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Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 0 (29/08/2021) 30/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
16 comments

1- “Who’s that guy?”

“Which one?”

“Our number 31.  With the sort of bun.”

“That’s Francisco Sierralta.”

“Who?”

It’s a funny time.  Perhaps, hopefully I guess, a unique time.  Despite the fact that Daughter 2 never quite got into paying attention in any way when not able to go to games it’s startling that she doesn’t know who our mighty Chilean centre-back is.  Except of course… that despite – even when taking into account his mid-season arrival into the side last season – there are only four longer-established first team players in the eleven, this is the first League game that he’s started for us in front of full stands.

Hornet Hive was the artery that fed us that intel last season, but even Emma and Tommy will be struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of this transfer window. Indeed, given the evacuation, both planned and already realised, of established faces – for all sorts of reasons – there’s an argument for saying that our hosts are more familiar with our squad than we are.  Rarely if ever have we seen an overhaul quite like this… sometimes new money, management, ownership or circumstances mean that a whole load of new faces have come in together but not to replace popular and successful players.  Even the squad strengthening on promotion six years ago retained a core of established names.  This feels like a critical time, not just by virtue of the return of supporters to stadiums (which is obviously tremendous) but in the need to quickly establish an association between this largely new team and the stands.

Good job they look bloody great, really.

2- Whilst the ascent to Newcastle’s away end is the stuff of legend and Selhurst Park is notoriously difficult to get to (like a fungal growth down the back of a cabinet), Spurs have done a decent job of locating themselves as far as it’s possible to get from any sensible access in central-ish London.  The journey down has been rendered all the more challenging by blanket railway engineering works for the bank holiday weekend, and even our attempts to avoid them by driving across to an alternative train line at St Neots are disrupted by further late-runningness on that line.  Getting to the ground after the deceptively long slog from Seven Sisters always feels like an achievement, the more so today – the existence of open urinals at the halfway mark of that stretch betrays the wisdom or perhaps bitter experience of the local authorities as much as it appals both daughters..

It’s a fine stadium, as we’ve discussed before; the lack of low roofs hinders the atmosphere but the sight lines are good, the lean-on bars are a massive plus, the eatery options are tremendous and the stewards are amiable and efficient to a fault (excepting my niece, Sara, who is on duty at some unspecified location and didn’t tell us beforehand).  Underlying it all however is a certain snideness that’s befitting of our hosts…  the aggressive, blanket ban on food and drink coming into the stadium to compel sale of both to a captive audience for one thing.  Careful planning and selection facilitated smuggling of lucky half-time contraband into the stadium, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.  Then there’s the sharp slope that drops from just beyond each touchline, leaving the pitch on a sort of weird plateau.  At first it looks merely odd, and a little dangerous perhaps;  we’re making uneducated guesses about drainage until Dad points out how difficult a Delap-style long throw would be to achieve with no run-up.

There are a few ways to look at this fixture.  It’s difficult to judge, for one thing, quite how the HarryKaneathon affects things…  if there’s little doubt that the “one of our own” adulation from the stands rings rather hollower than it did, you kinda feel that we could have done with things still being precariously up in the air. (As an aside, daughter 2’s proclivity for concise commentary was betrayed during the Euros…. “who does Harry Kane play for, Dad?”… “Tottenham”….”Why?”). On the other hand, whilst our opening looks relatively gentle all things considered you’d almost rather get the less winnable games out of the way while we’re still getting our shit together.  Quite whether this still qualifies as One Of The Tougher Games is another question, but it spares us from some of the imperative of racking up points in our early games.

3- Any away point in the Premier League is a decent one in any case and the directive must surely have been to keep it tight early doors, stifle the atmosphere, frustrate the hosts.  So Daniel Bachmann, who was to have a mixed and slightly edgy afternoon, skewing a pass out to a Spurs boot in the opening exchange probably wasn’t part of the plan, Peter Etebo coming to the rescue by crowbarring the ball from the feet of Harry Kane in the penalty area.  The Hornets broke aggressively, Dennis starting on the left and progressing down the flank; the ball found the feet of Kucka who curled a shot to the far post where, it transpires, Eric Dier’s head deflected it clear.  And breathe.

Etebo and Kucka formed two-thirds of a newly robust trio in the middle with the surprise immediate involvement of Moussa Sissoko.  First and foremost, this is a no-bullshit midfield that surely allays any concerns about being too lightweight in the centre of the park…  Etebo is the veteran with a princely four competitive starts now,  and does a sterling job again making light of a harsh early booking,  but Kucka and Sissoko are welcome surprises on the teamsheet.  Kucka, whose hunched shoulders suggest an invisible but fully-laden supermarket trolley, reprised his performance from the opening day with barrelling runs and sharp touches.  Sissoko looked dynamic, athletic and efficient except when in shooting range, delighting the home support by clouting over the bar in the second half as is traditional.  Fellow residents of the danger zone a third of the way up the Rookery, beware.

Between them the trio allay fears of being overrun as at Brighton.  We’re facing a capable opponent, and on our left in particular we look vulnerable as Son, whose ethnicity is an immediate source of fascination for both daughters, is dong Son-like things with little impediment.  Wrong to lay all the blame at Masina’s feet;  as previously this season he is exposed by lack of defensive diligence from the man in front of him, Dennis on this occasion, but it’s a productive-looking avenue for Spurs either way.

We do a fine job of holding them off again though, a recurring theme.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession and a lot of energy and aren’t getting very far with it, whereas we’re providing every suggestion of a sucker-punch with King doing a decent job leading the line, mobile, tidy and persistent, whilst Dennis and Sarr are willing and potent.  Kieron, who remains neutral-ish despite thirty years of occasional visits and a healthy disregard for Spurs, says we’re “a bit ragged”, but we’d have taken nil-nil if a bit ragged at the break with both hands.  Instead Spurs get a free-kick on the left, Son swings it into the dangerous corridor between attackers and goalkeeper and Bachmann hesitates fatally as it bounces in front of him and in low to his left.

4- Residual anxiety about quite how this is going to shake out fuel a little apprehensiveness at the start of the second half.  This could run away from us very rapidly if we’re not careful.  We are careful, however.  A significant departure in strategy has seen us bring in more experience than usual this summer…  Kucka is 34, Sissoko 32, Josh King will turn 30 mid-season.  Jose Holebas (31) and Valon Behrami (30) were the veterans in 2015.  That composure saw us keep it steady throughout the second half.

In truth, Spurs came closer than we did to adding to the scoreline. Daniel Bachmann redressed things slightly by pushing out a deflected Højbjerg free kick and then blocking a point-blank Kane shot. Troost-Ekong, whose vast improvement since last weekend surely reflected the return of the impeccable Sierralta beside him, got a touch to Moura’s cross to steer it out of Kane’s path. I try not to rewatch highlights or to let them colour my judgement before rewriting the report, but there’s no not mentioning that piece of defending.

But we remained in touching distance, and we retained a threat.  As Spurs’ half-chances came and went you knew that if you were in the home stands you’d sense the sucker punch coming.  It didn’t, but the fact that we played ourselves into a position where it might have is reason for optimism.  Sarr persisted despite regular aggressive attention, not least from Reguilón who was embarrassed enough about being left on his arse to make ludicrously fanciful objections to the linesman in front of us after Isma rolled around him.  Cucho came off the bench for a willing but ineffective cameo, nearly crowned with a scissor kick to a deep right-wing cross.  It was a one-in-ten shot at best, you’d want him to give it a swing at those odds but this was one of the nine.  Dennis moved to the centre as King was withdrawn but to less effect, his rare lack of progress from a central role frustrating him into a needless late booking. The game ended.

5- The gents on the other side of daughter 2 in the congested lack of personal space provoked by sticking narrow seats on a bend had mortified her and her sister by identifying me through them as “the bloke who writes for From the Rookery End” (almost).  They reflected on this one as “a free hit” and in a sense they’re right…  The Other 14 would tell you that if you beat everyone but the big six at home you’ll end up with 39 points and will probably be OK.  On that basis three points from three games so far is no worse than par.

There are a fair few “free hits” in the Premier League, and there’s a frustration here in that having been within a slug of a mugging we couldn’t find that goal, deserved or otherwise, or better still kept that free kick out.  Nonetheless.  We’re at a stage where the team is virtually brand new;  to look so convincing so quickly, albeit without points today, is no bad thing.  We need to hit the ground running with an attractive looking run of games coming after the international break, but on this evidence you’d back us to add to our tally.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 2, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Etebo 4, Sissoko 3, *Kucka 4*, Sarr 4, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Ngakia (for Cathcart, 51) 3, Hernández (for King, 65) 2, Cleverley (for Sissoko, 71) 3, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sema, Kabasele, Elliot

Watford 1 Crystal Palace 0 (24/08/2021) 25/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
8 comments

1-  Having managed to take positives out of a startlingly thorough beating at Brighton, I found my new found state of zen challenged for the first time this season in the build up to this one.  More general than football…  I don’t remember when I was last in a traffic jam, what with One Thing And Another, but it seems that this is one thing without any nostalgia value.

I’d left Bedford at 5, which should have facilitated a leisurely drive down, a stop at Fry Days and so forth.  Instead I parked up at ten past seven, forewent fish and chips and headed to the ground past the ominous if affable queues at each of the Occupation Road turnstiles.  Good job the stadium’s only half full, really…

Fortunately, due to a combination of manpower and, I suspect, pragmatism with cantankerous e-tickets, there are no queues at the Rookery turnstiles.  Nonetheless, sitting down in an empty row and surveying the similarly empty stadium I’m underwhelmed.  Yes it’s “only” the League Cup but, jesus, it’s football ?!?  After so long?  Where is everybody?

Daughters 1 and 2 cases in point;  a week with my Mum and Dad in the holidays, a drive over to Watford with Granddad declined at the last.  So it’s a bit miserable.  Good job the chicken pie from the kiosk is decent.

2- Plus, our first game in the League Cup is always rubbish.  We’ve discussed in the past, that there is only one such game, taking place in an alternative dimension that we dip into once a year, where the wheels grind eternally and nothing ever happens.

The opponents switch shirts in the interim of course, typically bearing the livery of a game tryer from the lower divisions capable and committed enough to stop us from playing but not talented enough to hurt us themselves.  In the absence of such an opponent, Palace convey a fitting air of underwhelming grubbiness that suits the stage of the competition.  Will Hughes – and it still breaks my heart to contemplate his surely inevitable departure – would be wasted on this shower.

The certainty of defeat isn’t improving my mood.  The debris of Saturday’s midfield is still fresh in the memory, and similar personnel are named here in the absence of much in the way of plausible alternatives. Clevs gets a rest on the bench though alongside Jaime Alvarado, one of those names familiar only to completists amongst the fanbase who seemed destined for loans to Spain and probably, ultimately, a return to Colombia.  To what extent his presence was necessitated by lack of midfield alternatives versus his own rising star remains to be seen.

We make seven changes, albeit largely in the areas of the pitch that have looked kind of ok.  Palace appear to name closer to a full strength eleven, albeit some of their key protagonists start on the bench – Guaita, McArthur, Mitchell, Benteke.  Yes, yes, Chelsea and so forth… nonetheless  Patrick Vieira will be edgy until he gets his first win, hell his first goal, and can’t turn down any opportunity to seize it.

