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Wycombe Wanderers 1 Watford 1 (27/10/2020) 28/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- It’s 22:20 on a school night.  We’ve just drawn 1-1 at Wycombe.  You’re damn right this is going to be straight to the point.  None of your drawn-out meandering intros today.  No Sir.  This is a no-bullshit report.

2- And we needed a no-bullshit performance.  A performance that was capable of absorbing what Wycombe could throw at us, meeting the physical challenges head on and letting the quality tell.  We didn’t get one.  Not that we appeared complacent, nor lacking in effort particularly.  But the weaknesses of our team thus far, such as they are and bearing in mind that we’re third in the league, lost one game, conceded four goals and so on and so forth were cast into sharp relief.

3- And cast into sharp relief by a Wycombe side who were far more impressive, focussed and effective than their record hitherto had suggested.  They hurtled around doing the high press thing like shopping trolleys crashing around a slippery car park, not giving us a moment’s peace and, without being dirty, risking physical injury if approached tentatively or half-heartedly.  Both their full-backs caused us issues, Grimmer giving Sema a good old game down the right and Jacobson delivering quality set pieces.  Kashket snapped around feeding off knock downs and chasing everything down.  They had enough about them to make you wonder quite how they hadn’t earned any points until now.

Most of all, they had the game’s dominant player in Adebayo Akinfenwa,  making his first start in the second tier at the age of 38.  A sixteen stone force of nature, almost unplayable and completely brilliant.  And exactly what we were missing for the most part – a focal point to hold the ball up, provide some welly and provide the facility for our attacks to drop anchor rather than needing to be fleet and precise.  Akinfenwa’s in a white shirt, we win the game.

4- As it is, we are happy to be goalless at the break.  Not to say lucky… there’s nothing lucky about your goalkeeper being completely brilliant.  But we’re lucky to have a brilliant goalkeeper.  Foster his out bravely, defiantly, to claim a Jacobson corner and again when the same player is able to send in a follow up. Kashket controls a knockdown with his hand, the officials miss it and Foster’s block is critical.   Akinfenwa forces a shooting opportunity, Foster saves well to his right.

Meanwhile our attacks are the sort of rapier thrusts that we’re used to seeing and it’s not impossible that we take the lead but there’s no heft to our performance.  Capoue could have provided that but he’s disappointingly low key.  Femenía rattles up and down the right flank and is a constant force for good, but it’s not enough.  As the half closes, Troost-Ekong’s sloppiness lets in Kashket who squares for Akinfenwa to shovel over.  Then Wanderers break through on the right and Troost-Ekong redeems himself by thundering in to deny Horgan.  No, not lucky.  Not hanging on.  But, yes, half-time would do very nicely we thought you’d never ask.

5- Second half starts in similar vein until we score.  And of course it’s Kiko and Sarr’s far post header is perfect and suddenly we look like the newly relegated side weathering the storm and then mercilessly killing off the game triers with a moment of quality.  And then Sema’s rolling through challenges, threatening to stick the knife in but doesn’t quite.  Sarr powers in a shot, Jacobson denies João Pedro a tap in.  We have all the possession now and look every inch the better side.  That should have been it.  We should have seen it out.

And that’s the other recurring trend.  Looking good.  Looking solid.  And not quite being good enough.  See also Reading, Sheff Wed, Bournemouth.  We’ve looked vulnerable at set pieces against sides less well equipped to exploit them than Wycombe and there was nothing spawny or half-hearted about Stewart’s equaliser.  Indeed, Wanderers can consider themselves unlucky to have a second disallowed as substitute Samuel tangled with Foster.  It wasn’t a travesty of a decision, but he could certainly have gotten away with a more generous interpretation.

Consolations?  Silver linings?  Glenn Murray putting in his best minutes for us, drifting into space for Kiko to slip him straight through, the shot from nowhere across the face of goal.  In all honesty he could have been on earlier.  Some tactical flexibility, Chalobah on to provide some more controlled passing from the back as Kabasele departed with a shirt spattered in blood from a facial injury.  It didn’t work, it might have done and might do in the future.

We can’t complain with a point, and no away point is a bad point.  An away point at Wycombe might look a lot better in a month or two’s time than it does now.  But we need to be able to score imperfect, scruffy goals if we’re going to be the cruelly effective side that we ought to be.  We need a striker fit.

Bring on the next one.  Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 2, Cleverley 3, Quina 2, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Murray (for Quina, 74) 3, Chalobah (for Kabasele, 74) 2, Garner (for Cleverley, 90) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 1 AFC Bournemouth 1 (24/10/2020) 24/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- Sometimes you just crave something normal.

You’ll have your own favourites.   For me… football, obviously.  That goes without saying.  But more mundane stuff too.  Being able to see family, go to the pub without worrying about it.  Going to the co-op for some milk without having to queue up outside, or wear a mask.  Going to work, actually going to work and seeing people in three dimensions rather than two, and running into people spontaneously rather than everything being timetabled.  Everything.

To be somewhere busy.  With lots of people.  And noisy.  And chaotic.  To hold the door open for someone without wondering if that’s the right thing to do any more.  To shake someone’s hand.  Something normal.  Anything normal.

Except this bollocks, obviously.  That should have gone without saying.

2- I know I’m supposed to hate Luton and I suppose I do but largely out of the same sense of obligation provoked by signing leaving cards at work for people that I don’t really know.  Proper animosity will come, I’m sure, if we spend too long in the same division, the pressurised nature of derbies makes it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy but competitive rivalries such as that with the Cherries, promoted with us and relegated with us having earned a single point more than us over the five years, are more heartfelt at the moment.

There will come a time when this is not so.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with Bournemouth, the Dorset coast is perfectly pleasant, there are years of shared history without there being a Thing and the fanbase no more objectionable than most others would be in the face of such fractious recent encounters.

But now?  Eddie Howe has gone but Jason Tindall was always the High Priest of Bournemouth’s snide, cynical brand of shithousery.  No surprise to see the Cherries bomb out of the top flight with the advent of VAR.  No surprise to see the club’s recent traditions upheld by the new coach.  There’s been plenty of criticism of today’s referee Tim Robinson, who will certainly have better afternoons.  But it wasn’t Robinson making the studs up challenges, not late tired lunges in a high speed contest but deliberate and unpleasant acts of gamesmanship.

3- The last home win in a game between the two sides came at Bournemouth in January 2015, abetted in part by an early (and later rescinded) red card for Gabriele Angella.  There should have been an early red card here…  with a crowd to bellow it’s objection, or had the challenge come ten minutes later then surely the Cherries would have been down to ten.  Tindall was at least candid enough to admit that “on another day it could have been a red card”, but his “not that kind of bloke” follow up in defence of Lloyd Kelly doesn’t hold any water.  You saw the thought process as Sarr threatened to escape… danger man, early doors, will get away with a yellow here, let’s do it.  It was brutal, arrogant and cowardly, and our good fortune was that Sarr wasn’t badly injured as he could have been.

Instead, after an opening ten minutes in which the Cherries had been aggressively, attritionally assertive the Hornets broke with devastating efficiency.  Cathcart swung a tremendous ball from left to right into the path of Sarr, the winger blistered down the right and slid a perfect cross into the path of Stipe Perica’s lunge.  The Croat had had an ungainly, awkward opening ten minutes or so but made no mistake here.

The rest of the half was low on goalmouth incident – our games are likely to be this way – but never less than engrossing. Sarr’s opening 45 was devastating, even if as the visitors briefly reeled in the wake of the goal he could have put Perica away rather than trying his luck from 30 yards.  The visitors began to pick up a head of steam in the final 15 minutes of the half; the largely low-key  Arnaut Danjuma showed a level of awareness of tradition with a “Coxy into the wall” tribute from a free kick.  Jack Stacey continued an emerging tradition of right backs causing us problems, frequently joining attacks and necessitating a fine and acrobatic interception from the tremendous Chalobah late on. Dominic Solanke, still looking a bit like an exchange student who doesn’t really speak the same language as his teammates, found some space but drove tamely at Foster.  Always – again, this will be the case one suspects – we looked a threat on the break whenever Sarr, who was diligent defensively, put the burners on.

An emerging theme, however, was the vulnerability of James Garner who was bullied by Billing and picked up an early yellow card for a silly trip.  As the half drew to a close the only question was whether to replace him at half time or to risk the humiliation of withdrawing him earlier, such was the degree to which he was overwhelmed and, particularly, rattled by his opponent once going through the back of him as the ball departed.  In the pantheon of missed fouls, would not be even handed to neglect to mention this one.

