jump to navigation

Millwall 0 Watford 0 (26/01/2021) 27/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- When I started writing for this blog’s predecessor, BSaD, I was living in Austria.

A splendid five-month experience.  It was 1997, eight years after the Berlin Wall had come down.  I was 24, living in a beautiful city east of Prague and less than an hour by train from Bratislava which might as well have been Mars.

I was there from June until November, so had a month or two to get my footballing bearings.  Living in Favoriten to the south of the city centre, Austria Vienna were a more natural and convenient destination than Rapid to the west.  My first trip to the Franz Horr Stadion was for an early season game against LASK of Linz.  I stood on the terrace behind the goal and watched as the whole bank barraged Linz’s African centre-back with monkey noises.  Not just a few, everyone.  A little kid sitting on a crash barrier, looking to his Dad for approval.

I don’t like to leave games early.  I started following Rapid, boasting the combustible Cameroonian striker Sammy Ipoua, instead.  Watching Millwall uphold their decision not to take the knee was depressing.  Difficult for them, sure, in the face of vocal objection from some of their fanbase.  But capitulating to that pressure was wrong.  The argument has been made that the continued taking of the knee might be pressurising compliance from players out of some sense of peer pressure rather than conviction.  Good.  It’s not OK to be a racist twat.  It should make you feel awkward and out of place.  That kid sitting on the crash barrier wasn’t born a racist, not even in a little country in the mountains with no colonial history or immigration.

2- Speaking of anachronisms, Millwall’s pitch is right out of 1997… balding, boggy and slippery.  The first fifteen minutes are characterised by slapstick slipping and sliding around by both sides… Kiko makes an early foray by intercepting a lost-footing pass, Kieftenbeld slips over and Nate would be in but he can’t get traction on the mud quickly enough.

It’s the Hornets that get to grips more quickly.  Despite the conditions we manage to occasionally rattle into gear and fire off staccato passages of passing… one of these gets Chalobah in, he squares when in a split second he might have shot albeit from a wide position.  We get a generous free kick when erratic referee Jeremy Simpson allows Sarr to waste an advantage after  a shirt pull and then calls the play back. As with every set piece into Millwall’s box Cleverley’s fine delivery causes mayhem, captain Shaun Hutchinson so focused on hauling down Troy Deeney that he neglects the passage of the ball which finds the post as it bounces off him.  It then wanders its way across the goal line before being cleared, the incident the most plausible candidate for Deeney, Gray and Xisco’s heated discussion with the official at the break.

We ramp it up as we approach half time.  Deeney cushions downwards to Gray and Hughes – one of them has to take it on their weaker foot, Gray’s left beats Hughes’ right and he shovels over.  Cleverley finds Sarr brilliantly, the winger is deft, industrious and encouragingly robust all evening, fine control and a sharp cross here well cut out by Hutchinson.  Two corners, one from either side, then Deeney surges forward to feed Sarr who hesitates before forcing Bialkowski into a tidy but routine stop.  The one he scores in our head by hitting it first time was bloody ace though.  We’re doing well, our best half away from home this season, probably.

3- The goal hasn’t come though, and Millwall’s efforts in the last couple of minutes of the half provoke a flurry of “wake up call” WhatsApp messages across Hertfordshire at the break.  Jake Cooper is at the centre of both and we’re lucky in each instance… firstly when his fine header back across the box comes off the post and considerately avoids his teammate charging in for a tap-in, secondly when he dumps a header through Bachmann from a position that’s given offside but looked marginal enough to have been plausibly missable at best.

In every respect Millwall are as advertised.  Solid, hard-working but limited going forward, relying on the mobility of Wallace to win enough set pieces to give them a puncher’s chance from set pieces.  Tough, too, and none the less so for the recruitment of Maikal Kieftenbeld from Birmingham who, four months into our return to the second tier is already indisputably in the guileless clogger box.  He’s in the book in under half an hour, the first of six yellows in the game and is the target of more than one revenge hack in the second half, a second half which also sees Troy hurl Hutchinson to the floor after more unpunished grappling at a set piece. Our indiscipline is occasionally understandable, but we’re racking up yellow cards.

4- A second half in which the home side claw themselves back into the game and confirm that we kinda blew it by, once again, not quite having the final touch during our periods of dominance in the first .

The zippy passing still happens, but much less often.  The Lions are much more in the game, if never quite threatening to the extent that they did at the end of the first half.  We bring on Zinckernagel and João Pedro for the enthusiastically burned out Cleverley and the asymptotically challenged Gray.  Bold stuff from Xisco away from home, but largely ineffective… the calls for Zinckernagel to start are understandable, his cameos have been fun but he wants too much time and isn’t robust enough for this one, for all that he again shows a couple of neat touches and swaps passes with Hughes neatly on the left flank a couple of times.

