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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  The wooden benches have been replaced by blue plastic on tiers barely wide enough to accommodate it.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.

 

Watford 2 Burnley 1 (04/02/2017) 05/02/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- Sunshine makes such a difference.  Any nonsense lined up for the day seems less important, it’s possible just to step outside, feel the glow on your face and be happy.  I work in a rural environment, that helps I guess.  But I think it holds anyway.  Sunshine is a good thing.

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It’s a gorgeous day, bright and fresh.  Fittingly so, since Tuesday’s game cast a new light on the outlook for the rest of our season.  Bright new signings, players coming back, a stunning win and now the sun’s shining again.   Now a home game against a side that can’t win away.  Bring it on.

2- As Evo grinned later, it says a lot that our three January signings have all been pitched in at the earliest opportunity; says something about the deficiencies in the squad given available personnel, says more about the quality of those signings.  Early days, but so far so very good… Zárate’s suspension having been served he started on the left with M’Baye Niang switching to the right.

And actually it could have gone horribly wrong… Niang flew into a clumsy early challenge and picked up a yellow, but the speed and mistiming of the incident briefly left you worrying about what colour was coming out of Michael Oliver’s pocket.  He got away with it (rightly, as TV replays reveal loss of control but no studs up or intent) but Jeff Hendrick, former Hornets target and scorer in the game at Turf Moor in September, didn’t.  His challenge on Holebas was stupid and violent – in the middle of the pitch, studs up and over the ball.  No decision for Oliver to make.  Burnley travelling support booed the left back’s every touch from then on, presumably for having the temerity to get up again.  The sun’s glow took on extra warmth.

3- All three new boys were terrific.  Cleverley, again, was a whirling, spinning dynamo in the centre of the midfield, getting his foot in, covering ground, picking up the ball and slipping short passes, swinging long passes. Bossing it.  Zárate…  perhaps overkeen to do it himself, but capable of committing players, sashaying past them.  A threat, a new option, he came within inches of crowning his debut with a goal after yet another cut inside saw him chisel out the space to curl a shot around the post, but narrowly so.

And Niang.  Wow. Any concerns that Tuesday might have been a flash in the pan were dispelled very early indeed as, faced with two opponents on the right flank and a third closing in he simply put the burners on and flew off down the wing.  Overall the first half performance was excellent; we looked confident and fluid, dominating possession for a change and looking capable of scoring.  Niang himself made the first… perhaps he was afforded too much space as Burnley struggled to adjust to their numerical disadvantage but it was still an evil ball from a deep position that somehow allowed Deeney to batter Matt Lowton and crash us into the lead.

Throughout the half we went direct often, Troy murdering Michael Keane in the air and all sorts of options flying in around him. Burnley couldn’t cope with it so we kept doing it; Capoue smashed in a shot that hit Ashley Barnes prompting brief penalty claims, Niang flung in a curling long-range shot that wasn’t quite in the corner enough to trouble Heaton. If there was a problem is that we’d dominated without really stretching the Clarets and so Niang’s second, a carbon copy of Isaac Success’ goal against Bournemouth earlier in the season, was well timed as he expertly directed Holebas’ header into the bottom corner. So our tricky winger, who can hold off a challenge, is also good in the air? And we have the right to buy in the summer, you say?

4- Two-up at half time against ten men, the expectation was that we’d go on to run up what Chris Waddle would at one stage have referred to as an aggregate victory.  Burnley’s first half had been far from tame… Joey Barton had gone into the back of Valon Behrami in an attempt to provoke a reaction but just got an icy stare, Ashley Barnes continued to make better use of his arse and his elbows than his feet.  But there wasn’t an awful lot to suggest that they had the weapons to claw their way back into it; Gomes had saved well from an excellent Barton free kick after Boyd had earned a generous call but that had been more or less it.

And Tuesday night reprised itself in an undesirable and mercifully, ultimately, inconsequential way.  We did the Arsenal thing of playing the game that we expected to be faced with rather than the one that we actually were.  It was all a little bit too casual, a bit lacking in focus and urgency whereas Burnley, every inch in the image of their manager, refused to accept their scripted part in proceedings at all and managed to make light of their numerical and psychological disadvantage.  It wasn’t one-way traffic…  a fine switching ball from Cleverley found Niang who fed Deeney, Heaton performing heroics to keep out his prod back across goal.  Closer still, however, was Michael Keane’s monstrous far post header which Gomes, impossibly, got down to to push away from the bottom corner.  Barnes looped a shot over Gomes which Cathcart cleared from the line;  in the same passage of play a driven shot hit Prödl’s hand… you get the benefit of the doubt with those sometimes, not this time.  Barnes took the penalty himself, resisted what must have been a strong urge to take the thing with his backside and proved himself surprisingly adept with his feet by striking an unstoppable shot in off the post.

Robbie Brady was on to provide a new challenge… you had to give Burnley credit, they were making this much harder than they had a right to.  It’s worth adding of course that their failure to rescue a point makes it much easier to give credit… everyone loves a plucky loser.  Instead the Hornets had the ball in the net again, Success eventually warming into his cameo and setting up Deeney, the referees whistle for handball beating the ball into the net.

5- Slightly frustrating, then, since at half time the rare suggestion of a big win had presented itself.  On balance, however, still a fine thing… a very different game against a much tougher opponent than their away record might have suggested.  And we won it anyway.  In the sunshine.

Beyond which, somewhat inevitably, we now look at our squad, our returning players and new signings, and marvel at the riches suddenly available in attacking positions.  Nordin Amrabat is Player of the Season according to some;  where would you fit him in when he’s back?  Suddenly good problems to have ahead of another free punch at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Yoorns.

