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Watford 0 Manchester City 5 (21/05/2017) 22/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- “Bit quiet, isn’t it?” noted Daz as we ambled down Occupation Road in the sunshine, daughter 1 polishing off the Magnum that she’d negotiated. And so it was, but there had been little surprise in the observation… nobody was under any illusions and a goodly number had clearly opted out. Those of us in attendance approached the game with a mixture of apprehension, obligation and morbid fascination… Manchester City are a tough opponent at the best of times, in other circumstances this might have been an exciting game, an opportunity to bloody a nose in a nothing-to-lose encounter. Nobody harboured such expectations today. That we had little material to play for that City (as it turned out) needed a result to confirm Champions (sic) League qualification, that we’d lost all semblance of form whilst City had rediscovered theirs were challenges in themselves.

But our perverse injury problems turned the contest into a farce from the off. It has become increasingly difficult to sympathise with Walter Mazzarri’s bizarre prognoses as time has gone on, but there can be no disputing the gist of his parting shot. Nobody survives against Man City with their six (six!) senior central defenders unavailable. A thankless task for Mazzarri, whose meagre stock has dropped so low in the last fortnight that it was difficult for any to look at the back four of Janmaat and full Prem debutant Mason either side of midfielder Behrami and full-back-cum-powderkeg Holebas and acknowledge that this was probably as good as he could manage.

Which, as so often, was partly his own fault. If you could look at that defensive “solution” and say “yes, OK” there was no defending his bench. In such circumstances, when backs are likely to be not so much up against the wall as pummelled halfway through it, you need your leaders, you need senior players to cajole and organise and pull the side along. Our leader, in a final peevish move by his manager, was on the bench (and it’s arguable that in the admittedly ring-rusty Ben Watson, another to have been discarded cheaply by Mazzarri, we had another wise head underemployed). And, of course, we named two goalkeepers… much as we all love Rene Gilmartin this was no tribute to a departing hero (notably, no fawning 26th minute intro/outro for Rene who isn’t nearly a vain enough peacock to have suggested one) but a pathetically self-indulgent sulky statement by the outgoing coach. “Look what I’m left with”. A Charlie Rowan, a Carl Stewart or an Ogo Obi could have filled that space and garnered Mazzarri more sympathy and options.

2- If nobody expected a result then I think we hoped for a bit of defiance before the inevitable, a bit of “hey, we’re still in this, come on lads”. Alas. Indeed, all plans seemed to go astray on a day that confirmed the suspicion that we’re better off with this season ending and never being mentioned again. I’d gone as far as to order a mixed grill at Middletons with the intent of extracting what pleasure there was to be extracted from the afternoon, only to delay everyone else’s food as a result to quite reasonable scowls and sarcasm from friends and family young and old. So much for that. So much for our show of defiance also; four minutes in and Vincent Kompany was afforded space to pitch a tent, time to heat a barbecue in our penalty area and directed a corner inside the postage stamp. Worst fears realised, and not for the first time this season we progressed down a slope at any stage of which we’d have taken the scoreline and no questions asked. Whilst reflecting, again, on our complete inability to defend corners (no height and no defenders didn’t actually make that failing any more complete).

3- Actually there was some defiance.  There was a contrast between the play at the two ends of the pitch;  City were dominant in each, but at least as we attacked it looked less of an unfair contest.  M’Baye Niang nearly scored that goal he scores, cutting in from the left on his right foot but shovelling the shot narrowly over.  Doucouré and Capoue moved the ball quickly and fiercely, Nordin Amrabat found space on the right. And then, inevitably, City broke on us like water and it was men against boys.  Brandon Mason dug in and stuck his chin out, piling Gabriel Jesus into the advertising hoardings.  Valon Behrami, bless his snarling fangs, dived in to deny Agüero but it was all last ditch and desperate.  It wasn’t, in short, a fair fight… City spun and swung and sliced through us, a match for anyone on this form let alone our botched together defence.  And so we draw a veil over the detail of the rest of the half, except to mention that we lost Daryl Janmaat to the three hundred and seventy sixth hamstring strain of the season (nothing to do with our training methods though, naturally) allowing Andrew Eleftheriou to make the debut he probably wouldn’t have chosen.  And that some chose to boo at the half time whistle as if these circumstances compared to Hull or Palace, because “me sad, me boo” is as close to reason as some get.  Oh, and that City scored three more goals.

4- After more brief defiance – principally from Stefano Okaka, who provided much of what was left in that department for the rest of the half and opened the second period by barging himself a space and forcing a fine save from Caballero – City scored again.  And then more or less stopped, for which we could only be grateful.  There was some muted gallows humour, some attempts to recruit both Thierry Henry, pitchside for Sky Sports, and fifties centre-back Bill Shipwright who performed the half-time draw.  The most attention afforded to Mazzarri came when Jon Moss spoke to him on the touchline and the ground exhorted him to send the coach to the stands, but in vain.

The real question for me is why Mazzarri was in the ground at all.  By all accounts his departure was a mutual decision rather than “yet another” Pozzo sacking (the second, I make it?) and so perhaps the end of the season felt more natural… but this has never felt like a respectful, best-thing-for-everyone, no-hard-feelings kind of deal.  There’s bitterness and discomfort on both sides, and the line-up itself betrayed the questionable nature of the decision to retain him for the final game.

5- And so the season ends on six defeats with the Hornets one place above relegated Hull City and as intimated we’re probably best of all round to put the season behind us.  Despite the poor form, despite the miserable low on which we finish, despite the portents of the witless Pleat on 5 Live, and others, who refused to make allowances for the unprecedented circumstances of this game… it really isn’t that bad.  The reality is that we’re in the morass in the middle of the division between which there’s little to choose;  despite our recent tumble we’re as close to eighth place Saints as we are to Hull.  The summer will see a new coach, a new training regime, and undoubtedly another turnover of players… Nordin Amrabat, like Seb Prödl on Monday, seemed to be saying goodbye when he approached the Rookery before the lap of honour.  He’s looked nervous and been thoroughly ineffective since returning to the side… but he’s a trier, and it was good that the waiting crowd responded to his efforts and his own acknowledgement of them warmly.  For all the team’s struggles, the club is still in a good place and we shouldn’t need Daily Express headlines to remind us how lucky we are.

The List, Helping Hands and the Squad Review will follow in the next few weeks.  In the meantime, have a good summer.

Yoorns….

Chelsea 4 Watford 3 (15/05/2017) 16/05/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- This kind of doesn’t need an intro does it?  Whether you’ve been experiencing the last few months by attending games or watching on from greater distance you can’t have been looking forward to this.  Chelsea’s title having been confirmed on Friday didn’t help matters at all… it removed the final straw to be clung to, the one where there might be a nagging nervousness in the home stands, something that still needed sorting if we could just hold out for 20 minutes or so.

So much for that.  Now it was going to be a party.  The Underground screwing around didn’t improve our mood, nor did the drizzle.  Gallows humour was in full flow by the time we got to Stamford Gate; we navigated a bizarrely well-manned but porous corridor of stewards that seemed to have been planned by the guy who designed games for Gladiators.  Analogies about our defence’s capabilities immediately presented themselves, one thunk sorted before kick-off.  Any lingering good humour was extinguished once inside by news of our starting line-up.  Shackles off, Premier League status finally definitively secured, and no proper striker.  Bloody hell.

2- An aside here to discuss Chelsea’s catering.  You’ll appreciate that as a travelling football fan with a healthy appetite one’s bar of acceptability is necessarily quite low.  Given a captive audience the food is invariably pricey, and the quality hugely variable.  Genuinely, variable… some places get it right, but we’ve generally been trained to accept anything edible albeit at prices that no sensible person in any other environment would ever contemplate.

But this was spectacular.  Will, first to the counter whilst the rest of us addressed other priorities, quickly and darkly warned us off the pasties.  “Inedible.  Genuinely inedible,” he exclaimed whilst brandishing something that looked like an old shoe containing an insole of dry mud.  Forewarned, I went instead for an object advertised as a tandoori chicken roll.  An inner layer of foil wrapping guaranteed that the contents remained hotter than the sun, but absolutely devoid of either flavour or texture.  The closest comparison I can draw is of strands of soggy, watery lettuce and lumps of soft chalk wrapped in baking paper and heated to a point that would strip the plaster off your walls. And I paid six pounds for it.  Naturally, this improved our mood still further.   It was going to be a terrible evening.

3- Which just goes to show how wrong you can be.  The first surprise was quite how warm May suddenly was… we located our seats and removed several obsolete layers until we were in t-shirts.  The home side, as anticipated, were in party mood;  their side contained a vast number of changes as anticipated, but retained a core of the senior side in Kanté, Hazard and Azpilicueta.  It’s tempting to view what follows through that prism of course… “we lost to Chelsea’s reserves”, but that would be misguided.  These are still excellent players, and we were missing a large number of players ourselves, injuries depriving us of four centre backs and two of our more creative weapons.  Chelsea made changes, but had the luxury of picking them voluntarily rather than botching a side together.

