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Watford 2 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 (11/08/2018) 12/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- Twitter is a fine thing in many respects.  The immediacy of information in easily digestible chunks, the accessibility of opinion.  The availability of independent points of view, not merely a government line or that of a particular newspaper or broadcaster.

But it has its downsides also.  The “echo chamber” is by far the most pernicious… the natural tendency to follow the feeds and to listen to the voices that you agree with whilst screening out any opposing point of view.  The BBC are often criticised (not always unreasonably) for their insistence on balance without judgement, but here’s an alternative at the other extreme:  the only voices you hear are those that reflect your opinion, and therefore your opinion is polarised and reinforced by the illusion of consensus.  Added to this is the fact that the only dissenting voices you do hear are the extreme ones, the ones retweeted and argued with:  “have you heard this idiot?”.  No moderation.  No balance.

In a football context, nobody who has wandered into Twitter’s feral wasteland should be under any illusions about the tendency for extreme positions to gain traction.  A tiresome shoutiness seems to be the default, and our limited transfer activity despite plenty of rumour in the dying days of the window were enough to upset some.  You’d think that Scott Duxbury and the Pozzos were somehow untried chancers, that they hadn’t earned a degree of trust with this sort of stuff.

The revelation that our starting eleven today would feature the same ten outfielders as the last day of last season – the wonderfully, hysterically welcomed Ben Foster for Karnezis the only change – was greeted with further derision. The untested attractions of Marc Navarro and Adam Masina deemed instantly and scoffably preferable to Daryl Janmaat and Jose Holebas. Reminding me of how I explained to my mate Joe in early 1988 how Stuart Rimmer was going to score the goals to save us from relegation. The Law of Other. Joe was scornful too, but I was only fifteen in my defence…

Meanwhile our visitors had also refrained from drafting in many of their summer recruits – only one, in fact, the full back Bernardo, beyond who only one further change was made to the starting eleven fielded by the Seagulls in this fixture almost a year ago last season.  Their biggest buys waited on an impressive looking bench.

2- Let’s not piss about with this.  We were really, really good.  Dynamic, energetic, organised and motivated.  Pressing high, working together, very quickly and obviously with the number of our visitors (of whom more later).  Early in the game Albion were suggesting a threat – we had the more possession, but a left wing cross floated too close to Glenn Murray’s head, and Dale Stephens sent a volley narrowly wide.

But the action was at the other end of the pitch where Troy and Andre Gray revelled in the forgotten attractions of a 4-4-2.  Whilst neither got on the scoresheet both looked thoroughly at ease with the other’s presence;  Gray it was who recorded the first shot on target, haring after a ball over the top and impressively holding off a tentative defender to snap a shot that Ryan did well to parry.    Later Troy had perhaps a better chance but the ball got stuck under his feet, he forced Ryan into another good stop but should maybe not have given him that chance.

Our ever-increasing dominance however was based in our midfield, from which the prodigious talents of Chalobah, Cleverley and Deulofeu remain absent.  Doucouré too looked ring-rusty, understandably – but what a joy to still see him in a Hornets’ shirt.  Capoue continued where he left off last season with the sort of focused performance that Gracia seems to have coaxed more regularly than his predecessors.

But it was the wide men who stole the show.  Will Hughes remains an absolute joy, simultaneously quick-footed, quick-minded and tenacious;  he’s as likely to tiptoe through Albion’s forest of space-denying legs as he is to scythe into it and whistle away with the ball.  And Pereyra, of course.  He was the out-ball throughout, prominent before Bruno’s removal through injury and all over Bernardo, tying him in knots from a position often close to the touchline.  There remains a doubt, a concern that we are well manned in midfield, that we have 18 senior non-home grown players, that Pereyra has been linked with a return to Italy all summer.  You desperately hope that he’s still here come September, for his ability to conjure something up as much as for, say, the technique and power evident in the opening goal which he clubbed through Ryan’s outstretched palm.

3- In many respects the question on Brighton is quite how bad they were, versus how bad we made them look.  The goal is an example…  someone should have been keeping an eye on Pereyra but he arrived late to fill the space on the edge of the box vacated by decoy runs to the near post.  Yes, Albion were dozy but we forced the issue.  Similarly in midfield, Albion were overrun and perhaps even complacent but it was in the face of our relentless and disciplined pressing that it crumpled.  When we broke, particularly in the first half having regained possession deep we hurtled through the midfield;  there’s maybe a concern that we didn’t capitalise but with Deulofeu’s pace and Chalobah’s awareness to return you’ve got to fancy us away from home.

Albion’s two second half subs, Yves Bissouma and Alireza Jahanbakhsh had both been linked to the Hornets in previous windows;  both suggested better things to come for the visitors.  Bissouma’s squirrelling run resulted in a shot that squeezed outside the post; he looked terrific, if immature and easily riled;  Jahanbakhsh had less of an impact but made a couple of aggressive runs down the right flank.

High on the of Albion’s culprits was Anthony Knockaert. His limited charm not enhanced by a bizarre metallic bleached haircut, he was a parody of himself.  Careless with possession throughout, he reprised his most notorious dive of five years ago with a very similar flop in a very similar position;  only the most blinkered in the away end appealed, most – including the rest of the Albion side – turned away in disdain.  Knockaert, again, was complicit in the second Watford goal which saw Holebas win the confrontation that released Pereyra to score his stock goal by cutting inside ad curling a shot around Ryan.

4- Perhaps the most telling contrast between the two sides was in the defending.  Albion’s central duo are rightly lauded, but it’s all about crowding and smothering, getting a block in, getting a head to something.  They’re very good at it, but it has an air of desperation and lack of control about it.  This is starkly different to the utter composure of Cathcart and Kabasele;  the latter had to make one forty yard dash to snuff out a threat but otherwise it was a masterclass of being-in-the-right-place defending.  Tougher challenges to come, but this again looks as strong a centre-back pairing as we’ve had for many years.  The one concern remains their ability to manage a physical confrontation since neither is massive for a player in their position, but Glenn Murray got precisely nowhere today.

5- So there we are.  Having managed the end of the game with absolute comfort the whistle went and our first opening day win in the top flight since football was invented in 1992 was secured.  One game, obviously, against a team that were terrible away from home last season.  It wasn’t perfect…  we could have, should have scored more.  But no Hornets will have left Vicarage Road concerned or disappointed.

And quite aside from that, from the mere detail of an inspiring and gutsy home win, football’s back.  Hurrah for that.  Hurrah for all the Other Bits… the pre-match meal.  The saying hello to everyone (“Do you realise this is our twentieth season in these seats” – yeah, thanks a bunch Pete), the gorgeous addition to the pre-match montage in which Rita Taylor turns towards the statue of her late, great husband.  The good-natured crowd sharing moments as a stream of folk took their turn for a pic next to the statue.  Four year-old nephew Jacob, witnessing his second home game and first win, gently singing “Abdoulaye Doucouré’s egg” at his great-grandma’s house as the excitement of the game segues into his dinner.  All brilliant.

Winning helps, obvs.  But football’s back, and it’s great.  Bring it on.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 5, Doucouré 3, Capoue 4, *Pereyra 5*, Gray 4, Deeney 3

Subs: Success (for Gray, 75) 3, Sema (for Hughes, 81) 0, Femenía (for Pereyra, 87) 0, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina, Gomes

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Season Preview 2018 – Part 5 10/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: None

OUTS: Keenan Bennetts (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Undisclosed), Anthony Walkes (Portsmouth, Undisclosed), Ryan Loft (Leicester City, Free), Christian Maghoma (Arka Gdynia), Joe Pritchard (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Luke O’Reilly, Nick Tsaroulla

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes, Younès Kaboul

THEIR EX-ORNS: John McDermott (Head of Academy), Danny Rose, Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A scruffy, irritating draw against ten men at the Vic and a mundane defeat of our own devising at Wembley under captain Mapps.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Trippier       Sanchez           Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Son                           Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

VERDICT: The thing with Spurs this season is the move into the new stadium, slightly delayed from the summer meaning that of Spurs scheduled home games the visit of Fulham will take place at Wembley whilst the games against ourselves were reversed.  This gives us four out of our first five at home, whilst an injury-limited Spurs might have an iffy start to the season, their opening seven Premier League games being at different grounds.

The most significant aspect of Spurs’ transfer activity has been the lack of it – no significant ins or outs at the time of writing despite the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose seemingly seeking to follow Kyle Walker’s lead in escaping the Spurs’ wage structure.  The squad is plenty strong enough of course, and plenty is expected of Lucas Moura, Harry Winks and Erik Lamela who for various reasons weren’t able to impact last season as much as hoped.

Nonetheless it’s difficult to see Spurs achieving anything more than a Champions’ League place, probably, given that start.  When and whether Spurs tire of Pocchetino’s good-but-no-cigar will be the interesting narrative.  Fourth.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Felipe Anderson (Lazio, £26,500,000), Issa Diop (Toulouse, £21,900,000), Łukasz Fabiański (Swansea City, £7,000,000), Xande Silva (Vitória Guimarães, £2,000,000), Fabien Balbuena (Corinthians, Undisclosed), Andriy Yarmolenko (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Ryan Fredericks (Fulham, Free), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal, Free)

OUTS: Reece Burke (Hull City, Undisclosed), Cheikhou Kouyaté (Crystal Palace, Undisclosed), Domingos Quina (Watford, Undisclosed), Korrey Henry (Yeovil Town, Free), James Collins, Patrice Evra, Marcus Browne (Oxford United, Season Loan), Sead Haksabanovic (Malaga, Season Loan), Jordan Hugill (Middlesbrough, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Sam Howes, Hayden Mullins, Domingos Quina

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A good win at Vicarage Road in defiance of Andy Carroll’s opening elbow and, if only briefly, Everton’s shenanigans, and a mundane defeat .at the London Stadium.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Reid          Cresswell
Obiang           Noble

Yarmolenko              Wilshere                 Anderson
Arnautović

VERDICT: A year ago, West Ham signed a load of old players and I was daft enough to predict a comfortable top half finish.  As it turned out the Hammers would struggle early on, winning only two of fifteen games in a run which saw the end of Slaven Bilic’s Hammers career and the rather surprising recruitment of David Moyes to oversee survival.  This he did, with the Hammers slipping past us on the final day by beating Everton as we lost at Old Trafford.

