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Watford 1 Gillingham 2 AET (23/08/2016) 24/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1 comment so far

1- So. Samuel Beckett, then.

2- I have to wonder, whilst running the risk of being accused of sour grapes, who wants to be in a competition suddenly labelled the EFL Cup anyway? What is it with abbreviating everything to initialisms and acronyms? It’ll be blogs and websites next. If you’re not going to get it sponsored then do us grumpy conservative (small c) bastards the service of calling it the League Cup? No? Hello? Pah. Where’s my blanket?

3- On the subject of natural conservatism, it’s reassuring that the early stages of the League Cup don’t really change. As discussed on these pages before, it’s almost as if the same game has been trundling on it’s merry way since Cheltenham in 2000. The game doesn’t stop, it’s on an infinite loop in a parallel dimension that we dip into accidentally once a season as if we’re on an A-road that briefly shares tarmac with the route to a mundane, irritable hell. The opponents might change (hello Bournemouth, Cambridge, Accrington, Darlington, Notts County (shudder)) but the spirit, the essence of the occasion is never lost. It’s comforting and familiar in the way that a piece of dripping guttering that you’ve never quite bothered to sort out reminds you that you’re home.

4- In the sense that this is an almost annual event, combined with the ever more dependable summer makeover of our squad, the first League Cup game can be thought of as a sort of initiation ceremony. And this, surely, is the sort of environment in which a bunch of fancy-dan foreigners brought in from their, you know, foreign places where they do foreign things that aren’t British like wot normal people do will surely come unstuck. A mixture of the unacclimatised, the indifferent and the downright not-up-for it against a game and organised lower division side with a free punch. Frankly, if this is what football looks like from the Elton John Stand you’re welcome to it Dave, you and your peaked caps.

5- If you think I’m taking a while to get around to the actual business of these thunks, consider it as a tribute to our attacking play which was, for the most part, ponderous and (to echo IG’s thrust from Saturday) painfully deliberate. We should have been ahead earlier nonetheless… Matej Vydra was the very definition of trying too hard, but much of the spark came from him including dummies, a sharp backheel that should have lead to Anya giving us the lead, spins off the defender for passes that never came. But our answer to Gillingham’s deep defending and tenacious chasing down high up the field was to get wide around the compact defence, and whilst Anya in particular had the beating of his man the quality of delivery wasn’t good enough, the movement and bodies in the box insufficient. It didn’t look frightening. It didn’t look fun. There remained the threat of a goal, something that would happen through sheer buying of tickets (a low drive by Guedioura can’t have been far the wrong side of the post) but there was no sense of inevitability by any means.

6- We came out looking much sharper at the start of the second half, having evidently been told to move the ball quicker. Hurrah. That lasted about 20 seconds, and then we pondered on. Ighalo came on for Guedioura – other than Troy the only starter from Saturday, but less, um, obviously in need of the minutes. Within a minute Iggy had smuggled the ball over the line to relief in the two-thirds-empty stands. That was that, we thought, and crucially so did the team and the manager. Vydra was withdrawn with what looked painfully like a wave goodbye, saluting all four corners of the ground. We should still have been comfortable… the defence had largely done OK, Kabasele in particular looking both tough and elegant in his first start. But OK is only enough if there’s enough threat at the other end and Gillingham, driven on by Cody McDonald who could be described as a scruffy, low-budget Shane Long if Shane Long weren’t already a scruffy, low-budget Shane Long*, smelled blood. It would be wrong to say we weren’t warned… they’d won a penalty through a pointless Nyom trip and Bradley Dack clouted it entertainingly over the bar. Yes, yes, that’s it then, let’s go home. Then we almost almost scored, a Deeney header pawed along the line but not over it before Byrne took advantage of too much space and curled a fine equaliser. Extra time… more possession, little urgency, certainly not at the break where Mazzarri got his midfielders crowded studiously around his notepad between thigh massages whilst Troy and Iggy wandered around looking bored. You know the rest.

7- That Cody McDonald gag isn’t mine… I copied it from somewhere. Probably ig. And it wasn’t about Cody McDonald. But it’s a good line, and deserves better than to disappear into the mists of the Internet.

8- It’s the first game of the League Cup, I get it. It’s always shit and we’ve had plenty of decent seasons despite such obscenities (last season not least). There’s no value in overreacting to an inadequate and irritating but largely inconsequential and unrepresentative evening. Which doesn’t mean that everything’s fine. There’s a big grey area between “everything’s great” and “everything’s rubbish” and that’s where we are at the moment. As the absent Craig Cathcart emphasised pre-match, this was an opportunity to record a first win of the season. We didn’t take it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But in the face of encouraging League performances leaving us with two dropped leads and one point, a win here and a straw to cling to as far as our attacking potency was concerned wouldn’t have hurt at all.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (20/08/2016) 21/08/2016

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
12 comments

1. At some point in my experiments as an amateur photographer, it became obvious that a greater element of chance was required if the final result was to be in any way interesting. My photographs improved immeasurably when I switched back to film, intentionally depriving myself of the ability to review what I was doing as I was doing it. They improved further when I started ignoring the viewfinder, and I still find that the shots of which I’m most proud are taken instinctively, with the camera at arm’s length, or on the ground, or anywhere other than pressed to my face.

It isn’t that I can’t compose a pleasing photograph. But something in the process of deliberately placing my subjects inside that square or rectangle imprisons them, deadens them, makes them lifeless and small and inconsequential. No matter how attractive the images, they communicate too little, they come across as tentative and uncertain. I’d get away with it if my subject matter were truly arresting, but I’m fortunate to have a comfortable enough existence that dramatic events rarely cross my path, and I’m much too timid to seek them out. Photos of allotments it is, then.

So, chance is my saviour. Because chance is never tentative, never uncertain, always absolute. (I say this in the knowledge that m’colleague is a statistician who’s likely to pull this half-arsed drivel to bits while huffing with annoyance. I keenly look forward to him penning an introduction based around Samuel Beckett’s late prose works to get his own back.) It lends a conviction to my photos that they otherwise lack; it frames them in a different, much more compelling way. And it frees me of grown-up responsibility: I can flit about with my camera, waving it around and pressing the shutter whenever the time seems right, and the results hopefully take on some of that spirit. These days, I take nearly all of my photographs using an old bakelite camera whose only controls are a shutter button and a winder; no focusing, no light metering, no depth of field, nothing to fiddle with. Choose a picture, press the button. It makes me very happy.

2. Watching the European Championships over the summer, it struck me how vital a significant element of chance is to the spectacle, and how the relentless clamour for consistency risks leaving us with something as exotic as a picnic in a car park. As another match settled into an extended game of cat-and-mouse, I became aware of how little I was watching hadn’t been carefully planned out on a tactics board beforehand.

Because the similarly relentless clamour for skilled players to be allowed to play skilfully, rather than forced to do battle physically, meets inevitably with a tactical riposte. Put simply, if you can’t kick ’em up in the air any more, you’d better stop ’em from having any space. It becomes a logic problem, and the thrilling cut-and-thrust of the best game you can bring to mind is ever less the ideal and ever more something to be guarded against by work on the training ground.

Many of those games were screaming out for something random, something genuinely unpredictable. No coincidence that one of the few proper games, the French defeat of Germany, was sent hurtling spectacularly off-course by a daft penalty; similarly, Wales’s tumultuous win over Belgium was made to seem even more dramatic, even more precarious, by crucial decisions missed, a red card and a potential spot kick. But elsewhere, the stultifying greyness of individual errors ironed out and covered for, of well-drilled systems, of well-officiated games. Oh, for a rush of blood to someone’s head, for a blown fuse or a ruptured gasket. Oh, for someone leading a cavalry charge, for someone on a pig-headed crusade. Oh, for a self-righteous prick of a referee, all rehearsed show and excruciating stubborness and spectacularly upset applecarts.

