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Season Preview 2017 – Part 2 08/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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CHELSEA

INS: Alvaro Morata (Real Madrid, £70,000,000), Tiemoué Bakayoko (AS Monaco, £40,000,000), Antonio Rüdiger (AS Roma, £34,000,000), Ethan Ampadu (Exeter City, TBC), Willy Caballero (Manchester City, Free)

OUTS: Nathan Aké (AFC Bournemouth, £20,000,000), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus, £17,300,000), Asmir Begović (AFC Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Bertrand Traore (Lyon, £8,800,000), Christian Atsu (Newcastle United, £6,200,000), Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford, £5,000,000), Dominic Solanke (Liverpool, Tribunal), Mukhtar Ali (Vitesse Arnhem, Undisclosed), Nemanja Matić (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Alex Kiwomya (Doncaster Rovers, Free), John Terry (Aston Villa, Free), Tammy Abraham (Swansea City, Season Loan), Ike Agbo (Barnsley, Season Loan), Ola Aina (Hull City, Season Loan), Jamal Blackman (Sheffield United, Season Loan), Izzy Brown (Brighton, Season Loan), Fankaty Dabo (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Jay da Silva (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Marco van Ginkel (PSV Eindhoven, Season Loan), Michael Hector (Hull City, Season Loan), Tomáš Kalas (Fulham, Season Loan), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Mason Mount (Vitesse Arnhem, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Huddersfield, Season Loan), Lucas Piazon (Fulham, Season Loan), Kurt Zouma (Stoke City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kenedy

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two late, late defeats at either end of the season that left us higher on brownie points than the more valuable variety.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Courtois
Cahill                 Luiz             Azpilicueta
Moses      Bakayoko      Kanté         Alonso
Pedro                     Morata                  Hazard

VERDICT: So Chelsea are supposed to be likeable now, goes the theory. Don’t think I’d go quite that far.  There’s still something wrong with the length of that loanee list, albeit it’s something that reflects where football’s at in general rather than a crime perpetrated by Chelsea alone (heaven knows we’d hardly be in a position to criticise anyway).  The State of Chelsea has been thrown into particularly sharp relief by the Chalobah transfer which precipitated a degree of hand-wringing and navel-gazing from Chelsea faithful that was easy to sympathise with.  When you’ve got talent like Chalobah that can’t get in the side… OK, you’re spending vast sums on top young players, great.  But a club wants an identity and at least the illusion of a local grounding, and with Terry, whatever you think of him, out of the door the ongoing failure to bring youngsters through is going to niggle, League Champions or not.

As for this season, the Champions’ League will place a big demand on the squad and in Bakayoko and Morata you have players in key positions who need to work.  They might well do, but it’s a source of uncertainty.  Second for me.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Jairo Riedewald (Ajax, £8,000,000), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Steve Mandanda (Marseille, Undisclosed), Kwesi Appiah (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Fraizer Campbell (Hull City, Free), Zeki Fryers (Barnsley, Free), Mathieu Flamini, Joe Ledley, Randell Williams, Loïc Rémy (Chelsea, End of Loan), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: Adrian Mariappa, Hayden Mullins, Ben Watson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jordon Mutch, Andros Townsend

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A grimy point on Boxing Day given some lustre by Harry’s post-match performance, and yet another miserable trip to Selhurst.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hennessey
Tomkins              Dann            Riedewald
Ward                 Milivojević           Puncheon          Van Aanholt
Zaha                           Benteke                  Townsend

VERDICT: It must have been on the way up to Turf Moor for GT’s last game in 2001.  I don’t remember that, but checking the records it must have been.  “You can’t rely on bloody Portsmouth for anything”, said ig, which was obviously true.  The particular relevance was the preceding Wednesday’s 4-2 defeat to Palace at Fratton Park that had stolen from the world the prospect of Palace dropping into the third tier.

Similarly, last season in which Palace spent a month or so at the beginning of the year in the bottom three feels like a missed opportunity.  Four wins on the hop, including our miserable visit to Selhurst, put pay to that tantalising prospect.  The team always looked far better on paper than a relegation side, which was obviously half the fun… now, Frank de Boer is the wild card and a change in formation and emphasis is an unknown and a risk although, again, we’re not in a position to criticise and have survived such summer revamps before.  The squad looks thin and vulnerable to injuries in particular places, but who knows, in this constipated transfer market perhaps they’ll sign half a dozen players before the end of August.  In the meantime, a prediction of fifteenth with a big margin of error.

EVERTON

INS: Jordan Pickford (Sunderland, £30,000,000), Davy Klaassen (Ajax, £23,500,000), Josh Bowler (Q.P.R., £1,500,000), Nathangelo Markelo (Volendam, Undisclosed), Boris Mathis (Metz, Undisclosed), Henry Onyekuru (Eupen, Undisclosed), Sandro Ramírez (Málaga, Undisclosed), Cuco Martina (Southampton, Free), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United, £75,000,000), Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona, £10,600,000), Tom Cleverley (Watford, £8,000,000), Courtney Duffus (Oldham Athletic, Undisclosed), Aiden McGeady (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Arouna Koné (Sivassspor, Free), Connor McAleney (Fleetwood Town, Free), Josef Yarney (Newcastle United, Free), Jack Bainbridge,  Delial Brewster,  Michael Donohue, Tyrone Duffus, Russell Griffiths, Connor Hunt, James Yates, Tyias Browning (Sunderland, Season Loan), Kieran Dowell (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan), Brendan Galloway (Sunderland, Season Loan), Matthew Pennington (Leeds United, Season Loan), Joe Williams (Barnsley, Season Loan), Enner Valencia (West Ham United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A bullish Okaka-fuelled win at Vicarage Road in December, and an inconspicuous defeat at Goodison in the miserable run-in.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pickford
Coleman        Williams        Keane            Baines
Gueye          Schneiderlin
Davies                      Rooney                    Mirallas
Sandro

VERDICT: The thing about Everton this season is a subtle change in lighting.  Seventh last season, very comfortably better than the morass behind them but ultimately eight points short of United in sixth, further than we were from Saints in eighth.  In a League of their own then, quite literally, very much the best of the rest after Leicester’s insubordination of 2015/16.

So in the meantime a few things have happened.  Romelu Lukaku has gone…  a huge loss, a reliable source of goals and the fulcrum of the attacking play.  On the flipside a huge amount of money has been spent on players very early in the window.  Keane and the extraordinary Pickford look good signings, Klaassen and Sandro less known quantities, Rooney could be brilliant or not, plausibly.  A revamp that was needed with an ageing senior squad, albeit there are a number of good kids pushing on too.

