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Watford 4 Chelsea 1 (05/02/2018) 06/02/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1.

9. Chelsea next. That might be fun.

Ian Grant, BHaPPY Stoke Report

I went down on the train. Sally (#notafootballfan) had dropped me off at the station. Her track record’s pretty good, Arsenal (A) last season was her previous drop-off. She left me with a promise to put money on Troy as first goalscorer as I grabbed the clockwork shuttle across from Bedford to Bletchley.

The route home was slightly easier; Dad dropped me at St Albans, I made the train waiting at the platform, grabbed the only cab on the rank at Bedford, home at not-quite-silly’o’clock.

And then lay in bed, staring upwards in the dark. For hours.  Completely wired.

2- A long time ago, Ian compared trying to describe the last 20 minutes of a particular game as being akin to trying to trap a hurricane a matchbox. 19 years on, another game that defies description, defies all attempts at meaningful summary. Appropriate, perhaps, that it was under the lights… Vicarage Road takes on a different feel at night, the dark seems to suck itself into the old quarry, claustrophobic in the way that sunlit games just aren’t.

There will have been intakes of breath at 7pm when the teams came up. No evidence of Tom Cleverley despite optimistic portents. No Christian Kabasele either, another hamstring victim. A 3-4-3 it seemed, with Holebas as a left-sided centre-back… but much as it’s easy to be smart after the event there was a lot to like about what Gracia had patched together. Janmaat and Zeegelaar as wing backs, for one thing. Following Bournemouth’s successful lead in matching Chelsea’s shape was another. As Chelsea launched an early attack and Janmaat was exposed on our right requiring Mariappa to sweep up I was briefly reminded of Sam Allardyce’s graceless deflection of blame onto his own team for their failure to follow Swansea’s blueprint for beating Arsenal. Would we suffer from aping someone else’s successful plan? No. This was very much not to be the tone of the evening.

Because we were brilliant. Have I not mentioned this yet? And of all the things to reflect on with glee, all the things and people to praise, surely the new head coach is at the top of the list. What a way to make an entrance. Not only did he cobble together a side, a team of all things, capable of thrashing the League champions, he injected a vim and vigour such as hadn’t been seen since, arguably, November. Gone was the nervous, hesitant, unconvinced shambles of recent weeks. Gone was the rigid adherence to a certain way of playing – we’ve played three different formations in three games. And throughout the first half – Christ, there were no goals until the 41st minute – we were on the front foot. Deeney sliced a chance wide as it came quickly across him, Richarlíson committed people, Deulofeu slammed a shot into the side netting. Chelsea didn’t have a shot on target in the first half.
They were nowhere.

3- It would be wrong to pretend that this was all down to Watford. The visitors looked as unlike defending League champions as its possible to look. Blunt, yes, without a focal point, this accentuated by our flooding of the midfield and forcing Chelsea into wide positions for the first half hour from which they couldn’t hurt us. But limp, too. Uncommitted, unconvincing and unconvinced. Eyes down, negative body language. Not unfamiliar, in other words, but if we’re honest it was latter day Silva Watford turned up to eleven by expectation and the nothing-to-loseness of their opponents’ circumstances.

Tiemoué Bakayoko’s hapless half hour is prominent in assassinations of Chelsea’s performance; from the Rookery, where even Chelsea are just a collection of Their Lot (plus David Luiz) it was less straightforward to highlight his culpability but certainly we stomped all over the midfield. Twice his loose control necessitated recovering challenges, twice he was penalised. You boss the midfield like that and you force such situations, impose them. At least one of those was soft, it turns out. Fine. We thank Lady Luck and maybe remember this next time an Eric Dier handball is missed. Nonetheless, as exhaling faces emerged from the concourse at half time reporting the generous decision you could help but worry that Mike Dean might seek to even the score in the second half.

He didn’t. Perhaps he would have penalised David Luiz more harshly for his kick at Doucouré in other circumstances but Dean had an excellent game and we never gave him the opportunity to even the score. By then, in any case, we were a goal up… Janmaat released Deulofeu, Courtois came bundling out and took out the winger. As an aside, if I could have wished for an extra cherry it would have been a red card for the odious Fabregas, not that he did anything to earn one beyond existing. But Thibault Courtois’ plaintive bleating about the penalty was a decent next best, and Jamie Carragher calling him out in uncompromising terms for having utterly messed up and taken Deulofeu out was an enjoyable part of the denouement. Troy smashed home the penalty, of course, the fallout from which was recorded on Sally (#notafootballfan)’s voicemail but in vain. She hadn’t placed the bet.

4- It would, equally, be wrong to pretend that this was all down to Chelsea. Of particular note is the number of individuals whose contributions were simultaneously ramped up significantly on recent showings. Least surprisingly perhaps Sebastian Prödl looked infinitely more comfortable in a three, more akin to his imperious best than the nervous giraffe of as recently as Stoke on Wednesday night. Daryl Janmaat, also in a more suitable position, was a rampaging rhinoceros on the flank rather than the rather clumsy, sedate animal of recent weeks. Abdoulaye Doucouré’s form had dipped to merely adequate levels but here he was again best at everything… passing, movement, awareness, tackling, driving the team on, big thumping twonks towards the top corner (we’ll come to that). Richarlíson was to be withdrawn in the second half as the visitors succeeded in prickling him but his flame was back on too, direct and uncontainable. Étienne Capoue… we’ve seen this before of course, but we thought this version of Capoue had left the building for good. Not so. A storming performance from the Frenchman worthy of pairing his compatriot in the middle. And Troy. Obviously Troy. For the first time in all the transfer windows where he’s been the subject of attention it felt as if he might actually be on his way this time. That the draw with Southampton was his sign-off, a reminder of what we were losing. Here he was magnificent, every inch the focal point that our forward line has been screaming out for all season even when he’s been in it. He murdered David Luiz, and led the line superbly… Jonathan Lieuw in the Independent summed up his contribution most appropriately:

“Troy Deeney scored a first half penalty and performed an essential role up front, part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”

Jonathan Lieuw, The Independent

5- The second half, and more of the same. Except… from the moment when Chelsea went down to ten we were doing The Stuff That You’re Supposed To Do in such circumstances. Suddenly it was us getting it wide, switching it, making our opponents move. And as they were forced to push on bluntly we galloped back on the break… Deulofeu shot narrowly wide, Doucouré seized possession and hammered down the centre of the pitch before twonking it towards the top corner. Courtois, a better goalkeeper than he is interviewee, adjudicator or analyst, flung himself at it to paw it away. Chelsea still hadn’t had a shot on target.

The balance shifted when Giroud came on. This was preceded by some more fine refereeing by Dean, playing advantage despite Fabregas’ characteristically sulky, disruptive foul, ignoring Pedro collapsing in a heap under no challenge and then when Janmaat screwed the resultant effort wide booking the former and allowing treatment and ultimately replacement of the latter. And suddenly Chelsea had a focal point. Even the most exalted teams benefit now and again from a big lad up front and Chelsea’s threat was no longer theoretical. Perhaps conscious of it we looked a little deliberate for the first time. Sitting back, smothering the space. In fairness whilst we looked nervous there was still limited evidence of a threat… it was going to take either a rare lapse of concentration or something unprecedented and brilliant. Ultimately it took both… Janmaat afforded Hazard too much space, Hazard gobbled it up and slung an extraordinary shot past the blameless Karnezis. We’d have gotten away with that against anyone else. Olivier Giroud hared after the ball to retrieve it and the memory of late defeats to the Blues in each of our last three encounters loomed large.

6- The last ten minutes were ridiculous. They were what kept me awake last night such that I’m too tired to type as I write now, why this didn’t get written at lunchtime as a parade of visitors to the office wanted to discuss them.

But the turning point wasn’t Janmaat’s goal, magnificent and significant as it was. The critical moment, as called out by my brother watching dazed and exalted and frustrated in the distant northern wastes was slightly earlier… as Hazard was rudely dispossessed as he edged Chelsea towards their inevitable winner and Capoue, who we’ve so often screamed at to impose himself like this, changed the script again. He surged upfield leaving Chelsea defenders reeling in shock… memories of Arsenal’s hapless Tony Adams chasing Luther in 1987. This wasn’t the script. Capoue released Deulofeu’s brilliant run, the Spaniard clipped the ball over Courtois and wide but… we were still in this, boys and girls. No rolling over here.

And in our next attack Janmaat is careering into the Chelsea area, reminiscent of his pinball goal at Stamford Bridge last season but with the added bonus of an exquisite 1-2 with Roberto Pereyra (another who suddenly looked like the player in our heads) around the Chelsea bollards. A fabulous finish and the roof came off because now it was definitively All Going To Be OK. Not just this game, but the rest of the season, the rest of our lives, all sorted. All concerns blown away… the game, your job, your money concerns, whatever’s in your head tattered and blowing in the wind. In the Rookery, absolute carnage. On the pitch, Richarlíson has bombed down the wing from the bench to pile into the celebrations.

