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Manchester City 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2015) 30/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
28 comments

1- Another trip to the North West, another grotesque encounter with the M6.  Compounded by taking the wrong route through Manchester as road closures and gridlock conspired to turn what should have been a comfortable day out featuring the traditional generous buffer between arrival and kick-off into an out-of-breath ascent into the oxygen-thin atmosphere of the upper tier with effs having been effed and blindings blinded and ten minutes already on the clock.  That the refreshment kiosks had closed during the game didn’t improve our mood, although in fairness, the City stewards had overheard my brother’s anxious phone conversations as he waited for us and his ticket by the turnstile, facilitated his entry and thus end up well in credit.  Nonetheless, bah.

IMG_1625

2- I tried watching cricket during the summer (not one for minority sports normally) and suffered through my lack of feel for the sport.  I know the rules, more or less, and can follow the progress of a game mathematically but I can’t watch a game (match? tie? whatever) and understand what’s going on, what the balance of power is, in the same way as I can in a football game. Turning up late to a football game screws that feel up a little bit.  It’s like you’re trying to catch up with a story having missed the first couple of chapters. Nonetheless… the thread in this one was pretty clear from the outset, the storyline already well established.  City, slick and strong and aggressive, swarmed at us and we manned the barricades.  This was already the biggest test yet of the defensive shape on whose altar so much is being sacrificed.

And for the most part it stood up pretty damn well for that first forty five minutes.  City flicked and span and danced and swivelled and didn’t get terribly far for all that…  the dominant side, but with precious little in the way of clear cut chances given that domination.  We rode our luck, certainly, but on the odd occasion when a clear sight of goal was carved out City were denied, most memorably by an inhuman blocking tackle by Cathcart to deny Raheem Sterling.  Elsewhere Behrami was energetic and vital, whilst Abdi’s flourished for the first twenty minutes (that we saw…), reminding us that  there’s a fair bit of grit to complement that grace.  There was an awkward five minutes that saw Nyom kick Sterling out of the air and Capoue go  in late on Touré and we looked at each other and wondered whether raising the temperature of the encounter was really in our interests, but 0-0 at half-time made it very easy to overlook both this and the fact that we’d really offered nothing going forward in what appeared to be a 4-6-0 formation with Troy the falsest of nines on the right wing.

3- Which was great, at far as it went.  Problem with an ultra-defensive formation is that you’re kinda stuffed when you go behind.  Sterling’s goal, he having been moved to a central position, has been hailed as rewarding a tactical masterstroke but actually we lost concentration at the start of the half to allow the forward to drift in unchecked.  That’s the Premier League for you, let alone away at City, and certainly didn’t reflect any great failing in a Plan A that had stood up pretty well to a first half onslaught.  Nonetheless, Plan A having failed it was slightly concerning that it took quarter of an hour for Flores to make any kind of personnel change, in which time Fernandinho had smacked City two up and all but out of sight.  Our defensive shape, so inspiring a thing when it was kinda holding out, now became a source of frustration – no out ball, no means of grabbing a foothold or providing a threat.

When the change came it saw Anya replace Abdi and briefly we seemed to adopt a conventional 4-4-2.  On the front foot for the first time we suddenly had some controlled possession in City’s half for virtually the first time in the game and if City threatened to catch us on the counter this felt like a necessary risk that came with the territory.  It was exhilarating and invigorating and got the visiting ‘orns – most of whom were hidden from our view in the half-full upper tier section – roaring for the first time.  Anya soon had our best – only? – chance of the game, Jurado’s ball from the right being met with a brilliantly selfless dummy by Deeney on the edge of the box.  Anya seemed momentarily surprised as well, allowing Sagna to fly in and emulate Cathcart’s crucial block of the first period. And then…  and then…  off went Ighalo, on came Layún and we settled back down into 4-2-3-1 again.  Our threat, such as it was, dissipated immediately.

4- We had possession still, but largely on City’s terms and rarely in threatening positions.  Occasionally either the dogged Alain Nyom on the right or Ikechi Anya down the left would get to the byline and sling a ball across but it’s difficult to hit a lone target.  To this end Matej Vydra’s name got some airing, and there was brief excitement in the upper tier as the forward appeared to prepare to come on;  sure, never a lone striker but if we’ve nothing to lose then why not go 4-4-2 and give Troy someone to play off, someone to move and disrupt City’s painfully comfortable defence.  Instead – the distance had deceived us – Ben Watson took to the field to replace Capoue in defensive midfield, a move greeted with the first open and angry dissent of our Premier League season.  Losing by a moderate margin at City is no disgrace and there’s a lot to be said for avoiding a demoralising dicking…  but a 2-0 defeat is not something to defend.  Predictably enough, the game finished with only theoretical further threats to City’s goal.

5- We are in the position of having to take an awful lot on trust at one time.  The change in manager.  The change in players.  The change in playing style.  This happened once before of course, three years ago… but Sean Dyche’s success and his team’s achievement in finishing mid table had only been triumphs in context (and thus less sparkly), the adoption of a swashbuckling playing style unlikely to alienate anybody.  Here…  the combination of changes will appear courageous and visionary if successful in the unforgiving Premier League.  If not…  there’s an awful lot to get pissed off about.  Even ostensibly sensible and necessary developments like the departure of Fernando Forestieri to Sheffield Wednesday today – a striker who struggled to contribute to our promotion was hardly going to be a fixture – becomes a source of bitterness and acrimony.  To put it another way, one tweet on Saturday afternoon suggested that the author would rather watch Nando score the winner at Huddersfield than see us put 10 behind the ball in the Premier League.  Similar sentiments were expressed less eloquently in the away end.  On the same theme, the traditional annual League Cup fiasco becomes something to get pissed off about, a bit like blaming your new boss for it being Monday.

These are early days, the squad being formed and moulded by the hour (’til 6pm Tuesday).  Nonetheless, this will surely be as crucial an international break as we’ve had for many years.  Flores may claim to be unconcerned with our lack of goal threat, but one attempt on target in three games isn’t going to convince many to fork out for a Newcastle ticket (even if it doesn’t involve braving the M6). Jurado, for all his ability, looks lightweight and has made minimal impact, whilst Berghuis didn’t even make the bench today.  Abdi looks wonky, Deeney looks heavy, isolated and miserable and Ighalo only effective for nuisance value.  Perhaps they’re not suited to this new formation either, but one can’t help but feel that the guys for whom promotion to the Premier League was part of the attraction in the first place deserve rather more.  A similar lack of potency when Swansea visit in a fortnight may see a marked change in tone at Vicarage Road.

Watford v West Bromwich Albion (15/08/2015) 15/08/2015

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
7 comments

Sorry, folks. Because of illness (me) and other commitments (him), you’ll have to do without us for this one, and for Southampton too. Normal service will resume shortly.

Everton 2 Watford 2 (08/08/2015) 09/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1- Daughter 1 has just turned 9 but is already occasionally experimenting with the taciturn sullenness more associated with your average teenager, heaven help us. In my head she’s also the less fanatically committed of the two… something good to do of an afternoon for her, a reason for existence for her younger sister. So when Miguel Layún’s joyful volley hit the back of the net and our end of the Bullens Road Stand was going completely berserk and she turned to me with eyes like stars and proclaimed that “this is turning into the best day of my life“, it all seemed worthwhile… the agonising queues on the M6 (ostensibly caused by Alice breaking down in the outside lane… so we could have been worse off…), the uncomfortable mingling with Bedfordshire’s emissaries at a rammed Norton Canes services, the scratch down the side of the car caused by hurried parking in our pre-booked driveway… a thunderous return of Football that blew away the lingering memories of those miserable last few minutes against Sheffield and any angst we had going into the new season. What followed (and preceded) it was a noisy, breathtaking, cobweb-flushing afternoon’s entertainment. Welcome back.

2- image1 (2) Our first half was awesome. Layún’s goal was a fine thing, a fully merited decoration to a lively, sparky performance from the Mexican that was very nearly duplicated with a punched shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide just before half time. More impressive altogether was our much advertised defensive shape… in evidence against Sevilla it was heartening to see us looking so robust in a challenging competitive fixture, never behind in a game away from home and therefore under constant inspection. Less bodies thrown in front of the ball and last-ditch defending than the calm, absolute and brutal effectiveness of a car crusher, closing in on Everton’s pensive possession from all sides and squashing the air out of them. Protagonist in chief was the extraordinary Valon Behrami whose count of snarling, wholehearted but clean tackles in the first half alone was well into double figures. It was pointed out afterwards that there’s something heartwarming about a bearded number 8 throwing himself into battle for the cause… and the parallels with John Eustace are there, not least in the degree of control to match the aggression that saw Behrami pick up only 6 yellow cards in two and a half years at West Ham despite our fears. There are differences too, though… John Eustace’s menace was in the depths of the blue of his eyes. Valon Behrami’s is more overt, from the shock of fierce yellow in his hair to the slightly unhinged facial expressions he could hardly look more intimidating with a cutlass between his teeth. His partnership with Capoue, simultaneously deft and strong, silk and steel and keener to push up in support of the attack, looks a fine bedrock.

