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Leicester City 4 Watford 2 (28/11/2021) 29/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “I can’t feel my feet!”

Daughter 2 is a stalwart.  She’s yet to miss an away trip this season and hasn’t been put off by the snap in the weather.  Long before half time however, and despite a fortifying balti pie and cup of hot chocolate from one of the many well staffed windows that make such a difference and reliably render Leicester an enjoyable trip, she’s acknowledging that we’ve miscalled this one.

Getting on for two years since we were in the position of needing to think about such things we’ve lost our edge.  Lost the wisdom of experience that facilitates preparation for cold conditions (whether this includes a blizzard or otherwise).  “There’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s only the wrong clothes“… and today we’ve recklessly left our woolly hats in the car (Daughter 2 doubles down by rejecting her scarf also) let alone adopting such precautions as extra layers.  

And if this much isn’t already obvious, it’s f***ing freezing.  Amateurs the pair of us.  Schoolboy/girl errors all over the place.  At least Daughter 2 has the excuse of, you know, being a schoolgirl but to her credit remains suitably sheepish and relatively stoic throughout.

2- Which is a Good Thing, because despite (and to an extent because of) the weather and the various calamities that will influence the outcome of proceedings on the pitch to our detriment this is tremendous afternoon’s entertainment, a wonderfully stupid game of football.  Pre-match note sharing reaches the consensus that all of our trips here in the Premier League have been the same…  relatively routine, unremarkable wins for the home side in which Jamie Vardy scores a penalty and probably does something kind of annoying.  To all intents and purposes the same game five times.  Not this one.  Hell no.

Despite the inevitability of the focus of the fallout of last weekend’s result being on United’s travails rather than our own performance, I think we all sought reassurance that there was more to that win than just the visitors’ incompetence.  We got that in spades despite the outcome.   Any team will miss Sarr, out today with the knee injury sustained last weekend, but Cucho deputised well…  a different sort of threat, but still a threat.  And the pressing was still there…  hassling, harrying, none of the soporific, bluntness that had characterised our less effective performances.  Until Leicester opened the scoring we were the better side, forcing the issue at Leicester’s end of the pitch with Moussa Sissoko, imperious again, aggressively supporting our frequent progress down the left.

Until Leicester scored.  With the loss of Foster on top of the anticipated loss of Nkoulou it always felt possible that we’d get undone defensively; opinions differ about the relative merits of the two goalkeepers, but two cornerstones of that defensive display against United being unavailable (and arguably, with Sierralta, our two best centre backs) felt precarious.  

So it proved.  We’d already had a warning as Masina allowed Ademola Lookman too much space down the right; he teed up Vardy who shot from a narrow angle, comfortable for Bachmann.  There was no legislating for the opener though.  A ball over the top should have been comfortable for Troost-Ekong; Maddison had darted in behind him and since the Nigerian clearly consciously decided to duck one assumes shithousery on the part of the Leicester midfielder.  We can hardly complain, we have a similar incident in our own back-catalogue (albeit a month before Emmanuel Dennis was born.  Sigh.).  The away end shared a collective “oh for f***’s sake” as Maddison spun the ball past the helpless Bachmann and the home stands woke up.

3- Fortunately the team on the pitch were more resilient.   Our response to this setback, and to the start of the second half, and the fact that we were still pushing at the end of the game are big positives.  If, from the point at which Maddison scored, it rarely felt that we were quite on the edge of turning Leicester over it was never quite out of reach either.  Compare and contrast with any number of our preceding defeats when a goal might not have arrived if offered infinite hours, a written invitation and an armed escort.

Adam Masina got onto the end of a Tom Cleverley free kick but headed wide.  That looked a bad miss, albeit from the far end of the pitch in circumstances which made picking out detail, or anything much at all, difficult as we’ll get to.  Meanwhile you can rely on Cucho for a few things…  boundless enthusiasm, iffy decision making, and the possibility of a scurrying run and a pearler into the top corner.  We got all three this afternoon, the latter remaining mere possibility as his shot took an impossibly long time to rebound off the woodwork.

