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One Graham Taylor. 12/01/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
40 comments

gtwave
How to add anything.  What to add. Eulogies can be so dull.  How not to flounder in superlatives? Forgive me if this isn’t coherent…

It’s tempting to list achievements. Promotions, Cup Final, Europe and so on.  You know all that, though.  How about…  pre-GT we had spent three of 96 years in the top two divisions.  Since GT arrived we’ve spent four outside the top two divisions.  Three of them getting promoted. His legacy includes a permanent shift in status. But more than “mere” achievement on the pitch, dramatic and fabulous though it was, changing our status though it did, was the “how”.  The what AND the how were what made him, what made us.

I started coming to Vicarage Road in 1980.  The best time, the worst time.  The best because we were on the gallop, on the way up.  The worst because, by the coincidence of my birth, I joined the party at a time when Watford were fantastic, on the pitch, off the pitch and that left a legacy.  Such high standards.  In that period, the five seasons that it took us to get to the top flight from the fourth division, we found time to record nine cup shocks.  Nine victories against higher-division opposition, including Manchester United (twice), European Champions Nottingham Forest and the overturning of Southampton’s 4-0 first leg lead with a 7-1 second leg.  For longer serving Watford fans this was remarkable.  For the kids… it was fantastic, but surely how football always was.  Beating the big guys.  Going out simply trying to score more than the other lot, and expecting to do so.

And more than that, being part of the family.  Mike Walters‘ brilliant piece in the Mirror hits the nail on the head;  he changed the way the club was.  He made it inclusive, safe, fun, and created a legacy that has little parallel. So you have kids of that generation – my generation – growing up with a wonderfully romantic, positive view of how Watford should be.  What the family club was like, what it meant. And that filters down. The prominence of red was part of that.  Yellow and black, smart, classy.  Yellow, red and black, fun.

England.  Yes, whatever.  Expectations exaggerated by an overperforming – some might say lucky – 1990 team which lost key personnel, had others on the way out.  Gascoigne injured, Shearer injured, still had to be horribly unlucky.  Whatever. The lazy, armchair view, the pillorying that we’ve all heard too often still makes me bitterly angry more than twenty years on.  Except that he had the good grace to get over it, or at least not to let it poison the way he conducted himself, so heaven knows I can manage.  And anyway, but for that would we have got him back, to do it all again?

Anecdotes.  So many.  The one about Elton and the bottle of brandy.  The one about ringing up fans who hadn’t renewed Season Tickets.  The one about being some stranger’s best man just because he’d asked him to.  The ones about the Family Enclosure Christmas parties where all the players turned up (in 1985, for example, the day after a horrible, violent clash with Tottenham) and he had as much time as anyone wanted. The thing that’s really clear, from social media, from your mates, from the radio is that everyone who ever had any contact with him had such an anecdote, or six.  The one where he is introduced to someone, meets them again six months later and remembers the name of their wife and kid.  The one where he meets a colleague of mine on the starting line of the London Marathon and when the name is shared asks the colleague to thank me for sponsoring him.

It’s all so human.  He was brilliant, brilliant at what he did.  As extraordinary as a rock star, a leader of industry, a fine artist, a racing driver, a bestselling writer.  But he was a real person too, touchable, reachable, quirky, goofy.  He replied to every star-struck letter that I sent him from the age of 10 to the age of 37.  As Fran put it elsewhere, whenever you met him he made you feel as if the privilege was his. He was brilliant AND human, and that made him truly, truly inspirational.

He was loved by many people, but he was the heart and soul of our club and our town.

We owe him a send-off.  We need to pull ourselves together.

See you Saturday.

gt

 

 

Watford 2 Burton Albion 0 (07/01/2017) 08/01/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

1- So the F.A. Cup, then. Not What It Once Was. Maybe. Overburdened with bluster, the same tosh about romanticism that gets trotted out more or less annually around now before the TV companies pick the predictable games. And yes, West Ham getting humped was very funny but just as good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes sometimes bad decisions get lucky.

Either way, the F.A. Cup hasn’t plumbed the depths of the League Cup. The third round IS exciting, whatever, even with an absentee list that’s stronger than the available eleven, even in a no-win fixture at home to a new Championship side. We’re expected to go through, it’s a free punch for the Brewers. Romanticism and David v Goliath is all very well until you’re suddenly Goliath, relatively speaking, on the back of awful form and that injury list.

So, the decision to neglect Season Ticket holder’s right to their seat for the League Cup game against Gillingham was kind of OK. Everyone knows what the first round, our first round of the League Cup is about by now, few enough want to subject themselves to it. But for this? This is supposed to be a big deal, at least a serious game, and I want to be sitting in my seat, with my family and my mates. It’s part of the ritual, being denied “my” seat just pisses me off. Anecdotally a good number of the no-shows were turned off by that decision. Should I come to the cup game? Well I haven’t got my seat, so actually no. The club are well in credit as far as treating support is concerned and heaven knows that there are bigger things in the world to worry about but surprising that the importance of these things to folks is misjudged. Don’t think it’s just me.

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2- So we watch developments from the Elton John stand, which adds to the sense of this not being quite normal. Daughter 2 has her eyes on our seats. Daughter 1’s appears to be free, the other two are not and Daughter 2 glowers her disapproval. Fortunately it’s overcast; it’s thirty plus years since I sat in the Family Enclosure, I don’t miss the peaked cap.

The team selection was always going to be a source of fascination; whilst Walter has precious little flexibility it’s slightly surprising that he’s gone for virtually the strongest available selection in the circumstances. We’re pared back enough, perhaps, but you did half expect more than merely Seb Prödl given a rest on the bench, albeit perhaps a few of those unwell or unfit might have been risked for a League game. As it is, Seb is called into action anyway as Cathcart, who had taken a blow early on, is pulled up with what the ref indicates is a head injury. Initially it seems that he’s going off for stitches or something, but Seb’s on the touchline before Cathcart gets there. In fairness, the back three are immaculate throughout and in the first half are more than a match for the tentative questions that Burton throw at them.

But the stand-out selection is Brandon Mason at left back following his debut off the bench in the less forgiving environment of the caning by Spurs six days ago. Yes it’s been forced – it’s difficult to conceive of an alternative selection that wouldn’t have been extremely wonky – but it’s welcome anyway, a Good Thing. And Mason plays his role to a tee on several levels. His relentless positiveness and enthusiasm stands out a mile – he’s clearly having a whale of a time, and is the one pelting up the flank on the overlap to make an option. He gets carried away too… more than once he’s pulled back into position, his eagerness to play as a winger exposing Britos behind him and attracting stern words from senior colleagues, not least the still off-beam Ighalo who is reluctant to indulge the youngster with a pass. On balance though it’s a complete triumph… brave, bold, energetic, robust, tougher than his slight frame suggests. The crowning moment comes with yet another scamper down the left, a vicious low cross and Christian Kabasele is all alone at the far post. Mason’s celebration is a thing of joy, certainly unmatched in the SEJ stand where daughter 1 is aghast at the lack of jumping around.

3- Burton turn out to be a convenient opponent. Tough and competitive, putting a lot of pressure on the ball they are characterised by a level of aggression that just about stays the right side of the line, a general bluntness up front and a who’s who of familiar names from Championship years past – not the stars, the other guys, the supporting cast. Lee Williamson, who joined the Hornets ten years ago this week, ticks all of those boxes; five years later he received a red card here in Sheffield United’s colours for taking out Lloyd Doyley, here his thunderous challenge on Capoue was as clean as a whistle but left no margin for error and saw the Frenchman sitting on his backside and rubbing his jaw. Elsewhere Albion reveal a decent line in narky little forwards; Jamie Ward is a first half sub, Luke Varney stretchered off on his debut after a collision with Pantilimon. Andy suggests Jamie Cureton would have completed the set.

Overall though there is next to no threat on our goal in the first half. In the second period Albion have a lot more attacking width and have two good opportunities earlier on but are forced onto the back foot and having missed those chances offer little thereafter. We rarely threaten to overwhelm them, but it’s comfortable enough… long spells of possession that occasionally unsettle the visitors when we tease some discomfort from their defence.

4- The second period also sees two other fringe players make a claim. Jerome Sinclair has seen his status escalated from occasional bench-filler in the wake of our current situation. Here, fielded as part of a rotating front three with Troy and Ighalo he failed to impose himself in the first half, often struggling to keep his feet. In the second… at one-up we’re always vulnerable to an equaliser, however stealthily it would have needed to sneak up on us, until Sinclair sets off on a slalom from the halfway line midway through the half and finishes with a flourish. Daughter 1 and I execute the premeditated strategy of celebrating like it’s the Rookery and be damned. Sinclair’s made it look easy – in fairness Burton’s resistance was cursory – but his confidence blossoms thereafter. Now he’s a menace, running at a Burton defence that’s clearly had enough, first releasing Ighalo for a painfully deliberate shot that McLaughlan saves then threatening to reprise his earlier effort with angles, this time, narrowed by the Brewers’ once-bitten caution. Difficult to dispute Mazzarri’s later assertion that getting games is the key thing for him on this evidence.

Meanwhile, the near-mythical Brice Dja Djédjé has made an unheralded entrance from the bench and looks thoroughly accomplished… dynamic, powerful and clearly happy to be playing football at last he comes close to crowning his cameo with a goal, clouting a long range shot enthusiastically, narrowly over. Like Sinclair, his energy and willingness are welcome.

5- Overall, then, reassuringly straightforward. True, an away tie against a Championship side in a better vein of form might have presented more of an issue but all in all and against all expectations – and awaiting news on what will hopefully have been a precautionary withdrawal for Cathcart – the game has proven to be a Good Thing in its own right. Yes, you’d want to see us playing better and creating more and looking more confident but it’s a positive step nonetheless in it’s routineness, in racking up a comfortable win despite everything. Good showings by several younger or newer players, a clean sheet and no replay.

