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End of Term Report 2021 – Part 5 28/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
16 comments

18- Andre Gray

You know that thing about, “does a high transfer fee put pressure on a player?”…

Four years on, the case for the prosecution.  The transfer fee, widely reported as £18 million but elsewhere as £11.5 with the potential to rise still influences our judgement I think.  Had he come on a free, even if out of contract and effectively costing a lot more in salary and agent’s fees because of his negotiating position he would have been judged a lot less severely.

That said, his transfer fee isn’t the only thing making life harder for Andre Gray.  His surly manner, his transgressions during lockdown – once, understandable if not forgivable, twice suggesting contempt.  On the pitch…  once again, he’s looked like a half-decent player playing badly a lot of the time, either working hard for little return or just not fitting.  It’s been difficult to shake the old thing about his being too inflexible a tool, only useful at doing one particular job, incapable of adapting to what the team needed him to be.

He impressed pre-season against Spurs until a hamstring pull ruled him out for the first two months of the campaign after which he would start only 14 of 46 Championship games, his involvement spasmodic from the off.  It would be wrong to say he is or was awful… life isn’t as black and white as that.   Very occasionally he spluttered into life, and could be relied on to put a shift in off the bench.  It never felt like enough.

Next Season:  At his most effective Gray is waspish and belligerent.  Too often recently his frustrations have been channelled negatively. Rarely can a player have been in such severe need of a fresh start.  

19- Will Hughes

As discussed many times, a number of inconveniences collaborated to relegate us at the end of the 2019/20 season. However if we got a lucky break that summer, the hope left blinking from the bottom of Pandora’s box, it was Will Hughes’ unspecified “medical procedure”.  It kept him out for much of the season – he never started a game under Vladimir Ivić – but his absence from view may have dissuaded a Premier League club from moving in, leaving him free to pick up the baton at the back of the midfield.

From that point he was the side’s conductor, setting the beat, dictating the rhythm.  He’d been every flavour of midfielder in his Watford career up to the point… a ratter, a wide player, a continuity player, a bullet-loader behind the forwards – flexible in exactly the way that Gray isn’t, I guess –  but suddenly he was the most indispensable component of the side, and indeed didn’t miss a game from Bristol City until the final day. The only thing he’s ever missed is a bit of pace, and playing the metronome role that’s all but irrelevant.  A glorious half-season from a very fine player.

Next Season: It’s difficult conceive of many sides at any level that wouldn’t be improved by Will Hughes.  Tough, ‘cos he’s ours…

21- Kiko Femenía

This never seemed likely.  When we went down…  not someone you’d necessarily have expected to jump ship, but a return to Spain was rumoured and felt horribly credible.  Collateral damage of our relegation.

The move didn’t happen. Kiko stayed.  And not just that, but he didn’t skip a beat… whether filling in for Masina’s absence on the left or thundering down the right flank.  No sulking. No, “I’m better than this”.  Just an absolutely relentless, irrepressible overlapping machine.  My vote for POTS, for what it’s worth, since however temporary and forgivable the early frustrations of his partner in crime down the right flank they were frustrations that Kiko didn’t let hamper him in the same way.  Only at Kenilworth Road, of all places, did his levels slip.

But that right flank wasn’t half a terrifying thing once it got going. Doubling up on Sarr might have seemed like a good idea for any opponent until the first time Kiko charged past on the outside to hoover up the pieces.  It was devastating, exhilarating, and slightly unfair.

Next Season: There’s a credible argument suggesting that Kiko is a more effective right back in a dominant side, a side that will enjoy a lot of possession such that his attacking tendencies aren’t as exposed.  Whatever.  Kiko has three years’ Premier League experience and is huge fun.  We’re lucky to have him.

22- Isaac Success

Lots of good bits and lots of iffy bits.  If Isaac had just arrived, say, like Zinc, you’d be quite excited.

As it is… even those of us keen to see him harness his strength, touch and personality into a coherent, credible footballer are running out of patience. This was evident in the lack of sympathy, lack of allowance for the fact that Isaac had been out for over a year before returning to the side in March.  That’s not trivial.  A A Will Hughes, a Sarr or a Deeney would have taken time to get back into gear.

Isaac’s issue was perhaps that he’s never been in gear for long enough for folk to hanker after his top form.  His most convincing spell was perhaps as a centre-forward in Troy’s absence early in the Cup Final season… I do think that he’s more effective as a target man, holding up play, being a totem, than as a winger.  But we’ve not seen enough of anything for a sustained spell.

There’s clearly something there.  Xisco clearly felt so, giving the Nigerian a reasonable amount of match time on his return to the fold.  And if you wanted to squint at it a certain way there were reasons for optimism…  but for every neat touch or clever through ball there were instances of Success not making the run, not making the challenge.  Hugely frustrating.

Next Season:  The Swansea goal was everything good and bad about Isaac.  Good, because of the power, the control, the ferocity of the final goal of the season.  Bad because…  for pity’s sake.  This is what he’s capable of.  How rarely do we see it.  Isaac needs to pull his finger out before his career fizzles out altogether.  He’s already had several chances to do so at Vicarage Road and may not get another.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 4 27/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

16 #1- James Garner

James Garner looked the part.  Slightly awkward, skinny, with a look that told you that he’d been obsessed with being a footballer since forever.  He was, we were advised, hot property.  We were lucky to get him, he was going to be a star.

He might still become a star.  Unfortunately for both parties, his loan was a case of wrong place, wrong time.  A young loanee looking for his first run of first team football, however talented, needs some semblance of stability to thrive in.  He wasn’t going to get it at Vicarage Road at the start of the season.

He looked the business, occasionally.  Clearly a good touch, good awareness, not scared of a tackle, liked a set piece.  And yet… as the team’s attacking shape struggled to form around him he wasn’t up to helping it develop.  Too often he disappeared in games;  you can’t disappear in central midfield, however young and promising you are.  We were in no position to accommodate his growing pains and asking a kid to be the one to take control was too much of an ask as it turned out.  That role fell to the recovered Will Hughes.  Garner returned to Old Trafford and was then moved on to a less volatile, more accommodating City Ground while the Hornets went for experience;  it was the gnarled old boots of Carlos Sánchez and Dan Gosling that were brought in to get us over the line.

Next Season:  No shortage of takers.  Safe to assume we won’t be high on the list.

16 #2- Dan Gosling

This didn’t go down well, if you remember.  Out of left field.  Conor Hourihane and James Léa-Siliki were the names touted as Étienne Capoue left the building;  instead we signed someone ostensibly not good enough for Bournemouth.  “Underwhelmed” was the prevailing response, to put it gently.

Which is worth bearing in mind the next time we make a signing that looks a bit odd.  Not that we’re always going to get it right… but this isn’t the first time that scepticism has been proven unfounded.  Five games into his Watford career any doubts were assuaged as Gosling let his former teammate Jefferson Lerma know exactly what he thought of his histrionics during the carnage at Dean Court, following up with a forthright interview to much the same effect.

