It’s been a few weeks since this article – a rundown of Watford’s myriad new signings – was suggested. I was waiting for the right time… as a minimum, a time when I’d seen each of the Hornets’ army of summer recruits in the flesh, in action, enough to form an opinion.
That still hasn’t happened, but events have caught up with me… most specifically Saturday’s eye-catching thrashing of Leeds United at Elland Road. An extraordinary victory which owed a lot to mistakes by the home side – a reckless challenge by Jason Pearce that saw him red carded before half-time; Neil Warnock’s gamble on three substitutions by the interval which backfired when the unfortunate Rodolph Austin was stretchered off early in the next period. The Hornets capitalised.
But that victory was coming. Watford’s season has started relatively inconspicuously on the pitch; a glance at the league table until now would have found us in a lower mid-table position not untypical of much of the last twenty years or so. On the pitch, however, Zola’s side has been coming together; thirty minute bursts of exhilarating attacking have peppered games without being translated into goals or big victories but some day, someone was going to have a bad day, the ball was going to bounce for us, and that someone was going to get murdered. That was Saturday.
Given which, and given the identity of the opposition – a Big Club, playing in the Wrong Division – this is when the knives might start to come out. Watford’s metamorphosis over the summer has already been the subject of understandable media attention and commentary, some positive and some less so. But now we’re starting to win games with a little more consistency, what has happened at Watford becomes important – and the focus of more attention, with more noses out of joint.
So here’s the deal. Over the summer, the Pozzo family completed a low key but rather drawn out takeover of Watford Football Club. The Pozzos have owned Udinese for 25 years, gradually building the club from a Serie B side to Champions League qualification. Three years ago they acquired Spanish side Granada, who have since gained two promotions to return to the Spanish top flight after a long absence. Their recent success is built on a vast scouting network, and a strategy of buying rough diamonds, polishing them up and selling on when they reach peak value. Not a world away from Watford’s traditional model, except in degree…
Several criticisms have been levelled at the operation already, most pointedly in an acidic piece from the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel; each will be aired again in coming weeks. Firstly, is it fair or reasonable that Watford should be able to bring in so many players nominally on loan from our sister clubs, Udinese and Granada (twelve in total, detailed below)? Secondly, who the hell wants to support the British branch of a multinational sports conglomerate – what about Watford’s identity? Thirdly, what about Watford’s proud reputation for developing their own players (trumpeted by me on these pages before now).
Criticism with regard to the first point doesn’t stand up very far to scrutiny. As takeovers go, being purchased by an affluent benefactor is good, being bought by someone with, you know, relevant experience, a track record, a scouting network and a vast pool of players is several steps further down the line. If there’s a respect in which a takeover by affluent businessmen from Kuwait, Thailand or anywhere else is acceptable, but a takeover by an affluent businessman from Italy with relevant experience and assets is not, I’ve yet to spot it. It’s been suggested that a dangerous precedent is being set, but it’s questionable whether any other side follows Udinese’s model with the scouting and squad size to be able to make the approach work.
The second point, regarding maintaining Watford’s identity, was more of a concern to me… time will tell. But so far, so good… the Hornets’ strong community links have been maintained, the traditional summer Open Day was as popular and successful as ever and an open training session during half term had kids taking part in penalty shoot-outs, crossbar challenges and squad photos with the players. Early days, but we’ve not abandoned the Family Club mantle just yet.
And as for how the youth development goes, the decision to apply for a modest ‘C’ grading for the club’s academy didn’t send a hugely positive message but the support for the club’s envied Harefield Academy hasn’t wavered, whilst youngsters Sean Murray, Tommie Hoban and Connor Smith have all been secured to five year contracts since the summer.
Overriding all of this is the knowledge that Watford’s existence pre-Pozzos was precarious at best. This wasn’t a case of choosing between the Pozzo offer and a continued existence as a small well run club; the latter wasn’t on offer. Nor were Elton and GT. Had the deal not gone through, we were in a very bad way.
So what does the new Watford squad look like?
In goal, the familiar figure of Manuel Almunia has made the short trip over the fence from Arsenal’s adjacent training ground. The Spaniard didn’t leave Arsenal with his reputation in the best state, but has been as solid as you’d expect from a player with his experience; in the absence of the injured John Eustace, Almunia has been captaining the side. His deputy in Jonathan Bond, a highly rated Welsh youngster now in the difficult position of all reserve keepers, needing to stay sharp without the assistance of competitive action.
Having started with a back four Zola has switched to three defenders and wingbacks, a system that better suits the players at his disposal. Lloyd Doyley not least… the Hornets’ longest serving player had once again been relegated to the bench by an incoming manager – the seventh he has played under in eleven years in the first team – and once again subsequently proved his worth. He suits three at the back with his defensive discipline, pace on the cover and refusal to dive into challenges. The system works for him in providing several options for a simple pass, limiting the impact of his greatest limitation.
Alongside Doyley, Fitz Hall was one of the summer’s less heralded signings, but has bossed the defence in the games he’s played and looks indispensable, the one nasty big lump available to Zola at the back. Alongside him, teenager Tommie Hoban has established himself eighteen months after his senior debut and looked terrific… quick, strong, composed, he’s being watched by the biggest clubs in the country, that five year deal not looking a bad call.
Behind them in the pecking order, two of the loan signings from Udinese. Left-sided 22 year-old Brazilian Neuton was in the side early on; he looked comfortable in possession, almost cavalier coming forward but uncomfortable with the physical realities of life as a Championship defender. He was beginning to adjust, but then twisted an ankle. Swedish international cap Joel Ekstrand, 23, has had to wait longer for his chance which came with an injury to Hall. He’s started the last couple of games, and also looked the part. In addition, Nyron Nosworthy has seen action this season before he too was injured, and youngster Adam Thompson has been about to break through for a couple of years.