Job Done. Yoorns.

The List – January 2017. 18/12/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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As we approach the January window our stated intent to have a quiet January hadn’t prevented us from being linked to players even before our latest spate of injuries. Bookmark this page if you want to follow progress up to and throughout the January Transfer window. What does and doesn’t constitute a “rumour” is entirely at my discretion of course but generally “Watford following the progress of…” is in, whether substantiated or not, “I’d like Watford to sign…” is out.
* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Summer 2015 List
January 2016 List
Summer 2016 List

Running Total: 44

IN
Paul-Georges Ntep (Rennes)                                         – joined VfL Wolfsburg
Pontus Jansson (Torino)
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Aston Villa)
Danilho Doekhi (Ajax)
Wilfred Ndidi (Genk)*                                                           – joined Leicester
Ben Osborn (Nottingham Forest)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Riccardo Orsolini (Ascoli)                                                      – joined Juventus
Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal)
Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax)                                                – joined VfL Wolfsburg
Sergi Enrich (Eibar)
Romain Thomas (Angers)
Saido Berahino (West Brom)*                                           – joined Stoke City
Yacine Brahimi (Porto)
Henri Lansbury (Nottingham Forest)                                 – joined Aston Villa
Molla Wague (Udinese)                                              – joined Leicester on loan
Isaac Cofie (Genoa)
Dale Stephens (Brighton)
Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter)
Hernanes (Juventus)
Scott Hogan (Brentford)                                                       – joined Aston Villa
Vicente Iborra (Sevilla)
Keisuke Honda (Milan)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Tom Cleverley (Everton)                                                  – SIGNED ON LOAN
Omar Elabdellaoui (Olympiakos)                                         – joined Hull City
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)                                           – joined Hull City on loan
Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli)*                                          – joined Southampton
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Toby Sibbick (AFC Wimbledon)
Jake Livermore (Hull City)                                                    – joined West Brom
Marco Sportiello (Atalanta)                                       – joined Fiorentina on loan
Morgan Sanson (Montpellier)                                              – joined Marseille
Mauro Zárate (Fiorentina)                                                                – SIGNED
Max Gradel (Bournemouth)
Luka Milivojević (Olympiakos)                                        – joined Crystal Palace
Robin Quaison (Palermo)                                                           – joined Mainz
Bojan Krkić (Stoke City)                                                  – Joined Mainz on loan
M’Baye Niang (Milan)                                                       – SIGNED ON LOAN
Robert Snodgrass (Hull City)                                              – joined West Ham
Nicolas Pépé (Angers)
Tim Krul (Newcastle)                                                          – joined AZ67 on loan
Asmir Begovic (Chelsea)
Zach Clough (Bolton)                                               – joined Nottingham Forest

OUT
Odion Ighalo (Napoli, Shanghai Shenhua, West Brom*, Changchun Yatai, Crystal Palace)
.                                                                    – joined Changchun Yatai
Jerome Sinclair (Brentford, Reading, Norwich*,Cardiff, Sheff Wed, Ipswich, Derby, Nottm Forest, Birmingham)
.                                                                    – joined Birmingham on loan
Juan-Carlos Paredes (Tigres, Rangers, Trabzonspor, Emelec, Olympiakos)
.                                                                    – joined Olympiakos on loan
Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, Malaga)                 – joined Malaga on loan
Troy Deeney (West Ham United, Hebei Chinese Fortune)
Christian Kabasele (Anderlecht)
Étienne Capoue (Everton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Nantes)
Costel Pantilimon (Derby County)
Isaac Success (Bursaspor, Beijing Guoan)
Adlène Guedioura (Aston Villa, Hull City, Middlesbrough)
.                                                                          – joined Middlesbrough
Obbi Oularé (Den Haag, Sint Truidense, Besiktas, Willem II)
.                                                                       – joined Willem II on loan

Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (19/11/2016) 20/11/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

1- Football serves many purposes to its audience.  Key amongst these is escapism, something to cling to, to hide in when your life is turning to crap.  Developments elsewhere in the world since our defeat at Anfield, developments breathtakingly crass and depressing and terrifying, left a lot of us needing precisely this.  Seriously, this on top of Brexit?  The world’s gone absolutely crazy…

So the return of football was necessary and we were bang up for it.  We flew unhindered down the M1, swung round the ring road in record time.  The pedestrian crossing switched to green as we approached; we crossed without breaking stride.  This was finally going to be a good day.  Today we were going to win.  Only the fact that ig didn’t have a pen with him to lend to Daughter 2 for ticking the starting elevens off in her programme betrayed that something in the world had changed.

2- There had been a few questions festering over the latest interminable international break.  Would any of the walking wounded be available… Gomes, Prödl, Okaka, Success, Cathcart… would Iggy keep his pace, would Watson get a start? Most of all, how would the team respond to the dicking on Merseyside?  The answers to most of these questions came with the now ceremonial checking of Twitter feeds over  a two minute period either side of two o’clock;  the answer to the final question came an hour later.  We flew at Leicester from the kick-off in what’s becoming a trademark explosive start… Hull City had withstood similar a fortnight ago but City, crucially, couldn’t and didn’t.  Roberto Pereyra’s performance was immediately the sort of thing we’d hoped and dreamed of; he picked up a loose pass, swivelled down the left and stole enough space to sling in a cross.  Troy Deeney’s header was no less fine a thing… no vague flick-on this, cushioned into the path of Capoue who did his attacking-the-box thing and flung a bouncing volley past Zieler.  There was time for a more eye-catching trick from Pereyra, receiving a pass on the left flank with his back to his marker he backheeled a nutmeg with a single touch and left him standing (Daughter 2 was to describe this to her bemused mother in some detail later in the day).  Shortly afterwards he again picked up the ball on the left, seemed to make himself space to shoot by swaying in a threateningly deceptive manner, and curled a shot across Zieler’s grasp and in.  Magnificent throughout, for the first quarter hour Pereyra was at a level that almost seemed unfair on the visitors, a quite unreasonable and uncontainable advantage.

3- Quite how the game would have panned out but for the penalty we’ll never know.  One possibility of course is that we’d have capitalised further on this extraordinary start, or that Leicester would have come back at us and, on failing to break through, overcommitted leaving us holes to exploit. Another sufficiently plausible maybe is that at 2-0 up our concentration wouldn’t have been quite as sharp as it needed to be later in the game and as such, the goal coming when it did didn’t give us time to relax or get complacent – later on, a goal borne of pressure rather than a silly and unnecessary foul so quickly might have yielded another.

As it was, Mahrez struck the spot kick down the centre and seized the baton from Pereyra, if only briefly… the visitors had a period of good possession and pressure, but not possession and pressure that resulted in a shot on target for the rest of the half.  Instead it was the Hornets who can claim to have come closest, Kaboul thumping a header narrowly wide and Deeney playing a ball across to Amrabat that he should have taken with his left but seemed to stab at with his right.  The Moroccan continued to make mischief on the flank, however, and twice drew fouls that demanded further sanction but received none, the referee struggling with what was an increasingly feisty encounter towards the end of the half.

4- City had started with what Leicester Paul described as their “Champions League week” team, a “slight groin injury” to Slimani the most significant absentee both in terms of our now fabled vulnerability from crosses and also the way the game played out; City could have used a target man when their preferred counter-attacking approach quickly became a non-starter.  For all that, there were only two changes to the starting eleven that we faced here in March – Zieler for Schmeichel, Amartey for Kanté – and whilst those changes made our visitors weaker there’s no doubt that we’ve progressed even over that narrow window.  Deprived of any space to attack, City not unreasonably decided that their best chance of a result would come from committing people – running at them and drawing challenges, winning free kicks.  Given the pace and quick feet of Vardy, Musa, Gray and the industry of Okazaki that seemed quite sensible but our defending was heroic, particularly in the final quarter of the game.

We know from experience how context affects your interpretation.  We’ve just been stuffed 6-1 at Anfield;  unpleasant as that was, we know that we’re in a strong position and therefore the odd embarrassment can be taken on the chin.  It would have been harder to mentally recover from had we been in the bottom three.  Similarly, Leicester’s almighty achievement last season was borne in part of a bloody-minded belief in what they were doing.  They didn’t do much different in this one… but their play was tentative, deliberate.  For all Vardy’s spinning and twisting City only achieved one shot on target from open play; Kaboul, Prödl and Britos threw themselves in front of things, snuffed out space and suffocated the waves of attacks of increasing intensity. That flying blocks yielded a couple of ball-to-hand (or elbow) close-contact penalty appeals that were noisily, desperately, hopelessly optimistic spoke volumes.  Instead it was Nordin Amrabat’s relish in committing Fuchs – on a yellow and a last warning, as so many of Nordin’s markers seem to end up – that made the best chance of the half.  Burrowing past the Austrian on the right flank Amrabat laid back for Janmaat to drop a cross on Pereyra’s head.  Face with the choice of directing a header to his marker’s left and inside the post or to the bigger target back across goal he chose the latter, making Zieler’s acrobatic save a possibility.

5- This one was significant for a number of reasons.  Our first league victory over reigning champions since John Barnes’ ludicrous goal – from the same wing to the same corner as Pereyra’s – against Liverpool 30 years ago.  A tactical triumph for Mazzarri, whose early salvo and formation change that saw us play 5-4-1 when defending but had Amrabat and Pereyra supporting the tremendous Deeney – whose ongoing battle with Morgan was an entertaining sideshow – when in possession gave City nowhere to go.  Most of all for the cast iron balls of the whole team, particularly the back three, in withstanding the late pressure and in dismissing that Anfield game from concern.  We still have Success, Cathcart, Holebas to return for goodness’ sake, not to mention a fit-again Okaka who seems perfectly equipped to play the “pain in the arse sub off the bench” role when protecting a lead such as this.

