts a low-cross through the legs of the sliding Diedhiou in the six yard box, is perhaps the closest that the deadlock comes to being broken. Another shot slips past the far post, a header drifts onto the roof of the net.

We have one moment: Quina’s lovely, driven cross-field pass finding Sarr in space, his low cross half-cleared to the move’s originator on the penalty spot, only Bentley’s fingertips keeping out a fiercely-struck shot. It would’ve still been a poor return on possession, but it would’ve been a terrific and possibly match-winning goal nevertheless. We throw on Troy Deeney for the luckless Gray. We throw on Stipe Perica to join him for the last five minutes and have a brief holiday in the land of hitting it up to the big fellas; it wouldn’t last, but it momentarily feels as refreshing as stretching your legs after a long car journey. City force corners in injury time, Foster clawing out a sliced volley from Rowe as it threatens to loop over him. It ends. Back in the studio, everyone tries to think of something constructive to say, and largely succeeds. It’s an away point against a potential rival, after all. It looks like the club shop’s got some nice new mugs.

I’d expected to have little to say about it all, having been so detached. Oddly, though, it’s all rather familiar: Hastings United have been using more or less this formation for nearly three seasons under Chris Agutter, and I’ve watched its trials, tribulations and, ultimately, triumphs over that time. The first full season was characterised by something very similar to what we saw last night: a tendency to gather and hoard possession without making opponents uncomfortable. Good football, constructive football, but not enough penetration of the penalty area, not enough presence in the box just to take a chance and sling it in. We reached and lost in the playoffs that season, and that felt about right.

The transition from that to potential champions was made, in no small part, through the recruitment of Ben Pope, a forward who thrives in the role of target man, who can hold the ball up, bring others into play. The kind of centre forward who earns his place even without his goal tally. Suddenly, we could hit it long, build play in the final third before our opponents had a chance to set themselves. Suddenly, he could drag defenders out of position, flick something into the path of a teammate running into that space. Suddenly, it was actually worth putting a cross into the box every now and again. And I say all of that not to make Andre Gray into a scapegoat, but merely to suggest that a formation which looks something of a lost cause currently, with a number of players disappearing into its cracks, can be made to work with some perseverance. It isn’t as if there aren’t players in the squad who could play that role, if fit, although it’d probably be nice for all concerned if there were some point in the rest of Troy’s life when we weren’t relying on him to hold the ball up. But still…drag it all up the pitch a bit, get the young bucks into danger areas, hit the final third faster and more decisively enough times to make your opponents nerves fray, and suddenly, it might all look less forlorn.

It needs that. Not because we’re entitled to anything this season. Mainly because this seems like an especially bad moment for football not to be fun. It’s supposed to elevate our lives, to lift our spirits, to make us smile. Ascending, ascending. If it just echoes the worries and insecurities we have rattling around our heads during the week, putting caution before courage, putting pragmatism before idealism, then it fails us all, just a bit. And there might even be fans there to feed on it, to feed back in turn. A new beginning. A few thousand can make plenty of noise, if they give it some socially-distanced welly. Especially if you give them something to shout about.

Foster 4, Femenia 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Ngakia 2, Chalobah 3, Garner 3, *Quina 4*, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Gray 2
Subs: Deeney (for Gray, 66) 3, Troost-Ekong (for Ngakia, 82) NA, Perica (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Wilmot, Bachmann, Sierralta, Navarro, Crichlow, Phillips

Queens Park Rangers 1 Watford 1 (21/11/2020) 22/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- Back in school we played something resembling basketball.  I say “something resembling” because whilst I’m no aficionado my understanding has always been that basketball is supposed to be a non-contact sport.  A quick google clarifies that there’s plenty of technically illegal contact which is only pulled up when it affects the game.

