Monday, August 8, 2022

Premier League Match 1 - Tottenham 4 Southampton 1

Selection - Poor, Subs- Poor, Tactics - Poor, Fashion Choices - Shocking

New season and a very tough opening fixture with a visit to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to play Antonio Conte‘s Super League Spurs.  Spurs appear to have recruited very well in the window so far, with the arrivals of Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Djed Spence and of course Fraser Forster. Of course, Fraser is unlikely to be building a wall in front of the Spurs goal today as that job will go to the other dependable Hugo Lloris. The first two of those signings in particular will make a massive difference to Spurs as the season progresses but the good news for us is that they are both unlikely to start today. Even if it’s the same Spurs side as last year that we are facing, you know that it’s going to be better because Conte would’ve had a full pre-season with them and this year, Harry Kane will be interested from the first match and not just from after he’d finished throwing his toys around for not getting a move to Manchester City, which is I assume completely off the table now given that they’ve just signed Erling Haaland.  As usual, when you play any Super League Club away from home, you need to referee to be decent and today we have Andre Marriner, so fully expect any theatrics from Spurs to be fully rewarded.

I don’t really know what to expect in this game from Saints. I basically want to see a good performance and if we do fall to the expected defeat, I want us to at least show signs that we are going to be half decent and hard to beat. Remember, we are playing a formation that is supposed to make us more solid so today will absolutely be a good test of that and what Ralph and the new coaches have been working on in pre-season.

I am present today at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and it’s the first time I’ve been here. They’ve moved the fucking thing even further from Seven Sisters Tube station, albeit by about 50 yards. All of these new huge super stadiums look fantastic from when you can see the pitch but the difference maker with this one is that it looks amazing from the outside as well. Off to my left is quite possibly the biggest single tier stand but I think I’ve ever seen in person and they do appear to have completely smashed out the park with the design of the stadium, complete with a massive cock on the roof at one end.

On the walk from the pub to the stadium, the team news drops and Ralph has done it again.  It looks like the curse of over-thinking.  The team that looked like it was going to start the first game, is not… with Armel Bella-Kotchap on the bench and his place being taken by Yan Valery, who has played well in the pre-season but it does seem strange that the one defensive signing that we have made, who I assume was brought in to make a difference, is not playing. Worst fears are confirmed at left wing back with the selection of Moussa Djenepo. We have unsurprisingly gone for the solid midfield of Romeu, Romeo and JWP and Adam Armstrong is given the nod to partner Joe Aribo.  Interest and trepidation in equal measure.

Spurs don’t have any of their summer signings playing with Bissouma iand Perisic both on the bench and the team has a somewhat familiar look about it but the front line of Kane, Son and Kulusevski looks somewhat terrifying when paired up against our back three.  I wonder if Son will stay on his feet today or will he return to being ‘The Minge’?

Andre Marriner gets the game underway and the first 10 minutes is somewhat disjointed with Romeo Lavia showing up very well for us, disrupting play and trying to get us going. I’m already finding myself in the ‘keep the score down’ mode because I’m delighted when we get to 10 minutes and we haven’t let a goal in as yet.

Then madness, as Moussa Djenepo find himself on the left wing with just Emmerson Royal in front of him.  He turns him inside out, gets to the line and pulls it back with a good cross to the edge of the box and there is JWP to volley it down off the ground and high into the net giving Lloris no chance. Fuck me we’ve scored and there is celebration mixed with disbelief in the away end. This is how it’s going to be, it’s a sign of things to come and we are going to be brilliant after all and solid defensively.  It’s Our Fuckin’ Year….

No it isn’t.

We actually have a good chance for 2-0 as it breaks to Adam Armstrong on the edge of the box but he does his usual and tries to smash the cover off it and screws it wide.  He has to get that on target at least and as if to prove it, Spurs build down or left and one wing-back Emmerson Royal easily finds enough room to swing the cross over and there is the other wing-back Sess├Ęgnon at the back post who has got away from KWP and buries the header past Bazunu who has absolutely no chance.

Spurs are beginning to cook now and we are struggling, looking particularly weak in defence.  We aren’t even getting close to them.  Valery in particular is looking very uncertain and a long ball from our left to right catches out Valery and Bazunu is forced into a decent save from Son – corner.  It’s headed out as far as Son who again has absolutely no pressure on him and he crosses into the middle to where Eric Dier has easily lost Joe Aribo and flicks into the net past the unprotected Bazunu. Shit defending and simple goals both.  So much for defensively solid.

There are 20 minutes left to go in the first half and there’s only one team that’s going to get the next goal.  Djenepo dives in and sells himself like an over-enthusiastic Under 11 player and Spurs tee-up a shot for Davies which Bazunu again has to save..   Big Baz is having a good day but he shanks out a shite kick which puts Valery under pressure but it seems to be ok until Valery decides to take on half the Spurs team and loses it which results in Son dribbling across the top of the penalty area and he should score but he smashes it over. Kane forces Bazunu into another save from a tight angle and we just about get to 45 minutes and two minutes of injury time are signalled.  Andre Marriner decides to play four minutes as Spurs are attacking and plays on until Romero heads over as the clock ticks 49.

Lucky to be only 2-1 down and we desperately need to make some changes. My direct hotline to Ralph obviously worked so our two worst players, Valery who has had an absolute nightmare and Adam Armstrong who has done absolutely nothing except fall over under minimal pressure, are both off to be replaced with Jack bloody Stephens and Stuart Armstrong who I presume is going to play up front. Che Adams is still on the bench and we need a goal and are starting the second half with no striker on the pitch.

Ralph's half-time team talk presumably said something along the lines of “carry on as we are, don’t get close to the runners and hope for the best“ because that was what we did and within 30 seconds the ball’s in our net again with Jack Stephens asleep and only an offside flag against Sess├Ęgnon saved us from game over after 46 minutes.

It doesn’t take long however as Stuart Armstrong loses the ball on the left hand side and Emmerson Royal breaks, gets the ball back from Son before crossing into the box.  It’s going nowhere, until what I can only assume is a fantastic piece of non-communication and Salisu bundles it into his own net in comically shit fashion.  3-1.  Fuck.