3- After a fairly even start the visitors begin to dominate possession.  Zaha is in the starting eleven, to a predictable welcome, but Jeremy Ngakia sticks close to him and repeatedly gets under his feet before he can establish control of the ball.  He’s still prominent but largely restricted, Connor Gallagher’s movement the bigger threat early on – he floats in behind the defence but is foiled by Foster’s alertness.

On the other flank there’s a welcome (second) debut for Danny Rose, though much as when Richard Jobson briefly returned to the fold it’s a different bloke of a different size in a different position and at the opposite end of his career to the youngster who briefly appeared in our midfield under Brendan Rodgers.  Concerns about his fitness after so little match action are front of mind, and Rose looks sluggish for the first five minutes or so, twice being exposed by Jordan Ayew down the right.

Any concerns were misplaced.  As the game progressed Rose warmed to the task, and looked like the pugnacious, intelligent, aggressive, dependable full back of your dreams.  There’s an argument that bringing in a quality alternative might coax greater consistency out of the incumbent, but Adam Masina has more than a theoretical threat to his place on Sunday.

In the centre, William Troost-Ekong had a nervous day at Brighton, and the signs weren’t great when the cumbersome and otherwise ineffective Mateta mugged him on the touchline early on.  Thereafter he settled down however, with his regular “fixer” alongside him in the returning Sierralta.  Midway through the half Palace came as close as they were to come to a goal but Troost-Ekong salvaged the situation by contorting himself to head out, impossibly, from underneath the crossbar.

With Peter Etebo returning to the high bar set against Villa patrolling in front of the defence (as well as suggesting a hitherto unadvertised ability to deliver a set piece) we were doing a fair job of keeping our opponents at arm’s length, much as we had Villa for much of the opening game.  Palace don’t seem to need much help looking blunt and inconsequential at the moment in any case, but we played a part in their downfall, exposing their anxieties.  They finished the half having had most of the possession but with little to show for it.

4- As on Saturday we were better after the break.  Joshua King, slightly surprisingly and presumably reflecting either lack of fitness or an injury concern, was withdrawn in favour of cat’o nine tails Emmanuel Dennis.  We saw more of the ball and looked threatening in attacking positions, but for all Etebo’s involvement the midfield, for obvious reasons, remains the bit that needs the most attention.  Louza offered an improvement on Saturday also, an ability to play a sharp pass and a willingness to get in where it’s dirty but was still both bulliable and giving the ball away too much.

Up front, Cucho had a quieter game;  referee Robinson getting his number early on after a stereotypically South American spin and roll at the feet of a bemused Jordan Ayew.  He kept plugging, but wasn’t getting very far.  On the opposite flank was Ashley Fletcher, who for all his awkward legginess looks more like a centre-forward than a winger.  He’s been brought in ostensibly as attacking cover, but that’s increasingly a specialist role requiring certain characteristics as well as a level of ability (Spurs, perennially trying to cover Kane, have ended up signing wingers who can fill in rather than a backup centre-forward).

The point is, Fletcher will see the number of senior attacking players on our books (discounting Gray and Success he’s still competing with King, João Pedro, Sarr, Dennis, Deeney, Cucho and Sema for one of three forward roles) and know that he’s primarily backup, however much faith he’s got in his own ability.  He’s got to be happy with that, or at least be ready and willing to knuckle down and take his chances when they come, a team player; assessment of that character will surely have been part of his recruitment.

On this evidence he’s good foil for that role.  If we see limited evidence of a challenge for a regular start, there’s energy, knees, elbows, power… not a lot of subtlety, but a relentless doggedness that will serve him well.

So we have more of the game.  If there’s a concern – beyond the nascent midfield – it’s that for all the fun catching-them-on-the-break stuff we’re not quite clinical enough.  That’s inevitable perhaps, players getting used to each other and so on.  But Villa demonstrated how quickly things can change;  Palace didn’t score, but they might have.  For all that there was some encouraging stuff here you wouldn’t have backed us to come from behind and too many of those breaks, hurtling towards the Rookery in the second period, fizzled out with a wrong decision.  That’ll come.

5- And to be fair, it did.  I’d resigned myself to penalties, I suspect I wasn’t the only one… gazing across the pitch and wondering who might be up for a spot kick when suddenly one of those breaks connected, like a misfiring engine that suddenly, unexpectedly, clicks into gear.  Rose fed Cucho on the left, the Colombian cut a tremendous cross through to the far post where Fletcher was hurtling in to tuck the ball home.  The vigour of the celebration testified to the popularity of the goalscorer in the dressing room – whatever his future involvement there are worse ways to debut than scoring a late winner against Palace.

The visitors seemed suddenly energised and urgent, hilariously and too late.  Jeremy Ngakia had been replaced by Kiko, a welcome return for the Spaniard who nonetheless struggled with Zaha immediately, including in this short flurry… not the easiest opponent on your return from injury, but a spell that did Ngakia’s standing no harm in contrast to what had gone before.  Palace’s flurry burned out as Cucho lunged in to make a vital interception.  The whistle went, Troost-Ekong was the last man standing applauding the support and gifting his shirt to a kid at the front of the Rookery, fully redeemed.

Winning’s always good, beating Palace always better.  More than that we have evidence of a degree of cover, good options in the squad, if not in every position just yet.  But a clean sheet against top flight opposition welcome reassurance after Saturday.  We’re in this.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 4, Louza 2, Sema 3, Fletcher 3, Hernández 3, King 3
Subs: Dennis (for King, 45) 3, Femenía (for Ngakia, 62) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 76) NA, Cathcart, Alvarado, Baah, Elliot

Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Watford 0 (21/08/2021) 22/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

1-  “YES mate!  Yellllooooooooows” comes the shout from the right, where a bunch of lads are drinking on the pavement outside a pub on Queens Road as we trundle down towards the front from the station in our colours.  It’s that sort of day.  Last Saturday was the first proper game; today the first away trip is almost as significant – the first away trip for many, probably, since we were last here more than eighteen months ago.  The mood  reflects this, it’s about celebrating the event as much as supporting the team.  By this stage I’ve already been serenaded whilst availing myself of the facilities on the long Thameslink slog from Bedford by travelling ‘orns who had chosen, for reasons unclear, to locate themselves next to the loo in a half-empty carriage.  Not an experience I’d choose to repeat, but positive in spirit and intent.

Back on Queens Road, my response of “Yooooorns” is greeted with slight confusion, as if I’ve given the wrong response to the call signal, but this reaction is far less disquieting than the one behind me.  Things have progressed during the hiatus without proper football;  daughters 1 & 2 are now 15 and 12 respectively, no longer children and certainly of an age where sniggering conspiratorially at your embarrassing Dad is a done thing.  This is the first match we’ve done together  away from Vicarage Road since the Cup Final; in particular it’s the first game that Daughter 1 has been to since the win over Wolves at the start of last year so it’s particularly good to hear her singing along instinctively when such things begin a few hours later.  She has a good day; we avoid the malicious intent of the evil bastard seagulls on the front (unlike our family trip a year ago when daughter 2 lost an ice cream) and all major food groups are covered:  chocolate, ice cream, chewing gum, crisps and pie.

2- The boisterous party vibe (as daughters 1 and 2 would call it) continues at the ground.  To get to this stage we’ve had to navigate considerable security protocols outside the ground including two sniffer dogs (“am I allowed to pat them?”) but no COVID status checks.  The drizzle has stopped, the sun is out.

Having followed advice and tradition and arrived very early we’re in our seats for a long time watching Stuff Happen.  Much of the boisterousness is backstage until closer to kick off, but as the players complete their warm-up a lad is escorted past us with his arm genially around a steward’s shoulders, high fiving all comers.  It is reported over my shoulder that he skipped over the advertising hoardings, shared an exchange with a less inebriated but perhaps startled Ben Foster and then faced a couple of shots before the stewards wised up to developments.  All very naughty and so forth, but you can’t help but hope that the paperwork invoking the ban-from-all-football threatened by incursion onto the pitch is lost in the post in this instance.

But for all the bonhomie there is an air of being a friend-of-a-friend at someone else’s party.  If Brighton and the Amex, perhaps without the added detail of promotion since The Last Time, never has the volcanic exuberance of Vicarage Road a week ago there is no mistaking the mood outside the ground as we amble round to the southern end.  This is Brighton’s First Day Back, a factor that always felt like it might play a role, much as it helped us a week ago.  Friends are greeting friends with smiles on their faces, a Dad is eagerly asking his son where he’d rather get a match programme – inside the ground or out? – and the old boy in a blue and white shirt with whom we board the Falmer train from Brighton grins and says “it’s just so nice to be back, isn’t it?”.  But he’s not really talking to us, he’s staring into space.

3- A factor, then.  Fuel to the fire.  But there are bigger issues that get the fire started in the first place.  One of these is betrayed by our bench, which despite having nine names on it can’t find a proper midfielder with Kucka and, presumably, Gosling injured, contractually challenged pair Hughes and Chalobah non-grata (or “ill”), Tufan incoming and TDB and Phillips out on loan.  This means that the three out there are the last three cabs on the rank – Etebo, Cleverley, Louza – and whilst two of the three were exemplary against Villa and the other is a welcome debut, they are not going to have a good afternoon.

The other big factor is our opponent.  “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team”.  If we benefitted against Villa from the increased familiarity borne of our early recruitment activity then here we’re on the receiving end of a much more settled, effective side who Know Their Shit.  We give the ball away immediately and are steamrollered;  in particularly our midfield, outnumbered by virtue of our formation and overrun from the off, can’t get hold of the game.  Louza stands out; more to come from him no doubt, but this is an afternoon he’ll need to learn from.  He wants far, far more time on the ball than he’s going to get from Yves Bissouma and yields possession on countless occasions.

We play a major role in our own downfall, contributing to both goals; nonetheless, we’ve got away with 2-0 at the interval.  The first comes from Shane Duffy, an old-school centre half who feels like he’s been on borrowed time since Albion were promoted, a championship-style defender in a Premier League side.  However many years on and despite a year out last year he’s still borrowing time, demonstrating that a bit of brutality has a place and a role in a three-man defence flanked by the ability of Webster and Dunk.  All the more so when he rises virtually unopposed to head a popular opener in off the underside of the bar from a left wing corner.  Dad, watching on TV, reports a healthy hand of Emmanuel Dennis’ shirt on the part of the Irish centre-back to which my response would be, why wasn’t Dennis kneeing him in the balls to hamper his ascent?  That’s going to happen.  Perhaps less so if it’s a big brute of a Chilean centre-back up against Duffy;  easy to be smart after the event, but this is an opponent, given Brighton’s threat at set pieces, that had Sierralta’s name all over it.

We look kind of vaguely threatening when we do get the balls in and around the Brighton area but not in as much as we generate an attempt on target.  Dennis is chasing scraps, Sarr, as always, is a weapon but is marshalled by March.  It feels laboured.  Meanwhile the midfield, drawing a parallel with my current Netflix binge, is like the US embassy at the end of Homeland season 4.  A wasteland, the terrorists have control, it’s no longer and was never a fight.  Towards the end of the half William Troost-Ekong, whose limited distribution was voiced as a concern pre-season by some and whose vulnerability here Brighton have picked up on by leaving him unchallenged and unharried at the back throughout, plays a suicide pass to Tom Cleverley.  Bissouma gobbles him up and releases Maupay.  Half of the away end don’t see the finish, heads are in hands.

