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End of Term Report 2021 – Part 8 10/06/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
16 comments

32- Marc Navarro

Yes, I know.  But he’s been here three seasons (two, if you skip the suitably inconspicuous year at Leganés) and has only made seven starts.  Three in the league. He’s not a kid any more, he’s nearly 26 but still looks a long way from challenging for a place in the team.

There’s something there.  You can see what the idea was, at least.  He has a good touch, he can cross a ball.  He’s nearly a decent player.  But he seems beset by an almost total lack of assertiveness or urgency and has rarely convinced defensively, even against relatively moderate Championship wingers.

Where Marc Navarro is perhaps most interesting is as a symptom of the “Pozzo model”.  A side effect.  Long contracts on young players moving internationally are a bit of a gamble and gambles aren’t always going to pay off.  Sometimes unproductive gambles are more conspicuous – in an Isaac Success kinda way.  Sometimes less so, as here.  It can happen for all sorts of reasons – unrealised potential, difficulty in settling in a new country, a poor fit.  But it will happen sometimes.

Next Season:  Marc has two years left on his contract.  It would be tremendous if those arcing crosses could be coupled with a bit of oomph, a bit of doggedness; if they are we might have a player.  As it is, it’s difficult to see someone who made limited impact in the Championship establishing himself in the Premier League.

44- Joseph Hungbo

Joseph Hungbo is tremendous fun.  Strong, quick, direct, brave.  What’s not to like?

Part of the slightly odd influx of Under-23s in the summer of 2019, Joseph has bucked the trend in simply still being at the club.  Prolific from the wing for the junior side, he made welcome, excitable incursions into the starting eleven from the turn of the year. The suspicion that he was simply filling one of the many spaces on the bench was quickly dispelled, the inconvenient detail that we’d signed him from Palace at the age of 19 overlooked in the enjoyment of a youngster “breaking through”.

As discussed it’s a crying shame that he pulled a hamstring twenty-four energetic minutes into the game at Brentford, scuppering what would surely have been an opportunity to rack up consecutive ninety minutes that will be harder to come by in the thinner fixture list of the Premier League.  Nonetheless.  Joseph Hungbo, who speaks with he eloquent confidence of a veteran, is a contender.

Next Season:  A loan, one suspects.  We’ll watch with interest.

Vladimir Ivić

It seemed like a bit of a coup.  Recruited on the back of success in Greece and Israel, the fact that we hadn’t heard of him wasn’t an impediment to our optimism in itself.  We know the drill after all, and I was perfectly prepared to accept that the people who’d appointed him knew a bit more about the new guy than I did and were better able to judge.

He was inscrutable, and his joyless demeanour would have been hugely enjoyable had the football itself been a little more fun.  It wasn’t, so it wasn’t.

But the annals shouldn’t judge him too harshly.  He inherited a hugely turbulent situation…  any relegated squad is going to be volatile to an extent, but the amount of perhaps overdue tooing and froing was considerable by any standards and, oh yes, we were in the throes of a global pandemic as Vlad moved across Europe. COVID had stymied the end of the previous season affording the new man the briefest of close seasons in which to get his new charges into shape.

So to be there or thereabouts for as long as we were shouldn’t be taken for granted.  We might have been painful to watch, but we were painful whilst picking up points, and if his refusal to switch to a 4-3-3 in the absence of a recognised left back was another manifestation of his caution, he did at least recognise that the need was there.

Which doesn’t alter the fact that the brave move to remove him was the right decision;  it would take a surge in form to get us promoted, a surge that was never going to happen under Vlad.  But perhaps we shouldn’t judge his football too harshly now that we don’t have to endure it.

Next Season:  Vlad’s almost total restraint in front of a camera probably contributed to his failure to get another gig before the end of the season.  Will be interesting to see how his next job goes when it comes.

Xisco

All of which should underline the danger inherent in taking Xisco’s achievement for granted.

There’s a danger, I think, in looking at the situation, looking at his relative inexperience and youthful, almost boyish demeanour and concluding that all he really did was to cheer everyone the hell up.  That does him a grave disservice I think.  A “facilitator” can be a successful manager when presented with an exceptional group of players, sure.  A group of players demonstrably better than their competitors who are adept enough to manage their own game when given room to do so and free cakes at elevenses on Fridays.  Zinedine Zidane has had this charge levelled at him, and Real had a degree of success under his guidance I understand.

I don’t think we were in that position.  An outstanding squad by the standards of the division, sure.  But not so outstanding that our surge was any kind of inevitability, that our success from February onwards was some sort of natural order that Ivić had somehow been blocking or screwing up.  We know what the challenges were, or many of them.  Some of these were remedied independently of the head coach, but some of them needed more that a sympathetic ear.

