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The List (January edition) 05/01/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

You may remember last summer’s version of The List, which extended past 100 names by the end of that transfer window.  The list below will be updated until the window closes at the beginning of February;  as previously, I’m not going to attempt to validate or vet any rumours – a credibility bar for inclusion exists, but not set terribly high.  An Asterisk indicates a player who appeared in last summer’s list, but has resurfaced.  An “outgoing rumour” list is also included.

Running Total: 41

Juan Iturbe (Roma)*                                    – Joined Bournemouth on loan
Emmanuel Adebayor (Unattached)          – Joined Crystal Palace
Simone Zaza (Juventus)
Andros Townsend (Tottenham)                – Joined Newcastle
Jonathan Edwards (Peterborough)
Idriss Carlos Kameni (Malaga)
Keita Baldé Diao (Lazio)*
Sam Byram (Leeds)                                       – Joined West Ham
Thomas Partey (Atlético Madrid)
Abdul Camara (Angers)                                – Joined Derby
Mario Suarez (Fiorentina)                           – SIGNED
Rob Green (QPR)
Juan Camilo Zuniga (Napoli)
Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa)
Zach Clough (Bolton)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Rennes)*                  – SIGNED
Nigel de Jong (Milan)
Sebastian Haller (Utrecht)
Nordin Amrabat (Malaga)                            – SIGNED
Henri Saivet (Bordeaux)                               – Joined Newcastle
Rico Henry (Walsall)
Jefferson Montero (Swansea)
Seydou Doumbia (Roma)*                          – Joined Newcastle on loan
Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)
Charlie Austin (QPR)                                     – Joined Southampton
Pablo Sarabia (Getafe)*
Haviv Ohayon (Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Khouma el Babacar (Fiorentina)
David Enogela (Young Stars, Nigeria)
Joel Osikel (Young Eleven, Nigeria)
Matt Phillips (QPR)
Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid)
Paul Bernardoni (Troyes)
Costel Pantilimon (Sunderland)                         – SIGNED
Eddy Onazi (Lazio)
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)
Loic Remy (Chelsea)
Denis Cheryshev (Real Madrid)                     – Joined Valencia on loan
Cheikh M’Bengue (Rennes)
Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn)                            – Joined Middlesbrough

GOING OUT?:
Alessandro Diamanti (Fiorentina, Udinese, Livorno, Bologna, Atalanta)
– Joined Atalanta on loan
Odion Ighalo (Atlético Madrid, Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester United)
Valon Behrami (Udinese)
Troy Deeney (Arsenal)
Etienne Capoue (Milan)
Victor Ibarbo (Galatasaray, Atletico Nacional)   – Joined Nacional on loan
Jose Holebas (Marseille)
Uche Ikpeazu (Blackpool, Dundee United)         – Joined Blackpool on loan
Obi Oularé (Wolves)
Diego Fabbrini (Birmingham City)                      – Joined Birmingham City
Giedrius Arlauskis (Espanyol)                               – Joined Espanyol on loan
Adlène Guedioura (Sheffield Wednesday)

 

 

Watford 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2 (28/12/2015) 29/12/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1- “I’m worried that we could get a wake-up call today”, says ig on the way down Vicarage Road.  He won’t have been the only one.  Whilst we went into this on the back of a five-game unbeaten run this was the game, two days after a trip to Stamford Bridge, that perhaps looked the most ominous of our challenging four-match Christmas run.  Nonetheless, if this peculiar season has served any lesson at all it’s the value of reputations, or rather what can be achieved by dismissing reputations and labels and just playing.  Aidy Boothroyd, whose words of wisdom have not in general gained much credibility over the passage of time, was nonetheless conscious of this with his much publicised airy targeting of Europe last time around.  You can talk yourself into a mindset, positive or negative. A number of “big clubs” are going through, um, difficult spells.  There are all sorts of contributing reasons and circumstances, but beyond dispute is that the big clubs being rendered less scary, less intimidating, generates a snowball effect.  People aren’t scared of Chelsea because they’re suddenly a bit crap and so give it more of a go and Chelsea’s life doesn’t get any easier.  So…  we were always going to lose at some point.  Few teams, let alone newly promoted teams, go for a season without defeat.  But it never needed to be “a wake-up call” unless we chose to interpret it as such, settling back into our boxes.  “It’s been fun, but let’s stop kidding ourselves, it was never going to last”.  That way lies a slide down the table, almost demands it.

2- Those concerns won’t have been eased much by a first half which, for the most part, saw us very much second best to an extent that we’ve rarely suffered in this remarkable first half-season.  Our opening forays earned us nothing clearer than half-chances from distance which Étienne Capoue,  with an eagerness that betrayed the significance of the match in his mind, clouted elaborately wide. Spurs, meanwhile, were doing to us what we’ve been doing to teams all season… chasing down possession a long way up the pitch, swarming, forcing errors.  To blame Spurs’ first-half superiority on our inability to retain possession would be as one-eyed as reflecting that we’ve been lucky to face Stoke, Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham on off-days.  Part of the plan involved the visitors attempt what Liverpool had done far less effectively and far too late nine days earlier, having their full-backs glued to their touch lines and pushing up. Nathan Aké, unsurprisingly restored to the side after missing Chelsea due to ineligibility, wasn’t comfortable as betrayed by an uncharacteristic need to defend by reacting rather than anticipating.  A brilliant and decisive block on Trippier, who was in danger of escaping inside, was only necessary because the loanee had lost his man.  Eventually the pressing told;  Cathcart lost the ball to Alli, perhaps hampered by a slippery pitch that had surprisingly had the sprinklers on it in the build up to kick-off, the ball broke to Lamela and he finished adroitly.

The rest of the half saw Spurs look sit back a little, and press less furiously, but we laboured in possession.  We really weren’t getting anywhere… whereas without pummeling us with shots, the movement and awareness of Kane, the power of Alli and the sprightliness of Lamela looked far more likely to create an opening.  We just didn’t look like scoring.  Until we did.  And what a bloody inspiring thing it was.  A ball in from the right, Deeney had pulled wide on the left and headed it into the box.  Ighalo, once again, was gloriously single-minded whilst three Spurs defenders debated whether the Nigerian was third or fourth favourite to prevail.  He had no right at all to end up in possession in front of a stunned Lloris, who found the ball slipping underneath him.

3- There have been two features of previous top flight seasons that have been largely absent this time around.  When you think back to the eighties you think of Luther, of Barnes, of GT.  Tony Coton.  Beating Arsenal.  And also… at least from my gold-tinted view from the Family Enclosure, the way that teams would turn up at the Vic and kick us.  Tottenham particular protagonists of this approach, a 1-0 win 30 years ago achieved in the face of astonishing violence, sticking in the memory.  That’s what it was though, a memory,  the worst excesses of top flight opponents not replicating this phenomenon since then.  Maybe I imagined or embellished it… I was twelve, after all, and perhaps overly inclined to a Watfordcentric point of view.  The other feature is being penalised by awful and seemingly one-sided refereeing… there was the odd bad decision in 2006/07, but 1999/2000 was a vintage year.  Rob Harris at home to Arsenal. Uriah Rennie at home to Sunderland. Paul Alcock at Bradford. You’ll have your own favourites, if you were about.

We’ve not had to experience either this season.  Indeed my Dad, never one to give referees the benefit of any doubt that’s going, recklessly observed over the Christmas turkey that we’ve not suffered any particularly bad refereeing performances thus far.  Whining about referees doesn’t make particularly compelling reading, admittedly, so I’ll simply thank Anthony Taylor for restoring balance to the universe.

The sending off was odd, in that at the time with only a view from the Rookery to rely on it looked pretty innocuous, the red card not so much surprising as completely baffling.  TV replays cast it in a new light of course, but it remains an odd one.  Aké is not prone to either violence or to getting it so very wrong.  It seems to me looking at replays that Lamela’s handball, knocking the ball upwards as Aké approaches, leaves the full-back committed to coming across his opponent but suddenly not able to clear a ball that isn’t where it might have been and messing up in his indecision. This would certainly be consistent with the oddly gentle approach which suggested neither a violent collision nor intent, and left half the ground bemused and outraged. 

Either way, the Tottenham players did their forbears of 1985 proud with a display of snideness and gracelessness unparalleled by anything we’ve seen this season.  From Harry Kane sprinting halfway across the pitch waving an imaginary card to get Britos booked for a perfectly clean tackle to an orchestrated hounding of the official at every contentious decision to Danny Rose’s pathetic attempt to win a free kick off Troy Deeney that was blatant enough to be aped by Harry the Hornet but not to earn a yellow card, apparently.  Spurs are a young side, you could argue that with a goalkeeper as skipper there wasn’t quite the leadership on the pitch to keep the behaviour in check.  Or you could reflect, as my brother did on the way back down Vicarage Road, that most of the complete scum that you’ve had the misfortune to meet have been Spurs fans, and this charmless lot are every inch fit to wear that shirt.

4- For ten minutes or so after the dismissal it was proper backs to the wall stuff;  we barricaded ourselves into our penalty area and took up position for a shootout.  Valuable in this period was Sebastian Prödl, making his first appearance since Arsenal, who got his head to anything that Spurs lobbed in high.  Otherwise it was pass, pass, pass but little penetration from the visitors.  Eventually, with the home crowd roaring on in indignation, we made some chances of our own and came closer than the visitors had… Ben Watson’s inswinging left wing corner coming within centimetres of crossing the goalline before Lloris brilliantly scooped it out.  The atmosphere was furiously intense… claustrophobic.  Had we held on for a draw we’d rightly have celebrated as if for a victory, a winner would have brought the house down.  Instead, Spurs broke and at the second time of asking Son flicked the ball beyond Gomes.

5- A choker, obviously, but we can console ourselves with the knowledge that if you stand by the premise that good and bad luck and decisions even themselves out you’d probably choose to have the latter all at once.  Given this, given the misfortune with Son’s winner being narrowly offside but missed, with Watson’s corner nearly in but not, with absurd refereeing, we can take solace in the fact that we only lost 2-1 to a very strong – if repugnant – opponent via a last minute winner.  There were several other far more mundane ways to have lost this 2-1 – especially after that first half – which could have been far more damaging.  Here… the circumstances, the ludicrous second half should guard against us telling ourselves that this was inevitable, that this was always going to happen.  That this was a wake-up call.  With Ighalo flat on the turf in frustrated exhaustion at the final whistle of greater concern is our ability to physically recover in time for Manchester City on Saturday…  but as far as the result goes, choking as it is, there’s an awful lot to take pride in for this side.  As there has been all season.  Yooorns.

