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Wolverhampton Wanderers 4 Watford 0 (10/03/2022) 11/03/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  For the most part, it’s a great day.  There’s not much to dislike about an afternoon off work in any case, a criminal waste not to enjoy it.  The sun is shining, the route up isn’t without kerfuffle as you’d expect from the M6 in late afternoon but it’s fine and the car is full of happy chatter.  The parking place is accessible enough;  when we get to the ground there’s a fanzone, vans selling a good line in Curried Stuff, coffees too.  “This is the grimmest place on earth”, smiles the woman serving us coffees, warmly, and she’s exaggerating a little bit but that’s fine too – we haven’t had to pass through The Underpass.  Will arrives from working in Birmingham, proud to report that the lady booking his schedule has an eye on the fixture list and manoeuvres things accordingly.  Inside the ground Erica, a native of New Mexico, asks the lad in the kiosk to sell the concept of a Chicken Balti Pie.  Unpracticed at being asked his opinion by the paying public, he does a sterling job.

The way home is also good.  Limited trouble getting out of Wolverhampton, a playlist – Pixies, the Breeders, Bowie – being hummed along to and occasionally joined in with as we trundle our way home again.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

In amongst all of this, a football match happens.

2- We sort of started OK.  Sort of, in the sense that until anyone did anything we looked halfway credible.  We’re missing João Pedro as the result of a convoluted COVID test and Isma is still out, but Joshua King is back in an otherwise unchanged side from the relatively encouraging defeat against Arsenal.

Yes, a home defeat being “encouraging” is already setting expectations, but here we are.  Wolves aren’t pressing early on particularly which seems a bit odd given our manifest inability to cope with such, and as Cucho is briefly awarded a penalty before an unassessable offside flag aborts the only jumping up and down the away end is going to enjoy this evening we look briefly threatening.  Wolves, notoriously miserly, already look get-attable.

But once things start to go wrong they spiral out of control very quickly.  Hassane Kamara for one was already looking wobbly and he’ll be one of several culpable parties in each of the opening two goals.  The first isn’t as comical as what follows but it is weak, Hwang and Jiménez wandering through as if they’re picking flowers in the park, the finish is tidy but it’s far, far too easy.  

Wolves barely need to be paying attention to find themselves 3-0 up.  Kamara is more eye-catchingly exposed for the second scrambling after a neglected opponent before the ball finds its way to Ait-Nouri, similarly neglected on Wolves’ left flank.  He sends a perfunctory ball across the face of goal and Cucho, of all people, inadvertently tucks it inside Ben Foster’s near post.

Foster is increasingly the source of joyful abuse from the home stands reflecting his West Brom history in particular, this growing in volume with the certainty that such rashness isn’t about to come back to bite the home stands.  His worst moment comes just three minutes later when, closed down on the edge of his box he makes an impossibly sloppy clearance to Daniel Podence, who drops the ball into an empty net with a shrug for 3-0.

3- It’s not really the “what”, though there’s plenty wrong with that.  The bigger problem – the bigger surprise, perhaps, despite our poor form – is the how.

This wasn’t just a bad performance.  It wasn’t even a bad performance compounded by a few things going wrong and running away from us.  This stank to high heaven, the lack of fight and bottle in the side as stark as the sudden abandonment of the discipline that has seen us gain a creditable if modest haul of points on the road of late.  Wolves’ low-scoring reputation might have suited us, their edgy defeat to Palace here last time out more so.  We might nick a 0-0 here, we’d thought, whether that would prove “enough” or otherwise.

But there was nothing.  Almost nothing.  Moussa Sissoko, in his one forceful contribution of the evening, played Joshua King through shortly after the third – King lifted the ball slightly too high.  It was a pretty bad miss rather than an awful one but we needed that to go in.  Elsewhere Kabasele came on for a struggling Femenía after half an hour – given Kiko’s staccato availability of late in the absence of Jeremy Ngakia perhaps we’d risked him here out of necessity but he’d had a bad thirty minutes.  Kabasele stood out simply for looking like a competent footballer as things steadied;  Kamara, too, salvaged some small credit from the evening, his surfeit of personality allowing him to recover from his personal horror show to dig in for the rest of the game.  Louza showed some signs of taking responsibility.  He still wanted the ball.