The relegation that seemed at least a possibility for much of the season would have been particularly catastrophic for the Hammers and the club have responded with an unequivocal statement of intent by disposing of Moyes, hiring a high profile manager and performing a dramatic overhaul of the playing staff.  Felipe Anderson’s fee makes him the stand-out name, Jack Wilshere might stay fit, Yarmolenko has been about to move to the Premier League forever, but it’s the signings of Fredericks and Fabianski that suggest that something might have changed.  Eminently sensible.

It’s a massive influx of players, most of whom you’d expect to be first team players, and the Hammers have a tough start so things might not look great straight away but it’s surely inconceivable that the Hammers will struggle again.  Having nearly tempted fate last time by saying ninth I’ll go one better with eighth in the hope that’ll do the trick.

And the stadium is still shocking, obvs.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Adama Traoré (Middlesbrough, £18,000,000), Benik Afobe (Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Joao Moutinho (AS Monaco, £5,000,000), Leo Bonatini (Al Hilal, Undisclosed), Willy Boly (Porto, Undisclosed), Ruben Vinaigre (Monaco, Undisclosed), Paulo Alves (Liverpool, Free), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon, Free), Jonny Castro (Atlético Madrid, Season Loan), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Raúl Jiménez (Benfica, Season Loan)

OUTS: Barry Douglas (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ben Marshall (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Duckens Nazon (Saint Truidense, Undisclosed), Prince Oniangue (Caen, Undisclosed), Jon Flatt (Scunthorpe United, Free), Hakeem Odoffin (Northampton Town, Free), Jordan Allan, Dan Armstrong, Anto Breslin, Nicolae Carnat, Ross Finnie, Conor Levingston, Tomás Nogueira, Adam Osbourne, Ryan Rainey, José Xavier, Benik Afobe (Stoke City, Six Month Loan), Harry Burgoyne (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Roderick Miranda (Olympiakos, Season Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable Boxing Day defeat at Vicarage Road and an eventful 2-2 draw at Molineux which featured that encounter between Fessi and Bakary Sako.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

 

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez        Costa

VERDICT: Here, almost at the end, is possibly the hardest prediction to make, if only because the side has changed beyond any recognition since we last played the Wolves.  The club has changed too… now owned by Chinese group Fosun International the influence of their advisor, super-agent Jorge Mendes is evident.  Boss Nuno Espirito Santo was his first client, and the stellar summer signings of Rui Patricio and João Moutinho are only the latest in a procession of impressive-looking arrivals that have resulted in a strong core of Portuguese players and staff at the club.

Popular wisdom from those watching the Championship regularly is that Wolves won’t struggle in the Premier League;  a haul of 99 points followed by an active summer backs that up.  It’s not quite a foregone conclusion though;  Nuno Espirito Santo has, by reputation, a very fixed idea about how his teams should play.  This is glorious when it works, but the test of any successful Premier League manager is how he reacts when it doesn’t, and Wolves will have a dodgy spell like everyone else.  Wolves’ approach was very open and offensive last season which, again, is great when it works and horribly demoralising when it doesn’t.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see anything worse than lower mid-table for this Wolves squad.  Quite how much more than that they achieve depends on how quickly everyone adapts, the coach not least.  I’ll go for thirteenth.

WATFORD

INS: Gerard Deulofeu  (Barcelona, £11,500,000), Adam Masina (Bologna, £3,500,000), Ken Sema (Ostersunds, £900,000), Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Marc Navarro (Espanyol, Undisclosed), Domingos Quina (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Ben Wilmot (Stevenage, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Nordin Amrabat (Al Nasr, Undisclosed), Costel Pantilimon (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Richarlíson (Everton, Undisclosed), Mauro Zárate (Boca Juniors, Undisclosed), Harvey Bradbury (Oxford United, Free), Dennon Lewis (Falkirk, Free), Brandon Mason (Coventry City, Free), David Sesay (Crawley Town, Free), Conor Stevens (Wealdstone Free), Nathan Gartside, Louis Rogers, Charlie Rowan, Max Ryan, Carl Stewart, André Carrillo (Benfica, End of Loan), Didier Ndong (Sunderland, End of Loan), Orestis Karnezis (Udinese, End of Loan), Molla Wagué (Udinese, End of Loan), Daniel Bachmann (Kilmarnock, Season Loan), Kingsley Fobi (SD Ejea, Season Loan), Tommie Hoban (Aberdeen, Season Loan), Alex Jakubiak (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan), Dodi Lukebakio (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Season Loan), Jerome Sinclair (Sunderland, Season Loan), Luis Suarez (Gimnàstic, Season Loan), Randell Williams (Wycombe Wanderers, Season Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Janmaat          Cathcart          Kabasele            Masina
Chalobah      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Cleverley                       Pereyra
Deeney

VERDICT: Football’s brilliant.

Yes I know that the summer was particularly short.  That the Premier League is a flagrant disgusting disgrace in so many ways.  That there are so many other worthier things to spend your time on.

Still.  Football’s brilliant.  Brilliant being part of something.  Brilliant identifying with a side.  Brilliant that we’re supposedly looking at a “mercenary” club that trades players freely and managers just as freely… and that nonetheless, as widely publicised earlier in the summer, now (still) boasts seven former or current Players of the Season in Cleverley, Mariappa, Deeney, Gomes, Prödl, Foster and Doucouré.  The last two are particularly significant;  Foster a tremendously popular heir to Heurelho Gomes, absolutely consistent with the hope that Pontus Dahlberg will grow into the position of first team regular.  And Doucouré.  Wow.  I can’t have been the only one who thought we’d seen the last of him, him above Richarlíson really.

Richarlíson may prove to be good value for Everton.  Maybe.  But he was mediocre for much of the season and perhaps Marco Silva was the only manager who would have paid what would have been needed.  But Doucouré is worth stupid money now.  He’s good enough for any team in the county now.  And he’s signed a new five year contract.

To most of the division we’re relegation candidates, certainly the sort of side that could go down if we have a bad season with injuries, say.  Thing is we had that season last season.  And the season before.  And we’re still here.  As well as the signings, as well as the surprise of retaining Doucs, we’ve a load of effectively new signings in players returning from injury.  We have the gem that is Nathaniel Chalobah returning to reprise that extraordinarily wonderful partnership with Doucouré, and then Tom Cleverley too.  And others… Cathcart, Kaboul, who barely had a season last term.  Troy with a pre-season. The blistering pace of Deulofeu. The mystery prize that is Adalberto Peñaranda, finally with his work permit, the unknown quantities that are Navarro, Masina, Sema.  Richarlíson was similarly anonymous last season.

It’s not all roses of course.  We need more options up front.  Cathcart/Kabasele looks a gorgeous partnership but neither is huge, would you fancy them against a bully of a centre-forward?  We’ve got that opening run at home too, no choice but to hit the ground running.

Balls to it.  It’s going to be great.  We’re going to be great.  Bring it on.

Yoorns.

Season Preview 2018 – Part 4 09/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City, £60,000,000), Philippe Sandler (PEC Zwolle, £2,600,000), Claudio Gomes (Paris St.Germain, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Angus Gunn (Southampton, £13,500,000), Joe Hart (Burnley, £3,500,000), Angelino (PSV Eindhoven, Undisclosed), Jacob Davenport (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Olarenwaju Kayode (Shakhtar Donetsk, Undisclosed), Rodney Kongolo (Heerenveen, Undisclosed), Pablo Maffeo (VfB Stuttgart, Undisclosed), Will Patching (Notts County, Free), Erik Sarmiento (Espanyol, Free), Pawel Sokol (Korona Kielce, Free), Sadou Diallo, Demeaco Duhaney, Yaya Touré, Marcus Wood, Tosin Adarabioyo (West Bromwich Albion, Season Loan), Brandon Barker (Preston North End, Season Loan), Bersant Celina (Swansea City, Season Loan), Paolo Fernandes (NAC Breda, Season Loan), Jack Harrison (Leeds United, Season Loan), Erik Palmer-Brown (NAC Breda, Season Loan), Matt Smith (Twente, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An extraordinary game at the Vic in which we played quite well and lost 6-0, and a more mundane defeat in Manchester in January.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 0-6
2016-17 0-5
2015-16 1-2 0-2
2001-02 1-2 0-3
1996-97 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Éderson
Walker        Stones     Laporte       Mendy
Fernandinho
Silva                           de Bruyne
Sterling             Agüero                 Sané

VERDICT: There’s surprisingly little to say here.  Fundamentally last season there was City and there was everyone else;  their performance at the Vic was one of the best team performances I’ve ever seen and they did that to teams quite a lot.  Over the summer they’ve brought in Mahrez and have Mendy fit, effectively a new signing having missed all but the opening weeks of last season.  There’s the question of how easy it will be to replicate last season, how defending titles is such a difficult thing.  Perhaps of how much the likes of Fernandinho (33), David Silva (32), even Agüero (30) have got left in them.  But then you look at the players queuing up behind them – Delph, Bernardo, Jesus.  The only real question is how many points they will win the title by.

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk, £52,000,000), Diogo Dalot (Porto, £19,000,000), Lee Grant (Stoke City, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Daley Blind (Ajax, £14,100,000), Sam Johnstone (West Bromwich Albion, £6,500,000), Max Johnstone (Sunderland, Free), Ilias Moutha-Sebtaoui (Anderlecht, Free), Joe Riley (Bradford City, Free), Michael Carrick, Jake Kenyon, Devonte Redmond, Theo Richardson, Charlie Scott, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson (Scunthorpe United, Season Loan), Dean Henderson (Sheffield United, Season Loan), Joel Pereira (Vitória Setúbal, Season Loan), Axel Tuanzebe (Aston Villa, Season Loan), Matty Willock (St Mirren, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley, Ben Foster

THEIR EX-ORNS: John Alexander (Club Secretary), Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An almost comeback under floodlights in which Will Hughes’ hamstring popped and a final day defeat in which Nathaniel Chalobah finally returned to the fold.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 3-1
2015-16 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      Lindelof       Bailly              Young
Matić             Fred
Lingard                  Pogba                          Sanchez
Lukaku

VERDICT: It’s old news now, but replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be impossible.  My own view, for what is was worth, was that Mourinho should have been appointed then.  Arrogant enough not to care about the inevitable comparisons, strong enough to succeed anyway (maybe) but if he failed he’d fail quickly and possibly spectacularly leaving a cleaner slate for someone else. This, in preference to the slower more painful slide under Moyes for instance.

