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End of Term Report – Part 6 14/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

27- Christian Kabasele

I have to confess to finding Christian Kabasele hugely frustrating.

This isn’t a long-held belief, an ongoing bugbear.  Indeed, I only realised the depths of my aggravation on sitting down to write this piece and thinking about what to say.  But when you look at it…  at 28, whilst the youngest of our senior centre-half options, he should be at the peak of his powers.  And he is brilliant.  Powerful, dominant, decisive, defiant.  Except…  and here’s the problem…  except when he isn’t.

And the “isn’t” bits are the problem.  Not in that they’re imperfections – heaven knows we’ve all got those.  It’s that they’re seemingly avoidable.  Just bloody brainfarts when he seems to lose focus and do something really stupid.  That’s not lack of ability, a deficiency in terms of acceleration or physical strength or touch that he’s never quite going to overcome.  That’s mental resilience, concentration…  the sending off against Bournemouth one obvious example this season, there have been others.  Avoidable.

Despite which…  to scroll back a few lines…  yes.  He’s great.  Most of the time.  But it’s the fact that it’s only most of the time that means he’s merely spent the last season swapping in and out with Mapps instead of nailing down a starting spot.  But he’s great.  Sorry, Christian. I’ve had a bad day…

Next Season:  With Britos gone and Prödl a strong candidate to follow Kabs will surely face new competition for a starting spot.  If he irons out his lapses in concentration he’ll see such challenges off with ease.  If he doesn’t, he won’t.

29- Étienne Capoue

And as the perfect follow up to that Kabasele piece, here’s Étienne Capoue.  A player who for several years of his Watford career was arguably even more frustrating in his inability to maintain his best form.  Not in quite the same way as Kabs…  his failing a fluctuating intensity rather than wayward concentration.  But frustrating in that when he was good he was so good….

And this season, finally, at the age of 30, we’ve seen Capoue deliver that form not just on a consistent basis but virtually unbroken all through the season.  His monstrous form seemed to develop a momentum all of its own, independent of the rest of the side.  At times when the rest of the team was wobbling Capoue himself seemed propelled along on the crest of a ferocious wave that he wasn’t in control of and was unable to resist even if he’d wanted to.

Part of it is finding his role in the midfield.  Sitting deeper, not breaking into the box as I’d mistakenly believed was his strongest card.  No longer the bloke who’s asked to do whatever job needs doing.  But an absolute monster of a defensive midfielder, simultaneously a rock for opponents to break on, a dynamo howling after possession and a nimble, elegant footballer.  Johnno, Hessie and Micah rolled into one.  For those that remember. Sigh.

Next Season:  Capoue professes to have had the best season of his life.  Can only hope that this continues… there are certainly plenty snapping at his heels if it fails to do so.

37- Roberto Pereyra

The thing with Roberto is that he looks the part.  The Matador gleam in his eye.  The ridiculously showy haircut. The disdainful look.  He’s exactly what an Argentine winger ought to look like.

And a lot of the time he plays like the classic Argentine midfielder in your head.  The times when he floats past opponents like they’re not there.  When he can dummy you off your seat from the other end of the pitch with a drop of the shoulder.  When he flicks the ball over Rui Patricio with the outside of his boot, yawns, stretches, scratches the back of his neck.

A consequence of this is that the times when this doesn’t happen contrast markedly.  The time when he’s merely digging in.  Providing an option. “Being normal”.  It looks… a bit lame in comparison.  Stands out for its mundaneness.

Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t had hot and cold streaks.  It’s rather that his cold streaks aren’t quite as cold as has been suggested in some quarters.  A side like ours doesn’t thrive in mid table with a passenger in midfield.

Next Season:  Persistent rumours of returns to Italy do seem to focus around Torino and that bundle of joy and light Walter Mazzarri.  You rather suspect that if there was truth in the “wanting to be back in Italy” thing it would be more than just Torino that the stories would be discussing.  Assuming he stays, the further competition for wide positions that has been suggested will be no bad thing, but his staying will be no bad thing either.