3- The old “will take time to gel” thing drifts from being a source of concern to a reason to be excited in the wake of the opening fixture. Because there were deficiencies, several of them actually, and yet we went and got a result despite them in a challenging away game, twice taking the lead in the process. This team is only going to get better (and worth noting, as an aside, that Jose Mourinho was enthusing in reviewing the season’s prospects, about the quality of players that the newly promoted clubs have been able to attract from abroad. Norwich have signed nobody from abroad, Bournemouth Max Gradel and a Portuguese loanee…). Inevitable that after our terrific first half that saw us dismantle Everton’s attacking play whilst threatening, if largely on the break, the home side would reshape and rethink and ultimately apply more pressure. Nonetheless it took a miscommunication between Behrami and Holebas, each leaving a bouncing ball to the other before the Swiss midfielder’s clumsy attempt to deal, to create the opening for Everton’s equaliser. That’s the sort of thing that happens when players don’t know each other but will get better… and faced with the imposing wall that was Sebastian Prödl and Craig Cathcart it still took a fine strike from Barkley to capitalise. Going forward, too, it doesn’t look quite right… and again, if Quique has prioritised defensive shape (to good effect on this evidence) then the attacking verve will develop in time. Jurado, certainly, was a little disconnected for all his obvious skill… catching the eye with a nutmeg of Barkley here, a clever flick over an opponent there but only rarely interacting with his teammates to good effect and not sufficiently physically robust, yet, to buy himself the time to work with. That’ll come. Ighalo, too… despite his wonderful goal being huge fun and betraying that for all John Stones’ evident attributes in what was otherwise a fine performance by the defender he’d forgotten (or never received) the brief on Ighalo’s favourite trick, the Nigerian looked a little unsure of his role, not quite up supporting Deeney, not quite back in the midfield. The second half in general saw us having to withstand a barrage of pressure, particularly in the opening 20 minutes as Everton changed formation and the relentless sun sapped the legs of Nyom and Holebas who had both been eager and energetic outlets from fullback; you’d rather we didn’t have to cope with that every week.

4- Everton, for their own part, were far more agreeable than some of their visits to Vicarage Road in recentish years have suggested. Affable stewards, friendly supporters stopping us in the street to shake hands and reflect on the game. Perhaps I’m getting old but this stuff matters… or is appreciated at any rate. Admittedly a drawn game in the sunshine helps… I’d have not been in the mood for anything much had we lost, as has been the tradition at Goodison Park, and I’m sure we wouldn’t have found the locals as cheerful if the reverse had been true. Being accompanied by two young girls probably doesn’t hurt either… something about the presence of children that rather alters any perception of threat as those who were on the same trip as I was to Carrow Road in 2006 will surely remember. Most of all, yet another boisterous and bouncing performance by the support in the spirit encouraged by the 1881 was tremendous, and being focused on supporting our lot rather than antagonising the opposition (for the most part) alienates nobody. There are, of course, significant exceptions for whom directed comment will be appropriate, but for now another sterling performance by the travelling Hornets.

5- As a building block, as a start, as a statement of intent this was tremendous. It’s only a point, and much as it might have caused immediate revision of the widely held view that Watford will struggle and finish bottom we’ve only made a single, positive step along the road. Significant, though, both as regards our own prospects and our own sentiment that whereas in the past Premier League seasons we’ve been the ones reflecting on a positive performance undone by a late goal, or bemoaning decisions that went against us (whilst ignoring the two goals we conceded by dint of standing stock still in our own penalty box, speaking hypothetically) we’re now able to look back on the moments of Premier League quality from the opposition – Barkley’s finish, the build up to Kone’s equaliser – and recognise that it took these to deprive us of victory at a ground where we’ve only ever tasted defeat in nine previous visits. Those moments – the bad decisions, the unrewarded performances – might still come. On this evidence, we shouldn’t expect them to be decisive in determining our season. Yoooorns.

Season Preview Part 5 07/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, Undisclosed), Kevin Wimmer (Cologne, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Paulinho (Guangzhou Everglade, £9,800,000), Étienne Capoue (Watford, £5,700,000), Lewis Holtby (Hamburg, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Jordan Archer (Millwall, Free), Cristian Ceballos (Charlton Athletic, Free), Bongani Khumalo (Supersport United, Free), Alexander McQueen (Carlisle United, Free), Brad Friedel (Retired), Grant Ward (Rotherham United, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Dean Austin, Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two narrow cup defeats, most recently in 2012 when Sean Murray announced himself, previously in the 2008 League Cup when Spurs came from behind in one of Brendan Rodgers’ first games in charge.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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       Alderweireld   Vertonghen     Rose
Mason         Bentaleb
Lamela                      Eriksen                   Chadli
Kane

VERDICT: Tottenham are just sort of there, aren’t they?  Too good for most of the division, not good enough – rich enough? – to compete with the biggest clubs, they’ve finished between fourth and sixth for each of the last six seasons.  Fourth is the holy grail of course, perversely rendered more significant than the FA Cup it’s appropriate that Spurs, once defined by being a good cup side but not quite good enough to win the league, sit where they are.  Thing is, that fourth place has never quite proven the stepping stone to establishing Spurs as a Champions’ League club… and as has been widely documented the club’s other major recent windfall, the receipt of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee, wasn’t spent entirely successfully.

So Spurs have a very capable side and lots of good footballers… but the defence is far from watertight, there’s a lack of muscle in a lightweight midfield, a lack of pace in the attack and precious little cover for the extraordinary Harry Kane as it stands.  The phrase “difficult second season” is widely mumbled about Kane… no sign any tailing off just yet, but surely unrealistic to ask such a young player to keep carrying such responsibility even if his form holds up and he avoids injury.  A policy of bringing in and bringing through young British talent – Delle Ali, Alex Pritchard, Ryan Mason – might pay off in terms of keeping Spurs fans reasonably content with their lot until such benefits as arise from their relocation – currently scheduled for three years time – pay off.  This season…  fifth would be a far from reckless guess.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: James Chester (Hull City, £8,000,000), James McClean (Wigan Athletic, £1,500,000), Rickie Lambert (Liverpool, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Graham Dorrans (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Kemar Roofe (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Chris Baird (Derby County, Free), Donervon Daniels (Wigan Athletic, Free), Jason Davidson (Huddersfield Town, Free), Bradley Garmston (Gillingham, Free), Alex Jones (Birmingham City, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (Norwich City, Free), Georgios Samaras, Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A five-nil thrashing at the Hawthorns early in Malky’s first season and a more creditable draw at Vicarage Road in which the ten man ‘orns took the lead with five minutes to go only for the Baggies to equalise at the death.  The same game saw a Jonas Olsson tackle bring Tom Cleverley’s Player of the Season campaign to a premature end.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Dawson         Chester        Lescott           Brunt
Yacob
Gardner        Fletcher           Morrison     McClean
Berahino

VERDICT: In terms of establishing a smaller club in the Premier League, .West Brom are yet another decent template having spent the last five years in the top flight – four of which relatively comfortably – a period preceded by eight or nine seasons of yo-yoing between the top two divisions.  They might also serve as a warning.  Fulham’s Premier League life ran out when they became over-reliant on older players; a bit of bad luck with injuries and they had nowhere to go, a load of old blokes on top contracts and little to build off.  West Brom aren’t in quite the same boat, and in terms of compatibility Tony Pulis is a decent match to work with an experienced squad – experience that we could do with a bit of ourselves – but there’s a danger in relying too long on a format just because it’s working.  Four of the eleven above are in their thirties, several more in their late twenties and only Saido Berahino, his future seemingly far from secure as I write, comes in at under 26 whilst in the wings backup includes the likes of Garath McAuley, Jonas Olsson, Stephane Sessegnon and new signing Rickie Lambert.  Lambert, 34 before the end of the season, is a decent addition but you wouldn’t want to be slotting him into Berhino’s slot should the youngster move on;  decent goalscorer that he is, he was never one for too much running around.

Attempts at recruitment have understandably focused on wide positions;  James McClean, no more than reasonable in a relegated Wigan side last season was a bit of an odd one, further moves for Football League stars Matt Phillips and Mickael Antonio stalling as their clubs reject bids.  All of which reflects Jeremy Peace’s famously careful approach to recruitment, hugely frustrating for supporters.  As long as Mr Pulis is happy you’d fancy that Albion are no more than theoretical relegation candidates.  There’s too much savvy in that team.  Wouldn’t take a lot tho…

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Dmitri Payet (Marseille, £10,700,000), Pedro Obiang (Sampdoria, Undisclosed), Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus, Undisclosed), Darren Randolph (Birmingham City, Free), Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, Season Loan). Manuel Lanzani (Al Arabi, Season Loan)

OUTS: Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough, £5,500,000), Paul McCallum (Leyton Orient, Free), Dan Potts (Luton Town, Free), Carlton Cole, Guy Demel, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nenê, Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-0 drubbing at home early in Sean Dyche’s season when it became clear that Chris Iwelumo was no longer quite the fearsome warrior he once had been, and a much more enjoyable point earned by Sean Murray at Upton Park in which Dale Bennett ended his Watford career on a high.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Adrian
Jenkinson       Ogbonna        Reid          Cresswell
Kouyate

Noble                           Obiang
Payet
Valencia            Sakho

VERDICT: Can I just say that I’m going to miss the Boleyn Ground?  Not the bloody queue at the tube afterwards, sure… but the proper claustrophobic footballgroundness of it.  It’s a Good Thing.  The Irons will move out at the end of the season, destined for the revamped, heavily subsidised Olympic Stadium – who said that the 2012 games had no legacy – and so for West Ham more than anyone it’s fundamental to have a good season, to be on an upward trajectory when that move happens so as to make what will be a 54,000 seater arena a positive place rather than a white elephant.  Relegation would be unthinkable, but there appears to be limited threat of that;  for all Big Sam’s “bad fit” at West Ham, he left them a solid base after three mid-table seasons.  Slaven Bilic was always going to be a popular replacement and has West Ham messageboards cooing over his less pragmatic style, new recruit Dmitri Payet a particularly popular addition;  he’ll have to cope with the Europa League (LATE EDIT: No they won’t!), which is sort of like being handicapped with extra sandbags as far as the League goes for squads without two teams’ worth of senior players, but it would take a lot for the Hammers to struggle. Worth noting also that in amongst the thousands of rumours (OK, 89 and counting) over the summer there have been a large number of suggestions of us competing with West Ham for players.  Which I’m inclined to believe reflects rather well on both parties.

