AFC Bournemouth 1 Watford 1 (03/10/2015) 04/10/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- It’s been seventeeen years since I came to Dean Court. That was a very different time, a different set of circumstances altogether. Everything’s changed since then, the teams, the sport, the profile of the fixture. Hell, even Dean Court itself has been picked up, rotated ninety degrees and plonked down again. It’s small, of course… small for it’s current lofty status. Half the capacity of the Vic, which is hardly a colosseum in this environment itself. And as such it feels almost as if it belongs in 1997, back when we played at stadiums this size, nestled into a well to do area of large houses and shady avenues as a sort of afterthought, a discarded multi-vehicle garage abandoned between the houses. Bournemouth aren’t above their station… they deserve to be where they are. They got to the top flight by scoring lots of goals and winning a lot of football matches (note to Leeds, and similar. Bigness not enough). That they’re doing so on the back of an infrastructure that never expected to have to cope with all this is evidenced not just by the size of the ground but by the vague air of disorganisation as the turnstiles remain unopened as two’o’clock approaches, as the mislabelling of the away tickets. In other circumstances we’d be rooting for the Cherries… good luck to them, sticking it to the man, upsetting applecarts that deserve upsetting. But these aren’t other circumstances, and there’s been too much recent water under the bridge for much in the way of mutual respect.
2- The Hornets started with Nathan Aké making a first League start for us at left back, and Ikechi Anya pushed up into hamstring victim Jose Jurado’s spot in midfield. With the away end on its feet and noisy the visitors started purposefully and aggressively, but this encouraging feel dissipated quickly. Bournemouth began to dominate possession in midfield, as is their wont, and feverishly chased down possession high up the pitch. These factors, combined with the ongoing isolation of our forward players, were a recipe for disaster… the Hornets in possession would find no space in front of them and shepherd the ball backwards and sideways in search of some control. Bournemouth’s forwards denied us that control with their pressing and soon had the game pretty much exactly where they needed it… their threat, with Glenn Murray in for the unfortunate Wilson, came largely from crosses from the flanks but their was plenty of that. Anya and Abdi were set up wonkily right and left respectively, our two sitting midfielders were impotent, Troy worked as hard as ever but looked tentative and hesitant and even Gomes, whose heroics were to come, courted disaster by dwelling on a backpass in the absence of options in front of him. Midway through the half Ritchie cut onto his left foot on the right and found Murray stepping back off the sleeping Prödl’s shoulder to head home. This had been threatened several times.
Our side were not only impotent, they looked thoroughly miserable. There was none of the spirit and vim that has characterised this team over the past season and a bit… indeed if anything this was resonant of the miserable Huddersfield game at the end of the previous season, as if we had dirty linen to be hung and scowled at in public. How much of that was to do with the extent to which we were being outplayed and how much to do with the backstory of the ostracism of first Holebas and now, seemingly, Berghuis we can only speculate… two players whose public assessment of their arrival in Hertfordshire had felt, to varying degrees, somewhat less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic now seem to have paid the price for that apathy. I’m all for Flores maintaining a hard line on such things, it would be somewhat surprising if such an approach to outing bad attitudes had a negative impact on the rest of the squad… but we didn’t look happy.
Nor did the travelling Hornets, nominally the hardcore with the highest stock of brownie points in the club’s furiously determined quest to ensure fairness in allocation of scarce tickets, cover themselves with glory. Singing about a rival striker’s injury isn’t particularly classy, even in response to jibes about the destiny of a contested championship. Even less classy was the pitiful booing that greeted our frustrated flailing around towards the end of the half. There’s a wider and less clear cut discussion about the rights and wrongs of booing your own team in general… but in these circumstances seven of the starting eleven had been in the promoted side last season and had earned a little more patience. All in all, a forty-four minutes to forget.
3- Weakest of a poor bunch in that first half was Etienne Capoue. It’s been three-and-a-half games now without Valon Behrami alongside him – I’m both excited and terrified by the fact that he gets re-released from his cage against Arsenal of all teams in a fortnight – and more than any other period this half lent credibility to our pursuit of Abdoulaye Doucouré over the summer. Ben Watson is terrific and has done fine as a stand in… but the roles in a Capoue/Watson partnership are less well defined than when, in general, Behrami is winning the ball and Capoue is feeding off his many scraps. The Frenchman had a horrible half, largely bypassed and looking a little bit lost. As it drew to a close he was involved in an altercation with goalscorer Murray on the touchline, ostensibly kicked off by a provocative challenge by Capoue. Murray reacted angrily, and could have seen red for his retaliatory assault as the game finally restarted. Next to me, Dave fretted that we didn’t need this, didn’t need to be sucked into bad tempered nonsense as we have done here in previous years. He was wrong.
It would be generous to credit Capoue with the forethought to deliberately upset Bournemouth’s applecart by starting a barney – more likely he was taking out his frustration at his own performance on an opponent who has never been shy with physical contact. But we absolutely needed something to disrupt the Cherries’ total control on the passage of the game and there was a lingering tetchiness in the air as Ighalo chased down what should have been comfortable Bournemouth possession deep in their half. Artur Boruc, truth be told, had looked nervous with the scant responsibilities he’d had that far, something we’d done precious little to test further, but Odion is the last person you want to gift the ball in front of goal at the moment. It wasn’t quite a gimme, Boruc was still well positioned and Ighalo had something to do, but he dropped a shoulder, Boruc followed up his first gaffe by diving needlessly across Ighalo’s path in anticipation of a quick shot that didn’t come rendering the increasingly inevitable conclusion all the more comical from the away end. In case this isn’t clear, Bournemouth should have been out of sight. In drawing level at the break we had gotten away with it, big time.
4- So the second half was all about whether we would take advantage of this unexpected ushering back into the contest. The answer was evident at the start of the second half as Nathan Aké, who had struggled to contain Ritchie, went in strongly and instantly on his charge. “This shit is changing”. He was penalised for a foul, which looked a bit harsh… but either way it was a statement that was echoed all over the pitch. Words had been had. We were much quicker, more mobile, more aggressively into every challenge. Game was back on.
Ighalo wriggled through on the left, his shot blocked rather nervously by a defence who suddenly had something to cope with. Almost a victim mentality in the whites of their eyes, a nervousness that they’d blown it, that on the back of Gradel, Wilson and the rest the world was against them. From the corner the ball broke to Watson who crashed a shot off the crossbar. Anya floated through onto a breathtaking ball from Abdi but couldn’t beat Boruc on his weaker foot. Ighalo got his head down and drove at the penalty area, going down under challenge as soon as he was over the line. He was trying to draw a penalty, he didn’t get it and optimistic as the claim looked his reaction wasn’t the sheepish roll of someone who’d been trying it on, chasing Michael Oliver down the pitch in furious frustration.
Bournemouth found a footing, but there was none of the dominance they’d enjoyed in the first half. Murray has long looked like a pub footballer (in appearance if not in impact or ability) and began to play like one, Running into the Watford half and seemingly shooting when he ran out of puff, a flimsy daisy cutter from thirty yards that Gomes gobbled up. Greater challenges were to come… first from a magnificent scissor kick from Cook that prompted an even better save from the Brazilian, the ball having dipped over him the custodian had to reach down and behind to claw it out of the corner. And then, the penalty.
Much has been spoken about the number of penalties that the Cherries have been awarded over the last few years. These statistics (Bournemouth have earned four more penalties since the start of last season than anyone else in the league) can be a little misleading… if you’ve got players with quick feet and are dominating games you’re going to be inviting nervous tackles, no different to what Ighalo was trying to achieve earlier in the half. The difficulty is where the desire to commit players into making mistakes crosses the line into seeing the award of a penalty to be the be-all and end-all by fair means or foul. This is the fourth penalty we’ve had awarded against us at this stadium in three seasons, three of which soft (Mark Pugh got the echoes of stick for his swallow dive two years ago as he patrolled in front of the visiting fans in the first half) and this one was ludicrous, as it turned out, a cynical attempt to buy a penalty that didn’t even involve a tackle on the part of Capoue but we knew nothing of the detail of the scramble from our location. With our heads in our hands we watched Murray wheeze up to the ball, and for Gomes to push his shot out, Cathcart clearing in the ensuing scramble. Disproportionate celebration in the away end, Gomes continues to put in performances that defy his Tottenham reputation.
5- It should go without saying that this was a much better point for us than for Bournemouth. We were the away side for one thing of course, but the game could have been scripted to eat away at Cherries’ nervous concerns… their blunt edge contributing to failing to capitalise on their first half dominance, failing to pick up maximum points in a home game they must have pencilled in as a win. Tougher opponents to come, if they can’t even beat Watford after that woeful first half… when is Wilson back again… who do you think we might attract in January (Will Hoskins?)
An away win would have rubbed the salt deeper, of course. Much as any away point is a good point, much as we have no claim to anything more after that first half, there was an opportunity here that went begging. For all of Bournemouth’s late flurry there was an opponent here desperate to feel sorry for itself as the game swung around in the second half. We weren’t cruel, or ruthless, or clinical enough to ease them into fretful self pity We continue to make progress, but can’t be turning down points when on offer too often.
Watford 0 Crystal Palace 1 (27/09/2015) 28/09/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. (Meeting room. All characters present. One empty chair. Grant rushes into the room, evidently flustered and attempting to carry a coat, umbrella, laptop, overstuffed bag, overflowing polystyrene cup of tea and half-eaten sandwich. He drops them all onto a chair. Various items fall off the chair. An apple bounces across the floor and ends up underneath the table. He crawls under the table to retrieve it and loudly bangs his head on the way back. He clears his chair and sits down.)
Grant: Sorry I’m late. Been…um…yeah, busy. Um, yeah. (Smiles nervously.) Here now! (Looks around the room.)
Um. Sorry, who are you?
