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Watford 1 Norwich City 0 (26/12/2020) 27/12/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Last weekend, the day after the Huddersfield horror show, I went for a walk.  This is not in itself either unusual or interesting, heaven knows  there’s little else to do for entertainment at the moment.

I was at a low ebb.. things being what they are , Christmas restrictions, the world falling apart and so forth,  The sun was shining, kind of, but there was a lot of water on the ground (a situation which, as you may have heard, has contributed to more dramatic developments later in the week here in the northern tip of Bedfordshire).

Unless you’re going to stay on tarmac – which is a bit dull – there’s no avoiding a bit of mud in these circumstances, but the route chosen was largely navigable without major inconvenience.  The one iffy stretch is on the way past one of the entrances to a local farm, a cattle path that traverses the public footpath and is often particularly boggy.  On this occasion straw had been put down over the offending stretch, which I expected to facilitate access.  My right leg went through and in to halfway up the shin.  Frantically trying to push myself clear I put down my left leg further on which also sunk to halfway up the shin.

I can only have been stuck there for half a second, it was long enough.  What might have been just water and mud really didn’t smell like water and mud.  I was a mile from home by the most direct route on the wrong side of the… whatever it was.  Two miles via a route that avoided it.  It must have looked like something out of a seventies sitcom, but what with everything I was finding it hard to be philosophical, let alone laugh.  It was a low point.

Yesterday evening, at around 10.30, I jumped around the kitchen emptying the dishwasher to the backdrop of the Jam’s “A Town called Malice”.  The world was a good place again.

2- Fascinating this, obviously, for any number of reasons.  The latest new page, the latest new dawn, but unlike the last one and almost perversely given our far from catastrophic league position very little dispute that a page needed to be turned.  It’s oft said about the likes of Tony Pulis that a nihilistic but effective formula loses it’s charm the moment that it stops being effective.  Turns out that Ivic’s suffocating fare didn’t actually need to be that ineffective to lose its audience.

It depends how you judge success, I suppose, and what your benchmarks are.  Taking the most straightforward measure of success – points and that – we’ve been performing, at worst, slightly below our aspirations, maybe even our expectations. Hovering around the top table, if not booking our place at it.  Thing is…  it’s not quite shit or bust this season, but we can’t expect the riches of our current squad to hang around indefinitely.  Ismaïla Sarr in particular, much as he might have flattered to deceive as often as not, is a devastating weapon that we can’t expect to retain beyond next summer at best if we’re still in the second tier.

So having the attacking riches and making scant use of them is slightly ludicrous, particularly when one employs entertainment as an end in itself on days such as these when we’re all in such dire need of distraction.  That, in such circumstances, Watford supporters are opting not to spend £10 on watching the game is a stark reflection on how things were going.  If you’re going to retain your fanbase in the wake of relegation, pandemic, no supporters in the stadium, other priorities, then keeping people engaged has to be worth something in and of itself.  Heaven knows there’s already enough dull TV to be bored by.

So Xisco Muñoz hits the right notes straight away, even if he does come across a bit Joey Tribbiani.  Positive, energetic. likeable.  Watford supporters should long since be immune to What Other People Think, in particular that sort of guffawing sub-pub bore nonsense churned out by Chris Sutton on 5 Live.  There are concerns in his lack of managerial experience of course, but then the likes of Boothroyd and Rodgers came in with comparable experience and both did alright for themselves with us and elsewhere, in different ways.  It’s unlikely that the Pozzos picked his name out of a hat after all.

So we wait and see.  And on the evidence so far… so very good.

3- Clubs are often accused of replacing a perceived struggling incumbent with someone with the opposite characteristics.  You can’t defend, bring in a defensive coach and so forth, often at apparent odds with the nature of the squad being assembled to suit the outgoing guy’s blueprint.  I guess an advantage of our rapid churn is that things are never settled in one mindset anyway (joke) but in any case, an about-face is exactly what everyone, players and supporters is after.  And that’s exactly what we get.

