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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.
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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.
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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

Season Preview 2019 – Part 2 06/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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BURNLEY

INS: Jay Rodriguez (West Brom, £10,000,000), Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Leeds United, £2,500,000), Erik Pieters (Stoke City, £1,000,000), Joel Senior (Curzon Ashton, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Tom Heaton (Aston Villa, £8,000,000), Stephen Ward (Stoke City, Free), Anders Lindegaard, Peter Crouch (retired), Jonathan Walters (retired)

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah, Andre Gray

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A lamentable goalless draw at the Vic following up an eye-catching early marker at Turf Moor.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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         Cork               Westwood                 McNeil
Barnes            Wood

VERDICT: So there really isn’t another Burnley in the Premier League.  Predominantly British squad, unashamedly pragmatic manager, a squad of capable solid scrappers, well organised and prepared to trust a system.  Difficult to imagine Ashley Barnes in any other Premier League side.

It’s tempting to go with the narrative that Burnley’s star is waning.  Certainly you have to wonder quite how long Sean Dyche’s heart is going to be in a job that he’s had virtually since leaving Vicarage Road in which time we’ve, you know. Where is there to go after seventh?  What can Burnley aspire to beyond that?

On the other hand this is still a solid enough squad.  Last year’s Europa League campaign was over by the end of August but slapped an extra six games in the Clarets’ schedule, surely contributing to only three Premier League wins by Boxing Day.  Key players were injured…  so sure, Burnley aren’t going to finish seventh again in a hurry but barring Dyche leaving – in which case all bets are surely off – Burnley will be safe enough.

CHELSEA

INS: Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid, €45,000,000)

OUTS: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid, £88,000,000), Tomáš Kalas (Bristol City, £8,000,000), Ola Aina (Torino, Undisclosed), Jay Dasilva (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Kasey Palmer (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Marcin Bulka (Paris St Germain, Free), Gary Cahill (Crystal Palace, Free), Brad Collins (Barnsley, Free), Fankaty Dabo (Coventry City, Free), Todd Kane (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Ethan Ampadu (RB Leipzig, Season Loan), Lewis Baker (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Season Loan), Jake Clark-Salter (Birmingham City, Season Loan), Conor Gallagher (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Luke McCormick (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Matt Miazga (Reading, Season Loan), Charly Musonda (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Richard Nartey (Burton Albion, Season Loan), Mario Pašalić (Atalanta, Season Loan), Dujon Sterling (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Rob Green, Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A narrow Boxing Day defeat and a less narrow defeat at Stamford Bridge in which a good first half wasn’t followed through.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Courtois
Azpilicueta         Rüdiger     Luiz               Emerson
Kanté               Jorginho
Pulisic                     Loftus-Cheek                    Willian
Giroud

VERDICT: Ignore, for a moment, the fact that it’s Chelsea.

It’s then possible to be happy for them.  There are things that are more important than success…  enjoying supporting your team.  The feeling that everyone is in it together, that you have a unifying force at the helm that you want to believe in because he’s him is a source of strength, an icon.

Then remember that it’s Chelsea, and relish the fact that this could go tits-up very quickly.  Much of which has nothing to do with Frank Lampard;  the transfer ban is a problem, most particularly in the context of Eden Hazard’s departure.  The Sarri experiment involved spunking a lot of money on Jorginho, a cog in that system, leaving the Blues now with a surfeit of sitting midfielders and a lot of players that are either pretty old or pretty young.  Hudson-Odoi and the imposing Loftus-Cheek are also out with injury for the foreseeable future.  Lampard’s one OK-ish season with Derby has been elevated beyond any reasonable credibility by many accounts, one blog seemingly comparing scraping into the playoffs as an epic overachievement rather than merely the sort of thing Derby do.

