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Watford 1 Leicester City 5 (15/05/2022) 16/05/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
39 comments

1-  Pigeons are rubbish.

“Rats with wings”, but more stupid.  Our old place in Woodside had an uncapped chimney, a pigeon was stupid enough to fall down it at one point as we discovered when the living room filled with bluebottles an unknowable time later.  I was at Vicarage Road when I got the “I’m going to stay with my sister…” message.  The bloke who came round to check out the chimney said he’d happily charge me for capping it but he recommended not to bother, I’d been very unlucky the first time.  He was wrong.

I live more rurally now.  No chimney though, critically.  There are still pigeons – wood pigeons, two huge bastards that nest out the back.  The main difference that I’ve been able to discern between wood pigeons and feral pigeons is their size, and thus critically the capacity of their backsides.  This was capably demonstrated at some point this morning prior to our 11am departure with sizeable deposits all over the car and, critically, decorating the passenger side window.  Daughter 2 approached said door, gave me a look, and nestled into the back seat with her ears plugged in.

This may have been a sign.

2- The portents continue at the ground, which is emptier even than it was on Wednesday,  great swathes of empty seats stain the stands.  Dave is here, to glumly observe that even the weather isn’t right… it should be sunny for the final home game of the season.  Kick-off is preceded by the awarding of Player of the Season to an enthusiastic but error-prone full back who arrived in January.   I voted for Hassane Kamara too, but that his award was so widely expected is an indictment in itself.  The victor, confined to the bench on this occasion, looked suitably awkward.

This was followed by the introduction of Rob Edwards, presenting the Supporter of the Season award to Shay Murray.  So far so good…  if waving at the crowd and looking pleased to be here was all there was to it he’d be smashing it already.

But he’ll need to blow a gale through the corridors of Vicarage Road. This was the game that we’d feared on Wednesday.  A scratch side, made up of the scattered debris of a squad that has proven incapable of staying in the Premier League when at full strength…  fringe players, along with the few senior players neither injured nor “injured”.  We were lucky to get away with it once, but a second time against a side both luxuriating in mid-table gentleness and with the sharpness on the break to expose our (many) anxious slips and tumbles was not going to be as accommodating.

3- The one positive from a miserable afternoon was João Pedro, who led the line with a single-mindedness and maturity that was all the more impressive for the paucity of leadership around him and (particularly) further afield.  He was at the heart of a decent enough opening to the game which featured one effort off the bar, a decent save from Danny Ward and an opening goal after Leicester did their panicky bumbling around at the back thing in response to Samuel Kalu’s first corner and the Brazilian drove home via a deflection.

For a while, all was well.  Indeed, Leicester’s defence looked accommodating whenever presented with a problem too complex for Wesley Fofana to sweep up one-on-one but we didn’t capitalise… whereas every Leicester attack caused us palpitations.  Despite having the better of the opening ten minutes or so we’d already looked vulnerable and we ushered in the rest of the game with the opening goal.  Felix would later wonder what the results of the week said about Everton, but the Toffees were never gifted opportunities like this.

The first was the worst, Adam Masina inexplicably charging across the penalty area to contest a ball that wasn’t his with Craig Cathcart, taking his teammate out in the process without clearing the ball and leaving City three on one with the inevitable conclusion.  James Maddison tapped into an empty net completing a full house having also netted in our other similarly inglorious encounters this season.

Within five minutes we were behind.  Edo Kayembe was to dig in later in the game but endured a cumbersome start to the game, culminating in passing straight to James Maddison when trying to release Sema down the left.  Maddison dropped a ball to the edge of the box which Foster came charging out to completely miss as Vardy headed the ball miserably over him and into an empty net.

Having held out adequately on Wednesday, here we had handed the visitors a lead from a winning position.

4- And City, fuelled with the confidence gleaned from putting the ball in the net, were much more impressive in the second half, mercilessly converting the chances we offered them on the break.  This – attacking on the break – is something we might have been good at…. witness the pace of Sarr and Dennis, witness also the big wins over United and Everton.  We’ve not been ahead often enough, not demanded enough concerted pressure of opponents over the course of the season to exploit that hypothetical but irrelevant strength.

We switched to 3-5-2 at the start of the second half with Kamara replacing Dan Gosling in a midfield that had been galloped through too often in the first, Gosling himself only interrupting City’s progress with a series of fouls that should have earned him a card.  The shift should have put more bodies in the middle of the park with Ngakia and Kamara pushing up as wing backs.

Before that theory could be tested, City were further ahead  as Barnes converted a sweeping pass from half time sub Marc Albrighton.  The game was over.  We made some nice attacking moves later in the game, João Pedro again at the centre of things and Sissoko plugging away providing threat from the flanks.

Not enough.  Not nearly enough.  There followed two further sharply taken goals from City as the Vicarage Road campaign concluded with a fitting lack of anything enjoyable whatsoever.

5- “Part of the ups and downs” consoled Dave and Rob sagely as Daughter 2’s face betrayed the afternoon’s ordeal on the way up Occupation Road.  That logic holding, we’re owed a hell of an “up” at some point soon.  It’s questionable whether we’ve had a more miserable season in the 40+ that I’ve been following the club, certainly none as ungrateful to the home support, a home support that have been treated to one point and nine goals (with 34 against) in 13 games since that United win.

There are few of the consolations of previous bad relegations;  in 2000 and 2007 we had teams punching above their weight who ran out of luck.  1988 was awful, but the bitterest pills had been the previous summer and a rebuild was already suggested.  1996 was miserable, but offset by a tragically magnificent late charge and the promise of what was to come.

This season has been charmless and shambolic.  The challenge of being promoted out of a pandemic shouldn’t be discounted… we were always up against it, a newly promoted Watford (rather than a Villa or a Newcastle) is always going to be running uphill.  But a challenge can be steep and the response utterly miserable.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

As we returned to the car we found the drizzle had begun to sort the pigeons’ gifts out, their memory slowly washing away.  That’s the best hope for this season, as neither it nor the wilfully charmless manager who presided over it’s conclusion will be missed.

If you’re braving Chelsea, good luck – I’ll be at a wedding in Snowdonia, but will be back for all the usual summer stuff.  Enjoy the break, we’ve all earned one.

Yoorns.

Foster 1, Ngakia 2, Masina 1, Cathcart 1, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 3, Gosling 1, Kalu 1, Sema 2, *João Pedro 4*
Subs: Kamara (for Gosling, 45) 2, Etebo (for Sema, 81) NA, Cukur, Baah, Morris, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Bachmann

Watford 0 Everton 0 (12/05/2022) 12/05/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-  There aren’t many things that I genuinely hate about following Watford.

Even the rubbish things are OK really, much as you wouldn’t always choose them outright.  The Cup Final becomes part of the rich and varied landscape as it disappears ever further behind us in the rear-view mirror (and in common with everything pre-pandemic, might as well have been 20 years ago).  The grimness of of the catering in the away end at Stamford Bridge has to be suffered once a season at worst.  The crime against humanity that was the gents toilets at Fellows Park, Walsall is now the stuff of legend.

Ditto Scarborough away, and countless other stupid trips to watch ridiculously bad football.  If you’re in it just for the football itself you’re going to have a very miserable existence, as others have observed.  Don’t like some of these things, wouldn’t choose these things, fine.  But “hate” is a strong word.

I hate moments of conflict within Watford’s support.  Not… dispute about a particular player.  Or Paul getting all silly about black shorts again.  That’s fine, that’s normal.  But I don’t like conflict, I’m not very good at it… and at times when the sentiment towards the club is hostile, justified or otherwise and whether or not there’s confrontation between supporters…   it shatters the illusion that we’re in this together.  That for two hours on a Saturday afternoon we’re all the same, we are the club as much as anything is.  I like that illusion, it’s a big part of why I’m here.  To be part of a tribe of like-minded well-raised people.

2- I wasn’t looking forward to this evening.  This is rare, for any game whatever the circumstances; my seat in the Rookery has been My Seat for 23 years now and is a happy place, even if Daughter 2 thinks that she owns it now (she’s wrong).

But whatever your position on where we are and whose fault it is…  surely nobody was looking forward to this one.  The confirmation of our relegation at Selhurst Park was followed immediately by Roy Hodgson’s unusual behaviour post-match, and then the revelation of our sudden and suspicious injury list.

For all of it there’s mitigation if you want to look for it.  Gino/Scott… yes, another terrible season but, you know, ten years of which six in the top flight plus two promotions plus one more play-off final, a cup final, a semi-final.  Not bad is it?  Sheffield Wednesday were relegated with us in 2000, much bigger City, much bigger fanbase, not been to the top flight since, they’d kill for that.  I don’t doubt Roy’s assertion that he believes he’s here to manage the team not to perform for supporters – and after all, he left Palace during a pandemic, natural that he’d want to take an opportunity to say his farewells.  Far classier than coming back during Patrick Vieira’s opening months and watching on, passing judgement like a lingering houseguest.  And the team availability…  I don’t want to see Sarr and Dennis ambling around again if their heads aren’t in the game.  I don’t want them to get injured either if our financial stability is reliant on getting the best we can for them.  I can quite believe that Kucka, Cleverley, Kiko have been playing whilst held together with sellotape, a sacrifice no longer justifiable.

The above isn’t quite fair, either.  Gino and Scott HAVE presided over a miserable failure.  Roy’s conduct might have seemed quaint if he’d been doing it as someone else’s manager but was crass, arrogant and insensitive as ours.  Sarr and Dennis owe us something, they’re being well played by Watford (yes, “us”) to play football when we say so not when they can get themselves up for it.

But there’s got to be some balance.  Based on social media before the game I’d expected pitchforks, banners, and angry mobs. I don’t want that.  Mere incompetence doesn’t deserve that, there’s all sorts going on elsewhere that does.  The fear was that this was only going one way, and all it would take would be for us to fall behind.

3- Which, mercifully, doesn’t happen.  There are occasional gentle suggestions that some folk are ready to spring into action at the first set-back, but on a pleasant, warm evening with the mid-May sun catching the Rookery in a manner that the football calendar rarely permits it to do it’s a pleasant surprise to find that five minutes in we’re not three goals behind and nobody has been tarred or feathered.  Erica from New Mexico is here – no Daughters 1 or 2 on a school night – and feels rather short changed after my glum build-up.  There’s not even any evidence of the Mr Angry who was a source of fascination on her previous away trips.

It’s a patched-up team with back-ups in at full-back, in midfield and in the wide attacking positions.  The bench features three centre-backs and three academy forwards all making their debuts in a matchday squads.  (“Those guys are the seat-warmers, right?”.  “Bench warmers, Erica”).  Burnley and Leeds might feel justified in being peeved, but only for as long as it takes them to remember our supine collapses against both here with our first team.