Five years on, Mourinho is in situ and as ever, it’s all about him.  United’s squad looks strong, obviously, if not strong enough to seriously challenge City which is surely the main marker for their support.  But Mourinho’s third season syndrome is notorious, the pattern by which he descends into a funk having alienated too many of his players and colleagues with his peevish bullying and ends up leaving under a cloud.  This happened at Chelsea and at Real Madrid, and to a degree in the third season of his first spell at Chelsea also.

And so this summer is dominated by his whining about United’s levels of investment (one of the highest total spends in the Premier League once again and stratospheric in previous transfer windows), by his criticism of his own team and (particularly) younger players.  It’s a well worn and tragic pattern, and much as United have improved under Mourinho you’d have to wonder whether it’s all really worth it.  Would you rather be managed by someone who was a bit rubbish but a nice bloke who you rooted for, or by a narcissistic bully who has an outside chance of hauling you back to the summit?  Easy for me to be sanctimonious I suppose, not my decision.  But if I’m bored then some United fans must surely be.

Anyway.  Potential for spectacular catastrophe, particularly with the Pogba to Barcelona thing bubbling as I type and other targets mooted before today’s transfer window.  Anything from second to sixth.

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: Yoshinuro Muto (Mainz, £9,500,000), Fabian Schär (Deportivo, £3,000,000), Martin Dubravka (Sparta Prague, Undisclosed), Ki Sung Yeung (Swansea City, Free), Kenedy (Chelsea, Season Loan), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, Season Loan)

OUTS: Alun Armstrong (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Chancel Mbemba (Porto, Undisclosed), Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad, Undisclosed), Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham, Undisclosed), Matz Sels (Strasbourg, Undisclosed), Kyle Cameron (Torquay United, Free), Stuart Findlay (Kilmarnock, Free), Macaulay Gillesphey (Carlisle United, Free), Alex Gilliead (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Massadio Haïdara (RC Lens, Free),  Jack Hunter (Gateshead, Free), Callum Smith (Hull City, Free), Callum Williams (Spennymoor Town, Free), Yannick Aziakonou, Yasin Ben El-Mhanni, Owen Gallacher, Jesús Gámez, Curtis Good, Mackenzie Heaney, Tom Heardman, Ben Kitchen, Oliver Long, Lewis McNall, Brendan Pearson, Liam Smith, Craig Spooner, Dan Ward, Paul Woolston, Jack Colback (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan), Dwight Gayle (West Bromwich Albion, Season Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kenedy, Kevin Richardson (U17s coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A ruthless if slightly flattering triumph at St James’ Park and a win on the final home day of the season which was harder work than it needed to be.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Yedlin                 Lejeune           Lascelles            Kenedy
Ritchie                Shelvey         Diamé           Murphy
Rondón        Perez

VERDICT: In putting this preview together there are a few absolute staples in the research.  One of these is the messageboard post headed “Starting Eleven for opening day” or similar, which tends to spawn discussion not just of the starting eleven but of the side’s strengths, weaknesses, and so forth.  Speaks volumes that in Newcastle’s case there just isn’t one (at the time of writing – feel free to find one for me and prove me wrong, but it’s a bit late now cos I’ve already written it…)

My interpretation of this anomaly is that the geordie fanbase is thoroughly underwhelmed by another frugal summer of spending which leaves the mooted starting eleven above very similar to the one filed at the start of last season and barely indistinguishable from the one that finished the campaign.  That said, this side managed to scrape a hugely credible top half finish, albeit at the top of a very congested lower mid table pack, but consensus is that the squad overachieved under the priceless guidance of Rafa Benitez.  The head coach has spent the summer making ominous portents about the need to strengthen the side;  to what extent this is merely posturing and pressurising his boss or whether Benitez really would walk out is open to speculation but as it is he’s very clearly the difference between a comfortable and an uncomfortable season for the Magpies.  You’d fancy that there’s too much quality here for the side to actually go down, but up front is where the biggest problems are and plenty of half-decent defences have got relegated before through lack of punch.  Sixteenth.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach, £18,000,000), Mohamed Elyounoussi (Basel, £16,000,000), Angus Gunn (Manchester City, £13,500,000), Stuart Armstrong (Celtic, £7,000,000)

OUTS: Dušan Tadić (Ajax, £18,000,000), Florin Gardos (Universitatae Craiova, Free), Armani Little (Oxford United), Olufela Olomola (Scunthorpe United, Free), Will Wood (Accrington Stanley, Free), Richard Bakary, Ollie Cook, Jeremy Pied, Sofiane Boufal (Celta Vigo, Season Loan), Guido Carrillo (Leganes, Season Loan), Jordie Clasie (Season Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ross Wilson (Head of Recruitment)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A crushing win at St Marys and a scrambled point having been two behind after a display of scarves in memory of GT at the Vic in what was Marco Silva’s last home game in charge.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McCarthy
Cédric          Bednarek           Vestergaard        Bertrand
Lemina       Hojbjerg
Elyounoussi         Armstrong            Redmond
Gabbiadini

VERDICT: The accepted narrative, of course, is that Saints were always going to fall foul of selling off the family silver to the highest bidder at some point.  That point seemed to have come last season when four seasons of finishing between 6th and 8th came to an end as some chickens came home to roost, Saints made a bad call with a managerial appointment, Charlie Austin got injured and they plummeted.  I still can’t quite believe that they squeaked out to be honest, particularly with the spectacularly graceless Hughes at the helm.

They did though, and despite an unimpressive pre-season that saw Hughes acknowledge that his charges “needed to step it up a bit” after a flattering 3-0 tonking at Pride Park the locals seem cautiously optimistic.  The 6’6″ Jan Vestergaard seems to tick a box that needed ticking in the middle of the defence, Angus Gunn was much sought after and both Mohamed Elyounoussi and Stuart Armstrong add competition to the squad.

As ever, it’s difficult to comment without knowing the players, but that’s kinda the point.  Elyounoussi might prove a good replacement for Tadic, but only maybe.  Tadic was as reliable a creative force as the Saints had last season and with the occasionally brilliant but more frequently unhelpful Boufal, a dodged bullet for the Hornets, off on loan the loss of a known creative player in favour of a might-work-out replacement in an area of weakness would seem to be the biggest problem.  There’s been a lingering discontent at St Mary’s since Claude Puel’s season that won’t take long to resurface if things go badly, and Saints need the new guys to work to even match last season’s achievements.  Strong relegation candidates for me.

Season Preview 2018 – Part 3 08/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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FULHAM

INS: Jean Michaël Seri (Nice, £25,000,000), Alfie Mawson (Swansea City, £15,000,000), Maxime le Marchand (Nice, £5,000,000), Fabri (Beşiktaş, Undisclosed), Aleksandar Mitrović (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Calum Chambers (Arsenal, Season Loan), André Schürrle (Borussia Dortmund, Two Year Loan)

OUTS: David Button (Brighton, Undisclosed), Joe Felix (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Ryan Fredericks (West Ham United, Free), Dan Martin (Leeds United, Free), Djed Spence (Middlesbrough, Free), George Williams (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Michael Elstone, Julian Schwarzer, Tomas Kalas (Chelsea, End of Loan), Oliver Norwood (Brighton, End of Loan), Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool, End of Loan), Lucas Piazon (Chelsea, End of Loan), Matt Targett (Southampton, End of Loan), Tayo Edun (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Steven Humphrys (Scunthorpe United, Season Loan), Marek Rodak (Rotherham United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-COTTAGERS: Stefano Okaka

THEIR EX-ORNS: Marco Cesarini (Head of Medical), Alberto Escobar (First Team Coach), Slaviša Jokanović (Head Coach), Javier Pereira (Assistant Head Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Slav’s Hornets finding a way to win at Vicarage Road despite not playing well, and finding a way to win comprehensively at Craven Cottage after four defeats on the hop.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 1-0
2004-05 1-1 / 0-2
2000-01 1-3 0-5
1997-98 2-0 2-1 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabri
Christie            Mawson               Ream         Le Marchand
McDonald
Seri                Cairney
Schürrle                  Mitrović               Sessegnon

VERDICT: Of all the head coaches to pass through Vicarage Road since 2012, Slav is the one that kinda fits the narrative.  The narrative that bangs on about Watford’s hire-and-fire approach to head coaches, the “how the hell have they done so well on it” narrative.  For all his surliness, Slav’s Watford played exuberant and effective football;  his departure was unexpected.  He’s the one.

For this reason if for no other it was great to see Fulham return to the Premier League at the expense of Villa’s band of tough old walnuts.  You kinda feel he deserves a shot at it having now earned one twice.  His hand isn’t the most favourable;  play-off winners notoriously have less time than anyone else to Get It Sorted, a problem accentuated by the World Cup that distracted everyone for a few weeks.  There have been some eye-catching signings, not least that of the coveted Jean Michaël Seri, but you do wonder whether these aggressive signings, which must have had salaries as well as transfer fees behind them to beat off competition, smacked a little of desperation.  Fulham aren’t short of quality – Sessegnon and Cairney two jewels – but they are desperately short of bodies at the time of writing having seen a squad shorne of a number of prominent loan figures also lose the out of contract Ryan Fredericks, a big loss.  It won’t take much of an injury crisis to capsize Fulham as it stands, and the number of key men make them hugely vulnerable to this.

Added to which is the nagging suspicion that part of the reason for Jokanovic’s departure, haggling or otherwise over new contracts aside, was a question mark over how open his teams are, and whether he’s capable of altering his approach successfully.  This, certainly, will be tested in the Premier League.

Fulham have spent heavily with a clear determination to stay up.  There are lots of ways it could go wrong, though. Anywhere in the bottom half.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

INS: Florent Hadergjonaj (Ingolstadt, £4,400,000), Juninho Bacuna (Groningen, Undisclosed), Adama Diakhaby (Monaco, Undisclosed), Erik Durm (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Terence Kongolo (Monaco, Undisclosed), Ramadan Sobhi (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Ben Hamer (Leicester City, Free)

OUTS: Tom Ince  (Stoke City, £10,000,000), Jordy Hiwula (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Tareiq Holmes-Dennis (Bristol Rovers, Undisclosed), Jack Boyle (Clyde, Free), Dylan Cogill (Clyde, Free), Robert Green (Chelsea, Free), Denilson Carvalho, Dean Whitehead, Regan Booty (Aldershot Town, Season Loan), Jack Payne (Bradford City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby (U18 manager), Jonathan Hogg, Julian Winter (CEO)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable home defeat that saw the end of our back three amidst creatively catastrophic defending, and a slightly less soul-destroying, intense defeat in West Yorkshire that nonetheless amounted to the same thing.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 1-4 0-1
2014-15 4-2
2013-14 1-4
2012-13 4-0 3-2
2000-01 1-2 2-1
1998-99 1-1 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lössl
Zanka         Schindler          Kongolo
Hadegjonaj              Hogg          Mooy                   Durm
Pritchard                             van la Parra
Mounié

VERDICT: The fundamental thing here I think is the difference between saying “come on lads, we can do this, we can show them” and saying “come on lads, we can do this, we can show them again“.  Second season syndrome likely to be a considerable factor.