WATFORD

INS: Étienne Capoue (Tottenham Hotspur, £5,700,000), Steven Berghuis (AZ67, £4,600,000), Valon Behrami (Hamburg, £3,000,000), Jose Holebas (AS Roma, £1,800,000), Jose Manuel Jurado (Spartak Moscow, Undisclosed),  Allan Nyom (Udinese, Undisclosed), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Undisclosed), Giedrius Arlauskis (Steaua Bucharest, Free), Miguel Britos (Napoli, Free), Sebastian Prödl (Werder Bremen, Free)

OUTS: Lewis McGugan (Sheffield Wednesday, £300,000), Jonathan Bond (Reading, Undisclosed), Luke O’Nien (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Marco Motta, Vujadin Savic, Daniel Tözsér, Diego Fabbrini (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Uche Ikpeazu (Port Vale, Six Month Loan), Juanfran (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Sean Murray (Wigan Athletic, Month Loan), Adlène Guedioura (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Nyom             Prödl        Cathcart     Holebas
Capoue           Behrami
Berghuis                   Abdi                   Jurado
Deeney

VERDICT: There’s a threat in our scars from last time, for those of us old enough to remember.  Last time and the time before.  We’ve sat through seasons that were pretty miserable, tedious and, yes, expensive long before they finished.  Joyless.  During which you had to endure the idiots at work for whom Watford had only recently entered consciousness as anything other than a theoretical entity, to wearily ponder whether it was really worth countering the “cor, Watford are a bit rubbish aren’t they?” with the explanation that we’d done rather well to even get there actually.  In reality that straw of truth became something that we clung to for our own sakes.  In both seasons, in different ways, we were glad when it was over.

It’s different this time.  Genuinely different, more than just a fist-waving “it will be different” statement of intent.  For one thing, we got ourselves promoted automatically and didn’t that feel good.  For another, we’ve got this extraordinary infrastructure behind us this time.  An infrastructure that dwarfs what either of the other promoted sides can throw at the challenges ahead, that has helped us bring in another swathe of new players.  A statement of intent.  We didn’t get promoted to give it a spirited shot and if that wasn’t quite enough to shrug and grin and go back and start again.  No, it’s fundamental that we stay up and Gino Pozzo is giving us the tools to do so.

The approach is “different” in another way of course.  “Different” to more or less everyone else in the country, to varying degrees, with a consequent range of appreciation and comprehension from the nation’s media (Danny Murphy’s “they’ll struggle now their loans have gone back” firmly at the “must try harder” end of the scale).  There’s still sniping too, which is nothing new any more and predictably escalated in volume once we started doing well again after a bit of a hiatus in 2013/14.  Quite why a Manchester City-style bankrolling is morally acceptable whilst an approach that’s sustainable for a smaller club isn’t is a little bit baffling…  but perhaps we’re just resented for getting lucky.  What’s harder for the fanbase to reconcile is yet another huge turnover, another load of names and faces to get used to.  That happened in 2012 of course and we got over that pretty damned quickly… but we’re in a tougher place this time, and Daniel Tözsér did more for us than Carl Dickinson.  Slav’s departure is harder to get your head round than any of the well-catalogued ones that preceded it.

If it were at all reasonable to challenge Gino Pozzo on this, of course, he’d be perfectly justified in asking whether we preferred that nice gentleman in the hat back.  We’ve discussed this before, but it boils down to trust, and he’s earned plenty. The extent of the revamp of the squad and the replacement of the coach outstrip even the sacking of McKinlay for boldness… that that decision had any credibility at all was simply because Gino Pozzo isn’t a bloody idiot.  He’s not the rash, emotional, crass, erratic clown that the lazier analyses imply.  Quite the opposite. In these decisions, as with the McKinlay one, he’s done things that he knew would attract scorn from outside and criticism from within, particularly if things were to go awry.  Not easy decisions, not the soft options.  And he’s done them anyway.  We know enough by now to have confidence in his decision making.

There’s no disputing that Flores’ biggest challenge is getting it all to hang together… a new way of playing, a new bunch of players, in a new division.  There’s also no disputing that two of those things were necessary given the third.  Our “we’ll score more than you” philosophy which saw our three at the back pulled hither and thither for much of last season was always going to be somewhat optimistic in the top flight.  The players we’ve brought in, from Roma and Spurs and Bremen rather than Chesterfield and Rotherham, have us looking more solid already.  Hell, we faced a slickedy slick Sevilla side and looked tight and organised and compact in a way that we rarely did last season.  And yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, and yes Goodison will be a different challenge in many different ways.  But looking solid against Sevilla is a decent start.  That, and the goals of Deeney and Ighalo and Abdi and the less familiar quantities represented by Jurado and Berghuis.

The level of investment in the squad guarantees nothing, of course.  This is in part reflected in the (almost) universally damning take on our survival prospects.  A lot of this is lazy dick-witted tosh – Norwich, heard of them they must be good (“….and we had the best squad in the division.  No, we did we did we did…”).  Bournemouth, they won the division (in the last smegging minute), they must be good.  Watford?  They just sack managers don’t they? – but some of it IS more considered.  Looking at the challenges that we’ve gone through above, new manager, new team, limited emotional investment in either from the support who don’t know them yet, looking at the quality of the opposition.  Yes, much of the “they’ll finish bottom” is lazy tosh.  Some of it isn’t.  Some of it’s more considered.

But still wrong.

Season Preview Part 4 06/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Jordie Clasie (Feyenoord, £8,000,000), Cédric Soares (Sporting Lisbon, Up to £4,700,000), Juanmi (Malaga, Undisclosed), Cuco Martina (Twente Enschede, Undisclosed), Steven Caulker (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, Season Loan)

OUTS: Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United, £25,000,000), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool, £10,000,000), Artur Boruc (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Cody Cropper (Franchise FC, Free), Jos Hooiveld, Chris Johns, Dani Osvaldo, Omar Rowe, Jake Sinclair, Sam Gallagher (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Jack Stephens (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Jordan Turnbull (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, End of Loan), Filip Djuričić (Benfica, End of Loan), Eljero Elia (Werder Bremen, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two thumping defeats in Sean Dyche’s season that yielded seven goals for the Saints to none against, five of them for Rickie Lambert.  The second of these, on a cold but sunny February afternoon, featured Tamasz Kuszczak’s excitable debut and a silver lining in the form of Troy Deeney’s growing influence.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Forster
Cédric          Fonte        Yoshida     Bertrand
Wanyama      Clasie
Tadic                      Mané              Rodriguez
Pelle

VERDICT: If there’s a high water mark to aim at, surely this is it.  Southampton have more of a top flight pedigree than we do and the parallels between the two clubs only stretch so far… but the Saints, after seven years outside the top flight, have re-established themselves remarkably quickly and appear to be turning selling off their prize assets to Liverpool in particular into an art form.  After last summer’s dramatic exodus, followed implausibly by an improved Premier League showing that saw the Saints in the Champions’ League places, Saints have again sold on assets in the form of Clyne and Schneiderlin whilst losing another key man in Toby Alderweireld. The incoming Jordy Clasie seems to have gone down hugely well as Schneiderlin’s replacement, and with Jay Rodriguez returning – assuming he’s back to anything like his best – Southampton look well set again.

There are two factors that might hamper their progress.  Keeper Fraser Forster’s injury will keep him out for most of the season, and bringing in a back up keeper who needs to be relied on more than a back-up keeper might expect to be is always a challenging one.  Maarten Stekelenburg has the experience but his Fulham career has been hit by injury and poor form and he spent a year at Roma last season without playing.  Meanwhile there’s the increasingly poisoned chalice of the Europa League and its demands on the Saints’ squad which doesn’t look to have the cover in it to accommodate such trevails, even any wearying impact is unlikely to hamper Southampton early enough to give us an advantage at Vicarage Road at the end of August.  Southampton will do fine, but hard to see them matching last year.

STOKE CITY

INS: Joselu (Hannover 96, £5,750,000), Mona el Ouriachi (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Jakob Haugaard (FC Midtjylland, Undisclosed), Sergio Molina (Real Madrid, Undisclosed), Philipp Wollscheid (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed), Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona, Free), Shay Given (Aston Villa, Free), Glen Johnson (Liverpool, Free), Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Asmir Begović (Chelsea, £8,000,000), Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla, £7,000,000), Robert Huth (Leicester City, £3,000,000), Jamie Ness (Scunthorpe United, Free), Wilson Palacios, Thomas Sorensen, Andy Wilkinson, Daniel Bachmann (Ross County, Six Month Loan), Victor Moses (Chelsea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-POTTERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two goalless draws as Stoke went up and we laboured to the play-offs in 2007/08.  The second of these, at Vicarage Road in March, constituted arguably our final convincing display of the season and was scuppered by Rob Styles issuing a red card to John Eustace, a decision greeted with suitable disdain by home and away fans alike.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Butland
Johnson     Shawcross      Muniesa       Pieters
van Ginkel          Whelan
Afellay                      Bojan                   Arnautovic
Diouf

VERDICT: Thinking about those games above in 2007/08, it would have seemed inconceivable back then that Stoke would not only go up but hang around and establish themselves as a mid-table side now, seven years on.  Our perspective is perhaps coloured by the memory of our own miserable end to that season, but my recollection is that a functional City side was promoted by default, the second best side in a very moderate division.  Since then… the brutal, direct caricature has waned a little bit, more’s the pity.  The Rory Delap, Big Mama Sidibe, Robert Huth side was a variation in the monochrome of the Premier League and annoyed people who, frankly, deserved to be annoyed.  I make this statement as someone who didn’t have to watch them play on a regular basis, admittedly, but Stoke were certainly a lot of fun from a distance.  Now, after consecutive top flight finishes they’re another template for us to follow.  Stoke is a bigger city than Watford, but the Potters spent a good twenty years outside the top flight and only occasionally strayed anywhere near it again and yet here they are, every inch a mid-table side.

