jump to navigation

Watford 1 West Ham United 4 (28/12/2021) 29/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- It’s been a while, what with one thing and another.

In the meantime, there’s been stuff.  Christmas, specifically, and I hope yours was acceptable.  Also panto,  an annual thing the significance of which in the calendar the word “panto” almost utterly fails to convey. From a distance there’s (normally) a traditional story and dames and “it’s behind you” and other familiar tropes.  These conceal a cathartic satire focused on our employer (a satire that said employer is smart enough to encourage, let alone tolerate), no kids whatsoever, a social activity that’s the focus for much longer than the festive season and the year’s most dependable piss-up.

Panto 2020 was kyboshed like everything else, so this one had been two years in the making.  The build up is always a slow burn, gradually getting stuff ready, keeping plates spinning, building up to a crescendo.  This year the filter provided by the world we’re living in made things all the more precarious… rehearsals, costume fitting, prop building all restricted by hybrid working patterns.  As the day approached cast and crew pursued rigorous LFT programmes that would permit the show to go on.  All clear, negative tests results confirmed with relief every two days on the team WhatsApp.

Until the day of the show.  Two positive tests.

2- Back at Vicarage Road then, finally.  But while we benefitted at the start of the season from kicking off at home to Villa on the opening day, riding the wave of delighted relief at the resumption of football to three points it feels before kick off as if we might suffer here.  Suffer from resuming at home after our eighteen day break.  It would be different, perhaps, if there was a sense that the unicorn variant was “done”, if it was finished.  Then we’d be looking forward optimistically but it isn’t, so we’re not.

The new normal had prompted some novel routines even before our recent hiatus.  The most tiresome of these is to find ourselves kicking our heels once again at the top of a blocked off Occupation Road as coaches duck up and down the hill and discharge their contents.  The whole process is safer and better supervised than it was a few weeks ago but the lack of jeopardy doesn’t make it any more exciting.  We opt, instead, for entry through the GT stand;  this presents Daughters 1 and 2 the opportunity to pick up a margherita for lunch, so they’re happy enough but the Rookery, as we reach it, is not.

At every stage of the build up the stand is significantly emptier than it should be.  There’s an anxiety, even amongst those at the more cavalier end of the “attitudes to this sort of thing” spectrum that no masks can conceal.  As far as the on-pitch stuff is concerned we suffer further from having Brentford freshest in our minds, arguably the only real disaster of Ranieri’s command to date.  We are not coming into this on a high, and a fortnight’s “rest” has to be weighed up against the impact of COVID on a squad that was looking flimsy in certain positions in any case.  The available roster has seen the names Ngakia, Rose, Troost-Ekong, Cleverley and Elliot struck from it, presumably by the virus.  We name eight substitutes, only one of whom – the untried left back James Morris – a defender and two other youngsters making up the numbers.

There is no defiance, no “come on”-ness, no move to swell the efforts of the 1881.  Meanwhile the away end is both fuller and noisier than the home stands.  Travelling support tends to be more bloody-minded and less analytical, both of these properties serve the Hammers well.

3- So Emmanuel Dennis’ fine early strike is particularly welcome, the more so since it involves Craig Dawson being left on his backside before the Nigerian pumps a shot into the top corner.  Daughter 1 celebrates more than most – through a combination of stuff, things, circumstances and a particularly unfortunate choice of games she hadn’t seen us score in almost two years and was long since convinced that she was the cause of this particular drought rather than merely the subject of it.  “Already?!?” was her first beaming reaction, a blank scorecard a given in her head.

“Already” was the long and short of it, since this was as good as it would get by some distance.  We didn’t even get a happy afterglow to bathe in, since within thirty seconds of kick-off West Ham were ploughing what was to be a well trodden path down our right flank.  The ball stumbled its way via Kiko’s first alarming catastrophe of a difficult forty minutes, to Jarrod Bowen, unmarked and startled plumb in front of goal.  The ball was stuck under his feet in his surprise at finding himself unmarked on the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot at Bachmann.  Such breeze as there was died in our sails.

We held the lead for 23 minutes, none of them comfortable.  West Ham gained in belief as they kept coming at us; our supine midfield didn’t lay a punch on theirs and the lack of defensive shape was such that the most perfunctory of attacks caused yellow shirts to scatter like marbles.  Much play continued to be focused down West Ham’s left, either because of the threat posed by Benrahma – who provided the nearest thing to an equaliser before there was one, smacking a shot off the top of the bar – or because of a perceived vulnerability in Kiko or both.  There’s got to be dollops of mitigation ladled in here by the way, since however horrific we don’t know who and how much and in what way individuals were affected by viruses;  given the absence of Ngakia from the bench, the drop in Kiko’s level from the kick-off and the Spaniard’s withdrawal five minutes before the interval, it’s difficult to suppose anything other than a case of “well I’ll give it a go, boss”.

But by the time Kiko left the fray we were behind.  The equaliser when it came was suitable calamitous; Cathcart was drawn left, Sierralta failed to cover, Sissoko let his man, Souček, wander through and prod the ball almost apologetically inside Bachmann’s near post.  It was a goal that left no room for doubt as to the destiny of the result and so it proved as within a minute the ball found its way to Benrahma on the edge of the box.  It’s all too easy, and yes it gets a deflection that deprives Bachmann of any opportunity to react but the best way of preventing an unlucky deflection is by not leaving yourself with a left back feeling the need to stand in front of his goalkeeper on the right hand side of the box in the first place.  West Ham took their foot off the pedal immediately.  Their work here was done.

4- Our defence has been a problem.  This may not be news to you.  Our defence has been a problem even in circumstances other than being down to the last five (four-and-a-half?) senior candidates for a back five position.