But the equaliser came, and it came from the spot.  No great surprise that Emmanuel Dennis was involved, his sharp movement in the box fooling his compatriot Wilfred Ndidi who swiped his legs from under him.  Kasper Schmeichel was on Harry Maguire duty, slowing down the taking of the kick but Joshua King’s Bournemouth exposure has perhaps left him used to such shithousery.  We see you, Eddie.  The spot kick was firmly hit beyond the keeper’s dive.

4- Had we hung onto that for a bit perhaps things would have been different.  Certainly it always felt as if there was the possibility of joy as we attacked and building up a head of steam at 1-1 having come from behind would have been interesting.

Unfortunately we never got the opportunity, since our own defensive play offered the downright certainty of misery as Maddison and Vardy, given every encouragement, clicked into gear.  Four minutes beyond the penalty Maddison clipped a pass through and Vardy finished expertly beyond Bachmann’s completely unnecessary charge.  Masina got back to the line, but wasn’t able to keep it out.  Carnage.

Before half time it was three.  A left wing corner…  perhaps less to criticise here than it felt at the time, King wasn’t alert enough to Vardy’s movement but the routine still required a lot of the striker, his flicked header dropping in at the far post.  Bachmann helpless once again.  Nonetheless… the Austrian didn’t do a great deal to back up his reported upset at losing his place.  If only the second goal can be directly attributed to him we lose a lot from Foster not being there, from the authority of the more experienced voice to the accuracy of his throws that complement our zippy forward line so well.  One hopes that the reported groin injury won’t see him out long-term.

The Doughnut Chorus were unfortunately out in force with gleefully moronic songs about Jamie Vardy which were, less unreasonably, shoved back in our faces in response to developments.  The away end retreated en masse to such warmth as the concourse offered to ponder how we’d managed to ruin so much good stuff with so much bad stuff and end up two goals down at the break.  

5- Back outside the half-arsed snow had found its rhythm and was giving it some.  Everyone emerging from the bowels into the body of the stadium after the break would have had the same thought:  “this is going to get called off”.  That it wasn’t must have been a close call – for the third quarter of the game the far end of the pitch was a hypothetical concept and the location of the ball in particular complete guesswork for the most part.  The powdery texture of the stuff must have helped – at one point in the second half a leaf blower was used to clear the near touchline (all agreed that the senior groundsman had this privilege with his skivvies left to uncover the penalty area markings with brooms), whilst any ball along the deck or sliding tackle left a green track in its wake like a replay effect on FIFA, or whatever the kids are playing nowadays.

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The lunacy of the circumstances complemented our gung-ho approach to the second half;  apparently and not unreasonably reflecting that we weren’t very good at this defending lark anyway so screw it, we look off Imran Louza and Tom Cleverley in favour of Ozan Tufan and João Pedro leaving us playing a 4-3-3 that was all too happy to express itself as a 3-2-5 given half a chance.  The Brazilian in particular would come close to relighting the game’s fuse with a couple of firm low drives that weren’t quite accurate enough but not so’s you knew it until they’d decided.  As above, we were giving it a go until the final whisle.

By then we’d traded goals again, Ademola Lookman’s depressing finish after Harvey Barnes had pulled our flimsy defence out of shape once more a retort with the air of a perfunctory exchange of Christmas cards.  “To Watford.  Have a good one.  Leicester”.  Picture of stocking.

But this was preceded by more fun and games from Emmanuel Dennis.  We’ve oft reflected that if only we’d managed to get Sarr, Deeney and Deulofeu onto the pitch at the same time more often we wouldn’t have gone down at all;  Geri and Isma both presented a credible threat meaning that all but the most organised opponents (and sometimes them too) didn’t no which way to look when the three were in tandem.  Here, demonstrably, we have a credible threat of comparable value to occupy minds and attention on the flank across from Sarr.  His combination of aggression and arrogance got us back in the game here, however briefly, as he mugged Castagne and dinked the ball past Schmeichel.  In scoring he became only the sixth player to hit five goals and five assists in his first dozen Premier League games (thanks Dave).  Any early concerns regarding consistency would appear misplaced.  Of greater concern was his limping off to the injured list after failing to shake off a knock after a collision.  One wonders quite how credible a resistance we’re going to be able to put up in the two challenging games over the next week.

6- We emerged from the stadium to find Leicester heavily dumped on with snow, and for all that the blizzard had abated it took us rather long to return to our car than it had to make the opposite journey.