Oh, for Anders Frisk.

3. Oh, for Troy Deeney.

If there’s a difference between the version of the game that we get and the version of the game that we’d tell our grandchildren about, it’s that: someone forcing their way into history in the way that Tommy Mooney once did, simply by refusing to accept anything else, damn the consequences. That cavalry charge, that pig-headed crusade. In between lies the version of the game which seemed to be within our grasp but is ultimately just an illusion: the routine win over Chelsea, forgotten by the end of the season. Imagine that.

4. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We haven’t mentioned the new Hornet Shop yet, looming above the entrance to Occupation Road with its promise of yellowness in so many forms that the mind boggles and the wallet shrinks in fear. It looks like something from one of those new grounds they have nowadays; I expect they just read your mind on the way in, hand you a carrier bag with all your dreams in it and point you to a self-service till. Bet it doesn’t smell as tantalising as the old one in the Vicarage Road precinct, though. Yes, that old.

Nor have we mentioned the presence of Nathaniel Chalobah on the Chelsea bench. There was a player. Could still be, I guess, or could be destined for a season on loan at Huddersfield. I hope not. Of all the sporadically infuriating talents to have passed through our doors in recent seasons – and there have been quite a few – he remains among my favourites, and it’d be a terrible shame if all of that naive arrogance and arrogant naivety was gradually drained out of him by the system. Had he the hunger and the opportunity, he could conquer the world. Or give it a shot, at any rate.

And then there are our two new signings, paraded into the centre circle with their newly-minted shirts to receive the crowd’s welcome, a courtesy never afforded to Kerry Dixon or Mick Quinn back in the good old days. Those of us who pay next to no attention over the summer and then spend the first few weeks of the season catching up are grateful for the absence of new faces from the starting eleven. Nevertheless, if we were being cynical, we might suggest that this parading of the week’s recruits is an attempt at reassuring the punters that the matter is in hand…

5. Because if you ask me, the squad looks a little bit thin. There are players here who will undoubtedly be grateful for a fresh chance under a new manager, but the leap from having a chance to taking it is a considerable one. Some of those players – you can fill in their names yourselves easily enough – have no small amount of responsibility placed on their shoulders as it stands. At some point, preferably soon, the recruitment needs to start hitting a winning streak.

As if to prove the point, we play much of the match as if Jose Manuel Jurado had been selected but had just popped to the toilet. There are some good things to report from our midfield: Valon Behrami, in particular, has the satisfied look of a square peg firmly walloped into a square hole. But there is also a vast space where all of that lovely neat link-up play used to be, and getting service into Messrs Deeney and Ighalo is like attempting a game of frisbee across the M1. I found Jurado intolerable for many reasons, but someone, whether scout, manager or player, urgently needs to fill the gap he’s left. Therein lies the possibility of being a better side than last season. Or a worse one.

6. The first half split tidily into three parts: pre-downpour, downpour, post-downpour. A bit like punk, then, except with rain. That it was so defined by the weather says much about the football, which had neither the fury of a really good contest nor the comedic value of a really bad one, and which very much fell into the category of games planned out on a tactics board. Very high quality mundanity, but mundanity nonetheless. Organic artisan mundanity, with a salad of foraged hedgerow leaves, on some sort of wooden board.

We could definitely argue that we had the better of it: early on, we managed to get Jose Holebas a sight of goal, albeit from a narrow angle, before a terrific, obstinate run from Nordin Amrabat on the right found Odion Ighalo at the near post, unable to get the decisive touch. In a game of few going on no chances, a couple of openings represented a measure of domination, particularly as our resistance to the prodding and probing of Chelsea’s army of little buzzy small-named people, who I find very easy to confuse, remained strong. We had little creativity of our own, but obstinately sat on theirs.

The half continued for about fifteen minutes longer than seemed strictly necessary, talking to itself long after everyone had stopped listening, although Walter Mazzarri’s (justifiably) furious reaction to the award of an injury time free kick suggested fun to come. There’s a moment during the full BBC post-match interview when he looks straight into the camera and it’s like he’s eating your soul with a teaspoon.

7. The second half briefly threatened to be no more stirring than the first, except with relentless commentary from a new arrival two seats along, a hugely enthusiastic young man who insisted on referring to Jose Holebas as “Hollers” in the manner of Test Match Special and who expressed, repeatedly and repeatedly, an eagerness for the arrival of Matej Vydra which began as youthful optimism, quickly crossed the border into delusional and was last seen heading off into obsessive with only a torch and a hunting knife.

And then the football started. Out of nowhere in particular, Guedioura’s arcing cross, Deeney underneath it, Etienne Capoue striking a half-volley that looked for all the world as if it was flying wide until it smashed into the top corner. And suddenly, this most unmemorable of matches had a reason to exist, and we were on our feet urging the team towards a victory that seemed…if not improbable, then somehow remote. And Chelsea were throwing on substitutes in a bid to save the day, and we were retreating and retreating, further and further, and the ball was flying around our area…and this is the bit where someone needs to drag the team over the line, by sheer willpower alone, if necessary. Troy Deeney at Brighton, that kind of thing.

8. But there’s no answer. Because Deeney is isolated and absent, hampered by a frustrated booking, largely removed from the game. No-one else can get a foothold. We miss some of Ben Watson’s tidy give-and go; on the other side, the wondrous Kante clicks like a metronome. Chelsea ruthlessly wrestle the game from our grasp, prising our fingers open. Batshuayi scores after Gomes fails to hold a Hazard shot, then Adlene Guedioura’s ill-judged pass sets up a ruthless break for the winner. They hit the bar late on for good measure. We have no answer. (No, hugely enthusiastic and now despairing young man, we don’t: Matej Vydra is thrown on for the last five and barely has a touch.) These are individual errors, sure, but we lose any control of the game; we lose the game.

9. Much to be satisfied with and encouraged by, unquestionably. But when I wrote about our narrow-ish defeat to Palace last year, I suggested that we needed to concentrate on the negatives while there was still some credit in the bank. It’s no good waiting until the wheels fall off. Same applies, I think.

The manager’s right: for seventy-five minutes, we were impressive, robust, consistent. But any coach worth his corn would be looking more closely at what was mostly missing: creativity, possession, threat. The player willing to take a chance, to do something unexpected or instinctive. The player who can change the game. That player is often Troy Deeney, of course, but not if he isn’t involved. That player might be Robert Pereyra. Maybe someone else.

But it needs to be someone.

Season Preview – Part 5 12/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Vincent Janssen (AZ67 Alkmaar, £18,600,000), Victor Wanyama (Southampton, £11,000,000)

OUTS: Alex Pritchard (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Grant Ward (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Charlie Haylford (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Emmanuel Sonupe, Federico Fazio (AS Roma, Season Loan), Filip Lesniak (Slovan Liberec, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A game after Christmas which was reassuring in that Spurs were as graceless in securing a last-minute win with an offside goal against ten men as we remember them being in the eighties.  And a defeat at White Hart Lane which was, conversely, more conclusive than the scoreline implied

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Walker       Alderweireld      Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Lamela                      Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

VERDICT: Come on.  You must have sniggered a little bit.

Tottenham always looked capable of being key beneficiaries of the levelling of the turf.  Perpetually on the edge of the Champions’ League places, they’ve nonetheless built a strong young squad under an excellent manager and as domestic TV money renders the impact of the Champions League less of a divisor in income terms, no great surprise that Spurs vaulted over the various misfirings of the “top” clubs.  Perversely, however, I can see Spurs suffering more than Leicester in the wake of this extraordinary campaign.  The Tottenham side is younger, built on vim and energy, but the pressures of that absurd game at Stamford Bridge clearly affected them.  Stronger for it?  Perhaps.  But starting from scratch is a different thing to coming from behind to chase the big prize.  That they didn’t succeed – compounded by slipping behind Arsenal on the final day – might linger, and even if it doesn’t the extent to which the squad can accommodate the extra pressures of the Champions League (and associated home games at Wembley) is questionable.  Recruits have been sensible but unspectacular, Kane, Dembélé and Lloris are particular players for whom there is debatable cover.

