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Birmingham City 0 Watford 1 (12/12/2020) 13/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I managed to extract myself over fifteen years ago.

I waited until bin collection day, steeled my will as the collection van appeared at the end of the cul-de-sac then slipped on my shoes, ran outside, stuck the disk in the wheelie bin and dashed back.  The deed was done before I could change my mind and I’ve been on the wagon ever since.

Until this week.  And now it’s so much worse…  there are no disks any more for one thing.  So giving up will be harder.  For another, lockdown or not, so much of normal life is still so distant.  There are far more evenings at home than there really ought to be and so there’s no escape at all.  As if to seal the deal, the clincher was my Watford team beating Bournemouth 4-0 in the play-off final at around 2am this morning.  Football Manager is back.

So I’m not in the sprightliest of moods come 3pm, having forced myself up and out and through a list of chores.  Sitting down when you’re shattered and having been forcing yourself through the motions is always high risk.  In the circumstances, I could do with a lively game.

2- That I was never likely to get one isn’t entirely Watford’s fault.  Aitor Karanka’s sides aren’t known for attacking with reckless abandon at the best of times, and our own pitiful away record hasn’t induced the Spaniard to come out all guns blazing; indeed, most of Birmingham’s firepower seems to be on the bench.

It’s a stultifying game of football.  All the more so in contrast with that most epic of awaydays which it’s impossible to navigate this fixture without reflecting on.  I’ve only been to St Andrews once in the 21 and a half years since… but this one could scarcely be in sharper contrast to that encounter.  Most obviously where the was rabid, deafening noise coming from the stands in 1999 here there’s silence, punctuated only by what must have been a consciously noisy Blues entourage.  Where there were intimidating walls of Bluenoses there are now plastic cut-outs, statically swaying down one side of the pitch.  I was hoping that Watford would instigate something similar but I was wrong – the sight is melancholy, a silent parody of how it ought to be.  And on the pitch…  in 1999 it was furious intensity, no quarter asked or given by either side.  Drama and epic conflict.  Nothing epic about this.  It’s blancmange.  Nathaniel Chalobah and Lukas Jutkiewicz appear to shake hands as the game kicks off for pity’s sake.

Actually that’s a slight exaggeration. There are a couple of figures in a largely, five years on, unfamiliar Blues line-up that aspired at least to the ethos of that 1999 side.  Maikel Kieftenbeld is no Darren Purse, Kristian Pedersen a pastiche of Martin Grainger, but there’s a grittiness about them that kind of works.  Nonetheless.  A lot of this is wrong.

3- Including the Watford matchday squad.  We have a huge squad of course and are becoming conscious of and grateful for it.  We missed a load of strikers at the start of the season (Troy, Andre, Isaac, briefly Sarr and then Perica), a load of midfielders more recently and are now stymied at centre-back.  Few other Championship squads could accommodate the simultaneous losses of hamstrung Cathcart, knee-injury victim Kabasele and Francisco Sierralta who, one assumes, is one of the two announced positive tests in the lead-up to the game.  Ben Wilmot does an OK job and William Troost-Ekong is one of few to rise above the mediocre with a forceful, commanding display.  We’ve now conceded two goals in six games, so painfully dull has some things going for it.

But this latest turn of events – affecting, one further assumes, Will Hughes as well as Sierralta – leaves the bench with a lopsided look about it; no cover in central defence and two goalkeepers, albeit on a bench of nine which ought to accommodate one spot being raffled off to the highest bidder every week should the finances get too desperate (but for the need for squad registration of course.  And only in Tiers 1-2, obvs.  I may be over-thinking this).

And up front there’s almost nothing.  The midfield is, as ever, ferociously congested;  only James Garner displays an ability to move the ball quickly and calmly but too often to little effect.  Troy is a theoretical threat… there’s a nervousness to the way in which Neil Etheridge comes out of his box to head clear, almost wincing in anticipation as he does so (albeit successfully).  But Dom Quina and Ken Sema are enthusiastically ineffective… Quina in particular isn’t nearly robust enough for this and whilst Sema still only needs half an inch of space in order to get a decent ball in there’s not nearly enough support to Troy anything like often enough.  He’s isolated, and we’re impotent.

