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Everton 1 Watford 0 (17/08/2019) 18/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- It should be clear to all who indulge in such things that the First Home Game Of The Season and The First Away Game Of The Season are distinctly special things. The First Game Of The Season has a lustre of its own, of course, but above and beyond that there’s something special about returning to the Vic and something equally special about hitting the road again.

It’s difficult to justify driving half the length of the country to watch a football match and then driving the same distance back on the same day to someone not themselves invested.  But this is very different to doing the same journey for something as mundane as work…  the journey itself, in both the literal and the abstract sense, is part of the joy.

So…  getting up early to facilitate a lunchtime arrival in Liverpool is great.  A detour to pick up in Milton Keynes is great.  Comfortable prattle in the car is great, as is comfortable silence, commentary on the radio, stops for snacks, stops for fast food, getting stymied by a closed road heading back into MK and the subsequent adventure through single track back roads, Doctor Duncan’s, driving past Stoke’s ground (Stoke this, Stoke that), whatever it’s called, and Anfield, all of it.  Great.  Football’s back.  Hurrah.

2- Goodison Park is old.  Visibly old.  In a good way, although I suppose that only being here once a season helps.  There’s a novelty these days in a stadium that has evolved rather than being designed, with all the wonkiness that brings.  The concourse is broad, nothing like the alarming crushes of Anfield for example, but the roof is low, the width undulates creating plenty of nooks and crannies and it feels claustrophobic.  Also in a good way.  And noisy.

In the stadium itself we note that the Toffees, not satisfied with trying to nick our players, have also aped the bin-bag flags of Wembley (though more half-heartedly, the jam slightly scraped across the toast rather than a comprehensive slathering).

Noting Gerry in the starting eleven, Tom on the bench and not wanting to restart any further discussion of Z-Cars (jesus) we leave that one there.  Unlike many of our counterparts who persist with a particularly classy song about Everton’s narcissistic head coach.   No, really, awesome stuff.  Some feat to get half of the Watford crowd’s sympathies behind Silva, good work.

Gradually focus turns to what’s going on on the pitch; we’re desperately hoping for no repeat of last Saturday’s vapid performance against Brighton.

3- For the first twenty minutes or so, we get a repeat of last Saturday’s vapid performance against Brighton.  Everton come screaming out of the traps and are quickly looking for long passes over the heads of our full backs to Bernard and Richarlíson.  It’s effective too, effective because we’re off the pace, still, all over the pitch and particularly in the midfield; Everton have too much time to pick these passes.  Deulofeu scampers off with the ball once but can’t get it onto his stronger foot, and twice subsequently surrenders possession timidly when an opportunity had suggested itself.

The goal comes, and it’s not entirely a surprise.  A long ball out from the back sees Bernard released down the left;  he cuts inside onto his right foot and drives low inside Ben Foster’s near post.  It’s a poor goal defensively, though the replay reveals a deflection which downgrades it to poor from appalling.  We don’t say much, but “what the f*** is going on?” is what the aura is shrieking.

4- The noise from the away end barely wavers though, to everyone’s credit.  Everton immediately take a step back, perhaps hoping to do what Brighton did and sucker us into overcommitting to hit us on the break.  Instead, removing their foot from our neck allows us to claw our way back into the game.

Craig Dawson had an inglorious debut last week, but he looks much more the part here.  As we’re in the confidence-building stage of trying to hang onto possession as Everton hare after us, he’s the calmest and the one with the quickest feet at the back, confidently moving the ball to a yellow shirt in space.  He also does that thing you were looking forward to when we signed him, towering at the back post to send a deep corner crashing goalwards.  It smacks off the crossbar to the bafflement of the away end whose angle had suggested a goal.  We will get goals from that.

So half time comes, lucky chocolate is studiously shared and consumed and if we’re still behind then there’s reason for cautious optimism.  Optimism that’s reinforced from the first kick of the second half as Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré grab hold of that midfield and rip it between their teeth.

This is more like it.  No, we don’t get the goal but we are dominant in the second half and force an Everton side with a fine defensive record into risky challenges and pressure situations.  Capoue in particular does well, given that he’s running the gauntlet of a silly yellow from the first half.  We completely unpeel them once, when the Frenchman surges out with the ball (not for the first or last time) and an interplay with Deulofeu releases Deeney.  Only a stupendous block from Pickford, out quickly to receive the shot full in the face, denies him.

On comes Danny Welbeck, who had been the subject of increasing adulation from the away end.  His first touch as a Watford player is as rusty as hell but he gets better…  nimble, aware, mobile, strong and elegant.  A good start, and utterly sensible to give minutes to a man who badly needs them.  His appearance seems to invigorate Troy also;  the skipper has won next to nothing from Keane all afternoon but suddenly has his number, perhaps because he had a more obviously attentive target to flick on to.

We don’t have it all our own way.  Richarlíson has two headers at goal, one a particularly bad miss which could have changed the tone completely in a low-key afternoon for the Brazilian.  Moise Kean turns and twists to send a low shot narrowly wide.  But these are the exceptions… we have the upper hand, we’re forcing the corners.  Another good move from right to left sees Doucouré missing out at the far post, perhaps harshly denied a corner.

5- The game ends without us hammering on the door, partly due to Everton’s effective “game management”.  Everyone does this of course, Everton are no worse than most others…  but as an aside the tapping of the wrist to indicate time being added on as by Lee Mason here misses at least some of the point.  When you’re chasing the game you don’t want the other lot to kill the momentum…  it’s not just about time remaining it’s about being able to play it effectively.  A staccato ten minutes isn’t much harder to manage than a staccato five minutes as the side protecting a lead if the referee doesn’t take action to forcibly prevent the slowing of everything down rather than pretending that tapping his wrist and adding a minute or so covers it.

As for VAR…  another game not particularly disrupted by the technology in the sense of that M word, Momentum, again.  A couple of the judgements looked a bit odd, not least Mina escaping without conceding a penalty for what looked a foul against Deulofeu.  But… it didn’t take time, which is the main thing for me.  Indeed, VAR’s biggest negative intervention here was to result in the scoreboard erroneously advising that Brighton had gone ahead.  Not so seamless elsewhere, once again.

