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Watford 4 Huddersfield Town 2 (30/08/2014) 31/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- It’s half past eight in the evening.  Sofia, five, has made her “competitive debut” today.  Now, with Watford shirt pulled over her Princess Sophia top and left hand on hip she is swinging her yellow/red/black garland vigorously around her head with her right hand, marching around the living room and leading her sister in a rousing rendition of “Tro-oy Dee-ney, Watford’s number nine!” as their mother rolls her eyes from the sofa.  Three and a half hours or so earlier Sofia was gazing open mouthed in happy bewilderment at the jubilation in the Rookery in the wake of Almen Abdi’s glorious clincher.  There had been questions before the game, more were raised during the ninety-plus minutes and we’ll get to those, I suppose.  But for the moment revel again in that fabulous final half hour or so, which in the manner of a cup-tie blew away all concerns, quibbles, tactics, formations.  Primal, ferocious and utterly captivating entertainment.  Who could fail to be carried away by it?

2- The visitors took the game to Watford from the off, persistent and aggressive in attacking positions.  Whilst they had their own failings – often the same failings as ours and within the space of minutes as we’ll discuss – their application won’t have done caretaker Mark Lillis’ case for the permanent position any harm, irrespective of the result.  Debutant Jack Robinson briefly looked like a threat with a series of monstrous throw ins that reached the far post – time will tell whether he’s a Dave Challinor or a Leigh Bromby, the trajectory didn’t look flat enough to me whatever the power.  In any case when we broke, as we are wont to do, we looked capable of making hay with the Terriers defence being peeled apart relative easily.  Hardly a resilient rearguard then, much less so in the face of a perfect through ball from Daniel Töszér, a perfect run and touch from Troy and a cool finish to give the Hornets the lead.  Better defences than this would have been shredded by that, almost a waste of a brilliant goal – save them for tougher challenges to come.  The half was more open than the half-time scoreline suggests – each side had a goal ruled out for a marginal call – and if the bedlam of the second half was hardly heralded it never felt done and dusted.  The other detail worth mentioning is ref Neil Swarbrick making it clear that he wasn’t going to be afraid to issue cards, you rather felt that in a game that was frantic (if never dirty) we wouldn’t end with 11 v 11 and so it proved.  As it turned out, we finished the first half slightly the better off in this regard as Munari and Vaughan picked up similarly harsh bookings for aggressive aerial challenges.  Vaughan’s caution is always going to limit his physical impact… Munari, however, limped off before the break.  The Italian was terrific during the opening period in which the Hornets were ultimately the better side, his loss perhaps a factor in the turning of the tide thereafter.

3- A pause to mention Troy since before today each game has felt a bit like a bonus, to varying degrees.  Perhaps the last time we’ll see him in yellow, enjoy it while it lasts.  He was always going to be lauded from the rafters and rightly so, but it’s a landmark moment in so many ways.  I don’t remember a recent instance of a talisman, a key player attracting serious attention, being retained.  Arguably not since John Barnes was attracting enquiries in the mid-eighties has such interest in the main man not concluded with the player’s departure.  And yes, I know he went in the end and maybe Troy will too but not now.  A big statement, both from the club and the player, and demonstration of the Pozzos refusal to be pushed around, to give ground.  Since the announcement, just a few days, Troy has visibly taken on the mantle of captain with relish…  Beppe has suggested that he was always a leader, always a de facto captain in the dressing room but there have been periods, games, where we’ve needed Troy and he’s faded in the past.  His tremendous interview in the Watford Observer screams of attitude, a new skipper wanting to talk his charges into a robustness that wasn’t always evident last season.  All power to him.

4- The second half was crackers.  Sean Scannell – whose version of the current fashion for big beards makes him look like a drummer from an early nineties grebo band – sent in a wicked low cross which provoked the confusion between goalkeeper and defender that it was designed to, this capitalised upon by Bunn.  Building on the theme of the consecutive events reflecting each other at either end of the pitch Town conspired to present Almen Abdi, vivacious and mischievous, the opportunity to regain the lead within minutes.  Reports from Yorkshire complain of a foul on Bunn in the build-up but replays suggest that this is fanciful… a collision that would only have been awarded to conservatively protect the defending team and no excuse for the inept defending that followed.  Inability to mark from set pieces was the next theme, James Vaughan pulling clear for a free header at the far post about ten yards out completely unmarked. A textbook attempt back across the goal but without the power was the result, Gomes tipped it round expertly but shouldn’t have had a chance.  From the corner Wallace was similarly vaguely marked and took advantage.   Breathless stuff now, you couldn’t take your eyes off it and Sofia certainly didn’t even if the relentless questions kept coming.  After Munari’s depature (“will he be ok?  How do you know he’s ok?”) the subject of most fascination was Tamas’ departure (“why was he naughty?”).  I like Gabriel Tamas, but there’s something incorrigible about his brand of defending that doesn’t involve holding back on consideration of minor details like being in the penalty area, or having just been booked.  We then had our own go at implausible excuses by arguing that the ball was out of play before the Romanian clobbered Bunn, as if that made it OK, before Huddersfield generously did their own bit of leaving a man free at a set piece, Keith Andrews having time to perform his Ice Bucket challenge before Almen Abdi’s arcing corner reached his forehead at the far post.

5- The rest was all about attitude and very little to do with ability.  That’s encouraging in it’s own way, we know we’ve got the ability, that’s not news.  We know we can turn over opponents who give us space or make stupid decisions (hello, Leeds), that’s not news either, give us an inch we’ll take 1.609 kilometres and molte grazie.  But this was a backs-to-the-wall situation against an opponent who were very much more competent and threatening than their league position suggests, the very definition of The Sort Of Game We Would Have Lost Last Season and so to come through it with such flying colours is hugely positive.  The crowd played its part, a frantic, furious atmosphere that was part chicken and part egg but well done to the 1881 in any case for their part.  As for detail… significant that whilst we rode our luck on occasions Huddersfield’s screw only tended to get them as far as the edge of the penalty area, many of those shots on target optimistic long-range efforts perhaps aimed at assessing quite how safe Gomes’ handling was.  All three substitutes played big roles here;  Andrews a less mobile, less intimidating option than Munari but an organiser and leader, calling the shots as we faced the alamo.  Tommie Hoban, slightly harshly the fall guy as Joel Ekstrand came back in to the starting line-up, slotted in comfortably at first right back and then on the right of a three as we shuffled formation, one stunning interception a psychological body blow to the visitors as a rare clear chance was denied.  Finally, Juan Carlos Paredes came on at right-wing back and telegraphed the final goal before it happened, a warning for Huddersfield but as in our game at Loftus Road last season the visitors could do nothing but continue to chase a crucial goal and Paredes played a part in the move which Abdi finished expertly.  In terms of attitude, then, this couldn’t have presented a clearer contrast to Tuesday night.  Whether it’s a case of omitted players being “disgruntled” or merely the first team being too good, too professional to let their frustrations affect their performance this one goes on the shelf with Rotherham as a hugely valuable and unlikely three points. And, naturally, Sofia wants to come again.  I haven’t the heart to tell her that they’re not all like this…

Watford 1 Doncaster Rovers 2 (26/08/2014) 27/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1 – Ahhhh, the early rounds of the League Cup, eh?  That comfortable familiar dullness, the football season’s equivalent of a Sunday afternoon repeat of Last of the Summer Wine…   yes it’s fist-chewingly tedious but at least you know where you are.  Ian once suggested that there was only one early League Cup tie, that it went on continuously and endlessly and we just tuned into it for 90 or 120 minutes once a year.  At any rate the script is familiar… lower division team turns up, makes a decent fist of it, we field a weakened side and looked laboured and dull and magnolia and just about scramble a 1-0 win, probably through Scott Fitzgerald or Andy Ferrell.  Or something.  This was just another to add to the collection.

2- Except it wasn’t, not by a long chalk.  You’ll already have noted one critical detail that didn’t follow the usual script.  For another Rovers are hardly your plucky underdogs…  relegated on the last day of last season they were beating us at their place as recently as March.  Much has happened to both squads since, but nonetheless, hardly David and Goliath stuff.  And, as you’ll know if you had the misfortune of sitting through this, they were more than just game triers who benefited from a smash and grab – in their discipline, game-plan and commitment they were everything that we weren’t, and thoroughly deserved the victory.  I blame Felix, who opened the evening by eulogising how any match under floodlights was a good thing.  Tempting fate, that.

3- Because in case you were in any doubt, this was lamentable stuff.  Rovers started much the brighter and sounded warning calls before they took the lead, our fragile looking rearguard eventually succumbing when Bennett skipped through to be felled by Tamas.  It had been coming.  Nine changes from Saturday or otherwise there was plenty of quality in our starting line-up and it showed in glimpses… Lewis McGugan once or twice suggested that he might take hold of the midfield before giving up and leaving it to its own devices; Odion Ighalo had a shocking, clumsy start to the game before finding his feet and showcasing a reasonable repertoire of competing, holding the ball up, flicking and switching, one such trick releasing Lloyd Dyer to scamper through and restore parity.  At no point did we look like cantering to victory however, and when we hesitated in the face of a tidy Rovers move at the start of the second half we fell behind again and only rarely looked like retrieving it.  Diego Fabbrini, who the temporary visitor to my left had bestowed with mystical game-changing powers hitherto unsuggested, came on and did liven up proceedings giving us at least a way of scoring if not a potent threat – we didn’t make anything of the free kicks that he won – and the game ended not with us kitchen-sinking the Rovers goal but with the visitors playing keep-ball in our half.

4- I don’t really subscribe to the view that there’s too much talent, too many players expecting to play.  The bloke in Fry Days before the game cited Burnley as evidence that you don’t need a massive squad, that a good team ethic goes a long way and that’s certainly true, but the inverse doesn’t follow.  A implies B doesn’t equate to B implies A…  it’s possible to get promoted with a small squad, but a small squad doesn’t get you promotion.  Plenty of evidence of THAT – ask Blackpool for one.  Certainly keeping players happy in our situation is a challenge, but I don’t buy the argument that you can’t foster an environment where everyone’s pulling in the same direction, the team’s getting results with good players chomping at the bit for their opportunity.  One might argue that the renewed competition for places played a role in Fernando’s remarkable performance on Saturday for example.

What I don’t understand is the decision to try to accommodate a(nother) large intake of new talent and a large squad (and so regular line-up changes) with the level of tactical flexibility that Beppe is aspiring to. The desire to be able to switch formations and play in different ways is completely understandable as an ideal but there’s a reason that not many teams do it.  I’m reminded of ig’s Vialli-inspired suggestion that you’re going to wait a long time for things to “gel” if you keep stirring them with a great big stick, and we’re in the same position again… a new week, a new-line up, formation, strategy.  We’ll be rotating the language spoken on pitch next, a great big game of Twister (4-3-3, Vydra and Ighalo up front, in Italian.  3-5-2, Tozser sitting, in Danish. 4-4-2, Rene Gilmartin and Eddie Denton get a start, Swahili).  We’ve got the quality in the squad to get promoted without being so excessively ambitious.