Which still paints a picture of scant resemblance to whatever it was that we were playing at school, particularly during periods where Mr Green got bored and wandered off to the adjoining gym.  The version of basketball that we played was amongst the more violent pursuits of my school career (though obviously not a patch on the impromptu game of murderball that decimated the village green at Finchingfield, Essex when coaches A and C made the ill-advised decision to coincide there for a lunch break on a geography field trip in 1986).

Other than the violence, the enduring memory of these (loosely) basketball sessions is Mr Green’s limited but persistent attempts to coach a bit of tactical awareness into his charges. On any changeover of possession (frequent), the subsequent charge down the court was given fuel by his bellow of “fast breeeeaaaaak” (this being the extent of the tactical input);  on arrival at the other end of the court of course having bypassed the utterly irrelevant central third entirely, neither attacking nor defending side knew what the hell to do or where to stand, and so looked for someone to collide with accordingly.

If you watched the first half today, you’ll know where this is going.

2- There’s been a degree of reflection and stock taking of the season so far during the international break.  My own view for what it’s worth, as these reports have probably reflected, is that us getting to where we’ve got to without being particularly convincing is a Good Thing.  If Vlad was giving the impression of thinking we were sorted there’d be a concern.  This isn’t the case at all, and as such woe betide the division when we get our shit together.

And part of that getting together of our shit involves sorting the attacking shape on which score it was difficult to be anything other than positive at the outset today.  The unwelcome absences through unspecified knocks of both Christian Kabasele and Tom Cleverley was offset by a much anticipated switch in formation that saw an out-and-out striker, Andre Gray in this case, inserted between the two forwards, Sarr and João Pedro, who’ve spearheaded the side for much of the season.  This at the cost of a midfielder…  it says something for the strength of our squad that we can carry injuries to Hughes, Cleverley and Dele-Bashiru and still have options in the centre, but it may be that Cleverley’s injury accelerated the switch in formation.

This optimism was only fuelled by an opening two minutes which saw the Hornets win a corner and Ben Wilmot fly in unchallenged to flick home.  For all that this was his first senior goal for the ‘orns, Ben Wilmot attacking the box from a set piece is becoming a trademark Thing, witness two chances at Barnsley, his celebrated winner for Swansea against Cardiff and his goal for England’s U21 side on his full debut over the international break.  I slumped back into my seat to enjoy the happy inevitability of a comfortable victory.

3-  A state of calm which lasted about as long as it took for the home side to make their way back up the pitch to find the lively Bright Osayi-Samuel free on the right of the box, Cathcart interceding urgently to concede a corner.  From this the ball bounced around in our box alarmingly, a clean-shaven Étienne Capoue cleared off the line before a pass meandered its way across the face of goal oblivious to the anxiety it was provoking in Hertfordshire and beyond.

Quicker than you could shout “Fast breeeeeak” Kiko, in miles of space on our right throughout the first half, was winning a free kick from which Gray glanced a header wide.  Two minutes later a tremendous ball from deep from Wilmot found Kiko again; he was felled by Wallace near the corner flag, and Troost-Ekong repeated Wilmot’s trick of thundering into the box unimpeded but sent his header carelessly wide.

Such was the tone of the first half.  Chaotic, haphazard, both sides making chances but not quite having the quality to convert them.  You’d put it down to luck if this wasn’t a recurring pattern but Sarr in particular seemed hesitant in front of goal, his decisiveness not on par with the rest of his game in another, more concerning emerging trend.

And the shape wasn’t really working either.  Removing a midfielder was always going to ask a lot of Capoue and Chalobah and while Nate hurtled around manfully to varying effect Caps was passive.  We’ve seen him do this before, earlier in his Watford career… retreat into himself and let the game happen to him rather than running it as he could and should.  There was, perhaps inevitably, a big gap between the deep-sitting midfield and the forward line, and whilst it never stopped us making stuff (and indeed the preponderance of long balls may have been a deliberate strategy aimed at turning around a rearguard low on concentration) it both prevented us from overwhelming our opposition and laid ourselves open to counterattack.  Dominic Ball, a punchy Rangers midfielder whose aggressive display may have been fuelled by his release from the Vic as a youngster, charged through the centre of the pitch unchallenged on the half hour before earning a soft free kick from the diligent but often outnumbered Sema which Barbet put narrowly wide.

