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End of Term Report Part 3 27/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

9- Troy Deeney

I have to confess… and it is a confession, a source of embarrassment… that I begun to have doubts at the start of the season.  Not in terms of Troy’s leadership, of his contribution to our attacking play.  But in terms of his ability to find the net… despite 20 goals in each of the previous three campaigns, this higher level, the cagier way of playing, fewer chances… and perhaps less of the ball in the opponents’ penalty area.  Troy’s not going to score too many by breaking past a high defensive line.  By the end of October he still hadn’t found the net.

Which makes his subsequent achievements all the more impressive.  He must have had doubts himself, for all that his overall contribution was still tremendous… you could see it, a slight tentativeness in front of goal that was so uncharacteristic.  But it’s as if the challenges of the Premier League were merely a temporary obstacle… they too were eventually, inevitably crushed underneath the tidal wave that is Troy Deeney.  His fifteen goals, in the end, stand comparison with the 66 in the three seasons that preceded this one, but only tell half the story.  My next-door neighbour, a Man United fan, was astonished at how much defensive work he does.  “He’s your best player on corners… in both boxes”.  And at the end of the season Troy pushed on furiously, battering through the deckchairs and suitcases that littered the Carrow Road pitch and dragging much of the team in his wake.  Difficult to overstate his importance to this team.

Next Season: As discussed on these pages, I can’t help be anxious if I look at Leicester and think “who would I sign, if I were them?”.  Needing a bigger squad, quality players, but not established enough at the top of the division to attract the biggest stars.  Solace can be gained by looking at how the Pozzos retained Antonio di Natale at Udinese, a totem for that team, despite offers from elsewhere.  Two years ago, retaining Troy was the clarion call that heralded our promotion.  Retaining him this summer would be no less significant.

10 (#1)- Matej Vydra

Our model being what it is there’s all sorts of potential for peculiar career paths but Vydra’s erratic trajectory is particularly extraordinary.  His two seasons at Vicarage Road have been successes – a blistering half-of-season under Zola which tapered off as his head was turned before igniting with a flourish against Leicester.  And a very effective role as one of the prolific three last year.  In between…  a year used sparingly and often out of position at West Brom, and then this calamity at Reading.

It seems extraordinary that at the Etihad in August there was genuine anger in the stands at Vydra’s confinement to the bench as we chased a way back into the game.  Three days later he joined Reading in a lucrative loan deal with an option to buy that very quickly disappeared from consideration.  It’s interesting that, reviewing Reading messageboards, the jury was still very much out in January.  He’d only scored a couple of goals (he’d boost his figures with 6 across the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup), but the line was “alongside a target man…”, “if not fielded on his own up front….”, “young, potential…”. By the end of the season, that goodwill had evaporated entirely with the resentment at Reading’s poor season finding a ready target.

Looking back over which, there’s a recurring theme which will be at the front of the minds of those who’ve watched him for any length of time.  Vydra’s limitations aren’t on the pitch… he’s a fine striker at Championship level, and there’s justification in wondering whether he’d serve a counterattacking side in the top flight.  His problems are largely of his own creation… his occasionally sulky demeanour betrays a lack of focus, easily distracted, easily disrupted.  The opposite of his erstwhile strike partner, in other words.

Next Season:  Vydra’s at a bit of a crossroads, one suspects.  He needs to find somewhere where he can showcase his ability again – there are many who would welcome him back, despite the last twelve months.  Probably not Reading, though.

10 (#2)- Obbi Oularé

There can be few more dramatic illustrations of how much has changed than the fact that we are able to sign a teenage striker for a reported £6 million as a “project”. A far cry from the days of Kenny Jackett or Ray Lewington’s management, when the idea of spending any money on anyone was fanciful. One for the future or not, Oularé must have been expecting a little more game time than a half against Newcastle in the cup and a couple of brief cameos in the Premier League. What little we’ve seen of him underlined his “one for the future” label… big and strong and keen with a good touch… but very very raw. Encouraging, though, that his attitude – as viewed through the prism of social media – has remained positive and focused. You want him to do well.

Next Season: One of GT’s lines was that tall players and particularly tall strikers take a bit longer to physically develop, to catch up with their height. Will be interesting to see how quickly Obbi puts himself in a position for us to be able to make a call on the value of that investment.

11- Nordin Amrabat

Nordin Amrabat’s full debut was at Forest in the FA Cup. It was a lively, spiky showing, suggesting that we’d signed a potent new weapon in our attacking armoury. A winger and a striker had been suggested as January requirements… and Nordin had seemingly been brought in to fill the latter role and provide cover and competition for the front two.

