So here we go again.
Sunday sees us take our first steps into the unknown entity that is the 2017/2018 season. Combine the twelve wins out of thirteen with which we finished the last campaign, the lack of disruption caused to our squad by the transfer window and the fact that we’re playing a newly promoted side and it’s fair to say that our first strides should be confident ones. Change ‘lack of disruption’ to ‘no additions’ and chuck in injuries to Wanyama, Son, Trippier, Rose and Lamela and elements of uncertainty perhaps creep in.
On paper the preseason results look mixed at best, but you know with Pochettino that it’s all about fitness. Despite the injuries, he’ll take the phoney war defeats to Roma and Citeh (unpleasant though the latter in particular was) as long at it means his charges are in good enough shape to carry out his game plan when the real action begins. If the plan is to peak at the weekend then he’ll have enjoyed the performance against Juve in particular.
Our slow starts in the last two years won’t have gone unnoticed and as he did with the end of season collapse of two seasons ago, he will do his best to address it and, as per usual, he’ll view fitness as key; though he’ll be doubly pleased if Kane starts banging them in sooner than usual rather than wait until October as he normally does.
Featuring large in that previously mentioned May 2016 debacle was of course the 5-1 loss to our opponents on Sunday, the then already relegated Newcastle United. Gayle, Mitrovic and Atsu will probably provide the main problems on the field this time around but it might be fair to say that the biggest threat lays off it in the shape of the experience and preparation of Rafa Benitez. He will have been planning for this season since that day in 2016 and will want to prove that he is back where he belongs.
Whether he can shape a side whose best players are Shelvey and Gayle into a good enough team to be taken seriously remains to be seen but you wouldn’t put it past him to spring the odd surprise, hopefully not starting on Sunday. Their transfer spending has been low key with a couple of defenders coming in, Manquillo (from Sunderland surprisingly) and Florian Lejeune as well as a winger and a midfielder, Jacob Murphy & Mikel Merino. They are heavily reliant on Gayle for goals and it’s a surprise they haven’t bought a backup for him and perhaps a new goalie. Chances are that Rafa and Ashley will be having words before the end of the month.
Assuming they’re fit the bulk of our team picks itself, it’s how they’re pieced together that will be giving Poch pause for thought. Eriksen, Dele, Harry, Dembélé, Dier, Vertonghen, Toby, Davies and Hugo. That’s nine. So two from Winks, N’Koudou, Sissoko and Janssen. My hunch would be Dier to right back with Dembélé, Winks and Sissoko playing behind the normal front three. Just a guess mind.
The relative success of the past two seasons, the new stadium, the rise and rise of Harry and Dele all mean that our profile and thus expectations have once more increased. Given the money spent by our rivals this summer, our temporary home and the lack of boost to our backup squad, it’s unrealistic I think to foresee us once more punch above our weight.
As things stand, in my view if we manage to end up in the top four or win in any of the cups we will have had an outstanding season and will enter the new WHL with a spring in our step and what better way to begin that process than by bringing home three points from the North East? The weirdly lop-sided St James’s Park will be raucous and full of new season optimism no doubt so it’s important we quieten them & give them nothing to cling on to. We do that and it’s not hard to see Dele, Eriksen and Kane getting enough chances to ensure we win comfortably.
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