In such circumstances – and particularly given that our forward line retains such manifest threat even in otherwise miserable performances like this one – a functioning midfield is essential.  This season, the only times we’ve approached having one of these have been with Imrân Louza sitting at the back of the midfield.

It’s very easy to watch from a distance and pass judgement of course, deprived of full knowledge, without the responsibility associated with making decisions.  That’s half the fun.  But given that caveat, I find the benching of Louza for the last two games difficult to understand.  His run of four league starts – for all that we only one won of them, for all of the aggravations of Leicester – produced as consistent a run of credible performances as we’ve managed all season, form that he was a pivotal part in. Contrast his impact with that of the miserable Ozan Tufan, who has scarcely influenced a match in a positive way; something is clearly wrong there, since a player with his reputation whose few bright spots have seen him threaten to dominate a game completely, has been a passenger far too often.  You can’t carry passengers in a three-man midfield.

With Louza on the pitch – and Juraj Kucka doing a committed if rather one-dimensional job of standing in at right-back – we carried a threat in the second half.  West Ham would extend the scoring eventually…  Jarrod Bowen found the net before being pulled back by VAR for a foul on the halfway line which David Moyes bafflingly chose to question after the game.  The reversal prompted the first semblance of a roar from the sparsely occupied stands since the goal, the reprieve having energised the home support.  Seven minutes later another defensive calamity – to which Daniel Bachmann contributed significantly in a generally passive performance – saw the same player’s quick thinking and movement win a penalty.  Mark Noble converted from the spot for the third successive iteration of this fixture.

Perversely, at 3-1 there were shards of light… the first suggestion that we might take something from the game since the ten seconds following Dennis’ opener.  Louza’s presence – and Tufan’s withdrawal, albeit for a rusty Ken Sema – energised our forward line and West Ham suddenly looked heavy legged and vulnerable.  Who knows what a goal might have provoked, but we weren’t destined to find out.  João Pedro had come on at the break in another trade-up for the willing but impotent Cucho and was involved in much.  His decision making wasn’t always the best, but he provoked opportunities simply by demonstrating some determination sadly lacking elsewhere in combination with a magnetic touch.  He was involved in a spinning, spiralling break that saw Sissoko twice involved before forcing a decent save out of Fabianski.  His positive break released King whose shot across Fabianski’s face from the right was on target but lacked power to trouble the keeper.  With Louza’s set piece delivery giving us the suggestion of a threat against a very tall West Ham team the Brazilian flicked on a header that the ever-willing King was unable to nod the right side of the post.

It was a straw to cling to as far as what comes next is concerned, but nothing more.  Instead West Ham broke to score a fourth that reflected their superiority, the difference in mindset between the excellent Bowen and the horribly exposed Sierralta clear as the winger danced past the leaden Chilean to set up Vlašić.  A final break which saw João Pedro break free before teeing up Dennis who was smothered by Fabianski summed up both sides’ afternoons quite succinctly as a footnote.

5- Returning from the circus to the panto.  Conscious of general unicorn-related anxiety amongst our potential audience we had already arranged for the afternoon show to be live streamed.  Improvised understudies in place the decision was made to perform to an empty theatre… not the easiest thing for a panto, but better than no show at all.  340 signed in to the live stream, a number of which broadcasting to full meeting rooms back at the ranch.  Those offstage did their damnedest to fill the void, hollering and cheering and booing from behind the flats.  It wasn’t what you’d have chosen, but it was a fine thing.

Digging ourselves out of our current circumstances is going to require similar levels of co-operation, determination, making do and bloody going for it.  It’s going to demand more than that of course; more bodies in the building for one thing, both a return to fitness of the injured and waylaid and the much dreamed of squad strengthening.  See the List for the vast number of centre-backs and left-backs we’ve been associated with in recent weeks.  As an aside, for all of William Troost-Ekong’s recent challenges it’s significant perhaps that, playing without him, we looked less organised than ever (if no less error-prone).  A bit of reliable leadership is needed back there.

But to reiterate.  Staying up, as unlikely as it feels after that performance, only requires us to be better than three other teams.  Our forward line is such that this remains more than a theoretical possibility.  We remain, after all, outside the relegation zone, and many sides are going to struggle with availability as we have.

Hang in there.  That post-panto piss-up was a thing of beauty and wonder.

Oh yes it was.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 1, Femenía 1, Masina 2, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 2, Kucka 2, Sissoko 3, Tufan 1, Hernández 2, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: *Louza (for Femenía, 40) 3*, João Pedro (for Hernández, 45) 3, Sema (for Tufan, 62) 2, Gosling, Fletcher, Morris, Conteh, Angelini

The List – January 2022 27/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the summer window. To be kept up to date until the closure of the window so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.  Lots of left backs and centre backs in the in-tray this time, weirdly…