That Odion Ighalo’s form tailed off so visibly in the second half of the season without Nordin ever pressurising his starting place reveals how well that turned out. A player who has never been prolific at his previous clubs has rarely looked like a natural striker… there have been positive contributions from the bench that have brought the side some much needed directness, but almost invariably in wide positions rather than up front and it’s hard to argue that he’s built on that impressive debut showing in Nottingham. He started only once in the last two months of the season – the pre-Wembley dead rubber at Upton Park in which he was dismissed, stupidly, in the closing minutes to invalidate himself from consideration for the semi-final. Like Obbi Oularé, we’ve seen sparks of promise… unlike Oularé, Nordin was signed to do a job now. Improvement needed.

Next Season: We’ve not quite worked out how to use Nordin, and it’s difficult to see where he’d fit in the 3-5-2 formation that Walter Mazzarri reportedly favours. At this stage, prior to whatever toing and froing the summer holds, it’s difficult to see him featuring prominently.

End of Term Report Part 2 23/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

5- Sebastian Prödl

Now that’s wat a centre-back is supposed to look like. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Could easily work as a panel beater, or a night-club bouncer. Seb was convincing from the moment he took to the field, and if he occasionally slipped up – the losing of Glenn Murray, drifting off his shoulder at Dean Court, provoked his losing his place at Stoke – then that only added to the air of authenticity. That’s what centre-backs are supposed to do.

He’s also the most Austrian looking man in the world. The centre-parting. The hairband. The goatee-thing. Put him in a denim jacket with soft-rock badges stitched on, or names scraped on in biro and he’d blend into the background on the Maria Hilfer Straße, no problem at all. That’s Seb all over. What you see is what you get. Sorted.

Next Season: More, please.

6- Joel Ekstrand

Yes, I know. But if nobody – not us, not the club – is going to commemorate departures when they happen then we take these opportunities when they arise.

There’s been no formal confirmation of Ekstrand’s departure… Quique had always sounded quite positive on the subject, reportedly keen to retain the Swede whose comfort on the ball was deemed well suited to the Premier League. But quotes attributed to Ekstrand himself sounded less convinced about his future being here, and with his contract expiring at the end of June you kinda feel that if he was going to stay a new deal would have been announced by now.

Joel’s form had it’s wobbles, particularly during his second season – “The Sannino season” – where he often looked nervous and hesitant and attracted some stick. Worth bearing in mind, though, that in a position where there’s often been serious competition for places (Hall, Cassetti, Hoban, Neuton, Angella, Doyley, Tamas, Bassong) Ekstrand was an all but automatic pick when fit. There were reasons for that… tough, mobile, elegant and confident with the ball at his feet, Joel was an asset, a fixed point around which much of the Pozzo turnover flowed. His Watford career probably won’t be remembered as one of the defining ones of the Pozzo regime, but it deserves better than being jeered off on a stretcher by bloody Ipswich.

Next Season: Having not played first team football for eighteen months, the chief hope is that Ekstrand is able to return to the level he left us at. Beyond that, you’d hope that he pitches up at a club where he can get some games and reignite his career. Best of luck Joel.

7- José Manuel Jurado

It should be borne in mind that Jurado’s task was not an easy one.  The expensive signing.  The midfield maestro, the creative spark.  The one that Quique wanted. All roles, mantles, that added expectation. And all of that aside… he was established at this level.  He knew how to do this.  Not one of last year’s crew, not someone who had to adjust to a higher level.  He was the higher level.  He was the one who was going to come in and make the difference, help us bridge the gap.

And in a way, he’s looked capable of doing so.  Persistently.  His control is flawless.  He rarely gives the ball away.  He finds space in an instinctive, effortless way, as if drawn by gravity. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would describe Jurado’s first season in England as successful.  He got a shock early on, without doubt… at Everton he looked bewildered by the force and the pace of what was going on around him.  By his own admission he needed to toughen up and did so, visibly, but his impact never lived up to our lofty expectations.

One could argue that Jurado’s impact in terms of those key metrics, Goals Scored and Assists (statistics, pah) was no worse than that of Almen Abdi’s, say, often fielded in a comparable position on the other side of the pitch.  Difference was, Abdi had credit in the bank…  we’d seen him do what he can do, and we’d seen him dig in and work to adapt his game to the role he was being asked to play.  Crucially, he got stuck in too…  you don’t judge an attacking midfielder’s contribution predominantly on whether you track back or not  but if you’re not doing the defensive job, you’d better be doing the attacking one bloody well.  Jurado rarely ticked either box.

Next Season:  Difficult to see Jurado remaining at the club.