Everton feature both Richarlíson and Abdoulaye Doucouré, who receive contrasting receptions, as well as Fabian Delph, sent off here on the Toffees’ last visit shortly before the pandemic lockdown in what felt like a critically expensive defeat.  They are roared on by an impossibly boisterous following who seem, from this distance, to have done an extraordinary job of mobilising behind their team in an hour of urgency (you know, “supporting” and such like – it’ll never catch on).

There’s a stoicism about our play.  Not much more than stoicism, admittedly, but let’s be realistic… we’ve been falling quickly and any kind of foothold, anything to stay the momentum is welcome. On WhatsApp, my co-editor asks why the League Cup first round is being played in May – and there’s something of that annual landmark’s curiosity about the return to view of some fringe players.  Former Evertonian Dan Gosling – whose ability to time runs into the box must surely owe something to having spent two years playing with Tim Cahill – does an inconspicuously disciplined job… scrapping, scraping, getting a foot in.  For someone who’s not played all season he’s straight back on his game.  So too is Jeremy Ngakia, who is bold and assertive while Samuel Kalu is far more convincing than during his most recent cameo at Molineux.  The world doesn’t collapse.  We’re doing OK.

4- It is, however, a monumentally terrible game.  Quite epically banal stuff, the 1970s supermarket own brand corn flakes of Premier League football. If you’re here for entertainment you’re going to be sorely disappointed;  the visitors stir themselves occasionally, Richarlíson brings a fabulous save from Foster, Demarai Gray’s game flickers in keeping with his entire career – rolling a ball so nearly , nearly… but wide across the face of goal before he completely disappears again.  Watford don’t manage a shot on target, and don’t even pretend to get a shot on target.

Fortunately, nobody’s here for entertainment.  Everton’s need is purely practical, and if there’s an edge to their anxiety it’s abated by Leeds capsizing once again elsewhere.  The Toffees could still go down, but they’ll need to try harder than this to achieve that goal in the face of some pretty stiff competition.  Watford, meanwhile, have progressed beyond the cheap, commercial sphere dictated by points and goal difference and now operate on a purely spiritual level.  Those who haven’t achieved this state of zen won’t have been quite as enamoured with what might, on the face of it and to the untrained eye, appear to be nothing more than eleven blokes passing the ball around reasonably competently, not terribly progressively but at least putting on a show of giving a shit.  To those in the know it’s a stark, nihilistic art exhibit.  Even Erica, who still doesn’t know quite what to expect, declares herself happy with a cod and chips from Fry Days and a brief, furious and wonderfully irrational tirade at the linesman on the nearside who she threatens with physical violence.  A born football (soccer) fan.

That Watford’s lack of ambition is shamelessly straight out of Roy Hodgson’s playbook evades nobody.  He was brought in to keep us up and has failed to do so… but he has made us more robust and more organised, our away form since he arrived would have been good enough to keep us up if paired with a halfway sensible home record; this was the fourth clean sheet of his tenure when none proceeded it (and the first of the season at home).  Our attack has been increasingly non-existent though, and as Will later grins as we rendezvous outside the Hornet Shop, the late replacement of Kalu with Cathcart is pure trolling on Roy’s behalf for all that it was undertaken to surgically maintain the kicking up the arse of Richarlíson, hitherto undertaken by Samir and Kabasele before his move to the left.  It’s designed to protect a point and does so.

5- That this perversely on-brand substitution provokes barely a clenched fist is symbolic of the transition that the support has made during the final quarter.  The beautifully inane “we’ve got the ball / we’ve lost the ball / we’ll win it back” commentary is a cult-like mantra that lasts twenty minutes solid and stifles even the away end who now know that their side are a short distance from utter humiliation, however theoretical.  The chant will become dull very very quickly on a par with “we’re the right side / we’re the left side” if overused, but it suits the evening down to the ground.  The lesser of two monkeys is off our back as a nil-nil draw against a relegation-threatened side at home is greeted with joy.

The relatively painless transition from looking backwards to looking forwards has been helped by the announcement of Rob Edwards’ appointment earlier in the day, the timing of which transparently with a view to precisely this objective.  Personally… I’m gutted that it wasn’t John Eustace but that’s a sentimental judgement.  Both appear to be the sort of young, positive, British coach that everybody seems to agree is needed with a view to defining a future that isn’t purely reactive and I’ve got no more profound insight than that to offer.  John Eustace is also John Eustace, which is a fine thing in itself but being Rob Edwards might turn out to be pretty cool too.

Let’s see.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Ngakia 3*, Masina 3, Samir 3, Kabasele 3, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 3, Gosling 3, Kalu 3, Sema 2, João Pedro 3
Subs: Cathcart (for Kalu, 86) NA, Etebo (for Kayembe, 89) NA, Cukur, Blake, Grieves, Morris, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Bachmann

Watford 1 Burnley 2 (30/04/2022) 01/05/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- Big Data.

It’s not the new thing any more, not really, but your definition of “new” isn’t quite the same when you’re 50-ish as what it was when you were 15.  Anyway, that’s not the point.  Point is…  if your job is drawing conclusions from numbers, Big Data turns everything on its head.

Traditionally, lack of data was the challenge.  Data needed to be generated, typically, via a survey or a trial or an experiment and that can be slow and expensive.  Now…  we’ve got data coming out of our ears.  Sensors measuring data continuously, social media streams, purchase data, there’s no end of it.  It’s an opportunity, it’s a playground.  Naively, you might imagine that this precludes the need to generate data at all.  Why go to all that trouble when you can simply take a load of stuff that’s already there, stick it in a pot and stir it, see what comes out?

One of the many challenges that Big Data presents is in establishing cause and effect.  If I’m planning a series of experiments I can carefully choose what is manipulated such that I can unequivocally estimate, quantify and assess what happens when I do this or do that.  Big Data is, almost exclusively, uncontrolled.  You can filter your data if you’re lucky – make the people whose behaviour or opinions you are studying as relevant or representative as possible but it’s not a structured environment in the way that an experiment is.  When one thing is changing here, 27 other things are changing as well.  Everything is correlated, and many of these potential factors are hidden from you.

So for example.  The detail of Watford’s miserable home run, as extensive as its been, doesn’t constitute Big Data.  Not yet, not quite.  But the confusion of cause and effect is there.  Most simply, to what degree is the fact that we keep losing games down to the fact that we keep losing games?  “Not at all, we’re just rubbish” might be the kneejerk response but…  if we’re on the back of a good run do we concede a second goal against Burnley?  To what extent does our form influence the opponent’s expectations – does Burnley’s (informed) belief that we will crumble influence their approach and make that outcome more likely?  Does the weight of ten (before today) home defeats on the hop distort the home crowd meaning that any momentum from that direction s harder earned?

Most of all…  identifying what is cause and what is effect is difficult.  Which is which?  (To what degree) are we losing games because we’re shit, or are we shit because we keep losing games?

2- It had all started so well.

Hope may have been extinguished – if not mathematically then realistically – by the defeat to Leeds.  For me, without being too theatrical, everything changes if Sarr’s chance goes in to equalise at 1-0, a sliding doors moment.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a target to aim at and these two home games, if no longer as decisive for us as we’d hoped they might be, still give us proper matches to play rather than dead rubbers.  They matter to Burnley and Everton.

It’s sunny and proper warm, my coat is redundant and draped over the barrier in front of my seat that looks down the steps towards the bottom of the Rookery.  The tannoy’s already on the beach… but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear a Season Ticket holder is taking the final reading of the Watford team.  I’m all for this, all sorts of comedy potential – hope it continues.

And on the pitch, for the first half at least, it’s as if the dwindling of hope has released the shackles.  If the level of quality is variable then the pace of the game, the suggestion of impending violence and the  level of commitment are relentless.  We’re direct from the kick-off, Dennis and Kamara combine down the left; the Clarets are immediately rattled and will stay rattled for a good twenty minutes.

In that time, we take the lead.  The foot has been on the gas since the start but on seven minutes Kiko sends in a deep cross, Samir can’t quite get his head on it but Kucka is lurking at the far post.  What transpires is only clear from the replay – the Slovak takes a touch and then clubs the ball against the bar; it deserves a goal and gets it with a helpful rebound off Tarkowski.  Conveniently a minute’s recognition in memory of young Jasper Cook follows within 30 seconds – rarely has such a tribute been echoed so forcefully.

Minutes later Kucka nearly adds a second from a similar position after some neat interplay; Tarkowski deflects the shot to safety on this occasion but we keep coming, and Kucka in particular will rampage across the midfield throughout the half.  On one occasion he creatively inflicts two casualties in a single movement, leaving the gently welcomed Matěj Vydra hobbling but being penalised for the second.

Two strategies are apparent. Firstly, to capitalise on what seems to have been identified as Nick Pope’s tendency to get caught at his near post:  Kiko’s corners this season don’t suggest such deliberate precision, but he forces the keeper into a flustered save from his first and hits the post in the same general area with his second.  Later, Louza will similarly test Pope at his near top corner with a free kick from the opposite flank.  Secondly, to exploit Burnley’s defence’s lack of pace on the turn… most obviously when Ben Foster hammers a bomb of a pass down the spine of the pitch and into the path of João Pedro who can’t quite get the ball in front of him and eventually takes the shot earlier and higher than he would have liked, thumping it over.  Gloriously route one, ingloriously imperfect in its execution.

3- We should have capitalised on the first half to a greater degree, with or without the benefit of hindsight.  Burnley claw themselves a foothold midway through the half and for all their limitations cause problems more readily than we’d like; Brownhill hits a sweet drive that’s deflected wide, a ball from the left is a touch away from the back of the net.  On the half-hour (ish) Dwight McNeil, who mirrors Sarr in his combination of ability and anxiety, motors into the area and catches a careless leg from Sissoko.  Craig Pawson, who will officiate a volatile game extremely effectively, points to the spot but VAR gives us a reprieve;  a free kick on the edge of the box comes to nothing.  At half time there are grins in the Rookery.  “I remember this….”.  We might even watch Match of the Day tonight.

But the change in tone at the start of the second half is portentous.  It’s about attitude more than strategy… Burnley are limited but focused and aggressive, and in their position their failure to roll over should have been no surprise.  We know from experience how irritating cursory opinions from a media focused on our more glamorous contemporaries are so should be cautious about passing judgment on Sean Dyche’s departure given our limited exposure to his team this season.  No doubt there are manifold intercorrelated factors that contribute to Burnley’s disappointing season as there are in ours.  Beyond question however is that this side has a belief that wasn’t evident in the Clarets side we faced at Turf Moor in Roy’s first game in January and our defending is immediately nervous as the visitors attack at the start of the half.