The thing is.  The thing is you look at it, and it’s still a team that you’d put odds-on to finish seventh.  And maybe that’s reasonable, maybe you say “you’ve lost your main man, your squad’s getting older, you’ve traded well and broken even, you’re still where you were”.  But the lighting’s different.  The loss of Lukaku will more readily be forgotten than the fact that £30m was spent on a talented but emerging goalkeeper.  Seventh, but the pressure will be on.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

INS: Steve Mounié (Montpellier, £11,000,000), Aaron Mooy (Manchester City, up to £10,000,000), Laurent Depoitre (Porto, Undisclosed), Tom Ince (Derby County, Undisclosed), Mathias Jørgensen (Copenhagen, Undisclosed), Scott Malone (Fulham Undisclosed), Danny Williams (Reading, Free), Jonas Lössl (Mainz 05, Season Loan), Kasey Palmer (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Harry Bunn (Bury, Undisclosed), Tareiq Holmes-Dennis (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Jack Payne (Oxford United, Season Loan), Isaiah Brown (Chelsea, End of Loan), Danny Ward (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby (U18 manager), Jonathan Hogg, Julian Winter (CEO)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-2 win at the Vic in Beppe Sannino’s last game in charge, and a rare off day in the burn-in towards promotion as the Terriers won 3-1 in Yorkshire.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 4-2
2013-14 1-4
2012-13 4-0 3-2
2000-01 1-2 2-1
1998-99 1-1 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lössl
Smith               Hefele         Schindler          Löwe
Hogg          Billing
Ince                             Palmer                  van la Parra
Mounié

VERDICT: What’s not to like, really?  An unglamorous side propelled into the top flight on the back of a work-your-nuts-off pressing style epitomised by Jonathan Hogg in the middle of the park.  Four years since he left Vicarage Road his departure remains something of an anomaly… he didn’t exactly move on to better things, a bigger club, but nor was he jettisoned because he wasn’t good enough.  Indeed, leaving as he did when he did on the back of an easy-to-sympathise-with desire to move closer to his family left him with that unusual veneer in an ex-player, neither discarding us nor being discarded.

His role in That goal against Leicester, an expertly judged far-post cushioned header cements his place in our history but really there was lots more than that.  An inexhaustible energy and a miserliness with possession, especially in tight corners, endeared him for two years and his tag team with Chalobah and Almen Abdi was the most convincing, well-balanced midfield three we’ve seen at Vicarage Road in fielding that formation.  If, as is argued on Huddersfield messageboards, he’s the defining member of the team there’s going to be lots to like.

But how well they do is kinda hard to judge;  a defence made in Germany got them promoted, but not having seen much of them it’s difficult to assess how well equipped they are for the top flight.  By default you’d be concerned about a side that didn’t perhaps expect to get promoted coming up in the play-offs, and Tom Ince is hardly a talisman for successful Premier League sides, a signing that shrieks of scraping the barrel before the season’s started.  Nonetheless, Town have acted decisively and quickly in revamping their squad which gives them a chance, and a club that has honoured a commitment to charge long-term season ticket holders a mere £100 for their Season Ticket this term is one you’d hope will do well.

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Season Preview 2017 – Part 1 07/08/2017

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

ARSENAL

INS: Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon, £52,000,000), Sead Kolašinac (Schalke 04, Free)

OUTS: Kaylen Hinds (VfL Wolfsburg, Undisclosed), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus, Undisclosed), Chris Willock (Benfica, Undisclosed), Stefan O’Connor (Newcastle United, Free), Yaya Sanogo (Toulouse, Free), Kristopher da Graca, Kostas Pileas, Takuma Asano (VfB Stuttgart, Season Loan), Mark Bola (Bristol Rovers, Season Loan), Steve Mavididi (Preston North End, Season Loan)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Tommie Hoban (youth)

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A humbling first half in August given ample silver lining by Roberto Pereyra’s second half debut, and a stonking win at the Emirates in January that secured our final away points of the season.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 1-3 2-1
2015-16 0-3 2-1
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Cech
Koscielny        Holding        Mustafi
Bellerín              Xhaka           Ramsey                 Monreal
Özil                     Lacazette                 Sanchez

VERDICT: It must be bloody pergatory to be an Arsenal fan at the moment.

And I’m not talking about the hand-wringing, the sense of entitlement and so forth.  Fans of most clubs are guilty of that in the right circumstances and as entertaining as it is from the outside you also have to pity the silent element of the Arsenal support who have to tolerate the nonsense that emerges from empty vessels and the easy target it makes their side.

You could take solace in the siege mentality that such things tends to invoke, except that if there’s precious little evidence of Arsenal fans being “as one”.  The Wenger thing, whatever your views and however little of a damn you give as an outsider is horribly divisive.  Such cursory “research” as I do for these pieces, flicking through forums and so on, evidences deeply entrenched and extreme positions.  I hate such situations as a Watford fan, things that split the support and have people turning on each other.  The illusion of harmony, of all being in it together on the same side, is one of the things I cherish about being at football.

And then there’s the Sanchez thing.  Good grief.  If I have to read one more piece about PSGorManCityorBayern… Sanchez expected to stay!  Sanchez expected to leave!  500k a week!…  and I don’t even give a damn.  Imagine if you did.

It occurred to me that Arsenal have emerged into almost the mirror image of George Graham’s notorious side.  That side was rugged, brutally pragmatic, solid, successful.  This side is flamboyant, flimsy, rudderless…  they’ll still be fine, obvs, although as United have found Not Being In The Champions League doesn’t provide big sides with a passport back automatically.  My guess would be a similar season on the edge of the Champions League places.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Nathan Aké (Chelsea, £20,000,000), Asmir Begović (Chelsea, £10,000,000), Connor Mahoney (Blackburn Rovers, Compensation TBC), Jermain Defoe (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Ryan Allsop (Blackpool, Season Loan), Callum Buckley, Jake McCarthy, Matt Neale, Lewis Grabban (Sunderland, Season Loan), Jordan Lee (Torquay United, Season Loan), Ben Whitfield (Port Vale, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Carl Fletcher (Youth Team Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of two all draws in both of which the home side twice came from behind. And no red cards.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Begović
Francis            Cook               Aké            Daniels
Fraser               Arter                    Surman          Stanislas
King             Afobe

VERDICT: Two years on, that game against Sheffield Wednesday is still going to take some getting over.  It’s a scar.  Bournemouth weren’t even playing.  So… as we intimated last year it’s difficult to consider the Cherries without twitching.  We’re the ones with the problem, it’s not a rational thing. It’s just there.

So.  The Premier League now boasts Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Burnley, Brighton, Swansea, Watford.  In 1992/93, the first season of the Premier League, we finished the highest of the sixth, an unspectacular sixteenth in the second tier.  The other five were in the third, as were the then perhaps underperforming Stoke and West Brom and seven other sides to have since played in the top flight.  As we’ve discussed often, whilst part of the supposed premise of the Premier League was to benefit the national team a big part of the incentive was conservatism;  hiving off a bigger share of the money was an obvious attraction in the short term but an “anti-competitive” barrier to entry in the longer term.  Harder for oiks like Watford, Wimbledon, Swansea to muscle in if they’ve a big salary gap to make up on promotion.  The same goes for the Champions League.  Gratifying that whatever good and bad has come out of the development the wholly undesirable casting adrift of the Football League hasn’t happened.

