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Manchester City 5 Watford 1 (23/04/2022) 24/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1- 

“Hello? 

Is there anybody in there?

Just nod if you can hear me

Is there anyone home?”

Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd

Actually that’s not true.  Not numb, not yet.  Might be easier if we were.  But then again… do you want to not care?  Isn’t caring the whole point?  That’s not supposed to be a pious “loyal supporters” thing… no criticism intended of anyone who took what might be perceived as the more rational decision not to spunk a day and a load of money on this all but inevitable drubbing.  

But it does still hurt. Daughter 2 and I are here in part because stuff and things preclude the final two away trips of the season, including the traditional walk from Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge.  Plus, Daughter 2 had still to cross off this stadium, where a gubbing is surely a rite of passage for any Watford supporter.  That stat, the one about this 15 match competitive losing run against City being an English record, comes with the subtext that more than half of those games saw City score at least 4 goals.

Quite obviously this isn’t a fair fight.  It was ever thus, there have always been good teams and not good teams and you kinda expect the good to drub the not good.  That we’ve performed less well against City, to a record-breaking degree no less, than our contemporaries probably still constitutes failure but it’s hard to weigh that up – the run is due in part to our own inadequacies, to luck, to never having quite capitalised on catching them on a bad day, to the psychological scars from the drubbings that autocorrelate the sequence to a degree.  Foster, Kabs, Clevs, Sarr were in the squad that lost 8-0 here, don’t tell me that there were no ghosts floating around from that one, professionals or not.

But the sequence is also due to us, you know, having played City 15 times under their current incarnation. Tranmere Rovers, to pick a not entirely arbitrary example, haven’t played City at all in over 20 years.  We’ll get to that…

city

2- Anyway.  Here we are.  In contrast to older grounds the City of Manchester Stadium sprawls, spider like, over an enormous footprint – the concourses are huge, the Chicken Balti pie of a higher quality.  Daughter 2 approves of the latter but disapproves of the general “vibe” – “The Waitrose of the Premier League”, she announces sniffily, following up a discussion on the way up where she shamed me out of “paying a load of money for bits of meat wrapped in cheese” from said establishment.

We’re in the bottom tier of three, which will be well populated… it’s a Safe Standing thing, so as at Anfield there are lean bars which is tremendous.  Leaning backwards, it seems, is agreeable in the context of a heavy defeat – we might get the chance to lean forwards one day.

I’ve brought my coat this time, so naturally the sun breaks through and it’s short sleeves weather.  Daughter 2 is at the end of the row, sanguine about her proximity to the army of gurning Liam Gallagher barbie dolls in the adjoining paddock, resisting my offer to swap seats and sassily dissing their barrage of taunts under her breath.  On reflection, tiresome as the attention is, it does at least reflect an even-handedness to a degree.  Being taken seriously-ish.  “You’re just a shit Man United” is one of the lowest of a number of low blows from our right…  but rather this than the patronising, silent indifference of Old Trafford.

The barrage can start almost immediately of course.  Expectations are low, but you’d like a spell at 0-0 to cling to…  the edgy change in tone of the crowd would be a small achievement, even if it didn’t last long. Instead, scarcely has the deafening sound system piped down before City are ahead just four minutes in.  This City side is merciless of course, you don’t need to be off your game to be pulled apart but if you are off your game you’re pretty much screwed.  Here, City swing a ball from right to left where Zinchenko has wandered up to join the attack unattended.  He has time to line up a fierce low ball turned in by Jesus because Ismaïla Sarr hasn’t been paying attention.  Four minutes in.  Unforgivable.

3- It goes without saying that we need every ball to bounce for us, and it doesn’t.  Despite the comprehensively one-sided nature of the game and our low expectations, we do break out some neat and tidy football occasionally.  City are as flummoxed as anyone by the first such development as Cancelo dawdles on the ball on the halfway line and Louza capitalises to release Dennis through on goal.  

From a low angle at the far end all we see is the Nigerian dawdle on the ball and allow Zinchenko to catch him.  There is no suggestion of what is revealed by replays on social media – Dennis, a master of deceptive footwork whatever his other failings, turns away from Zinchenko as the challenge comes in, the full-back takes out the player but is nowhere near the ball.  If VAR looks at it it’s a free kick and a red card but… seemingly not.  Mystifyingly given the clarity of the incident on replay (and somewhat uncharacteristically), Dennis doesn’t even appeal.  Today is going to be hard enough without the bitterness of injustice too;  I could have done without that.  To console myself I choose to blame the otherwise inconspicuous Kevin Friend.  No, it doesn’t need to be fair.

