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The List – January 2020. 30/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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The List.  Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the summer window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout January so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 28

IN

Karlan Grant (Huddersfield Town)
Ryan Manning (Queens Park Rangers)
Tobias Pachonik (VVV Venlo)*
Milot Rashica (Werder Bremen)
Haissem Hassan (Châteauroux)*
Ronald Sobowale (Whyteleafe)*
Aurelio Buta (Antwerp)
Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona)*                          – joined Schalke on loan
Oğuzhan Özyakup (Beşiktaş)
Conor Wickham (Crystal Palace)
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Los Angeles Galaxy)                                   – joined Milan
Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese)                                                  – SIGNED
Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş)*
Daniel Opare (Antwerp)
Unai Núñez (Athletic Bilbao)
Ricardo Rodríguez (Milan)
Cheikh Niasse (Lille)
Loris Benito (Bordeaux)
Jarrad Branthwaite (Carlisle United)                                  – joined Everton
Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli)
Mohamed Simakan (Strasbourg)
Sebastián Vegas (Monarcas Morelia)
Prince Goiano (Amiens)
Joe Bryan (Fulham)
Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth)
Lucas Biglia (Milan)
Hassane Kamara (Reims)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Kacper Radkowski (Varsovia Warsaw)

OUT

Gerard Deulofeu (Milan*)
Ben Foster (Sheffield United)
Dmitri Foulquier (Nantes, Granada)                           – joined Granada on loan
Étienne Capoue (Lyon)
Luis Suárez (Getafe)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Udinese*)
Tom Dele-Bashiru (Zulte Waregem)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (West Ham*)
Adam Masina (Milan)
Christian Kabasele (Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, West Ham, Tottenham)
Isaac Success (Nantes, Espanyol, CSKA Moscow)
Andre Gray (Leeds United, Nottingham Forest)

2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer

Turn it off and turn it on again. 01/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

Well, that went well.

Less than three months ago we were reconciling ourselves to the typically decisive decision to remove Javí Gracia and replace him with a returning Quique Sánchez Flores only four games into the season.  It’s practically ancient history now, but for what it’s worth I was comfortable with the first decision and wary of the second.

What I didn’t expect, what surely none of us expected – least of all Scott Duxbury and the club’s ownership – is quite how quickly we’ve spiralled from a position of apparent security in mid-table to being bottom of the pile and odds-on to be relegated before Christmas.  We didn’t lose anybody of desperate significance in the summer, we’ve brought in some seemingly useful players.  Hysterical catterwauling on social media doesn’t alter the fact that in the summer most of us were thinking “well, a bit more in central defence would have been useful” rather than “we’re going down”.  The margin between success (meaning mid-table) and failure has never been thinner, least of all in this season where so many teams have been sucked into the mid-table morass, traditional big guns misfiring, nobody truly terrible.  Not terrible enough for us, at any rate.  Complacency has been mentioned.  Amongst the players, amongst the ownership.  Amongst the support too… hard to criticise when I certainly didn’t see this coming.

There was logic in Quique’s appointment, and that logic was based in a proven ability to organise a defence.  This was Javí’s failing in the end, to my mind.  Not sufficiently clinical yes, but that is only a major problem when you have no defensive structure to fall back on whatsoever, and such was the problem at the start of the season.  Quique, we hoped, would sort that.

And to an extent he did.  Or rather… he made the defensive structure of the side more solid.  Three clean sheets, Craig Dawson looking increasingly bullish at the centre of a three-man back line.  Quique was unlucky in many respects too, I think…  Dawson’s failure to steal a winner in the last minute against Sheffield United felt crucial at the time, a performance that deserved more at Spurs stymied by bizarre VAR decisions.  Having that Man City game when he had it, a monstrous blow to our confidence before he’d got going.  Injuries, of course.  I have a friend who tuts whenever I roll this excuse out, “every team gets injuries”.  Yes.  But they matter more when the margins are so fine, when the level is so high, let alone losing a player in the first half of six consecutive games. And, yes, when there’s a vulnerable area of the squad – whether or not we needed better central defenders to come in in the summer we were manifestly ill-equipped to play with three centre-backs.  With five in the squad you have very little wriggle room, as we’ve discovered.

So Quique was unlucky in many respects.  Or rather, things haven’t gone favourably for him.  But chief amongst his crimes I think has been the almost total abandonment of attacking threat.  We have perhaps the best array of midfielders that a Watford squad has ever had, but have sacrificed our creativity at the altar of defensive shape.  Shape we needed, but our midfield weapons are wasted on a strategy which has amounted to little more than keeping it tight and snaffling what we can on the break.  A team low on confidence was unlikely to rediscover its mojo when employed in a way that, for all that the likes of Dawson and Kabasele have flourished, misused or wasted its attacking players.  Injuries have played a part, forced a hand, but one doubts that Sarr or Gray in particular are too unhappy at the latest development.

The games since the international break, Burnley and Saints, sealed the deal.  A win at Norwich – Quique’s only league win in his second spell, in the fixture that represented the nadir of his first time in charge with a perverse kind of symmetry – offered the suggestion of a corner turned.  Against Burnley , again, things went against Quique… reliant on Dawson in the absence of Seb Prödl we looked horribly vulnerable as soon as Dawson went off and Burnley demonstrated just how fragile our confidence was.  And yesterday…  I watched on TV, delayed having opted for “Charlie’s Angels” with Daughter 2.  Insert your own punchlines.  But the laziness, the lack of courage or wit in the decision making both on and off the pitch in a game that had to be won and was there to be won was criminal.  No sign of any growing resilience for one thing.  Not bringing on Troy when any semblance of direct play had Saints’ defenders collectively bricking it was another.

And so the trigger is pulled again.  The usual accusations and “jokes” will be forthcoming, largely from those without the attention span or breadth of perspective to recognise that despite (because of ?) the high turnover of head coaches, Watford are in their fifth season in the Premier League and our first relegation battle in that spell.  Hardly precedented.  Hardly worthy of ridicule.  Good decisions or bad (and there will be relatively few criticisms of this one from amongst supporters one suspects – unsuccessful defensive football really leaves you with nowhere to go) the fact that Duxbury and Pozzo are so reassuringly indifferent to the likely media outcome of their decisions is a very fine thing.  Oh that our politicians had such courage.

The decisiveness reflects the facts both that we really don’t want to get relegated (!) and that staying up is likely to be easier than being promoted again.  Because the fact remains that, as above and whatever relative deficiencies we have a very very good squad of players (injuries notwithstanding), the team significantly less than the sum of its parts thus far.  Surely an attraction for any potential head coach – a low base to start from but plenty of tools to build with.

Perhaps we’ve appointed someone by the time you read this and so all speculation is moot and (by now) irrelevant.  But for what it’s worth…  much as the dinosaurs dominating the speculation are terrifying, only perhaps Pardew and Hughes would I find it difficult to reconcile myself to given a few days to calm down.  Hughton, early favourite but dismissed by at least one report, I could live with, but this model of old school English manager seems at odds with The Way We Do Stuff.  One can only hope that the speculation is dominated by journalists’ mates in the absence of any actual insight.  On that basis, ‘arry Redknapp’s name appearing would probably be reassuring.

As ever, it will be fascinating.

Hang in there, and see you at Leicester.

Yoorns.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2 (02/11/2019) 03/11/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Tick tock, tick tock.

Ten now then, ten now and limited prospect of it not being eleven despite Dave’s bravado in the concourse where we take early refuge from the deluge, in as soon as the stadium opens to share a beer at the back of the GT stand. A bit of space in the concourse really does make a difference by the way, the back of the GT is quite a nice place to be, unlike the claustrophobic Rookery or (shudder) the Vic Road rat run remembered from 20 years ago.

Tick tock. The girls have opted out… the attractions of hanging out with their mates watching fireworks up here in Bedfordshire too great. Suspect the fact that they’ve each seen us score once this season might have subconsciously weighed in also. Not that us being rubbish would stop them coming per se, not that it would put them off entirely but, you know, when there’s fireworks. Hard to blame them really.

Tick tock.

2- The longer this goes on the greater the pressure of course. There’s a pressure in each game and the fact that it’s Chelsea and it’s a game that we’d never quite expect to win at the best of times doesn’t make the pressure any less.

