Swansea City 0 Watford 0 (22/10/2016) 23/10/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I lived in Leeds between 1991 and 1994. Once a week, on a Thursday evening, there was an Indie night in the Student Union; unremarkable in itself but at the same time a splendid thing. Held in a black pit of a hall whose name I don’t even remember, it featured dry ice, sticky floors, watered down beer and a reliable set list. Either Going Underground or A Town Called Malice. Either Sheela-Na-Gig or 50 Foot Queenie. And so on.
What made it special was that everyone was there. You didn’t need to make any kind of arrangement with anybody in those pre-mobile phone pre-social media days. Nor had it ever been said, “this is something we should do”. It just grew organically… you could wander it at 9pm and see a load of people that you knew and were pleased to see, and drink beer and jump around for a few hours before buying an onion bhaji bap from the chip van outside and staggering home through the wind across Hyde Park. It was an anchor point of the week.
Back to the present day, and after all the years of doing this, of so many of us doing this, it shouldn’t need commenting on. Again. But there’s something thoroughly enjoyable about turning up on the other side of the country and knowing that you’ll run into a load of mates without any more formal arrangement than the fixture list. A four hour drive cross country with two children in the back seat isn’t a risk-free plan by any stretch, it helps that the sun has been shining, we’ve had as clear a run as we could have hoped for and that Swansea City seems such a very hospitable and well-organised club. But most of all it’s good to see Dave, Matt and Miles killing time outside a hostelry on the periphery of the ground. Saying hello to Elvis Mark in passing. Greeting Andy as he and his mates on their way up to the thin-Oxygen top row (where, presumably, he enjoys City running out to the Clash’s “White Riot”). Saying a waved hello to Alice. And all the others we met along the way. It’s a Good Thing.
2- You’ll have noticed that I haven’t, you know, mentioned the actual football yet.
Ten minutes in one of the blokes behind us announced that “this has got nil-nil written all over it”. This was irritating… partly because it felt like a spoiler, partly because he was so obviously right and the sudden realisation, much as it had been staring us in the face since kick-off, deflated enthusiasm.
It’s not that the game was awful, it wasn’t awful. But it was… humdrum, and rather predictable. Both sides were disciplined and reasonably robust defensively – Prödl at his unfussy best for the Hornets, debutant Mawson standing up well to Deeney for the home side. But going forward… there was little pace to speak of in either forward line and so for the most part the game rattled around in a confined box that didn’t involve either penalty area terribly often, or at least not in a consequential way. Such stalemates look worse at lower levels of course… with this much quality on the pitch there was always the chance of something happening, but it remained an outside possibility during the first half. The closest we came were an ambitious turn and shot from Capoue from distance that he did well to get anywhere near the target, and a late free kick teed up for Kaboul to bludgeon goalwards, a deflection taking the shot spinning, almost fortunately but narrowly wide of the post.
3- The shape of the game changed in the second half. Paul described it as a basketball match… my limited exposure to basketball has led me to believe that it involves lots of points being scored, but that aside there was something about the end-to-endness of it that suited that analogy. Modou Barrow was the source of much of the helt-peltness of it all, a strong and direct winger who is incredibly quick but seemed to rely on Holebas (twice) and Britos (once) gambling by diving in with a tackle and being caught by quick movement to give him a big hole to surge into. For all his menace there wasn’t an awful lot of end product.
The home side, nonetheless, had the best of it and Gomes was by far the busier keeper. He made a fine reflex stop to deny Van der Hoorn – we had no view of precisely what had happened from the far end, relying on replays for information – and had to be bold in coming out for a couple of dangerous crosses. The best move of the game came when Sigurdsson surged down the left before having the presence of mind to quickly alter the flow and switch the ball to the right, coming inside to hit the return ball off the outside of the far post.
Meanwhile whilst we weren’t getting shots on target there was increasing potency in our counterattacks, abetted no end by the introduction of Amrabat for Zuñiga. The Colombian had done well enough, but here was some acceleration to frighten Swansea with and several times it threatened to open them up. Odion Ighalo, meanwhile was making a good stab at reestablishing himself in the starting eleven, demonstrating the Marlon King trick of being able to kill a ball stone dead with a touch irrespective of angle and speed of arrival, holding players off, and once selling a couple of scoops to shape a shooting chance which Fabianski fielded comfortably. There were two penalty calls, one for a handball that I didn’t see but which was protested furiously, the other perhaps more credible for a scruffy challenge on Behrami after we got a lucky break in the box that unsettled the Swans defence. Could have been given, wasn’t. Sometimes you get them. Our best move, the closest we came to consecutive muggings on the road, came when Amrabat flicked narrowly over both keeper and crossbar at the end of another fluid counterattack.
4- Despite this counterattacking threat it was beyond doubt that Swansea took hold of the midfield in the second half. Mazzarri has lauded the first half performance… I guess if you acknowledge his qualifier that we need to sort the final third out then you can just about nod at that, we didn’t give them an awful lot. Overall though, the midfield isn’t quite clicking as hoped, and this despite our injury list generally attacking other areas of the pitch. Behrami, Capoue, Pereyra looks like the first choice three but whilst Behrami did his dirty-work job again effectively enough Capoue had one of his off-days and Pereyra, for all his ability, has looked a bit peripheral – ornamental? – in the last few weeks. Guedioura was brought on to bring some welcome randomness to proceedings, but Ben Watson’s ability to recycle possession and just keep us ticking alongside Behrami is being underplayed for my money. Capoue’s surges into the box that characterised the first six weeks or so of the season have all but disappeared – rarely did any of the middle three make runs ahead of the ball yesterday – given which Watson’s economy could have been a more useful tool.
5- Having said all of which it goes without saying that this was a very decent point, and may look like a better point still if Swansea get their act together, as looks quite possible. Consecutive clean sheets, let alone away from home, are not to be sniffed at either. We rolled out of Swansea as the sun set reasonably content with how the afternoon had gone. A quarter of the way through the season we have three wins, three draws and three defeats, plus a zero goal difference; lazy journalists after a headline might find this dull, but if it’s the new normal – humdrum or not – it’ll do me.
Watford 2 AFC Bournemouth 2 (01/10/2016) 02/10/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. There’s something delicious about an English autumn. Something charming and old-fashioned and gently melancholic, like daydreamily eating a delicious apple on a park bench in very light drizzle. The lingering sweetness of something coming to an end. I appreciate that many people hold great affection for spring and its tiggery springiness, but if you suffer from hay fever, the promise of sunny days ahead comes with something of a catch; it’s a bit like being mugged by Floella Benjamin. As for winter and summer…well, they just tart themselves out for Daily Express click-bait – the coldest, hottest, wettest, driest on record, at least since the last one – and no-one likes an attention-seeker. You never turn on breakfast news to find Carol Kirkwood talking about the most damply orange autumn since records began. It’s a lovely time of year. I expect it’ll be sold off to Channel 4 soon or something…right, kids?
2. And this is the bit where the real football starts. No, no…I was on holiday for that bit, so it bloody well is. This is the bit where it all begins to sort itself out: where Stoke start to be Stoke, where Arsenal start to be Arsenal, and so on. The musical chairs for billionaires that is the transfer window is all done with, the league table begins to take some kind of shape, the first managers fall like yellowing leaves. Or in the case of this week’s high profile casualty, like great big thudding conkers.
3. Much of the reaction to Sam Allardyce’s departure has expressed different degrees of anger and dismay at the idea of the England manager’s salary being apparently insufficient; the word “greed” has featured prominently, as if, somehow, greed weren’t the foundation upon which the entirety of modern football were built. I’m not sure that greed is quite the right deadly sin, anyway. Hubris, perhaps, is more accurate. An essential part of a manager’s job is, at pretty much all times, to be the most important person in the room. And it turns out that being the most important person in the room might actually be a little bit addictive. Who’d have thought?
4. For a while, it was terribly fashionable to admire Eddie Howe for appearing to be someone capable of holding a conversation rather than merely delivering a lecture. And then, for a while and possibly still now, it was terribly fashionable to sneer at all of that as middle class fluff, the superficial gloss over a less flattering profile, just Aidy Boothroyd in a wig. But this week’s events ought to remind us that simple humility isn’t cheap: among managers, both past and present, there are very few who’d think that anything even slightly interesting might occur during the bit when you’re talking and they’re pretending to listen.
I’m projecting onto Eddie Howe, of course. I’ve never met him, probably never will, and might find him an insufferable pardew if I did. But he seems like a man who might not require a massive desk to lord it behind, who might speak quietly sometimes, who might enjoy a cup of tea rather than, say, a pint of wine. Perhaps the day will come when there are too many of those people in football, but it seems unlikely. I bet he’s about to pop up and say something utterly infuriating on Match of the Day now. Bastard.
5. There’s little to the mini-rivalry with Bournemouth, really. It isn’t that there’s nothing of substance. Rather, it’s that there’s nothing but substance: any proper rivalry requires an element of the patently unreasonable and flagrantly irrational to stoke its fires, it requires something to pass down to the next generation. Wash your mouth out, son. Nevertheless, games with Bournemouth have been terrific fun since their arrival in the Championship a few years ago: the pleasing openness of their football and the apparent decency of their manager don’t obscure more than an element of the irritable and irritating. There’s not no Boothroyd in their DNA.