It occurred to me this week that a marker of how far we’ve come is that we knocked Newcastle, Leeds and Forest out of the cup last season but only the Arsenal game rendered the run remarkable.  Ten or fifteen years ago that would have been unthinkable.  Now we sit in eighth, behind only seven sides whose resources, successes and infrastructure dwarf our own.  And it doesn’t feel like a false position.

Yoorns.

West Ham United 2 Watford 4 (10/09/2016) 11/09/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
12 comments

1- Well it’s not Upton Park.

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At one’o’clock it was pissing it down with rain.  We’d arrived early, partly because That’s What We Do, partly because I felt the need to justify Daughter 1 missing her gymnastics.  Partly because, you know, football.  Come on.

An away trip with the girls is still a gamble, a reckless dice roll.  Now we were sheltering from the rain on the vast Olympic Park next to something that looked like a melted helterskelter outside a bar that only admitted home fans.  The girls were starving, the only food on offer that didn’t involve getting drenched was a barbecue put on by the bar.  Fortunately there was a cashpoint too.  We were a captive audience, and charged accordingly.

The stadium.  Well… imagine Upton Park.  Its claustrophobic, intense scruffiness.  Now imagine something diametrically opposite to it. We were nine rows from the front, and bloody miles from the pitch.  There’s acres of space between the edge of the pitch and the front of each stand.  The lower tier is itself a bracing walk from the concourse across walkways suspended above the permanent but concealed and unused seating, some sort of ghost town.  There are still bubble machines, woefully incapable of creating any atmosphere in this vast bowl. Fittingly, the bubbles sink listlessly to the floor.

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2- There are bloody loads of people here, though.  “Where were you at Upton Park?” emerges grouchily from the home stands during the first half, but it’s an intimidating sight nonetheless. This was, we were told all week, when West Ham would spark.  Their big guns – Payet, Lanzini – were back, the new signing – Zaza – in place.  The Hammers had had a tough start to the season, their points total reflecting this. This was when their season would start.  “West Ham will win this,” opined Michael Owen. “Watford might struggle this season”. Someone pays him.

Much of that applied to us too, of course, but we’re still small fry, not top flight establishment, so few cared.  There’s part of us thinking that maybe some of this week’s papers might have made it onto our dressing room wall, so to speak.  All of which was forgotten as the Hammers started the game with exactly that thought – that this is game one, the game they must win, the game they will win – at the front of their minds.  They hit us like a train, and the stands made a complete racket.

3- We looked slow.  Or maybe West Ham just made us look slow.  We were behind almost immediately, a corner, one flick – two? – and Antonio’s angling his header past a helpless Gomes.  How did he get to that header?  Why was there nobody on the far post?  Too easy.  It’s a long way back already.

Actually we rallied a bit at 1-0.  Ighalo had already had half a chance at nil-nil… now the lively Pereyra suckered Masuaku on the right of the penalty area – with hindsight, a portent of what was to come – and Ighalo was teed up again, his shot deflected wide.  This didn’t last though.  The home side simply made it look easier, they were on top and enjoying it, like a dog being let out for it’s first run in ages.  The achilles heel of a three-man defence – someone, Holebas, being caught upfield and leaving the flanks exposed – caught us out.  The devilish Payet hugged the right touchline, Britos was too slow out to him and an outrageous cross found Antonio stealing in at the far post.

4- The most redundant thunk of the season, but one of those that needs saying anyway.  We didn’t see the result coming at all at this point.  West Ham were worth the two goal lead and were heading off into the sunset, or would have been if it hadn’t still been grey and miserable.  One of those where you feel the stadium closing in on you and just want it all to end.  It could have been anything at this point.

Here’s the thing though.  West Ham came at us.  Zaza wanted a goal and tiptoed across challenges looking for an opening.  He didn’t get one.  Antonio sniffed a hat-trick and galloped in from the right.  Payet lined up a free kick ominously after Noble drew a foul. It was blocked.  We were stretched, but we stood up to it… blocks and tackles; you’ll have gathered that things got better in the second half but Valon Behrami’s masterclass lasted ninety minutes, he was magnificent.  Kaboul was a wall, Troy was getting his head to things.  We definitely, defiantly, weren’t lying down.  And by standing up we gave ourselves a chance.  By not folding, we made it more than a footnote, more than a mere detail when Ighalo chased Capoue’s deft flick and his shot deflected beyond Adrian. We made it possible for Deeney to capitalise majestically on a complete catastrophe in West Ham’s defence.  Suddenly it’s half time and it’s 2-2.  How?  Because unlike West Ham, whilst we made defensive mistakes we didn’t fold.  Our heads were in the game.  You suspected that West Ham never contemplated the possibility of such resistance.  The presence of one Manuel Britos (sic) in the programme’s player list, of a pic of Capoue captioned as Holebas, was consistent with the national press’s billing of the Hornets as bit-part players, a supporting act.  West Ham believed their own publicity and found themselves level at the break in a game that they should, could, have had in the bag.

Incidentally it was also at 2-0 down that Sofia had remembered that her yellow Watford teddy, whose match-influencing powers seem to wane when left forgotten in my backpack, had not been brought out to witness the game…

5- The second half was the best football Watford have played for some considerable time, certainly since Arsenal in the cup, arguably this calendar year.  We took the bag that West Ham thought the game was safely tucked away in, emptied it, clubbed them round the head with it, popped Dimitri Payet inside and lobbed it to Younes Kaboul who drop-kicked it into the stinking River Lea.

Front and centre of this masterclass was the midfield trio of Behrami, Capoue and Pereyra. Valon and Capoue have looked utterly content in their new roles this season already despite our modest points total to this point.  Behrami is the pit-bull, cut out to do the dirty work.  He was fearsome and magnificent, full of ferocious blocks and tackles with his best lunatic stare and blood dripping from his jaws.  Capoue is relishing the licence to get forward a bit more, and loves the box-to-box role of the three.  He clubbed in a third to put us ahead for the first time after teasing now fretful West Ham defenders on the edge of the box.

And now there is a conductor, a string-puller, someone to tease things apart and let the liquid flow through the cracks.  Pereyra’s 45 minutes against Arsenal had been hugely encouraging, but in the context of a game against a side who also (perhaps more credibly) believed their game was won and of us being desperate for him to prove his worth there was the concern that we’d imagined his impact, over-egged the pudding in our minds.  Given him an impossible billing to live up to.  Not a bit of it.  Elegant, mischievous, industrious, class.  An absolute joy.  These three are now the core of the team, and we won’t go far wrong if they stay fit.

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6- You’ll have heard about the disturbances in the crowd, none of which were terribly near to us but plenty of which was clearly visible.  Blog posts from home supporters pre-match confirm that this was far from being a one-off… segregation both in the stands and in the concourses was grotesquely inadequate.  Complacent, even.  Yes, football has become a politer, more pleasant thing over the years.  But this isn’t cricket.  People are going to get over excited and in a fifty-odd thousand crowd you’re going to get some idiots by the law of averages.  If you’re raking in revenue from this enormous and extraordinary level of interest having taken advantage of an unusually generous set of circumstances then the very least you can do is ensure that the vast majority who want to simply go and watch their team are able to do so safely.  West Ham lost a two goal lead at home, but their biggest embarrassment was off the pitch.

7- Meanwhile, Jose Holebas snaffled a fourth as West Ham backpedalled, completely incapable of changing the direction that this game had decisively decided to travel in.  Much of the rest of it consisted of Watford possession, passing the ball out of reach of their wearying opponents.  The Hammers had possession too but their chances were remote, half-glimpses of an opening.  Even when Fletcher, on as a sub, won a knock-down to create a clear chance Gomes was there to block before the offside flag was noticed.  At that point the game was up, and the home stands were emptying.

In front of us, Pereyra slalomed through the Hammers’ defence and would have brought the house down (or our little bit of it) but couldn’t quite find the finish.  The subs were all significant – Prödl replaced Kaboul to get his head onto ever more hopeful crosses, Success and Okaka demonstrated another big improvement on last term – attacking threat from the bench, options that allowed Troy and Iggy a rest.  Both had chances… Success screamed in on goal but flicked his effort narrowly wide.  Okaka bundled Kaboul’s knock-down into the roof of the net and celebrated for half a second before seeing the flag.  Burdened with relatively low expectation (a multi-million pound signing with low expectation.  Jesus) he was a muscled, boisterous pain in the arse; with huge upper body strength he had the physique of Johnny Bravo and was precisely what West Ham didn’t need in the circumstances, until doing his hamstring and leaving us to see the game out with ten men. He’s a favourite already.

8- So much for the tough start to the season.  We’d all have taken four points, I think, and United on Sunday suddenly becomes a free punch.  Whilst we’re always going to be vulnerable defensively the magnitude of the achievement, wresting what should have, could have, in so many other seasons would have been a runaway cathartic home win from their grasp is every bit as immense as it sounds.   Michael Owen’s column next week will suggest that Watford might surprise one or two people.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a team.

Yooorns.

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Season Preview – Part 5 12/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Vincent Janssen (AZ67 Alkmaar, £18,600,000), Victor Wanyama (Southampton, £11,000,000)

OUTS: Alex Pritchard (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Grant Ward (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Charlie Haylford (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Emmanuel Sonupe, Federico Fazio (AS Roma, Season Loan), Filip Lesniak (Slovan Liberec, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A game after Christmas which was reassuring in that Spurs were as graceless in securing a last-minute win with an offside goal against ten men as we remember them being in the eighties.  And a defeat at White Hart Lane which was, conversely, more conclusive than the scoreline implied

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Walker       Alderweireld      Vertonghen        Rose
Dembélé          Dier
Lamela                      Alli                     Eriksen
Kane

VERDICT: Come on.  You must have sniggered a little bit.

