Here’s a pro tip, from an extremely amateur footballer. Shouting “TIME!” at a player in possession – a staple of the grassroots game I am gratified to report is just as prevalent at the elite level – is not, remarkably enough, going to calm them down.
And yet here, as Watford edged past Norwich to take a giant leap towards safety, you would hear it being bellowed from the sidelines again and again. “TIME!” A rushed clearance. “TIME!” A pass straight out of play.
This was, perhaps, the dominant backdrop to a game defined by a state of permanent panic, an icy anxiety that seemed to grip both teams like a virus.
You could argue that neither of them was very good. Certainly this would be true of Norwich: a side capable of such elegant football in possession but often a gibbering, blubbering wreck without it. Of the many truly useless teams in Premier League history, Norwich are by far the best of them: cultured, ambitious and yet likely to be relegated with three games to spare.
Watford are a more complex proposition. This was huge for them and yet so laboured and inept was their performance that it offered zero reassurance for the tougher tests to come: Newcastle, West Ham, Manchester City, Arsenal. You would not really back them to win any of those. They may not have to.
It was Danny Welbeck – the one genuine star on the pitch – who provided the game’s one true moment of Zen. As Ismaïla Sarr’s rushed cross bobbled up in the air after Max Aarons’s botched clearance, all of a sudden Welbeck seemed to have all the time in the world. He used it to execute a perfect bicycle kick, pinging into the top corner: a goal worthy of winning a far better game than this.
This was Welbeck’s first Premier League goal in almost two years and the hope must be that his injury traumas are finally behind him. You even wonder if he might not be a better proposition up front rather than on the left wing. Certainly he looks more of a threat at present than the leaden Troy Deeney: Watford’s main point of attack here who seemed simply to hover without doing very much, like a silent consonant, the “g” in “phlegm”.
There are problems further back, too. Emi Buendía’s early goal was an early portent of the way Norwich were simply able to run at Watford with little resistance: a curling effort after a surging run by Onel Hernández.
Even after conceding a soft set-piece equaliser to Craig Dawson, allowed to beat Alex Tettey far too easily to the ball, Norwich continued to enjoy sporadic chances. Teemu Pukki – remember him? – flashed just wide. Ben Foster saved from Aarons with his feet. The trouble was that the longer the game went on, the more Norwich looked like doing something extremely stupid at their end of the pitch.
Welbeck and Abdoulaye Doucouré had already squandered good chances by the time Welbeck spectacularly put Watford ahead 10 minutes into the second half.
And so to Norwich’s last stand, a glorious slapstick finale when two flawed teams threw everything at each other and occasionally themselves. For Watford, Adam Masina sliced a clearance over his own bar. For Norwich, Adam Idah missed from four yards. At one point, Aarons tried to take a quick free-kick to Ben Godfrey, who was not looking.
The irony was that these were not bad footballers. They were good footballers gripped by a paralysing terror: a fear of making the crucial mistake and thus blinkered to the possibilities around them. So many clever runs went unseen by teammates and unmarked by opponents.
This, perhaps, is the biggest difference between the best teams and the rest: flow, rhythm, malleability, vision, the ability not just to play the pass but to play it at the right time or play a different pass at the last possible moment.
As the whistle blew for full-time, Mario Vrancic tried to clear the ball to the stands in frustration. He miscued it and sent it trickling into one of the advertising hoardings. Meanwhile, Watford wildly celebrated a win that has bought them valuable time. Norwich’s, alas, is almost up.