So we wandered back across Stanley Park in the sunshine, beaten but unbowed.  Another defeat, yes, from a game in which we could, maybe should have taken something but the greatest need from today was to see that there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong, that the Watford team in our heads was still there.  We got that in spades, particularly in that second half.

Unfavourable statistics have been trotted out, but these things mean nothing out of context.  And there’s plenty of context for the run of defeats, the lack of clean sheets…  Cup Final, Troy’s suspension, da da da da da.  There’s a lot of grey space between everything’s terrible and everything’s great, and that’s where we are.

And one day we will win here.  We’ll cash in the debt of luck we’re owed at this ground (a very small extension of Everton’s credit here today courtesy of that deflection) and we’ll absolutely dick them.  And we’ll be there to see it.

Oh, and did I mention that football’s back?  Hurrah.

Yoorns.

Foster 2, Femenía 2, Holebas 3, Dawson 3, Cathcart 3, *Capoue 4*, Doucouré 4, Hughes 3, Pereyra 4, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Welbeck (for Hughes, 67) 3, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 79) 0, Gray (for Capoue, 84) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Quina, Gomes

Watford 0 Brighton and Hove Albion 3 (10/08/2019) 11/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- Will’s tone is earnest.  There are a number of attentive pairs of eyes focused on him.

“I think, what we should do,” he says, “is to take off all the clothes we’re wearing and burn them in a pile in the garden”.

It’s a high-risk suggestion in front of a group that includes a five year-old and a four year-old, the former of whom punches the air with a “yes” at the proposal, but you can understand the sentiment.  The afternoon’s events had been extraordinary and unprecedented.  Drastic action was warranted, all possible precautions necessitated.  My Primitives t-shirt was a lucky heirloom last season.  Who knows what rules govern this.  Let’s take no chances.

Rewind a few hours and it was all looking so positive, despite unseasonal swirling high winds.  The ground, as is becoming traditional, looks ever smarter after a summer’s work – seats in the Rookery/SEJ corner now, and big screens mounted high on the roof of the stand at each end of the pitch.  New signings Sarr and “England international” Welbeck are presented to the crowd and hysterically received, the former making his way slowly across the pitch without breaking his applause to the stands.  There are new montages on the screens, and then Z-Cars chimes in back in it’s traditional place and the cheer as the teams enter is peppered with grins and high fives and a particularly guttural roar.  Fair play to the club for being honest and brave enough to reverse a bad decision.

This positive mood projected itself into the game despite (presumably) Brighton opting to switch ends.  But only briefly.  For the first ten minutes or so Watford were on top, and if we weren’t creating clear chances then we were certainly making the early inroads, Deulofeu wandering in from the left to shoot over.  There were early portents here… more than once Femenía overlapped on the right only for the play to be channelled back into a congested central area…  this seemed odd, the Seagulls’ vulnerability surely down the side of a large three man defence with the attack-minded Solly March nominally as left wing back.

The other feature throughout was frantic closing down high up the pitch.  Both sides were at this, but it was more evident from the Hornets early on as we hunted in packs and chased the ball across Albion’s back line, looking for the opportunity to mug someone or force a rushed pass.  We did this quite successfully for a bit; Shane Duffy shanked a clearance into the SEJ, mouthed off in frustration.  Everyone cheered and all was well with the world.

Then Albion started to assert themselves.  This wasn’t really a problem, since even if they were coming rather closer than we were they were hardly opening us up.  It took an atrociously complacent straight ball out of defence by Craig Dawson, who must have hoped for a more convincing debut, which Albion gobbled up, rattled at us and ultimately forced a goal off Doucouré.  We had a bit of bad luck here, perhaps, an Albion player in an offside position bypassed by Stephens’ chipped cross, not interfering but distracting.  You’ve got to deal with that but… a bit unfortunate.  Particularly as this Albion side is well equipped to defend a lead.

2- Before we start wringing our hands at our own failings, the visitors are due no small credit.    Popular wisdom as recently as this morning was that a side that had struggled last season, particularly for goals, was taking on a manager untested at this level to overhaul the club’s playing style.  A recipe for disaster and it could still go pear-shaped, three points won’t keep them up.

But the reverse side of that coin is that if a side that was always rather good at being difficult and obstructive found a way of adding a few goals to that capability they’d have a handy side.  Once they were ahead there was only one winner;  we played our part (see below) but Albion retained their obduracy marshalled by man of the match Dunk whilst capitalising on mistakes at the other end.  That’s a fine recipe for mid table.

3- Everything we did looked like terribly hard work.  The start of the second half, with a bleach-blonde Pereyra on for the presumably not-quite-fully-fit Deulofeu, was encouraging.  Femenía was finally getting some of the ball down the right, Pereyra was taking responsibility on the left but the chances weren’t coming despite this.  Whilst there were plenty of off days – Will Hughes briefly flickered but only very briefly – the failure was tactical also.  Troy’s battle with Dunk was always wholehearted and engaging but we were talking three big centre backs against our two forwards.  Against a back three you need width or mischief and we didn’t have enough of either for long enough, much of our play was shovelled high through the congested centre of the pitch.  We struggled to retain possession, in part because Brighton were making it difficult to do so in the areas in which we were trying to play and we weren’t able to play around them.

Two goals in fifteen minutes, both borne of defensive calamity and clinical response to it, changed the tone entirely.  Andone nipped in at the near post to finish a move down Brighton’s right with Watford’s defence standing and pointing at each other.  Then Dunk played a long straight pass past a statuesque Dawson;  Foster was out quickly to challenge Maupay’s strength of will but the French debutant was sharp enough to nip around him and beat the bodies on the line.  The entire Albion side joined the bundle, the away end – as gracious as it’s reasonable to expect when 3-0 up away from home on the first day of the season – sang about winning the league.  The home stands emptied quietly and disconsolately.