Tottenham always looked capable of being key beneficiaries of the levelling of the turf.  Perpetually on the edge of the Champions’ League places, they’ve nonetheless built a strong young squad under an excellent manager and as domestic TV money renders the impact of the Champions League less of a divisor in income terms, no great surprise that Spurs vaulted over the various misfirings of the “top” clubs.  Perversely, however, I can see Spurs suffering more than Leicester in the wake of this extraordinary campaign.  The Tottenham side is younger, built on vim and energy, but the pressures of that absurd game at Stamford Bridge clearly affected them.  Stronger for it?  Perhaps.  But starting from scratch is a different thing to coming from behind to chase the big prize.  That they didn’t succeed – compounded by slipping behind Arsenal on the final day – might linger, and even if it doesn’t the extent to which the squad can accommodate the extra pressures of the Champions League (and associated home games at Wembley) is questionable.  Recruits have been sensible but unspectacular, Kane, Dembélé and Lloris are particular players for whom there is debatable cover.

Everything’s relative.  Spurs will still be around the Champions League places.  But just outside would be my bet.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: Matt Phillips (Queens Park Rangers, £5,500,000)

OUTS: Josh Ezewele (Yeovil Town, Free), Anders Lindegaard (Preston North End, Free), Victor Anichebe, Samir Nabi, Stéphane Sessegnon, Tahvon Campbell (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Shaun Donnellan (Stevenage, Six Months Loan), Callam Jones (Accrington Stanley, Six Months Loan), Tyler Roberts (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Chay Scrivens (Torquay United, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Jerome Sinclair (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw early on and a vital win at the tail end of the season in which Heurelho excelled and survival was effectively confirmed.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16   1-0
2009-10 1-1
2007-08 0-3 1-1
2003-04 0-1 1-3
2002-03 1-0
2001-02 1-2 1-1
2000-01 3-3 0-3
1998-99 0-2 1-4
1995-96 4-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Dawson         Evans       McAuley           Brunt
Yacob
Phillips       Fletcher           Morrison     McClean
Rondon

VERDICT: Back in the Championship, we’d tell ourselves that there were advantages to being in the second tier.  I think that’s pretty indisputable actually… whether you think they outweigh the benefits of top flight football probably depends to no small extent on the last performance.  Anyway, another discussion.  One of those things, one of the things that we’d tell ourselves made the Championship great was its competitiveness.  Anyone can beat anyone, lots of teams at about the same level and all chasing promotion whether it’s automatic or a fanciful grab at sixth.  Happy bedlam.  What might a moderate-sized club expect to achieve in the top flight?  It’s not like a smaller club was ever going to actually, you know, win anything?  More likely is relegation straight back where we came, misery.  Or, worse (arguably?) this purgatory where you hover in the greyness in the lower half of the table, preoccupied with stopping the other lot from scoring and clinging onto Premier League status.

That’s a bit harsh on West Brom, of course, one of the properer clubs in the division and home of a fine Fanzone.  There are plenty of good things to say about Albion, now that Bob Taylor and Lee Hughes aren’t slapping us around twice a season.  But good grief, look at that side.  Three centre-backs in the defence (occasionally four when Jonas Olsson is wheeled out), the ferocious Yacob in front of them and Darren Fletcher as nominally a more attacking midfielder.  The average age of that eleven is over 29. You’d be forgiven for wanting a bit of, you know, excitement?  Recklessness?

Albion won’t go down.  But they won’t be much fun either… not on the pitch, anyway.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Manuel Lanzini (Al Jazeera, Undisclosed), Toni Martinez (Valencia, Undisclosed), Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia, Free), Ashley Fletcher (Manchester United, Free), Håvard Nordtveit (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Free), Gökhan Töre (Besiktas, Season Loan)

OUTS: James Tomkins (Crystal Palace, £10,000,000), Jordan Brown (Hannover 96, Free), Elliot Lee (Barnsley, Free), Leo Chambers, Nathan Mavila, Amos Nasha, Joey O’Brien, Stephen Hendrie (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Kyle Knoyle (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce, End of Loan), Victor Moses (Chelsea, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Valon Behrami, Hayden Mullins

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The most impressive win of the season, bottling Dimitri Payet up and leaving him in a skip somewhere.  And something altogether less impressive in the build-up o the Cup semi-final.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Adrian
Byram        Nordtveit        Reid          Cresswell
Kouyate

Noble                           Töre
Payet
Valencia            Carroll

VERDICT: Will you miss that epic queue for Upton Park tube, in which friendships were formed and broken, couples met, married, divorced and you sometimes felt as if you were stuck on some kind of eternal loop?

No, me neither.  Much else about the Boleyn Ground, yes.  The intensity and claustrophobia, the proximity to the pitch, completely brilliant.  But not that queue.  West Ham start the new season at the Olympic Stadium, a grander venue in some respects but less intimate and perhaps, crucially, less intimidating.  It will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes, and how well the increase in capacity by around 70% is managed… very easy to get this wrong and be stuck with a situation where the ground has no distinct demographics.  On the pitch, consensus on the messageboards is that West Ham may have overachieved with last season’s seventh place, and a top half place this time would be more than fine;  there’s a concern up front as I write, and whilst West Ham games being the most exciting in the division last term in terms of average number of goals (116 goals across 38 games compared to our 90) a team like that always feels a little more precarious than a side with a solid base.  Plenty of quality in the Hammers side though, so shouldn’t be in any trouble at the other end…  I’ll go for twelfth.

WATFORD

INS: Isaac Success (Granada, £12,500,000), Christian Kabasele (Genk, £5,800,000), Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool, £4,000,000), Brice Dja Djédjé (Marseille, £3,000,000), Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli, Season Loan)

OUTS: Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday, £4,000,000+), Gabriele Angella (Udinese, Undisclosed), Juanfran (Deportivo, Undisclosed), José Manuel Jurado (Espanyol, Undisclosed), Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), George Byers (Swansea City, Free), Josh Doherty (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Hall (Ross County, Free), Bernard Mensah (Aldershot Town, Free), Luke Simpson (York City, Free), Joel Ekstrand, Uche Ikpeazu, Jorell Johnson, Mahlondo Martin, Alfie Young, Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord, Season Loan), Dennon Lewis (Woking, Season Loan), Obbi Oularé (Zulte Waregem, Season Loan), Adalberto Peñaranda (Udinese, Season Loan), Nathan Aké (Chelsea, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Kabasele          Cathcart            Britos
Behrami      Doucouré
Zúñiga                    Capoue                   Holebas
Deeney          Ighalo

VERDICT: The thing about chucking it all up in the air again every summer is that you never know quite where you are.  No basis, really, on which to assess how we’re going to do.  If this were another club I might feel justified in saying… well, started last season OK but then tailed off a bit.  Got to be worried about momentum, really… and then getting rid of their manager?  (sorry, head coach).  Really?   So the new guy’s got to start again, new formation in a new league for a club everyone expects to struggle?  Where kinda mid-table apparently isn’t good enough?

Thing is, the Pozzos, Duxbury, haven’t got every decision right, but they’ve got most of them right.  So you’ve got to have a bit of faith in that regard. As we’ve discussed before on these pages… and not so very far down the page, although it was months ago…  there was no groundswell of dismay about Quique’s departure, not from Hertfordshire anyway.  And much as it’s a challenge to formulate a team quickly – to hope something “gels” whilst perpetually giving it a good old stir, as Ian once put it (ish) – it’s not as if we’ve not got a track record for pulling it off.  Zola, Jokanovic and Flores all managed this under their tenures;  whilst bringing Quique in at the start of last season seemed risky, it also meant that nobody knew what the hell to expect.

That’s only a plus if you kinda hit the ground running, and you may have noticed that our start, particularly at Vicarage Road, isn’t gentle… but our opponents, notably Chelsea and United, will be “gelling” themselves, and perhaps the timing of this run could work in our favour.  As for the team…  well as I write on the evening of Wednesday 3rd we’re still waiting for an attacking midfielder that’s surely a no brainer if the formation’s going to work.  I find it surprising that Abdi was let go given the formation we’re purported to be playing, the more so that he’s gone before any kind of replacement was secured (without even considering the loss of Jurado and the loan of Berghuis).  Our midfield last season was solid by design, but an awful lot was asked of the front two.  Surprising, in fact, that we’re told that we’re only after one creative midfielder.

Otherwise, the signings seem decent to me.  Of good pedigree, adding stuff that was needed, but much as the fees involved are astonishing by our own habits (remember not being able to afford Keith Scott?  When Paul Mayo was as much as we could stretch to at full back?) they’re not extravagant by top flight standards and they’re, largely, young.  The churn makes it difficult to build heroes, of course… gone are Abdi, Pudil, Ekstrand, only Troy, Ikechi and Tommie Hoban left from Zola’s side really.  But then… that only lasts the summer.  We had no such ties to Miguel Britos and Étienne Capoue a year ago either.

So how will we do?  Who the hell knows.  Second season syndrome is a concern, of course, but then that’s rather based on the premise that a side gets found out, loses its surprise value and momentum.  We’ve no clue what to expect, so good luck to anyone who finds us out at this stage.  Which isn’t to say that it’s inconceivable that we’ll be terrible…  but if our worst fears are realised there are a serious number of other candidates with a struggle on this season as researching these pieces has shown.

And if you look on the plus side, several weaknesses of last season’s squad have been addressed.  More quality at full-back (wing-back), check.  Options up front to put pressure on Iggy and Troy, or to reduce our reliance on their form and fitness, check.  We’re going into this a season stronger and wiser having moved on some of those that didn’t work and spun the wheel again.

It won’t be dull.  Yoooorns.