There are challenges this season though.  In Begovic, N’Zonzi, Moses and to a lesser extent the veteran Huth City have lost key players;  messageboards seem comfortable enough with Jack Butland’s promotion after a couple of years’ of being loaned out, the responsibility seems a big one to me for a 22 year old.  N’Zonzi’s departure put a lot of weight on Whelan’s shoulders; N’Zonzi may be replaced but, like Butland, will be doing well if they match the contribution of the man he’s replacing.  Meanwhile for all that City have the squad strength befitting a side who’ve been in the top flight for a while there are key men – Shawcross, Pieters and, for the moment, Whelan upon whom City are reliant.  No danger of the drop, but may slip from the last two years’ high water mark.

SUNDERLAND

INS: Jeremain Lens (Dynamo Kiev, £8,500,000), Adam Matthews (Celtic, £2,000,000), Sebastian Coates (Liverpool, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Connor Wickham (Crystal Palace, up to £9,000,000), El Hadji Ba (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Anthony Reveillere, Jordan Pickford (Preston North End, Season Loan), Santiago Vergini (Getafe, Season Loan), Ricky Alvarez (Inter, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLACK CATS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Danny Graham, Adam Johnson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Turns out that we haven’t played Sunderland (Black Cats still doesn’t sound right) for ten years, since we got two points less than we deserved from a draw at Vicarage Road and salvaged respectability from 4-0 down to go down 4-2 at a freezing Stadium of Light as Ray Lewington’s Watford career edged towards an unforeseen end.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pantilimon
Matthews          Coates        O’Shea       Van Aanholt
Cattermole
Johnson             Larsson         Gomez           Lens
Defoe

VERDICT: I kind of like Sunderland.  Influenced I think by two trips up to Wearside, first as we both went up in 1999 and then a season later.  Not a lot of obvious rationale to that;  we lost both games, didn’t get any decisions in either and got to watch Kevin Phillips in his pomp in a side designed around him become the striker he always looked like he might be at Vicarage Road.  But both were evening kick-offs, long early-season hikes up the length of the country and the place was absolutely electric, on the crest of a wave.  I get quite defensive when Peter Reid’s Sunderland sides are dissed for their directness despite myself.

We’ve been there a few times since and found it altogether less chirpy; ten years on from our last encounter there’s a weary low ebb to the feel of the place.  “Sunderland aren’t even in the bottom three” was oft used as a damning indictment of the number of carcasses rolling listlessly over each other at the foot of the Prem last season but a side that could seemingly not be relied on to either score many goals nor keep a clean sheet for much of the campaign – that they only won seven games in all season is damning in itself – scraped enough points out of a decent May to stay up by three.  Now…  Dick Advocaat having been persuaded to stay on there’s a more chipper feel to Sunderland messageboards than I’d expected.  Advocaat’s compatriot Jeremain Lens looks like the marquee signing and adds some much needed pace to the attacking options but there aren’t a lot of goals in that forward line – Defoe is more significant than you’d want a 32 year-old nippy striker to be – and the options at centre back are the ageing duo of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, the injury-ravaged Younes Kaboul and Uruguayan Seb Coates with half-a-season’s decent form behind him.  Desperately short of creativity in the middle of the park, Sunderland will be one of those that we’re trying to tread down on our way up.

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Éder (Sporting Braga, Undisclosed), Oliver McBurnie (Bradford City, Undisclosed), Kristoffer Nordveldt (Heerenveen, Undisclosed), Franck Tabanou (Saint Etienne, Undisclosed), André Ayew (Marseille, Free)

OUTS: Jazz Richards (Fulham, Undisclosed), David Cornell (Oldham Athletic, Free), Rory Donnelly (Gillingham, Free), Alan Tate, Gerhard Tremmel, Adam King (Crewe Alexandra, Six Months Loan), Tom Carroll (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Nelson Oliveira (Benfica, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SWANS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A dramatic 3-2 defeat in the September of Malky’s second season that saw us go three-down and then claw back to 3-2 having a late goal disallowed as we realised that the Swans didn’t really fancy a direct approach – this included Troy’s first League goal for the ‘orns.  Later in the campaign a creditable 1-1 draw at the Liberty Stadium secured by a Danny Graham equaliser – Graham was to move to Swansea a couple of months later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabianski
Naughton     Fernandez        Williams     Tabanou     
Cork           Ki   
  Ayew                 Sigurdsson                Montero
Gomis   

VERDICT: Swansea are yet another lot who, whilst now all but part of the top flight’s establishment, were very much not a part of the elite for a very long time, and not so very long ago.  They’re a template in another way, in being long-term exponents of the 4-2-3-1 that QSF seems so keen on;  the consequence in terms of their squad is a surfeit of quick, clever blokes to fill the three spaces behind the striker.  The striker role itself seems to belong to Gomis, whose residence in South Wales has never felt terribly secure but who faces limited competition within the squad for that position, new signing Éder the likeliest stand-in.  Little wonder then that we begin to look at our own surfeit of strikers, at least two of whom linked to the Swans during this transfer window, and wonder how they’re going to fit – or that in Jurado and Berghuis we’ve bulked up a bit on quick, clever blokes ourselves.

As long as they continue to be well run and pick up the likes of André Ayew and Franck Tabanou relatively unfussily the Swans will continue to do just fine.  I wouldn’t say they’re invulnerable to a bad string of injuries mind, nor that Garry Monk has proven himself beyond all doubt despite his impressive first full season at the helm.  Four seasons of finishing between eighth and twelfth tells its own story though, and it would take a catastrophe for the Swans to struggle.

Season Preview Part 3 05/08/2015

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

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool, £49,000,000), Fabian Delph (Aston Villa, £8,000,000), David Faupala (Lens, Undisclosed), Patrick Roberts (Fulham, Undisclosed), Enes Unal (Bursaspor, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Dedryck Boyata (Celtic, £1,500,000), Jordy Hiwula (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Joe Nuttall (Aberdeen, Undisclosed), Karim Rekik (Marseille, Undisclosed), Scott Sinclair (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), John Guidetti (Celta Vigo, Free), Frank Lampard (New York City, Free), James Milner (Liverpool, Free), Micah Richards (Aston Villa, Free), Angelino (New York City, Season Loan), Seko Fofana (Bastia, Season Loan), Stevan Jovetic (Inter Milan, 18 Month Loan), Enes Unal (Genk, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two defeats in Manchester in FA Cup ties, one of which a close thing the other less so, and two draws in the top flight – a nil-nil in Manchester in a rainstorm, and a one-one at the Vic that confirmed our relegation.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hart
Zabaleta        Mangala        Kompany       Kolarov
Fernandinho
Sterling              Touré           Delph                  Silva
Aguero

VERDICT:I had a look back at last year’s City side.  They’re not actually that old.  Of the regulars only Yaya Touré (32) and Martin Demichelis (34) are over 30.  I would have guessed more than that.  The thing is, for all that they’re all top players, established players there was maybe a lack of hunger, a lack of urgency last season.  Everything’s relative again, they were still the second best side in the country… but an awful lot of them will be 30 or knocking by the time the season ends, this is a side that’s due a refit.  Thing is, New City haven’t been terribly good at buying younger players.  Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Adam Johnson, Jovetic, Nastasic, Savic have not lived up to expectations, Mangala had a patchy first season.  The frankly terrifying Aguero is one of very few to have come in at a young age (23) and ripped it up.  The consequence, then, is that City are needing to acquire players at the top of their game, or certainly well-established, and therefore expensive.  Good job they’ve got the backing to support the expensive strategy of signing players with necessarily limited resale value.  That same level of investment means that even a transition season for City will leave them strong enough to finish second or third.  They’ll still be too strong for most.  Christ, isn’t the Premier League dull?

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Memphis Depay (PSV Eindhoven, £31,000,000), Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton, £25,000,000), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich, £14,400,000), Matteo Darmian (Torino, Undisclosed), Sergio Romero (Sampdoria, Free)

OUTS: Robin van Persie (Fenerbahçe, £4,800,000), Nani (Fenerbahçe, £4,250,000), Angelo Henriquez (Dinamo Zagreb, £1,100,000), Saidy Janko (Celtic, Undisclosed), Rafael da Silva (Lyon, Undisclosed), Ben Amos (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Tom Cleverley (Everton, Free), Tom Thorpe (Rotherham United, Free), Will Keane (Preston North End, Season Loan), Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Andy Kellett (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Three defeats in our last top flight season… a 2-1 reverse at the Vic that was more comprehensive than it sounds, a 4-1 defeat in the Cup Semi-final that was perhaps less comprehensive than it sounds, and a 4-0 at Old Trafford that was every bit as comprehensive as it sounds.  The first of the three provided the final ever BSaD report.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Darmian      Smalling        Rojo          Blind
Schneiderlin
Mata               Herrera         Schweinsteiger           Depay
Rooney

VERDICT: If there’s any joy left in the Premier League it’s in watching a side that’s grown reliant on Champions’ (sic) League income flail around as it slips out of the limelight.  Not that it was difficult to feel some sympathy for David Moyes in the thankless position of following Ferguson.  Mourinho would have been a better bet,  someone arrogant enough not to give a monkeys who he was being compared to would have had a better chance of success but would have failed spectacularly and quickly otherwise, getting that following Ferguson problem out of the way.  Van Gaal is much closer to that mould, and seems to have licence to spend in a way that will drag United back into contention with the top two;  it seems unlikely that United will go the way that Leeds did twelve or so years ago, more’s the pity. Indeed the summer recruitment looks hugely impressive, Schweinsteiger an extraordinary catch. I thought the same about Di Maria though, so what do I know.  I’m sounding as if I care again, aren’t I?

