Ralph Demonstrates How He Will Make It Look Like an Accident.
Koeman leaves for the Everton millions. OK – who are we getting…?
Frank de Boer – promising – great player – high profile… Nope.
Manuel Pellegrini – class and charisma – high profile…. Nope.
Claude Puel – who? Oh, ok then... In Les we trust etc
Claude came in after the successful Ronald Koeman left for Everton and immediately changed the whole ethos of the playing side of the club suddenly we went from every team playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with a pressing game to playing the diamond midfield where we sat back and built up slow. One reason that you don't change the ethos is because you need a different type of player to play any new system and we didn't have the players to play the diamond midfield. Another reason is if the previous system had proved successful. This change was on top of there being a European Championships so there was even less time for the new manager to get his ideas across in the summer.
So, we started sluggishly and had two very boring home draws against Watford and against Sunderland. In the Sunderland game in particular we were very lucky to get a point with the goalkeeper falling over a J-Rod shot with five minutes to go. He persisted with this formation at the start of the season and we had Charlie Austin trying to cover up and down the left wing which isn’t his game at all and Nathan Redmond totally failing to be the new Thierry Henry at the point of the diamond. This was the first time I had the nagging feeling that things we’re going to be a bit bumpy.
We had couple of wins at home against poor sides like Middlesbrough and Swansea which made things look ok but on the flip side of that, we would throw away games at Hull and Burnley with our lack of ambition once behind. Half an hour to score and we don't even manage a shot on target nor ever give the impression that we were actually going for it. In the odd game we looked good like West Ham away when we won 3-0 playing some really good slick football with good running off the ball.
Then the European games started and Claude went into rotation mode and with it, any pattern and understandings between players went out the window. Rotation mode made it seem like he planned the whole thing out on the spreadsheet in advance and it wasn't so much mix and match but it was an A Team and a B team. At the weekends we played the first team (Cedric, Jose, Bertrand with Virgil) and in Europe we more or less played the B team (Cuco, Maya, McQueen with Virgil), with only really Virgil and Oriol Romeu being fixtures in both line-ups. Claude’s CV boasted a lot of European experience which was the main justification from Les Reed for taking on someone who was new to English football and a virtual unknown on these shores. This European expertise brought us to a good position in the group after four games and a famous win against and admittedly declining Inter Milan. We had got a hard earned 0-0 against Hapoel Be’er Sheva and suffered a very unlucky 1-0 defeat in Milan when the Italians scored with their only shot on target after we had missed literally shit loads. The home form in Europe was good having dispatched a piss poor Sparta Prague side three nil and as mentioned, beating Milan. Seven points from four games and we only needed one win from the final two games to get through.
It was in the away match at Sparta Prague where Claude’s truly negative mindset first came to the fore. As per the spreadsheet he picked what was basically a reserve side and we lost in one of the worst performances I have ever seen. As the season went on, I used the phrase ‘one of the worst performances I've ever seen’ quite often. We could have gone for it in that game, got qualified and rested everyone in the last game… but no. Be’er Sheva at home and a 0-0 draw would've got us through. The fact that we could have got through with a 0-0 was a dangerous thing and we played for it, committing no bodies forward and sure as shit, Hapoel predictably scored with their first shot on target meaning that we had 10 minutes to score 2 goals. It was only then that Virgil took it upon itself to go and play as a striker and he scored to make it 1-1 but too little too late. The great European master tactician had totally fucked it up. I can't imagine that his next meeting with Les Reed was a particularly pleasant one.
Undeterred, Claude got us through to a Wembley final, masterminding a quarter final win at The Emirates when we played more first teamers than Arsenal and did the business 2-0. Then a two legged semi against a Mané-less Liverpool and we defended deep and well and nicked both legs 1-0. Tactical masterclass, executed to perfection. Jurgen Klopp and the ex-Saints at Anfield put back in their boxes. Brilliant.
In between the semi-finals, Virgil had got injured and José Fonte had followed the money so we were forced to play your Yoshida and Stephens as the central defenders and after shocking home game against West Ham we did actually change to the formation we've been using for the last three years with two holding midfielders. We had a bit of success with that including a very good performance at Wembley when we should have won but ultimately, defensive frailties cost us. The feel-good factor was there though – the fans had a fantastic day and the team and Claude did us proud. The trouble was just beginning though.
As soon as Claude felt that the central defenders were more solid, he ditched the 4-2-3-1 and we went back to the 4-3-3, the one-striker-in-the box-if-we're-lucky formation. We didn't have much to play for post Wembley so it was down to the manager to get the most out of the players he had and Claude spectacularly failed, judging by the number of completely half-assed boring performances we put in. We didn’t ever look like getting sucked into a relegation battle but there were very few points between 8th and 16th and we could have finished anywhere in that range. We mulled along, getting the odd win against crap sides like Sunderland and Watford but then it tailed off again.
Despite all this, I was still in favour of Claude staying because of the stability of having a manager for the second season would bring but then we played Hull City at home. Hull were a team who hardly had a point away from home all season. They set up for a draw, they didn't attack at all and we did absolutely fuck all. We still only played with the one upfront so on 60 minutes Claude took Gabbiadini off and put Shane Long on, a like for like change that would achieve absolutely nothing. If ever there was a game to put two strikers on then that was it. The fact that we missed a penalty in the last minute meant that his lack of bravery and was not hidden and the cracks were not papered over. It's worth pointing out that that penalty was not won by flooding the opposition box and putting them under ridiculous pressure, it was won by one of the Hull players having a complete meltdown and throwing someone over for no reason at all.