4- An inevitable aside about VAR.  Rewinding back to the happy innocence of 2.55 when Daughter 1 was revelling in her one hundredth Watford game saw Daughter 2 embark on an unprovoked and unprecedented anti-VAR rant.  “Whoever invented VAR is my mortal enemy”.

A bit harsh, but difficult not to sympathise. The rabid pursuit of the Right Decision is a bizarre, cultish thing…  one otherwise reputable football blog’s twitter feed asserted, in this context, during the summer that “Football is all about getting decisions right”.  Is it bollocks.  I studied Mathematics because I liked the absoluteness of it, I liked knowing that I’d got the answer right.  But if you want absoluteness, do a maths test.  There’s no argument against making the right decision in isolation but when the cost is the nature, the momentum, the pace of the game itself then… yes, that cost is too high.

Actually the disruption provoked by VAR this afternoon was minimal; reviews seemed to occur seamlessly without the need for referee Pawson to interrupt play, there was a rather incongruous “VAR complete” announcement in the rather grandstanding “Gladiators, ready” style but nobody died.  And if reviews of Roberto Pereyra’s free kick – which appeared to strike an outstretched arm in the Brighton wall to the furious indignation of the Argentine – might have yielded a penalty after more painstaking review then that’s a sacrifice I’m personally quite happy with in the name of getting the hell on with it. Heaven knows that a foothold in the game was neither merited nor a potential route to point or three.   Elsewhere, others weren’t so lucky.

5- We had laboured our way to a few more chances, Femenía badgering possession off Dan Burn on the byline and squaring only to find a tentative finish.  Another chance, our best chance, fell to Dawson who did a far better job of slugging a shot goalwards only to be denied by a body on the line.  It had been obvious that it wasn’t our day from the point at which the first two guys trying the reintroduced dizzy kicks routine at half time scored with aplomb rather than falling on their arses as intended.  This just confirmed it.  And so at 5.30 we’re at my Gran’s conducting a post mortem wide eyed at the baffling ineptitude of it all.

On the plus side.  This isn’t a head coach that we don’t know or trust.  This isn’t a team that’s been rebuilt or lost a key component or that we have any doubts about.  Today was atrocious but we’re capable of so much better than this, even without our two new star turns.  A bad day.  But maybe that’s all.

On the minus side.  Ben Foster’s candid post-match reflection that Albion “wanted it more than we did”.  What?  What?

Not that we have any divine right to the most focused, determined single-minded side.  But why should any side be lacking in determination, lacking in wantingitness in early August?  How is that possible?  Whatever our failings… how can you lose 3-0 because the other side wanted it more on the opening day of the season?  That, if anything, is the biggest concern.

Because otherwise, other than that, all we need is another game of football.  Particularly one with it’s own narrative, with blood and thunder.  A disruptive fixture.

Ahhhhh, Everton.

Bring it on.

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 2, Cathcart 3, Dawson 1, Hughes 1, Capoue 3, *Doucouré 3*, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 2, Gray 1
Subs: Pereyra (for Deulofeu, 45) 3, Success (for Gray, 75) 3, Janmaat, Sema, Kabasele, Cleverley, Gomes

Season Preview 2019 – Part 5 09/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

INS: Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon, £53,800,000), Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham, £25,000,000), Jack Clarke (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Giovani lo Celso (Real Betis, Season Loan)

OUTS: Kieran Trippier (Atlético Madrid, £21,700,000), Vincent Janssen (Monterrey, Undisclosed), Josh Onomah (Fulham, Part Exchange), Fernando Llorente, Michel Vorm, Luke Amos (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Stoke City, Season Loan), Jack Clarke (Leeds United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SPURS: Étienne Capoue, Heurelho Gomes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Head of Player Development U17-U23), John McDermott (Head of Academy), Danny Rose, Perry Suckling (Head of Academy Goalkeeping)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A hugely fun win at Vicarage Road, penalty shoot out defeat after a duff Kabasele red and a late equaliser in an “away” tie and a late collapse at Wembley.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lloris
Foyth       Alderweireld           Vertonghen        Rose
Winks          Ndombele
Alli                           Eriksen                          Son
Kane

VERDICT: This one should be straightforward.

It was entertaining to see the WSC predicted final table, based on the average predictions of 20 supporter correspondents, see Man United come out with a predicted final place of sixth.  Exactly sixth, 6.00.  Tempting to think that EVERYONE predicted sixth.

For me Spurs in third should be even more of a given.  Look at the squad… not as good as City, not the depth of Liverpool, but clearly the best of the rest without the wobbliness of United, the circumstance of Chelsea, the defence of Arsenal.

And yet.  If Spurs’ superiority owes so much to the man at the helm, then any suggestion of vulnerability there is an issue.  Pocchettino has been making grumpy sounding noises, there’s a schism in the support reflecting support for Daniel Levy vs support for the Manager (who tellingly suggested his title should revert to Head Coach).  The Argentine has overseen the move to the new stadium, he’s taken them to a Champions League final.  You have to wonder whether his stock can get much higher.

If the manager stays, third.  Surely.  If he doesn’t, all bets are off.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Sebastian Haller (Eintracht Frankfurt, £45,000,000), Pablo Fornals (Villarreal, £24,000,000), Albian Ajeti (Basel, £8,000,000), Gonçalo Cardoso (Sporting Lisbon, £2,700,000), David Martin (Millwall, Free), Roberto (Espanyol, Free)

OUTS: Marko Arnautović (Shanghai SIPG, £22,400,000), Sam Byram (Norwich City, £750,000), Marcus Browne (Middlesbrough, Undisclosed), Edmilson Fernandes (Mainz 05, Undisclosed), Pedro Obiang (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Reece Oxford (Augsburg, Undisclosed), Lucas Pérez (Alavés, Undisclosed), Adrián (Liverpool, Free), Andy Carroll (Newcastle United, Free), Josh Cullen (Charlton Athletic, Season Loan), Toni Martínez (Famalicão, Free), Josh Pask (Coventry City, Free), Samir Nasri (Anderlecht, Free), Grady Diangana (West Brom, Season Loan), Jordan Hugill (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan), Martin Samuelson (FK Haugesund, Six Month Loan), Nathan Trott (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: Mason Barrett, Hayden Mullins, Domingos Quina

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A miserable, distracted defeat at the end of the season and a sparky win with Ben Foster in fine form at their place.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fabiański
Fredericks       Diop        Balbuena          Masuaku
Rice           Noble

Antonio                       Fornals                      Anderson
Haller

VERDICT: There was a point last season, it may have been after the Wolves defeat, where you looked at the table and realised that seventh was gone.  And then you looked at it again and realised that with the Cup Final less than a week beyond the final game, losing to West Ham and dropping into the bottom half was suddenly very likely.

