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End of Term Report Part 5 27/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

18- Daniel Pudil

An odd season for Daniel.  For a while there’s been talk of us looking for left-sided competition; with the exception of Albert Riera’s brief and slouchy loan in 2013/14 it never really arrived.  And yet despite featuring as regularly as ever earlier in the season Daniel has gradually slipped into the role of squad player under Slav with Ikechi Anya and Tommie Hoban often preferred on the left flank roles in our various and varying formations.  Daniel appears to offer what he always did… bags of stamina and willingness, decent (but not infallible) going forward, decent (but not infallible) defending.  His form earlier in this season had arguably been more dependable than ever…  and yet it’s suddenly, particularly at this higher level, difficult to see him as part of the regular first team picture.

Next Season:  Daniel struggled to hold down a place in the absence of a like-for-like left-footed competitor in the Championship – it’s inconceivable that we won’t be looking to strengthen down that side.  You’d like to see Daniel hang around though; decent left-sided players shouldn’t be taken for granted.  We’ve had some uncomfortable experiences there in the past…

19- Diego Fabbrini

Another character who feels like a long time ago, Fabbrini is perhaps the best example of the sort of by-product of the Pozzo system that sees players nominally still on the books of the club whilst long since having had little to do with the first team.  Diego started two league games this season, and hasn’t been anything like a regular in the squad for eighteen months.  Since that time he has been loaned out three times, twice this season to Championship clubs and it’s difficult to see him forcing his way back into the picture at Vicarage Road.  The bigger picture remains a bit of a puzzle… a player with obvious natural ability, ability that got him into the Italian national squad, who in other ways seems ill-equipped to be a footballer with the result that he flatters to deceive in a succession of loans with moderate second-tier clubs.  Ian Holloway’s treatment of Fabbrini at Millwall was instructive, publicly bigging him up, cooing over his talent and praising his application suggesting a sensitive character who needs a confidence boost.  It seems unlikely that, in the longer term, we’ll see him make the most of his ability at Vicarage Road.

Next Season:   Two years left on his contract, but even with the 2014/15 squad you’d struggle to see him in a squad of 25. Another loan – or a permanent departure – seems likely.

20- Matěj Vydra

In a season yielding all sorts of superlative statistics, you’d have to wonder how often our third highest scoring player managed as many of 16 goals in a season.  Similarly easy to overlook the contribution of Vydra whose profile has been much lower than it was two years ago when, as an unknown quantity, he was voted the division’s Player of the Year. To do so would do him a disservice…  he’s had to recover mentally from a season at West Brom where, having reached the top flight, things didn’t quite work for him.  Then, back at Watford, he’s no longer an automatic start but tagging in and out with Odion Ighalo for the most part…  and yet he’s always been positive, his movement is tremendous and if you’re in any doubt as to his value sitting on the shoulder of the last defender or scampering into a space that nobody else anticipated think back to 2013/14 and how, despite Troy’s best efforts, we were so much easier to defend against.  The problem then, if there’s been one, is that Matěj hasn’t always appeared to be enjoying himself very much.  Whilst his play has been positive, his demeanour has occasionally been peevish, even sulky.  Occasionally this can be put down to high standards, others not seeing his run and allowing what might have been brilliant to disappear, forgotten, into an unchecked ledger of missed opportunities.  Sometimes, disappointment… such as when he left the field within an instant of the final whistle against Sheffield Wednesday.  And ultimately it’s not a problem… no law saying he has to play with a smile on his face.  As long as he’s happy.

Next Season: There can be no doubt as to the value of his team, witness his marvellous breaking with Troy at Leeds, the professional unfussy composure with which he dispatched the clinching goal at Brighton.  Part of the armoury… one would hope that he will return from Udinese once again in some capacity.

21- Ikechi Anya

In some ways, Ikechi is quite a crude weapon. You know what you’re going to get, for one thing… lots of energy, lots of aggression, relatively little craft actually but buckets of personality.  His international profile would appear to be higher than his domestic success would justify but there are any number of reasons for that…  his style, or rather the value of a player who will chase relentlessly and with the pace to fly beyond a high line is perhaps better suited to playing for a side that will counter-attack rather than dominating possession.  Our formation at Watford asks more of him as a defensive player, typically, which he performs doggedly enough even if his instincts aren’t particularly defensive and even if, as we’ve already discussed in this review, the wing-back’s task can be a thankless one.  When Ikechi has received criticism it’s perhaps fuelled by the expectation of more from Ikechi’s raw talent, but it’s clearly nonsense to suggest that there is no end product… two wonderful assists at Millwall bear testimony to that, even if he will have been disappointed to end the season without a goal.

Next Season: A prominent character for the last three seasons, the Celtic rumours have been too persistent to be completely without foundation and as others have pointed out it would not be inconsistent with the Pozzo approach to cash in on a player when at the peak of his value.  You’d kinda hope he stays though… apart from anything else, we’re still going to need as wide an array of weapons as we can get.

End of Term Report Part 4 24/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

14- Juan Carlos Paredes

Juan Carlos Paredes arrived to something of a fanfare.  He’d played in the World Cup for starters, his conspicuous contributions from Ecuador’s right back slot coming at a time when our interest was merely rumoured and therefore offered him a lustre.  This lustre was enhanced by his thunderous opening-day performance in the demolition of Bolton, a game that saw him on the front foot and at full throttle.  All of which perhaps heightened expectations to a rather unreasonable level…  leaving aside the transition he was making, playing wing-back in any side can be a bit of a thankless task.  You are simultaneously expected to provide the side’s attacking width and the defensive security of a full-back and as such it’s hardly surprising that few have excelled in the role.  Marco Cassetti, for example, offered more reliable and penetrative delivery from the right, but he couldn’t cover the turf half as effectively as Paredes.  Ikechi Anya perhaps matches Paredes for pace and stamina, but not for brute strength.  And if Juan Carlos has rather too often been guilty of watching balls drift over his head to an overlapping threat… he’s hardly alone in that.  There have been games this season where Juan Carlos has looked out of place, awkward, uncomfortable.  There have been others where he has rampaged down the right flank scattering opponents in his wake, utterly unplayable.  At Middlesbrough in October we had roughly 45 minutes of each.  Incredibly quick and built like an articulated truck, Paredes’ 32 league starts were bettered only Gomes, Deeney and Tözsér.  A force for good, then,  A force, at any rate.

Next Season: Seems inconceivable that we won’t strengthen in the wing-back positions so Juan Carlos may face competition, but likely to be a regular starter.