Arsenal 1 Watford 2 (31/01/2017) 01/02/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- Bloody Hell.

2- A friend had given me a lift to the station from work…

“So where are you heading off to?”

“Football….”

“Who’s playing?” (not a football fan)

“Arsenal against Watford.  Ummmm…  it could be ugly.  I think these things are supposed to be character building…”.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.  It was a free punch, but a free punch with the lowest of expectations.  We’ve been struggling – plenty of qualifiers, reasons, but we’ve been struggling and nothing about our recent form – least alone on Sunday, albeit with a scratch team – suggested that this was on the cards.  Arsenal, meanwhile, have been flying.  This was only going to end one way – the passing up of the opportunity to bounce this to Wednesday night spoke volumes about where this week’s priority was.  Vicarage Road, Saturday, Burnley.

I’d settled myself into a zen-like state of acceptance on the train down.  When your expectations are lowest anything’s a bonus, obviously, but this wasn’t mere self-preservation.  With a view to enjoying the evening it was a case of scratching out the positives, looking for things to build on.  Anything that wasn’t awful would be enjoyable. Better teams than us will get gubbed by Arsenal.

3- The line-up was a minor fascination.  Four centre-backs across the defence was interesting… Slav had tried the same at home to Rotherham in the promotion season resulting in a game that was brutally effective if thoroughly forgettable.  Brutally effective would do here, but this was a completely different ask.  Niang’s debut had been widely trailed, Isaac Success on the bench less so.  Through his staccato first season in England Success has managed to prolong his status as well-kept secret for an unprecedented period – most such treasures get found out and their bubble diffused, or become public knowledge by now.  Also back in the starting line-up were Behrami, to patrol in front of the back four, and Janmaat with Tom Cleverley partnering Capoue in the centre of midfield.  The game started in heavy rain, illuminated into a veil by the stadium lights.  We stood reclining into the backs of our comfy chairs, applauded dutifully and defiantly and awaited the inevitable.  Arsenal, too, seemed to have expected to turn up, do their thing and record an unremarkable win… whilst their failings were manifold it’s surely beyond dispute that had we played our scripted role, turned up, put up a tentative and nervous backs-to-the-wall resistance that’s exactly what would have happened.

4- Instead we howled into them with the force of a wrecking ball into a dolls house.  It would be difficult to overstate the magnificence of that first half… it was as if all our vigour, energy, verve, bloody-mindedness had been saved for this moment, like a child saving up pocket money for a special occasion.  The disconnect between what was expected and what was happening on the pitch was evident in every challenge that saw an Arsenal midfielder hassled out of possession; the more so when, having won possession, we thundered past with options overlapping and Arsenal players scrambling.  This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down.

It helped that we got the goal.  Of course it did.  In fact the whole thing was contingent on that early breakthrough, much as the bouncing disbelief after the second three minutes later was tempered with a look at the clock and “oh crap, there’s still 75 minutes to go…”.  There’s a world of difference between a bloody-minded Watford side and a bloody-minded Watford side with a lead to defend.  It didn’t make our job easy, but it made Arsenal’s extremely difficult.

That we got that break was all down to us though, down to the positiveness and aggression that saw Niang flying down the centre of the pitch.  The free kick looks a bit soft on the replay but whatever… tickets, raffles.  He was there to win it, that’s what being positive gets you.  Younès Kaboul did his trademark rocket-launcher thing, we got another break with a deflection but heaven knows those deflections have been going against us, about time for some redress of that I think.  Plus, Aaron Ramsey. Yes it’s very hurty if it hits you because he’s a big scary man who kicks the ball very hard but to quote Steve Morison, if you don’t like it, go home.

5- Pulling out individuals is wrong, because there wasn’t a performance that was anything less than outstanding, extraordinary.  So let’s pull out all of them.

Étienne Capoue.  My word.  This was the force of nature that we remember from the beginning of the season, but with booster rockets and go-faster stripes. Foot in every tackle, driving forward relentlessly as epitomised by the second goal… disdainfully bypassing opponents first with a drop of the shoulder, then through brute force, then through “well if you’re not going to challenge me I’ll keep going”.  Smacked a shot that Cech could only block, Troy gobbles up, two-nil.  Magnificent, and if he was quieter in the second half that rendered him merely fantastic.

Tom Cleverley.  Doesn’t give the ball away.  Ever.  Not by operating in safe areas of the pitch where he’s got time and space, but despite pushing on and being bold.  Others have had that knack of retaining possession no matter what – Jonathan Hogg springs to mind – but not in combination with this verve.  His confidence must have been knocked by his fall from grace but no sign of that here… he’s back home.

M’Baye Niang.  You’re used to seeing a young forward, especially a wide man, come in and be exciting, that’s not new.  Then over time you realise that he is easily bullied, or he doesn’t know how to pass the ball, or he’s all tricks and no end product.  No danger of that here.  Those boxes are already ticked.  Quick and clever, yes, already a weapon that makes our attack so much more potent with speed and slight of foot, a snake slithering cruelly through opponents legs.  But he’s clever too, he knows where to run and – best of all? – he can hold the ball up, he can handle himself.  We have a player.

Less spectacular but just as welcome on the other flank, Daryl Janmaat.  An ostensibly defensive set-up was rendered potent by having Janmaat and Niang invariably hugging the touchlines every time we broke; we signed Janmaat as a full-back but he’s an attacking threat first and foremost and he was perfectly at home on the right of midfield, bundling into challenges and forcing Cech into a clawing save towards the end of the half.