But elsewhere there was very little to cling to.  No movement, no confidence, no conviction.  We struggled along, all our efforts expended in treading water in the face of an understandably relaxed Wolves side – the goal celebrations were grotesquely co-ordinated by a deafening sound system (“Have fun NOW!  Stop NOW!”) but the team looked no less co-ordinated if they scarcely had to exert themselves.  The kindest interpretation of Watford’s lack of anything much came from Will – “perhaps we’re playing for goal difference”.

4- Three years ago we would go toe-to-toe with Wolves and “the likes of Wolves”.  That tightest and most dramatic of Cup Semi Finals, the parallel league campaign in which both sides made credible claims to be the best of the rest.  As has been much discussed, we lost our footing around that time and have suffered a merciless tumble since.  We were nonetheless unlucky to be relegated in 2020.  We won’t be unlucky to be relegated this season.

Who to blame, and how much?  There’s no doubt that mistakes were made in the revision of the squad in 2019.  Scott Duxbury’s forthrightness in acknowledging those mistakes and promising learnings has been flung back in his face… but once those mistakes were made we were sliding downhill without the luxury of the financial backing that might have made an instant return an inevitability.  We’re not a club with massive backing or support, we’re in the Premier League for as long as we can keep overperforming but once that stops it’s going to take the same sort of overperformance, of challenging the odds, to repeat it.  Mere competence won’t be nearly enough.  The yo-yoing of Norwich and Fulham in particular doesn’t reflect “lack of ambition” on their part, it reflects the reality of a circumstance where the growing number of heavily backed Premier League clubs means that well-run sides with the cushion of parachute payments are no longer guaranteed fifteenth-placed anonymity if they return.  Getting promoted again straight away was no small achievement, however easy it is to dismiss it now, 

But that’s not a free pass either.  Much of that criticism of Duxbury and “the model” boils down to “win good, lose bad”….  but this is appalling by any standards, even standardising for circumstance.  Roy Hodgson’s curmudgeonly post-match reflections would have been charming, to a point, had they come with success on the pitch.  They are far less so in these circumstances – all the more so when mindful of the need to get everyone on side, to make the most of whatever tools you have available to dig us out.  Failure to keep the crowd onside, or at least to not wilfully sabotage the relationship, seems extraordinarily short sighted. Particularly surprising given Ray Lewington’s ability to unify us behind a banner during his own challenging time in charge of the team twenty years ago.

One consolation on the night is drawn from the fact that the gallows humour on show from those brave/loyal/stupid enough to make the trip is of high quality, in contrast to some of what away travellers have had to endure this season.  A personal favourite was the gentling soothing monotone of “we’ve won the ball…. we’ve won the ball….”, segueing seamlessly into “we’ve lost the ball…. we’ve lost the ball….” as appropriate that was the soundtrack to the second half.

5- There was no prospect of a fightback, no suggestion of it.  “We don’t talk about Bruno” levels of not entering the conversation for fears of sanction.  Instead an unusually hirsute Ruben Neves pulls out an outrageous fourth;  little to criticise anyone for this time, beyond the fact that conceding three pathetic goals earlier in the game means that this sort of brilliance, par for the course in the Premier League now and again, would be impossible to accommodate.

The League table, the fixtures suggest it’s still “on”.  Leeds lose, awfully.  Norwich lose, predictably.  We’ve still got to play a whole bunch of teams directly above us, at home.  With performances as supine as this, none of that is remotely relevant.

I won’t be at Southampton on Sunday, but pre-match Will and I had agreed to take our kids to Anfield in defiance of the lunchtime kick-off and inevitable hammering in three weeks’ time.  Confirming in the cold light of the morning after the night before, Will was defiant.

We have to do it. Who knows when we’ll be back. Kids have to know that’s how we do it!