After a first half in which we were much the better side but Millwall have the better chances at the death the reverse happens here, kinda.  We come closer, anyway, despite the home side being much more in it.  Sarr slips a ball to Chalobah who hammers a shot at goal;  Bialkowski blocks, Troy neatly scissors an overhead kick low inside the post and the keeper pushes it round.  More sharp passing, Deeney’s drive is blocked.  Any sense of inevitability to our victory left the stadium at half time though.

5- Underwhelming, and not a whole load of exciting.  But four points from two tricky away games isn’t half bad.  The more so when the first three of those points came from a trip to Stoke against a tough, experienced side despite not being in the game for the first half.  That’s the sort of win that gets you promoted.

We’re only fitfully brilliant.  But mostly solid.  We’ve missed the chance to lay down the gauntlet here, that would have been fun with Brentford and Swansea facing off tomorrow.  But 13 points and four clean sheets from Xisco’s first six games will more than do for the time being.


Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, *Sarr 4*, Cleverley 4, Chalobah 3. Hughes 3, Deeney 3, Gray 2
Subs:  Zinckernagel (for Cleverley , 63) 2, João Pedro (for Gray, 63) 2, Ngakia, Cathcart, Navarro, Wilmot, Garner, Hungbo, Parkes


Watford 1 Barnsley 0 (19/01/2021) 20/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- It was my birthday this week, as was mentioned on Saturday.

I got a decent haul, somewhat themed.  Walking boots from Mum and Dad.  Wellies from my brother (no joy in finding yellow wellies – black will have to do, happily with a bit of red).  And from my wife and daughters, amongst other things, exercise bands.

God I miss the gym.  Boasting the unfortunate combination of edgy competitiveness and athletic incompetence team sports have never done it for me, but I can do ten minutes of that, twenty of them, thirty of those quite happily and doggedly, podcast in the ears, keep going until everything burns.

Exercise bands aren’t the same as the gym.  But my god it’s good to feel muscles burning again after all this time.  Walking is great, but it’s not this.  I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it.  We’ve all been deprived of all sorts of things, this was getting one of those things back.  Ish.

2- There were parallels with watching Watford attack during this game, for all that it still wasn’t quite connecting, for all that we didn’t capitalise on the huge gaps behind Barnsley’s back line in the second half, there can be no denying the green shoots now.

Green shoots.  We were fifth before today’s game, third afterwards.  Tiny violins and so forth.  But it’s been so long since we attacked with any verve that even this halfway house, this decent stab at it was a whole lot of fun.  We might have scored more goals at home than anyone else (and fewer away than anyone else, which is a ridiculous pair of statistics) but it hasn’t felt like it.  This was….   “yeeeeah, I remember this!  This used to be fun, right?”.

Which isn’t to say that Barnsley made it easy.  On the contrary, they attacked us with the controlled ferocity that characterised much of their win at Oakwell earlier in the season.  This was Übergegenpress, and much as we must have expected it this time, much as nobody can have missed the Tykes purposeful ascent up the table we didn’t enjoy it at all for the first ten minutes or so.  Sierralta in particular was rattled, and Bachmann looked nervous to receive the ball at his feet which is the very last thing you want to look against this lot.  You’re allowed to be nervous, you’re not allowed to betray it, to let them sniff blood.

Five minutes in and Barnsley tore us up, Adeboyejo pulling back from the right touchline towards Chaplin, Kiko flying in with a critical block.  It looked iffy at that stage, but two minutes later we had our first proper attack and it was startlingly straightforward, Deeney and Hughes combining and almost playing themselves straight through by accident and certainly without trying too hard.  Two more minutes and one touch stuff builds another attack, Deeney swings the first a couple of of balls from left to right to find Gray, the ball finds it’s way back to the left towards the bullish Sema and we have a corner.  The scene is set.

3- Barnsley are relentless coming forwards, pressing and pressing and pressing they attack like pack animals, as a team and with an aggressive urgent energy.  At no point are we comfortable, at no point prior to the final whistle are we safe.

But for all that this was a tremendous, vital victory, a roar at whatever screen you were able to watch at the final whistle kind of victory, it should have been safe earlier.  It was rapidly clear that the nervous energy that characterised the Tykes’ attacking play was a less positive characteristic of their defending.  There was energy and determination and doggedness and that all played a part in restricting us to a single goal (as did goalkeeper Walton, whose alertness and braveness off his line makes their very high defensive line halfway viable).  But there was an almost total lack of composure amongst their very young side in front of Walton (average age 22), and albeit faced with a multi-faceted attack boasting strength and aggression and speed they looked vulnerable to every attack.

4- We sorted ourselves out defensively, and instead of looking vulnerable ourselves we stood up to the many questions that Barnsley were asking of us.  Sierralta pulled himself together and threw his head at everything.  Masina was deft and strong and confident and decisive, looking as good a player as he ever looked in the top flight.  All over the pitch we were robust, standing up to Barnsley’s physicality which occasionally overstepped the mark, not least when Andersen twice tested and demonstrated referee Robinson’s reluctance to show a card by cynically upending Sarr.  By the time first Sollbauer and then Sarr went into the book late on both sides had auditioned unsuccessfully for further censure.  From our point of view this was positive aggression, a refusal to be bullied – Cleverley and Sema predictably, Sarr more encouragingly, Sierralta greedily using their strength to hold their ground.