Nonetheless, a lot of fun this one.  Stupid weather, an often ridiculous game of football and despite our defending (and Claudio’s subsequent complaints about lack of aggression) a punchy, credible threat that means that we’ve still got plenty of reason to believe.  Being able to regard today as a missed opportunity is frustrating, but still represents progress.

Wrap up warm on Wednesday.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Femenía 3, Masina 2, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 2, Louza 3, Cleverley 3, Sissoko 4, Hernández 3, *Dennis 4*, King 4
Subs: João Pedro (for Cleverley, 45) 4, Tufan (for Louza, 45) 3, Fletcher (for Dennis, 72) 2, Rose, Ngakia, Kabasele, Gosling, Morris, Elliot

Watford 4 Manchester United 1 (20/11/2021) 21/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1-  This was all about United.

That’s what the world would have you believe.  The radio coverage, the TV, the reports. In fairness, if this had been anyone else outside the top six (whoever the top six are now) dicking United we’d have believed so too.  A cursory nod to Leeds or Burnley or whoever, and then settle back to enjoy United’s capitulation as the main course rather than merely a satisfying side-dish.  United are the story to the neutral.  They were that bad.  It was that funny.  Everyone else gets to share a little bit of that joy.

But they didn’t beat themselves.  They didn’t harangue themselves, close themselves down to within an inch of their lives, crash into tackles on themselves that meant that they were never allowed to settle.  They didn’t break on themselves with terrifying pace on both flanks, Luke Shaw wasn’t looking over his shoulder in fear of Jadon Sancho skimming away from him.  They did concede an inane penalty, but we didn’t need it.

Over the coming days the narrative is likely to be tweaked.  Right now it’s “wow, what a defeat for United, that’s Ole gone, surely?” (yes, it seems) with a bit of “but we must give all credit to Watford”.  This will become “yes, well Watford won but United collapsed basically and Watford are a bit streaky aren’t they?  They’ll probably lose again next week and sack their manager, arf arf”.

Opponents won’t be that complacent, perhaps, but their supporters might.  And here’s our opportunity.  It suits us to be a footnote, to be secondary, to be overlooked here.  If this was another flash in the pan, if the simplistic review were accurate then we have little to gain from the one-sided retelling but it wasn’t and it isn’t.  This was a turning point.  This was a mighty win without an asterisk. We looked like a thoroughly credible Premier League team.

We were bloody awesome.

2- The day hadn’t begun auspiciously.  We were at the ground by 1:30 due to circumstances and stuff.  The coaches (two of theirs because they’re important, one of ours) were late arriving, denying access to Occupation Road for fifteen minutes.  This was unfortunate in combination with ongoing entreaties for supporters to arrive early, a point made unhelpfully if not inaccurately to the stewards attempting to police the situation.  As an aside, the snarl-up on Hempstead Road that probably caused the coaches’ problems is an exceptional event but not so exceptional that it couldn’t happen again.  Disaster was narrowly averted as the last coach vacated Occupation Road, its rear swinging slowly towards packed onlookers with nowhere to escape to as stewards tried and failed to maintain order with the crowds being supplemented constantly by new arrivals ignorant of developments.  Only the ability of those in closest proximity to duck around the back of the coach as it turned left into Vicarage Road released the pressure like water rushing through a hole in a dam, giving people space to escape.  More careful preparation is needed there.

Inside the stadium, the realities of our new catering set-up dawned on me for the first time.  The new pies, it has been established, are a fine if pricey thing but the inability to buy a pie and coffee from the same queue is going to be a serious issue for the cold evening kick-off against Chelsea as December kicks in.  I returned grumpily to my seat, coffee-less and anticipating the sort of result that such irritations generally portend.  Manchester United were in a bad place, but they’re still Manchester United.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Circumstances meant that we had maybe more than a slugger’s chance, but we’re still underdogs.

This… not glumness, because being at football is always great, but maybe unease…  this unease was exacerbated by the end state of the twice-taken penalty after Bruno Fernandes had swiped a clearance carelessly up in the air and McTominay had clumsily felled Joshua King.  You don’t get to fail to convert a penalty once against United let alone twice and still expect it to be your day.  They were poor, poor penalties too and Isma’s longevity in this role has to be questioned.  The second had been necessitated after Kiko encroached before joyfully converting the rebound off the first, the inevitability of celebrations being terminated clear as soon as the exemplary Jonathan Moss put his finger to his ear.  As United cleared the rebound off the second we exhaled and waited for the sucker punch.

