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Manchester United 0 Watford 0 (26/02/2022) 27/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
2 comments

1- It’s difficult to know how to react to seismic world events.  

However terrible, however consequential, however affecting, and presuming that such events are taking place at a distance, on a TV screen rather than in the next street, there’s a stifling sense of impotence that comes with major developments.  And if, for example, there’s a woman in the office who explodes passionately, fervently and perhaps even slightly seriously with a determination to take arms and head for Ukraine then she’ll be subdued into inertia by the awkward silence that follows, to which the subtext is “how about a cup of tea instead?”.

Perhaps nothing will change until people do react dramatically and overcome their inertia, and this means not just Ukraine (or even particularly Ukraine, since Russia’s troops would surely see limited deterrent in an overweight 49 year-old statistician with a pointed stick) but any of the outrages perpetrated in the name of (different groups of) the people in recent years.  Until that point, the only available course of action is to carry on.

An so here we are, carrying on, making our way along the Bridgewater Canal towards Old Trafford past the loading yards boasting mountains of crates claiming origins from Hamburg to China.  When we get to the stadium there’s little evidence of what’s going on elsewhere in the world and plenty of people just carrying on…  as we make our way back – somehow perpetually against the flow of bodies – at the end of the game one of the tunnelled walkways under Old Trafford briefly explodes into “Putin is a wanker!” which is at least something, even if it effectively boils down to less than a pointed stick.

2- There is, famously, a lot to be said for just carrying on in trying circumstances, as we will demonstrate today.  We are helped on our way by the fact that, as has been the case for a decade or so now, this is no longer that Manchester United.  No longer a side so driven and dynamic and well coached that the psychological burden of trepidation on the visiting team is enough to smooth over many of the home side’s relatively bad days.  Awful home defeats to Crystal Palace notwithstanding (and apologies, but midweek reporting capability remains patchy at best) it says a lot that it was possible to squint at this and say “you know what, maybe…”, surely inconceivable as a relegation threatened club at Old Trafford “back in the day”.

“I’ve heard of him!” proclaims Daughter 2 as we make our way past the Sir Alex Ferguson stand.  Since she was only four when United’s figurehead stepped down this was not to a given but she’s here today having never been to Manchester, and finds a place hamstrung by a sense of presumptuous entitlement no longer substantiated by what goes on on the pitch.  This is evident in the grotesquely complacent, underloved stadium and in the treatment of visiting supporters that is in stark contrast with the charm offensive ever more evident at other grounds.  You wouldn’t expect the token gesture of yellow, black (AND RED) shirts on the staff in the kiosks here – £2.50 for a bottle of water decanted into a flimsy plastic pint glass is much more on brand.

On the pitch the unreasonable level of expectation is surely a millstone around the necks of younger United players in particular, but nobody embodies the presumptuous entitlement more absolutely than the preening totem that is Cristiano Ronaldo.  “Lionel Messi, he’s better than you” is a predictable enough chant that he’ll have heard a thousand times before.  “Ken Sema, he’s better than you” perhaps less frequently.

Nonetheless, whilst he may no longer be the best/second best player in the world he’s more than good enough to cause us problems underneath all that hair gel.  In the opening minutes he receives a ball from the right as Cathcart slips in the area and plants a shot past Foster and off the face of the post.  So much for “keep it tight, boys”.

3- The Rowson clan are out in some force today;  Dad’s here, and Will has brought his herberts over from Leeds.  The younger of the two is a girl after my own heart, earnestly clutching an A5 sheet of paper and a purple marker to count off shots, cards, corners and goals from both teams.  The reverse of the sheet is reserved for “Ben Foster being brilliant”, and will receive the most attention.

United are all over us.  Not in a “this is coming” kinda way, not an irresistible wave of red shirts… but we’re very much second best nonetheless.  An offside-looking Fernandes breaks through to be denied brilliantly, bravely by Foster, and soon after drives a shot through that bounces off an affronted looking Ronaldo and away.  Ronaldo converts a Telles cross only to be rightly pulled back for a narrow offside – as at Arsenal, had our defending been slightly less incompetent, the otherwise impeccable Samir slow to react as Ronaldo sprang past him, the Portuguese might have been played onside and scored anyway.  

Foster was out quickly again at the feet of Ronaldo. Fernandes contrived to shovel a left wing cross wide, and then headed over after Ronaldo broke but was forced wide by Foster’s advance.  That incident had been preceded by Louza snarling into a loose ball but then having his ankle trodden on, seemingly accidentally, by Fred who initiated the break.  Our midfield trio throughout looked suddenly utterly convincing, as at Villa Park – Louza hungry for the ball despite pressure at the back of the trio, Sissoko enjoying his best game for a while and bullying Pogba and co in the middle of the park, Cleverley sustaining his fervent energy long enough to be applauded from all sides on his 80th minute withdrawal.

Nonetheless, our limited success and confidence in front of goal of late and Roy’s conservativism mean that our threat on the break is limited.  That’s not a knock at Roy necessarily, and maybe if and as things improve our counters will be coupled with a confident cutting edge that renders them more effective. Here, though, Sissoko’s most effective charge of the half sees him, perhaps wisely, opt against a shot to square to Sarr instead, the winger being smothered out as this attack went the way of several others.

