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Season Preview 2021 – Part 5 13/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

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

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

OUR EX-SPURS: Maurizio Pochettino, Danny Rose

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21         2-1
2019-20 0-0 1-1      
2018-19 2-1        
2017-18 1-1        
2016-17 1-4        
2015-16 1-2        
2011-12     0-1    
2008-09       1-2  
1999-00 1-1 0-4      
1998-99     2-5    
1994-95       3-6 / 3-2  
1982-83   1-0      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Doherty       Romero      Rodon        Reguilón
Højbjerg         Ndombele
Son                          Lo Celso                  Bergwijn
Kane

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

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

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

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

WEST HAM UNITED

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-3        
2017-18 2-0        
2016-17 1-1 4-2      
2015-16 2-0        
2011-12 0-4 1-1      
2008-09       1-0  
2006-07 1-1        
2004-05 1-2 2-3      
2003-04 0-0 0-4      
1999-00 1-2 0-1      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
      Coufal              Diop          Ogbonna          Cresswell
Rice          Souček

     Bowen                     Fornals                      Benrahma
Antonio

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

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

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

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

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

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

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-1 0-2      
2018-19 1-2   3-2    
2014-15 0-1        
2012-13 2-1        
2008-09 2-3        
2007-08 3-0   1-4    
2005-06 3-1 1-1   2-1  
2004-05 1-1 0-0      
2002-03 1-1 0-0      
2001-02 1-1 0-1      
2000-01 3-2 2-2      
1998-99 0-2 0-0      
1995-96   0-3      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:


      Boly         Coady       Mosquera
Semedo       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
   Traore          Jiménez         Neto      

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

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

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

WATFORD

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

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

VERDICT: Certainty is easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you tomorrow.  Yooorns.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 4 12/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER UNITED

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21     0-1    
2019-20 2-0        
2018-19 1-2 1-2      
2016-17 3-1        
2015-16 1-2  0-1      
2006-07 1-2        
2001-02       0-3  
1999-00 2-3 1-4      
1984-85 5-1        
1978-79       2-1  
1968-69     0-2    

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: None

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-1        
2018-19 1-1 0-1      
2017-18 2-1 3-0      
2015-16 2-1    1-0    
2009-10 1-2        
1999-00 1-1 0-1      

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Krafth         Schär        Fernández     Dummett    Ritchie
Hayden                  Shelvey                 Almirón
   Saint-Maximin      Wilson          

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

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

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

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

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

NORWICH CITY

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

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

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Krul
    Aarons           Hanley         Gibson          Giannoulis
McLean          Gilmour
  Rashica               Dowell             Cantwell  
Pukki

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

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

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

SOUTHAMPTON

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

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

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-3        
2018-19 1-1 1-1      
2017-18 2-2 2-0      
2016-17 3-4        
2015-16   0-2      
2011-12 0-3        
2008-09 2-2 3-0      
2007-08 3-2        
2005-06 3-0 3-1      
2004-05       5-2  
2002-03     1-2    
1999-00 3-2 0-2      
1982-83   4-1      
1980-81       7-1  

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McCarthy
Walker-Peters      Vestergaard        Bednarek          Perraud   
Tella                 Romeu          Ward-Prowse      S.Armstrong
A.Armstrong          Adams    

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

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

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

Season Preview 2021 – Part 3 11/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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LEEDS UNITED

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

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

OUR EX-WHITES: Mattie Pollock, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Meslier
Ayling          Llorente        Koch              Firpo
Phillips
Raphinha       Dallas        Klich         Harrison
Rodrigo

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

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

LEICESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-1
2018-19 2-1
2017-18 2-1 0-2
2016-17 2-1 0-3
2015-16 0-1 1-2
2013-14 0-3 2-2
2012-13 2-1 2-1 3-1 / 0-1
2011-12 3-2 0-2
2010-11 3-2 2-4
2009-10 3-3
2005-06 1-2 2-2
2004-05 2-2 1-0
2002-03 1-2 0-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1
1995-96 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Justin              Söyüncü           Fofana             Castagne
Ndidi        Tielemans
Ricardo                   Maddison                  Barnes
Vardy

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

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

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

LIVERPOOL

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

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

OUR EX-REDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 3-0
2018-19 0-3
2017-18 3-3
2016-17 0-1
2015-16 3-0
2004-05 0-1 / 0-1
1999-00 2-3 1-0
1984-85 3-4
1969-70 1-0
1966-67 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Alisson
Alexander-Arnold        Matip        Van Dijk                 Robertson
Henderson              Fabinho
Salah                  Keita                   Mané
Firmino

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

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

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

MANCHESTER CITY

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

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

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Tom Dele-Bashiru

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-4
2018-19 0-6
2017-18 0-6
2016-17 0-5
2015-16 1-2 0-2
2001-02 1-2 0-3
1996-97 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Éderson
Walker        Stones        Dias       Cancelo
Rodri
Gündoğan         de Bruyne
Mahrez             Sterling          Grealish

VERDICT: Oh good.