3- It never came.  You’ll know that of course.  In fact the tide of the afternoon was already turning, I just hadn’t noticed.  I wasn’t aware of this first detail until half time when Nigel pointed it out to me – he’d noticed, such is the wisdom that comes with age I guess.

As the sides switched ends following the coin toss there was a dissatisfied chuntering amongst the masses.  We kick away from the Rookery first half, everyone knows that.  In my head further evidence that this was going to be a bloody annoying afternoon.  But then… United kicked off.  Which means we had won the toss, and chosen the switch ourselves.

If Claudio Ranieri had wanted to attack the Rookery to get it in full voice early on and put pressure on the visitors it paid dividends.  Vicarage Road was as fevered and febrile as it has been all season, outstripping even the opening day.  This energy was fuelled by the sitting ducks lumbering around in suitably wishy-washy pale blue shirts in front of us who displayed no such energy or belief and by the ferocity in yellow and black.

The tone had been set during the exchanges that preceded both penalties, professionally and cynically extended to increase the pressure on the taker, perhaps successfully.  Harry Maguire’s card was marked at this early stage, Daughter 2 sniffily dismissing him as “entitled” at the half time break.  Beyond this there was a sluggishness of body, mind and will about United that screamed “we really are here to be got at lads, come and have a go”.

4- We came and had a go.   This was a performance to be celebrated throughout the side from back to front…  Will was later to reflect, with a beaming grin, that he was going to enjoy looking back at each individual’s afternoon in turn later in the evening.  No weak links, no caveats.  Claudio Ranieri talked about his “philosophy” post match.  Philosophy feels like the wrong word. too cerebral, too genteel.  To a man Watford were in-your-face aggressive, relentless, focused and arsey.  In terms of attitude this was the archetypal underdogs performance against a classic of the big-club-ripe-for-humiliation genre and the coincidence of the two was a beautiful thing.

And Emmanuel Dennis was at the head of it.  Of the new intake he is a frontrunner in the race to establish a cult following.  There’s nothing to dislike about a spiky striker who makes and scores goals, batters opponents and doesn’t stop running.  In this context, racking up bookings at a rate that Jose Holebas would have baulked at is tolerably lovable rather than irritating, ditto the cockiness to mock Harry Maguire in his later goal celebration as he notoriously had Cristiano Ronaldo when scoring for Club Brugge at the Bernabéu.  He was irrepressible, the most man-of-the-matchy of Watford’s many men of the match, the bold dart to the touchline to pull back for King to turn the ball home for the opener on 28 minutes only the first telling blow.  From behind the goal the shot took a torturous amount of time to roll in, but De Gea’s expression as he saw it go past him was more tortured still.

We’d already been softening United up.  Imran Louza’s corner had been allowed to bounce encouragingly around the box before King had shovelled it over the bar.  At 1-0 King met Adam Masina’s left wing cross unmarked but headed straight at De Gea.  King is clearly not a goal machine, he doesn’t have the ruthlessness or instincts to score 20+ goals in a season but there are echoes of Danny Graham here… a different sort of striker, but comparable in that when he’s not scoring he facilitates.  He makes everyone else better through holding the ball up, stringing everything together, pulling people around.

As for Sarr, his penalty taking was poor but our reaction – specifically his – to that little episode contrasted starkly with that of United.  Any side, let alone a top side, should have reacted to an opponent twice missing a penalty by going for us, by exploiting the voice whispering “that was our chance” somewhere in our collective subconscious.  There was precious little of that from the visitors… their attacks did showcase their ability, the cross that fed Rashford who forced an acrobatic stop from Foster was magnificent.  But it was an afterthought, a staccato moment in the first half.

