Rafa and Mauricio Dressed as Wankers
After what seems like ages, we’re back at SMS for the first of four season defining games. Four games in which we need to put some serious points on the board – I’m talking 8-10. Get that and there won’t be as much pressure on the December fixtures when we take on all the big boys.
A quiet week at Saints was punctuated with the news that Sir Rickie Lambert has retired at the age of 35. Personally I was not surprised given all was quiet since he got released by Cardiff at the end of last season.
In my Saints supporting lifetime I’ve had a few favourite players who you would put in the ‘legend’ category, I started in 75/76 and the first favourite was Mick Channon, then Keegan, then le Tissier and after him came Rickie Lambert. The post has been vacant for the past 3 years since the big man left. A season with Liverpool, one with West Brom and one with Cardiff and he’s done, retired from football at the age of 35.
When he left to join Liverpool I wrote this…
It still stands up pretty well aside from the line about ‘Brendan Rodgers knows what he’s buying’. I was giving Rodgers some credit there but in fact, as it turned out, Rodgers used Rickie as a loss leader so he could sign Lallana and Lovren. Yep, Brendan is a wanker and I recoil every time he gets linked with the Saints job.
I totally understand Rickie going to Liverpool and I’m sure he’s glad that he did but in football term, he would have been better off staying with us. In a hypothetical world, If he’d stayed, we wouldn’t have had to flog Graziano Pellé to death and make him play every game in his first season and Rickie would have got more of a look in than he did at Liverpool.
Rickie did an interview when he retired, putting us firmly at the top of his list of clubs but the most interesting bit was him talking about the mental effect of not being a regular starter any more when he joined Liverpool. He thinks now that he was wrong to accept that. That’s a shame but maybe it will act as a warning to others – probably not the generation of players who are making theor way in the game now. I also think that the fact that (by his admission) he didn’t look after himself in the early part of his career has contributed to him being the kind of player who always struggled for fitness if not playing regularly. It was never really a problem when he was with us.
Not only did he score the goals that won us the JPT, got us promoted out of League 1, got us promoted out of the Championship and then established us in the Premier League – he also defined the way we played by being the target man and the focal point of our attack and the main man that the others play off of. Pellé replaced him well for two years but look at how directionless we are now in attack. How we could do with signing a 27 year old Rickie Lambert now. Good luck with your retirement big man and hope to see you at St Mary’s soon in some capacity.
So, an international break with Saints players disappearing off all round the world and the hope that they would come back unharmed. As is always the case, some fared better than others in terms of results as they bid to propel their countries to the World Cup Finals next year. England, with Ryan Bertrand playing and Fraser Forster on the bench, predictably qualified with very boring wins of Slovenia and Lithuania. It was the usual easy qualification due to our half decent individual players but we’ve done the same as always and qualified due with no prospect of anything except more disappointment in the summer. We have the usual ticks in the usual boxes - No coherent style of play, no bedded in system, big club reserve players who are crap etc etc. On top of that we can add ‘manager with charisma and inspirational qualities of a lettuce’. For every Harry Kane we have a Jordan Henderson and for every Marcus Rashford we have an Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Spot the Difference
For other countries it was more interesting for the Saints players. After missing a few sitters and chances to end his run of 30 odd club and country games without a goal, Shane Long missed the game with Wales with a knock. Regardless, Ireland beat the arrogant fuckers 1-0 so one year after giving it the big one about England going out of Euro 2016, the same Welsh players are out of the World Cup, knocked out by Dusan Tadic and Serbia and Shane Long and Ireland. Don’t let the door hit your arse. So, Shane and Ireland have a two legged playoff to negotiate and good luck to them. The Dutch, with Virgil van Dijk in the team and Wesley Hoedt on the bench won two matches but still went out as Sweden made the playoffs. Virgil played both games which I guess is good for his match fitness so it should benefit us, if he can be arsed. Cedric will be making the trip after helping Portugal beat Switzerland and enough time has passed now to wish José Fonte well on what will surely be his international swansong. Manolo Gabbiadini will be in the playoffs with Italy which was guaranteed even before the latest games. Mario Lemina and Gabon had an outside chance of qualifying but he’ll be watching the finals on TV as they came up short.
