West Bromwich Albion At Home – Super Saturday

Well, it’s been quite a couple of weeks.

As ever, discussion about football is a matter of opinion, framed by events that are current at the time of talking, writing or tweeting. They are there to be discussed but also disproved. In the event of us failing to add to our strike force in the transfer window many have questioned our ability to hold our own and score goals. As you will see from one of the hyperlinks on the recent posts section I was one of them. Trust Hughton to disprove us in the most emphatic fashion.

There I go, giving the end away AGAIN. But come on, you’re reading this because, for the first time this season, you want to savour the afternoon again, right?

It certainly was one to savour, In fact, it was one of those days where everything went perfectly. Steve was away cycling so I took his son while The Boy’s Oldest Friend and his mum joined us for the game, This involved various junior sports’ teams training sessions endings being co-ordinated, finding of tickets and hopes that Southern would run not one but three trains on time, and that we could all find each other. That this was achieved painlessly proves how well the afternoon went. That it should be in doubt shows the current level of mistrust in our wonderful local rail travel providers.

On the station, waiting for the first of these trains, the discussion was based on if we’d see a home debut for record signing Izquierdo. The consensus was that we’d like to see him, but at whose expense we weren’t sure. March has been one player who has looked a hundred percent at home in this league. I’d send a fired up Knockaert out against any team in the world. In the week Propper had played a fine game in a more advanced role, while Groß has done nothing wrong at all and would potentially have the creativity and running needed against what would be a big, well organised West Brom team.

In the event, having got a beer quickly and painlessly, and had a good old catch up and gossip, I checked my phone to find an unchanged team. The home debut would have to wait.

The team talk was probably easier than normal. It was clear from early on in the game we were spot on tactically but the motivation would all have come from a desire to show us, the League, and more than a few pundits that we mean business. While you can disparage social media all you like that too acted like a team talk for the fans. Let’s put all this behind us and get behind the team was the overriding message, and it had been taken to heart. The noise that greeted the boys was cranked up to at least a 9.5 out of 10, and continued from a lusty rendition of Sussex By The Sea and on throughout a first half, which, it’s fair to say, we dominated.

We were always going to see more of the ball than we did against Man City but the early indications here were that “our league” might not be the hard work that we feared. If City looked like they came from another other-worldly existence, West Brom on this evidence would not be out of place in The Championship. That’s not to disparage our players in any way. West Brom poked hopeful punts up for their lone striker Rondon and Shane Duffy snaffled every one with his head. The hoped for second ball didn’t drop for The Baggies either. Propper, looking every inch the record signing that he briefly was, bossed midfield. Dunk quarterbacked off the scraps. Knockaert and Bruno weaved beautiful patterns on the right and March found space on the left. The much maligned (yes, guilty) Hemed looked far stronger (and this against a centre back who Man City had apparently targeted). And above all was Groß who seemed to be covering every blade of grass going.

Inevitably we scored. Groß was hacked in a poor challenge by Krychowiak. Knocky seemed to slip and under hit the resulting free kick but it span out to March and Foster made a total hash of the shot for Duffy to tap in to an empty net. Only he was offside, a fact not immediately apparent to me, ginning and bouncing with relief along with everyone else, but it did not count.

We survived two scares ourselves. How a back pass from Duffy wasn’t cut out by Rondan I’ll never know, while Ryan (yes, I know) made an unbelievable reflex save from Gareth Barry’s long range drive.

And then it came. A sublime cross field ball from Groß found March on the left and his cross found Groß back again at the back stick, having carried on his run. He seemed to overrun his cut back but stretched and slid it in from close range to send the Amex loopy with delight. Yes, I have watched it back a couple of times. You would, wouldn’t you?

The goal had come on the stroke of half time, and had been missed by Ray’s son who sits behind me, as he’d gone to the bar early. I’d said to both of them before we scored that it would be really nice to go in one up as it would change Pullis’s tactics and I’d got what I’d wanted. Now imagine still being downstairs drinking that beer when we scored a second. He was. I wasn’t. I wanted to savour every minute of this game and straight after half time we were in dreamland. The space was created by Dunk going on the charge, drawing WBA out of shape. Although he had to cut back a quick diagonal ball found Hemed who produced a wonderful touch to free Groß. Knockaert was in yards of space but the German instead turned straight and fired a wonderful low shot in to the corner and everyone who wasn’t still in the bar went nuts. Not as nuts as Ryan, though, who raced the length of the pitch to join a pile of celebrating players. Together, indeed.