Sarr meanwhile got his head quickly back in the game, perhaps helped by the fact that he was being carried along on the back of what was already a terrific team performance without having to provoke it himself.  This was crowned just before the break when Cleverley’s belligerence and Femenía’s persistence on the right found Sarr with the ball just inside the corner of the penalty area and a clear shot on goal, albeit from an angle.  He capitalised mercilessly, shooting with ferocity and precision across the face and into the inside side-netting.  Unsavable and the most important goal of the game, rescuing half time from the suspicion of a missed opportunity given our dominance.

5- The game lasted bloody hours.  Not just the second half as we protected a single goal lead, but the whole thing.  I was exhausted by half time, drained by the emotional demands of the spectacle that rolled across the pitch in front of us.

That the second half lasted even longer than the first reflects developments five minutes in.  Jadon Sancho almost certainly never envisaged a Vicarage Road debut quite like this during his days at the Harefield Academy but he was a threat in the second half and put in the ball that Ronaldo headed back across goal for half time sub and the other “everything that’s wrong with United” poster boy Donny van de Beek to bundle home.

Manchester United’s travelling support can be relied upon to make an absolute racket during all but the most trying of times.  Admittedly this probably constituted the most trying of times, but the reaction to this rapid start to the half was noisy and ominous.  We endured a very hairy ten minutes, Bruno Fernandes flinging a shot across the face of goal, Ronaldo waking up to threaten to undo us with rapid, brief bursts of brilliance.  He screamed onto a through ball and the Rookery held its collective breath but Ben Foster did what he needed to do, asked a question that Ronaldo wasn’t able to answer.  The shot was beaten over the bar by an outstretched arm.  There is a danger in taking Ben Foster for granted.

The defence held firm.  Nicolas Nkoulou is a significant figure here… as FTRE identified this week he’s far from the “best fifth choice centre back available on a free” extra body that we might have suspected. He’s a proper footballer and with his calm authority and ability to make things move as and when he wants them to it’s almost like having Yoda at centre back (Yes, thank you, proud of that. “A force for good” – A.Matthews).  Craig Cathcart continues to resume his career as Craig Cathcart alongside him, rather than the slightly nervous pastiche that he’s been while playing on the left of a pair and William Troost-Ekong enjoyed half an hour in place of Nkoulou whilst only once causing anyone to think “christ, Nkoulou’s not there is he?” and then fleetingly.  On the right Kiko was full Kiko, galloping joyfully up and down the flank, overlapping, giving an option, another one of those Men of the Match.  On the left Masina did more than fine;  the closest United came to retrieving the game was when Ronaldo flew through again and then responded expertly to Masina’s hand on his shoulder in the penalty area.  An offside flag saved us and Masina on that occasion;  later in the game the Moroccan evened the score making an absolute arse of United’s totem and leaving him on his backside.  No, I didn’t expect to be typing that either.  “Ole’s at the wheel” once again echoed sarcastically from the Rookery.

The clarion call for us to dig in and start fighting back came on the hour with the minute’s applause for the late Kev Norman that Ben Foster also had time to participate in.  I never knew Kev, but I’m glad that I support a club that doesn’t think it’s above marking the passing of one of its own in this way.  Fittingly, the applause broke into defiant chants before the end of the minute and propelled the crowd onto its feet again.  A minute later and Isma was floored on his way into the box by an increasingly sulky Harry Maguire, who was booked.

6- So.  The forwards are great.  This is not news, not really.  We’ve seen evidence of this.  The defence and the goalkeeper were great;  perhaps more of a development.  But the midfield was the difference both in winning the game against United – I didn’t realise that Nemanja Matic was playing until I checked their line-up after the game to work out who I’d forgotten – and in contrast to previous outings.

Moussa Sissoko is the one constant and this was a statesmanlike performance, his best in a Watford shirt.  Absolutely in his element.  Behind him Imran Louza looked like the player we hoped we’d signed, and here’s the bit that was truly transformative.  He tired later and was withdrawn to an ovation – the presence of a deep midfielder who wants the ball (alongside a central defender in Nkoulou who’s happy to receive, bring down, lay-off) changes us completely.  And then Tom Cleverley, who was Tom Cleverley and did Tom Cleverley things.  Never more so than in the 68th minute, snarling onto another half-arsed bit of lumpiness from Maguire he found his legs taken from him in a pincer movement and United’s captain was trudging dolefully off the pitch.  Daughter 2 waved him off as eagerly as anyone.