Bournemouth, then.  Ninth place last season might be… if not flattering then a little deceptive.  As we know six points separated eighth from seventeenth, the Cherries were one of very many kinda samey kinda decent on a good day of which there were just about enough sides in the bottom half of the table.  Nonetheless, a half-decent side that has supplemented itself with a strong spine over the summer in Begović, Aké and Defoe.  It will be tough for Eddie Howe to maintain his record of improving on the side’s position in every season since his return to the club in 2012, but safely in the morass again is the worst they should expect.  Twelfth.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Pascal Gross (Ingolstadt, Undisclosed), Josh Kerr (Celtic, Undisclosed), Aleš Matějů (Viktoria Plzeň, Undisclosed),  Mathias Normann (FK Bodø/Glimt, Undisclosed), Mathew Ryan (Valencia, Undisclosed), Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt, Undisclosed), Izzy Brown (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Rob Hunt (Oldham Athletic, Undisclosed), Elvis Manu (Gençlerbirliği, Free), Vegard Forren, Tom Dallison (Accrington Stanley, Six Month Loan), Tyler Forbes (Accrington Stanley, Six Month Loan), Oliver Norwood (Fulham, Season Loan), Christian Walton (Wigam Athletic, Season Loan), Sam Adekugbe (Vancouver Whitecaps, End of Loan), Chuba Akpom (Arsenal, End of Loan), Sebastian Pocognoli (West Bromwich Albion, End of Loan), Fikayo Tomori (Chelsea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A mundane draw at Vicarage Road and a rather less mundane afternoon in Sussex that launched several thousand hangovers.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 1-1 2-0
2012-13 0-1
2011-12 1-0 2-2
2010-11 0-1
2005-06 1-1 1-0
2004-05 1-1 1-2
2002-03 1-0 0-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ryan
Bruno              Dunk         Duffy             Suttner
Knockaert      Stephens         Gross        March
Brown
Murray

VERDICT: Brighton getting up, finally, is brilliant.  That’s the first thing.  Not just how close they came to oblivion, there but for the grace of, you know… not just that they survived exploitative owners, playing bloody miles away in Gillingham, playing at an athletics stadium.  That’s all great.

But then as they’ve come back up…  every club has idiots of course, and in any game a tackle, a decision, can cause friction.  But generally going to the Amex has been a joy, an absolute pleasure.  Watford-coloured lightbulbs, welcoming stewards and posters in the away end “before that was a thing”, as the current parlance goes.  Some good games and results there haven’t hurt of course, two wins and two draws in four visits… crowned by that game two years ago.  The last game against Wednesday was an anticlimax, but the Brighton game was the zenith of the season crowned by Vydra’s “we’ve only gone and bloody done it” goal that echoed Allan Smart’s 1999 goal at Wembley in all but that it took a few hours for stuff to be confirmed.   Bit of a shame that they come to us on the August Bank Holiday and we go to them just before Christmas rather than vice versa.

As for this season…  always difficult to assess how well a promoted side might do without having seen much of them, or paid as much attention as we might traditionally have done. However whilst the forums are pragmatic and “look where we’ve come from” prevails the most optimistic aren’t saying more than “we’ll be competitive and have a chance”.  The concern for me looks to be that whilst defensively they might be sound – though keeper Ryan, reputation or otherwise, must be a bit of a risk – and they’ll be competitive in midfield they will struggle for goals.  There’s more verve in this side than in Middlesbrough’s last season, say, but they might suffer from the same problems ultimately.  Got to be relegation candidates, though it’s a fairly open field.

BURNLEY

INS: Jack Cork (Swansea City, up to £10,000,000), Phil Bardsley (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Charlie Taylor (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Jonathan Walters (Stoke City, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Michael Keane (Everton, up to £30,000,000), Tendayi Darikwa (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), George Boyd (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Rouwen Hennings (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Free), Michael Kightly (Southend United, Free), Joey Barton, Paul Robinson, Brad Jackson (Southport, Season Loan), Aiden O’Neill (Fleetwood Town, Season Loan), Alex Whitmore (Bury, Six Month Loan), Jon Flanagan (End of Loan)

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A demoralising capitulation at Turf Moor that stopped anyone getting too carried away with preceding wins over West Ham and Manchester United, and an important home win in which M’baye Niang’s flame was set to “on”.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Lowton            Tarkowski                Mee                  Ward
Gudmundsson    Cork             Hendrick             Brady
Vokes            Gray

VERDICT: The Sean Dyche season feels like a lifetime ago.  Actually it was six years ago which sort of seems oddly distant at the same time.  The recipe then, in the end, when it got going, was tough-as-old-boots experience – Nosworthy, Taylor, Iwelumo, John Eustace – supplemented by a bit of magic dust.  My brother missed the second half of that season and has never accepted my version of quite how good Sean Murray was, how he grabbed the plaform he was given and danced all over it.  He’s seen the wistful, not-quite-fittingness that followed and, not having seen what went before, has been irritated rather than disappointed by it.

So anyway.  Tough as old boots.  Incoming: Jon Walters, Phil Bardsley… check, check.  Burnley must be a lot of fun to support, in a backs to the wall, all in it together kind of way.  Magic dust…  not so much, maybe, but enough.  Probably.  At the time of writing the squad is deeper than last season, and has more experience but there’s a Michael Keane-sized hole in the middle of the defence and the wide options in particular look flaky.

Not top of your list of Clubs To Get Relegated.  But certainly in the frame if the breaks go against them.

Watford 0 Real Sociedad 0 (05/08/2017) 06/08/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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1- First and foremost, we’re here for GT. There’s yellow everywhere, including in the Rookery where, if the donated tributes get a bit lost the sentiment is evident and a mighty GT banner dominates. And that’s the theme really… what’s important is not the substance, not the what, but the motivation behind it.  Everyone… club, supporters, guests… want to do this justice.  So there’s all sorts of entertainment going on behind the Rookery by all accounts – and whilst I grouchily resent not being allowed to sit in my seat, let alone my stand for any fixture on this occasion allowances must be made.

Motty’s on the pitch before the game giving a very Motty tribute, heartfelt and verbose.  At half time there’s a fine parade of those who played under or worked with GT, plus Rod Thomas, a little perplexingly, who signed as a trainee the summer that GT left and was long gone by the time he came back.  An injury means that his circuit of the pitch is by far the longest…. the highlight of the parade is the appearance of Jan Lohman, looking exactly like Jan Lohman ought to look at 58, wild hair and all.

Hell, even ig is here to join in with the manifold rounds of ovation and applause.  He stands up until kick off, of course, in the rather claustrophobic Upper GT stand… when challenged about whether good luck rituals have any place in pre-season friendlies he mutters something about injuries.

2- There’s a debutant, too, blessed with all the enthusiasm and lack of cynicism you’d hope an expect from a younger member of the squad. Discussions regarding his potential inclusion during the week covered his stamina, his ability to cope with the big occasion, the risk of a premature debut ruining a burgeoning career.  The selectors are all old enough to remember Gary Fitzgerald.  In the end the head of the selection panel, my brother and Jacob’s father, adopts the strategy of shovelling chocolate down him regularly in a shameless attempt to foster association between being at the football and having fun.  Not four until November, Jacob makes a hugely encouraging debut the highlight of which being several second half bellows of “Yoooorns” from the front row of the upper tier in defiance of pre-season friendly protocol and the lack of justification for such exuberance emanatig from the pitch.  You’ll notice that, two thunks in, I haven’t mentioned the actual football yet.

3- Because it’s rubbish.  Or rather…  it’s rubbish in many respects, entertainment value being high on the list of said respects.  Sociedad may not have been the most obvious opponent for this GT-themed encounter but they’re a tidy side (and, it should be noted with thanks, played a low key, patient and accommodating role in the afternoon’s commemorations including skipper Xabi Prieto warmly greeting Rita Taylor during the post match trophy presentation.  We all wanted to go home by that point so I don’t doubt he did).  Reassuringly, it’s Dad who makes the mistake of asking where exactly Sociedad is…  they’re much the stronger side in this first half in which our defence, three-quarters rebuilt since Villa Park, holds out rather well.  Miguel Britos in particular looks more composed than he has done in competitive action for a while and behind them Heurelho Gomes is mostly alert and defiant, one exception being a bouncing ball catching him out before a linesman’s flag came to the rescue.

