Let the marathon recommence! We ended yesterday with a shock 3-2 loss at home to Milan in the Champions League. Reidy didn’t help, getting a red card which changed the game. Still, we had a 100% record in the league after four matches and Arsenal were Molineux bound in our next match.
I didn’t feel that one defeat meant we needed major changes, so my only addition to the side was Addo back in for Tommy. Reidy kept his place and I hoped that, as great champions do, we would bounce back immediately. The first half passed everyone by without much to talk about. I pulled Hagi at half time, he wasn’t in the game at all. On came Big Ben. Reidy repaid my faith in him early in the second period. He lined up a free kick outside the area and curled it top corner. It was Gazza-esque. Big Ben also left his mark on his former club, making a clever run in behind their back four on a free kick, allowing himself the time to set up Onny for a tap in. 2-0, we were looking good. Veratti gave us a few nerves by pulling one back in the 89th minute but we managed to see the game out eventually. The win made it five from five, and we had faced two of our bigger rivals in those opening matches. Pooley was outstanding at the back today, winning Man-of-the-Match and again showing me he was a snip at just £325k.
My desire to win the League Cup again was high. We had Stoke in the Third Round, but that was just before a trip to Anfield and Liverpool. I hate rotating the side, but I felt I had to a little as I wanted a very strong eleven for the trip to Merseyside. I rotated the full backs, Tommy and Izu in for Addo and Aubs and I decided to give a first start to Kevin Anderson in the half back role. Kev is a big, strong centre back from our Academy, but with all the other centre backs coming through I decided to try and retrain him. Currently he has no central midfield ability whatsoever, but my theory is that the half back plays so deep a lot of the time he is like a third centre back. All Kev has to do is win it and pass it to Reidy anyway! Stoke are a decent side under Eddie Howe, so this could be madness.
It was a long pass from Kev that led to the corner from which Reidy opened the scoring. If it was a pass and not a clearance then I think he has potential in that position! We didn’t push on though, we allowed Herjet, a player I considered signing, to level before the break. It woke us up, and Reidy volleyed home a spectacular second. What a player he is becoming. Straight into the second half Big Ben made it 3-1 with a calm finish. We wrapped it up with ten minutes left, Hagi nicking in at the near post for 4-1. I say wrapped it up, we managed to ship another two goals before the full time whistle meaning it was 4-3. We are letting a few in this season! Annoyingly, as he was just hitting form, Big Ben twisted his knee and is now out for six weeks.
So, off to Anfield we went. I brought back Addo and Aubs, as well as Sergi Darder in the half back position. Hagi was given the nod ahead of Auba to replace Big Ben, with young Oseni coming on to the bench. After five matches Liverpool, once more managed by Brendan Rodgers, were in 5th place. It was going to be a tough trip.
They were battering us! In the first twenty five minutes we were unable to get out of our half, let alone get a shot on goal. Somehow we were still at 0-0. They racked up 15 corners, the most I have ever seen against us. Incredibly we held on to half time. I hooked Onny and Subs as they were being marked out of the game, sending on Georgi Yanev and Oseni. It made no difference, we still lacked any footing in the game. We kept them out until the 80th minute when Coutinho put them ahead. Two minutes later he had a second. It was our worst performance in years and we ended up with exactly what we deserved, a bit of a hiding. Still, one league defeat does not mean the world is coming to an end – but if we could not pick ourselves up against Anderlecht our hopes of defending the Champions League crown would be coming to a premature end!
My only change was to bring Auba back into the side, ahead of Hagi. Hagi seems to be a good lad off the bench, and Auba has experience that I think we need on the pitch right now. It took us eleven minutes to get going. Gooders, in for Reidy, smashed one against the bar and Onny followed up for 1-0. The Frenchman doubled our lead soon after, blasting home from close range. Then they got one back and I felt nervous. We have not looked watertight at the back for some time now. Still, we held on in the second half and got our first CL points on the board. Something still felt like it wasn’t clicking though. With Monaco and Milan drawing, it meant that a win against Monaco would open the group right up for us again.
The form of Sergi Darder was worrying me. His average rating was the lowest it had been since I signed him and, more importantly, the number of passes completed, interceptions and tackles per ninety were the lowest they had been as well. This told me I had a player in decline. As it was a long time until January, when Arsenal’s Alex Gilbert would be joining us, I pondered what to do. I had two lads training to be half backs, but were not ready for Premier League action yet. Lewis Cook was my only real option, so I decided to pick him for the Leicester game and give Dards an extended break. The full backs were swapped again and we welcomed back Reidy after his European ban.