The attacking emphasis is easy to highlight of course, though in the course of this one the visitors dominate possession for the most part.  A bigger immediate contrast to what’s gone before is in attitude.  Muñoz telegraphs what is to come by promising that his team have been “fighting like animals” in training and that, rather than the placid and sometimes bored looking performances thus far is what we get on the pitch. We employ a level of aggression that’s just the right side of outright violent.  Tom Cleverley is at the forefront here, howling around like, well…

 

animated-tasmanian-devil-image-0012

But he’s not the only one.  All over the pitch there is energy and in-your-faceness that’s been largely missing all season.  Étienne Capoue oversteps the mark with an unpleasant challenge on Buendía; on another day with a more excitable referee (John Brooks, of whom more, later, is tremendous) that’s a red but it looks clumsy more than nasty whatever Capoue’s track record with precocious opponents and we and he get away with a yellow.  His appalling non-performance at Huddersfield is mercifully the stuff of memory – he’s still rusty, but we see much more of the midfield rolls royce that we should be seeing, an outrageous pass into Sarr’s feet on 12 minutes is cut back towards Sema and then Gray who shoots wide.  A stupendous Bobby Moore challenge stamps out the embers of another Norwich attack.

And Norwich are attacking.  Always likely to be front runners this season for all sorts of reasons they are confident and clever in possession, move the ball really well and will overwhelm lesser sides and/or performances than this.  Aarons, a right back, sets a tone in the second minute by cutting inside Sema, who has a cumbersome, ragged start, and testing Foster with his left foot.  That’s a right back, second minute, weaker foot.  That’s a side with five wins on the hop for you and they will continue to ask questions.

We continue to provide answers.  It’s soon evident that whilst the Canaries have plenty of possession and move the ball well they’re not actually getting terribly close to the goal.  With far less possession we’re providing a much greater threat and if it’s not quite there in the final third – cut backs not quite falling right, shots not quite connecting – then it’s nonetheless much more venomous, the shot count that Daniel Farke quotes post-match thoroughly misleading.  City aren’t getting close enough, their efforts largely and harmlessly from distance.

Norwich’s defence isn’t as comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces as their attacking players, and we’re getting a lot of mileage out of this.  We’re putting them under pressure quickly, turning them with balls over the top, often from Deeney to Gray, which have a positive effect on our outlook and theirs even if they’re not quite coming off.  Finally we break through…  as so often it’s smoke and mirrors with Sarr screaming down the right and providing a focus for attention but Sema needs one chance to put a ball in and one only.  His ball is magnificent, Sarr flies in at the far post.  It’s murderous in its efficiency.  “Vamooooos” bellows Muñoz from the dugout.  We threaten to overrun City for the last five minutes of the half.

4- Troy sets the tone for the second period, first by dumping a beleaguered Jacob Sørensen into the hoardings in front of the Rookery within seconds, and then by releasing Jeremy Ngakia, swapped to the left by the new coach with Kiko now screaming down the right, with a perfectly weighted ball that demands a lung-busting run by the young full back.

The opening twenty minutes or so of the second half is our most dominant spell of the game, and again we threaten to overwhelm the visitors.  Sarr and Sema are prominent, Troy is clearly enjoying playing with Andre Gray again Tom Cleverley is still offering a health warning to anyone who contemplates dwelling on the ball, Todd Cantwell on more than one occasion with the Watford midfielder picking up a well-earned yellow as Cantwell crumples into the turf.  We’re bullying City into submission and running roughshod over the debris, culminating in a series of five corners on the hop.  Corners are statistically overstated in their importance – very few result in goals despite the excitement, when there are fans and so forth, that they provoke.  But there’s threat here, at last.

We deserve this win, but the result was never inevitable.  Having gone behind, the suggestion at this point was that Norwich didn’t have much else to offer, no plan B.  Plan B arrived from the bench in the shape of a triple change which allowed City to change formation and take back the initiative.  Ben Gibson, often linked with the Hornets before his move to Norfolk, was one of the three and did the Ben Wilmot thing of surging forward from the left of the trio.  City now on the front foot.

But we still had the actual Ben Wilmot, who put in perhaps his most impressive performance in yellow with a quite magnificent display.  He is calm, controlled and in charge whilst alongside him, League debutant Francisco Sierralta is the brawn of the pair, the Jay Demerit kicking and heading everything in his path in whichever direction he happens to be heading, a fearless booterer from the moment that he dispatches Pukki into the technical area midway through the first half.  My brother sends an image via WhatsApp in response.