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

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

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

Anyway.  Champions again, probably, or thereabouts.

Season Preview 2021 – Part 2 10/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

BURNLEY

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

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

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah, Andre Gray

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-3
2018-19 0-0
2016-17 2-1 0-2
2013-14 1-1
2012-13 3-3
2011-12 3-2 2-2
2010-11 1-3
2008-09 3-0 0-4
2007-08 1-2
2005-06 3-1 1-4
2004-05 0-1 1-3
2003-04 1-1 3-2
2002-03 2-1 7-4  2-0
2001-02 1-2 0-1
2000-01 0-1 0-2
1997-98 1-0 0-2
1996-97 2-2 1-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pope
Lowton            Tarkowski                Mee                  Taylor
Gudmundsson         Brownhill             Westwood                 McNeil
Vydra            Wood

VERDICT: My day job is mathematical, loosely.

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

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

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

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

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

CHELSEA

INS: Marcus Bettinelli (Fulham, Free)

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

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Kenedy

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 1-2 0-3
2018-19 0-3
2017-18 4-1 2-4
2016-17 1-2 3-4
2015-16 0-0
2014-15 0-3
2009-10 0-5
2008-09 1-3
2003-04 2-2 / 0-4
1999-00 1-0 1-2
1981-82 3-0
1969-70 1-5

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mendy
James             Silva            Rüdiger      Chilwell
Kanté               Jorginho
Pulisic                     Havertz                    Mount
Werner

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

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

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

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

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

CRYSTAL PALACE

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

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

OUR EX-EAGLES: Kwadwo Baah, Joseph Hungbo

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-0
2018-19 2-1 2-1 2-1
2017-18 0-0
2016-17 1-1  0-1
2015-16 0-1  1-2
2012-13 2-2 0-1
2011-12 0-2 0-4
2010-11 1-1 2-3
2009-10 1-3
2008-09 2-0 0-0 4-3
2007-08 0-2 2-0 2-0
2005-06 1-2 1-3 0-0 / 3-0
2003-04 1-5 0-1
2002-03 3-3 1-0
2001-02 1-0 2-0
2000-01 2-2 0-1
1998-99 2-1 2-2
1995-96 0-4
1993-94 2-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Guaita
Clyne             Kouyaté             Andersen        Mitchell
Milivojević         Gallagher       McArthur
Ayew                    Benteke                  Zaha

VERDICT: Well this isn’t dull.

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

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

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

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

EVERTON

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-3 0-1
2018-19 1-0
2017-18 1-0
2016-17 3-2
2015-16 1-1 2-2
2006-07 1-2
2000-01 1-2
1999-00 1-3 2-4
1983-84 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pickford
Coleman        Godfrey         Mina            Digne
Doucouré             Allan
Townsend               Rodríguez                Richarlíson
Calvert-Lewin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Preview 2021 – Part 1 09/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

ARSENAL

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

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

OUR EX-GUNNERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 2-2 2-3
2018-19 0-1 0-2
2017-18 2-1
2016-17 1-3 2-1
2015-16 0-3 2-1
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Leno
Chambers      Holding        White          Tierney
Partey                 Lokonga         Smith-Rowe
Pépé                        Aubameyang                             Saka

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

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

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

ASTON VILLA

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

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

OUR EX-VILLANS: Tom Cleverley

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Martínez
Cash                    Konsa                Mings                  Targett
Sanson                   Luiz                 McGinn
Buendía            Watkins          Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

BRENTFORD

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

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

OUR EX-BEES: Andre Gray

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lewis Gordon

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Raya
Ajer            Jansson          Pinnock
Roerslev            Jensen             Onyeka          Nørgaard                Canós
Toney            Mbuemo

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

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

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

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

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

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

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

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

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Welbeck

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

REPORT ARCHIVE: 

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-3 1-1
2018-19 2-0 0-0
2017-18 0-0
2014-15 1-1 2-0
2012-13 0-1
2011-12 1-0 2-2
2010-11 0-1
2005-06 1-1 1-0
2004-05 1-1 1-2
2002-03 1-0 0-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Sánchez
Veltman           Dunk            Webster
Lamptey        Bissouma         Moder           March
Lallana
Connolly         Trossard

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

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

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

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 8 10/06/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
16 comments

32- Marc Navarro

Yes, I know.  But he’s been here three seasons (two, if you skip the suitably inconspicuous year at Leganés) and has only made seven starts.  Three in the league. He’s not a kid any more, he’s nearly 26 but still looks a long way from challenging for a place in the team.