4- “Same old bloody Watford, always losing” says a disembodied voice in the queue for sustenance.  The validity of the argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny but this is an expression of frustration and probably a little out of practice.  More generally there is rueful acknowledgement that this has been a car crash of a half on all sorts of levels but the mood is pretty resilient to it.  The crowd gets up again as the second period starts and good-natured hostilities are resumed with an individual out of my eyeline in the Brighton end.  The chants range from “Your shirt’s too small for you” to “You’re just a sh*t Father Christmas” via the slightly more niche “You’re just a sh*t Uncle Albert”.  The mind boggles.  Stewards linger uncertainly like parents at a toddler’s disintegrating birthday party.

On the pitch things are better from the off.  Too little too late, perhaps, the likelihood of a fightback never progresses beyond the theoretical and it’s difficult to judge merit comprehensively when the opponent is two-nil up, ostensibly comfortable and doesn’t need to commit.  One goal, deserved or otherwise, would have changed the mood however, and the fact that at least three of Brighton’s four yellows were earned for “take-one-for-the-team” break-stifling fouls suggests that there was more to this than just Brighton being able to sit back a bit.

Each of the subs improved the situation.  Cucho didn’t announce his arrival, inevitably in place of Louza, with the same fanfare as last week but his influence was more sustained, an effervescent force for good on the left.  A more comprehensive change in the balance of play was achieved with a formation change that saw Joshua King debuting off the bench in place of Cathcart, three at the back now and more presence in midfield with Sarr dropping deeper.  King was the pick of the bunch, some control and venom at last, whilst Troy’s cameo began on a bruising collision with Dunk that ended with a handshake but brought some welcome bite to proceedings. We didn’t do any more than draw the second half on points really, but you’d probably have taken that at half time.

5- A good friend has frequently observed that if you followed a football club, Watford for sake of argument, purely for events on the pitch you’d have a pretty bloody miserable time of it.  Rarely better illustrated than today.

On the pitch… disappointing to say the least.  Not the end of the world;  this was a failure of system and of personnel against a decent opponent rather than an irredeemable catastrophe (A decent opponent who nonetheless, in the same way that the concession of two goals nagged at us last week, might reflect on their own capabilities having been so dominant and yet only managing two goals, each of them facilitated.  As someone put it afterwards, “if Connolly could finish his dinner…”).  We knew we were lightweight in midfield minus Capoue, Doucs, now Chalobah.  If we’re going to be outmanned in midfield we can’t be outgunned as well.  Those solutions are coming.

But off the pitch…  losing, however badly or frustratingly, is part of the rich tapestry that we’ve missed. The investment in whatever it is you think you believe in doesn’t count for anything if it doesn’t matter when you lose.  Besides which, beating Palace and then Spurs will feel all the better for this, no?

And in any case.  Away days are back.  Daughters 1 and 2, having previously temporarily opted out of away games (don’t like being intimidated by the majority, miss the home routine) are back, and will be at Spurs.  We trundle into Bedford just before 11, they’re knackered but still grinning.  And football’s back.  That’ll do for now.  The rest will come.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 2, Troost-Ekong 1, Kabasele 3, Etebo 2, Cleverley 3, Louza 1, Sarr 2, Sema 3, Dennis 3
Subs: Hernández (for Louza, 45) 3, *King (for Cathcart, 65) 3*, Deeney (for Sema, 82) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Fletcher, Sierralta, Baah, Foster

Watford 3 Aston Villa 2 (14/08/2021) 15/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
22 comments

1- By half time, the sun is properly out.  Which is how opening day should be, of course.  There are 200 hospital staff circuiting the pitch to a prolonged standing ovation from all four sides of the ground.  “Song for Guy” plays as the faces of those lost over the pandemic by both club and hospital appear on the screen.  There is a deluge of specks in eyes, odd for a still afternoon.

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It’s one of a number of significant things on a memorable day.  Arguably the most memorable thing, though there are many others.  Like… just being in a full stadium again.  The noise.  The colour.  The single living entity that a football crowd becomes. Queuing for a pint.  Edging your way to your seat.  Grins and greetings shared both with friends and with familiar faces.  God, we’ve missed this so much.

Simon and I had reflected on some of this as he arrived an hour earlier.  We went as far as suggesting that the result really didn’t matter at all.  That the other stuff was so much more significant.

We quickly acknowledged that this was complete bollocks.

2- So much is governed by mindset.  Several weeks ago we had the holiday conversation at home.  Weighed up the things that everyone’s weighed up.  Cost.  Uncertainty.  Risk. Risks. All sorts of risks. COVID.  The need to navigate the labyrinthine testing requirements (what does “a PCR test is advised for those returning from Spain” actually mean?).  The possibility that sands might shift between booking our holiday and the planned date of departure or, worse, whilst we were away or, worse, that positive tests at certain required points might be catastrophic.

My wife and daughters calmly but firmly pointed out that we were going anyway.  And that was that.  As soon as my head accepted this fact as a given rather than a decision to be made everything seemed much more straightforward (excepting, possibly, the labyrinthine regulations).  We returned from Málaga yesterday.

Meanwhile on Twitter, the world is ending.  Troy Deeney’s still here for one thing and he’s, like, ancient.  And Will Hughes, that’s a disgrace.  And who’s going to get the goals?  And who’s going to make the goals?  We’re, like, so relegated (my daughters did explain to me the difference between “relegated bruv” and “relegated bro” over another eclectic buffet dinner in Spain, but I forget…).

You wouldn’t know it.  The concerns loudly voiced on social media are left at the door, or at the very least drowned out by furious bloody-mindedness.  This is not a time for balance and weighing things up and judgement, overly anxious or otherwise.  This is a time for just bloody going to Spain and everyone knows it.  The noise is relentless – given the ten-plus minute ovation at half-time it’s possible that recent records were broken, but nobody is counting.  The first hiatus late in the second half is borne of collective exhaustion.

3- The opening is a sparring match, and whilst it’s completely unreasonable to extrapolate from the first few minutes to the entire season that’s what everyone’s doing.  On the whole we look kind of OK… keeping Villa at arm’s length if offering them more glimpses that you’d really like.  A key protagonist here is Peter Etebo, who is a mobile, efficient, disciplined destructive agent.  If Jonathan Hogg had been Nigerian…  win ball, keep possession, lay off.  Win ball, hold off marker, find the pass.  Tremendous.

Alongside him is the deceptive Juraj Kucka. This, I will confess, was the one that tested my ability to reserve judgement…  a 34 year-old?  Really?  And look at him, he’s clearly another ball-winner with his hulking, square shoulders.  Thing is, he looks like a hell’s angel but moves like a ballerina and whilst others will get wise to this Villa really aren’t.  He’s simply fabulous, a big character whose deceptive touch and swagger complement Etebo and Cleverley beautifully in what looks far from the sellotaped midfield of the twitterati’s (and everyone else’s) worst fears.

It’s not too long before a less surprising weapon puts on the burners.  Ismaïla Sarr is going to give Matt Targett a miserable 45 minutes before his half-time withdrawal – Targett an odd selection by Dean Smith since established first choice left back or otherwise, Targett’s value is in the quality of his delivery rather than his turn of pace (or lack of it).  Against any normal mortal, let alone Isma. Twenty minutes in Joe is WhatsApping that Sarr is finishing Targett’s career.

By this point we’re already ahead.  The third debutant to start is Emmanuel Dennis whose first ten minutes is the lowest profile of the trio until he gets on the end of a Sarr cross to open our account for the season at the second attempt – fortunate perhaps that the rebound fell to him, although even the newly reticent VAR might have had a glance at Konsa’s block, the shape of which Martínez would have been proud of, had the striker not followed up.  Thereafter Dennis joins his fellow new-boys in enthusing his new crowd with a spiky hour or so in which he torments Villa’s back line with a repertoire of speed, sharp first touches and efficient aggression.  More than once ponderous Villa play is disrupted by Dennis dropping out of a tree like some kind of ninja and making off with the ball before anyone’s had time to shout.

We’re not dominant in terms of possession.  Villa have plenty, but don’t know quite what to do with it.  The unpopular Young is prominent, Ings looks sharp enough that you wouldn’t want to give him a view (we don’t), Buendía is all but invisible.  But whilst we’ll have tougher opponents than a Villa side in the wake of a disruptive departure and missing, in Watkins and Luiz, two key protagonists, it’s hugely encouraging that we do the “holding them off” thing around the edge of our area as effectively as we executed it for much of last season.  They don’t record an effort on target in the first half and rarely look like doing so, whereas from ten minutes on we’re sharp on the break.  We end the half well ahead on points and also on goals…  Sarr wins one of an impressive and unprecedented number of flick-ons to release Dennis, the Nigerian slips him in on the right and his shot gets a big deflection off, poetically enough, Tyrone Mings to loop past Martínez.  A bit of luck…  if these three points send Villa down at the end of the season we’ll let them off the missed red card and call it quits.

4- We’ve covered three debutants and we’ll get to Cucho.  But there are further debutants in the stadium in the shape of Aasha and Sammy.  Aasha was a school friend with whom contact has been recently re-established through the miracles of social media;  she wasn’t a football fan back then, but apparently things change in 30 years.  Having enthused over the Euros she has declared that having a club of her own was overdue.  Now living locally the Hornets were an option; Streatham was home for quite a while too so Palace declared as another.

An old school friend, as I said, but some things are less about friendship and more about common decency.  Steering Aasha onto the right path was the only reasonable thing to do.  I made the case as clearly as I could and when Aasha conceded, partially in terror I suspect, I followed up by contacting A Club Representative who facilitated a letter from Troy congratulating Aasha on the wisdom of her choice.  So here Aasha is, with 8 year-old son Sammy giving it everything next to her. I’m not sure whether it’s right to point out that it isn’t always quite this fun or let them find out in time.

Meanwhile back on the pitch Villa are out earlier after the break, and start with purpose.  Young has replaced the hapless Targett by shifting to left back after which Isma’s free rein is curtailed, and sub Jacob Ramsey is prominent in two early attacks.  These yield nearly moments rather than efforts on target, but they’re a statement of intent in a more assertive if, at least initially, scarcely more impactful second half from the visitors.

We still provide threat on the break but the difference in quality between divisions is evident as Sema does his once-a-game bundle down the left touchline but is robbed before he can pull the trigger.  He should have been given a corner, but that’s a shot on target in the Championship.  Similarly Sarr is a threat and provokes anxiety on the other flank but again Villa muddle through.  Dennis cuts inside from the left and fires in hard and low; the keeper’s right behind it, but tickets and raffles as Sarr’s goal demonstrated.  Villa haven’t had a shot on target yet.

Minutes later Dennis is hobbling off to an ovation, and on comes the mythical Cucho Hernández at least twelve months later than planned.  In truth his competitive debut is relatively low key and innocuous, except for the bit that isn’t.  There’s so much that marks Cucho out, builds up his legend… the stories from Spain, the two goals off the bench on his debut for Colombia, the bleached blonde hair and boyish grin.  So the force of personality to take that wave of expectation and ride it and score a goal of the season contender with his first involvement is quite staggering.  Kucka is bundled over in Villa’s half, Dean plays a great advantage as Cleverley scraps the ball out to Cucho on the left.  The Colombian progresses down the flank, cuts inside and flings a curling shot across the face of goal.  It’s in off the base of the far post and Vicarage Road erupts in noise.  We’re away.