Chelsea are very much in the half of the top six who are there to be shot at.  There’s scope for any kind of outcome between fourth and mid-table.  Huge fun.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Jordan Ayew (Swansea City, £2,500,000), Gary Cahill (Chelsea, Free), Stephen Henderson (Nottingham Forest, Free)

OUTS: Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Manchester United, £50,000,000), Joseph Hungbo (Watford, Free), Bakary Sako (Denizlispor, Free), Jason Puncheon, Julian Speroni, Alexander Sørloth (Trabzonspor, Season Loan), Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea, End of Loan), Lucas Perri (São Paulo, End of Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Joseph Hungbo, Adrian Mariappa, Hayden Mullins

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A trio of 2-1 victories that featured a tremendous Holebas fluke, a splendid Tom Cleverley strike and a Cup quarter final.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Ward                  Tomkins             Sakho            Van Aanholt
Milivojević     Kouyaté     Meyer
Zaha                           Benteke                  Townsend

VERDICT: The main story is Zaha, of course.  However it turns out.  At the time of writing it looks like going down to the wire.

He’s an extraordinary footballer.  But as significant as Zaha is that he is so significant.  A talismanic get-out-of-jail-free card upon whom so much of Palace’s fortunes rely.  Even if he stays this season…  it’s suddenly looking a bit precarious for Palace, who have a goalshy attack, a solid midfield that’s short of creativity and a half-decent but half-injured defence.  That defence now shorne of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Joel Ward is decent enough but definitely a trade down.

The Eagles may come out fighting and have irons quietly sizzling in the fire… but Selhurst is due a revamp and with the exception of odd rumours linking Palace with Alain Saint-Maximin (now with Newcastle), also seemingly on our list and more obviously a potential replacement for Zaha than something the current squad needs, it’s hardly surprising that more than half of a 500-strong website poll aren’t looking forward to the new season whilst the consensus predicted position is a good deal lower than the twelfth place of last season.

There’s a good deal of competition for relegation this season, as I may have mentioned, and I’m not sure Palace are favourites.  But they’re very much in the mix.

EVERTON

INS: Jean-Phillipe Gbami (Mainz, £25,000,000), André Gomes (Barcelona, £22,000,000), Fabian Delph (Manchester City, £9,000,000), Moise Kean (Juventus, Undisclosed), Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town, Free)

OUTS: Idrissa Gueye (Paris St Germain, £30,000,000), Ademola Lookman (RB Leipzig, £22,500,000), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic, Undisclosed), Nikola Vlašić (CSKA Moscow, Undisclosed), Joe Williams (Wigan Athletic, Undisclosed), Brendan Galloway (Luton Town, Free), Joe Hilton (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Phil Jagielka (Sheffield United, Free), Jack Kiersey (Walsall, Free), Ashley Williams, Josh Bowler (Hull City, Season Loan), Nathan Broadhead (Burton Albion, Season Loan), Kieran Dowell (Derby County, Season Loan), Luke Garbutt (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Jonjoe Kenny (Schalke 04, Season Loan), Sandro Ramírez (Real Valladolid, Season Loan), João Virginia (Reading, Season Loan), Kurt Zouma (Chelsea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An aggravating draw after we looked like securing our first victory at Goodison and a satisfying 1-0 win at the Vic featuring Craig Cathcart’s deft backheel.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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        Mina         Keane            Digne
Delph              Gomes
Walcott               Sigurdsson                 Richarlíson
Kean

VERDICT: The thing about Mourinho was that his outlandish arrogance was quite charming when he was doing well.  Winning titles, winning Champions Leagues.  You convinced yourself that it was for show;  a clever strategy of deflection, if you were talking about Jose then you weren’t talking about the fact that Chelsea had just dropped points, or had gotten away with some iffy play or something.

As his star waned (after repeated Year Threes) his arrogance lost its charm somehow.  And so Marco Silva, who has been promising but never quite successful for any length of time, certainly not in the UK, hasn’t ever had that track record to trade off.  He’s just obnoxious.

And Everton fans know that this is as good as it’s going to get under Marco.  This kind of in-betweenness, kidding yourself that you’re “building” or “in transition” rather than merely being fiddled with.  Everton were flattered by their eighth place finish last season;  at the time of writing they’re hoping to bring back Kurt Zouma whilst expecting Idrissa Gueye to depart for Paris with Delph apparently a replacement.  That’s treading water at best, and doesn’t address a slightly wonky forward line or do enough for a defence that’s low on cover.  Should Everton improve, as we know, Marco isn’t one for hanging around too long if a better offer’s on the table in any case.