If Barnsley had taken the lead, as they occasionally threatened to do, you wonder whether the belief would have dissipated.  As it was the hapless Callum Brittain waved his hankie at Troy’s curling shot.  There was briefly a futile, kindergarten bit of gamesmanship as Walton dallied and Helik encroached to fiercely clap nobody in particular before Troy did his thing, belting the ball straight down the throat of the latest keeper not to be able to cope with it.  Doesn’t get old.

5- The two changes from Saturday had seen Will Hughes and Andre Gray brought into the starting line-up.  Hughes did everything that we’d missed in his first League start of the season, ratting around the midfield to disrupt possession, having the touch and guile and awareness to open up the play once he’d won the ball, and then thundering in with a brutally precise tackle to disrupt another attack.

Gray was a less popular starter, but he did a lot right here.  Always on the shoulder of the defenders, too often beyond the defenders perhaps but nonetheless… a threat, an aggressor.  He did the Danny Graham job of pulling the defence around through belligerence and persistence… but was eyewateringly incapable of finishing.  Five minutes after the goal he was released wide on the left, beat the keeper, shot round him and provoked more chaos than should have been expected from his angle before the ball was cleared.  Sarr was fouled on the left flank but Sema drove onwards to release Gray who Walton blocked bravely.  Second half, we attacked early and with conviction, Hughes drove in hard and low, the rebound fell to Gray to tap in but offside.  We need a lot more of this.  Really, we need more than this but this will do for the timebeing.  Better, anyway.  Useful.

The second half parade of subs changed things.  Zinckernagel had a mouthwatering half hour, occasionally overplaying in his own half but a robust, artful menace on the attack, strong in the tackle, efficient with the ball, clever in tight spaces and putting in one evil, evil Beckham cross from the right that Troost-Ekong touched the wrong side of the post.  As significantly, as tempers frayed late on and Sarr and João Pedro lost their discipline Zinckernagel played a role in de-escalating and protecting Sarr in particular from worse than a yellow.

Which would all have counted for nothing had Sierralta’s extraordinary flicked header towards his own goal not demonstrated that, no, we don’t really have a problem with Daniel Bachmann’s concentration and, no, referee Robinson might have been lenient but he wasn’t stupid, not stupid enough to buy Woodrow’s pitiful, desperate dive across the corner of the penalty area late on.

But it did, and he isn’t.  And…  yes, it would have been great to be in the Vic for this one, to roar us on in what was a quite tremendously febrile game of football.  But it was great anyway.

My first proper session with those exercise bands saw me do unspeakable things to my thigh muscles due to lack of warming up.  I’m now limping around like the idiot I am.  Like me, Watford were returning to something they hadn’t done for a while.  But they didn’t screw up.

Game on.


Bachmann 4, Femenía 3, Masina 5, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Sarr 4, Cleverley 3, *Hughes 5*, Sema 4, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs:  Zinckernagel (for Sema, 62) 4, João Pedro (for Deeney, 62) 3, Chalobah (for Cleverley, 70) 3, Ngakia (for Gray, 82) NA, Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 82) NA, Navarro, Wilmot, Garner, Parkes

Watford 2 Huddersfield Town 0 (16/01/2021) 17/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Daughter 2 does incredulous very well.   Something enhanced by secondary school I think, such as her experience of it has been allowed to be, but it was always in her armoury.

Her dalliance with League Ladders in around 2015 corresponded with Leicester being bottom of the Premier League… no City fan has told the story of their transformation the following year with such wide-eyed, open-palmed, head-cocked disbelief, or as frequently.  This tendency surfaced again this week.

“Four years?  Seriously?“.

Well, yes.  And spirited as Hornet Hive’s efforts to do justice to the anniversary are, here’s the latest example of something that really needs the stands full.  The annual heartfelt, uncomplicated acknowledgement of the great man is a fine thing, the scarf display emotional and spectacular and as an aside permitting the more wised-up elements of whichever visiting support to join in whilst the empty vessels’ noise is drowned out.  Every club thinks that their club is special, different.  Graham Taylor is a big part of why we’re the ones that are right.

2- Meanwhile, the fixture that represented perhaps the low point of GT’s final season as manager.  More than 20 years on (yes…) it feels like an opportunity for Xisco’s new dawn to get going after a three match intro that was both unforgiving in the stiffness of the challenge and kind in that dropped points might be more obviously forgivable.

Three points and honourable exit from the FA Cup with some encouraging signs represented no worse than par for that little run, but after three weeks without midweek games we kick off a run of five fixtures in 15 days where a decent haul of points will be required.

