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Watford 1 Brentford 2 (16/04/2022) 17/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
20 comments

1- The Inuit, it is said, have at least fifty words for “snow”.

It won’t be long before Watford supporters scoff at the over simplistic “home defeat” in the same way that Inuits dismiss “snow”, Germans scoff at “beer”, Rob McKenna the unwitting rain god in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy regards mere “rain”, or this Tory government shakes its head at “corruption” as the clumsy, inadequate wordage of the ignorant painfully lacking in the detail, refinement, comprehension of the true connoisseur.

Since we beat Manchester United we’ve had all manner of what mere mortals might simply call a “home defeat”.  The hard-fought and unfortunate (Chelsea), the gutsy and worthy in which less than a thrashing feels like an accomplishment (City), the cruel suggestion of success disintegrating into humiliation (West Ham) all the way to the haplessly incompetent, banging our heads against the flimsiest of brick walls before falling over exhausted and letting inept opponents march all over us (Norwich, Leeds).  We’ll have names for all of these one day, or just grimaces that every Hornet will understand and anyone else will regard as simply what Watford supporters look like.

And so the relentless toothache of our home form continues.  Miserable, all pervasive, impossible to forget about.  This one was different again, a quirky mix of the spirited, the encouraging and the dysfunctional.  It amounts to the same thing in the end.

2- There are fine things about an afternoon at the football that are independent of the result of course, mercifully.  Daughter 1 is in GCSE revision mode, but Daughter 2 is here – she’s sat resolutely through seven of the ten now, rolled her eyes at the pompous Premier League anthem each time.  Forgoing this, along with gaining midweek games and new grounds to visit is her silver lining. Before the game we amble over to the Nascot Arms where Nem and Nick and some fellow Bees have set up camp.  They’re happier with the world than we are as you might expect, one relating emotionally how a fellow veteran can’t quite believe that Christian Eriksen is playing for them…  but they’re tacitly sensitive to the ongoing suffering that we’re enduring.

Vicarage Road looks spectacular in the sunshine.  I don’t share the sentiment of those reporting “glad to have missed this one” with respect to a home defeat of almost any flavour – I’d much rather be suffering with those that Understand than doing so on my own, unable to process what’s going on first hand.  There are both young debutants – Nigel in front of us has brought what must be his sprightly much younger brother, elsewhere Vicky has brought Louie for the first time – and returning old timers.  Kevin Miller at half time and Heurelho Gomes makes a suitably rock-star return to Hertfordshire, indulging in a lap of the pitch to salute all sides of the ground.  The away end inconsiderately sings throughout his brief interview with master of ceremonies and birthday boy Richard Walker but the tannoy volume is high enough and we get the gist.

It lifts the stadium, as Gomes’ infectious personality lifted the team often during his time here you suspect.  As the game starts the home stands are positively boisterous and if Brentford control the early possession they’re not getting terribly far with it.  Soon we’re prodding and probing ourselves, equally inconsequentially but small steps, and to a soundtrack of encouragement.  Kiko is rattling up the right flank, Louza is prominent.  We’re doing OK.

Then Brentford score.

3- We have a major issue with set pieces throughout the game.  Part of this is down to our height and size disadvantage – we have nobody as tall or as broad as Kristoffer Ajer or Pontus Jansson for one thing which will limit our attacking options but also makes us vulnerable in dead ball situations.  More significant still is Christian Eriksen, comfortably the best player on the pitch like a pro guesting in a Sunday league game – his response to his warm welcome here must be practised and dutiful by now but he acknowledges it anyway.  His corners and his artistry from the centre of the pitch will cause us problems, particularly in the first half, but he’s not involved in the goal.

Instead Ethan Pinnock – whose departure five minutes later was a bit of a blessing – launches a bomb of a throw into the box, Ajer flicks on despite attention at the near post and an unmarked Nørgaard prods home.  In fairness, as above, Ajer is 6 foot 6 with a good four inches on any outfield Watford player,  and this well-rehearsed move is difficult to counter but it all looks pathetically easy and this as much as the goal itself once again punctures the team’s belief and the stadium’s mood.

The rest of the half is grouchy.  Brentford sit deep and we have neither the craft nor the confidence to penetrate…. the one shot on target from Louza, whose frustration has briefly threatened to boil over, dribbles through to David Raya to mocking cheers from the home end at this token shot on target.  Other efforts have gone high, wide and handsome with the exception of what is nearly a spectacular volleyed own goal from Ajer but, inevitably, his unintended effort loops the wrong side of the post with Raya stranded.  As Will wryly observes at half time having joined us from the Upper GT, it’s as close as we’ve come to scoring in two-and-a-half games.

4- The second half is much more like it, whatever the denouement.  Brentford briefly threaten to extend their lead – I’d been about to comment on how quiet Ivan Toney had been in the grand scheme of things when Eriksen dropped a free kick onto his scripted run past the defence and he rolled a shot narrowly wide of the left hand post having run in from left to right.  He had a ridiculous amount of time, a let off.

And we capitalised, improbably.  Moussa Sissoko’s ball from the right was flicked on by Sarr to find Dennis scrambling in well wide of the far post where he controlled the ball before lashing home from an angle narrow enough for Raya to be disappointed with himself, one suspects.  We had the celebrate-now stop-now start again rigmarole of an offside flag and a VAR review (and I’d still rather rely on the on-pitch officials than risk contaminating the joy of a goal celebration with this nonsense however accurate or favourable the calls) but with the confirmation we were up and running.

In Toney, Ajer and Rico Henry the Bees have three players linked with the Hornets in recent-ish years.  Toney and Ajer would have been fine recruits of course, so too Henry but at least in his case we have an adequate alternative.  After a clunky start to the game Hassane Kamara had a tremendous second half, his extendable limbs and irrepressible energy shutting down Brentford’s in-play threat from their right.  He bombed forward too, tripping his way to the touchline before laying back for Samir to sweep narrowly wide from outside the box.  Emmanuel Dennis was suddenly prominent, frustrating and firing in equal measure – one minute dawdling over a pass that might have released the similarly rejuvenated Sarr, the next demanding an extraordinary recovery challenge from Ajer as he charged towards space, the next slapping a shot off the bar from a free kick, again from a wide angle and this time with the intervention of Raya’s fingertips.

We were dominant, for the first prolonged spell at Vicarage Road in longer than I can remember.  It was still blunt and over deliberate but it felt so good to be on our feet and bellowing again.  Cleverley and King came off a bench heavily populated with central midfielders for combative cameos. We should have drawn the game.  We could have won it, and even a draw would have felt cruel with a win, irrelevant or otherwise, so, so close as we hammered down the left again and King smacked a low shot against the post with Louza desperately, painfully looping his shot to the rebound over under challenge with the goal gaping.

5- As with Toney’s earlier missed effort there felt an inevitability to what happened next.  I certainly won’t have been the only fan in the home stands to whom the horrible certainty of the winning goal arrived in advance.  Referee Simon Hooper had earlier aggravated the home stands by failing to punish with cards two non-violent but cynically disruptive fouls by Brentford players as we looked to break.  Here we were grateful to his even-handed leniency, since he appeared to change his mind about issuing what would have been a second yellow to Hassane Kamara on appreciating the consequences after a bad foul.

The punishment would come though.  Eriksen, inevitably, clipped in a ball, Jansson got ahead of the defence to beat the helpless Foster abetted perhaps by some naivety from Sarr wide of the action who had been fooled into following his adversary deep and playing the Swede onside.  We saw none of this last detail at the time, we were too far away and our heads were in our hands.

The game ended almost immediately. Impossibly cruel, a rare unmerited home defeat for the catalogue, ultimately, the players’ despair evident as bodies lay prone on the pitch long after the whistle.  Brentford, meanwhile, celebrated as they rumbled securely into mid-table.  How they cope with the notoriously difficult second season whither so many newly promoted survivors have crashed and burned before, with or without Eriksen, will be interesting but we’d give a lot to swap places now.  Red faced furiousness, inspired more by the context of ten home defeats on the hop than by this performance, interspersed appreciation of, finally, a stout show if nothing else, but even those applauding looked haggard and tired.

6- As a postscript.  After the game my brother and I went to my Gran’s house to load a van with furniture, dutifully supervised by Daughter 2.  Our Gran is still going at a feisty 94, but won’t be living here any longer.  After more than 40 years of post-match reflections in that living room that have covered six promotions, nearly six relegations and no end of cup runs, late goals, dodgy decisions and, yes, home defeats, this was the last time.

Reminder enough, I guess, that however bad the bad times are, good times will follow again at some point.

Hang in there.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, *Kamara 3*, Samir 3, Kabasele 2, Louza 3, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Sarr 2, Dennis 3, João Pedro 2
Subs: King (for João Pedro, 84) NA, Cleverley (for Kucka, 84) NA, Cathcart (for Femenía,  87) NA, Forde, Gosling, Etebo, Kayembe, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 0 Leeds United 3 (09/04/2022) 10/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1- This is supposed to be fun, right?

I’m only asking because, you know, it’s been a while since this was fun hasn’t it?  At least at home?  Cucho’s goal against Arsenal was fun I suppose, though it didn’t count for much in the end.    Sissoko’s equaliser against Palace?  Then there was that time that Daughter 2 told a good joke during the second half against Brighton.  She might have told the same joke elsewhere though, I think, so strictly speaking that was fun that happened to take place at Vicarage Road.  If we’re being picky.

This isn’t as simple as “win good lose bad”, it really isn’t.  But we all understand, as fans of any club, that there’s supposed to be a trade off?  That there will be bad times which justify celebrating the good times?  You can’t really savour a victory until you’ve experienced the pain of defeat?  Fine.  I’m a grown up (ish), I can live with that.

So maybe just wake me up when the fun starts again, because I’ve had enough of this.  If I want to feel miserable, inadequate and stupid I get plenty of opportunity away from Vicarage Road without driving down the motorway and paying for the privilege.  It’s not just nine home defeats on the hop, though that in itself is a lot to endure under any circumstances.  It’s the nature of them.  Four have been heavy, of which now two against pathetically weak opposition.  A couple of them we were close to squeaking something from.  None of them constituted a gross injustice.

2- It doesn’t help that bloody Everton win at lunchtime, of all things.  I would throw in a line about Manchester United being the last side you want to rely on in such circumstances at the moment but if you didn’t think it yourself some time this afternoon you surely overheard it.

Nor does it help that it’s bloody freezing.  The sunshine is deceptive, once you’re in the shade the wind blows straight through you.  Regular readers will already have noted my poor wardrobe choices despite 40+ years of practice here, today was another case in point.   Nor is Vicarage Road the seething pit of our dreams;  coming as this tie does at a convenient mid-point of many schools’ choices of Easter holiday, there are plentiful bald patches in every stand bar the away end.

Nonetheless, we don’t start too badly.  This is an ugly, scruffy game of football and the first half will last longer than forty-five minutes of football ever has before but we withstand the visitors’ early lumberings and eventually build a good spell of pressure ourselves.  Juraj Kucka is forceful and significant in this spell, using his physicality to occupy a Leeds defence that already looks vulnerable and drawing a succession of fouls on the edge of the box.  Imran Louza sends the first of the resultant free kicks narrowly wide of Islan Meslier’s left hand post.  From another a lively Cucho Hernández pings a shot in from an ambitious position wide on our left of the area and forces a save from Meslier with what turns out to be our only shot on target of the afternoon.