6. Most of the first half was spent digesting a lunch consumed in great haste barely half an hour previously. The football had a certain indigestible quality itself: we began intently and earnestly in the manner of a side wishing to right some of Monday’s wrongs, bright and confident in possession and disappointed at Odion Ighalo’s failure to convert an early opportunity. Different game if that goes in. Obviously.
But gathering irritation at Mike Dean’s petty interventions culminated in a booking for Sebastian Prodl and a ticking-off for Walter Mazzarri, and it felt as if we began to lose our focus. A certain fragility was revealed by our willingness to become the victims; we needed to brush it off and get back to the football, but we fell into squabbling and quibbling, and it was one of those occasions when a home crowd doesn’t really help very much. At the umpteenth contentious free kick, Bournemouth caught us napping, and Wilson snuck ahead of Prodl to meet a deflected cross and, predictably, wind up the crowd a little further with his celebration. We needed to take a few deep breaths. We needed a bit of a break.
7. There wasn’t much sign as it kicked off, but the second half was an absolute belter. Our efforts to get Nordin Amrabat into the game – very much the key, in the absence of any real threat on the left and significant congestion in the middle – eventually paid off as excellent work in wriggling out of a challenge and cutting to the by-line was tidily converted by Troy Deeney. I’ve been frustrated by Amrabat until now, by his frequent failure to influence the game rather than merely enthusiastically participate in it, and his name would’ve been among those bearing a question mark a month ago. But he more than delivered on this occasion, quality and quantity and variety. Add consistency to that and you’d suddenly have quite a player. (Yeah, six million. Times have changed.)
8. Of the new faces – to me, at least – the most obviously eye-catching is naturally Robert Pereyra, not least for his striking resemblance to Craig Ramage on one of his bothered days. The same low-footed sway, head aloft, ball held under a spell, challenges brushed aside. I found Ramage exasperating, but I confess to a shiver of nostalgia. Something wondrous about a player so in command of his art.
But then all of that is cast into shadow by the arrival of Isaac Success, who somehow manages to get involved in virtually everything during his half hour on the pitch, as irrepressible as Eric Morecambe with a trombone. The Pozzo era has brought us no small number of very large forwards, several of whom have made no impact whatsoever. But Success looks like a different prospect altogether: he’s nigh on unplayable here, a remarkable combination of fleet-footed winger and massive centre forward, equally happy skipping past tackles out wide as hurling himself at crosses in the middle. The only flaw is that he can’t cross to himself. Bournemouth simply don’t know what to do with him.
9. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Deeney’s equaliser really starts the fun. It’s been a sensible, coherent and slightly boring game of football, the kind that’d wear matching socks from M&S. From here on, it’s a descent into joyful chaos, end-to-end bedlam, trousers hurled to the wind, shoes in a gutter, asleep in a roundabout flowerbed. It’s thrilling and splendid. As we digest the idea that we might be onto a win, Wilshere cuts inside, picks his spot and hits the base of the post. He hits pretty much exactly the same spot again later for good measure, before strolling off for a rest. (I got the memo about Wayne Rooney, but I seem to be have been out of the room when everyone decided that Jack Wilshere was a bit of a laughing stock. Still, boo and so forth.)
The order of events starts to blur; there’s too much going on at both ends. Deeney meets another cross, just a little short of the desired power, Boruc saves low. King wanders forward after Holebas misjudges a high ball and his low drive takes a deflection and careers past Gomes. Success wins a free kick and converts it to level again, gliding a beautiful near post header into the top corner. A free kick wallops against the bar with Gomes beaten. There are scrambles, scares; Deeney attempts to score with what can best be described as an overhead backheel. It’s hectic, chaotic, not a little fractious too. It deserves a winning goal, something to crown the final fifteen minutes whether for good or ill. Something to bring the house down.
10. It doesn’t get it, but still. We’d have shut up shop with ten minutes to go last season, brought on an extra holding midfielder to help the valiant Behrami, taken the point. There may come a time when that seems appealing again; there’s nothing fun about throwing a game away, after all, and much of our defending here was somewhere south of precarious. But for now, the lack of caution, and the sense of conviction, is really rather wonderful. Both dismissed as cannon fodder only recently, but neither of these sides ought to struggle, neither ought to be looking downwards in January.
11. A spectacular cloudburst floods the streets on the way back to the station. Autumn is fleeting; that’s part of its charm. Winter soon enough. Long months. But nothing to fear. Surely, nothing to fear.
Burnley 2 Watford 0 (26/09/2016) 27/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Ahhh, how to start. What to write. Those of you who were there know how it was, those of you who weren’t probably had better views of the brushwork if not the canvas, none of you will be particularly inclined to spend time reflecting on the occasion.
So let’s just get on with it and where better place to start – indeed, where better place to start anything much – than Burnley cricket club. I don’t “do” minority sports, as regular readers may know, but a cricket club in the absence of actual cricket is a fine thing. It’s perhaps unreasonable to be overly harsh about Burnley, a town which I’ve visited rarely, fleetingly and not terribly recently (Sean Dyche’s Watford bow in 2011 the last)… but one can’t help but feel that much of the pleasantness that this area of East Lancashire has to offer has been concentrated into this relatively small establishment. There are many fine ales at £1.50 a pint, a splendid pie, chips and gravy, and affable company and atmosphere. All is well with the world at 7.30.
This feeling of bonhomie extends to the ground, where stewards check tickets in a cordon ahead of the turnstiles but cordially so, and don’t go for the body searches. This is a relief, as Daughter 2’s Watford teddy – who you may remember from the West Ham report – was in my pocket and would have taken some explaining in the absence of an accompanying seven year-old. Inside the ground the kiosk staff were decked in yellow t-shirts sporting Watford badges, and the intimacy of the venue – not to mention the understandable sparsity of the nether regions of stands in the circumstances, recalled times that were less successful but enjoyable enough in their own way.
Then, the football started.
2- The concern voiced by plenty – including, encouragingly enough, players and head coach – and contemplated by all was that the success achieved in higher profile, we’re the underdog, let’s get up and at ’em games wouldn’t necessarily translate to lower profile fixtures against The Sort Of Sides We Ought To Look To Take Points From. Complacency was the concern, or rather that the adrenaline, the focus that characterised the win over United wouldn’t be visible tonight against less glamorous opposition. As Dave reflected before kick-off, there has never been and will never be a circumstance in which Burnley away is an easy game – heaven knows we’ve been dicked here often enough not to head up to Turf Moor under any illusions.
But problems were evident from the kick-off. Immediately, and for the vast majority of the 90 minutes, the home side exercised a strategy that was uncomplicated and thoroughly effective… flood the midfield, hare down possession, force us into hurried passes that our forwards never looked mobile or – yes – strong enough to make anything of, and hit lone striker Sam Vokes as often as possible to play off the scraps. It’s not a novel strategy, but Sean Dyche’s side executed it to perfection and our lot really didn’t like being on the end of it. We couldn’t get out for much of the opening half hour, and the validity of our worst fears was confirmed by the pathetic bookings of Roberto Pereyra and Jose Holebas for mouthing off to the ref at the indignity of it all.
3- Nothing was working, anywhere on the pitch. The midfield was overrun and Valon Behrami, who you’d want to be in full beast mode in such circumstances, seemed to tamely acquiesce. Defensively we were porous and unsteady, Vokes doing far better than he ought to have been able to as one striker against three centre-backs; Nordin Amrabat was targeted, and willing as he’s been to adapt to the wing-back role – now as deputy for the injured Janmaat – he was horribly exposed here, looking almost exactly like a forward trying hard to be a defender but failing.
As for Burnley, their concern will maybe that they dominated the game and deservedly won… but didn’t really create an awful lot for all their domination; it wouldn’t have taken much to change the course of the evening, and there wasn’t much to challenge the pre-season suspicion that Burnley will give it a good old go this term but struggle anyway. Nonetheless, the spine was very strong, from Ben Mee at the back who had the better of Deeney, to Hendrick and the terrific Defour in midfield to the combative Vokes. They finally took the lead from a set piece, and having gotten away with so much it was aggravating to concede so cheaply. Nonetheless there was no disputing the merit of their half-time advantage, even if we briefly flirted with the suggestion that we might steal half time parity for a second away game running after a late rally.
4- Of the few positives to emerge from the evening, one is Walter’s continuing ability to positively influence the game with his substitutions. The corollary to that is that he’s not getting it right to start with, rather in the way that a centre-back specialising in saving tackles might be a bit of a concern. Nonetheless, a happy habit to have… here he made a very deliberate change at the break by switching to a flat back four such that Amrabat pushed up on the right flank with Zuñiga now filling the space behind him. The Colombian had a decent enough half looking largely neat and tidy in possession and as forceful and deliberate as he had last weekend; the new shape seemed to work too as we looked much more aggressive, potent even. Until, of course, we took a generous-spirited approach to marking at another set piece and the Clarets were two-up.
