End of Term Report Part 7 10/06/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
25- José Holebas
This hadn’t started terribly well. Holebas’ signing was rumoured, then seemingly confirmed only for the player himself to deny all knowledge and publicly decry the possibility. And it’s hard not to sympathise if, as seems apparent, decisions about his future were being announced without his knowledge or consent but… not a positive first step. This suggestion of a sulky demeanour was exacerbated by reports suggesting that José rather felt he was slumming it in WD18, and by sulky outbursts on social media as he struggled for game time behind Nathan Aké.
All of which is rather a shame, if shedding a light on why Roma were prepared to get rid, since on the pitch his contribution has been largely excellent. Positive, aggressive, dynamic, direct… if he’d sustained that over more outings (and stopped looking like he was chewing a wasp for five minutes) he might have become a cult hero. Instead… we don’t really know where we are.
Next Season: It’s not a prerequisite that a Watford player should be a nice person, a good bloke, someone you’d share a drink with. But even obnoxious players can achieve popularity by focusing their character flaws on the opposition. We should at least be able to not actively dislike – perhaps distrust is a better word – one of our players. José has some PR work to do in this regard.
29- Étienne Capoue
Whilst many of our squad had ups and downs in 2015/16, few experienced as stark contrasts as Étienne Capoue – and nobody’s form fluctuated so rapidly. At his best Capoue was utterly magnificent, at a level above those floundering around him; thoroughly in control and simultaneously elegant, clever and hard as nails. On other days he was a passenger, and you can’t be a passenger in central midfield. Bournemouth (A) sticks in the memory for some reason… but that game was only a week or two after a strong showing at Newcastle, and a couple of weeks before a tour de force against West Ham.
There’s been more of the good than of the indifferent. Even when posted in an awkward wide left position, Capoue put in a stonking performance at Old Trafford and whilst Wembley was, once again, best forgotten it was Capoue limping off having threatened to propel us into the ascendancy single-handed that was a critical point in the game. Mazzarri inherits a very potent weapon.
Next Season: A player with the gumption to wrong-foot opponents simply by shifting the weight of his body will always be forgiven the odd off-day. His off-days, however, are what render his first season at Watford merely decent. More of the good stuff, please.
32- Alessandro Diamanti
No, I didn’t see much of him either. Indeed, Alessandro managed barely an hour of competitive action across three appearances off the bench before disappearing to Italy with a flick of his ample head of hair. So it’s difficult to comment on his ability or otherwise… certainly he did little in what little I saw of him (I missed the 45 minutes against Southampton…) to contribute to a judgement either way.
So the reason to include him in this review, really, is merely as a reflection on the inevitable consequences of our high management and player turnover. It stands to reason that when a new boss comes in he assesses what he’s got, decides what he wants/needs and proceeds accordingly. Thing is, when your whole strategy is based around high turnover of players and the team management changes frequently too you’re going to end up with situations like this… a player who may or may not have been good enough – he had been in Italy’s squad two years before signing after all – but who never looked like he had a role in the way Quique wanted to play. There just wasn’t a position for him. In that sense he was collateral damage, and much as there’s some inevitability about this sort of thing, and it was only a loan, and much as he will have been well paid, you can’t help but feel that a little more stability wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Next Season: Diamanti spent the latter half of the season with Atalanta, but still has a year left on his Guangzhou deal. Unlikely he’ll spend it in China you’d have thought. Watford less likely still.
Quique Sanchez Flores
Suddenly, it all seems very long ago.
Probably because we’ve all had to talk about it so much. Everyone you know who has ever heard of football has asked you about it. And depending on how annoying they are, they’ll have an opinion too, carefully formulated over half a second of considered thought on hearing Quique’s departure mentioned on the radio. Because, you know. Watford? Thirteenth? And a Cup Semi Final? And then you sack your manager?
I find my own opinion hardens against Quique the more often I try to explain the circumstances and provide balance to a discussion where none is invited; this tends to polarise your opinion in any circumstances. I’d probably smack Quique in the teeth if I passed him in the street at this stage, which isn’t entirely fair. He did, as your acquaintances expertly point out, an excellent job. We’ve gotten used to new coaches breezing in and inheriting players and recruitment power of unprecedented strength and, with varying degrees of speed and for varying lengths of time, make a decent fist of it. That shouldn’t lessen our appreciation of what Quique achieved… a new squad, a new country, a tough league competing against big names. Plenty of good managers haven’t been up to that task; Quique fashioned a winning way of playing very quickly.
I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that he got lucky too. That’s not a criticism, everyone needs a bit of luck and he was intelligent enough to realise that when Iggy, who started on the bench and didn’t look like having a role beyond that, began scoring he needed to accommodate him. The defence that Flores fashioned and the goals that Iggy provided were a great recipe.
And he’s a very nice bloke. That shouldn’t make a difference really, but I like our guys being easy to like. You didn’t begrudge him any of it.
But nor, as has been explained many times to many people, am I uncomfortable about his departure. Quite clearly things hadn’t been going as well since Christmas, and quite clearly Quique was upsetting and ostracising members of the squad. That’s not a disaster in itself, not a reason to get rid, but reason enough to be a little concerned. Had he not gone there would be no supporters’ campaign to dispose of him, we’d be talking about building on last season and going again. But enough concern, and enough trust of the judgement of those running the club based on the developments of the last few years, to back a call made by people with a track record of making pretty good, if bold, decisions.
Having suggested that Quique had perhaps chanced on a winning formula, it was concerning that he didn’t really have an answer when that stopped working. Nor, crucially, did he seem willing to experiment. As the results got worse he got more conservative, more careful, to the point where from a strong top half position we were clawing together enough points to stay up. The owners may also have been looking at his conservatism with young players… Amrabat and Suárez were surprising January signings in that they weren’t youngsters, ripe for improvement, at a time when our top flight status looked secure. Meanwhile the younger players on the fringes of the team – Berghuis, as we’ve mentioned in this series, the poster boy – weren’t getting a look in, even when our top flight status was secured. Admittedly the rumours of Quique’s departure were rife by that point, he may have known he was going and for what reason would he start to blood our youngsters in such circumstances? His reticence didn’t make us rue the decision though.
So in the end I find myself comfortable with Quique’s appointment, and with his season in charge, and comfortable with the suggestion that he was the right man to drop anchor but not to push on. Nobody in the Vicarage Road stands will begrudge him whatever success comes his way at Espanyol.
Next Season: Getting rid of Flores was defensible, whatever Joe Public might suggest, but it was certainly bold. There will, as ever, have been a plan. We watch on with fascination.
That’s all folks. We’ll be back with a season preview towards the end of July, and maybe the odd report from a pre-season friendly too (Ian loves those). In the meantime, enjoy the Euros and the rest of the summer. Yooorns.
End of Term Report Part 6 06/06/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
21- Ikechi Anya
It’s a perverse comparison, but there’s something of the Tommy Mooney about Ikechi Anya. Not in physique, quite obviously, or in playing style… but in the fact that it’s the how that matters more than the where. Just as Mooney turned his hand to pretty much everything for periods of his time at Vicarage Road from the centre-forward he was “supposed” to be to a wide attacker, a wide midfielder, wing back and centre-back without ever changing his approach one iota, you know what you’re going to get from Ikechi even if we’re not really any closer to knowing how best to employ him.