Everything’s relative.  Spurs will still be around the Champions League places.  But just outside would be my bet.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: Matt Phillips (Queens Park Rangers, £5,500,000)

OUTS: Josh Ezewele (Yeovil Town, Free), Anders Lindegaard (Preston North End, Free), Victor Anichebe, Samir Nabi, Stéphane Sessegnon, Tahvon Campbell (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Shaun Donnellan (Stevenage, Six Months Loan), Callam Jones (Accrington Stanley, Six Months Loan), Tyler Roberts (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Chay Scrivens (Torquay United, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Jerome Sinclair (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw early on and a vital win at the tail end of the season in which Heurelho excelled and survival was effectively confirmed.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Dawson         Evans       McAuley           Brunt
Yacob
Phillips       Fletcher           Morrison     McClean
Rondon

VERDICT: Back in the Championship, we’d tell ourselves that there were advantages to being in the second tier.  I think that’s pretty indisputable actually… whether you think they outweigh the benefits of top flight football probably depends to no small extent on the last performance.  Anyway, another discussion.  One of those things, one of the things that we’d tell ourselves made the Championship great was its competitiveness.  Anyone can beat anyone, lots of teams at about the same level and all chasing promotion whether it’s automatic or a fanciful grab at sixth.  Happy bedlam.  What might a moderate-sized club expect to achieve in the top flight?  It’s not like a smaller club was ever going to actually, you know, win anything?  More likely is relegation straight back where we came, misery.  Or, worse (arguably?) this purgatory where you hover in the greyness in the lower half of the table, preoccupied with stopping the other lot from scoring and clinging onto Premier League status.

That’s a bit harsh on West Brom, of course, one of the properer clubs in the division and home of a fine Fanzone.  There are plenty of good things to say about Albion, now that Bob Taylor and Lee Hughes aren’t slapping us around twice a season.  But good grief, look at that side.  Three centre-backs in the defence (occasionally four when Jonas Olsson is wheeled out), the ferocious Yacob in front of them and Darren Fletcher as nominally a more attacking midfielder.  The average age of that eleven is over 29. You’d be forgiven for wanting a bit of, you know, excitement?  Recklessness?

Albion won’t go down.  But they won’t be much fun either… not on the pitch, anyway.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Manuel Lanzini (Al Jazeera, Undisclosed), Toni Martinez (Valencia, Undisclosed), Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia, Free), Ashley Fletcher (Manchester United, Free), Håvard Nordtveit (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Free), Gökhan Töre (Besiktas, Season Loan)

OUTS: James Tomkins (Crystal Palace, £10,000,000), Jordan Brown (Hannover 96, Free), Elliot Lee (Barnsley, Free), Leo Chambers, Nathan Mavila, Amos Nasha, Joey O’Brien, Stephen Hendrie (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Kyle Knoyle (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce, End of Loan), Victor Moses (Chelsea, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Valon Behrami, Hayden Mullins

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The most impressive win of the season, bottling Dimitri Payet up and leaving him in a skip somewhere.  And something altogether less impressive in the build-up o the Cup semi-final.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Adrian
Byram        Nordtveit        Reid          Cresswell
Kouyate

Noble                           Töre
Payet
Valencia            Carroll

VERDICT: Will you miss that epic queue for Upton Park tube, in which friendships were formed and broken, couples met, married, divorced and you sometimes felt as if you were stuck on some kind of eternal loop?

No, me neither.  Much else about the Boleyn Ground, yes.  The intensity and claustrophobia, the proximity to the pitch, completely brilliant.  But not that queue.  West Ham start the new season at the Olympic Stadium, a grander venue in some respects but less intimate and perhaps, crucially, less intimidating.  It will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes, and how well the increase in capacity by around 70% is managed… very easy to get this wrong and be stuck with a situation where the ground has no distinct demographics.  On the pitch, consensus on the messageboards is that West Ham may have overachieved with last season’s seventh place, and a top half place this time would be more than fine;  there’s a concern up front as I write, and whilst West Ham games being the most exciting in the division last term in terms of average number of goals (116 goals across 38 games compared to our 90) a team like that always feels a little more precarious than a side with a solid base.  Plenty of quality in the Hammers side though, so shouldn’t be in any trouble at the other end…  I’ll go for twelfth.

WATFORD

INS: Isaac Success (Granada, £12,500,000), Christian Kabasele (Genk, £5,800,000), Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool, £4,000,000), Brice Dja Djédjé (Marseille, £3,000,000), Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli, Season Loan)

OUTS: Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday, £4,000,000+), Gabriele Angella (Udinese, Undisclosed), Juanfran (Deportivo, Undisclosed), José Manuel Jurado (Espanyol, Undisclosed), Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), George Byers (Swansea City, Free), Josh Doherty (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Hall (Ross County, Free), Bernard Mensah (Aldershot Town, Free), Luke Simpson (York City, Free), Joel Ekstrand, Uche Ikpeazu, Jorell Johnson, Mahlondo Martin, Alfie Young, Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord, Season Loan), Dennon Lewis (Woking, Season Loan), Obbi Oularé (Zulte Waregem, Season Loan), Adalberto Peñaranda (Udinese, Season Loan), Nathan Aké (Chelsea, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Kabasele          Cathcart            Britos
Behrami      Doucouré
Zúñiga                    Capoue                   Holebas
Deeney          Ighalo

VERDICT: The thing about chucking it all up in the air again every summer is that you never know quite where you are.  No basis, really, on which to assess how we’re going to do.  If this were another club I might feel justified in saying… well, started last season OK but then tailed off a bit.  Got to be worried about momentum, really… and then getting rid of their manager?  (sorry, head coach).  Really?   So the new guy’s got to start again, new formation in a new league for a club everyone expects to struggle?  Where kinda mid-table apparently isn’t good enough?

Thing is, the Pozzos, Duxbury, haven’t got every decision right, but they’ve got most of them right.  So you’ve got to have a bit of faith in that regard. As we’ve discussed before on these pages… and not so very far down the page, although it was months ago…  there was no groundswell of dismay about Quique’s departure, not from Hertfordshire anyway.  And much as it’s a challenge to formulate a team quickly – to hope something “gels” whilst perpetually giving it a good old stir, as Ian once put it (ish) – it’s not as if we’ve not got a track record for pulling it off.  Zola, Jokanovic and Flores all managed this under their tenures;  whilst bringing Quique in at the start of last season seemed risky, it also meant that nobody knew what the hell to expect.

That’s only a plus if you kinda hit the ground running, and you may have noticed that our start, particularly at Vicarage Road, isn’t gentle… but our opponents, notably Chelsea and United, will be “gelling” themselves, and perhaps the timing of this run could work in our favour.  As for the team…  well as I write on the evening of Wednesday 3rd we’re still waiting for an attacking midfielder that’s surely a no brainer if the formation’s going to work.  I find it surprising that Abdi was let go given the formation we’re purported to be playing, the more so that he’s gone before any kind of replacement was secured (without even considering the loss of Jurado and the loan of Berghuis).  Our midfield last season was solid by design, but an awful lot was asked of the front two.  Surprising, in fact, that we’re told that we’re only after one creative midfielder.

Otherwise, the signings seem decent to me.  Of good pedigree, adding stuff that was needed, but much as the fees involved are astonishing by our own habits (remember not being able to afford Keith Scott?  When Paul Mayo was as much as we could stretch to at full back?) they’re not extravagant by top flight standards and they’re, largely, young.  The churn makes it difficult to build heroes, of course… gone are Abdi, Pudil, Ekstrand, only Troy, Ikechi and Tommie Hoban left from Zola’s side really.  But then… that only lasts the summer.  We had no such ties to Miguel Britos and Étienne Capoue a year ago either.