Season Preview – Part 4 11/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Nathan Redmond (Norwich City, £11,000,000), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Bayern Munich, Undislcosed), Alex McCarthy (Crystal Palace, Undisclosed), Jeremy Pied (Nice, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Saido Mané (Liverpool, £30,000,000), Victor Wanyama (Tottenham Hotspur, £11,000,000), Juanmi (Real Sociedad, Undisclosed), Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng, Undisclosed), Joe Lea (Yeovil Town, Free), Gastón Ramírez (Middlesbrough, Free), Will Britt, Paulo Gazzaniga (Rayo Vallecano, Season Loan), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, End of Loan), Kelvin Davis (retired)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw in August and an utterly miserable low-point to the season at St Marys.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Forster
Cédric          Fonte        Van Dijk     Bertrand
Højbjerg
Clasie                             Davis
Tadic
Redmond      Long

VERDICT: Southampton fans must yawn slightly with the repetitive nature of their summer reviews.  Did very well, pat on the head, but Liverpool have signed all their players so they’re going to do well to match that this time.  Whatevs.  And yet somehow the Saints have improved on the previous season’s position for six consecutive years now, a sixth place finish of all things to crown a magnificent campaign.  Where are the doom-mongers now?

Southampton are going to struggle. Not struggle, struggle.  They’ve still got one of the best defensive units in the division but…  too much.  Too much going wrong, too many injury-prone players in key positions, not enough creativity.  Mané, Wanyama and Pellé are on this summer’s out-tray, and whilst Redmond and Højbjerg may have quality they’ll be going some to match the players they’re replacing.  Up front, in particular, the Saints look weak…  Shane Long is a wonderful pain in the backside to have as part of your armoury, you’re in trouble if he’s your main man.  Charlie Austin has yet to settle, Jay Rodriguez has started three league games in two seasons.  Claude Puel has an impressive pedigree, but has lost Sammy Lee to the England set-up.  Most of all, the law of averages suggests that there’s only so often you can pull this trick off…  sell off your stars for extraordinary money, cleverly reinvest and get away with it. Some time you mess up.  Some time you don’t get it right.  Bottom half.

STOKE CITY

INS: Joe Allen (Liverpool, £13,000,000), Ramadan Sohbi (Al Ahly, Up to £5,000,000)

OUTS: Steve Sidwell (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free), Ben Barber, Edward Dryden, Bobby Moseley, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Odemwingie, Petros Skapetis, Mason Watkins-Clark

OUR EX-POTTERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A landmark victory at the Britannia stadium in which Miguel Britos made his entrance, and a less glorious reverse at Vicarage Road.

REPORT ARCHIVE

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-2
2007-08 0-0 0-0
2005-06 1-0 3-0
2004-05 0-1 1-0
2003-04 1-3 1-3
2001-02 1-2 2-1
1995-96 3-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Butland
Johnson     Shawcross      Wollscheid      Pieters
Allen          Imbula
Shaqiri                        Bojan                   Arnautovic
Diouf

VERDICT: I know I’m a couple of years behind on this, but where the hell have all the beards come from?  It wasn’t too long ago that I remember bemoaning the lack of beards in modern football, citing the likes of Mickey Droy, Mick Ferguson, Luc Millecamps and other Panini heroes of yore.  Now, suddenly, the beard is ubiquitous… be it the Joe Ledley “lumberjack” thing, the Juanfran “Geography teacher”, the Roy Keane “wild man of the hills” or the Gareth Bale “Not Bothered to Shave for a couple of days”.

Mark Hughes, also has a beard.  I can’t find documentary evidence of it, but I can’t have imagined it because there’s plenty of discussion of it on messageboards of several clubs.  One Potters correspondent describes him as “having gone all druidy”, and it’ll take something mystical to deviate City from their course this season.  Eight seasons in the top flight have been spent between ninth and fourteenth; in fact the only season in the last 13 that wasn’t spent in mid-table was their promotion campaign of 2007/08.  If that sounds like damning with faint praise it shouldn’t;  City remain completely brilliant, and seem to build every season in much less risky way than Southampton do.  No wholesale shifting on of the star players and trusting to ability to recruit replacements, this is gradual progress augmented every now and again with a signing that’s either eye-catching (Shaqiri) or utterly sensible (Allen).  I’m going to go out on a limb here.  Eighth.

SUNDERLAND

INS: Papy Djilobodji (Chelsea, £8,000,000)

OUTS: Santiago Vergini (Boca Juniors, Undisclosed), Danny Graham (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Steven Fletcher (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Martin Smith (Kilmarnock, Free), Steve Harper, Mikael Mandron, Will Buckley (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Sebastian Coates (Sporting Lisbon, Season Loan), Adam Matthews (Bristol City, Season Loan), Dame N’Doye (Trabzonspor, End of Loan), Yann M’Vila (Rubin Kazan, End of Loan), Ola Toivonen (Rennes, End of Loan), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLACK CATS: Costel Pantilimon

THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gritty win courtesy of an early goal at the Stadium of Light, and a final day fixture that might have been a relegation nailbiter but wasn’t.  Instead we waved goodbye to Quique as Sunderland’s second string held us to a draw.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 2-2
2004-05 1-1 2-4
2003-04 2-2 0-2
2002-03 1-0
1999-00 2-3 0-2
1998-99 2-1 1-4
1996-97 0-2 / 0-1
1995-96 3-3
1982-83 8-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mannone
Jones                  Koné        Kaboul     Van Aanholt
Khazri       Cattermole         Kirchhoff           Lens
Defoe        Borini

VERDICT: It would be easy, lazy even, to look at this and think, “Sunderland are stuffed”.  For all that Sunderland finished the season strongly enough to escape a seemingly inevitable drop (again), for all that they only lost one in a closing eleven.  Only three of that run were wins, these including a dismissal of a pathetic Everton side and a perverse win at Norwich.  Big Sam made his charges solid and difficult to beat on the back of a raft of successful January signings… but there’s a world of difference between a nothing-to-lose backs-to-the-wall scrap and kicking on again from a standing start.  Particularly when Big Sam has moved on;  Moyes is an eminently sensible appointment, the noises he’s been making about gradual building and stability sound like just what Sunderland need except… that they might also be interpreted as managing supporters’ expectations.  At the time of writing the side that was nearly relegated has signed precisely nobody, with four key loans having returned.  Several of these loans are mooted to return but that’s still running to stand still…  it doesn’t augur well that the uncertainty around Allardyce is being cited as a reason for nobody being signed yet (did only Moyes think that the squad needed strengthening?), it augurs even less well that Charles N’Zogbia is being considered.  You know you are in trouble when that happens.

So it’s easy to think “Sunderland are stuffed”, because it might well be true.  A solid core.  A prolific striker.  Might be enough. Might not.  But then Sunderland have been there before.  Nineteenth.

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Leroy Fer (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Tyler Reid (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Mike van der Hoorn (Ajax, Undisclosed), Mark Birighitti (Newcastle Jets, Free), George Byers (Watford, Free)

OUTS: Eder (Lille, £3,400,000), Alberto Paloschi (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Raheem Hanley (Northampton Town, Free), Daniel Alfei, Kyle Copp, James Demetriou, Stephen Fallon, Alex Gogic, Henry Jones, Lee Lucas, Gareth Owen, Kyle Bartley (Leeds United, Season Loan), Oliver Davies (Kilmarnock, Season Loan), Bafetimbi Gomis (Marseille, Season Loan), Kenji Gorré (Northampton Town, Six Month Loan), Matt Grimes (Leeds United, Season Loan), Ryan Hedges (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Adam King (Southend United, Season Loan), Liam Shephard (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-SWANS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: George Byers, Jack Cork

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A significant first win of the season at the Vic, and a disappointing defeat to an Ashley Williams-inspired Swans which every Watford fan who hadn’t been at Southampton thought was terrible.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-0
2010-11 2-3
2009-10 0-1
2008-09 2-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabianski
Naughton     Fernandez        Williams     Taylor     
Cork           Fer  
  Barrow                 Sigurdsson                Montero
Ayew   

VERDICT: Swansea spent a long time in the lower divisions before emerging very rapidly as a template for all small-to-middling clubs to follow, defying their traditional standing and achieving success playing attractive football to boot.  The last year or so has seen the image of a club with a clear masterplan tarnished somewhat;  Garry Monk’s very appointment felt odd, almost sentimental and whilst Guidolin is a much more credible coach the Swans are now suffering from a year or two of pretty disastrous transfer dealings.  Alberto Paloschi and Éder were both bought and sold at a significant loss within the last twelve months, the latter rubbing salt in the wound by scoring the winning goal from nowhere in the European Championship Final with more conviction and co-ordination than he ever suggested during his brief stint in Wales.  Meanwhile Bafetimbi Gomis still has two years left of an expensive and largely unsuccessful contract which Marseille are reportedly only picking up 30% of in the coming season;  Andre Ayew is similarly well rewarded if slightly more productively, but rumours of his imminent departure have been around pretty much ever since he signed.  Ayew, Sigurdsson and Williams, three of the side’s strongest players, are all linked with moves at the time of writing.

There are probably three worse sides than Swansea but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible that they’ll go down.  As it stands the Swans will be short of attacking options – which, admittedly, they coped fairly well with for much of last season, albeit abetted by a gentle injury list – and the support is concerned about the full back positions that haven’t been addressed.  Relegation candidates.