5- Whether we’ve got the attitude to get promoted is another question altogether.  The stench of the performance against Huddersfield at the end of last season still permeates, a performance not born of sloppiness, tactical mistakes, bad luck or an unplayable opponent but of screaming bad feeling in the dressing room.  Again, last night, there was a complete absence of any life, movement, enthusiasm from a very large proportion of the side, substitutes disappearing straight down the tunnel (although not clear from the Rookery whether there was a repeat of Saturday’s failure by Forestieri to acknowledge Beppe’s hand).  Ikechi Anya has been a player characterised by positive attitude and effort, even on days when things haven’t been working for him but there was none of that last night in the most subdued 90 minutes I’ve ever seen from him (albeit in an uncomfortable full back position for the most part).  Matej Vydra is present in body but not in spirit… he worked, he showcased his ability, he nonetheless spent much of the game with his chin on his chest.  Almen Abdi is another whose influence has been limited in the games I’ve seen this season, albeit not involved yesterday.  Doyley, Murray and Andrews were all appallingly off the pace last night.

I left the stadium thinking that if rumours of dressing room unrest are justified (and the circumstantial evidence in favour is quite overwhelming) then what better way to put pressure on an unpopular manager than to turn in that sort of performance in a League Cup tie… less long term cost, arguably, than the same in a league fixture.  I’m sure that’s an unfounded thought, borne of the disappointment and the prospect of a trudge across Watford and drive home – in reality, Doncaster did as much to win the game as we did to lose it in the context of which it wouldn’t take a wholesale lack of focus to make the challenge insurmountable.  Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see the status quo prevailing.  If a manager’s under pressure due to results there’s an obvious remedy, however hard it is to achieve.  Difficult to see an obvious way out of this.  And as ig implied on Saturday, if Beppe does leave then you have to hope that whoever comes in is up to the challenge – including the requirement to bang some heads together.

Watford 4 Leeds United 1 (23/08/2014) 24/08/2014

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
10 comments

1. None of this is awfully surprising, is it? Oh, I don’t mean that. I mean this. Although, in a way, they’re part of the same thing: how, occasionally, football’s gory innards come tumbling out to everyone’s dismay and disgust. One of these people is, was and, who knows, might be again a deeply popular, widely respected and pretty successful player and manager, while the other is struggling to command respect in and out of the dressing room. A bit of ‘friendly banter’ goes a long way in that environment. It doesn’t excuse Mackay for a moment, but I wonder how many in football would survive a similar expose. I wonder, and yet I’m not sure I really want to know the answer. That first LMA statement spoke volumes, I fear.

2. As for the teetering Sannino, you can’t help but feel for him: the hand he’s been dealt appears to comprise the four of clubs, two jokers, an R2D2 Top Trump, and Mr Bun the Baker. As before, the summer has brought considerable activity; as before, it has brought in much talent and many options, especially if you fancy picking seven in midfield and eleven on the bench. As before, the challenge is to turn a lot of individuals into something sturdy enough to survive a Championship season without crumbling into pieces. There, inevitably, is where the season’s fate hangs.

Much, rightly, has been made of Gianfranco Zola’s ability to conjure a near-winning hand from a similar set of cards two seasons back, but there’s no John Eustace in that dressing room now, no-one with that level of earned authority. That includes the manager. And, indeed, you could argue – I would – that even Zola failed, falling at the final hurdle, that a fundamental lack of core discipline and concentration cost us promotion in the end. This is a hard, hard task, make no mistake. Those charged with it might have cause to envy the likes of Mackay and Dyche, whose dressing rooms were full of familiar faces and uncontested places; silk purses from sows’ ears are perhaps easier than silk purses from half a ton of off-cuts and fraying scraps emptied onto your desk in a great multi-coloured, sparkling heap with a reminder that you’re out on the street if you fail.

So, here we are, four games in, three wins and one defeat, and the manager’s job on the line. Notably, the pressure comes from inside rather than outside; these are questions being asked by the players rather than the fans. There’s no sense of mutiny around Vicarage Road, nothing more than a familiar impatient tetchiness, common to all modern football grounds. But you look at that squad – a winning squad, for pity’s sake – and you can’t see any structure at all. It’s just power vacuum and potential civil war. Perhaps the Pozzos will find the man who can command this rabble into a fighting unit; perhaps that man might yet be Beppe. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, success on the pitch will gradually quell the dissent and allow the manager to sideline the bad pennies, something that’s much easier when the chosen eleven is performing.

The owners seem like smart people, people who know and understand football. On that basis, I’d expect decisiveness, much as I expected it when Zola was running on air last season. And I’d expect some understanding of the task…which, above all, means a realisation that confidence is going to have to be placed in someone to piss a few players off in the cause of bringing the rest together. To wield the axe as the result of murmurs from the training ground seems an un-Pozzo-like approach: players have power in their model, sure, but it’s power held in strict balance. The coming weeks will tell us much about our club.

3. As I leave Hastings, it’s a beautiful day; the sea twinkles beyond the trees as I eat breakfast, the yellow shirts gleam and shine in my imagination. By Watford, it’s very much autumn again, gloomy cloud and chilly shade and a muttered threat of rain.

I expect our team selection to lose me completely. I pay little attention to close season activity even in a normal year and spend most of August and September catching up. The combination of a Pozzo transfer frenzy and an eight-month-old baby is surely too much for anyone’s brain to cope with.

I’m pleasantly surprised: the starting eleven contains four new faces, but each is instantly recognisable from the off. Of these, Gabriel Tamas has a fine game in the middle of the back three, copy book besmirched by slicing the ball into his own net for the Leeds equaliser but plenty that’s quietly, pleasantly capable otherwise, and a raking long pass or two for good measure. Don’t let the own goal fool you: he’s much less exciting than Joel Ekstrand, and that might turn out to be a good thing sometimes. Heurelho Gomes is exciting enough for two, obviously, but has little to do here.

On the right, Juan Carlos Paredes isn’t allowed to live up to billing either…but having been checked by the Leeds defence, he holds the line diligently, taking care of defensive duties without fuss. The most captivating figure, in many ways, is Gianni Munari, who takes up wonderful positions without seeing anything of the ball; it’s as if he’s a ghost from a game years ago, unseen by most of those present today. As someone who also spent most of his “career” playing in a separate, parallel game without the ball, I admire his work. He’s my new favourite. Which is odd, because he looks a lot like Diego Fabbrini, who isn’t my favourite.

4. There’s no Lloyd Dyer, tellingly. (See Thunk #2.)

5. The rest are a familiar bunch. True, missing the second half of last season means that I’ve seen little of Daniel Tozser, but he takes no time at all to get acquainted with: a brain constantly one thought ahead of everyone else, but feet sometimes loitering a yard behind. You could say that about each of the three midfielders, in truth, for these are people who like to let the ball do the work; these are cultured footballers of a kind that’s never before been the rule rather than the exception. At one point in the second half, a gravel-gargling voice from yesteryear urges our midfield to “break ‘is fakkin’ legs”…and you wonder who exactly he might think was capable of such a vulgar act. It’s all moved on. Keith Andrews might come in useful from time to time, you suspect.

6. Up top, Troy Deeney does a pretty terrific job of being a walking advert for himself, no agent required. On a couple of occasions in the first half, everyone just leaves him to it and has a bit of a breather while the whole of the Leeds defence tries to get the ball off him down by the corner flag. He is approximately 29.3 times the rather vague, clumsy player we bought from Walsall. This may turn out to be the last time I see him in a Watford shirt, but I very much hope not.

The star of the show, however, is the mischievous Fernando Forestieri, who is appromately 8.6 times the rather impetuous, silly kid we acquired a couple of years ago. He’s grown up in front of our eyes, not too much, just enough. This version has lost none of the impish charm, but now has a ruthlessness, a cut-throat glint. Leeds have simply no idea what to do with him, and the scoreline understates his contribution: in a game of relatively few openings, Forestieri scores twice, wins the decisive penalty (not a pretend one either), and has at least three other noteworthy shots on goal. His second goal, in which he foxtrots his way through the penalty area before picking his moment to wrong-foot the entire stadium, is a wonderful thing. He’s an absolute joy.

7. So, anyway, it turns out to be one of those games from which conclusions are hard to draw. I’m reminded a little of the 6-1 defeat of Bournemouth early last season, a game in which we were often uncomfortable and eventually grateful for our ability to knock a couple in from set pieces and polish them off on the break. Here, Leeds were matching us into the second half…and, indeed, missed a free header shortly after the interval, a moment almost as pivotal as Bellusci’s lapse and subsequent professional foul on Forestieri. That individual error changed the game; everything followed on from those ten seconds. In truth, this was a tight, dry game until then, two teams comfortable on the ball and patient without it.

In that respect, this doesn’t change much: we’re the same squad, with the same manager, as we were this morning. The flaws remain, the cracks can still appear. The margins are small. If that free header goes in, the atmosphere changes in an instant.

But it didn’t. Not this time.

Season Preview – Part 6 08/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

Final instalment… currently on my way AWAY from Watford on holiday…  the existence of Bolton reflections depends on whether the other bloke gets up from Hastings or not…

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

INS: Tom Lees (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ryan Croasdale (Preston North End, Free), Sam Hutchinson (Chelsea, Free), Paul McElroy (Hull City, Free), Dejan Kelhar (Red Star Belgrade, Free), Keiren Westwood (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Michail Antonio (Nottingham Forest, £1,500,000), Danny Mayor (Bury, Undisclosed), Adam Davies (Barnsley, Free), Reda Johnson (Coventry City, Free), Miguel Llera (Scunthorpe United, Free), Taylor McKenzie (Notts County, Free), Anthony Gardner, Arron Jameson, Jermaine Johnson, David Prutton, Martin Taylor, Benik Afobe (Arsenal, End of Loan), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Damien Martinez (Arsenal, End of Loan), Adedeji Oshilaja (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Andelko Savic (Sampdoria, End of Loan)

OUR EX-OWLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-0 home defeat in December, Gianfranco’s last game in charge, and a 4-1 win for the second successive season at Hillsborough which featured that Deeney dink.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Westwood
Palmer           Loovens         Lees             Mattock
Lee              Hutchinson
Maghoma            Maguire             Helan
Nuhiu