8- Valon Behrami

If Jurado looked surprised by the opening day draw with Everton, Valon Behrami went at it like an uncaged lion.  Snarling and combative, his experience had clearly taught him where the line was and for the most part he was disciplined and stayed on the right side of it.  Except when he didn’t…  and that red card against Swansea determined the trajectory of his season as Ben Watson seized his chance and never looked back.  From being a nailed-on starter, even a coup, Behrami became something of a bit-part player – five of his fourteen league starts came before mid-September – and whilst he rarely put a foot wrong when called upon he clearly wasn’t getting the game time he expected.  Nobody would have been surprised to see him move on in January – he didn’t start another game until the reverse against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium.

I’m glad he didn’t leave.  It was commented on early on that it was good to have a bearded warrior charging around at number eight again.  That feels right.  And the cold, slightly detached glaze of his eyes would scare the hell out of you if you were lined up against him.  Like… this is someone a little bit disconnected who can’t be relied upon to behave in a predictable way.

Something, one suspects, went wrong beyond Valon simply losing his place in the side.  He’s an experienced enough player to know the score – you get sent off, the guy who comes in plays a blinder, you have to work your way back in whoever you are.  Instead of a central role, once 4-4-2 had been established, Valon was often fielded in a wide position – but it was back in the centre, at the Emirates, that he had his best game of the season.  Whatever… it was clear that Behrami was an unhappy bunny by the end of the season.  And an unhappy Behrami, one suspects, is not to be treated lightly.

Next Season: Mazzarri signed Behrami for Napoli, and the Swiss midfielder was virtually ever-present in a second-place finish in the season they spent together at the Stadio San Paolo.  Behrami, one suspects, has cancelled the removal vans.







End of Term Report Part 1 20/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Ten of these, I’ve done now.  Ten.  From Junior Osborne and Dominic Blizzard through Will Buckley and Gavin Massey to José Manuel Jurado and Obbi Oularé, you can dip into them typically in the May entries to your right.  This one is significant in being the first not to feature Lloydy, and as an aside it does feel rather odd and inappropriate that he was permitted to slip quietly out of a side door in the autumn, much as his departure was no great surprise.  Anyway… four today, four more on Monday and so on.  With a bit of luck we’ll be done by the Euros…

1 – Heurelho Gomes

My favourite Watford goalkeeper is Tony Coton.  I remember Sherwood and Eric Steele, just about, but Coton was between the sticks by the time I got my first season ticket on returning to the country in 1985.  In my mind’s eye, TC was unbeatable… agile, defiant, capable of impossible acrobatics, confident and dominant on crosses with a personality the size of an articulated truck.  Over the years since Watford have had many goalkeepers, some of them very good goalkeepers and significant in the club’s history.  None, however, has borne comparison with Coton, and over time I’ve begun to wonder whether my recollection is coloured by the golden tint of that halcyon eighties team.  Can he really have been that good, or am I setting an unreasonable benchmark with which to harshly judge all subsequent pretenders?

Heurelho Gomes’ season in 2015-16 has reassured me that the heights that I associate with Coton are not fanciful.  He has been every bit as reliable and imposing this season as last but at this more exalted level and with the team both geared around being difficult to penetrate and in greater need of his experience we have been far more reliant on Gomes than we were last year.  We had many, many more goals in us last term, and plenty of knowledge of our environment.  The extent to which Gomes was up to the task will, by the time you read this, surely have been reflect in him claiming the Player of the Season award.  The Brazilian has been almost as good as the version of Coton that exists within my head, and there can be no greater praise.

Next Season: A cornerstone of the side.

2- Allan Nyom

Extending the theme of treating bygone icons as a reference, three decades of the right back slot being dominated by Nigel Gibbs and Lloyd Doyley have meant that it’s a long time since the position has been a concern.  A little odd, then, during a successful season for us to have such issues at right back.  It’s tempting to suggest that Allan Nyom’s  dip in form towards the end of the campaign merely mirrored that of many of his teammates, but in reality there were some iffy performances earlier on as well; for all that Nyom is tough and physical, it’s been sides that have put him under defensive pressure with quick, direct running on the flanks that have caused him particular problems.  There have been some decent outings – he started the season with a tour de force at Goodison Park, and his booting of Raheem Sterling into the advertising hoardings at the Etihad was a highlight of an afternoon in which there were few others.  Increasingly there were more difficult days than good ones, however, and his outing at Carrow Road was so spectacularly poor that Craig Cathcart was restored to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable right back slot for the final day.

Next Season: Should the new man persist with four at the back, right back will surely be a priority for recruitment.