Instead City go two up.  There’s a relentlessness about their aggressive pressing that feels irresistible… “hanging in there” isn’t a terribly inspiring objective but it takes absolute concentration,  This applies to Ben Foster too, who makes the first of a number of sharp saves to keep the score down but is helpless as de Bruyne’s brilliant cross from deep on City’s right is headed home by Jesus for two-nil on 25 minutes.  At this point everyone in the stadium is thinking back to the 8-0 and wondering.

4- Scant comfort to be taken from a 5-1 defeat but, as described, we’ve been here before with a better team and some semblance of confidence and still been stuffed.  So our goal, albeit it turns out to be a consolation, is a fine fine thing.  The more so because it comes from Hassane Kamara… he’ll blot his copybook a little in the second half but once again his performance here is full of character and a bullishness badly lacking elsewhere in the team.  And again, like an unexpected beam of sunshine through the clouds, it’s a beautiful thing… Kamara plays a fine ball to insert Dennis into a threatening position.  Dennis lays off to King, who is only doing the inconspicuous pivot thing but at least he’s doing that.  King returns to Dennis who dinks a beautiful pass into the path of the galloping Kamara, through on goal with a deft slight of hand.  He succeeds where our more conventional goalscorers have failed in recent weeks, keeping calm and hitting a firm low shot on target.  It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect enough… the first goal scored by a Watford defender this season and it deserves more than to be lost in a 5-1 defeat here.  The away end goes wild with astonishment.

Briefly, the mood changes.  The course of the afternoon no longer seems mapped out… this is a competitive encounter all of a sudden.  Only for six minutes as it turns out, but it’s a decent six minutes – we’ve taken some blows but thrown some punches ourselves, not rolled over, and one has landed.  If you’re looking for evidence of life, here it is right here. 

And then it’s gone again.  Concentration once more, the distraction of de Bruyne lying in a heap outside the box, intermittent appeals from City players to put the ball out and we’re switching off, or at least some of us are switching off.  Cleverley, inadequately gutsy throughout, is penned into the corner flag and gives possession away tamely.  The ball finds Rodri, whose greatest obstacle to drilling the ball ferociously out of the air for 3-1 is his prone team-mate.

5- Theoretically we’re still in touch, but any embers of hope are extinguished at the start of the second half.  Unhappily it’s Kamara, who as discussed does have a mistake in him and here it is. Hurried into ceding possession virtually from the kick-off his sloppy error allows Jesus to run in on Foster who is tempted into a challenge as the Brazilian goes around him.  Briefly we’re given a stay of execution by a review and I come as close as I’m going to to losing my shit with the gibbons to our right when they grumble about VAR.  I hate VAR too but, jesus, throw us a bone.  We’re reviewing your penalty appeal when you’re already 3-1 up at home.

A favourable outcome to that review might have prolonged our on-pitch aspirations a while longer but the penalty was confirmed, correctly, and dispatched by Jesus who would add his fourth and City’s fifth as our resistance began to crumble;  more horrible scorelines still felt possible with well over half an hour to go.  As City took their foot off the gas though we had a couple of chances ourselves – Dennis, still plugging away unlike our other crown jewel on the opposite flank (by now withdrawn), was released by Louza and shot tamely into Ederson, decision making and execution both weak albeit rendered irrelevant by an offside flag.  A Dennis free kick then found sub João Pedro complacently unattended at the far post in a busy box but he got it all wrong and headed wide, frustratingly if irrelevantly.

Off the pitch, if the mood wasn’t as boisterous and to-hell-with-it as I’d hoped there was a healthy, noisy defiance and the gallows humour was moderated, interspersed with more conventional, positive support.  Well done all.  On the pitch, the last crumb of solace was to be found in our token resilience and resistance as City, and sub Mahrez in particular, attempted to turn the gas back up and crown the scoreline with a sixth.  They didn’t get it.  A small victory.

