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Brentford 2 Watford 0 (01/05/2021) 01/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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7 comments

1-   Twitter’s great.

I didn’t know any Watford supporters outside my family until I was eleven.  Then there was Ian at school, and later Rick (though he confirmed suspicions by switching to Spurs when GT left).  A latin teacher and a music teacher.  But… you know.  Limited chewing stuff over options.  The Hornet Hotline used to be a thing after all, a premium rate phone line I’d run up Mum and Dad’s phone bill on to discover whether we really had signed Leroy Rosenior or Terry Gibson (sometimes with Dad’s permission…).  Ceefax, page 302 (or more specifically 312), a tantalising drip feed of information.

Now I can find someone to talk to about whatever I want whenever I want, pretty much.  I can find out about stuff that’s just happened, even if it’s on the other side of the world.  I can find information, seek advice, compare and contrast opinions.  Twitter’s brilliant.

Twitter is also ghastly.

We’ve talked about the echo chamber before.  The natural tendency to pay attention to perspectives that resonate with your own, to block out those that don’t.  The logical consequence of that is that your perspective is re-enforced by the illusion of consensus.  “Look, everyone thinks this”.  Polarisation.

Add that to any number of national and international developments that have legitimised points of view that ought never have been given the oxygen of publicity and you’ve got a toxic environment where a knee-jerk response is all too easy, an unpleasant knee-jerk response no less so.  

An over-riding concern is the Wild Westness of it.  Except there isn’t much of a sheriff, so actually that’s probably a bit harsh on the Wild West.  The lack of consequence, the facility to cross the line with no comeback is abhorrent and re-enforces the suggestion that certain things that aren’t ok are actually ok, or at least get-awayable with.  

Then you’ve got the consciously malevolent.  The folk who go out to provoke, to incite, to offend, whether to fuel unspeakable insecurity or because their whole world is an echo chamber that permits such lack of judgement and conscience.  As Troy has pointed out this weekend, it’s inconceivable that social media platforms with the facility to sniff a copyright infringement at 100 paces are powerless to police this stuff.  The social media blackout might not change anything in that regard.  But it’s an awful lot better than passive disapproval, and it sends a message that might penetrate the echo chamber.  It’s not OK to be a bloody idiot.

2- Meanwhile, anyone but Bournemouth.  Obviously.

But beyond that, and looking strictly at our own on-pitch interests and not at the attractiveness of a local away trip to a new stadium as and when and so forth, and without taking anything remotely for granted you’d have to say that Swansea and Barnsley both have greater capacity to be relegation fodder in the Premier League than Brentford on the basis of this. 

For all that they’re playing a hung-over fifth-sequel pastiche of the side that has stormed the second half of the season (we’ll get to that), for all that they’ve managed to turn a nine point cushion to a(nother) play off scrap in the space of three months, for all that their ability to turn dominance of the ball into impotent defeat is laid on show in the first half like bric-a-brac at a car boot sale, Brentford look better equipped on this evidence.  This evidence being a squad that’s been a few years in the building.  A club that has the facility and the capacity to repeatedly sell on crown jewels – Konsa, Maupay, Benrahma, Watkins – and replace them with others you’d scarcely heard of and still come out punching.  To record victories in consecutive games against two of the division’s strongest sides (albeit and so on and so forth) without key personnel.  A club that has a goalscoring centre-forward of all things.  That would give them a puncher’s chance.

So anyone but Bournemouth, for reasons of civility and good taste.  And preferably not Brentford if it’s possible to be greedy, for slightly different reasons.

3- As for the Hornets, our own line-up is decimated by a series of injuries variously described as minor and niggling on the official site but which presumably wouldn’t have been niggling enough to render players unavailable if promotion were still in question.  The exception is groin-injury victim Kiko of course, but Sarr, João Pedro, Sánchez and Chalobah are also all missing from the squad that sealed the deal against Millwall.  

The result is as makeshift-looking a side as we’ve put out since the turn of the year, but circumstances being what they are (and hurrah for that, obviously, in case that wasn’t taken as read.  My hangover released me some time on Tuesday…) the take is a positive one, with the hugely likeable Joseph Hungbo given his first start. The slight concern, if there is one, is the ongoing and unmentioned absence of Jeremy Ngakia, last seen on the bench against Reading three weeks ago.  Craig Cathcart again steps in as third choice not-really-a-right-back.