Valon Behrami.  Doing what Valon Behrami does, blood dripping from his jaws, slightly lunatic smile, this game was made for him.  He stamped all over it too, a royal pain in the arse of every home attack until being taken off twenty minutes into the second half.

5- By then the game had changed.  Reports suggest that “Arsenal improved in the second half” whilst nonetheless describing the team’s performance as “below par”.  It didn’t feel below par for that opening 20 minutes. It felt very much as if we were going to get blown away in Arsenal’s whirlwind.  You wouldn’t have put money on us getting anything from the game at that stage, not a point, not anything.  Walcott was on for the lumpy Giroud and the home side were all twists and turns, and darting runs that nobody in the stadium anticipated.  We stood up to it well, the incomparable Gomes making one stunning save from Walcott in a face-off after the winger was found free on the right of the box and another from Iwobi who had switched flanks with Sanchez.  Bodies were put on the line, crucially nobody panicked and put in a stupid challenge – Nacho Monreal had already sounded a warning klaxon with a feeble dive in the first half for which he was booked.  No further opportunity could be offered and wasn’t, although Prödl’s murderously precise challenge on Sanchez had hearts briefly in mouths.  Shortly afterwards Arsenal got their goal regardless.  It felt like a matter of time, and we began to steel ourselves with the knowledge that even glorious defeat was so much better than we’d feared.

In my head, things changed again with the Behrami substitution.  Kieron leaned over and suggested that his well-judged trudge to the touchline constituted the longest interruption to Arsenal’s onslaught of the half.  He was joking, but he was right… and they never quite had us under such pressure thereafter.  Doucouré and Okaka both gave us much needed legs off the bench, the latter replacing the relentless Deeney whose lone furrow had been ploughed deep into the earth’s molten core.  But Success was the triumph, the icing on a very ample cake.  True, he twice exposed us to potential disaster not by overplaying, but simply by not being defensively aware enough as Arsenal’s urgency ramped up in the closing ten minutes.  At the other end of the pitch, however, he induced panic… and one outrageous flippy-flappy trick on the edge of the box had him skating clear of an utterly confused Arsenal defence, ready to slide the ball under Cech… except that Troy, too, had been confused by Success’s brilliance and had inadvertently blocked the Nigerian’s pass through for himself.

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6- So we held out.  Kaboul and Prödl monstrous and defiant, Cathcart and Britos so much more confident, assured, unpanickable than recent performances have suggested.

At half time I’d run into Lionel, with whom I’d shared grumpy reflection at London Bridge post-Millwall on Sunday.  We’d both been full of how dreadful it all was (it was) and what a grim place the world had become (it had).  No words were necessary in the concourse at the Emirates, we just laughed.  Too much analysis surely ruins the enjoyment.  What did we know, anyway?

Today is Graham’s funeral in Watford.  An important, significant day in memory of an important, significant man.  The win was dedicated to his family and his memory both by Troy and by Walter Mazzari… something that’s easy enough to say but important, too, and they’d earned the right to say it.  Fitting, too, since in GT’s time, famously, “We Always Beat the Arsenal”.  This win, this performance bears comparison with any by a Watford side since that era, and many of those of that time too.

So what a magnificent evening.  Suddenly we can look forward to the rest of the season with no small optimism.  And all rendered ever so slightly more enjoyable by the fact that nobody, least of all Arsenal, not ourselves either, saw it coming.

Yoorns.

Millwall 1 Watford 0 (29/01/2017) 30/01/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- I was reminded once again today of the trite 6-0-6 throwaway, “fans just want to watch their team win“.  As previously discussed, this is fundamentally incorrect.  Fans want to watch their team win, yes.  They don’t just want to watch their team win.  Fans, largely, want to watch their team.  This is taken for granted, but as such is far weightier a concern than the triviality of victory, at least for active supporters who attend games.  A relief, then, to learn of Lewisham Council’s retreat from a threatened compulsory purchase order of, amongst other things, the New Den site under the auspices of a questionable (and, consequently, questioned) property deal.  Whether or not the very future of Millwall was threatened its location – being dumped out in Kent a real possibility – certainly was and as such that taken-for-granted bit was in danger of being whisked away.  And yes, sure, as we saw today the Lions have above their quota of the sort of buffoon whose xenophobia, boorishness and ignorance recent world developments seem to legitimise… but they’re also a club rooted in their community.  Good that they’ve seen this off.  This is relevant, I’m coming back to it, promise…
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2- Pete came to the game today. He’s not a big football fan, interested enough to ask reasonably informed, polite questions about the ‘orns progress at work but little more.  When he asked what I thought of the cup draw I invited him along.  I’ve since apologised, naturally.

We’d discussed on the train down the possibility that something like this would happen, on this weekend with so much of This Sort Of Thing going on. What with Millwall already having dumped one top flight side out who thought they could get away with anything less than full throttle, with us still clawing a team and any kind of form back together.  It was always a possibility, but I don’t think many of us expected it to be quite this bad.

Indeed, if there’s was a positive to be taken from the afternoon it was the knowledge that this would be a straightforward set of thunks with no call or place for balance, perspective or “on-the-other-hand”…

3- Good God this was lamentable, on so many levels.  As someone who has spent a sleepless night and a considerable time in the dentist’s chair this week I feel qualified to describe it as a painful experience.