It was huge fun, and there was a sense that the next goal would be significant, that if we could grab it then we really could overwhelm our opposition, something we’re capable of but haven’t managed to achieve in any game this season.  Instead the half ended with João Pedro doing his thing of floating in off the left flank and bisecting QPR’s defence with a perfect through ball (for Sarr this time, for Ngakia against Boro).  Sarr should have scored, but his shot was parried at the near post.

4- There’s a reason that cancer screening in general is confined to a limited number of types of cancer.  Cancer screening is reasonably successful in that the tests themselves are reliable.  The probability of a false positive, a diagnosis of cancer in the absence of cancer, is low.

But the vast majority of positive diagnoses, in general, would be false.  This is the false positive paradox….  the test is good, but the vast majority of positive screens are misleading (“false positives”) because of the people being screened, the vast majority don’t have cancer.  A small proportion of a very big number is still a big number in absolute terms (more stuff here if this is more interesting than my report).

This is at the root of why Ivić had to change something at half time.  It’s tempting to look at a first half that, if chaotic, we came out of at the very least level on points and ahead on goals and then a second which was pretty bloody awful and ask “why didn’t he just stick with it?”.  Easy in hindsight.  We had to change something because for all that our defence tightened up a good deal in the first half and kept Rangers at bay for the most part, a small probability of failure is still significant if you’re rolling the dice a large number of times.

In hindsight (again), maybe Garner over Quina.  Maybe.  Given Garner’s delivery from set pieces in particular and QPR’s evident vulnerability in that regard.  But competing here is the need to sustain the attacking impetus, to find a combination that exploits our undoubted attacking potential, to make us more than the sum of our parts.  GT often said that you have to try things sometimes and Quina could be that spark, but was sadly lacking again here.  I’d expected him to drop into midfield with Troy and Sarr operating more as a pair, but Quina seemed based on the left where the slightly unfortunate João Pedro had been.  He looked horribly anxious, too often giving the ball away under no pressure and then charging after it in an attempt to redeem himself.  Troy, meanwhile, held the ball up ok and executed a number of tidy touches and lay offs, but wasn’t involved enough and wasn’t assertive enough.  Perversely.  Not all his fault but we needed a bully, we didn’t get one.

5- It wasn’t one-way traffic, not completely.  Looking for more control there were good signs early in the half as Ken, Troy and Quina worked it down the left only for Sarr to finish poorly.  Wilmot yet again got himself free in the box to meet a corner but headed wide on the hour.  Sema rolled a ball across the edge of the box, too far in front of Troy, Sarr fired over.

But what had looked like control retreated into a passive, stodgy performance without much threat at all.  Some of this is on us, but QPR grabbed hold of the game and kept coming and kept coming.  Substitute Dykes provided a physical presence and demanded some fine defending from Troost-Ekong from a corner.  From a deep right wing free kick Masterton headed across the box and off the bar.  Whereas we’d achieved composure at the back for much of the first half we were increasingly being pulled apart…  a ball in from the left demanded more fine defending from Cathcart, belying three games and a knock with Northern Ireland with a fine display here.

But it was coming and it came with around 15 minutes to go, some decent passing and movement freeing Chair on the left to roll the ball inside Ben Foster’s far post, a precise finish.  What threat of a winner there was then came from the home side… Foster clawed impossibly from underneath his bar, Troy cleared.  Dykes propelled the ball in with his hand after a fine cross from Watfordian Tom Carroll… clear handball, but they were there to execute it.  Chalobah could have been penalised for a tangle with Barbet in the box. We wouldn’t have had much to argue about had they found the winner.

