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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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.

Comments»

1. ukmalc - 21/03/2021

So we needn’t fear the curse of the forthcoming manager of the month then.

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

Naaah

2. Bradders - 21/03/2021

Great read. Thanks for the intro to motivated reasoning. Will check out the link.

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

Tim Harford is tremendous, and Cautionary Tales always a good listen. Thanks for the sponsorship Bradders, heroic

3. John - 21/03/2021

The “feel good” feels good! COYH…..get it done!

4. David - 21/03/2021

I’m still trying to differentiate between confirmation bias and motivated reasoning but yes, my brother and I spent the afternoon debating if Success was the worst “good” player we had ever seen at Watford.

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

Loosely Confirmation Bias is looking for evidence that supports your theory. Motivated Reasoning is jumping on anything that doesn’t (think Twitter)

5. Harefield Hornet - 21/03/2021

Gosling has been a marvellous addition to the midfield, unfussy, experienced and very capable. Success on the other hand, who seems like an addition because he’s been absent for so long, is an enigma? We all strongly suspect there is a half decent striker lurking in there somewhere, but his body language, given yesterday was a big chance for him, suggests otherwise. I would rather have seen Perica given an opportunity, he looks far more hard working and honest from the limited displays I’ve seen so far. Gray charged on with a point to prove, which is a massive step in the right direction for him. As he joked afterwards – caught on camera – he could have had a hat trick.

6. Nick - 21/03/2021

Thank you for the positively assertive read and I’m in total agreement this ends with promotion. What’s preoccupying my thoughts is Xisco – will he get the chance to lead us next season? Huge decision for the owners as per the Jokanavic situation. I’d argue that Slav looked a more experienced coach and that still wasn’t enough for him to be trusted at the highest level. I fear same outcome for the oh-so-likeable Munoz.

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

I’m not sure if it was inexperience with Slav as much as inability to organise a defence, as validated at Fulham. Xisco… I hope so. We have more premier quality attacking players than in 2015 I suspect. Let’s get promoted first either way.

7. Fez - 21/03/2021

I hadn’t heard of motivated reasoning before, something I do more than I ought – I try my damnedest to reason out CB – as it gets me into all sorts of on line arguments.

Fez - 21/03/2021

Excellent report as always btw, always a joy to read.

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

Cheers Fez

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

And many thanks for the donation…

8. RS - 21/03/2021

If there’s a statistician in the house could they comment?

Top six current form, should I be worried, what is the chance of the sequence continuing?

WWWWD
WWWWW
WDWLL
WLWDD
WDWWL
WWDLW

*Data ref. BBC – I may have transcribed incorrectly.

It has been and will be fun; always enjoyed the cut and thrust of the Championship more than the nervous anticipation of the Premier League. (I was going to write Division 1 but somehow that was a more level playing field and betrays my age 😉 )

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

Still Div 1 in my head too RS… as for sequences, we’re going up. That’s all you need. Thanks for your donation, much appreciated

RS - 22/03/2021

Thanks for the reassurance – just what’s required! As ever I’ll always be appreciative of the BhaPPY insight, for most of my career as an engineer I have been paid to observe detail, you notice the subtleties that seem to pass by the “mainstream” (or they choose to ignore) “commentators”, you often reflecting my sense of an occasion but having the gift of being able to relate it in the written word. Great stuff!

Keep “stepping out”

Richard

9. Graham French - 21/03/2021

On Isaac’s contribution, & being wary of my inevitable CB, I thought he had a couple of decent touches, including the one to J Pedro which led to the goal. But also some very clunky ones including the 2 you mention, Matt. It’s harder to tell with only the camera’s view but I didn’t get the sense of the ferocious & committed tracking back for defensive duties that you get from Ismaela & JP. And Troy. All a bit casual I felt, & while you have to make allowances for lack of match fitness , I remain doubtful.
On the other hand, Andre, who I’ve always felt performed best when playing instinctively & less well given time to think, proved me wrong with a high quality finish involving plenty of time to potentially make the wrong decision. More please!
I’m starting to think we will do it. It all seems to have clicked with the change of formation & almost every player now putting in good & sometimes great ( Nate in the last few games to name but one) performances. Exciting times

MG99 - 24/03/2021

Graham, good to hear your comments on Andre, I’ve been saying the same for some time – most of what he does well is instinctive, with time to think he often gets it wrong unfortunately. Delighted to see him score though and disprove that theory once at least.

