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Watford 0 Sheffield United 0 (05/10/2019) 06/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Six months ago, as we entertained realistic hopes of European competition, it would not have seemed credible that we’d go into a match at home to a newly promoted side, even a Sheffield United who have started the season in decent form, not being strong favourites to win.

And yet here we are. And, as follows by logical consequence of our tumble in fortunes as above, there are as many problems in people’s heads as on the pitch. Players. Supporters (especially them). And even head coaches. “We are not preparing matches, we are preparing finals”, he was quoted in the build up to this. The gist was right of course, but the choice of words rather overlooked certain sensitivities borne of misfortunes in May. Nobody wants to be preparing for (yet) another one of those any time soon.

No less eye-catching was the emphasis on finding a way of playing that suited us. Challenging if your way of thinking is that Javi didn’t have much wrong, was a bit unlucky. More challenging still if your belief is that everything would have been fine “if only we’d bought some defenders (other than Craig Dawson)”.

The former argument has been backed up this week (and previously) by the demonstration of favourable xG figures suggesting that we’re really making rather a lot of chances. I’ve worked as a statistician in industry for nearly 25 years now, and there’s a difference between using stats to inform a judgement and using them to retrospectively prop up a decision you’ve already made. It’s pretty transparent most of the time. Here, our way of playing under Javi had always exposed the back line but we got away with it as long as the rest of it worked. We carried enough of a threat that the freedom to test our defence wasn’t there, and when that wasn’t enough we scored enough goals, most of the time.

Thing is when that high level of performance slips you’re left with a side not scoring and… not so much a weak defence as a team that can’t defend. And so you get the West Ham game where we look bold and assertive and lose – comfortably – anyway. Something needed to change. We needed to find a new way to play, and Quique was always going to start at the back.

2- So to today’s game against a side who very much are comfortable in their own skin, and in a very well practised way of playing. This is the narrative of the first quarter of the game, in which the Hornets, effectively reverting to the Zola formation, tried to remember how to do it. The visitors were thoroughly on top, hugely more composed in possession as we sat very deep and scrambled and reflected the anxiety of the home stands. Kabasele and Cleverley bawled at each other in the face of one narrowly thwarted attack. A happy, confident camp this isn’t.

And yet. For all of United’s possession, for all their overloading down the flanks and implied threat they really weren’t getting very far. Scant progress this, perhaps, but progress nonetheless… when did we ever look halfway resilient against anyone? The overlapping centre back thing found bodies down either flank. A ball came in. Seb headed it away. Another ball came in, Kabasele or Janmaat prised someone off the ball. Another, Cathcart slices and Ben Foster claws it away. That’s as close as they come (and even that, on review, wasn’t going in). Another ball comes in. Ollie McBurnie throws himself over and waves his arms around. An unacknowledged sign of a foothold being found.

3- Meanwhile our attacking play looks less coherent altogether. No surprise this, however disappointing; if you’re going to change things, things are going to get changed and sorting out the defence was always going to be Quique’s priority. You don’t have to like it, but don’t feign surprise. Whether the back three was a one-off or a more permanent state of affairs it suits some players rather more than others. Seb Prödl, back in from the cold, is always going to look more viable in the middle of the three. Kabasele revels in his role on the left of the trio, slightly less discipline required as he rampages all over whoever is unfortunate enough to enter his radius.

You kinda think it ought to have suited Andre Gray too. Or at least, that playing alongside a partner rather than as a lone man ought to suit him – even if any of our forwards or forwards-ish – Gray, Welbeck Deulofeu, Sarr – are going to look better alongside Troy as and when. Gray works hard here, feeding off not very much as we persist in sitting deep… but lacks composure at critical times, most obviously when the lively Pereyra hares down the right and squares. An awful miss, albeit the ball was slightly behind him, that speaks volumes. This is the sort of chance we’re creating – scrappy on the break, burgled rather than constructed.

4- Another player struggling in this formation is Abdoulaye Doucouré. If Pereyra is in the Abdi role, and Cleverley is doing a decent enough job of Jonathan Hogg’s fetching and carrying then Doucouré is doing the Chalobah job at the back and he doesn’t like it. He seems uncertain of his duties throughout, and only looks convincing when he sheds his mantle and surges forwards. His form this season hasn’t been great all round but this was a new low, perhaps the most forlorn on the pitch albeit he never hides from possession. Having the real Chalobah as an option for the Chalobah job is an unavoidable consideration.

Nonetheless, we start the second half on the front foot. More assertive, if still wonky. Going forward the challenge is going to be how to accommodate all these square pegs into whatever formation(s) we settle on and the danger is that there are so many imperfect jewels in the squad that there’s always going to be multiple Answers on the bench and beyond to beat Quique with until the form turns around. Sarr, more combative in his cameo today, is one such – quite how you accommodate a winger in a 3-5-2 isn’t obvious. Ditto Deulofeu despite that his every touch, of which little were of any consequence, was cooed at by the voice over my shoulder. Dawson in contrast, who had a perfectly adequate half hour in for the injured Prödl, remains firmly in the can-do-no-right seat.

Welbeck seared clear but was too deliberate, running straight at the keeper rather than giving himself an angle and allowing Henderson to make a good save. Then, in the final minutes, Dawson had the chance to be the hero and to surely send us roaring into the international break with a snaffled winner. Deulofeu’s freek kick found him without a marker… he did the right thing but not enough of it, not far enough back across the keeper, not hard enough. It would have been a beautiful thing.

5- Nil nil then. Satisfactory, just about, in this context in this game after two away defeats and so many years without a clean sheet, so many games without an obvious shape. We will look back on this game in one of two ways; a 0-0 draw at home to a contemporary is kind of a relegation result after all, that’s one possibility. The other is that this is a stepping stone, a rot-stopping clean sheet that gives us something to build on.

Either way, this is where we are and whilst – heaven knows – none of what’s happened is beyond criticism and there are twice as many opinions out there as there people offering them this is when supporting your team is both most difficult and most important. The sort of voice that hysterically decries the decision to change manager, for example, is often a cowardly one, disassociating itself from the decision as if that excuses the perpetrator from the sort of positive outlook that’s needed if this really is to be a stepping stone.

After all, it’s not terribly even handed to champion our underdog status on the one hand whilst on the other wailing at a failure to beat The Likes Of Sheffield United.

Today was small progress in a necessary direction. Not “sorted”, not enough (yet), challenges to come. And not desperately exciting. But progress.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Prödl 3, *Kabasele 4*, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 3, Pereyra 4, Welbeck 3, Gray 2
Subs: Dawson (for Prödl, 57) 3, Deulofeu (for Gray, 59) 2, Sarr (for Welbeck, 77) NA, Femenía, Chalobah, Hughes, Gomes

Wolves 2 Watford 0 (28/09/2019) 29/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Forgive me if this doesn’t go on too long. Not in the mood, frankly. Not in the mood at all.

Last week was bad. Profound insight, of course… that’s what you’re here for after all. OK, very bad. A maelstrom of circumstances conspired and we were nothing like robust or confident enough to deal with them. If there was a straw to clutch at it was that Man City away isn’t an expensive place to have a bad day, not in terms of the league table and so forth. That’s not a fixture you’re banking on after all so… even an 8-0 defeat need not be disastrous if you can consign it to history, convince yourself that a bad day against City is always going to look a very bad day. And shuffle along first to a tentative but adequate League Cup win over Swansea and then onwards to the next two League fixtures. League fixtures that could define the rest of the season.

2- The team news that reached us as we received long awaited pub food in a hostelry in the town centre looked great. Despite everything, bottom of the league with no wins and so forth, it’s difficult not to look at our squad and wonder at the depth of talent. And yes, yes, the defence, we’ll get to that. But for today… Janmaat in at right back was probably overdue, Craig Cathart’s return in the centre more than welcome and Sarr and Welbeck up front had been anticipated all season. So why didn’t it work? More generally, why isn’t it working?

It’s natural to blame the defence, heaven knows many have. Harsh, I think, to blame Craig Dawson for not being the commanding defender that we’d been hoping for, or to single him out by virtue of being the new component that has no credit in the bank. He was solid enough in this one, as he has been since those first few games. Much as I wouldn’t venture this opinion to the hysterical young man a couple of rows in front who was vocally challenging everyone in earshot to oppose his particular views on the subject. Digressing further, how easy would it be to construct a skit like the one below based on the regular voices behind you in a football crowd? An entertaining diversion if you haven’t seen it, goodness knows we need one.

So. We could do with better defenders, yes. But the defenders aren’t the problem – and haven’t been all season – as much as, you know, the actual defending. A subtle difference but a significant one. Wolves threatened before they took the lead, and invariably did so by doubling up on a full back. That’s not Janmaat and Holebas’ fault. And when the goal came… defenders were culpable, but the whole team was culpable – Tom Cleverley not least – for not being attentive, not doing their jobs.

3- And so we are once again stuck in an unfortunate maelstrom of coincidental circumstance. Wolves have the away goal, and so are even more at liberty to sit back and break on us. Much easier to do that at home when you’ve got a lead, obvs. Which means we need to play through them, somehow… the lack of Troy as a more direct option painfully evident; even Isaac Success (yes, really) who was extremely effective in this encounter last year, would have helped us navigate this – much more effective as a lone forward than a wide man for me.