15- Craig Cathcart

If Paredes came in to a big reception, Craig Cathcart had something of a lower profile…  from a Blackpool side that had just bombed the second half of the previous season and narrowly avoided the drop, and an underwhelming loan spell several years earlier Cathcart wasn’t a name that set pulses racing.  Word from Bloomfield Road was that here was a decent enough defender… if we could keep him fit.  Fair to say then that Craig exceeded all expectations.  An unflappable, unflashy, utterly competent centre-back who contributed a couple of special and significant goals to boot,  it’s difficult to bring to mind any weak performances… and easily forgotten that he had barely started a game before the trip to Fulham in early December, after which he was a fixture.  His contribution is best summarised by the fact that in a terrific season full of eye-catching goalscoring contributions he was in many people’s top three for player of the season.

Next Season:  Every inch a Premier League defender.

16- Sean Murray

Hard, despite oneself, for your heart not to sink when you read Sean’s name.  You want to be in my place.  Sean’s spectacular explosion into the first team under Sean Dyche had been preceded by a long, loud clarion call from the youth team but that building up and the half-season spell as the magic dust in the last pre-Pozzo side that yielded seven goals has been followed by three seasons in which for varying reasons and to varying degrees it hasn’t quite happened for Sean.  His season this time around was ended by knee surgery in January, but prior to that he’d managed one full ninety minutes.  Still hugely popular with the support, as evidenced by the rapturous response offered by an admittedly ready-to-be-rapturous crowd to his appearance in the away end at Brighton, his assessment is no different to what we wrote a year ago;  he needs to find his place.  Difference I guess is that he’s a year older (albeit still a young-looking 21) and now trying to break into a Premier League side.  Nobody who remembers those opening months will be ready to give up on Sean just yet, but he’s got a job on.

Next Season:  Get fit, get out on loan, get some games and become a star again.

17- Gabriel Tamaș

Yes, that was this season.  Over the summer of 2014 we had a number of recruitment requirements.  A goalkeeper was one.  Some Championship experience was another.  The third was probably a big brute of a centre-back, someone to beat up opposing strikers and get their head on crosses when such was the requirement.  Gabriel Tamaș came in with a colourful reputation, and his performances for the Hornets were similarly eventful.  Far from the steadying rock we were after the Romanian seemed throroughly erratic – up for a confrontation to the point of spoiling for a fight if he was great in a physical battle he was thoroughly uncomfortable being run at and brought an element of Keith Dublin’s misplaced excitability to our back line.  Thrills and spills at the wrong end of the pitch.  Nonetheless, he started every game until he was red carded for booting Huddersfield’s Harry Bunn up in the air at the end of August;  on his first start after suspension, he fell like a giraffe with it’s foot caught in a snare, twisted his knee and wasn’t seen in a yellow shirt again joining the likes of Xavier Gravelaine on the page of Watford history headed “brief but memorable”.

Next Season:  His contract cancelled in January, Tamaș is now with former European Cup winners Steaua Bucharest.

End of Term Report Part 3 21/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

9 – Troy Deeney

Two years ago, I was a little uncomfortable.  Not with the decision to give Troy a second chance, to retain him despite his time inside, fully on board with that…  but with the suggestion  that his retention was a value judgement influenced by how the Pozzos saw him as a player.  Shouldn’t have been about his ability for me, should be a principle thing.  Perhaps I’m naive, and it’s not my money of course, but a young kid on the fringes of the team would have deserved a second chance as much as the team’s figurehead.  Thing is… Troy  wasn’t a figurehead at that stage.  Sure, he had established himself as a regular but 12 goals under Sean Dyche, albeit largely in the second half of the season, was hardly the stuff of legend.  And certainly we were squinting at Troy’s contribution and seeing glimpses of Tommy Mooney, his erstwhile mentor at Walsall, a rugged wholehearted trooper who was gradually refining his game, if not his approach.  Nonetheless… and irrespective of whether his perceived potential should have influenced any decision, the judgement on Deeney was as spot on and as crucial as any with respect to players brought in.  The club accurately judged both his ability and the likelihood of him seizing the chance that was given him.  Eulogies tend to make dull reading;  you know this stuff as well as I do so I’ll keep this brief…  Troy has emerged as a leader and a figurehead worthy of a Roy of the Rovers hero.  A captain, a monster, a terrific finisher, a deft footballer, an extremely likeable man.  Our promotion was on the cards from the moment that the Pozzos took the extraordinary decision to shut the door to all offers for him in August as an auction pushed into eight figures.

Next Season:  Leading from the front. Recent history has seen a few big, physical strikers – Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, Charlie Austin – come up from the Football League and do well in the Premier League.  Troy compares to any of them.  We could sign Messi and Ronaldo over the summer, Troy would still be the main man.

10- Lewis McGugan

For all that he’s still a Watford player at the time of writing, Lewis McGugan feels an awfully long time ago.  Which, all things considered, probably suits both parties. As this article reflected last year, he scored a lot of goals, played a lot of games and added a lot of flicks and tricks without ever getting the crowd fully onside.  This season he started five league games;  we lost three of them and Lewis only finished one.  What happened to our midfield as he left it demonstrated what his contribution had lacked… a sense of urgency, judgement and purpose.  Watson, Abdi, Guedioura, Munari, Layún all had iffy games at different times, they’re all far more convincing than Lewis was.

Next Season:  Lewis McGugan needs to be a big fish in a small pond… a star in a moderate team.  A workmanlike team in which he’s the star, the bringer of joy, cherished for what he can do more than he irritates with what he can’t.  Sheffield Wednesday may well be that side.  We don’t need a Craig Ramage right now.

11- Fernando Forestieri

If there’s someone you feel for this season, it’s Nando.  The “much-vaunted” Watford forward line that the media have talked about had three names in it, and Nando was the fall guy, the one missed off the end.  That’s the deal, unfortunately… just as those pundits who assessed Norwich, Boro, Derby’s quality in isolation and decided that they would go up automatically because of how good they were missed a crucial consideration, merely being good hasn’t been enough to keep Nando involved in the side in the face of furious competition.  Which isn’t to say that he’s had a bad season…  his five goals and a six assists came over only a dozen starts, only one of which since the turn of the year.  He’s put in performances of great vitality and impudence as ever, his goal against Leeds a thing of joy and wonder, he’s been willing to turn his hand to a number of roles – including  the Abdi job, not unsuccessfully – and got knocks at unfortunate times.  But he’s the forgotten man in the forward armoury, and given that his incorrigible effervescence hasn’t always been a force for good that was somehow inevitable.  For every game that he dominates there’s a game where he looks off the beat.  For every little piece of genius that makes a goal there’s an incident like the one at Wolves (where the much-shared camera angle does him no favours, but them’s the risks you run).  He’s still a piece of magic dust, a get-out-of-jail card to have on the bench, but his ability should demand more than that.

Next Season:  Under the radar perhaps, you’d still back Nando to be an asset in the top flight since nobody else offers that combination of magic boots and bloody-minded tenacity.  Our recruitment strategy might dictate whether he gets the chance.

