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Norwich City 1 Watford 3 (18/09/2021) 19/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1-  You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

Such is the prevailing sentiment at the Redwell Brewery in the lunchtime sunshine.  Freshly made pizza and craft beer are delivered to picnic benches arranged in an open courtyard.  Trains trundle apologetically along the adjoining track.  A gentleman with an impressively long beard and a bandanna is taking photographs for the website.  The unobtrusive murmur of pre-match chatter proliferates.

There are more or less exactly the right number of tables for the clientele, and all bar ours betray home colours.  Nonetheless, as above, there is a common tone borne of two seasons of shared experience and a build up to a big game which, if in slightly different ways, is being approached with a degree of apprehension on both sides.  

This illusion of bonhomie and commonality might be easier for me to delude myself with as a visiting supporter given that all four of the encounters over the last couple of season have gone our way, three of them behind closed doors.  If the home support regard us with less goodwill it isn’t evident;  only Julian’s “you always beat us, I have no expectation of anything different” betrays the slightest hint of animosity amongst our affable hosts.  It’s all very agreeable.  Nonetheless, as we reflect on leaving, whilst you wouldn’t object to both Watford and Norwich staying up, if it comes down to us or them making the drop then let’s face it, it’s them.

2- “It’s going to be tight and nervy” is one opinion overheard on the walk to the ground in what was pleasant warmth when sitting around drinking beer but altogether less pleasant when walking up and down hills is involved.  The “nervy” bit at least reflects the position of both sides…  the Hornets have barely threatened a goal in the League since the opening day whilst the Canaries are without a point.  Admittedly their fixtures thus far haven’t been terribly accommodating, but those who remember our 1999/2000 season will remember coming out of a run of tough games to face Cov and Boro, ostensibly more realistic sources of points, and being stuffed by them, too.  This is a huge game, but probably bigger for the home side.

Our recent performances have been characterised by an ability to hold opponents off whilst ceding possession, undermined by an inability to capitalise when we break.  Today, subtle changes in team selection and attitude facilitate almost a complete inverse.  That “tight and nervy” prediction is blown out of the water immediately as both sides start positively and aggressively.  Off the pitch, in the circumstances we may benefit from being the away side;  a travelling support in general, let alone on a sunny afternoon in late summer, generally boasts less angst and more bloody-mindedness than a home support, all other things being equal.  This is only fuelled by an early assault on the City goal, adjacent to the away block in the first half, which culminates in Kucka hurling himself like a human missile at a right wing cross.  His opponent holds him off on this occasion, which takes some doing, but this is fuel to the boisterous fire kindling in the away end.  The flipside of this is that having looked generally difficult to manoeuvre through up until now we’re ceding chances a little too easily in what little foothold we afford the home side.  This will not be dull.

3- Daughter 1 has not joined us on the trip to Norfolk.  She is later to bemoan her ongoing 100% failure rate this season in attending none of the games in which we find the net and all of those in which we strike out.  “I just want to see us score” she protests plaintively to a tough crowd, her mother thoroughly unsympathetic and her father and younger sister still buzzing after a two hour trip from Norfolk.  She will learn, in time, that the only way to cope with what she would call FOMO is to attend every game but some lessons need to come from within and cannot be taught.

The reaction to the first goal is exactly what she’s talking about though.  The cathartic celebrations on the opening day were fabulous, but almost… not tainted, tainted is the wrong word because they were thoroughly enjoyable. Unusual, maybe.  Unnatural.  Fuelled by and inextricably linked to being back in the stadium at all.  This was different.  This was all about footballing context and was deafening, furious and prolonged, abetted by the goal going in in front of us and a multi-player fist waving bundle at the foot of the away stand.  There was an Emmanuel Dennis somersault in there too, but I was oblivious to that until a photo was shared during a dazed, grinning encounter with a fellow traveller in a petrol station on the way westwards after the game.

The build-up featured two of those subtle but critical team changes.  Less subtle, less obvious and presumably enforced were the unexplained absences of both Sierralta and the still unseen Tufan.  But Kiko Femenía is one of those things that you’ve been imagining, hoping, might give us a little bit more of an edge… Sarr is the threat but if he’s the only threat most teams will subdue him at this level.  Kiko bombing on gives you two speed-demons to worry about.  Slightly less straightforward.  And then there’s Cleverley… Peter Etebo hadn’t done an awful lot wrong to necessitate his dropping to the bench, but the mix wasn’t right against Wolves.  Cleverley brings experience of course, and an ability to calm everything down, but he also brings the dynamism to get into mischievous areas and the courage to play a quick one-touch pass where a more cautious second touch would give the opponent chance to get set.  More than once this courage is crucial in opening City up, and this is the case here as Sarr, Clevs and Kiko play a quick game of pinball before Kiko finds space to put in a cross.  It’s a Beckham crossing position rather than a lay-in from the byline and the full back will get one badly wrong from a similar spot five minutes later but this one is on the money.  Dennis ghosts in between two defenders to meet it with a directed header and Krul doesn’t have a chance.  It’s a magnificent goal in both its significance in the game and in the reassurance it provides about our fledgling forward line. The roof comes off the stand. 

The goal also reenforces the suspicion that whilst, as two years ago, there’s things that Norwich are good at there’s also plenty of stuff that Norwich aren’t good at and defending remains one of them.  As the game settles down a little we’re still pushing forward aggressively, and in contrast to earlier games the ball is largely in the opponent’s half.  We’re speculating that perhaps we perceive a lack of pace in Norwich’s attack, a lack of threat on the break when the silver-haired Normann drops a ball over the top for Pukki to gallop onto and finish calmly, giving a lie to that theory.  There are further chances at both ends, not least from Sarr with whom Brandon Williams is struggling manfully but to whom Kiko is affording extra freedom.  The half ends, the away end sits down collectively and Daughter 2 sums up concisely.  “That was intense!”.

4- Danny Rose is a significant protagonist in proceedings not for the first or, one suspects, the last time, and awarding him a representative mark out of five almost impossible.  On the plus side of course a formidable strength of body and will and a footballing ability, a mixture of capability and confidence that betrays his pedigree.  Case in point at the end of the first half when an insane, scorching through ball frees Sarr and Krul does exceptionally well to come out and deny what would have been a stunning, merciless strike at the end of the half.  The pass was breathtaking in its imagination and its execution, and was merely the most startling example of Rose’s positive contribution.

On the downside…  he’s unavoidably heavy and immobile.  A Danny Rose that could still thunder up and down the left flank, one supposes, wouldn’t be playing for us…   but nonetheless.  His trips up the left flank seem to require some form of self-funded period of isolation in a hotel before returning such is the time that he takes to drop back into position, perhaps a footnote in the latest convolution of the COVID travel rules.  This is accommodated for the most part by Norwich’s lack of threat from wide positions and by what can only be a pre-planned covering plan since we are rarely exploited here, but a second half penalty shout looks hairy as Rose seems to clatter his opponent from behind in the box below us.  In any event the travelling support have come down vociferously on one side of the argument as the player himself acknowledges with a thumbs up over his shoulder late in the game.  One hopes that increased game time will see his mobility improve – if it does, we have a monster on our hands.

And monsters are another dominant characteristic of the performance.  This has been discussed before, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re bullying Norwich, particularly in midfield.  Concerns about a lack of physicality given the departures of Doucouré, Capoue and now Chalobah in recent years seem a distant memory;  Norwich aren’t going to be the last relatively lightweight side that we overpower, you suspect.

A key protagonist here is Moussa Sissoko, another with an instant fanclub, who is indirectly involved in the second goal.  He airkicks in attempting to set off a counterattack to guffaws from the stands but recovers to set the play in motion anyway, its ultimate success all the more damning on City’s defending for the fact that he took time for a second go.  Kiko has limped off with what may prove to be the one negative mark against the afternoon (though he’s agile enough to come all the way over to the support at the end of the game, reassuringly) and Ngakia got his defiant head to a cross within seconds of coming on.  Now he’s galloping upfield and releases Joshua King on the right of the box.  King is an interesting focal point… not a Jamie Vardy, not an out-and-out goalscorer by any means but increasingly the glue that holds this forward line together.  He pulls back from the touchline and Sarr has dropped around Hanley to finish superbly.  We look lethal, Norwich look lead-footed.

4- The second Watford sub follows ten minutes later and sees Dennis replaced by Sema on the left flank.  We drop to what appears to be a more conservative formation…  Sema and Sarr much more withdrawn in a midfield four with Clevs now buzzing around with King.  This feels precarious, offering the home side more opportunity to do the stuff they’re quite good at and demanding less of the stuff they’ve been struggling with.  We look a little bit ragged for the first time in this period, and are more than once grateful to Ben Foster’s attentiveness. His rapid and accurate distribution, a feature of his game since his first debut for us all of 16 years ago, is another vital characteristic of the afternoon, as helpful in achieving quick turnarounds as Cleverley’s sharpness.  Bachmann has retreated to the bench in what can only have been a precautionary move if it was genuinely fuelled by a knee injury as reported, but as in the Palace tie Foster looks thoroughly on his game. The Stoke fixture falls quite nicely as one assumes he’d have been back in for that in any case but barring disaster there it’s not difficult to see him reclaiming his throne here.

Meanwhile our third goal is almost as out-of-the-blue as City’s equaliser had been an hour earlier… McLean slices a ball upwards but unlike Sissoko doesn’t get away with his misjudgement… Cleverley is onto it, King is put through, Krul again does well to deny him but Sarr finishes the rebound expertly, a much more accomplished finish than the almost apologetic roll into the net makes it appear.  We celebrate, we see the flag, we feel a bit silly. 

I’m not a big fan of VAR, I think you lose a lot more than you gain in general, but the current minimalist incarnation seems far less obtrusive and therefore objectionable to me for as long as it lasts.  The offside rule is still an issue though…  and it’s nobody’s fault really.  An idea that was introduced to discourage goalhanging has been hijacked as the basis for defensive strategy.  It was certainly never conceived to be something that cameras could adjudicate on with such arbitrary precision.  You do kind of feel that a striker that’s more-or-less level with the last defender ought to be onside, even if “more-or-less” isn’t nearly specific enough for our current reality.  At any rate…  if there’s a time that a VAR delay can be enjoyed it’s when you’re maybe going 3-1 up in a critical match away from home with ten minutes to go.  There are “ooooos” and vibrating outstretched arms in the away end before the referee delivers the verdict.  Somehow Tom Cleverley, who played the pass that was the focus of attention, is now in his own half and perfectly positioned to celebrate the end of the match as a contest in front of the now jubilant travelling Hornets alongside his goalkeeper who, like him, was a Player of the Season for us over a decade ago.

5- And it is over, indisputably; Norwich are as flat as a pancake for the last ten minutes.  Ken Sema’s One Run is as dependable a fixture of every game as the Jamie Hand Booking was twenty-odd years ago;  here his barrelling charge down the left sees him go down in the box.  From our unfavourable distance and angle it looks like a good shout, but in any case it perhaps only evens out the Danny Rose call at the other end.  Sarr threatens a hat-trick and a cherry on the icing on the ample afternoon cake, but is denied.  The game ends.

And doesn’t the world look different today.  We should be mindful of recency bias of course…  we are no more the irresistible force today than we were a blunt, hapless object 48 hours ago.  But in wreaking havoc once again at Carrow Road, and arguably more decisively than in either of the previous two meetings, we’ve shown what’s already possible, and suggested a direction of travel.  No illusion of progress this, this really is something that’s coming together at the point that we needed it to.  

Equally we’re only five games into the season, and Norwich aren’t out of this.  You wouldn’t back them though. Most of all it’s difficult to watch a Daniel Farke interview without thinking “we got rid of Jokanovic six years ago because we didn’t think he could organise a Premier League defence…”.  The Norwich support are no less affable outside the ground, but they’re not smiling. 

Enjoy the journey.  So much easier after an away win though.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Femenía 4, Rose 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Cathcart 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 3, Cleverley 5, *Sarr 5*, Dennis 4, King 4
Subs: Ngakia (for Femenía, 59) 3, Sema (for Dennis, 73) 3, Etebo (for Cleverley, 83) NA, Masina, Louza, Fletcher, Hernández, Kabasele, Bachmann

Watford 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (11/09/2021) 12/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
14 comments

1- I was back in work this week.