That pissed me off more than the Cup Final in some ways.  Not that it was West Ham particularly, but that our league position didn’t reward our season anything like appropriately.  There were a bunch of well-matched teams there but we had our noses in front and then… blame the Cup Final, blame Troy’s dismissal, whatever.  We didn’t deserve to finish bottom half.

And that final game repeats itself very quickly, on the August Bank Holiday.  In the interim the Hammers have lost Arnautović but signed Haller and Fornals and should be all sorts of fun going forward.  At the back it looks a bit iffier though…  Diop and Balbuena are big personalities but the full backs are flaky and despite the monstrous Rice that’s not a midfield that’s going to offer a whole lot of protection.  Add an injury to Fabiański and the loss of the established cover in Adrián and you could probably do without Man City visiting on the opening day.

West Ham will do just fine, and should match the sort of finish they managed last season.  As we demonstrated, a win here or there can make a big difference to final places in a congested, competitive area of the table.  But there’s nothing like the solidity to maintain a top six challenge.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Raúl Jiménez (Benfica, £30,000,000), Patrick Cutrone (Milan, £16,000,000), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht, £12,000,000), Renat Dadashov (Estoril, Undisclosed), Bruno Jordão (Lazio, Undisclosed), Pedro Neto (Lazio, Undisclosed), Jesús Vallejo (Real Madrid, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jose Dias (Famalicão, Undisclosed), Ethan Ebanks-Landell (Shrewsbury Town, Undisclosed), Pedro Gonçalves (Famalicão, Undisclosed), Kourtney Hause (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Sherwin Seedorf (Motherwell, Undisclosed), Kevin Berkoe (Oxford United, Free), Aaron Hayden (Carlisle United, Free), Ryan Leak (Burgos, Free), Jack Ruddy (Ross County, Free), Donovan Wilson (Burgos, Free), Ben Goodliffe, Aaron Hayden, Carlos Heredia, Diego Lattie, Enzo Sauvage, Michal Zyro, Ivan Cavaleiro (Fulham, Season Loan), Helder Costa (Leeds United, Season Loan), Renat Dadashov (Paços de Ferreira, Season Loan), Niall Ennis (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Bright Enobakhare (Cheltenham, Season Loan), Christian Herc (Viktoria Plzeň, Two Season Loan), Cameron John (Doncaster Rovers, Season Loan), Will Norris (Ipswich Town, Season Loan), Connor Ronan (Dunajská Streda, Season Loan), Ryan Giles (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Alexander Molberg (Hobro IK, End of Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A brutally clinical win at Molineux and an aggravating defeat at home in which we really missed Troy sandwiched an extraordinary cup semi final in which the skipper showed his worth.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patricio
Boly         Coady       Bennett
Dendoncker
Doherty       Neves         Moutinho       Jonny
Jota          Jimenez

VERDICT: A stunning first season back in the top flight for Wolves who comprehensively lived up to their pre-season billing and with whom we had three stonking games.

The problem is self-evident however (writing on Wednesday evening, before transfer deadline day).  This is a small squad;  small by design, Nuno Espirito Santo reportedly likes it that way and you can’t argue with the results.  However Wolves had a good run with injuries last year, and there are any number of points in that starting eleven that look vulnerable to a deputy standing in.  Then there’s the Europa League effect;  we might have struggled in a similar situation, but our squad is much deeper than Wolves’, who have a couple of kids coming through but a weak bench, let alone further cover, as was painfully evident during the Cup Semi.  A couple of stronger members of that squad, Costa and Cavaleiro, have disappeared on loan and if the few genuinely new faces coming in are trade-ups it’s still a high risk strategy to run with such a small squad.

Wolves’ messageboards are far less gung-ho than the excitable portents of a challenge to the top six elsewhere, predicting a more sensible 8th-10th in consensus.  This seems perfectly reasonable. But it will be interesting to see what happens if and when things start going against Santo, always a big test of a manager.

Much has been made of the fact that Wolves did well against the big six but struggled, relatively, against weaker sides.   “If they can only start picking up points against the rest…” starts the argument, as if maintaining the more impressive side of the anomaly is a given, or more straightforward.  Wolves have a great starting eleven, but given the lack of recruitment and the Europa League thing it’s inconceivable that they’ll finish as high as seventh.  Far too much quality to struggle… but quite how much lower than seventh will be interesting.

WATFORD

INS: Craig Dawson (West Bromwich Albion, £5,500,000), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Manchester City, £220,000 compensation), Kane Crichlow (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed), Ismaïla Sarr (Rennes, Undisclosed), Sam Dalby (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Jamal Balogun (Reading, Free), Mason Barrett (West Ham, Free), Cameron Green (Reading, Free), Joseph Hungbo (Crystal Palace, Free), Bayli Spencer-Adams (Arsenal, Free), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal, Free), Callum Whelan (Manchester United, Free), Harvey White (QPR, Free), Henry Wise (Derby County, Free)

OUTS: Dodi Lukebakio (Hertha BSC, £17,700,000), Obbi Oularé (Standard Liège, £2,700,000), Miguel Britos, Tommie Hoban, Pervis Estupiñan (Osasuna, Two Season Loan), Michael Folivi (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Alex Jakubiak (Gillingham, Season Loan), Marc Navarro (Leganés, Season Loan), Jerome Sinclair (VVV-Venlo, Season Loan), Ben Wilmot (Swansea City, Season Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foster
Femenía          Cathcart          Dawson            Holebas
Capoue      Doucouré
Deulofeu                   Hughes                           Sarr
Deeney

VERDICT: Having scoured the Premier League’s messageboards in researching these pieces it’s unavoidable that people tend to be overly positive about their own team.  There are exceptions: Wolves, as above, and Palace both significant in their realism.  Nonetheless, the tendency is to overlook the achievement of whatever it was you managed last year and to presume that things will get a bit better, that with a little more luck, with a few more decisions going your way, you’ll push on.  Or that, for example, Wolves’ achievement is a reasonable benchmark for any promoted club (you know who you are…).

