Opinion: Sannino making strides with defence
IT'S early days in the reign of our new head coach, but for this fan, I have to say I'm more than impressed with what Beppe Sannino's version of the 'Orns are presenting us with.
Following the home defeat to Reading, the first defeat of his tenure, it's easy to get down-hearted, worried that the first few stabilising results have been in vein and that it's all no different to the final few games under Gianfranco Zola.
But let's have a look at where we are, footballing wise, particularly at the back.
Beppe has certainly reversed our fortunes defensively. He appears tactically sound (especially defensively) and is no shrinking violet when it comes to getting his instructions across.
Manuel Almunia has been re-installed as the number one, having been replaced by Jonathan Bond following some soul-destroying errors, during Zola's final few games in charge.
Manuel has shown over his career in England that he is a confidence 'keeper. He lets mistakes prey on his mind but when things are going well, he is a very decent 'keeper at this level. Sannino has clearly been working on the defensive frailties and Manu more than anyone has been boosted by a downturn in the number of goals being conceded and some clean sheets thrown in to boot.
Having a well-drilled defence in front of the talented yet sometimes fragile Manu is vital and the first choice three are now shaping up to be Lloyd Doyley, Gabriel Angella and Joel Ekstrand.
The soft set piece goal against Reading aside (it can happen to any team at any time), they are now showing real promise as a unit and this can only be down to what is going on, on a daily basis, in training.
Doyley has his detractors but the fact remains that his 'lay your body on the line' form of defending compliments the classy Angella and no-nonsense Ekstrand.
This season we have won something like an average of 2 points in the games Doyley has started and less than half a point per game, where he has been absent. Stats are sometimes misleading but I'll side with Mr Watford's stats here. He is scary in possession at times but he throws himself in where it hurts when it counts and it's invaluable.
As long as the heart of the defence is stable, it would seem that the wing-backs, namely Ikechi Anya, Hector Bellerin, Davide Faraoni, Daniel Pudil and Marco Cassetti are interchangeable. They really have had to be due to injury but so far, Sannino has resisted starting with a traditional back four. This may change. Against Reading, Forestieri came on for Bellerin and we played much of the second half with a back four. What impressed me was that the transition was seamless. It was a far cry from when a desperate Zola was sacrificing a defender for an attacker when we were a goal or two down, often leading us to concede more. The defence appear to know what they are doing, be it in a three, a four, or a five.
So our biggest frailty is, so far, being successfully addressed but Sannino does, of course, have a number of challenges to face up to, and if there is to be a chance of Play-Off football come May, they probably need addressing before the end of January.
Defensive midfielder is an issue. The newly arrived Alexander Merkel (a huge creative talent that will unravel itself over the coming months, I'm sure) played there against Reading. More than a little bizarre but I can only assume Sannino doesn't fancy Iriney, who for me is a perfectly adequate defensive midfielder when he doesn't go wandering up field.
When he sits regimentally and gives the easy pass he has impressed me. Perhaps now West Brom have a head coach installed, we could enquire about bringing George Thorne back on loan? He was exceptional in his last couple of games, having got up to speed following horrendous injury problems. If not, another signing is imperative in this position.
The attackers and the lack of goals is worrying. The arrival of Mathias Ranegie will provide a genuine target that the others can play off of, but having not played proper football since November, he must first get match fit.
There are small signs that the current three of Diego Fabbrini, Fernando Forestieri and Troy Deeney are developing more of an understanding.
Fernando and Troy really are trying to play for each other and Fabbrini is working very hard and just needs to learn when to take one less touch before shooting or passing. It's fine margins and it is hard to bite your tongue when it isn't coming off but I believe there are reasons to be optimistic. One great goal with fine build up play between these guys could set the ball rolling.
Throw in the return of Anya and Abdi (oh how we've missed him!), this season is far from over and the Play-Offs remain a real possibility and with that age old adage of momentum, you never know!
Perhaps it's more realistic that we consolidate a top-half finish by becoming very difficult to beat and add the intricacies and finesse that compliments that a little more slowly and thoughtfully.
Sannino has given us a very solid base in a short space of time, with much the same personnel, in the area that we were most lacking in the final days of Gianfranco. For that and also for his animated dictation from his technical area (and very often beyond), he has gained my confidence and my support as he seeks to make us more productive in other areas of the pitch.
Last seasons Zolacoaster was unforgettable but that was then. For now, it's time to get behind the team and perhaps more importantly, Mr Sannino himself. Make him feel wanted and sing him a song (mind you, he's nowhere near six foot three, having met him at the Hornets Shop this past Friday!). Then, perhaps, focus on the positives and set your expectations to realistic.
I think we support a damn fine club, that, even with the foreign ownership set-up and all that entails (it is working marvellously, from what I can see), still sits at the heart of the community, has a family feel and makes us, the fans, feel more welcome than any other professional football club I have experienced.
There is plenty to cheer in my opinion and I'm looking forward to watching this play out.
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