Affleck's Angle: Spurned Chances At St James' Park
Kevin Affleck dissects the Hornets' defeat on Tyneside
Long after the final whistle, on the steps where Kevin Keegan famously came out to tell the disgruntled fans why he had controversially sold Andy Cole to Manchester United, some irate Newcastle supporters were furiously venting their frustration at Mike Ashley. Some of the language is not repeatable on these pages, but the gist of it was for him to get out of their club. The protests could be heard through the media suite at St James' Park and were audible as Rafa Benítez was speaking to the media.
And this was after a 1-0 win, the Magpies’ first in 174 days. Imagine therefore what the atmosphere would have been like had the Hornets managed to get the first goal on Saturday, as they should have done. Things would have turned toxic and very quickly.
“When the other team gets the first goal and you are on a run like this it's very hard to see a way of coming back,” said Shola Ameobi, the former Newcastle striker, on Goals on Sunday.
Club legend Malcolm McDonald was sat behind us at St James' Park and he moaned at just about everything Newcastle did in the first half. His downbeat mood was reflective of the vast majority of the restless Toon Army, and there would have been plenty of vitriol cascading down from the imposing stands at this impressive citadel in the heart of the city centre had the Golden Boys taken any one of a hatful of first-half chances.
“If Watford had gone in at half-time in front, then Newcastle would've been in trouble,” said Charlie Nicholas on Soccer Saturday.
It's hard to disagree with that viewpoint and you could easily have seen Watford winning by a landslide, picking Newcastle off on the counter at will as they pushed recklessly for a way back into the match. The first goal is always important, but even more so on Saturday and Watford will be kicking themselves they didn't get it.
They did all the hard work, fashioning 13 attempts on goal in the first half alone, but they just couldn't stick one in the onion bag. It wasn't for the want of trying and nobody deliberately misses chances, but it was tough to see so many go begging. Fourteen of the 16 shots on goal were from inside of the box, so it wasn't as if the Hornets were shooting wildly from distance and having potshots.
“Watford are not taking their chances and they have paid the price big-time today,” said BBC Three Counties Sports Editor Geoff Doyle before handing over to his summariser, the former Watford midfielder Derek Payne, to chip in. “If you take those chances it changes the whole dynamic of the game,” said Payne.
Although Gracia, who is a glass half-full coach, will be encouraged by the frequency with which his side are slicing teams open, sometimes at will, he will be concerned that 41 shots have been attempted at Fulham, Arsenal and Newcastle and the upshot has been one single goal. Worryingly, the shot accuracy at St James' Park was just over nine per cent. To put that in some kind of perspective, Newcastle, who had not scored a goal for more than five hours, were accurate with 33.3 per cent of their efforts.
“We created a lot of chances and we have been punished for not taking them,” Adrian Mariappa said. “All the lads are disappointed and we should have done better in front of goal.”
Honest as ever, Mariappa did not absolve himself from blame. “I have had two chances in quick succession and should have scored both of them,” he said.
We've all seen the chances and probably don't need reminding of them, but the reactions were a big tell-tale sign of just how agonising the chances that went begging were. Mariappa looked to the heavens after his miss; Gerard Deulofeu had his head in hands after side-footing wide from a José Holebas pull-back; Isaac Success slammed his hands on the ground after Kenedy got to his cross first ahead of Andre Gray; and then, most glaring of all, Stefano Okaka was open mouthed and looked like you had just told him you were taking his four Italy caps away from him after he missed a sitter by his standards at the death.
“If you do not score and kill the game when you have the chance to, something like today can happen,” Gracia said.
Watford had four fewer attempts on goal in this fixture last season, less possession and fewer corners, yet ran out 3-0 winners that day. Work that one out.
Gracia could certainly not be accused of being cautious in his approach. He threw on Andre Gray as soon as the Hornets went behind and then sent Stefano Okaka charging on while keeping Success on the pitch. He moved Roberto Pereyra from the left, to the No. 10 role and then out to the right, but nothing Gracia tried did the trick. The ball just wouldn't go in.
“It's easy to say go out and get a striker, but it's not easy,” said Payne. “This is the Premier League, this is a high level and they cost a lot of money.”
Danny Murphy doesn't feel there is a need to throw the baby out with the bath water, especially when they enjoyed 60 per cent possession and made 126 more passes.
“Watford were terrific in the first half, they had 13 shots," he said on Match of the Day. “They do make chances and they have beaten some good teams.”
But Gracia will know you need to follow up headline wins against Tottenham and Wolverhampton by beating a side who started the weekend second from bottom and on the brink of setting a new record for their worst ever start to a top-flight season. The three points really were there for the taking.
But there was just something not quite right about this performance, something just didn't feel right, even from the outset. The ball was played back to Mariappa from kick-off and instead of clipping the ball into the corner, something he'd usually do with his eyes closed, he scuffed it along the ground and it barely made it to the centre circle. It kind of set the tone for a sloppy afternoon where the Hornets didn't take care of the small details.
José Holebas, who has the fourth most assists this season, fluffed his first corner. Craig Cathcart passed a ball straight to Kenedy on the edge of the box in the first half and, most notably of all, you had the usually mild-mannered and unflappable Gracia questioning one second half decision by an assistant referee and then striding to the edge of the Newcastle penalty area at full-time and making a point to the referee.
Overall, Newcastle perhaps wanted it that little bit more, particularly in the second half. Their need was greater and that was reflected in the fact that they won 70 per cent of their tackles to Watford's 37. The way Kenedy, the free-spirited Brazilian winger not noted for his defensive work, sprinted back 80 yards to deny Gray a goalscoring opportunity summed up how desperate they were for the points. Watford already had six wins, Newcastle were chasing their first.
“He did well to get there,” said Benitez.
With the confidence of the goal and with the fans now right behind them, Newcastle's players were also quickest to react when Pereyra stood over a grounded DeAndre Yedlin and told him to get up. Austrian defender Fabian Schär led the charge and he took particular issue with Holebas.
“Sometimes you have to show that you are prepared to fight for each other,” he said. “I wanted to protect DeAndre Yedlin. It shows you are human.”
The fact there was no obvious Watford man-of-the-match was another telling sign. Abdoulaye Doucouré had a very good first half and Mariappa made at least four excellent interceptions, but you couldn't really say anyone was more than a seven out of ten.
“We are bitterly disappointed to come away with nothing,” said Mariappa.