All sorts of talking points in the starting line-up as the new man starts to settle on things and both new and returning faces get shuffled around.  Daniel Bachmann retains his place for now and the foreseeable as Ben Foster has broken a finger, it transpires.  Kiko and Masina would seem to end the season’s game of musical chairs in the full back positions for the moment, WTE and Sierralta are paired in what immediately looks sensible at centre-back (though we have plenty of combinations that qualify for that label).  No Will Hughes – migraines late this week it is later suggested – but no Zinckernagel in the starting eleven either, dampening the unreasonable expectation that he’s the guy who’ll come in and change everything rather than, for instance, the guy who might actually change things by not coming in and providing competitive threat to the incumbent attacking players.  The net total of all of this is that for the first time in ages we have a bench full of senior options.

3- The suggestion that we’re nudging in a favourable direction is backed up by a vigorous first half in which hurlyburly closing down limits the capacity of either side to create very much simply because by the time any player of either side has the ball under control there’s someone flying at them at high speed and evasive action needs to be taken.

It has to be said that our own attacking threat survives this frenzy better than Huddersfield’s – Daniel Bachmann might have spent the first half in my seat a third of the way up the Rookery for all I know – but we’re not exactly flowing either and it’s the destructive players that get themselves most brownie points from the first half.  Nate Chalobah is prominent here, stomping on things that need stomping on and kicking things that need kicking.

We do spark into life occasionally though.  Ten minutes in, Sarr receives an awkward ball from João Pedro and puts in a cross. Sema competes well and cushions back to the Brazilian whose snap-shot forces Schofield into a decent stop low to his left.  Midway through the half Chalobah slips Kiko in with a lovely through ball, he wastes the opportunity.  As the half closes an assertive run by Cleverley ends with him finding Sarr in a central position, cutting inside and curling a shot that demands another intervention from Schofield.  No goals is no goals, but there’s positive intent and sparks of life here.  Upbeat at the break.

4- Having said which, and before we get to the damburst in the second half, up front is clearly where the biggest problems are.  Deeney is more mobile and assertive here than he has been in a while – indeed too assertive half an hour in when his frustrated challenge on Bacuna, late and unnecessary, might have earned him a red and indeed probably merited a yellow each for thuggery and stupidity. Losing your rag like that is exasperating in a young kid, much more than that in your 32 year-old captain who, given his willingness to pass judgement on others on a variety of platforms is fair game for such criticism here.

But despite his otherwise good work and despite a lively outing from João Pedro there isn’t the connection up front that was suggested by a promising open exchange.  Our attack is still good bits that do their own thing rather than a machine that has a way of playing and functions as a collective.  For the moment, anyway.

The other wonky cog is Ismaïla Sarr who is also far more aggressive here than he has been and yet still isn’t as effective as you want him to be.  Nonetheless, he’s being wielded with some creativity with Xisco, swapping wings with Sema and later Zinckernagel more than once and often popping up in a central position where he displays a bullishness that hasn’t always been evident.  There’s an argument for deploying him alongside Deeney given his aptitude for attacking the ball in the box and questionable decision making when he has time to think about it.

More frustrating is his rather sulky tendency to whine and bleat about the treatment he receives.  The first grumble in the direction of the officials comes about three minutes in, doing himself no favours by both alienating said officials early on and (therefore) affording licence to his markers to keep bullying him.  There’s a bit of Wilfried Zaha about Sarr, but if he’s less nimble than Zaha he’s physically better able to withstand such treatment and needs to get his head around battering his way through this stuff sooner rather than later.

5- Nonetheless.  The trajectory is positive, even up front, and we’re too good here for a Huddersfield side that, albeit with a stronger eleven themselves and the help of us shooting ourselves in the foot twice, beat us comfortably only a month ago.  Only four surivivors from our starting eleven that day incidentally.

Energy aside, Huddersfield offer little.  Particularly hapless is left winger Rolando cousin of Max Aarons, who marks his full debut for the Terriers after signing ten days ago by mis-controlling into touch at least half a dozen times, whilst on the right Aaron Rowe is a sneering ball of attitude but little else.

The first time I saw Watford lose was on my ninth birthday, a 3-2 defeat to Newcastle 39 years ago today.  Huddersfield are more generous with their birthday gifts, but Tom Cleverley is forceful in his encouragement – hurtling first at midfield possession and then, without breaking stride or needing to deviate, pursuing Álex Vallejo into an underhit backpass towards his goalkeeper.  Schofield has proven himself an excellent shot-stopper over the two fixtures but freezes here long enough for Cleverley to thunder onto the loose ball with ferocious glee.  All that was missing was the roar of the Rookery to flatten what was left of Huddersfield’s resolve.

But it didn’t take much flattening.  By the time João Pedro got onto the end of Kiko’s terrific, precision cross to seal the deal Ismaïla Sarr had spurned a chance to capitalise on more nervous goalkeeping, unaware of Schofield’s suicidal and completely futile charge off his line as Troost-Ekong’s fine through-ball arrived until the moment had passed.