I could have done without a gormless pocket of Tranmere Rovers fans at Norton Canes services taking active, noisy and repetitive pleasure in our plight, a rare stain on an otherwise enjoyable enough drive home.  Odd on a number of levels;  pointing out how long it’s been since Tranmere were in the second tier would have been accurate but rather smacking of the same sort of arrogance that aggravates us when we’re treated as merely extras in a show about the big six (oh, and they’re always sacking their manager, hur hur).  Odd, too, that we should have been greeted as such on a day when promotion-chasing Rovers had lost at relegation-threatened Stevenage.  In any case, I guess supporting your local club, however worthy, doesn’t preclude you from being a knobhead.

Daughter 2 plugged herself happily into her phone, and I discovered, at high volume, that “The Wall” pretty much covers the journey from Norton Canes to home.  Not numb yet, comfortably or otherwise.  But amongst the consolations in relegation will be no more games quite like this one.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 3*, Ngakia 2, Kamara 3, Kabasele 2, Samir 3, Louza 3, Sissoko 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 1, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: Cathcart (for Samir, 68) 3, João Pedro (for Sarr, 69) 2, Kayembe (for Louza, 75) 2, Sema, Gosling, Troost-Ekong, N’Koulou, Masina, Bachmann

Watford 1 Brentford 2 (16/04/2022) 17/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
20 comments

1- The Inuit, it is said, have at least fifty words for “snow”.

It won’t be long before Watford supporters scoff at the over simplistic “home defeat” in the same way that Inuits dismiss “snow”, Germans scoff at “beer”, Rob McKenna the unwitting rain god in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy regards mere “rain”, or this Tory government shakes its head at “corruption” as the clumsy, inadequate wordage of the ignorant painfully lacking in the detail, refinement, comprehension of the true connoisseur.

Since we beat Manchester United we’ve had all manner of what mere mortals might simply call a “home defeat”.  The hard-fought and unfortunate (Chelsea), the gutsy and worthy in which less than a thrashing feels like an accomplishment (City), the cruel suggestion of success disintegrating into humiliation (West Ham) all the way to the haplessly incompetent, banging our heads against the flimsiest of brick walls before falling over exhausted and letting inept opponents march all over us (Norwich, Leeds).  We’ll have names for all of these one day, or just grimaces that every Hornet will understand and anyone else will regard as simply what Watford supporters look like.

And so the relentless toothache of our home form continues.  Miserable, all pervasive, impossible to forget about.  This one was different again, a quirky mix of the spirited, the encouraging and the dysfunctional.  It amounts to the same thing in the end.

2- There are fine things about an afternoon at the football that are independent of the result of course, mercifully.  Daughter 1 is in GCSE revision mode, but Daughter 2 is here – she’s sat resolutely through seven of the ten now, rolled her eyes at the pompous Premier League anthem each time.  Forgoing this, along with gaining midweek games and new grounds to visit is her silver lining. Before the game we amble over to the Nascot Arms where Nem and Nick and some fellow Bees have set up camp.  They’re happier with the world than we are as you might expect, one relating emotionally how a fellow veteran can’t quite believe that Christian Eriksen is playing for them…  but they’re tacitly sensitive to the ongoing suffering that we’re enduring.

Vicarage Road looks spectacular in the sunshine.  I don’t share the sentiment of those reporting “glad to have missed this one” with respect to a home defeat of almost any flavour – I’d much rather be suffering with those that Understand than doing so on my own, unable to process what’s going on first hand.  There are both young debutants – Nigel in front of us has brought what must be his sprightly much younger brother, elsewhere Vicky has brought Louie for the first time – and returning old timers.  Kevin Miller at half time and Heurelho Gomes makes a suitably rock-star return to Hertfordshire, indulging in a lap of the pitch to salute all sides of the ground.  The away end inconsiderately sings throughout his brief interview with master of ceremonies and birthday boy Richard Walker but the tannoy volume is high enough and we get the gist.

It lifts the stadium, as Gomes’ infectious personality lifted the team often during his time here you suspect.  As the game starts the home stands are positively boisterous and if Brentford control the early possession they’re not getting terribly far with it.  Soon we’re prodding and probing ourselves, equally inconsequentially but small steps, and to a soundtrack of encouragement.  Kiko is rattling up the right flank, Louza is prominent.  We’re doing OK.

Then Brentford score.