No Danger Sali.... Fuck's Sake

Virtually straight from the kick off we’ve lost the ball again and Hojbjerg slots a ball in between the defenders to Emmerson Royal.  Djenepo it’s completely absent, meaning Salisu has to leave his man to close down the full back and Royal just knocks it to the unmarked Kulusevski who passes it into the far corner of the net. Fucking shambles.  Defensive basics – if Salisu goes to the wing then Bednarek and Stephens should move over one player and KWP tuck in.  It takes communication, application, effort and not being shit to do that though.

Half an hour to go and this could be 6, 7, 8 but luckily, Spurs know the job is done and start phoning it in. Harry Kane tries one shot from halfway up the High Street though he still has time to put Bednarek on his arse simply by standing his ground. Embarrassingly pathetic weak defending from the 6 foot 2inch, 26-year-old, 42 International cap waste of space.

We do actually create a couple of chances in the last 15 minutes with Salisu either playing brilliant pass or panic clearance but either way, it put Aribo away and he beats the last defender and gets a good shot in which Lloris saves and pushes along a 6 yard line but we don’t have another player within 20 yards to knock it in and Spurs four players back and none of them does a Salisu and smashes it in the net for us. There is one final chance for us to put some respectability to the score line make it even more flattering than it already is, as as a JWP is cross is met by Perraud at the back post and his first-time volley flies just over the bar.

The End. Shite.

I know that one shouldn’t go overboard giving that it was the first match of the season and that we were playing a Super League club away from home… but that was fucking dreadful. The opening 10 minutes saw a slightly disjointed Spurs and fair play to us, we managed to capitalise with Djenepo turning Royal inside out and his cross being put home from the edge of the box by the ever-reliable JWP. That was after 10 minutes.

After the time that when Spurs went from 2nd gear to 3rd gear, there was next to nothing from us. Having gone in 2-1 at half-time, courtesy of two basic defensive lapses of the “not stopping the cross, not marking the player in the box” sort, the start of the second half was of course going to be crucial and we were very fortunate not to be 3-1 down within 10 seconds of the restart.  It only took another 10 minutes or so for Spurs to be 4-1 up and from then on, if any of the other Saints fans were like me in the ground, we were just waiting for the game to end in the hope that we didn’t get smashed by any more. It was one of those games where if Spurs had needed to score 7 then they undoubtedly could’ve done but they phoned it in for the last half an hour and for that we can be grateful. It was absolutely nothing to do with anything that we did because we were shit.

It’s a given that Spurs have the better players with more ability. We know that and we accept that but what we don’t accept is that Spurs looked fitter, they wanted it more, they ran more, they tackled more, they got stuck in to the headers and made sure that we knew we weren’t gonna get given anything and even when they did commit a foul, they all surround the referee which is fucking annoying, especially when Harry Kane does it because he’s got fuck all to do with any incident - but it shows that they really have a collective will to win, instilled by the manager.

Men against boys springs to mind. I feel that we may be hearing that a lot this season. No physicality from any of the defenders aside from Salisu in the first half.  Easy afternoon’s work for Kane and company in the heat as we didn’t make it difficult for them at all.  In order to get points in this league, we have to be all over teams and especially against the Super Leaguers, we have to get them out of their comfort zone by being fitter and willing to work harder.

Ralph. What the actual fuck?  Over-thought random bollocks was the order of the day.  Okay, so we know we’re gonna go with this formation with three central defenders and in any game where we’ve had anything that looks remotely like a first choice line-up in preseason, Bella-Kotchap has played on the right hand side. He is our only new defender and therefore the only player who’s going to possibly make us any better than the shit show we’ve been defence in the last two seasons.  He’s big and imposing and physical and he wins headers but he gets left out however and Yan Valery plays and we get battered everywhere, especially on crosses.  Now, Yan has done pretty well in pre-season but today just proved the pre-season means nothing.  Yes, you want your fringe players to put their hands up and he earned a chance to be higher in the pecking order but the bottom line is that he isn’t good enough and nor is Bednarek and nor is Djenepo and nor is Adam Armstrong. So that’s four players out of the outfield 10 who we all know are not good enough. What a surprise that we can’t live with a team like Spurs on their own ground when 40% of our starting line-up just isn’t good enough.

Ralph actually did well to decisively make two substitutions at half-time and he took off the worst two, who were Adam Armstrong and Valery but he still didn’t bring Bella-Kotchap on, instead throwing on Jack Stephens who has never been any good when he’s just thrown into a game. This is another known fact. Valery and Adam Armstrong were the two selections that had most people scratching their head at the start of the game so basically all Ralph was doing at half-time was trying to correct the madness of muddled thinking from when he threw together the team sheet.  Stuart Armstrong, who should’ve started, came on and that meant that Joe Aribo was pushed right up front – he is not a “lead the line striker”. Ralph knows this, Joe knows this and so consequently we had absolutely no idea of how to go about trying to create chances in the second half.  Absolutely shit.

Yes, I know we are short at full-back at the moment and Perraud is finding his way back to fitness. Moussa did well to create the goal that we did score but after that he was the predictable disaster that I and probably most people knew he was going to be. Kulusevski and Royal down the right-hand side could basically get their head up and pick out any cross ball that they wanted to because Moussa was nowhere near them at any point.  Salisu had started the game relatively well but gradually got more and more stressed with Moussa not being in the right position and it all led to Salisu having an absolute beast of a moment with the own goal.  Don’t get me started on Bednarek, our most experienced defender and ‘leader’ of the back-line.

In midfield, I have to say that Romeo Lavia was absolute quality and was our man of the match by an absolute mile. He is a serious player and with him in midfield, JWP had a decent match.  Oriol Romeu looked like a fish up a tree however and Spurs just played round him in midfield. I don’t remember him really getting a tackle in and he certainly didn’t create anything going forward.

Up front, in the first half Adam Armstrong was a complete waste of time. I don’t know what his strengths are but they certainly aren’t playing as a lone striker. He can’t hold the ball up and he has no strength and just gets brushed off it. He had one shot at goal, which he tried to belt the cover off of and snatched it so it trickled wide and it was more evidence to add to the Championship-only stack of evidence that is building up.

The two players I felt sorry for were Gavin Bazunu who was totally blameless for any of the goals, and Joe Aribo, who did his best to get something going but was completely isolated in the second half.  There was a classic illustration of this when he got through and fired in a decent shot which Lloris pushed along the 6-yard line and there wasn’t another Saints player following up within 20 yards because it seemed to me that no one really knew where they were playing.  Stuart Armstrong had come on at half-time and sort of started off on the left and then he was pushed up front and then he drifted to the right, obviously under instruction from a manager who was by the stage basically making up shit as he went along.