I’m one of those desk jockeys fortunate enough to have been able to push on from home during the pandemic and various stages of lockdown, pretty much without breaking stride.  It’s been a bit rubbish, obviously, but in the grand scheme of things you’ll take “a bit rubbish”.  I’ve had a laptop, I’ve had an internet connection and Zoom-y kind of tools to talk to people through so…  fine.  Critically, I’ve still got paid.

My employer has been cautious as far as folk coming back to the “office” is concerned.  Not an office really, strictly speaking;  a research laboratory.  650-odd people are employed there, nominally, so it’s a big place.  Some folk have needed to be back more than me, some of the proper scientists need laboratories and that.  But this week, with controls and ifs and buts and with no coercion whatsoever the great unwashed were permitted in as well.  Many didn’t, but I don’t have a commute to speak of.  I was in every day.

It was kind of the same, but kind of different.  No surprise of course… buildings are still in the same place, most of them.  The site still looks brilliant in the sunshine.  It takes me the same amount of time to walk home.  But after everything that’s happened, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to have been left how it was, to be as I remember it and to work right away.  Rooms have been rearranged and refurbished for one thing, much more easily achieved when the place is empty.  Repurposed for “hybrid” working, whatever that turns out to be.  The people are different…  folk have come and gone,  some of the newbies have been back on site for months, I’m the newbie in their eyes.  It’s still very empty compared to what normal used to be.

Kind of the same, but kind of different.

2- You’ll have guessed where this is going.

We’re sort of, kind of, almost getting back into the swing now with the football.  Not really…  it’ll take longer, too much has happened… but kind of, almost, getting there.  Daughters 1 and 2 are both here today; Daughter 1 also has Kate with her, an occasional if enthusiastic visitor over the years and possibly the last person to bemoan the demise of Chimichanga on Market Street, part of the ritual she remembers.  Daughter 2 has slightly less catching up to do, but nonetheless hasn’t been here since the ghostly game against Cardiff last season, Daughter 1 not since we lasted hosted Wolves (which was only New Year’s Day last year, though it could equally be a decade ago).  Only Isma, of our starting eleven, was involved that day which tells a story.  In contrast seven of Wolves’ starters today were in that matchday squad.

This highlights again the challenge inherent in the colossal overhaul of the squad not just over the last transfer window but since supporters were last regularly in the ground.  We could do with a few more Aston Villas to build those fledgling emotional investments as much as our points tally.

3- The head coach, at least, has built a rapid connection with supporters – a ready smile and a promotion don’t hurt of course – but his request for a barrage of noise to fuel an early assault on the visitors never looks remotely like coming to pass as Wolves dominate possession for the opening ten or fifteen minutes.  Jeremy Ngakia is one of two new faces in the starting eleven…  I’ve never quite decided in my head whether he’s destined for great things or somewhat less great things, and the same conflicting evidence is on show here.  In the opening minutes Traoré, ostensibly the greatest threat (Jiménez, a shadow of his former self, is regaining fitness and confidence), twice loses Ngakia on the Wolves left before slipping a simple pass to a team-mate presumably deemed to boast more reliable end product.  It’s all very sensible but rather underwhelming, like hiring a michelin-starred chef to pour you some corn flakes.

Thereafter however Ngakia gets to grips with his opponent to such an extent that the interval will see Traoré and the rather dainty Trincão switch wings.  On the evidence presented thus far it looks as if maybe Connor Roberts was the aberration, with Zaha/Traoré suggesting that the young full-back has enough about him to bottle up challenging opponents.  His success mirrors our own, as we more or less succeed once again in keeping our opponents at arm’s length despite their almost complete possession.

When we do retaliate it’s swift, aggressive and startling…  Sarr’s poise and awareness on the right allow him to slip a ball inside to Sissoko; his effort is all power and no precision and from a wide angle at a comfortable height José Sá is never seriously troubled but it was on target, a lapse of concentration and it would have been in.  From the subsequent corner Etebo lamps the first of a couple of long shots high, wide and handsome.

We’re physically much more powerful than Wolves, and begin to bully them all over the park.  Sissoko manages to combine power with balance, and more than once wrong foots one opponent whilst holding off another.  He combines with Sarr again for the winger to roll a ball across the face of goal and narrowly beyond King’s toe.  Danny Rose, the other newcomer, is no less prominent than Ngakia.  He does the Robbo thing of not settling for a neat, clean tackle when there’s energy spare to make sure that the opponent feels it….  if he’s less of a threat hurtling up and down the flank than in his heyday and despite looking pretty fed up throughout he does more than enough to justify his selection.  Etebo once again patrols behind the midfield despite the challenge of an early card.

4- Thing is though, whilst we do well to reclaim a foothold in the first half and can make a case for being level on points as well as on goals at the interval, and whilst there are good individual things and a very enjoyable amount of bootering, we’re not nearly coherent enough in attack.  There’s some good stuff there, some good bits but there’s no whole.  No shape, no pattern, no cheap stock goals, not yet.  We’re like a lion cub with teeth and claws that we don’t quite know what to do with, needing to work it all out before the law of the jungle tears us apart.  Not that lions live in jungles…

When King (of the jungle) hobbles off shortly into the second half any sense of a focal point disappears altogether.  This is Emmanuel Dennis’ weakest game so far… he keeps running, but to little effect.  Cucho is a box of tricks and wins a couple of decent aerial balls against taller opponents but he surely needs to be the decoration on a more solid structure whilst Sarr has all the ability and acceleration but isn’t Troy Deeney, isn’t ever going to be the leader.

This lack of shape and purpose – for now at any rate – has two consequences.  Firstly, our attacking falters in the second half… not a lack of effort for me as much of a lack of conviction, a resignation to the futility of the exercise which is probably worse.  Secondly, and partly as a consequence, by not realising your threat you give your opponent no reason to moderate their attacking ambitions.  This was already evident at the end of the first half when right wing-back Semedo was put through at the death with the Hornets busy claiming for a foul on the subdued Kucka at the other end of the pitch.  Bachmann denied him on this occasion, but the same player was put through early in the second half and shot wide.  Jiménez found space in the box and headed narrowly off target.

Tickets, raffles, and we were selling too many tickets.  It’s a bit of a shame that it was Sierralta, up to that point the head on the end of any optimistic high ball that Wolves had lobbed into the box;  as two Watford bodies went up in front of him, reaching for a left wing cross, he can only have been unsighted and slightly disorientated in deflecting the ball home under minimal pressure.  It was no more than Wolves deserved by that point, and Bachmann was unable to prevent a scruffy second ten minutes later.

5- Kind of the same, kind of different.  And because it’s different, all different, it’s unreasonable to expect it all to gel straight away.  There are good bits.  Even the bits that don’t work as a collective have things about them that offer encouragement.  Thing is, we don’t have a huge amount of time to develop those patterns given the unforgiving nature of the Premier League and the circumstances of our fixture list.  We need points out of our next couple of games, on the back of not really having looked much like scoring since Villa.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back in work next week for all that it’s weird, for all that it’s kind of the same but kind of different.  I can only remember one comparable instance in what have been many years working at this place, one time when everything seemed to change and you wanted to drop to the floor to regain your balance.  That was in September 2001;  we’d just gotten back from our honeymoon in New York and Boston.  We’d been on top of the World Trade Center as England were putting five goals past Germany in Munich.   One of the best things about football, as we’ve suggested before, is how it can matter so much whilst not mattering at all.  But it doesn’t matter at all, not really.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Ngakia 4, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 3, Sissoko 4, Kucka 2, Sarr 3, King 3, Dennis 2
Subs: Hernández (for King, 53) 3, Sema (for Etebo, 77) NA, Louza, Cleverley, Masina, Cathcart, Tufan, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford’s Number 9 01/09/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
18 comments

None of it stands up to much independent scrutiny, not really.  Investing so much into a football team, finance yes, time of course.  Emotion too.  A fickle, unreliable bedfellow with expensive habits, as we know.

But given that we do it.  Given that this particular die is cast for better or worse, an emotional bond that all football fans understand even if many outsiders struggle to empathise, given all of that it would be inconceivable not to be affected, perhaps even distraught, by yesterday’s announcement as a Watford fan.  If you’re in, you’re in.  I’m a 48 year-old man, I have teenage children, grey hair, I’m closer to the end of my mortgage than the start of it.  I’m in a right state, and I’m not apologising for it.

The profoundness of the impact reflects not just what Troy has achieved but the sort of guy he is.  It’s rare for someone to spend eleven years at any club, rarer still for them to be so conspicuous throughout that period.  For much of his eleven years at Vicarage Road, arguably since the Pozzos took over in 2012 Troy has been the public face of Watford Football Club, the most recognisable face, the most prominent voice.  Whatever the stage of his career – and we’ll get to that – he leaves a chasm unparalleled, arguably, by any other departure save Graham Taylor’s in recent memory.  His role in the team may have diminished but his influence and actions off the pitch have been just as significant and will be missed badly.

My co-editor wrote about GT’s humanity as he left the manager’s position in 2001.  Troy’s humanity has been a big part of his legend at this club.  Like Taylor he’s a real person…  he’s got things wrong – we’ll get to that, too – he gets things right.  He’s got a backstory, a real life that is painted all over his face.

And he’s been unflinchingly honest.  Honesty doesn’t mean being right all the time.  It means telling it as you see it, for better or for worse, and he’s never done otherwise.  This was evident as early as his first season with the club under Malky Mackay; signed on the first day of the campaign thanks to the financial input, it later transpired, of Sir Elton John he inherited the number 9 shirt that had been left unclaimed since Tamás Priskin’s departure a year earlier and was straight into the matchday squad that evening, half an hour in an unlikely win at Carrow Road against a Norwich side destined for promotion.

He had pursued a move from Walsall aggressively, and slacked off pre-season training. With the benefit of hindsight this may have contributed to the slow start to his Vicarage Road career; a disrupted pre-season would often impact the subsequent campaign throughout his time at the club.  In my end of season report at the end of that year I reflected on his honest appraisal of his own poor form in the middle of that season.  Another recurring trend, but more startling in a newly-signed 22 year-old than in a long-established club captain.

He ended that first season playing wide on the right of Malky Mackay’s attack;  the following year under Sean Dyche he was a regular substitute, starting only four games and coming off the bench twelve times by the start of December.  His Watford career by that point boasted an underwhelming six goals in sixteen months and for all that his performances were otherwise strong this was the first of a number of sliding door moments.  Nobody would have blinked had he moved on that January though there would have been (more) grumbles at the “wasted” outlay, the transfer fee up to half a million pounds depending on clauses (or more if you believed Walsall, who until recently must have spent every transfer window wondering if this was the time they’d get their 20% sell-on. Sorry chaps).

Instead it was Marvin Sordell that moved on, and Troy suddenly had a more regular berth in the team.  He finished the season with a forceful nine goals in 17 games…a late winner to deny Boro a play-off spot, an equaliser to earn a point against Hull when Mariappa was sent off, another late winner against Ipswich.

This was more compelling stuff and some soon-to-be-important people were watching on.  That summer brought the second sliding door of Troy’s career as he was sentenced to ten months in prison after pleading guilty to affray. Meanwhile the club was being dragged from the brink of disaster when Lord Ashcroft briefly reclaimed ownership from the catastrophic and defaulting incumbent before selling on to the Pozzo family.  The new owners could have taken a very different line with their centre-forward. So much would have turned out differently if they had, not least for Troy.

There was a lot of deliberating at that time.  For me he had deserved a second chance, but this was largely dependent on his attitude, on his contrition, on whether he recognised the degree to which he’d screwed up.  The call was that he did, that he wasn’t going to let anyone down again.  He didn’t.

His tour de force at Huddersfield in his first start after release in September, helping to secure a 3-2 win after five matches without a victory, lit a fire under the season that was to prove the exception to Troy’s rule.  No pre-season has been disrupted to quite that extent, but he ended it with 20 goals in 35 starts, including surely the most replayed goal in the club’s history.  It must surely still choke you up, even those of you that weren’t in the path of the ball as it was struck, those of you that weren’t the only person in the stadium to notice what was unfolding in the wake of the post-penalty save celebration.