So when we give away a stupid goal after five reasonably positive minutes, albeit a goal carved by a remarkable through ball you can feel the stadium deflate. “Well, that’s that then”, which it sort of was and sort of wasn’t. But what a half-witted way to concede, no wonder Ben Foster screamed with frustration. When you can’t score goals keeping it tight, particularly against an opponent like this one, one that revels in playing away from home, is everything.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes it didn’t feel tight at all. Chelsea had an embarrassment of space to wander into and if the rearguard, marshalled by Craig Dawson’s most authoritative outing in yellow-and-black halves or whatever we’re calling it, gradually regained shape and denied many options in the final third simply by marshalling the space we were nonetheless in our goalkeeper’s debt on more than one occasion. Craig Cathcart limping off didn’t improve the mood.

3- So the first of the positives to be taken from this is that it didn’t go south from there. We didn’t collapse, the Blues didn’t run away with it. We hung in there. And gradually we lifted our chin from our chests to note that it was still only 1-0. That if we were still looking blunt and aimless we were at least getting the ball up the pitch often enough to register the bluntness and aimlessness. Before we knew it there was even a dash of bravado, some challenges going in and some defiance from the stands and it makes a world of difference to the mood if not to our forward line, ultimately.

But it takes some character, that. To stand up against a buoyant, confident opponent in a situation like ours and not simply shrug and let it slip away. It’s not enough, wasn’t enough, sure. But it wasn’t nothing.

4- Second half, Chelsea score again. It’s pretty dreadful from our point of view albeit the only time that this vibrant, inappropriately likeable Chelsea side cut through us. And this time we sink properly and the defiance disappears altogether. The whining inane voices emerge like meerkats around us and the crowd’s restlessness, kept at bay to this point by the single-mindedness of the 1881, begins to find a voice.

Nathaniel Chalobah was significant in our more assertive spell at the end of the first half, snappy first time passes that were at least brave enough to carry the possibility of turning Chelsea around rather than “merely” retaining possession. But now he loses his composure altogether and from snapping one touch balls to Watford feet he’s anxiously, tentatively giving the ball away too often. Minus Tom Cleverley, even Étienne Capoue we are short a bit of bloody-mindedness in that part of the pitch and it shows. Elsewhere Adam Masina is more resilient of character but lacks the brains to take advantage; assertive and aggressive he’s nonetheless painfully unaware of what’s going on around him, simultaneously significant in our winning and giving away possession.

5- Throughout all of this the patent lack of threat is unmissable. There’s no kitchen-sinking here, no bombardment of the Chelsea goal, not even a spell of the game where you think we might nick something. It’s thoroughly demoralising to watch.

But against that you’ve got to hold the fact that we’re playing one of the most effective attacking sides in the division. A side who have won all four of their previous away league games this season against, you know, teams higher up in the League than us scoring 16 goals in aggregate and at least three in each of these four games. We rode our luck a bit, but Chelsea were excellent and we kept them down to two without being exposed terribly often. You can argue that this reflected in part our approach; Chelsea didn’t score more than two partly because we denied them the opportunity but also because in focusing on shape and defence as Quique is always going to do Chelsea were unlikely to need more than two.

The carping about the approach, let alone the championing of the messainic virtues of assorted young strikers who their proponents have never seen play, is cowardly and unhelpful. Quique wasn’t brought in to turn us into the Harlem Globetrotters. He came in because his predecessor’s more liberated Watford side had regressed to a point where even the most freewheeling of performances was effortlessly subdued by the rate at which we were giving chances away to even the most mundane opponents. Watch the West Ham highlights or read the report again if you need reminding.

Quique was brought in to tighten things up and that he is done so is beyond dispute. It is far easier to generate wins, points, from a mean but goal-shy team than from a side that can’t stop shipping goals long enough for its potency to matter. Thing is, there’s little joy to be gleaned from a side playing this way unsuccessfully. But while it’s impossible to disentangle cause from effect in our extraordinary injury list it’s surely the case that this team with a Troy Deeney in it, or even an Isaac Success, is orders of magnitude more potent than what we’re watching at the moment. This is hard to watch, but it isn’t nothing.

6- Which isn’t to say that the 75th minute substitution of Daryl Janmaat in favour of Kiko Femenía was easy to digest. Dispassionately, Janmaat has been one of few players to put in a solid shift today and previously; on a yellow card against Pulisic with a wing-back’s miles in his legs and with opportunities to win games more obvious than this from two down coming up, there’s a logic to the change.

But my god, with Andre Gray being asked to do a very un-Andre Gray job, with a target man finally available on the bench, a like-for-like swap was never going to be popular. Perhaps most damagingly the substitution lead to the fragile Femenía being greeted with boos as he entered the fray… directed at the substitution rather than the substitute for the most part, but nonetheless. Not good.

The thing about having very good players on the pitch though, even very good players playing ineffectively, is that there’s always the chance of something. And something came in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, the fizzing firework who you can never quite be sure isn’t still harbouring a spark somewhere and so you stand well back from just in case. And so he’s cutting into the area and going down under a challenge.

VAR is very like Brexit in that everyone has a strong opinion that is of very little interest to anyone else by virtue of overexposure. Whatever. It took a long time. It was a foul. It was a foul that we might not have gotten something for but we did and heaven knows we’re due the rub of the green. Of far greater controversy was Deulofeu’s decision to hang onto the ball in the face of accomplished and appointed penalty taker Roberto Pereyra’s enquiry. Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, the reverse is true also. We’re grateful that Deulofeu’s “twenty million shots without scoring” monkey is off his back, but more that Pereyra’s judgement in not taking too much issue with his childish colleague proved sound. This could have been a disaster.

7- And so there is a bit of gentle kitchen sinking, and when there’s only one goal in it there’s always the possibility, all the more tantalising in the mugging it would represent, of an equaliser. In the event it’s Ben Foster of all people that comes closest, up for Deulofeu’s late free kick and spearing a header bottom corner that Kepa excels to keep out. This, too, is being used as a stick to beat the side with, that the closest we came to a point was by virtue of our goalkeeper rather than a striker. Nobody was complaining when Foster tried a scissor kick in identical circumstances in last season’s fixture on Boxing Day.

Not enough, obviously, and no points is no points whether you’re playing Chelsea, Norwich or Manchester City. We need to turn this around sooner rather than later since however close the nearest flounderers are – and had we won this game we’d have been a point and a place from safety – we will need to sustain good form for longer to pull clear the longer we leave it.

But we’re not done yet. Norwich away next, then home to Burnley (no wins away) and away at Saints (no wins at home).

Now or never, one suspects. Tick tock.

Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 3, Masina 3, Cathcart NA, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 2, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Mariappa (for Cathcart, 13) 3, Hughes (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Femenía (for Janmaat, 75) 2, Holebas, Foulquier, Success, Gomes

Watford 0 AFC Bournemouth 0 (26/10/2019) 27/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- It’s not a cold day. No need for layers, not yet. But it’s wet and windy. And it’s wild. I love weather like this. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”… and this is ferocious and invigorating. This is the weather in which heroes are made, the weather in which great deeds are done. The weather in which we claim our first three points of the season, reverse continental shift, put the enemy to the sword. Do stuff worthy of being put to a song, stuff worthy of “do you remember when…” stories in 20, 30 years time.

Or. Or it could be a bit shit and underwhelming. That’s always an option, obviously.

2- The Deulofeu/Pereyra forward line was surprisingly effective a week ago, but always looked likely to be less so against a side that weren’t pushing ponderously forward at every opportunity, lumbering under the weight of expectation. Here the lack of physical presence in attack was more of an issue than it had been at Spurs (and even there it tended to invite pressure in the final minutes due to the fussiness it demanded of any out-ball). We found an effective route out for a while, Adam Masina revelling in his extra inches and bullying Ryan Fraser and Adam Smith in an aerial assault down our left until an overdue Cherries decision to drift the colossal Billing over to that side to stem the tide.

But in general when we fizzed and buzzed we found ourselves wandering down blind alleys borne of the sorry combination of a lack of focal point and a lack of belief. Bournemouth aren’t terrible by any means but they were get-attable here, more get-attable than we exposed.

It might have been very different had Doucouré kept his composure in the opening minutes. Daryl Janmaat – still a force for good if not quite boasting the doggedness that seems to characterise his outings against the loftiest opposition – fed Deulofeu down the right, the Spaniard’s cross was pushed by Ramsdale to the Frenchman who should have scored. That goes in it’s a different game, that goes in and you can see us making hay, actually, much better suited with our newly mean defence to defending a lead and waiting for an opponent to over-commit, as they will surely need to. It didn’t happen.