That sealed the deal.  Dan Gosling doesn’t smile much.  He’s a serious, focused, bastard with a good amount of everything… good engine, aggressive, doesn’t waste possession, and the timing of his runs into the box betrays the two years he spent training with Tim Cahill at Everton.  We’ll take “unflashy” all day long.

Next Season:  Dan might not be a regular starter.  But he’ll be an utterly dependable squad player for a Premier League club.  Instead of, you know…

17 #1- Glenn Murray

There was some sense in the idea.  Faced with the prospect of losing Troy and/or Andre, and you’ve got to assume that both or either seemed likely given that Murray was brought in, we would have been short of experience and leadership in attacking positions.  Murray, evidently an intelligent man, “good in the dressing room”, ticked both boxes.

So as soon as the transfer window closed it was clear that we had a surfeit of such strikers, and that Murray was going to do well to get much of a look in.  Such opportunities as he did get seemed hamstrung by our insistence on firing grenades at him as if he was a target man rather than a slightly ungainly expert poacher.  Ball to feet he was fine with, a dominant aerial presence he wasn’t.  The ball didn’t stick, Murray got scant opportunity to do his thing.

That, even in his pomp, Murray has always looked about 15 years older than he actually is probably didn’t help his cause but “good in the dressing room” or not, you can’t blame him for not fancying spending a big chunk of what one presumes is the close of his career kicking his heels.   No surprise when his loan was cut short as a bad decision all round.

Next Season:  Murray’s liveliest outing in a Watford shirt was arguably his last as he came off the bench at Wycombe.  On his first start for Forest at the same venue he scored a brace, making Watford’s simultaneous 0-0 at Coventry all the more miserable.  Neither match proved portentous of respective fortunes… the Hornets’ turnaround started the following Saturday, Murray was destined not to score again for Forest in 14 appearances (seven off the bench).  38 in September, it’s unlikely that the master poacher will feature at Championship level again.

17 #2- Achraf Lazaar

In fairness to Achraf, it’s not many of us who can claim to have been the second best Moroccan left back at Vicarage Road.

Lazaar arrived as part of the concerted mid-season effort to beef up the squad with experienced cast-offs.  We needed cover for Adam Masina at left back, here was a guy who we had been linked with on our promotion in 2015, and who had subsequently been good enough to hang around at St James Park for five years without ever quite fulfilling undoubted potential. Surely good enough to be a fall-back full-back for a few months.

And he was, just about, a couple of excitable and problematic wobblinesses notwithstanding.  We weren’t going to bring in Paolo Maldini on a free as cover mid-season after all, what with left backs being so thin on the ground and all.  You’d have worried about having to rely on him for any length of time, but we didn’t need to. He was clearly much happier with the going forward bit than the defending bit and against Swansea, at the very end, we got an insight into what the excitement had once been about… a vibrant, pulsating performance that displayed on the pitch for the first time the sort of character that was already very evident in his position as cheerleader-in-chief off the bench.

Next Season:  Not enough to win him a longer contract with us.  But hopefully with someone else.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 3 24/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

11- Adam Masina

I do still wish he was more aggressive.

I appreciate that times have changed, that the archetypal full-back in my head – Stuart Pearce, Robbo, Julian Dicks – doesn’t really exist any more.  To an extent they never did – all three were better footballers than the pastiche in your mind’s eye leaves them, all three would have “adapted” to the changing game.  Indeed Robbo, who only retired three years ago after all, demonstrably did.   Nonetheless.  Adam Masina is a big bloke and I’d like him to be scarier.

In every other respect however, he’s tremendous.  We appreciated this most in his absence, and not just when/because we were short of cover at left back.  For whatever reason this is such a difficult role to fill;  centre-forwards, yes, are precious and expensive, elite players in any position are sought after.  But looking back over the years, how many times have we been caught without a reliable left-back?

Masina ticks every box.  He’s not spectacular, not a star of the side, but he’s strong, quick, honest and reliable.  There are baubles to his game too, an increasingly reliable line in sweeping cross field passes for one, the ability to pull off extraordinarily precise, keyhole surgery tackles like the one that stole the ball off Teemu Pukki’s toe another, the ability to hit the ball really quite hard with entertaining results (Forest, Cardiff) another.  Significant that earlier in the season with Masina out, Ivić desperate for a left-back and his former charge Dimitris Giannoulis (who has just joined Norwich after a successful loan) seemingly lined up, we held fire.  There were plenty of reasons not to spend money that perhaps didn’t need spending of course, but we showed later in the season that we were prepared to do so where deemed necessary.  The passing of time justifies the decision not to do so.

All of which without considering the backstory.   There are player’s you’d root for less, put it that way.

Next Season:  Adam will need competition for his place.  No concerns at all beyond that.

12- Ken Sema

In 2020 there were all sorts of little (and big) things that colluded to get us relegated, but for any one of which… (not that we’ll ever know).  This season it’s as easy to list things that were all, individually, critical to promotion; Kenzema is certainly on that list.

When he left for Udinese after a vaguely but not startlingly encouraging first season you kind of suspected that that was that.  He kept gamely popping up on the left hand side of their Serie A line-up though and when we went down, with Gerry vacating our left flank and Adam Masina injured, he went from being a fringe player in 2018/19 to absolutely fundamental this year. He was a left wing-back when we needed him to be, a left-winger when we needed him to be, and other bits and pieces as well on a less frequent basis.

The nature of his involvement changed throughout the season.  Early on, when we were solid but less than prolific, his ability to dig out one cast-iron chance in the flattest of games by barrelling down the left touchline, his massive shoulder span prohibiting any marker from getting close enough to the ball to nick it away from him, got us out of jail any number of times.

His cross on the final day dropped onto Andre Gray’s head to put us ahead against Swansea… but before that he hadn’t created a goal since the win over Norwich on Boxing Day.  Instead, with Sarr flaming on and leaving scorch marks down the Championship’s right flanks Sema became the man on the end of those moves;  all five of his goals in the League came after the post-Coventry turnaround.

His performance levels wobbled at times, but given that he had a spell out with COVID I think that can be forgiven.  All that he achieved he managed with a grin on his face – and I think it does help, writing immediately post Bournemouth’s tragic demise at Brentford, to have good blokes as well as good footballers in the team.  It’s good to want to root for the guys in yellow without reservation.

Next Season: Ken may not be a first choice in the Premier League, but he’ll be there or thereabouts wherever and whenever needed.

14- Nathaniel Chalobah

Another one of those little bits that combined to get us promoted came at around quarter past three in Cardiff on March 13th.  After the defeat at Bournemouth (snigger) we’d regained our footing through a couple of accommodatingly timed home wins without looking totally comfortable.  Cardiff had been on a thunderous, heavyweight run since Mick McCarthy’s arrival and the match felt pivotal.