The following season saw 25 from Troy including the first hat-trick by a Watford player at the Vic in over sixteen years.  This prompted the first serious interest in the now undisputed figurehead of the team and after a disappointing league campaign this was another point at which the decision could have been made to cash in.  As a public auction seemed to be taking place in the August the club announced that he wasn’t going anywhere and both this and his acquiescence spoke volumes.  Rarely does a striker stay in the Championship after 45 goals in two seasons after all.

He captained the side to promotion the following year contributing another 21 goals, the last of which a critical strike in a dizzy afternoon at Brighton crowned with the calmest of assists to Matěj Vydra which prompted the least calm of celebrations.  It took a couple of months to get off the score sheet in the Premier League at Stoke but then the goals flowed… fifteen in all competitions, three of them against relegated Aston Villa.  During this campaign he achieved the rare feat of scaring Graeme Souness;  “I thought he was just a big lump but…. he’s a really good footballer!” was his verdict on Sky,  “what are you supposed to do against that?” the unspoken subtext. Perhaps most telling of all was his performance during an appalling end of season capitulation at Norwich; Quique had mentally left the building, most of the team were on the beach, Troy wasn’t having any of it.  A one man wrecking ball, the beating heart of the side.

That summer the overtures came from no less than the League champions Leicester City;  faced with the conundrum of quite who Leicester City sign when they’re league champions the Foxes, mercifully, went for Islam Slimani instead.  Troy would later be linked with Spurs but neither of the roles understudying the strikers who watched on from Leicester’s bench as he scored his most famous goal would have suited Troy.  By now he was a man who had to be the big dog in the room.

A fractious relationship with Walter Mazzarri didn’t prevent him from reaching double figures in the sixth season in succession, including that goal at West Ham that is one of everyone’s favourites (along with so many more).

The wasted Marco Silva season was a difficult one for Troy, another disrupted pre-season and two red cards borne of frustration and only two League goals from open play in consecutive 1-0 wins in late February and early March.  By that time he had upset half of north London by commenting on Arsenal’s lack of “cojones”, their eminent get-attableness, after his penalty had contributed to a 2-1 win.  Telling it like it was again and damn the consequences, consequences that came back to bite him every time he faced the Gunners subsequently.  Nonetheless, Troy played a part in the recovery under Javí Gracia, Jonathan Lieuw in the Independent describing his performance in the 4-1 demolition of Chelsea as “…part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”.

2018/19 was his last great season at Watford.  Eleven goals as the Hornets chased Europe and the FA Cup only tells a fraction of the story.  If the arrivals of Deulofeu and Andre Gray had spread the attacking responsibility Troy was still the focal point, the leader.  His importance was never more evident than in the four games he missed through suspension (effectively, heading off minutes into a frustrating home defeat to another poor Arsenal side), but never more vibrant than in the dying seconds of regular time during the Wembley semi final against Wolves.  The Leicester goal is more famous, but this, for me, is the ultimate Troy goal.  Four minutes into injury time having just won a penalty, more of a pressure shot than the Leicester one, more time to think about it.  There was never any doubt, from the moment the penalty was awarded, no doubt how the game was going to play out.  But to hit it that hard

Both the relegation season and the promotion campaign that followed saw Troy hampered by injury early on.  Double figures once again in the relegation season nonetheless including another goal in a cruel defeat against Villa. Some more of those ferocious trademark penalties peppered the sinister post-lockdown close to the season, As the captain also recovered from hospitalisation by COVID.  On the rare occasions when Troy, Sarr and Geri were able to link up in that campaign we looked formidable.  We just didn’t get them on the field together often enough.

Meanwhile Troy, having turned 30, was lining his ducks up.  Never media shy he started a fortnightly column for the Sun and got a slot on TalkSport.  The ability to be clear-headed, eloquent, honest and direct made him a popular listen but popularity had nothing to do with it.  When Black Lives Matter was thrust into prominent view, Troy was at the forefront of the campaign encouraging taking the knee at kick off.  Telling it as he saw it, irrespective of the consequences.  Amongst the many joys of the return to stadia subsequently has been the confirmation that the voices of support dramatically outweigh the bigots and the morons who claim far too much oxygen on social media.

Last season his role was rendered more peripheral by injury… one goal from open play, plus an array of those penalties.  But off the pitch he was still the leader, the captain.  A club employee reported, during the game against Millwall that saw promotion confirmed, the skipper sitting with his young daughter up in the Upper GT surveying proceedings like a general up on a high vantage point, barking instructions at his charges.

It was always going to end at some point, and it’s good that it ends this way.  Released from a year of his contract, signing for the club he supports in the face of what must have been more lucrative offers.  Everyone gets to feel good about that. Troy believes that his last two seasons were ruined by injury, that he can reclaim past glories.  I hope he’s right.  In any event, for all that we could have done with his presence around the dressing room he was never going to take not being the Big Dog any longer.

Rooting for Birmingham City is going to be a novelty, particularly for those of us who remember combustible encounters of twenty-plus years ago, but it’s good to try new experiences as you get older. If force of personality counts for anything, the rest of the Championship doesn’t stand a chance.

Troy Deeney has been an inspiring role model.  a compelling spokesman, a ferocious leader, a deceptively clever centre-forward, an irrepressible goalscorer, taker of terrifying penalties and a leader of men.  Today he brought donuts as he said good bye to the staff at Vicarage Road, which is of course what any normal bloke would do.

It’s going to take a big personality to claim that shirt.

Best of luck Troy.

Yoooorns.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 0 (29/08/2021) 30/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- “Who’s that guy?”

“Which one?”

“Our number 31.  With the sort of bun.”

“That’s Francisco Sierralta.”

“Who?”

It’s a funny time.  Perhaps, hopefully I guess, a unique time.  Despite the fact that Daughter 2 never quite got into paying attention in any way when not able to go to games it’s startling that she doesn’t know who our mighty Chilean centre-back is.  Except of course… that despite – even when taking into account his mid-season arrival into the side last season – there are only four longer-established first team players in the eleven, this is the first League game that he’s started for us in front of full stands.

Hornet Hive was the artery that fed us that intel last season, but even Emma and Tommy will be struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of this transfer window. Indeed, given the evacuation, both planned and already realised, of established faces – for all sorts of reasons – there’s an argument for saying that our hosts are more familiar with our squad than we are.  Rarely if ever have we seen an overhaul quite like this… sometimes new money, management, ownership or circumstances mean that a whole load of new faces have come in together but not to replace popular and successful players.  Even the squad strengthening on promotion six years ago retained a core of established names.  This feels like a critical time, not just by virtue of the return of supporters to stadiums (which is obviously tremendous) but in the need to quickly establish an association between this largely new team and the stands.

Good job they look bloody great, really.

2- Whilst the ascent to Newcastle’s away end is the stuff of legend and Selhurst Park is notoriously difficult to get to (like a fungal growth down the back of a cabinet), Spurs have done a decent job of locating themselves as far as it’s possible to get from any sensible access in central-ish London.  The journey down has been rendered all the more challenging by blanket railway engineering works for the bank holiday weekend, and even our attempts to avoid them by driving across to an alternative train line at St Neots are disrupted by further late-runningness on that line.  Getting to the ground after the deceptively long slog from Seven Sisters always feels like an achievement, the more so today – the existence of open urinals at the halfway mark of that stretch betrays the wisdom or perhaps bitter experience of the local authorities as much as it appals both daughters..

It’s a fine stadium, as we’ve discussed before; the lack of low roofs hinders the atmosphere but the sight lines are good, the lean-on bars are a massive plus, the eatery options are tremendous and the stewards are amiable and efficient to a fault (excepting my niece, Sara, who is on duty at some unspecified location and didn’t tell us beforehand).  Underlying it all however is a certain snideness that’s befitting of our hosts…  the aggressive, blanket ban on food and drink coming into the stadium to compel sale of both to a captive audience for one thing.  Careful planning and selection facilitated smuggling of lucky half-time contraband into the stadium, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Then there’s the sharp slope that drops from just beyond each touchline, leaving the pitch on a sort of weird plateau.  At first it looks merely odd, and a little dangerous perhaps;  we’re making uneducated guesses about drainage until Dad points out how difficult a Delap-style long throw would be to achieve with no run-up.

There are a few ways to look at this fixture.  It’s difficult to judge, for one thing, quite how the HarryKaneathon affects things…  if there’s little doubt that the “one of our own” adulation from the stands rings rather hollower than it did, you kinda feel that we could have done with things still being precariously up in the air. (As an aside, daughter 2’s proclivity for concise commentary was betrayed during the Euros…. “who does Harry Kane play for, Dad?”… “Tottenham”….”Why?”). On the other hand, whilst our opening looks relatively gentle all things considered you’d almost rather get the less winnable games out of the way while we’re still getting our shit together.  Quite whether this still qualifies as One Of The Tougher Games is another question, but it spares us from some of the imperative of racking up points in our early games.

3- Any away point in the Premier League is a decent one in any case and the directive must surely have been to keep it tight early doors, stifle the atmosphere, frustrate the hosts.  So Daniel Bachmann, who was to have a mixed and slightly edgy afternoon, skewing a pass out to a Spurs boot in the opening exchange probably wasn’t part of the plan, Peter Etebo coming to the rescue by crowbarring the ball from the feet of Harry Kane in the penalty area.  The Hornets broke aggressively, Dennis starting on the left and progressing down the flank; the ball found the feet of Kucka who curled a shot to the far post where, it transpires, Eric Dier’s head deflected it clear.  And breathe.

Etebo and Kucka formed two-thirds of a newly robust trio in the middle with the surprise immediate involvement of Moussa Sissoko.  First and foremost, this is a no-bullshit midfield that surely allays any concerns about being too lightweight in the centre of the park…  Etebo is the veteran with a princely four competitive starts now,  and does a sterling job again making light of a harsh early booking,  but Kucka and Sissoko are welcome surprises on the teamsheet.  Kucka, whose hunched shoulders suggest an invisible but fully-laden supermarket trolley, reprised his performance from the opening day with barrelling runs and sharp touches.  Sissoko looked dynamic, athletic and efficient except when in shooting range, delighting the home support by clouting over the bar in the second half as is traditional.  Fellow residents of the danger zone a third of the way up the Rookery, beware.

Between them the trio allay fears of being overrun as at Brighton.  We’re facing a capable opponent, and on our left in particular we look vulnerable as Son, whose ethnicity is an immediate source of fascination for both daughters, is dong Son-like things with little impediment.  Wrong to lay all the blame at Masina’s feet;  as previously this season he is exposed by lack of defensive diligence from the man in front of him, Dennis on this occasion, but it’s a productive-looking avenue for Spurs either way.

We do a fine job of holding them off again though, a recurring theme.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession and a lot of energy and aren’t getting very far with it, whereas we’re providing every suggestion of a sucker-punch with King doing a decent job leading the line, mobile, tidy and persistent, whilst Dennis and Sarr are willing and potent.  Kieron, who remains neutral-ish despite thirty years of occasional visits and a healthy disregard for Spurs, says we’re “a bit ragged”, but we’d have taken nil-nil if a bit ragged at the break with both hands.  Instead Spurs get a free-kick on the left, Son swings it into the dangerous corridor between attackers and goalkeeper and Bachmann hesitates fatally as it bounces in front of him and in low to his left.

4- Residual anxiety about quite how this is going to shake out fuel a little apprehensiveness at the start of the second half.  This could run away from us very rapidly if we’re not careful.  We are careful, however.  A significant departure in strategy has seen us bring in more experience than usual this summer…  Kucka is 34, Sissoko 32, Josh King will turn 30 mid-season.  Jose Holebas (31) and Valon Behrami (30) were the veterans in 2015.  That composure saw us keep it steady throughout the second half.

In truth, Spurs came closer than we did to adding to the scoreline. Daniel Bachmann redressed things slightly by pushing out a deflected Højbjerg free kick and then blocking a point-blank Kane shot. Troost-Ekong, whose vast improvement since last weekend surely reflected the return of the impeccable Sierralta beside him, got a touch to Moura’s cross to steer it out of Kane’s path. I try not to rewatch highlights or to let them colour my judgement before rewriting the report, but there’s no not mentioning that piece of defending.