But Billing himself stole that particular limelight as the half drew to a close.   A flying elbow that connected painfully with Perica’s head was a coulda red rather than a shoulda, a benefit of doubt could be afforded.  Less so for me the sneaky lunge at Cleverley’s thigh by the same player in the subsequent passage of play, this looked more deliberate and considered being out of the referee’s line of vision.  Pretty extraordinary that the big Dane finished the game without a card.  We ended the half bruised, but in front.

4- The start of the second half could and perhaps should have seen us out of sight.  Étienne Capoue was on for Garner, his first touch of the ball was miserable but thereafter he was tremendous… he dinked a terrific ball to send Sarr through again, the Senegalese perhaps hit it later than he might have done but nonetheless drove a shot that would have gone inside Begovic’s near post had the keeper not pulled off a fine reflex save.

Shortly afterwards Sarr escaped again, and this time was pulled down by Kelly whose earlier yellow card should have proven critical.  It wasn’t a straight red for me, any more than the Kabasele incident on Wednesday night, but was a cynical attempt to curtail an escaping opponent and was a second yellow all day long.  Not given.

From then, it was an odd half.  The visitors dominated possession but their pressure was largely attritional…  comfortable in possession, good at moving the ball around and finding space, not very good at exploiting it.  Their efforts on goal – until the critical one – were from distance and whilst the shots on target stat in isolation doesn’t tell the story of a ball being moved around and across the penalty box, there was a lack of focal point for the visitors.  Josh King, making his first domestic start of the season, might become that figure but he was a largely theoretical threat here.

The Hornets threatened on the break, and Begovic had as much to do as Foster for all of Bournemouth’s rather impotent pressure.  Quina came on for Cleverley and put on a glittering half-hour or so, comfortably his best showing of the season…  the Cherries were the first side to afford him time and space to shoot from distance and a little more precision would have delivered more from two fierce, bending drives that Begovic, twice, nonetheless did well to stop.  On the second occasion João Pedro, on for the uncomfortably injured Perica, wasn’t quite sharp or fortunate enough to meet a rebound but was later involved in another lightning break that should have seen us capitalise on a numeric advantage as the visitors chased the game.

5- If you take the view – and I’m not sure I do in this case – that refereeing decisions are random incidents to be ridden and dealt with then it’s difficult to argue that the visitors weren’t worth a point, such was their unwavering pursuit of an equaliser.  They attacked with the ferocity of Blackburn, if without the potency, but also lacked the great big open gaps behind them as they pushed forwards.  Nonetheless, it’s always galling to concede an injury time equaliser, the more so given Kelly’s prominence in it.  Echoes of (former Cherry) Tyrone Mings’ arse at Villa Park in January when the England defender should have walked before the injury time winner took a critical deflection off his unwitting backside – one can only hope that this one proves less expensive.

I was bloody livid.  I can’t imagine I was the only one.  This report was postponed by the need to drive to Bedford and stomp grumpily around the park in the swirling wind and rain with a very strong coffee.

But having calmed down (a bit), it’s not hard to be philosophical.  Our side is built on a strong defence, and boy did they prove their mettle today – indeed, over the past week – despite the disappointing denouement.  All three of the centre-halves were absolutely tremendous, Cathcart putting in a masterclass of being in the right place at the right time as so often, garnished with his astonishing contribution to our goal.  Kabasele was focused and dynamic, and if Troost-Ekong still needs games and looks less physically dominant than I’d imagined there’s no disputing, once again, that we look a solid old unit.  If you rely heavily on your defence then occasionally, as today, as at Reading, something’s going to break against you.  That doesn’t mean that the whole plan is necessarily bunk, certainly not with the likes of Troy, Hughes, Gray, Masina still to return.

We’re still in a good place.  What matters, after generally kind results elsewhere, is how we respond. How we get back to, well, “normal”. Starting at Wycombe on Tuesday.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3,  Sema 4, *Cathcart 5*, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 5, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 3, Garner 2, Sarr 4, Perica 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Garner, 45) 4, Quina (for Cleverley, 64) 4, João Pedro (for Perica, 82) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Murray, Bachmann

Watford 3 Blackburn Rovers 1 (21/10/2020) 22/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1- I have recently discovered Marie Kondo.

At a time when, for various reasons, it’s difficult to do anything extravagant with time off and having plenty of it still to use I’m spending the week sorting out the garage.  That’s living, kids.  And so I’ve been directed towards Marie Kondo’s Netflix show by a friend who knows me rather too well.  The ferociously prescriptive and attractively bonkers how-to-tidy-and-organise-stuff methodology is right up my street and has had a fine impact on my garage, at the cost only of the collateral damage of an unforeseen extra day to be spent emptying my wardrobe and saying goodbye and thank you to, I suspect, a large number of clothes.

Marie Kondo herself is a small Japanese woman high on smiles, energy and personality.  One of the mantras is to only keep stuff that gives you joy, and the character she portrays is consistent with that.  She’s joyful.

Only a visit to her Wikipedia page lifts the veil.  Her Wikipedia pic is…  cold.  Focused.  Severe.  Businesslike.  The illusion is shattered, her on-screen persona is mere performance.  This doesn’t make the approach any less effective it’s just…  harder to trust her.

So it was reassuring to see Vladimir Ivic staying on brand during a largely vanilla fans’ forum on Monday.  “Would you prefer to win 4-3 or 1-0”.  “1-0”, with a twitch of the shoulder that implied that the answer should have been obvious (it was).  It’s not the fun answer, but you know it’s an honest one.  Nobody should be surprised.   What he made of this evening’s fare we can only speculate.

2- Much of the blame for the  thrilling, captivating nature of the evening lies at the feet of the visitors, who were bold, enterprising and very capable.  Comfortably the most potent attacking force we’ve faced so far, their activity at the end of the transfer window suggested a side who’d had a glance around the division, decided they fancied it and told the dealer to twist accordingly.  Of the four deadline day arrivals only the precocious Harvey Elliott started and it may be that we played Rovers at a good time, before the signings have settled, but this was nonetheless a stern test of our back line.

Which isn’t to say that the visitors were infallible.  The prognosis from previews by People Who Know was of a soft underbelly and even as Rovers pushed forward, dominated possession and denied us any control in the early stages a peculiar defensive set up that saw centre-backs Ayala and Lenihan staying back. goalkeeper Kaminski pushing up, but a chasm between themselves and the rest of their side with both full backs attacking aggressively seemed ripe for exploitation.

The early exchanges only served to whet the appetite for what was to come.  As we finally managed to string a couple of passes together six minutes in, Sarr was released and disappeared into the sunset leaving Amari’i Bell in pieces behind him.  Rather than rein in Rovers’ ambition this only seemed to spur them on…  a quick free kick forced Cathcart to concede a corner, the excellent Nyambe fed Armstrong who tested Foster for the first time, the keeper making light of a fierce shot.

It was an engrossing battle, which seemed to take a decisive turn in a five minute period a quarter of an hour in.  The first goal was a rapier thrust;  Sarr fed Garner who played in Kiko on a galloping overlap.  He squared for João Pedro to sidefoot calmly home.  It was a goal savage in its precision, but the follow-up four minutes later was simply savage, Rovers momentarily startled by the turn of events opened up by a ball from Garner and Sarr’s merciless strength and speed.  His shot at an angle was always a big ask, but Kaminski could only palm it away and it dropped kindly for Tom Cleverley, albeit his forehead was where anyone else’s could have been if they’d been paying attention.

3- Very briefly that felt like “it”, so clinical had been our finishing, so keen had Rovers been to push forward and so vulnerable had they seemed to be to the counter-attack.  Going away and being so positive is fine until you fall behind, let alone two goals behind, and it was difficult to see anything other than us scoring more on the break.

To their credit Rovers’ resolve didn’t waver at all and they kept at us.  We had a bit of a break five minutes later as Kabasele was given a yellow as he brought down the lively Armstrong.  The striker had run across Kaba’s path to draw the foul and with Cathcart covering a yellow was the right decision, but not so right that you haven’t seen a red given in those circumstances.  From the resultant free kick Lenihan tested Ben Foster with a header – he should have done better in truth, having been let go by his marker Sema in a slightly concerning echo of the game at Hillsborough.