VERDICT: Another club who have been hanging on for a mooted foreign takeover and have been somewhat in limbo for much of the summer.  I’m advised that there are plenty of exciting signings lined up for whenever Hafiz Mammadov does take the reins and releases a much vaunted transfer budget (and prompts an influx of players from his other club RC Lens).  If that does happen, and even if the signings ARE impressive, Wednesday will be late to the party and that’s difficult to claw back even if, as under Gianfranco two years ago, all the pieces fall into place as quickly as can be hoped for.  If it doesn’t, then despite the sharp recruitment of Westwood and Hutchinson, who should form a sound midfield pairing with Kieran Lee, the Owls are in a precarious position as it stands.  Too reliant on the slowly improving Nuhiu up front, far from watertight at the back, the midfield is more than adequate and Wednesday far from the worst side, or even the worst three sides in the division.  But not so far that injuries to the wrong players wouldn’t be a serious problem.  I think the safest thing to say here is that Wednesday won’t go up and probably won’t go down…  but if Mammedov’s takeover doesn’t come through, it could be a tight thing.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

INS: Oriol Riera (Osasuna, £2,000,000), James Tavernier (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor-Sinclair (Partick Thistle, Free), Emyr Hughes (Manchester City, Six Months Loan)

OUTS: Adam Buxton (Accrington Stanley, Free), Jean Beausejour (Colo Colo, Free), Stephen Crainey (Fleetwood Town, Free), Jordi Gomez (Sunderland, Free), Danny Redmond (Hamilton Academical, Free), Markus Holgersson, Jordan Mustoe, Jack Collison (End of Loan), Nicky Maynard (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Josh McEachran (Chelsea, End of Loan), Nick Powell (Manchester United, End of Loan), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LATICS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Don Cowie, Rob Kiernan, Andrew Taylor

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A slightly fortunate 1-0 win in September courtesy of a Cristian Battocchio strike and a 2-1 defeat in March

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Carson
Perch      Ramis         Boyce       Taylor
Watson
Cowie                  McArthut            Maloney
McManaman
Riera

VERDICT: Remarkable club, Wigan.  Eight largely solid years in the top flight and a remarkable cup win into the bargain and yet persistently under the radar.  Unsurprising in some ways, perhaps… Wigan is famously the smallest town to have hosted Premier League football, the Latics were a non-league club as recently as 1978 and hardly have the sort of fanbase that is going to focus a media broadcaster’s mind.  Nonetheless, they were more than just chancers passing through the top flight… eight years is a long time. Even last season, newly relegated, they slipped quietly into the play-offs on the back of a strong second half to the campaign, once again made the semi-finals of the Cup and enjoyed their first European campaign to boot.  Coming into the new campaign, Wigan are one of a number of clubs with strong, deep squads.  At the time of writing the eleven above can be backed up with a perfectly credible eleven of Al Habsi, Tavernier, Barnett, Rogne, Espinoza, McCann, Fyvie, Huws, McClean, Fortuné, Waghorn.  In defence and midfield they’re as strong as anyone… only up front are they perhaps more limited, although target man Oriol Riera has shown up well pre-season.  If Grant Holt can be shifted off the pay roll – a three year deal always looked a bit daft for a chunky then-32 year old – there may be strengthening in that department too.  But what sets the Latics apart from many of their rivals – perhaps ourselves included – is that they have a manager whose quality and knowledge of English football is beyond reasonable dispute, having shaped the Brentford side that was promoted last year and turned Wigan’s slow start to the season around.  Nothing is certain – the Latics already have a grotesque injury list to contend with for one thing – but they did OK in the top flight without ever having a striker top 12 goals for a season.  No stand-out contender for the title, but Wigan are my bet.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Connor Hunte (Chelsea, Free), Tommy Rowe (Peterborough United, Free), Rajiv van la Parra (Heerenveen, Free)

OUTS: Michael Ihiekwe (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Cieron Keane (Notts County, Free), Jordan Cranston, George Elokobi, Tim Jakobsson, Kristian Kostrna, David Moli, Robbie Parry, Jamie Reckord, Jamie Tank, Sam Whittall, Jake Cassidy (Notts County, Six Month Loan), Kortney Hause (Gillingham, Six Month Loan), Zeli Ismail (Notts County, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Daley (Head of First Team Athletic Performance), Joe Gallen (Assistant Head Coach), Kenny Jackett (Head Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 victory at the Vic featuring a Christophe Berra red card, and an expensive 1-1 draw at Molineux courtesy of a late Bakary Sako equaliser.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ikeme
Ricketts           Batth         Stearman       Golbourne
McDonald        Price
Henry                  Jacobs                  Sako
Dicko

VERDICT: Ironic, really, that after a turbulent few years that saw two relegations, countless bad signings and any number of managers, the man who steadied the ship at Molineux is Kenny Jackett, one-time protégé of the man hounded out of Wolves eighteen years ago to our ultimate benefit.  Perhaps time to let bygones be bygones on that score… I found myself feeling sorry for Wolves when the odious Dean Saunders took over as manager at the start of last year, so I think I must be getting there.  Anyway.  Always rather difficult to make judgements about teams coming up… how they’ll fare, what sort of side they are but no great surprise to see the stats behind Wolves’ promotion.  Scored more goals than anyone else in League One last season, racking up over 100 points and seventeen points clear of third place, but the stand-out stat for me is the 31 goals conceded in 46 games which is frankly silly, but entirely in keeping with what you’d expect from a Kenny Jackett side.  With that sort of momentum and confidence you’ve got to expect Wolves to start well, beyond which they’ll be trusting to luck to a certain extent… Kevin McDonald bosses the midfield but Wolves are heavily dependent on him, and for all of last season’s goals you’d be slightly worried about the striking options.  You wouldn’t bet against Jackett making a success of his first opportunity with this sort of platform though;  it takes some doing to sideline the number of senior players that Jackett has excluded (including Kevin Doyle, Jamie O’Hara, Roger Johnson and Stephen Ward) and to maintain the sort of success that he has. Certainly play-off contenders with a prevailing wind.

WATFORD

INS: Essaïd Belkalem (Granada, Free), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool, Free), Lloyd Dyer (Leicester City, Free), Heurelho Gomes (Tottenham Hotspur), Juan Carlos Paredes (Granada, Free), Gabriel Tamas (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Odion Ighalo (Udinese, Season Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, Season Loan), Daniel Tözsér (Parma, Two Season Loan), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Season Loan)

OUTS: Javier Acuña (Olimpia, Undisclosed), Reece Brown (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Bobson Bawling (Crawley Town, Free), Kurtis Cumberbatch (Charlton Athletic, Free), Marco Davide Faraoni (Udinese, Free), Albert Riera (Udinese, Free), Daniel Wilks (St Mirren, Free), Gary Woods (Leyton Orient, Free), Manuel Almunia, Marco Cassetti, Fitz Hall, Ross Jenkins, Lucas Neill, Nyron Nosworthy, Essaïd Belkalem (Trabzonspor, Season Loan), Samba Diakité (QPR, End of Loan), Alexander Merkel (Udinese, End of Loan), Park Chu-Young (Arsenal, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Angella          Tamas          Hoban
Paredes                          Tözsér                             Dyer
Abdi            McGugan
Deeney           Vydra

VERDICT: Well we’re not short of options, are we? We’re not the only team in the division where you can name a second eleven that would more or less hold it’s own… but my word.  In terms of depth and cover – if not necessarily the strongest eleven –  there’s probably never been a stronger Watford squad.  You get the impression that the Pozzos have decided that this is the year;   the options we have are outrageous and in the addition of pace (Dyer, Vydra, Ighalo), that sitting midfielder role (Tözsér, Andrews) and second tier experience (Dyer again, Andrews again, Cathcart, Tamas) some of last season’s key deficiencies have been addressed.  The Deeney saga feels far from over of course… you have to suspect that whatever current attitudes to our asking price are (and you can piss right off Redknapp with your “he’s a player we like….. no, nothing happening there” routine you cheap punk), two or three games without a goal before the end of August for any of the multitude of top flight clubs linked with Troy might alter their stance somewhat.  Either way, the Pozzos and the club have played a blinder… the auction for Deeney’s services has been going on all summer, Watford have maintained a firm stance whilst keeping Troy himself – and credit to him too – on side and positive.  If he goes – and I fear he probably will – it’ll be for a shedload of cash and good luck to him.  We’ll be left, as it stands, with Vydra, Ranégie, Ighalo, Forestieri and Fabbrini as attacking options with supporting roles, perhaps, for the likes of Jakubiak.  Even without a(nother) replacement for Deeney, that’s a hell of a forward line.  And if Deeney DOES stay… the mere possibility of a fit-again Abdi, Deeney and Vydra in tandem again is terrifying on it’s own.

The biggest question, perhaps, as with so many of the more fancied clubs in the division this year, is over the manager and his ability to cultivate a successful team out of these extraordinary riches.  Everyone at Watford would want him to do well, I think… he’s got us all on side, says the right things, commands trust and affection.   The end of last season still dawdles in the memory though, like a nasty stain on the carpet that still glares at you through whatever you position above or around it to conceal it.  Beppe said all the right things throughout, and particularly in the wake of our harsh defeat at Loftus Road.  The miserable performances that followed were not those of a side singing from the same hymn sheet and the Huddersfield performance on the final day reeked of deep chasms within the dressing room.  Not a team playing for their manager.  Not a team playing at all, really.

Faces have changed since, hopefully we’re better off for it but the nature of any season is that things won’t always run smoothly, and Sannino might need to convince the audience that he’ll be the one calling the shots and righting the ship if and when we have a wobble.  If he does so, it could be a hell of a season.  And either way, as ever, it won’t be dull.  You orns….

Season Preview – Part 5 07/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Yeah, thanks Forest.  The evening before your preview bit goes up.  Nice.  What’s wrong with waiting a couple of days, honestly?  (That sell-on for Britt worked a treat tho, didn’t it?)