But we remained in touching distance, and we retained a threat.  As Spurs’ half-chances came and went you knew that if you were in the home stands you’d sense the sucker punch coming.  It didn’t, but the fact that we played ourselves into a position where it might have is reason for optimism.  Sarr persisted despite regular aggressive attention, not least from Reguilón who was embarrassed enough about being left on his arse to make ludicrously fanciful objections to the linesman in front of us after Isma rolled around him.  Cucho came off the bench for a willing but ineffective cameo, nearly crowned with a scissor kick to a deep right-wing cross.  It was a one-in-ten shot at best, you’d want him to give it a swing at those odds but this was one of the nine.  Dennis moved to the centre as King was withdrawn but to less effect, his rare lack of progress from a central role frustrating him into a needless late booking. The game ended.

5- The gents on the other side of daughter 2 in the congested lack of personal space provoked by sticking narrow seats on a bend had mortified her and her sister by identifying me through them as “the bloke who writes for From the Rookery End” (almost).  They reflected on this one as “a free hit” and in a sense they’re right…  The Other 14 would tell you that if you beat everyone but the big six at home you’ll end up with 39 points and will probably be OK.  On that basis three points from three games so far is no worse than par.

There are a fair few “free hits” in the Premier League, and there’s a frustration here in that having been within a slug of a mugging we couldn’t find that goal, deserved or otherwise, or better still kept that free kick out.  Nonetheless.  We’re at a stage where the team is virtually brand new;  to look so convincing so quickly, albeit without points today, is no bad thing.  We need to hit the ground running with an attractive looking run of games coming after the international break, but on this evidence you’d back us to add to our tally.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Etebo 4, Sissoko 3, *Kucka 4*, Sarr 4, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Ngakia (for Cathcart, 51) 3, Hernández (for King, 65) 2, Cleverley (for Sissoko, 71) 3, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sema, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford 1 Crystal Palace 0 (24/08/2021) 25/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1-  Having managed to take positives out of a startlingly thorough beating at Brighton, I found my new found state of zen challenged for the first time this season in the build up to this one.  More general than football…  I don’t remember when I was last in a traffic jam, what with One Thing And Another, but it seems that this is one thing without any nostalgia value.

I’d left Bedford at 5, which should have facilitated a leisurely drive down, a stop at Fry Days and so forth.  Instead I parked up at ten past seven, forewent fish and chips and headed to the ground past the ominous if affable queues at each of the Occupation Road turnstiles.  Good job the stadium’s only half full, really…

Fortunately, due to a combination of manpower and, I suspect, pragmatism with cantankerous e-tickets, there are no queues at the Rookery turnstiles.  Nonetheless, sitting down in an empty row and surveying the similarly empty stadium I’m underwhelmed.  Yes it’s “only” the League Cup but, jesus, it’s football ?!?  After so long?  Where is everybody?

Daughters 1 and 2 cases in point;  a week with my Mum and Dad in the holidays, a drive over to Watford with Granddad declined at the last.  So it’s a bit miserable.  Good job the chicken pie from the kiosk is decent.

2- Plus, our first game in the League Cup is always rubbish.  We’ve discussed in the past, that there is only one such game, taking place in an alternative dimension that we dip into once a year, where the wheels grind eternally and nothing ever happens.

The opponents switch shirts in the interim of course, typically bearing the livery of a game tryer from the lower divisions capable and committed enough to stop us from playing but not talented enough to hurt us themselves.  In the absence of such an opponent, Palace convey a fitting air of underwhelming grubbiness that suits the stage of the competition.  Will Hughes – and it still breaks my heart to contemplate his surely inevitable departure – would be wasted on this shower.

The certainty of defeat isn’t improving my mood.  The debris of Saturday’s midfield is still fresh in the memory, and similar personnel are named here in the absence of much in the way of plausible alternatives. Clevs gets a rest on the bench though alongside Jaime Alvarado, one of those names familiar only to completists amongst the fanbase who seemed destined for loans to Spain and probably, ultimately, a return to Colombia.  To what extent his presence was necessitated by lack of midfield alternatives versus his own rising star remains to be seen.

We make seven changes, albeit largely in the areas of the pitch that have looked kind of ok.  Palace appear to name closer to a full strength eleven, albeit some of their key protagonists start on the bench – Guaita, McArthur, Mitchell, Benteke.  Yes, yes, Chelsea and so forth… nonetheless  Patrick Vieira will be edgy until he gets his first win, hell his first goal, and can’t turn down any opportunity to seize it.

3- After a fairly even start the visitors begin to dominate possession.  Zaha is in the starting eleven, to a predictable welcome, but Jeremy Ngakia sticks close to him and repeatedly gets under his feet before he can establish control of the ball.  He’s still prominent but largely restricted, Connor Gallagher’s movement the bigger threat early on – he floats in behind the defence but is foiled by Foster’s alertness.

On the other flank there’s a welcome (second) debut for Danny Rose, though much as when Richard Jobson briefly returned to the fold it’s a different bloke of a different size in a different position and at the opposite end of his career to the youngster who briefly appeared in our midfield under Brendan Rodgers.  Concerns about his fitness after so little match action are front of mind, and Rose looks sluggish for the first five minutes or so, twice being exposed by Jordan Ayew down the right.

Any concerns were misplaced.  As the game progressed Rose warmed to the task, and looked like the pugnacious, intelligent, aggressive, dependable full back of your dreams.  There’s an argument that bringing in a quality alternative might coax greater consistency out of the incumbent, but Adam Masina has more than a theoretical threat to his place on Sunday.

In the centre, William Troost-Ekong had a nervous day at Brighton, and the signs weren’t great when the cumbersome and otherwise ineffective Mateta mugged him on the touchline early on.  Thereafter he settled down however, with his regular “fixer” alongside him in the returning Sierralta.  Midway through the half Palace came as close as they were to come to a goal but Troost-Ekong salvaged the situation by contorting himself to head out, impossibly, from underneath the crossbar.

With Peter Etebo returning to the high bar set against Villa patrolling in front of the defence (as well as suggesting a hitherto unadvertised ability to deliver a set piece) we were doing a fair job of keeping our opponents at arm’s length, much as we had Villa for much of the opening game.  Palace don’t seem to need much help looking blunt and inconsequential at the moment in any case, but we played a part in their downfall, exposing their anxieties.  They finished the half having had most of the possession but with little to show for it.

4- As on Saturday we were better after the break.  Joshua King, slightly surprisingly and presumably reflecting either lack of fitness or an injury concern, was withdrawn in favour of cat’o nine tails Emmanuel Dennis.  We saw more of the ball and looked threatening in attacking positions, but for all Etebo’s involvement the midfield, for obvious reasons, remains the bit that needs the most attention.  Louza offered an improvement on Saturday also, an ability to play a sharp pass and a willingness to get in where it’s dirty but was still both bulliable and giving the ball away too much.

Up front, Cucho had a quieter game;  referee Robinson getting his number early on after a stereotypically South American spin and roll at the feet of a bemused Jordan Ayew.  He kept plugging, but wasn’t getting very far.  On the opposite flank was Ashley Fletcher, who for all his awkward legginess looks more like a centre-forward than a winger.  He’s been brought in ostensibly as attacking cover, but that’s increasingly a specialist role requiring certain characteristics as well as a level of ability (Spurs, perennially trying to cover Kane, have ended up signing wingers who can fill in rather than a backup centre-forward).

The point is, Fletcher will see the number of senior attacking players on our books (discounting Gray and Success he’s still competing with King, João Pedro, Sarr, Dennis, Deeney, Cucho and Sema for one of three forward roles) and know that he’s primarily backup, however much faith he’s got in his own ability.  He’s got to be happy with that, or at least be ready and willing to knuckle down and take his chances when they come, a team player; assessment of that character will surely have been part of his recruitment.

On this evidence he’s good foil for that role.  If we see limited evidence of a challenge for a regular start, there’s energy, knees, elbows, power… not a lot of subtlety, but a relentless doggedness that will serve him well.

So we have more of the game.  If there’s a concern – beyond the nascent midfield – it’s that for all the fun catching-them-on-the-break stuff we’re not quite clinical enough.  That’s inevitable perhaps, players getting used to each other and so on.  But Villa demonstrated how quickly things can change;  Palace didn’t score, but they might have.  For all that there was some encouraging stuff here you wouldn’t have backed us to come from behind and too many of those breaks, hurtling towards the Rookery in the second period, fizzled out with a wrong decision.  That’ll come.

5- And to be fair, it did.  I’d resigned myself to penalties, I suspect I wasn’t the only one… gazing across the pitch and wondering who might be up for a spot kick when suddenly one of those breaks connected, like a misfiring engine that suddenly, unexpectedly, clicks into gear.  Rose fed Cucho on the left, the Colombian cut a tremendous cross through to the far post where Fletcher was hurtling in to tuck the ball home.  The vigour of the celebration testified to the popularity of the goalscorer in the dressing room – whatever his future involvement there are worse ways to debut than scoring a late winner against Palace.

The visitors seemed suddenly energised and urgent, hilariously and too late.  Jeremy Ngakia had been replaced by Kiko, a welcome return for the Spaniard who nonetheless struggled with Zaha immediately, including in this short flurry… not the easiest opponent on your return from injury, but a spell that did Ngakia’s standing no harm in contrast to what had gone before.  Palace’s flurry burned out as Cucho lunged in to make a vital interception.  The whistle went, Troost-Ekong was the last man standing applauding the support and gifting his shirt to a kid at the front of the Rookery, fully redeemed.

Winning’s always good, beating Palace always better.  More than that we have evidence of a degree of cover, good options in the squad, if not in every position just yet.  But a clean sheet against top flight opposition welcome reassurance after Saturday.  We’re in this.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 4, Louza 2, Sema 3, Fletcher 3, Hernández 3, King 3
Subs: Dennis (for King, 45) 3, Femenía (for Ngakia, 62) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 76) NA, Cathcart, Alvarado, Baah, Elliot

Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Watford 0 (21/08/2021) 22/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “YES mate!  Yellllooooooooows” comes the shout from the right, where a bunch of lads are drinking on the pavement outside a pub on Queens Road as we trundle down towards the front from the station in our colours.  It’s that sort of day.  Last Saturday was the first proper game; today the first away trip is almost as significant – the first away trip for many, probably, since we were last here more than eighteen months ago.  The mood  reflects this, it’s about celebrating the event as much as supporting the team.  By this stage I’ve already been serenaded whilst availing myself of the facilities on the long Thameslink slog from Bedford by travelling ‘orns who had chosen, for reasons unclear, to locate themselves next to the loo in a half-empty carriage.  Not an experience I’d choose to repeat, but positive in spirit and intent.

Back on Queens Road, my response of “Yooooorns” is greeted with slight confusion, as if I’ve given the wrong response to the call signal, but this reaction is far less disquieting than the one behind me.  Things have progressed during the hiatus without proper football;  daughters 1 & 2 are now 15 and 12 respectively, no longer children and certainly of an age where sniggering conspiratorially at your embarrassing Dad is a done thing.  This is the first match we’ve done together  away from Vicarage Road since the Cup Final; in particular it’s the first game that Daughter 1 has been to since the win over Wolves at the start of last year so it’s particularly good to hear her singing along instinctively when such things begin a few hours later.  She has a good day; we avoid the malicious intent of the evil bastard seagulls on the front (unlike our family trip a year ago when daughter 2 lost an ice cream) and all major food groups are covered:  chocolate, ice cream, chewing gum, crisps and pie.

2- The boisterous party vibe (as daughters 1 and 2 would call it) continues at the ground.  To get to this stage we’ve had to navigate considerable security protocols outside the ground including two sniffer dogs (“am I allowed to pat them?”) but no COVID status checks.  The drizzle has stopped, the sun is out.

Having followed advice and tradition and arrived very early we’re in our seats for a long time watching Stuff Happen.  Much of the boisterousness is backstage until closer to kick off, but as the players complete their warm-up a lad is escorted past us with his arm genially around a steward’s shoulders, high fiving all comers.  It is reported over my shoulder that he skipped over the advertising hoardings, shared an exchange with a less inebriated but perhaps startled Ben Foster and then faced a couple of shots before the stewards wised up to developments.  All very naughty and so forth, but you can’t help but hope that the paperwork invoking the ban-from-all-football threatened by incursion onto the pitch is lost in the post in this instance.