This nervousness isn’t abetted by the introduction of one-man pub brawl Ashley Barnes on the hour, who plays his pantomime villain role to the max.  How much of the turnaround is down to him is impossible to say (see “Big Data” above) but his aggression gives the Burnley attack a focal point that the much more intimidating and celebrated Wout Weghorst hadn’t provided.   Aaron Lennon warms Ben Foster’s gloves before Barnes interrupts his attempts to start a fight in the area to head at goal from a set piece.  Foster pulls off an impossible stop, the ball spins away off the crossbar and we clear but “it’s coming” and everyone in the ground knows it.

4- Two big issues.

The first is the forward line, which is a bigger issue than just this afternoon…  and accepting all of the above cause and effect stuff…  impossibly frustrating that so much ability is proving so impotent, buckets of embellishment to so little end product.  For all that we were so dominant, particularly early in the first half we recorded two shots on target in the entire game against a poor side.  Surprising in particular that this comes under the guidance of Ray Lewington, whose Watford team of twenty years ago was heavily reliant on a stock goal.  He must have considered, presuming space in the 25-man squad (which I’ve lost track of), contacting Neal Ardley and Heidar Helguson, even at 49 and 44 respectively.  Ardley never had any pace anyway, Helguson surely held together with gaffer tape but presuming his ability to propel himself vertically at the goal that’s exactly what this team needs?  Isn’t it?

The other issue you won’t need highlighting.  I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little bit, because the criticisms of the decision not to employ any substitutes as the visitors had Lennon and McNeil hugging the touchlines to stretch the play and tire our chasing midfielders further are painfully obvious and have been made adequately elsewhere.  First, Roy clearly has a preferred line-up and this is it, barring the absent Cucho, as Daughter 2 observes before kick-off.  This is based on, at least behind the forwards, players disciplined and intelligent enough to do their jobs in his system.  In the first half they were doing so pretty effectively, with Samir in particular marshalling the defence and Burnley’s forwards well.  Secondly the decisions reflect paucity of options on the bench, particularly in the midfield.  The entire team was waning visibly long before the final minutes but on the replay Juraj Kucka, so heroic in the first half, is so clearly dead on his feet, unable to even offer a challenge to Charlie Taylor’s cross which former Hornet Jack Cork meets decisively at the far post.   Had Tom Cleverley been on the bench then surely that change would have been made – given that he wasn’t, perhaps Kayembe and Sema’s limited mobility was seen as restrictive but I struggle to understand why Gosling or even Ngakia couldn’t be employed as a purely disruptive influence.  With the greatest respect we were playing Burnley, not Manchester City – ability to retain possession wasn’t as vital as getting around the pitch at all at this stage.  The lack of replacements was utterly incomprehensible.

5- Matěj Vydra at 30 is not the speed demon that he was almost a decade ago when he arrived at Vicarage Road.  Instead he has re-invented himself as a sort of Mark Hughes, using his backside as a weapon in holding up the ball.  He it was who retained possession in the box before laying off for Brownhill to stroke past an unsighted Foster.  The lack of backbone here, the inevitability of the second following on the first, will have been news to nobody.

The away end exploded in delight;  Michael Jackson would later comment on the visitors’ expectation that the crowd might be nervous but only as the stadium emptied in response to the second goal was a lack of support evident.  Vicarage Road was boisterous in the first half, and anxious rather than hostile in the second.

Burnley look more likely to stay up than not now, given fixtures remaining and good luck to them, hope for as long as they last that you don’t need an oligarch or an arab state’s backing to survive in the top flight.  Their extensive list of out of contract players and questionable finances mean that from a purely selfish point of view we could probably have done with them coming down with us. Everton’s relegation would be hugely entertaining, but will surely use up a promotion place next season since they can’t afford not to put everything on black and spend enough to guarantee a return.

But for us to be in the promotion equation at all we’ve got a lot of work to do.  The need for a rebuild is clear and acknowledged, but we also need to have this horrible, embarrassing, disgraceful home record put to bed before the summer such that it’s not hanging over whatever team we are watching next season.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3, Kamara 3, *Samir 4*, Kabasele 3, Louza 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: King, Kalu, Sema, Gosling, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Manchester City 5 Watford 1 (23/04/2022) 24/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

1- 

“Hello? 

Is there anybody in there?

Just nod if you can hear me

Is there anyone home?”

Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd

Actually that’s not true.  Not numb, not yet.  Might be easier if we were.  But then again… do you want to not care?  Isn’t caring the whole point?  That’s not supposed to be a pious “loyal supporters” thing… no criticism intended of anyone who took what might be perceived as the more rational decision not to spunk a day and a load of money on this all but inevitable drubbing.  

But it does still hurt. Daughter 2 and I are here in part because stuff and things preclude the final two away trips of the season, including the traditional walk from Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge.  Plus, Daughter 2 had still to cross off this stadium, where a gubbing is surely a rite of passage for any Watford supporter.  That stat, the one about this 15 match competitive losing run against City being an English record, comes with the subtext that more than half of those games saw City score at least 4 goals.

Quite obviously this isn’t a fair fight.  It was ever thus, there have always been good teams and not good teams and you kinda expect the good to drub the not good.  That we’ve performed less well against City, to a record-breaking degree no less, than our contemporaries probably still constitutes failure but it’s hard to weigh that up – the run is due in part to our own inadequacies, to luck, to never having quite capitalised on catching them on a bad day, to the psychological scars from the drubbings that autocorrelate the sequence to a degree.  Foster, Kabs, Clevs, Sarr were in the squad that lost 8-0 here, don’t tell me that there were no ghosts floating around from that one, professionals or not.

But the sequence is also due to us, you know, having played City 15 times under their current incarnation. Tranmere Rovers, to pick a not entirely arbitrary example, haven’t played City at all in over 20 years.  We’ll get to that…

city

2- Anyway.  Here we are.  In contrast to older grounds the City of Manchester Stadium sprawls, spider like, over an enormous footprint – the concourses are huge, the Chicken Balti pie of a higher quality.  Daughter 2 approves of the latter but disapproves of the general “vibe” – “The Waitrose of the Premier League”, she announces sniffily, following up a discussion on the way up where she shamed me out of “paying a load of money for bits of meat wrapped in cheese” from said establishment.

We’re in the bottom tier of three, which will be well populated… it’s a Safe Standing thing, so as at Anfield there are lean bars which is tremendous.  Leaning backwards, it seems, is agreeable in the context of a heavy defeat – we might get the chance to lean forwards one day.

I’ve brought my coat this time, so naturally the sun breaks through and it’s short sleeves weather.  Daughter 2 is at the end of the row, sanguine about her proximity to the army of gurning Liam Gallagher barbie dolls in the adjoining paddock, resisting my offer to swap seats and sassily dissing their barrage of taunts under her breath.  On reflection, tiresome as the attention is, it does at least reflect an even-handedness to a degree.  Being taken seriously-ish.  “You’re just a shit Man United” is one of the lowest of a number of low blows from our right…  but rather this than the patronising, silent indifference of Old Trafford.

The barrage can start almost immediately of course.  Expectations are low, but you’d like a spell at 0-0 to cling to…  the edgy change in tone of the crowd would be a small achievement, even if it didn’t last long. Instead, scarcely has the deafening sound system piped down before City are ahead just four minutes in.  This City side is merciless of course, you don’t need to be off your game to be pulled apart but if you are off your game you’re pretty much screwed.  Here, City swing a ball from right to left where Zinchenko has wandered up to join the attack unattended.  He has time to line up a fierce low ball turned in by Jesus because Ismaïla Sarr hasn’t been paying attention.  Four minutes in.  Unforgivable.

3- It goes without saying that we need every ball to bounce for us, and it doesn’t.  Despite the comprehensively one-sided nature of the game and our low expectations, we do break out some neat and tidy football occasionally.  City are as flummoxed as anyone by the first such development as Cancelo dawdles on the ball on the halfway line and Louza capitalises to release Dennis through on goal.  

From a low angle at the far end all we see is the Nigerian dawdle on the ball and allow Zinchenko to catch him.  There is no suggestion of what is revealed by replays on social media – Dennis, a master of deceptive footwork whatever his other failings, turns away from Zinchenko as the challenge comes in, the full-back takes out the player but is nowhere near the ball.  If VAR looks at it it’s a free kick and a red card but… seemingly not.  Mystifyingly given the clarity of the incident on replay (and somewhat uncharacteristically), Dennis doesn’t even appeal.  Today is going to be hard enough without the bitterness of injustice too;  I could have done without that.  To console myself I choose to blame the otherwise inconspicuous Kevin Friend.  No, it doesn’t need to be fair.

Instead City go two up.  There’s a relentlessness about their aggressive pressing that feels irresistible… “hanging in there” isn’t a terribly inspiring objective but it takes absolute concentration,  This applies to Ben Foster too, who makes the first of a number of sharp saves to keep the score down but is helpless as de Bruyne’s brilliant cross from deep on City’s right is headed home by Jesus for two-nil on 25 minutes.  At this point everyone in the stadium is thinking back to the 8-0 and wondering.

4- Scant comfort to be taken from a 5-1 defeat but, as described, we’ve been here before with a better team and some semblance of confidence and still been stuffed.  So our goal, albeit it turns out to be a consolation, is a fine fine thing.  The more so because it comes from Hassane Kamara… he’ll blot his copybook a little in the second half but once again his performance here is full of character and a bullishness badly lacking elsewhere in the team.  And again, like an unexpected beam of sunshine through the clouds, it’s a beautiful thing… Kamara plays a fine ball to insert Dennis into a threatening position.  Dennis lays off to King, who is only doing the inconspicuous pivot thing but at least he’s doing that.  King returns to Dennis who dinks a beautiful pass into the path of the galloping Kamara, through on goal with a deft slight of hand.  He succeeds where our more conventional goalscorers have failed in recent weeks, keeping calm and hitting a firm low shot on target.  It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect enough… the first goal scored by a Watford defender this season and it deserves more than to be lost in a 5-1 defeat here.  The away end goes wild with astonishment.

Briefly, the mood changes.  The course of the afternoon no longer seems mapped out… this is a competitive encounter all of a sudden.  Only for six minutes as it turns out, but it’s a decent six minutes – we’ve taken some blows but thrown some punches ourselves, not rolled over, and one has landed.  If you’re looking for evidence of life, here it is right here. 

And then it’s gone again.  Concentration once more, the distraction of de Bruyne lying in a heap outside the box, intermittent appeals from City players to put the ball out and we’re switching off, or at least some of us are switching off.  Cleverley, inadequately gutsy throughout, is penned into the corner flag and gives possession away tamely.  The ball finds Rodri, whose greatest obstacle to drilling the ball ferociously out of the air for 3-1 is his prone team-mate.