3- Instead, Bournemouth grew into the game and had by far the better chances in the rest of the half. Jefferson Lerma had the first, wandering in from the right and curling a shot that was carelessly close to the far post and would have been a criminally negligent goal to concede. Later in the half Ben Foster came into his own with a fine low stop to keep out Rico’s drive from distance (the Spaniard taking a break from a succession of foul throws down the left flank, only one of which punished by the arbitrarily fussy Dean), and then again to deny Danjuma with a brave, alert close-range stop. Add Steve Cook twonking a header against the bar from one of a succession of right-wing corners, Masina rather more exposed without the ball than with it, and we were probably a little lucky to be level at the break. The illusion of an upward trajectory based on the last few games was dwindling quickly in the drizzle.

4- In fairness we had the better of the first half hour or so of the second period, our best spell in the game. Gerard Deulofeu bundled his way between two defenders and then left another on his backside before Ramsdale got out well to deny him with a stray limb. Later Will Hughes, who had a pretty miserable time after coming on for Tom Cleverley, another apparent victim of our recent hamstring epidemic, managed to pull out a fine shot with his weaker left foot. As if we’d saved up all our bloody-mindedness and decisiveness for this one moment, so uncharacteristic was this of our attacking play but Ramsdale denied us again, a fine stop extending to his left. Andre Gray, on for Nathaniel Chalobah in the bolder of the two second half changes (unless Adam Masina had a knock it’s not clear what the willing Dmitri Foulquier was going to achieve), did a sturdy job of going toe to toe with the much larger Steve Cook but his lack of confidence was betrayed by slack passes and poor decisions when in possession – nonetheless he was inches away from converting Deulofeu’s right wing cross, and sent a sharp ball across the face that didn’t get a touch after Bournemouth’s defence did one of their occasional jelly things that made you realise that we really ought to be capitalising on this.

5- The game had been peppered with boos for any suggestion of simulation from our spring-heeled friends from the South Coast (and with the odd chorus of “Championes” from the three-man Dorset choir). As so often you’d just got to the stage where you were wondering whether, actually, this was all a bit unfair and that maybe the Cherries’ reputation was causing us to focus unduly on what were marginal calls no worse than happens in any game when they decided to decisively reclaim their mantle. Josh King was clearly winded by Ben Foster’s decisive clearance on our left flank, but quite why he was rolling around holding his face was difficult to understand. Philip Billing was the first of several to collapse on the ground whilst the game continued around him in indifference; this happened to Callum Wilson too, with the exception that Christian Kabasele’s indifference didn’t stretch far enough for him to resist telling him quite what he thought of his cheap lack of professionalism in passing. Wilson seemed to take badly to this, chasing the Belgian back down the pitch and barging him from behind at the cost of a rather stupid yellow card.

In fairness we earned two of our yellow cards for cynical hacks to curtail a break – “good fouls” if there is such a thing, certainly valuable fouls, Dawson and Hughes the culprits. Wilson was the victim of the first, and as above whilst kicking an opponent is never to be applauded, he’d be near the top of your list were it otherwise.

6- The Wilson/Kabasele thing briefly spilled over before the morass of bodies and limbs seemed to think better of it and relocate itself to the penalty area for the wasted corner that ensued. The Rookery was briefly roused by the suggestion of conflict, but what little fizz we had was drowned out by an increase in the deluge which, wind assisted, made the previously uncharted territory of Row SS in the Rookery. Our attacking threat, such as it was, fizzled out but for an optimistic penalty call from a crowded out Will Hughes – the late chances were the visitors’.

Altogether underwhelming to carry so little threat at home but with the absences of Sarr and Welbeck now added to Deeney and Success, any of whom would have made us a much more potent weapon, Quique’s options were very limited. His 2015/16 vintage was a solid base plus enough mischief up front to earn wins. He doesn’t have that mischief up front now, not really, but we shouldn’t start taking that solid base for granted. This fixture last season serves as a reminder of how much worse than a fairly forgettable 0-0 it can get when you’ve got problems at both ends of the pitch.

But a scruffy, lucky win could do with coming along sooner rather than later.

Yoorns.

*Foster 4*, Janmaat 4, Masina 3, Cathcart 4, Dawson 3, Kabasele 3, Chalobah 3, Doucouré 3, Cleverley NA, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Hughes (for Cleverley, 10) 2, Gray (for Chalobah, 57) 3, Foulquier (for Masina 73) 3, Prödl, Mariappa, Quina, Gomes

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Watford 1 (19/10/2019) 20/10/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- The thing about things is that they change. Important things, significant things, and mundane incidental things. For instance, I first moved to Bedford 25 years ago; the stumble from the main concourse at Kings Cross down Pentonville Road to the Thameslink station was quickly a familiar one.

Since the station closed and the Thameslink rerouted to St Pancras I don’t need to step outside to connect to the tube and on to wherever. Today, with a bit of time to kill, I did so for the first time in years and years. And didn’t recognise it. The Google office, for goodness’ sake, looks like it’s been dropped into Kings Cross from outer space, and all the swish boutiques and cafes that surround it have spewed from either side of it like a bacterial growth. This isn’t what Kings Cross looks like!

An hour later we’re walking in the sunshine from Seven Sisters towards the venue, which Kieron labels “one of the new Death Star stadiums”, not inaccurately.

It’s pretty smart, as Death Stars go. Well designed to accommodate cordons of stewards manning access to the “turnstiles”, vast numbers of eateries with minimal queuing in the concourse. The stands are pleasingly steep, and if the seats are narrow it becomes clear that they’re not going to be in use very much. There are lean bars – presumably with an eye on safe standing – across the front of each seat and these are a fine, fine thing. Too good for Tottenham this, quite obviously.

2- No football supporter should need reminding that Things Change, Watford supporters less than most. A couple of months ago we had a different head coach, a different means of playing, a different shape. A couple of personnel changes today but… it’s clear enough that this is The Plan for the moment, not merely a solution for last week’s problem. Three at the back, wing-backs, two sitting midfielders. Sitting deep, ceding possession but looking for opportunities to mug the opposition and scramble into the empty spaces behind them.

And frankly there are few more suitable test cases for this approach than this opponent at this time. Spurs away, yes yes. I was at White Hart Lane the last time, the 5-1 win in 1985, “one Danny Thomas” and so on. Not a point in a league tie at Spurs in 34 years. But we were better off playing this Spurs today than a perhaps more limited but single-minded opponent like Burnley. Spurs are precarious, uncertain, suddenly introspective. Badly needing to win this but unable to prioritise with a Champions League game in the week and Liverpool next weekend. Get-attable, flaky in defence, tentative in attack. Perversely given the League table, we have a shout here.

3- Although Danny Welbeck collapsing with a hamstring strain after a couple of minutes we could probably have done without. He’d already been getting the bird for his Arsenal connections; “Danny Welbeck, he’s won more than you…” was the retort. On comes Gerard Deulofeu to form a diminutive false-forward line with Bobby Pereyra, perhaps the player least obviously suited to the QSF approach.

And within five minutes we’re ahead. We’d already tried this trick once and weren’t to try it again, either because the imperative wasn’t there or because Spurs were wise to it… Kabasele’s raking ball from right to left had already dropped over Aurier’s head but the move was curtailed. This time it was Cathcart isolating Danny Rose to find Daryl Janmaat rampaging down the right. His perfect ball was tucked neatly in at the far post by Abdoulaye Doucouré, incongruously clinical in this least clinical of seasons. Celebrations were tempered by surprise, and by trying to remember what this was like.

4- The remainder of the game followed a steady pattern of largely impotent Tottenham possession in front of our disciplined and aggressive rearguard. To our left came frantic, anxious shouts of “keep your shape, keep your shape”, but in stark contrast to our defensive calamities of earlier in the season there was little evidence of us doing otherwise. All three centrebacks put their bodies on the line, Holebas and the inhuman Janmaat were focused as Spurs shuffled the ball awkwardly from side to side, unconvinced and unconvincing.

And when we broke we broke with purpose and no less discipline. This was much more incisive than the scruffier breaks carved out against the Blades, this was spinning and turning and attacking the space but not compromising possession and it formed the basis for the best team performance since the Cup Semi Final. Deulofeu and Pereyra aren’t the most obvious forward line but they spun and twisted and found their men and frustrated Spurs at every turn (geddit?). The impatience in the home end took 20 minutes to surface, the half ended with the home side recording only one shot on target and booed off the pitch. All going very well so far.

