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Burnley 2 Watford 0 (26/09/2016) 27/09/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

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.

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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.

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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) 19/09/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
26 comments

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.

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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.

Yoorns.

West Ham United 2 Watford 4 (10/09/2016) 11/09/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- Well it’s not Upton Park.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Yooorns.

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Watford 1 Arsenal 3 (27/08/2016) 28/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

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) 24/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

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) 21/08/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
12 comments

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 12/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Walker       Alderweireld      Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Lamela                      Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

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.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16   1-0
2009-10 1-1
2007-08 0-3 1-1
2003-04 0-1 1-3
2002-03 1-0
2001-02 1-2 1-1
2000-01 3-3 0-3
1998-99 0-2 1-4
1995-96 4-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Dawson         Evans       McAuley           Brunt
Yacob
Phillips       Fletcher           Morrison     McClean
Rondon

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.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Adrian
Byram        Nordtveit        Reid          Cresswell
Kouyate

Noble                           Töre
Payet
Valencia            Carroll

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.

WATFORD

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:

Gomes
Kabasele          Cathcart            Britos
Behrami      Doucouré
Zúñiga                    Capoue                   Holebas
Deeney          Ighalo

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 11/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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SOUTHAMPTON

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.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Forster
Cédric          Fonte        Van Dijk     Bertrand
Højbjerg
Clasie                             Davis
Tadic
Redmond      Long

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.

STOKE CITY

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.

REPORT ARCHIVE

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-2
2007-08 0-0 0-0
2005-06 1-0 3-0
2004-05 0-1 1-0
2003-04 1-3 1-3
2001-02 1-2 2-1
1995-96 3-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Butland
Johnson     Shawcross      Wollscheid      Pieters
Allen          Imbula
Shaqiri                        Bojan                   Arnautovic
Diouf

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.

SUNDERLAND

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.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 2-2
2004-05 1-1 2-4
2003-04 2-2 0-2
2002-03 1-0
1999-00 2-3 0-2
1998-99 2-1 1-4
1996-97 0-2 / 0-1
1995-96 3-3
1982-83 8-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mannone
Jones                  Koné        Kaboul     Van Aanholt
Khazri       Cattermole         Kirchhoff           Lens
Defoe        Borini

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.

SWANSEA CITY

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.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-0
2010-11 2-3
2009-10 0-1
2008-09 2-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabianski
Naughton     Fernandez        Williams     Taylor     
Cork           Fer  
  Barrow                 Sigurdsson                Montero
Ayew   

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.

Season Preview – Part 3 10/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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LIVERPOOL

INS: Saido Mané (Southampton, £30,000,000), Marko Grujic (Red Star Belgrade, £5,100,000), Loris Karius (Mainz 05, £4,700,000), Ragnar Klavan (Augsburg, Undisclosed), Georgino Wijnaldum (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Alex Manninger (Augsburg, Free), Joel Matip (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Jordan Ibe (Bournemouth, £15,000,000), Joe Allen (Stoke City, £13,000,000), Jerome Sinclair (Watford, £4,000,000), Sergi Canas (Norwich City, £2,500,000), Martin Skrtel (Fenerbahce, Undisclosed), Brad Smith (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed)Lawrence Vigouroux (Swindon Town, Undisclosed), Dan Cleary (Birmingham City, Free), Jordan Rossiter (Rangers, Free), Joao Teixeira (Porto, Free), Kolo Touré (Celtic, Free), Tom Brewitt, José Enrique, William Marsh, Ryan McLaughlin, Alex O’Hanlon, Kristof Polgar, Jose Sanchez Diaz, Samed Yasil, Adam Bogdan (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Jack Dunn (Morecambe, Six Month Loan), Jon Flanagan (Burnley, Season Loan), Ryan Fulton (Chesterfield, Season Loan), Ryan Kent (Barnsley, Season Loan), Allan Rodrigues (Hertha BSC, Season Loan), Steven Caulker (Queens Park Rangers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: Harry Kewell, Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A stonking 3-0 triumph in December, and an altogether less impressive 2-0 reverse against a weakened Reds as the season drew to a close.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 3-0
2004-05 0-1 / 0-1
1999-00 2-3 1-0
1984-85 3-4
1969-70 1-0
1966-67 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Karius
Clyne         Matip       Lovren    Moreno
Can              Wijnaldum
Mané                      Firmino               Coutinho
Sturridge