Competing with this was an evident instruction to be careful with possession, part of the “defending comes first” mantra. And this we were, hence our very high possession stats, but the combination of the circumstances – Wolves sitting deep with a lead, us with nobody to hit, careful with possession – meant passing it around on the halfway line as much as not. Add to this an understandable tentativeness… understandable, but hugely frustrating… and little wonder that we found it so hard to create (decent) chances.

4- Wolves, truth be told, were little better. More effective, certainly, and deserving of the win but… also tentative, also fallible. Precarious. There are similarities between the two clubs’ situations in that both performed to a very high level last season and both, for different reasons perhaps and in different ways, haven’t been able to sustain that level. There can be an awful lot of air, as we’re seeing, between a half-decent side and a half-decent side off the boil, borne not least of the psychological impact of suddenly not winning football matches any more.

Missing throughout was a bit of bloody-mindedness. A bit of fight. There was more of that at the start of the second half of course, and if José Holebas connecting well with Roberto Pereyra’s cross (albeit he headed it into the ground taking the pace off it) was scant to show in the way of decent chances at least it was something. In Troy’s absence what little belligerence there was on show came from Daryl Janmaat, who does a good line in bloody-minded rampages when such are needed. Of the two right-backs, neither of which stands dramatically over the other in general, you’d rather have the Dutchman’s strength of character when the chips are down. Unfortunate that it was his forehead that deflected the second in, not his fault – perhaps he’s more robust to these things than others might have been. That’s the sort of goal that goes in when things are going badly.

5- Elsewhere, the fortunes of those introduced contrasted somewhat. Cathcart, like Dawson, didn’t do an awful lot wrong – Wolves’ threat came down the flanks rather than the centre and the previously formidable Jiménez was quiet. Welbeck worked hard and showed well – still rusty, but a good line in runs down the outside of the outer of Wolves three defenders in the second half and a decent shot carved out that was pushed wide by Patricio. More positive than not. Sadly, the same not true of Sarr who only opened his legs occasionally and was frequently at fault for not putting his foot in where needed. A 21 year-old winger not speaking the language needs time and a bit of patience, but a £30m price tag denies him much of that, unfairly or otherwise.

Wolves’ second took any fight out of us, and there was no praying for minutes as the board goes up, no suggestion of a fightback. Maybe all it would have taken was a goal, home fans suddenly nervous in the closing minutes, we’ll never know. In the same way there are several ways to interpret this game… given this vantage point, given last week, given no wins and such little fight it’s difficult not to be negative. On the other hand… a defeat away at Wolves, even this Wolves, isn’t an embarrassment out of context. Nobody likes to lose but… it’s a tough fixture, albeit one we won last year. Maybe the cautious possession will build towards a greater solidity – arguably only a perhaps four point deficit across Brighton and West Ham is below a moderate “par” so far. As has been mentioned elsewhere, this game buried in the middle of last season might not have raised an eyebrow. If we beat Sheffield United we’re likely to be up with the struggling pack again, it really isn’t very far gone yet and only two weeks since an utterly convincing and convinced draw with Arsenal after which recovery seemed a probability.

That win really needs to come soon though.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Janmaat 3*, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Deulofeu 2, Welbeck 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Gray (for Sarr, 71) 2, Kabasele, Femenía, Chalobah, Quina, Gomes

Watford 2 Arsenal 2 (15/09/2019) 16/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

1- Episode Three of the first Series of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast discusses basketball.  Not a game I can claim any great expertise in;  we played a violent bastardisation of the game at school, but that hardly qualifies informed comment.

Anyway.  Wilt Chamberlain.  Great basketball player, says Malcolm and people who Know About These Things.  Remarkable, amongst other things, for taking his penalty shots underarm.  People don’t do that, says Malcolm.  Chamberlain’s not quite unique, but he’s certainly unusual in this regard…  and unusually successful.  Extraordinary (again, second hand knowledge, take that as read…).

Except at one point, despite his huge success, he stopped.   Reverted to the conventional shooting method with unremarkable results.  Because he felt pressured by the consensus against him, despite the success of the strategy.  Others questioned in the episode concurred… despite being induced to attempt underarm, observing the success, they wouldn’t consider underarm shooting in a competitive game.  Because it would “look weird”.

So when Sam leans over my shoulder and expresses concern that we’re a laughing stock, that our regular turnover of head coaches is, by implication, weird…  unusual… Well, you just gotta shrug and grin. Not that this justifies any such decision on the part of our owners and management but…  five seasons in the Premier League, two cup semi finals and one final in that time is testimony to us not doing too badly by it.  Not sure we should give a stuff what anyone else thinks, whoever they are.

2- And so Quique’s back, and inevitably he’s given a warm welcome because such is the way of things in such situations even if the man in question isn’t a good bloke from recent memory.  His first team selection is encouraging in its shape…  a return to the 4-2-3-1 of Marco Silva’s brief successful period with Tom restored to the buzzing around role in front of two sitting midfielders, Étienne Capoue stepping into the role vacated by Nathaniel Chalobah after his knee injury.  More odd was an extremely conservative bench, no out-and-out striker with Welbeck (reportedly injured in training on Friday) and Success omitted from the squad.

And we start aggressively. Actually, scrub that… we start like what one imagines a pack of dogs looks like. Chasing everything down. Reducers going in left, right, centre. Arsenal are given nowhere to hide as we set up with a solid shape, let the visitors pass sideways inconsequentially on the half way line and mug them brutally should they make the mistake of getting ideas above their station. This yields some half-chances from distance… Holebas drives narrowly wide, Tom Cleverley thumps an effort top corner that Leno shoves over. If there’s a problem it’s that Andre Gray is being asked to do an awful lot. He makes a game effort, his most convincing imitation of a target man to date… hurling himself between incoming ball and opponent, contorting himself to deflect a lay off but he’s too isolated, and too often we’re passing around the edge of the area without much of a focal point to aim for.

3- And then Arsenal score. The visitors have been warming up, Pépé cutting in from the right and curling a shot wide but too close. Then there’s a scruffy tackle on the halfway line in which Hughes is bullied off the ball… there are protests on and off the pitch but having spent much of the game up to this point gauging how much aggression we could get away with and deciding, well, quite a lot actually we didn’t have a leg to stand on here (literally, in Will Hughes’ case). Of more concern is the doziness of the defence and the gaping chasm at Ben Foster’s near post (again), but Aubameyang’s finish is breathtaking.

We go flat, very quickly; on and off the pitch everyone’s thinking the same thing. “But we’d started so well, why can’t we defend…”… and the visitors have their foot on our throat. Aubameyang nearly scores a second before he actually does, and it’s far far too easy, Maitland-Niles slipping in down the right, not for the first time, and finding the Gabonese for a tap in.

The half ends with a bit of a scrap on the halfway line in which Matteo Guendouzi earns a booking for being an idiot, Jose Holebas seems slightly harsher done by but looks in danger of outstripping the big-haired French youngster by taking prolonged and typically forthright issue with the officials on the half time whistle. He gets away with it, and maybe we do too despite the scoreline.

4- The second half, as you’ll know, is a remarkable thing. We owe a lot to our visitors, though, who as it turns out were pretty much ideal opponents for Quique’s first game back. They were miserably undeserving of their win here five months ago; here (with only three of that starting eleven starting here, incidentally) they are more spectacularly inept, and tactically not least.

Quite why a side that excels up front but can’t defend for toffee thinks that sitting on a two goal lead is the way forward is beyond me for one thing. Why, further, a defence that was repeatedly warned off faffing around at the back by being brutally mugged by ever more encouraged opponents in front of a lenient referee continued to faff around is incomprehensible.

Not our problem. In the end, after many occasions in which the nervousness of our attack was measured against the generosity of Arsenal’s defence and came out just wanting, we are given the most extraordinary of clear chances as Sokratis plays another loose ball in the box and Tom Cleverley drives home. The Quique song returns with gusto not, in fairness, that he had much to do with Sokratis’ critical assist.

As an aside, the “third man” in a midfield three is an easier one to impress in. Al Bangura used to look outstanding as the spare man sitting behind Gavin Mahon and Matt Spring when such was necessary and all he had to do was kick whatever came through without any great disciplinary responsibility; similarly the hole behind the striker is a sandpit to play in. Tom doesn’t half do it well though and he’s quite tremendous today combining perpetual motion and relentless positivity with just being bloody sensible, a rare combination.

5- It’s relentless. We swarm all over Arsenal, one minute slinging the ball from wing to wing to find a spare man, then snarling into challenges to reclaim possession. We’d questioned the lack of striking options on the bench; actually all three subs are well judged and a force for good. Ismaïla Sarr is better suited to wide open spaces than the physical confrontation of the penalty area you suspect but does a sound enough job here, controlling an extraordinary sharp pass from Deulofeu, spinning and clipping a shot across the face of goal in one fluid movement. Daryl Janmaat’s cameo is a typically bombastic one, no surprise to see him thunder into the penalty area late on. And if Roberto Pereyra takes a while to warm up himself, once he gets going he really gets going; a tidal wave of a counter attack reaches the Argentine who makes a bee-line for Luiz. Dribbling yourself the hell into the penalty area has been a deliberate tactic and the Brazilian finally obliges, lazily. Leno is graceless and witless in his attempts to slow things down and distract, and gets what he deserves – a fine, composed finish from the Argentine.