2. My younger self would’ve cared deeply and passionately and probably lengthily about the callous discarding of our manager and much of last season’s Championship-winning (oh…yeah…bollocks) team. My middle-aged self, not so much. Perhaps, if I’m honest, not very much at all. That squad will remain frozen in time, (nearly) winners always. We’ll never know whether they would’ve fallen short or whether, somehow, they might’ve made the leap. That’s the danger, of course, for the decision-makers: that when we hit a sticky patch in November, Matej Vydra and Daniel Tozser will be The Answer with no possibility of contradiction.
It’s a curious thing to find your team popping up at the end of “Match of the Day” with so many unfamiliar faces and with a manager who appears to have stepped out of an M&S window display. On the telly, the sun’s out, Vicarage Road is full and bouncing, but everyone’s different and I’m not there. Did I slip into a coma, perhaps? Are two years of sleep deprivation enough to induce these kind of hallucinations in a middle-aged man? You get a small insight into what it must be like to be a loyal servant deemed surplus to requirements and suddenly shipped out on loan to, say, Wigan or Cardiff and left to figure out the next move yourself. Such upheaval is an integral part of the lives of those on the pitch; less so, until now, of those in the stands. At least I’ve got Matt to answer my endless questions. Matt’ll know.
Well, some of my endless questions, anyway. Among those he can’t really answer are: am I part of this any more? Is it part of me? Who are they? Who, when it really comes down to it, am I? These are not issues anyone should be grappling with at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, still less four o’clock on a Sunday. A new FA charge of bringing the game into existential crisis would surely be appropriate.
3. There’s one question, though, above all. Is it still fun? I’ve only seen about half of these players before, for us or anyone. They seem to have managed happily enough without me. They’re playing in a competition which is the sporting equivalent of that tosser in a white open-top BMW right up your bumper as you trundle along a country lane on a Sunday afternoon, a perfect storm of first world irritations. When we’ve been here before, we’ve possibly been able to ease our consciences with a belief that we’re working against the system from the inside somehow; now, our aim is purely to disappear into the same mid-table fog into which Palace have slipped since that ghastly day at Wembley.
There’s a life to be had back home. This needs to be fun.
4. It is, of course. It takes no time at all to remember the quiet thrill of approaching ninety minutes of football, outcome completely unknown. Nothing like it. Especially true in this context, for Vicarage Road is brash and eager and urgent; I disapprove of such things, naturally, but you can feel the excitement at being here and doing this and maybe, this time, not being a laughing stock. Occupation Road looks as if you could eat your dinner off it; the concourses are busy and buzzing; I manage to get lost on the way to my seat. It’s bloody loud but, for once, the noise isn’t just from a PA cranked up to eleven; there’s colour too, and smiles, and belief, everywhere you look.
It’s all rather marvellous, actually. Don’t quote me on that. I’ve got a reputation to think of.
5. We allow the atmosphere to fuel five minutes’ worth of brash and eager and urgent attacking football, before Palace spoil things by failing to show any signs of panic. Bastards. As the game settles down, it becomes apparent both that we aren’t out of our depth against a team that might well finish in the top half and, at the same time, that there isn’t an awful lot we’re doing that’s scaring them, especially since they’re the away side. It’s an even contest, but one side is more even than the other.
In different circumstances, this would be the cause of much angst in the stands. Understandably, it isn’t here…at least for now. Because you can see what we’re trying to do and the underlying logic (particularly the faith in a consistent system – any consistent system, frankly – to use as a mould) seems sound. We’ve got to build something substantial, something stable, from all of these bits and bobs. That starts from the back, particularly in a division so overloaded with counter-attacking opponents.
6. But there are problems, inevitably. Palace attack with width and pace and, notably, without leaving themselves open to a counter. They quickly identify the space behind Nyom as a target for both Bolasie and Gayle, and he’s fortunate to avoid an early booking from a lenient referee. The task for Nyom and Anya in this formation is a formidable one: regular full-backs in a back four without the ball and supporting wing-backs for an otherwise desperately narrow attack with it. Two places at once, essentially. It’s less of a problem for Anya, who can simply get on his little motorbike; Nyom, however, has a very difficult ninety minutes indeed.
Further forward, we struggle for penetration. Capoue stamps with frustration after over-hitting an ambitious cross-field towards Anya, but it’s a symptom of our malaise rather than an individual error. Palace are tight, disciplined and used to dealing with more potent front-lines than ours. When you think of the Premier League, you think first of the wealth of attacking talent, the players who can hurt you; it’s easy to forget just how difficult some of these units are to break down. Palace don’t make any mistakes, don’t even hint at where the mistakes might be made.
We can keep the ball, but only on their terms. Tellingly, Abdi’s main contributions are a splendid bit of back-tracking to clean up a Palace break and the half’s only yellow card for a shin-high hack; he sees almost none of the ball in the positions we’d want him in. Jurado flits about with purpose but little effect; Ighalo has a number of strengths but absolutely nothing to help us here; it’s been months and months and months since I’ve seen Deeney look so subdued.
We manage a couple of vague attempts but nothing remotely resembling a chance. At the other end, the monstrous Hangeland is foiled by a fabulous flailing Gomes save from an early corner but that aside, we don’t look much like conceding either, and nil-nil is about right at half-time. It’s been an engaging, thoughtful and somewhat technical half of football. Here, possession isn’t everything; waiting for and then taking chances is everything. There’s no sense of being the “better side” or having the “upper hand”. Once upon a time, scoring a goal required a relentless, determined assault like a toddler trashing a sandcastle; now, they can just arrive at any moment, probably at the very point when you think you’re the better side with the upper hand.
7. First goal wins, clearly. And thus we begin the second half by hitting the underside of the bar with a looping Jurado free kick which looks in all the way and then isn’t. We’re a little more direct, for a bit. And it works, for a bit. And then, as before, Palace calm it all down. They hit the woodwork themselves, Nyom turned on the halfway line before Gayle fails to hit a looming target with Gomes advancing at his feet. The game settles back into the same balance as before, caution and patience and, increasingly, shades of frustration too.
When the winning goal comes, it’s sent from the heavens to taunt us: a penalty as cheap and silly as the one which beat us at Wembley. I’d tell you more, but we’ve inevitably lined the pitch with those accursed electronic hoardings, so my view of the game’s key incident is partially obliterated by a piercingly bright advert telling me that Barclays Bank is “championing the true spirit of the game”. Nowhere is the true spirit of the Premier League better captured than in lurid adverts flogging betting websites to the far east at the expense of paying punters actually being able to see the action properly. Do let us know if we’re in the way, won’t you? (Yes, I do find that more irritating than the penalty. Yes, I am gradually turning into Alan Green.)
8. Thereafter, a complete mess. The game immediately becomes stretched which, theoretically, ought to suit us by buying us a bit more space but, in reality, just leads to an awful lot of “taking one for the team” on both sides. Abdi is withdrawn before he takes two for the team and, while our changes give our attacks a tad more width, no-one looks terribly comfortable out there, nobody can win a header against Hangeland, and collectively we look no more likely to score from open play than previously, especially when we become more direct with desperation.
We look no more likely to score from a dead ball either: Jurado’s brush with the crossbar aside, our set pieces manage to be both poorly conceived and poorly executed throughout, which is irritating in such a tight game. A few cheap goals would not go amiss. Ledley’s colossal block tackle late on is notable for its contrast with everything else: Palace have had to resort to last-ditch defending very rarely indeed. We stick at it as we should, but it feels like we’re a spent force long before injury time.
9. You can take a lot of positives from this. We’re competitive, unquestionably. This is a totally different proposition to the hapless, naive and rather more romantic attempts on this summit in the past.
Still, you have to wonder what’ll stop every other visitor to Vicarage Road from doing exactly as Palace did and, more often than not, with similar results. The conservatism of the approach – narrow the gap to a fine margin and hope for a Jurado free kick that’s two inches lower, essentially – is understandable, partially successful so far and yet risks becoming rather unenticing. On a fine autumn day in September, with a couple of wins behind us and a comfortable league placing, there’s little to grumble about. When we’re all freezing our tits off in January, we may well require something that stirs the spirits rather more, something more than good intentions and a couple of half-chances.
It’s a decent start and we don’t look out of place. That’s damning the performance with faint praise, but I can’t help feeling that that’s exactly what it deserves. There’s nothing wrong with taking the positives. But there’s nothing wrong with demanding more either.
Watford 1 Swansea City 0 (12/09/2015) 13/09/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The question is, which way will it go from here. If you’re flicking back in this blog, revisiting this match report some time in the future, you’ll know how everything shakes out. For now… Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary appointment as leader of the Labour party could lead to any number of futures but whatever your politics it’s undeniably interesting…
The same could be said for our future after this three points, hard-fought but well earned. This could be a flash in the pan, an isolated victory that offers brief encouragement… Middlesbrough in 2006, Chelsea in 1999. Or it could be a significant step on a remarkable path. Either way it’s interesting, more interesting than the season might have turned out if we’d laboured manfully through this run of four games between international breaks without getting that win. Had that happened our season could easily have been the equivalent of another generation of Tory-lite Labour politicians… dull, wearying and leading to a somewhat inevitable conclusion. Chelsea provide evidence of what a once solid defence can collapse into once belief disappears.
As it is… we shall see. But a colossal hurdle overcome, irrespective of the game itself.
2- And the canvas was a game and a performance that was as bright and welcome as the bright late-summer sunshine. It started with both sides chasing down possession, desperately trying to out-compete each other. We’ve seen this game a number of times in the second tier and such starts can lead to scruffy, congested battles but the quality here was higher… and the outcome was a fast moving encounter that was always watchable. Critical for the Hornets was the more advanced positioning of Odion Ighalo, effectively playing up with Deeney for an hour. This appeared in part to be aimed at disrupting Swansea’s ability to build from the back, but also saw Deeney have some much needed support in and around him. In both respects Ighalo’s performance was a tour de force, his relentless muscular pain-in-the-arseness causing problems for the Swans’ centre-backs all afternoon.