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 48

IN

Bruno Praxedes (RB Bragantino)
Valentin Mihăilă (Parma)                       joined Atalanta
Beto (Portimonense)
Andrea Cambiaso (Genoa)
Phil Jones (Man United)*
Joe Aribo (Rangers)
Amadou Diawara (Roma)*
Anthony Caci (Strasbourg)
Tom Lawrence (Derby County)
Daniel Amartey (Leicester City)
Steve Cook (Bournemouth)*                           joined Nottingham Forest
Thomas Strakosha (Lazio)
Omar Colley (Sampdoria)*
Morten Thorsby (Sampdoria)*
Sead Kolašinac (Arsenal)                         joined Marseille
Joe Rodon (Tottenham)
Eliaquim Mangala (Free Agent)             joined Saint Étienne
Romain Saïss (Wolves)
Levi Colwill (Chelsea)
Borna Barišić (Rangers)
Sorba Thomas (Huddersfield Town)
Josh Doig (Hibernian)*
Hassane Kamara (OGC Nice)*                                         SIGNED
George Bello (Atlanta United)               joined Arminia Bielefeld
Issa Diop (West Ham United)
Calvin Ramsay (Aberdeen)
Kortney Hause (Aston Villa)*
Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş)*
Edo Kayembe (Eupen)                                                SIGNED
Samir (Udinese)                                                   SIGNED
Pape Habib Gueye (Kortrijk)
Lee Buchanan (Derby County)
Malang Sarr (Chelsea)
Jed Wallace (Millwall)
Nathaniel Phillips (Liverpool)           joined Bournemouth on loan
Alexis Flips (Reims)
Layvin Kurzawa (PSG)
Samuel Kalu (Bordeaux)                             SIGNED
Ollie Tanner (Lewes)
Ludovic Blas (Nantes)
Emmanuel Agbadou (Eupen)
Hamza Chaudhury (Leicester City)
Jack Fitzwater (Livingston)
Ashley Young (Aston Villa)*
Bamba Dieng (Marseille)
Kai Wagner (Philadelphia Union)
Antoine Semenyo (Bristol City)
Dean Henderson (Manchester United)

OUT

João Pedro (Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona
Myles Roberts (Portsmouth, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham, Charlton, Leyton Orient, Sutton United)
Ismaïla Sarr (Newcastle United, Liverpool*)
Emmanuel Dennis (Manchester United, Liverpool)
Nicolas Nkoulou (Udinese)
Christian Kabasele (Udinese, Kasımpaşa)
Ken Sema (Udinese)*
Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahçe)
Kamil Conteh (Dunfermline)
Domingos Quina (Swansea, Barnsley)
Dan Gosling (Burnley)

2021 Summer January
2020 Summer January
2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer  

Brentford 2 Watford 1 (10/12/2021) 11/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- I live in a village.  Not a town, a village.  As such the driving that I’m used to is the careful navigation of rural lanes, village streets, and the more or less predictable monotony of the motorway to and from Vicarage Road.

The A406 is something else.  The stretch from Brent Cross anticlockwise towards Brentford is like descending into the meridian trench in the Death Star, a rattling narrow channel where it’s everyone for themselves and a wrong move, an ill-timed exhale could prove fatal.

Stay on target.

That we’re making the rare step of heading into London by car reflects the practicalities of an evening kick off with an already exhausted 12 year-old and a stadium whose nearest tube station will be closed after the game.  That, and the fact that Nem and Nick have offered a parking permit, a warm welcome and a hearty plate of macaroni cheese to fuel pre-match reflections.

I haven’t seen Nem since she, Kieron, Paul and I navigated A-Level French together.  Thirty years on, Kieron still resents the imposition of French A-Level upon his teenage years while Nem is a French teacher.  Go figure.

Nem is another to have learned football since school, her and Nick follow the Bees home and away. She’s also developed a healthy level of football fan’s superstition which manifests itself in walking to the ground down the middle of the street, though this obligation appears to be relaxed, mercifully, as we approach busier thoroughfares and the M4 causeway looms over us.  The walk from their home to Brentford’s new ground has taken us past what’s left of Griffin Park, plus two of the famous four pubs on the corner.  One, The Griffin, still thrives;  another’s doors are closed, perhaps for good.  I ask about the heartache of leaving Griffin Park without being able to “say goodbye” during the pandemic.  Nick is philosophical;  goodbyes had been anticipated, and the new ground’s attractions cast such sentiment aside very quickly.

2- As with much that Brentford do, that new stadium is a well-thought out, expertly designed thing despite being squeezed into a tight fit adjacent to the north circular like a novice’s first go at Minecraft (I imagine) with access routes that will, one suspects, need to be passed on down generations for fear of being forgotten.  It strikes a fine balance;  modern but cosy, attractively wonky without being weird and with a decent array of kiosks if you’re prepared to look for them.  Daughter 2 turns her nose up at her “hot water with a bit of chocolate” but otherwise it’s a fine venue for her first evening away trip.

We find ourselves up in the gods, a couple of rows forward from the peak of the away “corner” underneath a low metal roof that will amplify the considerable noise around us as the evening progresses.  Nem and Nick will later comment on the volume, “the loudest of the season”, and this is fuelled no doubt by the proximity of the venue and the fuel of Friday night drinking.  There is a precarious rowdiness in the concourses and I have cause to hold Daughter 2’s arm on the way through before she throws me a look to remind me that she’s no longer six.

brentford

3- Claudio Ranieri’s line-up yields a couple of surprises, not least the absence of Imran Louza.  The Moroccan’s renaissance after his early season false start has nonetheless seen him withdrawn early by and large, and perhaps in this and the benching of João Pedro he had half an eye on a busy week of games.  In Louza’s place came the formidable figure of Juraj Kucka.

This development in particular painted a clear picture of how the football itself, now that we’ve gotten around to having to talk about it (and let’s face it, you all watched it and none of you want to relive it any more than me), would develop.  So it proved.  The first half’s action was straight out of a cheese grater, neither side able to exert control over proceedings any more than one might control a stray carrier bag in a hurricane.  Occasional moments of quality rose above the morass – Baptiste fashioned an acrobatic shot to force Bachmann to tip over, Mbeumo curled an effort around an attentive Troost-Ekong for the keeper to make a slightly showy save – but given that he was playing in front-ish of a wildly receptive gallery we’ll forgive him the flourish.  