Which isn’t to say that a bit of bloody-mindedness was all there was to last season’s success; Town have a good squad, particularly in defensive positions, and seem to have recruited well.  Erik Durm is a great signing if they can keep him fit, and Town might be less crippled by a long-term injury to Christopher Schindler or Aaron Mooy, say, than they would have been last season.

Nonetheless, it’s far from beyond the realms of possibility that Town will struggle again.  For all the resilience, the creation and conversion of chances remains a major problem that summer recruitment doesn’t seem to have addressed.  New contract or not, David Wagner remains an attractive proposition for any mid-sized Prem club in need of a boost and with a big wedge of cash.  With Hoggy in midfield they’ll always have a fighting chance and you’d kind of root for them in anything other than a them-or-us situation…  can’t see Huddersfield sinking without trace but it might be a tight squeeze once again.  Eighteenth.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: James Maddison (Norwich City, £22,000,000), Danny Ward (Liverpool, £12,500,000), Rachid Ghezzal (AS Monaco, £10,000,000), Johnny Evans (West Brom, £3,500,000), Ricardo Pereira (Porto, Undisclosed), Ryan Loft (Tottenham Hotspur, Free)

OUTS: Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City, £60,000,000), Ahmed Musa (Al Nasr, Undisclosed), Connor Wood (Bradford City, Undisclosed), Josh Debayo (Cheltenham Town, Free), Ben Hamer (Huddersfield Town, Free), Dylan Watts (Shamrock Rovers, Free), Robert Huth, Sammie McLeod, Cameron Yates, Harvey Barnes (West Bromwich Albion, Season Loan), Daniel Iversen (Oldham Athletic, Season Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Coming from behind in miserable conditions to seal our first win in seven on Boxing Day, and Silva’s last stand in the wake of a month without another victory.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-1 0-2
2016-17 2-1 0-3
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
Ricardo          Maguire            Evans             Chilwell
Silva                 Ndidi
Ghezzal                       Maddison                  Albrighton
Vardy

VERDICT: It’s difficult to deviate from the recurring theme over the last few seasons really.  If you’re Leicester… not so much “where do you go after winning the League?”, since we’d all like that problem, but more how do you cope with it.  Two seasons on…  Leicester are doing just fine thanks, grumbles about Claude Puel’s possession-based game aside.  Of the side above “only” Schmeichel, Albrighton and Vardy were in the title-winning team;  what they’ve managed to do is to accommodate losing the likes of Kanté and Drinkwater (who lest we forget was a vital cog of that side) and to find themselves a new niche. Not for many years, not since Martin O’Neill had City been the solid mid-table side that they now are.  A side capable of attracting the likes of Maddison and Ricardo, of Harry Maguire a year ago.

The loss of Mahrez is the biggy of course, the elephant in the room.  Perhaps it’s a bit previous to say that City have “accommodated” the loss of their most creative player.  But it’s a sign of the level of achievement that you can look at the squad despite the loss of Mahrez and say “they’ll be absolutely fine”, which they surely will.  Somewhere between seventh and twelfth.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Alisson Becker (Roma, £67,000,000), Naby Keita (RB Leipzig, £53,000,000), Fabinho (Monaco, £39,000,000), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City, £13,500,000), Isaac Christie-Davis (Chelsea, Free)

OUTS: Danny Ward (Leicester City, £12,500,000), Paulo Alves (Wolves, Free), Emre Can (Juventus, Free), Yan Dhanda (Swansea City, Free), Andy Firth (Barrow, Free), Jon Flanagan (Rangers, Free), Toni Gomes (Arouca, Free), Jordan Williams (Rochdale, Free), Mich’el Parker, Allan (Eintracht Frankfurt, Season Loan), Ovie Ejaria (Rangers, Season Loan), Ryan Kent (Rangers, Season Loan), Harry Wilson (Derby County, Season Loan), Ben Woodburn (Sheffield United, Season Loan), Herbie Kane (Doncaster Rovers, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A, um, typically cagey opening day bunfight that ended 3-3, and an absolute flaying at Anfield at the hands (feet) of Mo Salah.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 3-3
2016-17 0-1
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:

Alisson
Clyne         Van Dijk       Lovren    Robertson
Henderson              Fabinho
Mané                  Keita                   Salah
Firmino

VERDICT: Very odd to note that Liverpool “only” finished fourth last season.  Says a lot that I didn’t remember I suppose, evidence of the degree to which it was Manchester City and the rest.  The Reds were a full 25 points behind despite that forward line, despite being relatively unhindered by injuries and despite the dramatic impact of Virgil Van Dijk’s January arrival.

This was another side that seemed to perform at the peak of its powers and of which you therefore have to ask whether it’s reasonable to expect the same heights again.  Whether Mo Salah can be quite as irrepressible, whether they can get the same breaks with injuries (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury suggests not).  Except…  they’ve done a relatively unfashionable thing and gone out and spent shedloads on defensive players.  Even Manchester City have baulked at this, instead spending money on full backs who think they’re wingers and a goalkeeper who plays like a sweeper.  Liverpool have spent proper money on a proper goalkeeper and two deep sitting midfielders, on top of that Van Dijk signing last January.

It feels rather desperate, but it seems inconceivable that it won’t be effective given the quality of the signings.  Suddenly a clear likeliest challenger has emerged from the pack and even if you can’t see them giving City a proper chasing, if there are still areas with thinner cover despite the deepening of the squad and if you’d be slightly worried about the erratic Lovren alongside Van Dijk, this is a yet more formidable looking side.  A clear second.

 

Season Preview 2018 – Part 2 07/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CARDIFF CITY

INS: Greg Cunningham (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Josh Murphy (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Bobby Reid (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Alex Smithies (QPR, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Matty Kennedy (St Johnstone, Free), Ben Wilson (Bradford City, Free), Rhys Abbruzzese, Frédéric Guonongbe, Greg Halford,  Ogo Obi, Connor Young, Mark Harris (Newport County, Six Month Loan), Craig Bryson (Derby County, End of Loan), Liam Feeney (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Marko Grujić (Liverpool, End of Loan), Armand Traoré (Nottingham Forest, End of Loan), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest, End of Loan), Yanic Wildschut (Wigan Athletic, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Matthew Connolly

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An aggravating home defeat, a fourth in succession in November 2014 when promotion seemed far from guaranteed and a 4-2 win at the Cardiff City Stadium a month later in which Adlene Guedioura scored a memorable brace.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 0-1 4-2
2012-13 0-0
2011-12 1-1
2010-11 4-1
2009-10 0-4
2008-09 2-2
2007-08 2-2
2005-06 2-1 3-1
2004-05 0-0 3-0
2003-04 2-1 0-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Etheridge
Peltier                    Morrison                 Bamba             Cunningham
Paterson             Ralls         Gunnarsson
Mendez-Laing                     Zohore                                   Hoilett

VERDICT: It’s been a good many years since we watched Eastenders.  In a way I miss it…  it was at least something that we both tolerated, just about, and as such in some sense preferable to the regular impasse (“You want to watch what?”,  “Well if you must….”, “Shall we check out Netflix”,  “No, nothing that you’d like” and so forth).  We chanced on a bit of Eastenders again this week and it was the oddest thing.  The same characters, the same storylines.  Recycled forever.  It was like… we’d never been away.  In twenty years time I expect to see Phil Mitchell lurching pitifully into some wheeliebins and collapsing into a corner to the familiar thud, thud, thud-thud-thudthudthudthud….

Meanwhile, here’s Neil Warnock.  Many years ago I wrote about Warnock bringing “his usual troupe of trolls and mutants to Vicarage Road”.  That was in 2000, and the menagerie were in the colours of Sheffield United but here we are.  Colin will be 70 before the end of the year and has somehow morphed from the bloke everyone hates to something approaching national treasure status but what hasn’t changed a dot is the make up of his charges, a bunch of very tough, very hardworking blokes who are quite unlike anything else the Premier League has to offer.  And a defensive line to strike fear into the stoutest hearts.

Which, probably, constitutes their best hope of survival.  City’s unheralded promotion – which saw them just about hold off a late charge from Fulham – was built off a squad that borrowed prodigiously and most of the significant summer work thus far has been based on securing contracts for out of contract stars and some modest if sensible looking recruits from the cream of the Championship.  Artem Dzyuba’s name has been mentioned, which would obviously be magnificent, perhaps the most Warnock player ever conceived, but it does still look like a Championship squad at the time of writing.  A tough Championship squad mind, and after the successes of last season’s promoted sides you’d be daft to write anyone off, particularly with a consequently larger number of clubs that might be considered to be punching above their station as relegation rivals.   The club does at least seem to be more united and content than when last promoted in the wake of Vincent Tan’s questionable rebranding.  Nonetheless, my guess would be down after making a (very) solid fist of it.

CHELSEA

INS: Jorginho (Napoli, Undisclosed), Robert Green (Huddersfield Town, Free)

OUTS: Jeremie Boga (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Mitchell Beeney (Sligo Rovers, Free), Isaac Christie-Davis (Liverpool, Free), Matej Delač (AC Horsens, Free), Jordan Houghton (Franchise, Free), Harvey St Clair (Venezia, Free), Cole Dasilva, Wallace, Tushaun Walters, Victorien Angban (Metz, Season Loan), Lewis Baker (Leeds United, Season Loan), Jamal Blackman (Leeds United, Season Loan), Trevoh Chalobah (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Jake Clarke-Salter (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Charlie Colkett (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Eduardo (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Reece James (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Todd Kane (Hull City, Season Loan), Kenedy (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Jacob Maddox (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Matt Miazga (Nantes, Season Loan), Mason Mount (Derby County, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Mario Pasalic (Atalanta, Season Loan), Fikayo Tomori (Derby County, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Gianfranco Zola (Assistant First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Defeat at Stamford Bridge, in a game in which we yet again looked like beating Chelsea for a bit and then didn’t, and a Deulofuelled win at the Vic in which we looked like chucking a win away again, and then didn’t.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 4-1 2-4
2016-17 1-2 3-4
2015-16 0-0
2014-15 0-3
2009-10 0-5
2008-09 1-3
2003-04 2-2 / 0-4
1999-00 1-0 1-2
1981-82 3-0
1969-70 1-5

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Courtois
Azpilicueta         Rüdiger     Christensen         Alonso
Kanté               Jorginho            Barkley
Willian                     Giroud                    Hazard

VERDICT: So the home win over this lot was, in isolation, clearly one of the highlights if not the highlight of the season.  In the wake of which I contacted a Feyenoord supporting colleague to share joy at Daryl Janmaat’s contribution in particular.  His reply was in no way intended as mean spirited, but did tarnish the goal for me thenceforth.  Please skip over the next paragraph if you don’t want your memory of the goal similarly spoiled, skip over the next paragraph.