But the most eye-catching performance was that of Étienne Capoue. This is what you daydream about when you break your club transfer record for a central midfielder… somehow involved in everything at both ends of the pitch but not characterised by that. Often when you get a midfielder who is significant defensively and offensively that’s how you define them… “he’s here, he’s there…”, and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with that, we’ve had some iconic players in that mould. But Capoue’s contributions at either end were magnificent in their own right, always available to receive a pass, or closing down, or nicking the ball and finding space… or involved in our best attacking moves and sprinkling all of this with moments of outrageous skill. An extraordinary, impossible pass with the outside of his foot to bend the ball to Deeney in Swansea’s half, a dragback and spin into space to create a second half breakaway, and the deft but unflashy layoff that created an opening for Deeney to drive narrowly wide in the first. This one of several close-ish calls in the first half that saw us reach half time happy enough at nil-nil… we were not only holding our own, even edging the game, but we were creating stuff too. So far so good.
3- I have two lingering impressions from previous spells in the top flight which were perhaps one-eyed in the first place and may in any case have had the rough edges smoothed off them by the passage of time leaving them oversimplified representations, see what you think. One… in our first spell in the top flight in the eighties, much of which I watched from the Family Enclosure having been nine on promotion in 1982, the other lot were always filthy. Teams used to turn up and kick us. Two, in 1999-2000 we didn’t get a lot of decisions. Indeed, we seemed to come up against referees who had a pre-determined view about How Things Ought To Be.
Swansea were nothing like as violent as the 1986-ish incarnation of Tottenham that exists in my head. Not was Robert (“Bobby”) Madeley in Rob Harris’ league (see here for a discussion of naming preferences of people called Robert). But I was surprised, with their reputation for elegance and flowing football, at the extent to which they put the boot in… Federico Fernandez spent the first half committing late niggly challenges, Ashley Williams cast his weight through Odion Ighalo, flattening the Nigerian striker in the wake of his critical intervention, Eder knocked Heurelho Gomes flying with a challenge that was, generously, clumsy as the visitors chased the game, and Madeley seemed determined to keep his cards in his pocket. Unreasonable to pass judgement after a single game, and that an unheralded defeat after such a strong start to the season… but Swansea didn’t cope terribly well with the challenges the situation presented.
4- All of which probably contributed to the outraged reaction to Behrami’s dismissal. I had no view of the incident, less through distance than through this coinciding with my need to retrieve the latest item of confectionery from our bag for one of the girls. On review, the most generous possible interpretation is that Behrami was unlucky, lifting his legs to avoid Ayew coming in at pace and landing in the wrong place. A more reasonable interpretation is that this was a ridiculous and witless challenge from a player who really ought to know better in a circumstance, one nil up and ostensibly in charge, that could have been hugely (more) expensive. The only reason to offer the alternative explanation is that Behrami’s performances thus far, not to mention his relatively moderate disciplinary record, do not suggest the gross stupidity of such an act… this exemplified at Everton, where he was the model of disciplined, effective aggression. Now we miss a vital player for three games. Idiot (probably).
As an aside Allan Nyom, for all the thoroughly positive and terrifying contributions he’s made so far, is beginning to look like he might be someone of whom a random descent of red mist might end up costing us. At Man City he needlessly (if entertainingly) kicked Raheem Sterling out of the air. Here, with an overhit Swansea pass already in touch behind the goal line, he chose to batter the ultimately miserably ineffective but recently introduced Jefferson Montero with his shoulder, inside the penalty area, sending the winger flying. A ridiculous thing to do, bafflingly met with a handshake from the Ecuadorian.
5- By which time of course we were ahead, and what a fine thing it was both in its deliberate precision and as a tribute act to the last encounter here between these sides in which an aerial assault almost saw the visitors surrender a three goal lead. The long pass from Gomes, brilliantly aware header from Deeney and the movement and composure of Ighalo made Swansea look very leaden indeed.
Thereafter… we should bear in mind that this was a situation, even allowing for Behrami’s dismissal, that rather played to our strengths. Keeping our shape to stifle a disrupted and edgy opponent to protect a lead is a situation that New Watford was made for… harder challenges are to come. Given that nod to common sense… it was bloody minded and brilliant. The support, noisy but not frantic up to that point, upped the volume. The team dug in… beyond those already mentioned Ikechi Anya suddenly looked like a terrific left back rather than a slightly awkward stopgap, Berghuis made a punchy and positive cameo from the bench, Cathcart, Prödl and Gomes did what they’ve been doing all season, we should take care not to take that for granted. Even Jurado, for all that he has yet to convince with his end-product – and for what it’s worth he appears to be trying rather too hard – displayed an ability to turn into space and relieve pressure through composure.
Most of all, this didn’t feel like a smash and grab win that a plucky underdog might hope to snaffle a handful of times a season. Yes, we dropped deep in the dying minutes but there was no desperation, no lack of composure. We took on a side that has beaten Manchester United, drawn at Chelsea, gotten everyone cooing. And beat them. No knocking that.
The question then is, where do we springboard from here? Going to be interesting. Yooorns.
Manchester City 2 Watford 0 (29/08/2015) 30/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Another trip to the North West, another grotesque encounter with the M6. Compounded by taking the wrong route through Manchester as road closures and gridlock conspired to turn what should have been a comfortable day out featuring the traditional generous buffer between arrival and kick-off into an out-of-breath ascent into the oxygen-thin atmosphere of the upper tier with effs having been effed and blindings blinded and ten minutes already on the clock. That the refreshment kiosks had closed during the game didn’t improve our mood, although in fairness, the City stewards had overheard my brother’s anxious phone conversations as he waited for us and his ticket by the turnstile, facilitated his entry and thus end up well in credit. Nonetheless, bah.
2- I tried watching cricket during the summer (not one for minority sports normally) and suffered through my lack of feel for the sport. I know the rules, more or less, and can follow the progress of a game mathematically but I can’t watch a game (match? tie? whatever) and understand what’s going on, what the balance of power is, in the same way as I can in a football game. Turning up late to a football game screws that feel up a little bit. It’s like you’re trying to catch up with a story having missed the first couple of chapters. Nonetheless… the thread in this one was pretty clear from the outset, the storyline already well established. City, slick and strong and aggressive, swarmed at us and we manned the barricades. This was already the biggest test yet of the defensive shape on whose altar so much is being sacrificed.
And for the most part it stood up pretty damn well for that first forty five minutes. City flicked and span and danced and swivelled and didn’t get terribly far for all that… the dominant side, but with precious little in the way of clear cut chances given that domination. We rode our luck, certainly, but on the odd occasion when a clear sight of goal was carved out City were denied, most memorably by an inhuman blocking tackle by Cathcart to deny Raheem Sterling. Elsewhere Behrami was energetic and vital, whilst Abdi’s flourished for the first twenty minutes (that we saw…), reminding us that there’s a fair bit of grit to complement that grace. There was an awkward five minutes that saw Nyom kick Sterling out of the air and Capoue go in late on Touré and we looked at each other and wondered whether raising the temperature of the encounter was really in our interests, but 0-0 at half-time made it very easy to overlook both this and the fact that we’d really offered nothing going forward in what appeared to be a 4-6-0 formation with Troy the falsest of nines on the right wing.
3- Which was great, at far as it went. Problem with an ultra-defensive formation is that you’re kinda stuffed when you go behind. Sterling’s goal, he having been moved to a central position, has been hailed as rewarding a tactical masterstroke but actually we lost concentration at the start of the half to allow the forward to drift in unchecked. That’s the Premier League for you, let alone away at City, and certainly didn’t reflect any great failing in a Plan A that had stood up pretty well to a first half onslaught. Nonetheless, Plan A having failed it was slightly concerning that it took quarter of an hour for Flores to make any kind of personnel change, in which time Fernandinho had smacked City two up and all but out of sight. Our defensive shape, so inspiring a thing when it was kinda holding out, now became a source of frustration – no out ball, no means of grabbing a foothold or providing a threat.
When the change came it saw Anya replace Abdi and briefly we seemed to adopt a conventional 4-4-2. On the front foot for the first time we suddenly had some controlled possession in City’s half for virtually the first time in the game and if City threatened to catch us on the counter this felt like a necessary risk that came with the territory. It was exhilarating and invigorating and got the visiting ‘orns – most of whom were hidden from our view in the half-full upper tier section – roaring for the first time. Anya soon had our best – only? – chance of the game, Jurado’s ball from the right being met with a brilliantly selfless dummy by Deeney on the edge of the box. Anya seemed momentarily surprised as well, allowing Sagna to fly in and emulate Cathcart’s crucial block of the first period. And then… and then… off went Ighalo, on came Layún and we settled back down into 4-2-3-1 again. Our threat, such as it was, dissipated immediately.
4- We had possession still, but largely on City’s terms and rarely in threatening positions. Occasionally either the dogged Alain Nyom on the right or Ikechi Anya down the left would get to the byline and sling a ball across but it’s difficult to hit a lone target. To this end Matej Vydra’s name got some airing, and there was brief excitement in the upper tier as the forward appeared to prepare to come on; sure, never a lone striker but if we’ve nothing to lose then why not go 4-4-2 and give Troy someone to play off, someone to move and disrupt City’s painfully comfortable defence. Instead – the distance had deceived us – Ben Watson took to the field to replace Capoue in defensive midfield, a move greeted with the first open and angry dissent of our Premier League season. Losing by a moderate margin at City is no disgrace and there’s a lot to be said for avoiding a demoralising dicking… but a 2-0 defeat is not something to defend. Predictably enough, the game finished with only theoretical further threats to City’s goal.
5- We are in the position of having to take an awful lot on trust at one time. The change in manager. The change in players. The change in playing style. This happened once before of course, three years ago… but Sean Dyche’s success and his team’s achievement in finishing mid table had only been triumphs in context (and thus less sparkly), the adoption of a swashbuckling playing style unlikely to alienate anybody. Here… the combination of changes will appear courageous and visionary if successful in the unforgiving Premier League. If not… there’s an awful lot to get pissed off about. Even ostensibly sensible and necessary developments like the departure of Fernando Forestieri to Sheffield Wednesday today – a striker who struggled to contribute to our promotion was hardly going to be a fixture – becomes a source of bitterness and acrimony. To put it another way, one tweet on Saturday afternoon suggested that the author would rather watch Nando score the winner at Huddersfield than see us put 10 behind the ball in the Premier League. Similar sentiments were expressed less eloquently in the away end. On the same theme, the traditional annual League Cup fiasco becomes something to get pissed off about, a bit like blaming your new boss for it being Monday.