A third was impossible right? Not on your nelly. Groß again involved, this time the provider as we exposed space on the WBA right and he had plenty of time to cross for Hemed to score with a perfectly angled header.

We lost Bruno to injury and they brought on Morrison and the game belatedly changed, the latter scoring what would turn out to be a consolation goal after a cross from the right had dropped to him and a tangled up Duffy was lucky not to have handled off the line. Perhaps better to concede the goal than a penalty and a man at that stage. In any case, for the rest of the game we looked as if we had ten men, as a siege mentality took hold and West Brom belatedly upped their possession and territory stats, Morrison at the heart of everything good for them.

Five minutes of injury time started off nervously, March got booked for an obvious dive and then it was over. Applause, songs, hugging, high fives. Beer, then back to mine for pizza. Three excited boys on top of the world. One blogger apologising on Twitter. That one latter thing was different. Everything else was a continuation of last season. We might just be ok.

 

 

 

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A 5/10 Window Suggests Big Trouble

So the window has now “slammed shut” as they say on Sky Sports and our business – free agents apart – is done. How have we done?

It’s important to state at the outset of this piece that what follows is purely the opinion of me, a long term fan. I have no insider knowledge and I can only summarise what I personally see in front of me. Other people may disagree with my assessment of players. In fact I’d expect that, it’s a game of opinions and that’s one of the things I love about football. Nor do I seek to explain WHY certain things happened. That would be pure speculation.

That said, I posted publicly on NSC on Wednesday to say our window had so far been a 6 out of 10 but that we had the opportunity to make it a 9 on deadline day. Sadly, in my humble opinion, we’ve dropped to a five and, if I was a betting man (which I am) who put money on my own team (which I don’t), I’d have a sizeable wedge on us going down. That’s an opinion that needs backing up, so let’s take a look at where we are, position by position.

Goalkeeper

This is where all our problems begin sadly. For whatever reason (and he’s publicly said it was contract length and “family first”) Stockdale didn’t feel able to sign a new contract (more of this right at the end). From that moment we seemed behind the eight ball. We broke our transfer record on a man who appeared to be third choice at Valencia and has not settled well. While it’s important to stress here that our other new signings have the time and potential to rescue this window, nothing I’ve seen of Ryan inspires any confidence at all. He is too small and parries everything, and the much vaunted distribution seems to be non-existent. Yes he makes good reflex saves but he’s going to have to because we’ll be doing much more defending than last season. It’s no good saving from one striker only to push it out to a second.

Clearly Hughton doesn’t have a lot of confidence either because, on deadline day, we brought in Tim Krul. Now Krul I like, a proven Premier League keeper who knows CH well, and he will immediately challenge for a starting position. However, we had to take him on loan, using up our second loan from a Premier League and meaning the striker deal almost certainly had to be a permanent move.

Defence

This is one area where we now have two players challenging for every position, which is what saw our success last season. I have never seen Schelotto play so cannot rate this particular signing, but having another right back also gives us the flexibility to play Bruno as centre back if injury or suspension so dictates. At this stage I cannot call who’ll be the starting RB. Dunk and Duffy were an obvious area where we already had Premier League class and I’m going to go against some opinions and state that what I’ve seen of Suttner I like. He’s solid rather than world beating but seems to have a decent delivery. Our issue is going to be cards. We’ll pick up a fair few bookings at this level and suspensions could eat in to our depth. Schelotto or Bruno paired with Duffy, Dunk and Suttner looks ok. A four of Bruno, Goldson, Hunnemier and Bong less so.

Wingers

Another area of strength and the one area where the new season excites me. March and Knockaert were born for this level and will create mayhem against the lower sides in our “mini league”. I like very much what I saw of Brown against Atleti, though this is the first instance where our infamous bad luck struck us down, with Brown getting injured less than a half in to the new season. Izquierdo is a genuinely exciting signing. I watched him play against Leicester in the Champions League last season and his pace is electric (he scored a cracker too). No worries so far in this department, with the exception that we cannot reasonably play all four at the same time.