10. davidfishermusic - 21/03/2021

Not sure I can remember a time as a Watford fan when I’ve been so confident at the start of any given match that we’ll win it. Of course, this run won’t last forever, but it’s built on strong foundations and the depth of the squad is such that even a couple more injuries shouldn’t affect us too much. Hughes would be the big worry, but with Chalobah in the form he’s in and others around him playing well, it just feels like everything is clicking in a way that we always sort of threatened from the start of the season.

There’s something as well about the sheer likeability of this team. A sense that everyone is on the same page and pulling together. It’s lovely to watch.

Many thanks for the continually brilliant match reports. I read and enjoy them all but rarely comment – always look forward to seeing them pop up in my inbox.

Matt Rowson - 21/03/2021

Thanks David

11. Kristoffer Vad - 22/03/2021

Always a good read Matt – I love your matter-of-fact’ness about our promotion chances. I myself am not as positive. Don’t get me wrong I am absolutely loving this Watford side. I even loved the fact that we started Success and brought Gray on late and not vice versa. We are indeed a force to be reckoned with. But… It may be motivated reasoning, me saying this, but looking at the remainder of the season there is a vast difference in the strength of opposition looking at ourselves and direct competitors. Looking at the average current league position of the opposition in the remaining games, Swans oppos are 15th, Brentford 13th, Naarch is somewhere between 10ht and 11th and we come in at 8,63 (including a game against Sheffield in 23rd). Your opposition strength is irrelevant when you are the stronger I hear you say – and you may be right. But it is a stark difference objectively speaking. I hope your confirmation bias proves my motivated reasoning wrong.

Matt Rowson - 22/03/2021

I think the fact that we are very very strong and have great depth trumps any of that Kris. We’ve lost to QPR, drawn at Cov but beaten Norwich and won at Cardiff who were flying. It doesn’t follow that the games against teams lower down are “easier”, particularly at this stage of the season. “We’re bloody great and nobody else is” was only slightly tongue in cheek.

(and whilst I may be dwelling too much on this… what you are doing is Confirmation Bias, not Motivated Reasoning. Motivated Reasoning would be to criticise my reasons for saying “we’ll get promoted” ; focusing on reasons that we won’t to support a “we’re not going up” argument (which I know isn’t exactly what you’re saying) is Confirmation Bias)

Kristoffer Vad - 23/03/2021

Thanks for schooling me Matt – always happy to be corrected by someone who knows what they are talking about ;)…

You are of course right about strength and depth. And I wouldn’t swap places with Swansea or Brentford that’s for sure. I think it is more self-preservation than anything else finding all these reasons why we can fail, when the team continues to show we shouldn’t be concerned.

I read someone saying Norwich has the best 1st 11 in the division, but we have the strongest squad. I think that is probably a fair assessment. Our depth is becoming a key factor.

Matt Rowson - 23/03/2021

Indeed. And the signings of Gosling, Sánchez, Lazaar, Elliot looking inspired, however low key

Derek - 22/03/2021

I’m fairly relaxed about our remaining games. I think that the dangerous teams this time of year are the ones that have nothing to play for. Sometimes they roll over without much effort, or they can turn up and play like world-beaters. The teams at the top that we play will have their own anxieties. Reading for example, must already be looking nervously over their shoulders, worried about missing out on the play-offs. Also, playing teams at the top should mean that we don’t become complacent. The most important thing is that we’re playing really well at the moment. As long as that continues I think we’ll be just fine. The transformation since the Coventry game is amazing.

12. Mark - 23/03/2021

Delightful summary of the game. I dont get to see Watford that often anymore. Is it just me or are others really chuffed that Chalobah has returned to form?

Graham French - 25/03/2021

Mark – I’m also delighted Nate has returned to his imperious best. And I suspect there are many who agree.


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