NORWICH CITY

INS: Lewis Grabban (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Kyle Lafferty (Palermo, Free), Gary O’Neil (QPR, Free)

OUTS: Robert Snodgrass (Hull City, £7,000,000), Carlton Morris (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Ricky van Wolfswinkel (St.Etienne, Season Loan), Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, End of Loan), Jonas Gutierrez (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Mark Robson (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: 15 of the last 17 games between the two sides have featured 3 or more goals, most recently the extra-time League Cup defeat last season.  Prior to that our most recent League encounters were a vibrant 2-2 at Vicarage Road in April 2011 and a televised 3-2 on the first day of the same season which saw Troy Deeney debut from the bench.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Ruddy
Martin     Turner      Bennett      Olsson
Bennett        Howson       Hoolahan      Redmond
Grabban     Hooper

VERDICT: Some clear parallels between here and Cardiff really…  a squad not strong enough for the top flight but looking plenty well equipped for the Championship, question marks about quite who they’ll be able to hang on to and who will get a more attractive offer from somewhere else and further question marks over the ability of a manager – the inexperienced Neil Adams in this case – to pull it all together and reverse the club’s downward momentum. Unlike Cardiff, the Canaries have been relatively restrained in the summer transfer market to date;  Grabban comes in for a reportedly large fee… City won’t have been the only takers for a striker who nearly went to Brighton this time last year, but a player with one albeit very successful season at this level is hardly a rock-solid bet.  Kyle Lafferty meanwhile returns to the Championship after six years spent with Rangers, Sion and Palermo.  Two forwards who won’t have come cheap, then, not to mention an awfully optimistic sniff at Troy Deeney… but hardly a statement of intent from a side who have lost arguably their most reliable creative spark over the summer.  Could go either way then…  a good start and the large Carrow Road crowd could propel City straight back up.  A wobbly opening and it could all unravel.  I’ll split the difference and say fourth.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Britt Assombalonga (Peterborough United, £5,500,000), Michail Antonio (Sheffield Wednesday, £1,500,000), Michael Mancienne (SV Hamburg, £1,000,000), Lars Veldwijk (Excelsior, Undisclosed), Danny Fox (Southampton, Undisclosed), Matty Fryatt (Hull City, Undisclosed), Louis Laing (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Roger Riera (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Chris Burke (Birmingham City, Free), David Vaughan (Sunderland, Free), Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Jack Hunt (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Matt Derbyshire (Rotherham United, Free), Darius Henderson (Leyton Orient, Free), Gonzalo Jara (Mainz 05, Free), Marcus Tudgay (Coventry City, Free), Rafik Djebbour, Simon Gillett, Jonathan Greening, Ishmael Miller, Guy Moussi, Radoslaw Majewski (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Kévin Gomis (Nice, End of Loan), Lee Peltier (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: Lewis McGugan

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Britt Assombalonga, Jimmy Gilligan (U21 Coach), Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-1 draw early last season featuring a Lewis McGugan free kick, and a collapse at the City Ground leading to a 4-2 defeat despite Gabriele Angella’s extraordinary Goal of the Season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Darlow
Lichaj      Lascelles       Hobbs         Fox
Burke       Lansbury          Vaughan          Paterson
Fryatt        Assombalonga

VERDICT: Will you miss Billy Davies?  Nope, me neither.  Enough already.  In comes Stuart Pearce, a figure as guaranteed to unite the Trent End behind him as is possible to conceive seventeen years after a thankless six-month spell in charge in which he presided over relegation from the top flight.  Meanwhile an odd winding-up order case over an unpaid tax bill – disputed by Forest – is plodding through the courts and may be resolved and dismissed to no further concern by the time you read this… but isn’t the only whisper of financial disquiet, with stories earlier in the summer suggesting that bonuses hadn’t been settled.  So it was odd to see the Lascelles/Darlow deal, two crown jewels around whom vultures had been circling, sold and then loaned back by Forest with the proceeds apparently reinvested in Britt (not that we should be complaining too much, “rising to £8m” would see our cut “rising to £3.4m”) and Antonio.  Echoes of Ian Holloway’s trick of selling Zaha to United, except that here there appears to be a straight line between the sales and the purchases.  Feels a bit shit-or-bust from Forest, but that’s not to say it won’t work.  Then there’s Pearce himself tho, and the lingering concern over to what extent his appointment is emotional and to what extent justified by his managerial ability.  Time will tell on all counts.  Finally there’s a chronic injury list to cope with – not really what you want going into a season…  the back four looks badly hit.  I’m going for a wobbly start and a strong finish but in any event, with so many unknowns a big margin of error needs slapping across any predictions.  Play-offs, but watch this space.

READING

INS: None

OUTS: Adam le Fondre (Cardiff City, £2,500,000), Daniel Carrico (Sevilla, £1,500,000), Jobi McAnuff (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Partridge (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Stuart Taylor (Leeds United, Free), Kaspars Gorkss, Mikele Leigertwood, Wayne Bridge (retired)

OUR EX-RS: Uche Ikpeazu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Stephen Kelly

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw at the Madejski in August featuring a late equaliser – ours on this occasion – and a 1-0 defeat at the Vic in January that featured the only goal conceded in Beppe’s first nine home games.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  McCarthy
Gunter        Morrison        Pearce        Obita
Karacan            Williams
McCleary          Guthrie       Robson-Kanu
Pogrebnyak

VERDICT: There’s a rather telling feature of that little summary above as I write this.  Chances are, Nigel Adkins suggests, that this odd characteristic won’t have changed all that radically between now and you reading it in a week or so’s time.  You’d be forgiven for not having noticed… after all, nothing happening is by definition not as eye-catching as something happening, be it a painfully drawn-out transfer saga or the dismantling of an entire squad.  I hadn’t noticed either, and I’ve been keeping track of this stuff.  But that Reading haven’t signed anyone is no coincidence of timing with deals poised to go through, no indication of satisfaction with a squad that has lost considerable experience since May (including Adam Le Fondre, to pay off the tax man if the local paper is to be believed).  Reading have been in financial limbo due to an ominously protracted takeover that appears to have stalled at the stage of the assessment of whether the Thai billionaire concerned is a a “fit and proper” person.  That Reading’s first signing under him is claimed to be that of Anton Ferdinand from his Thai club calls that into question straight away. Until that situation is cleared up Adkins has no funds with which to build up a squad that fell short last time and look far from strong candidates this.  A test of the manager’s abilities for sure, not a gamble I’d be happy taking in all honesty…  he has been quoted as conceding that automatic promotion might be a bit optimistic as it stands, but frankly even without taking into account yet another chronic August injury list he’ll be doing well to get his side to a top half finish as it stands.  And to last the season, perhaps, unless those making the decisions have more faith in him than I have.  There are plenty of good kids coming through, by all accounts, and too much quality for the Royals to struggle, but it’ll be a rare dull season for the Berkshire side.  Fourteenth.

ROTHERHAM UNITED

INS: Jordan Bowery (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Ryan Hall (Franchise FC, Undisclosed), Richard Wood (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Febian Brandy (Sheffield United, Free), Kirk Broadfoot (Blackpool, Free), Matt Derbyshire (Nottingham Forest, Free), Paul Green (Leeds United, Free), Scott Loach (Ipswich Town, Free), Frazer Richardson (Middlesbrough, Free), Mat Sadler (Crawley Town, Free), John Swift (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Nicky Adams (Bury, Undisclosed), Lionel Ainsworth (Motherwell, Free), Danny Hylton (Oxford United, Free), Michael O’Connor (Port Vale, Free), Kayode Odejayi (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Scott Shearer (Crewe Alexandra, Free), Wes Thomas (Birmingham City, Free), David Worrall (Southend United, Free), Claude Davis, David Noble, Danny Schofield, Mitch Rose (Crawley Town, Three Month Loan), Dan Rowe (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Nicky Walker (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-MILLERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Scott Loach, Mat Sadler

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 0-0 draw at the Vic nearly ten years ago and a 1-0 victory at Millmoor later the same season courtesy of a Heidar Helguson goal against the already relegated Millers that proved vital in preserving our own divisional status.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Collin
Richardson   Wood          Arnason      Skarz
Agard            Green        Frecklington    Pringle
Revell        Derbyshire

VERDICT: After nine years outside the second tier the Millers are back with a new stadium, a different manager and a different ethos altogether.  Tempting to write them off altogether on the back of being the third team promoted behind Big Club Wolves and persistent door-knockers Brentford and sinking anchor after consecutive promotions is a big ask.  Nor has their prolific recruitment drive over the summer been entirely convincing… a lot of bodies, a lot of second tier experience but largely fringe players- a bunch of players previously short of the mark.  There are exceptions… Paul Green stands out as providing some grit and experience, record signing Bowery is about potential rather than know-how.  But it’s not an intimidating roster.  However many of these players are squad members;  the existing squad has the quality that got it promoted in Revell, Pringle and Arnason, and a bit of bloody-mindedness.  That bloody-mindedness is only enough if matched with quality… if you start losing games and go under that spirit disappears and you have nothing.  But if Rotherham get off to a good start they could stay up comfortably.  No more than that, but it’s a possibility.  Sixteenth.

Season Preview – Part 4 06/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Broken the back of this now.  Downhill to Saturday…

IPSWICH TOWN

INS: Bartosz Bialkowski (Notts County, Undisclosed), Balint Bajner (Borussia Dortmund, Free), Kevin Bru (Levski Sofia, Free), Alex Henshall (Manchester City, Free), Jonathan Parr (Crystal Palace, Free), Cameron Stewart (Hull City, Free)

OUTS: Aaron Cresswell (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Carlos Edwards (Millwall, Free), Scott Loach (Rotherham United, Free), Frederic Veseli (Port Vale, Six Month Loan), Paul Green (Leeds United, End of Loan), Frazer Richardson (Middlesbrough, End of Loan), Johnny Williams (Crystal Palace, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Reece Brown, Alec Chamberlain

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A ship-steadying 1-1 draw at Portman Road in Beppe Sanino’s first outing in December, and a 3-1 triumph at Vicarage Road dominated by Daniel Tözsér

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gerken
Hewitt     Chambers     Smith        Parr
Anderson            Skuse          Hyam               Henshall
McGoldrick      Murphy

VERDICT: The coming season included, Town have only spent two of the last twenty campaigns out of the second tier and there’s little reason to believe that they will be leaving it in either direction in May.  Defensively they look very solid, despite the loss of Cresswell whose attacking contributions might be more sorely missed.  The midfield, however, does not scream “promotion” at you…  in Adam Henshall, who has impressed pre-season, and Cameron Stewart McCarthy has added wide options that the team perhaps lacked, but these are still punts and maybes rather than a promotion-looking squad.  As you were, then;  plenty solid enough to earn enough points to stay up, not enough magic dust to maintain anything but a theoretical challenge.