Javi Gracia

It’s difficult not to simply eulogise at this point, and eulogies do tend to be rather dull so I’ll try to restrain myself.  There’s just so little not to like about this man based on what we see of him.  Humility, but confidence.  A gentle manner, but steel in his eye.  Most of all, an ability to encourage the best out of his players and mould a likeable, effective team that made a mockery of the annual portents of our relegation.  Which will no doubt rock up again come August based on, you know, the cup final and everything.  And be wrong again.

It’s not been perfect, obviously.  The ability to mastermind eye-catching results against the bigger clubs foretold by a track record of such at Málaga was not in evidence for one thing;  three points against the big six, albeit a very fun three points, plus that rather cruelly unrewarded League Cup exit “away” at Spurs was all we managed.  The performances, it could be argued, were better than that though and until the wheels came off a bit at the very end of the season, only at Anfield had we been properly stuffed.

Meanwhile our record against everyone else was by some distance the best of the everyone else.  This isn’t to be taken lightly, even if we did slip into the bottom half at the end.  Much is made of Wolves’ fine record against the big six, “surely relatively straightforward for them to improve their record against the weaker sides, watch them push on”.  Wolves are a very decent team.  But the other side of that coin is that replicating the points they did earn from the same sources is a much taller challenge than our equivalent.

And then there’s the cup, of course.  And yes, we could have had a tougher draw.  Could have played Man City sooner, say.  But there’s a deceptiveness in how easy we made it look.  Winning at St James’ Park, say, is not to be taken for granted.  Standing up to a robust QPR side.  Having the edge over Palace.  Holding our collective nerve against Wolves.  The unfussy shuffling of the pack that made so much of it possible.

We’re lucky to have him.

Next Season:  Javi has made it clear that he’ll return to Spain at some point, but it seems fairly clear that this won’t happen this summer.  He’s linked with the Chelsea job repeatedly (to howls of complaint from those too daft to know a good thing when they see one).  In reality he’s only likely to be offered that job if it becomes too hamstrung by circumstances to attract a flashier name, in which case he’d be stupid to take it and probably wouldn’t.  This gem is surely ours to enjoy for a while yet.  Hurrah.

End of Term Report – Part 5 10/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

20- Domingos Quina

There was something slightly nostalgic about the doziness of the League Cup trip to Reading.  Not that we didn’t play well, not that our largely second string side didn’t acquit themselves but… the half-empty low-keyness of it all.  This is what football used to be like.

Then Domingos Quina pings one in from half a mile out and you’re stunned out of your reverie.  What the hell was that?  And such has been Quina’s Vicarage Road career in essence, from the much-told story involving him turning up with his agent an hour before the transfer deadline a year ago to pretty much every appearance since….  where did that come from.

He’s a terrific footballer.  Low centre of gravity, tight control, combative and assertive.  And that shot, obviously, showcased at Reading and also for Portugal’s U20 side. If he has occasionally gotten lost in a congested midfield then he’s just as often wriggled his way out of them.  There’s little doubt we’ve got a gem on our hands.

Next Season:  The only question really is quite what to do with him.  He’s a lot of fun, but he’s added competition to an already congested area of the squad and doesn’t quite have the physicality to operate as one of two at the moment.  Nor, as his arrival from West Ham demonstrates, is he one to sit around and bide his time.  Will be interesting to watch, in more ways than one.

21- Kiko Femenía

Another full back who doesn’t smile terribly often…  Kiko looks pretty much nailed on as first choice as it stands.  He’s still a natural wing-back playing full back for me, still much better bombing on that he is defending but he is great at the bombing on thing and that’s a fun thing to be.

Part of the reason that he won out over Janmaat in the end, I think, is the impact his presence has on the way the team plays.  Gerry makes a difference here but… we’re not over-blessed with pace in attacking positions, not really.  Kiko gives us that, makes us harder to defend against – even when pushing on from right back.

