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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

Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (04/07/2020) 05/07/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  There’ll come a time where we don’t start a piece by talking about The Current Situation.  I don’t know whether to hope for that time or not, since the fear is that at that point The Current Situation will have been normalised.  And I hate The Current Situation, if that wasn’t clear.  Hate the isolation, hate the anxiety, hate what’s happening to people, hate that this would be bad enough in any circumstances but, well.  You know.  But maybe things could still be worse.  Maybe sticking for a bit is no bad thing.  Yes, I know the pubs are open.  Anyway, one day we won’t open a piece by talking about it.  This clearly isn’t that time.

“Normal”, for instance, would be attending this fixture by jumping on the Thameslink down to Blackfriars and spending an indulgent couple of hours walking the five miles or so along the Thames to Stamford Bridge.  That’s how it ought to be.  Meeting friends, family.  Grabbing a beer beforehand, or a quick Wagamama in that place above Fulham Broadway that’s somehow always empty.  You don’t buy food in Stamford Bridge of course.  Not as a policy decision, I’ve nothing particularly against Chelsea this week.  But because it’s shit.  Important local knowledge, speaking as someone with a fairly low, tolerant and accommodating crap food threshold.  I’d still walk all the way to Stamford Bridge now, at 11pm, for one of their awful shitty wrap things and all the rest of it. Right now.  Screw this.

2- For all that the games are on top of each other, there’s something painfully drawn out about this narrative.  Watching all of The Games That Matter means that we’re generally watching a lot of football matches, and a lot of football matches involving at least one terrible football team, what with lockdown and that making limited teams less fit, and less mobilisable by the presence of a crowd.  The number of teams involved and the low success rate of the protagonists so far means a lot of this is reasonably enjoyable nonetheless, what with schadenfreude and so on.  Man United toying with Bournemouth earlier was a popcorn event for all, surely, of a Watford, or Villa, or West Ham persuasion complete with mildly threatening twists and turns that briefly teased before the inevitable happy ending.

Where it falls down is where something genuinely alarming happens, like West Ham beating Chelsea.  Or, of course, when it comes to watching our own particular brand of awful.  That’s not quite so fun.  And playing Chelsea a few days (only a few days?  really?) after they got done by West Ham, the evening after United and Leicester picked up wins, was never going to be ideal.  This really didn’t  fall for us which, at the risk of repetition, is why we really ought to have taken points from the games that did.   As an aside, Frank Lampard’s appointment may still prove over-emotional and ill-judged, but he’s clearly not the idiot he might have been.  In my mind’s eye the excess optimism borne of desperation saw Sarr gobbling up the great big spaces behind Marcos Alonso and Troy beating up Christensen and Rüdiger, hardly the most robust of central defensive pairings.  As it turned out, the big open spaces behind Marcos Alonso were the empty seats higher up Stamford Bridge’s East Stand, Lampard having shunted the much more obstructive Azpilicueta into the left back slot, whilst Zouma came in for Rüdiger.  Zouma’s prone to the odd calamity himself, but he’s also a Big Old Unit, and for the second game in succession Troy was thoroughly bullied, isolated and ineffective.

3- Which isn’t to say that the whole thing was awful.  It wasn’t.  There was a plan here, and it wasn’t a bad one.  It left a fair bit to chance of course, which as already discussed had already demonstrated itself an unreliable neighbour to leave in charge of watering your pot plants.  It also didn’t work for reasons that will be discussed.  But it was a decent plan that looked like it might even deliver, until it didn’t.

4-5-1, effectively, with Sarr very deep and Troy very isolated.  That was the problem, the lack of reliable outball given Troy’s lack of mobility and lack of ability, on this occasion, to hold the ball up or bring others into play.  The pressure told on 28 minutes, and perhaps it would have done so sooner or later for all that it required precision and ingenuity on the part of Barkley and Giroud to penetrate.  We’d done well up to then though, we’d dug in and looked like we meant it.  More than going through the motions, a negative spoiling game can be an inspiring thing when it’s your lot doing it and when your against the odds.  And when it’s done with vigour like this.  Nonetheless, they were knocking on the door repeatedly.

As above, the lack of a way out was the problem.  Kiko was our most willing outlet, bombing down the left redoubtably and being a nuisance, even if the need to cut inside or backwards due to his lack of left foot meant that his bold forays tended to fizzle out.  Mapps had come in on the right, which caused a bit of discussion pre-match but a good shout for me.  He didn’t have a particularly conspicuous game, but we should stop and appreciate him from time to time.  As discussed in this piece, he’s a Watford legend, and in particular a leader in an area of the pitch that has been short of such.

4- And actually, Mapps’ presence was particularly welcome given that, as above, Troy was not just ineffective but sullen, miserable.  Quiet, even, if you can believe it.  And that another experienced player and some-time captain, Étienne Capoue, was about to do something really quite stupid.

The only defence you can make is that you’d rather someone stuffed up by doing something than by not doing something.  It was a bold run to intercept Pulisic with the best of intentions.  But it was also witless…  Capoue was on a yellow card, Mapps was well positioned, and yet he steamed in and gave away a needless penalty.  On the replay… again, perhaps we were unlucky.  Not that it wasn’t a penalty, but that the contact was unfortunate, accidental.  Clumsy rather than violent. But when you go in at speed without control like that you make it possible for such things to happen.  Willian tucked the penalty away, and a 1-0 half time deficit that you might even have taken at kick-off became something far less surmountable.

5- So for all that there were long spells in the second half when we scarcely seemed able to string two passes together, when every clearance was humped aimlessly and blindly, and in which Chelsea utterly dominated possession the fact that we got as late as we did at 2-0 is a decent thing.  A good couple of straws’ worth to cling to, I think.  Because we hadn’t given up… even Sarr, who was virtually non-existant going forward (and all the more startling when he did stretch his legs for the rarity and impact of it) was digging in defensively.  Not giving up.  If you can be murdered 2-0 then we were being murdered 2-0, but 2-0 is still only 2-0.  You can get lucky at 2-0.  You give yourself a chance.

We didn’t take that chance but we were better than lucky, I think.  The subs improved things again, and more drastically… Danny Welbeck gave perhaps his most convincing cameo of a season that has never quite got going, looking mobile and bold and combative.  A case to be made for him starting instead of Troy on Tuesday, brave as that would be and to be weighed against the captain’s need for fitness.  Tom Cleverley added some bite (and more of that authority and leadership) to the non-stop hassling of Will Hughes in midfield, Adam Masina suddenly found space on the left (and produced our first two shots on target, albeit neither really threatened to be more than a statistic).

But there were proper chances here too, none better than when Welbeck skidded down the left, cut in from the touchline and squared for Will Hughes to be denied by an excellent block from Christensen (I think).  Earlier, Welbeck had been played through and didn’t put his shot quite far enough across Kepa.  We’re running out of games for him to get it right, yes yes.  But he took the shot this time.

It was lively and positive.  Had we kept it at 2-0, let alone nicked a goal, we’d feel happier I think.  3-0 feels more like a gubbing, which in some ways it was, but a gubbing with silver linings and caveats, one of which being that Chelsea again needed to be excellent to score the third.  No gifts here.

Ultimately, we’re a side without much confidence and with limitations and this isn’t news.  Particularly the loss of Deulofeu, who however precocious is at least a distraction and at best capable of providing something to turn a game.  We don’t have that otherwise, least of all from Pereyra whose lazy, sloppy cameo was as pitiful as anything we’ve seen from him.

But there was positive stuff in this.  Whatever happens during the next instalments on Sunday we’re still in touch, and there were signs of life here.  Signs of fight, discipline and character.  All of which we’ll need in the next week in games from which gaining points always looked more realistic than from today.

Hang in there.  We only need to be less shit than Villa, Bournemouth and, most immediately, Norwich.

Yooorns.


*Foster 3*. Mariappa 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 2, Hughes 3, Sarr 2, Deeney 1
Subs: Welbeck (for Deeney, 58) 3, Cleverley (for Capoue, 64) 3, Masina (for Femenía, 64) 3, Pereyra (for Sarr, 83) NA, Cathcart, Holebas, Gray, João Pedro, Gomes

Watford 3 Liverpool 0 (29/02/2020) 29/02/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- The world’s going to shit, if you hadn’t noticed.  Events of the last few years have meant that I’ve long since ceased listening to the news.  That’s probably irresponsible, but also necessary for my own sanity.  No point being driven to distraction by stupid crap that I can’t do anything about.

