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Norwich City 0 Watford 2 (09/11/2019) 09/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- We’ve been chatting for most of the journey, the long straight roads from Bedford to Norwich, but as we get close the conversation dwindles. Paul is not a Hornet, he’s on loan from AFC Rushden & Diamonds for the evening but this is closer to Tommy Mooney from Southend, say, than to Andros Townsend from Spurs. He gets it. The stereo is on for the first time as we approach, and the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” thumps out at a wonderfully painful volume. It’s the perfect anthem for the evening.


It’s a cold night, but pleasantly cold. A cold to watch an evening kick off in, a cold to accentuate the prickles on the back of your neck rather than to chill your bones. It’s also fireworks night in Norwich, but the crowds are all headed in one direction. We manage to get seated in the eatery at the stadium, not clear quite how much subterfuge is needed but we don’t see any Watford colours so the coat stays on throughout.

There’s no downplaying the tension. They’ve all been big games of course, all must-win games until we win one but coming before an international break against a struggling opponent… surely now or, you know, if not never then perhaps too late. Significantly some big names are back in training and this announcement had built anticipation over the anxiety… Troy, Caps, Sarr, Seb, of whom Caps starts in midfield and Troy is a very welcome return to the bench. There’s a nervous energy rippling through the away seats.

2- It always felt likely that any opening goal would be difficult to overcome. “First goal wins” might have been overstating it but… nobody needs reminding of the difficulty we’ve had scoring goals and had we been the side to slip behind against an opponent like this on a night like this, a side no less anxiously looking for an outcrop to cling to, you wouldn’t have fancied our chances.

However we’ve done a reasonable job of containing sides in recent weeks despite next to no goal threat. Any goal threat at all, anyone for the ball to stick to, was always going to make the side significantly more credible and potent, and a goal lead always felt like something we would be able to exploit.

So when Buendía fannied on the ball (danger illustrated) allowing punkin’ instigator Gerard Deulofeu to rob him, trundle goalwards whilst casting distracting glances to his right, exploit Pereyra’s decoy run to cut to his left and roll a shot inside Tim Krul’s post the celebration was particularly emphatic. We’d not just scored a goal, albeit a goal that owed a lot to the parlous nature of City’s defence, we’d struck what was likely to be a decisive blow. That’s how it felt. The celebration was joyous more than triumphant.

3- Which isn’t to say that was it, though Dave looked a lot more fraught on brief half time review than I had felt by that stage. The home side recovered themselves quickly and this was a harum scarum half of football – hugely enjoyable chaos if you happened to be a neutral, pretty enjoyable for at least some of us with a stated bias too. City’s biggest threat came down their left where Hernández found a lot of space to either torment Janmaat or get in behind the often advanced wing back. Hernández is a classic winger of a certain type… an Anthony McNamee perhaps in that he had an eye-catching threat that didn’t turn into anything actually threatening as often as the home side might have liked. One very decent ball created a chance which needed an astonishing point blank save from Foster, only to be pulled back for offside – it felt as if he’d wasted his one composed cross on the wrong opportunity.

But we were the stronger side in more than one respect. With the significant return of Capoue as captain alongside Doucs we were physically dominant, much much more powerful than our opponents. More so when Andre Gray came on for the latest hamstring victim, Roberto Pereyra; Andre, as we know, isn’t a target man but he was significantly more combative than the man he replaced and that he more than held his own against City’s makeshift central defence tells you all you need to know about it. City were in a sense fortunate that necessitated personnel changes spared them even ten minutes of Troy Deeney, who would surely have made mincemeat of a lightweight rearguard half-fit or otherwise.

But we were stronger with the ball too. Janmaat’s elevated position exposed Lewis, we pushed City high up the pitch and as we swarmed forward occasionally evoked the better displays of last year. Will Hughes put in his best shift of the season, significantly lasting the ninety, and twice pulled left to put clever balls in from the by-line first to give Deulofeu a chance which went wide, then to feed Gray who span on his marker and fired in a shot that Lewis deflected wide. He wouldn’t be as fortunate with a deflection later in the game. As an aside, Hughes playing wide (ish) under Javi was oft criticised as a flaw in the plan; it will be interesting to see whether his impact is heightened further playing more centrally.

4- As for our hosts… it’s dangerous to make judgements based on one game, particularly a game where for many reasons they’re at a low ebb, but there are many bases for concern here. Most revealing were comments overheard in the strategically low-key plod back to the car in the crowd, young home fans bemoaning the lack of Plan B whilst looking forward to renewing hostilities with Ipswich next season. Lots in that snippet… the apparent acceptance of course, which probably isn’t universal, but also the “we’ve only got one way to play” thing. City looked an extremely lightweight side, a side perhaps that has succeeded on simply playing around other teams. Last season’s Championship table betrays that the scoring of goals rather than the lack of conceding made them remarkable but faced with better players (and less luck with injuries) the decision to limit squad strengthening seems reckless. City now are leaking goals, the confidence of their talented but inexperienced defenders shot to bits. Interesting too that Daniel Farke’s post-match comments reflected that Watford had “switched to a back five”. This happened several weeks ago, slightly alarming to City fans surely that this appeared to be a surprise. A long way back for City you suspect.

Which given the league table obviously suits us fine, with due sympathy. The game appeared to be settled early in the second half when Hughes fed Deulofeu who left Tettey on his backside before dinking in a ridiculous cross at the second attempt, the same “let me just dislocate my ankle then try it” trick that worked so memorably at Wembley. Andre Gray improvised brilliantly, backheeling towards goal and this time getting the favour of the deflection off Lewis.

This was an extraordinary evening’s work from Deulofeu. We’re used to him flitting in and out of games, sometimes brilliant, sometimes flimsy, sometimes irrelevant. But I don’t think I’d seen this before… flame on for all of his seventy minutes, tackling back, cajoling. Leading. Whisper it, a captain’s performance. More please.

We were on top, and bossed the first half of the second half. Gray could have finished it altogether on the break when, with Doucouré square, he lifted a ball over. More generally still short of a target up front we sucked up possession and taxed City’s legs rather than beelining for goal, laying the ball back, sideways, making an angle, making them chase. This is Quique all over of course, and so much more enjoyable when it’s effective.

5- But in the end it got us into trouble. Increasingly frantic, City were charging after possession on the halfway line. Harried, Kabasele put Dawson under pressure with a misjudged pass; Dawson was robbed and Kabs tussled with Drmić as the substitute tried to escape.

On review the yellow looks harsh. There wasn’t a great deal of contact, andthe Swiss striker wasn’t going anywhere. Nonetheless, self-inflicted mind-detonator Kabs was on a yellow after a stupid earlier booking making his decision to make a needless challenge particularly witless. He didn’t stop to debate the issue with the (largely excellent) Andre Marriner.

This set a different tone altogether, and suddenly City were alive again. Mapps came on for Deulofeu and for five minutes it was backs to the wall. The detail of it escapes me beyond a couple of eye-catching stops from Foster to long-range efforts, and a couple of bits of bloody-minded defending from the excellent Dawson. But ultimately more of the from City… lots of suggestion of threat without much actual threat as such. The eye-catching Cantwell had come on early in the second half and looked busy, briefly energising his side before sending a corner straight out and a threatening free kick sailing over the penalty area at which point his chin hit his chest and stayed there. Not long after the red card Ben Foster, inspiring complete confidence on the back of recent performances, reached up to grab a slack cross and the puff went out of the home side. That, it appeared, was that and the game was won long before the final whistle.

6- When that came, the relief was palpable and the change in mood tangible. Étienne Capoue, exhausted, fell intoxicated to the ground. All around fists were punched, bellows bellowed. On the pitch the same. One win, fine, against a limited and struggling opponent. But a third clean sheet in five despite the red card. A win. A gutsy, heroic performance, real character. And players coming back.

Maybe the fire has started.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Dawson 4, Kabasele 2, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, Hughes 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*
Subs: Gray (for Pereyra, 30) 3, Mariappa (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 88) NA, Deeney, Chalobah, Femenía, Gomes

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (02/11/2019) 03/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Tick tock, tick tock.

Ten now then, ten now and limited prospect of it not being eleven despite Dave’s bravado in the concourse where we take early refuge from the deluge, in as soon as the stadium opens to share a beer at the back of the GT stand. A bit of space in the concourse really does make a difference by the way, the back of the GT is quite a nice place to be, unlike the claustrophobic Rookery or (shudder) the Vic Road rat run remembered from 20 years ago.

Tick tock. The girls have opted out… the attractions of hanging out with their mates watching fireworks up here in Bedfordshire too great. Suspect the fact that they’ve each seen us score once this season might have subconsciously weighed in also. Not that us being rubbish would stop them coming per se, not that it would put them off entirely but, you know, when there’s fireworks. Hard to blame them really.

Tick tock.

2- The longer this goes on the greater the pressure of course. There’s a pressure in each game and the fact that it’s Chelsea and it’s a game that we’d never quite expect to win at the best of times doesn’t make the pressure any less.

So when we give away a stupid goal after five reasonably positive minutes, albeit a goal carved by a remarkable through ball you can feel the stadium deflate. “Well, that’s that then”, which it sort of was and sort of wasn’t. But what a half-witted way to concede, no wonder Ben Foster screamed with frustration. When you can’t score goals keeping it tight, particularly against an opponent like this one, one that revels in playing away from home, is everything.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes it didn’t feel tight at all. Chelsea had an embarrassment of space to wander into and if the rearguard, marshalled by Craig Dawson’s most authoritative outing in yellow-and-black halves or whatever we’re calling it, gradually regained shape and denied many options in the final third simply by marshalling the space we were nonetheless in our goalkeeper’s debt on more than one occasion. Craig Cathcart limping off didn’t improve the mood.