Before we could take breath there was a further resetting of scales as a heavy Van de Beek tackle saw Sarr grounded and ultimately withdrawn.  That he was on his feet and contemplating continuing offers encouragement, we’ll see.  The delay allowed us to appraise the situation, and I was reminded of the epic play-off game at St Andrews in 1999.  We were up against it (to a far greater extent than in this watered down but still worthy cover version) until ex-Hornet David Holdsworth got himself sent off.  After which… we were still up against it, but the threat was tamed.  We could cope with this.

Despite Ronaldo wandering through to “score” before being called back for offside, we more than coped with United’s remaining efforts such as they were.  A duller but valuable aspect of the win was the composure with which we got the ball rolling and the United players chasing; even the less leaden of the men in whitey-bluey-stuff like Van de Beek and Sancho would struggle to cope with that.  Meanwhile we’d brought João Pedro and Cucho off the bench for Louza and Sarr;  if you can’t capitalise on having a surfeit of exciting, zippy forwards in this circumstance well when can you?

João Pedro had forced a smart save from De Gea seconds before being fed by Dennis and rifling straight through the United keeper to seal the win in the opening minutes of added time.  He burst into tears as the roof came off of Vicarage Road.  Minutes later with the game all but done and the away end emptying Dennis scored a fourth, capitalising on the sort of thing that only happens when it is finally, definitively, your day… he and Cucho went for the same ball, Dalot was confused, Dennis bashed past him and slung a shot contemptuously across the face of goal and in.  Richard Walker on tannoy duties and virtually indistinguishable from predecessor Emma Saunders in every respect has the timbre of Ray Winstone at the best of times.  At the end of his throaty acknowledgement of the final goal his voice collapsed completely, as did the rest of us.

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7- As far as our prospects are concerned… today was tremendous but we need to be able to execute it against more obstinate, obstructive, aggressive opponents.  Louza looks like The Answer in midfield, but didn’t like being battered at Brighton.  The most ridiculous of statistics is that we have scored 15 goals in our 4 wins this season but only 1 in the other 8 (and none in defeat).  So… if you go behind against us you’re kinda screwed, but we’ve not been clever enough to break down a high press.

Maybe that changes after today, maybe the Nkoulou/Louza thing gives us enough to be able to bypass that.  We’ll see.

For now though…   we just dicked Manchester United.

Enjoy.

Yoorns.

manu2

Foster 5, Femenía 5, Masina 5, Nkoulou 5, Cathcart 5, Louza 5, Sissoko 5, Cleverley 5, Sarr 5, King 5, *Dennis 5*
Subs: Troost-Ekong (for Nkoulou, 63) 5, Hernández (for Sarr, 68) 5, João Pedro (for Louza, 77) 5, Ngakia, Rose, Gosling, Tufan, Fletcher, Bachmann

Arsenal 1 Watford 0 (07/11/2021) 08/11/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- I don’t boast an extensive wardrobe. Shorts for the summer, jeans for the winter.  A nice Italian suit that I got married in.  A pair of smart black trousers.  I imagine.  And that’s about it for legwear.

Definitely jeans for the winter, or when it’s more that way than the other.  These tend to accumulate at a rate dictated by the inevitable appearance of a hole in the right knee after a certain period of wear…  a development that doesn’t render the garment wholly unusable but probably not ideal for work (even now that I’m back in full time, the ability to wear jeans on all but the specialest of occasions remains one of the things that I like about my job which I should remember when things that I don’t enjoy are front of mind).

Every now and again the jeans drawer will be reviewed; heading down to London on this bright Sunday morning it became clear that this exercise is possibly overdue as I discovered that a the long established hole in the knee of this particular pair had been joined by a gash in an altogether less socially acceptable area.  

Options were weighed up.  Daughter 2, on being asked for advice, contemplated possibilities with the gravity that one might associate with discussing a family crisis.  It was, in any event, not a good sign.  Not a suggestion that Everything Was Going To Go Well Today.