Another five minutes of pressure on and Rovers had a goal back.  It was a tremendous chest and volley from more than twenty yards, albeit Brereton had more space than you’d have liked, but Ben Foster was deceived by a late bounce and beaten at his near post.

Digressing slightly, it’s an overlooked detail that we didn’t award a Player of the Season last year.  Completely understandable in the circumstances, Things being what they are/were and so on even if it presents something of an unreachable itch for statistical completists like me.  In any event, had such an award been made it seems likely that Foster would have achieved the rare feat of two such trophies in relegation seasons thirteen years apart, for his stoic performances and irrepressible good-blokeness on and off the pitch.  And this despite, it is easy to forget, a rather wobbly start to last season where being beaten at his near post was in danger of becoming a Thing.  He overcame that wobble and here, too, whilst at least jointly culpable for letting Rovers back into the game he recovered to pull off a quite startling performance.

4- Any concerns that the second half would calm down a bit were allayed within five minutes of the restart.  An underhit Chalobah pass towards Sema was cut out, and Wilmot was caught slightly flat footed as Brereton escaped only to be pulled back by a welcome offside flag.  That could have been a different second half.

As it was, and with so much of our threat in the first half having come via the burning pace of Sarr and Femenía on the right, Blackburn telegraphed what was to come by giving Ken Sema all sorts of space to put a cross in on the left.  He’s already demonstrated that he needs no space at all to cause damage from wide positions, so it was little surprise that a minute later his vicious cross was turned in by Lenihan.  Unfortunate for Rovers, but only up to a point – this wasn’t a freak turn of events, a gift… Sarr was attacking the space behind Lenihan forcing the Irish defender to (try to) deal and would have converted if he hadn’t.

Back to a two goal cushion, but still not game over.  Foster saved brilliantly from a Corey Evans volley, then again when another underhit pass towards Sema, this time from Sarr, saw Rovers escape. Armstrong beat the offside this time only to be denied by Foster’s extendable fingertips, a save he had no right to make.  Only, finally, when Holtby won himself a penalty with a well-timed tumble and Foster went the right way to deny Armstrong yet again were we able to relax.  For all Rovers, potency, this was clearly our night.

And for all Rovers’ potency, for all that they dominated possession and made so many chances, the scoreline doesn’t flatter us in the slightest.  Having a tremendous goalkeeper isn’t “lucky”, having defensive players doing what’s necessary to make those chances difficult for the most part isn’t fortunate.  Instead the main concern from the evening was that we didn’t win more comfortably given the unreasonable pace in our attack and the great big spaces that were afforded behind Rovers’ backline.  For all that the visitors were impressive and huge fun – “everyone likes a plucky loser”, as my Dad would say – there were echoes of the dying days of Javi’s reign here at the start of last season (about twenty years ago).  Rovers were attacking and enterprising, but carved open far too easily.

5- For the remaining twenty minutes or so the visitors were kept at arm’s length and it looked more likely that we’d extend our lead than that we’d concede again, João Pedro and Sarr both coming close in blistering breaks.  Key in this, the cherry on the icing on an already very respectable cake this evening was a swaggering half hour from the quite brilliant Étienne Capoue.

And here’s the thing.  If we were perhaps catching Rovers on a good day, a few players missing and new signings not bedded in, then every side that plays us at the moment is playing us on  a good day.  We are only going to get better. All of our midfielders played well in isolation today…  Chalobah does some silly things sometimes but only because he does so much destructively and creatively.  James Garner looked absolutely fabulous again, dynamic and energetic and ferocious and still absolute class with the ball at his feet.  Cleverley is leading the team, and for me far, far more effective in an attacking role.

And yet Capoue will take that midfield to a whole new level, a Rolls Royce of a midfielder in this or any division.  Will Hughes still to return.  Wow.  At the back, if we looked less comfortable, more tested and stretched today it’s in part due to the fact that we were facing a much more potent opponent – conceding one goal here as impressive as some of the clean sheets that preceded it.  And up front…  the two young forward players are both extraordinary and if they’re not quite in tandem yet then you kinda feel that with a tweak in formation, attacking from slightly deeper either side of a Perica or a Gray, (let alone a Deeney, at his freewheeling Russian Roulette best in the Hornet Hive studio) they’re going to cause no end of havoc.

Most of all, there’s the head coach’s ferociously prescriptive method.  Marie Kondo would approve, I suspect. A long way to go, but we look well set-up, well stocked and well prepared for this.

Another big test Saturday.  Bring it on.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 4, Garner 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Cleverley, 61) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 71) 3, Quina (for Sarr, 89) NA, Troost-Ekong, Perica, Murray, Bachmann

Derby County 0 Watford 1 (16/10/2020) 17/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- The boredom’s bloody awful.

Most specifically, the lack of excitement.  The lack of adrenaline.  Working in isolation, bingeing on TV series, cooking curries, Zoom calls with friends, all fine.  Enjoyable, to varying degrees.  Not exciting though for the most part, not really.

Walking’s good.  That’s not exciting either, but living rurally it’s something I can do without reservation whatever the state of lockdown is, whatever the R number is.  In the fields out the back I can walk for miles with a good few hundred metres warning of anyone approaching and as Billy Connolly amongst others has noted there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong type of clothes.  Normally I’ll have a podcast in my ears, but last week I went for music instead on a ten mile loop up to there, across to there through a wood full of indignant muntjac and back home again.  I prescribed myself a diet of stuff that I haven’t listened to for ages…  Blondie, Cinerama, the Wonder Stuff.  All live albums…  listening to a live album isn’t the same as being there, as feeling your ribcage vibrating as PJ Harvey launches into “Dress”, but it’s not without value as a substitute.  The Pretenders were rejected as soon as it became clear that their live acts involved playing everything at half the usual speed, the opposite of what a live performance is supposed to be.  Soon I had a spring in my step, a little burst of adrenaline borne of losing myself in the music.  Half an hour later I was in tears as the wrong lyrics tripped me up.  A high risk strategy, evidently.

2- Speaking of excitement, the transfer window’s just slammed shut.  Long enough this one, I think, and I’m speaking as someone who finds the ludicrous toing and froing and speculation relatively enjoyable as you might have gathered (and see above, anything approaching excitement…).  In truth it’s long been a landmark that we’ve been desperate to see pass, not just because it means the portcullis dropping on the possibility of losing the likes of Sarr and Hughes, at least until January, but just in that it might finally show our hand (whatever that might be).  As it turned out it passed relatively uneventfully, the “no news” being good news in that we retain everyone we were desperate to keep (not you, Craig).  If their heads are in the right place the guys who’ve stayed when they might not have are huge assets.  Quite how big a caveat that is only time will tell, but the suspicion that not all of those who were slated as likely exits would leave proved well-founded.

Nonetheless, the announcement of the starting eleven was underwhelming.  No Troy, no Hughes, we knew that, but no Sarr either.  The club may have been aware that he wouldn’t realistically be back in time (despite Senegal’s Tuesday game with Mauritania having been scratched, so a little difficult to reconcile) but we didn’t.  And no Capoue, despite the suggestion that his return was a possibility.  The first eleven, certainly the attacking side of it, looked a bit botched together and the bench, flimsy. Vladimir Ivić had picked a side based on what he had available, but it was a side that looked even more focused on defensive solidity, asking an awful lot of two young attacking players in João Pedro and Domingos Quina.

Little surprise then that the first half was pretty turgid.  The midfield was ferociously congested, any possession hared down by whoever didn’t have the ball meaning that either side stringing more than a couple of passes together felt a little anomalous.  Defensively we looked solid, as ever, William Troost-Ekong having a relatively inconspicuous debut (save for a slightly alarming sliced attempt at a clearance that Foster had to be attentive to) but was also talking constantly and from the opening minutes.  Good.  Going forward though very little was sticking up front. There were occasional glimpses of life, João Pedro demonstrating surprising strength to hold off a defender here, Sema breaking from his constrained central position to get wide and get a ball over there, but these sparks didn’t ignite anything too often let down by a bad pass or a bad decision forced by the lack of time and space.

The biggest threat to either goal in the first half was Wayne Rooney, whose decline I had greatly exaggerated in my head having viewed only from a distanced and labelled Derby a bit of a basket case – also an exaggeration.  Whilst his mobility has reduced his physicality and awareness gave the home side’s attacks some cohesion and his set piece delivery their biggest threat.  Also the best demonstration of our defensive resilience since we stood up to it well.