Through all of this, and as both Kucka and Cucho send shots excitedly over, the home crowd is in good voice.  A goal would change so much, you suspect… in our position and starved of anything positive at home as we have been (see above) we’re all looking for an excuse, any excuse, to get carried away.  That nascent enthusiasm is punctured terminally by the opening goal, the more so because it’s so carelessly out of nothing.  Raphinha instigates the visitors’ first sortie for a while, a negligent Samir clearance offers Dan James the chance to rattle into a challenge from which the loose ball again finds Raphinha who finishes artfully and celebrates gracelessly, in more than one respect, in front of the Rookery.  Before the end of the half the second blow is dealt as Cucho hobbles off with what looks like a hamstring problem… not the most talented of our forwards, perhaps, but in current circumstances the one we can least afford to lose given his surfeit of personality.

3- We’re not terrible.  At least, we’re not completely terrible.  In fact some of the bits are pretty good, let down by the bits that really aren’t…  the midfield still looks redoubtable, since whilst Louza is less prominent than he has been Sissoko and Kucka are both decent and proactive.  Kiko is hammering forward on the right and Hassane Kamara does much the same on the opposite flank with the added bonus of a threat of violence that will always be popular in a left-back.  Indeed, as has been reflected during the pre-match meal, we could maybe do with his effectiveness being a little less high-profile for the rest of the season.  Relegation would bring sacrifices – Kamara being poached would be harder to accept than those we’re resigned to.

The biggest problem is up front, evidently.  Difficult to credit how a side that can now look so robust and organised defensively, particularly away from home and against the strongest opponents, can look so utterly shapeless in attack.  Roy’s modus operandi is no mystery but…  some of it’s got to be common to attacking and defending, surely?  A discipline in knowing what to do when and where to be?  There’s none of that in this forward line which looks far less than the some of its parts.  It’s difficult to recall a greater imbalance in a Watford squad than that between the evident capabilities of our attacking players and their ineffectiveness as a unit.

4- We miss Troy.  That shouldn’t be a controversial statement after so many years in which he was such a significant figure, but it hasn’t been voiced very often.  Without doubt his Premier League days are behind him, his limited mobility and fitness hampered his later contributions…  but his intelligence and leadership would never have tolerated the appalling decision making in our forward line you suspect. Nor would he have countenanced the lack of belief that saw Sarr waste our best chance of the game.  Put through on goal as Leeds creaked, albeit with the ball running slightly away from him to his right, he slugged a shot criminally wide when any prioritisation of placement over power would surely have found the gaping net.  You do feel that, for all our frustrating shapelessness, a goal there could have turned the outcome completely.

In a side missing vocal leadership, Deeney’s presence wouldn’t have afforded Andre Marriner such an easy ride either.  Neither the officiating nor Leeds’ time management contributed significantly to the outcome;  nonetheless Marriner refereed with the air of a teenager absorbed in their mobile phone, unfocused and seemingly scarcely interested. An unnecessary extra aggravation.

5- The second goal was a shambles, obviously, but I found it less upsetting than Sarr’s miss.  Hassane Kamara is developing a penchant for man-of-the-match performances stained by one high-profile error… at Anfield, failing to prevent Joe Gomez’s cross, at Wembley against England losing concentration and allowing Ollie Watkins to steal in behind him to score.  Here he might have gotten away with his ill-judged pass to Samir as the pair headed towards their own goal at speed had the Brazilian not stumbled over the ball and the ricochet not fallen kindly for Rodrigo to gallop around the helpless Foster to finish.

All hope died at that point, on and off the pitch.   Perhaps the most miserable and telling period of play preceded the third goal… a promising Watford attack retreated limply back to Ben Foster;  as the ball made its apologetic way out again to the left Leeds stole possession and ambled through with scarcely a challenge’s impediment before Harrison slugged a ferocious shot across Foster who, nonetheless, might have done better.

The stands emptied long before the final whistle.  Further joy was provided by finding Vicarage Road stuffed with jubilant visiting supporters…  churlish to be too critical given both that we’d have loved to have been in their position and that the away end had generously joined in the pre-match recognition offered to the late Bill Shipwright.  But it wasn’t fun.

We’re done, obviously.  If not mathematically then to all intents and purposes given the size of the gap and the fact that a trip to Manchester City would immediately follow the arresting of our joyless home record against Brentford next weekend.

For now though, breaking that cycle and reversing our appalling home form is an end in itself, vital in instilling any belief before the start of next season.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, *Kamara 3*, Samir 2, Kabasele 3, Louza 2, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Hernández 3, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2,
Subs: Dennis (for Hernández, 39) 2, Kayembe (for Kucka, 72) 3, King (for João Pedro,  81) NA, Kalu, Cleverley, Cathcart, Sierralta, Masina, Bachmann

Liverpool 2 Watford 0 (02/04/2022) 03/04/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- Sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you expect.

For instance.  In as much as I ever thought about it, I always expected to need to coerce my children into exam revision.   I don’t know why… as so often I’m guided by a mental image of uncertain origin depicting how I’m supposed to behave as a parent.

Instead, Daughter 1 is on an urgent, ferocious mission.  Her last set of GCSE mocks having just been cleared she’s into a run in towards the exams themselves for which she has drawn up a merciless revision timetable.  If anything I fear I need to tell her to calm down a bit – is that wrong?  Who knows.  Today – and admittedly after some soul searching – she has conceded to the inevitable in the face of a dedicated Science day at school, sacrificed the trip north and so allowed her younger sister to catch her up, both now counting 113 Watford games in their back catalogue.

Daughter 2 isn’t in her teens yet, but an impending three-year GCSE programme means she’s got options to choose from herself which she contemplates thoughtfully as we pick our way through a bright, sunny Stanley Park to Anfield.  I’m relieved that the latest grave turning over of the various permutations available abates as we enter the famous stadium and the day’s business becomes the focus.  I’ve done something right.

2- Will’s here too with his two herberts, the younger of whom boasting a new “signature hairdo” (her words), consciously and appropriately inspired by Björk.  The elder is full of bold predictions and bravado but he’s atypical of an away end who have either been trying to avoid thinking about the actual football too much or are resigned to the traditional and are in a zen-state of acceptance.

Team selection is influenced, almost certainly, by the physical consequences of a heavy programme of international duty including plenty of key World Cup qualifiers and far too much extra time for anyone’s liking.  Emmanuel Dennis and Joshua King are on the bench, for instance, whilst Peter Etebo and William Troost-Ekong don’t even make it that far.  That aside there remains evidence of Roy having established a set of key personnel; pejoratively you might call them “favourites”,  Cucho, Kabasele, and even Kucka and João Pedro are more prominent – game triers all – whilst Shaq Forde has been singled out amongst the youngsters. I’ve not seen enough of Shaq to comment but whether his judgement proves sound on not it’s a Good Thing that Roy’s perspective is broad enough to make one despite his presumed summer departure.

3- Game triers are essential in this team though.  If we’re yet to discover any home form (which, as should be obvious, will be non-negotiable) then our defensive shape away from home is almost Borg-like (a nuance owing to Roy’s considerable coaching experience in Sweden perhaps?).  One player steps away, another is there to take his place… you’re not facing group of individuals, you’re facing a collective consciousness and if you were a betting man you’d wager that Ray Lewington, patrolling the Anfield touchline like an attentive general as he was on my first visit here 17 years ago, was the brain at the centre.

The game settles into a pattern very quickly.  The home side will dominate possession throughout but are largely kept at arm’s length due to the diligent scurrying and closing and getting in the way of those in yellow and black.  Jota and Jones will both fling shots lazily, impatiently over the bar and to whatever degree this reflects complacency or containment on the part of the team in red it suits us down to the ground.  About face, shape up, do it again.  Meanwhile the universal expectation of an effortlessly comfortable home victory is given a serious jolt when Ismaïla Sarr slugs a dipping shot over the advancing Alisson Becker after some gnarled challenges burgle him a bit of space.  It’s too high but it’s really not that far too high at all.

Which isn’t to say we’re comfortable.  The brilliant Thiago is causing all kinds of mischief around the edge of the box – if it’s going to come, it’s going to come there you suspect.  Bodies are constantly put on the line, the imperious Samir’s not least.  The attacking players are diligent and attentive also, hence the need for game triers… Sarr is cajoling and harrying and watching the space behind him.  Cucho contests a corner with Van Dijk and comes off worst, appearing to receive the full force of the Dutchman’s neck muscles and briefly lying dizzied in the penalty with small birds flitting around his head.  Sissoko aborts one incursion into our box directly in front of the away end with a superhuman tackle before unfussily shepherding the ball away.

But we’re throwing punches of our own.  Louza, our own budget version of Thiago, is terrific…. snapping into a challenge one minute, skipping into a gap and salvaging possession the next, swinging a ball the width of the pitch to change the focus the next, dropping a corner onto Cucho’s head requiring Alisson to be attentive the next.  There’s some quick, sharp passing on the break too that always looks like it might create something and does so when JP plays a galloping Kucka in down the left.  Alisson is out quickly, Kucka doesn’t have the guile to finish. It’s a proper chane.

Cruelly Liverpool’s breakthrough comes immediately.  Gomez – or more precisely the neglected space over his right shoulder – has been the focus of much of our attacking play but he pops up high on the right flank and is afforded too much space to swing his cross in.  It’s a bomb of a ball, Foster has a fraction of a second to make a call, gets it wrong and Diogo Jota has sprung across him to flick the ball home.  Foster redeems himself shortly afterwards with a fine save from the same opponent but we’re behind at the break if, against all expectation, slightly unfortunate to be so.

4- If you’re going to play that contain and destroy game, the question is always “so what if you go behind?”.  The team’s not set up to commit forward but to counter attack – how quickly do you change things up?

There was no decision to make here.  Liverpool are too good with the ball, have too many good players in attacking positions and won’t be sitting back yet anyway.  It’s tempting to look at what was a 1-0 scoreline for much of the second half and say “we should have given it more welly” but such analysis boils down to “win good, lose bad”.  We’ve been demonstrably incapable of imposing ourselves at home against much less accomplished opponents but had done a reasonable job of frustrating the home side here.  No cause to change it up yet.

For this to pay off we needed to ride our luck a bit – as we did when Jota and ?Matip? sent unchallenged headers safely off target.  Secondly we needed to continue to dig in – the indefatigable Kamara in his element here, relentless charging around as much his thing as it was at Wembley earlier in the week and in both cases the token one bad error per game is probably worth spending on such high levels of energy and personality.

But finally we needed to be clinical when the chance came, and we weren’t.  It’s easy to underplay the quality that went into the chance… Cucho, Isma and JP spinning and turning and the latter doing well to snap a shot past Alisson under challenge but it had to go in and it didn’t.

Cucho was booked shortly afterwards.  I’d have subbed him then, I think…. he’s a lesser beast on a yellow card and was tiring.  As it was, when the triple-sub came after a prolonged period of Liverpool possession and pressure it was almost wholly ineffective – Roy and Ray will have needed to judge quite whose legs needed protecting for how long, but none of King, Cleverley or Dennis made the required impact.

5- Early in the second half a thought had popped into my head:  given the choice, would you take a win here or a win at Man City in three weeks’ time.  Man City, I concluded, partly because we need to beat them at some point but largely because an encouraging performance was already in the bag here;  this, plus three points at City knocks a win at Anfield and another humiliation by City into a hat.  You can thank me later.

Nonetheless, the late penalty was harsh I think.  Not a harsh call – a tired challenge from Kucka.  But yielding a harsh scoreline.  You’d struggle to argue that we were worth a point – coulda certainly, shoulda never.  But we deserved the grudging credit of a 1-0 margin and can feel hard done by by a 2-0 that will surely be written off as “routine” by those not really paying attention.  Foster went the right way, Fabinho went even further.

“We can see you sneaking out” piped up from the stand to our right which was a little rich given that the stream of Hornets trudging towards the exit was dwarfed by the floods of salt-of-the-earth, best fans in the world vacating the same home stand.  Any accusations of lack of self-awareness wouldn’t really have stood up to scrutiny however, given that earlier in proceedings one of several lulls in what was generally a boisterous atmosphere was greeted with “is this a library?” from an away end that barely stirred itself from its lunchtime slumber throughout.