3- So the first of the positives to be taken from this is that it didn’t go south from there. We didn’t collapse, the Blues didn’t run away with it. We hung in there. And gradually we lifted our chin from our chests to note that it was still only 1-0. That if we were still looking blunt and aimless we were at least getting the ball up the pitch often enough to register the bluntness and aimlessness. Before we knew it there was even a dash of bravado, some challenges going in and some defiance from the stands and it makes a world of difference to the mood if not to our forward line, ultimately.

But it takes some character, that. To stand up against a buoyant, confident opponent in a situation like ours and not simply shrug and let it slip away. It’s not enough, wasn’t enough, sure. But it wasn’t nothing.

4- Second half, Chelsea score again. It’s pretty dreadful from our point of view albeit the only time that this vibrant, inappropriately likeable Chelsea side cut through us. And this time we sink properly and the defiance disappears altogether. The whining inane voices emerge like meerkats around us and the crowd’s restlessness, kept at bay to this point by the single-mindedness of the 1881, begins to find a voice.

Nathaniel Chalobah was significant in our more assertive spell at the end of the first half, snappy first time passes that were at least brave enough to carry the possibility of turning Chelsea around rather than “merely” retaining possession. But now he loses his composure altogether and from snapping one touch balls to Watford feet he’s anxiously, tentatively giving the ball away too often. Minus Tom Cleverley, even Étienne Capoue we are short a bit of bloody-mindedness in that part of the pitch and it shows. Elsewhere Adam Masina is more resilient of character but lacks the brains to take advantage; assertive and aggressive he’s nonetheless painfully unaware of what’s going on around him, simultaneously significant in our winning and giving away possession.

5- Throughout all of this the patent lack of threat is unmissable. There’s no kitchen-sinking here, no bombardment of the Chelsea goal, not even a spell of the game where you think we might nick something. It’s thoroughly demoralising to watch.

But against that you’ve got to hold the fact that we’re playing one of the most effective attacking sides in the division. A side who have won all four of their previous away league games this season against, you know, teams higher up in the League than us scoring 16 goals in aggregate and at least three in each of these four games. We rode our luck a bit, but Chelsea were excellent and we kept them down to two without being exposed terribly often. You can argue that this reflected in part our approach; Chelsea didn’t score more than two partly because we denied them the opportunity but also because in focusing on shape and defence as Quique is always going to do Chelsea were unlikely to need more than two.

The carping about the approach, let alone the championing of the messainic virtues of assorted young strikers who their proponents have never seen play, is cowardly and unhelpful. Quique wasn’t brought in to turn us into the Harlem Globetrotters. He came in because his predecessor’s more liberated Watford side had regressed to a point where even the most freewheeling of performances was effortlessly subdued by the rate at which we were giving chances away to even the most mundane opponents. Watch the West Ham highlights or read the report again if you need reminding.

Quique was brought in to tighten things up and that he is done so is beyond dispute. It is far easier to generate wins, points, from a mean but goal-shy team than from a side that can’t stop shipping goals long enough for its potency to matter. Thing is, there’s little joy to be gleaned from a side playing this way unsuccessfully. But while it’s impossible to disentangle cause from effect in our extraordinary injury list it’s surely the case that this team with a Troy Deeney in it, or even an Isaac Success, is orders of magnitude more potent than what we’re watching at the moment. This is hard to watch, but it isn’t nothing.

6- Which isn’t to say that the 75th minute substitution of Daryl Janmaat in favour of Kiko Femenía was easy to digest. Dispassionately, Janmaat has been one of few players to put in a solid shift today and previously; on a yellow card against Pulisic with a wing-back’s miles in his legs and with opportunities to win games more obvious than this from two down coming up, there’s a logic to the change.

But my god, with Andre Gray being asked to do a very un-Andre Gray job, with a target man finally available on the bench, a like-for-like swap was never going to be popular. Perhaps most damagingly the substitution lead to the fragile Femenía being greeted with boos as he entered the fray… directed at the substitution rather than the substitute for the most part, but nonetheless. Not good.

The thing about having very good players on the pitch though, even very good players playing ineffectively, is that there’s always the chance of something. And something came in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, the fizzing firework who you can never quite be sure isn’t still harbouring a spark somewhere and so you stand well back from just in case. And so he’s cutting into the area and going down under a challenge.

VAR is very like Brexit in that everyone has a strong opinion that is of very little interest to anyone else by virtue of overexposure. Whatever. It took a long time. It was a foul. It was a foul that we might not have gotten something for but we did and heaven knows we’re due the rub of the green. Of far greater controversy was Deulofeu’s decision to hang onto the ball in the face of accomplished and appointed penalty taker Roberto Pereyra’s enquiry. Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, the reverse is true also. We’re grateful that Deulofeu’s “twenty million shots without scoring” monkey is off his back, but more that Pereyra’s judgement in not taking too much issue with his childish colleague proved sound. This could have been a disaster.

7- And so there is a bit of gentle kitchen sinking, and when there’s only one goal in it there’s always the possibility, all the more tantalising in the mugging it would represent, of an equaliser. In the event it’s Ben Foster of all people that comes closest, up for Deulofeu’s late free kick and spearing a header bottom corner that Kepa excels to keep out. This, too, is being used as a stick to beat the side with, that the closest we came to a point was by virtue of our goalkeeper rather than a striker. Nobody was complaining when Foster tried a scissor kick in identical circumstances in last season’s fixture on Boxing Day.

Not enough, obviously, and no points is no points whether you’re playing Chelsea, Norwich or Manchester City. We need to turn this around sooner rather than later since however close the nearest flounderers are – and had we won this game we’d have been a point and a place from safety – we will need to sustain good form for longer to pull clear the longer we leave it.

But we’re not done yet. Norwich away next, then home to Burnley (no wins away) and away at Saints (no wins at home).

Now or never, one suspects. Tick tock.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 3, Masina 3, Cathcart NA, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Mariappa (for Cathcart, 13) 3, Hughes (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Femenía (for Janmaat, 75) 2, Holebas, Foulquier, Success, Gomes

Watford 0 Sheffield United 0 (05/10/2019) 06/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Six months ago, as we entertained realistic hopes of European competition, it would not have seemed credible that we’d go into a match at home to a newly promoted side, even a Sheffield United who have started the season in decent form, not being strong favourites to win.

And yet here we are. And, as follows by logical consequence of our tumble in fortunes as above, there are as many problems in people’s heads as on the pitch. Players. Supporters (especially them). And even head coaches. “We are not preparing matches, we are preparing finals”, he was quoted in the build up to this. The gist was right of course, but the choice of words rather overlooked certain sensitivities borne of misfortunes in May. Nobody wants to be preparing for (yet) another one of those any time soon.

No less eye-catching was the emphasis on finding a way of playing that suited us. Challenging if your way of thinking is that Javi didn’t have much wrong, was a bit unlucky. More challenging still if your belief is that everything would have been fine “if only we’d bought some defenders (other than Craig Dawson)”.

The former argument has been backed up this week (and previously) by the demonstration of favourable xG figures suggesting that we’re really making rather a lot of chances. I’ve worked as a statistician in industry for nearly 25 years now, and there’s a difference between using stats to inform a judgement and using them to retrospectively prop up a decision you’ve already made. It’s pretty transparent most of the time. Here, our way of playing under Javi had always exposed the back line but we got away with it as long as the rest of it worked. We carried enough of a threat that the freedom to test our defence wasn’t there, and when that wasn’t enough we scored enough goals, most of the time.

Thing is when that high level of performance slips you’re left with a side not scoring and… not so much a weak defence as a team that can’t defend. And so you get the West Ham game where we look bold and assertive and lose – comfortably – anyway. Something needed to change. We needed to find a new way to play, and Quique was always going to start at the back.

2- So to today’s game against a side who very much are comfortable in their own skin, and in a very well practised way of playing. This is the narrative of the first quarter of the game, in which the Hornets, effectively reverting to the Zola formation, tried to remember how to do it. The visitors were thoroughly on top, hugely more composed in possession as we sat very deep and scrambled and reflected the anxiety of the home stands. Kabasele and Cleverley bawled at each other in the face of one narrowly thwarted attack. A happy, confident camp this isn’t.

And yet. For all of United’s possession, for all their overloading down the flanks and implied threat they really weren’t getting very far. Scant progress this, perhaps, but progress nonetheless… when did we ever look halfway resilient against anyone? The overlapping centre back thing found bodies down either flank. A ball came in. Seb headed it away. Another ball came in, Kabasele or Janmaat prised someone off the ball. Another, Cathcart slices and Ben Foster claws it away. That’s as close as they come (and even that, on review, wasn’t going in). Another ball comes in. Ollie McBurnie throws himself over and waves his arms around. An unacknowledged sign of a foothold being found.

3- Meanwhile our attacking play looks less coherent altogether. No surprise this, however disappointing; if you’re going to change things, things are going to get changed and sorting out the defence was always going to be Quique’s priority. You don’t have to like it, but don’t feign surprise. Whether the back three was a one-off or a more permanent state of affairs it suits some players rather more than others. Seb Prödl, back in from the cold, is always going to look more viable in the middle of the three. Kabasele revels in his role on the left of the trio, slightly less discipline required as he rampages all over whoever is unfortunate enough to enter his radius.

You kinda think it ought to have suited Andre Gray too. Or at least, that playing alongside a partner rather than as a lone man ought to suit him – even if any of our forwards or forwards-ish – Gray, Welbeck Deulofeu, Sarr – are going to look better alongside Troy as and when. Gray works hard here, feeding off not very much as we persist in sitting deep… but lacks composure at critical times, most obviously when the lively Pereyra hares down the right and squares. An awful miss, albeit the ball was slightly behind him, that speaks volumes. This is the sort of chance we’re creating – scrappy on the break, burgled rather than constructed.