Meanwhile in the corner in front of us the linesman executes the first of a peculiar trio of calls, suggesting an innate moral objection to the ball being shepherded out of play by awarding a corner for an imperceptible touch by the shuffling and baffled Kamara.  The same official will repeat the trick twice more in similar circumstances, but in general the apprehension of being officiated by Kevin Friend at Old Trafford proves unsubstantiated… indeed, he resists the temptation to award the home side a spot kick for Cathcart’s surgically precise tackle on Elanga, whose momentum takes him over it.  VAR confirms the call – a second half appeal by Ronaldo after he deliberately runs into Kamara, falls over and sits with his arms outstretched in outrage doesn’t even earn that – nor, indeed, any support from his team mates who one presumes have seen this before.  As he slows up, perhaps Ronaldo is reverting to the gravitationally challenged bad habits of his first days at Old Trafford.

united

4- In the aftermath of Wednesday’s disappointment against Palace it’s worth reflecting that, after weeks and months of objections of a lack of on pitch plan or identity we now, unequivocally and indisputably, have one.  It may prove inadequate as we run out of road and has thus far demonstrably been unsuccessful at Vicarage Road (though the nadir remains Norwich, pre-Hodgson, who inherited a run of five consecutive home defeats which now stretches to seven).  But it’s there, and has yielded an unlikely looking four points from two difficult away trips in a week after less rewarded reasons for optimism in Roy and Ray’s first two.  

To reiterate, whilst we were second best here, to varying degrees, throughout the game we earned a point through a combination of the plan being sound, the plan meaning that being a bit lucky was enough to get that draw, and of hanging in there.  Of keeping going.  Of having the strength of mind and purpose not to be phased by narrow squeaks, just as so much of Luther’s success even longer ago than Sir Alex was based on not being phased by missing chances.  

And the second half was an improvement on the first in terms of balance of play.  United brought on Sancho who played down the left and was a similarly sprightly, ineffective threat to that suggested at Vicarage Road earlier in the season.  Never been the same player since he left Watford. He faced Craig Cathcart for the most part, since Roy opted to replace Jeremy Ngakia with the seemingly back in the fold (good!) Christian Kabasele.  The first half had seen both full backs display their characteristic vulnerable exuberance but Ngakia, in to cover the unexplained absence of Kiko, more nervously.  

United’s chances were generally fewer and further between after the break but this wasn’t saying a lot and they still fashioned openings that might have punished us on a bad day… Elanga started and ended the most fluid move of the game, an interplay of such startling elegance that it woke the home stands up if only briefly  (explaining what “ground full of tourists” was all about took much of the walk back to the car).  Later in the game, just as we were thinking that maybe however stoic the defending and however good the plan United had to get a break eventually Fernandes’ cross hit Cristiano Ronaldo and Foster gratefully scrambled to the loose ball.  In a last act of defiance, Samir executed an inhuman block to deny Fernandes as United pushed.

We had attacks too though, and if we were still second best at least we were throwing a few punches.  King, who struggled on the left for much of the game, fed Dennis whose sharp shot was killed by an unfavourable deflection.  Sarr, who occasionally looked as if he’d been restrained from attacking with abandon, surged through and fed Dennis; his effort was blocked, De Gea was beaten to the high ball and Kamara cut inside to shoot excitedly over.  Juraj Kucka came off the bench for a dynamic, chest-beating cameo – Dave, who had started the game by drumming on my back as if he was the sugar-high primary school child but mercifully calmed down, suggested that this was the role he should have been playing all season, agent of chaos off the bench but for, you know, stuff.  

In the dying seconds, the possibility of glorious daylight robbery.  We’d passed Danny Webber arriving as we traversed the car park before the game – he once executed a similar burglary at Leicester in the dying minutes.  Here it was Isma, cutting in from the left and finding United’s defence unusually inattentive, backing off.  He pinged a shot towards the top corner which for half a second from our angle looked like it was going in.  The celebration, had that happened, would still be rolling around the otherwise empty Old Trafford stands but it wasn’t to be, curling narrowly and cruelly over the bar.

5- There’s no knocking a draw at Old Trafford.  As at Villa – before one point became three – there’s the suspicion that it’s not quite enough but a third League point at this venue and the first since November 1985 is not to be taken lightly.

As for what comes next…  it should be stating the obvious that our home form is the biggest obstacle to our escape since there are still plenty of games to be played and plenty of bad teams within reach. 

The thing about probability is that there’s a huge grey area between a racing certainty and a dead horse and when you’re in that grey area all sorts of anxious tendencies come to the fore.  Many of them are essentially cowardly – or at the very least lacking in courage, which isn’t quite the same thing – easier to protect yourself from hurt and emotional vulnerability by writing off the shades of grey as black.  “We were down weeks ago, lads”. 

Being positive, refusing to accept that the game is lost, is in its own way no less cowardly.  A refusal to accept reality, perhaps.

But it is more fun.  With or without a pointed stick.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 4*, Ngakia 3, Kamara 3, Cathcart 3, Samir 4, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 2, King 2
Subs: Sema (for King, 63) 3, Kabasele (for Ngakia, 63) 3, Kucka (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Hernández, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, João Pedro, Bachmann

Aston Villa 0 Watford 1 (19/02/2022) 20/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- Balls to the League table.