That attack came down our left where Jeremy Ngakia, despite his willing and physicality, was becoming the latest candidate not to look much like a Premier League left back.  The untidiness of the game suited us the better however, particularly once we’d taken the lead.  This followed Joshua King wandering in from the right to plant a shot onto the foot of the post; from the corner that followed Emmanuel Dennis headed home.  This reflected no Watford superiority in terms of the balance of play.  There was no “play” to balance.  Instead it reflected the game’s moment of quality to that point, the Les Ferdinand leap into the air from a standing start, check your WhatsApp whilst waiting for the cross to arrive and still thump home.  Individual moments of quality will decide games at this level, even rubbish games like this one.

So the remaining 20 minutes or so of the half were conducted to a celebratory cacophony from the away corner.  Accompaniment was provided by an improvised percussion using some form of reverberating metal mesh alongside the wall of the stand.  It was impossible to persuade the resultant noise to obey the rhythm of the chant, in the context of which the efforts of those responsible were nonetheless appallingly unsuccessful.  The resultant din matched the chaos on the pitch which, as above, suited us down to the ground.  Any further goals were only going to arrive by accident, and we had the lead.

4- Whilst Claudio Ranieri’s record since taking over isn’t particularly impressive when summed up in terms of points per game, the reality is that these figures are distorted by the strength of the opposition in recent fixtures in particular and the paucity of options open to him.  It’s difficult to pick out failings in strategy or decision on the coach’s part;  we’ve lost games either because we’ve been playing very good teams, or because the options open to Ranieri were inadequate.

Until today.  As discussed here previously, the rapid “sorting” of the midfield has been Ranieri’s most immediate achievement but it’s a precarious thing.  In the context of a high pressing game a metronome (Louza), a ball-carrier (Sissoko) and a terrier (Cleverley) is a sound formula.  In replacing Louza with Kucka you sacrifice a lot of creativity in favour of brutality.  Nonetheless, it looked like being enough.

There may be Other Stuff that we don’t see.  Scratch that, there will certainly be Other Stuff that we don’t see, but it would have to be pretty significant stuff to justify the decision to withdraw Cleverley in favour of a newly bleached João Pedro on 57 minutes.  To be balanced… it’s unreasonable to gasp in breathless admiration at the audacity of this attacking move, an extra forward in João Pedro at the front of the midfield, when it works and then to complain the first time it crashes and burns.  Nonetheless, this was the outcome we’d all feared when this was first given a spin.  It was just weird.  

Brentford were compromised to a similar to degree to ourselves by injuries, COVID tests and suspensions.  Nonetheless, with a more accommodating midfield in front of them they channelled the urgency that they’d shown since the start of the half and started to dominate the game.  Immediately it wasn’t a scruffy bunfight any more, it was a rear-guard action.

We managed to fashion a couple of chances, the first by exploiting an obvious weakness on the left of Brentford’s defence where Vitaly Janelt was a makeshift centre-back.  A rare contribution from João Pedro, whose performance lacked any of it’s usual tenacity, saw Dennis take control as we broke.  He fed Joshua King whose overcautious finish, easily fielded by Fernandez, summed up his willing but unsuccessful evening.  Later King broke down the left and played a ball into space for Sissoko – to whom kudos for still seizing the reins even when he wasn’t having his best game either.  As Sissoko burst onto the ball he was grappled to the ground by Jansson, whose track record suggested a reliable recklessness.  A yellow, not a red, just about, but there won’t have been much in it.  Whether Michael Oliver factored in the consideration that Moussa with the ball at his feet in front of goal barely constitutes a goalscoring opportunity only he will know.

But the heavy traffic was at the other end.  That our defending is appalling is accepted, but this is only true sometimes.  Sometimes is often enough of course, but there would have been stuff to admire here if only we’d gotten away with it.  Bodies in the way.  Questions asked. Decisions forced, that sort of thing.

We didn’t get away with it.  Jansson’s conversion of Goode’s flick-on went to VAR, so maybe we were a little unlucky there – not in the decision itself, offside was invented to deter goal hanging rather than marginal infringements in any case – but in that it wouldn’t have been very far from a visible infringement and the penalty doesn’t happen if the first doesn’t.  And then the penalty itself which seemed to result in Ghoddos standing on Troost-Ekong’s leg on review.

All of which irrelevant.  We’d handed initiative to the hosts, they’d seized it and capitalised.  That penalty was preceded by five minutes of “wise old head” Juraj Kucka losing his composure completely and charging around in a manner that screamed “make it stop, make it stop”.  We’re allowed to do that in the stands Juraj, but we’re paying for the privilege.  And then Troost-Ekong’s lunge in itself was wild and invited inadvertent contact, another rash decision from a supposedly senior player. The final frustration was watching Bachmann, otherwise all but faultless, sell himself far too readily as Mbeumo converted the spot kick.  We lost the game, deservedly so.

5- It’s difficult to constructively vent your frustration in such circumstances.  Difficult to convey or provide positive conduit to the profound emotions that result.  Some of those around us, again even allowing for this difficulty, failed dismally.  One philosopher standing next to Daughter 2 bellowed “f*** off” repeatedly at each of the Watford side who had the temerity to approach and acknowledge the support.  We were trapped amongst this at the top of the stand as it emptied underneath us and once again I was concerned at Daughter 2’s staying power.

“That was a bit disappointing, wasn’t it?” was my completely inadequate if perhaps less obnoxious attempt to channel that same frustration.  There followed a couple of seconds of silent contemplation as we trudged back towards our rendez-vous with Nem and Nick.  “It was a cool experience”, she eventually replied, quietly.  That’s my girl.