Foster 1, Femenía 1, Kamara 2, Cathcart 2, Samir 2, Louza 2, Sissoko 1, Cleverley 1, Hernández 1, Dennis 2, King 1
Subs: *Kabasele (for Femenía, 30) 3*, Kalu (for King, 46) 1, Etebo (for Cleverley, 73) 2, Sema, Kayembe, Sierralta, Masina, Kucka, Bachmann


Watford 2 Arsenal 3 (06/03/2022) 07/03/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- It’s been a while, one suspects, since pre-match events at Vicarage Road were last the subject of international political scrutiny.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that the pre-match canine displays of the early eighties were the subject of discussion in the Kremlin, or that the US Senate has ever pondered the incongruous and yet fiercely defended choice of “Z-Cars” as run-out music.

These are strange times, however, and so here we are.  The Ukrainian flag displayed by the Rookery twice pre-match – first as teams entered the arena and second, hesitantly, as the teams alternated around the centre-circle in a co-ordinated show of solidarity with Ukraine – would not, it seems, have met the approval of Chinese broadcasters and by implication the Chinese government;  the former had declined to screen any Premier League matches this weekend in the light of such planned actions.  The flag display, whilst a fine thing and well co-ordinated, feels somehow inadequate in the circumstances.  It’s not quite standing in front of a tank, is it?  And yet the fact that a government feels strongly enough about controlling the narrative told to its people to effectively ban its broadcast is testament to the impact it can have – or at least that they believe it can have.  Well done all.

2- That there is any question over whether the Chinese government is paying any attention reflects our membership of the Premier League rather than any nefarious behaviour by the 1881.  I’m not really fussed either way whether people in China are watching our football but I WOULD rather we stayed up than not and achieving this is likely to necessitate winning a home game at some point.  Daughter 1 still hasn’t seen a win of any kind in over two years;  it feels like at least twice that long since we won a game here at Vicarage Road.

The flag display forms part of an increasingly busy pre-match schedule of rituals and statements.  Both the flag and the knee are important;  less so the absurdly pompous Premier League anthem and associated standing to attention that they sandwich, and which Daughter 2 quite reasonably ridicules from underneath her yellow placard.

Sally is here today and she’s new to all this.  I’m wisely explaining Roy Hodgson’s careful contain-and-destroy approach to football matches and warning that the game about to unfold might be on the stodgy side when Emmanuel Dennis finds the net within twenty seconds of the match kicking off.

The four of us enjoy our celebration comprehensively – for Daughter 1 in particular a Watford goal is a startling development – such that by the time we realise that the goal has been disallowed for a marginally mistimed and offside run, everyone else has passed through the four stages of grief and is refocused on the ongoing match.  Nonetheless, the stage has been set for a game that will prove far more open – and far more entertaining – than advertised.

3- We’re way past the point where anything other than the hard currency of points on the board matters a jot of course, but whether you’re resigned to the drop and thus no longer pressured by such things or holding out hope and desperately looking for green shoots there was stuff to enjoy here.  This run of (now) eight home defeats has been characterised by a limp impotence in front of goal but here there was dynamism and conviction  – if we missed Sarr’s spasmodic brilliance and King’s ability to hold an attack together then the next two cabs off the rank demonstrated that we’re not short of viable attacking options for all that it hasn’t quite worked overall.

Less enjoyable was the opening goal of the game scarcely five minutes after our false start.  Our own failings have to be evaluated in the context of the opposition’s quality of course, and if Arsenal felt get-attable throughout then their attacks flowed around us mercilessly, gobbling up our few mistakes unforgivingly en route.  The Gunners had been caught cold in the opening seconds and we were similarly dozy five minutes in as Saka and Odegaard played around our defence allowing the Norwegian to stroke the ball past Ben Foster.  Unusually under Hodgson, the goal made us look easy to play against although the movement of Arsenal – wearing a wannabe Rotherham United knockoff kit, possibly Chinese – exposed our tentativeness.

We were clearly on a more positive footing than has been the case at home though, where there’s no doubt that Stuff Needed To Change.  The home stands weren’t given time to settle into a sulky acceptance as we responded with an explosive second… and whilst Cucho’s finish was magnificent, Kiko’s overlap and cross fantastic and Dennis’ delayed lay off artful, as critical was our positive, ambitious intent.