Or rather, we’re not sure what his best position is, not really. But we know what he brings to the team, and it’s pretty clear what his value is. He brings energy, speed and a dogged relentlessness that must be a pain in the backside to play against whatever level you’re playing at. Whether that’s on the wing, as a full-back, a wing-back or up front… he has limitations which mean he’s unlikely to be a nailed on starter in any position at this level, but as a squad player, a British name to come off the bench to change shape, provide some dynamism, chase things that need chasing or run off with things that need running off with he’s worth his weight in gold. His weight isn’t very much, I would guess, but gold is gold.
Next Season: As long as Ikechi’s happy with an odd-job man role then it’s hard to see us moving him on. He started significantly more games in the first half of the season than the second… but with a new head coach in place, all bets are off in any case.
22- Almen Abdi
Given the way the season went there were only one or two likely contenders for Player of the Season, and Almen wasn’t one of them. Despite this, there was something particularly heroic about the diligence with which he set about the task afforded him… a more disciplined, cautious role than that which he had enjoyed previously in his time at Vicarage Road. The most visible contrast at the start of the season was of his attitude with that of Matěj Vydra who reportedly didn’t want to adapt and was shipped off pretty sharpish. Abdi did try to fit in, he dug in and worked hard. He felt wasted though.
Which is probably a little unreasonable on our part. The Premier League, for a start, was never going to be as forgiving as the Championship. You need, perhaps, a higher standard of lock-picker even if your game plan isn’t centred around containment. But our distorted mental image of Almen’s contribution is probably unhelpful too. The Almen Abdi who picks up a ball in the hole behind the strikers and slips a slide-rule pass, perfectly timed and weighted past a dumbstruck and hapless backline to an escaping striker is the Gianfranco Zola vintage. Almen picked up an extraordinary 13 assists in 2012/13, often loading Vydra’s gun, but has only managed 7 across three seasons since.
Nonetheless, there was no disguising the joy when Almen was allowed to pick up the ball in a central position this term and advance on the opposition penalty area, in the stands and on his face. This felt more natural, it felt right. But either way, the way he stuck to the task this season is testimony to his attitude; of his ability, there can be little doubt.
Next Season: Like Anya, Almen is one of the supposedly mercenary foreign legion brought in by the Pozzos who will be entering their fifth season in Watford colours next year. And hurrah for that.
23- Ben Watson
Ben Watson made his debut for Palace aged 18. Coincidentally it was against us… in the very odd game during the week preceding our 2003 Cup semi-final against Southampton. A Trevor Francis call, one of the last of a management career that was to end ten days later.
Perhaps that’s why Watson appears to have been around – in football – forever. He was in our consciousness from the start… but despite this his career has been somewhat inconspicuous, Cup Final goals notwithstanding. He didn’t score many goals. He certainly wasn’t flamboyant, not a name linked with big clubs but… always there. What was Ben Watson for?.
Any doubts have been dismissed by Ben’s 18 months at Vicarage Road, which begun in a fashion that was both dramatic and suitably low key, coming on at half time to turn a 2-0 reverse to Blackpool into a 7-2 victory not by lashing in goals but by quietly ferrying things along, organising, protecting possession not by thundering into challenges (although he’s capable of that) but by simply making good decisions. We might have expected him to fade from contention as Premier League riches enhanced our purchasing power. He wasn’t in the starting eleven for the first five Premier League games. After being brought back in at St James Park in the wake of Valon Behrami’s suspension, he was barely out of it. Other clubs might watch on with casual bemusement… this club who are full of foreigners, who get all their players from Udinese, have Ben Watson in their midfield. Go figure.
Well, let them figure. Ben might be the new Lloyd. Discarded, maybe, possibly, every season. But still there. And suddenly still in the side, because nobody else will do what he does quite as efficiently and unfussily.
Next Season: Probably on the bench. For August. Until something needs sorting.
24- Odion Ighalo
The ultimate season of two halves for Odion, who dramatically exceeded all expectations up to Christmas but was nothing like as potent after it. Whilst he was scoring we had a pretty watertight formula… keep it solid, knowing that there are enough goals, enough tricks up front to grab something when the chance arises. When the goals stopped going in for Iggy – whether it was his head being turned, him being found out, him being watched, regression to the mean or a combination of all of these things, the whole team’s fortunes suffered accordingly. A solid team with a goal threat is a potent thing. A solid team without is not.
All of which leaves us looking at Iggy at little less favourably than he deserves. The first half of the season was remarkable, and hugely enjoyable to boot. These weren’t just tap-ins, or functional goals; the Iggy chop left any number of defenders on their backsides from the opening day at Goodison onwards. And whilst his form did dip, alarmingly, and whilst he could probably have done with some competition for his bulletproof place in the side, he was still delivering no worse than par versus expectations.
Next Season: The second half of the season probably limited the likelihood of a club offering the sort of money that you suspect would be needed. No coincidence that Iggy is now making noises about staying. No bad thing. He’ll be a much more valuable weapon as one of a number of options.
End of Term Report Part 5 03/06/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
18- Costel Pantilimon
Another marker of how far the club’s standards have extended is that a man who was Manchester City’s deputy stopper and then moved to Sunderland to be first choice signs for us mid-season, committing to a position where he was only ever likely to be second choice to Heurelho Gomes. Sure, he was out in the cold at Sunderland… but would surely have had other offers at the end of the season if not in January. Our backup keeper is an experienced, intimidating international in his own right.
He’s also in the Panini Euro 2016 album, a source of enduring joy to daughter 2 in particular whose squeals of excitement on BOTH occasions when Costel has been revealed have been wholehearted. There is, indeed, some suggestion that he is this collection’s “easy” sticker, a phenomenon familiar to all veterans of the art – the latest WSC letters page alleges as such. And that’s a landmark too… an international album’s most recurrent sticker is a Watford player. Wow. That’s as good as beating Liverpool, almost.
On the pitch, Costel’s involvement was limited to the FA Cup. He looked enormous and utterly competent for the most part, until Wembley when he didn’t. But he wasn’t alone there.
Next Season: Astonishing if he’s happy to continue as our backup/cup keeper. All the better for us, though.
19 (#1) – Miguel Layún
Old news now, sure. None of you need telling that as soon as Layún looked like graduating from being a useful-looking piece that didn’t quite fit to someone whose role was clear he was out of the door before the echoes of the monstrous celebration of his season-opening strike at Goodison had died down. Which was a bit of a shame all told… someone as versatile, tidy, experienced and utterly professional would have been useful, and his trajectory since leaving has hardly suggests that we were better off out of it.
But in any case, for any number of reasons, job done. Almost certainly. Probably. Would be nice to, you know, be told for definite though, wouldn’t it? If the Official Site’s newsfeed in these days of ever expanding coverage elsewhere has any function, it’s to confirm details that can only ever be suggested, inferred, maybed elsewhere. Writing on Thursday lunchtime, I’m pretty sure that Porto took up their option on Miguel… that’s certainly what the WObby reported and Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, reflects. Not a squeak from the OS though. Odd. Perhaps it’s a strategy aimed at heightening intrigue and excitement by leaving such issues tantalisingly in the balance. Personally I’d rather just know, but then I don’t like cricket so I’m still paying attention.