Jovic put us ahead within 60 seconds, could this be the day where everything clicked? Auba made it two before ten minutes were on the clock. A win and a clean sheet would be lovely. Sadly, that went south within ten more minutes, 2-1. Onny put us 3-1 up immediately, another goal for the lad but I was still stewing on the fact we had conceded. A goal mouth scramble saw us get number four before half time, Reidy delivering. I pulled Pooley in the break, bringing Addo on at centre back. It might well be that it is time for him to start playing there regularly, and I will abandon the Kev as a half back training. Ten minutes into the second half I still didn’t know as Addo got rolled and it was 4-2. Still, we scored again with Reidy slamming it home from the edge of the area. By the end of the game I had talked myself into Kev starting the next game at centre back, another one of the Academy might be about to get a regular game. Seven games in and we were still top.
Kev as a Premier League centre back? The kid is only 18. Back to the U21’s for him for a while, and his lack of pace was making me think that he would still be trained as a half back. I had two weeks to fix this problem before the game against Forest. In a nutshell, I am a world class centre back short or a world class right back short allowing me to shift Aubs into the middle full time. I have got the Spanish lad I picked up from Real recently, Serrano. He is 5ft 10, but good in the air and is potentially top dollar. I think he might get a debut in the next game. I think the other blunt fact is that the lad I signed from Barca as the back up right back, Izu, is not good enough. I got a little carried away having signed right backs on free transfers on the last three occasions and flogged them for a total of £63m!
As the international games passed through I got the kind of message you never want to hear. Onny had got an injury and was out for three weeks. Once everyone was back it was clear Subs and Luka also needed a rest. Georgi and Oseni came into the starting eleven and it was a debut for Serrano. This team suddenly felt a little different! Nico Hernandez, goals a plenty in the U21’s, was on the bench.
Twelve minutes in and we are 1-0, failing to defend a free kick. We were poor, really poor. I wished I had Darder on the pitch. This always happens, I drop him then realise how important he is to us. Then bang, we are level from nowhere, Auba firing one into the top corner. I dragged off Oseni who has shown he is not ready for this level and will be returning to the U21 squad tomorrow. Somehow we found ourselves behind again, more terrible defending. This has got to be sorted. Serrano picked up a second yellow and therefore a red on debut. Fantastic! 2-1 became 3-1. Then Jonjo Shelvey made it four, yikes. Then it was five, double yikes. I remember Fergie’s United sides having the once-in-a-blue moon meltdown. This was the worst defeat under my management. This hurt!
I took the rare step of calling Serrano out in the press conference. We were losing before he got sent off, but we collapsed after. A lot of the players suddenly had question marks over their heads. Serrano, back to the U21’s. Oseni, not ready, back to the U21’s. Tommy Rowe definitely back in the side. Luka and Subs could forget having a rest! To make things worse, the name of Forest’s new ground? Clough Park!
Right then, Darder back in the team. Cook on the transfer list. Monaco next, we need a win big time! The physio’s reckoned Big Jim Whiteley needed a rest, so I shifted Addo into centre back alongside Pooley. Big game, a win and a clean sheet would be lovely.
Tommy Rowe, I love him. A wonderful cross from the left led to Auba poaching the opening goal right before half time. It was all going too well though, and we allowed them back into the game just after half time. 1-1 was not pleasing me, it meant we really needed to win the next two group matches.
Hopefully a trip to the South Coast and Bournemouth would lift my mood. Big Jim was back in, Addo on the bench and I switched Hagi to the central position ahead of Luka who was shunted left. I didn’t like being third in the table, we have spent most of the last three seasons at the top. In the build-up to the game I accepted a £3.8m bid for Cook. He was going to be one of my rare transfer failures. He was going home to Leeds in January. Mind you, I was only losing £1.2m on him, so it was not another Thalles!
We are, being honest, totally out of form in today’s little run of games so I am hoping to end the evening with a big win against the Cherries. Ahem. Twenty minutes in and we are behind, again. Then one of our ex-players, Gustafson, made it 2-0. What on earth was happening to us? I made two subs at half time, then Auba got carried off. Then Subs was injured and I had no subs left. Desperate times! Jovic pulled one back with a great solo run, drifting in off the left. Three league defeats on the road on the bounce. This was our worst run in a very long time, and I was feeling as deflated as the players.
What a daily report. I did not expect the day to go as badly as this. Should I start reviewing the tactic that, in various versions, has got us this far? That feels like a knee-jerk reaction to be honest. I think, more likely, that I will strip the back four down and start again. Time to review the KPI’s fully and go from there!