3- The thing is, solid is a very decent start.  Easy to be smart with hindsight of course… this game could certainly have finished nil nil, we’d have a different view if more generally we’d had a few more unlucky but decisive breaks such as the deflection on Pușcaș’ shot two weeks ago in our generally tight games to this point.  But it didn’t and we haven’t…  and so it’s not unreasonable to credit a head coach who has looked at the bit that’s stable and works, and looked at the bit where the sands have been shifting most unpredictably and prioritised accordingly.

It was argued after the game that we’ve not played anyone decent yet, but that’s not strictly true by the standards of the division.  Three of the five teams we’ve played are top half as I write and another would be, just about, but for their points deduction despite us taking points off most of them. It is difficult for a side to look good against our suffocating defending.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good chances we’ve allowed opponents across the five league games, and whilst we’ve made mistakes – Cleverley passing carelessly across the box, Wilmot making a rash challenge later in the game – they’re isolated incidents, we’re solid enough to ride them and the Championship isn’t merciless enough to punish them most of the time.  We have a strong first four from which to perm three (or two) at the back, and Sierralta getting good reviews for Chile in the week makes a fifth.  Sean Dyche’s Watford side did a good job of being solid with a bit of magic dust eight years ago, this – without the absentees – is the same formula with vastly better players.

There’s a lot to admire and enjoy and – digressing slightly – it seems worthwhile dwelling on the fact that this stuff is quite enjoyable and has value in it’s own right. It might suit the big six to pretend that it’s their bit that’s important, certainly suits them to build in anticompetitive barriers to protect themselves from upstarts like Leicester and Wolves in the same way that the Premier League’s creation guarded against the Wimbledons and the Champions’ League’s inception guarded against the Steaua Bucharests, but it doesn’t suit anyone else.  And yes, Things Being What They Are something needs to be done but further closing a shop, further tilting the unlevel playing field isn’t it.  Delighted that the thing was voted down, some kind of deal that recognises the symbiosis of the football pyramid and involves, you know, the big six giving something up rather than making concessions that don’t cost them an awful lot whilst clawing away at any risk to their dominance hopefully the end game.  It has been argued that this was merely an opening salvo, that the proposal was so ludicrous that it can only have been a negotiating position to row back from to the actual objective but I don’t buy the implied inevitability of it.  Match 39 was, eventually, beaten off after all.

4- Back on the pitch and as so often we got better in the second half.  And, yes, it would be nice if we were great for ninety minutes but evidence of a manager smart enough  to know what to change is encouraging.  It was still not quite there, the ball was still not sticking enough but fifteen minutes in we were undeniably on top for the first time.  Ken Sema rolled Evans, the weak link of the Derby backline.  João Pedro got yet another exquisite touch to tee up Chalobah who slammed the ball goalwards…  Evans blocked with his hands but a coulda rather than a shoulda penalty for me.  Cleverley put an outrageous ball across the pitch, well cleared.  Kabasele met a Quina corner well but a deflection killed the momentum of the header.  Derby were all hands on deck now, not least the excellent Matt Clarke, a frequent appearance on The List in recent years.

And then it happened.  And Ben Wilmot had a big role in it tp crown what was already perhaps his strongest performance in a yellow shirt;  the surge on the ball from the left that disrupted Derby’s shape was worthy of a Holebas or a Doucouré, not a 20-year-old centre back playing on his weaker side.  He continued his run pulling Shinnie away from João Pedro and…. well.  You’ve surely watched it a dozen times by now, you don’t need me to describe it.  There was a bit of Deulofeu at Wembley about it but rather than dislocating his ankle to achieve a ridiculous curl the Brazilian did his thing where he makes himself space not by touching the ball but by stepping away from it and then stroking an impossible shot arcing through the eye of the needle and into the top corner.  Completely outrageous.  João Pedro has arrived.

And THAT is what excitement feels like.  Our third winner of the season, fourth if you count Perica’s penalty against Oxford, but the first bellow.  The first roar, eyes closed limbs extended ungracefully from my starting position on my stomach in front of the TV on the living room floor, making a degree of noise that didn’t go down well with all members of the family.  Get.  In.

5- I started emptying out the garage today. the morning after the night before, the first stage of an overdue project that is having a week off devoted to it, at least in part.  No, not exciting, but I got my excitement in last night in that hugely cathartic moment.  I finally emptied the last of the boxes from our move from Watford, umm, eleven and a half years ago.  Yes, I should have just binned it, but I found this…

 

Which is a good thing.

As for the game…  yes, it could easily have been nil-nil although Philippe Cocu, whose Derby side were limited and imbalanced rather than awful – had a touch of the Viallis about him in his fanciful post-match assessment that his side had been dominant and deserved “at least” a point.  No mate.  Both sides were solid, made it difficult.  We had some angel dust, and scored a goal, you didn’t.

A goal with our first shot on target admittedly, but as above Vlada is playing his hand and playing it well.  There’s an array of attacking talent missing that will give us an awful lot more than just angel dust.  Indeed, a line-up of Bachmann, Navarro, Masina, Cathcart, Sierralta, Capoue, Hughes, Garner, Sarr, Deeney, Gray gives today’s starting eleven a hell of a game and doesn’t feature Perica, Murray, Success or the criminally injured Dele-Bashiru.  Indeed, to requote an earlier statistic… if the Premier League couldn’t cope with a forward line of Sarr, Deeney, Deulofeu (L2, D3, W5 inc Liverpool, United, Wolves when starting together) then the Championship might struggle with Sarr, Deeney, João Pedro.

This game wasn’t a thriller, but was the stuff that promotions are made of.  We look a bit good, boys and girls.

This could be quite exciting.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Wilmot 4, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 3, Sema 3, Quina 3, *João Pedro 4*
Subs:   Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 72) 3, Murray (for João Pedro, 86) NA, Garner (for Quina, 89) NA, Stevenson, Phillips, Hungbo, Bachmann

Reading 1 Watford 0 (03/10/2020) 04/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- In my day-job, I’m a statistician.

This involves making sense of data.  Drawing reliable conclusions, building models, quantifying variation.  Is there a relationship between this and that?  What are the consequences of changing this, this and this all at the same time?  What are the factors that influence this outcome?

There is a characteristic of this role, of roles like this, that may not be immediately obvious.  When the penny drops the cold reality smacks you in the face. It’s absolutely terrifying.  People expect you to know what you’re talking about.  Your judgments are treated as gospel. Careless words run away from you and develop a life of their own.

This risk breeds a certain carefulness.  Caveats, qualifications, fences to be sat on, “on the other hand” and so forth. An inherent caution.  Which goes out of the window completely outside work.  Don’t tell anyone.

I don’t know what it is.  If I was at work I’d be full of warnings not to draw conclusions from a small sample size, not to extrapolate from this to that. This morning?  Clearly we weren’t going to concede a goal or lose a game all season.  Difficult game?  Pah.

2- The team started as if they were just as convinced of their own invulnerability.  Vlad’s selection was ostensibly a little conservative, Cleverley and Sema’s niggles this week seeing them relegated to the bench in favour of Tom Dele-Bashiru and Kiko Femenía, but we were punchy and aggressive from the off.

Sarr squirmed out of a tackle , tripped from right to left across the face of the box and released Dele-Bashiru breaking down the left, his fierce ball across the face just missing a touch.  Kiko overlapped and forced a ball across, Ngakia was attacking the far post but shanked a shot wide.

Reading were positive also, but seemed to be pushing themselves further than they wanted to be pushed, to the ragged extremes of their capabilities. Balls quicker than they could be accurately directed.  We swung the ball from flank to flank, Nathaniel Chalobah the conductor in chief swooping first time passes to either side where the wing-backs were pushing on. We won a free kick on the edge of Reading’s area, James Garner made light of the traditionally treacherous “too close to get it up and down” dangerzone to crash his shot off the underside of the bar.

It was all going rather well.  Too well.  And then two things happened.  Firstly the hosts switched formation to drop an extra body into their increasingly ragged midfield.  Secondly, Tom Dele-Bashiru twisted his knee awkwardly in a fall.