Adam Masina’s late free kick got the headlines.  Just as significant was Nate’s involvement.  In the absences of both Troy Deeney and Tom Cleverley it was the returning Chalobah who took the captain’s armband and appeared to revel in the responsibility.  Cardiff took the lead after breaking down the left, but the grim silence of the stadium meant that all of those watching on heard his “stay cool” shout as the game resumed.  Within a minute he was walking the walk, winning his dance-off with City’s defence and planting the ball into the bottom corner.

How often does a glimpse of a star remain just that?  We saw a hugely promising seventeen year-old on loan nine seasons ago, but four years away, three years back, a knee injury and an England debut later the jury was still out at the start of this season.  Hell, halfway through the season I was being accused of being too kind to Chalobah in reports on this site.  The question wasn’t whether he could, but whether he would

By the time Nate was ambling down Occupation Road in the wake of the Swansea game, tipping his head back and bellowing “yoooorns” to the heavens (as we all have many times…) he’d ended all debate.

Next Season:  Nate can be a leader with the captain’s armband.  We need him to be a leader whether he’s wearing it or not.  He’s our physicality in the middle of the park in the absence of Doucs and Capoue, the one midfielder who can do anything.   We need him to do it all at once.  But in case this wasn’t clear, I think Nate’s bloody tremendous.

15- Craig Cathcart

Craig Cathcart is only (just) 32.  He’s a lot older than that in my head.

Perhaps because ever since his return on a permanent basis (one of four in the squad to have done so after a loan – none of whom loaned from Udinese…) he’s played like a veteran.  Always in the right place.  Always calm.  For all that there were widely perceived deficiencies in our defence prior to relegation they were just that – deficiencies, things the unit was missing rather than problems with what was there.

What the defence was missing was something big, ugly and Sierralta-shaped, and whilst Cathcart’s role became less prominent after his hamstring injury coincided with the Chilean’s emergence he was still absolutely reliable when called upon whether at centre back or, in extremis, on the right.  What’s not to like?

Next Season:  Although the evidence isn’t entirely convincing (three starts together in the middle, two defeats albeit Bournemouth and Brentford away), you wouldn’t rule out a Cathcart/Sierralta partnership entirely.  It fits the organiser/doer blueprint nicely, and the retention-of-possession concern with WTE isn’t an issue with Craig.  If not, one of the first names on the bench.  Hurrah.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 2 20/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

7- Philip Zinckernagel

Lots of good bits and lots of iffy bits.  If Zinc had been here five years, say, like Isaac, you’d be underwhelmed.

As it is, the focus is very much on the good bits.  The ability to cross a ball, to craft a pass.  The versatility.  The willingness to do whatever job is asked of him.  The ability to keep his head when all around are losing theirs.  And that’s without making any allowances for being parachuted into a season at a radically different level to that which he’s been used to and after minimal break after a full Norwegian calendar-year season (in fairness he’s no different from everyone else this year in that regard).  In the Premier League you kinda want players to be at least pretty good at everything, but being really good at some things is a good start.

The reservations are equally clear.  Zinc has been guilty of getting caught out defensively, sometimes calamitously so – although admittedly less so as time has gone on, either because he’s learning or we are.  He tends to want too much time on the ball, can disappear from games.

But at the very least there’s a lot to build on, a distinct type of weapon for our armoury, and the possibility that a summer break and pre-season will see an excellent player emerge merely than just a useful one.

Next Season:   The ability to chip out a goal in a tight game will make all the difference in the top flight.  We’ve got to hope that the rough edges continue to be smoothed out.

8- Tom Cleverley

At the end of last season in this piece I reflected on all the things that are great about Tom whilst lamenting that he was injured quite so often.  Tremendous therefore to be looking back on a season in which Tom has featured in 34 of 46 league games, and haven’t we benefitted from it.

Difficult to fathom that Roberto Martínez had Clevs marooned wide on the left when we visited Goodison Park on our last return to the top flight six years ago. Since his re-signing at Vicarage Road, fitness has been his only obstacle to being a force for good in the Watford side;  he’s a dynamo, and possesses the rare ability to be both an attritional pain in the arse and completely in control of his temper.  The Huddersfield goal was what I believe, in the modern vernacular, is referred to as “peak Cleverley”, the essence of the player in one moment;  the Norwich performance which won him display of the season the longer form version of the same narrative.

There are several players in this squad that you look at and think “how is he playing for us?”.  Tom is one of them.

Next Season:  A leader who has England caps, a Premier League winners’ medal, an eleven-year-old Watford Player of the Season award and who makes everyone else around him better?  I’m sure we’ll find a use for him…

9- Troy Deeney

He’s bled us white, the bastard.  He’s taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers’ fathers.

(And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers)

Yeah.

(And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers)

Yeah, alright Stan, don’t labour the point.  And what has he ever given us in return?

(140 goals?)

What?

(140 goals)

Oh. Yeah, yeah. He did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.

(Those penalties)

(Oh, yeah, the penalties, Reg. Remember what the penalties used to be like?)

Yeah. All right. I’ll grant you 140 goals and those penalties are two things that Troy Deeney has done.

(And the leadership)

Well, yeah. Obviously the leadership. I mean, the leadership goes without saying, doesn’t it? But apart from the goals, the penalties, and the leadership–

(Eleven years of service)

(Playing through injury)

(A bit of personality)

Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.

(And talking straight, honesty)

(Oh, yes. Yeah..)

(Yeah. Yeah, that’s something we’d really miss, Reg, if Troy left. Huh.)

(Turning his life around.  Inspiration.)

(And it’s safe for our kids to take the field against Luton now, Reg.)

(Yeah, he certainly knows how to keep order. Let’s face it. He’s the only one who could against a team like that).

(Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.)

All right, but apart from the goals, those penalties, the leadership, eleven years of service, playing through injury, a bit of personality, honesty, inspiration and protecting the kids against them up the road, what has Troy Deeney ever done for us?

(That goal against Leicester….?)

Oh. Leicester? Shut up!

Next Season:   None of that matters much of course, as regards Troy’s ongoing involvement.  If a sturdy track record was enough on its own, Gibbsy and Luther would still be in the side.  What matters is what Troy’s capable of now.  There’s been much suggestion that the skipper, the “Big Dog” according to Ben Foster, is past it, no longer able to contribute.  That may even be your opinion, or at least suspicion.  If it is… three things.  First, he’s more than earned the chance to prove you wrong.  Second, you’re going to need to be the one to tell him to his face.  Third, I think you’re mistaken.

10- João Pedro

The story’s a great one.  A kid from Brazil, identified, tied down before anyone – even, seemingly, his club Fluminense – realise quite how good he is.  We then have fifteen months of watching bigger clubs circling, with Fluminense asserting that being persuaded to sell their player before he’d even made his debut for less than he turned out to be worth was somehow underhand.  None of these threats get anyone anywhere and we get to feel very smug about the whole thing – the scouting, the decisiveness, the persuasive powers, the savvy, the end product.

Then he turns eighteen, and gets to sign terms and arrives in England. And with that sort of backstory… well, no pressure, son.  Within a couple of months of his arrival not speaking English and on the other side of the world to home everything goes pear-shaped, the world shuts down.  When it clunks back into gear again Watford are relegated and the Boy from Brazil is in a rather different environment to the one he perhaps anticipated.