So how will we do?  Who the hell knows.  Second season syndrome is a concern, of course, but then that’s rather based on the premise that a side gets found out, loses its surprise value and momentum.  We’ve no clue what to expect, so good luck to anyone who finds us out at this stage.  Which isn’t to say that it’s inconceivable that we’ll be terrible…  but if our worst fears are realised there are a serious number of other candidates with a struggle on this season as researching these pieces has shown.

And if you look on the plus side, several weaknesses of last season’s squad have been addressed.  More quality at full-back (wing-back), check.  Options up front to put pressure on Iggy and Troy, or to reduce our reliance on their form and fitness, check.  We’re going into this a season stronger and wiser having moved on some of those that didn’t work and spun the wheel again.

It won’t be dull.  Yoooorns.

Season Preview – Part 4 11/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Nathan Redmond (Norwich City, £11,000,000), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Bayern Munich, Undislcosed), Alex McCarthy (Crystal Palace, Undisclosed), Jeremy Pied (Nice, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Saido Mané (Liverpool, £30,000,000), Victor Wanyama (Tottenham Hotspur, £11,000,000), Juanmi (Real Sociedad, Undisclosed), Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng, Undisclosed), Joe Lea (Yeovil Town, Free), Gastón Ramírez (Middlesbrough, Free), Will Britt, Paulo Gazzaniga (Rayo Vallecano, Season Loan), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, End of Loan), Kelvin Davis (retired)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw in August and an utterly miserable low-point to the season at St Marys.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

VERDICT: Southampton fans must yawn slightly with the repetitive nature of their summer reviews.  Did very well, pat on the head, but Liverpool have signed all their players so they’re going to do well to match that this time.  Whatevs.  And yet somehow the Saints have improved on the previous season’s position for six consecutive years now, a sixth place finish of all things to crown a magnificent campaign.  Where are the doom-mongers now?

Southampton are going to struggle. Not struggle, struggle.  They’ve still got one of the best defensive units in the division but…  too much.  Too much going wrong, too many injury-prone players in key positions, not enough creativity.  Mané, Wanyama and Pellé are on this summer’s out-tray, and whilst Redmond and Højbjerg may have quality they’ll be going some to match the players they’re replacing.  Up front, in particular, the Saints look weak…  Shane Long is a wonderful pain in the backside to have as part of your armoury, you’re in trouble if he’s your main man.  Charlie Austin has yet to settle, Jay Rodriguez has started three league games in two seasons.  Claude Puel has an impressive pedigree, but has lost Sammy Lee to the England set-up.  Most of all, the law of averages suggests that there’s only so often you can pull this trick off…  sell off your stars for extraordinary money, cleverly reinvest and get away with it. Some time you mess up.  Some time you don’t get it right.  Bottom half.

STOKE CITY

INS: Joe Allen (Liverpool, £13,000,000), Ramadan Sohbi (Al Ahly, Up to £5,000,000)

OUTS: Steve Sidwell (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free), Ben Barber, Edward Dryden, Bobby Moseley, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Odemwingie, Petros Skapetis, Mason Watkins-Clark

OUR EX-POTTERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A landmark victory at the Britannia stadium in which Miguel Britos made his entrance, and a less glorious reverse at Vicarage Road.

REPORT ARCHIVE

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Butland
Johnson     Shawcross      Wollscheid      Pieters
Allen          Imbula
Shaqiri                        Bojan                   Arnautovic
Diouf

VERDICT: I know I’m a couple of years behind on this, but where the hell have all the beards come from?  It wasn’t too long ago that I remember bemoaning the lack of beards in modern football, citing the likes of Mickey Droy, Mick Ferguson, Luc Millecamps and other Panini heroes of yore.  Now, suddenly, the beard is ubiquitous… be it the Joe Ledley “lumberjack” thing, the Juanfran “Geography teacher”, the Roy Keane “wild man of the hills” or the Gareth Bale “Not Bothered to Shave for a couple of days”.

Mark Hughes, also has a beard.  I can’t find documentary evidence of it, but I can’t have imagined it because there’s plenty of discussion of it on messageboards of several clubs.  One Potters correspondent describes him as “having gone all druidy”, and it’ll take something mystical to deviate City from their course this season.  Eight seasons in the top flight have been spent between ninth and fourteenth; in fact the only season in the last 13 that wasn’t spent in mid-table was their promotion campaign of 2007/08.  If that sounds like damning with faint praise it shouldn’t;  City remain completely brilliant, and seem to build every season in much less risky way than Southampton do.  No wholesale shifting on of the star players and trusting to ability to recruit replacements, this is gradual progress augmented every now and again with a signing that’s either eye-catching (Shaqiri) or utterly sensible (Allen).  I’m going to go out on a limb here.  Eighth.

SUNDERLAND

INS: Papy Djilobodji (Chelsea, £8,000,000)

OUTS: Santiago Vergini (Boca Juniors, Undisclosed), Danny Graham (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Steven Fletcher (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Martin Smith (Kilmarnock, Free), Steve Harper, Mikael Mandron, Will Buckley (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Sebastian Coates (Sporting Lisbon, Season Loan), Adam Matthews (Bristol City, Season Loan), Dame N’Doye (Trabzonspor, End of Loan), Yann M’Vila (Rubin Kazan, End of Loan), Ola Toivonen (Rennes, End of Loan), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLACK CATS: Costel Pantilimon

THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gritty win courtesy of an early goal at the Stadium of Light, and a final day fixture that might have been a relegation nailbiter but wasn’t.  Instead we waved goodbye to Quique as Sunderland’s second string held us to a draw.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

VERDICT: It would be easy, lazy even, to look at this and think, “Sunderland are stuffed”.  For all that Sunderland finished the season strongly enough to escape a seemingly inevitable drop (again), for all that they only lost one in a closing eleven.  Only three of that run were wins, these including a dismissal of a pathetic Everton side and a perverse win at Norwich.  Big Sam made his charges solid and difficult to beat on the back of a raft of successful January signings… but there’s a world of difference between a nothing-to-lose backs-to-the-wall scrap and kicking on again from a standing start.  Particularly when Big Sam has moved on;  Moyes is an eminently sensible appointment, the noises he’s been making about gradual building and stability sound like just what Sunderland need except… that they might also be interpreted as managing supporters’ expectations.  At the time of writing the side that was nearly relegated has signed precisely nobody, with four key loans having returned.  Several of these loans are mooted to return but that’s still running to stand still…  it doesn’t augur well that the uncertainty around Allardyce is being cited as a reason for nobody being signed yet (did only Moyes think that the squad needed strengthening?), it augurs even less well that Charles N’Zogbia is being considered.  You know you are in trouble when that happens.

So it’s easy to think “Sunderland are stuffed”, because it might well be true.  A solid core.  A prolific striker.  Might be enough. Might not.  But then Sunderland have been there before.  Nineteenth.