After which, so much bluster. We did get better… Isaac Success was brought on for Amrabat and immediately added some much-needed menace to our attacking play. We’ve described him before as a heavyweight boxer who moves like an ice skater, and the weather conditions – a steady, contemplative shower lasted much of the evening – contributed further to this suggestion by creating a slick surface that he slid across effortlessly. He’s young and he’s raw but he was bright and positive again; difficult to escape the reflection, given Ighalo’s miserable and immobile evening, that for competition from the bench to have its desired impact on the squad it needs to be exercised when someone’s off his game. Iggy’s had a few too many games like this. We had a good spell after about an hour, the best of the chances falling to Deeney who was first denied by a fine saving challenge, then failed to get enough power to a header after Pereyra had swivelled into space and dropped in a peach of a cross. Burnley were still threatening further punishment, the faultless Gomes denying Defour, but when Kenedy debuted for Pereyra – who was perhaps lucky not to have received a second yellow shortly before for a bad challenge and whose removal was being urged from the away end with Saturday in mind – we were on top for the first time. Briefly, inconclusively, but with Kenedy on the right and Success on the left both slaloming through to cut inside onto their weaker feet we looked a threat at last. Not enough, not nearly enough on the night. But something.
5- The gents in the back of the stand after the match was rammed and silent, but for the contemplative hiss of urine against urinal. From somewhere against a distant wall someone offered encouragement: “At least it’s not a six and a half hour drive home or anything”, to much laughter.
We did it in closer to five, creeping in at 3:15 after taking time to escape from the claw of Manchester (thanks, Dave) and an unscheduled detour on realising that the Satnav was heading us towards Snake Pass in the pissing rain, which had returned with a vengeance. As my brother later pointed out, it could have “got all Caradhras on us”.
The trip was survived by means of recital of club-themed obscure eighties footballers (“Rob Hindmarch”…. “Gordon Chisholm”….) and by very loud music. As has often been the case, a good day out spoiled by a terrible performance. This has happened before, often at Burnley, and will happen again. Enduring this is what makes trips like West Ham special. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
On the pitch, of course, we need a reaction. Saturday would be nice. Yooorns.
Watford 3 Manchester United 1 (18/09/2016) 19/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I should perhaps preface this piece with a warning; specifically, surprisingly and somewhat contrary to the popular line I’m not going to concentrate on the visitors. It’s not that Mourinho isn’t newsworthy (he is), or that Rooney wasn’t shocking (he was), or that Pogba wasn’t comically ineffective (he was). It’s just that there was another team on the pitch (no, really) and we’re really rather more interested in them. You’ll find that there are plenty of other places to read about the team in red of varying degrees of shoutiness and one-eyedness. Unless, of course, coverage of the last week’s football has left you – understandably but incorrectly – suffering from the misconception that West Ham and Manchester United both managed to comprehensively lose games despite the absence of any opponent. This would in any case be a bigger story than our humble blog could hope to cover.
2- So the other team, then. Not the team in red, the other lot. Bit good. Bit bloody wonderful, by the way. We’ve got used to looking back at the early eighties as our golden period, the highlights and the details etched on the memories of those old enough to remember. Last season… last season was brilliant. You can look at it and say… yes, well, different era. Tougher now. Standardise, normalise, put in context and “it’s as big an achievement as the eighties thing. Bigger”. There may be something in that, in a dull kind of way. But some things don’t need context. This is bigger than dicking Liverpool last season. That was great, of course, but was special because we beat a name. This time we beat a team – yes a name too, but a team that had been talked about as title contenders. Hell, competing with them would have been an achievement. But we didn’t just compete.
3- We’re a bloody massive team all of a sudden. Even without hamstring victims Kaboul and Okaka – the fact that Kaboul, who looks like some kind of Marvel comics supervillain, doesn’t stand out in a line-up says it all. And even those that aren’t huge – Behrami, Pereyra, Ighalo – are hard as bloody nails. This was key today. United are no shrinking violets, they’re a huge side too. But we set about them with menace, energy and vigour and bullied them into submission. Behrami tormented Pogba. Holebas and Janmaat thundered up and down the flanks like angry rhinos. And Chris Smalling must have done something pretty grievous to upset the skipper. Troy enjoys a good scrap of course, but most of the time he only runs through the opponent when he absolutely has to. Today every run seemed to involve ploughing through the hapless United defender, as if wherever Troy needed to be just happened to be on the other side of Smalling and demanded urgent attention.
4- Which isn’t to say we had it all our own way. Indeed the first half saw the visitors afforded plenty of chances, too many. Smalling had the first and perhaps the best of that period, crashing an early header narrowly wide from a set piece in the first few minutes. Pogba, with no space and outside a crowded area, lazily slung a shot into the narrow postbox over Gomes and back off the bar. Valencia broke down the right and sent in a cross… Ibrahimovic was hovering at the far post, poised. The ball never reached him; Seb Prödl, on the penalty spot, wallop. Zlatan slouched. Not for the last time. The Austrian produced a masterclass to comprehensively blunt United’s focal point, the highlight coming when a rare slack pass from Behrami released the Swede and a flying challenge that was both brutal and immaculate denied him.
But at the other end, once we got onto the front foot we stayed there. Iggy enjoyed the first opening when Smalling – who looked as unlike a commanding centre-half as is possible to conceive throughout – collided needlessly with De Gea to present Ighalo with an open goal. He scooped his shot nervously wide in attempting to avoid the grasp of the scrambling goalkeeper and you thought “this is going to be one of those days”. Iggy seemingly thought the same, briefly losing his focus and making bad, deliberate decisions before settling down into an industrious if unspectacular job holding the ball up and often breaking wide. Prödl headed a deep cross back across goal, Deeney narrowly failed to get a touch. Janmaat sent in a missle, Deeney ferocious header was clawed away. Meanwhile, hared down by Behrami, Capoue, Janmaat, Holebas United were increasingly rattled. Passes flew into touch, to jeers from the stands. This culminated in Martial being dispossessed by Britos on our right… I’ve not seen it again, reports seem to suggest that it was a clean tackle, “could have been given” at worst. It seems that only United are permitted to benefit from such narrow calls… but on this occasion Oliver gave us the benefit of the doubt. I was surprised, United too… Janmaat pulled back from the touchline and Capoue, precisely, fiercely, crashed us into the lead.
5- At half time we were happy but nervous. Sam confessed that she wanted to go home. Many of us would have taken a draw. Unsurprisingly the visitors came at us after the break and eventually equalised after a quick break in which Zlatan’s sudden urgency transmitted the genuineness of the threat; Rashford finally got the finish at the second attempt and the stadium exhaled. We’ve been ahead at home to Chelsea, at Southampton, would this be more dropped points? Ibrahimovic finally got on the end of a deep cross and Gomes was equal to it, pulling off an impossible reflex stop that provoked a standing ovation. We’d all have taken a draw at this point.
6- We didn’t fold, as you’ll have noticed. At West Ham we pulled ourselves back from the brink, turned a game around. If anything this was more impressive still… a game that we’d been on top of suddenly slipping away, a belief that we’d blown our chance but done OK would have been, if not forgivable then understandable. Not a bit of it. As last week, each of the substitutions was completely brilliant… Amrabat came on for Janmaat, who appeared to have hurt his shoulder after being piled into an advertising hoarding in the first half, and relished the hovering-on-the-edge aggression of the afternoon. In the move of the game he released Pereyra down the right who pulled back for the second sub, Zuñiga. The Colombian hasn’t had much of a window to show us what he can do, but grasped this one. His finish, first time with the ball running across him, was sublime, unexpected and utterly marvellous. Few, suddenly, were taking the draw.
7- The rest was just tremendous. United picked up a rack of bookings as they visibly, comically, gave up on composure altogether. Wayne Rooney, a fishwife who expended more energy bitching at the officials than he did in pursuit of the ball, was tormented by Pereyra as we calmly retained possession around the corner flag. Echoes here of one of those 1980s highlights, Steve Williams of Arsenal in meltdown as we won the Cup quarter final at Highbury. In that game, Luther’s late breakaway goal sealed the win and relieved all tension. Here Isaac Success, the third sub, broke down the left and turned Bailly inside out before cutting back for Zuñiga who fooled Fellaini into giving away a penalty. At that moment we knew, and now nobody was taking a draw. The away end couldn’t get out fast enough.
8- Superlatives are dull, but I’m not sure I’ve seen us play much better than this. Certainly not within the window, twenty years maybe, that makes comparison halfway feasible. From five opening games that could have left us pointless we’ve taken 7 and a positive goal difference. That’s ludicrous. Now comes a different type of challenge… games that range from those that we might reasonably expect to win to those in which we’re the outright favourites, a rare privilege but the outcome not to be taken for granted.
But that’s for tomorrow. For now… well you just enjoy these moments. As much as you can. Suck it all up. We’ve said it before, but these are the good old days. Enjoy.
West Ham United 2 Watford 4 (10/09/2016) 11/09/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- Well it’s not Upton Park.
At one’o’clock it was pissing it down with rain. We’d arrived early, partly because That’s What We Do, partly because I felt the need to justify Daughter 1 missing her gymnastics. Partly because, you know, football. Come on.
An away trip with the girls is still a gamble, a reckless dice roll. Now we were sheltering from the rain on the vast Olympic Park next to something that looked like a melted helterskelter outside a bar that only admitted home fans. The girls were starving, the only food on offer that didn’t involve getting drenched was a barbecue put on by the bar. Fortunately there was a cashpoint too. We were a captive audience, and charged accordingly.