A Monday evening addendum:  interesting that after an active window and the eye-catching recruitment of Kean (who, for all his potential, is a youngster who few others were clamouring for), Marco is making familiar-sounding noises about the dramatic number of signings needed this week.  (Not Doucouré though, it would seem, for all sorts of reasons).

My money’s on tenth.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 1 05/08/2019

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

ARSENAL

INS: Nicolas Pépé (Lille, £72,000,000), William Saliba (Saint Étienne, £27,000,000), Gabriel Martinelli (Ituano, Undisclosed), Dani Ceballos (Real Madrid, Season Loan)

OUTS: David Ospina (Napoli, €4,000,000), Krystian Bielik (Derby County, Undisclosed), Charlie Gilmour (Norwich City, Free), Aaron Ramsey (Juventus, Free), Bayli Spencer-Adams (Watford, Free), Daniel Ballard (Swindon Town, Season Loan), William Saliba (Saint Étienne, Season Loan), Ben Sheaf (Doncaster Rovers, Six Month Loan), Stephan Lichtsteiner, Danny Welbeck, Petr Cech (retired)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Bayli Spencer-Adams

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two profoundly irritating defeats: one decided at the death, the other in the opening minutes.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Bellerín          Mustafi        Sokratis        Monreal
Ceballos                 Torreira                   Xhaka
Pépé                        Aubameyang                             Iwobi

VERDICT: There are certainly teams that I dislike more than Arsenal.  Others disagree vehemently, I know, but I find the Gunners amongst the less objectionable of the top six.

Nonetheless…  when a big gun starts to slide and supporters bred, perhaps recruited on the basis of a side that really was the best in the country a fair few years ago now begin to object about their rightful place and so forth, you can’t help but snigger a little bit.  And I know that it’s not all Gunners, empty vessels make the most noise and so forth.  Nonetheless…  with the likes of Özil, Mustafi and Mkhitaryan on too much money to attract a buyer, with skipper Koscielny demanding an exit, further experienced departures unreplaced and despite, in former Watford target Pépé, signing dribbler of the like that the squad desperately needs, this is not a Gunners side that’s about to challenge for the title again.

They’re still a good side, obviously.  Let’s not get carried away.  The two forwards are excellent (if only they could work out how to use them simultaneously) and there are some talented-sounding kids on the edge of the side. The defence is flaky, still. Arsenal will probably finish top six.

But only probably.

ASTON VILLA

INS: Tyrone Mings (AFC Bournemouth, £20,000,000), Douglas Luiz (Manchester City, £15,000,000), Ezri Konsa (Brentford, £12,000,000), Trézéguet (Kasımpaşa, £8,750,000), Tom Heaton (Burnley, £8,000,000), Anwar El Ghazi (Lille, Undisclosed), Björn Engels (Reims, Undisclosed), Kourtney Hause (Wolves, Undisclosed), Jota (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Marvelous Nakamba (Club Brugge, Undisclosed), Matt Targett (Southampton, Undisclosed), Wesley (Club Brugge, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Gary Gardner (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Albert Adomah (Nottingham Forest, Free), Corey Blackett-Taylor (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Ritchie de Laet (Royal Antwerp, Free), Tommy Elphick (Huddersfield Town, Free), Jordan Lyden (Swindon Town, Free), Harry McKirdy (Carlisle United, Free), Mark Bunn, Alan Hutton, Mile Jedinak, Glen Whelan, Jake Doyle-Hales (Cheltenham, Season Loan), Andre Green (Preston North End, Season Loan), Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Tranmere Rovers, Season Loan), Matija Šarkić (Livingston, Season Loan), Tammy Abraham (Chelsea, End of Loan), Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United, End of Loan), Micah Richards (retired)

OUR EX-VILLANS: Tom Cleverley

THEIR EX-ORNS: David Hughes (U18 Manager), Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A nil-nil draw in a friendly celebrating GT, and two 3-2 victories in which Troy filled his boots, Giedrius Arlauskis enjoyed his Premier League career and we snatched an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Guilbert             Mings                Engels                  Targett
Grealish                Luiz                 McGinn
Jota                    Wesley              Trézéguet

VERDICT: The thing about writing these previews is that they can’t all be done at once.  In fact, doing one a day is a challenging enough pace…  chuck in a week’s holiday (of which today ought to be the last, assuming that you’re reading on Monday) and… well you do the maths.  Just be thankful that this preview doesn’t discuss Dion Dublin or Gordon Cowans.