But it feels like a song to which we’ve learned the verse but have yet to master the chorus (and for which precious few sympathy points will be awarded for “giving it a go”, to extend the metaphor).  In the final third we have no conviction and no cutting edge;  as is Marco Silva’s trademark the wide men get a lot of the ball but next to nothing makes its way to Sinclair, who for all his energy isn’t much of a target anyway.  Roberto Pereyra is by some distance our best hope of making something happen, aggressive as well as deft and furiously purposeful in possession and with license to wander around but there’s not enough going on around him to disrupt a disciplined Sociedad rearguard and he’s visibly wound up before half an hour has passed.  Those much vaunted attacking options that are supposed to be incoming will be welcomed by the Argentine as much as anyone.

4- The second half is better in that we at least register a couple of shots.  Roberto Pereyra executes the first, a trademark cut inside and curling, dipping effort that skims the far post.  Later, the frustratingly tentative Nordin Amrabat breaks mould and clubs an optimistic but venomous drive straight at Rulli from 25 yards.  Tom Cleverley, who rather falls between two stools in this formation and doesn’t flourish “in the hole” on this occasion, is on the end of a good early move that sees him through on goal but seems to let the ball run away from him.  It’s not a lot, but it’s something which is progress.

We make nine replacements during the course of the half; Stefano Okaka’s position on the bench, as reported elsewhere, is to protect him from risk of injury as we build up to Liverpool.  He seems quite well suited to this formation to me given his ability to hold the ball up, his willingness to chase down defenders, and particularly his adeptness at attacking the near post.  This he does as another sub, Femenía, makes a break to the touchline and slips a ball across.  It’s the closest we come, if not to scoring then certainly to raising blood pressure a little. The closest to scoring comes when Okaka puts a header into the net from an Amrabat cross; the diffusion of celebration caused by the offside flag less noticeable in the more restrained pre-season atmosphere meaning that some of us, um, don’t realise for a while that it has been disallowed.

Elsewhere Doucouré, who’s been the better of the double-act at the back of midfield on this occasion, makes way for Capoue and we lose something straight away, Doucouré perhaps better suited to this job.  Ben Watson comes on for Chalobah – we joke that you half feel he’d be less out of place in the half-time parade, so remote does his Watford career seem, but it’s good to have him back involved and he puts in a peach of a cross for Success, who’s had a stinker of a cameo, to shovel over the bar from close range.

5- So a game to be viewed through two lenses.  As preparation for Liverpool the kindest thing you can say is that some of it looks alright but you wouldn’t expect Joël Matip et al to be quaking in their boots.  This doesn’t look like a humming machine, not yet, but let’s see what competitive action does.

The other aspect is as a celebration, a tribute to a truly special man.  There’s no value in repeating words that we’ve written many times on this site and the other one.  You all know the score, and nothing should need further explanation.

Thank you GT.

Yoorns.

Aston Villa 0 Watford 0 (29/07/2017) 30/07/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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1- At ten to two we’re waiting outside the Trinity Road Stand.  The girls are radiating Watfordness in their luminous new home shirts, our allegiances visible from a distance of a hundred metres.  We’re waiting for Andy.  Andy, Andy’s wife, Andy’s kids, Andy’s sister’s kids.

I haven’t seen Andy for eighteen years.  We were at Uni together in the early nineties, at a time when his Villa side threatened to win the League.  It was also a time when GT was England boss, and Andy and I represented the two camps staunchly, reliably behind the main man.  Many a word was exchanged in the pubs of Leeds with the less well-informed of his calibre;  it’s good to see him and seems fitting that we’re meeting up again today.  As we wait another Villa fan approaches, shakes my hand;  “Nice day for it mate.  He’s up there, smiling down on us”.  Off the pitch, at any rate, and whatever the unfortunate dilution of the tribute by virtue of the necessary shifting of the game to the West Midlands and running a second GT game next week, off the pitch this is a friendly game in every respect.

2- Pre-season friendlies, then.  An opportunity to get back into the swing, and a time to examine every aspect of the afternoon for clues, indications, suggestions of what’s to come.  Particularly this summer with the transfer market so constipated, what’s to be read into the selection?

There are plenty of names missing, for one thing.  Étienne Capoue is a significant absentee given reports of a bust up with Silva.  Also missing are Britos, Janmaat, Holebas, Behrami…  Berghuis too, least surprisingly.  And Troy, although the skipper makes a conspicuous entrance to the away “end” shortly before half-time to raucous acknowledgement and runs the gauntlet of autographs and selfies to the top of the stand.  Also – perhaps – significant is that whilst squad numbers appear to be informally enforced – Chalobah at 14, Will Hughes at 18 – Brandon Mason runs out in 6, begging a question of another absentee, Adrian Mariappa.

3- We’re absolutely bloody dreadful for at least fifteen minutes.  Villa run at us and Gabby Agbonlahor almost stops to check that he hasn’t missed a flag as he skates through unattended demanding rearguard action from Heurelho Gomes.  That’s the story of this opening period, the Hornets amble around walking into each other, the home side get plenty of the ball and Elmohamady, Green and Grealish are sending balls across the box.  We’re reliant on inviduals to dig us out, and often it’s Younès Kaboul doing the digging – visibly more comfortable in a back four than a three last year it would be no surprise to see the Frenchman a nailed down starter this time.

Meanwhile Roberto Pereyra is starting a game for the first time since before Christmas, and if there’s the occasional touch that’s just slightly heavy, the odd pass slightly overhit he’s still an absolute joy for the most part, that blend of awareness and guile and verve and belligerence that we’ve missed.  We briefly thought we’d be missing it all over again; he’s down after a heavy tackle early on and within ten minutes there’s a board up.  Colin, over my shoulder, and I exchange dark glances both having seen 37 and feared the worst… no offence to Christian Kabasele, 27, but Seb Prödl running on to form a no-messing centre-back pairing with Kaboul was something of a relief.

4- Villa have been a train wreck for about five years.  Andy is very clear on the subject.  There’s no mistaking the strategy for this season though: In have come Glenn Whelan, Ahmed Elmohamady and Chris Samba to supplement an experienced squad already boasting Alan Hutton, Neil Taylor, Gabby Agbonlahor, Mile Jedinak.

And then there’s Terry. Whilst neutral fans will be quite comfortable with not having John Terry in their side it’s not difficult to understand how Villa fans have quickly reconciled themselves to the situation. He’s a bastard, but he’s their bastard and it’s quickly evident that, albeit in this pre-season friendly, he’s bringing a leadership and an authority to the Villa backline.

Villa’s strategy is not a long-term plan, it’s kind of shit-or-bust but you do fancy that a large support desperate for their side to be anything but bloody awful will quickly mobilise behind any suggestion of a promotion push and propel it onwards. You wouldn’t bet against it.

5- Daughter one has expressed disappointment that we don’t get to see Troy against John Terry; instead, the lone striker role goes to Jerome Sinclair. He doesn’t seem obviously suited to the task but you can understand Silva’s desire to not overrun our one fit striker and to look at alternatives, albeit we assume another striker is on the shopping list.

Sinclair struggles; his pace is an asset and gets him into a couple of good positions but he spoons an effort when through on goal in the first half and looks far too tentative when half-chances present themselves. He’s much happier when second half changes see him pull out to the right flank; by then he’s had an entertaining encounter with Terry which has seen him pile into his adversary in going for a high ball just after the break. One assumes that this was in response to entreaties to “put himself about”; it’s probably a foul but Terry wins the header anyway. As both land Sinclair nervously extends a hand of apology to Terry only to notice that the defender gives not even a little bit of a damn about the challenge and is already getting on with the game.

