words: David Marples
If the performance against Scunthorpe was a GCSE drama student workshop in a dingy school hall with some promising moments, this was a slick dress rehearsal from which everyone came away thinking that everything is going to all be alright.
It is worth reiterating that it is foolish to conclude too much from a friendly yet given that the formation and line-up was not dissimilar to the one selected at Scunthorpe just days earlier, maybe we are starting to catch a glimpse of Aitor Karanka's vision.
Like at Scunthorpe, a 4-2-3-1 formation was deployed with the full backs - Ben Osborn and Tendayi Darikwa given licence to provide width in attack. Indeed, it was Darikwa who slotted home the first goal from classic Gary Lineker territory. With two holding midfielders, Karanka perhaps feels confident in the team to maintain a reliable defensive shape and thus allow the full backs to support the attack.
Diogo Gonçalves, João Carvalho and Gil Bastião Dias provided the three pronged attack with Daryl Murphy being the ballast. Again, all three looked very comfortable on the ball. They all love a little turn, a little shimmy and quick first touch balls around the edge of the box. The sign of a good player is that they always seem to be in space and this is the case with all three, especially so regarding Carvalho as to find space in the number 10 role is particularly difficult. Anyone concerned about whether the Portuguese lads will 'fancy it' can rest assured: they all seem to be on first name terms with the universal football concept of 'tracking back'.
Dias loves to run with the ball and his goal came from him doing precisely that. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of his goal wasn't necessarily the tidy finish but the fact he got up off the floor to complete the job rather than staying down in anticipation of the free kick. These lads don't look like they are here to sit on the mantelpiece and look pretty; they mean business.
While often the attacking link up play went on around Murphy, his withdrawal for Lewis Grabban provided the option of through balls for the striker to run beyond the opposition defence. This resulted in some very presentable opportunities. Carvalho especially seemed to relish the thought of slotting balls through for Grabban or Hillal Souddani - and let's not forget about the pace of Ben Brereton either - to latch on to. All of which is a tantalising prospect and underlines the options that Karanka has gathered for himself.
Yet for all the exciting sprinkles on the top of a cake, the base remains fundamental. Sometimes it's not just the icing that tingles your tastebuds but that reassuring vanilla flavour in the sponge. Next time you are in the newsagents or supermarket in need of a chocolate biscuit hit, pick up a Kit Kat. It's easy to forget how good it is. Likewise with Adlène Guédioura Danny Fox. No longer does Fox strut around the pitch looking to show how much he cares by clattering someone unnecessarily or by raking a 50 yard diagonal into the stands. He has been - for some time - simply going about his business of being a very effective defender. Regarding Guédioura it's amazing - if not surprising - what a bit of fitness can do for a player and rather than witnessing the recurring image of him labouring to run back after losing the ball in a tight spot like we did so often in the back end of last season, the sight of him wining the ball and executing a trick to get out of a tight spot was a recurring theme here. Karanka has some delightfully difficult decisions to make in terms of team selection.
While the Cherries were certainly not at full strength, this was a half decent team featuring regulars such as Simon Francis (37 appearances in the Premier League last season), Nathan Ake (38) Charlie Daniels (35), Harry Arter (13), Callum Wilson (28), Dan Gosling (28) and the exciting new signing David Brooks. It is always lovely to see opposition defenders stropping off and shouting and gesturing at one of their team mates in frustration; if they are established Premier League players then all the better. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect was that for the first time in what seems like an ice age, a Bournemouth team didn't come to the City Ground and not let us touch the ball by dominating possession - they weren't allowed to. While the Cherries might well have had an off-day, that was just as much down to the performance of the home team as it was to the shortcomings of the away team.
A very healthy attendance of 14,108 for a friendly and acknowledgement by the club of the LGBTTrickies and their participation in the Pride march prior to the game in the city confirmed that we are in a new era. In conjunction with this new hope, the sight of Michael Dawson conjuring a few raking balls from centre defence out to a marauding full back was also reassuringly familiar.
The simple colour scheme of the away kit - white socks, red shorts, white shirts - looks sexy too. Game well and truly on.