You can come full circle back to that basketball analogy again if you want, since the end of the game is ridiculously open. The visitors start to venture upfield again and the stupidity of their reluctance to do so earlier is betrayed by Joe Willock’s progress in running half the length of the pitch before being scruffily halted (having missed a chance to release Aubameyang). The bulk of the business is at the other end though. Chance after chance to the backing track of Elton John’s Taylor-Made Army on what would have been the great man’s seventy-fifth birthday… the relentlessly penetrative Deulofeu slugs a shot a hair’s breadth wide, Tom Cleverley pumps another shot top corner that is blocked, unwittingly, by David Luiz’s head. Doucouré rampages through the midfield and releases Sarr, who threads a ball back to the Frenchman who just needs to put his laces through it but doesn’t, steering a shot too close to the keeper before collapsing with his head in his hands.

It isn’t quite enough for the win. But it’s more than enough in the grand scheme of things. This is huge fun and a massive result in the heroic, bloody-minded combativeness of the second half that dragged us back from two goals down. Quique’s got things to sort, clearly, but this was already significant progress all over the pitch. The wins will come.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 4, *Cleverley 5*, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 5, Gray 3
Subs: Sarr (for Gray, 54) 4, Pereyra (for Hughes, 63) 3, Janmaat (for Holebas, 78) 0, Foulquier, Mariappa, Chalobah, Gomes

In with the even older 07/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

International breaks.  Dull as hell, aren’t they?  Particularly this one, not even a month into the season.  We’ve barely got going. And having chosen not to spend brownie points on Newcastle it’s two weeks into a three week slog.  Driving back from a thing with the wife and kids, half listening to the England game and the news breaks.

Whatever your reaction, to Javi’s departure, it’s surely not surprise.  As countless pub-bore pundits have no doubt already reminded you, this is What Watford Do.  (One might be forgiven for thinking that this is ALL Watford have done, since getting promoted, such is the limited range of opinion of such pundits.  Chelsea, Huddersfield, Fulham, Southampton and West Brom have all had three managers during Javi’s Watford reign, incidentally).

If there’s a surprise it’s that the change comes halfway through the break rather than at the beginning of it.  If a change was being made then the decision was surely already made and so little to gain by delaying appointing an out-of-work replacement.

But the decision itself, I think, was always coming.  Javi Gracia has been a successful, utterly likeable, gracious and unpretentious head coach but problems with the team have been evident and are down to him.  The poor results at the end of last season came with all sorts of mitigating factors and context – the Cup Final, the suspension to Troy which was all the captain’s fault and which we struggled to accommodate as we’re struggling in the wake of his injury now.

But this season’s form has been miserable.  In particular the defensive shape of the side has been, well, indefensible. The back four have all been criticised individually, but a set-up that asks full-backs to provide all the width, effectively playing as wing-backs with two centre-backs behind them is only going to end one way.  We have the greatest array of attacking talent we’ve ever had but haven’t looked like exploiting it.  We’ve been far, far too easy to hurt.

Too soon?  Too harsh?  Maybe.  But we know the drill by now.  We know that Scott and Gino aren’t going to sit on their hands and see how things turn out, we know that they believe a head coach has a limited shelf life. And in reality they can’t afford to prevaricate; after four games from which we might have expected, say, seven points we have one with tougher challenges to come.

Then half an hour later, the confirmation that Quique was back.  And this took a bit more time to get my head around.  On the plus side…  lovely bloke.  Knows how to sort a defence, very quickly drilled a side that had been playing open expansive football four years ago and took us to mid-table and a Cup semi.  On the minus…  his tendency towards favourites, ostracising faces that didn’t fit (José Holebas must be delighted). The pathetic tailing off of our first season after he felt his job was done – the defeat at Carrow Road that season remains perhaps the weakest since promotion.

But against that…  he’s being hired by the people that employed him then.  They know what happened, and they know what they’re getting.  And nothing speaks for the sound structures that we’ve all boasted so comprehensively of, the way that a head coach is a cog at this club rather than defining the machine, that both Duxbury and Flores are happy to resume their partnership.

Some kind of change was clearly needed.  How this one turns out will be fascinating.

Yooorns.

Watford 3 Coventry City 0 (27/08/2019) 28/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1- The first warning signs came as Luke and I made our way down the M1 in  a report from Dad, always an early arrival.  Confounding expectation given that this was the second round of the League Cup, the regular car park was full.  “There are Coventry fans everywhere….”.

On Vicarage Road itself, let alone inside the stadium, it’s clear that the visiting mob haven’t got the brief.   There’s a tradition to be upheld here, a tradition that involves soporific anti-football, passes being misplaced into touch against a lower division side who put everything behind a ball which rattles around indifferently and might occasionally wander somewhere near a goal but only by the law of averages.  You hear the shouts of the players on the pitch in front of an empty away end and wonder how your life ended up here (again).

Three and a half thousand fans in a noisy Vicarage Road stand definitely against protocol.  I don’t know if this was deemed a special occasion, a cup game against a top flight team who might reasonably expect to be there to be got at given our start, or whether Cov take this sort of rabble to Doncaster, Gillingham, Accrington in defiance of their temporary home but either way it’s a fabulous sight and racket that contributes hugely to the evening.

What it emphasises most of all is pride in the club and, perhaps, the City.  Defiance, too.  Defiance in the face of the selfishness and exploitation that now sees City spend another season camping in someone else’s patch rather than “at home”.  There but for the grace of the Pozzos, of course.  And luck.  Luck that we were at our lowest ebb when they came looking, low hanging fruit from the right sort of tree.  There’s been much debate over the last few weeks about the performance of the team, the strength of the defence, summer recruitment.  But what we have to thank the Pozzos for most is that we have a team to support at all – a team in the top flight, a welcome bonus but a bonus nonetheless.  Bury, league opponents not terribly long ago, have just lost their place in the league.  Bolton, surely a bulletproof institution and more recent opponents still, have a stay of execution with the ghoulish presence of Laurence Bassini somehow still hanging around as if anyone needed reminding how lucky we are.  In any case, fair play Coventry.  Fair play.

2- On the pitch we’ve made eleven changes but it’s hardly a reserve side with Pereyra, Sarr and Welbeck getting minutes in their legs on the way back to fitness, and Daryl Janmaat amongst those genuinely challenging for a first team place.  It’s a fun-looking eleven all round we comment, whilst trying to dismiss the fact that we said something very similar at 2.45 on Saturday.

The visitors strike a decent balance between staying solid and giving it a go.  They’re competitive without being dirty, solid without being negative, and if they don’t get terribly close to a shot on target very often they do at least produce the first proper goal attempt, Villa loanee Callum O’Hare slipping a shot wide of Heurelho Gomes’ right hand post.

It’s a fairly stodgy first half, though normalised to the traditional standards of this fixture this is effectively rollercoaster stuff.  Domingos Quina is lively and prominent, Nathaniel Chalobah rather less careful with possession than you’d like but still spraying the odd long range pass that makes you gasp.  Bobby Pereyra has a central role behind Danny Welbeck but is popping up everywhere like some kind of magic pixie. He sparkles into life to present an early chance, dazzles his way past a couple of wrong-footed defenders to make a space and slams in a low shot which is well if not entirely comfortably fielded, before disappearing again in a puff of smoke.

Eventually we make the breakthrough, and it’s significant. Isaac Success has one of his livelier games, progressively rather than destructively random; I prefer him down the middle but here he demonstrates his value playing deeper, sliding an extraordinary Kevin de Bruyne pass into the feet of the escaping Sarr who races on before finishing unfussily. A breathtakingly irresistible goal.

3- Of primary interest are the new boys of course. Of these, perhaps the least heralded is Dmitri Foulquier who makes an unprecedented appearance at left back. Foulquier has been one of the army of players nominally on our books but effectively elsewhere on loan presumed never to be relevant but at 26 is older than typical for the profile. Web chatter suggests that he’s been told he’s needed in the squad; quite how much we’ll see of him you have to doubt but here he’s on his weaker side but does a sound enough job. Certainly there’s enough uncompromising bootering in evidence to suggest that he’s not unworthy of covering at left back.

Danny Welbeck meanwhile continues to look lively, nimble and threatening. He doesn’t get the goal that his persistence deserves though he comes desperately close with one second half turn and shot but he’s getting there, and crucially lasts ninety minutes on this occasion.

Tom Dele-Bashiru isn’t the highest profile of the summer arrivals but he makes it off the bench with twenty minutes to go and almost scores with his first touch, haring in from the right to send a shot narrowly wide across the face of goal. THAT would have been an entrance. But in any case he looks very tidy and far from overawed for a teenager making his debut for his new side.

And then there’s Sarr. In contrast to his cameo on Saturday he’s clinging to the touchline, a proper winger. And he’s quick. Really quick, in case this hasn’t reached you in dispatches. In the first half we get evidence of this before his goal as he hares down the right with defenders scrambling astonished in his wake like flotsam in a jetstream. In the second… he applies what appears to be a clumsy touch to a ball inside our half which flies down the line towards the corner flag. And as he screams after it it appears to stop dead… was that deliberate?  I’ll need to see it again before I’m convinced it wasn’t an accident but… my word. Still ragged. Still untidy. But my word.

4- This was, of course, the first time we’ve been ahead this season. Being ahead is a useful thing for this team to be, one feels, and with a little more luck – or perhaps a fully fit Deeney, Sarr or Welbeck – one or two of The Three might have gone differently.

In any event, Cov never gave up the fight but were noticeably laxer at the start of the second period.  A bit of being tired of chasing and closing, physically, mentally.  A bit of needing to commit something forward.  They give us too much space in dangerous areas.

We’re much more comprehensively the better side in the second period.  Chalobah reins in the loose passes and becomes the metronome that he is at his best.  If Quina and Success give the ball away rater too often it’s was still a Fun Thing to watch all round.

