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Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (30/04/2016) 01/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
16 comments

1- Well it’s been a bloody awful week.  Sunday, it turned out, wasn’t going to get any more enjoyable in retrospect, not going to be shrugged off and life just got on with. Not yet, anyway.  I’ve been a scowling grumpy argument waiting to happen.

Much as it’s been tempting to regard the existence of a home game, any game with Villa as a banker three points, the scheduling of this one the week after the semi-final always felt a little unfortunate…  ominous, even.  It’s a sad indictment of Villa’s season that even for a (still) newly promoted side, a defeat to this once mainstay top flight club would be an awful blemish, an embarrassment.  Worse, but for that vital win at the Hawthorns it could have capsized us back into the relegation picture.  Whichever way last Sunday had gone – a win would have been as difficult to refocus from – this game was going to be trickier than it might otherwise have been and a defeat at Hawthorns would have seen us going in on 38 points.  Defeat to Villa, to the team that everyone beats and who had lost their last ten, would have left us extremely uncomfortable.

As it is we DID win at the Hawthorns and were already effectively safe before kick off.  It was still an awkward fixture for Quique to have to contend with though given the speculation and suggestions of the past week.  An awkward fixture, or an opportunity…  a pliant opponent, exactly who you’d want to be playing if you were to follow through on your commitment to play more expansively once our status was secure.  His team selection, we thought, would reveal which… and whilst the full back selections of Paredes and Anya suggested positive intent, the retention of Jurado and Abdi in their much-maligned wide roles was far from encouraging.

2- It all started rather well though.  Seems like a long time ago now…  but the sun was shining and we were on the front foot.  Villa looked as hapless as advertised, Ciaran Clark passing the ball obediently to Suárez under no pressure, Cissokho slicing a clearance into the GT stand.  The Hornets pushed forward without quite executing that final pass, converting the chance.  Ben Watson responded to the Rookery’s invitation by clouting a dropping ball against the crossbar from well outside the box.  Ighalo and Deeney went for the same ball and got in each other’s way.  It was coming.  Meanwhile Daughter 2, particularly distraught by last weekend’s result, was happily clarifying how the desire to synchronise the weekend’s final fixtures would accommodate differing amounts of injury time across fixtures.  Jordan Ayew clouted a shot into the Vicarage Road end.  The Villa support, their gallows humour well-practiced and extravagant, celebrated as if they’d scored.

Then they did.  A set piece, Cathcart lost his man but… well executed really, not a criminal offence, Clark’s movement snuck him the narrowest of openings and he exploited it.  Instantly the mood changed,  the sky clouded over and the cold rain returned.  This was a psychological battle as much as a footballing one, our worst fears for the afternoon in danger of being realised.  As we reeled on the pitch Jordan Ayew clouted a shot past Gomes and off the upright.  Straws to cling to for Villa here, I thought…  they weren’t great, but with a foothold in the game they were no longer awful either.  It’s rare that they’ve been in the position of having much to defend for a while and they’ll need more than merely holding it together next season but…  there was a spine there.  Evidence of some kind of spirit.  Mercifully we scored on half time, or the afternoon could have descended much more quickly.  Abdi – livelier, and swopping with Suárez to cut inside on occasions – went down and pinged the free kick himself, right into the bottom corner.  The mood lifted, “game on”.

3- So Villa scoring again before the stands had re-filled after the break wasn’t great.  At the time the great chasm that Ayew was able to exploit made it look like awful defending, on reflection that reaction did the attacking team insufficient credit, it was a terrific finish… but still, too many defenders not doing enough.  And of course it’s as you were, with even Villa, woebegone Villa, coping pretty easily thanks with our four midfielders in a row.  Sit back, get people behind the ball, the very definition of “come on, then!”. We dominated possession but it was the visitors who were closer to scoring on the break, Gestede lamping into the Rookery when he should have hit the target.  Ponderous, cautious, impotent… Jurado had briefly caused mischief on the left when the scores were level but was ineffective against Hutton and Bacuna – whose berating from the visiting support, “Champions League – you’re having a laugh”, faded as the game developed.  Deeney kept plugging, but he and Ighalo had little to feed off.  The turning of the crowd wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, but it was happening. Twelve minutes into the half, the woeful Paredes was withdrawn to pathetic cheering from the home stands, and on came Steven Berghuis.

4- In Flores’ position, whether his future is already decided or not, Berghuis suddenly becomes a very significant figure.  Before the turn of the year, as we were flying, Flores’ judgement that Berghuis, then 23 not 17, in the full Dutch squad, £4.5m, “wasn’t ready” seemed merely a bit odd, but something most were prepared to accept on trust.  In the last few weeks that position has changed – Berghuis is now “ready”.  And in fairness, little of what little we have seen on the pitch contradicts Flores’ narrative – Berghuis didn’t pull up any trees in the few opportunities he had, and has looked more potent in his recent outings.  But what’s beyond dispute is that the side has been screaming out for something like Berghuis, this Berghuis, in recent months.  Something different, something direct, a different kind of weapon.  Flores’ caution may have been well-founded, but circumstances have done him no favours.

It would be wrong to paint his introduction as the only turning point, it clearly wasn’t.  But suddenly we had someone picking up the ball on the right and attacking Villa.  Going left, going right, whipping in crosses.  It wasn’t totally effective but it was something and it was positive and it stood out a bloody mile.  Villa were looking uncomfortable again.  Amrabat appeared on the left flank and added to the threat. The second significant incident came in the 73rd minute… and it was a throwback to nearly 20 years ago in Kenny Jackett’s season in the third tier.  We’d have one chance per game to unleash Wayne Andrews’ brutal pace – which was all it was – before the opponent wised up and treated him accordingly.  And here, as if we’d spent the whole game lulling Villa into a false sense of security, Ben Watson – under par again – dropped a pass behind their defence and there was Ikechi Anya, breaking beyond the strikers of all things.  How it would have ended we’ll never know, Aly Cissokho sliding across in a reckless fashion not entirely at odds with the rest of his performance.  He won the ball, but took the man as well.  Red card.

It still wasn’t quite backs to the wall for Villa.  It would be nice to be able to report that those two late goals were the inevitable consequence of late pressure, it wasn’t quite like that.  Instead it was a missile of a cross from Berghuis, perfect, undefendable.  Deeney’s header equally accomplished, a goal of beauty.  Relief all round.  Minutes later, Villa now rocking, Troy was there again.  A good day for him, a victory for persistence.

5- It wasn’t great though, as you’ll have gathered.  In the end, in the end we won the game; two late goals suggest “luck”, I don’t think it was a lucky win.  It was a case of us taking too long to find a way to demonstrate our superiority, “sign of a good team is…” and so forth and so forth.  But that miserable twenty minutes or so at the start of the second half demonstrated what has been painfully evident for weeks – that unless Iggy is on his game, which he hasn’t been for a while, our offensive set-up is horribly easy to defend against.  How Quique sets his team out in the remaining games – not to mention what happens afterwards – will be fascinating.

West Bromwich Albion 0 Watford 1 (16/04/2016) 17/04/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
15 comments

1- We always lose at the Hawthorns. Actually… it had been a long time since we’d beaten Albion at all, and that had been an away game but it was so long ago that there wasn’t even a BSaD report. My memories of coming here involve being absolutely tonked on any number of occasions, with the likes of Bob Taylor and Lee Hughes making hay. Even the relatively good days didn’t involve winning as such.

I like Albion – in as much as you ever actually like another team.  A good honest club, the sort of place where you’re not surprised to find an excellent fanzone featuring Norwich (“best team in the Championship”) being tonked by Sunderland on a big screen, plenty of space, loos, drinks, eats and live music (note to self for next season – ha! – this beats the cramped interior of the Smethwick End hollow).

Nonetheless, my expectations were non-existent, and as we added our own predictions to those of the local mascots on the stage my “scruffy 1-0” was borne less of prescience than of a sense of obligation.

2- It really was scruffy though, particularly the first half.  There was something vaguely reassuring about that, as if it demonstrated that in this rarified football environment there’s still a place for a bobbins game of football high on endeavour and boisterousness, low on smooth edges.  It was the sort of game that only the supporter of either side could enjoy – and I suspect we’d have enjoyed it a whole lot less if we’d lost.  Either way… it’s comforting that games like this are still allowed, games in which crossfield passes fly into the stand, in which the referee has to make any number of decisions about fouls that could have been climbing or could have been backing in and were probably both.  Between two sides who will be in the Premier League next season no less (ha!).