It’s preposterous to suggest that the side was reliant on a midfielder thirty minutes into his full league debut, but such was his irrepressible dynamism and influence on proceedings that it’s difficult to conclude anything other than we suffered for his absence.  He lasted another five minutes, during which Nathaniel Chalobah wandered across the edge of the Reading box, was robbed by a fine tackle and as the home side tried to break out Garner hurtled in with a blocking tackle.  It was heroic, but signified a shift in the game.

3- We’d been warned, and not just today.  We’re still work in progress, the sands are still shifting, it’s not “finished” and there’s already plenty to like.  But right at the moment, right now, we’re not potent enough.  The return on all the impressive, often elegant use of the ball and composed possession is too little punch at the business end.  Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro are both fabulous, Sarr’s will be the dominant thread of the many threads to be resolved over the next couple of weeks, but playing them up front together is like having two puddings and no main course.  A nice idea, but overly indulgent and ultimately unsatisfying.  You might get away with it on special occasions but on a regular basis it’s just not going to work.

We were better than Reading over the piece in the sense that we had more of the ball, more chances, and defended better but not so much better that we could get away with not having many shots or scoring any goals.  And as I said, we were warned…  Cathcart got away with a lucky deflection that saw him accidentally bypass Meite’s challenge on the edge of the area.  The same player got onto the end of a cross swung from right to left, thumping a volley at Foster who did well to block and then to repel a rebound.  Eventually Pușcaș, who did an endearingly belligerent job of charging around up front for the home side, attempted an unconvinced and unconvincing shot which took a deflection off Cathcart to wrong-foot Foster.

We were a bit unlucky with that incident.  If you manage to engineer shots and goals from possession when you have it you can afford such misfortunes when they come along.

4- The second half was a little bit miserable.  We were still trying most of the better things that had been going on in the first half but suddenly it looked a little bit deliberate, a little bit hard work.  Reading were playing with more confidence and did a good job of just getting in the way and threatened from set pieces, where we looked a little bit vulnerable. Much of the good stuff involved James Garner, whose set piece delivery is tremendous and who seemed keen to move the ball quickly which, in the absence of the physicality to threaten a large, solid defence was kinda essential.  Sema moved from an awkward looking spell in the centre to the left after another personnel switch and briefly looked like a get-out-of-jail card with his delivery from wide, but it didn’t happen… we ended the game looking quite forlorn, and quite unlike scoring an equaliser.

5- As was reflected in the post-match Hive discussion, a Troy Deeney in particular would have been useful for the other two to play off, to batter spaces for others to exploit.  To enable goals that weren’t entirely dependent on precision.  Or a Perica.  Or a Gray.  Glenn Murray had a brief cameo, but it’s fair to say that we haven’t worked out what to do with him yet.

Beyond that… an annoying defeat, but nothing to get overly stressed about.  There is still an awful lot more good than bad about this side which is extremely young, extremely fun and still being moulded.  The second of the two transfer windows, the domestic one, closes a couple of hours before we kick off against Derby and by then we’ll know who caught their plane, who was turned back at the gate and who never wanted to leave anyway, honest.

And then, finally, we’ll know where we’re at.  Probably.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 3, Dele-Bashiru 4, *Garner 4*, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Sema (for Dele-Bashiru, 37) 3, Cleverley (for Femenía, 69) 2, Murray (for Sarr, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Quina, Pussetto, Bachmann

Newport County 3 Watford 1 (22/09/2020) 23/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- So the most pleasing thing about this evening is the shade of amber of Newport’s shirts. It’s…. not quite as orange as Wolves, not quite as yellow as Bradford. It’s what Newport’s shirts should be.  I guess Shoot League Ladders have a lot to answer for, since we’ve not played Newport since 1978, so I’ve nothing really to base this instinct on.

And actually, it’s arguable whether we played Newport in 1978.  I don’t mean that in a if-Sam-Ellis-falls-over-in-the-penalty-box-and-nobody’s-there-to-hear-him-did-he-make-any-noise kinda way but… we played a Newport County in 1978.  But not this one.  Maybe.  That version of Newport County went out of business in 1989 having dropped out of the league nine months earlier.

They were reformed immediately, and consensus seems to be that this is the same club, which is surely true morally and spiritually, whether or not it would stand up to any legal scrutiny.  But such quandaries are a minefield I tell you… if Newport is a relatively clear cut case, what about Berko and Berko Town? Burton United and Burton Albion?  Folkestone Town became Folkestone in 1968 but there was an earlier “perhaps unrelated” Folkestone before WW2.  What are you supposed to do with that?  I hope your evenings are more productive than mine are.

2- Oh go on then.

The argument was made, more or less a week ago, that in the Current Circumstances a League Cup run would be a more useful thing than it might have been in previous years.  Clubs haven’t had a pre-season to speak of, no time to hone things, to try things out.  It’s like a pre-season with bells on, a competitive pretext.

Our line-up betrayed what we thought of that idea.  Daniel Bachmann, it appeared, was punished for generating another midweek fixture with the captaincy, and our selection was even more threadbare than it had been at Oxford a week ago.  We didn’t even bother to bring an extra body to fill the bench.

The wider question is the current treatment of the squad, which we’ve touched on but not really discussed.  We clearly have players that are injured.  We also have players that are “injured”, either than or we’ve been struck by a injury rampage that disproportionately disables players that want to move or who we want to move.  The commitment to only field “our” players, long-term players, is a bold one from Ivic.  Given the current state of flux, however, there was always the danger that it would lead to a shitshow like this.

3- Forgive me, but I really can’t be arsed to relive that miserable two hours.  I worked my nuts off all weekend, took Monday off to try and reclaim some brain space and saw Monday screwed over as well.  I could have done with something positive this evening.  Jesus.

The first half was as soporific and inadequate as anything we suffered under Pearson after the lockdown.  Different context altogether of course, far more forgivable here but a miserable viewing experience nonetheless.  Defensively we were a shambles;  Craig Dawson, nominally the wise head at the back, seemed to be perfecting the art of playing lazy, aimless passes into the midfield. All the poise of Marco Cassetti’s ball to Vyds against Leicester, none of the end product.  The loose balls were eagerly picked up by Newport’s focused and bullish side, everything that we weren’t, who quickly cottoned on to the fact that there was nothing much to fear here.  Nothing much at all, actually.  Toby Stevenson got caught on the wrong side of his marker, not for the last time, committed a foul in trying to retrieve the situation and the home side were ahead from the spot.

We were no better going forwards.  Glenn Murray, worryingly, looked leaden once again and we failed to build anything much off him – though significantly the one ball that he received to his feet saw him roll his marker and move the ball on.  What good stuff there was was sharp and aggressive but fizzled out like a firework as quickly as it started, Sinclair standing out from the morass with a surging run and then sinking back into it by committing a foul as the ball came back across.  The strongest performer in the first half was Derek Agyakwa in the middle of the three at the back, who had the confidence to surge forward and more finesse than his frame suggested, playing decent balls through Newport’s midfield to feet, our greatest success in navigating the home side’s aggressive press.  Nonetheless, by the break we were two down.

4- I didn’t rush back for the second half, deciding that I wasn’t desperate enough to see the first five minutes to spend brownie points on asking my wife to bring my dinner up when it was ready.  I had to piece together a change in formation to four at the back, Agyakwa now looking less comfortable at right back, and with two changes that saw Peñaranda and Perica replace Murray and the ineffective Hungbo.

Nacho Pussetto switched wings in the change, and looked dynamic and aggressive on the left in stark contrast to much that the team had offered in the first half.  His charge into the box brought a clumsy, ill-advised challenge and a Watford penalty. Peñaranda, keen for the ball but rather playing his own game for his own ends throughout, grasped the spot kick to the chagrin of Stipe Perica whose remonstration with the bench seemed to go unanswered. The Venezuelan’s successful conversion wasn’t celebrated by anyone, no congratulations offered.

Nonetheless, we were looking decent at this point.  James Garner began to look like the metronome that he’s been lauded as, dropping deep to receive the ball and spread it onwards far more fluidly than anything else we managed.  We were on top and suddenly looking like hurting the home side.   Until a loose Dan Phillips pass across the face of the area was seized upon by Padraig Amond and the game was over.

5- Harsh to be too critical of the kids, many of whom struggled.  If as much effort has been devotable to preparing the team as the chosen line-up would suggest they were on a hiding to nothing.  Tommy Mooney’s assertion that they will have benefitted from it is borne of experience, but feels like a very positive spin to me.  A humbling by a team two divisions lower, much the better side on the evening, doesn’t feel like a great preparation for anything much to my mind.

