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Watford 1 Newcastle United 1 (25/09/2021) 26/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1-  Everything’s going to pot.

I’m accused, whilst innocently making my way to my seat pre-kick off, minding my own business and that, of becoming “very political”.  It’s difficult to be otherwise I think?  Despite reasonable, if not best efforts on my part.  Nonetheless, on the assumption that you’re here to read about a football match and its periphery we’ll steer clear of the how and why and whose fault it is and reflect instead upon the absolute carnage on the nation’s forecourts.

Our journey down avoids the chaos at the Sainsburys roundabout in Bedford, where access to the supermarket is blocked by people queuing for fuel and everything’s snarling up around it.  On the M1 there are queues tailing back onto the motorway from Toddington Services…  perhaps it’s a rush on falafel balls at the M&S but I have my doubts.  Someone is overheard on the radio breathlessly explaining that they’ve been driving around for four hours looking for fuel as they’re running out. Yes. The witless selfishness of people is beyond all reason.  You kind of suspect that if there was one sapling left in the country, it would get trampled in the stampede of idiots wanting to get a selfie taken with it.

2- This sense of not being in control, of things kind of running away from you, of trying to make sense of unprecedented carnage is kind of appropriate to a football match that has the chaotic air of a game being played during an earthquake.  I should acknowledge from the start that I’ve long since abandoned the practice of taking notes during matches…  you can get the blow-by-blow factual account in any number of more reliable places and if I aspire to do this too you get the match experience of a bloke scribbling illegibly into a notebook and missing out on the very experience he’s trying to describe.  For the most part the chosen approach has few drawbacks, but on a day like this on which loads of stuff just happens it’s difficult to keep track of what, when and by whom so apologies for factual errors, wouldn’t be the first time.

There are a number of agents of this particular chaos and one of them, to get this more or less out of the way early, is the referee.  To be clear, it’s almost inevitable that officials will become a focus when your opponent employs a provocative, spoiling, frustrating, approach, all the more so when they do so successfully.  It is also easy to superimpose a narrative over the convenient detail that said official is one of them there foreigners, “not used to our football” in the same way that foreign players and managers once weren’t when it was convenient.  Australian Jared Gillett is, if you believe the popular narrative, “the first overseas person to referee a Premier League game”, which as has been pointed out elsewhere was presumably news to Dermot Gallagher.  But Gillett is no novice, and has refereed nearly 40 senior games in this country including three at the Vic last season.

However. Both of these things can be true – a provocative approach makes life hard for a ref, the novelty of his foreignness is a convenient stick to beat him with – and yet, after allowing for them, he still makes a pig’s ear of things anyway.  This begins very early on when Matt Ritchie puts his boot through Sarr in the Newcastle left-back position, leaving the winger’s ankles wrapped around his ears.  The die is cast from the moment that the official fails to card the protagonist.  Most transparently, when Sarr puts the burners on around half an hour later and the same player hauls him down unceremoniously he “takes one for the team” that would have been nothing like as straightforward a decision had he already been on a yellow.  Most likely outcome there is that he opts against the cynical foul and Isma is away.  More generally a marker has been put down, the referee is there for the taking.

Jarred Gillett, then, doesn’t have a good day.  This cuts for us as well as against us…  Joshua King will escape reprimand for removing his shirt after he “scores”, Craig Cathcart will go unpunished when, as Alain Saint-Maximin threatens yet another of the alarming number of runs through on goal that the visitors engineer through a combination of aggressive high press and a lack of options for defenders to hit, the centre-back takes him out with an elegant two-handed shove in the centre-circle.

Ultimately Gillett’s performance is an extremely nervous one.  His performance is nowhere near brave enough for a fixture like this in which every Newcastle corner threatens to descend into a brawl.  This antagonises because we’re behind for half of the game but ultimately, he’s an agent of chaos, a source of variance.  He’s refereeing a game taking place in an earthquake.