At two down the visitors put some kids on and started to push on a bit.  They immediately looked more convincing, Scott High sending in a low drive to force the most stretching save of the afternoon out of the nonetheless impressively assertive Bachmann.  What threat they offered however crumbled on the twin barriers of Troost-Ekong and Sierralta, who have the making of a “leader/doer” combination the match of a Galli/Brown, a Roeder/Holdsworth or a Cox/Demerit.  Will Hughes comes off the bench and is immediately the best player on the pitch.  Zinckernagel, Garner, Navarro all suggest options and even Andre Gray is less worrying as an impact sub than a starter.

“I can take Luton winning if it’s at Bournemouth” is Daughter 2’s final thoughtful footnote to proceedings, quite reasonably.  And all in all it’s been a quite reasonable day.  We’re not there yet.  But we’re heading in the right direction.


Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Sarr 4, Cleverley 4, *Chalobah 4*, Sema 3, João Pedro 4, Deeney 3
Subs:  Hughes (for Chalobah, 68) 4, Gray (for Deeney, 68) 2, Zinckernagel (for Sema, 80) NA, Garner (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Navarro (for Femeníá, 85) NA, Cathcart, Wilmot, Ngakia, Parkes

Manchester United 1 Watford 0 (09/01/2021) 10/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- As I get older, my recollections of my first Watford games are increasingly restricted to isolated sensations, memories, and often freeze-frames.

The Cup Final.  The first one.  Younger than Daughter 2 is now.  Yellow and blue aeroplanes duelling over the Wembley pitch (I think we lost that one too).  April 1986, slightly arbitrarily.  Newcastle United at home.  Watching from the family enclosure as a 20 year-old Nigel Gibbs lies face down in the turf in front of me.  Behind him the slightly perverse image of Gary Porter, all 5ft 5 of him, squaring up to perpetrator Billy Whitehurst, a brick shithouse of a centre-forward.  Manchester United at home, May 1985.  Luther has been carried off with a fractured skull, it turned out, after a knee in the head from Gary Bailey.  Physio Billy Hails returning to the bench and wringing his sponge out into a bucket in front of the family enclosure.  “Oh my God, that’s blood!” exclaims my aunt.

Whatever freeze frames we retain from the last twelve months or so of football will be almost exclusively two dimensional at best.  Limited to what the TV cameras are able, choose to reveal, moulded by the opinions of the pundits.  These are probably more informed than the opinion of The Bloke Behind You in fairness but…  you lose the ability to take it all in.  To use all your senses to immerse yourself in the spectacle.  To look where you want to look, to allow yourself to find a perspective that others aren’t paying attention to (as an aside, I maintain that I was the only person in the Rookery who saw our counterattack thunder towards us in the 2013 Leicester game in the wake of already raucous penalty save celebration, but that’s by the by).  You don’t get to feel the prickle of cold on the back of your neck, to submerge yourself into the collective anxiety and excitement of the stands.  Second rate freeze-frames at best, however sharp the image, however revealing the camera angle.

2- What few of us will have is a freeze frame of a victory at Old Trafford.  There’s only been one, of course…  Luther again, 1978.  Before my time, just about.  Instead we have memories of an array of creative different flavours of defeat.  There’s the run-of-the-mill variety, like in 1987.  There was a lot to like about Worrell Sterling, but him being our man-of-the-match always flagged a bad team performance.  There’s been unlucky ones, comprehensive ones (BBC), frustrating ones. This never looked likely to do anything other than add to that catalogue;  had it done otherwise this report would have been rattled together in a fit of excitement by first thing Sunday morning rather than… well, whenever I get it done.

Which doesn’t therefore imply any besmirching of Xisco’s fledgling record necessarily. With the comparative luxury of three whole weeks without a midweek fixture of all things, now was instead a time to study his playing of his cards, to draw what conclusions we can about the new man from the decisions he makes.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of our rapid turnover of head coaches, we shouldn’t deny ourselves such pleasures as the circumstance offers.

And there was plenty to chew over in team selections, substitutions, set-up today.  Omissions of Deeney, Femenía and Cleverley from the travelling squad was not, ostensibly, down to COVID since the club confirmed that no positive tests had arisen from the increased testing last week.  No mention of injury either…  if the absentees were selectively rested, that’s a bold call in itself with the proportion of senior pros on an ever-more injury restricted bench dropping further.

Beyond that there was interest in the deployment of players on their “weaker foot”, seemingly encouraging players to come inside.  Debutant Zinckernagel, we are told, can play anywhere across the front line but is right-footed and was deployed primarily on the right by Bodø/Glimt.  He’s fielded on the left throughout.  Later on Ken Sema is brought off the bench and spends a diligent but awkward fifteen minutes on the right flank before Zinckernagel’s removal sees him switch back to the left.  Simultaneously Jeremy Ngakia came on for Adam Masina for another uncomfortable shift at left back – more out of necessity than choice perhaps in the absence of Kiko.

