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Luton Town 1 Watford 0 (17/04/2021) 18/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1-  When this is all over, whenever everything is finally back to whatever normal means now, you’d like to think that there will be things that we won’t take quite as much for granted.  Health and freedom and that, obviously…  but more mundane things too.   Going to the cinema, I really miss that.  Going to the pub.  Going to restaurants, sitting indoors rather than shivering defiantly in the drizzle over a pathetic pizza.  Nipping down to the co-op for some milk and not having to queue up outside.  Going to work.  Heavens.  By which I mean actually being at work with real people rather than isolated in my little bubble with two dimensional colleagues.  All of these things I hope I’ll appreciate so much more, as and when.  All of them I miss.

What I haven’t been missing is games against Luton.

2- There’s a digression here about what local rivalry is all about.  I was always brought up to treat Luton as a swear word and so forth, but I’m not sure I buy the bit about you have to hate Luton if you’re a Watford fan any longer.  It’s more nurture than nature for me…  I’m sure my tone would change very quickly if these fixtures become a more regular feature of our fixture list than they have been, contempt breeds contempt.  I’d probably not be writing this paragraph if we’d had the misfortune to be at today’s game, so to speak, the deed would have been done, I’d be exposed to all the things I hated about it before.  For the moment, I find Bournemouth and even Palace a bigger deal.

That aside.  There’s been some understandable reminiscing about one particular derby game in the build up to this one….  but the reality is that that day was remarkable because it was anomalous.  That’s not what derby games are like in anything other than exceptional circumstances.  This game, today’s game, was much more like it… not the result particularly, but the frantic ugly dreary annoyingness of the whole thing.  In between Luton’s 4-2 win at the Vic in September 1994, their last League victory in the fixture before today, and the 4-0 three years later there were six draws.  I was probably at all of them, but don’t ask me to distinguish one from the other.  They were all the same, and they were all shit.

The other thing about derby games is that they matter so much more when your team is terrible.  In the past Watford and Luton’s fortunes often rose and fell together and at times it very much felt as if all there was to play for was avoiding relegation and this.  This Luton incarnation isn’t terrible – they’re in pretty much exactly the League position you’d have predicted based on their solid but limited showing at the Vic at the start of the season.  Nonetheless, the Hornets have rather more to play for as it stands;  Luton’s survival was confirmed mathematically by this win, but effectively a done deal some time ago.  Knocking us off our perch a very much more tantalising objective for them than not being knocked off would be for us..

3- And having implied that we were lucky, or that I was grateful not to have been at this particular game, if only half-meaning it, the reality is that the game would have been quite different if supporters had been there.  We wouldn’t have been at this particular game at all.  

I suspect that the game that we ended up with wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun either.  The home side started looking precisely like a side managed by someone who was pissed that their first attempt at a local derby was so vanilla back in September;  the same approach backed by a crowd would have generated its own momentum.  They rattled at us from the off and we looked rattled in return;  Troost-Ekong gave away a cheap corner in the first minute, Sonny Bradley flicked over.  Within five minutes Carlos Sánchez – one of two enforced changes to last week’s line-up – went to ground to win possession in the box.  Being Sánchez, the tackle was well-judged and precise but it didn’t settle the nerves.  Ten minutes in and it was all hands on deck;  a set piece threat was already evident but fortunately one man well suited to this sort of maelstrom was Francisco Sierralta, long since established as a fearless booterer in the finest of traditions. He got his head to pretty much everything.

And whilst we rode our luck at times, the positive to be taken from the first half – as from the entirety of the game against Reading last week – was that we held out.  That’s not all luck, much as Bradley and Dewsbury-Hall both sent efforts wide but alarmingly close to not wide. When things are going against us we’re very good at being bloody awkward anyway, at closing out space, at digging in and not giving an inch.

If we had managed to get any kind of attacking foothold the flow of the game might have changed much earlier.  There was an awful lot of space behind Luton’s press, but we couldn’t retain controlled possession far enough up the pitch to exploit it – the ball wasn’t sticking anywhere.  Only once or twice did Sarr get to stretch his legs, drawing a yellow from Bradley (“not the sharpest tool in the drawer” – T.Mooney) but too often such possession as we had was surrendered cheaply, and often by Philip Zinckernagel.  That thing, that “he’s getting better with every game” thing is dead in the water…  he’s demonstrated beyond reasonable debate that there’s a valuable player in there, but there are still giveaway signs that he’s been playing at a very different level and they all came out today.  Almost every touch killed a fledgling attack stone dead, most startlingly when Luton abandoned him in a mile of space as Will Hughes lined up a free kick and he proceeded to validate their recklessness by rolling Hughes’ disguised pass feebly, inexplicably to Sluga.