3- We have a major issue with set pieces throughout the game.  Part of this is down to our height and size disadvantage – we have nobody as tall or as broad as Kristoffer Ajer or Pontus Jansson for one thing which will limit our attacking options but also makes us vulnerable in dead ball situations.  More significant still is Christian Eriksen, comfortably the best player on the pitch like a pro guesting in a Sunday league game – his response to his warm welcome here must be practised and dutiful by now but he acknowledges it anyway.  His corners and his artistry from the centre of the pitch will cause us problems, particularly in the first half, but he’s not involved in the goal.

Instead Ethan Pinnock – whose departure five minutes later was a bit of a blessing – launches a bomb of a throw into the box, Ajer flicks on despite attention at the near post and an unmarked Nørgaard prods home.  In fairness, as above, Ajer is 6 foot 6 with a good four inches on any outfield Watford player,  and this well-rehearsed move is difficult to counter but it all looks pathetically easy and this as much as the goal itself once again punctures the team’s belief and the stadium’s mood.

The rest of the half is grouchy.  Brentford sit deep and we have neither the craft nor the confidence to penetrate…. the one shot on target from Louza, whose frustration has briefly threatened to boil over, dribbles through to David Raya to mocking cheers from the home end at this token shot on target.  Other efforts have gone high, wide and handsome with the exception of what is nearly a spectacular volleyed own goal from Ajer but, inevitably, his unintended effort loops the wrong side of the post with Raya stranded.  As Will wryly observes at half time having joined us from the Upper GT, it’s as close as we’ve come to scoring in two-and-a-half games.

4- The second half is much more like it, whatever the denouement.  Brentford briefly threaten to extend their lead – I’d been about to comment on how quiet Ivan Toney had been in the grand scheme of things when Eriksen dropped a free kick onto his scripted run past the defence and he rolled a shot narrowly wide of the left hand post having run in from left to right.  He had a ridiculous amount of time, a let off.

And we capitalised, improbably.  Moussa Sissoko’s ball from the right was flicked on by Sarr to find Dennis scrambling in well wide of the far post where he controlled the ball before lashing home from an angle narrow enough for Raya to be disappointed with himself, one suspects.  We had the celebrate-now stop-now start again rigmarole of an offside flag and a VAR review (and I’d still rather rely on the on-pitch officials than risk contaminating the joy of a goal celebration with this nonsense however accurate or favourable the calls) but with the confirmation we were up and running.

In Toney, Ajer and Rico Henry the Bees have three players linked with the Hornets in recent-ish years.  Toney and Ajer would have been fine recruits of course, so too Henry but at least in his case we have an adequate alternative.  After a clunky start to the game Hassane Kamara had a tremendous second half, his extendable limbs and irrepressible energy shutting down Brentford’s in-play threat from their right.  He bombed forward too, tripping his way to the touchline before laying back for Samir to sweep narrowly wide from outside the box.  Emmanuel Dennis was suddenly prominent, frustrating and firing in equal measure – one minute dawdling over a pass that might have released the similarly rejuvenated Sarr, the next demanding an extraordinary recovery challenge from Ajer as he charged towards space, the next slapping a shot off the bar from a free kick, again from a wide angle and this time with the intervention of Raya’s fingertips.

We were dominant, for the first prolonged spell at Vicarage Road in longer than I can remember.  It was still blunt and over deliberate but it felt so good to be on our feet and bellowing again.  Cleverley and King came off a bench heavily populated with central midfielders for combative cameos. We should have drawn the game.  We could have won it, and even a draw would have felt cruel with a win, irrelevant or otherwise, so, so close as we hammered down the left again and King smacked a low shot against the post with Louza desperately, painfully looping his shot to the rebound over under challenge with the goal gaping.

5- As with Toney’s earlier missed effort there felt an inevitability to what happened next.  I certainly won’t have been the only fan in the home stands to whom the horrible certainty of the winning goal arrived in advance.  Referee Simon Hooper had earlier aggravated the home stands by failing to punish with cards two non-violent but cynically disruptive fouls by Brentford players as we looked to break.  Here we were grateful to his even-handed leniency, since he appeared to change his mind about issuing what would have been a second yellow to Hassane Kamara on appreciating the consequences after a bad foul.

The punishment would come though.  Eriksen, inevitably, clipped in a ball, Jansson got ahead of the defence to beat the helpless Foster abetted perhaps by some naivety from Sarr wide of the action who had been fooled into following his adversary deep and playing the Swede onside.  We saw none of this last detail at the time, we were too far away and our heads were in our hands.

