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Watford 3 Birmingham City 0 (20/03/2021) 21/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
28 comments

1- Every football fan will be able to relate to the concepts of Confirmation Bias and Motivated Reasoning.

In my day job I’m a statistician.  All about… quantifying evidence.  Assessing strengths of relationship.  At its essence, objectivity.

Confirmation Bias and Motivated Reasoning work against this.   The former is giving more credibility to evidence that supports your world view. It’s things like…  “we never get the big decisions – remember that time when….” (ignoring the many times when not).  “We’re going to bottle it.  We always bloody bottle it – remember when…” (if that were true, you’d be bottom with no points).  “We’re so unlucky with injuries – we’ve not had him, or him, or him” (other teams are losing players too).

Motivated Reasoning is a similar idea – but almost the other side of the coin.  Readily accepting evidence that supports your belief, disproportionately challenging stuff that doesn’t. “So and so is awful”.  “What about that time when….”, “Lucky.  Lucky.  I’m telling you, he’s rubbish”. Tim Harford describes it well in a recent episode of his Cautionary Tales podcast.

Both biases are profound, innate and difficult to counteract.  Both, of course, bedevil any assessment of a team’s prospects by supporters of said team.

Except, of course, when it comes to any assessment of this Watford side.  We’re going up because a) we’re bloody great and b) nobody else is.  That’s it.

2- The headlines coming into this one related to the non-availability not only of Ismaïla Sarr but also of Philip Zinckernagel, both of whom picked up knocks at Rotherham in midweek.  Sarr’s absence ahead of a two week break no great surprise – a “minor” hamstring problem we’re advised.  Stepping back and considering the various options and realising that they were all pretty good limited any anxiety about the absence of perhaps our least replaceable weapon in Sarr, but it was still a bit of a surprise to see Isaac getting the nod.  Two years since his last League start which is remarkable in itself, perhaps only as remarkable as the fact that he’s clearly not out of last chances just yet.  As previously, I’m pleased about that… if he can mobilise his quality and physicality, pull the strings around the parcel a little tighter then we suddenly have a new £12million signing, as my brother pointed out at the outset.

His first touch was loose from a throw in on two minutes.  His second, not so much as the opening exchanges set the tone for the game.  Birmingham were physical… not violent, not cynical, but intimidating and aggressive, using the tools that they had.  Gardner battered Hughes.  Pedersen grappled with João Pedro on the touchline.  Dean went in hard on Success.  The first of a large number of long throws went into our box, was flicked on to Dean in an unpenalised offside position, he headed back to Hogan who got it all wrong, the ball bouncing off his shoulder.  This was not going to be a cakewalk by any stretch.

But by then we were a goal to the good. The strike echoed Dan Gosling’s closing effort on Tuesday…  some neat work from Success freed João Pedro, his cross shot bought a decent save from Etheridge and Kenzema was sharpest to the rebound. Which was the theme of the afternoon.  Birmingham threw their weight around, asked questions, made us a bit uncomfortable.  Then we scored.

3- Which is underplaying the visitors a bit, probably. Lee Bowyer would later suggest that the scoreline didn’t accurately reflect the balance of the game and it’s difficult to argue with that.  Birmingham’s approach was relatively uncomplicated, Mark Roberts’ long throws, crosses swung in by Bela or Halilović, but it was a simple tune played well and we needed to be on it throughout.

That we were is the bit that’s easy to overlook.  But Daniel Bachmann, whilst he tended to stay on his line, wasn’t made to look anything like as uncomfortable as he has done when faced with similar challenges in recent weeks.  Sierralta, obviously, stood up to everything that was thrown at him.  Thrived on it.  And if William Troost-Ekong’s distribution continues to be a bit of an issue he was rarely exposed defensively.  When a ball was allowed to drop there was a body in the way, most dramatically when Chalobah swung into to provide a thunderous block to defy Bela.

But every time we hauled our way away from our penalty area we looked confident and potent, almost effortlessly.  Sema, utterly back on his game now with batteries recharged, dropped a right wing corner onto Masina’s foot at the far post, narrowly wide under challenge.  João Pedro dinked a ball onto Gosling’s forehead, his header went over.  João Pedro nutmegged Pedersen on the edge of the box and drew a foul and a yellow card.  Success exchanged passes with Sema but couldn’t quite get it from under his feet, Dean blocked. Sema found João Pedro in space but a poor first touch stifled the chance.  We’ve been on the receiving end of this so often against better teams.  You huff and puff and claw encouragement.  And then they score.  We’re on the other side of the relationship now, dealing the cruel blows.

4- There will be a degree of confirmation bias in your interpretation of Isaac’s first half I suspect, one way or another. For me…  some good things, some good touches, some signs of rustiness too.  Not liking having Sarr up there, obviously… that would be an unreasonable expectation even if he hadn’t been out as long as he had.

But there was less scope for interpretation with the Nigerian’s start to the second half.  A conspicuous, clumsy ball stood out since such slackness is a rarity in the Watford ranks of late. Minutes later he was played into a mile of space, a neat first touch but a club of a second.  Even then he almost beat Etheridge to it, a goal would have been splendid;  instead Gosling got to the rebound and fed Chalobah whose shot deflected wide. The same two players combined from the set piece, the skipper losing his marker to meet Gosling’s deep corner at the far post and dump a header past Etheridge.  Game over.

