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Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (22/01/2022) 22/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
20 comments

1-  So I had a bit of a lucky break this week.

Having come down with COVID symptoms on the previous Monday (and watched them, mercifully, disappear immediately in the wake of a positive PCR) I had, as  already described, accepted the loss of the trip to Newcastle as a small price to pay all things considered.  “You’d have taken that”, a bit like salvaging a point when down to ten men away from home.

Focus then moved to Wednesday evening.  A much anticipated second visit to “Pride and Prejudice (sort of)” with a gang of 20 in the West End was on the cards, but only if the pesky second line on the test kit went the way of the symptoms (twice, at least 24 hours apart) in the meantime.  On Monday morning the test kit was still flicking fingers at me, positive as soon as I looked at it.  Hopes weren’t high first thing Tuesday… and a dramatic late turn around didn’t seem to be enough, rekindling memories of the end of the 1995/96 season as a faint line at the T appeared to confirm relegation in a Muzzy Izzet kinda way.

The last hope was a free kick deep in injury time.  Keeper’s up for it, death or glory.  Ball’s punted into the box, goes in off someone’s arse.  A clear test at 2pm to lots of shouting followed up by a second 24 and a bit hours later facilitated meeting the others at Bedford station at 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, a raucously received and exploited cocktail happy hour at the pre-show meal and another brilliant performance of the utterly joyful, magnificent play which didn’t suffer at all from a second viewing (indeed the cocktails may have fuelled the enjoyment).  Result.

2- The Gambler’s Fallacy describes that, effectively, chance has no memory.  More specifically, for instance, that the outcome of an independent chance event is not influenced by the outcomes of preceding such events…  if a coin toss comes up heads ten times in a row the eleventh toss is no more likely to be a head (because “your luck’s in”) or a tail (because “these things have to even themselves out”) than if you were tossing the coin for the first time.

Blissett’s corollary to the Gambler’s Fallacy (wiki entry pending) states that as far as football is concerned the Gambler’s Fallacy is bollocks.  All football supporters know this instinctively anyway.  Yesterday evening I was painfully aware that I’d used up the week’s quota of luck on Tuesday and Wednesday (without even factoring in João Pedro’s late equaliser at St James’ Park).  We were on a hiding to nothing.

Which was a problem because, as you’ll be aware this one was quite important.  More than that (and it seems extraordinary to be writing this now, albeit still less than 24 hours on) it was a chance to distance ourselves from the relegation zone.  To define the tone for the rest of the season, to look upwards instead of downwards for the first time in a while.

There was an edginess about the atmosphere at Vicarage Road, not abetted by the fact that plenty will have planned to arrive in plenty of time for a 7.45 kick off and instead arrived very early for 8 (and the magnificent GT scarf display which Norwich, oddly given the cold, were the first visitors on such an occasion not to really join in with).  But expectation too (yes, extraordinary).  We’re not very good at that really, traditionally, winning when we’re expected to but we’ve done well enough against the Canaries in recent years and reports from Norfolk suggested that the eye-catching win over Everton wasn’t borne of some great about-turn in form on Norwich’s part.  They were still pretty awful.  Nonetheless, as the flares warmed our cheeks and the fireworks went off and the yellow smoke dissipated (all of which adornment feels rather desperate in hindsight, though it would of course been a glorious opener to a fine evening if we had won) we were all hoping for an early goal to settle the nerves.

3- Team selection was always going to be significant given the home debuts of the three new signings;  added to those points of interest were Tom Cleverley providing a more attacking midfield option than Juraj Kucka, with Bachmann and Kabasele coming in for the “ill” Foster and Cathcart.

A consequence of these developments was a backline that, if not inexperienced was still rather precarious.  Kabasele, five starts in twelve months.  New signing Kamara two since November.  Samir new to the club.  Kiko hardly a dominant character, Bachmann without Foster’s authority.  As Kabasele shouted and pointed his way through the opening twenty minutes there was no mystery as to his selection above that of Francisco Sierralta, a development that would have been scarcely credible last season (when, lest we forget, we conceded 30 goals in 46 games).

Norwich don’t need reminding that the two tiers present very different challenges of course and having finally concluded that a different problem might need a different man to navigate it (who’d have thought…?) they presented a more obdurate opponent than we had faced at Carrow Road earlier in the season.  The start of the game saw them execute a successful high press that penned us in without every really threatening to do more than that.  The chasing and harrying asked questions of our composure though… the squat, square-shouldered Kayembe was the first to be hurried out of possession, compounding his error by chasing the ball down and giving away a silly early free kick on the edge of the box.  It came to nothing – but Sissoko of all people was the next, playing a suicide ball into the middle of the park that calmed nobody’s nerves.