So there’s a need for discipline in making predictions.  In evaluating where we are.  A need to resist those rose-tinted spectacles, for calm logic not borne of fan-boy summer overexuberance indifferent to any team building that rivals have managed.  Not for us such childishness, such tedious excitability.

We’re going to be bloody brilliant.

That’s it.  That’s a cold-blooded no-bullshit assessment, whichever way you look at it.  This is a side that finished eleventh, as comfortably mid-table as possible.  A cup final away from a top half finish, in contention for Europe of all things.  A decent season.

And so we strengthen.  We strengthen, first of all, with a nasty bastard in defence.  Craig Dawson has been an awkward, physical bully every time we’ve faced him but now he’s our nasty bastard.   Brilliant.

Tom Dele-Bashiru.  Not to be overlooked, not to be lost in the rather baffling crowd of U23s brought in having been released by their clubs.  This is a lad who Man City wanted to retain.  Who’s navigated some senior game time at City in a competitive environment.  Who we are paying City compensation for, which in some ways is more satisfying than getting him for nothing.  Henceforth, a “reverse Sancho”.  And deliberately, explicitly, part of the first team squad.

Then Danny Welbeck.  Wowsers.  Left field signing, injuries yes yes.  But, you know.  Danny Welbeck.  Quick, clever, mobile, honest.  Will run himself into the ground.  England striker, proper England striker. Not a Jay Bothroyd or a Fraizer Campbell, got a free England cap by collecting vouchers of boxes of Coco Pops but a bona fide England striker.  Playing for us. On a free.  And yes, it does matter that he’s a good bloke.

And then the big one.  Ismaïla Sarr. Trailed for bloody ages, one of three candidates that we might sign but then he lights up AFCON and surely the chance has gone.  And then Trézéguet signs for Villa, Saint-Maximin signs for Newcastle and Leicester have sold Maguire so they’re minted and if not then surely Palace will sign him if they sell Zaha to Everton for a shedload or Everton will sign him if they don’t.  Can you imagine if that had happened?  How Saturday would be… yes, great, “football, hurray”. But… you know.  But then we sign him and it’s confirmed, and it’s awesome because Gino and Scott don’t spend £30m on anyone and you’re punching the air grinning your face off and telling people who couldn’t be less interested and stare at you like you’re some kind of idiot and you still don’t care because this is just brilliant.

We didn’t lose anyone either by the way.  Not the wonderful Ben Foster. Not the magnificently understated Craig Cathcart.  Not the inhuman Étienne Capoue, the balletic Chalobah, the flamboyant Pereyra, the irrepressible Deulofeu, the talismanic Deeney.  Not the monstrous Abdoulaye Doucouré, who might have left had we gotten a decent offer from a club that was a proper step up but we didn’t.  (Oh do shut up Everton.  Tedious.)

So you look at the squad and the club and you remember where we were and you look at where we are and you desperately hope that the frantic excitement won’t be diffused by the absence of Z-Cars on Saturday but in any case you can’t help but be delighted.

It’s football.  It’s brilliant.  We’re brilliant.

Welcome back.

Bring it on.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 4 08/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: Joelinton (Hoffenheim, Undisclosed), Allan Saint-Maximin (Nice, Undisclosed), Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ayoze Pérez (Leicester City, £30,000,000), Joselu (Alavés, £2,500,000), Mo Diamé (Al Ahli, Free), Josef Yarney (Chesterfield, Free), Tyrique Bartlett, Otto Huuhtanen, Juanito, Cal Roberts, Dan Barlaser (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Liam Gibson (Grimsby Town, Six Month Loan), Antonio Barreca (AS Monaco, End of Loan), Kenedy (Chelsea, End of Loan), Salomón Rondón (West Brom, End of Loan)

OUR EX-MAGPIES: Daryl Janmaat

THEIR EX-ORNS: Neil Redfearn (U23s coach), Kevin Richardson (U17s coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An unsatisfying double header in one of those weird quick reverses that the fixture list can’t seem to do without, daylight robbery in a 1-0 defeat at St James Park and a forgettable 1-1 draw a month later.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dubravka
Yedlin                Schär         Lascelles        Fernández       Willems
Hayden                  Shelvey             S.Longstaff
Joelinton      Almirón

VERDICT: In most circumstances, spunking a load of money on a couple of forwards on the eve of the season would at the very least paper over a load of cracks.  There’s nothing quite like signing a new striker after all, let alone two, let alone on the back of breaking your transfer record for yet another forward in January.  This should be the basis for a positive start to the season.

Devil’s in the detail of course.  The context.  Joelinton may prove to be an outstanding signing, but he’ll do well to replicate Salomón Rondón’s season last year.  Allan Saint-Maximin, for so long a name linked with the Hornets, will be doing well to deliver the twelve goals and two assists that Ayoze Pérez contributed last year.  Steve Bruce isn’t the deadweight that many reports have painted him as…  Sheffield Wednesday wouldn’t be half as pissed as they are at his departure if their side hadn’t improved so dramatically under his guidance (remember the outcry when Steve Perryman left to join Ardiles at Spurs?  Me neither).  But Bruce is no Benítez.

At least Mike Ashley is spending some money.  And that first team isn’t the basket case that the blackest portent’s of the Magpies’ season would have you believe.  But there’s an inherent distrust between support and owner that will kindle with every poor run and is working against whoever the manager is.  The squad depth isn’t great, and if the consensus is that Benítez did well to do what he did then Newcastle have got to be relegation candidates, if not the certs that they looked a week ago.