12 – Lloyd Doyley

For a moment there, you had to wonder…  is this it?  After however many utterly dependable, charismatic years in the first team squad, is this it?  Our promotion season has seen Lloydinho come in at under 10 senior starts for the first time since he broke into the side in 2001, he hasn’t taken to the field in 2015. The 19 non-playing substitute appearances put a slightly different gloss on that and underline the very strong case that would be made for retaining Lloyd were we still in the second tier…  having lots of good players is one thing;  having a good player who isn’t going to kick up a stink at not being a first choice but will work hard and stay positive and be that versatile defensive option from the bench (and tick a home-grown box to boot) is something else.  But in the top flight…?  You’d like to think that there’s still a role in the squad for someone who will come in and do a job diligently and competently.  Premier League squad size restrictions may be a constraint, even if eight of the 25 need to be home grown.  The fact that Aidy Boothroyd, always an advocate of Lloyd’s, started him in fewer than half of our games the last time round, wasn’t in itself encouraging.  Me?  I’d still keep him on.  A solid defender, a Watford personality, part of the glue that holds it all together.  Others will say that Lloyd’s Time Has Finally Come.  Many of them were saying the same ten years ago;  clinging blindly to a position that will inevitably come to pass at some point is hardly prophetic…

Next Season: …but much may depend on just what Lloyd wants.  Will he be satisfied with what might be a peripheral role?  Or would he prefer to move to a club where he’ll be a dogged, charismatic regular and leave us sighing with a little regret at seeing him in another team’s shirt, whatever our own future holds?  Time will tell… but that the club are talking to him about a new contract is yet another sign that something is fundamentally right at Vicarage Road.

End of Term Report Part 2 18/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

5 (#2)- Adlène Guedioura

An oft overlooked feature of John Barnes’ fabulous ability was that he was a bully as well as a terrific footballer.  Not just able to beat people with skill, but with brawn instead should the need arise.  Guedioura isn’t in the same class as Barnes…  but he offers the same combination of weapons, a fine footballer(witness his marvellous assists against Derby, Boro and Wigan) but a beast and an athlete too.  It’s a potent mix, and one of which Slav quickly recognised the value in a Watford midfield in which the former is a prerequisite but lacking the latter.  A moderate success in a first spell crowned with a monstrous display at Cardiff; his second spell saw him establish himself as a vital component of the side that secured promotion to the extent that it’s perfectly credible to add his unavailability to the list of stuff wot done for us against Sheffield Wednesday.

Next Season:  Guedioura joined Palace as part of Ian Holloway’s scattergun recruitment policy in the summer of 2013.  He has since started three times as many games for us as he has for the Eagles;  his arrival on a permanent basis would be a huge boost over the summer.

6 – Joel Ekstrand

A difficult season for Joel who has had long spells out, first with a lower back injury and then the cruciate ligament damage sustained against Ipswich in March.  Significant that excluding those spells of enforced absence – and two briefer absences caused by suspension and a hamstring injury – Ekstrand started every league game for which he was available bar one, the draw at Ewood Park in which he came off the bench.  When he was available he did well, particularly in the first half of the season and particularly when part of a back 4 when he was arguably the pick of our centre-backs suggesting that the wobbly form and mentality of his difficult second season had been left behind him.  Not an extravagant player, not a star, but a very confident tick next to whichever box at the back you slot him into.

Next Season: ….but not for a while, alas.  Prognosis is that we won’t see Ekstrand again this side of the New Year, and whilst his mobility and comfort in possession both ought to lend themselves to the Premier League, previous top flight seasons have suggested that players injured at the wrong time don’t always get the chance to play themselves back into the side.  Fingers crossed that Joel, an automatic pick for the best part of three seasons now, bucks that trend.

7- Miguel Layún

A midfielder or wing-back with, famously, more Twitter followers than Tottenham Hotspur, it’s fair to say that we haven’t consistently seen the best of Miguel Layún just yet.  That’s not a problem in itself – we’ve had the luxury of ample midfield options, and should be grateful for the facility to allow a player of undoubted quality time to settle in after a major transition – and it’s not to say that he’s played badly.  But he’s not yet the unqualified success that we’d hoped… or consistently made the devastating contribution suggested by first couple of home games against admittedly overrun Charlton and Blackpool.  Nimble, clever and versatile, Layún has occasionally seemed to expect too much time in possession and looked lightweight and bullyable in the hurlyburliest of our encounters.  Nonetheless, his assertive outing against a physically robust Sheffield Wednesday side on the final day – critically misjudged pass aside – offered much encouragement.  More to come from Miguel, one suspects.

Next Season:  Layún has quality and senior experience;  he was bold enough to take a risky decision in moving from a top club in Mexico to the English second tier in defiance of criticism from his national coach, and comes across extremely positively.  Jury still out, but looking on expectantly…

8- Dániel Tözsér

It’s a measure of both Dániel’s ability and the strength of our midfield options to point out that as recently as the first half of the campaign it would seem inconceivable that he should be anything other than an automatic pick in the centre of midfield… and yet as the season drew to a close it was the Hungarian who was most regularly the odd man out, not starting more than two consecutive games from the end of January onwards.  It wasn’t just the competition provided by the favoured three of Watson, Guedioura and Abdi either…  Tözsér’s form did dip, and more than once – memorably against Wolves on Boxing Day – he was identified as the man to close down in possession particularly aggressively, the man who would both make us tick if left unchecked but also perhaps want half a second too long with the ball at his feet.  Nonetheless, Dániel’s ability to suck the ball to his control, to dictate the pace of a game and, on his best days, to trample all over a game like a colossus, was still evident.  He may not always have started, but he almost always played a part whether we needed to slow things down or make a breakthrough in the latter stages… only once did he fail to take the field in a League encounter.

Next Season:  In helping kill games by retaining possession he has been the Dementor of our midfield, sucking hope and belief from opponents around him, and his free kicks remain a thing of beauty.  Halfway through his two-year loan from struggling Parma, it will be a joy to see him in the Premier League.

End of Term Report Part 1 15/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

For the ninth summer running, a blow-by-blow breakdown of the ‘orns squad.  Moses Ashikodi was in the first one.  Yes, really.

1- Heurelho Gomes

When Manuel Almunia left last summer it was interesting that the club went for a similar blueprint in replacing him…. an experienced stopper with top flight pedigree who had perhaps fallen out of favour at their club and was out in the cold.  There was a degree of risk involved – the twelve months that we committed to initially more reflection of this than of his (then) 33 years.  Like Almunia, Gomes has been guilty of high-profile errors in the past;  unlike the Spaniard, Gomes’ forceful personality has appeared robust to such challenges.  Such doubts as there may have been have been blown away over the course of the season. Gomes seemed to immediately establish himself as a leader in the dressing room – lest we forget, we needed a few more of those – and his level of performance has risen throughout to the point where his contribution in the run in was as critical as anyone’s, including those of our vaunted forward line.  He’s never going to be one to hesitate in coming off his line and this might make life more… exciting than it need be on occasions but the number of occasions when he’s misjudged this has been small and we’re a much stronger side for the Brazilian’s presence.  His exuberant goal celebrations are also worthy of praise, lessening the distance to the incident when the critical development has been at the far side to an Watford away end.

