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Watford 2 Sunderland 2 (17/09/2022) 18/09/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Being relegated is difficult.

Which is a ludicrous thing to say in one sense of course.  Getting relegated is very easy – just go out there and play like turkeys.  Hell, you or I could do it – I think I could do a good turn as the befuddled and slightly out of shape centre-back who turns around looking for someone to blame as the third goal trundles in. And for less money than, say, Patrick Blondeau was on. Even last season, when we did have to work quite hard to achieve what we achieved in the wake of stiff competition from Leeds and Everton in particular…  getting relegated didn’t require any great strategy.

Being relegated is different.  For all the complaints about yo-yo clubs from those barely paying attention there are all sorts of challenges facing teams relegated from the top flight.  Our own history betrays this truth…  1988 was my first relegation and perhaps the exception that proves the rule since I vaguely remember simply the relief at Bassett no longer being in charge as the dominant sentiment.  But… even then, finishing fourth was a little bit disappointing I think, though I was younger then than Daughter 1 is now so I forgive myself for not quite remembering.  2000/01 though was utterly miserable…  a distractingly good start rapidly collapsing in the face of miserable performances by Christmas.  2006/07  virtually a carbon copy, except that we improbably clung on to a play-off place thanks in part to the lack of consistent challenge from elsewhere.  And as many have pointed out… for all that we were promoted two years ago it was anything but easy.  It was pretty miserable for quite a lot of the season.

The challenges are manifold.  It’s rare for a happy camp to be relegated for one thing, there will always be problems in need of resolution.  Sands will shift as it becomes clear that the straws you cling to are the ones that others want to whisk away, whilst nobody wants your dead weights for some reason.  Planning with any certainty is difficult since you don’t know quite when or whether your asking prices will be met, as this summer has shown, and the cost of holding anything other than a firm negotiating position will scupper “the model” going forward, whether you still have faith in it or not.  You’re not going to get very far buying low and selling high if you make it clear that you can be bullied.

And then there’s the whole “fan expectation” thing which clearly is a thing.  But that’s not a criticism to be levelled at the support either, at least not all of them.  If you were ten years old and developing some kind of consciousness in 2012 when the Pozzos took over then you’re now 20, your world consists of six seasons in the Premier League, two promotions and one late defeat in a play-off final, a cup final, a semi-final and the insane catharsis of Troy’s penalty against Wolves.  Of course you’ve got high standards.

2- So, it’s difficult.  The margins are fine, and much as there’s loose consensus on the decision not to refresh the squad in 2019 as The Root of All The Problems it’s a mistake that many of us would have made in that position.  Signing Sarr likewise.  Subsequent badly-timed injuries, the pandemic and its consequences both on our relegation and our ability to move players on when we wanted to, all of that adds mass to the avalanche that’s outside of anyone’s control.

There’s still no justification for a situation that sees Craig Cathcart trundling out again at right back at the age of 33 on the back of one related injury of course.  It’s transparently the correct decision from Rob Edwards too, since we benefit hugely from Hassane Kamara being back on the left, rattling up and down the wing joyfully for much of the game while there are few mourning the absence of Mario Gaspar from the matchday squad (other, perhaps, than the chap who went early with the Spaniard’s name on his shirt, spotted at Blackburn).  But no excuse for us getting ourselves into this position.  With an international break looming, let alone with Xisco Muñoz loitering for selfies outside the ground after the game, you’d worry about the manager’s future but for the eye-catching Giaretta situation.  The sacking/refocusing of the sporting director suggests a change in approach.  We’ll see.

The mood music is playing loudly from the kick off;  every time the ball rolls lethargically across the backline the grumbles rise like an echo.  Vicky’s not been exposed to much of this…. “why are they moaning already?” she asks, but is chewing her knuckles with frustration before half time.