The team selection, first of all.  Certain things out of anyone’s immediate control…  injuries, suspension, international clearance, and so on.  Nonetheless, the relegation of the FA Cup to some sort of irritating sideshow, some trivial inconvenience not worthy of proper attention is repulsive and cowardly.  It’s not something that Watford are guilty of in isolation, it’s a negligence that many clubs share and not just in the top flight.  It’s easy to cite the money tied up in League status, “this has to be the priority”. Had we played our strongest team and picked up an injury, or sapped legs further, questions would have been asked.

But for me, this is a side that needs to remember how to win.  There have been contributing factors to our poor form, but now we need to start stringing results together.  Bournemouth was cautiously encouraging. We needed to build on that today.  A stronger team would have guaranteed nothing, but this was eminently winnable. Had we lost giving it a good go then any failure would have been more forgivable and Arsenal on Tuesday less daunting because there would have been some spirit.  Quite apart from the fact that the FA Cup is a prize in its own right, with big guns tumbling we might have had a shot.  It’s not like our trophy cabinet is overburdened with such achievements.

4- The first half was a complete bloody fiasco.  We know that three at the back can leave you vulnerable, and it can make you potent. Amongst other things it relies up wingbacks pushing up to provide width, and some venom in midfield to provide threat.  Here, Brice Dja Djédjé and Brandon Mason were seemingly under instruction to push up to a point and no further… Mason in particular had displayed his eagerness to bomb on and overlap against Burton, so this was no instinctive caution.  It resulted in everything coming down the centre through a midfield trio that put in a performance that was comprehensively ineffective.  No need to pull out individuals – Watson has barely been permitted to string his laces, Guedioura just back from Africa, Doucouré must wonder whether he’s coming or going.  It just didn’t work at all, no energy, no movement, no attempt to address it – all three played the ninety minutes although, and I’m conscious that I’m lapsing into qualifiers here, injuries to Pantilimon and Dja Djédjé limited flexibility.

Pete had welcomed the trip as a vastly more attractive way to spend a Sunday than hanging wardrobe doors, his default option. Can only imagine that Stefano Okaka’s immobile, lazy performance reminded him unhelpfully of his wardrobes… we’ve seen Okaka display a menace and an energy on occasions, terrorising opponents.  On others, particularly when he’s receiving it rather than dishing it out, he’s of very little value – though at least he was visibly inept, unlike Jerome Sinclair.

Meanwhile, Millwall were doing what they were scripted to do.  Coming at us, hounding us… physical, yes, overphysical sometimes.  But this is a cup tie for goodness sake, what do you expect?  Any lingering irritation at the Lions’ strong-arm tactics disappeared with Steve Morison’s post-match comments.  “If you don’t like it, go home”.  Spot on, and fair enough. We didn’t like it.  We somehow got to half time at nil-nil regardless, in part due to luck, in part due to an opposing attack that was more bluster than finesse, in part due to some decent defending – good to see Mapps back in the fold, he didn’t let himself down whilst Younès Kaboul was comfortably our standout player, full of welly and decisiveness, the defender we thought we’d signed.

5- In the second half things got better, which as you’ll have gathered isn’t really saying an awful lot.  The tempo that was utterly absent from our play in the first half had evidently been a talking point and our passing suddenly had a bit of snappiness, urgency.  Nothing dramatic, we hardly took the home side to task but it was something.  Meanwhile Dja Djédjé and Mason had finally been given licence to push on… the youngster had a tougher task than against Burton and his inexperience was exposed more than once but he kept at it and was arguably our biggest threat, sending in half a dozen or so worthy crosses in the second period from wide on the left.  Okaka wasn’t enough of a target and too easily marshalled… I was reminded of a Wolves supporter (and the accent doesn’t come across in print, so superimpose that…) describing new signing Robert Taylor’s aerial threat: “When he joomps in the air, ye can’t get a ciggy paper oonderneath him…”.

Nonetheless, we were beginning to dominate, finally.  Troy came on to loud hurrahs and now there was some urgency too, a weapon in attack.  Let’s not start taking his attitude for granted, dips in form or otherwise.  Millwall were looking leggy, I can’t have been the only one thinking we’d gotten away with it – would this be a replay, an unspectacular win at the Vic in ten days after which we put the whole sorry mess behind us much as we did Bristol City three years ago, or would we grab a thoroughly unmerited winner.  Neither, as it turned out.

6- We got to the station platform having made it through a hastily constructed police safety cordon just before it was closed.  Our relief was short-lived; timing had awarded us the honour of not-quite-squeezing onto the first train and spending the next fifteen minutes – including a futile hunt by staff for the puller of an emergency cord in an unspecified but sardine-rammed carriage – in the cold drizzle on this iconic football-followers’ station.  A cup shock, yes, two divisions, yes yes.  But Millwall and Watford… not cut from the same cloth, exactly, but certainly used to being stocked at the same class of retailer.  Let’s not get above ourselves.

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The train northwards from St Pancras was no better.  We missed a quick one, so caught a stopper.  It being Sunday, when nobody travels, there was engineering’n’that and limited trains. So all those people who don’t travel on a Sunday were rammed into this one.  When we got to West Hampstead, the passengers on the preceding train – the fast one, it’s windscreen having been smashed in the interim – joined us, often indelicately.  A fitting end to the day.

Pete, surprisingly, declared himself satisfied with a good day out despite everything. He’s a lifer, natch. Which takes me back to my original point.  Watching football, watching your team, is a good thing.  Shouldn’t be taken for granted, not by anyone.  Not us, not the players, not the manager… who’s bizarre post-match assessment echoed his countryman, Gianluca Vialli, in their surprising perspective.

Arsenal, on Tuesday, looks ugly.  The players we’ve signed look decent – Cleverley a great fit, Zaraté and Niang apparently offering some much-needed magic dust.  But we’re going to need to see an awful lot more than this.