Next Season:    The club have a year’s option on his contract and it seems inconceivable that we won’t exercise that clause.  Rumours suggest that a senior rival to Gomes may be brought in permitting Jonathan Bond to go out on loan – either way, you’d expect Gomes to be literally the first name on the teamsheet come August.

3- Gianni Munari

All things considered Gianni Munari can consider himself unfortunate, I think.  Signed on a year’s loan from Parma Munari quickly established himself in the first team squad, being involved in all but two of our games between our draw at Blackburn in late September and the hard-fought victory against the same side in early February.  No small statement that, in the context of our season and of our midfield options… and Munari gave us something a bit different.  6 foot 1 and built like a tank he was as close to a midfield enforcer as this current model has permitted, his physical presence invaluable in some of those winter scraps.  He’s more than that though… if not the deftest of our midfielders he nonetheless had enough about him to top our assists table at the end of the year as well as finding the net three times through knack for well-timed, bullish charges into the box.  So what did for Munari’s involvement was Ben Watson, a different type of weapon altogether.  Watson’s value in gluing our play together saw him start every game from his full debut against Bournemouth to the end of the season and Munari was the fall guy to the extent that he scarcely made it off the bench thereafter, even when it seemed that a bit of welly in the middle might be helpful.

Next Season:   Gianni’s lack of involvement in the latter half of the season doesn’t suggest that there will be moves to sign him permanently at the expiry of his one year loan.  Wouldn’t rule it out altogether, wouldn’t be upset if he did return – we still need physical presence and Munari has played 100-odd games in Serie A – but don’t think it’s very likely.  With home club Parma bankrupt, Munari’s future could lie elsewhere.

4- Gabriele Angella

A more quietly effective season for Gaby this time round.  That’s my impression anyway… perhaps I’ve just begun to take him for granted.  A regular in the side save for a two month absence with a knee injury in October/November that coincided with our run of defeats, Angella remains a reliable source of competent defending, raking long passes, set piece threat and flicks of the fringe.  He does have a mistake on him, although in suggesting as much it’s only fair to note that the formation we’ve played most often does rather lend itself to the defenders being pulled around a bit, but has coped effortlessly with switches between three- and four at the back looking equally comfortable in either set-up.  Looking back on what I’ve just written, it comes to something when  dogged competence is rewarded with mere acknowledgement rather than fulsome praise, but that’s where we are…

Next Season:   Angella’s initial reluctance to come to Watford in 2012 may have contributed to ongoing rumours about him not being happy in England, at one stage this season prompting denials from the club that he was set to return to Udinese.  It would, therefore, not be the biggest surprise in the world if he returned to the Stadio Friuli although you’d hope that having finally achieved top flight status Gaby might be tempted to hang around a while yet.  We’d be all the better for it.

5 (#1) – Keith Andrews

We should start by acknowledging that there really wasn’t an awful lot wrong with Andrews’ contribution on the pitch.  He was signed to tick a few boxes… experience of the Championship, a steadying influence in the midfield, someone to drop anchor, shield the defence and organise when such was our requirement.  All of this he did well enough, contributing a very fine assist in a rehearsed move against Millwall into the bargain.  The on the pitch stuff wasn’t really the problem and as such, being witness to only a snapshot of what happens off the pitch, it’s difficult to comment fully.  Suggestions of an abrasive character, however, are provided by Andrews’ track record.  It’s not unusual these days for a player to rack up a load of clubs but for someone with sufficient quality to have been picked for Ireland 35 times not to have managed more than 80 appearances for any of his twelve clubs suggests a problem; certainly he’d had “issues” at Wolves, West Brom and Bolton before signing for the Hornets on loan.  At times vocally proclaiming the quality of our squad, at others vocally questioning the inclusion and exclusion of players, the general “vocal” thing may have been at the core of it.  Either way, reports soon emerged of a falling out with Slav and Andrews was excluded from training as we tried to work our way out of a relatively expensive season-long loan.  Justified or not, the exclusion of Andrews and others coincided with a dramatic improvement in the team’s cohesion and spirit, so it’s impossible to criticise that call in retrospect.

Next Season:  Out of contract at Bolton, for whom he hadn’t turned out in two and a half years, Andrews has suggested that he will be joining the coaching staff at Franchise.


Helping Hands 2014/2015 10/05/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Good grief, the last season hasn’t even finished yet.  I went to IKEA yesterday.  In May.  My daughters and I ambled arm in arm through the warehouse bit wistfully humming favourite tunes…. “Troo-oy Deeney, Watford’s number nine….”, “Since I was young….”, “Bounce in a minute”, and so forth as Tsega rolled her eyes in our wake.  The expectation was that the emotionally demanding last few weeks, months would leave us grateful for a bit of a rest, a bit of down time.  That sentiment appears to have lasted less than a week…

So here we are again, for what appears to be the eighth annual analysis of where our goals came from, giving me an excuse to relive them all through video clips and match reports.  And yes, this article has become increasingly straightforward to compile over time, leaving me wondering whether a more detailed breakdown might be appropriate (right foot/left foot/header/other? Inside/outside area?  Set pieces?  etc etc.  Maybe next year).

One factor which might make the article easier still to compile is the proliferation of alternative sources of this information from which to plagiarise; however unlike scoring of goals and despite what some conceited sources might have you believe there is no undisputed definition of what an assist IS, which justifies defining my own rules and thus being able to summarise and interpret consistently.  And watch them all again.  So…  my definition of an assist is relatively broad and generous.  The last pass, obviously, but also the shot that was parried for a follow-up, being taken down for a penalty, both the flick-on to a cross AND the cross itself, and so on.

Consequently it’s not surprising to see Troy topping the list, a good proportion of his assists taking the same form as his last, barrelling into the Sheffield Wednesday area, sucking attention towards himself, battering a shot off Kirkland and allowing Vydra to nod home.  More surprising perhaps the margin of his supremacy over last year’s table topper Ikechi Anya who comes in second despite, once again, a few voices questioning his contribution.  Also significant perhaps that all 13 of those asssists came after Christmas, the first coming at Cardiff City at the end of December.

