So. Here we are, then. Pushing two years into the Pozzo’s ownership and the promised land still hasn’t been reached, Watford sit much where they always did somewhere in the middle of the second tier. Two years worth of steady influx of Johnny Foreigners into Vicarage Road (and, in some cases, straight out again), presumably denying match time to locally born lads who would otherwise have been furthering the Hornets’ reputation for growing their own. Hasn’t really worked out, has it? Bit disappointing all round, isn’t it?
Well… no, not really. Certainly not entirely. For one thing the club is, you know, still there. Preserving the status quo, even if that’s all that’s been achieved, is no small thing in itself given the parlous and horribly precarious position that the Pozzos took over. If there’s anything less interesting to the general populace than a middling-sized club in financial troubles it’s a middling-sized-club that was in financial troubles but then wasn’t…. nonetheless, Watford’s supporters remain acutely aware of how lucky we are. Two of the club’s less straightforward previous owners lobbing insults at each other in court over quite who owes who what after the fallout of a rather smutty takeover executed by one but apparently covertly financed by the other is a stark reminder, should any be needed, of how bad things once were whatever our league position.
As far as the on-pitch stuff goes, last season took a bit of getting over in several respects. Much as we exceeded everyone’s expectations, the twin blows of missing out on automatic promotion on a galling final day and defeat at Wembley in the play-off final struck us in the stomach and simultaneously elevated expectations this time around. We lost the services of Matěj Vydra, who got the top flight call that his goals had demanded, Nathaniel Chalobah, who got a big contract at Chelsea and a series of new loan challenges, and ultimately Almen Abdi, Player of the Season, who hasn’t started a game since August due to injury. We lost a rapier, a metronome and a locksmith and only in January did we adequately replace any of them (despite the irrelevance of that there loophole being closed – it turned out that rule changes limiting international loan signings didn’t prohibit us from signing seven of the previously loaned players permanently).
The season started well enough with some big wins and position up amongst the leaders, but the results papered over some cracks. We beat Bournemouth 6-1 at Vicarage Road in August, but not before they’d given us a fright and laid out a template that others would exploit to greater effect… without a replacement for Vydra’s pace Bournemouth had no reason not to defend a higher line, simultaneously squeezing out the space with which Abdi had wreaked havoc last season. We got out of jail with some set piece goals and then made hay as the Cherries continued to chase the game, but the threat was obvious. By December, when an unspectacular Sheffield Wednesday became the fifth side on the hop to win at the Vic, those chickens had come home to roost and were barricading themselves into the building site down the east side of the ground. Gianfranco Zola fell on his sword, evidently not knowing how to turn things around.
In came Beppe Sannino, an excitable veteran of any number of moderate-to-average Italian clubs. His brief: to sort out a defence that had become so parlous that every team in the division was able to turn up, keep it tight and wait for our mistake. The consequence was another spin of the Vicarage Road revolving door and an instant resolution to the defensive issue. Zola lost his last five games at home; we’d scored twice and conceded eleven in the process. In the nine home games leading up to the 3-3 draw with Blackburn, we have seven wins, a draw, one defeat. Seventeen goals scored, one conceded. Our away form has prohibited a sustained play-off challenge, but the rot was definitively stopped.
Manuel Almunia remains the incumbent goalkeeper. His experience is most evident when removed from the side; a good communicator, his deputy Jonathan Bond is in the England U21 squad and a good stopper but in common with many young keepers suffers in this respect.
Sannino has retained the 3-5-2 favoured by Zola; last season we were most frequently exposed for numbers at the back, but in a lopsided squad we appear to have overcompensated and have regularly named four centre backs on the bench in recent weeks whilst still being able to afford to loan Nyron Nosworthy and Reece Brown to League One sides. Gabriele Angella was perhaps the highest profile of the summer’s imports; strong, elegant and a goal threat from set pieces he’s the leading candidate for the club’s Player of the Season award. Originally in the centre of the three, he’s since moved to the right where he has greater licence to bring the ball forward. Conversely, veteran Marco Cassetti has benefitted hugely from switching to the centre of the three; the former Italian international started his Watford career at wing-back, then moved to the back three, but looks supremely comfortable in the pivot role. This role has also been filled by Fitz Hall; a Premier League defender when fit, he’s simply not fit often enough. Such was the judgement in the summer when he wasn’t offered a new contract, proven accurate since he was belatedly re-hired mid-season.
The third defensive slot has been largely shared between Swedish international Joel Ekstrand, looking rather more fallible and erratic than he did in his impressive first season, and long-serving cult hero Lloyd Doyley, now in his fourteenth season in the first team having won over yet another manager. Algerian international Essaïd Belkalem looks quick and powerful but hasn’t settled into the side, a transition hampered by injury and an apparent inability to communicate since his August recruitment. Tommie Hoban spent a year out and is being gently eased back; if the Irish youngster recaptures anything like the form he displayed in his first few months in the first team he’ll be a hell of a player. At the other end of his career, Lucas Neill recently signed a short-term contract in an effort to play himself into Australia’s squad, his attraction to the Hornets arising from a lack of leaders (and a pay-as-you-play weighted deal) rather than a lack of defenders.
Wing-back positions, conversely, are rather less well-covered. Davide Faraoni arrived with a reputation having broken through at Inter; he has a first touch to die for and is eager to push forward, but for a one-time right-back has offered variable protection to the right-side of the defence. Only 22, he’s offered less than his talent suggest might be available so far. Czech Daniel Pudil on the left-hand side, on the other hand, has completely established himself and if anything has been more dependable this season. Meanwhile Ikechi Anya, the Scottish international born to Romanian and Nigerian parents, has played down either side and even, recently, up front. Like Pudil he has extraordinary stamina but whilst the Czech has perhaps benefitted from the greater discipline that Sannino demands of his wing-backs Anya has suffered in this respect, his blistering pace less of a weapon when he doesn’t have complete liberty to push forward.