Latest chapter in the world going to shit is COVID-19, which even I’ve heard about.  This could turn out to go away as quickly as it appeared, or it could be the devastating virus the advent of the sort of which has long been mooted.

A week ago I drove to Old Trafford with Manuel.  He didn’t come to the game, he just wanted to visit Manchester.  He’d returned from Milan a week earlier.

As stuff developed over the next few days we both self-isolated.  Manu has no symptoms, but our employer is particularly cautious about these things.  Then my sore throat developed.  This morning I had a temperature for the first time.

Given that Manu is still fine, the extreme likelihood is that I have a common and garden cold.  That’s NHS Direct’s view anyway.  But as we’ve discussed many times this season “definitely” and “probably” aren’t the same thing.  I took one for the Rookery, and watched this from my sofa.  You can thank me later… whilst noting that twenty years ago the only away match I missed in 1999/2000 was this one.

2- Watching a game on the TV isn’t like being on the stadium.  You get a better view of the action, replays, camera angles. But… you’re watching a sanitised, incomplete version of events.  Like looking at someone’s holiday photos rather than, you know, going on holiday.  A narrower, less complete view, very much watching it rather than being part of it, breathing it.  Around 20000 of you will have a better chance of doing justice to the atmosphere at the Vic, which must have been insane.

A situation exaggerated by the day’s events.  Much as, rationally, this was our toughest-looking game of those remaining, much as others will have tough fixtures to come, Norwich winning, bloody West Ham winning and Bournemouth getting a point off Chelsea meant that the pressure was on.  Palace had won at Brighton of course, celebrating which just felt dirty.

But Sarr and Femenía both starting will have gladdened the majority of Watford hearts.  Small potatoes against a side as exalted as this, perhaps, but a punch in the air to this news whether you were keeping warm on the way down Occupation Road or sitting on your sofa when it broke.  It gave us a weapon.  It gave us a shout.

3- The first half was great.  Aggressive, focused, disciplined.  Liverpool had nowhere to go, couldn’t get going, weren’t allowed to get going.  Sarr was a threat just by being there, his presence opening up space for Deulofeu on the left who was at his impossible best, cutting inside and giving Trent Alexander-Arnold a very difficult 30 minutes or so.

Gerry’s injury clearly the stain on the evening.  Yet another one where I’d rather have been in the stadium, deprived of the various angles of his knee bending in a direction that it really oughtn’t be bending.  Daughter 2 winced, and was further aghast at the suggestion that this might even be his swansong in a Watford shirt, should we go down.

Positive noises at the break, then, though the applause was surely in part to drown out the voice in the back of your head saying that we really ought to have capitalised if we entertained any hopes of winning the game, and that similar stuff happened in the game at Anfield.

4- I can’t remember why I abandoned the sofa at half time but I came back into the room to see Alisson Becker pushing Sarr’s shot over the bar.  So much for the Reds coming at us and punishing us for our impudence.

We were magnificent all over the park.  Foster was alert and alive. Femenía looked like he’d never been away, Masina was back at his arrogant best, and Cathcart and Kabasele were magnificent, blocking out the light.  Firmino, Salah and Mané were all, extraordinarily, inconsequential.

Will Hughes snapped into challenges. Étienne Capoue stamped all over the midfield and Abdoulaye Doucouré, amongst all the superlatives, stampeded to perhaps his strongest game of the season.

Bobby Pereyra, back on the left where he’s most comfortable, put in his best showing for ages.  Troy opted against another bruising encounter with Van Dijk and took on the brain-dead Dejan Lovren, smashing him both during the game and in his merciless post-match analysis.

And then Ismaïla Sarr.  This was it, the game when he announced himself to the rest of the Premier League.  We knew already, now everyone knows.  Time will tell how he adapts to that, how he accommodates being targeted… today he was lethal.   Quique wanted to play him centrally and he reminds you of Thierry Henry in his ability to skim clear of a defence and finish calmly.   Would be no surprise to see him end up as a centre-forward.

His two goals were both tremendous in different ways, one because he knew when to attack the ball, one because he kept so very cool, but perhaps his best moment was when Alexander-Arnold rounded off a shocking evening by launching a suicidal backpass to Alisson and finding Sarr with the presence of mind and awareness to tee up Troy to finish the contest.  Absolutely beyond belief.

5- Quite evidently this result bears comparison with any in our League history, the stats don’t stop there.   Liverpool’s first League defeat since January 2019.  Our first victory against the side topping the League since 1983.  And so on, and so on.

But more than that, more than an unlikely and unprecedented but hugely valuable and well-timed three points, is surely the belief that this will inject in the side, a belief that was the one thing most obviously missing (along, perhaps, with the acceleration offered by Sarr and Kiko) prior to this evening, eroded by stupid and narrow defeats.

To point out that this counts for very little if we don’t show up at Selhurst next week, say, would be to fail to afford the evening the celebration it deserves in its own right.  Nonetheless, and much as it’s a joy to be out of the relegation zone if only by a goal, this needs to be the start of something. No reason on earth that it shouldn’t be.  Good God, what an evening.  Even from the sofa.

I won’t be at Palace, or at Leicester, with apologies.  We have every reason to be optimistic, and to expect that we’ll be going into the closing games of the season with the pressure off.

Yooorns.

Foster 5, Femenía 5, Masina 5, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 5, Hughes 5, Capoue 5, Doucouré 5, *Sarr 5*, Deulofeu 5, Deeney 5
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 37) 5, Pussetto (for Sarr, 82) 5, Chalobah (for Doucouré, 90) 5, Dawson, Welbeck, Gray, Gomes

Brighton and Hove Albion 1 Watford 1, 08/02/2020 09/02/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
9 comments

“There is no banality within your vicinity. But nobody else will tell you.”

1. I love music which attempts to connect you with a particular place, whether real or imagined. Or real and imagined, possibly: I’ve never been to Orkney but Erland Cooper’s evocations of its landscapes and wildlife are capable of moving me to tears.

William Doyle’s “Wilderness Revisited” is a record whose evocations are less elemental: the place being revisited is Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, the quiet suburban cul-de-sacs of which Doyle moved to as a teenager following the death of his father. It might easily be nostalgic, mawkish or snooty, falling into the traps which await anyone trying to look back upon their youth; it might also be rather sombre, given the circumstances.

It isn’t any of those things, though. Instead, it becomes a rather vivid, colourful celebration of that place and others like it, and of what they hold for those willing to explore them. It suggests that adventures await anyone willing to walk around with their eyes and minds open; Robert Macfarlane for introverted loners, perhaps. There’s something gently political about that, about appreciating all that’s around you, in an age when the toll taken by our desire to see the world has become clearer. It casts fresh light on a childhood growing up in the suburbs of Watford, from which I really couldn’t wait to escape. It does all of that, plus splendid tunes and preposterous saxophone solos. It’s absolutely marvellous.

2. Banality is in the eye of the beholder, then. When we were kicking around in the Championship, we spent many years looking down our noses at the cluster of clubs scrapping to survive in the Premier League, wondering how dull it must be to harbour no aspirations beyond mid-table. It isn’t, of course. It’s a matter of incidental detail, of friendships and rivalries and jokes and arguments and scarves and hats and weather forecasts and service station sandwiches and lucky chocolate and everything else. All of those things survive, even thrive, in seasons which history will skip over.

And in adversity too. This is my first Watford game since the Cup Final, my first league game since our ten men thrashed Arsenal 0-1 last April. Because…life. Oddly, or possibly not, I’ve felt more absent as we’ve struggled than I did when it was all going rather well. I’ve spent far more time watching different degrees of failure at Vicarage Road than anything else, and have spent the last few years attempting to carve myself a little niche amid the club historians as the chronicler of the dismal and the squalid. It feels as if I ought to be there to share the anguish, as if my powerlessness ought not to be so remote. Instead, I’ve been watching Hastings, who are currently top of their league (but lose 3-0 to their nearest rivals earlier in the afternoon).

