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Sheffield United 1 Watford 0 (25/02/2023) 26/02/2023

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- At least it feels like February.

And for once, pre-trip precautions involving a variety of coats in the back of the car have paid off.  Sheffield isn’t terribly much further north than the northern tip of Bedfordshire…  indeed if our journey starts where the South becomes the Midlands (Northampton, indisputably East Midlands, is a hair’s breadth north if  15 miles west) then Sheffield is surely the first major outpost of the North as you come out the other end.

As we left home the sunshine had been warm, disconcertingly mild for February but this is more like it.  Cold wind, belligerent drizzle is how it should be, reassuring even as it forces us under the awning of the abandoned Debenhams as we descend from our parking spot.  First destination is the Rutland Arms, which boasts all manner of exciting and unfamiliar names on pump heads and is rammed before 1pm… both with home fans and with familiar faces in yellow.

The beer garden has space to breathe though, and as the rain has abated that’s where we meet Mick.  Since he and I had only met once before and that some years ago this takes a while…  Daughter 2 had inadvertently complicated matters by dropping out early in the morning through poorliness, and none of the surviving entourage boast the mountain of dark curls that one time occasional BSaD contributor Mick was looking out for.  

It says something for the way time happens, as much discussed, that we both guess at about 15 years since our previous meeting.  Actually it’s been more than 20…  further evidence of Mick’s failing memory comes in his suggestion that one of us has put on a bit of timber in the intervening period, though he looks trim enough to me.  A thoroughly affable pint and sharing of concerns later and we’re tumbling out of the door and towards Bramall Lane feeling generally well disposed towards the world.

2- I’m mentioning that interlude for a couple of reasons.  The first, a reminder to myself as much as anyone else of that “enjoy the journey” mantra.  Today was a good day irrespective of what happened on the pitch, the pre-match activity part of that.  The second…  a re-reading of that match report which has a horribly familiar feel.  What daughter 2 would call a “vibe”.  All manner of differences between this season and the Vialli campaign of course, different circumstances, different back story. But a common sense of waiting for things to click, of a recognition that we were watching a side that was perhaps less than the sum of its parts.  We would leave Sheffield huffing and cussing with similar impatience.

But back at 2.30 we were still cheerful, naïve and optimistic.  Not every visit to Bramall Lane has resulted in bonhomie with the stewards (although on occasion they may have been provoked unreasonably).  Today there’s a genial nod from the elderly gentleman on the gate, no search, no pat down.  I tend to think that if you treat people like adults they’ll behave accordingly but, you know, I’m not running a football ground and maybe that’s why.  The traditional badge of approval is confirmed by the litmus test of purchase of bottles of pop which are presented with lids intact and unremoved (let alone contents decanted into flimsy plastic pints, hello Leeds).  

On the pitch the headline is the return of Imrân Louza to what’s otherwise looking alarmingly like a settled starting eleven all of a sudden.  Irrespective of the anticipated impact of this development on the team’s effectiveness, this is a fine thing all round as anyone who had the misfortune to be in close proximity to his injury at the Den the last time he started will testify.

3- So as you’ll have gathered if you’ve read recent postings, my head has been very much in the “this is where things start to get better” space, which colours my assessment of what follows.  With this in mind the first half is pretty encouraging…  this certainly isn’t the one-sided embarrassment that Paul had been dreading despite the awkward and unconvinced shuffling that accompanied Blades’ assessment of their own current form in the Rutland Arms.  

There’s a bit of a stand-off, figuratively speaking, between João Pedro and Iliman Ndiaye, subjects of occasional social media “who’s the greatest” silliness.  Ndiaye sparkles in fits and burst, João glides around the pitch caressing the ball with him.  Both suffer from the attentions of their opposite numbers…  Hoedt chops Ndiaye in half after only ten minutes, an offence which referee Keith Stroud, who makes a reasonable fist of things all in all, returns to some time later to issue an early yellow which our “big f***ing Dutchman, we’ve got a big f***ing Dutchman” does well to navigate for the remaining 80. JP is also being kicked all over the place and draws at least one yellow card himself during the first half.

