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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring them on.  Yooooorns.

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoooorns.

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

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

Season Preview 2018 – Part 5 10/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: None

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Trippier       Sanchez           Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Son                           Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

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

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

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

WEST HAM UNITED

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Reid          Cresswell
Obiang           Noble

Yarmolenko              Wilshere                 Anderson
Arnautović

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

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

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

And the stadium is still shocking, obvs.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

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

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

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

 

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez        Costa

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

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

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

WATFORD

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

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Janmaat          Cathcart          Kabasele            Masina
Chalobah      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Cleverley                       Pereyra
Deeney

VERDICT: Football’s brilliant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoorns.

Season Preview 2018 – Part 4 09/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

MANCHESTER UNITED

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

NEWCASTLE UNITED

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

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

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Yedlin                 Lejeune           Lascelles            Kenedy
Ritchie                Shelvey         Diamé           Murphy
Rondón        Perez

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

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

SOUTHAMPTON

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

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

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McCarthy
Cédric          Bednarek           Vestergaard        Bertrand
Lemina       Hojbjerg
Elyounoussi         Armstrong            Redmond
Gabbiadini

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

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

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

Season Preview 2018 – Part 3 08/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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FULHAM

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

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

OUR EX-COTTAGERS: Stefano Okaka

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

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

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

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

LEICESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Ricardo          Maguire            Evans             Chilwell
Silva                 Ndidi
Ghezzal                       Maddison                  Albrighton
Vardy

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

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

LIVERPOOL

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

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

OUR EX-REDS: Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

 

Season Preview 2018 – Part 2 07/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CARDIFF CITY

INS: Greg Cunningham (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Josh Murphy (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Bobby Reid (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Alex Smithies (QPR, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Matty Kennedy (St Johnstone, Free), Ben Wilson (Bradford City, Free), Rhys Abbruzzese, Frédéric Guonongbe, Greg Halford,  Ogo Obi, Connor Young, Mark Harris (Newport County, Six Month Loan), Craig Bryson (Derby County, End of Loan), Liam Feeney (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Marko Grujić (Liverpool, End of Loan), Armand Traoré (Nottingham Forest, End of Loan), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest, End of Loan), Yanic Wildschut (Wigan Athletic, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Matthew Connolly

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An aggravating home defeat, a fourth in succession in November 2014 when promotion seemed far from guaranteed and a 4-2 win at the Cardiff City Stadium a month later in which Adlene Guedioura scored a memorable brace.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 0-1 4-2
2012-13 0-0
2011-12 1-1
2010-11 4-1
2009-10 0-4
2008-09 2-2
2007-08 2-2
2005-06 2-1 3-1
2004-05 0-0 3-0
2003-04 2-1 0-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Etheridge
Peltier                    Morrison                 Bamba             Cunningham
Paterson             Ralls         Gunnarsson
Mendez-Laing                     Zohore                                   Hoilett

VERDICT: It’s been a good many years since we watched Eastenders.  In a way I miss it…  it was at least something that we both tolerated, just about, and as such in some sense preferable to the regular impasse (“You want to watch what?”,  “Well if you must….”, “Shall we check out Netflix”,  “No, nothing that you’d like” and so forth).  We chanced on a bit of Eastenders again this week and it was the oddest thing.  The same characters, the same storylines.  Recycled forever.  It was like… we’d never been away.  In twenty years time I expect to see Phil Mitchell lurching pitifully into some wheeliebins and collapsing into a corner to the familiar thud, thud, thud-thud-thudthudthudthud….

Meanwhile, here’s Neil Warnock.  Many years ago I wrote about Warnock bringing “his usual troupe of trolls and mutants to Vicarage Road”.  That was in 2000, and the menagerie were in the colours of Sheffield United but here we are.  Colin will be 70 before the end of the year and has somehow morphed from the bloke everyone hates to something approaching national treasure status but what hasn’t changed a dot is the make up of his charges, a bunch of very tough, very hardworking blokes who are quite unlike anything else the Premier League has to offer.  And a defensive line to strike fear into the stoutest hearts.

