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Watford 0 Southampton 1 (30/10/2021) 31/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1-  It’s been a good week, all told.  Everton was, you know, fun. Much discussed… lots of goals, first win at Goodison, jumping around, bosh.  The woman behind the till in the Co-Op was one of several to report startlement at their Match of the Day viewing being punctuated by an unscheduled appearance.  Restrained and Dignified in the circumstances, I thought.  She’ll survive.

Then Dune on Tuesday.  Half term and that, at least one cinema trip with Daughters 1 and 2 is traditional.  And it’s tremendous, a landmark piece of cinema.  None of us had read the book, I had only vague memories of Sting and David Lynch.  A big screen masterpiece, all of us watched on in wonderment.  The highlight of any normal week.

Then Thursday.  My better half’s birthday celebration.  The four of us spent the day doing Stuff, culminating in a preview showing of “Pride and Prejudice (sort of)” in the West End.  Being in a theatre again is great in any case, of course… but this was astonishing.  A five-woman cast covering all roles, retelling Jane Austen’s novel at high pace punctuated by Elvis Costello, Pulp and Carly Simon and more visual gags than you could shake a stick at whilst staying faithful to the narrative and the sentiments of the original.  Better half wasn’t keen on occasional dramatic swearing, which was obviously the highlight for Daughters 1 and 2… Mr Darcy’s final verdict on Caroline Bingley had them both in stitches under their seats.  Quite, quite brilliant. Going again.

It occurred to me, driving down the M1 on Saturday morning, that expecting too much from the Saints game might have been greedy.

2- Which is of course just as well.  One-nil defeats like this, miserable affairs in which a mediocre opponents really doesn’t have to do very much to deserve to win, in which spoiling tactics are all the more aggravating for their inevitable effectiveness, in which it rains sulkily and persistently, these are the stuff that relegation is made of.  They practically defined the Dave Bassett season in which we lost ten of 40 League fixtures 1-0…  these included both games against the Saints although the home game, archetypal of the genre as I remember it, came on Steve Harrison’s watch and was otherwise significant only as Trevor Senior’s last lumbering outing in yellow. As an aside, it’s oft said that you have to endure the bad days to enjoy the good ones.  I’ve said as much to at least two Man United fans this week.  Evidence of the truth of this here, since however unsatisfactory this afternoon was we’ve had far, far worse seasons.  I’m feeling better already…

One change to the Everton line-up saw João Pedro in for his first start for Tufan, with Rose returning to the bench in place of the suspended Emmanuel Dennis.  It was an attacking selection, and getting the Brazilian properly involved ought to be a priority so no complaints on that score.

It didn’t work though.  We’ve looked wobbly at best against any sort of pressing thus far, and the visitors were on top of us straight away. For all of the good press that right back Livramento has been getting the visitors were focusing their attack down their left, with the out-of-position Kyle Walker-Peters giving Ngakia a miserable time.  Twice in the first few minutes the Saints profited down that side… first Craig Cathcart turned a cross towards Ben Foster with a firmness that gave any of us who were here last time Saints visited in front of fans palpitations.  Then another move down the left saw Adam Armstrong curl a shot over.

The game didn’t quite proceed in this vein… the visitors were the stronger side without ever threatening to overwhelm us.  But it was no surprise when Che Adams scored a brilliant opener midway through the half, reminiscent of João Pedro’s similarly decisive strike at Derby last season…  allowing the ball to stop dead and then turning sharply around it to curl over the helpless Foster into the top corner.

3- Popular wisdom has it that our defence simply isn’t very good, not up to the task.  I’d dispute that.  Our defending is certainly inadequate, we’ll  benefit from the returning options at centre-back as and when.  But the defence itself, the unit, conceded 31 goals in 46 League games last season (albeit against a different standard of opposition) and whilst we’re still awaiting a clean sheet both here and at Leeds the defenders stood up well to what was asked of them.  Craig Cathcart had his best game of the season, Adam Masina was decent and for all their dominance, particularly in the first half, Southampton only managed the one shot on target.  In part this was down to their own profligacy;  Che Adams found a creative way to avoid adding to the scoreline, heading into the ground and over from not very far at all (though the pace and approach of the cross meant he’d done well to get to it, in fairness).  But otherwise it was blocks and bodies on the line, general getting in the way which restricted the nature of their chances on all but one critical occasion.