We’ve done some decent work in the transfer market this summer in recruiting some new players but we still have a load of shit hanging around which means Ralph has the opportunity to put it in the team, which he keeps doing. If Bednarek, Valery, Adam Armstrong and Djenepo had all left this summer, no one would've given a shit and if we had played instead of those four, Bella-Kotchap, Lyanco, Perraud and Che Adams, we certainly wouldn’t have been any worse.

We are not going to score enough goals with this formation and Joe Aribo as one of the strikers so to my mind, he has to sacrifice Romeu in midfield and put either Aribo or Stuart Armstrong there and play with two strikers, Che Adams and someone else, hopefully the striker that we haven’t signed as yet.  Che Adams is not brilliant but he is by far our best striker.  We had no idea how to attack in the second half in particular and no one seem to know how they were going to create anything for the forward players.  I know we were probably trying to stay in the game as long as possible but you have to have a goal threat and you have to have an attacking plan.

There was one section of play which summed up the difference between the two sides as we had the ball on the right wing with a crossing opportunity but didn’t cross it into the box even though we had three players in there and instead we turned round worked it back to the centre backs, over to the left-hand side where again we turned down the cross and lost the ball. Spurs went, one pass, two passes, shot on goal.  It was saved by Bazunu but that’s not the point.  Spurs showed that they knew how to attack and we had no fucking idea whatsoever. They also of course knew how to defend it in a disciplined, structured way.

If we had lost today but looked decent and looked like we knew what we were doing then I think most people could’ve seen past the result and thought there might be something better around the corner. Ralph doing weird shit and that performance today has just left everybody fearing the worst. The next home game against Leeds is absolutely massive because if we put in a shit performance in that then Ralph is severely going to be up against it pretty much from the start of the season.  Win it and this this Spurs game will be written off.  Over to you Ralph.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Are we all Ready?: Pre-Season 22/23 Part 2


Hey Joe!

So after the first part of pre-season – new signings and cautious optimism and all that – comes the visible side of actually playing matches and hopefully, give us some confidence that issues apparent at the end of last season are going to be corrected.  Our issues at the end of last season were that we were crap, everywhere.  Our defending was crap, our defending in midfield was crap because the wide players didn’t contribute and of course, we were crap up front and not scoring any goals or even looking like we were going to unless JWP did something.  Overall, a pretty comprehensive list of things to fix.  The first couple of pre-season games are only ever about fitness and then of course, you hope to see improvements as you get towards the start of the season and you don’t lose 4-0 at home to a below average German side or whatever.

So, off to Austria we go and a chance for the more reactionary keyboard warriors to lose their minds as we have a friendly against Ralph’s old team RB Leipzig and for those looking for pointers, it was interesting that we lined up in a 3-4-3 formation, which is a formation that we have never played well in so far.

The first half team had Gavin Bazunu in goal with a back three of Bella-Kotchap, Bednarek and Salisu with KWP and Moussa Djenepo as the wing backs. The two in the centre of midfield were Romeo Lavia and Ibrahima Diallo and three up top being Elyounoussi, Tella and Joe Aribo. Leipzig for their part had all their big guns playing including the star players from both Hungary and Sweden, Szaboszlai and Forsberg.   Bazunu looked incredibly confident right from the start and pulled off a brilliant save to tip a Szaboszlai rocket over the bar. Bella-Kotchap looked comfortable in defence and Lavia showed up well in midfield. Overall, we looked pretty decent.  At the other end of the pitch it was a different story however with Elyounoussi repeatedly succeeding in picking out a Leipzig defender whenever he tried to cross the ball, Aribo hardly being involved and Tella switching between right wing and centre forward with the equal lack of success.

On 60 minutes the whole 10 outfield players changed to join Alex McCarthy who had gone in goal on 45 minutes. With Stephens, Lyanco and Simeu in defence and only one defensive minded midfielder in Romeu, we looked a lot more open and Leipzig took the lead for a free-kick from the edge of the box where McCarthy lined up his wall, took a step behind it and then got beaten in the other corner. Poor goalkeeping it has to be said. We had made a slight adjustment in the second half in that we now had three in midfield and two central strikers with Adams and Adam Armstrong.  Consequently, we looked more of a threat going forward but Smallbone and Stuart Armstrong didn’t give her my much help with defending.  Smallbone at the attacking out of the pitch though was having a good impact and his superb cross from the right was flicked in by the head of Adam Armstrong to put as level. Shocked as we were with scoring a goal, we immediately conceded one before conceding again with a couple of minutes to go as no one closed down the Leipzig left winger who absolutely smashed one into the top corner. There then followed a rather bizarre extra 15 minutes which allowed us to give debuts to Mateuz Lis who did ok and Diamond Edwards, a winger from the academy.

Talking in general terms, it was interesting to see a back three and it’s probably a clear indicator of where we’re going to go this season. The worry for me is as mentioned, we have never played well in that formation, mainly because we don’t seem to have any progressive passing within it and any way of really scoring a goal. You could see that new players were definitely needed at the front end of the pitch. Positives were the performance of the Bazunu, Bella-Kotchap, Bednarek, Salisu, KWP and whisper it gently, Djenepo was decent at left-wing back. Lavia looked very lively in midfield but it’s the top end of the pitch where we’ve got the problems.

The result doesn’t matter and that it’s purely about fitness but to my mind, fringe players who are not definitely in the starting 11 have to be putting it in from the first minute of the first game, so I was a little disappointed in the slightly lacklustre performances by the likes of Stephens, Diallo, Lyanco, Tella and Elyounoussi

The problem is at the top end of the pitch show themselves in full glory again in the second friendly against Klagenfurt, who featured a certain Patrick Hasenhuttl, son of Ralph. Will Smallbone hit the post, Diallo hit the bar and Adam Armstrong missed a penalty in the second half. We also missed some absolute sitters through Djenepo and Adam Armstrong again. Of the attacking players, Will Smallbone and Stuart Armstrong looked half decent and Joe Aribo showed some nice touches but again, all the positives were in the back half of the team.