Which, probably, constitutes their best hope of survival.  City’s unheralded promotion – which saw them just about hold off a late charge from Fulham – was built off a squad that borrowed prodigiously and most of the significant summer work thus far has been based on securing contracts for out of contract stars and some modest if sensible looking recruits from the cream of the Championship.  Artem Dzyuba’s name has been mentioned, which would obviously be magnificent, perhaps the most Warnock player ever conceived, but it does still look like a Championship squad at the time of writing.  A tough Championship squad mind, and after the successes of last season’s promoted sides you’d be daft to write anyone off, particularly with a consequently larger number of clubs that might be considered to be punching above their station as relegation rivals.   The club does at least seem to be more united and content than when last promoted in the wake of Vincent Tan’s questionable rebranding.  Nonetheless, my guess would be down after making a (very) solid fist of it.

CHELSEA

INS: Jorginho (Napoli, Undisclosed), Robert Green (Huddersfield Town, Free)

OUTS: Jeremie Boga (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Mitchell Beeney (Sligo Rovers, Free), Isaac Christie-Davis (Liverpool, Free), Matej Delač (AC Horsens, Free), Jordan Houghton (Franchise, Free), Harvey St Clair (Venezia, Free), Cole Dasilva, Wallace, Tushaun Walters, Victorien Angban (Metz, Season Loan), Lewis Baker (Leeds United, Season Loan), Jamal Blackman (Leeds United, Season Loan), Trevoh Chalobah (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Jake Clarke-Salter (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Charlie Colkett (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Eduardo (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Reece James (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Todd Kane (Hull City, Season Loan), Kenedy (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Jacob Maddox (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Matt Miazga (Nantes, Season Loan), Mason Mount (Derby County, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Mario Pasalic (Atalanta, Season Loan), Fikayo Tomori (Derby County, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Gianfranco Zola (Assistant First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Defeat at Stamford Bridge, in a game in which we yet again looked like beating Chelsea for a bit and then didn’t, and a Deulofuelled win at the Vic in which we looked like chucking a win away again, and then didn’t.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 4-1 2-4
2016-17 1-2 3-4
2015-16 0-0
2014-15 0-3
2009-10 0-5
2008-09 1-3
2003-04 2-2 / 0-4
1999-00 1-0 1-2
1981-82 3-0
1969-70 1-5

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Courtois
Azpilicueta         Rüdiger     Christensen         Alonso
Kanté               Jorginho            Barkley
Willian                     Giroud                    Hazard

VERDICT: So the home win over this lot was, in isolation, clearly one of the highlights if not the highlight of the season.  In the wake of which I contacted a Feyenoord supporting colleague to share joy at Daryl Janmaat’s contribution in particular.  His reply was in no way intended as mean spirited, but did tarnish the goal for me thenceforth.  Please skip over the next paragraph if you don’t want your memory of the goal similarly spoiled, skip over the next paragraph.

“Defending wasn’t very good, was it?”.  That was it.  Inoffensive, uncontroversial statement of fact.  No.  Whatever part we played in the goal, not least the wresting of the direction of travel of the game back in our favour, Chelsea’s defending wasn’t very good.  Which spoils it a bit.  Let’s not pretend we’re going to get precious about different ways of beating Chelsea 4-1, but “because their defending’s not very good” wouldn’t be high on my list.

Times were that the very statement would be perverse, when the likes of Carvalho, Cech and the charmless Terry made Chelsea’s defending as good as anyone’s.  There’s a lot changing at Stamford Bridge though, and more than merely a(nother) new head coach.  The unusual Sarri achieved great things in some style at Napoli but first and foremost achieved what he achieved by improving what he had rather than going out and spending loads of money (his words, repeated over the last week or two).  From a Chelsea point of view this could mean one of two things, perhaps a combination of the two:  a change in the cautious policy with regard to employing highly regarded youth products, and a change in Chelsea’s spending power.  It’s been a few years since Chelsea were THE moneybags club of course, and a reported £57m for Jorginho is hardly peanuts but he is their only first-team signing at the time of writing.