There’s something there.  You can see what the idea was, at least.  He has a good touch, he can cross a ball.  He’s nearly a decent player.  But he seems beset by an almost total lack of assertiveness or urgency and has rarely convinced defensively, even against relatively moderate Championship wingers.

Where Marc Navarro is perhaps most interesting is as a symptom of the “Pozzo model”.  A side effect.  Long contracts on young players moving internationally are a bit of a gamble and gambles aren’t always going to pay off.  Sometimes unproductive gambles are more conspicuous – in an Isaac Success kinda way.  Sometimes less so, as here.  It can happen for all sorts of reasons – unrealised potential, difficulty in settling in a new country, a poor fit.  But it will happen sometimes.

Next Season:  Marc has two years left on his contract.  It would be tremendous if those arcing crosses could be coupled with a bit of oomph, a bit of doggedness; if they are we might have a player.  As it is, it’s difficult to see someone who made limited impact in the Championship establishing himself in the Premier League.

44- Joseph Hungbo

Joseph Hungbo is tremendous fun.  Strong, quick, direct, brave.  What’s not to like?

Part of the slightly odd influx of Under-23s in the summer of 2019, Joseph has bucked the trend in simply still being at the club.  Prolific from the wing for the junior side, he made welcome, excitable incursions into the starting eleven from the turn of the year. The suspicion that he was simply filling one of the many spaces on the bench was quickly dispelled, the inconvenient detail that we’d signed him from Palace at the age of 19 overlooked in the enjoyment of a youngster “breaking through”.

As discussed it’s a crying shame that he pulled a hamstring twenty-four energetic minutes into the game at Brentford, scuppering what would surely have been an opportunity to rack up consecutive ninety minutes that will be harder to come by in the thinner fixture list of the Premier League.  Nonetheless.  Joseph Hungbo, who speaks with he eloquent confidence of a veteran, is a contender.

Next Season:  A loan, one suspects.  We’ll watch with interest.

Vladimir Ivić

It seemed like a bit of a coup.  Recruited on the back of success in Greece and Israel, the fact that we hadn’t heard of him wasn’t an impediment to our optimism in itself.  We know the drill after all, and I was perfectly prepared to accept that the people who’d appointed him knew a bit more about the new guy than I did and were better able to judge.

He was inscrutable, and his joyless demeanour would have been hugely enjoyable had the football itself been a little more fun.  It wasn’t, so it wasn’t.

But the annals shouldn’t judge him too harshly.  He inherited a hugely turbulent situation…  any relegated squad is going to be volatile to an extent, but the amount of perhaps overdue tooing and froing was considerable by any standards and, oh yes, we were in the throes of a global pandemic as Vlad moved across Europe. COVID had stymied the end of the previous season affording the new man the briefest of close seasons in which to get his new charges into shape.

So to be there or thereabouts for as long as we were shouldn’t be taken for granted.  We might have been painful to watch, but we were painful whilst picking up points, and if his refusal to switch to a 4-3-3 in the absence of a recognised left back was another manifestation of his caution, he did at least recognise that the need was there.

Which doesn’t alter the fact that the brave move to remove him was the right decision;  it would take a surge in form to get us promoted, a surge that was never going to happen under Vlad.  But perhaps we shouldn’t judge his football too harshly now that we don’t have to endure it.

Next Season:  Vlad’s almost total restraint in front of a camera probably contributed to his failure to get another gig before the end of the season.  Will be interesting to see how his next job goes when it comes.

Xisco

All of which should underline the danger inherent in taking Xisco’s achievement for granted.

There’s a danger, I think, in looking at the situation, looking at his relative inexperience and youthful, almost boyish demeanour and concluding that all he really did was to cheer everyone the hell up.  That does him a grave disservice I think.  A “facilitator” can be a successful manager when presented with an exceptional group of players, sure.  A group of players demonstrably better than their competitors who are adept enough to manage their own game when given room to do so and free cakes at elevenses on Fridays.  Zinedine Zidane has had this charge levelled at him, and Real had a degree of success under his guidance I understand.

I don’t think we were in that position.  An outstanding squad by the standards of the division, sure.  But not so outstanding that our surge was any kind of inevitability, that our success from February onwards was some sort of natural order that Ivić had somehow been blocking or screwing up.  We know what the challenges were, or many of them.  Some of these were remedied independently of the head coach, but some of them needed more that a sympathetic ear.