4- Another player struggling in this formation is Abdoulaye Doucouré. If Pereyra is in the Abdi role, and Cleverley is doing a decent enough job of Jonathan Hogg’s fetching and carrying then Doucouré is doing the Chalobah job at the back and he doesn’t like it. He seems uncertain of his duties throughout, and only looks convincing when he sheds his mantle and surges forwards. His form this season hasn’t been great all round but this was a new low, perhaps the most forlorn on the pitch albeit he never hides from possession. Having the real Chalobah as an option for the Chalobah job is an unavoidable consideration.

Nonetheless, we start the second half on the front foot. More assertive, if still wonky. Going forward the challenge is going to be how to accommodate all these square pegs into whatever formation(s) we settle on and the danger is that there are so many imperfect jewels in the squad that there’s always going to be multiple Answers on the bench and beyond to beat Quique with until the form turns around. Sarr, more combative in his cameo today, is one such – quite how you accommodate a winger in a 3-5-2 isn’t obvious. Ditto Deulofeu despite that his every touch, of which little were of any consequence, was cooed at by the voice over my shoulder. Dawson in contrast, who had a perfectly adequate half hour in for the injured Prödl, remains firmly in the can-do-no-right seat.

Welbeck seared clear but was too deliberate, running straight at the keeper rather than giving himself an angle and allowing Henderson to make a good save. Then, in the final minutes, Dawson had the chance to be the hero and to surely send us roaring into the international break with a snaffled winner. Deulofeu’s freek kick found him without a marker… he did the right thing but not enough of it, not far enough back across the keeper, not hard enough. It would have been a beautiful thing.

5- Nil nil then. Satisfactory, just about, in this context in this game after two away defeats and so many years without a clean sheet, so many games without an obvious shape. We will look back on this game in one of two ways; a 0-0 draw at home to a contemporary is kind of a relegation result after all, that’s one possibility. The other is that this is a stepping stone, a rot-stopping clean sheet that gives us something to build on.

Either way, this is where we are and whilst – heaven knows – none of what’s happened is beyond criticism and there are twice as many opinions out there as there people offering them this is when supporting your team is both most difficult and most important. The sort of voice that hysterically decries the decision to change manager, for example, is often a cowardly one, disassociating itself from the decision as if that excuses the perpetrator from the sort of positive outlook that’s needed if this really is to be a stepping stone.

After all, it’s not terribly even handed to champion our underdog status on the one hand whilst on the other wailing at a failure to beat The Likes Of Sheffield United.

Today was small progress in a necessary direction. Not “sorted”, not enough (yet), challenges to come. And not desperately exciting. But progress.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Prödl 3, *Kabasele 4*, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, Pereyra 4, Welbeck 3, Gray 2
Subs: Dawson (for Prödl, 57) 3, Deulofeu (for Gray, 59) 2, Sarr (for Welbeck, 77) NA, Femenía, Chalobah, Hughes, Gomes

Watford 2 Arsenal 2 (15/09/2019) 16/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Episode Three of the first Series of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast discusses basketball.  Not a game I can claim any great expertise in;  we played a violent bastardisation of the game at school, but that hardly qualifies informed comment.

Anyway.  Wilt Chamberlain.  Great basketball player, says Malcolm and people who Know About These Things.  Remarkable, amongst other things, for taking his penalty shots underarm.  People don’t do that, says Malcolm.  Chamberlain’s not quite unique, but he’s certainly unusual in this regard…  and unusually successful.  Extraordinary (again, second hand knowledge, take that as read…).

Except at one point, despite his huge success, he stopped.   Reverted to the conventional shooting method with unremarkable results.  Because he felt pressured by the consensus against him, despite the success of the strategy.  Others questioned in the episode concurred… despite being induced to attempt underarm, observing the success, they wouldn’t consider underarm shooting in a competitive game.  Because it would “look weird”.

So when Sam leans over my shoulder and expresses concern that we’re a laughing stock, that our regular turnover of head coaches is, by implication, weird…  unusual… Well, you just gotta shrug and grin. Not that this justifies any such decision on the part of our owners and management but…  five seasons in the Premier League, two cup semi finals and one final in that time is testimony to us not doing too badly by it.  Not sure we should give a stuff what anyone else thinks, whoever they are.

2- And so Quique’s back, and inevitably he’s given a warm welcome because such is the way of things in such situations even if the man in question isn’t a good bloke from recent memory.  His first team selection is encouraging in its shape…  a return to the 4-2-3-1 of Marco Silva’s brief successful period with Tom restored to the buzzing around role in front of two sitting midfielders, Étienne Capoue stepping into the role vacated by Nathaniel Chalobah after his knee injury.  More odd was an extremely conservative bench, no out-and-out striker with Welbeck (reportedly injured in training on Friday) and Success omitted from the squad.

And we start aggressively. Actually, scrub that… we start like what one imagines a pack of dogs looks like. Chasing everything down. Reducers going in left, right, centre. Arsenal are given nowhere to hide as we set up with a solid shape, let the visitors pass sideways inconsequentially on the half way line and mug them brutally should they make the mistake of getting ideas above their station. This yields some half-chances from distance… Holebas drives narrowly wide, Tom Cleverley thumps an effort top corner that Leno shoves over. If there’s a problem it’s that Andre Gray is being asked to do an awful lot. He makes a game effort, his most convincing imitation of a target man to date… hurling himself between incoming ball and opponent, contorting himself to deflect a lay off but he’s too isolated, and too often we’re passing around the edge of the area without much of a focal point to aim for.

3- And then Arsenal score. The visitors have been warming up, Pépé cutting in from the right and curling a shot wide but too close. Then there’s a scruffy tackle on the halfway line in which Hughes is bullied off the ball… there are protests on and off the pitch but having spent much of the game up to this point gauging how much aggression we could get away with and deciding, well, quite a lot actually we didn’t have a leg to stand on here (literally, in Will Hughes’ case). Of more concern is the doziness of the defence and the gaping chasm at Ben Foster’s near post (again), but Aubameyang’s finish is breathtaking.

We go flat, very quickly; on and off the pitch everyone’s thinking the same thing. “But we’d started so well, why can’t we defend…”… and the visitors have their foot on our throat. Aubameyang nearly scores a second before he actually does, and it’s far far too easy, Maitland-Niles slipping in down the right, not for the first time, and finding the Gabonese for a tap in.

The half ends with a bit of a scrap on the halfway line in which Matteo Guendouzi earns a booking for being an idiot, Jose Holebas seems slightly harsher done by but looks in danger of outstripping the big-haired French youngster by taking prolonged and typically forthright issue with the officials on the half time whistle. He gets away with it, and maybe we do too despite the scoreline.

4- The second half, as you’ll know, is a remarkable thing. We owe a lot to our visitors, though, who as it turns out were pretty much ideal opponents for Quique’s first game back. They were miserably undeserving of their win here five months ago; here (with only three of that starting eleven starting here, incidentally) they are more spectacularly inept, and tactically not least.

Quite why a side that excels up front but can’t defend for toffee thinks that sitting on a two goal lead is the way forward is beyond me for one thing. Why, further, a defence that was repeatedly warned off faffing around at the back by being brutally mugged by ever more encouraged opponents in front of a lenient referee continued to faff around is incomprehensible.

Not our problem. In the end, after many occasions in which the nervousness of our attack was measured against the generosity of Arsenal’s defence and came out just wanting, we are given the most extraordinary of clear chances as Sokratis plays another loose ball in the box and Tom Cleverley drives home. The Quique song returns with gusto not, in fairness, that he had much to do with Sokratis’ critical assist.

As an aside, the “third man” in a midfield three is an easier one to impress in. Al Bangura used to look outstanding as the spare man sitting behind Gavin Mahon and Matt Spring when such was necessary and all he had to do was kick whatever came through without any great disciplinary responsibility; similarly the hole behind the striker is a sandpit to play in. Tom doesn’t half do it well though and he’s quite tremendous today combining perpetual motion and relentless positivity with just being bloody sensible, a rare combination.

5- It’s relentless. We swarm all over Arsenal, one minute slinging the ball from wing to wing to find a spare man, then snarling into challenges to reclaim possession. We’d questioned the lack of striking options on the bench; actually all three subs are well judged and a force for good. Ismaïla Sarr is better suited to wide open spaces than the physical confrontation of the penalty area you suspect but does a sound enough job here, controlling an extraordinary sharp pass from Deulofeu, spinning and clipping a shot across the face of goal in one fluid movement. Daryl Janmaat’s cameo is a typically bombastic one, no surprise to see him thunder into the penalty area late on. And if Roberto Pereyra takes a while to warm up himself, once he gets going he really gets going; a tidal wave of a counter attack reaches the Argentine who makes a bee-line for Luiz. Dribbling yourself the hell into the penalty area has been a deliberate tactic and the Brazilian finally obliges, lazily. Leno is graceless and witless in his attempts to slow things down and distract, and gets what he deserves – a fine, composed finish from the Argentine.

You can come full circle back to that basketball analogy again if you want, since the end of the game is ridiculously open. The visitors start to venture upfield again and the stupidity of their reluctance to do so earlier is betrayed by Joe Willock’s progress in running half the length of the pitch before being scruffily halted (having missed a chance to release Aubameyang). The bulk of the business is at the other end though. Chance after chance to the backing track of Elton John’s Taylor-Made Army on what would have been the great man’s seventy-fifth birthday… the relentlessly penetrative Deulofeu slugs a shot a hair’s breadth wide, Tom Cleverley pumps another shot top corner that is blocked, unwittingly, by David Luiz’s head. Doucouré rampages through the midfield and releases Sarr, who threads a ball back to the Frenchman who just needs to put his laces through it but doesn’t, steering a shot too close to the keeper before collapsing with his head in his hands.