Kayembe recovered his composure to have a reasonable half which consisted largely of winning the ball and recycling it;  the broader problem was the lack of creativity in the now stodgy unit of which he formed a part, compounded by Norwich’s high press.  Much of a rather uninspiring first twenty minutes or so was spent with Kabasele and Samir trading possession across the backline;  only when the latter began to pull out quarterback-style (get me and my minority sport references…) howling passes over the visitors’ defence and into the feet of runners did the balance of play change and we began to suggest a threat. The second quarter of the game was spent largely at the Vicarage Road end though in truth we scarcely looked any more likely to score than Norwich had during the start to the game – Cleverley’s shot was deflected for a corner, Sissoko couldn’t get a decent contact on a right wing cross, Kamara got free a couple of times but couldn’t find anyone with a delivery.  Nonetheless, for all that it had been a grubby, nervous, ugly 45 minutes of football we had turned the tide, such as it was, and ended the half on the front foot.

4- The second half was horrific.  So horrific that it’s difficult to know where to start.  There’s the goals, of course…  the first in particular critical, but they’re just detail.  Symptoms, not cause.  There was the heavy symbolism of the floodlights going out…  not completely out, not so out that you couldn’t kid yourself that it was all going to be ok but out enough that it wasn’t. Write your own analogy around that.  Again, peripheral.  Mere gaudy decoration to our hearty cake of shit.

There was bad luck too.  We started the half sluggishly (again) but in truth City were no better;  this was a game that didn’t deserve a goal and hadn’t looked like getting one.  Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that had we burgled the first we could equally have gone on to win comfortably, buoyed by the advantage as Norwich were, fuelled suddenly by a relieved crowd with the scarcely-remembered feeling of winning a game looming into view.

It didn’t happen.  The reason that the Gambler’s Fallacy really doesn’t apply here is because a football match isn’t a random process based on chance outcomes, at least not completely or even to any great extent.  Yes, Norwich got a break when Pukki got the better of Samir, Sargent was able to contort his body to propel the ball goalwards and goalline technology confirmed that it had just about crossed the line.  But they made that luck.  Pukki was aggressive enough to tread the line between forceful and illegal in his challenge on Samir and earned the benefit of Mike Dean’s doubt (the most random component of the evening).  Sargent got lucky with the finish but was attacking the box in a manner that our oh so tentative forward line hadn’t managed all evening.  Tickets, raffles.

Norwich grabbed that advantage and never looked like relinquishing it.  The second was horrendous, Kiko Femenía’s abominably neglectful defending in allowing Rashica to put in a ball from the left betraying the degree to which our heads had gone completely.  The game shouldn’t have been gone at this stage, even at two down… Norwich creaked with encouragement every time we pushed forward with any vigour.  That it was over reflected the single biggest problem with the Watford side on the night.

Much has been made of our high turnover of head coaches (if, particularly and tediously, by scarcely interested and uninvested commentators whose motivating consideration boils down to “Watford should get back in their box”).  I’ve got more sympathy with the approach than many, I think… any single decision can be good or bad, but changing the man when the job’s needs change seems reasonable enough and it’s not as if there’s any ambiguity about the way it’s going to work.  If a head coach leaves Watford with a tarnished reputation it will be well earned – being sacked by the Hornets is hardly a blemish in itself.

But if you’re going to manage the club that way, if the stability is going to provided by the surrounding infrastructure of which the head coach is only an element rather than by the head coach himself then you’ve got  to have leadership amongst the playing staff.  We’re missing Troy, of course… this is not and there is no reasonable argument to suggest that he should still be here but he leaves a void.  Earlier than his captaincy still I remember being told a story about two senior players setting a jumped-up loanee straight by asking him to stay behind after training and making their point whilst holding him up against a wall.  Moussa Sissoko is a leader by example and has proven a good recruit despite our predicament… but his calm, quiet demeanour isn’t one of someone who’s going to rattle any cages.

But leadership doesn’t just come from captains in any case.  It’s a matter of personal responsibility and pride, and there was precious little of that on show last night.  Emmanuel Dennis is one case in point…  on review his second booking looks incredibly harsh, but his sulky, petulant performance wasn’t one of a player focused on doing his best for the team.  Claudio Ranieri’s post-match comments questioning the desire of some of the team don’t have many candidates given that the three newbies are presumably spared that early criticism alongside some manifestly game triers (Sissoko, Cleverley).  The decision to block his AFCON participation seems ever more questionable given the lack of contribution we’ve seen in the games since.

Dennis’ red card seemed to pass unnoticed by the away support, whose tone was understandably already celebratory (and was far less triumphalist than we had any right to expect once outside the ground, as an aside).  The home support were already resigned to the inevitability of the outcome and scarcely shrugged, ditto on learning that Moussa Sissoko finally connecting properly in front of goal and getting a fine touch to a left wing João Pedro cross had happened from a marginally offside position.  It was an incredibly tight (if ultimately accurate) call, but no tension greeted the VAR review.  It wasn’t our evening.