Balls to the fact that this was our first win since, like, forever.  Balls to being four points behind Newcastle, balls to Burnley winning at Brighton.  Balls, even, to Roy’s “let’s not kid ourselves that we’ve cracked it” post-match wisdom.

Balls to all of it.  We’ve just won a football match.

And we knew that we’d feel differently as soon as it happened.  That all the gloominess would lift, that the apathy towards the next fixture, the resentful apprehension towards the rest of the season and the grim acceptance of relegation would dissipate.

It was still a startling, breathtaking development.  There is joy in the world again.

2- Little sign of it earlier in the day.  Little sign that our fortunes were going to change.  We left home in truculent drizzle; within fifteen minutes I’d taken a wrong turn adding ten minutes to the journey, autopilot taking me towards Rushden Lakes rather than northwards towards the A14.  The motorways offered water and puddles and stop-start traffic.  The previous day had been full of “don’t leave home unless you have to” weather warnings and here we were heading for Birmingham not even sure if we wanted to any more let alone had to.  In the top tier of the Doug Ellis Stand having hauled ourselves up several flights of stairs we joined a queue to the single refreshment kiosk stretching along the back of the stand that had the sombre air of folk lining up for their own execution.  “Alcohol is not served in the away section” read a voice behind me in a neutral tone as we approached a menu of offerings ten minutes into the queuing process.  After a moment’s contemplation the speaker sighed and abandoned the exercise.  Shortly afterwards an elderly steward offered an untargeted apology, the hot food hadn’t yet reached the required temperature and wouldn’t be available for a while.  Grim acceptance, as with so much these days.  “There had better be chocolate”, growled Daughter 2 rebelliously.

Only as we enter the body of the stadium itself did the tone change.  It would be wrong to regard the wind, the dying embers of Storm Eunice rolling startlingly around Villa Park, as a “leveller”.  With that sort of attitude, the “everyone’s ultimately better than us” attitude, we’ve no chance.  But there was certainly a feel of something in the air – and more than just the paper bag that buffeted irretrievably across our vision for much of the afternoon.  This was an afternoon for drama and great deeds.

And to general relief we’d come dressed for the occasion.  João Pedro was missing with an unspecified knock, but Ismaïla Sarr and Imrân Louza were restored to a 4-3-3 in what looked closer to a first choice eleven than we’ve been able to field for a long time.  

The opening was physical, boisterous and, in the wide-eyed words of Daughter 2, “so intense”.  Villa had by far the best of it, probing and pushing and enjoying the vast majority of possession – indeed they spent the first minute and a half passing the ball around in their own half as we waited.

As they progressed towards our penalty area the various threats represented by Coutinho, Buendía and Digne asked questions of us.  These questions were answered and thrusts repelled, often by the impeccable Cathcart who as previously suits the Hodgson philosophy of everyone being in the right place (which we’ll get to) down to a tee…  but it was a little bit too last ditch for any comfort.  This wasn’t waves crashing on an indifferent rock face, it was only going to take one slip.

The home side would enjoy the greater possession throughout but never looked as dominant later in the game.  Indeed, and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, there were portents of what was to come as early as the third minute as Ings pushed his away into the box and went down under challenge from Samir as his window closed in front of him.  The incident was twice replayed on the stadium screens as Ings and company furiously appealed for a penalty to Robert Jones’ welcome indifference (significantly the same video operator chose to curtail a replay of a second half incident as Ben Foster indicated that Ings had pushed Samir into the collision that would end his involvement).  But all that the reviews of the first incident betrayed was a soft contact, no more a penalty than it was a chocolate cake.  It didn’t even make Match of the Day.  And so it’s hard not to interpret the peevish, sulky urgency of the appeal as desperation (as above, with hindsight).  This wasn’t a side with the patient confidence in their own ability of a Manchester City, say.  This was a side chasing goblins and fairies in the third minute.  Brittle.  There to be got at, if only we could get our own shit together.

3- Spoiler alert.  We got our shit together.

I can feel Dad’s eyes rolling at the onset of statistics but here they tell all manner of stories.  The most obvious, the most dramatic, the most publicised and the most telling is the shots vs shots on target thing.  Villa:  20 shots, 1 on target and that a dolly shot from Buendía fielded comfortably by Ben Foster, an irrelevance.  Watford: 8 shots, 4 on target, all venomous.  As impressive for me though was the fouls count.  Away from home, sitting deep and chasing possession, attacking on the break…  Watford 7 fouls Villa 12 (many of which by John McGinn, who did remarkably well to escape censure in the first half and calmed down in the second).  This was a performance of a level of discipline unparalleled this season and this was the basis for the victory.  As an aside, it’s difficult to imagine that we’d have achieved similar composure with Daniel Bachmann in goal;  occasionally brilliant, exuding calmness isn’t his thing.  That discussion’s done I think.

I once went to Dortmund zoo.  Late in the day, the zoo was about to close and as we were wandering out of the park we passed a pen of hunting dogs.  They sat in silent formation, eyes fixed on the lingering intruders and we stood and watched in turn.  As we moved to abandon this face-off and headed a few steps towards the exit they rose to their feet as one and shuffled their formation.  As we stopped to face them again they reset and squatted in the same formation, rotated but a few feet.  Alerted to this game we repeated it several times with the same result.