Noteworthy also is the very low number of individuals who have played a significant proportion of games, which tells you much about the way the team has been managed in a campaign relatively light on serious injuries.  Only Heurelho Gomes managed more than 40 starts of our 49 League and Cup games; everyone else missed at least 10 with only another half dozen missing less than 20.  Allied to that, and the fact that we’ve had such a tremendous season, is the fact that when your eye runs down that list there are really very few names you’d have reservations about, certainly relatively few about whom you’re thinking “well he’s got to go”, despite the number of players employed.

Perhaps most surprising in a campaign in which he’s managed nine goals and a much more sustained contribution than last season is that Almen Abdi only manages three assists; he managed more than that last season in one third of the number of games.

Adlene Guedioura’s contribution is demonstrated by four assists, all of them magnificent…  a vicious cross with his left foot at Wigan, an impossible pass for Ighalo at Derby, an arcing far post missile to Deeney against Middlesbrough and a thumping drive at the City Ground, gobbled up by Almen Abdi.  Fingers crossed all over Hertfordshire that his signing can be made permanent over the summer.

Finally it’s worth noting the contribution of Gianni Munari, unfortunate victim of Ben Watson’s arrival and impressive impact in January, who had managed more assists than anyone – six – by the end of the year but only started half a dozen games thereafter.  Such was his physical prowess that it was easy to overlook the flicks on and awareness that contributed to our fluency earlier in the season.

Be back soon with the End of Term report.  Enjoy the summer…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Deeney 13 38+5 21 CAR (A), HUD (A), BLP (H), BLP (H), BLP (H), BLP (H), LEE (A), LEE (A), WLV (A), REA (H), REA (H), BRI (A), SHW (H)
Anya 7 28+8 0 MBO (A), WIG (H), WIG (H), REA (A), MIL (A), MIL (A), BIR (H)
Forestieri 6 12+14 5 LEE (H), SHW (A), BOL (A), REA (H), REA (H), WIG (A)
Munari 6 23+8 3 LEE (H), LEE (H) , NOF (H), FUL (A), FUL (A), CAR (A)
Ighalo 6 25+3 20 ROT (A), DON (H – LC), CHA (H), BOL (A), DER (A), BRI (A)
Vydra 6 32+13 16 SHW (A), MIL (H), FUL (A), FUL (A), BRE (A), LEE (A)
Angella 5 33+3 2 BOL (H), BOL (H), CHA (H), BLB (H), WLV (A)
Tözsér 5 35+11 5 BOL (H), HUD (H), HUD (H), CHA (H), BLP (H)
Guedioura 4 13+4 3 WIG (A), DER (A), MBO (H), NOF (A)
Paredes 4 33+7 0 SHW (A), CAR (A), CHA (A), BRE (A)
Abdi 3 28+5 9 HUD (H), BOL (A), NOF (A)
Dyer 2 6+10 3 BLP (A), DER (H)
Layún 2 14+3 0 BLP (H), ROT (H)
Watson 2 19+1 0 BOL (A), MBO (H)
Cathcart 2 29+1 3 BLB (A), NOF (A)
Fabbrini 1 3+1 1 STV (A – LC)
Andrews 1 6+5 1 MIL (H)
Pudil 1 21+5 0 CAR (A)
Ekstrand 1 23+2 1 ROT (H)
Hoban 1 23+7 0 ROT (A)
Byers 0 0+1 0
Mensah 0 0+1 0
Murray 0 3+6 0
Connolly 0 4+2 1
Bond 0 5+1 0
McGugan 0 6+1 0
Doyley 0 7+1 0
Motta 0 7+2 0
Tamas 0 8+1 0
Bassong 0 11 0
Gomes 0 44 0

Check out the 2013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.


Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (18/04/2015) 19/04/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- We’ve not half had some games against this lot.  Some will remember victory in the Cup in 1960…  Cliff Holton helping the fourth division newly-christened Hornets to knock top-flight Blues out in front of 31,000 at the Vic.  In 1984 perhaps the most impressive single result of our run to the Cup Final came at St Andrews; Ron Saunders’ aggressive side came into the game on the back of a twelve-match unbeaten run in the top flight and had the majority of a 40,000 crowd behind them.  John Barnes ripped them to bits.  In 1999 a play-off semi-final concluded with an epic penalty shoot out that resulted in our second trip to Wembley.

That night at St Andrews was extraordinarily tense, a ferocious night of football.  We’d lost our one-goal first leg advantage within two minutes and battled against the tide from then on. The presence of Loz alongside me that evening achieved the impossible in making an already frantic evening all the more anxious… he articulated all of our fears and radiated them back at us, exaggerating them through reinforcement with clenched fists and terrified eyes.  A more occasional visitor to the Vic these days, Loz was behind me in the Rookery again this afternoon…  as the Vic drifted frequently into simmering spells of anxiety in the sunshine Loz was once again giving a voice to the gremlins in everyone’s head…  “ohhhhh god”, “not there….”, “we need to score”, “so tense…..”, “Nooooo….”, “Aaaaaaaaaaargh…..”.

2- That tension was briefly evident on the pitch too, at least initially, and never more clearly than when Cathcart clouted into touch a speculative cross that Gomes had come to claim.  Ultimately, the greatest impact of such incidents was on the mood off the pitch which, as already described, became edgy  as soon as the clarion call of the magnificent flag display had died down.  It was only after the final whistle in the way towards the concourse that it was pointed out that Blues offered very little threat throughout…  it hadn’t felt like that.  Certainly, however they set up to contain and obstruct and grab what they could on the break and if, ultimately, that threat was theoretical in practice they certainly did the destructive part of their job well enough.  It wasn’t until midway through the half when Guedioura, off beam in the opening spell, settled down a bit and Birmingham were increasingly penned back and resorting to clubbing clearances towards Donaldson that we began to look the better side.  Matej Vydra crashed a shot against the bar… from the Rookery it looked for all the world as if that had gone in, replays of the volley rebounding smack back off the woodwork incompatible with what had happened in our mind’s eye, the celebrations took a while to be abridged and bemusement reigned thereafter.  There are several templates for these games against midtable sides… on Wednesday we saw “nothing to lose, something to prove”.  Here we saw a side with no reason to do anything but make life difficult for us.  At half time they’d done just that.

3- Ten minutes into the second half Slav made a couple of changes and instigated a change in shape… that flexibility in formation that we now almost take for granted is serving us so well.  How many times in years past have you looked at a game and not been able to see a way out, not been able to see a way to change things?  Our squad gives us options of course, rich options, but that ability to change our shape almost – not quite – effortlessly is a huge benefit.  Layún on the left of midfield had again looked nimble and willing and elegant and not quite worked.  Anya as wing back made hay for his first ten minutes on the pitch, a new weapon in a different role.  His brilliantly assertive run in behind demanded a pass from Deeney, he dinked a gorgeous cross into a crowded box from the left and Craig Cathcart, surely an outside bet for Player of the Season, executed a quite brilliant scissor kick that won the game.  Just as Chris Holland’s failure from the penalty spot in 1999 instantly released waves of pent-up tension, the celebration of this goal was inflamed by relief as much as by the brilliance of the finish (that’s a centre half , that is).  In reality we hardly pummeled Blues for the rest of the game but we remained in control and made a few chances… Angela met Abdi’s cross almost immediately but couldn’t get high enough over it, Guedioura screamed in down the right but shot when he should have squared.  Off the pitch, everything had changed.  The furrowed brows and anxiety were replaced by songs and fists in the air and a few of those flags again and kids standing on chairs and screaming.