Norwich spread the play, and now have more physicality in the box.  It’s not comfortable, but nor are we clinging on even if we are reliant on the precision of our defenders and the alertness of the officials.  Ben Wilmot thunders into a tremendous challenge on Pukki which made you gasp until you saw the replay and saw the forward’s foot hook itself around a perfect tackle to achieve the tumble.  Brooks only got one look.  If you give Pukki the benefit of the doubt on that one there was more cynicism about his reaction to Adam Masina, on for Ngakia for his second cameo of the season after injury, flying in with similarly merciless precision just as City appeared to have carved a clear cut opening to toe the ball away from the striker whose thought process and subsequent swallow dive was again more evident on replay.  A sign of desperation this from City, this, who reach peak Ćurčić shortly before the 90 when Gibson hooks his leg around Troy Deeney and throws himself to the ground as a corner comes in.  Nobody notices, or cares.  A minute later Masina, unbowed by the pressure as any Norwich possession on the edge of the box is immediately jumped on by four yellow shirts, snaps in once again on Buendía.  We have a left back at last, mercifully.

5- The whistle blows, and the reaction is tremendous.

In some ways this was the perfect game for Muñoz to come in on…  an opponent who are going to attack, going to leave gaps, who aren’t going to be as physical as us.  Nonetheless, a defeat here and the gap between us and top would have opened up into double figures with us missing a fixture in midweek and a trip to Swansea on Saturday… we could have been out of it before he had his feet under the table.

Instead, everything suddenly looks very bright indeed.  The Millwall postponement gives Muñoz three clear midweeks preceding our next three weekend fixtures, time to work with the squad of all things, with momentum to take to Wales on the back of our biggest win and best performance since that night against Liverpool just before all this stuff started.  That we were able to forget about this stuff for two hours during the game, as I have again whilst reliving it, that’s tremendous.

But most of all, the partnership of Wilmot and Sierralta – probably our fourth and fifth choice centre-backs respectively in the absence of Cathcart, Troost-Ekong and Kabasele.  Beyond doubt an area of strength for the squad, but that we can generate such a performance in such circumstances, that Muñoz seems prepared to use this strength as a strong base to attack from rather than the definition of the side in itself is hugely, hugely encouraging.

More please.  Bring on, well, everyone.  Vamos!

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 5, Ngakia 3, Sierralta 4, *Wilmot 5*, Sarr 4, Cleverley 5, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deeney 4, Gray 4
Subs:  Masina (for Ngakia, 69) 5, Perica (for Gray, 74) 4, Hughes (for Cleverley, 74) 3, Navarro (for Femenía, 85) NA, Chalobah (for Capoue, 85) NA, Crichlow, Hungbo, Garner, Bachmann

Comments»

1. David - 27/12/2020

Happy Christmas Matt, I hope 2021 is more “town called malice” than 70’s sitcom for you and other Bhappy readers . Wilmot was fantastic yesterday, I wonder if Java was right, a defensive midfield role might be his best position.

2. Harefield Hornet - 27/12/2020

Much better. Interesting that some City message boards likened us to many of the Premier League opponents who turned them over last season despite their valiant attempts to play attractive football. Big athletic skilful physical being the operative words. A wake up call that despite their fine form of late they are still pretty much the Norwich that failed miserably last season. In comparison we looked again like the Watford that survived those first few seasons with sheer bloody mindedness – You
horns!!

3. Harefield Hornet - 27/12/2020

Disappointing though that news is breaking tonight of Capoue being on his way to Spain. He epitomised last nights display and would be sadly missed if it’s true.

4. Luke - 27/12/2020

Great report. The intensity across the pitch was something we hadn’t seen since the start of the year. Turns out just allowing multi millionaires the chance to use their mobile phones and smiling a bit is all these fellas needed after all.

In all seriousness the formation suits the players. We played football which got Thor most out of our assets and we seem to have found another nice fella like Javi to get behind. VAMOS!!

