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Watford 2 Arsenal 1 (14/10/2017) 15/10/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  The 1980s, then.  You’ll have a position, no doubt.  Mine tends to depend on what mood I’m in and who’s asking.  Dad’s rather dismissive attitude towards anything since the mid-seventies tends to rather force me into a defensive stance citing the icons of my childhood but there’s little reasonable argument in support of Thatcher, big hair bands or velour tracksuits.

This evening featured some 80s flashbacks of its own, some welcome and some less so.  In the latter category, the outbreak of fighting in the Rookery as some witless Arsenal incursion was met aggressively. This was far enough away from us not to be an immediate issue, but close enough for the always anxious Daughter 2 to dwell upon it despite all that happened after. Slightly depressing that the incursion of away fans in home ends that happens in all grounds at most games, mates sitting with mates and so on, is still necessarily low key because of idiots like these.

On the upside.  Well.  The 1980s was by and large a spectacular time to support Watford, as those of us fortunate enough (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) to be impressionable during this period could testify.  We took on all comers.  We had guts, and style, and bravado.  We won games like this.

There’s another eighties nostalgia detail of course, but we’ll get to that…

2-  We’ve noted this before, but if you were to list the things you missed about the Second Division, floodlit matches at the Vic would be up there.  And no, this wasn’t strictly an evening game but the sun was on its way home for “Strictly” and beans on toast by kick-off and the marvellous focused intensity of such occasions was thick in the air.  The 1881’s latest magnificent flag shrouded the Rookery as the teams came out and then rattled back down the stand like an opening curtain on the spectacle.

Team news had revealed Andre Gray back in for Troy, Pereyra for the jet-lagged Carrillo and a switch to a back three with Miguel Britos returning to the fold.  As an aside, telling that already we look at such a change from Silva and trust it instinctively.  Mazzarri never earned that confidence.

The first half was absorbing, if not thrilling.  With Doucouré loping around the pitch and dictating our play we enjoyed more of the possession and territory…  but the visitors’ attacks had more menace about them.  This arose in part because the Gunners pressurised us high up the pitch and forced us to either move backwards or to resort to longer passes that didn’t suit Gray, once again willing and industrious but limited in his effectiveness.  Much of our penetration came through Richarlíson, Pereyra twisting to try to divert a cross goalwards, but we weren’t getting very far.  At the other end the three/five-man defence generally kept Arsenal at arm’s length, resisting the visitors’ efforts to stretch the play by switching flanks, but as the half went on they were getting closer than we were.  Elneny clouted narrowly over, Bellerín flicked a shot wide.  Five minutes before the break when we’d have gratefully taken all square at half time, Per Mertesacker crashed in Xhaka’s corner.  Aggravating…  we’d done enough, only to stuff up on a set piece.  Half time arrived to a backdrop of grumbles about about zonal marking.

3- In such circumstances, going behind avoidably shortly before half time to one of the big sides, you expect the match to pan out a certain way.  That it didn’t reflects upon both sides.  Our lot we’ll get to, though tales of guts and spirit and ability to hurt teams should already be a surprise to nobody.

But as for Arsenal…  it’s no mystery, and no great insight, but this side is completely gutless.  As ever, Troy put it best…

Ability, yes, even allowing for rested stars and injured defenders.  But no spirit, and no leaders.  No leaders for a long time, actually.  Not even the utterly likeable “BFG” Mertesacker, who showed class by treating Richarlíson’s cramp late on in the midst of what had built gradually to an onslaught in the second half.  Mertesacker is an experienced, respected player but he’s not a warrior.  Arsenal haven’t had one of them for an age.  And we have them in spades…

4- Not least the man who came off the bench on the hour for a tour de force.  Critically, Arsenal’s pressing game that had so disrupted our attempts to build an attack had dissipated instantly on their taking the lead.  Throughout the second period we had loads of space… but had still been struggling to make the ball stick.  Richarlíson, the one dependable source of penetration, did a sterling job in the wake of concerted attention, but the arrival of Deeney with that look in his eyes changed the game entirely.