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Leroy Fer (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Tyler Reid (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Mike van der Hoorn (Ajax, Undisclosed), Mark Birighitti (Newcastle Jets, Free), George Byers (Watford, Free)

OUTS: Eder (Lille, £3,400,000), Alberto Paloschi (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Raheem Hanley (Northampton Town, Free), Daniel Alfei, Kyle Copp, James Demetriou, Stephen Fallon, Alex Gogic, Henry Jones, Lee Lucas, Gareth Owen, Kyle Bartley (Leeds United, Season Loan), Oliver Davies (Kilmarnock, Season Loan), Bafetimbi Gomis (Marseille, Season Loan), Kenji Gorré (Northampton Town, Six Month Loan), Matt Grimes (Leeds United, Season Loan), Ryan Hedges (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Adam King (Southend United, Season Loan), Liam Shephard (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-SWANS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: George Byers, Jack Cork

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A significant first win of the season at the Vic, and a disappointing defeat to an Ashley Williams-inspired Swans which every Watford fan who hadn’t been at Southampton thought was terrible.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabianski
Naughton     Fernandez        Williams     Taylor     
Cork           Fer  
  Barrow                 Sigurdsson                Montero
Ayew   

VERDICT: Swansea spent a long time in the lower divisions before emerging very rapidly as a template for all small-to-middling clubs to follow, defying their traditional standing and achieving success playing attractive football to boot.  The last year or so has seen the image of a club with a clear masterplan tarnished somewhat;  Garry Monk’s very appointment felt odd, almost sentimental and whilst Guidolin is a much more credible coach the Swans are now suffering from a year or two of pretty disastrous transfer dealings.  Alberto Paloschi and Éder were both bought and sold at a significant loss within the last twelve months, the latter rubbing salt in the wound by scoring the winning goal from nowhere in the European Championship Final with more conviction and co-ordination than he ever suggested during his brief stint in Wales.  Meanwhile Bafetimbi Gomis still has two years left of an expensive and largely unsuccessful contract which Marseille are reportedly only picking up 30% of in the coming season;  Andre Ayew is similarly well rewarded if slightly more productively, but rumours of his imminent departure have been around pretty much ever since he signed.  Ayew, Sigurdsson and Williams, three of the side’s strongest players, are all linked with moves at the time of writing.

There are probably three worse sides than Swansea but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible that they’ll go down.  As it stands the Swans will be short of attacking options – which, admittedly, they coped fairly well with for much of last season, albeit abetted by a gentle injury list – and the support is concerned about the full back positions that haven’t been addressed.  Relegation candidates.

Season Preview – Part 3 10/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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LIVERPOOL

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

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

OUR EX-REDS: Harry Kewell, Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Karius
Clyne         Matip       Lovren    Moreno
Can              Wijnaldum
Mané                      Firmino               Coutinho
Sturridge

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

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

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

MANCHESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Costel Pantilimon

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

MANCHESTER UNITED

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

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

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

MIDDLESBROUGH

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

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

OUR EX-BORO: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

Season Preview – Part 2 09/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CRYSTAL PALACE

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mandanda
Ward              Dann         Tomkins        Souaré
McArthur           Cabaye
Zaha                           Bolasie                  Townsend
Wickham

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

 

EVERTON

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

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

OUR EX-TOFFEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tom Cleverley

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stekelenburg
Coleman        Jagielka     Stones         Baines
Lennon           McCarthy          Barkley          Mirallas
Deulofeu        Lukaku

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

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

HULL CITY

INS: Will Mannion (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed)

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

OUR EX-TIGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McGregor
Odubajo         Davies          Dawson     Robertson
Snodgrass       Clucas    Huddlestone  Livermore      Elmohamady
Hernandez

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

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

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

LEICESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Simpson       Hernandez          Morgan          Fuchs
Mahrez                Drinkwater               Mendy              Kapustka
Vardy         Musa

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

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

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

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

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

Season Preview – Part 1 08/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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OK.  Here we go… four today, four more tomorrow.  And so on.  I’m in Paris as you read this, by the way.  Disneyland today, wish me luck.  Anyway… apologies if big signings over the week render what follows nonsense…

ARSENAL

INS: Takuma Asano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Undisclosed), Rob Holding (Bolton, Undisclosed), Kelechi Nwakali (Diamond Football Academy, Undisclosed), Granit Xhaka (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Isaac Hayden (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Tomáš Rosický, Dan Crowley (Oxford United, Season Loan), Wojciech Szczęsny (AS Roma, Season Loan), Jan Toral (Granada, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two comprehensive defeats in the Premier League, albeit resulting from very different Watford performances, and a Cup Quarter Final that was by some distance the highlight of the second half of the season.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Cech
Bellerín         Koscielny        Mertesacker    Monreal
Xhaka           Ramsey
Iwobi                       Özil                  Sanchez
Giroud

VERDICT: On balance, you’d have to say that Arsenal were the best side we faced last season.  We were brilliant during that game at Vicarage Road;  Arsenal were better, and deserved to win 3-0.  In the return in North London they went one better sealing our only 3+ goal defeats of the campaign.  And yet, and yet… that Cup Quarter Final, whilst a highlight of our season, showed the other side of Arsenal;  limp, gutless.  Arsenal fans find themselves in a quandary:  what to hope for.  Last season was the most Arsenal of seasons for a club which have turned “good, but no cigar” into an art form, the second place finish in what was supposed to be someone else’s neck-and-neck two-horse race a double-edged sword.  Hilarious that they finished above Spurs…  but surely a bitter confirmation that this was a season that they could have, should have?, won the main prize.  So to repeat, what do you hope for…  more seasons under Wenger, a steady diet of good-but-not-quite-good-enough with only the theoretical possibility that the extra strength brought in each season – Xhaka, at least, should provide some backbone – improves the side quicker than the bits that are weakening, the centre of defence as Mertesacker and Koscielny age in this case, diminish it.  Or do you hope for the inevitable chaos that will follow his departure under whoever inherits the poisoned chalice of replacing him, Arsenal’s David Moyes (Dave Bassett?).  Your heart bleeeds.  Third, probably.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Jordan Ibe (Liverpool, £15,000,000), Lewis Cook (Leeds United, £7,000,000), Lys Mousset (Le Havre, £5,400,000), Brad Smith (Liverpool, Undisclosed), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham, Compensation), Mikael Ndjoli (Millwall, Free), Mark Travers (Cherry Orchard, Free), Nathan Aké (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Matt Ritchie (Newcastle United, £12,000,000), Tommy Elphick (Aston Villa, £3,000,000), Jayden Stockley (Aberdeen, Free), Josh Carmichael, Sylvain Distin, Jon Muleba, Josh Wakefield, Mason Walsh, Stephane Zubar, Matt Butcher (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Harry Cornick (Leyton Orient, Six Month Loan), Glenn Murray (Brighton & Hove Albion, Season Loan), Joe Quigley (Gillingham, Season Loan), Marius Adamonis (Atalanta, End of Loan), Juan Iturbe (Roma, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: Nonee

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A wonky performance at Dean Court which saw one of our worst halves of the season salvaged by a gift from Artur Boruc, and an uninspiring draw at the Vic – the Cherries, fair to say, didn’t see us at our best.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Boruc
Smith            Francis               S.Cook            Daniels
Aké               Surman
Ibe                            Arter                          King
Wilson

VERDICT: There might come a point where thinking about Bournemouth doesn’t instinctively provoke a gritting of teeth.  After all, a little under 20 years ago Fulham were provoking the same reaction on BSaD (and it seems a long time ago because, you know, it is).  But we’re not at that stage yet…

We finished a place above Bournemouth last season but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Cherries fans to cite injury to Callum Wilson in particular in mitigation.  Going into the new campaign, Eddie Howe’s additions have lowered the age profile of a fairly experienced squad – Aké, Ibe, Lewis Cook, Mousset and Hyndman all qualify as under-21 players not contributing to the 25-man quota and the Cherries have a higher proportion of British-born players than we do, for example, so won’t struggle on that score.

Where they do appear to be weak at the time of writing (several weeks before you’re reading, such is life… I’m likely to be in Disneyland Paris as you read this, spare me some sympathy) is in defence, where converted full-back Simon Francis and Steve Cook are the only incumbents in the centre as it stands following the departures of Tommy Elphick and Sylvain Distin.  There’s speculation that injury victim Tyrone Mings might return as a centre-back, but when your fallback options is a youngster signed as a full back, however promising, you know where your priorities lie.  If Aké, as anticipated, is used as a holding midfielder the defence that shipped a lot of goals last season will have some protection, but you’d be wanting a few more reliable options.