One can only imagine that Roy and Ray have visited Dortmund zoo, or at least have a working knowledge of the African Hunting Dog, since our defensive set-up was similarly co-ordinated and unforgiving.  Once we’d survived that opening spell Villa’s windows were restricted, even in the frantic close as they chased the game.  Both sides were hampered by the conditions, any ball in the air felt like a wild, speculative gamble and neither team was really set up to play percentages by pumping in challenging high balls – certainly not Villa, and not even the Hornets since despite our attacking threat our defensive discipline warned against such cheap surrender of possession (and indeed since our forwards seemed reluctant to attempt to retrieve possession prompting some frustration in the first half).

Perhaps unsurprisingly such clean chances as there were came on the break.  Sarr had a quiet game overall, struggling to get involved much less impose himself on proceedings… when he’s fully flame-on again opponents like Lucas Digne will perhaps be more cautious in pushing on.  But here’s what you get with a play of his devastating quality, since his moments carved Villa open.  The first of these saw an outrageous slight of foot open up space for him on the right flank.  His low ball sliced through the home side to release Dennis on the left; the Nigerian cut inside Chambers and Cash leaving the former on his backside before driving low at goal.  Perhaps he chose the wrong option there with Sarr closing in space to his right, but the shot forced an exceptional one-handed save from Martínez, the stop of the game.

At the other end, a Villa break saw Buendía play Ings through late in the half… this was the opportunity that Villa had been playing for all half, the caveat to those “shot on target” stats earlier.  Ings should have opened the scoring but Foster came flying out and spread himself, the shot caught the outside of the post to the relieved mockery of the away end.

4- The interval saw the away end sit down for a collective breather.  I don’t know how many people braved the kiosk queue, which had taken forever in a half-empty stand at 2pm – one can only imagine that they’re still there (and can perhaps advise as to whether the pies have warmed up yet).

The resumption was greeted with the vigour that our first half performance had merited, and the team continued in the same vein – indeed the second half was like the first only more so, as our breaks grew in potency to the point where the home fans were surely looking at each other commenting, “we’re going to screw this up, aren’t we” and our defending continued to block out the light at the other end.  A couple of long range shots bent over the bar, Villa won a free kick on the edge of the box that infuriated Tom Cleverley but Digne dropped it wide of the post in any case.  They were going to need to do something special, and didn’t.

This was down to more than just the defenders, though Hassane Kamara in particular continued to polish his cult status. He gave the ball away cheaply and almost consequentially a couple of times….  but people who do things make mistakes and Kamara is doing something all the time.  Inconceivable that a full back could be more involved than the Ivorian whose dynamic refusal to recognise a lost cause is already a feature of the side.

But the midfield was hugely more comfortable with Imrân Louza sitting at the back of it.  There’s no faulting the application of either the excellent Sissoko or of Tom Cleverley, but this looked so much more natural a shape for all concerned and all revelled in their roles, the Moroccan most of all…  a mischievous quarterback, pulling the strings and dictating the game’s direction.  On countless occasions he would receive the ball under pressure, rotate into space and with a glance up release an attack in defiance of the swirling wind.  

Villa had a warning as we rampaged out on the break and King, the pivot of the forward line, released Sissoko to his right.  Perhaps when we’re mid-table the Frenchman’s inability to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo will become endearing… here his ferocious drive at a disappearing window at the near post, striking the side netting when a shot or pass across the face might have given Dennis an option.

But when the goal came, just as we were reflecting that an away point was worthy but probably inadequate, it was a fine, fine thing.  The footballing accomplishment and its multi-faceted perfection, showcasing so many of the best bits of our afternoon, can only be appreciated on replay since whilst I remembered Hassane Kamara’s dogged composure in playing the ball out and Joshua King’s resilience and poise in opening the pitch up for Louza the subsequent goal celebration distorted time and space to an extent that these might have happened in a different game.  

No forgetting Louza though, burrowing into Villa territory then stepping back and into his own dimension, like Neo in the Matrix.  Bodies charge past him and he sidesteps effortlessly, bullets fly at him and he flicks them out of the sky. Then he flings a ball to the right to where Sarr has dropped away from Digne on the flank and here comes Isma’s second moment of outrageous magnificence. Digne obstructs his progress and is quickly joined by Coutinho; their reluctance to jump in inside the area seems sensible, until the Senegalese leans back and from a stationary position carves an impossible cross between the pair of them, over King and his marker at the near post and onto the head of Emmanuel Dennis who has bullied Ashley Young (snigger) into irrelevance.  As his header crashes past Martínez the away tiers explode in limbs in the most cathartic celebration of the season.

5- In my mind’s eye the closing period is anxious but that’s borne of circumstance more than anything that Villa actually did, their theoretical threat not amounting to all that much as we continue to get bodies in the way.  The Villa faithful are under no illusions as the stands begin to empty rapidly, and it’s the Hornets who come closer to adding to the scoring;  Cleverley drives viciously at Martínez’s near post, and then another swaggering counter sees Sarr pour a liquid low ball into King.  The ball is slightly behind the striker and he does well to clip in a shot that the outstanding Martínez blocks point blank.  We could have done with that ending differently, King’s reliable belligerence could do with the fuel of something going in off his arse.