After the QPR defeat Xisco put his hands up and admitted tactical errors.  Such an admission, however candid, would have garnered more sympathy if he had any kind of track record with us.  He didn’t. So to turn it around from there, now-legendary post-Coventry conflap or otherwise, betrays a resilience that isn’t immediately obvious from his cheerful demeanour.  Further, to question his tactical acumen overlooks the success with which he made light of the challenges that kept coming – suspensions and injuries that might have been disruptive became almost irrelevant.  João Pedro was fielded in midfield against Forest, implausibly successfully.  Philip Zinckernagel’s teething problems were accommodated and polished and tucked away in places where they didn’t compromise his ability to pick a pass…. whilst still doing the feelgood stuff too, witness the shrug that followed the combustible defeat at Bournemouth (snigger).  If we’re going to criticise – indeed, dismiss – Vlad for failing to get the required tune out of his charges it does seem less than even-handed not to praise Xisco for harmonising the piece, and indeed the entire club.

Next Season:  It’s possible that Xisco will prove not to be up to the new challenges in front of us.  That’s not where my money is.  Nor, more relevantly, the money of those with money at stake who after all weren’t shy about making a change at this stage six years ago when they evidently did harbour such doubts.  Vamos Xisco.

That’s your lot.  Thanks for reading this far.  We’ll be back soon enough for preview-y things and – heavens – perhaps even a match report from an actual football match in an actual football stadium.  Steady.  Enjoy the summer.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 7 07/06/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

27- Christian Kabasele

I feel as if I make this point a lot…  but it does come to something when a player as accomplished as Christian Kabasele is not only still at the club a year after relegation, but is still far from a guaranteed start.  No, he’s not perfect.  Yes, he’s got a mistake in him.  But he’s still a phenomenal athlete whose presence in the starting eleven doesn’t raise any kind of red flag.

It was an odd season for him.  A regular part of the miserly defence in the first half of the season, he was injured in Vladimir Ivić’s final game and the emergence of Francisco Sierralta played a part in him being restricted to the bench on his return at the beginning of April until everything was Sorted.

What you’ve also got with Christian is a tremendously good bloke, which I maintain matters quite a lot as far as the players playing for your team is concerned.  Community Ambassador of the Season for a non-native, local man or otherwise, tells you a bit about his character, his grin at the centre of the post-Millwall celebrations betrayed no frustration or reservation at his lack of involvement.  We’re lucky to have him.

Next Season:  We are, as discussed, well stocked at centre back, and with Pollock adding  to the mix you do wonder if all will be retained.  Kabs has three years left on his contract though, so one assumes he’s unlikely to be the fall guy if there is one.  Hurrah.

28- Carlos Sánchez

There’s something very reassuring about a mallet.  Simple tool for a simple job, does it very effectively.  Doesn’t pretend to be anything fancy like a spanner, let alone anything as pretentious as a spirit level.  Mallet.  Hits things.  Hard.

You might be able to see where this is going.  Fifteen years ago Al Bangura did a similar job for a promoted Watford side…  the cork up the arse of the midfield and frequently off the bench: sit deep, shield defence, win ball, shift it on, repeat.  Hit something.  Wallop.  But Bangura didn’t do it on the back of 88 caps for Colombia, and he didn’t have thighs that spanned postcodes.  The significant win over Reading owed a lot to Isma’s stunning quickfire brace, but an awful lot to Sánchez’s 45 minute “nothing to see here” masterclass.

Next Season: Carlos Sánchez was a high quality mallet…  did the job asked of him, no more, no less.  Did it well.  Having been released he’ll hopefully be doing the same job for someone else.

29- Étienne Capoue

If I was writing about the entirety of Étienne Capoue’s Watford career this would have a very different feel.  

Fabulous footballer.  In arguably our most successful season in living memory he was the driving force, standing out not just by the standards of Watford but by the standards of the Premier League.  He’s a midfielder who can do any job you ask of him…  astonishing engine, fabulous range of passing, reads the game impeccably, anticipates everything.  Without doubt one of the best footballers to have worn the shirt.

But I’m writing about 2020/21, or the first half of it in this case, and here the story was quite different.  There’s no question whatsoever that Étienne Capoue is too good to be playing in the Championship;  nobody could begrudge him wanting to leave, least of all at the age of 32.

But he didn’t need to play in a way that betrayed that.  His haphazard involvement in the first half of the season contained very few highlights, quite a lot of indolence and, in the away trips to Birmingham and Huddersfield, lazy negligence.  He wasn’t the only player in the squad capable of playing at a higher level, probably not the only one who wanted out, but he was the only one who played like it, a transformation all the more stark given the height of the drop in standards.

