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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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

Comments»

1. JohnF - 07/03/2021

A surprise with the team rapidly proved to be a nice one. JP at just 19 and obviously growing into a versatile and effective talent will continue to get better. It is obvious he just loves to play and the more he can be involved the better he likes it. Sancho, Hungbo and Success are real pluses. They do need to kill the games off and next week will be a real test.
On Knockaert, how didn’t he get sent off? He had already been booked and flatly refusing to move back at the corner would surely attract a yellow card and so a red.
Keep walking. I do an hour brisk walk each day important for health and some semblance of sanity as I am on my own. Trouble where I live is it isn’t quiet walking and I am even seeing large groups of older people (possibly about my age) walking with no thought of either social distancing or making room for others to pass.

2. David Allen - 07/03/2021

I think you’re absolutely right about tiredness setting in, particularly in the second half where too many passes went astray and we just weren’t winning so many of the second balls unlike the first 45 minutes. I thought Hughes especially was suffering from fatigue, though a step down from his usual imperious performance is still pretty awesome.

3. David - 07/03/2021

The sky commentary said that Pedro played CM in youth football which at 19 was not long ago, but my goodness that was impressive. Doing it every week is another matter but hopefully he won’t have to.

On the debit side, Backman must dominate his 6 yard box more and WTE distribution is poor enough that it should not be an option other than when he has to put it into row Z.

4. Mike Smith - 07/03/2021

Not so sure about tiredness more about too casual because it was so easy in the first half. Your comment about Swansea spawning another win was very diplomatic. Love Warnock’s post match outburst on SKY. He said exactly what we’re all saying! As you say a ling way to go yet & there are some interesting fixtures coming up.

5. Harefield Hornet - 07/03/2021

VAR in the Championship might have had Swansea 4 points worse off at the end of this week. But I suppose we need to be very careful what we wish for – home v Stoke etc and clip on the keeper before the goal yesterday. Young Hungbo looks to be a bit of a player but I was also very impressed with his interview on the Hive – sounds a sensible lad. Is it just me or do I detect a faint anti- Watford sentiment in the studio on the Quest round ups! – I just may be paranoid but I get a strange feeling of them wanting us to fail for some reason? In some shows when we’ve won we’ve hardly had a mention – and when have they seem very keen to pick holes in anything we’ve done?

Matt Rowson - 07/03/2021

Didn’t watch quest but was it Ally Maxwell or George Elek from not the top 20? If so the same undercurrent is evident in their podcast. Being disparaging was fine when we were a bit rubbish and flattered by our results but not right now.

Harefield Hornet - 07/03/2021

Yes sometimes it’s Ally Maxwell but the regular presenter Colin Murray also likes to chip in with a snide remark here and there. Or they just ignore us completely while waxing lyrical about Norwich and Barnsley. To be fair they did slaughter the Swansea manager after he said their penalties were stonewall!

Simon - 07/03/2021

I’m not sure it’s that anyone in the media “wants” us to fail per se but it’s not a huge surprise that we’re not really focussed on. Given the expectation around us pre-season based on the names (particularly the attacking ones) in the squad, we’ve probably been rather more functional and less exciting than billed/expected. We’re also quite difficult to form an interesting/positive narrative around. We’ve been in the top division very recently, there’s no real figurehead (hence why Troy’s tended to get so many column inches but he can be divisive at the best of times and feels rather “lost year”. Brentford have a novelty factor, an attacking brand of football, a “project narrative” and a dynamic leading man in Toney. Norwich, again, have an easily relatable “project” story, a fairly attacking brand and a fair few young English players that create interest. Swansea have a “young” manager that came through the England set up so immediately creates a story. I’m not sure Bournemouth have been covered particularly favourably and Reading often get ignored (again, less than dynamic style of play, lowish profile manager and hardly a fairy story).

When it comes to it, the “narrative” around us has been “they sack loads of managers” and our “talent” cost £35m so even when he’s really good he suffers a bit in the media from “so he should be given he’s in the Championship and cost that”.

Agree that Elek and Maxwell have been particularly downbeat but, again, not a huge surprise as they focus on the Football League, haven’t been there for 5 years and the last “lower league” players we signed were Hughes and Willmot from recollection so we fit their narrative even less than other media.

6. Greg - 07/03/2021

Murray is a shi* who ruins the big snooker tournaments on Eurosport.
I am not surprised he doesn’t like us because he is too big for us.
The good thing about the Hive coverage is that we get presenters and comms wanting us to do well.It is a blessed relief so well done to the Hive crew for providing a good service.
As for the game- Will Hughes.While he is in the team we can compete with anyone in this division.He is a joy to watch and it is no surprise that the whole team work rate has improved with him on the pitch.
I hope the armband is his for many seasons to come.
Another good cameo for Jo-how important he could be for these last two months.
The only negative is I am still unconvinced by Bachman.He needs to communicate better and his decision making isn’t the best.He has made some good saves though and has largely done well but give me Ben any day.
Anyway a lovely victory and let’s hope Blackburn pick up something before we next play.
Good luck with your steps Matt.

Matt Rowson - 07/03/2021

Cheers Greg. Agree about Murray. Fighting Talk is self-indulgent and unlistenable (even when Miles is on it…)

Sequel - 08/03/2021

I would like to add my support for your step challenge too, Matt, having lost my brother and father to prostate cancer. Fellers, if you’re over fifty, I would urge you to see your GP every year for a PSA test (you give a sample of blood). It could save your life.

Matt Rowson - 08/03/2021

Thanks Sequel

7. Old Git - 08/03/2021

Same with bowel cancer. With the covid lockdown, the brilliant screening programme is now way behind schedule. So if you or your loved ones have any little doubts, get to your GP now. It killed Bobby Moore, it killed my dad but with early diagnosis and our amazing NHS (one percent? FFS) I’m still here five years on. And the bonus is that you get a stylish pattern of neat little scars down your front.
PS is it possible to ‘ruin’ a snooker tournament?

8. Peter - 08/03/2021

“West Ham fans have been scornful, but then if they had any judgement at all they wouldn’t support West Ham” – quote of the week!

Matt Rowson - 08/03/2021

Ithangyew…

9. John Ford - 13/03/2021

Gotta put a word in for Colin Murray… He’s been a passionate advocate for the ‘pyramid’ which supports the bloated ‘Super Teams’. Yesterday’s Metro column was one of many fighting the corner for us and countless others. He may be a loudmouth, but his heart’s in the right place…

Matt Rowson - 13/03/2021

Fair, John, thanks. Possible to be quite annoying and quite intelligent at the same time I guess.


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