3- With Zinckernagel making his debut – albeit only three weeks after the end of the Norwegian season – as well as first starts of the season for Hughes and Masina, a second start for Navarro, a first start for over a month for João Pedro and for three weeks for Troost-Ekong it’s little surprise perhaps that we started slowly.

But we did start slowly.  Two minutes in Marc Navarro was ushering Dan James into the box to force a save out of Daniel Bachmann.  A couple of minutes later a corner was allowed to reach Scott McTominay, comfortably the dominant player on the pitch, who headed down into the ground and got a bit of luck as the ball rebounded upwards and beyond Bachmann’s reach into the top corner.  Felt like it was going to be a long evening at that stage.

So the most obvious positive from the encounter was that we didn’t crumble.  Ten minutes into the anticipated onslaught with United looking lively and positive, you noticed that the collapse hadn’t actually happened, that we were holding our shape and holding our own.  Philip Zinckernagel started the game ambling around like the kid on the playground who’s splitting his time between participating in the game and discussing last night’s episode of Red Dwarf with his mate but he picked the pace up and every touch was bullish and purposeful.  Quarter of an hour in Will Hughes – who if not back at full throttle nonetheless snapped and rattled around the midfield encouragingly – sent in a free kick which João Pedro flicked on to Masina beating the offside trap for Henderson to block his shot.

We looked a threat at set pieces, would you believe, Sierralta’s obvious physical threat a problem.  Navarro looked nervous defensively but demonstrated an ability to put a decent curling ball into the box.  Sarr threatened to escape a couple of times, João Pedro had some nice touches.  Much was made by Glenn Hoddle on comms of the danger of being exposed in the middle, Chalobah and Hughes overwhelmed by weight of numbers, but it didn’t really happen.  Half time snuck up on everyone with the Hornets more than hanging on.

4-  Except.  Except.  If we weren’t being overrun, if our discipline and shape was containing a now stuttering United and Bachmann tested (and meeting those tests) only rarely, if we were demonstrating the suggestion of a threat then the concern is that suggesting was all we were doing.  For all that Andre Gray was lively and energetic, for all that Nathaniel Chalobah was able to lash a couple of drives wide of goal the suggestion of a threat never developed into actual threat.  Harsh, perhaps…  we’d have taken an honourable 1-0 defeat with both hands five minutes in and there’s immense encouragement to be taken from what followed in terms of both attitude and organisation.

But not in end product.  Not in actual goal threat.  And yes, this was “only” the Cup against an experienced and capable Premier League side, further strengthened throughout the second half as Solskjær followed the introduction of Maguire before the break with Martial, Rashford, Matic.  But it’s the overriding challenge.  Sarr and João Pedro in particular ooze with the suggestion of a threat, from which we’re not moulding actual threat nearly often enough.

It’s the nagging concern as the second half progresses, much as keeping the scoreline at 1-0 whilst getting minutes into some of those returning legs is an achievement in itself, much as there’s an awful lot more to like about the character of the side than not.  Xisco has limited options on the bench but isn’t afraid to use them, dipping into the benchwarmers when Joseph Hungbo, recently recalled from loan, is brought on for a likably energetic if largely impotent fifteen minutes in place of Zinckernagel.  The second “but” of the evening arrives when Chalobah grabs his hamstring and is replaced by Phillips.  You won’t find me complaining about Dan Phillips seeing some action at any stage in any game, but we’re thin enough on the ground in midfield without losing Chalobah too.

5- The game ends with Hornets heads held high and yet no real suggestion that the course of the evening was about to change at any point beyond the fifth minute.  A cynic might say that, in the circumstances, honourable defeat which doesn’t mash our confidence but doesn’t add fixtures to an already congested January and February is a very decent outcome.  There’s truth in this, but we wouldn’t have had any reservations had we pulled it out of the bag.

And as for Xisco… so far so good.  Still saying the right things.  His team is work in progress but looks punchier and more assertive than it has done for most of the season despite limited manpower.  Watch this space.


Bachmann 3, Navarro 3, Masina 3, Sierralta 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sarr 3, Chalobah 3, *Hughes 3*, Zinckernagel 3, João Pedro 3, Gray 3
Subs:  Sema (for Sarr, 58) 3, Ngakia (for Masina, 58) 2, Wilmot (for Troost-Ekong, 76) NA, Hungbo (for Zinckernagel, 76) NA, Phillips (for Chalobah, 84) NA, Dalby, Crichlow, Barrett, Foster

Swansea City 2 Watford 1 (02/01/2021) 03/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  There’s a difference between boring and mundane.

Boring is always a Bad Thing.  It’s an active state, something which achieves disengagement, leaves you worse off than you were before.  Mundane is passive.  Everyday.  “Failing to excite”, I suppose.  Not the same thing, it depends on context.  It can be positive.