I found the desire to either identify an alternative candidate as the subject of Scott Duxbury’s pointed dig, or alternatively to make excuses for his behaviour on behalf of many unfathomable.  Even if Duxbury had said nothing, even if Tommy Mooney hadn’t made a similar point in the wake of Capoue’s departure, you had the evidence of your own eyes, right? You saw that smirking embarrassment at Huddersfield? And the fact is… Duxbury did make the comment.  It can’t be rare for players to agitate for moves after relegation, to be disruptive even.  It’s certainly rare for such revelations to follow a player out of a club.  Plenty of things contributed to our improvement in fortunes, I don’t doubt that Capoue’s departure was one of them.  

Next Season:  Capoue is a Europa League winner with Villarreal, having won Man of the Match in the final to the surprise of nobody.  Significant, though, that online congratulation from Hertfordshire seemed restricted to supporters rather than his former teammates.  Capoue is a great footballer.  We’re better off with him elsewhere.  The two aren’t inconsistent.

31- Francisco Sierralta

Here’s an easier one.

Seems extraordinary that as recently as Boxing Day, Francisco Sierralta had made no impression at all.  Had scarcely had the opportunity to do so.  To be filed under “ones who came over from Udinese but never quite fit”, alongside Jean-Alain Fanchone.

I got a warning of what was to come.  I’m the Watford Researcher for a popular management of football simulation game.  The Watford, football and lots of stats elements of this role appealed to me.  The “everyone telling you you’re an idiot” bit wasn’t so obvious when I signed up.  The Chilean researchers who contacted me to advise me of this particular inadequacy in representing Sierralta’s defensive capabilities were very polite about it, and in fairness I’d scarcely seen our man in action at that point having inherited the various assessments of his abilities from the Udinese researcher.

But they were right, obviously, as soon became clear.  Within five minutes of his league debut against Norwich on Boxing Day it was clear that we had a fearless booterer on our hands.  A dominant centre-back whose forehead sucked up whatever the Championship’s widemen cared to lob into the box.  Every intervention demanded a Batman-style “Kerpow” caption bubble, he was the action hero at the back for the second half of the season.

You wonder how well he’d cope alongside a less authoritative partner.  There’s a suspicion that he’s the doer, but needs a talker, an organiser alongside him.  We’ll see.  You’d also like to see a little bit more threat at set pieces…  he kind of OUGHT to be a monster in both boxes, no?  Rather than just a sort of distraction?

That’s picky though. Francisco Sierralta turned 24 at the end of the season, and already looks like the bully that we’d craved at the back for years, the player we’d hoped Craig Dawson would be.  Utterly magnificent.

Next Season:  The only concern is that he’s somehow only got a year left on his contract.  You’d hope that Steps are being Taken to address this forthwith.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 6 03/06/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

23- Ismaïla Sarr

“So…  will he stay then?”.

“I hope so…  sounds like we want to keep him…”

“Yeah, but…  Watford….. or Liverpool….  Watford…  or Liverpool?”.  Paul is grinning, tipping is head from one side to the other as if he’s putting himself in Sarr’s position, weighing up the options.  He’s only half-joking.

The thing is, that’s where we started the season.  Of all the many decisions, some of them difficult, some of them easy, some of them brave….  this was maybe the most courageous.  Braver even than the decision to change head coach mid-season.  Because you can decide to hang on to your star asset, the guy whose dismantling of the Champions elect has just caught everyone’s attention.  You can twist, effectively, gamble everything on him making the difference between going up again and not.  You can refuse offers that don’t meet your valuation despite being in ostensibly a weak negotiating position.  And then you can find that your star man really doesn’t fancy the Championship.  Won’t put in a shift.  Doesn’t like the inevitable kicking he’s going to get.  Can’t help but feeling a bit peevish that he wasn’t allowed to go to Liverpool or United (or Palace.  snigger).

So yes, it took a while.  It’s not quite true that it took Xisco;  six assists and three goals came before the Spaniard took over. But it took a while, a little bit of adjustment.  And yes he did get kicked, and fitting the narrative it was Lloyd Kelly of Bournemouth who executed the most cynical, violent attempted hatchet-job of the season.  But before long he was battling through the physical stuff, and became the cheat code that we all knew he could be.  At his best he was simply far, far too good… the two devastating goals against Reading, most memorably, were the difference between a very tricky evening and a straightforward victory in a critical fixture.  A highlight of the season, Adam Masina’s free kick at Cardiff, was preceded by Sarr receiving the ball wide at the end of a gruelling game from which a point wouldn’t have been a disaster, and turning and committing two markers to draw that free kick.  Fast, direct, brave, relentless, Sarr’s ability and character completely vindicated that brave decision to stand firm on our valuation.