It isn’t quite enough for the win. But it’s more than enough in the grand scheme of things. This is huge fun and a massive result in the heroic, bloody-minded combativeness of the second half that dragged us back from two goals down. Quique’s got things to sort, clearly, but this was already significant progress all over the pitch. The wins will come.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Cleverley 5*, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 5, Gray 3
Subs: Sarr (for Gray, 54) 4, Pereyra (for Hughes, 63) 3, Janmaat (for Holebas, 78) 0, Foulquier, Mariappa, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 3 Coventry City 0 (27/08/2019) 28/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- The first warning signs came as Luke and I made our way down the M1 in  a report from Dad, always an early arrival.  Confounding expectation given that this was the second round of the League Cup, the regular car park was full.  “There are Coventry fans everywhere….”.

On Vicarage Road itself, let alone inside the stadium, it’s clear that the visiting mob haven’t got the brief.   There’s a tradition to be upheld here, a tradition that involves soporific anti-football, passes being misplaced into touch against a lower division side who put everything behind a ball which rattles around indifferently and might occasionally wander somewhere near a goal but only by the law of averages.  You hear the shouts of the players on the pitch in front of an empty away end and wonder how your life ended up here (again).

Three and a half thousand fans in a noisy Vicarage Road stand definitely against protocol.  I don’t know if this was deemed a special occasion, a cup game against a top flight team who might reasonably expect to be there to be got at given our start, or whether Cov take this sort of rabble to Doncaster, Gillingham, Accrington in defiance of their temporary home but either way it’s a fabulous sight and racket that contributes hugely to the evening.

What it emphasises most of all is pride in the club and, perhaps, the City.  Defiance, too.  Defiance in the face of the selfishness and exploitation that now sees City spend another season camping in someone else’s patch rather than “at home”.  There but for the grace of the Pozzos, of course.  And luck.  Luck that we were at our lowest ebb when they came looking, low hanging fruit from the right sort of tree.  There’s been much debate over the last few weeks about the performance of the team, the strength of the defence, summer recruitment.  But what we have to thank the Pozzos for most is that we have a team to support at all – a team in the top flight, a welcome bonus but a bonus nonetheless.  Bury, league opponents not terribly long ago, have just lost their place in the league.  Bolton, surely a bulletproof institution and more recent opponents still, have a stay of execution with the ghoulish presence of Laurence Bassini somehow still hanging around as if anyone needed reminding how lucky we are.  In any case, fair play Coventry.  Fair play.

2- On the pitch we’ve made eleven changes but it’s hardly a reserve side with Pereyra, Sarr and Welbeck getting minutes in their legs on the way back to fitness, and Daryl Janmaat amongst those genuinely challenging for a first team place.  It’s a fun-looking eleven all round we comment, whilst trying to dismiss the fact that we said something very similar at 2.45 on Saturday.

The visitors strike a decent balance between staying solid and giving it a go.  They’re competitive without being dirty, solid without being negative, and if they don’t get terribly close to a shot on target very often they do at least produce the first proper goal attempt, Villa loanee Callum O’Hare slipping a shot wide of Heurelho Gomes’ right hand post.

It’s a fairly stodgy first half, though normalised to the traditional standards of this fixture this is effectively rollercoaster stuff.  Domingos Quina is lively and prominent, Nathaniel Chalobah rather less careful with possession than you’d like but still spraying the odd long range pass that makes you gasp.  Bobby Pereyra has a central role behind Danny Welbeck but is popping up everywhere like some kind of magic pixie. He sparkles into life to present an early chance, dazzles his way past a couple of wrong-footed defenders to make a space and slams in a low shot which is well if not entirely comfortably fielded, before disappearing again in a puff of smoke.

Eventually we make the breakthrough, and it’s significant. Isaac Success has one of his livelier games, progressively rather than destructively random; I prefer him down the middle but here he demonstrates his value playing deeper, sliding an extraordinary Kevin de Bruyne pass into the feet of the escaping Sarr who races on before finishing unfussily. A breathtakingly irresistible goal.

3- Of primary interest are the new boys of course. Of these, perhaps the least heralded is Dmitri Foulquier who makes an unprecedented appearance at left back. Foulquier has been one of the army of players nominally on our books but effectively elsewhere on loan presumed never to be relevant but at 26 is older than typical for the profile. Web chatter suggests that he’s been told he’s needed in the squad; quite how much we’ll see of him you have to doubt but here he’s on his weaker side but does a sound enough job. Certainly there’s enough uncompromising bootering in evidence to suggest that he’s not unworthy of covering at left back.

Danny Welbeck meanwhile continues to look lively, nimble and threatening. He doesn’t get the goal that his persistence deserves though he comes desperately close with one second half turn and shot but he’s getting there, and crucially lasts ninety minutes on this occasion.

Tom Dele-Bashiru isn’t the highest profile of the summer arrivals but he makes it off the bench with twenty minutes to go and almost scores with his first touch, haring in from the right to send a shot narrowly wide across the face of goal. THAT would have been an entrance. But in any case he looks very tidy and far from overawed for a teenager making his debut for his new side.

And then there’s Sarr. In contrast to his cameo on Saturday he’s clinging to the touchline, a proper winger. And he’s quick. Really quick, in case this hasn’t reached you in dispatches. In the first half we get evidence of this before his goal as he hares down the right with defenders scrambling astonished in his wake like flotsam in a jetstream. In the second… he applies what appears to be a clumsy touch to a ball inside our half which flies down the line towards the corner flag. And as he screams after it it appears to stop dead… was that deliberate?  I’ll need to see it again before I’m convinced it wasn’t an accident but… my word. Still ragged. Still untidy. But my word.

4- This was, of course, the first time we’ve been ahead this season. Being ahead is a useful thing for this team to be, one feels, and with a little more luck – or perhaps a fully fit Deeney, Sarr or Welbeck – one or two of The Three might have gone differently.

In any event, Cov never gave up the fight but were noticeably laxer at the start of the second period.  A bit of being tired of chasing and closing, physically, mentally.  A bit of needing to commit something forward.  They give us too much space in dangerous areas.

We’re much more comprehensively the better side in the second period.  Chalobah reins in the loose passes and becomes the metronome that he is at his best.  If Quina and Success give the ball away rater too often it’s was still a Fun Thing to watch all round.

And the unlikely star of the show is Daryl Janmaat.  Podcasts this week have discussed the whack-a-mole challenge of playing Liverpool – if you pin down the forwards the full backs get you and so on.  As well as being a bloody-minded defensive presence Janmaat became our whack-a-mole, the one you didn’t have covered thundering up the flank to provide an extra option.  A quite Rostronesque performance from the Dutchman, who concluded one of his plundering rhinoceros runs into the heart of Coventry’s defence by rolling the ball to create more space than he should have had on the edge of the box and pinging it top corner.  Adalberto Peñaranda’s cameo, a cocktail of spiky provocation, mischievous energy and complete indifference to any defensive responsibility culminated in him pinging a third from some distance.  It’s been several years since he was first spoken of in the hushed, excited terms now reserved for Cucho and João Pedro; last year’s model finally showing what he’s capable of.

5- So a good evening all round.  If there’s something fundamentally wrong at the club then it clearly hasn’t extended to this lot, who made up for a little rawness and rustiness with a performance of refreshing positivity.  Fittingly, the stifling humidity of the Bank Holiday weekend broke and the air freshened up overnight.

We still need that result against Newcastle.  But it’s not all bad.  We have no end of positive, exciting fun on the fringes of the team (and embedded IN the team before long in some cases).

And, you know.  We have a team to support.

Up the Shakers.  Hang in there, the Trotters.

And Yooooorns.

Gomes 3, *Janmaat 5*, Foulquier 3, Kabasele 3, Mariappa 3, Quina 4, Chalobah 3, Sarr 4, Pereyra 4, Success 4, Welbeck 3
Subs: Peñaranda (for Pereyra, 64) 3, Dele-Bashiru (for Sarr, 72) 3, Prödl, Deulofeu, Cleverley, Femenía, Bachmann

Watford 1 West Ham United 3 (24/08/2019) 25/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- It’s two’o’clock in the afternoon and the sun is shining.  Properly shining.  The girls have grabbed ice creams in addition to their lucky chocolate, well drilled now…  to say “straight in, straight out” would be stretching it, but it’s certainly a focused operation.  This is what the first day of the season should have been like…. so perhaps this is effectively where the season starts.  Brighton was soporific but there were distinct signs of life last weekend and nowbelatedly we’re going to get going.  Routines had been experimented with.  Different choice for lunch.  New away shirt sported for the first time. Here we go.

Three hours later and things look very much grimmer. The heat is now oppressive, sticky, lethargic.  We’ve played indisputably the best football we’ve played this season, and we’ve lost by two clear goals.  For the first time since promotion, we’re in trouble.

2- As an aside, it’s a tremendously entertaining game of football.  Wide, wide open from the start.  Too open, perhaps.  But very watchable.  In another situation, mid-table half-way through a season say we might even take some pleasure even from a 3-1 home defeat.  Not here.

It’s a poor challenge, the challenge that gives a penalty away three minutes in.  Lanzini isn’t going anywhere, Doucouré is clumsy and stupid but that wasn’t the half of it. An unremarkable West Ham attack had already pulled the defence around, people in the wrong place and suddenly scurrying to cover and hoping someone’s doing the job they should have been doing. Noble sent Foster the wrong way. An awful start, you can look at the skies and curse our luck but this didn’t have a lot to do with luck.