But for all the bonhomie there is an air of being a friend-of-a-friend at someone else’s party.  If Brighton and the Amex, perhaps without the added detail of promotion since The Last Time, never has the volcanic exuberance of Vicarage Road a week ago there is no mistaking the mood outside the ground as we amble round to the southern end.  This is Brighton’s First Day Back, a factor that always felt like it might play a role, much as it helped us a week ago.  Friends are greeting friends with smiles on their faces, a Dad is eagerly asking his son where he’d rather get a match programme – inside the ground or out? – and the old boy in a blue and white shirt with whom we board the Falmer train from Brighton grins and says “it’s just so nice to be back, isn’t it?”.  But he’s not really talking to us, he’s staring into space.

3- A factor, then.  Fuel to the fire.  But there are bigger issues that get the fire started in the first place.  One of these is betrayed by our bench, which despite having nine names on it can’t find a proper midfielder with Kucka and, presumably, Gosling injured, contractually challenged pair Hughes and Chalobah non-grata (or “ill”), Tufan incoming and TDB and Phillips out on loan.  This means that the three out there are the last three cabs on the rank – Etebo, Cleverley, Louza – and whilst two of the three were exemplary against Villa and the other is a welcome debut, they are not going to have a good afternoon.

The other big factor is our opponent.  “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team”.  If we benefitted against Villa from the increased familiarity borne of our early recruitment activity then here we’re on the receiving end of a much more settled, effective side who Know Their Shit.  We give the ball away immediately and are steamrollered;  in particularly our midfield, outnumbered by virtue of our formation and overrun from the off, can’t get hold of the game.  Louza stands out; more to come from him no doubt, but this is an afternoon he’ll need to learn from.  He wants far, far more time on the ball than he’s going to get from Yves Bissouma and yields possession on countless occasions.

We play a major role in our own downfall, contributing to both goals; nonetheless, we’ve got away with 2-0 at the interval.  The first comes from Shane Duffy, an old-school centre half who feels like he’s been on borrowed time since Albion were promoted, a championship-style defender in a Premier League side.  However many years on and despite a year out last year he’s still borrowing time, demonstrating that a bit of brutality has a place and a role in a three-man defence flanked by the ability of Webster and Dunk.  All the more so when he rises virtually unopposed to head a popular opener in off the underside of the bar from a left wing corner.  Dad, watching on TV, reports a healthy hand of Emmanuel Dennis’ shirt on the part of the Irish centre-back to which my response would be, why wasn’t Dennis kneeing him in the balls to hamper his ascent?  That’s going to happen.  Perhaps less so if it’s a big brute of a Chilean centre-back up against Duffy;  easy to be smart after the event, but this is an opponent, given Brighton’s threat at set pieces, that had Sierralta’s name all over it.

We look kind of vaguely threatening when we do get the balls in and around the Brighton area but not in as much as we generate an attempt on target.  Dennis is chasing scraps, Sarr, as always, is a weapon but is marshalled by March.  It feels laboured.  Meanwhile the midfield, drawing a parallel with my current Netflix binge, is like the US embassy at the end of Homeland season 4.  A wasteland, the terrorists have control, it’s no longer and was never a fight.  Towards the end of the half William Troost-Ekong, whose limited distribution was voiced as a concern pre-season by some and whose vulnerability here Brighton have picked up on by leaving him unchallenged and unharried at the back throughout, plays a suicide pass to Tom Cleverley.  Bissouma gobbles him up and releases Maupay.  Half of the away end don’t see the finish, heads are in hands.

4- “Same old bloody Watford, always losing” says a disembodied voice in the queue for sustenance.  The validity of the argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny but this is an expression of frustration and probably a little out of practice.  More generally there is rueful acknowledgement that this has been a car crash of a half on all sorts of levels but the mood is pretty resilient to it.  The crowd gets up again as the second period starts and good-natured hostilities are resumed with an individual out of my eyeline in the Brighton end.  The chants range from “Your shirt’s too small for you” to “You’re just a sh*t Father Christmas” via the slightly more niche “You’re just a sh*t Uncle Albert”.  The mind boggles.  Stewards linger uncertainly like parents at a toddler’s disintegrating birthday party.

On the pitch things are better from the off.  Too little too late, perhaps, the likelihood of a fightback never progresses beyond the theoretical and it’s difficult to judge merit comprehensively when the opponent is two-nil up, ostensibly comfortable and doesn’t need to commit.  One goal, deserved or otherwise, would have changed the mood however, and the fact that at least three of Brighton’s four yellows were earned for “take-one-for-the-team” break-stifling fouls suggests that there was more to this than just Brighton being able to sit back a bit.

Each of the subs improved the situation.  Cucho didn’t announce his arrival, inevitably in place of Louza, with the same fanfare as last week but his influence was more sustained, an effervescent force for good on the left.  A more comprehensive change in the balance of play was achieved with a formation change that saw Joshua King debuting off the bench in place of Cathcart, three at the back now and more presence in midfield with Sarr dropping deeper.  King was the pick of the bunch, some control and venom at last, whilst Troy’s cameo began on a bruising collision with Dunk that ended with a handshake but brought some welcome bite to proceedings. We didn’t do any more than draw the second half on points really, but you’d probably have taken that at half time.

5- A good friend has frequently observed that if you followed a football club, Watford for sake of argument, purely for events on the pitch you’d have a pretty bloody miserable time of it.  Rarely better illustrated than today.

On the pitch… disappointing to say the least.  Not the end of the world;  this was a failure of system and of personnel against a decent opponent rather than an irredeemable catastrophe (A decent opponent who nonetheless, in the same way that the concession of two goals nagged at us last week, might reflect on their own capabilities having been so dominant and yet only managing two goals, each of them facilitated.  As someone put it afterwards, “if Connolly could finish his dinner…”).  We knew we were lightweight in midfield minus Capoue, Doucs, now Chalobah.  If we’re going to be outmanned in midfield we can’t be outgunned as well.  Those solutions are coming.

But off the pitch…  losing, however badly or frustratingly, is part of the rich tapestry that we’ve missed. The investment in whatever it is you think you believe in doesn’t count for anything if it doesn’t matter when you lose.  Besides which, beating Palace and then Spurs will feel all the better for this, no?

And in any case.  Away days are back.  Daughters 1 and 2, having previously temporarily opted out of away games (don’t like being intimidated by the majority, miss the home routine) are back, and will be at Spurs.  We trundle into Bedford just before 11, they’re knackered but still grinning.  And football’s back.  That’ll do for now.  The rest will come.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 1, Kabasele 3, Etebo 2, Cleverley 3, Louza 1, Sarr 2, Sema 3, Dennis 3
Subs: Hernández (for Louza, 45) 3, *King (for Cathcart, 65) 3*, Deeney (for Sema, 82) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Fletcher, Sierralta, Baah, Foster

Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (14/08/2021) 15/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- By half time, the sun is properly out.  Which is how opening day should be, of course.  There are 200 hospital staff circuiting the pitch to a prolonged standing ovation from all four sides of the ground.  “Song for Guy” plays as the faces of those lost over the pandemic by both club and hospital appear on the screen.  There is a deluge of specks in eyes, odd for a still afternoon.

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It’s one of a number of significant things on a memorable day.  Arguably the most memorable thing, though there are many others.  Like… just being in a full stadium again.  The noise.  The colour.  The single living entity that a football crowd becomes. Queuing for a pint.  Edging your way to your seat.  Grins and greetings shared both with friends and with familiar faces.  God, we’ve missed this so much.

Simon and I had reflected on some of this as he arrived an hour earlier.  We went as far as suggesting that the result really didn’t matter at all.  That the other stuff was so much more significant.

We quickly acknowledged that this was complete bollocks.

2- So much is governed by mindset.  Several weeks ago we had the holiday conversation at home.  Weighed up the things that everyone’s weighed up.  Cost.  Uncertainty.  Risk. Risks. All sorts of risks. COVID.  The need to navigate the labyrinthine testing requirements (what does “a PCR test is advised for those returning from Spain” actually mean?).  The possibility that sands might shift between booking our holiday and the planned date of departure or, worse, whilst we were away or, worse, that positive tests at certain required points might be catastrophic.

My wife and daughters calmly but firmly pointed out that we were going anyway.  And that was that.  As soon as my head accepted this fact as a given rather than a decision to be made everything seemed much more straightforward (excepting, possibly, the labyrinthine regulations).  We returned from Málaga yesterday.

Meanwhile on Twitter, the world is ending.  Troy Deeney’s still here for one thing and he’s, like, ancient.  And Will Hughes, that’s a disgrace.  And who’s going to get the goals?  And who’s going to make the goals?  We’re, like, so relegated (my daughters did explain to me the difference between “relegated bruv” and “relegated bro” over another eclectic buffet dinner in Spain, but I forget…).

You wouldn’t know it.  The concerns loudly voiced on social media are left at the door, or at the very least drowned out by furious bloody-mindedness.  This is not a time for balance and weighing things up and judgement, overly anxious or otherwise.  This is a time for just bloody going to Spain and everyone knows it.  The noise is relentless – given the ten-plus minute ovation at half-time it’s possible that recent records were broken, but nobody is counting.  The first hiatus late in the second half is borne of collective exhaustion.

3- The opening is a sparring match, and whilst it’s completely unreasonable to extrapolate from the first few minutes to the entire season that’s what everyone’s doing.  On the whole we look kind of OK… keeping Villa at arm’s length if offering them more glimpses that you’d really like.  A key protagonist here is Peter Etebo, who is a mobile, efficient, disciplined destructive agent.  If Jonathan Hogg had been Nigerian…  win ball, keep possession, lay off.  Win ball, hold off marker, find the pass.  Tremendous.

Alongside him is the deceptive Juraj Kucka. This, I will confess, was the one that tested my ability to reserve judgement…  a 34 year-old?  Really?  And look at him, he’s clearly another ball-winner with his hulking, square shoulders.  Thing is, he looks like a hell’s angel but moves like a ballerina and whilst others will get wise to this Villa really aren’t.  He’s simply fabulous, a big character whose deceptive touch and swagger complement Etebo and Cleverley beautifully in what looks far from the sellotaped midfield of the twitterati’s (and everyone else’s) worst fears.

It’s not too long before a less surprising weapon puts on the burners.  Ismaïla Sarr is going to give Matt Targett a miserable 45 minutes before his half-time withdrawal – Targett an odd selection by Dean Smith since established first choice left back or otherwise, Targett’s value is in the quality of his delivery rather than his turn of pace (or lack of it).  Against any normal mortal, let alone Isma. Twenty minutes in Joe is WhatsApping that Sarr is finishing Targett’s career.

By this point we’re already ahead.  The third debutant to start is Emmanuel Dennis whose first ten minutes is the lowest profile of the trio until he gets on the end of a Sarr cross to open our account for the season at the second attempt – fortunate perhaps that the rebound fell to him, although even the newly reticent VAR might have had a glance at Konsa’s block, the shape of which Martínez would have been proud of, had the striker not followed up.  Thereafter Dennis joins his fellow new-boys in enthusing his new crowd with a spiky hour or so in which he torments Villa’s back line with a repertoire of speed, sharp first touches and efficient aggression.  More than once ponderous Villa play is disrupted by Dennis dropping out of a tree like some kind of ninja and making off with the ball before anyone’s had time to shout.

We’re not dominant in terms of possession.  Villa have plenty, but don’t know quite what to do with it.  The unpopular Young is prominent, Ings looks sharp enough that you wouldn’t want to give him a view (we don’t), Buendía is all but invisible.  But whilst we’ll have tougher opponents than a Villa side in the wake of a disruptive departure and missing, in Watkins and Luiz, two key protagonists, it’s hugely encouraging that we do the “holding them off” thing around the edge of our area as effectively as we executed it for much of last season.  They don’t record an effort on target in the first half and rarely look like doing so, whereas from ten minutes on we’re sharp on the break.  We end the half well ahead on points and also on goals…  Sarr wins one of an impressive and unprecedented number of flick-ons to release Dennis, the Nigerian slips him in on the right and his shot gets a big deflection off, poetically enough, Tyrone Mings to loop past Martínez.  A bit of luck…  if these three points send Villa down at the end of the season we’ll let them off the missed red card and call it quits.

