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Watford 0 Bournemouth 4 (06/10/2018) 07/10/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
20 comments

1- Waking up to bad news is an unpleasant thing.  You feel cheated, somehow, as if the day’s shit has stolen a march on you before you’ve even brushed your teeth.  You may be able to think of a couple of examples of the not too distant past of waking up and thinking “what?  what?  but today hasn’t even started yet!”.

But if waking up to bad news is unpleasant, being woken up to bad news is worse.  Specifically, woken up an hour after you went to bed to the fraught words “there’s a rat in the house!!!”…

It’s been an atrocious week, frankly.  Our unwelcome house guest has carved out it’s own niche in my head also, never far from the front of mind whether at home, or work, whether I’ve been wondering whether that noise was the washing machine or not or whether the little bastard has been parading across our kitchen behind the glass windows that separate it from the living room in a manner befitting of a top hat and tails.  If you’ve been there, I guess you’ll know.  Anyway…  as we’ve discussed on these pages before, football serves a variety of purposes dependent on circumstances and catharsis is certainly one such.  I needed the weekend to come.  I needed something to shout at.

2- Perhaps we all did.  Despite the vicious cold and miserably persistent rain that had snuck up on early October (and indifferent to the fact that having been preoccupied with locating their coats I’d forgotten my own. Again.), daughters 1 and 2 insisted that we adopt position in the Rookery shortly after 2pm.  By kick-off Daughter 2 was standing on her chair vigorously waving an 1881 flag, giggling as the wind caught it and almost took her off her seat and pausing only to ask what had happened to Ben Watson, whilst Daughter 1 was using Siri to identify “Hard Men” by DJ Vickers off the tannoy.  This may sound mundane, but it’s a level of pre-match involvement in matters in hand which is slightly unusual.

It was also the highlight of the afternoon.  Line-ups revealed our third right-back in as many League games, Femenía now in for the injured Navarro, but an eleven otherwise unchanged since the opening day.  And the first 14 minutes were OK… Bournemouth dropped deep and invited us into congested areas, but we did an encouraging enough job having accepted said invitation.  This culminated in Andre Gray’s shot being blocked as he span away on the right hand side of the area, and shortly afterwards the cumulative attritional effect of a series of attacks peeled open a space for Will Hughes to have a go.  It was a relatively comfortable ask for Begović, who held the ball down to his right, but as an opening salvo it was perfectly acceptable.

Our complete bloody doziness in dealing with Bournemouth’s counter-attacking that saw them burst out like speedskaters and quickly overload us was less acceptable.  As an approach it’s designed to catch you on your heels, to capitalise on any sluggishness in attention but it’s as old a strategy as the game itself and it’s what Bournemouth do.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop but good God you’ve got to to do better than this.  You’ve got to be ready for it, alert to the possibility, Étienne Capoue, that Ryan Fraser might be looking to steal a march on you.  90% of Watford supporters’ pre-match analyses would have featured the sentiment, “we’ve got to watch them on the break”.  We did watch them.  We watched them scream out down the left and find a man free on the far post.  Ben Foster hurled himself across goal to make an outrageous save that was entirely lost in the fact that he could only parry the ball to David Brooks, who finished unfussily.

3- Eddie Howe would acknowledge post-match that Christian Kabasele’s red card was pivotal.  It could equally be argued that we had our backs to the wall as soon as we went behind in conditions like these against this particular opponent.  I’d further suggest that we lost this game before we conceded as soon as we got all lackadaisical in midfield.

But certainly it’s true that if there’s one thing worse than being 1-0 down at home to an expert counterattacking side it’s being 2-0 down at home to an expert counterattacking side, and if there’s anything worse than that it’s going down to ten men in the bargain.  Craig Cathcart’s missed header in the interim was perhaps another sliding door moment, a cruel glimpse at a different game but it came and went as chances have done in preceding weeks.  And suddenly Christian Kabasele, who had already picked up a stupid booking for a clumsy challenge on Begovic, found himself the wrong side of Josh King.  It was a horror show in retrospect, losing his man and then not even doing a good enough job of bringing him down outside the area – if you’re going to grab his shirt for god’s sake don’t let go again – before swinging a leg in the manner of a child who already know’s they’ve lost the game and are making a sulky pretence of playing it out.  At the time I thought he’d taken the ball; very quickly the lack of on-pitch protest revealed this to be nonsense.  Kabasele departed, King sent Foster the wrong way and we were looking down the barrel of a horrible hour of football.

4- It’s tempting to draw a veil over the rest of it.  But before we do, a word for the rather odd decision to drop Étienne Capoue into defence and maintain a two-man forward line.  Bold, certainly… but whilst pausing to acknowledge that it’s much easier to make such calls after the event, bizarre also.   Capoue showed a brief glimpse of what the idea might have been;  a rare moment of unhurried possession saw him rake an extraordinary crossfield pass to the galloping Kiko Femenía wide on the right; this, as with too many of Femenía’s gallops down the right, came to nothing.  More frequently Capoue was simply not looking like a defender; harsh to blame him for that, but the fourth goal just after the break made an already evident problem unignorable as Callum Wilson wandered into the space that Capoue should have been monitoring and almost apologetically completed the scoring.

On came Mapps and Isaac Success and the ship was steadied, albeit with the game gone and the performance so low it was perhaps less difficult to make some kind of positive impression.  There’s something to be said for the fact that we kept plugging away… I think you’d be stunned, given the character of the side this season, with anything else but perhaps not to be taken for granted.  Abdoulaye Doucouré for one seemed willing to take hold of the ball, to take responsibility for trying to make something happen.  Equally, there’s no avoiding that Bournemouth came much closer to adding to their tally than we did to opening ours in what was left of the second half.