3- There’s resilience at least. The 1881 lead a show of defiance, and whatever our other failings on the pitch (we’ll come to those) we don’t slink into our shells. Deulofeu is suddenly clean through after a long pass clears an attempt at a clearing header. He’s attentive enough to anticipate the error but hesitates in pulling the trigger permitting a recovering challenge.

We’re level within fifteen minutes though, a rapier of a goal. Deulofeu has been scurrying all over the pitch and will continue to be the instigator of much of what we do well at the top end… he feeds Hughes who plays in one of his lovely round-the-corner passes and Gray’s strike is vicious and precise.

From there we improve in that we become increasingly assertive, winning the territorial battle. The scores are level, in fact, for half of the game and as we launch into the second half there are echoes of our most irrepressible form of last season, swarming over our visitors and occasionally threatening to overwhelm them. Deulofeu, the dynamic Cleverley and Gray all have chances but perhaps the best, early in the second half comes when Deulofeu (again) feeds Gray who does well to drive across goal. Hughes is attacking the far post… he’s there, nobody else is, it’s not a trivial chance with the ball flying across him. But he should have scored.

4- If that goes in we win the game, I think, and probably go on and score more goals given the weapons on the bench.  So in essence, we do a lot of things quite well. The problem is with the rest of it. The finishing is oft mentioned in dispatches and its beyond question that the amount of attacking possession we engineer is poorly rewarded by very few attempts on target. For me this is a lack of confidence more than a fundamental problem with personnel or their abilities. The hesitancy, the not quite wanting to be the one who takes the shot is symptomatic of that.

The defensive vulnerability is a far bigger problem. And it is a problem, since even through our better periods of the game we look horribly vulnerable to a counter-attack that provides West Ham with good chances based on less possession in dangerous areas.  Our midfield is famously narrow, but here it’s an exaggerated version of itself.  Perversely, those four – Doucouré, Capoue, Cleverley, Hughes – are a tough old bunch.  You’d fancy them to provide a defence with cover.  The flipside is that Kiko and Holebas are asked to do everything down the flanks.  A recurring theme is for Kiko to be caught upfield, Dawson to charge across to cover and the whole defence to be pulled apart.

It’s tempting to point the finger at Dawson, the new face, or at his fledgling partnership with Cathcart but in truth neither play particularly badly as individuals.  Dawson may not be the significant trade up on Kabasele or Mariappa that we’d been hoping for, he’s certainly less mobile than either but he’s not a bad defender;  Holebas and Foster may be getting older, but this isn’t a defence that’s markedly worse than a defence that almost got us into Europe last season.

Perhaps there’s an element of teams working out how to combat our narrow midfield.  Perhaps there’s an element of doubt… certainly the body language is unconvinced and unconvincing, the camp doesn’t look happy within itself as much as with results.  Perhaps a forward line with more of its big hitters available and fit would take the pressure off the back line a bit.  Perhaps all of these things.

But you fear for Javi as it stands.  An eminently likeable man, he looks a little bit lost at the moment for all that there’s been sliding doors incidents that mighta coulda turned either of the last two games.  Opponents know that they can get at us and that the resilience, the belief, isn’t there to resist it, and that our narrowness is increasingly being exploited.

5- So West Ham score.  And it’s one of those, a break down West Ham’s left, flimsy defending, Haller taps in.  There’s more anger this time, anger because whatever the Hammers attacking capabilities we’ve given away yet another avoidable goal.

Meanwhile, an aside, Jose has picked up his first booking of the season for what looks rather like payback on Michail Antonio.  Two home games ago the same referee sent off the same player for a challenge on the same opponent at the same end of the pitch, a challenge that was so much less consequential than this one as to have been non-existent.  Mercifully the red was rescinded, Holebas played in the final and this bit of retribution passed almost without comment as if expected and accepted.

Kavanagh was getting all kinds of stick from the frustrated stands by now, for trivial inconsequential nonsense like not forcing subbed players off at the nearest juncture.  Actually his most significant error was probably to miss the clear handball by a Watford player that should, given latest zero-tolerance interpretation of the handball role (if not by any sane one), have given the Hammers a second penalty shortly before we’d equalised.

Our superiority prior to going behind again had almost pleaded for the introduction of Sarr;  raw pace (we understand) to test tiring legs, full back being the Hammers’ weakest position. The caveat being “subject to fitness”…  and it’s 20/20 hindsight to make that judgement on Javi’s behalf, to say “he should have been on earlier”.  In any event, Sarr and Welbeck are soon stripped off and ready to come on, their introduction only delayed by a series of corners providing the only breaks in play, during the course of which West Ham conclude the game.

Sarr’s first touch in a Watford shirt is even worse than Welbeck’s at Everton last week, his first shot crashes into the ample target that is Declan Rice at close range but otherwise he looks lively; clever, strong, confident.  Welbeck struggles to get involved but is alert, alive, moving all the time.  Dom Quina comes on against his former club and gets hold of the ball, a bright cameo but the game is already up.

It’s not all bad.  A lot of it’s good. But the things that are bad are pretty bad.  Against Coventry and Newcastle we need a result, by any means necessary because the confidence and the polishing of the edges will follow.  Javi needs this more than most.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, *Capoue 4*, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 3, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 4, Gray 3
Subs: Welbeck (for Deulofeu, 74) 3, Sarr (for Hughes, 74) 3, Quina (for Cleverley, 87) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Chalobah, Gomes

Everton 1 Watford 0 (17/08/2019) 18/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- It should be clear to all who indulge in such things that the First Home Game Of The Season and The First Away Game Of The Season are distinctly special things. The First Game Of The Season has a lustre of its own, of course, but above and beyond that there’s something special about returning to the Vic and something equally special about hitting the road again.

It’s difficult to justify driving half the length of the country to watch a football match and then driving the same distance back on the same day to someone not themselves invested.  But this is very different to doing the same journey for something as mundane as work…  the journey itself, in both the literal and the abstract sense, is part of the joy.

So…  getting up early to facilitate a lunchtime arrival in Liverpool is great.  A detour to pick up in Milton Keynes is great.  Comfortable prattle in the car is great, as is comfortable silence, commentary on the radio, stops for snacks, stops for fast food, getting stymied by a closed road heading back into MK and the subsequent adventure through single track back roads, Doctor Duncan’s, driving past Stoke’s ground (Stoke this, Stoke that), whatever it’s called, and Anfield, all of it.  Great.  Football’s back.  Hurrah.

2- Goodison Park is old.  Visibly old.  In a good way, although I suppose that only being here once a season helps.  There’s a novelty these days in a stadium that has evolved rather than being designed, with all the wonkiness that brings.  The concourse is broad, nothing like the alarming crushes of Anfield for example, but the roof is low, the width undulates creating plenty of nooks and crannies and it feels claustrophobic.  Also in a good way.  And noisy.

In the stadium itself we note that the Toffees, not satisfied with trying to nick our players, have also aped the bin-bag flags of Wembley (though more half-heartedly, the jam slightly scraped across the toast rather than a comprehensive slathering).

Noting Gerry in the starting eleven, Tom on the bench and not wanting to restart any further discussion of Z-Cars (jesus) we leave that one there.  Unlike many of our counterparts who persist with a particularly classy song about Everton’s narcissistic head coach.   No, really, awesome stuff.  Some feat to get half of the Watford crowd’s sympathies behind Silva, good work.

Gradually focus turns to what’s going on on the pitch; we’re desperately hoping for no repeat of last Saturday’s vapid performance against Brighton.

3- For the first twenty minutes or so, we get a repeat of last Saturday’s vapid performance against Brighton.  Everton come screaming out of the traps and are quickly looking for long passes over the heads of our full backs to Bernard and Richarlíson.  It’s effective too, effective because we’re off the pace, still, all over the pitch and particularly in the midfield; Everton have too much time to pick these passes.  Deulofeu scampers off with the ball once but can’t get it onto his stronger foot, and twice subsequently surrenders possession timidly when an opportunity had suggested itself.

The goal comes, and it’s not entirely a surprise.  A long ball out from the back sees Bernard released down the left;  he cuts inside onto his right foot and drives low inside Ben Foster’s near post.  It’s a poor goal defensively, though the replay reveals a deflection which downgrades it to poor from appalling.  We don’t say much, but “what the f*** is going on?” is what the aura is shrieking.

4- The noise from the away end barely wavers though, to everyone’s credit.  Everton immediately take a step back, perhaps hoping to do what Brighton did and sucker us into overcommitting to hit us on the break.  Instead, removing their foot from our neck allows us to claw our way back into the game.

Craig Dawson had an inglorious debut last week, but he looks much more the part here.  As we’re in the confidence-building stage of trying to hang onto possession as Everton hare after us, he’s the calmest and the one with the quickest feet at the back, confidently moving the ball to a yellow shirt in space.  He also does that thing you were looking forward to when we signed him, towering at the back post to send a deep corner crashing goalwards.  It smacks off the crossbar to the bafflement of the away end whose angle had suggested a goal.  We will get goals from that.

So half time comes, lucky chocolate is studiously shared and consumed and if we’re still behind then there’s reason for cautious optimism.  Optimism that’s reinforced from the first kick of the second half as Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré grab hold of that midfield and rip it between their teeth.

This is more like it.  No, we don’t get the goal but we are dominant in the second half and force an Everton side with a fine defensive record into risky challenges and pressure situations.  Capoue in particular does well, given that he’s running the gauntlet of a silly yellow from the first half.  We completely unpeel them once, when the Frenchman surges out with the ball (not for the first or last time) and an interplay with Deulofeu releases Deeney.  Only a stupendous block from Pickford, out quickly to receive the shot full in the face, denies him.

