First, a pat on the back for Alan Pardew – and the board. After all the comings and goings of the past year or so it’s fair to say that the squad we have now is well balanced and looks capable of coping with the injuries and suspensions that lie ahead. All of the areas that needed to be addressed have been addressed, those that didn’t want to play for us have gone (I hope), and the squad we have is showing signs that it can gel into a really strong, united and more than capable unit.
Pardew talked of the need to build a team that would have the battling qualities needed to compete in this division while retaining enough top-flight quality to give us an edge. It is still early days but it looks to me like he’s done this. There’s always someone who could improve the team, but with a few days left to take players on loan I can’t see why we would want to do so. If there’s any powder left let’s keep it dry for January.
The challenge now is cementing key partnerships and deciding which of these should form the starting X1. I think Pardew is refreshingly honest about being uncertain as to what these are – and it may well be that given the options available to him the season will see more player rotation and changes of personnel than we would normally expect (certainly more than the last time we were in this division).
I’m really not sure whether it’s best to have say six stand-out players who have nailed down their positions or 20 or so interchangeable parts. In our last second-flight season it could be virtually guaranteed that if they were fit Kiely, Rufus, Kinsella, Stuart, Robinson, Newton and Hunt would be in the team. That simply isn’t going to happen this time around, so we have to make it a positive by keeping a balance within the team and enjoying not being reliant on a few players.
For example, to get promotion you would assume that you need a 20+ goals contribution from your main scorer (and whatever people feel about them Beattie and Phillips will, barring injury, deliver that sort of return for Sheff Utd and West Brom), with perhaps 35+ coming from the front two. Last time around Andy Hunt delivered 24; next best was John Robinson with seven, although between them the second central forward – Kitson, Mendonca, Pringle, Svensson – managed 16.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this season nobody tops 20 (maybe even 15), but if Todorov, Iwelumo, Varney and McLeod, perhaps Dickson too, can together deliver say 35 goals the effect would be the same. It is indicative that in 1999/2000 in the 44 league games 16 different players scored for us (leaving aside own goals). In the eight league and cup games so far this season nine players have already hit the net (OK eight plus Fortune’s backside). We will also need a decent contribution from central defenders from set pieces (by then free-scoring Richard Rufus contributed six last time) and from the wide men – Robinson hit seven and Newton five. Andy Reid is already well up on this, but we will need goals from Sam, Thomas and Ambrose (and Christensen?) as well.
So, with all bar Holland, Sankofa, Gibbs and maybe Thatcher available for Leicester, what team would I pick (barring fresh injuries, niggles, babies)? Each time I do the exercise I find myself saying ‘if … plays then we need to have …’ – it’s getting the core of the team right – and selecting the subs - that’s difficult.
No doubts over Nicky Weaver starting in goal, having saved one out of one on Tuesday. If Thatcher and Gibbs are still unavailable Powell at left-back is also a shoo-in. Moutaouakil or Mills is a tough one. Danny did nothing (yes, nothing) wrong against Norwich and presumably keeps his place, although at home Yassin, if fit and ready, would offer more going forward. Dropping Mills would be tough but would be a statement of intent from Pardew.
Bougherra and Fortune both played well enough on Tuesday. With McCarthy not (yet) playing well enough to merit a place, the only decision would be whether Sam Sodje comes in. There’s no compelling argument to do so, but Pardew must have brought him in to play in the first team – and it’s much too soon to suggest that the defence has sorted out its problems. Norwich provided very little threat in the centre and there was still the impression that panic is not far below the surface. I would expect Sodje to come in sooner or later and there is a case for now, presumably for Fortune. This would be tough on him and has to be down to what things look like on the training ground and Pards’ assessment of the Leicester forwards.
On the flanks we can choose two from Reid, Sam, Ambrose and Thomas. It’s clear Reid has to play unless he needs a rest. And it probably has to be on the left side rather than central. To my mind this implies we need real pace wide on the right, with Sam keeping his place or Thomas coming back. In central midfield this leaves two from Zheng, Semedo and Racon. Altogether it looks like the same starting four as against Norwich. The other permutations involve switching Reid or Ambrose to a central spot, allowing Thomas (or Ambrose) back in wide. At this point in time it looks like an unnecessary gamble.
What to my mind doesn’t work is having Reid and Ambrose both starting out wide. Neither has pace – and depending who plays up front that commodity could be in short supply.
Iwelumo, Todorov, Varney, McLeod. Narrow the options. McLeod doesn’t yet merit a starting place. I felt we missed Todorov against Norwich as his movement and passing helps get the best out of Reid and others. Iwelumo and Varney wasn’t a blinding success as a combination. So for me it’s Todorov and one of these two to start. I’m tempted to combine Todorov and Varney and give Chris a breather. Much depends on what Pardew expects from Leicester. If they come to defend we may need the presence in the box, in which case Varney could miss out. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Pardew paired Todorov and Varney for the Welling friendly.
My starting X1 is therefore Weaver, Mills, Powell, Bougherra, Fortune, Reid, Semedo, Zheng, Sam, Todorov, Varney.
The subs are almost as important. My five are Randolph, Sodje, Iwelumo, Thomas, Racon.
The main players to miss out altogether are Moutaouakil, McCarthy, Ambrose and McLeod. A case can be made for each of them, especially McLeod in light of Norwich. I just hope we’re not chasing the game in the final minutes. Let’s just be grateful that through the season it’s unlikely we are going to be short of cover for each position.