5- The second half started with a bang that suited the home side rather better than it suited us; Spurs abandoned their three at the back and brought on Son who crashed a shot against the bar via Ben Foster’s probably irrelevant fingertips in an ominous clarion call. From the rebound we rattled forward; Pereyra released Deulofeu, the Spaniard produced a perfectly weighted cut back of all things and an excellent block from Aurier denied Pereyra’s finish. It wasn’t the last breakaway chance we were to enjoy – the otherwise magnificent Doucouré should have punished some extraordinarily pedestrian defending but sliced wide. Janmaat had one good chance on his weaker foot but opted to retain possession, an inevitable choice under QSF. Janmaat again, revelling in his freer wingback role, lead a charge down Spurs throat but dallied and was crowded out; his shot hit Alderweireld’s hand, but that’s not a penalty on moral grounds whatever version of the handball rule we’re using this week.

Spurs’ best chance of an equaliser seemed to be through attrition and persistence, so lacking in cutting edge was their forward line despite Kane, Moura, Son. A succession of home corners came to nothing (the observation that only 2% of corners result in goals takes the edge off the pre-corner “oooooh” at either end), the lively Winks went off to be replaced by the monstrous Ndombele. We defended incredibly well, but maintaining that level of concentration is difficult and the equaliser came, cruelly, harshly. Not harsh in that Spurs didn’t deserve a point, but harsh in its timing, in not rewarding a performance that so deserved a three point reward. Harsh, too, in taunting the away end with an apparently favourable VAR review – such was the verdict suggested by the live screens, denied by the referee.

And here’s the VAR bit. Two big calls. A penalty shout for Deulofeu in the first half, not given. Alli’s goal, not denied despite a handball in the build-up and a shove on Christian Kabasele. No view of either at the time, both at the far end… Deulofeu’s penalty looks nailed on, Alli’s “handball” at least plausibly interpretable as shoulder rather than arm. We didn’t get either decision, it was ever thus away at a big club, these things matter more because we’re so desperate for the points. On balance wringing our hands too much about the equaliser is misguided; Ben Foster should have cleaned it out, Kiko could have been more decisive, and however inspiring our performance and well-judged the strategy if you spend most of the game defending your penalty area you increase the opportunity for such a decision to go against you.

The question isn’t really whether VAR got them wrong, got them right, whatever. Teething problems, yes yes, time to learn, yes yes. Wrong or right, difficult to imagine that in a world without VAR anything other would have happened than both going against us, we lose nothing. Except… except. The momentum. The pace. The intensity of a game that now doesn’t rumble on with a head of steam but slows down and waits, and watches. A game already distorted beyond recognition by television now becomes a parody of itself… from the point where people watched football on TV with cameras positioned to capture the crowd atmosphere, we now watch a game in the stadium ruled by television assessment that in itself destroys the thing that it purports to police. Ludicrous. I can cope with bad refereeing calls, but not this.

6- Extraordinary that a point at Spurs can feel like anything other than a great result. That’s what conceding a late equaliser will do for you. It IS a great result. But it doesn’t feel like one at the final whistle, less still the morning after.

Some problems that were problems are still there. Maybe they will change it time but… we had the better chances, despite only 30% possession and we were profligate – cautious perhaps, and imbalanced to praise our use of the ball and then complain when we choose to keep possession over going for goal. You can’t have it both ways. Nonetheless… we have a finisher, we win the game.

What has changed is that for the first time this season we have belief. This was a million miles from the listless nothing at Wolves. This was orders of magnitude better than the doughty draw against the Blades, more disciplined, more organised, more potent.

Not there yet. But we’re not half getting there. This was tremendous.

Things are changing.

Yoorns.

 

Foster 3, Janmaat 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Dawson 4, Kabasele 4, Chalobah 4, *Doucouré 5*, Cleverley 4, Pereyra 4, Welbeck NA
Subs: Deulofeu (for Welbeck, 4) 4, Femenía (for Janmaat, 71) 3, Hughes (for Pereyra, 84) NA, Masina, Sarr, Gray, Gomes

Wolves 2 Watford 0 (28/09/2019) 29/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- Forgive me if this doesn’t go on too long. Not in the mood, frankly. Not in the mood at all.

Last week was bad. Profound insight, of course… that’s what you’re here for after all. OK, very bad. A maelstrom of circumstances conspired and we were nothing like robust or confident enough to deal with them. If there was a straw to clutch at it was that Man City away isn’t an expensive place to have a bad day, not in terms of the league table and so forth. That’s not a fixture you’re banking on after all so… even an 8-0 defeat need not be disastrous if you can consign it to history, convince yourself that a bad day against City is always going to look a very bad day. And shuffle along first to a tentative but adequate League Cup win over Swansea and then onwards to the next two League fixtures. League fixtures that could define the rest of the season.

2- The team news that reached us as we received long awaited pub food in a hostelry in the town centre looked great. Despite everything, bottom of the league with no wins and so forth, it’s difficult not to look at our squad and wonder at the depth of talent. And yes, yes, the defence, we’ll get to that. But for today… Janmaat in at right back was probably overdue, Craig Cathart’s return in the centre more than welcome and Sarr and Welbeck up front had been anticipated all season. So why didn’t it work? More generally, why isn’t it working?

It’s natural to blame the defence, heaven knows many have. Harsh, I think, to blame Craig Dawson for not being the commanding defender that we’d been hoping for, or to single him out by virtue of being the new component that has no credit in the bank. He was solid enough in this one, as he has been since those first few games. Much as I wouldn’t venture this opinion to the hysterical young man a couple of rows in front who was vocally challenging everyone in earshot to oppose his particular views on the subject. Digressing further, how easy would it be to construct a skit like the one below based on the regular voices behind you in a football crowd? An entertaining diversion if you haven’t seen it, goodness knows we need one.

So. We could do with better defenders, yes. But the defenders aren’t the problem – and haven’t been all season – as much as, you know, the actual defending. A subtle difference but a significant one. Wolves threatened before they took the lead, and invariably did so by doubling up on a full back. That’s not Janmaat and Holebas’ fault. And when the goal came… defenders were culpable, but the whole team was culpable – Tom Cleverley not least – for not being attentive, not doing their jobs.

3- And so we are once again stuck in an unfortunate maelstrom of coincidental circumstance. Wolves have the away goal, and so are even more at liberty to sit back and break on us. Much easier to do that at home when you’ve got a lead, obvs. Which means we need to play through them, somehow… the lack of Troy as a more direct option painfully evident; even Isaac Success (yes, really) who was extremely effective in this encounter last year, would have helped us navigate this – much more effective as a lone forward than a wide man for me.

Competing with this was an evident instruction to be careful with possession, part of the “defending comes first” mantra. And this we were, hence our very high possession stats, but the combination of the circumstances – Wolves sitting deep with a lead, us with nobody to hit, careful with possession – meant passing it around on the halfway line as much as not. Add to this an understandable tentativeness… understandable, but hugely frustrating… and little wonder that we found it so hard to create (decent) chances.

4- Wolves, truth be told, were little better. More effective, certainly, and deserving of the win but… also tentative, also fallible. Precarious. There are similarities between the two clubs’ situations in that both performed to a very high level last season and both, for different reasons perhaps and in different ways, haven’t been able to sustain that level. There can be an awful lot of air, as we’re seeing, between a half-decent side and a half-decent side off the boil, borne not least of the psychological impact of suddenly not winning football matches any more.

Missing throughout was a bit of bloody-mindedness. A bit of fight. There was more of that at the start of the second half of course, and if José Holebas connecting well with Roberto Pereyra’s cross (albeit he headed it into the ground taking the pace off it) was scant to show in the way of decent chances at least it was something. In Troy’s absence what little belligerence there was on show came from Daryl Janmaat, who does a good line in bloody-minded rampages when such are needed. Of the two right-backs, neither of which stands dramatically over the other in general, you’d rather have the Dutchman’s strength of character when the chips are down. Unfortunate that it was his forehead that deflected the second in, not his fault – perhaps he’s more robust to these things than others might have been. That’s the sort of goal that goes in when things are going badly.

5- Elsewhere, the fortunes of those introduced contrasted somewhat. Cathcart, like Dawson, didn’t do an awful lot wrong – Wolves’ threat came down the flanks rather than the centre and the previously formidable Jiménez was quiet. Welbeck worked hard and showed well – still rusty, but a good line in runs down the outside of the outer of Wolves three defenders in the second half and a decent shot carved out that was pushed wide by Patricio. More positive than not. Sadly, the same not true of Sarr who only opened his legs occasionally and was frequently at fault for not putting his foot in where needed. A 21 year-old winger not speaking the language needs time and a bit of patience, but a £30m price tag denies him much of that, unfairly or otherwise.