On comes Danny Welbeck, who had been the subject of increasing adulation from the away end.  His first touch as a Watford player is as rusty as hell but he gets better…  nimble, aware, mobile, strong and elegant.  A good start, and utterly sensible to give minutes to a man who badly needs them.  His appearance seems to invigorate Troy also;  the skipper has won next to nothing from Keane all afternoon but suddenly has his number, perhaps because he had a more obviously attentive target to flick on to.

We don’t have it all our own way.  Richarlíson has two headers at goal, one a particularly bad miss which could have changed the tone completely in a low-key afternoon for the Brazilian.  Moise Kean turns and twists to send a low shot narrowly wide.  But these are the exceptions… we have the upper hand, we’re forcing the corners.  Another good move from right to left sees Doucouré missing out at the far post, perhaps harshly denied a corner.

5- The game ends without us hammering on the door, partly due to Everton’s effective “game management”.  Everyone does this of course, Everton are no worse than most others…  but as an aside the tapping of the wrist to indicate time being added on as by Lee Mason here misses at least some of the point.  When you’re chasing the game you don’t want the other lot to kill the momentum…  it’s not just about time remaining it’s about being able to play it effectively.  A staccato ten minutes isn’t much harder to manage than a staccato five minutes as the side protecting a lead if the referee doesn’t take action to forcibly prevent the slowing of everything down rather than pretending that tapping his wrist and adding a minute or so covers it.

As for VAR…  another game not particularly disrupted by the technology in the sense of that M word, Momentum, again.  A couple of the judgements looked a bit odd, not least Mina escaping without conceding a penalty for what looked a foul against Deulofeu.  But… it didn’t take time, which is the main thing for me.  Indeed, VAR’s biggest negative intervention here was to result in the scoreboard erroneously advising that Brighton had gone ahead.  Not so seamless elsewhere, once again.

So we wandered back across Stanley Park in the sunshine, beaten but unbowed.  Another defeat, yes, from a game in which we could, maybe should have taken something but the greatest need from today was to see that there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong, that the Watford team in our heads was still there.  We got that in spades, particularly in that second half.

Unfavourable statistics have been trotted out, but these things mean nothing out of context.  And there’s plenty of context for the run of defeats, the lack of clean sheets…  Cup Final, Troy’s suspension, da da da da da.  There’s a lot of grey space between everything’s terrible and everything’s great, and that’s where we are.

And one day we will win here.  We’ll cash in the debt of luck we’re owed at this ground (a very small extension of Everton’s credit here today courtesy of that deflection) and we’ll absolutely dick them.  And we’ll be there to see it.

Oh, and did I mention that football’s back?  Hurrah.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 2, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Cathcart 3, *Capoue 4*, Doucouré 4, Hughes 3, Pereyra 4, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Welbeck (for Hughes, 67) 3, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 79) 0, Gray (for Capoue, 84) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Quina, Gomes

Watford 0 Brighton and Hove Albion 3 (10/08/2019) 11/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- Will’s tone is earnest.  There are a number of attentive pairs of eyes focused on him.

“I think, what we should do,” he says, “is to take off all the clothes we’re wearing and burn them in a pile in the garden”.

It’s a high-risk suggestion in front of a group that includes a five year-old and a four year-old, the former of whom punches the air with a “yes” at the proposal, but you can understand the sentiment.  The afternoon’s events had been extraordinary and unprecedented.  Drastic action was warranted, all possible precautions necessitated.  My Primitives t-shirt was a lucky heirloom last season.  Who knows what rules govern this.  Let’s take no chances.

Rewind a few hours and it was all looking so positive, despite unseasonal swirling high winds.  The ground, as is becoming traditional, looks ever smarter after a summer’s work – seats in the Rookery/SEJ corner now, and big screens mounted high on the roof of the stand at each end of the pitch.  New signings Sarr and “England international” Welbeck are presented to the crowd and hysterically received, the former making his way slowly across the pitch without breaking his applause to the stands.  There are new montages on the screens, and then Z-Cars chimes in back in it’s traditional place and the cheer as the teams enter is peppered with grins and high fives and a particularly guttural roar.  Fair play to the club for being honest and brave enough to reverse a bad decision.

This positive mood projected itself into the game despite (presumably) Brighton opting to switch ends.  But only briefly.  For the first ten minutes or so Watford were on top, and if we weren’t creating clear chances then we were certainly making the early inroads, Deulofeu wandering in from the left to shoot over.  There were early portents here… more than once Femenía overlapped on the right only for the play to be channelled back into a congested central area…  this seemed odd, the Seagulls’ vulnerability surely down the side of a large three man defence with the attack-minded Solly March nominally as left wing back.

The other feature throughout was frantic closing down high up the pitch.  Both sides were at this, but it was more evident from the Hornets early on as we hunted in packs and chased the ball across Albion’s back line, looking for the opportunity to mug someone or force a rushed pass.  We did this quite successfully for a bit; Shane Duffy shanked a clearance into the SEJ, mouthed off in frustration.  Everyone cheered and all was well with the world.

Then Albion started to assert themselves.  This wasn’t really a problem, since even if they were coming rather closer than we were they were hardly opening us up.  It took an atrociously complacent straight ball out of defence by Craig Dawson, who must have hoped for a more convincing debut, which Albion gobbled up, rattled at us and ultimately forced a goal off Doucouré.  We had a bit of bad luck here, perhaps, an Albion player in an offside position bypassed by Stephens’ chipped cross, not interfering but distracting.  You’ve got to deal with that but… a bit unfortunate.  Particularly as this Albion side is well equipped to defend a lead.

2- Before we start wringing our hands at our own failings, the visitors are due no small credit.    Popular wisdom as recently as this morning was that a side that had struggled last season, particularly for goals, was taking on a manager untested at this level to overhaul the club’s playing style.  A recipe for disaster and it could still go pear-shaped, three points won’t keep them up.

But the reverse side of that coin is that if a side that was always rather good at being difficult and obstructive found a way of adding a few goals to that capability they’d have a handy side.  Once they were ahead there was only one winner;  we played our part (see below) but Albion retained their obduracy marshalled by man of the match Dunk whilst capitalising on mistakes at the other end.  That’s a fine recipe for mid table.

3- Everything we did looked like terribly hard work.  The start of the second half, with a bleach-blonde Pereyra on for the presumably not-quite-fully-fit Deulofeu, was encouraging.  Femenía was finally getting some of the ball down the right, Pereyra was taking responsibility on the left but the chances weren’t coming despite this.  Whilst there were plenty of off days – Will Hughes briefly flickered but only very briefly – the failure was tactical also.  Troy’s battle with Dunk was always wholehearted and engaging but we were talking three big centre backs against our two forwards.  Against a back three you need width or mischief and we didn’t have enough of either for long enough, much of our play was shovelled high through the congested centre of the pitch.  We struggled to retain possession, in part because Brighton were making it difficult to do so in the areas in which we were trying to play and we weren’t able to play around them.

Two goals in fifteen minutes, both borne of defensive calamity and clinical response to it, changed the tone entirely.  Andone nipped in at the near post to finish a move down Brighton’s right with Watford’s defence standing and pointing at each other.  Then Dunk played a long straight pass past a statuesque Dawson;  Foster was out quickly to challenge Maupay’s strength of will but the French debutant was sharp enough to nip around him and beat the bodies on the line.  The entire Albion side joined the bundle, the away end – as gracious as it’s reasonable to expect when 3-0 up away from home on the first day of the season – sang about winning the league.  The home stands emptied quietly and disconsolately.

4- An inevitable aside about VAR.  Rewinding back to the happy innocence of 2.55 when Daughter 1 was revelling in her one hundredth Watford game saw Daughter 2 embark on an unprovoked and unprecedented anti-VAR rant.  “Whoever invented VAR is my mortal enemy”.

A bit harsh, but difficult not to sympathise. The rabid pursuit of the Right Decision is a bizarre, cultish thing…  one otherwise reputable football blog’s twitter feed asserted, in this context, during the summer that “Football is all about getting decisions right”.  Is it bollocks.  I studied Mathematics because I liked the absoluteness of it, I liked knowing that I’d got the answer right.  But if you want absoluteness, do a maths test.  There’s no argument against making the right decision in isolation but when the cost is the nature, the momentum, the pace of the game itself then… yes, that cost is too high.

Actually the disruption provoked by VAR this afternoon was minimal; reviews seemed to occur seamlessly without the need for referee Pawson to interrupt play, there was a rather incongruous “VAR complete” announcement in the rather grandstanding “Gladiators, ready” style but nobody died.  And if reviews of Roberto Pereyra’s free kick – which appeared to strike an outstretched arm in the Brighton wall to the furious indignation of the Argentine – might have yielded a penalty after more painstaking review then that’s a sacrifice I’m personally quite happy with in the name of getting the hell on with it. Heaven knows that a foothold in the game was neither merited nor a potential route to point or three.   Elsewhere, others weren’t so lucky.

5- We had laboured our way to a few more chances, Femenía badgering possession off Dan Burn on the byline and squaring only to find a tentative finish.  Another chance, our best chance, fell to Dawson who did a far better job of slugging a shot goalwards only to be denied by a body on the line.  It had been obvious that it wasn’t our day from the point at which the first two guys trying the reintroduced dizzy kicks routine at half time scored with aplomb rather than falling on their arses as intended.  This just confirmed it.  And so at 5.30 we’re at my Gran’s conducting a post mortem wide eyed at the baffling ineptitude of it all.

On the plus side.  This isn’t a head coach that we don’t know or trust.  This isn’t a team that’s been rebuilt or lost a key component or that we have any doubts about.  Today was atrocious but we’re capable of so much better than this, even without our two new star turns.  A bad day.  But maybe that’s all.