Watford 0 Middlesbrough 0 (14/01/2017) 15/01/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
12 comments

1. On Thursday morning, unaware of the breaking news, idle curiosity led me to dig up some early eighties albums on Spotify, much-loved during my student days a few years after their release. They sounded distant and diminished, almost comically morose and bleak; they belonged to an entirely different time, both musically and personally, and it was clear during the couple of hours we spent together that we had nothing left to say to each other. A lifetime ago, near enough. Another world. We’ve all moved on.

2. But some things endure. Some things are forever, or near enough. For all that we enjoy watching the clips of yesteryear, were this only about our golden memories of a football team and its manager, it’d be a very different occasion. In the expressions of sadness, pride and remembered joy since the news of his death, it’s evident that the seeds planted by Graham Taylor way back in the late seventies and onwards have continued – and will continue – to grow. That the people who bought into the values he instilled in the club and its surrounding community continue to do so. That the significance of those values in an era of insatiable profiteering is no less than it was in an era of brutal hooliganism.

The idea that a football manager could shape a generation – or one town’s contribution to a generation, at any rate – seems completely preposterous when you write it down. I can imagine Graham chuckling as I type. But you were probably there too, you were probably part of it as well. You know what it meant. If I count the people who showed me how I ought to live my life, what I ought to value and what I ought to aspire to, I get to Graham Taylor very quickly indeed. It’s just there, it requires no thought at all. It’s part of me. I know I’m not alone.

3. This isn’t an easy day for anyone. It comes with the inevitable awkwardness of these occasions, the desire to say it all and the utter impossibility of doing so. We do the appropriate thing: we do our best. The club conducts itself with considerable class, with the restraint and good taste that’s typified this new era. The minute’s applause is intensely moving, almost lifting the stadium from its foundations.

I take reassurance in the fact that he knew, that we told him time and again of our endless gratitude and admiration, that he invariably preferred to graciously acknowledge that adoration before moving onto a proper conversation about something of greater interest. He knew. He got it. Incredibly, it didn’t really change him. But I hope that some kind of comfort is given to his family, to whom we owe almost as much as the man himself.

4. Not an easy day, least of all for today’s crop of players, charged with honouring an occasion of which most can only have a limited understanding. In some ways, a game of football is exactly what you need: something to get lost in, something to carry aloft the songs from the good old days. Elton John’s Taylor-made Army rings around Vicarage Road again, through tears and smiles. In other ways, a game of football is the last thing you need: it’s not as if we can throw four up front and relive those good old days, and the deadening mundanity of a hard-fought mid-winter six-pointer feels distinctly out of keeping with what we wanted today to be about. Squibs don’t come much damper.

5. It quickly becomes apparent that the absence of Nordin Amrabat leaves us with not a jot of creativity. Aware of this, we abandon all interest in passing the ball through midfield – Valon Behrami practically turns his back when possession is with our wing-backs behind him, safe in the knowledge that he won’t be involved until Boro have it back – and thud it long in search of a Deeney flick or, you know, something wherever possible. We were often guilty of over-passing last season, of being content to be tidy rather than incisive; we’ve certainly got that one sorted. It might’ve been kinder just to have given Ben Watson the season off.

Inevitably, we look better when we make progress in wide areas: Jose Holebas can hit a decent cross when afforded the opportunity, Younes Kaboul shows a surprising aptitude for attacking play once he gets through the gears on his occasional forays. Abdoulaye Doucoure, the pick of the midfield, has a drive saved from the edge of the area. At the Rookery end, we’re largely untroubled until Stuani has a close-range poach disallowed for what appears to be a tight offside; he later floats a chip onto the roof of the net when well-placed. Not a game in which you want to concede a cheap goal. Or any goal, come to think of it. Nobody does.

6. Half-time brings chocolate, which tastes almost indecently luxurious in the context of such unsweetened gruel. Of the parade of former players, Luther pays the most heartfelt and touching tribute, the force of his emotions evident in every word. “He was like a father to me. I owe everything in my life to Graham Taylor.” It takes you back to a time when Luther Blissett wasn’t a household name, when all of this magical, wonderful story was yet to unfold. It makes you realise how fragile it all is. How precious.

7. We do more than enough to win the game in the second half, while also failing to do so. It’s a crude assault on the Boro goal, like trying to pick a padlock with a rocket launcher, but it pretty much does the job: we’re a gigantic side and absolutely dominant at set pieces, when we can remember to deliver them rather than trying to be clever. Boro gradually retreat in protection of a point that’s considerably better for them than it is for us, leaving only the threat of it being one of those games where Gestede thumps a header into the top corner in the ninety-third minute. If my memory is to be believed, that’s happened at least four times in the last five years.

We force chances at a steady pace. Valdes saves comfortably from Okaka, Capoue swings a curler very narrowly wide, Cleverley hits the post from a long throw, Deeney breaks clear and is foiled only by a minute deflection as the ball travels under Valdes’ dive. None of it is anything other than agricultural, although Cleverley’s fifteen minute cameo in a supporting forward role suggests some promise of better things to come.

And I have to say that, on this evidence, better things are desperately needed. Yes, injuries. Yes, squad lopsidedness. Yes, I get all of that, I sympathise. Still. You can sustain this kind of football while it’s successful, because none of us care as much about style as we care about winning. But heavens above, it looks ugly as sin without that hazy glow. If you’re going to play like this, if you’re going to abandon aesthetics in favour of brute force, you’d better bloody win. Especially if you’re not going to bother to build a relationship with the supporters.

