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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

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.


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


1. lukefairweather - 05/12/2021

You once wrote of Nick Anelka that it was “like marking a ghost”. Last night we faced a whole team of them.

2. Harefield Hornet - 05/12/2021

Spot on Matt – thought Danny B had one of his best games in a Watford shirt so far yesterday. Given the quality of the opposition E Dennis was subdued his own high standards but that terrific chase back and tackle in the first half had me off my feet- then he had the audacity to nutmeg one of their players on the edge of the box – worth going just for that alone . We’ve reached a crucial point of the season now – time to get some points on the board ! You Horns!

3. Simon - 05/12/2021

While it could very easily have been different had we not ridden our luck a bit, the fact that we recovered from the first 20 mins to hang in and keep the score line sensible feels significant.

Be interesting to see what happens now the type of opposition is changing. It’s not always that easy to translate encouraging performances against the big boys into the same type of performance against those around you. I’ve more confidence we can do that with a high energy pressing game, though, particularly as Dennis (and others) does give us a bit of magic to create. We may also be helped by Brentford missing Ivan Toney who misses out today (Sunday) with COVID.

As for City, while there’s plenty to admire, I confess they leave me cold. Less reliant on ‘make you gasp’ moments than Liverpool. Just ruthlessly efficient. I’ve long thought that FFP isn’t fit for purpose as it tries to cure two ills at once: clubs put in danger by overspending; and artificially imbalanced spending. To try to keep some level of competition, I’d tighten the tests for ‘legitimate’ revenue and tie everyone to the richest club in the division by that metric. That allows small clubs to be funded and challenge the monopoly of bigness but hopefully limits the impact of country level spending. The over spending problem, in my view, needs a capital adequacy test which allows owners to fund through their own cash provided they can’t just do it by way of loans that they can call on demand. Not an easy thing to put in place but complex problems…

4. John van Dyk - 05/12/2021

😂 Sorry Matt, intended to hit forward!
But my observation is strongly held, living in Moscow as I do!
Anyway, it’s a good opportunity to thank you for your match reports which are always eagerly anticipated, and always enjoyed.
COYH! Start picking up points your performances deserve!

Matt Rowson - 05/12/2021

Cheers John

5. Matt Lovett - 05/12/2021

Great report as always Matt. Great game too – I was a little worried after 4 minutes but the lads did a marvellous job to stem the tide. As you said – how on earth can a league of ‘peers’ have such a gulf between them…??? Bizarre but brilliant, as were City. Lovely to see a team playing with smiles on their faces – not in a piss taking way either. They respected us, unlike the garbage that turned up from West London on Wednesday night. Play like that against the Burnleys, Leeds, Palarse and Southamptons of this world and we’ll be fine. As you say COYH!

6. Peter - 05/12/2021

Excellent report, Matt! Sorry to nitpick, but Sissoko was not in France’s squad when they won the World Cup in 2018. He was only on the standby list due to poor club form, but he returned to France’s squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers. He was in France’s squad for the 2016 UEFA European Championship when he made four starts and he played in the final against Portugal.

Matt Rowson - 05/12/2021

Wow. You know how when you absolutely believe something such that even hard evidence doesn’t change your mind? You’re right of course but I still don’t believe you.

7. Rupe - 05/12/2021

What less could Rose have done to merit a 1 instead of a 2?

Matt Rowson - 05/12/2021

Evening Rupe

8. Mr Billingham - 06/12/2021

Delighted for Cucho. Debate not settled though. His little legs seem a complete blur when he sprints, but then you look at the actual speed he is able to reach and he’s really not much of a threat. What he does do well, is find space, and whip in crosses so delicious, they would make even the most reluctant striker make a run.

Matt Rowson - 06/12/2021

The debate in my head is whether he’s any cop or not. Lack of top speed might be a restriction but doesn’t prohibit him being useful. In my mind he’s confirmed that he’s useful.

Peter - 06/12/2021

last season we had Andre Gray, Isaac Success and Stipe Perica as “best alternatives” to the first choices. By any measure, Cucho is an upgrade!

9. SteveG - 06/12/2021

Great report, as ever, Matt – I love the way that you have managed to combine the Ethiopian Civil War and the Premier League into a coherent blog.

Back in the summer, I thought that the signing of Danny Rose was a good move – an obvious area in need of strengthening, a player with plenty of high-level experience, maybe with a point to prove having spent some time in the doldrums. At the very least it would act as a spur to get the best out of Adam Masina. But, in the event, LB remains highly problematic, as you point out. I’m also quite surprised that, given the variability of WTE’s outings, that Kabasele hasn’t managed to get on the pitch at all recently.

On being flattered by the score … certainly true, but the reverse of Wednesday, so I don’t think we are lucky overall. A ‘fair’ return on performances might have seen us draw with Chelsea and lose perhaps 1-5 to City, which would have given us a marginally worse goal difference but one more point.

Certainly glass half full at the moment – and absolutely a bonus that the absence of Sarr doesn’t seem anywhere near as critical as it would have done last season.

Now we just need a few more points to accompany uplifting performances!

Matt Rowson - 06/12/2021

Thanks Steve. Know what you mean about Kaba but he’s been out a long time – he’s only played a couple of full nineties this season. He’s also got a fair amount of Prem experience of course, but to remove WTE in place of a half-fit Kaba could be hugely counterproductive on a number of levels.

Steve G - 06/12/2021

It was more that thought of easing him back in with 20 minutes or so off the bench at the end of a game in the first instance, rather than throwing him in for the full 90. But on reflection I guess the state of the games recently has meant that this opportunity hasn’t really presented itself, with other substitute options being rather more pressing. It’s just overcoming that Catch 22 of needing him fully fit to justify playing him, but not being able to get him the game time to improve his match fitness. I’m not suggesting for one moment that he’d be a magic panacea, but a fully fit Kabasele would definitely add to our options in an area where we are stretched at the moment.

Matt Rowson - 06/12/2021

No question

10. Derek Fabb - 06/12/2021

It was really encouraging that we managed to put up a lot more opposition compared to our recent outings against them. I think that the departure of Aguerro while we were holidaying in the Championship was a welcome development. I really don’t get all of the hype surrounding Jack Grealish. He had so many opportunities. A fully fit Sergio would have buried a few of those.
Hopefully the match was a boost for Daniel Bachmann. He did really well.
Watching at home, due to covid booster inspired malaise, the incident in the second half where Dennis was kicked in the shin in the penalty area was an interesting one. He wasn’t threatening to shoot or score any time soon, but a kick on the shin is still a foul. Not even a hint of VAR review. Had it been down the other would it have been dismissed so easily?
Hopefully the level of performance will continue to be really good and we can collect some points from the coming games.

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