Affleck's Angle: Big Ben's Timeless Form
Kevin Affleck analyses Ben Foster's phenomenal performance against Manchester City...
We could use this column to discuss, on the face of it, how the Golden Boys are closing the gap on Manchester City. After all, a gallant 2-1 defeat is a vast improvement on the 6-0 and 5-0 thrashings City dished out here last year. But that would be mis-leading and giving false hope.
City are playing such a different game to everyone else right now that it might as well be a different sport. Using them as the yardstick is a bit like growing a few tomatoes in your garden and thinking you can take on Sainsbury's.
What the Hornets needed to do here was, as Troy Deeney put it in his programme notes, “get back to basics” and gain some momentum heading into Monday's game with Everton. No-one needs reminding of the extra significance of that fixture and the last thing anybody wanted was to be heading to Goodison Park having had your pants pulled down again by City.
The Hornets can now go there in good heart and feeling a bit better about themselves, knowing, in the end, they gave City a bit of a run for their money. “We haven't had too many tests like that this season,” a Man City reporter asked Riyad Mahrez after the game. Praise indeed. In fact, the Hornets became only the third Premier League side this season to keep the losing margin to just one. Everyone else has been on the end of a bit of a hiding.
It was a bit of a morale victory of sorts to force the ice cool Pep Guardiola to hurriedly sling on Aymeric Laporte, all £57million of him, at the end in a bid to padlock the points. That certainly wasn't part of Guardiola's plan. He wanted to give his key French defender the night off, but the Hornets forced his hand and he needed as many centre-halves as possible on the pitch as the home side threw the kitchen sink, the fridge freezer and the dish washer at the champions. There is no doubt the Hornets had City rattled and nobody expected to see the visitors have to resort to time-wasting to get over the line.
“We played against the best team not only in England but in Europe and we showed some character,” said Christian Kabasele.
The fact that the game was still in the balance for so long was in part to City's wastefulness (it makes a change to talk about another team spurning chances for a change, doesn't it?) and also the brilliance of Ben Foster.
“For any team to get anything against City you need your goalie to have a good game,” said the Hornets’ No.1 without a trace of arrogance. He was just doing his job.
The goalkeeper said in an interview with the Telegraph in May that he's “pathetically competitive”. He talked about going out on his bike at night when there is a massive tailwind just so he can claim the ‘king of the mountain’ crown on Strava. He also revealed how he did punishing leg weights sessions for a fortnight just because Troy Deeney got a higher max power score than him on the Wattbike. Continuing the theme, he seems hell-bent on ensuring Étienne Capoue isn't going to walk away into the sunset with the Player of the Season trophy.
Foster won the gong when he was last here and, knowing him, he is probably gutted he didn't get the chance to retain it. In his eyes he'll be following Wilf Rostron, Troy Deeney and Tommy Smith in being the only players to win in back to back if he holds it aloft at Wembley in May. He might even be in the PFA Team of the Season if he carries on like this.
He was that good on Tuesday night that Henry Winter, the Chief Football Correspondent at the Times, felt it “could have been 7-1 but for Ben Foster.”
A double-save he made against Wigan at the Rookery End in 2007 will always live long in the memory and there is just something about that end of the ground that brings out the best in him, a bit like Troy Deeney whose most memorable goals have come in that region of the ground, too.
Against Wigan, Foster thwarted Caleb Folan and Denny Landzaat with a staggering display of reactions and bravery. The one he performed after 18 minutes against City must run it close if not top it simply because he made three saves with various parts of his body in quick succession from Bernardo Silva, David Silva and Mahrez, three players of the highest class.
“Foster made some incredible saves,” said Guardiola.
Even at the age of 35, Foster showed he is also a fast learner and he didn't get drawn in by Leroy Sané like he was Jamie Vardy on Saturday, staying on his feet for as long as possible when the German broke clear and then using his top arm to claw away a certain goal. He swatted it away with the force of a water polo player having a crack at goal. The same left arm made the slightest of contact with Vardy on Saturday and Foster wasn't about to make the same mistake again.
When goalkeepers are changing hands these days for the thick end of £70m, you find yourself again wondering quite how the club managed to prise Foster out of West Bromwich Albion for £2.5m, if the reliable Soccerbase website is to believed. He signed an initial two-year deal and you can bet your bottom dollar the people with their hand on the tiller are already looking at exercising the option of extending it by a further 12 months.
Foster loves it here and providing his “glass knees” are OK, you'd think he'd jump at the chance to extend his stay. If he had his way, he probably wouldn't have left Vicarage Road in the first place as he didn't enjoy life in the goldfish bowl at Manchester United.
“With a team like Man United, they're always in the latter stages of cup competitions so there's a game every three or four days,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports in April. “You spend a lot of time travelling, in hotels. It just wasn't for me.”
One Spanish coach, Pepe Mel, said four years ago that “Ben Foster is the best goalkeeper in England.”
Gracia does not feel Foster's powers have diminished in the period since. “Ben Foster was great, it is no surprise to me,” said the Head Coach. “When I came to London I thought Big Ben was in the city but no, he is in Watford for us.”
And he should be around for a while longer yet, too.