Watford 3 Liverpool 0. Yes, really. (20/12/2015) 21/12/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
19 comments

1- Those of us of a certain vintage view football in general and Watford in particular in a romantic way.  Being an impressionable age during the first GT era was all that was required… if you joined the party during that spell then it was all about sticking it to the man,  firstly in dramatic cup runs, then in the top flight itself.  We joke that this is a curse, that the penalty for being indoctrinated during this period is a fanatical but entirely unreasonable vision of this idyll, everything judged by this high standard.  We don’t mean it though.  Those memories, memories of games like this one are amongst the happiest as my childhood, perfect and fantastical on a par with Star Wars. We were Luke Skywalker; for the money shot into the Death Star’s exhaust port read Les Taylor’s goal at White Hart Lane.  Or beating the European Champions 4-1 in the League Cup.  Or beating United and Spurs 5-1 within a week. Or putting 8 past Sunderland within our first two months in the top flight. These are landmark events from our halcyon period and our greatest achievements since haven’t reached the same heights.  Until now.

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2- Things went our way.  We should acknowledge that, since it’s impossible to resist complaining when the boot’s on the other foot.  So… two teams that prefer counterattacking, a goalkeeper making his League debut for Liverpool slipping up at a corner, a goal that could have been chalked off but wasn’t.  Problems at centre-back exacerbated by an injury to Martin Skrtel later in the game too, up to a point.  So we doff our cap to fortune and whilst doing so we place our foot firmly on our adversary’s throat and we apply pressure and we don’t ease up on that pressure.  Every man, every single player is on point.  Capoue and Watson are roaring all over the midfield.  Abdi and Jurado, mobile and incisive and aggressive.  The extraordinary Aké and Nyom bullying their way up and down the flanks.  Britos and Cathcart, mercilessly, surgically on patrol.  Gomes, a force of nature.  Deeney a monster and a leader.  Deeney it was who battered possession off Lucas in midfield, swung a pass over the top for Ighalo and what followed showcased his best attributes… the persistence and bloody-mindedness  to chase the pass down, the physical strength to take on Skrtel and the technique and instinct to finish.  Ian Wright couldn’t have done it better, a quite extraordinary goal in any context, much less this.  This was, after all, the game where it was supposed to get tough.  The previous three games… Villa, Norwich, Sunderland, those were the games we wanted points from. This was supposed to be a bonus, a free hit.  Instead we were on our way to our biggest top-flight win since 1988.  A monstrous first-half performance which saw the Reds bringing on an extra striker, stretching the play to the extremes and being allowed to get precisely nowhere, each snarling challenge roared on from three and a half sides of the ground.

3- The empty vessel makes the loudest sound.  This is true from the population of Liverpool fans as much as anyone… I’ve met plenty who are balanced and reasonable. Nonetheless, I once read Liverpool fans in general described as “expecting you to prostrate yourself on the altar of their Liverpoolness”, an acerbic observation based around a core of truth.  That core of truth arises from a period in which the Reds WERE the dominant force, and not very long ago.  The other side of that coin is that dicking Liverpool, whilst being a fine thing by anyone’s standards, is particularly special for those of us who remember Liverpool being that thing.  At which point it’s only fair to acknowledge that there’s no Hansen, Rush, Dalglish in the current side.  More significantly, there’s not a Steven Gerrard either.  Jürgen Klopp might get there (although his evaluation of his side will need to be more balanced than his post-match evaluation of the game) but this was not a vintage Liverpool eleven.  Let’s not get picky though.  Two years ago we were losing 3-0 at home to Yeovil.  Jordan Henderson may be “a sh*t Steven Gerrard”, but he’s still an established England international who was made to look peripheral and inadequate for much of this.  And he was probably the Reds’ most effective player.

4- I’ll confess that my first clock of the scoreboard in the second half came as early as the forty-seventh minute.  Liverpool looked bullish and aggressive and much more direct at the start of the second period as the spectre of the game we’d feared began to rear its head.  Instead whilst there was far greater potency in a Liverpool attack supplemented by both Benteke and Jordan Ibe, scorer of a fine goal here for Derby last season, the clearer and greater threat was in front of the Rookery.  Jurado conjured a ball through for Ighalo, one-on-one;  you’d have put your house on him, but Bogdan grasped a chance he shouldn’t have been given.  Deeney roared beyond the defence but couldn’t quite find the pass.  Ighalo sent Mamadou Sakho to the head of his ever-growing lists of people he’s left on their arse with a splendid showboat in front of the Rookery, the ball not quite finding it’s way in after the resulting scramble.  Through all of which Sakho, admittedly back from a long injury, looked like an upmarket Danny Shittu… using his physical attributes to great effect but always reacting, never anticipating.  The contrast at the other end of the pitch where Britos and Cathcart were malevolently efficient and the Reds were caught offside ten times, was marked.  Eventually Ighalo settled the affair as we finally sliced through the big open spaces borne of Liverpool’s need to attack and inability to defend, Valon Behrami making a welcome return off the bench and supplying the final pass to Ighalo ghosting free of any marker on the penalty spot to head home.  Happy bedlam.

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5- The atmosphere as the game closed was odd.  Exuberant, of course.  But there was little exaltation… just a quiet, dazed disbelief, as if the energy had been poured into the game’s soundtrack and tension and there was nothing left to give.  The shuffle up Occupation Road was peppered with hysterical laughter as strangers caught each others’ eye.  But it was a shared attempt to register what we’d just witnessed.  No singing.  Just a series of happy, baffled grins.

So here comes the boring bit.  It’s painfully dull reading blogged eulogies penned by supporters about their teams but really, if I can’t do it now….?   The plot summary, then.  We were brilliant.  Not just have-a-go-heroes, not merely solid and worthy with a cutting edge capable of exploiting our opponent’s weaknesses.  But bloody brilliant and inspiring and wonderful from front to back.  Suck this up, boys and girls, enjoy it.  Especially your kids.  Because they’ll be wearing our gold-tinted spectacles in thirty years’ time.

Maybe, maybe, the new Star Wars film really will be as good as the first.

Leicester City 2 Watford 1 (07/11/2015) 08/11/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

1- We’d been in the pub since midday.  Chewing the cud, watching the place fill up, enjoying an eighties Indie-ish playlist that hummed along gently enough for This Corrosion not to be too annoying when it made a second appearance and looking forward to the afternoon’s game.  A sizable, noisy delegation from second tier German side VfL Bochum were in evidence;  the relationship with Leicester, we are advised by one representative on the way to the ground, is based on both sides playing in blue and never winning anything.  The morning’s swirling drizzle  gave way to blue skies and sunshine twinkles on the dampness.  It’s a splendid thing to be able to enjoy a match like this…  the Stoke and West Ham results affording us a degree of breathing space.  No pressure.  It’s rare in our top flight experience, the ability to anticipate a game with neither a sense of dread or of the suspicion that this is a show that we’re not really part of.  What this feels is normal, another trip to a frequent adversary with the accompanying “away from home you grab what you can grab” feel.  It’s splendid.

 

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2- It’s not normal of course.  It’s far from normal.  Both sides have come an awfully long way in a short space of time and the fixture suddenly constitutes one of the top games of the day in terms of league position with the two clubs exceeding expectations.  The game starts with plenty of respect afforded on every quarter… Leicester are the free-scoring rabble-rousers on a fine run of form, we have proven ourselves capable of giving anyone a game, capable of reading and preparing for whatever the division has thrown at us.  So the first twenty minutes, with the low sun sitting defiantly above the curve of the stands and shovelling straight into the away end, is a sparring match.  A feeling-each-other-out exercise, both sides confident in their own way but only prepared to risk so much.  Leicester’s aggression in closing down our possession a long way up the pitch briefly made Miguel Britos and Craig Cathcart uncomfortable but we aren’t bullied onto the back foot.  Indeed, we have the best chance of the half… Odion Ighalo’s shot is low to Schmeichel’s left and inside the post and so clearly in that we’re all celebrating heartily by the time it rebounds back off the inside of the post.  There’s a good chance on the rebound too, apparently, demanding a fine stop from the keeper but in common with much of the away end I’m still trying to work out why we’re not ahead and only learn of Almen Abdi’s scooped volley on the train home.

3- The game turned on Gomes’ howler, quite obviously, but there was stuff that lead to that.  With the game very much all square at half time, Claudio Ranieri made a bold substitution in bringing on an extra attacker for a midfielder and the Foxes rattled at us at the start of the second half.  If Gomes’ mistake hadn’t happened perhaps the game would have panned out completely differently… maybe we’d have caught them on the break, maybe we’d have kept them at bay and things would have settled down again.  As it was, Ranieri gets to claim credit for executing a change in shape that Quique maybe didn’t anticipate…. history is written by the victors.  As for Gomes… what’s perhaps more alarming than the mistake itself was the penalty incident that followed, an excitable and unnecessary challenge on the relentless Vardy.  It’s beyond any dispute that the Brazilian has been a tremendous asset for the Hornets since his arrival and has earned us plenty of points, but his Tottenham career suggests a brittle confidence  in the face of mistakes.  Gomes has been magnificent, nobody else will have a problem with writing today off as just one of those things.  His haunted look later on MotD left a concern that he won’t leave it behind as easily.

4- East Midlands supporters seem to have this ongoing delusion that their clubs are something other than fodder.  Don’t get me wrong, Leicester’s one of my favourite away trips despite our modest record here…  but “Two-nil on your big day out” was slightly divorced from reality.  Leicester are third in the league on merit, but we’ve been to your a hundred times before chaps, you’re not Manchester United yet.  That said, the “Did you cry when Deeney scored?” chant was old by the end of Leicester’s first return to the Vic two years ago, and didn’t really need another airing here either… and one suspects that Leicester is unusual in these exalted heights in generating noise from all four corners of the ground against “the likes of Watford”, so any criticism needs moderation.  Quique made a couple of changes to shift things around;  Etienne Capoue didn’t reach the heights of the previous weekend’s masterclass (it’s to be hoped that his monstrous performances being peppered by vastly less effective ones isn’t an ongoing theme) and was replaced by Juan Carlos Paredes.  You’d have got long odds on Paredes being preferred as a midfield “change it up” option above Adlène Guedioura, say, at the start of the season, but his wholehearted if slightly ragged physicality did shake things up on the right.  Paredes is less careful with possession than is typical of this team, more direct, rougher edges… but that’s no bad thing when you’re trying to change the shape of things.  Leicester had only briefly been dominant but were now very much in the box seat… Paredes’ combination of muscle and direct running is the last thing a tiring opponent wants to have to cope with in the last quarter of a game, and won us a much-needed foothold by drawing a penalty from the flat-footed Kante.  Troy lined the kick up and it briefly occurred to more or less everyone in the away end that him missing this would seal the afternoon.  Instead he executed the calmest of finishes and afforded the scoreline a greater degree of respectability.