3- Miguel Britos

When Miguel was signed, a Uruguayan centre-back already suspended for nutting someone in his last game to Napoli, it was quite natural that a picture began to form in the minds of supporters.  When he followed this up with a 75th minute red card at Deepdale during his August debut the deal was sealed.  He was regarded with something between disdain and awe, an anti-hero after less than ninety minutes of action.

What nobody expected was for our reckless South American thug to be introduced to the side for the October trip to Stoke, unprompted by any injury or suspension, to disrupt the hitherto encouraging partnership forming between Craig Cathcart and Sebastian Prödl.  Instantly he impressed and immediately the cartoon character in our heads dissolved, never to return.  In contrast to the wild caricature we’d imagined, Britos has been utterly controlled – hard, yes, you wouldn’t mess. But he’s been, yes, disciplined in everything that he’s done and for much of the season he was the pick of the defenders, authoritative and in charge in a way that the best of his recent predecessors in the middle of the defence have looked… but at a higher level altogether.

Next Season: Britos’ form dipped as the season finished, but with his former bossWalter Mazzarri – who signed Britos for Bologna for  €9 million and integrated him into his Napoli side – ostensibly lined up, Miguel should be nailed on to be a mainstay again next term.

4- Mario Suárez

Here’s a conundrum.  A player who, apparently, we signed in the face of hot competition really hasn’t lived up to his exciting billing as yet.  At times he’s looked majestic… executing passes that haven’t even occurred to us watching on in the stands.  “There’s clearly a magnificent player in there somewhere”.  However to say that he hasn’t got to grips with the British game is an understatement… he looks leggy and laboured, too often a passenger in an area where you really can’t carry passengers, an area we’d expected him to dominate.  He comes across really well… there’s no hint of slyness or dishonesty about him, you want him to come good for his own sake as well as for ours.  Will be one of the more fascinating ones to watch at the start of next term.

Next Season: It’s been said that he needs to be in a midfield three to be effective, with others doing his fetching and carrying.  If Mazzarri is appointed he may well get that opportunity.  Jury’s out, but you wouldn’t want to call which way this will go.

Helping Hands 2015/2016 18/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

So here we are.  In a ritual that may not serve any other purpose than mentally drawing a line under the season for me, I’ve again gone through match reports and video clips and compiled a table depicting where exactly our goals came from in the campaign jus gone.  As ever,  unlike scoring of goals and despite any suggestions to the contrary there is no undisputed definition of what an assist IS. I’ve applied the same definition as in previous years, and it’s 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.

It’s a detail too frequently overlooked that the fixture list congestion thing only really affects the clubs in European competition in what is, in my head, still a “new” bloated and self-serving format.  Being on BT Sport has rendered the Champions League even less relevant… it gets mentioned on the radio occasionally, but gets filed with rugby and cricket and other irrelevance in terms of the attention I can offer it.  Anyway… cup run or no, we played only 44 games this season as compared to 49 last and against significantly stronger opposition with an altogether more frugal – however successful – approach.  As such… fewer goals, and a less exciting table.

A table that, nonetheless, tells a few stories particularly well.  The most striking detail is how the names dominating the assists table in the same way that they dominated the goals scored column reflects our attacking approach – a solid midfield, very little pace or width, everything going through the front two – almost entirely. Only Ben Watson’s two goals, Seb Prodl’s two goals and Almen Abdi’s free kick against Villa – four of the five set pieces – involved neither an assist nor a finishing touch from Ighalo or Deeney.

The same story is told by the paucity of contributions from other sources. José Manuel Jurado’s lack of contribution in this regard has often, not unreasonably, been used as a stick to beat him with, but the penalty he earned against Sunderland – soft or otherwise, he had at least attacked the box to draw the foul – was his third.  That’s three more than the traditionally reliable Almen Abdi, like Jurado fielded in an awkward and unflattering wide position, but worth remembering that he only got three last season, too.  Mario Suárez is another who failed to register, whilst Etienne Capoue’s unreliably excellent contributions only earned him a single tick at St James’ Park.

Otherwise, the most startling detail probably results from a somewhat anomalous game in the League Cup at Deepdale that saw five names make their only starts of the season.  Amongst these were Matej Vydra, Gabriele Angella and Fernando Forestieri, who jump out of the list as if left over from a bygone age.  But also Connor Smith, whose 55 minutes represent the only on-pitch contribution from an Academy graduate in 2015-16.