NORWICH CITY

INS: Sam Byram (West Ham United, £750,000), Aidan Fitzpatrick (Partick Thistle, £350,000), Josip Drmić (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Free), Charlie Gilmour (Arsenal, Free), Ibrahim Amadou (Sevilla, Season Loan), Ralf Fahrmann (Schalke 04, Season Loan), Patrick Roberts (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Marcel Franke (Hannover 96, Undisclosed), Nelson Oliveira (AEK Athens, Undisclosed), Tristan Abrahams (Newport County, Free), Steven Naismith (Hearts, Free), Ivo Pinto (Dinamo Zagreb, Free), Yanic Wildschut (Maccabi Haifa, Free), Mason Bloomfield (Crawley, Season Loan), Rocky Bushiri (Blackpool, Season Loan), James Husband (Blackpool, Season Loan), Diallang Jaiyesemi (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Carlton Morris (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Simon Power (Ross County, Season Loan), Sean Raggett (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Matt Jarvis, Felix Passlack (Borussia Dortmund, End of Loan), Jordan Rhodes (Sheffield Wednesday, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A blustery, functional win secured by Odion Ighalo in his pomp, and a futile City victory at Carrow Road at the end of Quique’s season in which all bar the skipper and Ben Watson were already mentally in the passport queue.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fahrmann
Aarons        Zimmerman         Godfrey          Lewis
McLean          Trybull
Buendia               Stiepermann             Roberts
Pukki

VERDICT: This is a particularly difficult one. We haven’t played City since perhaps the lowest point of Quique’s reign as they were relegated three years ago;  none of the eleven above were in the side then and the tendency to keep up with the Championship has dwindled with time.  Given which… on the plus side City won the second tier last season, a notoriously competitive division at the best of times let alone when you finished fourteenth the previous season and lost your star player, James Maddison, over the summer.  All this playing a well-received brand of football.  Not to be written off, clearly.

On the other…  this is a young side, particularly an inexperienced defence, with next to no Premier League experience.  That doesn’t have to be punitive, and there will as discussed be significant competition for the relegation places this season.  Nonetheless, with pre-season injury scares to defenders enough to get message boards anxious at paucity of options the Canaries must be a little precarious.  They could have done without an opening day at Anfield you suspect, promotion bubble or otherwise.  A side that isn’t tight defensively anyway really does need to score a lot of goals and that’s a big ask against better opposition. Quite a lot depends on whether the remarkable about-turn of the previously unconvincing Daniel Farke’s side was a flash in the pan borne of a chancing on a successful formula, or based on sounder foundations.  Bottom half, but beyond that…  we’ll see.

SHEFFIELD UNITED

INS: Oli McBurnie (Swansea City, £17,500,000), Lys Mousset (AFC Bournemouth, £10,000,000), Luke Freeman (QPR, Undisclosed), Ben Osborn (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Callum Robinson (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Phil Jagielka (Everton, Free), Ravel Morrison (Östersund, Free), Dean Henderson (Manchester United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ched Evans (Fleetwood Town, Undisclosed), Caolan Lavery (Walsall, Undisclosed), Paul Coutts (Fleetwood Town, Free), Martin Crainie (Luton Town, Free), Conor Washington (Hearts, Free), Daniel Lafferty, Jake Eastwood (Scunthorpe Utd, Season Loan), Rhys Norrington-Davis (Rochdale, Season Loan), Regan Slater (Scunthorpe United, Season Loan), Nathan Thomas (Carlisle United, Season Loan), Kieran Dowell (Everton, End of Loan), Scott Hogan (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Marvin Johnson (Middlesbrough, End of Loan), Gary Madine (Cardiff City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLADES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Currie (Board of Directors)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A comfortable victory at the Vic fuelled by an on-loan Tom Cleverley in the days when Scott Loach was about to join Spurs, and a win pinched at Bramall Lane by Marvin Sordell.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2010-11 3-0
2009-10 3-0
2008-09 0-2 1-2
2005-06 2-3 4-1
2004-05 0-0 1-1 0-0
2003-04 0-2 2-2
2002-03 2-0 2-1
2001-02 0-3 2-0
2000-01 4-1 1-0
1998-99 1-1 0-3
1997-98 1-1/0-4
1995-96 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Henderson
Basham           Egan        O’Connell
Baldock          Norwood           Fleck          Osborn
Freeman
McGoldrick            McBurnie

VERDICT: I’m not quite sure how it happened, but after bloody years of playing United all the time we’ve not locked horns for eight-and-a-half years.  Which rather sets what follows in context, since your mental image of the Blades is still that no-messing ultra-Warnock bunch of tough bastards that we had so many scraps with season after season before their relegation in 2011.

Which is a pretty inaccurate template for the current Blades side for all accounts where Chris Wilder, who’s never managed against us or at this level before, has reportedly engineered an enterprising and imaginative side.  Overlapping centre-backs of all things and a pivotal attacking midfield conduit, quite at odds with his previous successes in charge of worthy but essentially hardworking, organised lower division teams.