We brought on three substitutes at various stages, and whatever their other limitations each contributed some welcome bloody-mindedness to proceedings.  Cucho Hernández in particular will never hold a forward line together like King, doesn’t have the snarl and the touch of Dennis or the poise and technique of the relentless João Pedro…  but he does have a healthy dose of “f*** it” that was already overdue when introduced on the hour.  His was by far the most potent attacking contribution from the home side of the evening, forcing nervy Angus Gunn into flapping, anxious mistakes (and finally looking exactly like a goalkeeper who had shipped 17 goals in his last three Premier League outings but had hitherto passed criminally unbullied and untroubled in this one).  Ken Sema and Juraj Kucka the other two replacements, the latter’s ill judgement resulting in an own goal from an Idah cut back that summed our evening up concisely.

5- In the closing minutes I was wished “good luck” in putting a positive spin on this one.  Well here goes.

We are at the lowest possible ebb, having been thrashed by a mediocre side in a game that we had hoped to win (NB:  that’s not the positive spin, that’s a statement of fact).  Nonetheless, we are no more “down” than Norwich were ten days ago, for all that Newcastle added to our weekend by spawning a win at Elland Road as I wrote this report.  The margins are fine when you’re at this end of the table;  nobody’s earning many points because you’re competing with teams that aren’t very good and don’t earn many points.  It won’t take a lot.  It didn’t take Norwich a lot.

Further, we don’t need to be good to survive, we merely need to be less bad than three other teams and in particular less bad than two teams who remain very bad despite this weekend’s results and against whom we have games in hand.

Of course if we continue to play with the lack of spirit, passion, belief and guile that we saw here we have no chance.  But things will improve.  Louza will return from AFCON to give that midfield some craft.  Sarr will recover to amplify our attacking threat and change the balance of our games by his mere presence.  In the meantime Samuel Kalu looks like giving us a proper right-sided option that our attack currently lacks.

Whether Claudio is around to oversee it seems questionable, and I confess to being conflicted.  A lot of the circumstances he’s dealing with are not of his creation… the squad makeup, AFCON, injuries, COVID and associated postponements.  Not his fault, and the decisions that he makes are broadly sensible, most of the time. But at the same time if you’re going to actively support a team you want to see some determination.  Some fight.  I’ve been criticised before for overvaluing that commodity, “trying hard” (I can hear you).  It’s not enough on it’s own, clearly.  But it’s something to cling to, something to justify trekking across the country, something that’s necessary and something whose absence the head coach can’t absolve himself of responsibility for, as if it’s outwith his control.  He’s not a passenger at a bus stop with the right to complain about the service’s unreliability.  He’s driving the bus.

We’re not done.  But there needs to be one hell of a reaction, whoever is at the helm.

See you at Turf Moor, obviously.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 1, Femenía 1, Kamara 2, Samir 3, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 2, Cleverley 2, João Pedro 3, Dennis 1, King 2
Subs: *Hernández (for Cleverley, 59) 3*, Sema (for Kamara, 84) NA, Kucka (for Femenía, 89) NA, Fletcher, Tufan, Morris, Ngakia, Elliot

Newcastle United 1 Watford 1 (15/01/2022) 15/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1-  So it’s not been a normal week, and this isn’t going to be a normal match report.  My COVID ticket came up on Monday;  after a couple of days of feeling dodgy I’m basically fine now and should thus be grateful for fortune, for the benefits of being vaccinated and so on.  As an asthmatic and a diabetic I’ve no real right to have expected such an easy ride.

But if I’m allowed to feel sorry for myself briefly the timing scotched what would have been a fine weekend, including costing me my (and the similarly afflicted Daughter 2)’s first away strike of the season.  I am now counting on LFTs giving me an early pass before a planned theatre outing on Wednesday, else I really WILL be grumpy.

Anyway.  This’ll be a briefer than normal account, reverting to reflections rather than a blow-by-blow because obviously I wasn’t there, and based on the stream that I would of watched if I did that sort of thing which obviously I don’t.

2- Firstly, the team looks a whole lot more credible all of a sudden.  The new boys of course, we’ll get to them… but also Foster and Dennis back in the fold, Cleverley finding his way back, Kabs on the bench.  Believable.  Post-AFCON you add Louza in particular to the mix and Sarr in the goodness of time and we have a team again at last.

