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End of Term Report 2022 – Part 6 20/06/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

29- Cucho Hernández

Sometimes the how is as important as the what.

There’s a tendency, particularly with a struggling side, to champion the triers.  Application over ability, a frantic charge around over deft touch.  I can hear Rupe sneering “oh yes he tries hard“.  This should be a minimum requirement, and certainly not sufficient in itself.

But in a season like this one, where we had such an excess of untapped, unchanneled ability and such a deficit of leadership, of drive, of oomph, Cucho Hernández was very welcome indeed.  He doesn’t carry the ability, threat or experience of some of his attacking colleagues, but Roy Hodgson’s decision to briefly promote Cucho to a regular starting slot (until injury curtailed his season) was both noteworthy and completely justified.

Nor was it just effort, garnished as it was with personality and ability.  This much was evident from his opening salvo against Villa, followed up with the ridiculous corner to cue up Juraj Kucka’s equaliser at Goodison Park and the ferociously defiant strike at home to Manchester City.  These were the highlights of course, and Cucho’s staccato involvement reflected the variable form of a young player adapting to a very different environment.  But one of few attacking players to come out with credit.

Next Season:  When I wrote this piece I gleefully reported here that early rumours linking Cucho with a return to Spain had been beaten away and hurrah for that.  Now it seems that he’s being lined up for a move to the MLS with Columbus Crew.  I’m progressing through stages of grief, can understand that the reported fee is reasonable for a player who wants to leave with two years left and so on.  Still.  Disappointing.

31- Francisco Sierralta

So this wasn’t entirely expected either.  Francisco Sierralta’s promotion season hadn’t been perfect… but it hadn’t been far off, even if he did seem reliant on a senior partner, William Troost-Ekong, telling him where to be.  Enthusiastic reports from his international exposure with Chile spoke positively of the scope for him to step up to Premier League level.

A series of injuries – calf strains, hamstrings – haven’t helped and his occasional forays into the first team didn’t inspire great confidence, but at a time when most of the team was struggling, Sierralta’s extraordinary physical attributes being seemingly cheaply cast aside was very odd.

“Odd” just about sums it up.  Odd that we saw so little of the dominant figure of last season.  Odd that he was given scant chance to recover his form.  Odd that there was as much as a rumour of a move to Israel to be denied, unthinkable a year ago.

Next Season:  If Rob Edwards sticks with three centre backs and wingbacks, the central “have it” role should be made for Francisco.  The summer’s passage will suggest whether last season’s disappointment was rooted in injuries, or in something more complicated.

33- Juraj Kucka

At around 4:25 on August 14th last year many of us held misconceptions.  We were (briefly) 3-0 up on Aston Villa at a sun-bathed Vicarage Road and, in man of the match Juraj Kucka, we had a new midfielder who looked like a nightclub bouncer but exhibited the deftness and grace of a ballerina.

In truth, that’s (probably) the player he used to be.  We caught glimpses of that sort of form as the season progressed, as if he was humming a half-remembered tune but at the age of 34/35, his best days were clearly behind him.  This was most consistently evidenced by his inability to sustain an endearing level of belligerence for anything like ninety minutes.

Pre-season, he had declared a willingness to be employed as a utility player;  on that basis he was a decent signing being experienced and capable of filling into a number of midfield roles.  As it turns out he featured in two-thirds of our Premier League games, starting most of those without, in all honesty, us suffering any more bad fortune in midfield in the injury stakes than might be considered par.

His good bits were good, and there was enough application there for his Watford career to be reflected on in the same unmemorable but just-about-positive terms as Moussa Sissoko once divorced from the season in which it was cloaked.  With a halfway acceptable set of midfield options, he’d have been a perfectly adequate option off the bench.

Next Season:  Nominally back in Serie B with Parma, although his contract in there is up in June.  Not, in any case, at Vicarage Road.

39- Edo Kayembe

Sometimes I get to do really interesting stuff at work.

A few years ago I was involved in a study (and a publication) studying the evidence of transmission of happiness via chemosignals.  “Do we sweat happiness?”, loosely.  The study involved collection of sweat from individuals in a frightened, happy, or neutral state.  Sweat collected under the three conditions was pooled and presented to a separate set of subjects, “blind” to whatever it was that they were smelling.