And reassuring, most of all, that we won it.  Because success this season was never going to be achieved solely by humiliating Liverpool, flattening West Ham.  It needed the brushing aside of inferior sides too – Newcastle, Villa, Sunderland, Swansea.  And it needed the winning of games like this, games where we didn’t necessarily play better than the other lot, didn’t deserve to win.  But won anyway.

3- Which isn’t to say that we didn’t play well, or that there weren’t good things about our performance.  Étienne Capoue looks infinitely more comfortable and confident back in the centre.  José Jurado danced and skipped and dazzled on the left; it would be nice to have a variation on the “cutting inside” trick, but knowing what he’s going to do and stopping him from doing it are quite different things.  Miguel Britos and Nathan Aké both threw themselves in front of things to good effect,  as West Brom’s periods of dominance were largely confined to being territorial rather than creating a glut of clear chances.

Nonetheless we rode our luck too.  Albion looked most menacing when James McClean (“why are we booing him?”. “because he’s an idiot”) and Stephane Sessegnon got possession wide and it wouldn’t have taken much for one of those crosses to become something not saveable.  Meanwhile Ighalo still looked ineffective, perhaps half-interested, perhaps low on confidence, definitely in the need of some pressure from the bench.  Nyom and Guedioura were far less effective on the right than Jurado and Aké on the left – for all that his enthusiasm and bullishness is a Good Thing, the excitable Algerian lost possession too often and the booing of his substitution was perverse. And as the game increasingly veered towards rugby union with it’s physicality, sideways passing, punts into touch and shots clouted over the bar, we were in danger of creating a problem for ourselves with turnovers. Some untidy play saw Rondon put through, Gomes came out and took him out.  He got a yellow.  It probably was a yellow.  You would want to rely on any referee agreeing however, least of all Michael Oliver.

4- By the second half we were one up, the tremendous Ben Watson flicking Guedioura’s corner kick in and putting us in pole position.  It could have been Albion in that position, it probably wouldn’t have been any easier for us to recover than it was for Albion.  But it wasn’t so we didn’t have to.  That our clean sheet survived owed pretty much everything to Heurelho Gomes, who athletically tipped over McAuley’s header and then twice denied Berahino from the spot.  From our pretty dismal vantage point – low in the shallow stand at the far end – we were in no position to assess either penalty call but there was certainly more energy about the protests the second time around.  The first penalty had been weak, but I fully expected the net to bulge in the 87th minute, you don’t get that lucky twice.

Thing is, it’s only about “luck” up to a point.  Lucky is when the other guy bottles it, puts it over, wide, doesn’t give it enough welly.  But Berahino’s second penalty was excellent, low and hard and in the corner.  And Gomes got to it anyway.  It was our afternoon.  It had been our afternoon since Watson scored.  The home stands emptied, and we celebrated, none more than Gomes who was already the Player of the Season elect but sealed the deal with this record-breaking achievements this afternoon.  He’s a tremendous goalkeeper, but a massive personality too, a leader, and that’s been just as valuable.

IMG_2179 (1)

5- And so.  Safe.  Finally.  As acknowledged by the travelling Hornets, in glee.  And maybe you were already there in your head, but I wasn’t, I hadn’t relaxed at all.  Today wasn’t elegant and it wasn’t perfect, the side’s performances have felt laboured since Christmas, the points rather forced and things need sorting.  But bollocks to that, it can wait.  Today’s result means two things.  First:  that the rest of the season is there to be enjoyed without reservation from the Cup semi-final next Sunday (and whatever follows) to the significance (albeit for others – ha!) of the last two games.

And second that 1999/2000 and 2006/07 finally descend into irrelevance.  Part of our history, but no longer benchmarks.  This is new territory, a top flight stay for the first time since the eighties, a completely different environment.  And a massive, massive achievement that shouldn’t be diminished by taking slightly longer to be confirmed than we might have hoped.  Yooorns.

Watford 1 Leeds United 0 (20/02/2016) 21/02/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
24 comments

1- There’s been a lot of guff about the FA Cup this week.  The cup’s dying.  Replays should be scrapped.  The cup should move to midweek.  And so forth.  And I can’t help but feel that we’re talking ourselves out of it somewhat.  Because much as the money has inflated everything and made top flight status and Champions League qualification so much more consequential financially, there was never a point where the League didn’t matter.  Where anyone would have chosen the possibility of Cup glory over preserving their top flight status.  The next TV deal, when the Premier League sells itself to Mars or Atlantis or whatever and the numbers roll upwards again, doesn’t make the pot now any smaller.  And yet the FA Cup was still a big thing, once.  What has changed is the Champions’ League.   The number of games means that fixture lists are grotesquely overloaded… but only for the senior clubs involved.  As for the likes of us… I haven’t noticed our fixture list being overloaded.  Indeed, we’ve not had as few fixtures since… well, last time we were in the top flight, I expect.

It’s about slicing yet more of the pie for the elite clubs, one effect being denying sometimes hugely consequential replays to smaller sides; this endless quest was betrayed by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s quotes in conjunction with the perverse suggestions that the Champions League should guarantee places for the “big brand” clubs – “There’s a limit to how much more money can be made”.  It’s depressing that lower league club’s futures can be secured by the privilege of playing Manchester United or whoever, but more depressing that the disposal of replays is being discussed at all.  Ditto rendering the FA Cup a midweek tournament and rendering the big cup away day facilitated by big away allocations a thing of the past. My view:  if you want to stuff your snout in the Champions’ League trough then your squad ought to be strong enough to cope with the FA Cup.  If you’re that fussed about replays, you could maybe pick a strong side in the first place.

2- There’s a distinct lack of Cup fever at Vicarage Road for this one, it has to be said, where the more gormless of Watford’s support betray their long-standing desire to be Premier League wankers by trotting out the “One-nil on your big day out” chant, and gurning “who?” at Leeds subs, including Alex Mowatt who anyone paying any level of attention will have heard of.  That trick was moronic when Birmingham City were doing it to us 15 years ago, it’s now both moronic and old.

On the pitch there’s a strong Hornets side out with only Gomes and Ighalo plus, more debatably, Behrami, Aké and Jurado missing from whatever our strongest eleven is.  We start convincingly and dominate possession, threatening from set pieces of which we have a fair few… but Leeds are no pushover.  They’re sort of half-flashback half-tribute act; the former in the sense that they’re every inch a mid-table second tier side, the sort that we’ve played for ever.  Good enough at some things… defensively solid, switch from defence to attack pretty effectively… but with limitations that mean that they’re in the bottom half of the championship…. minimal attacking threat, and critically no pace at all with which to capitalise on those breaks.  The tribute act in the sense that… well, they’re Dirty Leeds.  Daughter Two has been using this monicker all week, as innocently as if she were saying “Leeds United”… I explained the basis, she’s not disappointed.  Leeds aren’t violent but they’re cheap, clumsy thugs.  By the end of the half the game is more even, our superiority somewhat lost in an increasingly sludgy match, but Leeds are an ogre with frostbite trying to thread a needle.  We’re never in danger.

3- Of particular interest are new boys Nordin Amrabat and Mario Suárez, both of whom making a first home start. The Moroccan reiterated this week that he sees the wing as his natural position… here he was deployed as the most advanced striker.  He worked hard and made some decent runs, but it’s not quite clicking yet…  early days of course, but whilst he looked mobile and willing this was a less effective, less impressive outing than his full debut in the previous round at the City Ground.  Suárez however lasted the full ninety, and looked very tidy.  Not flawless,  caught in possession once or twice, but elegant, aware, pinging accurate passes… but hard as nails as well, not afraid of a challenge.  A highlight that will no doubt delight my absent co-editor was an upgraded reprise of a Vicarage Road classic, the “Coxy into the wall” free kick..  Suárez’s late tribute, strictly speaking a shot following a lay-off from a free-kick, was fierce enough to provide assurance that even if it doesn’t reach the target it will render whichever opponent is in the way collateral damage for the remainder of the attack.

4- We’re much, much brighter and punchier in the second half.  More aggressive, more determined. Our superiority is realised within ten minutes;  the magnificent Ben Watson whips a Beckham cross in as the ball breaks from a corner and Troy scores the goal without touching it, Wootton turning the ball neatly into the net in fear of the buccaneering centre-forward coming in behind him.  As it happens Troy wasn’t there at all, largely because Bridcutt – who had just gone into the book for a nasty stamping challenge on Capoue – had hauled him over.  Instant karma for Dirty Leeds.