It might all work out for the best, of course.  But as it stands three of Chelsea’s stars – Courtois, Hazard and Willian – are heavily linked with moves and a good number of players including the two Belgians as well as the pivotal Kanté are only back in training this week.  You’d be concerned about Chelsea’s attacking options – neither Giroud, Morata or Batshuayi is entirely convincing as a first choice line leader – and of course all of this is happening whilst trying to shift from a cautious 3-at -the-back to a 4-3-3 that will be unforgiving to a slow start.  Big margin of error around any predictions here…  I’ll say fifth place again but it won’t be dull.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Vicente Guaita (Getafe, Free), Max Meyer (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Jacob Berkeley-Agyepong (Aldershot Town, Free), Yohan Cabaye (Al Nasr, Free), Andre Coker (Maidstone United, Free), Damien Delaney (Cork City, Free), Diego Cavalieri, Victor Fundi, Lee Chung Yong, Bakary Sako, Timothy Fosu-Mensah (Manchester United, End of Loan), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea, End of Loan), Erdal Rakip (Benfica, End of Loan), Jaroslaw Jach (Caykur Risespor, Season Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Adrian Mariappa, Hayden Mullins

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ray Lewington (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Further demonstration that there are no end of creatively miserable ways to lose at Selhurst Park, and a goalless draw at the Vic which, as these things go, was a stormer.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 0-0
2016-17 1-1  0-1
2015-16 0-1  1-2
2012-13 2-2 0-1
2011-12 0-2 0-4
2010-11 1-1 2-3
2009-10 1-3
2008-09 2-0 0-0 4-3
2007-08 0-2 2-0 2-0
2005-06 1-2 1-3 0-0 / 3-0
2003-04 1-5 0-1
2002-03 3-3 1-0
2001-02 1-0 2-0
2000-01 2-2 0-1
1998-99 2-1 2-2
1995-96 0-4
1993-94 2-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Guaita
Ward              Tomkins             Sakho            Van Aanholt
Milivojević     Kouyaté     Meyer
Zaha                           Benteke                  Townsend

VERDICT: The difficult thing about writing these pieces, particularly this season with the transfer deadline effectively three weeks closer in than normal and the frantic stuff about to hit, presumably, is that you’re aiming for a moving target. I’m writing this piece a good ten days at least before you’re going to read it and lots can change in the interim whilst I’m away on holiday.

In Palace’s case Wilfried Zaha is the great unknown, with rumours suggesting that Zaha wants out with Spurs and Chelsea circling the gravitationally challenged, quicked footed forward.  With four years left on his contract one imagines that he’ll fetch a hefty wedge which would completely change the Eagles’ transfer outlook – currently particularly frugal on the back of high investment in previous windows – but with only a couple of weeks at best left to invest in the squad and replace the Eagles’ talismanic player.

It’s not as simple as Zaha or nothing, this is a decent starting eleven but he’s the star man, certainly the difference between, probably, mid-table security and a relegation scrap (although Palace have also lost the likes of Cabaye, Fosu-Mensah and Loftus-Cheek since last season and will do well to match those kind of loans just to tread water).   However the squad is particularly thin and there are a number of individuals – Zaha most obviously, Sakho and Milivojevic too – who would leave a massive hole if injured.  It will take a good deal of luck for Palace to match last season’s comfortable finish.  Relegation outsiders.

(Edit:  Max Meyer.  See?  See?)