Mertesacker’s first league start for eighteen months has been cited as a silver lining for the visitors, but he was completely unable to cope with Deeney despite his six inch advantage, and very quickly looked like a player who was out of practice.  Troy was in full battle mode, relishing every confrontation, setting down a challenge and finding no takers.  He added glue to our attacking play and those around him thrived on it.

Arsenal weren’t out of it.  Özil came off the bench and was soon significant in counter-attacks that could have seen us put to bed by Iwobi, denied by Gomes, or by the German himself who fluffed a good chance on his weaker foot. But we were on the front foot by midway through the half, to the extent that even a 1-0 defeat would likely have been met with an ovation.  We didn’t roll over, we gave it some.

But we didn’t lose 1-0.  Because from Özil’s miss, we broke…

5- Whether you think it was a penalty depends rather on who you support, I suspect.  Certainly, the definitive condemnation of Richarlíson that accompanies even the more even handed of Arsenal reports already up on the web are ludicrous, since TV replays don’t reveal the extent of the contact, the extent to which he was tripped or exaggerated.

What’s beyond doubt is that tickets win raffles, and so forth.  Richarlíson had been running at Bellerín all night – that doesn’t earn him the right to a penalty if no contact was made, but it does increase the chances of his marker getting his timing wrong just once.  The Brazilian’s treatment this evening was less brutal than it has been in other games where, equally, he has gotten up again and kept going but nonetheless, his irrepressible refusal to take or give his marker a breather means stuff like this will happen.

Arsène Wenger would have done well to remember the penalty Alexis Sanchez earned in generous circumstances in this fixture last season before bleating too much about this one, but I don’t begrudge him his moan.  Indeed, he contributed to what could hardly have been a more comprehensive eighties tribute had he brought Kenny Sansom on to sit on his arse at left back whilst David Bardsley was jetted in from the US to sprint past him.  Again.  The other thing about the eighties, of course, is that We Always Beat The Arsenal….  P14 W9 D1 L4, if you’re counting, that including an FA Cup Quarter Final in our first season up in the second tier, and a relegation season.  This is now our third win in four.

6- Only one team was going to win this.  That’s not to say that it was always coming… indeed when Étienne Capoue’s drive thudded off Mertesacker’s chest and onto a post we’d clocked that this probably wasn’t going to happen, and when Carrillo rushed a good opening to fire over we’d resigned ourselves to a very respectable point.

So the winner was a thing of beauty in it’s scruffiness, exactly the sort of goal that Arsenal would never have scored.  There was finesse in there too, the unstoppable Deeney with the presence of mind to pull back from wide… but mostly it was pinball and determination and bloody-mindedness.  What a joy it was that it was Cleverley, so meriting and so needing a goal, who clouted the decisive strike through the debris of Arsenal’s defence in a manner that recalled his captain against Leicester four years earlier.  The roof came off;  I had a rush of blood and almost fainted.  Daughters one and two screamed uncontrollably.

7- The mood post-match was special, reflecting the value in this win above “mere” three points.  Hands were shaken in the concourse, embraces were shared.  Grins and salutes, no need to articulate this.  Bloody come on.

We go to Stamford Bridge now knowing that even a defeat is likely to leave us in the top six a quarter of the way through the season.  No flash in the pan, this.  Enjoy…

Yoorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 3, Holebas 5, Mariappa 4, Kabasele 4, Britos 3, Doucouré 5, Cleverley 5, Pereyra 4, Richarlíson 4, Gray 3

Subs:  *Deeney (for Gray, 63) 5*, Carrillo (for Mariappa, 63) 3, Capoue (for Pereyra, 81) 0, Janmaat, Wagué, Watson, Karnezis