So I’d argue that our defenders are adequate at worst.  The problem, as intimated last week, is the midfield which can’t be relied upon to protect the defence by shielding it or by mustering enough threat at the other end.  Looking back two years to our relegated squad… we were spoiled with Doucouré and Capoue, both of whom startlingly successful since their departures.  Last season Will Hughes was absolutely critical; agonising that he’s yet to see the light of day for Palace while there remains a big Hughes-shaped hole in our midfield.  Even the ostensibly back-up options feel like big losses…  Nathaniel Chalobah, for all his frustrating inconsistency, could turn defence into attack in a manner that we’re missing now and Roberto Pereyra, despite that he was primarily an attacking player, could dig in in midfield in extremis.

Admittedly it took a while to build that midfield, a midfield that I’d maintain was unlucky to be relegated.  But we’re way off that now.  Only Sissoko looks like he could form part of a functioning machine…  Louza, Tufan have something about them but are missing physicality and application respectively before they can feature regularly.  Even Kucka, for all his endearing charging around and chest-beating, feels like an adornment to a successful midfield rather than a cog in it.  Certainly a forward line, for all King’s cohesion and Sarr’s devastating speed, that’s essentially full of baubles and fireworks needs a very solid base to build from, a foundation that will allow all of them to flourish.  We don’t have that, and that’s Claudio’s biggest single challenge, probably his most decisive challenge.

To the head coach’s credit though, he’s playing his existing hand pretty well.  Certainly there was evidence of conscious forethought in our biggest threat of the half, such as it was, with Ben Foster launching deliberate, precise, low trajectory missiles into the escaping paths of first King and then Sarr.  The second of these was worth a round of applause for ingenuity all of its own, with the players fooling Saints by lining up for a drop-kick to the left flank before Foster delivered to the right where Sarr, the quickest player on the pitch, knew to expect it and was haring into space accordingly.  The first was more productive though… King roared onto the path of a ball down the left and squared for Sarr to finish well from a difficult angle, an excellent goal line clearance denying us by millimetres.  The whole of the ball has to cross the whole of the line and so forth, goal-line technology deprives of us of any misplaced sense of outrage, but it wasn’t far away.  A crumb of comfort from a pretty desperate half.

4- That 1-1 draw with Saints two and a half years ago, the Shane Long game just a fortnight after the Wolves semi, was characterised by the absence of a player rather than the presence of one.  Troy had been sent off against Arsenal a week earlier and was suspended;  Southampton scored early and pressed aggressively; our get-out-of-jail long ball option to Troy wasn’t there.  We kept playing it anyway as a sort of forlorn tribute, but we missed our out-ball.

Here, Isma was the out-ball.  The get-out-of-jail card.  Thing is, everyone knew it – not least Southampton.  Twice when picking up a head of steam he was taken out by “for the team” challenges by first Salisu then Ward-Prowse (who with Romeu had been bossing the midfield).  Both were booked in response, but if their decisions represented a conscious train of thought that reflected that these threats weren’t going to crop up terribly often they were well-judged.

Sarr was at least persistent and remained our likeliest threat in the second half.  The frustration came when, on the occasions that he was given an opportunity one-on-one of which there were several, he either got an inch on his man but sent a cross into the arms of McCarthy or hesitated to push the ball and run when big spaces yawned in front of him.  The flaw isn’t just his by any stretch – Saints were perfectly capable of standing up to a collective threat which amounted to “go on then Isma, do something” – but he looked sullen and withdrawn and his lack of progress attracted some criticism from the less patient in the stands.

The other threat came from another sound-looking strategic decision from Ranieri, that of withdrawing two of our damp sparklers in Cucho and João Pedro – whose 45 minutes had concluded with the booking that had been on the cards, so to speak, since kick off – in favour of a bit of welly in Clevs and Ken Sema.  This greater physicality started to claw us some openings – not much, but better than nothing.  Juraj Kucka clouted an early shot over, and later drilled low and deliberately towards the bottom corner from a similar position on the right outside the box.  It would have taken a deflection or a mistake from the keeper but neither was inconceivable in increasingly challenging conditions with the rain now teeming down.

Later in the game Ashley Fletcher was brought on for Ngakia in another bold move, and one which sowed a degree of chaos in a Saints defence who now had a very different problem to address, an agent of chaos.  Masina swung a cross narrowly in front of King’s forehead and then Sissoko, sort of stepping in for Ngakia-ish, reminded everyone that he used to be a winger by rampaging down the right, slipping the ball inside to King who ushered it on towards Fletcher.  Fletcher turned neatly and fired at goal but McCarthy was equal to it making the only fine save by either keeper of the afternoon.