These are early days, the squad being formed and moulded by the hour (’til 6pm Tuesday). Nonetheless, this will surely be as crucial an international break as we’ve had for many years. Flores may claim to be unconcerned with our lack of goal threat, but one attempt on target in three games isn’t going to convince many to fork out for a Newcastle ticket (even if it doesn’t involve braving the M6). Jurado, for all his ability, looks lightweight and has made minimal impact, whilst Berghuis didn’t even make the bench today. Abdi looks wonky, Deeney looks heavy, isolated and miserable and Ighalo only effective for nuisance value. Perhaps they’re not suited to this new formation either, but one can’t help but feel that the guys for whom promotion to the Premier League was part of the attraction in the first place deserve rather more. A similar lack of potency when Swansea visit in a fortnight may see a marked change in tone at Vicarage Road.
Watford v West Bromwich Albion (15/08/2015) 15/08/2015Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
Sorry, folks. Because of illness (me) and other commitments (him), you’ll have to do without us for this one, and for Southampton too. Normal service will resume shortly.
Everton 2 Watford 2 (08/08/2015) 09/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Daughter 1 has just turned 9 but is already occasionally experimenting with the taciturn sullenness more associated with your average teenager, heaven help us. In my head she’s also the less fanatically committed of the two… something good to do of an afternoon for her, a reason for existence for her younger sister. So when Miguel Layún’s joyful volley hit the back of the net and our end of the Bullens Road Stand was going completely berserk and she turned to me with eyes like stars and proclaimed that “this is turning into the best day of my life“, it all seemed worthwhile… the agonising queues on the M6 (ostensibly caused by Alice breaking down in the outside lane… so we could have been worse off…), the uncomfortable mingling with Bedfordshire’s emissaries at a rammed Norton Canes services, the scratch down the side of the car caused by hurried parking in our pre-booked driveway… a thunderous return of Football that blew away the lingering memories of those miserable last few minutes against Sheffield and any angst we had going into the new season. What followed (and preceded) it was a noisy, breathtaking, cobweb-flushing afternoon’s entertainment. Welcome back.
2- Our first half was awesome. Layún’s goal was a fine thing, a fully merited decoration to a lively, sparky performance from the Mexican that was very nearly duplicated with a punched shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide just before half time. More impressive altogether was our much advertised defensive shape… in evidence against Sevilla it was heartening to see us looking so robust in a challenging competitive fixture, never behind in a game away from home and therefore under constant inspection. Less bodies thrown in front of the ball and last-ditch defending than the calm, absolute and brutal effectiveness of a car crusher, closing in on Everton’s pensive possession from all sides and squashing the air out of them. Protagonist in chief was the extraordinary Valon Behrami whose count of snarling, wholehearted but clean tackles in the first half alone was well into double figures. It was pointed out afterwards that there’s something heartwarming about a bearded number 8 throwing himself into battle for the cause… and the parallels with John Eustace are there, not least in the degree of control to match the aggression that saw Behrami pick up only 6 yellow cards in two and a half years at West Ham despite our fears. There are differences too, though… John Eustace’s menace was in the depths of the blue of his eyes. Valon Behrami’s is more overt, from the shock of fierce yellow in his hair to the slightly unhinged facial expressions he could hardly look more intimidating with a cutlass between his teeth. His partnership with Capoue, simultaneously deft and strong, silk and steel and keener to push up in support of the attack, looks a fine bedrock.
3- The old “will take time to gel” thing drifts from being a source of concern to a reason to be excited in the wake of the opening fixture. Because there were deficiencies, several of them actually, and yet we went and got a result despite them in a challenging away game, twice taking the lead in the process. This team is only going to get better (and worth noting, as an aside, that Jose Mourinho was enthusing in reviewing the season’s prospects, about the quality of players that the newly promoted clubs have been able to attract from abroad. Norwich have signed nobody from abroad, Bournemouth Max Gradel and a Portuguese loanee…). Inevitable that after our terrific first half that saw us dismantle Everton’s attacking play whilst threatening, if largely on the break, the home side would reshape and rethink and ultimately apply more pressure. Nonetheless it took a miscommunication between Behrami and Holebas, each leaving a bouncing ball to the other before the Swiss midfielder’s clumsy attempt to deal, to create the opening for Everton’s equaliser. That’s the sort of thing that happens when players don’t know each other but will get better… and faced with the imposing wall that was Sebastian Prödl and Craig Cathcart it still took a fine strike from Barkley to capitalise. Going forward, too, it doesn’t look quite right… and again, if Quique has prioritised defensive shape (to good effect on this evidence) then the attacking verve will develop in time. Jurado, certainly, was a little disconnected for all his obvious skill… catching the eye with a nutmeg of Barkley here, a clever flick over an opponent there but only rarely interacting with his teammates to good effect and not sufficiently physically robust, yet, to buy himself the time to work with. That’ll come. Ighalo, too… despite his wonderful goal being huge fun and betraying that for all John Stones’ evident attributes in what was otherwise a fine performance by the defender he’d forgotten (or never received) the brief on Ighalo’s favourite trick, the Nigerian looked a little unsure of his role, not quite up supporting Deeney, not quite back in the midfield. The second half in general saw us having to withstand a barrage of pressure, particularly in the opening 20 minutes as Everton changed formation and the relentless sun sapped the legs of Nyom and Holebas who had both been eager and energetic outlets from fullback; you’d rather we didn’t have to cope with that every week.
4- Everton, for their own part, were far more agreeable than some of their visits to Vicarage Road in recentish years have suggested. Affable stewards, friendly supporters stopping us in the street to shake hands and reflect on the game. Perhaps I’m getting old but this stuff matters… or is appreciated at any rate. Admittedly a drawn game in the sunshine helps… I’d have not been in the mood for anything much had we lost, as has been the tradition at Goodison Park, and I’m sure we wouldn’t have found the locals as cheerful if the reverse had been true. Being accompanied by two young girls probably doesn’t hurt either… something about the presence of children that rather alters any perception of threat as those who were on the same trip as I was to Carrow Road in 2006 will surely remember. Most of all, yet another boisterous and bouncing performance by the support in the spirit encouraged by the 1881 was tremendous, and being focused on supporting our lot rather than antagonising the opposition (for the most part) alienates nobody. There are, of course, significant exceptions for whom directed comment will be appropriate, but for now another sterling performance by the travelling Hornets.
5- As a building block, as a start, as a statement of intent this was tremendous. It’s only a point, and much as it might have caused immediate revision of the widely held view that Watford will struggle and finish bottom we’ve only made a single, positive step along the road. Significant, though, both as regards our own prospects and our own sentiment that whereas in the past Premier League seasons we’ve been the ones reflecting on a positive performance undone by a late goal, or bemoaning decisions that went against us (whilst ignoring the two goals we conceded by dint of standing stock still in our own penalty box, speaking hypothetically) we’re now able to look back on the moments of Premier League quality from the opposition – Barkley’s finish, the build up to Kone’s equaliser – and recognise that it took these to deprive us of victory at a ground where we’ve only ever tasted defeat in nine previous visits. Those moments – the bad decisions, the unrewarded performances – might still come. On this evidence, we shouldn’t expect them to be decisive in determining our season. Yoooorns.
Season Preview Part 5 07/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
INS: Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, Undisclosed), Kevin Wimmer (Cologne, Undisclosed)
OUTS: Paulinho (Guangzhou Everglade, £9,800,000), Étienne Capoue (Watford, £5,700,000), Lewis Holtby (Hamburg, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Jordan Archer (Millwall, Free), Cristian Ceballos (Charlton Athletic, Free), Bongani Khumalo (Supersport United, Free), Alexander McQueen (Carlisle United, Free), Brad Friedel (Retired), Grant Ward (Rotherham United, Six Month Loan)
OUR EX-SPURS: Dean Austin, Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes
THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose, Andros Townsend
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two narrow cup defeats, most recently in 2012 when Sean Murray announced himself, previously in the 2008 League Cup when Spurs came from behind in one of Brendan Rodgers’ first games in charge.
|1994-95||3-6 / 3-2|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Trippier Alderweireld Vertonghen Rose
Lamela Eriksen Chadli
VERDICT: Tottenham are just sort of there, aren’t they? Too good for most of the division, not good enough – rich enough? – to compete with the biggest clubs, they’ve finished between fourth and sixth for each of the last six seasons. Fourth is the holy grail of course, perversely rendered more significant than the FA Cup it’s appropriate that Spurs, once defined by being a good cup side but not quite good enough to win the league, sit where they are. Thing is, that fourth place has never quite proven the stepping stone to establishing Spurs as a Champions’ League club… and as has been widely documented the club’s other major recent windfall, the receipt of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee, wasn’t spent entirely successfully.
