With goal difference all that separates us from the relegation zone and two crucial home fixtures ahead of us that could make or break our season, I thought now would be as good a time as any to assess where we are so far.
Defeat at Everton was disappointing, but – on past form – to be expected. We don’t normally come away with anything from Goodison Park although the manner in which we threw away victory should be a subject for serious discussion at Motspur Park this morning. But before that late abberation I’d argue we were actually showing signs of improvement.
I felt our performance at Portsmouth was highly encouraging. We defended pretty well – Aaron Hughes had another excellent game – and what was most pleasing was that the side didn’t fold when we went a goal down. The desire etched on Clint Dempsey’s face when he scored and ran away to celebrate with the travelling fans was everything you want to see from someone who feels that he hasn’t had enough game time this season.
We did what we needed to do against Wigan on Wednesday night too. Those who picked this game out as Hodgson’s last should he fail to beat Steve Bruce’s side were living in a fantasy world in my opinion. On the basis of keeping us up when all the odds were against us last season, Roy should have earned the right to a full season at the reigns. The midweek game saw Johnson do what we’ve paid the money for – stick balls in the net from close range – and he might even have had a hat-trick. That victory was fairly comfortable and I fancy if we perform like that at home on average for the remainder of the season we won’t have too many problems.
We do seem to have a problem scoring goals. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Brian McBride, who’s now banging them in for the Chicago Fire, would have gobbled up the opportunities spurned by Bobby Zamora and Zoltan Gera at the weekend. I remain confident in the Zamora-Johnson partnership (let’s face it, so far, they’ve only had a few games together up front) and if it falters then Erik Nevland is a useful back-up.
Our difficulties at that end of the pitch are thankfully offset by a much meaner defence. I remember after the Hull game that plenty of people were queuing to crucify John Pantsil as a liability – given that his dashes forward left us sort at the back – but he’s actually proved fairly useful as a right back. His attacking forays and delivery from the right (which he used a couple of times to good effect on Saturday) gives us an option that we didn’t have last season, whether Baird, Stalteri or Volz were at right back. Someone over on TIFF posted that Hangeland and Hughes were probably the best central defensive pairing that we’ve had at the club for a while and they are probably right, even if I’d put in a word of recommendation for Coleman and Symons (although it’s always difficult to judge how good those two were together since they never lined up alongside each other in the top flight).
Nobody would claim that we’re in a particularly impressive position right now. At the moment, it looks like we’ve going to have another dog fight on our hands. Our cause is hardly helped by the extreme unpredictability of the Premier League this season. First, Hull have failed to lie down and be the sacrifical lambs that everyone predicted. And then you see sides like Stoke beating Arsenal and Tottenham – a result that was entirely unexpected and one which certainly didn’t help our cause.
I believe that we’ve got a better squad than last season and that a run of victories could carry us away from the sharp end of the table. At this early stage, there still remains only the smallest of gaps between 17th and mid-table. But then again I’m one of the realists who wouldn’t be too disappointed if we finished one place above the drop zone this year. I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.