The stadium. Well… imagine Upton Park. Its claustrophobic, intense scruffiness. Now imagine something diametrically opposite to it. We were nine rows from the front, and bloody miles from the pitch. There’s acres of space between the edge of the pitch and the front of each stand. The lower tier is itself a bracing walk from the concourse across walkways suspended above the permanent but concealed and unused seating, some sort of ghost town. There are still bubble machines, woefully incapable of creating any atmosphere in this vast bowl. Fittingly, the bubbles sink listlessly to the floor.
2- There are bloody loads of people here, though. “Where were you at Upton Park?” emerges grouchily from the home stands during the first half, but it’s an intimidating sight nonetheless. This was, we were told all week, when West Ham would spark. Their big guns – Payet, Lanzini – were back, the new signing – Zaza – in place. The Hammers had had a tough start to the season, their points total reflecting this. This was when their season would start. “West Ham will win this,” opined Michael Owen. “Watford might struggle this season”. Someone pays him.
Much of that applied to us too, of course, but we’re still small fry, not top flight establishment, so few cared. There’s part of us thinking that maybe some of this week’s papers might have made it onto our dressing room wall, so to speak. All of which was forgotten as the Hammers started the game with exactly that thought – that this is game one, the game they must win, the game they will win – at the front of their minds. They hit us like a train, and the stands made a complete racket.
3- We looked slow. Or maybe West Ham just made us look slow. We were behind almost immediately, a corner, one flick – two? – and Antonio’s angling his header past a helpless Gomes. How did he get to that header? Why was there nobody on the far post? Too easy. It’s a long way back already.
Actually we rallied a bit at 1-0. Ighalo had already had half a chance at nil-nil… now the lively Pereyra suckered Masuaku on the right of the penalty area – with hindsight, a portent of what was to come – and Ighalo was teed up again, his shot deflected wide. This didn’t last though. The home side simply made it look easier, they were on top and enjoying it, like a dog being let out for it’s first run in ages. The achilles heel of a three-man defence – someone, Holebas, being caught upfield and leaving the flanks exposed – caught us out. The devilish Payet hugged the right touchline, Britos was too slow out to him and an outrageous cross found Antonio stealing in at the far post.
4- The most redundant thunk of the season, but one of those that needs saying anyway. We didn’t see the result coming at all at this point. West Ham were worth the two goal lead and were heading off into the sunset, or would have been if it hadn’t still been grey and miserable. One of those where you feel the stadium closing in on you and just want it all to end. It could have been anything at this point.
Here’s the thing though. West Ham came at us. Zaza wanted a goal and tiptoed across challenges looking for an opening. He didn’t get one. Antonio sniffed a hat-trick and galloped in from the right. Payet lined up a free kick ominously after Noble drew a foul. It was blocked. We were stretched, but we stood up to it… blocks and tackles; you’ll have gathered that things got better in the second half but Valon Behrami’s masterclass lasted ninety minutes, he was magnificent. Kaboul was a wall, Troy was getting his head to things. We definitely, defiantly, weren’t lying down. And by standing up we gave ourselves a chance. By not folding, we made it more than a footnote, more than a mere detail when Ighalo chased Capoue’s deft flick and his shot deflected beyond Adrian. We made it possible for Deeney to capitalise majestically on a complete catastrophe in West Ham’s defence. Suddenly it’s half time and it’s 2-2. How? Because unlike West Ham, whilst we made defensive mistakes we didn’t fold. Our heads were in the game. You suspected that West Ham never contemplated the possibility of such resistance. The presence of one Manuel Britos (sic) in the programme’s player list, of a pic of Capoue captioned as Holebas, was consistent with the national press’s billing of the Hornets as bit-part players, a supporting act. West Ham believed their own publicity and found themselves level at the break in a game that they should, could, have had in the bag.
Incidentally it was also at 2-0 down that Sofia had remembered that her yellow Watford teddy, whose match-influencing powers seem to wane when left forgotten in my backpack, had not been brought out to witness the game…
5- The second half was the best football Watford have played for some considerable time, certainly since Arsenal in the cup, arguably this calendar year. We took the bag that West Ham thought the game was safely tucked away in, emptied it, clubbed them round the head with it, popped Dimitri Payet inside and lobbed it to Younes Kaboul who drop-kicked it into the stinking River Lea.
Front and centre of this masterclass was the midfield trio of Behrami, Capoue and Pereyra. Valon and Capoue have looked utterly content in their new roles this season already despite our modest points total to this point. Behrami is the pit-bull, cut out to do the dirty work. He was fearsome and magnificent, full of ferocious blocks and tackles with his best lunatic stare and blood dripping from his jaws. Capoue is relishing the licence to get forward a bit more, and loves the box-to-box role of the three. He clubbed in a third to put us ahead for the first time after teasing now fretful West Ham defenders on the edge of the box.
And now there is a conductor, a string-puller, someone to tease things apart and let the liquid flow through the cracks. Pereyra’s 45 minutes against Arsenal had been hugely encouraging, but in the context of a game against a side who also (perhaps more credibly) believed their game was won and of us being desperate for him to prove his worth there was the concern that we’d imagined his impact, over-egged the pudding in our minds. Given him an impossible billing to live up to. Not a bit of it. Elegant, mischievous, industrious, class. An absolute joy. These three are now the core of the team, and we won’t go far wrong if they stay fit.
6- You’ll have heard about the disturbances in the crowd, none of which were terribly near to us but plenty of which was clearly visible. Blog posts from home supporters pre-match confirm that this was far from being a one-off… segregation both in the stands and in the concourses was grotesquely inadequate. Complacent, even. Yes, football has become a politer, more pleasant thing over the years. But this isn’t cricket. People are going to get over excited and in a fifty-odd thousand crowd you’re going to get some idiots by the law of averages. If you’re raking in revenue from this enormous and extraordinary level of interest having taken advantage of an unusually generous set of circumstances then the very least you can do is ensure that the vast majority who want to simply go and watch their team are able to do so safely. West Ham lost a two goal lead at home, but their biggest embarrassment was off the pitch.
7- Meanwhile, Jose Holebas snaffled a fourth as West Ham backpedalled, completely incapable of changing the direction that this game had decisively decided to travel in. Much of the rest of it consisted of Watford possession, passing the ball out of reach of their wearying opponents. The Hammers had possession too but their chances were remote, half-glimpses of an opening. Even when Fletcher, on as a sub, won a knock-down to create a clear chance Gomes was there to block before the offside flag was noticed. At that point the game was up, and the home stands were emptying.
In front of us, Pereyra slalomed through the Hammers’ defence and would have brought the house down (or our little bit of it) but couldn’t quite find the finish. The subs were all significant – Prödl replaced Kaboul to get his head onto ever more hopeful crosses, Success and Okaka demonstrated another big improvement on last term – attacking threat from the bench, options that allowed Troy and Iggy a rest. Both had chances… Success screamed in on goal but flicked his effort narrowly wide. Okaka bundled Kaboul’s knock-down into the roof of the net and celebrated for half a second before seeing the flag. Burdened with relatively low expectation (a multi-million pound signing with low expectation. Jesus) he was a muscled, boisterous pain in the arse; with huge upper body strength he had the physique of Johnny Bravo and was precisely what West Ham didn’t need in the circumstances, until doing his hamstring and leaving us to see the game out with ten men. He’s a favourite already.
8- So much for the tough start to the season. We’d all have taken four points, I think, and United on Sunday suddenly becomes a free punch. Whilst we’re always going to be vulnerable defensively the magnitude of the achievement, wresting what should have, could have, in so many other seasons would have been a runaway cathartic home win from their grasp is every bit as immense as it sounds. Michael Owen’s column next week will suggest that Watford might surprise one or two people. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a team.
Watford 1 Arsenal 3 (27/08/2016) 28/08/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- I’m a right grumpy bastard in the summer. I don’t do heat anyway… how do you walk to work in sunshine, even relatively tame 8.30am sunshine, with a laptop bag and not get there ready to go home again? Football is many things, amongst which it’s something to work towards at such points. At points where you’ve got to work feeling hot and flustered, or been confronted about a piece of work that you’d completely forgotten about or just feeling a bit low, the prospect of playing Arsenal, or whoever, at the weekend is something to put a spring in your step. Come on.
2- So giving away a penalty after less than ten minutes was a bit of a pisser. It featured a slow motion dawning, a realisation amongst the crowd after an oddly protracted, delayed award complicated by Sanchez lying prone in the penalty area and…has he given a penalty or is he calling the physio? Was there a foul? Is it our free kick? Cazorla seems convinced, he… he’s given a penalty. Oh f***.
The week’s anticipation fizzles out there and then. There’s brief, half-hearted straw-clinging as a succession of delaying tactics hold up the penalty but there was never any suggestion that it wouldn’t be converted. It was a game-defining moment; Arsenal, as the build-up to the game on Radio 5 had reiterated, needed the result. The penalty gave doubts and anxiety no opportunity to take root, and much as what followed later in the half could have perhaps been avoided the pattern of the game unravelled from this point. For fifteen minutes or so we weren’t in it at all, chasing the play, the out-ball a thump up to Troy to flick on to nothing, ragged. Then we grabbed a foothold, pushed on, pushed Arsenal back. Kabasele’s header from a set piece was angled narrowly wide. We were giving it some. Until Arsenal broke, ruthlessly, seeing an opportunity to shake off the “we haven’t won yet” monkey and taking it. It was over the line, then it wasn’t, but there was no doubt as to what the technology verdict would be. Mercilessly it was three before the break as all semblance of resilient defence crumbled. Game over.