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Gaetano Berardi (Sampdoria, Undisclosed), Tommaso Bianchi (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Marco Silvestri (Chievo, Undisclosed), Stuart Taylor (Reading, Free), Zan Benedicic (AC Milan, Season Loan), Souleymane Doukara (Catania, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ross McCormack (Fulham, £11,000,000), Tom Lees (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), Michael Brown (Port Vale, Free), Paul Green (Rotherham United, Free), Lee Peltier (Huddersfield Town, Free), Danny Pugh (Coventry City, Free), Luke Varney (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Marius Zaliukas (Rangers, Free), Jamie Ashdown, El-Hadji Diouf, Adam Drury, Jack Butland (Stoke City, End of Loan), Jimmy Kébé (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Cameron Stewart (Hull City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-WHITES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Coach), Dave Hockaday (Head Coach), Neil Redfearn (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw at Elland Road in December in which we lost a two goal lead and claimed a late equaliser, and a comprehensive win over a shambolic Leeds side prompted by Almen Abdi’s remarkable first goal of the season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Silvestri
Byram           Wootton        Pearce          Warnock
Cook
Austin                                      Bianchi
Murphy
Smith                 Doukara

VERDICT: What the bloody hell, honestly?  I mean…. really.  Just nonsense.  Chaos.  Mark Twain once famously observed that it is no wonder that reality is stranger than fiction, since fiction has to make sense.  Leeds United haven’t been the most stable football club over the last ten years or so; the relatively recent introduction of the authoritarian Cellino, the bizarre appointment of David Hockaday as head coach merely accelerate this process, as if the soap opera had been awarded a new director with a brief to pep things up a bit in pursuit of waning audience figures.  It’s hard not to be sceptical, but the reality is that we don’t know much about the imports that Cellino has brought in (and failed to send back).  What we do know is that Leeds were far from impressive for the second half of last season – their visit to Vicarage Road in April was pathetic – and since then they’ve lost not only their captain and best player but a good deal of experience besides.  The defence is fllimsy, the midfield narrow and not suited to supplying the intimidating Matt Smith, described as the only one of last summer’s signings that really “worked”.  Thus far Cellino’s investment appears quite frugal, given which Hockaday will be doing well enough to match last season’s fifteenth place.  A relegation scrap looks inevitable as it stands.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Kike (Real Murcia, £3, 000,000), James Husband (Doncaster Rovers, Undisclosed), Emilio Nsue (Real Mallorca, Undisclosed), Tomas Mejias (Real Madrid Castilla, Free), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Marvin Emnes (Swansea City, Undisclosed), Lukas Jutkiewicz (Burnley, Undisclosed), Curtis Main (Doncaster Rovers, Undisclosed), Matthew Dolan (Bradford City, Free), Jayson Leutwiler (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Stuart Parnaby (Hartlepool United, Free), Frazer Richardson (Rotherham United, Free), Jake Fowler, Birger Meling, Cameron Park, Lewis Sirrell, Matthew Waters, Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, End of Loan), Danny Graham (Sunderland, End of Loan), Jozsef Varga (Debrecen, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-2 draw at the Riverside in November courtesy of the concession of one of them there last minute goals, and a 1-0 victory in February which featured two remarkably stupid red cards.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mejias
Bennett        Ayala       Omeruo        Friend
Whitehead           Leadbitter
Nsue                   Tomlin                    Adomah
Kike

VERDICT: Another one that’s kinda hard to call, with Boro public about still having work to do in strengthening a squad that lost a number of significant players (particularly loans) at the end of last season.  A right back and a striker are deemed priorities to replace Jozsef Varga and Danny Graham, whose situation has, writing on Sunday afternoon, gone rather quiet… and it’s an open secret that Boro will continue to exploit Aitor Karanka’s relationship with Jose Mourinho by taking further loans from Chelsea in addition to centre-back Kenneth Omeruo.  Difficult to judge the quality of the signings, too… although you’d have to say that a lot is being asked of Kike, the stand-out striker in the squad, as it sits at the moment.  Significant, too, that whilst Karanka made Boro a lot more solid this has not been a team that creates a flood of chances;  prior to Karanka taking over Boro’s games had featured 3.2 goals on average, under Karanka this dropped to 2, tighter at both ends with a significant improvement in fortunes only evident in a strong finish that saw 6 wins in the last 8.  There’s quality in the Boro squad, but with the earlier caveats about squad building a given it’s hard to see them challenging.  The side is lopsided, lacking cover in key positions and overloaded in others… and there’s little evidence of flexibility in Karanka’s approach if his preferred 4-2-3-1 isn’t working.  Mid-table without threatening would be my bet, with the potential for another management change if things aren’t going well mid-season.

 

MILLWALL

INS: Lee Gregory (Halifax Town, £250,000), Matthew Briggs (Fulham Free), Carlos Edwards (Ipswich Town, Free), Ricardo Fuller (Blackpool, Free), Magaye Gueye (Everton, Free), Byron Webster (Yeovil Town, Free)

OUTS: Liam Feeney (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Andy Keogh (Perth Glory, Free), Shane Lowry (Leyton Orient, Free),  Jack Smith (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Liam Trotter (Bolton Wanderers, Free), DJ Campbell (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Ryan Fredericks (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Owen Garvan (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Steve Morison (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LIONS: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Matthew Briggs, Danny Shittu

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A remarkable 4-0 victory on Boxing Day in Beppe Sannino’s first home game, helped along by a Danny Shittu red card, and a 2-2 draw at the New Den in April – thanks to another last minute goal

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Forde
Edwards     Webster      Beevers      Malone
Bailey        Williams
Martin            McDonald           Woolford
Gregory

VERDICT: Holloway knows how to do this, you’d have thought. It took him a while to have an impact at Millwall…  the appalling run that prompted Steve Lomas’ removal (culminating in the Lions’ shambolic defeat at Vicarage Road in Boxing Day) didn’t really abate until the closing weeks of the season, but four wins and four draws in their last eight games pulled them clear of trouble.  They’d been bottom at the end of March.  So now…  now Holloway is in charge of a squad with one of the smaller budgets in the division, perfectly placed to foster the backs-against-the-wall nobody-fancies-us thing that he’s done before.  Not to challenge I don’t think… not yet, anyway.  And not so secure that a bit of bad luck couldn’t land them in trouble.  At the time of writing they look horribly precarious up front, relying on a thus far ineffective Scott McDonald, veteran Ricardo Fuller and Lee Gregory, plucked from non-league with Halifax.  Gregory could prove a find, but you wouldn’t want to have to rely on him as much as Millwall seem to need to at the moment.  Telling that Holloway is desperately talking McDonald up, as if he knows that he’s not much choice but to rely on a striker who only netted three times for the Lions last season.  Nonetheless, the players coming in look largely sensible – not players who will transform the squad, but players that will help keep the Lions up.  Probably.

Season Preview – Part 3 05/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Another midfielder.  Lumme.  Meanwhile….

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

INS: George Tucudean (Standard Liége, Undisclosed), Igor Vetokele (Copenhagen, Undisclosed), Zak Ansah (Arsenal, Free), Tal Ben Haim (Standard Liége, Free), André Bikey (Panatolikos, Free), Kurtis Cumberbatch (Watford, Free), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (AZ67 Alkmaar, Free), Stephen Henderson (West Ham United, Free), Franck Moussa (Coventry City, Free), Yoni Buyens (Standard Liége, Season Loan)

OUTS: Diego Poyet (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Richard Wood (Rotherham United, Undisclosed), Ade Azeez (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Jordan Cook (Walsall, Free), Dorian Dervite (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Cedric Evina (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Kevin Feely (Newport County, Free),Danny Green (Franchise FC, Free), Ben Hamer (Leicester City, Free), Danny Hollands (Portsmouth, Free),  Bradley Pritchard (Leyton Orient, Free), Andy Hughes, Harry Lennon (Cambridge United, Six Month Loan), Astrit Ajdarevic (Standard Liége, End of Loan), Anil Koc (Standard Liége, End of Loan), Jonathan Obika (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Davide Petrucci (Manchester United, End of Loan), Marvin Sordell (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan), Yohann Thuram-Ulien (Standard Liége, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ADDICKS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Johnnie Jackson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A portentous 1-1 draw against an unremarkable Addicks side in September and a lamentable 3-1 defeat at the Valley in the dying throes of the season that featured Albert Riera’s rather graceless final contribution in a Watford shirt.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Henderson
Solly              Ben Haim        Morrison               Wiggins
Gudmundsson         Buyens             Jackson              Harriott
Tucudean                 Vetokele

VERDICT: A summer of upheaval at the Valley, with a lot of players moving in and out, another new manager and another influx of players from Standard Liége, one of four European clubs owned by Addicks’ boss Roland Duchâtelet.  It’s natural to draw comparisons with our ownership structure, and will be interesting to see how the Charlton model develops in parallel.  Whilst there are clearly similarities, the scouting network and ethos that underpins the Pozzo model does not seem to be in place here – or rather, it’s difficult to see how Liége, as currently the senior side in the group, could support what is clearly the central plank of “our lot”‘s success.  Where there are clear parallels between ourselves and the Addicks is in the player turnover that we’ve seen in the last couple of seasons.  Gianfranco Zola, of course, got the Hornets a hair’s breadth from promotion after a summer of similar upheaval but even given the quality of the players that were brought in that was a hell of an achievement.  To match that the Addicks would need similar quality, a similarly solid starting point and similar success in blending the components together, each of which would have to be questionable.  Given the unknown nature of many of Charlton’s signings a big margin of error needs to be put around any prediction…  top half isn’t impossible, but with a lot of untested components in key positions (including in the manager’s seat and virtually the entire forward line), and young bucks rather than experienced leaders remaining from last year’s side a relegation scrap is far from beyond the realms of possibility.

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Cyrus Christie (Coventry City, Undisclosed), George Thorne (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Alefe Santos (Bristol Rovers, Compensation), Alban Bunjaku (Sevilla, Free), Ivan Calero (Atlético Madrid, Free), Shaquille McDonald (York City, Free), Jonathan Mitchell (Newcastle United, Free), Zak Whitbread (Leicester City, Free), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan)

OUTS:  James Bailey (Barnsley, Free), Callum Ball (St.Mirren, Free), Ben Davies (Sheffield United, Free), Adam Legzdins (Leyton Orient, Free), James O’Connor (Walsall, Free), Ross Atkins, Valentin Gjokaj, Michael Hoganson, Patrick Bamford (Chelsea, End of Loan), Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-RAMS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: John Eustace, Craig Forsyth, Eric Steele (Goalkeeping Coach), George Thorne

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-2 reverse at Vicarage Road in October, the first of the five consecutive home defeats that preceded Gianfranco Zola’s dismissal, and a 4-2 defeat at Pride Park in which Marco Cassetti was dismissed, a damp squib following our stirring performance at Loftus Road.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Grant
Christie         Keogh       Buxton       Forsyth
Hughes      Hendrick      Bryson
Ward         Martin     Russell

VERDICT: For so  much of the season the most assertive, intimidating, impressive side in the division.  A bit of a wobbly start, but once they got going it was only a question of whether they’d quite have enough to take them straight up rather than finishing third.  They didn’t, as it turns out, but were understandably everyone’s favourites going into the play-offs.  Right up until the moment when a late, late goal denied them at Wembley.  Still…  once the initial disappointment was out of the way there was much to look forward to.  The squad still looked excellent, the boardroom stable and intelligent, the signings impressive and the manager amongst the most respected in the division.  What could possibly go wrong….?

