It was shaping up to be another ho-hum Premier League season until a bit of bedroom drama in Southwest London turned all eyes to the bottom of the table. In a headline seemingly ripped from 1989’s hit comedy classic Major League, AFC Richmond’s philandering owner Rupert Mannion was forced to relinquish control of the club to his now ex-wife, Rebecca Man — errrWelton, as a result of their messy divorce saga. Maybe Mannion thought he had a hall pass? I don’t know, not my department. Regardless, it took less than two minutes for Ms. Welton to put her stamp on the side.
Welton’s first act in charge was to fire long-time manager (and one of Mannion’s drinking buddies) Ol’ George What’s-his-name, as he’s affectionately known. In his place, she brought in…Ted Lasso? If that sounds like someone you might find managing American football team, that’s because it is. Lasso was last seen on the sidelines coaching the Wichita State Shockers to a lower division championship. Why that qualifies him to manage a Premier League side is anyone’s guess, but after dropping the first two matches under Mr. Lasso, AFC Richmond’s recent come-from-behind victory over Watford may be cause for optimism. If not about making a run at any silverware, then at the very least about avoiding relegation after a dismal start to the campaign.
Alas, I am forced to admit that I’m enjoying the show. The football is tolerable. The quotes coming out of the dressing room are spicy (“None of this matters because I’m just doing what everyone in this town is doing and I’m counting down the days until [he’s] gone,” said the legend Roy Kent.). The weather in London is the best it’s been since dinosaurs went extinct. And most importantly, the second half of the season is upon us. Why not throw some scorching hot takes on the pyre? Ready? You’re not ready.
AFC Richmond is going to finish top five.
As Ted Lasso would say, presumably, “Hooo boy, that’s a Shocker!”
With three matches under the belt of Richmond’s newest gaffer, now’s as good a time as any to overreact, sample size be damned!
There are a LOT of reasons to think that Ms. Welton’s pet experiment is doomed to fail. First and foremost is the fact that Ted Lasso knows literally — yes, literally — nothing about football. Like, didn’t-know-about-draws nothing. That’s led a number of critics, chief among them Trent Crimm of The Independent, to say things like this:
“I believe that Ted Lasso will fail here, and Richmond will suffer the embarrassment of relegation.”
Trent may be a colossal prick (always has been), but it’s a bit premature to write off Richmond as relegation bound this early in the campaign. A quick look at his time in the States, as well as his first three matches at Nelson Road, indicate that optimism may not be completely unwarranted.
At Wichita State, Lasso took the Shockers from a garbage program all the way to the promised land in his very first season as head coach. It was a huge success story, but the Shockers were perhaps better known for their viral videos off the field than anything that happened on it.
In fact, with Lasso as the mastermind, Wichita State’s style was best defined by the fact that they had no distinctive style. While that probably sounds like a criticism in the modern era of complex schemes and advanced analytics, the Shockers’ unpredictable tactics made them a nightmare matchup for any Power Five teams hoping to line up a fluff D-II visitor to kick off the season. To the never-ending chagrin of oddsmakers, Coach Lasso’s team was just as likely to pull off an upset as they were to lose by 50 on any given Saturday night.
Live from the “Dog Track” in his first game in charge against Crystal Palace that same variance was on display, with Lasso’s side making the curious decision to sell out defensively to stop the wings. To be sure, Palace has a lot of speed on the outside, and Richmond was able to shut down some of those wide threats, but they appear to have forgotten that Palace does, in fact, employ a central midfield. Even more damningly, Lasso failed to notice the tactical switch at the half swapping Zaha and Townsend so they could cut inside on their stronger foot. Zaha’s curler in the 56th minute was spectacular, but with Canterbury and Winchester so spread and Kent nowhere to be found, it looked like nothing more than a training exercise for the Palace star.
The following match was equally poor, but there were signs against Watford that Lasso is starting to understand some of the nuances of the Beautiful Game. He benched his goal-scorer Jamie Tartt in the single most humiliating way possible — seconds before the first half whistle blew after completing a brace. It was a ludicrous decision in real time, and despite the unexpected rally to claim all three points, we don’t yet know the long-term impact it will have on the relationship between the manager and star player.