VERDICT: There’s a lot of change afoot this season. More money, yes, yer terms of reference – in as much as you had any – blown out of the water in terms of What A Player Is Worth. We signed Jerome Sinclair from the reds for four million. Four million. For a largely untested kid. How many players had we spent money like that on before this summer? Very few. Before last summer? None. Clubs, too. United, City, Chelsea all bringing in big names at the top to Sort Things Aht. A rehash and relaunch of the soap opera cast – Jose and Pep don’t get on you know – with Arsene Wenger as Pauline Fowler.

In which context, Liverpool are ahead of the game. They did their transition, their Getting Things Sorted early last season which gave the affable, likeable Klopp a relatively gentle introduction, everyone who was anyone acknowledging that he would need a full pre-season to reshape the squad and get the fitness levels up to where they need to be to impose his fabled pressing game. There’s a downside, of course, in that the pressure is now on = if this is Liverpool’s best chance since the last time, it’s also a bit of a blow if it doesn’t come off. Added to which… I’d be a little concerned about the proportion of signings that are taken from Klopp’s sphere of reference, the Bundesliga. Sure, he knows them and perhaps its testament to him that they want to play for him but, you know…

It does look good for the Reds though, for the first time in a while. Klopp doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who will do the classic Liverpool thing of underestimating more moderate opponents – December notwithstanding – and the Anfield crowd will get behind the furious bloody-mindedness that is suggested by his Dortmund team’s reputation. Serious challengers.

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Leroy Sané (Schalke 04, £37,000,000), Gabriel Jesus (Palmeiras, £27,000,000), İlkay Gündoğan (Borussia Dortmund, £21,000,000), Nolito (Celta Vigo, £13,800,000), Aaron Mooy (Melbourne City, Undisclosed), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Ufa, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Charlie Albinson, Martin Demichelis, Nathaniel Oseni, Sam Tattum, Richard Wright, Jack Byrne (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Costel Pantilimon

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A tame submission in Manchester in August, and a far less tame defeat at the turn of the year in which City managed to dig out a couple of goals to win the game.  I thought they’d win the league at that point…

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-2 0-2
2001-02 1-2 0-3
1996-97 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hart
Sagna        Kompany          Otamendi        Clichy
Fernandinho
Silva                           de Bruyne                  Gündoğan
Agüero              Sané

VERDICT: Almost as perverse as the fact that Leicester won the League last season was the fact that City didn’t.  Midway through the campaign with Chelsea languishing, United flattering to deceive, City were three points off the top.  At that stage they were surely champions elect… they knew how to win titles and yes, there were injuries and no, that defence wasn’t all that you’d hope and expect from a top side, but look at the squad.  Look at the cover.  You even had Iheanacho bursting onto the scene and looking pretty terrifying.  And then, and then…  it was announced, leaked, whatever, that Pellegrino would go and Guardiola would come in, and it doesn’t matter who you are, how big the club, how good the resources.  When a management change is announced early, GT in 2001, Ferguson’s false start whenever that was, certainly Pellegrino, the team takes its foot off the gas.  Unforgivable.  They finished fourth, for pity’s sake.