“Defending wasn’t very good, was it?”.  That was it.  Inoffensive, uncontroversial statement of fact.  No.  Whatever part we played in the goal, not least the wresting of the direction of travel of the game back in our favour, Chelsea’s defending wasn’t very good.  Which spoils it a bit.  Let’s not pretend we’re going to get precious about different ways of beating Chelsea 4-1, but “because their defending’s not very good” wouldn’t be high on my list.

Times were that the very statement would be perverse, when the likes of Carvalho, Cech and the charmless Terry made Chelsea’s defending as good as anyone’s.  There’s a lot changing at Stamford Bridge though, and more than merely a(nother) new head coach.  The unusual Sarri achieved great things in some style at Napoli but first and foremost achieved what he achieved by improving what he had rather than going out and spending loads of money (his words, repeated over the last week or two).  From a Chelsea point of view this could mean one of two things, perhaps a combination of the two:  a change in the cautious policy with regard to employing highly regarded youth products, and a change in Chelsea’s spending power.  It’s been a few years since Chelsea were THE moneybags club of course, and a reported £57m for Jorginho is hardly peanuts but he is their only first-team signing at the time of writing.

It might all work out for the best, of course.  But as it stands three of Chelsea’s stars – Courtois, Hazard and Willian – are heavily linked with moves and a good number of players including the two Belgians as well as the pivotal Kanté are only back in training this week.  You’d be concerned about Chelsea’s attacking options – neither Giroud, Morata or Batshuayi is entirely convincing as a first choice line leader – and of course all of this is happening whilst trying to shift from a cautious 3-at -the-back to a 4-3-3 that will be unforgiving to a slow start.  Big margin of error around any predictions here…  I’ll say fifth place again but it won’t be dull.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Vicente Guaita (Getafe, Free), Max Meyer (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Jacob Berkeley-Agyepong (Aldershot Town, Free), Yohan Cabaye (Al Nasr, Free), Andre Coker (Maidstone United, Free), Damien Delaney (Cork City, Free), Diego Cavalieri, Victor Fundi, Lee Chung Yong, Bakary Sako, Timothy Fosu-Mensah (Manchester United, End of Loan), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea, End of Loan), Erdal Rakip (Benfica, End of Loan), Jaroslaw Jach (Caykur Risespor, Season Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Adrian Mariappa, Hayden Mullins

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ray Lewington (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Further demonstration that there are no end of creatively miserable ways to lose at Selhurst Park, and a goalless draw at the Vic which, as these things go, was a stormer.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 0-0
2016-17 1-1  0-1
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:

Guaita
Ward              Tomkins             Sakho            Van Aanholt
Milivojević     Kouyaté     Meyer
Zaha                           Benteke                  Townsend

VERDICT: The difficult thing about writing these pieces, particularly this season with the transfer deadline effectively three weeks closer in than normal and the frantic stuff about to hit, presumably, is that you’re aiming for a moving target. I’m writing this piece a good ten days at least before you’re going to read it and lots can change in the interim whilst I’m away on holiday.

In Palace’s case Wilfried Zaha is the great unknown, with rumours suggesting that Zaha wants out with Spurs and Chelsea circling the gravitationally challenged, quicked footed forward.  With four years left on his contract one imagines that he’ll fetch a hefty wedge which would completely change the Eagles’ transfer outlook – currently particularly frugal on the back of high investment in previous windows – but with only a couple of weeks at best left to invest in the squad and replace the Eagles’ talismanic player.

It’s not as simple as Zaha or nothing, this is a decent starting eleven but he’s the star man, certainly the difference between, probably, mid-table security and a relegation scrap (although Palace have also lost the likes of Cabaye, Fosu-Mensah and Loftus-Cheek since last season and will do well to match those kind of loans just to tread water).   However the squad is particularly thin and there are a number of individuals – Zaha most obviously, Sakho and Milivojevic too – who would leave a massive hole if injured.  It will take a good deal of luck for Palace to match last season’s comfortable finish.  Relegation outsiders.

(Edit:  Max Meyer.  See?  See?)

EVERTON

INS: Lucas Digne (Barcelona, £18,000,000), Richarlíson (Watford, Undisclosed), João Virginia (Arsenal, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Davy Klaassen (Werder Bremen, £12,000,000), Joel Robles (Real Betis, Free), Ramiro Funes Mori (Villarreal, Undisclosed), Wayne Rooney (DC United, Undisclosed), Jose Baxter (Oldham Athletic, Free), Sam Byrne (Dundalk, Free), Calum Dyson (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Conor Grant (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Louis Gray, David Henen, Luke Garbutt (Oxford United, Season Loan), Kevin Mirallas (Fiorentina, Season Loan), Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray, Season Loan), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Shani Tarashaj (Grasshoppers, Season Loan), Ashley Williams (Stoke City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Pedro Conceição (First Team Coach), Antonis Lemonakis (Technical Scout), Hugo Oliveira (Goalkeeping Coach),  Richarlíson, Marco Silva (Manager), João Pedro Sousa (Assistant Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A shambolic collapse at Goodison Park and a win at Vicarage Road thanks to Troy’s thumping drive.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 1-0
2016-17 3-2
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:

Pickford
Coleman        Jagielka        Keane            Digne
Gueye              Davies
Walcott                  Sigurdsson            Richarlíson
Tosun

VERDICT: And here’s one I’ve left until the last minute.  Quite a lot of this is easy and has been regurgitated on these pages several times…  so in brief, yes Everton were utterly graceless in tapping up Marco Silva last season, yes it disrupted our year entirely.  That it did so wasn’t entirely Everton’s fault;  if Silva did well he was always going to garner interest and turned his head as soon as someone fluttered their eyelashes at him.  Yes it’s reasonable for us to be pissed off, continuing to make an issue out of it is perfectly reasonable as long as it’s not hurting us and for as long as the authorities give every indication that they’d rather the issue just went away.  There are rules to prevent tapping up for a reason and Everton should be held to account.

Right.  That’s done.  As for Everton…  there’s little doubt that he’s taken on a bit of a job, since last season’s eighth place finish was flattering and achieved with an ageing squad that wasn’t about to push on this time.  So… a lot of players have been shipped out, relatively few have been shipped in.  The centre of defence looks a state and hasn’t looked any better in pre-season…  both Barcelona and Yerry Mina are doing their best to capitalise on his eye-catching World Cup (and why not); you do have to fancy that in both parties’ interests is to attract a bigger fish than Everton.  This leaves the Toffees a little bit desperate, since there are precious few options in the squad as it stands with the disappointing Williams having dropped down a division to join Stoke on loan.

Up front looks far more impressive, and whilst we’ve got a good deal in selling Richarlíson for however many squllion you want to believe there’s no doubt that Everton might end up looking back fondly at the deal too.  Might.

Because the big unknown remains whether the Emperor is wearing any clothes.  The truth is that he wasn’t really at Hull or Watford for long enough for us to know, definitively.  At both places he galvanised a squad and got them performing beyond what had been imagined possible.  For a bit.  But much as its impossible to remove the Everton thing from our season, you’d have to wonder whether we might have tailed off anyway.  The combination of high intensity and a tendency to rely on the same players would have the same effect on an Everton squad that isn’t exactly spoiled for cover.  Either way, a rebuilding season at Goodison.  No higher than seventh.  No lower than twelfth.

 

Season Preview 2018 – Part 1 06/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Football!  Splendid. Four today.  Four tomorrow.  And so on…

ARSENAL

INS: Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria, £26,000,000), Matteo Guendouzi (Lorient, £8,000,000), Bernd Leno (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed), Sokratis Papasthatopoulos (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus, Free)

OUTS: Chuba Akpom (PAOK, Undisclosed), Jeff Reine-Adelaide (Angers, Undisclosed), João Virginia (Everton, Undisclosed), Marc Bola (Blackpool, Free), Vlad Dragomir (Perugia, Free), Aaron Eyoma (Derby County, Free), Yassin Fortune (Sion, Free), Ryan Huddart (Boreham Wood, Free), Chiori Johnson (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Hugo Keto (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free), Tafari Moore (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Jack Wilshere (West Ham United, Free), Santi Cazorla, Alex Crean, Per Mertesacker, Matt Macey (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Kelechi Nwakali (Porto, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A dramatic 2-1 win at the Vic fuelled by Troy Deeney’s cameo off the bench and capped off by Tom Cleverley’s winner, and a mundane 3-0 defeat at the Emirates which could have gone another way when Troy took a penalty at 2-0 down but didn’t.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-1
2016-17 1-3 2-1
2015-16 0-3 2-1
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Leno
Bellerín          Mustafi        Sokratis        Monreal
Ramsey                 Torreira                   Xhaka
Mkhitaryan                     Aubameyang                             Özil

VERDICT: It seemed inevitable that when Wenger eventually left Arsenal there would be a period of adjustment, and a very difficult job for whoever replaced him after 20+ years (see also, to varying degrees and in different ways, Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, GT….).  As has been observed elsewhere however, by hanging around so long Wenger almost solved the problem for them, since even those defending the manager’s position in the seemingly endless and fist-chewingly tedious debates on his custodianship will surely have conceded that Wenger’s most successful days were in the past.  There is less of a sense of “what will we do without Arsène” than there might have been.

So… a new man, and the “what will the new guy bring” experience alien to many Gooners (run with it guys, you’ll get the hang of it, trust us…).  That he’s not taking Arsenal over at a highpoint is demonstrated by the twelve point gap to the Champions’ League in last year’s final table, let alone the 37 points to be made up on City (Arsenal were some seven points closer to the relegation places, though this reflects City’s dominance as much as Arsenal’s failings).