They didn’t, and there are positives to take from this.  A point at Loftus Road might look like a much better point in a month or so’s time than it does now, and our centre-backs in particular stood up well to a varied attacking threat.  We’re still less than the sum of our parts though, it still looks wonky and botched together.  This isn’t a well-oiled machine that pieces slip in and out of, not yet.

But given that there’s no sense in criticising Ivić for trying different things.  It didn’t work today, we got an away point anyway just about, but we made a load of chances.  It’s not like there’s nothing there.  And while Ivić keeps trying to find a way to fit the pieces together we need to be patient if we don’t want to morph into the triggerhappy fanbase that lazy assessment of the Pozzo approach to head coaches paints the club as.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3,  Sema 3, Wilmot 4, Troost-Ekong 4, *Cathcart 4*, Capoue 2, Chalobah 3, Sarr 2, Gray 3, João Pedro 3
Subs:   Deeney (for Gray, 45) 2, Quina (for João Pedro, 45) 1, Garner, Sierralta, Ngakia, Murray, Navarro, Crichlow, Bachmann

Watford 3 Coventry City 2 (07/11/2020) 08/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- Today was a good day.

I went for a walk this morning.  Cold, sunny days are a fine thing and with rain forecast for tomorrow and dark evenings even crueller during lockdown the circumstances had to be capitalised on.  In a tight, defensive game against a challenging opponent you don’t miss chances like this.

So I walked across the fields towards the next village.  This is an advantage of living rurally, social distancing isn’t as much of a challenge when you can see folk coming from half a mile away.  I hadn’t intended to go as far as the next village, a muddy mile and a bit away, but the sun was shining and the folk coming the other way, nodding a smile as wide berths were afforded, were unusually armed with coffee cups.

Following the trail I ended up outside the village pub, doors closed of course as they would have been before midday in any case.  But a trailer had taken root, selling cofee, cakes, sandwiches, local produce.  I resisted the cake but went for a large coffee, then got a piece of cake for free having waited what the proprietor deemed an unreasonable time for my order standing in the sunshine as I was catching breath before heading back across the fields.  The best of both worlds, the moral victory of having resisted cake combined with, you know, cake.

Today was a good day.

2- I did consider writing something about Wednesday night.  Largely, admittedly, out of curiosity at the reaction this would prompt from my co-editor, sceptical as he is about the practice of writing match reports of stuff you’ve watched on a screen at the best of times let alone when the feed cuts after 35 minutes.

This isn’t the best of times of course, otherwise writing about matches watched on the telly wouldn’t be a thing. In any case, it’s good to see Hornets Hive up and running again, Steve Palmer and Steven Finn joining Emma Saunders in the studio and upping the already tremendous coverage a notch – Finn may be a cricketer, and regular readers know my views on minority sports, but both he and Smoker are articulate and insightful.  The collapse of the feed during the Stoke game notwithstanding, the club have done a tremendous job with this.  Go onto the vast majority of other club’s messageboards and browse the thread titled “iFollow” for some context reflecting how good we’ve got it.

3- As for the football…  nearly twelve months after his last League start Andre Gray was named ahead of João Pedro, whilst England U21 call-up Ben Wilmot and Will Hughes, reportedly the victim of a knock in training also dropped out.

And the first half was…  OK.  We dominated possession, and did so further up the pitch than has been the norm.  Still without enough of a target, still all rather too polite, still not beating any doors down but knocking firmly before standing and waiting to be seen to.  There was a threat, often through Sarr down the right, but it was rarely sustained;  too often, with Sarr pulling right, there wasn’t enough in the centre.  The Senegalese winger broke right early on, Gray didn’t quite get a touch at the near post and Cleverley shot over coming in on the left.

Coventry, all in Sky Blue with an ornate shirt design that blurred when in motion to create the impression of having spilled a pint down their front, were an odd mix of interesting looking bits that didn’t quite hang together.  A hardworking backline that would nonetheless be beaten three times and could have been beaten more.  A tidy midfield that were good enough to stay in the game and make a chance should they get lucky.  But they’d need to get lucky.  A mobile forward line that wasn’t particularly clinical.