5- Theoretically we’re still in touch, but any embers of hope are extinguished at the start of the second half.  Unhappily it’s Kamara, who as discussed does have a mistake in him and here it is. Hurried into ceding possession virtually from the kick-off his sloppy error allows Jesus to run in on Foster who is tempted into a challenge as the Brazilian goes around him.  Briefly we’re given a stay of execution by a review and I come as close as I’m going to to losing my shit with the gibbons to our right when they grumble about VAR.  I hate VAR too but, jesus, throw us a bone.  We’re reviewing your penalty appeal when you’re already 3-1 up at home.

A favourable outcome to that review might have prolonged our on-pitch aspirations a while longer but the penalty was confirmed, correctly, and dispatched by Jesus who would add his fourth and City’s fifth as our resistance began to crumble;  more horrible scorelines still felt possible with well over half an hour to go.  As City took their foot off the gas though we had a couple of chances ourselves – Dennis, still plugging away unlike our other crown jewel on the opposite flank (by now withdrawn), was released by Louza and shot tamely into Ederson, decision making and execution both weak albeit rendered irrelevant by an offside flag.  A Dennis free kick then found sub João Pedro complacently unattended at the far post in a busy box but he got it all wrong and headed wide, frustratingly if irrelevantly.

Off the pitch, if the mood wasn’t as boisterous and to-hell-with-it as I’d hoped there was a healthy, noisy defiance and the gallows humour was moderated, interspersed with more conventional, positive support.  Well done all.  On the pitch, the last crumb of solace was to be found in our token resilience and resistance as City, and sub Mahrez in particular, attempted to turn the gas back up and crown the scoreline with a sixth.  They didn’t get it.  A small victory.

I could have done without a gormless pocket of Tranmere Rovers fans at Norton Canes services taking active, noisy and repetitive pleasure in our plight, a rare stain on an otherwise enjoyable enough drive home.  Odd on a number of levels;  pointing out how long it’s been since Tranmere were in the second tier would have been accurate but rather smacking of the same sort of arrogance that aggravates us when we’re treated as merely extras in a show about the big six (oh, and they’re always sacking their manager, hur hur).  Odd, too, that we should have been greeted as such on a day when promotion-chasing Rovers had lost at relegation-threatened Stevenage.  In any case, I guess supporting your local club, however worthy, doesn’t preclude you from being a knobhead.

Daughter 2 plugged herself happily into her phone, and I discovered, at high volume, that “The Wall” pretty much covers the journey from Norton Canes to home.  Not numb yet, comfortably or otherwise.  But amongst the consolations in relegation will be no more games quite like this one.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 3*, Ngakia 2, Kamara 3, Kabasele 2, Samir 3, Louza 3, Sissoko 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 1, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: Cathcart (for Samir, 68) 3, João Pedro (for Sarr, 69) 2, Kayembe (for Louza, 75) 2, Sema, Gosling, Troost-Ekong, N’Koulou, Masina, Bachmann

Watford 1 Brentford 2 (16/04/2022) 17/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
20 comments

1- The Inuit, it is said, have at least fifty words for “snow”.

It won’t be long before Watford supporters scoff at the over simplistic “home defeat” in the same way that Inuits dismiss “snow”, Germans scoff at “beer”, Rob McKenna the unwitting rain god in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy regards mere “rain”, or this Tory government shakes its head at “corruption” as the clumsy, inadequate wordage of the ignorant painfully lacking in the detail, refinement, comprehension of the true connoisseur.

Since we beat Manchester United we’ve had all manner of what mere mortals might simply call a “home defeat”.  The hard-fought and unfortunate (Chelsea), the gutsy and worthy in which less than a thrashing feels like an accomplishment (City), the cruel suggestion of success disintegrating into humiliation (West Ham) all the way to the haplessly incompetent, banging our heads against the flimsiest of brick walls before falling over exhausted and letting inept opponents march all over us (Norwich, Leeds).  We’ll have names for all of these one day, or just grimaces that every Hornet will understand and anyone else will regard as simply what Watford supporters look like.

And so the relentless toothache of our home form continues.  Miserable, all pervasive, impossible to forget about.  This one was different again, a quirky mix of the spirited, the encouraging and the dysfunctional.  It amounts to the same thing in the end.

2- There are fine things about an afternoon at the football that are independent of the result of course, mercifully.  Daughter 1 is in GCSE revision mode, but Daughter 2 is here – she’s sat resolutely through seven of the ten now, rolled her eyes at the pompous Premier League anthem each time.  Forgoing this, along with gaining midweek games and new grounds to visit is her silver lining. Before the game we amble over to the Nascot Arms where Nem and Nick and some fellow Bees have set up camp.  They’re happier with the world than we are as you might expect, one relating emotionally how a fellow veteran can’t quite believe that Christian Eriksen is playing for them…  but they’re tacitly sensitive to the ongoing suffering that we’re enduring.

Vicarage Road looks spectacular in the sunshine.  I don’t share the sentiment of those reporting “glad to have missed this one” with respect to a home defeat of almost any flavour – I’d much rather be suffering with those that Understand than doing so on my own, unable to process what’s going on first hand.  There are both young debutants – Nigel in front of us has brought what must be his sprightly much younger brother, elsewhere Vicky has brought Louie for the first time – and returning old timers.  Kevin Miller at half time and Heurelho Gomes makes a suitably rock-star return to Hertfordshire, indulging in a lap of the pitch to salute all sides of the ground.  The away end inconsiderately sings throughout his brief interview with master of ceremonies and birthday boy Richard Walker but the tannoy volume is high enough and we get the gist.

It lifts the stadium, as Gomes’ infectious personality lifted the team often during his time here you suspect.  As the game starts the home stands are positively boisterous and if Brentford control the early possession they’re not getting terribly far with it.  Soon we’re prodding and probing ourselves, equally inconsequentially but small steps, and to a soundtrack of encouragement.  Kiko is rattling up the right flank, Louza is prominent.  We’re doing OK.

Then Brentford score.

3- We have a major issue with set pieces throughout the game.  Part of this is down to our height and size disadvantage – we have nobody as tall or as broad as Kristoffer Ajer or Pontus Jansson for one thing which will limit our attacking options but also makes us vulnerable in dead ball situations.  More significant still is Christian Eriksen, comfortably the best player on the pitch like a pro guesting in a Sunday league game – his response to his warm welcome here must be practised and dutiful by now but he acknowledges it anyway.  His corners and his artistry from the centre of the pitch will cause us problems, particularly in the first half, but he’s not involved in the goal.

Instead Ethan Pinnock – whose departure five minutes later was a bit of a blessing – launches a bomb of a throw into the box, Ajer flicks on despite attention at the near post and an unmarked Nørgaard prods home.  In fairness, as above, Ajer is 6 foot 6 with a good four inches on any outfield Watford player,  and this well-rehearsed move is difficult to counter but it all looks pathetically easy and this as much as the goal itself once again punctures the team’s belief and the stadium’s mood.

The rest of the half is grouchy.  Brentford sit deep and we have neither the craft nor the confidence to penetrate…. the one shot on target from Louza, whose frustration has briefly threatened to boil over, dribbles through to David Raya to mocking cheers from the home end at this token shot on target.  Other efforts have gone high, wide and handsome with the exception of what is nearly a spectacular volleyed own goal from Ajer but, inevitably, his unintended effort loops the wrong side of the post with Raya stranded.  As Will wryly observes at half time having joined us from the Upper GT, it’s as close as we’ve come to scoring in two-and-a-half games.

4- The second half is much more like it, whatever the denouement.  Brentford briefly threaten to extend their lead – I’d been about to comment on how quiet Ivan Toney had been in the grand scheme of things when Eriksen dropped a free kick onto his scripted run past the defence and he rolled a shot narrowly wide of the left hand post having run in from left to right.  He had a ridiculous amount of time, a let off.

And we capitalised, improbably.  Moussa Sissoko’s ball from the right was flicked on by Sarr to find Dennis scrambling in well wide of the far post where he controlled the ball before lashing home from an angle narrow enough for Raya to be disappointed with himself, one suspects.  We had the celebrate-now stop-now start again rigmarole of an offside flag and a VAR review (and I’d still rather rely on the on-pitch officials than risk contaminating the joy of a goal celebration with this nonsense however accurate or favourable the calls) but with the confirmation we were up and running.

In Toney, Ajer and Rico Henry the Bees have three players linked with the Hornets in recent-ish years.  Toney and Ajer would have been fine recruits of course, so too Henry but at least in his case we have an adequate alternative.  After a clunky start to the game Hassane Kamara had a tremendous second half, his extendable limbs and irrepressible energy shutting down Brentford’s in-play threat from their right.  He bombed forward too, tripping his way to the touchline before laying back for Samir to sweep narrowly wide from outside the box.  Emmanuel Dennis was suddenly prominent, frustrating and firing in equal measure – one minute dawdling over a pass that might have released the similarly rejuvenated Sarr, the next demanding an extraordinary recovery challenge from Ajer as he charged towards space, the next slapping a shot off the bar from a free kick, again from a wide angle and this time with the intervention of Raya’s fingertips.

We were dominant, for the first prolonged spell at Vicarage Road in longer than I can remember.  It was still blunt and over deliberate but it felt so good to be on our feet and bellowing again.  Cleverley and King came off a bench heavily populated with central midfielders for combative cameos. We should have drawn the game.  We could have won it, and even a draw would have felt cruel with a win, irrelevant or otherwise, so, so close as we hammered down the left again and King smacked a low shot against the post with Louza desperately, painfully looping his shot to the rebound over under challenge with the goal gaping.

5- As with Toney’s earlier missed effort there felt an inevitability to what happened next.  I certainly won’t have been the only fan in the home stands to whom the horrible certainty of the winning goal arrived in advance.  Referee Simon Hooper had earlier aggravated the home stands by failing to punish with cards two non-violent but cynically disruptive fouls by Brentford players as we looked to break.  Here we were grateful to his even-handed leniency, since he appeared to change his mind about issuing what would have been a second yellow to Hassane Kamara on appreciating the consequences after a bad foul.

The punishment would come though.  Eriksen, inevitably, clipped in a ball, Jansson got ahead of the defence to beat the helpless Foster abetted perhaps by some naivety from Sarr wide of the action who had been fooled into following his adversary deep and playing the Swede onside.  We saw none of this last detail at the time, we were too far away and our heads were in our hands.

The game ended almost immediately. Impossibly cruel, a rare unmerited home defeat for the catalogue, ultimately, the players’ despair evident as bodies lay prone on the pitch long after the whistle.  Brentford, meanwhile, celebrated as they rumbled securely into mid-table.  How they cope with the notoriously difficult second season whither so many newly promoted survivors have crashed and burned before, with or without Eriksen, will be interesting but we’d give a lot to swap places now.  Red faced furiousness, inspired more by the context of ten home defeats on the hop than by this performance, interspersed appreciation of, finally, a stout show if nothing else, but even those applauding looked haggard and tired.