In the wing-back positions, two summer recruits are holding sway. Marco Cassetti is at the opposite end of his career to most of the newcomers at 35; he looked vulnerable on the right of a back four but his attacking instincts suit the wing back role. With Champions League experience at Roma and caps for Italy he certainly has the pedigree; he is the only Italian-born member of the summer influx of players and has improved with games having scarcely played last year. On the left, Czech international Daniel Pudil is a Granada loan, and one of four expected to sign permanently in January (although what purpose this serves beyond assuaging the “look how many loans they’ve got” wittering isn’t clear). Quick and aggressive, he’s as reliable a left sided player as we’ve had for ten years.
Other options in the wide positions include Jean-Alain Fanchone, a Frenchman amongst the Udinese group who has put in one thoroughly competent performance on the left at Blackburn as cover for the suspended Pudil, and home grown Lee Hodson, a Northern Ireland international scarcely used by Zola thus far. Additionally, two attacking wide players are probably most likely fielded at wing back in this formation. Ikechi Anya’s background is as cosmopolitan as anyone’s; born in Glasgow to a Nigerian father and Romanian mother his career has taken him from Wycombe and Halesowen Town via Glenn Hoddle’s academy to Celta Vigo, Granada and now the Hornets. Incredibly quick, his delivery is a little haphazard but he’s a lot of fun to bring off the bench. Geoffrey Mujangi Bia, meanwhile, has only seen League Cup action prior to a recent injury; the Belgian international who once spent two loan spells on the fringes at Wolves, is on a season loan with an option to buy from Standard Liege.
In central midfield there are countless options, but a first choice trio has established itself in recent weeks. Almen Abdi is another loan from Udinese whose signing is set to be made permanent; the Bosnian-born Swiss international swaggers around the midfield provoking comparison with one-time Watford favourite Craig Ramage. Cool with the ball and increasingly combative without it, Abdi takes a vicious penalty and has 5 goals so far, although he left Elland Road with what looked like a dislocated shoulder. Jonathan Hogg has hung on to his starting position… aggressive and industrious, the former Villa youngster has always looked comfortable in possession and does much of the fetching and carrying. Nathaniel Chalobah, meanwhile, is on a six-month loan from Chelsea, and this isn’t one that will be made permanent. Extravagantly talented, Chalobah has recently been called into the England U21 squad at the age of 17; he has shown signs of fatigue in recent weeks, but a top flight career awaits and it won’t be long in coming.
This apparently settled trio doesn’t allow for the continued absence of John Eustace, the long-time leader of the side on and off the pitch whose commanding presence would complement a side perhaps short of such dominant characters. Mark Yeates has confounded expectation by not just hanging around but adapting well to a more central role; his willingness to make aggressive runs ahead of the ball have already made this season a more effective one than last for the Irishman.
Cristian Battocchio came in from Udinese with a good reputation but has been given cameo roles thus far; Argentinian-born, the he is an Italian U20 international. Sean Murray and Connor Smith have both seen action; Murray burst onto the scene last season and if a pre-season injury has limited his impact this time he reminded everyone of his ability with a mischievous appearance off the bench at Elland Road whilst Smith – a converted striker who finished runner up in Sky’s “Football’s Next Star” show – has been given a long contract and plenty of tidy appearances from the bench. Ghanaian international Prince Buaben, effective in fits and bursts last season, has been injured throughout this but has been frequently mentioned in injury updates so may still figure also whilst there is hope that the talented Stephen McGinn, out for eighteen months with injury, might still force his way back into the reckoning.
Up front, the Hornets’ threat has been radically improved. Troy Deeney was retained by the club despite a spell in prison for affray over the summer and early season, and is making the most of his second chance with some powerful performances and three goals so far. He has most often been partnered with Fernando Forestieri, another on the “to buy” list. Blessed with incredibly quick feet and a low centre of gravity, he is arguably the most naturally talented and has been compared to his compatriot Lionel Messi by his teammates. His decision making isn’t always the best but has improved dramatically since his arrival, heaven help the division if and when he gets that right.
Away from home, we’ve increasingly frequently employed Matej Vydra alongside Alex Geijo. Vydra was signed by Udinese from Banik Ostrava in a multi-million pound deal at the age of 18 but has struggled for fitness since; another to join permanently in January, Vydra plays on the shoulder of the last defender and is lethal one-on-one, perhaps our best finisher since Kevin Phillips. Now 20, he has made his full Czech debut since his arrival and has seven goals to his name in nine starts (plus four off the bench). Meanwhile, born in Switzerland to Spanish parents, Geijo was Granada’s top scorer when they were promoted to the Primera Liga two years ago but struggled for fitness last season and has taken time to get fit this; he looks tidy though, particularly in tandem with Vydra.
Behind these four, Steve Leo Beleck is another Udinese loan; big and powerful, the 19 year old has been given cameo roles off the bench but featured little since Deeney and Geijo entered consideration. His father, Thomas Libiih, played for Cameroon in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. Chris Iwelumo is also still around, and played a role earlier in the season.
Even in brief snippets, it takes a while to work your way through the vast squad. There’s a lot of quality there, and we were visibly improving week by week up until the eye-catching win over Leeds. Our first team would give anyone in the division a game – and has done, we’ve already beaten Palace, Huddersfield and Leicester and were unfortunate to lose to Cardiff and Middlesbrough. But our second eleven would beat the next best second choice eleven in the division hollow. As the side grows in fitness (many of the loans scarcely played last season) and understanding, and as suspensions and injuries kick in across the division our squad will be well set to cope. Don’t be surprised to see other teams go the way of Leeds in the coming months.