5- We never really threatened to grab the equaliser,  Leicester managing the closing quarter hour pretty effectively.  Alessandro Diamanti, looking more like a hair stylist than a footballer, came off the bench for a cameo… elegant flicks and spins and twiddles but off the pace, and too far from City’s penalty area to be effective. There’s an ongoing issue here which Quique has alluded to a few times… how do you get these guys game time with so few competitive games such that they can make an impact when needed?  It’s not just showing you can do it, it’s being sharp enough to try…  the introduction of Britos a couple of weeks ago was a bold one that has increased competition, there are other areas of the team that might benefit from having someone demonstrably ready to step in if needed.

So… Leicester played the game out, and we can claim some comfort from the respect we were offered in that regard; a goal up against a newly promoted side, Leicester opted to kill the game rather than chase another goal.  They might just about have deserved the win, but it was never a safe thing.  The final whistle went, Leicester looked a little relieved whilst the Hornets’ players and supporters’ attention were on their goalkeeper who acknowledged his ovation from the stands.  No disgrace this one, and another free punch in our next game in a fortnight.  Thereafter our fixture list looks fascinating… three pressure games that we’ll need to harvest points from before an intimidating set of opponents over Christmas.  And Chelsea.

Watford 2 West Ham United 0 (31/10/2015) 01/11/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
28 comments

1- Today, everything changed.   Our Premier League season so far has been successful, enjoyable, profitable….  and cautious.  Cautious, above all.  That’s not the same as cowardly; indeed, the decision to abandon the swashbuckling open style the got us promoted and suited so many erstwhile key players was an incredibly bold one.  And that caution has served us well, by and large; we’ve kept clean sheets, not been embarrassed by anyone and picked up points, particularly on the road, by executing this season’s fashion effectively… a solid shape, attack on the break.

Today, everything changed.  Up to now we have been gently easing ourselves into the icy water, acclimatising.  Quietly settling into our surroundings.  Not today.  Today we took a great ruddy running leap at it, and landed two-footed with a massive splash.  West Ham were underneath us, and sunk without trace.

2- We’d expected a chess match.  Feared, maybe.  We’ve played well at home but had yet to work out how to adapt our game to turn positive intent into goals.  The Hammers have famously an awesome away record that has taken down big guns… City, Liverpool, Arsenal… but didn’t really want to dominate possession either.  A game of kabaddi seemed a distinct possibility.  Instead, the opening was a thunderous echo of our home game with Brentford last season, a breathless end-to-end basketball with play rattling up and down the pitch like a marble on a fishing trawler.

Initially it looked an even contest.  We perhaps had more possession, but the Hammers were breaking quickly and ominously.  We made the first of the chances…  Aké not making the most of a free header from the penalty spot, Britos flying onto one of a series of excellent deliveries from Watson having been abandoned by Kouyaté and heading over.  The grins amongst the oohs and aahs were tempered with the knowledge that we shouldn’t have been missing chances like these.  You don’t get to waste chances like these against good teams and win games.

3- But instead of being made to regret those misses we watched on as our dominance became increasingly absolute.  By the final whistle the only member of the starting eleven whose performance was difficult to eulogise about was Heurelho Gomes, who had been given precious little to do… even during the final 20 minutes where the Hornets chose to sit back and break on a West Ham side that had to push forward and was very much out of its comfort zone.  I don’t remember too many games like that… games where mentioning any member of the starting eleven provokes a “wow, he was brilliant today” in the post-match review.   It seems wrong to highlight individuals in that context, unfair… since you can’t mention Almen Abdi’s inhuman contribution on the left of a narrow midfield, worthy of its standing ovation as he was substituted, without referring also to Nathan Aké’s monstrous performance behind him, or Ben Watson’s continued defiant refusal to allow Valon Behrami back into the starting lineup, or…

Perhaps it’s easier to replay the match highlights.  You’ll all have your personal favourite. Odion Ighalo putting an utterly baffled Carl Jenkinson to the head of the table at his “chops for tea” dinner party (other guests so far this season including John Stones, Phil Jagielka, Artur Boruc).  The same player’s stunning finish on his weaker foot at the start of the second half.  Troy Deeney’s wicked dummy in the attack that followed, releasing Ighalo for what might have been his hat-trick.  Ben Watson beating Andy Carroll in the air in the centre-circle.  Craig Cathcart flying in to steal Jenkinson’s cross from Carroll’s head, knocking it over his own bar.  Carroll’s clumsy idiocy that provided the opening goal.  Carroll’s dive, screaming desperation, after Valencia had failed to capitalise on Cathcart’s rare aberration.  Allan Nyom, seeing that Juan Carlos Paredes was about to come on and assuming that he was being pulled, kicking gobby little irritant Valencia up the backside as a goodbye present.  Then not going off after all.  Deeney chasing back to rob possession from a surprised Payet on West Ham’s right late in the game.  Very few Watford performances in recent memory have reached these heights.  You’d add James Collins’ red card for an utterly “oh f*** this” Sunday league challenge as the Hammers were being summarily humiliated were it not for Ighalo limping off as a consequence.

4- For all of which, it’s both a blessing and a curse that the two goals came from scruffier play, and featured failings on the part of West Ham players.  A curse, since our performance was much better than that.  It would have been more than acceptable to have executed the sort of victory that we have so often been on the other side of in previous Premier League seasons… Watford huff and puff and hold their own.  Don’t score.  Watford make a mistake.  Other team scores.  Game over.

It wasn’t that sort of game.  We sliced West Ham up, crafted elegant chances that weren’t converted.  It wasn’t just a matter of capitalising on others’ mistakes.  And yet… there’s an advantage to the patronising pat on the head offered by Match of the Day:  “Yes yes, well done Watford but what terrible mistakes by West Ham.  Of course it would have been different had West Ham played properly“.  “Watford have signed so many players“.  Yes, Gary, but seven of the starting eleven were here last season. Matt Le Tissier’s line on Sky that Watford “must be starting to believe that there are three teams worse than them” in similar vein.  Opposing teams and managers won’t be so naive of course, but the longer that we’re allowed to stay under the radar the more likely the crowds we visit are to be sensitive to signs of resistance from “the likes of Watford” (copyright – Stoke City’s messageboards) which is all to the good.

The other side of the same coin is our own expectation of course, to which end it’s quite helpful to have a trip to Leicester next… a game charged with recent context against an opponent who no travelling Hornets are going to get all presumptuous about given their own fine form.

5- The ongoing work on the North East corner of the ground renders the top of Occupation Road a bottleneck as the majority of the Rookery and Elton John stands shuffle uphill at the end of the game.  That’s not a problem on occasions like this, a balmy autumn evening in the immediate wake of a famous victory.  There’s the happy hubbub of “did you sees” and “what about so-and-sos” punctuated by the odd song.  A celebratory atmosphere, a shared experience.

At the top of the hill the regular meeting of minds as we wait for the crowd to clear sees an occasional visitor reflect on how much has changed… not just on the pitch but off it too.  We all know this of course, we’ve seen the stadium change, noted the improved atmosphere, waved our flags.  Doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it though, particularly on an occasion such as this.  Yes, the team is brilliant.  No, the rest of the country hasn’t really  woken up to this yet.  But it’s the club that has improved beyond recognition.

Enjoy.  These are the good old days.  Yoooorns.

 

Season Preview Part 5 07/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, Undisclosed), Kevin Wimmer (Cologne, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Paulinho (Guangzhou Everglade, £9,800,000), Étienne Capoue (Watford, £5,700,000), Lewis Holtby (Hamburg, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Jordan Archer (Millwall, Free), Cristian Ceballos (Charlton Athletic, Free), Bongani Khumalo (Supersport United, Free), Alexander McQueen (Carlisle United, Free), Brad Friedel (Retired), Grant Ward (Rotherham United, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Dean Austin, Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Rose, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two narrow cup defeats, most recently in 2012 when Sean Murray announced himself, previously in the 2008 League Cup when Spurs came from behind in one of Brendan Rodgers’ first games in charge.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Trippier       Alderweireld   Vertonghen     Rose
Mason         Bentaleb
Lamela                      Eriksen                   Chadli
Kane

VERDICT: Tottenham are just sort of there, aren’t they?  Too good for most of the division, not good enough – rich enough? – to compete with the biggest clubs, they’ve finished between fourth and sixth for each of the last six seasons.  Fourth is the holy grail of course, perversely rendered more significant than the FA Cup it’s appropriate that Spurs, once defined by being a good cup side but not quite good enough to win the league, sit where they are.  Thing is, that fourth place has never quite proven the stepping stone to establishing Spurs as a Champions’ League club… and as has been widely documented the club’s other major recent windfall, the receipt of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee, wasn’t spent entirely successfully.