Midfield

Now we come to a grey area, where players are going to have to adapt quickly. Loaning out Norwood wasn’t a surprise and Sidwell brings a wealth of experience at this level. However, Stephens has started off slowly, an issue exacerbated by another unlucky injury to Kayal, who we’ve failed to replace. Propper initially excited me, having seen his PSV form, but he looks like he’ll need time to adapt. Right now he’s a clone of Stephens only without the ball retention skills. He may well be used to having stronger, faster players ahead of him. Oh dear. Then there’s Groß. Is he a number 10 or a number 8? Played in behind the striker (and occasionally alongside so it seemed against City) he may be in the wrong category here. Either way, again there is a bit for me to get excited about. There were some lovely touches and dead balls against Atleti and a lot of running against Man City. Not the quickest but he may well be someone who can unlock the door for a quick striker. Again, oh dear.

Striker

Baldock (injured), Murray (maybe injured) and Hemed. That’s what we have. We got away with it in the Championship, indeed all three scored more than anyone expected at the start of the season. If Baldock was fit I’d even be thinking we could squeak through. Sadly we are going in to one of the toughest leagues in the world with two very similar strikers and nothing else.

It’s here that the buying from abroad strategy looks weakest, yet it’s also here where it might be the most necessary. British players cost and British strikers cost too much. Nevertheless our business here looks risky to say the least. No one had seen Dwamena play and he might have been a revelation. Certainly his highlight reel made the mouth water. But when you come down to plain facts we were offering eight million for a guy who’d cost Zurich a reported three percent of that figure in the previous window and had lit up the Swiss second division. Zurich say the heart defect we found had been found by them also and it seemed there was no guarantee of a work permit. Once this deal fell through, and we have to take our club’s word over Zurich and wish the player well, we were always behind the game – a game we ultimately lost at 1am this morning.

Contracts

Another big positive that people are forgetting. Some of the key players from last season have been rewarded with new long term contracts, cementing them in the team, costing the club (for that read Tony Bloom) money and boosting their sell on value. This is certainly a continuation of #Together and should not be overlooked.

However, all of that said the lack of a striker signing (again!!!!!!) will hang over this window and I simply cannot see us scoring enough goals. If we’re looking relegation candidates come January then it will be even harder to attract quality.

All in all we’ve done what my wife does in Tesco’s when she’s a bit tired and the kids have been giving her grief. We need eggs. Everyone in the house loves an egg and there isn’t one to be had anywhere so a trip to the shops is called for, despite the fact it’s late at night. An hour later she returns with a bag full of things that were reduced by a pound, things that were two for the price of one and things that will “come in handy”. But no eggs. And now the store is closed.

 

 

 

 

 

Manchester City at Home – A Lesson

It’s been a strange summer, football wise. As a Brighton fan, the end of the previous campaign could have left you with any range of emotions. The immense celebrations after clinching promotion against Wigan were followed by the anti-climax of losing the title with a poor display at home to Bristol City, a hungover display at Carrow Road and a last minute mistake at Villa Park. All of which would have been massively deflating had it not been for an extraordinary promotion celebration on the seafront. Derided in some parts, other fans failed to understand that only the promotion mattered. It built the fans and players back up and left things on a high. Then there was the immediate capture of Pascal Groß and the watching of Huddersfield going up via the worst playoff game in living memory and suddenly there was real expectation again.

But the summer break is just long enough to dampen this sort of thing down. With no major international competitions we’ve largely had to guess regarding the quality of some of the touted and signed players. Then the fixture list comes out and it turns out the opening game is against a side who have spent more on full backs than we have on a stadium. Some transfer rumours are rubbished, some players signed from completely left field, one player fails a medical and we have our usual nightmare signing a striker with pace. The feeling, really, was of a side three quarters built, though I always judge at the end of the window. I just maintain that window should close when the league season kicks off, and always have.