Bella-Kotchap, Bednarek and Salisu again looked very good and Yan Valery was decent on the right hand side of the three in the first half.  In terms of ability, Valery should be ahead of Jack Stephens but with Yan only having a year left on his contract and Stephens having signed a new one, the situation is complicated somewhat. Also, we can only pray the Roman Perraud is fit for the start of the season because Thierry Small is too naive defensively to play Premier League games and the reality dawned in this game that Djenepo is Djenepo. Romeo Lavia is clearly going to start in the Premier League in the centre of midfield.

20 Goals This Season Please.

In the build up to the third friendly against Watford, the Bordeaux Twitter page announced that they had agreed to sell striker Sekou Mara to Southampton.  This caught everyone on the hop a little bit because Saints clearly weren’t gonna announce anything until all of formalities were sorted. The backstory is that Bordeaux are very close to going out of business and so they wanted to announce that they’d agreed a fee of about €11 million, to I assume stave off their creditors. Unsurprisingly, it’s another youngster with Mara being only 19 years old. The feelgood factor in this story from Saints perspective is that we have paid them a decent transfer fee for the player which probably enables them to stay in business. Allegedly, Newcastle and Everton were waiting to see if Bordeaux went bust so they could pick Mara up for nothing. I can understand it from Everton because they are widely thought to be skint and they are having all these FFP problem at the moment but Newcastle? Words fail me.

There was more transfer news with Will Smallbone joining Stoke in the Championship for the season.  Yes he’s looked good in these pre-season games so far but regardless, I think is an excellent move for him.  Ralph clearly didn’t see him making much of an impact on the first team this season and going to the Championship for a season is absolutely ideal for Will and it will hopefully toughen him up. If he can get about 30 games in, then it will serve him massively well for the rest of his career.  Thierry Small also departed for a season in League 1 with Port Vale so maybe he and Smallbone can share a flat seeing as the two clubs are only 15 minutes’ drive apart.  It’ll be really interesting to see what Port Vale make of Small.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him turned into a left winger.

Back at base, lack of international clearance meant that Sekou Mara wasn’t in the line-up when we played Watford (in Wealdstone) but it did provide more pointers towards what Ralph thinks is his best side at the moment with JWP making his first appearance of the season in the centre of midfield with Lavia.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, we didn’t score again and it was a rather turgid 0-0. Everything comes with the caveat of it being pre-season and the game being played at a very slow pace but I can’t help be worried by this formation. When we play against teams that we should be beating, we just don’t seem to create anything and this seemed to be the pattern that emerged at the tail end of last season as well. There is no real pace in the forward line, which is I guess is why Adam Armstrong his preferred to Che Adams, who I genuinely think Ralph just doesn’t rate much.

Also, surely if we are going to play full-back back on the wrong side, it is better to play KWP on the left and Valery on the right. Djenepo is an absolute disaster waiting to happen when we play a decent side.  Talking of which…

We returned to St Mary‘s to play Monaco and this was a proverbial game of two halves with us being terrible in the first half of Monaco being decent and then the roles completely changing in the second half. We got stronger as the game went on because we brought on our better players who are more likely to be starting the first league game, whereas Monaco seemed to stop pressing and allowed us to stroll to the edge of the penalty area before they made any sort of challenge. There were some very encouraging patterns of playing in the second half and important thing is that you can see what we are trying to do in terms of attacking.

In what was a dull first half, we went behind just before half-time with another goal that Alex McCarthy won’t be looking at with any affection as he was beaten at his near post. If it was a competition between our two goalkeepers where they start at 0-0 and then get a point for every great save and lose one for every cock up, The pre-season score is currently Bazunu 3 McCarthy -3.

In the second half we got back into it with a bundled goal by Adam Armstrong but it was when the likes of JWP, Stuart Armstrong, Joe Aribo came on that we suddenly clicked into another gear, with Aribo creating the second goal for Stuart Armstrong and JWP rattling in the third on the break after possibly the most hilarious dive by Monaco player in a penalty area, which was what gave us the ball in the first place.  It was nice to win by a relatively comfortable 3-1.

Pushing Romeu slightly further forward is a really interesting development because it shows how good he is on the ball and it enables him to win the ball much higher up the pitch. He has basically swapped roles with the more dynamic and quicker Diallo who had a decent game at the base of the midfield, but that position will be taken by Romeo Lavia.

Oriol Iniesta

The striker situation is also going to be really interesting. One of the two is going to be Joe Aribo and the other one could well be someone else push further forward than usual in the shape of Stuart Armstrong. We’re gonna be like Spain when they won the Euros with Cesc Fabregas playing as a striker.  It was good in this going to see Roman Perraud back from injury and he had a fairly solid first half at left back before he was replaced with Moussa Djenepo in the second half.   Though he was half decent going forward, the fact that Moussa decided to try a nutmeg on the edge of his own penalty area tells you absolutely everything you need to know about the prospect of him playing in the Premier League. Absolutely horrifying.

After the game, Ralph let it be known that we were still looking for two more in the transfer window and reminded everyone that there are 36 days left of it.  After the sensible season or two where the transfer window ended before the first game, we now have it ending 5 weeks after the season starts.  Whether this is because of the World Cup in November or because of some reason that benefits the bigger clubs, I don’t really know.