Next Season:  Watford… or Liverpool.  Watford… or Liverpool.  Having accommodated our desire to keep him in the Championship it’s far from a given that he’ll be rocking the boat in the Premier League.  He wouldn’t be the first outrageously talented winger to give us more than we had a right to expect before (eventually) moving to Anfield after all.  Though admittedly, if we get six seasons out of Isma we’ll be doing well…

24- Tom Dele-Bashiru

No, there’s not much to say here.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t say it.

Tom’s season lasted 64 minutes.  Slightly under half-an-hour off the bench in the win over Luton, slightly more than half-an-hour at Reading a week later in his first League start.  For me… that latter half hour was when the penny dropped.

He’d arrived with a minor fanfare…  a kid from City’s academy, City had wanted to keep!  And he came to us! His cup appearances in his first season were fine, decent, nothing more.  But here, against Reading, he looked… everything. Powerful, assertive, dynamic, tidy.  Wow.  What a weapon to unleash on an unsuspecting Championship.  And then… his knee twisted the wrong way. Everyone winced.  And that was that.

Next Season:  I have a proud track record of getting carried away with the opening salvos of fledgling football careers that don’t live up to their earliest promise.  Chris Pullan and Anthony McNamee to name but two.  Nonetheless.  If post-injury Tom, who came across as grounded, focused and likeable on his Hornet Hive outings, is anything like as good as that half hour at the Madejski suggested, we’ve got a player.

25- Stipe Perica

We never really sorted out the centre-forward position did we, promotion or otherwise. JP was great, but… is he really an out-and-out striker?  Troy… tremendous in so many ways but…. not mobile enough, restricted by injury or otherwise.  Andre… not clinical enough.  Isaac…  not reliable enough.

Stipe Perica was quite a lot of fun, and probably the option you’d have chosen to see more of.  In that sense he was unfortunate to pick up injuries when he did, in particular that arm injury following his one goal for the Hornets against Bournemouth.  What we did see was a suggestion that Stipe’s appearance was deceptive;  at 6’4″, he’s a poacher in a target man’s body.  Surprisingly quick, his tremendous goal against the Cherries and the harshly disallowed header against Brentford betrayed a goalscorer’s instinct…  but his use of his body was often clumsy and undisciplined, resulting in a red card at Newport and a number of near misses along the way.

Next Season:  So… we still don’t know what Stipe Perica is for, likeable and curious as he might be.  But having struggled for match time in the Championship – he managed scarcely 45 minutes’ worth over six sub appearances under Xisco – it seems unlikely that we’ll be finding out in the Premier League.

26- Daniel Bachmann

So this surprised me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have.  After all, whilst the role of a deputy goalkeeper is an odd one, and there’s certainly a value in the willing deputy who prefers the lower-profile understudy-cum-training-buddy role to the pressures of first team football, it should have said something that we were hanging onto a goalkeeper who will turn 27 in the close season.  He’s not a veteran by goalkeeper’s standards, but long past “promising kid”.

Then there was the loan spell at Kilmarnock.  I don’t doubt that many talented players wilt in the spotlight, but goalkeepers more so.  Such a unique position, such a requirement to be strong-willed and self-confident.  Nowhere to hide.

And yet he’d thrived in Scotland by all accounts.  And we hadn’t shipped him on, mid-twenties or otherwise, despite his years loitering in the formidable shadows of Ben Foster and Heurelho Gomes.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised.

His penalty heroics against Oxford were a clarion call.  “Hello, what’s this?”.  And then when Ben Foster injured his finger and Bachmann was suddenly lined up for a long stretch between the sticks we inhaled and thought, “OK, let’s see what you’re made of”.

And we did see.  And what was perhaps most impressive was the degree of improvement… the early nervousness under aerial assault was a distant memory by the end of the season.  Bachmann kept thirteen clean-sheets in 25 League starts, and if that in part reflects the miserly opportunities that our opponents were offered then you can add supreme concentration, the concentration required of a goalkeeper in a successful side, to his list of attributes. Implausibly, the popular, experienced, charismatic Foster didn’t get his place back until the race was run.

Next Season:  Bachmann will surely start the campaign as first choice.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 5 28/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
16 comments

18- Andre Gray

You know that thing about, “does a high transfer fee put pressure on a player?”…

Four years on, the case for the prosecution.  The transfer fee, widely reported as £18 million but elsewhere as £11.5 with the potential to rise still influences our judgement I think.  Had he come on a free, even if out of contract and effectively costing a lot more in salary and agent’s fees because of his negotiating position he would have been judged a lot less severely.

That said, his transfer fee isn’t the only thing making life harder for Andre Gray.  His surly manner, his transgressions during lockdown – once, understandable if not forgivable, twice suggesting contempt.  On the pitch…  once again, he’s looked like a half-decent player playing badly a lot of the time, either working hard for little return or just not fitting.  It’s been difficult to shake the old thing about his being too inflexible a tool, only useful at doing one particular job, incapable of adapting to what the team needed him to be.