Remarkably, frightened sweat prompted frowning, on average, in the facial muscle movements of those exposed, and a tendency towards focus on detail, a stressed response, in a cognitive task. This was not altogether a surprise, others had done similar previously. But Happy sweat prompted muscle movements associated with smiling, and a greater chance of “big picture” responses in the same cognitive task.

A big challenge – not my bit – was identifying stimuli to provoke said conditions.  “Frightened” and “Happy” were easy-ish…  Horror clips/movies and comedy respectively in a slightly warm viewing room.

But the neutral control?  What does neutral look like.  Neutral isn’t bored….

But I’m neutral on Edo Kayembe.  I’m not sold, completely, but I’m not writing him off either.  I quite like his defiant oblongness, there’s something there…

Next Season:  ….but whether it’s enough to forge a memorable Watford career, we’ll have to wait and see!

That’s your lot as far as the school report goes.  Season Preview will start going up the weekend before the start of the season.  Enjoy what’s left of the break.  Yooorns, etc.

End of Term Report 2022 – Part 5 16/06/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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23- Ismaïla Sarr

Hindsight makes everything clearer, every decision easier.  With hindsight, spunking that much money on a player, any player at that point was… presumptuous, bordering on arrogant.  The more so on an individual who for all his talents was and remains, as his compatriot Sadio Mané reminded Troy Deeney in that famous piece of backstage footage “just a shy boy”.  We put an awful lot of our chips on an individual without the robustness of personality to make it work.  And we couldn’t afford for it not to work.

There weren’t many voicing their objections at the time mind.  Signing a player for that kind of money was bold but… we wanted to believe that we were an established Premier League club in a position to make such a move as much as the guys running the club did.  And Sarr was so exciting when his flame was on.  There’s the Liverpool game, obviously, which is so revealing in itself… a platform upon which he announced himself to the rest of the division, none of us ended that expecting to be relegated.  Suddenly everyone knew who Sarr was.  It wasn’t the only instance though.

It would be wrong to portray the signing as a complete failure.  It hasn’t been.  There have been moments of brilliance, he has been our dangerman, the man double marked.  He is likely to more or less make us what we paid for him and whilst Will Hughes’ appearance at the back of the midfield was the key to our automatic promotion in 2021, Sarr had been the cheat code all season.  We wouldn’t have gone straight up without him.

But we expected more.  More resilience, more consistent threat.  More versatility and flexibility than suggested by his apparent need to be played on the right of a front three.  And more assertiveness from a player whose transfer fee always labelled him as our main man.

Next Season:  The “bigger” the club Sarr goes to, the more successful and established club with better players and manifold weapons the more effective he’ll be and the more chance he has of being able to consistently mobilise his obvious capabilities.  Injuries aside he had more than enough ability to be our biggest threat, but it was never a responsibility that he looked comfortable with.

25- Emmanuel Dennis

On the face of it, Emmanuel Dennis was the most successful of last summer’s signings.  Recruited for a relatively modest fee he made an eye-catching and immediate impact contributing threat and spiky aggression to our forward line.  For much of the season he was comfortably our most reliable source of goals and is likely to be sold on for many times the initial outlay.  Classic Pozzo-model buy-low-sell-high.

Thing is…. in contrast to Imrân Louza, who as discussed in an earlier episode of this series is one we really want to hold onto despite stats and that suggesting he ought to be a disappointment, Dennis’ sale is probably the right thing for all concerned.

He lived up to his billing, in all honesty.  When he arrived the headlines were the goals he scored for Club Brugge away to Real Madrid and his accompanying arrogant celebration.  We saw that side of him certainly…  the raw ability, the showmanship, the impudence.  But we also saw the side of him that pointed at the reasons for him dropping out of the Belgian club’s side, for his unsuccessful loan spell with a Cologne team spared relegation from the Bundesliga a year ago by winning a relegation play-off and the dark mutterings that emerged from there.

The team’s failure this season was characterised by our inability to mobilise our attacking weapons.  Much of that is rooted further back in a dysfunctional midfield, but the “most nutmegs in a season ever” thing screamed of a forward line who didn’t work together, trust or perhaps like each other very much.  I attended the vast majority of Watford’s games this season and so didn’t take in much of the commentary but I heard Tommy Mooney lament Dennis’ selfishness at least three times, whilst mention of his inability to “build up a strong bond with his team mates” in Adam Leventhal’s recent Athletic piece isn’t so much thinly veiled as hung in the shop window (though we’re sure it’s exaggerated Fulham, Southampton, West Ham etc).