Thin ice, I suggest.

8. But that can all wait. It’s easy to contrast the past with the present, but nothing will ever match up, let’s face it. In truth, the generosity of the Pozzos to those who built the club before they bought it is uncommon and laudable; there are few people successful enough to buy a football club and yet modest enough not to need to prove how thoroughly they own it by trampling over its history. Today isn’t about them, clearly, but it’s framed by their willingness to cede the spotlight. And when you look more closely, you find those seeds still growing, still branching out: the recent opening of the Sensory Room, for example, feels as if it comes from much the same place, and the same set of values, as the family enclosure once did.

There’s only one Graham Taylor. But there are many of us, and there’s no better tribute than to continue to place the values he instilled at the heart of our football club. And beyond, to continue to make them part of our lives.

Family and community, open and welcoming and inclusive, determined and ambitious, modest and yet proud.

Elton John’s Taylor-made Army.

Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 4 (01/01/2017) 02/01/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1- It had occurred to us, pre-match, contemplating the magnitude of the challenge that today’s fixture falling where it did might not be a Bad Thing. A huge ask in the circumstances, without doubt… a monumental absentee list, an opponent who would be daunting at the best of times. Perhaps this was what we needed… a backs-to-the-wall, free punch game to quell the wobbles in the crowd. Memories of Sunderland in 1999, when crumbling form was rendered irrelevant as the runaway league leaders arrived in town. Or failing that… perhaps losing against Spurs was something that could be ridden out anyway. Losing to Spurs happened last season despite a sterling performance. Had this been a more moderate opponent perhaps the injury list would cost us more obvious points.

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2- Good god this was awful. Let’s not pretend otherwise. For half an hour or so we hung in there… did a reasonable job of keeping the ball up at the Vicarage Road end, dug in in midfield, got the ball to Amrabat. Nothing as reckless as a threatening attack as such, but we were doing OK.

Despite which, there was a suspicion that we felt we were getting away with it. That Heurelho Gomes was quite happy to keep possession and wait to be closed down. That in such circumstances things DO look fine until they don’t, the tunnel at the end of the light. Adlène Guedioura had been our strongest performer in this opening period, taking responsibility, both fighting for possession and making things happen. Unfortunate, if inevitable, that it was he that gave the ball away for Holebas to be skinned down our left, where Spurs were focusing their attacks, and Kane to finish ruthlessly.

That was it. Perhaps I was kidding myself, perhaps they game was always over. In any event, from that point the result was never in doubt and from that minute on anyone in the home stands would have taken the scoreline at the time, no questions asked. Trippier crossed brilliantly in too much space for Kane to finish again. Kaboul haplessly gave the ball to Alli, who struck a third. It felt clinical, but Spurs had missed chances too.

3- Three points to restate from the Palace report, without frippery in the interest of brevity. One. Our injury situation is astonishing and unprecedented. I don’t know whether there’s any “blame” there, but it would be insane to imagine that Duxbury and Pozzo hadn’t considered that possibility. Two. Losing players in the warm-up, during the game, screws things up even if you’re NOT down to the bare bones. Three. 3-5-2 only works when there’s an attacking threat to offset the vulnerability of the defence.

In the wake of this horror show, all sorts of accusations have been thrown at Walter Mazzarri. Amongst these, inevitably, has been his inability to master English publicly, his lack of relationship with the support always likely to be a stick to beat him with when things went wrong. Other than that… of the above, we have to reserve judgement on the fitness thing. I just don’t know. As for formation… difficult. With fourteen available(ish) senior(ish) players, two of whom goalkeepers, our options were rather limited. With four of that number centre-backs the decision to stick with three at the back is at least rationalisable, even if a 4-4-2 might have given us less of a flimsy look.

None of the back three covered themselves in glory, Prödl at fault for the miserable fourth at the start of the second half on which the second half stood before us like a chasm. However the most fundamental problem with the side is in the midfield; it has been all season, as even with all personnel available it’s only ever kind of worked. Here… Guedioura was always the most willing and the bravest, but simply gives the ball away too much. Capoue, in a game where we really needed the senior players to step up, disappeared as Spurs took the lead. Difficult to recall the last time he played well. And Doucouré looked like a half-decent player who hasn’t played all season. Good bits, and lots of iffy, out-of-touch, wonky bits. Difficult to know what could have been done differently… we needed a much more robust option than was available.

4- Lack of passion has been the other criticism. Lack of fight, lack of looking like they cared. With very few exceptions this is not an accusation can reasonably have been levelled before today, whatever else has been going wrong. In this one… with such a limited hand, against an in-tune opponent, at four down with the visitors quite visibly in cruise control, it’s hard not to be sympathetic – it’s not as if the rest of us went into the fixture beating our chests. But you want more than this.

Things did get a bit better, once given the room to do so. Undoubted highlight was the introduction of Brandon Mason from the bench. Forced by circumstances, perhaps, but the prudent withdrawal of the overheating Holebas saw the first home-grown debut for I don’t know how long. Well enough he did too, holding his own on the left flank and combing with the lively Jerome Sinclair. Good also to see Troy chatting in his ear when the ball went dead – if heads were down, not all responsibilities were being neglected.

5- Sinclair attacked a deep cross, just as he did at Stevenage pre-season. Headed the ball out of Lloris’ hands, Michael Oliver blew up but it was something. Then we scored, the scruffiest untidiest effort imaginable, officially Kaboul’s but it could have been any one of three or four. Suddenly we looked alive, and ended on the front foot to give the result a lustre it maybe didn’t deserve.