6- The second half is much better than the first from our point of view. Indeed the first half is better than previously related as soon as we calm down a bit and start putting our foot on the ball. Doucouré and Chalobah seem nailed on for the two at the back of the midfield, assuming Silva goes with that formation. Both increase their influence as the half progresses and by the second half Chalobah is in charge, swaying into space and wrong footing the stadium more than once. Significant in the changes from half time onwards are the introductions of Hughes, Femenia and Success. Will Hughes looks great, clever and impish and composed. The full-back’s defensive qualities aren’t examined but there’s no question he’s an attacking weapon, overlapping at pace and getting good balls in from the by-line.

Success, replacing Pereyra on the left flank at the break, is more erratic once reacting angrily to a heavy challenge, sometimes making bad decisions but also responsible for our two best moves of the half. He pulls centrally to the edge of the box and holds off aggressive attention whilst retaining the awareness and composure to spot and execute a brilliant pass to the overlapping Femenia. Femenia puts the ball across and Success meets it, forcing Jed Steer into his most significant stop of the game. Later, from a similar position and again under pressure Success dinks a lovely pass through for Sinclair but just gives it slightly too much. There’s an outstanding player in there somewhere trying to break out.

7- Which isn’t to say that everything’s hunky dory. Villa have also threatened; Kaboul gives away a penalty which Gomes saves diving to his left; opinions differ on this, Dad reporting from Youtube that it’s a decent pen and a good stop, Andy sending grumbles from the Holte suggesting not quite as much credit to taker or keeper. Later, sub Jordan Amavi really ought to seal the game attacking a cross at the left hand post but bizarrely the left back opts for his right foot and slices wide. The denouement to the game sees a heavyweight confrontation between subs Samba and Okaka; Samba has the height, Okaka the girth and they end up bruised but on even par.

There’s stuff to be positive about; encouraging outings from the newbies and some verve and flow to our play once we got going. Kaboul and Prödl look sound and Gomes does great with what he has to do. There are holes too, and unanswered questions. The next few weeks could be quite revealing. Watch this space.

Yoorns.

End of Term Report Part 7 19/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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33 – Stefano Okaka

There’s something wonderfully uncomplicated about Stefano.  Whilst the cult status suggested by his marvellous cameo debut at West Ham was never quite fulfilled thereafter we’ve nonetheless been able to rely on him for bullying and battering duties throughout.

If he’s not yet convinced everybody, it’s worth bearing in mind that he’s a victim of circumstances to an extent.  We look at Troy’s season and allow for the lack of creativity and supply for much of the campaign;  Stefano was feeding off the same scraps.  Similarly, whilst he began the season as one of a number of attacking weapons the sale of Ighalo left us with few options – and little variety – up front.

Next Season: Okaka is strong with his back to goal and attacks the near post well;  as one of a range of options – or given a more reliable supply – he’ll be an asset.

37 – Roberto Pereyra

That was the “oh for f***’s sake” moment of the season.  There were lots of them, obviously… any number of injuries, goals conceded and flimsy defeats in the tail of the season.  But this was the one, on any number of levels.  You can look at it from the point of view of him being increasingly the component of the midfield that allowed everything to flow.  Or you can look at it from the point of view of, as a supporter of a club with short-term aspirations of mid-table at best, one of the reasons to get excited about coming to the game.  Either way the innocuous but costly injury at Man City in December was a downer.

He’s tougher than I expected.  You sign an midfielder from Juventus (Juventus!) for a record or close-to-record fee and you kind of expect the silky touch and the awareness.  They’re great, but they’re a given or should be.  The industry, the willingness to get a foot in were an attractive bonus… even if it was the loss of that touch and awareness that penalised the rest of our season.

Next Season: Omitting him from the squad despite his anticipated fitness in April was a no-brainer, but we can expect to see him ready to go on August 12th.  Like a new signing, as the saying goes.

Walter Mazzarri

I’m sure you’ve all had the jokes.  I try to get in first now… “well, it was about time.  I’m scheduled in for a turn in March I think…”.

But it was the right decision.  I don’t think those – the majority? – who thought that way are being blasé, educated to be callous about changes in head coach by the last few seasons.  Or rather… perhaps we are, but this isn’t evidence of it.  Mazzarri leaving was the right thing for the club anyway.

The connection with the supporters is one obvious thing.  It’s not enough on its own, clearly, nobody would have been complaining if his detached manner had been paired with exciting football and good results.  I’d argue that Slaviša Jokanović wasn’t significantly stronger in this department.  The difference was that firstly, he tried… this shows that unlike Mazzarri he either saw it as important and/or was sensible enough to be taking advice from those inside the club who would surely have been emphasising that this was a good idea. Neither was true of Mazzarri.  Secondly, Jokanović didn’t come out with complete bollocks after a defeat;  it helped that there weren’t many of them, obviously… but when we were poor he said we were poor.  Mazzarri was credited with all sorts of fanciful nonsense after a defeat and in doing so, inadvertently, echoed Gianluca Vialli. Not a good thing.

You can look at the fact that we stayed up and say “well that ought to be enough for Watford”.  Even if you accept that, however, retaining a head coach isn’t about what’s just happened, it’s about where it’s going.  The most telling damnation of Mazzarri’s management was the utter lack of buy in on the pitch from players who looked, to varying degrees, demoralised, unconvinced and frustrated.  Staying up last season didn’t come with a good feeling about how the next was going to go.

There were good results, obviously.  Moments that suggested that he had something… I don’t think he lost the majority until well after Christmas.  The thing is, those results… Manchester United, Leicester, West Ham, Arsenal…. betrayed something else, something that the vacuous, lazy commentary of pundits paid for unresearched opinions rarely acknowledged or suggested awareness of.  That this was the best squad Watford have ever had.  Yes, the benchmark has changed, it’s a competitive division and we’ve only rarely been in the top flight during the era when large multi-national squads have been the thing… nonetheless.  This was a squad that shouldn’t have been looking over its shoulder in April.

The injuries didn’t help, obviously.  We’ll never know quite what he might have achieved with a more reasonable hand – not just fewer injuries, but a less systematic targeting of areas of the squad simultaneously, culminating in the ludicrous Manchester City fiasco when six centre-backs were unavailable.  The flipside of that of course is the frequent suggestion that Mazzarri’s training regime was a root cause of these problems, and certainly the long list of strains and pulls are the sort of thing that are famously “preventable”.

One mark in Walter’s favour, as we’ve already highlighted in this series, was his willingness to involve young players, and not just when forced to pitch them into the first team but throughout the season.  Some welcome long-termness there, nobody’s going to argue against that as a strategy.  Ultimately however there was just much too much in the “against” column and not nearly enough reasons to believe.  Having seen the common purpose which Marco Silva had instilled into what ought to have been a basket case of a club when we went up to the KC Stadium in April, it’s difficult not to be positive about the coming season.  This wouldn’t have been the case had the change of management not happened.

Next Season: Mazzarri, it has been reported, wants to stay in England.  One can only hope that his interpreter has good interview style, for his sake.

End of Term Report Part 6 15/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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25 – José Holebas

You know how it is. Think about that mate of yours, the one with the really annoying habit. The one how talks too much, or who’s a bit too opinionated. If they weren’t your mate you’d be far less tolerant; if they were just someone you wandered past in a shopping centre, or on the bus, they’d piss you off but because they’re your mate you know the good stuff too. You know that they’re fundamentally sound, their flaws become quirks that you accommodate.