Will return soon with the End of Term Report.  Enjoy the summer…

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Deeney 11 41+2 15 Eve (A), Swa (H), New (A), AsV (A), Nor (H), Liv (H), Tot (H), New (H), Ars (A – FAC), Ars (A – FAC), Nor (A)
Ighalo 7 38+4 17 Sto (A), Sto (A), MaU (H), AsV (A), Nor (H), New (H), AsV (H)
Jurado 3 29+1 0 Che (A), CrP (FAC), Sun (H)
Berghuis 2 1+10 0 WHU (A), AsV (H)
Guedioura 2 6+17 1 WBA (A), Sun (H)
Anya 2 18+15 0 WHU (H), Sto (H)
Watson 2 37+4 2 AsV (A), Lee (H – FAC)
Paredes 1 9+11 0 Lei (A)
Holebas 1 13 0 Eve (H)
Behrami 1 15+7 0 Liv (H)
Aké 1 24+4 1 WHU (H)
Nyom 1 33+3 0 Sun (A)
Capoue 1 36 0 New (A)
Diamanti 0 0+3 0
Ibarbo 0 0+4 0
Angella 0 1 0
Forestieri 0 1 0
Smith 0 1 0
Vydra 0 1 0
Arlauskis 0 1+1 0
Oularé 0 1+2 0
Layún 0 3+1 1
Pantilimon 0 4 0
Amrabat 0 6+9 0
Suárez 0 9+8 0
Prödl 0 22+2 2
Britos 0 27 0
Abdi 0 29+9 2
Gomes 0 39 0
Cathcart 0 39+1 1

Check out the 2014-152013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.


The List 2016. 16/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Here we are again.  The season ends, the rumours begin.  They’ve been going for a while, actually, so there’s a goodly number already listed;  the list will be updated throughout the summer.
* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Summer 2015 List
January 2016 List

Running Total: 90

Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)*                                    – SIGNED
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)*                            – joined Bournemouth on loan
Isaac Success (Granada)                                            – SIGNED
Aly Malle (Black Stars)                                               – SIGNED?
Takuma Asano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)                 – joined Arsenal
Uche Agbo (Granada)                                                -SIGNED?
Zouhair Feddal (Levante)                                      – joined Alavés
Josip Iličić (Fiorentina)
Daniel Bentley (Southend United)                          – joined Brentford
Joe Allen (Liverpool)                                               – joined Stoke City
Jordan Ibe (Liverpool)                                         – joined Bournemouth
Albert Rusnak (Groningen)
Davide Santon (Inter)*
Anthony Knockaert (Brighton)
Jefferson Murillo (Cúcuta Deportivo)
Lee Jae Sung (Keonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Sasha (Internacional)
Allan Saint-Maximin (Monaco)                          – joined Bastia on loan
Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading)                               – joined West Brom
Saido Berahino (West Bromwich Albion)
Jordan Lukaku (Oostende)                                       – joined Lazio
Djibril Sidibe (Lille)                                                   – joined Monaco
Marco Andreolli (Inter)
Juan Jesus (Inter)                                            – joined Roma on loan
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)*
Sergi Canos (Liverpool)                                           – joined Norwich
Adem Ljajić (Roma)                                                    – joined Torino
Emanuele Giaccherini (Sunderland)                            – joined Napoli
Ernest Ohemeng (Morierense)
Christian Maggio (Napoli)
Gaston Ramirez (Southampton)                      – joined Middlesbrough
Alessandro Gazzi (Torino)                               – joined Palermo
Jakub Jankto (Udinese)
Bernardo Espinosa (Sporting Gijon)                        – joined Middlesbrough
Alhassan Wakaso (Rio Ave)
Calum Chambers (Arsenal)                         -joined Middlesbrough on loan
Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli)*                                          SIGNED ON LOAN
Pervis Estupiñán (Liga de Quito)                                   -SIGNED?
Marcel Tisserand (Monaco)                                  – joined Ingolstadt
Jonathan Biabiany (Inter)
Neven Subotić (Borussia Dortmund)
Mirko Validfiori (Napoli)                                       – joined Torino
Diego Laxalt (Inter)                                                        – joined Genoa
Cristian Zapata (Milan)
Roberto Pereyra (Juventus)                                                      -SIGNED
Daryl Janmaat (Newcastle)                                                       -SIGNED
Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese)*
Abel Hernandez (Hull City)
Khouma Babacar (Fiorentina)*
Seko Fofana (Manchester City)                                   – joined Udinese
Dame N’Doye (Trabzonspor)
Mustapha Yatabaré (Trabzonspor)                       – joined Karabükspor
Hakim Ziyech (Twente)                                            – joined Ajax
Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg)            – joined Augsburg
Etrit Berisha (Lazio)                                           – joined Atalanta on loan
Andros Townsend (Newcastle)*                              – joined Crystal Palace
Franco Vazquez (Palermo)                                       – joined Sevilla
Bruno Peres (Torino)                                               – joined Roma on loan
Chukwudi Agor (ASJ Academy)
Christian Kabasele (Genk)                                               – SIGNED
Wilfred Ndidi (Genk)
Thomas Delaney (Kobenhavn)                                – joined Galatasaray
Ragnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar)                              – joined Fulham
Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli)
Diafra Sakho (West Ham United)
Simone Zaza (Juventus)*                                – joined West Ham on loan
Mario Lemina (Juventus)
Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht)
Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit)
Brice Dja-Djédjé (Marseille)                                          – SIGNED
Sofiane Boufal (Lille)                                          – joined Southampton
Bruno Martins Indi (Porto)                                 – joined Stoke on loan
Sven Kums (Gent)                                             – joined Udinese via Watford?
Cheick Tioté (Newcastle United)
Mauricio Isla (Juventus)*                                        – joined Cagliari
Mario Mandžukić (Juventus)
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Stefano Denswil (Club Brugge)
Kenedy (Chelsea)                                                 – SIGNED ON LOAN
Younes Kaboul (Sunderland)                                     – SIGNED
Matías Fernández (Fiorentina)                       – joined Milan on loan
Óliver Torres (Atlético Madrid)                         – joined Porto on loan
Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid)                  – joined Sunderland on loan
James McCarthy (Everton)
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Pedro Delgado (Inter)
Stefano Okaka (Anderlecht)                                    – SIGNED
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)                                       – joined Bournemouth on loan
Haviv Ohayon (Maccabi Tel Aviv)                                – SIGNED
Felipe Caicedo (Espanyol)