After the QPR defeat Xisco put his hands up and admitted tactical errors.  Such an admission, however candid, would have garnered more sympathy if he had any kind of track record with us.  He didn’t. So to turn it around from there, now-legendary post-Coventry conflap or otherwise, betrays a resilience that isn’t immediately obvious from his cheerful demeanour.  Further, to question his tactical acumen overlooks the success with which he made light of the challenges that kept coming – suspensions and injuries that might have been disruptive became almost irrelevant.  João Pedro was fielded in midfield against Forest, implausibly successfully.  Philip Zinckernagel’s teething problems were accommodated and polished and tucked away in places where they didn’t compromise his ability to pick a pass…. whilst still doing the feelgood stuff too, witness the shrug that followed the combustible defeat at Bournemouth (snigger).  If we’re going to criticise – indeed, dismiss – Vlad for failing to get the required tune out of his charges it does seem less than even-handed not to praise Xisco for harmonising the piece, and indeed the entire club.

Next Season:  It’s possible that Xisco will prove not to be up to the new challenges in front of us.  That’s not where my money is.  Nor, more relevantly, the money of those with money at stake who after all weren’t shy about making a change at this stage six years ago when they evidently did harbour such doubts.  Vamos Xisco.

That’s your lot.  Thanks for reading this far.  We’ll be back soon enough for preview-y things and – heavens – perhaps even a match report from an actual football match in an actual football stadium.  Steady.  Enjoy the summer.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 7 07/06/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

27- Christian Kabasele

I feel as if I make this point a lot…  but it does come to something when a player as accomplished as Christian Kabasele is not only still at the club a year after relegation, but is still far from a guaranteed start.  No, he’s not perfect.  Yes, he’s got a mistake in him.  But he’s still a phenomenal athlete whose presence in the starting eleven doesn’t raise any kind of red flag.

It was an odd season for him.  A regular part of the miserly defence in the first half of the season, he was injured in Vladimir Ivić’s final game and the emergence of Francisco Sierralta played a part in him being restricted to the bench on his return at the beginning of April until everything was Sorted.

What you’ve also got with Christian is a tremendously good bloke, which I maintain matters quite a lot as far as the players playing for your team is concerned.  Community Ambassador of the Season for a non-native, local man or otherwise, tells you a bit about his character, his grin at the centre of the post-Millwall celebrations betrayed no frustration or reservation at his lack of involvement.  We’re lucky to have him.

Next Season:  We are, as discussed, well stocked at centre back, and with Pollock adding  to the mix you do wonder if all will be retained.  Kabs has three years left on his contract though, so one assumes he’s unlikely to be the fall guy if there is one.  Hurrah.

28- Carlos Sánchez

There’s something very reassuring about a mallet.  Simple tool for a simple job, does it very effectively.  Doesn’t pretend to be anything fancy like a spanner, let alone anything as pretentious as a spirit level.  Mallet.  Hits things.  Hard.

You might be able to see where this is going.  Fifteen years ago Al Bangura did a similar job for a promoted Watford side…  the cork up the arse of the midfield and frequently off the bench: sit deep, shield defence, win ball, shift it on, repeat.  Hit something.  Wallop.  But Bangura didn’t do it on the back of 88 caps for Colombia, and he didn’t have thighs that spanned postcodes.  The significant win over Reading owed a lot to Isma’s stunning quickfire brace, but an awful lot to Sánchez’s 45 minute “nothing to see here” masterclass.

Next Season: Carlos Sánchez was a high quality mallet…  did the job asked of him, no more, no less.  Did it well.  Having been released he’ll hopefully be doing the same job for someone else.

29- Étienne Capoue

If I was writing about the entirety of Étienne Capoue’s Watford career this would have a very different feel.  

Fabulous footballer.  In arguably our most successful season in living memory he was the driving force, standing out not just by the standards of Watford but by the standards of the Premier League.  He’s a midfielder who can do any job you ask of him…  astonishing engine, fabulous range of passing, reads the game impeccably, anticipates everything.  Without doubt one of the best footballers to have worn the shirt.

But I’m writing about 2020/21, or the first half of it in this case, and here the story was quite different.  There’s no question whatsoever that Étienne Capoue is too good to be playing in the Championship;  nobody could begrudge him wanting to leave, least of all at the age of 32.