Nonetheless we ended the half level, with Tommy Mooney confidently asserting that Luton’s ferocious chasing was always going to abate.  Nil nil at half time was an achievement.

4- You learn a lot about a manager when things turn against him, as they always will sooner or later.  When we went up in 2015 Norwich followed us up crowing about the record of Alex Neil, appointed during the season to great success.  Once promoted, once the losses started coming, they didn’t stop.

Xisco hasn’t had a clear run at Vicarage Road, but his early defeats can justifiably be filed under “teething troubles”.  We’ll see how he gets on now, but the signs here were fairly positive.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and his bold decisions here deserved better reward.  Both sides were hamstrung by an awful bobbly pitch, but the Hornets were to a greater extent needing a foothold, so having a target to hit long – João Pedro is still game, but not combative in the way he was a couple of months ago – made a lot of sense.  Isaac started assertively, his foul on Pearson was provocative but not a major problem if it indicated a bit of bite to channel positively.  Within five minutes João Pedro had picked up the ball deep and fed Success.  Success released Sema whose vicious cross was headed clear.  The ball found its way back to Ken, who did his “bundle down the touchline” thing.  It came to nothing, but it was a bit of welly for the first time.  It was encouraging.

And that was that really, at least as far as Isaac was concerned.  It was an unforgivably passive performance from the Nigerian, lacking in aggression or mobility.   Out for a year or otherwise, we needed much more.  

Ten minutes later the ever-willing Hughes surged onto a João Pedro flick, but with Success, Sema and Sarr spinning away from him he was uncharacteristically indecisive and sent a wasteful ball under Success’ feet.  We were no longer under the same pressure as in the first half, but not turning any kind of screw either.  Gradually the home side began to craft some more chances – Dewsbury-Hall sent a good ball into the box, criminally shovelled over.  LuaLua won a cheap free kick off Femeníá, who picked up a harsh and consequential yellow card; Bachmann was attentive in tipping the subsequent shot over.

Eventually we allowed Luton to roll the dice once too often.  Achraf Lazaar had recovered from a pretty miserable first half as a late replacement for the unwell Masina to reclaim some brownie points at the start of the second, but there was no forgiving his complacent, underhit hospital ball towards Bachmann.  For his part, the keeper had been largely faultless to this point but betrayed a lack of composure and judgement here.  On the evidence to that point had Bachmann stayed on his line and allowed Adebayo to retrieve the ball the big striker might well have tripped over his own feet in any case but the Austrian never gave him the chance, clearing him out with an uncharacteristically excitable challenge.  He looked shaken by the whole thing and seemed to be expecting a red card rather than yellow though this was never likely.  The red card came later for a second cheap yellow picked up by a bedraggled Kiko Femenía;  by then Luton had afforded spot kicking duties to James Collins straight off the bench, a gamble that paid off.  That was all it took.

5- The thing is, the positive thing is that we so nearly got away with it in a number of respects.  Indeed, you could argue that we’ve been getting away with less convincing performances since the international break, four games have yielded seven points and could conceivably have yielded considerably more despite their limitations.  Here, Luton’s best efforts hadn’t yielded anything in the end, we gave them the goal.  Even then we might have nicked a point back when Andre Gray threw himself at what looked rather like a header from a Luton defender from a marginally offside position.  It would have been robbery, but it would have been funny and it would have been a valuable, buoyant point.

We regard the season as having pivoted in February, when we started looking like the sum of our parts, started winning games convincingly, started being fun.  If and when we do get promoted this season it will be due in just as great a part to the fact that we hung around to make such a turnaround possible when our attacking play was so staccato in the first half of the season.  Being bloody good at defending isn’t luck and it’s not something to dismiss or be bashful about. 

It wasn’t quite enough here, but as was pointed out at full time, an ostensibly likelier outcome of the traditional draw at Kenilworth Road along with home wins for Brentford and Swansea would have been more expensive for our promotion hopes than how it turned out.  We’re still looking good, and we’re still better than everyone else.  We could do with remembering this before Tuesday.  

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 2, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Lazaar 1, Sánchez 3, Hughes 3, Zinckernagel 1, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Success (for Zinckernagel, 45) 1, Cleverley (for Sánchez, 61) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 79) NA, Gray (for Lazaar, 82) NA, Cathcart, Kabasele, Gosling, Navarro, Foster

Comments»

1. Harefield Hornet - 18/04/2021

Annoying and avoidable. Tommy Mooney broke cover from his commentary position at one point when Success ambled after a ball towards which he should have been sprinting “Get after it then!” – that was my favourite moment of the afternoon – although it wasn’t a very high bar.

2. Mike Smith - 18/04/2021

Another sensible well constructed report Matt.
It was their cup final and they deserved it. They always seem to put more importance on these matches than us. An awful performance from us. Thankfully imo no fans. A horrible place to go and hopefully we won’t be back there for another 15 years or more!
It would be sweetly ironic btw if Muff beat Brentford next week & ensure our promotion!