5- Had we held out a little longer we might have gotten away with a flattering thrashing, set up as we were to attack on the break.  Instead John McGinn’s brilliant conversion of Leon Bailey’s cross serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change with a bit of Premier League quality.  It didn’t ultimately matter much this time, but we won’t always have a 3-0 cushion;  1999/2000 was peppered with games in which we played pretty well and lost 1-0, this fixture amongst them.  The late penalty, too, was more than a footnote…  a bizarre attempt at a tackle by the otherwise exemplary Masina, but had he not attempted it Traoré was in and a second goal was likely in any case.  It was wrong to presume relegation before a ball had been kicked.  It’s no less foolish to be presumptuous on the back of one, albeit largely fabulous, victory.

But 3-2 flatters the visitors;  we were much better than that.  Villa can be expected to improve, and can take heart from hanging in there…  we can be grateful, I think, for opening at home and for catching our opponents at a weak moment, but there was no fortune in our own performance.  To reiterate, we got our players in early, players that the recruitment team know more about that we do, and it showed.  We have a team, already.  And let’s have no more leaping to “I’ve got doubts about Xisco’s tactical acumen”;  all available evidence since his first few games defy that position.  We have a team, a coach and a club to be proud of.

everyone

As for Aasha, who once got a job in Boots in Basildon just in case Dave Gahan came in for some toothpaste, the regular Depeche Mode outing over the tannoy at the final whistle sealed the deal.  The day kept dropping in highlights… Lloyd Doyley bashfully edging his way down Occupation Road against the tide was one, Nathaniel Chalobah gushing about his brother and “his” club’s win on Twitter another.  Spain was fabulous, and today was a Good Day.

Now we just need to do it again, on and off the pitch.

See you at Brighton, and welcome back.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 3, Masina 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 4, Etebo 4, Cleverley 4, *Kucka 5*, Sarr 4, Sema 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Hernández (for Dennis, 66) 4, Gosling (for Kucka, 69) 3, Deeney (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Ngakia, Rose, Louza, Fletcher, Sierralta, Foster

Season Preview 2021 – Part 5 13/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Bryan Gil (Sevilla, Part Exchange), Cristian Romero (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Pierluigi Gollini (Atalanta, Season Loan)

OUTS: Toby Alderweireld (Al-Duhail, Undisclosed), Jubril Okedina (Cambridge United, Undisclosed), Erik Lamela (Sevilla, Part Exchange), Dennis Cirkin (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Justin Foyth (Villarreal, Undisclosed), Joe Hart (Celtic, Undisclosed), Paulo Gazzaniga (Fulham, Free), George Marsh (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Danny Rose (Watford, Free), Shilow Tracey (Cambridge United, Free), Jamie Bowden (Oldham Athletic, Season Loan), Kion Etete (Northampton Town, Season Loan), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Maurizio Pochettino, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Academy Coach), Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

GOOD THINGS: Lean-on bars in the away end.  Beavertown Beers on tap in the away end.  Tony Galvin. The most interchangeable, self-explanatory nickname in the world. Jürgen Klinsmann. 

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21         2-1
2019-20 0-0 1-1      
2018-19 2-1        
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
Doherty       Romero      Rodon        Reguilón
Højbjerg         Ndombele
Son                          Lo Celso                  Bergwijn
Kane

VERDICT: I did feel at the time that United would have been better off appointing Mourinho directly after Ferguson left.  Whoever stepped into that void was on a hiding to nothing, much better a Mourinho whose arrogance would survive the ordeal and whose collapse would be (relatively) quick and absolute than the slow inevitable decay under Moyes et al.  The next guy, whoever he was, would have been a merciful release after Mourinho rather than the post-Ferguson fall guy.

However many years on Spurs fans come out of the footballing enema that Mourinho stints have become feeling… well, desperate for something positive I guess.  Anything.  Nuno Espirito Santo is regarded as… slightly underwhelming perhaps, certainly not done any favours by the prolonged nature of his appointment which felt rather like a journey through the yellow pages (or whatever young people use nowadays) in search of a plumber without a £100 call-out charge.

As I write rumours circulate that the new boss is planning to raid his former charges for either Conor Coady, Adama Traore or both.  When stuff like this happens you’re never sure whether to be encouraged by good relationships that means players trust their old boss, or a lack of imagination which means that he’s going to keep going back to the same guys, or (in this case) whether everything’s in the imagination of journalists without enough to write about.  Time will tell.

Either way, the soap opera may only just be beginning as Harry Kane fails to turn up to training.  Should he get his out then all bets are off.  Spurs aren’t about to come close to accidentally winning the league again in any case but Kane aside they shouldn’t be a car crash either.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Craig Dawson (Watford, undisclosed), Pierre Ekwah (Chelsea, undisclosed), Alphonse Areola (Paris St.Germain, season loan)

OUTS: Sean Adarkwa (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Fabián Balbuena (Dynamo Moscow, Free), Alfie Lewis (St Patrick’s Athletic, Free), Tunji Akinola, Sam Caiger, Joshua Okotcha, Joseph Anang (Stevenage, Season Loan), Nathan Holland (Oxford United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Ashley Fletcher, Jeremy Ngakia, Domingos Quina

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

GOOD THINGS: Upton Park, including pre-match pie and mash. Blowing Bubbles, inc bubble machines.  David Sullivan’s big hat. Tomáš Souček.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-3        
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
      Coufal              Diop          Ogbonna          Cresswell
Rice          Souček

     Bowen                     Fornals                      Benrahma
Antonio

VERDICT: West Ham are like that annoying kid at school.  Not the bully, the one who nicked your dinner money or smacked you around the head with a hockey stick or threw chewing gum in your hair on the bus.  The other kid.  The acolyte.  The vulture who picked at the carcass.  

It’s always bloody West Ham.  The defeat before the cup final.  Irrelevant, we’d lost Europe, the big game was to come.  And yet, not.  The relegation season, the guileless but effortless amble through our defence at Vicarage Road.  Not decisive.  Not the end of the road.  And yet portentous.  Then the thumping at their “place”, scene of such joy in 2012 and yet.  Again, not decisive.  And yet decisive.

West Ham had looked like relegation candidates, but then weren’t.  Last season they rubbed the salt in by being quite good.  They underperformed two years ago, overperformed last season, this season they have a Europa League campaign and very little money.  As mid table as they come.  Bastards.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: José Sá (Olympiacos, £6,800,000), Yerson Mosquera (Atlético Nacional, £4,500,000), Rayan Ait-Nouri (Angers, Undisclosed), Francisco Trincão (Barcelona, Season Loan), Louie Moulden (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Rui Patrício (Roma, £10,000,000), Sadou Diallo (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Ryan Giles (Cardiff City, Season Loan), Taylor Perry (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Dion Sanderson (Birmingham City, Season Loan), Matija Šarkić (Birmingham City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: The racket at Wembley in 2019. Conor Coady. Ollie Floyd’s Collection. The nickname – powerful imagery. 

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-1 0-2      
2018-19 1-2   3-2    
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:


      Boly         Coady       Mosquera
Semedo       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
   Traore          Jiménez         Neto      

VERDICT: Wolves were extremely good at being the new kids on the block.  Breezed into the division with a side high in quality and well-resourced and looked like they would be dropping anchor in mid-table for years.

A couple of years on things don’t look quite so comfortable.  Refreshing, or rebuilding a side is always the tricky bit.  That difficult second album.  And whilst Wolves have done a reasonable job of bringing in younger players the team no longer looks formidable.  The rebuild kinda needs new options now, and these appear to be thin on the ground… Rui Patricio has moved on, Boly is injury prone and slowing up, Coady, Traore and Neves are attracting interest from elsewhere, the impressive Neto is out until the end of the year and the squad is beginning to look stretched with, messageboard rumours suggest, outgoings needed before money is spent.  Wolves, like so many, are short of cash.  

As previously suggested, securing a relegation place in the face of significant competition is going to take a concerted effort this season.  Wolves probably have too much quality to sustain a successful relegation push.  But only probably.

WATFORD

INS: Emmanuel Dennis (Club Brugge, £3,600,000), Mattie Pollock (Grimsby Town, initial £250,000), Kwadwo Baah (Rochdale, £140,000), Juraj Kucka (Parma, Undisclosed), Imrân Louza (Nantes, Undisclosed), Vincent Angelini (Celtic, Free), Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough, Free), Joshua King (Everton, Free), Dapo Mebude (Rangers, Free), Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur, Free), Peter Etebo (Stoke City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ben Wilmot (Stoke City, £1,500,000), Bosun Lawal (Celtic, £120,000), Craig Dawson (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Sam Dalby (Southend United, Free), Toby Stevenson (Bromley, Free), Carlos Sánchez, Achraf Lazaar, Jerome Sinclair, Tiago Cukur (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Pontus Dahlberg (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Reading, Season Loan), Juergen Elítim (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Dapo Mebude (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Adalberto Peñaranda (Las Palmas, Season Loan), Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese, Season Loan), Phillip Zinckernagel (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bachmann
Femenía          Troost-Ekong      Sierralta            Rose     
Etebo        Louza
Sarr                             Cleverley                   Hernández
Deeney

VERDICT: Certainty is easy.

Definitely this.  Clearly that. Obviously the other.  The illusion of clarity can convey… perceptiveness.  Insight.  Analytical capability.  The facility to process all the variables, weigh up the factors, come up with a definitive conclusion.  It’s also complete bollocks.

This season as much as any, close enough to post-pandemic for us to say post-pandemic but not far enough out that we don’t refer to it at all, all the sands still shifting for all that a newly promoted club is always going to be up against it to a certain extent.  It’s not as if we’re in uncharted territory;  for one last time let’s recognise the achievement of promotion in the wake of the relegation that followed an almost unprecedented spell in the top flight.  Never a given, that.   But it’s not like we’re completely new at this.  We don’t have the infrastructure of a Championship club any more.

Another source of variability is the playing squad.  The new recruits.  There have been plenty of them;  some for now, some perhaps for future years.  We don’t know how they’re going to work out… but Rose and King bring proven Premier League quality in areas that needed strengthening, Etebo and Kucka stiffen up our midfield, the long awaited rubber ball that is Cucho Hernández already looks a bag of fun, Dennis and Louza both untested in this League but long term targets.  You don’t look at any of them and think “no….”, and most of it was done early in the window.  We had our ducks lined up.  That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?  Get the players in in time for pre-season?

Presuming that nobody’s stupid enough to be panicking because we lost a pre-season friendly to bloody Palace…  perhaps it’s what we haven’t got as much as what we have.  A coherent, fully-formed first eleven for example, featuring creativity in midfield and reliable goals.  Given the volume of influx that was never going to happen straight away, but look at the size of the squad.  Heaven knows there are options there.  Last season Xisco came in from the other side of Europe and pretty quickly we were more than the sum of our parts having been distinctly less than that for much of the season.  Promotion from a standing start.  I’m not sure why so many have lost faith in his ability to form a team so readily.