José Holebas (Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Besiktas, Konyaspor, Basaksehir)
Heurelho Gomes (Everton)
Miguel Layún (Real Madrid, Porto*)                                   – joined Porto
Odion Ighalo (West Ham*, Everton, West Brom, Shanghai SIPG)
Gabriele Angella (Swansea, Udinese)                              – joined Udinese
Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord)                       – joined Feyenoord on loan
Troy Deeney (Leicester City, Tottenham, Everton)
Essaid Belkalem (Trabzonspor)                             – released
Adalberto Peñaranda (Tottenham, West Ham, Barcelona, Real Madrid)
.                                                                             – joined Udinese on loan
Miguel Britos (Cagliari)
José Manuel Jurado (Malaga, Espanyol)                        – joined Espanyol
Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday*)            – joined Sheffield Wednesday
Obbi Oularé (Celtic, Zulte Waregem)       – joined Zulte Waregem on loan
Allan Nyom (Barcelona, Espanyol, Real Betis, Eibar, West Brom)
.                                                                             – joined West Brom
Juan Carlos Paredes (Trabzonspor, Fulham, Reading)
Costel Pantilimon (Aston Villa)
Mario Suárez (Espanyol, Gijón, Valencia)        – joined Valencia on loan
Craig Cathcart (Newcastle)
Ikechi Anya (Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle, Burnley, Derby)
.                                                                – joined Derby
Matej Vydra (Leeds, Birmingham, Derby)                          – joined Derby
Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday)            – joined Sheffield Wednesday
Valon Behrami (Torino)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Monaco, Lorient)
Nordin Amrabat (Granada)
Christian Kabasele (Udinese)
Sebastian Prödl (Udinese)
Tommie Hoban (Blackburn)                                    – joined Blackburn on loan
Isaac Success (Galatasaray)
Jerome Sinclair (Norwich)
Sean Murray (Swindon)                                           – joined Swindon


Norwich City 4 Watford 2 (11/05/2016) 12/05/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- On the face of it, this had the potential to be fascinating. At least, that was the situation when we booked tickets, before Sunderland beat Chelsea to rather diffuse the anticipation. A spoiler on Twitter betraying an upcoming plot, “Ohhhh, that’s how it finishes”. Nonetheless, having opted for East Anglia on a Wednesday night ahead of Merseyside on a Sunday afternoon, there were plenty of considerations to factor in. How would the home side approach it – nervously? Bloody-mindedly? How aggressive and professional would we be? How would the narrative of the evening, inevitably influenced by events on Wearside, change the mood as the ground suffered hope, anxiety, frustration, despair?

It’s been ten years since I was last at Carrow Road. Admittedly there may have been reasons for recollection of that trip being less than crystal clear… but I’m sure there were decent pies, commensurate with the profile and reputation of the club’s now joint-majority shareholder. So it was something of a disappointment to see Pukka Pies on offer, one of several respects in which Norwich’s offering felt a little bit unconvincing… the pre-match kerfuffle was a bundle of ideas pinched from other clubs, the home crowd shifting around uncomfortably unconvinced and unrallied by an excitable announcer. The (welcome) vogue for welcoming visiting supporters by customising the away end with appropriately coloured decor or posters of the visitors’ heroes of yore, was pursued… but in the most token, half-arsed of ways.