The first twenty minutes or so are reasonably enjoyable.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession but don’t do an awful lot with it, almost positioning their glass jaw for a knockout punch.  We’re achieving more with far less, and Hungbo is prominent… he wins a free kick in the first minutes after a bullish run down the right;  ten minutes later he’s direct again, drawing a foul on the edge of the area that is presumably ignored by Lee Mason on the basis that the similarly energetic and waspish Dan Gosling gets a shot away;  David Raya saves low down to his left.

Tom Cleverley has already sent a wicked, inviting ball across the face of Brentford’s goal, startling in how effortlessly dangerous it was (aren’t this lot supposed to be good?).  Masina sent a dipping ball towards Gray that doesn’t quite clear Nørgaard but wasn’t far away from doing so;  Gray turned his marker with expert use of his backside but couldn’t accelerate quite quickly enough to gallop into space unattended.  It was all kind of promising in a scene-setting way, but it was as good as we were going to get.

Twenty minutes in Hungbo’s hamstring went as he thundered after possession again on the right flank.  It echoed Tom Dele-Bashiru’s injury at Reading at the start of the season…  less consequential, Hungbo’s enforced absence will be largely down to the summer break rather than an ACL, but similarly “just when we realised how good you are” frustrating.  Football matches come fewer and further between in the promised land, let alone opportunities to “go and show us what you can do, son”.  Ten minutes later Tom Cleverley followed Hungbo off; Zinc and Isaac Success entering the fray.

We were immediately weaker.  Whether Zinc was distracted by the presence of so many of his compatriots in the opposing ranks or not, his impact was minimal – he barely managed more than a simple lay-back for his first hour or so on the pitch.  As for Isaac…  I had cause to remember my tutor’s description of my work at university.  “You have moments of brilliance, mixed in with moments of…  not quite such brilliance”.  He was a nice man, he was being kind.  You suspect he’d say something similar about Isaac, whose lumbering around and woefully overhit passes occasionally blossom into something startling… like in the second half , when he receives another fine deep Masina ball, holds off his marker with impossible strength and clubs a shot goalwards in one sweeping movement.  Tommy Mooney spots a David Raya intervention on the ball’s way onto the crossbar and away – either way this stuff would be a whole lot more endearing if Isaac was still 20 and in his first year at Watford rather than 25 and in his fifth.  Time’s up, you suspect.

Brentford’s threat becomes slightly less theoretical as Toney, who is the lightning rod that Troy was for us at his best, and the busy Forss get to work.  Forss has the ball in the net with a backheel, denied for a well-spotted offside.  We’re still in the game at the break, kind of ok on balance.  But only kind of.

4- A minute into the second half it’s not kind of ok any more as Brentford unpeel us with the kind of soft goal that we haven’t conceded in forever, Forss turning in Canos’ ball across.  It was already evident that for all that WTE’s distribution is… occasionally alarming, we’re missing his “this is what we do and this is where we stand” influence on the back four.  Neither Kaba nor Sierralta have bad games – indeed the Chilean’s fine repertoire of different ways of getting in the way is given a decent airing – but it’s far less organised, far less “sorted”.  Which I guess is only fair, given that the pair had never started together in anger.  

Twelve minutes later Toney wrong-foots Sierralta in the box and goes down.  It looks soft, but Sierralta knows he’s been done and doesn’t protest;  Toney puts the pen beyond Bachmann and it’s all over.  It was already over really, the title chance…  Reading had teased us in the first half by taking the lead and holding onto it for fifteen minutes but Barnsley, whose belligerence we would have been relying on on the final day, were contriving to lose at Preston which wasn’t remotely encouraging.  In the end, Norwich cantered away with it.

We did at least manage to see out the game without further damage, both sides postulating the possibility of further goals without actually looking much like scoring one, Success’ brainstorm aside.  A clean sheet against Swansea next week will now only equal, rather than outstrip, the best Championship defensive record.  30 goals in 45 games is pretty sharp.  28 would have been sharper, obvs, but 30 is sharp.

We send on three subs, which is a bit like that bit at the end of a serialised gameshow where contestants chucked out in the early episodes that haven’t pissed everybody off in the meantime get invited back.  Ben Wilmot does an endearingly positive job of stepping in for Will Hughes and reminding us that we really do need to find a place for him.  Stipe Perica sums up his Watford career to date by running around for ten minutes, doing something encouragingly interesting and then getting booked for a silly, premeditated foul. Maurizio Pochettino (not that one) looks like a rabbit in headlights.  Then it stops.

5- Kind of annoying and kind of disappointing and kind of frustrating but only a bit. The whole “now for the title” thing was never wholly convincing, much as it’s easier to be smart in hindsight.  We’re a good enough side to have beaten Brentford despite the circumstances if the ball had rolled for us but it didn’t, and as such it’s no surprise or disgrace to be beaten in the state that we’re in by a Brentford side who are much further from the beach than we are. 