Meanwhile, further insight into our trajectory and some of that Modern Football stuff in the fact that the Chelsea line-up contained no less than three former Watford loanees of varying vintage, two of whom have seen significantly more action in yellow than in the blue of their parent club.  Nathaniel Chalobah was making his first Premier League start for Chelsea, four seasons after looking so elegant at the back of Gianfranco Zola’s midfield.  He was the pick of the three on the night, looking far from out of place in his surroundings.  Nathan Aké is a more recent Hornet of course;  his performance was decent enough though not flawless,  a fair précis of his loan spell last season.  Kenedy, the most recent of the three, was afforded an inconsequential fifteen minutes at Turf Moor in his Watford career and did little here to suggest that we’d underutilised his talent.  In contrast, Adrian Mariappa demonstrated that he’s come full circle since the days when he captained Sean Dyche’s necessarily pragmatic Watford side in the second tier.  Via Reading and Palace he’s back at Watford and now “Adrián” Mariappa, with a hispanic flourish, according to the tannoy announcer’s proclamation bellowed mercilessly into the away end.

4- So, that no-strikers thing.  Strictly speaking we weren’t playing with no forwards;  Niang was nominally employed in a lone striker role, albeit he’s rarely suggested that he’s suited to such a job.  He provided no compelling support for the decision here either;  our attacks, such as they were, frequently foundered on no target presenting itself in the box as the Frenchman too often chased involvement and the ball rather than providing that option.

That aside, the formation worked rather well for the most part which once again demonstrates how little I know.  It wasn’t just the formation though, albeit that might have provided a platform.  More remarkable, more rewarding, was the fight.  The guts. The spirit.  There’s been a suggestion, not entirely unreasonably, that whining about being mere also-rans in the top flight is a bit rich.  I can cope with the relatively mundane target of mid-table obscurity if it comes with a bit of welly like this, rather than the soporific acceptance we saw at Hull.  The opening 20 minutes or so were Chelsea’s but we were scrapping and fighting.  Seb Prödl kicked off an eventful evening by decisively winning the opening rounds in a heavyweight battle with Batshuayi, dismissively brutal in extracting the ball from the striker’s feet.  No less aggressive was Mariappa, who flew in with a laser-guided tackle on the briefly bewildered Hazard. Defiance on the pitch bred the same in the away end.

5- All of which could have been rather undone by our complete failure to defend a corner.  Scrapping as we were, Chelsea were nonetheless creating chances when they got the ball wide and from their first corner Mariappa bounced unconvincingly under the ball, others stood around looking lost and John Terry took advantage at the second attempt.  Of course it was Terry.  The inevitable procession suddenly stretched tediously in front of us; fortunately Chelsea’s skipper, who occasionally seemed to be depending on his more nimble minders either side, himself afforded us an immediate route back in.  Capoue was the grateful recipient, it’s quite conceivable that the game wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun if he hadn’t done so.  It was our first attempt of any description, and it was a gift.

Nonetheless we were behind by half time.  A corner, again, after we’d defended slicker, less formulaic threats more competently.  A near post corner this time, Janmaat flicked an inadequate header across the face of goal to where Azpilicueta waited to drive the ball home.  Down, then.  But not disgraced.  We’d probably have taken that.

6- So when Chelsea got a bit of a lucky break and went 3-1 up early in the second half we were once again lurching towards the humiliation we’d feared.  Lucky in the sense that they got a kind deflection from a long-range shot that set up Aké, no luck in him taking advantage and teeing up the finish.  It felt as if we were in danger of being overwhelmed again.

And this is where this stopped being just another game, a game in which we put up a bit of a fight but got dicked anyway, and entered the sphere of games that just need to be enjoyed independent of context.  Stuff the result, if you can’t enjoy nonsense like this just go home.  It turns out that Chelsea didn’t touch the ball in the two minutes between their goal and Daryl Janmaat bundling through to skim the ball into the net but that detail didn’t register at the time.  What registered was that we weren’t rolling over.  This is what Watford have been about, what we’ve missed.  Not bloody giving up.  Janmaat has had ups and downs and bumps and bruises over the season, he’s manifestly a better attacking wing-back than he is a defender, but with this one we passed the point where we give much of a toss about what he’s good at or not.  This was bloody-minded take that you bastards.  We rose from our resigned stupor as he progressed into the area and as the ball hit the net we were screaming again.  More of this. More of this.

7- At this point detail becomes fuzzy since we re-entered what was always the traditional away-day mindset, the anything’s a bonus determination to enjoy ourselves.  So the stuff on the pitch was incidental, although I suspect that this was the bit where Heurelho Gomes excelled himself.  Eventually, we brought on a proper target man…. Stefano Okaka and Troy had staged a particularly half-arsed warm-up on pitch during the interval but there was nothing half-arsed about the Italian’s approach to his twenty-odd minutes.  The game had descended into that very British high-speed wide-open frenzy; within a minute GT was getting his minute’s ovation (with significant Chelsea acknowledgement), within another Okaka was thumping a neglected ball low past Begovic. In the stands, all hell broke loose.  On the pitch, it all got a bit narky… Pedro added himself to the list of people you’d like to kick up the arse, given half a chance.  Batshuayi got off without censure when Prödl opted against collapsing in a heap on getting the Belgian’s forehead in his face.  The Austrian eventually saw red, cruelly if not undeservedly.  His was a Trojan’s performance in a side suddenly short on muscle;  he waved as his season ended, what flavour of goodbye we’ll find out in time.  It’s Mapps, Holebas and Walter Mazzarri at the back for Man City.

8- By which time Cesc Fabregas had struck the decisive goal.  Cesc Fabregas is a dick.  Not because he struck this fine and deserved winner, painful as it was.  Not because there’s any question about his playing ability.  But because he’s a dick.  Stop by on Sunday and I’ll explain why, and my daughters will think I’ve got a load of mates’n’that.

9- Not a lot to be drawn from this.  A unique game in unique circumstances.  A feather in Walter’s cap in this most bewildering of seasons, despite the result.  A decent showing, we’re still capable of it.  But most of all, this was fun.  That’s what I want from a night out.  A good bellow and a sore throat.  Give me a proper pie next time and I’ll be well happy.

Yoorns.

 

Watford 0 Liverpool 1 (01/05/2017) 02/05/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
7 comments

1. I had intended to begin proceedings in rib-tickling and topical fashion with some sort of mock election manifesto. However, I quickly realised that my policy platform comprised little beyond a desire to roll back thirty years’ worth of progress: no substitute goalkeepers, an offside law that Alan Shearer can understand, compulsory Bovril, proper kickoff times, proper tackling, proper pitches, that sort of thing. Common sense. Back to basics. Take back control. Make football great again. You can do your own punchline.

I had second thoughts. Partly because it’s essentially just the same old guff that I’ve been writing and re-writing for the last decade or more. That clearly hasn’t stopped me before, though, so there must’ve been something else. And that something else was this: it struck me that I’ve come to really actually believe in at least some of this stuff and that perhaps I ought to challenge it more before it turns into ranting at strangers on a bus. Before I start denouncing anyone apologising for the backpass rule as a stooge of our capitalist oppressors and refusing to pass through the turnstiles unless I can pay in those triangular vouchers you used to cut out of the programme. After all, if I’m going to point out to others that everything else wasn’t a dish of peaches in the good ol’ days, I should apply the same critique to my own views on football: piss-flooded toilets, barbed wire, racism, violence, Bradford, Heysel, Hillsborough. Never again.

It seems that football has formed itself into a small but significant enclave of conservatism in my largely liberal, outward-looking world. The modern game has left me behind, bitter and betrayed and boring. I’ve become a dyed in the wool Plexiteer. I need to lighten up. I need to live in the moment rather more.

2. And, indeed, this was a moment which promised to be worth living in. The season’s main objectives already achieved; famous opponents with well-established weaknesses rather dovetailing with our well-established strengths; an away hammering to avenge; an away capitulation to make up for. The floodlights are on, although modern floodlights can hardly be…oh, for pity’s sake, I can’t help myself. Ross Jenkins is here, with a grandson in tow and full of high spirits and brilliant memories. The scene is set.

3. And cue Watford.

4. And cue…Watford.

5. And…

6. Perhaps we should begin by saying that there ought to be no shame in being out-played and out-thought by a team with superior players and by a club with vastly superior resources. The truth is that we tend to forget that most encounters with top four-ish sides turn out like this, preferring instead to remember the occasions when logic is overthrown and everyone dances barefoot on its grave. We remember those occasions because they’re relatively rare: for a mid-table side like what we appear to be, once a season is about par, and we’ve already had that Manchester United game back in September. We’re owed nothing.