Bournemouth remain something of a benchmark, and whilst it’s not as simple as “little Bournemouth defying the odds” there’s some pleasure in imagining the more witless elements of the support of Leeds, Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday, not to mention Newcastle and Villa, raging at how Big Clubs are left languishing in the Championship whilst The Likes of Bournemouth dine at the top table.  That lasts as long as it takes for Bournemouth to do something annoying again, naturally, but is more grace than many of our top flight rivals deserve.  Comfortably mid-table, if they sort that defence out.

BURNLEY

INS: Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Nick Pope (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Jimmy Dunne (Manchester United, Free), Robbie Leitch (Motherwell, Free), James Thomas (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Jon Flanagan (Liverpool, Season Loan)

OUTS: Joey Barton (Rangers, Free), Luke Conlan (Morecambe, Free), Lloyd Dyer (Burton Albion, Free), Matt Gilks (Rangers, Free), Matt Taylor (Northampton Town, Free), Josh Ginnelly (Walsall, Six Month Loan), Danijel Nizic (Morecambe, Free), Michael Duff, Jason Gilchrist

OUR EX-CLARETS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two draws… a 0-0 at Turf Moor in the dying days of Gianfranco Zola’s stewardship and a 1-1 at the Vic as Beppe Sannnino’s side confirmed that promotion would have to wait another year.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Flanagan            Keane                Mee              Ward
Gudmundsson    Marney             Jones             Arfield
Vokes            Gray

VERDICT: So.  Burnley get promoted.  A victory of the collective over the individual, talented players but very much more than the sum of their parts.  They’ve not splashed on the squad, opting instead for prudence, careful building on what went before all of which overseen by the ginger Mourinho, Sean Dyche.  How much has changed since the faltering, pragmatic and ultimately, improbably, successful start to his management career at Vicarage Road.

Thing is, that season, that promoted-teamwork-prudence season, that was two years ago.  Sean Dyche got the Clarets promoted again, as champions no less, and once again the Burnley approach has been cautious and careful, targets identified from the Championship and custodians haggled with, a reluctance to pay over the odds.  You can understand that.  And perhaps the logic is that as you gradually, carefully build the club gets stronger, guarantees itself income without gambling its future by breaking the format, breaking the wage structure.  Which all falls down if Dyche himself decides that he’s had enough and ups and leaves.  There’s a certain jumpiness on Burnley messageboards;  there’s clearly some talent in the squad – Heaton, Mee and Andre Gray all look excellent players.  But you’d be hard pressed to argue that the current squad is significantly stronger than that which was relegated two years ago, a side that featured the likes of Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, that won plaudits and respect and went down anyway.  Indeed, at the time of writing the side, stripped of Joey Barton, is probably weaker than the one that got promoted.

Burnley will be popular again.  They will work for each other, they’ll be a team.  They might even be robust to a series of defeats.  But even if the time between now and the end of the window sees them win their scraps with Derby and Villa for Jeff Hendrick and Ashley Westwood respectively, adding to an area where Burnley’s squad is weak in the centre of midfield, you’d have to doubt whether they’ll do any better than last time.

CHELSEA

INS: N’golo Kanté (Leicester City, £32,000,000), Michy Batshuayi (Marseille, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland, £8,000,000), Mohamed Salah (AS Roma, Undisclosed), Reece Mitchell (Chesterfield, Free), John Swift (Reading, Free), Marco Amelia, Kevin Wright, Tammy Abraham (Bristol City, Season Loan), Nathan Aké (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Tomas Kalas (Fulham, Season Loan), Alex Kiwomya (Crewe, Six Month Loan), Charly Musonda (Real Betis, Season Loan), Nathan (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Baba Rahman (Schalke 04, Season Loan), Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Alexandre Pato (Corinthians, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Nathaniel Chalobah

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two sterling draws against the Blues, despite the fixture list depriving us of the free punch that most seemed to be getting pre-Mourinho’s departure.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Courtois
Azpilicueta        Zouma         Terry          Kenedy
Willian      Fabregas      Kanté         Hazard
Costa             Batshuayi

VERDICT: In any other season, (insert one of any number of improbable things not quite as improbable as Leicester winning the league) would have been the story.  And this was one of them.  Not since Leeds in 1992/93 have reigning champions flunked so comprehensively; whilst our focus was on the Hornets first, and perhaps the unexpected triumph of Leicester second the reflection that “hey look, we’re still ahead of Chelsea” never failed to get a snigger.  It got to the point where my wife was protesting, “yes, but Chelsea are rubbish”.

Chelsea were the reigning league champions, though.  The anti-Leicester in many respects… much less than the sum of their parts thanks to a complete lack of common purpose.  Mourinho has gone, a respected new coach comes in, but questions remain… what formation will he play?  If it’s a four-man midfield, how do you accommodate Fabregas?  If it’s a five-man midfield (and Conte, like Mazzarri, has a 3-5-2 as his historical modus oprerandi) what do you do with Hazard?  How long can you rely on the likes of Terry, Ivanovic, Fabregas.

There are more reasons to be positive than negative for the blues, however.  Quite apart from the new manager, the signing of N’golo Kanté is a pretty extraordinary one, defying the lack of Champions League football that will surely limit who the Blues are / have been able to attract during this transfer window.  And that lack of Champions League football may prove a blessing; fewer midweek games, fewer trips, fewer distractions.  It may be that, whilst our start looks pretty daunting we’re catching Chelsea, the first visitors to Vicarage Road, cold… at a time when they haven’t quite got going.  Either way, it seems unlikely that this season will be a disaster on a par with the last.

Stevenage 0 Watford 2 (14/07/2016) 15/07/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1-  Call me old fashioned, but there are certain things that I feel I’m entitled to expect from a pre-season friendly.

IMG_2668

High on this list are the ability to rock up two minutes before kick-off, saunter in and choose a row of seats to spread out over in the sunshine whilst something halfway between proper football and cricket meanders on somewhere over there.  What you don’t expect, therefore, is long queues and a rammed stand.  Nobody’s fault… the Stevenage staff were perfectly affable and the queues moved briskly enough.  But this was Not What It Was Supposed To Be Like.

2- As for the remainder of my expectations, they were at least not significantly upset for the first forty-five minutes.  The Hornets, still in last season’s kit and in the much-advertised 3-5-2 formation, dominated possession fairly inconsquentially.  Chances came and went, one such resulting in a penalty claim for a handball that Troy in particular seemed utterly convinced by and protested at length to the official in a manner that confirmed that “not quite at full pelt – it’s only a friendly after all”, in Troy’s case, means mere utter commitment rather than demonic possession.  We had no basis to judge said penalty call, sitting as we were low down at the far end in the dead zone behind the crossbar that requires a lot of stretching and ducking to as much as follow the path of the ball and this contributed to a sedate atmosphere consistent with all reasonable expectation, fuelled by the lazy pace of the game.  A few things weren’t working – Nordin Amrabat, in a performance that echoed Des Lyttle’s notorious pre-season outing at Wealdstone in 1999, didn’t look like a wing back against this relatively limited opponent.  Tommie Hoban, who it was tremendous to see in a yellow shirt again, tried to bring the ball out and struggled once or twice to navigate Stevenage’s energetic closing of options.  Mostly, however, it was comfortable enough but utterly pre-season.

IMG_2669

Stevenage hadn’t read the script.  Towards the end of the half the challenges – always more competitive and aggressive than our own – began to cross the line.  Darren Deadman, who refereed throughout with the air of a supply teacher who’d really rather be in the pub, rarely strayed from the centre-circle and, unhindered by any interference from the official, Stevenage proceeded down this path with several Watford players hitting the deck and the positive Holebas amongst those needing treatment.  One particularly aggressive sequence of unpunished challenges down our left flank saw Steven Berghuis channel the indignation spilling over behind the goal and dive in with an air of “if that’s how it’s going to be…”.  Berghuis, who looked reasonably lively if a little wasted in a role behind the forwards, would surely have been carded in other circumstances; instead, after a prolonged spell of shoving and pointing which Deadman, again, watched from a bored distance, Stevenage were awarded a free kick and everyone got on with it.