I’m writing on the day that Villa confirm the re-signing of Tyrone Mings for what, even in today’s climate, is an imposing looking £20m fee.  The latest, indeed, of a fairly impressive set of signings since promotion.  The thing is…  Villa’s signings, swapping Wesley in for Tammy Abraham, see them if not running to stand still then certainly suffering from the need to replace the many significant loan signings in a squad that was promoted via the play-offs having finished fifth in the second tier.

Dean Smith has perhaps the toughest job of the promoted managers given this aspect of the summer’s rebuilding and the high expectations which three years in the second tier won’t have dampened.  Nonetheless, there are anxious voices on the Villa messageboards;  as it stands, a month before the season starts and despite significant outlay you’d say that the best Villa can hope for this season is just staying up.  That’s certainly possible in a season where there will be significant competition for the bottom three but a shedload of signings doesn’t guarantee success (ask Fulham).  Sixteenth.  Just about.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Phillip Billing (Huddersfield Town, £15,000,000), Arnaut Danjuma (Club Brugge, £13,700,000), Lloyd Kelly (Bristol City, £13,000,000), Jack Stacey (Luton Town, £4,000,000)

OUTS: Tyrone Mings (£20,000,000), Lys Mousset (Sheffield United, £10,000,000), Connor Mahoney (Millwall, Undisclosed), Marc Pugh (Queens Park Rangers, Free), James Boote, Nathan Clements, Jordan Holmes, Tom Parker-Trott, Emerson Hyndman (Atlanta United, Six Month Loan), Michael Ndjoli (Gillingham, Season Loan), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool, End of Loan), Rafal Stefán Daníelsson (Fram, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Carl Fletcher (Loan Player Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A calamitous and incongruous hammering at Vicarage Road, and the traditional uneventful trip to Dorset which saw six goals scored before half time.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2018-19 0-4
2017-18 2-2
2016-17 2-2
2015-16 1-1  1-1
2014-15 1-1
2013-14 6-1 2-0
2003-04 1-0
1997-98 2-1 1-0
1996-97 0-1 2-1
1995-96 1-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Begović
Smith          S.Cook               Aké             Kelly
Billing           Lerma           Brooks
Fraser                            Wilson                                King

VERDICT: So run with this a second.  Let’s just say that Eddie Howe’s star is waning.  That he’s getting itchy feet.  Not quite as focused as he once was.  Kind of narked that nobody’s moved in on his obvious genius, going through the motions.  That Bournemouth’s patchy recruitment history has a doozy of a summer, that their prolific injury record ramps up, VAR penalises some clubs’ practices more than others, Jefferson Lerma gets a twelve match ban for lamping David Brooks and the season goes downhill from there.

They’d still be too good to go down, probably.  But we can hope.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Adam Webster (Bristol City, £20,000,000), Leandro Trossard (Genk, £15,000,000), Matt Clarke (Portsmouth, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Markus Suttner (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Undisclosed), Ben Barclay (Accrington Stanley, Free), Matthew Weaire (Colchester United, Free), Matt Clarke (Derby County, Season Loan), Anthony Knockaert (Fulham, Season Loan), Jan Mlakar (QPR, Season Loan), Jayson Molumby (Millwall, Season Loan), Robert Sanchez (Rochdale, Season Loan), Percy Tau (Club Brugge, Season Loan), Christian Walton (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Ben White (Leeds United, Season Loan), Bruno (retired)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A Bobby Pereyra-fuelled canter into the season and a very, very cold trip to the Amex in which Ben Foster earned a point.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Ryan
Montoya              Dunk         Duffy             Bernardo
Jahanbaksh        Bissouma         Propper        Trossard
Gross
Andone

VERDICT: It’s true that for almost every football fan there’s your lot, and then there’s everyone else.  The differentiation between the everyone else’s is dancing on a pinhead really.  But as “other lots” go, there’s less to dislike about Brighton than most others in the top flight.  A great away trip, a welcoming ground (even when it’s bloody freezing, as last season).  One of those clubs who belong in the “The Likes Of…” box cited by your Leeds, Derby, Sheffield Wednesday fans as usurping the rightful places of Big Clubs in the Premier League.  This by virtue of being well run and having good football teams, as if that was a substitute for being, you know, Massive and that. Kindred spirits in that sense.