4- We’ve covered three debutants and we’ll get to Cucho.  But there are further debutants in the stadium in the shape of Aasha and Sammy.  Aasha was a school friend with whom contact has been recently re-established through the miracles of social media;  she wasn’t a football fan back then, but apparently things change in 30 years.  Having enthused over the Euros she has declared that having a club of her own was overdue.  Now living locally the Hornets were an option; Streatham was home for quite a while too so Palace declared as another.

An old school friend, as I said, but some things are less about friendship and more about common decency.  Steering Aasha onto the right path was the only reasonable thing to do.  I made the case as clearly as I could and when Aasha conceded, partially in terror I suspect, I followed up by contacting A Club Representative who facilitated a letter from Troy congratulating Aasha on the wisdom of her choice.  So here Aasha is, with 8 year-old son Sammy giving it everything next to her. I’m not sure whether it’s right to point out that it isn’t always quite this fun or let them find out in time.

Meanwhile back on the pitch Villa are out earlier after the break, and start with purpose.  Young has replaced the hapless Targett by shifting to left back after which Isma’s free rein is curtailed, and sub Jacob Ramsey is prominent in two early attacks.  These yield nearly moments rather than efforts on target, but they’re a statement of intent in a more assertive if, at least initially, scarcely more impactful second half from the visitors.

We still provide threat on the break but the difference in quality between divisions is evident as Sema does his once-a-game bundle down the left touchline but is robbed before he can pull the trigger.  He should have been given a corner, but that’s a shot on target in the Championship.  Similarly Sarr is a threat and provokes anxiety on the other flank but again Villa muddle through.  Dennis cuts inside from the left and fires in hard and low; the keeper’s right behind it, but tickets and raffles as Sarr’s goal demonstrated.  Villa haven’t had a shot on target yet.

Minutes later Dennis is hobbling off to an ovation, and on comes the mythical Cucho Hernández at least twelve months later than planned.  In truth his competitive debut is relatively low key and innocuous, except for the bit that isn’t.  There’s so much that marks Cucho out, builds up his legend… the stories from Spain, the two goals off the bench on his debut for Colombia, the bleached blonde hair and boyish grin.  So the force of personality to take that wave of expectation and ride it and score a goal of the season contender with his first involvement is quite staggering.  Kucka is bundled over in Villa’s half, Dean plays a great advantage as Cleverley scraps the ball out to Cucho on the left.  The Colombian progresses down the flank, cuts inside and flings a curling shot across the face of goal.  It’s in off the base of the far post and Vicarage Road erupts in noise.  We’re away.

5- Had we held out a little longer we might have gotten away with a flattering thrashing, set up as we were to attack on the break.  Instead John McGinn’s brilliant conversion of Leon Bailey’s cross serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with a bit of Premier League quality.  It didn’t ultimately matter much this time, but we won’t always have a 3-0 cushion;  1999/2000 was peppered with games in which we played pretty well and lost 1-0, this fixture amongst them.  The late penalty, too, was more than a footnote…  a bizarre attempt at a tackle by the otherwise exemplary Masina, but had he not attempted it Traoré was in and a second goal was likely in any case.  It was wrong to presume relegation before a ball had been kicked.  It’s no less foolish to be presumptuous on the back of one, albeit largely fabulous, victory.

But 3-2 flatters the visitors;  we were much better than that.  Villa can be expected to improve, and can take heart from hanging in there…  we can be grateful, I think, for opening at home and for catching our opponents at a weak moment, but there was no fortune in our own performance.  To reiterate, we got our players in early, players that the recruitment team know more about that we do, and it showed.  We have a team, already.  And let’s have no more leaping to “I’ve got doubts about Xisco’s tactical acumen”;  all available evidence since his first few games defy that position.  We have a team, a coach and a club to be proud of.

everyone

As for Aasha, who once got a job in Boots in Basildon just in case Dave Gahan came in for some toothpaste, the regular Depeche Mode outing over the tannoy at the final whistle sealed the deal.  The day kept dropping in highlights… Lloyd Doyley bashfully edging his way down Occupation Road against the tide was one, Nathaniel Chalobah gushing about his brother and “his” club’s win on Twitter another.  Spain was fabulous, and today was a Good Day.

Now we just need to do it again, on and off the pitch.

See you at Brighton, and welcome back.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 4, Etebo 4, Cleverley 4, *Kucka 5*, Sarr 4, Sema 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Hernández (for Dennis, 66) 4, Gosling (for Kucka, 69) 3, Deeney (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sierralta, Foster

Season Preview 2021 – Part 5 13/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Bryan Gil (Sevilla, Part Exchange), Cristian Romero (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Pierluigi Gollini (Atalanta, Season Loan)

OUTS: Toby Alderweireld (Al-Duhail, Undisclosed), Jubril Okedina (Cambridge United, Undisclosed), Erik Lamela (Sevilla, Part Exchange), Dennis Cirkin (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Justin Foyth (Villarreal, Undisclosed), Joe Hart (Celtic, Undisclosed), Paulo Gazzaniga (Fulham, Free), George Marsh (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Danny Rose (Watford, Free), Shilow Tracey (Cambridge United, Free), Jamie Bowden (Oldham Athletic, Season Loan), Kion Etete (Northampton Town, Season Loan), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Maurizio Pochettino, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Academy Coach), Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

GOOD THINGS: Lean-on bars in the away end.  Beavertown Beers on tap in the away end.  Tony Galvin. The most interchangeable, self-explanatory nickname in the world. Jürgen Klinsmann. 

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21         2-1
2019-20 0-0 1-1      
2018-19 2-1        
2017-18 1-1        
2016-17 1-4        
2015-16 1-2        
2011-12     0-1    
2008-09       1-2  
1999-00 1-1 0-4      
1998-99     2-5    
1994-95       3-6 / 3-2  
1982-83   1-0      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Doherty       Romero      Rodon        Reguilón
Højbjerg         Ndombele
Son                          Lo Celso                  Bergwijn
Kane

VERDICT: I did feel at the time that United would have been better off appointing Mourinho directly after Ferguson left.  Whoever stepped into that void was on a hiding to nothing, much better a Mourinho whose arrogance would survive the ordeal and whose collapse would be (relatively) quick and absolute than the slow inevitable decay under Moyes et al.  The next guy, whoever he was, would have been a merciful release after Mourinho rather than the post-Ferguson fall guy.

However many years on Spurs fans come out of the footballing enema that Mourinho stints have become feeling… well, desperate for something positive I guess.  Anything.  Nuno Espirito Santo is regarded as… slightly underwhelming perhaps, certainly not done any favours by the prolonged nature of his appointment which felt rather like a journey through the yellow pages (or whatever young people use nowadays) in search of a plumber without a £100 call-out charge.

As I write rumours circulate that the new boss is planning to raid his former charges for either Conor Coady, Adama Traore or both.  When stuff like this happens you’re never sure whether to be encouraged by good relationships that means players trust their old boss, or a lack of imagination which means that he’s going to keep going back to the same guys, or (in this case) whether everything’s in the imagination of journalists without enough to write about.  Time will tell.

Either way, the soap opera may only just be beginning as Harry Kane fails to turn up to training.  Should he get his out then all bets are off.  Spurs aren’t about to come close to accidentally winning the league again in any case but Kane aside they shouldn’t be a car crash either.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Craig Dawson (Watford, undisclosed), Pierre Ekwah (Chelsea, undisclosed), Alphonse Areola (Paris St.Germain, season loan)

OUTS: Sean Adarkwa (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Fabián Balbuena (Dynamo Moscow, Free), Alfie Lewis (St Patrick’s Athletic, Free), Tunji Akinola, Sam Caiger, Joshua Okotcha, Joseph Anang (Stevenage, Season Loan), Nathan Holland (Oxford United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Ashley Fletcher, Jeremy Ngakia, Domingos Quina

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

GOOD THINGS: Upton Park, including pre-match pie and mash. Blowing Bubbles, inc bubble machines.  David Sullivan’s big hat. Tomáš Souček.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-3        
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
      Coufal              Diop          Ogbonna          Cresswell
Rice          Souček

     Bowen                     Fornals                      Benrahma
Antonio

VERDICT: West Ham are like that annoying kid at school.  Not the bully, the one who nicked your dinner money or smacked you around the head with a hockey stick or threw chewing gum in your hair on the bus.  The other kid.  The acolyte.  The vulture who picked at the carcass.  

It’s always bloody West Ham.  The defeat before the cup final.  Irrelevant, we’d lost Europe, the big game was to come.  And yet, not.  The relegation season, the guileless but effortless amble through our defence at Vicarage Road.  Not decisive.  Not the end of the road.  And yet portentous.  Then the thumping at their “place”, scene of such joy in 2012 and yet.  Again, not decisive.  And yet decisive.

West Ham had looked like relegation candidates, but then weren’t.  Last season they rubbed the salt in by being quite good.  They underperformed two years ago, overperformed last season, this season they have a Europa League campaign and very little money.  As mid table as they come.  Bastards.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: José Sá (Olympiacos, £6,800,000), Yerson Mosquera (Atlético Nacional, £4,500,000), Rayan Ait-Nouri (Angers, Undisclosed), Francisco Trincão (Barcelona, Season Loan), Louie Moulden (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Rui Patrício (Roma, £10,000,000), Sadou Diallo (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Ryan Giles (Cardiff City, Season Loan), Taylor Perry (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Dion Sanderson (Birmingham City, Season Loan), Matija Šarkić (Birmingham City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: The racket at Wembley in 2019. Conor Coady. Ollie Floyd’s Collection. The nickname – powerful imagery. 

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-1 0-2      
2018-19 1-2   3-2    
2014-15 0-1        
2012-13 2-1        
2008-09 2-3        
2007-08 3-0   1-4    
2005-06 3-1 1-1   2-1  
2004-05 1-1 0-0      
2002-03 1-1 0-0      
2001-02 1-1 0-1      
2000-01 3-2 2-2      
1998-99 0-2 0-0      
1995-96   0-3      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:


      Boly         Coady       Mosquera
Semedo       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
   Traore          Jiménez         Neto      

VERDICT: Wolves were extremely good at being the new kids on the block.  Breezed into the division with a side high in quality and well-resourced and looked like they would be dropping anchor in mid-table for years.

A couple of years on things don’t look quite so comfortable.  Refreshing, or rebuilding a side is always the tricky bit.  That difficult second album.  And whilst Wolves have done a reasonable job of bringing in younger players the team no longer looks formidable.  The rebuild kinda needs new options now, and these appear to be thin on the ground… Rui Patricio has moved on, Boly is injury prone and slowing up, Coady, Traore and Neves are attracting interest from elsewhere, the impressive Neto is out until the end of the year and the squad is beginning to look stretched with, messageboard rumours suggest, outgoings needed before money is spent.  Wolves, like so many, are short of cash.  

As previously suggested, securing a relegation place in the face of significant competition is going to take a concerted effort this season.  Wolves probably have too much quality to sustain a successful relegation push.  But only probably.

WATFORD

INS: Emmanuel Dennis (Club Brugge, £3,600,000), Mattie Pollock (Grimsby Town, initial £250,000), Kwadwo Baah (Rochdale, £140,000), Juraj Kucka (Parma, Undisclosed), Imrân Louza (Nantes, Undisclosed), Vincent Angelini (Celtic, Free), Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough, Free), Joshua King (Everton, Free), Dapo Mebude (Rangers, Free), Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur, Free), Peter Etebo (Stoke City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ben Wilmot (Stoke City, £1,500,000), Bosun Lawal (Celtic, £120,000), Craig Dawson (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Sam Dalby (Southend United, Free), Toby Stevenson (Bromley, Free), Carlos Sánchez, Achraf Lazaar, Jerome Sinclair, Tiago Cukur (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Pontus Dahlberg (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Reading, Season Loan), Juergen Elítim (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Dapo Mebude (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Adalberto Peñaranda (Las Palmas, Season Loan), Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese, Season Loan), Phillip Zinckernagel (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bachmann
Femenía          Troost-Ekong      Sierralta            Rose     
Etebo        Louza
Sarr                             Cleverley                   Hernández
Deeney

VERDICT: Certainty is easy.