On came the subs – no surprise to see the tiring Isaac withdrawn.  On came Sánchez – once again his first touch of the day was almost catastrophic, every touch thereafter efficient and well-judged.  Hungbo rattled around excitably first on the right and later on the left flank.  Masina was withdrawn holding his back, one hopes his first international call-up isn’t affected;  Achraf Lazaar was the least convincing of the substitutes.  With twelve minutes to go Gray and Ngakia were introduced;  the latter looked bulkier, less frail – maybe he’s been on the weights.  Within a minute he’d bullied possession on the right flank and released Gray who hared onto the ball and slid it matter-of-factly past the onrushing keeper.  Three-nil, simultaneously flattering and absolutely deserved.  The game finished with Birmingham looking punch-drunk for the first time;  Hungbo escaped twice down the left, first sending in a shot and then setting up Gray, blocked by Etheridge in the last exchange of the afternoon.

5- It would have been difficult to script a more satisfactory way to go into the international break.  Norwich and Brentford dropping points to modest opposition, Swansea losing, Bournemouth being trodden into the dirt into the Cup, all entertaining for all that, as discussed, what other teams do doesn’t really matter.

And it really doesn’t matter.  Because here we faced a limited but dogged opponent with a new manager bounce, a new manager who clearly has something about him and whose team had dug out a significant win over Reading in his opening game.

We were missing our two most potent attacking weapons of recent weeks, perhaps the quickest and cleverest of our offensive players with the strongest already on the sidelines along with Cleverley, Kabasele, Dele-Bashiru and so on and so forth.  We didn’t, in all honesty, play terribly well by our own standards.

We won 3-0 anyway.

There are eight games to go, and some fun looking fixtures in there.  This isn’t finished.  It isn’t done.

But it will be.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 5, Masina 4, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 5*, Gosling 3, João Pedro 4, Success 2, Sema 4
Subs:  Sánchez (for Gosling, 56) 4, Hungbo (for Success, 56) 3, Lazaar (for Masina, 67) 2, Ngakia (for João Pedro, 80) NA, Gray (for Sema, 80) NA, Wilmot, Cathcart, Perica, Foster

Meanwhile, I’m still embarking on daily early morning walks and averaging around 12.5k steps a day as part of a team raising money for Prostate Cancer UK. Hugely gratifying to have raised a decent sum of money from donations, more than half of which appears to have come from the BHaPPY readership. Many many thanks again to those who’ve donated, it’s massively appreciated. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Rotherham United 1 Watford 4 (16/03/2021) 17/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Some days are just good days.

Some days the sunshine is just that little bit warmer.  Some days you’re perpetually humming along to whichever tune is in your head.  Some days the words just come and everything flows without stress, without those bits where you stare blankly at the screen, or keep going back and deleting and rewording and prevaricating. Some days little things going wrong are precisely as irrelevant as they ought to be. Some days your daughter knocks on your study door and comes in and gives you a hug, just because.  Some days things are rolling for you.

It feels as if we haven’t had enough of them recently.  Today was one of those days.

2- It speaks volumes that we’re not going into this little run of fixtures looking for banana skins.  Three games, two of which at home, against three of the bottom four…  from the outside it’s an opportunity, from the inside you might imagine that we’d be saying, “I bet we stuff this up”.  But none of us believe that.  It’s just not on the cards.

Least of all here, against a Rotherham side emerging from the challenges of  a period in which the players and staff have been isolating following a COVID outbreak, prohibiting training and the rehabilitation of those returning from injury.  Forget the fact that the Millers are at the wrong end of the table, we’ve seen the sluggish returns of our own players returning from individual periods of isolation following positive tests.  This would have been a big ask for Rotherham at the best of times.  This wasn’t the best of times.

This was Rotherham’s second outbreak of the season, and you have to wonder whether their safety protocols have been quite all they should have been.  Nonetheless, it was impossible not to sympathise with the very balanced, honest, compelling words of manager Paul Warne as he reflected on the challenges his side faced going into the game.  Their outstanding fixtures will see them having to play twice in the same midweek at least once before the season closes.  In that time they’ve got to get players fit and energised en masse.  Not easy.  The Football League, Warne acknowledged, were never going to give them the leeway they needed in order to clear the decks.

3- If spirit, single-mindedness and giving it a good old go is worth anything you’d give Rotherham a chance on this evidence.  On the other hand – and not being familiar enough with the Millers’ squad to assess missing numbers – if this is the best defending they’re going to manage between now and the end of the campaign you’d fear for them.  No room for mercy here, nor sympathy, nor not just getting the job done.  We didn’t need any.

That said, Rotherham got off the the sharper start.  Thinking about it in retrospect, based on what is now 12 months of working away from the office, I guess that if there’s one aspect of a footballer’s training that works over Zoom it’s planning set pieces.  Shouldn’t have been a surprise, perhaps, to see a couple of innovative efforts from the home side, the first to a corner in the opening exchanges.  A couple of minutes later Francisco Sierralta got an important header in to clear a right wing cross.

But if Rotherham asked questions of us as they attacked they had no answer whatsoever to our attacking play, tumbling like skittles as we flew forwards. The opening goal on nine minutes was painfully straightforward, and we flooded into every open crevice for the rest of the half.

At the centre of much of it, and critical to all three of the first half goals, was Philip Zinckernagel.  The Dane’s startling record in Norway came with the caveat that, you know, it was in Norway;  a slight concern that he’d left Denmark at the age of 24 without having pulling up any trees.  He’s shown flashes of quality before now, but this was a startling performance… for the first, he cut back onto his right foot and dropped a cross onto Sierralta’s head.  The Chilean held off his marker to dump the ball past Blackman, stranded on his line, spent a couple of seconds recovering his senses and then rose with what is becoming a trademark two-fisted bellow.