Season Preview – Part 3 10/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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LIVERPOOL

INS: Saido Mané (Southampton, £30,000,000), Marko Grujic (Red Star Belgrade, £5,100,000), Loris Karius (Mainz 05, £4,700,000), Ragnar Klavan (Augsburg, Undisclosed), Georgino Wijnaldum (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Alex Manninger (Augsburg, Free), Joel Matip (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Jordan Ibe (Bournemouth, £15,000,000), Joe Allen (Stoke City, £13,000,000), Jerome Sinclair (Watford, £4,000,000), Sergi Canas (Norwich City, £2,500,000), Martin Skrtel (Fenerbahce, Undisclosed), Brad Smith (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed)Lawrence Vigouroux (Swindon Town, Undisclosed), Dan Cleary (Birmingham City, Free), Jordan Rossiter (Rangers, Free), Joao Teixeira (Porto, Free), Kolo Touré (Celtic, Free), Tom Brewitt, José Enrique, William Marsh, Ryan McLaughlin, Alex O’Hanlon, Kristof Polgar, Jose Sanchez Diaz, Samed Yasil, Adam Bogdan (Wigan Athletic, Season Loan), Jack Dunn (Morecambe, Six Month Loan), Jon Flanagan (Burnley, Season Loan), Ryan Fulton (Chesterfield, Season Loan), Ryan Kent (Barnsley, Season Loan), Allan Rodrigues (Hertha BSC, Season Loan), Steven Caulker (Queens Park Rangers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: Harry Kewell, Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A stonking 3-0 triumph in December, and an altogether less impressive 2-0 reverse against a weakened Reds as the season drew to a close.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Karius
Clyne         Matip       Lovren    Moreno
Can              Wijnaldum
Mané                      Firmino               Coutinho
Sturridge

VERDICT: There’s a lot of change afoot this season. More money, yes, yer terms of reference – in as much as you had any – blown out of the water in terms of What A Player Is Worth. We signed Jerome Sinclair from the reds for four million. Four million. For a largely untested kid. How many players had we spent money like that on before this summer? Very few. Before last summer? None. Clubs, too. United, City, Chelsea all bringing in big names at the top to Sort Things Aht. A rehash and relaunch of the soap opera cast – Jose and Pep don’t get on you know – with Arsene Wenger as Pauline Fowler.

In which context, Liverpool are ahead of the game. They did their transition, their Getting Things Sorted early last season which gave the affable, likeable Klopp a relatively gentle introduction, everyone who was anyone acknowledging that he would need a full pre-season to reshape the squad and get the fitness levels up to where they need to be to impose his fabled pressing game. There’s a downside, of course, in that the pressure is now on = if this is Liverpool’s best chance since the last time, it’s also a bit of a blow if it doesn’t come off. Added to which… I’d be a little concerned about the proportion of signings that are taken from Klopp’s sphere of reference, the Bundesliga. Sure, he knows them and perhaps its testament to him that they want to play for him but, you know…

It does look good for the Reds though, for the first time in a while. Klopp doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who will do the classic Liverpool thing of underestimating more moderate opponents – December notwithstanding – and the Anfield crowd will get behind the furious bloody-mindedness that is suggested by his Dortmund team’s reputation. Serious challengers.

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Leroy Sané (Schalke 04, £37,000,000), Gabriel Jesus (Palmeiras, £27,000,000), İlkay Gündoğan (Borussia Dortmund, £21,000,000), Nolito (Celta Vigo, £13,800,000), Aaron Mooy (Melbourne City, Undisclosed), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Ufa, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Charlie Albinson, Martin Demichelis, Nathaniel Oseni, Sam Tattum, Richard Wright, Jack Byrne (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Costel Pantilimon

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A tame submission in Manchester in August, and a far less tame defeat at the turn of the year in which City managed to dig out a couple of goals to win the game.  I thought they’d win the league at that point…

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2015-16 1-2 0-2
2001-02 1-2 0-3
1996-97 1-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hart
Sagna        Kompany          Otamendi        Clichy
Fernandinho
Silva                           de Bruyne                  Gündoğan
Agüero              Sané

VERDICT: Almost as perverse as the fact that Leicester won the League last season was the fact that City didn’t.  Midway through the campaign with Chelsea languishing, United flattering to deceive, City were three points off the top.  At that stage they were surely champions elect… they knew how to win titles and yes, there were injuries and no, that defence wasn’t all that you’d hope and expect from a top side, but look at the squad.  Look at the cover.  You even had Iheanacho bursting onto the scene and looking pretty terrifying.  And then, and then…  it was announced, leaked, whatever, that Pellegrino would go and Guardiola would come in, and it doesn’t matter who you are, how big the club, how good the resources.  When a management change is announced early, GT in 2001, Ferguson’s false start whenever that was, certainly Pellegrino, the team takes its foot off the gas.  Unforgivable.  They finished fourth, for pity’s sake.

As for Guardiola, I’d question whether many managerial appointments in English football history have had quite such a fanfare, quite the level of expectation.  There have been tremendously successful managers, sure, but Ferguson, Wenger, Shankly, Paisley became legends because of what they achieved.  They didn’t have the same cult status before they were appointed.  What City have going for them, his coaching credentials aside, is that he was in position at Bayern that was at least loosely comparable, coming into a huge pressure situation with ludicrous expectations and a veneer of invincibility. He’s done it before, and whether or not you share the belief that not winning the Champions’ League in Bavaria constitutes failure he was at least manifestly able to handle the pressure.  Counting against him, the knowledge that in a hugely competitive league every little slip will be microscopically examined, every defeat greeted with a degree of paranoia.  There are clubs guiltier of such reactions in adversity than City… but a number of clubs find themselves on a knife-edge this summer and could go either way.  You’d fancy City to be closer to the top of the pile this time though, “transition” or otherwise.

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Eric Bailly (Villarreal, £30,000,000), Henrik Mkhitaryan (Borussia Dortmund, Undisclosed), Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain, Free)

OUTS: Tyler Reid (Swansea City, Undisclosed), Joe Rothwell (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Jimmy Dunne (Manchester United, Free), Ashley Fletcher (West Ham United, Free), Nick Powell (Wigan Athletic, Free), Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough, Free), George Dorrington, Oliver Rathbone, Guillermo Varela (Eintracht Frankfurt, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two narrow defeats, on a bitingly cold day at Vicarage Road and after a spirited but unrewarded midweek trip to Old Trafford.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
20015-16 1-2  0-1
2006-07 1-2
2001-02 0-3
1999-00 2-3 1-4
1984-85 5-1
1978-79 2-1
1968-69 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

De Gea
Valencia      Smalling        Bailly              Shaw
Schneiderlin   Herrera
Mkhitaryan               Rooney                      Martial
Ibrahimovic

VERDICT: I used to hate United.  A real, visceral, from-the-gut-thing twenty or twenty-five years ago with the focused conviction of youth.  Now I’m older and more mature, naturally I hate everybody.  No special exceptions for United.

I think my changing habits and lifestyle must contribute.  As a student you spend time in pubs watching football and you get to, you know, meet or at least witness actual United fans.  Not just United fans, but the sort of United fan who stands out in a pub as his club which might perhaps have had an issue about how important it believed itself to be in any case won its first title in 25 years (or whatever).  Now…  I know United fans, some of them are idiots but you accommodate the idiots that you are frequently exposed to and I don’t often watch football in pubs of strangers any more.  Only in preparation for writing this piece, reading United blogs and reports disparagingly sneering at the Europa League as somehow beneath them and To Be A Thing Of The Past when their rightful status is restored.  Safe to assume that Viserys Targaryan would have been a United fan.

Enter Jose Mourinho.  I always fancied that he would have been the ideal replacement for Ferguson in the first place… arrogant enough to perhaps carry that mantle and, if not, to explode quickly and absolutely allowing someone more long-term to step in, clear of the mantle of being The Replacement.  Now?  Well… you can see it going either way.  More so than City, even.  The single-mindedness, the siege mentality that Mourinho instills suits United, but the fact that he has been the club’s adversary for so long will count against him very quickly if things don’t go well.  The quality of players coming in his high but defensively the side looks weak, weaker than some of the other likely challengers.  Nor is it clear how it will all fit together… Di Maria, two years ago, looked a spectacular signing too.  Mourinho won’t make them any more likeable.  It won’t be dull, either.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Maarten de Roon (Atalanta, £12,000,000), Viktor Fischer (Ajax, £4,000,000), Antonio Barragán (Valencia, Undisclosed), Bernardo Espinosa (Sporting Gijon, Free), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, Free), Gastón Ramírez (Southampton, Free), Victor Valdes (Manchester United, Free), Alvaro Negredo (Valencia, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jordan Jones (Rangers, Free), Rhys Williams (Perth Glory, Free), Damia Abella, Jonathan Woodgate, Connor Ripley (Oldham Athletic, Season Loan), Michael Agazzi (Milan, End of Loan), Ritchie de Laet (Leicester City, End of Loan), Tomáš Kalas (Chelsea, End of Loan), Gastón Ramírez (Southampton, End of Loan), Kike Sola (Athletic Bilbao, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A hard-fought draw at the Riverside and a pivotal victory at the Vic during our promotion season.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 2-0  1-1
2013-14 1-0
2012-13 1-2  2-1
2011-12 2-1
2010-11 3-1
1999-00 1-3 1-1  0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Valdes
Barragán         Ayala        Espinosa          Friend
Clayton       de Roon
    Adomah         Ramírez               Fischer
Negredo

VERDICT: Seems a long time ago that we were chasing down promotion.  I was in Brighton last week (as I write this) which brought back that dramatic end of season and the dramatic penultimate weekend in which our top two position was confirmed.  It was hugely powerful stuff… and of an extraordinarily high standard, I don’t remember a second tier being as strong.  Middlesbrough were one of (at least) four very potent sides, the one that missed out, so it’s impossible to begrudge them promotion at the next opportunity;  having done so, little surprise that the seemingly volatile but popular Karanka has called in a few Spanish names to strengthen the squad.  There’s a common thread in Valdes and Negredo, two experienced heads whose careers in England to date haven’t gone terribly well.  Ramírez, too, was far from an unqualified success at Southampton.  So if these players have something to prove and Karanka can harness them into his side Boro could do OK.  If not… you fancy there’s a fair amount of quality here, they should at least steer clear of the drop.