Definitely this.  Clearly that. Obviously the other.  The illusion of clarity can convey… perceptiveness.  Insight.  Analytical capability.  The facility to process all the variables, weigh up the factors, come up with a definitive conclusion.  It’s also complete bollocks.

This season as much as any, close enough to post-pandemic for us to say post-pandemic but not far enough out that we don’t refer to it at all, all the sands still shifting for all that a newly promoted club is always going to be up against it to a certain extent.  It’s not as if we’re in uncharted territory;  for one last time let’s recognise the achievement of promotion in the wake of the relegation that followed an almost unprecedented spell in the top flight.  Never a given, that.   But it’s not like we’re completely new at this.  We don’t have the infrastructure of a Championship club any more.

Another source of variability is the playing squad.  The new recruits.  There have been plenty of them;  some for now, some perhaps for future years.  We don’t know how they’re going to work out… but Rose and King bring proven Premier League quality in areas that needed strengthening, Etebo and Kucka stiffen up our midfield, the long awaited rubber ball that is Cucho Hernández already looks a bag of fun, Dennis and Louza both untested in this League but long term targets.  You don’t look at any of them and think “no….”, and most of it was done early in the window.  We had our ducks lined up.  That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?  Get the players in in time for pre-season?

Presuming that nobody’s stupid enough to be panicking because we lost a pre-season friendly to bloody Palace…  perhaps it’s what we haven’t got as much as what we have.  A coherent, fully-formed first eleven for example, featuring creativity in midfield and reliable goals.  Given the volume of influx that was never going to happen straight away, but look at the size of the squad.  Heaven knows there are options there.  Last season Xisco came in from the other side of Europe and pretty quickly we were more than the sum of our parts having been distinctly less than that for much of the season.  Promotion from a standing start.  I’m not sure why so many have lost faith in his ability to form a team so readily.

The Hughes and Chalobah situation, clearly, we could have done without.  As reflected earlier in this series when talking about Buendía at Norwich we’re victims of circumstances a little here.  But for the pandemic it’s not unrealistic to suggest that Hughes at least might have been off last summer.  A year on and both have shown their quality again and we’re left with players with only a year on their contracts.  

I’ll be desolate when either leaves, frankly.  Hughes is an ace in the pack, but Nate too is coming off probably his strongest season for the club, stronger even that 2012/13 when so much was context.  But I like the fact that we haven’t caved to whatever’s being asked for.  That would be the easy thing to do, especially in the case of Hughes who is so clearly an important asset, everybody would “understand”.  It would be the populist call, but someone’s got their eye on the long game here.  Also interesting that neither has actually gone anywhere yet.  Perhaps it’s not just us reining in on the contracts (though optimistic to even hope that nobody will throw money at them).

The other consideration, considerations, plural, is the other lot.  Sartre’s quote again:  “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  And it’s been clear in preparing these pieces that whilst some clubs can afford to spend extraordinary amounts on top players, plenty of others are bricking it.  It’ll be a competitive relegation race this season, whoever goes down is going to have to work bloody hard at it.

So I’m more positive than some, I think.  That doesn’t mean we’ll definitely be OK.  See above.  Who the hell knows, frankly.  But a lot of the “we’re obviously going down” stuff is fundamentally cowardly.  Disassociation cushions you from responsibility, you get to point from the outside if things go wrong, before things go wrong.

The club have gotten themselves promoted immediately after a relegation in a pandemic.  A pandemic in which they excelled themselves off the pitch.  Did more for their community than could have reasonably been asked.  They deserve a bit of faith I think.  They deserve support.

Apart from anything else, it’s been a while since we’ve had the luxury of being able to do that noisily…

See you tomorrow.  Yooorns.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 4 12/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund, £73,000,000), Tom Heaton (Aston Villa, Free)

OUTS: Joel Pereira (RKC Waalwijk, Free), Max Taylor (Rochdale, Free), Sergio Romero, Di’Shon Bernard (Hull City, Season Loan), Nathan Bishop (Mansfield Town, Season Loan), Tahith Chong (Birmingham City, Season Loan), Reece Devine (St Johnstone, Season Loan), Facundo Pellistri (Deportivo Alavés, Season Loan), Axel Tuanzebe (Aston Villa, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Fletcher, Ben Foster, Joshua King

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nick Cox (Academy Manager), James Garner, Jadon Sancho

GOOD THINGS: Marcus Rashford.  Alex Ferguson. Travelling support makes a bloody racket.  Eric Cantona’s goal against Sheffield United.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21     0-1    
2019-20 2-0        
2018-19 1-2 1-2      
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:

Henderson
Wan-Bissaka      Maguire          Lindelöf                Shaw
McTominay             Pogba
Sancho                         Fernandes                       Rashford
Cavani 

VERDICT: Back in the mid-1980s when men were men, boys were boys and seasons took a lot longer than they do now, Shoot! was a staple part of the weekly diet.  Jimmy Greaves did an agony aunt page of sorts, (“For £300k you want a top class goalkeeper and Tony Coton certainly isn’t that”), there was a “Player Focus” on the back page (“Favourite Actress: Barbra Streisand”), and United skipper Bryan Robson had a weekly column (“the lads are quietly confident that this could be our year”).

We were worldly wise enough to laugh at Robson’s annual misplaced confidence at the time.  Hell, we laugh about it now.  In, say, 1984 United hadn’t won the title in 17 years… and as discussed, years were longer then too.  Nonetheless, a bit weird that United are halfway to that total again.

Indeed, for all that recent trajectory has been kind of upwards to the point where you can almost see a genuine title challenge if you squint really hard, United haven’t won a trophy in the last four seasons – the last time that happened was in the 1980s.  

There’s got to be a decent chance of that run ending this season one way or another.  The signings look sensible at last – Sancho and the mooted Varane and Trippier will all improve the side.  However, supporters’ angry and impressive response to the breakaway threat in which Joel Glazer was reportedly prominent re-emphasises the point that supporting a club is about much more than merely enjoying success on the pitch. 

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: None

OUTS: Florian Lejeune (Deportivo Alavés, Undisclosed), Christian Atsu (Al Raed, Free), Ludwig Francillette (Crawley Town, Free), Andy Carroll, Yoshinori Muto, Henri Saivet, Lewis Cass (Port Vale, Season Loan), Jake Turner (Colchester United, Season Loan), Kell Watts (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Rob Elliot, Dan Gosling, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kevin Richardson (U18s assistant coach)

GOOD THINGS: The city radiates from St James’ Park, the heart of Newcastle in more way than one.  The legendary, epic ascent to the away end, climbing spikes and all.  The “one pub per supporter” approach to hostelries in Newcastle.  Philippe Albert.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-1        
2018-19 1-1 0-1      
2017-18 2-1 3-0      
2015-16 2-1    1-0    
2009-10 1-2        
1999-00 1-1 0-1      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Krafth         Schär        Fernández     Dummett    Ritchie
Hayden                  Shelvey                 Almirón
   Saint-Maximin      Wilson          

VERDICT: Of all the frustrating circumstances that contributed to our relegation…  injuries, bad decisions, unfortunate defeats…  one of the most neglected and least discussed is Newcastle United.  Any balanced assessment of the last couple of seasons would have had the Magpies as dead certs for relegation for all manner of reasons.  And yet here they are…

The current working hypothesis is that there’s a sort of trap door at the bottom of the Premier League table somewhere to which only Mike Ashley has the key.  The trapdoor leads to a tunnel…  you need to time your movement carefully, perhaps to coincide with an international window or a Super Sunday when everyone’s distracted… but if you get it right you can emerge unnoticed into lower mid-table, a region never covered by the majority of media outlets anyway.  Two weeks later someone says “how the hell did Newcastle get up there” and you look and shrug and tell yourself to pay more attention next season.

Admittedly last season, unlike in 2019/20, part of the escape plan was Joe Willock whose prolific loan spell from Arsenal saw him net in each of the last seven fixtures of the season.  At the time of writing, with United yet to sign a player, he seems top of most shopping lists but personal terms are still being haggled over.

It’d be a cold-hearted bastard not to feel sympathy for United fans.  Even a complete collapse, a calamity, two or three years in the Championship followed by the possibility of a brighter future thereafter, might be deemed preferable to what feels like an annual slog.

Not that sympathetic though.  We can be sympathetic when we’ve stayed up.

NORWICH CITY

INS: Milot Rashica (Werder Bremen, £9,400,000), Ben Gibson (£8,000,000), Dimitris Giannoulis (PAOK,  €7,500,000), Angus Gunn (Southampton, £5,000,000), Pierre Lees-Melou (Nice, £3,500,000), Flynn Clarke (Peterborough United, Undisclosed), Liam Gibbs (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen, Undisclosed), Billy Gilmour (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Emiliano Buendía (Aston Villa, £33,000,000), Alex Tettey (Rosenborg, Free), Louis Thompson (Portsmouth, Free), Mario Vrančić (Stoke City, Free), Moritz Leitner, Marco Stiepermann, Daniel Barden (Livingston, Season Loan), Josip Drmić (HNK Rijeka, Season Loan), Akin Famewo (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Josh Martin (MK Dons, Season Loan), Reece McAlear (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Season Loan), Sam McCallum (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Danel Sinani (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Sebastian Soto (Porto, Season Loan), Xavi Quintillà (Villarreal, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: The Waterfront.  “We want Chasey out” in 1996. Beating Bayern.  The steward who took a quid to the Ladbrokes booth in the home end for me at Carrow Road which came in at 50-1. Yellow and green – uniquely Norwich.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 1-0 1-0      
2019-20 2-1 2-0      
2015-16 2-0 2-4      
2014-15 0-3        
2013-14       2-3  
2010-11 2-2 3-2      
2008-09 2-1        
2007-08 1-1 3-1      
2005-06 2-1 3-2      
2003-04 1-2 2-1      
2002-03 2-1 0-4      
2001-02 2-1 1-3      
2000-01 4-1 1-2      
1998-99 1-1 1-1      
1995-96 0-2 2-1      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Krul
    Aarons           Hanley         Gibson          Giannoulis
McLean          Gilmour
  Rashica               Dowell             Cantwell  
Pukki

VERDICT: Graham Taylor once memorably suggested, in around 2000 or so, that a club like Watford being a yo-yo club for a bit is not necessarily a bad thing.  Loosely, “if you yo-yo and yo-yo and yo-yo then in the end you might just… yo!”.  As the infrastructure builds and the club invests and so on.  There are all sorts of caveats and what-ifs to that of course, but Burnley are an example of a club who appear to have pulled it off.

Quite how much fun it is when you’re in the throes of it with no guarantee of a positive long-term outcome, you’d have to ask a Norwich fan.  City find themselves in a new division for the third summer running having achieved promotion comfortably just as they did two years ago.  Then they started at Anfield and attracted plaudits for their pretty triangles whilst going down 4-1 to a Liverpool side who barely had to break sweat.  Now…  they’re more experienced, they have some big ugly defenders in Grant Hanley and long-time Watford target Ben Gibson and they will hope to avoid the swathe of injuries to centre-backs that stymied them last time.