The game ended almost immediately. Impossibly cruel, a rare unmerited home defeat for the catalogue, ultimately, the players’ despair evident as bodies lay prone on the pitch long after the whistle.  Brentford, meanwhile, celebrated as they rumbled securely into mid-table.  How they cope with the notoriously difficult second season whither so many newly promoted survivors have crashed and burned before, with or without Eriksen, will be interesting but we’d give a lot to swap places now.  Red faced furiousness, inspired more by the context of ten home defeats on the hop than by this performance, interspersed appreciation of, finally, a stout show if nothing else, but even those applauding looked haggard and tired.

6- As a postscript.  After the game my brother and I went to my Gran’s house to load a van with furniture, dutifully supervised by Daughter 2.  Our Gran is still going at a feisty 94, but won’t be living here any longer.  After more than 40 years of post-match reflections in that living room that have covered six promotions, nearly six relegations and no end of cup runs, late goals, dodgy decisions and, yes, home defeats, this was the last time.

Reminder enough, I guess, that however bad the bad times are, good times will follow again at some point.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, *Kamara 3*, Samir 3, Kabasele 2, Louza 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Sarr 2, Dennis 3, João Pedro 2
Subs: King (for João Pedro, 84) NA, Cleverley (for Kucka, 84) NA, Cathcart (for Femenía,  87) NA, Forde, Gosling, Etebo, Kayembe, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 0 Leeds United 3 (09/04/2022) 10/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1- This is supposed to be fun, right?

I’m only asking because, you know, it’s been a while since this was fun hasn’t it?  At least at home?  Cucho’s goal against Arsenal was fun I suppose, though it didn’t count for much in the end.    Sissoko’s equaliser against Palace?  Then there was that time that Daughter 2 told a good joke during the second half against Brighton.  She might have told the same joke elsewhere though, I think, so strictly speaking that was fun that happened to take place at Vicarage Road.  If we’re being picky.

This isn’t as simple as “win good lose bad”, it really isn’t.  But we all understand, as fans of any club, that there’s supposed to be a trade off?  That there will be bad times which justify celebrating the good times?  You can’t really savour a victory until you’ve experienced the pain of defeat?  Fine.  I’m a grown up (ish), I can live with that.

So maybe just wake me up when the fun starts again, because I’ve had enough of this.  If I want to feel miserable, inadequate and stupid I get plenty of opportunity away from Vicarage Road without driving down the motorway and paying for the privilege.  It’s not just nine home defeats on the hop, though that in itself is a lot to endure under any circumstances.  It’s the nature of them.  Four have been heavy, of which now two against pathetically weak opposition.  A couple of them we were close to squeaking something from.  None of them constituted a gross injustice.

2- It doesn’t help that bloody Everton win at lunchtime, of all things.  I would throw in a line about Manchester United being the last side you want to rely on in such circumstances at the moment but if you didn’t think it yourself some time this afternoon you surely overheard it.

Nor does it help that it’s bloody freezing.  The sunshine is deceptive, once you’re in the shade the wind blows straight through you.  Regular readers will already have noted my poor wardrobe choices despite 40+ years of practice here, today was another case in point.   Nor is Vicarage Road the seething pit of our dreams;  coming as this tie does at a convenient mid-point of many schools’ choices of Easter holiday, there are plentiful bald patches in every stand bar the away end.

Nonetheless, we don’t start too badly.  This is an ugly, scruffy game of football and the first half will last longer than forty-five minutes of football ever has before but we withstand the visitors’ early lumberings and eventually build a good spell of pressure ourselves.  Juraj Kucka is forceful and significant in this spell, using his physicality to occupy a Leeds defence that already looks vulnerable and drawing a succession of fouls on the edge of the box.  Imran Louza sends the first of the resultant free kicks narrowly wide of Islan Meslier’s left hand post.  From another a lively Cucho Hernández pings a shot in from an ambitious position wide on our left of the area and forces a save from Meslier with what turns out to be our only shot on target of the afternoon.