As far as early portents go, the recruitment of both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis addresses the failings notoriously highlighted by Troy last season.  Both are hard bastards.  Less positively both are at the tail end of their careers, and Sokratis is the third former Dortmund man brought in by recruitment guy Sven Mislintat.  If you’re going to focus on one source then Dortmund isn’t a bad one but the three in question – Sokratis, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan – effectively cost around £100m between them (albeit Mkhitaryan came in a swap deal) and none is younger than 29.  That’s a lot of money for some short-term stability.

Emery’s arrival should bring some unity to the Emirates, but it’s a long and difficult climb back to anywhere near the summit.  Champions League an outside possibility if that defence gets sorted.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Diego Rico (Leganes, £10,700,000), David Brooks (Sheffield United, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Benik Afobe (Wolves, £10,000,000), Adam Federici (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Lewis Grabban (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Max Gradel (Toulouse, Undisclosed), Ryan Allsop (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Baily Cargill (Franchise FC, Free), Oliver Harfield (Dagenham and Redbridge, Free), Sam Matthews (Bristol Rovers, Free), Joe Quigley (Maidstone United, Free), Patrick O’Flaherty, Rhoys Wiggins, Mikael Ndjoli (Kilmarnock, Six Months Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Carl Fletcher (Youth Team Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A thoroughly enjoyable victory on the south coast crowned by Richarlíson’s full debut and opening goal and rounded off by Étienne Capoue’s piledriver, and yet another draw with the Cherries at the Vic courtesy of losing yet another late goal.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-2
2016-17 2-2
2015-16 1-1  1-1
2014-15 1-1
2013-14 6-1 2-0
2003-04 1-0
1997-98 2-1 1-0
1996-97 0-1 2-1
1995-96 1-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Begović
Francis            S.Cook               Aké             Rico
L.Cook           Surman          Gosling
King                            Wilson                                Ibe

VERDICT: One of the things about a World Cup like this summer’s is that it can genuinely convert a whole new tranche of supporters.  I have a friend whose attitude to football has wandered between the indifferent and gently scornful in the past, but who is now enthused not by a temporary burst of nationalism or of a new fascination with tactics and formations but by the manifestation of different traits from national team to national team, of differing codes of behaviour despite the steady homogenisation of the world game.

She’d have a wild old time with Bournemouth.  To what extent our picture of the Cherries is a self-fulfilling thing, that we selectively choose to focus on the bits that fit with the narrative, is difficult to tell… there must be an element of that I guess.  Nonetheless, the narrative came from something and its tempting to suggest that this something is still in charge and that the team won’t change until the head coach does.  Or to look at it another way, not entirely surprising perhaps that Jermain Defoe, by all accounts a thoroughly likeable and honest guy, has struggled to get into the team.

Bournemouth’s strategy, Defoe notwithstanding, has been to recruit young players, if not necessarily British then certainly largely from the domestic market.  There’s a lot too this approach of course, and it’s yielded a couple of gems of the likes of Lewis Cook and Aké (though the latter was hardly a punt or a steal at £20m).  But it’s inevitably going to be a bit hit-and-miss as well.  Going into the new campaign you’d have to worry about that defence, and the age of it (Aké excepted) in particular – the cover doesn’t look terribly impressive.  At the time of writing the signing of Jefferson Lerma appears to be imminent, and again it’s an odd one when The Likes Of Bournemouth are talking about spenidng £25m on a defensive midfielder. The Cherries are some way from one of the worst three sides in the division but it wouldn’t take much for them to struggle… and it would be interesting to see Howe in these circumstances, unfamiliar as he is with a relegation scrap.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Alireza Jahanbaksh (AZ Alkmaar, £17,000,000), Florin Andone (Deportivo La Coruña, Undisclosed), Bernardo (RB Leipzig, Undisclosed), Yves Bissouma (Lille, Undisclosed), David Button (Fulham, Undisclosed), Jason Steele (Middlesbrough, Undisclosed), Percy Tau (Mamelodi Sundowns, Undisclosed), Joseph Tomlinson (Yeovil Town, Undisclosed), Leon Balogun (Mainz, Free), Hugo Keto (Arsenal, Free)

OUTS: Sam Baldock (Reading, Undisclosed), Henrik Bjordal (Zulte Waregem, Undisclosed), Connor Goldson (Rangers, Undisclosed), Uwe Hünemeier (Paderborn, Undisclosed), Jamie Murphy (Rangers, Undisclosed), Jiří Skalák (Millwall, Undisclosed), Bailey Vose (Colchester United, Undisclosed), Jonah Ayunga (Sutton United, Free), Tom Dallison (Falkirk, Free), Tyler Hornby-Forbes (Newport County, Free), Dessie Hutchinson (Waterford, Free), Tim Krul (Norwich City, Free), Niki Mäenpää (Bristol City, Free), Reece Myles-Meekums (Bromley, Free), David Ajiboye, Rohan Ince, Mamadou Koné, Rian O’Sullivan, Liam Rosenior, Steve Sidwell,  Steven Alzate (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Ben Hall (Notts County, Season Loan), Aleš Matějů (Brescia, Season Loan), Tom McGill (Worthing, Season Loan), Robert Sanchez (Forest Green Rovers, Season Loan), Leonardo Ulloa (Leicester City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A nil nil draw in which we played an hour with ten men after Miguel Britos’ very red card and a miserable 1-0 reverse at the Amex.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 0-0
2014-15 1-1 2-0
2012-13 0-1
2011-12 1-0 2-2
2010-11 0-1
2005-06 1-1 1-0
2004-05 1-1 1-2
2002-03 1-0 0-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ryan
Schelotto              Dunk         Duffy             Bernardo
Jahanbaksh        Bissouma         Propper        Izquierdo
Gross
Andone

VERDICT: There’s something a bit weird going on in the Premier League.  Look at our October fixture list for example…  Bournemouth, Wolves, Huddersfield.  We had exactly the same October ten years ago in the Championship.  Probably.  Do you feel a bit cheated?

Looking at the Championship there’s only Aston Villa who really stand out as A Club Wot Ought To Be In The Premier League though.  (West Brom and Stoke at a push.  Anyone who mentions Leeds needs to take a good hard look at themselves….).  So… nothing’s really changed I guess, it was ever thus with seven or eight top sides and everyone else sidling through for a season or six.  And of course if there’s a “problem”, if something’s changed, we’re hardly Premier League royalty ourselves, very much part of it.

But there appear to be a growing number of smaller, well-run clubs like the Seagulls Making A Decent Fist Of It.  Who can tell, really…  Alireza Jahanbaksh, Florin Andone and Yves Bissouma were linked to us a year or two ago, they might be decent, they might be terrible.  But… in as much as it’s possible to judge Albion are doing a good job of building on their successful first season back in the top flight.   This will be their Difficult Second Season of course, and they’ll need to run to stand still…  whilst Swansea provide evidence that a small well-run Premier League club can become just another Championship club pretty damn quickly once the well-run thing fades away.  Nonetheless, Albion should have enough.

BURNLEY

INS: Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough, £15,000,000)

OUTS: Tom Anderson (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Scott Arfield (Rangers, Free), Jordan Barnett (Barnsley, Free), Arlen Birch (AFC Fylde, Free), Josh Ginnelly (Walsall, Free), Harry Limb (Kings Lynn Town), Chris Long (Fleetwood Town, Free), Dean Marney (Fleetwood Town, Free), Bradley Jackson, Samuel Layton, Khius Metz, Rahis Nabi, Jamie Thomas, Georges-Kévin N’Koudou (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Conor Mitchell (St Johnstone, Season Loan)

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah, Andre Gray

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork, Sean Dyche (Manager), Tony Loughlan (First Team Coach), Ian Woan (Assistant Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A single goal defeat in Lancashire after Marvin Zeegelaar’s red card and defeat snatched from the jaws of a much needed victory at home.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 2-1 0-2
2013-14 1-1
2012-13 3-3
2011-12 3-2 2-2
2010-11 1-3
2008-09 3-0 0-4
2007-08 1-2
2005-06 3-1 1-4
2004-05 0-1 1-3
2003-04 1-1 3-2
2002-03 2-1 7-4  2-0
2001-02 1-2 0-1
2000-01 0-1 0-2
1997-98 1-0 0-2
1996-97 2-2 1-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Lowton            Gibson                Mee                  Ward
Gudmundsson         Cork               Defour                 Brady
Vokes            Wood

VERDICT: So here’s evidence that one’s point of view can change over time, that a club isn’t permanently painted a certain way in your entirely prejudiced mind’s eye.  As with Bournemouth the root cause of this is a manager;  unlike at Bournemouth, Sean Dyche’s impact is wholly positive.  Much as it’s grossly oversimplifying to say that the club has been moulded in his own image, that we see things that fit the narrative but might have been there anyway, it’s a club and a team that looks honest and tough, focused and disciplined and without any pretension whatsoever.  Even if (whisper it) the man in charge does whine about officiating a bit sometimes.  We’re none of us perfect.

There’s a school of thought which says that if only we’d had a bit more luck with injuries last season we could have been up there where Burnley were.  Well the Clarets weren’t coulda shouldas, they actually did make European competition, just about and despite a long absence to Robbie Brady for example.  Aberdeen might seem like a rather unglamorous reward for their endeavours, but that aside  here’s where the problems begin.

By any reasonable assessment last season was pretty close to the summit of Burnley’s potential, certainly for the moment.  The infrequency with which Champions defend their titles successfully is testimony to how difficult maintaining a peak level of performance is, much less so when faced, potentially, with a busier fixture list, limited strengthening at the time of writing and relatively modest targets discussed with the manager uncomfortably bemoaning the challenges of the market.  Burnley won’t struggle, but a bottom half finish wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

End of Term Report Part 7 11/06/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

30- Orestis Karnezis

Orestis Karnezis is an experienced goalkeeper.   He’s played over 100 games in Serie A for Udinese, and been capped 49 times by Greece including all four of the national side’s games at the World Cup Finals four years ago.  His Watford career has not been unremarkable, beginning as it did with a cataclysmic collapse at Goodison and proceeding, two months later, with Karnezis replacing the initially injured Heurelho Gomes for the last three months of the season up until the final day.  In the bulk of his performances – following the disaster at Everton – Karnezis looked extremely competent,  unflashy, occasionally outstanding.  A more than adequate performance by a loan signing and nominally a back-up keeper.

And yet.  And yet…  he’s a bit like the contractor in the office who nobody bothered to introduce you to.  You nod as you pass each other in the corridor but he leaves no lasting impression and I doubt many Watford fans would recognise him if they passed him in the street.