Fifteen minutes later, Zinckernagel escaped his marker to cut inside again and dip a lower ball into the box.  We had a vast number of bodies in the danger zone but dodged the offside, Chalobah flicked a neat shot which Blackman did well to parry but Sarr artfully nicked the ball into the top corner. Five minutes before the break, the Dane sent an arcing, precise right wing corner directly into the orbit of Ken Sema in the penalty area who flicked and juggled and mercilessly slung his shot past the keeper.  I compared Zinc’s assist for Gray against Wycombe to an Almen Abdi pass.  Still early days, and a different sort of player for sure, but he’s already offering us similar devilment in the final third.  Long may that continue.

4-  The rest of the first half, after and between, was a coconut shy.  Any scoreline was feasible from this point;  the Millers continued to suggest unshakable resolve when attacking but were eminently shakeable defending and this forward line will rattle every defence in the division.  One fast break saw João Pedro turn neatly and release Kiko for an outrageous sprint to the touchline.  He screamed onto the ball and pulled back, a desperate lunge conceded a corner.  Hughes, always in space, found Sema on the right, he cut inside, another corner.  Every attack looked dangerous;  Sema, back on the left, pulled back for Chalobah to carve a shot towards the top corner.  It would have been a worthy partner to his strike at Cardiff, but Blackman pulled out a terrific stop.  Masina tried a scissor kick, Femenía flung in another wicked cross, another corner.  Chalobah played João Pedro through, Blackman got a crucial toe in first to prevent a fourth.  We were rampant.

5- The second half didn’t quite continue in the same vein, partly because we removed key protagonists with the game ostensibly won – Zinckernagel and Chalobah had both received heavy knocks, Ismaïla Sarr most concerningly had pre-empted his replacement by sitting down on the pitch but was at least able to walk off.  Fingers crossed.

The other impediment to the continuation of the flood after the break was Rotherham’s bloody minded attacking, perhaps pursued in the awareness that falling back would have been no good at all in the absence of much of a defence.  The BBC correspondent who suggested that “on another day Rotherham might have got something from this” on their website feed was presumably either referring to a day next week when Rotherham weren’t playing Watford, or was on hallucinogenic drugs.

Nonetheless, the Millers were still throwing punches.  We had started the half with the irrepressible Sarr roaring down the centre of the pitch with options either side, opting for João Pedro with a precise pass, the Brazilian’s good touch negated by a thunderous last-ditch tackle from Wood.  There was briefly a suggestion of sloppiness as Troost-Ekong conceded a penalty.  It was unlucky, perhaps, but definitely a pen as the Nigerian kicked the underside of Smith’s foot… a good call from the referee in a decent performance that saw him offer some slack to Shaun McDonald rather than booking him early on for kicking the ball away, but refuse to give free kicks simply for Rotherham players falling over.  Smith took the penalty fairly weakly, Bachmann did his thing and the scraps were eventually cleared.

Eight minutes later Ladapo capitalised upon Carlos Sánchez’s poor first touch of the game – his only poor touch of the game – to swipe an arrogant shot beyond Bachmann’s reach to give the Miller’s a foothold.  Infuriatingly for the home side he started to pull out the tricks rather than apply himself to recovering the situation but by then the jig was up in any case.  As on Saturday we responded brilliantly to a set-back, Troost-Ekong’s screaming pass through the centre of the pitch touched on brilliantly by Gray to Sema, Sema back to Gray, Gray’s shot blocked but Dan Gosling was galloping on to turn the ball into an empty net.

There could, should have been more.  Sierralta, oddly, and Gray were both guilty of not finishing off chances more than once, the latter late on after some welcome and effective barging around from another Isaac Success cameo, but this is a much sprightlier more positive Andre Gray, a force for good this evening.

Job done.  Results elsewhere mean we pull clear for the first time…  today, as discussed, was a good day.  As also discussed, Swansea, Brentford, are mere detail.  This is all about us, and anyone who tries standing in our way won’t be standing for very long.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 5, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 5, Masina 5, Hughes 5, Chalobah 5, *Zinckernagel 5*, Sarr 5, João Pedro 4, Sema 5
Subs: Gray (for Sarr, 53) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 53) 4, Gosling (for Chalobah, 67) 4, Sánchez (for Zinckernagel) 4, Success (for Hughes, 80) NA, Lazaar, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Yet more thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK over the last couple of weeks, a bit of a rush in the happy afterglow of Saturday’s win.  The donations list is dominated by ‘orns, and our tally is past £1500 plus Gift Aid, utterly brilliant. You can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Dirty Dozen : Rotherham United 16/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Nonsense.
1 comment so far

“Dirty Dozen” is a feature that I write for the match programme;  mindful that the programme might be enjoying a slightly lower readership than is normal, I’m reproducing the pieces that were in the corresponding home programme prior to away games for the rest of the season (with the club’s permission).

Format is simple – twelve questions, how many do you know the answers to?

Feel free to enter your responses or scores in comments but I won’t be marking them. Answers at the top of the comments.