The form book is not re-written, then. Instead, we spend really rather endless periods of this match playing second fiddle to a confident, cohesive Liverpool; there are other bits where we’re doing nothing more than sheepishly shaking a tambourine somewhere at the back. There’s not a single spell of the game when you could argue that we’re the better side, even if the scoreline remains tight and there’s nearly an unexpected twist in the tale. It’s the game it ought to be, the gulf in class and stature laid out before us. Like I say, there’s no shame in that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t criticise it either, of course.

7. The good news is that we do plenty to ensure that this isn’t another 6-1 annihilation. We set out – rather optimistically, if I’m honest – to play out from the back of our three-man defence; we get chased about relentlessly, hunted down with a regularity that becomes tiresome within fifteen minutes and leads to us largely abandoning the whole idea within twenty. Barely able to get the ball over the halfway line without losing it, we’re under almost ceaseless pressure once the game settles into a pattern; for twenty minutes either side of half-time, we’re doing nothing more than stopping the ship from sinking, all hands to the pumps.

That we very nearly survive is admirable, especially bearing in mind the early departure of Miguel Britos. Liverpool lose a hobbling Coutinho too, but replacement Lallana, even short of fitness, is hardly any easier to police; he hits the bar with a dipping volley from a half-cleared corner, Can forces the first of countless strong saves from Gomes with a swerving drive from distance. But that’s all, that’s the sum total. Lucas is booked for a ludicrous, shameless dive on the corner of the box, and you realise that this is all starting to look a little bit desperate. We’re doing absolutely nothing ourselves – Troy Deeney might as well be in the pub – but no matter, we’ll take a goalless half, we’ll see what we can build on that.

Then Lucas drifts a cross into the box, and Can drifts into a couple of yards of space, and somehow twists his body upside down and inside out, and his overhead is directed very precisely and rather gently into the top corner. Overhead kicks of old used to be products of athleticism, a spring let go, a somersault with a flailing leg. These days, players seem capable of defying gravity altogether, and this is purely balletic rather than acrobatic, the Guardian’s photo perfectly capturing the poise and the grace. Good toes, naughty toes. A goal worthy of winning a far better game than this one, in all honesty. Yes, the marking could’ve been better. Yes, yes. A thing of exquisite beauty nevertheless.

8. Whatever’s said in the dressing room at half-time, whatever tactical tweaks are made, there is absolutely no change in direction: if anything, Liverpool strengthen their grip on the game and our forays into their half become even less frequent. We continue to defend purposefully, but need to call upon Gomes with increasing regularity. His final save of the evening, a reflex fingertip stop low to his right to prevent Sturridge from squeezing in the decisive second, is most astonishing of all.

When we do find ourselves with the ball, when we sometimes even find ourselves with the ball and a yard of space, the mistakes – unnecessary offsides, poor touches, over-ambitious passes – are amplified and echoed back by the crowd, desperate for something to get behind and frustrated by its absence. Referee Craig Pawson offers a masterclass in getting nothing important wrong while being really sodding irritating.

9. This ought not to have been a close game. But it is, still. Eventually, triumphantly, we force ourselves up the pitch enough to claim a part in it all. We bring a couple of saves from Mignolet, tipping over a rising drive from Capoue and just reacting quickly enough to avoid being caught out by a cheeky dart at his near post by Janmaat. We bring on first Success and then Okaka, big bloke changes which are immediately matched and negated as if foreseen by the highly animated, occasionally furious Klopp, who often appears as if he’s doing an impression of himself doing an impression of himself. We fall some way short of really giving it a go, but do at least raise the possibility, pencil it in the diary. It’s a bit of a contest, at last.

10. And then, finally, as time is nearly up, we expose their failings at set pieces, and Seb Prodl swivels to bang a fierce half-volley against the face of the crossbar. All of that hard defensive graft and commendable goalkeeping is nearly rewarded with a ludicrous point and a joyous bundle of celebration. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t deserve to. Nobody would’ve cared, clearly. Rightly.

11. And so I feel as if I’ve probably been more charitable in defeat than I was in victory last time, sniffing haughtily at our failure to beat Swansea more convincingly. If you’re of a critical bent, you could have a bloody field day here: we were utterly disjointed in midfield and scratchily ineffective in attack, leaving only the defence (and I include the terrific Doucoure in that) and the goalkeeper emerging with much credit. And I realise that my desire for more ambition to be shown, to avoid simply playing the percentages in the hope of finishing thirteenth every season, means that these are very fixtures on which we ought to be making more of a mark.

But still, but still. We’re well beaten here. We barely manage to lay a glove on Liverpool; we’re not at their level, not in their class. Somehow, I don’t mind that so much. We ought not to be satisfied with it, but it feels honest, at least.

Hull City 2 Watford 0 (22/04/2017) 23/04/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- Ten days ago we went on a road trip.  Only 100 miles or so, so not a vast distance, but the drive from Addis Ababa to Ziway is not to be undertaken lightly.  There’s tarmac in Ethiopia now… this is a proper road but it’s still not quite the same as a motorway drive in the UK.  Swerving columns of vehicles anticipate the worst of the potholes.  Occasionally we pass long-abandoned carcasses of trucks at the side of the road, trucks that have fallen victim to either potholes, poor visibility, tired drivers or khat, perhaps a combination of the four.  Roadworks are complicated by single lanes, no lane discipline anyway and nothing to divert onto (there is only one road…)…  so diversions head into the bumpy savannah and kick up dust clouds which occasionally conceal hidden surprises.

The drive to Hull is altogether less exciting, which is probably a good thing.  It also ends at a working mens’ club in which beer is almost as cheap as it is in Ethiopia.  Given that I’m not the driver, this is also a good thing.

2- There’s a possible outcome which is to be dreaded here, borne of the knowledge that not only do the home side have a rather more pressing set of circumstances than we do but also that they’ve been doing rather well at home.  At the front of our minds also is the sort of deckchairs-and-flipflops performance that was horribly prevalent at the end of last season (Norwich the best example).  We’re braced for such an embarrassment.

But actually, we start OK.  Miguel Britos, slightly disappointingly, is straight back in for local hero Mariappa but otherwise it’s the same side and though the Tigers are reputed to have been starting strongly the Hornets are the side who take early charge.  This is not limp and passive, it’s assertive and determined and if Hull’s plan is to steam forward from the off they’re never allowed to.  In the stands we allow ourselves to drop our mental guard.

3- The more so as Hull go down to ten men.  You’ll have seen the challenge by now… over the ball and studs up so careless and silly, foul aside it was an utterly pointless attempt at a tackle that invited the possibility of censure and no possibility of winning the ball.  Nonetheless incredibly harsh, obviously, not a stamp and with little force behind the challenge.  From our point of view… we nod to fortune and carry on, surely.  What else can you do?  We’ve been on the receiving end of bad decisions, indeed from the same referee this season.  That dose of bad luck is out of your control and you have to deal with the consequences, so when the boot’s on the other foot you have to take advantage.  Nothing to feel guilty about (not even in the case of Niang who, for all the home fans’ hysterical and increasingly ludicrous bleating was largely blameless – he was clearly caught, and even a scrape across the shin at that speed would have been painful).

And we did capitalise, up to a point.  The rest of the half was largely a coconut shy; the Hornets dominated possession and territory as, significantly, Marco Silva opted not to replace his loan/lone striker initially.  Janmaat crashed a violent drive goalwards but into a crowd of bodies.  Prödl sent one header over, then a second under the bar only to be clawed out by Jakupovic.  Britos met another cross at the far post but failed to get it on target.  Capoue danced in the midfield and swung the ball around.  There was a patience and a rhythm to us… we weren’t laying siege to the City goal or forcing many chances from a still disciplined defence but we were thoroughly in control and if the Tigers had looked blunt before Niasse’s departure they were utterly without threat thereafter.  Only as the players left the pitch at half time did it occur to us that Silva’s apparent conservatism had got the home side to the break level.

4- The interval saw Hull make that switch, reintroducing a spearhead in the shape of Abel Hernandez but initially at least little changed.  We were perhaps not quite so overwhelmingly in control but we still had the lion’s share of possession and created another good chance when Capoue bullied himself a shooting opportunity but, falling away from the ball under challenge, stabbed too close to the keeper.

It’s not really as if City were threatening either, not even on the counter.  Until, obviously, they did… and removed from the huge frustration of going behind in such circumstances away from home and all that entails, it’s hard not to reflect on the goal as a masterfully executed ambush.  It was as if City, rather than throwing bodies forward in inefficient pursuit of a breakaway that would have been costly with ten men, waited for us to overcommit. The very first time that we did they howled out of the back in great numbers and swamped us, unaccustomed as we had become to facing such a threat… Markovic got on the end of Grosicki’s cross and got the break his side’s bloody-mindedness deserved when he received the rebound off the crossbar to prod home.  From the away “end” it looked like keystones cops stuff, heads were in hands.