But let’s not be greedy.  The darkest hour is always before the dawn and here we are, finally, eyes blinking in the sunlight.  More stats (sorry Dad)…. our fifth win in six against Villa since promotion in 2015 (thanks Dave) – and the odd one out remains a f***ing travesty that I’m still not quite over two years later.  Our second clean sheet of the season (get us!) two weeks after the first also represents Villa’s first failure to score at Villa Park in this Premier League campaign.  Most of all, this is our first scruffy win of the season, our erstwhile soft underbelly betrayed both by the paucity of draws and the fact that the four preceding victories all saw us (needing to?) score at least three goals.   We’ll take 1-0 all day long.

If you permit yourself to glance at the fixture list you’ll see reasons for optimism.  The fact remains that we’ve won once in three months and that other corpses around us are stirring too.  This is still a big ask.  But if you were going to set up a great escape you could do worse than plan six of seven remaining home games being against teams in the bottom half.  Not to mention the next two games being against opponents in the same sort of precarious introspection that we found Villa in today.  That guarantees nothing.

But it gives us a shout.  See you Wednesday…

 Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3, Kamara 4, *Cathcart 5*, Samir 4, Louza 5, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Sema (for Dennis, 86) NA, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 93) NA, Hernández (for Sarr, 94) NA, Kalu, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 2 (12/02/2022) 13/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-

‘Well, master, we’re in a fix and no mistake,’ said Sam Gamgee.  He stood despondently with hunched shoulders beside Frodo, and peered out with puckered eyes into the gloom.

It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, during which they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before.  Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could find a way to the outer edge of this strange twisted knot of hills.  But always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassable, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.

The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien

2- You’ll have spotted the intended parallels, perhaps.  Frodo and Sam are wandering around in circles in a shapeless, joyless land sometimes wondering whether they’re re-treading their footsteps and finding their confidence and energy sapped.  Similarly, it’s difficult to remain positive in the face of three months without a win, an ever darkening league table and no clear path out of the remorselessly hostile terrain that we find ourselves in.  Having missed Newcastle I haven’t seen us score in the League since Emmanuel Dennis found the net against West Ham in the last game of last year.  That didn’t end well, either.

Nor does it help, I think, that the in-stadium support has effectively been exposed to consecutive seasons of Premier League struggle, the first ending in relegation and the second pointed squarely in that direction.  It’s been a while, the Cup Semi-Final against Wolves arguably, since we had a successful team to watch in person and that affects your habits as much as your mood. Irrespective of whether the team is “good enough”, we’re going to games mentally on the defensive.  This much was evident when, towards the end of the first half at which point we were labouring but still level the blameless Ben Foster turned to the Rookery with the play upfield and waved his arms hopefully, encouragingly, to be met by a murmur.  That’s not a criticism of anyone, it’s just where we are.

3- For all that West Ham had been another strikeout at a largely unlikeable venue I thoroughly enjoyed Tuesday night.  No, we weren’t quite good enough in the end but it was an improvement on Burnley’s improvement – if defensive stakes were first planted at Turf Moor then here was some evidence that we could still threaten too.  And yes, Jarrod Bowen should have been denied the space to have his shot but it was still a fluke, the sort of miserable fluke that goes in when you’re where we are.  West Ham hadn’t been afforded many such chances.

I’d much rather have had the time to report on that one than this one.  It’s always tempting to be introspective of course; we should acknowledge that Brighton were a lot brighter, more comfortable, more positive than West Ham had been and hence a bigger threat.  One of the main reasons that we were only just about getting away with it in the first half until we didn’t was that the Seagulls attacked with verve and purpose.  Worth also remembering that the same scoreline in Sussex at the start of the season concealed a Watford performance far less able to withstand our opponents’ pressing than here.

Nor do I hold with the criticism of the starting lineup.  Roy’s remit was surely to make us harder to play against, harder to play through.  He’d already done that, quicker than might have been credited.  The progress, if and when it comes, will come through being confident enough with our defending to start throwing a few more punches in anger too;  Retaining that defensive mentality for a home game, for all that we have attacking weapons kicking our heels, didn’t work in the end.  That doesn’t make it the wrong decision.  It’s not as if playing more open football with the weapons available – and Sarr’s availability only stretched to the bench today – has gotten us very far up to now.  Daughter #1, happily sassing next to me with her sister, hasn’t seen us win since we beat Wolves on New Year’s Day 2020.

But it didn’t work.  A miserable first half saw us obstruct Brighton up to a point….  Samir impressed in the backline, doggedly getting a foot in, revelling in challenges.  But we didn’t obstruct enough to prevent those chances… Moder forced a good save from Foster, then put in a cross for Gross to head wide unchallenged;  Maupay shot from long range in too much space, Foster saved comfortably; Dunk headed over unchallenged from a deep corner.  Whether Maupay’s looping shot was quite what he intended or otherwise we had allowed Brighton enough bites not to be able to complain when they got lucky.  This wasn’t Bowen at West Ham.