  1. Millers boss Paul Warne has been in charge since 2016. Which two ex-Hornets were among the five men to take charge at Rotherham during that calendar year?
  2. Which summer saw Rotherham most recently prepare for a season in the same division as the previous?
  3. Which two players did Watford sign from Rotherham in January 2007? They are the most recent sales of outfield players by the Millers to a Premier League club.
  4. The last time we played Rotherham at Vicarage Road prior to this season five years ago, Slavisa Jokanovic combated the Millers’ aerial threat by playing four centre-backs across the back. Name them.
  5. Who scored the Hornets’ last goal at Millmoor?
  6. Under which manager did Hornets legend Lloyd Doyley play three games for the Millers after leaving Vicarage Road?
  7. For which club did Millers’ coach Matthew Hamshaw score a memorable goal to help knock Gianluca Vialli’s Hornets out of the League Cup at the fifth round stage in 2001?
  8. Which surname was shared by Hornets goalscorers in League wins at Rotherham ten years apart in 2004 and 2014?
  9. Which former England U21 international midfielder was the last player to join Rotherham from the Hornets in a permanent deal?
  10. Which two Hornets, in 1996/97 and 2001/02, were awarded the club’s Goal of the Season award for strikes against the Millers?
  11. Ian Bolton memorably scored from his own half in this fixture in January 1982. Which former England international and TV celebrity was player-managing the Millers at the time?
  12. The only Rotherham goalscorer in our last seven meetings with the Millers was striker Martin Butler in a 1-1 draw at Millmoor in 2004. For which side had Butler scored a penalty to knock the Hornets out of the League Cup in 1998, and which future Hornet had scored the decisive goal in the first leg of that tie?

Cardiff City 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2021) 14/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- I liked Ray Lewington.

In some ways, despite the manifold challenges that peppered his time in charge I enjoyed it more than Aidy Boothroyd’s ostensibly more successful spell that followed.  These things always look different from a distance of course and in hindsight there was plenty – albeit largely different things – to enjoy about both.  Certainly the sense of everyone pulling together in the wake of the challenges presented by the particularly badly timed and badly judged investments in Gianluca Vialli’s squad followed by the collapse of ITV Digital was something good to be part of.  I find conflict amongst ‘orns particularly difficult.

But I liked Ray Lewington.  Honest, trustable.  Inspiring, too. Before we played Portsmouth in the quarter finals of the League Cup in late 2004, an intimate fans forum was held in the old Hornet Shop in the back of the Rookery Stand.  No grumbling or nit-picking at this one, the tone was one of edgy excitement at the prospect of taking another top-flight scalp.

My question to Ray was on the subject of the opposition.  Yakubu, it had been reported, was injured.  Did Ray think that this, combined with a lack of pace elsewhere in Pompey’s forward line, would limit their attacking potential?

He paused for dramatic effect but then looked straight at me with half a twinkle in his eye as he growled “it doesn’t matter what they do…”.  I grinned sheepishly.  Inside I was standing on the table bellowing and beating my chest.  We won the tie 3-0.

2- It doesn’t matter what they do.  Nonetheless, this was a daunting prospect even before Brentford and Swansea held onto single-goal victories to shove us back down into fourth as the game kicked off.

Cardiff was the game I managed to get a ticket for back in that little window when such things were allowed a bit.  They strong-armed us that day but Neil Harris was gone eight weeks later.  Since Mick McCarthy arrived the Bluebirds have been undefeated in eleven and to their abrasive aggression has been added a conscientious discipline which, along with the confidence of a long unbeaten run, makes them a formidable opponent.

Nothing that happened in the first ten minutes or so here allayed those concerns.  City’s first corner was awarded twenty seconds in;  a minute later Sarr gave away a left wing free kick as the hosts gave every impression of being masters of their art… closing down high up the pitch, asking questions of goalkeeper and centre-backs with corners, free-kicks, long throws into a crowded box full of tall blokes with ponytails, headbands and other various lockdown hair constructions.  It felt as if it was going to be a long afternoon as the ferocious, swirling wind contributed to the air of a chaotic battlefield.

Sean Morrison, one of those whose unruly mop at Vicarage Road had developed into a ponytail here, was called to the referee with Francisco Sierralta after some early scuffles in the Watford box.  Close in attendance was Nate Chalobah, the “(cap)” after his name having been the most striking detail of a positive team selection.  He took his responsibilities seriously, a more proactive captain than any other than Troy, and rather than this development detracting from his performance he seemed to flourish with the responsibility.

Just as striking, ten minutes in, was that as soon as we navigated the aggressive press and found ourselves in stiller waters in City’s half we caused no end of problems.  Zinckernagel’s performance was again to combine moments of breathtaking deftness with moments of breathtaking daftness but the balance is more favourable game by game;  he danced towards the penalty area and caused havoc.  Kiko and Sarr combined down the right (no, really…), Kiko pulled a cross back, City defenders fell over.

City broke again as an intensely watchable contest developed its rhythm.  William Troost-Ekong, who looked unnerved by both the conditions and by Cardiff’s directness, slipped to let in Murphy who skated down Cardiff’s left with Will Hughes trailing in his wake.  Daniel Bachmann hurtled out, Murphy took a heavy touch and we were spared but only for a minute; once again Murphy was free on the left and he put an undefendable ball across the face of goal.  Sierralta stuck out a boot with Kieffer Moore hovering behind him and propelled the ball into his own net.

3- So, so significant that we struck back straight away.  A bit of luck that the opportunity presented itself but we forced our own luck, not for the last time.  With the wind behind them, a lead to defend and their tails up Cardiff could have taken the game in a different direction altogether.  We never gave them the chance.  Kiko burst down the right, the ball rattled around the penalty area, Zinckernagel forced a ricochet that found Chalobah.