A year ago, José Holebas wasn’t one of the good guys. His first season in England had seen him competing with and often losing out to Nathan Aké in the left back role and publicly venting his frustrations on social media. Now, after a season as undisputed left back punctuated by frequent explosions of frustration and bloody-minded determination, you look on that first campaign in a different light. One of the most reliable members of the team, if his discipline was a blemish you can at least cling to the fact that the bookings for dissent were much less frequent in the second half of the campaign. Being booked for a good hack feels more honest, somehow.

Next Season: So José’s now one of the good guys, but he turns 33 in a couple of weeks’ time. A full-back – let alone a wing-back – at that age needs at least a reliable deputy.

27 – Christian Kabasele

Admittedly, being a lower ranked centre-back and not a popular old boy presents you at something of a disadvantage in terms of making an impression. Nonetheless, one year on and despite seven starts (plus nine as sub) we don’t know an awful lot more than we did a year ago when Kabasele looked kind of mobile and kind of OK in pre-season. Since then… we’ve learned that Kabasele is half decent as an attacker. That he’s prone to unfortunate attacks of cramp at inopportune moments. And. Umm.

Whilst it’s tempting to think of Kabasele as the youngster – he’s the youngest of our six senior centre-backs – he’s 26. Hardly a spring chicken, and not someone with a load of development left in him. He’s versatile, useful to have around, and if he’s happy to stay then he’s fair enough as cover.

Next Season: But you fancy he might not get that chance…

29 – Étienne Capoue

The aggravating thing is that he’s so nearly completely brilliant. Nearly. Occasionally he’s reaches those levels… the herculean win at the Emirates was built on his shoulders. But some of the time it’s that willingness to take charge, to be the main man, that’s missing. He’s indisputably one of our most talented players but you’d want him to be more of an influence, more than a leader and a driving force than he actually is.

If he were, he wouldn’t be playing for us, and so on and so forth. And let’s not overstate it, he’s still a fine footballer to be wearing a Watford shirt and a weapon that’s easily taken for granted. Significant, too, that his versatility in the midfield, his availability to do a number of different jobs perhaps doesn’t help him… no goals throughout last season in a conservative midfield, four in the first five games of this when given attacking responsibility before being shunted for other duties.

So he’s still an asset. Still a favourite, probably, given the ongoing popularity of “We’ve got Capoue…”, and also the best headline of the season (“Mou’s blue after Capoue Kerpow”). It’s just… well, you know.

Next Season: There’s a suggestion that serious competition for a midfield place would force more of those Arsenal performances out of Capoue. Would be nice to be able to test that theory.

32 – Brandon Mason

Yes, I know it was forced. I know that it happened when there wasn’t much of an option, but give Mazzarri credit. He was willing to blood the kids when the time came; not only that, but was rotating the youngsters in and out of the first team squad (and often into benchwarming duty as part of the matchday squad) throughout the season. Little evidence of that during the previous campaign.

Brandon Mason is completely brilliant. Tough, positive, fearless, his cavalier performance against Burton in the cup was a tremendous thing and the sticking out of the chin and shunting Gabriel Jesus into the hoardings on the thankless last game of the season was a rare highlight of the afternoon.

He’s flawed, obviously, but that almost adds to the attraction. It would be less warming somehow if Mason were a prodigy, so clearly ready that bringing him in and involving him was harder to squint at as evidence of a welcome return to a strategy of blooding some kids. His positional sense isn’t great, his discipline isn’t great. It doesn’t matter. That will come. Brandon Mason is completely brilliant.

Next Season: Onwards and upwards.

End of Term Report Part 5 12/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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21 – M’Baye Niang

The first thing to acknowledge is that this was ultimately a very successful loan. Niang impressed on his debut, that magnificent win at Arsenal, but was absolutely fundamental in two other big wins against Burnley and West Brom. Games that might very easily have been lost but for his vital, eye-catching contributions, a fine goal and a fine assist in each. So… he played a massive role in two crucial wins, and maybe that was the difference. Maybe, without those six points, we’d have been a more catchable target for Hull, say. We’ll never know.

The other regard in which the loan was successful is that both parties probably recognised that this wasn’t destined to be a long term partnership. Not that this was necessarily an option in January but… we could have bought him after all. Perhaps his attitude would have been… more convincing, more wholehearted had he made that commitment but as it was he never looked like he was sure he wanted to be here. The ability that he occasionally betrayed to shift up a gear and simply sizzle past a hapless marker, or whip in a vicious shot having cut inside only made his louche diffidence for the rest of the time more aggravating. Perhaps his heart was never in it, but media reports that he didn’t intend to stay came hot on the heels of those that suggested that we were only interested in a deal more favourable than the terms of the right-to-buy stipulated in the loan deal. Maybe we’re both better off out of it.

Next Season: Some reports link him to Premier League clubs, others suggest he doesn’t want to stay in England. At his best he is a top player, the sort of player who might play for Milan. But you’ve got to earn the right to do so, and its hard to see him recapturing those heights without a change in attitude.

22 – Daryl Janmaat

Daryl Janmaat was an exciting signing. Daryl Janmaat was a proper Premier League footballer. Yes, he’d been part of a relegated Newcastle side but no matter, he’d been a stand-out player. And he’d played in the World Cup and everything for, like, Holland. Big time.

He can’t defend for toffee, obviously. Had we stuck to the wing-back thing he’d have been absolutely fine; as a full-back, less convincing. And he seems incredibly brittle… not elastic popping hamstrings or anything concerning, just a creative ability to pick up different injuries… falling on his shoulder against Manchester United, colliding with Mapps in training.

But going forward he’s great. Bullish, direct, puts a decent ball in. Versatile enough to play right, left, even in a midfield role. I think he was always winning, and pretty comfortably, in that everyone saw the problems but wanted him in the side anyway. It was that goal at Stamford Bridge that sealed the deal for me. Brave, bloody minded and theatrical, a goal scored by force of personality. He’ll do.

Next Season: Would be good to see him injury free and a fixture in the side. But maybe not at full-back.

23 – Ben Watson

It started as it was to continue for Ben Watson. Ten minutes off the bench at Saints on the opening day curtailed by a last minute red card. Then… three more sub appearances in the League (one of which the hammering at Anfield), plus the cup humiliations against Gillingham and Millwall. Add a long spell injured – and being injured and having to work your way back to (merely) the sidelines would test anyone’s mettle – and you have a season to forget for Ben Watson.

Thing is, you’d still have him down as one of the strongest personalities in the squad. Solid, focused, professional. A player that makes other players play better, who keeps everything going. A stalwart under Quique Flores, will he get the chance to show us whether he’s still got it?

Next Season: You’ve got to fancy not. Home-grown or not, Ben is going to need to fight his way back in the context of a squad that’s constantly churning. A big ask.

24 – Odion Ighalo

Another one who seems so long ago simply because he spent so long leaving, on and off the pitch. The contrast is still extraordinary, between the Ighalo who looked so vivid and comfortable in his skin in the first half of last season and the tentative figure who spent far longer in the Watford side than his form might have warranted.

It’s not difficult to understand why we persevered. That ridiculous Ian Wright goal against Liverpool, the 15 goals in a first Premier League season and 20 in the blink of an eye the season before, the big offers from China unpursued last summer and the most mobile weapon in our attacking armoury was someone to be patient with as we waited for the goals to return.

It was a forlorn hope. His form this season seemed to desert him completely, his one goal in fourteen League starts a deflected effort at West Ham. The twisty turny run that preceded it suggested that this would kick things off for Iggy but that hope dissipated and accepting a £20m offer from China was a no-brainer in January.