The real work has already been done.  The prize that awaits is much more tantalising than this pallid performance, more tantalising even than rubbing shoulders with the clubs at the top table.  The prize is the ongoing security of our football club – not a terribly romantic way of thinking about it, but a pandemic and relegation from the top flight were always going to be an unfortunate combination.  And with a prevailing wind we’ll all be there to see it.  All of us.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Masina 3, Hughes 3, *Gosling 3*, Cleverley 3, Hungbo 3, Gray 3, Sema 2
Subs: Zinckernagel (for Hungbo, 24) 2, Success (for Cleverley, 31) 2, Wilmot (for Hughes, 85) NA, Perica (for Gray, 85) NA, Pochettino (for Gosling, 85) NA, Lazaar, Troost-Ekong, Navarro, Foster

Norwich City 0 Watford 1 (20/04/2021) 21/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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39 comments

1-    I’m a grumpy bastard.

Ask anyone.  Type I Diabetes doesn’t always help in this regard…  hypoglycaemia, low blood sugar, is effectively an excess of hormone and has the impact you’d expect on the mood at moderate levels…  weepiness and particularly, yes, snappiness.  My lifetime memories are peppered with Incidents when Stuff Happened that shouldn’t have done…  sometimes seems a wonder that I’ve retained any friends or family members willing to pass the time of day at all really.  

But I’m a grumpy bastard anyway.  Hypoglycaemia-induced grumpiness tends to disappear with the help of some quickly absorbed sugar but I can do and – here’s where the dedicated training and stamina come in – sustain grumpy without any physiological support.  And as with the rest of the footballing world – and isn’t it nice to see everyone coming together on a topic for once – I’m grumpy about the Super (and Tottenham) League.  The hows and whys don’t need repeating… you know it, you’ll have seen it lucidly argued amidst the rare consensus and in any case it looks like it might be unwinding as I type.  If it isn’t, we’ll moan about that another day…

But back to early evening, and I’m still grumpy.  What I really need is a football match to shout at.  Not just a match on a screen but a match to inhale.  In the stadium.  Noises and smells and adrenaline.  Watching outside.  But that’s not where we are.  So instead I eat up the time before Hornet Hive starts its pre-match show by stomping forcefully around the fields out back with grumpy-appropriate noise in my ears.  Jane’s Addiction.  Sonic Youth.  Nine Inch Nails.  Get back, brace myself, grab a drink, check phone on the way upstairs, turns out kick-off is 6pm, not 7pm (as it was in my head). I make it with minutes to spare.

Grumpy.

2- It’s been an edgy few days.  You don’t need telling that. The possibility, however remote, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has been in our heads… not “in your face, I’m coming for you” in our heads, but certainly “raising a hand from the back of the room and tentatively waving – yoohoo!” in our heads.  “I’m still here”.  As an aside, such an eventuality wouldn’t be typical Watford as some have suggested.  Typical Watford would be typical Gillingham, typical Liverpool, typical Rushden and Diamonds if we supported them.  No reflection on the club, it’s an anxious reaction to the threat of failure, it’s a comfort blanket and unless you support Spurs, its nonsense.

But we needed something here.  Something to calm the nerves after Saturday’s unpleasantness.  Something to make the rest of the week tolerable.  Something to reassure us that it was all going to be OK.

Boy did we get it. We deserve promotion this season.  We haven’t gotten away with anything, if and when it’s confirmed we’ll have earned it (hellooooo again Spurs).  At the start of the season we were solid… less than the sum of our parts, perhaps, frustrating at times but often effective despite that, and effective enough to hang around at the top of the table.  To be in position to capitalise if and when we found some form.  When we did find that form we looked occasionally flamboyant, often cruelly, mercilessly irresistible – twenty clean sheets before today.

But we’ve never been more impressive than here at Carrow Road.  Given the context – easier to be the chaser than the chased, the Luton defeat, players suspended, players injured, quality of opponent – the mental strength of the side was extraordinary, the ability of the head coach to craft solutions and get players’ heads in the right place phenomenal.  And on the pitch we looked every inch a top flight side.

3- The solution on the pitch, it transpired, involved Craig Cathcart at right back.  A shame that Jeremy Ngakia, forced into a supporting role by the remarkable form of Kiko Femenía, has a knock just when he’s needed, but if we don’t have a reliable right back available we have a very reliable defender.  There’s nobody you’d trust more to make a decent fist of an unfamiliar role and the Ulsterman, never quite appreciated enough to my mind, will have a stunning evening.  The solution also involves Adam Masina making a welcome return at left back, and an in-your-face midfield trio of Hughes, Gosling, Cleverley.  That’s not a midfield that asks permission.  That’s not a polite midfield.

