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End of Term Report Part 7 10/06/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

25- José Holebas

This hadn’t started terribly well. Holebas’ signing was rumoured, then seemingly confirmed only for the player himself to deny all knowledge and publicly decry the possibility. And it’s hard not to sympathise if, as seems apparent, decisions about his future were being announced without his knowledge or consent but… not a positive first step. This suggestion of a sulky demeanour was exacerbated by reports suggesting that José rather felt he was slumming it in WD18, and by sulky outbursts on social media as he struggled for game time behind Nathan Aké.

All of which is rather a shame, if shedding a light on why Roma were prepared to get rid, since on the pitch his contribution has been largely excellent. Positive, aggressive, dynamic, direct… if he’d sustained that over more outings (and stopped looking like he was chewing a wasp for five minutes) he might have become a cult hero. Instead… we don’t really know where we are.

Next Season: It’s not a prerequisite that a Watford player should be a nice person, a good bloke, someone you’d share a drink with. But even obnoxious players can achieve popularity by focusing their character flaws on the opposition. We should at least be able to not actively dislike – perhaps distrust is a better word – one of our players. José has some PR work to do in this regard.
29- Étienne Capoue

Whilst many of our squad had ups and downs in 2015/16, few experienced as stark contrasts as Étienne Capoue – and nobody’s form fluctuated so rapidly. At his best Capoue was utterly magnificent, at a level above those floundering around him; thoroughly in control and simultaneously elegant, clever and hard as nails. On other days he was a passenger, and you can’t be a passenger in central midfield. Bournemouth (A) sticks in the memory for some reason… but that game was only a week or two after a strong showing at Newcastle, and a couple of weeks before a tour de force against West Ham.

There’s been more of the good than of the indifferent. Even when posted in an awkward wide left position, Capoue put in a stonking performance at Old Trafford and whilst Wembley was, once again, best forgotten it was Capoue limping off having threatened to propel us into the ascendancy single-handed that was a critical point in the game. Mazzarri inherits a very potent weapon.

Next Season: A player with the gumption to wrong-foot opponents simply by shifting the weight of his body will always be forgiven the odd off-day. His off-days, however, are what render his first season at Watford merely decent. More of the good stuff, please.


32- Alessandro Diamanti

No, I didn’t see much of him either. Indeed, Alessandro managed barely an hour of competitive action across three appearances off the bench before disappearing to Italy with a flick of his ample head of hair. So it’s difficult to comment on his ability or otherwise… certainly he did little in what little I saw of him (I missed the 45 minutes against Southampton…) to contribute to a judgement either way.

So the reason to include him in this review, really, is merely as a reflection on the inevitable consequences of our high management and player turnover. It stands to reason that when a new boss comes in he assesses what he’s got, decides what he wants/needs and proceeds accordingly. Thing is, when your whole strategy is based around high turnover of players and the team management changes frequently too you’re going to end up with situations like this… a player who may or may not have been good enough – he had been in Italy’s squad two years before signing after all – but who never looked like he had a role in the way Quique wanted to play. There just wasn’t a position for him. In that sense he was collateral damage, and much as there’s some inevitability about this sort of thing, and it was only a loan, and much as he will have been well paid, you can’t help but feel that a little more stability wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Next Season: Diamanti spent the latter half of the season with Atalanta, but still has a year left on his Guangzhou deal. Unlikely he’ll spend it in China you’d have thought. Watford less likely still.
Quique Sanchez Flores

Suddenly, it all seems very long ago.

Probably because we’ve all had to talk about it so much. Everyone you know who has ever heard of football has asked you about it. And depending on how annoying they are, they’ll have an opinion too, carefully formulated over half a second of considered thought on hearing Quique’s departure mentioned on the radio. Because, you know. Watford? Thirteenth? And a Cup Semi Final? And then you sack your manager?

I find my own opinion hardens against Quique the more often I try to explain the circumstances and provide balance to a discussion where none is invited; this tends to polarise your opinion in any circumstances. I’d probably smack Quique in the teeth if I passed him in the street at this stage, which isn’t entirely fair. He did, as your acquaintances expertly point out, an excellent job. We’ve gotten used to new coaches breezing in and inheriting players and recruitment power of unprecedented strength and, with varying degrees of speed and for varying lengths of time, make a decent fist of it. That shouldn’t lessen our appreciation of what Quique achieved… a new squad, a new country, a tough league competing against big names. Plenty of good managers haven’t been up to that task; Quique fashioned a winning way of playing very quickly.