You’ve got to like the look of Graham Potter too.  Ken Sema’s boss at Östersunds of course, before that an unremarkable second tier left back (glancing back through the records reveals he played against us in our last trip to Stoke’s Victoria Ground in 1996 as GT’s return failed to pick up speed sufficiently quickly, the days when BSaD reports were just getting going sadly).

He’s the sort of bloke you want to do well at the sort of club you want to do well, with the caveat of this not being at our expense.  Following his remarkable and unconventional success in Sweden his star has risen very rapidly but he’s got a job on here.  Chris Hughton’s doughty, defensively solid side ended the season with three points and three goals from their final nine games, no win since beating Palace in early March.  Potter’s come in to Sort It Aht, but his side’s recruitment at the time of writing is perceived to have addressed areas of strength in bringing in centrebacks Matt Clarke (frequently mentioned in Watford dispatches in recent years) and Adam Webster (perhaps to replace Lewis Dunk) and winger Trossard.  Our recruitment has been similarly limited but we’re starting from a higher base and not overhauling our playing style.

The hope and expectation amongst Albion fans is that during the (as I write) three weeks before the opening game, problem positions will have been addressed – right back, central midfield, attack.  If so you may see those incoming names updated above.  But even if that proves the case it will be a huge ask of Potter to get his new charges sorted by our opening fixture.  Beyond that is anyone’s guess.  You’d hope mid table (just behind us, well ahead of Palace).  But this is a relegation scrap squad as I write.

End of Term Report – Part 6 14/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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27- Christian Kabasele

I have to confess to finding Christian Kabasele hugely frustrating.

This isn’t a long-held belief, an ongoing bugbear.  Indeed, I only realised the depths of my aggravation on sitting down to write this piece and thinking about what to say.  But when you look at it…  at 28, whilst the youngest of our senior centre-half options, he should be at the peak of his powers.  And he is brilliant.  Powerful, dominant, decisive, defiant.  Except…  and here’s the problem…  except when he isn’t.

And the “isn’t” bits are the problem.  Not in that they’re imperfections – heaven knows we’ve all got those.  It’s that they’re seemingly avoidable.  Just bloody brainfarts when he seems to lose focus and do something really stupid.  That’s not lack of ability, a deficiency in terms of acceleration or physical strength or touch that he’s never quite going to overcome.  That’s mental resilience, concentration…  the sending off against Bournemouth one obvious example this season, there have been others.  Avoidable.

Despite which…  to scroll back a few lines…  yes.  He’s great.  Most of the time.  But it’s the fact that it’s only most of the time that means he’s merely spent the last season swapping in and out with Mapps instead of nailing down a starting spot.  But he’s great.  Sorry, Christian. I’ve had a bad day…

Next Season:  With Britos gone and Prödl a strong candidate to follow Kabs will surely face new competition for a starting spot.  If he irons out his lapses in concentration he’ll see such challenges off with ease.  If he doesn’t, he won’t.

29- Étienne Capoue

And as the perfect follow up to that Kabasele piece, here’s Étienne Capoue.  A player who for several years of his Watford career was arguably even more frustrating in his inability to maintain his best form.  Not in quite the same way as Kabs…  his failing a fluctuating intensity rather than wayward concentration.  But frustrating in that when he was good he was so good….

And this season, finally, at the age of 30, we’ve seen Capoue deliver that form not just on a consistent basis but virtually unbroken all through the season.  His monstrous form seemed to develop a momentum all of its own, independent of the rest of the side.  At times when the rest of the team was wobbling Capoue himself seemed propelled along on the crest of a ferocious wave that he wasn’t in control of and was unable to resist even if he’d wanted to.

Part of it is finding his role in the midfield.  Sitting deeper, not breaking into the box as I’d mistakenly believed was his strongest card.  No longer the bloke who’s asked to do whatever job needs doing.  But an absolute monster of a defensive midfielder, simultaneously a rock for opponents to break on, a dynamo howling after possession and a nimble, elegant footballer.  Johnno, Hessie and Micah rolled into one.  For those that remember. Sigh.

