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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

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.


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.




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


1. iamthesunking - 21/11/2021

What a win for you! Well done, Hornets!

2. davidfishermusic - 21/11/2021

Great report. Particularly glad to hear Louza played well. Due to a combination of living in Birmingham and working most Friday and Saturday evenings, the only match I’ve got to this year was the 3-1 loss at home to Stoke (which was nowhere near as bad a performance as it sounded). Odd as it sounds, I rather liked the look of him that night, declaring him to be the Turkish Will Hughes within 10 minutes, before realising that it wasn’t Ozan Tufan after all. But he did look like he might have the ability to plug that very obvious Hughes-shaped hole at the base of our midfield. By the sound of it, this positive opinion of him was based almost entirely on not seeing him play against Brighton, but it’s great to see him given a good run out here.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see MOTD focus more on Watford than United. Deservedly so. I like the look of this team, manager included. It looks like a higher-than-average points total might be needed to stay up this year, but I’m reasonably confident we’ve got enough in the tank to do it.

3. ukmalc - 21/11/2021

A bit harsh on the unused subs. Surely 5’s all round?

Matt Rowson - 21/11/2021

Those are implied…

4. Harefield Hornet - 21/11/2021

One of those days that makes you feel
Proud to be a Watford fan – I had known Kev Norman – from the late seventies and through the early days of the Watford Travel
Club – Roger Fleming etc and all that joyous malarky! He was truly one of the old school – we were/are exactly the same age/vintage and survived some of the more rougher years travelling and on the terraces. The game and the experiences of a football fan have changed so much since those far off days – but the sense of togetherness and being part of the Watford family was rammed home in the 60th minute . What a great day and result – RIP Kev.

Gary - 21/11/2021

I worked in the Travel Club for a season in the early 80s. Selling match and coach + train tickets for 1.5 hours before kick off and another hour after the final whistle. Didn’t get paid much but did get a free season ticket. Only downside was having to miss the final 5 mins of the match to get to the Travel Club office.

5. John - 21/11/2021

Bloody brilliant!

6. Old Git - 21/11/2021

Good to see your mention of Jonathan Moss, splendid refereeing display. How many times have we seen perfectly legitimate aggression pulled up by lesser refs when applied against the so-called Big Clubs? I kept waiting for fouls to be given when we were constantly overturning possession but Mr Moss was, as you say, exemplary.
As for Maguire, did I read his lips right when he was red carded? I’m sure I saw him say ‘Do you know who I am?’ …
Entitled indeed!

Matt Rowson - 21/11/2021

😊 didn’t notice that. To be honest there was little evident objection to the decision.

7. Harefield Hornet - 21/11/2021

I haven’t seen it again but was a bit surprised at the time that the lunge that finished Sarr’s day went unpunished ? Couldn’t see it that clearly from where I sit but can’t recall our players protesting much either ?

Matt Rowson - 21/11/2021

No, I haven’t seen a replay either. Like you I inferred from the lack of protest that it was aggressive but not intentional.

James - 22/11/2021

I was right next to it. Van de Beek certainly got the ball. Years ago that would have settled the matter, but now, it’s debatable whether he was in control. It wasn’t particularly nasty though.

8. David - 21/11/2021

This is why football is the greatest game in the world. I maintain that 7 of our starting 11 don’t get into any other Prem team but with amazing energy, hunger and desire we looked amazing. Yes Foster made 2 great saves but we could scored 7.

CR deserves huge credit for this, pushing King slightly wider allowing Dennis more of a central role was genius.

9. Ray Knight - 22/11/2021

Magnificent report for a magnificent match Matt. The complete performance.. Rode our luck a little in second half but I had a feeling we could do them before the game. Pray this is the catalyst to impose this intense, direct, pressing game more consistently. Worked for Leicester a few years ago…! PS – I hate the coaches being parked in Vic and Occupation Road and think it’s a safety issue on several fronts. Renewed hope for many of us.

RS - 22/11/2021

On the coach thing (ones with wheels) It has also bugged me that they are allowed to sit there with engines running when clearly they aren’t going anywhere for a good 20 minutes at the end of the game; pity the poor stewards/police that have to stand by those exhausts for that time.