But the excitement of a first Premier League game built all week. We’d given Atletico Madrid a decent game and suddenly the BT Sport team were building up the game, flags (actually, what looked like bin bags, not one to keep) were being left on seats and Guardiola, Walker, Jesus, Aguero et al were heading for The Amex. Ready or not, probably our biggest test all season at home was arriving first.

We awoke to palpable excitement. I’d watched Arsenal v Leicester the night before without quite realising this was a game in our division. Now, The Boy and I listened to a two hour Albion Roar breakfast show, watched Premier League previews, I lurked on Twitter whenever I could and we counted down the time to when we’d be allowed to leave the house. And then, everything was a little bit different.

When we treat games as just another game we generally do well. Whenever we build it up, not so much. So it was with trepidation I’d read about the flags. This didn’t really ease when we arrived at The Swan to find a quarter of the outside space taken up with a Juice FM outside broadcast truck and twice the normal number of punters trying to squeeze in to the reduced space. Everyone in new shirts, talking up our chances as the ale hit home. Huge queues for non-existent food at the stadium meaning we were in our seats two minutes before actual kick off. And then the lesson begun.

It’s not that we played badly. It’s not that City, initially at least, played that well. Their passing was sloppy to start and our shape strong and organised. The two banks of four, clearly visible from our lofty perch, were ridged in defence and flexible in the odd break. You could sense a frustration from the City fans, the tension of expectation weighing heavily on mostly silent faces, while the North and West Upper kept up a barrage of noise. A solidity from Dunk and Duffy, a level of comfort from Bruno and March suggesting they had been born for this level of football. Ryan (though he looks small for a keeper) fairly commanding.

Yet, if you looked at highlights of that first half they would be all City from start to end. They must have had over 70% of the ball. Every time one of Bruno, March, Duffy, Dunk, Ryan or Suttner won the ball Hemed or Stephens or Propper would give it back to them. The issues in our central attacking areas I mentioned last week magnified here. Even worse, Brown who once again acquitted himself impressively, had to go off injured. Murphy came on with less than half an hour gone, significantly reducing our ability to play impact subs later on.

First half chances? I lost count. I remember a clever dribble from Jesus down our right with the ball intelligently cut out by Dunk. A free kick rammed straight down Ryan’s throat. A brilliant ball in from the right hand side that Stephens very nearly headed in to his own net – by very nearly I mean centimetres. Then the first goal. Disallowed as luckily it wasn’t scored by the Hand of God but by the Hand of Jesus (thanks for that, mate, a writers dream). Our chances? Only one, a divine cross field ball from Bruno that Murphy would have scored from had he got more than half a touch, having for once eluded Walker. But we knew we’d get this with Hughton. Keep it solid. Frustrate. And hopefully hit on the break.

And in the second half we so nearly did. A break from Murphy, whipped cross from Suttner and a header that looped agonisingly on to the roof of the net. A corner, nonetheless, and here’s where we’ll be dangerous. Mayhem in the box from Duffy and Dunk, proper pinball. From another set piece the ball came out to Propper, twenty five yards out, and his low drive squeaked agonisingly close to the far post, as close as Stephens had been to the own goal.

But mainly it was all City still and you sensed they had another gear. They hit it just at the wrong time. We’d replaced the ineffective Hemed with the busier Murray on the hour and, as Ed Bassford (the NSC “father of the house”, Falmer campaigner and all round good guy) appeared on the big screen for a minute’s applause we played our nicest minute of possession football of the whole match. I think Ed might have found it funny that we then cocked it up massively, unnecessarily passing back to Ryan, losing the ball and shape and being carved open. De Bruyne starting a lovely one touch move that saw Aguero in acres of space in our box with time to pick his spot. 0-1.

A second inevitably followed. Another mistake perhaps? I said so on Twitter, but having watched it back it may be just one of those things. A brilliant cross from the right saw Jesus and Dunk battling. The latter got there first but his angle and momentum meant he could only direct a point blank header through the helpless Ryan. Cruel on the hometown boy who’d been magnificent up to then, but no less than City deserved.

0-2 it ended then and a real set of lessons learned, hopefully. For me the lessons are as follows. Without wanting to sound like some of the more hysterical NSC posters, we need a speedy, strong number 9 and we need him now. Organised football can be our friend but we need to be more careful with the ball when we win it back. This football club has been built on comfort on the ball since 2010. Yesterday Propper in particular treated it like it was an unwanted North Korean nuclear warhead. Mistakes WILL cost us and chances HAVE to be taken at this level.