And the debutants all looked good.  Hassane Kamara looked a bit excitable but exciting too, quick, dogged, discipline and determined.  One hell of an athlete, his afterburners saw him scorch the St James Park turf a couple of times and the leap that inadvertently took out Ryan Fraser was extraordinary.  Samir, meanwhile was part of a defence that held together well – Newcastle’s “one shot on target” conceals a good number of deliveries into the box in the first half in particular that we just about got away with but we did get away with it.  Nobody needs reminding of how often we’ve crumbled in the face of the merest pressure this season and Samir’s obdurate performance was part of that (peppered with a goodly amount of shouting and pointing in as much as that can be judged from a stream which obviously I wasn’t).  And Edo Kayembe gave us a much more solid presence at the back of the midfield;  he got forward too, playing one fabulous slide rule pass through for Joshua King in the second half and tantalisingly looking as if he was lining up a blind-side free kick around the outside of the wall before Emmanuel Dennis pulled rank in the first half.  Looks perfectly plausible that he and Louza could fit into the same midfield.

Worth noting again how well we’ve done in getting these guys lined up to come in so early in the window.  Contrast this with the lack of activity elsewhere in the Premier League – of the rest, only the urgent and well-backed Newcastle and the less urgent but still well-backed Villa have brought in anyone significant.

3- There are problems still, quite obviously. We got a few breaks in the first half against a side that, for all that they’ve brought in two disappointingly sensible looking signings, have been a bit pathetic for much of the season.  Kieran Trippier is a hell of a weapon… but you’d like to have seen a bit more assertiveness in dealing with those deliveries. 

There’s also got to be a concern that in many ways this was a game made for us, made for us to execute our threat such as it is.  A blunt forward line in front of an expectant crowd is asking to be caught on the break as it was here four years ago and we didn’t do nearly well enough transitioning the ball in the first half.  You want to see King, JP and Dennis spiralling away and forcing Newcastle to look over their shoulders, that wasn’t happening enough.

Perhaps reflecting that we look like a side that hasn’t won in a long time.  On top of the unfamiliarity of three new senior players there’s a tentativeness borne of thinking about things rather too much.  This was evident in much of our attacking play, even in a vastly improved second half (accommodated, it must be conceded, by Newcastle’s own caution in sitting back at one goal up).  So many of those counters were just a little bit of cockiness away from bearing fruit, King and Sissoko in particular overthinking what should have been straightforward finishes.

4- So thank heavens for João Pedro.  The goal, obviously, we’ll get to that, but overall the gradual flowering of the Brazilian continued with a performance full of personality. Not always entirely positively executed, admittedly… when Dennis made sure that everybody knew about Trippier’s snide arm in his chest on the touchline in the first half, JP was getting in faces straight away.  Thereafter he was the focus of the crowd, not to mention the Newcastle defence but composed himself and was a force for good throughout… quick, clever, observant and effective, he is as big an asset as Ismaïla Sarr.

His wasn’t the only strong performance.  Jeremy Ngakia put in a punchy show at right-back despite Newcastle frequently overloading down their left flank…  his mistake lead to Newcastle’s goal, but that was his only blemish and one he gets away with nine times out of ten.  The precocious Saint-Maximin capitalised, making the error seem worse than it was.

5- Nonetheless, in the dying minutes it felt like more of the same.  The variety in our performances of late had only been between games in which we we’ve been murdered and games in which we’ve put up a fight but not quite been good enough or lucky enough or simply enough.  

This time, however, we got a break.  And it’s a break that as above Newcastle had invited, and a break that we earned through persistence and a bit of quality, through substitute Kiko pulling out a bomb of a cross under ferocious and aggressive pressure and that man João Pedro leaping impossibly above much taller, much bigger opponents to thump a header past Dubravka.  In a small study in Bedfordshire I would have been wildly celebrating the development with Daughters 1 and 2 had we been watching a stream, which of course we weren’t.

How significant that goal will prove to be, time will tell.  It feels significant, for all that we couldn’t quite capitalise upon our momentum, having had much the better of the last half hour of the game, by burgling a winner.  It feels pivotal.  We remain, somehow, outside the relegation zone.  We (may) have the opportunity to pull ourselves seven points clear of the relegation zone before Newcastle play again.

A point’s a point, “any away point is a good one in the Premier League” and so on.  But recovering this point in these circumstances is more valuable still.  As an aside our second draw of the season backs up the suggestion that we’re suddenly better equipped to grind things out, for all that it comes against the same team against we earned our first.

It’s going to be a tight squeeze.  But we’re far from done.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Kamara 4, Cathcart 3, Samir 3, Kayembe 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 2, *João Pedro 4*, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Femenía (for Ngakia, 66) 4, Cleverley (for Kucka, 77) NA, Hernández (for Dennis, 84) NA, Morris, Kabasele, Sierralta, Tufan, Bachmann

Leicester City 4 Watford 1 (08/01/2022) 09/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- 

                  RENTON
      Good luck, Spud.

                   SPUD
      Cheers.