Next Season: With the persistent suggestion that Daryl Janmaat will return to the Netherlands and a couple of right backs in the list of players linked this summer, it’s possible that Kiko will have a new rival for his spot come August.  A great option to have, whether first or second choice.

25- Jose Holebas

It’s a story that doesn’t really need telling to anyone who’s been watching…  but what a turnaround in status under Javi Gracia.  In January 2018 he was mouthing off at supporters having got stick following a cup exit at Southampton.  A season and a half on he’s a cult hero, recognised as a vital component of the side but celebrated above and beyond that for his character, for the competitiveness that saw him fronting up to the supporters in the first place.

That competitiveness comes at a cost of course, specifically 35 yellow cards and two reds over the last three seasons.  Critically, as we know, one of those was rescinded.  Critically because for a club like Watford – and a player like Holebas – simply getting there, simply being there was an achievement, even if much of the subsequent coverage was too vapid to look beyond the scoreline.

Jose’s grumpiness is the stuff of legend, captured by the club in the marvellous “Antisocial Media” skit in the build up to the final.  Beyond that though, Jose is a winner, a ferocious left back, as good a crosser of the ball as we’ve had for a while, and one whose legend will live on once he’s departed.

Next Season:   He will, however, turn 35 in just over a fortnight.  As long as he can keep this level up he’ll be in the team… but you kind of suspect that Adam Masina might see a bit more action this term.

26- Ben Foster

Another thing that you won’t need telling, but given the tired old stuff about our revolving doors of players and head coaches it’s a source of quiet satisfaction that (if only for another few weeks perhaps) we have eight previous/current winners of the Player of the Season award in the squad.

So much for lack of stability, even if that’s not quite the whole story.  The whole story includes another Nice Thing, the fact that we’ve got to the point where we can attract previous winners Tom Cleverley and Ben Foster, winners of the award when they were Manchester United’s rough diamonds on loan for a season or two, to join us permanently.  That says something for us then as now;  neither would have returned had their first spells been miserable.

Ben Foster was in with a shout of a second such award twelve years after the first;  that he lost out to Étienne Capoue does nothing to downplay the magnificent season we’ve enjoyed from him, far more than we had any right to expect from someone who, by his own account, had fallen out of love with the game a little bit.  And it does matter that he’s such a good bloke.  You want him to do well for his own sake, as much as for ours, as betrayed by that episode at Huddersfield when his concern for a youngster struck by a stray ball went above and beyond professional norms.  As fine a (re) signing now as he seemed a year ago.

Next Season:  Ostensibly a bridging signing between Gomes and Dahlberg, interesting that we still seem to be in the market for a goalkeeper.  Nonetheless you’d expect that we have at least another season with Ben as first choice.  Hurrah for that.

End of Term Report – Part 4 06/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

15- Craig Cathcart

The thing about centre-back being a priority for strengthening is kinda beyond dispute.  Sometimes people get carried away though.  Sometimes the difficulty folk have in perceiving shades of grey, of more complex evaluation than merely “good” or “bad” raises its head.

Craig Cathcart is a very good centre back.  He’s our best centre back.  Best in the sense that he’s the calming force in the back four, the one who makes it all kind of hold together.  The one who always seems to find the ball drawn to his foot, who doesn’t have to dive into recovery tackles because he’s always in the right place to start with.  The one who, increasingly, has developed an aptitude for contributing at the other end too, that outrageous touch in the build up to the winner over Everton all the more extraordinary because it came from a centre back.  So… he’s not Virgil van Dijk.  But he’s still excellent, still a keeper.

He had a stinking couple of games towards the end of the season mind.  That howler against Southampton threw him entirely and he was poor at Stamford Bridge, a brief dip in form that was all the more remarkable for being so unusual.  Nonetheless, quietly a lynchpin of the side.