3. For a little while there, it appeared as if we might be able to aspire to mid-table banality by…well, if not now, then not too far hence. But the last two results have the unmistakable whiff of relegation about them, that feeling of being the punchline to someone else’s cruel joke. When I wrote about the 1999/2000 season for The Watford Treasury, I was surprised to discover that we didn’t, in fact, lose every game 3-2 courtesy of a last minute own goal. Bloody felt like it, though.

The nature of relegation is that, unless you’re extraordinarily rubbish, it takes a very, very long time. Everyone inches along at an average of three or four points per month, and even though the prophets of doom proclaim the inevitability of it all after every single defeat, you can still eye up the team in fifteenth well into March, possibly beyond.

Brighton are fifteenth and three points away as we kickoff, having spent their season cooing appreciatively at football which does adventurous and modern things, things that Chris Hughton would never countenance, while everyone else coos appreciatively over Sheffield United, who are adventurous and modern and rather better. There’s a dartboard with Chris Wilder’s face on it in Graham Potter’s spare room, I reckon. “Should’ve been me!” through gritted teeth as each dart hits home.

4. Let’s not stand on ceremony. This is a wretched game of football, if measured by any objective standards. We’re not here to apply objective standards, of course. Sometimes sheer desperation can lead these relegation six-pointers to disintegrate into thrilling, terrifying fragments; here, it’s all held firmly together by tension, by the nerves which keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a game played in the slack, dead water between each team’s hopes and their worst fears. It’s so lacking in incident that I can’t even give you the righteous rant about VAR that I had planned, and I know you’re going to be very disappointed about that.

The hosts make a better start, pushing us onto the back foot. (It’ll become clear that we would’ve been on the back foot anyway, but let’s not spoil the moment.) Will Hughes blocks Burn’s bouncing half-volley, Murray meets a cross but is sufficiently impeded by Kabasele. There are a couple of corners. It’s a flurry rather than a storm, and it’s over in five minutes or so. We deal with it well, calm and diligent in defence, snappy in midfield. The game settles into a pattern from which it’ll never escape, of Brighton having great acres of possession and not really knowing how to harvest it, of Watford suffocating it all by sitting deep and gradually pushing each attack backwards, guiding a toddler out of a toy shop.

It has the dramatic intensity of someone prodding a damp sponge with an old toothbrush.

5. Thing is, you can see where Graham Potter’s trying to get to. Brighton are comfortable on the ball, and they have a few bright, lightweight players who’d frustrate a pragmatist like Hughton but would excite a coach interested in cultivating something more high-brow. What they don’t have is any kind of cutting edge. There’s the potential for goals from Murray, obviously, but he sits atop all of this like a cat on a Christmas tree; the rest of the team isn’t set up either to supply or support him. We happily force Brighton into wide areas and even when we can’t disrupt their crosses, nobody’s remotely interested in joining Uncle Glenn in the penalty area. It all goes very flat very quickly.

As for us, we’re in danger of becoming a little too reactive as the half meanders on. The best bits – the midfield three ferreting about, the centre backs dominating – are genuinely praise-worthy, but there’s a danger of concentrating on them so much that you forget to provide a challenge to your opponents. I’m chewing on this as Etienne Capoue intercepts on halfway and sets Abdoulaye Doucouré free, his loping, confident run ending with a precise finish into the far corner. It’s a fine goal which looks even better on a replay, the poise and drive of the run, the perfect timing of the shot as defenders circle around him. It’s our one moment of genuine quality.

We see out the rest of the half without great concern. Aided by an understandably restless home crowd, our job is now so much easier than theirs; we have no need to make the running, if we ever did. Mooy shoots over, Murray shoots over, March shoots over; no other players beginning with M are available to shoot over. Schelotto goes down in the box under a vague challenge from Deulofeu…and yeah, maybe, perhaps, when it’s really your day. That’s all they’ve got, though, and everyone here knows it all too well.

6. No changes at the break. No change after it.

With about fifteen minutes remaining, during treatment to Adam Masina, Matt and I have a cryptic conversation in which we try very hard not to tempt fate by remarking on the home side’s toothlessness. Well, that’s what I imagine Matt was thinking, at any rate. Neither of us actually said it. By that point, Potter was throwing on attacking substitutes with great abandon, and perhaps some desperation, but it continued to lack any kind of focal point, merely adding more of what they already had in abundance. They’re a nice side. Polite, tidy, please, thank you. But you have to think that they’re a sitting duck if anyone in the bottom three ever manages to get their shit together. (Preferably us, obviously.)

Tellingly, the most substantial spell of pressure comes midway through the half, when Ben Foster fluffs a kick and we’re caught on the hop a little bit, for a little while. We deny them that space, and that sense of having the initiative, the rest of the time. Schelotto’s driven cross is a bit beyond Murray’s far post slide. There’s not a lot else, until a fine, intricate interchange lets in Mooy and Foster saves well with his legs. We waste what little of the ball we have in the final third: Pereyra and Masina both make poor decisions in good positions, Deulofeu skates inside and then drags a tame shot wide of the post. There isn’t a lot to cheer about. It’s all very tense. At least it isn’t cold.

7. It’s all very well sitting in a bush and waiting to launch an ambush. Planning, listening, watching. Waiting, waiting. Waiting. After a while, you’re just sitting in a bush.

My point is that we don’t do enough to win this. We might’ve won it anyway, of course. The sense of frustration is not really at the nature of the equaliser – the midfield momentarily vacating its space, Mariappa panicking and smashing Jahanbakhsh’s cross into the roof of his own net – so much as our failure to be sufficiently assertive in that final half hour. Perhaps it’s understandable, given recent setbacks, but it felt as if we were passive, as if we retreated into our shells, as if we bided our time so much that our time ran out. We spent the remainder of the game caught in indecision, unsure whether to go for a winner – and if so, how the hell to go about it – or to protect the draw. That we managed the latter represents some progress, I suppose.

8. Five or six years ago, I started developing an intolerance to alcohol. These days, I can drink no more than a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Perhaps slightly more if I’m feeling foolish, but if I go any further than that, the results are unpleasant. I’ll spare you the details. I’m coming to terms with the idea that whatever I do in the rest of my life, I’ll have to do it sober. I’ll never be drunk again. Even a bit tipsy is pushing it.

And now that they’re behind me, I regret not having made more of my drinking years. Not the debauchery so much. I just wish I’d enjoyed it all a bit more. I wish I’d savoured a few more beers; I wish I’d worked my way through those fine bottles of single malt that are now gathering dust. Like anything can, it became banal, routine. I forgot to notice.

There’s a lot still to play for. A lot of football left. Let’s make something of it.

Foster 3, Mariappa 2, Masina 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Hughes 4*, Deulofeu 2, Pereyra 2, Deeney 3
Subs: Pussetto (for Pereyra, 82) NA, Welbeck (for Deulofeu, 86) NA, Dawson, Chalobah, Holebas, Gray, Gomes

Watford 2 Everton 3 (01/02/2020) 02/02/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Bloody hell.

2- People believe all sorts of crazy shit.  By “people” I mean everyone, yours truly included. In all sorts of contexts from the profoundly consequential to the thoroughly banal people can convince themselves of the validity of a wide range of inane twaddle. The need for certainty, for an unequivocal position often trumps all considerations rendering nuance, balance and complexity all inconvenience.

It’s for this reason that exposing oneself to a range of perspectives, opinions, cultures is a Good Thing.  Allowing your own belief system to be challenged on your own terms, in an unexposed and unthreatening way, is healthy.  It weeds out some of the crazy shit.

But there are situations where absolute certainty, total belief, can be advantageous.  Not all situations, obviously.  Total belief in crazy shit can and does result in all sorts of dangerous and witless circumstances.  But sometimes, sometimes, believing in something absolutely is a strength and a comfort.  That’s what makes it so attractive of course.  And in such circumstances that fact that you believe in something is more important than what you actually believe in.

3- Everton, then.  The latest massive game in the parade of massive games that will stretch from now until our fate is decided one way or another.  It has that feel to it too, today…  intense sunshine but cold, biting, ferocious wind.  It feels pivotal.  It feels as if stuff is about to happen.