So Spurs have a very capable side and lots of good footballers… but the defence is far from watertight, there’s a lack of muscle in a lightweight midfield, a lack of pace in the attack and precious little cover for the extraordinary Harry Kane as it stands. The phrase “difficult second season” is widely mumbled about Kane… no sign any tailing off just yet, but surely unrealistic to ask such a young player to keep carrying such responsibility even if his form holds up and he avoids injury. A policy of bringing in and bringing through young British talent – Delle Ali, Alex Pritchard, Ryan Mason – might pay off in terms of keeping Spurs fans reasonably content with their lot until such benefits as arise from their relocation – currently scheduled for three years time – pay off. This season… fifth would be a far from reckless guess.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
INS: James Chester (Hull City, £8,000,000), James McClean (Wigan Athletic, £1,500,000), Rickie Lambert (Liverpool, Undisclosed)
OUTS: Graham Dorrans (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Kemar Roofe (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Chris Baird (Derby County, Free), Donervon Daniels (Wigan Athletic, Free), Jason Davidson (Huddersfield Town, Free), Bradley Garmston (Gillingham, Free), Alex Jones (Birmingham City, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (Norwich City, Free), Georgios Samaras, Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, End of Loan)
OUR EX-BAGGIES: Lloyd Dyer
THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A five-nil thrashing at the Hawthorns early in Malky’s first season and a more creditable draw at Vicarage Road in which the ten man ‘orns took the lead with five minutes to go only for the Baggies to equalise at the death. The same game saw a Jonas Olsson tackle bring Tom Cleverley’s Player of the Season campaign to a premature end.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Dawson Chester Lescott Brunt
Gardner Fletcher Morrison McClean
VERDICT: In terms of establishing a smaller club in the Premier League, .West Brom are yet another decent template having spent the last five years in the top flight – four of which relatively comfortably – a period preceded by eight or nine seasons of yo-yoing between the top two divisions. They might also serve as a warning. Fulham’s Premier League life ran out when they became over-reliant on older players; a bit of bad luck with injuries and they had nowhere to go, a load of old blokes on top contracts and little to build off. West Brom aren’t in quite the same boat, and in terms of compatibility Tony Pulis is a decent match to work with an experienced squad – experience that we could do with a bit of ourselves – but there’s a danger in relying too long on a format just because it’s working. Four of the eleven above are in their thirties, several more in their late twenties and only Saido Berahino, his future seemingly far from secure as I write, comes in at under 26 whilst in the wings backup includes the likes of Garath McAuley, Jonas Olsson, Stephane Sessegnon and new signing Rickie Lambert. Lambert, 34 before the end of the season, is a decent addition but you wouldn’t want to be slotting him into Berhino’s slot should the youngster move on; decent goalscorer that he is, he was never one for too much running around.
Attempts at recruitment have understandably focused on wide positions; James McClean, no more than reasonable in a relegated Wigan side last season was a bit of an odd one, further moves for Football League stars Matt Phillips and Mickael Antonio stalling as their clubs reject bids. All of which reflects Jeremy Peace’s famously careful approach to recruitment, hugely frustrating for supporters. As long as Mr Pulis is happy you’d fancy that Albion are no more than theoretical relegation candidates. There’s too much savvy in that team. Wouldn’t take a lot tho…
WEST HAM UNITED
INS: Dmitri Payet (Marseille, £10,700,000), Pedro Obiang (Sampdoria, Undisclosed), Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus, Undisclosed), Darren Randolph (Birmingham City, Free), Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, Season Loan). Manuel Lanzani (Al Arabi, Season Loan)
OUTS: Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough, £5,500,000), Paul McCallum (Leyton Orient, Free), Dan Potts (Luton Town, Free), Carlton Cole, Guy Demel, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nenê, Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)
OUR EX-HAMMERS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: None
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-0 drubbing at home early in Sean Dyche’s season when it became clear that Chris Iwelumo was no longer quite the fearsome warrior he once had been, and a much more enjoyable point earned by Sean Murray at Upton Park in which Dale Bennett ended his Watford career on a high.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Jenkinson Ogbonna Reid Cresswell
VERDICT: Can I just say that I’m going to miss the Boleyn Ground? Not the bloody queue at the tube afterwards, sure… but the proper claustrophobic footballgroundness of it. It’s a Good Thing. The Irons will move out at the end of the season, destined for the revamped, heavily subsidised Olympic Stadium – who said that the 2012 games had no legacy – and so for West Ham more than anyone it’s fundamental to have a good season, to be on an upward trajectory when that move happens so as to make what will be a 54,000 seater arena a positive place rather than a white elephant. Relegation would be unthinkable, but there appears to be limited threat of that; for all Big Sam’s “bad fit” at West Ham, he left them a solid base after three mid-table seasons. Slaven Bilic was always going to be a popular replacement and has West Ham messageboards cooing over his less pragmatic style, new recruit Dmitri Payet a particularly popular addition; he’ll have to cope with the Europa League (LATE EDIT: No they won’t!), which is sort of like being handicapped with extra sandbags as far as the League goes for squads without two teams’ worth of senior players, but it would take a lot for the Hammers to struggle. Worth noting also that in amongst the thousands of rumours (OK, 89 and counting) over the summer there have been a large number of suggestions of us competing with West Ham for players. Which I’m inclined to believe reflects rather well on both parties.
INS: Étienne Capoue (Tottenham Hotspur, £5,700,000), Steven Berghuis (AZ67, £4,600,000), Valon Behrami (Hamburg, £3,000,000), Jose Holebas (AS Roma, £1,800,000), Jose Manuel Jurado (Spartak Moscow, Undisclosed), Allan Nyom (Udinese, Undisclosed), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Undisclosed), Giedrius Arlauskis (Steaua Bucharest, Free), Miguel Britos (Napoli, Free), Sebastian Prödl (Werder Bremen, Free)
OUTS: Lewis McGugan (Sheffield Wednesday, £300,000), Jonathan Bond (Reading, Undisclosed), Luke O’Nien (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Marco Motta, Vujadin Savic, Daniel Tözsér, Diego Fabbrini (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Uche Ikpeazu (Port Vale, Six Month Loan), Juanfran (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Sean Murray (Wigan Athletic, Month Loan), Adlène Guedioura (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, End of Loan)
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Nyom Prödl Cathcart Holebas
Berghuis Abdi Jurado
VERDICT: There’s a threat in our scars from last time, for those of us old enough to remember. Last time and the time before. We’ve sat through seasons that were pretty miserable, tedious and, yes, expensive long before they finished. Joyless. During which you had to endure the idiots at work for whom Watford had only recently entered consciousness as anything other than a theoretical entity, to wearily ponder whether it was really worth countering the “cor, Watford are a bit rubbish aren’t they?” with the explanation that we’d done rather well to even get there actually. In reality that straw of truth became something that we clung to for our own sakes. In both seasons, in different ways, we were glad when it was over.
It’s different this time. Genuinely different, more than just a fist-waving “it will be different” statement of intent. For one thing, we got ourselves promoted automatically and didn’t that feel good. For another, we’ve got this extraordinary infrastructure behind us this time. An infrastructure that dwarfs what either of the other promoted sides can throw at the challenges ahead, that has helped us bring in another swathe of new players. A statement of intent. We didn’t get promoted to give it a spirited shot and if that wasn’t quite enough to shrug and grin and go back and start again. No, it’s fundamental that we stay up and Gino Pozzo is giving us the tools to do so.
The approach is “different” in another way of course. “Different” to more or less everyone else in the country, to varying degrees, with a consequent range of appreciation and comprehension from the nation’s media (Danny Murphy’s “they’ll struggle now their loans have gone back” firmly at the “must try harder” end of the scale). There’s still sniping too, which is nothing new any more and predictably escalated in volume once we started doing well again after a bit of a hiatus in 2013/14. Quite why a Manchester City-style bankrolling is morally acceptable whilst an approach that’s sustainable for a smaller club isn’t is a little bit baffling… but perhaps we’re just resented for getting lucky. What’s harder for the fanbase to reconcile is yet another huge turnover, another load of names and faces to get used to. That happened in 2012 of course and we got over that pretty damned quickly… but we’re in a tougher place this time, and Daniel Tözsér did more for us than Carl Dickinson. Slav’s departure is harder to get your head round than any of the well-catalogued ones that preceded it.
If it were at all reasonable to challenge Gino Pozzo on this, of course, he’d be perfectly justified in asking whether we preferred that nice gentleman in the hat back. We’ve discussed this before, but it boils down to trust, and he’s earned plenty. The extent of the revamp of the squad and the replacement of the coach outstrip even the sacking of McKinlay for boldness… that that decision had any credibility at all was simply because Gino Pozzo isn’t a bloody idiot. He’s not the rash, emotional, crass, erratic clown that the lazier analyses imply. Quite the opposite. In these decisions, as with the McKinlay one, he’s done things that he knew would attract scorn from outside and criticism from within, particularly if things were to go awry. Not easy decisions, not the soft options. And he’s done them anyway. We know enough by now to have confidence in his decision making.
There’s no disputing that Flores’ biggest challenge is getting it all to hang together… a new way of playing, a new bunch of players, in a new division. There’s also no disputing that two of those things were necessary given the third. Our “we’ll score more than you” philosophy which saw our three at the back pulled hither and thither for much of last season was always going to be somewhat optimistic in the top flight. The players we’ve brought in, from Roma and Spurs and Bremen rather than Chesterfield and Rotherham, have us looking more solid already. Hell, we faced a slickedy slick Sevilla side and looked tight and organised and compact in a way that we rarely did last season. And yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, and yes Goodison will be a different challenge in many different ways. But looking solid against Sevilla is a decent start. That, and the goals of Deeney and Ighalo and Abdi and the less familiar quantities represented by Jurado and Berghuis.
The level of investment in the squad guarantees nothing, of course. This is in part reflected in the (almost) universally damning take on our survival prospects. A lot of this is lazy dick-witted tosh – Norwich, heard of them they must be good (“….and we had the best squad in the division. No, we did we did we did…”). Bournemouth, they won the division (in the last smegging minute), they must be good. Watford? They just sack managers don’t they? – but some of it IS more considered. Looking at the challenges that we’ve gone through above, new manager, new team, limited emotional investment in either from the support who don’t know them yet, looking at the quality of the opposition. Yes, much of the “they’ll finish bottom” is lazy tosh. Some of it isn’t. Some of it’s more considered.
But still wrong.