                  RENTON
      Now remember --

                   SPUD
      Yeah.

                  RENTON
      If they think you're not trying, 
      you're in trouble. First hint of 
      that, they'll be on to the DSS, 
      'This ****'s no trying' and your 
      Giro is ****ing finished, right?

                   SPUD
      Right.
RENTON But try too hard -- SPUD And you might get the ****ing job. RENTON Exactly. SPUD Nightmare. RENTON It's a tightrope, Spud, a ****ing tightrope. SPUD My problem is that I tend to clam up. I go dumb and I can't answer any questions at all. Nerves on the big occasion, like a footballer...

2- This was always going to be weird.  A curio, an odd hiatus between the start of everything changing – AFCON, the transfer window – and the now insanely critical seven days of fixtures that begins next Saturday.  Both sides came into the fixture ostensibly struggling to put credible sides out… and, perhaps, not wanting to for all that City were beginning the defence of the trophy and that we could do with finding some form and confidence as soon as possible whatever the competition.  Not a priority though, very clearly.  Maybe the trick was trying to lose without making it look like you were trying to lose.  Spud would have understood.

I’d tried to explain “bring your boots” to Daughters 1 and 2 on the drive up, Daughter 2 rolling her eyes as her elder sister briefly understood that she might genuinely get a call up.  Despite this, the two line-ups named were stronger than might have been anticipated with only a couple of kids in the Leicester starting eleven and James Morris debuting at left back for the Hornets.  The benches were more haphazard, but significantly still no place in the starting eleven for Dan Gosling.

From the off, any suggestion that this would be a half-hearted affair in which neither side would be putting too much effort into things was dispelled.  We witnessed a far more entertaining game than we had any right to expect which, whilst the end result was fully merited, was far more competitive for far longer than the scoreline might suggest.  There are things that we’re quite good at and there are things that we’re really very bad at.  None of this is news and the club have clearly had some ducks lined up to address the latter.  Today, Kamara had a token place on the bench – presumably insurance in case Morris, who looked punchy and positive, had a less capable debut than he did – but otherwise those solutions, adequate or otherwise, are still to come, whilst the travails of injuries, COVID and AFCON whilst affecting both sides left Leicester with more quality, particularly in midfield, than we could muster.

3- The start to the game clearly didn’t help us.  The smallest of footnotes is that the award of a corner after the ball was contested below the away end was utterly absurd but you’ve still got to defend it.  The delivery was of high quality and Francisco Sierralta grappled with Vestergaard – the Dane made the most of the contact but it was a penalty, the most telling aspect of which was Sierralta being caught cold by the run.  Once again the absence of WTE, error-prone or otherwise, was telling both in the general (lack of) shape of the defence and in Sierralta’s performance in particular.  The Chilean, who has had enough football this season now to be reasonably classified as “a bit disappointing” in the top flight, is a weapon that needs to be pointed in the right direction.  One hopes that Samir is a talker.

Bachmann dived the right way but didn’t get close to Tielemans’ spot-kick. From there an open game saw chances at both ends…  we know that we can hurt teams and Leicester’s patched-up defence was there to be got at.  A decent move down the left – where Morris, as during pre-season, provided a more than adequate supply line – saw Tom Cleverley’s fierce low drive blocked.  Another saw Sissoko crash his trademark effort over the bar at a stage where we were still positive enough about the whole thing to turn around and grin ruefully at strangers at this already established theme.

The focus will be on the defence again and understandably so given the leaden attempts to obstruct City as they swept through for their second, a terrific move that saw Lookman feed Maddison to chip over Bachmann as he had into the same net six weeks earlier.  The midfield’s an issue too though, and as such whilst the signings of Kamara and Samir are welcome and needed, Kayembe’s arrival is significant also.  If you’re going to play a 4-3-3 you’re asking an awful lot of the three…  they need to be a solid, mobile unit with enough quality to be both potent and obstructive.  We don’t have Doucs, Capoue and Will Hughes any more, and whilst Ranieri has achieved a credible midfield when Sissoko and Louza are both available, the loss of the Moroccan (combined perhaps with the ongoing absence of Etebo) leaves us looking flimsy in the middle.  Tom Cleverley wasn’t up to speed today, and whilst Ozan Tufan made more of an impact in attacking areas than previously he still looked heavy and slow both of body and mind.  

4- That second goal would have been miserable enough to kill any spirit in the away end, but for the fact that we struck back immediately.  The three forwards combined to create the opening, with Ashley Fletcher’s critical involvement comfortably his most effective of the afternoon.  He looks far more convincing as a target man with bodies hanging off him than he does loping into space down the flanks, and here his sublime touch under pressure released João Pedro to lift the ball over Ward.