Next Season:  …and to be fair, the professional indifference seems to be mutual, with Karnezis reportedly courting a move back to his native Greece.  Good luck to him, whoever he was.

33- Stefano Okaka

A very odd season for Stefano Okaka, who scored what was to be his only goal of the campaign with a fine header eight minutes into it and was immediately dropped as Marco Silva ummed and ahhed between Troy and Andre Gray.  Okaka was afforded one minute (plus injury time) in the bedlam at Goodison Park over the next four months and whilst used more frequently by Javi Gracia he nonetheless only started three games throughout the campaign.

The problem with Stefano is not that there are things that he’s not good at.  The same is true of all strikers to varying degrees.  The problem is that he doesn’t deliver on the things he IS good at with anything like sufficient reliability.  So… you want him to be roughing people up, to be charging after possession, to be attacking the near post and he has done all of these things but he has also all too regularly not done all of these things and a mardy so-and-so who isn’t delivering is far less endearing than one who is.

Next Season:   Perhaps a year later than might have been ideal for all concerned, it seems likely that Stefano will be heading off to play his football elsewhere next season..

37- Roberto Pereyra

Whilst Roberto Pereyra’s second season at Vicarage Road saw him play a lot more football than his injury-hit first, you feel that we still haven’t seen the best of Roberto Pereyra.  Twice during the season he has played himself into quite magnificent form, twice seen it interrupted by first a (relatively brief) injury and then by the end of the season.

In between there’s been quite a lot of Roberto playing pretty well – and hell, an Argentinian international, a player of this quality playing pretty well is still a fine thing.  But just… a little bit within himself, a little bit contained.   Not lazy, not indifferent, he’s a hard-working guy just…  not bold enough, not nasty enough, not in charge enough.

Because when he’s that good he really is that good.  At Stamford Bridge it was Pereyra that flayed Chelsea’s defence, absolutely irrepressible before departing with injury after 65 minutes with the Hornets 2-1 up.  In the last home game of the season he was aflame again with a mischievous performance scoring the opener and setting up the second.  Would just be nice to see him take a game between his jaws a little more often.

Next Season:  An area of the team where there’s all manner of competition, Bobby’s versatility should guarantee he’s near the top of the pile.

Marco Silva

Really, there’s not an awful lot left to be said that hasn’t been said before, but let’s say it all again anyway.

Marco Silva seemed to be a bit of a coup when he arrived in Hertfordshire last summer.  There were early warning signs when he publicly objected to the loan of Nordin Amrabat to Leganes despite, one assumes, being both fully aware and informed of the lay of the land and the extent of his influence on transfer dealings when he got here.  Nonetheless, we started the season in fine form playing positive assertive football and losing only two of our opening ten games – one, spectacularly to Man City and the other, the tenth, at Stamford Bridge having put Chelsea to the sword for much of the game.  The same run yielded six points from goals scored in dying minutes via draws with Liverpool and West Brom and late winners over Swansea and Arsenal.

And then things went wrong.  It’s tempting to remember Everton as the game where everything pivoted;  actually the Stoke defeat the previous week had been a miserable affair, the only away win the Potters would earn before Swansea on the final day.  It’s beyond dispute, however, that Everton’s approach negatively impacted our season;  you could argue that this was always a risk with a coup like this, that he would move on again very quickly if his stock held but…. surely not this quickly.  Not unless he was mercenary enough to want to walk away from a contract he’d only signed ten games earlier.

But other factors were at play also.  Silva’s high intensity game yielded thrilling results but demanded a lot of the players, and there was evidence of fatigue as early as October, particularly from Richarlíson who had played for a long time without a break.  I’d contest that the wheels would have come off in any case had Everton not made an approach, in part reflecting injuries to key men such as Nathaniel Chalobah, in part reflecting over-reliance on some other members of the squad and limited rotation, in part, frankly, reflecting Marco Silva’s inability to apply corrective action.  Rather surprising that in a situation where Silva appeared to retain the favour of much of the squad and, to a degree, the support (if not the boardroom) he wasn’t able to coax more than three league wins out of his final sixteen in charge. The more cautionary assessments of his time at Hull had suggested that the apparently lost cause before he arrived cast a favourable glow on all that he achieved. Undeniably, the end to the Tigers’ season in which they won one – against the Hornets – and lost five of the final seven suggesting an inability to right the ship or to manage his preferred intensity over a prolonged period sound familiar, albeit in a different context.

Next Season:   Silva’s departure was inevitable, perhaps the more so given how things have transpired over the summer.  Watford’s peevishness in the light of his departure was both unseemly and completely understandable.  It’s quite possible that the growing list of Hornets being linked with Everton is mere paper talk, but if it has any validity it reflects poorly on Silva’s judgement – both in terms of how strong he believes his new hand is, and in the narrow focus of the players on his shopping list.  Everton’s visit to Vicarage Road won’t be for the faint hearted.

Javi Gracia

It perhaps says a lot how little it’s possible to say. That despite Javi Gracia having presided over three and a half months’ worth of games, the majority of which I was able to see, I’ve not got a clear picture in my head.  Not of his style, not of how “good” he is.  Certainly his approach seems more conservative than Silva’s, albeit that the switch from the enterprising back three with wing-backs to the more solid back four had first been implemented by Silva after the Huddersfield debacle in December.    Certainly he brought stability and a degree of conviction to a side which had precious little when he took over, and his achievement in that regard shouldn’t be taken for granted.  He also oversaw that magnificent win over Chelsea, giving credence to a reputation earned in Spain for upsetting more exalted opposition.

The cause for concern is of course that we only won three more games thereafter, and only one of them in the closing nine from mid-March onwards.  So…he’s more likeable than his predecessor, he says the right things, and he kept us up, something which didn’t look a given when he took over despite our good start.  But the jury’s still out.

Next Season:  A proper pre-season to implement his requirements – something which, as players have pointed out, no Watford manager has had since Gianfranco Zola in 2013 – and a running start rather than the firefighting after his appointment provide a more reasonable basis to assess Gracia.   That rumours of his departure this summer after only a few months didn’t turn out to be accurate doesn’t mean that his position will be secure if we don’t start well.

* * *

That’s it.  Thanks for bearing with this series and enjoy the World Cup…  if I can get my act together we’ll be back with the Season Preview in early August.

End of Term Report Part 6 07/06/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

25- José Holebas

There’s an undeniable charm about José Holebas.   Yes he’s hot-headed, furiously competitive, prone to throw his toys out of the pram to the point where you occasionally fear for his health (let alone that of those facing him), but there’s a charm nonetheless. Sometimes it manages to conceal itself quite deep admittedly such as during his lowest point this season, a gutless contribution to the miserable home defeat to Huddersfield.  Despite this, and other occasional lapses, there’s no failing to warm to his furious desire to win.

Beneath all the bluster he’s also been a very decent full back for us in a position which is as difficult to fill in the top flight as it was a division below when we signed Paul Mayo to replace Robbo fifteen years ago;  witness Ashley Young, Fabien Delph and James Milner all being shoe-horned, admittedly with some success, into this slot for the biggest clubs over the last year or two.  Not flawless, liable to occasionally be caught behind, but an experienced tick against an awkward box who has, for the most part, done us proud.  And only the nine bookings in 2018/19 too…

Next Season: That José is still here three years on would have been considered an unlikely outcome at several points during, and indeed prior to his Watford career.  However he turns 34 this month, and it seems inconceivable that some succession planning won’t be taking place.  Whether José will take kindly to being usurped I rather doubt…

27- Christian Kabasele

One of the quiet success stories of our year, Christian finished the campaign in the most solid looking central partnership we’d seen all season alongside the rejuvenated Craig Cathcart.  In actual fact, however, Christian had been a force for good throughout most of the campaign, quickly establishing himself as an automatic pick on the left side of the defence for the most part in the absence of the injured Britos – until Christian himself took his turn to sit out three months with a hamstring injury earlier this year.

It appears that this injury might have cost him a place in Belgium’s World Cup squad, a squad from which he was cut at the last… albeit that this is an area in which the Belgians appear well stocked.  For the Hornets he’s looked composed, confident, agile and strong, every inch a top defender… his worst fault, perhaps, that he occasionally loses himself as if distracted by an interesting passing beetle (to quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s advice on learning to fly).  This was most dramatically showcased at Wembley, when his brain freeze contributed to Karnezis’ aggravating error.  Increasingly the exception however, Kabasele one of the less celebrated jewels in our crown.

Next Season:  A solid defender and a likeable man, you’d hope that Kabasele is one of the bedrocks that the side will be built around.

28- André Carrillo

A player whose signing was clearly chased quite hard before his loan was secured in late August, he managed to the pull off the trick of looking like a talented, capable player without ever quite working out or convincing you that he would be worth the £20m-odd that was being touted for a permanent deal.  There was a lot to like…  an endearing directness about his play, a tendency to be the player that tried to drag some quality out of our less convincing performances.  However there were also too many games that passed him by, that he took part in without really influencing.

He was very much Marco Silva’s man, and equally transparently not Javi Gracia’s man.  Or rather… for whatever reason he was all but discarded.  Gracia only started him once in the Premier League, at home to West Brom.  Gerard Deulofeu had been injured the week before, but the returning Will Hughes replaced Carrillo from the bench and the Peruvian never got another look in.

In the fall-out of Silva’s dalliances with Everton it was widely rumoured that there were players in the squad angling to follow their manager to Goodison Park.   Whilst names weren’t named, it’s difficult not to associate Carrillo with this rumour, particularly given his standing in the squad after Silva left.

Next Season:  All but inconceivable that Carrillo will be returning to the Vic.  Inevitably rumours are linking him again with his ex-boss.  It is to be hoped that he’s the only member of Silva’s Watford squad that follows him to Merseyside.

29- Étienne Capoue

There are few starker indicators of How Much Stuff Has Changed than the fact that at various times over the last year or so you wouldn’t have had Étienne Capoue in your first choice Watford side.  Perhaps you still wouldn’t.  A far cry from as few as three years ago when Capoue was the marquee record signing of our first summer back in the top flight.

Nowhere in the side are our current riches more extravagantly laid out than in midfield, admittedly.  Nonetheless, it’s remarkable both that Étienne Capoue only started five of 24 league games under Marco Silva, or that this isn’t particularly remarkable.  What was more remarkable was Capoue’s response to being thrown back into the side under Javi Gracia as our midfield options gradually dissipated.  His prolific run at the start of last season had suggested that an advanced midfield role was Étienne’s best position but here he was back in one of the nominally “holding” roles alongside Abdoulaye Doucouré, and produced arguably his most consistent run of form since joining the Hornets.