3- The second half was different.  Both sides made extensive changes throughout and we were much the stronger for it – partly because of the added vitality provided by our new introductions – of whom more below – and partly because the home side switched half of their team at the break and the remainder fifteen or so minutes in.  With the notable exception of Chris Day, given a warm reception by the away end, this looked a fairly inexperienced bunch by any standards and they were put to the sword in a second half that should have yielded more goals.  Étienne Capoue capped a magnificent performance (in qualifying, I remember him being extraordinary at Wimbledon a year ago too…) with a splendid cut inside and fierce shot, celebrated in the fashion of someone relieved to get off the mark at last, even in a pre-season friendly.  Ighalo, with a sharp turn and shot, and Deeney, sent clear and wide, were both unfortunate to hit the woodwork, and there was plenty of movement and plenty of chances.

Our squad looks tremendous.  Priority for recruitment given this formation, as it was at the start of the summer, remains the wing-back positions where Holebas looks strong and Anya will do a decent job but otherwise we lack convincing cover.  In any event, the width of our attack was the starkest contrast with our often narrow attack last season.  Anya, Holebas and, in the later stages, Almen Abdi found no end of space down the flanks and Stevenage staged a stout rearguard action to keep the scores down.

4- The other requirement of pre-season friendlies is evaluating the new blood, of course.  Of these, Abdoulaye Doucouré made the earliest appearance, a half-time replacement for the steady but less dynamic Mario Suárez.  Doucouré looked more than encouraging… tall and leggy he got around the pitch and was robust to challenges, but was also able to pick a pass.  They didn’t all work, but we’ve got a real asset here on this evidence… an excellent all-round midfielder.  More eye-catching still, arguably, was Jerome Sinclair who came in for Ighalo on the hour.  Bright and quick and lively his movement was absolutely excellent, he fully deserved the second goal which was scored with the last touch of the game, a flying header to Almen Abdi’s cross that was celebrated with enthusiasm and a brief sequence of high fives along front of the stand.  Only Success didn’t completely convince, but in fairness to the burly forward he was fielded in a more withdrawn position than expected, a move necessitated by Adlene Guiedioura’s premature departure with more conventional midfield options already having been used.  He looked powerful and tidy, but was less effective – not to be judged on twenty-odd minutes out of position in a pre-season friendly.

5- All in all, and despite the expectation of a comfortable evening out not quite being met, a good workout and highly encouraging on many levels.  It remains to be seen quite how Walter Mazzarri (Waltzing Matilda?) intends to make the formation less get-attable than we were with a similar shape under Zola – unlike then, we can’t expect to outclass our opponents to the point where our vulnerability down the flanks becomes obsolete.  Such questions will only properly be answered with something approaching our full defensive quotient available…  Britos will surely be a mainstay, Hoban and Nyom both did well enough but that all three lasted the ninety reflects the continued absences of Euro 2016 trio Cathcart, Prödl and new boy Kabasele as well as the injured Watson.  Other than those three, the only player to last the ninety was the imperious Capoue, who collapsed on his back with a grin at the final whistle.  Pre-season friendly, yes yes. But if the formation suits him as well as it seemed to today, he’ll be even more of a key cog in the season ahead.  Yooorns.

IMG_2673

End of Term Report Part 7 10/06/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
16 comments

25- José Holebas

This hadn’t started terribly well. Holebas’ signing was rumoured, then seemingly confirmed only for the player himself to deny all knowledge and publicly decry the possibility. And it’s hard not to sympathise if, as seems apparent, decisions about his future were being announced without his knowledge or consent but… not a positive first step. This suggestion of a sulky demeanour was exacerbated by reports suggesting that José rather felt he was slumming it in WD18, and by sulky outbursts on social media as he struggled for game time behind Nathan Aké.

All of which is rather a shame, if shedding a light on why Roma were prepared to get rid, since on the pitch his contribution has been largely excellent. Positive, aggressive, dynamic, direct… if he’d sustained that over more outings (and stopped looking like he was chewing a wasp for five minutes) he might have become a cult hero. Instead… we don’t really know where we are.

Next Season: It’s not a prerequisite that a Watford player should be a nice person, a good bloke, someone you’d share a drink with. But even obnoxious players can achieve popularity by focusing their character flaws on the opposition. We should at least be able to not actively dislike – perhaps distrust is a better word – one of our players. José has some PR work to do in this regard.
29- Étienne Capoue

Whilst many of our squad had ups and downs in 2015/16, few experienced as stark contrasts as Étienne Capoue – and nobody’s form fluctuated so rapidly. At his best Capoue was utterly magnificent, at a level above those floundering around him; thoroughly in control and simultaneously elegant, clever and hard as nails. On other days he was a passenger, and you can’t be a passenger in central midfield. Bournemouth (A) sticks in the memory for some reason… but that game was only a week or two after a strong showing at Newcastle, and a couple of weeks before a tour de force against West Ham.

There’s been more of the good than of the indifferent. Even when posted in an awkward wide left position, Capoue put in a stonking performance at Old Trafford and whilst Wembley was, once again, best forgotten it was Capoue limping off having threatened to propel us into the ascendancy single-handed that was a critical point in the game. Mazzarri inherits a very potent weapon.

Next Season: A player with the gumption to wrong-foot opponents simply by shifting the weight of his body will always be forgiven the odd off-day. His off-days, however, are what render his first season at Watford merely decent. More of the good stuff, please.

 

32- Alessandro Diamanti

No, I didn’t see much of him either. Indeed, Alessandro managed barely an hour of competitive action across three appearances off the bench before disappearing to Italy with a flick of his ample head of hair. So it’s difficult to comment on his ability or otherwise… certainly he did little in what little I saw of him (I missed the 45 minutes against Southampton…) to contribute to a judgement either way.

So the reason to include him in this review, really, is merely as a reflection on the inevitable consequences of our high management and player turnover. It stands to reason that when a new boss comes in he assesses what he’s got, decides what he wants/needs and proceeds accordingly. Thing is, when your whole strategy is based around high turnover of players and the team management changes frequently too you’re going to end up with situations like this… a player who may or may not have been good enough – he had been in Italy’s squad two years before signing after all – but who never looked like he had a role in the way Quique wanted to play. There just wasn’t a position for him. In that sense he was collateral damage, and much as there’s some inevitability about this sort of thing, and it was only a loan, and much as he will have been well paid, you can’t help but feel that a little more stability wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Next Season: Diamanti spent the latter half of the season with Atalanta, but still has a year left on his Guangzhou deal. Unlikely he’ll spend it in China you’d have thought. Watford less likely still.
Quique Sanchez Flores

Suddenly, it all seems very long ago.

Probably because we’ve all had to talk about it so much. Everyone you know who has ever heard of football has asked you about it. And depending on how annoying they are, they’ll have an opinion too, carefully formulated over half a second of considered thought on hearing Quique’s departure mentioned on the radio. Because, you know. Watford? Thirteenth? And a Cup Semi Final? And then you sack your manager?

I find my own opinion hardens against Quique the more often I try to explain the circumstances and provide balance to a discussion where none is invited; this tends to polarise your opinion in any circumstances. I’d probably smack Quique in the teeth if I passed him in the street at this stage, which isn’t entirely fair. He did, as your acquaintances expertly point out, an excellent job. We’ve gotten used to new coaches breezing in and inheriting players and recruitment power of unprecedented strength and, with varying degrees of speed and for varying lengths of time, make a decent fist of it. That shouldn’t lessen our appreciation of what Quique achieved… a new squad, a new country, a tough league competing against big names. Plenty of good managers haven’t been up to that task; Quique fashioned a winning way of playing very quickly.