The visitors countered the threat of Fletcher by bringing on an ogre that was officially the Brazilian Lyanco with whom we were linked over the summer but could easily have been AFC Rushden and Diamonds stalwart Liam Dolman, a colossal individual even by non-League standards.  Had the game been allowed to proceed for another ten minutes we might have nicked something – for the first time in the game this looked like a possibility.  We wouldn’t have deserved the point but Saints would have merited little sympathy for spurning two, least of all the jelly-ankled Livramento.  It didn’t happen.

5- Defeats like this are necessary but not sufficient conditions for relegation. We’re not done yet, for all the afternoon’s unhelpful results elsewhere.  The reality is that nothing much has changed.  We know we have a challenge on.  We know that the midfield isn’t right, we know that we’re not clever enough to respond to a high press and that we’re going to struggle if we have little opportunity to counter-attack.  None of this is new.  But none of this is finished either, and we need to take care not to talk ourselves downwards after every setback.  A bit of bloody-mindedness is required here, as goings on elsewhere demonstrate it’s far too easy to propagate a narrative, bullshit or otherwise, when people are fed up and looking for someone to blame.

Meanwhile, the second half had been preceded by a farewell to Emma Saunders, who moves on to Sky Sports.  Two things to note here… first, it’s entirely appropriate that the wider Watford family are recognised in this way.  Players and prominent coaching staff will sometimes get this stuff, ex-players too including the ever more rock’n’roll Ross Jenkins, also wheeled out here.  But “the likes of Emma” (and those less visible still) deserve their recognition;  those that find this a bit parochial can go screw themselves.

But Emma in particular, along with Tommy Mooney, Jon Marks and everyone else involved, deserve one final round of applause for providing something to look forward to last season.  Doubtless her star will continue to rise, but she deserves to be remembered fondly for her part in that whatever else she goes on to achieve.

As for the team… there’s obviously stuff to be done, but we have a club to be proud of and one that deserves our support.  The team will need it over the next run of games.

Pride and Prejudice both required.  Sort of.

See you at Arsenal.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 2, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, *Sissoko 3*, Kucka 3, João Pedro 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Hernández 2
Subs: Sema (for Hernández, 45) 2, Cleverley (for João Pedro, 45) 3, Fletcher (for Ngakia, 82) NA, Rose, Louza, Gosling, Tufan, Bachmann

Everton 2 Watford 5 (23/10/2021) 24/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
36 comments

1- Sometimes you wake up and the world feels different.

I love this time of year anyway.  You can step outside in the morning and the air is surprisingly cold without being cold.  You feel alive.  But the more so on this particular morning, there’s an unnatural silence as we leave the house, a stillness.  Like we’ve stepped out in between days and everything else is frozen.

Daughter 1 was deterred by the prospect of a 9am start – which, given how her previously documented choices have gone this season should have been encouragement in itself.  But Daughter 2, isn’t letting me get past “do you fancy going to…” at the moment and is briskly purposeful as we set off.  She’s not missed an away trip yet and this is a significant milestone – at twelve years and three months, her one hundredth game.

9am because as any seasoned veteran knows, the M6 is not to be trusted.  Today is relatively benign, the hold-ups frequent but tame.  We float through them all in a eerily serene bubble.  This will not be a normal day.

This will be the day that we cash in all of our Goodison chips.  This is for Chris Powell, and the ultimately decisive penalty given against him for having the ball smashed into his face in 2005.  This is for Lucas Digne’s 96th-minute free kick three years ago.  For Alice breaking down on the M6, for me taking out the side of the Qashqai in a hurried attempt to park in 2015.  For Felix’s puncture in 2000, the insane jacking up on the side of the motorway before rushing to Goodison to see us get effortlessly dicked.  Again.  For Gomes’ injury and Cleverley’s missed penalty.  For Steve Terry in 1983, one of six defeats in six visits in our first top flight spell.

You wouldn’t have chosen to cash in all those chips at once.  But given that we were to go whole hog, it would have been rude not to enjoy it.

2- Any instinct to rub the outcome of the afternoon into the noses of the watching (or reading) Toffees is severely tempered by a thoroughly agreeable pre-match pint of Guinness at the Abbey on the edge of Stanley Park.  Pubs very close to away grounds are best avoided as a general rule, but this place comes recommended by Tony who drops in for a swift pint and for comparison of pre-match notes before we head to opposite “ends”.  The Abbey and its patrons are good natured and likeable, despite the very obvious threat posed by my brother’s young herberts as they march in in full colours.  One local apologises earnestly for unwittingly stepping ahead of me at the bar, another offers to dance as we try to negotiate passage down a narrow corridor.  Tony assures Daughter 2 that her latest discovery and new obsession, the Chicken Balti pie, is on the menu at the ground.  He’s wrong, as it turns out… they’re down to Steak and Ale or Scouse as the noisy concourse rattles through a back catalogue championing Almen Abdi and Fernando Forestieri amongst others.  In the context of the afternoon Daughter 2 agrees to let him off.