Will took his herberts down the front at the whistle, the younger coyly suggesting that Ben Foster might give her his shirt if she were to smile sweetly at him.  Terrifying.  We then made our way homeward, with Daughter 2 enjoying a first “chips with curry sauce” as part of her ongoing pre-GCSE education.

Not, then, what was expected, not entirely, even if it boils down to the same thing more or less in the end.  But there’s clearly something here, Sarr’s return bringing a bit more devilment to our attacking play even against the strongest of opponents.  In reality, last chance saloon was always going to be opening its doors with that extraordinary run of fixtures at Vicarage Road, starting on Saturday.

No excuses for it to be anything other than febrile.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, Kamara 4, Kabasele 4, *Samir 4*, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Sarr 3, Hernández 3, João Pedro 3
Subs: King (for João Pedro, 68) 2, Cleverley (for Louza, 68) 3, Dennis (for Hernández, 68) 2, Sema, Kayembe, Cathcart, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Wolverhampton Wanderers 4 Watford 0 (10/03/2022) 11/03/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1-  For the most part, it’s a great day.  There’s not much to dislike about an afternoon off work in any case, a criminal waste not to enjoy it.  The sun is shining, the route up isn’t without kerfuffle as you’d expect from the M6 in late afternoon but it’s fine and the car is full of happy chatter.  The parking place is accessible enough;  when we get to the ground there’s a fanzone, vans selling a good line in Curried Stuff, coffees too.  “This is the grimmest place on earth”, smiles the woman serving us coffees, warmly, and she’s exaggerating a little bit but that’s fine too – we haven’t had to pass through The Underpass.  Will arrives from working in Birmingham, proud to report that the lady booking his schedule has an eye on the fixture list and manoeuvres things accordingly.  Inside the ground Erica, a native of New Mexico, asks the lad in the kiosk to sell the concept of a Chicken Balti Pie.  Unpracticed at being asked his opinion by the paying public, he does a sterling job.

The way home is also good.  Limited trouble getting out of Wolverhampton, a playlist – Pixies, the Breeders, Bowie – being hummed along to and occasionally joined in with as we trundle our way home again.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

In amongst all of this, a football match happens.

2- We sort of started OK.  Sort of, in the sense that until anyone did anything we looked halfway credible.  We’re missing João Pedro as the result of a convoluted COVID test and Isma is still out, but Joshua King is back in an otherwise unchanged side from the relatively encouraging defeat against Arsenal.

Yes, a home defeat being “encouraging” is already setting expectations, but here we are.  Wolves aren’t pressing early on particularly which seems a bit odd given our manifest inability to cope with such, and as Cucho is briefly awarded a penalty before an unassessable offside flag aborts the only jumping up and down the away end is going to enjoy this evening we look briefly threatening.  Wolves, notoriously miserly, already look get-attable.

But once things start to go wrong they spiral out of control very quickly.  Hassane Kamara for one was already looking wobbly and he’ll be one of several culpable parties in each of the opening two goals.  The first isn’t as comical as what follows but it is weak, Hwang and Jiménez wandering through as if they’re picking flowers in the park, the finish is tidy but it’s far, far too easy.  

Wolves barely need to be paying attention to find themselves 3-0 up.  Kamara is more eye-catchingly exposed for the second scrambling after a neglected opponent before the ball finds its way to Ait-Nouri, similarly neglected on Wolves’ left flank.  He sends a perfunctory ball across the face of goal and Cucho, of all people, inadvertently tucks it inside Ben Foster’s near post.

Foster is increasingly the source of joyful abuse from the home stands reflecting his West Brom history in particular, this growing in volume with the certainty that such rashness isn’t about to come back to bite the home stands.  His worst moment comes just three minutes later when, closed down on the edge of his box he makes an impossibly sloppy clearance to Daniel Podence, who drops the ball into an empty net with a shrug for 3-0.

3- It’s not really the “what”, though there’s plenty wrong with that.  The bigger problem – the bigger surprise, perhaps, despite our poor form – is the how.

This wasn’t just a bad performance.  It wasn’t even a bad performance compounded by a few things going wrong and running away from us.  This stank to high heaven, the lack of fight and bottle in the side as stark as the sudden abandonment of the discipline that has seen us gain a creditable if modest haul of points on the road of late.  Wolves’ low-scoring reputation might have suited us, their edgy defeat to Palace here last time out more so.  We might nick a 0-0 here, we’d thought, whether that would prove “enough” or otherwise.

But there was nothing.  Almost nothing.  Moussa Sissoko, in his one forceful contribution of the evening, played Joshua King through shortly after the third – King lifted the ball slightly too high.  It was a pretty bad miss rather than an awful one but we needed that to go in.  Elsewhere Kabasele came on for a struggling Femenía after half an hour – given Kiko’s staccato availability of late in the absence of Jeremy Ngakia perhaps we’d risked him here out of necessity but he’d had a bad thirty minutes.  Kabasele stood out simply for looking like a competent footballer as things steadied;  Kamara, too, salvaged some small credit from the evening, his surfeit of personality allowing him to recover from his personal horror show to dig in for the rest of the game.  Louza showed some signs of taking responsibility.  He still wanted the ball.

But elsewhere there was very little to cling to.  No movement, no confidence, no conviction.  We struggled along, all our efforts expended in treading water in the face of an understandably relaxed Wolves side – the goal celebrations were grotesquely co-ordinated by a deafening sound system (“Have fun NOW!  Stop NOW!”) but the team looked no less co-ordinated if they scarcely had to exert themselves.  The kindest interpretation of Watford’s lack of anything much came from Will – “perhaps we’re playing for goal difference”.

4- Three years ago we would go toe-to-toe with Wolves and “the likes of Wolves”.  That tightest and most dramatic of Cup Semi Finals, the parallel league campaign in which both sides made credible claims to be the best of the rest.  As has been much discussed, we lost our footing around that time and have suffered a merciless tumble since.  We were nonetheless unlucky to be relegated in 2020.  We won’t be unlucky to be relegated this season.

Who to blame, and how much?  There’s no doubt that mistakes were made in the revision of the squad in 2019.  Scott Duxbury’s forthrightness in acknowledging those mistakes and promising learnings has been flung back in his face… but once those mistakes were made we were sliding downhill without the luxury of the financial backing that might have made an instant return an inevitability.  We’re not a club with massive backing or support, we’re in the Premier League for as long as we can keep overperforming but once that stops it’s going to take the same sort of overperformance, of challenging the odds, to repeat it.  Mere competence won’t be nearly enough.  The yo-yoing of Norwich and Fulham in particular doesn’t reflect “lack of ambition” on their part, it reflects the reality of a circumstance where the growing number of heavily backed Premier League clubs means that well-run sides with the cushion of parachute payments are no longer guaranteed fifteenth-placed anonymity if they return.  Getting promoted again straight away was no small achievement, however easy it is to dismiss it now, 

But that’s not a free pass either.  Much of that criticism of Duxbury and “the model” boils down to “win good, lose bad”….  but this is appalling by any standards, even standardising for circumstance.  Roy Hodgson’s curmudgeonly post-match reflections would have been charming, to a point, had they come with success on the pitch.  They are far less so in these circumstances – all the more so when mindful of the need to get everyone on side, to make the most of whatever tools you have available to dig us out.  Failure to keep the crowd onside, or at least to not wilfully sabotage the relationship, seems extraordinarily short sighted. Particularly surprising given Ray Lewington’s ability to unify us behind a banner during his own challenging time in charge of the team twenty years ago.

One consolation on the night is drawn from the fact that the gallows humour on show from those brave/loyal/stupid enough to make the trip is of high quality, in contrast to some of what away travellers have had to endure this season.  A personal favourite was the gentling soothing monotone of “we’ve won the ball…. we’ve won the ball….”, segueing seamlessly into “we’ve lost the ball…. we’ve lost the ball….” as appropriate that was the soundtrack to the second half.

5- There was no prospect of a fightback, no suggestion of it.  “We don’t talk about Bruno” levels of not entering the conversation for fears of sanction.  Instead an unusually hirsute Ruben Neves pulls out an outrageous fourth;  little to criticise anyone for this time, beyond the fact that conceding three pathetic goals earlier in the game means that this sort of brilliance, par for the course in the Premier League now and again, would be impossible to accommodate.

The League table, the fixtures suggest it’s still “on”.  Leeds lose, awfully.  Norwich lose, predictably.  We’ve still got to play a whole bunch of teams directly above us, at home.  With performances as supine as this, none of that is remotely relevant.

I won’t be at Southampton on Sunday, but pre-match Will and I had agreed to take our kids to Anfield in defiance of the lunchtime kick-off and inevitable hammering in three weeks’ time.  Confirming in the cold light of the morning after the night before, Will was defiant.

We have to do it. Who knows when we’ll be back. Kids have to know that’s how we do it!

 Yoooorns.

Foster 1, Femenía 1, Kamara 2, Cathcart 2, Samir 2, Louza 2, Sissoko 1, Cleverley 1, Hernández 1, Dennis 2, King 1
Subs: *Kabasele (for Femenía, 30) 3*, Kalu (for King, 46) 1, Etebo (for Cleverley, 73) 2, Sema, Kayembe, Sierralta, Masina, Kucka, Bachmann

Watford 2 Arsenal 3 (06/03/2022) 07/03/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- It’s been a while, one suspects, since pre-match events at Vicarage Road were last the subject of international political scrutiny.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that the pre-match canine displays of the early eighties were the subject of discussion in the Kremlin, or that the US Senate has ever pondered the incongruous and yet fiercely defended choice of “Z-Cars” as run-out music.

These are strange times, however, and so here we are.  The Ukrainian flag displayed by the Rookery twice pre-match – first as teams entered the arena and second, hesitantly, as the teams alternated around the centre-circle in a co-ordinated show of solidarity with Ukraine – would not, it seems, have met the approval of Chinese broadcasters and by implication the Chinese government;  the former had declined to screen any Premier League matches this weekend in the light of such planned actions.  The flag display, whilst a fine thing and well co-ordinated, feels somehow inadequate in the circumstances.  It’s not quite standing in front of a tank, is it?  And yet the fact that a government feels strongly enough about controlling the narrative told to its people to effectively ban its broadcast is testament to the impact it can have – or at least that they believe it can have.  Well done all.

2- That there is any question over whether the Chinese government is paying any attention reflects our membership of the Premier League rather than any nefarious behaviour by the 1881.  I’m not really fussed either way whether people in China are watching our football but I WOULD rather we stayed up than not and achieving this is likely to necessitate winning a home game at some point.  Daughter 1 still hasn’t seen a win of any kind in over two years;  it feels like at least twice that long since we won a game here at Vicarage Road.

The flag display forms part of an increasingly busy pre-match schedule of rituals and statements.  Both the flag and the knee are important;  less so the absurdly pompous Premier League anthem and associated standing to attention that they sandwich, and which Daughter 2 quite reasonably ridicules from underneath her yellow placard.

Sally is here today and she’s new to all this.  I’m wisely explaining Roy Hodgson’s careful contain-and-destroy approach to football matches and warning that the game about to unfold might be on the stodgy side when Emmanuel Dennis finds the net within twenty seconds of the match kicking off.

The four of us enjoy our celebration comprehensively – for Daughter 1 in particular a Watford goal is a startling development – such that by the time we realise that the goal has been disallowed for a marginally mistimed and offside run, everyone else has passed through the four stages of grief and is refocused on the ongoing match.  Nonetheless, the stage has been set for a game that will prove far more open – and far more entertaining – than advertised.