Then Doucouré’s doing this delicate dance around Chelsea tackles in the middle of the park and gets the ball out and somehow, who knows how, finds Deulofeu escaping down the right. His number’s up and he knows it, Andre Carrillo is stripped off and ready. So he keeps running, and keeps running, pointing either to Deeney or merely to confuse his marker who doesn’t need any help in that department. Troy’s run drags the defence apart, ties their shoelaces together and Deulofeu keeps going and again we get a break, a scuff of Cahill’s boot and Courtois looks a pratt as it rolls past him which is a shame but our luck is IN and you almost feel sorry for our opponents except it’s Chelsea. Deulofeu stands in exalted exhaustion, his last touch to roll the ball into the net.

And we’re not finished, because in the sixth minute of injury time Bobby Pereyra turns Azpilicueta inside out. That’s César Azpilicueta, not Jack Hobbs or Liam Fontaine or Darren bloody Purse. And Azpilicueta having been turned inside out he slams a ridiculous shot past Courtois and it really is all over. “We want five” shouts the Rookery. “Barcelona, we’re coming for you” replies what’s left of the away end.

7- Hugely significant, obviously. Changes the outlook, changes the mood… no, screws the mood up and drop kicks it into the nearest bin with a click of the heels. But in isolation, out of context, this is why you watch football. Nights like this, which are completely brilliant and really don’t come along that often. Not like this. Bring on the rest of the season. Bring on the returns of Kaboul, Femenia, Chalobah, Hughes and the rest. Bring on, suddenly, improbably anything

Yoorns.

Karnezis 5, Mariappa 5, Prödl 5, Holebas 5, Janmaat 5, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 5, Zeegelaar 5, Deulofeu 5, Richarlíson 5, Deeney 5
Subs: Pereyra (for Richarlíson, 65) 5, Carrillo (for Deulofeu, 89) 5, Gray (for Deeney, 93) 5, Ndong, Lukebakio, Bachmann, Mukena

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Silva Bullet (and coup de Gracia?) 22/01/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

OK, so there was supposed to be a Leicester report. Sorry about that. Birthday drinks on Saturday night delayed that exercise and by the time I got round to sitting down events had moved on apace and an account of events at the KP Stadium had become almost superfluous, like a restaurant review of a curry shop that shut down a week ago. In brief then… Leicester’s always a great away trip even though we always lose. Karnezis done great. We looked tough and pretty competitive and could have nicked a point but didn’t; Leicester had enough to exploit the cracks in our side and deserved the win. Oh, and Lee Probert did well enough; we moan when they’re awful so credit where it’s due. Yes, the Deeney “goal” was probably onside but a marginal decision advised by his assistant. Andre Gray and Troy together worked again, but Gray needs some of whatever made Luther so indifferent to missing chances back in the day. He missed loads, of course… but was always there for the next one and never seemed to let it bother him. Each open goal that Gray’s positive running earns looks like a traumatic experience for the striker.

Some of those cracks are long-standing of course, not news. Which brings us to the decision to get rid which disrupted our Sunday morning. It is a decision, first and foremost, which is a Good Thing. Some might argue that this is overdue but even those would surely concede that this is decisive action taken with a new guy lined up and engineered with minimum fuss. None of Everton’s hapless floundering in search of a new coach, job done.

So…that’s a good thing. Handled well. As for the decision itself? There’s regret there, I think, probably on all parts. “A shame”. The opening couple of months of the season saw the best football we’ve played for a very long time, certainly the best football we’ve played in the top flight since GT’s time. The contrast has been the most startling thing, the contrast between that and what has followed, much as there were steps of decline that featured a flattering win at Newcastle, a forgivable defeat against United. Leaving Evertongate aside for a minute, there’s stuff to be learned about how a manager reacts when things stop working. Alex Neil at Norwich suffered from this, the best young manager around until Premier League Norwich lost a game or two and then he wasn’t. Silva never looked like recovering his position, of righting the ship.

The persistence with a system that patently doesn’t suit the situation or available personnel is surely high on the charge list. A high energy game looked fabulous with a (largely) fit squad in August, less so with leggy players in December. Richarlíson has faded to nothing, I don’t remember the last impactful game he had, our fullbacks are repeatedly exposed, our forward line doesn’t really work for ANY of our forwards (excepting the point against Southampton, won by Troy Deeney through force of personality). Injuries, yes, and that’s another question altogether. But we have a stronger squad and better players available than performances have reflected.

You suspect that Silva would have been afforded more time but for the Everton thing, and the fall out therefrom. Indeed, for all the Pozzos’ tiresome reputation as hirers and firers their stated preference is to execute managerial changes at the end of a season, it would have taken more than this to disrupt that policy. In attributing blame however, the wording of a club statement pointing the finger squarely at Everton was odd. Certainly the Toffees’ conduct was graceless, unfitting of a proud club and worthy of every bit of disdain that we’ve thrown at them… but the problem wasn’t the approach itself. It was Silva’s response to it. Had the Everton thing not happened, the potential for such an issue would always have been there.

At the time we observed that going to Everton would do his reputation no favours, since big budget or no he’d scampered too quickly up the ladder; should he fail at Goodison any chance of another Watford going for him thereafter would be tampered by his shameless ambition and lack of judgement. Now he ends up in the same place without the Everton pay-off. He’ll get a job somewhere of course, and may well learn from this experience but his inability to deal with Stuff Going Wrong – be it on the pitch or the failure to secure his preferred targets off it – will be as much of a concern to any potential employer.

As for the Hornets… an interesting range of reactions from media and pundits. That there are those saying “who do Watford think they are, tenth in the League and getting rid of a bright young manager” should be no surprise… this is the sort of stuff you expect from your mate who doesn’t really follow Watford and only pays attention when Something Happens. Forgivable on your mate’s part, less so on the part of those paid to be experts on the back of half-arsed pub talk (that’s you, Michael Owen). Martin Samuel’s odious clickbait is at one extreme beyond that – rather than reading it, why not click on “Daily Mail” in NewsNow and do yourself a favour by Hiding Publication?

But otherwise there’s been a refreshingly balanced take on the affair from the Times (behind their paywall), the Guardian and the Independent. Reassuring that someone’s paying attention. Not that the Pozzos and Scott Duxbury care, particularly.

The paradox remains, however, that in this which is surely the second most successful period in the club’s history (much as definitions of success may vary), we look back arguably at only Slavisa Jokanovic of our managers under the Pozzos in a positive light. All managers leave clubs eventually of course and that will almost always take a sheen off… but of those that preceded the Pozzos certainly Dyche, Mackay, Lewington are generally regarded positively. Circumstance and expectation plays a part of course, but nonetheless.

To reiterate, highly significant that Javi Gracia is already in place. Indicative that this has been in the pipeline for a while, and casting a new light perhaps on the lack of incoming traffic thus far in January. Quite what the future holds, whether we add to our numbers, whether players return from treatment to strengthen the fold or whether Carrillo and Richarlíson’s contribution is damaged by their mentor’s departure we will have to wait and see.

Either way, change was needed. Change has arrived.

Yoorns.

Watford 2 Southampton 2 (13/01/2018) 14/01/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- Leeds. September, 1991. Tentative steps being taken into the outside world, a world not constrained by living at home or by the accident of which school you happened to go to, who you happened to sit next to. Into this noisy, exciting, anxious world of the Old Bar in the Student Union I saw someone arrive wearing this.

Leaving aside the questionable kit design for one moment footballing loyalties were always going to forge friendships, particularly this footballing loyalty in Leeds in 1991. Over the next few years Felix’s Yugo shuttled a small but committed (in several respects) crew from Leeds to any away games vaguely within striking range. Occasionally he would persuade it to start by opening the bonnet and clouting the engine with a piece of wood. There was a chaotic trip to St James Park – an eviction, a car crash and a red card. The Baseball Ground, and an unwanted encounter with a uniformed “firm”. Oakwell, Boundary Park, Roker Park. Vicarage Road, too, once or twice, including the win over Leeds in the League Cup.

Vicky was often part of that crew. In the 25 years since lots has changed, I’ve lost touch with many friends and scarcely see others. Vicky and Felix are both in the Rookery today though, we’re sat together with scarves held aloft commemorating the anniversary of Graham’s passing. They’re connected to a common thread through all of our lives the profoundness of which doesn’t change whilst everything else churns beyond recognition. That’s why there’s such an eerie, absolute commitment to this stunning tribute to Taylor; a reflection of his extraordinary legacy, but also of everyone’s connectedness to it from those who date back 25 years or more to my kids, Felix’s kids, not old enough to remember but plenty old enough to “get it”.

Warmingly, as well as the scarves creating a stunning tableau in the home stands there are Saints scarves aloft in the away end. I’d like to think that these represented solidarity as well as a statement of pride in their own team. Being proud of what and who you are doesn’t obligate you to hate anyone that’s something different whatever the current political climate might imply.