But he didn’t need to play in a way that betrayed that.  His haphazard involvement in the first half of the season contained very few highlights, quite a lot of indolence and, in the away trips to Birmingham and Huddersfield, lazy negligence.  He wasn’t the only player in the squad capable of playing at a higher level, probably not the only one who wanted out, but he was the only one who played like it, a transformation all the more stark given the height of the drop in standards.

I found the desire to either identify an alternative candidate as the subject of Scott Duxbury’s pointed dig, or alternatively to make excuses for his behaviour on behalf of many unfathomable.  Even if Duxbury had said nothing, even if Tommy Mooney hadn’t made a similar point in the wake of Capoue’s departure, you had the evidence of your own eyes, right? You saw that smirking embarrassment at Huddersfield? And the fact is… Duxbury did make the comment.  It can’t be rare for players to agitate for moves after relegation, to be disruptive even.  It’s certainly rare for such revelations to follow a player out of a club.  Plenty of things contributed to our improvement in fortunes, I don’t doubt that Capoue’s departure was one of them.  

Next Season:  Capoue is a Europa League winner with Villarreal, having won Man of the Match in the final to the surprise of nobody.  Significant, though, that online congratulation from Hertfordshire seemed restricted to supporters rather than his former teammates.  Capoue is a great footballer.  We’re better off with him elsewhere.  The two aren’t inconsistent.

31- Francisco Sierralta

Here’s an easier one.

Seems extraordinary that as recently as Boxing Day, Francisco Sierralta had made no impression at all.  Had scarcely had the opportunity to do so.  To be filed under “ones who came over from Udinese but never quite fit”, alongside Jean-Alain Fanchone.

I got a warning of what was to come.  I’m the Watford Researcher for a popular management of football simulation game.  The Watford, football and lots of stats elements of this role appealed to me.  The “everyone telling you you’re an idiot” bit wasn’t so obvious when I signed up.  The Chilean researchers who contacted me to advise me of this particular inadequacy in representing Sierralta’s defensive capabilities were very polite about it, and in fairness I’d scarcely seen our man in action at that point having inherited the various assessments of his abilities from the Udinese researcher.

But they were right, obviously, as soon became clear.  Within five minutes of his league debut against Norwich on Boxing Day it was clear that we had a fearless booterer on our hands.  A dominant centre-back whose forehead sucked up whatever the Championship’s widemen cared to lob into the box.  Every intervention demanded a Batman-style “Kerpow” caption bubble, he was the action hero at the back for the second half of the season.

You wonder how well he’d cope alongside a less authoritative partner.  There’s a suspicion that he’s the doer, but needs a talker, an organiser alongside him.  We’ll see.  You’d also like to see a little bit more threat at set pieces…  he kind of OUGHT to be a monster in both boxes, no?  Rather than just a sort of distraction?

That’s picky though. Francisco Sierralta turned 24 at the end of the season, and already looks like the bully that we’d craved at the back for years, the player we’d hoped Craig Dawson would be.  Utterly magnificent.

Next Season:  The only concern is that he’s somehow only got a year left on his contract.  You’d hope that Steps are being Taken to address this forthwith.

End of Term Report 2021 – Part 6 03/06/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

23- Ismaïla Sarr

“So…  will he stay then?”.

“I hope so…  sounds like we want to keep him…”

“Yeah, but…  Watford….. or Liverpool….  Watford…  or Liverpool?”.  Paul is grinning, tipping is head from one side to the other as if he’s putting himself in Sarr’s position, weighing up the options.  He’s only half-joking.

The thing is, that’s where we started the season.  Of all the many decisions, some of them difficult, some of them easy, some of them brave….  this was maybe the most courageous.  Braver even than the decision to change head coach mid-season.  Because you can decide to hang on to your star asset, the guy whose dismantling of the Champions elect has just caught everyone’s attention.  You can twist, effectively, gamble everything on him making the difference between going up again and not.  You can refuse offers that don’t meet your valuation despite being in ostensibly a weak negotiating position.  And then you can find that your star man really doesn’t fancy the Championship.  Won’t put in a shift.  Doesn’t like the inevitable kicking he’s going to get.  Can’t help but feeling a bit peevish that he wasn’t allowed to go to Liverpool or United (or Palace.  snigger).

So yes, it took a while.  It’s not quite true that it took Xisco;  six assists and three goals came before the Spaniard took over. But it took a while, a little bit of adjustment.  And yes he did get kicked, and fitting the narrative it was Lloyd Kelly of Bournemouth who executed the most cynical, violent attempted hatchet-job of the season.  But before long he was battling through the physical stuff, and became the cheat code that we all knew he could be.  At his best he was simply far, far too good… the two devastating goals against Reading, most memorably, were the difference between a very tricky evening and a straightforward victory in a critical fixture.  A highlight of the season, Adam Masina’s free kick at Cardiff, was preceded by Sarr receiving the ball wide at the end of a gruelling game from which a point wouldn’t have been a disaster, and turning and committing two markers to draw that free kick.  Fast, direct, brave, relentless, Sarr’s ability and character completely vindicated that brave decision to stand firm on our valuation.