The larger problem perhaps was that we were scarcely threatening ourselves.  Hell, we were scarcely anything. Dennis’ clever break midway through the half spoke volumes…  as he fooled Dunk and span into space on the half way line the home crowd roared in unfamiliar surprise and desperation.  We so badly need something to celebrate, something to cling to.  The Nigerian roared down the left flank;  a halfway confident player, a Dennis in the midst of his hot streak a few months ago, strikes it left footed across the face of goal.  Instead he turned into challenges to get it on his right foot and won a free kick that must have been very close to a penalty from the recovering Dunk.  It shouldn’t have come to that.

4- Let’s give ourselves a break from this bleak fare.  Hell, given the correlation between our results and this blog’s readership there’s little to justify me still being here typing at 11am on Sunday morning so I might as well try to enjoy myself.

Things on the pitch are difficult, fingers are being pointed all over the place.  But there’s lots the club continues to get right, and here’s one instance.  Anyone younger than, loosely, 45 isn’t going to remember Ann Swanson in her pomp but whilst few outside Watford will recognise her name she was an essential component of the club’s most successful, happiest era in the 1980s. My first season tickets were in the Family Enclosure;  Ann was unmissable, the matriarch, the dominant figure.  She’s spoken about how much support she received from GT in crafting the family areas; no doubt he shared her vision but he was a smart guy, he knew who not to pick a fight with in any case.  The club owe her a lot for the reputation that was forged, for the fact that 50-ish blokes like me still instil a romantic vision of what it’s all about into the eyes of their kids such that they (reasonably) happily agree to drive up to Burnley in the pissing rain, or sit here in the cold despite (see above) not having seen us win in forever.

So the best bit of an admittedly difficult afternoon was quite comfortably Ann’s clearly genuine, tearful surprise at being told that the Family Stand would now bear her name.  Well done Watford.  Well done.

5- During the interval, a clear signal was sent with both Imrân Louza and Ismaïla Sarr warming up on the pitch.  Sarr’s achievements with Senegal had been celebrated over the tannoy and the man himself seemed keen to both acknowledge his reception and to pitch back into the fray but it was Louza who made the most immediate impression.  The opening period of the half offered grounds for optimism as the much-missed pivot at the back of the midfield got hold of the ball and gave us a degree of control for the first time in the match.

If Sarr was less effective it wasn’t through lack of effort… there was no suggestion here of the slightly sulky ineffectiveness that his worst performances have been accused of.  Nonetheless we struggled to get him into the game… his first involvement was a wild if positive shot from distance, slugged over the bar and into the Rookery.  Dennis was the next to threaten, wriggling impossibly through challenges on the left before pumping a shot off the bar, his head in his hands.

Problem was, it didn’t feel natural.  Any patterns that had developed in our attacking play have been interrupted by AFCON in particular and stymied by lack of recent success in particular.  Joshua King, whose lack of goals conceals a steady work rate was less effective here.  You kinda feel that if we are to have any hope of digging our way out of this that front three needs to function as a unit better than it did here – almost every half chance was an individual’s creation.

By the time Adam Webster shovelled a second goal past Ben Foster the visitors had reclaimed control.  Tom Cleverley and Kiko Femenía both seemed to have a role in repelling another Moder shot, yet another was deflected wide.  A scramble that portended the one that would lead to the goal resulted in Cucurella forcing probably the save of the game from Foster.  Meanwhile João Pedro, whose name had been sung in a little desperation by some in the Rookery, had his most ineffective cameo of the season.  By the time the game finished the home stands were long since emptying.  A number of sulky and violent challenges on Lamptey betrayed our frustration. Sarr’s slug at Sánchez provided at least a shot on target and some hope of better to come – and, via his link-up with Kiko, a reminder of one of the few dependable partnerships in the team.

But we’re running out of time here, quite obviously.  Some had cited this as a must-win game, that we’re best resigning ourselves to the inevitable should we not turn the corner here.  I don’t think it’s quite “done”…  that we need Roy and Ray to turn it around immediately doesn’t imply that failure to do so constitutes a bad plan or a busted flush.  There are enough winnable games left and enough bad teams around us, but winnable games are only a meaningful concept if, you know, you’re winning at all.

Frodo and Sam eventually escape from Emyn Muil through help from an unlikely source.  We’re going to need a similarly unlikely break if we’re to end our search for a Precious three points any time soon.  Villa Park, where we’re still owed a break, would be my choice.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 2, Kamara 3, Samir 3, Cathcart 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 2, Kucka 2, Cleverley 3, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: Sarr (for Kucka, 45) 3, Louza (for Kayembe, 45) 3, João Pedro (for Cleverley, 70) 2, Hernández, Sema, Kabasele, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Burnley 0 Watford 0 (06/02/2022) 06/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- The thing about social media is that, notoriously, it tends to polarise opinion.  You’re thinking… well probably A but maybe B, perhaps.  Then you read a strident, one-sided posit in favour of B, probably made by someone half-thinking on the way to somewhere or in the middle of something and you wade in to balance the argument and both entrench your position and spark off a heated exchange of views.

You’ve all been there.  It’s grotesque.  I’ve avoided it in recent weeks, mercifully, more or less. Anyway… with every change of head coach (or manager…) comes an opening of the windows and a ventilating of everything which, whether the preceding decision was needed, merited, A, B, right or wrong does give you the opportunity to breath in the fresh air and prepare yourself for whatever degree of reset and to go again.  