Much as we’re in a bad place, we have to cling to that. We’re promised new recruits and players will come back and so it’s a matter of not getting carried away by however many wins in whatever, or by the depths of this particular afternoon. This is a better squad, a better side than circumstances have allowed us to demonstrate and certainly better than this game afforded, a game in which everything was stacked against us. Yes, it was terrible, a terrible afternoon.

That’s all it was.

Yoorns.

Watford 1 Crystal Palace 1 (26/12/2016) 27/12/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Football on Boxing Day is always a little bit disorientating. This one isn’t helped by being shunted to lunchtime; it’s cold and sunny but the ambience of too much food and alcohol being recovered from pervades all four sides of the stadium from the Rookery, where the 1881’s flags are confined to the west end of the stand, to the away end which is full but far from the raucous wall of support that the Eagles pride themselves on.

The disorientation isn’t helped by the resuscitation of Danny Wilson’s “Mary’s Prayer” over the tannoy. In the late eighties and early nineties this was a staple in the home game playlist; someone’s brother was obviously in the band or something as it felt disproportionate even at the time. If you must play banal pop songs at least change it up a bit. However there’s less justification still to bring back a dirge associated with a fairly miserable period in the club’s history, the original single charting during the 1987/88 Bassett season. Chariots of Fire gets a proper airing too – that’s much more reasonable, even if Felix and I can’t decide whether it ever went away. A more subliminal number than Z-Cars, no less cherished. Anyway…

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2- Injuries, eh? The volume this season is remarkable in itself and it’s natural to wonder about the coincidence of this with the unexpected summer revamp of the medical department. Based on, you know, a somewhat limited knowledge of physiotherapy, conditioning, the demands on the body of a professional sportsman and so on, and therefore the lack of ability to deduce cause and effect perhaps we should stop at wondering. Nonetheless, natural to wonder. More peculiar still is the systematic focus of injuries on particular areas of the team… central defence a few weeks ago, the creative end of the team now.

The first half hour or so can be summed up by the hung over growl of “FFS” that rattled around the home end throughout. The team selection didn’t inspire confidence… the evident unavailability of Okaka and Success, Deeney on the bench, it looked a cautious selection in contrast to a Palace side which was set up with Allardyce’s trademark bullishness. Things started badly and got worse… first Janmaat, after seemingly overstretching, then Behrami collapsed and were replaced. Janmaat’s replacement was a straight swap but Behrami in the absence of Watson, also injured, necessitated the clarion introduction of Deeney and a complete reshuffle.

Only to be expected that things go a bit screwy as a consequence. Almost immediately Benteke got onto the end of a cross and needed just a little more power. It felt like a portent of things to come – actually it was all but Benteke’s only positive contribution. Such was his ineffectiveness that we debated whether his seemingly impending red card in the second half would be a help or a hindrance. Instead it was Cabaye who broke the deadlock, a rapier thrust abetted by a wobbly offside trap. Nothing new here… we know that three at the back can leave you open an vulnerable. This isn’t a problem in itself… the problem is when you’re not actually providing the threat to offset this risk.

3- The penalty changed everything, obviously. It arose from the lowest point of an increasingly nervous, tentative opening by the Hornets, an appalling back pass from the otherwise exemplary Prödl sold Gomes short and he gave away a spot kick with a wild swing of the boot. Keystone cops stuff. We’d have taken a point, and gratefully, at this stage.

Instead, Benteke lined up the kick and rolled it delicately to the keeper’s left. Having waited for him to make the call Gomes all but fell on it, and with that the veneer fell from Palace’s performance, the suspicion that their lead – certainly deserved and arguably flattering the Hornets – hadn’t asked an awful lot of the visitors firmed up. Suddenly there was a bit of spirit, even if it didn’t materialise into much for the rest of the half. Sleeves were rolled up, the job was taken in hand.

4- Palace are a truly grimy lot. It’s a source of fascination that so many ostensibly talented players – Benteke and Cabaye most obviously, others too – conform to the traditional Selhurst model of conniving, barging, throwing in an elbow which Big Sam seems unlikely to disrupt. Attention post-match was drawn to Harrygate and Zaha’s late tumble… actually I’ve got some sympathy for the winger; quick feet are always going to draw nervous tackles and if you are getting booted around there has to be some temptation to make challenges visible. Britos was probably lucky in that he made a stupid challenge and another referee might have called a pen. The excellent Clattenburg called it right though – Zaha was on his way down. Less forgivable than Zaha was Cabaye’s inexcusable swallow dive in the second half as he fabricated the illusion of a sandwich challenge and curtailed a tentative Watford attack. That’s not survival, exaggerating a challenge so the ref sees it, that’s just plain cheating.

5- By that time we were level, Seb Prödl winning the pen and Troy slashing it down the centre of the goal after Wayne Hennessey made a big deal out of showing Troy how big an obstacle he was facing before helpfully vacating the centre of the goal of said obstacle. We deserved a point too, in the end, much as our attacking play continued to look like hard work. Palace were there to be beaten, their famously porous defence almost demanding to be exploited, the out of position Joel Ward at left back a particular problem. For the Hornets… Amrabat was excellent but necessarily withdrawn to wing back was further from the fun than you’d want. Guedioura was perpetually as likely a source of something as anyone whilst simultaneously demonstrating why we’re much better off using him as an impact sub at best – his ball retention shocking, the randomness of his contribution not suited to a starting role, let alone alongside a sub-par Capoue. But the back three, by and large, did well, the embers of the Deeney/Ighalo partnership glowed again.