The final friendly was against Villareal at home and we lined up with the majority of what will playing against Spurs. In the first half, Villarreal basically were too good for us and we went in 1-0 behind, but the second half will be remembered for the Joe Aribo picking the ball well in his own half and he went full Sofiane Boufal as he dribble past about four players on the edge of the box before calmly slotting it past the goalkeeper. A superb goal which served purely to irritate Villarreal who went straight up the other end and went back in front. Both of the goals that we conceded looked preventable with Bella-Kotchap getting skinned down the line for the first goal and Bednarek finding a reason to fall on his arse for the second.
Overall, I guess it’s been a normal preseason. There have been some performances that have been very dodgy in terms of entertainment and there have been some parts of games where we’ve looked decent.  After 45 odd years of following Saints I still have no real idea what constitutes a good or bad pre-season. No one appears to have picked up any injuries which is of course a good thing. Ralph has been very decisive from the outset that we are going to play with three central defenders. I feel that maybe in his heart of hearts he would like to partner Salisu with Bella–Kotchap in a flat back four but at the moment, that pairing would be just too inexperienced, hence why he wants a third defender in there. It looks like Bednarek will be the man in the middle of the defence but rumours still persist about whether he will still be at the club at the end of the transfer window.  I’m not a body language expert but I do wonder if he really wants to be here.  Elsewhere in that department, the one who was really stuck his hand up in pre-season is Yan Valery. The fullback situation is one that we have not really addressed as the season arrives and we won’t be bringing a player this week who will be pitched straight into the starting line-up against Tottenham at the weekend.  KWP will obviously play and it looks like Moussa Djenepo will be at left back, which is not ideal.  What you want from your defenders is solidity and for it to be a surprise if they make a mistake. For example, it would be a shock if KWP made a mistake that led to a goal against us. If Djenepo did it, it would be the most unsurprising thing in the world.  I trust him about as far as I could spit a rat.
In midfield, Romeo Lavia has added some dynamism and we have seen one formation which set him up as the sole defensive midfield player with two number eights in front of him in the shape of JWP and Oriol Romeu.  The configuration of the midfield seems to be up for grabs though because in other games we’ve gone for Stuart Armstrong as the third member of the midfield.  At other times we’ve just had two in there and then we’ve had two number 10s behind a lone striker.  I guess that this is where Ralph will tinker depending on our opposition. 
Joe Aribo will obviously be one of the forward players but none of our out and out strikers are particularly looking like the real deal at the moment. Che Adams seems to have been relegated to the role of bit part player, Adam Armstrong has to of course, do a lot better than he did last season and he is not suited to playing as the main striker.  Sekou Mara is clearly not ready yet and nor should we expect him to be as a 19-year-old kid newly arrived from France. One thing that can’t be denied is that the new owners Sport Republic have backed the manager and refreshed the squad and as I write, we have not had to sell a player to do it. We have had a couple of hefty wage earners leave in the shape of Forster and Long but no one has left for a transfer fee. There is still time for this to happen however. I feel that line has been drawn under last season with us likely to have at least four new signings in the starting line-up for the first game of the season. I also feel that line has been drawn under the season regarding Ralph who under normal circumstances, would be under pressure with the run of results we had at the tail end of last season. I believe that he will have until the World Cup break in November to try and get a tune out of the squad of players.  We have to hope that we can perform above expectations in this opening run of fixtures and then the youngsters can hopefully perform without any added pressure that a bad start would bring. We undoubtedly have a couple of issues still, namely full-back and striker but I approach this season with a cautious optimism, same as usual.

Up the fucking Saints.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Since we Last Gathered: Pre-Season 22/23 Part 1

Stuart About to Cry When Modelling the Blueberry Vomit Kit

As I probably say around this time every year, my close season mainly involves reading rumours about what player we are signing on Twitter and deciding that it is bullshit. Most the time, I’m dead right and it is bullshit because either Sainst are never going to be able to afford the wages of squad player from a Super League Club that they don't want, or because Saints don’t tend to do any business early, despite saying every year that they would like to.  As far as early business goes, it usually comes down to when the contracts end on July 1.

However, there was a veritable flurry of activity in June, the first of which being outgoing with us allowing our best goalkeeper to leave on a free transfer as Fraser Forster departed to be a back-up for Hugo Lloris at Tottenham.  Rumour has it that Fraser hated being number two at Saints behind Alex McCarthy and you can’t really blame him for that but he’s obviously happy be number 2 behind the French World Cup winner and no doubt a nice new contract will have played a part. Good luck to him.  He was a brilliant goalkeeper for us at the start of his spell and immediately after his return from the knee injury. He has also been decent this season but there was a lot of time in the middle when we were wondering why earth we had given him a new contract as his confidence was completely shot to shit. When we as supporters look back on Fraser‘s career, there will be plenty of highlights that will far outnumber the bad moments.   I also had a lot of time for him because he improved. When he lost all his confidence, he had become a goalkeeper that was nailed to his goal line but under the better coaching of Andrew Sparkes, he not only become a lot more confident coming for the ball but he also massively improved at the sweeper side of the game, and it takes some doing to completely change things around once you are in your 30s.

Tapping the badge and Twitter Shithousing.  Good Work

Fraser‘s departure, along with the departure of Harry Lewis meant that there were at least two gaps in the goalkeeper department and after much rumour, we decided that our nearest and dearest neighbours Player of the Season was the man who we wanted to challenge McCarthy for next year‘s number one shirt.  Gavin Buzunu wasn’t of course a Pompey player but he had been on-loan there last year from Manchester City.  The fact that he was only on loan at Pompey didn’t stop you being able to smell the sweet perfume of boiling piss from 17 miles East, on the day the signing was announced.

Aside from the very obvious comparison with Angus Gunn, who was the last goalkeeper we signed from Manchester City, everything you read about Bazunu suggests that this is not a young goalkeeper who is going to be prepared to sit on the bench for a couple of years. This guy has come here to play and at this moment in time, I would be very surprised if he’s not in goal for the first game of the season.  He doesn’t have any club experience higher than League 1 but bizarrely, he has already won 10 caps of the Republic of Ireland.

On the same day as Bazunu, Saints also signed Mateusz Lis on a free transfer.  Lis is Polish and has been playing in Turkey and he’s 25 years old so five years older than Bazunu, who he will undoubtedly be behind in the pecking order, so it seems a bit bizarre as I write.  However, there are lots of rumours that he will be heading out on loan for the season so maybe this is a low-cost gamble, one for the future and see how it works out. He could end up being our first team regular at some point down the line and equally, he could end up leaving in a couple of years without having played a game for us. The rumours of Lis going out on-loan are fuelled by the fact that we offered Willy Caballero a one-year extension to his contract.  Big Willy signed on the dotted line.  It seems odd that we are now signing players to loan them out, we are like Chelsea and Man City, we are fucking massive (ha ha).

The activity in the goalkeeping department didn’t end there however, with Eddie Beach, who is 18, departing for Chelsea.  Whilst this didn’t really warrant many mentions in the National press or even the local press, it is interesting that he is good enough for Chelsea but not good enough for us and we felt the need to bring in a goalkeeper who is not much older.  I mean, the chances of him actually ever playing a game for Chelsea are extremely remote and he will probably join the army of players out on loan all over Europe, but it will be interesting to remember his name and see if it crops up at any point in the future.