There were references to the mythical “pre-injury” Chalobah on social media within minutes.  The pre-injury Chalobah who straddled Marco Silva’s midfield magnificently after returning permanently from Chelsea, only lasted five games – your memory does strange things with time.  But this was the match of anything we’ve seen from him since, dancing from one foot to the other like a matador before slicing a shot through the gap he’d created and definitively reclaiming control of the game.  “Stay cool”, he’d shouted as we’d kicked off again thirty seconds earlier, before walking the walk, ice in his veins. Quite, quite magnificent.

We never looked back. What followed was far from one way traffic… until the very end, the nature of Cardiff’s threat was such that there was always a risk. But whilst doubt had been dismissed from Watford minds before it had had the chance to take root it infected and upset the home side, whose conviction dissipated throughout the game.  Within ten minutes Sema headed a Sarr delivery down at the far post for João Pedro to athletically scissor an overhead shot straight at City keeper Phillips.  Sema drove into the box and laid the ball towards the Brazilian who flicked over.

We looked deft and intricate and confident.  Sema burrowed down the left wing but having seen his route blocked was assured enough to turn back down the flank, retain possession, find Masina and see his bold low cross reach Sarr who forced a fine save from Phillips. We were well on top… Chalobah was fouled and Cardiff arms were flung in Kevin-and-Perry frustration (one for the kids there…).  Bachmann came hurtling out to take out Kieffer Moore – a yellow card but a blow struck for the goalkeeper’s union, the boot so often on the other foot (or elbow).  Zinckernagel almost slipped Sarr in as the half time whistle blew with the only concern being that we weren’t already ahead.

4- The second half was never quite as flamboyant.  The home side occasionally asked questions, Watford provided answers; on the hour Kieffer Moore emerged from Sierralta’s pocket for long enough to get on the end of an Aden Flint knockdown to smash the ball over but these were the dying embers of the threat that Cardiff had suggested at the start of the game.

They’d tightened up though, and whilst we were on top our chances were limited, more peripheral.  Sema popped up on the right and sent a cross in for Sarr to head too close and too gently to threaten Phillips.  Sierralta flicked on a Zinckernagel free kick, it wouldn’t fall for João Pedro. Kiko flew down the right, Chalobah knocked down his cross, Sarr sliced wide.  It started to hail.

5- As the game entered its final ten minutes, as you were reflecting that a point away at Cardiff wasn’t a bad result all things considered, things got a bit tetchy for the first time;  up to this point it had been aggressive but not snide or narky.

Aden Flint was at the centre of much of it.  Not beloved of Tommy Mooney on comms (“he’s brilliant in the air, but my postman’s better than him on the deck”) he nonetheless fashioned a scissor kick of sorts on 82 minutes before drawing a reaction and a booking from Sierralta by pulling his topknot out of sight of the officials.  On 88 minutes Will Vaulks drove in a firm low shot forcing a competent but straightforward save from Daniel Bachmann, significant because this was the first shot on target managed by an opponent against us since Arnaut Danjuma scored for Bournemouth over a fortnight and more than three ninety minutes ago.  Which is ridiculous.  Kiko fed Sarr in the box, Sarr went down but it was a “you’ve seen them given” rather than a clear pen.

So… yes.  I was in “a draw’s not bad” space. Ismaïla Sarr could have been forgiven, perhaps, for being in the same place after a difficult game in which he’d been buffeted around for ninety minutes to limited effect.  Never has his transformation from sulky kid to force of nature over the course of the season been more starkly illustrated than here, his bullishness in taking on two markers, cutting between them and drawing a free kick, the free kick fundamental in how the game ended, as vital as Chalobah’s artful finish earlier or… as what happened next.

Heaven knows we’ve come not to expect too much from free kicks. Five years and so on and so forth.  There have been likelier candidates to break our duck in the interim than Adam Masina.  Roberto Pereyra perhaps.  Tom Cleverley.  Zinckernagel. Troy, even.  As he lined it up I was hoping for a touch off the bodies flying across the face of the goal.  As he ran up it occurred to me that if this went in we were definitely going up.  Masina absolutely smacked it straight at the keeper but Phillips was distracted with bodies running at and past him.  The shot went straight through…

6- A superficial, highlights assessment might conclude that we were lucky.  Lucky that the goalkeeper screwed up, gifting us the game.  Not a bit of it.  There’s nothing “lucky” about winning a game because an opponent screwed up.  Daniel Bachmann didn’t screw up when more severe questions had been asked of him.  Having a good goalkeeper isn’t “luck”.

But more than that, we’d earned that luck.  Earned the right for it to matter by clawing back an equaliser, by taking control of the game, by the sapping of our opponents’ belief and by Sarr having the self-confidence to turn and run at two defenders in the dying minutes.

Everything exploded.  Everywhere.  Seven hours on my throat is still raw.  Bellows were bellowed in living rooms and offices of a Watford persuasion across the country.  Limbs were flung with wild and graceless abandon. On the pitch, briefly, it threatened to kick off as Francisco Sierralta exacted revenge with a tug on Aden Flint’s top knot; Adam Masina did his best bit of blocking off of the afternoon to curtail any further unpleasantness (João Pedro quickly on the scene, shock).

But the explosion of joy at the win was about more than just a dramatic late winner.  It was every inch a team, a squad, that’s in it together.  Achraf Lazaar, a Hornet for less than a month and on the pitch for less than half an hour in total, was going nuts like it was the best thing that’s ever happened ever.  There was a ferocious bundle of players, subs, staff, and a beaming Xisco in the middle of it.  This was massive.