3- We’re way past the point where anything other than the hard currency of points on the board matters a jot of course, but whether you’re resigned to the drop and thus no longer pressured by such things or holding out hope and desperately looking for green shoots there was stuff to enjoy here.  This run of (now) eight home defeats has been characterised by a limp impotence in front of goal but here there was dynamism and conviction  – if we missed Sarr’s spasmodic brilliance and King’s ability to hold an attack together then the next two cabs off the rank demonstrated that we’re not short of viable attacking options for all that it hasn’t quite worked overall.

Less enjoyable was the opening goal of the game scarcely five minutes after our false start.  Our own failings have to be evaluated in the context of the opposition’s quality of course, and if Arsenal felt get-attable throughout then their attacks flowed around us mercilessly, gobbling up our few mistakes unforgivingly en route.  The Gunners had been caught cold in the opening seconds and we were similarly dozy five minutes in as Saka and Odegaard played around our defence allowing the Norwegian to stroke the ball past Ben Foster.  Unusually under Hodgson, the goal made us look easy to play against although the movement of Arsenal – wearing a wannabe Rotherham United knockoff kit, possibly Chinese – exposed our tentativeness.

We were clearly on a more positive footing than has been the case at home though, where there’s no doubt that Stuff Needed To Change.  The home stands weren’t given time to settle into a sulky acceptance as we responded with an explosive second… and whilst Cucho’s finish was magnificent, Kiko’s overlap and cross fantastic and Dennis’ delayed lay off artful, as critical was our positive, ambitious intent.

4- As against Palace, we played some of our best and most assertive football at 1-1, lending weight to the argument that our fragile confidence is a critical handicap.  Worth a glance once again at the paucity of vocal leaders in the team… but being positive, at least there are more green shoots there should you care to look for them.  Dennis came closest, forcing Ramsdale into a slightly untidy stop.  Sissoko lined up a shot from distance, and if it never threatened the target it was at least in the right postcode.  More progress.

Hugely disappointing, then, to concede  again on the half hour.  Tom Cleverley was caught with less time than he thought he had by a lively Saka, whose quickfire exchange with Lacazette and sharp finish put the Gunners/Millers ahead.  Much ire at Cleverley for what was a conspicuous and expensive error, but such are the risks of playing out from the back.  That we were doing so was surely unavoidable – our reformed three man attack was fun and relatively effective, but whilst João Pedro’s decent afternoon included a worthy competitiveness there wasn’t a target man amongst them.  There were voices over my shoulder who’d been bellowing “just bloody clear it” in panic at every suggestion of pressure at the back as early as the tenth minute – thirty minutes would still have been early to be pumping balls blindly into the void.

5- 3-2 sounds tight and exciting;  it was probably the right scoreline but it never felt like a close thing, not from the point when Martinelli capitalised on another snappy move to club a shot into the top corner from outside the area.

From there we threw punches, and Arsenal looked vulnerable but seven home defeats on the hop require more than just a bit of positivity from 3-1 down against a leading side.  João Pedro skipped his way down the left and into the area before going down under challenge;  Craig Pawson shrugged, Cathal responded bluntly in the negative to my own VAR request.  Cucho’s welcome relentlessness saw him catch what looked like an unwitting flail of an arm from an Arsenal defender before remonstrating loud and long at the lack of subsequent censure.  A sharp move from left to right concluded with Dennis being smothered out of space;  Kiko was involved again as he whistled a low ball to the far post which Dennis couldn’t connect properly with as the goal gaped.

In the midst of this, Hodgson removed Louza in favour of Edo Kayembe.  The Moroccan international hadn’t had his most dominant game, but such has been his impact on the level of creativity in the midfield that the reception of the change was loud and aggressive, a chant in support of Louza on his exit far exceeding in volume any recognition that he received during the match.  At the time it was possible that Louza had a knock;  there was also an argument for saying that by pushing further forward with width coming from buccaneering fullbacks a solid midfield had more value than a creative one.  Either way, more significant than the decision itself was the reaction to it.

A second Watford goal came nonetheless, capping a stoic performance from Moussa Sissoko has he received a ball from Cucho, made the most of the luck of the bounce in navigating Ben White and finished tidily past Ramsdale.

In the closing minutes there were components of a comeback, but not the whole package which sums up our season nicely, I suppose.  A spirited cameo from the bench from Samuel Kalu which showcased both the sparkle that persuaded us to sign him and the questionable decision making that has perhaps restricted his input until now.  Kieran Tierney revealed what a horrible little scrotum he is by providing the crowning pieces of gamesmanship to an Arsenal repertoire that had been encouraged by a lazy performance from referee Craig Pawson.  And that was that.

It’s still not “done”.  The likeliest outcome is that we’ll get relegated of course, there are all sorts of shortcomings which aren’t going to get fixed by the end of the season.  To reiterate however we don’t need to be good.  We just need to be less bad than three others.  There’s a long grey area spanning from “maybe” through “probably” to “definitely” and that’s where we are but the biggest obstacle remains the lack of a home win.  Four of the five left are against the teams directly above us.  If we hit form, it’s doable.  But it needs to come soon.

Wolves on Thursday would be nice.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, *Kamara 4*, Samir 3, Cathcart 3, Louza 3, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 3, João Pedro 3, Hernández 4, Dennis 3
Subs: Kayembe (for Louza, 64) 3, Kalu (for Cleverley,  89) NA, Sema, Etebo, Kabasele, Sierralta, Masina, Kucka, Bachmann

Manchester United 0 Watford 0 (26/02/2022) 27/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
2 comments

1- It’s difficult to know how to react to seismic world events.  

However terrible, however consequential, however affecting, and presuming that such events are taking place at a distance, on a TV screen rather than in the next street, there’s a stifling sense of impotence that comes with major developments.  And if, for example, there’s a woman in the office who explodes passionately, fervently and perhaps even slightly seriously with a determination to take arms and head for Ukraine then she’ll be subdued into inertia by the awkward silence that follows, to which the subtext is “how about a cup of tea instead?”.

Perhaps nothing will change until people do react dramatically and overcome their inertia, and this means not just Ukraine (or even particularly Ukraine, since Russia’s troops would surely see limited deterrent in an overweight 49 year-old statistician with a pointed stick) but any of the outrages perpetrated in the name of (different groups of) the people in recent years.  Until that point, the only available course of action is to carry on.

An so here we are, carrying on, making our way along the Bridgewater Canal towards Old Trafford past the loading yards boasting mountains of crates claiming origins from Hamburg to China.  When we get to the stadium there’s little evidence of what’s going on elsewhere in the world and plenty of people just carrying on…  as we make our way back – somehow perpetually against the flow of bodies – at the end of the game one of the tunnelled walkways under Old Trafford briefly explodes into “Putin is a wanker!” which is at least something, even if it effectively boils down to less than a pointed stick.

2- There is, famously, a lot to be said for just carrying on in trying circumstances, as we will demonstrate today.  We are helped on our way by the fact that, as has been the case for a decade or so now, this is no longer that Manchester United.  No longer a side so driven and dynamic and well coached that the psychological burden of trepidation on the visiting team is enough to smooth over many of the home side’s relatively bad days.  Awful home defeats to Crystal Palace notwithstanding (and apologies, but midweek reporting capability remains patchy at best) it says a lot that it was possible to squint at this and say “you know what, maybe…”, surely inconceivable as a relegation threatened club at Old Trafford “back in the day”.

“I’ve heard of him!” proclaims Daughter 2 as we make our way past the Sir Alex Ferguson stand.  Since she was only four when United’s figurehead stepped down this was not to a given but she’s here today having never been to Manchester, and finds a place hamstrung by a sense of presumptuous entitlement no longer substantiated by what goes on on the pitch.  This is evident in the grotesquely complacent, underloved stadium and in the treatment of visiting supporters that is in stark contrast with the charm offensive ever more evident at other grounds.  You wouldn’t expect the token gesture of yellow, black (AND RED) shirts on the staff in the kiosks here – £2.50 for a bottle of water decanted into a flimsy plastic pint glass is much more on brand.

On the pitch the unreasonable level of expectation is surely a millstone around the necks of younger United players in particular, but nobody embodies the presumptuous entitlement more absolutely than the preening totem that is Cristiano Ronaldo.  “Lionel Messi, he’s better than you” is a predictable enough chant that he’ll have heard a thousand times before.  “Ken Sema, he’s better than you” perhaps less frequently.

Nonetheless, whilst he may no longer be the best/second best player in the world he’s more than good enough to cause us problems underneath all that hair gel.  In the opening minutes he receives a ball from the right as Cathcart slips in the area and plants a shot past Foster and off the face of the post.  So much for “keep it tight, boys”.

3- The Rowson clan are out in some force today;  Dad’s here, and Will has brought his herberts over from Leeds.  The younger of the two is a girl after my own heart, earnestly clutching an A5 sheet of paper and a purple marker to count off shots, cards, corners and goals from both teams.  The reverse of the sheet is reserved for “Ben Foster being brilliant”, and will receive the most attention.

United are all over us.  Not in a “this is coming” kinda way, not an irresistible wave of red shirts… but we’re very much second best nonetheless.  An offside-looking Fernandes breaks through to be denied brilliantly, bravely by Foster, and soon after drives a shot through that bounces off an affronted looking Ronaldo and away.  Ronaldo converts a Telles cross only to be rightly pulled back for a narrow offside – as at Arsenal, had our defending been slightly less incompetent, the otherwise impeccable Samir slow to react as Ronaldo sprang past him, the Portuguese might have been played onside and scored anyway.  

Foster was out quickly again at the feet of Ronaldo. Fernandes contrived to shovel a left wing cross wide, and then headed over after Ronaldo broke but was forced wide by Foster’s advance.  That incident had been preceded by Louza snarling into a loose ball but then having his ankle trodden on, seemingly accidentally, by Fred who initiated the break.  Our midfield trio throughout looked suddenly utterly convincing, as at Villa Park – Louza hungry for the ball despite pressure at the back of the trio, Sissoko enjoying his best game for a while and bullying Pogba and co in the middle of the park, Cleverley sustaining his fervent energy long enough to be applauded from all sides on his 80th minute withdrawal.

Nonetheless, our limited success and confidence in front of goal of late and Roy’s conservativism mean that our threat on the break is limited.  That’s not a knock at Roy necessarily, and maybe if and as things improve our counters will be coupled with a confident cutting edge that renders them more effective. Here, though, Sissoko’s most effective charge of the half sees him, perhaps wisely, opt against a shot to square to Sarr instead, the winger being smothered out as this attack went the way of several others.

Meanwhile in the corner in front of us the linesman executes the first of a peculiar trio of calls, suggesting an innate moral objection to the ball being shepherded out of play by awarding a corner for an imperceptible touch by the shuffling and baffled Kamara.  The same official will repeat the trick twice more in similar circumstances, but in general the apprehension of being officiated by Kevin Friend at Old Trafford proves unsubstantiated… indeed, he resists the temptation to award the home side a spot kick for Cathcart’s surgically precise tackle on Elanga, whose momentum takes him over it.  VAR confirms the call – a second half appeal by Ronaldo after he deliberately runs into Kamara, falls over and sits with his arms outstretched in outrage doesn’t even earn that – nor, indeed, any support from his team mates who one presumes have seen this before.  As he slows up, perhaps Ronaldo is reverting to the gravitationally challenged bad habits of his first days at Old Trafford.

united

4- In the aftermath of Wednesday’s disappointment against Palace it’s worth reflecting that, after weeks and months of objections of a lack of on pitch plan or identity we now, unequivocally and indisputably, have one.  It may prove inadequate as we run out of road and has thus far demonstrably been unsuccessful at Vicarage Road (though the nadir remains Norwich, pre-Hodgson, who inherited a run of five consecutive home defeats which now stretches to seven).  But it’s there, and has yielded an unlikely looking four points from two difficult away trips in a week after less rewarded reasons for optimism in Roy and Ray’s first two.  