3- Because our bigger problem is our initial inability to cope with Newcastle’s game plan.  We start brightly, Emmanuel Dennis rabbiting in on the left of the box and forcing a smart double save from Darlow, but very quickly Newcastle have us squashed into places that we don’t want to be with nowhere to go and little time to think about it.  Logic dictates that the out-balls must be there, and one of them is provided by Moussa Sissoko who frequently drops into an accessible hole behind whoever is closing a centre-back down at the base of the midfield to relieve pressure and drive the play back where we want it to be.  Otherwise it’s ambitious balls over the top to Danny Rose attacking the right full-back position who is perhaps more mobile than Newcastle had counted on or remembered.  Rose, like his fellow ex-Mag Sissoko, is given the bird by the visiting fans throughout much as Daryl Janmaat always was, though in Rose’s case the references to a season spent at Sunderland nine years ago are slightly baffling.  In any case, if one of your two out-balls is an ambitious pass to a galloping full-back you’ve got a problem.

If there’s a positive to take from the first half it’s that we fashion chances despite being swamped, Kucka swinging a free kick past the Newcastle wall to force Darlow to push away, Sarr – seemingly subdued by his battering – getting himself going and cutting into the middle to send a low, firm shot close enough for the keeper to block but not so close that we wouldn’t have profited from having someone alert to the rebound.  No bad thing to still have a threat while being overwhelmed.

But we are overwhelmed, and the threats come from several directions.  Fernández in the first half and Clark in the second will both threaten with headers, just the sort of chance that you’d expect a big ugly Chilean centre-back to mop up in what one hopes is still the normal way.  The ongoing omission of Francisco Sierralta is slightly baffling; some revisionist stuff on Twitter about how he was never that good anyway doesn’t begin to answer the question, particularly against an opponent who, deprived of their main goalscorer, were always going to try to exploit high deliveries from set pieces.  That he plays against Stoke but doesn’t make the bench again here suggests Stuff and Things about which we can only speculate.  A secret agreement with the Chilean FA?  Undiscussed fall-out from what looked on the face of it a clumsy but forgivable own goal against Wolves?  One can only hope that whatever it is gets Sorted, because there’s quite enough chaos going on without us imposing even more on ourselves with silly decisions.  In danger of getting political again.

Newcastle also enjoy too many unchallenged shots from outside the box where Sean Longstaff gets two sighters before pinging one past Ben Foster.  It ends up in the top corner but only with the help of the goalkeeper’s fingers…  it’s slightly beyond his reach rather than, as the initial audio clue suggested, squeezing between his hands but his reaction betrays that he should have had it.

The other Newcastle threat, as already suggested, comes from a porous high line, exposed for the first time when Cathcart gets himself into trouble on our left flank and plays a weak backpass into the feet of Saint-Maximin.  The winger gallops away, but not for the last time a Newcastle break is curtailed by Ben Foster reacting quickly and not panicking.  Saint-Maximin dithers slightly when presented with a big obstacle and a decision to make and is forced to lay off untidily to Longstaff as Cathcart tries to redeem himself, the shot scooped over.  Foster will arrest similar breaks from Willock and Murphy in the second half, and you do wonder whether our decision to go with a high line against a pressing side with a lot of pace in it is borne of a recognition that their finishing, minus Wilson, minus the confidence borne of a win this season, isn’t great.  Either way we get away with being one down at the break.

4- Whilst this game, for as long as it’s reflected on at all, will not be looked back on terribly positively there’s an awful lot to like about the fact that we were second best for at least three-quarters of the game but finished much the stronger, much the likelier side to break the deadlock.  We got away with stuff, sure, but we engineered solutions and many of them came from the bench, all four substitutes improving our lot.

Tom Cleverley had had a frustrating first half, unable to instigate as much as he had at Carrow Road against a more pliable opponent.  He survived the first half without being booked, somehow, but was removed at the break via a “concussion substitution” having collided heavily with Karl Darlow towards the end of the half.  In his place came Ozan Tufan, looking every inch the Rolls Royce that our midfield needed.  Suddenly we had someone capable of conducting and shaping what was going on in front of him and our attack had something to glue itself to.  This was Gandalf arriving with Erkenbrand at Helm’s Deep, a game changer.

Whilst we’re still ceding chances, we suddenly look potent and controlled in attack.  We add to our armoury with the welcome return of João Pedro, whose deftness and deceptive strength will surely find a home in this starting eleven.  Jeremy Ngakia is introduced for an apparently ailing Kiko Femenía;  the Spaniard has been a shadow of the irresistible force on show at Norwich, but as the balance of the game starts to tip towards our favour Ngakia is in his element…  a situation which demands character, bullishness, and not terribly much looking over your shoulder against a team playing a narrow attack suits him down to the ground and this is a fine cameo.