Next Season: Porto. Or Real Madrid. If anyone hears for definite, from a friend of his housekeeper’s sister or some other reliable source, let me know.
19 (#2) – Víctor Ibarbo
Every era has its defining signings. Adrian Boothroyd? Marlon King. A rough diamond, brash, unlikeable. Gianluca Vialli? Ramon Vega. Utterly misjudged. Kenny Jackett? Keith Scott (loan).
It’s not appropriate to label Ibarbo as the classic Pozzo-era signing, not in a period that has yielded Almen Abdi, Odion Ighalo, Marco Cassetti, Étienne Capoue. But you know what I mean. Ibarbo came in as one of a(nother) glut of signings whose names we tried to remember and never really got beyond that stage. His 74 minutes in the first team spanned four games and contained no goals. Not easy to define yourself from the bench… but he looked rangy, awkward, direct but impotent. By all accounts he was a maverick, but we never got to see that; by definition, a maverick player tends to operate at a level below that which his best moments suggest ought to be possible. Victor never suggested that his best moments warranted a Premier League place.
Next Season: Ibarbo’s deal was only ever a loan, interrupted when he returned to Colombia with Atlético Nacional. His subsequent red card in a derby with Millionarios was described as “su actitud fue de querer enfrentar a los rivales con fuerza y alevosía” by a Colombian site Futbolred, “his attitude was wanting to face opponents with force and treachery”. Coo. I wouldn’t recognise him if I passed him in the street.
20- Steven Berghuis
On the last day of the 1986/87 season we played Spurs. My recollection is that we played pretty well, what turned out to be the last competitive game of GT’s first spell in charge decided by a Kenny Jackett penalty. Making his debut off the bench was Chris Pullan, who put in a sterling shift on the right wing – dynamic and positive, he had the crowd cheering his every touch. I spent the next ten days convinced that he was the future of Watford football club, then GT left and everyone forgot about Chris Pullan for a bit. But you can see where I’m going.
Steven Berghuis’ season has been utterly bizarre. He arrived with a bit of fanfare and a not inconsequential transfer fee. He was also one of two players – Jose Holebas the other – who made noises suggesting that Vicarage Road might be slumming it a little. He looked sullen as his early appearances fizzed and popped without really getting anywhere, and drifted out of the first team picture.
Part of the reason for Quique’s departure, it seems clear, was his reluctance to play the younger players upon whose development the entire “Pozzo model” depends. Berghuis, who glittered into form as our league status was secured, was the poster boy for this; he provided width and incision where we’d begun to look flat and blunt, supplying perhaps the cross of the season for Troy’s flicked header against Villa and looking a threat whenever he took to the field. Despite which, he still has to make his full League debut for the Hornets. I don’t know what’s more extraordinary… that statistic, or the fact that Steven has earned a call-up to the full Dutch squad despite his erstwhile head coach’s reluctance to employ him.
Next Season: Inevitably it’s been rumoured that Steven will return to the Netherlands. Hornets fans will hope not. Chris Pullan wasn’t the star we imagined. Steven Berghuis might be.
End of Term Report Part 4 30/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
14- Juan Carlos Paredes
I didn’t see Paredes’ debut at the start of last season, a 3-0 win over Bolton. Beppe Sannino was still in charge, we played three at the back (Angella, Ekstrand, Tamas) and Mathias Ranégie was an unused sub. To the hills of Snowdonia word arrived of a rampaging, devastating performance from our new Ecuadorian full-back.
It’s fair to say that that game proved the high point of Paredes’ two years’ at the Vic to date. A regular starter in the promotion campaign, he nonetheless lost his place to Marco Motta at the end of the season and whilst a regular on the bench he’s only started a handful of games this term and only once made consecutive starts as Quique favoured Allan Nyom (and latterly Craig Cathcart) in the right back role.
Whilst Paredes’ buccaneering up the right flank has often seen him caught behind, and his distribution has sometimes been wanting I like Juan Carlos, and wouldn’t object to him being in the squad. His combination of speed and bullishness makes him a decent shout when we’re chasing a game against leggy opponents, and it may well be that he’s better suited to a 3-5-2 that would make more demands of his strength and fitness and less of his defensive discipline.
Next Season: …however the rumours suggesting that Paredes is unhappy at his lack of game time have been pretty persistent, and since it seems likely that we’ll look to recruit in both full-back positions, it’s hard to see Juan Carlos still being here next season.
15- Craig Cathcart
It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch. Craig Cathcart’s signing at the start of last season was, as this entry described a year ago, hardly a stand out trophy recruit in an era of exotic foreigners and unprecedented player turnover. Once promoted, on the back of an excellent debut season in which he’d been introduced to the side relatively late and with half an eye on the home-grown quota it was no surprise that Cathcart was retained and was prominent.
But he’s managed more than that. Craig has joined the likes of Alec Chamberlain, Steve Palmer and Gavin Mahon in Watford folklore; players who slipped quietly in through the back door, the new guy in meetings who you assume that everyone else knows, and then established themselves as a pillar, an icon of the side through sheer unflashy competence. The difference with Craig of course is that he’s pulled off this trick in the top division and whilst his performances haven’t been flawless it was no surprise at all that he made the top three in the Player of the Season reckoning. His performance at Arsenal in the Cup, coming back after injury, was utterly monstrous. Bona fide Watford hero.
Next Season: Great defender, good footballer, will have no problem being part of a back three.
16- Nathan Aké
The fact that we’re now dining at the top table doesn’t distract from the fact that a lot of Modern Football is, without doubt, Rubbish. It would be wrong to argue that everything were better in the old days, that’s not true either (remember the loos on the Vicarage Road terrace?). But when Chelsea’s youth team is made up of kids hoovered up from, in this case, Feyenoord at the age of 15 who then can’t get a game and is pitched out to us on loan. Yes, yes I know it’s a high standard that kids need to reach and we’re hardly doing a flawless job of bringing through the kids ourselves. But really. This is wrong, isn’t it?
Aké’s form dipped alarmingly towards the end of the season, but just as when we borrowed Nathaniel Chalobah from Stamford Bridge three years ago we got far more than we could possibly have banked on. Tough, elegant, disciplined and, for the most part, composed… such was his relaxed, on-top-of-everything air that his occasional rushes of blood, manifested more than once in recklessly aggressive challenges, caused a double take. Nonetheless, a hugely impressive season from a very fine footballer.
Next Season: Chelsea were bloody silly to loan him out once.
17- Adlène Guedioura
Biff. Adlène will, undoubtedly, have wanted to have been involved more. His performances, full of energy and positive thinking, nonetheless occasionally betrayed why he hadn’t been a first choice… possession can be more cheaply disposed of in the Championship. Despite which the moment of the season, arguably the most dramatic single moment since Troy’s goal against Leicester, was that goal at Arsenal. Words can’t do it justice. And given its wholeheartedness there was nobody more suited to scoring it. Well done that man.
