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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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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

Comments»

1. leecoan - 22/01/2022

“Hearty cake of shit” – that’s it, that’s what it was.

2. paullbaxter - 22/01/2022

I normally agree pretty much with your ratings as opposed to the WO’s random scores but I don’t think Bachman can be blamed at all here. It’s odd that I was much crosser at the Brentford performance where we invited them to score. Here we would have won on another day where the Dennis first yellow card was a changed to a straight red for the dreadful two footed challenge in that incident on him by the Norwich CB. I was much crosser after the Brentford debacle where we invited them to score. We are odds on to go down but not certain to go down. We need one other team worse than Norwich, Burnley and us as I’m sure Newcastle will spend their way to safety. Brentford are a way ahead of us but very capable of a spectacular implosion. That’s my hope.

Matt Rowson - 23/01/2022

Bachmann could be faulted for at least the first two goals and doesn’t come for anything.

3. Jeff - 22/01/2022

I’m also not sure about CR.
I think it’s been easy to forget that his first 6 games were just about the toughest starting games any coach could have had. I stated at the time (and stand by it) that an XM team wouldn’t have got a single point from that run of games. To be there’s been 3 awful performances since then: last night West Ham and Southampton, a couple of bang average ones, Brentford and Newcastle and a decent one, Spurs.
The theme for me is that at home the lesser teams, like us, are less inclined to sit deep and play tightly, leaving it wide open for teams to cut them apart. Playing against home is currently a curse.

4. Ray Knight - 23/01/2022

I don’t believe it’s a lack of effort on the part of the players. There is a tactical deficiency in getting past teams who sit back and most of all no creativity in midfield. Claverley is not the force he was and although we have sufficient ball winners nobody is capable of threading it through. Nice to read a post not slagging off CR70, the Pozzos and Duxbury however. We have some incredibly deluded supporters. We wouln’t have a club if Bassini had been left in charge. Note to self –
I must move seat next season. The guy next to me spent the autumn attacking Sarr. On Friday it was the owners/ management. It is apparent to me he never kicked a football in his life. Besides VAR, the whole EPL TV circus most of all I’d prefer for us to lose any entitled ( I really support Chelsea!) Fairweather fans if we drop down again. But we are not gone yet, but anything less than a win against Burnley and it could be season over.

Matt Rowson - 23/01/2022

The entitlement is very tiresome

5. Ben - 23/01/2022

Top stuff Matt. A pleasingly cathartic (Cathcartic?) read as ever. COYH

6. Ian Grant - 23/01/2022

There was one bit which absolutely did my nut in and continues to do so. The floodlight failure could’ve been a pivotal moment. Bad stuff had just happened; we had an opportunity to galvanise ourselves, react to it and sort it out. If there’s a Deeney or a Eustace on the pitch, or a pretender to that throne, you know they’re making damn sure that every single player on that team is right at it when play re-starts. Deeney would’ve had them in a huddle, Eustace was always less theatrical, but it doesn’t matter how you take command of that situation as long as you do. Instead, we re-started as if we’d spent the downtime daydreaming of our summer holidays.

The flaw in the Pozzo model, for all that it’s brought us success and will hopefully do so again, is that you just end up with a load of disparate, replaceable things floating around without any centre of gravity. Once you’ve reached that point, it’s very hard to rectify without changing the approach in some fundamental way.

Wrighty - 23/01/2022

Oooh, I thought (alongside why is this happening more regularly than I can remember), this floodlight stoppage gives us a chance to regroup at a pivotal time. But no, not unless you were in a Norwich shirt.
This worries me more than anything else, this acceptance of what is happening rather than the urge to change it

7. David G - 23/01/2022

31 years ago in 1991, my first serious season as a fan, I remember a 0-3 midweek home reverse to a Blackburn Rovers side who occupied another of the relegation places. It seemed certain to condemn us to relegation and I think the players lost the fans that night. This was under a manager, Steve Perryman, who had come in a few months earlier to mixed effect and an owner who was not universally loved. Can Ranieri do a Perryman and get a “hell of a response” from this low point as Matt rightly states is needed? And as Ian observes in the comments, do we have the inspirational figures in this team to drive the rest along (Roeder, Porter, James, Wilkinson, Falconer back then?) Football is a completely different beast now to what it was then (and I appreciate I am going back a long way to a not perfect comparison – but the 0-3 symmetry made me think of this night!), but I think the observations about what is needed from the manager and the group of players as humans and professionals are bang on the money, as we all come to expect from Matt and Ian over the years. And yes, it is not all over, just as it was not in 1991, it turned out we were less bad than 3 other teams when we got our act together!