And the unlikely star of the show is Daryl Janmaat.  Podcasts this week have discussed the whack-a-mole challenge of playing Liverpool – if you pin down the forwards the full backs get you and so on.  As well as being a bloody-minded defensive presence Janmaat became our whack-a-mole, the one you didn’t have covered thundering up the flank to provide an extra option.  A quite Rostronesque performance from the Dutchman, who concluded one of his plundering rhinoceros runs into the heart of Coventry’s defence by rolling the ball to create more space than he should have had on the edge of the box and pinging it top corner.  Adalberto Peñaranda’s cameo, a cocktail of spiky provocation, mischievous energy and complete indifference to any defensive responsibility culminated in him pinging a third from some distance.  It’s been several years since he was first spoken of in the hushed, excited terms now reserved for Cucho and João Pedro; last year’s model finally showing what he’s capable of.

5- So a good evening all round.  If there’s something fundamentally wrong at the club then it clearly hasn’t extended to this lot, who made up for a little rawness and rustiness with a performance of refreshing positivity.  Fittingly, the stifling humidity of the Bank Holiday weekend broke and the air freshened up overnight.

We still need that result against Newcastle.  But it’s not all bad.  We have no end of positive, exciting fun on the fringes of the team (and embedded IN the team before long in some cases).

And, you know.  We have a team to support.

Up the Shakers.  Hang in there, the Trotters.

And Yooooorns.

Gomes 3, *Janmaat 5*, Foulquier 3, Kabasele 3, Mariappa 3, Quina 4, Chalobah 3, Sarr 4, Pereyra 4, Success 4, Welbeck 3
Subs: Peñaranda (for Pereyra, 64) 3, Dele-Bashiru (for Sarr, 72) 3, Prödl, Deulofeu, Cleverley, Femenía, Bachmann

Watford 1 West Ham United 3 (24/08/2019) 25/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
17 comments

1- It’s two’o’clock in the afternoon and the sun is shining.  Properly shining.  The girls have grabbed ice creams in addition to their lucky chocolate, well drilled now…  to say “straight in, straight out” would be stretching it, but it’s certainly a focused operation.  This is what the first day of the season should have been like…. so perhaps this is effectively where the season starts.  Brighton was soporific but there were distinct signs of life last weekend and nowbelatedly we’re going to get going.  Routines had been experimented with.  Different choice for lunch.  New away shirt sported for the first time. Here we go.

Three hours later and things look very much grimmer. The heat is now oppressive, sticky, lethargic.  We’ve played indisputably the best football we’ve played this season, and we’ve lost by two clear goals.  For the first time since promotion, we’re in trouble.

2- As an aside, it’s a tremendously entertaining game of football.  Wide, wide open from the start.  Too open, perhaps.  But very watchable.  In another situation, mid-table half-way through a season say we might even take some pleasure even from a 3-1 home defeat.  Not here.

It’s a poor challenge, the challenge that gives a penalty away three minutes in.  Lanzini isn’t going anywhere, Doucouré is clumsy and stupid but that wasn’t the half of it. An unremarkable West Ham attack had already pulled the defence around, people in the wrong place and suddenly scurrying to cover and hoping someone’s doing the job they should have been doing. Noble sent Foster the wrong way. An awful start, you can look at the skies and curse our luck but this didn’t have a lot to do with luck.

3- There’s resilience at least. The 1881 lead a show of defiance, and whatever our other failings on the pitch (we’ll come to those) we don’t slink into our shells. Deulofeu is suddenly clean through after a long pass clears an attempt at a clearing header. He’s attentive enough to anticipate the error but hesitates in pulling the trigger permitting a recovering challenge.

We’re level within fifteen minutes though, a rapier of a goal. Deulofeu has been scurrying all over the pitch and will continue to be the instigator of much of what we do well at the top end… he feeds Hughes who plays in one of his lovely round-the-corner passes and Gray’s strike is vicious and precise.

From there we improve in that we become increasingly assertive, winning the territorial battle. The scores are level, in fact, for half of the game and as we launch into the second half there are echoes of our most irrepressible form of last season, swarming over our visitors and occasionally threatening to overwhelm them. Deulofeu, the dynamic Cleverley and Gray all have chances but perhaps the best, early in the second half comes when Deulofeu (again) feeds Gray who does well to drive across goal. Hughes is attacking the far post… he’s there, nobody else is, it’s not a trivial chance with the ball flying across him. But he should have scored.

4- If that goes in we win the game, I think, and probably go on and score more goals given the weapons on the bench.  So in essence, we do a lot of things quite well. The problem is with the rest of it. The finishing is oft mentioned in dispatches and its beyond question that the amount of attacking possession we engineer is poorly rewarded by very few attempts on target. For me this is a lack of confidence more than a fundamental problem with personnel or their abilities. The hesitancy, the not quite wanting to be the one who takes the shot is symptomatic of that.

The defensive vulnerability is a far bigger problem. And it is a problem, since even through our better periods of the game we look horribly vulnerable to a counter-attack that provides West Ham with good chances based on less possession in dangerous areas.  Our midfield is famously narrow, but here it’s an exaggerated version of itself.  Perversely, those four – Doucouré, Capoue, Cleverley, Hughes – are a tough old bunch.  You’d fancy them to provide a defence with cover.  The flipside is that Kiko and Holebas are asked to do everything down the flanks.  A recurring theme is for Kiko to be caught upfield, Dawson to charge across to cover and the whole defence to be pulled apart.

It’s tempting to point the finger at Dawson, the new face, or at his fledgling partnership with Cathcart but in truth neither play particularly badly as individuals.  Dawson may not be the significant trade up on Kabasele or Mariappa that we’d been hoping for, he’s certainly less mobile than either but he’s not a bad defender;  Holebas and Foster may be getting older, but this isn’t a defence that’s markedly worse than a defence that almost got us into Europe last season.

Perhaps there’s an element of teams working out how to combat our narrow midfield.  Perhaps there’s an element of doubt… certainly the body language is unconvinced and unconvincing, the camp doesn’t look happy within itself as much as with results.  Perhaps a forward line with more of its big hitters available and fit would take the pressure off the back line a bit.  Perhaps all of these things.

But you fear for Javi as it stands.  An eminently likeable man, he looks a little bit lost at the moment for all that there’s been sliding doors incidents that mighta coulda turned either of the last two games.  Opponents know that they can get at us and that the resilience, the belief, isn’t there to resist it, and that our narrowness is increasingly being exploited.

5- So West Ham score.  And it’s one of those, a break down West Ham’s left, flimsy defending, Haller taps in.  There’s more anger this time, anger because whatever the Hammers attacking capabilities we’ve given away yet another avoidable goal.

Meanwhile, an aside, Jose has picked up his first booking of the season for what looks rather like payback on Michail Antonio.  Two home games ago the same referee sent off the same player for a challenge on the same opponent at the same end of the pitch, a challenge that was so much less consequential than this one as to have been non-existent.  Mercifully the red was rescinded, Holebas played in the final and this bit of retribution passed almost without comment as if expected and accepted.

Kavanagh was getting all kinds of stick from the frustrated stands by now, for trivial inconsequential nonsense like not forcing subbed players off at the nearest juncture.  Actually his most significant error was probably to miss the clear handball by a Watford player that should, given latest zero-tolerance interpretation of the handball role (if not by any sane one), have given the Hammers a second penalty shortly before we’d equalised.

Our superiority prior to going behind again had almost pleaded for the introduction of Sarr;  raw pace (we understand) to test tiring legs, full back being the Hammers’ weakest position. The caveat being “subject to fitness”…  and it’s 20/20 hindsight to make that judgement on Javi’s behalf, to say “he should have been on earlier”.  In any event, Sarr and Welbeck are soon stripped off and ready to come on, their introduction only delayed by a series of corners providing the only breaks in play, during the course of which West Ham conclude the game.

Sarr’s first touch in a Watford shirt is even worse than Welbeck’s at Everton last week, his first shot crashes into the ample target that is Declan Rice at close range but otherwise he looks lively; clever, strong, confident.  Welbeck struggles to get involved but is alert, alive, moving all the time.  Dom Quina comes on against his former club and gets hold of the ball, a bright cameo but the game is already up.

It’s not all bad.  A lot of it’s good. But the things that are bad are pretty bad.  Against Coventry and Newcastle we need a result, by any means necessary because the confidence and the polishing of the edges will follow.  Javi needs this more than most.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Femenía 2, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, *Capoue 4*, Doucouré 3, Cleverley 3, Hughes 3, Deulofeu 4, Gray 3
Subs: Welbeck (for Deulofeu, 74) 3, Sarr (for Hughes, 74) 3, Quina (for Cleverley, 87) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Chalobah, Gomes

Everton 1 Watford 0 (17/08/2019) 18/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- It should be clear to all who indulge in such things that the First Home Game Of The Season and The First Away Game Of The Season are distinctly special things. The First Game Of The Season has a lustre of its own, of course, but above and beyond that there’s something special about returning to the Vic and something equally special about hitting the road again.

It’s difficult to justify driving half the length of the country to watch a football match and then driving the same distance back on the same day to someone not themselves invested.  But this is very different to doing the same journey for something as mundane as work…  the journey itself, in both the literal and the abstract sense, is part of the joy.