We briefly threaten to run riot.  Almen Abdi, a force for good throughout, scythes straight through the middle of Leeds’ defence before shovelling his shot into the Rookery.  Capoue does find the net, converting neatly only to be denied by, ostensibly, a harsh call against Troy by Michael Oliver whose bizarre afternoon would we worthy of more lines were it of any consequence. Ultimately the score stays as it is, and it’s due in part to us getting irritatingly ahead of ourselves, Capoue and the rampaging Holebas both chasing debut goals with better options open, the sort of indulgence that would have been forgivable at 3-0 but would have been far less so had Leeds accidentally scored to level the tie.  They didn’t; we recorded a relatively inconspicuous victory, no bad thing, which despite Steve Evans’ rather bizarre appraisal was never less than comfortable.

5- There’s a line the gets trotted out on the radio occasionally, a non-statement used to lazily summarise supporters into one glib cliché.  “Supporters just want to watch their team win “.  Winds me up every time.  You’re being paid for this, right?  If it were true, it would be of no value in helping this listener appreciate any situation (in other news, bear shits in wood).  But I’m not sure this is all supporters want.  It’s not even the most important thing.

Over recent weeks the club have gently started to publicise plans to expand the corporate seating facility in the upper tier of the Graham Taylor stand.  This will have the consequence of 220 supporters in the two blocks either side of the black seats up to the entrance to the concourse being “relocated”.  Many of those supporters have been there for decades… some since the stand was built.  All are owed more by the club than this sort of treatment, so utterly out of keeping with the considered and well-judged decisions of this administration.  Put simply, an increase in corporate seating is only likely to be considered whilst we remain in the top flight… given which the TV monies incoming render a moderate increase in corporate sales an irrelevance, certainly not justifying alienating even a small element of the support.  And their friends.  And their friends.  Are these supporters supposed to move elsewhere and continue to rock up without bitterness as the prawn sandwich brigade shuffle into their old seats ten minutes after half time?

When you support a football club actively you’re not buying a product, you’re buying belonging… even as top flight club (if that’s what we’re to be).  It is hugely surprising and disappointing that the club have made such an uncharacteristically insensitive decision.  The most important thing to supporters is not to “watch their team win”.  More important even than that, is to simply watch their team.

Watford 1 Newcastle United 0 (09/01/2016) 10/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
23 comments

1- We could win the FA Cup this year. Ha. How ridiculous is that?

Could isn’t the same as “will”. Plenty of teams could, and plenty of them have a better chance than us. Probably. But someone will, and for the first time in any number of years, Watford winning the FA Cup feels like more than a purely theoretical possibility.

This is all taking rather some getting used to. Even a year ago, the notion that we could rest four key players against a top flight side, even a struggling top flight side, not play terribly well and still muddle through would have been ludicrous. Hell, we hadn’t beaten a top flight club in the FA Cup under any circumstances since Anthony McNamee’s incongruous goal at the Boleyn Ground in 2007 (and incidentally, you have to go back to Highbury twenty years earlier for such a win by more than a single-goal margin).

And the fact that this was so very low key in the relentless rain on a heavy pitch, and so very far from being convincing, doesn’t dismiss that possibility. Rare is the cup run that doesn’t involve muddling through a poor performance somewhere along the way. In 1987 we were pretty rubbish against Maidstone United before we got as far as Highbury. The third round win at Macclesfield in 2003 did not scream, “we’re heading for the semi-finals”. Only the Indian Sign we held over Ipswich for so long got us through the fifth round in 2007. Italy won the World Cup in 1982 without winning a first round game.

We could have done without using up that duff performance as early as the third round, admittedly… the FA Cup equivalent of using your Chance in Yahtzee on the first roll. We’re going to need to do better than this…

2- Those four restings of legs saw Guédioura, Prödl, Oularé and Berghuis in for Capoue, Britos, Ighalo and Abdi respectively, the latter four all on the bench in-case-of, while José Holebas continued at left back in place of the suspended Nathan Aké. On an individual basis the outcome can only be described as mixed, of which more later, but the impact on the team was marked. We were far more confident, imposing, aggressive and effective in each of our recent Premier League defeats at Vicarage Road, and not through wont of any effort or focus. The impact of the replacement of these key men only served to emphasise the magnitude of the achievement so far this season and building up to it… in terms of recruitment, performance, and the honing of the team into such an effective unit. Take some of those key pieces out and the whole thing doesn’t work nearly so well.

Perspective is everything, of course. Viewed dispassionately without context Newcastle would feel positive about their performance, if disappointed at the outcome and manner of it. They were the better side in the central third of the pitch more or less throughout the contest, and as the first half progressed they eked out more and more chances, Heurelho Gomes called into sprightly action more than once. In context of course, we’re still mentally punching above our weight whilst Newcastle have months, years, of lack of welly to look back on glumly. Nor was their play devoid of evidence of that backdrop… their defending panicky, not that we exploited it sufficiently, their final ball anxious. Nonetheless, they had gained the upper hand before the game’s decisive moment, Wijnaldum being closed down in midfield and playing a perfect through ball for Troy Deeney, who sleepwalked effortlessly past Elliot with the help of a dummy. The cliché “shooting yourself in the foot” was made for such instances. A gift for us, not just of a lead but of control of the game which was never uncomfortable thereafter.

3- Meanwhile, as suggested, our fringe players were experiencing mixed fortunes. Debutant Oularé, juggling with the conflicting expectations of a big transfer fee, a tender age and zero first team action up to this point, looked every inch the work in progress that Flores has alluded to. He looks an absolute beast physically, but his strength didn’t appear to match his physique… I was reminded of GT’s comment in respect of a young Peter Crouch, that really tall kids sometimes need a few years for their strength to catch up with their height. He looked leggy, got the ball stuck between his feet and failed to bully his opponents as we’d hoped and half-expected… but at the same time displayed awareness of what was going on around him with decent lay offs and flicks, and on one occasion when he found the space on the right to open up his legs Newcastle were suddenly backpedalling and not quite sure what to do. The only question really is whether a player who had already played in the Champions’ League will be happy with a peripheral role (for now). This concern can more obviously be applied to Steven Berghuis, who offered fewer signs of encouragement and at 24 is hardly the grass-green youngster that Flores’ comments paint him as. The coach asserts that there’s a lot of adapting to do, there’s raw material there and he’ll “get there”; you’re inclined to trust his judgement. The question is whether the perpetually grumpy looking Berghuis shares that patience.

The two more experienced players fared rather better. Daughter 1 is increasingly engaged by the football itself as much as the event (although both daughters spent a good ten minutes giggling at the possibility that the players’ shirt numbers, as their own, reflected their ages rather than squad numbers). Her first observation was that no 17 was doing really well – who’s he? She can be forgiven; a then eight year-old missed his eye-catching highlights of last season, the clubbed goal at Cardiff, the evil pass for Ighalo at Derby, the clouted shot at Forest. Here Guédioura shirked nothing; Flores has since suggested that he needs to calm down a bit, further evidence of the perceived importance of discipline in roles in the team – “the way we want to play”. Flores, too, has been won over as we have by the Algerian’s willingness to give it a go though… we’ll see more of him, one suspects, particularly given the peculiar and decisive-feeling omission of Behrami from the squad.

4- Half time saw Oularé replaced by Anya, facilitating a switch to 4-5-1 with Jurado “in the hole” behind Deeney. The intention, presumably, was to gain some control in midfield but the success of the change was questionable… the flexibility switching formations so in evidence in the promotion season didn’t seem to be there, people looking for options and runners where they didn’t exist. Admittedly the steady dribble of Newcastle creating chances (and ever new and creative ways to fluff them up) was abated, at least temporarily. The subsequent appearances of Abdi and Ighalo increased the quality of the side without increasing our threat, but it’s only on reflection that you realise that an attack with any confidence at all would have asked us far more serious questions. As it was, the result never felt in doubt… Perez was lively for the visitors but Mitrovic and substitute Thauvin were pictures of misery, the former resorting to a leap over a tackle to land inside the area in desparation, and both all but beating the ground in anguish as half-chances came and went.

Throughout all of which Sebastian Prödl, the other newbie, was as bloody-minded and defiant as you could hope of the brick-shithouse of a defender. If Britos and Cathcart have formed an excellent partnership and if the Urguayan is definitively the undroppable member of the trio, then Prödl’s appearances since his losing his place have done nothing but emphasise that we have three very decent centre-back options… indeed, the injured Hoban and Ekstrand might yet add to those options. The Austrian’s head was unfussily on everything that came into the box, while one surgically executed clearance to an awkward cross was significantly more than just “getting in the way”. Ausgezeichnet, that man.