5- For all the subsequent wailing we’d not done an awful lot wrong up to this point.  Our performance had been adequate, no worse (if, admittedly, no more).  What was utterly lamentable, however, was our lack of reaction to going a goal down.  No urgency, no fight, no waving of fists either literally or metaphorically which set what might have been interpreted as our earlier patience in a new light.  Our reaction was passive, limp and lazy… reverting to the cautious, measured, possession-based build up that hadn’t quite delivered a goal against a nervous opponent at 0-0 and was never going to wash at 1-0 down against a City side with the bit between its teeth.  Harry Maguire, City’s wonderfully “Have It!” bootery centre-back, was on the end of everything, whilst Sam Clucas was unrecognisable from his horror show at left back at Vicarage Road, a monstrous presence in midfield.  His was the second goal, an arcing dipping half-volley from outside the area… Gomes blameless, but the midfielder had too much time to line up his exquisite shot.

Success, Okaka and (in the dying minutes) Zuñiga were thrown on in an attempt to change things; of the trio only Okaka had a positive impact, giving us some glue and some welly around the penalty area that Deeney’s unusually low key presence to that point hadn’t achieved.  It wasn’t enough.  The final whistle brought a howl of boos from the away end.

6- It’s perverse that there’s so much disquiet in the face of what will be, in terms of final position, one of our most successful seasons.  It’s something that’s quite hard to rationalise… the two most popular extremes, that we are an ungrateful lot with unreasonable expectations on the one hand versus Walter is a clown who doesn’t know what he’s doing on the other are both trite, lazy, inadequate explanations.

Perhaps a fundamental point is that Watford supporters, whatever the team’s strengths or failings over recentish years, have been accustomed to seeing a bit of effort.  Or rather, we’re used to seeing teams built on relatively limited resources thriving or at least overachieving on the basis of spirit, drive, organisation, determination.  It would be overstepping the mark to describe the current team as disorganised… but certainly the lack of effort, the being the team that doesn’t always fancy it, is alien and difficult to reconcile.  Much less so when you’ve spent a day travelling to Hull (camels or no camels).  Not difficult to see why we’ve not shifted many tickets for what should be an attractive away fixture at Leicester, the last away Saturday of the season.  Hard to see queues forming for potential gubbings at Everton and Chelsea. As we’ve said before, and much as part of the problem is safety having been achieved, it isn’t half a good job that we won those more winnable games.

As for Mazzarri, he’s clearly not an idiot.  He’s guided the team to mid-table (albeit 10th feels like a high water mark) in the face of malevolent injuries with some impressive wins along the way.  However as much as he’s failed to build any kind of relationship with the support, you have to question the extent to which the team are on side either.  This was not a side inspired by their leader’s comments, fighting for a common cause.  You can point the finger at the players too, of course… but significant that our man-by-man squad appraisal on the way up the M1 didn’t identify anyone who we’d willingly throw out on his ear.

7- The journey back was similarly relaxed, if slightly grumpier, enlivened by that Saturday evening classic of a service station stop at Leicester Forest East where myriad football shirts congregated on their way homewards to and from all directions.  Sheffield United, York City, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Wimbledon, Watford and others ruminated on the days’ events whilst sucking through straws and chewing on cardboard fries.  You don’t get this in Ethiopia, much less on the motorways, even if the food is better… Arsenal shirts proliferate.  Why a mid-table club should garner such fervent following is beyond me, but I did spy a Palace shirt too.  Takes all types, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Troy’s response to this capitulation was appropriate – and gracious, given the unjustifiable booing of the he and Gomes’ the team’s leaders, as they approached the away support. It’s not unreasonable to expect more against Liverpool, a high profile game in front of the cameras.  Whether this would dispel concerns of a more general problem is open to question.

Yoorns.

Watford 1 Swansea City 0 (15/04/2017) 16/04/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
27 comments

1. I’ll just come right out with it. I’ve been seeing someone else.

2. On Wednesday night, I’m at South Park versus Hastings United. Ryman League Division One South, the eighth tier. It’s my first Hastings away game, one of several landmarks along this road, some passed and others still to come: I’ve yet to don the colours, I’ve yet to refer to “them” as “us” without a twinge of conscience, but it’s only a matter of time. I haven’t bothered to count, but I know I’ve seen more Hastings games this season than Watford games, and I only started going in December. This is me, now.

3. Lost somewhere in a suburb of Reigate, South Park’s ground places the emphasis firmly on “park”: a crowd that only just reaches triple figures and is almost certainly comprised of more away fans than home stretches around the barrier, barely a couple of yards from the touchline. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a properly competitive football match; the pace is relentless, the swearing likewise. Amid all of the urgent clamour, you can even hear what the referee’s saying if you concentrate hard enough. Familiar faces. Chips in polystyrene, served by a nice lady maintaining cheerfulness in the face of absent help and a large queue. A barrier to lean on. A gorgeous sunset.

4. I’d always rather imagined that when I walked away from Vicarage Road, it’d be in a great flouncy sulk about something. Perhaps ever-increasing ticket prices. Perhaps being shunted to one side in favour of more lucrative commercial opportunities. Perhaps some act of vandalism by ego-hungry owners: a change of colours, a change of name. The London Hornets. Perhaps the vapid soullessness of it all, the paucity of openings for young players, those bastard electronic hoardings, the inconsiderate kickoff times, the imminent insertion of video technology into the spontaneously combustible joy of scoring a goal, Robbie Savage. Any number of other things.

And it’s true that many of those do nag away on my now-occasional visits. Transparently, this is not the game that I fell in love with at seven-years-old. That’s hardly a relevation: the world isn’t the same in most other respects either. And it’s also true that something died – well, let’s not be dramatic, it sighed and slouched and grumbled a bit – in me as I watched our football club apparently be content with a day out at Wembley last April when we could’ve had so much more; I’m not in it for the glory, clearly, but I deeply resent an age where glory doesn’t have sufficient value on the balance sheet in comparison to finishing fifteenth or whatever. What a waste of a beautiful game.

But it won’t do to condemn it all, any more than it’ll do to blindly romanticise everything about the lower levels of non-league. There is good and bad at every club, at every level; the balance is different for every supporter. That isn’t it. Instead, I’ve simply realised that the role I need football to play in my life is one of a steady, defining rhythm. What I love about it is its monotony, the sense of continuity and familiarity; the knowledge that we’ll all be back here in a fortnight or less, complaining about the same things, hoping for the same things. That’s at odds with the hysteria of the Premier League, at odds with the marketing of every fixture as an event.

But more than anything, it’s at odds with a busy family life a hundred miles away. Those now-occasional visits don’t really satisfy because they have none of that rhythm, none of that continuity. They’re a slice of cake in place of a three-course meal, a Christmas special in place of a box-set. I’ve found happiness elsewhere and I’ve found it sipping a cup of tea on a shallow terrace, knowing that I’m ten minutes from home, from family life, from where I belong. Knowing that I’ll be back for the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. Seasons coming and going; players and managers coming and going. Being part of something. That’s all.

5. I know, I know, you’re here for a Watford report. Sorry. Forgive me.

6. So, yeah, I’m back. Has it always been this loud?

7. I haven’t been here since that Middlesbrough game and I must admit that I’ve come prepared with a hatchet for, you know, a job. So it rather takes me by surprise when we begin by setting a rather brisk passing tempo, Amrabat and Niang spreading wide, Capoue and Cleverley pushing through the middle; I see more constructive football in the first five minutes than I did in ninety last time around.

But we lose our way quite quickly, like when you enter the supermarket with a shopping list in your head only to find yourself staring blankly at shelves of soup. Swansea are set up to pick us off in midfield and duly do so; Capoue will intervene decisively before the half’s done, but barely touches the ball otherwise and frequently cuts a particularly exasperated figure. We have creativity, which is a step up from last time, but a series of wildly inaccurate cross-field passes betrays the difficulty of bringing it into play; both of the wide players are guilty of squandering what they do receive.

8. Swansea, meanwhile, need to be scored against before they’ll look like proper relegation fodder. Llorente towers above all and needs careful marshalling by the excellent Prodl; Narsingh is quick and impish and draws out a terrifically aggressive ninety minutes from Holebas, disrespectfully and deliciously dismissive of his opponent, stopping just short of clipping him round the ear for his insolence. The real threat, obviously, comes from Sigurdsson, who draws a sharp save from Gomes with an instinctive flash at the top corner; Gomes unredeems himself with a skewed punch shortly afterwards and Fernandes wastes the opportunity. Ki Sung-Yueng shoots at the keeper when released by a swift break. They really aren’t bad. Yet.

You wouldn’t have said that the visitors were on top, exactly, merely that the game was turning out to look more like their gameplan than ours. Maybe that’s the same thing. Never one to stand around and discuss these things, Deeney nearly opens the scoring by meeting a Janmaat cross and requiring a flying save from Fabianski; we’ve created very little otherwise, in truth, and the intensity of the contest has dropped considerably as it’s gone on. It’s become a flabby, vague game; my attention is drawn to the uncanny colour of Ki Sung-Yueng’s hair. The winning goal is a defensive mess, Mawson’s hesitation capitalised upon at the second time of asking by Capoue. A relegation season kinda goal. We know what those look like.