So, Newcastle are in town today, having been promoted last year. This has been as close to a banker fixture for us as any over recent season as The Magpies never seem to give a fuck when they come down here and we beat them easily. Let’s hope for some of that today but with the experienced Rafa Benitez in charge, I doubt that’ll happen. They’ve had a decent start considering that Mike Ashley decided not to invest in the team this summer so they pretty much have their Championship side. They will see staying up as success but I think they will be comfortable this season, around the 12th place mark.
The assumption I had was that whilst all this international stuff was going on, Mauricio Pellegrino and the coaching staff would have been working out a way for us to score some fucking goals and be more progressive. A change in formation to three at the back was widely touted as local journos who I respect and it does seem kind of obvious. By Sunday at about 3pm we had the answers and as had been hinted when substitutions were made when we were chasing games before, Steven Davis was left out with Gabbiadini and Long in the starting line up. Redmond and Tadic both kept their places despite Boufal being the man in our last outing at Stoke and all the internationals were safely back. Maya Yoshida was skipper and Wesley Hoedt who wants to be here, was again left out for a player who clearly doesn’t.
I have a new ritual every time I go to St.Mary’s now in that I find my seat, pick up the plastic clapper thing and launch it about 5 rows down into some empty seats. I’m old school and I don’t want that shit. The pre-match this season is not too bad with upbeat loud tunes and a mercifully shortened version of the fucking ‘My Way’ monstrosity. The Saints are Coming… what a fucking song that is by the way.
Away we go and Gabbi and Shane are right up top and it looks like we’re 4-4-2. Virgil pings a 70 yarder over the full back to Tadic which brings applause and then Tadic turns down the right footed cross, swaps it onto his left, then turn out and passes back to Cedric who turns and passes it back to Virgil. For fuck sake. What are we fucking scared of – at risk of going full Mike Bassett – get it in the fucking box.
Things liven up a bit as Tadic turns Shelvey who really can’t be arsed to go with him but he curls his shot over. Tadic is wasteful again when Redmond does well ont eh left and stands up a great cross and Tadic has peeled away to the back stick like Sir Rickie used to do and there the comparison ends as he tries to lob a header over Elliot and instead puts it over in shit fashion. Shit decision to try and lob a header and shit execution. We did however, have three men in the box.
Newcastle are working hard without showing anything really up front but what do you fucking know. An attack down the right is stopped by Virgil and then he sloppily waves a foot at it and presents it back to Newcastle. Over it comes and Atsu’s shot is blocked by Yoshida but Haden returns it straight away and Fraser is lumbering off in the wrong direction as the ball speeds past his foot. Fucking hell.
Saints respond quite well with Romeu chipping into the box and Gabbi swinging at it only for Lejeune to block for a corner. Over it comes and Elliott decides to come flying out, gets nowhere near it and the ball flies off Virgil’s head and wide. Some nice one touch passing around the area carves out an opportunity for Long but… you know the rest.
That’s more or less it for the first half. We’ve looked pretty at times but created nothing of note and Elliott hasn’t had to make a save. Lemina has been immense but Tadic and Redmond have been fitful at best and Long and Gabbi haven’t had a sniff. At the back, Virgil has been part casual and part sloppy and Maya has not won a single challenge against Joselu.
At the start of the second half we are shite again as Perez walks past Virgil who isn’t arsed, crosses, it deflects up off of Joselu and onto the bar. It’s eventually corssed back in and Fraser appear to have all his bearings wrong and flaps it for a corner. We get away with that one and from Newcastle’s next attack we break up play and Redmond gets it out on the left. A diagonal ball and Gabbiadini picks it up on the right hand side of the Newcastle penalty are and Manquillo allows him to turn out, make his way across the top of the penalty area and squirm a shot intot he near bottom corner. Great finish but shite defending for 1-1.
The relief is palpable around the stadium. Newcastle kick off and we tear into them again – Redmond wins the ball and passes to Shane who falls over it. Off go Newcastle down our left, a ball infield and Virgil is out of position and Romeu has not tracked Perez who picks it up and from a narrow angle, blasts it at the near post. Fraser parries it back into play and Perez smashes it past him at the near post. 60 seconds and we’re 2-1 down. Fuck off. Still, a good team goal from us with Shane, Berty, Virgil, Oriol and Fraser all at fault in some capacity. It’s nice to share these things around.