But, well, Richmond claimed all three points. Whatever happened behind the scenes, his players responded to the benching in undeniable fashion. Only time will tell if Ted Lasso is the next Sir Alex or just another in a long line of horrible bosses. But if we’re going to credit managers for bringing on a sub who immediately scores a goal, then it’s only fair to credit them for… the opposite? Or something.
Speaking of the aggrieved superstar, Jamie Tartt is a fantastic example of how wrong things can go when you change managers mid-campaign. The Manchester City loanee arrived in September as the pre-ordained relegation savior, and under the old regime everyone would have been content to finish 12th led by Tartt’s 15 goals and zero assists. Big-time loanee gets playing time, Mannion cashes a massive television rights check, loanee goes on to bigger and better things. Rinse, repeat.
However, it’s clear that Rebecca Welton is intent on breaking that cycle. In many ways, Tartt has been the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal side, but it appears to have taken it’s toll on the rest of the dressing room. Things finally boiled over against Watford last weekend, and it’s hard not to think Tartt’s epic “ME!” celebration was at least partly to blame for his benching after a first-half brace.
Lasso’s body language is easy enough to read, but he obviously has ownership on his side to boot. Swapping Tartt in favor of Roberts may have shocked the world — including a comically stunned Roberts — but it wasn’t a decision born of too much whiskey. Cavalier as it may have seemed, cameras caught him in conference with Ms. Welton just moments before notifying the fourth official of his intent to make a substitution.
So where do they go from here with their disgruntled #9? It’s anyone’s guess how Tartt responds to the message. He didn’t take it well in the moment and was nowhere to be found after. But the young man clearly has IT. It’s not a mistake that Pep signed him at such a young age, and elite strikers tend to have the switch in their brain flipped to “ME” most times, especially in front of goal.
When you remove penalties, Tartt’s expected goals is borderline extraterrestrial. He’s likely to crash at some point — such is the nature of statistics — but even if he vastly underperform his xG from here on out, it’s unlikely that he’ll fall out of elite finisher territory.
All that being said, Guardiola sent him packing for a reason; anyone that tells you otherwise is selling you spin. City expect all their players to fully buy in to the system, even the most mercurial ones (read: assholes). Improvisation is encouraged; deviation is not. He’ll be thrilled to see Lasso set him straight.
Darsteiner’s finest may see everyone else on the pitch as scrubs, but he’s going to need to learn to work with them if he ever hopes to find a place in Manchester City’s starting XI. Or AFC Richmond’s, evidently. If Lasso and Tartt can find a way to coexist, the ceiling for this team comes right off.
The man. The myth. The legend…arily cranky center mid, who reached the pinnacle of the sport and then fell off a cliff and landed in Richmond. It’s a tortured metaphor at best, but so is Roy Kent.
After winning a Champions League trophy with Chelsea in 2012, Kent never managed to find the same form again and subsequently bounced around Europe before ending up at AFC Richmond. He was world class for Chelsea, the sort of box-to-box center mid around which whole squads are built. Just look at his heat map from the 2012 European final against arguably the greatest Bayern Munich side ever assembled:
One could argue that it’s a lot easier to cover that much ground when you have Mikel or Essien destroying people behind you, but that still doesn’t explain the profound impact he had on every match.
The struggle for Kent in recent years has been adapting to his diminishing physical capabilities. No one ever accused him of being booksmart; his great gift was his ability to squeeze every last drop of talent and determination from his body and leave it on the pitch. No matter how well or how hard his opponents played, he could always be just a little bit better. Now that he can’t be that player anymore, the question is whether or not he can change his game enough to still be effective on both sides of the ball.
He’s still great in spurts, but gone are the days of Kent being seemingly everywhere at once. The heat maps from this season (and the one before it, and the one before that…) look a lot more like this one from over the weekend:
The problem is that he’s never really settled into the deep-lying playmaker role, a la Steven Gerrard circa 2013–14. And he’s yet to sort out his role as a #6 defensively, which leads to routine, out-of-position pointing at the man he’s supposed to be marking.