Stuff happens pretty much immediately too in a game which has a buffeted around feel to it consistent with the conditions;  uncontrolled, a little wild, never quite allowed to settle down but invigorating and never dull.  We start strongly;  both sides are set up offensively, Everton in a positive looking 4-4-2, the Hornets with the increasingly settled looking 4-2-3-1-ish but with a bench packed with forwards.

But whilst there’s a little bit of getting-to-grips in the opening minutes – a tentative attack sees Calvert-Lewin head gently into Foster’s arms, Chalobah finds an early free kick swept over the penalty area on an unpredictable gust – the Hornets have the early territorial advantage and the first glorious move of the game produces a goal on ten minutes.  A break that starts with a majestic block by Kabs on Richarlíson sweeps down the right, Capoue’s crossfield pass does an only passable job of navigating the gusts but is brought to heel impossibly by Deulofeu.  Masina lopes onto his layoff and his cross-shot bounces happily past Jordan Pickford.  The left back has been afforded the accolade of his own song and looks every inch the first choice left back.  He is mobbed.

Most of the first half is a comfortable thing.  The sun is shining, any nervousness has gone and we’re knocking the ball around and retaining possession with the swagger that only a lead can bring.  The same actions at nil-nil would yield a much less patient reaction.

There’s a brief exchange between Laurent Digne and Roberto Pereyra.  The former comes through the back of the Argentine in turning over possession.  Not a reckless challenge but a dangerous one, albeit it isn’t punished by Craig Pawson.  Two minutes later Pereyra takes the first opportunity to kick Digne up the arse in retribution – in front of the away end no less.  He gets away with it and we grin.  We’re one-up, today is a good day.

Everton are far from the worst side we’ve seen this season but they’re not Brazil 1970 either. As Troy, who is beating the crap out of Yerry Mina, plays a ball through for Bobby Pereyra to plant a gorgeous finish for 2-0 we don’t have a care in the world;  the Toffees’ best efforts haven’t yielded an effort on target since that flick from Calvert-Lewin.  Everton earn a late corner, it’s an afterthought.  Our defending is scruffy, the ball breaks unfavourably, it’s a tight thing but Mina stabs home.  Two minutes later, deep into injury time now, another corner and Mina is criminally allowed to nod in at the far post by a sleeping Cathcart.  There’s so much wrong with this…  Mina being allowed to dominate the area, our heads not being in it.  Some of these things would be abetted with a big ugly centre back, a Ben Gibson or a Craig Dawson maybe, but not all.  It’s a maddening and horribly expensive two minutes.

4- The second half takes some time to settle down, but gradually we remember that we were the better side for most of the first and regain the initiative.  This is abetted with twenty minutes to go when Fabien Delph, comfortably the best player on the pitch to this point, picks up a second yellow card for an ill-judged attempt to rob Capoue.  It looks a soft one, but his expression as soon as it happens betrays that he knows what’s coming.

This gives us the upper hand, the initiative.  In the stands we’re keeping track of the toing and froing in the games around us but a win today was always going to take us out of the relegation zone and everyone could feel it.

With retrospect, there is criticism of Pearson’s decision making here.  Certainly his earlier choice of replacement for the worryingly fragile Chalobah could have been Will Hughes, whose tigerish snapping at the back of the midfield had been a feature of successes before his injury.  Thing is…  for all our positive play we hadn’t mustered a chance on target ourselves since our second goal, and much as Gerry had found himself one-on-one with Sidibe a couple of times we hadn’t really looked like doing so.  So Pearson changed something, rather than making a more like-for-like swap. No problem with that.

Welbeck will take games to get fully up to speed (Pete, rather cruelly, nails his colours to eight minutes before Danny crocks himself again) but he looks hugely impressive here.  Quick, clever, mobile, intelligent, perhaps the biggest positive from this afternoon.  Further attempts to mix things up follow… Isaac Success, looking heavier than ever, was expected to be elsewhere by now but Nige still has some faith in his role as an agent of chaos.  His willing thundering around is no more ineffective than anyone else’s in reality, but his backstory counts against him and there are more voices on the way back up Occupation Road blaming the afternoon’s developments on him than there are to bad defending.

Pussetto’s on too, for perhaps his most convincing cameo to date.  We’re applying pressure and knocking on the door (albeit politely and with every intention of slipping away quietly if we don’t get an answer) when Everton break.

It’s easy to pick holes in our behaviour here.  The otherwise excellent Masina gives the ball away, critically, and neither brings Richarlíson down straight away nor gets close enough to him to put in a break-stopping challenge afterwards.  Cathcart, again, could have played a more assertive role than he did.  But in truth this was Everton’s most convincing attack of the game, a lethal breakaway perfectly executed.  It left the home stands shaking collective heads in disbelief.

5- And that lack of belief, that lack of conviction in direction of travel is perhaps the most concerning aspect of the afternoon.  When Nige took over we surged with that common purpose;  others might have called it a new manager bounce, but it felt like more than that in that we’d seen play like this from these players last season, it felt more like refinding form.

Where’s that belief now?  Why were we not surging all over Everton’s midfield with an extra man in the middle and Gylfi Sigurdsson eminently tramplable?  Why did Gerry fail to square for Danny Welbeck in the second half, why did Troy give him two barrels for it, why did Gerry slouch away in a sulk walking past the ball that needed quickly ferrying sideways for a quicker corner to accelerate the pressure?  Deulofeu was subbed soon afterwards;  he hadn’t played particularly badly, but that demonic shared purpose has vanished.  Concerning, too, that having failed to strengthen at the back in the window Craig Cathcart puts in his worst showing in memory.

As ever, this report has spilled over from Saturday evening into Sunday morning and I’m not as despondent after a night’s sleep.  It was a horrible afternoon, sure, another criminally wasted opportunity that feeds a potentially self-fulfilling belief that we are get-attable… opponents believe it and come at us with, you know, more belief and so it continues.

But looking at the table, we’re still only a win away from escaping the relegation zone.  It’s been said repeatedly that, the top one or three teams aside, this is a poor Premier League…  it’s poor at the top end but relatively strong at the bottom.  Norwich are the worst team in the league, but no basket case and comfortably stronger than the three that went down last season.  Much of the rest of the division is much of a muchness.  We just need to avoid being in the worst two of the rest, and as many will have noted amidst feverish overanalysis of Nige’s choice of words, Ismaïla Sarr’s recovery is a game changer at both ends of the pitch.

But we really could do with rediscovering that belief.  Preferably before Brighton next Saturday.  See you there.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, Mariappa 2, *Masina 4*, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 3, Capoue 3, Doucouré 2, Chalobah 3, Deulofeu 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Welbeck (for Chalobah, 57) 3, Success (for Pereyra, 75) 2, Pussetto (for Deulofeu, 82) NA, Holebas, Hughes, Gray, Gomes

 

 

Aston Villa 2 Watford 1 (22/01/2020) 22/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Working in a specialist, consultative role can be a double-edged sword. On the downside, speaking for myself, I can do something really quite clever, the beauty and magnificence of which is rather lost on those around me.  To them most of what I do comes with a health warning.  “Here be dragons, Matt does this stuff”.  It can leave you feeling rather unappreciated on such days, having to pat yourself on the back.

On the other hand, one can get away with quite a lot.  Hypothetically speaking, not that I would.  That the folks you’re working with have no idea how complicated what you’re doing actually is can work for you…  a shake of the head, an inhale through gently gritted teeth are all that are needed to manage workload and expectations.  Hypothetically.

Which brings us to the fixture list, and the enduring myth that there are big brains somewhere at the Premier League devising a schedule that annually presents the absurdity of a return set of fixtures in January less than a month after the original.  BSaD’s encounters with DataCo about fourteen years ago (ulp) were full of this nonsense…  the intellectual process behind the creation of the fixture list a central plank of the argument in defence of their copyright at the time.  So much for that, my daughter puts more intellectual process into her morning Coco Pops.  This season’s “effort” sees us play West Ham, City and Arsenal in May having first crossed swords with each before mid-September, whilst we play Liverpool and United each twice within the space of two months and Villa twice in less than four weeks.