On the game I had Depeche Mode (Just can’t get enough) running through my head from early morning which filled me with expectation and can most definitely relate to the collective exhale following the pens; so grateful the team didn’t withdraw into their collective “shell”. After the final whistle I did wonder if Emma had taken her copy since the final victory ritual took forever but who would begrudge the standing ovation, oh and side show – the obnoxious reception OGS got from the ManU “faithful”. Sad but also drew a wry smile as Bruno F. appeared to suggest the blame lay with the “team”; that’ll win him a few friends in the dressing room – not!

Did I notice (or not notice) that the pitch was not watered pre kick off or at half time? Is there more to this than just water saving, as we seemed to go a bit more direct and not invite pressure by playing out – I dunno? But it hadn’t rained that much during the week.

10. Deezzaa - 22/11/2021

Thanks once again Matt for a really super read, even more so than usual for obvious reasons.
One person I feel you haven’t eulogised enough in your report though is Ranieri. He got just about everything right on the day. For the first time since arguably GT we have a manager/coach who is properly tactically astute, and skilled enough to get the players at his disposal to achieve his vision. This will clearly take more time to fully achieve but let’s enjoy the journey.

11. Ray Knight - 22/11/2021

Yes Deezzaa full respect is due to Ranieri. A manager apparently courted for several years by the Pozzos, I hope he is given every opportunity to develop this team. Showed humility at Chelsea despite the pressure put on him by media speculation. Achieved the impossible at Leicester. Hard to think of another successful coach that Watford FC could attract. If he can nurture a seemingly ‘difficult’ player like Dennis to achieve what he has done so far and reinvigorate Clevs I think he must be doing something right. Just need to get consistency now.

Matt Rowson - 22/11/2021

I think it’s more than “just” consistency. Inconsistent implies random or hot and cold. As that stat in the last thunk reflects there’s little randomness about this. When we get our noses ahead, when we’re not pressed we can gallop out of sight. When we’re pressured we’re rarely coherent enough to threaten.

12. Lee - 22/11/2021

I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Re the coin toss, United kicking off doesn’t necessarily mean we won and chose to shoot at the rookery first.

I think if you win the toss now you choose which end and who kicks off. So Maguire could’ve said that way and me first. Or Sissoko could’ve said this way and let them take it.

Matt Rowson - 22/11/2021

Picky picky 😉

Lee - 22/11/2021

ha ha, indeed! But would be (almost) interesting to know which way it was. Either quite a bold move from us, or a really wimpy one from them.

13. Simoninoz - 22/11/2021

I think the best compliment to the team would be that GT would be applauding the pressing and the pressure on the ball when the complacent Utd players had it. Wonderful. Who is the next penalty taker? Deeney scored so many and missed so few that we have forgotten how important this can be (in what might be a tight relegation fight, despite yesterday). Pedro seems full of confidence and class. Or Foster? He’d just have a big hard whang, just like Troy.

Matt Rowson - 22/11/2021

Good use of whang. King?

Jez Fayerman - 22/11/2021

Didn’t expect such poor penalties from Sarr – surely Troy passed some secrets on. I’d back Sissoko to belt it as hard as Troy but as you say it could end up anywhere. Kucka might be a good option if he’s on the pitch, or otherwise Clevs? King took them for ‘Muff, I believe, and JP took at least one successfully last season (as did Sarr). Masina can whack a free kick but can he do it from 12 yards? Options, options – I’m sure CR70 will work it all out.

jtbodbo - 23/11/2021

Sarr has taken penalties before – beautifully.

14. Old Git - 22/11/2021

In the absence of Keith Eddy, I’d go for a solid midfielder to take the pens. Sissoko a good bet, I think.

Matt Rowson - 22/11/2021

He can certainly kick it very hard, which makes pretty much any other flaw forgivable. I’d still bank on him to miss the target frequently.

15. heftiehornet - 23/11/2021

Matt, thanks for your excellent report. From my perspective of a (different) hospital bed and reliant on Hornets radio, although the team all deserved their 5s, I was impressed with how Lousa controlled the game and how CR70 planned our strategy. It will be fascinating to see how he plans next Saturday.

Matt Rowson - 23/11/2021

cheers heftie, absolutely

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