As for the Cherries… the addition of Jefferson Lerma is significant in the midfield; he’s the heavyweight anchor that allows the likes of King, Wilson and Fraser to spin off with a degree of abandon.  Hugely effective today, albeit that the day panned out pretty much as they’d have chosen, but no more likeable than ever despite, for a change, not being faced with a tight game in which to manipulate any advantage that was going.  Adam Smith, who collapsed in prolonged paroxysms of agony after Gerard Deulofeu coughed on him in passing in the final minutes, epitomised the snide nature of Eddie Howe’s side.

5- Looking forward, it will be interesting to watch how Javi responds to what is his first major setback as manager;  his placid “we lost four-nil; forget the ref, we’ve clearly got stuff to sort” on MotD was encouraging but there have been plenty of managers – Alex Neil springs to mind – who’ve looked great when everything’s humming and dramatically less so once it’s stopped.

But today the cold rain has gone and the sun is out again.  Difficult to reconstruct quite how miserable yesterday was. And that’s the way I’m going to think about it for the next two weeks;  we’ve had a brilliant season so far – even if the cost of not winning when playing well is now all the more evident – and getting all stroppy about our first bad performance won’t do anyone any good.  It’s not stretching credibility too much to say that this was a day in which absolutely nothing went our way, from conceding on the break to two yellow cards for Kabasele either of which might have been passed over on a good day, to Jonathan Moss huffing and puffing around the centre circle.  Perhaps this is the world getting back into balance, payback for Joel Ward’s last minute miss against Palace, for Spurs and Burnley… not in terms of fortune, but in terms of good and bad has to even out and we got all of our bad out of the way in one go.  There’s stuff that needs sorting.  But a lot of stuff that doesn’t.  As for our intruder… it, too has been absent for a few days, the hope that the poison laid down by The Man has taken effect.  I may even re-enter the kitchen this afternoon.  Horrible things are always a tunnel to get through after all.

Next up Molineux, without three-quarters of our first choice backline, but with a clean slate.

Bring it on.  Yooorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 1, Holebas 2, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 1, Hughes 2, Capoue 2, *Doucouré 3*, Pereyra 1, Gray 2, Deeney 2
Subs: Success (for Gray, 55) 3, Mariappa (for Hughes, 55) 3, Deulofeu (for Pereyra, 74) 2, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

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Arsenal 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2018) 30/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- It’s an indicator of how far our feet are under the table that this is all so familiar now.  Four of the five visits to the Emirates since promotion and the environs are now as familiar as Borough Market pre-Millwall, as the cricket club at Turf Moor, as the discarded bin bags spewing their contents all over the pavements between Norwood Junction and Selhurst Park.

The forecourt of Highbury and Islington tube station has become a regular rendez-vous point, sun-bathed today, the walk down Holloway Road frequent enough to be able to recognise the invasion of cafes, coffee shops and student accommodation that local resident Kieron describes.

Familiar, too, are the bowels of a stadium built to comfortably accommodate its capacity.  Plenty of space to hang around pre-match, no need to queue for anything much with contactless-only refreshment trolleys.

Familiar, finally, is the bloody terrible view from the cinema seats nine rows back from the corner flag in the shallow bowl.  It all looks lovely.  Unless you actually want to watch the football.

2- What we do get a decent view of is Marc Navarro first Premier League 45 at right-back, the first change to the side this season thanks to Daryl Janmaat’s knee problem.  He does a decent enough job, though as the Hornets dominate territory in the opening fifteen minutes he appears to be taken by surprise by Arsenal’s pressure, a couple of balls back towards Ben Foster asking slightly more of the keeper than might have been ideal.  Defensively however he’s solid, and more than once he makes a significant intervention in denying the home side – on one occasion alive to the lurking threat of Aubameyang as he cuts out a far post cross.

It’s an intense, compelling, boisterous game of football.  Both sides are pressing hard and high, both are holding a high defensive line, both want to win.  Much as we force the home side onto the back foot early on they twice threaten through Alexandre Lacazette;  on the first occasion he is caught in the penalty area by Kabasele, stumbles, thinks about it, and goes down unconvincingly late.  We get away with it.  Shortly afterwards Lacazette robs Craig Cathcart but dinks his effort wide over the onrushing Foster. We get away with it again but… Arsenal are getting away with stuff too. Troy gets on the end of a deep cross and cushions a header back to Will Hughes who drives wide. Kabasele thumps a header that’s blocked on the line. Nil nil at the break is just fine, we’re giving it some.

3- As, incidentally, are Arsenal. The now notorious “cojones” comment of a year or so ago was questionable in terms of whether candidly sharing such opinions was altogether helpful given that we would be playing the same side later in the season but beyond reasonable dispute in terms of veracity. Arsenal had a soft centre, and had had such for a long time. Not our problem of course, but signs here that the Gunners are no longer so overawed by physical confrontation. Whatever the undercurrent of “we should be beating the likes of Watford”, the reality beyond such unhelpful preconceptions is that we came at Arsenal with verve and power and they may have rode their luck once or twice but they held us off and got the break in the end. Not a traditionally Arsenal performance, and the combative Lucas Torreira was at the heart of the change; like Troy, he was slightly harshly booked in the opening period, Troy for stretching for a loose ball in a challenge with Cech, Torreira for a foul that stymied a breakaway.

Troy, meanwhile, has been grabbing headlines once again this week with comments regarding Watford’s management of the gravitationally challenged one. Once again, the real question is not the reasonableness of what he was saying. Any team with any intelligence would pay close attention to Zaha, particularly given his propensity for reacting so favourably to it, and whilst purity of spirit simply oozes from those bin bags en route to Selhurst Park (witness: Ian Holloway, Saša Ćurčić etc) any other club would give some thought to whether there’s an alternative to the same player bootering him over and over again for sustainability reasons.