There’s no built-in bias here for or against anyone.  But surely you’re after a system that does as good a job as it can of making the final table as fair a reflection of team’s capabilities as possible, as protected as it can be from the vagaries of chance.  If, for example, Jack Grealish picks up a hamstring injury on Boxing Day then Watford have a clearer run against Villa with two games over the next month than whoever they bookend the season against, a circumstance that could have been avoided with a fixture list like the Bundesliga’s (albeit without the constraints of eg London derbies) in which the second half of the season is a perfect reflection of the first.  Somewhere in the Premier League, someone’s inhaling through their teeth, but we’ve got their number.  An A-Level maths student with a spare half hour would do a better job, I suspect.  No, not me, I’ve got better things to be doing.

2- “I’d be really interested to see how we respond to a setback”, says a club spokesman in the car on the way up.  It’s a remarkably short-sighted statement under any circumstances, not least when heading to a relegation six-pointer away from home in front of travelling companions who will be sure to remind the perpetrator of his folly when queuing to get out of Birmingham again some hours later.

Sophie, meanwhile, “has a bad feeling” about this evening.  This bad feeling isn’t assuaged by an agreeable, noisy and boisterous if chilly hour or so in the marquee on the “away” side of the Witton Arms, after which she wins the “predict the outcome” game.  Afternoons off have proven a worthwhile precaution as the M6 does for many of those unable to afford such luxuries…  we’re well supped and rested in fine seats by the time the proper business starts.

Bobby is in for Sarr, the mythical João Pedro makes a Premier League bench for the first time.  The opening spell is stodgy… Watford don’t commit forward, look almost tentative attacking. The absence of Sarr will be painfully evident throughout… if the quality of delivery has sometimes let him down, his pace, directness and aggression is about more than the end product. As a club spokesman points out with rare clarity, his threat both creates space for Deulofeu, no longer the only preoccupation for a defence, and Doucouré, with holes to thunder into, but also scares the opponent, warns them against overcommitting.

In his absence we look a little bit easier to play against;  certainly Pereyra has one of his more diffident, ineffective games, which doesn’t help at all.  Villa for their part look much more solid defensively than they had at our place; Targett isn’t as exposed for pace and there’s a third centre-back – the significant Mings – behind him and Nakamba patrolling the centre effectively.  On the plus side, Villa’s lack of focal point in the absence of a “proper” striker is painfully evident.  A generous – but not too fanciful – interpretation of proceedings is that we know that if we sit deep, defend doggedly and don’t take any risks – there’s a season’s worth of booting into the stand here – Villa will need something special from their skipper to beat us.  They don’t get it, and there are murmurs of frustration in the home stands as yet another twisty turny attack disappears with a cross to nobody or an optimistic shot from range.

3- And the approach, if such it was, is fully justified on 38 minutes when Gerry screams down the right and puts a peach of a cross onto Troy’s head.  This is the sort of stuff that Villa just aren’t equipped to do and it’s devastating…  Deeney gobbles it up and revels in his thirty-millionth goal against Villa as you’d expect.  In the stands there’s a frenzied limbs-flying celebration that is only slightly tempered by being on the front row of the top tier and will at any rate last as long in the memory as the disappointment of what’s to come.

On the pitch, Villa fall apart.  They’re perhaps fortunate that there’s relatively little time to the break since their heads have gone and we’ve demonstrated the potency that they’re lacking.  All sorts of turning points in this game but here’s the next…  the game could have been won in this interval, certainly if Gerry had chosen to square to a waiting Doucouré when clean through rather than clipping against the post.  As a footnote, Tyrone Mings goes into the book for a hack on Doucouré… an advantage is played, referee Atkinson remembers and issues the yellow at the first opportunity.  Well played ref… although a person unnamed watching a stream from a hotel room in Glasgow suggests that had Doucs gone down permitting formal review, the colour of the card might have been different.

4- To fast forward to the end, this is a criminally negligent defeat.  Not without ifs and buts, and not wishing to turn on a team and a head coach who’ve been little short of magnificent for over a month.  But we were ahead here against an opponent low on punch, low on confidence and low on anything much.  This should have been put to bed.

Not least when Troy has another golden opportunity below us, one of those instances where everything seems to slow down and the ball seems to be scarcely moving, it seems impossible that there won’t be a decisive touch somehow as Reina brilliantly denies Deeney a second and the ball hangs around for a it.  There isn’t.

But beyond that, we’re not putting our feet on their throats.  There’s a lack of energy – not of willing, but of zip and of closing down and of the arrogance that has characterised our recent wins and allowed us to look so much better than our opponents.  We don’t look much better here, much as we should have won the game anyway.  The next turning point comes when Deulofeu threatens to scamper past a high line but is denied by an instinctive handball by Mings.  Already on a yellow, there’s no decision to make here… no “hand to ball?” question to answer.  It’s textbook and cynical, but gets nothing.

You have to keep your head together in these circumstances.  It’s a bad decision, but you have to treat it like a fine shot getting an unlucky deflection or something, something to take heart from not something to disrupt you.  Instead it disrupts us, we lose our discipline and Villa, who’ve been getting not very far at all to this point, bundle down the left, Foster parries Targett’s shot and substitute Luiz drives home.  Villa Park erupts, and the game has changed again.

5-  With retrospect things were running away from us.  It didn’t feel like that.  Not that it wasn’t tense, not that for all the miserableness of the outcome every fibre of our bodies wasn’t coiled, that we weren’t sharing looks of blind desperation with strangers in the row behind as we spun away from the action in desperation simultaneously unable to either watch or avert our gaze.  There’s a magnificence in being so engrossed in something, however it turns out.

But it never really occurred to me that we’d lose, until we did.  Despite Sophie’s ominous portents, despite Grealish now prancing around the pitch probing for a weak link roared on by the home stands, despite our evident legginess, despite the fact that as Nathaniel Chalobah withdrew (with a hip injury, it transpired) our midfield again lost its balance and control.  We reshaped into a 4-4-2, first Deulofeu and then Gray up front with Pussetto on the right looking snappy and excitable and industrious but not heavyweight in the way that Chalobah as become.  Gray…  well.  Gray looks forlorn.  Clearly in the box of strikers like Danny Graham, not quite good enough at anything for the Premier League but plenty good enough at everything for the Championship, if he goes to Leeds and plays alongside a foil he’ll score loads.  Here… his alertness saw him spring past a flat-footed Villa defence but his anxiety saw him fluff an easy ball to lay in Deulofeu.  His confidence is shot.

Even then.  Villa are still poor and there’s no prospect of what’s going to happen happening, none at all, which makes the sledgehammer all the more painful when it does.  And the irrelevant detail of it sums the evening up… Konsa’s fine instinctive strike settles the tie but only after a deflection off Tyrone Mings’ arse, the arse of a player who shouldn’t have been on the pitch.

A turgid arse“, as we later reflected, a reference that only a very small number of increasingly ageing readers will understand.  (Please forgive this indulgence, having driven for a solid hour and three quarters to make my passengers’ train from Milton Keynes and crawled into bed at half twelve this morning I can be permitted that I hope).

The club spokesman gets his wish, then, as we reflected in the car park whilst the home hoards thronged past to songs about Troy Deeney.  Fair enough that really, the perfect anti-hero Troy and Villa fans are surely better qualified to give some back than the likes of Wolves or Arsenal.

Meanwhile…  good luck to those of you insane enough to brave Birkenhead tomorrow.  Sophie and the club spokesman would be glad to be rid of the cup… I rather think we could do with getting this one out of our system sooner not later, tired legs or not.  Either way.  Long way to go.  Everton, Brighton will be massive but then every game is.  That’s why this is brilliant.  Even when it’s shit.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Mariappa 3, Dawson 3, Cathcart 4, Masina 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 3, *Chalobah 4*, Deulofeu 3, Pereyra 1, Deeney 3
Subs: Pussetto (for Chalobah, 75) 3, Gray (for Pereyra, 82) NA, Kabasele (for Deulofeu, 92) NA, Holebas, Quina, João Pedro, Gomes

Watford 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0 (18/01/2020) 19/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- The thing about going on a mental run like the one we’ve been on is that you suddenly expect to win every game.  Moderation, balance, goes out of the window.  “I’d take a point today” is a viewpoint I can rarely reconcile myself with at the worst of times, definitely not at the moment.