The ability has always been there.  And… it’s not that he’s suddenly flawless, Dad’s ongoing objection to his tendency to dangle a foot half-heartedly in the direction of a tackle isn’t based on expectation alone.  Nonetheless, a stunning end to the season from the Frenchman, including my favourite moment of the season when his defiance of Chelsea’s equaliser at Vicarage Road, surging forward in denial of the way the match appeared to be turning changed the tone of the game again.

Next Season:  A very real and versatile option in a competitive area of the pitch.  All good.

End of Term Report Part 5 04/06/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

18- Andre Gray

Football players don’t have to be likeable.  Bastards, for example, have a role.  Ask Real Madrid, ask Sergio Ramos.  A cartoon character, a leader, a bastard.  He’s captained his side to the Champions’ League three times, he’s a knobhead, he doesn’t care and nor do Madrid because he’s their knobhead.  Marlon King.  Also, patently, not a very nice man… characteristics cast into light more sharply after he left Watford but even at the time you knew.  We all knew.  But whilst he was scoring goals, the roaring, snarling spearhead of the side it didn’t matter (up to a point).

If you’re struggling a bit, coming across as an idiot loses its charm somewhat, such as it is.  In Gray’s case, cupping your hand to your ear in response to perceived injustices having ended a run without a goal…. well.  Once, ill-judged, generously.  Twice, just crass.  He must have received some stick I guess to have reacted that way at all but it was really very tame indeed in the context of a record signing who was making a habit of bottling one-on-ones.  In the job he’s in he really has to be a bit thicker-skinned than that.  Not a reaction that left you rooting for the guy.

Nonetheless, he’s a better player than his modest goal return might suggest and we’ve looked a better side with him in it.  In particular it’s to be hoped that Javi can be persuaded to roll out the two-up-front recklessness of the final home game of the season against Newcastle;  both Troy and Andre looked all the better for it.

Next Season:  Rumours persist of another move with suggestions in the second half of the campaign that he’d been offered to Cardiff.  The Pozzos aren’t known to dawdle over their decisions, but it would still just about be surprising to see him go.

19- Will Hughes

Another tremendous signing from a summer of 2017 in which the incoming hit-rate was remarkably high.  Hughes took a while to force a look in and when he got it, having scored against West Ham and Newcastle in his second and third Premier League starts he did his hamstring against Manchester United three days later and aggravatingly sat out the next three months.

But when he returned, and virtually throughout his time on the pitch, he’s been an absolute joy. A whirlwind of mischief and energy and guile and a little bit of devilment, in this and his tendency to run himself to a verge-of-fainting standstill on about 75 minutes he’s an echo of another former Derby County youth who signed 20 years ago this summer.  Quite how this impossible treasure trove of midfielders fits together if and when everyone is fit is anyone’s guess but that’s a problem to worry about if and when it ever comes.  Will is a force for good wherever he’s accommodated.

Next Season:  A popular theory when Will joined a year ago was that he might be better suited to the Premier League than the more brutal intensity of the second tier.  He’s certainly not looked out of place, and if he can finally have a season free of the injuries that delayed his ascent to the highest tier, full international recognition is far from out of the question.

21- Kiko Femenía

A season of two halves for Kiko.  A relatively low key signing last summer he became one of the key components of the side that flourished under Marco Silva early in the season, revelling in the wing back role that showcased his stamina and acceleration.  The sight of Kiko roaring unnoted and untracked into space on the overlap was one of the defining images of that successful spell.

Whilst a number of other things were going wrong in early December, Kiko’s hamstring popping saw him sit out two months.  He returned to a new head coach and a back four that didn’t suit him nearly as well.  His outings under Javi Gracia were as a winger ahead of Daryl Janmaat at right back, and whilst the team struggled – we only earned a point from the six games he started on his return – Femenía in particular had little impact, only twice completing 90 minutes.

Next Season:  Like the rest of the squad, Kiko needs an injury-free run and a decent pre-season.  Thereafter we’ll maybe find out whether he’s versatile enough to be something other than a terrific wing back.

22- Marvin Zeegelaar

Zeegelaar signed on deadline day, quite transparently a last-minute means of filling a vacancy which had had someone else’s name on it.  His debut had to wait until West Ham’s visit in November, within seconds of which Andy Carroll’s elbow provided an uncompromising introduction to the English game.

Popular wisdom seems to be that Zeegelaar has been a low-cost failure, emergency cover at left back who isn’t quite up to it.  Certainly there were games – particularly at Vicarage Road – where Marvin was exposed, but his form was patchy rather than inadequate, his preference for going forward rather than backward common with most of our full backs.  His rampage up the left flank at St James Park was a major factor in the victory, and he played a full part in the stonking win over Chelsea from a wing back role.  Five days later however his slip at the London Stadium gave a mundane West Ham side an opening.  Marvin was replaced twenty minutes later and didn’t play for the side again, not managing as much as a place on the bench after the West Brom win in early March.

Next Season:  The much travelled Zeegelaar has, at the age of 27, played in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and the UK.  It seems likely that he’ll be finding another home before the end of the summer.  Jose Holebas turns 34 this month and we need a succession plan at the very least.  Marvin was passable cover, but isn’t a long term heir.

End of Term Report Part 4 31/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

13- Molla Wagué

If we’re honest, this is where reality meanders idly towards the kind of dystopia that Watford’s set-up has been most excitably criticised.  The notion of mercenary footballers being traded idly between Watford and Udinese like football stickers. Not that close, mind; more of a glance in the general direction of.  Wagué is no more or less a mercenary than anyone else moving somewhere for their job, and in the circumstances exploiting our relationship to provide much-needed cover was perfectly reasonable, but nonetheless…

Wagué was a last minute loan signing aimed at filling a space on the roster, cover in the centre of defence when it became rapidly clear that we were going to have availability issues at the back.  In his handful of games he looked decent, surprisingly quick and nimble but not immune to the odd mistake, which is why he was only afforded the status of emergency cover.  Come the end of January with central defenders returning (or expected to be returning) he was omitted from the Premier League 25 and so his Watford career ended with the same game as Marco Silva’s, a defeat at Leicester City where he had spent half a season last year playing 70 minutes of an FA Cup defeat at Millwall.  Wiser men than me put him at the bottom of our list of options;  we nod, and thank him, and consign him to the list of players whose names we’ll struggle to recall in a couple of years’ time.

Next Season:  Back at Udinese, one suspects, at least in name;  there looked to be a decent enough defender to be playing at a reasonable level there though.

14- Nathaniel Chalobah

Well what a bloody shame that was.

After a coup of a signing (including a wonderfully mischievous and theatrical Twitter announcement) hopes were high for this season.  August form prompted an England call-up as Chalobah and Doucouré formed a magnificent bedrock to the side in the early fixtures of the season, showcasing the young midfielder’s quick feet, awareness, and ability to choreograph counter-attacks at will.  This was most in evidence at Southampton, where Nate was the star of a fabulous team performance, a weapon in attack and in defence.

Ten days later an innocuous non-contact injury picked up at a training session utterly knackered his season and, arguably, provided the first body-blow to our excellent start.  Initial prognosis was Christmas, but as Christmas came and went without any sign of a return it became clear that this season was a write off.  As I’ve lamented several times, if Doucs does leave this summer we’ve been deprived of a truly formidable midfield pairing., but whatever… it was, in any event, excellent to see him on the pitch at Old Trafford for the final game of the season.

Next Season:  Rewind.  As you were.  Knee injuries are ominous things, but if Nate regains the form of early season there’s another jewel back in place in our crown.  Like many of our squad he comes across as an intelligent, grounded and thoroughly likeable chap.  Fingers, again, crossed.

15- Craig Cathcart

There’s a school of thought out there that seems to see Craig Cathcart as something other than a tremendous defender and a first choice centre back, which baffles me somewhat.   Yet another season decimated by injury, Craig had missed the end of pre-season and made his first appearance off the bench against Brighton in the wake of Miguel Britos’ dismissal.  Twenty minutes later he was off again with a knee injury, destined not to start a game until the trip to Huddersfield in mid-April which most people seem to have hated but I rather enjoyed.

The result of that game, and the one win yielded from the final five in which he played every minute disguise the settling effect Craig had on a defence which suddenly looked solid, arguably for the first time this season.  He makes an art form of unflashily being in the right place and the right time and Sorting Things Out;  no surprise that the defensively minded Gracia quickly recognised his value, or that we yielded only five goals in those five games which included trips to Spurs and United.  One goal a game against significantly preferable to the 1.8 per game over the rest of the season (one of which, that clean sheet with ten men against Brighton, Craig had also been a part of).

Next Season:  Whilst we expect to see incoming traffic in the centre of defence over the summer, that partnership with Kabasele looked very decent to me.  Very much part of the picture still one hopes;  Slav, for one, will be sniffing around again should this not be the case.  Would be our loss.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

Easily forgotten that Doucs was discarded at the start of last season, almost on a plane to Lorient as Walter Mazzarri made what was already the first baffling decision of his Watford career.  When he nudged his way into the side in the wake of an insurmountable injury crisis his impact was such that he was mentioned in the Player of the Season discussions a year ago after only half a season in the side.

There was no such discussion this time.  No need for it.  We’ve had some very fine midfielders in the past.  Others, perhaps less talented, who have performed an essential role as a cog in a functioning unit.  But I struggle to remember as dominant a season by a central midfielder, certainly not at this level.  Nobody has grabbed the midfield like Doucouré and flayed it to within an inch of its life, stomping all over it, driving through it, winning back possession and setting an attack into motion, seven times being at the decisive end of it, the first midfielder to top our goalscoring charts since Peter Kennedy 20 years ago.

Towards the end of the season his form dipped a little, but even then he was a more than capable member of a suddenly functioning midfield unit.  The only real downside, of course, the fact that having justifiably attracted the attention of the country’s biggest clubs he made no secret of preening in front of them.  No surprise or disgrace that he should want to better himself of course…  indeed, the whole Pozzo model is dependent on selling on the family silver (at the right time, for the right price).  But… he could have been a bit less excitable about it.

Next Season:  He’ll only be at Vicarage Road if nobody’s offered us a shedload of money.  And someone or three really ought to be offering us a shedload of money.