4- As against Palace, we played some of our best and most assertive football at 1-1, lending weight to the argument that our fragile confidence is a critical handicap.  Worth a glance once again at the paucity of vocal leaders in the team… but being positive, at least there are more green shoots there should you care to look for them.  Dennis came closest, forcing Ramsdale into a slightly untidy stop.  Sissoko lined up a shot from distance, and if it never threatened the target it was at least in the right postcode.  More progress.

Hugely disappointing, then, to concede  again on the half hour.  Tom Cleverley was caught with less time than he thought he had by a lively Saka, whose quickfire exchange with Lacazette and sharp finish put the Gunners/Millers ahead.  Much ire at Cleverley for what was a conspicuous and expensive error, but such are the risks of playing out from the back.  That we were doing so was surely unavoidable – our reformed three man attack was fun and relatively effective, but whilst João Pedro’s decent afternoon included a worthy competitiveness there wasn’t a target man amongst them.  There were voices over my shoulder who’d been bellowing “just bloody clear it” in panic at every suggestion of pressure at the back as early as the tenth minute – thirty minutes would still have been early to be pumping balls blindly into the void.

5- 3-2 sounds tight and exciting;  it was probably the right scoreline but it never felt like a close thing, not from the point when Martinelli capitalised on another snappy move to club a shot into the top corner from outside the area.

From there we threw punches, and Arsenal looked vulnerable but seven home defeats on the hop require more than just a bit of positivity from 3-1 down against a leading side.  João Pedro skipped his way down the left and into the area before going down under challenge;  Craig Pawson shrugged, Cathal responded bluntly in the negative to my own VAR request.  Cucho’s welcome relentlessness saw him catch what looked like an unwitting flail of an arm from an Arsenal defender before remonstrating loud and long at the lack of subsequent censure.  A sharp move from left to right concluded with Dennis being smothered out of space;  Kiko was involved again as he whistled a low ball to the far post which Dennis couldn’t connect properly with as the goal gaped.

In the midst of this, Hodgson removed Louza in favour of Edo Kayembe.  The Moroccan international hadn’t had his most dominant game, but such has been his impact on the level of creativity in the midfield that the reception of the change was loud and aggressive, a chant in support of Louza on his exit far exceeding in volume any recognition that he received during the match.  At the time it was possible that Louza had a knock;  there was also an argument for saying that by pushing further forward with width coming from buccaneering fullbacks a solid midfield had more value than a creative one.  Either way, more significant than the decision itself was the reaction to it.

A second Watford goal came nonetheless, capping a stoic performance from Moussa Sissoko has he received a ball from Cucho, made the most of the luck of the bounce in navigating Ben White and finished tidily past Ramsdale.

In the closing minutes there were components of a comeback, but not the whole package which sums up our season nicely, I suppose.  A spirited cameo from the bench from Samuel Kalu which showcased both the sparkle that persuaded us to sign him and the questionable decision making that has perhaps restricted his input until now.  Kieran Tierney revealed what a horrible little scrotum he is by providing the crowning pieces of gamesmanship to an Arsenal repertoire that had been encouraged by a lazy performance from referee Craig Pawson.  And that was that.

It’s still not “done”.  The likeliest outcome is that we’ll get relegated of course, there are all sorts of shortcomings which aren’t going to get fixed by the end of the season.  To reiterate however we don’t need to be good.  We just need to be less bad than three others.  There’s a long grey area spanning from “maybe” through “probably” to “definitely” and that’s where we are but the biggest obstacle remains the lack of a home win.  Four of the five left are against the teams directly above us.  If we hit form, it’s doable.  But it needs to come soon.

Wolves on Thursday would be nice.


Foster 3, Femenía 3, *Kamara 4*, Samir 3, Cathcart 3, Louza 3, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 3, João Pedro 3, Hernández 4, Dennis 3
Subs: Kayembe (for Louza, 64) 3, Kalu (for Cleverley,  89) NA, Sema, Etebo, Kabasele, Sierralta, Masina, Kucka, Bachmann