In reality though this is already much better than Blackburn.  The return of Kortney Hause and particularly the employment from the off of Keinan Davis up front give us a physical heft that we didn’t have before and the latter suggests an out-ball that, if unimaginative is nonetheless more than we’ve had to this point.  We are creating a bit more too… whether through Davis occupying opponents or through Kamara’s willingness down the left or through a little bit more imagination from our midfielders (and bearing in mind that with the best will in the world Edo Kayembe isn’t going to become Andrea Pirlo or even Almen Abdi any time soon) we suggest the possibility of a breakthrough before it actually happens.  Glimpses amongst our laboured stodge, light breaking through the clouds as JP fires at the keeper from an offside position, as Davis almost thunders his way through.  But as so often, it takes a moment of brilliance to actually get the ball into the net – an outrageous, scorching pass on the turn by Asprilla to release Kamara howling up the left flank, his perfect cross allows Davis to plant the ball into an empty net.  It’s irresistible, a Manchester City goal that is so brutally effective that it leaves the opposition wondering quite what they did wrong.  It’s a glimpse of what we might mutate into with a prevailing wind.

3- In the meantime we’re stuck with this midfield, albeit with the knowledge that any one of Cleverley, Dele-Bashiru or Louza being available could be transformative through adding either dynamism or guile, or both.

Sunderland are our inverse in some respects.  We have a potent looking forward line that is underserviced by a pedestrian midfield short on numbers and options;  our visitors have a nimble, dynamic, mobile midfield that moves the ball around well but only two senior strikers, both of whom absent today leaving diminutive midfield nearly-was Alex Pritchard to lead the line for the most part.

Their lack of physicality up front might suggest that sitting deeper to challenge them to prize us open should be productive.  Unfortunately we never look less organised than when the latest central combination of Troost-Ekong and Hause have their lack of relationship placed under a microscope.  Sunderland don’t have to do very much to provoke scruffy carnage in the box in front of the Rookery, at the height of which Alese stabs at goal and Choudhury scrapes the ball away.  It must have been a tight call but my instinct had been “oh shit” for all that the game continued, and the referee’s watch removed any doubt.  The ball had crossed the line and the visitors were level shortly before the interval.

As an aside, Sunderland were also an inversion of Watford in the attitude of their support.  If a miserable relegation (indeed, two successive relegations as far as the in-stadium support is concerned) lends itself to an overly negative take then long-awaited promotion sees Sunderland fans riding a giddy wave.  We rode the same wave all the way to a successive promotion behind Sunderland in 1999 of course…  but there was an absurd level of triumphalism on display outside the ground afterwards.  There’s nothing not to enjoy about nicking a late point away from home of course – the more so when, unlike here, it’s completely unmerited.  But exaltation of Sunderland’s large but not terribly noisy away support and citation of the visitors’ two “cast iron” penalties were fanciful – certainly the tumble in the first half was laughable, and the apparent handball in the second was matched by an identical shout in Watford’s favour at the Rookery end.

4- Watford started the second half much more aggressively with Hamza Choudhury punching into tackles and some concerted pressing for the first time.  Keinan Davis continued to be the focal point of the attack and began to link up nicely with João Pedro, who had been ploughing a slightly uncomfortable furrow on the right flank.  Twice he played the ball into Davis’s feet for him to hold it up and with a single touch allow JP to continue his run across him and open up the play.  Less productive was Davis’ relationship with Ken Sema – time might suggest whether the striker’s furious impatience when things didn’t quite come off was directed at the left winger or at himself, Vicky and I disagreed on this point.

Where the two sides did bear comparison was in defensive vulnerability. For all that in Danny Batth Sunderland boated the sort of big old unit that we’d been craving in the transfer window (until Hause’s arrival at any rate) they looked vulnerable at set pieces and there was no huge surprise when Luke O’Nien, having admirably made up his seven inch deficit on Kortney Hause to get his head to Troost-Ekong’s excellent far post headed knock-back, inadvertently sent the ball past his own keeper.  Not the return that the former Watford youngster would have chosen, one suspects.

Briefly a more comfortable win looked likely.  Sunderland looked overwhelmed for the first time as we swarmed forward;  Kayembe lurched into space and sent a fierce, curling shot narrowly wide.  João Pedro appeared on the left and flung a shot across the face of goal.  Three points, whether merited or not, would have been a valuable thing to go into the international fortnight with.

5- Instead the game ended with Sunderland banging on the door, having spurned a good chance breaking on the left and had a Jack Clarke goal ruled out for a tight offside call before Jewison Bennette snapped up the equaliser from a ridiculous amount of space on the right of the box as we defended it.