It says a lot for Watford that he’s done so well.  It can only reflect well on the support afforded to him in circumstances difficult for those providing the support as much as for anyone else.  But it reflects well on João Pedro too.  In how many versions of this story does he flatter to deceive, or disappear into himself.  Maybe he’s got a trick but can’t communicate with or relate to his teammates.  Perhaps he’s just not able to show the ability that persuaded us to fork out that money for him.

Not a bit of it.  Nine goals and seven assists in his first full season, promotion secured in a campaign in which he was effectively a first choice throughout.  Sharp in front of goal, aware of what’s around him, a touch and control that allows him to float in possession, like he’s in some kind of protective bubble.  And he’s hard as nails too, no frail kid that’s going to get battered off the ball.  That goal at Derby… just ridiculous.  Outrageous. One of the best “go mental in the living room” moments of the season, so in control of the situation.

And he’s still a teenager by the way.  Yeah, he’ll do.

Next Season: That we need options up front doesn’t detract from the fact that João Pedro is a great option.  The only slight puzzle is in why, given the above, we’re not a little bit more excited…

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 1 17/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

1- Ben Foster

Ben Foster’s bloody great.

When he first arrived on loan in 2005, as discussed about a year ago, he was embroiled in the uncertainty of that first summer.  Lewington had been sacked, Nigel Gibbs had been disposed of, it wasn’t entirely comfortable.  Ben Foster came in from Manchester United, but had spent a loan spell the previous season being relegated from League One with Wrexham.

He wasn’t expected to start the season, not by me, we had Richard Lee after all.  But there he was. The doubts didn’t dissipate immediately as Ben’s head was sometimes too far ahead of the action, looking for the throw before he’d recovered the ball and being caught out.  But then… a few months in, he was at Alec Chamberlain’s testimonial horseracing event, one of very few players who’d braved the masses.  That’s a decent thing for a loanee for Manchester United to do.  And by then, any doubts on the pitch had been dismissed too.

Fast forward sixteen years and Ben Foster’s latest YouTube instalment has him playing a round of golf with the same Richard Lee.  That YouTube channel has added another layer to this oddest of season’s, spent as it has been largely in front of a screen.  He’s been knocked for it, particularly when the results had a wobble, but as well as being entertaining it’s been a step towards personalising both Ben and his team-mates.  In an era when knocking people online has become painfully and occasionally offensively easy, dissuasion is surely more desirable than prevention.  Look, these are real people irrespective of how good they are at football.  Meanwhile, having spent a couple of years with Heurelho Gomes as his wholehearted deputy Ben’s handled being usurped by Daniel Bachmann with similar good grace.

As well as being a good bloke he’s still a very good goalkeeper, 38 or otherwise.  Inevitably, at some point, he’ll stop being quite so good.  Given this, there’s a bit of me that’s pleased that an injury has given Dan Bachmann the chance to come in when he has such that we don’t have to watch Ben not be brilliant any more.

Next Season:  Rumour has Manchester City looking at Ben as a benchwarmer; you can understand how that would suit them.  Whether it would suit him is difficult to predict. If Ben’s still at the Vic, either as first choice or as backup and cheerleader for Dan Bachmann, we’re all the better for it.

3- Jeremy Ngakia

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Jeremy Ngakia.   Committing to join the Hornets before relegation, then finding that Kiko Femenía wasn’t, as had been suspected, heading back to Spain and he’s ended up playing less football at a lower level than he might have anticipated.

He’s looked the part, mostly.  Lots of fun, quick, aggressive, dynamic.  For a 20 year-old full-back, more than good enough.  Get-attable, maybe, defensively.  And not a left back, although judging him for being torn up by Connor Roberts at Swansea is perhaps a bit harsh.  Ngakia was one of many fringe players to have gotten injured at the wrong time… like Perica, Success, Dele-Bashiru and, late in the day, Joseph Hungbo, he picked up a knock just when he might have gotten a run – in this case, due to Kiko pulling a muscle against Millwall.  As it stands, three of his four starts under Xisco have been on the left, which is perhaps a bit unfortunate.

Next Season:  But “not quite as good as Kiko” still gives Ngakia plenty of wriggle room.   Right back, one suspects, is no longer a recruitment priority.

5- William Troost-Ekong

So much to like about William Troost-Ekong. Before he’d even arrived the backstory was hugely encouraging…  grown up around Watford, married into a family of Watford fans.  Split Nigerian/Dutch parentage has seen him represent both nations, but then when Spurs didn’t offer him a contract he followed his nose to the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Turkey.  He was only in Udine for two years, but mastered Italian to the extent that he is able to use it to communicate with partner Francisco Sierralta.

So he’s smart, he’s open-minded.  He’s grounded.  But he’s also deceptive.  6’3″, but looks smaller (because he’s often standing next to Sierralta).  27, but plays with the nous of a 33 year-old.  Sierralta, you suspect, might not be quite the phenomenon alongside a different partner… the relationship echoes those of Holdsworth and Roeder, Brown and Galli, Demerit and Cox/Dyche.  The doer given a platform by the wise head, the organiser alongside him.  Significant that three of the five defeats since the turn of the year – albeit in challenging games at Swansea, Bournemouth and Brentford – came on rare occasions when Troost-Ekong was out of the side.

Next Season: The “but” of course is that possession is a more precious commodity in the Premier League than in the Championship, and Troost-Ekong has a habit of surrendering it cheaply and even calamitously.  That’s got to be a bit of a concern.  Very much in our interests to find a way to navigate it.

6- Ben Wilmot

“I don’t know what Wilmot has to do to get a game” was simultaneously a thoroughly understandable and completely baffling soundtrack to the second half of the season.  “Not be a centre-back in a squad in which five are competing for two places” would be the unsympathetic answer of course…  with WTE and Sierralta clearly, indisputably the first picks, Craig Cathcart smart enough and experienced enough to step in whenever and wherever and the force of nature that is Christian Kabasele to accommodate too, no mystery at all in Wilmot’s omission really.  Just who would you have left out?

And yet there’s so much to like here.  In the first half of the season, Wilmot’s single-mindedness often lifted him above the drabber performances.  Often being the best player in poor performances is damning with faint praise – Worrell Sterling was one who suffered from that in years gone by.  But it’s a positive thing – and grist to the mill of the suggestion that he’s a future captain – that Wilmot was able to be assertive in such situations.  Dragging a team performance along is much harder from the middle of defence than it is from midfield or up front, but Wilmot managed it more than once.  Nor, of course, is he exclusively a centre-back, having filled in reasonably convincingly at left back and more than convincingly in the deep midfield role with which he’s long been associated.

Next Season:  And yet he’s clearly the fifth cab off the rank at centre-back as it stands.  Like Kabasele he’s got a rick in him, but he’s not got the Belgian’s dominant physique.  He’s not the quickest.  But it’s imperative that we find a way to use him and exploit that talent, else someone else will.