So any judgement has to be taken with a pinch of salt;  it’s lazy and valueless to say “never heard of half of them, they’ll go back down”.  On the plus side Wilder seems to have made better players out of many of the squad and a better team than the sum of the parts might suggest.  Signings have been careful, sensible on the whole and addressing perceived weaknesses.  On the other hand… it’s got to be a struggle, of course it’s going to be a struggle even if this ambitious formation doesn’t get torn to ribbons immediately by better players.  United have a fairly gentle start, which will help.  You’d love to see them stay up, it’s a great away trip and a great club but, but…  whilst Ravel Morrison might be a lowish-risk gamble it’s difficult not to look at that and think Charlie Miller.  Or Douglas Rinaldi.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say “will probably go down”, whilst hoping I’m wrong.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Danny Ings (Liverpool, £20,000,000), Che Adams (Birmingham City, £15,000,000), Moussa Djenepo (Standard Liège, up to £15,000,000)

OUTS: Jordy Clasie (AZ67 Alkmaar, Undisclosed), Sam Gallagher (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Matt Targett (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Steven Davis (Rangers, Free), Alfie Jones (Gillingham, Season Loan), Jack Rose (Walsall, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Carl Martin (U18 Assistant Coach), Ross Wilson (Vice-Chairman of Football)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of draws;  a point snatched at the death at the Vic after Shane Long’s early goal and Troy’s absence gave us a mountain to climb, and another at St Mary’s when Charlie Austin’s emotive post-match interview rather glazed over a Ryan Bertrand taking Nathaniel Chalobah out on the penalty spot when on a yellow card.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gunn
Valery      Vestergaard        Bednarek     Yoshida        Bertrand
Ward-Prowse      Højbjerg         Redmond
Ings          Adams

VERDICT: If you’ve been managed by Mark Hughes in the recent past then anything’s surely improvement.  When you’ve got someone with the force of personality of Hasenhüttl playing aggressive, pressing football then you’ve got reasons to be cheerful anyway.

And consensus certainly seems to be that Saints should be a lot more comfortable this time around, borne of the upturn in form that the Austrian’s arrival provoked last season.  Which makes sense… as previously there are a goodly number of strong candidates for relegation this season.  The squad strengthening is limited though… Djenepo is young, Adams is likeable, mobile and aggressive but will need to be so against better defences than he faced whilst at Birmingham.

Most of all, the central defence is still a bit flaky.  Vestergaard is tall but slow, some accounts attributing the three at the back to his presence.  There isn’t a leader at the back, and precious little in the way of a captain figure throughout the team.  So you rather feel that it’s a case of which way the ball starts rolling.  A strong start and you can see Saints being comfortably mid-table.  But if they have a few injuries, go on a bad run and end up in a scrap you wonder whether there’s enough to get them out of it.  15th, with a wide margin of error.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 3 07/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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LEICESTER CITY

INS: Youri Tielemans (Monaco, £40,000,000), Ayoze Pérez (Newcastle United, £30,000,000), James Justin (Luton Town, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Harry Maguire (Manchester United, £80,000,000), Elliott Moore (Oxford United, Undisclosed), Lamine Kaba Sherif (Accrington Stanley, Free), Shinji Okazaki (Málaga, Free), Daniel Iversen (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Josh Knight (Peterborugh United, Season Loan), Ryan Loft (Carlisle United, Season Loan), Danny Simpson

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Our third consecutive 2-1 home victory over the Foxes via a late Andre Gray winner on Brendan Rodgers’ City debut which followed a 2-0 defeat at the KP and banners commemorating City’s ex-owner.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Ricardo          Söyüncü           Evans             Chilwell
Maddison      Ndidi     Tielemans
Gray                                                                Barnes
Vardy

VERDICT: Is it wrong that I’m still not quite sure whether Brendan’s any good or not?  I mean… yes, yes. Swansea.  Liverpool went wrong but didn’t start wrong.  Celtic… well, how do you judge?  It’s a long time since we were blessed by his presence, an awful lot has happened in a decade or so.  But even that half a season, albeit in very different circumstances to his current environment, contained some very iffy bits to pepper the very good bits, an idealism slightly divorced from reality.

What’s beyond dispute is that City are going into a season with more positive energy than they have since escaping the difficult afterglow of their title win.  The signing of Tielemans is a fine fine capture based on his performance at Vicarage Road, and if it’s not quite clear where Ayoze Pérez fits in City’s system the reality is that he probably doesn’t need to… an option off the bench who can play wide, or behind the striker, or up front on his own at a push is probably worth £30,000,000 in today’s market.  Ludicrously.  So much for £300,000 for Tony Coton.

There’s a nagging thing which is saying that Leicester’s ninth finish isn’t a bad result.  That running to stand still takes some doing in itself, that the permanent signing of an albeit very good player who helped you to ninth might not be expected to propel you beyond others who are also strengthening.  Strong candidates to push the precarious members of the top six, obviously, but dropping anchor in mid table wouldn’t be a huge surprise either.

LIVERPOOL

INS: Sepp van den Berg (PEC Zwolle, £1,300,000), Harvey Elliott (Fulham, Tribunal), Adrián (West Ham United, Free)

OUTS: Danny Ings (Southampton, £20,000,000), Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge, £6,400,000), Rafael Camacho (Sporting Lisbon, £5,000,000), Bobby Adekanye (Lazio, Free), Conor Masterson (QPR, Free), Alberto Moreno (Villarreal, Free), Daniel Sturridge, Kamil Grabara (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Marko Grujić (Hertha BSC, Season Loan), Shinji Ojo (Rangers, Season Loan), Harry Wilson (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Ben Woodburn (Oxford United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-REDS: Jerome Sinclair

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Director)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A. 3-0 defeat at home where the scoreline didn’t really tell the whole story and yet another 5-0 tonking at Anfield which did.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

VERDICT: It’s trivial to suggest that these next two, Liverpool and City, will be chasing the title again.  This is a function not just of how good they are but also how bad, by any normal barometer, most of the closest chasing pack are.  It’s not like Chelsea or United look like applying a load of pressure, say.

Liverpool look more vulnerable than City though (if it’s not overly ludicrous to describe potentially a distant second as “vulnerable”).  The current Liverpool side is the best for thirty years at least…  but differ from City in two respects.  Firstly there’s a susceptibility in the squad that isn’t there with City.  An injury to Van Dijk most obviously but also Alisson, or Robertson, or Salah leaves the Reds significantly weaker.  City don’t have that vulnerability.  Added to that the psychological strain of having lost at the last and knowing that they accumulated a ludicrous points total and it still wasn’t enough… that anxiety will be there, in the team but particularly in the stands whenever (if ever?) the Reds struggle to put an opponent away.  “These could be the points that cost us”.  The Champions League win has to have helped in that regard, but nonetheless…

Second.  But not as close a run thing this time.