On the minus side.  Ben Foster’s candid post-match reflection that Albion “wanted it more than we did”.  What?  What?

Not that we have any divine right to the most focused, determined single-minded side.  But why should any side be lacking in determination, lacking in wantingitness in early August?  How is that possible?  Whatever our failings… how can you lose 3-0 because the other side wanted it more on the opening day of the season?  That, if anything, is the biggest concern.

Because otherwise, other than that, all we need is another game of football.  Particularly one with it’s own narrative, with blood and thunder.  A disruptive fixture.

Ahhhhh, Everton.

Bring it on.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 1, Hughes 1, Capoue 3, *Doucouré 3*, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 2, Gray 1
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Success (for Gray, 75) 3, Janmaat, Sema, Kabasele, Cleverley, Gomes

Manchester City 6 Watford 0 (18/05/2019) 19/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
40 comments

1- Amongst the early morning deluge of excited messages, my brother’s resonated the most.  9:30 am, “I’m here!  Erm… would anyone like a drink? (Got a bit excited and left Leeds at 4)”.  The rest of us weren’t due to be at the Railway in West Hampstead for another three and a half hours.

By which time it was rammed and unlike on our previous visit a month ago spillage onto surrounding pavements was not permitted, the first sign that Things Might Not Go Well.  It was cramped and uncomfortable, consistent with the prevailing nervous anxiety borne of anticipation of what could happen and fear of what might a few hours later.

But there’s people.  Some in sky blue, most in yellow. Strangers to share a snatched conversation, familiar people, people you’ve not seen for a while, for years, looming out of the past and sharing a word, smiling and pumping fists and then disappearing again.  Wembley Way (strictly, “The Olympic Way”), when we get there, is the same but more so.

The evangelical gentleman who looks like something from the Life of Brian, is still there hanging optimistically over a railing as he was prior to the semi final.  There’s more security here too;  more safety cordons, checks of tickets and bags that hadn’t been a complication last time and are rendered problematic by both the dissipation of our party (with me still in nervous custody of many tickets) and the Cup Final Ice Creams that Daughters 1 and 2 have demanded and which are still occupying hand space as we try to turn a carrier bag full of waterproofs into something not involving a carrier bag. Also, there’s Fuzz…

…who has dressed for the occasion and made relatively slow progress in consequence with multiple requests for selfies and media intrusion.  Next time Fuzz, get an agent.

As we make our way around the right hand side of the stadium, there’s no escaping that this is becoming rather familiar.  In part down to our (still) newly elevated status, in part due to Spurs, and in very large part due to the fact that the semi was played here too…  an exploitative nonsense that has almost become accepted and slipped behind other exploitative nonsense in the grand scheme of things.  On the subject of which, and whilst recognising that it can be painfully, lazily, stupidly easy to blame the woes of the world on a remote and intangible power-wielding entity (heaven knows…), it would be remiss not to acknowledge the disgraceful ticket prices.  Shameful.  It’s the Cup Final… it’s supposed to be a big deal, fine.  Demand is high, fine.  But that the girls’ season tickets cost a comparable amount to their cup final tickets for very decent but far from top priced seats speaks volumes about the organisational body’s sense of priorities (and that of our club, fair play to them).

2-  Abide with Me.  Anthem.  We’re at the front of the top tier, at “right back” in the first half.  As an aside, I’m advised that Z-cars got a couple of airings – during which time I was attending to assorted requirements including £2.50 for a half-litre bottle of water poured into a flimsy plastic pint glass, twice – but hurrah for that (Z-cars, not the exorbitant water).

And then, the football.

We knew it was a tall order.  No, we didn’t need to be better than Manchester City (budgets, payroll, blah blah), just to beat them on the day.  Nonetheless a tall order which, were it to be realised would need the little things to go for us.  So… most obviously, Pereyra’s chance.  We’ve started 4-5-1 and we look concentrated and organised…  yes, City are coming at us like a wave from the off but their attacks are breaking on the rocks of our defence, particularly the excellent Mariappa, and they begin to look a bit stodgy and immobile.  And then suddenly we get a break and Gerry’s off, and City are scrambling and – let’s not lose sight of this in the cloud of what’s to follow – we may not be in the same league as City but we’re still a bloody good side.  This is a devastating counter-attack, supremely executed as Pereyra has found space in the middle and Deulofeu finds him superbly.  And… there’s Ederson, out like a train.  We needed him to be asleep.  Or… we needed Pereyra to somehow flick the ball over the advancing keeper – that he didn’t is no failing, not really… it was a chance denied, not wasted, but we were going to need that to go for us.  We knew it at the time, much more so later as Guardiola would candidly acknowledge.  We score that, it’s a different game.

Then the penalty shout.  No, I don’t think it was a penalty either but it could have been, VAR or no VAR.  Kompany’s turning away from the ball but it’s not quite ball to hand.  It could plausibly have been given.  It wasn’t.  That’s another one we needed to go for us.  Doucs knows and reacts accordingly, you wonder whether this train of thought is going through the players’ heads too.

And then the opening goal.  No, not offside.  Felt it, felt like it might have been, wasn’t.  Yet another example of City’s merciless timing… right on the edge, pushing it to the limit, but onside.  And there’s a little push by Silva on Kiko – who should already have done better in an aerial contest – but nonetheless, a little push.  It’s critical, Kiko’s off balance briefly and doesn’t have time to recover.  But you don’t get those, certainly not today.

3- The first possible criticism is the apparent lack of aggression.  If you’re the underdog, if you’re in this situation then you surely want to give it some welly.  To get stuck in, to win the 50/50s.  Lack of physical competitiveness has rarely been a criticism levelled at this Watford side but… it is here.  As we rock on our heels at a second goal, expertly crafted and cruelly on top of the first it’s only Gerard Deulofeu of all people who’s getting stuck in… and briefly you’d really rather he didn’t as his waspish energy is frustrated, badly directed and precarious.

In balance, however…  that criticism has to come with caveats.  There was a clear game plan for one thing, a good one.  Sit deep, keep your shape, smother.  Jumping into tackles looks good but players with feet this quick will exploit the holes you leave behind when the challenge is dodged by a quick pass or slight of foot.  Hell, look at what happens later in the game when we push on a bit.  So…  yes.  You’d have hoped for more bullying.  More doing something to upset City.  But let’s not pretend that this was a magic bullet, that but for this everything would have been different.  There was a reason for us setting up as we did – good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, least of all against this lot.  The half ends with a show of defiance from the wonderful Holebas, who is robbed when trying to play an inswinging cross from the right and briefly we’re in trouble again… until he snarls into a challenge to critically reclaim possession having hared a third of the length of the pitch.  We’re rallied by this.  In my pocket however, misplaced during the cordon complications described earlier, the lucky chocolate has all melted.

4- The other possible criticism is that we played it too open in the second period.  That by moving from 4-5-1 to, effectively, 4-3-3 we surrendered the initiative to City, that we made it too easy for them to rip us apart on the counterattack which they promptly did.

Again, I’ve got some sympathy with the decision.  Yes, it was high risk and no, it patently didn’t work.  But for fifteen minutes of the second half we were on top, the more assertive side.  Will Hughes is scurrying everywhere, Gerry is making great sweeping runs from right to left across the face of the defence who scatter like ninepins, Troy is suddenly winning every aerial challenge.  Slightly dazed, someone whispers that City’s defence really isn’t very good, is it?  You know, good at defending?  Which sounds perverse, but… frankly they don’t need to be very good.  You’ve got to get the ball first for one thing, then you’ve got to hold onto it under the manic midfield pressing.  But if you get past that lot… they’re fallible.  Genuinely fallible.  And this is why going on the front foot is the only option.  Against perhaps any other side you’d say “look, 2-0 and we’re not out of it.  Keep it tight, grab a goal, game on”.  Here, though… you rather fancy that it was a choice between losing 3-0 and the outside possibility of tipping the balance with a high risk of things going very wrong.  And we know what happened.  But I’m pretty comfortable with the decision, still…  it’s still 2-0 after an hour and we’ve made City look uncomfortable.

4- And then they score again.  And it’s de Bruyne, out of nothing, on the break.  And it’s cruel, and what follows feels kind of inevitable, so we’ll draw a curtain over it.

Except.  Except.  Except that at 5-0, something remarkable happens.  We’ve been loud, in general, and in defiance of the scoreline.  Louder than a month ago, louder than City, the grim memory of the Palace play off now surely dismissed.  Because at 5-0 the songs start to thunder and the flags start to wave  and suddenly the away end is a torrent of yellow and red as flags get frantically waved.  I destroy two, the second of which floats down to the posh seats below as it detaches from its pole. It’s breathtaking and emotional.  All clubs boast that they have “the best support”… I’ve got a Sheffield Wednesday supporting mate who genuinely believes that the Owls’ nineteen-year absence from the top flight is the result of a conspiracy borne of the establishment’s fear of the insurmountable advantage offered by the Hillsborough crowd.

But this isn’t about “best”.  This isn’t about anyone else.  This is about pride in who and what we are, pride in what the team has achieved relative to precedent and expectation, and – most of all – about the fact that the result of one game doesn’t affect that.  As per the preview piece winning is important, but it’s very far from everything.  It’s not even the most important thing.

