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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

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.


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


1. Matt Rowson - 29/11/2020

Also, you should see this if you haven’t already, courtesy of Olly Wicken… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBUyRmUwnDE&feature=youtu.be

2. Harefield Hornet - 29/11/2020

As you’ve alluded to above Preston didn’t look a whole lot worse for about an hour that many of the sides we’ve faced so far, despite their extensive injuries. Feel really sorry for Andre – gets a long awaited chance to play alongside Troy and its cruelly cut short again. Lovely to see Ismailia smiling on the pitch – I noticed that a few times yesterday. Tommy M made me smile on the commentary after Nathan’s goal – “I didn’t know he had that in his locker”. – we all obviously did – but it’s been a while coming!
I’ve entered the ballot and have fingers firmly crossed!

3. Kyffin Jones - 29/11/2020

Mike Bassett moment: FOUR FOUR f***ing TWO! At last!

4. Steve G - 30/11/2020

It’s interesting that there have been fewer comments on here after a really good day than after some much more modest performances. Much to be pleased with, not least the dramatic improvement in the form of Quina over the last couple of games.

I know that any scoring system will have an element of subjectivity, but I still thought that a ‘2’ for Ngakia last Wednesday was a bit harsh. I like his positivity, his willingness to run at players and the way he’ll look for an incisive forward pass. I can also see that in a back four there is more of an imperative to defend and this was definitely less of an issue on Saturday (especially thanks to the impressive defensive work of Sarr) than it was at Bristol, where we were exposed at times down that flank. But I’d still say glass at least half full there.

And a poser for Ivic, armchair managers and Mike Bassett … at the point where Ken Sema is available again, do we stick with 4-4- (f***ing!)-2, or revert to a wing back system? And, if it’s 4-4-2, would you play Sema in the back 4 or wide midfield, and who do you leave out?

Matt Rowson - 30/11/2020

I didn’t award that 2 but understand it. We were exposed repeatedly down that side. As for Kenzema… good problem to have. Assuming nothing changes over the next couple of games (Which means two more good performances) you stick him on the bench, Kiko and Quina in particular have to play for their places.

Steve G - 01/12/2020

I think what was in my head was some musings on the way that any scoring system can be affected by a number of different factors: the performance of others and the team as a whole, the relative weightings that we can put on the strengths and weaknesses on the day, the result of the game, and what we know about the previous performances and potential of a player. And in this case, of course, the key variable of a different observer.

Self-evidently, there’s no ‘right answer’ here – it’s all a matter of opinion (and for what it’s worth, I’d probably have scored Ngakia a ‘3’ in both games). I just thought that it was interesting to ponder on the contextual factors that might have led you and Ian to different conclusions.

Or maybe I’ve got too much thinking time at my disposal and Ngakia did play a lot better on Saturday!

5. Graham French - 30/11/2020

The entire game, but especially the 2nd half, was a joy (Andre’s injury aside). What a difference the change of formation and – who’d have thought it – a fully committed Troy for 90 minutes – makes. One or two of his deft touches were exquisite, a side of his game that gets less attention than it should.
Thanks for another great report, Matt.

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