Most of all they were let down by the few senior pros around them;  Murray was quiet and ineffective, Dawson looked a lot happier in a back four in the second half but created all manner of problems for us in the first, Nacho Pussetto went from being our most potent threat to the likeliest recipient of a red card as the game ran away from us, yellow carded and several times told to calm down by the referee until he was subbed for a lively Crichlow.  The dismissal instead went to Stipe Perica for an idiotic, sulky and completely deliberate swing of the elbow into his marker’s jaw.  Once again looking a far more credible line-leader than Murray he will not now be available until beyond the international break.  Criminal, and far more expensive than this League Cup exit.  He knew it, too, his level of embarrassment and frustration at his own stupidity his one saving grace.

An almost entirely miserable evening.  If it’s followed by a win on Saturday of course nobody will remember by next week, unless it’s to praise the decision to bench the senior players that made it possible.  Right now, at 11pm two hours after the final whistle that possibility feels a long way off.

Ho hum.  Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Sierralta 2, Agyakwa 3, Dawson 2, Pussetto 2, *Garner 3*, Phillips 1, Stevenson 1, Sinclair 2, Hungbo 1, Murray 1
Subs: Perica (for Murray, 45) 1, Peñaranda (for Hungbo, 45) 2, Crichlow (for Pussetto, 84) NA, Ngakia, Cathcart, Parkes

Watford 1 Middlesbrough 0 (11/09/2020) 12/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- “Heidi’s climbing on my head.  She’s just got back.  She says she won at ballet”.

This was always going to be a season like none that went before it, and the pre-match conference with my brother is fittingly unusual.  By this time we’d seen the team, and blinked several times.  The Spurs eleven was already sparse but never felt consciously experimental… this is where we are, at least for now.  But from that side we lost Estupiñan, Dawson, Dele-Bashiru and hamstring victim Gray with Perica also missing despite his signing having been confirmed in the week.  Jerome Sinclair is on the bench for goodness sake, which is something that none of us thought we’d see again.  As of maybe three years ago.

The official justifications for our many, many absences – 17, reportedly… that it’s hard to keep track tells you everything – range from injured to ill to unfit, often vague and understandably so.  There’s injured and there’s “injured”, one suspects. Twitter rumour claims that Craig Dawson has refused to play, which if true given his miserable half-arsed effort against Spurs is comparable to Andy Cole’s notorious retirement from international duty.

As for whoever has had their agent whining to the Daily Mail about having to work too hard in training….  underperforming last season, being part of a relegated side is a stain on anyone’s reputation but far from beyond redemption.  Not at the very least being prepared to put a shift in whilst you’re still at the club, risking undermining the rebuilding of the side in the process by publicly clutching at your pearls at the prospect of hard work?  Weak.  Shut the door on your way out.

2- Back on the pitch, if the cast has changed then the set-up is unrecognisable from last season.  A back three, wing-backs, two sitting midfielders and two attacking midfielders loosely either side of the forward.

And we look OK.  We look get-attable certainly, at least initially…  Assombalonga and Fletcher have scruffy half-chances but too many of them, and scruffy half-chances can become scruffy goals if you concede too many of them.  Nonetheless… when Wilmot strides forward or Femenía screams down the left we attack like sandsnakes, wriggling into space and opening Boro up during this opening period.  From one of a number of corners Quina changes the angle by laying off to the dynamic Sema who is quickly closed down, but not quickly enough to prevent a beast of a cross. Cathcart thunders in, brutally exposing and ripping open a moment’s lack of concentration.  The merciless precision of the move made Hall’s transgression look worse than it was.

3- We’re going to be quite good at being a goal up, I suspect.  Here we are after the most chaotic of pre-seasons with a squad spinning like a mobile in the breeze, with a new boss running his first training sessions in a new language without his assistants in tow just yet.   And for the rest of the game… no, we don’t look significantly better than a tough, dogged Boro side but we don’t look significantly better whilst being one-nil up and rarely looking like being anything else.  That’s a hell of an achievement on the part of the new boss.

The second half sees us sit much deeper.  The occasional rapier runs are much less frequent, but so is any suggestion that Boro will equalise.  It’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility…  Hall sends a volley over, there are a couple of awkward bounces in the box and probably more set pieces than you’d like to be facing but Cathcart, Kabasele and Wilmot keep the visitors at arms length for the most part.  We concede a single yellow card when Britt Assomablonga tussles his way past Ben Wilmot via a grip on the most delicate of leverage.  You can’t unsee that, approach replays with caution. Rather that than being on the receiving end though, an understandable transgression on the young defender’s part.

4- Looking at individual performances, there’s a lot to like from the new(ish) faces.  Wilmot, as above, digs in and is much more robust than his 20 years and slim frame suggest.  Ngakia’s passing is wayward but his energy is tremendous, and he’s involved at both ends of the pitch.  Quina is mobile but gets smothered too easily, too often the point at which attacks break down.

But João Pedro is the surprise package.  Sort of, and not really, obviously… he’s been in our minds since long before he was allowed to sign, long before Liverpool and Barcelona were sniffing around but we got him anyway.  Just a surprise in that…  such prodigies haven’t always quite become the superstars that they were going to be in our heads.  The Brazilian still might not, but this wasn’t half a promising full league debut.  Eighteen and slim but somehow spinning and holding the ball up and battling and sweeping through balls and getting kicked but lasting ninety minutes.  If by some miracle we hang onto Sarr – and reports today suggest that Liverpool will have to save all their pocket money in order to sign him in January – then my word.  Sarr running off the Brazilian?  Yes please.

5- Whilst there are other strong performances from experienced players – Chalobah has his best game for what, given the last six months, pretty much equates to living memory, Tom Cleverley is again every inch a captain alongside him – the collective whole only works up to a point.  Defensively, as above, we look as good as could possibly be expected in the circumstances.  Going forward, the good bits – and there are good bits – don’t quite fit together.  Don’t all quite lock in place.

But good god.  This is the very definition of work in progress. We needed a win any which way today, a win with so much to admire about it is more than good enough in the circumstances.  We have a list of absentees that is, perhaps goalkeepers aside, vastly superior to the squad we were able to put out. We won the game anyway.  A team, playing a game, under a manager that was completely unfamiliar.  We won at ballet. For the timebeing, that will more than do.

Bring on the next one.

Yoorns.

Foster 4, *Cathcart 4*, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 4, Ngakia 3, Cleverley 4, Chalobah 4, Femenía 3, Quina 2, Sema 3, João Pedro 4
Subs: Murray (for Sema, 66) 3, Navarro (for Femenía, 76) NA, Phillips (for Quina, 89) NA, Sierralta, Pussetto, Sinclair, Bachmann

Watford 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (05/09/2020) 05/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
5 comments

1- So everything’s new.  And everything’s weird.  And we know why… we know how we’ve gotten here but those things don’t bear any more dwelling on really.  This is “get on with it” time.

Thing is, the sands haven’t finished shifting yet.  The pieces are still moving and nobody quite knows how and where it’s going to end up.  Off the pitch the club are dealing with these uncertainties as much as anyone and trying to make it work and trying to make it fair.  No, there aren’t supporters in the stadia and yes it would be much better if that were possible. But no, waiting until that’s OK again before we start again isn’t an option, not if you want the game to survive in anything like the state we left it.  More to the point if we want the number of clubs that we left to be similar to what return as and when…

You get the picture.  Get on with it, in short.  And the club have done a pretty decent job of doing that… not stiffing people for season tickets as others have, trying to fast track a means of presenting TV streams that isn’t complete bobbins, trying to make everything fair.  They won’t get everything right, but they’re trying  to do it right and they’re not trying to fleece anyone.

2- On the pitch, at least, there is a point where the music stops.  There are a dizzying number of pieces still to fall into place until that happens so for now, Ivić is having a look at what he’s got and trying to mould it into shape.  Most obviously we have a very large number of senior players absent from today’s fixture.  Holebas has gone, Doucs has all but gone.  Cathcart and Sema are on international duty, Will Hughes is injured (but subject of unwelcome interest from Spurs themselves if the papers are to be believed) as, presumably, are Janmaat, Success and Deulofeu.  That leaves Troy, Caps, Sarr, Welbeck, Pussetto, Masina, Pereyra, Femenía, Mariappa, Suárez and Foster all missing in action.  Oh, and all the U23s that were brought in last summer, apparently superceded by other kids on the bench.