EVERTON

INS: Lucas Digne (Barcelona, £18,000,000), Richarlíson (Watford, Undisclosed), João Virginia (Arsenal, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Davy Klaassen (Werder Bremen, £12,000,000), Joel Robles (Real Betis, Free), Ramiro Funes Mori (Villarreal, Undisclosed), Wayne Rooney (DC United, Undisclosed), Jose Baxter (Oldham Athletic, Free), Sam Byrne (Dundalk, Free), Calum Dyson (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Conor Grant (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Louis Gray, David Henen, Luke Garbutt (Oxford United, Season Loan), Kevin Mirallas (Fiorentina, Season Loan), Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray, Season Loan), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Shani Tarashaj (Grasshoppers, Season Loan), Ashley Williams (Stoke City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Pedro Conceição (First Team Coach), Antonis Lemonakis (Technical Scout), Hugo Oliveira (Goalkeeping Coach),  Richarlíson, Marco Silva (Manager), João Pedro Sousa (Assistant Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A shambolic collapse at Goodison Park and a win at Vicarage Road thanks to Troy’s thumping drive.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 1-0
2016-17 3-2
2015-16 1-1 2-2
2006-07 1-2
2000-01 1-2
1999-00 1-3 2-4
1983-84 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pickford
Coleman        Jagielka        Keane            Digne
Gueye              Davies
Walcott                  Sigurdsson            Richarlíson
Tosun

VERDICT: And here’s one I’ve left until the last minute.  Quite a lot of this is easy and has been regurgitated on these pages several times…  so in brief, yes Everton were utterly graceless in tapping up Marco Silva last season, yes it disrupted our year entirely.  That it did so wasn’t entirely Everton’s fault;  if Silva did well he was always going to garner interest and turned his head as soon as someone fluttered their eyelashes at him.  Yes it’s reasonable for us to be pissed off, continuing to make an issue out of it is perfectly reasonable as long as it’s not hurting us and for as long as the authorities give every indication that they’d rather the issue just went away.  There are rules to prevent tapping up for a reason and Everton should be held to account.

Right.  That’s done.  As for Everton…  there’s little doubt that he’s taken on a bit of a job, since last season’s eighth place finish was flattering and achieved with an ageing squad that wasn’t about to push on this time.  So… a lot of players have been shipped out, relatively few have been shipped in.  The centre of defence looks a state and hasn’t looked any better in pre-season…  both Barcelona and Yerry Mina are doing their best to capitalise on his eye-catching World Cup (and why not); you do have to fancy that in both parties’ interests is to attract a bigger fish than Everton.  This leaves the Toffees a little bit desperate, since there are precious few options in the squad as it stands with the disappointing Williams having dropped down a division to join Stoke on loan.

Up front looks far more impressive, and whilst we’ve got a good deal in selling Richarlíson for however many squllion you want to believe there’s no doubt that Everton might end up looking back fondly at the deal too.  Might.

Because the big unknown remains whether the Emperor is wearing any clothes.  The truth is that he wasn’t really at Hull or Watford for long enough for us to know, definitively.  At both places he galvanised a squad and got them performing beyond what had been imagined possible.  For a bit.  But much as its impossible to remove the Everton thing from our season, you’d have to wonder whether we might have tailed off anyway.  The combination of high intensity and a tendency to rely on the same players would have the same effect on an Everton squad that isn’t exactly spoiled for cover.  Either way, a rebuilding season at Goodison.  No higher than seventh.  No lower than twelfth.