So, where else did we need strengthening?  Everywhere.  According to Ralph’s blueprint, there are six positions on the team, goalkeeper, fullback, centre back, number six, number 10 (wingers) and strikers. According to my blueprint we needed new players in every single one of those positions so with goalkeeper having been addressed, we moved on to centre back with the signing of 20-year-old German Armel Bella-Kotchap. I have to say that I am going to provide absolutely zero insight because I had never heard of the guy until the day that we signed him.

The Experienced Centre Back we Needed is 20

The general reaction from people that matter, was that he’s a very promising young central defender with all the usual attributes, quick, strong, good in the air etc etc. He has over 70 appearances for Bochum in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, and he looks to have a very promising future. With Armel being right-footed, it seems very likely on the face of it, that he will partner the left footed Salisu in the centre of defence which will probably give us the youngest centre back pairing in Premier League history and when you add in Tino, and KWP and even Roman Perraud, the oldest player in there is about 24 and that’s before you get to the fact that we may well have a 20-year-old goalkeeper. It might be brilliant…. but it might be absolute madness. We do seem to be flying on our own down this particular train of thought and flying against years of established wisdom and practices, which basically say that you need some experience, especially in defence. I like the fact that we are trying to do things differently but at the same time I find it fucking terrifying.

When Sports Republic bought the club, they did make a point of saying but they like the way we do things and at the time they bought us, the success of the Tino Livramento signing was all anyone was talking about. Maybe they are just taking the success of the Tino signing and doing it more. It certainly seems that way anyway. The good news is that we can stop worrying about missing out on signing players at about 9 pm because they’ll be going to bed around that time.

A new kit release happened, same as every year, only this time it was centred around the marketing tagline of “bravery“. I’m sure they chose bravery as a theme because you’ve got to be brave to get involved in any of that NFT shit that comes with it.  "The first kit with its own NFT".... oh do fuck off!  Anyway, apparently it’s brave because it’s a bold design which is quite similar to a kit that we had in 2001 just before we moved to St Mary‘s. That 2001 kit for me is always synonymous with Dean Richards.  Anyway, a single thick red vertical stripe down the middle of a predominantly white shirt it is but as usual, at the end of the day, it’s a red and white kit with our badge on it and a sponsors logo ont he front. The amount of extreme reaction it provokes is always mildly amusing to me. I’m more concerned about whether the team and the manager take the bravery message into the way they play next season, not sitting back and hoping to nick a goal on the break which is what we were doing at the tail end of the season.  Maybe the bravery is having a team full of kids – there’s a thin line between bravery and idiocy.

Oh, stop the press…. Here comes the away shirt which looks like someone has eaten a load of blueberries and then eaten a lot of plums and then produced some sort of massive technicolour yawn over a football shirt.  It’s allegedly based on the sea and a nod towards our location.  Maybe this is just me being old but football shirts should be predominantly plain, stripes, quarters or halves or hoops and that’s more or less it.  This will look fine from a distance on a match day but up close… not for me.  The only thing worth getting annoyed about regarding kits is the fact we have three brand new ones a season (five if you count the keepers’ kits).  Third kits are just unnecessary if you think about the colours in the away shirt.   If you want my opinion on the home kit – it’s ok.  Not as good as some but certainly not as bad as the red one with pinstripes from our first year back in the Premier League, nor that fucking awful template red kit when aap3 were the sponsors. 

More importantly, we had coaching positions to fill and Ruben Selles arrived to be Ralph’s number 2, or First Team Lead Coach, which will hopefully stop lots of people moaning that we didn’t have one.  There are also a couple of new appointments elsewhere.  Replacing the mercurial Dave Watson on set pieces, is Alex Chapman who has joined from Notts County and Carl Martin has been promoted from the Under 18s to ‘major on ball possession’.  Interesting, because our possession was always relatively decent – it was the cutting edge that was lacking.  All we need now is a court jester to replace Kelvin Davis and we’re sorted.

Shane - Thanks for the Memories

July 1st did eventually roll around and it was as usual, the signal for things to happen.  Who were we linked with? – more youngsters in the shape of Levi Colwill from Chelsea and Romeo Lavia from Manchester City – a defender and a defensive midfielder.  I wondered when we are going to address the gaping chasm that is the lack of creativity and goals in the squad.  I was expecting that we’d probably give Shane Long a new contract – though it was encouraging that he wasn’t present at the first day of pre-season training….

…. And Shane Long got released, thankfully.  That may seem harsh but the harsh facts are that he’s not had a good season since 2016, which is 6 years ago and there is a world of difference between 29 and 35 when you're a striker who primarily relies on pace and fitness.  He’s had moments of inspiration since then but there comes a time for everyone.  For me, it’s good that Saints are putting sentimentality aside and there really isn’t much room for it in top level sport and we’ve recently corrected the Kelvin Davis issue and now this – just Theo Walcott to go now.

Shane, lovely bloke, would love to go for a pint with him but not a Premier League striker anymore.  Like with Fraser Forster, we’ll remember the good stuff like the Liverpool semi-final goal, the Villa long ranger, the Watford 7 second goal and him running himself into the ground for the cause, therefore creating space for others like Danny Ings to stick the ball in the net.  He always played like he cared and you could never accuse him of not putting a shift in, which may sound like a minimum requirement for a professional footballer but we’ve had a few who don’t.  I think he’s probably got a season or two left in him at a lower level and hope he gets to finish his career on his own terms and good luck to him.

Romeo: Another Piece of the Plot to Take over Man City

Onwards… and after nearly a week of speculation all over the place, Romeo Lavia, an 18-year-old defensive midfielder, joined from Manchester City.  He is the current Premiership 2 Player of the Season and has joined for the opportunity of playing in the Premier League where he had no pathway before.  For here on in, I will describe this as joining ‘on a Tino’ which is a relatively modest fee, with a buy back clause for the Super League Club.  Like with Gavin Bazunu, the reputation is very good and there’s a reason for that, but it of course comes with the caveat that he has never played a Premier League game and in Lavia’s case, as far as I can work out, has only played two games of football that weren’t age group games.  What I’m saying is – don’t expect him to be brilliant straight away but as he’s joined on a Tino, he may well be, like last year’s trail blazer.  Lavia’s You Tube highlight reel looks impressive and if he can take that into the Premier League then we’ll be very happy.  Straight after Lavia came some more staff recruitment with Joe Shields becoming our new Head of Recruitment, having done a similar role at Youth Level with Manchester City… no doubt having a hand in the development of Bazunu and Lavia.  Sports Republic are taking over Man City and no one has realised it yet…. We are massive!