Wolves’ second took any fight out of us, and there was no praying for minutes as the board goes up, no suggestion of a fightback. Maybe all it would have taken was a goal, home fans suddenly nervous in the closing minutes, we’ll never know. In the same way there are several ways to interpret this game… given this vantage point, given last week, given no wins and such little fight it’s difficult not to be negative. On the other hand… a defeat away at Wolves, even this Wolves, isn’t an embarrassment out of context. Nobody likes to lose but… it’s a tough fixture, albeit one we won last year. Maybe the cautious possession will build towards a greater solidity – arguably only a perhaps four point deficit across Brighton and West Ham is below a moderate “par” so far. As has been mentioned elsewhere, this game buried in the middle of last season might not have raised an eyebrow. If we beat Sheffield United we’re likely to be up with the struggling pack again, it really isn’t very far gone yet and only two weeks since an utterly convincing and convinced draw with Arsenal after which recovery seemed a probability.

That win really needs to come soon though.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, *Janmaat 3*, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 3, Capoue 2, Doucouré 2, Cleverley 2, Sarr 2, Deulofeu 2, Welbeck 3
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Gray (for Sarr, 71) 2, Kabasele, Femenía, Chalobah, Quina, Gomes

In with the even older 07/09/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

International breaks.  Dull as hell, aren’t they?  Particularly this one, not even a month into the season.  We’ve barely got going. And having chosen not to spend brownie points on Newcastle it’s two weeks into a three week slog.  Driving back from a thing with the wife and kids, half listening to the England game and the news breaks.

Whatever your reaction, to Javi’s departure, it’s surely not surprise.  As countless pub-bore pundits have no doubt already reminded you, this is What Watford Do.  (One might be forgiven for thinking that this is ALL Watford have done, since getting promoted, such is the limited range of opinion of such pundits.  Chelsea, Huddersfield, Fulham, Southampton and West Brom have all had three managers during Javi’s Watford reign, incidentally).

If there’s a surprise it’s that the change comes halfway through the break rather than at the beginning of it.  If a change was being made then the decision was surely already made and so little to gain by delaying appointing an out-of-work replacement.

But the decision itself, I think, was always coming.  Javi Gracia has been a successful, utterly likeable, gracious and unpretentious head coach but problems with the team have been evident and are down to him.  The poor results at the end of last season came with all sorts of mitigating factors and context – the Cup Final, the suspension to Troy which was all the captain’s fault and which we struggled to accommodate as we’re struggling in the wake of his injury now.

But this season’s form has been miserable.  In particular the defensive shape of the side has been, well, indefensible. The back four have all been criticised individually, but a set-up that asks full-backs to provide all the width, effectively playing as wing-backs with two centre-backs behind them is only going to end one way.  We have the greatest array of attacking talent we’ve ever had but haven’t looked like exploiting it.  We’ve been far, far too easy to hurt.

Too soon?  Too harsh?  Maybe.  But we know the drill by now.  We know that Scott and Gino aren’t going to sit on their hands and see how things turn out, we know that they believe a head coach has a limited shelf life. And in reality they can’t afford to prevaricate; after four games from which we might have expected, say, seven points we have one with tougher challenges to come.

Then half an hour later, the confirmation that Quique was back.  And this took a bit more time to get my head around.  On the plus side…  lovely bloke.  Knows how to sort a defence, very quickly drilled a side that had been playing open expansive football four years ago and took us to mid-table and a Cup semi.  On the minus…  his tendency towards favourites, ostracising faces that didn’t fit (José Holebas must be delighted). The pathetic tailing off of our first season after he felt his job was done – the defeat at Carrow Road that season remains perhaps the weakest since promotion.

But against that…  he’s being hired by the people that employed him then.  They know what happened, and they know what they’re getting.  And nothing speaks for the sound structures that we’ve all boasted so comprehensively of, the way that a head coach is a cog at this club rather than defining the machine, that both Duxbury and Flores are happy to resume their partnership.

Some kind of change was clearly needed.  How this one turns out will be fascinating.

Yooorns.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 5 09/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon, £53,800,000), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham, £25,000,000), Jack Clarke (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Giovani lo Celso (Real Betis, Season Loan)

OUTS: Kieran Trippier (Atlético Madrid, £21,700,000), Vincent Janssen (Monterrey, Undisclosed), Josh Onomah (Fulham, Part Exchange), Fernando Llorente, Michel Vorm, Luke Amos (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Stoke City, Season Loan), Jack Clarke (Leeds United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Head of Player Development U17-U23), John McDermott (Head of Academy), Danny Rose, Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A hugely fun win at Vicarage Road, penalty shoot out defeat after a duff Kabasele red and a late equaliser in an “away” tie and a late collapse at Wembley.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Foyth       Alderweireld           Vertonghen        Rose
Winks          Ndombele
Alli                           Eriksen                          Son
Kane

VERDICT: This one should be straightforward.

It was entertaining to see the WSC predicted final table, based on the average predictions of 20 supporter correspondents, see Man United come out with a predicted final place of sixth.  Exactly sixth, 6.00.  Tempting to think that EVERYONE predicted sixth.

For me Spurs in third should be even more of a given.  Look at the squad… not as good as City, not the depth of Liverpool, but clearly the best of the rest without the wobbliness of United, the circumstance of Chelsea, the defence of Arsenal.

And yet.  If Spurs’ superiority owes so much to the man at the helm, then any suggestion of vulnerability there is an issue.  Pocchettino has been making grumpy sounding noises, there’s a schism in the support reflecting support for Daniel Levy vs support for the Manager (who tellingly suggested his title should revert to Head Coach).  The Argentine has overseen the move to the new stadium, he’s taken them to a Champions League final.  You have to wonder whether his stock can get much higher.

If the manager stays, third.  Surely.  If he doesn’t, all bets are off.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Sebastian Haller (Eintracht Frankfurt, £45,000,000), Pablo Fornals (Villarreal, £24,000,000), Albian Ajeti (Basel, £8,000,000), Gonçalo Cardoso (Sporting Lisbon, £2,700,000), David Martin (Millwall, Free), Roberto (Espanyol, Free)

OUTS: Marko Arnautović (Shanghai SIPG, £22,400,000), Sam Byram (Norwich City, £750,000), Marcus Browne (Middlesbrough, Undisclosed), Edmilson Fernandes (Mainz 05, Undisclosed), Pedro Obiang (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Reece Oxford (Augsburg, Undisclosed), Lucas Pérez (Alavés, Undisclosed), Adrián (Liverpool, Free), Andy Carroll (Newcastle United, Free), Josh Cullen (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Toni Martínez (Famalicão, Free), Josh Pask (Coventry City, Free), Samir Nasri (Anderlecht, Free), Grady Diangana (West Brom, Season Loan), Jordan Hugill (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Martin Samuelson (FK Haugesund, Six Month Loan), Nathan Trott (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Mason Barrett, Hayden Mullins, Domingos Quina

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable, distracted defeat at the end of the season and a sparky win with Ben Foster in fine form at their place.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Balbuena          Masuaku
Rice           Noble

Antonio                       Fornals                      Anderson
Haller

VERDICT: There was a point last season, it may have been after the Wolves defeat, where you looked at the table and realised that seventh was gone.  And then you looked at it again and realised that with the Cup Final less than a week beyond the final game, losing to West Ham and dropping into the bottom half was suddenly very likely.

That pissed me off more than the Cup Final in some ways.  Not that it was West Ham particularly, but that our league position didn’t reward our season anything like appropriately.  There were a bunch of well-matched teams there but we had our noses in front and then… blame the Cup Final, blame Troy’s dismissal, whatever.  We didn’t deserve to finish bottom half.

And that final game repeats itself very quickly, on the August Bank Holiday.  In the interim the Hammers have lost Arnautović but signed Haller and Fornals and should be all sorts of fun going forward.  At the back it looks a bit iffier though…  Diop and Balbuena are big personalities but the full backs are flaky and despite the monstrous Rice that’s not a midfield that’s going to offer a whole lot of protection.  Add an injury to Fabiański and the loss of the established cover in Adrián and you could probably do without Man City visiting on the opening day.