Which isn’t to suggest that the afternoon passed without mishap or mis-step.  Far from it.  Three minutes in and our early punchiness was undermined by a bold but criminally under-bootered Everton attack down the Watford right.  The sprightly Anthony Gordon was at the centre of this…  our viewpoint is low-ish and looking down the goalline as Demarai Gray made the most of a fortunate bounce in front of us to get past William Troost-Ekong and square for Tom Davies to shovel home despite Masina, Cathcart and Foster being in the vicinity.  All much, much too easy.

That air of serenity descended again.  The back of my neck felt suddenly cold as the development sunk home, the futility of another trip to Goodison, memories of last week’s misfortunes which I’d followed on a phone screen extrapolated to what seemed to be beginning in front of us, the prospect of Daughter 2 finally deciding that this is all a bit of a pain in the backside.  “It’s going to be a long season” said the bloke behind me;  I was more focused on a long afternoon, reflecting that the forlorn possibility of a positive outcome could have lasted a little longer.

The only thing that could realistically have made the situation more miserable was the Doughnut Chorus chirping up from their infiltrated positions above and behind us.  Gleefully leaping at the possibility of gallows humour, “How sh*t must you be, it’s only one-nil” descending into songs about Gylfi Sigurdsson and, if in admittedly tamer numbers, telling Ben Foster where to stick his go-Pro.  That’ll be Ben Foster who, still Watford’s top keeper or otherwise, ill-judged sharer of tickets or otherwise, has been part of some of our best days over 16 years, 200-odd games, ex-Player of the Season.  We’ve not reached the tenth minute yet. Pitiful.

3- So the next development was hugely significant both in its timing and outcome.  I was reminded of that VAR decision at Wembley in 2019 , the VAR decision upon which the outcome of the semi-final against Wolves seemed to hang.  The last minute penalty is denied and surely the gig is up… but it was given, Troy was never missing that penalty, the inevitability of ultimate victory was sown in that moment.

The VAR delay to the confirmation of Josh King’s equaliser after he gobbled up a knock-down from a right wing cross wasn’t perhaps quite as decisive, but it felt pivotal.  We went through the charade of celebrating, then being derided by the home stands for celebrating, then the home stands simmering down as the ongoing precariousness of the situation became apparent.  Then the verdict,,, the veracity of which, the likely outcome of which, we had no basis to judge beyond increasing confidence in a favourable outcome as it dragged on.  The direction of travel of the game, for all that we’d reacted positively to going behind, was dramatically arrested, the negative sentiment in the away end quelled (although the Sigurdsson chants would resurface, inexplicably, in the closing celebrations).  Game on.

It was 1-1 for quite a long time, on reflection; the crazy denouement would distort any subsequent recollection of time and space.  The remainder of the first half was one of those periods with mood phases, like a piece of classical music.  I’m guessing.  Buoyed by the equaliser, we continued to play on the front foot and here’s the biggest contrast from last week.  We could easily have lost this game, in many other universes we do lose this game, but the aggressive, pushy, bolshy in-your-faceness of our defiance was a world away not just from the Liverpool performance but from those that immediately preceded it.  There’s been much criticism of our defending, but the midfield has been the bigger issue for me, the bit that we’ve spent so much time trying to get right since promotion in 2015, the bit that’s helped us look so convincing once it’s been sorted.  A midfield that can be relied upon to either protect the defence or fuel a threat in the other direction takes the pressure off of that defence;  too often ours has been doing neither.

But here we’re getting a boot in and had we lost this game 2-1, say, then this would have been the very large consolation to take from the performance.  We look like a team.  We’re fighting for each other, we’re moving the ball around.  It’s not perfect, it’s not finished, and it’s not entirely consistent – Ozan Tufan occasionally needs encouragement to track back – but there’s a plan.  Sissoko punched in a low shot that flew wide but might have felled the goalpost had it connected. Cucho cut in from the left and slung a ball in with his right foot;  it’s deflected but not kindly enough for the onrushing red shirts.  