Helping Hands 2020/2021 12/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

The thing about assists is… there isn’t really an unique definition.  No “official list”, no panel of ex-players formalising decisions as there is with goalscorers.  So… my definition is on the generous side, hence the numbers of assists below are higher than you’ll find elsewhere.  I would include a critical pass even if it were deflected, a shot which is saved and the rebound converted.  I’d also include being fouled for a converted penalty (unless the penalty were converted by the same player – you can’t assist your own goal!).  This year I even got to decide whether to include being fouled for a converted free kick qualified;  since Ismaïla Sarr’s heroism in winning Masina’s free kick was so evident, that was a clear cut decision.  Other folks use meaner definitions.  They’re allowed to be wrong.

First off.  Like the goals, responsibility well-spread between all concerned.  Twenty goalscorers, but seventeen folk provided assists which is no less impressive.  Of particular interest is the folk at either end of the list.

Sarr, of course, is ridiculous.  A cheat code at this level, as has been discussed, but perhaps my favourite “assist” of this season above even the undefendable cross against Sheffield Wednesday and the countless committing of hapless defenders to win penalties was the one at Cardiff.  Last minute, everyone’s knackered, decent away point.  Sarr’s been kicked around, picks up the ball on the right flank and goes straight for the gap between two Cardiff defenders, crowbars it open and gets taken down on the way through.  As joyful a thing as what followed in stark contrast to his slightly stroppy arm flinging when things were difficult earlier in the campaign.

Earlier in the campaign.  A time when Kenzema’s nailed on once-per-game barrel into the box down the goalline yielded so many get-out-of-jail goals.  His last assist was that fabulous cross for Andre Gray on the final day, before that it was Boxing Day against Norwich reflecting that he flagged slightly towards the end of the season;  by then others were making hay.

Including Zinc.  There’s lots that needs sorting out here, but having arrived from Norway having already played a famously prolific March-November season to run up five assists in spasmodic involvement would have been great even if he hadn’t done an Almen Abdi tribute in the home game against Wycombe.

At the other extreme…  our two first-choice centre-backs didn’t get an assist between them, the three back-ups managed two between them and one of those when Ben Wilmot was pretending to be a full-back at Derby.  Assists not their job I suppose, which is perfectly fine if they’re sorting twenty-three clean sheets, negative shots on target and so on.  Adam Masina not getting an assist for the second season running is slightly more surprising;  he’s not the galloping threat that Kiko is on the opposite flank and missed the start of the season, but he’s got a long pass on him.

Yet more surprising is Will Hughes not being amongst the seventeen;  indeed, his only assist last season came in August 2019 at home to West Ham.  Withdrawn position or not, that’s a bit odd.  He’s clearly rubbish, that lad.  Statistics, eh?

Back soon with the End of Season Report.  Carry on…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Sarr 13 40 13 BlR (H), Bou (H), Stk (H), PNE (H), PNE (H), Bre (H), QPR (H), BrC (H), BrC (H), BrC (H), Der (H), Car (A), ShW (H)
Sema 8 38+5 6 Mid (H), Lut (H), BlR (H), Stk (H), Cov (H), QPR (A), Nor (H), Swa (H)
João Pedro 7 32+8 9 Oxf (A – LC), PNE (H), Stk (A), BlR (A), BlR (A), Bir (H), Nor (A)
Femenía 7 36+1 0 BlR (H), Wyc (A), Rot (H), Hud (H), Wyc (H), Car (A), Rea (H)
Zinckernagel 5 10+11 1 Wyc (H), Rot (A), Rot (A), Mid (A), Rea (H)
Deeney 3 14+5 7 PNE (H), Rot (H), Stk (A)
Cleverley 3 32+2 4 Stk (H), BrC (H), BlR (A)
Gray 2 15+16 5 Swa (A), Rot (A)
Chalobah 2 34+6 3 Der (H), Rot (A)
Pussetto 1 1+1 0 Nwp (A – LC)
Perica 1 3+15 1 Bir (A)
Navarro 1 4+4 0 Swa (H)
Gosling 1 6+7 2 Bir (H)
Garner 1 13+8 0 Cov (H)
Wilmot 1 15+12 1 Der (A)
Ngakia 1 18+8 0 Bir (H)
Cathcart 1 20+5 1 PNE (H)
Crichlow 0 0+1 0
Peñaranda 0 0+1 1
Pochettino 0 0+1 0
Dawson 0 1 0
Dele-Bashiru 0 1+1 0
Agyakwa 0 2 0
Sinclair 0 2 0
Stevenson 0 2 0
Lazaar 0 2+3 0
Phillips 0 2+3 0
Murray 0 2+4 0
Hungbo 0 2+5 0
Sánchez 0 2+7 0
Success 0 3+7 1
Capoue 0 7+4 0
Quina 0 9+6 1
Kabasele 0 19+2 1
Masina 0 22+4 2
Hughes 0 22+9 2
Foster 0 23 0
Bachmann 0 26 0
Sierralta 0 27+2 1
Troost Ekong 0 32+1 1

Check out the 2019-20, 2018-19, 2017-18, 2016-172015-162014-152013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.

The List 2021. 09/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

The List.  The Premier League list, by the way. Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the January window. To be kept up to date until the closure of the window so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 47

IN

Adam Reach (Sheff Wed
Kadeem Harris (Sheff Wed
Kolo Muani (Nantes
Kean Bryan (Sheffield United
Fernando Llorente (Udinese
Jacob Murphy (Newcastle
Ashley Young (Inter)* 
Matěj Vydra (Burnley)* 
Alberth Ellis (Boavista
Karl Darlow (Newcastle
Joe Pigott (AFC Wimbledon
Saikou Janneh (Bristol City
Charlie Bell (Portsmouth
Ike Ugbo (Chelsea
Kwadwo Baah (Rochdale)                                                      SIGNED
Siriki Dembélé (Peterborough)*
Rodrigo de Paul (Udinese)* 
Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese)
Rafael Borré (River Plate)
Ilias Chair (Queens Park Rangers)*
Mbaye Diagne (Galatasaray)*
Gaël Kakuta (RC Lens)
Yakou Méïté (Reading)
Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen)
Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jens Petter Hauge (Milan)
Josh Doig (Hibernian)
Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough)                                        SIGNED
Hugo Souza (Flamengo)
Sory Kaba (Midtjylland)
Mattie Pollock (Grimsby Town)                                              SIGNED
Darrin Enahoro (Stoke City)
Arnaut Danjuma (AFC Bournemouth)
Osaze Urhoghide (Sheffield Wednesday)
Robbie Brady (Burnley)*
Jon Moncoyola (Osasuna)
Danilo (Palmeiras)
Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal)
Adrián Embarba (Espanyol)
Imrân Louza (Nantes)                                            SIGNED
Sam Johnstone (West Brom)*
Harvey Elliott (Liverpool)
Kevin Bonifazi (SPAL)
Daryl Dike (Orlando City)
Tammy Abraham (Chelsea)
Filip Đuričić (Sassuolo)
Danny Rose (Tottenham)*

OUT

Francisco Sierralta (Palace, West Ham
Kiko Femenía (Trabzonspor
Ben Foster (Manchester City
Ismaila Sarr (Liverpool*)
Ben Wilmot (Swansea City*)
Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese*)
Cucho Hernández (Getafe*, Granada*)
Troy Deeney (Sivasspor)
Stipe Perica (Barnsley)
Will Hughes (Aston Villa)
Filip Stuparević (Partizan Belgrade)

2021   January
2020 Summer January
2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer  

Watford 2 Swansea City 0 (08/05/2021) 08/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
31 comments

1-

2.3  Parsimony
Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.
2.4  Worrying Selectively

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad.