Next Season:  More of the same.  Please.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

The difficulty when you hit a high point, whether “you” is a team or a player, is that it’s treated as a new norm.  You put pressure on yourself straight away… something that might have required all of your fortitude – and perhaps a bit of luck, other circumstances being favourable – becomes treated as expectation rather than the achievement that it was.

Nonetheless it’s beyond dispute that Abdoulaye Doucouré, erstwhile Player of the Season and the swaggering magnificence of perhaps our greatest ever midfield engine isn’t being linked with the big guns quite as roundly this summer as he was last.  Arsenal are still sniffing around, allegedly, but you know, Arsenal.  Kinda downwardly mobile.  A year ago you’d have had him in any midfield in the country.

He’s been tremendous, nonetheless.  Dynamic but elegant, powerful but subtle, focused but languid.  A tremendous footballer.  But not one, this season, who screamed through the entire campaign without a dip in form.  Which… is fine.  Harsh to use his best ever season as a stick to beat him with.  Except…  well.  We know what he’s capable of.

Next Season:  In a competitive area of the pitch, pre-seasons for Cleverley and particularly Chalobah and the continuing development of Quina should keep Doucs on his toes.  It’s questionable whether we’ll get an offer of a magnitude that would compel us to sell him.

18- Andre Gray

Another popular line is that we desperately need to strengthen up front.  Problem with that of course is that everyone wants a striker, there aren’t many of them about and they cost a bomb, particularly if a top flight English club is the buyer.

Me?  I’m not convinced it’s a priority.  Our preferred approach seems to be to sign them young, certainly João Pedro, “Cucho” Hernandez and Filip Stuparević not to mention Isaac Success and Adalberto Peñaranda feels like a pool of names with high potential.  We could do with another senior forward, particularly if Stefano’s on his way.  But it could well come from this group rather than by bringing in an established name.

Andre Gray’s role at the club benefits from his transfer fee no longer being a stick to beat him with. Up to £18m is a huge transfer fee by our standards but not by the standards of the day, not for a striker like Andre Gray.  He’s a competitive option, a good partner for Troy if he starts, a snapping, snarling, mobile threat off the bench if he doesn’t.  His focus and application have seen the crowd warm to him this year.  So much the better.

Next Season:  A very decent option.

19- Will Hughes

It’s easy to forget how old you have suddenly become.  In my mind’s eye I’m still a young man, only left university a year or two ago.  This is bollocks, unfortunately, brought into sharp focus by the Twitter reaction to the club’s creative commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the play off win over Bolton, tweeting real time updates as if we were twenty years in the past.  Generalising hugely, those of us who remembered loved it.  Those who were too young didn’t so much.

Twitter is a miserable, joyless, spiteful place.  It’s odd that anyone should object to a bit of happiness but nonetheless… on reflection anyone younger than 30 (there are, I believe, such people, though I doubt any of them read this blog) won’t remember.  So they won’t remember Nicky Wright.

Will Hughes isn’t the same sort of player as Nicky Wright, not really.  Defter, cleverer.  Perhaps less intense, less explosive.  But he captures some of the spirit of Nicky Wright.  The wholeheartedness, the willingness to run yourself into the ground before leaving the pitch on 80 minutes barely able to walk.

It’s a fine thing, whether or not you remember Nicky Wright.

Next Season:  A real asset.  A joy.

End of Term Report – Part 3 03/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

10- Isaac Success

It’s easily forgotten, but Isaac had a strong start to the season.  He started seven out of eight Premier League games in a two month run from mid October to mid December, impressing as a lone striker in the wins at Molineux and against Huddersfield, and in the draw at Southampton.  He looked strong in Cup games too.

But there’s a fragility there… inappropriate word for such a big guy but… it’s as if he needs to have faith expressed in him via team selection to let rip.  He impressed at Manchester City too but that was his only League start in 2019 and coming off the bench there have been too many ineffectual perfomances, performances where you want him to bully and impose himself and he’s struggled to do so.