Season Preview Part 4 06/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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INS: Jordie Clasie (Feyenoord, £8,000,000), Cédric Soares (Sporting Lisbon, Up to £4,700,000), Juanmi (Malaga, Undisclosed), Cuco Martina (Twente Enschede, Undisclosed), Steven Caulker (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, Season Loan)
OUTS: Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United, £25,000,000), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool, £10,000,000), Artur Boruc (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Cody Cropper (Franchise FC, Free), Jos Hooiveld, Chris Johns, Dani Osvaldo, Omar Rowe, Jake Sinclair, Sam Gallagher (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Jack Stephens (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Jordan Turnbull (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, End of Loan), Filip Djuričić (Benfica, End of Loan), Eljero Elia (Werder Bremen, End of Loan)
OUR EX-SAINTS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Ross Wilson (Head of Recruitment)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two thumping defeats in Sean Dyche’s season that yielded seven goals for the Saints to none against, five of them for Rickie Lambert. The second of these, on a cold but sunny February afternoon, featured Tamasz Kuszczak’s excitable debut and a silver lining in the form of Troy Deeney’s growing influence.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Cédric Fonte Yoshida Bertrand
Tadic Mané Rodriguez
VERDICT: If there’s a high water mark to aim at, surely this is it. Southampton have more of a top flight pedigree than we do and the parallels between the two clubs only stretch so far… but the Saints, after seven years outside the top flight, have re-established themselves remarkably quickly and appear to be turning selling off their prize assets to Liverpool in particular into an art form. After last summer’s dramatic exodus, followed implausibly by an improved Premier League showing that saw the Saints in the Champions’ League places, Saints have again sold on assets in the form of Clyne and Schneiderlin whilst losing another key man in Toby Alderweireld. The incoming Jordy Clasie seems to have gone down hugely well as Schneiderlin’s replacement, and with Jay Rodriguez returning – assuming he’s back to anything like his best – Southampton look well set again.
There are two factors that might hamper their progress. Keeper Fraser Forster’s injury will keep him out for most of the season, and bringing in a back up keeper who needs to be relied on more than a back-up keeper might expect to be is always a challenging one. Maarten Stekelenburg has the experience but his Fulham career has been hit by injury and poor form and he spent a year at Roma last season without playing. Meanwhile there’s the increasingly poisoned chalice of the Europa League and its demands on the Saints’ squad which doesn’t look to have the cover in it to accommodate such trevails, even any wearying impact is unlikely to hamper Southampton early enough to give us an advantage at Vicarage Road at the end of August. Southampton will do fine, but hard to see them matching last year.
INS: Joselu (Hannover 96, £5,750,000), Mona el Ouriachi (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Jakob Haugaard (FC Midtjylland, Undisclosed), Sergio Molina (Real Madrid, Undisclosed), Philipp Wollscheid (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed), Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona, Free), Shay Given (Aston Villa, Free), Glen Johnson (Liverpool, Free), Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea, Season Loan)
OUTS: Asmir Begović (Chelsea, £8,000,000), Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla, £7,000,000), Robert Huth (Leicester City, £3,000,000), Jamie Ness (Scunthorpe United, Free), Wilson Palacios, Thomas Sorensen, Andy Wilkinson, Daniel Bachmann (Ross County, Six Month Loan), Victor Moses (Chelsea, End of Loan)
OUR EX-POTTERS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two goalless draws as Stoke went up and we laboured to the play-offs in 2007/08. The second of these, at Vicarage Road in March, constituted arguably our final convincing display of the season and was scuppered by Rob Styles issuing a red card to John Eustace, a decision greeted with suitable disdain by home and away fans alike.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Johnson Shawcross Muniesa Pieters
van Ginkel Whelan
Afellay Bojan Arnautovic
VERDICT: Thinking about those games above in 2007/08, it would have seemed inconceivable back then that Stoke would not only go up but hang around and establish themselves as a mid-table side now, seven years on. Our perspective is perhaps coloured by the memory of our own miserable end to that season, but my recollection is that a functional City side was promoted by default, the second best side in a very moderate division. Since then… the brutal, direct caricature has waned a little bit, more’s the pity. The Rory Delap, Big Mama Sidibe, Robert Huth side was a variation in the monochrome of the Premier League and annoyed people who, frankly, deserved to be annoyed. I make this statement as someone who didn’t have to watch them play on a regular basis, admittedly, but Stoke were certainly a lot of fun from a distance. Now, after consecutive top flight finishes they’re another template for us to follow. Stoke is a bigger city than Watford, but the Potters spent a good twenty years outside the top flight and only occasionally strayed anywhere near it again and yet here they are, every inch a mid-table side.
There are challenges this season though. In Begovic, N’Zonzi, Moses and to a lesser extent the veteran Huth City have lost key players; messageboards seem comfortable enough with Jack Butland’s promotion after a couple of years’ of being loaned out, the responsibility seems a big one to me for a 22 year old. N’Zonzi’s departure put a lot of weight on Whelan’s shoulders; N’Zonzi may be replaced but, like Butland, will be doing well if they match the contribution of the man he’s replacing. Meanwhile for all that City have the squad strength befitting a side who’ve been in the top flight for a while there are key men – Shawcross, Pieters and, for the moment, Whelan upon whom City are reliant. No danger of the drop, but may slip from the last two years’ high water mark.
INS: Jeremain Lens (Dynamo Kiev, £8,500,000), Adam Matthews (Celtic, £2,000,000), Sebastian Coates (Liverpool, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed)
OUTS: Connor Wickham (Crystal Palace, up to £9,000,000), El Hadji Ba (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Anthony Reveillere, Jordan Pickford (Preston North End, Season Loan), Santiago Vergini (Getafe, Season Loan), Ricky Alvarez (Inter, End of Loan)
OUR EX-BLACK CATS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Danny Graham, Adam Johnson
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Turns out that we haven’t played Sunderland (Black Cats still doesn’t sound right) for ten years, since we got two points less than we deserved from a draw at Vicarage Road and salvaged respectability from 4-0 down to go down 4-2 at a freezing Stadium of Light as Ray Lewington’s Watford career edged towards an unforeseen end.
|1996-97||0-2 / 0-1|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Matthews Coates O’Shea Van Aanholt
Johnson Larsson Gomez Lens
VERDICT: I kind of like Sunderland. Influenced I think by two trips up to Wearside, first as we both went up in 1999 and then a season later. Not a lot of obvious rationale to that; we lost both games, didn’t get any decisions in either and got to watch Kevin Phillips in his pomp in a side designed around him become the striker he always looked like he might be at Vicarage Road. But both were evening kick-offs, long early-season hikes up the length of the country and the place was absolutely electric, on the crest of a wave. I get quite defensive when Peter Reid’s Sunderland sides are dissed for their directness despite myself.
We’ve been there a few times since and found it altogether less chirpy; ten years on from our last encounter there’s a weary low ebb to the feel of the place. “Sunderland aren’t even in the bottom three” was oft used as a damning indictment of the number of carcasses rolling listlessly over each other at the foot of the Prem last season but a side that could seemingly not be relied on to either score many goals nor keep a clean sheet for much of the campaign – that they only won seven games in all season is damning in itself – scraped enough points out of a decent May to stay up by three. Now… Dick Advocaat having been persuaded to stay on there’s a more chipper feel to Sunderland messageboards than I’d expected. Advocaat’s compatriot Jeremain Lens looks like the marquee signing and adds some much needed pace to the attacking options but there aren’t a lot of goals in that forward line – Defoe is more significant than you’d want a 32 year-old nippy striker to be – and the options at centre back are the ageing duo of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, the injury-ravaged Younes Kaboul and Uruguayan Seb Coates with half-a-season’s decent form behind him. Desperately short of creativity in the middle of the park, Sunderland will be one of those that we’re trying to tread down on our way up.
INS: Éder (Sporting Braga, Undisclosed), Oliver McBurnie (Bradford City, Undisclosed), Kristoffer Nordveldt (Heerenveen, Undisclosed), Franck Tabanou (Saint Etienne, Undisclosed), André Ayew (Marseille, Free)
OUTS: Jazz Richards (Fulham, Undisclosed), David Cornell (Oldham Athletic, Free), Rory Donnelly (Gillingham, Free), Alan Tate, Gerhard Tremmel, Adam King (Crewe Alexandra, Six Months Loan), Tom Carroll (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Nelson Oliveira (Benfica, End of Loan)
OUR EX-SWANS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A dramatic 3-2 defeat in the September of Malky’s second season that saw us go three-down and then claw back to 3-2 having a late goal disallowed as we realised that the Swans didn’t really fancy a direct approach – this included Troy’s first League goal for the ‘orns. Later in the campaign a creditable 1-1 draw at the Liberty Stadium secured by a Danny Graham equaliser – Graham was to move to Swansea a couple of months later.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Naughton Fernandez Williams Tabanou
Ayew Sigurdsson Montero
VERDICT: Swansea are yet another lot who, whilst now all but part of the top flight’s establishment, were very much not a part of the elite for a very long time, and not so very long ago. They’re a template in another way, in being long-term exponents of the 4-2-3-1 that QSF seems so keen on; the consequence in terms of their squad is a surfeit of quick, clever blokes to fill the three spaces behind the striker. The striker role itself seems to belong to Gomis, whose residence in South Wales has never felt terribly secure but who faces limited competition within the squad for that position, new signing Éder the likeliest stand-in. Little wonder then that we begin to look at our own surfeit of strikers, at least two of whom linked to the Swans during this transfer window, and wonder how they’re going to fit – or that in Jurado and Berghuis we’ve bulked up a bit on quick, clever blokes ourselves.
As long as they continue to be well run and pick up the likes of André Ayew and Franck Tabanou relatively unfussily the Swans will continue to do just fine. I wouldn’t say they’re invulnerable to a bad string of injuries mind, nor that Garry Monk has proven himself beyond all doubt despite his impressive first full season at the helm. Four seasons of finishing between eighth and twelfth tells its own story though, and it would take a catastrophe for the Swans to struggle.