As for Guardiola, I’d question whether many managerial appointments in English football history have had quite such a fanfare, quite the level of expectation.  There have been tremendously successful managers, sure, but Ferguson, Wenger, Shankly, Paisley became legends because of what they achieved.  They didn’t have the same cult status before they were appointed.  What City have going for them, his coaching credentials aside, is that he was in position at Bayern that was at least loosely comparable, coming into a huge pressure situation with ludicrous expectations and a veneer of invincibility. He’s done it before, and whether or not you share the belief that not winning the Champions’ League in Bavaria constitutes failure he was at least manifestly able to handle the pressure.  Counting against him, the knowledge that in a hugely competitive league every little slip will be microscopically examined, every defeat greeted with a degree of paranoia.  There are clubs guiltier of such reactions in adversity than City… but a number of clubs find themselves on a knife-edge this summer and could go either way.  You’d fancy City to be closer to the top of the pile this time though, “transition” or otherwise.

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Eric Bailly (Villarreal, £30,000,000), Henrik Mkhitaryan (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain, Free)

OUTS: Tyler Reid (Swansea City, Undisclosed), Joe Rothwell (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Jimmy Dunne (Manchester United, Free), Ashley Fletcher (West Ham United, Free), Nick Powell (Wigan Athletic, Free), Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough, Free), George Dorrington, Oliver Rathbone, Guillermo Varela (Eintracht Frankfurt, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two narrow defeats, on a bitingly cold day at Vicarage Road and after a spirited but unrewarded midweek trip to Old Trafford.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
20015-16 1-2  0-1
2006-07 1-2
2001-02 0-3
1999-00 2-3 1-4
1984-85 5-1
1978-79 2-1
1968-69 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

De Gea
Valencia      Smalling        Bailly              Shaw
Schneiderlin   Herrera
Mkhitaryan               Rooney                      Martial
Ibrahimovic

VERDICT: I used to hate United.  A real, visceral, from-the-gut-thing twenty or twenty-five years ago with the focused conviction of youth.  Now I’m older and more mature, naturally I hate everybody.  No special exceptions for United.

I think my changing habits and lifestyle must contribute.  As a student you spend time in pubs watching football and you get to, you know, meet or at least witness actual United fans.  Not just United fans, but the sort of United fan who stands out in a pub as his club which might perhaps have had an issue about how important it believed itself to be in any case won its first title in 25 years (or whatever).  Now…  I know United fans, some of them are idiots but you accommodate the idiots that you are frequently exposed to and I don’t often watch football in pubs of strangers any more.  Only in preparation for writing this piece, reading United blogs and reports disparagingly sneering at the Europa League as somehow beneath them and To Be A Thing Of The Past when their rightful status is restored.  Safe to assume that Viserys Targaryan would have been a United fan.

Enter Jose Mourinho.  I always fancied that he would have been the ideal replacement for Ferguson in the first place… arrogant enough to perhaps carry that mantle and, if not, to explode quickly and absolutely allowing someone more long-term to step in, clear of the mantle of being The Replacement.  Now?  Well… you can see it going either way.  More so than City, even.  The single-mindedness, the siege mentality that Mourinho instills suits United, but the fact that he has been the club’s adversary for so long will count against him very quickly if things don’t go well.  The quality of players coming in his high but defensively the side looks weak, weaker than some of the other likely challengers.  Nor is it clear how it will all fit together… Di Maria, two years ago, looked a spectacular signing too.  Mourinho won’t make them any more likeable.  It won’t be dull, either.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Maarten de Roon (Atalanta, £12,000,000), Viktor Fischer (Ajax, £4,000,000), Antonio Barragán (Valencia, Undisclosed), Bernardo Espinosa (Sporting Gijon, Free), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, Free), Gastón Ramírez (Southampton, Free), Victor Valdes (Manchester United, Free), Alvaro Negredo (Valencia, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jordan Jones (Rangers, Free), Rhys Williams (Perth Glory, Free), Damia Abella, Jonathan Woodgate, Connor Ripley (Oldham Athletic, Season Loan), Michael Agazzi (Milan, End of Loan), Ritchie de Laet (Leicester City, End of Loan), Tomáš Kalas (Chelsea, End of Loan), Gastón Ramírez (Southampton, End of Loan), Kike Sola (Athletic Bilbao, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A hard-fought draw at the Riverside and a pivotal victory at the Vic during our promotion season.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 2-0  1-1
2013-14 1-0
2012-13 1-2  2-1
2011-12 2-1
2010-11 3-1
1999-00 1-3 1-1  0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Valdes
Barragán         Ayala        Espinosa          Friend
Clayton       de Roon
    Adomah         Ramírez               Fischer
Negredo