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West Bromwich Albion 2 Watford 2 (30/09/2017) 01/10/2017

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

1- Losing your voice.  That’s the one.  That’s when you know that it’s been a belter, that it’s been worthwhile.  Lots of components make up an away day on and off the pitch…  result, performance, excitement.  Journey, company, food.  Some of which might be more important to you and some less, but losing your voice, as a marker, trumps everything.  Doesn’t matter that it was wet, doesn’t matter that I scraped the bloody car again.  It occurred to me as I noticed the rawness in my throat on the way home that this hasn’t happened a lot recently – it used to be a regular thing.  Maybe I shouted more when we were crap, but I’ve never been a ranter and raver.  Maybe I’m getting old; maybe kids demand a degree of decorum.

As for them… they’d been less attentive than usual.  Daughter 2 in particular seems to have fallen out of love with standing on her seat, and so huddled sombrely in the shadows for the most part.  Daughter 1 seemed distracted too, though she was paying enough attention to ask how it was possible to enjoy so much possession and still be behind midway through the second half.  When it happened though… when it happened they were rapt and then as utterly caught up in the explosion of noise and disbelief as the rest of us.  The first proper mental I’ve had this season (I missed Swansea, perhaps that was similar).  Prolonged yelling, bodies flying around, trying to do justice to the beauty of the moment.  Gomes, up for the corner, able to join in the celebration for once. Come on.  Come on!!!

2- All of which seemed very unlikely ninety minutes earlier.  After a strong opening quarter of an hour or so, a quarter of an hour that had seen us dominate possession without, admittedly, getting terribly close to opening the scoring, Albion had taken the lead.  There had been portents of what was to come, long balls out of that resolute defence designed to catch us on our heels…  and one did.  Kabasele, who had had a wobbly start to the game, got into a horrible mess with Mariappa; Rondón, who was otherwise quiet, bundled through regardless, resisted Kabasele’s feeble attempt to batter him out of his stride and finished from a narrow angle.  Three minutes later we were still coming to terms with the shift in the balance of power when Albion’s trademark set piece involving bodies flying into the box saw them extend their lead.

It could have gone badly in so many ways from here.  In fact it has done, many many times.  I like coming to the Hawthorns but our record here over the years has been rubbish. We’ve been in this position before and seen Bob Taylor or Lee Hughes propel Albion into unassailable leads from just such situations.  We looked briefly woebegone and beaten and, with Man City still fresh in our minds, we feared this could get ugly.  Heurelho Gomes bawled at some slack marking from another set piece.  Tom Cleverley bellowed André Carrillo into shambling vaguely towards his charge at a corner.  We waited for the game that tends to follow in such situations to unravel, our hope that it would be over quickly.

3- So that it didn’t turn out that way speaks volumes about our character.  Quality too, obviously;  we regained the initiative and had a ridiculous amount of the ball thereafter, ridiculous enough for a half-attentive eleven year old to remark upon it.  But Albion’s resolute wall of bodies, a wall which executed an impossible number of blocks as we cranked it up in the second half, doesn’t tolerate or permit much quality.  No, it was our character that was tested, our determination, belief, focus.  No half-arsedness here (after that five minute slump…) whatever our limitations and whatever the frustration of yet another attack foundering on an Albion forehead.  It was ferociously bloody-minded and a point was the least that it deserved.

So it started gently… Deeney’s inclusion over Gray reflected the physical demands of the game, not least in defending set pieces given the relative lack of height that our centre back options afforded us, but as highlighted by the closing minutes at Swansea the “partnership” between him and Richarlison looks a natural one.  The first real opening came from them; Troy releasing the Brazilian into the box and his square ball presenting Carrillo with an opportunity that deserved better than being headed over.  Two minutes later Doucouré, our playmaker throughout the afternoon, surged into space to benefit from more good link-up between Deeney and Richarlison to narrow the deficit, a fine finish with his weaker foot.  The noise in the Albion stands, which had briefly reprised the Nyom nonsense that was already tedious by half time last season, died completely and didn’t return until the 85th minute.  The balance of power had changed again, and we were applauded in at the interval.