2- “Elton John’s Taylor Made Army” thunders around the stands for a couple of minutes until the nervousness on the pitch in front of us reminds us of our current precarious situation. Both sides look nervous, actually… and there’s a collective fit of scruffiness until both sides settle down and start to attempt to land punches. Southampton’s counterattacking is evident quickly, a laser-guided Kabasele tackle robs a flying but baffled Shane Long of the ball to vociferous approval from Daughter 1. At the other end we build up a cautious head of steam; Carrillo feeds Gray but the ball surprises him, he swipes and misses; we work it out and around and find Janmaat who thunders a drive across the face of goal and narrowly over.

Better. Not convincing, not refined, but as against Leicester it was something that might conceivably have gotten us somewhere had the visitors not gone and scored. In what was to become a recurring them we were exposed down the flanks, Zeegelaar on this occasion; the resultant firefighting in the defence saw bodies flying left and right but none got sufficiently close to James Ward-Prowse who threaded a shot through and past Gomes.

Had the goal come up the other end, things might have been very different. Well… reversed, inverted. As it was the Hornets’ confidence visibly collapsed and a newly buoyant Southampton looked to take advantage. They were well set-up to do so… this could have been our game at Newcastle again, a home side blunt and lacking in confidence having to push on against a visitor very happy to counterattack. Long again found space and time to pitch a tent on the right flank but took a touch allowing Zeegelaar to block. Saints looked for Gomes wandering off his line and twice attempted to drop balls over his head, once forcing the Brazilian to tip over. It felt very difficult for us to find a way through compelled as we were to play short, whilst Southampton were finding it horribly easy to threaten. Someone over my shoulder had clearly decided that Everything was Andre Gray’s fault with the perhaps unintended consequence in hardening the support for our lone striker of everyone in earshot.

Marco Silva made an early substitution decision, ostensibly intending to bring Pereyra on for Ben Watson to introduce a little more craft but forced instead to replace the ailing Cleverley to murmurs of disquiet from the stands. Finally, inevitably, Saints scored again and again Ward-Prowse popped up on the right to convert. The stands emptied in search of half-time respite, the scoreline not flattering the visitors one bit, apt reward for our flimsy lack of resilience.

3- Coming back from two goals down in any circumstances is a Good Thing; there’s a theoretical danger in papering over the cracks by overdoing celebration of the second half performance but actually, after one League win in whatever it is that risk is perhaps minimal.

Therefore, given the desperate need for a bit of positivity why not celebrate the monumental second half performance of our captain. True, such performances have been fewer and further between this season but if there was any definitive riposte to the murmurs suggesting that maybe Troy’s time has come at Watford, that it would be better for all concerned if, you know…. well, this was it. As ever on such occasions it was the how as much as the what… but let’s dawdle on the what for a second.

Suddenly, with two up top, we looked cohesive. Saints boasted two big lumps at the back but not only could neither do much more with the ball than kick it in the direction they were facing (often into the crowd), but Troy absolutely destroyed both of them in the air. Fitting that it was against Saints, as an aside, since in the reverse fixture two years ago Troy got absolutely bossed by Virgil Van Dijk, the first time I’d seen him so comprehensively shut down since he established himself in our side. Not this time. This time they got it back in spades.

And it wasn’t just the what, as above. Here’s a leader. Here’s someone grabbing a flagging side by the balls and dragging it along and grabbing harder on any suggestion of protest. How on earth could we be better off without this?

It wasn’t a rout. Richarlíson looks a shadow of the irrepressible force earlier in the season, any suggestion that he’s merely suffering from lack of protection dispelled by the recollection of quite how aggressively he’d fight off such attention when his flame was on. But otherwise… things started buzzing around Troy, not least Andre Gray who reacted quicker than the leaden Saints defence when Deeney found Janmaat, the full back clubbed a shot against the bar and Gray snapped up the spinning rebound.

4- We got a break with the equaliser, quite obviously, though I’m far from convinced that any contact with the arm was consequential much less intentional. As we’ve reflected before on these pages we’re acutely sensitive to such breaks going against us so shouldn’t perhaps feel too guilty when fate smiles upon us, certainly in such circumstances where we’ve not gone and duped anyone. In any event, respect to Saints’ Ryan Bertrand for maintaining the ten yard defensive exclusion zone around the left side of the Rookery End penalty area that we’d so diligently upheld in the first half, allowing Doucouré to latch onto Troy’s flick unattended.

The incident inevitably provoked much screeching and demands for immediate VAR from predictable sources, including the Daily Mail of retired referees Graham Poll. What continues to baffle, as ig reflected on these pages many years ago, is the lack of any balance in assessment of merits of this or any similar system. TV and radio in particular go no further in their evaluation than “mistakes are bad, VAR will correct some mistakes, therefore VAR is good. I don’t understand why we don’t use it already, it must be them luddites what are stuck in the dark ages. Look at cricket…”. Bloody cricket.

The thing is, if your digestion of a football match is based on highlights and talking points it’s natural to focus on these incidents but such shouldn’t be the basis for evaluation of VAR. Nobody could reasonably argue that preventing mistakes isn’t a Good Thing. The downside that’s ignored is the interruption to the flow of the game… not just delay, not just the practical questions like “what happens if this happens then that happens” although they bear consideration too. But the cutting off of the adrenaline, the breaking up of the play, the depriving of those actually paying attention and digesting the spectacle of the vital unpredictable momentum of a game of football.

Anyone in any doubt as to this threat need look no further than the consequences of the absurd performance of Roger East in this one. Painfully aware of the direction the wind was blowing, Southampton were slowing the game down throughout the second half. No fingers to be pointed here really – any side in such circumstances would have attempted similar, ourselves included. But it is cheating and it does disrupt momentum and give the side with an interest in defending a lead, say, an unfair advantage by interrupting the avalanche, not just by using up time. East’s ludicrous tapping of his watch in response to increasingly hysterical protest from the stands betrayed a complete indifference to the game of football. If you don’t want to be here Roger, feel free to sod off home and see if we can’t do a better job of it without any officials at all. The addition of (only!) five minutes at the end didn’t counterbalance the disruptive effect of Southampton’s approach, unhindered as it was by any yellow cards until much too late in proceedings. A disappointment of course that the winner didn’t come, or that the late equaliser didn’t occur in the fifth minute of injury time earned by such nonsense, as at the Hawthorns earlier in the season.

5- A point, then, and a much less miserable outlook than it might have been. It is, still, pretty miserable though. Less so for the lack of signings, though they would be nice, nor for the lack of evidence of return of our many waylaid players (to which add the name of Tom Cleverley, perhaps), though these would be more welcome still – Filippo Giraldi’s assertion that we have a very strong squad is difficult to argue with. This is surely the best squad we’ve ever had – it’s just that so many of them are unfit.

The two gravest causes for concern are our continuing inability to win The Sort Of Game We Could Be Winning. If you’re going to write off games against the big six – a third of our opposition, more or less – as free punches, nothing to loses then you really have to get points from the others and our ongoing failure to do so sees us slide ever closer to the morass. Secondly, the apparent lack of harmony behind the scenes. You can place whatever trust you like in accounts such as that in the Times on Saturday suggesting disquiet both at the Silva-to-Everton thing and at his lack of people skills, credible though it sounds. But the inconsistencies in Silva’s communication vs that of the club are beyond dispute, semantics aside. You don’t respond to an experienced player getting a new contract with “it’s nothing to do with me”, whatever you think of it. “Very glad to have José tied down” surely a no brainer. The stark contrast between the vibrancy of September and October and the pathetic last twenty minutes of the first half tells its own story.

We will, of course, all continue to watch this space. For many years.

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 2, Zeegelaar 2, Kabasele 3, Wagué 3, Watson 2, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 3, Carrillo 3, Richarlíson 2, Gray 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Cleverley, 35) 3, *Deeney (for Watson, 45) 4*, Okaka (for Gray, 73) 3, Prödl, Mariappa, Holebas, Karnezis

Watford 3 Bristol City 0 (06/01/2018) 07/01/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

1- I was in a band when I was at school.  It’s fair to say that I wasn’t the creative engine of the enterprise…  a “functional” bassist would be the kindest description but it was tremendous fun.  Performing live, particularly;  recording stuff too, even if my role amounted to plucking the bass strings in the order that I was told to at the time that I was told to.

Recording sessions and rehearsals, from memory, rotated around parents’ homes, perhaps to informally share the burden.  One session sticks in the memory particularly,  a sunny day at my parents’ place;  they were both out, perhaps understandably, as were my siblings.  The musical creativity was interrupted for a cup of tea on the patio, and an epic discussion ensued on the subject. Ben (lead guitar, vocals) argued forcefully that the taste of tea was the taste of tea, unadulterated. Howard (drums) insisted that his cup of tea, milk, sugar, the works, was tea as he understood it.  His cup of tea.