5- Into the pot, then, in the hope that this win proves an unspectacular but necessary footnote to successes to come. As regards our league programme, there was plenty to suggest that the Magpies’ return in a fortnight will more of a challenge. For all of their low ebb, Sissoko, Perez and Mbabu created plenty and United were some conviction in front of goal away from being a very difficult opponent. We’ll have a different side out too, of course, but it might only take a goal going in off Mitrovic’s ample backside in the meantime for United to gain that confidence.

Otherwise, Newcastle were the second opponent to switch to three at the back to counter the (anticipated in this instance) threat of Deeney and Ighalo. Like Sunderland, they lost 1-0 anyway in games which nonetheless didn’t see the most imposing performances of our season. A beleaguered Southampton on Wednesday also switched to three at the back for their cup exit to Palace – with Wanyama again suspended they don’t really have the option of dropping someone back from the midfield (as Spurs did with Eric Dier). How our, presumably, restored first choice selection copes with this will be interesting. Popular wisdom has it that opponents will now be “wise to us”, will counter the perceived threat in the return fixtures. The rumoured pursuit of Andros Townsend becomes ever easier to understand.

Not dull, is it? You Orns….

The List (January edition) 05/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

You may remember last summer’s version of The List, which extended past 100 names by the end of that transfer window.  The list below will be updated until the window closes at the beginning of February;  as previously, I’m not going to attempt to validate or vet any rumours – a credibility bar for inclusion exists, but not set terribly high.  An Asterisk indicates a player who appeared in last summer’s list, but has resurfaced.  An “outgoing rumour” list is also included.

Running Total: 41

Juan Iturbe (Roma)*                                    – Joined Bournemouth on loan
Emmanuel Adebayor (Unattached)          – Joined Crystal Palace
Simone Zaza (Juventus)
Andros Townsend (Tottenham)                – Joined Newcastle
Jonathan Edwards (Peterborough)
Idriss Carlos Kameni (Malaga)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Sam Byram (Leeds)                                       – Joined West Ham
Thomas Partey (Atlético Madrid)
Abdul Camara (Angers)                                – Joined Derby
Mario Suarez (Fiorentina)                           – SIGNED
Rob Green (QPR)
Juan Camilo Zuniga (Napoli)
Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa)
Zach Clough (Bolton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Rennes)*                  – SIGNED
Nigel de Jong (Milan)
Sebastian Haller (Utrecht)
Nordin Amrabat (Malaga)                            – SIGNED
Henri Saivet (Bordeaux)                               – Joined Newcastle
Rico Henry (Walsall)
Jefferson Montero (Swansea)
Seydou Doumbia (Roma)*                          – Joined Newcastle on loan
Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)
Charlie Austin (QPR)                                     – Joined Southampton
Pablo Sarabia (Getafe)*
Haviv Ohayon (Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Khouma el Babacar (Fiorentina)
David Enogela (Young Stars, Nigeria)
Joel Osikel (Young Eleven, Nigeria)
Matt Phillips (QPR)
Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid)
Paul Bernardoni (Troyes)
Costel Pantilimon (Sunderland)                         – SIGNED
Eddy Onazi (Lazio)
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)
Loic Remy (Chelsea)
Denis Cheryshev (Real Madrid)                     – Joined Valencia on loan
Cheikh M’Bengue (Rennes)
Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn)                            – Joined Middlesbrough

GOING OUT?:
Alessandro Diamanti (Fiorentina, Udinese, Livorno, Bologna, Atalanta)
– Joined Atalanta on loan
Odion Ighalo (Atlético Madrid, Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester United)
Valon Behrami (Udinese)
Troy Deeney (Arsenal)
Etienne Capoue (Milan)
Victor Ibarbo (Galatasaray, Atletico Nacional)   – Joined Nacional on loan
Jose Holebas (Marseille)
Uche Ikpeazu (Blackpool, Dundee United)         – Joined Blackpool on loan
Obi Oularé (Wolves)
Diego Fabbrini (Birmingham City)                      – Joined Birmingham City
Giedrius Arlauskis (Espanyol)                               – Joined Espanyol on loan
Adlène Guedioura (Sheffield Wednesday)

 

 

Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2 (28/12/2015) 29/12/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1- “I’m worried that we could get a wake-up call today”, says ig on the way down Vicarage Road.  He won’t have been the only one.  Whilst we went into this on the back of a five-game unbeaten run this was the game, two days after a trip to Stamford Bridge, that perhaps looked the most ominous of our challenging four-match Christmas run.  Nonetheless, if this peculiar season has served any lesson at all it’s the value of reputations, or rather what can be achieved by dismissing reputations and labels and just playing.  Aidy Boothroyd, whose words of wisdom have not in general gained much credibility over the passage of time, was nonetheless conscious of this with his much publicised airy targeting of Europe last time around.  You can talk yourself into a mindset, positive or negative. A number of “big clubs” are going through, um, difficult spells.  There are all sorts of contributing reasons and circumstances, but beyond dispute is that the big clubs being rendered less scary, less intimidating, generates a snowball effect.  People aren’t scared of Chelsea because they’re suddenly a bit crap and so give it more of a go and Chelsea’s life doesn’t get any easier.  So…  we were always going to lose at some point.  Few teams, let alone newly promoted teams, go for a season without defeat.  But it never needed to be “a wake-up call” unless we chose to interpret it as such, settling back into our boxes.  “It’s been fun, but let’s stop kidding ourselves, it was never going to last”.  That way lies a slide down the table, almost demands it.

2- Those concerns won’t have been eased much by a first half which, for the most part, saw us very much second best to an extent that we’ve rarely suffered in this remarkable first half-season.  Our opening forays earned us nothing clearer than half-chances from distance which Étienne Capoue,  with an eagerness that betrayed the significance of the match in his mind, clouted elaborately wide. Spurs, meanwhile, were doing to us what we’ve been doing to teams all season… chasing down possession a long way up the pitch, swarming, forcing errors.  To blame Spurs’ first-half superiority on our inability to retain possession would be as one-eyed as reflecting that we’ve been lucky to face Stoke, Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham on off-days.  Part of the plan involved the visitors attempt what Liverpool had done far less effectively and far too late nine days earlier, having their full-backs glued to their touch lines and pushing up. Nathan Aké, unsurprisingly restored to the side after missing Chelsea due to ineligibility, wasn’t comfortable as betrayed by an uncharacteristic need to defend by reacting rather than anticipating.  A brilliant and decisive block on Trippier, who was in danger of escaping inside, was only necessary because the loanee had lost his man.  Eventually the pressing told;  Cathcart lost the ball to Alli, perhaps hampered by a slippery pitch that had surprisingly had the sprinklers on it in the build up to kick-off, the ball broke to Lamela and he finished adroitly.

The rest of the half saw Spurs look sit back a little, and press less furiously, but we laboured in possession.  We really weren’t getting anywhere… whereas without pummeling us with shots, the movement and awareness of Kane, the power of Alli and the sprightliness of Lamela looked far more likely to create an opening.  We just didn’t look like scoring.  Until we did.  And what a bloody inspiring thing it was.  A ball in from the right, Deeney had pulled wide on the left and headed it into the box.  Ighalo, once again, was gloriously single-minded whilst three Spurs defenders debated whether the Nigerian was third or fourth favourite to prevail.  He had no right at all to end up in possession in front of a stunned Lloris, who found the ball slipping underneath him.

3- There have been two features of previous top flight seasons that have been largely absent this time around.  When you think back to the eighties you think of Luther, of Barnes, of GT.  Tony Coton.  Beating Arsenal.  And also… at least from my gold-tinted view from the Family Enclosure, the way that teams would turn up at the Vic and kick us.  Tottenham particular protagonists of this approach, a 1-0 win 30 years ago achieved in the face of astonishing violence, sticking in the memory.  That’s what it was though, a memory,  the worst excesses of top flight opponents not replicating this phenomenon since then.  Maybe I imagined or embellished it… I was twelve, after all, and perhaps overly inclined to a Watfordcentric point of view.  The other feature is being penalised by awful and seemingly one-sided refereeing… there was the odd bad decision in 2006/07, but 1999/2000 was a vintage year.  Rob Harris at home to Arsenal. Uriah Rennie at home to Sunderland. Paul Alcock at Bradford. You’ll have your own favourites, if you were about.