Agostino Di Falco - 18/04/2021

Thanks Matt. I was hanging out for a bit of calm sanity and you’ve provided it.

Harefield Hornet - 18/04/2021

Never mind Brentford – If Bournemouth win their last four matches, which they’re more than capable of doing, they could still go up automatically themselves!

3. Pete - 18/04/2021

Point 2 – with you all the way. I had said to my son before the game – who is new to the rivalry revival – that I hate these games because you want to not lose them more than you want to win them. The risk/reward equation is so out of kilter with a regular game. I was in a bad mood for a fortnight after that 2-4 home defeat in the 90’s when we thought Moralee had broken his duck and would now score shed loads – I’m older now , wiser and more mature and therefore intend to only sulk for 10 or 11 days this time.

Matt Rowson - 18/04/2021

Measured and restrained Pete, good work.

4. Martin in Munich - 18/04/2021

Thanks for the reasoned and rational site. I agree with the earlier comments on yesterday game…fair play to them.They did their homework, and sorted the pitch out …clever. Xisco may have made selection errors yesterday, but overall he’s been a breath of fresh air., and gives a human approach with passion and enthusiasm. Players, teams If the wind blows in the right direction,we should go up. One consideration for me next year is accepting the owners model for running the club. For me its clear we require strong, quality physical strikers, hungry and committed….the lad Adebayo for instance ? The full backs also need looking at. Kiko is no premiership defender, I have doubts about Masina at this level as well . Lazaar needs another club

5. Ray Knight - 18/04/2021

There was absolutely nothing ever romantic about our trips to Luton. Horrible ground with a high chance you would get lamped in one of the narrow alleyways. Didn’t miss it one bit but must admit they outplayed us yesterday and deserved to win. Easily our worst game of the season. Success and Lazaar should be permanently dropped and shipped out. Gosling would have given us more in the middle than either Sanchez or PZ. Hughes was both wayward and run ragged. I want to see Ngakia, Wilmot back in the squad and Perica is a better option than Success. Chalobah was sorely missed. Still our destiny is firmly in our own hands. But we will need to improve by at least 80% on yesterday’s abject display.

Harefield Hornet - 18/04/2021

Perica a better option the Success. Absolutely, from the limited amount we’ve seen of him. What on earth has he done or not done in training to warrant being down the pecking order is a mystery .

Matt Rowson - 18/04/2021

Not a mystery. He’s a different option. Perica isn’t a physical option

Matt Rowson - 18/04/2021

I can see why Success has been picked ahead of Perica who isn’t as physical as his frame suggests. Before yesterday I don’t think he’s been that bad in the context of a year out. Good bits in each game if not enough. He’s more of a different option in the absence of Troy, who we missed yesterday.

6. David - 18/04/2021

Thank you Matt, since the Tory MP, Evans the driving force behind ID cards left I have not had Luton the top of my hate list.

Like every watford player I really want Success to work out but his amble across their back line in the first 5 minutes had me screaming at the laptop, much to the amusement of my children.

7. davidfishermusic - 18/04/2021

Good write up. It was certainly the worst performance we’ve seen in a while, but arguably we end the weekend looking more likely to go up than at the start due to Brentford and Swansea helping us out.

Lazaar was poor but not necessarily worth giving up on – Masina divided opinion at first and look at him now. Success, on the other hand… if he can’t make his mark on a game like this then I think it’s time we got rid.

I’m still confident we’ll go up automatically and that we’ll play a hell of a lot better than that in our remaining games on pitches where we can get it down on the floor and play football.

My love for Xisco Muñoz remains intact and we’re still sitting pretty in 2nd.
COYH

David Allen - 18/04/2021

I totally agree about this particular Derby matching, Matt. The problem is that other people (the media in particular – Hive Live especially) ramp it up to such a fever pitch to make it more than it actually should be. As it was, I think the whole charade got to our players in a negative way, to their players in a much more positive way. They tore at us from the off and we, looking like frightened rabbits in the headlights, never recovered. At least the players can chalk it up to experience.

8. paullbaxter - 18/04/2021

It was a very disappointing performance but maybe not as bad as Huddersfield or Coventry. However, we really need to up the date intensity as since the international break we have been way too passive. We were very easy to play against as we had no plan B. I think I could have worked out how to stop us playing and I don’t claim to be a professional football manager.

9. Nick B jnr - 19/04/2021

Without having to say anything, Paul Robinson’s initial reaction when prodded for a reaction to Success’ introduction said everything.

And to persist with passing out from the back – or back to Bachmann – on a pitch that had been (deliberately) dried out like a cricket strip, was especially naive.

Much mention was made of the fake crowd noise. Was this introduced just for Saturday?


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