As are our hosts for the most part.  Aggressive early on, their chances born of attrition (and an early apparent focus on forcing Kiko wide and exploiting his wrong-sidedness which they mystifyingly seem to abandon as a strategy after about twenty minutes).  We’re solid enough, but it’s a hard watch.  At half time I go to sort some laundry to wake myself up.

4- The start of the second half is more urgent, but initially no more effective.  Quina is asleep when Blues offer us a rare inroad down the right.  Five minutes later Ngakia makes an awful mess of a through ball.  We’re not doing a lot wrong, but we’re not doing nearly enough right.

And yet midway through the half there are signs of an end to the stalemate.  Troy is played through and seems to be startled by suddenly having a clear route to goal, he makes an awful hash of it.  Stipe Perica is brought off the bench and although the formation doesn’t change – the Croat surprisingly sticking to Quina’s position on the right hand side – and he doesn’t touch the ball very often he’s a willing nuisance, and there’s a bit of belief about our attacking for the first time.  Etheridge claws a corner away under pressure – that’s his preference it transpires, but it doesn’t look comfortable.  The willing Garner stumbles in the box, doesn’t go down.  Maybe not a shoulda, definitely a coulda. Sema sends in a deep cross, Deeney heads wide.  It’s not much, but it’s something.

And then the moment that decided the game.  Perica’s last touch was to head clear from a right-back position… he then thunders up the flank in time to meet Troy’s perfect through-ball.  He’s on Pedersen’s blind side, the left-back is flat footed and makes a tired, stupid challenge.  It’s not much of a foul but it’s definitely a foul, he’s been done and he knows it.  He trudges off feeling stupid as the skipper bladders the ball past Etheridge.  Tim Coombs will later ask Deeney to explain his penalty technique, not because it needs explanation but just to hear him say it.

There’s still time for Étienne Capoue to trundle off the bench and needlessly give away a free kick with a witless lunge ten yards outside the box.  Ben Foster retrieves the situation by touching Gardner’s kick around the post, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Hard to judge a player who comes on late in a game, particularly one who hasn’t played much football recently and will be rusty…  but the opinion posited earlier in the season still stands.  Getting relegated was negligent but not unforgivable.  Unforgivable is not doing whatever’s in your power to get us back, giving it your best shot whilst you’re still on the payroll and earning a big wedge.  Capoue needs to get his finger out.

5- I played tennis this week.  It was brilliant.  Being outside and real people and that.  I can only make the ball go in the direction I want it to sometimes (insert Michel Ngonge gag here) but I enjoyed it.  Tennis coach Dave is a West Ham fan, sympathetic to the Hornets relegation (there but for the grace of whatever and so on);  he suggested this week that “consistency” in the Championship means only losing now and again.  That’s as good as you’re going to get, such is the nature of the beast.

He’s right of course.  And that being the end we’re still effective and, yes, consistent.  This game is an exemplar… since in the second half we do just enough to rise above the dross.  Just enough to be better than our hosts.  We could easily have drawn the game of course but we didn’t, and as long as we continue to be just a bit better than most of our opponents and winning sometimes, drawing sometimes we’ll do OK.

It is crushingly boring though, and scant use of our attacking talent.  Yes, you can only play the game that your opponents allow you to play, but nonetheless.  Not unreasonable to expect a bit more than this.  As Tony Pulis would tell you, an infinite number of dull wins won’t last you long when you start being dull and losing.  Were there supporters in the stadium, opinions would have been voiced and perhaps influenced things before now.

Nonetheless, we won the game.  Scruffy, boring, but an important win on a day when everyone else won. It’s a slog.