West Ham will do just fine, and should match the sort of finish they managed last season.  As we demonstrated, a win here or there can make a big difference to final places in a congested, competitive area of the table.  But there’s nothing like the solidity to maintain a top six challenge.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Raúl Jiménez (Benfica, £30,000,000), Patrick Cutrone (Milan, £16,000,000), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht, £12,000,000), Renat Dadashov (Estoril, Undisclosed), Bruno Jordão (Lazio, Undisclosed), Pedro Neto (Lazio, Undisclosed), Jesús Vallejo (Real Madrid, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jose Dias (Famalicão, Undisclosed), Ethan Ebanks-Landell (Shrewsbury Town, Undisclosed), Pedro Gonçalves (Famalicão, Undisclosed), Kourtney Hause (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Sherwin Seedorf (Motherwell, Undisclosed), Kevin Berkoe (Oxford United, Free), Aaron Hayden (Carlisle United, Free), Ryan Leak (Burgos, Free), Jack Ruddy (Ross County, Free), Donovan Wilson (Burgos, Free), Ben Goodliffe, Aaron Hayden, Carlos Heredia, Diego Lattie, Enzo Sauvage, Michal Zyro, Ivan Cavaleiro (Fulham, Season Loan), Helder Costa (Leeds United, Season Loan), Renat Dadashov (Paços de Ferreira, Season Loan), Niall Ennis (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Bright Enobakhare (Cheltenham, Season Loan), Christian Herc (Viktoria Plzeň, Two Season Loan), Cameron John (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Will Norris (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Connor Ronan (Dunajská Streda, Season Loan), Ryan Giles (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Alexander Molberg (Hobro IK, End of Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A brutally clinical win at Molineux and an aggravating defeat at home in which we really missed Troy sandwiched an extraordinary cup semi final in which the skipper showed his worth.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Dendoncker
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez

VERDICT: A stunning first season back in the top flight for Wolves who comprehensively lived up to their pre-season billing and with whom we had three stonking games.

The problem is self-evident however (writing on Wednesday evening, before transfer deadline day).  This is a small squad;  small by design, Nuno Espirito Santo reportedly likes it that way and you can’t argue with the results.  However Wolves had a good run with injuries last year, and there are any number of points in that starting eleven that look vulnerable to a deputy standing in.  Then there’s the Europa League effect;  we might have struggled in a similar situation, but our squad is much deeper than Wolves’, who have a couple of kids coming through but a weak bench, let alone further cover, as was painfully evident during the Cup Semi.  A couple of stronger members of that squad, Costa and Cavaleiro, have disappeared on loan and if the few genuinely new faces coming in are trade-ups it’s still a high risk strategy to run with such a small squad.

Wolves’ messageboards are far less gung-ho than the excitable portents of a challenge to the top six elsewhere, predicting a more sensible 8th-10th in consensus.  This seems perfectly reasonable. But it will be interesting to see what happens if and when things start going against Santo, always a big test of a manager.

Much has been made of the fact that Wolves did well against the big six but struggled, relatively, against weaker sides.   “If they can only start picking up points against the rest…” starts the argument, as if maintaining the more impressive side of the anomaly is a given, or more straightforward.  Wolves have a great starting eleven, but given the lack of recruitment and the Europa League thing it’s inconceivable that they’ll finish as high as seventh.  Far too much quality to struggle… but quite how much lower than seventh will be interesting.

WATFORD

INS: Craig Dawson (West Bromwich Albion, £5,500,000), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Manchester City, £220,000 compensation), Kane Crichlow (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed), Ismaïla Sarr (Rennes, Undisclosed), Sam Dalby (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Jamal Balogun (Reading, Free), Mason Barrett (West Ham, Free), Cameron Green (Reading, Free), Joseph Hungbo (Crystal Palace, Free), Bayli Spencer-Adams (Arsenal, Free), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal, Free), Callum Whelan (Manchester United, Free), Harvey White (QPR, Free), Henry Wise (Derby County, Free)

OUTS: Dodi Lukebakio (Hertha BSC, £17,700,000), Obbi Oularé (Standard Liège, £2,700,000), Miguel Britos, Tommie Hoban, Pervis Estupiñan (Osasuna, Two Season Loan), Michael Folivi (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Alex Jakubiak (Gillingham, Season Loan), Marc Navarro (Leganés, Season Loan), Jerome Sinclair (VVV-Venlo, Season Loan), Ben Wilmot (Swansea City, Season Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Femenía          Cathcart          Dawson            Holebas
Capoue      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Hughes                           Sarr
Deeney

VERDICT: Having scoured the Premier League’s messageboards in researching these pieces it’s unavoidable that people tend to be overly positive about their own team.  There are exceptions: Wolves, as above, and Palace both significant in their realism.  Nonetheless, the tendency is to overlook the achievement of whatever it was you managed last year and to presume that things will get a bit better, that with a little more luck, with a few more decisions going your way, you’ll push on.  Or that, for example, Wolves’ achievement is a reasonable benchmark for any promoted club (you know who you are…).

So there’s a need for discipline in making predictions.  In evaluating where we are.  A need to resist those rose-tinted spectacles, for calm logic not borne of fan-boy summer overexuberance indifferent to any team building that rivals have managed.  Not for us such childishness, such tedious excitability.

We’re going to be bloody brilliant.

That’s it.  That’s a cold-blooded no-bullshit assessment, whichever way you look at it.  This is a side that finished eleventh, as comfortably mid-table as possible.  A cup final away from a top half finish, in contention for Europe of all things.  A decent season.

And so we strengthen.  We strengthen, first of all, with a nasty bastard in defence.  Craig Dawson has been an awkward, physical bully every time we’ve faced him but now he’s our nasty bastard.   Brilliant.

Tom Dele-Bashiru.  Not to be overlooked, not to be lost in the rather baffling crowd of U23s brought in having been released by their clubs.  This is a lad who Man City wanted to retain.  Who’s navigated some senior game time at City in a competitive environment.  Who we are paying City compensation for, which in some ways is more satisfying than getting him for nothing.  Henceforth, a “reverse Sancho”.  And deliberately, explicitly, part of the first team squad.

Then Danny Welbeck.  Wowsers.  Left field signing, injuries yes yes.  But, you know.  Danny Welbeck.  Quick, clever, mobile, honest.  Will run himself into the ground.  England striker, proper England striker. Not a Jay Bothroyd or a Fraizer Campbell, got a free England cap by collecting vouchers of boxes of Coco Pops but a bona fide England striker.  Playing for us. On a free.  And yes, it does matter that he’s a good bloke.

And then the big one.  Ismaïla Sarr. Trailed for bloody ages, one of three candidates that we might sign but then he lights up AFCON and surely the chance has gone.  And then Trézéguet signs for Villa, Saint-Maximin signs for Newcastle and Leicester have sold Maguire so they’re minted and if not then surely Palace will sign him if they sell Zaha to Everton for a shedload or Everton will sign him if they don’t.  Can you imagine if that had happened?  How Saturday would be… yes, great, “football, hurray”. But… you know.  But then we sign him and it’s confirmed, and it’s awesome because Gino and Scott don’t spend £30m on anyone and you’re punching the air grinning your face off and telling people who couldn’t be less interested and stare at you like you’re some kind of idiot and you still don’t care because this is just brilliant.

We didn’t lose anyone either by the way.  Not the wonderful Ben Foster. Not the magnificently understated Craig Cathcart.  Not the inhuman Étienne Capoue, the balletic Chalobah, the flamboyant Pereyra, the irrepressible Deulofeu, the talismanic Deeney.  Not the monstrous Abdoulaye Doucouré, who might have left had we gotten a decent offer from a club that was a proper step up but we didn’t.  (Oh do shut up Everton.  Tedious.)

So you look at the squad and the club and you remember where we were and you look at where we are and you desperately hope that the frantic excitement won’t be diffused by the absence of Z-Cars on Saturday but in any case you can’t help but be delighted.

It’s football.  It’s brilliant.  We’re brilliant.

Welcome back.