This went on for some time.

Perhaps perversely whilst I was largely impassive in this discussion I’ve spent a reasonable proportion of the 25-plus years since working for a company that sells a lot of tea, studying and assessing consumers’ opinions of our tea.  This hasn’t resolved the argument in my mind, an argument that would doubtless have lodged in your mind as it has lodged in mine had you been there to experience it.

But the value in Howard’s point of view was laid out clearly at around 2.45pm this afternoon.  Hovering in seats that were kind of close to our season ticket seats but not actually our season ticket seats which had somehow been sold before we got there (to folk who never showed, as it turned out).  Around us… some familiar faces, waving awkwardly from similarly not-quite-the-same seats a few seats, a few rows away.  Plenty of others significant by their absence.

There are obviously obstacles to the club providing Season Ticket holders with priority booking for their seats, not least the need to offer the visiting club the entire Vicarage Road end thus displacing Family Stand season ticket holders.  Nonetheless, these challenges have always been there and the club has navigated them before.  And winning or losing, first team or reserves I would feel a little bit more valued – hell, this would be a bit more like my cup of tea if I was able to sit in my regular seat.

2- It comes to something when it’s the Premier League club that fields a virtually full-strength side – or as close to full strength as injuries permit, Richarlíson’s overdue rest aside – and the Championship upstart that makes seven changes in gives debuts to a couple of kids.  Such was the situation on this steely cold afternoon however, and with a brief sigh at the lack of our own kids in the side and a wonder if Walter Mazzarri had everything wrong after all it’s difficult to criticise either decision.  City have an injury overload of their own, are chasing promotion and have a semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday.  However tall an order two legs against Manchester City are for anyone at the moment you don’t get to a semi final and not give it your best shot.

Meanwhile the Hornets are short of options and short of confidence, so a full-strength side both “respects the competition”, as Marco Silva has emphasised, and gives us a chance of a confidence building victory.  Since surely, surely this would be the outcome in the circumstances.  For all that City and the Hornets have been regular adversaries over the years the current state of it is that we’re a Prem club with all that entails, and our strongest(ish) available side against City’s patchwork could only end one way?

3- Lee Johnson commented afterwards, slightly peevishly, that 3-0 maybe flattered Watford.  Not knocking the decision he made, as above, but on this one he’s completely kidding himself and should really have had the courage to stand by his convictions.  This was as one-sided an affair as it ought to have been, the only disappointment being that we spurned opportunities to record a more comprehensive victory still.

That we were so comfortable owes a lot to the superiority of the weapons we had on show, but a lot also to the way that the approach that failed us against Swansea a week ago paid dividends this afternoon against less experienced, less disciplined opponents.

The emphasis in the first half was on possession;  most of the play was at the Vicarage Road end and clear openings weren’t hunted down or gambled on.  Instead the ball was swung from side to side as we patiently waited and City chased and blocked and retained their shape.   But we teased and probed and pulled the knots apart and the chances came, eventually.  Pereyra, irrepressibly on his game in the first half, teased and danced and cut inside whilst Zeegelaar thundered down the flank, unhindered by any defensive responsibility.  On the other wing Carrillo continued to fizz and with Deeney relishing a physical scrap with Aden Flint it was only a matter of time.  The striker had a header go over under challenge.  Then Capoue cut in from the left and fired a low shot for Steele to field comfortably.  Opening salvos, but it was always going to escalate and when Carrillo received a Pereyra pass and snapped a smart shot home in the penalty area to give us the lead you had the sense of us picking up speed.

4- The second half was less cagey, partly because City had to push forward and partly because their heads and legs were being tested by being given such a relentless run around.  This is what Swansea should have been like.  The gaps came and came quickly;  Pereyra, I am advised, hit the crossbar whilst I was queuing for crisps to sustain Daughter 1; I scurried back to the “oohs” and “ahhhs” of the coconut shy that followed.  “What did I miss?”.  “Nothing….”.

Ten minutes later it was 2-0; Cleverley escaped attention to gain space on the right and pulled back a terrific cross to Deeney whose diving header provided his first goal from open play of the season.

The rest was just detail, a procession of chances against an underequipped and tired opponent.  You might be concerned with the ease with which City’s hesitant forays forward created a threat but eleven shots on target to one tells its own story.  The next effort was technically off target, but not much in it… Deeney stealing in again at the near post to nod the ball into the side netting.   A left wing cross found Wagué and sub Richarlíson getting in each other’s way.  Richarlíson hared into space and didn’t clock the keeper’s position, dropping a shot into his arms rather than over him and into the net. Holebas, on at left back to give Pereyra a rest, was afforded too much space and slung a shot towards the top corner that Steele clawed out.  Finally Capoue exchanged passes with Deeney and slapped a third into the bottom corner.

5- The very definition of routine, then.  Lots of context, lots of circumstances;  City won’t and shouldn’t lose a lot of sleep about it and the game doesn’t tell us an awful lot about our ability to cope with Premier League opposition more successfully and profitably than we have been but it might contribute to our ability to do so.  This was a thoroughly professional, unfussy performance that might have reminded a few of our lot how good they are.   It might also be the kick off of a decent cup run, we’ll see.

Either way, a comfortable win with no injuries incurred is the ideal outcome.  Just our cup of tea, in fact. Now bring on the Saints.

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 3, Zeegelaar 4, Kabasele 3, Wagué 3, Doucouré 3, Capoue 4, Cleverley 4, *Carrillo 4*, Pereyra 4, Deeney 4

Subs: Richarlíson (for Carrillo, 69) 3, Holebas (for Pereyra, 69) 4, Watson (for Doucouré, 81) 0, Prödl, Gray, Okaka, Karnezis

Watford 1 Swansea City 2 (30/12/2017) 31/12/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
20 comments

1- For f***’s sake…

2- Friday had been a good day. A day with the girls, hanging out. Having lunch, spending Christmas vouchers, going to the pictures. Lots of fun, lots of laughter. The happy afterglow got me through the weekly trip to Sainsburys in the evening, got me to the petrol station to fill up for the drive down to Watford the next day, got me to sticking the unleaded nozzle in the tank and squeezing and just about to the point where I remembered that I drove a diesel.

For f***’s sake.

3- If Leicester on Tuesday was The Turning Of The Corner, this was to be the point at which we picked up speed again. Swansea, one win in twelve, bottom of the table, Not Good Enough by general consensus were perhaps the ideal opponent. The “new manager bounce” thing was there at the back of the mind, but quickly dismissed as the game started. We were on the front foot quickly; Cleverley came close, Richarlíson had an effort saved. Ayew thundered a shot off Gomes’ bar but this had come from nowhere, there was one team in it. Martin Atkinson even saw fit to completely ignore two Watford fouls in the middle of the park; this was officially going to be our day. When André Carrillo met a rebound to a Richarlíson shot to open the scoring the passage of events thenceforth seemed set out. Only one way this was going to go. We’d found our mojo again, and Swansea were the fall guys.

4- It didn’t turn out that way, obviously. With the benefit of hindsight it’s tempting to suggest that… we stepped off the gas. No urgency. Complacency. Certainly the pace of the game, of our game, dropped. Our visitors had something to do with our failure too, mind; whilst there was little attacking threat to speak of they were disciplined defensively and more competitive than advertised. Rather than chasing down possession or jumping into challenges they would sit back and cut off options. A sort of “come on then”, affording us a lot of possession and challenging us to do something with it. Meanwhile our slow pace will have been influenced by the knowledge that we’d already created chances, that the onus was on Swansea to fashion an opening, that this was the third of four games in eleven days.

The fierce, swirling wind limited options; the visitors fell foul of it frequently, any attempts to lift the ball accurately over distance stymied by the conditions. This forced us to keep the ball on the floor and we retained possession more successfully than we created chances. The first half saw Richarlíson get on the end of a Janmaat cross but head straight at Fabianski. Then at half time Swansea changed their shape, removing the volatile Mesa and bringing on a winger in Narsingh. Perhaps as a consequence we made less progress in the second period but whilst it was aggravating there was little obvious threat and we still made the better of the chances. Molla Wagué’s disallowed header was preceded by a push that seemed more apparent at the time than it does on review.

5- Stefano Okaka’s widely demanded start had given us some physical presence up front, but even allowing for understandable ring-rustiness his impact was disappointing. There’s stuff to ponder here, not just in terms of our attacking options but more generally in the role of the lone striker in this team. We have three senior strikers of quite different styles and backgrounds and none has looked consistently comfortable. It may be just a coincidence of circumstances – Deeney having a poor season, Gray not settling, Okaka not featuring to which you can add Richarlíson out of position, maybe. But this lone striking role, reliant on support from relatively distant quarters – out wide, or a supporting midfielder – is a big ask. Quite how Silva proceeds with it in the remainder of the season will be interesting.