Digressing slightly, the same goes for Manchester City.  Better informed people than me have written extensively on the questionable source of City’s largesse.  The morality of it, the cleanliness of it, the within-the-rulesness of it.  And it’s clear that many City supporters have reacted incredibly defensively to this which… is wrong, in itself.  You should at least be able to question things objectively.  But the critical detail is in what it is that you actually support.  If some malevolent psychotic took over Watford in the future… not a Bassini, someone far far worse…  you would be uncomfortable with it, you would withdraw your custom in extremis.  But…  you’d still believe in that thing, that whatever-it-is that you support which remains unsullied by association with idiots or crooks.  The same goes for City, irrespective of what you believe of their ownership.  Their fans might revel in the magnificence of the team, but independent of that they believe in a Thing, their Thing.  Quite right too.  It transpires (see below) that the defiance in the Watford end, which continues unabated throughout the sixth goal, is met with a standing ovation from the Sky Blue end.  Well done everyone, the 1881 not least.

5- It takes bloody ages to get out.  I miss our medals, and the trophy, as daughter 2 has an urgent requirement… karma has long since left the building, but nonetheless she’s pretty desperate.  A fair old slog later we’re getting on a Thameslink train at West Hampstead in need of somewhere for a quiet, brief sulk.

So being greeted by loud cheers from three beered-up fifty-something Luton fans on the adjacent table was something that we could have done without.  In the event it could have gone far worse… one of them even passed on the Cup Final programme that he’d acquired from somewhere to daughter 2, whilst awkwardly warning me to erase the expletives that adorned the yellow-and-black side of the cover.  They exited at Luton Airport Parkway, and we finally got our quiet sulk.

But really…  is there that much to sulk about?  Being Watford’s a fine thing, even if we did get humped in the Cup Final.  We’re stable, secure.  Mid-table in the top flight of all things, going into our fifth consecutive season at the top table.

And “another 35 years”?  That kind of logic only holds any water if you believe this to be a random process.  Like… the roll of a dice, the toss of a coin.  A chance event determined only by probability.  That’s not reality, our relative success, undoubted success compared to our historical peers, isn’t random… it’s based on the decisions and the actions of all sorts of very good, very competent people.  All of these things change the odds, affect the outcome.

We didn’t win this time.  Next time might be different, and it might be soon.

Enjoy the summer.

Yooorns.

Gomes 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 4, *Hughes 4*, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Success (for Pereyra, 66) 3, Gray (for Deulofeu, 66) 2, Cleverley (for Hughes, 73) 2, Janmaat, Masina, Kabasele, Foster

Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (05/05/2019) 06/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- This is going to sound absurd… but I’m beginning to wonder whether a lifetime’s worth of accumulated superstition has really got very much going for it.

I know, I know.  I’ve been turning the rational arguments over and over inside my head…  “It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t…” and so forth.  And logic dictates that this must true.  Nonetheless…  when a day’s dutiful parentage on Saturday in deliberate avoidance of football scores is rewarded by watching Wolves and bloody West Ham win on Match of the Day in an abandoned, darkened living room at midnight.  When the carefully measured decision to walk from Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge on the south bank of the Thames for the most part (the north bank walk having been unrewarded by our FA Cup defeat four years ago) is met with such a disappointing outcome.  Ditto lucky hornet socks, lucky Pretenders t-shirt.

When lucky half-time lucky chocolate, that most dependable of precautions, is rewarded by an unheralded burst of both energy and goals from our hosts at the onset of the second half…  well.  You have to begin to wonder how much influence one has on the outcome of a football match after all.

I’m sure I’ll regain some perspective by next week.

2- To be fair, and as was reflected by a venerable Chelsea panel in the tube afterwards, we started the game as unlike a side preoccupied with the Cup Final as it’s possible to imagine.  We were lively, assertive and direct, pinning the home side back with some verve and energy.

Troy helps, of course.  Troy always helps.  Pre-match speculation considered the possibility that he’d been kept in a cage for a fortnight, fed on raw meat and forced to ponder the consequences of his reckless if harshly punished forearm swing.  Either he was going to pummel Chelsea’s threadbare defence into the ground or get himself sent off (again).

Actually he did neither, but this was still a dominant 45 minutes for the centre forward.  The first chance, his flick on to Deulofeu who drove wide, was painfully easy against a flabby, dozy Chelsea and he had the beating of Christensen in the air for most of the game and certainly the half.  The footnote, as ever, is that we didn’t capitalise on our early superiority, as you’ll have noticed… a recurring theme against the top sides.  Set aside that spanking at Anfield and the win over Spurs and you have ten games (ten!) that to varying degrees has seen us compete in a close game that we’ve lost anyway.  Certainly Stamford Bridge regulars will have enjoyed our visits in recent years… everybody likes a plucky loser, this the third game on the trot here that we’ve worn that mantle.

Troy’s best attempt was the closest we came to altering that narrative, a short corner routine working the ball back to the lurking Holebas, whose near-post missile found Deeney’s forehead.  It wasn’t just top corner it was past the goalkeeper, until he athletically clawed it onto the post by, unconventionally, reaching up to it with his “furthest” left arm from underneath it.  A fine stop.

3- Meanwhile, Nathaniel Chalobah has finally engineered a start and fittingly it’s at Stamford Bridge whose denizens greet him almost as appreciatively as we do and applaud him off on his substitution an hour or so later (but see “plucky loser” note above).  It’s easy to forget that the Doucouré/Chalobah midfield partnership was the foundation of our fine start under Marco Silva last season (Caps managed only half an hour off the bench before Nate’s knee injury) and here, finally, it was resurrected.

And not quite to the same devastating effect.  Nate is more than adequate on the ball… tidy, efficient, and with an ability to take a touch and launch a quick and wrong-footing pass that only he had spotted that is unparalleled in our squad.  Off the ball however…  Capoue is a daunting benchmark to measure him against, but too often he was found chasing an escaping opponent as the home side gradually came into the match in the last fifteen minutes of the half.  Marco Silva’s early midfield had the ferreting Tom Cleverley at its apex too of course; Nate’s been out a while but the pairing looked less robust than we have of late.

Chelsea had provided threat on the break earlier in the half.  Mapps capped a strong 45 minutes with a sturdy challenge to deny the rotund Argentine, his near-post block even denying a corner.  As the home side asserted more control it was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, an early sub for the injured Kanté, who drove them on but although your heart was in your mouth whenever Hazard picked the ball up we were largely comfortable.  Only Pedro’s late sledgehammer of a shot caused palpitations;  we were buoyant at half-time after good halves from the bubbly Hughes and the assertive Femenía in particular.

4- I tempted fate at the break by tweeting about how much fun we were all having.  Five minutes in and we weren’t having fun at all;  a visibly more energised, vigorous Chelsea side engineered a couple of set pieces and suddenly the game was disappearing over the horizon.  So unwarranted and so frustrating.  Unwarranted… not because you don’t deserve to concede goals when you don’t pick people up at set pieces but more because this miserably indolent Chelsea side and similarly dozy support had done so little to earn it whilst our best efforts went unrewarded.  No, I know that’s not how it works.

Again, there’s an angle which says “so we binned it.  At 2-0 down we shrugged and let our minds drift forward a couple of weeks”.  I didn’t see that. No lack of effort anyway, no lack of commitment on or off the pitch; a couple of minutes of sulking and we were back at it.  Certainly Abdoulaye Doucouré has had better games, games that didn’t involve him being quite so slack with possession.  Certainly Will Hughes was less impactful in the second half than the first; that’s a recurring theme though, one that pre-dates the semi final and that doesn’t generally include a running spat with Marcos Alonso that a lesser referee than the excellent and unfussy Tierney might have penalised.

But no lack of effort.  Just effectiveness.  And frankly nothing we didn’t already know here… our midfield, shorn of its most effective component, still looks excellent, our full backs are tremendous, our attacking play has lots of nice things going for it but a clinical touch isn’t one of them… Deulofeu shoots narrowly wide, Jose Holebas bundles across the area before slugging over with his weaker right foot.  And certainly we could do with strengthening at centre half, where the dependable Craig Cathcart is suddenly less so for the first time this season;  giving Higuain the half-hour’s head start required to get beyond you takes some doing, his finish was exemplary and then, yes, our heads did drop.  When the mercurial Pereyra slung a cross in only for our own man to block it inadvertently on the line and subs Success and Gray contrive to get an offside call out of turning in the rebound, you knew it wasn’t our day.

5- I’m minded to think back to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s World Cup campaigns in 2002 and 2006.  Not that, in the grand scheme of things I cared all that much… I mean, give me the choice between an England World Cup win and the consequent witless nationalistic outpouring and, you know, Watford winning a throw-in in a pre-season friendly and the throw-in is in strong contention.

Nonetheless.  Both campaigns saw England knocked out in the quarter finals and thus having come somewhere between fifth and eighth in the World, and both were presented and reported as failures, at least in the immediate aftermath.  Patently nonsense.  Patently grotesequely oversimplified nonsense, as if there really is nothing but winning and (anything less than winning equals) losing.  Quarter Final defeat was not what had been hoped from a strong squad but it was no worse than par.

The same is true here.  It was already clear before today that we weren’t going to finish seventh, but seventh was merely the peak of our ambitions in the League this season and not making it doesn’t make it a failure.  Even ignoring that May 18th thing, mid-table in the Premier League and all the fun we’ve had on the way isn’t a bad place to be.

Which doesn’t mean it’s enough.  Doesn’t mean we’re bashfully appreciating our seat at the big table, still grateful for the crumbs being thrown our way. But there’s space for recognising progress.  After all, to get too het up about losing seventh place, let alone losing to Chelsea, would suggest that we believed that this was an isolated opportunity.  That our club’s presence in the top half all season is as anomalous and inexplicable as much of those commenting with their fingers up their backsides believe it to be.

That the club isn’t being run by people who will continue to build and nurture it along its current trajectory.

Ha.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 3, Cathcart 2, Mariappa 3, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Cleverley (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Gray (for Deeney, 83) 0, Success (for Deulofeu, 83) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Masina, Gomes