Nem and Nick had by far the worst of the arrangement as it turned out.  Given the lack of any real controversy or contention in the game, sulking quietly and (I am assuming) unprovocatively wasn’t very difficult on my part.  Nem and Nick, however, were deprived of the joy of revelling in a late and unlikely victory by our presence – at least until we got back to the Griffin where Nick, having politely invited us in for a drink, said his goodbyes and dived inside.

A game that we’d set up as pivotal in our heads went against us.  It nearly didn’t.  In the cool(er) light of Saturday, the rattle back down the trench having been navigated at much higher speed than was possible on the way, after a night’s sleep… however catastrophic, it was one game.  For all that we’ve gained three points in six games that’s three more than “The Other 14“‘s survival rule (lose against the big six, otherwise win your home games) mandates.  As Daughter 2 confirmed, it was a cool experience however frustrating.  Whatever your Friday night would have otherwise entailed it surely wouldn’t have encompassed such peaks and troughs (and, in my case, the chance to meet up with an old friend).

On to Burnley, where we’ll find out how consequential this one was, perhaps.  For the first time this season we won’t make an away trip.  Good luck to those that are.

Stay on target.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 3*, Femenía 3, Ngakia 2, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 2, Kucka 1, Sissoko 3, Cleverley 3, Dennis 3, Hernández 3, King 2

Subs:  João Pedro (for Cleverley, 57) 2, Sema (for Hernández, 76) NA, Tufan (for Dennis, 91) NA, Rose, Kabasele, Louza, Fletcher, Angelini, Elliot

Watford 1 Manchester City 3 (04/12/2021) 05/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1-  August 2011.  In London and elsewhere there are riots, looting, lawlessness.  It’s the first headline on the news for a week, and captures attention internationally too.  My in-laws call anxiously from Addis Ababa to make sure that we’re OK.  We gently explain that the riots haven’t reached the quiet villages of north Bedfordshire just yet – someone was a bit grumpy at the length of the queue at the Post Office but that’s been about it.

Fast forward ten years and there’s a civil war raging in Ethiopia.  East Africa isn’t the most stable part of the world but it’s funny how much more significant a war in a far off land seems when your friends and family are affected.  Now it’s us relying on the manifold streams of information, some of which appear to be wilfully misleading.  The BBC’s coverage majors on the plight of the Tigrayan rebels; there is famine in Tigray, the people of Tigray are fundamentally farmers and not wealthy but a war like this is rarely as simple as goodies and baddies.  The BBC doesn’t seem to want to ask how a militia from this poor agricultural background has managed to arm itself so comprehensively and therefore what the motivations behind the thing actually are, or why the British and American governments are so keen to prop up and support the largely Tigrayan administration that was voted out of power in democratic elections in 2018.  As the BBC reports breathlessly  of the rebels being 20 miles from Addis Ababa and US and UK government officials gravely talk of the need to “get their people out”, my wife growls from the sofa that they can surely just book a flight like anyone else.  Whilst the conflict is impacting the whole country there’s no fighting in or anywhere near Addis.  My mother in law flew back in from a trip to the US last week.

The thing is of course that where you’re in the rare position of having insight into these things, of knowing that the coverage is bullshit, you wonder what other accepted truths might not be as reliable as presented.  Sometimes it pays to challenge the narrative.

2- There are times of course when if you weren’t prepared to challenge the narrative you might as well not get out of bed.  Case in point at Vicarage Road against Manchester City.  Such is our recent track record – and much as I love stats there’s no value in repeating them here – that if you weren’t prepared to shut your ears to it and reassess the plot for yourself you’d be lost before kick off.

I wonder what was going through Kiko Femenía’s head in the dressing room.  Kiko is no mystery to us after four-and-a-half energetic seasons.  Thoroughly committed, an indisputably good egg, a great attacking outlet who links up particularly effectively with Isma but gets caught out of position and is prone to letting the ball drop over his head. Pep Guardiola has his number too, and had it in plenty of time for the Cup Final two years ago.

The support were affected too.  We were all at Wembley.  We all remember the horror show under Quique.  And for all the encouragement offered by recent performances this game would require more than mere continuation of the same.  A less emotional, more rational assessment of the challenge before us identifies that whilst the rabid high press worked a treat against United and didn’t do us half badly against Chelsea it was up against a different beast in a City side who’ve made having a spare man an art form, let alone three days after chasing Chelsea down with an injury-hit squad that offers little in terms of viable rotation options.  Danny Rose for the injured Masina was the only change from Wednesday, Morris replacing Rose on the bench.

3- The worst of all possible starts, obviously.  Psychologically impossibly challenging.  Had City rampaged forward and scored straight from the kick-off you’d have had the same tremors of impending doom; this way they were supplemented by a cruel inevitability as the blue wave wasn’t repelled at the setback of João Pedro clearing Laporte’s early header off the line.  They kept coming, kept passing, kept probing.  Sterling headed Phil Foden’s cross in unmarked after four minutes – we’d scarcely touched the ball and had had no controlled possession.

That Sterling was unmarked was the responsibility, with the benefit of subsequent replays, of Danny Rose.  He would be involved in all three of City’s goals but only this one, for me, was badly negligent on his part.  He would jump in on Grealish on the half-way line (and earn a booking) as the second built up leaving men over on City’s right, and would see Silva float past him before curling in the third, but these were both smaller failings, failings that one might get away with on a normal day against lesser players.  Faults and weak seams pulled apart by City’s relentlessness and quality.  Nonetheless, left back is The Issue at the moment and would be, given what looks like a long term absence for Masina, even if Rose’s performances were more consistently reliable.  Adam Leventhal suggested on FTRE this week that an Nkoulou-like left back free agent might be incoming – if so you have to credit the boldness of leaving two squad slots open in the knowledge that the number of free agents would make focused patching-up of the squad between windows viable.