This ignited the away end – indeed both daughters voluntarily stood in excitement for the first time – and whilst the score remained at 2-1 for half an hour or so either side of half time we looked the more convincing side for the only spell in the game.  We moved the ball well and made Leicester look nervous – young left back Vontae Daley-Campbell was generously spared a second yellow on the basis that he slipped as he crashed into João Pedro.  The slip, justification for the leniency or otherwise, was unseen by the away support in the opposite corner of the arena, who were outraged.  Attempts to expose the left back once again before his inevitable replacement at the break saw the relentlessly positive Jeremy Ngakia receive a clever long ball before crashing through the youngster and setting up João Pedro; the Brazilian’s shot and Ngakia’s follow up were both blocked as the home side scrambled to maintain parity at the break.

The third goal, then, was the critical one really.  For all the encouragement we knew that the back door was always open, that we wouldn’t have long to level the scores and shift the emotional pressures of the game.  Harvey Barnes’ tidy finished was briefly interrupted by an offside flag but VAR redressed that error.  

image_50411265 (1)

We made a triple-switch of our own in response, another statistical curiosity to list alongside Cucho’s 100th minute subbing in last week coming when the official arrival times of the three spanned six minutes, interrupted as the substitution was by the floodlights temporarily failing.  At no point did we look like fighting back again however;  Kucka for Tufan was a popular switch but the Slovak was no more impactful, while Dan Gosling’s anonymous performance didn’t challenge his lack of involvement.  When our two most convincing performers, Sissoko and João Pedro, were withdrawn into cotton wool to be replaced by young debutants Kamil Conteh and burly seventeen year-old Shaq Forde Claudio was publicly decreeing that we’d done enough for the DSS.  We weren’t going to chase this any more, the game was up.

5- Understandable as that call may have been, and speaking having only missed the Liverpool debacle thus far, the last fifteen minutes were the most miserable of the season, a circumstance only partly reflecting problems on the pitch.  

It’s argued frequently that supporters who pay to follow their team have the right to express their views as they see fit, within reason.  I have some sympathy with that, but would still reserve the right to judge people based on the views that choose to express and their manner of doing so.  There’s nothing witty or effective in suggesting that Jamie Vardy (in this instance) is a sex offender.  Asking Leicester fans whether they cried when Deeney scored after nine years during which the Foxes have won the Championship, the League title and the FA Cup as well as enjoying three seasons in Europe is as moronic as it is crass.  Not to mention counterproductive.

This was all before the game had really started.  None of it reflected goings on on the pitch.  It came back to bite us, obviously, when Leicester’s support, who can normally be relied upon to be boisterously behind their own side in preference to digging out their opponents – there’s an idea – turned the scarcely more inspired “Luton get battered…” into a noisy “Watford get battered…” that lasted the final ten minutes or so during which we had a bunch of kids, several of whom making debuts, performing a thankless task on the pitch and our own doughnut army had long since disappeared from a half-empty stand, gurning into the night.  

On the pitch, Daniel Bachmann – whose good days aren’t nearly reliably frequent enough – pulled out a couple of smart saves but the second of those saw a kind rebound fall to Albrighton to complete the scoring.  At the other end, Cucho spent the last fifteen minutes scampering around after scraps.  His persistence saw him through on goal in the dying minutes, a lack of confidence borne of however many defeats on the hop now meant that he didn’t apply a finish that would have been automatic and instinctive in happier times.  The contrast with Leicester’s kids, who were visibly growing in confidence in the light of their experience, couldn’t have been starker.

The best thing about a football crowd is its unifying nature.  Folk from all walks of life behind a a common goal.  It’s illusory, of course.  That cross-section of society contains all sorts, some of whom are morons at each club.  This season we seem to be carrying more than normal.

See you at St James’ Park.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Ngakia 3, Morris 3, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 2, Tufan 2, Cleverley 2, Sissoko 3, Hernández 3, *João Pedro 3*, Fletcher 2
Subs: Sema (for Fletcher, 58) 3, Gosling (for Cleverley, 63) 1, Kucka (for Tufan, 64) 2, Forde (for João Pedro, 74) 2, Conteh (for Sissoko, 74) 3, Agyakwa, King, Kamara, Elliot

Watford 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (01/01/2022) 02/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- I’m very conscious that writing and talking about football professionally (rather than writing about it in my spare time and talking about it at work when I’m being paid, in theory, to do something else) wouldn’t bestow the gift of extra hours in the week.  One wouldn’t have the capacity to watch all of the Premier League games and keep up with the Football League and the European Leagues, and everything else.  And do a job.  Wouldn’t happen.