Two wins in the last eight games against the beach bound West Brom team and an already relegated diabolical bag of shite from Middlesbrough does not make things any better and nor does the fact that we finished eighth, top of the absolutely shite division within the Premier League. We played a lot of good sides at the end but in Koeman’s last season we picked up points against all of the big clubs. This this season, we didn't even have a go. We turned up with no plan whatsoever in any of the matches and when you tot it up over the season, we came out of 12 games against the top six with a very poor three points, from two 0-0’s against Liverpool and a 0-0 against United.
And so we arrived at the last game of the season against Stoke when there was nothing riding on the game whatsoever and there was no reason to not go for it but what do we do, same as usual, same selection, same tactics and we got the same result. No goals. The final tactical substitution of the season, 1-0 down, 10 to go, was to take off our best to set piece taker and replace him with a full-back in midfield. I fucking give up - The season had ended with 5 home games in which we failed to score in.
It is often said that a team will mimic the personality of its manager and that's been the case with us this season. We are an overly cautious, boring team with no inspiration whatsoever and we are scared. How is the team going to function well if it scared of expressing itself? There was barely a plan A in most of the games aside from play deep, pass it around sideways and backwards work it out to the wings and then cross it. The trouble was that there was only ever one player in the box with three cautious midfielders not getting in to help.
I'm convinced that the whole season was run off a spreadsheet and there was absolutely no dynamism in any decisions that were made depending on the state of the game or what was required at that time. If something wasn't working then we just carried on and exactly the same fashion in the hope that it would change and of course, it hardly ever did. For example, we have done virtually the whole season without having two strikers playing as strikers. Even in the early-season diamond formation that was supposed to have two strikers upfront, they usually played wide, so at times it looked like we had no strikers at all and six midfielders.
There are a few things that have happened this season that have not been Claude’s fault and could be used as mitigating circumstances. Whoever decided that Long, Austin and J-Rod were going to score as many goals as Pellé and Mané managed last season wants shooting. J-Rod and Austin always have injury problems and Long had just had the season of his life which was totally out of character so it was unlikely to happen again. We also had Jose Fonte behaving like a dickhead and we had the unfortunate injury to Virgil which the board failed to address in the January transfer window. They eventually addressed both the striker and defender issues with the signings of Gabbiadini in the window and Caceres just afterwards at not inconsiderable expense but Claude chose to use the 68 cap Uruguay international once, presumably because he wasn’t on the ‘End of January’ spreadsheet. This was ok though because the defence was in top form. That’s a lie.
There have been too many stories about the players clashing with the manager for none of it to be true. There have been visible shows of dissent in matches from Shane Long, Pierre Højbjerg, James Ward-Prowse, Nathan Redmond and Ryan Bertrand. What's gone on on the training ground is anyone's guess. Then we had the bizarre episode of Ralph Krueger addressing players before the Everton away game which turned out to be Jose Fonte's last game. We had the Tadic issue - he was repeatedly being subbed and rightly so, he moaned int he media and from then on he was hardly ever subbed even though his form got worse - weak management there. Some players have undoubtably improved under the manager like Romeu and Yoshida and it's been good to see players like McQueen, Sims and Stephens given the chance.
However, regardless of where we finish in the league and the positives and mitigating factors, I have grown increasingly tired of a piss boring style of football, players being picked time and time again when they are not performing, players getting dropped having played well and the complete lack of dynamism in the decision-making. I also do not think that Claude has it within himself to change and feel that even he if he had the best squad of players in the world, the football would still be incredibly boring. I find it amazing that he had a reputation for attacking football in France. All I can do is judge him on what I’ve seen this season.
Then there’s the interviews. Jesus H. Christ. Now, Claude’s English is better than my French but I think that I’d manage to be more interesting and engaging than Claude was. ‘Oportuniteeee’ and ‘Qualiteeee’ 25 times. Get a translator and then at least everyone would have some idea what was going through your head. It was Jan Poortvliet all over again with his ‘we know how to make a goal’ after yet another 0 in the goals-for column. Even Jan didn’t manage 5 home games without scoring and he had David McGoaldrought up front.
I think he deserves to go and I think he will. In these days of football clubs being big business, I wonder what the season-ticket take up is for next season. You will of course have your fans who will buy regardless of how the team plays but like them or not, there are a load of fans who just want to be entertained and will not be renewing based on what they’ve seen this year. The run to the Cup Final was fantastic and a great day was had by all. When the dust settles on this, Claude’s record will say 8th in the League and the EFL Cup Final. It’s not like he’s failed and he’ll get a good job next (St.Etienne has been rumoured already) and his season in English football will look ok on his CV. The question that the board have to answer is whether they think he’ll improve next season or will it fall away further? There is a very small margin between us finishing 8th and having a relegation battle. I feel that next year with Claude in charge, we’d struggle near the bottom, even though the league outside the top 7 is very poor.
The bottom line is (and this is the way you should judge any manager) – did he get the best out of the resources at his disposal? I’m afraid there’s only one answer to that one for me and it's no.
Au Revoir Claude.