Elsewhere Brentford, Swansea will have been disappointed by the news.  On the south coast, Bournemouth were losing at home to Barnsley (perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the goings on at mid-table sides any longer?).  But all of that’s irrelevant.  This is all about us.  Nobody’s stopping this lot.

It doesn’t matter what they do.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 5, Masina 4, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 5*, Zinckernagel 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) NA, Gray (for Zinckernagel, 86) NA, Sánchez (for Chalobah, 86) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Wilmot, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Many many thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK following my post last week.  I’m averaging 12.5k steps per day and I’m dead on my feet… you can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Watford 1 Nottingham Forest 0 (06/03/2021) 07/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- I’m walking a lot at the moment.  “March the Month“, raising money for Prostate Cancer UK with colleagues.  Sponsor us if you have some spare pennies.

The commitment, formally, is 11,000 steps per day between us, but given the size of the crew we’d probably manage on a day’s trips to the fridge.  So it’s 11,000 a day for me.  This has brought into sharp relief the fact that in contrast to being “at work” on a campus site when a normal day would see you rack up a few thousand steps without thinking about it, when you work at home, as many folk have been doing for a year, you do absolutely bugger all.

My approach has been an early rise at 6 in order to get serious steps in before work.  I had visions of crisp, bright mornings and walks in the sunshine, it hasn’t really worked out like that. Damp, grey and muddy so far.  And I’m completely shattered.

2- Fatigue is sharply in focus at this stage of the season given the unusually compressed timetable and the extent to which games are tumbling over each other.  This is, amongst other things, why Liverpool have fallen off the edge of a cliff – their pressing game is unsustainable in this climate apparently (though nobody told Barnsley).

For the Hornets, deep squad or otherwise, this was a high risk fixture in the circumstances coming at the end of a sapping run of games against a side good enough to nick something if we weren’t careful but far enough down the table to run the risk of being taken lightly.  Not only that, but they boasted not one but two players, in James Garner and Glenn Murray, whose loan spells at the Vic had been curtailed by lack of action barely a month ago.  No risk of heightened focus and potential embarrassment there at all.  And Anthony Knockaert, whose visits to the Vic are rarely dull one way or another.  I won’t have been the only one feeling slightly anxious at the outset, the more so with the bold call to field João Pedro in midfield.

We needn’t have worried.  This wasn’t the most entertaining game we’ve watched this season, nor the most comfortable victory.  But it was an absolutely tremendous achievement in context which should leave us bullish about our prospects for the rest of the campaign.

3- The whistle saw the two sides grappling for the first passage of possession, as if desperate for the opportunity to set the agenda for the opening exchanges.  A good touch from Gray saw the Hornets win that initial confrontation and rattle downfield for Ken Sema, who was to have his most vibrant 90 minutes for a while, sling a cross to the far post necessitating early rearguard action from Forest.  Two minutes later a fine Kiko delivery found Gray rising between two markers to head firmly straight at Samba.  Nearly excellent.

Knockaert’s first contribution was to attempt to nobble Philip Zinckernagel, who might quite reasonably have been assumed to be a vulnerability in that midfield three but whose robustness seems to gradually increase week by week – he was buffeted on this occasion, but exacted revenge later in the half.  The French winger would supply much of the ammunition for Forest’s second half resurgence, such as it was, but this was not to be an afternoon remembered for his positive contributions.

Garner and Murray, similarly, failed to deliver performances that challenged their slide out of contention at Vicarage Road.  Garner, sporting a lockdown haircut worthy of comparison to Étienne Capoue’s voluminous efforts, might become a very good footballer at the top level but isn’t that at the moment.  He looks like a kid cautiously feeling his way, and Forest is the sandpit that Vicarage Road wasn’t going to be.  As Tommy Mooney noted on comms, for all that we’ve moved to a three man midfield since his departure you couldn’t see him being more than a bit part player at best.  Murray, meanwhile, looks a few years off it at the other end of the scale and provided a couple of decent touches but minimal threat.

Knockaert meanwhile was going to cede dominance of Forest’s right hand side to Adam Masina, who had his best outing since returning to the side and arguably of his Watford career.  A tone was set on ten minutes when the left back poached the ball precisely and dismissively from his adversary, and then fooled him with a dummy that left him chasing shadows to cheers and laughter from Watford supporters everywhere.

The next five minutes were ominous for Forest… Sarr flew at Bong and appeared to be fouled, his marker already bedraggled.  A fine break concluded with a Sarr header to another tremendous Kiko cross.  Sarr nicked possession – Forest look eminently muggable early on – demanding urgent recovery from Worrall.  A fine Hughes crossfield ball found Masina on the gallop, his cross found Sarr but his acrobatic effort lacked power.

Finally it told.  Sarr flayed Bong on the right, Samba beat Gray to his cross but the deflection fell to Masina who slammed a shot between the recovering Samba’s legs and in from the edge of the area.  The left back had been abandoned by his marker…  I was watching Hive with Jon Marks’ comms, but reports described Sky’s commentator exclaiming “Where’s Knockaert?”, for pundit Keith Andrews to reply “He’s cheating!”, two words which elevated his popularity in Hertfordshire to levels he didn’t achieve during his brief loan six or seven years ago.

4- We weren’t lucky here.  We were the better side, and deserved the win.  But we did have a couple of things roll for us.  Samba was clearly worse off for his collision with Gray but hadn’t been fouled and was on his feet when he was beaten.  Later in the game, as against Wycombe on Wednesday, we “conceded” an offside goal that could easily not have been.  And as things got a bit iffy late on and Daniel Bachmann came flying excitedly out to punch the danger clear he was close enough to the edge of his area to have courted disaster.