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV Eindhoven, £14,500,000), Chancel Mbemba (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Anderlecht, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice, Free), Remie Streete (Port Vale, Free), Jonas Gutierrez, Ryan Taylor, Sammy Ameobi (Cardiff City, Season Loan), Adam Armstrong (Coventry City, Six Month Loan), Facundo Ferreyra (Shakhtar Donetsk, End of Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Mike Williamson, Kevin Richardson (U17 coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two mid-season defeats during Malky’s first season during Newcastle’s brief spell in the second tier as, with the Vicarage Road pitch unhelpful to our young, lightweight team during the winter months, the orns began to struggle for points.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2009-10 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Krul
Janmaat      Mbemba    Coloccini     Haidara
Colback
    Sissoko       Wijnaldum                      De Jong               Aarons
Mitrovic

VERDICT: Here’s an interesting one.  A club that lost eight games on the hop in the closing months of the season and really, really needed the campaign to finish as soon as possible.  Newcastle felt rotten, all sorts of things going wrong from the relationship between board and fans to the lack of spirit in the side to the caretaker manager accusing his centre-back of getting himself sent off to general bluntness.  Over the summer in comes… Steve McClaren.  An experienced coach, but not the first man you’d pick to wield a great big broom and kick some backsides. Derby’s end-of-season collapse may have had as much to do with the anticipation of the manager’s departure as any fundamental failing on McClaren’s part, but his appointment looked a much odder one at the end of the campaign than it had when first mooted much earlier on.  The squad has been strengthened and the likes of Aarons and De Jong have returned from injury problems – the imminent threat of Newcastle getting relegated appears to have receded, the bullet dodged last season but you don’t get the sense of there having been the really good shake that the club needs.  And I find myself not feeling overly sympathetic, for all that Pardew has departed… the stain he leaves rather difficult to wash out…

NORWICH CITY

INS: Robbie Brady (Hull City, Undisclosed), Graham Dorrans (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Jake Kean (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (West Bromwich Albion, Free), André Wisdom (Liverpool, Season Loan)

OUTS: Mark Bunn (Aston Villa, Free), Sam Kelly (Port Vale, Free), Cameron McGeehan (Luton Town, Free), Luciano Becchio, Mark Bunn, Carlos Cuéllar, Javier Garrido, Ignasi Miquel, Remi Matthews (Burton Albion, Six Months Loan), Carlton Morris (Hamilton Academical, Loan of Unspecified Duration)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Sébastian Bassong

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two heavy defeats last season, the first of which featuring an early Joel Ekstrand dismissal at Carrow Road and the second a tight, competitive contest turning on the rewarding of one of the less convincing of Wes Hoolahan’s catalogue of dives.  Despite these mitigating circumstances and accompanying lack of grace on the part of the victors, these results comprehensively demonstrated the Canaries’ superiority, a superiority that was mysteriously not evidenced by the remaining 44 games of each side’s campaigns.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ruddy
Whittaker        Martin         Bassong          Brady
Mulumbu           Tettey
Redmond            Hoolahan             Johnson
Jerome

VERDICT:Norwich?  Best team in the Championship last year.  Ask any Norwich fan, they’ll tell you all about it.  What’s more, they’ve only lost a handful of players since they were last relegated and one of them, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, is back from his year’s sabbatical so that just goes to show that they’ll be really strong.  No, really, they will.  Even though they’ve, you know, not signed anyone.  And anyway you’d much rather be in their shoes than Watford’s what with all their new Carlos Kickaballs signings.  Just like QPR that innit, not like they’re going to gel.  Watford needed to strengthen more than City did anyway, they had no strength in depth last year or anything, I’d rather have our, you know, team spirit….

And so forth.  There’s something in some of the accusations being nervously lobbed in Watford’s direction from Norwich messageboards of course, which are more appropriately covered when we discuss our own prospects in Section 5 of this series on Friday.  The temptation is to ignore them, just as the temptation for Norwich fans is to inflate them to reassure themselves.  From my perspective however what we’ve been reaping is the benefits of the Pozzo family’s contacts and know-how, our own infrastructure, and the investment that is clearly being put behind it all.  Norwich are closer to the position we were in in 2006, irrespective of the starting strength of their squad.  You have to question quite who is going to sign for the Canaries, focused as they are on the domestic market… as time goes on and their roster isn’t boosted established players are going to be harder to convince whilst cherry picking from the division below is made more difficult as the more attractive signings start to think that perhaps they’re better off biding their time.  Which isn’t to say that Norwich are doomed by any means…  their midfield is competitive, they’ll be organised. I just wonder what’ll happen when they lose a few games, as they inevitably will.  There’ll be an inferiority complex there waiting to get out, borne of the anxiety of their relative inactivity.  It will be interesting to see how Alex Neil copes with that… his first two years in management have been hugely impressive and you’d rather have a manager who wasn’t used to losing games than the reverse.  But he’s never had to cope with losing more than a couple of games on the hop.  City look vulnerable to me.  Shame.

Season Preview Part 2 04/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Yohan Cabaye (Paris St Germain, £10,000,000), Connor Wickham (Sunderland, up to £9,000,000), Alex McCarthy (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Patrick Bamford (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Mandela Egbo (Borussia Mönchengladbach, TBC), Lewis Price (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Shola Ameobi, Stephen Dobbie, Owen Garvan, Peter Ramage, Jerome Thomas, Jerome Binnom-Williams (Burton Albion, Season Loan), Hiram Boateng (Plymouth Argyle, Six Month Loan), Jack Hunt (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Ryan Inniss (Port Vale, Season Loan), Yaya Sanogo (Arsenal, End of Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Dean Austin, Ben Watson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Adlène Guedioura, Adrian Mariappa, Keith Millen (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: None spring to mind.  Oh, OK then…  defeat to Kevin Phillips’ penalty late in extra time two years ago as we wilted in the Wembley sun.  Prior to that, a well-earned point at Vicarage Road in a 2-2 draw, TV coverage featuring that tiresome Holloway gamesmanship interview, and a 3-2 win at Selhurst on the opening day in which Almen and Matej opened their accounts for the Hornets and we began to wonder quite what the new regime might mean.  Still, quality like that was never going to hang around was it…?  “What will they do when the loans go back?”

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Speroni
Ward         Dann         Delaney      Souaré
McArthur           Jedinak
Zaha                      Cabaye                   Bolasie
Murray

VERDICT: The thing is, you look at the middle of the Premier League and there’s all sorts of clubs that a few years ago were second tier fodder, or worse.  And, yes yes yes for every Stoke, Swansea or Palace – none of whom will be in many folks’ bottom three predictions – there are any number of chancers who slunk back where they came with their tails between their legs… not good enough, not wealthy enough, not lucky enough when it mattered.  Hell, that’s been us on a couple of occasions.  So… there’s no pretending that what’s in front of us is easy but others have done it and whilst any successful plan looks well thought out with the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to suggest that clubs that look organised, that look to have a plan that are pulling it off.  And then you think about Palace, and Ian Holloway’s approach to recruitment two years ago and that argument loses some credibility.

The Eagles have attained their current status remarkably quickly having gotten promoted by beating us two years ago and sitting, at that point, squarely in the “going straight back down” slot prior to that excitable scattergun approach to the squad.  Holloway is long gone, but any Hornet who’s been watching our frequent encounters over the years will know that there’s never any shortage of reasons to dislike Palace, and Alan Pardew’s brand of prickly superciliousness is an adequate replacement.  The squad looks solid, the addition of Cabaye an eye-catching one… as I wrote this bit at first I was thinking you might want stronger options up front:  Chamakh is talented but injury-prone, Murray leads the line and the fact that he looks like a lower division plodder is thoroughly deceptive but he’s not going to develop any further, whilst Dwight Gayle’s effervescence and finishing is let down by a lack of physical strength not suited to a lone forward role.  Since then Bamford and Wickham have come in and added different options, if not quite proven ones. All in all though, an astonishingly strong, well-established squad in a short space of time.  Still don’t have to like them though.

 

EVERTON

INS: Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona, £4,300,000), David Henen (Olympiakos, £200,000), Tom Cleverley (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Chris Long (Burnley, Undisclosed), Antolín Alcaraz (Las Palmas, Free), Sylvain Distin (AFC Bournemouth, Free), George Green (Oldham Athletic, Free), Luke Garbutt (Fulham, Season Loan), Christian Atsu (Chelsea, End of Loan), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tom Cleverley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The opening day of our last top flight season set a tone, when a strong display yielded no reward after a bizarre late penalty decision against Chris Powell.  Later in the season an altogether more comfortable 3-0 victory for the Toffees at Vicarage Road in what would be Malky Mackay’s last League appearance.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Howard
Coleman        Jagielka     Stones         Baines
McCarthy
Mirallas           Cleverley          Barkley          Deulofeu
Lukaku

VERDICT: There’s the temptation to look at Everton and say “why bother”?  What is there for Everton to aspire to…  after so many year of what was generally recognised as fine achievement in context under David Moyes, and that of by and large just about missing out on a Champions’ League place, what is there for an Everton fan to hope for?  Returning to the status of not quite being as good as Arsenal?  Of kind of winning a lot of games in a fairly prosaic way but not, like, winning a trophy?  Little of this is Everton’s fault, of course, not as such…  these are those barriers to competitiveness that the Champions’ League in particular sets in stone.  But what does an Everton fan hope for?

And then you look in the mirror and think about it for a bit and realise what a load of old bollocks that argument is.  The same trite, lazy tosh that the armchair United fan in the office comes out with when you mention that you follow any club below the elite.  We’re not in line for trophies any more than Everton are, less so, and that’s never stopped any of us, or of the tens of thousands of others who follow clubs that haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of, you know, winning a major competition.  You’re in it for the ride.  You’re in it for belonging to something, for the victories however small or parochial they might be and for the despair and misery too.  That applies to Everton fans as much as it does to fans of Watford or Accrington or anyone.