The question, of course, is whether it’s really helpful for Troy to be saying those things publicly. The answer is no.

4- The Gunners had grown stronger as the first half had progressed, and the start of the second saw more pressure from the home side. It may be a case, again, of perception warping in line with a suspected narrative but we looked tired during this spell, ragged even, and you feared for how long we could keep Arsenal at arm’s length.

So the fact that we came back so strongly was as impressive as it was unexpected. Arsenal’s sub keeper Bernd Leno, on shortly before the break for the injured Cech, could probably have hoped for gentler introductions to the Premier League and looked anxious initially in the second period. Our first chance came from one of a number of wicked deliveries from Jose Holebas, this from a set piece in which Troy ghosted in to attack the ball at the near side of the penalty area and with the delicate touch with which those who never watch him play wouldn’t associate him flicked a shot inside Leno’s left hand post. The German was equal to it, pushing it wide for the corner; from the set piece Nacho Monreal, who had lost his rag late in the first half and not found it again, had a wrestling match with Andre Gray before Leno punched away unconvincingly. This seemed to spur us on.

Andre Gray was keen to profit from Arsenal’s high line and was popped through it by Troy Deeney only to see his effort smothered by Leno. He was removed two minutes later and replaced by Isaac Success, increasingly the player we thought we’d signed after his debut here two years ago, replaced him and he too was put through by Deeney, burning away from his marker but taking an ever so slightly too heavy a touch forcing him slightly wide. His dinked chip was far more convincing than Lacazette’s at the same end in the first half, but still only skimmed the outside of the post on its way out.  As the energy ramped up Torreira and Deeney, both on yellows, clashed after a late Torreira tackle.  A less sensible ref than Anthony Taylor could have sent either off.

5- So, yeah. Then Arsenal scored, twice. A bit of luck for their first perhaps, but Cathcart wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been under pressure. So Arsenal win the game and we record our second defeat, each of which against a traditionally “top six” side.

Naturally there’s a tendency to say “well, we should have taken our chances”. Certainly this is true. Thing is, until such a time as we’re winning every week there will always be something that isn’t quite right. Very much first world problems these. Facts are that we’ve played nine games this season now across the League and the League Cup. Each game has been thoroughly enjoyable, and in each game – if with varying consistency across ninety minutes and to varying degrees – we’ve played well.

I’d maintain that Cathcart and Kabasele is the best central defensive partnership we’ve had in the 35+ years that I’ve been watching, and that midfield isn’t far off a comparable accolade, particularly when one considers strength in depth.

So really, defeat or otherwise, there’s very little to be upset about. The fact is that Spurs and Arsenal have crowed over the last week over a penalty shoot-out win against a reserve side wrongly reduced to ten men, and a helter-skelter league game that would have skidded off in another direction had we grabbed the first goal. There’s plenty of relief mixed up in that.

Now we need to turn good performances back in to wins. And there are few teams you’d wish defeat on more than next Saturday’s visitors. Bring it on.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Navarro 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra, 4, Gray 3, *Deeney 4*
Subs: Success (for Gray, 72) 3, Femenía (for Navarro, 84) 0, Mariappa, Masina, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 1 Manchester United 2 (15/09/2018) 17/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- May 1985.  I was twelve, the same age as Daughter 1 is now.  You were how ever old you were, perhaps you weren’t even born.  As an aside I was stopped short when talking to a colleague at work this week, having to explain the whole MK Dons thing and realising that he was young enough not to plausibly remember…

Good grief.

Anyway.  May 1985, whether it’s fresh in your mind or in the same box as Henry VIII and the dinosaurs, or whether it’s somewhere in between.  It seems remiss at this juncture not to remember it and revel in it, since there was more to that period than just  finishing second and the Cup Final and the UEFA Cup….

Saturday, May 11th.  White Hart Lane.  Spurs were on their way to their highest League finish for fifteen years, a third place under Peter Shreeves, but the Hornets would win 5-1.  Two days later United visited Vicarage Road.  The Reds had half an eye on the Cup Final six days later, but rested only Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen in a time of smaller squads.  The scoreline was repeated;  new signing Colin West, whose arrival had sparked an end of season surge, Nigel Callaghan and Luther Blissett scored in both games, the latter also suffering an horrific injury at the hands of Gary Bailey and the cost of an impressive scar on his forehead.  Danny Thomas memorably contributed to our tally in the first game, the Spurs full-back finding the top corner from distance.

I was at both.  Even in the context of a time when taking on the big teams and beating them, in Cups and then in the League, was What We Did, this was remarkable.  More remarkable still is the progress made over the last few years.  Not since May 1985 have we gone into a game against United with anyone but us saying “Actually, I fancy Watford to win this….”.

2- A play in three acts, this.  The Hornets lined up in the now conventional eleven;  United kicking towards the Rookery in an alternative kit of nondescript colour which looked, as Cathal later observed, like it might be inside out.

This was a relatively low pressure game for the Hornets of course, low pressure in the sense that the tally already accumulated let us into the fixture without the burden of an iffy start.  United, twice defeated already, were probably in more urgent need of a result.  After an opening chorus of “One Harry Hornet” in recognition of the retirement of the mascot’s ten year incumbent an edgy opening half hour developed.  The visitors dominated possession, but were only allowed glimpses of goal;   Sánchez wriggled in down the right before thumping a drive towards the top corner which Foster repelled.  At the other end any hint of an attack sparked the crowd;  Bobby Pereyra set up Troy who put power above precision and shovelled his shot too close to de Gea, making a clawing save possible. Otherwise our attacks were trying to hit the strikers early and put United’s centrebacks under pressure – Troy has bossed Chris Smalling before, and Victor Lindelof has looked get-attable.  Troy will rarely play a game in which so many of his touches are with his chest, but for this period the two sides were keeping each other at arm’s length.