Bring it on.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 4 08/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: Joelinton (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Allan Saint-Maximin (Nice, Undisclosed), Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ayoze Pérez (Leicester City, £30,000,000), Joselu (Alavés, £2,500,000), Mo Diamé (Al Ahli, Free), Josef Yarney (Chesterfield, Free), Tyrique Bartlett, Otto Huuhtanen, Juanito, Cal Roberts, Dan Barlaser (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Liam Gibson (Grimsby Town, Six Month Loan), Antonio Barreca (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Kenedy (Chelsea, End of Loan), Salomón Rondón (West Brom, End of Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

THEIR EX-ORNS: Neil Redfearn (U23s coach), Kevin Richardson (U17s coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An unsatisfying double header in one of those weird quick reverses that the fixture list can’t seem to do without, daylight robbery in a 1-0 defeat at St James Park and a forgettable 1-1 draw a month later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Yedlin                Schär         Lascelles        Fernández       Willems
Hayden                  Shelvey             S.Longstaff
Joelinton      Almirón

VERDICT: In most circumstances, spunking a load of money on a couple of forwards on the eve of the season would at the very least paper over a load of cracks.  There’s nothing quite like signing a new striker after all, let alone two, let alone on the back of breaking your transfer record for yet another forward in January.  This should be the basis for a positive start to the season.

Devil’s in the detail of course.  The context.  Joelinton may prove to be an outstanding signing, but he’ll do well to replicate Salomón Rondón’s season last year.  Allan Saint-Maximin, for so long a name linked with the Hornets, will be doing well to deliver the twelve goals and two assists that Ayoze Pérez contributed last year.  Steve Bruce isn’t the deadweight that many reports have painted him as…  Sheffield Wednesday wouldn’t be half as pissed as they are at his departure if their side hadn’t improved so dramatically under his guidance (remember the outcry when Steve Perryman left to join Ardiles at Spurs?  Me neither).  But Bruce is no Benítez.

At least Mike Ashley is spending some money.  And that first team isn’t the basket case that the blackest portent’s of the Magpies’ season would have you believe.  But there’s an inherent distrust between support and owner that will kindle with every poor run and is working against whoever the manager is.  The squad depth isn’t great, and if the consensus is that Benítez did well to do what he did then Newcastle have got to be relegation candidates, if not the certs that they looked a week ago.

NORWICH CITY

INS: Sam Byram (West Ham United, £750,000), Aidan Fitzpatrick (Partick Thistle, £350,000), Josip Drmić (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Free), Charlie Gilmour (Arsenal, Free), Ibrahim Amadou (Sevilla, Season Loan), Ralf Fahrmann (Schalke 04, Season Loan), Patrick Roberts (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Marcel Franke (Hannover 96, Undisclosed), Nelson Oliveira (AEK Athens, Undisclosed), Tristan Abrahams (Newport County, Free), Steven Naismith (Hearts, Free), Ivo Pinto (Dinamo Zagreb, Free), Yanic Wildschut (Maccabi Haifa, Free), Mason Bloomfield (Crawley, Season Loan), Rocky Bushiri (Blackpool, Season Loan), James Husband (Blackpool, Season Loan), Diallang Jaiyesemi (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Carlton Morris (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Simon Power (Ross County, Season Loan), Sean Raggett (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Matt Jarvis, Felix Passlack (Borussia Dortmund, End of Loan), Jordan Rhodes (Sheffield Wednesday, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A blustery, functional win secured by Odion Ighalo in his pomp, and a futile City victory at Carrow Road at the end of Quique’s season in which all bar the skipper and Ben Watson were already mentally in the passport queue.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Fahrmann
Aarons        Zimmerman         Godfrey          Lewis
McLean          Trybull
Buendia               Stiepermann             Roberts
Pukki

VERDICT: This is a particularly difficult one. We haven’t played City since perhaps the lowest point of Quique’s reign as they were relegated three years ago;  none of the eleven above were in the side then and the tendency to keep up with the Championship has dwindled with time.  Given which… on the plus side City won the second tier last season, a notoriously competitive division at the best of times let alone when you finished fourteenth the previous season and lost your star player, James Maddison, over the summer.  All this playing a well-received brand of football.  Not to be written off, clearly.

On the other…  this is a young side, particularly an inexperienced defence, with next to no Premier League experience.  That doesn’t have to be punitive, and there will as discussed be significant competition for the relegation places this season.  Nonetheless, with pre-season injury scares to defenders enough to get message boards anxious at paucity of options the Canaries must be a little precarious.  They could have done without an opening day at Anfield you suspect, promotion bubble or otherwise.  A side that isn’t tight defensively anyway really does need to score a lot of goals and that’s a big ask against better opposition. Quite a lot depends on whether the remarkable about-turn of the previously unconvincing Daniel Farke’s side was a flash in the pan borne of a chancing on a successful formula, or based on sounder foundations.  Bottom half, but beyond that…  we’ll see.

SHEFFIELD UNITED

INS: Oli McBurnie (Swansea City, £17,500,000), Lys Mousset (AFC Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Luke Freeman (QPR, Undisclosed), Ben Osborn (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Callum Robinson (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Phil Jagielka (Everton, Free), Ravel Morrison (Östersund, Free), Dean Henderson (Manchester United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ched Evans (Fleetwood Town, Undisclosed), Caolan Lavery (Walsall, Undisclosed), Paul Coutts (Fleetwood Town, Free), Martin Crainie (Luton Town, Free), Conor Washington (Hearts, Free), Daniel Lafferty, Jake Eastwood (Scunthorpe Utd, Season Loan), Rhys Norrington-Davis (Rochdale, Season Loan), Regan Slater (Scunthorpe United, Season Loan), Nathan Thomas (Carlisle United, Season Loan), Kieran Dowell (Everton, End of Loan), Scott Hogan (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Marvin Johnson (Middlesbrough, End of Loan), Gary Madine (Cardiff City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLADES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Currie (Board of Directors)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A comfortable victory at the Vic fuelled by an on-loan Tom Cleverley in the days when Scott Loach was about to join Spurs, and a win pinched at Bramall Lane by Marvin Sordell.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2010-11 3-0
2009-10 3-0
2008-09 0-2 1-2
2005-06 2-3 4-1
2004-05 0-0 1-1 0-0
2003-04 0-2 2-2
2002-03 2-0 2-1
2001-02 0-3 2-0
2000-01 4-1 1-0
1998-99 1-1 0-3
1997-98 1-1/0-4
1995-96 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Henderson
Basham           Egan        O’Connell
Baldock          Norwood           Fleck          Osborn
Freeman
McGoldrick            McBurnie

VERDICT: I’m not quite sure how it happened, but after bloody years of playing United all the time we’ve not locked horns for eight-and-a-half years.  Which rather sets what follows in context, since your mental image of the Blades is still that no-messing ultra-Warnock bunch of tough bastards that we had so many scraps with season after season before their relegation in 2011.

Which is a pretty inaccurate template for the current Blades side for all accounts where Chris Wilder, who’s never managed against us or at this level before, has reportedly engineered an enterprising and imaginative side.  Overlapping centre-backs of all things and a pivotal attacking midfield conduit, quite at odds with his previous successes in charge of worthy but essentially hardworking, organised lower division teams.

So any judgement has to be taken with a pinch of salt;  it’s lazy and valueless to say “never heard of half of them, they’ll go back down”.  On the plus side Wilder seems to have made better players out of many of the squad and a better team than the sum of the parts might suggest.  Signings have been careful, sensible on the whole and addressing perceived weaknesses.  On the other hand… it’s got to be a struggle, of course it’s going to be a struggle even if this ambitious formation doesn’t get torn to ribbons immediately by better players.  United have a fairly gentle start, which will help.  You’d love to see them stay up, it’s a great away trip and a great club but, but…  whilst Ravel Morrison might be a lowish-risk gamble it’s difficult not to look at that and think Charlie Miller.  Or Douglas Rinaldi.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say “will probably go down”, whilst hoping I’m wrong.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Danny Ings (Liverpool, £20,000,000), Che Adams (Birmingham City, £15,000,000), Moussa Djenepo (Standard Liège, up to £15,000,000)

OUTS: Jordy Clasie (AZ67 Alkmaar, Undisclosed), Sam Gallagher (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Matt Targett (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Steven Davis (Rangers, Free), Alfie Jones (Gillingham, Season Loan), Jack Rose (Walsall, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Carl Martin (U18 Assistant Coach), Ross Wilson (Vice-Chairman of Football)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of draws;  a point snatched at the death at the Vic after Shane Long’s early goal and Troy’s absence gave us a mountain to climb, and another at St Mary’s when Charlie Austin’s emotive post-match interview rather glazed over a Ryan Bertrand taking Nathaniel Chalobah out on the penalty spot when on a yellow card.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Gunn
Valery      Vestergaard        Bednarek     Yoshida        Bertrand
Ward-Prowse      Højbjerg         Redmond
Ings          Adams

VERDICT: If you’ve been managed by Mark Hughes in the recent past then anything’s surely improvement.  When you’ve got someone with the force of personality of Hasenhüttl playing aggressive, pressing football then you’ve got reasons to be cheerful anyway.