There’s a very very good player in there, and we catch glimpses of him occasionally – the deft touch to set up a consolation goal at Old Trafford one such example.  We just need to see them a little more often.

Next Season:  Competition for attacking positions will be more intense next season, with Peñaranda having a pre-season behind him and a number of the foreign-based legion of young forwards possibly coming into consideration.  Isaac will turn 24 during the season, not a kid any more.  Now or never, you suspect.

11- Adam Masina

Adam Masina is decent.    He’s had some really good games (Old Trafford) and some less good ones (Anfield).  He kicks the ball really hard, and I like that.  He’s not nearly aggressive enough for such a big guy, doesn’t throw his weight around.  Less keen on that.

He’s been as good as we’ve needed him to be, simply because his most significant impact has been on the performances of our first choice left back.  Surely no coincidence that for the first time since Nathan Aké was keeping him out three years ago José has serious competition and has put in his best season in a yellow shirt.

Next Season:  We’re going to need to see Adam’s A-game more regularly if he’s the long term replacement for Holebas who, 35 later this month, is ten years his senior.  We’ve been able to afford him an easing in season, adapting to a new country isn’t trivial.  Let’s hope he can crack on.

12- Ken Sema

There’s a real skill to picking up squad players.  Ability is important, certainly.  Mentality, too though.  You want someone who is going to be on it, who’s going to push for involvement, who’s not going to throw a paddy and disrupt the dressing room because they’re behind Hughes/Pereyra/Deulofeu in the pecking order but who is going to, at the very least, “do a job” as needed.

And Kenzema has done that.  His performances, his impact has sometimes been criticised but… he’s been a bit part player for the most part, in and out of the side.  Difficult to get a run of form going when you’re doing that job and that’s probably his biggest problem.  Again, there’s a player in there and we’ve seen frequent glimpses… Bournemouth away springs to mind but elsewhere too.  Notably we’ve only lost one game that he’s started – that the competitive defeat to Chelsea on Boxing Day – whilst of his sub appearances the only defeats came versus Liverpool and Arsenal, where he played less than ten minutes in total.

You can argue that we only choose to use him in lower risk situations, the stats are inherently biased.  Nonetheless, he’s been part of a successful side on a regular basis, and invariably with a physicality and enthusiasm that suggests there’s more to come.

Next Season:  Rather depends on what Ken wants.  He’s perfectly capable of doing the regular stand-in job that he’s done this season but is unlikely – barring injury disasters – to get the sustained run that he probably needs to show us whether he can push on.

14- Nathaniel Chalobah

There aren’t many players who two injury-hit seasons after signing, two seasons that for various reasons have only afforded eight League starts, would still be talked about in reverential terms.  There aren’t, admittedly, many such signings who would have come in with the benefit of a startlingly precocious loan season as a teenager five years earlier.

Nonetheless, it’s more than that.  It’s the memory of Nate’s extraordinary start to last season, before the freak knee injury struck.  The outrageous ability to snap into a yard of space and prize a counterattack, the control like silk.  There’s the faith shown in him by Gareth Southgate;  a token outing against Spain, and an expensive one, but a statement.  Echoed by Troy Deeney late this season, by Javí Gracia after Chalobah’s gently encouraging outing at Stamford Bridge – the latter countering concerns that the boss didn’t fancy him, Chalobah having seemingly slipped behind Domingos Quina in the ferocious competition for midfield places earlier in the season.

It’s also the player’s maturity.  OK, he’ll be 25 before the end of the year, not the sixteen year-old kid we signed on loan in 2012.  Nonetheless.  Intelligent.  Calm.  Measured.  “Can’t complain while Doucs and Caps are playing so well” was the gist of his comment on his limited game time later in the season.

Next Season:  Chalobah is special.  He needs a proper pre-season, and chance to prove it.  If he gets both he will surely put pressure even on our exalted first choice pairing.