Season Preview – Part 2 09/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Andros Townsend (Newcastle United, £13,000,000), James Tomkins (West Ham United, £10,000,000), Steve Mandanda (Marseille, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Dwight Gayle (Newcastle United, £10,000,000), Jerome Binnom-Williams (Peterborough United, Undisclosed), Jake Gray (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Alex McCarthy (Southampton, Undisclosed), David Gregory (Cambridge United, Free), Chris Kettings (Oldham Athletic, Free), Emmanuel Adebayor, Reise Allassani, Marouane Chamakh, Connor Dymond, Spencer Forte, Matthew George, Will Hoare, Brede Hangeland, Paddy McCarthy, Adrian Mariappa, Oliver Pain, Christian Scales

OUR EX-EAGLES: Adlène Guedioura, Hayden Mullins, Ben Watson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Keith Millen (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Don’t.  Just, don’t.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Mandanda
Ward              Dann         Tomkins        Souaré
McArthur           Cabaye
Zaha                           Bolasie                  Townsend
Wickham

VERDICT: There’s a danger in extrapolation. Take a pattern and blindly extend its trajectory and you end up predicting all sorts of crazy shit (insert joke about EU Referendum here). Nonetheless, and Cup Final notwithstanding, it won’t have escaped Palace fans’ notice that they only picked up 11 points and two wins in the second half of last season; for context, our own downward trajectory nonetheless yielded twice as many wins and 16 points. At the time of writing some of Palace’s problems remain… lack of a focal point for the attack, despite ambitious sounding targets being mooted, the most obvious. Alan Pardew, some might speculate, might be another. There have been encouraging looking signings coming in – Tomkins and Mandanda look sensible, Townsend an asset albeit in an area where the Eagles already seemed well-served. If you had to put a pin in the table describing where Palace belonged you’d put it slightly higher up than they finished, but lower than they were suggesting in the first half of the campaign… but if they don’t take advantage of a relatively gentle start which sees Spurs and Stoke the only opponents in the first seven to have finished above halfway last term, the Eagles will be getting nervous.

 

EVERTON

INS: Idrissa Gueye (Aston Villa, £7,100,000), Nathan Baxter (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), Chris Renshaw (Oldham Athletic, Undisclosed), Bassala Sambou (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids, Free), Aidan Graham, Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Mattioni, Jindrich Stanek, Jordan Thorniley, Conor Grant (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Russell Griffiths (Cheltenham Town, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tom Cleverley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A splendid draw at Goodison that set things going rather well, and an altogether less glorious point at Vicarage Road in a match best forgotten – and, indeed, largely forgotten – by all concerned.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Stekelenburg
Coleman        Jagielka     Stones         Baines
Lennon           McCarthy          Barkley          Mirallas
Deulofeu        Lukaku

VERDICT: There was a school of thought that Roberto Martinez was rather hard done by.  That school won’t have been present at Vicarage Road in April when a half-arsed unmotivated Toffees side struggled against a scarcely more impressive Hornets.  A season that began with coos as to how this was such a talented Everton squad with so much evident quality had petered out into a quiet embarrassment long before the end, a drunken divorcee sitting miserably alone with another glass of wine at a party that everyone regretted inviting them to.  Martinez, for all his suave manner, was ever less convincing as time went on, a man waiting to be put out of Goodison Park’s misery.

On the back of a February takeover, somewhat inevitably, comes Ronald Koeman with a new broom and if the talk of a new dawn remains just that for the moment it’s perhaps significant that at the time of writing (and it’s still July here folks, I can’t churn this gubbins out instantaneously much as it reads like it) the underachieving trio of Barkley, Stones and (more arguably) Lukaku, all linked with moves, remain at the club.  It will take time, you suspect, even if this new dawn is to be a positive thing; it’s difficult to see Everton doing any better than an OK-ish mid-table this season.  But Koeman has profile, and a history of playing an apparently unfavourable hand to stunning effect at Southampton.  One of many that will be interesting to watch develop.  Tenth.

HULL CITY

INS: Will Mannion (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Mohamed Diamé (Newcastle United, £4,500,000), Sone Aluko (Fulham, Free), Ryan Taylor, Matt Clark (Cambridge United, Six Month Loan), Chuba Akpom (Arsenal, End of Loan), Isaac Hayden (Arsenal, End of Loan), Nick Powell (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TIGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two heavyweight encounters with the Tigers during the Zola season, which resulted in a worthy away win for each side and a mighty celebration in response to a mighty Troy Deeney winner at the KC.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2012-13 1-2  1-0
2011-12 1-1
2010-11 1-2
2007-08 1-0  0-2 / 1-4
2005-06 0-0  2-1
1998-99  0-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

McGregor
Odubajo         Davies          Dawson     Robertson
Snodgrass       Clucas    Huddlestone  Livermore      Elmohamady
Hernandez

VERDICT: There’s a point in any relegation season when You Know.  In dramatic circumstances it might not happen until the last day of the season…. Muzzy Izzet’s goal for Leicester in 1996.  Or it might happen much earlier;  hearing that Marlon King was likely out for the season in November 2006.  Getting dicked by Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in 1999.

You know where this is going already.  I’ve nothing against Hull.  Surprising really, given their role in our two most recent failures to secure accessible promotions, in 2008 and 2013.  On both occasions City’s role was… not quite incidental but certainly not unduly provocative, particularly three years ago (does it feel longer?) when perverse circumstances delayed the game against Leeds both giving us the illusion of control over our destiny and taking it away again.  Hull merely chanced upon the twenty quid that fell out of our pocket.

City were, in relative terms, unimpressive play-off winners last season.  They’d wandered into the automatic places a couple of times over the season but almost by accident and never with any great conviction.  That point, that point when Hull realise that the season will end in relegation, has passed before a ball has been kicked.  The untrusted Egyptian owners, vague rumours of a takeover never having quite progressed beyond that, have presided over a situation that has seen no senior players recruited at the time of writing, manager Steve Bruce resign, three members of the defence that was City’s strongest suit last season (Allan McGregor, Moses Odubajo and Matt Dawson) succumb to long term injuries and, reportedly, six players hand in transfer requests in the wake of Bruce’s departure.  Hal Robson-Kanu had a decent European Championship, but when you’re pinning your Premier League rebuilding on a striker with a moderate record for Reading and 35 year-old Peter Odemwingie you know you’re in trouble.  Will be a long season for the Tigers.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Bartosz Kapustka (KS Cracovia, Undisclosed), Nempalys Mendy (Nice, Undisclosed), Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow, Undisclosed), Raul Uche (Rayo Vallecano, Undisclosed), Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover 96, Undisclosed), Luis Hernandez (Sporting Gijon, Free)

OUTS: N’golo Kanté (Chelsea, £32,000,000), Joe Dodoo (Rangers, Undisclosed), Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Jacob Blyth (Motherwell, Free), Dean Hammond (Sheffield United, Free), Paul Konchesky (Gillingham, Free), Jonny Maddison (Yeovil Town, Free), Elliot Percival (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Ryan Watson (Barnet, Free), Kyle Bailey, Jack Barmby, Aaron Hassall, Michael Kelly, Keenan King, Harrison Panayiotou, Mark Schwarzer, Max Smith-Varnam, Michael Cain (Blackpool, Season Loan), Nathan Dyer (Swansea City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two single-goal defeats, narrow and yet fair enough.  In any other season, pretty unremarkable.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Simpson       Hernandez          Morgan          Fuchs
Mahrez                Drinkwater               Mendy              Kapustka
Vardy         Musa

VERDICT: And to think that there were some idiots a year ago predicting that Leicester would get relegated…

“Be careful what you wish for,” was always the mantra.  Clubs like Leicester, or Palace, or Watford…  you get promoted, and then what?  Mid-table isn’t a glamorous aspiration, but surely that’s all you’ve got?  That, maybe a cup run, a win against one of the top teams with the wind behind you.  Woooo.   And then, when you have a bad season, when you get injuries at the wrong time or the biggish signing doesn’t quite work you’re down again, and just one of a bunch of similar clubs but now with downward momentum.  Be careful what you wish for.  There’s a lot to be said for the comfort of the Championship, knowing you can more or less rock up to games and pay on the day, against proper football supporters, and not get dicked every week.

Well so much for that.  Balls to all that.  Leicester’s title is just as wonderfully ludicrous now as it seemed at any point, time hasn’t lessened or contextualised.  Yes, all the traditional contenders had disappointing seasons but they were disappointing in no small part because they didn’t win the League and Leicester did.  So what’s chicken and what’s egg?  Watch City not care.

As for what happens next… City’s advantage is that it almost doesn’t matter in the short term.  Rarely will League Champions go into a new season with, simultaneously, such buoyant support and such relatively moderate expectation.  Not that it’s impossible that they win the League again, nobody’s going to rule that out after last time… but it’s not, perhaps, expected.  So the pressure’s off, and that’s got to help… which is a good thing, because the elaborate distraction of the Champions’ League will be significant, and champions or not Leicester have lost key men in Kanté and recruitment chief Walsh.

Nonetheless, City have recruited well.  When the summer started City were linked with Troy and Bolasie… Troy won’t happen and Bolasie’s gone very quiet but that felt right, felt like the sort of player that City could and should be strengthening their hand with.  Top players at mid-tabley clubs who might not have gone for Leicester in the normal way but as Champions, with the Champions League to look forward to…  an indication that they were going to be sensible about it.  The new signings, ultimately, have come from abroad but you’d be a fool to dismiss them out of hand and a bigger fool to predict where they’ll finish this time.