VERDICT: Seems a long time ago that we were chasing down promotion.  I was in Brighton last week (as I write this) which brought back that dramatic end of season and the dramatic penultimate weekend in which our top two position was confirmed.  It was hugely powerful stuff… and of an extraordinarily high standard, I don’t remember a second tier being as strong.  Middlesbrough were one of (at least) four very potent sides, the one that missed out, so it’s impossible to begrudge them promotion at the next opportunity;  having done so, little surprise that the seemingly volatile but popular Karanka has called in a few Spanish names to strengthen the squad.  There’s a common thread in Valdes and Negredo, two experienced heads whose careers in England to date haven’t gone terribly well.  Ramírez, too, was far from an unqualified success at Southampton.  So if these players have something to prove and Karanka can harness them into his side Boro could do OK.  If not… you fancy there’s a fair amount of quality here, they should at least steer clear of the drop.

Season Preview – Part 2 09/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Andros Townsend (Newcastle United, £13,000,000), James Tomkins (West Ham United, £10,000,000), Steve Mandanda (Marseille, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Dwight Gayle (Newcastle United, £10,000,000), Jerome Binnom-Williams (Peterborough United, Undisclosed), Jake Gray (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Alex McCarthy (Southampton, Undisclosed), David Gregory (Cambridge United, Free), Chris Kettings (Oldham Athletic, Free), Emmanuel Adebayor, Reise Allassani, Marouane Chamakh, Connor Dymond, Spencer Forte, Matthew George, Will Hoare, Brede Hangeland, Paddy McCarthy, Adrian Mariappa, Oliver Pain, Christian Scales

OUR EX-EAGLES: Adlène Guedioura, Hayden Mullins, Ben Watson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Keith Millen (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Don’t.  Just, don’t.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 0-1  1-2
2012-13 2-2 0-1
2011-12 0-2 0-4
2010-11 1-1 2-3
2009-10 1-3
2008-09 2-0 0-0 4-3
2007-08 0-2 2-0 2-0
2005-06 1-2 1-3 0-0 / 3-0
2003-04 1-5 0-1
2002-03 3-3 1-0
2001-02 1-0 2-0
2000-01 2-2 0-1
1998-99 2-1 2-2
1995-96 0-4
1993-94 2-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mandanda
Ward              Dann         Tomkins        Souaré
McArthur           Cabaye
Zaha                           Bolasie                  Townsend
Wickham

VERDICT: There’s a danger in extrapolation. Take a pattern and blindly extend its trajectory and you end up predicting all sorts of crazy shit (insert joke about EU Referendum here). Nonetheless, and Cup Final notwithstanding, it won’t have escaped Palace fans’ notice that they only picked up 11 points and two wins in the second half of last season; for context, our own downward trajectory nonetheless yielded twice as many wins and 16 points. At the time of writing some of Palace’s problems remain… lack of a focal point for the attack, despite ambitious sounding targets being mooted, the most obvious. Alan Pardew, some might speculate, might be another. There have been encouraging looking signings coming in – Tomkins and Mandanda look sensible, Townsend an asset albeit in an area where the Eagles already seemed well-served. If you had to put a pin in the table describing where Palace belonged you’d put it slightly higher up than they finished, but lower than they were suggesting in the first half of the campaign… but if they don’t take advantage of a relatively gentle start which sees Spurs and Stoke the only opponents in the first seven to have finished above halfway last term, the Eagles will be getting nervous.