There can be little debate that it was needed this time, in the end, however much some of us had been trying to imagine otherwise before Norwich.  After Norwich, no discussion.  Sometimes a performance is just so wrong as to comprehensively end any debate.  Had we been in the Championship we would have been facing Huddersfield of course, as is traditional on such occasions (see eg here, here and also here if you have the strength) but we’re not and so Norwich it was.

And in come Roy and Ray, the former with a track record of imposing the sort of structure and resilience that we’ve been manifestly lacking (a reactive appointment then?  maybe, but you’d rather have it than not) and speaking an endearing lack of bullshit.  The latter, well.  I’m guessing those reading this are largely of a vintage that permits them to remember his own tenure as the main man and will have their own opinions, won’t need reminding of the circumstances and the spirit.   “Better off as a number two”… well, perhaps.  Nonetheless, after the obvious my second favourite Watford boss.  I’m delighted he’s back in whatever capacity,

2- The sense of there being something new in the air, of stuff having been reset since that Norwich disaster is re-enforced by the fact that it’s Daughter 1 accompanying me up the M6 rather than Daughter 2, whose hitherto perfect away record this season was interrupted by our COVID-induced absence from Newcastle and who now deems Burnley “too far north”.  Daughter 1’s presence then, in defiance of a slightly less fixated attitude towards football attendance than her sister, is an unforeseen fringe benefit of my unhealthy obsession with irrelevant statistics, the same obsession that informs me that this is somehow my tenth visit to Turf Moor (despite it being “too far north”).  Daughter 1, you see, has seen her lead over her sister, three years her junior, cut to 2 games through the apprentice’s belligerence.  110 games vs 108.  This would never do.

If she had any regrets after a drive spanning four and a half hours as we pulled into Burnley cricket club with the wind flinging the rain in violent circles around us she would have been forgiven but she didn’t let on.  Burnley’s an odd place (a judgement which I now feel qualified to make after ten visits).  In contrast to a side whose identity has been set in stone (or granite) for nearly a decade the locals are hugely varied spanning both the most one-dimensionally hostile and the most unreservedly friendly.  It depends where you look of course, and the cricket club predominantly hosts the latter.  Daughter 1 declines in favour of a bee-line for the away end, but if we do end up going down retaining this away venue on the schedule will be a silver lining.  Sorry, spoiler alert.

3- Football then.  Finally, after two weeks and two thunks of blithering.  And if Roy’s team selection is so on brand with a 4-4-2 boasting the most obdurate midfield in recent memory (Kucka, Kayembe, Sissoko, Sema leaves little room for compromise or for anything much) then the need, here, to lay down a marker, to deprive Burnley of space to deliver from the wings in the absence of our two most potent routes to causing damage at the other end (Sarr finally fit and playing but in Cameroon not Lancashire, Dennis suspended) justifies it entirely.  “It’s almost like having Sarr back” notes Will as Kucka lines up on the right flank.

The match itself is carnage.  The extraordinary wind is urgent but directionless – we realise at one point that the corner flags are almost horizontal, but pointing in a variety of different directions.  The game itself follows the same pattern with everything – ball, players, officials, tumbling haphazardly around the pitch as if the whole surface is tipping. At times it resembles Flash Gordon’s confrontation with Prince Barin more than a football match…  I’ve not read any reports, but I’d imagine that “low on quality” features prominently, and that those watching on TV, certainly those uninvested, would have been reaching for the remote control as quickly as Prince Vultan.  In the stadium, fuelled by the wind and the rain and the frantic urgency it’s utterly brilliant, and Daughter 1 – in between sassing at the comments behind us (“yeah, sure, like he could do better”) – is rapt throughout.

After an early flurry for the Hornets it’s Burnley who find the table tipping in their favour at the start of the match.  Hassane Kamara is exposed early on and there’s a risk that he’ll get bullied as the enormous Wout Weghorst pulls right and batters him but as a portent this is deceptive.  Kamara is far tougher a cookie than his skinny frame suggests, he’ll do a fine line in precision covering tackles delivered with an endearing violence and a smile that’s bigger than his face.  He’s handy bringing the ball out as well, dogged in retaining possession up the line and delivers perhaps the pass of the game to release King for a chance on the break.  Weghorst meanwhile shows glimpses but will need time to adapt to his new environment;  here his biggest impact is on Ken Sema who catches a stray limb (which, in fairness, is going to happen when your elbows are at the same height as a normal person’s head).  Weghorst doesn’t live up to his billing… it’s not quite the Emperor’s New Clothes but he’s certainly underdressed and as a consequence, unsurprisingly in the circumstances, looks freezing.

His new partner Maxwell Cornet – linked with us on at least three separate occasions before joining the Clarets – is also rusty having been warming the Ivory Coast bench in Cameroon but presents a more obvious immediate threat, forcing Foster into a decent save up to his right in the first half.  Nonetheless, the home side are earning little in the box itself thanks to our own refreshingly uncomplicated bloody-mindedness.  Samir has clearly read the brief, dumping a clearance onto the roof of the Bob Lord stand to our right to terminate the Clarets’ first attack but it’s Craig Cathcart who stands out,  Getting in the way is his trademark and he excels here at both ends of the pitch but particularly in defence, being where he needs to be and clearing without deliberation in the knowledge that, despite physical presence and long throws, Burnley aren’t going to threaten us from the flanks.  We start shouting “have it!” to greet every clearance.