The parallels between Derby now and us a year ago only extend so far, of course, but our 2013/14 season should act as a warning for Rams fans not to start counting their chickens just yet.  Teams will be worried about Derby, and will have a better idea of how to stop them… apart from anything else, most clubs will go to Pride Park (or whatever) knowing that a point would be just fine thanks and treat the game as such.  Expectations will be sky high – more so in Derby, whose players have to cope with the Big Club thing to a greater extent than ours ever do.  Most of all… extrapolating is dangerous.  Derby’s form for two thirds of the season was remarkable… extending that form into this campaign would be all the more so.  That said… there’s a lot that’s impressive about this Derby side and it would be a huge surprise if they weren’t at least serious challengers for automatic promotion.  The midfield trio look particularly strong… our apparent pursuit of Jeff Hendrick always felt hopelessly optimistic, even before George Thorne’s horribly unfortunate injury – an excellent signing, that – removed McClaren’s potential conundrum in this area in picking three from an excellent four.  Lee Grant is a top keeper and there’s strength and leadership across the pitch.  Perhaps cover in certain areas is weak – centre-back most obviously, leaving Derby vulnerable to particular injuries or losses of form.  Nonetheless, one would expect them to be there or thereabouts.

FULHAM

INS: Ross McCormack (Leeds United, £11,000,000), Nikolay Bodurov (Litex Lovech, Undisclosed), Thomas Eisfeld (Arsenal, Undisclosed), Adam Taggart (Newcastle Jets, Undisclosed), Kay Voser (Basel, Undisclosed), Adil Chihi (Cologne, Free), Tim Hoogland (Schalke 04, Free), Shaun Hutchinson (Motherwell, Free), Konstantinos Stafylidis (Bayer Leverkusen, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Ashkan Dejagah (Al Arabi, Undisclosed), Pajtim Kasami (Olympiakos, Undisclosed), Sascha Riether (SC Freiburg, Undisclosed), David Stockdale (Brighton and Hove Albion, Undisclosed), Derek Boateng (Rayo Vallecano, Free), Matthew Briggs (Millwall, Free), Damien Duff (Melbourne City, Free), Brede Hangeland (Crystal Palace, Free), John Heitinga (Hertha BSC Berlin, Free), Kieran Richardson (Aston Villa, Free), Steve Sidwell (Stoke City, Free), Mahamadou Diarra, Neil Etheridge, Georgios Karagounis, Darren Bent (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Lewis Holtby (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), William Kvist (VfB Stuttgart, End of Loan)

OUR EX-COTTAGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Kacaniklic, Marcello Trotta

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw early in 2006/07 in which Ashley Young’s brace wasn’t enough to take the points with Heidar Helguson amongst the visitors’ scorers, and a less eventful 0-0 at Craven Cottage later in the campaign in which Tamas Priskin saw red late on.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stekelenburg
Hoogland             Hutchinson      Amorebieta       Stafilydis
Kacaniklic      Eisfeld        Parker          David
McCormack    Rodallega

VERDICT: As strategies go, investing in experienced players always felt like a bit of a gamble.  Not really sustainable that, not even in the top flight and certainly not for a smaller top flight club like Fulham who, for all that they’ve done astonishingly well to spend 13 years in the highest tier were always only a bad appointment or an injury crisis away from a relegation scrap.   There were some very good top flight sides at Craven Cottage over the years too, of course, but the side that was relegated featured too many old players, past their best.  Not only does that cost you in terms of industry if not maintained carefully, it leaves you without a leg to stand on if and when you do make the drop.  I like Magath a lot but he’s got his work cut out here, effectively needing to formulate a new team from the debris of their relegation.  It helps somewhat that there are finally some kids emerging from what hasn’t been the most prolific production line in recent years, but whilst Magath has already shifted a lot of older players (Riether, Sidwell, Duff, Hangland, Karagounis, Diarra, Heitinga and Boateng are all the wrong side of 30) it’s interesting that he’s chosen to splash that eyecatching £11m (albeit “only” £7m up front) on Ross McCormack, who will be 28 before the end of the month.  If he gets them promoted it’ll be well worth it however old he is, but whilst he dragged a sorry team in his wake for much of last season he’ll need an awful lot more from his teammates to challenge.  The quality in the squad – including some impressive-looking recruits elsewhere – means that going straight back up is far from impossible, but there are a good number of strong teams in this division with less reinvention to do.  Seventh, after an iffy start.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

INS: Joe Murphy (Coventry City, Free), Lee Peltier (Leeds United, Free), Radoslaw Majewski (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)

OUTS: Chris Atkinson (Crewe Alexandra, Free), Peter Clarke (Blackpool, Free), Paul Mullin (Morecambe, Free), Keith Southern (Fleetwood Town, Free), Calum Woods (Preston North End, Free), Ian Bennett, Cristian Lopez, Anton Robinson

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jonathan Hogg, Ross Wilson (Director of Football Operations)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 win in Yorkshire in October in what was to be Gianfranco Zola’s last win in charge, and the grotesque, miserable capitulation on the final day of the season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Smithies
Peltier        Gerrard       Lynch
Smith                 Hogg          Clayton            Dixon
Majewski
Vaughan             Wells

VERDICT: Just as it’s dangerous to extrapolate from a good end to a season and assume world domination in the following campaign (helloooo Ipswich), you can read too much into a poor end to a campaign.  For one thing, if an already bad run keeps trundling, changes are likely to be imposed from above with a view to arresting that decline.  Nonetheless, There’s cause to be a little concerned for Town fans on the back of 5 wins in their last 22 (including against our ghastly shambles).  Wells and Vaughan looks like a forward line that’s got enough about it to guarantee survival if nothing else, but the notoriously injury-prone target man has only once, by the age of 26, managed 30 appearances in a season and without him Wells has looked isolated in front of a pedestrian midfield whilst the defence is vulnerable to pace. There are a few kids coming through, but it’s significant that the Huddersfield messageboards are already nervously looking around for three weaker teams.  A tough season in store for the Terriers.

Season Preview – Part 2 04/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Mondays, eh?  Four more, four more tomorrow.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Callum Wilson (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Dan Gosling (Newcastle United, Free), Junior Stanislas (Burnley, Free)

OUTSLewis Grabban (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Shwan Jilal (Bury, Free), Ryan Allsopp (Coventry City, Six Month Loan), Mohamed Coulibaly (Coventry City, Season Loan), Matt Tubbs (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Andrew Surman (Norwich City, End of Loan), Richard Hughes (retired)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A deceptively comprehensive 6-1 mauling last August in which Troy Deeney scored the first WFC hat-trick at Vicarage Road since 1996/97, a routine League Cup win a couple of weeks later and a 1-1 draw at Dean Court that saw Gabriele Angella dismissed.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Camp
Francis             Elphick          Cook         Daniels
Ritchie            Gosling        O’Kane           Pugh
Wilson     Kermorgant

VERDICT: After a bit of a wobble towards the end of 2013 the Cherries finished the season strongly, landing up in an encouraging tenth spot.  Another strong season then for a side that, from the outside, looks upwardly mobile.  Hereby hangs the challenge perhaps… after two seasons of success and optimism, how will the Cherries cope if their progress stalls a little?  There are challenges there…  the loss of Lewis Grabban was perhaps inevitable, in Callum Wilson Eddie Howe seems to have procured a sensible replacement but the newcomer will be doing well if he matches Grabban’s contribution and as such tenth might be an upper bar on the team’s aspirations this season.  That and second season syndrome, with teams no longer as surprised by the stiffness of the challenge from Dean Court (or whatever), might test the character as much as the ability of the Dorset side.  Little doubt about the former though, and if the Cherries might find themselves a rung or two further down the table than last season they’re far too good to be involved in any nonsense down the bottom.  Twelfth.

BRENTFORD

INS: Scott Hogan (Rochdale, £750,000), Andre Gray (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Alan Judge (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Moses Odubajo (Leyton Orient, Undisclosed), Daniel O’Shaughnessy (Metz, Free), Marcos Tébar Ramiro (Almeria, Free), Alex Pritchard (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTSClayton Donaldson (Birmingham City, Free), Farid El Alagui (Hibernian, Free), Shaleum Logan (Aberdeen, Free), Luke Norris (Gillingham, Free), Liam O’Brien (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Scott Barron, Will Grigg (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Martin Fillo (Vikoria Plzen, End of Loan), George Saville (Chelsea, End of Loan), Marcello Trotta (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Bonham, Toumani Diagouraga, Richard Lee, Bob Oteng (kit man), Mark Warburton (manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A brace of victories in our successful 1997/98 season comprising a 3-1 victory at Vicarage Road in which Lars Melvang scored, and a noisy, dramatic 2-1 triumph at Griffin Park that featured one of those Johnno goals.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Button
O’Connor             Tarkowski          Craig          Bidwell
Odubajo       Douglas         Forshaw           Judge
Hogan       Gray

VERDICT: It’s been a while since we’ve faced Brentford competitively, albeit plenty of ex-Orns have passed through Griffin Park in recent years.  It seems unlikely that many of the Bees’ current crop of former Hornets will be regular first choices next season however, and as ever with newly promoted sides it’s difficult to judge quite how well they’ll do – both based on lack of familiarity with the players, and on not knowing how they’ll make the step up.  There’s a lot to be said for a club that responds as positively as the Bees did to what must have been choking disappointment eighteen months ago as one of those ex-Hornets, Marcello Trotta, hit what would have been a title-winning penalty against the crossbar in the dying seconds of the regular season only to see Doncaster escape downfield, claim the title and condemn Brentford to the play-offs (in which they lost).  We had a similar disappointment and saw at first hand the impact that it can have.  So… the Bees aren’t to be taken lightly;  consensus is that there’s a lot of pace about the side and a few gems in the likes of Bidwell, Tarkowski and Forshaw (should the Bees resist former manager Rösler’s advances).  There’s not an awful lot of higher level experience however, and that might cost the Bees, particularly up front where the loss of Donaldson means upheaval.  Brentford should stay up, but not much more.  That would do, one suspects.  Nineteenth.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Chris O’Grady (Barnsley, Undisclosed), David Stockdale (Fulham, Undisclosed), Aaron Hughes (QPR, Free), Nzuki Toko (Grasshoppers, Free)

OUTS: Leonardo Ulloa (Leicester City, £7,000,000), Matthew Upson (Leicester City, Free), Peter Brezovan, Will Hoskins, Tomasz Kuszczak, David Lopez, Andreas Orlandi, David Rodriguez, Jeffrey Monakana (Aberdeen, Six Month Loan), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan), Jesse Lingaard (Manchester United, End of Loan), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Will Buckley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A televised draw at the Amex in October, and a 2-0 victory at Vicarage Road which saw the debuts of Park Chu Young and Samba Diakité…

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stockdale
Bruno            Greer           Dunk         Chicksen
Toko       Crofts
Lua Lua            Ince           Buckley
O’Grady

VERDICT: Brighton made the play-offs last season.  Easily forgotten, since it was purely a function of being closest to the last chair when the music stopped – in stark contrast to a year earlier when Albion had indisputably been one of the top six sides in the division.  This time they were merely the best of a bunch of very similar sides, deserving sixth place by virtue of the accrual of more points than all but five others in the division, but interloping fifth formers at a sixth form party and soon heading home with their tails suitably between their legs, pissed on half a can of supermarket lager.  Out goes Oscar Garcia, in comes Sami Hyypia.  Out go Leo Ulloa and Matthew Upson, both to Leicester, Tomasz Kuszczak, and Gus Poyet’s army of Spaniards.  In came… to date, Chris O’Grady and Aaron Hughes (edit… and David Stockdale.  Still trading down tho for me…).  You can see where this is heading.  For all that Albion made the play-offs they didn’t score a lot of goals – only six in the division scored fewer and nobody above 17th. Now minus Ulloa Albion’s goal threat looks very limited.  Nor, for all Hyypia’s pedigree as an on-pitch leader for Liverpool and Finland does the new boss have  a great track record to fall back on – initially the unqualified partner in a two-man management team at Leverkusen, he was sacked within twelve months of taking over as sole boss.  There’s still quality in the Albion side, and at the time of writing still time to invest some of that Ulloa fee, but they’re going to need to strengthen in several positions.  As it stands, a relegation scrap looks far more likely than another tilt at the play-offs.

