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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

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.


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


1. Jeff Lloyd - 31/10/2021

Essential reading for me, not at the game, so thanks as ever.
I think CR has to gamble on one of Tufan or Louza being the answer. Neither will fit in without game time and the opportunities will run out if he doesn’t chance his arm.
As an aside, I think you were being exceptionally generous concerning Pereyra’s defensive contributions!

Matt Rowson - 31/10/2021

😊thanks Jeff. And… perhaps re Pereyra. But I’d still have him… or rather the Pereyra of three years ago, say… alingsude Sissoko ahead of pretty much anyone in the current squad?

2. David - 31/10/2021

I’m nervous to ever question your view Matt but I thought Ngakia was one of the positives. I point the finger of blame for his torrid start on others for not helping out.

I feel that Cathcart, WTE, Pedro, Hernandez, Sema, Massina & Kucka do not get into any other Prem team including Norwich. Clearly it’s early days for Pedro and Hernandez but their task of being able to find a niche is all the harder in a struggling team.

Matt Rowson - 31/10/2021

Ngakia is willing but gets caught flat footed frequently. Likes the game to be in front of him. Don’t share all of your assessments but… that the players on the edge of our team aren’t amongst the best in the division shouldn’t be a surprise? We’re newly promoted and we’re relegated during a pandemic?

James - 31/10/2021

Very much agree with you regarding Ngakia. He was frequently caught 2 or even 3 on one on Saturday. Not much he could do about that.

Don’t really agree with much of your list though. Sema & Kucka are clearly struggling at this level. Perhaps WTE too.
Masina though? I thought he was excellent on Saturday. Looks at least adequate at this level.
Cathcart make a lot of mistakes on Saturday, and he, more than any of our defence, needs the players in front of him to offer a simple out ball; but, that said, he has looked decent at this level before. He has the ability, it just remains to be seen whether he can restore his confidence and/or concentration.

3. David - 01/11/2021

building a team that can stay up with a battered balance sheet has rarely been achieved since football was invented in 1992. Keeping us up will need every inch of CR’s nouse. My interest in watching Norwich, Burnley, Newcastle, Brentford, Leeds and Villa is going to be exciting/stressful/fun/depressing over the next 6 months. Gosh I love football.

Matt Rowson - 01/11/2021


4. Clive Silver - 01/11/2021

Another brilliant read. I have copied part of this and posted on another site … as getting p**** off with the continued concentrating on Cathcart and sheep like scapegoating of him. Totally agree that more of a midfield balance and base would go a long way to making the team more solid.

Matt Rowson - 01/11/2021

Thanks Clive

5. Ben G - 01/11/2021

We played a mid block vs Southampton – a very practical decision. We switched to a high block (press) on exactly 66 minutes. These were the right tactics given our personnel and in response to the way the game went. Yes, we have a number of players not at Premier League standard, so we need to close the back door while still giving ourselves the opportunity to score. The way we set up on Saturday reflected this. The thing that was missing for me, was when you play a mid block, you must defend aggressively. The gaps are already small by definition, so the opposition player in possession must always be challenged, one at a time. We will get this right and it will become ever harder to break us down. We’ve conceded 5,2 then 1 goals in Ranieri’s first 3 game. A shame that resurgent Arsenal is up next, but a clean sheet against them has to be the target.

6. John M - 02/11/2021

Agree about the film. Stunning. I read the book when it was first released (yes, I was very young). The film sticks remarkably well to the book too, apart from the Dr. Kynes gender change. Rather not talk about the football.

7. Ben - 02/11/2021

I think that questions over whether some of our defenders have the quality to keep us in the division are fair and the fact that that club are looking to improve that department in January backs that up. Also, what is the difference between looking for someone to blame and assessing what you see in front of you and identifying a weakness? I criticse the defenders because I’m disappointed by what I see and, whilst I agree that the midfield is another and perhaps more important issue, individual errors by defenders/keepers have led to us conceding goals and losing matches. So it’s both. Ranieri has sensibly taken the heat off the defenders by abandoning playing out from the back, which they were clearly unequipped to carry out but there are quality issues across the back line that have little to do with the midfield from what I’ve seen.

Matt Rowson - 02/11/2021

It’s not a “fact” that we’re looking to improve defenders, it’s a suggestion put forward by Leventhal. In any case, improving any part of the side is a good thing, I’m not pretending that our defence is perfect or beyond redemption. But nothing gets solved until that midfield is sorted.

Jeff Lloyd - 02/11/2021

It would be hard to argue that Sierralta wasn’t our best defender by a country mile last season and his late arrival back after Chile’s summer and subsequent injuries have put a dampener on what could have been a forceful arrival in the Premier League. It’s also not hard to see that any defence is in trouble if the bodies in front of it are not up to standard, as ours clearly aren’t.

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