To reiterate, whilst we were second best here, to varying degrees, throughout the game we earned a point through a combination of the plan being sound, the plan meaning that being a bit lucky was enough to get that draw, and of hanging in there.  Of keeping going.  Of having the strength of mind and purpose not to be phased by narrow squeaks, just as so much of Luther’s success even longer ago than Sir Alex was based on not being phased by missing chances.  

And the second half was an improvement on the first in terms of balance of play.  United brought on Sancho who played down the left and was a similarly sprightly, ineffective threat to that suggested at Vicarage Road earlier in the season.  Never been the same player since he left Watford. He faced Craig Cathcart for the most part, since Roy opted to replace Jeremy Ngakia with the seemingly back in the fold (good!) Christian Kabasele.  The first half had seen both full backs display their characteristic vulnerable exuberance but Ngakia, in to cover the unexplained absence of Kiko, more nervously.  

United’s chances were generally fewer and further between after the break but this wasn’t saying a lot and they still fashioned openings that might have punished us on a bad day… Elanga started and ended the most fluid move of the game, an interplay of such startling elegance that it woke the home stands up if only briefly  (explaining what “ground full of tourists” was all about took much of the walk back to the car).  Later in the game, just as we were thinking that maybe however stoic the defending and however good the plan United had to get a break eventually Fernandes’ cross hit Cristiano Ronaldo and Foster gratefully scrambled to the loose ball.  In a last act of defiance, Samir executed an inhuman block to deny Fernandes as United pushed.

We had attacks too though, and if we were still second best at least we were throwing a few punches.  King, who struggled on the left for much of the game, fed Dennis whose sharp shot was killed by an unfavourable deflection.  Sarr, who occasionally looked as if he’d been restrained from attacking with abandon, surged through and fed Dennis; his effort was blocked, De Gea was beaten to the high ball and Kamara cut inside to shoot excitedly over.  Juraj Kucka came off the bench for a dynamic, chest-beating cameo – Dave, who had started the game by drumming on my back as if he was the sugar-high primary school child but mercifully calmed down, suggested that this was the role he should have been playing all season, agent of chaos off the bench but for, you know, stuff.  

In the dying seconds, the possibility of glorious daylight robbery.  We’d passed Danny Webber arriving as we traversed the car park before the game – he once executed a similar burglary at Leicester in the dying minutes.  Here it was Isma, cutting in from the left and finding United’s defence unusually inattentive, backing off.  He pinged a shot towards the top corner which for half a second from our angle looked like it was going in.  The celebration, had that happened, would still be rolling around the otherwise empty Old Trafford stands but it wasn’t to be, curling narrowly and cruelly over the bar.

5- There’s no knocking a draw at Old Trafford.  As at Villa – before one point became three – there’s the suspicion that it’s not quite enough but a third League point at this venue and the first since November 1985 is not to be taken lightly.

As for what comes next…  it should be stating the obvious that our home form is the biggest obstacle to our escape since there are still plenty of games to be played and plenty of bad teams within reach. 

The thing about probability is that there’s a huge grey area between a racing certainty and a dead horse and when you’re in that grey area all sorts of anxious tendencies come to the fore.  Many of them are essentially cowardly – or at the very least lacking in courage, which isn’t quite the same thing – easier to protect yourself from hurt and emotional vulnerability by writing off the shades of grey as black.  “We were down weeks ago, lads”. 

Being positive, refusing to accept that the game is lost, is in its own way no less cowardly.  A refusal to accept reality, perhaps.

But it is more fun.  With or without a pointed stick.

Yoooorns.

*Foster 4*, Ngakia 3, Kamara 3, Cathcart 3, Samir 4, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 2, King 2
Subs: Sema (for King, 63) 3, Kabasele (for Ngakia, 63) 3, Kucka (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Hernández, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, João Pedro, Bachmann

Aston Villa 0 Watford 1 (19/02/2022) 20/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- Balls to the League table.

Balls to the fact that this was our first win since, like, forever.  Balls to being four points behind Newcastle, balls to Burnley winning at Brighton.  Balls, even, to Roy’s “let’s not kid ourselves that we’ve cracked it” post-match wisdom.

Balls to all of it.  We’ve just won a football match.

And we knew that we’d feel differently as soon as it happened.  That all the gloominess would lift, that the apathy towards the next fixture, the resentful apprehension towards the rest of the season and the grim acceptance of relegation would dissipate.

It was still a startling, breathtaking development.  There is joy in the world again.

2- Little sign of it earlier in the day.  Little sign that our fortunes were going to change.  We left home in truculent drizzle; within fifteen minutes I’d taken a wrong turn adding ten minutes to the journey, autopilot taking me towards Rushden Lakes rather than northwards towards the A14.  The motorways offered water and puddles and stop-start traffic.  The previous day had been full of “don’t leave home unless you have to” weather warnings and here we were heading for Birmingham not even sure if we wanted to any more let alone had to.  In the top tier of the Doug Ellis Stand having hauled ourselves up several flights of stairs we joined a queue to the single refreshment kiosk stretching along the back of the stand that had the sombre air of folk lining up for their own execution.  “Alcohol is not served in the away section” read a voice behind me in a neutral tone as we approached a menu of offerings ten minutes into the queuing process.  After a moment’s contemplation the speaker sighed and abandoned the exercise.  Shortly afterwards an elderly steward offered an untargeted apology, the hot food hadn’t yet reached the required temperature and wouldn’t be available for a while.  Grim acceptance, as with so much these days.  “There had better be chocolate”, growled Daughter 2 rebelliously.

Only as we enter the body of the stadium itself did the tone change.  It would be wrong to regard the wind, the dying embers of Storm Eunice rolling startlingly around Villa Park, as a “leveller”.  With that sort of attitude, the “everyone’s ultimately better than us” attitude, we’ve no chance.  But there was certainly a feel of something in the air – and more than just the paper bag that buffeted irretrievably across our vision for much of the afternoon.  This was an afternoon for drama and great deeds.

And to general relief we’d come dressed for the occasion.  João Pedro was missing with an unspecified knock, but Ismaïla Sarr and Imrân Louza were restored to a 4-3-3 in what looked closer to a first choice eleven than we’ve been able to field for a long time.  

The opening was physical, boisterous and, in the wide-eyed words of Daughter 2, “so intense”.  Villa had by far the best of it, probing and pushing and enjoying the vast majority of possession – indeed they spent the first minute and a half passing the ball around in their own half as we waited.

As they progressed towards our penalty area the various threats represented by Coutinho, Buendía and Digne asked questions of us.  These questions were answered and thrusts repelled, often by the impeccable Cathcart who as previously suits the Hodgson philosophy of everyone being in the right place (which we’ll get to) down to a tee…  but it was a little bit too last ditch for any comfort.  This wasn’t waves crashing on an indifferent rock face, it was only going to take one slip.

The home side would enjoy the greater possession throughout but never looked as dominant later in the game.  Indeed, and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, there were portents of what was to come as early as the third minute as Ings pushed his away into the box and went down under challenge from Samir as his window closed in front of him.  The incident was twice replayed on the stadium screens as Ings and company furiously appealed for a penalty to Robert Jones’ welcome indifference (significantly the same video operator chose to curtail a replay of a second half incident as Ben Foster indicated that Ings had pushed Samir into the collision that would end his involvement).  But all that the reviews of the first incident betrayed was a soft contact, no more a penalty than it was a chocolate cake.  It didn’t even make Match of the Day.  And so it’s hard not to interpret the peevish, sulky urgency of the appeal as desperation (as above, with hindsight).  This wasn’t a side with the patient confidence in their own ability of a Manchester City, say.  This was a side chasing goblins and fairies in the third minute.  Brittle.  There to be got at, if only we could get our own shit together.

3- Spoiler alert.  We got our shit together.

I can feel Dad’s eyes rolling at the onset of statistics but here they tell all manner of stories.  The most obvious, the most dramatic, the most publicised and the most telling is the shots vs shots on target thing.  Villa:  20 shots, 1 on target and that a dolly shot from Buendía fielded comfortably by Ben Foster, an irrelevance.  Watford: 8 shots, 4 on target, all venomous.  As impressive for me though was the fouls count.  Away from home, sitting deep and chasing possession, attacking on the break…  Watford 7 fouls Villa 12 (many of which by John McGinn, who did remarkably well to escape censure in the first half and calmed down in the second).  This was a performance of a level of discipline unparalleled this season and this was the basis for the victory.  As an aside, it’s difficult to imagine that we’d have achieved similar composure with Daniel Bachmann in goal;  occasionally brilliant, exuding calmness isn’t his thing.  That discussion’s done I think.

I once went to Dortmund zoo.  Late in the day, the zoo was about to close and as we were wandering out of the park we passed a pen of hunting dogs.  They sat in silent formation, eyes fixed on the lingering intruders and we stood and watched in turn.  As we moved to abandon this face-off and headed a few steps towards the exit they rose to their feet as one and shuffled their formation.  As we stopped to face them again they reset and squatted in the same formation, rotated but a few feet.  Alerted to this game we repeated it several times with the same result.

One can only imagine that Roy and Ray have visited Dortmund zoo, or at least have a working knowledge of the African Hunting Dog, since our defensive set-up was similarly co-ordinated and unforgiving.  Once we’d survived that opening spell Villa’s windows were restricted, even in the frantic close as they chased the game.  Both sides were hampered by the conditions, any ball in the air felt like a wild, speculative gamble and neither team was really set up to play percentages by pumping in challenging high balls – certainly not Villa, and not even the Hornets since despite our attacking threat our defensive discipline warned against such cheap surrender of possession (and indeed since our forwards seemed reluctant to attempt to retrieve possession prompting some frustration in the first half).

Perhaps unsurprisingly such clean chances as there were came on the break.  Sarr had a quiet game overall, struggling to get involved much less impose himself on proceedings… when he’s fully flame-on again opponents like Lucas Digne will perhaps be more cautious in pushing on.  But here’s what you get with a play of his devastating quality, since his moments carved Villa open.  The first of these saw an outrageous slight of foot open up space for him on the right flank.  His low ball sliced through the home side to release Dennis on the left; the Nigerian cut inside Chambers and Cash leaving the former on his backside before driving low at goal.  Perhaps he chose the wrong option there with Sarr closing in space to his right, but the shot forced an exceptional one-handed save from Martínez, the stop of the game.

At the other end, a Villa break saw Buendía play Ings through late in the half… this was the opportunity that Villa had been playing for all half, the caveat to those “shot on target” stats earlier.  Ings should have opened the scoring but Foster came flying out and spread himself, the shot caught the outside of the post to the relieved mockery of the away end.

4- The interval saw the away end sit down for a collective breather.  I don’t know how many people braved the kiosk queue, which had taken forever in a half-empty stand at 2pm – one can only imagine that they’re still there (and can perhaps advise as to whether the pies have warmed up yet).

The resumption was greeted with the vigour that our first half performance had merited, and the team continued in the same vein – indeed the second half was like the first only more so, as our breaks grew in potency to the point where the home fans were surely looking at each other commenting, “we’re going to screw this up, aren’t we” and our defending continued to block out the light at the other end.  A couple of long range shots bent over the bar, Villa won a free kick on the edge of the box that infuriated Tom Cleverley but Digne dropped it wide of the post in any case.  They were going to need to do something special, and didn’t.

This was down to more than just the defenders, though Hassane Kamara in particular continued to polish his cult status. He gave the ball away cheaply and almost consequentially a couple of times….  but people who do things make mistakes and Kamara is doing something all the time.  Inconceivable that a full back could be more involved than the Ivorian whose dynamic refusal to recognise a lost cause is already a feature of the side.