CARDIFF CITY

INS: Guido Burgstaller (Rapid Vienna, Undisclosed), Adam le Fondre (Reading, Undisclosed), Kagisho Dikagcoi (Crystal Palace, Free), Javi Guerra (Real Valladolid, Free), Federico Macheda (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Fraizer Campbell (Crystal Palace, £800,000), Steven Caulker (QPR, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Wigan Athletic, Free), Andrew Taylor (Wigan Athletic, Free), Simon Lappin, Tommy Smith, Jo Inge Berget (Celtic, Six Month Loan), Kevin McNaughton (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Ben Nugent (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United, End of Loan), Craig Bellamy (retired)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: David Hughes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Martin Hodge (Opposition Analyst), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 defeat in Cardiff in October 2012 which saw the home side grab a last minute winner against nine men after Nathaniel Chalobah and Daniel Pudil had been dismissed, and an inconsequential 0-0 draw the following April.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Marshall
John               Hudson             Cala                Fabio
Noone               Mutch            Whittingham               Daehli
Guerra          Le Fondre

VERDICT: For all that Malky’s departure upset some at Vicarage Road, there can surely have been few who didn’t sympathise with the manner of his departure from Cardiff.  Who your boss is make such a huge difference to how palatable any job is;  Mackay had to endure Bassini at Watford (and who can blame him for factoring that consideration into his decision to move on) only to find himself working under an increasingly erratic, hands-on Vincent Tan at Cardiff.  Few tears shed in West Herts – or anywhere – when City had their relegation confirmed.  Moving into 2014/15, it’s not unusual to look at a relegated squad and see an intimidating depth that just isn’t present in most squads in the Championship.  Despite high profile departures – those already undertaken and those mooted – this is certainly the case with City, particularly in attacking positions where Kenwyne Jones, Federico Macheda, Joe Mason andNicky Maynard are competing with the two named above.  If there’s a concern it’s further back… Solskjaer’s first six months in charge were characterised by a gung-ho attacking approach and a soft underbelly that saw him concede 42 goals in 18 League games;  his midfield is narrow and the full-backs push up asking an awful lot of the centre backs, an area where City aren’t strong.  We know from painful experience how galling it is to bash your head repeatedly against a limited but organised rearguard action only to be undone on the break…  and there’s some scepticism as to how well equipped Solskjaer and team are to correct this failing.  In the top flight his personality, attacking instinct and the context of the Premier League got him a lot of slack, he won’t get such slack this time around. Given the quality in the squad it’s inconceivable that City won’t challenge, but my money’s on a wobbly start, a departure for Solskjaer with City off the pace in October and a resurgence under a new boss towards the end of the season.  Could end any number of ways, then.  Play-offs my bet.

Watford 2 Udinese 2 (02/08/2014) 03/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Five thunks from the visit of our friends from Udinese

1- The identity of the visitors, the fact that the match was at Vicarage Road and the pricing strategy that accompanied it made this the clear stand-out amongst the pre-season games.  Those aside, the game had been eagerly anticipated for a whole different reason.  Daughter Number 2 has been wanting to come to football ever since her big sister first started watching two and a half years ago.  She has only had a vague idea of what football entails, but this never affected her enthusiasm.  The long-standing commitment that she could come along after she turned five became relevant less than a fortnight ago.  Today was the day.

Consequently my own view of the game was somewhat patchy; please take what follows in that context.  Like one of those World Cup games half-watched whilst doing the ironing/reading Twitter/out at the pub with non-football friends I enjoyed an extended highlights package haphazardly put together with only vague attention to the key moments, such as they were.  For instance, the telegraphing of our first equaliser with a free-kick award on the edge of the area was insufficient warning to enable me to catch anything but a freeze-frame of the ball nestled in the top corner, before returning my attention to my left where daughter number one had vaulted onto the barrier in wild celebration and daughter number two was keen to follow suit.  All things considered, a good day for number two – she did at least fix the game with her attention for much of the time and didn’t request an early departure even if she struggled to get past our summer Panini collection, repeatedly referring to Watford as Germany and at one point asking which one was André Schürrle.

More generally of course this was the last chance to gauge where we were before the big kick off.  To weigh up our new signings, to judge which formation we’re going to run with, to cast an eye over a putative starting line-up.  Suitably enough, black clouds and summer sunshine competed indecisively as kick off approached.

2- Half-expecting us to play 4-3-3, it appeared initially that with Gabriel Tamas playing very wide, we were lining up with four at the back.  Whether due to an early change in strategy or whether the early set-up was merely deceptive (competing as it was with demands for hula hoops) we soon settled into a familiar 3-5-2 with Ekstrand in the middle of the three and Keith Andrews doing a tidy fetching-and-carrying job at the back of the midfield. Needs to be borne in mind of course that Udinese are a mid-table Serie A side and therefore, fielding a full-strength line-up, stiff opposition.  Nonetheless, and given that the Zebrette are three weeks further from the start of their season than we are from ours, the first half was a little disappointing…  ours were the touches that looked a little heavy, the runs that weren’t quite read.  Matěj Vydra was culpable here… every now and again he would sparkle, like a lost contact lens catching the sunlight, before disappearing back into the morass. Along with a low key acknowledgement of his noisy welcome at kick-off it was hardly a trailblazing return for the Czech.

Udinese, meanwhile, were finding us a little easier to slice through;  Tamas looked supremely confident in possession but this once or twice strayed into overconfidence, giving the ball away by overambitious decisions bringing the ball out.  He just about got away with that in a pre-season friendly butwon’t once the real stuff starts.  We had a warning when Fernandes found space to crash the returning Riera’s deep cross against the bar… shortly afterwards Widmer pulled away at the far post, timed his run well and nodded home unchallenged from behind a static back three.  Not great that, not even in a pre-season game;  Udinese worth their lead at half time.  It was very far from awful… but certainly underwhelming.

3- And whilst we’re on the subject of Widmer’s goal… I’m all for hospitable welcoming applause to the opposition keeper.  In the unusual context of this particular game, applause for Udinese substitutions and a welcome for the legendary Alessandro Di Natale, both fine too.  But a round of encouraging applause for Widmer’s albeit tidy header (and similar for Théréau’s neat second half finish) were a step too far for me.  Yes, yes, friends and partners, fine. but let’s retain at least a veil of competitiveness.  There’s a good deal of ground worth exploring between applauding the opposition goals and bawling at their every touch.

Generally, however, the game was played in good spirit as you might expect, with none of the tetchy, snappy feel of last year’s visit from Granada.  If Udinese’s players (with one or two exceptions including  Riera, mystifyingly persisted with in a left wing-back role sporting the number 3 shirt) generally failed to acknowledge their warm reception (possibly through not appreciating that they were the subjects of it), there was at any rate no grumpiness, no bad feeling, and indeed a comedy highlight when the prone Luis Muriel found himself unceremoniously dragged into touch by the arms as two of his teammates,  rather than await the stretcher (let alone try to slow things down) decided to hurry things along a little bit.

4- Second half was brighter from the off.  Perhaps an element of our greater fitness telling… whatever.  There was an oomph and a pazzazz evident immediately, the visitors now on the back foot;  an early move saw Anya scream down the right and scatter his opponents… perhaps a shot should have come earlier in the move before Pudil’s clip was deflected wide, but this was a clarion call.  Troy Deeney began to impose himself…  Tamas played a high ball into the area and Deeney crashed onto it to cushion a header to the onrushing McGugan who drove narrowly wide.  Deeney’s involvement here a perfect marriage of brawn and subtlety that left Thomas Heurtaux appealing to the official in polite but outraged disbelief (not for the last time), as if Deeney had produced a cricket bat from somewhere and taken a swing at the cross with that.  Within minutes we were level, but as already discussed I can tell you little about that.

What was most pleasing about the second half was that so many of the replacements  introduced had a positive impact on the performance (the possible exception being Hoban, on for Tamas in the wake of the visitors’ second and scarcely called into action thereafter).  Most obviously Odion Ighalo who in my head, being a Nigerian striker, was big and physical but in reality was quick, sharp, dextrous and energetic, running the channels, keeping possession with a box of tricks and endearing himself to everyone in the stadium (except, perhaps Mathias Ranégie who slightly overhit a pull back in a promising position as Ighalo saw a debut goal looming and copped the Nigerian’s frustration). Lloyds Dyer and Doyley came on in the wing-back positions, the latter as indifferent to the scale of the challenge as ever, the former’s pace and discipline a real threat down the left. Diego Fabbrini reminded everyone why we were so excited at this stage twelve months ago, an outrageous piece of skill taking him to the left byline where he dug out a left footed dinked cross to Pudil whose header was turned in by Ranégie. As Beppe has said since, if he sorts out the weaker aspects of his game he’s a real asset.  As for the big Swede, whilst he continues to look as if he’s present purely out of a sense of obligation and would rather be enjoying his own company, a glass of wine and a box set, that’s a rather useful tally of goals he’s racked up over recent friendly and competitive games.

5- As we ambled up Occupation Road (and allow plenty of time for that whilst the artery is narrowed by the building work, incidentally) the sun broke through decisively, and appropriately enough for this was an encouraging afternoon on balance.  A stout performance against a very capable side that showcased the quite remarkable depth of the squad as it stands.  There’s plenty of time before the window closes of course – to be honest I never expected to see either Deeney or Fabbrini in a yellow shirt again – but as it stands and without wishing to pre-empt the Watford bit of the season preview that will follow on Friday, the fact that we fielded 18 players and got the result against strong oppositoin without calling on Paredes, Tözsér, Cathcart, Murray or Forestieri is very positive.  Not even finding the entrance to the girls’ school on Wiggenhall Road locked (for £7 parking direct access isn’t an unreasonable expectation) dampened our spirits.  Daughters number one and two were both thoroughly enthused and if there are still question marks going into the season there are more reasons to be cheerful than not.  Even without André Schürrle.