So Spurs have a very capable side and lots of good footballers… but the defence is far from watertight, there’s a lack of muscle in a lightweight midfield, a lack of pace in the attack and precious little cover for the extraordinary Harry Kane as it stands.  The phrase “difficult second season” is widely mumbled about Kane… no sign any tailing off just yet, but surely unrealistic to ask such a young player to keep carrying such responsibility even if his form holds up and he avoids injury.  A policy of bringing in and bringing through young British talent – Delle Ali, Alex Pritchard, Ryan Mason – might pay off in terms of keeping Spurs fans reasonably content with their lot until such benefits as arise from their relocation – currently scheduled for three years time – pay off.  This season…  fifth would be a far from reckless guess.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: James Chester (Hull City, £8,000,000), James McClean (Wigan Athletic, £1,500,000), Rickie Lambert (Liverpool, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Graham Dorrans (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Kemar Roofe (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Chris Baird (Derby County, Free), Donervon Daniels (Wigan Athletic, Free), Jason Davidson (Huddersfield Town, Free), Bradley Garmston (Gillingham, Free), Alex Jones (Birmingham City, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (Norwich City, Free), Georgios Samaras, Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ben Foster

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A five-nil thrashing at the Hawthorns early in Malky’s first season and a more creditable draw at Vicarage Road in which the ten man ‘orns took the lead with five minutes to go only for the Baggies to equalise at the death.  The same game saw a Jonas Olsson tackle bring Tom Cleverley’s Player of the Season campaign to a premature end.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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         Chester        Lescott           Brunt
Yacob
Gardner        Fletcher           Morrison     McClean
Berahino

VERDICT: In terms of establishing a smaller club in the Premier League, .West Brom are yet another decent template having spent the last five years in the top flight – four of which relatively comfortably – a period preceded by eight or nine seasons of yo-yoing between the top two divisions.  They might also serve as a warning.  Fulham’s Premier League life ran out when they became over-reliant on older players; a bit of bad luck with injuries and they had nowhere to go, a load of old blokes on top contracts and little to build off.  West Brom aren’t in quite the same boat, and in terms of compatibility Tony Pulis is a decent match to work with an experienced squad – experience that we could do with a bit of ourselves – but there’s a danger in relying too long on a format just because it’s working.  Four of the eleven above are in their thirties, several more in their late twenties and only Saido Berahino, his future seemingly far from secure as I write, comes in at under 26 whilst in the wings backup includes the likes of Garath McAuley, Jonas Olsson, Stephane Sessegnon and new signing Rickie Lambert.  Lambert, 34 before the end of the season, is a decent addition but you wouldn’t want to be slotting him into Berhino’s slot should the youngster move on;  decent goalscorer that he is, he was never one for too much running around.

Attempts at recruitment have understandably focused on wide positions;  James McClean, no more than reasonable in a relegated Wigan side last season was a bit of an odd one, further moves for Football League stars Matt Phillips and Mickael Antonio stalling as their clubs reject bids.  All of which reflects Jeremy Peace’s famously careful approach to recruitment, hugely frustrating for supporters.  As long as Mr Pulis is happy you’d fancy that Albion are no more than theoretical relegation candidates.  There’s too much savvy in that team.  Wouldn’t take a lot tho…

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Dmitri Payet (Marseille, £10,700,000), Pedro Obiang (Sampdoria, Undisclosed), Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus, Undisclosed), Darren Randolph (Birmingham City, Free), Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, Season Loan). Manuel Lanzani (Al Arabi, Season Loan)

OUTS: Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough, £5,500,000), Paul McCallum (Leyton Orient, Free), Dan Potts (Luton Town, Free), Carlton Cole, Guy Demel, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nenê, Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal, End of Loan), Alex Song (Barcelona, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-0 drubbing at home early in Sean Dyche’s season when it became clear that Chris Iwelumo was no longer quite the fearsome warrior he once had been, and a much more enjoyable point earned by Sean Murray at Upton Park in which Dale Bennett ended his Watford career on a high.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Jenkinson       Ogbonna        Reid          Cresswell
Kouyate

Noble                           Obiang
Payet
Valencia            Sakho

VERDICT: Can I just say that I’m going to miss the Boleyn Ground?  Not the bloody queue at the tube afterwards, sure… but the proper claustrophobic footballgroundness of it.  It’s a Good Thing.  The Irons will move out at the end of the season, destined for the revamped, heavily subsidised Olympic Stadium – who said that the 2012 games had no legacy – and so for West Ham more than anyone it’s fundamental to have a good season, to be on an upward trajectory when that move happens so as to make what will be a 54,000 seater arena a positive place rather than a white elephant.  Relegation would be unthinkable, but there appears to be limited threat of that;  for all Big Sam’s “bad fit” at West Ham, he left them a solid base after three mid-table seasons.  Slaven Bilic was always going to be a popular replacement and has West Ham messageboards cooing over his less pragmatic style, new recruit Dmitri Payet a particularly popular addition;  he’ll have to cope with the Europa League (LATE EDIT: No they won’t!), which is sort of like being handicapped with extra sandbags as far as the League goes for squads without two teams’ worth of senior players, but it would take a lot for the Hammers to struggle. Worth noting also that in amongst the thousands of rumours (OK, 89 and counting) over the summer there have been a large number of suggestions of us competing with West Ham for players.  Which I’m inclined to believe reflects rather well on both parties.

WATFORD

INS: Étienne Capoue (Tottenham Hotspur, £5,700,000), Steven Berghuis (AZ67, £4,600,000), Valon Behrami (Hamburg, £3,000,000), Jose Holebas (AS Roma, £1,800,000), Jose Manuel Jurado (Spartak Moscow, Undisclosed),  Allan Nyom (Udinese, Undisclosed), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Undisclosed), Giedrius Arlauskis (Steaua Bucharest, Free), Miguel Britos (Napoli, Free), Sebastian Prödl (Werder Bremen, Free)

OUTS: Lewis McGugan (Sheffield Wednesday, £300,000), Jonathan Bond (Reading, Undisclosed), Luke O’Nien (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Marco Motta, Vujadin Savic, Daniel Tözsér, Diego Fabbrini (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Uche Ikpeazu (Port Vale, Six Month Loan), Juanfran (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan), Sean Murray (Wigan Athletic, Month Loan), Adlène Guedioura (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Nyom             Prödl        Cathcart     Holebas
Capoue           Behrami
Berghuis                   Abdi                   Jurado
Deeney

VERDICT: There’s a threat in our scars from last time, for those of us old enough to remember.  Last time and the time before.  We’ve sat through seasons that were pretty miserable, tedious and, yes, expensive long before they finished.  Joyless.  During which you had to endure the idiots at work for whom Watford had only recently entered consciousness as anything other than a theoretical entity, to wearily ponder whether it was really worth countering the “cor, Watford are a bit rubbish aren’t they?” with the explanation that we’d done rather well to even get there actually.  In reality that straw of truth became something that we clung to for our own sakes.  In both seasons, in different ways, we were glad when it was over.

It’s different this time.  Genuinely different, more than just a fist-waving “it will be different” statement of intent.  For one thing, we got ourselves promoted automatically and didn’t that feel good.  For another, we’ve got this extraordinary infrastructure behind us this time.  An infrastructure that dwarfs what either of the other promoted sides can throw at the challenges ahead, that has helped us bring in another swathe of new players.  A statement of intent.  We didn’t get promoted to give it a spirited shot and if that wasn’t quite enough to shrug and grin and go back and start again.  No, it’s fundamental that we stay up and Gino Pozzo is giving us the tools to do so.

The approach is “different” in another way of course.  “Different” to more or less everyone else in the country, to varying degrees, with a consequent range of appreciation and comprehension from the nation’s media (Danny Murphy’s “they’ll struggle now their loans have gone back” firmly at the “must try harder” end of the scale).  There’s still sniping too, which is nothing new any more and predictably escalated in volume once we started doing well again after a bit of a hiatus in 2013/14.  Quite why a Manchester City-style bankrolling is morally acceptable whilst an approach that’s sustainable for a smaller club isn’t is a little bit baffling…  but perhaps we’re just resented for getting lucky.  What’s harder for the fanbase to reconcile is yet another huge turnover, another load of names and faces to get used to.  That happened in 2012 of course and we got over that pretty damned quickly… but we’re in a tougher place this time, and Daniel Tözsér did more for us than Carl Dickinson.  Slav’s departure is harder to get your head round than any of the well-catalogued ones that preceded it.

If it were at all reasonable to challenge Gino Pozzo on this, of course, he’d be perfectly justified in asking whether we preferred that nice gentleman in the hat back.  We’ve discussed this before, but it boils down to trust, and he’s earned plenty. The extent of the revamp of the squad and the replacement of the coach outstrip even the sacking of McKinlay for boldness… that that decision had any credibility at all was simply because Gino Pozzo isn’t a bloody idiot.  He’s not the rash, emotional, crass, erratic clown that the lazier analyses imply.  Quite the opposite. In these decisions, as with the McKinlay one, he’s done things that he knew would attract scorn from outside and criticism from within, particularly if things were to go awry.  Not easy decisions, not the soft options.  And he’s done them anyway.  We know enough by now to have confidence in his decision making.

There’s no disputing that Flores’ biggest challenge is getting it all to hang together… a new way of playing, a new bunch of players, in a new division.  There’s also no disputing that two of those things were necessary given the third.  Our “we’ll score more than you” philosophy which saw our three at the back pulled hither and thither for much of last season was always going to be somewhat optimistic in the top flight.  The players we’ve brought in, from Roma and Spurs and Bremen rather than Chesterfield and Rotherham, have us looking more solid already.  Hell, we faced a slickedy slick Sevilla side and looked tight and organised and compact in a way that we rarely did last season.  And yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, and yes Goodison will be a different challenge in many different ways.  But looking solid against Sevilla is a decent start.  That, and the goals of Deeney and Ighalo and Abdi and the less familiar quantities represented by Jurado and Berghuis.

The level of investment in the squad guarantees nothing, of course.  This is in part reflected in the (almost) universally damning take on our survival prospects.  A lot of this is lazy dick-witted tosh – Norwich, heard of them they must be good (“….and we had the best squad in the division.  No, we did we did we did…”).  Bournemouth, they won the division (in the last smegging minute), they must be good.  Watford?  They just sack managers don’t they? – but some of it IS more considered.  Looking at the challenges that we’ve gone through above, new manager, new team, limited emotional investment in either from the support who don’t know them yet, looking at the quality of the opposition.  Yes, much of the “they’ll finish bottom” is lazy tosh.  Some of it isn’t.  Some of it’s more considered.

But still wrong.