On a similar note, our opening five minutes here was chaotic.  We were unpeeled effortlessly in the opening exchanges as the ball wandered over to the Arsenal right where two attacking players were waiting apologetically before Sissoko dived in front of Lacazette to deflect away.  Not long afterwards a calamity of errors saw Arsenal open the scoring;  Sarr was too casual in a deep position and was robbed aggressively by Tavares, the ball worked its way across from Arsenal’s left to right again and this time Aubameyang fed Saka who tucked home in all sorts of space.  A shambles comparable to the one that saw us concede a soft early goal at Goodison and once again the portents for enjoying the rest of the afternoon weren’t great.

2- Both of which incidents go to show that you shouldn’t give up too readily.  Having baulked at the likely implications of a pair of jeans without a price tag at the boutiques at St Pancras I was assured by friends at Highbury and Islington that any issues were well concealed by my long fleece.  I survived the rest of the day well ventilated but no worse.

Meanwhile whilst the defending WAS catastrophic it was, fortunately, catastrophic enough to render Saka offside as acknowledged by another of those late VAR corrections.  VAR remains a miserably pedantic thing whilst an honest individual would have to concede that we would have been a goal down had our defending been slightly less inept, leaving Ben Foster somewhere closer to his unguarded goal line.  We silently, briefly acknowledged both of these facts before celebrating our reprieve in the manner that the moment deserved.

A rumbustious, noisy, combative match developed and saw us capitalise on our early good fortune to an extent.  Yes, we lost the game and probably deserved to.  But this was a far, far stouter performance than had seemed credible in those opening minutes offering some encouragement in facing what’s to come.  Apart from anything else, it’s perhaps the first time this season that we can feel genuinely rueful about a game that we’ve lost.  We need actual points rather than brownie points, of course, but at this stage of the season brownie points are still better than nothing.

3- We rode our luck on occasions here but there’s nothing lucky about a good goalkeeping performance.  There was certainly no luck in Ben Foster’s tremendous penalty save after Rose’s clumsy challenge had felled Lacazette…  Aubameyang’s prancing run-up was one of a man who expected to score, which made what was effectively a double save – Foster blocking with his legs and quickly recovering the loose ball – all the more enjoyable and startling.  But this was only the most striking contribution from Foster, who was alert and proactive with his distribution, pulled off a terrific stop to deny a powerful downward header from Gabriel Magalhães at the end of the half, and parried a ferocious drive from outside the area from Lokonga after the break.  And… that was it really from Arsenal in terms of (legitimate) non-trivial on-target efforts.  Which, considering that they’re a confident, capable side who’ve won eight and drawn two of their last ten is not insignificant.

The defence has come in for a lot of stick and, as suggested last week, more than it has probably deserved… but here the bold switch of three of four personnel from last weekend largely paid dividends.  Nkoulou, on his full debut, was a calming influence, Cathcart enjoyed being back on the right of the pair in the centre and Kiko was lively and ebullient, offering us a much needed outball breaking forward.

The midfield remains the issue however for all that Juraj Kucka offered a chink of light by tiptoeing through Arsenal’s backline before seeing his shot through Ben White’s legs deflected narrowly wide.  We looked sturdier today, Tufan and Sissoko both put in a shift but we still have precious little attacking shape, no stock goals or stock moves and little attacking conviction.  The lack of clean sheets is seen as damning.  The lack of threat is the bigger problem;  it’s not just the lack of goals, it’s the relatively limited risk the opponent takes in piling on pressure which in turn impacts that ongoing clean sheet stat.

Nonetheless, we finished the half level and reasonably defiant.

4- Kieron would subsequently describe the game as a bit of a throwback – boisterous, aggressive, perpetually on the verge of boiling over, tackles flying in, cards being waved around.  Kevin Friend’s refereeing performance matched that feel.

It’s sometimes suggested that refereeing standards have dropped – certainly post-match emotional hyperbole will often cite appalling officiating.  I don’t think that’s true, in general.  Maybe I’m just getting old, but I certainly don’t find myself exercised by officials very much any more.  1999-2000 was the nadir, I think.  Rob Harris’ masterclass against the Gunners at Vicarage Road in which David Seaman was allowed to rugby tackle Heidar Helguson only one of an extraordinary number of refereeing catastrophes that season.

The Kevin Friend game, in case you’ve forgotten, the reason that he’s on that particular List was the 2008 play-off semi first leg against Hull City.  On reflection this isn’t his biggest crime though.  Anyone can have a bad day.  Even the notorious Stuart Attwell – indeed, perhaps particularly Stuart Attwell – has had a pretty innocuous time of it officiating the Hornets since his most notorious hour against Reading.  