We’ve not had to experience either this season.  Indeed my Dad, never one to give referees the benefit of any doubt that’s going, recklessly observed over the Christmas turkey that we’ve not suffered any particularly bad refereeing performances thus far.  Whining about referees doesn’t make particularly compelling reading, admittedly, so I’ll simply thank Anthony Taylor for restoring balance to the universe.

The sending off was odd, in that at the time with only a view from the Rookery to rely on it looked pretty innocuous, the red card not so much surprising as completely baffling.  TV replays cast it in a new light of course, but it remains an odd one.  Aké is not prone to either violence or to getting it so very wrong.  It seems to me looking at replays that Lamela’s handball, knocking the ball upwards as Aké approaches, leaves the full-back committed to coming across his opponent but suddenly not able to clear a ball that isn’t where it might have been and messing up in his indecision. This would certainly be consistent with the oddly gentle approach which suggested neither a violent collision nor intent, and left half the ground bemused and outraged. 

Either way, the Tottenham players did their forbears of 1985 proud with a display of snideness and gracelessness unparalleled by anything we’ve seen this season.  From Harry Kane sprinting halfway across the pitch waving an imaginary card to get Britos booked for a perfectly clean tackle to an orchestrated hounding of the official at every contentious decision to Danny Rose’s pathetic attempt to win a free kick off Troy Deeney that was blatant enough to be aped by Harry the Hornet but not to earn a yellow card, apparently.  Spurs are a young side, you could argue that with a goalkeeper as skipper there wasn’t quite the leadership on the pitch to keep the behaviour in check.  Or you could reflect, as my brother did on the way back down Vicarage Road, that most of the complete scum that you’ve had the misfortune to meet have been Spurs fans, and this charmless lot are every inch fit to wear that shirt.

4- For ten minutes or so after the dismissal it was proper backs to the wall stuff;  we barricaded ourselves into our penalty area and took up position for a shootout.  Valuable in this period was Sebastian Prödl, making his first appearance since Arsenal, who got his head to anything that Spurs lobbed in high.  Otherwise it was pass, pass, pass but little penetration from the visitors.  Eventually, with the home crowd roaring on in indignation, we made some chances of our own and came closer than the visitors had… Ben Watson’s inswinging left wing corner coming within centimetres of crossing the goalline before Lloris brilliantly scooped it out.  The atmosphere was furiously intense… claustrophobic.  Had we held on for a draw we’d rightly have celebrated as if for a victory, a winner would have brought the house down.  Instead, Spurs broke and at the second time of asking Son flicked the ball beyond Gomes.

5- A choker, obviously, but we can console ourselves with the knowledge that if you stand by the premise that good and bad luck and decisions even themselves out you’d probably choose to have the latter all at once.  Given this, given the misfortune with Son’s winner being narrowly offside but missed, with Watson’s corner nearly in but not, with absurd refereeing, we can take solace in the fact that we only lost 2-1 to a very strong – if repugnant – opponent via a last minute winner.  There were several other far more mundane ways to have lost this 2-1 – especially after that first half – which could have been far more damaging.  Here… the circumstances, the ludicrous second half should guard against us telling ourselves that this was inevitable, that this was always going to happen.  That this was a wake-up call.  With Ighalo flat on the turf in frustrated exhaustion at the final whistle of greater concern is our ability to physically recover in time for Manchester City on Saturday…  but as far as the result goes, choking as it is, there’s an awful lot to take pride in for this side.  As there has been all season.  Yooorns.

Watford 3 Liverpool 0. Yes, really. (20/12/2015) 21/12/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1- Those of us of a certain vintage view football in general and Watford in particular in a romantic way.  Being an impressionable age during the first GT era was all that was required… if you joined the party during that spell then it was all about sticking it to the man,  firstly in dramatic cup runs, then in the top flight itself.  We joke that this is a curse, that the penalty for being indoctrinated during this period is a fanatical but entirely unreasonable vision of this idyll, everything judged by this high standard.  We don’t mean it though.  Those memories, memories of games like this one are amongst the happiest as my childhood, perfect and fantastical on a par with Star Wars. We were Luke Skywalker; for the money shot into the Death Star’s exhaust port read Les Taylor’s goal at White Hart Lane.  Or beating the European Champions 4-1 in the League Cup.  Or beating United and Spurs 5-1 within a week. Or putting 8 past Sunderland within our first two months in the top flight. These are landmark events from our halcyon period and our greatest achievements since haven’t reached the same heights.  Until now.

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2- Things went our way.  We should acknowledge that, since it’s impossible to resist complaining when the boot’s on the other foot.  So… two teams that prefer counterattacking, a goalkeeper making his League debut for Liverpool slipping up at a corner, a goal that could have been chalked off but wasn’t.  Problems at centre-back exacerbated by an injury to Martin Skrtel later in the game too, up to a point.  So we doff our cap to fortune and whilst doing so we place our foot firmly on our adversary’s throat and we apply pressure and we don’t ease up on that pressure.  Every man, every single player is on point.  Capoue and Watson are roaring all over the midfield.  Abdi and Jurado, mobile and incisive and aggressive.  The extraordinary Aké and Nyom bullying their way up and down the flanks.  Britos and Cathcart, mercilessly, surgically on patrol.  Gomes, a force of nature.  Deeney a monster and a leader.  Deeney it was who battered possession off Lucas in midfield, swung a pass over the top for Ighalo and what followed showcased his best attributes… the persistence and bloody-mindedness  to chase the pass down, the physical strength to take on Skrtel and the technique and instinct to finish.  Ian Wright couldn’t have done it better, a quite extraordinary goal in any context, much less this.  This was, after all, the game where it was supposed to get tough.  The previous three games… Villa, Norwich, Sunderland, those were the games we wanted points from. This was supposed to be a bonus, a free hit.  Instead we were on our way to our biggest top-flight win since 1988.  A monstrous first-half performance which saw the Reds bringing on an extra striker, stretching the play to the extremes and being allowed to get precisely nowhere, each snarling challenge roared on from three and a half sides of the ground.

3- The empty vessel makes the loudest sound.  This is true from the population of Liverpool fans as much as anyone… I’ve met plenty who are balanced and reasonable. Nonetheless, I once read Liverpool fans in general described as “expecting you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”, an acerbic observation based around a core of truth.  That core of truth arises from a period in which the Reds WERE the dominant force, and not very long ago.  The other side of that coin is that dicking Liverpool, whilst being a fine thing by anyone’s standards, is particularly special for those of us who remember Liverpool being that thing.  At which point it’s only fair to acknowledge that there’s no Hansen, Rush, Dalglish in the current side.  More significantly, there’s not a Steven Gerrard either.  Jürgen Klopp might get there (although his evaluation of his side will need to be more balanced than his post-match evaluation of the game) but this was not a vintage Liverpool eleven.  Let’s not get picky though.  Two years ago we were losing 3-0 at home to Yeovil.  Jordan Henderson may be “a sh*t Steven Gerrard”, but he’s still an established England international who was made to look peripheral and inadequate for much of this.  And he was probably the Reds’ most effective player.

4- I’ll confess that my first clock of the scoreboard in the second half came as early as the forty-seventh minute.  Liverpool looked bullish and aggressive and much more direct at the start of the second period as the spectre of the game we’d feared began to rear its head.  Instead whilst there was far greater potency in a Liverpool attack supplemented by both Benteke and Jordan Ibe, scorer of a fine goal here for Derby last season, the clearer and greater threat was in front of the Rookery.  Jurado conjured a ball through for Ighalo, one-on-one;  you’d have put your house on him, but Bogdan grasped a chance he shouldn’t have been given.  Deeney roared beyond the defence but couldn’t quite find the pass.  Ighalo sent Mamadou Sakho to the head of his ever-growing lists of people he’s left on their arse with a splendid showboat in front of the Rookery, the ball not quite finding it’s way in after the resulting scramble.  Through all of which Sakho, admittedly back from a long injury, looked like an upmarket Danny Shittu… using his physical attributes to great effect but always reacting, never anticipating.  The contrast at the other end of the pitch where Britos and Cathcart were malevolently efficient and the Reds were caught offside ten times, was marked.  Eventually Ighalo settled the affair as we finally sliced through the big open spaces borne of Liverpool’s need to attack and inability to defend, Valon Behrami making a welcome return off the bench and supplying the final pass to Ighalo ghosting free of any marker on the penalty spot to head home.  Happy bedlam.