The Hughes and Chalobah situation, clearly, we could have done without.  As reflected earlier in this series when talking about Buendía at Norwich we’re victims of circumstances a little here.  But for the pandemic it’s not unrealistic to suggest that Hughes at least might have been off last summer.  A year on and both have shown their quality again and we’re left with players with only a year on their contracts.  

I’ll be desolate when either leaves, frankly.  Hughes is an ace in the pack, but Nate too is coming off probably his strongest season for the club, stronger even that 2012/13 when so much was context.  But I like the fact that we haven’t caved to whatever’s being asked for.  That would be the easy thing to do, especially in the case of Hughes who is so clearly an important asset, everybody would “understand”.  It would be the populist call, but someone’s got their eye on the long game here.  Also interesting that neither has actually gone anywhere yet.  Perhaps it’s not just us reining in on the contracts (though optimistic to even hope that nobody will throw money at them).

The other consideration, considerations, plural, is the other lot.  Sartre’s quote again:  “in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent”.  And it’s been clear in preparing these pieces that whilst some clubs can afford to spend extraordinary amounts on top players, plenty of others are bricking it.  It’ll be a competitive relegation race this season, whoever goes down is going to have to work bloody hard at it.

So I’m more positive than some, I think.  That doesn’t mean we’ll definitely be OK.  See above.  Who the hell knows, frankly.  But a lot of the “we’re obviously going down” stuff is fundamentally cowardly.  Disassociation cushions you from responsibility, you get to point from the outside if things go wrong, before things go wrong.

The club have gotten themselves promoted immediately after a relegation in a pandemic.  A pandemic in which they excelled themselves off the pitch.  Did more for their community than could have reasonably been asked.  They deserve a bit of faith I think.  They deserve support.

Apart from anything else, it’s been a while since we’ve had the luxury of being able to do that noisily…

See you tomorrow.  Yooorns.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 4 12/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund, £73,000,000), Tom Heaton (Aston Villa, Free)

OUTS: Joel Pereira (RKC Waalwijk, Free), Max Taylor (Rochdale, Free), Sergio Romero, Di’Shon Bernard (Hull City, Season Loan), Nathan Bishop (Mansfield Town, Season Loan), Tahith Chong (Birmingham City, Season Loan), Reece Devine (St Johnstone, Season Loan), Facundo Pellistri (Deportivo Alavés, Season Loan), Axel Tuanzebe (Aston Villa, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Fletcher, Ben Foster, Joshua King

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nick Cox (Academy Manager), James Garner, Jadon Sancho

GOOD THINGS: Marcus Rashford.  Alex Ferguson. Travelling support makes a bloody racket.  Eric Cantona’s goal against Sheffield United.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21     0-1    
2019-20 2-0        
2018-19 1-2 1-2      
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:

Henderson
Wan-Bissaka      Maguire          Lindelöf                Shaw
McTominay             Pogba
Sancho                         Fernandes                       Rashford
Cavani 

VERDICT: Back in the mid-1980s when men were men, boys were boys and seasons took a lot longer than they do now, Shoot! was a staple part of the weekly diet.  Jimmy Greaves did an agony aunt page of sorts, (“For £300k you want a top class goalkeeper and Tony Coton certainly isn’t that”), there was a “Player Focus” on the back page (“Favourite Actress: Barbra Streisand”), and United skipper Bryan Robson had a weekly column (“the lads are quietly confident that this could be our year”).

We were worldly wise enough to laugh at Robson’s annual misplaced confidence at the time.  Hell, we laugh about it now.  In, say, 1984 United hadn’t won the title in 17 years… and as discussed, years were longer then too.  Nonetheless, a bit weird that United are halfway to that total again.

Indeed, for all that recent trajectory has been kind of upwards to the point where you can almost see a genuine title challenge if you squint really hard, United haven’t won a trophy in the last four seasons – the last time that happened was in the 1980s.  

There’s got to be a decent chance of that run ending this season one way or another.  The signings look sensible at last – Sancho and the mooted Varane and Trippier will all improve the side.  However, supporters’ angry and impressive response to the breakaway threat in which Joel Glazer was reportedly prominent re-emphasises the point that supporting a club is about much more than merely enjoying success on the pitch. 

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: None

OUTS: Florian Lejeune (Deportivo Alavés, Undisclosed), Christian Atsu (Al Raed, Free), Ludwig Francillette (Crawley Town, Free), Andy Carroll, Yoshinori Muto, Henri Saivet, Lewis Cass (Port Vale, Season Loan), Jake Turner (Colchester United, Season Loan), Kell Watts (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Rob Elliot, Dan Gosling, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kevin Richardson (U18s assistant coach)

GOOD THINGS: The city radiates from St James’ Park, the heart of Newcastle in more way than one.  The legendary, epic ascent to the away end, climbing spikes and all.  The “one pub per supporter” approach to hostelries in Newcastle.  Philippe Albert.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-1        
2018-19 1-1 0-1      
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
Krafth         Schär        Fernández     Dummett    Ritchie
Hayden                  Shelvey                 Almirón
   Saint-Maximin      Wilson          

VERDICT: Of all the frustrating circumstances that contributed to our relegation…  injuries, bad decisions, unfortunate defeats…  one of the most neglected and least discussed is Newcastle United.  Any balanced assessment of the last couple of seasons would have had the Magpies as dead certs for relegation for all manner of reasons.  And yet here they are…

The current working hypothesis is that there’s a sort of trap door at the bottom of the Premier League table somewhere to which only Mike Ashley has the key.  The trapdoor leads to a tunnel…  you need to time your movement carefully, perhaps to coincide with an international window or a Super Sunday when everyone’s distracted… but if you get it right you can emerge unnoticed into lower mid-table, a region never covered by the majority of media outlets anyway.  Two weeks later someone says “how the hell did Newcastle get up there” and you look and shrug and tell yourself to pay more attention next season.

Admittedly last season, unlike in 2019/20, part of the escape plan was Joe Willock whose prolific loan spell from Arsenal saw him net in each of the last seven fixtures of the season.  At the time of writing, with United yet to sign a player, he seems top of most shopping lists but personal terms are still being haggled over.

It’d be a cold-hearted bastard not to feel sympathy for United fans.  Even a complete collapse, a calamity, two or three years in the Championship followed by the possibility of a brighter future thereafter, might be deemed preferable to what feels like an annual slog.

Not that sympathetic though.  We can be sympathetic when we’ve stayed up.

NORWICH CITY

INS: Milot Rashica (Werder Bremen, £9,400,000), Ben Gibson (£8,000,000), Dimitris Giannoulis (PAOK,  €7,500,000), Angus Gunn (Southampton, £5,000,000), Pierre Lees-Melou (Nice, £3,500,000), Flynn Clarke (Peterborough United, Undisclosed), Liam Gibbs (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen, Undisclosed), Billy Gilmour (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Emiliano Buendía (Aston Villa, £33,000,000), Alex Tettey (Rosenborg, Free), Louis Thompson (Portsmouth, Free), Mario Vrančić (Stoke City, Free), Moritz Leitner, Marco Stiepermann, Daniel Barden (Livingston, Season Loan), Josip Drmić (HNK Rijeka, Season Loan), Akin Famewo (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Josh Martin (MK Dons, Season Loan), Reece McAlear (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Season Loan), Sam McCallum (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Danel Sinani (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Sebastian Soto (Porto, Season Loan), Xavi Quintillà (Villarreal, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: The Waterfront.  “We want Chasey out” in 1996. Beating Bayern.  The steward who took a quid to the Ladbrokes booth in the home end for me at Carrow Road which came in at 50-1. Yellow and green – uniquely Norwich.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 1-0 1-0      
2019-20 2-1 2-0      
2015-16 2-0 2-4      
2014-15 0-3        
2013-14       2-3  
2010-11 2-2 3-2      
2008-09 2-1        
2007-08 1-1 3-1      
2005-06 2-1 3-2      
2003-04 1-2 2-1      
2002-03 2-1 0-4      
2001-02 2-1 1-3      
2000-01 4-1 1-2      
1998-99 1-1 1-1      
1995-96 0-2 2-1      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Krul
    Aarons           Hanley         Gibson          Giannoulis
McLean          Gilmour
  Rashica               Dowell             Cantwell  
Pukki

VERDICT: Graham Taylor once memorably suggested, in around 2000 or so, that a club like Watford being a yo-yo club for a bit is not necessarily a bad thing.  Loosely, “if you yo-yo and yo-yo and yo-yo then in the end you might just… yo!”.  As the infrastructure builds and the club invests and so on.  There are all sorts of caveats and what-ifs to that of course, but Burnley are an example of a club who appear to have pulled it off.

Quite how much fun it is when you’re in the throes of it with no guarantee of a positive long-term outcome, you’d have to ask a Norwich fan.  City find themselves in a new division for the third summer running having achieved promotion comfortably just as they did two years ago.  Then they started at Anfield and attracted plaudits for their pretty triangles whilst going down 4-1 to a Liverpool side who barely had to break sweat.  Now…  they’re more experienced, they have some big ugly defenders in Grant Hanley and long-time Watford target Ben Gibson and they will hope to avoid the swathe of injuries to centre-backs that stymied them last time.

Nonetheless there are problems.  Principally the loss of Emi Buendía, whose situation wasn’t dissimilar to Will Hughes’ evolving (writing two weeks before the season starts) position at Watford.  But for the pandemic City might have lost Buendía a year ago.  As it was he helped them to promotion but they’ve now lost a key component of the team, and whilst they’ve recruited an heir apparent in Milot Rashica if he hits the ground running and gives them 80% of what Buendía did he’ll have done really well.  That’s far from guaranteed and still leaves them weaker than last year.  Meanwhile  City lack alternatives to Pukki up front and options in defensive midfield; they face Man City, Liverpool and Leicester before the transfer window closes and so will hope to be doing any remaining business quickly.  Whatever the mitigation in terms of strength of opposition, it’s much harder to recruit from the bottom of the table.  A lot depends on the next few weeks, you suspect.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Adam Armstrong (Blackburn Rovers, £15,000,000), Dynel Simeu (Chelsea, £1,500,000), Tino Livramento (Chelsea, Undisclosed), Romain Perraud (Brest, Undisclosed), Theo Walcott (Everton, Free), Armando Broja (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Angus Gunn (Norwich City, £5,000,000), Wesley Hoedt (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Danny Ings (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Alex Jankewitz (Young Boys, Undisclosed), Mario Lemina (Nice, Undisclosed), Callum Slattery (Motherwell, Undisclosed), Ryan Bertrand (Leicester City, Free), Dan Nlundulu (Lincoln City, Free), Thomas O’Connor (Burton Albion, Free), Josh Sims, Kayne Ramsay (Crewe Alexandra, Season Loan), Jake Vokins (Ross County, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Carl Martin (First Team/U23 Assistant Coach)

GOOD THINGS: Francis Benali. A production line of good kids.  The win over Manchester United and the invisible kit.  Ralph Hasenhüttl.   The weird angled seating arrangement behind the goal at the Dell.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-3        
2018-19 1-1 1-1      
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
Walker-Peters      Vestergaard        Bednarek          Perraud   
Tella                 Romeu          Ward-Prowse      S.Armstrong
A.Armstrong          Adams    

VERDICT: The problem with following the buy-low-sell-high model, which most clubs try to do to some degree or another and Southampton have done better than most over the years, is the sheer bloody relentlessness of it.  You have some control over when the stars get sold, lengths of contracts and making the place a good place to be until such a time and so on.  But not infinite control.  And the wheels don’t stop turning when it gets inconvenient.