This feeling, this careless excitement and anticipation that every game will be a rout is a comforting, nostalgic thing.  This is how we used to view each game when we were kids…  partly because we were kids and, you know, that’s how kids view the world.  Partly because we had GT in charge and a rout was, if not  always a racing certainty then at the very least a possibility.

The third anniversary-ish of GT’s passing is a bright, cold day.  Spurs’ support is less wholeheartedly engaged in the scarf-lifting thing than their predecessors as visitors on this occasion in previous years have been.  We get a polite round of applause, but no scarves. Allowances need to be made, of course.  They’re Spurs fans after all.  Similarly disappointing is switching ends such that we’re both kicking towards the Rookery and into the lunchtime sun in the first half.

2- So much for a rout.  You can’t really implement such a thing without the ball, and we don’t see much of that for the first ten minutes or so.  Spurs are without a focal point in the absence of Kane, but they don’t need one to keep possession;  a rout will have to wait.

Relatively unacknowledged during our recent run, however, is our defensive form.  When you’ve got a potent attack you take the pressure off the backline of course, opponents have too much to think about to pile forward in numbers.  This helps.  But in any case, two goals conceded in six Premier League games since Anfield – and only one deflected effort from open play – is pretty extraordinary. “Nobody has kept more clean sheets in the Premier League this season” similarly remarkable. We stood up well to these early questions, and soon asserted ourselves.  Gerard Deulofeu against Serge Aurier looked like it had potential, and when left back Japhet Tanganga was booked for a clumsy foul on the escaping Ismaïla Sarr Spurs were in trouble.  It was a good foul for Spurs though, and a slightly fortunate outcome;  Tanganga was panicked rather than cynical, you rather doubt whether he know quite how close to the penalty area he was, or whether anyone was catching Sarr had he escaped the challenge, “clear goalscoring opportunity” or otherwise.

3- As the game settled down it was the Hornets who began to dominate, through a feature of the game that had been widely anticipated, specifically us kicking ten bells out of the visitors’ lightweight midfield.

One of the many spectacular and bizarre features of our turnaround has been the re-invigoration of that mercilessly effective area of the team.  Étienne Capoue’s level of performance has remained relatively high, relative at least to the lower bar set by many of his teammates, but Doucs had been a shadow of his intimidating best.  Since Pearson’s arrival the pair of them have rediscovered their collective mojo, they’re a monstrous weapon when they’re both on song.  As an aside, they could plausibly have been half a monstrous weapon late in the first half…  Capoue’s high tackle on Tanganga was clumsy rather than malicious but could certainly have been a yellow (or even a red from an excitable referee, a risky challenge anyway), but he followed this up with something that was later cited as worthy of the Paul Robinson scrapbook, ploughing into Lo Celso and earning his booking.  A five minute window to bear in mind next time we feel slightly aggrieved at a decision.

But then there’s Chalobah.  What a bloody joy it is that such a fine footballer, such a patently nice man is absolutely, finally, incontrovertibly not on a slow downward slope to a much more disappointing career than his ability and character deserve but is back on the conductor’s rostrum.  He has been afforded that possibility in part by circumstance and injuries and in part by his manager’s faith but whatever.  His performance level is accelerating dramatically and he’s a joy here, killing long passes with a touch, fooling his markers with a well-timed raising of an eyebrow and stepping away from a forest of legs with the ball.  Just wonderful.

4- So the game settles into a pattern.  Watford have territorial possession, but Spurs are always a theoretical threat, screaming out on the break with spins and twists.  This probably suits them in a way, given their lack of a striker and is reminiscent of how we tried to play at their place with Bobby and Deulofeu up front once Welbeck went off, but they’re just a little bit too potent for you to be comfortable sitting back and counterattacking yourselves.

Before the break there are chances at both ends;  Foster is out adroitly to smother at Moura’s feet, Troy should have done better with a Sarr cross than to head directly at Gazzanigga and then almost gets a lucky break, an unwitting deflection rolling just the wrong side of the post as the half ends.

Troy’s having fun though, as he tends to do against Alderweireld and Vertonghen.  His aerial superiority is such that he tends to be able to get good direction on his headers and as such perhaps its a nagging concern that we don’t make more of that, that Deulofeu doesn’t embarrass the hapless Aurier quite often enough, and particularly that Sarr having Tanganga on toast doesn’t lead to as many attempts on goal as it ought to.  Another post-match suggestion is that we could really use a poacher attacking the near post for some of these crosses.  Either way, Sarr is suddenly the most potent cutting edge of the team and is accelerating upwards…  stuff to be gotten right, rather than any gaping flaws.  He’s huge fun.

Spurs are always a threat, we’re never quite beating the door down.  The closest we come to doing so is in the build up to the penalty, given and largely undisputed for a handball by Vertonghen, which was coming by dint of weight of pressure.  It’s not a great penalty, very savable if the keeper goes the right way…  harsh to blame Troy really who more than pulls his weight throughout, but I’d always prefer he missed by absolutely spanking it if he’s going to miss at all.  Call me childish, but there’s great satisfaction in seeing the ball hit as hard as he did at Wembley.

Spurs come close themselves when Alli gets slightly underneath Son’s rapier cross, and then again when the Korean screams in from the right and slashes narrowly over.  But that we deprive Spurs of many clear chances is down to sterling defensive work, and no greater credit than to Adam Masina.  At the end of last season Masina was regarded as adequate cover for Jose Holebas, with the jury out on whether he had enough to establish himself as the long term successor.  Over the last few games, and much as Kiko was making hay out of position before his own injury, he’s begun to answer that question.  I thought he was the pick of an excellent bunch at Bournemouth (albeit from a viewing point in the Ship in Bedford rather than from Dorset) and he’s tremendous again here… athletic, attentive, brave and potent at both ends of the pitch.  Nige’s approach of not changing a successful team if he doesn’t have to ought to see Adam in situ for the foreseeable on this form.

5- There’s still time for an excitable debut for Ignacio Pussetto, a footnote to the most worrying development of the afternoon.  Sarr had visibly flagged, but chased back admirably to snuff out a Spurs break only to apparently pull a hamstring.  He didn’t look massively uncomfortable as he left the pitch, but even if he only misses Tuesday that’s a huge pain in the backside.

Pussetto, meanwhile, makes a startling first contribution by clearing from all-but-a-centimetre behind the line a scruffy, scrambled effort that would have changed the tone altogether.  As it is, we feel slightly less aggravated at two points lost, if only slightly.  Pussetto, meanwhile, can perhaps best be summed up as “needing time to get up to the speed of the game”, as his brief contribution suggests bravery without the ball but not an awful lot of robustness with it.  The game ends, Jose bleats about the Capoue and about a fictional penalty claim in the first half.  Nobody cares.

The most obvious conclusion is, “haven’t we come a long way to be going toe-to-toe with Spurs and being a bit narked at not beating them”.  And of course this is true.  And we haven’t lost and we’ve not lost ground and so on.  But there’s a risk here.

Comments on Twitter, where admittedly all possible opinions can be found if you look hard enough, suggest that this is already done.  Certainly Spurs fan Hus rolls his eyes at the suggestion that we’re still in trouble.  “You won’t go down playing like that” is the unspoken implication and he’s right, of course.

But while we’re playing “like this” we’ve got to win winnable games.  We’re playing strong mid-table football at worst at the moment, but that’s on top of half a season of, loosely, relegation form.  We’ve pulled ourselves up with the pack and are probably no longer anybody’s favourites to go down.  We’ll probably be OK.  But probably and definitely aren’t the same thing.

Fortunately there’s a monstrous trip to Villa Park on Tuesday to focus everyone’s attention.  See you there.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Mariappa 3, *Masina 4*, Dawson 4, Cathcart 3, Capoue 4, Chalobah 4, Doucouré 3, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Pereyra (for Chalobah, 79) NA, Pussetto (for Sarr, 89) NA, Holebas, Kabasele, Quina, Gray, Gomes

 

Watford 3 Tranmere Rovers 3 (04/01/2020) 05/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- So.  The FA Cup again, then.  Given the mental scars inflicted in Wembley in May you may have considered whether this is all worth it, whether being tanked in a high profile game on global TV is much to aspire to.  Which… just goes to show that thinking about any of this too much doesn’t do any good. If we judged the value of this pursuit in our trophy haul rather than in the enjoyment of the journey, say, (Troy’s penalty in the semi anyone?) neither Watford nor Tranmere would have the followings that they do.