After a brief period of early sparring, the Hornets controlled the first quarter of the game.  If there’s a word that defines the performance as a whole it’s discipline, so vital against this opponent with their ability to escape through careless gaps and skip unforgivingly over misjudged tackles.  This was a disciplined, controlled effort, and if we were fortunate to visit Carrow Road three days after the ten-man Canaries had chased Bournemouth around before celebrating their promotion we took a crowbar to that opportunity and prized it open.

Much of the threat came down the right despite the loss of the overlapping Kiko, a role which Cathcart was never going to replicate.  Slightly mystifyingly, Ismaïla Sarr was often given the freedom of the flank in the first half by second choice City left back Xavi Quintillà who, despite having not started since October, seemed to receive precious little support from his teammates.  Cathcart’s more restrained support to Sarr nonetheless reminded us – as if this should have been necessary six years to the week since his acrobatic winner against Birmingham put us top of the Championship table – that he’s anything but a clogger.  A particularly fine deep cross provided the first of a number of chances in this period, Dan Gosling seemingly surprised that it reached him and heading wastefully over.  It wasn’t the last time that a move ended with an unsuccessful Gosling effort, but as Robbo pointed out at the break none of these missed half-chances dissuaded Gosling from being on the end of the next one when it came along.  Those words were to prove prophetic.

Two deflected shots in two minutes by Todd Cantwell and Kieran Dowell announced Norwich’s arrival as an attacking threat, and a magnificent game of football broke out abetted by referee Tim Robinson’s willingness, seven yellow cards notwithstanding, to let the game run rather than blowing up for every challenge.  Norwich moved the ball mischievously and confidently, Watford’s human blanket smothered City attacks and clubbed them to within an inch of their lives.  Norwich broke down the centre through Buendía, Hughes and Sema were bypassed but resisted the temptation to foul, the ball reached Quintillà and then Cantwell before being smothered by Cleverley and out.  Often stretched – twice free kicks were surrendered on the edge of the box, the second repelled by Tom Cleverley’s draught excluder – but rarely exposed it was a defensive masterclass as the home side asked questions.

We swung back into control.  Sarr left the formidable Hanley on his ample backside with a sharp turn and drove at Tim Krul’s near post when a square ball might have been more effective.  Five minutes later Sarr moved the ball across to Gosling who fed Sema and the Swede – in his most pugnacious outing for a while – drove fiercely at the keeper.  Krul parried, Sarr followed up with a fine drive from a narrow angle, Krul equal to it again.  Sema sent in a cross from the left, João Pedro’s acrobatic volley was blocked, we failed to make anything from yet another corner.  The half ended, but the voice in your head whispering “we should have scored by now” was calmed by our bloody relentlessness.  We might not have scored, but we weren’t about to falter.

4- Lucky half time “chocolate” turned out to be my dinner.  Ethiopian injera with spinach, garlic, split peas and a beef stew.  Success level high, but with this best will in the world this is not a tradition that can be expected to continue once we’re back at the Vic.  It’s messy enough with a plate and a healthy supply of kitchen roll in your own home.

This development rather hampered the note-taking at the start of the second half, which by memory was more of the same but more so.  Even more focused control, another Todd Cantwell chance despite this, but overall a crushing intensity to our play.  Having finished my meal and dashed to the bathroom to wash my hands I returned to the study to rearrange tray, notepad, keyboard appropriately.  As so often my finger strayed to the screenlock key as I moved the keyboard, causing a frantic typing of password in time to see João Pedro slip an artful ball to a galloping Gosling who flicked a shot past Krul.   Watford supporters everywhere made undignified, very loud noises.  How inspiring that Gos got the goal having spurned so many chances in the first half.  Those misses, ultimately, mattered little.  Being there yet again to tuck it away at the fifth time of asking was everything.

Norwich lost their composure, if only briefly.  Teemu Pukki was demonstrably frustrated by the way the evening was going, Skipp was booked for an untidy foul on Hughes.  You awaited an onslaught, the onslaught tried to get itself going but we had a bunch of tough, savvy bastards blocking the way…  Clevs, Gos, Hughes, Masina, Sierralta, WTE and Craig Cathcart, who stomped on the danger when a slack Bachmann clearance dropped to Buendía.

