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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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

Comments»

1. NickB - 02/12/2021

Really impressive and heartwarming performance. Thought the ref over-indulged Chelsea’s endless theatricals – lost count of how many of their players fell to the ground writhing in agony, only to spring back to full health moments later, Mendy the most embarrassing example. And WTE’s thunderous first half tackle was perfectly legitimate, unless it’s now officially a non-contact sport.
One thing I particularly like about the wondrous Dennis is that, whilst he’s happy enough to buy the odd cheap foul in a congested midfield area, the minute there’s something on he is only focused on being creative and doesn’t look for contact. Lesson for Sarr there.

Matt Rowson - 02/12/2021

Agree on the ref. Chelsea got his number.

2. John Smith - 02/12/2021

Excellent reporting as per standard, my difficulty from all the praise given by yourself, opposition Manager & pundits is that we took nothing from such a good performance against Chelsea. ould love an underserved 3 points soon.

3. Mark Copplestone - 02/12/2021

I haven’t been able to get to many games this season so far but I was hugely encouraged by that performance, particularly in the 1st half. If we can carry on in that vein then surely the points will start to roll in.

If you had said we would get 6 points from Claudio’s first 8 games, given how tough a run it has been, then I think that most would have felt that was a decent return – and there’s still 1 game left in that sequence. CR70 certainly looks to have galvanised the squad so that we’re playing like a team rather than as 11 individuals as appeared to have been the case in the main previously in the season. For that I am grateful.

Oh by the way there is a small stall selling coffee in the rookery (by the stairs with the GT stand). I joined the queue of about 8-10 people during the break while our fellow supporter was being attended to. However it took a while to be served (maybe 10-15 minutes?) so you’ll need to get to the ground early to get one! The coffee was worth the wait though and at £3 per cup reasonable value for money!

Thanks Matt as ever for the well balanced report and opinions which are so often lacking elsewhere.

Matt Rowson - 02/12/2021

Thanks Mark. I’m being slightly disingenuous as I’m aware of the coffee stand. It looks great, but as you say it takes far too long to be served. I joined once a few weeks ago but gave up.

Sequel - 02/12/2021

I always take a flask and I never have to queue. 😏

Matt Rowson - 02/12/2021

Under strong consideration.

4. Paul G - 02/12/2021

got me in tears here remembering it
>A chant of “yoooorns”, echoing like a prayer, rose

5. Deezzaa - 02/12/2021

How strange you mention Marlon King – the report in the Times actually thought he was playing! It’s likely they got the wrong King. But there again after reading your blog…
Thanks Matt. Erudite and entertaining as ever.

Matt Rowson - 02/12/2021

Cheers Deezzaa.

6. Harefield Hornet - 02/12/2021

It’s fantastic how CR has galvanised this squad despite some of the results going against us at the moment – although in truth we all really expected that, given the run of fixtures since he arrived. The real test I suppose will come against the so-called beatable teams but I’m quietly optimistic because of the way they’ve started to assert themselves. We could still get pre Xmas stuffing as usual but I’m actually looking forward to the City game – I wouldn’t have contemplated that a few weeks ago. As for E Dennis, what a revelation, he seems to be running on cryptomite at the moment ! Ian Wright remarked he thought he was the real deal a few days ago – that’ll do for me.

7. Harefield Hornet - 02/12/2021

With apologies to SM fans – kryptonite !!!

8. Ray Knight - 02/12/2021

Thanks Matt for another spot on report. The team certainly did us proud as you say. Pretty sure most expected a tanking, In many respects the best performance so far, as we never let them get going. Tuchel was hopping mad on the touchline at one stage. Quite amusing, but also the customary youngster who ran onto the pitch to greet his Chelsea heroes at the end, slipped over and was swept up by the stewards. Something never changes when the big clubs come to town. More of the same on Saturday hopefully deserving of a point.

9. Marc Gutreich - 03/12/2021

Couldn’t make the game, gutted I wasn’t there to see the performance and Troy’s ‘farewell’, but as ever these reports are the next (very) best thing.
As for Saturday, getting that monkey off the back would be beautiful and the great thing right now is, you never know…

10. Ray Knight - 03/12/2021

Rather worried we’ll receive an outrageous bid for Dennis from Newcastle in January.

11. heftiehornet - 03/12/2021

Matt,
Being another enforced absentee, although now back home, your reports capture the emotion of the day from a hornet perspective – much needed when you can’t attend.

I am simply amazed at how Claudio has managed to get such a positive team spirit so quickly and with so few points. Let’s hope this level of performance carries through to the next phase of matches – after this Saturday’s game, which I am “sort of” looking forward to watching.

Final thought and, noting all players deserve credit, I thought this was Rose’s best performance in a Watford shirt.

12. Graham French - 10/12/2021

Thanks for this report & previous one, Matt. Chelsea was my first game since Villa & you – as always – encapsulated it beautifully. We should have got a point at least !
Tonight is a family affair . My younger daughter played for Brentford under 9s & is ( now age 30) a committed Bee. Other family members have a very soft spot for them . I will have to be very restrained ( hopefully there will be things to be restrained about!)


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