So the disorientation lingers, really. Coming from behind, wresting control of the game from the visitors despite the injury set-backs and selection limitations, all brilliant. Not winning at home to a Palace side that is significantly less than the sum of its parts, not good. Bottom line, though, is that we’re still top half despite injuries ganging up on us, particularly in creative areas… any one of Success, Pereyra and Okaka (who I would consider creative, if in bludgeoning opportunities with a mallet rather than carving them) and today’s game would have been quite different. Bottom line, we’re much better than what Palace showed us today, concerns about relegation remain hysterical.

And having hosted one unpleasant mob it’s kinda convenient to have another turning up a few days later. Nobody bother cleaning up, clearing away the beer cans and emptying the ashtrays, the next lot really aren’t worth it.

Happy New Year all. Yoorns.

Watford 3 Everton 2 (10/12/2016) 11/12/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
25 comments

1- I had a friend once. I still have friends, in fact, but this particular friend isn’t a friend any more, not because we fell out or anything but because we drifted in different directions. She doesn’t seem to indulge in Social Media to permit the illusion of an ongoing relationship that is actually no more than an echo.

Anyway, she came to a few Watford games. She was at Wrexham away midweek in December 1997, so she can’t be faulted for not giving football a go but she absolutely never got it. Whilst others come along and participate, however temporarily, chanting and singing and being submerged, she just watched on nonplussed. She even went as far as deriding the very notion that football was something that could be “discussed”, when I claimed to have spent an evening with friends doing just that. Discussing football was as inconceivable as discussing a colour, a piece of paper, a stretch of tarmac. It had no nuance, it just was.

She was wrong, of course. Plenty of us spend an awful lot of time discussing football, in mind-numbing detail. The only thing that’s remarkable about this to my mind is how it continues despite how inconsequential such discussion is. Our evaluations don’t change, cannot affect reality… none of our opinions, however well formulated, influence a manager’s decisions or a game’s outcome. Where a crowd influences a game it’s a product of a groundswell of opinion, not a conversation.

There’s a point to this thread. It’s to do with the popular grumble about the distance of any youth products from our first team but I’ve spent a lot of your time not talking about the game so I’ll come back to this later…

2- It was pissing it down with rain. Rob McKenna would be able to offer a more colourful description that captured its dreary, mild, inconsequential boredom but suffice to say that it kinda suited the anxiety of the occasion, with this one against our most established bogey side potentially constituting the tipping point between an iffy run and a bit of a problem.

The game started in corresponding fashion. We had the opening chances but it was… anxious, tentative, half-hearted. As if we were waiting for an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves. It came… a looping ball dropped over our defence; Britos was asleep, Gomes came out and hesitated, Lukaku slipped the ball home and we looked forward to expanding our catalogue of ways not to beat Everton (current entries including spirited draw, low-key bore, aggravating travesty, miserable humdrum defeat, abject humiliation…).

3- So, back to that thing about youngsters. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Almost anyone. It feels wrong that we have no kids near the first team (injury crises excepted), that our closest thing to a first team youth product is on loan at Blackburn, that Sean Murray dwindled so sadly, that Michael Folivi, exciting as he may be, will be conscious that Bernard Mensah, Alex Jakubiak, Uche Ikpeazu were all in his place once.

Thing is, when the chips are down experience has its uses. This game was not so much in danger of drifting off into miserable soul-sapping defeat as halfway down the aisle with a bag of snacks checking its seat number. Everton were buoyed by their goal, and whilst Lukaku’s movement and ability to drop into space continued to be their only threat (and target) they were on top and in danger of dragging the game beneath the surface and suffocating it.

That’s where the experience comes in. The bullishness. Valon Behrami, chasing down dawdled balls as the visitors slowed the game down, setting an example. Sebastian Prödl, monstrous again, bullying Lukaku out of possession. Nordin Amrabat taking responsibility, committing people again and again. Stefano Okaka, a broad-shouldered thunderous force of nature. Troy… just, Troy. Crashing into a header to Okaka, Okaka releasing Amrabat and meeting his cross with a balletic flicked backheel and – here’s the extraordinary bit – at the near post. We have someone attacking the near post. Crazy.

4- Less crazy is the number of leaders we have in this side, in stark contrast to our visitors who looked utterly rudderless. Ashley Williams is Wales’ captain but the defence was fretful throughout; Gareth Barry has skippered his country but beyond his usual trick of more or less judging how hard and frequently he could put the boot in without attracting sanction his influence was limited. This is a side with better, more prominent youngsters than us – Barkley, Deulofeu, Lukaku, Funes Mori – and they weren’t able to hack it.

Meanwhile Prödl snarled into an immaculate challenge on Lukaku. Okaka flew in decisively on Coleman. There was only one direction this game was travelling. Perversely it was set pieces, so often our bugbear, that got us there… the comically bad-tempered Holebas swinging in a corner for Prödl to thunder home and another for Okaka to flick in with Troy there to confirm. In and around that Prödl got underneath another, Britos ghosted in to a deep cross to force an impossible save from Stekelenburg. We could have been further ahead.

5- It doesn’t pay to get carried away. This was a mighty win that spoke volumes for our character and the options in our squad but it was thrilling rather than high quality… the defence was get-attable throughout, Lukaku pulling one back having been afforded an exclusion zone in the penalty area as Koeman’s changes afforded the visitos some options.

But thrilling and seventh in the table will do, for now. As above, this was a pivotal game, defeat would have been four in five with Man City on Wednesday. Now, having come from a goal down, that’s a free punch. And we do pack a punch.

But don’t discuss it with anyone will you?

This is likely to be the last BHappy report before Christmas, so have a good one…

Yoorns.

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