4- Through all of which, one figure dragged us onwards.  During the iffy nervy bits he was back in the box at set pieces and getting stuck in.  On the attack he was extraordinary, taking on all comers and tanking across the pitch often hauling woebegone markers in his wake.  Troy has failed to score against his boyhood club this season but has tormented them nonetheless… we dismissed Birmingham’s attacking threat earlier on in the report, but his inhuman ability to hold the ball up buys the defence time and relieves pressure.  He remains the most vital component of the team and was utterly unplayable today.  Let’s never take him for granted.

5- The whistle blew to great relief, much as we’d spent the four minutes of added time playing a comfortable game of keep-ball down by the corner flag.  News that Bournemouth had come from behind to take the lead late in the game against Sheffield Wednesday was treated philosophically; they’ll do what they’ll do and it doesn’t really matter.  We win our last two games we go up, it’s that simple. Still in our control, job done today, on to the next one.  The acknowledgement of the team was long and noisy, but gradually we detached ourselves from the Hornets collective and resumed our individual consciousness.  There’s a point at which this happens… probably when you move from your seat and edge down the stairways towards the concourses and thither back to the rest of your life.  Your mind enters contemplative mode, reflecting on the new reality given the day’s results and then towards your plans for the rest of the day.  Loz had hot-footed it towards Watford Junction at the final whistle.  My mind was on meeting Dad at the top of Occupation Road.

So the epilogue to the afternoon was its highlight, outstripping the bravado before the game and the crazy celebration to Cathcart’s goal.  In the busy concourses it became clear that the game at Bournemouth hadn’t finished,  crowds were dawdling beneath the Sky screens for final confirmation.  Then news of Sheffield Wednesday’s penalty award sucked everyone in.  Suddenly nobody was moving, nobody at all, and we were sucked together once again into a collective consciouness.  Not for over 25 years has reading Paul Walsh’s body language been of any interest, but here we were trying to judge how the penalty had transpired.  For a second the collective consciousness was fooled, surely the celebration in the stands behind Walsh indicated a missed opportunity, Cherries celebrating.  Until someone, somewhere, with an alternative source of information breaks the tension.  “They scored!”.  Then, this.

The philosophical angle went out the window pretty sharpish as you might imagine. Eyes were glowing, strangers were slapping each other on the back. Here’s the deal, then. If this team, this team that has risen above the anxiety in the stands in indifference to pull out yet another result having solved yet another conundrum and pulled out another stunning goal to do so, if this team wins at Brighton next Saturday we will be four points clear and disappearing over the horizon by the time any of our rivals take the field. It’s in our hands, in our control.

Bring it on.

Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 2 (17/03/15) 18/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.

1- In less heady times, perhaps in following a less bloody-minded body of Hornets, I might have paid greater attention to portents.  Logistical arrangements were slow to materialise.  Once made, getting out of work and then out of the house took forever…  being interrupted, then forgetting things, having to go back inside, not being able to get on with it.  On hooking up with my travelling companion in plenty of time we took a leisurely break at Kidbrook a theoretical 20 minutes from Wigan and left there at 5 to hit an M6 traffic splurge.  Comparing notes with other travellers by phone we opted to leave the motorway for a scenic route, only to sit stranded on a stationary back-road some 15 minutes later watching the free-flowing M6 fly past beneath us.  By the time we reached the “Marquee Club” much later in the evening, a well-conceived but ill-executed away fans’ bar at the ground serving Guinness-flavoured water and no food, we might have been apprehensive about what the fates were trying to tell us as regards this particular Potential Banana Skin.  Had we been following a different team, a different vintage.  Hell, last season’s vintage.  The contrast between the mardy indolence that reached its nadir against Huddersfield in May and what we’re seeing now is extraordinary.

2- Slav’s unshakable emotional detachment and his (team’s) ongoing success at pulling these things off is lending him a mystique;  it’s getting to the point where one searches for the genius in his selections rather than evaluating them anything like objectively.  “Ikechi in goal, Lloyd up front and Billy Hails in midfield you say?  Hmmm, yes, I can see that…”.  This one harked back to Rotherham in a formation that screamed “keeping it solid”;  a 3-5-2 featuring five defenders, actually, plus one sitting and one destructive midfielder.  On a horribly scruffy pitch, the set-up contributed to a stodgy first half of few chances.  As the only attacking player in the midfield Adlène Guedioura was simultaneously the man most likely to dig something out and the man most likely to give the ball away, which his responsibility for the final ball contributed to him doing frequently.  His was nonetheless a terrific contribution throughout, although our early control of the midfield was relinquished somewhat when his early booking tamed the ferocity of his harrying and chasing.  There seemed more menace about our own attacks – perhaps only when viewed with background knowledge – the best of which coming when Deeney’s diving header to a left-wing cross was pushed wide by Al Habsi, but Wigan were more than in such game as there was; Bong and Ojo threatened down the left, Kim was lively in midfield and some early free kicks from dangerous positions gave more credence to Slav’s selection decisions (behind the goal we nodded wisely).

3- They were horribly blunt though.  They didn’t look like a bad football team, certainly not a team otherwise worthy of a place in the bottom three, but there wasn’t much of a goal threat – you felt that if a goal came for the home side it would be through attrition, the crushing of the game towards our penalty area resulting in a deflection in the wrong direction rather than a deliberate, conscious act (Malky Mackay, after the game, wasn’t the first manager to identify our finishing as “the difference” between the sides, as if the art of goalscoring is somehow an aside, or an unfair advantage afforded us by our forward line rather than the point of the exercise).  The mood, in contrast to our own, was painfully gloomy – a relentless and occasionally effective drummer in the stand to our left offset this a little, but the emptiness of the wonderfully steep stands told its own story.  Meanwhile despite a goalless first half there was no suggestion of dissent in the away end, no “we should be beating these”.  The inner confidence extends beyond the pitch… there’s a trust there.