Season Preview – Part 1 08/08/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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OK.  Here we go… four today, four more tomorrow.  And so on.  I’m in Paris as you read this, by the way.  Disneyland today, wish me luck.  Anyway… apologies if big signings over the week render what follows nonsense…

ARSENAL

INS: Takuma Asano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Undisclosed), Rob Holding (Bolton, Undisclosed), Kelechi Nwakali (Diamond Football Academy, Undisclosed), Granit Xhaka (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Isaac Hayden (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Tomáš Rosický, Dan Crowley (Oxford United, Season Loan), Wojciech Szczęsny (AS Roma, Season Loan), Jan Toral (Granada, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two comprehensive defeats in the Premier League, albeit resulting from very different Watford performances, and a Cup Quarter Final that was by some distance the highlight of the second half of the season.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Cech
Bellerín         Koscielny        Mertesacker    Monreal
Xhaka           Ramsey
Iwobi                       Özil                  Sanchez
Giroud

VERDICT: On balance, you’d have to say that Arsenal were the best side we faced last season.  We were brilliant during that game at Vicarage Road;  Arsenal were better, and deserved to win 3-0.  In the return in North London they went one better sealing our only 3+ goal defeats of the campaign.  And yet, and yet… that Cup Quarter Final, whilst a highlight of our season, showed the other side of Arsenal;  limp, gutless.  Arsenal fans find themselves in a quandary:  what to hope for.  Last season was the most Arsenal of seasons for a club which have turned “good, but no cigar” into an art form, the second place finish in what was supposed to be someone else’s neck-and-neck two-horse race a double-edged sword.  Hilarious that they finished above Spurs…  but surely a bitter confirmation that this was a season that they could have, should have?, won the main prize.  So to repeat, what do you hope for…  more seasons under Wenger, a steady diet of good-but-not-quite-good-enough with only the theoretical possibility that the extra strength brought in each season – Xhaka, at least, should provide some backbone – improves the side quicker than the bits that are weakening, the centre of defence as Mertesacker and Koscielny age in this case, diminish it.  Or do you hope for the inevitable chaos that will follow his departure under whoever inherits the poisoned chalice of replacing him, Arsenal’s David Moyes (Dave Bassett?).  Your heart bleeeds.  Third, probably.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Jordan Ibe (Liverpool, £15,000,000), Lewis Cook (Leeds United, £7,000,000), Lys Mousset (Le Havre, £5,400,000), Brad Smith (Liverpool, Undisclosed), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham, Compensation), Mikael Ndjoli (Millwall, Free), Mark Travers (Cherry Orchard, Free), Nathan Aké (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Matt Ritchie (Newcastle United, £12,000,000), Tommy Elphick (Aston Villa, £3,000,000), Jayden Stockley (Aberdeen, Free), Josh Carmichael, Sylvain Distin, Jon Muleba, Josh Wakefield, Mason Walsh, Stephane Zubar, Matt Butcher (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Harry Cornick (Leyton Orient, Six Month Loan), Glenn Murray (Brighton & Hove Albion, Season Loan), Joe Quigley (Gillingham, Season Loan), Marius Adamonis (Atalanta, End of Loan), Juan Iturbe (Roma, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: Nonee

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A wonky performance at Dean Court which saw one of our worst halves of the season salvaged by a gift from Artur Boruc, and an uninspiring draw at the Vic – the Cherries, fair to say, didn’t see us at our best.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Boruc
Smith            Francis               S.Cook            Daniels
Aké               Surman
Ibe                            Arter                          King
Wilson

VERDICT: There might come a point where thinking about Bournemouth doesn’t instinctively provoke a gritting of teeth.  After all, a little under 20 years ago Fulham were provoking the same reaction on BSaD (and it seems a long time ago because, you know, it is).  But we’re not at that stage yet…

We finished a place above Bournemouth last season but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Cherries fans to cite injury to Callum Wilson in particular in mitigation.  Going into the new campaign, Eddie Howe’s additions have lowered the age profile of a fairly experienced squad – Aké, Ibe, Lewis Cook, Mousset and Hyndman all qualify as under-21 players not contributing to the 25-man quota and the Cherries have a higher proportion of British-born players than we do, for example, so won’t struggle on that score.

Where they do appear to be weak at the time of writing (several weeks before you’re reading, such is life… I’m likely to be in Disneyland Paris as you read this, spare me some sympathy) is in defence, where converted full-back Simon Francis and Steve Cook are the only incumbents in the centre as it stands following the departures of Tommy Elphick and Sylvain Distin.  There’s speculation that injury victim Tyrone Mings might return as a centre-back, but when your fallback options is a youngster signed as a full back, however promising, you know where your priorities lie.  If Aké, as anticipated, is used as a holding midfielder the defence that shipped a lot of goals last season will have some protection, but you’d be wanting a few more reliable options.

Bournemouth remain something of a benchmark, and whilst it’s not as simple as “little Bournemouth defying the odds” there’s some pleasure in imagining the more witless elements of the support of Leeds, Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday, not to mention Newcastle and Villa, raging at how Big Clubs are left languishing in the Championship whilst The Likes of Bournemouth dine at the top table.  That lasts as long as it takes for Bournemouth to do something annoying again, naturally, but is more grace than many of our top flight rivals deserve.  Comfortably mid-table, if they sort that defence out.

BURNLEY

INS: Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Nick Pope (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Jimmy Dunne (Manchester United, Free), Robbie Leitch (Motherwell, Free), James Thomas (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Jon Flanagan (Liverpool, Season Loan)

OUTS: Joey Barton (Rangers, Free), Luke Conlan (Morecambe, Free), Lloyd Dyer (Burton Albion, Free), Matt Gilks (Rangers, Free), Matt Taylor (Northampton Town, Free), Josh Ginnelly (Walsall, Six Month Loan), Danijel Nizic (Morecambe, Free), Michael Duff, Jason Gilchrist

OUR EX-CLARETS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two draws… a 0-0 at Turf Moor in the dying days of Gianfranco Zola’s stewardship and a 1-1 at the Vic as Beppe Sannnino’s side confirmed that promotion would have to wait another year.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Flanagan            Keane                Mee              Ward
Gudmundsson    Marney             Jones             Arfield
Vokes            Gray

VERDICT: So.  Burnley get promoted.  A victory of the collective over the individual, talented players but very much more than the sum of their parts.  They’ve not splashed on the squad, opting instead for prudence, careful building on what went before all of which overseen by the ginger Mourinho, Sean Dyche.  How much has changed since the faltering, pragmatic and ultimately, improbably, successful start to his management career at Vicarage Road.

Thing is, that season, that promoted-teamwork-prudence season, that was two years ago.  Sean Dyche got the Clarets promoted again, as champions no less, and once again the Burnley approach has been cautious and careful, targets identified from the Championship and custodians haggled with, a reluctance to pay over the odds.  You can understand that.  And perhaps the logic is that as you gradually, carefully build the club gets stronger, guarantees itself income without gambling its future by breaking the format, breaking the wage structure.  Which all falls down if Dyche himself decides that he’s had enough and ups and leaves.  There’s a certain jumpiness on Burnley messageboards;  there’s clearly some talent in the squad – Heaton, Mee and Andre Gray all look excellent players.  But you’d be hard pressed to argue that the current squad is significantly stronger than that which was relegated two years ago, a side that featured the likes of Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, that won plaudits and respect and went down anyway.  Indeed, at the time of writing the side, stripped of Joey Barton, is probably weaker than the one that got promoted.

Burnley will be popular again.  They will work for each other, they’ll be a team.  They might even be robust to a series of defeats.  But even if the time between now and the end of the window sees them win their scraps with Derby and Villa for Jeff Hendrick and Ashley Westwood respectively, adding to an area where Burnley’s squad is weak in the centre of midfield, you’d have to doubt whether they’ll do any better than last time.

CHELSEA

INS: N’golo Kanté (Leicester City, £32,000,000), Michy Batshuayi (Marseille, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland, £8,000,000), Mohamed Salah (AS Roma, Undisclosed), Reece Mitchell (Chesterfield, Free), John Swift (Reading, Free), Marco Amelia, Kevin Wright, Tammy Abraham (Bristol City, Season Loan), Nathan Aké (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Tomas Kalas (Fulham, Season Loan), Alex Kiwomya (Crewe, Six Month Loan), Charly Musonda (Real Betis, Season Loan), Nathan (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Baba Rahman (Schalke 04, Season Loan), Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Alexandre Pato (Corinthians, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Nathaniel Chalobah

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two sterling draws against the Blues, despite the fixture list depriving us of the free punch that most seemed to be getting pre-Mourinho’s departure.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Courtois
Azpilicueta        Zouma         Terry          Kenedy
Willian      Fabregas      Kanté         Hazard
Costa             Batshuayi

VERDICT: In any other season, (insert one of any number of improbable things not quite as improbable as Leicester winning the league) would have been the story.  And this was one of them.  Not since Leeds in 1992/93 have reigning champions flunked so comprehensively; whilst our focus was on the Hornets first, and perhaps the unexpected triumph of Leicester second the reflection that “hey look, we’re still ahead of Chelsea” never failed to get a snigger.  It got to the point where my wife was protesting, “yes, but Chelsea are rubbish”.

Chelsea were the reigning league champions, though.  The anti-Leicester in many respects… much less than the sum of their parts thanks to a complete lack of common purpose.  Mourinho has gone, a respected new coach comes in, but questions remain… what formation will he play?  If it’s a four-man midfield, how do you accommodate Fabregas?  If it’s a five-man midfield (and Conte, like Mazzarri, has a 3-5-2 as his historical modus oprerandi) what do you do with Hazard?  How long can you rely on the likes of Terry, Ivanovic, Fabregas.

There are more reasons to be positive than negative for the blues, however.  Quite apart from the new manager, the signing of N’golo Kanté is a pretty extraordinary one, defying the lack of Champions League football that will surely limit who the Blues are / have been able to attract during this transfer window.  And that lack of Champions League football may prove a blessing; fewer midweek games, fewer trips, fewer distractions.  It may be that, whilst our start looks pretty daunting we’re catching Chelsea, the first visitors to Vicarage Road, cold… at a time when they haven’t quite got going.  Either way, it seems unlikely that this season will be a disaster on a par with the last.