 

Season Preview 2018 – Part 1 06/08/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Football!  Splendid. Four today.  Four tomorrow.  And so on…

ARSENAL

INS: Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria, £26,000,000), Matteo Guendouzi (Lorient, £8,000,000), Bernd Leno (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed), Sokratis Papasthatopoulos (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus, Free)

OUTS: Chuba Akpom (PAOK, Undisclosed), Jeff Reine-Adelaide (Angers, Undisclosed), João Virginia (Everton, Undisclosed), Marc Bola (Blackpool, Free), Vlad Dragomir (Perugia, Free), Aaron Eyoma (Derby County, Free), Yassin Fortune (Sion, Free), Ryan Huddart (Boreham Wood, Free), Chiori Johnson (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Hugo Keto (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free), Tafari Moore (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Jack Wilshere (West Ham United, Free), Santi Cazorla, Alex Crean, Per Mertesacker, Matt Macey (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Kelechi Nwakali (Porto, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A dramatic 2-1 win at the Vic fuelled by Troy Deeney’s cameo off the bench and capped off by Tom Cleverley’s winner, and a mundane 3-0 defeat at the Emirates which could have gone another way when Troy took a penalty at 2-0 down but didn’t.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-1
2016-17 1-3 2-1
2015-16 0-3 2-1
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Leno
Bellerín          Mustafi        Sokratis        Monreal
Ramsey                 Torreira                   Xhaka
Mkhitaryan                     Aubameyang                             Özil

VERDICT: It seemed inevitable that when Wenger eventually left Arsenal there would be a period of adjustment, and a very difficult job for whoever replaced him after 20+ years (see also, to varying degrees and in different ways, Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, GT….).  As has been observed elsewhere however, by hanging around so long Wenger almost solved the problem for them, since even those defending the manager’s position in the seemingly endless and fist-chewingly tedious debates on his custodianship will surely have conceded that Wenger’s most successful days were in the past.  There is less of a sense of “what will we do without Arsène” than there might have been.

So… a new man, and the “what will the new guy bring” experience alien to many Gooners (run with it guys, you’ll get the hang of it, trust us…).  That he’s not taking Arsenal over at a highpoint is demonstrated by the twelve point gap to the Champions’ League in last year’s final table, let alone the 37 points to be made up on City (Arsenal were some seven points closer to the relegation places, though this reflects City’s dominance as much as Arsenal’s failings).

As far as early portents go, the recruitment of both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis addresses the failings notoriously highlighted by Troy last season.  Both are hard bastards.  Less positively both are at the tail end of their careers, and Sokratis is the third former Dortmund man brought in by recruitment guy Sven Mislintat.  If you’re going to focus on one source then Dortmund isn’t a bad one but the three in question – Sokratis, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan – effectively cost around £100m between them (albeit Mkhitaryan came in a swap deal) and none is younger than 29.  That’s a lot of money for some short-term stability.

Emery’s arrival should bring some unity to the Emirates, but it’s a long and difficult climb back to anywhere near the summit.  Champions League an outside possibility if that defence gets sorted.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Diego Rico (Leganes, £10,700,000), David Brooks (Sheffield United, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Benik Afobe (Wolves, £10,000,000), Adam Federici (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Lewis Grabban (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Max Gradel (Toulouse, Undisclosed), Ryan Allsop (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Baily Cargill (Franchise FC, Free), Oliver Harfield (Dagenham and Redbridge, Free), Sam Matthews (Bristol Rovers, Free), Joe Quigley (Maidstone United, Free), Patrick O’Flaherty, Rhoys Wiggins, Mikael Ndjoli (Kilmarnock, Six Months Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Carl Fletcher (Youth Team Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A thoroughly enjoyable victory on the south coast crowned by Richarlíson’s full debut and opening goal and rounded off by Étienne Capoue’s piledriver, and yet another draw with the Cherries at the Vic courtesy of losing yet another late goal.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 2-2
2016-17 2-2
2015-16 1-1  1-1
2014-15 1-1
2013-14 6-1 2-0
2003-04 1-0
1997-98 2-1 1-0
1996-97 0-1 2-1
1995-96 1-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Begović
Francis            S.Cook               Aké             Rico
L.Cook           Surman          Gosling
King                            Wilson                                Ibe

VERDICT: One of the things about a World Cup like this summer’s is that it can genuinely convert a whole new tranche of supporters.  I have a friend whose attitude to football has wandered between the indifferent and gently scornful in the past, but who is now enthused not by a temporary burst of nationalism or of a new fascination with tactics and formations but by the manifestation of different traits from national team to national team, of differing codes of behaviour despite the steady homogenisation of the world game.