4- Another of Slav’s surgical changes was applied at half-time and we came out minus Motta, plus Forestieri and now 4-4-2 with the Argentine at the front of the midfield to wreak havoc behind the forwards.  It was designed to open up the game and in doing so it allowed us to showcase our superiority, since whilst Wigan continued to have possession and territory and whilst we perhaps wouldn’t want to rely on nervous finishing to preserve a clean sheet against a better side we were far more potent.  This was made to tell nine minutes into the half, when the immediately vital Forestieri received the ball as we broke, dragged backpedalling defenders away from the left flank whence he released Guedioura who sent in an evil cross which Deeney crashed in at the far post.  On the subject of stock goals, it was all but a tribute to a favourite stock goal of yore with Guedioura in the Neal Ardley role and Deeney as Heidar Helguson, piling ball and defender goalwards… with the exception that Guedioura’s incredible delivery had been with his weaker foot as he eagerly pointed out to the bouncing mob behind the goal.

We were immediately in our element;  Wigan had no choice but to push forward in search of an equaliser and we broke on them joyfully like schoolchildren released for break on a summer’s day.  We should have extended our lead… Joel Ekstrand came mighty close to doing so, picking up a loose ball to the right of the goal, cutting past his marker and firing narrowly wide across the face.  Forestieri and Vydra both had chances, and Boyce had to clear from under the bar after a deflected Guedioura shot wrong-footed Al Habsi.  At the other end Wigan had far from given up and our defending was fuelled by sheer willpower – Guedioura and the outstanding Hoban performing the two most dramatic of a large number of blocks achieved by throwing bodies in the path of the ball.  A degree of comfort was earned by Forestieri whose lung-bursting run to reach an escaping ball down the wing was rewarded when Boyce allowed him into the penalty area before sticking out a tired leg and bringing him down.  Boyce lay prone in dejection, Forestieri in happy exhaustion.  Deeney belted the penalty past a static Al Habsi, on which his teammates charged in from the halfway line where they’d waited to a man to guard against a potential breakaway.

5- This wasn’t the best game we’ve watched this season nor the most spectacular scoreline but the triumph was in making it look like a routine victory.  To the outsider its unremarkable, team near the top beats team at the bottom.  So what.  Anyone who’s watched the division for any length of time knows it’s not that simple… and yet we keep digging out these wins.  The car journey home was noisily exuberant, fuelled by my iPod’s shuffle function which captured the mood perfectly, spitting out Pump it Up, The Littlest Rebel, Jean Genie and The Temple of Love.

Bellowing our way through the fog our minds’ eye is a blur of images. Tommie Hoban dummying his marker on the left and cutting inside past two more markers on his right foot. That’s a centre-back, that is. Daniel Tözsér coming off the bench in another Slav masterstroke, instantly sucking control of the midfield to his feet and swinging in his vicious bending free kicks (you can all but hear the “oh f*** this” from Wigan’s backline). Those bodies flying in front of the ball at our end. And Odion Ighalo, not involved in the last few games through injury and probably deprived a cameo here by the immaculate Cathcart picking up a knock, riding to the away end on Daniel Tözsér’s back, punching the air whilst Forestieri screams his joy into the night sky. This is a team with spirit and quality and wit and menace. Anyone preventing us getting promoted will have to go some, and will have earned it. Tonight we not so much sidestepped a banana skin, as my travelling companion suggested and repeatedly demonstrated on the way back to the car, but trod on it square on and carried on in indifference.  Next?

Watford 4 Reading 1 (14/03/2005) 15/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.

1- There’s no reasonable way to describe the context without doffing our cap to happenstance.  Reflecting on the role that chance has played in our season it’s natural to feel bitter about Gabriele Angella’s sending off at Bournemouth, about Wes Hoolahan buying a penalty for Norwich, and so on, and so on.  Consistent with the “we only get s**t refs” chant, it’s easier to bring to mind instances where things have gone against us.  Indignation burns deeper, perhaps.  So let’s be clear that the perverse preciousness of Champions’ League television schedule regulations did us a huge favour.  That was evident when the implications of Reading’s draw with Bradford – that the replay would have to be this Monday – became clear, and was underlined in big fat marker pen when they announced a starting line up with nine changes, four debutants and very few senior picks.  You’d kinda hope that we’d have beaten Reading’s senior team whatever the circumstances; taking the Cup replay out of the equation you’d have been left with a side that have underwhelmed but are probably safe from relegation, the Royals were never going to be the most driven of opponents, but this one fell for us.  As if to provide further emphasis, “no we really don’t give a crap about this one”, one of those debutants was Slovenian Jure Travner whose Watford career under Malky was only memorable for his never quite making the first team.  So… yes, this fell for us.  The fact that Reading’s league season is all but done and dusted and that they could afford to do this doesn’t make the scheduling of their replay for Monday any less inappropriate.

2- For all of which, Reading’s scratch side were some way short of terrible.  Limited, sure, lacking anything like our threat in front of goal however many goals Yakubu, looking a very old 32, has scored in the top flight.  But organised and competent.  We weren’t gifted any goals, they all needed crafting and were each elegant, sculpted things.   It started after a minute, Abdi passing the ball into the net after being prised through by Troy Deeney.  Abdi, the one concern from the day, appeared to aggravate his injury in the move and departed soon after, his replacement Forestieri playing in Vydra at the end of the half and setting up Deeney after the break.  Steve Clarke identified our clinical finishing as the difference, bemoaning the harshness of the scoreline but the visitors never came as close as Motta did with his wicked dipping volley that crashed off the bar, or as Forestieri did with his scissor kick that forced Andersen into a quite brilliant low save low to his right.  Our finishing was great.  The rest of it wasn’t bad either.

3- And it was all perhaps rather too comfortable.  Abdi’s early goal averted the threat of impatience in any failure to take the lead in A Game We Ought To Win, but at three up the atmosphere became drowsy, our football slowed down and Reading weren’t ready to just lie down and see the game out.  If our squad lacks anything, as has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a big lump in central defence.  Zat Knight, who briefly looked as if he might be that man, had little competition in the air from our lot, and fear of his threat forced a succession of corners, as if we were happy to sacrifice another set piece in preference to allowing the big defender to get a header on target.  Eventually they took advantage, Jem Karacan on his return from injury picking out the top corner  after a scruffy clearance…  and briefly there was a concern, we couldn’t seem to snap out of it and the visitors were in the ascendancy.

4- Until they weren’t.  The change in shape, Angella coming on for the fading Vydra as we switched to 3-5-2, seemed to hand us back the joystick immediately and Forestieri rounded off what had become a masterclass with a drilled left foot finish, a well-earned goal and a celebration that screamed catharsis.  Relegated to the role of fourth-choice striker Nando’s performances of late had not suggested a happy camper, petulance and laziness creeping back into his game.  After last Saturday’s incident with Bakary Sako, which was neither as violent as his reaction made it look nor as ludicrous as an unhelpful camera angle and lazy “analysis” suggested you had to fear in which direction his season was going to go.  Slav came out fighting, defending his striker’s conduct late in the week and then had the confidence to thrust him back into the fray early in the game in the mischief-making hole vacated by Abdi.  He took some time to warm up but ultimately delivered what was comfortably his best, effective and infectious performance of the season, punctuated not just with a goal but with two “assists” borne of combining his quick feet with a cool head and the right ball.  Well done Nando, and well done Slav.