That the two sides are evenly matched suits United, with their buffer on the chasing pack, rather better than it does us for all that the Blades have wobbled a bit of late.  So to does the fact that both sides are rather better at defending than going forward despite the attacking talent on show.  This is a game that’s never less than absorbing, never “settles down” but is short of meaningful goalmouth incident…  that a flock of pigeons hangs around on the pitch in front of the away end for the duration only occasionally being startled into the air speaks volumes.

For our own part, an attacking armoury that features João Pedro, Sarr and Louza ought to do more damage than this, but a central issue at the moment is that we have a lot of creative players dancing around the edge of the box and precious few bodies inside it other than when afforded the formal invitation of a set piece.  And never has Keinan Davis, for all his strength and industry, looked more in need of a goal.

Nonetheless our best glimpses of the first half involve him…  a header wide that should really be on target, a shout for a penalty that we have no view whatsoever of from the far end, and an in-swinging free kick from the right delivered by Louza that Foderingham, under rare pressure, loses altogether before being rescued by the referees whistle as the mass of bodies makes progress or interpretation impossible – a defending free kick the inevitable default.  At our end, United are bright, lively and mobile but we’re answering the questions they’re asking, by and large – the closest Daniel Bachmann comes to embarrassment is entirely his own doing as he messes up a punch that should have been an easy catch and the ball spins out for a corner.

4- For all that we’re going to leave Bramall Lane far grumpier than we walked into it, there are positives to take from the afternoon.  The first is that whilst Ferreira and Kamara are perhaps the two of the remaining absentees most obviously candidates for a swift return to the starting eleven, both deputy full-backs excelled again here and will take some displacing.  Mario Gaspar suddenly looks very far from the busted flush that we feared we’d been lumbered with earlier in the season, whilst James Morris has lost all of his tentativeness and is confident enough to play himself out of trouble with his weaker foot at one point.  He also hammers up and down the left flank relentlessly, frequently the source of the ball into the box displaying an aggression in attacking areas that we need rather more of.  His wonderful ball from the touchline on the sprint in the second half finds Davis at the far post, who chests the ball lamely at Foderingham.  This is a dreadful miss – dumping in a far post header like this should be food and drink to a big centre forward.

The other obvious plus was that, for all we lose some devilment when Louza is withdrawn after an hour, we gain something different the aggressive running of Ismaël Koné whose ability to carry the ball suggests a variety in our midfield options that had often been in short supply earlier in the campaign.  Aráujo is another encouraging cameo… whilst we still haven’t found a way to use him effectively his startling awareness, touch and mobility in the box are weapons that might unlock our current limitations.

But the home side are the stronger in the second half, and come closer taking the lead before they actually do so.  This is still, largely, from distance…. Ahmedhodzic thumps narrowly over, Doyle draws the best save of the game from Bachmann but both from well outside the area.  Alarms are ringing when Jayden Bogle has a goal disallowed after heading in a ball from the right… he was offside, but not offside enough to prevent the home stands from celebrating.  And then Oli McBurnie is somehow neglected from a corner from United’s left, drifts away from the far post, heads the ball back across goal where it bounces off Porteous and is hacked away by Choudhury but from behind the line.  Bachmann could have done better, whoever was supposed to be watching McBurnie should certainly have done better, but there you are.  Narrow margins.   We get a chance to salvage the point that we probably deserve in the dying seconds as Daniel Bachmann comes up for a corner which leads to the ball bouncing agonisingly around in the box but whilst United got the break we didn’t;  for all that several thousand Hornets were sucking it in from behind the goal as it bounced around long enough for any of us to hop over the wall and apply the touch it needed with a “for f***’s sake!”, the ball is cleared and the whistle goes.