3- Going back to that penalty call, two thoughts having seen it again. First, this was always a risk. That Nordin would be caught in a defensive situation that he wasn’t adapted to and that it would cost us. No doubt that he’s done a sterling job as a converted wing-back but there are some bits that he’s better at than others. The wing-back roles always looked like priorities for recruitment given our mooted change in formation, they’re positions that the 3-5-2 asks an awful lot of. Amrabat’s conversion is a success on balance, but even if he continues to improve and adapt to the role such mistakes are inevitable – this one was expensive.
And the other thought was that it was clearly a penalty on review, as was clear at the time from social media feedback provided by those who’d seen a replay. Not everyone uses social media as a check in such situations of course and amongst those living the moment was the Despairing Young Man from ig’s Chelsea report last week who let Sanchez and referee Friend know in concise and repetitive terms what he suspected about their sexual habits for the rest of the half.
Nonetheless, Friend deserves no sympathy. The standard of refereeing seems to me to have improved pretty dramatically in the top flight, certainly since the bizarre days of the 1999/2000 season but Kevin Friend is a throwback, a peacock, the headmaster’s son who owns the ball. His display was extraordinarily unbalanced and provocative, one of many second half highlights being Nordin Amrabat being harshly penalised for a foul on Wilshere and, being about to be substituted, walking off angrily remonstrating at the referee to be summoned to the pitch to receive one of an extraordinary number of yellow cards for the homeside, still chuntering. Difficult not to sympathise.
4- Half time had been pretty grim. Much as these things can happen against such high quality sides, particularly quality sides in need of a win who get the relief of an early penalty, nobody was looking forward to the second half. Despairing Young Man failed to reappear for the second half and frankly I’d have taken that at the break, anything else was a bonus. Instead, what followed was hugely encouraging.
Our league games to date have been remarkable in that none of our army of impressive new recruits had started. Here we saw an array of new talent gradually introduced. Kabasele and Kaboul started the game and despite the calamity at the end of the first half both impressed; Kaboul looks great with the ball at his feet, and if he looked a little slow to be playing one of the two wide roles that bear significant responsibility in covering our attacking wing backs this must surely be mitigated by the knowledge that he will in general be competing with Prödl for the central role.
Pereyra warmed up at the break. No pressure, Roberto, but if someone going to come on at 3-0 down having been hailed as The Answer by his coach, let alone the support, you’d back someone with a (kind-of) mohican. Expectation was so high that it’s difficult to conceive of something that would meet that expectation without being worthy of a Roy of the Rovers strip, but my word he came very close. It’s like when you trade up in Masters League on Pro Evo (I’m talking about 5 years ago, it’s a long time since I was down with the kids) and suddenly have a much much better player in the side. Deft, clever, quick but industrious he looked every bit the part. The mouth waters.
He gobbled up a loose ball to narrow the deficit too; by then we’d moved to 4-3-3 with Janmaat coming on as right back behind Amrabat. He looked decent too, quick and aggressive with an ability to deliver curling crosses from deeper than the touchline. And finally Success, an extraordinary specimen who looks like a heavyweight boxer but moves like an ice skater. Our attacking play for much of the rest of the half was fabulous and potent, albeit against an Arsenal side who were never quite put under enough pressure by the scoreline.
5- The fixture list, in a sense, hasn’t been kind as I’m sure you’ve noticed. One point from these three games isn’t far short of par; you’d take a point at West Ham and anything from United is a bonus on current form which gives us two points, say, after five games and the need to win at Burnley and the more obviously winnable games that follow.
On the other hand. It was always going to take time to bed these players in. The Pozzo approach has traditionally been to be cautious in this regard, Quique’s immediate blooding of Jurado a year ago the exception rather than the rule. We have, on the evidence of this second half, quite an array of talent, without having seen Sinclair, for instance, in competitive action yet. We have two weeks further to sort things out and two more games to bed things in, games which at any stage of the season would be challenging.
And then we’re up and running for those winnable games. And on this evidence, running like a train with defences scattering in our wake. Keep the faith. This could be fun.
Watford 1 Gillingham 2 AET (23/08/2016) 24/08/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- So. Samuel Beckett, then.
2- I have to wonder, whilst running the risk of being accused of sour grapes, who wants to be in a competition suddenly labelled the EFL Cup anyway? What is it with abbreviating everything to initialisms and acronyms? It’ll be blogs and websites next. If you’re not going to get it sponsored then do us grumpy conservative (small c) bastards the service of calling it the League Cup? No? Hello? Pah. Where’s my blanket?
3- On the subject of natural conservatism, it’s reassuring that the early stages of the League Cup don’t really change. As discussed on these pages before, it’s almost as if the same game has been trundling on it’s merry way since Cheltenham in 2000. The game doesn’t stop, it’s on an infinite loop in a parallel dimension that we dip into accidentally once a season as if we’re on an A-road that briefly shares tarmac with the route to a mundane, irritable hell. The opponents might change (hello Bournemouth, Cambridge, Accrington, Darlington, Notts County (shudder)) but the spirit, the essence of the occasion is never lost. It’s comforting and familiar in the way that a piece of dripping guttering that you’ve never quite bothered to sort out reminds you that you’re home.
4- In the sense that this is an almost annual event, combined with the ever more dependable summer makeover of our squad, the first League Cup game can be thought of as a sort of initiation ceremony. And this, surely, is the sort of environment in which a bunch of fancy-dan foreigners brought in from their, you know, foreign places where they do foreign things that aren’t British like wot normal people do will surely come unstuck. A mixture of the unacclimatised, the indifferent and the downright not-up-for it against a game and organised lower division side with a free punch. Frankly, if this is what football looks like from the Elton John Stand you’re welcome to it Dave, you and your peaked caps.
5- If you think I’m taking a while to get around to the actual business of these thunks, consider it as a tribute to our attacking play which was, for the most part, ponderous and (to echo IG’s thrust from Saturday) painfully deliberate. We should have been ahead earlier nonetheless… Matej Vydra was the very definition of trying too hard, but much of the spark came from him including dummies, a sharp backheel that should have lead to Anya giving us the lead, spins off the defender for passes that never came. But our answer to Gillingham’s deep defending and tenacious chasing down high up the field was to get wide around the compact defence, and whilst Anya in particular had the beating of his man the quality of delivery wasn’t good enough, the movement and bodies in the box insufficient. It didn’t look frightening. It didn’t look fun. There remained the threat of a goal, something that would happen through sheer buying of tickets (a low drive by Guedioura can’t have been far the wrong side of the post) but there was no sense of inevitability by any means.
6- We came out looking much sharper at the start of the second half, having evidently been told to move the ball quicker. Hurrah. That lasted about 20 seconds, and then we pondered on. Ighalo came on for Guedioura – other than Troy the only starter from Saturday, but less, um, obviously in need of the minutes. Within a minute Iggy had smuggled the ball over the line to relief in the two-thirds-empty stands. That was that, we thought, and crucially so did the team and the manager. Vydra was withdrawn with what looked painfully like a wave goodbye, saluting all four corners of the ground. We should still have been comfortable… the defence had largely done OK, Kabasele in particular looking both tough and elegant in his first start. But OK is only enough if there’s enough threat at the other end and Gillingham, driven on by Cody McDonald who could be described as a scruffy, low-budget Shane Long if Shane Long weren’t already a scruffy, low-budget Shane Long*, smelled blood. It would be wrong to say we weren’t warned… they’d won a penalty through a pointless Nyom trip and Bradley Dack clouted it entertainingly over the bar. Yes, yes, that’s it then, let’s go home. Then we almost almost scored, a Deeney header pawed along the line but not over it before Byrne took advantage of too much space and curled a fine equaliser. Extra time… more possession, little urgency, certainly not at the break where Mazzarri got his midfielders crowded studiously around his notepad between thigh massages whilst Troy and Iggy wandered around looking bored. You know the rest.
7- That Cody McDonald gag isn’t mine… I copied it from somewhere. Probably ig. And it wasn’t about Cody McDonald. But it’s a good line, and deserves better than to disappear into the mists of the Internet.
8- It’s the first game of the League Cup, I get it. It’s always shit and we’ve had plenty of decent seasons despite such obscenities (last season not least). There’s no value in overreacting to an inadequate and irritating but largely inconsequential and unrepresentative evening. Which doesn’t mean that everything’s fine. There’s a big grey area between “everything’s great” and “everything’s rubbish” and that’s where we are at the moment. As the absent Craig Cathcart emphasised pre-match, this was an opportunity to record a first win of the season. We didn’t take it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But in the face of encouraging League performances leaving us with two dropped leads and one point, a win here and a straw to cling to as far as our attacking potency was concerned wouldn’t have hurt at all.
Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (20/08/2016) 21/08/2016Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. At some point in my experiments as an amateur photographer, it became obvious that a greater element of chance was required if the final result was to be in any way interesting. My photographs improved immeasurably when I switched back to film, intentionally depriving myself of the ability to review what I was doing as I was doing it. They improved further when I started ignoring the viewfinder, and I still find that the shots of which I’m most proud are taken instinctively, with the camera at arm’s length, or on the ground, or anywhere other than pressed to my face.