Season Preview Part 4 06/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Jordie Clasie (Feyenoord, £8,000,000), Cédric Soares (Sporting Lisbon, Up to £4,700,000), Juanmi (Malaga, Undisclosed), Cuco Martina (Twente Enschede, Undisclosed), Steven Caulker (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, Season Loan)

OUTS: Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United, £25,000,000), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool, £10,000,000), Artur Boruc (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Cody Cropper (Franchise FC, Free), Jos Hooiveld, Chris Johns, Dani Osvaldo, Omar Rowe, Jake Sinclair, Sam Gallagher (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Jack Stephens (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Jordan Turnbull (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid, End of Loan), Filip Djuričić (Benfica, End of Loan), Eljero Elia (Werder Bremen, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two thumping defeats in Sean Dyche’s season that yielded seven goals for the Saints to none against, five of them for Rickie Lambert.  The second of these, on a cold but sunny February afternoon, featured Tamasz Kuszczak’s excitable debut and a silver lining in the form of Troy Deeney’s growing influence.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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        Yoshida     Bertrand
Wanyama      Clasie
Tadic                      Mané              Rodriguez
Pelle

VERDICT: If there’s a high water mark to aim at, surely this is it.  Southampton have more of a top flight pedigree than we do and the parallels between the two clubs only stretch so far… but the Saints, after seven years outside the top flight, have re-established themselves remarkably quickly and appear to be turning selling off their prize assets to Liverpool in particular into an art form.  After last summer’s dramatic exodus, followed implausibly by an improved Premier League showing that saw the Saints in the Champions’ League places, Saints have again sold on assets in the form of Clyne and Schneiderlin whilst losing another key man in Toby Alderweireld. The incoming Jordy Clasie seems to have gone down hugely well as Schneiderlin’s replacement, and with Jay Rodriguez returning – assuming he’s back to anything like his best – Southampton look well set again.

There are two factors that might hamper their progress.  Keeper Fraser Forster’s injury will keep him out for most of the season, and bringing in a back up keeper who needs to be relied on more than a back-up keeper might expect to be is always a challenging one.  Maarten Stekelenburg has the experience but his Fulham career has been hit by injury and poor form and he spent a year at Roma last season without playing.  Meanwhile there’s the increasingly poisoned chalice of the Europa League and its demands on the Saints’ squad which doesn’t look to have the cover in it to accommodate such trevails, even any wearying impact is unlikely to hamper Southampton early enough to give us an advantage at Vicarage Road at the end of August.  Southampton will do fine, but hard to see them matching last year.

STOKE CITY

INS: Joselu (Hannover 96, £5,750,000), Mona el Ouriachi (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Jakob Haugaard (FC Midtjylland, Undisclosed), Sergio Molina (Real Madrid, Undisclosed), Philipp Wollscheid (Bayer Leverkusen, Undisclosed), Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona, Free), Shay Given (Aston Villa, Free), Glen Johnson (Liverpool, Free), Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Asmir Begović (Chelsea, £8,000,000), Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla, £7,000,000), Robert Huth (Leicester City, £3,000,000), Jamie Ness (Scunthorpe United, Free), Wilson Palacios, Thomas Sorensen, Andy Wilkinson, Daniel Bachmann (Ross County, Six Month Loan), Victor Moses (Chelsea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-POTTERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Glyn Hodges (U21 Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two goalless draws as Stoke went up and we laboured to the play-offs in 2007/08.  The second of these, at Vicarage Road in March, constituted arguably our final convincing display of the season and was scuppered by Rob Styles issuing a red card to John Eustace, a decision greeted with suitable disdain by home and away fans alike.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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      Muniesa       Pieters
van Ginkel          Whelan
Afellay                      Bojan                   Arnautovic
Diouf

VERDICT: Thinking about those games above in 2007/08, it would have seemed inconceivable back then that Stoke would not only go up but hang around and establish themselves as a mid-table side now, seven years on.  Our perspective is perhaps coloured by the memory of our own miserable end to that season, but my recollection is that a functional City side was promoted by default, the second best side in a very moderate division.  Since then… the brutal, direct caricature has waned a little bit, more’s the pity.  The Rory Delap, Big Mama Sidibe, Robert Huth side was a variation in the monochrome of the Premier League and annoyed people who, frankly, deserved to be annoyed.  I make this statement as someone who didn’t have to watch them play on a regular basis, admittedly, but Stoke were certainly a lot of fun from a distance.  Now, after consecutive top flight finishes they’re another template for us to follow.  Stoke is a bigger city than Watford, but the Potters spent a good twenty years outside the top flight and only occasionally strayed anywhere near it again and yet here they are, every inch a mid-table side.

There are challenges this season though.  In Begovic, N’Zonzi, Moses and to a lesser extent the veteran Huth City have lost key players;  messageboards seem comfortable enough with Jack Butland’s promotion after a couple of years’ of being loaned out, the responsibility seems a big one to me for a 22 year old.  N’Zonzi’s departure put a lot of weight on Whelan’s shoulders; N’Zonzi may be replaced but, like Butland, will be doing well if they match the contribution of the man he’s replacing.  Meanwhile for all that City have the squad strength befitting a side who’ve been in the top flight for a while there are key men – Shawcross, Pieters and, for the moment, Whelan upon whom City are reliant.  No danger of the drop, but may slip from the last two years’ high water mark.

SUNDERLAND

INS: Jeremain Lens (Dynamo Kiev, £8,500,000), Adam Matthews (Celtic, £2,000,000), Sebastian Coates (Liverpool, Undisclosed), Younes Kaboul (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Connor Wickham (Crystal Palace, up to £9,000,000), El Hadji Ba (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Anthony Reveillere, Jordan Pickford (Preston North End, Season Loan), Santiago Vergini (Getafe, Season Loan), Ricky Alvarez (Inter, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLACK CATS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Danny Graham, Adam Johnson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Turns out that we haven’t played Sunderland (Black Cats still doesn’t sound right) for ten years, since we got two points less than we deserved from a draw at Vicarage Road and salvaged respectability from 4-0 down to go down 4-2 at a freezing Stadium of Light as Ray Lewington’s Watford career edged towards an unforeseen end.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Pantilimon
Matthews          Coates        O’Shea       Van Aanholt
Cattermole
Johnson             Larsson         Gomez           Lens
Defoe

VERDICT: I kind of like Sunderland.  Influenced I think by two trips up to Wearside, first as we both went up in 1999 and then a season later.  Not a lot of obvious rationale to that;  we lost both games, didn’t get any decisions in either and got to watch Kevin Phillips in his pomp in a side designed around him become the striker he always looked like he might be at Vicarage Road.  But both were evening kick-offs, long early-season hikes up the length of the country and the place was absolutely electric, on the crest of a wave.  I get quite defensive when Peter Reid’s Sunderland sides are dissed for their directness despite myself.

We’ve been there a few times since and found it altogether less chirpy; ten years on from our last encounter there’s a weary low ebb to the feel of the place.  “Sunderland aren’t even in the bottom three” was oft used as a damning indictment of the number of carcasses rolling listlessly over each other at the foot of the Prem last season but a side that could seemingly not be relied on to either score many goals nor keep a clean sheet for much of the campaign – that they only won seven games in all season is damning in itself – scraped enough points out of a decent May to stay up by three.  Now…  Dick Advocaat having been persuaded to stay on there’s a more chipper feel to Sunderland messageboards than I’d expected.  Advocaat’s compatriot Jeremain Lens looks like the marquee signing and adds some much needed pace to the attacking options but there aren’t a lot of goals in that forward line – Defoe is more significant than you’d want a 32 year-old nippy striker to be – and the options at centre back are the ageing duo of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, the injury-ravaged Younes Kaboul and Uruguayan Seb Coates with half-a-season’s decent form behind him.  Desperately short of creativity in the middle of the park, Sunderland will be one of those that we’re trying to tread down on our way up.

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Éder (Sporting Braga, Undisclosed), Oliver McBurnie (Bradford City, Undisclosed), Kristoffer Nordveldt (Heerenveen, Undisclosed), Franck Tabanou (Saint Etienne, Undisclosed), André Ayew (Marseille, Free)

OUTS: Jazz Richards (Fulham, Undisclosed), David Cornell (Oldham Athletic, Free), Rory Donnelly (Gillingham, Free), Alan Tate, Gerhard Tremmel, Adam King (Crewe Alexandra, Six Months Loan), Tom Carroll (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Nelson Oliveira (Benfica, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SWANS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A dramatic 3-2 defeat in the September of Malky’s second season that saw us go three-down and then claw back to 3-2 having a late goal disallowed as we realised that the Swans didn’t really fancy a direct approach – this included Troy’s first League goal for the ‘orns.  Later in the campaign a creditable 1-1 draw at the Liberty Stadium secured by a Danny Graham equaliser – Graham was to move to Swansea a couple of months later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabianski
Naughton     Fernandez        Williams     Tabanou     
Cork           Ki   
  Ayew                 Sigurdsson                Montero
Gomis   

VERDICT: Swansea are yet another lot who, whilst now all but part of the top flight’s establishment, were very much not a part of the elite for a very long time, and not so very long ago.  They’re a template in another way, in being long-term exponents of the 4-2-3-1 that QSF seems so keen on;  the consequence in terms of their squad is a surfeit of quick, clever blokes to fill the three spaces behind the striker.  The striker role itself seems to belong to Gomis, whose residence in South Wales has never felt terribly secure but who faces limited competition within the squad for that position, new signing Éder the likeliest stand-in.  Little wonder then that we begin to look at our own surfeit of strikers, at least two of whom linked to the Swans during this transfer window, and wonder how they’re going to fit – or that in Jurado and Berghuis we’ve bulked up a bit on quick, clever blokes ourselves.

As long as they continue to be well run and pick up the likes of André Ayew and Franck Tabanou relatively unfussily the Swans will continue to do just fine.  I wouldn’t say they’re invulnerable to a bad string of injuries mind, nor that Garry Monk has proven himself beyond all doubt despite his impressive first full season at the helm.  Four seasons of finishing between eighth and twelfth tells its own story though, and it would take a catastrophe for the Swans to struggle.