Box, G. E. P. (1976), “Science and statistics”, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71 (356): 791–799

From which is derived the aphorism “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  In other words, a statistical model which approximates to the real world is never going to be a perfect representation of the thing it describes.  I can help scientists generate data that allows me to create a model that will predict an output from certain inputs.  If I know the recipe of a product, perhaps I can predict how quickly it will melt at a given temperature, or how much consumers will like it.

My predictions will be wrong.  Most of them.  In as much as it’s possible to tell.  The point is, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is if my prediction, or more generally my model, is close enough to be useful.

2- It doesn’t feel much like the last day of the season.  It doesn’t feel much like anything really, enjoyed as it is from this season’s detached vantage point in the study, window slightly ajar, snacks and drinks in place, match on the big screen, other stuff on the smaller screen. WhatsApp is accessible but carefully hidden and muted to guard against unwanted telegraphs of what’s about to happen from folk with faster streams than mine, we’ve all gotten better at this with experience.

But of all the things that it doesn’t feel like, the last day of the season is one of the things that it feels like least.  At this stage you’re normally looking forward to summer holidays for starters;  these are a moving target at the very best in these unprecedented times.  There might well be alcohol involved on the final day but I’m not cracking open a beer on my own at 12.30pm. There’d certainly normally be some effort to cross paths with the mates that you won’t see again until the next one, the high five-cum-handshake and “see you in August, mate” with people who you’ve known for years but never seen outside of Vicarage Road.  Not this year. And of course it’s normally sweltering on such occasions, rather than pissing it down with rain.  Sunshine was surely a reasonable expectation, a minimum requirement, unaffected as it is by Stuff and Things, one assumes.  Apparently not.

At least the club are putting on an obstinately excited performance.  There was a risk that after the lord mayor’s show the season might end inappropriately blandly, the irrelevant disappointment of defeat at Brentford last week case in point.  Not that anyone’s complaining, these last two fixtures being of no consequence is a tremendous result all round, but a repeat showing wouldn’t have sent us into the close season with quite the spring in our step that we should have for all that last Saturday was far from a catastrophe.

So the fabulously over the top explosions, flares, torches as the teams emerge, let alone the overdue return of whatever it is that shoots ridiculous volumes of yellow streamers into the heavens, are a defiant clarion call.  The streamers respect tradition by fastening themselves to the roof of the Sir Elton John stand forming a theatrical curtain above the stage for all wide angle shots (and for the man himself, to whom the camera returns frequently).

This buoyancy is evident in the players as they emerge;  grins everywhere and fists bumped with Nate Chalobah, Joseph Hungbo and the others restricted to the sidelines.  Swansea boss Steve Cooper, who limited screen time has occasionally presented as peevish and joyless, seems to be readily bumping fists too, in contrast to his captain Matt Grimes who noticeably refrains from any handshakes or fist bumps as the teams greet each other.  Perhaps he’s mindful of Stuff and Things.  Perhaps he’s just a miserable bastard.  Like Ivan Toney, if for different reasons, that ship has probably sailed so it’s all the same to us one way or the other.

3- Xisco has named virtually a second pick eleven.  It would, you suspect, be an entirely second pick eleven if Joe Hungbo hadn’t done his hammy at Brentford; the steadfast Ken Sema (steadfastness a rare quality in a winger but then Ken, a winger with the build of a heavyweight boxer, is a rare specimen) the only incontrovertible first choice from a fully fit squad amongst the starters.  There are nonetheless eight full internationals in the eleven, which tells some of the story of our success this season.

Swansea, meanwhile, have gone strong with what looks like a first-choice line-up.  With last week still front of mind things look a little ominous as the visitors get in down the left in the first minute;  Navarro gets away with a slide tackle from the wrong side in the box but that’s the last cheap opening they’re going to get;  for all that we’ve bemoaned the erstwhile absence of a physical specimen like Sierralta as one of the many things that might have prevented relegation a year ago we don’t half have some smart defenders as Cathcart and Kaba remind us throughout.  Within a minute Hourihane does his side no favours with a ludicrous dive some distance from the bemused Isaac Success within the penalty area;  it screams desperation this early in proceedings, marks his side’s card and probably plays a part in the official’s interpretation of subsequent optimistic but slightly less daft City claims.

Swansea are a bit odd.  At the Liberty Stadium in Xisco’s first away game they looked a tidy side;  solid defensively with enough going forward to be productive.  Plausible shouts for automatic on that evidence.  Subsequently they’ve undergone the sort of character transformation usually reserved for soap operas that choose not to write out a popular anti-hero at the end of their story arc.  On this evidence they look both blunt and get-attable, and have still contrived to finish fourth.  Not difficult to understand why FiveThirtyEight have them fourth favourites, a one-in-eight shot for the play-offs (anyone but Bournemouth, etc).

Swansea’s positive start doesn’t last long.  The first half hour is enjoyably open for all that it doesn’t produce any goals, and Ken is a key protagonist.  Three minutes in (we’ll pick up speed I promise, my dinner’s ready…) he tricks his way down the flank and pulls a ball back slightly too deep for Zinckernagel who does well to get as much power and direction as he does on the shot, but not enough. Back at the other end Ayew wriggles outside of Cathcart and shoots optimistically from a tight angle, Ben Foster is equal to it.  Sema thunders up the left flank again.  Gosling crashes in on Ayew, not for the last time, in a manner that suggests untold previous.

It calms down a bit, but only a bit.  Swansea get bursts of conviction that fizzle out on the flood barrier that erects itself around the edge of our box.  Lazaar becomes more prominent in what will comfortably be his most convincing outing in yellow, ending the half with an outrageous one-touch lay-off to a surprised Gosling to kill the pace on a crossfield ball.  Hourihane finds the space to shoot but from outside the box, Foster pushes wide.  Sema holds off two challenges to progress down the left and then slugs his cross out for a throw.  The half ends.

4- Lucky half time chocolate is a bowl of chicken and leek soup, which curtails note taking at the start of a second half that continues in much the same vein as the first. Swansea slowly, deliberately, work themselves a half-chance which sees Cullen curl over from Lowe’s lay-off, perhaps their best move of the game;  Watford break with far more vigour but can’t find the final ball for all that Andre Gray has been charging around looking for it since kick-off.