So a successful signing in many respects but only intermittently a positive force.  When he was good he was very very good but when he was bad… not so much.

Next Season:  No shortage of apparent suitors, all indications are that he may have gone by the time you read this.

26- Daniel Bachmann

My cousin lived with us for a bit when I was a kid.  She was studying and working in London, and we were close enough to be commutable.  She specialised in entertaining my sister and I (then aged 5 and 7 respectively) with inane jokes, an influence that I’ve not struggled terribly hard to shake off ever since.  Her particular favourite was:  “What have an elephant and a grape got in common?”.  “They’re both grey, apart from the grape.”.

Daniel Bachmann is a good goalkeeper apart from when he’s not.  The bits when he’s not do colour my judgement… he returns to the team and you think “oh dear”, and then “actually, he’s pretty decent really isn’t he”, and then “oh yeah”.

Perhaps being established as a first choice, either here or somewhere else, will give him the belief to settle down a bit, but given his notoriously assertive comments to the German-speaking press in particular it’s hard to believe that confidence is the issue.  Nonetheless, there are reasons why he’s managed less than 100 senior domestic games at the age of 28, and these were evidenced by his 13 appearances last season which featured one win (on the opening day) and 12 defeats, poor even by the season’s meagre standards.

Next Season:  Looks like being second choice to Maduka Okoye unless the eye-catching rumour linking him to Manchester United and cementing him in that peculiar nether-world of the goalkeeping back-up is realised.

27- Christian Kabasele

After many years in and around the Watford squad there’s little mystery about Christian Kabasele.  Decent defender if prone to the odd rush of blood, plenty good enough for the Championship and probably good enough for a Premier League squad – he’s been part of five of them.

Also a good guy.  Likeable, positive, active with community stuff and now with a UEFA ‘A’ coaching badge to boot.  Definitely a good guy to have around.

We do have a few in that bracket mind, and it’ll be interesting to see how the centre-back options shake up.  In the last season a hamstring injury at Leeds ruled Kaba out for an extensive period but Roy Hodgson favoured him and he was a mainstay for the last couple of months.  Never a leader, but you’d always be happy to have him as part of the squad.

Next Season:  More reliable than Troost-Ekong and a couple of years younger that Cathcart, you kinda hope that Kaba’s in the “keep” box.

End of Term Report 2022 – Part 4 13/06/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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15- Craig Cathcart

My six year-old niece wants a suitcase for her birthday.

A suitcase is a pretty functional thing.   Its purpose is uncomplicated but not easy, not to be taken for granted.  We’ve all had a shit suitcase.  It can be gaudy, expensive, flash, but that’s not really the idea.  If you’re buying a suitcase primarily as a fashion item you’re doing it wrong.

And it’s absolutely vital.  Try going on holiday without one. A necessary condition if not a sufficient one for a successful trip.  If you’ve got a reliable suitcase that does the job you’re unlikely to need or want to prioritise replacing it.

The problem comes when it no longer does the job.  And…  there are signs here.  The zipper beginning to jam, perhaps, the pull-out handle no longer works.  Craig has been a bastion of dependable, sensible honesty, of reliably being in the way throughout his time at Watford but made more mistakes last season than I’ve seen him make before.

He’s not alone in that.  Heaven knows it’s hard to look elegant in a season like that one, and worth noting that he was involved in all the good stuff too such as it was – all the wins, all the clean sheets.  Nonetheless, Craig will turn 34 during next season and looks a bit wobbly for the first time.

Next Season:  Versatile, humble, good bloke, will put a shift in.  Stick.  Probably.

19- Moussa Sissoko

Moussa Sissoko is great.  Works hard, drives forward.  Takes responsibility, scraps, battles, great stamina, tidy, unflashy.  Can’t shoot for toffee, but you can’t have everything.  Add to that a gazillion caps in a super-competitive French midfield and long experience at the top of the game and you’ve got a great signing for a promoted side.

And in a better squad, in a more complete midfield he might have been much more successful.  As it was we were out of necessity looking for both leadership and creativity towards a player not really geared to deliver either of these things.  Which isn’t entirely his fault… certainly, I never saw his head drop, I never saw lack of interest or energy or any hint of too-good-for-thisness.  And as above, in a side where others were providing the leadership and the creativity, a squad like the 2019 squad for example with Deeney and Gomes and Capoue and Pereyra….  he’d have been a successful and worthy addition, more effective for not having to do unnatural jobs.  As it was, he’s likely to leave us with thanks and an unmemorable C+ on his report card.