Season Preview Part 3 05/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool, £49,000,000), Fabian Delph (Aston Villa, £8,000,000), David Faupala (Lens, Undisclosed), Patrick Roberts (Fulham, Undisclosed), Enes Unal (Bursaspor, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Dedryck Boyata (Celtic, £1,500,000), Jordy Hiwula (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Joe Nuttall (Aberdeen, Undisclosed), Karim Rekik (Marseille, Undisclosed), Scott Sinclair (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), John Guidetti (Celta Vigo, Free), Frank Lampard (New York City, Free), James Milner (Liverpool, Free), Micah Richards (Aston Villa, Free), Angelino (New York City, Season Loan), Seko Fofana (Bastia, Season Loan), Stevan Jovetic (Inter Milan, 18 Month Loan), Enes Unal (Genk, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two defeats in Manchester in FA Cup ties, one of which a close thing the other less so, and two draws in the top flight – a nil-nil in Manchester in a rainstorm, and a one-one at the Vic that confirmed our relegation.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hart
Zabaleta        Mangala        Kompany       Kolarov
Fernandinho
Sterling              Touré           Delph                  Silva
Aguero

VERDICT:I had a look back at last year’s City side.  They’re not actually that old.  Of the regulars only Yaya Touré (32) and Martin Demichelis (34) are over 30.  I would have guessed more than that.  The thing is, for all that they’re all top players, established players there was maybe a lack of hunger, a lack of urgency last season.  Everything’s relative again, they were still the second best side in the country… but an awful lot of them will be 30 or knocking by the time the season ends, this is a side that’s due a refit.  Thing is, New City haven’t been terribly good at buying younger players.  Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Adam Johnson, Jovetic, Nastasic, Savic have not lived up to expectations, Mangala had a patchy first season.  The frankly terrifying Aguero is one of very few to have come in at a young age (23) and ripped it up.  The consequence, then, is that City are needing to acquire players at the top of their game, or certainly well-established, and therefore expensive.  Good job they’ve got the backing to support the expensive strategy of signing players with necessarily limited resale value.  That same level of investment means that even a transition season for City will leave them strong enough to finish second or third.  They’ll still be too strong for most.  Christ, isn’t the Premier League dull?

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Memphis Depay (PSV Eindhoven, £31,000,000), Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton, £25,000,000), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich, £14,400,000), Matteo Darmian (Torino, Undisclosed), Sergio Romero (Sampdoria, Free)

OUTS: Robin van Persie (Fenerbahçe, £4,800,000), Nani (Fenerbahçe, £4,250,000), Angelo Henriquez (Dinamo Zagreb, £1,100,000), Saidy Janko (Celtic, Undisclosed), Rafael da Silva (Lyon, Undisclosed), Ben Amos (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Tom Cleverley (Everton, Free), Tom Thorpe (Rotherham United, Free), Will Keane (Preston North End, Season Loan), Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Andy Kellett (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Three defeats in our last top flight season… a 2-1 reverse at the Vic that was more comprehensive than it sounds, a 4-1 defeat in the Cup Semi-final that was perhaps less comprehensive than it sounds, and a 4-0 at Old Trafford that was every bit as comprehensive as it sounds.  The first of the three provided the final ever BSaD report.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Darmian      Smalling        Rojo          Blind
Schneiderlin
Mata               Herrera         Schweinsteiger           Depay
Rooney

VERDICT: If there’s any joy left in the Premier League it’s in watching a side that’s grown reliant on Champions’ (sic) League income flail around as it slips out of the limelight.  Not that it was difficult to feel some sympathy for David Moyes in the thankless position of following Ferguson.  Mourinho would have been a better bet,  someone arrogant enough not to give a monkeys who he was being compared to would have had a better chance of success but would have failed spectacularly and quickly otherwise, getting that following Ferguson problem out of the way.  Van Gaal is much closer to that mould, and seems to have licence to spend in a way that will drag United back into contention with the top two;  it seems unlikely that United will go the way that Leeds did twelve or so years ago, more’s the pity. Indeed the summer recruitment looks hugely impressive, Schweinsteiger an extraordinary catch. I thought the same about Di Maria though, so what do I know.  I’m sounding as if I care again, aren’t I?

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV Eindhoven, £14,500,000), Chancel Mbemba (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Anderlecht, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice, Free), Remie Streete (Port Vale, Free), Jonas Gutierrez, Ryan Taylor, Sammy Ameobi (Cardiff City, Season Loan), Adam Armstrong (Coventry City, Six Month Loan), Facundo Ferreyra (Shakhtar Donetsk, End of Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Mike Williamson, Kevin Richardson (U17 coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two mid-season defeats during Malky’s first season during Newcastle’s brief spell in the second tier as, with the Vicarage Road pitch unhelpful to our young, lightweight team during the winter months, the orns began to struggle for points.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2009-10 1-2
1999-00 1-1 0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Krul
Janmaat      Mbemba    Coloccini     Haidara
Colback
    Sissoko       Wijnaldum                      De Jong               Aarons
Mitrovic

VERDICT: Here’s an interesting one.  A club that lost eight games on the hop in the closing months of the season and really, really needed the campaign to finish as soon as possible.  Newcastle felt rotten, all sorts of things going wrong from the relationship between board and fans to the lack of spirit in the side to the caretaker manager accusing his centre-back of getting himself sent off to general bluntness.  Over the summer in comes… Steve McClaren.  An experienced coach, but not the first man you’d pick to wield a great big broom and kick some backsides. Derby’s end-of-season collapse may have had as much to do with the anticipation of the manager’s departure as any fundamental failing on McClaren’s part, but his appointment looked a much odder one at the end of the campaign than it had when first mooted much earlier on.  The squad has been strengthened and the likes of Aarons and De Jong have returned from injury problems – the imminent threat of Newcastle getting relegated appears to have receded, the bullet dodged last season but you don’t get the sense of there having been the really good shake that the club needs.  And I find myself not feeling overly sympathetic, for all that Pardew has departed… the stain he leaves rather difficult to wash out…

NORWICH CITY

INS: Robbie Brady (Hull City, Undisclosed), Graham Dorrans (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Jake Kean (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Youssouf Mulumbu (West Bromwich Albion, Free), André Wisdom (Liverpool, Season Loan)

OUTS: Mark Bunn (Aston Villa, Free), Sam Kelly (Port Vale, Free), Cameron McGeehan (Luton Town, Free), Luciano Becchio, Mark Bunn, Carlos Cuéllar, Javier Garrido, Ignasi Miquel, Remi Matthews (Burton Albion, Six Months Loan), Carlton Morris (Hamilton Academical, Loan of Unspecified Duration)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Sébastian Bassong

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two heavy defeats last season, the first of which featuring an early Joel Ekstrand dismissal at Carrow Road and the second a tight, competitive contest turning on the rewarding of one of the less convincing of Wes Hoolahan’s catalogue of dives.  Despite these mitigating circumstances and accompanying lack of grace on the part of the victors, these results comprehensively demonstrated the Canaries’ superiority, a superiority that was mysteriously not evidenced by the remaining 44 games of each side’s campaigns.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ruddy
Whittaker        Martin         Bassong          Brady
Mulumbu           Tettey
Redmond            Hoolahan             Johnson
Jerome

VERDICT:Norwich?  Best team in the Championship last year.  Ask any Norwich fan, they’ll tell you all about it.  What’s more, they’ve only lost a handful of players since they were last relegated and one of them, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, is back from his year’s sabbatical so that just goes to show that they’ll be really strong.  No, really, they will.  Even though they’ve, you know, not signed anyone.  And anyway you’d much rather be in their shoes than Watford’s what with all their new Carlos Kickaballs signings.  Just like QPR that innit, not like they’re going to gel.  Watford needed to strengthen more than City did anyway, they had no strength in depth last year or anything, I’d rather have our, you know, team spirit….

And so forth.  There’s something in some of the accusations being nervously lobbed in Watford’s direction from Norwich messageboards of course, which are more appropriately covered when we discuss our own prospects in Section 5 of this series on Friday.  The temptation is to ignore them, just as the temptation for Norwich fans is to inflate them to reassure themselves.  From my perspective however what we’ve been reaping is the benefits of the Pozzo family’s contacts and know-how, our own infrastructure, and the investment that is clearly being put behind it all.  Norwich are closer to the position we were in in 2006, irrespective of the starting strength of their squad.  You have to question quite who is going to sign for the Canaries, focused as they are on the domestic market… as time goes on and their roster isn’t boosted established players are going to be harder to convince whilst cherry picking from the division below is made more difficult as the more attractive signings start to think that perhaps they’re better off biding their time.  Which isn’t to say that Norwich are doomed by any means…  their midfield is competitive, they’ll be organised. I just wonder what’ll happen when they lose a few games, as they inevitably will.  There’ll be an inferiority complex there waiting to get out, borne of the anxiety of their relative inactivity.  It will be interesting to see how Alex Neil copes with that… his first two years in management have been hugely impressive and you’d rather have a manager who wasn’t used to losing games than the reverse.  But he’s never had to cope with losing more than a couple of games on the hop.  City look vulnerable to me.  Shame.

Season Preview Part 2 04/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Yohan Cabaye (Paris St Germain, £10,000,000), Connor Wickham (Sunderland, up to £9,000,000), Alex McCarthy (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Patrick Bamford (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Mandela Egbo (Borussia Mönchengladbach, TBC), Lewis Price (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Shola Ameobi, Stephen Dobbie, Owen Garvan, Peter Ramage, Jerome Thomas, Jerome Binnom-Williams (Burton Albion, Season Loan), Hiram Boateng (Plymouth Argyle, Six Month Loan), Jack Hunt (Sheffield Wednesday, Season Loan), Ryan Inniss (Port Vale, Season Loan), Yaya Sanogo (Arsenal, End of Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Dean Austin, Ben Watson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Adlène Guedioura, Adrian Mariappa, Keith Millen (Assistant Manager), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: None spring to mind.  Oh, OK then…  defeat to Kevin Phillips’ penalty late in extra time two years ago as we wilted in the Wembley sun.  Prior to that, a well-earned point at Vicarage Road in a 2-2 draw, TV coverage featuring that tiresome Holloway gamesmanship interview, and a 3-2 win at Selhurst on the opening day in which Almen and Matej opened their accounts for the Hornets and we began to wonder quite what the new regime might mean.  Still, quality like that was never going to hang around was it…?  “What will they do when the loans go back?”

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Speroni
Ward         Dann         Delaney      Souaré
McArthur           Jedinak
Zaha                      Cabaye                   Bolasie
Murray

VERDICT: The thing is, you look at the middle of the Premier League and there’s all sorts of clubs that a few years ago were second tier fodder, or worse.  And, yes yes yes for every Stoke, Swansea or Palace – none of whom will be in many folks’ bottom three predictions – there are any number of chancers who slunk back where they came with their tails between their legs… not good enough, not wealthy enough, not lucky enough when it mattered.  Hell, that’s been us on a couple of occasions.  So… there’s no pretending that what’s in front of us is easy but others have done it and whilst any successful plan looks well thought out with the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to suggest that clubs that look organised, that look to have a plan that are pulling it off.  And then you think about Palace, and Ian Holloway’s approach to recruitment two years ago and that argument loses some credibility.