Meanwhile, Andre Gray replaced Okaka for the final quarter hour. There had been murmurs of “we could do with another goal” but Swansea’s genius – if such it was – was to provide no evidence of a threat until it was too late. We could have, should have put the game to bed, sure… but the lack of nervousness in the crowd until the deeds were done evidenced the peculiar set of circumstances.

The first real anger greeted Gray’s miss. It was a bad one, for sure, but much as I’m still to be convinced by Gray it was disproportionately harsh – certainly the prolonged hysterics over my shoulder that cited Gray’s Luton heritage as explanation of his perceived lack of commitment were on the ludicrous end of the spectrum. First and foremost this was our most convincing attack of the half… a bit of direct running by fellow sub Pereyra, committing people and executing an outrageous pass with that outside of his foot that blindsided the defence and left Gray through one-on-one. His run had been excellent, a different threat, hovering like a falcon waiting for the pass but he had too long to think about it, long enough for the seed of doubt to be sowed and for Fabianski to hurtle out, brilliantly, and block. His reaction was desperate, anguished. It was the single most significant moment of the game.

6- Since had that gone in, or had Wagué goal been allowed, we’d surely be talking about another performance that was far from perfect, but constituted another tentative but solid step towards some kind of form. Instead, another capitulation. Again, the circumstances were unfortunate; Ayew probably was offside but you can’t really go complaining about that, or blame the officials in that instance. The offside rule wasn’t introduced to isolate such fine margins. What it did, though, was rattle us more than it might otherwise have done. Our soft underbelly was exposed yet again and all of Tuesday’s fine work was undone. There were floods towards the exits as the winner went in, a piece of clumsy goalkeeping from Gomes after an otherwise solid game contributing, and boos at the whistle only interrupted by a warm reception for our goalkeeper who had the guts and grace to do a full circuit saluting what was left of the crowd.

The biggest questions here are to be faced by the head coach. The echo of Hull’s season are now deafening, particularly given the evidence in front of our eyes of a high energy, vivacious and exhilarating style collapsing to dust when players’ legs go. Leicester provided evidence of the manager’s ability to vary his style to the circumstances but we need more of that. We need evidence of a backbone, of an ability to hang on to a lead; we need a solution to the attacking quandary and we need a means of navigating Tuesday night without another hammer blow to our fragile confidence.

Who knows, the stripping away of all expectation – a problem on and off the pitch in this game – might be just what we need.

For f***’s sake…

Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 2, Zeegelaar 3, Kabasele 3, Wagué 3, Watson 3, *Doucouré 3*, Cleverley 3, Carrillo 3, Richarlíson 3, Okaka 2
Subs: Prödl (for Wagué, 64) 2, Gray (for Okaka, 77) 0, Pereyra (for Carrillo, 83) 0, Sinclair, Holebas, Capoue, Karnezis

Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (26/12/2017) 27/12/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

1- Christmas, then. For us there’s a routine now that doesn’t even merit planning because it kind of works. Christmas Eve at home, down to my wife’s family in South London during the day, up to Essex to my parents for the evening and football on Boxing Day if accessible.

Advantages are of course that we get to see everyone – lots of people, anyway, both sides of the family – and that there are periods of relative calm built in amidst the noisy chaos that only a melee of overexcited children and pets can generate. Plus, the roads are generally quiet making the transit relatively painless.

Not this year.  We spent 40 minutes stationary on the M25 near Waltham Abbey en route to venue 1 on Christmas Day, then were stymied by an undiverted road closure in Catford on the second leg later in the day.  Trips to and from Vicarage Road and particularly the final leg homewards today were stymied by the weather – snow, sleet, rain, wind, water.  Just nasty.  In such circumstances all you can do is hang in there.  Hang in there and cling to the knowledge that this is finite, that we’ll get there in the end and everything will be fine.  Eventually.

2- Rewinding to yesterday lunchtime, similarly, the end wasn’t in sight. Yes, Swansea on Saturday looked a winnable fixture, maybe, but the gentle descent in our recent run from the forgivable through the slightly unfortunate to the downright appalling hadn’t left us banking on anything much.  As discussed in the post-Huddersfield gloom there were plenty of concerns, plenty of things for which there seemed no immediate remedy.  As we parked up Dad’s mood wasn’t improved by the realisation that he’d left his turkey sandwiches in the fridge. At the top of Occupation Road we were held up by a late-arriving and late-unloading Leicester team coach;  the cold damp clung to our faces as a steward of infinite patience explained to one disproportionately irate gentleman why she couldn’t let him take his chances with the reversing vehicle.  The afternoon was already becoming a bit of an ordeal.

Until we got inside, back to familiar routines.  A pint in the V-bar, receipt of team news via Twitter, reaction, discussion.  My usual seat – my real seat, my 1999 seat this afternoon unchallenged by Daughters 1 & 2, left at home to torment their Grandma. Friendly faces arriving, hands shaken.  Actually… this is all good.  Even if Watford are terrible.  And you know what, maybe we won’t be terrible.  “Good things happen when you go in with no expectations” says Daz, sagely. Nonetheless, and for the first time at home in a long while, I’d have taken a point.

3- The team news, at the outset, was a little alarming.  Molla Wagué’s selection was completely unheralded, Seb Prödl on the bench and Mapps out of the picture altogether.  Richarlíson up front was bold, a statement to Stefano Okaka but particularly to Andre Gray.  Assume nothing.  But risky, too.  Desperate, maybe.

We started brightly, assertively.  Roberto Pereyra has been challenged to put more of a shift in and his industry was evident early on, closing down high up the pitch.  Elsewhere we look assertive, positive.  Encouraging, this, no flimsy heads-down waiting-to-be-beatness here.  The returns of Zeegelaar and Doucouré are both significant – the Dutchman is relentlessly positive, and whilst Doucouré will have and has had much better afternoons he’s a fundamental cog in the side, a force for good even when he is, actually, giving the ball away more often than his eulogy might suggest.

Leicester are no less combative, as is their wont.  Referee Chris Kavanagh has a decent game with only variable help from his assistants who have a generous interpretation of onside and appear blind to repeated foul throws, one of which in the second half sees Harry Maguire leave the ground and pirouette unchallenged in returning the ball to play.  But Kavanagh gets in their early, decisively and correctly booking Maguire, Watson and Kabasele.  No nonsense here, chaps.  A line is drawn, both sides are to a certain extent “at it” and the despite the cold wetness and our form, the game is starting better than feared.

4- So Leicester’s goal is a bit of a downer.  They’d already come the closer, in truth, started slightly the stronger… the visitors’ most effective player Marc Albrighton got some joy down our left, where Daryl Janmaat had a ropey 45 minutes; his cross found Okazaki’s head, Gomes tipping over.  Vardy was sent clear, the keeper came out but the England striker should have done better than to dink wide.  We had possession too, but less in the way of clear chances… Carrillo had the beating of Chilwell and was a source of resilience and mischief but we’d have been grateful for 0-0 at half time.  So when City went ahead – Janmaat exposed too far upfield, Albrighton flinging in a cross for Mahrez to score for the third year running at the Vic – the already sombre atmosphere went very flat.  We were cold, and we were losing, and being a goal down at home to a decent counterattacking side is not a good place to be in any circumstances (ask Newcastle).

So the fact that we came back so quickly and decisively was hugely encouraging in itself.  Leicester, it has to be said, were very quiet themselves thereafter until the closing bombardment;  perhaps they believed they had it won, perhaps they simply didn’t anticipate  a team in our form fighting back.  Whatever, it suited us since we weren’t yet bolshy enough to be up-and-at-them.  It was a tentative response in which we gained courage from each new foray…  Carrillo sent Richarlíson through, Schmeichel forced the Brazilian wide and he again demonstrated his quick feet and imperfect finishing by firing narrowly wide with Carrillo waiting for a tap-in.   Pereyra departed to be replaced by Okaka – Silva has suggested “a small problem” with the Argentine, certainly a tactical switch could have waited another couple of minutes maybe but the Richarlíson up front thing has never really worked.  The crowd were rallied by Okaka’s arrival (Felix and I mumbled “give it to Slater” in my absent co-editor’s honour) but suddenly we had a muscular presence and our tails were up.  In swung a Cleverley corner and Wagué, who’d looked both brave and nimble in a thoroughly competent debut – tucked in.  There was still time for Richarlíson to thunder another shot against the upright before the referee blew his whistle and we all got a much-needed rest.

5- At no point in the second half did this feel inevitable.  There was no assault on Leicester’s goal, no return to the joyous verve of earlier in the season.  But this just makes the victory more impressive;  whisper it, but we ground this out.  Significant figures in this were Kabasele, stupidly booked earlier on but a defiant beast at the back thereafter, swooping in with an heroic block to curtail a rare Leicester chance, the utterly dependable and getting-back-into-gear Ben Watson, a rejuvenated Janmaat and the impossibly dynamic Cleverley, who I absolutely love in the more advance midfield position. Doucouré and Chalobah behind Tom still the winning combination for me when doable.