And City are, were, brilliant obviously.  Quite how we’re in a place where a Manchester City (or a Newcastle, or an anyone else) can engineer such a remarkable squad is a separate question – you’d walk away altogether if you pondered that too deeply and I’m not able to cope with the ramifications of that I don’t think.  But yes.  Brilliant.  The passing is almost soporific from the stands, requiring the utmost concentration from our players and, crucially, offering them so little reward for their considerable efforts.  It’s not Tom Cleverley’s fault that Bernardo Silva is a better footballer than him.  All Tom can do is stand up to the challenge but when he gets a foot in, earns a small victory, the rewards are so brief before the blue wave comes back at him.  Crueller still that when City do add to their score it’s after we’ve shown the first signs of having a threat of our own…  their defence isn’t quite as comfortable playing the ball around as their midfield is, they do get mugged in possession and the Rookery is tentatively on its feet, “Yellow Army” echoing with conviction for the first time before they break and Silva is impossibly composed before sliding a shot past Daniel Bachmann.

4- A blow-by-blow account is slightly redundant.  There were few defining incidents in the game – arguably only the goals that bookended the scoring and in between a lot of stuff during which time City converted twice and were denied on many other occasions.  These outcomes of these incidents could have been interchanged perfectly plausibly.

But we did challenge the narrative.  How easy would it have been for heads to drop on the pitch, for the relentless scurrying around and denying space and doing whatever it was that we could do to make it harder for our opponents to slow up, to slip into helplessness.  Those deflections that sent shots spinning over, those bodies that impeded progress weren’t accidents.  Craig Cathcart deserves particular credit here for a remarkably calm head in trying circumstances… standing up to Sterling and forcing him slightly wide didn’t deny him the shot but it gave the excellent Bachmann half a chance of saving it.  Five minutes later he was calmly getting in the away again, forcing Sterling backwards to Gündoğan who shot over.

If we allow ourselves to think “well this is screwed, we’re done” at any point then City pull us wide open and there’s another cricket score going on.  Absolutely admirable strength of resolve in the circumstances, not least from Bachmann whose point blank save from Laporte in the second half is the pick of a decent portfolio over the ninety minutes, and Moussa Sissoko who is confident and capable enough to retain possession in midfield, to say “yeah but I’ve won a World Cup by the way and I’m not taking this” and to swerve us upfield and onto the offensive.  His only flaws are two long range efforts, one in each half, which we’ve already established are particularly low probability endeavours.

5- We’ve mentioned this before, but the rebuilding of our forward line over the summer for two-and-sixpence in Premier League terms is pretty remarkable from a recruitment process getting far more flak than is merited.  To be missing Sarr and still have Cucho to come rampaging off the bench is startlingly good fun; the Colombian was even less bothered than Sissoko by the profile of the players he was facing.  In the ten seconds that it took him to smack a shot against Ederson’s left hand post, respond sharply and athletically enough to the rebound to turn it in and then to allow his momentum to carry himself into the net to retrieve the ball rather than celebrate the moment he settled any ongoing debates about his value to the squad.  Terrific work.

We were probably flattered by the score, but screw that.  What all of this achieved, this chasing, closing, hanging in there, keeping your heads, not giving up, defiantly changing the tone of the scoreline when the chance came, not accepting the narrative was to give ourselves a chance of getting lucky.  It would have been daylight robbery of course, but a fun last few minutes with Dan Bachmann surely making another sortie to the Vicarage Road end were a possibility as King’s snap shot to Cucho’s low right-wing cross flew wide and odd job man Ngakia, on at left back this time, bobbled a deflection-inviting shot through a crowded penalty area late on.

That would have tested City’s mental strength.  It didn’t happen.  But we weren’t humiliated here either, in the end.  And much as those who lived through October 1999 will be particularly wary of any assumption that points will inevitably follow as we exit a difficult spell of games the reality is that pending Sunday’s fixtures we’ve emerged from this run outside the relegation zone, something which we’d have taken with both hands at the start of it, and with a side that has somehow emerged stronger at the other end despite the challenges of the last few weeks.

Bring on the Brentford.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 3, Rose 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 4, Louza 3, *Sissoko 4*, Cleverley 3, Dennis 3, King 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: Kucka (for Louza, 45) 3, Hernández (for Cleverley, 45) 4, Ngakia (for Rose, 71) 3, Kabasele, Gosling, Tufan, Fletcher, Morris, Elliot

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (01/12/2021) 02/12/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- Evening kick-offs are brilliant.

If there’s one thing that’s indisputably worse about being in the Premier League, divorced from how the team happens to be performing, it’s the lack of midweek fixtures.  Not an issue for the elite, who will see European action but for the rest of us midweek is a largely barren landscape from the point at which we stumble out of the League Cup.

At the weekend, walking down Vicarage Road is all about build-up, anticipation.  Midweek the dark envelopes everything, I’m in the long but, as those in the know are aware, high speed queue at Fry Days at ten to seven and I’m already in the zone.  There are people and noise and it’s febrile…. the lockdowns aren’t so far away that this doesn’t feel special.  The geezer in the middle of Vicarage Road by the junction, “I’ll buy or sell tickets”.  The symbolic stumble down Occupation Road, submerging yourself into the evening as you descend.  The chaotic queues at the turnstiles, all the entreaties to turn up early for matchday forgotten in the disrupted routine of a midweek game and an unbalancing 7:30 kick off for TV.  Even the cathartic grumbling that Simon and I indulge in in reflecting on the lack of f***ing coffee in the Rookery has pleasure to be drawn from it (although it’ll lose its veneer of charm pretty sharpish as the winter continues, you suspect).