Perhaps the person suffering most from Everton’s awkward place in the grand scheme of things is Roberto Martinez, stymied as he is by following a successful manager who never actually won anything that high bar isn’t in itself terribly exciting and therefore anything below that sees Everton slip into the morass of also-rans.  Everton fans will cite an epic season for injuries as a driving reason behind last season’s relative slump and if they’re right then the Toffees will be up in fifth or sixth again come May.  Messageboards contain ominous anxiety however, in amongst the griping about ineffective possession football and bickering about quite how good Romelu Lukaku is or isn’t.  That anxiety can be captured in the possibility that too many players might be past their best whilst the kids coming through aren’t (all) quite ready to step in just yet.  In the former camp count Tim Howard – at 36 was last season an aberration or the beginning of the end?  Phil Jagielka, terrific for half of last season but awful for the other half and 33 in August, it’s donkey’s years since he was turning out against us at Bramall Lane. Gareth Barry, by consensus run into the ground during the last campaign.  Leighton Baines, still only 30 but another dipping below his very high standard.

As for the first game of the season… I think we could have done without that particular repeat of 2006/07 when we faced the Toffees at the same stage and found a new and creative way to add to our failure to pick up as much as a point in (now) ten trips to Goodison.  In particular, it would be helpful if Tom Cleverley doesn’t chose his debut to remember what an effective attacking threat he was during his season at Vicarage Road, something that years of being employed otherwise and having his confidence battered by sneering twitterati appear to have pummeled out of him.  Thereafter… somewhere between sixth and twelfth, natch.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: N’Kolo Kante (Caen, £6,300,000), Robert Huth (Stoke City, £3,000,000), Yohan Benalouane (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz 05, Undisclosed), Christian Fuchs (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Chris Wood (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Paul Gallagher (Preston North End, Free), Tom Hopper (Scunthorpe United, Free), Kieran Kennedy (Motherwell, Free), Anthony Knockaert (Standard Liége, Free), Adam Smith (Northampton Town, Free), Matthew Upson (Franchise FC, Free), Esteban Cambiasso, Conrad Logan, James Pearson, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Ben Hamer (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Kevin Phillips (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable capitulation to a rampant Foxes side in November 2013, and a much more credible draw in Leicester four months later that brought to an end what had been Leicester’s nine-match winning run.  Before that…  this.  And this.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Wasilewski          Huth          Morgan
Albrighton                King               Kante               Schlupp
Mahrez
Ulloa         Okazaki

VERDICT: So I was looking forward to playing Leicester again to a quite unreasonable extent.  Far from a novelty of course, the Foxes have been regular adversaries in recent years but that’s kind of the point… a side that we’ve locked horns with frequently and memorably.  Last year’s respite in hostilities saw Leicester claw their way improbably out of a deep hole… seven points from safety at the end of March, seven wins in the last nine almost trebled their tally for the season and left them comfortable and looking upwards.  After a couple of seasons of building they’d always looked like the promoted side most likely to, and had stuck to their guns throughout the first half of the campaign when performances hadn’t matched results.  The outcome justified the approach and Leicester might have been looking onwards with optimism.  Until everything appeared to implode.

Nigel Pearson’s sacking came on the back of his son’s dismissal following a well-publicised incident on a tour of Thailand.  It seems, however, that the relationship between the notoriously prickly Pearson and the club’s Thai owners was fragile at best in any case.  In any event, the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as his replacement appears an odd one… a very experienced manager with an impressive CV he nonetheless comes to Leicestershire on the back of a bizarrely disastrous four months as Greek boss that saw one draw from five games including a defeat at home to the Faroe Islands.  He will suffer from being neither Nigel Pearson nor popular replacement rumour Martin O’Neill… indeed in some ways he’s as far from Pearson as it’s possible to imagine.  City fans, however determined to be positive, will be uncomfortable with the fact that in his four months he turned Greece from a side characterised by discipline and organisation to an unholy mess.

The squad is, as I write, short of quality in midfield in particular with the loss of Esteban Cambiasso, who played under Ranieri for a season at Inter, particularly awkward.  Suddenly City look much more precarious.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Christian Benteke (Aston Villa, £32,500,000), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim, £21,000,000), Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton, £10,000,000), Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic, £3,500,000), Bobby Adekanye (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Danny Ings (Burnley, TBC), Adam Bogdan (Bolton Wanderers, Free), James Milner (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City, £49,000,000), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo, £3,500,000), Sebastian Coates (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Rickie Lambert (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Steven Gerrard (Los Angeles Galaxy, Free), Glen Johnson (Stoke City, Free), Brad Jones, Luis Alberto (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan),  Lloyd Jones (Blackpool, Season Loan), Kevin Stewart (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Lawrence Vigouroux (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Danny Ward (Aberdeen, Season Loan), Jordan Williams (Swindon Town, Season Loan), André Wisdom (Norwich City, Season Loan), Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, End of Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: In contrast to 1999’s excitement, two uninteresting comprehensive defeats within a month of each other last time around during a run in which the Reds won nine league games in ten.  The latter of the two was Ashley Young’s final outing in yellow.  And Will Hoskins’ debut.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Mignolet
Clyne         Skrtel       Sakho    Moreno
Henderson     Milner      Coutinho
Firmino               Benteke                   Lallana

VERDICT: Twenty five years since Liverpool won the league.  In some ways that’s extraordinary, almost inconceivable especially if you’re old enough to remember it and the years before it.  In others it just isn’t.  Liverpool have only occasionally been serious contenders for the title in the interim…  and yet opening this sort of article with this sort of reflection is still unavoidable.  And therein part of Liverpool’s problem, really, the mismatch of seeing themselves as one of the country’s Biggest clubs (that b-word is a dangerous thing) and yet 25 years since they were champions, the 2005 Champions’ League notwithstanding, belies that.  There’s a sort of frantic desperation that persists, an urgency divorced from reality to justify what they perceive as their status.

Liverpool have bought a lot of players over the summer and at the time of writing boast a vast squad.  There’s some of that franticness there too, mind…  much as last season was a bit disappointing given what happened before, much as Sturridge’s injury situation left them horribly short up front and much as there’s money to spend given the Sterling transfer it all feels a bit desperate once more…. “look, we’re really serious this time”.  Revolution rather than evolution (again).   Firmino, subject of a big outlay, may be a terrific player… but his recruitment is rather transparently an attempt to recreate the signing of Suarez who was brought in at a similar age and developed and was sold for a significantly higher fee.  And I guess that might work but it all feels a little… haphazard.  Liverpool will still be strong, of course, and might even finish higher up than last season but…  you get the feeling that being seen to be doing something is the priority at Anfield.

Season Preview Part 1 03/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

OK.  Here we go… four today, four more tomorrow.  And so on.

ARSENAL

INS: Petr Cech (Chelsea, £10,000,000), Vlad Dragomir (ACS Poli Timosoara, £71,000)

OUTS: Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray, £1,800,000), Semi Ajayi (Cardiff City, Free), Abou Diaby (Marseille, Free), Ryo Myaichi (St.Pauli, Free), Dan Crowley (Barnsley, Six Month Loan), Isaac Hayden (Hull City, Season Loan), Carl Jenkinson (West Ham United, Season Loan), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Yaya Sanogo (Ajax, Season Loan), Wojciech Szczesny (Roma, Season Loan), Jon Toral (Birmingham City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-0 defeat in Theo Walcott’s top flight debut that was rather less comprehensive than it sounds, and a 2-1 Boxing Day defeat settled by a late Robin van Persie goal that nonetheless constituted one of our best performances of last time around.  That we lost anyway rather says something…

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Cech
Debuchy         Koscielny        Mertesacker    Monreal
Coquelin           Ramsey
Oxlade-Chamberlain       Özil                  Sanchez
Giroud

VERDICT: Here’s the challenge, you see.  How to add anything of any value.  This time last year I would have been scouring Rotherham United’s messageboards, sifting what appeared to be wheat from the chaff and perhaps ending up with something that added to your knowledge in what might even have been an interesting way.  Hell, if we’re honest I could have written any old bobbins and you probably wouldn’t have been any the wiser.  Now, here…  how do I write something that’s interesting and informative that by definition means not replicating the guff that proliferates and is plagiarised across the internet in the shameless search for hits and cheap advertising revenue.  Just how many interesting things are there to say anyway?

On the off-chance that some of you were paying far more attention to the Championship than to the Premier League last season – and frankly, given the relative levels of competitiveness and drama in the two leagues who could blame you – here’s the lowdown.  Arsenal entertain pretensions of breaking free of the almost-but-not-quite mantle and mounting a sustained challenge for the title. The recruitment of Cech sees them trade up and improve what might have been a problem position, but there remain question marks up front – where Giroud perhaps isn’t mobile enough to pull open spaces and therefore make the most of Arsenal’s surfeit of small clever blokes in the midfield – in defensive midfield, where the emerging Coquelin is perhaps the only destructive option, and perhaps at centre-back.  Everything’s relative of course…  we’re talking about concerns that probably mean that the Cech signing sees Arsenal tread water, retain their nearly-but-not-quite position rather than any more consequential failings.