Cleverley’s corner it was that Doucouré smuggled in at the far post, over the line before cleared.  Cleverley it was too who gambolled clear late on as Leicester begun to pick up a head of steam, still with the energy to break from midfield but not quite composed enough to tuck his shot inside the far post.

Meanwhile Leicester did get their kitchen sink out, and Harry Maguire attacking the far post was a frequent target.  His knockdown lead to an inhuman block from Gomes to deny Morgan, who followed up with a sharp save to his other side to deny the sulky Ulloa and a fine claim under pressure to diffuse City’s final attack.

6- Despite our positive start to the season this little run had raised nervous questions.  Did Silva actually have a plan B, the tactical versatility to adjust things when the fast-flowing plan A got clogged up?  Did our players have the character to battle their way out of this?  Is Gomes still reliable?  Have we been found out?

Convincing evidence for the defence this afternoon.  Silva found a winning formula, abetted by City’s limp showing but contributing to it too.  Simultaneously he resisted the temptation to drop Watson and exploited our squad, rather than feeling obliged to persist with underperformers.  The team showed plenty of guts in difficult circumstances when the crowd’s expectation – and energy – was at it’s lowest.  And Gomes.  Ha.  Marvellous.

The end of the tunnel is a fine place to be.  Bring on the Swansea.  Yooorns.

Gomes 4, Janmaat 3, Zeegelaar 3, Kabasele 4, Wagué 3, Doucouré 3, Watson 3, Carrillo 4, Pereyra 3, *Cleverley 4*, Richarlíson 3

Subs: Okaka (for Pereyra, 44) 3, Prödl (for Watson, 87) 0, Sinclair (for Carrillo, 90) 0, Gray, Holebas, Capoue, Bachmann

The List – January 2018 21/12/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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It’s that time again.  The January transfer window opens in, you know, January.  Listed below every player linked with the Hornets or linked with a move away since the last window closed;  as ever, a low threshold of plausibility is applied but clickbait saying “We think Watford should sign…” doesn’t meet it.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Summer 2017 List / January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 48

IN

Matheus Jesus (Estoril)
Yves Bissouma (Lille)
Francesco Vicari (SPAL)
Pau López (Espanyol)
Raul Meireles (Unattached)
Danny Ings (Liverpool)
Dean Henderson (Man United)                          – joined Shrewsbury on loan
Tyler Roberts (West Brom)                                  – joined Walsall on loan
Lovro Majer (Lokomotiv Zagreb)
Lazar Marković (Liverpool)*
Koray Günter (Galatasaray)
Islam Slimani (Leicester)*
Jakub Jankto (Udinese)*
Pontus Dahlberg (Göteborg)
Matt Clarke (Portsmouth)
Adrian Šemper (Dinamo Zagreb)
André Simões (AEK Athens)
Mario Gavranović (Rijeka)                                           – joined Dinamo Zagreb
Josip Mišić (Rijeka)                                                       – joined Sporting Lisbon
Daniel Opare (Augsburg)
Rui Patrício (Sporting)*
Oualid al Hajjam (Amiens)
Francesco di Mariano (Novara)
Fousseni Diabaté (Gazelec)                                          – joined Leicester City
Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
Theo Walcott (Arsenal)                                                         – joined Everton
Amin Younes (Ajax)
Nicolas Gaítan (Atlético Madrid)
Vicente Guaita (Getafe)
Kortney Hause (Wolves)
Didier Ndong (Sunderland)
Yassine Benrahou (Bordeaux)
Benik Afobe (Bournemouth)
Alfie Mawson (Swansea)
Charly Musonda (Chelsea)                                          – joined Celtic on loan
Bruno Peres (Roma)*
Papa Badou Ndiaye (Galatasaray)
João Mário (Inter)                                                – joined West Ham on loan
Antonín Barák (Udinese)
Rody de Boer (Telstar)
Grégoire Defrel (Roma)*
Loïc Rémy (Las Palmas)                                               – joined Getafe on loan
Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht)
Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona)                                      – SIGNED ON LOAN
Carlos Benavídez (Defensor Sporting)
Dodi Lukebakio (Anderlecht)                                                           – SIGNED
Zambo Anguissa (Marseille)
Aleix Vidal (Barcelona)

OUT
Craig Cathcart (Fulham)*
Richarlíson (Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Milan, Dortmund)
Stefano Okaka (Milan, Marseille, Wolves, Sevilla, Torino, Crystal Palace, Besiktas, Fulham, Galatasaray)
Brice Dja Djédjé (Lens)                                         – joined Lens on loan
Isaac Success (Real Valladolid, Malaga)
Troy Deeney (Everton*, Newcastle*, West Brom*, Stoke, West Ham*, Brighton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Arsenal, Everton)
Mauro Zárate (Vélez Sarsfield)                          – joined Vélez Sarsfield on loan
Ben Watson (Crystal Palace)
Étienne Capoue (West Ham, Fiorentina, Leganes, Torino, Inter)
Brandon Mason (Dundee United)                     – joined Dundee United on loan
Jerome Sinclair (ADO Den Haag)
José Holebas (Galatasaray*)

Watford 1 Huddersfield Town 4 (16/12/2017) 17/12/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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1- I was in a pantomime this week.  You know the sort of thing…  slapstick humour, bedlam both on stage (planned) and off it (less so).  People running into each other, frantically trying to work out where they were supposed to be, getting into a kerfuffle, trying to improvise frantically when things went wrong.

You can insert your own metaphor here, if you like.

In the build up to showday the challenges built up.  Short-notice audits at work took out a cameo and threatened cast and crew.  We were underrehearsed, naturally.  Then the snow, threatening access to the venue amongst other things.  The discovery that the road to the venue was being resurfaced during showweek was the point at which I stopped panicking and started laughing.  By Tuesday night, the day before the dress rehearsal, things seemed to have turned around.  It was going well.  Challenges navigated.

Then came Crystal Palace.  One-up early on, all going swimmingly until, suddenly, it wasn’t.  Listening to Jon Marks, in my precarious emotional state I saw potential parallels as Tom Cleverley was dismissed and made a Faustian pact.  I was willing to trade Watford’s lead against Palace for a successful panto, “nothing going wrong at the last minute”.  Sorry, but sue me… you weren’t there, I was and I had to make a snap decision.  So in my head, I made the sacrifice, with only a smidgeon of guilt.  And as is traditional when dealing with the devil, I suddenly find myself paying back more than I’d bargained for…

2- It’s not always Huddersfield, but it does tend to be Huddersfield quite a lot.  The notorious end-of-season calamity under Beppe Sannino was worse than this, except that it probably mattered less.  Then there was an incongruous defeat in West Yorkshire during our promotion season when Miguel Layún got rinsed on his debut and promotion felt less than a done deal.  And then there was this one  almost exactly seventeen years ago;  the nadir of the collapse of GT’s last season afforded appropriate disdain by my co-editor who had the good sense not to come up from Hastings on this occasion.  Him and a good number of others, the nominal and now traditional 20k gate including a good number present in Season Ticket but not in body.

Huddersfield showed up though, both on the pitch and in a particularly and understandably boisterous away end.  And much as Newcastle at St James Park had been our ideal opponent – blunt, but with an unconstrained urge to push forward because they were at home to Watford and that, leaving them open to counterattack – Huddersfield were our worst nightmare.  Direct and aggressive without ever (needing to be?) crossing the line they swarmed all over our increasingly tentative possession and attacked with purpose and bloody-mindedness from wide positions, overloading our wing backs.  Yes, the opening goal offside in several different ways – this was an awful afternoon but not all of it was our doing – but the defending was still an utter calamity and thereafter we caved in like a house of cards.  I could strive for creative outrage but frankly I’m just too tired (the after-panto party was a fine thing, as witnessed by my still being hung over two days later…).  Read that last linked report above if you need catharsis.

3- A key factor in this defeat was the attitude and competence of our opponent (see above).  And yes, the officials did play a part, though bitching about bad decisions is even more tedious than excessive introspection.

But there are, clearly, sources of concern here.  Some aren’t new.  The team has looked wonderful at times this season, wonderful in general perhaps.  But in the same way that the midfield never really worked last season, the role of Troy/Andre Gray is yet to be fully resolved this.  Yes, Troy came on and bullied Arsenal but that reflected their failings as much as his success.  Here, even before Troy’s (latest) moment of madness he was ineffectual.  And this… reflects uncertainty in his role, since lack of conviction has never been a reasonable accusation in the past.

Then there’s injuries.  Yes, boring.  Every team gets injuries, and actually two big losses were suspensions and therefore within our hands.  Nonetheless, you can make a good argument for the back five being weaker than the back five ruled out (Femenía, Zeegelaar, Cathcart, Kaboul, Britos) and ditto, more contestably, the central midfield (Chalobah, Cleverley).  You’re tempted to blame bad luck, except that this is the second season blighted by injury;  you have to wonder again at our ability to either keep players fit or to evaluate their robustness on recruitment when comparing our injury list to Huddersfield’s, whose notoriously high energy game nonetheless leaves them with a much more manageable injury list.