3- This changed on the half hour.  Étienne Capoue picked up his fourth booking in four home games this season for cynically curtailing Jesse Lingard’s progress on the break.  In the same fixture last season we’d regretted Tom Cleverley’s decision not to do something similar in the closing minutes.  From the passage of play resulting from the set piece United knocked us out of our defensive shape for the first time, and as we scurried and chased Ashley Young floated a cross in which Romelu Lukaku propelled into the net with his stomach.  Appeals aplenty – for offside from the stands, for handball, perhaps, from the players, but all in vain.  Difficult to see how Foster was fooled by the cross at the time and on replay, a rare blemish for the keeper.

Within three minutes it was two, Chris Smalling hooking home expertly after chesting down in the box.  You can criticise Daryl Janmaat for being on the wrong side of him but it was a fraction of an opening that still required a fine finish.

We could have caved in at this point, and looked a bit ragged for perhaps the first time this season.  United, as good teams are wont to do, tried to capitalise and surged at us;  Pogba came closest with a fine volleyed finish to a deep Lingard cross, Foster redeeming himself with a flying stop that left the French midfielder with his head in his hands. For the second home game in succession we were grateful for the interval; grateful, in this instance, to still be in it.

4- And so the second half was magnificent.  Yes, United sat back and invited it, invited us to find our feet but we showed no signs of needing that invitation.  It was a mild evening, and it’s not quite late enough in the year for half six-to-seven to be properly dark.  But there’s something special about the Vic in a late kick-off with the Hornets kicking towards the Rookery.  When United wandered forward early in the half we’d snatch possession and fly outwards… Doucouré, Pereyra, Hughes in tandem, Gray turning and twisting and chasing and getting buffeted by finally earning his reward with a composed finish.  Janmaat and Holebas both ran themselves into the ground and were replaced, Femenía and Masina providing further evidence of how far we’ve come.  These are our back up playernow, the fact that half of United’s support won’t have heard of them half the point.  If their very limited world view encompassed Kiko or Adam they would already be stars and wouldn’t be playing for Watford.  As it was they’re merely very very good players; both gave us a boost in the closing encounters.

If there’s a complaint about the second half it’s that the kitchen sink didn’t quite come out early enough.  There was always a risk of course… Anthony Martial’s pace twice launched counterattacks that first Cathcart and Kabasele had to be precise and urgent to repel – it may be that Gerard Deulofeu will soon be doing that “running off with the ball” thing for us”.  But from Gray’s goal onwards there was a sense that United really weren’t comfortable, than the game plan really hadn’t involved us scoring and yet we didn’t let it all rip until Matic, who was excellent for the most part, earned a second yellow card for a foul on the tireless Hughes.  The free kick was swung in and Kabasele’s fierce header was in…. until it wasn’t, de Gea vaulting to his left to deny it.  From the resultant corner Masina sent over a low missile that just needed a touch, de Gea ending up in the back of the net and the game was up.

5- So.  We lost to Manchester United (again).  Quite obviously the run was going to come to an end at some stage, and it goes without saying that this is quite high on the list of ways you’d chose for it to happen.  Against a top side, and giving it some, and with fire in our bellies to take to Fulham.

Best of all was watching that second half and, for all that it wasn’t quite enough in the end, watching a side that is comfortable in its skin and utterly unphased by being two down to Manchester United.  We’re a side that can be in that position at half time and yet entertain genuine hopes of retrieving the game. And have the players and the coach to do so.  “Deserved” is an odd word in the context of a football match and ultimately United deserved to win because they scored twice and we didn’t.  But I don’t think many in whatever-colour-that-was could have complained if we’d grabbed the equaliser.  We look like a Premier League team now, of all things.  A good one.

And so to Fulham and Slav and another fascinating encounter.  Interesting to note their division-high 12 goals conceded thus far (albeit heavily at the mercy of opposition faced after only 5 games) in the context of the theory that Jokanovic ultimately left Watford because it was felt that his football was too open for us to survive in the Premier League.  A huge test of our own mettle, too.  Spirited defeat is one thing… spirited defeat being two or more things might feel less comfortable.

Bring it on.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Holebas 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 4, *Gray 4*, Deeney 3
Subs:  Femenía (for Janmaat, 72) 3, Masina (for Holebas, 84) 0, Success (for Cathcart, 88) 0, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah, Gomes

Watford 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 (02/09/2018) 03/09/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
23 comments

1- So it’s been a fun week.  Fun to be patted on the head like the child allowed to stay up late when the adults have had a glass of wine or two.  “So Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and… oh yes, surprisingly, Watford have a 100% record….”.

This mutated as the days passed.  “Actually I still fancy Watford to be relegated,” suggested a bookmaker’s rep on a podcast this week, confusing a radical, roguish, controversial opinion with stupidity.  “In a couple of month’s time everyone will have forgotten about Roberto Pereyra” was another sage observation on the same podcast.

I suspect the tone of this week’s observations might be slightly different.

2- It’s summer again.  Proper hot.  Necessary precautions have been taken to navigate the traffic snarl up heading to the Krishna festival at Aldenham (thanks Paul) and we’re parked up early, giving me time to deliberate over whether I’m sufficiently certain that my lucky Primitives t-shirt is at the heart of our good run to go with an extra layer under the club shirt (I am, I did, you’re welcome).

Vicarage Road is navigated at the cost of an Ice Cream spillage and many tears from Daughter 2, finally assuaged by face painting and tattoos outside the club shop.  We’ve mentioned this before but the party atmosphere being cultivated on this corner is a fine thing, the more so in the sunshine, and is noted by Daughter 1 who sometimes gives the impression of the world, our world, passing her by but not here.  By the time we head down Occupation Road Daughter 2 is busy looking for the ancient turnstile and once in the ground she, like the rest of us, is fully focused on the matter in hand.  And after three (and a half) wins, the arrival of a proper big gun is a fascinating prospect rendered low risk by the nine point cushion.