Saints were in a difficult position this summer with Danny Ings forcing a move as he entered the last year of his contract and Jan Vestergaard courting interest after impressing with Denmark in the Euros, most recently from Leicester.  The club seems to do a steady job of replacing players as needed and bringing in replacements but a new “20-a-season” goalscorer is a big ask at the best of times. In the current circumstances with offers, one assumes, reflecting the new reality and a tendency perhaps to prefer to see lucrative contracts out rather than move for comparable or even inferior terms it becomes all but impossible.  Adam Armstrong looked decent in the Championship.  Like Rashica and Buendía at Norwich he’ll need to go some to come close to matching Ings, in which case Saints have broken even.  

Southampton’s ownership situation also seems less than ideal… Chinese-owned but by an individual who wants out but can’t find a buyer doesn’t feel altogether stable.  There are plenty of clubs worse off than Southampton – you’re going to have to work quite hard to get relegated this season on the basis of such messageboard research as I’ve undertaken – but Saints aren’t far enough away that they won’t be sucked in by an unfavourable turn of circumstances.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 3 11/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Junior Firpo (Barcelona, €15,000,000), Lewis Bate (Chelsea, Undisclosed), Jack Harrison (Manchester City, Undisclosed), Kristoffer Klaesson (Vålerenga, Undisclosed), Sean McGurk (Wigan Athletic, Tribunal)

OUTS: Oliver Casey (Blackpool, undisclosed), Ezgjan Alioski (Al-Ahli, Free), Ouasim Bouy (Al Kharaitiyat, Free), Barry Douglas (Lech Poznań, Free), Pablo Hernández (Castellón, Free), Gaetano Berardi,  Cole Gibbon, Niklas Haugland, Eunan O’Kane, Matthew Turner, Kiko Casilla (Elche, Season Loan), Leif Davis (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Laurens de Bock (Zulte Waregem, Season Loan), Ryan Edmondson (Fleetwood Town, Season Loan); Alfie McCalmont (Morecambe, Season Loan), Ken Temenuzhkov (Real Union, Season Loan)

OUR EX-WHITES: Mattie Pollock, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: Marcelo Bielsa.  That midfield in 1992, Strachan/McAllister/Batty/Speed.  The lads who shook our hands as we emerged from the ground in Cardiff in 2006 (yes, a recurring theme, sue me). Kalvin Phillips.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-0
2014-15 4-1
2013-14 3-0
2012-13 1-2
2011-12 1-1 2-0
2010-11 0-1 2-2
2005-06 0-0 1-2 3-0
2004-05 1-2 2-2
1999-00 1-2 1-3
1992-93 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Meslier
Ayling          Llorente        Koch              Firpo
Phillips
Raphinha       Dallas        Klich         Harrison
Rodrigo

VERDICT: I vaguely remember a strip cartoon from a comic as a kid.  The central character… I can’t remember.  There might have been a UFO involved, or maybe a flash of light or some other go-to “something’s going down, run with it it’s a comic” trope.  Either way… our hero comes to and finds that everything suddenly there’s a new child in the family.  A toddler with a demonic look in their eye who wasn’t there before and whose presence everyone else seems to think is normal.  Pretty dark shit for a kid’s magazine.

Aaaaand here’s Leeds, six years since our last League encounter.  The last time we met there was no prospect of this; Leeds were just another carcass with unrealistic pretensions.  In the interim there’s been a makeover and Leeds are not only decent but, whisper it, almost likeable.  At least from a distance.  Perhaps like old skool Wimbledon they’re less fun when you actually have to play them.  I guess we’ll find out.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Patson Daka (RB Salzburg, £23,000,000), Boubakary Soumaré (Lille, £17,000,000), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton, Free)

OUTS: Josh Knight (Peterborough United, Undisclosed), Admiral Muskwe (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Christian Fuchs (Charlotte FC, Free), Matty James (Bristol City, Free), Daniel Iversen (Preston North End, Season Loan), Callum Wright (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Wes Morgan (retired)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

GOOD THINGS: 2016. Vichai. The atmosphere at the stadium – ferociously partisan but about supporting them not being anti-you.  The VfL Bochum fans that we met in Leicester in 2015 who also supported City because they “wore blue and never won anything , like us” (how’s that going?). Any number of epic encounters and late, dramatic wins (not just that one)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-1
2018-19 2-1
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
Justin              Söyüncü           Fofana             Castagne
Ndidi        Tielemans
Ricardo                   Maddison                  Barnes
Vardy

VERDICT: If 2016 was remarkable then the last couple of years, hanging around the top of the table (if twice missing out on a return to the Champions League) and winning the FA Cup isn’t a bad encore. It begs the question…  what will/would it take for Leicester to be recognised as one of the “big six” (or five, or seven, or whatever).  In terms of recent trophies they’re well clear of Spurs, say, or Everton.  Leicester is not one of the biggest cities in the country, but it’s a one-club city with a commuter belt of around 900,000 people.

And the team and squad look ridiculously deep, with quality and cover across the squad.  Quite whether their recent success can be sustained or built on this season might depend to some extent on quite how good Patson Daka is.  Jamie Vardy is a remarkable specimen but will turn 35 in January;  a footballer whose bursts of pace form such a big part of his game is not going to have an indefinite shelf life, 17 goals last season rather disguises 4 since Christmas (2 pens).  I’ve been stung too often by Kelechi Iheanacho in our Fantasy League (two opportunities to switch players out of your squad per season, purchase with care) to have any great faith there.  Two ridiculously prolific seasons for Salzburg bode well for Daka, though unless the Austrian league has improved dramatically in the last twenty-odd years he’ll find the standard tougher in England.

There are sides whose elevation to the top echelon, whatever that means, however much it matters, you’d resent more.  In any case, as the famous 1881 banner suggested, Leicester continue to provide a bridge between where we are and the completely unattainable.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Ibrahima Konaté (RB Leipzig, £36,000,000)

OUTS: Harry Wilson (Fulham, £12,000,000), Marko Grujić (Porto, £10,500,000), Kamil Grabara (Copenhagen, Undisclosed), Liam Millar (Basel, Undisclosed), Liam Coyle (Accrington Stanley, Free), Georginio Wijnaldum (Paris St. Germain, Free), Paul Glatzel (Tranmere Rovers, Season Loan), Joe Hardy (Accrington Stanley, Free), Adam Lewis (Livingston, Season Loan), Sepp van den Berg (Preston North End, Season Loan); Ozan Kabak (Schalke, End of Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

GOOD THINGS: John Barnes (though never the same player once he left Herts…). Anfield (though not the away end concourse, which is horrific). Klopp.  Jordan Henderson. Round of applause from the Kop after the win in 1999 (so I’m told, hrrrmph)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 3-0
2018-19 0-3
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
Alexander-Arnold        Matip        Van Dijk                 Robertson
Henderson              Fabinho
Salah                  Keita                   Mané
Firmino

VERDICT: The funny thing is, Liverpool were so good two years ago that you kind of expected it to go on indefinitely.  Defending a title is harder than winning it of course, and then there was Van Dijk’s injury and a load of others and so on and so forth.  Nonetheless.  Third place last season was achieved on the back of an eleven game unbeaten run at the tail end of the campaign, disguising the fact that for quite a while it looked like a far more alarming drop-off all round.

Van Dijk and Gomez are reportedly nearing fitness as the season approaches but another year on this is beginning to look like quite an old team.  Henderson is 31, Van Dijk and Thiago both 30, Matip an the front three all 29.  Konaté and Jota’s signings suggest a succession plan of sorts, but an overhaul is a hard thing to judge and execute at the best of times, let alone in the wake of a pandemic when the transfer market is… sluggish.

It’s possible that Van Dijk’s return sets everything back to rights, that with a much more robust defence behind them the front three are at greater liberty to attack and Liverpool will be formidable once again.  Either way our annual stuffing at Anfield is surely a given.  But I wouldn’t bank on the former.  Lots of “ifs”.  Top four, but that’s all.

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Jack Grealish (Aston Villa, £100,000,000), Scott Carson (Derby County, Free)

OUTS: Jack Harrison (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Lukas Nmecha (VfL Wolfsburg, Undisclosed), Sergio Agüero (Barcelona, Free), Eric García (Barcelona, Free), Daniel Grimshaw (Blackpool, Free), Louie Moulden (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Free), Adrian Barnabe (Parma, Free), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Callum Doyle (Sunderland, Season Loan), Lewis Fiorini (Lincoln City, Season Loan), Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Alexander Robertson (Ross County, Season Loan), Matt Smith (Hull City, Season Loan), James Trafford (Accrington Stanley, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Tom Dele-Bashiru

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké

GOOD THINGS: Sergio Agüero. That twitter clip of their end appreciating our defiant flag waving at Wembley.  Inflatable bananas. Raheem Sterling

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-4
2018-19 0-6
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        Dias       Cancelo
Rodri
Gündoğan         de Bruyne
Mahrez             Sterling          Grealish

VERDICT: Oh good.

You know this, but let’s reiterate it anyway.  Five seasons in the top flight…  Arsenal:  7 points from 10 league games (plus a cup quarter final win).  Leicester: 10.  Liverpool: 7.  United: 6.  Spurs: 6.  Chelsea: 5.  None of these records great but, you know, these are the top teams (plus Spurs).

City.  None.  No points, not even many near misses really.  Including the Cup Final that’s played eleven, lost eleven, scored 4, conceded 41.  The 4-0 at the Vic in the dying embers of our relegation season was only the fifth worst defeat of the five year spell; City one of only two Premier League opponents that we didn’t beat at least once last time around (who were the other, kids?).  Not a pair of fixtures that we’ll be banking on points from you suspect.

Meanwhile City continue to gravitate towards Pep’s ideal of eleven small, mobile, highly technical midfielders interchanging rapidly, and this was far too good for the rest of the division last season.  The purchasing power is supplemented by a brutal harvesting of young talent, Tomas Galvez taking the Jadon Sancho path this summer.  I’m sure we’re not the only ones and whilst we shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t always ever thus, wealthy teams pinching players of less wealthy teams, nor pretend that the boot isn’t often on the other foot sometimes it’s still a pisser to lose talent before it’s been realised.

Anyway.  Champions again, probably, or thereabouts.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 2 10/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

BURNLEY

INS: Nathan Collins (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace, Free)

OUTS: Josh Benson (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Jimmy Dunne (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Ben Gibson (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Ryan Cooney (Morecambe, Free), Robbie Brady, Joel Mumbongo (Accrington Stanley, Season Loan), Bayley Peacock-Farrell (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Adam Phillips (Morecambe, Season Loan)

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah, Andre Gray

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork, Sean Dyche (Manager), Matěj Vydra, Ian Woan (Assistant Manager)

GOOD THINGS: Sean Dyche and the single-minded pragmatism that we saw in 2011/12 dialled up some.  The cricket club and all it’s funny little nooks and crannies.  Scarves raised in the away end on the anniversary of GT’s passing. Glen Little.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-3
2018-19 0-0
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:

Pope
Lowton            Tarkowski                Mee                  Taylor
Gudmundsson         Brownhill             Westwood                 McNeil
Vydra            Wood

VERDICT: My day job is mathematical, loosely.

