Don’t Panic! (Part One)

‘Keep calm and carry on’. The words are enough to send any right-thinking person ducking for cover. In the last few years the words have gone from being a wistful hark back to the stoic days of triumph in adversity, the Blitz spirit, not letting a seemingly hopeless situation get you down, to a vapid cliché of modern mundanity. Which is a shame, because a lot of Watford fans could do a lot worse than to heed the phrase’s ever diminishing message.

It is not uncommon in times of upheaval to make mountains out of molehills – a worry here becomes an impending catastrophe, a poor decision there is made out to be worse than Hitler opting to have a pop at the Russians. Watford’s start to the season hasn’t been the best, that much is certain, but there have been a lot of positives as well as the negatives that a lot of fans are picking up on. So let us put your mind at ease, as we try to rationalise a few of the most popular howls of panic.

Kevin Davies beats Nosworthy and Neuton to a free kick delivery to put Bolton 2-0 up.

 We have no idea how to defend set pieces.

This is a particular favourite at the moment. And rightfully so. Four of the five goals shipped to Derby a few weeks ago came from corners and free-kicks, and Bolton exploited the same weaknesses for both of their first half goals at the weekend.

There are two reasons for this. The first is lack of training, the second is lack of leadership.

Lack of training is inexcusable. Employing a beautiful, flowing, expressive style is fine and can be effective even in the high tempo Championship, as long as you don’t fail to address one or two major issues that the league has to offer. One of these is set pieces. At a rough estimate, a third of all goals in the Championship are the result, direct or indirect, of a set piece – you can play all the pretty football you want, you can dominate 89 minutes of a game and run rings around the opposition, but if you can’t defend against corners and free-kicks, you won’t win.

A lack of training can be resolved in one fairly obvious way, and from his comments after the Bolton game, Zola knows that. It should have been priority number one after the Derby game, and that such soft goals were given up to one of the most fancied teams in the league by the same method is pretty infuriating, but I can imagine that the training ground is a pretty busy place at the moment.

If the weakness persists over the coming month, once Neuton or whoever is preferred alongside Nyron Nosworthy understands the importance of staying alert when the ball is launched into the area, then we can start to worry more, but for now, we should perhaps give the coaching staff the benefit of the doubt.

Something that will be harder for the coaches to address is the lack of leadership at the back. Martin Taylor was undoubtedly the rock at the back that everyone looked up to. Now he’s gone, somebody needs to fill his shoes. Manuel Almunia is an extremely vocal goalkeeper but can’t always be there to sort out the line; Lloyd Doyley, bless him, is experienced and respected in the changing room, but does not hold ‘Defensive Leader’ as one of his many epithets. In Daniel Pudil we have a full back who is often more interested in attacking than defending, and Neuton is a young guy still figuring out English football.

This leaves one. Nosworthy has done fantastically to keep hold of his place in the team. Since he’s arrived at the club he’s been incredible, but now, with Mariappa and Taylor gone, he needs to step up. The Jamaican is in his thirteenth professional campaign. He’s been there, and done that, so it’s down to him to take control of the back line and guide his less experiences colleagues through the tricky times.

Becoming a leader isn’t easy, you have to treat your own problems and duties with the same diligence and urgency, whilst looking out for others at the same time, you have to shout and cajole for 90 minutes, but Nos’ time is now: he’s not the hero we deserve, but the one we need.

Our squad is too big.

At present Watford have 40 players on professional terms. Despite Franco telling us that there would be a lot of outgoings as well as incomings, that hasn’t really been the case – only three players have left on loan: Adam Thompson to Wycombe, Dale Bennett to AFC Wimbledon and Britt Assombalonga to Southend, and there has been just the two permanent switches in Martin Taylorand Gavin Massey. Of the 37 players, two or three will be on personal injury programmes at any one time, so let’s assume that there are 35 bodies reporting for training every day and competing for a place in the matchday squad.

The glaring problem with this is morale. If you’ve been a first team regular in previous seasons, and are now facing five extra guys that can play your position, you’re not going to be happy, especially if it means you aren’t getting near the squad. For example… nobody.