Everton reasserted themselves.  This is a flimsy and understrength Toffees side… two goalkeepers on an eight-man bench, a manifestly unfit Allan trundling around in midfield in the absence of Doucs, Rondón toiling on like an ageing seventies rocker churning out the old hits to keep himself in beer money.  We’re not Brazil 1970 ourselves though, and in passing should probably acknowledge the contribution of referee Graham Scott.  Having oft cursed Peter Walton for his appalling misjudgement here that got Aidy Boothroyd’s Prem season off to the worst of starts it’s only fair to acknowledge the hard line which Scott took with Everton’s increasingly desperate attempts to win themselves a penalty.  Anthony Gordon was the first, a foolish challenge in the box gave him a leg to throw himself over and this he did but Scott, mercifully, told him to get up and stop being so silly.  In the second half Allan would be booked for similar optimism at the far end; an increasingly sassy Daughter 2 meeting this with the derision it deserved – “I could see that was a dive from here”.  This ranks just below “Why is there an Everton player playing for England?” and “Why isn’t he (Gordon) doing his GCSEs?” as her most acidic of the afternoon.

So Everton finished the half on top, but the character of the reaction to going behind and the vastly more credible performance earned the Watford team and staff a suitably persistent ovation as they paraded off into the corner in front of us at the break.

4- The hat-trick and the backdrop to it gets the plaudits of course, but there was far more to like about Joshua King’s performance than these details, a five star showing even without the goals.  The start to his Watford career has been in fits and bursts;  this was only his third full ninety minutes, niggles and fitness have interrupted his progress.  Nonetheless, we’ve looked far more credible as an attacking unit with him in the side, the glue that holds it all together.  

At Goodison Park, whether fuelled by indignation at his treatment here last season or otherwise, all those encouraging signs came together in a magnificent centre-forward’s performance.  He battled for the ball, He held it up, he held people off.  He orchestrated our attacking play. He brought players into the game.  Oh yes, and he scored a hat-trick.

He could have scored more.  Early in the second half Sarr wriggled away down the right and sent a low, firm ball into the centre; King attacked it well but shouldn’t have given the unwitting Pickford, who benefitted from the speed of his reactions but didn’t know much about the save, a chance.

Instead it was the home side that took the lead, following the first of a number of significant substitutions.  Transparently Benítez is on a hiding to nothing at Goodison.  His successes will be celebrated, but he has a very steep and possibly endless hill to climb before he can get away with anythingThe simmering anxiety at his charges’ failure to roll us over culminated in booing at his replacement of livewire Gordon with the returning Richarlíson;  Rondón would have been a more popular exit.  From our point of view Gordon’s early vim had faded, and Benítez does like to retain a big man up top – Digne, Townsend and Gray loading bullets from the flanks provides at least a theoretical threat.  In any case, it was a significant change in tone from the very flat atmosphere that Tony had warned us of pre-game.  

And of course Richarlíson scored three minutes later as his movement surprised Cathcart and he met Keane’s fine cross to leave Foster stranded and helpless.  Tempting to mock the hypocrisy of the Everton celebrations, were it not for the Doughnut Chorus’s own comparable volt-face earlier on.  Every support has its idiots.

5- There was an inevitability about Richarlíson doing us again from a Watford perspective, but this never felt like the death-knell that Davies’ opener had.  The tone of the game, the fragility of both sides, was long evident.  This wasn’t over until it was over, and it wasn’t yet.

The next substitutions were equally striking, however.  João Pedro is indisputably a force for good, and knowing quite where and how to use him the only issue.  Expectation was that either a tiring King or a willing but volatile and erratic Cucho would be pulled.  Instead, Sarr was removed along with Tufan, with Emmanuel Dennis moving into the attack and the Brazilian at the apex of the midfield.   Risky stuff – Ranieri wouldn’t have gotten credit for his bravery had it backfired.

It didn’t, though the breakthrough wasn’t immediate.  You’ll have seen the stats by now, so no need to emphasise them….  but the corner that provided the pebble that set off the avalanche didn’t arrive until the 78th minute.  Our vantage point – as previously, low and looking down the goalline – afforded us a perfect view… Cucho’s bomb of a corner swung over the masses at near post and dropped for Juraj Kucka.  The Slovak had had one of his more assertive, irresistible days – in my mind’s eye he rises in front of us with the sun behind him, leaping impossibly, hovering high and craning every neck muscle to power a header past Pickford.  A bit like the Pele scissor-kick in Escape to Victory, a theatrical moment.  Match of the Day suggests it was a bit more prosaic than that but a fine header nonetheless and the point at which the destination of the game was definitively determined.  Kucka thundered towards us with a delirious, fist-clenched roar and the rest of the team followed. 

