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.

 

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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.

 

 

Atletico Madrid At Home

“Atletico Madrid at home”. There’s a match report I never thought I’d be writing. Yet it really did happen, in glorious sunshine too. Yesterday, the big time arrived at The Amex.

It’s arrived here at BBOAH Towers too. I’ll have you know this is a Premier League blog you’re reading now and the proof is that I’m magically charging you 25p a word via use of a invisible paywall powered by Jamie Redknapp’s arse-hair and the recycled dreams of the Essex branch of the Manchester United Supporter’s club*. I’ve got slightly better back lights though and you will be reading about players like Benjamin Mendy, Paul Pogba, Steve Cooke and Ashley Barnes.

I digress. Atletico Madrid eh?

Whoever got this friendly arranged needs a massive pat on the back, which I suspect they’ve had since Paul Barber’s ears will have been delighting in the sound of ringing cash tills all afternoon. I have rarely seen The Boy so excited and we fairly bounced to the bus at Sainsbury’s. Many others were making their way, decked out in our brand new kit, and the bus left for Dreamland at exactly ten past two, full of happy chatter. Steve and I caught up with the tiny events that had happened since I’d cooked him a massive steak the night before and the boys chattered eagerly. The Boy had already worked out that “Mathew Ryan” scans in to exactly the same songs as “David Stockdale”, which would prove to be useful.

A beer or two and a chat with an old mate I used to travel the country with watching us, back in the day, and then it was out in to the bright sunshine for Griezmann against Duffy. Quite literally for us as we’d booked tickets early, when the West Upper wasn’t open, and therefore found ourselves with a most excellent view in the centre of the East Stand, a few rows from the front.

An interesting team selection had been discussed already in the bar. With Murray suspended Hemed had to lead the line but most of us would have started with March rather than Murphy. Otherwise it was the expected side but the weaknesses in it, one enforced and one chosen, were obvious from the start.

Atleti were extremely comfortable early on, dominating the ball with Torres proving a handful and Griezmann, never stellar to be fair, still conducting attacks. Yesterday was far from his best game yet I spent a portion of time just watching him rather than the ball and the way he constantly sits in space, right in the hole, and is key to Atleti’s game. He seems to have more time on the ball than half our team put together.

Inevitably from comfortable possession came a range of attacks. Kayal’s foul gave Griezmann a chance from an early free kick but he stuck it straight at Ryan. From another a loose ball was stabbed at our new keeper who produced a reaction save of sheer class. Even better, a powerful low, skidding shot that was flying in to the bottom corner was somehow repelled at full stretch. “Da da da daaaa! Mathew Ryan!” sang The Boy. “Da da da daaaa! Mathew Ryan!” sang the North Stand. Meanwhile, Oblak in the Atleti goal was a spectator.

This sort of dominance at least gave a chance to assess our new players. Suttner looks decent in the air and competitive but he was being helped a lot in the first half by Izzy Brown, playing more left midfield than left wing. Brown showed the same sort of excellent temperament we got last season from another Chelsea loanee, Tomori, and applied himself selflessly. On the odd attack we did have he looked dangerous and will prove, I think, to be quite the decent signing. Gross hardly had a touch early on but one incredible little ball steal and turn, halfway in the Atletico Madrid half, set up one of our more dangerous moments.

Sadly for us, have expertly denied Atletico’s better chances we conceded just before half time to a howler, Gaitan hitting a tame shot from long range that somehow went straight through Ryan, who’d been outstanding up to then. So yes, we appear to have a keeper who is a brilliant shot stopper and distributes the ball well, but is prone to the odd ricket. Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose.

Three changes were made at half time, Sidwell coming in to centre midfield for Kayal, March replacing the utterly ineffective Murphy and Bong getting a full half at left back. The Albion immediately looked more dangerous. The addition of March put Atletico on the back foot and Hughton must have put some belief in to us. March took them on with glee, right in front of us, with a trade mark cut inside and shot just over the bar and generally we gained some possession and territory. From another attack we equalized. Hemed for once won and kept the ball in a dangerous area and a sloppy foul was committed on him. Gross, who’d already established his dead ball skills in the first half grabbed the ball and his low free kick took a massive deflection and went in off the post. We’d scored. Against Atletico Madrid.