Through all of this, and as both Kucka and Cucho send shots excitedly over, the home crowd is in good voice.  A goal would change so much, you suspect… in our position and starved of anything positive at home as we have been (see above) we’re all looking for an excuse, any excuse, to get carried away.  That nascent enthusiasm is punctured terminally by the opening goal, the more so because it’s so carelessly out of nothing.  Raphinha instigates the visitors’ first sortie for a while, a negligent Samir clearance offers Dan James the chance to rattle into a challenge from which the loose ball again finds Raphinha who finishes artfully and celebrates gracelessly, in more than one respect, in front of the Rookery.  Before the end of the half the second blow is dealt as Cucho hobbles off with what looks like a hamstring problem… not the most talented of our forwards, perhaps, but in current circumstances the one we can least afford to lose given his surfeit of personality.

3- We’re not terrible.  At least, we’re not completely terrible.  In fact some of the bits are pretty good, let down by the bits that really aren’t…  the midfield still looks redoubtable, since whilst Louza is less prominent than he has been Sissoko and Kucka are both decent and proactive.  Kiko is hammering forward on the right and Hassane Kamara does much the same on the opposite flank with the added bonus of a threat of violence that will always be popular in a left-back.  Indeed, as has been reflected during the pre-match meal, we could maybe do with his effectiveness being a little less high-profile for the rest of the season.  Relegation would bring sacrifices – Kamara being poached would be harder to accept than those we’re resigned to.

The biggest problem is up front, evidently.  Difficult to credit how a side that can now look so robust and organised defensively, particularly away from home and against the strongest opponents, can look so utterly shapeless in attack.  Roy’s modus operandi is no mystery but…  some of it’s got to be common to attacking and defending, surely?  A discipline in knowing what to do when and where to be?  There’s none of that in this forward line which looks far less than the some of its parts.  It’s difficult to recall a greater imbalance in a Watford squad than that between the evident capabilities of our attacking players and their ineffectiveness as a unit.

4- We miss Troy.  That shouldn’t be a controversial statement after so many years in which he was such a significant figure, but it hasn’t been voiced very often.  Without doubt his Premier League days are behind him, his limited mobility and fitness hampered his later contributions…  but his intelligence and leadership would never have tolerated the appalling decision making in our forward line you suspect. Nor would he have countenanced the lack of belief that saw Sarr waste our best chance of the game.  Put through on goal as Leeds creaked, albeit with the ball running slightly away from him to his right, he slugged a shot criminally wide when any prioritisation of placement over power would surely have found the gaping net.  You do feel that, for all our frustrating shapelessness, a goal there could have turned the outcome completely.

In a side missing vocal leadership, Deeney’s presence wouldn’t have afforded Andre Marriner such an easy ride either.  Neither the officiating nor Leeds’ time management contributed significantly to the outcome;  nonetheless Marriner refereed with the air of a teenager absorbed in their mobile phone, unfocused and seemingly scarcely interested. An unnecessary extra aggravation.

5- The second goal was a shambles, obviously, but I found it less upsetting than Sarr’s miss.  Hassane Kamara is developing a penchant for man-of-the-match performances stained by one high-profile error… at Anfield, failing to prevent Joe Gomez’s cross, at Wembley against England losing concentration and allowing Ollie Watkins to steal in behind him to score.  Here he might have gotten away with his ill-judged pass to Samir as the pair headed towards their own goal at speed had the Brazilian not stumbled over the ball and the ricochet not fallen kindly for Rodrigo to gallop around the helpless Foster to finish.

All hope died at that point, on and off the pitch.   Perhaps the most miserable and telling period of play preceded the third goal… a promising Watford attack retreated limply back to Ben Foster;  as the ball made its apologetic way out again to the left Leeds stole possession and ambled through with scarcely a challenge’s impediment before Harrison slugged a ferocious shot across Foster who, nonetheless, might have done better.

The stands emptied long before the final whistle.  Further joy was provided by finding Vicarage Road stuffed with jubilant visiting supporters…  churlish to be too critical given both that we’d have loved to have been in their position and that the away end had generously joined in the pre-match recognition offered to the late Bill Shipwright.  But it wasn’t fun.

We’re done, obviously.  If not mathematically then to all intents and purposes given the size of the gap and the fact that a trip to Manchester City would immediately follow the arresting of our joyless home record against Brentford next weekend.

For now though, breaking that cycle and reversing our appalling home form is an end in itself, vital in instilling any belief before the start of next season.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, *Kamara 3*, Samir 2, Kabasele 3, Louza 2, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Hernández 3, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2,
Subs: Dennis (for Hernández, 39) 2, Kayembe (for Kucka, 72) 3, King (for João Pedro,  81) NA, Kalu, Cleverley, Cathcart, Sierralta, Masina, Bachmann

Liverpool 2 Watford 0 (02/04/2022) 03/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- Sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you expect.