6- As a postscript.  After the game my brother and I went to my Gran’s house to load a van with furniture, dutifully supervised by Daughter 2.  Our Gran is still going at a feisty 94, but won’t be living here any longer.  After more than 40 years of post-match reflections in that living room that have covered six promotions, nearly six relegations and no end of cup runs, late goals, dodgy decisions and, yes, home defeats, this was the last time.

Reminder enough, I guess, that however bad the bad times are, good times will follow again at some point.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, *Kamara 3*, Samir 3, Kabasele 2, Louza 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Sarr 2, Dennis 3, João Pedro 2
Subs: King (for João Pedro, 84) NA, Cleverley (for Kucka, 84) NA, Cathcart (for Femenía,  87) NA, Forde, Gosling, Etebo, Kayembe, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 0 Leeds United 3 (09/04/2022) 10/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1- This is supposed to be fun, right?

I’m only asking because, you know, it’s been a while since this was fun hasn’t it?  At least at home?  Cucho’s goal against Arsenal was fun I suppose, though it didn’t count for much in the end.    Sissoko’s equaliser against Palace?  Then there was that time that Daughter 2 told a good joke during the second half against Brighton.  She might have told the same joke elsewhere though, I think, so strictly speaking that was fun that happened to take place at Vicarage Road.  If we’re being picky.

This isn’t as simple as “win good lose bad”, it really isn’t.  But we all understand, as fans of any club, that there’s supposed to be a trade off?  That there will be bad times which justify celebrating the good times?  You can’t really savour a victory until you’ve experienced the pain of defeat?  Fine.  I’m a grown up (ish), I can live with that.

So maybe just wake me up when the fun starts again, because I’ve had enough of this.  If I want to feel miserable, inadequate and stupid I get plenty of opportunity away from Vicarage Road without driving down the motorway and paying for the privilege.  It’s not just nine home defeats on the hop, though that in itself is a lot to endure under any circumstances.  It’s the nature of them.  Four have been heavy, of which now two against pathetically weak opposition.  A couple of them we were close to squeaking something from.  None of them constituted a gross injustice.

2- It doesn’t help that bloody Everton win at lunchtime, of all things.  I would throw in a line about Manchester United being the last side you want to rely on in such circumstances at the moment but if you didn’t think it yourself some time this afternoon you surely overheard it.

Nor does it help that it’s bloody freezing.  The sunshine is deceptive, once you’re in the shade the wind blows straight through you.  Regular readers will already have noted my poor wardrobe choices despite 40+ years of practice here, today was another case in point.   Nor is Vicarage Road the seething pit of our dreams;  coming as this tie does at a convenient mid-point of many schools’ choices of Easter holiday, there are plentiful bald patches in every stand bar the away end.

Nonetheless, we don’t start too badly.  This is an ugly, scruffy game of football and the first half will last longer than forty-five minutes of football ever has before but we withstand the visitors’ early lumberings and eventually build a good spell of pressure ourselves.  Juraj Kucka is forceful and significant in this spell, using his physicality to occupy a Leeds defence that already looks vulnerable and drawing a succession of fouls on the edge of the box.  Imran Louza sends the first of the resultant free kicks narrowly wide of Islan Meslier’s left hand post.  From another a lively Cucho Hernández pings a shot in from an ambitious position wide on our left of the area and forces a save from Meslier with what turns out to be our only shot on target of the afternoon.

Through all of this, and as both Kucka and Cucho send shots excitedly over, the home crowd is in good voice.  A goal would change so much, you suspect… in our position and starved of anything positive at home as we have been (see above) we’re all looking for an excuse, any excuse, to get carried away.  That nascent enthusiasm is punctured terminally by the opening goal, the more so because it’s so carelessly out of nothing.  Raphinha instigates the visitors’ first sortie for a while, a negligent Samir clearance offers Dan James the chance to rattle into a challenge from which the loose ball again finds Raphinha who finishes artfully and celebrates gracelessly, in more than one respect, in front of the Rookery.  Before the end of the half the second blow is dealt as Cucho hobbles off with what looks like a hamstring problem… not the most talented of our forwards, perhaps, but in current circumstances the one we can least afford to lose given his surfeit of personality.

3- We’re not terrible.  At least, we’re not completely terrible.  In fact some of the bits are pretty good, let down by the bits that really aren’t…  the midfield still looks redoubtable, since whilst Louza is less prominent than he has been Sissoko and Kucka are both decent and proactive.  Kiko is hammering forward on the right and Hassane Kamara does much the same on the opposite flank with the added bonus of a threat of violence that will always be popular in a left-back.  Indeed, as has been reflected during the pre-match meal, we could maybe do with his effectiveness being a little less high-profile for the rest of the season.  Relegation would bring sacrifices – Kamara being poached would be harder to accept than those we’re resigned to.

The biggest problem is up front, evidently.  Difficult to credit how a side that can now look so robust and organised defensively, particularly away from home and against the strongest opponents, can look so utterly shapeless in attack.  Roy’s modus operandi is no mystery but…  some of it’s got to be common to attacking and defending, surely?  A discipline in knowing what to do when and where to be?  There’s none of that in this forward line which looks far less than the some of its parts.  It’s difficult to recall a greater imbalance in a Watford squad than that between the evident capabilities of our attacking players and their ineffectiveness as a unit.

4- We miss Troy.  That shouldn’t be a controversial statement after so many years in which he was such a significant figure, but it hasn’t been voiced very often.  Without doubt his Premier League days are behind him, his limited mobility and fitness hampered his later contributions…  but his intelligence and leadership would never have tolerated the appalling decision making in our forward line you suspect. Nor would he have countenanced the lack of belief that saw Sarr waste our best chance of the game.  Put through on goal as Leeds creaked, albeit with the ball running slightly away from him to his right, he slugged a shot criminally wide when any prioritisation of placement over power would surely have found the gaping net.  You do feel that, for all our frustrating shapelessness, a goal there could have turned the outcome completely.

In a side missing vocal leadership, Deeney’s presence wouldn’t have afforded Andre Marriner such an easy ride either.  Neither the officiating nor Leeds’ time management contributed significantly to the outcome;  nonetheless Marriner refereed with the air of a teenager absorbed in their mobile phone, unfocused and seemingly scarcely interested. An unnecessary extra aggravation.

5- The second goal was a shambles, obviously, but I found it less upsetting than Sarr’s miss.  Hassane Kamara is developing a penchant for man-of-the-match performances stained by one high-profile error… at Anfield, failing to prevent Joe Gomez’s cross, at Wembley against England losing concentration and allowing Ollie Watkins to steal in behind him to score.  Here he might have gotten away with his ill-judged pass to Samir as the pair headed towards their own goal at speed had the Brazilian not stumbled over the ball and the ricochet not fallen kindly for Rodrigo to gallop around the helpless Foster to finish.

All hope died at that point, on and off the pitch.   Perhaps the most miserable and telling period of play preceded the third goal… a promising Watford attack retreated limply back to Ben Foster;  as the ball made its apologetic way out again to the left Leeds stole possession and ambled through with scarcely a challenge’s impediment before Harrison slugged a ferocious shot across Foster who, nonetheless, might have done better.

The stands emptied long before the final whistle.  Further joy was provided by finding Vicarage Road stuffed with jubilant visiting supporters…  churlish to be too critical given both that we’d have loved to have been in their position and that the away end had generously joined in the pre-match recognition offered to the late Bill Shipwright.  But it wasn’t fun.

We’re done, obviously.  If not mathematically then to all intents and purposes given the size of the gap and the fact that a trip to Manchester City would immediately follow the arresting of our joyless home record against Brentford next weekend.

For now though, breaking that cycle and reversing our appalling home form is an end in itself, vital in instilling any belief before the start of next season.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, *Kamara 3*, Samir 2, Kabasele 3, Louza 2, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Hernández 3, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2,
Subs: Dennis (for Hernández, 39) 2, Kayembe (for Kucka, 72) 3, King (for João Pedro,  81) NA, Kalu, Cleverley, Cathcart, Sierralta, Masina, Bachmann

Liverpool 2 Watford 0 (02/04/2022) 03/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- Sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you expect.

For instance.  In as much as I ever thought about it, I always expected to need to coerce my children into exam revision.   I don’t know why… as so often I’m guided by a mental image of uncertain origin depicting how I’m supposed to behave as a parent.

Instead, Daughter 1 is on an urgent, ferocious mission.  Her last set of GCSE mocks having just been cleared she’s into a run in towards the exams themselves for which she has drawn up a merciless revision timetable.  If anything I fear I need to tell her to calm down a bit – is that wrong?  Who knows.  Today – and admittedly after some soul searching – she has conceded to the inevitable in the face of a dedicated Science day at school, sacrificed the trip north and so allowed her younger sister to catch her up, both now counting 113 Watford games in their back catalogue.

Daughter 2 isn’t in her teens yet, but an impending three-year GCSE programme means she’s got options to choose from herself which she contemplates thoughtfully as we pick our way through a bright, sunny Stanley Park to Anfield.  I’m relieved that the latest grave turning over of the various permutations available abates as we enter the famous stadium and the day’s business becomes the focus.  I’ve done something right.

2- Will’s here too with his two herberts, the younger of whom boasting a new “signature hairdo” (her words), consciously and appropriately inspired by Björk.  The elder is full of bold predictions and bravado but he’s atypical of an away end who have either been trying to avoid thinking about the actual football too much or are resigned to the traditional and are in a zen-state of acceptance.

Team selection is influenced, almost certainly, by the physical consequences of a heavy programme of international duty including plenty of key World Cup qualifiers and far too much extra time for anyone’s liking.  Emmanuel Dennis and Joshua King are on the bench, for instance, whilst Peter Etebo and William Troost-Ekong don’t even make it that far.  That aside there remains evidence of Roy having established a set of key personnel; pejoratively you might call them “favourites”,  Cucho, Kabasele, and even Kucka and João Pedro are more prominent – game triers all – whilst Shaq Forde has been singled out amongst the youngsters. I’ve not seen enough of Shaq to comment but whether his judgement proves sound on not it’s a Good Thing that Roy’s perspective is broad enough to make one despite his presumed summer departure.

3- Game triers are essential in this team though.  If we’re yet to discover any home form (which, as should be obvious, will be non-negotiable) then our defensive shape away from home is almost Borg-like (a nuance owing to Roy’s considerable coaching experience in Sweden perhaps?).  One player steps away, another is there to take his place… you’re not facing group of individuals, you’re facing a collective consciousness and if you were a betting man you’d wager that Ray Lewington, patrolling the Anfield touchline like an attentive general as he was on my first visit here 17 years ago, was the brain at the centre.