 

EVERTON

INS: Idrissa Gueye (Aston Villa, £7,100,000), Nathan Baxter (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), Chris Renshaw (Oldham Athletic, Undisclosed), Bassala Sambou (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids, Free), Aidan Graham, Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Mattioni, Jindrich Stanek, Jordan Thorniley, Conor Grant (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Russell Griffiths (Cheltenham Town, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tom Cleverley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A splendid draw at Goodison that set things going rather well, and an altogether less glorious point at Vicarage Road in a match best forgotten – and, indeed, largely forgotten – by all concerned.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16  1-1 2-2
2006-07 1-2
2000-01 1-2
1999-00 1-3 2-4
1983-84 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stekelenburg
Coleman        Jagielka     Stones         Baines
Lennon           McCarthy          Barkley          Mirallas
Deulofeu        Lukaku

VERDICT: There was a school of thought that Roberto Martinez was rather hard done by.  That school won’t have been present at Vicarage Road in April when a half-arsed unmotivated Toffees side struggled against a scarcely more impressive Hornets.  A season that began with coos as to how this was such a talented Everton squad with so much evident quality had petered out into a quiet embarrassment long before the end, a drunken divorcee sitting miserably alone with another glass of wine at a party that everyone regretted inviting them to.  Martinez, for all his suave manner, was ever less convincing as time went on, a man waiting to be put out of Goodison Park’s misery.

On the back of a February takeover, somewhat inevitably, comes Ronald Koeman with a new broom and if the talk of a new dawn remains just that for the moment it’s perhaps significant that at the time of writing (and it’s still July here folks, I can’t churn this gubbins out instantaneously much as it reads like it) the underachieving trio of Barkley, Stones and (more arguably) Lukaku, all linked with moves, remain at the club.  It will take time, you suspect, even if this new dawn is to be a positive thing; it’s difficult to see Everton doing any better than an OK-ish mid-table this season.  But Koeman has profile, and a history of playing an apparently unfavourable hand to stunning effect at Southampton.  One of many that will be interesting to watch develop.  Tenth.

HULL CITY

INS: Will Mannion (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Mohamed Diamé (Newcastle United, £4,500,000), Sone Aluko (Fulham, Free), Ryan Taylor, Matt Clark (Cambridge United, Six Month Loan), Chuba Akpom (Arsenal, End of Loan), Isaac Hayden (Arsenal, End of Loan), Nick Powell (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TIGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two heavyweight encounters with the Tigers during the Zola season, which resulted in a worthy away win for each side and a mighty celebration in response to a mighty Troy Deeney winner at the KC.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2012-13 1-2  1-0
2011-12 1-1
2010-11 1-2
2007-08 1-0  0-2 / 1-4
2005-06 0-0  2-1
1998-99  0-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McGregor
Odubajo         Davies          Dawson     Robertson
Snodgrass       Clucas    Huddlestone  Livermore      Elmohamady
Hernandez

VERDICT: There’s a point in any relegation season when You Know.  In dramatic circumstances it might not happen until the last day of the season…. Muzzy Izzet’s goal for Leicester in 1996.  Or it might happen much earlier;  hearing that Marlon King was likely out for the season in November 2006.  Getting dicked by Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in 1999.

You know where this is going already.  I’ve nothing against Hull.  Surprising really, given their role in our two most recent failures to secure accessible promotions, in 2008 and 2013.  On both occasions City’s role was… not quite incidental but certainly not unduly provocative, particularly three years ago (does it feel longer?) when perverse circumstances delayed the game against Leeds both giving us the illusion of control over our destiny and taking it away again.  Hull merely chanced upon the twenty quid that fell out of our pocket.