So…  getting up early to facilitate a lunchtime arrival in Liverpool is great.  A detour to pick up in Milton Keynes is great.  Comfortable prattle in the car is great, as is comfortable silence, commentary on the radio, stops for snacks, stops for fast food, getting stymied by a closed road heading back into MK and the subsequent adventure through single track back roads, Doctor Duncan’s, driving past Stoke’s ground (Stoke this, Stoke that), whatever it’s called, and Anfield, all of it.  Great.  Football’s back.  Hurrah.

2- Goodison Park is old.  Visibly old.  In a good way, although I suppose that only being here once a season helps.  There’s a novelty these days in a stadium that has evolved rather than being designed, with all the wonkiness that brings.  The concourse is broad, nothing like the alarming crushes of Anfield for example, but the roof is low, the width undulates creating plenty of nooks and crannies and it feels claustrophobic.  Also in a good way.  And noisy.

In the stadium itself we note that the Toffees, not satisfied with trying to nick our players, have also aped the bin-bag flags of Wembley (though more half-heartedly, the jam slightly scraped across the toast rather than a comprehensive slathering).

Noting Gerry in the starting eleven, Tom on the bench and not wanting to restart any further discussion of Z-Cars (jesus) we leave that one there.  Unlike many of our counterparts who persist with a particularly classy song about Everton’s narcissistic head coach.   No, really, awesome stuff.  Some feat to get half of the Watford crowd’s sympathies behind Silva, good work.

Gradually focus turns to what’s going on on the pitch; we’re desperately hoping for no repeat of last Saturday’s vapid performance against Brighton.

3- For the first twenty minutes or so, we get a repeat of last Saturday’s vapid performance against Brighton.  Everton come screaming out of the traps and are quickly looking for long passes over the heads of our full backs to Bernard and Richarlíson.  It’s effective too, effective because we’re off the pace, still, all over the pitch and particularly in the midfield; Everton have too much time to pick these passes.  Deulofeu scampers off with the ball once but can’t get it onto his stronger foot, and twice subsequently surrenders possession timidly when an opportunity had suggested itself.

The goal comes, and it’s not entirely a surprise.  A long ball out from the back sees Bernard released down the left;  he cuts inside onto his right foot and drives low inside Ben Foster’s near post.  It’s a poor goal defensively, though the replay reveals a deflection which downgrades it to poor from appalling.  We don’t say much, but “what the f*** is going on?” is what the aura is shrieking.

4- The noise from the away end barely wavers though, to everyone’s credit.  Everton immediately take a step back, perhaps hoping to do what Brighton did and sucker us into overcommitting to hit us on the break.  Instead, removing their foot from our neck allows us to claw our way back into the game.

Craig Dawson had an inglorious debut last week, but he looks much more the part here.  As we’re in the confidence-building stage of trying to hang onto possession as Everton hare after us, he’s the calmest and the one with the quickest feet at the back, confidently moving the ball to a yellow shirt in space.  He also does that thing you were looking forward to when we signed him, towering at the back post to send a deep corner crashing goalwards.  It smacks off the crossbar to the bafflement of the away end whose angle had suggested a goal.  We will get goals from that.

So half time comes, lucky chocolate is studiously shared and consumed and if we’re still behind then there’s reason for cautious optimism.  Optimism that’s reinforced from the first kick of the second half as Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré grab hold of that midfield and rip it between their teeth.

This is more like it.  No, we don’t get the goal but we are dominant in the second half and force an Everton side with a fine defensive record into risky challenges and pressure situations.  Capoue in particular does well, given that he’s running the gauntlet of a silly yellow from the first half.  We completely unpeel them once, when the Frenchman surges out with the ball (not for the first or last time) and an interplay with Deulofeu releases Deeney.  Only a stupendous block from Pickford, out quickly to receive the shot full in the face, denies him.

On comes Danny Welbeck, who had been the subject of increasing adulation from the away end.  His first touch as a Watford player is as rusty as hell but he gets better…  nimble, aware, mobile, strong and elegant.  A good start, and utterly sensible to give minutes to a man who badly needs them.  His appearance seems to invigorate Troy also;  the skipper has won next to nothing from Keane all afternoon but suddenly has his number, perhaps because he had a more obviously attentive target to flick on to.

We don’t have it all our own way.  Richarlíson has two headers at goal, one a particularly bad miss which could have changed the tone completely in a low-key afternoon for the Brazilian.  Moise Kean turns and twists to send a low shot narrowly wide.  But these are the exceptions… we have the upper hand, we’re forcing the corners.  Another good move from right to left sees Doucouré missing out at the far post, perhaps harshly denied a corner.

5- The game ends without us hammering on the door, partly due to Everton’s effective “game management”.  Everyone does this of course, Everton are no worse than most others…  but as an aside the tapping of the wrist to indicate time being added on as by Lee Mason here misses at least some of the point.  When you’re chasing the game you don’t want the other lot to kill the momentum…  it’s not just about time remaining it’s about being able to play it effectively.  A staccato ten minutes isn’t much harder to manage than a staccato five minutes as the side protecting a lead if the referee doesn’t take action to forcibly prevent the slowing of everything down rather than pretending that tapping his wrist and adding a minute or so covers it.

As for VAR…  another game not particularly disrupted by the technology in the sense of that M word, Momentum, again.  A couple of the judgements looked a bit odd, not least Mina escaping without conceding a penalty for what looked a foul against Deulofeu.  But… it didn’t take time, which is the main thing for me.  Indeed, VAR’s biggest negative intervention here was to result in the scoreboard erroneously advising that Brighton had gone ahead.  Not so seamless elsewhere, once again.

So we wandered back across Stanley Park in the sunshine, beaten but unbowed.  Another defeat, yes, from a game in which we could, maybe should have taken something but the greatest need from today was to see that there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong, that the Watford team in our heads was still there.  We got that in spades, particularly in that second half.

Unfavourable statistics have been trotted out, but these things mean nothing out of context.  And there’s plenty of context for the run of defeats, the lack of clean sheets…  Cup Final, Troy’s suspension, da da da da da.  There’s a lot of grey space between everything’s terrible and everything’s great, and that’s where we are.

And one day we will win here.  We’ll cash in the debt of luck we’re owed at this ground (a very small extension of Everton’s credit here today courtesy of that deflection) and we’ll absolutely dick them.  And we’ll be there to see it.

Oh, and did I mention that football’s back?  Hurrah.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 2, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Cathcart 3, *Capoue 4*, Doucouré 4, Hughes 3, Pereyra 4, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Welbeck (for Hughes, 67) 3, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 79) 0, Gray (for Capoue, 84) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Quina, Gomes

Watford 0 Brighton and Hove Albion 3 (10/08/2019) 11/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- Will’s tone is earnest.  There are a number of attentive pairs of eyes focused on him.

“I think, what we should do,” he says, “is to take off all the clothes we’re wearing and burn them in a pile in the garden”.

It’s a high-risk suggestion in front of a group that includes a five year-old and a four year-old, the former of whom punches the air with a “yes” at the proposal, but you can understand the sentiment.  The afternoon’s events had been extraordinary and unprecedented.  Drastic action was warranted, all possible precautions necessitated.  My Primitives t-shirt was a lucky heirloom last season.  Who knows what rules govern this.  Let’s take no chances.

Rewind a few hours and it was all looking so positive, despite unseasonal swirling high winds.  The ground, as is becoming traditional, looks ever smarter after a summer’s work – seats in the Rookery/SEJ corner now, and big screens mounted high on the roof of the stand at each end of the pitch.  New signings Sarr and “England international” Welbeck are presented to the crowd and hysterically received, the former making his way slowly across the pitch without breaking his applause to the stands.  There are new montages on the screens, and then Z-Cars chimes in back in it’s traditional place and the cheer as the teams enter is peppered with grins and high fives and a particularly guttural roar.  Fair play to the club for being honest and brave enough to reverse a bad decision.

This positive mood projected itself into the game despite (presumably) Brighton opting to switch ends.  But only briefly.  For the first ten minutes or so Watford were on top, and if we weren’t creating clear chances then we were certainly making the early inroads, Deulofeu wandering in from the left to shoot over.  There were early portents here… more than once Femenía overlapped on the right only for the play to be channelled back into a congested central area…  this seemed odd, the Seagulls’ vulnerability surely down the side of a large three man defence with the attack-minded Solly March nominally as left wing back.

The other feature throughout was frantic closing down high up the pitch.  Both sides were at this, but it was more evident from the Hornets early on as we hunted in packs and chased the ball across Albion’s back line, looking for the opportunity to mug someone or force a rushed pass.  We did this quite successfully for a bit; Shane Duffy shanked a clearance into the SEJ, mouthed off in frustration.  Everyone cheered and all was well with the world.

Then Albion started to assert themselves.  This wasn’t really a problem, since even if they were coming rather closer than we were they were hardly opening us up.  It took an atrociously complacent straight ball out of defence by Craig Dawson, who must have hoped for a more convincing debut, which Albion gobbled up, rattled at us and ultimately forced a goal off Doucouré.  We had a bit of bad luck here, perhaps, an Albion player in an offside position bypassed by Stephens’ chipped cross, not interfering but distracting.  You’ve got to deal with that but… a bit unfortunate.  Particularly as this Albion side is well equipped to defend a lead.

2- Before we start wringing our hands at our own failings, the visitors are due no small credit.    Popular wisdom as recently as this morning was that a side that had struggled last season, particularly for goals, was taking on a manager untested at this level to overhaul the club’s playing style.  A recipe for disaster and it could still go pear-shaped, three points won’t keep them up.

