There was a distinct air of excitement surrounding the match with Spurs on Sunday. Of course, a lot of this was attributed to the chance to celebrate our cult hero, Lloyd Doyley, but for many, including me, this was also the first chance to grab a look at some of our new signings and to get our first taste of the club that we have become.
Alas, the plethora of new signings was not to be presented to the waiting crowd. Only two of the seven featured at all, and when Danny Pudil went off after five minutes with hamstring cramp, having not had a meaningful touch of the ball, it was left to Manuel Almunia to plough a lone furrow for the new boys. Regarding Pudil, Zola has since said that bringing him off was precautionary – there’s no need to chance aggravating an injury at this stage of the season – and that it was just a touch of cramp, but at this stage the players should be approaching their peak of fitness, especially Pudil, who has been involved with pre-season training since day one, and to be getting cramp just five minutes into a game that was not being played at a particularly strenuous pace is a worry. Joe Garner tweeted in early July that he was enjoying training, and that Zola had got the balls out nice and early. Given the style of football that we saw on Sunday – building from the back with measured passes and fluid movement in midfield – Zola presumably wanted to hit the ground running and to get the players used to the approach as soon as possible, but could we be seeing the results of a perhaps irresponsible lack of emphasis on building fitness before getting down to the nitty gritty?
Indeed, the other five new signings were absent from the large squad for the match because they had “picked up little things”, and Zola did not want to risk them. Not all of these players were brought in to be first team players from the off, but that six of them (that’s including Pudil) were not fit enough for this game, the ‘big’ friendly that it is generally all meant to have come together for, is a concern. And there were signs that some of them will be needed for the beginning of the season.
It has been suggested by some that there was not a massive influx of new faces in the team as this was Lloyd’s game, and that he would rather have played with his old teammates than these new kids on the block. That would perhaps have been permissible if this match wasn’t the traditional end-of-pre-season litmus test that best reflects a regular season game. So far we have played several non-league teams, a weak Barnet side and Cork City, none of whom are anything like what we will be facing week-in week-out this year. Spurs brought a first team to Vicarage Road – missing only Rafael van der Vaart and Olympic hero Danny Rose – and so provided a chance to put our first team up against a stern test – a sterner test than Gillingham will provide tonight. For this reason, I can’t see that players were left out for any reason other than injury. Besides, in the programme, all of the teammate appraisals of Lloyd raved about how welcoming the full-back was when they had arrived at the club, and how he made you feel part of it immediately: to shun them from his big day would not be in keeping with this character, and so is probably not the case.
So, with a team mostly made up of players we are well acquainted with, most of what we learnt from the match was to do with style. There was a clear emphasis on building from the back. Almunia – who had little to do, but made some good saves when necessary and was extremely vocal throughout – rarely kicked the ball long, preferring to play it short to Taylor or Nosworthy. Both of the big centre backs coped relatively well with their new roles and ball playing centre backs, and recovered well on the odd occasion that they were played into a bit of trouble. The problem came when the ball was played wide. Not, as one would expect, with Lloyd, but with Dickinson on the left. As well as being a rather incompetent defender, a role we have all become aware of in the last year, Dickinson has very little composure on the ball, and, faced with a three yard pass to Hogg or Murray, would much rather shank the ball down the line and out of play, or fire the ball aimlessly towards the front man. Luckily Pudil will take over this position, when fit, but Dickinson will struggle to adapt to a strictly passing game should he ever be called upon as a back up.
In general, the side coped well with the change in style. Of course, under Mackay and Dyche we were not the long ball merchants that the press liked to portray us as, but played with a mix of styles, adapted to suit the occasion. Part of Brendan Rodger’s problem at Watford was that that he had no Plan B, and this led to inane, tedious football with very little result. It is a worry that if Zola is preparing us to play “nice” football at all times, we may be quite easily nullified by well-versed opposition, and that we could see a lot of low scoring games this season. This is even more likely to be the case if we don’t find some cutting edge from somewhere in the next few weeks.
I feel that the idea is to play a 4-5-5 formation, that is to say a 4-3-3, where the two wingers and full backs push up when in possession and push back when not in possession. Murray and Yeates were not playing especially wide on Sunday – indeed, Murray was given free reign over the space between midfield and attack – but were back and forth quite a bit. The acquisition of Pudil, a player who can play both full back and on the wing, should help with the pushing up of the full backs, and will contribute to attacks more as a left midfielder than an attacking left back.
This system, with two more industrious midfielders in Hogg and Eustace, and a more advanced man (Buaben/Abdi), requires a focal point up front. Joe Garner is admirably hard-working and puts himself about commendably, but produces absolutely no goal threat, and does not bring others into the game or create chances. It is odd that he has been the striker of choice throughout pre-season given his clear inadequacy. On Sunday, we threatened far more once Iwelumo replaced him, as the big man continued his form from the back end of last season and held the ball up and generally caused trouble in the Spurs back line. It seems, however, that Iwelumo is not destined to stay at Watford for much longer, with rumours suggesting that Zola is willing to let him go for free. With Beleck, a big unit himself, and Vydra having already arrived, and DJ Campbell and Udinese striker Alex Geijo reportedly inbound, we can afford to let him go, but we need one of these new men to be able not only to create chances for himself, but to be able to continue moves along and to create chances for others.
In my opinion, a key man to how this season progresses will be Prince Buaben. When he first came into the team in late 2011 he instantly linked up well with Marvin Sordell and provided something different to the other central midfielders at the club. There is no doubt that he has the greatest composure of the old midfielders (I haven’t got a chance to see Abdi for myself yet) and could provide a great link between midfield and attack with a foundation of two ball-winning midfielders behind him, provided he forms a good relationship with the incoming striker.
The game itself was a bit dour. Murray was effervescent, Yeates was surprisingly able, but we produced very little, but hopefully that will change as we get more used to the new system and come up against defences that don’t include Jan Vertonghen. The defence, barring the switching-off that led to Defoe sneaking in to score the game’s only goal, was solid and generally untroubled.
With rumours going around that there will be some big names leaving in the next week, and with Zola himself admitting that there could be up to three more players joining this summer, all off this could be rendered pointless. Although I expected to see this season’s first team start against Spurs, I would be very surprised if we didn’t get a better idea of a first eleven tonight at Gillingham, with the competitive season starting on Saturday against Wycombe.
Check back here to find reaction to any comings or goings in the coming week…