Finally, most fundamentally, there’s our approach and Marco’s flexibility.  We’ve won plaudits for and revelled in our expansive play this season, which has been great when it works well.  Glorious, even.  Thing is…  when that’s the only string in your bow and your players get leggy, injured, low on confidence and you’ve no means of keeping games tight and giving yourself something to build off… well, you get dicked like this.  We looked, amongst other things, horribly flimsy.

4- Troy aside, but that’s not really what I had in mind.  I’ve not seen the replays, but consensus and my view at the time was that whatever contact was made, jumping in like that was fuckwitted and unnecessary in the circumstances.  I mean, what the hell, Troy?  A few weeks after a suspension for losing his rag against Stoke?   It gave the referee a decision to make;  maybe Troy might have gotten away with it on a good day, but this certainly wasn’t one of those.

A peculiar coincidence that Jonathan Hogg followed him off the pitch in similar manner in the second half.  Coincidence in that both skippers were leaving the pitch, but also in that Hogg’s last competitive touch at Vicarage Road prior to today had been a memorable cushion down for Troy to convert under the watchful eye of the same official, Michael Oliver.  He was afforded a warm reception before the game and a slightly bemused one as he left it, reaction to a slightly harsh looking second yellow being glee before sheepish realisation that it was Hogg that had seen the red.

By this stage we were a miserable three down, and without a focal point were making precious little progress towards the Terriers’ goal.  A bit like when someone makes a run at the wall in Ninja Warrior, gets a third of the way up and you just know that anything that follows is futile.  Andre Carrillo was at least showing signs of fight and life, taking responsibility, but too little was working around him and the contrast between Capoue’s heaviness and the buzzing energy of Cleverley was stark.

But as Hogg went off a chink of light opened, if briefly.  The pressing game is hard to maintain with eleven men, let alone without your midfield general and captain.  In the pre-match restaurant the Huddersfield fan suggested that if Jake Livermore’s in the England squad then Hogg should be too, to which we quietly agreed whilst thinking that the same applies to my Gran, and she’s German and nearly 90.

So suddenly we had some of the ball and it felt like a fight in which we could land blows again.  With some relief the whole stadium rallied, supporters on their feet happy for the familiar “come on-ness” of it that had been missing, the team suddenly pulling their opponents around a bit.  We did strike back too, an extraordinary drive by Doucouré out of the air through a crowded box that deserves more than to be buried in an episode of MotD that few Hornets will want to watch.  Briefly, we believed.

5-  It fizzled out, though.  It fizzled out before the late penalty, dispatched by comfortably the best player on the pitch in Aaron Mooy, just by not quite being sharp enough or lucky enough, through Huddersfield not being rattled enough.  Shots cannoned around the box, an exquisite move ended with Huddersfield defenders falling over themselves and Andre Gray driving across the face of goal.  Signs of life, right up until Roberto Pereyra thundered the last kick of the game towards the top corner, Lössl clawing it away.  Not enough, not even close.

A miserable afternoon, then, and one best confined to whichever box we put the other Huddersfield horror shows in.  Some issues to be addressed – injured, suspended players will come back (though we miss Zeegelaar, Deeney and also Doucouré for the trip to Brighton) but some more fundamental issues need addressing, not least the conviction of the squad which looked questionable for perhaps the first time this season.

As for the panto…  that was awesome.  A welcome dose of people pulling together, and recognising that laughing at frustrations is more effective than bitching about them.  There are easier times to do it than in the cold after a 4-1 defeat to Huddersfield, mind.

Have a good Christmas.  Yoorns.

Gomes 3, Janmaat 2, Holebas 1, Mariappa 2, Prödl 2, Kabasele 2, *Doucouré 3*, Capoue 1, Carrillo 3, Richarlíson 2, Deeney 1

Subs:  Pereyra (for Mariappa, 29) 2, Gray (for Capoue, 64) 1, Okaka (for Holebas, 82) 0, Wagué, Watson, Sinclair, Karnezis

Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (02/12/2017) 03/12/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

1- Football isn’t supposed to be played in the summer,   that’s the maxim.  It’s a winter sport.  The mental image of condensation on your breath, scarves and hats, cups of bovril, stamping your feet to keep warm is a romantic one, the clichéd “can they hack it on a December midweek in Stoke” a derisive put-down to your fancy dan foreign types.  They can’t, is the implication.  Not being British obviously makes them inferior because they don’t make them tough wherever it is that they’re from whereas we’ve done it.  We’ve been to Stoke midweek, braved the elements and the parking and the food, and we’re tougher for it.

It’s still bollocks though.  Cold isn’t fun, cold and wet less so.  This is, admittedly, an intro that could have been more aptly stored up until Stoke away midweek in January… but the elements were an overriding consideration today as the clammy damp chill clung to your cheeks and any attempt to make a noise was muffled by suffocating condensation.  It was Spurs at home, a vitriolic bad-tempered affair typical of this fixture, and yet the atmosphere had none of Tuesday’s bravado.  Damp, cold.  Slightly sullen.

2- Our visitors have been going through a bit of a blip, which formed an interesting backstory.  This young team has been flying for a couple of years… genuine title challengers for the first time in recent memory, lively and dynamic. The acid test is always going to be when things start going wrong though, really wrong… yes, of course Spurs have had wobbles over the past couple of seasons but, arguably, not like this. Not a run that has seen them drop out of the top six, however briefly, suddenly hanging on the coat tails of the leading pack.  That’s when the test of character comes, and a side that has had plenty of peevishness about it even when things have been going well – Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose – looks, unsurprisingly, rattled.

Not difficult, either, to attribute Spurs’ vulnerability at set pieces to the absence of Toby Alderweireld.  Certainly we appeared to perceive a vulnerability or a weakness as from the off we were very happy to send the ball into touch and compete toe to toe rather than risk being pulled around by Spurs’ midfield despite our own vulnerability from set pieces.  Little surprise, either, that our opening goal came from a corner, Cleverley’s ball angled in expertly by Kabasele under minimal challenge.

3- By then another of the game’s themes had emerged. Kieran Trippier had a stormer in his Burnley debut against the Hornets in 2011 and has reprised these barnstorming outings at regular intervals since.  He escaped on the right in the first five minutes and sent in a ball slightly in advance of Harry Kane who collided with the post in lunging at it and yet another recurring theme emerged with Kane prone on the turf.

With the Hornets holding a high defensive line and Spurs closing downing our possession high up the field the game became rapidly congested.  Through the damp and cold with scrappy play, bad tempers and tackles flying in it was a mid-table Championship game, if executed by much better players.  The one reliable outball was provided by Spurs leaving Trippier hugging the right touchline and launching hail mary passes in his direction.  It’s to our credit that little came of this, ultimately, but Marvin Zeegelaar was inevitably the man exposed.  He’s done well since coming into the side but wobbled on Tuesday and was horribly exposed this afternoon both by his opponent and by his own limitations.

4- The game was stodgy, and the stodgier it got the more volatile it got.  Much has been made of Martin Atkinson’s display in the middle but in assessing anything the context, the difficulty of the challenge has to be taken into account and in slippery conditions with players clashing frequently this was not an easy one to officiate.  He got things more or less right for me – with one or two exceptions, which we’ll come to – but more or less booked players when he had to and didn’t when he didn’t.  Certainly our first penalty call, of which I was oblivious from the Rookery until Match of the Day, looks a coulda rather than a shoulda on review.  From that incident Spurs broke – down their right, natch – and Son tucked in Eriksen’s cross.  We’d been pulled apart; harsh words were exchanged in the back line and we felt slightly precarious.  It could all have gone downhill from here.

So we should take something from the fact that it didn’t.  Indeed we restricted Spurs, held them at arms’ length and if our defence were aggressive in bullying the Spurs forwards into submission then the fact that the visitors didn’t get anywhere and resorted to sulky theatrics rather justifies the approach.  Nonetheless, the impasse rather suited Spurs better than us, since However Far We’ve Come they were still more likely to pull a goal out of nowhere.

5- That changed with the sending off of Sánchez, again an indisputably correct decision;  a flying elbow in the chops is a flying elbow in the chops, whether or not in contains Andy Carroll levels of malice.  Thereafter we did manage to get on top and to pin Spurs back a bit;  they’ll feel gratified that they kept us at bay with ten men and certainly we didn’t make enough of the situation.  The ball was zipped around, but heaviness of legs and minds maybe contributed to a lack of final ball.  Our closest calls came perhaps from balls bobbling around in the box and not falling for us… Doucouré arced a beautiful strike over the melee and off the inside of the post; Richarlíson rose to meet a deep Femenía cross at the far post and seemed to angle his header perfectly only to find Trippier’s forehead blocking the effort.  The Brazilian acknowledged the defensive effort with a handshake, but will not be sorry to see the back of Trippier who gave him little space all afternoon despite finding plenty of his own.