The game settles into a pattern very quickly.  The home side will dominate possession throughout but are largely kept at arm’s length due to the diligent scurrying and closing and getting in the way of those in yellow and black.  Jota and Jones will both fling shots lazily, impatiently over the bar and to whatever degree this reflects complacency or containment on the part of the team in red it suits us down to the ground.  About face, shape up, do it again.  Meanwhile the universal expectation of an effortlessly comfortable home victory is given a serious jolt when Ismaïla Sarr slugs a dipping shot over the advancing Alisson Becker after some gnarled challenges burgle him a bit of space.  It’s too high but it’s really not that far too high at all.

Which isn’t to say we’re comfortable.  The brilliant Thiago is causing all kinds of mischief around the edge of the box – if it’s going to come, it’s going to come there you suspect.  Bodies are constantly put on the line, the imperious Samir’s not least.  The attacking players are diligent and attentive also, hence the need for game triers… Sarr is cajoling and harrying and watching the space behind him.  Cucho contests a corner with Van Dijk and comes off worst, appearing to receive the full force of the Dutchman’s neck muscles and briefly lying dizzied in the penalty with small birds flitting around his head.  Sissoko aborts one incursion into our box directly in front of the away end with a superhuman tackle before unfussily shepherding the ball away.

But we’re throwing punches of our own.  Louza, our own budget version of Thiago, is terrific…. snapping into a challenge one minute, skipping into a gap and salvaging possession the next, swinging a ball the width of the pitch to change the focus the next, dropping a corner onto Cucho’s head requiring Alisson to be attentive the next.  There’s some quick, sharp passing on the break too that always looks like it might create something and does so when JP plays a galloping Kucka in down the left.  Alisson is out quickly, Kucka doesn’t have the guile to finish. It’s a proper chane.

Cruelly Liverpool’s breakthrough comes immediately.  Gomez – or more precisely the neglected space over his right shoulder – has been the focus of much of our attacking play but he pops up high on the right flank and is afforded too much space to swing his cross in.  It’s a bomb of a ball, Foster has a fraction of a second to make a call, gets it wrong and Diogo Jota has sprung across him to flick the ball home.  Foster redeems himself shortly afterwards with a fine save from the same opponent but we’re behind at the break if, against all expectation, slightly unfortunate to be so.

4- If you’re going to play that contain and destroy game, the question is always “so what if you go behind?”.  The team’s not set up to commit forward but to counter attack – how quickly do you change things up?

There was no decision to make here.  Liverpool are too good with the ball, have too many good players in attacking positions and won’t be sitting back yet anyway.  It’s tempting to look at what was a 1-0 scoreline for much of the second half and say “we should have given it more welly” but such analysis boils down to “win good, lose bad”.  We’ve been demonstrably incapable of imposing ourselves at home against much less accomplished opponents but had done a reasonable job of frustrating the home side here.  No cause to change it up yet.

For this to pay off we needed to ride our luck a bit – as we did when Jota and ?Matip? sent unchallenged headers safely off target.  Secondly we needed to continue to dig in – the indefatigable Kamara in his element here, relentless charging around as much his thing as it was at Wembley earlier in the week and in both cases the token one bad error per game is probably worth spending on such high levels of energy and personality.

But finally we needed to be clinical when the chance came, and we weren’t.  It’s easy to underplay the quality that went into the chance… Cucho, Isma and JP spinning and turning and the latter doing well to snap a shot past Alisson under challenge but it had to go in and it didn’t.

Cucho was booked shortly afterwards.  I’d have subbed him then, I think…. he’s a lesser beast on a yellow card and was tiring.  As it was, when the triple-sub came after a prolonged period of Liverpool possession and pressure it was almost wholly ineffective – Roy and Ray will have needed to judge quite whose legs needed protecting for how long, but none of King, Cleverley or Dennis made the required impact.

5- Early in the second half a thought had popped into my head:  given the choice, would you take a win here or a win at Man City in three weeks’ time.  Man City, I concluded, partly because we need to beat them at some point but largely because an encouraging performance was already in the bag here;  this, plus three points at City knocks a win at Anfield and another humiliation by City into a hat.  You can thank me later.

Nonetheless, the late penalty was harsh I think.  Not a harsh call – a tired challenge from Kucka.  But yielding a harsh scoreline.  You’d struggle to argue that we were worth a point – coulda certainly, shoulda never.  But we deserved the grudging credit of a 1-0 margin and can feel hard done by by a 2-0 that will surely be written off as “routine” by those not really paying attention.  Foster went the right way, Fabinho went even further.

“We can see you sneaking out” piped up from the stand to our right which was a little rich given that the stream of Hornets trudging towards the exit was dwarfed by the floods of salt-of-the-earth, best fans in the world vacating the same home stand.  Any accusations of lack of self-awareness wouldn’t really have stood up to scrutiny however, given that earlier in proceedings one of several lulls in what was generally a boisterous atmosphere was greeted with “is this a library?” from an away end that barely stirred itself from its lunchtime slumber throughout.

Will took his herberts down the front at the whistle, the younger coyly suggesting that Ben Foster might give her his shirt if she were to smile sweetly at him.  Terrifying.  We then made our way homeward, with Daughter 2 enjoying a first “chips with curry sauce” as part of her ongoing pre-GCSE education.

Not, then, what was expected, not entirely, even if it boils down to the same thing more or less in the end.  But there’s clearly something here, Sarr’s return bringing a bit more devilment to our attacking play even against the strongest of opponents.  In reality, last chance saloon was always going to be opening its doors with that extraordinary run of fixtures at Vicarage Road, starting on Saturday.

No excuses for it to be anything other than febrile.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Kamara 4, Kabasele 4, *Samir 4*, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Sarr 3, Hernández 3, João Pedro 3
Subs: King (for João Pedro, 68) 2, Cleverley (for Louza, 68) 3, Dennis (for Hernández, 68) 2, Sema, Kayembe, Cathcart, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Wolverhampton Wanderers 4 Watford 0 (10/03/2022) 11/03/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-  For the most part, it’s a great day.  There’s not much to dislike about an afternoon off work in any case, a criminal waste not to enjoy it.  The sun is shining, the route up isn’t without kerfuffle as you’d expect from the M6 in late afternoon but it’s fine and the car is full of happy chatter.  The parking place is accessible enough;  when we get to the ground there’s a fanzone, vans selling a good line in Curried Stuff, coffees too.  “This is the grimmest place on earth”, smiles the woman serving us coffees, warmly, and she’s exaggerating a little bit but that’s fine too – we haven’t had to pass through The Underpass.  Will arrives from working in Birmingham, proud to report that the lady booking his schedule has an eye on the fixture list and manoeuvres things accordingly.  Inside the ground Erica, a native of New Mexico, asks the lad in the kiosk to sell the concept of a Chicken Balti Pie.  Unpracticed at being asked his opinion by the paying public, he does a sterling job.

The way home is also good.  Limited trouble getting out of Wolverhampton, a playlist – Pixies, the Breeders, Bowie – being hummed along to and occasionally joined in with as we trundle our way home again.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

In amongst all of this, a football match happens.

2- We sort of started OK.  Sort of, in the sense that until anyone did anything we looked halfway credible.  We’re missing João Pedro as the result of a convoluted COVID test and Isma is still out, but Joshua King is back in an otherwise unchanged side from the relatively encouraging defeat against Arsenal.

Yes, a home defeat being “encouraging” is already setting expectations, but here we are.  Wolves aren’t pressing early on particularly which seems a bit odd given our manifest inability to cope with such, and as Cucho is briefly awarded a penalty before an unassessable offside flag aborts the only jumping up and down the away end is going to enjoy this evening we look briefly threatening.  Wolves, notoriously miserly, already look get-attable.

But once things start to go wrong they spiral out of control very quickly.  Hassane Kamara for one was already looking wobbly and he’ll be one of several culpable parties in each of the opening two goals.  The first isn’t as comical as what follows but it is weak, Hwang and Jiménez wandering through as if they’re picking flowers in the park, the finish is tidy but it’s far, far too easy.  

Wolves barely need to be paying attention to find themselves 3-0 up.  Kamara is more eye-catchingly exposed for the second scrambling after a neglected opponent before the ball finds its way to Ait-Nouri, similarly neglected on Wolves’ left flank.  He sends a perfunctory ball across the face of goal and Cucho, of all people, inadvertently tucks it inside Ben Foster’s near post.

Foster is increasingly the source of joyful abuse from the home stands reflecting his West Brom history in particular, this growing in volume with the certainty that such rashness isn’t about to come back to bite the home stands.  His worst moment comes just three minutes later when, closed down on the edge of his box he makes an impossibly sloppy clearance to Daniel Podence, who drops the ball into an empty net with a shrug for 3-0.

3- It’s not really the “what”, though there’s plenty wrong with that.  The bigger problem – the bigger surprise, perhaps, despite our poor form – is the how.

This wasn’t just a bad performance.  It wasn’t even a bad performance compounded by a few things going wrong and running away from us.  This stank to high heaven, the lack of fight and bottle in the side as stark as the sudden abandonment of the discipline that has seen us gain a creditable if modest haul of points on the road of late.  Wolves’ low-scoring reputation might have suited us, their edgy defeat to Palace here last time out more so.  We might nick a 0-0 here, we’d thought, whether that would prove “enough” or otherwise.

But there was nothing.  Almost nothing.  Moussa Sissoko, in his one forceful contribution of the evening, played Joshua King through shortly after the third – King lifted the ball slightly too high.  It was a pretty bad miss rather than an awful one but we needed that to go in.  Elsewhere Kabasele came on for a struggling Femenía after half an hour – given Kiko’s staccato availability of late in the absence of Jeremy Ngakia perhaps we’d risked him here out of necessity but he’d had a bad thirty minutes.  Kabasele stood out simply for looking like a competent footballer as things steadied;  Kamara, too, salvaged some small credit from the evening, his surfeit of personality allowing him to recover from his personal horror show to dig in for the rest of the game.  Louza showed some signs of taking responsibility.  He still wanted the ball.

But elsewhere there was very little to cling to.  No movement, no confidence, no conviction.  We struggled along, all our efforts expended in treading water in the face of an understandably relaxed Wolves side – the goal celebrations were grotesquely co-ordinated by a deafening sound system (“Have fun NOW!  Stop NOW!”) but the team looked no less co-ordinated if they scarcely had to exert themselves.  The kindest interpretation of Watford’s lack of anything much came from Will – “perhaps we’re playing for goal difference”.