Next Season: Iggy’s farewell was heartbreaking, his contribution massive; now at Changchun Yatai, struggling in the Chinese Super League, that goal and that song seem an awfully long way away.

End of Term Report Part 4 07/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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17 – Adlène Guedioura

It’s easily forgotten but Adlène was heavily involved in the first half of the campaign, in every matchday squad until the turn of the year before moving to Boro at the end of January. Easily forgotten partly because of the speed with which the narrative moves on and the recent past is consigned to history; also because throughout his involvement this season he felt like a stopgap, filling in until someone else came along (or regained fitness). He was already on his way out, in our heads.

Guedioura’s career is revealing in this regard. A first choice at Forest and at Vicarage Road during his Championship loan spells, he was only ever a bit part at Wolves, Palace or at Watford in the Premier League. The reality is that, as discussed before, his propensity to give the ball away is too expensive at the top level; in the Championship possession is traded more freely, Guedioura’s verve and elegance a rarer commodity. Stonking goals in Cup quarter-finals notwithstanding his career at Watford since signing permanently had never been convincing… passable as cover, a good agitator off the bench, but never looking like nailing down a starting berth by right.

Next Season: Due to a combination of inherent conservatism and, perhaps, trusting established defensive midfield options more Boro have restricted Adlène’s subsequent career to five cameos from the bench since January. Next season, as above, you’d fancy he could do rather better.

18 – Juan Camilo Zúñiga

There’s not much to say here, really. Zúñiga arrived on loan, ostensibly as a trusted lieutenant of Walter Mazzarri; experienced and versatile, clearly an asset. And I guess he was… certainly there’s a lot to be said for a player who can play in a wide range of positions reasonably diligently.

However I’m probably not the only one a little bit underwhelmed. It was quickly apparent that Zúñiga was going to struggle with 90 minutes of Premier League football, something he managed only twice during his year at the club. His busy scurrying might have been more valuable if sustainable for the duration of a match, the wing back role that he seemed to have been signed to compete for became a non starter; instead the Colombian became a regular substitute – 16 of his 22 appearances came from the bench – and was used infrequently after the turn of the year as injuries further limited his involvement.

There was that goal against United of course, probably the finest few seconds of the season, as part of a brief cameo that also saw him win the penalty that sealed the victory. Those minutes are what his Watford career will be remembered for.

Next Season: An option to buy was included in the loan; you’d be surprised if this was taken up.

19 – Jerome Sinclair

When I were a lad, and so forth. I don’t doubt that it’s always been the case that things was better in the old days when money wasn’t the heart of everything. Still. In 1999, less than 20 years ago, we broke our transfer record by spending £950,000 on Nordin Wooter. Now we’re punting £4 million on a maybe, a kid who might develop and might not.

None of which is Jerome Sinclair’s fault, but as yet he’s still a maybe. There’s clearly something there… quick feet, a turn of pace. But despite a lack of such attributes in the senior squad he never threatened to make an impact; perhaps more alarmingly he didn’t make any waves in the Championship either, albeit during a bizarre period at Birmingham City which probably wouldn’t have been chosen again in retrospect. He looks lightweight, and it would be a surprise if he featured significantly in this campaign.

Next Season: Another loan. And a red meat and Guinness diet.

20 – Mauro Zárate

Here’s another nagging voice. Yes, Mauro did well before his injury. Yes, he was the dominant figure on the pitch during that West Ham game and yes, his season-ending injury was a pain in the arse disaster in a season of pain in the arse disasters.

But the fact remains that he only started three games, none of which he finished. They were decent enough – a win, a defeat and a win that became a draw – but they’re not a basis on which to judge a fledgling Watford career. Zárate looks useful enough, he’s got pedigree but we honestly don’t know yet. He’s an older player in a squad of older players, it will be interesting to see what role he plays in a fully fit squad.

Next Season: We get a longer chance to see what we got.

End of Term Report Part 3 05/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

10 – Isaac Success

You don’t have to like someone to learn from them. Dad told me that after the thirty seventh GP I’d seen during my highly mobile childhood poured scorn on how I managed my diabetes, just like the others had done before changing everything. Dr King was a patronising scumbag, but I can’t remember what his advice was so I obviously didn’t take Dad’s wisdom to heart.

There’s a little voice reciting the line at the back of my mind now though. No, I didn’t like Mazzarri (we’ll get to him…), but that doesn’t mean he was wrong. Not about everything, not necessarily. And whilst it’s convenient to pick and choose the bits to trust, the criticisms levelled by Mazzarri at the unprofessionalism of Success’ approach aren’t something we’re in much of a position to judge.

He looks tremendously exciting, of course. Raw, sure. But powerful and quick and elegant and clever and unpredictable. In as much as I understand – or tolerate – minority sports I might compare him to Jonah Lomu. And yet… the player who cost either our highest or second highest transfer outlay, depending on which source you trust, has only been awarded two starts.  So what to believe?  Is he the precocious, extraordinary talent who executed any number of sparkling cameos, particularly earlier in the season, and so nearly scored Goal of the Ever late at Arsenal?  Or is he the slacker that Mazzarri implies, an unfavourable possibility fed fuel by rumours (stirred by an agent?) of moves to Palace or West Ham?  And if he’s both, which side wins?

Next Season:  We find out.

11 – Valon Behrami

It’s in the eyes.  That’s how you know.  Before he joined Watford, before we were able to judge for ourselves, I always felt that there was something not quite right.  Misinterpreting what lingered at the back of his leer as cockiness, modern-day-footballer-mercenary arrogance, I bemoaned his recruitment two years ago.  I was wrong.

I love the way that his legend is fuelled by titbits from the club, I almost don’t care whether it’s deliberate fabrication by the media team.  Robert Pereyra : “I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m afraid of Valon Behrami“; the excellent UCL diary series relating stories of youngsters being booted around. He’s simultaneously the archetypal modern footballer, playing in Italy, Germany, England, three World Cups… and a throwback.

One of rather few fond memories of Watford around 1990 came in a game against Port Vale when a forgotten visiting midfielder was putting the boot in with abandon, unhindered by the officials.  As the crowd bawled its frustration in the way that supporters of a poor team tend to do, Steve Perryman leaned across the bench and Gary Williams stood up and unzipped his tracksuit top like a superhero.  The rest was inevitable.  I’d like to think that Valon will always have that role, if he wants it.

Next Season:  But the suggestion has been that “only” 32 or otherwise, Valon’s legs aren’t going to permit him to sustain a Prem career for much longer.  He’s been sellotaped together for much of this season, and links to Sion aren’t the stuff that idle speculation is made of.  Hope I’m wrong, natch.

15 – Craig Cathcart

Ah.  Yes.  Craig Cathcart.

Easily overlooked in a season defined by everyone getting injured that Craig was injured more than most.  Three months out at the end of 2016, another six weeks at the tail of the campaign and all of this after a summer which had seen Craig’s stock rise even higher as Northern Ireland’s defence in particular did a sterling job in the Euros.

We shouldn’t forget about Craig, or write him off.  He’s a very fine defender and if it’s unreasonable to draw a cause-and-effect link between Craig’s availability and our record it nonetheless reflects well upon him that we won more games with him in the side (7) than we lost (6), those six including Spurs (twice), Chelsea and Manchester United.  Elegant, unfussy, not particularly flattered by being asked to play right back but a better stand-in than some, he would have been so helpful at many stages during his absence this season.