Had you been in the stadium, had a crowd been in the stadium, it would have been one of those insanely tense ones where your fingers were embedded in your scalp.  It was edgy enough as it was…  but these things feed themselves with a crowd in attendance.  Who knows what difference collective anxiety, urgency would have made.  As it was we were gloriously assertive for much of the half.  Sarr, slightly less prominent after the break, drilled a ball towards João Pedro… the Brazilian suggested limited threat on goal, but did a great line in holding the ball up and floating off with it, retaining possession under unlikely pressure.  Here Grant Hanley (“a head on a stick” – Tommy Mooney) blocked crucially.  From the corner Will Hughes came close to emulating his goal against Fulham two years ago, crashing a goalbound volley from the edge of the area that someone got in the way of.

Norwich threw on as many forwards as they could find.  The Hornets introduced Andre Gray, who’s ratty persistence might have made rather more of the chances we’d had in the first half, and Nathaniel Chalobah whose glorious, eyecatching cameo underlined that he’s finally become the player that he always promised to be.  He slipped Andre Gray through with elegant precision only for Hanley to intervene with a monstrous block.

Max Aarons sounded a clarion call breaking down the right, but we held the home side off with breathtaking composure.  City managed two shots on target all evening… their best chances came when Buendía, Vrančić or Hernández danced across the sentinels inside the area daring a challenge, inviting a foul.  Those invitations weren’t accepted.  “Sorry lads, washing our hair.  Do one”.  Otherwise the greatest threat came to personal safety, from the violent and gormless interventions of sub Jordan Hugill.

Eight minutes of added time were brought to a close with Sema robbing Vrančić and bellowing in triumph.  The whistle went.  We made further undignified noises.

5- It’s not done yet.  Probably and definitely aren’t the same thing.  However, very probably is definitely getting there.  The three sides mathematically capable of catching us will be down to two at most by Saturday afternoon with Brentford and Bournemouth facing off at lunch time.  A win against Millwall would seal the deal, with Norwich travelling to form side QPR the same afternoon.

It doesn’t matter what they do.  It’s all about us.  We’re going to get promoted because we’re bloody brillliant, and better than everyone else.  And didn’t we show it this evening.

Not grumpy any more.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 5, Cathcart 5, Troost-Ekong 5, Sierralta 5, Masina 5, Hughes 5, Gosling 5, *Cleverley 5*, Sarr 5, João Pedro 5, Sema 5
Subs: Gray (for João Pedro, 70) 5, Chalobah (for Gosling, 70) 5, Zinckernagel (for Cleverley, 82) 5, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 82) 5, Lazaar, Sánchez, Hungbo, Success, Elliot

Luton Town 1 Watford 0 (17/04/2021) 18/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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16 comments

1-  When this is all over, whenever everything is finally back to whatever normal means now, you’d like to think that there will be things that we won’t take quite as much for granted.  Health and freedom and that, obviously…  but more mundane things too.   Going to the cinema, I really miss that.  Going to the pub.  Going to restaurants, sitting indoors rather than shivering defiantly in the drizzle over a pathetic pizza.  Nipping down to the co-op for some milk and not having to queue up outside.  Going to work.  Heavens.  By which I mean actually being at work with real people rather than isolated in my little bubble with two dimensional colleagues.  All of these things I hope I’ll appreciate so much more, as and when.  All of them I miss.

What I haven’t been missing is games against Luton.

2- There’s a digression here about what local rivalry is all about.  I was always brought up to treat Luton as a swear word and so forth, but I’m not sure I buy the bit about you have to hate Luton if you’re a Watford fan any longer.  It’s more nurture than nature for me…  I’m sure my tone would change very quickly if these fixtures become a more regular feature of our fixture list than they have been, contempt breeds contempt.  I’d probably not be writing this paragraph if we’d had the misfortune to be at today’s game, so to speak, the deed would have been done, I’d be exposed to all the things I hated about it before.  For the moment, I find Bournemouth and even Palace a bigger deal.

That aside.  There’s been some understandable reminiscing about one particular derby game in the build up to this one….  but the reality is that that day was remarkable because it was anomalous.  That’s not what derby games are like in anything other than exceptional circumstances.  This game, today’s game, was much more like it… not the result particularly, but the frantic ugly dreary annoyingness of the whole thing.  In between Luton’s 4-2 win at the Vic in September 1994, their last League victory in the fixture before today, and the 4-0 three years later there were six draws.  I was probably at all of them, but don’t ask me to distinguish one from the other.  They were all the same, and they were all shit.