But the midfield was hugely more comfortable with Imrân Louza sitting at the back of it.  There’s no faulting the application of either the excellent Sissoko or of Tom Cleverley, but this looked so much more natural a shape for all concerned and all revelled in their roles, the Moroccan most of all…  a mischievous quarterback, pulling the strings and dictating the game’s direction.  On countless occasions he would receive the ball under pressure, rotate into space and with a glance up release an attack in defiance of the swirling wind.  

Villa had a warning as we rampaged out on the break and King, the pivot of the forward line, released Sissoko to his right.  Perhaps when we’re mid-table the Frenchman’s inability to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo will become endearing… here his ferocious drive at a disappearing window at the near post, striking the side netting when a shot or pass across the face might have given Dennis an option.

But when the goal came, just as we were reflecting that an away point was worthy but probably inadequate, it was a fine, fine thing.  The footballing accomplishment and its multi-faceted perfection, showcasing so many of the best bits of our afternoon, can only be appreciated on replay since whilst I remembered Hassane Kamara’s dogged composure in playing the ball out and Joshua King’s resilience and poise in opening the pitch up for Louza the subsequent goal celebration distorted time and space to an extent that these might have happened in a different game.  

No forgetting Louza though, burrowing into Villa territory then stepping back and into his own dimension, like Neo in the Matrix.  Bodies charge past him and he sidesteps effortlessly, bullets fly at him and he flicks them out of the sky. Then he flings a ball to the right to where Sarr has dropped away from Digne on the flank and here comes Isma’s second moment of outrageous magnificence. Digne obstructs his progress and is quickly joined by Coutinho; their reluctance to jump in inside the area seems sensible, until the Senegalese leans back and from a stationary position carves an impossible cross between the pair of them, over King and his marker at the near post and onto the head of Emmanuel Dennis who has bullied Ashley Young (snigger) into irrelevance.  As his header crashes past Martínez the away tiers explode in limbs in the most cathartic celebration of the season.

5- In my mind’s eye the closing period is anxious but that’s borne of circumstance more than anything that Villa actually did, their theoretical threat not amounting to all that much as we continue to get bodies in the way.  The Villa faithful are under no illusions as the stands begin to empty rapidly, and it’s the Hornets who come closer to adding to the scoring;  Cleverley drives viciously at Martínez’s near post, and then another swaggering counter sees Sarr pour a liquid low ball into King.  The ball is slightly behind the striker and he does well to clip in a shot that the outstanding Martínez blocks point blank.  We could have done with that ending differently, King’s reliable belligerence could do with the fuel of something going in off his arse.

But let’s not be greedy.  The darkest hour is always before the dawn and here we are, finally, eyes blinking in the sunlight.  More stats (sorry Dad)…. our fifth win in six against Villa since promotion in 2015 (thanks Dave) – and the odd one out remains a f***ing travesty that I’m still not quite over two years later.  Our second clean sheet of the season (get us!) two weeks after the first also represents Villa’s first failure to score at Villa Park in this Premier League campaign.  Most of all, this is our first scruffy win of the season, our erstwhile soft underbelly betrayed both by the paucity of draws and the fact that the four preceding victories all saw us (needing to?) score at least three goals.   We’ll take 1-0 all day long.

If you permit yourself to glance at the fixture list you’ll see reasons for optimism.  The fact remains that we’ve won once in three months and that other corpses around us are stirring too.  This is still a big ask.  But if you were going to set up a great escape you could do worse than plan six of seven remaining home games being against teams in the bottom half.  Not to mention the next two games being against opponents in the same sort of precarious introspection that we found Villa in today.  That guarantees nothing.

But it gives us a shout.  See you Wednesday…

 Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 3, Kamara 4, *Cathcart 5*, Samir 4, Louza 5, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Sema (for Dennis, 86) NA, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 93) NA, Hernández (for Sarr, 94) NA, Kalu, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 2 (12/02/2022) 13/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-

‘Well, master, we’re in a fix and no mistake,’ said Sam Gamgee.  He stood despondently with hunched shoulders beside Frodo, and peered out with puckered eyes into the gloom.

It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, during which they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before.  Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could find a way to the outer edge of this strange twisted knot of hills.  But always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassable, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.

The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien

2- You’ll have spotted the intended parallels, perhaps.  Frodo and Sam are wandering around in circles in a shapeless, joyless land sometimes wondering whether they’re re-treading their footsteps and finding their confidence and energy sapped.  Similarly, it’s difficult to remain positive in the face of three months without a win, an ever darkening league table and no clear path out of the remorselessly hostile terrain that we find ourselves in.  Having missed Newcastle I haven’t seen us score in the League since Emmanuel Dennis found the net against West Ham in the last game of last year.  That didn’t end well, either.

Nor does it help, I think, that the in-stadium support has effectively been exposed to consecutive seasons of Premier League struggle, the first ending in relegation and the second pointed squarely in that direction.  It’s been a while, the Cup Semi-Final against Wolves arguably, since we had a successful team to watch in person and that affects your habits as much as your mood. Irrespective of whether the team is “good enough”, we’re going to games mentally on the defensive.  This much was evident when, towards the end of the first half at which point we were labouring but still level the blameless Ben Foster turned to the Rookery with the play upfield and waved his arms hopefully, encouragingly, to be met by a murmur.  That’s not a criticism of anyone, it’s just where we are.

3- For all that West Ham had been another strikeout at a largely unlikeable venue I thoroughly enjoyed Tuesday night.  No, we weren’t quite good enough in the end but it was an improvement on Burnley’s improvement – if defensive stakes were first planted at Turf Moor then here was some evidence that we could still threaten too.  And yes, Jarrod Bowen should have been denied the space to have his shot but it was still a fluke, the sort of miserable fluke that goes in when you’re where we are.  West Ham hadn’t been afforded many such chances.

I’d much rather have had the time to report on that one than this one.  It’s always tempting to be introspective of course; we should acknowledge that Brighton were a lot brighter, more comfortable, more positive than West Ham had been and hence a bigger threat.  One of the main reasons that we were only just about getting away with it in the first half until we didn’t was that the Seagulls attacked with verve and purpose.  Worth also remembering that the same scoreline in Sussex at the start of the season concealed a Watford performance far less able to withstand our opponents’ pressing than here.

Nor do I hold with the criticism of the starting lineup.  Roy’s remit was surely to make us harder to play against, harder to play through.  He’d already done that, quicker than might have been credited.  The progress, if and when it comes, will come through being confident enough with our defending to start throwing a few more punches in anger too;  Retaining that defensive mentality for a home game, for all that we have attacking weapons kicking our heels, didn’t work in the end.  That doesn’t make it the wrong decision.  It’s not as if playing more open football with the weapons available – and Sarr’s availability only stretched to the bench today – has gotten us very far up to now.  Daughter #1, happily sassing next to me with her sister, hasn’t seen us win since we beat Wolves on New Year’s Day 2020.

But it didn’t work.  A miserable first half saw us obstruct Brighton up to a point….  Samir impressed in the backline, doggedly getting a foot in, revelling in challenges.  But we didn’t obstruct enough to prevent those chances… Moder forced a good save from Foster, then put in a cross for Gross to head wide unchallenged;  Maupay shot from long range in too much space, Foster saved comfortably; Dunk headed over unchallenged from a deep corner.  Whether Maupay’s looping shot was quite what he intended or otherwise we had allowed Brighton enough bites not to be able to complain when they got lucky.  This wasn’t Bowen at West Ham.

The larger problem perhaps was that we were scarcely threatening ourselves.  Hell, we were scarcely anything. Dennis’ clever break midway through the half spoke volumes…  as he fooled Dunk and span into space on the half way line the home crowd roared in unfamiliar surprise and desperation.  We so badly need something to celebrate, something to cling to.  The Nigerian roared down the left flank;  a halfway confident player, a Dennis in the midst of his hot streak a few months ago, strikes it left footed across the face of goal.  Instead he turned into challenges to get it on his right foot and won a free kick that must have been very close to a penalty from the recovering Dunk.  It shouldn’t have come to that.

4- Let’s give ourselves a break from this bleak fare.  Hell, given the correlation between our results and this blog’s readership there’s little to justify me still being here typing at 11am on Sunday morning so I might as well try to enjoy myself.

Things on the pitch are difficult, fingers are being pointed all over the place.  But there’s lots the club continues to get right, and here’s one instance.  Anyone younger than, loosely, 45 isn’t going to remember Ann Swanson in her pomp but whilst few outside Watford will recognise her name she was an essential component of the club’s most successful, happiest era in the 1980s. My first season tickets were in the Family Enclosure;  Ann was unmissable, the matriarch, the dominant figure.  She’s spoken about how much support she received from GT in crafting the family areas; no doubt he shared her vision but he was a smart guy, he knew who not to pick a fight with in any case.  The club owe her a lot for the reputation that was forged, for the fact that 50-ish blokes like me still instil a romantic vision of what it’s all about into the eyes of their kids such that they (reasonably) happily agree to drive up to Burnley in the pissing rain, or sit here in the cold despite (see above) not having seen us win in forever.

So the best bit of an admittedly difficult afternoon was quite comfortably Ann’s clearly genuine, tearful surprise at being told that the Family Stand would now bear her name.  Well done Watford.  Well done.

5- During the interval, a clear signal was sent with both Imrân Louza and Ismaïla Sarr warming up on the pitch.  Sarr’s achievements with Senegal had been celebrated over the tannoy and the man himself seemed keen to both acknowledge his reception and to pitch back into the fray but it was Louza who made the most immediate impression.  The opening period of the half offered grounds for optimism as the much-missed pivot at the back of the midfield got hold of the ball and gave us a degree of control for the first time in the match.

If Sarr was less effective it wasn’t through lack of effort… there was no suggestion here of the slightly sulky ineffectiveness that his worst performances have been accused of.  Nonetheless we struggled to get him into the game… his first involvement was a wild if positive shot from distance, slugged over the bar and into the Rookery.  Dennis was the next to threaten, wriggling impossibly through challenges on the left before pumping a shot off the bar, his head in his hands.

Problem was, it didn’t feel natural.  Any patterns that had developed in our attacking play have been interrupted by AFCON in particular and stymied by lack of recent success in particular.  Joshua King, whose lack of goals conceals a steady work rate was less effective here.  You kinda feel that if we are to have any hope of digging our way out of this that front three needs to function as a unit better than it did here – almost every half chance was an individual’s creation.

By the time Adam Webster shovelled a second goal past Ben Foster the visitors had reclaimed control.  Tom Cleverley and Kiko Femenía both seemed to have a role in repelling another Moder shot, yet another was deflected wide.  A scramble that portended the one that would lead to the goal resulted in Cucurella forcing probably the save of the game from Foster.  Meanwhile João Pedro, whose name had been sung in a little desperation by some in the Rookery, had his most ineffective cameo of the season.  By the time the game finished the home stands were long since emptying.  A number of sulky and violent challenges on Lamptey betrayed our frustration. Sarr’s slug at Sánchez provided at least a shot on target and some hope of better to come – and, via his link-up with Kiko, a reminder of one of the few dependable partnerships in the team.

But we’re running out of time here, quite obviously.  Some had cited this as a must-win game, that we’re best resigning ourselves to the inevitable should we not turn the corner here.  I don’t think it’s quite “done”…  that we need Roy and Ray to turn it around immediately doesn’t imply that failure to do so constitutes a bad plan or a busted flush.  There are enough winnable games left and enough bad teams around us, but winnable games are only a meaningful concept if, you know, you’re winning at all.

Frodo and Sam eventually escape from Emyn Muil through help from an unlikely source.  We’re going to need a similarly unlikely break if we’re to end our search for a Precious three points any time soon.  Villa Park, where we’re still owed a break, would be my choice.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 2, Kamara 3, Samir 3, Cathcart 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 2, Kucka 2, Cleverley 3, Dennis 3, King 2
Subs: Sarr (for Kucka, 45) 3, Louza (for Kayembe, 45) 3, João Pedro (for Cleverley, 70) 2, Hernández, Sema, Kabasele, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann

Burnley 0 Watford 0 (06/02/2022) 06/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- The thing about social media is that, notoriously, it tends to polarise opinion.  You’re thinking… well probably A but maybe B, perhaps.  Then you read a strident, one-sided posit in favour of B, probably made by someone half-thinking on the way to somewhere or in the middle of something and you wade in to balance the argument and both entrench your position and spark off a heated exchange of views.