Also, due to some of the circumstances around some departures this season and the swirl of social media opinions, I’m worried some of the hero’s of the last 5 years won’t be remembered as fondly as they should. Therefore I for one am glad Capoue got a good swan song. The timings right for him to leave. But he was one of the key signings making the extended Premiership run possible. Several world class (yes I mean that) performances against the big 4 or 6 will live long in the memory especially the Cruyff turn that sold the entire stadium as well as the Man United team. I still smile every time I think about it. A player of visceral ability (when he could be bothered) If not a legend then at least legendary. Thanks Etien.

Also thanks BHAPPY. Glad you got out of that ‘puddle’. In a year which has made watching football both less important and strangely more important at the same time your reports are part of the fabric of this football club I love. Thank you.

Matt Rowson - 27/12/2020

Many thanks Luke

5. Stuart Campbell - 27/12/2020

Yes, just as Etienne was beginning to look like the real Capoue it would be very sad to see him go. But the spirit in the team was so pleasing to see… epitomised by the genuine pleasure of the whole squad with the new coach at the final whistle. The two centre backs, after worrying about their pairing, were indeed outstanding. I think too that Wilmot has the makings of being a terrific defensive midfielder. And what a pleasure to see Masina back and making a big impression.

Thanks Matt for being the enduringly sharp, entertaining and incisive soul of of thinking Hornets over the years. Happy New Year to you and clan Rowson… and to all BHappy readers and commentators. Suddenly we have reasons to be cheerful again!

Matt Rowson - 27/12/2020

Cheers Stuart

6. George Blick - 27/12/2020

Thank you for all of your reports as ever. This was the first match I looked forward to in a long time–also nice to have a manager who smiles and attacks. As you said, at the end of the day it’s entertainment and a diversion from stepping in the cow stuff. Hope we all have a great 202.

7. Graham French - 28/12/2020

During the horrible Huddersfield game, my QPR supporting wife wandered in & enquired with only minimal sarcasm which goal we were actually attacking . I’m very doubtful about the Pozzo’s trigger happy approach to head coaches in general but it had become clear that Ivic was the wrong person & had to go. And a week later a game to actually…(shh!) enjoy! Am I getting carried away with the the thought that there was an echo of GT in an inch perfect cross from one winger tucked in at the far post by the other?
Happy New Year Matt, & Ian , & to all the BHappy clan. Thank you for the insights & humour. Stay safe & let’s hope for better things in 2021.

Matt Rowson - 28/12/2020

Thanks Graham 🙂

8. Graham Daly - 28/12/2020

To be perfectly honest, I was wondering what is the point of a head coach. After 2 days he couldn’t have had much influence and yet we turned in a performance unrecognisable from the disaster at ‘Uddersfield. The organisation, commitment and effectiveness are well-ingrained obviously. But then I was impressed with his substitutions, and the players felt more able to take risk -if only they would take more of their chances (haha) . But that is a minor quibble.
So – a good start. (Ivic won his first game too BTW !)
Anyway, a question. A friend of mine (PNE lifelong) reckons he prefers staying in Division 2 and winning some losing some, getting close to playoffs some years than getting into Division 1 (aka EPL)and approaching every game with a sense of dread about being turned over. What do you think ?

Matt Rowson - 28/12/2020

I think if you think about that paradox too much you’d go mad. You can’t “not want” to win any game, surely, and therefore you must aspire to get promoted (even if there might be consolations in staying down). I would have been more inclined to agree with your friend before our recent spell in the top flight. Not any more.

9. Roger Boon ( Hopemole) - 28/12/2020

It’s all been said. Classy Capoue over the years,Wilmot a great midfield prospect,the stultifying fare served up by Ivic that got even the ever hopeful me angry. However, at the end of a difficult year I want you to know that your contributions are and have for a long long time been massively appreciated by thinking Watford fans. May your and our New Year be more happy than sad!

Matt Rowson - 29/12/2020

Thanks Roger

10. Antony Beale - 30/12/2020

Echoing all the above comments, Matt. Your reports are always a sheer delight, full of insights and humour – a must-read for us Hornets-in-exile. Wishing you, your family and the wider Hornets community a safe and productive 2021, helped by Xisco’s smile!

Matt Rowson - 30/12/2020

Cheers Antony, much appreciated


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