A few days later and we diverted from the City takeover master plan for a bit with the signing of Joe Aribo from Rangers.  He’s positively ancient at 25 and if Romeo Lavia was ‘on a Tino’, this is ‘on a Stuart Armstrong’.  One year left on the contract and a relatively cheap gamble (£6m) signing from the Old Firm.  By the sound of it, his playing style is similar to the man with the magnificent hair but he’s left footed, which we haven’t had enough of in recent seasons.  Now, with Perraud, Salisu and Aribo, there’s the opportunity for the team to have a real balance to it, if Ralph chooses to do so.  Aribo has been a standout player for Rangers in the SPL and whilst playing well in that league for Rangers or Celtic is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, he also stood out in the latter stages of Rangers Europa League campaigns, which is of course a higher standard, if only over a few games.  The key to being a good Premier League player is of course consistency over a large number of games but the raw materials look to be all there.  He seems ideally suited to one of the wide positions in our formation or can operate just behind the striker in a 4-3-3 formation, so will give us some more flexibility.  He’s also built up a reputation as a bit of a JWP-like machine player, having played 70 games last season.  Our last few Old Firm signings have been good for us so here’s hoping this one will be as well.

Joe Gets the Liebherr Pavilion Photoshop Treatment

So, 5 new players, 3 new coaches and 1 Head of Recruitment through the door and no one as I write, has left for a fee as yet, so approximately £45 million has been spent so far.  Sports Republic are putting their money where their mouth is.  We clearly still need a striker to replace Armando Broja in the squad but we also badly need to offload, with Theo Walcott, Moussa Djenepo and Nathan Redmond the names in the frame.  There have been rumours about departures for Lyanco and Jan Bednarek but nothing has happened as yet.  With pre-season training camps starting in a week or so, it will be interesting to see who gets left behind as the squad head off to Austria for a training camp, including a friendly against Ralph’s previous employers, RB Leipzig.  On the face of it, the recruitment that we have done in terms of positions and quality seems to be sound but there is of course, that massive question over experience.  Maybe we’ll be like the England Test Cricket team and try something different and find that it totally suits us despite it going against hundreds of years of tradition, or maybe we’ll be like Jan Poortvliet’s Saints who went down this route and collapsed horribly.  More likely we’ll be something in the middle but it’s a massive risk but it’s one that Ralph, Martin Semmens, Rasmus Ankersen and Dragan Solak must be happy to take.  All aboard.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ralph - What Happens Now?


In a situation that you could never have foreseen before we played Aston Villa at Villa Park on 5th March, major questions need to be asked about Ralph Hasenhuttl’s future as manager of Southampton FC.  In the period between Boxing Day and that March date at Villa Park, Saints had played 9 won 5, drawn 3 and lost just 1 in the Premier League and had got through to the Quarter Final of the FA Cup with 3 more wins including playing our reserves against West Ham’s first team and still winning.  Everything Ralph touch turned to gold and we were flying. Those 9 league games also included games against big boys Manchester United, Spurs (twice), Manchester City and West Ham, who were in the Champions League places at the time.  The manager was a genius and we were looking at a Top 10 finish and we already had 35 points.

Three months is a long time in football and since then, played 12, won 1, drawn 2, lost 9 and you could argue that all bar the home games against Liverpool and Chelsea were winnable.  In that run, Ralph has been bereft of any inspiration, and it seems, any idea of how to change things around.

These two runs are the heart of the debate… he is clearly capable of being a good manager and finding ways of getting good results for a short period of time but is it enough to have this, followed by the sort of run that followed?  When we are good, we are very, very good and when we are bad, we are shite.  The history of Southampton FC has been littered with this kind of thing, to be fair.

One of the clubs all-to-frequent PR gaffe’s was to eulogise the SFC Playbook which was Ralph’s blueprint for the entire club from the first team on down.  When things were going well and we are doing things exactly as the SFC Playbook says, we have a very defined a structured way of playing and other teams struggle to deal with it.  If they do manage to deal with it however or they do manage to catch us on an off day when all 11 players aren’t 100% at it, we seem to have no other way of winning games other than playing with what amounts to basically a back nine and leaving one striker isolated and hoping for the best. Regardless of the strength of your squad, this clearly isn’t acceptable.
Those last 12 games have been very much like the end of the season when Claude Puel was in charge where we seem to have no clue how to attack. This meant really boring negative football and when we inevitably go behind, you knew there was more than likely no way we were getting back into it, unless JWP scores a free kick like at Leeds and Brighton in that run. When the expectation of scoring a goal is so low, the game is just becomes a chore to watch and that is never good for the manager, especially if results are bad.
One of the things that saves him getting too much stick is that our squad is not good enough which is a result of under investment, really since 2016, thanks in large to the situation with Mr Gao. That was at the point where we started believing our own hype and thinking we had some magic formula that would always work – buy cheap, polish it, sell for lots, replace cheap, polish it, sell for lots, rinse, repeat etc etc - only things started to go a bit wrong….

There were a number of players signed to be first team starters that didn’t work out and there have also been players bought that just haven’t developed as we hoped.  We have also made bad decisions regarding extending contracts of players who were never going to be first-team regulars, which merely succeeded in bulking up the wage bill, blocking the pathway to the first team and taking money away from other areas.
The way you judge your manager is how well he has done with the resources that are available to him and this is where it’s difficult to judge Ralph because in the middle of the season, he was massively over performing in that regard, but at the end of it, you could argue that he had used up all his miracles, looked tired and jaded and that a change was needed for both parties. You cannot afford to be tired and jaded in management top level football because you are setting the tone for the players. If you get that way, then the decision making either becomes too safe or it becomes too random. To be honest, we have seen both recently.  Ralph of course, hinted that he was feeling the pressure in a mid-season interview when he said he thought he only had another two years left in management.  This was ironically just before our best performance of the season in the 3-2 away win at Spurs.
The perception inside the club was that the squad was better this year than last, so it will be a disappointment to have finished lower and with less points and we had last year. Ralph himself said he was happy with the squad though to be honest, I don’t have much time for managers who say the opposite because all you are doing is undermining the players that you have.  Player ego needs to managed these days, so a manager publicly saying his squad isn’t good enough is not a great thing.
Ralph has however, got to be honest with himself and with the club about whether he has the stomach to carry on anymore. Being manager of Southampton is not easy because you are always up against it, be it having less money that others, less good players, more than your share of bad refereeing decisions, further to travel etc and it will therefore take a lot out of you. 