The other thing about derby games is that they matter so much more when your team is terrible.  In the past Watford and Luton’s fortunes often rose and fell together and at times it very much felt as if all there was to play for was avoiding relegation and this.  This Luton incarnation isn’t terrible – they’re in pretty much exactly the League position you’d have predicted based on their solid but limited showing at the Vic at the start of the season.  Nonetheless, the Hornets have rather more to play for as it stands;  Luton’s survival was confirmed mathematically by this win, but effectively a done deal some time ago.  Knocking us off our perch a very much more tantalising objective for them than not being knocked off would be for us..

3- And having implied that we were lucky, or that I was grateful not to have been at this particular game, if only half-meaning it, the reality is that the game would have been quite different if supporters had been there.  We wouldn’t have been at this particular game at all.  

I suspect that the game that we ended up with wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun either.  The home side started looking precisely like a side managed by someone who was pissed that their first attempt at a local derby was so vanilla back in September;  the same approach backed by a crowd would have generated its own momentum.  They rattled at us from the off and we looked rattled in return;  Troost-Ekong gave away a cheap corner in the first minute, Sonny Bradley flicked over.  Within five minutes Carlos Sánchez – one of two enforced changes to last week’s line-up – went to ground to win possession in the box.  Being Sánchez, the tackle was well-judged and precise but it didn’t settle the nerves.  Ten minutes in and it was all hands on deck;  a set piece threat was already evident but fortunately one man well suited to this sort of maelstrom was Francisco Sierralta, long since established as a fearless booterer in the finest of traditions. He got his head to pretty much everything.

And whilst we rode our luck at times, the positive to be taken from the first half – as from the entirety of the game against Reading last week – was that we held out.  That’s not all luck, much as Bradley and Dewsbury-Hall both sent efforts wide but alarmingly close to not wide. When things are going against us we’re very good at being bloody awkward anyway, at closing out space, at digging in and not giving an inch.

If we had managed to get any kind of attacking foothold the flow of the game might have changed much earlier.  There was an awful lot of space behind Luton’s press, but we couldn’t retain controlled possession far enough up the pitch to exploit it – the ball wasn’t sticking anywhere.  Only once or twice did Sarr get to stretch his legs, drawing a yellow from Bradley (“not the sharpest tool in the drawer” – T.Mooney) but too often such possession as we had was surrendered cheaply, and often by Philip Zinckernagel.  That thing, that “he’s getting better with every game” thing is dead in the water…  he’s demonstrated beyond reasonable debate that there’s a valuable player in there, but there are still giveaway signs that he’s been playing at a very different level and they all came out today.  Almost every touch killed a fledgling attack stone dead, most startlingly when Luton abandoned him in a mile of space as Will Hughes lined up a free kick and he proceeded to validate their recklessness by rolling Hughes’ disguised pass feebly, inexplicably to Sluga.

Nonetheless we ended the half level, with Tommy Mooney confidently asserting that Luton’s ferocious chasing was always going to abate.  Nil nil at half time was an achievement.

4- You learn a lot about a manager when things turn against him, as they always will sooner or later.  When we went up in 2015 Norwich followed us up crowing about the record of Alex Neil, appointed during the season to great success.  Once promoted, once the losses started coming, they didn’t stop.

Xisco hasn’t had a clear run at Vicarage Road, but his early defeats can justifiably be filed under “teething troubles”.  We’ll see how he gets on now, but the signs here were fairly positive.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and his bold decisions here deserved better reward.  Both sides were hamstrung by an awful bobbly pitch, but the Hornets were to a greater extent needing a foothold, so having a target to hit long – João Pedro is still game, but not combative in the way he was a couple of months ago – made a lot of sense.  Isaac started assertively, his foul on Pearson was provocative but not a major problem if it indicated a bit of bite to channel positively.  Within five minutes João Pedro had picked up the ball deep and fed Success.  Success released Sema whose vicious cross was headed clear.  The ball found its way back to Ken, who did his “bundle down the touchline” thing.  It came to nothing, but it was a bit of welly for the first time.  It was encouraging.

And that was that really, at least as far as Isaac was concerned.  It was an unforgivably passive performance from the Nigerian, lacking in aggression or mobility.   Out for a year or otherwise, we needed much more.  

Ten minutes later the ever-willing Hughes surged onto a João Pedro flick, but with Success, Sema and Sarr spinning away from him he was uncharacteristically indecisive and sent a wasteful ball under Success’ feet.  We were no longer under the same pressure as in the first half, but not turning any kind of screw either.  Gradually the home side began to craft some more chances – Dewsbury-Hall sent a good ball into the box, criminally shovelled over.  LuaLua won a cheap free kick off Femeníá, who picked up a harsh and consequential yellow card; Bachmann was attentive in tipping the subsequent shot over.