MANCHESTER CITY

INS: Rodri (Atlético Madrid, £65,000,000), Angelino (PSV, £5,300,000)

OUTS: Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa, £15,000,000), Fabien Delph (Everton, £9,000,000), Tom Dele-Bashiru (Watford, £220,000 compensation), Vincent Kompany (Anderlecht, Free), Tosin Adarabioyo (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Jack Harrison (Leeds United, Season Loan), Arijanet Muric (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan), Patrick Roberts (Norwich City, Season Loan), Philippe Sandler (Anderlecht, Season Loan), Matt Smith (Queens Park Rangers, Season Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: Tom Dele-Bashiru

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Yeah.  Next…

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Éderson
Walker        Stones     Laporte       Mendy
Rodri
Bernardo          de Bruyne
Sterling             Agüero                 Sané

VERDICT: So the Cup Final wasn’t dull.  Not from where we were sitting.  It was many other things of course, but never dull.

Thing is, for a neutral… well despite the exquisite quality of City’s football, you’d have forgiven them for turning over with a yawn. Not even as if we played that badly. It’s perverse…  but this level of dominance can be painfully dull.  In that sense it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.  Mark Kermode has just observed that it’s a superhero’s weakness that makes them interesting.  If they’re just invincible, well, meh really.  Now Manchester City aren’t superheroes, it’ll be a cold day before anyone wants to see Nicolás Otamendi in spandex and a cape but… you know…

So last season’s title race was dramatic but in a relentless sort of way, neither side giving an inch.  This year…  they’ve lost a leader in Kompany and left back is maybe in issue but only an issue in a three-options-one-of-which-gets-injured-a-lot kinda way.

Nonetheless, champions, obviously and comfortably.  Meh.

MANCHESTER UNITED

INS: Harry Maguire (Leicester City, £80,000,000), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace, £50,000,000), Dan James (Swansea City, £15,000,000)

OUTS: Ander Herrera (Paris St Germain, Free), Matthew Olusunde (Rotherham United, Free), Antonio Valencia (LDU Quito, Free), Matty Willock (Gillingham, Free), Dean Henderson (Sheffield United, Season Loan), Kieran O’Hara (Burton Albion, Season Loan), James Wilson (Aberdeen, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RED DEVILS: Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley, Ben Foster

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ashley Young

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of 2-1 defeats in which we maybe deserved more and finished strongly but gave ourselves rather too much to do.

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

De Gea
Wan-Bissaka      Maguire          Lindelöf                Shaw
Matić             Fred
Lingard                          Pogba                          Martial
Rashford

VERDICT: So…  the signing headline figures on massive wages thing appears to be done, even if Alexis Sánchez is still hanging around.  Instead we have a frantic chasing of young players, young British players.  Which… feels like a better strategy in general but you do rather wonder (as the Tifo Football Podcast articulate in a way that makes you feel silly for not noticing already) whether they’re doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do, or whether they’re following any kind of plan.

Because… Wan-Bissaka.  Great defender.  Great defensively anyway.  But you’ve already got Dalot, who’s this great prospect?  Dan James… looks lots of fun, runs very fast.  Ryan says he’s great.  But… left sided attacking player?  In a squad with Martial, Sánchez, Rashford, Greenwood?  Sean Longstaff, also mentioned in dispatches.  Any better than McTominay?

It’s all a bit random and panicked.  Because, even if “this is Manchester United”, having stumbled their way through the post-Ferguson years in the haphazard fashion that so many have fumbled before them in the wake of an iconic manager departing, they’d rather hope to be getting themselves sorted by now.  Instead of turning themselves into a tribute act of their own side of twenty years ago, with Ole as increasingly hapless looking cheerleader.

One of three sides being chased down by an ever more eager and well-equipped mid-table pack.  Sixth.

/a

Season Preview 2019 – Part 2 06/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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BURNLEY

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

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

OUR EX-CLARETS: Nathaniel Chalobah, Andre Gray

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pope
Lowton            Tarkowski                Mee                  Taylor
Gudmundsson         Cork               Westwood                 McNeil
Barnes            Wood

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

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

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

CHELSEA

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

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

OUR EX-BLUES: Nathaniel Chalobah

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

CRYSTAL PALACE

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

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

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

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Guaita
Ward                  Tomkins             Sakho            Van Aanholt
Milivojević     Kouyaté     Meyer
Zaha                           Benteke                  Townsend

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

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

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

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

EVERTON

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

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

OUR EX-TOFFEES: Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Pickford
Coleman        Mina         Keane            Digne
Delph              Gomes
Walcott               Sigurdsson                 Richarlíson
Kean

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

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

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

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

My money’s on tenth.

Season Preview 2019 – Part 1 05/08/2019

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

ARSENAL

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

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

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Bayli Spencer-Adams

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Leno
Bellerín          Mustafi        Sokratis        Monreal
Ceballos                 Torreira                   Xhaka
Pépé                        Aubameyang                             Iwobi

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

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

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

But only probably.

ASTON VILLA

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

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

OUR EX-VILLANS: Tom Cleverley

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Guilbert             Mings                Engels                  Targett
Grealish                Luiz                 McGinn
Jota                    Wesley              Trézéguet

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

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

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

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

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

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

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

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

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

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

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

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

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

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

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

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

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

REPORT ARCHIVE:

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ryan
Montoya              Dunk         Duffy             Bernardo
Jahanbaksh        Bissouma         Propper        Trossard
Gross
Andone

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to confess to finding Christian Kabasele hugely frustrating.

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

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

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

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

29- Étienne Capoue

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

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

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

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

37- Roberto Pereyra

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

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

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

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

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

Javi Gracia

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

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

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

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

We’re lucky to have him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21- Kiko Femenía

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

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

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

25- Jose Holebas

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

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

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

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

26- Ben Foster

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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15- Craig Cathcart

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

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

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

Next Season:  More of the same.  Please.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

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

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

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

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

18- Andre Gray

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

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

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

Next Season:  A very decent option.

19- Will Hughes

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

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

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

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

Next Season:  A real asset.  A joy.