The last two seasons of basically followed the same pattern where we have performed well up to a point and then completely fallen apart.
  This is the whole Plan B thing as well because the players we have can’t maintain our high pressing style of football throughout an entire season.  In the season before the one just finished, it was put down to a lack of players in the squad and key injuries which disrupted things but it’s happened again this season so you have to think that it will happen next season as well unless there is something markedly different happening.  We tried to address the player tiredness this year with a ‘marginal gains’ approach by taking our time over long throws and generally shithousing with the energy drinks breaks and all that but we still had the same end of the season as the one before where we didn’t look like we knew where our next point was coming from. That’s not good and for the rumoured £6 - £7 million a year that we are paying Ralph, he should be coming up with an answer to that.
Ralph seems to have this stubborn belief that things will just magically change for the better.   There have been some real ‘definition of madness’ things going on and I have been absolutely mystified at times this season and wondered how he expected it to be any different to how it has eventually turned out.

The game against Chelsea at home was a classic example. Chelsea had two golden chances  because we were all over the place, with Timo Werner managing to hit the woodwork twice in the opening five minutes. Having got away with those two chances it was absolutely obvious that we should’ve changed the defensive system and gone to three at the back to match Chelsea up, right then, right now.  It was an obvious change that should have been ready to go but he didn’t do it and we didn’t make any changes until 10 minutes later when we were 2-0 down.   The indecision was final.  We were eventually 4-0 down by half-time and ended up losing by six. Next year we have five substitutes to use so the decision making has to be quicker.

That Chelsea game, coming on the back of the 4-0 defeat at Villa, seemed to kill Ralph completely and after that we went all Claude Puel and risk averse and shocking to watch.
  Risk averse boring football is a dangerous game to play because it’s only maintainable if you get results.  Fans will quickly lose patience is there’s the double whammy of no result and no entertainment.

We got a result playing that way against Arsenal but the next game was Burnley away, which was a completely different assignment in terms of style of football and standard of opposition we were facing and he went with the same team and tactics as the Arsenal game and we were dismal in a limp defeat.  It was almost as if he didn’t have the energy to think of what was needed for that particular game.

Other ridiculousness this season has included picking Shane Long to start a game in the Premier League in 2022 at the age of 35.  Maybe there was some justification for playing him in the last 10 minutes against tired defenders but never from the start.  What did he think was going to happen? What did he think was going to happen if he paired Bednarek with Stephens or played Nathan Redmond as a striker?  All these things are 99% proven not to work and they are highly unlikely to suddenly work.
Towards the end of the season we also had the absolutely bizarre selection of substitutes which included players who has been completely out of favour all season when the places on the bench could’ve been used to put a youngster on and give them some experience and therefore gain something for the future. Theo Walcott on the bench for the last game having hardly played all season. Do me a favour.  He would have had my full backing if he’d said, “we’re looking at the future and going to play some youngsters in these last games”.  We’ve ended up losing all these games, learning nothing.  “We win or we learn” – remember that! 
There are three things keeping Ralph in a job at the moment.  One is the length of contract he has got at the cost of getting rid of him.   Another is the perception / reality that the squad is very weak and no manager could really do better.  The third is that he has shown himself very capable in the very recent past.  He has to prove if he is going to stay, that he is not a busted flush, he still has the drive and energy for it and that he is worthy of being in charge if some money gets spent. Anyone can see that a lot of our current players aren’t good enough, but Ralph should in my opinion, have done slightly better with what he’s had. That’s what we pay him the big bucks for.  Of course, this season he’s also done a lot better at times with what he had but if you compare this season to last, the squad is slightly stronger and we have ended up with less points.

Martin Semmens has always been Ralph’s biggest supporter and was of course, championing him as “the best manager Southampton could have” as recently as March.  As I’ve said before, it’s not solely down to Semmens now because we have new owners.  It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall at the next board meeting – I guess it depends on what the expectations were. 
Another complication is that of course if you replace a manager, you have to replace him with someone who is going to be better in some way. This is not a situation like with Puel, where we thought that just about anybody would’ve been better and no one could say that Pellegrino was an upgrade on Puel.  I know there are many fans out there who basically think we’re at the point where anyone can do better and just want the current incumbent to be sacked. That’s a dangerous mindset to have.  Martin Semmens talked in the past about how they have already done some planning for the day that Ralph eventually leaves. If the board do decide that it’s time for a change, we just have to hope that that is correct and that they get it right. Bruno Lage, the current Wolves boss, was apparently on that list once upon a time but with the style of football that Wolves play, I’m not sure that would have been a great fix for us.

For my own part, I like Ralph and really want him to succeed but there comes a point.  I can’t believe quite how bad we’ve been at the end of this season and that’s the players and the manager.  The main thing for me is that if the Board want him to carry on, Ralph himself has got to have the energy and drive to do it or else he’s letting down the Board and more importantly, the fans of Southampton FC.

I’m not going to say whether I think he should stay or go but I am going to say that right now, I wouldn’t exactly feel it was the end of the world if he went and this is a major shift from where I was before we embarked on this dreadful run of performances and results.  I used to think, like Martin Semmens said, that Ralph was the best manager than Saints could possibly have.  I am now severely questioning that.

And another thing....

Kelvin Leaves With a 100% Managerial Record Intact

PS – In the course of writing this, some significant events happened in that three of the first team coaching staff left the club.  Not only is this an indication that Ralph is staying, if he gets to choose his coaching stafff, it may also indicate his influence is increasing,   The three departing coaches, Craig Fleming, Dave Watson and Kelvin Davis were all at the club when Ralph arrived so they weren’t his choices, which is unusual on the face of it.

I think most people will see the departure of Kelvin Davis as a shame and it always is when someone who has been with the club 15 years leaves, but I would say that it’s about time that the club stopped acting sentimental with regard to keeping ex-players in key positions.  If you want to be sentimental and reward someone for long service or being valuable in the past, make them a Club Ambassador, not a first team coach or a player who never plays.

Ralph Interviewing Prospective New Coaching Staff