All of the players who featured extensively last season have seen the pitch this year. John Eustace and Prince Buaben have been injured for the majority of the games so far, so their action has been limited, but there has been no palming off of the old guard in favour for young pretenders – everyone has been given a chance to lose their place in the team.

In recent years, the squad has been almost exclusively British, with any foreign-born players coming with extensive experience in British football. This has helped to create a close-knit group, after all the first step towards getting along is communication. Now the squad list is positively cosmopolitan, and the diversity of the squad as much as its size causes a bit of a problem – communication is no longer so easy to come by.

But there are factors that make this cohesion easier than if such a mass immigration occurred elsewhere. Most of our new guys already know each other from Udinese, so will not feel like they’re all on their own in a strange foreign land. We’ve also seen examples of the English speakers helping to integrate their learning compatriots – if you’re on Twitter you may have seen extensive coverage of Daniel Pudil taking Matej Vydra to a ‘hair salon’. Which was engrossing.

Zola has said that incoming players will have a honeymoon period to get used to the language but will begin to receive fines if they aren’t progressing in their studies. Fans can only be buoyed by this attempt to create one communicable group.

As for the issue of numbers, there’s the great positive of competition. Every professional wants to play football, in years gone by some may have become comfortable with their starting place and rested on their laurels. Now, if a player gets a starting spot, he knows he has to play and train to the best of his ability every time he pulls his boots on. Connor Smith has already shown that everyone has a clean slate, and that if you train hard enough you’ll be involved. Watford have ambitions to be a Premier League club, and numbers like this promote a Premier League mentality. Three or four fewer players would be ideal, but the size of the squad is not fatal.

Disagree? Think that Watford fans have an excuse for being pessimistic? Leave a comment below.

More fires will be put out later on today, so stay tuned!

One comment

  1. Firstly I just want to start off by saying I really enjoy your website and appreciate a different take on events from the normal Wobby reports, the guff on the website and cretin-fuelled Watford forums.

    I’d like to say that unfortunately I don’t agree with you saying our ability (or inability) to defend set pieces is something we shouldn’t be worried about. If you look back through history at teams who have started a season conceding sloppy goals from set pieces they have then carried on their poor form even when they have shored up the defensive duties.
    Bolton last season for example. Early on in the season they let in some awful set pieces, and once they sorted out defending set pieces they couldn’t seem to string any ounce of form together.
    My theory on this is that if you acknowledge you have a problem defending set pieces – you rigorously have your players practicing how to defend them in training. Endless drills for weeks specializing on one thing. Once your team are capable of this you then find that you’ve spent weeks concentrating on one thing and building other specific team drills will then take a further few weeks to start having a positive effect on the match day performance of your team. Before you know if your 2 months behind all other teams who have (and i’m taking natural squad ability out of the equation here) started out with an even balance.
    When you then delve further into the above and look at our squad – a team needing time to gel and bond together as a group…how can our squad both bond, learn to defend set pieces and all the while learn new tactics and take new methods on board? It’s an awful lot to ask especially when we have so many players coming to England for the first time in their careers.

    What effect is this going to have in the long term for our “project”? Well I think we can pretty much write this season off, and pray that we learn something about the players we have in the squad and get to a point where we can name at least 5 players you would be confident could get us out of the Championship. It will probably mean that we will have to add to them 5 another 6 who are capable of being squad players who are able to play a part in getting you out of the division. It will also need us to then make further changes during pre-season and bring more bodies in next season to hopefully make the 5 players above into 7-8. Once we get to that point I believe we then have a chance of getting into the Premiership. For me this is going to take the next 2 seasons of us building as a club rather than within the next 2 years challenging.

    You may think something as simple as learning to defend set pieces isn’t crucial or cause for over concern right now – and only time will tell – but my main point is that it will be detracting from other priorities in our training methods and team building which we need to be undertaking with such an influx of players.

    The Birmingham game was fantastic. It then fell apart at Derby. We then spend time working on the problems we learnt from the Derby game – and haven’t really picked ourselves up from that point.

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