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5- The atmosphere as the game closed was odd.  Exuberant, of course.  But there was little exaltation… just a quiet, dazed disbelief, as if the energy had been poured into the game’s soundtrack and tension and there was nothing left to give.  The shuffle up Occupation Road was peppered with hysterical laughter as strangers caught each others’ eye.  But it was a shared attempt to register what we’d just witnessed.  No singing.  Just a series of happy, baffled grins.

So here comes the boring bit.  It’s painfully dull reading blogged eulogies penned by supporters about their teams but really, if I can’t do it now….?   The plot summary, then.  We were brilliant.  Not just have-a-go-heroes, not merely solid and worthy with a cutting edge capable of exploiting our opponent’s weaknesses.  But bloody brilliant and inspiring and wonderful from front to back.  Suck this up, boys and girls, enjoy it.  Especially your kids.  Because they’ll be wearing our gold-tinted spectacles in thirty years’ time.

Maybe, maybe, the new Star Wars film really will be as good as the first.

Leicester City 2 Watford 1 (07/11/2015) 08/11/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

1- We’d been in the pub since midday.  Chewing the cud, watching the place fill up, enjoying an eighties Indie-ish playlist that hummed along gently enough for This Corrosion not to be too annoying when it made a second appearance and looking forward to the afternoon’s game.  A sizable, noisy delegation from second tier German side VfL Bochum were in evidence;  the relationship with Leicester, we are advised by one representative on the way to the ground, is based on both sides playing in blue and never winning anything.  The morning’s swirling drizzle  gave way to blue skies and sunshine twinkles on the dampness.  It’s a splendid thing to be able to enjoy a match like this…  the Stoke and West Ham results affording us a degree of breathing space.  No pressure.  It’s rare in our top flight experience, the ability to anticipate a game with neither a sense of dread or of the suspicion that this is a show that we’re not really part of.  What this feels is normal, another trip to a frequent adversary with the accompanying “away from home you grab what you can grab” feel.  It’s splendid.

 

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2- It’s not normal of course.  It’s far from normal.  Both sides have come an awfully long way in a short space of time and the fixture suddenly constitutes one of the top games of the day in terms of league position with the two clubs exceeding expectations.  The game starts with plenty of respect afforded on every quarter… Leicester are the free-scoring rabble-rousers on a fine run of form, we have proven ourselves capable of giving anyone a game, capable of reading and preparing for whatever the division has thrown at us.  So the first twenty minutes, with the low sun sitting defiantly above the curve of the stands and shovelling straight into the away end, is a sparring match.  A feeling-each-other-out exercise, both sides confident in their own way but only prepared to risk so much.  Leicester’s aggression in closing down our possession a long way up the pitch briefly made Miguel Britos and Craig Cathcart uncomfortable but we aren’t bullied onto the back foot.  Indeed, we have the best chance of the half… Odion Ighalo’s shot is low to Schmeichel’s left and inside the post and so clearly in that we’re all celebrating heartily by the time it rebounds back off the inside of the post.  There’s a good chance on the rebound too, apparently, demanding a fine stop from the keeper but in common with much of the away end I’m still trying to work out why we’re not ahead and only learn of Almen Abdi’s scooped volley on the train home.

3- The game turned on Gomes’ howler, quite obviously, but there was stuff that lead to that.  With the game very much all square at half time, Claudio Ranieri made a bold substitution in bringing on an extra attacker for a midfielder and the Foxes rattled at us at the start of the second half.  If Gomes’ mistake hadn’t happened perhaps the game would have panned out completely differently… maybe we’d have caught them on the break, maybe we’d have kept them at bay and things would have settled down again.  As it was, Ranieri gets to claim credit for executing a change in shape that Quique maybe didn’t anticipate…. history is written by the victors.  As for Gomes… what’s perhaps more alarming than the mistake itself was the penalty incident that followed, an excitable and unnecessary challenge on the relentless Vardy.  It’s beyond any dispute that the Brazilian has been a tremendous asset for the Hornets since his arrival and has earned us plenty of points, but his Tottenham career suggests a brittle confidence  in the face of mistakes.  Gomes has been magnificent, nobody else will have a problem with writing today off as just one of those things.  His haunted look later on MotD left a concern that he won’t leave it behind as easily.

4- East Midlands supporters seem to have this ongoing delusion that their clubs are something other than fodder.  Don’t get me wrong, Leicester’s one of my favourite away trips despite our modest record here…  but “Two-nil on your big day out” was slightly divorced from reality.  Leicester are third in the league on merit, but we’ve been to your a hundred times before chaps, you’re not Manchester United yet.  That said, the “Did you cry when Deeney scored?” chant was old by the end of Leicester’s first return to the Vic two years ago, and didn’t really need another airing here either… and one suspects that Leicester is unusual in these exalted heights in generating noise from all four corners of the ground against “the likes of Watford”, so any criticism needs moderation.  Quique made a couple of changes to shift things around;  Etienne Capoue didn’t reach the heights of the previous weekend’s masterclass (it’s to be hoped that his monstrous performances being peppered by vastly less effective ones isn’t an ongoing theme) and was replaced by Juan Carlos Paredes.  You’d have got long odds on Paredes being preferred as a midfield “change it up” option above Adlène Guedioura, say, at the start of the season, but his wholehearted if slightly ragged physicality did shake things up on the right.  Paredes is less careful with possession than is typical of this team, more direct, rougher edges… but that’s no bad thing when you’re trying to change the shape of things.  Leicester had only briefly been dominant but were now very much in the box seat… Paredes’ combination of muscle and direct running is the last thing a tiring opponent wants to have to cope with in the last quarter of a game, and won us a much-needed foothold by drawing a penalty from the flat-footed Kante.  Troy lined the kick up and it briefly occurred to more or less everyone in the away end that him missing this would seal the afternoon.  Instead he executed the calmest of finishes and afforded the scoreline a greater degree of respectability.

5- We never really threatened to grab the equaliser,  Leicester managing the closing quarter hour pretty effectively.  Alessandro Diamanti, looking more like a hair stylist than a footballer, came off the bench for a cameo… elegant flicks and spins and twiddles but off the pace, and too far from City’s penalty area to be effective. There’s an ongoing issue here which Quique has alluded to a few times… how do you get these guys game time with so few competitive games such that they can make an impact when needed?  It’s not just showing you can do it, it’s being sharp enough to try…  the introduction of Britos a couple of weeks ago was a bold one that has increased competition, there are other areas of the team that might benefit from having someone demonstrably ready to step in if needed.

So… Leicester played the game out, and we can claim some comfort from the respect we were offered in that regard; a goal up against a newly promoted side, Leicester opted to kill the game rather than chase another goal.  They might just about have deserved the win, but it was never a safe thing.  The final whistle went, Leicester looked a little relieved whilst the Hornets’ players and supporters’ attention were on their goalkeeper who acknowledged his ovation from the stands.  No disgrace this one, and another free punch in our next game in a fortnight.  Thereafter our fixture list looks fascinating… three pressure games that we’ll need to harvest points from before an intimidating set of opponents over Christmas.  And Chelsea.

Watford 2 West Ham United 0 (31/10/2015) 01/11/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
28 comments

1- Today, everything changed.   Our Premier League season so far has been successful, enjoyable, profitable….  and cautious.  Cautious, above all.  That’s not the same as cowardly; indeed, the decision to abandon the swashbuckling open style the got us promoted and suited so many erstwhile key players was an incredibly bold one.  And that caution has served us well, by and large; we’ve kept clean sheets, not been embarrassed by anyone and picked up points, particularly on the road, by executing this season’s fashion effectively… a solid shape, attack on the break.

Today, everything changed.  Up to now we have been gently easing ourselves into the icy water, acclimatising.  Quietly settling into our surroundings.  Not today.  Today we took a great ruddy running leap at it, and landed two-footed with a massive splash.  West Ham were underneath us, and sunk without trace.

2- We’d expected a chess match.  Feared, maybe.  We’ve played well at home but had yet to work out how to adapt our game to turn positive intent into goals.  The Hammers have famously an awesome away record that has taken down big guns… City, Liverpool, Arsenal… but didn’t really want to dominate possession either.  A game of kabaddi seemed a distinct possibility.  Instead, the opening was a thunderous echo of our home game with Brentford last season, a breathless end-to-end basketball with play rattling up and down the pitch like a marble on a fishing trawler.

Initially it looked an even contest.  We perhaps had more possession, but the Hammers were breaking quickly and ominously.  We made the first of the chances…  Aké not making the most of a free header from the penalty spot, Britos flying onto one of a series of excellent deliveries from Watson having been abandoned by Kouyaté and heading over.  The grins amongst the oohs and aahs were tempered with the knowledge that we shouldn’t have been missing chances like these.  You don’t get to waste chances like these against good teams and win games.