We’re still fighting for a foothold, we haven’t turned the tables quite yet but again display the resourcefulness to fashion a chance – and a goal this time – from a planned set piece…  Rose’s delivery from the corner is excellent, the industrious Joshua King executes his flick-on perfectly and Sarr is exercising his neck muscles at the back post where the visitors on the line don’t stand a chance.  Amidst the celebrations King, significantly, grabs the ball from the net and exhorts his teammates towards a renewed assault.

Within minutes Peter Etebo is on for Emmanuel Dennis, and suddenly having been so much second best in the first half, we look a far, far better side than Newcastle.  Etebo patrols the back of the midfield contemptuously, Tufan is restored to the apex having briefly dropped back to accommodate João Pedro who now moves to the left.  This, you suspect, may be the shape of things to come in the front six for all that the pieces are still shifting around.  We look more than ready for the final fifteen minutes or so.

5- If there’s anything more enjoyable than scratching and fighting and shithousing your way to an away win it’s depriving an opponent of doing so.  The few seconds between Joshua King tucking away the loose ball after João Pedro’s tidy lay-off had set up Sissoko to drive at Darlow were a wonderful thing but  it wasn’t to be.  Referee Gillett rubbed salt into the wound unnecessarily by getting his handpointing all wrong and invoking a second abortive goal celebration, but VAR confirmed that Newcastle’s offside trap was in better working order than ours had been and King had stepped beyond it.

Nonetheless.  This report, written in its entirety on Sunday, has turned out far more cheerful than it probably would have done last night.  We obviously need to be able to cope better with a high press but we did so, in the end, and got ourselves into a position where we could really have won the game at the death.  Dead losses don’t do that.  Not winning a winnable home game is disappointing, but four points from the last two no worse than par. Even Peter Etebo limping off with a hamstring injury having galloped after Jacob Murphy may not prove to be a disaster if it means that he rests up during the forthcoming international break and is back for Liverpool.

As for everything else…  ongoing lack of fuel would prohibit a match report from Elland Road next weekend but in the grand scheme of things that’s fairly small potatoes.  The sky is blue, and worrying about things outside your control is never terribly productive.  Watford rode their luck in this one, but took advantage of having done so and looked a far more compelling outfit at the end of the game than we had at the beginning.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Rose 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 2, *Sissoko 4*, Kucka 2, Cleverley 3, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Tufan (for Cleverley, 45) 4, João Pedro (for Etebo, 64) 3, Ngakia (for Femenía, 67) 3, Etebo (for Dennis, 75) NA, Masina, Sema, Hernández, Kabasele, Elliot

Comments»

1. Mazz - 26/09/2021

First half was pretty bad, the whole vibe in stadium went flat. I really let rip when the 2nd went in, It was such great joy, only for it all to be wasted. Still, it was fun. 1-1 seemed fair.

More Lord of The Ring references please.

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

Cheers Mazz. LotR… yes, my co-editor will be delighted.

Ben - 26/09/2021

Erkenbrand!

2. iamthesunking - 26/09/2021

Haha, who told you that you were becoming very political? (And did they say it like it was a bad thing?)

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

Nigel who sits in front. And not really in fairness.

iamthesunking - 26/09/2021

Is he a friend of yours? Or someone you met because he sits near you in the stadium?

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

I’ve been in my seat for 20+ years. Nigel turned up at some point. Not recently because I remember him unadvisedly saying something like “bloody rubbish Priskin, get him off!” just before Priskin scored in around 2008. I’ve never seen him outside the ground but would consider him a friend.

3. Graham French - 26/09/2021

Great report as always, Matt. Keep up the politics. If observing aspects of the world around you, their causes & consequences is “politics” (& I guess it is) then that is a Good Thing.

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

Thx Graham

4. Duncan H - 26/09/2021

Fantastic report as always Matt, including your reflections on the ref. If he’d got his yellow card out in the first 5 mins as he should have done, it could have been quite a different game, though as you say, we also benefited at times. If he’d booked them for timewasting at the start of the second half, rather than the end, that would also have helped – that one where they suddenly decided to go long instead of play out from the back was an egregious ploy (why can’t you book the *whole team* for timewasting?), as was the goalie claiming to have a head injury, as he knows that refs have to take such things seriously.

On the positive side, I finally got to see my team score a goal in a full stadium for the first time in 18 months. Hope your daughter(s) did too? And those 10 seconds where we thought we had won it (and 2 subsequent seconds when he bizarrely pointed to the spot after the VAR decision) felt amazing, even if it wasn’t to be!