Not unreasonably there’s a sense of trepidation about this week’s games.  Trepidation, or acceptance, or hoping that it’s not too brutal in the face of two teams so clearly superior to the masses and our newly miserable injury list just as things were maybe coming together.  Against all odds however this will be an evening to be proud of the club, the team included, and for the club to be proud of itself.

This starts before kick off with a rainbow display in support of diversity and deliberately square on to the main TV gantry and in full view of the world.  Well played.  A statement that by it’s very nature gives a positive sentiment the louder voice is always going to be a fine thing.

rainbow

Twelve minutes into the game with Adam Masina prone on the pitch and ultimately on his way to joining that injury list, attention was drawn to some urgent developments in the Graham Taylor upper tier adjacent to the Rookery.  In those circumstances, in that situation you’d have to be one sorry bastard not to do everything you could…  to provide medical support if you were able to do so, to simply get out of the way otherwise, to wait patiently, anxiously, with solidarity as care was applied, to leave the pitch and await developments if that’s where you were.  Nonetheless, everyone did it and it’s no less deserving of fulsome praise for the instinctive nature of the reaction.  Supporters in the immediate vicinity (by all accounts), stewards and staff, medical crews from both camps, supporters in all stands, players on both sides all did their bit.  Fair play.  Trite to say that the stabilisation of the individual’s condition is the most important detail of the evening.  Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  A chant of “yoooorns”, echoing like a prayer, rose from the bowels of the stadium as he was moved out of the stand to the mercifully adjacent hospital.

2- On the pitch we didn’t do too badly either.

Chelsea, too, were without some star turns through injury but as their devastating looking bench revealed they were much better equipped to accommodate such hardships than we were.  Prior to kick-off, as against United, we were switched round to head into the Rookery.  Some dispute in the wake of the United win as to whether the visitors’ kick-off necessarily implies that the switch was our decision, to ignite the Rookery.  I choose to believe it.

For twelve minutes until the interruption, we blew the European Champions away.  Adrenaline fuelled, hyper-aggressive, this was a high press and then some.  Every suggestion of composed Chelsea position was stamped on with glee and to joyous, noisy enthusiasm from the stands.  Tom Cleverley, who was to calm down later on, was absolutely in his element… somehow the first man into every challenge all over the pitch.  His bullishness on the right flank saw him able to pull back from the touchline for João Pedro to slip a shot at Mendy, who was going to have a busy evening.  Quite where the young Brazilian ends up is still up for debate, but in his more withdrawn role we’ve lost his poachers instincts.  Minutes later Kiko swung a cross in from deeper on the right and again João Pedro’s there, forcing Azpilicueta, who like Alonso on the opposite side was also going to be a busy boy, to deflect towards his own goal where Mendy was alert to push the ball wide.

Underpinning all of this was a tacit recognition that if our patched up back line was our weakness, the solution was not to let Chelsea anywhere near it.  For twelve minutes we didn’t, and once the ultimately positive outcome in the Upper GT was confirmed to cheers and attention slowly returned to the pitch, consensus was that the interruption rather suited the visitors, to whom our approach should surely have been no surprise but who had now had a hiatus to address it, and for the wind to be taken out of our sails.

3- So it was extremely reassuring to see the incomparable Moussa Sissoko bite into a tackle and Emmanuel Dennis to bully his way up the right flank on the resumption. If the crowd seemed to lose its early fury after the restart, on the pitch, we didn’t skip a beat to the team and the head coach’s huge credit.

If there’s an area of the pitch that showcases Claudio’s influence it’s the midfield.  The most unbalanced, clumsy department of the team earlier in the season now looks ferociously effective.  Partly this reflects the blossoming of Imrân Louza, for whom the slightly delicate early season outings are a distant memory.  He was tremendous here, the missing link setting the tone from the back of the midfield and snapping rudely into tackles.  Partly this reflects an approach that suits Tom Cleverley down to the ground.  Focused, disciplined, pain-in-the-arseness is his forte.  And partly it reflects Moussa Sissoko who grows three inches with every game and owns the midfield here, lesser mortals bouncing off him or falling at the feet of a well-judged change in direction.  He’s magnificent, and every inch a captain.

But Chelsea have got themselves going, a little bit, and if we’re still asking questions they’re no longer on the ropes.  Mason Mount sounds a warning by firing against the post, it’s the visitors first attack of any note.  Shortly afterwards Chelsea show their quality with a precise, brutally calm move that start on their left and ends with Mount placing a ball past Bachmann.  It’s cruel and undeserved and at the same time it isn’t.  That’s what composed finishing gets you.

Briefly we look a little ragged, balls are going astray.  Havertz has the ball in the net again before being called back by one of those withheld offside flags to general relief.  The evening maybe goes a different way if the visitors are to enjoy a cushion.

4- But that never happens.  Firstly because we retain our focus and a level of conviction that has been erected surprisingly quickly, like a housing estate that suddenly springs from nowhere.  Before long Danny Rose is free on the left of the box after Chelsea have once again looked vulnerable down the flanks.  Too often our crosses have been drawn to the forehead of Antonio Rüdiger but here Rose fashions a shooting opportunity and if, uncharacteristically, there’s not quite enough violence about the effort to trouble Mendy it’s a statement of defiance, of not-rolling-overness.