Nonetheless.  If you’re being paid to talk about football you kind of owe it to the world to do more than recycle pub bore level clichés.  You’re being paid to provide insight, no?  To add something, even if it’s just your opinion.  Watford aren’t going to be many neutrals’ priority when it comes to Premier League coverage… but there’s been astonishing laziness available in this week’s podcasts, not for the first time.  Read off statistics… “Claudio Ranieri’s lost eight of his ten games in charge…   so he’s really struggling…  Fulham…  he’s 70 you know….” before falling back on “Watford, they sack managers don’t they… hur hur… is it your turn next week Dave…”.  And so on.

I’d argue that there have only been four bad defeats under Claudio, and two of those were in his opening three games where some leeway has to be given.  Unfortunately the other two were our two most recent fixtures.  So there was a sense of trepidation before this one amongst those more invested and informed than those pundits.  Vicky’s face darkened at the prospect, her partner a Spurs fan.  Dad cited his 94 year old mother’s temporary presence in the household as a reason to opt out given associated risks.  Will decided against ferrying his two young herberts down the M1 from Leeds.  All completely understandable.  This was not a fixture that screamed “here’s where we turn the corner”.

Those of us who made it went in with zero expectations, which can be a liberating experience.  Nothing to be lost when you’re presuming nothing and who knows?  Perhaps we’d pull something out of the bag.

2- We didn’t pull anything out of the bag,  but this was destined to be a great deal better than advertised. The availability randomiser dealt William Troost-Ekong back into the mix with Clevs and Jeremy Ngakia fit enough to be back on the bench but Kiko slipping out of the reckoning; the headline news however was a very evident change in emphasis.

Attack pretty good, defence very bad.  In fact, on Tuesday defence very very bad.  So here comes 4-4-2 with the availability of one senior full back countered by, effectively, casting two full backs on each side with Ken Sema and Juraj Kucka doubling up in front of Masina and Cathcart respectively.  “Come and have a go if you think you’re imaginative enough”.

It felt like a big ask, sacrificing as it did any semblance of attacking threat in the first half. That, it appeared, was the trade-off…  but we’d have taken it for a point.  Nonetheless, the crowd was subdued despite the approach’s early successes.  Spurs had almost all of the ball of course but we looked a far more stubborn outfit all round with Kucka in particular, who had been a passable deputy at right back against West Ham, revelling in his role as Senior Assistant to the Right Back in perhaps his best 45 minutes in yellow since the opening day.  Ken Sema did a similar job on the left, but Ken’s a nice bloke whilst Juraj is a bastard.  This was a time for bastards.

Spurs were to fashion chances.  Reguilón shot from outside the box and forced a smart save by Bachmann to his left.  Kane shot straight at the keeper.  But these were the increasingly impatient efforts from a side that couldn’t penetrate because there was no space to penetrate. Any crosses that did find their way into the box were met by the head of Francisco Sierralta, so much more convincing today with WTE next to him telling him when to do what.

There was one proper chance for Spurs in the first half, this created by the combination of us making a rare sortie upfield and the visitors undertaking some rare pressing.  Daniel Bachmann underhit a pass to Louza, Skipp seized on the lack of control and fed Kane who, in keeping with a largely tranquilised performance, slid his shot wide of Bachmann’s post to the relief of the Rookery, fingers embedded in scalps.

3- The big caveat was that we hadn’t looked remotely effective as an attacking unit.  Reduced from a three to a two and with only the rampaging Sissoko offering any suggestion of bodily support Joshua King and Emmanuel Dennis had been chasing scraps and rarely doing as much as holding the ball up.  Dennis was particularly subdued and ineffective – this wasn’t his game at all, and whilst he is capable of being many things a target man is not one of them.  Nonetheless, it was difficult not to view his performance through the prism of the week’s surprise development, the capitalising on the Nigerian FA’s seemingly sloppy admin in calling him up late.  A bold call, understandable if his destiny would have been warming a bench for Nigeria given our next two League fixtures but counterproductive if the player’s not on board.

In any event, forty five minutes of that was already an achievement.  Another forty five of the same with a limited number of strong, fully fit options on the bench, tiring legs and minds and no ability to give the defence a breather felt horribly ambitious despite the small victory of half time parity.   Interesting, then, that we chose to spend one of those options at the break, bringing João Pedro on for Dennis.

This heralded a much more open second half…  as the brakes came off the breaks were on and the crowd ignited.  In the context of 13 points and however-many-it-is-now defeats we’ve had more than our fair share of fun this season, and bellowing “gowooooooooooooon!!!” or similar as we scream forward on the break is right up there, even when (as in this game) it ultimately comes to nothing.  In the first half the one instance of lack of togetherness had come when Bachmann collected in a congested penalty area and looked for an escaping runner to throw to, bellowing in frustration on seeing only the triple-marked Dennis on the move.  Here we’re more potent from the off, Joshua King the first to threaten with a smart low shot across the face from left to right that forced Lloris into a fine save.