The penalty appeal changes your perspective a little bit, because we’ve had the possibility of finally beating bloody Spurs snatched from us by a refereeing error.  We’d been knocking on the door increasingly vigorously,  well-judged substitutions having again made us more potent through changes in formation and personnel as well as moving precarious yellow cards from the line of fire. Capoue came on for Kabasele, an extra body in midfield, Carrillo for Pereyra, as ineffective as his predecessor if more visibly so, Gray as an extra striker in the final knockings.  All positive, all aggressive.  Dier’s handball should have rewarded that, it didn’t…

But I think it’s stretching it a bit to argue that we deserved all three points.  Coulda not shoulda again; for all our numerical advantage we hadn’t put Spurs to the sword, hadn’t made enough chances, and had looked the less likely at eleven v eleven.  Nonetheless…  we’re talking about being irritated at not beating Spurs, who maybe be sulky and loathsome but they’re still one of the top sides in the country.

There are worse places to be.  Yooorns.

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Zeegelaar 2, Mariappa 4, Prödl 3, Kabasele 4, *Doucouré 4*, Cleverley 3, Pereyra 2, Richarlíson 3, Deeney 3

Subs: Capoue (for Kabasele, 64) 3, Carrillo (for Pereyra, 67) 2, Gray (for Cleverley, 88) 0, Wagué, Watson, Janmaat, Karnezis

Newcastle United 0 Watford 3 (25/11/2017) 26/11/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- It’s a long time since I was last at St. James’ Park.  Previous visits haven’t been particularly enjoyable… in 1992 I experienced my only eviction from a football ground, a very different looking St James’ Park after diabetic hypoglycaemia distorted a conversation with the local constabulary.   And Gerard Lavin got sent off.   Seven years later, ig, Loz and I caught the train up during our ill-fated season in the top flight under GT.  A good day out was rather spoiled by the game in which we struggled manfully, played OK and lost anyway.  A mundane victory for the Magpies, the sort of defeat with a few brownie points but no, like, actual points that that season yielded so often for the Hornets.

How times have changed.  Not just in that we come up to St.James’ Park and win, not just that such a win isn’t a smash and grab or a massive shock in itself, though both of those are remarkable.  The truly monumental thing is that we can come here and not play that well, actually, and win 3-0.  And deserve to. And of course Newcastle themselves have a role in all of the above, they’re not an unmoving benchmark to measure ourselves against; before the game started it was pretty clear that with Newcastle at home but kinda blunt in attack, needing a win against a Side They Ought To Beat against counterattacking as lethal as ours, well…  this wasn’t the least favourable of circumstances to find ourselves in, the least likely of outcomes.   Nonetheless.  Remarkable that, despite the gushing that naturally followed perhaps our most eye catching result thus far, we didn’t play particularly well.

But we won 3-0 anyway.  We are that good.

2- Back to the beginning.  As previous visitors will know, the away “end” at Newcastle isn’t to be braved lightly.  Your vantage point is in the top tier of the Leazes Stand having braved a seemingly endless tunnel of concrete staircases.  Your view of Newcastle (and Gateshead, and Belgium) from up there is pretty spectacular; your Sensible Soccer view of the pitch slightly less so.  The air is thin, and you feel very much like an unwanted guest tucked in a corner out of the way.  The one gents’ lavatory, baffling row labelling and token, indifferent stewards are tantamount to the club looking at their watch and sighing “I suppose you’d better be going?”.  On the up-side, the large screen keeping us company up in the ether chose to display the highlights of a 2-1 defeat here in 1980, a welcome break from the normal diet of swish graphics and montages however arbitrary.

On the pitch we retained the same starting eleven that beat West Ham, one of a couple of changes on the bench seeing Daryl Janmaat’s greater versatility preferred to José Holebas.  One other change just about visible from our distance was a striking white mask sported by Marvin Zeegelaar, protecting whatever Andy Carroll’s elbow left of his nose.

The parallels with the West Ham game were plenty.  Once again, the game looked scruffy to start with;  we weren’t particularly on top, indeed the home side looked more purposeful. Blessed with a little more confidence, more conviction, a sharper cutting edge they’d have had the lead as Joselu spurned a good chance and then Gayle got the ball stuck under his feet as the goal briefly opened up for him.  As against West Ham, we looked get-attable.  As against West Ham Will Hughes popped up with a goal, and the game changed.

3- A fine thing it was, too.  Kabasele hoisted a marvellous diagonal ball to the galloping Zeegelaar on the left, the Dutchman (whose nascent chant, “ooh ah Zeegelaar”, has taken two games to appear, in contrast to to Holebas still waiting after 50) pulled back impeccably for Hughes to sidefoot home.  A merciless goal, the sort of thing that a struggling team concedes and then thinks “oh f*** this”.

Kabasele would be to the fore again as Newcastle regrouped and pushed on towards the end of the half.  It’s been a favoured observation that we’ve done well this season despite (for the most part) the absence of our three best central defenders, but if there was any doubt that Kabasele is now in a back three on merit its surely dispelled after this monstrous performance.  His speed and strength were to the fore in snuffing out the home side’s edgy attempts to get back into it;  in the second half he topped his performance off with an heroic diving block to a Mitrović shot.

We were put under pressure by the home side;  Doucouré and Cleverley, for all the performance’s accolades, were never as dominant as we’ve come to expect this season; Shelvey in particular looked dangerous and Murphy and Ritchie were asking questions.  When we did break, however, it was invariably threatening and invariably down our left.  DeAndre Yedlin has been singled out for criticism, not unreasonably, but more revealing to me was the lack of cover – or botheredness –  provided by Matt Ritchie.  A suggestion, perhaps, of why Bournemouth made the surprising decision to let him move eighteen months ago.

We had acres of space down the left, where Richarlíson would distract but his strength and awareness would release the overlapping wingback.  We got another break just before the interval, another overlap, a lucky deflection and we were two-up.  Slightly flattering, and then at the same time not.  We’d produced the game’s move of high quality, and had exposed our hosts’ limitations.

4- Any grinning sheepishness at our half time lead was dispelled in a second half which showcased our superiority.  As above, a counterattacking side two-up at goal-shy opponents is onto a good thing, the one “but” being that we didn’t capitalise further.

Chief culprit was Andre Gray.  There’s something of the Danny Graham about him in that his relentless movement is valuable to the team, even when he’s not scoring goals.  Tom Cleverley was a chief beneficiary of this during his loan spell however many years ago, and all of our midfield have similarly benefited from Gray dragging defences around. Here, his movement and alertness twice had him through on goal and twice executing extraordinarily feeble finishes breaking in from the left.  We’ve talked about Newcastle’s forwards’ lack of confidence but on both occasions Gray’s finish screamed of a lack of belief.  Perversely, up until now he’s not really wasted too many chances.  Not many bad misses… it’s not as if the way the team plays requires him to be on the end of every move.  Nonetheless, when you splash out a club record fee for a striker and he manages one goal in his first three months or so you expect a little more grace and sense than for him to cup his ear to the crowd as he did after completing the scoring.  In all honesty he’s not had  a lot of stick in the grand scheme of things;  little surprise perhaps that someone so thin-skinned displays such brittle confidence in front of goal.

At the other end, the other key development of the second half was the re-emergence of Sebastian Prödl in place of Miguel Britos, who hadn’t shaken off an injury inflicted by a bizarre foul from Jonjo Shelvey before the interval.  Another marker of How Far We’ve Come that we can do so well despite the absence of our Player of the Season for three months but we didn’t half know he was back.  Suddenly there’s a centreback looking like a centre-back ought to, dwarfing Dwight Gayle, getting his head on crosses, organising his defence with trunk-like arms.  He even thundered forward to drop a ball over Newcastle’s by-now clocked-off defence to provide Gray with his second spurned chance.  Welcome back, Seb.

5- An eye-catching win, then.  Not our best performance of the season by a long chalk, but an effective one in a game that suited us and that demonstrates that we’ve become something quite different, something more than a side punching above our weight by hanging around in the top flight.  We’re not a big club – not like Leeds, say, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday.  Everton.  But we’re a very good, very potent one. Good enough, now, to win 3-0 away from home without being on our game.  Good enough to pick up points from more winnable games that make visits of Man United and Spurs games to be relished.

Yooorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 3, Zeegelaar 4, Mariappa 4, *Kabasele 5*, Britos 3, Doucouré 4, Cleverley 3, Hughes 4, Richarlíson 4, Gray 3

Subs: Prödl (for Britos, 52) 4, Pereyra (for Richarlíson, 79) 0, Carrillo (for Hughes, 84) 0, Janmaat, Watson, Capoue, Karnezis