Newcastle right back Yedlin who earlier got booked for arguing about a decision, the launches at Redmond, catches him high and the ball is nowhere. It’s as clear a yellow card as you’ll ever see and players have got a straight red for less this season. Kevin Friend however, completely bottles it and does fuck all. Memories of that game at home to Liverpool a few years ago when there should have been two Saints penalties and a Liverpool red card within the first minute but he bottled it. Wanker.
Boufal is on for Redmond on the hour mark as we set out on once again, trying to get back into the game and whilst most are expecting Austin for Long, on comes Steve Davis for Romeu who has not had his best of games by his usually high standards.
On 75 a Newcastle attack is broken up and we break forward with Long, exchanging passes with Boufal and reaching the box where in a position of no danger whatsoever, Lejeune takes him out. I’m at the other end of the pitch and I can see that Shane had played for it but the ref buys it and we have a penalty. The usual horrified glances around and the expectation of Tadic taking it but Manolo has the ball and having missed his last one, he laces this one left footed, three quarters of the way up and into the inside netting by the post. Sir Rickie would have been proud.
Having given us the penalty, Kevin Friend goes back to having a nightmare as first Hayden pulls a shit tackle on Lemina – again it’s borderline red but he only gets a yellow and two minutes later, he trashes through Virgil and nothing happens. Austin is on for Long but in truth, our efforts to win it don’t get off the ground. Suddenly it’s all Newcastle with Davis and a knackered Lemina struggling to cover the ground in midfield. It’s all Newcastle for the last 5 and it looks like we’ve lost as Lejeune meets a corner with a good header but Davo is there to hack it off the line. Virgil seems to get a bit of adrenalin and professionalism about himself for the last few minutes as he’s everywhere – headers, blocks and clearances. Full time and two points dropped or one gained? You decide.
For me, it’s a bit of a lucky point really. You can shit on all you like about possession based statistics but when it comes down to what actually matters, shots on goal, we had two and scored twice whilst Newcastle managed to hit the bar and have one cleared off the line as well as the two goals that they did get. The penalty decision is very interesting. First of all, there’s contact so the referee kind of has to give it. Lejeune has jumped in like a twat with Long going absolutely nowhere and he’s given Long the opportunity to go over which he of course has taken. Long has actually almost toed the ball out of play before the tackle arrives so he's undoubtedly bought it and the strikers union will say well played. It is interesting though that no Newcastle players complain to the referee when the penalty was given and that is almost unheard of at Premier League level.
Once Gabbiadini dispatched the penalty, having taken Romeu off and replacing him with Davis, we were horribly open in midfield and that's what bought Newcastle on to us in the last 10 minutes. Fair play to Steven Davis for getting back and clearing that header off the line.
Lemina tired in the last 10 minutes but up to that point, for the fourth game running, he was absolutely fucking awesome. He is a one man midfield machine getting up and down the pitch, driving the team forward, winning tackles and showing a real desire and will to win. He reminds me of a young Roy Keane without the psychopathic tendencies. We have done well to get hold of such an unbelievable player but the trouble is, as you all know, he stands out a fucking mile so we are going to have problems keeping hold of him past the end of the season. Sorry to put a massive downer on things.
Who knew that with Gabbiadini in the side, it would make it more likely that we score a goal? He is absolutely a class act and he is the only striker we have with any class whatsoever. Shane Long put in a great shift for the team but it's the same old problem now standing at 21 games without a goal. In the same way but I don't believe we can have Steve Davis offering zero goal threat from attacking midfield position. I don't believe we can have a non-scoring striker. I'm not Charlie Austin's biggest fan but he'd be more of a threat with another striker in close proximity.
We basically played with two up front today but I can't see this being an experiment that Pellegrino repeats too often. In his post match interview, you could tell that he was absolutely mortified that we didn't have control of the midfield, that we didn't control possession in the middle third of the pitch. 65% is apparently not enough for him. It’s enough possession to win any game if you have shots on target to reflect that dominance. In Pellegrino’s favour though, he did play two strikers today and the substitutions all made us more attacking.
The players are guilty of risk-aversion. Maybe they’re under instruction but for the first half in particular, our first thought was always to go backwards, never more accurately illustrated than in the first minute when Virgil playing a 70 yarder across to Tadic on the right wing near the corner flag. Bearing in mind that we had two strikers today you would've thought he would've crossed it but no, he turned out and passed to Cedric who was 30 yards behind him who then turned and passed all the way back to Virgil who was stood exactly where he was when he played the 70 yard ball in the first place. Un-fucking-believable. There was another incident in the first half where we won a throw-in halfway inside the Newcastle half on the left. Bertrand went to take it and he had Redmond and Gabbiadini showing for him up the pitch but instead he turned around and throw it back to Virgil and we ended up passing it back to Forster in goal who lumped it up the middle of the pitch.
We only trying to do something progressive when we are behind and we almost have nothing to lose. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the wingers on the wrong side thing does my fucking head in. It's a defensive move to in theory make the midfield more compact but the detrimental effect it has on our attacking is huge. You are much more likely to score if you attack at pace and there are only six or seven defenders back it only takes a wasted half a second for the winger check back onto his good foot before they cross it, for the opposition to have 10 players in the box. It's fucking crap and it's not rocket science. Tadic is actually quite good when he plays on the left but in the main, he is a frustrating bag of shit when he plays on the right. The odd one or two bits of decent supply in amongst a mess of attack killing fucking around. Redmond is slightly different in that he tries to inject pace into the game but it's never by going outside down the line. On occasions he gets his head up and plays a decent ball like he did for Gabbiadini’s first goal but more often than not he just runs head long into traffic and loses the ball. For the second time in a row, Boufal came on and made a huge difference. I really cannot see why he is not starting games now. He commits defenders and he also works hard and tracks back. Sure, he is going to lose the ball occasionally but so do the two wingers who are currently playing.
Behind the wingers, the fullbacks were both poor today with Bertrand being the less poor of the two. Maybe it was an international week hangover from the pair of them. Cedric is another example of the risk averse nature of Pellegrino's Saints. He had chances to take on the full back on numerous occasions and on each occasion he just turned out and kept possession again.
We have to talk about Virgil I guess. He played at approximately 50%. He is good enough at 50% to look half decent and spraying Hollywood balls out of the wings is a good way to look decent with minimal effort. The damage is done though. A ball was pumped into our penalty area from a freekick and about six players went up for it including Virgil and I swear that he ducked underneath it and just let it go. Now, he may have decided not to head it or he might not have but the problem is, I'm questioning it. To me, too often it looked like he didn't give a fuck. He lost runners at vital times and didn't cover himself in glory on either goal that we conceded or in the incident where Joselu hit the bar. He did well in the last few minutes to be fair, getting himself in the position to make important blocks. The Virgil-Maya centre back pairing makes no sense to me. If as a manager you want to pick on attitude then it’s Hoedt and Yoshida. If you want to pick on ability then it’s Hoedt and Virgil. Hoedt is the only left footed one so there’s a balance argument as well.
I really hope that we get Virgil out of the door in January (not to Liverpool, obviously) and use the money to get in another centre back and also strengthen further forward. There are rumours (probably poor rumours) that Barcelona are interested in him and in one of the funniest things that I've read for ages, Liverpool pundits are saying this is just to piss them off because they didn't let Coutinho leave. As if Barcelona conduct their business with Liverpool in mind.
Also not covering himself in glory today was Fraser Forster. He’s been better of late and I think that a lot of the criticism he gets is ridiculous but what the fuck was that today? So laboured and clumsy on his feet for the first goal and rule one in the goalkeeper book is not to parry it back into dangerous areas so I’ve no idea what the hell was going on for the 2nd goal.
There were some positives today. Two upfront was a statement of intent, as were the substitutions made during the game. Boufal for Redmond was obvious though I have to say I was a bit mystified by Davis coming on for Romeu especially bearing in mind that we were in effect one midfielder light already. It’s an attacking move though so maybe Pellegrino is getting the message.
As said earlier, the profile of the players that we have in our squad seem to be screaming at the manager to play three at the back so maybe after a full week with all the players being around, we will see this against West Brom next Saturday in the second of our four game season shaping spell of fixtures. I wouldn’t bank on it though. I would expect the same formation but if that’s the case then maybe Boufal on the left, and JWP on the right would offer more. One thing is for sure and that is that Gabbiadini has to play and hopefully the manager finds a way to get two strikers on the pitch again. More questions than answers, again.
As we leave the ground, I pick up my coat which is under my seat and I realise that the two five year olds who have been allowed by their Dad to piss everyone off in a 10 seat radius have won. Not only do I feel that I have tinnitus from their high pitched yelping but my coat couldn’t hold any more soft drink if it tried.