Marko Kloos does mundane very well.  His series of sci-fi novels are entertaining fantasies, but their brilliance is in the layer upon layer of mundane detail.  That’s what allows you to lift the veil of disbelief.  Yes, OK, it’s 2120 and I’m in a distant point in space fighting 30-foot aliens.  But the food’s shit, my feet hurt and this guy’s being a bit of an idiot.  Not plot devices beyond creating a world that you can lower yourself into, however extraordinary the critical detail.  Tolkien was very good at that too.

Nobody’s missing boring, there’s plenty of boring.  But there’s not enough mundane.  Not enough variety in the mundane.  Not enough of the incidental stuff that you take for granted.   Someone cycled past me on my walk yesterday morning and saluted my loyalties, betrayed by my hat.  Rare to see another Watford supporter at the northern tip of Bedfordshire.  Quite rare to see anyone at all on the muddy walks between the local villages.  It was a nice thing.  It shouldn’t have been the highlight of my day.  Particularly not when there’s a game on in the afternoon.

2- There are some things that, it could be argued, the club ownership can be criticised for.  You’ll have your own opinions, I think it’s beyond reasonable dispute that they’re well in credit over the eight years whatever the debate in the detail.

But there are some things that they, we, are indisputably outstanding at.  Philip Zinckernagel might not work out.  He might struggle to step up, not be able to adapt, whatever.   Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  But what a triumph of smoke and mirrors in any case.  I’ve been keeping a list of every name that comes up in The List  postings over the last few years, plausible well-sourced or otherwise.  Not a sniff.  And whilst there are no guarantees that his extraordinary record in Norway will translate, it seems that plenty of others were willing to take that gamble.  For us to be so on top of the game that we can line him up on a free transfer and have him purchase a house in the UK three months ago to help navigate the new reality is tremendous.

Ken Sema, whose unprecedented success with Östersunds in Sweden mirrors that of Zinckernagel with traditionally unremarkable Bodø/Glimt in Norway, is another example.  His first season with us no better or worse than OK.  His second on loan at Udinese saw him get enough football to suggest that we’d not seen the best of him.  This season, whilst he didn’t have his best game in Swansea, he’s arguably been our most reliable performer.  The Pozzos, Duxbury, can pick a player and can get them in.  Not every one’s a success, but we’re not half bad.

Étienne Capoue is another.  He wasn’t an obvious signing five-and-a-half years ago.  Not obvious that he’d want to slum it with the likes of Watford, not obvious that he’d be effective if he did so having been kind of so so at Spurs as part of their post-Bale splurge.  And yet he gave us many years of increasingly dependable service, simultaneously a tremendous defensive midfielder (interceptions, tackles higher than anyone in the top leagues in Europe whenever and whatever and so on) and an attacking weapon, pinging balls from side to side of the pitch, steering patterns of attack from mission control.  One of the best players to play for the club in recent years, perhaps ever in as much as it’s possible to judge.

Not a hero though.  Not a “legend”, not for me.   The “how” is as important as the what in that regard.  Even at his best, his weaker performances betrayed an arrogance and a laziness;  the arrogance is a great thing when channelled positively, not when it generates bad performances in itself.  Dad has often pointed out his tendency to dangle a leg limply at a tackle he can’t really be bothered with;  that’s faded a little over the years but the personality  that generated it is still there, cast into stark relief with his contribution this season.  He’s allowed not to want to play in the Championship, heaven knows he’s good enough to do better.  What he’s not allowed to do is to take a salary whilst clearly not giving a damn.  That’s not how a club legend behaves.  Tommy Mooney’s not terribly veiled references to Capoue’s departure improving the mood of the dressing room impossible to miss on Hornet Hive.

3- Compare and contrast with Kiko Femenía.  Not the same calibre of player as Capoue at all, but nonetheless perfectly able to hold his own in the top division, here, Spain, anywhere.  Another player who, it was widely reported, wanted to head out in the summer for professional and personal reasons.

But you wouldn’t know it.  One of our stars against Norwich, he’s again impressive from the off here.  Against a side who are organised, who keep the ball well and on a newly laid pitch that’s impossibly slippery and treacherous the ability to thunder forward with possession is invaluable and Kiko’s at it again at the start of a hugely engaging first half in which blows are traded freely, both metaphorically and literally as tackles rattle in with increasing aggression.

Kiko’s surge ends with a threaded through ball that doesn’t quite find Sarr but the intent and the threat is clear.  A minute later however and Swansea embark on their crusade to isolate and expose Jeremy Ngakia at left back;  they do so repeatedly and painfully easily, Christian Roberts sending a wicked ball across the face of goal that Korey Smith is an inch away from converting.

Then we’re back at them, Ben Wilmot doggedly chasing down possession after a free kick is cleared towards the corner flag, bullying Jamal Lowe out of position and flinging in an instant cross with his left foot.  Gray attacks the near post well but both defender and goalkeeper are alert and he can’t smuggle the ball in.  Tremendous bullishness and urgency from Wilmot, no coincidence that the speed of action and thought creates one of our better openings of the afternoon.

