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

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

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.


1. Jeff Lloyd - 16/06/2022

Really enjoy reading these, Matt. Thank you.

The season before Sarr signed my 16 year old used to stay with me most Sunday nights and I had a BT Sport subscription so we would watch the Ligue 1 game every week (Or ‘PSG vs Someone else’ as it’s also known). Every time Rennes were on we raved and raved about Sarr who was by light years the best player on the pitch, even if it was against PSG. So, when it was announced that we were in for him I can genuinely say it’s the most excited I’ve ever been for a signing.

That he’s not really lived up to the billing is I think a combination of not being in a suitable team (possibly), injuries and, since AFCON, an obvious disinterest. You wouldn’t want him in a battle it became clear.

Having said that, he’s always seemed like a loyal, honest professional and wherever he plays next season I wish him luck. And if it’s not at The Vic (and it wouldn’t totally surprise me to see him stay until Boxing Day) then hopefully the thick end of £30M will sweeten the deal.

2. SJK Fawell - 16/06/2022

Sarr’s been a funny one hasn’t he. It doesn’t quite feel like we’ve had full value from him and yet there’s a decent chance we could make our money back on him (or close to) and picked up an extra year of PL cash largely as a result of him being there. All against the backdrop of a massive drop in the market.

And yet… largely not through any particular fault of his own he was, with hindsight, arguably THE mistake of that summer as the size of the fee perhaps took focus away from other areas more in need (although we still spent £5m on Dawson !).

Shame that we’ve rarely seen him hit the heights I think he’s capable of. Sad also that he’s never seemed particularly happy with us. I don’t hold with the idea that he’s ever downed tools or not tried as hard as he might but we’ve seldom (ever?) seen him wear a smile close to as broad as when he’s playing for Senegal. Record signings eh – they’ve been a funny bunch over the years

3. Ray Knight - 16/06/2022

Hi Matt – Thanks for your continued player summaries. On the day Bassini is bidding for Brum City and Mike Ashley is hanging around Derby like a hungry vulture, many of our supporters remain in meltdown mode. Besides continually knocking the Pozzos, Duxbury et al for relegation, Sarr has been the centre of most of the disproportionate vitriol. Sarr is not a world class player, is worth £30 not £30 million and so on. Fact he is the guy who mainly got us back up. He may not have been the same after injury, but neither did he get much service under Hodgson. As you rightly point out a dysfunctional midfield with too many journeymen. As for Kabs, he has got a little better with age, less impetuous. I just hope things get a little bit more positive, as everything on the forums barring this one, is like listening to the soothsayer at the beginning of Up Pompeii!

4. Stuart Campbell - 16/06/2022

Goodness, the Sarr enigma. So many of us will have varying views. Mine is simple. He has colossal talent, mind-boggling pace, hugely entertaining to witness at his best. One of the best young players I’ve ever seen wearing a Watford shirt. But somewhere along the line, there simply wasn’t enough nurturing, care and sensitivity for a young player away from his comfort zone, his culture, his languages and his experience to make it work. Sadly, I think it says more about us than him.
I don’t think we tried hard enough as a club to create the platform for such an extraordinary talent to succeed in our team’s position.
Of course, time will tell. But I can only wish the very best for this young, exceptionally talented player wherever he goes.
If he does stay with us for half a season then it will only be to our great advantage.

5. Ray Knight - 17/06/2022

Have to agree with all the more balanced comments on here about Sarr. Football is a collective enterprise. The Pozzos paid a premium for Sarr, but in hindsight they were trying to push us up to the next level.Fact remains we were narrowly relegated that season, when arguably it could easily have been Villa. Then losing all our best midfielders over the last two years, not investing in the defence over a longer period meant relegation was much more likely this time around through overall erosion of quality across the squad. So I do feel grateful to witness such a fast exciting player in Sarr. We could have chosen to sign ASM instead as Newcastle paid less, but he like most wingers has become a scapegoat when not in form, despite being their best player at times. The £32 million has never been our money. Ellington and Andre Gray are record signings that never ever got me excited like Sarr with the ability to make things happen. Over they provided much less value all things considered.

6. An Athleticzale Holds Forth - 17/06/2022

Hughes’s return from injury wasn’t the catalyst for promotion at all. It was the former captain’s ‘injury’. Hughes returned when we were still playing bore, bore, two, with the goalshy twins upfront. It was the ‘injury’ that saw 433 introduced, allowing Hughes to play centrally, and giving the forward line some mobility and liveliness at long last.

Matt Rowson - 17/06/2022

I did say “appearance at the back of the midfield” re Hughes. If you’re going to be a smartarse, make sure you read what I’ve written rather than what it suits your outrage for me to have written.

7. An Athleticzale Holds Forth - 19/06/2022

My point was about the catalyst for promotion, which was, without any question, the former captain’s injury. So, if that’s being a smartarse, so be it. However, the ‘injury’ was the sole reason for our promotion.

Steve G - 23/06/2022

I’m not sure that any one event can ever be seen as the sole reason for a subsequent consequence (even the failure to give Tyrone Mings a second yellow at Villa Park wasn’t the only reason we got relegated two seasons ago, though it played a significant role!).

I agree that the injury allowed some changes to be made in a way that was not then controversial or made headline news and, as such, it was a very convenient contributory factor, but it wasn’t inevitable that those changes would be made, or that Hughes would rise to the occasion so spectacularly well. The loss of Hughes last season was something from which we never recovered, even if Louza was looking more promising towards the end of the season.

This isn’t, surely an either/or … I think Matt’s point about Hughes stands, as does yours about the catalytic effect of Deeney’s injury. Not the sole reason, though…

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