And if there’s an area of the pitch that showcases Claudio’s influence it’s the attack.  In countless other universes our array of twinkly fun-looking weapons remain just that.  Unfulfilled promises, a shapeless lottery of lets-try-thisses with, invariably, all eyes turning to a beleaguered Ismaïla Sarr if things start to go wrong.

So how great is it, given the enforced absence of Ismaïla, to look back on a game against the European Champions and have cause to consider whether he’d come straight back into the side if a miracle recovery were announced before Saturday.  João Pedro is magnificent and liberated in an attacking role, smooth as silk and tough as old boots, he has the Marlon King thing of being able to control a ball be it fired at him out of a cannon or floated seemingly two feet out of his reach.  Joshua King is less prominent but works like a dog, chasing down everything, occupying everybody, once again the glue that holds it all together.

And Dennis.  Wow.  This is another special performance, first in it’s discipline on the right flank where he’s as busy keeping Alonso honest as he is in his attacking duties.  Second it’s in those attacking duties.  Positive.  Aggressive.  Quick.  Relentless.  Third it’s in the arrogance to not give two f***s who we’re playing or what the score is or how many defenders are lined up in front of him.  As Moussa surges, Vieira-like from the midfield once again and releases Dennis he’s up against three defenders who are wise enough to already be tentative.  He gets into the area, finds the angle and earns every bit of the support of a slight deflection that helps carry it way, way beyond the reach of Edouard Mendy.

The ground explodes, and we’re very nearly in the lead at the break as some dizzying interchanges down the right (this is against the European Champions, mind) sees Dennis tee up an on the charge Moussa but the ball is slightly under his feet and the shot is tame.  More evidence of our growth is how quickly our inability to recover from going behind has been blown out of the water.

5- With a collision of heads between Ruben Loftus-Cheek and William Troost-Ekong extending the half by another six minutes we reach half time several years after the game kicked off.  In the stands society has broken down;  there’s an enclave in the Sir Elton John Stand that have begun worshipping an effigy of Barry Ashby, the Vicarage Road end has its own national dress and in the Rookery there’s still no f***ing coffee.

Almost fittingly Troy makes a welcome appearance with a relaxed, slightly rambling but lovable and self-effacing twenty minutes or so on the mike punctuated by swear-words, apologies, thanks, and a recognition that perhaps he’s old and a fat b***ard these days.  Not a dry eye in the house when he confirms that Birmingham’s “not bad, but this is home”, before trotting off to join a kick-about with the subs as if he can’t help himself.  Watford’s number nine.

When the second half begins it’s in the tacit knowledge that this is going to be hard to sustain.  Chelsea have already cut through us once and we’re going to tire, of course we’re going to tire.

But if there’s an area of the pitch that showcases Claudio’s influence it’s the defence. We have no right to stand up to Chelsea in this way, for all that the whole team takes credit.  We are missing the imperious Nkoulou, we’re missing the personality, the agility, and the counterattacking springboard of Ben Foster.  The fearless booterer that is the Francisco Sierralta of last season has been absent for all of this, Danny Rose is forced into the fray to spin a wheel on his variable performances and, let’s be honest, this isn’t an area of the team that we’re convinced by at the best of times.

And yet here we are.  For all that the spotlight is on Daniel Bachmann and William Troost-Ekong in particular after Sunday’s, erm, excitement this is a defiant performance.  Troost has a couple of moments, but is man enough to stand up in the face of them, to overcome the inherent challenge of a harsh-looking first half booking.  He’s the man that bullies Havertz away from the ball on the goalline, dumping his own goalkeeper on his arse in the process but emerging with the ball at his feet and parity intact.  He’s the one imposing himself on Chelsea’s forwards, getting his head to things he has no right to and he’s the one who takes on the challenge of the admittedly sluggish but still intimidating Romelu Lukaku late on.  Fair play.

Meanwhile Cathcart is less conspicuously effective.  Right place, right time.  Yawn.  Danny Rose is pugnacious and persistent, Kiko shuttles up and down the right flank and Daniel Bachmann is composed and authoritative, not at fault either for Mount’s opener or the winner which Ziyech thumps through after another sharp move down the left but denying the same player the lustre of a second shortly afterwards.

So when Jeremy Ngakia is brought on in midfield in place of the spent Cleverley your first thought is “what the hell” and your second, immediately thereafter, “Claudio knows what he’s doing, doesn’t he?”.  With Jeremy it was the how rather than the what, the ability to do the chasing, harrying, pain-in-the-arse thing more effectively than Ozan Tufan and perhaps even Dan Gosling.

We push back.  Juraj Kucka belts a free kick straight through the wall but straight at Mendy; the keeper’s parry is still far from routine, but he keeps it out.  We end the game with Daniel Bachmann in the Chelsea penalty area, but the sands run out.

6- Brownie points aren’t going to keep us up.  But much as we need actual points sooner rather than later there’s so much to be inspired by here.  The last four games have yielded “only” three points, but each has been glorious in its own way.  Today we had Chelsea’s celebrated head coach conceding that his side was “lucky”, forced to end Thiago Silva’s rest-day at half time, and Chelsea’s support concerned enough to hang onto the ball in the dying minutes.  No actual points, sure.  But suddenly I’m looking forward to every game.

Starting with Saturday.  There’s a monkey on our back, it’s been there too long and it needs a kick up the arse.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Masina NA, Troost-Ekong 4, Cathcart 4, Louza 5, *Sissoko 5*, Cleverley 4, Dennis 5, King 4, João Pedro 5
Subs: Rose (for Masina, 12) 4, Kucka (for Louza, 74) 4, Ngakia (for Cleverley, 85) NA, Kabasele, Gosling, Tufan, Fletcher, Hernández, Elliot