You’ve all been there.  It’s grotesque.  I’ve avoided it in recent weeks, mercifully, more or less. Anyway… with every change of head coach (or manager…) comes an opening of the windows and a ventilating of everything which, whether the preceding decision was needed, merited, A, B, right or wrong does give you the opportunity to breath in the fresh air and prepare yourself for whatever degree of reset and to go again.  

There can be little debate that it was needed this time, in the end, however much some of us had been trying to imagine otherwise before Norwich.  After Norwich, no discussion.  Sometimes a performance is just so wrong as to comprehensively end any debate.  Had we been in the Championship we would have been facing Huddersfield of course, as is traditional on such occasions (see eg here, here and also here if you have the strength) but we’re not and so Norwich it was.

And in come Roy and Ray, the former with a track record of imposing the sort of structure and resilience that we’ve been manifestly lacking (a reactive appointment then?  maybe, but you’d rather have it than not) and speaking an endearing lack of bullshit.  The latter, well.  I’m guessing those reading this are largely of a vintage that permits them to remember his own tenure as the main man and will have their own opinions, won’t need reminding of the circumstances and the spirit.   “Better off as a number two”… well, perhaps.  Nonetheless, after the obvious my second favourite Watford boss.  I’m delighted he’s back in whatever capacity,

2- The sense of there being something new in the air, of stuff having been reset since that Norwich disaster is re-enforced by the fact that it’s Daughter 1 accompanying me up the M6 rather than Daughter 2, whose hitherto perfect away record this season was interrupted by our COVID-induced absence from Newcastle and who now deems Burnley “too far north”.  Daughter 1’s presence then, in defiance of a slightly less fixated attitude towards football attendance than her sister, is an unforeseen fringe benefit of my unhealthy obsession with irrelevant statistics, the same obsession that informs me that this is somehow my tenth visit to Turf Moor (despite it being “too far north”).  Daughter 1, you see, has seen her lead over her sister, three years her junior, cut to 2 games through the apprentice’s belligerence.  110 games vs 108.  This would never do.

If she had any regrets after a drive spanning four and a half hours as we pulled into Burnley cricket club with the wind flinging the rain in violent circles around us she would have been forgiven but she didn’t let on.  Burnley’s an odd place (a judgement which I now feel qualified to make after ten visits).  In contrast to a side whose identity has been set in stone (or granite) for nearly a decade the locals are hugely varied spanning both the most one-dimensionally hostile and the most unreservedly friendly.  It depends where you look of course, and the cricket club predominantly hosts the latter.  Daughter 1 declines in favour of a bee-line for the away end, but if we do end up going down retaining this away venue on the schedule will be a silver lining.  Sorry, spoiler alert.

3- Football then.  Finally, after two weeks and two thunks of blithering.  And if Roy’s team selection is so on brand with a 4-4-2 boasting the most obdurate midfield in recent memory (Kucka, Kayembe, Sissoko, Sema leaves little room for compromise or for anything much) then the need, here, to lay down a marker, to deprive Burnley of space to deliver from the wings in the absence of our two most potent routes to causing damage at the other end (Sarr finally fit and playing but in Cameroon not Lancashire, Dennis suspended) justifies it entirely.  “It’s almost like having Sarr back” notes Will as Kucka lines up on the right flank.

The match itself is carnage.  The extraordinary wind is urgent but directionless – we realise at one point that the corner flags are almost horizontal, but pointing in a variety of different directions.  The game itself follows the same pattern with everything – ball, players, officials, tumbling haphazardly around the pitch as if the whole surface is tipping. At times it resembles Flash Gordon’s confrontation with Prince Barin more than a football match…  I’ve not read any reports, but I’d imagine that “low on quality” features prominently, and that those watching on TV, certainly those uninvested, would have been reaching for the remote control as quickly as Prince Vultan.  In the stadium, fuelled by the wind and the rain and the frantic urgency it’s utterly brilliant, and Daughter 1 – in between sassing at the comments behind us (“yeah, sure, like he could do better”) – is rapt throughout.

After an early flurry for the Hornets it’s Burnley who find the table tipping in their favour at the start of the match.  Hassane Kamara is exposed early on and there’s a risk that he’ll get bullied as the enormous Wout Weghorst pulls right and batters him but as a portent this is deceptive.  Kamara is far tougher a cookie than his skinny frame suggests, he’ll do a fine line in precision covering tackles delivered with an endearing violence and a smile that’s bigger than his face.  He’s handy bringing the ball out as well, dogged in retaining possession up the line and delivers perhaps the pass of the game to release King for a chance on the break.  Weghorst meanwhile shows glimpses but will need time to adapt to his new environment;  here his biggest impact is on Ken Sema who catches a stray limb (which, in fairness, is going to happen when your elbows are at the same height as a normal person’s head).  Weghorst doesn’t live up to his billing… it’s not quite the Emperor’s New Clothes but he’s certainly underdressed and as a consequence, unsurprisingly in the circumstances, looks freezing.

His new partner Maxwell Cornet – linked with us on at least three separate occasions before joining the Clarets – is also rusty having been warming the Ivory Coast bench in Cameroon but presents a more obvious immediate threat, forcing Foster into a decent save up to his right in the first half.  Nonetheless, the home side are earning little in the box itself thanks to our own refreshingly uncomplicated bloody-mindedness.  Samir has clearly read the brief, dumping a clearance onto the roof of the Bob Lord stand to our right to terminate the Clarets’ first attack but it’s Craig Cathcart who stands out,  Getting in the way is his trademark and he excels here at both ends of the pitch but particularly in defence, being where he needs to be and clearing without deliberation in the knowledge that, despite physical presence and long throws, Burnley aren’t going to threaten us from the flanks.  We start shouting “have it!” to greet every clearance.

Cathcart’s spiritual equivalent in the midfield is Edo Kayembe.  The game is characterised by both sides giving the ball away a lot (more forgivable given circumstances and meteorology) but by the time a stray Clarets ball find Kayembe for the seventh time you begin to wonder whether this is more than mere happy coincidence.  His low centre of gravity means that he’s not being buffeted around either and it’s building from this solid foundation that we turn the tide.  By the end of the half we’re probably shading it and might have been given the chance to cement this suspicion when Connor Roberts handled Ken Sema’s cross in the box. The officials between them seemed to conclude, generously, that the full-back had been attempting to withdraw his outstretched arm from the path of the ball rather than blocking it.  We’ll be equally generous in assuming that Pawson, who had an excellent game overall in difficult conditions, wasn’t influenced by Sean Dyche sending his many backroom staff scuttling across the pitch as the half-time whistle blew in advance of the VAR review, perhaps presenting a psychological obstacle to any reversal of decision.  You win some, you lose some.

4- The second half featured more of the same, but whilst Burnley had chances both at the beginning of the half, when an effort dropped onto Ben Foster’s bar as he scrambled beneath it, and at the end, when Cornet lined up a free kick that was repelled, the Hornets were the better side without quite turning that superiority into clear cut chances.  Josh King was in his element, winning the physical confrontation with Burnley’s centre-backs on points, holding the ball up, bringing people into the game.  João Pedro’s ability to bring the ball into his orbit irrespective of angle, height or velocity was useful in both relieving pressure and in switching the focus of the play… one of several scampering breaks crashed on the rocks of their contre-temps against Norwich, as Will observed.  With the ball at his feet and defenders scrambling around him the Brazilian chose the worst of both worlds, delaying a lay-off to King and then overhitting it late rather than taking on the shot himself.  Femenía and Kucka – who did a more than passable job on the right in the end – combined for the latter to drop a cross onto João Pedro’s head but the connection was too deliberate, too close to Pope.  Like later efforts it suffered from the lack of conviction of a side that still hasn’t won for a very long time – only Cucho’s overdue introduction introduced a bit of “f*** it” to proceedings.

By that point we’d surrendered a bit of midfield control by replacing Kayembe with Cleverley, a move that had Will hopping nervously with anxiety until the final whistle.  Presuming no injury to Kayembe it was a gamble with a neutral pay-off as it turned out;  Burnley regained a footing. their best chances a Cornet shot after Cleverley surrendered cheaply and a break when Tarkowski won possession deep in Burnley’s half and thundered forward like a Scud missile before crashing into the lack of space on the edge of our box.  Cleverley’s potential for mischief gave us something else further forward in theory, though the closest it came to being realised was when Cucho bundled into the box, seeming to run towards every challenge rather than away from it before kicking the ball into the wall of shins that surrounded him.  The rebound fell to Cleverley on the edge of the box, his low drive – with the sting taken out of it by a deflection, with the benefit of a replay – was pushed around the post by Pope.  The game ended with the Hornets in the ascendancy, but we hadn’t quite done enough.

5- For all their traditional obstinacy, for all that their star turns up front will warm up, Burnley are a terrible side and are going to be relegated. That we didn’t beat them, taken in isolation, might be regarded as a(nother) missed opportunity, Sarr or no Sarr, Dennis or no Dennis.  

Nonetheless, that first clean sheet of the season is hugely significant.  We’ll face tougher games (starting Tuesday, where I fear squeezing in a report will be difficult) but a bloody-minded defensive side with a bit of magic dust up front isn’t a bad recipe in any division.  Sean Dyche knows this all too well – his Watford side (not to mention his Burnley incarnations since) were improbably mid-table in 2012 with Sean Murray’s brief hurrah providing that magic dust.  We’re not short of magic dust this time, and just perhaps we can be solid too.  The locals trudging back to the cricket club behind us in the extraordinarily persistent blustering drizzle grumbled about their boss, his inflexibility of approach, the dullness of the whole thing.   A bit of “win good, lose bad” in action there (or “draw at home to team you need to beat bad”) but we’ve all done it.

Thing is, a bloody-minded and ugly clean sheet after ten years of similar is one thing.  A bloody-minded ugly clean sheet when you’ve been waiting for one all season is something else.  Further encouragement, as ever, is offered by the Other 14 Table – performance vs par of winning your home games against all but the big six and nothing else – which has us well clear of the bottom three.  This reflects our remaining fixtures where the “unwinnable” games – City, Chelsea, Liverpool, United? – are away from home meaning the home fixtures are kinder.

We love you Watford, we’ve only got fourteen hours (seventeen games) to save the earth.

But we’re not done yet.

Yoooorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 3, *Kamara 4*, Cathcart 4, Samir 3, Kayembe 4, Sissoko 3, Kucka 3, Sema 3, João Pedro 3, King 4
Subs: Cleverley (for Kayembe, 70) 3, Hernández (for João Pedro, 83) NA, Fletcher, Louza, Kabasele, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (22/01/2022) 22/01/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
20 comments

1-  So I had a bit of a lucky break this week.

Having come down with COVID symptoms on the previous Monday (and watched them, mercifully, disappear immediately in the wake of a positive PCR) I had, as  already described, accepted the loss of the trip to Newcastle as a small price to pay all things considered.  “You’d have taken that”, a bit like salvaging a point when down to ten men away from home.

Focus then moved to Wednesday evening.  A much anticipated second visit to “Pride and Prejudice (sort of)” with a gang of 20 in the West End was on the cards, but only if the pesky second line on the test kit went the way of the symptoms (twice, at least 24 hours apart) in the meantime.  On Monday morning the test kit was still flicking fingers at me, positive as soon as I looked at it.  Hopes weren’t high first thing Tuesday… and a dramatic late turn around didn’t seem to be enough, rekindling memories of the end of the 1995/96 season as a faint line at the T appeared to confirm relegation in a Muzzy Izzet kinda way.