But they were certainly good enough to make us sit slightly uncomfortably, making chances the match of ours with far less possession.  A tremendous cross from Giles on the left found the profligate Biyamou, who headed wide;  Giles was the best player on the pitch in the first half, arguably over the 90 minutes and such is the focus on our need for a left-back that every left back who looks half decent against us is going to be pencilled onto the list – the more so if they’re on loan from a Premier League club.  Later a Hamer cross found men spare at the far post.  Then a right wing cross demanded a fine block from Kabasele.

The Hornets took too long to turn defence into attack. This is something that Nathaniel Chalobah was really strong at during the near-mythical five-game start to his second Watford career under Marco Silva; he was on the bench here today though, and as against Stoke Étienne Capoue took a while to get up to speed, slightly ponderous during the opening ninety minutes and often guilty of not progressing the play quickly enough.

Nonetheless, the Hornets picked up speed at last as the half drew to a close.  Sarr burned down the right, forcing a block from the nervous Marosi.  A neat backheel from James Garner released Kiko whose far post cross earned one of a series of corners.  From here Cleverley cut inside to drive at the near post.  A further vicious Garner corner bounced dangerously in the box.  We didn’t want the half time whistle.

4- The second half began with Callum O’Hare, eyecatching here as he had been during our League Cup game last season, forcing a great stop from Ben Foster but on the whole we started the half sharper, quicker, moving the ball more urgently.

This was in danger of fizzling out when Ken Sema’s cross from the left found a confused way in, probably involving Andre Gray.  For all that Sarr and Kiko/Ngakia down the right have provided a more eye-catching threat, Ken Sema’s stealth attack down the left is increasingly remarkable and effective.  At one point during the second half as Sema’s slippery physicality saw him rumble past yet another hapless opponent Tommy Mooney on comms exclaimed “Ken Sema is quickly becoming my favourite player of all time“, the hyperbole of the last three words reflecting the childish joy that the Swede instils in grizzled ex-pros as much as more easily won supporters.  Honest, dynamic, bold, strong, clever and effective, there’s nothing not to like there at the moment.

City were rattled, and the game should have been over.  Sarr forced Østigard into a panicky yellow-card.  Capoue, now with his eye in and picking up revs, sent a screamer into the path of Sema who released Gray.  A conversion here, a striker’s finish, and he’s up and running but he took the shot on his right foot from the left of the box and Marosi saved.

And yet suddenly we were behind.  It’s easy to ring your hands at the defensive failings that contributed to the goals and they were certainly significant, but we were unlucky too. Gustavo Hamer’s header shouldn’t have been allowed to happen but it was an aimless, rather sulky effort with a hint of “oh screw this, I’ll just whack it towards the goal” about it.  Ben Foster was caught on his heels and suddenly City were level.  A minute later Tyler Walker was finishing clinically…  there was a foul on Sema in the build up, and a suggestion of offside as Biamou released his partner but after Wednesday night we’re hardly in a position to complain about the balance of refereeing decisions.  In any event, such vagaries are uncontrollable random variables to be treated like fortunate or unfortunate rebounds off the woodwork.  What you can control is how you deal, and it was all too easy for City.

It could have gone down a horrible wormhole from there, but Ismaïla Sarr, in contrast to his rather sulky demeanour in the first half, took the bull by the horns, shoved the ball down the right and pegged after it.  He won a corner, Troost-Ekong hammered onto Garner’s delivery and we were level.  We could do with more of that brutal urgency when we’re not smarting at going behind.

5- Today was a good day.

On a bad day, maybe we don’t get that equaliser and the game disappears into a miserable, frustrating defeat.  On a bad day, maybe James Garner is pulled up for his challenge in the box prior to the penalty – a coulda rather than shoulda been a foul.  But definitely a coulda.  But today was a good day.  Troy was on by this stage, half the man he used to be but twice as mobile for it;  despite this Ismaïla Sarr picked the ball up and rolled in his third strike in four games. At almost exactly the same time, news broke from the United States that the racist, misogynist, narcissistic, malevolent manchild in the White House had finally been disposed of, and a great big party started.  Today was a good day.