Eventually we allowed Luton to roll the dice once too often.  Achraf Lazaar had recovered from a pretty miserable first half as a late replacement for the unwell Masina to reclaim some brownie points at the start of the second, but there was no forgiving his complacent, underhit hospital ball towards Bachmann.  For his part, the keeper had been largely faultless to this point but betrayed a lack of composure and judgement here.  On the evidence to that point had Bachmann stayed on his line and allowed Adebayo to retrieve the ball the big striker might well have tripped over his own feet in any case but the Austrian never gave him the chance, clearing him out with an uncharacteristically excitable challenge.  He looked shaken by the whole thing and seemed to be expecting a red card rather than yellow though this was never likely.  The red card came later for a second cheap yellow picked up by a bedraggled Kiko Femenía;  by then Luton had afforded spot kicking duties to James Collins straight off the bench, a gamble that paid off.  That was all it took.

5- The thing is, the positive thing is that we so nearly got away with it in a number of respects.  Indeed, you could argue that we’ve been getting away with less convincing performances since the international break, four games have yielded seven points and could conceivably have yielded considerably more despite their limitations.  Here, Luton’s best efforts hadn’t yielded anything in the end, we gave them the goal.  Even then we might have nicked a point back when Andre Gray threw himself at what looked rather like a header from a Luton defender from a marginally offside position.  It would have been robbery, but it would have been funny and it would have been a valuable, buoyant point.

We regard the season as having pivoted in February, when we started looking like the sum of our parts, started winning games convincingly, started being fun.  If and when we do get promoted this season it will be due in just as great a part to the fact that we hung around to make such a turnaround possible when our attacking play was so staccato in the first half of the season.  Being bloody good at defending isn’t luck and it’s not something to dismiss or be bashful about. 

It wasn’t quite enough here, but as was pointed out at full time, an ostensibly likelier outcome of the traditional draw at Kenilworth Road along with home wins for Brentford and Swansea would have been more expensive for our promotion hopes than how it turned out.  We’re still looking good, and we’re still better than everyone else.  We could do with remembering this before Tuesday.  

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 2, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Lazaar 1, Sánchez 3, Hughes 3, Zinckernagel 1, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Success (for Zinckernagel, 45) 1, Cleverley (for Sánchez, 61) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 79) NA, Gray (for Lazaar, 82) NA, Cathcart, Kabasele, Gosling, Navarro, Foster

Middlesbrough 1 Watford 1 (05/04/2021) 06/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
13 comments

1- Daughter 1 has become a vegetarian.

This is of course not only her prerogative but also kind of par for the course with a teenage daughter.  She has also discovered Nirvana and socialism in recent months.

But Nirvana and socialism require less effort from me.  It’s always been true, of course, that as soon as you get used to whatever stage children are at everything changes;  whilst the early years were exciting I’m not sure I could have coped with that rate of exciting new discovery and challenge indefinitely.  So the shifts are fewer and further between…  but providing food for the girls has never been terribly challenging until now.  Now I need to stop and think about it.  I’m not a great cook… my wife can open a fridge and improvise with whatever’s inside; I need a recipe.  And now I need new recipes.

2- Very difficult not to get carried away, what with ten wins in eleven, Swansea capsizing, Brentford dropping points and so on.  Plus, as discussed, we’re brilliant and nobody else is.  Nonetheless, Michael Kurn, Tommy Mooney and Allan Smart talking promotion campaigns in Hornet Hive’s well intended but rather billy-no-mates pre-match-without-a-match show felt a little premature.

Amongst the squad there’s been no evidence of any such presumptuousness.  Xisco has spoken guardedly about securing a play-off place before we worry about anything else. William Troost-Ekong’s stock rose still further with his weekend Extra Time interview over the weekend.  Troy Deeney has made the journey to Middlesbrough to sit in an empty stadium in the cold (and, you know, in Middlesbrough) to “ensure that standards don’t drop”.  As the teams come out and Francisco Sierralta’s approach to the freezing sunshine that is cold enough to put condensation on your breath whilst watching in the warmth of your own home is to douse himself in water; you kind of feel that there’s not much wrong in terms of attitude.

3- But “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  In this case Neil Warnock, who Sky informs us has faced the Hornets more than he has any other side.  Complicated also, in this case, by the absence of supporters.  Questionable whether Boro would have gotten away with what Warnock freely admits was an away game strategy had there been edgy supporters in the stadium.