This was to be a recurring theme.  Emmanuel Dennis, fitfully effective in recent weeks, enjoyed a brutal cameo; two minutes later he combined with João Pedro down the right and fed King, alone in the centre.  A gorgeous left foot touch set up a right foot shot, giving us the lead for the first time.  In the away end the response was restrained, dignified and contemplative.

everton

In reflecting upon what followed, it’s tempting – natural even – to focus on Everton’s defensive collapse which was both striking and comprehensive.  Nonetheless.  As noted previously, “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  We were pretty terrible last week.  But we were playing an exceptional side, who played a significant role in us looking terrible.  Comparable themes here.  Everton fell apart; obsessed with the outcome that was generally anticipated they overcommitted forwards in panic and seemed incapable of defending…  but only in the face of a counter-attack executed with merciless precision.  I was later reminded of the 3-0 win at Newcastle four years ago – few more accommodating challenges for a side in need of a win than a trip to a blunt opponent burdened by the pressure of expectation of an easy victory.  

Dennis’ sharp turn and shot forced a fine save from Pickford low to his left.  Minutes later Cucho’s surge down the left concluded in a clumsy lay-off that Everton proved comically incapable of dealing with.  The ball broke to Dennis who fed King, criminally onside and growing in composure with every goal, like progressing to higher levels on a computer game.  An icily controlled touch wrong-footed Pickford and sealed the hat-trick.  In the dying minutes of a dizzy denouement Emmanuel Dennis added to his two assists by rounding off the scoring in a touching tribute to his compatriot Odion Ighalo, reprising Iggy’s goal here in 2015 with Seamus Coleman in John Stones’ “hapless sliding idiot” role.  

6- It was a glorious drive home, punctuated with more service station stops than strictly necessary and exchanges with the plentiful shirts of other clubs travelling up and down the country.  Dave left Sandbach in a state of some disquiet, civil – even friendly – exchanges with not one but two Wolves fans confirming that football was broken, there was something very weird about the whole day.  We got in at 10pm, Daughter 2 declaring herself more than satisfied with her 100th game.

We weren’t a lost cause after Liverpool a week ago.  We’re not world beaters, or even a solid mid-table side, after this one.  But we have proven ourselves capable of smashing down the doors of a a so-so team on a bad day.  That might be enough.  It’ll certainly do for now. 

But today wasn’t about the wider context.  Today, for all its scruffy imperfections, was a gem in it’s own right.  A day on, I’m still grinning my stupid face off.

“And one day we will win here.  We’ll cash in the debt of luck we’re owed at this ground (a very small extension of Everton’s credit here today courtesy of that deflection) and we’ll absolutely dick them.  And we’ll be there to see it.”

BHaPPY report, Everton 1 Watford 0, August 2019

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Tufan 3, Sarr 3, Hernández 3, *King 5*
Subs: Dennis (for Sarr, 64) 5, João Pedro (for Tufan, 64) 4, Nkoulou (for Ngakia, 76) NA, Sema, Cleverley, Fletcher, Gosling, Louza, Bachmann

Leeds United 1 Watford 0 (02/10/2021) 03/10/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I studied in Leeds for three years.

It was a great place to learn and to live and I made a lot of friends there.  These include the guy who I sit next to at Vicarage Road who I first ran into in the Old Bar while he was making the questionable fashion choice of wearing the old chessboard Bukta away kit in public, and another friend who I met on an early Otley Run (before new pubs expanded the traditional pub crawl from Headingley to life-threatening dimensions) – she was on a three-legged crawl, roped to a friend in yellow, red and black scarves.

You live an odd life as a student, resident in the city but not really part of it a lot of the time, in your own little bubble.  Nor was there any great affinity with United for all that I could see Elland Road’s huge main stand below me in the far distance from my attic room in Headingley (no double glazing, no central heating, coldest room in the world).  Nethermoor Guiseley, Leeds Road Huddersfield and Oakwell were all ticked off before we headed to United’s ground out of a sense of obligation in our final year.

But for all of Leeds’ hard edges, for all that the wind has a brutal relentlessness about it for much of the year, it’s a fine city home to many warm people.  These include Will, with whom we stay on Friday night, passing my old street en route (“I used to…”, “YES DAD, WE KNOW!”) as well as a more recent addition, Jon Moss’ “The Vinyl Whistle” record store on Otley Road.  

This warmth is reflected in the chatter overheard both before and after the game on the route between the ground and our lofty parking spot in Beeston.  Families, or groups of mates, or an older Dad and adult son chewing the fat.  Reflecting on the prospects, on injury lists, on what transpired and how much it means.  It’s all civil, likeable, normal.