I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that he got lucky too. That’s not a criticism, everyone needs a bit of luck and he was intelligent enough to realise that when Iggy, who started on the bench and didn’t look like having a role beyond that, began scoring he needed to accommodate him. The defence that Flores fashioned and the goals that Iggy provided were a great recipe.

And he’s a very nice bloke. That shouldn’t make a difference really, but I like our guys being easy to like. You didn’t begrudge him any of it.

But nor, as has been explained many times to many people, am I uncomfortable about his departure. Quite clearly things hadn’t been going as well since Christmas, and quite clearly Quique was upsetting and ostracising members of the squad. That’s not a disaster in itself, not a reason to get rid, but reason enough to be a little concerned. Had he not gone there would be no supporters’ campaign to dispose of him, we’d be talking about building on last season and going again. But enough concern, and enough trust of the judgement of those running the club based on the developments of the last few years, to back a call made by people with a track record of making pretty good, if bold, decisions.

Having suggested that Quique had perhaps chanced on a winning formula, it was concerning that he didn’t really have an answer when that stopped working. Nor, crucially, did he seem willing to experiment. As the results got worse he got more conservative, more careful, to the point where from a strong top half position we were clawing together enough points to stay up. The owners may also have been looking at his conservatism with young players… Amrabat and Suárez were surprising January signings in that they weren’t youngsters, ripe for improvement, at a time when our top flight status looked secure. Meanwhile the younger players on the fringes of the team – Berghuis, as we’ve mentioned in this series, the poster boy – weren’t getting a look in, even when our top flight status was secured. Admittedly the rumours of Quique’s departure were rife by that point, he may have known he was going and for what reason would he start to blood our youngsters in such circumstances? His reticence didn’t make us rue the decision though.

So in the end I find myself comfortable with Quique’s appointment, and with his season in charge, and comfortable with the suggestion that he was the right man to drop anchor but not to push on. Nobody in the Vicarage Road stands will begrudge him whatever success comes his way at Espanyol.

Next Season: Getting rid of Flores was defensible, whatever Joe Public might suggest, but it was certainly bold. There will, as ever, have been a plan. We watch on with fascination.

That’s all folks. We’ll be back with a season preview towards the end of July, and maybe the odd report from a pre-season friendly too (Ian loves those). In the meantime, enjoy the Euros and the rest of the summer. Yooorns.


End of Term Report Part 6 06/06/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

21- Ikechi Anya

It’s a perverse comparison, but there’s something of the Tommy Mooney about Ikechi Anya.  Not in physique, quite obviously, or in playing style…  but in the fact that it’s the how that matters more than the where.  Just as Mooney turned his hand to pretty much everything for periods of his time at Vicarage Road from the centre-forward he was “supposed” to be to a wide attacker, a wide midfielder, wing back and centre-back without ever changing his approach one iota, you know what you’re going to get from Ikechi even if we’re not really any closer to knowing how best to employ him.

Or rather, we’re not sure what his best position is, not really.  But we know what he brings to the team, and it’s pretty clear what his value is.  He brings energy, speed and a dogged relentlessness that must be a pain in the backside to play against whatever level you’re playing at.  Whether that’s on the wing, as a full-back, a wing-back or up front… he has limitations which mean he’s unlikely to be a nailed on starter in any position at this level, but as a squad player, a British name to come off the bench to change shape, provide some dynamism, chase things that need chasing or run off with things that need running off with he’s worth his weight in gold.  His weight isn’t very much, I would guess, but gold is gold.

Next Season:  As long as Ikechi’s happy with an odd-job man role then it’s hard to see us moving him on.  He started significantly more games in the first half of the season than the second… but with a new head coach in place, all bets are off in any case.

22- Almen Abdi

Given the way the season went there were only one or two likely contenders for Player of the Season, and Almen wasn’t one of them.  Despite this, there was something particularly heroic about the diligence with which he set about the task afforded him… a more disciplined, cautious role than that which he had enjoyed previously in his time at Vicarage Road.  The most visible contrast at the start of the season was of his attitude with that of Matěj Vydra who reportedly didn’t want to adapt and was shipped off pretty sharpish.  Abdi did try to fit in, he dug in and worked hard.  He felt wasted though.