4- It would be wrong to describe the second half as one way traffic, but the Hornets dominated possession once again.  Pereyra was introduced for Capoue, which proved critical;  the Frenchman had a decent enough hour and had seen one drive deflected narrowly wide but he looks heavy and our ability – once again – to last the full ninety was to be decisive.  Pereyra danced onto the pitch, quickly executed his “wrong footing the stadium” thing and was crucial to our ball retention thereafter. If we weren’t knocking the door down with a sledgehammer then we were rapping repeatedly and annoyingly…

Our midfield misses Chalobah, but I’m surprised and pleased by the fact that it still functions well without him – less dependent on him than suspected.  If a Prödl or a Kaboul might have rendered either of Albion’s goals less likely, then our midfield at least still works… Cleverley a dynamo, Doucouré at the heart of everything, tremendous support from the wings.  José Holebas executed an heroic block to deny McClean in injury time…

5- …preceding the defining instant of the game.  One can only assume that Tony Pulis isn’t a Sheldon fan since his post-match comments were pitiful, borne of a mind aggravated beyond the capacity for rational thought.  I like Albion, and I like the fact that Pulis exists (managing someone else, natch).  I admire the unashamedly uncompromising approach, sucking the life out of a game and trampling on its carcass.  Yes, we dominated possession but got relatively little out of it…  whilst Albion broke once and converted a set piece and were two nil up.  No accident.

But you can’t reasonably complain about timekeeping when your side have been wasting time since the hour mark and had quickly been warned about such behaviour by ref Michael Oliver.  Leave aside the fact that the board is a minimum, not a stick to beat the ref with, leave aside the fact that you’ve still got to defend (as Pulis, in fairness, conceded).  You live by the sword, you die by the sword.  And the smug, cowardly belittling of the official’s decision to award the free kick at all just made Pulis look like an idiot.  McClean telegraphed his intent with a Britos-esque approach and if he stopped short of taking Richarlíson out and went for the ball then he nonetheless scissored him with both leading and trailing legs.  If there’s anything more gratifying than a late equaliser it’s a late equaliser in injury time provoked by timewasting at the hands of a petulant little thug of a winger.  Lovely.

6- So if Pulis is the muppet of the hour, Richarlíson is surely the hero.  As is increasingly the case, Albion attempted to bully the young Brazilian out of the game; Craig Dawson, all trailing arms and late tackles, the prime culprit. As ever, the youngster didn’t give a damn.  Since coming off the bench on the opening day, Richarlíson has missed ten minutes of football – despite being frequently targeted, despite being four months out of his teens. He’s quick and clever but tough and brave too.  Good in the air, yes, what a perfect header but we knew that too.  What today demonstrated was his resilience since he didn’t get it right every time, he did look silly once or twice.  This is a kid in a new country who doesn’t speak the language, if he’d retreated into his shell you’d have forgiven him.  Instead, he provoked this.

The remarkable thing, perhaps the most remarkable thing, the thing that perhaps defines our opening to the season as we head into an international break is that underlying the euphoria and the defiance is a tinge of disappointment.  We went to West Brom, a tough place to go where we’ve such a miserable record.  We went two goals down in traditional circumstances.  We came from behind to salvage a point with a glorious injury time header.  And yet…  and yet.  We should have won.  We know we should have won.