3- The first half is deemed “intense” by Daughter 2, not inaccurately.  Others elsewhere, others not emotionally involved, called it dull, “lacking in incident” or similar.  And I suppose if you weren’t emotionally involved then that would be true but we were, all of us, and it wasn’t.

Spurs had the best of it, indisputably.  We had the occasional foray forward and looked vibrant, the crowd sparking at the slightest provocation and came closest when Deeney met a deep Janmaat cross and headed over.

But most of the action was at our end and for the second weekend running we demonstrated our new-found defensive resilience.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a better central defensive pairing for Watford than Cathcart and Kabasele, certainly not since John McClelland left, and both were in full effect here.  But Janmaat and Holebas are suddenly solid and reliable, and the gang of four between them repelled Spurs’ albeit slightly hesitant probing.  Most spectacular was Janmaat’s diving header (“like a superhero” – Daughter 1) to cut out a cross pass beyond the far post;  most fortunate Alli’s point-blank miss when (mistakenly) flagged. Closest, a header from the same player which didn’t drop quickly enough.

“Not much in it” was occasional visitor Ian’s verdict at the break.  Me, I was glad to have gotten to the interval.

4-  Having had to man the barricades at the end of the first half, Spurs’ goal came from nothing eight minutes into the second.  A loose clearance, an aimless low cutback from Moura and a freak deflection off Doucouré that wrong-footed Foster. The sort of goal that would normally be a hammer blow.  “You don’t give away goals like that against teams like this.  It can’t be our day.  They haven’t had to do much to earn that…”.

So it speaks volumes that we fought our way back.  Not propelled by the crowd, the crowd responded ferociously to the performance but the performance came first.  Not the easy, the smart, the lucky way – coming straight back at Spurs and grabbing a goal before they’d reset themselves.  The equaliser was fifteen minutes in coming, and arrived on the back of a display that was the match of any Watford performance I’ve seen for single-mindedness, for strength of personality, and for sheer ability in the face not of a top class opponent having an off day but of a top class opponent having the initiative wrested unwillingly from their hands as they were clubbed over the head and left writhing in a ditch.  My God, we were magnificent.

We could so easily have rolled over.  So easily have… if not given up, you’d not have believed that of this side, but allowed doubts to colour our positivity.  Not for one minute.  The defence held strong and persisted in playing the ball out, allowing us to break.  The midfield were asked to chase as much as to control possession, but they won a close battle on points, whilst Troy and Andre had maybe their best twenty minutes in tandem, belligerent and tireless.  Spurs had moved us around in the first half, but it was the visitors that seemed to wilt in the sun.

Troy was an absolute monster.  Let nobody be in any doubt that we’ve got our centre forward back, all those suggestions that he’d run his race have long since been forgotten by the briefly faithless.  He chased down Davínson Sánchez on the right wing and left him on his backside.  He smacked a low, hard cross into the box, Alderweireld stuck his head out and deflected it past Vorm and off the inside of the post and crossbar.  Shortly afterwards he met Holebas’ delicious free kick and flicked a header home.

The place erupted, and we went for the kill.  Spurs were reeling, and didn’t have much of an answer.  As we lined up a corner Troy, in full beast mode now and playing off the intensity of the crowd, emptied a bottle of water over his head before returning, shoulders hunched, to the fray.  A statement, but a theatrical decoy.  Cathcart it was who leaned through unnoticed to win the game.

5- Impossibly, there were still around 15 minutes of regular play to go.  The magnitude of the spectacle had seemed to fill hours and in the insane heat with Spurs having to push on nobody was taking anything for granted.  More than one “Oh I can’t watch this” was overheard from various voices behind me.

But again, evidence of how much this team has matured, of how much more in control of this we are than the lucky chancers that many accounts have painted us.  Spurs did come at us;  Harry Winks came on (to a few witless “who”s from local intellectuals incapable of recognising a Hemel Hempstead boy and England international) and he provided a scampering, thrusting urgency.  More entertaining to Ian was the introduction of Llorente, “throwing the big lad on up front” not beyond the elite either, it seems.

But we retained control.  We held possession in the corner, we held out not merely by setting our backs squarely against the wall (tho that was needed, particularly when Kane’s header skimmed over) but by smuggling the ball off and hiding it, by not giving Spurs the chance to hurt us, by cutting off the threat at source, sub Success in another strong cameo as significant as anyone.

And then the final whistle went and we bellowed.  We screamed at the sky.  This isn’t another trophy win, a shiny adornment to a mid-table season, fine though that would be.  This was us going up against a side who, like us, had a 100% record but who, unlike us, were expected to have one.

And beating them.

And deserving it.

Bring on United.

Yooorns…………

Foster 4, Janmaat 5, Holebas 5, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 5, Hughes 4, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Pereyra 5, Gray 4, *Deeney 5*
Subs:  Success (for Gray, 70) 4, Chalobah (for Hughes, 86), Mariappa (for Pereyra, 90), Sema, Femenía, Masina, Gomes

 

Reading 0 Watford 2 (29/08/2018) 30/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

This is, by necessity, a half hour report.  Apologies for consequent scruffiness…

1- There are certain prerequisites when it comes to the early stages of the Rumbelows Cup.  Some of these are met in sunny Berkshire tonight…  a half-empty stadium (albeit a respectable enough 2500 make the short journey from Hertfordshire), much-changed starting line-ups (eleven changes for the Golden Boys in the green away kit’s first outing).  Check, check.