As March was good down our right so Juanfran was on theirs and he soon re-established the lead with a pinpoint cross to see the unmarked Torres head home. 1-2. Knockaert came on and took over on the right, March switching wings and Brown going up top with Hemed off. This paid immediate dividends. Knockaert tucked in to Atletico’s defence like me and Steve had our steaks, the night previously and March roasted the aforementioned Juanfran. From the resultant space a cross was produced that was every bit as good as theirs and Sidwell tucked away an unmarked header of his own.

Could we get a draw? A late winner even? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead a final attack from our visitors produced some desperate ping-pong in the box. A few minutes earlier a suicidal cross field pass from us had seen Griezmann fluff a gaping goal from less than twelve yards by trying to use the outside of his left and slicing in to the South Stand. He wanted to make up for it here and although Ryan saved the initial effort Hernandez fired home the rebound for a cruel last minute winner.

So, how are we really set for next week? Well firstly all of the new signings look like they will bring real quality, Hopefully that is Ryan’s howler for the season out of the way before it matters. If it is then he has the reflexes and distribution to be a success. Suttner looks physical, an upgrade on Pocagnoli. The stars were Brown and Gross though, each excellent in both workrate, passing and threat.

Of the old boys March and Knockaert are going to relish this league and, if Dunk and Duffy stay fit, we have Premier League Ready centre backs. Bruno will be done for pace but is still making those intelligent runs forward. The spine is the worry. Stephens looked way off the pace yesterday, Kayal worse if anything and Hemed was lost. The very strong rumours, though, are of Davy Propper signing for us. If that happens we might not just survive, we might cause a few teams a real headache.

*not really

 

 

 

 

 

Aston Villa Away – The Final Curtain

Not a game I was expecting to go to. With not quite enough points in the first round of ticket sales and Villa keeping allocations to a minimum (despite a whole closed tier opposite us) we had settled for the beam back. That was until my very good friend came through with tickets via a sponsor and the waiting list. Only a few days notice but enough to round up a crew, car and driver. The West Upper boys were off to Birmingham.

Early morning banter in the car suggested the mood was upbeat, if not over confident. We made excellent time to Oxford services which was full of a coach load of Brighton fans in similar mood. They also included our mate Danny, a man infamous for having worn a very thin suit to the freezing cold Sheffield Wednesday game. Earlier in the season three of our carload plus Danny had gone on protracted beer sampling mission – aka piss up – for my birthday game at home to Aston Villa. Now we were reunited. That game had finished 1-1. It really should have been a sign.

We weren’t doing omens in the car though. We were far too busy trying to follow a silent sat nav round spaghetti junction. Eventually, though, we found our pre-booked parking spot, rapidly decided the pubs of Aston were not for us, had a traditional dog burger from a van (undercooked onions, no Michelin star awaits) and got on the concourse almost as soon as it had opened. A minute later some early morning beers were hitting the spot, driver excepted.

Beer had certainly been the order of the day in Birmingham. Many of our mates had stayed over and slowly they arrived looking like it had been a very long night indeed. At first our only companions on the concourse had been those who had taken advantage of clear roads that morning but, as kick off approached, the familiar faces of those who had seen our twenty year rise to the promised land were everywhere.

Could we go one better and clinch the title? We’d needed to win one game in three, not a problem to date in this most excellent of seasons, but we’d certainly fluffed our last two lines. A party-weary side losing to two identically unfortunate goals is one thing but you couldn’t really want for a better chance to seal the deal than Bristol City at home, a struggling side you’d beaten away from home who were all but mathematically safe, at your fortress. Villa away, on the other hand, would be hard.