Next Season:  Hopefully a season free of injury to remind us what a gem we have.

16 – Abdoulaye Doucouré

And here’s an argument in Isaac Success’ favour.  Here’s the benefit of the doubt.

Having been signed in January 2016, a signing deemed such a catch that it was worth buying him even if we couldn’t use him and then loaning him out for half a season, an impressive half season by all accounts, Abdoulaye Doucouré was famously on his way out of the club in August before having kicked a ball for us in competitive action.  Except the paperwork didn’t quite get through.

Misjudging a player isn’t a criminal offence.  Even one deemed such an asset by others.  Maybe he wasn’t all he’d appeared.  Maybe he wasn’t going to “work” the way Mazzarri wanted to play.  Maybe he was a bad egg, maybe England wasn’t for him.  But Mazzarri was wrong.  Forced, ultimately, by the rampaging injury list to bring Doucouré in for more than just a second-string cup run out for the New Year’s Day hammering by Tottenham Doucouré took his chance and quite literally ran with it.

From that point on he never looked like dropping out again.  Strong, calm, elegant, his impact was such that he was afforded serious discussion when the Player of the Season vote came up despite not playing in the first half of the campaign (as an aside, it would have been interesting to see quite how close he came; the failure to publish the traditional breakdown disappointing).  Nor was there any evidence of him being restless – an interview published on the Official Site showed him to be settled and keen to stay, the family man who wouldn’t join the Hornets with his wife pregnant in the summer of 2015 hardly comes across as a disruptive influence.

Next Season:  One for Marco Silva to build his team around.

End of Term Report Part 2 01/06/2017

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

6 – Adrian Mariappa

What an peculiarly orthdodox career Adrian Mariappa has had.  Growing from captaining our youth team to the point where he was manifestly too good for the Championship, he has since been in the grey area of not quite being good enough to establish himself in a Premier League side. A first choice understudy, versatile enough to do a number of jobs pretty well, professional enough to apply himself to that role.  A jobbing Premier League footballer, if there is such a thing.

Confirmation that we’d re-signed Mapps was one of my favourite moments of last summer.  The game against West Brom was one of the highlights once the football got under way.  An hour in, Miguel gets a red card and Mapps is off the bench after two thirds of a season of being largely neglected on the sidelines, last cab off the rank.  And he was completely brilliant.  In any season, the guy kept in cold storage and wheeled on when all other options had been expended and down to ten men playing a blinder would have been cause for celebration.  In the context of this man being a Watford youth product and ex-Captain returned to the squad… his performance for that last half hour was the cherry on the evening’s cake.

Next Season:  Mapps’ half a dozen starts thereafter weren’t flawless, but he demonstrated that he’s a very capable defender, a great option to have.  He’s also home-grown, one of us.  As long as he’s happy with his lot, what’s not to like?  A bona fide Watford hero.

7 – Nordin Amrabat

A funny thing happened at Leicester.  In the context of a defeat that was simultaneously not reflective of our contribution to the game and yet utterly deserved, the frustrations of our impotence and trajectory boiled over in the stands.  We were then treated to a throwback that would have bestowed a warm nostalgic glow on a par with reviving a long-forgotten chant or seeing a former hero trot off the bench for the other lot except that we were too grumpy, and actually watching the crowd isolate a boo-boy was never much fun in the first place, a bit like that “we’re the riiiight side” chant but more so.  So after a few years with nobody particularly in the chair Amrabat briefly joined the likes of Dominic Foley, Bruce Dyer and Devon White on that uncelebrated list.

The boo-boy thing has always irked me, but Amrabat’s isolation seemed particularly harsh.  It’s not that he’s not inadequate…  last summer he was almost out of the door and now, eighteen months into his time at the club, we’re still not really sure what he’s for.  And yet… he’s never hidden.  He’s put a shift in at wing-back, as a winger, as a midfielder, as a wide attacker.  No, there’s nothing like enough end product and yes he has become incredibly frustrating as his dropping confidence has reduced the likelihood of him taking someone on from small to very small.  But he’s never hidden.  He’s always been there.  And at times of the season he was our most aggressive attacking threat.

Next Season:  Would be a huge surprise if Nordin used up one of our non-homegrown slots next season, as it was this.  He should leave with our best wishes.

8 – Tom Cleverley

In what was an unusually productive and successful January transfer window, one piece of activity stood out.  Such a sensible signing on so many levels…  experienced, good enough to have won England caps – and, therefore, contributing to the homegrown quota – and a popular former Player of the Season whilst on loan as a bonus.  Yet another indication that the club management know what the hell they’re doing… harder to judge based on less familiar names from abroad but few, if any, Watford fans would have doubted the value of this loan-with-an-option. A no-brainer.

We’ve all followed Tom’s career since his magnificent loan season under Malky Mackay.  The surprise, perhaps, is that his success has been so relatively limited.  That, and that the goalscoring, goal creating attacking midfielder that we witnessed has never really spread his wings in the Premier League, not even during a loan at Villa under Tim Sherwood who cited that loan as evidence of the sort of player Cleverley could be.  Eleven of his 27 senior goals to date came during that loan.

His loan this season started incredibly strongly.  He was busy and energetic, attracting and retaining possession in dangerous areas around the penalty box and providing dynamism to our attacking play.  In his second debut against Boro he got a touch to a long throw and was incredibly unlucky to hit the post… this was the player we remembered, bold and assertive.  Significant, then, that since an early flurry Tom’s form has been rather less consistent…  he’s still busy, still energetic, but his willingness to attack the box has receded.  He’s not looking for the ball in such positions any more.  It’s odd…  it’s as if the biggest obstacle to Tom’s success is in his head.

Next Season:  A lynchpin of the side, without doubt.  Would be wonderful to see that attacking verve back in his game too.

9 – Troy Deeney

We’ll get to Walter later on, but it’s unavoidable at this stage to observe that if you want to make yourself terminally unpopular with the Watford support, pissing off and ultimately alienating Troy is a good place to start. Forget the stuff about no player’s bigger than the club and so forth, that’s all true, obviously, but not relevant here. You have a captain who should be the easiest person in the world to keep on side. Someone who is so utterly focused and motivated by the success of the team, so honest and yet considered in every public utterance. Someone who doesn’t like being rested – who would – but who would surely have responded positively if, for example, being dropped from the starting eleven at Spurs, just after a monstrous performance against West Brom and on a run of six goals in eight starts had been accompanied by a proper conversation. You can only imagine that it wasn’t.

Troy has had more imposing seasons on the pitch, rattled in more goals, but can cite plenty of mitigation. The almost total lack of creativity that stymied the side for much of the season can’t have been any fun to play under. The frequency with which a side bereft of confidence or strategy resorted to hitting long balls towards their isolated totem. That he still got into double figures for the sixth season running, the first Watford player ever to achieve that in League games, that he was still our most reliable head on the ball defending set pieces, that he was still every inch the leader off the pitch, candid enough to say what we’re thinking, brave enough to front up to the crowd at Hull, smart enough to steer Dion Pereira towards his ovation at Leicester. We’re very very lucky. In the absence of an outstanding candidate and without detracting from Seb or Heurelho he was my vote for POTS. There are clubs sniffing around again, as every summer, and a few Watford fans have been heard to speculate that maybe it’s right, maybe this should be the time. They’re wrong.

Next Season: Watford’s totem gives us so much. He will move on at some point, he can’t continue indefinitely, but the confidence with which he’s been awarded long contracts as the club’s highest earner every summer are testimony to his importance.