It can involve fitting models, and these vary in complexity.  You only need two data points to estimate a linear relationship for example, strictly speaking (more to do it reliably).  A smooth parabolic curve, maybe three or four.

But most difficult to predict is where you anticipate some kind of step change;  a sudden break in the pattern that might occur at a specific but unknown point.  From this point, everything changes but you don’t know exactly when that change is going to occur.

Burnley have been around for long enough not just for everyone to know the deal, but for it to be clear that they’re pretty robust to the vagaries of fortune.  Left to trundle on as they are they will happily do so, and whilst they’re not immune to an unlucky season they’ve taken the rough with the smooth since promotion finishing as high as seventh but never lower than seventeenth, their final berth after an injury-disrupted 2020/21.

But at some point there will be a sea-change, and it’s likely to be instantaneous and dramatic.  Replacing a long-standing and dominant leader tends to be a painful experience for any club, but when a club is proudly and successfully punching above its weight by adhering to an approach that stems from that leader it’s only going one way when that central pillar is removed.

For now, as I write, he’s still in place with a five year contract on the table but unsigned.  Burnley have recruited frugally over recent seasons but under new ownership may be in a position to strengthen further.  Either way you’d fancy the Clarets to have, as a minumum, enough once again. Probably.

CHELSEA

INS: Marcus Bettinelli (Fulham, Free)

OUTS: Fikayo Tomori (Milan, £24,000,000), Marc Guéhi (Crystal Palace, £18,500,000), Victor Moses (Spartak Moscow, £4,500,000), Lewis Bate (Leeds United, £1,500,000), Dynel Simeu (Southampton, £1,500,000), Pierre Ekwah (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Olivier Giroud (Milan, Undisclosed), Tino Livramento (Southampton, Undisclosed), Myles Peart-Harris (Brentford, Undisclosed), Izzy Brown (Preston North End, Free), Jack Wakely (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Willy Caballero, Nathan Baxter (Hull City, Season Loan), Levi Colwill (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Jamie Cumming (Gillingham, Season Loan), Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Billy Gilmour (Norwich City, Season Loan), Henry Lawrence (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Ian Maatsen (Coventry City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Kenedy

GOOD THINGS: The walk from Blackfriars along the river to Stamford Bridge.  Didier Drogba, and particularly his header against Bayern in the Champions League Final, the original thunderbastard.  Gianfranco Zola.  The anti-Super League protest, good work.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-2 0-3
2018-19 0-3
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:

Mendy
James             Silva            Rüdiger      Chilwell
Kanté               Jorginho
Pulisic                     Havertz                    Mount
Werner

VERDICT: There’s a danger in presuming that we just slip back into the groove, I think.  Theoretically at least.  Not that we were ever able be presumptuous or comfortable in the top flight, but we’d had four seasons of not really being threatened by relegation until, well, you know.  Going down and coming up forces a rejigging and although we’ve done very well given those circumstances all things considered we’re not a mid-table side again just because that’s what we kind of were.

Case in point is Chelsea.  We were never in the same weight division as Chelsea, never competing on equal terms, but although a few brownie points and five actual points from the Blues in five seasons is hardly a princely haul we’d passed the stage where a game against the Blues was daunting.  A tough game, sure, one of the toughest of the season.  But nothing to be scared of.

I think that’s changed a bit.  As much because of them as because of us perhaps, the transfer splurge that followed Frank Lampard being forced to save his pocket money for a couple of transfer windows hasn’t been completely transformative but certainly gave Chelsea a new lick of paint.  Suddenly they have a formidable manager, a Champions’ League title and a realistic shot at the Premier League next season whether the mooted move for Haaland Lukaku materialises or not.  Meanwhile we’ve lost Daryl Janmaat and Bobby Pereyra, both of whom seemed to save better days for Chelsea.

The one cloud on the horizon is the summer departure of yet more promising kids of whom much was expected but little leeway has been offered to much disappointment.  Marc Guéhi (see below) and Billy Gilmour are two such who might be back, but they’re far from the only ones in an ongoing trend with Tammy Abraham, seemingly, also surplus to requirements.

Such trains of thought, whereby you associate Chelsea fans with human and sympathetic emotions, is obviously subversion of the highest order and not to be condoned – I shall flog myself directly.  In the meantime, Chelsea are serious contenders.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Marc Guéhi (Chelsea, £18,500,000), Michael Olise (Reading, £8,000,000), Joachim Andersen (Lyon, Undisclosed), Remi Matthews (Sunderland, Free), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Wayne Hennessey (Burnley, Free), James McCarthy (Celtic, Free), Mamadou Sakho (Montpellier, Free), Andros Townsend (Everton, Free), Patrick van Aanholt (Galatasaray, Free), Gary Cahill, Scott Dann, Stephen Henderson, Connor Wickham, Sion Spence (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Kwadwo Baah, Joseph Hungbo

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

GOOD THINGS: The racket that the Holmesdale End can make.  Wilfried Zaha, an icon or the perfect antihero depending on your point of view. A London club with a local feel – represents its environment.  Wright and Bright.  The sash.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-0
2018-19 2-1 2-1 2-1
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
Clyne             Kouyaté             Andersen        Mitchell
Milivojević         Gallagher       McArthur
Ayew                    Benteke                  Zaha

VERDICT: Well this isn’t dull.

All change at Selhurst, after four years of Roy and Ray.  Not only have the management team exited stage left but a good chunk of the squad were out of contract and have gone with them.

There seems to be a consensus that a change was needed, but if you could have chosen a summer to execute it this probably wouldn’t have been it.  Palace are in the position of needing to rebuild a squad – specifically, to sign a load of players – at a time when financial pressures mean that players aren’t being offered the contracts that they’ve come to expect.  Palace having a load of “old school” contracts ending at the same time might benefit them in that regard, but they’ve still got to attract signings at a time when it looks as if there’s a lot of wink murder going on. I’ve no doubt that players will come in, but whether it’s down to expectations being moderated or Palace getting desperate or a bit of both it’s going to be late in the window.  This doesn’t help incoming boss Patrick Vieira, managing in England for the first time and trying to introduce a very different style of playing by all accounts without much of a squad.

There’s a “this is fun” tone to some of the messageboard posts, but that optimism might be tested before too long.  Palace have a tough start to the season with four London derbies to start followed by Liverpool and a “derby” with Brighton.  Palace have played catch-up before and won, but would rather not have to.  Meanwhile Zaha seems to be angling for a move,  Eberechi Eze will miss much of the season and a squad that has struggled for goals is missing more than just depth.  Michael Olise looks like a steal, but whilst Marc Guéhi was tremendous at Swansea last season the pressures having been signed for a club at a higher level expected to be on the back foot rather than the front with a reported £18million fee around his neck will be rather different.

All up in the air, clearly.  But Palace could be in real trouble.  You don’t get points for pre-season friendlies, after all.

EVERTON

INS: Demarai Gray (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed), Asmir Begović (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace, Free)

OUTS: Bernard (Sharjah, €1 million), Beni Baningime (Hearts, Undisclosed), Dennis Adeniran (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Josh Bowler (Blackpool, Free), Callum Connolly (Blackpool, Free), Con Ouzonoudis (Esbjerg, Free), Matthew Pennington (Shrewsbury Town, Free); Theo Walcott (Southampton, Free), Muhamed Bešić, Yannick Bolasie, Bobby Carroll, Lewis Gibson (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Nico Defreitas-Hansen (Swansea City, Season Loan), Robin Olsen (Roma, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley, Dan Gosling, Joshua King

THEIR EX-ORNS: Abdoulaye Doucouré, Richarlíson, Andros Townsend

GOOD THINGS: 1984, despite Andy Gray. The bloke who shook my hand outside Goodison Park after the 2015 game as I struggled to herd a nine year-old and a six year-old back towards the car, to the derision of his mates.  Peter Reid.  Goodison’s wonkiness.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-3 0-1
2018-19 1-0
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        Godfrey         Mina            Digne
Doucouré             Allan
Townsend               Rodríguez                Richarlíson
Calvert-Lewin

VERDICT: The answer to the question is of course, as the last 18 months has demonstrated beyond any doubt, that supporting your team is great whoever you are and however successful or otherwise.   Success has something to do with it but…  being part of it and having it there matters more.

But beyond that, and if we can stay facetious for a moment…  what are you hoping for as an Everton fan right now?  Realistically?  What’s your aspiration?  Because having a possibility to cling to is everything, isn’t it? This is why our own five years in the Prem were so important, not just financially but also in demonstrating that it was possible after two previous forays that suggested otherwise.  What are you hoping for if that’s how it always ends?

For Watford, dropping anchor in mid-table remains an aspiration.  It’s an ask, but it’s not completely unrealistic.  That would do me, certainly for the time being, maybe for good if it attracted “what’s the point of Watford being there?” complaints from the carcasses below, trading off bigness as some nebulous alternative currency above goodness.

For Everton…  a big city club with tradition and a fanbase, notionally on the edge of the big six but actually, and partly because of a tried and tested ability to spend loads of money on the wrong players, often ageing trophy players (and there’s still scope for the Poborsky signing of the summer in the mooted Denzel Dumfries), they’re miles away.  Last season with a prestige manager and a lot of investment they finished tenth. They’re at least a year away from being able to rid themselves of some miserable decisions.

On the upside, in Rafa Benítez they’ve got absolutely the right bloke, links across Stanley Park notwithstanding.  He’s come in, looked at the squad and said “right, I’ve got a fairly solid defence and a big lad up top, what do I need” and brought in Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray.  Not flashy.  Not big names.  But smart in facilitating an effective and sustainable style of play – Digne already provides quality from wide, Doucs and Allan an engine in the middle, Richarlíson is capable of attacking crosses if Calvert-Lewin is out.

Everton will still be nowhere near the top four, and may even finish lower than last time, but Benítez is arresting a downward trajectory.  Mid-table.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 1 09/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

I’m presuming that you know the drill here, but just in case…  four previews per day for the week until it all kicks off on Friday evening.

A slight change in format this season.  The Euros this summer brought with them the novelty of an utterly likeable England team, and the altogether less novel unlikeable public face of England’s support.  On the latter… no words should be necessary;  either you know exactly what I’m talking about and share the general sentiment or you’re too dense for words to make any difference.

In particular the slightly overlooked booing of opposition anthems. which is probably fairly low down in the pantheon of national embarrassments this summer, but betrays a crass disregard and lack of respect for other people(s) which on its own and even without the other stuff makes me not want to associate myself with the England football team.

Being proud of who you are and where you come from doesn’t automatically mean hating everyone and everywhere else.  To this end..  each team’s section contains a list of Good Things about the club in question.  It should be added that Football itself and everyday football supporters should be in EVERY list, but then it would be dull as well as sanctimonious.

There is of course a time and a place for being rude about opponents too, that will come.  And yes, the prospect of this feature became less daunting once Bournemouth had lost their play-off semi-final.