Villa Park is a magnificent ground. It’s everything I love about football, big, noisy and traditional but with fans very close to the pitch. Upton Park is gone, White Hart Lane going but I hope Villa Park stays for a very long time. We are going to have to get used to playing in big grounds in front of big crowds and, once again, the occasion seemed to overawe us. This may seem a strange thing to say given the atmosphere at the Amex this season has, at times, been febrile with 25-30,000 regularly packed in, but that is OUR big game atmosphere. We had already struggled at St James’s and Elland Road this season and that’s a worry. We shall have nineteen such games next season. Even Bournemouth and Burnley will sell out.

I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but it’s a fact that our first half here was poor. Villa pressed us tight, as they had back in November in Brighton. Our counter to that on this occasion was the long ball over the top. With Baldock back in the side this at least made some sense but with Murray not noted for his pace, Knockaert marked out of it and Murphy seemingly overcome by the event it wasn’t exactly paying dividends either. At the back there were issues too. Not at centre back where Dunk and Tomori were excellent but definitely at full back. Bruno was engaged in a one man battle with half the Villa team. Pocognoli, selected ahead of Bong, had the full on yips. A deep cross from Villa’s left could have been back-headed out or even let go (though he did not know what was behind him). Instead he chested it back across goal, a mistake that ten year olds would be chastised for, and Lansbury, lurking on the six yard box, couldn’t miss with a free header. Incredibly, he did.

Just as bad was to come as a back pass by the same player was criminally under hit, this time Hogan spurning the chance. As moves were made towards a half time beer queue Hogan was taken out by Sidwell, the resulting injury ending his game and the resulting free kick just about repelled. We went in at 0-0 after prolonged injury time but in truth should have been one or two down.

Half time talk centred on “we couldn’t be that bad again, could we?”. And “I hope Hughton’s reading the riot act”. A goal was needed asap, we all agreed.

It was not immediately forthcoming, though we started much brighter. Pocognoli seemed more solid, Knockaert more in the game. Sidwell had been excellent and this continued. Ditto Stockdale. And then, on 64 minutes, the moment that should have won us the title. Baldock released clean through. His tame effort was saved but the pressure exerted by Baker on his back had been unfair. Spot kick. Sending off too. The game changed in a flash. I couldn’t watch but, of course, Murray buried it, the away end went mental, blue smoke on the pitch and the whole team over and going crazy.

Then Elphick – remember him? – hit a tame back pass and Murray latched on to it. Surely this would be 2-0 and game done? No. We somehow contrived to miss, how I do not know. It wasn’t quite action free at the other end, Stockdale producing a magnificent save from a long range Hourihane effort, but Villa were down to ten men and a party was starting in the away end. So what did we do….?

That’s right. We sat back.

Why? Why against ten men with nothing to play for and a home crowd silenced do we offer them a way back in. Nerves? Instruction? It had been the same at QPR but there we held on. Here we did not. A minute to go and heartbreak. A nothing shot from Jack Grealish but Dunk tried to block, unsighting Stockdale. It went straight through him. Quite some noise from Villa Park. Despair from our keeper.

At the end the players were distraught, Stockdale in particular. He should not be but the bloke cares so much and clearly blamed himself. Never mind that he’d kept us in it, that in previous games he’s won us enough points to get promoted in the middle of April, there was no consoling him.  There is no blame at all from this writer. However, from his Twitter today it seems he’s gone.

In a way, though, title aside, this was preparation for next season. A big game in a proper old stadium. I think Chris will have confirmed what he already suspected, that one or two are not up to the step up. In many ways the Premier League started here.

A much more subdued car ride back down the motorway, with special thanks to the back to front in a silver Merc who tried to kill half the M40. “The Portslade Two” returned to The Railway – our Winchester – for a final consolation beer. It will take a zombie apocalypse – or possibly nuclear war – to stop us playing the big boys come August. That is what we should be focussing on. See you at the parade.