4- Three years ago we would go toe-to-toe with Wolves and “the likes of Wolves”.  That tightest and most dramatic of Cup Semi Finals, the parallel league campaign in which both sides made credible claims to be the best of the rest.  As has been much discussed, we lost our footing around that time and have suffered a merciless tumble since.  We were nonetheless unlucky to be relegated in 2020.  We won’t be unlucky to be relegated this season.

Who to blame, and how much?  There’s no doubt that mistakes were made in the revision of the squad in 2019.  Scott Duxbury’s forthrightness in acknowledging those mistakes and promising learnings has been flung back in his face… but once those mistakes were made we were sliding downhill without the luxury of the financial backing that might have made an instant return an inevitability.  We’re not a club with massive backing or support, we’re in the Premier League for as long as we can keep overperforming but once that stops it’s going to take the same sort of overperformance, of challenging the odds, to repeat it.  Mere competence won’t be nearly enough.  The yo-yoing of Norwich and Fulham in particular doesn’t reflect “lack of ambition” on their part, it reflects the reality of a circumstance where the growing number of heavily backed Premier League clubs means that well-run sides with the cushion of parachute payments are no longer guaranteed fifteenth-placed anonymity if they return.  Getting promoted again straight away was no small achievement, however easy it is to dismiss it now, 

But that’s not a free pass either.  Much of that criticism of Duxbury and “the model” boils down to “win good, lose bad”….  but this is appalling by any standards, even standardising for circumstance.  Roy Hodgson’s curmudgeonly post-match reflections would have been charming, to a point, had they come with success on the pitch.  They are far less so in these circumstances – all the more so when mindful of the need to get everyone on side, to make the most of whatever tools you have available to dig us out.  Failure to keep the crowd onside, or at least to not wilfully sabotage the relationship, seems extraordinarily short sighted. Particularly surprising given Ray Lewington’s ability to unify us behind a banner during his own challenging time in charge of the team twenty years ago.

One consolation on the night is drawn from the fact that the gallows humour on show from those brave/loyal/stupid enough to make the trip is of high quality, in contrast to some of what away travellers have had to endure this season.  A personal favourite was the gentling soothing monotone of “we’ve won the ball…. we’ve won the ball….”, segueing seamlessly into “we’ve lost the ball…. we’ve lost the ball….” as appropriate that was the soundtrack to the second half.

5- There was no prospect of a fightback, no suggestion of it.  “We don’t talk about Bruno” levels of not entering the conversation for fears of sanction.  Instead an unusually hirsute Ruben Neves pulls out an outrageous fourth;  little to criticise anyone for this time, beyond the fact that conceding three pathetic goals earlier in the game means that this sort of brilliance, par for the course in the Premier League now and again, would be impossible to accommodate.

The League table, the fixtures suggest it’s still “on”.  Leeds lose, awfully.  Norwich lose, predictably.  We’ve still got to play a whole bunch of teams directly above us, at home.  With performances as supine as this, none of that is remotely relevant.

I won’t be at Southampton on Sunday, but pre-match Will and I had agreed to take our kids to Anfield in defiance of the lunchtime kick-off and inevitable hammering in three weeks’ time.  Confirming in the cold light of the morning after the night before, Will was defiant.

We have to do it. Who knows when we’ll be back. Kids have to know that’s how we do it!

 Yoooorns.

Foster 1, Femenía 1, Kamara 2, Cathcart 2, Samir 2, Louza 2, Sissoko 1, Cleverley 1, Hernández 1, Dennis 2, King 1
Subs: *Kabasele (for Femenía, 30) 3*, Kalu (for King, 46) 1, Etebo (for Cleverley, 73) 2, Sema, Kayembe, Sierralta, Masina, Kucka, Bachmann

Watford 2 Arsenal 3 (06/03/2022) 07/03/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- It’s been a while, one suspects, since pre-match events at Vicarage Road were last the subject of international political scrutiny.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that the pre-match canine displays of the early eighties were the subject of discussion in the Kremlin, or that the US Senate has ever pondered the incongruous and yet fiercely defended choice of “Z-Cars” as run-out music.

These are strange times, however, and so here we are.  The Ukrainian flag displayed by the Rookery twice pre-match – first as teams entered the arena and second, hesitantly, as the teams alternated around the centre-circle in a co-ordinated show of solidarity with Ukraine – would not, it seems, have met the approval of Chinese broadcasters and by implication the Chinese government;  the former had declined to screen any Premier League matches this weekend in the light of such planned actions.  The flag display, whilst a fine thing and well co-ordinated, feels somehow inadequate in the circumstances.  It’s not quite standing in front of a tank, is it?  And yet the fact that a government feels strongly enough about controlling the narrative told to its people to effectively ban its broadcast is testament to the impact it can have – or at least that they believe it can have.  Well done all.

2- That there is any question over whether the Chinese government is paying any attention reflects our membership of the Premier League rather than any nefarious behaviour by the 1881.  I’m not really fussed either way whether people in China are watching our football but I WOULD rather we stayed up than not and achieving this is likely to necessitate winning a home game at some point.  Daughter 1 still hasn’t seen a win of any kind in over two years;  it feels like at least twice that long since we won a game here at Vicarage Road.

The flag display forms part of an increasingly busy pre-match schedule of rituals and statements.  Both the flag and the knee are important;  less so the absurdly pompous Premier League anthem and associated standing to attention that they sandwich, and which Daughter 2 quite reasonably ridicules from underneath her yellow placard.

Sally is here today and she’s new to all this.  I’m wisely explaining Roy Hodgson’s careful contain-and-destroy approach to football matches and warning that the game about to unfold might be on the stodgy side when Emmanuel Dennis finds the net within twenty seconds of the match kicking off.

The four of us enjoy our celebration comprehensively – for Daughter 1 in particular a Watford goal is a startling development – such that by the time we realise that the goal has been disallowed for a marginally mistimed and offside run, everyone else has passed through the four stages of grief and is refocused on the ongoing match.  Nonetheless, the stage has been set for a game that will prove far more open – and far more entertaining – than advertised.

3- We’re way past the point where anything other than the hard currency of points on the board matters a jot of course, but whether you’re resigned to the drop and thus no longer pressured by such things or holding out hope and desperately looking for green shoots there was stuff to enjoy here.  This run of (now) eight home defeats has been characterised by a limp impotence in front of goal but here there was dynamism and conviction  – if we missed Sarr’s spasmodic brilliance and King’s ability to hold an attack together then the next two cabs off the rank demonstrated that we’re not short of viable attacking options for all that it hasn’t quite worked overall.

Less enjoyable was the opening goal of the game scarcely five minutes after our false start.  Our own failings have to be evaluated in the context of the opposition’s quality of course, and if Arsenal felt get-attable throughout then their attacks flowed around us mercilessly, gobbling up our few mistakes unforgivingly en route.  The Gunners had been caught cold in the opening seconds and we were similarly dozy five minutes in as Saka and Odegaard played around our defence allowing the Norwegian to stroke the ball past Ben Foster.  Unusually under Hodgson, the goal made us look easy to play against although the movement of Arsenal – wearing a wannabe Rotherham United knockoff kit, possibly Chinese – exposed our tentativeness.

We were clearly on a more positive footing than has been the case at home though, where there’s no doubt that Stuff Needed To Change.  The home stands weren’t given time to settle into a sulky acceptance as we responded with an explosive second… and whilst Cucho’s finish was magnificent, Kiko’s overlap and cross fantastic and Dennis’ delayed lay off artful, as critical was our positive, ambitious intent.

4- As against Palace, we played some of our best and most assertive football at 1-1, lending weight to the argument that our fragile confidence is a critical handicap.  Worth a glance once again at the paucity of vocal leaders in the team… but being positive, at least there are more green shoots there should you care to look for them.  Dennis came closest, forcing Ramsdale into a slightly untidy stop.  Sissoko lined up a shot from distance, and if it never threatened the target it was at least in the right postcode.  More progress.

Hugely disappointing, then, to concede  again on the half hour.  Tom Cleverley was caught with less time than he thought he had by a lively Saka, whose quickfire exchange with Lacazette and sharp finish put the Gunners/Millers ahead.  Much ire at Cleverley for what was a conspicuous and expensive error, but such are the risks of playing out from the back.  That we were doing so was surely unavoidable – our reformed three man attack was fun and relatively effective, but whilst João Pedro’s decent afternoon included a worthy competitiveness there wasn’t a target man amongst them.  There were voices over my shoulder who’d been bellowing “just bloody clear it” in panic at every suggestion of pressure at the back as early as the tenth minute – thirty minutes would still have been early to be pumping balls blindly into the void.

5- 3-2 sounds tight and exciting;  it was probably the right scoreline but it never felt like a close thing, not from the point when Martinelli capitalised on another snappy move to club a shot into the top corner from outside the area.

From there we threw punches, and Arsenal looked vulnerable but seven home defeats on the hop require more than just a bit of positivity from 3-1 down against a leading side.  João Pedro skipped his way down the left and into the area before going down under challenge;  Craig Pawson shrugged, Cathal responded bluntly in the negative to my own VAR request.  Cucho’s welcome relentlessness saw him catch what looked like an unwitting flail of an arm from an Arsenal defender before remonstrating loud and long at the lack of subsequent censure.  A sharp move from left to right concluded with Dennis being smothered out of space;  Kiko was involved again as he whistled a low ball to the far post which Dennis couldn’t connect properly with as the goal gaped.

In the midst of this, Hodgson removed Louza in favour of Edo Kayembe.  The Moroccan international hadn’t had his most dominant game, but such has been his impact on the level of creativity in the midfield that the reception of the change was loud and aggressive, a chant in support of Louza on his exit far exceeding in volume any recognition that he received during the match.  At the time it was possible that Louza had a knock;  there was also an argument for saying that by pushing further forward with width coming from buccaneering fullbacks a solid midfield had more value than a creative one.  Either way, more significant than the decision itself was the reaction to it.

A second Watford goal came nonetheless, capping a stoic performance from Moussa Sissoko has he received a ball from Cucho, made the most of the luck of the bounce in navigating Ben White and finished tidily past Ramsdale.

In the closing minutes there were components of a comeback, but not the whole package which sums up our season nicely, I suppose.  A spirited cameo from the bench from Samuel Kalu which showcased both the sparkle that persuaded us to sign him and the questionable decision making that has perhaps restricted his input until now.  Kieran Tierney revealed what a horrible little scrotum he is by providing the crowning pieces of gamesmanship to an Arsenal repertoire that had been encouraged by a lazy performance from referee Craig Pawson.  And that was that.

It’s still not “done”.  The likeliest outcome is that we’ll get relegated of course, there are all sorts of shortcomings which aren’t going to get fixed by the end of the season.  To reiterate however we don’t need to be good.  We just need to be less bad than three others.  There’s a long grey area spanning from “maybe” through “probably” to “definitely” and that’s where we are but the biggest obstacle remains the lack of a home win.  Four of the five left are against the teams directly above us.  If we hit form, it’s doable.  But it needs to come soon.