9. We begin the second half well enough, Fabianski clawing out a ferocious, rather Guedioura-ish drive from Janmaat before it breaks the net. We don’t continue it well enough, however, and we don’t have much else besides a disallowed Okaka goal to show for it by the end. Indeed, much of it is spent in gradual, and yet very definite, retreat: as it becomes more and more evident that this will be the lead we have to defend, we withdraw first a visibly irritated Amrabat, then Niang and then Cleverley, which is the equivalent of giving up on your supermarket shopping list and just grabbing milk of various colours because, well, that’s always on the list.

On the one occasion that we let Llorente drift away from Prodl and win an unchallenged header, Sigurdsson whistles a shot wide from twenty yards; he scores two of those every week on Match of the Day. With about twenty minutes to go, you wonder quite how long it’ll be before one of a seemingly endless succession of crosses finds the giant Spaniard’s head rather than going out for a throw-in. The answer is long enough for him to no longer be on the field, presumably withdrawn with a crick in his neck; when Swansea finally deliver a ball worth attacking, it’s Sigurdsson who stretches and heads wide in injury time. He wastes another opening of his own creation immediately afterwards, scuffing a shot at Gomes, and the game is gone. Swansea ought to be kicking themselves. But they’d…yes, ha ha.

10. Immediate thought: a better side would’ve beaten us here. Less immediate thought: it doesn’t matter. You can afford to lose to a better side if you’re consistently beating the ones below you; you can play those percentages. It’s a depressing thought, perhaps, but we need do no more than this. Perhaps this is it, forever. Or at least until something goes wrong and we get relegated and we wonder whether we might’ve used our time rather better.

We’ve attempted much more with much, much less in the past. True, there wasn’t so much to lose. True, injuries. True, West Brom sounded like a lot of fun. True, it seems unbelievably Arsenalish to be turning your nose up at tenth. Even so, I can’t help but feel that there’s a very real danger of television’s billions becoming the only prize at stake, the only ambition to hold. A place at the trough for the feeding frenzy. It isn’t much of a dream. This was an increasingly conservative, cautious and yet oddly casual performance, and while I admit that I haven’t been here very often, I’ve seen nothing else from us this term, nothing to indicate that we have hidden depths.

It isn’t wrong to hope for more. It isn’t ungrateful, it isn’t forgetful. It might – might – be unrealistic. But personally, I’d rather fail trying. I imagine that the next few weeks will tell us whether the owners feel the same.

11. Back in Reigate, Hastings run out comfortable 5-1 winners. The claim for the division’s last playoff place is looking increasingly convincing. The evening is crowned by Simon Johnson’s spectacular thirty-yard strike into the top corner. No instant replays, quite possibly no replays at all; football at this level sharpens your mind’s eye. The crowd drifts into the darkness of the car park and evaporates into headlights and radio static. Everyone’s gone within five minutes. This is no more ‘real’ than anything else, perhaps.

There may yet be glory before the season’s out, though. Don’t tell me that doesn’t raise a tingle at the back of your neck. Don’t let that become a distant memory.

Watford 2 West Bromwich Albion 0 (04/04/2017) 05/04/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- When I’m not working, sleeping, chasing children or watching football I enjoy am-dram.  A week or two ago, in a restaurant before a show, I tried to argue to some football-sceptic acting friends that football could be thoroughly dramatic, exciting, inspiring, as much so as anything that takes place on a stage.  It was a tumbleweed moment;  I don’t think I convinced any that weren’t already sold.

Such a shame that they didn’t see Vicarage Road last night during that rarest of treats, a midweek home game under floodlights.  I’ve always felt that the stadium transforms when the sun goes down, even when the stands are empty the darkness drapes over the stadium like a blanket.  It’s claustrophobic and intense in a way that daytime matches rarely are and tonight, fuelled by Fry Days and a pint of Hornets Ale at the V-Bar, it’s absolutely magnificent.

2- A spirit that’s helped by two sides freed from the immediate shackles of relegation or prize-chasing concerns.  This can be an appalling recipe of course, sometimes such games are anaemic and listless…  “on the beach” is a favourite analogy of daughter 2, the first phrase perfected from her football lingo phrasebook two years ago it can so often apply in such circumstances.  Not here.  Not when we’ve got a fire lit under us by that win on Saturday – however it came – not when we’re playing a side as combative and bolshy and confident as Albion.  It’s immediately one of those games in which nobody gives an inch, that’s a saucepan often at the very brink of boiling over but never quite descending into all-out warfare.  I’m with Pete, Nav and Lawrence;  Pete’s debut was at Millwall and he was completely sold by that monstrosity;  there’s to be no going back for him after this.

3- So that win against Sunderland had taken the pressure off this a little bit, which was always a good thing.  The more so since, perhaps unsurprisingly, Albion didn’t treat us any differently to the Arsenal and United sides they’ve taken points off recently.  Everyone behind the ball, banks of bodies for all but the deftest of attacks to crash off, so well organised that inevitably, before long, a home side is going to get impatient and take a risk or lose its concentration.  We’re nearly undone very early, a ball neglectfully through to Chadli who has a difficult angle and an awkward bounce but still should have scored.  He didn’t, and that was the theme of the evening… this isn’t going to be a linear narrative, it was too much of a blistering tornado of an evening for that, suffice to say that we deserved every inch of this but it wouldn’t have taken much.  Wouldn’t have taken much for this to be a very different outcome altogether.

Instead, we set about them.  Sharp and neat and positive… we approached those banks of bodies with swift, snappy, one-touch passing.  Ping ping ping ping.  If it didn’t always go forwards very far it wasn’t a problem…  this wasn’t easy for Albion, they had to be on their game to keep us at bay but there was an inherent confidence in our approach.  No, we can’t play through you this time but we’ll keep going and keep moving and keep you moving and we’ll get there.  Once again Abdoulaye Doucouré was the playmaker, picking up the ball deep and orchestrating events, pulling the strings, switching first with Cleverley, then Capoue, then Britos, but always the man with his head up looking for an opening.  His transformation from misfit to surely one of the first names on the teamsheet has been remarkable.

4- Nonetheless, Albion kept us at arm’s length.  We had more of the ball, but we weren’t getting very far with it.  Albion’s resilience made a clear statement:  If you want to score, you’re going to have to do something a bit special.  So that’s what we did.  And it was special in any number of ways… Craig Cathcart having the confidence to mix it up by playing a fine long ball forwards, Troy Deeney launched into a terrifying, impossible header that was both brutal and delicate.  Niang picking up the cushioned headed pass on the left, cutting inside Dawson and hitting a wailing, arcing drive inside Ben Foster’s left hand post.

Pandemonium.  And now West Brom’s game plan, so heavily reliant on not needing to force the issue, began to come apart at the seams.  It’s easy and lazy to look at the visitors’ performance and the manager’s identity and fall back on stereotypes but really, it’s so very hard not to when the team turns up parodying their manager’s reputation.  Big and solid and brutal, and towards the end of the half they put the boot in.  Craig Dawson somehow escaped censure for a nasty foul on Niang, a point not lost on Miguel Britos when he was expensively yellow carded minutes later for hauling down Robson-Kanu.  The resultant free kick, central and thirty yards out, was executed in front of a wall comprised of every player on both sides plus Harry the Hornet, half the ball boys and Tony Pulis’ gran.  Nonetheless Nacer Chadli arced his shot over and around and off the outside of the post – not as nearly in as it looked, but not very far away either.  The game ended with James McClean earning a generous yellow for a characteristically charmless kick out at Holebas, who reacted with the level of restraint we’ve come to expect from the left back.  We all needed a good sit down.

5- Because the second half was mental.  A tone was set by Troy’s second goal, so very immediately that I was still in the middle of furtively giving myself some half-time insulin which curtailed my celebration to one flailing fist instead of two.  Niang sent in the same impossible dipping deep cross that he executed against Burnley – special, but so rare that you feel he must be saving up pocket money for them.  It bisected Evans and Foster in indecision and Troy, bullying his way into pole position, prodded it past the keeper and over the line.

And that should have been that, since impressive as Albion had been in amongst the bare-faced brutality there appeared no prospect of them fashioning enough of an attacking threat to recover a two goal deficit.  Matt Phillips, returning from injury, was immediately a threat but it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, and we were very much in charge.

