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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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.

Yooorns.

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

Comments»

1. Ben - 20/01/2021

Nice one Matt. Last night was really very encouraging. Remember thinking we were really quite direct in the first half. But it played to our strengths with Deeney & Gray up front. Much improved from Andre, but confidence still woefully lacking. Hughes superb. Zinckernagel looks some player.

2. Harefield Hornet - 20/01/2021

Once we’d overcome the brave Barnsley opening period I thought overall that was a terrific team performance. All the subs that came on contributed too. It was great to see the 2 youngsters, Sarr in particular, showing some real aggression towards the end. A word on Gray – although correctly criticised for valid reasons like stupid house parties etc – I feel he is unfairly victimised by a section of our fans. Jealousy obviously plays a part in this – being married to a model pop star and living in a £5M mansion obviously stokes the vitriol aimed at him. But on the pitch he just needs something, anything, to go in at the moment and he’ll be up and running. I thought he was a bit unlucky last night in that respect. Now Stoke on a Friday night !

Matt Rowson - 20/01/2021

He hasn’t always done himself favours – house parties – and there have been boo boys over the years more deserving of sympathy. But I agree, it’s not as simple as “all good” or “all bad”.

3. Crispticker - 20/01/2021

In amongst the Gray debate, I think a contributing factor in the last few games is Deeney seems to be increasingly dropping into the hole, leaving Gray up top on his own. All the rage, what with Kane feeding Son, but Deeney doesn’t have the acumen to constantly pick his man out (although last night was better) nor the mobility to offer support.

Matt Rowson - 20/01/2021

disagree on ability to pick his man out. mobility post-op/injury definitely a concern tho.

4. PeterC - 20/01/2021

Loved your comment on Troy’s effective penalty technique: “Doesn’t get old”. But, as he does the same thing every time, why don’t the opposition keepers just stand still and block it? Or does Troy hit the ball so hard the goalies don’t fancy blocking a bullet?

Matt Rowson - 20/01/2021

The key word there is “just” Peter. I think the Barnsley keeper intended to do just that, but unless you’re right behind it it’s hit at such velocity that you’re not going to stop it. I said “straight down his throat” and it was definitely hit centrally-ish, but just to his side. He got two hands to it, it didn’t matter.


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