Innocuous has never been a word used to describe Friend, whose pompous low-level bubbling incompetence means that he’s far too prominent a feature of any game that he officiates.  That’s the bigger issue.  Here his dishing out of yellow cards for borderline aggression on both sides was at least consistently applied but the delineation between what was and what wasn’t a foul less so.  The sense of outrage in the away end was palpable and bubbling and the game retained a sense of never quite being under control.

Nonetheless, if Friend contributed to the mood that facilitated the game’s decisive moment he wasn’t directly responsible for it.  Arsenal had started the half more purposefully, we’d started to throw some attacking punches ourselves, if inconsequentially.  Then approaching the hour with Ozan Tufan on the deck, Danny Rose played the ball out to allow treatment.

Tufan wasn’t badly hurt, his subsequent removal almost certainly tactical.  As the ball went out he was already rising to his feet and declining what looked like an offer of medical attention from the official, something which rather spoils the subsequent “yes but they were just wasting time” justifications overheard in queues for the tube.  Watford anticipated the ball being returned and Arsenal didn’t do so.  Not only that, but they took a quick throw with the defence not set up, further capitalising on the confusion.  Friend should perhaps have pulled them up, but the act wasn’t his – this was cheap, classless opportunism on Arsenal’s part.  The ball worked its way across the box (via a collision involving Sarr, prompting optimistic calls for a foul on the Watford winger) and Smith-Rowe, perhaps the best outfield player on the afternoon, struck home.  

5- Bearing in mind our own fortune in the opening minutes we shouldn’t grumble too much at the outcome.  The manner of it however is aggravating.  Difficult not to sympathise with Ranieri’s frustration, you’d rather be undone by a piece of skill than by gamesmanship.  

Arsenal would find the net once again and once again, promptly this time, be pulled back for offside.  By and large though they sat off – there was some immediate pressure applied but yet further frustration arrived in our inability to apply a sucker punch to a side who were so patently inviting one.  That we didn’t really deserve the point would have made it all the more enjoyable – but rather than putting their foot on our neck, frustrated and volatile as we were, Arsenal stepped back apprehensively.  We should have capitalised, we didn’t.

Josh King came closest, thanks to a kamikaze run out to the Arsenal right by the excitable Ramsdale which bypassed ball and player leaving King goalside with the ball at his feet.  On review… this wasn’t as easy as it looked in my head the first time round when time slowed down as King pulled the trigger.  Then it appeared that he could have teed up Sarr or lined himself up a kinder angle rather than ambitiously trying to thread the ball in from a narrow angle and failing to do so.  Actually, neither alternative was trivial with defenders in attendance but that was the moment.  Otherwise, whilst we clawed back some territory the threat was largely hypothetical.  Cucho swung a number of crosses and set pieces into the arms of the keeper or onto the foreheads of defenders taller than the men they were marking.  There was no kitchen-sinking, no suggestion of it despite the late introduction of Fletcher for Cathcart.  Instead the footnote was a red card for Juraj Kucka for a slightly harsh second yellow after a clumsy but hardly malicious challenge on the edge of our box.  And that was that.

Whilst Kevin Friend’s performance harked back to 1999/2000 our own performance thus far doesn’t.  For all its challenges and limitations this isn’t a side obviously destined for relegation.  There’s more too us than that, I think.  But nor are we destined for the relatively inconspicuous security of mid-table that characterised the first four years of our last spell in the Premier League.  We’re genuinely in a relegation battle, a relatively unusual thing in our recent past there having been precious little battle about most of our relegations going as far back as GT’s first arrival.

Claudio needs to sort aspects of the team out, but there were positive signs today.  We’ll need guts and a bit of bloody-mindedness too.  Positive signs on that score also.

The jeans are now in the bin.  The season isn’t.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 5*, Femenía 4, Rose 2, Cathcart 3, Nkoulou 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Tufan 3, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: João Pedro (for Tufan, 62) 3, Hernández (for Dennis, 74) 2, Fletcher (for Cathcart, 94) NA, Masina, Cleverley, Ngakia, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Bachmann