Which is probably a little unreasonable on our part.  The Premier League, for a start, was never going to be as forgiving as the Championship.  You need, perhaps, a higher standard of lock-picker even if your game plan isn’t centred around containment.  But our distorted mental image of Almen’s contribution is probably unhelpful too.  The Almen Abdi who picks up a ball in the hole behind the strikers and slips a slide-rule pass, perfectly timed and weighted past a dumbstruck and hapless backline to an escaping striker is the Gianfranco Zola vintage.  Almen picked up an extraordinary 13 assists in 2012/13, often loading Vydra’s gun, but has only managed 7 across three seasons since.

Nonetheless, there was no disguising the joy when Almen was allowed to pick up the ball in a central position this term and advance on the opposition penalty area, in the stands and on his face.  This felt more natural, it felt right.  But either way, the way he stuck to the task this season is testimony to his attitude;  of his ability, there can be little doubt.

Next Season:  Like Anya, Almen is one of the supposedly mercenary foreign legion brought in by the Pozzos who will be entering their fifth season in Watford colours next year.  And hurrah for that.

23- Ben Watson

Ben Watson made his debut for Palace aged 18.  Coincidentally it was against us… in the very odd game during the week preceding our 2003 Cup semi-final against Southampton. A Trevor Francis call, one of the last of a management career that was to end ten days later.

Perhaps that’s why Watson appears to have been around – in football – forever. He was in our consciousness from the start… but despite this his career has been somewhat inconspicuous, Cup Final goals notwithstanding. He didn’t score many goals. He certainly wasn’t flamboyant, not a name linked with big clubs but… always there. What was Ben Watson for?.

Any doubts have been dismissed by Ben’s 18 months at Vicarage Road, which begun in a fashion that was both dramatic and suitably low key, coming on at half time to turn a 2-0 reverse to Blackpool into a 7-2 victory not by lashing in goals but by quietly ferrying things along, organising, protecting possession not by thundering into challenges (although he’s capable of that) but by simply making good decisions. We might have expected him to fade from contention as Premier League riches enhanced our purchasing power. He wasn’t in the starting eleven for the first five Premier League games. After being brought back in at St James Park in the wake of Valon Behrami’s suspension, he was barely out of it. Other clubs might watch on with casual bemusement… this club who are full of foreigners, who get all their players from Udinese, have Ben Watson in their midfield. Go figure.

Well, let them figure. Ben might be the new Lloyd. Discarded, maybe, possibly, every season. But still there. And suddenly still in the side, because nobody else will do what he does quite as efficiently and unfussily.

Next Season: Probably on the bench. For August. Until something needs sorting.

24- Odion Ighalo

The ultimate season of two halves for Odion, who dramatically exceeded all expectations up to Christmas but was nothing like as potent after it. Whilst he was scoring we had a pretty watertight formula… keep it solid, knowing that there are enough goals, enough tricks up front to grab something when the chance arises. When the goals stopped going in for Iggy – whether it was his head being turned, him being found out, him being watched, regression to the mean or a combination of all of these things, the whole team’s fortunes suffered accordingly. A solid team with a goal threat is a potent thing. A solid team without is not.

All of which leaves us looking at Iggy at little less favourably than he deserves. The first half of the season was remarkable, and hugely enjoyable to boot. These weren’t just tap-ins, or functional goals; the Iggy chop left any number of defenders on their backsides from the opening day at Goodison onwards. And whilst his form did dip, alarmingly, and whilst he could probably have done with some competition for his bulletproof place in the side, he was still delivering no worse than par versus expectations.

Next Season: The second half of the season probably limited the likelihood of a club offering the sort of money that you suspect would be needed. No coincidence that Iggy is now making noises about staying. No bad thing. He’ll be a much more valuable weapon as one of a number of options.


End of Term Report Part 5 03/06/2016

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

18- Costel Pantilimon

Another marker of how far the club’s standards have extended is that a man who was Manchester City’s deputy stopper and then moved to Sunderland to be first choice signs for us mid-season, committing to a position where he was only ever likely to be second choice to Heurelho Gomes. Sure, he was out in the cold at Sunderland… but would surely have had other offers at the end of the season if not in January. Our backup keeper is an experienced, intimidating international in his own right.

He’s also in the Panini Euro 2016 album, a source of enduring joy to daughter 2 in particular whose squeals of excitement on BOTH occasions when Costel has been revealed have been wholehearted. There is, indeed, some suggestion that he is this collection’s “easy” sticker, a phenomenon familiar to all veterans of the art – the latest WSC letters page alleges as such. And that’s a landmark too… an international album’s most recurrent sticker is a Watford player. Wow. That’s as good as beating Liverpool, almost.