It’s not remotely reflected by the populace of the Norman Hunter stand behind the goal to the right of the away “end”, tucked away as we are as an afterthought in the upper tier of the adjoining stand in seats that cramp anyone above 5’10”.  Plenty of clubs retain “an element”, heaven knows some of our lot have their moments, but very few if any others have this bizarre menagerie of gormless, banal aggression, as much an anachronism as the “Champions of Europe” chant that gets an occasional airing between the droning repeats of “Marching on Together” (“you’ve DONE that one!”).  Daughters 1 and 2, veterans by now of countless away trips, watch on with mild curiosity.  Will’s kids, younger primary school age with faces covered in Nutella pre-match thanks to wise application of the “you can’t bring on too many snacks” rule, stare on in slightly anxious wonderment, as they would at a furious wasp stuck under an overturned pint glass.

2- Yes, I’m trying to avoid discussing the football.

Any kit lives or dies in the annals of history by virtue of the things achieved in it.  Any third kit (and I’m not really convinced there’s any moral argument in favour of third kits really, aesthetically pleasing green and gold numbers or otherwise) is going to have relatively few chances to stake its case (less still, you’d have hoped, with a primarily yellow and therefore non-clashing first kit).  On the basis of which, this one’s going to need to go some in whatever opportunities it gets in the future.

Because this was pretty dreadful all told.  For all that there were nods of approval in the extensive queues for sustenance as the team news broke pre-match, Sierralta making a welcome return and Tufan’s first League start the most sensible looking solution to our midfield challenges, we never looked remotely equipped to cope with Leeds’ aggressive press, tamer versions of which we’ve struggled with already this season at Brighton and last week most obviously.

Danny Rose continued his steady upward trajectory with an early, encouraging show of defiance, dumping Raphinha on his backside in front of the visiting fans’ corner but, as advertised, the white wave kept coming.  Defensively, for the most part, we looked okay…  bodies were put on the line, last ditches were barricaded, but we were doing the jobs we needed to do.  Sierralta extended a long leg precisely to scoop a left wing cross away from the waiting Rodrigo.  Rose continued to face down all comers.  Foster was brave and decisive in coming for things.  

The problem was further forward with a midfield that has rarely looked right this season.  Peter Etebo’s injury is expensive and unfortunate, but we’ve looked at best wonkily making do before the Nigerian’s absence and on this occasion were neither obstructive enough interrupt Leeds’ progress nor deft enough to capitalise upon the gaping holes they left behind them.

And the problem with that set-up is that if you can’t stem the flow then at some point you’re going to get a misjudgement or a mistake or an unlucky bounce that no amount of resolute defending or ponderous finishing is going to save you from.  In the 18th minute we got two of those in the same exchange as Foster came out for a cross that swung away from him, Kucka misjudged his header in a manner eerily reminiscent of Sierralta’s error against Wolves and Llorente was more alert than either in turning the ball home.  Elland Road errupted, the chorus of grunting from behind the goal was deafening.

3- The goal was rapidly followed by a noisy penalty call as James went down in the box.  Here, as with a call at the other end that infuriated Josh King (though it might have been outside the box anyway) and with our “equaliser” in the second half VAR appeared to be scantly employed by referee Simon Hooper.  It’s possible of course that a season’s practice has simply made the checking process much more seamless, less obvious than the long standing around deliberating.  In any event, if making quicker less disruptive decisions comes with a greater proportion of “mistakes” I’m all for it.  You therefore have to take the rough with the smooth – not very fair to complain that VAR slows everything down and object when things go against you once the technology’s on a less forgiving leash.  Give me good old-fashioned refereeing incompetence over dawdling over replays any day of the week.

Meanwhile as Leeds continued to dominate without adding to the scoreline, our attempts to clamber back into the game were pretty feeble.  Will, over my shoulder, suggested after half an hour that we should probably bring Tufan on; at this point the Turkish midfielder broke the surface and swung a majestic pass wide to Sarr.  Minutes later he was the beneficiary of some slack defending, charged into the box and fired excitedly over the bar.  This was much more the idea, in as much as there was one, but for the most part Tufan was woefully ineffectual.

So too Ismaïla Sarr, who as against Newcastle struggled to have any impact on the game despite wandering away from the right on occasions and even swapping wings briefly in the second half.  Joshua King was toiling away manfully, his value most evident after his departure with injury on half time when our attacks lost any semblance of cohesion in the second half.  Sema replaced King with Dennis moving to the centre, but the Nigerian is an irritant rather than a line leader.  If Sema had any pace at all he’d be a top player;  as it was he put in a sturdy and workmanlike shift on the left, where alongside the relentless Rose he was our biggest threat in the second half.