Until we do.  We get lucky with a kind deflection off Marc Guéhi which sees the ball drop onto the unwitting head of  Gray in a manner reminiscent of the opener here against Bristol City when All This Started, but to mark it down as a fluke would be to do a disservice to Ken Sema’s first assist of the calendar year, another bomb of a cross from the left flank.

From this point on the destination of the points is never in doubt.  In part this reflects the changing of the guard on both sides;  the Swans give it ten minutes, but then make four changes with the forthcoming play-offs in mind.  Meanwhile on come a combative Will Hughes, a deft João Pedro and ultimately Troy Deeney…  looking heavy and making limited impact but a very welcome arrival whose “Troy….Deeney?” introduction by Tim Coombs  on the tannoy is well-judged.

Lazaar becomes more prominent, blossoming as the season comes to a close.  A formidable double block in the box sees him emerge with the ball and surge upfield.  Later, as the game closes, a João Pedro lay-off bounces helpfully and the winger, by now forming a Moroccan left flank with Adam Masina, clouts a shot that Woodman does well to repel.  Too little too late, probably, but he doesn’t do his chances of a contract somewhere any harm.

The same of course is true of Isaac.  With the game trundling to a close he’s released by Marc Navarro and belts home…. muscles bulging, top corner, the net protruding with its ferocity.  A Roy-of-the-Rovers goal.  “Freddie Woodman didn’t even sniff it” would have come the speech bubble from the Rookery, if it hadn’t been empty.  Isaac’s few champions have been desperate for something to go in off his not inconsiderable backside, in the absence of that This Will Do.  The inevitable damburst that would follow this development cruelly curtailed by the end of the season.  If only.

The game, and the season, ends.

5- Someone asked me this week if I’d enjoyed this season, all things considered.  And the answer is…  well, not as much as any season which involves, you know, being at games and that.  On that basis, the logic follows, this is the worst season ever.

And yet.  The imperfections have almost exclusively been down to Stuff and Things outside of our control.  No, it hasn’t been a “real” season in that sense.  It’s been an approximation, a pastiche but… “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

And hasn’t this been useful.  However hard it’s been, the last year, imagine doing it without Watford.  On the pitch, all but flawless.  Automatic promotion with games to spare, ninety-one points, nineteen home wins in 23, equalling Reading’s record of 30 goals  conceded in a season at this level, clean sheets in half of our league games.  A team that, since the mid-season changes, has screamed unity…  it’s much easier to be unified when you’re winning every week of course but each fuels the other.

Off the pitch.  Hornet Hive has been a thing of joy;  Emma, Jon, Tommy Mooney, Robbo and the rest have been utterly magnificent.  Gifton Noel-Williams’ unexpected pre-match candour, professing that it’s enabled him to feel “part of the club again”…  remembering the sight of the awkward figure being celebrated in the back of the stand at St Andrews in 1999, the trajectory of his career already  knocked cruelly off path at the age of 20 I’m almost in tears.

The decision to dispose of Ivić.  Even if you agreed at the time, would you have been bold enough to do it in the circumstances?  If you had the responsibility of making that decision, if you knew what the consequences would be irrespective of the fact that your track record involves leading a club whose centre of gravity had previously been roughly fourteenth in he Championship (and lower still, pre GT) to promotion, a cup final and five seasons in the Premier League?  Big, bold call.  Crucial call.

Hornets at Home.  The Community Trust.  The support offered to the hospital for goodness sake, selflessness when it was absolutely needed.  The fact that there’s almost certainly significant stuff that I’ve forgotten…

Everyone thinks their club is unique, is special.  That’s how it should be.

Everyone else is wrong.

See you next season.  In the Premier League.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Navarro 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Lazaar 4, Sánchez 3, Gosling 4, Zinckernagel 2, Success 3, *Sema 4*, Gray 3
Subs:  Hughes (for Zinckernagel, 65) 3, João Pedro (for Sánchez, 65) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 72) 2, Wilmot (for Gosling, 82) NA, Masina (for Sema, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Perica, Bachmann

Brentford 2 Watford 0 (01/05/2021) 01/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

1-   Twitter’s great.

I didn’t know any Watford supporters outside my family until I was eleven.  Then there was Ian at school, and later Rick (though he confirmed suspicions by switching to Spurs when GT left).  A latin teacher and a music teacher.  But… you know.  Limited chewing stuff over options.  The Hornet Hotline used to be a thing after all, a premium rate phone line I’d run up Mum and Dad’s phone bill on to discover whether we really had signed Leroy Rosenior or Terry Gibson (sometimes with Dad’s permission…).  Ceefax, page 302 (or more specifically 312), a tantalising drip feed of information.

Now I can find someone to talk to about whatever I want whenever I want, pretty much.  I can find out about stuff that’s just happened, even if it’s on the other side of the world.  I can find information, seek advice, compare and contrast opinions.  Twitter’s brilliant.

Twitter is also ghastly.

We’ve talked about the echo chamber before.  The natural tendency to pay attention to perspectives that resonate with your own, to block out those that don’t.  The logical consequence of that is that your perspective is re-enforced by the illusion of consensus.  “Look, everyone thinks this”.  Polarisation.

Add that to any number of national and international developments that have legitimised points of view that ought never have been given the oxygen of publicity and you’ve got a toxic environment where a knee-jerk response is all too easy, an unpleasant knee-jerk response no less so.  

An over-riding concern is the Wild Westness of it.  Except there isn’t much of a sheriff, so actually that’s probably a bit harsh on the Wild West.  The lack of consequence, the facility to cross the line with no comeback is abhorrent and re-enforces the suggestion that certain things that aren’t ok are actually ok, or at least get-awayable with.  

Then you’ve got the consciously malevolent.  The folk who go out to provoke, to incite, to offend, whether to fuel unspeakable insecurity or because their whole world is an echo chamber that permits such lack of judgement and conscience.  As Troy has pointed out this weekend, it’s inconceivable that social media platforms with the facility to sniff a copyright infringement at 100 paces are powerless to police this stuff.  The social media blackout might not change anything in that regard.  But it’s an awful lot better than passive disapproval, and it sends a message that might penetrate the echo chamber.  It’s not OK to be a bloody idiot.

2- Meanwhile, anyone but Bournemouth.  Obviously.

But beyond that, and looking strictly at our own on-pitch interests and not at the attractiveness of a local away trip to a new stadium as and when and so forth, and without taking anything remotely for granted you’d have to say that Swansea and Barnsley both have greater capacity to be relegation fodder in the Premier League than Brentford on the basis of this. 

For all that they’re playing a hung-over fifth-sequel pastiche of the side that has stormed the second half of the season (we’ll get to that), for all that they’ve managed to turn a nine point cushion to a(nother) play off scrap in the space of three months, for all that their ability to turn dominance of the ball into impotent defeat is laid on show in the first half like bric-a-brac at a car boot sale, Brentford look better equipped on this evidence.  This evidence being a squad that’s been a few years in the building.  A club that has the facility and the capacity to repeatedly sell on crown jewels – Konsa, Maupay, Benrahma, Watkins – and replace them with others you’d scarcely heard of and still come out punching.  To record victories in consecutive games against two of the division’s strongest sides (albeit and so on and so forth) without key personnel.  A club that has a goalscoring centre-forward of all things.  That would give them a puncher’s chance.