Winning the cup, or getting into Europe via our League position last season would have been particularly timely, mind.  Yesterday saw me reach 25 years with my employer (I celebrated the end of my first week with a trip to a notorious cup tie at Scarborough), and reaching this milestone comes with a significant financial windfall which could justifiably have been spent on frivolous trips to Norway, Lithuania or Belgium.  Ho hum.

Said employment sees me make regular trips to the Wirral… past Prenton Park and Birkenhead on the Mersey Rail. A vast horde have made loosely the reverse journey today, filling the “normal” away section and a significant proportion of the overspill of the Vicarage Road end afforded by FA Cup away allocation rules.  Thought number one is to ponder why Watford away is such a big pull for the support of a side struggling at the foot of League One, big respect in any case.  Thought number two is to ponder that most of those in the away end, even those over the age of 30, are probably completely oblivious of the significance afforded to what, to them, was probably a mundane away defeat here in 1999.  My god.  Thought number three is to wonder how many of our matchday squad weren’t even born in April 1999.  Answer:  eight.  Eight!  With Sarr and Callum Whelan babes in arms.  Thought number four is to Stop Thinking.

2- Nige isn’t messing about as far as the team’s concerned.  It’s the sort of side that many of us would have picked I think, given the desperate need to rest legs that have achieved high intensity wins with ten men twice over the last week but the limited options available in defensive positions in particular.  It looks fun.

Bachmann and Spencer-Adams make debuts and Dele-Bashiru a full debut, with the bench populated with kids of whom Sarr at 21 is both the veteran and the only one with League experience in the UK.  Bayli Spencer-Adams is perhaps the least anticipated; the former Arsenal youngster makes a nervous start, rushed into a sloppy clearance when charged down from the kick-off but settles down and does well.

It’s an untidy opening.  Proper untidy, piles of year-old discarded takeaway cartons and Channel 5 reality-TV shows untidy rather than the odd forgotten tea cup untidy.  But gradually we start to dominate possession and there seems to be a concerted effort to move the ball around, to get Tranmere running.

Tom Dele-Bashiru has already caught the eye.  His tight control is pretty extraordinary, he seems to roll around challenges with the ball in implausibly close proximity to his feet.  Twelve minutes in he’s afforded far too much space on the edge of the box and capitalises, a beautiful strike across the crowded penalty area.  He’s a long way down the pecking order and linked with a loan this window but doesn’t do himself any harm in this first half.

Two minutes later it’s two-nil as Nate Chalobah, who bosses the first half, capitalises on some sloppy Rovers defending to crash home.  Game over.  Fifteen minutes of comfortable possession later it’s three;  Isaac, who is slightly frustratingly fielded out wide rather than straight down the centre, has had a stinking first twenty minutes but gets the ball down here, drops a shoulder to fool his marker and surges goalwards.  He feeds Gray with a precise pass, the ball reaches Bobby Pereyra and it’s three-nil.

3- It’s easy to blame complacency, but there wasn’t a Watford supporter in the stadium who wasn’t wondering how many we might get at this stage.  Admittedly we’re not the ones being paid to do a professional job, we’re the ones paying for the right to come in and get all cocky about games against lower division opposition if such is our preference.  Nonetheless…  we were looking sharp and in control, and cutting through Rovers relatively easily.  We thought the job was done.  We all thought the job was done.

As it stood, the job was done.  So a couple of things changed.  Significantly we lost Nathaniel Chalobah at the break; a groin injury it transpired, one can only hope a precautionary move given that he didn’t obviously suffer during the half. Nate is probably the most vital of the starting eleven to the first team at the moment so we’d thought he was withdrawn to protect him with the match apparently safe.

The great cost was to the physicality of our midfield, so rarely an issue in the normal way with Caps and Doucs involved.  When Dom Quina, erratic with his distribution but combative and adept at burying into challenges, went off too we were left with a lightweight trio of the rather too dainty Dele-Bashiru, the busy but slight Callum Whelan and a rather passive Roberto Pereyra.

The other big change was the visitors’ demeanour.  Any number of flavours of capitulation would have been predictable at this stage;  instead they took advantage of a less focused, less ruthless approach from the Hornets and seemed to figure that they had nothing to lose.  In the first half it was clear that they were better at going forward than defending;  more fool us for allowing the game to gravitate towards the areas of the pitch that they were good at.

That first half had seen veteran centre back Peter Clarke come closest, crashing a far post header narrowly wide from a set piece.  Clarke, as an aside, is one of an odd trio of players on Rovers’ books (midfielder Perkins and the injured Ishmael Miller the other) to have faced us together both for Huddersfield and for Blackpool, including the memorable 7-2 win in the promotion season.  Rovers’ midfield trio, also featuring 38 year-old Neil Danns, had an average age of 34 and I’d expected this to count against them as the second half drew on.

Instead their physicality helped them – many of their players were broad, solid and rectangular – and when the game started to trundle away from us we were unable to obstruct it sufficiently.  The youngster in Rovers’ midfield, 28 year-old Connor Jennings, grabbed a header.  Then Daniel Bachmann, who had had a decent enough debut up to this point, spilled a cross and in the mess that followed the enormous Manny Monthé, who had battered the ineffectual Andre Gray throughout and is reportedly a January target of Kenny Jackett at Pompey, turned in a second.

Our young team began to feel the effects of cramp on their untested legs – Spencer-Adams and Quina had both been withdrawn, the former replaced by another youngster, Mason Barrett.  His rash challenge on the edge of the box was, like Rovers’ first, studied at length by VAR but such was the momentum of the half that the penalty’s (correct) award, reversing the referee’s award of a corner, felt as inevitable as Paul Mullin’s conversion.  The away end went mental.

4- A sideshow in the second half was the debut of the long-awaited João Pedro, whose signing had been arranged in October 2018 and was finally completed on his turning 18 and being afforded a work permit.

I was reminded of a trip to Gresty Road in 2001; pre-match, Crewe fan Kev, when asked about 17 year-old Dean Ashton, already pulling up trees, suggested “well you’d serve him in a pub, put it that way”.  Our Brazilian isn’t quite a man mountain but he’s tall and leggy and powerful for such a young man.  Raw, certainly, but not that raw… confident enough to fly into challenges, strong enough to hold people off.  When Isaac Success, one of few to impress in the second half, roared down the centre and released him down the left, João Pedro stepped neatly inside and fired a shot towards the bottom corner that was deflected narrowly wide by a stray heel.  Quite mouthwatering skill.

Later he switched to the right and fried his Tranmere marker in the area, pushing the ball one side and running the other to the approval of the Rookery.  He’s a young lad in a new country, yes yes.  Raw and inexperienced, yes yes.  But don’t be surprised to see him on the bench regularly between now and the end of the season on this evidence.

5- The biggest frustration, pending diagnosis of Nate’s groin injury, was the red card afforded to Bobby Pereyra which is likely to rule him out for Bournemouth and Spurs as well as the replay.  Not obvious what had happened at the time, only his lack of protest calmed objections from the stands.  On replay there’s a stroppy kick at his marker – unprofessional, unnecessary.  The dismissal a bit harsh, but not harsh enough to be overturned on appeal though I don’t doubt we’ll give it a go.

The game ended with Adam Masina – who did as good a job of any of the senior players of dragging the team along by its bootstrings in the aggravating second half – putting a set piece over.

A replay, then.  Frustrating, irritating.  Sloppy and unnecessary but neither the end of the world nor a foregone conclusion. Another opportunity for fringe players to impress, one suspects, though we could do with a little more physical presence – Troy on the bench, for example, would be no great surprise at Prenton Park.