It should have been more comfortable.  70+ million people voted for him, which I find baffling.  Nonetheless, the world breathes again.  Similarly, this should have been more comfortable.  We’re not yet as potent as we should be;  that will come, but it needs to…  we should be able to ride a freak goal more comfortably than we did today.  It shouldn’t matter.

However.  Second in the league despite still being less than the sum of our parts, despite only rarely looking convincing.  The proximity of the chasing pack notwithstanding – we’d have been 8th had it finished 1-2 – we’re in a good place.

Today was a good day.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2,  *Sema 5*, Cathcart 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 3, Garner 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 4, Gray 3
Subs:   Ngakia (for Femenía, 67) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 74) 3, Chalobah (for Garner, 87) NA, Sierralta, Quina, João Pedro, Bachmann

Barnsley 1 Watford 0 (31/10/2020) 01/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- I didn’t want us to get relegated.

I know that there’s lots to dislike about the top flight, lots to dislike about football generally I suppose, and a train of thought which might lead a supporter of a moderately sized club to wonder what the point is if you think too hard about the likely ceiling to any ambition of such a club in the Premier League.

The trick is not to think about that too much and to enjoy the journey, a journey that was a lot of fun in the Premier League, every game a big event so no, didn’t want to get relegated.  But… there were silver linings to the development, albeit silver linings that would have been more pronounced had Stuff been Normal.  More games, for instance.  And more midweek games under the lights.

And the chance to revisit old haunts like Barnsley.  One of the places that we’ve all been to a thousand times, but not for at least five years (seven in Barnsley’s case) that would have been good to see again.  Remembering that time when Paul Furlong dragged Gerry Taggart half the length of the pitch in the dying minutes to win a precious three points in 1994.  Or the time when we froze our nuts off in the name of a 1-0 win in 2000. Or the time when Pete Fincham…  well, if you were there you don’t need reminding.  And, well, many more less memorable jaunts that sort of blend into one in your mind’s eye.  That’s what the Championship’s like, that’s what you get.

What you also get is shitty 1-0 away defeats that make you want to chew your arm off in frustration.

2- Barnsley opened at a blistering pace.  We’ve seen some aggressive pressing this season but this was something else altogether, rabid and ferocious.  William Troost-Ekong’s third-minute booking was a bit harsh, but it reflected the degree to which we were already rattled.  The home side capitalised… a slack pass from Wilmot didn’t reach Capoue, Alex Mowatt seized it and pinged a tremendous shot into the top corner.  It wasn’t that far away from Ben Foster in truth as his reaction betrayed but it was a hell of a strike.

The game changed immediately.  It seemed unlikely that the Tykes could maintain that level of pressing and it stopped straight away, either because it was physically unsustainable or because the goal changed the requirement or a bit of both.  The game settled into a pattern in which Watford had most of the possession and more of the chances but impotently, lobbing missiles from a distance rather that getting down and dirty where the fists were flying.  Once again, jabbing with quick counterattacks that never quite came off but rarely applying concerted pressure.

It would be tempting to praise Barnsley’s strategy, a strategy that after all earned them three points and that such praise is justified in the sense that a limited team played the hand it had to the best of it’s ability.  They were a bit rubbish though;  on the few occasions when we were able to sustain possession in the final third the backline was quickly rattled.  They were lucky, too…  our delivery from wide was manifestly inadequate, but when deflections came they were kind to the home side, generally helping rather than fooling the goalkeeper.

But that’s not good enough.  Being a bit unlucky to lose to a poor side, albeit given the challenge of going behind early to a game underdog, not good enough.  Not laying much of a punch on them, not good enough.  At all.