But the reverse side of that coin is that if a side that was always rather good at being difficult and obstructive found a way of adding a few goals to that capability they’d have a handy side.  Once they were ahead there was only one winner;  we played our part (see below) but Albion retained their obduracy marshalled by man of the match Dunk whilst capitalising on mistakes at the other end.  That’s a fine recipe for mid table.

3- Everything we did looked like terribly hard work.  The start of the second half, with a bleach-blonde Pereyra on for the presumably not-quite-fully-fit Deulofeu, was encouraging.  Femenía was finally getting some of the ball down the right, Pereyra was taking responsibility on the left but the chances weren’t coming despite this.  Whilst there were plenty of off days – Will Hughes briefly flickered but only very briefly – the failure was tactical also.  Troy’s battle with Dunk was always wholehearted and engaging but we were talking three big centre backs against our two forwards.  Against a back three you need width or mischief and we didn’t have enough of either for long enough, much of our play was shovelled high through the congested centre of the pitch.  We struggled to retain possession, in part because Brighton were making it difficult to do so in the areas in which we were trying to play and we weren’t able to play around them.

Two goals in fifteen minutes, both borne of defensive calamity and clinical response to it, changed the tone entirely.  Andone nipped in at the near post to finish a move down Brighton’s right with Watford’s defence standing and pointing at each other.  Then Dunk played a long straight pass past a statuesque Dawson;  Foster was out quickly to challenge Maupay’s strength of will but the French debutant was sharp enough to nip around him and beat the bodies on the line.  The entire Albion side joined the bundle, the away end – as gracious as it’s reasonable to expect when 3-0 up away from home on the first day of the season – sang about winning the league.  The home stands emptied quietly and disconsolately.

4- An inevitable aside about VAR.  Rewinding back to the happy innocence of 2.55 when Daughter 1 was revelling in her one hundredth Watford game saw Daughter 2 embark on an unprovoked and unprecedented anti-VAR rant.  “Whoever invented VAR is my mortal enemy”.

A bit harsh, but difficult not to sympathise. The rabid pursuit of the Right Decision is a bizarre, cultish thing…  one otherwise reputable football blog’s twitter feed asserted, in this context, during the summer that “Football is all about getting decisions right”.  Is it bollocks.  I studied Mathematics because I liked the absoluteness of it, I liked knowing that I’d got the answer right.  But if you want absoluteness, do a maths test.  There’s no argument against making the right decision in isolation but when the cost is the nature, the momentum, the pace of the game itself then… yes, that cost is too high.

Actually the disruption provoked by VAR this afternoon was minimal; reviews seemed to occur seamlessly without the need for referee Pawson to interrupt play, there was a rather incongruous “VAR complete” announcement in the rather grandstanding “Gladiators, ready” style but nobody died.  And if reviews of Roberto Pereyra’s free kick – which appeared to strike an outstretched arm in the Brighton wall to the furious indignation of the Argentine – might have yielded a penalty after more painstaking review then that’s a sacrifice I’m personally quite happy with in the name of getting the hell on with it. Heaven knows that a foothold in the game was neither merited nor a potential route to point or three.   Elsewhere, others weren’t so lucky.

5- We had laboured our way to a few more chances, Femenía badgering possession off Dan Burn on the byline and squaring only to find a tentative finish.  Another chance, our best chance, fell to Dawson who did a far better job of slugging a shot goalwards only to be denied by a body on the line.  It had been obvious that it wasn’t our day from the point at which the first two guys trying the reintroduced dizzy kicks routine at half time scored with aplomb rather than falling on their arses as intended.  This just confirmed it.  And so at 5.30 we’re at my Gran’s conducting a post mortem wide eyed at the baffling ineptitude of it all.

On the plus side.  This isn’t a head coach that we don’t know or trust.  This isn’t a team that’s been rebuilt or lost a key component or that we have any doubts about.  Today was atrocious but we’re capable of so much better than this, even without our two new star turns.  A bad day.  But maybe that’s all.

On the minus side.  Ben Foster’s candid post-match reflection that Albion “wanted it more than we did”.  What?  What?

Not that we have any divine right to the most focused, determined single-minded side.  But why should any side be lacking in determination, lacking in wantingitness in early August?  How is that possible?  Whatever our failings… how can you lose 3-0 because the other side wanted it more on the opening day of the season?  That, if anything, is the biggest concern.

Because otherwise, other than that, all we need is another game of football.  Particularly one with it’s own narrative, with blood and thunder.  A disruptive fixture.

Ahhhhh, Everton.

Bring it on.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 1, Hughes 1, Capoue 3, *Doucouré 3*, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 2, Gray 1
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Success (for Gray, 75) 3, Janmaat, Sema, Kabasele, Cleverley, Gomes

Season Preview 2019 – Part 5 09/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon, £53,800,000), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham, £25,000,000), Jack Clarke (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Giovani lo Celso (Real Betis, Season Loan)

OUTS: Kieran Trippier (Atlético Madrid, £21,700,000), Vincent Janssen (Monterrey, Undisclosed), Josh Onomah (Fulham, Part Exchange), Fernando Llorente, Michel Vorm, Luke Amos (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Stoke City, Season Loan), Jack Clarke (Leeds United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Head of Player Development U17-U23), John McDermott (Head of Academy), Danny Rose, Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A hugely fun win at Vicarage Road, penalty shoot out defeat after a duff Kabasele red and a late equaliser in an “away” tie and a late collapse at Wembley.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2018-19 2-1
2017-18 1-1
2016-17 1-4
2015-16 1-2
2011-12 0-1
2008-09 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-4
1998-99 2-5
1994-95 3-6 / 3-2
1982-83 1-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Foyth       Alderweireld           Vertonghen        Rose
Winks          Ndombele
Alli                           Eriksen                          Son
Kane

VERDICT: This one should be straightforward.

It was entertaining to see the WSC predicted final table, based on the average predictions of 20 supporter correspondents, see Man United come out with a predicted final place of sixth.  Exactly sixth, 6.00.  Tempting to think that EVERYONE predicted sixth.

For me Spurs in third should be even more of a given.  Look at the squad… not as good as City, not the depth of Liverpool, but clearly the best of the rest without the wobbliness of United, the circumstance of Chelsea, the defence of Arsenal.

And yet.  If Spurs’ superiority owes so much to the man at the helm, then any suggestion of vulnerability there is an issue.  Pocchettino has been making grumpy sounding noises, there’s a schism in the support reflecting support for Daniel Levy vs support for the Manager (who tellingly suggested his title should revert to Head Coach).  The Argentine has overseen the move to the new stadium, he’s taken them to a Champions League final.  You have to wonder whether his stock can get much higher.

If the manager stays, third.  Surely.  If he doesn’t, all bets are off.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Sebastian Haller (Eintracht Frankfurt, £45,000,000), Pablo Fornals (Villarreal, £24,000,000), Albian Ajeti (Basel, £8,000,000), Gonçalo Cardoso (Sporting Lisbon, £2,700,000), David Martin (Millwall, Free), Roberto (Espanyol, Free)

OUTS: Marko Arnautović (Shanghai SIPG, £22,400,000), Sam Byram (Norwich City, £750,000), Marcus Browne (Middlesbrough, Undisclosed), Edmilson Fernandes (Mainz 05, Undisclosed), Pedro Obiang (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Reece Oxford (Augsburg, Undisclosed), Lucas Pérez (Alavés, Undisclosed), Adrián (Liverpool, Free), Andy Carroll (Newcastle United, Free), Josh Cullen (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Toni Martínez (Famalicão, Free), Josh Pask (Coventry City, Free), Samir Nasri (Anderlecht, Free), Grady Diangana (West Brom, Season Loan), Jordan Hugill (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Martin Samuelson (FK Haugesund, Six Month Loan), Nathan Trott (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Mason Barrett, Hayden Mullins, Domingos Quina

THEIR EX-ORNS: Richard Collinge (Head of Medical)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable, distracted defeat at the end of the season and a sparky win with Ben Foster in fine form at their place.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-0
2016-17 1-1 4-2
2015-16 2-0
2011-12 0-4 1-1
2008-09 1-0
2006-07 1-1
2004-05 1-2 2-3
2003-04 0-0 0-4
1999-00 1-2 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Balbuena          Masuaku
Rice           Noble

Antonio                       Fornals                      Anderson
Haller

VERDICT: There was a point last season, it may have been after the Wolves defeat, where you looked at the table and realised that seventh was gone.  And then you looked at it again and realised that with the Cup Final less than a week beyond the final game, losing to West Ham and dropping into the bottom half was suddenly very likely.

That pissed me off more than the Cup Final in some ways.  Not that it was West Ham particularly, but that our league position didn’t reward our season anything like appropriately.  There were a bunch of well-matched teams there but we had our noses in front and then… blame the Cup Final, blame Troy’s dismissal, whatever.  We didn’t deserve to finish bottom half.

And that final game repeats itself very quickly, on the August Bank Holiday.  In the interim the Hammers have lost Arnautović but signed Haller and Fornals and should be all sorts of fun going forward.  At the back it looks a bit iffier though…  Diop and Balbuena are big personalities but the full backs are flaky and despite the monstrous Rice that’s not a midfield that’s going to offer a whole lot of protection.  Add an injury to Fabiański and the loss of the established cover in Adrián and you could probably do without Man City visiting on the opening day.