3- But instead of being made to regret those misses we watched on as our dominance became increasingly absolute.  By the final whistle the only member of the starting eleven whose performance was difficult to eulogise about was Heurelho Gomes, who had been given precious little to do… even during the final 20 minutes where the Hornets chose to sit back and break on a West Ham side that had to push forward and was very much out of its comfort zone.  I don’t remember too many games like that… games where mentioning any member of the starting eleven provokes a “wow, he was brilliant today” in the post-match review.   It seems wrong to highlight individuals in that context, unfair… since you can’t mention Almen Abdi’s inhuman contribution on the left of a narrow midfield, worthy of its standing ovation as he was substituted, without referring also to Nathan Aké’s monstrous performance behind him, or Ben Watson’s continued defiant refusal to allow Valon Behrami back into the starting lineup, or…

Perhaps it’s easier to replay the match highlights.  You’ll all have your personal favourite. Odion Ighalo putting an utterly baffled Carl Jenkinson to the head of the table at his “chops for tea” dinner party (other guests so far this season including John Stones, Phil Jagielka, Artur Boruc).  The same player’s stunning finish on his weaker foot at the start of the second half.  Troy Deeney’s wicked dummy in the attack that followed, releasing Ighalo for what might have been his hat-trick.  Ben Watson beating Andy Carroll in the air in the centre-circle.  Craig Cathcart flying in to steal Jenkinson’s cross from Carroll’s head, knocking it over his own bar.  Carroll’s clumsy idiocy that provided the opening goal.  Carroll’s dive, screaming desperation, after Valencia had failed to capitalise on Cathcart’s rare aberration.  Allan Nyom, seeing that Juan Carlos Paredes was about to come on and assuming that he was being pulled, kicking gobby little irritant Valencia up the backside as a goodbye present.  Then not going off after all.  Deeney chasing back to rob possession from a surprised Payet on West Ham’s right late in the game.  Very few Watford performances in recent memory have reached these heights.  You’d add James Collins’ red card for an utterly “oh f*** this” Sunday league challenge as the Hammers were being summarily humiliated were it not for Ighalo limping off as a consequence.

4- For all of which, it’s both a blessing and a curse that the two goals came from scruffier play, and featured failings on the part of West Ham players.  A curse, since our performance was much better than that.  It would have been more than acceptable to have executed the sort of victory that we have so often been on the other side of in previous Premier League seasons… Watford huff and puff and hold their own.  Don’t score.  Watford make a mistake.  Other team scores.  Game over.

It wasn’t that sort of game.  We sliced West Ham up, crafted elegant chances that weren’t converted.  It wasn’t just a matter of capitalising on others’ mistakes.  And yet… there’s an advantage to the patronising pat on the head offered by Match of the Day:  “Yes yes, well done Watford but what terrible mistakes by West Ham.  Of course it would have been different had West Ham played properly“.  “Watford have signed so many players“.  Yes, Gary, but seven of the starting eleven were here last season. Matt Le Tissier’s line on Sky that Watford “must be starting to believe that there are three teams worse than them” in similar vein.  Opposing teams and managers won’t be so naive of course, but the longer that we’re allowed to stay under the radar the more likely the crowds we visit are to be sensitive to signs of resistance from “the likes of Watford” (copyright – Stoke City’s messageboards) which is all to the good.

The other side of the same coin is our own expectation of course, to which end it’s quite helpful to have a trip to Leicester next… a game charged with recent context against an opponent who no travelling Hornets are going to get all presumptuous about given their own fine form.

5- The ongoing work on the North East corner of the ground renders the top of Occupation Road a bottleneck as the majority of the Rookery and Elton John stands shuffle uphill at the end of the game.  That’s not a problem on occasions like this, a balmy autumn evening in the immediate wake of a famous victory.  There’s the happy hubbub of “did you sees” and “what about so-and-sos” punctuated by the odd song.  A celebratory atmosphere, a shared experience.

At the top of the hill the regular meeting of minds as we wait for the crowd to clear sees an occasional visitor reflect on how much has changed… not just on the pitch but off it too.  We all know this of course, we’ve seen the stadium change, noted the improved atmosphere, waved our flags.  Doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it though, particularly on an occasion such as this.  Yes, the team is brilliant.  No, the rest of the country hasn’t really  woken up to this yet.  But it’s the club that has improved beyond recognition.

Enjoy.  These are the good old days.  Yoooorns.

 

Season Preview Part 5 07/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, Undisclosed), Kevin Wimmer (Cologne, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Paulinho (Guangzhou Everglade, £9,800,000), Étienne Capoue (Watford, £5,700,000), Lewis Holtby (Hamburg, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Jordan Archer (Millwall, Free), Cristian Ceballos (Charlton Athletic, Free), Bongani Khumalo (Supersport United, Free), Alexander McQueen (Carlisle United, Free), Brad Friedel (Retired), Grant Ward (Rotherham United, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Dean Austin, Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two narrow cup defeats, most recently in 2012 when Sean Murray announced himself, previously in the 2008 League Cup when Spurs came from behind in one of Brendan Rodgers’ first games in charge.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2011-12 0-1
2008-09 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-4
1998-99 2-5
1994-95 3-6 / 3-2
1982-83 1-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Trippier       Alderweireld   Vertonghen     Rose
Mason         Bentaleb
Lamela                      Eriksen                   Chadli
Kane

VERDICT: Tottenham are just sort of there, aren’t they?  Too good for most of the division, not good enough – rich enough? – to compete with the biggest clubs, they’ve finished between fourth and sixth for each of the last six seasons.  Fourth is the holy grail of course, perversely rendered more significant than the FA Cup it’s appropriate that Spurs, once defined by being a good cup side but not quite good enough to win the league, sit where they are.  Thing is, that fourth place has never quite proven the stepping stone to establishing Spurs as a Champions’ League club… and as has been widely documented the club’s other major recent windfall, the receipt of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee, wasn’t spent entirely successfully.

So Spurs have a very capable side and lots of good footballers… but the defence is far from watertight, there’s a lack of muscle in a lightweight midfield, a lack of pace in the attack and precious little cover for the extraordinary Harry Kane as it stands.  The phrase “difficult second season” is widely mumbled about Kane… no sign any tailing off just yet, but surely unrealistic to ask such a young player to keep carrying such responsibility even if his form holds up and he avoids injury.  A policy of bringing in and bringing through young British talent – Delle Ali, Alex Pritchard, Ryan Mason – might pay off in terms of keeping Spurs fans reasonably content with their lot until such benefits as arise from their relocation – currently scheduled for three years time – pay off.  This season…  fifth would be a far from reckless guess.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: James Chester (Hull City, £8,000,000), James McClean (Wigan Athletic, £1,500,000), Rickie Lambert (Liverpool, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Graham Dorrans (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Kemar Roofe (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Chris Baird (Derby County, Free), Donervon Daniels (Wigan Athletic, Free), Jason Davidson (Huddersfield Town, Free), Bradley Garmston (Gillingham, Free), Alex Jones (Birmingham City, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (Norwich City, Free), Georgios Samaras, Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A five-nil thrashing at the Hawthorns early in Malky’s first season and a more creditable draw at Vicarage Road in which the ten man ‘orns took the lead with five minutes to go only for the Baggies to equalise at the death.  The same game saw a Jonas Olsson tackle bring Tom Cleverley’s Player of the Season campaign to a premature end.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2009-10 1-1
2007-08 0-3 1-1
2003-04 0-1 1-3
2002-03 1-0
2001-02 1-2 1-1
2000-01 3-3 0-3
1998-99 0-2 1-4
1995-96 4-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Dawson         Chester        Lescott           Brunt
Yacob
Gardner        Fletcher           Morrison     McClean
Berahino

VERDICT: In terms of establishing a smaller club in the Premier League, .West Brom are yet another decent template having spent the last five years in the top flight – four of which relatively comfortably – a period preceded by eight or nine seasons of yo-yoing between the top two divisions.  They might also serve as a warning.  Fulham’s Premier League life ran out when they became over-reliant on older players; a bit of bad luck with injuries and they had nowhere to go, a load of old blokes on top contracts and little to build off.  West Brom aren’t in quite the same boat, and in terms of compatibility Tony Pulis is a decent match to work with an experienced squad – experience that we could do with a bit of ourselves – but there’s a danger in relying too long on a format just because it’s working.  Four of the eleven above are in their thirties, several more in their late twenties and only Saido Berahino, his future seemingly far from secure as I write, comes in at under 26 whilst in the wings backup includes the likes of Garath McAuley, Jonas Olsson, Stephane Sessegnon and new signing Rickie Lambert.  Lambert, 34 before the end of the season, is a decent addition but you wouldn’t want to be slotting him into Berhino’s slot should the youngster move on;  decent goalscorer that he is, he was never one for too much running around.