She’d have a wild old time with Bournemouth.  To what extent our picture of the Cherries is a self-fulfilling thing, that we selectively choose to focus on the bits that fit with the narrative, is difficult to tell… there must be an element of that I guess.  Nonetheless, the narrative came from something and its tempting to suggest that this something is still in charge and that the team won’t change until the head coach does.  Or to look at it another way, not entirely surprising perhaps that Jermain Defoe, by all accounts a thoroughly likeable and honest guy, has struggled to get into the team.

Bournemouth’s strategy, Defoe notwithstanding, has been to recruit young players, if not necessarily British then certainly largely from the domestic market.  There’s a lot too this approach of course, and it’s yielded a couple of gems of the likes of Lewis Cook and Aké (though the latter was hardly a punt or a steal at £20m).  But it’s inevitably going to be a bit hit-and-miss as well.  Going into the new campaign you’d have to worry about that defence, and the age of it (Aké excepted) in particular – the cover doesn’t look terribly impressive.  At the time of writing the signing of Jefferson Lerma appears to be imminent, and again it’s an odd one when The Likes Of Bournemouth are talking about spenidng £25m on a defensive midfielder. The Cherries are some way from one of the worst three sides in the division but it wouldn’t take much for them to struggle… and it would be interesting to see Howe in these circumstances, unfamiliar as he is with a relegation scrap.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Alireza Jahanbaksh (AZ Alkmaar, £17,000,000), Florin Andone (Deportivo La Coruña, Undisclosed), Bernardo (RB Leipzig, Undisclosed), Yves Bissouma (Lille, Undisclosed), David Button (Fulham, Undisclosed), Jason Steele (Middlesbrough, Undisclosed), Percy Tau (Mamelodi Sundowns, Undisclosed), Joseph Tomlinson (Yeovil Town, Undisclosed), Leon Balogun (Mainz, Free), Hugo Keto (Arsenal, Free)

OUTS: Sam Baldock (Reading, Undisclosed), Henrik Bjordal (Zulte Waregem, Undisclosed), Connor Goldson (Rangers, Undisclosed), Uwe Hünemeier (Paderborn, Undisclosed), Jamie Murphy (Rangers, Undisclosed), Jiří Skalák (Millwall, Undisclosed), Bailey Vose (Colchester United, Undisclosed), Jonah Ayunga (Sutton United, Free), Tom Dallison (Falkirk, Free), Tyler Hornby-Forbes (Newport County, Free), Dessie Hutchinson (Waterford, Free), Tim Krul (Norwich City, Free), Niki Mäenpää (Bristol City, Free), Reece Myles-Meekums (Bromley, Free), David Ajiboye, Rohan Ince, Mamadou Koné, Rian O’Sullivan, Liam Rosenior, Steve Sidwell,  Steven Alzate (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Ben Hall (Notts County, Season Loan), Aleš Matějů (Brescia, Season Loan), Tom McGill (Worthing, Season Loan), Robert Sanchez (Forest Green Rovers, Season Loan), Leonardo Ulloa (Leicester City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A nil nil draw in which we played an hour with ten men after Miguel Britos’ very red card and a miserable 1-0 reverse at the Amex.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 0-0
2014-15 1-1 2-0
2012-13 0-1
2011-12 1-0 2-2
2010-11 0-1
2005-06 1-1 1-0
2004-05 1-1 1-2
2002-03 1-0 0-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ryan
Schelotto              Dunk         Duffy             Bernardo
Jahanbaksh        Bissouma         Propper        Izquierdo
Gross
Andone

VERDICT: There’s something a bit weird going on in the Premier League.  Look at our October fixture list for example…  Bournemouth, Wolves, Huddersfield.  We had exactly the same October ten years ago in the Championship.  Probably.  Do you feel a bit cheated?