Big game Tuesday.  Yooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Femenía 3,  *Troost-Ekong 4*, Wilmot 3, Cleverley 2, Garner 3, Chalobah 2, Quina 2, Sema 3, Deeney 3
Subs:  Perica (for Quina, 69) 3, Capoue (for Garner, 90) NA, Navarro, Phillips, Crichlow, Gray, João Pedro, Bachmann, Parkes


1. Harefield Hornet - 13/12/2020

Agree with all of that – even my cat who likes flicking his paws at movement on any available nearby screen fell asleep during the first half! 2nd half slightly less turgid and great result – I have the tickets for the Brentford match and feel quite emotional about returning after 9 months or whatever it is. Just hope we turn it on!

2. PEDantic - 13/12/2020

0-0, 1-0, 0-1, the odd 1-1 thriller. Most results this season are reminiscent of 1980s Serie A. Without the class. Come on the binary boys!

3. Simon Fawell - 13/12/2020

I still struggle to work out how much the dull, attritional nature of our performances is by design or down to lack of any consistent time on the training pitch.

Appreciate that others look more fluid than we do but Bournemouth and Norwich have (effectively) kept the same managers and styles. My impression is that Ivic is trying to impose a style on the team which I’m all for (on reflection, I think we’ve lacked a bit of identity in recent years) but can’t be easy when the week runs: game, warm down, rest day, prep for game, game, warm down, prep for game, repeat. In those circumstances it must be much easier to instil basic defensive shape than it is to get any more than simple attacking patterns moving. When we’ve (necessarily) moved from a counterattacking style for the last 5 years to one where we have much more of the ball it doesn’t surprise me too much that we look rather clunky. What I don’t get is the massive change between home and away performances (not just this season but going back right through last season and some way into the one before that)).

As an aside, I wouldn’t have given the pen as I thought he managed to get round Petricca and onto the ball first. I’d certainly say that, after the injustices of last season, we’ve had the better of the marginal decisions this year. The biggest one I can think of to go against us was the assault on Sarr v Bournemouth but, in our favour, we’ve had this one, the pen v Preston and the Kabasele non-red card v Bristol City (although I wouldn’t have given that either).

Matt Rowson - 13/12/2020

Agree that we’ve done ok on decisions, tho I still disagree about the pen here. At the VERY least it was a stupid enough tackle to deserve a pen, but I thought he tripped him and the fact that he didn’t argue supports that I think.

But your point about the challenge of instilling a new style is very fair. It can be both, tho, I guess – challenging. and boring to watch.

Simon - 14/12/2020

The performances away from home (and, at times, at home) have certainly been pretty dull and frustrating.

I’ve seen a lot of folk on various platforms putting this squarely at Ivic’s door (it’s “his” style of football that is dull) – not suggesting you are or have, by the way. I suppose my point is that I don’t think we really know yet (for all the reasons I mentioned) whether Ivic himself has a “negative” style or if it’s got the potential to be quite exciting but he’s not really been able to institute it yet. In some respects, a possession based side that isn’t really clicking is the worst possible watch as it doesn’t even offer the possibility of something dropping in the right place and doesn’t give the opposition much incentive to come out. There aren’t many “ooh that was close moments” as you might get with a more direct style (although Boothroyd post relegation was pretty numbing despite the ball hitting the opposition box a lot).

Personally, I hope Ivic manages to find a bit of a balance whereby he can simplify things to suit the lack of training and player churn with injuries etc… without losing entirely the identity he’s trying to impose. A move back to pragmatists who might be able to motivate and fasten on a successful combination for a few months before another change is required would seem a backward step. Ivic seems to be edging toward a hybrid style which can go more direct when necessary even if the first half on Saturday didn’t reflect it so fingers crossed.

4. wotfud - 13/12/2020

Interesting that Perica was preferred to Joao Pedro. I like the look of him, Tamas Priskin but on a good day.

Matt Rowson - 13/12/2020

yes, like that

Harefield Hornet - 13/12/2020

He’s very willing and makes stuff happen. Good asset to have. And as he’s already shown he can finish given the right opportunities.

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