A lot of these guys will move on, and that’s why they’re not involved.  As an aside the fact that we have  players wanted by top flight clubs, clubs who have at least some money to spend might prove a good thing.  It might afford us some control, the ability to exercise some choice over who goes and therefore who stays.  It’s unlikely, after all, that they’ll all move on.  Ben Foster, for example, is plausibly absent to give the new man a proper look at Daniel Bachmann.  But the others…  as I say.  Many will leave.  But some will stay.  And in the meantime we’re building foundations on sand.  But not doing too bad a job of it on this evidence.

3- First off, it’s relatively easy to look good at wing-back.  You have licence to rampage forward, you can get away with quite a lot defensively that you wouldn’t with only two behind you.

Nonetheless, given that, our two “new” wingbacks do look very good indeed.  Ngakia and Estupiñán were both absolutely tremendous here, hammering forward at every opportunity and providing decent service and width (indeed, we could perhaps have done without the Ecuadorian giving Mourinho such a close-up of his talents).  Spurs had had the early possession, moved the ball around but not gotten terribly far with it.  As soon as we wrested possession we broke and cut through, often from wide.  A scything move from the right ended with Quina shooting high and wide.  We broke down the left and put a low, hard ball across which Gray was an inch from connecting with.

Of the other three at the back… Tim Sherwood lookalike Wilmot had a couple of awkward moments but generally took responsibility, sometimes looked elegant and sometimes ungainly but invariably got the job done.  Kabs, in the centre of the three, quietly effective.  Dawson, on the right, sulky, unfocused and aggravating.  As my brother texted, “he’s never just ‘meh’ is he?”, and here in a performance that was intense and punchy his apathy stood out in stark contrast, much as the team’s vigour contrasted with much of what we had seen since lockdown.

4- Another startling development was the amount of aggression on display.  Four bookings is pretty remarkable for a pre-season friendly;  of these the bulldog-like Dan Phillips earned what is unlikely to be the last of the season if he gets many more minutes and if these minutes involve him getting as compellingly in the face of the opposition as he did here.  João Pedro picked up his for a revenge hack on the cumbersome Dele Alli, who had the temerity to appear briefly affronted despite his own initial hench-job being well worth a card of a different colour, pre-season or no, minutes earlier.

Elsewhere in the midfield Tom Dele-Bashiru looked tidy and controlled, Nate Chalobah  had a couple of rusty moments but far more on which he looked like the omnipotent metronome of our mind’s eye. Tom Cleverley looked and played like a captain, and Domingos Quina was the effervescent box of tricks we want him to me, the climax being a vicious dipping drive from 25 yards that fooled Joe Hart.  More frequent from Quina was a trademark pirouette to find space whilst shovelling the ball with him in a circumference with the outside of his foot.  More of this and he’ll be a nailed on starter.

Up front, Andre Gray was relatively quiet but every Watford fan, wherever they are on the Andre Gray spectrum, will have uttered the phrase “he really needs a goal” at some point since lockdown.  He got that goal, albeit from the spot, and then burned brighter…  the move that lead to what looked like a hamstring pull saw him anticipate Spurs losing possession and put the burners on to stretch the space facilitating the pass that put him through to screw wide under pressure.  On came João Pedro who again looked hugely encouraging,  balletic but far more robust than his slight frame and eighteen years suggests he ought to be.  More to come there, one suspects.

5- The pieces are still moving, but this didn’t half look bad in that context.  We could perhaps do with some more heavyweight options to counterbalance the promising kids, who are going to need to be more than promising pretty damn quickly if they’re going to be playing many games.  To this end the recruitment of Murray looks hugely sensible, if only to provide that leadership (any bullying physicality off the bench a bonus).

And we beat Spurs.  No, not a full-strength Spurs, yes, a pre-season friendly and no, I’ve not spent too long dwelling on the detail.  It’s a pre-season friendly after all, and if you cared you probably watched it yourself.  But we beat Spurs, with a thing that has fun bits and gnarly bits and sparkly bits but is fundamentally a thing that isn’t fully formed yet.

We may need to be patient.  But the signs are good.  The indicator lever that will surely flip-flop between “We’re going to rip the league a new one” and “we’re going down, sack everyone” is in the former position.  For now.

Bring on the Boro.  Bring on football.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 4, *Estupiñán 4*, Dawson 1, Kabasele 3, Wilmot 3, Dele-Bashiru 3, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 4, Quina 4, Gray 3
Subs: João Pedro (for Gray, 52) 4, Sierralta (for Dawson, 59) 3, Phillips (for Chalobah, 59) 3, Murray (for Dele-Bashiru, 64) 3, Peñaranda (for Quina, 64) 2, Navarro (for Estupiñán, 70) 3, Crichlow (for Wilmot, 89) NA, Stevenson (for Cleverley, 89) NA, Agyakwa, Parkes

West Ham United 3 Watford 1 (17/07/2020) 18/07/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
41 comments

1. When him and me started this thing, as opposed to that thing, it was with the idea that we’d frisbee out short-and-pithy reports, aiming both to offer a passing whiff of what’d happened and, crucially, to give ourselves much less to do. We began with one-word reports and thus our Sundays were reclaimed from the tyranny of deciphering notes, thinking up elaborate metaphors, being indecisive about player ratings, and all of the rest.

You know how that went: my Norwich report was nearly two thousand words long. That’s an awful lot of words for what’s essentially Man Watches Telly While Grumbling. The numbers are a relic of the point at which we abandoned one-word reports in favour of ‘thunks’, slightly less short-and-pithy but only marginally so. One short observation per number, up to five. Go. Done.

But then the thunks grew, because we like words and we like football and so we really like words-about-football. The short observations became less short observations became not-at-all-short observations became, well, this sort of nonsense. The observations grew together, tangled like brambles, until deciding where to put the numbers became really rather

2. arbitrary. We broke the five-thunk rule and expanded to six, seven, eight and beyond. Expectations returned; yours, ours. The player ratings returned too, although they’re mercifully no longer the subject of quite as much contention as they were back in the day.

It’s still nowhere near as much work as BSaD used to be: that was like having a part-time job, hiding, like the innards of a Russian doll, within the outer shell of whatever I actually being paid to be doing. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel a sense of weariness and nervousness when approaching the blank screen that’s supposed to become a report. What if I haven’t got it any more? What if there’s nothing in the mysterious well in my brain from which all of this stuff comes, just the sound of the bucket clunking on the bottom? (And I’d also be lying if I said that I don’t re-read them with a sense of wonder and surprise over the subsequent days, delighted that someone’s managed to capture my thoughts so perfectly, unable to entirely reconcile the idea that that person was me.)

3. The sound of a bucket clunking on the bottom of an empty well seems pretty appropriate, on this occasion. Early on this Saturday morning, the morning after, the sun is shining. Blue sky, bluer sea, fresh breeze. Tea, but not yet breakfast. I can hear Fred in the living room, cooing at a programme about puppies. Andrea’s having a lie-in. It isn’t a day to be wasted on inquests. What would that achieve?

4. So, back to basics. One-word match report. All yours. No need for more than four letters, I wouldn’t have thought.

Watford 2 Norwich City 1 (07/07/2020) 08/07/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
9 comments

1. It’s a funny old time to be an introvert.

The months of lockdown were far from easy, but they played into characteristics which I’ve much more commonly worn as flaws or carried as burdens. I’m better suited to withdrawing from the world than forcing my way out into it, in short. Seeing people is more stressful than not seeing people. (I don’t mean you, obviously. It’s always lovely to see you.) There have been points where it’s seemed as if a comparatively simple life at home, on the allotment, and out for a weekly run could be sustained for as long as finances would permit. Of course, there have been other points where trying to entertain an insatiably sociable – he doesn’t get it from us – six-year-old has seemed impossible: there is a certain pitch of madness which can only be found in the fourth hour of an uninterrupted monologue on Interesting Facts About Pokemon. That aside, we had managed to wiggle and fidget our way to making difficult circumstances into something resembling a comfort zone.