We begin to edge it.  Only edge it, and only briefly.  Swansea suggest a susceptibility at set pieces when Nathaniel Chalobah is permitted a standing header from a corner;  this vulnerability is evident later in the game when Sierralta repeatedly threatens from near post corners and we pick up cheap possession in and around the box but don’t do enough to expose or exploit this.

But almost immediately we’re ahead, and it’s a fine, fine strike from Cleverley from just outside the area, fizzing low and straight at a height that will take the very tips of the newly sown blades of grass and into the bottom corner.

Blows continue to be traded, and a rapid warning to stay on our guard comes when Roberts goes down under challenge from Ngakia within minutes.  Certainly not a deliberate foul but the befuddled Ngakia clipped him – the extent to which created by Roberts himself not clear – and “you’ve seen them given”.  We retaliate, a super touch from Gray releases Sarr who had sprung just too early.  Swansea build concerted pressure, Foster saves well from Ayew’s clubbed drive that shouldn’t have given him a chance, too close to the keeper.

It’s increasingly harum scarum stuff, all the players losing their footing now adding to the ragged urgency of the spectacle.  Sarr is back defending, diligently, his covering with a far post header prevents Manning from getting in.  Manning was widely tipped as one of our left back targets in the summer;  he’s a gobby pain in the arse here, he could have been our pain in the arse.  A minute later Chalobah clobbers Matt Grimes, another supposed summer target who is the focus of much of our attention.  Smith forces another save from Foster.  And then the pressure tells, another fine finish from Jamal Lowe whose curling left footer ends up right in the far bottom corner, agonisingly pulling out of Foster’s reach.

4- Conceding before half time never good, but a fair reflection of the half and we’d have taken a draw from this one happily, particularly on the back of the win against Norwich.

We’re after more of the same in the second half and we get it, but not in a good way.  Swansea continue to look assertive and don’t give us a sniff for fifteen minutes. Jake Bidwell heads in ten minutes in, it’s rightly chalked off for Lowe being offside, but that’s more luck than judgement on our part.  Chalobah does some more stout defensive work, blocking Korey Smith’s effort but is then replaced on the hour by a tentative James Garner before he completes his widely advertised journey to a red card.

We start to get back into it, Kiko twice releasing Sarr, the ball bobbling around the box.  It’s something to claw our way back in on, but then Swansea get a delivery spot on, we’re exposed defensively as Foster is stranded and the charmlessly effective Lowe heads in at the far post.  It’s been coming.

Which is more than can be said for our attacking threat for the rest of the game.  No lack of attitude here, no lack of effort, but a lack of effectiveness.  All of our threat is down the flanks, principally through Sarr and Kiko though Sema does feed Troy late in the game, the captain shoots over.  Our centre forwards and central midfield aren’t nearly threatening enough;  Deeney has a few good touches but looks immobile and never looks like bullying a young an inexperienced backline deprived of it’s senior figure in Ryan Bennett and of his deputy in the warm up.  Gray is lively and industrious, but largely to little effect.  In the midfield Cleverley does well in the first half but fades, and is more destructive than creative for the most part, Chalobah sturdy enough until replaced but he’s also become a destroyer, no longer the metronome that ticked away at the back of Gianfranco Zola’s midfield.  It’s tempting to suggest that we’re missing Capoue’s ability to change the play but we’ve been missing that for most of the season in truth.

We bang on the door wholeheartedly enough in the final minutes, but without ever threatening to overwhelm our hosts who deserve the win and look a tidy side.  The returning Morgan Gibbs-White gives them something extra in the final minutes as they effectively kill the game, Grimes coming closer to extending the scoring than we do with a low drive that Foster just about holds on to.  Masina, who has a decent second half off the bench, blots his record slightly with a stupid, if understandably frustrated, late booking.  The last word I write on my notepad is “Arse”.

5- This isn’t a disaster.  It’s hugely frustrating, the illusory suggestion that Xisco would arrive with his smiles and energy and we’d suddenly canter away the biggest casualty of the afternoon.  But losing a fairly tight game away to one of our principal rivals is not the same as chucking points away through carelessness, or by not being brave or bold enough.  We suffered today really through not being good enough on the day;  in Hughes, João Pedro, Quina, potentially Zinckernagel and in the longer term Dele-Bashiru we have creativity in our squad.   There were very few options for Xisco on the bench in that regard, young Sam Dalby being added to the list of benchwarmers.  In Perica, Success, Kabasele, Cathcart we have plenty of experience to come back.

It does need to be better.  Perhaps it will be, against less accomplished opponents.  But it’s the accomplished ones that we have to catch.

Not boring, is it?


Foster 3, Femeníá 3, Ngakia 2, Sierralta 3, *Wilmot 4*, Sarr 3, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 3, Sema 2, Deeney 2, Gray 2
Subs:  Masina (for Ngakia, 45) 3, Garner (for Chalobah, 60) 2, Hughes (for Cleverley, 90) NA, Navarro, Troost-Ekong, Hungbo, Crichlow, Dalby, Bachmann