Until we weren’t.  There were a lot of cards flying around, and this wasn’t a fussy refereeing performance by Paul Tierney by any means.  There was always the risk that a careless challenge could earn a second yellow and Albion, as befits all successfully thuggish sides, knew how to share responsibilities around.  Rondón escaped from Britos… I haven’t seen it again, I dunno.  Consensus seems to be a bit soft, a bit unlucky, Rondón as involved and a bit of a dick for falling over but just a bit silly from Britos, inviting the possibility of a second yellow.  In the circumstances, given the atmosphere, given how it turned out, given that he’s still in my good books for that photo with the girls at the pre-season event, we’ll let him off…

6- With the now traditional Cathcart-switch-to-centre trick already executed in response to what looked like a rib injury to Seb Prödl in the first half, on came Aidy Mariappa some five years after his last League game for us.  I don’t know why we were anxious…  he’s not played a lot, of course, but he left us in 2012 because he was simply too good for the Championship, a Premier League defender in all but name.  That he’s sixth cab off the rank is deceptive, and he made a mockery of his status and our apprehension with a bloody-minded cameo that saw off whatever Albion could lob at us.  Tremendous.  I won’t have been the only one do-do-dooing (we’ve got Mari-appa) their way away from the ground at the end of a very fine evening.

7- Because some games are just splendid things in their own right.  Forget context, forget points, forget where we are in the League, this was a self-contained maelstrom that was a drama, a theatrical piece in its own right.  But the context is, of course, that we’re all but safe, and suddenly that difficult run in has the look of a load of free punches, of noses waiting to bloodied.  Suddenly it bears looking forward to instead of dreading.

I’ll be watching Spurs from a long way away; Ian will be reporting on Swansea.  I’ll see you in Hull.  Until then… yooooooorns!

Watford 1 Sunderland 0 (01/04/2017) 02/04/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
4 comments

1- The thing about losing a rubbish game before an international break is that you have two weeks of fidgeting before getting back to it.  A period in which you can afford, or pretend, to forget about bloody football for a bit for, what, half an hour or so?  Before focusing intently on the forthcoming game.  For two weeks.  Minus the five minutes or so for which internationals distracted you.

The more so this time. The ominous-looking running stretched out before of us, front-heavy with more obviously winnable games meaning that we can either get it sorted quickly with points in the bag or be left teetering needing to get points from games that didn’t look like yielding many.  Our recent form meant that this one, home to the Worst Team In The League, could perhaps have fallen more helpfully.  Added to which Troy is poorly, the traditional pre-match restaurant has buggered around with its menu (“refreshing” its offering by, you know, giving you less food for the same money) and there is a tangible edginess on Vicarage Road.

2- Nervous on the pitch too, no sign of the flying start that has become traditional.  Sunderland pressed very high, very early… befitting of a side with a predatory Jermain Defoe as a threat and not much else.  Five minutes in Januzaj slung a ball in from the left, it was nervously watched by defenders and attackers alike and Gomes fell to his right to push it around the post.

Worst fears were in danger of being realised, but this wasn’t to be the constipated performance of recent weeks.  In part this reflected the paucity of the opposition, but either way within five minutes M’Baye Niang was running at the Sunderland defence and we were making chances.  Holebas, Doucouré (twice) and Niang all tested Pickford, Okaka got on the end of a cross and sent a header over.  It was still awkward and lumpy, a little bit deliberate, but it was positive.  At the other end the mythical threat offered by Defoe focused attention;  Miguel Britos and Younès Kaboul both flew in to deny the striker a glimpse of goal.  It was still anxious, it wasn’t terribly convincing.  But we were on top.

3- Sunderland are a particularly odd side.  Poor, obviously, but in a wonky sort of way.  Defoe, as above, is a menace albeit kept at arm’s length.  Pickford is pretty extraordinary… alert to the shots that rattled in on his goal, commanding and authoritative and dropping missiles with laser accuracy deep in the Watford half, some thrown, some kicked.

And the rest of it was bobbins.  Adnan Januzaj tripped around aimlessly.  Billy Jones looked for someone to have a fight with.  Bryan Oviedo spent much of the game watching an unchecked overlap disappearing over his shoulder.  It seems inconceivable that Sunderland will be in the top flight next season.  It’s similarly unlikely that either Defoe or Pickford will make the drop with them, which really doesn’t leave them with very much.   Lots of sides in the Championship have a couple of solid centre backs and a scrapping midfield. There are plenty of clubs knocking around worthier of disdain than Sunderland, but this lot will disappear without trace.

4- The Hornets, meanwhile, took advantage of the situation.  Easy to say with hindsight, easy given the result… but perhaps this game didn’t fall too badly for us after all.  We weren’t great.  This performance wouldn’t have beaten many opponents in this division.  But we did win, and we gain confidence and belief… and we were visibly doing so  as the game progressed.  Cathcart, first at right back and then in the centre after the afternoon’s obligatory injury forced Younès Kaboul off, was absolutely terrific, Miguel Britos similarly assured alongside him.  M’baye Niang floated in and out of the game… but when he’s running at defenders he’s a menace, this was a dramatic improvement on recent weeks.  Most impressive of all was Abdoulaye Doucouré, the team’s metronome at the back of the midfield.  we’re now seeing the imposing midfielder that we thought we’d signed, our man of the match for the second week running.

The scoreline, the scruffy nature of the goal might make this look like a less comprehensive, less accomplished win than it was.  Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a blessed relief when it came, Britos finally doing what he’s threatened to do at regular intervals over the last couple of seasons and getting on the end of something in the box… the release of tension was evident all over the ground. It was brief, however…  Isaac Success, afforded a relatively long cameo, was sent skidding through by the utterly functional Okaka but was foiled by the onrushing Pickford.  Later he tiptoed through legs in the penalty area before thumping a low shot goalwards that Pickford again repelled.  Okaka attacked Niang’s cross from the left but was denied by O’Shea whose anticipation was a fraction better.  Lee Probert, who has had worse days officiating Hornets games, nonetheless missed a penalty shout as Okaka had his shirt dragged round his midriff in full view of an unimpressed Rookery.  A one-goal lead never feels secure, whatever the circumstances.

5- As the final whistle neared Sunderland inevitably chased the result.  Borini fired in a shot that forced Gomes into an adroit stop;  that he was alert to it after such a long time doing nothing is itself worthy of praise.  Wahib Khazri, who had given the visitors a bit of much needed welly off the bench, lined up a free kick.  It was a microcosm of the game itself, a game the result of which might effectively represent a fork in the road between a relatively comfortable end of the season and a relegation scrap.  So too here, almost the last kick of the game… perhaps the most important free kick we’d face this season.  If it had flown top corner we were royally screwed.  Instead, the most welcome of Neil Cox tributes, it went straight into the wall.  Game over.  Ridiculously, if briefly, we were in the top half.

Which doesn’t mean that everything’s OK, but our recent travails were thrown into stark relief today.  This is what a truly awful side, rather that a side struggling for shape and form, looks like.  Even at our low ebb we were plenty good enough for this challenge.  There are still things that need sorting, we still have a load of useful looking bits that aren’t quite coming together in a humming machine.  But we look a lot better than a relegation side nonetheless.  One more win ought to confirm this… would be nice if it was earned on an (all too rare and much missed) night under the lights at the Vic on Tuesday.

Yoorns.

Crystal Palace 1 Watford 0 (18/03/2017) 19/03/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- Much as there have been few more frequent opponents in recent years that Palace, much as it feels as if we play here every other week I’ve not made it down to Selhurst Park for almost nine years.

So much has changed in that time.  So much has changed, period, but particularly on the pitch;  this feels like a throwback to a bygone age.  Days when we used to travel to watch terrible games in grimy stadiums and travel home wondering why we’d bothered (this is called “setting up a punchline”, btw).

On the plus side, the bottle-top nazis of ten years ago no longer seem to patrol the turnstiles… at any rate, I manage to get the contraband Evian bottle in unchallenged, rendering the precautionary spare lid in my pocket redundant.  Having a deceptively cherubic-looking seven year old in tow, hair in plaits, warpaint on cheeks, helps of course, but I must confess that I prefer the charm offensive that is increasingly the norm on the way into away grounds.  Maybe I’m getting old.

The Arthur Wait Stand is still where we left it, even if we’ve been shunted along it a bit, away from the Holmesdale End.  The wooden benches have been replaced by blue plastic on tiers barely wide enough to accommodate it. The pervasive smell of damp wood is gone and whilst the sky is, as ever in Croydon, grey at least it’s not raining.

2- It’s an extraordinarily bad game.  Creatively awful.  Sorry if you were hoping for more dramatic build up, more suspense than that. Too bad.  I sat through it, if you were hoping for drama then you clearly didn’t bloody do so and you’ll get what you’re given and like it.

To be fair, the appalling level of entertainment on offer is partly by design, no mere accident of incompetence although there’s enough of that.  Both sides are set up to be solid first;  this is particularly true of the Hornets who line up with centre-backs across the back four in an overt attempt to negate Palace’s threat from the wings (given that, in particular, we built a squad to play with wing-backs and are thus short of full-backs who can defend reliably).  It works, too, in that the Eagles are largely kept at arm’s length;  the game fluctuates between two moods… calm possession, often Watford possession, in the central half of the pitch and scruffy bedlam in either penalty area.  Like a teenager on the pull, all the moves in the early stages but a fumbling mess at the business end of things. All mouth and no trousers.  Insert your own joke about “inability to score” here.