Cathcart’s spiritual equivalent in the midfield is Edo Kayembe.  The game is characterised by both sides giving the ball away a lot (more forgivable given circumstances and meteorology) but by the time a stray Clarets ball find Kayembe for the seventh time you begin to wonder whether this is more than mere happy coincidence.  His low centre of gravity means that he’s not being buffeted around either and it’s building from this solid foundation that we turn the tide.  By the end of the half we’re probably shading it and might have been given the chance to cement this suspicion when Connor Roberts handled Ken Sema’s cross in the box. The officials between them seemed to conclude, generously, that the full-back had been attempting to withdraw his outstretched arm from the path of the ball rather than blocking it.  We’ll be equally generous in assuming that Pawson, who had an excellent game overall in difficult conditions, wasn’t influenced by Sean Dyche sending his many backroom staff scuttling across the pitch as the half-time whistle blew in advance of the VAR review, perhaps presenting a psychological obstacle to any reversal of decision.  You win some, you lose some.

4- The second half featured more of the same, but whilst Burnley had chances both at the beginning of the half, when an effort dropped onto Ben Foster’s bar as he scrambled beneath it, and at the end, when Cornet lined up a free kick that was repelled, the Hornets were the better side without quite turning that superiority into clear cut chances.  Josh King was in his element, winning the physical confrontation with Burnley’s centre-backs on points, holding the ball up, bringing people into the game.  João Pedro’s ability to bring the ball into his orbit irrespective of angle, height or velocity was useful in both relieving pressure and in switching the focus of the play… one of several scampering breaks crashed on the rocks of their contre-temps against Norwich, as Will observed.  With the ball at his feet and defenders scrambling around him the Brazilian chose the worst of both worlds, delaying a lay-off to King and then overhitting it late rather than taking on the shot himself.  Femenía and Kucka – who did a more than passable job on the right in the end – combined for the latter to drop a cross onto João Pedro’s head but the connection was too deliberate, too close to Pope.  Like later efforts it suffered from the lack of conviction of a side that still hasn’t won for a very long time – only Cucho’s overdue introduction introduced a bit of “f*** it” to proceedings.

By that point we’d surrendered a bit of midfield control by replacing Kayembe with Cleverley, a move that had Will hopping nervously with anxiety until the final whistle.  Presuming no injury to Kayembe it was a gamble with a neutral pay-off as it turned out;  Burnley regained a footing. their best chances a Cornet shot after Cleverley surrendered cheaply and a break when Tarkowski won possession deep in Burnley’s half and thundered forward like a Scud missile before crashing into the lack of space on the edge of our box.  Cleverley’s potential for mischief gave us something else further forward in theory, though the closest it came to being realised was when Cucho bundled into the box, seeming to run towards every challenge rather than away from it before kicking the ball into the wall of shins that surrounded him.  The rebound fell to Cleverley on the edge of the box, his low drive – with the sting taken out of it by a deflection, with the benefit of a replay – was pushed around the post by Pope.  The game ended with the Hornets in the ascendancy, but we hadn’t quite done enough.

5- For all their traditional obstinacy, for all that their star turns up front will warm up, Burnley are a terrible side and are going to be relegated. That we didn’t beat them, taken in isolation, might be regarded as a(nother) missed opportunity, Sarr or no Sarr, Dennis or no Dennis.  

Nonetheless, that first clean sheet of the season is hugely significant.  We’ll face tougher games (starting Tuesday, where I fear squeezing in a report will be difficult) but a bloody-minded defensive side with a bit of magic dust up front isn’t a bad recipe in any division.  Sean Dyche knows this all too well – his Watford side (not to mention his Burnley incarnations since) were improbably mid-table in 2012 with Sean Murray’s brief hurrah providing that magic dust.  We’re not short of magic dust this time, and just perhaps we can be solid too.  The locals trudging back to the cricket club behind us in the extraordinarily persistent blustering drizzle grumbled about their boss, his inflexibility of approach, the dullness of the whole thing.   A bit of “win good, lose bad” in action there (or “draw at home to team you need to beat bad”) but we’ve all done it.

Thing is, a bloody-minded and ugly clean sheet after ten years of similar is one thing.  A bloody-minded ugly clean sheet when you’ve been waiting for one all season is something else.  Further encouragement, as ever, is offered by the Other 14 Table – performance vs par of winning your home games against all but the big six and nothing else – which has us well clear of the bottom three.  This reflects our remaining fixtures where the “unwinnable” games – City, Chelsea, Liverpool, United? – are away from home meaning the home fixtures are kinder.

We love you Watford, we’ve only got fourteen hours (seventeen games) to save the earth.

But we’re not done yet.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, *Kamara 4*, Cathcart 4, Samir 3, Kayembe 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Sema 3, João Pedro 3, King 4
Subs: Cleverley (for Kayembe, 70) 3, Hernández (for João Pedro, 83) NA, Fletcher, Louza, Kabasele, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia, Bachmann