Next Season:  More than capable of doing a job but more a lieutenant than a captain, a return to France seems most likely.

21- Kiko Femenía

We always used to say about Lloydinho that if he could pass straight he wouldn’t be playing for us, such were his other capabilities.  Similarly Kiko’s dodgy GPS when it comes to defending balls coming over his head (a bit like trying to use Google Maps to find your way to whichever pub as you come out of a busy underground station) has surely restricted his progress since his inhuman stamina and attacking verve are both beyond dispute.

But add to that a  resilience of character that saw Kiko persistently chip away in defiance of the team’s (and occasionally his own) wobbly form, often coax the most effective performances out of his ally on the right flank, Ismaïla Sarr and almost uniquely maintain a healthy supply line with six assists from right-back and you’ve got a player who would still have been an asset in a Premier League squad, let alone in the Championship next season.

Next Season: Right wing-back in the Championship would suit him and us down to the ground, you’d have thought, but reports linking us with Rob Edwards’ former charge Kane Wilson (who since signed for Bristol City) add weight to the suggestion provided by the rather odd listing of half a dozen interested Spanish clubs that Kiko is heading back to Spain.  We’ve heard that before, mind.

22- Samir

Samir is a bit of an odd character.

Because he did make us better, defensively.  Or rather… his arrival coincided with a general improvement in our defensive play if also with that of Roy Hodgson, more or less.  Everything’s relative of course, there were still bad days for him and the team in this regard but certainly he was demonstrably the most effective of the central defenders that we tried out.

Thing is, I wouldn’t recognise him if I passed him in the street.  And I was at most of those outings, behind the Rookery if with my head in my hands a lot of the time, there’s no excuse really.  This reflects his low profile and the effort required to engage with the team, any team, on a miserable run.

And the fact, I guess, that he always seemed destined to be a short term hire.  A contractor, a locum, good enough to come in and fill in capably before quietly packing up his desk and moving onto the next task.  There’s a lot of criticism of our “faceless mercenaries”, some individuals deserve such disdain but Samir did pretty well in a poor side.

Then, we expect, he’ll leave.

Next Season:  Udinese, one presumes.

End of Term Report 2022 – Part 3 09/06/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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10- João Pedro

There’s going to be some selective interpretation here.

So for me… the whole “most nutmegs in a season ever” thing in combination with relegation is the most damning indictment of our season, and particularly of our horribly “less than the sum of its parts” forward line.  You can get away with stats like that if you’re…. Tottenham, for example.  Not quite good enough to actually win stuff but good enough to win a lot of games to which such baubles are a fun if, occasionally, objectively, over-gaudy decoration.

You can’t get away with that when you’re getting relegated.  It’s pathetic.  It screams of indiscipline, lack of attacking structure, lack of team ethos.  And João Pedro was right up there as far as those nutmegs and baubles are concerned.

And yet.  Here’s a kid much vaunted who’s come over from Brazil and had to adapt.  And it’s true both that he showed glimpses of sublime ability pretty much straight away, but also that he’s never quite exploded in the fashion that we’d hoped.

But there are suggestions that the latter might be about to change.  He’s young still, obviously.  Christ, he was born on the day that Pierre Issa was dropped off his stretcher. He’s much younger than our other young forwards – three or four years on Sarr and Dennis, two or three on Cucho.  And yet at the end of this miserable season he was the one doing the best job of grabbing the attacking reins.

Not effectively enough, not reliably enough, sure. But there’s an increasing authority about his play… a tacit recognition that he has progressed beyond pat-on-the-head “keep going son” to at least aspiring to being a reliable, effective, core component of this team.  Always combative, far stronger than his spindly frame suggests, his end of season performances would have been far more eye-catching and effective in a team that hadn’t fallen apart.

Next Season:  No surprise that there are rumours, but with five years left on his contract he won’t be going for less than a monster fee.  Quite right too.  If his recent trajectory continues he’s a priceless weapon in the Championship next season.

11- Adam Masina

I don’t think there’s much to debate here.

Adam Masina is a good guy.  Honest.  Committed.  Never hides.  Decent energy, a reasonable line in crossfield passes.  And you root for him…  his backstory is not a pampered one.  Not an easy one.  At times he even wobbled on the edge of being a cult hero, the “Tequila / Masina” song was surely strong enough to stand on its own feet without too much encouragement.