3- The low roof of the Arthur Wait Stand and the claustrophobic lack of space afforded by its geography lend themselves to an intense atmosphere, which is the most enjoyable aspect of the game by some distance. Wilfried Zaha wriggles into the penalty area early on and goes down easily; Martin Atkinson is unimpressed but the away “end” is delighted by developments and proceeds accordingly if predictably.  The repertoire moves on to cover bad bus-vandalising decisions and the how much of a let-down the notorious Selhurst Park atmosphere was turning out to be; I hope for a reference to the 2006 Eagle Express, but I guess that’s old news now.

The game is tetchy throughout. Maybe the Zaha thing contributes to this, maybe every game at Selhurst is this way in ongoing tribute to Sasa Curcic.  Either way, the first half ends in drab-but-more-or-less-satisfactory stalemate, but with Jason Puncheon in heated discussion with Valon Behrami on the way off.  The Swiss wouldn’t return for the second half, replaced by a dynamic Abdoulaye Doucouré.  As an aside, and discounting our appalling record with injuries, it seems reasonable to question our recruitment strategy and/or our fitness regime given the number of players we have who can’t be relied upon to last ninety minutes…  Behrami and Janmaat being simply too fragile, Success and Zuñiga, seemingly, being unable to last the distance.

If that sounds grumpy, it merely reflects the mood of the game.  Tom Cleverley lost his cool, refusing Puncheon’s perhaps anxious attempts to make peace whilst demonstrating a stamping action after a challenge.  Zaha cuffed Prödl over the head in a tussle to no censure.  Milivojevic went in hard and late on Niang without being penalised, Palace broke swiftly down the left and Prödl exacted revenge on Zaha by clobbering him into the stand.  From the free kick “Palace scored”, aggravating on any number of levels.  First, that we had a strong case for a free kick of our own seconds earlier (but these things happen, decisions go against you sometimes, live with it…).  Second that whilst Zaha’s quick feet didn’t yield Palace’s opening his being an obnoxious maggot and provoking a retributional foul, ultimately, did.

4- But mostly because this was a classic game of next goal wins.  From the very start of the game.  We’d looked relatively untroubled by Palace’s limited attacking threat, until Troy’s lapse of concentration made that academic.  Finding ourselves a goal down we were completely unable to change our approach and mount a serious threat; indeed Palace finished the game much the stronger, partly buoyed by their lead and the crowd (who had found their voice) but partly through being able to swarm into the gaps that we were having to leave.  I have no doubt that they’d have been equally incapable of overturning a Watford goal, had that emerged.

The four centre-backs thing deprived us of any real threat from wide, since neither Cathcart nor Britos were going to bomb on to provide support making our wide men easier to cope with.  As so often recently we fell lazily back on lumping long balls to Troy, who battled on but was left with scraps by Mamadou Sakho who had much the better of that contest.  Nordin Amrabat had been re-introduced to noisy acclaim shortly before the goal but looked rusty and offered little, though we will benefit from progressing him towards fitness.  Our biggest threat, indeed, came from Doucouré who did the Worrell Sterling thing in saving his best half for the Hornets for one of the team’s worst; our only meaningful attempt on target was awkward slung shot across the face of goal from distance which forced Hennessey into a scrambled save.  As the game drew to a close and the Watford crowd bitterly cheered an inconsequential free kick award on the half-way line I was once again taken back nine years as the voice of Don Fraser, who would have been sitting over my right shoulder at the Vic at that time, floated over the sarcastic applause. “Referee, you’re so masterful…”.

5- Most aggravating about our current position is the knowledge that we’re so much less than the sum of our parts.  Yes, we’ve had crippling injuries in key positions that have disrupted our ability to build an attacking threat but despite this you’ve got to feel that we ought to be getting more out of what is undoubtedly the most talented squad we’ve ever had.  This challenge is embodied by M’Baye Niang, who after a couple of high impact games now looks like a quality player in second gear, never better illustrated than when a rare late opening on the break was curtailed by the Frenchman wandering back from an offside position.  I may have sworn at this point.

The whistle went, to boos in the away end. We navigated our way back to Selhurst station, via the landmarks we’d passed on the way… the bin liner of rubbish left, split and spilling its contents across the pavement.  The cafe offering takeaway fare, “cheaper than the ground”, which looked as about inviting as a punch in the face.  The corner that reeked of marijuana.

We shouldn’t be in a position where we’re looking over our shoulder, but we are very much looking over our shoulder.  The stat about losing a game without Palace having a shot on target is perverse and embarrassing if a little misleading – it was the sort of game that a lapse would decide.  But it also harks back to dropped points under another Italian manager who came across as distant and slightly supercilious, under similar circumstances.

I don’t think we’ll go down.  We need maybe two wins out of the remaining ten games, and whilst there are games in there that can’t be relied on for points we ought to manage six.  The frustration is that it’s even in question, and the niggle that a relegation battle being a recent development means that our squad and management might not be as mentally atuned to (or engaged in?) the challenge as some of the others down there.

Three points from our next two games, Sunderland and West Brom at home, are an absolute minimum given what the fixture list leaves us with thereafter.

Yoorns.

Watford 3 Southampton 4 (04/03/2017) 05/03/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- It occurred to me this week that I am allowing my life to descend into a mere sequence of events dictated by routines borne of habit and laziness.  Every stage, every decision pre-scripted.  Middle-age steers you towards such a life, of course…  jobs have to be turned up to on time, kids have school hours, gym classes, cello lessons to be navigated.  In between these things you have to fit other stuff and because so much is timetabled the other stuff also becomes timetabled…  supermarket run happens on a Friday evening when it’s empty.  Gym can be fitted in on a Wednesday evening when the girls are at swimming lessons.

As a diabetic statistician – and therefore of reasonably ordered mind – with a propensity to cram in things like writing match reports the pressure to succumb to this demand for routine is almost overwhelming.  It sometimes feels as if every step of every day could have been scripted. I wake up at 7 and give myself my first dose of insulin. I get up and empty the dishwasher, prepare a child’s packed lunch.  Take various tablets, check my blood sugar, prepare breakfast (Monday: Salmon and Eggs, Tuesday: Cottage cheese with fruit) and then take more insulin.  And so on.  I might as well not be here.  You could stick a stunt double in my place, or a robot with a set of instructions, and not lose anything.  Actually, you might get more interesting conversation.

Today was the day I started fighting back.  Nothing too reckless you understand…  a different menu option at the pre-match meal, a different choice of turnstile on the way into the Rookery.  These small acts of rebellion will build up over time, even if my co-editor would warn me of the risks of upsetting the Gods of pre-match routine were he here.

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2- I’m not the only one who’s been ringing the changes.  The 1881 appear to have revised their flag distribution strategy, today confined to their own home base on the west side of the Rookery.  This is a shame, even if it only occurs to me as the pre-Z-cars anthem pipes up and the absence of a flagpole in my hand and yellow and black fabric obscuring my vision jars.  Something’s missing.  A shame because showing your colours literally – not merely symbolically, by turning up n’that – is a statement of pride and sets a good tone.  The wall of colour has been a fine fine thing, but I guess I’m not the one who’s been giving up time to sort it.  Thanks to those that have.

On the pitch, Stefano Okaka is the man chosen to fill the space in the line-up vacated by Mauro Zárate; he’s up front with Troy, Niang starts on the right of midfield with Capoue on the left whilst a defensive jumble about sees Seb Prödl come in and Younès Kaboul shunted across to right back.

As last week, we started aggressively.  Heaven knows there will be plenty to bemoan about what follows but we’ve made a habit of starting well and shouldn’t lose or overlook that… here, Stefano Okaka bullied open the space to hold the ball up in the area and lay back to Deeney who improvised an excellent volleyed finish with his left foot. He’s scored in five of our last six league games.

3- But as last week, the suggestion that we would canter off into the sunset and record a comfortable win proved illusory.  Whilst we retained a modicum of threat after our goal our chances were snatched, or optimistic from range.

Southampton, meanwhile, were very good indeed.  It’s always tempting to focus on your own inadequacies in assessing a defeat, but this wasn’t a game in which our failings presented the win to the opposition whatever the scoreline or match highlights might suggest.  Southampton’s movement and set-up asked those questions of us.. a tough, efficient midfield, all sorts of width on both flanks stretching us all over the place, and the alertness and mobility of Manolo Gabbiadini down the centre.

And so they flowed at us with increasing inevitability.  Kaboul has done a passable job as a makeshift right-back in the past but struggled here as did the entire back four.  In midfield we simply weren’t getting enough of the ball…. Behrami was subjected to a couple of heavy early challenges and was a pale form of his usual self. Cleverley was again the best of an underwhelming bunch in midfield but struggled to get hold of the game.

Saints equalised… perhaps we were unlucky, Redmond vaulted Tadic’s shot on its agonising way through, didn’t get a touch but was clearly gaining an advantage by obscuring and potentially distracting Gomes.  It could and perhaps should have been called offside, but there was no denying that Southampton were worth parity.  More aggravating still was the visitors taking the lead on half time… we thought we’d got away with it, perhaps the players did to.