Looking at the Championship there’s only Aston Villa who really stand out as A Club Wot Ought To Be In The Premier League though.  (West Brom and Stoke at a push.  Anyone who mentions Leeds needs to take a good hard look at themselves….).  So… nothing’s really changed I guess, it was ever thus with seven or eight top sides and everyone else sidling through for a season or six.  And of course if there’s a “problem”, if something’s changed, we’re hardly Premier League royalty ourselves, very much part of it.

But there appear to be a growing number of smaller, well-run clubs like the Seagulls Making A Decent Fist Of It.  Who can tell, really…  Alireza Jahanbaksh, Florin Andone and Yves Bissouma were linked to us a year or two ago, they might be decent, they might be terrible.  But… in as much as it’s possible to judge Albion are doing a good job of building on their successful first season back in the top flight.   This will be their Difficult Second Season of course, and they’ll need to run to stand still…  whilst Swansea provide evidence that a small well-run Premier League club can become just another Championship club pretty damn quickly once the well-run thing fades away.  Nonetheless, Albion should have enough.

BURNLEY

INS: Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough, £15,000,000)

OUTS: Tom Anderson (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Scott Arfield (Rangers, Free), Jordan Barnett (Barnsley, Free), Arlen Birch (AFC Fylde, Free), Josh Ginnelly (Walsall, Free), Harry Limb (Kings Lynn Town), Chris Long (Fleetwood Town, Free), Dean Marney (Fleetwood Town, Free), Bradley Jackson, Samuel Layton, Khius Metz, Rahis Nabi, Jamie Thomas, Georges-Kévin N’Koudou (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Conor Mitchell (St Johnstone, Season Loan)

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah, Andre Gray

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A single goal defeat in Lancashire after Marvin Zeegelaar’s red card and defeat snatched from the jaws of a much needed victory at home.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 2-1 0-2
2013-14 1-1
2012-13 3-3
2011-12 3-2 2-2
2010-11 1-3
2008-09 3-0 0-4
2007-08 1-2
2005-06 3-1 1-4
2004-05 0-1 1-3
2003-04 1-1 3-2
2002-03 2-1 7-4  2-0
2001-02 1-2 0-1
2000-01 0-1 0-2
1997-98 1-0 0-2
1996-97 2-2 1-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Lowton            Gibson                Mee                  Ward
Gudmundsson         Cork               Defour                 Brady
Vokes            Wood

VERDICT: So here’s evidence that one’s point of view can change over time, that a club isn’t permanently painted a certain way in your entirely prejudiced mind’s eye.  As with Bournemouth the root cause of this is a manager;  unlike at Bournemouth, Sean Dyche’s impact is wholly positive.  Much as it’s grossly oversimplifying to say that the club has been moulded in his own image, that we see things that fit the narrative but might have been there anyway, it’s a club and a team that looks honest and tough, focused and disciplined and without any pretension whatsoever.  Even if (whisper it) the man in charge does whine about officiating a bit sometimes.  We’re none of us perfect.

There’s a school of thought which says that if only we’d had a bit more luck with injuries last season we could have been up there where Burnley were.  Well the Clarets weren’t coulda shouldas, they actually did make European competition, just about and despite a long absence to Robbie Brady for example.  Aberdeen might seem like a rather unglamorous reward for their endeavours, but that aside  here’s where the problems begin.

By any reasonable assessment last season was pretty close to the summit of Burnley’s potential, certainly for the moment.  The infrequency with which Champions defend their titles successfully is testimony to how difficult maintaining a peak level of performance is, much less so when faced, potentially, with a busier fixture list, limited strengthening at the time of writing and relatively modest targets discussed with the manager uncomfortably bemoaning the challenges of the market.  Burnley won’t struggle, but a bottom half finish wouldn’t be a huge surprise.