And then…out into the world, trying to remember how to put on a convincing act. Trying to weigh up how honest you’re supposed to be when people ask how you’re doing: the Honesty Index falls on a weekly basis and is available via a government hotline. Trying to make conversation from three months in which nothing conversation-worthy actually happened. “I’ve eaten all of the jam in the cupboard. Um…you?” Trying to figure out how to follow your own interpretation of the rules without seeming to decry what anyone else is doing. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting a haircut at this point, and yet my lack of a haircut is public evidence of that discomfort, and perhaps even implicit condemnation of those who have haircutted. I mean, Christ, with that going on in your head, who wouldn’t slightly pine for the simple life of STAY AT HOME? Sometimes it’s nice being an introvert. This is not that time.

2. And football. I love football. Is this football?

It all seems weird. This massive, pivotal fixture, something of such importance, dropped into the bustling mundanity of a weekday evening. I watch the game on The Small Telly and, really, I might as well be peering at ants through a toilet roll tube. Fred watches some of the first half with me: he’s written a magic spell for the occasion, which we need to recite in a whisper; his relentless fidgeting and chatter rather distract from the urgency of the occasion, and are very welcome for that. I eat my dinner just before half-time. The crowd noise is soporific, lulling rather than evocative. So much of football is immersion. So much of the game is detail, away from the ball. So much of relegation is acute anguish or aching despair or clenched-buttocks tension. I wish I wasn’t that person, but I’ve always tended to pay less attention to the opinion of anyone who wasn’t actually there, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a report from the sofa before, nor will again. (But do carry on reading.)

3. Having witnessed precisely none of the games under Javi Gracia or Quique Sanchez Flores, and now endured half a dozen under Nigel Pearson, I find myself in the awkward position of having to pass verdict on the cure while having seen none of the earlier symptoms. There is a danger of hysterically howling “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS LEGS?” when the operation might’ve saved the patient’s life. We are still outside the relegation zone at kickoff, after all.

Nevertheless, what I’ve seen has been agonising. It’s all very passive. I keep coming back to that word. All very wait and see. It’s hard to tell where the lack of ambition in the gameplan ends and the lack of confidence begins. They smudge into each other, similar shades of beige. Like half the division, it aspires – and why not? – to the coiled spring of the title-winning Leicester side, and the way they’d sit within themselves until the moment was right. Part of that is knowing when the moment is right, of course. Part of it is doing something decisive with that moment rather than clubbing another free kick into the defensive wall or drilling yet another low cross at the near post when nobody ever makes that run. And much of it is having a shell that’s sufficiently hard to withstand a beating in the meantime. We have, instead, the hardness of a raw potato, waiting to find out if it’ll be boiled, baked, mashed or (ooh!) sautéed, destined to be forgotten at the back of the cupboard, sprouting forlornly.

It’s all wasted opportunities, wasted time, wasted life. An afternoon spent waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes while the rest of the world – except Norwich, Bournemouth and Villa, mercifully – posts pictures of adventures on Instagram. I’ve also witnessed precisely nearly-all of the home form which took Hastings United to the top of the table before lockdown; none of that actually happened, officially speaking, but in the process of it not happening, I got a pretty good idea of what a confident, assertive, positive team looks like. The contrast is alarming. If your only win in a dozen games is a riotous trashing of the then-unbeaten champions, that suggests you have more than a bit of a motivation problem. You can’t just wear deodorant on your wedding day.

4. So I brace myself for another indolent pudding of a performance. And, actually, we begin by making things happen. That not all of those things are good things seems to me a secondary consideration, at least in hindsight. Will Hughes starts crashing about in midfield. Etienne Capoue bounds forward in pursuit of a hesitant goalkeeper. We push Norwich back, with a certain conviction that’s been absent hitherto. It’s energetic, urgent. It’s also further up the pitch than has become customary, affording Norwich room to get at Kiko Femenia, in particular. From the first of these breaks, Ben Foster saves a free kick bound for the top corner. From the next, Buendia finishes a tidy move with a curling shot into the other top corner. It’s at moments like these when I imagine that the players are grateful for the absence of a crowd.

In a packed Vicarage Road, this might’ve become a collective nervous breakdown. In an empty one, the goal, if anything, lends our efforts still more conviction: we cannot wait and see, cannot lapse back into passivity, cannot fail to seize the moment. Had it happened later, when our initial burst of energy was spent, we might’ve struggled to raise ourselves. But this early, with momentum still spurring us on, we surge at the visitors, press them again, dominate them for long enough, take advantage of a physical edge at set pieces. Craig Dawson dumps in a far post header.

5. The game settles after that, closes up its open spaces. It’s a moderately attractive affair, though: Norwich are inoffensively enterprising in the manner of a small bakery selling nice sausage rolls. It’d be called Roll With It or something like that. Just off the high street. They’ll be a loss to the division, partly in the sense that they play nice football with a young, keen team and mainly in the sense that whoever replaces them is likely to be harder to beat. Nothing much happens for a while, but it happens pleasantly enough. We drop too deep, naturally, then remember to push out a bit, not naturally. We appear in control, which is the bit that’s most worrying.

As my dinner arrives, and after the drinks break, we have another go. This isn’t a side which looks terribly convincing on the front foot – there’s more than an element of an Apprentice candidate making a stuttering sales pitch to a supermarket – but this is less unconvincing than the other attempts I’ve seen. Some of that is the result of Troy Deeney finding himself in a battle he can win; similarly, our set pieces meet much less stubborn resistance and look less abysmal as a consequence. Much of it is down to Danny Welbeck. Mobile, bright, intelligent, not-injured Danny Welbeck. Where Ismaïla Sarr is all energy and errors, Welbeck lends our attacks a focused edge that they’ve often lacked. He nearly scores from a corner, should score from a later cross. His time will come.

6. I do the washing up at half-time. You can sod right off if you think that’s going to become a superstition.

7. The appearance of control is maintained after half-time. It’s deceptive, though: at this level, control is less about broad landscapes and more about tiny incidents like the ones in which Pukki wastes very presentable chances with that awful combination of hastiness and sluggishness which characterises rock-bottom confidence. I hate seeing strikers in that hole. It reminds me of Danny Graham at Sunderland, and I don’t like to be reminded of Danny Graham at Sunderland. Here, though, and now, we’ll take what we can get. Danny Ings sticks those in the back of the net, but Danny Ings can’t play for Norwich because he plays for Southampton.

Norwich create the half’s first real flurry of goalmouth action, Foster saving smartly from Aarons after Hernandez has a shot blocked and before Buendia fails to recreate his earlier finish. As if to perfectly illustrate the grim well-that’s-just-bloody-typical misery of a failed relegation struggle, we break on them and score the game’s decisive goal, a hopelessly scuffed cross from Sarr looping up via a defender for Welbeck to acrobatically volley home. It’s a beautiful finish: overhead kicks are sometimes all physicality and gym-work but this has real grace and elegance, and the ball appears to respond as if caressed rather than whipped. I mean, it’s no Dennis Bailey at Peterborough but it’s a decent effort from the lad nonetheless.

8. You probably chewed your way through the rest too. There isn’t a relegation-threatened team in the history of the world which hasn’t fallen prey to over-caution with a one-goal lead and ten minutes to go, and we don’t become the first to react differently. Given how much we generally rely on it – or because of how much we generally rely on it, perhaps – our defence doesn’t half look brittle, and even an attack as mild-mannered as Norwich’s creates enough to turn the game around. Vrancic should do better with a free header at a set piece. And then, in the last minutes, Idah slides in to connect with a squirming cross in the six yard box and somehow diverts it wide. Should score, doesn’t score, season remains on the rails.

9. Of course, the point is that, many long months ago, the entire campaign became about finding three teams worse than us. Part of what makes them worse teams is having worse strikers. So much of what we’ve lacked – and what separates the bottom few from the mid-table many – is having match-winners who actually win matches on a semi-regular basis. The margin here was small, but it was decisive: one match-winner with a moment of pure, incisive magic.

Beyond that, there seems little point in drawing wider conclusions: the season is there to be survived, and this is a huge step towards that survival. What lies beyond is unknowable in so many ways.

Must do better, obviously. Can do better. But that’s for another day. For now, I’ve got a haircut to worry about.

Foster 4, Masina 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Hughes 4, *Welbeck 4*, Sarr 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Cleverley (for Hughes, 59) 4, Chalobah (for Capoue, 87) NA, Mariappa, Pussetto, Pereyra, Cathcart, Gray, João Pedro, Gomes, Uncle Tom Cobley, All