4- Routine has its place, of course.  Part of our problem – in part reflecting the disruption that injuries have wreaked on the side – is that there doesn’t seem to be a routine at all, no “this is what we do”… it’s reliant on pressurising mistakes (and Saints, particularly Soares at right back, weren’t immune from those) but when we have the ball it seems so.. heavy, deliberate and anxious.  There’s no rhythm, no familiar way of playing.  No stock goals either… no Ardley humping it to Helguson at the far post, as we’ve lamented before.  You can’t rely on inspiration indefinitely.

Inspiration came though, and off the bench in the form of Isaac Success.  Mazzarri’s press conference quotes implied fitness and form issues;  certainly there have been concerns over the former, he’s yet to start at home and even here his introduction was agonisingly prolonged as if we were trying to work out how much injury time would be added and delayed to accommodate it.  But I’ve not seen any “form” issues; on his best cameos he’s dominated the games he’s been thrown into;  at worst he’s made us look more potent, given the opponent a problem.

He replaced Capoue, who had struggled on the left.  His generally patchy form notwithstanding, it’s now over a year since his one good game on the left of midfield – at Old Trafford – so you’ve got to wonder how long that will be fallen back on as a plausible option.

Within ten minutes Okaka, whose urgency stood out even if he did occasionally look as if he simply wanted someone to have a barney with, brought down the ball and released Success down the left.  The Nigerian clipped a ball in to the near post where Okaka met it sharply.  Two all.

5- It would have been daylight robbery, but we weren’t given long to savour the possibility.  Both of Southampton’s decisive goals were calamitous from our point of view;  Gomes, in particular, who had kept us in it earlier in the game should have done better on both occasions.  Abdoulaye Doucouré’s consolation was almost aggravating – a cross floated in by Niang, more involved than last week but still underwhelming, was allowed to travel miles before being tapped in by the surprised Frenchman.  Saints’ defence, albeit perhaps switched off on a two-goal lead, was get-attable, we just never held on to the ball for long enough to capitalise.

Walter asserted that we were worth a point, and that a break at 2-2 which saw Behrami win possession high up the pitch and Okaka briefly through on goal, constituted a match turning moment, an opportunity to win the game.  Both assessments seem optimistic.  Certainly we could have nicked a point… and the straw to cling to is that despite being outplayed by a very good side we were in it almost throughout.  But should have is stretching it, and a bit concerning that he’s done so (again).  As for Okaka’s chance… he never looked like pushing clear of Jack Stephens and was on his wrong foot.  Weighing this up against the seven Saints shots on target that didn’t find the net is hugely optimistic.

I’m still confident that we’re not in any trouble.  Leicester, Swansea and Palace may all have won but will need to keep doing so, and one of the bottom three will need to put in a similarly convincing and unprecedented run of form for us to be worried (although the one or two wins that would probably secure us safety might best be achieved before Easter, with Liverpool and Man City the only visitors thereafter).

I’m not entirely comfortable with “not relegated” being good enough though, or being the only yardstick to judge the season with.  Injuries notwithstanding, the squad’s a bit better than that.  Hopefully the return to fitness of Amrabat in time for a tasty looking trip to Selhurst in a fortnight will help us demonstrate that conclusively.

Yoorns.

 

 

Watford 1 West Ham United 1 (25/02/2017) 26/02/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- After a two week break, and notwithstanding a defeat at Old Trafford that was disappointing but far from humiliating, perspective on games like this has changed.  The two wins against Arsenal and Burnley reversed the gentle downwards slide and we are now by general consensus a Mid Table Club… not that relegation is impossible, but we’d have to work pretty hard to achieve it. There have been signs of life at a number of clubs down the bottom – Swansea and Hull in particular – but we’re still ten points clear of the relegation zone.  You don’t have to be great to avoid relegation, you just have to be less bad than at least three other teams and we’re certainly that.

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West Ham are similarly comfortably irrelevant in mid-table and so this threatened to be an open game with neither side overly under pressure.  This suggestion was re-enforced by Walter Mazzarri’s team selection which featured Janmaat and Holebas, neither of whom the most cautious of full-backs, in a back four with Niang and Zárate flanking Troy up front.

2- Our start did little to contradict this suggestion; we flew at the Hammers from the off, and within a couple of minutes Tom Cleverley and Troy had combined to release the vivacious Zárate in the box.  He got what looked like a panicky shove in the back from Kouyaté and won the penalty.  Troy is such a cool bastard in these situations… how wonderful to be pondering how he’s going to score rather than not being able to watch… this time a perfectly placed finish low inside the post and beyond the dive of Darren Randolph.

The warm-up had involved an exercise that saw our midfielders and forwards practising first-time shots from distance, whether reflecting the wet conditions, the way they expected the game to pan out or reservations about the Hammers’ keeper Darren Randolph.  As an aside, Mauro Zárate excelled at this for all his moderate goalscoring record… whilst Daryl Janmaat’s venomous lack of precision necessitated attention from all parents in the lower inter-quartile range of the Rookery.  This ambition was visible for the opening fifteen minutes or so also… the “one shot on target” stat isn’t great, but is slightly misleading.  Niang’s violent drive was the most eye-catching, narrowly clearing the Hammers’ crossbar and presumably causing damage to whatever or whoever halted its progress in the Vicarage Road end, whilst Zárate’s curling effort looked on its way in before being sent unfortunately wide by a deflection.

3- Gradually, however, we were realising that the game that had been suggested by our early breakthrough – you know, more goals’n’that – wasn’t what we were watching.  Key in this was that West Ham are a very good side – albeit a striker short of being a dangerous one.  Whilst we enjoyed the better chances of the half Snodgrass was enough of a threat to cause anxiety at the back, and at the other end our attacking options were gradually being negated.

Niang, in particular, put in his least convincing outing since his arrival;  this in part reflected the amount of attention he was being afforded… tightly marked, his impact was uncharacteristically limited and he lost his rag on more than one occasion, particularly in the second half.  Troy had a more successful afternoon but was nonetheless curtailed by the excellent Fonte, who was the match of much of what our increasingly limited attacking forays had to offer.

Our most potent threat had been Mauro Zárate, but having gone down badly once and apparently recovered he was spotted curled up in pain on the edge of our box as a West Ham attack was repelled, and after a prolonged spell of treatment involving oxygen masks and a large entourage of attendees he was stretchered off.  Between then and the break Daryl Janmaat went down too – like Zárate, the Dutchman attempted to continue but was withdrawn shortly into the second half.

4- And it was a second half that the Hammers dominated without ever really threatening to overwhelm the home side.  Niang was isolated against Kouyaté on the left of the box and was lucky not to concede a penalty.  The Frenchman was now on the Watford left, Doucouré nominally on the right but often dropping inside to stiffen a struggling midfield in which Behrami was in his element.  As a consequence Aaron Cresswell was often in miles of space on the left hand side and it was down this side that the equaliser finally came, Antonio charging down the flank, slinging in a shot that deliberated about going in but hit both posts before falling conveniently for Ayew to score.  They got the break with that rebound but given our own similar profit from a generous deflection at Arsenal, and the fact that we’d been under pressure for much of the half – Fonte had forced a fine save from Gomes, Antonio had shot narrowly wide – it would be churlish to grumble too much.

The injuries thing is a well-beaten drum but you can’t help but wonder with frustration what we might have achieved this season with a bit of a clearer run.  If in this game, for instance, we’d had Nordin Amrabat available to replace Zárate off the bench, or Roberto Pereyra in midfield for everything to flow through, we’d have been so much stronger.  Our brief resurgence at the end of the game had something to do with the Hammers going down to ten after Antonio racked up his second silly booking of the afternoon, but also to do with the eight minutes afforded to Isaac Success which afforded us precious little time to enjoy his disruptive randomness.  Aggravating that we’re not confident enough in his fitness to unleash him – he’s still only started the once.

5- So the game ended with a goalmouth scramble that I’d have been interested to dissect in more detail than Match of the Day permitted, but in any event a point was as much as we could possibly have laid claim to.  For all that the game slipped away from us we had enough about us to hang onto the point – kudos to the defending in the face of lots of zippy movement if no focal point.

On reflection I guess there’s a lot to be said for a “meh” game at this stage of the season.  Not terrible, never less than interesting and a perpetually bubbling-under narkiness that held your attention.  But not gripping, and but for a point that has us creeping towards confirmation of safety largely irrelevant.  This is the grey area of irrelevance in the Premier League between the teams that might win something and the relegation scrap.  Fulham and Charlton have both taken root in the shadows here in years past and being here makes you realise that it’s only dull from the outside looking in.  Being here – not least with a side that’s capable of fine things on a good day (or given a clean bill of health) – is a very fine thing for a side like ours.  For the moment.

Yoooorns.