For instance.  In as much as I ever thought about it, I always expected to need to coerce my children into exam revision.   I don’t know why… as so often I’m guided by a mental image of uncertain origin depicting how I’m supposed to behave as a parent.

Instead, Daughter 1 is on an urgent, ferocious mission.  Her last set of GCSE mocks having just been cleared she’s into a run in towards the exams themselves for which she has drawn up a merciless revision timetable.  If anything I fear I need to tell her to calm down a bit – is that wrong?  Who knows.  Today – and admittedly after some soul searching – she has conceded to the inevitable in the face of a dedicated Science day at school, sacrificed the trip north and so allowed her younger sister to catch her up, both now counting 113 Watford games in their back catalogue.

Daughter 2 isn’t in her teens yet, but an impending three-year GCSE programme means she’s got options to choose from herself which she contemplates thoughtfully as we pick our way through a bright, sunny Stanley Park to Anfield.  I’m relieved that the latest grave turning over of the various permutations available abates as we enter the famous stadium and the day’s business becomes the focus.  I’ve done something right.

2- Will’s here too with his two herberts, the younger of whom boasting a new “signature hairdo” (her words), consciously and appropriately inspired by Björk.  The elder is full of bold predictions and bravado but he’s atypical of an away end who have either been trying to avoid thinking about the actual football too much or are resigned to the traditional and are in a zen-state of acceptance.

Team selection is influenced, almost certainly, by the physical consequences of a heavy programme of international duty including plenty of key World Cup qualifiers and far too much extra time for anyone’s liking.  Emmanuel Dennis and Joshua King are on the bench, for instance, whilst Peter Etebo and William Troost-Ekong don’t even make it that far.  That aside there remains evidence of Roy having established a set of key personnel; pejoratively you might call them “favourites”,  Cucho, Kabasele, and even Kucka and João Pedro are more prominent – game triers all – whilst Shaq Forde has been singled out amongst the youngsters. I’ve not seen enough of Shaq to comment but whether his judgement proves sound on not it’s a Good Thing that Roy’s perspective is broad enough to make one despite his presumed summer departure.

3- Game triers are essential in this team though.  If we’re yet to discover any home form (which, as should be obvious, will be non-negotiable) then our defensive shape away from home is almost Borg-like (a nuance owing to Roy’s considerable coaching experience in Sweden perhaps?).  One player steps away, another is there to take his place… you’re not facing group of individuals, you’re facing a collective consciousness and if you were a betting man you’d wager that Ray Lewington, patrolling the Anfield touchline like an attentive general as he was on my first visit here 17 years ago, was the brain at the centre.

The game settles into a pattern very quickly.  The home side will dominate possession throughout but are largely kept at arm’s length due to the diligent scurrying and closing and getting in the way of those in yellow and black.  Jota and Jones will both fling shots lazily, impatiently over the bar and to whatever degree this reflects complacency or containment on the part of the team in red it suits us down to the ground.  About face, shape up, do it again.  Meanwhile the universal expectation of an effortlessly comfortable home victory is given a serious jolt when Ismaïla Sarr slugs a dipping shot over the advancing Alisson Becker after some gnarled challenges burgle him a bit of space.  It’s too high but it’s really not that far too high at all.

Which isn’t to say we’re comfortable.  The brilliant Thiago is causing all kinds of mischief around the edge of the box – if it’s going to come, it’s going to come there you suspect.  Bodies are constantly put on the line, the imperious Samir’s not least.  The attacking players are diligent and attentive also, hence the need for game triers… Sarr is cajoling and harrying and watching the space behind him.  Cucho contests a corner with Van Dijk and comes off worst, appearing to receive the full force of the Dutchman’s neck muscles and briefly lying dizzied in the penalty with small birds flitting around his head.  Sissoko aborts one incursion into our box directly in front of the away end with a superhuman tackle before unfussily shepherding the ball away.

But we’re throwing punches of our own.  Louza, our own budget version of Thiago, is terrific…. snapping into a challenge one minute, skipping into a gap and salvaging possession the next, swinging a ball the width of the pitch to change the focus the next, dropping a corner onto Cucho’s head requiring Alisson to be attentive the next.  There’s some quick, sharp passing on the break too that always looks like it might create something and does so when JP plays a galloping Kucka in down the left.  Alisson is out quickly, Kucka doesn’t have the guile to finish. It’s a proper chane.