Nonetheless there are problems.  Principally the loss of Emi Buendía, whose situation wasn’t dissimilar to Will Hughes’ evolving (writing two weeks before the season starts) position at Watford.  But for the pandemic City might have lost Buendía a year ago.  As it was he helped them to promotion but they’ve now lost a key component of the team, and whilst they’ve recruited an heir apparent in Milot Rashica if he hits the ground running and gives them 80% of what Buendía did he’ll have done really well.  That’s far from guaranteed and still leaves them weaker than last year.  Meanwhile  City lack alternatives to Pukki up front and options in defensive midfield; they face Man City, Liverpool and Leicester before the transfer window closes and so will hope to be doing any remaining business quickly.  Whatever the mitigation in terms of strength of opposition, it’s much harder to recruit from the bottom of the table.  A lot depends on the next few weeks, you suspect.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Adam Armstrong (Blackburn Rovers, £15,000,000), Dynel Simeu (Chelsea, £1,500,000), Tino Livramento (Chelsea, Undisclosed), Romain Perraud (Brest, Undisclosed), Theo Walcott (Everton, Free), Armando Broja (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Angus Gunn (Norwich City, £5,000,000), Wesley Hoedt (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Danny Ings (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Alex Jankewitz (Young Boys, Undisclosed), Mario Lemina (Nice, Undisclosed), Callum Slattery (Motherwell, Undisclosed), Ryan Bertrand (Leicester City, Free), Dan Nlundulu (Lincoln City, Free), Thomas O’Connor (Burton Albion, Free), Josh Sims, Kayne Ramsay (Crewe Alexandra, Season Loan), Jake Vokins (Ross County, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Carl Martin (First Team/U23 Assistant Coach)

GOOD THINGS: Francis Benali. A production line of good kids.  The win over Manchester United and the invisible kit.  Ralph Hasenhüttl.   The weird angled seating arrangement behind the goal at the Dell.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-3        
2018-19 1-1 1-1      
2017-18 2-2 2-0      
2016-17 3-4        
2015-16   0-2      
2011-12 0-3        
2008-09 2-2 3-0      
2007-08 3-2        
2005-06 3-0 3-1      
2004-05       5-2  
2002-03     1-2    
1999-00 3-2 0-2      
1982-83   4-1      
1980-81       7-1  

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McCarthy
Walker-Peters      Vestergaard        Bednarek          Perraud   
Tella                 Romeu          Ward-Prowse      S.Armstrong
A.Armstrong          Adams    

VERDICT: The problem with following the buy-low-sell-high model, which most clubs try to do to some degree or another and Southampton have done better than most over the years, is the sheer bloody relentlessness of it.  You have some control over when the stars get sold, lengths of contracts and making the place a good place to be until such a time and so on.  But not infinite control.  And the wheels don’t stop turning when it gets inconvenient.

Saints were in a difficult position this summer with Danny Ings forcing a move as he entered the last year of his contract and Jan Vestergaard courting interest after impressing with Denmark in the Euros, most recently from Leicester.  The club seems to do a steady job of replacing players as needed and bringing in replacements but a new “20-a-season” goalscorer is a big ask at the best of times. In the current circumstances with offers, one assumes, reflecting the new reality and a tendency perhaps to prefer to see lucrative contracts out rather than move for comparable or even inferior terms it becomes all but impossible.  Adam Armstrong looked decent in the Championship.  Like Rashica and Buendía at Norwich he’ll need to go some to come close to matching Ings, in which case Saints have broken even.  

Southampton’s ownership situation also seems less than ideal… Chinese-owned but by an individual who wants out but can’t find a buyer doesn’t feel altogether stable.  There are plenty of clubs worse off than Southampton – you’re going to have to work quite hard to get relegated this season on the basis of such messageboard research as I’ve undertaken – but Saints aren’t far enough away that they won’t be sucked in by an unfavourable turn of circumstances.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 3 11/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Junior Firpo (Barcelona, €15,000,000), Lewis Bate (Chelsea, Undisclosed), Jack Harrison (Manchester City, Undisclosed), Kristoffer Klaesson (Vålerenga, Undisclosed), Sean McGurk (Wigan Athletic, Tribunal)

OUTS: Oliver Casey (Blackpool, undisclosed), Ezgjan Alioski (Al-Ahli, Free), Ouasim Bouy (Al Kharaitiyat, Free), Barry Douglas (Lech Poznań, Free), Pablo Hernández (Castellón, Free), Gaetano Berardi,  Cole Gibbon, Niklas Haugland, Eunan O’Kane, Matthew Turner, Kiko Casilla (Elche, Season Loan), Leif Davis (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Laurens de Bock (Zulte Waregem, Season Loan), Ryan Edmondson (Fleetwood Town, Season Loan); Alfie McCalmont (Morecambe, Season Loan), Ken Temenuzhkov (Real Union, Season Loan)

OUR EX-WHITES: Mattie Pollock, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: Marcelo Bielsa.  That midfield in 1992, Strachan/McAllister/Batty/Speed.  The lads who shook our hands as we emerged from the ground in Cardiff in 2006 (yes, a recurring theme, sue me). Kalvin Phillips.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-0
2014-15 4-1
2013-14 3-0
2012-13 1-2
2011-12 1-1 2-0
2010-11 0-1 2-2
2005-06 0-0 1-2 3-0
2004-05 1-2 2-2
1999-00 1-2 1-3
1992-93 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Meslier
Ayling          Llorente        Koch              Firpo
Phillips
Raphinha       Dallas        Klich         Harrison
Rodrigo

VERDICT: I vaguely remember a strip cartoon from a comic as a kid.  The central character… I can’t remember.  There might have been a UFO involved, or maybe a flash of light or some other go-to “something’s going down, run with it it’s a comic” trope.  Either way… our hero comes to and finds that everything suddenly there’s a new child in the family.  A toddler with a demonic look in their eye who wasn’t there before and whose presence everyone else seems to think is normal.  Pretty dark shit for a kid’s magazine.

Aaaaand here’s Leeds, six years since our last League encounter.  The last time we met there was no prospect of this; Leeds were just another carcass with unrealistic pretensions.  In the interim there’s been a makeover and Leeds are not only decent but, whisper it, almost likeable.  At least from a distance.  Perhaps like old skool Wimbledon they’re less fun when you actually have to play them.  I guess we’ll find out.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Patson Daka (RB Salzburg, £23,000,000), Boubakary Soumaré (Lille, £17,000,000), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton, Free)

OUTS: Josh Knight (Peterborough United, Undisclosed), Admiral Muskwe (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Christian Fuchs (Charlotte FC, Free), Matty James (Bristol City, Free), Daniel Iversen (Preston North End, Season Loan), Callum Wright (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Wes Morgan (retired)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

GOOD THINGS: 2016. Vichai. The atmosphere at the stadium – ferociously partisan but about supporting them not being anti-you.  The VfL Bochum fans that we met in Leicester in 2015 who also supported City because they “wore blue and never won anything , like us” (how’s that going?). Any number of epic encounters and late, dramatic wins (not just that one)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-1
2018-19 2-1
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
Justin              Söyüncü           Fofana             Castagne
Ndidi        Tielemans
Ricardo                   Maddison                  Barnes
Vardy

VERDICT: If 2016 was remarkable then the last couple of years, hanging around the top of the table (if twice missing out on a return to the Champions League) and winning the FA Cup isn’t a bad encore. It begs the question…  what will/would it take for Leicester to be recognised as one of the “big six” (or five, or seven, or whatever).  In terms of recent trophies they’re well clear of Spurs, say, or Everton.  Leicester is not one of the biggest cities in the country, but it’s a one-club city with a commuter belt of around 900,000 people.

And the team and squad look ridiculously deep, with quality and cover across the squad.  Quite whether their recent success can be sustained or built on this season might depend to some extent on quite how good Patson Daka is.  Jamie Vardy is a remarkable specimen but will turn 35 in January;  a footballer whose bursts of pace form such a big part of his game is not going to have an indefinite shelf life, 17 goals last season rather disguises 4 since Christmas (2 pens).  I’ve been stung too often by Kelechi Iheanacho in our Fantasy League (two opportunities to switch players out of your squad per season, purchase with care) to have any great faith there.  Two ridiculously prolific seasons for Salzburg bode well for Daka, though unless the Austrian league has improved dramatically in the last twenty-odd years he’ll find the standard tougher in England.

There are sides whose elevation to the top echelon, whatever that means, however much it matters, you’d resent more.  In any case, as the famous 1881 banner suggested, Leicester continue to provide a bridge between where we are and the completely unattainable.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Ibrahima Konaté (RB Leipzig, £36,000,000)

OUTS: Harry Wilson (Fulham, £12,000,000), Marko Grujić (Porto, £10,500,000), Kamil Grabara (Copenhagen, Undisclosed), Liam Millar (Basel, Undisclosed), Liam Coyle (Accrington Stanley, Free), Georginio Wijnaldum (Paris St. Germain, Free), Paul Glatzel (Tranmere Rovers, Season Loan), Joe Hardy (Accrington Stanley, Free), Adam Lewis (Livingston, Season Loan), Sepp van den Berg (Preston North End, Season Loan); Ozan Kabak (Schalke, End of Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

GOOD THINGS: John Barnes (though never the same player once he left Herts…). Anfield (though not the away end concourse, which is horrific). Klopp.  Jordan Henderson. Round of applause from the Kop after the win in 1999 (so I’m told, hrrrmph)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 3-0
2018-19 0-3
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
Alexander-Arnold        Matip        Van Dijk                 Robertson
Henderson              Fabinho
Salah                  Keita                   Mané
Firmino

VERDICT: The funny thing is, Liverpool were so good two years ago that you kind of expected it to go on indefinitely.  Defending a title is harder than winning it of course, and then there was Van Dijk’s injury and a load of others and so on and so forth.  Nonetheless.  Third place last season was achieved on the back of an eleven game unbeaten run at the tail end of the campaign, disguising the fact that for quite a while it looked like a far more alarming drop-off all round.

Van Dijk and Gomez are reportedly nearing fitness as the season approaches but another year on this is beginning to look like quite an old team.  Henderson is 31, Van Dijk and Thiago both 30, Matip an the front three all 29.  Konaté and Jota’s signings suggest a succession plan of sorts, but an overhaul is a hard thing to judge and execute at the best of times, let alone in the wake of a pandemic when the transfer market is… sluggish.

It’s possible that Van Dijk’s return sets everything back to rights, that with a much more robust defence behind them the front three are at greater liberty to attack and Liverpool will be formidable once again.  Either way our annual stuffing at Anfield is surely a given.  But I wouldn’t bank on the former.  Lots of “ifs”.  Top four, but that’s all.

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Jack Grealish (Aston Villa, £100,000,000), Scott Carson (Derby County, Free)

OUTS: Jack Harrison (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Lukas Nmecha (VfL Wolfsburg, Undisclosed), Sergio Agüero (Barcelona, Free), Eric García (Barcelona, Free), Daniel Grimshaw (Blackpool, Free), Louie Moulden (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Free), Adrian Barnabe (Parma, Free), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Callum Doyle (Sunderland, Season Loan), Lewis Fiorini (Lincoln City, Season Loan), Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Alexander Robertson (Ross County, Season Loan), Matt Smith (Hull City, Season Loan), James Trafford (Accrington Stanley, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Tom Dele-Bashiru

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké

GOOD THINGS: Sergio Agüero. That twitter clip of their end appreciating our defiant flag waving at Wembley.  Inflatable bananas. Raheem Sterling

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-4
2018-19 0-6
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        Dias       Cancelo
Rodri
Gündoğan         de Bruyne
Mahrez             Sterling          Grealish

VERDICT: Oh good.

You know this, but let’s reiterate it anyway.  Five seasons in the top flight…  Arsenal:  7 points from 10 league games (plus a cup quarter final win).  Leicester: 10.  Liverpool: 7.  United: 6.  Spurs: 6.  Chelsea: 5.  None of these records great but, you know, these are the top teams (plus Spurs).

City.  None.  No points, not even many near misses really.  Including the Cup Final that’s played eleven, lost eleven, scored 4, conceded 41.  The 4-0 at the Vic in the dying embers of our relegation season was only the fifth worst defeat of the five year spell; City one of only two Premier League opponents that we didn’t beat at least once last time around (who were the other, kids?).  Not a pair of fixtures that we’ll be banking on points from you suspect.

Meanwhile City continue to gravitate towards Pep’s ideal of eleven small, mobile, highly technical midfielders interchanging rapidly, and this was far too good for the rest of the division last season.  The purchasing power is supplemented by a brutal harvesting of young talent, Tomas Galvez taking the Jadon Sancho path this summer.  I’m sure we’re not the only ones and whilst we shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t always ever thus, wealthy teams pinching players of less wealthy teams, nor pretend that the boot isn’t often on the other foot sometimes it’s still a pisser to lose talent before it’s been realised.

Anyway.  Champions again, probably, or thereabouts.