In other respects, Javi and the team haven’t got the memo at all.  This is, notoriously, a high-risk fixture.  For many years we postulated that the first round of the Milk Cup existed in some sort of time warp, a vortex of slow, dull, half-arsed football against interchangeable lower division opposition.  We dip into the same fixture once a year, some of us make it out alive, others lost in action.  Collateral damage, lost somewhere chewing their fists in an abandoned corner of time and space.

Should add as an aside that Reading are hardly cut from the same cloth as the stuff of our nightmares… you can dig around and find match reports from games against Cheltenham, Accrington, Cambridge, Notts County if you’re sufficiently motivated. Not to disparage such clubs or their support but… these games have been atrocious. I won’t provide hyperlinks for fear of sucking in the carelessly curious.  These are things that should only be taken on by those committed enough to live with the consequences.

Anyhow, as above, the Hornets haven’t read the brief.  This is actually rather fun.

2- I won’t dwell too long on the actual cut and thrust.  This was a painfully one sided game for the most part, as a game between the reserve side of a three-years-in Premier League club and a scratch side of a struggling Championship side ought to be, perhaps.  Only at 2-0 down, fuelled by a couple of second half subs, did the home side threaten very much ;  even then McNulty’s gentle lob over the onrushing Gomes gave the impeccable skipper Mariappa time to do a couple of stretches whilst waiting for the ball to drop and be cleared.  By that time we should really have been further ahead.  Make no mistake, this was comfortable and the margin of victory should probably have been greater.

No side is flattered when viewed through the prism of an early Worthington Cup tie of course, albeit that someone was overheard to observe that the Madejski Stadium is greatly enhanced by an absence of Reading fans.  But the place felt very flat, very tatty, and not at all upwardly mobile – an impression not enhanced by their side’s almost complete lack of cutting edge.  Never was the contrast greater than when Abdoulaye Doucouré rolled off the bench to replace the tiring Quina, a true heavyweight in the context of this game with an aura to match.  He didn’t (have to) do a lot, one thunderous run through the centre which was harshly if inconsequentially curtailed for a foul.  But his presence underlined the degree to which these two regular sparring partners have, for the moment at least, drifted apart.

3- Of particular interest was a chance to see the new boys in action, players whose introduction has been particularly cautious in the context of the strong start to the season under the old(er) guard.  It could be argued of course that both Marc Navarro and Adam Masina, both making their first appearances here, have already had an impact in that their presence has contributed to much more disciplined performances by our regular full backs.  Here, both did well enough;  Navarro perhaps the more impressive.  The young full back looked strong and athletic, growing in confidence as the game went on, you wouldn’t worry about needing him in the first team already.  On the other flank Masina contributed the cross to Success’ impudent goal, but was less of a bully than his imposing frame suggested he might be and was beaten to a far post cross by Reading skipper Liam Moore despite being 6’3″.

Perhaps most impressive of the new players was the relatively unheralded Ben Wilmot, who appeared to start at the back of midfield before dropping into the centre of a defensive trio.  He looks slight of frame but almost unnervingly composed for an eighteen year old, a thoroughly encouraging performance from the youngster.  Only during Reading’s late rally did he resort to thumping clearances out of defence, perhaps due to fatigue, but you wouldn’t question his decision making there either in the circumstances.

Ken Sema has featured off the bench, and did an adequate if less flashy job here, a tidy but less conspicuous contribution he seemed to tire early.  And then there was Quina;  conspicuous by his diminutive stature, he was full of tricks in his central role displaying tight control, tenacity, and a degree of healthy arrogance.  His decision making wasn’t always the best, he seemed to rein in a desire to do it all himself after an early touchline conference with his manager, but hell he’s 18 and he doesn’t half have some ability.  And the goal was ridiculous of course, picking up a loose clearance from a corner and shovelling it into the postage stamp with his left foot from 30 yards.  Not dull.  Not dull at all.

4- For me, the highlight however was Nathaniel Chalobah.  No mystery about this, no surprise.  Of all our missing star midfielders he’s the one that you’d still be tempted to crowbar straight into the first team despite our excellent start.  But after a year out, a year that saw an innocuous injury wipe out his season and his chances of going to the World Cup it wasn’t half good to see him on the pitch again.

And he was magnificent, albeit against limited opposition.  Twice he dropped outrageous passes over the bamboozled Reading defence, once onto the head of the industrious Femenía steaming in at the far post, another picking out a clever run from the persistent Success that Reading’s defence hadn’t seen at all.  Late in the second half a rare frustrated challenge by an opponent in a game that was relatively free of such stuff saw the unfortunate aggressor simply bounce off Chalobah, who barely seemed to have noticed.

Only as the game drew to a close was there cause for concern, as Chalobah’s slight limp became increasingly pronounced, clearly hampering his mobility to the point where he signalled to the bench to be replaced.  Our hearts were in our mouths;  cramp has been suggested, it really didn’t look like cramp.  The sight, therefore, of Chalobah making a late solo return to the pitch to acknowledge the crowd, grinning his face off and unencumbered by icepacks or the like, was the highlight of the evening.

5- Onwards and upwards then.  Confirmation of Chalobah’s fitness nothwithstanding this couldn’t really have gone any better. Decent-to-strong contributions from all of the new boys, unquestionably greater strength in depth all round;  our “second eleven” didn’t feature the injury Cleverley, Deulofeu, Britos, Kaboul, the mythical Peñaranda.

We’re in a very good place.  Someone rubbish at home in the next round of the Coca Cola Cup please (“someone rubbish away” – a club spokesman).

In the meantime, the small matter of Spurs on Sunday.  Bring them on.  Yoooooorns….