We got away with all of it though, and deserved to.  We dominated the remainder of the half, our attacking play occasionally flowing beautifully if to limited consequence as Forest pulled together what was ultimately an impressive defensive performance.  Going forward however their first half efforts felt rushed and ragged, as if the ball was always running away from them.  Knockaert’s chief contribution was to bizarrely refuse to retreat at a corner, an odd choice of hill to die on.

5- Our second half performance was less dominant.  Forest asserted themselves in the game and had more of the chances, even if the threat was theoretical and implied for the most part rather than, you know, resulting in chances and shots and that.  The pace slowed dramatically, Chris Hughton’s modus operandi of suffocating a game until everyone’s so bored that they lose concentration fully in evidence. Daniel Bachmann had reacted well to a ball under his bar late in the first half but we continue to look vulnerable to aerial assault – Sierralta less dominant than he has been today, it was William Troost-Ekong and the omnipresent Masina who were more prominent in repelling our opponents.

Xisco takes a lot of credit for the victory, I think.  Not that he’s got much to prove after a sixth win in seven, but today’s challenge asked new things of him and he provided answers that were as creative as they were effective.  I’d had doubts about Zinc in midfield on Wednesday, we just about got away with it again with the good stuff just about outweighing the occasional loose control.  Will Hughes patrolled the back of the midfield masterfully every inch the captain on his first full ninety with the armband, one minute breaking things up and the next slinging balls forward like a quarterback.  The genius, however, was the left-field call to accommodate Gray and João Pedro not by dropping Sema into the three but by playing the Brazilian there.  If he wasn’t perfect – occasionally overplaying, and on one occasion being given a stark reminder that a slack pass in the midfield is likely to be more consequential than one in the final third – then the immediacy of his control, the silkiness of his movement and his deceptive physical strength made him thoroughly effective, a joy, in his deeper role.  Chapeau to the head coach, hugely impressive that we can lose two thirds of our engine room and complete a second home game without conceding a shot on target.  Chalobah and Gosling return for Cardiff where the squad will look formidable despite a number of ongoing absentees.

Formidable given three very decent cameos off the bench here.  That Carlos Sánchez is a tidy player should be no surprise – 88 caps for Colombia and so forth. West Ham fans have been scornful, but then if they had any judgement at all they wouldn’t support West Ham.  Sánchez’s debut began with a couple of overhit short passes putting teammates under pressure but he soon warmed to the task, assertive and influential without moving very far from the centre of the pitch or doing much more than holding and protecting possession.  A player, and the latest in a theme of experienced low-risk signings who will provide cover in the event of cruelly coincident injuries.  Eventualities being covered.  We have at least two sides that would be competitive in this division.

Briefer cameos were afforded to Joseph Hungbo and Isaac Success, but each was as encouraging as the Colombian’s.  Hungbo has definitively elevated himself above the status of bench-filled with some punchy, confident contributions.  “A game little soul” WhatsApped Dave, once again demonstrating that thing about stopped clocks. Meanwhile I have outrageously high hopes for Isaac in the Championship, but he hasn’t shattered my dreams yet with his five minutes here, holding the ball up, then faking to the corner flag before flicking a pass that saw Hungbo fly in on goal in the dying seconds.

It’s all good.  Swansea spawned another win, Norwich continue to gallop onwards, but that’s the thing about the top of the table.  Teams are good, and will win more games than they lose – much easier to cede ground at this end of the table than to gain it.

It’ll come, though.  There are plenty of games to go, and we’re good for the long haul.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 3, *Masina 5*, Hughes 4, Zinckernagel 3, João Pedro 4, Sarr 4, Gray 3, Sema 4
Subs:  Sánchez (for Gray, 66) 4, Hungbo (for Zinckernagel, 80) NA, Success (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Ngakia, Wilmot, Cathcart, Perica, Navarro, Elliot

Watford 2 Wycombe Wanderers 0 (03/03/2021) 04/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and is football mad.  All (English) Premier League games are available on pan-African satellite channels, bars are busy (were busy…) whenever the games are on.  I’ve never been surrounded by a more fervent TV crowd than when watching Man United play Barcelona in a Champions League game in Addis Ababa.

Unfortunately, the national team is a bit rubbish.  Ranked 42nd in Africa, never made the World Cup finals, only one African Cup of Nations qualification since 1982 when, in 2013, they finished bottom of their group in South Africa with a single point to their name.

Opportunities to watch the national side are naturally a bit thin on the ground here in the UK, but at around the same time as their South African adventure, the Ethiopian side got within a play-off of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil having topped their qualification group ahead of South Africa.

A two-legged tie against Nigeria ensued.  Ethiopia would lose both legs, but their team was fascinating, unlike any African team I’d ever seen.  They were much smaller, physically, than their West African opponents but they flowed around them like water.  Elegant, fluid, athletic and nimble, they were occasionally breathtaking.

Unfortunately their defending was clueless.

2- Philip Zinckernagel would have a job on passing as Ethiopian in any other respect, but his cameos to date have suggested that he wouldn’t have looked out of place in that side.  Deftness of foot, mouthwatering crosses and a dynamism that oils attacks has been offset by a lack of robustness and a startling lack of defensive awareness and intelligence.  Bad, often expensive decisions.

This was his first League start, a development probably accelerated by Nathaniel Chalobah’s suspension, Dan Gosling’s injury and Daniel Phillips’ disappearance from consideration, but you’d rather have had him further forward (as far away from our goal as possible) and probably in place of the visibly fatigued Ken Sema.