Cruelly Liverpool’s breakthrough comes immediately.  Gomez – or more precisely the neglected space over his right shoulder – has been the focus of much of our attacking play but he pops up high on the right flank and is afforded too much space to swing his cross in.  It’s a bomb of a ball, Foster has a fraction of a second to make a call, gets it wrong and Diogo Jota has sprung across him to flick the ball home.  Foster redeems himself shortly afterwards with a fine save from the same opponent but we’re behind at the break if, against all expectation, slightly unfortunate to be so.

4- If you’re going to play that contain and destroy game, the question is always “so what if you go behind?”.  The team’s not set up to commit forward but to counter attack – how quickly do you change things up?

There was no decision to make here.  Liverpool are too good with the ball, have too many good players in attacking positions and won’t be sitting back yet anyway.  It’s tempting to look at what was a 1-0 scoreline for much of the second half and say “we should have given it more welly” but such analysis boils down to “win good, lose bad”.  We’ve been demonstrably incapable of imposing ourselves at home against much less accomplished opponents but had done a reasonable job of frustrating the home side here.  No cause to change it up yet.

For this to pay off we needed to ride our luck a bit – as we did when Jota and ?Matip? sent unchallenged headers safely off target.  Secondly we needed to continue to dig in – the indefatigable Kamara in his element here, relentless charging around as much his thing as it was at Wembley earlier in the week and in both cases the token one bad error per game is probably worth spending on such high levels of energy and personality.

But finally we needed to be clinical when the chance came, and we weren’t.  It’s easy to underplay the quality that went into the chance… Cucho, Isma and JP spinning and turning and the latter doing well to snap a shot past Alisson under challenge but it had to go in and it didn’t.

Cucho was booked shortly afterwards.  I’d have subbed him then, I think…. he’s a lesser beast on a yellow card and was tiring.  As it was, when the triple-sub came after a prolonged period of Liverpool possession and pressure it was almost wholly ineffective – Roy and Ray will have needed to judge quite whose legs needed protecting for how long, but none of King, Cleverley or Dennis made the required impact.

5- Early in the second half a thought had popped into my head:  given the choice, would you take a win here or a win at Man City in three weeks’ time.  Man City, I concluded, partly because we need to beat them at some point but largely because an encouraging performance was already in the bag here;  this, plus three points at City knocks a win at Anfield and another humiliation by City into a hat.  You can thank me later.

Nonetheless, the late penalty was harsh I think.  Not a harsh call – a tired challenge from Kucka.  But yielding a harsh scoreline.  You’d struggle to argue that we were worth a point – coulda certainly, shoulda never.  But we deserved the grudging credit of a 1-0 margin and can feel hard done by by a 2-0 that will surely be written off as “routine” by those not really paying attention.  Foster went the right way, Fabinho went even further.

“We can see you sneaking out” piped up from the stand to our right which was a little rich given that the stream of Hornets trudging towards the exit was dwarfed by the floods of salt-of-the-earth, best fans in the world vacating the same home stand.  Any accusations of lack of self-awareness wouldn’t really have stood up to scrutiny however, given that earlier in proceedings one of several lulls in what was generally a boisterous atmosphere was greeted with “is this a library?” from an away end that barely stirred itself from its lunchtime slumber throughout.

Will took his herberts down the front at the whistle, the younger coyly suggesting that Ben Foster might give her his shirt if she were to smile sweetly at him.  Terrifying.  We then made our way homeward, with Daughter 2 enjoying a first “chips with curry sauce” as part of her ongoing pre-GCSE education.

Not, then, what was expected, not entirely, even if it boils down to the same thing more or less in the end.  But there’s clearly something here, Sarr’s return bringing a bit more devilment to our attacking play even against the strongest of opponents.  In reality, last chance saloon was always going to be opening its doors with that extraordinary run of fixtures at Vicarage Road, starting on Saturday.

No excuses for it to be anything other than febrile.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Kamara 4, Kabasele 4, *Samir 4*, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Sarr 3, Hernández 3, João Pedro 3
Subs: King (for João Pedro, 68) 2, Cleverley (for Louza, 68) 3, Dennis (for Hernández, 68) 2, Sema, Kayembe, Cathcart, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann