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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

BBOAH’s Alternative End of Season Awards

Ah, season’s end. The point where hope or despair finally crystallise and you realise there’s nothing more you can do about it until August. Where you can strut about the beach at Ayia Napa in your replica shirt like a peacock or stuff it in to the bottom of your suitcase, never to be seen again. And – of course – where one of your players picks up a lovely new Redifusion Television to recognise their efforts. You young people should Google that and then give thanks you were born in the era of 4K and Kodi sticks.

Anyway, we (ok, me) at BBOAH are no different in wanting to hand out some rewards and brickbats though we (ok, me) have no Redifusion Televisions to give out, let alone a Kodi stick. The winners and losers below will just have to make do with the kudos or shame that comes from knowing that a couple of hundred people have read something vaguely humorous about them. So, without any further ado, let’s go.

Player of the Season

See, here’s where I’m different. Everyone else builds up to this award. I start with it. Get me.

The thing is this may be the only sensible award in the whole piece and the jury (me and The Boy) are very much split. You would think it would be a shoe-in for Knockaert having won the award at both club and Championship level and, indeed, he is The Boy’s PotS of choice. I, on the other hand, am an old pub centre back. Players who tried that sort of fast-feet, drag-back, twisting and turning were shown two pairs of studs and kicked all the way back to the Dog and Duck. Our defence has been outstanding all season – well most of it – and its beating heart is Lewis Dunk.

He’s so much more than that though. He’s a major threat from set pieces, his passing is absolutely outstanding (let me tell you, all that flashy beating players to standing ovations doesn’t happen unless some big lump has won the ball back and given it to you) and he formed, with Duffy, the best centre back pairing in the division. I’m not having this Pontus Jansson nonsense. Leeds didn’t even get in the playoffs.

But, ultimately, the award has to be shared with Knockaert. Yes, I know I’m copping out, or at least compromising, but to not recognise the Albion’s player of the season, the Championship’s player of the season and The Boy’s favourite Albion player ever seems wrong. Fifteen goals, eight assists (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/teams/brighton-and-hove-albion/top-scorers) several full backs dumped on their arses and more heart and soul than a rugby team on steroids singing the national anthem. Plus he led the celebrations down West Street.

Anthony and Lewis, we salute you.

The Sami Hyppia Award for Alternative Tactical Genius

Goes to Colin Wanker of Cardiff for having his centre forward man-mark Lewis Dunk. Outstanding innovation. Shame it didn’t work. Talking of Cardiff………..

The Mike Bailey Award for Dullest Match of the Season

Goes to Cardiff away.

I don’t get to go to many away games so I pick the ones I do go to carefully, or should that be Caerphilly. Honk. I chose Cardiff because a good mate of mine is a proper Cardiff fan and promised to show us the sights. Indeed, leading up to the game it was a proper day out and no mistake. He had a shit on the English side of the bridge and me on the Welsh. We walked it to a pub at 10.50 in the morning and it was rammed, not a table to be had. I got a breakfast and a pint for less than I tip the dustmen at Christmas. We saw some superheros and we survived a bar where everyone had a shaved head and had been in the Soul Crew. Except me – I just had the shaved head.

A huge amount of beer was taken which was just as well as literally nothing happened in the game. It had 0-0 written all over it after 5 minutes. Three pigeons that had taken roost on top of the grandstand died of actual boredom. Substitutes warmed up because it was colder than Theresa May’s heart and because they’d have dozed off otherwise. Stockdale nearly got frostbite. The share price of the company that makes their goalnets dived by fifteen percent.

In those circumstances the only thing you can do is sing and jump around like a looney, and the Brighton fans did for 90 minutes, so much so that Chris Hughton came over to acknowledge us afterwards. Or he might have been apologising.

The thing is, though, that it was another fantastic day in a whole season of them, and much more typically Brighton. A good session ruined by 90 minutes of football is my default setting. Great friendships were also made that day. And that’s what it’s ultimately all about, isn’t it?

The “You’re Not Quite Your Mentor Are You” Award for Getting English Football Wrong

Goes, of course, to David Wagner.

People like Klopp. Hell, I love Klopp. There may even be Man United fans who like him. He’s funny and smart in a slightly scruffy way and has the air that he’s just jumped off the terraces. His teams play attractive football. Journalists dine off his soundbites for weeks. And he GETS English football.

His protegee, David Wagner, on the other hand has held a one man pitch invasion, had a fight with Gary Monk and got the whole “intimidating a team in to bottling promotion” so wrong that his quotes will still be fed back to him with a sliver of German mustard and lashings of schadenfreude in July.

Game of the Season

Here’s where I really struggle. How can I pick ONE? And – it might not even have happened yet!

So here’s my shortlist. Norwich at home, Sheffield Wednesday at home, Fulham away, Wigan at home, Brentford away. What to choose, what to choose. A thrashing, an astonishing, against the odds, victory, an unlikely comeback win, the day we won promotion or a last minute equalizer with Tony Bloom going spare at the front of the terraces?

I honestly can’t pick. If ever there was a collection of games that summed up the perfect season then this is them. Goals galore, totally unreal penalty saves, last minute drama, mental celebration scenes and hilarity levels off the scale. How do you choose? These, quite simply, were the games that framed the season for me. You can stick your easy wins over Derby or Reading or your hard fought three points at Barnsley. Football is all about those fleeting moments where you’re lost in utter rapture or where you’re toying with a supposedly good opponent who are making Mark Farrington and Richard Tiltman look like football geniuses, to the extent that you can’t stop laughing. Those games delivered it in spades.

But, if we win the title with a last minute winner at Villa off Stockdale’s arse as he’s come up for a corner kick? Well, frankly, I might not cope.

The Frank Spencer Award for Comedy Gold

Honourable mentions again to the Norwich games, both for their defence at the Amex and Stockdales total lack of luck, and phlegmatic acceptance of same, at their place but there is only one winner here; Leeds.

Thank you Leeds. Let’s just remind ourselves of that moment at Elland Road where Liam Bridcutt stated, without any irony, that they were on for the automatics. Twitter was full of predictions that they’d do the same, at our expense, because “Brighton bottle it”. At this point the current chairman of the irony club has just sold his gaffe and moved lock, stock and barrel to West Yorkshire.

Not even in the playoffs. Fans across the division joining each other in matey renditions of “Leeds are falling apart”. And, of course, it’s all so damn UNFAIR.

That this MASSIVE club are once again bereft of Premier League football is a crime against everything the game’s about. After all, having huge attendences (four times a season), selling out away ends all over the land (never mind how close your opponents are or that you have a large London supporters club because lots of people love Leeds so much that they left it the second they could), and having every game moved by Sky (oh, wait, no, that’s us) should be enough. Forty Six games of football and keeping your nerve under pressure shouldn’t even enter into it.

I am slightly disappointed though. Only the other day I paid about twelve quid to see Stephen C Grant, Steve North and Atilla make me laugh. I could have spent the night on the #lufc hashtag and got the same amount of hilarity for free.

The Boy’s Award for Referee of the Season

And finally, it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for. This season has seen several rants, a few marks of minus several million and genuine OUTRAGE at the end of Brentford at home, but there has been nothing – so far – to compete with The Shyster (who we may well get next season, who said this promotion lark was good?).

There have – incredibly – been a couple of positive marks. Such things are almost unheard of. So it is, without further ado, that Chris Kavanagh, who reffed the Derby home game, strolls home with an astonishing 7 out of 10. We shall never see the like again.