Season Preview – Part 1 03/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Is everybody ready?  Tough. Four today, four tomorrow.  You get the idea.  Enjoy.

BIRMINGHAM CITY

INS: Denny Johnstone (Celtic, Undisclosed), David Cotterill (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Clayton Donaldson (Brentford, Free), Marc Duffy (Doncaster Rovers, Free), David Edgar (Burnley, Free), Stephen Gleeson (Franchise FC, Free), Jonathan Grounds (Oldham Athletic, Free), Gavin Gunning (Dundee United, Free), Navid Nasseri (Bury, Free), Wes Thomas (Rotherham United, Free), Grant Hall (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS: Chris Burke (Nottingham Forest, Free), Wade Elliott (Bristol City, Free), Aaron Martin (Yeovil Town, Free), Hayden Mullins (Notts County, Free), Darren Ambrose, Brian Howard, Peter Lovenkrands, Nikola Zigic, Koby Arthur (Cheltenham Town, Six Month Loan), Amari’i Bell (Mansfield Town, Season Loan), Scott Allan (West Bromwich Albion, End of Loan), Tyler Blackett (Manchester United, End of Loan), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Emyr Hughes (Manchester City, End of Loan), Jordan Ibe (Liverpool, End of Loan), Federico Macheda (Manchester United, End of Loan), Albert Rusnak (Manchester City, End of Loan), Tom Thorpe (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Paul Robinson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two one-goal victories making it four wins on the hop against the Blues, and three in which Bluenose Troy Deeney has found the net.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Randolph
Eardley               Hall                 Edgar             Robinson
Duffy           Gleeson              Adeyemi       Cotterill
Donaldson          Thomas

VERDICT: I thought Blues would go down last season, frankly.  Picking up one point from their final six games they almost did as well, their last victory of the season at Doncaster perhaps proving crucial for both sides as Blues stayed up and Donny went down on goal difference.  Over the summer Birmingham have shed the last of their big earners (Burke, Zigic, Mullins) and embarked upon another huge overhaul of their squad which is now large and packed with game triers… no stars, but plenty of energy and effort.  Their recruitment looks pretty good to me… signing out of contract Cotterill and Duffy rubs the salt into Donny’s wounds, Gleeson comes from Franchise with a good reputation.  At this point in time you worry about goalscoring options, although in Clayton Donaldson Lee Clark has made what looks like a good gamble given his limited budget.  Meanwhile City fans are still desperate for a takeover to go through and condemn the miserable Carson Yeung era to history…  in that context, staying up again would probably do.  There’s no prospect of City finishing above halfway, but you’d fancy them to survive a little more comfortably this time around.


BLACKBURN ROVERS

INS: Chris Brown (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Luke Varney (Leeds United, Free), Alex Baptiste (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan)

OUTS: Alan Judge (Brentford, Undisclosed), Ryan Edwards (Morecambe, Free), David Goodwillie (Aberdeen, Free), Alex Marrow (Carlisle United, Free), William Beesley, DJ Campbell, Robbie Cotton, Dickson Etuhu, Hugo Fernandez Molina, Tomothy Payne, Deniz Pero, Aaron Tumwa, Matthew Urwin, Josh Lewis (Fleetwood Town, Six Month Loan), Bryan Dabo (Montpelier, End of Loan), Liam Feeney (Millwall, End of Loan), Michael Keane (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ROVERS: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lee Williamson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Another Jordan Rhodes 1-0 defeat at Ewood Park and a ding-dong 3-3 at Vicarage Road which saw Marco Cassetti’s only goal for the Hornets.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Robinson
Baptiste            Hanley         Kilgallon        Spurr
Marshall           Evans           Cairney        Conway
Gestede       Rhodes

VERDICT: Ironic, really, that having been a basket case for so long, Venkys-led Blackburn have halted what looked like it might be a relentless downward slide by being so utterly sensible.  There’s nothing… radically innovative about the team above.  Nothing flash, nothing daft.  A solid 4-4-2 with wingers, a target man, a poacher and a solid back four.  The free transfer signing of Chris Brown rather says it all – unpretentious, pragmatic, sensible, and as a backup target man adding to the considerable amount of cover that Rovers have in most positions.  They’re rather dependent on Rhodes for goals perhaps – Gestede, Brown and Varney will do a job, but not score buckets of goals if Rhodes picks up a knock.  Nonetheless, this is a squad that will finish above halfway and may do a more convincing job of challenging for the play-offs than the rather theoretical pursuit of sixth place of last season.

BLACKPOOL

INS: Peter Clarke (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), José Miguel Cubero (Herediano, Undisclosed), Tomasz Cywka (Barnsley, Free), Nathan Delfounesco (Aston Villa, Free), Jacob Mellis (Barnsley, Free), Sergey Zenyov (Karpaty Lviv, Free)

OUTS: Tom Ince (Hull City, Undisclosed), Harrison McGahey (Sheffield United, Tribunal), Chris Basham (Sheffield United, Free), Neal Bishop (Scunthorpe United, Free), Kirk Broadfoot (Rotherham United, Free), Craig Cathcart (Watford, Free), James Caton (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Barry Ferguson (Clyde, Free), Ricardo Fuller (Millwall, Free), Matt Gilks (Burnley, Free), Chris Kettings (Crystal Palace, Free), Liam Tomsett (AFC Fylde, Free), Nathan Tyson (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Louis Atkinson, Anderson Banvo, Jake Caprice, Michael Chopra, Adam Dodd, Rob Earnshaw, Nathan Eccleston, Elliot Grandin, Faris Haroun, Isaiah Osbourne, Tony Warner

OUR EX-SEASIDERS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A late and painful single-goal defeat to a Tom Ince strike at Bloomfield Road that saw Almen Abdi’s involvement in the season curtailed, and a 4-0 thumping in March that saw Mathias Ranégie score twice on his home debut.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

?
McMahon    MacKenzie         Clarke          Dunne
Mellis        Cubero       Perkins        Cywka
Delfounesco    Zenyov

VERDICT: It’s a fair bit of work putting these previews together.  I know it probably reads like every other pile of half-arsed tosh that’s clogging up the internet this week, but a comprehensive pile of tosh takes time to cultivate.  The transfer activity list starts first, as soon as the season ends really… you don’t want to be buggering around in late July trying to identify which Brighton players left quietly as their contracts expired early in the close season.  Then the skeleton starts to form… start compiling the blog posts, fill in the factual and easily rattled off stuff.  Finally, work your way through the teams scouring blogs and messageboards for insights and putative line-ups.  Some flexibility in there of course… not strictly necessary to work from Birmingham through to Wolves in order.  Up to a point.  Can you see where this is heading?  I’ve been holding off here for stuff to develop, and in fairness they’ve signed five players this week and counting.  Nonetheless…

Some of the Blackpool bit is easy, some of it much more difficult.  The line-up, for example, still rather needs to take shape with the goalkeeping position, for which Ben Alnwick appeared to be lined up before giving up and heading off to be second choice at Peterborough, is a rather critical vacancy.  And, christ, if I’m running out of time to put this piece together (writing at 11.30 on Friday night with this piece up on Sunday and a Udinese report to do tomorrow) then it kinda follows that Blackpool are running out of time too.  So here’s the easy bit.  I really thought that Blackpool would go down last season.  Instead, they won five of their first six and only lost twice before the end of November.  Good job too, since they only won three more games from that point, losing 20 and staying up by 2 points thanks to an unlikely win at Wigan at the end of April.  Since then the Seasiders have shipped off caretake Barry Ferguson and brought in Jose Riga as manager; anyone who could leave has done so, several of the eight in contract during the summer would have followed if they possibly could by all accounts.  The club’s chairman Karl Oyston, meanwhile, has publicly fallen out with both his new manager (silent pre- and post-Saturday’s friendly with Burnley) and President and shareholder Latvian Valeri Belokon, who has criticised the owners’ prioritising their own profit over the club’s success.  A populist statement, but it’s difficult not to sympathise; the Seasiders’ financially disciplined year in the top flight should have been the basis for building the infrastructure of the club but instead there IS no infrastructure, and very few players.  “Where’s the money gone” has never been more apt. It’s not something you’d wish on any club, and post-Holloway and post-Ince there are certainly no axes to be ground with Blackpool.  But let’s return to the easy bit. I remember from the years when we were looking over our shoulders in this division that you had to be pretty bad to get relegated.  There are normally one or two basket cases, so you’re trying not to be the worst of the rest.  And there has surely never been a basket case quite like this.  Very bottom.  And then some.

BOLTON WANDERERS

INS: Neil Danns (Leicester City, Free), Dorian Dervite (Charlton Athletic, Free), Liam Feeney (Millwall, Free), Andy Hughes (Charlton Athletic, Fre), Dean Moxey (Crystal Palace, Free), Liam Trotter (Millwall, Free), Andy Robinson (Southampton, Free), Quade Taylor (Crystal Palace, Free), Kevin McNaughton (Cardiff City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Marvin Sordell (Burnley, Undisclosed), Chris Eagles, Zat Knight, Arran Lee-Barrett, Jay Lynch, Tyrone Mears, Andre Moritz, Andy Robinson, Keith Andrews (Watford, Season Loan), Alex Baptiste (Blackburn, Season Loan), Joe Riley (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Alan Hutton (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Lukasz Jutkiewicz (Middlesbrough, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TROTTERS: Keith Andrews (kinda)

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two of the most painful performances of the season… a 1-0 defeat as Zola’s Watford career began to hurtle downhill and a lamentable 2-0 reverse at the Reebok (or whatever) in February.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lonergan
McNaughton    Mills         Ream         Moxey
Feeney       Spearing       Medo       Danns
Davies      Beckford

VERDICT: About to start their third season back in the Championship, it seems a while now since Bolton were established in the top flight.  Still lumbered with eye-watering debts, the impressive surge that almost carried Wanderers into the play-offs in 2013 wasn’t replicated last season as Wanderers ended the season a point behind us in mid-table.  Since then, Dougie Freedman has missed out on his no 1 target Lukas Jutkiewicz who, along with another former Wanderer Marvin Sordell, has joined Sean Dyche’s Burnley in the top flight.  A significant success in a loan from January until the end of last season, Jutkiewicz leaves a hole in the side that Bolton will find it hard to fill.  The rest of the side looks fairly solid and there is good cover in midfield in particular, but with only the haphazard Beckford providing much of a goal threat as it stands.  With an adequate replacement for Jutkiewicz and a prevailing wind Wanderers might nudge into the top half, but given the churning nature of the Championship it seems quite possible that Wanderers will find themselves in a precarious league position at some point during the season.  Quite how far Bolton’s nerve holds and quite how high Dougie Freedman’s still reasonable stock holds out will be interesting to watch.  Fifteenth.

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