Next Season: A top flight squad needs players like Adlène… troopers who will be ready to do a job even if they’re not starting every week. He won’t start every week next season, but we’ll be better off for him sticking around.
End of Term Report Part 3 27/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9- Troy Deeney
I have to confess… and it is a confession, a source of embarrassment… that I begun to have doubts at the start of the season. Not in terms of Troy’s leadership, of his contribution to our attacking play. But in terms of his ability to find the net… despite 20 goals in each of the previous three campaigns, this higher level, the cagier way of playing, fewer chances… and perhaps less of the ball in the opponents’ penalty area. Troy’s not going to score too many by breaking past a high defensive line. By the end of October he still hadn’t found the net.
Which makes his subsequent achievements all the more impressive. He must have had doubts himself, for all that his overall contribution was still tremendous… you could see it, a slight tentativeness in front of goal that was so uncharacteristic. But it’s as if the challenges of the Premier League were merely a temporary obstacle… they too were eventually, inevitably crushed underneath the tidal wave that is Troy Deeney. His fifteen goals, in the end, stand comparison with the 66 in the three seasons that preceded this one, but only tell half the story. My next-door neighbour, a Man United fan, was astonished at how much defensive work he does. “He’s your best player on corners… in both boxes”. And at the end of the season Troy pushed on furiously, battering through the deckchairs and suitcases that littered the Carrow Road pitch and dragging much of the team in his wake. Difficult to overstate his importance to this team.
Next Season: As discussed on these pages, I can’t help be anxious if I look at Leicester and think “who would I sign, if I were them?”. Needing a bigger squad, quality players, but not established enough at the top of the division to attract the biggest stars. Solace can be gained by looking at how the Pozzos retained Antonio di Natale at Udinese, a totem for that team, despite offers from elsewhere. Two years ago, retaining Troy was the clarion call that heralded our promotion. Retaining him this summer would be no less significant.
10 (#1)- Matej Vydra
Our model being what it is there’s all sorts of potential for peculiar career paths but Vydra’s erratic trajectory is particularly extraordinary. His two seasons at Vicarage Road have been successes – a blistering half-of-season under Zola which tapered off as his head was turned before igniting with a flourish against Leicester. And a very effective role as one of the prolific three last year. In between… a year used sparingly and often out of position at West Brom, and then this calamity at Reading.
It seems extraordinary that at the Etihad in August there was genuine anger in the stands at Vydra’s confinement to the bench as we chased a way back into the game. Three days later he joined Reading in a lucrative loan deal with an option to buy that very quickly disappeared from consideration. It’s interesting that, reviewing Reading messageboards, the jury was still very much out in January. He’d only scored a couple of goals (he’d boost his figures with 6 across the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup), but the line was “alongside a target man…”, “if not fielded on his own up front….”, “young, potential…”. By the end of the season, that goodwill had evaporated entirely with the resentment at Reading’s poor season finding a ready target.
Looking back over which, there’s a recurring theme which will be at the front of the minds of those who’ve watched him for any length of time. Vydra’s limitations aren’t on the pitch… he’s a fine striker at Championship level, and there’s justification in wondering whether he’d serve a counterattacking side in the top flight. His problems are largely of his own creation… his occasionally sulky demeanour betrays a lack of focus, easily distracted, easily disrupted. The opposite of his erstwhile strike partner, in other words.
Next Season: Vydra’s at a bit of a crossroads, one suspects. He needs to find somewhere where he can showcase his ability again – there are many who would welcome him back, despite the last twelve months. Probably not Reading, though.
10 (#2)- Obbi Oularé
There can be few more dramatic illustrations of how much has changed than the fact that we are able to sign a teenage striker for a reported £6 million as a “project”. A far cry from the days of Kenny Jackett or Ray Lewington’s management, when the idea of spending any money on anyone was fanciful. One for the future or not, Oularé must have been expecting a little more game time than a half against Newcastle in the cup and a couple of brief cameos in the Premier League. What little we’ve seen of him underlined his “one for the future” label… big and strong and keen with a good touch… but very very raw. Encouraging, though, that his attitude – as viewed through the prism of social media – has remained positive and focused. You want him to do well.
Next Season: One of GT’s lines was that tall players and particularly tall strikers take a bit longer to physically develop, to catch up with their height. Will be interesting to see how quickly Obbi puts himself in a position for us to be able to make a call on the value of that investment.
11- Nordin Amrabat
Nordin Amrabat’s full debut was at Forest in the FA Cup. It was a lively, spiky showing, suggesting that we’d signed a potent new weapon in our attacking armoury. A winger and a striker had been suggested as January requirements… and Nordin had seemingly been brought in to fill the latter role and provide cover and competition for the front two.
That Odion Ighalo’s form tailed off so visibly in the second half of the season without Nordin ever pressurising his starting place reveals how well that turned out. A player who has never been prolific at his previous clubs has rarely looked like a natural striker… there have been positive contributions from the bench that have brought the side some much needed directness, but almost invariably in wide positions rather than up front and it’s hard to argue that he’s built on that impressive debut showing in Nottingham. He started only once in the last two months of the season – the pre-Wembley dead rubber at Upton Park in which he was dismissed, stupidly, in the closing minutes to invalidate himself from consideration for the semi-final. Like Obbi Oularé, we’ve seen sparks of promise… unlike Oularé, Nordin was signed to do a job now. Improvement needed.
Next Season: We’ve not quite worked out how to use Nordin, and it’s difficult to see where he’d fit in the 3-5-2 formation that Walter Mazzarri reportedly favours. At this stage, prior to whatever toing and froing the summer holds, it’s difficult to see him featuring prominently.
End of Term Report Part 2 23/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
5- Sebastian Prödl
Now that’s wat a centre-back is supposed to look like. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Could easily work as a panel beater, or a night-club bouncer. Seb was convincing from the moment he took to the field, and if he occasionally slipped up – the losing of Glenn Murray, drifting off his shoulder at Dean Court, provoked his losing his place at Stoke – then that only added to the air of authenticity. That’s what centre-backs are supposed to do.
He’s also the most Austrian looking man in the world. The centre-parting. The hairband. The goatee-thing. Put him in a denim jacket with soft-rock badges stitched on, or names scraped on in biro and he’d blend into the background on the Maria Hilfer Straße, no problem at all. That’s Seb all over. What you see is what you get. Sorted.
Next Season: More, please.
6- Joel Ekstrand
Yes, I know. But if nobody – not us, not the club – is going to commemorate departures when they happen then we take these opportunities when they arise.
There’s been no formal confirmation of Ekstrand’s departure… Quique had always sounded quite positive on the subject, reportedly keen to retain the Swede whose comfort on the ball was deemed well suited to the Premier League. But quotes attributed to Ekstrand himself sounded less convinced about his future being here, and with his contract expiring at the end of June you kinda feel that if he was going to stay a new deal would have been announced by now.