In the meantime, another massive league fixture in Dorset on Sunday.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Mariappa 3, Dawson 3, Spencer-Adams 3, Masina 4, *Chalobah 4*, Quina 3, Dele-Bashiru 3, Pereyra 2, Success 3, Gray 2
Subs: João Pedro (for Chalobah 45) 3, Whelan (for Quina, 61) 2, Barrett (for Spencer-Adams 77) NA, Sarr, Dalby, Hungbo, Parkes

Watford 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (01/01/2020) 02/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I’ve managed to avoid 606 for a long time.  If there’s not a 5.30 match commentary to fill the hour’s drive home post-match there are podcasts.  Or, you know, silence.  Or opening a window and screaming into the wind.  Any of which are significantly more enjoyable than an inane call-in show.

But I caught a bit of 606 this evening, jumping between stations.  A Spurs fan babbling about not very much, chanced upon some rare insight.  Monkeys, typewriters and so on.  “Spurs are like a ghost of the team of last season, or of the season before….”.

I don’t give a shit about Spurs.  Nobody, perhaps not even Spurs fans, gives a shit about Spurs.  But the phrase is a good one, and describes what we’ve been watching for much of this campaign.  An echo, a ghost of last season’s team – bits of things that look familiar but ineffective, incomplete.  Something you thought you saw, thought you recognised, but then it’s gone again and you question whether it was ever really there at all.

Nige has reanimated that ghost.  And it’s no wispy, semi-transparent spectre.  There’s nothing eerie about this.  Nothing chilling and ethereal.  This is a no-shit poltergeist, throwing plates around, smashing up the furniture.  Nothing half-arsed here.  This ghost is suddenly more real than its original incarnation.  And it’s bloody brilliant.

2- This is my nephew Emmu’s first football game.  He’s six.  Today is quite possibly the most exciting thing EVER and he seems to be on a mission to not blink for the duration.  If there’s going to be a ghost materialising by a corner flag during a quiet passage in play, you can bet your life Emmu’s going to be all over it.

And he sees a strong start.  Nige has once again only made enforced changes despite the recent flood of fixtures.  Dawson in at right back for the suspended Mapps, his first Watford outing in the position he most frequently filled for West Brom in the top flight.  Chalobah in for Hughes, finally earning another start. We’re trying to take it to them.  We’re aggressive and punchy, but it doesn’t feel like battering a paper bag like against Villa four days ago.  Wolves are resilient, and soon begin to dominate possession.

It could have been a very different game of course.  Fine margins.  One day, when we’re comfortably clear of the drop zone, perhaps when our safety is assured, perhaps when our safety is assured by a margin that would accommodate a points deduction on the basis of Étienne Capoue being too f***ing cool it would be interesting to see how we cope with being behind again.  Maybe.  As an intellectual exercise.

As it is, we avoid that indignity but there’s not much in it.  Particularly when Matt Doherty does that thing where he smuggles himself unseen from right wing-back to centre forward by virtue of some hidden sub-pitch tunnel.  Coady’s through ball peels us right open and we should be behind, but Ben Foster makes his thirty-second critical save of the last fortnight.

Minutes later Raúl Jiménez drags a shot wide.  I’m distracted by daughter 2 asking about the distinction between orange and yellow luminous jackets on ground staff, but it’s a sloppy finish from the Mexican.  Again, the game could have gone differently here.

3- So no, we’re not going to find out how adept we are at coming from behind today, but we do get plenty of new insights.  First, Wolves are not a flabby, shapeless United and they’re not a brittle, limited Villa.  They’re a very decent side and they’re going to dominate possession for most of the game.

But suddenly.  Suddenly after months of having no threat whatsoever we are strong enough and potent enough to take Wolves’ punches and to come back with jabs of our own.  It’s like that scene in Superman 2 (ask your parents, kids) where Zod expects Supe to kneel before him and gets more than he bargains for.  Some sloppy Wolves play, but only a bit sloppy, only commentworthy because Sarr is onto it and Gerry is gone and he opens his body up and finishes brilliantly.   And then he’s taking a ball slightly too early and getting underneath it, firing over but it could have been two.  And then Sarr is off again, dancing onto a Troy pass and holding off two markers and flicking beautifully, narrowly wide.  It deserved a goal for artistry, impudence, comic timing.  It could have been three.

We have an attack.  And by god we have a midfield.  Capoue is stamping all over everything again.  Lyon?  They could mortgage the whole bloody city and not be anywhere close.  Doucs has refound his mojo and the two of them are, as Troy has said, as good as three midfielders between them.  Which releases Nathaniel Chalobah, a fine fine footballer but without perhaps the natural arrogance of his two colleagues, a platform to dance on.   All three are magnificent.

And the back?  The back is holding out.  The back, it turns out, will be a deflection away from a third home clean sheet on the trot.  Key here is Kiko, whose metamorphosis from a fun but slightly flaky right back into a hard-ass left back is exemplified by his bottling up of Adama Traoré.  Traoré is suddenly the extraordinary physical specimen with no end product that we all understood prior to this season, prior to him seemingly becoming a footballer. He’s not permitted an end product today.

The point is that it’s not just a case of a couple of players getting fit, or of Nige sorting out the defence, say, or of one or two finding a bit of form.  Everything looks brilliant.  The big players are playing and – get this – the fringe players are suddenly awesome too.  Chalobah, Kiko, yes, but also Masina who is going to come off the bench and kick what needs kicking late on.  The whole thing suddenly works.  It’s like having too much oxygen.

4- Wolves might have had a plan at the start of the second half but it doesn’t have time to have any impact.  Gerry is dancing through again and finding Doucs and he absolutely spanks it and we get our own helpful deflection that Neto will balance out later and it’s 2-0 and Doucs is beyond delighted.  It’s joy in the stadium, it’s catharsis on his face.

Wolves make two changes, mix their personnel around but almost simultaneously we’re forced into one ourselves as Kiko twists something and goes down.  It doesn’t look good.  Whilst having Holebas back in the fold after a month is great and he does his agitation thing to a tee, he hasn’t got Kiko’s pace and Traoré starts to cut loose.  Almost immediately Neto, who had been booked for the second of two tumbles in the penalty area in the first half, cashes in his deflection which sends his shot beyond Foster.

Wolves bring on Jota, a far bigger nuisance than his moderate goal tally this season suggests he ought to be, and within minutes he’s wriggling free.  Kaba takes him down, we hold our breath.  It’s only yellow.  Then it isn’t.

It’s one he could have rather than should have gotten away with.  As far as VAR is concerned, the only thing the episode proves absolutely is the fallacy of technology being able to sort problems out, since there are a multitude of interpretations of this incident.  And they’re all painfully dull.  Beyond dispute is that we have a hell of a job on.

5- Would you have taken a point at this stage?  I wouldn’t, but then I never would under any circumstances.  A reasonable, rational evaluation would have done.  A goal up but a man down against an excellent side capable of using the ball well, a side who specialise in late goals at the best of times?  In a christmas period in which we’ve already got a decent couple of wins?  A draw wouldn’t have been a disaster.

How has this happened?  How, from being less than the sum of our parts, so much less, have we become this?

We’ll draw a veil over the final twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes of bloody-mindedness, bodies thrown in the way, discipline, nerves, sore throats, fist punching, defiance.  It features Ismaïla Sarr, whose strength is as striking as his speed, emulating Gifton Noel-Williams’ efforts of twenty-one years ago by taking part in a game of keep ball in the corner before being slowed down by his team mates as he makes his away across to be subbed.  Troy is booked for time wasting, slightly harshly.  Ben is booked for time wasting, less harshly.  Wolves huff and puff, Foster saves from Doherty.  And it’s done.

This is a quite ridiculous win.  Yes yes, Wolves have had a sapping couple of games, a small squad, a tough schedule.  But they’re still a very good side, in good form.  It’s extraordinary.  And it leaves us, instead of nine points from safety before United, eight points from Arsenal, who are top half.

We need to keep winning, obviously.  That’s the thing about coming from so far behind, you need to start winning and keep winning.  But nobody in the stadium today will doubt our ability to do so.  Least of all Nuno Espirito Santo who graciously conceded his side’s inferiority but his eyes looked hollow.

Almost as if he’d seen a ghost.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 5, Dawson 4, Femenía 5, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, *Capoue 5*, Chalobah 5, Doucouré 5, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 5, Deeney 4
Subs: Holebas (for Femenía, 60) 4, Masina (for Deulofeu, 72) 4, Pereyra (for Sarr, 92) NA, Gray, Quina, Success, Gomes