It isn’t that I can’t compose a pleasing photograph. But something in the process of deliberately placing my subjects inside that square or rectangle imprisons them, deadens them, makes them lifeless and small and inconsequential. No matter how attractive the images, they communicate too little, they come across as tentative and uncertain. I’d get away with it if my subject matter were truly arresting, but I’m fortunate to have a comfortable enough existence that dramatic events rarely cross my path, and I’m much too timid to seek them out. Photos of allotments it is, then.
So, chance is my saviour. Because chance is never tentative, never uncertain, always absolute. (I say this in the knowledge that m’colleague is a statistician who’s likely to pull this half-arsed drivel to bits while huffing with annoyance. I keenly look forward to him penning an introduction based around Samuel Beckett’s late prose works to get his own back.) It lends a conviction to my photos that they otherwise lack; it frames them in a different, much more compelling way. And it frees me of grown-up responsibility: I can flit about with my camera, waving it around and pressing the shutter whenever the time seems right, and the results hopefully take on some of that spirit. These days, I take nearly all of my photographs using an old bakelite camera whose only controls are a shutter button and a winder; no focusing, no light metering, no depth of field, nothing to fiddle with. Choose a picture, press the button. It makes me very happy.
2. Watching the European Championships over the summer, it struck me how vital a significant element of chance is to the spectacle, and how the relentless clamour for consistency risks leaving us with something as exotic as a picnic in a car park. As another match settled into an extended game of cat-and-mouse, I became aware of how little I was watching hadn’t been carefully planned out on a tactics board beforehand.
Because the similarly relentless clamour for skilled players to be allowed to play skilfully, rather than forced to do battle physically, meets inevitably with a tactical riposte. Put simply, if you can’t kick ’em up in the air any more, you’d better stop ’em from having any space. It becomes a logic problem, and the thrilling cut-and-thrust of the best game you can bring to mind is ever less the ideal and ever more something to be guarded against by work on the training ground.
Many of those games were screaming out for something random, something genuinely unpredictable. No coincidence that one of the few proper games, the French defeat of Germany, was sent hurtling spectacularly off-course by a daft penalty; similarly, Wales’s tumultuous win over Belgium was made to seem even more dramatic, even more precarious, by crucial decisions missed, a red card and a potential spot kick. But elsewhere, the stultifying greyness of individual errors ironed out and covered for, of well-drilled systems, of well-officiated games. Oh, for a rush of blood to someone’s head, for a blown fuse or a ruptured gasket. Oh, for someone leading a cavalry charge, for someone on a pig-headed crusade. Oh, for a self-righteous prick of a referee, all rehearsed show and excruciating stubborness and spectacularly upset applecarts.
Oh, for Anders Frisk.
3. Oh, for Troy Deeney.
If there’s a difference between the version of the game that we get and the version of the game that we’d tell our grandchildren about, it’s that: someone forcing their way into history in the way that Tommy Mooney once did, simply by refusing to accept anything else, damn the consequences. That cavalry charge, that pig-headed crusade. In between lies the version of the game which seemed to be within our grasp but is ultimately just an illusion: the routine win over Chelsea, forgotten by the end of the season. Imagine that.
4. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We haven’t mentioned the new Hornet Shop yet, looming above the entrance to Occupation Road with its promise of yellowness in so many forms that the mind boggles and the wallet shrinks in fear. It looks like something from one of those new grounds they have nowadays; I expect they just read your mind on the way in, hand you a carrier bag with all your dreams in it and point you to a self-service till. Bet it doesn’t smell as tantalising as the old one in the Vicarage Road precinct, though. Yes, that old.
Nor have we mentioned the presence of Nathaniel Chalobah on the Chelsea bench. There was a player. Could still be, I guess, or could be destined for a season on loan at Huddersfield. I hope not. Of all the sporadically infuriating talents to have passed through our doors in recent seasons – and there have been quite a few – he remains among my favourites, and it’d be a terrible shame if all of that naive arrogance and arrogant naivety was gradually drained out of him by the system. Had he the hunger and the opportunity, he could conquer the world. Or give it a shot, at any rate.
And then there are our two new signings, paraded into the centre circle with their newly-minted shirts to receive the crowd’s welcome, a courtesy never afforded to Kerry Dixon or Mick Quinn back in the good old days. Those of us who pay next to no attention over the summer and then spend the first few weeks of the season catching up are grateful for the absence of new faces from the starting eleven. Nevertheless, if we were being cynical, we might suggest that this parading of the week’s recruits is an attempt at reassuring the punters that the matter is in hand…
5. Because if you ask me, the squad looks a little bit thin. There are players here who will undoubtedly be grateful for a fresh chance under a new manager, but the leap from having a chance to taking it is a considerable one. Some of those players – you can fill in their names yourselves easily enough – have no small amount of responsibility placed on their shoulders as it stands. At some point, preferably soon, the recruitment needs to start hitting a winning streak.
As if to prove the point, we play much of the match as if Jose Manuel Jurado had been selected but had just popped to the toilet. There are some good things to report from our midfield: Valon Behrami, in particular, has the satisfied look of a square peg firmly walloped into a square hole. But there is also a vast space where all of that lovely neat link-up play used to be, and getting service into Messrs Deeney and Ighalo is like attempting a game of frisbee across the M1. I found Jurado intolerable for many reasons, but someone, whether scout, manager or player, urgently needs to fill the gap he’s left. Therein lies the possibility of being a better side than last season. Or a worse one.
6. The first half split tidily into three parts: pre-downpour, downpour, post-downpour. A bit like punk, then, except with rain. That it was so defined by the weather says much about the football, which had neither the fury of a really good contest nor the comedic value of a really bad one, and which very much fell into the category of games planned out on a tactics board. Very high quality mundanity, but mundanity nonetheless. Organic artisan mundanity, with a salad of foraged hedgerow leaves, on some sort of wooden board.
We could definitely argue that we had the better of it: early on, we managed to get Jose Holebas a sight of goal, albeit from a narrow angle, before a terrific, obstinate run from Nordin Amrabat on the right found Odion Ighalo at the near post, unable to get the decisive touch. In a game of few going on no chances, a couple of openings represented a measure of domination, particularly as our resistance to the prodding and probing of Chelsea’s army of little buzzy small-named people, who I find very easy to confuse, remained strong. We had little creativity of our own, but obstinately sat on theirs.
The half continued for about fifteen minutes longer than seemed strictly necessary, talking to itself long after everyone had stopped listening, although Walter Mazzarri’s (justifiably) furious reaction to the award of an injury time free kick suggested fun to come. There’s a moment during the full BBC post-match interview when he looks straight into the camera and it’s like he’s eating your soul with a teaspoon.
7. The second half briefly threatened to be no more stirring than the first, except with relentless commentary from a new arrival two seats along, a hugely enthusiastic young man who insisted on referring to Jose Holebas as “Hollers” in the manner of Test Match Special and who expressed, repeatedly and repeatedly, an eagerness for the arrival of Matej Vydra which began as youthful optimism, quickly crossed the border into delusional and was last seen heading off into obsessive with only a torch and a hunting knife.
And then the football started. Out of nowhere in particular, Guedioura’s arcing cross, Deeney underneath it, Etienne Capoue striking a half-volley that looked for all the world as if it was flying wide until it smashed into the top corner. And suddenly, this most unmemorable of matches had a reason to exist, and we were on our feet urging the team towards a victory that seemed…if not improbable, then somehow remote. And Chelsea were throwing on substitutes in a bid to save the day, and we were retreating and retreating, further and further, and the ball was flying around our area…and this is the bit where someone needs to drag the team over the line, by sheer willpower alone, if necessary. Troy Deeney at Brighton, that kind of thing.
8. But there’s no answer. Because Deeney is isolated and absent, hampered by a frustrated booking, largely removed from the game. No-one else can get a foothold. We miss some of Ben Watson’s tidy give-and go; on the other side, the wondrous Kante clicks like a metronome. Chelsea ruthlessly wrestle the game from our grasp, prising our fingers open. Batshuayi scores after Gomes fails to hold a Hazard shot, then Adlene Guedioura’s ill-judged pass sets up a ruthless break for the winner. They hit the bar late on for good measure. We have no answer. (No, hugely enthusiastic and now despairing young man, we don’t: Matej Vydra is thrown on for the last five and barely has a touch.) These are individual errors, sure, but we lose any control of the game; we lose the game.
9. Much to be satisfied with and encouraged by, unquestionably. But when I wrote about our narrow-ish defeat to Palace last year, I suggested that we needed to concentrate on the negatives while there was still some credit in the bank. It’s no good waiting until the wheels fall off. Same applies, I think.
The manager’s right: for seventy-five minutes, we were impressive, robust, consistent. But any coach worth his corn would be looking more closely at what was mostly missing: creativity, possession, threat. The player willing to take a chance, to do something unexpected or instinctive. The player who can change the game. That player is often Troy Deeney, of course, but not if he isn’t involved. That player might be Robert Pereyra. Maybe someone else.
But it needs to be someone.