Joel’s form had it’s wobbles, particularly during his second season – “The Sannino season” – where he often looked nervous and hesitant and attracted some stick. Worth bearing in mind, though, that in a position where there’s often been serious competition for places (Hall, Cassetti, Hoban, Neuton, Angella, Doyley, Tamas, Bassong) Ekstrand was an all but automatic pick when fit. There were reasons for that… tough, mobile, elegant and confident with the ball at his feet, Joel was an asset, a fixed point around which much of the Pozzo turnover flowed. His Watford career probably won’t be remembered as one of the defining ones of the Pozzo regime, but it deserves better than being jeered off on a stretcher by bloody Ipswich.
Next Season: Having not played first team football for eighteen months, the chief hope is that Ekstrand is able to return to the level he left us at. Beyond that, you’d hope that he pitches up at a club where he can get some games and reignite his career. Best of luck Joel.
7- José Manuel Jurado
It should be borne in mind that Jurado’s task was not an easy one. The expensive signing. The midfield maestro, the creative spark. The one that Quique wanted. All roles, mantles, that added expectation. And all of that aside… he was established at this level. He knew how to do this. Not one of last year’s crew, not someone who had to adjust to a higher level. He was the higher level. He was the one who was going to come in and make the difference, help us bridge the gap.
And in a way, he’s looked capable of doing so. Persistently. His control is flawless. He rarely gives the ball away. He finds space in an instinctive, effortless way, as if drawn by gravity. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would describe Jurado’s first season in England as successful. He got a shock early on, without doubt… at Everton he looked bewildered by the force and the pace of what was going on around him. By his own admission he needed to toughen up and did so, visibly, but his impact never lived up to our lofty expectations.
One could argue that Jurado’s impact in terms of those key metrics, Goals Scored and Assists (statistics, pah) was no worse than that of Almen Abdi’s, say, often fielded in a comparable position on the other side of the pitch. Difference was, Abdi had credit in the bank… we’d seen him do what he can do, and we’d seen him dig in and work to adapt his game to the role he was being asked to play. Crucially, he got stuck in too… you don’t judge an attacking midfielder’s contribution predominantly on whether you track back or not but if you’re not doing the defensive job, you’d better be doing the attacking one bloody well. Jurado rarely ticked either box.
Next Season: Difficult to see Jurado remaining at the club.
8- Valon Behrami
If Jurado looked surprised by the opening day draw with Everton, Valon Behrami went at it like an uncaged lion. Snarling and combative, his experience had clearly taught him where the line was and for the most part he was disciplined and stayed on the right side of it. Except when he didn’t… and that red card against Swansea determined the trajectory of his season as Ben Watson seized his chance and never looked back. From being a nailed-on starter, even a coup, Behrami became something of a bit-part player – five of his fourteen league starts came before mid-September – and whilst he rarely put a foot wrong when called upon he clearly wasn’t getting the game time he expected. Nobody would have been surprised to see him move on in January – he didn’t start another game until the reverse against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium.
I’m glad he didn’t leave. It was commented on early on that it was good to have a bearded warrior charging around at number eight again. That feels right. And the cold, slightly detached glaze of his eyes would scare the hell out of you if you were lined up against him. Like… this is someone a little bit disconnected who can’t be relied upon to behave in a predictable way.
Something, one suspects, went wrong beyond Valon simply losing his place in the side. He’s an experienced enough player to know the score – you get sent off, the guy who comes in plays a blinder, you have to work your way back in whoever you are. Instead of a central role, once 4-4-2 had been established, Valon was often fielded in a wide position – but it was back in the centre, at the Emirates, that he had his best game of the season. Whatever… it was clear that Behrami was an unhappy bunny by the end of the season. And an unhappy Behrami, one suspects, is not to be treated lightly.
Next Season: Mazzarri signed Behrami for Napoli, and the Swiss midfielder was virtually ever-present in a second-place finish in the season they spent together at the Stadio San Paolo. Behrami, one suspects, has cancelled the removal vans.
End of Term Report Part 1 20/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Ten of these, I’ve done now. Ten. From Junior Osborne and Dominic Blizzard through Will Buckley and Gavin Massey to José Manuel Jurado and Obbi Oularé, you can dip into them typically in the May entries to your right. This one is significant in being the first not to feature Lloydy, and as an aside it does feel rather odd and inappropriate that he was permitted to slip quietly out of a side door in the autumn, much as his departure was no great surprise. Anyway… four today, four more on Monday and so on. With a bit of luck we’ll be done by the Euros…
1 – Heurelho Gomes
My favourite Watford goalkeeper is Tony Coton. I remember Sherwood and Eric Steele, just about, but Coton was between the sticks by the time I got my first season ticket on returning to the country in 1985. In my mind’s eye, TC was unbeatable… agile, defiant, capable of impossible acrobatics, confident and dominant on crosses with a personality the size of an articulated truck. Over the years since Watford have had many goalkeepers, some of them very good goalkeepers and significant in the club’s history. None, however, has borne comparison with Coton, and over time I’ve begun to wonder whether my recollection is coloured by the golden tint of that halcyon eighties team. Can he really have been that good, or am I setting an unreasonable benchmark with which to harshly judge all subsequent pretenders?
Heurelho Gomes’ season in 2015-16 has reassured me that the heights that I associate with Coton are not fanciful. He has been every bit as reliable and imposing this season as last but at this more exalted level and with the team both geared around being difficult to penetrate and in greater need of his experience we have been far more reliant on Gomes than we were last year. We had many, many more goals in us last term, and plenty of knowledge of our environment. The extent to which Gomes was up to the task will, by the time you read this, surely have been reflect in him claiming the Player of the Season award. The Brazilian has been almost as good as the version of Coton that exists within my head, and there can be no greater praise.
Next Season: A cornerstone of the side.
2- Allan Nyom
Extending the theme of treating bygone icons as a reference, three decades of the right back slot being dominated by Nigel Gibbs and Lloyd Doyley have meant that it’s a long time since the position has been a concern. A little odd, then, during a successful season for us to have such issues at right back. It’s tempting to suggest that Allan Nyom’s dip in form towards the end of the campaign merely mirrored that of many of his teammates, but in reality there were some iffy performances earlier on as well; for all that Nyom is tough and physical, it’s been sides that have put him under defensive pressure with quick, direct running on the flanks that have caused him particular problems. There have been some decent outings – he started the season with a tour de force at Goodison Park, and his booting of Raheem Sterling into the advertising hoardings at the Etihad was a highlight of an afternoon in which there were few others. Increasingly there were more difficult days than good ones, however, and his outing at Carrow Road was so spectacularly poor that Craig Cathcart was restored to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable right back slot for the final day.
Next Season: Should the new man persist with four at the back, right back will surely be a priority for recruitment.
3- Miguel Britos
When Miguel was signed, a Uruguayan centre-back already suspended for nutting someone in his last game to Napoli, it was quite natural that a picture began to form in the minds of supporters. When he followed this up with a 75th minute red card at Deepdale during his August debut the deal was sealed. He was regarded with something between disdain and awe, an anti-hero after less than ninety minutes of action.