Matt Rowson - 23/01/2022

That Blackburn game was horrible. Worse than Friday. Steve Livingstone, shudder…

8. Harefield Hornet - 23/01/2022

John Stanton’s thinly disguised attack on Ranieri and our Modus Operandi, which featured on the BBC football site, succeeded in making me even more desperate than I already was for us to win this game. You’ve summed up the situation we find ourselves in brilliantly above, and I can’t help feeling that the burden of expectancy weighed heavily on the team on Friday night and was counter-productive, but this is a high pressure situation, and if they can’t cope I fear the worst. I believe CR should be given more time with the new recruits and the returning absentees before the trigger is pulled on this occasion – surely he deserves that at least?

9. John H - 23/01/2022

Well, we are certainly “looking upwards instead of downwards” now! 🙁

10. Rupe - 23/01/2022

The fact that Feminia and Kabasele are still at the club in 2022 is the crux of the problem. How many bottling out of challenges will it take for people to realize that he is horrendous at actually defending and how many completely bone headed if not also bottling decisions from Kabasele for the same to be realized? I was informed that Feminia was clapped off by Watford fans when he was substituted – for what? – existing? If Mick Quinn had once one a funny t-shirt should he still be starting up front for us?
The recruitment has been nothing short of disgraceful combined with the never ending contract extensions for visibly declining aging players such as Cathcart, Cleverley and Foster and in the past Gomes and Mariappa as well as for players not fit for purpose – Kabasele who was given a four year extension after being complicit in our relegation and Sema who was given four years even when he had two left. To replace Hughes with Kucka who would struggle to keep up in a Soccer Aid game possibly the worst decision of all.
Combine this with the willful decision not to invest in a Category One academy despite around 600m in TV income in the last 6 years and its not really Watford anymore is it? Its Player Trading Vehicle FC.

Steve G - 24/01/2022

This seems a bit harsh to me, Rupe – Kiko was one of our best players last year and while we’ve always known that he isn’t the most solid of defenders, he’s offered a lot going forward, especially in partnership with Sarr, although we haven’t had the chance to see that combination in action much this season. It’s only a week since an excellent assist for the equaliser at Newcastle. Kabasele is OK – not a world beater, but at a club like ours, he seems to me (as with Mariappa) a decent player to have in the squad as a back-up. If we had our full squad available, he wouldn’t be in the starting line-up (and maybe not even on the bench). It’s not so long ago that people were making similarly disparaging comments about Craig Dawson and (much to my surprise, I admit) he’s gone on to be well regarded at a ‘better’ team.

I absolutely agree that we miss Hughes desperately (and possibly more could have been done to persuade him to stay), and that both Kucka and Tufan have been disappointing to date, but arguably Louza (and/or Etebo) were the like for like replacements here.

I also agree that Deeney’s days as a striker leading the line were over – I mused a while back about whether we might still get some benefit from his leadership and combative presence for another season or two by converting him to a central defender, but now we’ll never know whether that would have worked for us.

11. Rupe - 23/01/2022

Any reason why you removed my comments?

Matt Rowson - 23/01/2022

Didn’t remove. All need to be approved… TGI keep things civil.

12. davejackson - 23/01/2022

I heard this comment about Friday night …” bad play stopped light”.

Matt Rowson - 23/01/2022

very good

13. Ray Knight - 24/01/2022

I think we will look back at Friday’s game as quite a bizarre experience. The stats suggest we were dominant and in control. It never ever felt like that. Half time suggested a big fat nil nil scoreline it had been such a poor game. Norwich showed resolve something missing from most of their 21 previous games. Plus they made their own luck like 3 goals from 2 shots, two of our defenders caught on the wrong side for the first two etc. I visioned fleeteningly in the second half Gino Pozzo pulling the electric plug on the lights to get the game called off. The disruption worked in their favour as it turned out. I have no problem sticking with CR70, as I can’t see any coach out there who is a shoe in to turn it around. It would also any the media and no all pundits no end.


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