Gomes 3, Navarro 4, Masina 3, Prödl 3, Wilmot 4, Mariappa 4, Femenía 4, Quina 4, *Chalobah 5*, Sema 3, Sucess 4
Subs:  Okaka (for Sema, 65) 3, Doucouré (for Quina, 82) 0, Hughes (for Chalobah, 86) 0, Cathcart, Janmaat, Gray, Dahlberg

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (26/08/2018) 27/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

1- At the top of Occupation Road there’s a steel band, a lad in a Watford shirt doing an impressive round of ball juggling and an affable gentleman on stilts.  The atmosphere would be jovial.  If it wasn’t pissing it down with rain.

It feels more like March than August bank holiday weekend.  Palace have brought the traditional Croydon microclimate with them and it dampens our quick start before it gets going.  Only the hissing, spitting hot fat of this fixture burns on unperturbed, and it hadn’t needed Roy Hodgson ambling into a Harry-shaped animal trap in the visitors’ pre-match press conference to ignite it.  Our encounters have a bad-tempered, even spiteful undercurrent all of their own.

Wilfried Zaha was receiving his traditional welcome long before kick-off (albeit Harry was keeping a sensibly low profile); within five minutes of the start the venom had spilled onto the pitch as Capoue caught Zaha’s achilles, receiving a yellow card.  It could have been red.  The consequences of this incident were manifold;  Zaha himself vaulted into an angry challenge with Holebas five minutes later and was himself carded, for recklessness rather than actual contact.  Anthony Taylor, who was excellently positioned, seemed to be angry with himself for allowing his reticence to send someone off early colour his judgement and gave us very little thereafter in an admittedly difficult game to officiate.  And every postmortem of the match was given the qualifier,  “…of course, if Capoue had been sent off it might have been different”.  True.  And, simultaneously, the dullest most valueless lack of insight.  If this player had been fit, if that decision had gone the other way, if it hadn’t been raining, if the shot had come off the other side of the post….  parallel universe theory is a long way down the list of ways in which football will be tinkered with.  Until that time arrives you play the circumstances you’re given.  Perhaps we got away with one;  we’ve been on the receiving end before.  Then as now you deal with it and get on with it.  And stop bleating.  If Capoue had gone Palace would have faced a different set of circumstances.

2- Meanwhile in this reality, Palace were having rather the better of it.  There was a school of thought that suggested that Palace might struggle this season but, disappointingly, not on this evidence.  Make no mistake, this wasn’t another case of an opponent looking poor (or being made to look poor) and us taking advantage;  the Eagles were a level above the Brighton side of two weeks ago.  We were already being moved around by the time Townsend’s cross found Benteke’s ample forehead to bring a fabulous point-blank reaction save from Ben Foster.  Shortly afterwards James McArthur was played through and Foster’s speed of response saved us again (“If Foster hadn’t been playing, we’d have been ahead at the break” – a peevish Roy afterwards, implying that a good goalkeeper was some kind of crazy voodoo shit).

In front of him, our defence were being worked but were up to the task.  Christian Kabasele gave a masterclass in unflustered defending, ushering his charges into quiet corners where their crushed momentum saw them yield possession almost apologetically.  Jose Holebas and Daryl Janmaat were both excellent…  the thundering up and down the flanks we’re used to, the defensive dependability we’re not. Holebas crowned his performance with a meticulously precise sliding challenge to deny McArthur (again).  This was the toughest half hour of the season so far, and whilst it was also the least elegant with attritional challenges going on all over the park as the two sides pressed each other to death it was perhaps our most impressive, the half hour that has taught us the most.  Brighton was great, but we’d have won that last season in the same circumstances.  Burnley impressive but, you know, the Europa League thing.  Here…  we were under pressure and we withstood it, our defence held together and whilst Foster was twice called into action that was it.  No bad misses from the visitors.  They didn’t get a chance to miss.

3- Which provided the platform for us to claw our way back into the game.  Some decent interplay on the right flank saw Janmaat released on the overlap, his cross found its way to Pereyra whose volley was deflected over the bar – it could have gone anywhere.  Shortly before the break another fine move clawed a gap open for Janmaat to hammer a shot across the face of goal and wide.

We didn’t want the interval to come but it didn’t interrupt our momentum.  Hughes was soon forcing Hennessey into a block at the near post in front of the Rookery.  Minutes later Capoue rampaged through the middle of the park battering away some flimsy attempts to knock him off the ball and drawing people to him.  He released Pereyra on the left who scored his stock, beautiful goal by curling a shot inside the far post out of Hennessey’s reach.

Palace pushed back, but we were in the ascendancy and you really, really don’t want to be forced to attack us and let us play on the break, not with this midfield.  Andre Gray, who had struggled to get into the first half, hadn’t stopped working and his movement found him through on goal only to be denied by stand-in centre back Kelly whose determination perhaps earned the fortune of his clumsy challenge taking ball but not player, he knew little about it.  Kabasele sent a header from a set piece so, so narrowly wide. We were on top now, the better side all round and were two ahead when Jose Holebas doubled the lead, dummying onto his weaker right foot and looping in a ball which dropped into the top corner.  It was a fluke, an intended cross, but tickets, raffles and so forth.  Two up on bloody Palace and one goal away from the top of the table.

4- Goodness only knows what Javi will do if and when we ever have a full armoury of midfielders fit and available.  Of the four that have started every game so far, only perhaps Doucouré would have been guaranteed a start in such circumstances at the start of the season.  He’s been perhaps the weakest of the four up to now, hampered no doubt by lack of pre-season, but the form of the other three has allowed him to play his way back to fitness.  Hughes had a quieter game today but remains magnificent, perhaps not physically resilient enough to hold down a central role in the face of such competition but plenty good enough to cause havoc from the right side of midfield.  Étienne Capoue looks reborn under Gracia;  there will be some in the stands (I could name one) who retain the doubts sown by two and a half years of hot-and-cold-and-sometimes-not-fancying-it-ness but this is the player, surely, that Spurs thought they had signed five years ago.  An absolute monster, I won’t tire of the sort of surging run that made the first goal.  And Pereyra, also, is showcasing his best bits… the quick feet, the control, the wit and the audacity that make him such a threat.