What nobody expected was for our reckless South American thug to be introduced to the side for the October trip to Stoke, unprompted by any injury or suspension, to disrupt the hitherto encouraging partnership forming between Craig Cathcart and Sebastian Prödl. Instantly he impressed and immediately the cartoon character in our heads dissolved, never to return. In contrast to the wild caricature we’d imagined, Britos has been utterly controlled – hard, yes, you wouldn’t mess. But he’s been, yes, disciplined in everything that he’s done and for much of the season he was the pick of the defenders, authoritative and in charge in a way that the best of his recent predecessors in the middle of the defence have looked… but at a higher level altogether.
Next Season: Britos’ form dipped as the season finished, but with his former bossWalter Mazzarri – who signed Britos for Bologna for €9 million and integrated him into his Napoli side – ostensibly lined up, Miguel should be nailed on to be a mainstay again next term.
4- Mario Suárez
Here’s a conundrum. A player who, apparently, we signed in the face of hot competition really hasn’t lived up to his exciting billing as yet. At times he’s looked majestic… executing passes that haven’t even occurred to us watching on in the stands. “There’s clearly a magnificent player in there somewhere”. However to say that he hasn’t got to grips with the British game is an understatement… he looks leggy and laboured, too often a passenger in an area where you really can’t carry passengers, an area we’d expected him to dominate. He comes across really well… there’s no hint of slyness or dishonesty about him, you want him to come good for his own sake as well as for ours. Will be one of the more fascinating ones to watch at the start of next term.
Next Season: It’s been said that he needs to be in a midfield three to be effective, with others doing his fetching and carrying. If Mazzarri is appointed he may well get that opportunity. Jury’s out, but you wouldn’t want to call which way this will go.
Helping Hands 2015/2016 18/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
So here we are. In a ritual that may not serve any other purpose than mentally drawing a line under the season for me, I’ve again gone through match reports and video clips and compiled a table depicting where exactly our goals came from in the campaign jus gone. As ever, unlike scoring of goals and despite any suggestions to the contrary there is no undisputed definition of what an assist IS. I’ve applied the same definition as in previous years, and it’s broad and generous… the last pass, obviously, but also the shot that was parried for a follow-up, being taken down for a penalty, both the flick-on to a cross AND the cross itself, and so on.
It’s a detail too frequently overlooked that the fixture list congestion thing only really affects the clubs in European competition in what is, in my head, still a “new” bloated and self-serving format. Being on BT Sport has rendered the Champions League even less relevant… it gets mentioned on the radio occasionally, but gets filed with rugby and cricket and other irrelevance in terms of the attention I can offer it. Anyway… cup run or no, we played only 44 games this season as compared to 49 last and against significantly stronger opposition with an altogether more frugal – however successful – approach. As such… fewer goals, and a less exciting table.
A table that, nonetheless, tells a few stories particularly well. The most striking detail is how the names dominating the assists table in the same way that they dominated the goals scored column reflects our attacking approach – a solid midfield, very little pace or width, everything going through the front two – almost entirely. Only Ben Watson’s two goals, Seb Prodl’s two goals and Almen Abdi’s free kick against Villa – four of the five set pieces – involved neither an assist nor a finishing touch from Ighalo or Deeney.
The same story is told by the paucity of contributions from other sources. José Manuel Jurado’s lack of contribution in this regard has often, not unreasonably, been used as a stick to beat him with, but the penalty he earned against Sunderland – soft or otherwise, he had at least attacked the box to draw the foul – was his third. That’s three more than the traditionally reliable Almen Abdi, like Jurado fielded in an awkward and unflattering wide position, but worth remembering that he only got three last season, too. Mario Suárez is another who failed to register, whilst Etienne Capoue’s unreliably excellent contributions only earned him a single tick at St James’ Park.
Otherwise, the most startling detail probably results from a somewhat anomalous game in the League Cup at Deepdale that saw five names make their only starts of the season. Amongst these were Matej Vydra, Gabriele Angella and Fernando Forestieri, who jump out of the list as if left over from a bygone age. But also Connor Smith, whose 55 minutes represent the only on-pitch contribution from an Academy graduate in 2015-16.
Will return soon with the End of Term Report. Enjoy the summer…
|Deeney||11||41+2||15||Eve (A), Swa (H), New (A), AsV (A), Nor (H), Liv (H), Tot (H), New (H), Ars (A – FAC), Ars (A – FAC), Nor (A)|
|Ighalo||7||38+4||17||Sto (A), Sto (A), MaU (H), AsV (A), Nor (H), New (H), AsV (H)|
|Jurado||3||29+1||0||Che (A), CrP (FAC), Sun (H)|
|Berghuis||2||1+10||0||WHU (A), AsV (H)|
|Guedioura||2||6+17||1||WBA (A), Sun (H)|
|Anya||2||18+15||0||WHU (H), Sto (H)|
|Watson||2||37+4||2||AsV (A), Lee (H – FAC)|
The List 2016. 16/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
Here we are again. The season ends, the rumours begin. They’ve been going for a while, actually, so there’s a goodly number already listed; the list will be updated throughout the summer.
* Indicates player linked in previous windows
Running Total: 90
Jerome Sinclair (Liverpool)* – SIGNED
Nathan Aké (Chelsea)* – joined Bournemouth on loan
Isaac Success (Granada) – SIGNED
Aly Malle (Black Stars) – SIGNED?
Takuma Asano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) – joined Arsenal
Uche Agbo (Granada) -SIGNED?
Zouhair Feddal (Levante) – joined Alavés
Josip Iličić (Fiorentina)
Daniel Bentley (Southend United) – joined Brentford
Joe Allen (Liverpool) – joined Stoke City
Jordan Ibe (Liverpool) – joined Bournemouth
Albert Rusnak (Groningen)
Davide Santon (Inter)*
Anthony Knockaert (Brighton)
Jefferson Murillo (Cúcuta Deportivo)
Lee Jae Sung (Keonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Allan Saint-Maximin (Monaco) – joined Bastia on loan
Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading) – joined West Brom
Saido Berahino (West Bromwich Albion)
Jordan Lukaku (Oostende) – joined Lazio
Djibril Sidibe (Lille) – joined Monaco
Marco Andreolli (Inter)
Juan Jesus (Inter) – joined Roma on loan
Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo)*
Sergi Canos (Liverpool) – joined Norwich
Adem Ljajić (Roma) – joined Torino
Emanuele Giaccherini (Sunderland) – joined Napoli
Ernest Ohemeng (Morierense)
Christian Maggio (Napoli)
Gaston Ramirez (Southampton) – joined Middlesbrough
Alessandro Gazzi (Torino) – joined Palermo
Jakub Jankto (Udinese)
Bernardo Espinosa (Sporting Gijon) – joined Middlesbrough
Alhassan Wakaso (Rio Ave)
Calum Chambers (Arsenal) -joined Middlesbrough on loan
Juan Camilo Zúñiga (Napoli)* SIGNED ON LOAN
Pervis Estupiñán (Liga de Quito) -SIGNED?