Next Season:  Capoue professes to have had the best season of his life.  Can only hope that this continues… there are certainly plenty snapping at his heels if it fails to do so.

37- Roberto Pereyra

The thing with Roberto is that he looks the part.  The Matador gleam in his eye.  The ridiculously showy haircut. The disdainful look.  He’s exactly what an Argentine winger ought to look like.

And a lot of the time he plays like the classic Argentine midfielder in your head.  The times when he floats past opponents like they’re not there.  When he can dummy you off your seat from the other end of the pitch with a drop of the shoulder.  When he flicks the ball over Rui Patricio with the outside of his boot, yawns, stretches, scratches the back of his neck.

A consequence of this is that the times when this doesn’t happen contrast markedly.  The time when he’s merely digging in.  Providing an option. “Being normal”.  It looks… a bit lame in comparison.  Stands out for its mundaneness.

Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t had hot and cold streaks.  It’s rather that his cold streaks aren’t quite as cold as has been suggested in some quarters.  A side like ours doesn’t thrive in mid table with a passenger in midfield.

Next Season:  Persistent rumours of returns to Italy do seem to focus around Torino and that bundle of joy and light Walter Mazzarri.  You rather suspect that if there was truth in the “wanting to be back in Italy” thing it would be more than just Torino that the stories would be discussing.  Assuming he stays, the further competition for wide positions that has been suggested will be no bad thing, but his staying will be no bad thing either.

Javi Gracia

It’s difficult not to simply eulogise at this point, and eulogies do tend to be rather dull so I’ll try to restrain myself.  There’s just so little not to like about this man based on what we see of him.  Humility, but confidence.  A gentle manner, but steel in his eye.  Most of all, an ability to encourage the best out of his players and mould a likeable, effective team that made a mockery of the annual portents of our relegation.  Which will no doubt rock up again come August based on, you know, the cup final and everything.  And be wrong again.

It’s not been perfect, obviously.  The ability to mastermind eye-catching results against the bigger clubs foretold by a track record of such at Málaga was not in evidence for one thing;  three points against the big six, albeit a very fun three points, plus that rather cruelly unrewarded League Cup exit “away” at Spurs was all we managed.  The performances, it could be argued, were better than that though and until the wheels came off a bit at the very end of the season, only at Anfield had we been properly stuffed.

Meanwhile our record against everyone else was by some distance the best of the everyone else.  This isn’t to be taken lightly, even if we did slip into the bottom half at the end.  Much is made of Wolves’ fine record against the big six, “surely relatively straightforward for them to improve their record against the weaker sides, watch them push on”.  Wolves are a very decent team.  But the other side of that coin is that replicating the points they did earn from the same sources is a much taller challenge than our equivalent.

And then there’s the cup, of course.  And yes, we could have had a tougher draw.  Could have played Man City sooner, say.  But there’s a deceptiveness in how easy we made it look.  Winning at St James’ Park, say, is not to be taken for granted.  Standing up to a robust QPR side.  Having the edge over Palace.  Holding our collective nerve against Wolves.  The unfussy shuffling of the pack that made so much of it possible.

We’re lucky to have him.

Next Season:  Javi has made it clear that he’ll return to Spain at some point, but it seems fairly clear that this won’t happen this summer.  He’s linked with the Chelsea job repeatedly (to howls of complaint from those too daft to know a good thing when they see one).  In reality he’s only likely to be offered that job if it becomes too hamstrung by circumstances to attract a flashier name, in which case he’d be stupid to take it and probably wouldn’t.  This gem is surely ours to enjoy for a while yet.  Hurrah.

End of Term Report – Part 5 10/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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20- Domingos Quina

There was something slightly nostalgic about the doziness of the League Cup trip to Reading.  Not that we didn’t play well, not that our largely second string side didn’t acquit themselves but… the half-empty low-keyness of it all.  This is what football used to be like.

Then Domingos Quina pings one in from half a mile out and you’re stunned out of your reverie.  What the hell was that?  And such has been Quina’s Vicarage Road career in essence, from the much-told story involving him turning up with his agent an hour before the transfer deadline a year ago to pretty much every appearance since….  where did that come from.