In the background is the simmering boredom borne of finishing third or fourth for each of the last ten (!) seasons. Perhaps the starkest of the artefacts of the Premier League, Champions League age is this dull corridor between the very top and the great unwashed, where the barriers to entry created by Champions League qualification and the sort of financial backing enjoyed by City and Chelsea cut off…  Arsenal?  Liverpool? Spurs? into a group that won’t win the league and that won’t be in any danger of finishing amongst the rest.  Despite playing some of the best football in the division, despite a consistent Champions’ League place being no small achievement, much of however much simmering anti-Arsène stuff there is is borne of that boredom.  Be careful what you wish for, says I.  Stop me if I’m beginning to sound as if I care…

ASTON VILLA

INS: Rudy Gestede (Blackburn Rovers, £6,000,000), Jordan Amavi (Nice, Undisclosed), Jordan Ayew (Lorient, Undisclosed), José Angel Crespo (Cordoba, Undisclosed), Idrissas Gueye (Lille, Undisclosed), Scott Sinclair (Manchester City, Undisclosed), Jordan Veretout (Nantes, Undisclosed), Mark Bunn (Norwich City, Free), Micah Richards (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Christian Benteke (Liverpool, £32,500,000), Fabian Delph (Manchester City, £8,000,000), Matthew Lowton (Burnley, £1,000,000), Antonio Luna (Eibar, Undisclosed), Yacouba Sylla (Rennes, Undisclosed), Andi Weimann (Derby County, Undisclosed), Darren Bent (Derby County, Free), Graham Burke (Notts County, Free), Shay Given (Stoke City, Free), Enda Stevens (Portsmouth, Free), ?Chris Herd?, Ron Vlaar, Tom Cleverley (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-VILLA: Troy Deeney (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Gabriel Agbonlahor, Mark Robson (First Team Coach), Tim Sherwood (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw at Vicarage Road early in the 2006/07 season, and a 2-0 defeat at Villa Park settled by two late goals.  Watford started that one with a forward line of Tamas Priskin and Will Hoskins;  Ashley Young was absent, and would join Villa for what was ultimately an eight figure sum three days later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
1999-00 0-1 0-4
1982-83 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Guzan
Hutton       Richards                 Clark           Amavi
Bacuna                  Gueye             Veretout             Sinclair
Ayew            Gestede

VERDICT: Tim Sherwood broke into the Watford side as a teenager in 1987 looking like an Essex tw*t at a time when, as a 14 year-old living in Essex, I was particularly sensitive to such things.  This lingering resentment has stuck with me throughout Sherwood’s successful playing career and surprisingly rapid emergence as a manager which isn’t entirely fair or balanced on my part, but then all the best grudges are based on healthy irrationality.  Sherwood took over Villa last season and appeared to enjoy a fillip on the basis of not being Paul Lambert, as is so often the case in such situations.  Whether that’s sustained or not – and it’s easy to read too much into losing your last three games of a season even if that run did leave you a mere three points clear of the drop – remains to be seen.  Christian Benteke has gone, and that’s a big old hole to fill however much money they got for him…  Villa’s resurgence on Sherwood’s appointment manifested itself in Benteke finding his shooting boots again after an injury hit start to the season had seen him score three times before Sherwood’s appointment in mid-February.  There’s ongoing talk of a takeover with Randy Lerner’s enthusiasm having waned but the longer that drags the less chance it has of impacting Villa’s activity in this transfer window.  They look a bit precarious again as it stands.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Tyrone Mings (Ipswich Town, £8,000,000), Artur Boruc (Southampton, Free), Sylvain Distin (Everton, Free), Adam Federici (Reading, Free), Joshua King (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Christian Atsu (Chelsea, Season Loan), Filippo Costa (Chievo, Season Loan)

OUTS: Brett Pitman (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Josh McQuoid (Luton Town, Free), Miles Addison, Mohamed Coulibaly, Daryl Flahavan, Ian Harte, Joe Partington, Ryan Fraser (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Jaydon Stockley (Portsmouth, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gripping 1-1 draw at the Vic in September in which Gabriel Tamas had a catastrophe before being (permanently) replaced by the very much more effective Craig Cathcart, and a 2-0 defeat in Dorset in January that was rather spoiled by an erroneous (if later rescinded) red card for Gabriel Angella. This remains our most recent away defeat, and the last time that we scored fewer than two goals in an away fixture.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 1-1
2013-14 6-1 2-0
2003-04 1-0
1997-98 2-1 1-0
1996-97 0-1 2-1
1995-96 1-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Boruc
Francis          Elphick          Cook            Mings
Ritchie         Arter            Surman               King
Wilson         Kermorgant

VERDICT: If I can justify disliking Sherwood for perfectly irrational reasons I can certainly justify resenting Bournemouth for pinching the title from us last season.  Not that that’s any more rational really…  Wednesday fans’ lack of grace was galling, all Bournemouth did was win the title through playing expansive, positive football.  Yes, Eddie Howe’s a bit smarmy and yes, we’ve had some very iffy decisions go against us at Dean Court (or whatever it’s called now) over the past couple of seasons but that’s hardly a watertight list of charges.  Actually, what I resent most about the final day is not that we lost the title.  That was really annoying, but would have been a bonus prize on top of getting promoted.  What I resent more is that the season, magnificent and wonderful and glorious in so many ways, should end like that.  Bitter and bitchy and angry, at all sorts of people.

Back to Bournemouth.  They’re a very strong side, quite obviously, with momentum and goals and have the punch to make an impact.  They’ve acquired and developed a range of very capable players – Ritchie, Arter, Wilson, Cook and Francis ought to be comfortable in the top flight.  At the time of writing though they look vulnerable to injuries in a couple of areas… Wilson, most obviously although a striker appears to be a priority, whilst messageboards don’t seem convinced by last season’s loan Boruc.  I’m not blown away by many of their signings either;  Distin brings plenty of experience but will be 38 in December. Mings is a prospect by all accounts but is an odd choice of priorities, you’d have thought that he was a big-club signing, someone to develop into a top player.  Bournemouth might have been expected to gamble their chips on someone who’s ready now, rather than someone who will be making his 50th senior start on his Cherries debut.  I can see Bournemouth starting well and occupying column inches if they catch someone cold in August or September.  Not beyond the realm of possibilities that they’ll struggle eventually though.

CHELSEA

INS: Asmir Begović (Stoke City, £8,000,000), Nathan (Atletico Paranaense, Undisclosed), Danilo Pantic (Partizan Belgrade, Undisclosed), Radamel Falcão (AS Monaco, Season Loan)

OUTS: Petr Cech (Arsenal, £10,000,000), Gael Kakuta (Sevilla, £2,500,000), Josh McEachran (Brentford, £750,000), Felipe Luis (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact, Free), Christian Atsu (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Lewis Baker (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Izzy Brown (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Andreas Christensen (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Two Season Loan), Jordon Houghton (Gillibgham, Six Month Loan), Tomas Kalas (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Nathan (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Danilo Pantic (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Mario Pasalic (AS Monaco, Season Loan), Marco van Ginkel (Stoke City, Season Loan), Wallace (Carpi, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathaniel Chalobah

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Three FA Cup defeats in seven seasons, the most recent a third round tie in January following on from which we were able to adopt a “well that wasn’t too bad” position until the Blues played Bradford in the next round.  Prior to that, a 5-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge in 2010 and a more credible showing at the Vic a year earlier in which Tamas Priskin gave us a 69th minute lead before Nicolas Anelka salvaged the tie with a hat-trick.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Courtois
Ivanovic        Cahill         Terry          Azpilicueta
Fabregas      Matic
Ramires               Willian                 Hazard
Costa

VERDICT: I started paying in attention in about 1980.  So… that’s kind of year 0.  Chelsea were in the second tier that year, and it seems they missed out on promotion on goal difference… but in my mind’s eye they were and remain a so-so second tier side.  That they’ve spent all but one of the last thirty years in the top flight winning the League four times, the FA Cup six times, the Champions’ League and the Europa League is neither here nor there.  They’re chancers playing above their station, and that’s it.

Chelsea won the league having blown the rest of the division away in the first half of the season and then just about been as good as anyone for the rest of it.  This time…  much as Diego Costa was a huge success, “The Charles Bronson of the Premier League” as was popularly observed as he picked a fight with the entire division before Christmas (and won), you’d be a little worried about their attacking options.  Another season like that from Costa and they’ll be laughing but… rumours of dissatisfaction, the departure of club totem-cum-dependable backup Drogba mean that the Falcao gamble might need to come off.  You wouldn’t be against it, but it feels a bit like the Veron thing, Mourinho wanting to show that he’s the man by getting the best out of a player that United couldn’t just as Ranieri did in 2003.  Didn’t really work then though.  As with Arsenal, everything’s relative…  might result in Chelsea finishing second instead of top.  Meh.

Watford 0 Sevilla 1 (31/07/2015) 01/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

1- The cost of parking at the grammar school has gone up to £8.  Welcome to the Premier League, boys and girls.  Not the only change this… the season’s first rogue vendor is spotted on Vicarage Road selling split Watford / Sevilla scarves (where does his excess stock go, you have to ask yourself) whilst evidence of the ongoing work at the stadium itself is immediately evident, construction vehicles standing guard on the open corner between the Vicarage Road and Elton John stands.  Inside the Rookery the previously affably drab grey concourses are a startling, intense red and black.  Daughter 1 idles her way through a packet of blackberries in the sunshine whilst Daughter 2 reads the fixture list out loud from the programme in the manner of a town crier.  It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it…

2- As for the football itself, the most obvious and yet unavoidable challenge facing Quique Flores is to fashion a team out of the excess of riches with which he’s being endowed.  Gianfranco Zola had the same manner of problem three years ago, it took him a couple of months to get it together in a more forgiving environment and that was some achievement in itself.  Today, Flores strikes a decent balance of bedding in necessary relationships, and trying out new things.  Prödl and Cathcart appear nailed on as our first choice pairing;  to take advantage of the former’s brute power, size and leadership you need someone alongside him disciplined enough and quick enough to cover the Austrian’s lack of pace.  That’ll work, but the more time playing together the better.  Of the new stuff, Miguel Layún, back from Gold Cup victory with Mexico, makes a decent, punchy job of one of the three roles behind the striker the highlights of which include skipping in from the left to test the keeper in the first half and an acrobatic volley that narrowly clears the bar in the second.  Steven Berghuis is another unknown, but looks short of fitness and has minimal impact, you wouldn’t want to judge him just yet. Wish he’d smile a bit more, though.  At the other extreme, left-back is the latest place in which Ikechi Anya’s relentless positivity is accommodated, and the value of having someone direct enough to just run off with the ball is evident more than once whilst he does a dogged job of his defensive responsibilities.

3- …which are considerable, seeing as Sevilla are terrific.  Defensively they’re less a team than a borg, a single entity of many bodies flowing back into position and blocking out space through synchronised switching of positions.  Going forward they exemplify that fancy foreign business of stroking the ball carefully until the final third and then rattling it around quickly to find two or three men overlapping in space.  We’re stretched, and often, with Heurelho Gomes forced into acrobatics several times early in the half.