West Ham will do just fine, and should match the sort of finish they managed last season.  As we demonstrated, a win here or there can make a big difference to final places in a congested, competitive area of the table.  But there’s nothing like the solidity to maintain a top six challenge.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Raúl Jiménez (Benfica, £30,000,000), Patrick Cutrone (Milan, £16,000,000), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht, £12,000,000), Renat Dadashov (Estoril, Undisclosed), Bruno Jordão (Lazio, Undisclosed), Pedro Neto (Lazio, Undisclosed), Jesús Vallejo (Real Madrid, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jose Dias (Famalicão, Undisclosed), Ethan Ebanks-Landell (Shrewsbury Town, Undisclosed), Pedro Gonçalves (Famalicão, Undisclosed), Kourtney Hause (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Sherwin Seedorf (Motherwell, Undisclosed), Kevin Berkoe (Oxford United, Free), Aaron Hayden (Carlisle United, Free), Ryan Leak (Burgos, Free), Jack Ruddy (Ross County, Free), Donovan Wilson (Burgos, Free), Ben Goodliffe, Aaron Hayden, Carlos Heredia, Diego Lattie, Enzo Sauvage, Michal Zyro, Ivan Cavaleiro (Fulham, Season Loan), Helder Costa (Leeds United, Season Loan), Renat Dadashov (Paços de Ferreira, Season Loan), Niall Ennis (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Bright Enobakhare (Cheltenham, Season Loan), Christian Herc (Viktoria Plzeň, Two Season Loan), Cameron John (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Will Norris (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Connor Ronan (Dunajská Streda, Season Loan), Ryan Giles (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Alexander Molberg (Hobro IK, End of Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A brutally clinical win at Molineux and an aggravating defeat at home in which we really missed Troy sandwiched an extraordinary cup semi final in which the skipper showed his worth.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2018-19 1-2 3-2
2014-15 0-1
2012-13 2-1
2008-09 2-3
2007-08 3-0 1-4
2005-06 3-1 1-1 2-1
2004-05 1-1 0-0
2002-03 1-1 0-0
2001-02 1-1 0-1
2000-01 3-2 2-2
1998-99 0-2 0-0
1995-96 0-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Dendoncker
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez

VERDICT: A stunning first season back in the top flight for Wolves who comprehensively lived up to their pre-season billing and with whom we had three stonking games.

The problem is self-evident however (writing on Wednesday evening, before transfer deadline day).  This is a small squad;  small by design, Nuno Espirito Santo reportedly likes it that way and you can’t argue with the results.  However Wolves had a good run with injuries last year, and there are any number of points in that starting eleven that look vulnerable to a deputy standing in.  Then there’s the Europa League effect;  we might have struggled in a similar situation, but our squad is much deeper than Wolves’, who have a couple of kids coming through but a weak bench, let alone further cover, as was painfully evident during the Cup Semi.  A couple of stronger members of that squad, Costa and Cavaleiro, have disappeared on loan and if the few genuinely new faces coming in are trade-ups it’s still a high risk strategy to run with such a small squad.

Wolves’ messageboards are far less gung-ho than the excitable portents of a challenge to the top six elsewhere, predicting a more sensible 8th-10th in consensus.  This seems perfectly reasonable. But it will be interesting to see what happens if and when things start going against Santo, always a big test of a manager.

Much has been made of the fact that Wolves did well against the big six but struggled, relatively, against weaker sides.   “If they can only start picking up points against the rest…” starts the argument, as if maintaining the more impressive side of the anomaly is a given, or more straightforward.  Wolves have a great starting eleven, but given the lack of recruitment and the Europa League thing it’s inconceivable that they’ll finish as high as seventh.  Far too much quality to struggle… but quite how much lower than seventh will be interesting.

WATFORD

INS: Craig Dawson (West Bromwich Albion, £5,500,000), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Manchester City, £220,000 compensation), Kane Crichlow (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed), Ismaïla Sarr (Rennes, Undisclosed), Sam Dalby (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Jamal Balogun (Reading, Free), Mason Barrett (West Ham, Free), Cameron Green (Reading, Free), Joseph Hungbo (Crystal Palace, Free), Bayli Spencer-Adams (Arsenal, Free), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal, Free), Callum Whelan (Manchester United, Free), Harvey White (QPR, Free), Henry Wise (Derby County, Free)

OUTS: Dodi Lukebakio (Hertha BSC, £17,700,000), Obbi Oularé (Standard Liège, £2,700,000), Miguel Britos, Tommie Hoban, Pervis Estupiñan (Osasuna, Two Season Loan), Michael Folivi (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Alex Jakubiak (Gillingham, Season Loan), Marc Navarro (Leganés, Season Loan), Jerome Sinclair (VVV-Venlo, Season Loan), Ben Wilmot (Swansea City, Season Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Femenía          Cathcart          Dawson            Holebas
Capoue      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Hughes                           Sarr
Deeney

VERDICT: Having scoured the Premier League’s messageboards in researching these pieces it’s unavoidable that people tend to be overly positive about their own team.  There are exceptions: Wolves, as above, and Palace both significant in their realism.  Nonetheless, the tendency is to overlook the achievement of whatever it was you managed last year and to presume that things will get a bit better, that with a little more luck, with a few more decisions going your way, you’ll push on.  Or that, for example, Wolves’ achievement is a reasonable benchmark for any promoted club (you know who you are…).

So there’s a need for discipline in making predictions.  In evaluating where we are.  A need to resist those rose-tinted spectacles, for calm logic not borne of fan-boy summer overexuberance indifferent to any team building that rivals have managed.  Not for us such childishness, such tedious excitability.

We’re going to be bloody brilliant.

That’s it.  That’s a cold-blooded no-bullshit assessment, whichever way you look at it.  This is a side that finished eleventh, as comfortably mid-table as possible.  A cup final away from a top half finish, in contention for Europe of all things.  A decent season.

And so we strengthen.  We strengthen, first of all, with a nasty bastard in defence.  Craig Dawson has been an awkward, physical bully every time we’ve faced him but now he’s our nasty bastard.   Brilliant.

Tom Dele-Bashiru.  Not to be overlooked, not to be lost in the rather baffling crowd of U23s brought in having been released by their clubs.  This is a lad who Man City wanted to retain.  Who’s navigated some senior game time at City in a competitive environment.  Who we are paying City compensation for, which in some ways is more satisfying than getting him for nothing.  Henceforth, a “reverse Sancho”.  And deliberately, explicitly, part of the first team squad.

Then Danny Welbeck.  Wowsers.  Left field signing, injuries yes yes.  But, you know.  Danny Welbeck.  Quick, clever, mobile, honest.  Will run himself into the ground.  England striker, proper England striker. Not a Jay Bothroyd or a Fraizer Campbell, got a free England cap by collecting vouchers of boxes of Coco Pops but a bona fide England striker.  Playing for us. On a free.  And yes, it does matter that he’s a good bloke.

And then the big one.  Ismaïla Sarr. Trailed for bloody ages, one of three candidates that we might sign but then he lights up AFCON and surely the chance has gone.  And then Trézéguet signs for Villa, Saint-Maximin signs for Newcastle and Leicester have sold Maguire so they’re minted and if not then surely Palace will sign him if they sell Zaha to Everton for a shedload or Everton will sign him if they don’t.  Can you imagine if that had happened?  How Saturday would be… yes, great, “football, hurray”. But… you know.  But then we sign him and it’s confirmed, and it’s awesome because Gino and Scott don’t spend £30m on anyone and you’re punching the air grinning your face off and telling people who couldn’t be less interested and stare at you like you’re some kind of idiot and you still don’t care because this is just brilliant.

We didn’t lose anyone either by the way.  Not the wonderful Ben Foster. Not the magnificently understated Craig Cathcart.  Not the inhuman Étienne Capoue, the balletic Chalobah, the flamboyant Pereyra, the irrepressible Deulofeu, the talismanic Deeney.  Not the monstrous Abdoulaye Doucouré, who might have left had we gotten a decent offer from a club that was a proper step up but we didn’t.  (Oh do shut up Everton.  Tedious.)

So you look at the squad and the club and you remember where we were and you look at where we are and you desperately hope that the frantic excitement won’t be diffused by the absence of Z-Cars on Saturday but in any case you can’t help but be delighted.

It’s football.  It’s brilliant.  We’re brilliant.

Welcome back.

Bring it on.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 4 08/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: Joelinton (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Allan Saint-Maximin (Nice, Undisclosed), Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ayoze Pérez (Leicester City, £30,000,000), Joselu (Alavés, £2,500,000), Mo Diamé (Al Ahli, Free), Josef Yarney (Chesterfield, Free), Tyrique Bartlett, Otto Huuhtanen, Juanito, Cal Roberts, Dan Barlaser (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Liam Gibson (Grimsby Town, Six Month Loan), Antonio Barreca (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Kenedy (Chelsea, End of Loan), Salomón Rondón (West Brom, End of Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

THEIR EX-ORNS: Neil Redfearn (U23s coach), Kevin Richardson (U17s coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An unsatisfying double header in one of those weird quick reverses that the fixture list can’t seem to do without, daylight robbery in a 1-0 defeat at St James Park and a forgettable 1-1 draw a month later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2018-19 1-1 0-1
2017-18 2-1 3-0
2015-16 2-1  1-0
2009-10 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Yedlin                Schär         Lascelles        Fernández       Willems
Hayden                  Shelvey             S.Longstaff
Joelinton      Almirón

VERDICT: In most circumstances, spunking a load of money on a couple of forwards on the eve of the season would at the very least paper over a load of cracks.  There’s nothing quite like signing a new striker after all, let alone two, let alone on the back of breaking your transfer record for yet another forward in January.  This should be the basis for a positive start to the season.