ARSENAL

INS: Ben White (Brighton & Hove Albion, £50,000,000), Albert Sambi Lokonga (Anderlecht, £15,000,000), Nuno Tavares (Benfica, €8,000,000)

OUTS: Ben Sheaf (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Trae Coyle (Lausanne-Sport, Free), Mark McGuinness (Cardiff City, Free), Zech Medkley (KV Oostende, Free), David Luiz, Daniel Ballard (Millwall, Season Loan), Harry Clarke (Ross County, Season Loan), Mattéo Guendouzi (Marseille, Season Loan), Tyreece John-Jules (Blackpool, Season Loan), William Saliba (Marseille, Season Loan), Matt Smith (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Dani Ceballos (Real Madrid, End of Loan), Martin Ødegaard (Real Madrid, End of Loan), Mat Ryan (Brighon & Hove Albion, End of Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

GOOD THINGS: Thierry Henry.  The lads that poured out of pubs on the walk back to Kings Cross to shake our hands after the cup win in 2016. The kit – distinctive and iconic. Bukayo Saka. Mobile quick-tap coke and crisps vendors in the concourses. New stadium still in the right place – arrive at Arsenal tube, people selling stuff out of front gardens.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-2 2-3
2018-19 0-1 0-2
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
Chambers      Holding        White          Tierney
Partey                 Lokonga         Smith-Rowe
Pépé                        Aubameyang                             Saka

VERDICT: There’s a gradual evolution of Stuff over time, and Arsenal have been through epochs like everyone else.  The early-to-mid-eighties saw a whiny side pressured by the degree to which it was underperforming versus expectations.  The graduation of a number of good kids and the brutal efficiency of George Graham’s defence turned them into title contenders and winners as the eighties became the nineties.  After a brief hiccup Arsène Wenger’s side first combined silk and steel to fashion a devastatingly effective side, and then binned the steel and over ten years in which they finished either third or fourth every season were a side with good players but a distinct lack of….  well, you know.

And now, what?  A bit of a mess.  A shapeless entity as, quite understandably, first Unai Emery and now Mikel Arteta struggle to impose their own personality on a club for so long dominated by their predecessor.  It’s not just a matter of “getting over it” either, a year or two’s rite of passage after which things return to normal.   The ultra-conservative structures built into the Premier League make a seat at the very top table hard earned and easily lost.  After his peak Wenger did a decent job of clinging onto a Champions League place but whilst the disparity in revenues generated by the Premier League and Champions League has receded over the years its still a lot of ground to be made up, the more so when your fanbase’s expectations haven’t been moderated by reality.

All of which would be quite entertaining if it wasn’t for the fact that the Gunners have inconsiderately started bringing through a number of very exciting kids, not least Bukayo Saka.  Of the many things the world needs right now, a likeable Arsenal isn’t high on anyone’s list.  Fortunately they’ve also morphed their kit into a sort of Ajaxy thing, which betrays a desperate insecurity both in stepping away from their own distinctive look and in trying to piggyback someone else’s.  Seventh or eighth, probably.

ASTON VILLA

INS: Emiliano Buendía (Norwich City, £33,000,000), Leon Bailey (Bayer Leverkusen, £25,000,000), Danny Ings (Southampton, £25,000,000), Ashley Young (Inter Milan, Free), Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jack Grealish (Manchester City, £100,000,000), Björn Engels (Antwerp, undisclosed), Tom Heaton (Manchester United, Free), Callum Rowe (Exeter City, Free), Ahmed Elmohamady, Neil Taylor, Louie Barry (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Sebastian Revan (Grimsby Town, Season Loan), Indiana Vassilev (Inter Miami, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-VILLANS: Tom Cleverley

THEIR EX-ORNS: Craig Shakespeare (Assistant Head Coach), Ashley Young

GOOD THINGS: Graham Taylor.  Villa Park.  Big Ron’s team of the early nineties.  Tyrone Mings. Vulnerable and storied despite the size of the fanbase – can tell stories of Burton Albion away in a League game.  The Witton Arms.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2018-19 3-0 1-2
2017-18 0-0
2015-16 3-2
1999-00 0-1 0-4
1982-83 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Martínez
Cash                    Konsa                Mings                  Targett
Sanson                   Luiz                 McGinn
Buendía            Watkins          Bailey

VERDICT: I’d still maintain that we were pretty unlucky.

We made bad decisions in 2019/20, sure.  Got things wrong.  When you’re operating in a competitive environment that can be enough.  But we were unlucky too.  Not obviously weaker than half of the division on paper, but certainly in the pack that was going to struggle to ride a bad season with injuries.  This will be the absolutely last time that I mention this, a season on…  but when Troy, Geri and Sarr got to start together we won 5 and lost only 2 out of 10, one of those without a manager and another an honourable defeat at Anfield.  Injuries hit harder when they systematically take out one area of your team;  add the admittedly high-risk Danny Welbeck and his long absences to that and its not difficult to see Geri’s ligament injury against Liverpool as critical.

Even then we could have saved ourselves at the Emirates on the final day.  We didn’t.  Of the many if-onlys, defeat at Villa Park when Tyrone Mings should have walked and then scored the winner with his arse in the final minute was particularly galling.  It’s not as simple as that of course…  had Mings walked there’s no guarantee we’d have won the game;  had we done so there’s no saying how Villa would have reacted, perhaps they’d have gotten points elsewhere given the costly defeat.

Either way.  Villa (and Bournemouth – snigger) had had bad seasons with injury too.  Villa stayed up, immediately pulled off the “that ain’t happening again” signing of Ollie Watkins, a master stroke from the off, and no longer look like relegation candidates.

The fanbase retains that trait common of all supporters of every club of presuming that the things that are working will carry on working and that improvement is inevitable;  I don’t think that necessarily follows.  Grealish leaving is a big deal of course and there’s a lack of cover in several areas of the squad.  Despite the impressive use of the Grealish money it’s difficult to see higher than a solid mid-table finish, but solidly mid-table and fun isn’t a bad place to be.  We’d take that.

BRENTFORD

INS: Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic, £13,500,000), Frank Onyeka (Midtjylland, Undisclosed), Myles Peart-Harris (Chelsea, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Henrik Dalsgaard (Midtjylland, Free), Emiliano Marcondes (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Luke Daniels, Aaron Pressley (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Winston Reid (West Ham United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BEES: Andre Gray

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lewis Gordon

GOOD THINGS: Griffin Park – pubs on each corner.  The current, patient, successful buy-low-sell-high slow build.  Services to all right-thinking folk in the play-off semi-finals.  Ivan Toney.  Use of Stats.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 0-2
2014-15 2-1 2-1
1997-98 3-1 2-1
1996-97 2-0 1-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Raya
Ajer            Jansson          Pinnock
Roerslev            Jensen             Onyeka          Nørgaard                Canós
Toney            Mbuemo

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: First of all, bloody brilliant.  Forget the embers of a local rivalry, forget who they disposed of in the play-off semis, this is a proper club promoted to the top flight for the first time since the 1940s and that’s a great thing in its own right.  As an aside, Brentford will become the fiftieth club to have played in what was supposed to be a (more) closed shop to the detriment to The Likes Of Wimbledon (and Watford, and Brentford) having sidestepped some entitled carcasses on the way.  Hurrah to that too.

It’s difficult to predict how it’s going to go, but they’ve got a shout.  The biggest voice in that shout is surely that of Ivan Toney;  when you get promoted any sort of quality is important to bring in but a goalscorer the hardest of all if he’s not already there.  There’s no cast iron guarantee that he will be there come the end of the month, plenty of more established Premier League clubs are likely to be tempted but you’d back a club that have turned buy low sell high into an art form in recent years to get top dollar if he does move.

Nor is it just Toney by any stretch.  This is a talented squad with some depth to it, built off a system that is different and will therefore be perceived as weird and, by consequence, wrong.  We know all about that.  There’s plenty of scope for the Bees to be underestimated.

But there’s no denying that as a club Brentford have less Premier League experience than any of their rivals , much less than most, and either through circumstance or design haven’t strengthened much.  Bold at best for a play-off winning side.  For all their years knocking around at the top end of the Championship, for all that they felt like the biggest threat to us going straight up with Norwich, they failed to do so.  Again.

It could go either way.  Brentford could certainly finish bottom, though this feels unlikely.  They could also finish top half, also unlikely.  Won’t be dull.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Enock Mwepu (Red Bull Salzburg, Undisclosed), Jeremy Sarmiento (Benfica, Undisclosed), Kjell Scherpen (Ajax, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Ben White (Arsenal, £50,000,000), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Feyenoord, £5,000,000), Viktor Gyökeres (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Davy Pröpper (PSV Eindhoven, Undisclosed), Romaric Yapi (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), José Izquierdo, Matt Clarke (West Brom, Season Loan), Alex Cochrane (Hearts, Season Loan), Ryan Longman (Hull City, Season Loan), Carl Rushworth (Walsall, Season Loan), Jensen Weir (Cambridge United, Season Loan). Andrew Crofts (retired from playing)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Welbeck

GOOD THINGS: Brighton itself is fabulous.  Vibrant, distinctive, weird and beautiful. The best away trip, even if you don’t live near Bedford at the other end of the Thameslink. Phoenix from the flames – the spirit of the club survived all sorts of challenges.  Tariq Lamptey. Charm offensive in the away end – yellow and red colours, themed posters. 2015…

REPORT ARCHIVE: 

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-3 1-1
2018-19 2-0 0-0
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:

Sánchez
Veltman           Dunk            Webster
Lamptey        Bissouma         Moder           March
Lallana
Connolly         Trossard

VERDICT: So as above, there are lots of reasons to be delighted that Brighton stayed up; in particular the first away trip of the season is a fine one.  I made the same journey a couple of weeks ago – daughter 1’s fifteenth birthday necessitated a trip with a mob of friends down to Brighton with yours truly as part chaperone part walking credit card.  Other than needing to protect an anti-vaxxer march (whose components, let’s be honest, need all the help they can get) from the violent scorn of a mob of teenage girls, it was a successful trip.

But the opportunity to revisit a good away destination was only one reason to be grateful that Albion stayed up.  The Seagulls’ four seasons in the top flight have seen finishes between 15th and 17th.  This paints a picture of what they are – a well run smaller club (by Prem standards) punching above their weight.  We know from bitter experience that such a status doesn’t protect you from the ravages of a dodgy season with injuries and so on…. the Seagulls are one of a number of sides that are a bad run away from the drop.  I like Brighton, but you know.  Rather them than us.

Which isn’t to say that this is a side that will struggle.  All sorts of metrics last season suggested that Albion were a goalscorer away from being a very decent side…  that’s a very big “but” of course, a bit like saying “that’s a very nice forest if you overlook the lack of trees”.  Nonetheless, Albion could be worse off despite the departure of Player of the Season Ben White for a large amount of cash.  Despite a preference for three at the back, Albion remain well-stocked in central defence – there’s a big pot there to put towards remedying that lack of punch.  That money can still be mis-spent of course but you’d rather have it than not.  Add to that the fact that last season saw Albion survive despite the long-term absence of the extraordinary Tariq Lamptey and you’ve got a picture that looks more positive.  There’s a nagging suspicion that Graham Potter’s good reputation rather needs to see some delivery if its going to sustain itself, but Brighton are certainly in the box labelled “could be in trouble if things go wrong” rather than “will be in trouble”.