The Eagles have attained their current status remarkably quickly having gotten promoted by beating us two years ago and sitting, at that point, squarely in the “going straight back down” slot prior to that excitable scattergun approach to the squad.  Holloway is long gone, but any Hornet who’s been watching our frequent encounters over the years will know that there’s never any shortage of reasons to dislike Palace, and Alan Pardew’s brand of prickly superciliousness is an adequate replacement.  The squad looks solid, the addition of Cabaye an eye-catching one… as I wrote this bit at first I was thinking you might want stronger options up front:  Chamakh is talented but injury-prone, Murray leads the line and the fact that he looks like a lower division plodder is thoroughly deceptive but he’s not going to develop any further, whilst Dwight Gayle’s effervescence and finishing is let down by a lack of physical strength not suited to a lone forward role.  Since then Bamford and Wickham have come in and added different options, if not quite proven ones. All in all though, an astonishingly strong, well-established squad in a short space of time.  Still don’t have to like them though.

 

EVERTON

INS: Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona, £4,300,000), David Henen (Olympiakos, £200,000), Tom Cleverley (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Chris Long (Burnley, Undisclosed), Antolín Alcaraz (Las Palmas, Free), Sylvain Distin (AFC Bournemouth, Free), George Green (Oldham Athletic, Free), Luke Garbutt (Fulham, Season Loan), Christian Atsu (Chelsea, End of Loan), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tom Cleverley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The opening day of our last top flight season set a tone, when a strong display yielded no reward after a bizarre late penalty decision against Chris Powell.  Later in the season an altogether more comfortable 3-0 victory for the Toffees at Vicarage Road in what would be Malky Mackay’s last League appearance.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2006-07 1-2
2000-01 1-2
1999-00 1-3 2-4
1983-84 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Howard
Coleman        Jagielka     Stones         Baines
McCarthy
Mirallas           Cleverley          Barkley          Deulofeu
Lukaku

VERDICT: There’s the temptation to look at Everton and say “why bother”?  What is there for Everton to aspire to…  after so many year of what was generally recognised as fine achievement in context under David Moyes, and that of by and large just about missing out on a Champions’ League place, what is there for an Everton fan to hope for?  Returning to the status of not quite being as good as Arsenal?  Of kind of winning a lot of games in a fairly prosaic way but not, like, winning a trophy?  Little of this is Everton’s fault, of course, not as such…  these are those barriers to competitiveness that the Champions’ League in particular sets in stone.  But what does an Everton fan hope for?

And then you look in the mirror and think about it for a bit and realise what a load of old bollocks that argument is.  The same trite, lazy tosh that the armchair United fan in the office comes out with when you mention that you follow any club below the elite.  We’re not in line for trophies any more than Everton are, less so, and that’s never stopped any of us, or of the tens of thousands of others who follow clubs that haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of, you know, winning a major competition.  You’re in it for the ride.  You’re in it for belonging to something, for the victories however small or parochial they might be and for the despair and misery too.  That applies to Everton fans as much as it does to fans of Watford or Accrington or anyone.

Perhaps the person suffering most from Everton’s awkward place in the grand scheme of things is Roberto Martinez, stymied as he is by following a successful manager who never actually won anything that high bar isn’t in itself terribly exciting and therefore anything below that sees Everton slip into the morass of also-rans.  Everton fans will cite an epic season for injuries as a driving reason behind last season’s relative slump and if they’re right then the Toffees will be up in fifth or sixth again come May.  Messageboards contain ominous anxiety however, in amongst the griping about ineffective possession football and bickering about quite how good Romelu Lukaku is or isn’t.  That anxiety can be captured in the possibility that too many players might be past their best whilst the kids coming through aren’t (all) quite ready to step in just yet.  In the former camp count Tim Howard – at 36 was last season an aberration or the beginning of the end?  Phil Jagielka, terrific for half of last season but awful for the other half and 33 in August, it’s donkey’s years since he was turning out against us at Bramall Lane. Gareth Barry, by consensus run into the ground during the last campaign.  Leighton Baines, still only 30 but another dipping below his very high standard.

As for the first game of the season… I think we could have done without that particular repeat of 2006/07 when we faced the Toffees at the same stage and found a new and creative way to add to our failure to pick up as much as a point in (now) ten trips to Goodison.  In particular, it would be helpful if Tom Cleverley doesn’t chose his debut to remember what an effective attacking threat he was during his season at Vicarage Road, something that years of being employed otherwise and having his confidence battered by sneering twitterati appear to have pummeled out of him.  Thereafter… somewhere between sixth and twelfth, natch.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: N’Kolo Kante (Caen, £6,300,000), Robert Huth (Stoke City, £3,000,000), Yohan Benalouane (Atalanta, Undisclosed), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz 05, Undisclosed), Christian Fuchs (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Chris Wood (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Paul Gallagher (Preston North End, Free), Tom Hopper (Scunthorpe United, Free), Kieran Kennedy (Motherwell, Free), Anthony Knockaert (Standard Liége, Free), Adam Smith (Northampton Town, Free), Matthew Upson (Franchise FC, Free), Esteban Cambiasso, Conrad Logan, James Pearson, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Ben Hamer (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater, Kevin Phillips (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable capitulation to a rampant Foxes side in November 2013, and a much more credible draw in Leicester four months later that brought to an end what had been Leicester’s nine-match winning run.  Before that…  this.  And this.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Wasilewski          Huth          Morgan
Albrighton                King               Kante               Schlupp
Mahrez
Ulloa         Okazaki

VERDICT: So I was looking forward to playing Leicester again to a quite unreasonable extent.  Far from a novelty of course, the Foxes have been regular adversaries in recent years but that’s kind of the point… a side that we’ve locked horns with frequently and memorably.  Last year’s respite in hostilities saw Leicester claw their way improbably out of a deep hole… seven points from safety at the end of March, seven wins in the last nine almost trebled their tally for the season and left them comfortable and looking upwards.  After a couple of seasons of building they’d always looked like the promoted side most likely to, and had stuck to their guns throughout the first half of the campaign when performances hadn’t matched results.  The outcome justified the approach and Leicester might have been looking onwards with optimism.  Until everything appeared to implode.

Nigel Pearson’s sacking came on the back of his son’s dismissal following a well-publicised incident on a tour of Thailand.  It seems, however, that the relationship between the notoriously prickly Pearson and the club’s Thai owners was fragile at best in any case.  In any event, the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as his replacement appears an odd one… a very experienced manager with an impressive CV he nonetheless comes to Leicestershire on the back of a bizarrely disastrous four months as Greek boss that saw one draw from five games including a defeat at home to the Faroe Islands.  He will suffer from being neither Nigel Pearson nor popular replacement rumour Martin O’Neill… indeed in some ways he’s as far from Pearson as it’s possible to imagine.  City fans, however determined to be positive, will be uncomfortable with the fact that in his four months he turned Greece from a side characterised by discipline and organisation to an unholy mess.

The squad is, as I write, short of quality in midfield in particular with the loss of Esteban Cambiasso, who played under Ranieri for a season at Inter, particularly awkward.  Suddenly City look much more precarious.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Christian Benteke (Aston Villa, £32,500,000), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim, £21,000,000), Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton, £10,000,000), Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic, £3,500,000), Bobby Adekanye (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Danny Ings (Burnley, TBC), Adam Bogdan (Bolton Wanderers, Free), James Milner (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City, £49,000,000), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo, £3,500,000), Sebastian Coates (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Rickie Lambert (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Steven Gerrard (Los Angeles Galaxy, Free), Glen Johnson (Stoke City, Free), Brad Jones, Luis Alberto (Deportivo La Coruña, Season Loan),  Lloyd Jones (Blackpool, Season Loan), Kevin Stewart (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Lawrence Vigouroux (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Danny Ward (Aberdeen, Season Loan), Jordan Williams (Swindon Town, Season Loan), André Wisdom (Norwich City, Season Loan), Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, End of Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: In contrast to 1999’s excitement, two uninteresting comprehensive defeats within a month of each other last time around during a run in which the Reds won nine league games in ten.  The latter of the two was Ashley Young’s final outing in yellow.  And Will Hoskins’ debut.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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:

Mignolet
Clyne         Skrtel       Sakho    Moreno
Henderson     Milner      Coutinho
Firmino               Benteke                   Lallana

VERDICT: Twenty five years since Liverpool won the league.  In some ways that’s extraordinary, almost inconceivable especially if you’re old enough to remember it and the years before it.  In others it just isn’t.  Liverpool have only occasionally been serious contenders for the title in the interim…  and yet opening this sort of article with this sort of reflection is still unavoidable.  And therein part of Liverpool’s problem, really, the mismatch of seeing themselves as one of the country’s Biggest clubs (that b-word is a dangerous thing) and yet 25 years since they were champions, the 2005 Champions’ League notwithstanding, belies that.  There’s a sort of frantic desperation that persists, an urgency divorced from reality to justify what they perceive as their status.

Liverpool have bought a lot of players over the summer and at the time of writing boast a vast squad.  There’s some of that franticness there too, mind…  much as last season was a bit disappointing given what happened before, much as Sturridge’s injury situation left them horribly short up front and much as there’s money to spend given the Sterling transfer it all feels a bit desperate once more…. “look, we’re really serious this time”.  Revolution rather than evolution (again).   Firmino, subject of a big outlay, may be a terrific player… but his recruitment is rather transparently an attempt to recreate the signing of Suarez who was brought in at a similar age and developed and was sold for a significantly higher fee.  And I guess that might work but it all feels a little… haphazard.  Liverpool will still be strong, of course, and might even finish higher up than last season but…  you get the feeling that being seen to be doing something is the priority at Anfield.

Season Preview Part 1 03/08/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

OK.  Here we go… four today, four more tomorrow.  And so on.

