If we are really serious about mixing it with the big boys in the Premier League, and at least matching our seventh place finish last season, then this is a game we really should be winning. Of course no games are that simple to win in the top flight; we have to make sure that we don’t believe that we simply have to turn up to be sure of winning (as per Astra Giurgiu for example), but this should be considered one of the easier ones.
At the time of writing this preview I have no idea how many of the players on our lengthy injury list are ready to return, but I am assuming that the number available has increased somewhat. One thing I do know is that the manager is going to have quite a problem trying to keep all of the squad happy when the majority have returned to fitness. It’s always described as a nice problem to have, and that is true, but how is he going to fit them all in?
We now seem to have a squad where we have at least two quality players vying for every position and that is healthy. We know we have two very capable keepers, and following the last day of the transfer window, two right backs, Byram and Arbeloa, which should finally end the need to put one of the most potent attackers in the Premier League, Antonio, in a position that he very clearly was not comfortable in. Masuaku has slotted in well at left back and Cresswell should have a fight for his place. At centre back we have Reid, Ogbonna, Collins and Oxford. I think the manager believes that the first two are his favourite pairing but I’m not so sure that they play well together. Personally I’d like to see Oxford given more chances; I’m convinced that he is going to be even better than Ferdinand.
We have one of Nordtveit and Obiang in the defensive midfielder position (I prefer the latter, but I don’t think the manager does), Noble and Kouyate (almost guaranteed picks) slightly in front, and that leaves just three more spaces for attacking players to fill if he stays with the 4-1-2-2-1 formation. And what a choice we have to fill those three places. Antonio, Feghouli, Tore, Lanzini, Payet, Ayew, Zaza, Carroll, Fletcher, Calleri. Ten into three doesn’t fit comfortably! And to think I read that some people weren’t comfortable that we let Valencia go! And of course we still have Sakho at the club. Paddy Power has him at 9-2 favourite to score the first goal in the Watford game! Do they know something we don’t? Or are they just totally out of date?
We have to remember that it was the results against “lesser” sides that let us down last season, and we have to put that right.
And one player I haven’t mentioned yet is our young Swiss signing Edimilson Fernandes (sounds Brazilian but is Swiss). Despite his age he has played 66 games in the Sion first team, including eight matches in last season’s Europa League where Sion finished second in their group to Liverpool, and only lost narrowly 4-3 to Braga of Portugal in the round of 32. Braga reached the quarter final. He therefore has much more recent European experience than most of our players! I would liken him most in style and position to Kouyate. I think we have a real prospect here, but like Oxford, and other promising youngsters not even mentioned above, I wonder if they will ever get the chance to break through.
Our opponents Watford are already sitting in the drop zone, albeit after just three games, and relatively difficult ones at that. They have lost at home to both Arsenal and Chelsea (1-3 and 1-2) and drawn 1-1 at Southampton. Notably, they have scored in each game played, and were unlucky to lose to a late goal against Chelsea when many believe that the scorer, Costa, shouldn’t have been on the field. Where have I heard that one before? They will be desperate to record their first win of the season and not get embroiled in the relegation dogfight so early. Of course if they beat us they will go ahead of us. However I am confident that we will finally get our season really underway with a good performance and win the game 3-1. This would take us up to six points from four games played which would match last year’s opening.
The fixtures running up to the next international break (yes only four league games until we break again!) are ones that will begin to define whether or not our season can match the success of the last one. Three home games (Watford, Southampton, Middlesbrough) and a visit to West Brom does not constitute the toughest run of fixtures that we will have. If we really mean business then I’d like to see 12 points (or at the very least 9 or 10). Anything less than that will not really be good enough to push towards a top eight place. We have to remember that it was the results against “lesser” sides that let us down last season, and we have to put that right.