You just wish he was a little bit better at football.  A little more reliable, a little less haphazard.  A little more violent perhaps.  A little more assertive.

But in four seasons at Vicarage Road in the face of varying levels of competition for the left back slot he’s barely managed to feature in half of our games in any one campaign.  And… as you may have heard mentioned… we’ve had a few head coaches in that time.  He’s never quite convinced any of them… a good guy to have around, but not a nailed on starter.

Next Season: Here our paths diverge, it would seem.  Good luck to Adam, a regular with the Moroccan national side now and clearly not a bad player but he’s not likely to be a regular at Vicarage Road.

12- Ken Sema

There is a value on players who you can rely on to do a job.  A value in someone who you will… not settle for a place on the sidelines, not be comfortable outside of the first team but will buckle down, do a job when called for.  Not be disruptive.  Ideally you’d have an armoury of eager youngsters pushing for a chance of course, but the world that Academy licensing has created renders that difficult for a Watford (and of questionable value for the greater good even if you do regard supporting development in order to feed the national team as worth prioritising).

So instead you need the likes of Ken.  See also:  Danny Welbeck in the national set-up, who has been in the last two World Cup Finals squads (yes, really).  The story may have been different had we stayed up… Ken’s involvement was spasmodic and rarely memorable in the Premier League where his limitations are placed under focus.

But back in the Championship Ken has proven he has value – a minimum of one chance created per game from a barrelling tiptoe down the left flank for starters.

Next Season:  If we’re playing with wing backs as mooted, Kenzema looks like reasonable cover for Kamara at left wing back.  Or wherever else Rob Edwards wants to stick him.

14- Hassane Kamara

It doesn’t pay to think about things too much.  By which I mean…  given the choice, we would each choose for Watford to win every game they played, in isolation.  “Do you hope that Watford beat Preston on Saturday?”.  Well, yes, obviously.

But if you got your wish and Watford did win every game then Watford would become something else?  Like… a Manchester City or something?  And I’m sure that winning a lot would be something that we’d all struggle through, somehow but… would you want Watford not to be Watford?

Given that Watford will never be a Manchester City (and that there are at least reasons why you might not want them to be anyway) there can be no rational argument against Hassane Kamara.  For all that there are occasional mistakes…  most of his mistakes are good mistakes.  Mistakes borne of trying to make something happen, of being assertive rather than passive and not based in, for example, lack of concentration or making bad decisions.

Stats can be misconstrued, but the thing about him blowing pretty much everyone else in the division away since January in tables of interceptions, blocks, and general being-a-pain-in-the-arseness tells its own story.  You’ve got to be needing to spend quite a lot of time trying to win the ball back to do well in those tables, admittedly but… that’s where we are.  So too the incongruously cavalier goal at Manchester City, the only goal by a defender last season executed in glorious bloody-mindedness.  Kamara was a rare source of joy in the second half of the campaign, Player of the Season all day long.

Next Season:  Wing backs (as we are lead to believe) ought to suit him.  Let’s just hope that those occasional lapses and being 28 rather than 24 are enough to put suitors off.

End of Term Report 2022 – Part 2 06/06/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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5- William Troost-Ekong

William Troost-Ekong comes across as a very likeable bloke.

Intelligent, gutsy enough to pursue a professional career around every corner of Europe, a Watford fan (ish) for historical reasons too before he even signed up.  All good.

Also a leader.  Captain of his country, no less, and a voice of authority in a side sorely lacking similar.

Not enough, sadly.  Not nearly enough.  Despite our extraordinary (lest we forget) defensive record in 2020/21, there were concerns before we even started.  These were only exacerbated by a series of errors borne of vulnerabilities that top sides were always going to exploit.  That he was all but ever-present until New Year’s Day reflected the painful lack of leadership, of a voice, elsewhere in the defensive line.  That he managed a mere twelve minutes at Selhurst Park thereafter reflected his perceived limitations.

Next Season:  Despite his role at the centre of a promoted and miserly defence a year ago it would be a surprise to see Troost feature as prominently this time around.

6- Imrân Louza

There are ways of looking at this that don’t do Imrân Louza any favours.