His opening few minutes were erratic…  some nice touches in early moves, then a minute later ploughing needlessly through the back of Uche Ikpeazu to concede a free kick on the edge of the box.  On the upside you wouldn’t have predicted that he had it in him to take down the massive Wycombe target man, fairly or otherwise.  On the downside he was going to need to go some to convince that he was worth the risks he was presenting to the team.

And in fairness, it did get better.  There was more welcome evidence of a greater degree of toughness and doggedness than has been suggested hitherto.  Occasionally beautiful touches that oiled a fledgling move. A sweeping crossfield pass to release Sarr late in the half.  We’ll come to the assist, obviously.  Still peppered with some ropey old decision making from time to time… but personally for all his deficiencies I came out of this one much more positive about the value of our January recruit.

3- The other eye-catching addition to the eleven was Andre Gray, starting his first game for almost a month in the absence of the suspended João Pedro.  Not a given that he’d get the nod I don’t think, but fourteen minutes in he made a mockery of his meagre form this season by clinically finishing off a move that, like so many, rolled down the right wing via Kiko and the irrepressible Sarr.  No surprise, I guess, that a striker should enjoy playing in a confident attacking side creating plenty of chances more than he does the constipated Watford team that he struggled in front of for much of the season, but nonetheless.  Surprising how easy he made it look, suddenly.  In common with our best moves at the moment, particularly down that flank, we looked mercilessly precise.

The visitors had begun as advertised – honest, dogged and robust, ceding the midfield almost entirely and dropping numbers deep.  After the goal however their defensive discipline seemed to desert them entirely and the biggest stain on our performance is that we didn’t make more of the gaping chasms that we were permitted to wander through.

Two minutes after the goal Cleverley’s shot was deflected wide after he found an obscene amount of abandoned ground just outside the box.  A few minutes later Cleverley fed Sarr, Jacobson denying him with a hooked last-ditch challenge.  Zinckernagel broke through on the left but overran.  Bachmann sent a jaw-dropping ball through to Sarr, Jacobson got away with a desperate grab that Sarr tried to exaggerate.  All within ten minutes of the goal.

Having not capitalised, it was slightly alarming that without coming terribly close to scoring the visitors were causing anxiety in our box just by looking at it curiously.  The 23rd minute saw an aimless ball being negligently allowed to bounce around in the penalty area. Horgan began to outmuscle Masina.  Sierralta had his hands full – sometimes literally – with Uche Ikpeazu.  The half ended with Zinckernagel releasing Sarr, Stockdale denying Gray a second by intercepting a cross.  We were comfortably the better side, but not comfortably ahead.

4- Wycombe were still in it, somehow, and clearly had a rocket up them at the break since they came at us more aggressively and forcefully at the start of the second period.  At the back of your mind was the knowledge that we weren’t half going to feel silly if the visitors clawed their way back into it given the imbalance of the first half chances.  We were a tight offside call from being in exactly that place as Wheeler’s sharp finish to Tafazolli’s flick-on was denied.

We looked ponderous and laborious.  Ripe for the mugging, perhaps, until we scored again and put all doubt to bed.  And here’s the moment that really earns Zinc his positive write-up.  There’s plenty of mitigation in place already…  he’s come from a very different League into a well-established team in an unusual environment, he’s allowed to take time to settle. But all of that aside, this assist buys him an awful lot of rope.  On two separate occasions, one in the first half and one later in the second, he’d find himself space for a potshot without managing to put it anywhere near the goal.  Here he seemed to be after the same, before with a conjuror’s slight-of-movement, a slight-of-movement that echoed Almen Abdi’s finest moments, he slipped the ball past a Wycombe defence that had been watching the wrong hand.  Once again, having been successfully smuggled beyond enemy lines, Gray dispatched with a startling lack of fuss.  Quite, quite brilliant.

5- There were still Moments at each end.  Hughes fed Sema who slammed a ball across the face.  Zinckernagel thumped a shot at Stockdale, Gray overhead-kicked the rebond towards Sarr who fired over.  Ikpeazu barrelled his way towards the byline in a manner that echoed Tommy Mooney against Bristol Rovers, but at a quarter of the speed. The hugely effective Jacobson sent in a couple of set pieces.  It never felt in doubt though.

A solid, uncomplicated win that was much needed following Saturday’s bump in the road.  The only real negative – beyond irritating developments in Stoke and Bristol where Swansea and Bournemouth would both go behind and enjoy some fortune in recovering three points – was an injury to Tom Cleverley that saw him limp off after apparently trying to play on after twisting his leg.  With Nate – and Dan, presumably – still missing on Saturday we have a bit of a personnel issue in the middle of the pitch.  Carlos Sánchez’s negotiating position just got a bit stronger, one suspects.

There’s a long way to go still in what looks to be a race every bit as tight as the one in 2015.  The way the fixtures fall, however, puts great emphasis on the forthcoming, relatively gentle set of fixtures.  Pick up some speed and we head into the big games after Easter with momentum.  Fail to deliver and we’ll be needing to make up points from a run that will look a lot more daunting.

With a fifth win in six, we’re doing OK.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Masina 3, Hughes 4, Cleverley 3, Zinckernagel 4, *Sarr 4*, Gray 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Ngakia (for Femenía, 75) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 84) NA, Perica (for Gray, 84) NA, Wilmot (for Cleverley, 86) NA, Cathcart, Barrett, Success, Pochettino, Elliot