So anyone but Bournemouth, for reasons of civility and good taste.  And preferably not Brentford if it’s possible to be greedy, for slightly different reasons.

3- As for the Hornets, our own line-up is decimated by a series of injuries variously described as minor and niggling on the official site but which presumably wouldn’t have been niggling enough to render players unavailable if promotion were still in question.  The exception is groin-injury victim Kiko of course, but Sarr, João Pedro, Sánchez and Chalobah are also all missing from the squad that sealed the deal against Millwall.  

The result is as makeshift-looking a side as we’ve put out since the turn of the year, but circumstances being what they are (and hurrah for that, obviously, in case that wasn’t taken as read.  My hangover released me some time on Tuesday…) the take is a positive one, with the hugely likeable Joseph Hungbo given his first start. The slight concern, if there is one, is the ongoing and unmentioned absence of Jeremy Ngakia, last seen on the bench against Reading three weeks ago.  Craig Cathcart again steps in as third choice not-really-a-right-back.

The first twenty minutes or so are reasonably enjoyable.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession but don’t do an awful lot with it, almost positioning their glass jaw for a knockout punch.  We’re achieving more with far less, and Hungbo is prominent… he wins a free kick in the first minutes after a bullish run down the right;  ten minutes later he’s direct again, drawing a foul on the edge of the area that is presumably ignored by Lee Mason on the basis that the similarly energetic and waspish Dan Gosling gets a shot away;  David Raya saves low down to his left.

Tom Cleverley has already sent a wicked, inviting ball across the face of Brentford’s goal, startling in how effortlessly dangerous it was (aren’t this lot supposed to be good?).  Masina sent a dipping ball towards Gray that doesn’t quite clear Nørgaard but wasn’t far away from doing so;  Gray turned his marker with expert use of his backside but couldn’t accelerate quite quickly enough to gallop into space unattended.  It was all kind of promising in a scene-setting way, but it was as good as we were going to get.

Twenty minutes in Hungbo’s hamstring went as he thundered after possession again on the right flank.  It echoed Tom Dele-Bashiru’s injury at Reading at the start of the season…  less consequential, Hungbo’s enforced absence will be largely down to the summer break rather than an ACL, but similarly “just when we realised how good you are” frustrating.  Football matches come fewer and further between in the promised land, let alone opportunities to “go and show us what you can do, son”.  Ten minutes later Tom Cleverley followed Hungbo off; Zinc and Isaac Success entering the fray.

We were immediately weaker.  Whether Zinc was distracted by the presence of so many of his compatriots in the opposing ranks or not, his impact was minimal – he barely managed more than a simple lay-back for his first hour or so on the pitch.  As for Isaac…  I had cause to remember my tutor’s description of my work at university.  “You have moments of brilliance, mixed in with moments of…  not quite such brilliance”.  He was a nice man, he was being kind.  You suspect he’d say something similar about Isaac, whose lumbering around and woefully overhit passes occasionally blossom into something startling… like in the second half , when he receives another fine deep Masina ball, holds off his marker with impossible strength and clubs a shot goalwards in one sweeping movement.  Tommy Mooney spots a David Raya intervention on the ball’s way onto the crossbar and away – either way this stuff would be a whole lot more endearing if Isaac was still 20 and in his first year at Watford rather than 25 and in his fifth.  Time’s up, you suspect.

Brentford’s threat becomes slightly less theoretical as Toney, who is the lightning rod that Troy was for us at his best, and the busy Forss get to work.  Forss has the ball in the net with a backheel, denied for a well-spotted offside.  We’re still in the game at the break, kind of ok on balance.  But only kind of.

4- A minute into the second half it’s not kind of ok any more as Brentford unpeel us with the kind of soft goal that we haven’t conceded in forever, Forss turning in Canos’ ball across.  It was already evident that for all that WTE’s distribution is… occasionally alarming, we’re missing his “this is what we do and this is where we stand” influence on the back four.  Neither Kaba nor Sierralta have bad games – indeed the Chilean’s fine repertoire of different ways of getting in the way is given a decent airing – but it’s far less organised, far less “sorted”.  Which I guess is only fair, given that the pair had never started together in anger.  

Twelve minutes later Toney wrong-foots Sierralta in the box and goes down.  It looks soft, but Sierralta knows he’s been done and doesn’t protest;  Toney puts the pen beyond Bachmann and it’s all over.  It was already over really, the title chance…  Reading had teased us in the first half by taking the lead and holding onto it for fifteen minutes but Barnsley, whose belligerence we would have been relying on on the final day, were contriving to lose at Preston which wasn’t remotely encouraging.  In the end, Norwich cantered away with it.

We did at least manage to see out the game without further damage, both sides postulating the possibility of further goals without actually looking much like scoring one, Success’ brainstorm aside.  A clean sheet against Swansea next week will now only equal, rather than outstrip, the best Championship defensive record.  30 goals in 45 games is pretty sharp.  28 would have been sharper, obvs, but 30 is sharp.

We send on three subs, which is a bit like that bit at the end of a serialised gameshow where contestants chucked out in the early episodes that haven’t pissed everybody off in the meantime get invited back.  Ben Wilmot does an endearingly positive job of stepping in for Will Hughes and reminding us that we really do need to find a place for him.  Stipe Perica sums up his Watford career to date by running around for ten minutes, doing something encouragingly interesting and then getting booked for a silly, premeditated foul. Maurizio Pochettino (not that one) looks like a rabbit in headlights.  Then it stops.

5- Kind of annoying and kind of disappointing and kind of frustrating but only a bit. The whole “now for the title” thing was never wholly convincing, much as it’s easier to be smart in hindsight.  We’re a good enough side to have beaten Brentford despite the circumstances if the ball had rolled for us but it didn’t, and as such it’s no surprise or disgrace to be beaten in the state that we’re in by a Brentford side who are much further from the beach than we are. 

The real work has already been done.  The prize that awaits is much more tantalising than this pallid performance, more tantalising even than rubbing shoulders with the clubs at the top table.  The prize is the ongoing security of our football club – not a terribly romantic way of thinking about it, but a pandemic and relegation from the top flight were always going to be an unfortunate combination.  And with a prevailing wind we’ll all be there to see it.  All of us.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Masina 3, Hughes 3, *Gosling 3*, Cleverley 3, Hungbo 3, Gray 3, Sema 2
Subs: Zinckernagel (for Hungbo, 24) 2, Success (for Cleverley, 31) 2, Wilmot (for Hughes, 85) NA, Perica (for Gray, 85) NA, Pochettino (for Gosling, 85) NA, Lazaar, Troost-Ekong, Navarro, Foster