On the pitch, Costel’s involvement was limited to the FA Cup. He looked enormous and utterly competent for the most part, until Wembley when he didn’t. But he wasn’t alone there.

Next Season: Astonishing if he’s happy to continue as our backup/cup keeper. All the better for us, though.

19 (#1) – Miguel Layún

Old news now, sure. None of you need telling that as soon as Layún looked like graduating from being a useful-looking piece that didn’t quite fit to someone whose role was clear he was out of the door before the echoes of the monstrous celebration of his season-opening strike at Goodison had died down. Which was a bit of a shame all told… someone as versatile, tidy, experienced and utterly professional would have been useful, and his trajectory since leaving has hardly suggests that we were better off out of it.

But in any case, for any number of reasons, job done. Almost certainly. Probably. Would be nice to, you know, be told for definite though, wouldn’t it? If the Official Site’s newsfeed in these days of ever expanding coverage elsewhere has any function, it’s to confirm details that can only ever be suggested, inferred, maybed elsewhere. Writing on Thursday lunchtime, I’m pretty sure that Porto took up their option on Miguel… that’s certainly what the WObby reported and Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, reflects. Not a squeak from the OS though. Odd. Perhaps it’s a strategy aimed at heightening intrigue and excitement by leaving such issues tantalisingly in the balance. Personally I’d rather just know, but then I don’t like cricket so I’m still paying attention.

Next Season: Porto. Or Real Madrid. If anyone hears for definite, from a friend of his housekeeper’s sister or some other reliable source, let me know.

19 (#2) – Víctor Ibarbo

Every era has its defining signings. Adrian Boothroyd? Marlon King. A rough diamond, brash, unlikeable. Gianluca Vialli? Ramon Vega. Utterly misjudged. Kenny Jackett? Keith Scott (loan).

It’s not appropriate to label Ibarbo as the classic Pozzo-era signing, not in a period that has yielded Almen Abdi, Odion Ighalo, Marco Cassetti, Étienne Capoue. But you know what I mean. Ibarbo came in as one of a(nother) glut of signings whose names we tried to remember and never really got beyond that stage. His 74 minutes in the first team spanned four games and contained no goals. Not easy to define yourself from the bench… but he looked rangy, awkward, direct but impotent. By all accounts he was a maverick, but we never got to see that; by definition, a maverick player tends to operate at a level below that which his best moments suggest ought to be possible. Victor never suggested that his best moments warranted a Premier League place.

Next Season: Ibarbo’s deal was only ever a loan, interrupted when he returned to Colombia with Atlético Nacional. His subsequent red card in a derby with Millionarios was described as “su actitud fue de querer enfrentar a los rivales con fuerza y alevosía” by a Colombian site Futbolred, “his attitude was wanting to face opponents with force and treachery”. Coo. I wouldn’t recognise him if I passed him in the street.

20- Steven Berghuis

On the last day of the 1986/87 season we played Spurs. My recollection is that we played pretty well, what turned out to be the last competitive game of GT’s first spell in charge decided by a Kenny Jackett penalty. Making his debut off the bench was Chris Pullan, who put in a sterling shift on the right wing – dynamic and positive, he had the crowd cheering his every touch. I spent the next ten days convinced that he was the future of Watford football club, then GT left and everyone forgot about Chris Pullan for a bit. But you can see where I’m going.

Steven Berghuis’ season has been utterly bizarre. He arrived with a bit of fanfare and a not inconsequential transfer fee. He was also one of two players – Jose Holebas the other – who made noises suggesting that Vicarage Road might be slumming it a little. He looked sullen as his early appearances fizzed and popped without really getting anywhere, and drifted out of the first team picture.

Part of the reason for Quique’s departure, it seems clear, was his reluctance to play the younger players upon whose development the entire “Pozzo model” depends. Berghuis, who glittered into form as our league status was secured, was the poster boy for this; he provided width and incision where we’d begun to look flat and blunt, supplying perhaps the cross of the season for Troy’s flicked header against Villa and looking a threat whenever he took to the field. Despite which, he still has to make his full League debut for the Hornets. I don’t know what’s more extraordinary… that statistic, or the fact that Steven has earned a call-up to the full Dutch squad despite his erstwhile head coach’s reluctance to employ him.

Next Season: Inevitably it’s been rumoured that Steven will return to the Netherlands. Hornets fans will hope not. Chris Pullan wasn’t the star we imagined. Steven Berghuis might be.