The last hope was a free kick deep in injury time.  Keeper’s up for it, death or glory.  Ball’s punted into the box, goes in off someone’s arse.  A clear test at 2pm to lots of shouting followed up by a second 24 and a bit hours later facilitated meeting the others at Bedford station at 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, a raucously received and exploited cocktail happy hour at the pre-show meal and another brilliant performance of the utterly joyful, magnificent play which didn’t suffer at all from a second viewing (indeed the cocktails may have fuelled the enjoyment).  Result.

2- The Gambler’s Fallacy describes that, effectively, chance has no memory.  More specifically, for instance, that the outcome of an independent chance event is not influenced by the outcomes of preceding such events…  if a coin toss comes up heads ten times in a row the eleventh toss is no more likely to be a head (because “your luck’s in”) or a tail (because “these things have to even themselves out”) than if you were tossing the coin for the first time.

Blissett’s corollary to the Gambler’s Fallacy (wiki entry pending) states that as far as football is concerned the Gambler’s Fallacy is bollocks.  All football supporters know this instinctively anyway.  Yesterday evening I was painfully aware that I’d used up the week’s quota of luck on Tuesday and Wednesday (without even factoring in João Pedro’s late equaliser at St James’ Park).  We were on a hiding to nothing.

Which was a problem because, as you’ll be aware this one was quite important.  More than that (and it seems extraordinary to be writing this now, albeit still less than 24 hours on) it was a chance to distance ourselves from the relegation zone.  To define the tone for the rest of the season, to look upwards instead of downwards for the first time in a while.

There was an edginess about the atmosphere at Vicarage Road, not abetted by the fact that plenty will have planned to arrive in plenty of time for a 7.45 kick off and instead arrived very early for 8 (and the magnificent GT scarf display which Norwich, oddly given the cold, were the first visitors on such an occasion not to really join in with).  But expectation too (yes, extraordinary).  We’re not very good at that really, traditionally, winning when we’re expected to but we’ve done well enough against the Canaries in recent years and reports from Norfolk suggested that the eye-catching win over Everton wasn’t borne of some great about-turn in form on Norwich’s part.  They were still pretty awful.  Nonetheless, as the flares warmed our cheeks and the fireworks went off and the yellow smoke dissipated (all of which adornment feels rather desperate in hindsight, though it would of course been a glorious opener to a fine evening if we had won) we were all hoping for an early goal to settle the nerves.

3- Team selection was always going to be significant given the home debuts of the three new signings;  added to those points of interest were Tom Cleverley providing a more attacking midfield option than Juraj Kucka, with Bachmann and Kabasele coming in for the “ill” Foster and Cathcart.

A consequence of these developments was a backline that, if not inexperienced was still rather precarious.  Kabasele, five starts in twelve months.  New signing Kamara two since November.  Samir new to the club.  Kiko hardly a dominant character, Bachmann without Foster’s authority.  As Kabasele shouted and pointed his way through the opening twenty minutes there was no mystery as to his selection above that of Francisco Sierralta, a development that would have been scarcely credible last season (when, lest we forget, we conceded 30 goals in 46 games).

Norwich don’t need reminding that the two tiers present very different challenges of course and having finally concluded that a different problem might need a different man to navigate it (who’d have thought…?) they presented a more obdurate opponent than we had faced at Carrow Road earlier in the season.  The start of the game saw them execute a successful high press that penned us in without every really threatening to do more than that.  The chasing and harrying asked questions of our composure though… the squat, square-shouldered Kayembe was the first to be hurried out of possession, compounding his error by chasing the ball down and giving away a silly early free kick on the edge of the box.  It came to nothing – but Sissoko of all people was the next, playing a suicide ball into the middle of the park that calmed nobody’s nerves.

Kayembe recovered his composure to have a reasonable half which consisted largely of winning the ball and recycling it;  the broader problem was the lack of creativity in the now stodgy unit of which he formed a part, compounded by Norwich’s high press.  Much of a rather uninspiring first twenty minutes or so was spent with Kabasele and Samir trading possession across the backline;  only when the latter began to pull out quarterback-style (get me and my minority sport references…) howling passes over the visitors’ defence and into the feet of runners did the balance of play change and we began to suggest a threat. The second quarter of the game was spent largely at the Vicarage Road end though in truth we scarcely looked any more likely to score than Norwich had during the start to the game – Cleverley’s shot was deflected for a corner, Sissoko couldn’t get a decent contact on a right wing cross, Kamara got free a couple of times but couldn’t find anyone with a delivery.  Nonetheless, for all that it had been a grubby, nervous, ugly 45 minutes of football we had turned the tide, such as it was, and ended the half on the front foot.

4- The second half was horrific.  So horrific that it’s difficult to know where to start.  There’s the goals, of course…  the first in particular critical, but they’re just detail.  Symptoms, not cause.  There was the heavy symbolism of the floodlights going out…  not completely out, not so out that you couldn’t kid yourself that it was all going to be ok but out enough that it wasn’t. Write your own analogy around that.  Again, peripheral.  Mere gaudy decoration to our hearty cake of shit.

There was bad luck too.  We started the half sluggishly (again) but in truth City were no better;  this was a game that didn’t deserve a goal and hadn’t looked like getting one.  Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that had we burgled the first we could equally have gone on to win comfortably, buoyed by the advantage as Norwich were, fuelled suddenly by a relieved crowd with the scarcely-remembered feeling of winning a game looming into view.

It didn’t happen.  The reason that the Gambler’s Fallacy really doesn’t apply here is because a football match isn’t a random process based on chance outcomes, at least not completely or even to any great extent.  Yes, Norwich got a break when Pukki got the better of Samir, Sargent was able to contort his body to propel the ball goalwards and goalline technology confirmed that it had just about crossed the line.  But they made that luck.  Pukki was aggressive enough to tread the line between forceful and illegal in his challenge on Samir and earned the benefit of Mike Dean’s doubt (the most random component of the evening).  Sargent got lucky with the finish but was attacking the box in a manner that our oh so tentative forward line hadn’t managed all evening.  Tickets, raffles.

Norwich grabbed that advantage and never looked like relinquishing it.  The second was horrendous, Kiko Femenía’s abominably neglectful defending in allowing Rashica to put in a ball from the left betraying the degree to which our heads had gone completely.  The game shouldn’t have been gone at this stage, even at two down… Norwich creaked with encouragement every time we pushed forward with any vigour.  That it was over reflected the single biggest problem with the Watford side on the night.

Much has been made of our high turnover of head coaches (if, particularly and tediously, by scarcely interested and uninvested commentators whose motivating consideration boils down to “Watford should get back in their box”).  I’ve got more sympathy with the approach than many, I think… any single decision can be good or bad, but changing the man when the job’s needs change seems reasonable enough and it’s not as if there’s any ambiguity about the way it’s going to work.  If a head coach leaves Watford with a tarnished reputation it will be well earned – being sacked by the Hornets is hardly a blemish in itself.

But if you’re going to manage the club that way, if the stability is going to provided by the surrounding infrastructure of which the head coach is only an element rather than by the head coach himself then you’ve got  to have leadership amongst the playing staff.  We’re missing Troy, of course… this is not and there is no reasonable argument to suggest that he should still be here but he leaves a void.  Earlier than his captaincy still I remember being told a story about two senior players setting a jumped-up loanee straight by asking him to stay behind after training and making their point whilst holding him up against a wall.  Moussa Sissoko is a leader by example and has proven a good recruit despite our predicament… but his calm, quiet demeanour isn’t one of someone who’s going to rattle any cages.

But leadership doesn’t just come from captains in any case.  It’s a matter of personal responsibility and pride, and there was precious little of that on show last night.  Emmanuel Dennis is one case in point…  on review his second booking looks incredibly harsh, but his sulky, petulant performance wasn’t one of a player focused on doing his best for the team.  Claudio Ranieri’s post-match comments questioning the desire of some of the team don’t have many candidates given that the three newbies are presumably spared that early criticism alongside some manifestly game triers (Sissoko, Cleverley).  The decision to block his AFCON participation seems ever more questionable given the lack of contribution we’ve seen in the games since.

Dennis’ red card seemed to pass unnoticed by the away support, whose tone was understandably already celebratory (and was far less triumphalist than we had any right to expect once outside the ground, as an aside).  The home support were already resigned to the inevitability of the outcome and scarcely shrugged, ditto on learning that Moussa Sissoko finally connecting properly in front of goal and getting a fine touch to a left wing João Pedro cross had happened from a marginally offside position.  It was an incredibly tight (if ultimately accurate) call, but no tension greeted the VAR review.  It wasn’t our evening.

We brought on three substitutes at various stages, and whatever their other limitations each contributed some welcome bloody-mindedness to proceedings.  Cucho Hernández in particular will never hold a forward line together like King, doesn’t have the snarl and the touch of Dennis or the poise and technique of the relentless João Pedro…  but he does have a healthy dose of “f*** it” that was already overdue when introduced on the hour.  His was by far the most potent attacking contribution from the home side of the evening, forcing nervy Angus Gunn into flapping, anxious mistakes (and finally looking exactly like a goalkeeper who had shipped 17 goals in his last three Premier League outings but had hitherto passed criminally unbullied and untroubled in this one).  Ken Sema and Juraj Kucka the other two replacements, the latter’s ill judgement resulting in an own goal from an Idah cut back that summed our evening up concisely.

5- In the closing minutes I was wished “good luck” in putting a positive spin on this one.  Well here goes.

We are at the lowest possible ebb, having been thrashed by a mediocre side in a game that we had hoped to win (NB:  that’s not the positive spin, that’s a statement of fact).  Nonetheless, we are no more “down” than Norwich were ten days ago, for all that Newcastle added to our weekend by spawning a win at Elland Road as I wrote this report.  The margins are fine when you’re at this end of the table;  nobody’s earning many points because you’re competing with teams that aren’t very good and don’t earn many points.  It won’t take a lot.  It didn’t take Norwich a lot.

Further, we don’t need to be good to survive, we merely need to be less bad than three other teams and in particular less bad than two teams who remain very bad despite this weekend’s results and against whom we have games in hand.

Of course if we continue to play with the lack of spirit, passion, belief and guile that we saw here we have no chance.  But things will improve.  Louza will return from AFCON to give that midfield some craft.  Sarr will recover to amplify our attacking threat and change the balance of our games by his mere presence.  In the meantime Samuel Kalu looks like giving us a proper right-sided option that our attack currently lacks.

Whether Claudio is around to oversee it seems questionable, and I confess to being conflicted.  A lot of the circumstances he’s dealing with are not of his creation… the squad makeup, AFCON, injuries, COVID and associated postponements.  Not his fault, and the decisions that he makes are broadly sensible, most of the time. But at the same time if you’re going to actively support a team you want to see some determination.  Some fight.  I’ve been criticised before for overvaluing that commodity, “trying hard” (I can hear you).  It’s not enough on it’s own, clearly.  But it’s something to cling to, something to justify trekking across the country, something that’s necessary and something whose absence the head coach can’t absolve himself of responsibility for, as if it’s outwith his control.  He’s not a passenger at a bus stop with the right to complain about the service’s unreliability.  He’s driving the bus.

We’re not done.  But there needs to be one hell of a reaction, whoever is at the helm.

See you at Turf Moor, obviously.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 1, Femenía 1, Kamara 2, Samir 3, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 2, Sissoko 2, Cleverley 2, João Pedro 3, Dennis 1, King 2
Subs: *Hernández (for Cleverley, 59) 3*, Sema (for Kamara, 84) NA, Kucka (for Femenía, 89) NA, Fletcher, Tufan, Morris, Ngakia, Elliot