4- Spurs  have a bit more space to move in too, of course, and come close when Moura lifts a ball through for Son to volley across goal prompting the stop of the game from Bachmann.  Kane swings his left foot at a dipping shot that forces a push over.  They’re still not getting much of a sight on goal however, in stark contrast to Tuesday when any West Ham amble towards the penalty area seemed to provoke a parting of the waves.

The biggest change in the second half is the ambition and swagger in our attack, infused in no small part by the arrival of João Pedro.  Dennis, it seems, may have picked up a knock – but either way the Brazilian’s deceptive physicality as much as his touch gave us a threat that hadn’t been there before.  One buccaneering run saw him zigzag across the pitch, twice emerging from apparently hopelessly crowded out positions with the ball at his feet.  On the second of these occasions the official had been as duped as anybody, believing that the Brazilian had lost control under illegal pressure and blowing up just as the forward burrowed out of the tangle of legs.  Unfortunate, and an error from the official.

Referee Robert Jones was to attract the irritation of the home stands in the second half as he had from the away end in the first but in truth he had a decent enough game for the most part.  Most of the criticism resulted from what was perceived as leniency but we’d benefitted from this in the opening period as we had, in general, from the same official’s approach at Carrow Road in September.  I’ve got no problem with a referee erring on the side of letting the game flow, particularly when it spares us two soft but “you’ve seen them given” penalties in the first 45 and discourages Harry Kane from looking for more.

The two biggest Watford bones of contention were a ferocious challenge from Davies on Louza midway into our half (and replayed instantly and irresponsibly on the big screen) where the defender appeared to go over the ball under the nose of the referee, and a later Watford break that saw King feed João Pedro through on goal.  Lloris reacted quickly and came out to meet the attack – the arrival of both parties at the ball was simultaneous enough to justify a loud penalty appeal but in truth, on viewing the replay, it was neither a penalty nor a dive.  Contact of both players with the ball at the same moment sent the ball wide and the striker onto the deck, the frustration in the away stands at the reaction speed of the goalkeeper that denied us an improbable win.  A point and a first clean sheet, however, would still have been a positive outcome.

5- It wasn’t to be.  And you can focus on Kucka’s ill-judged foul as Spurs once again tried to find a way into our penalty area, or Sierralta being outjumped by Sánchez, or Bachmann flying out and getting nowhere near the cross.  There was always a chance of this happening…  tickets, raffles.  The strategy of ceding possession and blocking space relied on absolute concentration and a bit of luck and in the 96th minute, after an interlude for a fan to receive treatment, both failed us.  The defeat also owes a lot, in fairness, to the relentless focus of the visitors – something not always associated with Spurs teams in the past.  Very few histrionics here, very few tantrums as the frustration at lack of progress must have built, not much in the way of testing the referee after he’d set a tone in the first half.  Just a concentrated belief in what they were doing, something that was true of both sides.

The outcome was a punch in the guts, the despair evident on all our players’ faces at the final whistle.  By this time Cucho had achieved the rare feat of coming on as a sub in the 100th minute;  Aasha and Sammy were in attendance for the first time since the opening day, but the Colombian wasn’t able to pull a scorcher out on this occasion.

Six defeats on the hop then, and maybe Claudio is in trouble but I don’t think we’re very far away from being a much more effective side.  What the head coach has achieved is to fashion a credible midfield despite the rotating pieces, to deal with limited defensive options that are themselves hit by injuries and to cope without Ismaïla Sarr since his first few games in charge.  Sarr is good enough to change the balance of a game either by his contribution or by the theoretical threat that dissuades opponents from overcommitting…  but his absence is so forgotten that those same pundits refer to Emmanuel Dennis as our “one hope”.

Whether Sarr is genuinely a hope depends on quite how bad this injury is, but a forward line boasting Sarr, Dennis and King with João Pedro and Cucho as options is huge fun.  A midfield marshalled by the tremendous Sissoko with Louza pinging balls around and delivering quality from set pieces is more than credible.  We know that there will be surgery to the defence – indeed for a number of reasons the side that travels to St James Park in a fortnight will bear little resemblance to this one.

But we’re past the stage where encouraging performances are enough.  We’d all take a spawny win at Newcastle earned by a dodgy penalty over another honourable defeat.  Get yourself up there if you possibly can, it’s a mission but a fabulous experience.  Daughters 1 and 2 have a back seat covered in duvets already booked.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 4, Cathcart 3, Masina 3, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Kucka 4, *Sissoko 4*, Louza 4, Sema 3, Dennis 2, King 3
Subs: João Pedro (for Dennis, 45) 4, Cleverley (for Louza, 91) NA, Hernández (for Sema, 100) NA, Gosling, Fletcher, Morris, Ngakia, Angelini