And consensus certainly seems to be that Saints should be a lot more comfortable this time around, borne of the upturn in form that the Austrian’s arrival provoked last season.  Which makes sense… as previously there are a goodly number of strong candidates for relegation this season.  The squad strengthening is limited though… Djenepo is young, Adams is likeable, mobile and aggressive but will need to be so against better defences than he faced whilst at Birmingham.

Most of all, the central defence is still a bit flaky.  Vestergaard is tall but slow, some accounts attributing the three at the back to his presence.  There isn’t a leader at the back, and precious little in the way of a captain figure throughout the team.  So you rather feel that it’s a case of which way the ball starts rolling.  A strong start and you can see Saints being comfortably mid-table.  But if they have a few injuries, go on a bad run and end up in a scrap you wonder whether there’s enough to get them out of it.  15th, with a wide margin of error.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 3 07/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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LEICESTER CITY

INS: Youri Tielemans (Monaco, £40,000,000), Ayoze Pérez (Newcastle United, £30,000,000), James Justin (Luton Town, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Harry Maguire (Manchester United, £80,000,000), Elliott Moore (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Lamine Kaba Sherif (Accrington Stanley, Free), Shinji Okazaki (Málaga, Free), Daniel Iversen (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Josh Knight (Peterborugh United, Season Loan), Ryan Loft (Carlisle United, Season Loan), Danny Simpson

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Our third consecutive 2-1 home victory over the Foxes via a late Andre Gray winner on Brendan Rodgers’ City debut which followed a 2-0 defeat at the KP and banners commemorating City’s ex-owner.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Ricardo          Söyüncü           Evans             Chilwell
Maddison      Ndidi     Tielemans
Gray                                                                Barnes
Vardy

VERDICT: Is it wrong that I’m still not quite sure whether Brendan’s any good or not?  I mean… yes, yes. Swansea.  Liverpool went wrong but didn’t start wrong.  Celtic… well, how do you judge?  It’s a long time since we were blessed by his presence, an awful lot has happened in a decade or so.  But even that half a season, albeit in very different circumstances to his current environment, contained some very iffy bits to pepper the very good bits, an idealism slightly divorced from reality.

What’s beyond dispute is that City are going into a season with more positive energy than they have since escaping the difficult afterglow of their title win.  The signing of Tielemans is a fine fine capture based on his performance at Vicarage Road, and if it’s not quite clear where Ayoze Pérez fits in City’s system the reality is that he probably doesn’t need to… an option off the bench who can play wide, or behind the striker, or up front on his own at a push is probably worth £30,000,000 in today’s market.  Ludicrously.  So much for £300,000 for Tony Coton.

There’s a nagging thing which is saying that Leicester’s ninth finish isn’t a bad result.  That running to stand still takes some doing in itself, that the permanent signing of an albeit very good player who helped you to ninth might not be expected to propel you beyond others who are also strengthening.  Strong candidates to push the precarious members of the top six, obviously, but dropping anchor in mid table wouldn’t be a huge surprise either.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Sepp van den Berg (PEC Zwolle, £1,300,000), Harvey Elliott (Fulham, Tribunal), Adrián (West Ham United, Free)

OUTS: Danny Ings (Southampton, £20,000,000), Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge, £6,400,000), Rafael Camacho (Sporting Lisbon, £5,000,000), Bobby Adekanye (Lazio, Free), Conor Masterson (QPR, Free), Alberto Moreno (Villarreal, Free), Daniel Sturridge, Kamil Grabara (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Marko Grujić (Hertha BSC, Season Loan), Shinji Ojo (Rangers, Season Loan), Harry Wilson (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Ben Woodburn (Oxford United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A. 3-0 defeat at home where the scoreline didn’t really tell the whole story and yet another 5-0 tonking at Anfield which did.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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   Gomez        Van Dijk             Robertson
Henderson              Fabinho
Salah                  Keita                   Mané
Firmino

VERDICT: It’s trivial to suggest that these next two, Liverpool and City, will be chasing the title again.  This is a function not just of how good they are but also how bad, by any normal barometer, most of the closest chasing pack are.  It’s not like Chelsea or United look like applying a load of pressure, say.

Liverpool look more vulnerable than City though (if it’s not overly ludicrous to describe potentially a distant second as “vulnerable”).  The current Liverpool side is the best for thirty years at least…  but differ from City in two respects.  Firstly there’s a susceptibility in the squad that isn’t there with City.  An injury to Van Dijk most obviously but also Alisson, or Robertson, or Salah leaves the Reds significantly weaker.  City don’t have that vulnerability.  Added to that the psychological strain of having lost at the last and knowing that they accumulated a ludicrous points total and it still wasn’t enough… that anxiety will be there, in the team but particularly in the stands whenever (if ever?) the Reds struggle to put an opponent away.  “These could be the points that cost us”.  The Champions League win has to have helped in that regard, but nonetheless…

Second.  But not as close a run thing this time.

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Rodri (Atlético Madrid, £65,000,000), Angelino (PSV, £5,300,000)

OUTS: Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa, £15,000,000), Fabien Delph (Everton, £9,000,000), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Watford, £220,000 compensation), Vincent Kompany (Anderlecht, Free), Tosin Adarabioyo (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Jack Harrison (Leeds United, Season Loan), Arijanet Muric (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan), Patrick Roberts (Norwich City, Season Loan), Philippe Sandler (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Matt Smith (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Tom Dele-Bashiru

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Yeah.  Next…

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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     Laporte       Mendy
Rodri
Bernardo          de Bruyne
Sterling             Agüero                 Sané

VERDICT: So the Cup Final wasn’t dull.  Not from where we were sitting.  It was many other things of course, but never dull.

Thing is, for a neutral… well despite the exquisite quality of City’s football, you’d have forgiven them for turning over with a yawn. Not even as if we played that badly. It’s perverse…  but this level of dominance can be painfully dull.  In that sense it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.  Mark Kermode has just observed that it’s a superhero’s weakness that makes them interesting.  If they’re just invincible, well, meh really.  Now Manchester City aren’t superheroes, it’ll be a cold day before anyone wants to see Nicolás Otamendi in spandex and a cape but… you know…

So last season’s title race was dramatic but in a relentless sort of way, neither side giving an inch.  This year…  they’ve lost a leader in Kompany and left back is maybe in issue but only an issue in a three-options-one-of-which-gets-injured-a-lot kinda way.

Nonetheless, champions, obviously and comfortably.  Meh.

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Harry Maguire (Leicester City, £80,000,000), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace, £50,000,000), Dan James (Swansea City, £15,000,000)

OUTS: Ander Herrera (Paris St Germain, Free), Matthew Olusunde (Rotherham United, Free), Antonio Valencia (LDU Quito, Free), Matty Willock (Gillingham, Free), Dean Henderson (Sheffield United, Season Loan), Kieran O’Hara (Burton Albion, Season Loan), James Wilson (Aberdeen, Season Loan)

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

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of 2-1 defeats in which we maybe deserved more and finished strongly but gave ourselves rather too much to do.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

De Gea
Wan-Bissaka      Maguire          Lindelöf                Shaw
Matić             Fred
Lingard                          Pogba                          Martial
Rashford

VERDICT: So…  the signing headline figures on massive wages thing appears to be done, even if Alexis Sánchez is still hanging around.  Instead we have a frantic chasing of young players, young British players.  Which… feels like a better strategy in general but you do rather wonder (as the Tifo Football Podcast articulate in a way that makes you feel silly for not noticing already) whether they’re doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do, or whether they’re following any kind of plan.

Because… Wan-Bissaka.  Great defender.  Great defensively anyway.  But you’ve already got Dalot, who’s this great prospect?  Dan James… looks lots of fun, runs very fast.  Ryan says he’s great.  But… left sided attacking player?  In a squad with Martial, Sánchez, Rashford, Greenwood?  Sean Longstaff, also mentioned in dispatches.  Any better than McTominay?

It’s all a bit random and panicked.  Because, even if “this is Manchester United”, having stumbled their way through the post-Ferguson years in the haphazard fashion that so many have fumbled before them in the wake of an iconic manager departing, they’d rather hope to be getting themselves sorted by now.  Instead of turning themselves into a tribute act of their own side of twenty years ago, with Ole as increasingly hapless looking cheerleader.

One of three sides being chased down by an ever more eager and well-equipped mid-table pack.  Sixth.

/a