The biggest transfer outlay of an unsuccessful summer’s shopping isn’t a great start.  So comprehensively bullied by Yves Bissouma on his debut that he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a Premier League midfield again for three months and even then didn’t complete a full ninety until February.  And despite set piece duties, despite his apparent touch and range of passing… no assists all season, let alone goals.  He’s top of our shit list, right?

Except that he’s not, quite obviously, which just goes to show something quite profound but I’m not sure what.  However comprehensive our inadequacies over the piece this season Imrân Louza is one of very few universally recognised as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  His visible increase in robustness contributes to this transformation;  sitting at the back of the midfield he’s deft and clever but also waspish and aggressive.  One element of our dysfunctional midfield to retain and rebuild around, you’d hope.

Next Season: To which end, in contrast to the ever growing list of suitors for our more headliney assets it’s reassuring to note that, at the time of writing, Imrân seems to be flying under the radar.

7- Joshua King

There were times when Joshua King really looked the part.  Periods in the season when he was the glue holding the forward line together with an ability to hold the ball up and bring others into play that occasionally threatened to mobilise all the tricks and – yes – nutmegs elsewhere into something potent.

Not often enough though.  Not reliably enough.  It was never reasonable to expect Joshua King to be Troy Deeney for all that he saw himself as a number 9 (as an aside the two did play up front together – albeit for only twelve minutes at Brighton – which kinda blows my mind.  As if you were telling me that Luther had played with João Pedro).  But you can’t be diffident and passive if you’re leading the line.  That doesn’t work.

The Goodison Park anomaly makes the failure over the whole piece all the more frustrating.  Yes, Everton were particularly accommodating that day but there was also a fire in his play and an arrogance in his finishing that would have been useful a little more often.  As comfortably the most experienced forward in our armoury we needed him to be a leader, and he was never that.

Next Season:  A release clause is only going to be invoked if someone else is prepared to offer a suitable contract.  Given his experience and that he’s a forward you’d expect that this will probably come but after a couple of iffy seasons it’s not a given.

8- Tom Cleverley

The casual “get rid of the lot of them” lack of analysis of the Watford squad I find crass and aggravating, however unsatisfactory the season has been.  Tom Cleverley, for instance, has spent seven seasons with Watford including winning a Player of the Season trophy… if it is time for him to move on then “get rid” really isn’t the tone.

And whether it’s time or not really isn’t a given.  This is a former England international after all, and a player whose attitude and honesty is beyond question.  That there’s a value in the latter should surely not need emphasising after last season’s debacle.  In the last promotion campaign his quiet authority was invaluable, the keeping everything calm and on track-ness and in a summer during which our midfield is likely to need rebuilding yet again a bit of steady continuity shouldn’t be taken for granted; nor should a player who is able and willing to graft or create or fill in as required.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that Tom struggles to last ninety minutes;  he managed that five times last season, being subbed sixteen times.  He will turn 33 in August and despite a career which has rarely seen him start anything close to a full house of League games for whoever he’s playing for – meaning that there ought to be miles left in those legs – we can’t rely on Tom as a regular starter.

With two years left on his contract, I’d want to hang onto a low maintenance member of the squad.

Next Season: …but his future may well depend on what he wants.  A bit part older head role at Watford?  Or the chance to be more of a mainstay elsewhere (in as much as his legs will allow)

End of Term Report 2022 – Part 1 02/06/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Right.  On the basis of the split vote between “End of Year Report” and “Season Preview”, “Both” is clearly the answer.  That’s the intention anyway.  Who wants a summer anyway (you bastards….).  Onwards…

1- Ben Foster

So here’s a nice easy one to start with.

This shouldn’t be complicated.  A very good goalkeeper who has done very good things for us over two spells by any sensible measure is nearing the end of his career and perhaps isn’t quite as sharp as he used to be.  Still had days where he almost kept us in games – we’ll take that in the circumstances – but perhaps fewer of them.  Also had days when he didn’t play quite so well – and perhaps more of them.

That’s it really.  Or should be.  The extra colour is provided by Foster’s off-field activities, particularly but not exclusively his YouTube and podcasting endeavours where we find that pretty much exactly the things that were gaining him plaudits during periods of lockdown when we were getting promoted are now a deemed by some a major problem given that we’re not in lockdown and getting conclusively relegated.

This was, in part, his choice of course.  You stick your head above the parapet, you do something different and you’re inviting stick sooner or later.  You’ve got to expect at least the possibility of criticism, justified or otherwise.  And certainly there have been incidents that have wandered beyond this – the “gobby Liverpool mate in the Watford end” episode was half-witted, for instance.