Sevilla’s thrust is interrupted however by a bad injury to Ciro Immobile, top scorer in Serie A two years ago, who gets his head onto the visitors’ best chance to that point but is taken out by a collision in the process.  Craig Cathcart again displays his calm mastery of pretty much everything by quickly putting the Italian in the recovery position whilst beckoning frantically to the Sevilla bench; it’s five or ten minutes before he’s stretchered off, conscious enough to acknowledge his reception from the Rookery but looking like he won’t be Carlos Bacca’s replacement in the Sevilla front line any time soon.  We get a bit of a foothold, and by half-time we’ve established that we’re much better off playing a high defensive line and pressing, now holding our own.

4- Star of the first half for the home side and probably our man of the match overall is Allan Nyom who combines focused, disciplined brutality with a street-fighter’s savvy , a willingness to bomb up and down the right flank and no lack of personality.  Sevilla do make inroads down the left, but only when Konoplyanka is supported by one or more teammateson the overlap… Nyom bullies us back into possession on more than one occasion and also puts in the cross of the game, a screaming banshee of a ball from the right that meets Ighalo’s head, beats the keeper and comes back off the post with the stadium halfway to its feet.  Elsewhere, Behrami does nothing to dispel the much-voiced concerns about how many cards he’s likely to pick up but is endearing enough for all that with a spiky performance high on energy.  Capoue alongside him is less convincing on this occasion… still elegant, still powerful but like a musician who’s lost the rhythm of a song he’s not quite with it.  Nonetheless, for the most part we hold our own, retain our shape and blot out the incursions.  The concerns are broadly twofold… that we really aren’t getting enough support up to the slightly isolated Deeney, Flores’ subsequent comments about the balance between attack and defence well made, and that for all our shape we lose concentration and concede following a quickly taken set piece.  I won’t have been the only one thinking “that’s all it’s going to take…”, the consolation being that initial suspicions that it had been the newly introduced Jose Antonio Reyes wot done it proved unfounded (he’s only 31!  How is he only 31?).

5- “I reckon last year’s team would have done better”, sighs Rick’s Dad from the row behind.  It’s a sentiment borne of anxiety, of the suspicion that we’ve only a week to get this all Sorted but won’t be an uncommon one.  It also betrays one of the risks inherent in the summer strategy of frantic recruitment… if things start to go against us, and the more so if Troy is mooching around up front grumpy and isolated, the new lot haven’t got much sentimental investment in the bank.  Or to put it another way, a moderately insufficient performance from last year’s team would have been received with much more sympathy, support and gusto in the stands than an equivalent performance from the new recruits.  It’s us that need to be conscious of that risk really.

The positive stuff here, the stronger individual performances aside, was that there was a significant upward trajectory from the last game I saw, Wimbledon three weeks ago, to now.  Against a considerably more accomplished opponent, much more secure, much more bullish, and still making chances even if we could do with finding that clinical touch sooner rather than later.  And the reality is that we don’t have to be “ready” next weekend.  It’s unrealistic to expect the g-word within such a short time period…  the gamble, the judgement is that that the ultimate benefit is worth the cost.  That’s a decision that’s been made by people that have gotten us where we are, and haven’t got too much wrong so far.  They’re entitled to expect a little trust.  Either way, hold onto your hats…

AFC Wimbledon 2 Watford 2 (11/07/2015) 12/07/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1-  I’m tempted to say that all pre-season friendlies should be like this.  IMG_1282

 

Actually that’s not strictly true.  For those of us who enjoy these things, enjoy the gentle build up, however anodyne and irrelevant, to the resumption of the real stuff there will always be a place for a big curtain raiser against exotic opposition, whilst Paul on a couple of occasions during the day wistfully bemoans the disappearance of the traditional Northwood fixture.  Nonetheless, you don’t have to have any particular affinity for AFC Wimbledon to enjoy standing outside a supporters’ lounge where the first annual AFC Wimbledon beer festival is in full swing holding a pint of something profoundly flavoursome in the sunshine whilst fans of the two clubs intermingle affably, onion-slathered Bratwurst are available from vendors and a brass band runs through an eclectic catalogue which for some reason features the theme from “Fame” set in a minor key.  The only inconvenience is that it’s extraordinarily stuffy inside the lounge itself to the extent that by the time I work out the payment system I’m really rather desperate for anything wet at all and don’t even bother to feign interest in whatever it is that I end up drinking.  That aside, it’s all more than agreeable, and since some of us do have an affinity for Wimbledon and without wishing to wander dangerously off down that well trodden path you can’t help but hope that this becomes something of a regular fixture.

2- Quique Sanchez Flores, for whom a briefer moniker must surely be arrived at pretty damn quickly, looks relaxed and thoroughly Mediterranean in a pale blue shirt.  Actually he looks like a tanned Hugh Laurie, an image that I can’t shake and so will inflict upon you also.  His approach to pre-season friendlies, of which there are an unprecedented-feeling-but-no-I-haven’t-checked eight, this the second, is interesting and doesn’t follow the template that we’re used to.  For one thing, we’ve got competitive opposition four weeks before the start of the campaign;  for another, whilst plenty of players get a run-out this afternoon there’s no mass turnaround at half time as anticipated.  Three players – Troy, Capoue and Craig Cathcart – play the full ninety whilst the majority of changes occur in the last fifteen minutes despite the heat and the early stage of preparations.  Also evident is what appears to be Flores’ preferred formation… 4-2-3-1, as at St. Albans, and with a very similar starting line-up for all the utterly sensible post-match insistence on this being a time to experiment.  Most eye-catching pre-match is the presence of all four senior forwards in the starting eleven, Troy nominally the spearhead in front of Ighalo, Forestieri and Vydra.  This means that Almen Abdi is nominally one of the two “holding” midfielders, and with Ikechi again starting at right-back we’re hardly keeping it tight.

3-The thing with that sort of formation is that you kinda need to get the ball in order for all the attacking players to do their damage but the home side are much the more aggressive and effective in the opening twenty minutes.  Ade Akinfenwa is of course the headline act and if he’s not a Premier League striker then it’s not for lack of personality.  Or physique, obviously, at thirteen and a half stone whilst just under six foot.  Alongside him however it’s Tom Elliott, a former Leeds youngster newly recruited from Cambridge, who really catches the eye.  At 6ft 4 himself he had, Dons boss Neal Ardley observed during the week, traditionally been used, and perhaps wasted, as a target man – certainly his speed and nimbleness cause us problems.

The heavyweight contest however is between Akinfenwa and Prödl, who has exactly the brick-outhouse physique that you’d want  a centre-half charged with marking Akinfenwa to have.  Simultaneously, with his centre-parting, kind of sort of mullet and kind of sort of goatee he may be the most Austrian looking man I’ve ever seen.  After going down heavily early on – and later being seen to apply an ice pack to his leg on the bench – he doesn’t do badly against Akinfenwa but struggles more against Elliott’s pace, twice making optimistic looking offside calls having been caught for speed.  By that point the home side are already ahead, Elliott having isolated Ikechi Anya at right back and earned a penalty from a nervous challenge that shrieked of an offensive player not quite used to dealing with such problems.  Three years on, we’re no closer to quite knowing how to use Ikechi, and whilst one of the three roles behind the main striker might suit his ability to rattle into uncomfortable spaces, one wonders whether he’s quite disciplined enough a footballer to flourish there.

4- One shouldn’t overstate the home side’s early successes; this was a pre-season friendly and we were hardly under the cosh if deservedly behind.  Gradually we turned the screw and played ourselves back into control, and it was the hand of record signing Capoue doing the turning.  Always available, always in control, simultaneously powerful and elegant he very much looked the part and was a worthy winner of our man of the match award – even if Sports Interactive supremo Miles Jacobson confessed that he’d picked Capoue for the honours “as it was his birthday”.  Of the other new boys, Giedrius Arlauskis came on at half time and misjudged one right wing cross horribly, stretching forlornly for a ball he was never going to reach and leaving himself stranded, necessitating some urgent intervention on the goalline.  Otherwise he looked competent, but didn’t have an awful lot to do.  Jose Holebas meanwhile, German born to a Greek father and Spanish mother and therefore thoroughly suited to our cosmopolitan squad, came on for a cameo in shockingly scarlet boots that gave our kit some much needed redness but rather jarred otherwise.  He was cajoling and pointing and talking from the off, guarding the back door on one occasion as the home side broke on us.  He also gave possession away by standing on the ball at one point but such misdemeanours are best committed in pre-season friendlies after all.

5- By the time Arlauskis came floating out like a leaping ballerina in misjudging that cross we’d turned the game around.  Odion Ighalo, who looked perhaps the sharpest of our forwards, was rewarded for chasing down the home side’s keeper when a rushed clearance rebounded off him and spooned over the custodian to level the scores before the break.  Thereafter we threatened to throttle the home side creating a number of chances without converting… Fernando Forestieri, for all his “whatdoyoumeanfriendly?” enthusiasm culpable more than once of questionable decision making.  He nonetheless gave us the lead following perhaps our best move of the match, Almen Abdi’s glorious right wing cross finding Troy at the far post early in the second half;  his diving header bringing a fine stop from McDonnell in the Wimbledon goal but Fessi is sharper and more aggressive than the home side’s newly introduced defence whose tentativeness and nervousness should really have been punished by more than the one goal.  That it wasn’t led to Juan Carlos Paredes’ silly tackle late, late in the game proving more decisive than it could have been, George Francomb sending Arlauskis the wrong way much as Kennedy had Gomes in the first half.  Which was a bit irritating, but never threatened to spoil a splendid afternoon.

Two games into pre-season, then, and things are already beginning to take shape to a much greater extent than might have been expected at this stage.  With Valon Behrami in the stand, Benjamin Stambouli and others still mooted there’s more shape to be taken over the next month.  Thereafter… we will see.

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