Season Preview Part 3 05/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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INS: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool, £49,000,000), Fabian Delph (Aston Villa, £8,000,000), David Faupala (Lens, Undisclosed), Patrick Roberts (Fulham, Undisclosed), Enes Unal (Bursaspor, Undisclosed)
OUTS: Dedryck Boyata (Celtic, £1,500,000), Jordy Hiwula (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Joe Nuttall (Aberdeen, Undisclosed), Karim Rekik (Marseille, Undisclosed), Scott Sinclair (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), John Guidetti (Celta Vigo, Free), Frank Lampard (New York City, Free), James Milner (Liverpool, Free), Micah Richards (Aston Villa, Free), Angelino (New York City, Season Loan), Seko Fofana (Bastia, Season Loan), Stevan Jovetic (Inter Milan, 18 Month Loan), Enes Unal (Genk, Season Loan)
OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: None
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two defeats in Manchester in FA Cup ties, one of which a close thing the other less so, and two draws in the top flight – a nil-nil in Manchester in a rainstorm, and a one-one at the Vic that confirmed our relegation.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Zabaleta Mangala Kompany Kolarov
Sterling Touré Delph Silva
VERDICT:I had a look back at last year’s City side. They’re not actually that old. Of the regulars only Yaya Touré (32) and Martin Demichelis (34) are over 30. I would have guessed more than that. The thing is, for all that they’re all top players, established players there was maybe a lack of hunger, a lack of urgency last season. Everything’s relative again, they were still the second best side in the country… but an awful lot of them will be 30 or knocking by the time the season ends, this is a side that’s due a refit. Thing is, New City haven’t been terribly good at buying younger players. Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Adam Johnson, Jovetic, Nastasic, Savic have not lived up to expectations, Mangala had a patchy first season. The frankly terrifying Aguero is one of very few to have come in at a young age (23) and ripped it up. The consequence, then, is that City are needing to acquire players at the top of their game, or certainly well-established, and therefore expensive. Good job they’ve got the backing to support the expensive strategy of signing players with necessarily limited resale value. That same level of investment means that even a transition season for City will leave them strong enough to finish second or third. They’ll still be too strong for most. Christ, isn’t the Premier League dull?
INS: Memphis Depay (PSV Eindhoven, £31,000,000), Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton, £25,000,000), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich, £14,400,000), Matteo Darmian (Torino, Undisclosed), Sergio Romero (Sampdoria, Free)
OUTS: Robin van Persie (Fenerbahçe, £4,800,000), Nani (Fenerbahçe, £4,250,000), Angelo Henriquez (Dinamo Zagreb, £1,100,000), Saidy Janko (Celtic, Undisclosed), Rafael da Silva (Lyon, Undisclosed), Ben Amos (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Tom Cleverley (Everton, Free), Tom Thorpe (Rotherham United, Free), Will Keane (Preston North End, Season Loan), Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Andy Kellett (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan)
OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart
THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Three defeats in our last top flight season… a 2-1 reverse at the Vic that was more comprehensive than it sounds, a 4-1 defeat in the Cup Semi-final that was perhaps less comprehensive than it sounds, and a 4-0 at Old Trafford that was every bit as comprehensive as it sounds. The first of the three provided the final ever BSaD report.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Darmian Smalling Rojo Blind
Mata Herrera Schweinsteiger Depay
VERDICT: If there’s any joy left in the Premier League it’s in watching a side that’s grown reliant on Champions’ (sic) League income flail around as it slips out of the limelight. Not that it was difficult to feel some sympathy for David Moyes in the thankless position of following Ferguson. Mourinho would have been a better bet, someone arrogant enough not to give a monkeys who he was being compared to would have had a better chance of success but would have failed spectacularly and quickly otherwise, getting that following Ferguson problem out of the way. Van Gaal is much closer to that mould, and seems to have licence to spend in a way that will drag United back into contention with the top two; it seems unlikely that United will go the way that Leeds did twelve or so years ago, more’s the pity. Indeed the summer recruitment looks hugely impressive, Schweinsteiger an extraordinary catch. I thought the same about Di Maria though, so what do I know. I’m sounding as if I care again, aren’t I?
INS: Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV Eindhoven, £14,500,000), Chancel Mbemba (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Anderlecht, Undisclosed)
OUTS: Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice, Free), Remie Streete (Port Vale, Free), Jonas Gutierrez, Ryan Taylor, Sammy Ameobi (Cardiff City, Season Loan), Adam Armstrong (Coventry City, Six Month Loan), Facundo Ferreyra (Shakhtar Donetsk, End of Loan)
OUR EX-MAGPIES: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Mike Williamson, Kevin Richardson (U17 coach)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two mid-season defeats during Malky’s first season during Newcastle’s brief spell in the second tier as, with the Vicarage Road pitch unhelpful to our young, lightweight team during the winter months, the orns began to struggle for points.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Janmaat Mbemba Coloccini Haidara
Sissoko Wijnaldum De Jong Aarons
VERDICT: Here’s an interesting one. A club that lost eight games on the hop in the closing months of the season and really, really needed the campaign to finish as soon as possible. Newcastle felt rotten, all sorts of things going wrong from the relationship between board and fans to the lack of spirit in the side to the caretaker manager accusing his centre-back of getting himself sent off to general bluntness. Over the summer in comes… Steve McClaren. An experienced coach, but not the first man you’d pick to wield a great big broom and kick some backsides. Derby’s end-of-season collapse may have had as much to do with the anticipation of the manager’s departure as any fundamental failing on McClaren’s part, but his appointment looked a much odder one at the end of the campaign than it had when first mooted much earlier on. The squad has been strengthened and the likes of Aarons and De Jong have returned from injury problems – the imminent threat of Newcastle getting relegated appears to have receded, the bullet dodged last season but you don’t get the sense of there having been the really good shake that the club needs. And I find myself not feeling overly sympathetic, for all that Pardew has departed… the stain he leaves rather difficult to wash out…
INS: Robbie Brady (Hull City, Undisclosed), Graham Dorrans (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Jake Kean (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (West Bromwich Albion, Free), André Wisdom (Liverpool, Season Loan)
OUTS: Mark Bunn (Aston Villa, Free), Sam Kelly (Port Vale, Free), Cameron McGeehan (Luton Town, Free), Luciano Becchio, Mark Bunn, Carlos Cuéllar, Javier Garrido, Ignasi Miquel, Remi Matthews (Burton Albion, Six Months Loan), Carlton Morris (Hamilton Academical, Loan of Unspecified Duration)
OUR EX-CANARIES: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Sébastian Bassong
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two heavy defeats last season, the first of which featuring an early Joel Ekstrand dismissal at Carrow Road and the second a tight, competitive contest turning on the rewarding of one of the less convincing of Wes Hoolahan’s catalogue of dives. Despite these mitigating circumstances and accompanying lack of grace on the part of the victors, these results comprehensively demonstrated the Canaries’ superiority, a superiority that was mysteriously not evidenced by the remaining 44 games of each side’s campaigns.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Whittaker Martin Bassong Brady
Redmond Hoolahan Johnson
VERDICT:Norwich? Best team in the Championship last year. Ask any Norwich fan, they’ll tell you all about it. What’s more, they’ve only lost a handful of players since they were last relegated and one of them, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, is back from his year’s sabbatical so that just goes to show that they’ll be really strong. No, really, they will. Even though they’ve, you know, not signed anyone. And anyway you’d much rather be in their shoes than Watford’s what with all their new Carlos Kickaballs signings. Just like QPR that innit, not like they’re going to gel. Watford needed to strengthen more than City did anyway, they had no strength in depth last year or anything, I’d rather have our, you know, team spirit….
And so forth. There’s something in some of the accusations being nervously lobbed in Watford’s direction from Norwich messageboards of course, which are more appropriately covered when we discuss our own prospects in Section 5 of this series on Friday. The temptation is to ignore them, just as the temptation for Norwich fans is to inflate them to reassure themselves. From my perspective however what we’ve been reaping is the benefits of the Pozzo family’s contacts and know-how, our own infrastructure, and the investment that is clearly being put behind it all. Norwich are closer to the position we were in in 2006, irrespective of the starting strength of their squad. You have to question quite who is going to sign for the Canaries, focused as they are on the domestic market… as time goes on and their roster isn’t boosted established players are going to be harder to convince whilst cherry picking from the division below is made more difficult as the more attractive signings start to think that perhaps they’re better off biding their time. Which isn’t to say that Norwich are doomed by any means… their midfield is competitive, they’ll be organised. I just wonder what’ll happen when they lose a few games, as they inevitably will. There’ll be an inferiority complex there waiting to get out, borne of the anxiety of their relative inactivity. It will be interesting to see how Alex Neil copes with that… his first two years in management have been hugely impressive and you’d rather have a manager who wasn’t used to losing games than the reverse. But he’s never had to cope with losing more than a couple of games on the hop. City look vulnerable to me. Shame.
Season Preview Part 2 04/08/2015Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
INS: Yohan Cabaye (Paris St Germain, £10,000,000), Connor Wickham (Sunderland, up to £9,000,000), Alex McCarthy (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Patrick Bamford (Chelsea, Season Loan)
OUTS: Mandela Egbo (Borussia Mönchengladbach, TBC), Lewis Price (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Shola Ameobi, Stephen Dobbie, Owen Garvan, Peter Ramage, Jerome Thomas, Jerome Binnom-Williams (Burton Albion, Season Loan), Hiram Boateng (Plymouth Argyle, Six Month Loan), Jack Hunt (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Ryan Inniss (Port Vale, Season Loan), Yaya Sanogo (Arsenal, End of Loan)
OUR EX-EAGLES: Dean Austin, Ben Watson
THEIR EX-ORNS: Adlène Guedioura, Adrian Mariappa, Keith Millen (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: None spring to mind. Oh, OK then… defeat to Kevin Phillips’ penalty late in extra time two years ago as we wilted in the Wembley sun. Prior to that, a well-earned point at Vicarage Road in a 2-2 draw, TV coverage featuring that tiresome Holloway gamesmanship interview, and a 3-2 win at Selhurst on the opening day in which Almen and Matej opened their accounts for the Hornets and we began to wonder quite what the new regime might mean. Still, quality like that was never going to hang around was it…? “What will they do when the loans go back?”
|2005-06||1-2||1-3||0-0 / 3-0|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Ward Dann Delaney Souaré
Zaha Cabaye Bolasie
VERDICT: The thing is, you look at the middle of the Premier League and there’s all sorts of clubs that a few years ago were second tier fodder, or worse. And, yes yes yes for every Stoke, Swansea or Palace – none of whom will be in many folks’ bottom three predictions – there are any number of chancers who slunk back where they came with their tails between their legs… not good enough, not wealthy enough, not lucky enough when it mattered. Hell, that’s been us on a couple of occasions. So… there’s no pretending that what’s in front of us is easy but others have done it and whilst any successful plan looks well thought out with the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to suggest that clubs that look organised, that look to have a plan that are pulling it off. And then you think about Palace, and Ian Holloway’s approach to recruitment two years ago and that argument loses some credibility.