He impressed pre-season against Spurs until a hamstring pull ruled him out for the first two months of the campaign after which he would start only 14 of 46 Championship games, his involvement spasmodic from the off.  It would be wrong to say he is or was awful… life isn’t as black and white as that.   Very occasionally he spluttered into life, and could be relied on to put a shift in off the bench.  It never felt like enough.

Next Season:  At his most effective Gray is waspish and belligerent.  Too often recently his frustrations have been channelled negatively. Rarely can a player have been in such severe need of a fresh start.  

19- Will Hughes

As discussed many times, a number of inconveniences collaborated to relegate us at the end of the 2019/20 season. However if we got a lucky break that summer, the hope left blinking from the bottom of Pandora’s box, it was Will Hughes’ unspecified “medical procedure”.  It kept him out for much of the season – he never started a game under Vladimir Ivić – but his absence from view may have dissuaded a Premier League club from moving in, leaving him free to pick up the baton at the back of the midfield.

From that point he was the side’s conductor, setting the beat, dictating the rhythm.  He’d been every flavour of midfielder in his Watford career up to the point… a ratter, a wide player, a continuity player, a bullet-loader behind the forwards – flexible in exactly the way that Gray isn’t, I guess –  but suddenly he was the most indispensable component of the side, and indeed didn’t miss a game from Bristol City until the final day. The only thing he’s ever missed is a bit of pace, and playing the metronome role that’s all but irrelevant.  A glorious half-season from a very fine player.

Next Season: It’s difficult conceive of many sides at any level that wouldn’t be improved by Will Hughes.  Tough, ‘cos he’s ours…

21- Kiko Femenía

This never seemed likely.  When we went down…  not someone you’d necessarily have expected to jump ship, but a return to Spain was rumoured and felt horribly credible.  Collateral damage of our relegation.

The move didn’t happen. Kiko stayed.  And not just that, but he didn’t skip a beat… whether filling in for Masina’s absence on the left or thundering down the right flank.  No sulking. No, “I’m better than this”.  Just an absolutely relentless, irrepressible overlapping machine.  My vote for POTS, for what it’s worth, since however temporary and forgivable the early frustrations of his partner in crime down the right flank they were frustrations that Kiko didn’t let hamper him in the same way.  Only at Kenilworth Road, of all places, did his levels slip.

But that right flank wasn’t half a terrifying thing once it got going. Doubling up on Sarr might have seemed like a good idea for any opponent until the first time Kiko charged past on the outside to hoover up the pieces.  It was devastating, exhilarating, and slightly unfair.

Next Season: There’s a credible argument suggesting that Kiko is a more effective right back in a dominant side, a side that will enjoy a lot of possession such that his attacking tendencies aren’t as exposed.  Whatever.  Kiko has three years’ Premier League experience and is huge fun.  We’re lucky to have him.

22- Isaac Success

Lots of good bits and lots of iffy bits.  If Isaac had just arrived, say, like Zinc, you’d be quite excited.

As it is… even those of us keen to see him harness his strength, touch and personality into a coherent, credible footballer are running out of patience. This was evident in the lack of sympathy, lack of allowance for the fact that Isaac had been out for over a year before returning to the side in March.  That’s not trivial.  A A Will Hughes, a Sarr or a Deeney would have taken time to get back into gear.

Isaac’s issue was perhaps that he’s never been in gear for long enough for folk to hanker after his top form.  His most convincing spell was perhaps as a centre-forward in Troy’s absence early in the Cup Final season… I do think that he’s more effective as a target man, holding up play, being a totem, than as a winger.  But we’ve not seen enough of anything for a sustained spell.

There’s clearly something there.  Xisco clearly felt so, giving the Nigerian a reasonable amount of match time on his return to the fold.  And if you wanted to squint at it a certain way there were reasons for optimism…  but for every neat touch or clever through ball there were instances of Success not making the run, not making the challenge.  Hugely frustrating.

Next Season:  The Swansea goal was everything good and bad about Isaac.  Good, because of the power, the control, the ferocity of the final goal of the season.  Bad because…  for pity’s sake.  This is what he’s capable of.  How rarely do we see it.  Isaac needs to pull his finger out before his career fizzles out altogether.  He’s already had several chances to do so at Vicarage Road and may not get another.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 4 27/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

16 #1- James Garner

James Garner looked the part.  Slightly awkward, skinny, with a look that told you that he’d been obsessed with being a footballer since forever.  He was, we were advised, hot property.  We were lucky to get him, he was going to be a star.