During the 25 minute interval between the two goals 8 (eight) substitutions had taken place, from which the visitors undoubtedly did the better.  Much grumbling in Rob Edwards’ direction on Occupation (for the moment) Road after the game – in truth the fault lies with the paucity of options on the bench.  Davis and Kamara were the expensive sacrifices, but the latter had been touch and go for the game and the former, about whom “as long as they can keep him fit” has been a qualifier in all informed reviews, is yet to complete 90 minutes and had a bruising hour at Blackburn on Tuesday.  Rey Manaj’s injury (remember him?) perhaps expensive here.

Sunderland meanwhile injected much more energy and dynamism into their offering with their own subs, though any envy of their young options should perhaps be tempered with the knowledge that on-loan Amad Diallo has already cost Manchester United more than we paid for Ismaïla Sarr.  Not that it matters, but “local lad come good” he isn’t.

And so we go into the international break downwardly mobile and grumbling.  Rob Edwards will probably be glad of the break – the team, as has been widely acknowledged – looks tired and the urgent need for more options in the middle of the park will hopefully help address this as much as the week’s break that many of the squad will enjoy.

As for his job security, to repeat, words are cheap.  We can’t implore the club to exercise more patience on the one hand and then turn on a young manager in a challenging position if things look a bit tricksy after ten games.  We await clarification on Giaretta with interest.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Kamara 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Hause 3, Kayembe 3, Choudhury 3, Sema 3, Asprilla 3, João Pedro 3, *Davis 4*
Subs: Bayo (for Kamara, 73) 2, Gosling (for Davis, 81) NA, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 84) NA, Kalu, Hungbo, Sierralta, Okoye

Comments»

1. David - 18/09/2022

Thank you Matt, the 442 better suits our current squad even if we accommodate Pedro at right wing. I have sympathy for the defenders, keyembe and Choudhury never show for the pass and leave the responsibility on others to shift the ball forwards.

A positive word for WTE who despite being very uncomfortable on the ball always made himself available.

2. Steve G - 18/09/2022

Thanks as ever for a sane and balanced report. While I appreciate the caveats in #1 about fan expectation, I do wonder what planet some people are on at times. This wasn’t a great performance, but it was OK. Three points would have been great, and it’s always frustrating to lose a lead at the end, but it’s difficult to argue that a draw was an unfair result. And as you indicate, there are signs that Rob Edwards is learning some useful lessons – I think this was the first time that Kamara and Sema have both played together on the left and we looked much better for it. The midfield is an issue, but we do have six players out injured at the moment and it’s difficult to see what selections would massively improve things. Of course if we still had Will Hughes things might be very different, but we don’t. Maybe we shouldn’t have let Quina out on loan again, but hindsight is easy when we’ve lost three key players to injury. And if there was a sense of playing passively along the back line before a hopeful ball forward, the presence of Davis to get on the end of it at least meant that the hope that it might develop into something more meaningful was occasionally justified.

The bigger picture is surely that a club like Watford can’t expect to walk the second tier – if we end up in the top half of the table just outside the playoff places, there are worse places to be. Is it really better getting stuffed every week in the relegation zone of the Premier League?

If we end up sliding towards relegation when Sarr, Ngakia, Louza, Cleverley and TDB are fit, then booing might just about be an appropriate response. But not now.

3. Harefield Hornet - 19/09/2022

Agree with all of that – this team is still a work in progress and expectations should be lowered accordingly. They are nowhere near as good as the side that won us promotion under Jokanovic or even the more recent team
under Xisco.

Matt Rowson - 19/09/2022

I think our forward line should be better than two years ago. Davis will offer more than half-fit Deeney or Gray, JP is two years older and stronger. But the balance in midfield means that we’re too often not effective enough.

4. Bruce Reed - 01/10/2022

Matt/ Ian

Was scouring through the feeds re: Edwards as you do – came across this in the unlikely environs of the Wolverhampton Express & Star – thought you’d at least appreciate the sentiments re: Watford as a club of demur from
Some of the other parts of the article – hope you are both doing ok… https://www.expressandstar.com/sport/football/2022/10/01/johnny-phillips-eat-sleep-sack-repeat—thats-the-watford-way/


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