Season Preview – Part 5 12/08/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
INS: Vincent Janssen (AZ67 Alkmaar, £18,600,000), Victor Wanyama (Southampton, £11,000,000)
OUTS: Alex Pritchard (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Grant Ward (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Charlie Haylford (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Emmanuel Sonupe, Federico Fazio (AS Roma, Season Loan), Filip Lesniak (Slovan Liberec, Season Loan)
OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes
THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A game after Christmas which was reassuring in that Spurs were as graceless in securing a last-minute win with an offside goal against ten men as we remember them being in the eighties. And a defeat at White Hart Lane which was, conversely, more conclusive than the scoreline implied
|1994-95||3-6 / 3-2|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Walker Alderweireld Vertonghen Rose
Lamela Alli Eriksen
VERDICT: Come on. You must have sniggered a little bit.
Tottenham always looked capable of being key beneficiaries of the levelling of the turf. Perpetually on the edge of the Champions’ League places, they’ve nonetheless built a strong young squad under an excellent manager and as domestic TV money renders the impact of the Champions League less of a divisor in income terms, no great surprise that Spurs vaulted over the various misfirings of the “top” clubs. Perversely, however, I can see Spurs suffering more than Leicester in the wake of this extraordinary campaign. The Tottenham side is younger, built on vim and energy, but the pressures of that absurd game at Stamford Bridge clearly affected them. Stronger for it? Perhaps. But starting from scratch is a different thing to coming from behind to chase the big prize. That they didn’t succeed – compounded by slipping behind Arsenal on the final day – might linger, and even if it doesn’t the extent to which the squad can accommodate the extra pressures of the Champions League (and associated home games at Wembley) is questionable. Recruits have been sensible but unspectacular, Kane, Dembélé and Lloris are particular players for whom there is debatable cover.
Everything’s relative. Spurs will still be around the Champions League places. But just outside would be my bet.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
INS: Matt Phillips (Queens Park Rangers, £5,500,000)
OUTS: Josh Ezewele (Yeovil Town, Free), Anders Lindegaard (Preston North End, Free), Victor Anichebe, Samir Nabi, Stéphane Sessegnon, Tahvon Campbell (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Shaun Donnellan (Stevenage, Six Months Loan), Callam Jones (Accrington Stanley, Six Months Loan), Tyler Roberts (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Chay Scrivens (Torquay United, Six Month Loan)
OUR EX-BAGGIES: Jerome Sinclair (youth)
THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw early on and a vital win at the tail end of the season in which Heurelho excelled and survival was effectively confirmed.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Dawson Evans McAuley Brunt
Phillips Fletcher Morrison McClean
VERDICT: Back in the Championship, we’d tell ourselves that there were advantages to being in the second tier. I think that’s pretty indisputable actually… whether you think they outweigh the benefits of top flight football probably depends to no small extent on the last performance. Anyway, another discussion. One of those things, one of the things that we’d tell ourselves made the Championship great was its competitiveness. Anyone can beat anyone, lots of teams at about the same level and all chasing promotion whether it’s automatic or a fanciful grab at sixth. Happy bedlam. What might a moderate-sized club expect to achieve in the top flight? It’s not like a smaller club was ever going to actually, you know, win anything? More likely is relegation straight back where we came, misery. Or, worse (arguably?) this purgatory where you hover in the greyness in the lower half of the table, preoccupied with stopping the other lot from scoring and clinging onto Premier League status.
That’s a bit harsh on West Brom, of course, one of the properer clubs in the division and home of a fine Fanzone. There are plenty of good things to say about Albion, now that Bob Taylor and Lee Hughes aren’t slapping us around twice a season. But good grief, look at that side. Three centre-backs in the defence (occasionally four when Jonas Olsson is wheeled out), the ferocious Yacob in front of them and Darren Fletcher as nominally a more attacking midfielder. The average age of that eleven is over 29. You’d be forgiven for wanting a bit of, you know, excitement? Recklessness?
Albion won’t go down. But they won’t be much fun either… not on the pitch, anyway.
WEST HAM UNITED
INS: Manuel Lanzini (Al Jazeera, Undisclosed), Toni Martinez (Valencia, Undisclosed), Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia, Free), Ashley Fletcher (Manchester United, Free), Håvard Nordtveit (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Free), Gökhan Töre (Besiktas, Season Loan)
OUTS: James Tomkins (Crystal Palace, £10,000,000), Jordan Brown (Hannover 96, Free), Elliot Lee (Barnsley, Free), Leo Chambers, Nathan Mavila, Amos Nasha, Joey O’Brien, Stephen Hendrie (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Kyle Knoyle (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce, End of Loan), Victor Moses (Chelsea, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)
OUR EX-HAMMERS: Valon Behrami, Hayden Mullins
THEIR EX-ORNS: None
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The most impressive win of the season, bottling Dimitri Payet up and leaving him in a skip somewhere. And something altogether less impressive in the build-up o the Cup semi-final.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Byram Nordtveit Reid Cresswell
VERDICT: Will you miss that epic queue for Upton Park tube, in which friendships were formed and broken, couples met, married, divorced and you sometimes felt as if you were stuck on some kind of eternal loop?
No, me neither. Much else about the Boleyn Ground, yes. The intensity and claustrophobia, the proximity to the pitch, completely brilliant. But not that queue. West Ham start the new season at the Olympic Stadium, a grander venue in some respects but less intimate and perhaps, crucially, less intimidating. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes, and how well the increase in capacity by around 70% is managed… very easy to get this wrong and be stuck with a situation where the ground has no distinct demographics. On the pitch, consensus on the messageboards is that West Ham may have overachieved with last season’s seventh place, and a top half place this time would be more than fine; there’s a concern up front as I write, and whilst West Ham games being the most exciting in the division last term in terms of average number of goals (116 goals across 38 games compared to our 90) a team like that always feels a little more precarious than a side with a solid base. Plenty of quality in the Hammers side though, so shouldn’t be in any trouble at the other end… I’ll go for twelfth.
INS: Isaac Success (Granada, £12,500,000), Christian Kabasele (Genk, £5,800,000), Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool, £4,000,000), Brice Dja Djédjé (Marseille, £3,000,000), Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli, Season Loan)
OUTS: Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday, £4,000,000+), Gabriele Angella (Udinese, Undisclosed), Juanfran (Deportivo, Undisclosed), José Manuel Jurado (Espanyol, Undisclosed), Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), George Byers (Swansea City, Free), Josh Doherty (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Hall (Ross County, Free), Bernard Mensah (Aldershot Town, Free), Luke Simpson (York City, Free), Joel Ekstrand, Uche Ikpeazu, Jorell Johnson, Mahlondo Martin, Alfie Young, Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord, Season Loan), Dennon Lewis (Woking, Season Loan), Obbi Oularé (Zulte Waregem, Season Loan), Adalberto Peñaranda (Udinese, Season Loan), Nathan Aké (Chelsea, End of Loan)
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Kabasele Cathcart Britos
Zúñiga Capoue Holebas
VERDICT: The thing about chucking it all up in the air again every summer is that you never know quite where you are. No basis, really, on which to assess how we’re going to do. If this were another club I might feel justified in saying… well, started last season OK but then tailed off a bit. Got to be worried about momentum, really… and then getting rid of their manager? (sorry, head coach). Really? So the new guy’s got to start again, new formation in a new league for a club everyone expects to struggle? Where kinda mid-table apparently isn’t good enough?
Thing is, the Pozzos, Duxbury, haven’t got every decision right, but they’ve got most of them right. So you’ve got to have a bit of faith in that regard. As we’ve discussed before on these pages… and not so very far down the page, although it was months ago… there was no groundswell of dismay about Quique’s departure, not from Hertfordshire anyway. And much as it’s a challenge to formulate a team quickly – to hope something “gels” whilst perpetually giving it a good old stir, as Ian once put it (ish) – it’s not as if we’ve not got a track record for pulling it off. Zola, Jokanovic and Flores all managed this under their tenures; whilst bringing Quique in at the start of last season seemed risky, it also meant that nobody knew what the hell to expect.
That’s only a plus if you kinda hit the ground running, and you may have noticed that our start, particularly at Vicarage Road, isn’t gentle… but our opponents, notably Chelsea and United, will be “gelling” themselves, and perhaps the timing of this run could work in our favour. As for the team… well as I write on the evening of Wednesday 3rd we’re still waiting for an attacking midfielder that’s surely a no brainer if the formation’s going to work. I find it surprising that Abdi was let go given the formation we’re purported to be playing, the more so that he’s gone before any kind of replacement was secured (without even considering the loss of Jurado and the loan of Berghuis). Our midfield last season was solid by design, but an awful lot was asked of the front two. Surprising, in fact, that we’re told that we’re only after one creative midfielder.
Otherwise, the signings seem decent to me. Of good pedigree, adding stuff that was needed, but much as the fees involved are astonishing by our own habits (remember not being able to afford Keith Scott? When Paul Mayo was as much as we could stretch to at full back?) they’re not extravagant by top flight standards and they’re, largely, young. The churn makes it difficult to build heroes, of course… gone are Abdi, Pudil, Ekstrand, only Troy, Ikechi and Tommie Hoban left from Zola’s side really. But then… that only lasts the summer. We had no such ties to Miguel Britos and Étienne Capoue a year ago either.