5- Much of the focus off the pitch was on Nic Cruwys, who remains in hospital following the horrific, anachronistic attack in Wolverhampton last weekend.  I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the many heartfelt and appropriate things that have been said elsewhere, but it’s worth echoing those sentiments anyway.  Our thoughts are with Nic and his family.  Many references in the aftermath to the “Watford family” and the wider “football family” in the context of, in particular, the vast amount of money raised via Ollie Floyd’s online collection.  My wife snorts at the suggestion that the Watford family fosters an almost religious sense of belonging, a very real family; she disputes it.  She’s wrong, of course, not that she’ll ever admit it.  The best of that has been on show this week and to their immense credit the club and the players have reinforced that too, not to mention supporters of other clubs who have donated to the fund and shared their disgust.

I’d like to close by mentioning a departed family member, Guy Judge, a one-time BSaD contributor and very nice man who lost his battle with cancer on Saturday morning.  A significant empty seat at the family table, he’ll be sorely missed.  All the best mate.  You ‘orn.


Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (21/02/2015) 22/02/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.

1- I’ve been staring at a blank screen for half an hour.  I’ve even been distracted by bloody Jonathan Ross, of all things.  Not fun, this.  Not fun at all.  It doesn’t matter that there is stuff to say, this isn’t a search for inspiration or a dredging up of five thunks.  That can be difficult too… but this is just purgatory.  Reliving five goal wins is fun, joyful.  There wasn’t much to enjoy this afternoon, not much to take pleasure in.  You want to forget about this one?  Head home and think about something else?  Yeah, me too.  We’d all been looking forward to this, on the back of three unlikely wins from challenging positions this had been another chance to test ourselves against one of our fellow contenders.  Nervous tension all week, nervous tension for much of the game as the noise of the crowd was sucked inwards by the gravity of the occasion.  Now… I feel let down.  Not by the team, or the manager, or the referee.  But by myself.  Why such an emotional investment in something so brittle, so unreliable, so meaningless.  Screw this.  Bastards.

2- Much of the game was very well balanced, a tug of war between two sides carefully, cautiously restricting their trading of blows to a congested midfield.  Each side had spells in the first half, but chances were few;  early on Layún picked out Deeney with a nine iron from deep in the midfield… a difficult ask, the ball coming over Deeney for him to head out of the air but not quite low enough, over the bar.  An early encouraging move, we were keen to get behind Norwich’s high line quickly but this was to be as good as it got for the Hornets. City’s approach to defending revolved around preventing us having any possession in the final third, this largely achieved by Tettey and Johnson hounding down the space in midfield to hurry our attempts at penetration with Russell Martin and the monstrous Bassong, who looks as likely to return to the Hornets  any time soon as John Barnes, Ashley Young or Clements, sweeping up much of what came through.  On the few occasions when we did get hold of the ball in and around their box our we were able to do the things we’re good at and City looked vulnerable, get-attable.  Late in the first half some snappy passing released Abdi; Johnson was befuddled and brought him down in panic, he got a yellow and the “shield” Tettey followed him into the book for his protests.  Abdi’s free kick took a nick and went over but this was a positive way to end the half.  Neither side had been on the canvas, but we were probably ahead on points… and with everyone above us losing or already condemned to defeat, the mood was positive.

3- Much has been made of the limited number of chances that we made throughout, but our defence had looked solid and Norwich’s compact shape cost them in terms of the number of bodies they were able to commit forward. Frankly, if anyone was going to score it was us but you would have been reckless to put money on that for all of our attacking riches.  So…  the award of the penalty was both unexpected on any number of levels and absolutely fundamental to the outcome; like ourselves City had barely had any controlled possession in the final third but Hoolahan put his head down and ran, and then fell over.  The referee gave the penalty, Gomes went the right way and got down well but the kick was right in the corner.  It hadn’t looked like a penalty, and the Hornets’ frustration with an official whose control on the game had been fingertip since the first whistle nearly boiled over.  We’d nullified City’s threat, there seemed no prospect of them scoring and the decision to award the penalty changed the game; newly invigorated, the visitors had no cause to deviate from the sit-deep-and-break approach that so many have tried before, if rarely as effectively.

4- The point is, of course, that frustrating as the apparent injustice was it’s par for the course.  Not in the sense that we have any more bad decisions go against us than anyone else – much as it feels like it sometimes – but in the sense that stuff happens and you’ve got to deal with it an awful lot better than we did for the rest of the game.  If City were lucky to get the break then they didn’t half build on their luck, whereas the Hornets lost all shape and discipline.  Yes, Cameron Jerome’s follow up was a brilliant piece of opportunism and skill, dropping a shot over the stranded Gomes from outside the box but we were already far more ragged at that stage than at any earlier stage.  Subsequently we could have conceded a third before we did… Heurelho Gomes’ miraculous save to the incredulous Johnson’s thumping header low down to his left would have provoked a standing ovation in a less glum environment before City wrapped things up and compounded our misery by pulling off the move that Layún and Deeney had attempted earlier in the game, Grabban applying the finish to a ball from deep on the right.  We have spent the last few weeks digging out victories from improbable positions, watching with growing respect as Slav’s switches in tactics have made us stronger.  After going behind there was none of that… no sign of any fightback, nothing added by any of the substitutions.  We fell apart, and concluded a shapeless mess.

5- It was good to see Slav acknowledge this in his post-match comments… that the real problem lay not with a bad refereeing decision, however consequential, but with our response to it.  Slav’s dispassionate, analytical assessment of games as something that he observes rather than participates in jars a little to an English ear accustomed to observations made in an aggressive first person plural, but there’s great reassurance in him both drawing sensible conclusions and not hiding behind any bullshit.  Much earlier in the season we were complaining about our side being less than the sum of its parts, being a collection of talented individuals without a common purpose.  He’s applied corrective surgery and it’s questionable whether any of our three recent wins would have been achieved in similar circumstances in September or October.  You’ve got to trust his ability to recover from this also.  Because that’s the value today, if anything…  this was, in many respects, a Premier League defeat;  so much good work undone by one moment – of this case of bad luck, it might as well have been quality – following which things ran away from us resulting in a scoreline that was simultaneously both harsh and fully deserved.  If we do go up, that’s going to happen against better opposition than Norwich.  If we can’t cope with the fallout from that, if we’re not strong enough to recover mentally and take it out on the next mob then we need to stop kidding ourselves that we’re equipped for the top flight.  Tuesday night at home is a godsend, and will be interesting.  Today was disappointing, but needn’t be disastrous.  There’s a load of games to go.


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