City were, in relative terms, unimpressive play-off winners last season.  They’d wandered into the automatic places a couple of times over the season but almost by accident and never with any great conviction.  That point, that point when Hull realise that the season will end in relegation, has passed before a ball has been kicked.  The untrusted Egyptian owners, vague rumours of a takeover never having quite progressed beyond that, have presided over a situation that has seen no senior players recruited at the time of writing, manager Steve Bruce resign, three members of the defence that was City’s strongest suit last season (Allan McGregor, Moses Odubajo and Matt Dawson) succumb to long term injuries and, reportedly, six players hand in transfer requests in the wake of Bruce’s departure.  Hal Robson-Kanu had a decent European Championship, but when you’re pinning your Premier League rebuilding on a striker with a moderate record for Reading and 35 year-old Peter Odemwingie you know you’re in trouble.  Will be a long season for the Tigers.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Bartosz Kapustka (KS Cracovia, Undisclosed), Nempalys Mendy (Nice, Undisclosed), Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow, Undisclosed), Raul Uche (Rayo Vallecano, Undisclosed), Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover 96, Undisclosed), Luis Hernandez (Sporting Gijon, Free)

OUTS: N’golo Kanté (Chelsea, £32,000,000), Joe Dodoo (Rangers, Undisclosed), Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Jacob Blyth (Motherwell, Free), Dean Hammond (Sheffield United, Free), Paul Konchesky (Gillingham, Free), Jonny Maddison (Yeovil Town, Free), Elliot Percival (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Ryan Watson (Barnet, Free), Kyle Bailey, Jack Barmby, Aaron Hassall, Michael Kelly, Keenan King, Harrison Panayiotou, Mark Schwarzer, Max Smith-Varnam, Michael Cain (Blackpool, Season Loan), Nathan Dyer (Swansea City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two single-goal defeats, narrow and yet fair enough.  In any other season, pretty unremarkable.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 0-1 1-2
2013-14 0-3 2-2
2012-13 2-1 2-1 3-1 / 0-1
2011-12 3-2 0-2
2010-11 3-2 2-4
2009-10 3-3
2005-06 1-2 2-2
2004-05 2-2 1-0
2002-03 1-2 0-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1
1995-96 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Simpson       Hernandez          Morgan          Fuchs
Mahrez                Drinkwater               Mendy              Kapustka
Vardy         Musa

VERDICT: And to think that there were some idiots a year ago predicting that Leicester would get relegated…

“Be careful what you wish for,” was always the mantra.  Clubs like Leicester, or Palace, or Watford…  you get promoted, and then what?  Mid-table isn’t a glamorous aspiration, but surely that’s all you’ve got?  That, maybe a cup run, a win against one of the top teams with the wind behind you.  Woooo.   And then, when you have a bad season, when you get injuries at the wrong time or the biggish signing doesn’t quite work you’re down again, and just one of a bunch of similar clubs but now with downward momentum.  Be careful what you wish for.  There’s a lot to be said for the comfort of the Championship, knowing you can more or less rock up to games and pay on the day, against proper football supporters, and not get dicked every week.

Well so much for that.  Balls to all that.  Leicester’s title is just as wonderfully ludicrous now as it seemed at any point, time hasn’t lessened or contextualised.  Yes, all the traditional contenders had disappointing seasons but they were disappointing in no small part because they didn’t win the League and Leicester did.  So what’s chicken and what’s egg?  Watch City not care.

As for what happens next… City’s advantage is that it almost doesn’t matter in the short term.  Rarely will League Champions go into a new season with, simultaneously, such buoyant support and such relatively moderate expectation.  Not that it’s impossible that they win the League again, nobody’s going to rule that out after last time… but it’s not, perhaps, expected.  So the pressure’s off, and that’s got to help… which is a good thing, because the elaborate distraction of the Champions’ League will be significant, and champions or not Leicester have lost key men in Kanté and recruitment chief Walsh.

Nonetheless, City have recruited well.  When the summer started City were linked with Troy and Bolasie… Troy won’t happen and Bolasie’s gone very quiet but that felt right, felt like the sort of player that City could and should be strengthening their hand with.  Top players at mid-tabley clubs who might not have gone for Leicester in the normal way but as Champions, with the Champions League to look forward to…  an indication that they were going to be sensible about it.  The new signings, ultimately, have come from abroad but you’d be a fool to dismiss them out of hand and a bigger fool to predict where they’ll finish this time.