Next Season:  Watford… or Liverpool.  Watford… or Liverpool.  Having accommodated our desire to keep him in the Championship it’s far from a given that he’ll be rocking the boat in the Premier League.  He wouldn’t be the first outrageously talented winger to give us more than we had a right to expect before (eventually) moving to Anfield after all.  Though admittedly, if we get six seasons out of Isma we’ll be doing well…

24- Tom Dele-Bashiru

No, there’s not much to say here.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t say it.

Tom’s season lasted 64 minutes.  Slightly under half-an-hour off the bench in the win over Luton, slightly more than half-an-hour at Reading a week later in his first League start.  For me… that latter half hour was when the penny dropped.

He’d arrived with a minor fanfare…  a kid from City’s academy, City had wanted to keep!  And he came to us! His cup appearances in his first season were fine, decent, nothing more.  But here, against Reading, he looked… everything. Powerful, assertive, dynamic, tidy.  Wow.  What a weapon to unleash on an unsuspecting Championship.  And then… his knee twisted the wrong way. Everyone winced.  And that was that.

Next Season:  I have a proud track record of getting carried away with the opening salvos of fledgling football careers that don’t live up to their earliest promise.  Chris Pullan and Anthony McNamee to name but two.  Nonetheless.  If post-injury Tom, who came across as grounded, focused and likeable on his Hornet Hive outings, is anything like as good as that half hour at the Madejski suggested, we’ve got a player.

25- Stipe Perica

We never really sorted out the centre-forward position did we, promotion or otherwise. JP was great, but… is he really an out-and-out striker?  Troy… tremendous in so many ways but…. not mobile enough, restricted by injury or otherwise.  Andre… not clinical enough.  Isaac…  not reliable enough.

Stipe Perica was quite a lot of fun, and probably the option you’d have chosen to see more of.  In that sense he was unfortunate to pick up injuries when he did, in particular that arm injury following his one goal for the Hornets against Bournemouth.  What we did see was a suggestion that Stipe’s appearance was deceptive;  at 6’4″, he’s a poacher in a target man’s body.  Surprisingly quick, his tremendous goal against the Cherries and the harshly disallowed header against Brentford betrayed a goalscorer’s instinct…  but his use of his body was often clumsy and undisciplined, resulting in a red card at Newport and a number of near misses along the way.

Next Season:  So… we still don’t know what Stipe Perica is for, likeable and curious as he might be.  But having struggled for match time in the Championship – he managed scarcely 45 minutes’ worth over six sub appearances under Xisco – it seems unlikely that we’ll be finding out in the Premier League.

26- Daniel Bachmann

So this surprised me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have.  After all, whilst the role of a deputy goalkeeper is an odd one, and there’s certainly a value in the willing deputy who prefers the lower-profile understudy-cum-training-buddy role to the pressures of first team football, it should have said something that we were hanging onto a goalkeeper who will turn 27 in the close season.  He’s not a veteran by goalkeeper’s standards, but long past “promising kid”.

Then there was the loan spell at Kilmarnock.  I don’t doubt that many talented players wilt in the spotlight, but goalkeepers more so.  Such a unique position, such a requirement to be strong-willed and self-confident.  Nowhere to hide.

And yet he’d thrived in Scotland by all accounts.  And we hadn’t shipped him on, mid-twenties or otherwise, despite his years loitering in the formidable shadows of Ben Foster and Heurelho Gomes.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised.

His penalty heroics against Oxford were a clarion call.  “Hello, what’s this?”.  And then when Ben Foster injured his finger and Bachmann was suddenly lined up for a long stretch between the sticks we inhaled and thought, “OK, let’s see what you’re made of”.

And we did see.  And what was perhaps most impressive was the degree of improvement… the early nervousness under aerial assault was a distant memory by the end of the season.  Bachmann kept thirteen clean-sheets in 25 League starts, and if that in part reflects the miserly opportunities that our opponents were offered then you can add supreme concentration, the concentration required of a goalkeeper in a successful side, to his list of attributes. Implausibly, the popular, experienced, charismatic Foster didn’t get his place back until the race was run.

Next Season:  Bachmann will surely start the campaign as first choice.