I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that he got lucky too. That’s not a criticism, everyone needs a bit of luck and he was intelligent enough to realise that when Iggy, who started on the bench and didn’t look like having a role beyond that, began scoring he needed to accommodate him. The defence that Flores fashioned and the goals that Iggy provided were a great recipe.

And he’s a very nice bloke. That shouldn’t make a difference really, but I like our guys being easy to like. You didn’t begrudge him any of it.

But nor, as has been explained many times to many people, am I uncomfortable about his departure. Quite clearly things hadn’t been going as well since Christmas, and quite clearly Quique was upsetting and ostracising members of the squad. That’s not a disaster in itself, not a reason to get rid, but reason enough to be a little concerned. Had he not gone there would be no supporters’ campaign to dispose of him, we’d be talking about building on last season and going again. But enough concern, and enough trust of the judgement of those running the club based on the developments of the last few years, to back a call made by people with a track record of making pretty good, if bold, decisions.

Having suggested that Quique had perhaps chanced on a winning formula, it was concerning that he didn’t really have an answer when that stopped working. Nor, crucially, did he seem willing to experiment. As the results got worse he got more conservative, more careful, to the point where from a strong top half position we were clawing together enough points to stay up. The owners may also have been looking at his conservatism with young players… Amrabat and Suárez were surprising January signings in that they weren’t youngsters, ripe for improvement, at a time when our top flight status looked secure. Meanwhile the younger players on the fringes of the team – Berghuis, as we’ve mentioned in this series, the poster boy – weren’t getting a look in, even when our top flight status was secured. Admittedly the rumours of Quique’s departure were rife by that point, he may have known he was going and for what reason would he start to blood our youngsters in such circumstances? His reticence didn’t make us rue the decision though.

So in the end I find myself comfortable with Quique’s appointment, and with his season in charge, and comfortable with the suggestion that he was the right man to drop anchor but not to push on. Nobody in the Vicarage Road stands will begrudge him whatever success comes his way at Espanyol.

Next Season: Getting rid of Flores was defensible, whatever Joe Public might suggest, but it was certainly bold. There will, as ever, have been a plan. We watch on with fascination.

That’s all folks. We’ll be back with a season preview towards the end of July, and maybe the odd report from a pre-season friendly too (Ian loves those). In the meantime, enjoy the Euros and the rest of the summer. Yooorns.

End of Term Report Part 6 06/06/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

21- Ikechi Anya

It’s a perverse comparison, but there’s something of the Tommy Mooney about Ikechi Anya.  Not in physique, quite obviously, or in playing style…  but in the fact that it’s the how that matters more than the where.  Just as Mooney turned his hand to pretty much everything for periods of his time at Vicarage Road from the centre-forward he was “supposed” to be to a wide attacker, a wide midfielder, wing back and centre-back without ever changing his approach one iota, you know what you’re going to get from Ikechi even if we’re not really any closer to knowing how best to employ him.

Or rather, we’re not sure what his best position is, not really.  But we know what he brings to the team, and it’s pretty clear what his value is.  He brings energy, speed and a dogged relentlessness that must be a pain in the backside to play against whatever level you’re playing at.  Whether that’s on the wing, as a full-back, a wing-back or up front… he has limitations which mean he’s unlikely to be a nailed on starter in any position at this level, but as a squad player, a British name to come off the bench to change shape, provide some dynamism, chase things that need chasing or run off with things that need running off with he’s worth his weight in gold.  His weight isn’t very much, I would guess, but gold is gold.

Next Season:  As long as Ikechi’s happy with an odd-job man role then it’s hard to see us moving him on.  He started significantly more games in the first half of the season than the second… but with a new head coach in place, all bets are off in any case.

22- Almen Abdi

Given the way the season went there were only one or two likely contenders for Player of the Season, and Almen wasn’t one of them.  Despite this, there was something particularly heroic about the diligence with which he set about the task afforded him… a more disciplined, cautious role than that which he had enjoyed previously in his time at Vicarage Road.  The most visible contrast at the start of the season was of his attitude with that of Matěj Vydra who reportedly didn’t want to adapt and was shipped off pretty sharpish.  Abdi did try to fit in, he dug in and worked hard.  He felt wasted though.

Which is probably a little unreasonable on our part.  The Premier League, for a start, was never going to be as forgiving as the Championship.  You need, perhaps, a higher standard of lock-picker even if your game plan isn’t centred around containment.  But our distorted mental image of Almen’s contribution is probably unhelpful too.  The Almen Abdi who picks up a ball in the hole behind the strikers and slips a slide-rule pass, perfectly timed and weighted past a dumbstruck and hapless backline to an escaping striker is the Gianfranco Zola vintage.  Almen picked up an extraordinary 13 assists in 2012/13, often loading Vydra’s gun, but has only managed 7 across three seasons since.

Nonetheless, there was no disguising the joy when Almen was allowed to pick up the ball in a central position this term and advance on the opposition penalty area, in the stands and on his face.  This felt more natural, it felt right.  But either way, the way he stuck to the task this season is testimony to his attitude;  of his ability, there can be little doubt.

Next Season:  Like Anya, Almen is one of the supposedly mercenary foreign legion brought in by the Pozzos who will be entering their fifth season in Watford colours next year.  And hurrah for that.

23- Ben Watson

Ben Watson made his debut for Palace aged 18.  Coincidentally it was against us… in the very odd game during the week preceding our 2003 Cup semi-final against Southampton. A Trevor Francis call, one of the last of a management career that was to end ten days later.

Perhaps that’s why Watson appears to have been around – in football – forever. He was in our consciousness from the start… but despite this his career has been somewhat inconspicuous, Cup Final goals notwithstanding. He didn’t score many goals. He certainly wasn’t flamboyant, not a name linked with big clubs but… always there. What was Ben Watson for?.

Any doubts have been dismissed by Ben’s 18 months at Vicarage Road, which begun in a fashion that was both dramatic and suitably low key, coming on at half time to turn a 2-0 reverse to Blackpool into a 7-2 victory not by lashing in goals but by quietly ferrying things along, organising, protecting possession not by thundering into challenges (although he’s capable of that) but by simply making good decisions. We might have expected him to fade from contention as Premier League riches enhanced our purchasing power. He wasn’t in the starting eleven for the first five Premier League games. After being brought back in at St James Park in the wake of Valon Behrami’s suspension, he was barely out of it. Other clubs might watch on with casual bemusement… this club who are full of foreigners, who get all their players from Udinese, have Ben Watson in their midfield. Go figure.

Well, let them figure. Ben might be the new Lloyd. Discarded, maybe, possibly, every season. But still there. And suddenly still in the side, because nobody else will do what he does quite as efficiently and unfussily.

Next Season: Probably on the bench. For August. Until something needs sorting.

24- Odion Ighalo

The ultimate season of two halves for Odion, who dramatically exceeded all expectations up to Christmas but was nothing like as potent after it. Whilst he was scoring we had a pretty watertight formula… keep it solid, knowing that there are enough goals, enough tricks up front to grab something when the chance arises. When the goals stopped going in for Iggy – whether it was his head being turned, him being found out, him being watched, regression to the mean or a combination of all of these things, the whole team’s fortunes suffered accordingly. A solid team with a goal threat is a potent thing. A solid team without is not.

All of which leaves us looking at Iggy at little less favourably than he deserves. The first half of the season was remarkable, and hugely enjoyable to boot. These weren’t just tap-ins, or functional goals; the Iggy chop left any number of defenders on their backsides from the opening day at Goodison onwards. And whilst his form did dip, alarmingly, and whilst he could probably have done with some competition for his bulletproof place in the side, he was still delivering no worse than par versus expectations.

Next Season: The second half of the season probably limited the likelihood of a club offering the sort of money that you suspect would be needed. No coincidence that Iggy is now making noises about staying. No bad thing. He’ll be a much more valuable weapon as one of a number of options.

 

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