5-  Stepping back, the narrowest of defeats away at one of the two outstanding teams in the division shouldn’t be seen as a disaster.  Nonetheless, as the league table continues to evolve we’re now in danger of slipping away from the play-off places rather than automatic promotion, any lingering fantasies about which disappear with this defeat.

And on top of that, we still aren’t grasping the nettle and hammering at teams as a side with this attacking talent ought to be able to do.  Lots of problems have been addressed…  the full back “problem” suddenly looks sorted, we have brutality and means of playing the ball out from central defence, we have a variety of means of transitioning the ball through midfield.

But the diffidence of the attacking play is only OK if we’re developing into something.  If this is the end point, it isn’t good enough at all.


Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 4, Morris 4, Porteous 3, *Hoedt 4*, Choudhury 4, Louza 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 4, Sema 2, Davis 2
Subs: Koné (for Louza, 58) 3, Assombalonga (for Sema, 78) NA, Aráujo (for Davis, 81) NA, Bacuna, Cathcart, Kabasele, Okoye



1. Hazza - 26/02/2023

Very much how I saw the game. I would’ve been more generous still than you, and you know how I love the breed. But for that penalty decision. Even allowing for my legendary one eye, you’ve seen more of them given than not.

And we did pass up too many decent opportunities, particularly in the first half. When the attack doesn’t score when it should, it puts too much pressure onto even our decent defence. And Louza was even more unhappy at being subbed than I was when he left the field. Kone is doing well, but Louza needs his minutes and so do we. Gaspar and Morris? Love Gaspar’s experienced ‘old dog’ determination and craft; I hope that Morrison ‘trains on’ to fulfil his potential.

But I want to see more from Kienen Davis. I can understand why Bilic perseveres with him – to get him his goal so that he can strut his stuff again. But Aráujo shouldn’t be warming our bench!! I’m certain he didn’t come free and he needs to earn his corn. And be given that opportunity.
Only rarely do I comment and then most often to demonstrate that I always read your reviews.

Matt Rowson - 26/02/2023

Yes yes. Louza… Bilic’s comments suggest that he was pushing it by not taking him off at half time

2. Harefield Hornet - 26/02/2023

How did last Mondays hero Ken Sema do ? Looks like he had an unusually quiet afternoon ? ?!! Score of 2. Was he marked out of the game by somebody ?

Matt Rowson - 26/02/2023

Net very involved.

Harefield Hornet - 26/02/2023

That’s a shame after last week ? Unusual ?

3. David Wheatley - 26/02/2023

thank you Matt,

I wonder if we have been spoilt in that most watford teams over the past 40 years ( my active supporting career) have been better than the sum of its parts. Even the Vialli team arguably passes, as the players were just not very good. I will give some thought to an scientific definition.

4. Simoninoz - 27/02/2023

The excellent revitalised Watford Archive (thank you, Matt) tells us that on 2 March 1999 we had 12 games to go – same as now. We then had 2 losses followed by 2 draws and then, famously, 7 wins and a draw from the last 8 to get us to 5th. We can still do it. If only Preston were managed by John Aldridge…

5. Graham - 27/02/2023

Drop Choudhury for Kone and start him alongside Louza.

6. PEDantic - 27/02/2023

I completely agree about the limpness of our attack. I’ve been banging on for a while now about the need to play with twin strikers, although I’ll leave that to the manager to work out how best to incorporate that in the team. Not only would that hopefully utilise our Portuguese goal scorer, but I think it would help Davis too. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t win all our remaining home games, but we have to get at our opponents from the start each time.

Steve - 27/02/2023

I agree with PEDantic. I think perhaps 442 with Davis and Aráujo up top and then Sema (or JP) Choudhury, Louza & Sarr will give us more attacking opportunies.

7. Ben Thornhill - 27/02/2023

I’d like to see a midfield with Chouds, Kone and Louza and a front 3 of Sarr, Araujo and Pedro this weekend. I’d even play Ken at left back. Chuck Ferreira back in if fit too. Possibly another case of rearranging the furniture on the decks of the Titanic but it looks nice to me.

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