Plenty of names have shuffled through the central midfield positions in an attempt to find a winning combination. Replacing Chalobah in the anchor role was one challenge; Brazilian Iriney, a veteran of a decade in La Liga, was brought in to do that job but it was telling that he impressed in pre-season but struggled once the pace picked up. Hard as nails, he was beginning to show signs of adapting when he was packed off back to Spain, on loan with Mallorca alongside one of last season’s loans Alex Geijo. With Iriney flitting in and out of the side, Premier League youngsters Josh McEachran and George Thorne were brought in on loan; McEachran didn’t convince, Thorne looked good but in a midfield short of strong characters possibly wasn’t the right player at the right time. Samba Diakité was brought in on loan from QPR ostensibly in another attempt to fill this hole, but thus far his main contribution has been a grotesquely stupid and violent challenge against Middlesbrough earning himself a three-match ban. Only on the introduction of Daniel Tözsér, a Hungarian loaned from Genoa, was the problem position ostensibly filled to everyone’s satisfaction; a majestic, unfussy presence at the back of the midfield, he’s the loan that everyone’s anxiously wondering whether we’ll be able to retain.
In the two more advanced central roles, as is perhaps inevitable with so many youngsters involved, the general problem is that too many players are carried along with a performance – revelling when we are dominant, not influential enough when we’re struggling – rather than dictating it. Almen Abdi’s dependable genius, as mentioned, is sorely missed; Lewis McGugan has arrived from Forest armed with goals, flicks, and a nice line in free kicks but, as at the City Ground, has been criticised for going missing when the going gets tough. Argentine-born Cristian Battocchio, a naturalised Italy U21 international, has buckets of energy, creativity and an infectious spirit; ostensibly due to be a victim of the January cull he was retained at Beppe Sannino’s request and has featured prominently since. Sean Murray, afforded limited involvement during Zola’s first season, re-established himself from the off this time after apparently suffering from his early success. Having booked himself into a fitness camp over the summer ahead of pre-season the 20 year-old is approaching the trajectory suggested when he first broke through. Further competition for involvement is provided by Alexander Merkel, a Kazakh-born German who arrived on loan from Udinese in January; one of several to blot his copybook with an early, silly red card the 22 year-old has begun to resemble what one might expect from a player brought through at Milan in recent games.
Up front, Troy Deeney was always going to lead the line and has suffered through Vydra’s departure. His performances have not always been at the same high standard as last season but he’s still a bull of a striker, the de facto leader on the pitch even without the armband, and already has 17 goals to sit alongside the 20 he got from Vydra’s shadow last term. The big question was who would step into the Czech’s shoes. The irrepressible Fernando Forestieri has never looked like that sort of player; mischievous and extravagantly talented he has made perhaps the biggest transition of all the imports in terms of adapting to the hurly-burly of the British game… but he causes trouble in the hole rather than sitting on a defender’s shoulder. Two further strikers were brought in from Udinese in the summer, neither obviously replicating Vydra’s attributes either. Diego Fabbrini, a waif-like forward with extraordinary control showed tantalising glimpses of his talent without ever looking like meshing it with the rest of the team; an Italian international eighteen months ago, he returned to Italy to be loaned to Siena in January. Paraguayan Javier Acuña looked more the ticket… aggressive, with a low centre of gravity and little apparent regard for his own personal safety he also failed to either settle or threaten to establish himself, and has returned to Spain for a loan with Osasuna. Into their places came yet another loan, Korean Park Chu-Young from Arsenal who has been afforded little opportunity by either injuries or selection, and Swede Mathias Ranégie, signed on a long term contract. Zlatan’s some-time Swedish national team partner, at a lanky 6 foot 4, is perhaps the complete opposite of Vydra but was providing a threat in the box and relief from physical attention for Deeney before he joined the trend for picking up stupid red cards by retaliating to petty provocation at Doncaster.
Victory at Wigan a week last Saturday would perhaps have rekindled our season and heralded a late push for the play-offs. As it was, yet another honourable away defeat (for all Sannino’s success at Vicarage Road we’ve not won on our travels since early October) merely confirmed that here’s where we are; in a division where so many teams are so frequently both threatened by relegation and challenging for the play-offs until late in the season we’ve achieved the rare feat of finishing ours before the end of March.
Thirty-eight different players have been named in first team squads, half of whom weren’t at the club last season in any capacity and several others kids newly blooded. One might suspect that this would drive a wedge between team and supporters although in reality the grumbles have been due to results more than lack of familiar faces. The odds are that we’ll finish roughly where we did the season before the Pozzo takeover (eleventh) and yet… for all that it’s been an underwhelming, disappointing campaign in many respects one only has to glance at the work done in rebuilding the virtually abandoned, part-derelict east side of the ground to note progress. This and a re-laid pitch – committed to but, crucially, not paid for by the previous owner. Development of the training facilities. And perhaps most of all, that the eleventh place that was such an achievement for Sean Dyche would now constitute something of a disappointment.
It didn’t happen this season, but if one resists the temptation to treat last year as a baseline the club continues to move forward. You do kinda suspect that it’s a matter of “when”, not “if”.
This post was originally entitled ‘The Bluffer’s Guide to Watford, Class of 2014 but we have amended this after it was brought to our attention that “The Bluffer’s Guide”, “The Bluffer’s Guides”, “Bluffer’s Guide”, “The Bluffer” and “Bluffer” are registered under UK trademark numbers 1476483, 1523998, 2597816 and 2597814 in the classes 9, 16, 35, 38 and 41 (together the “Marks”).