Enjoy the break.  Bring on the Arsenal…

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 4, Mariappa 3, Kabasele 2, Doucouré 4, Capoue 3, Carrillo 3, Cleverley 4, *Richarlison 4*, Deeney 3

Subs: Pereyra (for Capoue, 62) 4, Gray (for Carrillo, 75) 3, Karnezis, Janmaat, Britos, Hughes, Watson

 

Watford 2 Bristol City 3 (22/08/2017) 23/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- You have to ask yourself, at what point does an odd pattern stop being an odd pattern and start becoming accepted as “the new normal”, to adopt a horrible phrase.  When does it stop being surprising?  I suppose it depends on the circumstances…  Britain’s naval supremacy was unchallenged until the advent of the submarine, which changed the game entirely but at least there was an event.  Something to point at and say “this has changed because of that”.  Difficult to accept, difficult to reconcile to, but nonetheless cause and effect.  Easy to understand.

At what point does our recent inability to compete in the League Cup stop being worthy of comment?  For avoidance of doubt, and whilst you’ve no doubt been made painfully familiar with these stats since 10pm or so last night, that’s nine seasons in eleven that we’ve gone out to lower league opposition (for the record, City, Gillingham, Preston, Doncaster, Bradford, Bristol Rovers, Notts County, Leeds and Southend). Only once, Brendan Rodgers’ side’s run to the Quarter Finals before defeat to Spurs nine years ago, have we put together a “run”, and that felt as much of an aberration then as it does now.

2- Nontheless…  at kick-off there was a positive vibe.  There’s no denying it.  By half-time my brother, with a masochistic gleam in his eye perhaps prompted by the fact that he really doesn’t get here very often and resents this being one of the rare occasions, was proclaiming that he would henceforth only turn up for the League Cup second round.  But at kick off, we were buoyant.  We’d put one over on Bournemouth, and looked exciting and positive and vibrant in the two League games so far.

Further, squint at that Watford side and – despite the whole “we only made six changes to their nine” thing – if one puts the most ambitious spin on how the rest of our transfer window will go that’s not too far from a second string eleven.  Of the “first choice” players in the eleven Gomes, Holebas and Amrabat are all at risk of being ousted if the players we’re linked to are any guide, Deeney and Prödl might already be second choice (I maintain that Kaboul/Britos is our likeliest pair in a four) and whilst Richarlison is wonderful  you do fancy that Pereyra/Cleverley/Carillo might be the first choice three for the moment should the latter come off.  So… that’s a reserve side, and quite a fine one.

3- It wasn’t a fine performance tho.  You know that, you don’t need me to tell you that.  A couple of qualifiers, though.  Firstly, for all that this was a “lower division side” it was in some ways the most exacting test so far of our new system, our new zip.  Bristol City are “a lower division side” in that they’re lower than us but they’re a decent enough Championship team, no Cheltenham or Cambridge this (from other nightmares of League Cup past).  Yes, they made changes too and yes, we should still have expected to beat them on our own patch but nonetheless… no mugs.  More to the point there’s a world of difference between executing a zippy passing game against a Liverpool or a Bournemouth that are going to offer you space to do so, and against a side putting banks behind the ball, and with a monstrous centre-half in the coveted Aden Flint (one of the many “team changes”) who seemed to have a magnet on his head.  Not that we shouldn’t have done better, but let’s not pretend that this was easy for a side with limited competitive action between them thus far.

As it was, the first half offered warnings of what was to come.  We dominated possession, but didn’t get terribly far with it.  Aidy Mariappa crashed a joyful shot well wide early on, very much in the spirit of  “we’re going to enjoy this”.  And then… and then…  faced with a solid and disciplined barrier, faced with a lack of sharpness, it all became too deliberate, too cautious, too slow.  Richarlison stood up well to being given a couple of understandable “trick your way out of this, son” kicks up the backside and was our likeliest weapon throughout but was often double marked and unable to turn his ability into a reliable supply of crosses.  Meanwhile whilst City barely threatened either they did expose our defence more than once, Kabasele too easily pulled out of position, Prödl too easily turned, Holebas expensively booked for a rather sulky lunge.  Had Diedhiou reacted more sharply to being given a glimpse of a run at goal we might have been made to pay earlier.