Marcel Tisserand (Monaco) – joined Ingolstadt
Jonathan Biabiany (Inter)
Neven Subotić (Borussia Dortmund)
Mirko Validfiori (Napoli) – joined Torino
Diego Laxalt (Inter) – joined Genoa
Cristian Zapata (Milan)
Roberto Pereyra (Juventus) -SIGNED
Daryl Janmaat (Newcastle) -SIGNED
Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese)*
Abel Hernandez (Hull City)
Khouma Babacar (Fiorentina)*
Seko Fofana (Manchester City) – joined Udinese
Dame N’Doye (Trabzonspor)
Mustapha Yatabaré (Trabzonspor) – joined Karabükspor
Hakim Ziyech (Twente) – joined Ajax
Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg) – joined Augsburg
Etrit Berisha (Lazio) – joined Atalanta on loan
Andros Townsend (Newcastle)* – joined Crystal Palace
Franco Vazquez (Palermo) – joined Sevilla
Bruno Peres (Torino) – joined Roma on loan
Chukwudi Agor (ASJ Academy)
Christian Kabasele (Genk) – SIGNED
Wilfred Ndidi (Genk)
Thomas Delaney (Kobenhavn) – joined Galatasaray
Ragnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar) – joined Fulham
Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli)
Diafra Sakho (West Ham United)
Simone Zaza (Juventus)* – joined West Ham on loan
Mario Lemina (Juventus)
Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht)
Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit)
Brice Dja-Djédjé (Marseille) – SIGNED
Sofiane Boufal (Lille) – joined Southampton
Bruno Martins Indi (Porto) – joined Stoke on loan
Sven Kums (Gent) – joined Udinese via Watford?
Cheick Tioté (Newcastle United)
Mauricio Isla (Juventus)* – joined Cagliari
Mario Mandžukić (Juventus)
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Stefano Denswil (Club Brugge)
Kenedy (Chelsea) – SIGNED ON LOAN
Younes Kaboul (Sunderland) – SIGNED
Matías Fernández (Fiorentina) – joined Milan on loan
Óliver Torres (Atlético Madrid) – joined Porto on loan
Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid) – joined Sunderland on loan
James McCarthy (Everton)
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Pedro Delgado (Inter)
Stefano Okaka (Anderlecht) – SIGNED
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal) – joined Bournemouth on loan
Haviv Ohayon (Maccabi Tel Aviv) – SIGNED
Felipe Caicedo (Espanyol)
José Holebas (Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Besiktas, Konyaspor, Basaksehir)
Heurelho Gomes (Everton)
Miguel Layún (Real Madrid, Porto*) – joined Porto
Odion Ighalo (West Ham*, Everton, West Brom, Shanghai SIPG)
Gabriele Angella (Swansea, Udinese) – joined Udinese
Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord) – joined Feyenoord on loan
Troy Deeney (Leicester City, Tottenham, Everton)
Essaid Belkalem (Trabzonspor) – released
Adalberto Peñaranda (Tottenham, West Ham, Barcelona, Real Madrid)
. – joined Udinese on loan
Miguel Britos (Cagliari)
José Manuel Jurado (Malaga, Espanyol) – joined Espanyol
Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday*) – joined Sheffield Wednesday
Obbi Oularé (Celtic, Zulte Waregem) – joined Zulte Waregem on loan
Allan Nyom (Barcelona, Espanyol, Real Betis, Eibar, West Brom)
. – joined West Brom
Juan Carlos Paredes (Trabzonspor, Fulham, Reading)
Costel Pantilimon (Aston Villa)
Mario Suárez (Espanyol, Gijón, Valencia) – joined Valencia on loan
Craig Cathcart (Newcastle)
Ikechi Anya (Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle, Burnley, Derby)
. – joined Derby
Matej Vydra (Leeds, Birmingham, Derby) – joined Derby
Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday) – joined Sheffield Wednesday
Valon Behrami (Torino)
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Monaco, Lorient)
Nordin Amrabat (Granada)
Christian Kabasele (Udinese)
Sebastian Prödl (Udinese)
Tommie Hoban (Blackburn) – joined Blackburn on loan
Isaac Success (Galatasaray)
Jerome Sinclair (Norwich)
Sean Murray (Swindon) – joined Swindon
Norwich City 4 Watford 2 (11/05/2016) 12/05/2016Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- On the face of it, this had the potential to be fascinating. At least, that was the situation when we booked tickets, before Sunderland beat Chelsea to rather diffuse the anticipation. A spoiler on Twitter betraying an upcoming plot, “Ohhhh, that’s how it finishes”. Nonetheless, having opted for East Anglia on a Wednesday night ahead of Merseyside on a Sunday afternoon, there were plenty of considerations to factor in. How would the home side approach it – nervously? Bloody-mindedly? How aggressive and professional would we be? How would the narrative of the evening, inevitably influenced by events on Wearside, change the mood as the ground suffered hope, anxiety, frustration, despair?
It’s been ten years since I was last at Carrow Road. Admittedly there may have been reasons for recollection of that trip being less than crystal clear… but I’m sure there were decent pies, commensurate with the profile and reputation of the club’s now joint-majority shareholder. So it was something of a disappointment to see Pukka Pies on offer, one of several respects in which Norwich’s offering felt a little bit unconvincing… the pre-match kerfuffle was a bundle of ideas pinched from other clubs, the home crowd shifting around uncomfortably unconvinced and unrallied by an excitable announcer. The (welcome) vogue for welcoming visiting supporters by customising the away end with appropriately coloured decor or posters of the visitors’ heroes of yore, was pursued… but in the most token, half-arsed of ways.
2- But even half an arse was more than Watford could muster. It’s not unreasonable to argue that, our situation and form being what it is, travelling supporters kinda ought to have known that a non-performance like this was a strong possibility. It’s also true that Norwich had an awful lot more riding on this than we had. To be expected, perhaps, that they’d be the more focused, the more motivated. But even accounting for both factors and to whatever degree you sympathise with the position that Quique Flores is in – of which more later – there was no excusing this pathetic shambles. The club, the team, the manager do still have a responsibility to uphold… to their supporters, those daft enough to come have nonetheless spent time and money, and so on and so on. A well-worn argument. As importantly, but for the way the evening transpired in Sunderland, fans of both north-east clubs who may have been depending on this outcome would have had every right to look at this and ask “what the bloody hell was that all about?”. We’re not the only ones to take our foot off, sure. That doesn’t make it acceptable, whatever the magnitude of achievement that has or hasn’t gone before it. Lack of ability you can forgive. Lack of effort, less so.
And the lack of effort started from the top. So much for taking the shackles off when safety was secured; the line-up was as uninspiring as it was predictable. No question that the “difficult to beat” thing was a valid and successful means to an end, but having achieved that end we were entitled to look forward to more than this perfunctory twaddle. The ever-willing Ikechi Anya’s retention at full-back, occasionally a worthwhile selection but not against an opponent like Nathan Redmond on an evening like this, rang alarm bells straight away and not just because of the story it suggested about Flores’ relationship with his four professional full-backs one of whom – the admittedly appalling Allan Nyom – appeared to have been selected purely out of necessity. The concern rose not from the selection now and on Sunday, but from the implication that the other four, all of whom having impressed at least intermittently, were inferior options. Flores’ impotence in correcting this tallies with the most galling betrayal, for me, the public concession that his team was effectively ready for the beach. As if that was outside of his control. Whatever your beliefs about Flores’ future, he’s not making it very difficult to say goodbye.