4- Earlier in the day a high energy training session had taken place elsewhere in the city.  Head coach-cum-herder of cats Will instigated an imaginative exercise that involved the twenty-odd six-to-eight year olds divided into three teams in coned corners of an astroturfed pitch.  The exercise began with an ostensibly similar number of balls clustered in the centre circle;  on the maestro’s whistle the three teams of “pirates” charged, shouting in piratey voces, the winning team being the one that salvaged the largest number of balls into their corner via legitimate footballing means.  By the head coach’s own admission the tactical value of the exercise was questionable, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.

There are parallels to be drawn with the home side’s approach which, in the absence of any cutting edge at all and for all that they were by some distance the better side and worthy winners, didn’t amount to much more than running around and shouting.  For all the triumphalism that interrupted the posturing of the trolls in the stand to our right (not to mention that barracking of local boy Rose as stewards, presumably used to this, yawned and waited for it all to stop) Leeds didn’t have an awful lot to show for their dominance.  Only when Sierralta cleared off the line and Roberts followed up with an acrobatic shot against the bar was the scoreline threatened; the other two shots on target yielded routine saves.  This was the tone of the reflection in the chat around us as we clambered back up to Beeston after the game.  Leeds will be fine, you suspect, but not so fine that there aren’t issues to be addressed, or that couldn’t leave them in trouble if the wrong players – not least the prominent Raphinha – pick up injuries.

They nearly got the come-uppance that our play hadn’t remotely deserved.  For much of the second half as we’d floundered around not looking as if we knew quite what we were supposed to be doing we looked sullen and listless but, perhaps fuelled by Leeds’ nervous awareness of the scoreline and propelled by a suddenly furiously driven Juraj Kucka, we applied something resembling pressure late on.  From a corner – the build up to which had seen a full bottle hurled at Danny Rose from, well, you know – there was, from our angle, an almighty scramble which resulted in the ball trickling apologetically into the net.

The celebration was brief, curtailed by a very quick whistle.  Highlights review suggest that it’s a harsh call, Kabasele’s tangle with Cooper was fifty-fifty at worst and plausibly a straight foul by the Leeds skipper.  We didn’t get the call.  We hadn’t remotely deserved the call of course, but it would have been very funny.  As it was the most distraught person in the stadium was daughter 1, whose unfortunate record is maintained – she’s still watched every minute of every game in which we’ve failed to score, but none of the games in which we’ve (definitively, permanently) found the net.  She won’t be at Liverpool – indeed, none of us will – and I’m sure you’ll agree that such superstition carries far more weight than the knowledge that we’re facing a team who are quite good at the pressing that we seem so unable to cope with and have a bit of a cutting edge also.

5- We’re not the only ones who won’t be at the Liverpool game, of course, the not entirely unexpected news that Xisco has been made to walk the plank breaking somewhere during the composition of thunk 2. This has at least meant that I had to spend even less time discussing a match which now descends into history as part of the life experience of all the youngsters in the away end and nothing more.

“Not entirely unexpected” because this is what we do.  What our ownership does.  Not so much overreact to a few bad results as appoint someone to do a job and replace them with someone else when you need a different job doing.  The argument has been made – including by my co-editor – that this being the case perhaps the change should have been made in the summer, as bold and startling as the same decision six years earlier.  Personally, I think there was enough about our persistent defensive resilience last season to suggest that Xisco was worth a spin, that his tactical capabilities might be up to what turned out to be his key task – that of reshaping our midfield.

He wasn’t up to it.  Someone else gets that job, we might know their name by the time you’re reading this.  Never dull, is it?  Meanwhile, I’ve not dived into the general response to the announcement but can guess the tone of much of it.  I would further suspect that there’s precious little acknowledgement of the fact that six years of the last seven in the top flight is almost unprecedented, and would certainly be something that a load of traditionally much more established clubs (including Leeds not so long ago) would have jumped at.  It’s not like it isn’t working, for all that the wisdom of the approach and the wisdom of specific appointments aren’t quite the same thing.

This will be a less boring international break than many.  Hang in there in the meantime, “what other people think” is of course very low on any reasonable list of priorities, or things that are interesting.

See you at Goodison.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 2, Sierralta 3, Sissoko 2, Kucka 3, Tufan 1, Sarr 1, Dennis 2, King 3
Subs: Sema (for King, 45) 3, João Pedro (for Tufan, 59) 2, Kabasele (for Sierralta, 68) 3, Masina, Cleverley, Ngakia, Gosling, Hernández, Bachmann