2- But even half an arse was more than Watford could muster. It’s not unreasonable to argue that, our situation and form being what it is, travelling supporters kinda ought to have known that a non-performance like this was a strong possibility. It’s also true that Norwich had an awful lot more riding on this than we had. To be expected, perhaps, that they’d be the more focused, the more motivated. But even accounting for both factors and to whatever degree you sympathise with the position that Quique Flores is in – of which more later – there was no excusing this pathetic shambles. The club, the team, the manager do still have a responsibility to uphold… to their supporters, those daft enough to come have nonetheless spent time and money, and so on and so on. A well-worn argument. As importantly, but for the way the evening transpired in Sunderland, fans of both north-east clubs who may have been depending on this outcome would have had every right to look at this and ask “what the bloody hell was that all about?”. We’re not the only ones to take our foot off, sure. That doesn’t make it acceptable, whatever the magnitude of achievement that has or hasn’t gone before it. Lack of ability you can forgive. Lack of effort, less so.

And the lack of effort started from the top. So much for taking the shackles off when safety was secured; the line-up was as uninspiring as it was predictable. No question that the “difficult to beat” thing was a valid and successful means to an end, but having achieved that end we were entitled to look forward to more than this perfunctory twaddle. The ever-willing Ikechi Anya’s retention at full-back, occasionally a worthwhile selection but not against an opponent like Nathan Redmond on an evening like this, rang alarm bells straight away and not just because of the story it suggested about Flores’ relationship with his four professional full-backs one of whom – the admittedly appalling Allan Nyom – appeared to have been selected purely out of necessity. The concern rose not from the selection now and on Sunday, but from the implication that the other four, all of whom having impressed at least intermittently, were inferior options. Flores’ impotence in correcting this tallies with the most galling betrayal, for me, the public concession that his team was effectively ready for the beach. As if that was outside of his control. Whatever your beliefs about Flores’ future, he’s not making it very difficult to say goodbye.

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3- And so we are dragged, kicking and screaming, to the football itself. The first ten minutes or so weren’t too bad… we started the more positive as the competing emotions around the stadium took a while to settle. We looked reasonably bright in attacking positions all evening in fairness, where the front two – including the extraordinary Deeney, again more later – didn’t stop plugging away. The goal came, a bit of a gift – not the only instance of uncertain handling from John Ruddy – but 1-0 and we’re away and singing the predictable songs about the goal’s implications.

And then Norwich come back at us, and immediately things looked very much less than comfortable. Gone is the solid, well-drilled, obstinate block that was the bedrock of much of our early success in the season… Norwich ran at us with pace and purpose and, with the obstinate exception of Ben Watson, we ushered them through. Not so much losing the battle in midfield as denying it’s existence altogether. Runners weren’t tracked, City frequently overloaded, and at the back we were all over the place as City’s breaks frequently saw Nyom shuffling back from a central position and Cathcart forced wide to cover, or Pinto and Redmond doubling up, or the massive Mbokani pullig wide to bully Anya. Watson spent much of the first half shouting impotently at Jose Jurado; in the admittedly less catastrophic second, as we pondered the potential for a red card, the suggestion was made that the already booked and increasingly impotent Watson probably didn’t fancy another 90 minutes of this on Sunday. At which point he got the hook from the bench as Guedioura’s reliable energy was finally introduced. Alongside him, Suárez looks magnificent with the ball at his feet and the time and the space to pick a pass – one instant arcing ball from the centre of the pitch to the left flank was breathtaking. Anything involves running, however, is altogether less satisfactory and we’re yet to see any evidence to decry the unwelcome suggestion that there was a reason that Fiorentina weren’t picking him – that his legs have, as the label goes, gone. Certainly little evidence of them this evening, despite his bafflingly being afforded a full 90 minutes.

4- It would be wrong to suggest that this was an entirely unenjoyable evening. The sunshine was warm, the fare on the pitch was dramatic, however incompetent, and the neutral in our party confirmed the value of the entertainment. Wes Hoolahan lining up a free kick from a dangerous position in the first half before chipping it delicately into the wall was hilarious; City fans probably enjoyed the creative inadequacy of the defending for their third goal in particular. In the second half, Troy was propelled beyond the goal into the noisy Barclay Stand where he appeared to shake hands with the City fan he landed on, introduce himself and quickly return to the action to apparent hilarity in the vicinity. And throughout there was the distracting mystery of an army of stewards and policemen congregated between the Barclay Stand and the Hornets in the Jarrold Stand. Such are the lavish extravagances of the Premier League, I suppose, although you had to wonder whether they couldn’t have spared a couple of redundant yellow jackets in favour of enough hands to open the second kiosk in the away end.