So Boro are sturdy and disciplined, if relatively unambitious for a home side.  They hold their defensive shape, and whilst Djed Spence in particular makes occasional sorties down the flanks it’s a defiant strategy unashamedly prioritising containment with a view to breaking on us if and when we start to overcommit.

It works fairly well until it doesn’t. Not very much happens for long periods;  Sarr and Hughes both start slowly, a couple of slack moments from each. Occasionally we burst into life… a move wanders across the box until it finds Zinckernagel, whose shot is deflected over.  Sarr and Kiko swap passes (no, really) allowing Kiko to pass to Ken whose shot might have been deflected wide but isn’t credited as such.

It’s laborious though.  Boro’s diligence and physical superiority mean that we can’t build pressure;  a successful attack would require a precision rapier thrust.  We’re more than capable of it, but it’s difficult and those rapier thrusts aren’t going to come very frequently, they ask a lot.  In an attempt to up the urgency of the game, captain Chalobah courts disaster with a thunderous challenge on the unfortunate Sam Morsy.  The tackle goes across the Boro midfielder rather than into him but the ferocious lack of control earns Nate an eleventh yellow of the season and the pressure of the contact through the ball does Morsy’s medial ligaments.

So when the goal comes, it’s slightly perverse that it owes a lot to defensive slackness on Boro’s part;  Sema’s shot is deflected, it drops for Zinckernagel, his shot clatters in off Sarr with Boro’s defence appealing for offside and/or handball.  Never offside since two Boro players had been criminally lazy pushing out, the handball a coulda rather than a shoulda.  Would have been harsh.  The goal stands, and maybe we’ve done the hard bit.

4- I’d have had Isaac on much earlier.  With the clarity of hindsight, given low impact performances from both Ken Sema and João Pedro, I’d have started with him.  Certainly, anyone doubtful at the wisdom of the latest last chance offered to the Nigerian in recent weeks should be clearer after his cameo seven minutes plus injury time from the end.  Within a minute he’d achieved something that we’d struggled to do in attacking positions throughout;  held off a challenge that bounced off him, two in fact, before contemptuously stepping past the debris and moving the play on.  Before the end he’d play the pass of the game, an arcing ball with the outside of his left foot to find Chalobah galloping down the left flank.  He’s something different, a different sort of weapon offering something of Troy’s physicality with an awful lot more mobility than he’s been capable of recently.  We could have done with more of that here.

As it was the first half concluded in much the same vein as it had progressed prior to our goal, save for a brief flurry of bad tempered challenges late in the half.  We defended well ourselves (95 shots on target against us before today, another Sky stat, some way clear of second place Swansea on 115), ushering Boro attacks into less threatening wide positions, no target to hit themselves.  Going forward we were still asking a lot of ourselves but came close to delivering it once or twice… Chalobah pirouetted into space to find Zinckernagel, his pass into João Pedro well cut out.  The second half proceeded in the same way… João Pedro shot over after a neat move down the left, Sarr wriggled down the goal line and laid back to the Brazilian who shot wide.

We asked questions, Boro answered them when they needed to, just about.  Meanwhile… if they were being kept at arms length more or less, Friday’s narrative was being repeated.  A single goal lead felt kinda comfortable, but it would only take a goal.  A moment.  This time, that moment came… Sema gave away a cheap free kick, McNair’s delivery was tremendous and Bolasie scored an annoying header to match his effort in the 2016 Cup Semi.

5- In any context other than the back of a stupid run of wins this was a decent point.  Actually it’s a decent point in these circumstances as well even if it doesn’t feel it, a tough away game against a wily opponent three days after the last match and the weekend after several international trips.  It’s certainly not anything to get stressed about, irrespective of Swansea and Brentford’s fortunes or lack of them (it doesn’t matter what they do).

But it will be interested to see how we proceed, how Xisco responds.  This is all about us.  If we keep our heads together and go again we’ll be ok, but Xisco might find more opponents doing what Boro did.  He doesn’t need to rip it all up, but he might need a few new recipes to add to his repertoire. He’s not really had a setback until now, not since the bedding in period (and not here either, not really).  If we go up and he ends up managing us in the Premier League setbacks are likely to happen more often, he’ll need to be able to respond as positively as he has to victories.

I calmed myself down after this one by cooking an aubergine curry.  Ending the winning run is a shame, but four points from the Easter weekend is probably fair enough.  We’re still in poll position.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 3, Masina 3, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 4*, Zinckernagel 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Gosling (for Zinckernagel, 77) NA, Success (for Sema, 83) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Cathcart, Kabasele, Sánchez, Gray Foster