It’s far from doom and gloom though. Not every team is Manchester City, and I expect them to win the league and do well in the Champions League too. Palace lost 3-0 at home – to Huddersfield! – and Chelsea managed to slip up too so there is hope in any game and thirty seven of them left to play. Propper will no doubt get better once he’s had time to get to know his new teammates. Hopefully Brown’s injury isn’t too serious. Our fears re Bruno are totally unfounded, our best player yesterday along with March. And the noise! Pat yourselves on the back Brighton fans. The Amex was rocking. It’s going to need to all season for us to survive.

 

Big Premier League Kick Off – Man City Preview

What a week it’s been at the Albion!

I know we constantly hark back to our struggle over the last twenty five years or so, and it bores the pants off people, but I still never thought I’d be writing about a team who competed decently against Atletico Madrid and then broke their own transfer record twice, all in six days.

We now have a Propper midfield and more left wingers than Momentum (sorry) and the feeling is, with a bid reportedly rejected for striker Dwamena we’re not done yet. Lua Lua is on his way (to QPR again, reportedly) and the thoughts of those Albion fans who wanted to see more business in July that we were unprepared must be rapidly dissipating. We may not be prepared for Saturday though, because we’re playing Manchester ****ing City and I don’t think anyone’s prepared for them at the moment.

Never mind our own miracle come back. It’s not THAT long ago that City were playing in League One, if only for a season. For much of the nineties it wasn’t a name that struck automatic fear in to one’s heart. And, even later than that, we managed to turn them over at Withdean in the League Cup, a feat celebrated by a pitch invasion led by a bloke in a wheelchair.

But now? Honestly, I can’t even begin to predict who’ll line up against us, such is the embarrassment of riches at their disposal. I think I’m right in saying that their new defence has cost more than it cost to build the Amex. It might even just be their new full backs. And they, in turn, might actually be wing backs.

City, you see, come in to this following a win over Spurs in a friendly competition abroad that was described by Pep Guardiola as better than any of their league performances last season. They used three at the back and we may well see the same again at the Amex. Kyle Walker as a right wing back will certainly be handful for Suttner or Bong at left back (with 45 mins each last week it’s hard to call) but will it leave space for a midfield that looks very attack minded to hit City on the counter?

Up front it’s hard to call too. Who will lead the line? Aguero? Jesus? Will it be two up top? Will we get a kick?

Up until last week I would have said this was certain heavy defeat, but then I’m not Chris Hughton, thank Christ, and I’m not our players. He and they played Atleti without fear and, in the case of Knockaert and March, with massive grins on their faces as they twisted, turned and roasted supposedly world class players. If we have a chance at all tomorrow, it’s that the new City players are still bedding in, that the Amex will be a completely new environment to them (sadly, in a way, not in a, dare I say, Selhurst Park, falling down shitty stands and cramped dressing rooms kind of way, we are NOT the proverbial Barnsley on a Tuesday night in February) and that we seem to have retained that team spirit and togetherness from last season and added quality, strength and pace.

We’ll need Matt Ryan to have a bit more skill and luck this time out, for he’ll have even more touches than last week and we can’t afford another howler, but if he sticks to the reflex saves, if Duffy and Dunk are at the top of their game and if the attackers are on point, there is the faintest glimmer of hope. Expect us to be dangerous on the break and from set pieces, where I think we can cause real problems at this level.

Our team? The jury is out on how defensive our wide players will be. This could see shock call ups for either Murphy or even Skalak, but last week pointed instead to Brown getting through a lot of work on the left. If AK is fit you’ve got to unleash him, the man will be fired up beyond belief and he knows no fear at all. Assuming he is then I can see

Ryan

Bruno Duffy Dunk Suttner

Knockaert Propper Stephens Brown

Gross

Murray

While that may not be stellar it’s more than competitive in our “half” of the league.

Me? I’ll be there screaming my lungs out with The Boy and a small tear may be shed just before kick off. I’m hoping for another Withdean. Hold back your wheelchairs.