3- The announcement of the first team came with it the welcome news that Will Hughes and Andre Gray were both deemed ready enough to be named on the bench.  As we’ve progressed steadily at the start of this season there’s been the knowledge that we have so much more to come, and up front in particular but Étienne Capoue’s performance served as a reminder that it won’t maybe be as simple as that.  He’s been out a while, sure, his head must have been all over the place, this was very different to the Premier League fare that he’s been more than a match for for the last five years.

But he looked like a footballer with amnesia operating on muscle memory.  He had a ragged opening half hour, not so much misplacing passes as swinging them wildly into touch (albeit with the aid of a blustery wind) and then standing still, blinking, with the confusion of someone who’d had a mental block and forgotten which key he should have been pressing.  As he got into the groove he improved a bit, slinging countless long-range passes from deep over a congested midfield looking for Sarr galloping down the right.  Always from deep though, and here was part of the problem.

The quandary was reminiscent of a home game against Southampton, the Shane Long after however many seconds game (only 18 months ago, kids) in which, minus the suspended Deeney we had the same challenge of going behind early, having nothing to hit long and a stodgy midfield that could suck the ball up for ten minutes at a time if you let it.  Here our attacks weren’t without threat, but it was a hypothetical threat too often.  Sarr and João Pedro are both tremendous but they’re both forwards rather than strikers.  In the first half all of our threat comes down the right again with Kiko, god love him, bombing on and he and Sarr swipping and swapping and overlapping before putting in crosses of variable quality to nobody in particular.  That’s the problem with Sarr playing up front, he’s always going to be drawn to the wing and if he’s putting the ball in, who’s going to get on the end of it?  It should be João Pedro of course, but we’re asking a lot of a youngster, effectively to be the striker he isn’t, the lone striker which isn’t an easy thing to be and he’s proving not terribly adept at it.  Meanwhile whilst Tom Cleverley does a decent job of providing bodily support in the middle but you’ve still got a formation in which you rarely get more than three or four players into the attacking third because the support isn’t quick enough and the ball doesn’t stick enough.

4- We start the second half at a much higher tempo.  If we’d sustained that we might have got the break and the point that we probably deserved; as above, it doesn’t take much for Barnsley to wobble.  Capoue and João Pedro combine and Sema is caught by what must have been a tight offside.  Kiko overlaps on the right again, his cross is deflected into the keeper’s arms.  As an aside… Valérien Ismaël offered enough to encourage Barnsley fans about their new coach (who despite a few surprising “Valérien who?” retorts had a long playing career at a high level and also played for Crystal Palace).  The introduction of Clark Odour on the left flank bottled Kiko up and shut down our most reliable threat.

Nonetheless… Cleverley should have scored when getting onto the end of a move on the left side of the box and opting to go with his right foot as the ball came to him quickly.  Ben Wilmot got onto the end of two corners and should have scored on the second attempt but the ball bounced over the bar…  partly at fault for the goal and culpable here, Wilmot was nonetheless the most impressive of the back three, assertive and proactive.  A difficult afternoon, but no doubt we have a player here.

5- It will get better.  Ivic continues to encourage both with his candid assessment of where we are and with his tactical flexibility.  The switch that saw us change formation to go with three up top as Gray came on to replace Troost-Ekong was ineffective on this occasion, Gray needs minutes in his legs to get up to speed, but feels like a much more sustainable long-term bet with Sarr and João Pedro either side of a proper striker.  We’re not very far away from being effective, there are bits that are really good being scuppered by the bits that aren’t.  We’re making chances, we have a threat and we’re pretty solid.  It’ll come.

But it needs to.  This wasn’t good enough.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Femenía 3*,  Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Wilmot 3, Capoue 2, Chalobah 2, Cleverley 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Garner (for Chalobah, 66) 2, Gray (for Troost-Ekong, 76) NA, Hughes (for Cleverley 82) NA, Ngakia, Kabasele, Quina, Bachmann