5- The crowd were buoyed into a noisy frenzy as City equalised, took and extended the lead through a series of goals that were increasingly – that word again – pathetic from our point of view. As the relegation situation was being confirmed elsewhere the crowd, inevitably, settled but roused themselves again for a defiant finish.

City were vastly the superior side, and should have won the game by a more comprehensive margin. Their predicament, however, the reasons that they’re relegated were suggested by the fact that they weren’t able to do so. Indeed, even late in the game and certainly for long after Miguel Britos had waved Dieumerci Mbokani through for a fourth, helpfully carrying his luggage for him as he wandered through to poke a shot over Gomes before heading back to Kiev or wherever he pitches up next, you wouldn’t have completely ruled out us stealing some utterly undeserved points from the game such was City’s vulnerability to our limited counter-attacks and their inability to kill us off.

It may well be that they do come back again next season, but the replacement of two or three of the competitive clubs at the top of the Championship with the carcasses of Newcastle and Villa is unlikely to render the division less frantic. As the City fans sung Alex Neil’s name during the second half it was difficult not to share the sentiment implied by the question, “I wonder if they’ll still be singing that when they’re eleventh in November?”.

It’s hard to sympathise with Norwich. There’s was easily the most graceless of the approaches to the epic promotion chase last season – although at least they’ll be able to re-establish their claim to being “The Best Side in the Championship” next year I suppose. Wes Hoolahan’s swallow dive at Vicarage Road remain’s hard to forgive, as does the City player’s fondness for celebrating in front of rival fans rather than their own. Similarly Alex Neil’s peevish assessment of the Hornets’ “very basic” approach before this game. The fact that he flattered the performance that was to come doesn’t change the reality – that the Hornets have been able, basic or otherwise, to do what City did not and comfortably stay in the division.

6- As for Flores, whilst his achievement in dropping our anchor this season has been huge, his viability in the role hinges upon how well-suited he is to what comes next, not whether he has enough brownie points in the bank, and if any of us were to dispassionately look at the formative Premier League line-up for next season in the context of each club’s trajectory over this campaign you’d have to be very concerned. The collapse in form since Christmas is real, and reflecting, “yes, but we lost to good teams” is no consolation. This is the Premier League, good teams are the norm. The stuff that we can see, the performances and team selection, the frequent ostracising of players, would be cause for concern on their own. We don’t see what goes on at the training ground, the mood in the camp. Pozzo, Duxbury et al have much greater visibility of that and for all that they’ve made bold calls in the past, they’ve not often got it wrong. The departure of Jokanovic, for all the smokescreen about contract demands, would appear to me to have been a far more brutal one at the time, in context… yes, he was operating at a different level but it doesn’t follow that his job was any easier. The maelstrom that we navigated to gain promotion is too easily dismissed… but that decision appeared well-founded. Personally, I’m happy to trust the club management’s call.

More of a concern for me that Flores, or the seemingly inevitable and perhaps necessary departure of Ighalo, is the position of the captain. Troy’s performance, as so often since Christmas, stood out an absolute mile this evening. The contrast in his application to that of so many of his team mates was palpable and vast, our second goal which saw him bully Martin and defiantly, delicately tee up he onrushing Ighalo, just reward for his refusal to be dragged down by the apathy of much of his team. Now, as for the last three years at least, he’s the beating heart of the side, the club. Since we were promoted I’ve not been concerned about losing him… there’s little incentive for him to move to a similar sized club now that we’re in the top flight, and a move to a bit-part role at a bigger club might not attract a man who so clearly revels in being the focal point, the main man. So Leicester’s position, remarkable and tremendous as it is, seemed like a threat to me before the rumours of their (rekindled) interest in Troy surfaced this week. Faced with a need to strengthen their squad in the light of their Champions’ League campaign to come, what sort of player are they going to sign? More N’golo Kantés and Riyad Mahrezs (Mahrezzes?) if they can find them, sure. But not an Anthony Martial, an Alexis Sanchez or a Sergio Aguero. An oft-voiced sentiment since the final whistle blew at Carrow Road is that folk can suddenly not wait for the season to end. Me, I’m apprehensive. If Troy’s still with us at the end of August I’ll be absolutely delighted but you have to be concerned. Was this performance just another example of his indefatigable bloody-mindedness? Or is he determined to go out on a high?


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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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….