But a lot of the criticism comes from the perceived crime of not being sufficiently remorseful and deferential in the face of a relegation season.  Sanctimonious bollocks.  I’ve had times when I’ve been crap at my job but whilst I’m not in the public eye or in an entertainment industry, if someone had told me that I should stay home and quietly reflect on my inadequacies rather than going to the pub they’d have been told where to go.

Foster has been criticised for being a real person with a personality.  That he was never quite wedded to the idea of adhering to the stereotype of being a footballer was long evident, witness accounts of kinda falling out of love with the game at West Brom.  But after two promotions, a cup final and plenty of heroics besides in his Watford career and most recently a season by whose admittedly appalling standards he has done no worse than pretty well, Foster has surely earned the right to be human.

Next Season: Whatever he damn likes.  Quite right too.  Best of luck, Ben.

2- Jeremy Ngakia

I’m not very good at football.  I’ve never played regularly at any organised level, and to a certain extent this must affect my ability to interpret what’s going on in front of me whatever my extensive experience in watching rather than doing.

So if I’m missing subtleties that others more readily perceive then I rely more heavily on my other senses… the reading of body language for example.  On which basis, there’s little avoiding the suggestion that Ngakia’s teammates think he’s a bloody idiot quite a lot of the time.

Anyone who watched the Stoke League cup defeat will at least briefly have come to the same conclusion, but once the idea’s in your head it’s difficult to shake.  I’m trying very hard to avoid confirmation bias, trying to avoid turning theory into fact based on selective interpretation but the conclusion isn’t going away.

Jeremy Ngakia is far from unique in having had a poor season – indeed, he’s comfortably in the majority.  He has some attractive attributes – he digs in, he works hard, he’s got a lot of energy and a decent touch.  You’d like to think he’ll blossom at some point.  His trajectory has been pretty flat since a promising start, though.

Next Season:  If this is the summer that Kiko leaves, you’d question whether Jeremy is next cab on the rank – he’s not obviously a wing back.

3- Danny Rose

To be briefly contrary, I’m not entirely convinced that this was a bad idea.  A recurring theme in this review will be the number of gambles with our squad, gambles that didn’t come off.  This was clearly one of those.

But the propensity of gambles wasn’t a stylistic preference.  There would have been no pretentious desire to wilfully, gratuitously go in with a left field squad when safer, more solid options were available.  We had been relegated during a pandemic, promoted immediately to avert financial calamity but were clearly not wanting to mortgage the future of the club by overcommitting.  In that context, a former England left back with vast experience must have felt a much better shout then than now despite the end to his time at Spurs.

It didn’t work though, obviously.  Even Rose’s better performances, such as the win at Norwich where an extraordinary, searing through ball is still etched on my memory, were also punctuated by a startling lack of mobility.  It’s tempting to say “lack of fitness” but I’m not sure that’s true really… Rose started eight games and was only subbed once, despite Adam Masina’s ongoing availability.

Next Season: There’s clearly something “up” there then; having been confined to work with the kids at both Spurs and Watford it’s difficult to envisage an ongoing Premier League career when the outstanding year on his contract is (surely) settled.  In both cases however the suggestion is that he’s been supportive rather than disruptive subsequently. Good luck to him.

4- Peter Etebo

Not a lot to say about this really.  Peter Etebo looked pretty handy early in the season as part of our hastily bunged together midfield in the wake of the departures of Hughes, Chalobah and Zinckernagel but then got injured and clearly wasn’t deemed a safe enough bet for next season to risk wandering near the “obligation to buy” component of the loan deal if such existed.

Which is a bit of a shame, but no worse than that.  Others, most notably Juraj Kucka, also impressed more early on than their subsequent seasons reflected;  Etebo’s absence may have been pivotal or it may merely afford him the benefit of the law of other.  Not associated with the arse definitively falling out of our season.  Equally, given his track record since joining Stoke, a midfielder demonstrably plenty good enough for the Championship may see his level as being higher than that, so avoiding invoking his signing ensures that he remains Stoke’s job to loan out next season rather than our own.

Next Season:  My guess would be somewhere back in the Turkish Süper Lig, a current popular destination for “so that’s what happened to…” individuals (see also Steven Caulker, Gervinho, Nacer Chadli, Fabio Borini etc)