He’s a terrific footballer.  Low centre of gravity, tight control, combative and assertive.  And that shot, obviously, showcased at Reading and also for Portugal’s U20 side. If he has occasionally gotten lost in a congested midfield then he’s just as often wriggled his way out of them.  There’s little doubt we’ve got a gem on our hands.

Next Season:  The only question really is quite what to do with him.  He’s a lot of fun, but he’s added competition to an already congested area of the squad and doesn’t quite have the physicality to operate as one of two at the moment.  Nor, as his arrival from West Ham demonstrates, is he one to sit around and bide his time.  Will be interesting to watch, in more ways than one.

21- Kiko Femenía

Another full back who doesn’t smile terribly often…  Kiko looks pretty much nailed on as first choice as it stands.  He’s still a natural wing-back playing full back for me, still much better bombing on that he is defending but he is great at the bombing on thing and that’s a fun thing to be.

Part of the reason that he won out over Janmaat in the end, I think, is the impact his presence has on the way the team plays.  Gerry makes a difference here but… we’re not over-blessed with pace in attacking positions, not really.  Kiko gives us that, makes us harder to defend against – even when pushing on from right back.

Next Season: With the persistent suggestion that Daryl Janmaat will return to the Netherlands and a couple of right backs in the list of players linked this summer, it’s possible that Kiko will have a new rival for his spot come August.  A great option to have, whether first or second choice.

25- Jose Holebas

It’s a story that doesn’t really need telling to anyone who’s been watching…  but what a turnaround in status under Javi Gracia.  In January 2018 he was mouthing off at supporters having got stick following a cup exit at Southampton.  A season and a half on he’s a cult hero, recognised as a vital component of the side but celebrated above and beyond that for his character, for the competitiveness that saw him fronting up to the supporters in the first place.

That competitiveness comes at a cost of course, specifically 35 yellow cards and two reds over the last three seasons.  Critically, as we know, one of those was rescinded.  Critically because for a club like Watford – and a player like Holebas – simply getting there, simply being there was an achievement, even if much of the subsequent coverage was too vapid to look beyond the scoreline.

Jose’s grumpiness is the stuff of legend, captured by the club in the marvellous “Antisocial Media” skit in the build up to the final.  Beyond that though, Jose is a winner, a ferocious left back, as good a crosser of the ball as we’ve had for a while, and one whose legend will live on once he’s departed.

Next Season:   He will, however, turn 35 in just over a fortnight.  As long as he can keep this level up he’ll be in the team… but you kind of suspect that Adam Masina might see a bit more action this term.

26- Ben Foster

Another thing that you won’t need telling, but given the tired old stuff about our revolving doors of players and head coaches it’s a source of quiet satisfaction that (if only for another few weeks perhaps) we have eight previous/current winners of the Player of the Season award in the squad.

So much for lack of stability, even if that’s not quite the whole story.  The whole story includes another Nice Thing, the fact that we’ve got to the point where we can attract previous winners Tom Cleverley and Ben Foster, winners of the award when they were Manchester United’s rough diamonds on loan for a season or two, to join us permanently.  That says something for us then as now;  neither would have returned had their first spells been miserable.

Ben Foster was in with a shout of a second such award twelve years after the first;  that he lost out to Étienne Capoue does nothing to downplay the magnificent season we’ve enjoyed from him, far more than we had any right to expect from someone who, by his own account, had fallen out of love with the game a little bit.  And it does matter that he’s such a good bloke.  You want him to do well for his own sake, as much as for ours, as betrayed by that episode at Huddersfield when his concern for a youngster struck by a stray ball went above and beyond professional norms.  As fine a (re) signing now as he seemed a year ago.

Next Season:  Ostensibly a bridging signing between Gomes and Dahlberg, interesting that we still seem to be in the market for a goalkeeper.  Nonetheless you’d expect that we have at least another season with Ben as first choice.  Hurrah for that.

End of Term Report – Part 4 06/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

15- Craig Cathcart

The thing about centre-back being a priority for strengthening is kinda beyond dispute.  Sometimes people get carried away though.  Sometimes the difficulty folk have in perceiving shades of grey, of more complex evaluation than merely “good” or “bad” raises its head.