4- As it was we were level at half time.  Silva has criticised his team for lack of professionalism, lack of taking City seriously, expecting to win being the unspoken addendum.  I think the crowd were guilty of that too…  there was no fretting at the interval, a rueful nod to the reliably unsatisfying stage of this competition but no panic. It was going to happen.  As Isaac Success prepared to make an entrance my brother and I pondered whether the unproductive Amrabat or the joyful but vulnerable Richarlison would be withdrawn…. the former, as it turned out.  “Tricks and Chaos” we exclaimed, and daughter 2 was in no confusion as to which was which, screaming “Chaos” gleefully at Success as he made his first slaloming run.  (As an aside, both daughters making their evening debuts, both of their enjoyment continuing to be unrelated to events on the pitch – daughter 2 spilling her fish and chips more of an issue than the football).

And it would be wrong to paint this as a thoroughly miserable evening because it wasn’t.  Our opening goal was a fine, fine thing… Hughes and Success combining to send Capoue through.  No failing on City’s part, just an excellent piece of lock-picking.  And again… if the team relaxed then so did we.  I certainly thought “job done” at that stage, since City hadn’t threatened much.  And so whilst a lot of what we saw was inadequate we nearly got away with it.  The decisive moment was former Luton teenager Freddy Hinds picking up the ball in the centre circle and galloping off with it.  At that stage, Ben Watson might have kicked him over, he didn’t.  Perhaps that’s a good thing, we can comfort ourselves with his integrity in considering the cost of Holebas executing two similar fouls.  Nonetheless… off Hinds scampered before placing a fine shot low to Gomes’ right which, nonetheless, you rather feel he should have done better with.

5 – And then it all ran away from us.  True, we made a few more chances – as above, not an evening without any merit.  The best came when Richarlison struck an evil cross-field ball with the outside of his right foot to find Success galloping in from the left.  Success sent the ball to the far post where the Brazilian somehow teleported himself to crash a header, neck muscles stretched, against the foot of the post.  A thing of beauty, so nearly magnificent.

But City had the bit between their teeth.  A nothing to lose game for them in which it was clear that their set-up and personnel combated our limitations very effectively.  Two more goals on the break, the second of which prompted a mass exodus.  This was the highlight of daughter 1’s account later, largely because we stayed and we got to see Adrian Mariappa’s goal.  Cold comfort for most but, as above, at least the girls enjoyed the evening which got significantly worse on the toss of another coin;  Holebas must have had visions of pulling us level with a fine volley at 2-1 down but air-kicked, and within seconds was slouching off having hacked down the escaping red shirt in frustration.

6- So what do we learn?  Firstly that it’s not going to be a cakewalk, and much as we knew that already it’s maybe good that the bubble was burst in the League Cup rather than the Premier League given that we’re always rubbish in it anyway.  Two, that whilst Aidy Mariappa is a decent centre-back the days when we could pretend he was a right back are probably behind us.  Three…. well.  Troy.  What have we learned?  Heavy and immobile he is certainly short of fitness and so 90 plus mins here was a Good Thing.  But you wonder whether he has the mobility to operate effectively in that central role.  Best judged when fit, perhaps.  Beyond that… harsh to judge individuals based on this, the team didn’t work and you wouldn’t rule many of these out of doing a job in a first team that already looks much more proficient under Silva than this lot.  But then, you wouldn’t suggest that anyone really made a case either.

And so to Saturday, when Brighton come calling with a new winger and a freshly fit old chum in Anthony Knockaert, whilst we have one available full back.  Another test.  Yooorns….

Gomes 2, Mariappa 2, Holebas 2, Prödl 2, Kabasele 2, Watson 3, Capoue 2, Amrabat 2, Hughes 3, *Richarlison 3*, Deeney 2

Subs: Success (for Amrabat, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 70) 3, Cleverley (for Capoue, 79) 0, Britos, Chalobah, Cathcart, Pantilimon

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.