Attempts at recruitment have understandably focused on wide positions;  James McClean, no more than reasonable in a relegated Wigan side last season was a bit of an odd one, further moves for Football League stars Matt Phillips and Mickael Antonio stalling as their clubs reject bids.  All of which reflects Jeremy Peace’s famously careful approach to recruitment, hugely frustrating for supporters.  As long as Mr Pulis is happy you’d fancy that Albion are no more than theoretical relegation candidates.  There’s too much savvy in that team.  Wouldn’t take a lot tho…

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Dmitri Payet (Marseille, £10,700,000), Pedro Obiang (Sampdoria, Undisclosed), Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus, Undisclosed), Darren Randolph (Birmingham City, Free), Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, Season Loan). Manuel Lanzani (Al Arabi, Season Loan)

OUTS: Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough, £5,500,000), Paul McCallum (Leyton Orient, Free), Dan Potts (Luton Town, Free), Carlton Cole, Guy Demel, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nenê, Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-0 drubbing at home early in Sean Dyche’s season when it became clear that Chris Iwelumo was no longer quite the fearsome warrior he once had been, and a much more enjoyable point earned by Sean Murray at Upton Park in which Dale Bennett ended his Watford career on a high.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2011-12 0-4 1-1
2008-09 1-0
2006-07 1-1
2004-05 1-2 2-3
2003-04 0-0 0-4
1999-00 1-2 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Adrian
Jenkinson       Ogbonna        Reid          Cresswell
Kouyate

Noble                           Obiang
Payet
Valencia            Sakho

VERDICT: Can I just say that I’m going to miss the Boleyn Ground?  Not the bloody queue at the tube afterwards, sure… but the proper claustrophobic footballgroundness of it.  It’s a Good Thing.  The Irons will move out at the end of the season, destined for the revamped, heavily subsidised Olympic Stadium – who said that the 2012 games had no legacy – and so for West Ham more than anyone it’s fundamental to have a good season, to be on an upward trajectory when that move happens so as to make what will be a 54,000 seater arena a positive place rather than a white elephant.  Relegation would be unthinkable, but there appears to be limited threat of that;  for all Big Sam’s “bad fit” at West Ham, he left them a solid base after three mid-table seasons.  Slaven Bilic was always going to be a popular replacement and has West Ham messageboards cooing over his less pragmatic style, new recruit Dmitri Payet a particularly popular addition;  he’ll have to cope with the Europa League (LATE EDIT: No they won’t!), which is sort of like being handicapped with extra sandbags as far as the League goes for squads without two teams’ worth of senior players, but it would take a lot for the Hammers to struggle. Worth noting also that in amongst the thousands of rumours (OK, 89 and counting) over the summer there have been a large number of suggestions of us competing with West Ham for players.  Which I’m inclined to believe reflects rather well on both parties.

WATFORD

INS: Étienne Capoue (Tottenham Hotspur, £5,700,000), Steven Berghuis (AZ67, £4,600,000), Valon Behrami (Hamburg, £3,000,000), Jose Holebas (AS Roma, £1,800,000), Jose Manuel Jurado (Spartak Moscow, Undisclosed),  Allan Nyom (Udinese, Undisclosed), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Undisclosed), Giedrius Arlauskis (Steaua Bucharest, Free), Miguel Britos (Napoli, Free), Sebastian Prödl (Werder Bremen, Free)

OUTS: Lewis McGugan (Sheffield Wednesday, £300,000), Jonathan Bond (Reading, Undisclosed), Luke O’Nien (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Marco Motta, Vujadin Savic, Daniel Tözsér, Diego Fabbrini (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Uche Ikpeazu (Port Vale, Six Month Loan), Juanfran (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Sean Murray (Wigan Athletic, Month Loan), Adlène Guedioura (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Nyom             Prödl        Cathcart     Holebas
Capoue           Behrami
Berghuis                   Abdi                   Jurado
Deeney

VERDICT: There’s a threat in our scars from last time, for those of us old enough to remember.  Last time and the time before.  We’ve sat through seasons that were pretty miserable, tedious and, yes, expensive long before they finished.  Joyless.  During which you had to endure the idiots at work for whom Watford had only recently entered consciousness as anything other than a theoretical entity, to wearily ponder whether it was really worth countering the “cor, Watford are a bit rubbish aren’t they?” with the explanation that we’d done rather well to even get there actually.  In reality that straw of truth became something that we clung to for our own sakes.  In both seasons, in different ways, we were glad when it was over.

It’s different this time.  Genuinely different, more than just a fist-waving “it will be different” statement of intent.  For one thing, we got ourselves promoted automatically and didn’t that feel good.  For another, we’ve got this extraordinary infrastructure behind us this time.  An infrastructure that dwarfs what either of the other promoted sides can throw at the challenges ahead, that has helped us bring in another swathe of new players.  A statement of intent.  We didn’t get promoted to give it a spirited shot and if that wasn’t quite enough to shrug and grin and go back and start again.  No, it’s fundamental that we stay up and Gino Pozzo is giving us the tools to do so.

The approach is “different” in another way of course.  “Different” to more or less everyone else in the country, to varying degrees, with a consequent range of appreciation and comprehension from the nation’s media (Danny Murphy’s “they’ll struggle now their loans have gone back” firmly at the “must try harder” end of the scale).  There’s still sniping too, which is nothing new any more and predictably escalated in volume once we started doing well again after a bit of a hiatus in 2013/14.  Quite why a Manchester City-style bankrolling is morally acceptable whilst an approach that’s sustainable for a smaller club isn’t is a little bit baffling…  but perhaps we’re just resented for getting lucky.  What’s harder for the fanbase to reconcile is yet another huge turnover, another load of names and faces to get used to.  That happened in 2012 of course and we got over that pretty damned quickly… but we’re in a tougher place this time, and Daniel Tözsér did more for us than Carl Dickinson.  Slav’s departure is harder to get your head round than any of the well-catalogued ones that preceded it.

If it were at all reasonable to challenge Gino Pozzo on this, of course, he’d be perfectly justified in asking whether we preferred that nice gentleman in the hat back.  We’ve discussed this before, but it boils down to trust, and he’s earned plenty. The extent of the revamp of the squad and the replacement of the coach outstrip even the sacking of McKinlay for boldness… that that decision had any credibility at all was simply because Gino Pozzo isn’t a bloody idiot.  He’s not the rash, emotional, crass, erratic clown that the lazier analyses imply.  Quite the opposite. In these decisions, as with the McKinlay one, he’s done things that he knew would attract scorn from outside and criticism from within, particularly if things were to go awry.  Not easy decisions, not the soft options.  And he’s done them anyway.  We know enough by now to have confidence in his decision making.

There’s no disputing that Flores’ biggest challenge is getting it all to hang together… a new way of playing, a new bunch of players, in a new division.  There’s also no disputing that two of those things were necessary given the third.  Our “we’ll score more than you” philosophy which saw our three at the back pulled hither and thither for much of last season was always going to be somewhat optimistic in the top flight.  The players we’ve brought in, from Roma and Spurs and Bremen rather than Chesterfield and Rotherham, have us looking more solid already.  Hell, we faced a slickedy slick Sevilla side and looked tight and organised and compact in a way that we rarely did last season.  And yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, and yes Goodison will be a different challenge in many different ways.  But looking solid against Sevilla is a decent start.  That, and the goals of Deeney and Ighalo and Abdi and the less familiar quantities represented by Jurado and Berghuis.

The level of investment in the squad guarantees nothing, of course.  This is in part reflected in the (almost) universally damning take on our survival prospects.  A lot of this is lazy dick-witted tosh – Norwich, heard of them they must be good (“….and we had the best squad in the division.  No, we did we did we did…”).  Bournemouth, they won the division (in the last smegging minute), they must be good.  Watford?  They just sack managers don’t they? – but some of it IS more considered.  Looking at the challenges that we’ve gone through above, new manager, new team, limited emotional investment in either from the support who don’t know them yet, looking at the quality of the opposition.  Yes, much of the “they’ll finish bottom” is lazy tosh.  Some of it isn’t.  Some of it’s more considered.

But still wrong.

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