ARSENAL

INS: Petr Cech (Chelsea, £10,000,000), Vlad Dragomir (ACS Poli Timosoara, £71,000)

OUTS: Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray, £1,800,000), Semi Ajayi (Cardiff City, Free), Abou Diaby (Marseille, Free), Ryo Myaichi (St.Pauli, Free), Dan Crowley (Barnsley, Six Month Loan), Isaac Hayden (Hull City, Season Loan), Carl Jenkinson (West Ham United, Season Loan), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Yaya Sanogo (Ajax, Season Loan), Wojciech Szczesny (Roma, Season Loan), Jon Toral (Birmingham City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-0 defeat in Theo Walcott’s top flight debut that was rather less comprehensive than it sounds, and a 2-1 Boxing Day defeat settled by a late Robin van Persie goal that nonetheless constituted one of our best performances of last time around.  That we lost anyway rather says something…

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Cech
Debuchy         Koscielny        Mertesacker    Monreal
Coquelin           Ramsey
Oxlade-Chamberlain       Özil                  Sanchez
Giroud

VERDICT: Here’s the challenge, you see.  How to add anything of any value.  This time last year I would have been scouring Rotherham United’s messageboards, sifting what appeared to be wheat from the chaff and perhaps ending up with something that added to your knowledge in what might even have been an interesting way.  Hell, if we’re honest I could have written any old bobbins and you probably wouldn’t have been any the wiser.  Now, here…  how do I write something that’s interesting and informative that by definition means not replicating the guff that proliferates and is plagiarised across the internet in the shameless search for hits and cheap advertising revenue.  Just how many interesting things are there to say anyway?

On the off-chance that some of you were paying far more attention to the Championship than to the Premier League last season – and frankly, given the relative levels of competitiveness and drama in the two leagues who could blame you – here’s the lowdown.  Arsenal entertain pretensions of breaking free of the almost-but-not-quite mantle and mounting a sustained challenge for the title. The recruitment of Cech sees them trade up and improve what might have been a problem position, but there remain question marks up front – where Giroud perhaps isn’t mobile enough to pull open spaces and therefore make the most of Arsenal’s surfeit of small clever blokes in the midfield – in defensive midfield, where the emerging Coquelin is perhaps the only destructive option, and perhaps at centre-back.  Everything’s relative of course…  we’re talking about concerns that probably mean that the Cech signing sees Arsenal tread water, retain their nearly-but-not-quite position rather than any more consequential failings.

In the background is the simmering boredom borne of finishing third or fourth for each of the last ten (!) seasons. Perhaps the starkest of the artefacts of the Premier League, Champions League age is this dull corridor between the very top and the great unwashed, where the barriers to entry created by Champions League qualification and the sort of financial backing enjoyed by City and Chelsea cut off…  Arsenal?  Liverpool? Spurs? into a group that won’t win the league and that won’t be in any danger of finishing amongst the rest.  Despite playing some of the best football in the division, despite a consistent Champions’ League place being no small achievement, much of however much simmering anti-Arsène stuff there is is borne of that boredom.  Be careful what you wish for, says I.  Stop me if I’m beginning to sound as if I care…

ASTON VILLA

INS: Rudy Gestede (Blackburn Rovers, £6,000,000), Jordan Amavi (Nice, Undisclosed), Jordan Ayew (Lorient, Undisclosed), José Angel Crespo (Cordoba, Undisclosed), Idrissas Gueye (Lille, Undisclosed), Scott Sinclair (Manchester City, Undisclosed), Jordan Veretout (Nantes, Undisclosed), Mark Bunn (Norwich City, Free), Micah Richards (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Christian Benteke (Liverpool, £32,500,000), Fabian Delph (Manchester City, £8,000,000), Matthew Lowton (Burnley, £1,000,000), Antonio Luna (Eibar, Undisclosed), Yacouba Sylla (Rennes, Undisclosed), Andi Weimann (Derby County, Undisclosed), Darren Bent (Derby County, Free), Graham Burke (Notts County, Free), Shay Given (Stoke City, Free), Enda Stevens (Portsmouth, Free), ?Chris Herd?, Ron Vlaar, Tom Cleverley (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-VILLA: Troy Deeney (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Gabriel Agbonlahor, Mark Robson (First Team Coach), Tim Sherwood (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw at Vicarage Road early in the 2006/07 season, and a 2-0 defeat at Villa Park settled by two late goals.  Watford started that one with a forward line of Tamas Priskin and Will Hoskins;  Ashley Young was absent, and would join Villa for what was ultimately an eight figure sum three days later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
1999-00 0-1 0-4
1982-83 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Guzan
Hutton       Richards                 Clark           Amavi
Bacuna                  Gueye             Veretout             Sinclair
Ayew            Gestede

VERDICT: Tim Sherwood broke into the Watford side as a teenager in 1987 looking like an Essex tw*t at a time when, as a 14 year-old living in Essex, I was particularly sensitive to such things.  This lingering resentment has stuck with me throughout Sherwood’s successful playing career and surprisingly rapid emergence as a manager which isn’t entirely fair or balanced on my part, but then all the best grudges are based on healthy irrationality.  Sherwood took over Villa last season and appeared to enjoy a fillip on the basis of not being Paul Lambert, as is so often the case in such situations.  Whether that’s sustained or not – and it’s easy to read too much into losing your last three games of a season even if that run did leave you a mere three points clear of the drop – remains to be seen.  Christian Benteke has gone, and that’s a big old hole to fill however much money they got for him…  Villa’s resurgence on Sherwood’s appointment manifested itself in Benteke finding his shooting boots again after an injury hit start to the season had seen him score three times before Sherwood’s appointment in mid-February.  There’s ongoing talk of a takeover with Randy Lerner’s enthusiasm having waned but the longer that drags the less chance it has of impacting Villa’s activity in this transfer window.  They look a bit precarious again as it stands.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Tyrone Mings (Ipswich Town, £8,000,000), Artur Boruc (Southampton, Free), Sylvain Distin (Everton, Free), Adam Federici (Reading, Free), Joshua King (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Christian Atsu (Chelsea, Season Loan), Filippo Costa (Chievo, Season Loan)

OUTS: Brett Pitman (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Josh McQuoid (Luton Town, Free), Miles Addison, Mohamed Coulibaly, Daryl Flahavan, Ian Harte, Joe Partington, Ryan Fraser (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Jaydon Stockley (Portsmouth, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A gripping 1-1 draw at the Vic in September in which Gabriel Tamas had a catastrophe before being (permanently) replaced by the very much more effective Craig Cathcart, and a 2-0 defeat in Dorset in January that was rather spoiled by an erroneous (if later rescinded) red card for Gabriel Angella. This remains our most recent away defeat, and the last time that we scored fewer than two goals in an away fixture.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Francis          Elphick          Cook            Mings
Ritchie         Arter            Surman               King
Wilson         Kermorgant

VERDICT: If I can justify disliking Sherwood for perfectly irrational reasons I can certainly justify resenting Bournemouth for pinching the title from us last season.  Not that that’s any more rational really…  Wednesday fans’ lack of grace was galling, all Bournemouth did was win the title through playing expansive, positive football.  Yes, Eddie Howe’s a bit smarmy and yes, we’ve had some very iffy decisions go against us at Dean Court (or whatever it’s called now) over the past couple of seasons but that’s hardly a watertight list of charges.  Actually, what I resent most about the final day is not that we lost the title.  That was really annoying, but would have been a bonus prize on top of getting promoted.  What I resent more is that the season, magnificent and wonderful and glorious in so many ways, should end like that.  Bitter and bitchy and angry, at all sorts of people.

Back to Bournemouth.  They’re a very strong side, quite obviously, with momentum and goals and have the punch to make an impact.  They’ve acquired and developed a range of very capable players – Ritchie, Arter, Wilson, Cook and Francis ought to be comfortable in the top flight.  At the time of writing though they look vulnerable to injuries in a couple of areas… Wilson, most obviously although a striker appears to be a priority, whilst messageboards don’t seem convinced by last season’s loan Boruc.  I’m not blown away by many of their signings either;  Distin brings plenty of experience but will be 38 in December. Mings is a prospect by all accounts but is an odd choice of priorities, you’d have thought that he was a big-club signing, someone to develop into a top player.  Bournemouth might have been expected to gamble their chips on someone who’s ready now, rather than someone who will be making his 50th senior start on his Cherries debut.  I can see Bournemouth starting well and occupying column inches if they catch someone cold in August or September.  Not beyond the realm of possibilities that they’ll struggle eventually though.

CHELSEA

INS: Asmir Begović (Stoke City, £8,000,000), Nathan (Atletico Paranaense, Undisclosed), Danilo Pantic (Partizan Belgrade, Undisclosed), Radamel Falcão (AS Monaco, Season Loan)

OUTS: Petr Cech (Arsenal, £10,000,000), Gael Kakuta (Sevilla, £2,500,000), Josh McEachran (Brentford, £750,000), Felipe Luis (Atlético Madrid, Undisclosed), Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact, Free), Christian Atsu (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Lewis Baker (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Izzy Brown (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Andreas Christensen (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Two Season Loan), Jordon Houghton (Gillibgham, Six Month Loan), Tomas Kalas (Middlesbrough, Season Loan), Nathan (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Danilo Pantic (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Mario Pasalic (AS Monaco, Season Loan), Marco van Ginkel (Stoke City, Season Loan), Wallace (Carpi, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathaniel Chalobah

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Three FA Cup defeats in seven seasons, the most recent a third round tie in January following on from which we were able to adopt a “well that wasn’t too bad” position until the Blues played Bradford in the next round.  Prior to that, a 5-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge in 2010 and a more credible showing at the Vic a year earlier in which Tamas Priskin gave us a 69th minute lead before Nicolas Anelka salvaged the tie with a hat-trick.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
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
Ivanovic        Cahill         Terry          Azpilicueta
Fabregas      Matic
Ramires               Willian                 Hazard
Costa

VERDICT: I started paying in attention in about 1980.  So… that’s kind of year 0.  Chelsea were in the second tier that year, and it seems they missed out on promotion on goal difference… but in my mind’s eye they were and remain a so-so second tier side.  That they’ve spent all but one of the last thirty years in the top flight winning the League four times, the FA Cup six times, the Champions’ League and the Europa League is neither here nor there.  They’re chancers playing above their station, and that’s it.

Chelsea won the league having blown the rest of the division away in the first half of the season and then just about been as good as anyone for the rest of it.  This time…  much as Diego Costa was a huge success, “The Charles Bronson of the Premier League” as was popularly observed as he picked a fight with the entire division before Christmas (and won), you’d be a little worried about their attacking options.  Another season like that from Costa and they’ll be laughing but… rumours of dissatisfaction, the departure of club totem-cum-dependable backup Drogba mean that the Falcao gamble might need to come off.  You wouldn’t be against it, but it feels a bit like the Veron thing, Mourinho wanting to show that he’s the man by getting the best out of a player that United couldn’t just as Ranieri did in 2003.  Didn’t really work then though.  As with Arsenal, everything’s relative…  might result in Chelsea finishing second instead of top.  Meh.

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