The Eagles have attained their current status remarkably quickly having gotten promoted by beating us two years ago and sitting, at that point, squarely in the “going straight back down” slot prior to that excitable scattergun approach to the squad. Holloway is long gone, but any Hornet who’s been watching our frequent encounters over the years will know that there’s never any shortage of reasons to dislike Palace, and Alan Pardew’s brand of prickly superciliousness is an adequate replacement. The squad looks solid, the addition of Cabaye an eye-catching one… as I wrote this bit at first I was thinking you might want stronger options up front: Chamakh is talented but injury-prone, Murray leads the line and the fact that he looks like a lower division plodder is thoroughly deceptive but he’s not going to develop any further, whilst Dwight Gayle’s effervescence and finishing is let down by a lack of physical strength not suited to a lone forward role. Since then Bamford and Wickham have come in and added different options, if not quite proven ones. All in all though, an astonishingly strong, well-established squad in a short space of time. Still don’t have to like them though.
INS: Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona, £4,300,000), David Henen (Olympiakos, £200,000), Tom Cleverley (Manchester United, Free)
OUTS: Chris Long (Burnley, Undisclosed), Antolín Alcaraz (Las Palmas, Free), Sylvain Distin (AFC Bournemouth, Free), George Green (Oldham Athletic, Free), Luke Garbutt (Fulham, Season Loan), Christian Atsu (Chelsea, End of Loan), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)
OUR EX-TOFFEES: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Tom Cleverley
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The opening day of our last top flight season set a tone, when a strong display yielded no reward after a bizarre late penalty decision against Chris Powell. Later in the season an altogether more comfortable 3-0 victory for the Toffees at Vicarage Road in what would be Malky Mackay’s last League appearance.
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Coleman Jagielka Stones Baines
Mirallas Cleverley Barkley Deulofeu
VERDICT: There’s the temptation to look at Everton and say “why bother”? What is there for Everton to aspire to… after so many year of what was generally recognised as fine achievement in context under David Moyes, and that of by and large just about missing out on a Champions’ League place, what is there for an Everton fan to hope for? Returning to the status of not quite being as good as Arsenal? Of kind of winning a lot of games in a fairly prosaic way but not, like, winning a trophy? Little of this is Everton’s fault, of course, not as such… these are those barriers to competitiveness that the Champions’ League in particular sets in stone. But what does an Everton fan hope for?
And then you look in the mirror and think about it for a bit and realise what a load of old bollocks that argument is. The same trite, lazy tosh that the armchair United fan in the office comes out with when you mention that you follow any club below the elite. We’re not in line for trophies any more than Everton are, less so, and that’s never stopped any of us, or of the tens of thousands of others who follow clubs that haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of, you know, winning a major competition. You’re in it for the ride. You’re in it for belonging to something, for the victories however small or parochial they might be and for the despair and misery too. That applies to Everton fans as much as it does to fans of Watford or Accrington or anyone.
Perhaps the person suffering most from Everton’s awkward place in the grand scheme of things is Roberto Martinez, stymied as he is by following a successful manager who never actually won anything that high bar isn’t in itself terribly exciting and therefore anything below that sees Everton slip into the morass of also-rans. Everton fans will cite an epic season for injuries as a driving reason behind last season’s relative slump and if they’re right then the Toffees will be up in fifth or sixth again come May. Messageboards contain ominous anxiety however, in amongst the griping about ineffective possession football and bickering about quite how good Romelu Lukaku is or isn’t. That anxiety can be captured in the possibility that too many players might be past their best whilst the kids coming through aren’t (all) quite ready to step in just yet. In the former camp count Tim Howard – at 36 was last season an aberration or the beginning of the end? Phil Jagielka, terrific for half of last season but awful for the other half and 33 in August, it’s donkey’s years since he was turning out against us at Bramall Lane. Gareth Barry, by consensus run into the ground during the last campaign. Leighton Baines, still only 30 but another dipping below his very high standard.
As for the first game of the season… I think we could have done without that particular repeat of 2006/07 when we faced the Toffees at the same stage and found a new and creative way to add to our failure to pick up as much as a point in (now) ten trips to Goodison. In particular, it would be helpful if Tom Cleverley doesn’t chose his debut to remember what an effective attacking threat he was during his season at Vicarage Road, something that years of being employed otherwise and having his confidence battered by sneering twitterati appear to have pummeled out of him. Thereafter… somewhere between sixth and twelfth, natch.
INS: N’Kolo Kante (Caen, £6,300,000), Robert Huth (Stoke City, £3,000,000), Yohan Benalouane (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz 05, Undisclosed), Christian Fuchs (Schalke 04, Free)
OUTS: Chris Wood (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Paul Gallagher (Preston North End, Free), Tom Hopper (Scunthorpe United, Free), Kieran Kennedy (Motherwell, Free), Anthony Knockaert (Standard Liége, Free), Adam Smith (Northampton Town, Free), Matthew Upson (Franchise FC, Free), Esteban Cambiasso, Conrad Logan, James Pearson, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Ben Hamer (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)
OUR EX-FOXES: Lloyd Dyer
THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Kevin Phillips (First Team Coach)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable capitulation to a rampant Foxes side in November 2013, and a much more credible draw in Leicester four months later that brought to an end what had been Leicester’s nine-match winning run. Before that… this. And this.
|2012-13||2-1||2-1||3-1 / 0-1|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Wasilewski Huth Morgan
Albrighton King Kante Schlupp
VERDICT: So I was looking forward to playing Leicester again to a quite unreasonable extent. Far from a novelty of course, the Foxes have been regular adversaries in recent years but that’s kind of the point… a side that we’ve locked horns with frequently and memorably. Last year’s respite in hostilities saw Leicester claw their way improbably out of a deep hole… seven points from safety at the end of March, seven wins in the last nine almost trebled their tally for the season and left them comfortable and looking upwards. After a couple of seasons of building they’d always looked like the promoted side most likely to, and had stuck to their guns throughout the first half of the campaign when performances hadn’t matched results. The outcome justified the approach and Leicester might have been looking onwards with optimism. Until everything appeared to implode.
Nigel Pearson’s sacking came on the back of his son’s dismissal following a well-publicised incident on a tour of Thailand. It seems, however, that the relationship between the notoriously prickly Pearson and the club’s Thai owners was fragile at best in any case. In any event, the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as his replacement appears an odd one… a very experienced manager with an impressive CV he nonetheless comes to Leicestershire on the back of a bizarrely disastrous four months as Greek boss that saw one draw from five games including a defeat at home to the Faroe Islands. He will suffer from being neither Nigel Pearson nor popular replacement rumour Martin O’Neill… indeed in some ways he’s as far from Pearson as it’s possible to imagine. City fans, however determined to be positive, will be uncomfortable with the fact that in his four months he turned Greece from a side characterised by discipline and organisation to an unholy mess.
The squad is, as I write, short of quality in midfield in particular with the loss of Esteban Cambiasso, who played under Ranieri for a season at Inter, particularly awkward. Suddenly City look much more precarious.
INS: Christian Benteke (Aston Villa, £32,500,000), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim, £21,000,000), Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton, £10,000,000), Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic, £3,500,000), Bobby Adekanye (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Danny Ings (Burnley, TBC), Adam Bogdan (Bolton Wanderers, Free), James Milner (Manchester City, Free)
OUTS: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City, £49,000,000), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo, £3,500,000), Sebastian Coates (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Rickie Lambert (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Steven Gerrard (Los Angeles Galaxy, Free), Glen Johnson (Stoke City, Free), Brad Jones, Luis Alberto (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Lloyd Jones (Blackpool, Season Loan), Kevin Stewart (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Lawrence Vigouroux (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Danny Ward (Aberdeen, Season Loan), Jordan Williams (Swindon Town, Season Loan), André Wisdom (Norwich City, Season Loan), Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, End of Loan)
OUR EX-REDS: None
THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)
RECENT ENCOUNTERS: In contrast to 1999’s excitement, two uninteresting comprehensive defeats within a month of each other last time around during a run in which the Reds won nine league games in ten. The latter of the two was Ashley Young’s final outing in yellow. And Will Hoskins’ debut.
|2004-05||0-1 / 0-1|
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
Clyne Skrtel Sakho Moreno
Henderson Milner Coutinho
Firmino Benteke Lallana
VERDICT: Twenty five years since Liverpool won the league. In some ways that’s extraordinary, almost inconceivable especially if you’re old enough to remember it and the years before it. In others it just isn’t. Liverpool have only occasionally been serious contenders for the title in the interim… and yet opening this sort of article with this sort of reflection is still unavoidable. And therein part of Liverpool’s problem, really, the mismatch of seeing themselves as one of the country’s Biggest clubs (that b-word is a dangerous thing) and yet 25 years since they were champions, the 2005 Champions’ League notwithstanding, belies that. There’s a sort of frantic desperation that persists, an urgency divorced from reality to justify what they perceive as their status.
Liverpool have bought a lot of players over the summer and at the time of writing boast a vast squad. There’s some of that franticness there too, mind… much as last season was a bit disappointing given what happened before, much as Sturridge’s injury situation left them horribly short up front and much as there’s money to spend given the Sterling transfer it all feels a bit desperate once more…. “look, we’re really serious this time”. Revolution rather than evolution (again). Firmino, subject of a big outlay, may be a terrific player… but his recruitment is rather transparently an attempt to recreate the signing of Suarez who was brought in at a similar age and developed and was sold for a significantly higher fee. And I guess that might work but it all feels a little… haphazard. Liverpool will still be strong, of course, and might even finish higher up than last season but… you get the feeling that being seen to be doing something is the priority at Anfield.