Devil’s in the detail of course.  The context.  Joelinton may prove to be an outstanding signing, but he’ll do well to replicate Salomón Rondón’s season last year.  Allan Saint-Maximin, for so long a name linked with the Hornets, will be doing well to deliver the twelve goals and two assists that Ayoze Pérez contributed last year.  Steve Bruce isn’t the deadweight that many reports have painted him as…  Sheffield Wednesday wouldn’t be half as pissed as they are at his departure if their side hadn’t improved so dramatically under his guidance (remember the outcry when Steve Perryman left to join Ardiles at Spurs?  Me neither).  But Bruce is no Benítez.

At least Mike Ashley is spending some money.  And that first team isn’t the basket case that the blackest portent’s of the Magpies’ season would have you believe.  But there’s an inherent distrust between support and owner that will kindle with every poor run and is working against whoever the manager is.  The squad depth isn’t great, and if the consensus is that Benítez did well to do what he did then Newcastle have got to be relegation candidates, if not the certs that they looked a week ago.

NORWICH CITY

INS: Sam Byram (West Ham United, £750,000), Aidan Fitzpatrick (Partick Thistle, £350,000), Josip Drmić (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Free), Charlie Gilmour (Arsenal, Free), Ibrahim Amadou (Sevilla, Season Loan), Ralf Fahrmann (Schalke 04, Season Loan), Patrick Roberts (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Marcel Franke (Hannover 96, Undisclosed), Nelson Oliveira (AEK Athens, Undisclosed), Tristan Abrahams (Newport County, Free), Steven Naismith (Hearts, Free), Ivo Pinto (Dinamo Zagreb, Free), Yanic Wildschut (Maccabi Haifa, Free), Mason Bloomfield (Crawley, Season Loan), Rocky Bushiri (Blackpool, Season Loan), James Husband (Blackpool, Season Loan), Diallang Jaiyesemi (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Carlton Morris (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Simon Power (Ross County, Season Loan), Sean Raggett (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Matt Jarvis, Felix Passlack (Borussia Dortmund, End of Loan), Jordan Rhodes (Sheffield Wednesday, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A blustery, functional win secured by Odion Ighalo in his pomp, and a futile City victory at Carrow Road at the end of Quique’s season in which all bar the skipper and Ben Watson were already mentally in the passport queue.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 2-0 2-4
2014-15 0-3
2013-14 2-3
2010-11 2-2 3-2
2008-09 2-1
2007-08 1-1 3-1
2005-06 2-1 3-2
2003-04 1-2 2-1
2002-03 2-1 0-4
2001-02 2-1 1-3
2000-01 4-1 1-2
1998-99 1-1 1-1
1995-96 0-2 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fahrmann
Aarons        Zimmerman         Godfrey          Lewis
McLean          Trybull
Buendia               Stiepermann             Roberts
Pukki

VERDICT: This is a particularly difficult one. We haven’t played City since perhaps the lowest point of Quique’s reign as they were relegated three years ago;  none of the eleven above were in the side then and the tendency to keep up with the Championship has dwindled with time.  Given which… on the plus side City won the second tier last season, a notoriously competitive division at the best of times let alone when you finished fourteenth the previous season and lost your star player, James Maddison, over the summer.  All this playing a well-received brand of football.  Not to be written off, clearly.

On the other…  this is a young side, particularly an inexperienced defence, with next to no Premier League experience.  That doesn’t have to be punitive, and there will as discussed be significant competition for the relegation places this season.  Nonetheless, with pre-season injury scares to defenders enough to get message boards anxious at paucity of options the Canaries must be a little precarious.  They could have done without an opening day at Anfield you suspect, promotion bubble or otherwise.  A side that isn’t tight defensively anyway really does need to score a lot of goals and that’s a big ask against better opposition. Quite a lot depends on whether the remarkable about-turn of the previously unconvincing Daniel Farke’s side was a flash in the pan borne of a chancing on a successful formula, or based on sounder foundations.  Bottom half, but beyond that…  we’ll see.

SHEFFIELD UNITED

INS: Oli McBurnie (Swansea City, £17,500,000), Lys Mousset (AFC Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Luke Freeman (QPR, Undisclosed), Ben Osborn (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Callum Robinson (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Phil Jagielka (Everton, Free), Ravel Morrison (Östersund, Free), Dean Henderson (Manchester United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ched Evans (Fleetwood Town, Undisclosed), Caolan Lavery (Walsall, Undisclosed), Paul Coutts (Fleetwood Town, Free), Martin Crainie (Luton Town, Free), Conor Washington (Hearts, Free), Daniel Lafferty, Jake Eastwood (Scunthorpe Utd, Season Loan), Rhys Norrington-Davis (Rochdale, Season Loan), Regan Slater (Scunthorpe United, Season Loan), Nathan Thomas (Carlisle United, Season Loan), Kieran Dowell (Everton, End of Loan), Scott Hogan (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Marvin Johnson (Middlesbrough, End of Loan), Gary Madine (Cardiff City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLADES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Currie (Board of Directors)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A comfortable victory at the Vic fuelled by an on-loan Tom Cleverley in the days when Scott Loach was about to join Spurs, and a win pinched at Bramall Lane by Marvin Sordell.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2010-11 3-0
2009-10 3-0
2008-09 0-2 1-2
2005-06 2-3 4-1
2004-05 0-0 1-1 0-0
2003-04 0-2 2-2
2002-03 2-0 2-1
2001-02 0-3 2-0
2000-01 4-1 1-0
1998-99 1-1 0-3
1997-98 1-1/0-4
1995-96 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Henderson
Basham           Egan        O’Connell
Baldock          Norwood           Fleck          Osborn
Freeman
McGoldrick            McBurnie

VERDICT: I’m not quite sure how it happened, but after bloody years of playing United all the time we’ve not locked horns for eight-and-a-half years.  Which rather sets what follows in context, since your mental image of the Blades is still that no-messing ultra-Warnock bunch of tough bastards that we had so many scraps with season after season before their relegation in 2011.

Which is a pretty inaccurate template for the current Blades side for all accounts where Chris Wilder, who’s never managed against us or at this level before, has reportedly engineered an enterprising and imaginative side.  Overlapping centre-backs of all things and a pivotal attacking midfield conduit, quite at odds with his previous successes in charge of worthy but essentially hardworking, organised lower division teams.

So any judgement has to be taken with a pinch of salt;  it’s lazy and valueless to say “never heard of half of them, they’ll go back down”.  On the plus side Wilder seems to have made better players out of many of the squad and a better team than the sum of the parts might suggest.  Signings have been careful, sensible on the whole and addressing perceived weaknesses.  On the other hand… it’s got to be a struggle, of course it’s going to be a struggle even if this ambitious formation doesn’t get torn to ribbons immediately by better players.  United have a fairly gentle start, which will help.  You’d love to see them stay up, it’s a great away trip and a great club but, but…  whilst Ravel Morrison might be a lowish-risk gamble it’s difficult not to look at that and think Charlie Miller.  Or Douglas Rinaldi.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say “will probably go down”, whilst hoping I’m wrong.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Danny Ings (Liverpool, £20,000,000), Che Adams (Birmingham City, £15,000,000), Moussa Djenepo (Standard Liège, up to £15,000,000)

OUTS: Jordy Clasie (AZ67 Alkmaar, Undisclosed), Sam Gallagher (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Matt Targett (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Steven Davis (Rangers, Free), Alfie Jones (Gillingham, Season Loan), Jack Rose (Walsall, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Carl Martin (U18 Assistant Coach), Ross Wilson (Vice-Chairman of Football)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of draws;  a point snatched at the death at the Vic after Shane Long’s early goal and Troy’s absence gave us a mountain to climb, and another at St Mary’s when Charlie Austin’s emotive post-match interview rather glazed over a Ryan Bertrand taking Nathaniel Chalobah out on the penalty spot when on a yellow card.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2018-19 1-1 1-1
2017-18 2-2 2-0
2016-17 3-4
2015-16 0-2
2011-12 0-3
2008-09 2-2 3-0
2007-08 3-2
2005-06 3-0 3-1
2004-05 5-2
2002-03 1-2
1999-00 3-2 0-2
1982-83 4-1
1980-81 7-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gunn
Valery      Vestergaard        Bednarek     Yoshida        Bertrand
Ward-Prowse      Højbjerg         Redmond
Ings          Adams

VERDICT: If you’ve been managed by Mark Hughes in the recent past then anything’s surely improvement.  When you’ve got someone with the force of personality of Hasenhüttl playing aggressive, pressing football then you’ve got reasons to be cheerful anyway.

And consensus certainly seems to be that Saints should be a lot more comfortable this time around, borne of the upturn in form that the Austrian’s arrival provoked last season.  Which makes sense… as previously there are a goodly number of strong candidates for relegation this season.  The squad strengthening is limited though… Djenepo is young, Adams is likeable, mobile and aggressive but will need to be so against better defences than he faced whilst at Birmingham.

Most of all, the central defence is still a bit flaky.  Vestergaard is tall but slow, some accounts attributing the three at the back to his presence.  There isn’t a leader at the back, and precious little in the way of a captain figure throughout the team.  So you rather feel that it’s a case of which way the ball starts rolling.  A strong start and you can see Saints being comfortably mid-table.  But if they have a few injuries, go on a bad run and end up in a scrap you wonder whether there’s enough to get them out of it.  15th, with a wide margin of error.