To be fair, that’s as much a coaching issue as it is a Roy Kent issue, but the Richmond captain is going to have to figure some of this out on the fly if Ted Lasso and his staff can’t. Curiously, after Tartt’s benching, we were treated to glimpses of the old Roy Kent, particularly on the game-winner. That’s likely because Tartt is notorious for dropping deep into the center of the park to collect the ball, clogging up an already congested midfield. Removing him freed up a lane between Kent and Watford’s box that simply hasn’t been there all season. Lasso’s main job now is to figure out how to get the most of Kent without removing his star striker.
Selfishly, I just want to see more of Kent flying into the box and smashing headers like this:
(Okay okay okay. You caught me. That paparazzi footage was just an excuse to squeeze some gossip into the fold. Settling the behind the scenes drama is just as important to the ceiling of this squad as any on-field dynamics. Serial WAG Keeley Jones has allegedly ended things with Tartt, and was allegedly also bidding on Roy Kent at the club charity auction. After a recent feline-themed spread for COFFKA, she’s in talks to host a WAG reality show called Cougartown for Sky. She’s also reportedly been offered a branding position at Nelson Road that could create additional friction in the dressing room. Amazing to think the success of AFC Richmond could hinge on her next career decision as much as anything on the pitch. *Ahem* Now assuming I haven’t destroyed all my credibility…)
The young Nigerian transfer might just be the key to Richmond’s hopes to finish with a spot in the Europa League next season. Obisanya finished as the hero of the day against Watford, smashing home the game-winner in stoppage time after make the switch to left mid in the second half.
Much is made of Obisanya’s promise as a full-time right back, and his versatility and composure in front of goal was certainly on display this weekend, but he still has a lot to improve upon as an out and out attacker. On the run that leads to Tartt’s equalizing free kick (and embarrassing subsequent infighting), Obisanya carries the ball into an extremely dangerous position and draws three defenders.
The decision making is just not fast enough once he gets himself into this position. Drawing free kicks is an important part of the game, but the conversion rate of free kicks outside the box doesn’t compare with that of unmarked strikers inside it. Obisanya had multiple options, most notably Cockburn on his right, but he can’t get the ball out from under his feet, leaving himself open for a potentially injurious tackle.
Some will call it moot considering Tartt converted the free kick, and that’s fair enough, but for this team to reach its full potential, Obisanya will need to reach his.
DANI ROJAS (?)
Aside from bringing in Jamie Tartt in the summer, AFC Richmond didn’t make much of a splash in the summer to avoid disrupting the chemistry of the side. LOL JK it’s because Rupert Mannion was the cheapest man to own a Premier League club since Mike Ashley first started using Newcastle as an internet banner ad. He’s been minimizing his expenses since the day he bought the club, including downsizing the roster (???!!!) so he could have less people on his corporate payroll.
Just how cheap is Rupert Mannion? (“How cheap, Dev?!”) So cheap that he won’t allow his players to wear the #10 jersey for fear they’ll want to get paid like one. Truly unprecedented stuff.
Thankfully, it’s not his roster to stymie anymore. Though Ms. Welton hasn’t had a transfer window yet to truly make her mark, bringing in a new manager is evidence enough that we can expect Richmond to be extremely active going forward. And the biggest bit of gossip coming out of Nelson Road is that summer signing Dani Rojas may finally be fit.
Rojas came in as a highly touted prospect from Club Deportivo Guadalajara in Liga MX. Incredibly, there’s not a single scrap of footage of the lad to be found (believe me, I scoured), but according to the scouting reports he’s a real pacy customer with a nose for goal, and it’s a fairly safe bet that he’s technically gifted as well.
Assuming the chemistry falls into place under Ted Lasso — and barring a massive late season plot twist — Richmond already have the difference makers they need to make a push for the top half of the table. If it’s true that Rojas is fit and capable of sharing the pitch with Tartt, my money is on AFC Richmond playing in cold, unheard of parts of Europe come next fall.