3- And so we are dragged, kicking and screaming, to the football itself. The first ten minutes or so weren’t too bad… we started the more positive as the competing emotions around the stadium took a while to settle. We looked reasonably bright in attacking positions all evening in fairness, where the front two – including the extraordinary Deeney, again more later – didn’t stop plugging away. The goal came, a bit of a gift – not the only instance of uncertain handling from John Ruddy – but 1-0 and we’re away and singing the predictable songs about the goal’s implications.
And then Norwich come back at us, and immediately things looked very much less than comfortable. Gone is the solid, well-drilled, obstinate block that was the bedrock of much of our early success in the season… Norwich ran at us with pace and purpose and, with the obstinate exception of Ben Watson, we ushered them through. Not so much losing the battle in midfield as denying it’s existence altogether. Runners weren’t tracked, City frequently overloaded, and at the back we were all over the place as City’s breaks frequently saw Nyom shuffling back from a central position and Cathcart forced wide to cover, or Pinto and Redmond doubling up, or the massive Mbokani pullig wide to bully Anya. Watson spent much of the first half shouting impotently at Jose Jurado; in the admittedly less catastrophic second, as we pondered the potential for a red card, the suggestion was made that the already booked and increasingly impotent Watson probably didn’t fancy another 90 minutes of this on Sunday. At which point he got the hook from the bench as Guedioura’s reliable energy was finally introduced. Alongside him, Suárez looks magnificent with the ball at his feet and the time and the space to pick a pass – one instant arcing ball from the centre of the pitch to the left flank was breathtaking. Anything involves running, however, is altogether less satisfactory and we’re yet to see any evidence to decry the unwelcome suggestion that there was a reason that Fiorentina weren’t picking him – that his legs have, as the label goes, gone. Certainly little evidence of them this evening, despite his bafflingly being afforded a full 90 minutes.
4- It would be wrong to suggest that this was an entirely unenjoyable evening. The sunshine was warm, the fare on the pitch was dramatic, however incompetent, and the neutral in our party confirmed the value of the entertainment. Wes Hoolahan lining up a free kick from a dangerous position in the first half before chipping it delicately into the wall was hilarious; City fans probably enjoyed the creative inadequacy of the defending for their third goal in particular. In the second half, Troy was propelled beyond the goal into the noisy Barclay Stand where he appeared to shake hands with the City fan he landed on, introduce himself and quickly return to the action to apparent hilarity in the vicinity. And throughout there was the distracting mystery of an army of stewards and policemen congregated between the Barclay Stand and the Hornets in the Jarrold Stand. Such are the lavish extravagances of the Premier League, I suppose, although you had to wonder whether they couldn’t have spared a couple of redundant yellow jackets in favour of enough hands to open the second kiosk in the away end.
5- The crowd were buoyed into a noisy frenzy as City equalised, took and extended the lead through a series of goals that were increasingly – that word again – pathetic from our point of view. As the relegation situation was being confirmed elsewhere the crowd, inevitably, settled but roused themselves again for a defiant finish.
City were vastly the superior side, and should have won the game by a more comprehensive margin. Their predicament, however, the reasons that they’re relegated were suggested by the fact that they weren’t able to do so. Indeed, even late in the game and certainly for long after Miguel Britos had waved Dieumerci Mbokani through for a fourth, helpfully carrying his luggage for him as he wandered through to poke a shot over Gomes before heading back to Kiev or wherever he pitches up next, you wouldn’t have completely ruled out us stealing some utterly undeserved points from the game such was City’s vulnerability to our limited counter-attacks and their inability to kill us off.
It may well be that they do come back again next season, but the replacement of two or three of the competitive clubs at the top of the Championship with the carcasses of Newcastle and Villa is unlikely to render the division less frantic. As the City fans sung Alex Neil’s name during the second half it was difficult not to share the sentiment implied by the question, “I wonder if they’ll still be singing that when they’re eleventh in November?”.
It’s hard to sympathise with Norwich. There’s was easily the most graceless of the approaches to the epic promotion chase last season – although at least they’ll be able to re-establish their claim to being “The Best Side in the Championship” next year I suppose. Wes Hoolahan’s swallow dive at Vicarage Road remain’s hard to forgive, as does the City player’s fondness for celebrating in front of rival fans rather than their own. Similarly Alex Neil’s peevish assessment of the Hornets’ “very basic” approach before this game. The fact that he flattered the performance that was to come doesn’t change the reality – that the Hornets have been able, basic or otherwise, to do what City did not and comfortably stay in the division.
6- As for Flores, whilst his achievement in dropping our anchor this season has been huge, his viability in the role hinges upon how well-suited he is to what comes next, not whether he has enough brownie points in the bank, and if any of us were to dispassionately look at the formative Premier League line-up for next season in the context of each club’s trajectory over this campaign you’d have to be very concerned. The collapse in form since Christmas is real, and reflecting, “yes, but we lost to good teams” is no consolation. This is the Premier League, good teams are the norm. The stuff that we can see, the performances and team selection, the frequent ostracising of players, would be cause for concern on their own. We don’t see what goes on at the training ground, the mood in the camp. Pozzo, Duxbury et al have much greater visibility of that and for all that they’ve made bold calls in the past, they’ve not often got it wrong. The departure of Jokanovic, for all the smokescreen about contract demands, would appear to me to have been a far more brutal one at the time, in context… yes, he was operating at a different level but it doesn’t follow that his job was any easier. The maelstrom that we navigated to gain promotion is too easily dismissed… but that decision appeared well-founded. Personally, I’m happy to trust the club management’s call.
More of a concern for me that Flores, or the seemingly inevitable and perhaps necessary departure of Ighalo, is the position of the captain. Troy’s performance, as so often since Christmas, stood out an absolute mile this evening. The contrast in his application to that of so many of his team mates was palpable and vast, our second goal which saw him bully Martin and defiantly, delicately tee up he onrushing Ighalo, just reward for his refusal to be dragged down by the apathy of much of his team. Now, as for the last three years at least, he’s the beating heart of the side, the club. Since we were promoted I’ve not been concerned about losing him… there’s little incentive for him to move to a similar sized club now that we’re in the top flight, and a move to a bit-part role at a bigger club might not attract a man who so clearly revels in being the focal point, the main man. So Leicester’s position, remarkable and tremendous as it is, seemed like a threat to me before the rumours of their (rekindled) interest in Troy surfaced this week. Faced with a need to strengthen their squad in the light of their Champions’ League campaign to come, what sort of player are they going to sign? More N’golo Kantés and Riyad Mahrezs (Mahrezzes?) if they can find them, sure. But not an Anthony Martial, an Alexis Sanchez or a Sergio Aguero. An oft-voiced sentiment since the final whistle blew at Carrow Road is that folk can suddenly not wait for the season to end. Me, I’m apprehensive. If Troy’s still with us at the end of August I’ll be absolutely delighted but you have to be concerned. Was this performance just another example of his indefatigable bloody-mindedness? Or is he determined to go out on a high?