Craig Cathcart is a very good centre back.  He’s our best centre back.  Best in the sense that he’s the calming force in the back four, the one who makes it all kind of hold together.  The one who always seems to find the ball drawn to his foot, who doesn’t have to dive into recovery tackles because he’s always in the right place to start with.  The one who, increasingly, has developed an aptitude for contributing at the other end too, that outrageous touch in the build up to the winner over Everton all the more extraordinary because it came from a centre back.  So… he’s not Virgil van Dijk.  But he’s still excellent, still a keeper.

He had a stinking couple of games towards the end of the season mind.  That howler against Southampton threw him entirely and he was poor at Stamford Bridge, a brief dip in form that was all the more remarkable for being so unusual.  Nonetheless, quietly a lynchpin of the side.

Next Season:  More of the same.  Please.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

The difficulty when you hit a high point, whether “you” is a team or a player, is that it’s treated as a new norm.  You put pressure on yourself straight away… something that might have required all of your fortitude – and perhaps a bit of luck, other circumstances being favourable – becomes treated as expectation rather than the achievement that it was.

Nonetheless it’s beyond dispute that Abdoulaye Doucouré, erstwhile Player of the Season and the swaggering magnificence of perhaps our greatest ever midfield engine isn’t being linked with the big guns quite as roundly this summer as he was last.  Arsenal are still sniffing around, allegedly, but you know, Arsenal.  Kinda downwardly mobile.  A year ago you’d have had him in any midfield in the country.

He’s been tremendous, nonetheless.  Dynamic but elegant, powerful but subtle, focused but languid.  A tremendous footballer.  But not one, this season, who screamed through the entire campaign without a dip in form.  Which… is fine.  Harsh to use his best ever season as a stick to beat him with.  Except…  well.  We know what he’s capable of.

Next Season:  In a competitive area of the pitch, pre-seasons for Cleverley and particularly Chalobah and the continuing development of Quina should keep Doucs on his toes.  It’s questionable whether we’ll get an offer of a magnitude that would compel us to sell him.

18- Andre Gray

Another popular line is that we desperately need to strengthen up front.  Problem with that of course is that everyone wants a striker, there aren’t many of them about and they cost a bomb, particularly if a top flight English club is the buyer.

Me?  I’m not convinced it’s a priority.  Our preferred approach seems to be to sign them young, certainly João Pedro, “Cucho” Hernandez and Filip Stuparević not to mention Isaac Success and Adalberto Peñaranda feels like a pool of names with high potential.  We could do with another senior forward, particularly if Stefano’s on his way.  But it could well come from this group rather than by bringing in an established name.

Andre Gray’s role at the club benefits from his transfer fee no longer being a stick to beat him with. Up to £18m is a huge transfer fee by our standards but not by the standards of the day, not for a striker like Andre Gray.  He’s a competitive option, a good partner for Troy if he starts, a snapping, snarling, mobile threat off the bench if he doesn’t.  His focus and application have seen the crowd warm to him this year.  So much the better.

Next Season:  A very decent option.

19- Will Hughes

It’s easy to forget how old you have suddenly become.  In my mind’s eye I’m still a young man, only left university a year or two ago.  This is bollocks, unfortunately, brought into sharp focus by the Twitter reaction to the club’s creative commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the play off win over Bolton, tweeting real time updates as if we were twenty years in the past.  Generalising hugely, those of us who remembered loved it.  Those who were too young didn’t so much.

Twitter is a miserable, joyless, spiteful place.  It’s odd that anyone should object to a bit of happiness but nonetheless… on reflection anyone younger than 30 (there are, I believe, such people, though I doubt any of them read this blog) won’t remember.  So they won’t remember Nicky Wright.

Will Hughes isn’t the same sort of player as Nicky Wright, not really.  Defter, cleverer.  Perhaps less intense, less explosive.  But he captures some of the spirit of Nicky Wright.  The wholeheartedness, the willingness to run yourself into the ground before leaving the pitch on 80 minutes barely able to walk.

It’s a fine thing, whether or not you remember Nicky Wright.

Next Season:  A real asset.  A joy.