So how will we do? Who the hell knows. Second season syndrome is a concern, of course, but then that’s rather based on the premise that a side gets found out, loses its surprise value and momentum. We’ve no clue what to expect, so good luck to anyone who finds us out at this stage. Which isn’t to say that it’s inconceivable that we’ll be terrible… but if our worst fears are realised there are a serious number of other candidates with a struggle on this season as researching these pieces has shown.
And if you look on the plus side, several weaknesses of last season’s squad have been addressed. More quality at full-back (wing-back), check. Options up front to put pressure on Iggy and Troy, or to reduce our reliance on their form and fitness, check. We’re going into this a season stronger and wiser having moved on some of those that didn’t work and spun the wheel again.
It won’t be dull. Yoooorns.
Season Preview – Part 4 11/08/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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INS: Nathan Redmond (Norwich City, £11,000,000), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Bayern Munich, Undislcosed), Alex McCarthy (Crystal Palace, Undisclosed), Jeremy Pied (Nice, Undisclosed)
OUTS: Saido Mané (Liverpool, £30,000,000), Victor Wanyama (Tottenham Hotspur, £11,000,000), Juanmi (Real Sociedad, Undisclosed), Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng, Undisclosed), Joe Lea (Yeovil Town, Free), Gastón Ramírez (Middlesbrough, Free), Will Britt, Paulo Gazzaniga (Rayo Vallecano, Season Loan), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, End of Loan), Kelvin Davis (retired)
OUR EX-SAINTS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Ross Wilson (Head of Recruitment)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw in August and an utterly miserable low-point to the season at St Marys.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Cédric Fonte Van Dijk Bertrand
VERDICT: Southampton fans must yawn slightly with the repetitive nature of their summer reviews. Did very well, pat on the head, but Liverpool have signed all their players so they’re going to do well to match that this time. Whatevs. And yet somehow the Saints have improved on the previous season’s position for six consecutive years now, a sixth place finish of all things to crown a magnificent campaign. Where are the doom-mongers now?
Southampton are going to struggle. Not struggle, struggle. They’ve still got one of the best defensive units in the division but… too much. Too much going wrong, too many injury-prone players in key positions, not enough creativity. Mané, Wanyama and Pellé are on this summer’s out-tray, and whilst Redmond and Højbjerg may have quality they’ll be going some to match the players they’re replacing. Up front, in particular, the Saints look weak… Shane Long is a wonderful pain in the backside to have as part of your armoury, you’re in trouble if he’s your main man. Charlie Austin has yet to settle, Jay Rodriguez has started three league games in two seasons. Claude Puel has an impressive pedigree, but has lost Sammy Lee to the England set-up. Most of all, the law of averages suggests that there’s only so often you can pull this trick off… sell off your stars for extraordinary money, cleverly reinvest and get away with it. Some time you mess up. Some time you don’t get it right. Bottom half.
INS: Joe Allen (Liverpool, £13,000,000), Ramadan Sohbi (Al Ahly, Up to £5,000,000)
OUTS: Steve Sidwell (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free), Ben Barber, Edward Dryden, Bobby Moseley, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Odemwingie, Petros Skapetis, Mason Watkins-Clark
OUR EX-POTTERS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A landmark victory at the Britannia stadium in which Miguel Britos made his entrance, and a less glorious reverse at Vicarage Road.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Johnson Shawcross Wollscheid Pieters
Shaqiri Bojan Arnautovic
VERDICT: I know I’m a couple of years behind on this, but where the hell have all the beards come from? It wasn’t too long ago that I remember bemoaning the lack of beards in modern football, citing the likes of Mickey Droy, Mick Ferguson, Luc Millecamps and other Panini heroes of yore. Now, suddenly, the beard is ubiquitous… be it the Joe Ledley “lumberjack” thing, the Juanfran “Geography teacher”, the Roy Keane “wild man of the hills” or the Gareth Bale “Not Bothered to Shave for a couple of days”.
Mark Hughes, also has a beard. I can’t find documentary evidence of it, but I can’t have imagined it because there’s plenty of discussion of it on messageboards of several clubs. One Potters correspondent describes him as “having gone all druidy”, and it’ll take something mystical to deviate City from their course this season. Eight seasons in the top flight have been spent between ninth and fourteenth; in fact the only season in the last 13 that wasn’t spent in mid-table was their promotion campaign of 2007/08. If that sounds like damning with faint praise it shouldn’t; City remain completely brilliant, and seem to build every season in much less risky way than Southampton do. No wholesale shifting on of the star players and trusting to ability to recruit replacements, this is gradual progress augmented every now and again with a signing that’s either eye-catching (Shaqiri) or utterly sensible (Allen). I’m going to go out on a limb here. Eighth.
INS: Papy Djilobodji (Chelsea, £8,000,000)
OUTS: Santiago Vergini (Boca Juniors, Undisclosed), Danny Graham (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Steven Fletcher (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Martin Smith (Kilmarnock, Free), Steve Harper, Mikael Mandron, Will Buckley (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Sebastian Coates (Sporting Lisbon, Season Loan), Adam Matthews (Bristol City, Season Loan), Dame N’Doye (Trabzonspor, End of Loan), Yann M’Vila (Rubin Kazan, End of Loan), Ola Toivonen (Rennes, End of Loan), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)
OUR EX-BLACK CATS: Costel Pantilimon
THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gritty win courtesy of an early goal at the Stadium of Light, and a final day fixture that might have been a relegation nailbiter but wasn’t. Instead we waved goodbye to Quique as Sunderland’s second string held us to a draw.
|1996-97||0-2 / 0-1|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Jones Koné Kaboul Van Aanholt
Khazri Cattermole Kirchhoff Lens
VERDICT: It would be easy, lazy even, to look at this and think, “Sunderland are stuffed”. For all that Sunderland finished the season strongly enough to escape a seemingly inevitable drop (again), for all that they only lost one in a closing eleven. Only three of that run were wins, these including a dismissal of a pathetic Everton side and a perverse win at Norwich. Big Sam made his charges solid and difficult to beat on the back of a raft of successful January signings… but there’s a world of difference between a nothing-to-lose backs-to-the-wall scrap and kicking on again from a standing start. Particularly when Big Sam has moved on; Moyes is an eminently sensible appointment, the noises he’s been making about gradual building and stability sound like just what Sunderland need except… that they might also be interpreted as managing supporters’ expectations. At the time of writing the side that was nearly relegated has signed precisely nobody, with four key loans having returned. Several of these loans are mooted to return but that’s still running to stand still… it doesn’t augur well that the uncertainty around Allardyce is being cited as a reason for nobody being signed yet (did only Moyes think that the squad needed strengthening?), it augurs even less well that Charles N’Zogbia is being considered. You know you are in trouble when that happens.
So it’s easy to think “Sunderland are stuffed”, because it might well be true. A solid core. A prolific striker. Might be enough. Might not. But then Sunderland have been there before. Nineteenth.
INS: Leroy Fer (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Tyler Reid (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Mike van der Hoorn (Ajax, Undisclosed), Mark Birighitti (Newcastle Jets, Free), George Byers (Watford, Free)
OUTS: Eder (Lille, £3,400,000), Alberto Paloschi (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Raheem Hanley (Northampton Town, Free), Daniel Alfei, Kyle Copp, James Demetriou, Stephen Fallon, Alex Gogic, Henry Jones, Lee Lucas, Gareth Owen, Kyle Bartley (Leeds United, Season Loan), Oliver Davies (Kilmarnock, Season Loan), Bafetimbi Gomis (Marseille, Season Loan), Kenji Gorré (Northampton Town, Six Month Loan), Matt Grimes (Leeds United, Season Loan), Ryan Hedges (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Adam King (Southend United, Season Loan), Liam Shephard (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan)
OUR EX-SWANS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: George Byers, Jack Cork
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A significant first win of the season at the Vic, and a disappointing defeat to an Ashley Williams-inspired Swans which every Watford fan who hadn’t been at Southampton thought was terrible.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Naughton Fernandez Williams Taylor
Barrow Sigurdsson Montero
VERDICT: Swansea spent a long time in the lower divisions before emerging very rapidly as a template for all small-to-middling clubs to follow, defying their traditional standing and achieving success playing attractive football to boot. The last year or so has seen the image of a club with a clear masterplan tarnished somewhat; Garry Monk’s very appointment felt odd, almost sentimental and whilst Guidolin is a much more credible coach the Swans are now suffering from a year or two of pretty disastrous transfer dealings. Alberto Paloschi and Éder were both bought and sold at a significant loss within the last twelve months, the latter rubbing salt in the wound by scoring the winning goal from nowhere in the European Championship Final with more conviction and co-ordination than he ever suggested during his brief stint in Wales. Meanwhile Bafetimbi Gomis still has two years left of an expensive and largely unsuccessful contract which Marseille are reportedly only picking up 30% of in the coming season; Andre Ayew is similarly well rewarded if slightly more productively, but rumours of his imminent departure have been around pretty much ever since he signed. Ayew, Sigurdsson and Williams, three of the side’s strongest players, are all linked with moves at the time of writing.
There are probably three worse sides than Swansea but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible that they’ll go down. As it stands the Swans will be short of attacking options – which, admittedly, they coped fairly well with for much of last season, albeit abetted by a gentle injury list – and the support is concerned about the full back positions that haven’t been addressed. Relegation candidates.