He might still become a star.  Unfortunately for both parties, his loan was a case of wrong place, wrong time.  A young loanee looking for his first run of first team football, however talented, needs some semblance of stability to thrive in.  He wasn’t going to get it at Vicarage Road at the start of the season.

He looked the business, occasionally.  Clearly a good touch, good awareness, not scared of a tackle, liked a set piece.  And yet… as the team’s attacking shape struggled to form around him he wasn’t up to helping it develop.  Too often he disappeared in games;  you can’t disappear in central midfield, however young and promising you are.  We were in no position to accommodate his growing pains and asking a kid to be the one to take control was too much of an ask as it turned out.  That role fell to the recovered Will Hughes.  Garner returned to Old Trafford and was then moved on to a less volatile, more accommodating City Ground while the Hornets went for experience;  it was the gnarled old boots of Carlos Sánchez and Dan Gosling that were brought in to get us over the line.

Next Season:  No shortage of takers.  Safe to assume we won’t be high on the list.

16 #2- Dan Gosling

This didn’t go down well, if you remember.  Out of left field.  Conor Hourihane and James Léa-Siliki were the names touted as Étienne Capoue left the building;  instead we signed someone ostensibly not good enough for Bournemouth.  “Underwhelmed” was the prevailing response, to put it gently.

Which is worth bearing in mind the next time we make a signing that looks a bit odd.  Not that we’re always going to get it right… but this isn’t the first time that scepticism has been proven unfounded.  Five games into his Watford career any doubts were assuaged as Gosling let his former teammate Jefferson Lerma know exactly what he thought of his histrionics during the carnage at Dean Court, following up with a forthright interview to much the same effect.

That sealed the deal.  Dan Gosling doesn’t smile much.  He’s a serious, focused, bastard with a good amount of everything… good engine, aggressive, doesn’t waste possession, and the timing of his runs into the box betrays the two years he spent training with Tim Cahill at Everton.  We’ll take “unflashy” all day long.

Next Season:  Dan might not be a regular starter.  But he’ll be an utterly dependable squad player for a Premier League club.  Instead of, you know…

17 #1- Glenn Murray

There was some sense in the idea.  Faced with the prospect of losing Troy and/or Andre, and you’ve got to assume that both or either seemed likely given that Murray was brought in, we would have been short of experience and leadership in attacking positions.  Murray, evidently an intelligent man, “good in the dressing room”, ticked both boxes.

So as soon as the transfer window closed it was clear that we had a surfeit of such strikers, and that Murray was going to do well to get much of a look in.  Such opportunities as he did get seemed hamstrung by our insistence on firing grenades at him as if he was a target man rather than a slightly ungainly expert poacher.  Ball to feet he was fine with, a dominant aerial presence he wasn’t.  The ball didn’t stick, Murray got scant opportunity to do his thing.

That, even in his pomp, Murray has always looked about 15 years older than he actually is probably didn’t help his cause but “good in the dressing room” or not, you can’t blame him for not fancying spending a big chunk of what one presumes is the close of his career kicking his heels.   No surprise when his loan was cut short as a bad decision all round.

Next Season:  Murray’s liveliest outing in a Watford shirt was arguably his last as he came off the bench at Wycombe.  On his first start for Forest at the same venue he scored a brace, making Watford’s simultaneous 0-0 at Coventry all the more miserable.  Neither match proved portentous of respective fortunes… the Hornets’ turnaround started the following Saturday, Murray was destined not to score again for Forest in 14 appearances (seven off the bench).  38 in September, it’s unlikely that the master poacher will feature at Championship level again.

17 #2- Achraf Lazaar

In fairness to Achraf, it’s not many of us who can claim to have been the second best Moroccan left back at Vicarage Road.

Lazaar arrived as part of the concerted mid-season effort to beef up the squad with experienced cast-offs.  We needed cover for Adam Masina at left back, here was a guy who we had been linked with on our promotion in 2015, and who had subsequently been good enough to hang around at St James Park for five years without ever quite fulfilling undoubted potential. Surely good enough to be a fall-back full-back for a few months.

And he was, just about, a couple of excitable and problematic wobblinesses notwithstanding.  We weren’t going to bring in Paolo Maldini on a free as cover mid-season after all, what with left backs being so thin on the ground and all.  You’d have worried about having to rely on him for any length of time, but we didn’t need to. He was clearly much happier with the going forward bit than the defending bit and against Swansea, at the very end, we got an insight into what the excitement had once been about… a vibrant, pulsating performance that displayed on the pitch for the first time the sort of character that was already very evident in his position as cheerleader-in-chief off the bench.

Next Season:  Not enough to win him a longer contract with us.  But hopefully with someone else.