Thing is, a “second string” four would be just as strong.  Ken Sema had a hugely impressive half hour cameo today displaying confidence and belligerence as we protected our lead.  No shrinking violet, this lad.  Then you have the majesty of Chalobah, the dynamism of Cleverley and the merciless speed of Deulofeu.  My word.  The team selection at Reading on Wednesday night will be very interesting.

5- Reports have suggested that Zaha was “subdued” for much of the game, and on reflection perhaps the catcalls at misplaced passes outweighed the actual threat.  It didn’t feel like that at the time though; whatever else the gravitationally challenged one is he’s a magnificent footballer and Palace have done very well to keep him happy when more lucrative offers would surely have been made from elsewhere.  On 78 minutes he scored a perfect goal, timing his run perfectly to avoid the offside trap, cutting past hesitant challenges and slamming the ball past Foster.  This set up an extremely anxious final fifteen minutes, but a fifteen minutes that we managed superbly;  not so much by timewasting (though Taylor was quick to book Holebas at the suggestion of it) but by game management, keeping possession, making Palace run.  Isaac Success, hearteningly, was as disciplined in this respect as anyone in his brief outing.

So…  a win that in any number of parallel universes might not have gone our way.  If Capoue had got a red, if Holebas’ cross had wandered over the bar, certainly if Joel Ward’s late, late header had dropped inside the post.  And all the more enjoyable for it, for two reasons.

Firstly, cos it’s us getting the win.  That sounds obvious but…  this is the sort of win that established top flight sides have in their locker.  Teams like Palace (and us) can’t get away with not winning when they’re playing well that often.  Here Palace played well and lost and it was thanks to our bloody mindedness, that ugly half hour in the first half, as much as to the brilliance of Pereyra and the, um, opportunism of Holebas.  Looking back to 1999-2000…  one of the starkest memories of that miserable season was of our better performances being crushed regardless by sides that were just a bit smarter, just had a bit more.  We are now one of those sides.  A bit meaner, a bit crueller.  A bit more streetwise.

And the other source of joy is that it’s Palace, this putrid pile of vomit on the Premier League pavement.  We’ve a long history with Palace borne of often being at the same level at the same time, but we have a similar history with Leicester, say, without the same sort of bitter enmity (2013 notwithstanding).  And we still owe them plenty by my reckoning…  even leaving the play-off final and the cup semi aside, there’s the bitter rancour of the repulsive Saša Ćurčić, of Ian Holloway’s cynical bleating.  Of George Ndah‘s late late winner at Selhurst in 1995, of this and this and this.  The bill’s not paid, this was merely a first instalment.

On to Spurs and United then.  Winning three games is winning three games, a footnote is that we’ve “only” beaten Brighton, Burnley, Palace (ha). Not one of the big six.  On the flip side, we go into these two games, both at home by virtue of Spurs’ stadium issues, with a hell of a cushion, a lot of momentum and nothing to lose.  Tough games at any time.  But tougher still with any fewer than nine points from nine.

Bring them on.  Yooooorns.

*Foster 5*, Janmaat 4, Holebas 5, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 5, Hughes 3, Capoue 4, Doucouré 3, Pereyra 4, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs: Sema (for Gray, 73) 4, Success (for Deeney, 94) 0, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina, Femenía, Gomes

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoooorns.

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

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

Season Preview 2018 – Part 5 10/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: None

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Trippier       Sanchez           Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Son                           Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

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

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

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

WEST HAM UNITED

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Reid          Cresswell
Obiang           Noble

Yarmolenko              Wilshere                 Anderson
Arnautović

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

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

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

And the stadium is still shocking, obvs.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

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

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

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

 

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez        Costa

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

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

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

WATFORD

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

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Janmaat          Cathcart          Kabasele            Masina
Chalobah      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Cleverley                       Pereyra
Deeney

VERDICT: Football’s brilliant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

Season Preview 2018 – Part 4 09/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

MANCHESTER UNITED

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 3-1
2015-16 1-2  0-1
2006-07 1-2
2001-02 0-3
1999-00 2-3 1-4
1984-85 5-1
1978-79 2-1
1968-69 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

De Gea
Valencia      Lindelof       Bailly              Young
Matić             Fred
Lingard                  Pogba                          Sanchez
Lukaku

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

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

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

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

NEWCASTLE UNITED

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

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

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Yedlin                 Lejeune           Lascelles            Kenedy
Ritchie                Shelvey         Diamé           Murphy
Rondón        Perez

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

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

SOUTHAMPTON

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

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

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McCarthy
Cédric          Bednarek           Vestergaard        Bertrand
Lemina       Hojbjerg
Elyounoussi         Armstrong            Redmond
Gabbiadini

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

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

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

Season Preview 2018 – Part 3 08/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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FULHAM

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

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

OUR EX-COTTAGERS: Stefano Okaka

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

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

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

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

LEICESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-1 0-2
2016-17 2-1 0-3
2015-16 0-1 1-2
2013-14 0-3 2-2
2012-13 2-1 2-1 3-1 / 0-1
2011-12 3-2 0-2
2010-11 3-2 2-4
2009-10 3-3
2005-06 1-2 2-2
2004-05 2-2 1-0
2002-03 1-2 0-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1
1995-96 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Ricardo          Maguire            Evans             Chilwell
Silva                 Ndidi
Ghezzal                       Maddison                  Albrighton
Vardy

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

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

LIVERPOOL

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

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

OUR EX-REDS: Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 3-3
2016-17 0-1
2015-16 3-0
2004-05 0-1 / 0-1
1999-00 2-3 1-0
1984-85 3-4
1969-70 1-0
1966-67 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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