Wolves on Thursday would be nice.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, *Kamara 4*, Samir 3, Cathcart 3, Louza 3, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 3, João Pedro 3, Hernández 4, Dennis 3
Subs: Kayembe (for Louza, 64) 3, Kalu (for Cleverley,  89) NA, Sema, Etebo, Kabasele, Sierralta, Masina, Kucka, Bachmann

Manchester United 0 Watford 0 (26/02/2022) 27/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
2 comments

1- It’s difficult to know how to react to seismic world events.  

However terrible, however consequential, however affecting, and presuming that such events are taking place at a distance, on a TV screen rather than in the next street, there’s a stifling sense of impotence that comes with major developments.  And if, for example, there’s a woman in the office who explodes passionately, fervently and perhaps even slightly seriously with a determination to take arms and head for Ukraine then she’ll be subdued into inertia by the awkward silence that follows, to which the subtext is “how about a cup of tea instead?”.

Perhaps nothing will change until people do react dramatically and overcome their inertia, and this means not just Ukraine (or even particularly Ukraine, since Russia’s troops would surely see limited deterrent in an overweight 49 year-old statistician with a pointed stick) but any of the outrages perpetrated in the name of (different groups of) the people in recent years.  Until that point, the only available course of action is to carry on.

An so here we are, carrying on, making our way along the Bridgewater Canal towards Old Trafford past the loading yards boasting mountains of crates claiming origins from Hamburg to China.  When we get to the stadium there’s little evidence of what’s going on elsewhere in the world and plenty of people just carrying on…  as we make our way back – somehow perpetually against the flow of bodies – at the end of the game one of the tunnelled walkways under Old Trafford briefly explodes into “Putin is a wanker!” which is at least something, even if it effectively boils down to less than a pointed stick.

2- There is, famously, a lot to be said for just carrying on in trying circumstances, as we will demonstrate today.  We are helped on our way by the fact that, as has been the case for a decade or so now, this is no longer that Manchester United.  No longer a side so driven and dynamic and well coached that the psychological burden of trepidation on the visiting team is enough to smooth over many of the home side’s relatively bad days.  Awful home defeats to Crystal Palace notwithstanding (and apologies, but midweek reporting capability remains patchy at best) it says a lot that it was possible to squint at this and say “you know what, maybe…”, surely inconceivable as a relegation threatened club at Old Trafford “back in the day”.

“I’ve heard of him!” proclaims Daughter 2 as we make our way past the Sir Alex Ferguson stand.  Since she was only four when United’s figurehead stepped down this was not to a given but she’s here today having never been to Manchester, and finds a place hamstrung by a sense of presumptuous entitlement no longer substantiated by what goes on on the pitch.  This is evident in the grotesquely complacent, underloved stadium and in the treatment of visiting supporters that is in stark contrast with the charm offensive ever more evident at other grounds.  You wouldn’t expect the token gesture of yellow, black (AND RED) shirts on the staff in the kiosks here – £2.50 for a bottle of water decanted into a flimsy plastic pint glass is much more on brand.

On the pitch the unreasonable level of expectation is surely a millstone around the necks of younger United players in particular, but nobody embodies the presumptuous entitlement more absolutely than the preening totem that is Cristiano Ronaldo.  “Lionel Messi, he’s better than you” is a predictable enough chant that he’ll have heard a thousand times before.  “Ken Sema, he’s better than you” perhaps less frequently.

Nonetheless, whilst he may no longer be the best/second best player in the world he’s more than good enough to cause us problems underneath all that hair gel.  In the opening minutes he receives a ball from the right as Cathcart slips in the area and plants a shot past Foster and off the face of the post.  So much for “keep it tight, boys”.

3- The Rowson clan are out in some force today;  Dad’s here, and Will has brought his herberts over from Leeds.  The younger of the two is a girl after my own heart, earnestly clutching an A5 sheet of paper and a purple marker to count off shots, cards, corners and goals from both teams.  The reverse of the sheet is reserved for “Ben Foster being brilliant”, and will receive the most attention.

United are all over us.  Not in a “this is coming” kinda way, not an irresistible wave of red shirts… but we’re very much second best nonetheless.  An offside-looking Fernandes breaks through to be denied brilliantly, bravely by Foster, and soon after drives a shot through that bounces off an affronted looking Ronaldo and away.  Ronaldo converts a Telles cross only to be rightly pulled back for a narrow offside – as at Arsenal, had our defending been slightly less incompetent, the otherwise impeccable Samir slow to react as Ronaldo sprang past him, the Portuguese might have been played onside and scored anyway.  

Foster was out quickly again at the feet of Ronaldo. Fernandes contrived to shovel a left wing cross wide, and then headed over after Ronaldo broke but was forced wide by Foster’s advance.  That incident had been preceded by Louza snarling into a loose ball but then having his ankle trodden on, seemingly accidentally, by Fred who initiated the break.  Our midfield trio throughout looked suddenly utterly convincing, as at Villa Park – Louza hungry for the ball despite pressure at the back of the trio, Sissoko enjoying his best game for a while and bullying Pogba and co in the middle of the park, Cleverley sustaining his fervent energy long enough to be applauded from all sides on his 80th minute withdrawal.

Nonetheless, our limited success and confidence in front of goal of late and Roy’s conservativism mean that our threat on the break is limited.  That’s not a knock at Roy necessarily, and maybe if and as things improve our counters will be coupled with a confident cutting edge that renders them more effective. Here, though, Sissoko’s most effective charge of the half sees him, perhaps wisely, opt against a shot to square to Sarr instead, the winger being smothered out as this attack went the way of several others.

Meanwhile in the corner in front of us the linesman executes the first of a peculiar trio of calls, suggesting an innate moral objection to the ball being shepherded out of play by awarding a corner for an imperceptible touch by the shuffling and baffled Kamara.  The same official will repeat the trick twice more in similar circumstances, but in general the apprehension of being officiated by Kevin Friend at Old Trafford proves unsubstantiated… indeed, he resists the temptation to award the home side a spot kick for Cathcart’s surgically precise tackle on Elanga, whose momentum takes him over it.  VAR confirms the call – a second half appeal by Ronaldo after he deliberately runs into Kamara, falls over and sits with his arms outstretched in outrage doesn’t even earn that – nor, indeed, any support from his team mates who one presumes have seen this before.  As he slows up, perhaps Ronaldo is reverting to the gravitationally challenged bad habits of his first days at Old Trafford.

united

4- In the aftermath of Wednesday’s disappointment against Palace it’s worth reflecting that, after weeks and months of objections of a lack of on pitch plan or identity we now, unequivocally and indisputably, have one.  It may prove inadequate as we run out of road and has thus far demonstrably been unsuccessful at Vicarage Road (though the nadir remains Norwich, pre-Hodgson, who inherited a run of five consecutive home defeats which now stretches to seven).  But it’s there, and has yielded an unlikely looking four points from two difficult away trips in a week after less rewarded reasons for optimism in Roy and Ray’s first two.  

To reiterate, whilst we were second best here, to varying degrees, throughout the game we earned a point through a combination of the plan being sound, the plan meaning that being a bit lucky was enough to get that draw, and of hanging in there.  Of keeping going.  Of having the strength of mind and purpose not to be phased by narrow squeaks, just as so much of Luther’s success even longer ago than Sir Alex was based on not being phased by missing chances.  

And the second half was an improvement on the first in terms of balance of play.  United brought on Sancho who played down the left and was a similarly sprightly, ineffective threat to that suggested at Vicarage Road earlier in the season.  Never been the same player since he left Watford. He faced Craig Cathcart for the most part, since Roy opted to replace Jeremy Ngakia with the seemingly back in the fold (good!) Christian Kabasele.  The first half had seen both full backs display their characteristic vulnerable exuberance but Ngakia, in to cover the unexplained absence of Kiko, more nervously.  

United’s chances were generally fewer and further between after the break but this wasn’t saying a lot and they still fashioned openings that might have punished us on a bad day… Elanga started and ended the most fluid move of the game, an interplay of such startling elegance that it woke the home stands up if only briefly  (explaining what “ground full of tourists” was all about took much of the walk back to the car).  Later in the game, just as we were thinking that maybe however stoic the defending and however good the plan United had to get a break eventually Fernandes’ cross hit Cristiano Ronaldo and Foster gratefully scrambled to the loose ball.  In a last act of defiance, Samir executed an inhuman block to deny Fernandes as United pushed.

We had attacks too though, and if we were still second best at least we were throwing a few punches.  King, who struggled on the left for much of the game, fed Dennis whose sharp shot was killed by an unfavourable deflection.  Sarr, who occasionally looked as if he’d been restrained from attacking with abandon, surged through and fed Dennis; his effort was blocked, De Gea was beaten to the high ball and Kamara cut inside to shoot excitedly over.  Juraj Kucka came off the bench for a dynamic, chest-beating cameo – Dave, who had started the game by drumming on my back as if he was the sugar-high primary school child but mercifully calmed down, suggested that this was the role he should have been playing all season, agent of chaos off the bench but for, you know, stuff.  

In the dying seconds, the possibility of glorious daylight robbery.  We’d passed Danny Webber arriving as we traversed the car park before the game – he once executed a similar burglary at Leicester in the dying minutes.  Here it was Isma, cutting in from the left and finding United’s defence unusually inattentive, backing off.  He pinged a shot towards the top corner which for half a second from our angle looked like it was going in.  The celebration, had that happened, would still be rolling around the otherwise empty Old Trafford stands but it wasn’t to be, curling narrowly and cruelly over the bar.

5- There’s no knocking a draw at Old Trafford.  As at Villa – before one point became three – there’s the suspicion that it’s not quite enough but a third League point at this venue and the first since November 1985 is not to be taken lightly.

As for what comes next…  it should be stating the obvious that our home form is the biggest obstacle to our escape since there are still plenty of games to be played and plenty of bad teams within reach. 

The thing about probability is that there’s a huge grey area between a racing certainty and a dead horse and when you’re in that grey area all sorts of anxious tendencies come to the fore.  Many of them are essentially cowardly – or at the very least lacking in courage, which isn’t quite the same thing – easier to protect yourself from hurt and emotional vulnerability by writing off the shades of grey as black.  “We were down weeks ago, lads”. 

Being positive, refusing to accept that the game is lost, is in its own way no less cowardly.  A refusal to accept reality, perhaps.

But it is more fun.  With or without a pointed stick.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 4*, Ngakia 3, Kamara 3, Cathcart 3, Samir 4, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 2, King 2
Subs: Sema (for King, 63) 3, Kabasele (for Ngakia, 63) 3, Kucka (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Hernández, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, João Pedro, Bachmann