On the less positive side, as Mazz also mentioned, the vibe in the stadium, which was great at the start, went very flat after the Newcastle goal. Understandable in one way, but it was still a little concerning how quickly the crowd became irritable, and that must have been felt on the pitch as well. If Newcastle had gone in at the break 2 or 3 up, as they probably should have done, and had we not got back into the game, the atmosphere could have turned pretty ugly towards Xisco and the team. An outsider would no doubt blame on our habit of changing managers, but it does feel to me like more of our fans don’t seem very patient these days (I know there’s always been plenty of impatient fans, but the ratio seems higher).

Also, as you pointed out, Xisco’s substitutions all worked yesterday – a lack of strategy with substitutions being something we have often bemoaned with previous head coaches. So that’s a positive, though the downside is that our initial game plan for several of the matches so far (Brighton, Wolves, Newcastle) has looked a bit off (Villa and Norwich obviously worked, and I thought our approach at Tottenham was sensible, even if we lost).

Lastly, you’re hardly shoving your politics down our throats, more just employing your age old trick of finding well-chosen similes and metaphors, many of which sum up the game much better than any other report manages 🙂

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

Thanks Duncan. No, Daughter 1’s 100% record of missing all the goals and seeing all the blanks still holds. She is recovering from tonsillitis…

On the flat atmosphere, it was the rare (this season) thing of a game where there was perhaps a sense of expectation. No supporters cope well with that being upset.

Duncan H - 26/09/2021

Get well soon Daughter 1!

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

She’s currently improvising ballet steps in the kitchen. I think she’s good.

5. Bill Clarke - 26/09/2021

Thanks for a wonderful summary of the game, Matt. Your assessment of the referee’s performance was spot on. His failure to issue a yellow card to Ritchie for the early foul on Sarr subsequently undermined his decision making, aided and abetted by players “getting in his ear” and taking advantage of his vulnerability. It could have ruined the game (especially if either side had lost) but instead, the end to end excitement provided (often resulting from mistakes all round) is one of the reasons we turn up to watch each week.

Hopefully, the madness at the pumps has abated by next weekend and we will be able to read your report from Leeds. Wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions in the last two sentences of your final paragraph.

Matt Rowson - 26/09/2021

Thanks Bill

6. Richard Steeden - 26/09/2021

Great report but i feel you are being a little generous. Yes Tufan improved us, though I wonder if Clevs would have been subbed off at half time without the injury. The Pedro sub made us even more comically exposed in midfield for the 10 minutes or so before Etebo came on. Ngakia for Kiko obviously forced. And although Etebo did help shore things up a little, we sill contrived to allow Murphy the freedom of half the pitch in the 93rd minute. If anything like that gets repeated against a more competent opponent, its likely to be a horror show. PS keep up the politics!

Matt Rowson - 27/09/2021

Thanks Richard. I’d maintain that all four subs did well, irrespective of whether their introduction was forced. Certainly we were wide open when JP came on but we also scored during that period before Etebo came in to plug the hole. Agree that had Newcastle been able to finish we’d have been murdered but wonder if we’d have been defending as high a line against a potent side.

7. Ray Knight - 27/09/2021

Thanks Matt. Nice report and nothing wrong with being political. You are spot on regarding the referee being out of his depth. Newcastle were time-wasting, slowing the game to little cameos after 10 minutes. At least three of their challenges warranted yellows and they were play-acting at times (Almeron was caught on camera rolling around on the touchline). Bruce had them well-drilled in anti-football that nearly paid off. Thought Foster did well to get a hand on Longstaff’s shot and kept us in game. Not sure Bachmann would have coped. Munoz is right in that we lack consistency. Came away thinking we are doing OK and a draw fair considering their awful finishing. Tufan looks like he could give us the creative spark in the middle. Let’s go again at Leeds and play without fear. COYHs!

8. Simoninoz - 27/09/2021

Quite a bit of media over here in Oz abour Gillett the Aussie ref. It’s a shame he did such a tentative and nervous job. He was our best and did a number of Grand Finals (like a play-off but for the whole A League Championship) including my favourite in May 2017 when my Sydney FC won on penalties. I hope he learns from this and gets other chances at the top and improves his game. Ditto our ‘Orns.


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