We wrap up our note to the overly worried Watford fans out there. It’s important to stress that we’re not asking you to stop being sceptical, not telling you to just shut up and like what’s going on at the club, just to be patient, and not act like the sky is falling.
None of the new guys are fit.
Of the huge raft of players to have pitched up at Vicarage Road, only a few have actually seen any significant playing time.
If you believed the message boards it’s because of “muscle imbalance”, some buzzword spouted by the medical staff because they don’t know their arse from their elbow. Alex Geijo, our saviour, still isn’t match fit, Fitz Hall keeps picking up knocks, Steve Beleck is a wreck. We got rid of our old trusted physios and doctors just to get some Italians in, guys who are only here because they’re friends of Nani.
Perhaps, but they’re also here because their CV boasts experience in the one of the most knowledgeable and innovative institutions of sports science in the world – the Milan Lab.
A secretive laboratory that has no specific approach to physiotherapy, the Lab treats all players as unique subjects that must be given their own specific plans and routines to attain peak fitness. It is based not on responding to injuries, but preventing them, by performing huge amounts of tests and poring over results, statistics and graphs in order to truly understand a player’s body. Paolo Maldini was a rare breed, but it’s no coincidence that he managed to keep playing top level football until he was almost 41, especially with aging stars like Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf joining him in starring for Milan well into their 30s – the general rule of thumb is that the Milan Lab adds five years to a player’s career.
Marco Cesarini, the new Head of Medical at London Colney, was poached from the lab by Nani when he took charge at West Ham, along with our Head of Rehabilitation, Giorgio Gasparini. When the experiment in East London went south, Gasparini returned to Milan at the behest of the Rossoneri players themselves. There he helped one-time Watford target Pippo Inzaghi recover from a knee injury that threatened to end his career. After he completed his comeback with a brace against Real Madrid, the striker heaped praise on Gasparini for saving his career. In an interview with SixNews in 2010, he cited Mimmo Pezza, the masseur who helped one Franco Zola get fit for the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup final, as his medical hero.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that these guys know what they’re doing. This is a long term project, and if players are not fit immediately, they are not going to be risked to attain immediate payback only to succumb to injury a month or two down the line. We have enough players at the club that we don’t need to take risks on the fitness of squad members, a luxury we could not previously have afforded.
It’s all well and good having all these fancy dan defenders, but this is the Championship – it’s a whole different ball game down here.
Once upon a time, I visited a London-based games company to interview for the position of Quality Assurance Tester (play the game, find bugs etc). I met with the lead tester and talked to him all about the game’s predecessors, how I loved the intricacies of the game, spent all my time playing it, could go on for weeks listing my experiences with it down the years. When it came to him asking if I’d got any experience with QA Testing, I answered truthfully: no.
Good, he said. Better to get someone with a long history and love of the game and then teach them the ins and outs of the boring technical bit, than get someone who’s experienced in the industry and try to teach them something that they can only really fully appreciate after years of independent gameplay.
This, I believe, is where we stand with defenders like Neuton and Daniel Pudil – they are well versed in the style of football that Zola and the Pozzos want us to play. They play the ball out of defence, they’re confident on the ball, the want it, and want to take it forward themselves. When Neuton made his debut at Bolton, it seemed he was expecting more time on the ball than he got. The Championship is a fast and furious division, in the Premier League, centre backs have all the time in the world to pick a pass and play the ball amongst themselves – just ask Ashley Williams. Here, the moment you receive the ball, your Chopras, Helgusons and Doyles will all be barrelling at you at full pace, trying to make you make a mistake. It is, undoubtedly a massive culture shock to those used to being afforded space and time on the continent.
But is it not easier to adapt to that than to be a lumbering Championship centre back, used to the rigours of the direct, fast-paced game, and told to start carrying the ball, picking a precise pass and contributing more directly to attacks? Martin Taylor is a great pro, and showed in his short time in the system that he was more than capable of changing it up, but for the majority, to make wholesale changes to the way you play the game takes years – to learn to offload more quickly, to follow your man at set pieces and such, takes hard work, but takes a significantly shorter period of time.
It also means that if we make it into the Promised Land in the next few years, we will have ready-made defenders, players suited to the patient pace of the top flight. Give them some time to bed down and get used to the change of pace, and we will start to see results sooner rather than later.
Zola has no say over the players coming in.
When the manager revealed to the press that he didn’t want to lose Martin Taylor, multiple panic buttons were hit. People seemed to forget that the defender had asked to leave – though he didn’t force the issue – and that he was only sold once we had acquired three centre backs on the last day of the transfer window. He was a ready-made part of the back line, but clearly the people in charge of transfers thought that they had enough choice and quality at the back to let him go.
And there is no doubt that Zola is not the man initiating transfers. Of course, I am not privy to the dealings in the board room, but it seems pretty clear that the main man on the transfer front is Gianluca Nani. But what’s new? John Stephenson was in charge of transfers at the club for four years, and he brought in a host of very good players: Don Cowie, Danny Graham and Will Buckley among them. Sure, the manager was probably consulted on such transfers, but back then there was a far greater risk with incoming transfers. The club’s finances were always on shaky ground, and spending even £100,000 was a big outlay, especially as the players coming in were from the lower leagues, and were bought for their potential as much as their immediate ability. When Stephenson left for Brighton, Ross Wilson was brought to the club, and player recruitment made up a large part of his job description too.
With Nani using the Udinese link to bring in hordes of new players, accusations of not addressing Zola’s needs, instead just importing talent indiscriminately have surfaced. But these transfers hold no risk. Most of them have permanent deals written into them, meaning successes will remain at the club, and our agreement with the Friulians means that any failures can just be sent straight back or simply held back for a rainy day, at no cost to the club. This is not someone blowing our last hundred grand on some Carlos Kickaball who could turn out to be a flop, it’s a free bet, a bonus roll – no win no fee.
In modern football, the manager is never at the top of the player recruitment tree. Zola, like many managers these days, is just part of a management team, and is officially title ‘Head Coach’. Southampton’s rise through the leagues following Nicola Cortese’s purchase of the club has been swift, and in no small part because of Nigel Adkins’ leadership – but he’s played no role in bringing players to the club – he is merely given a whistle, some cones and a group of players and told to mould them into winners. And he has. Admittedly, this has led to a bit of a problem this year: despite the Saints badly needing defensive reinforcement for their assault on the Premier League, the recruitment guys have instead spent big on attack, chucking £13 million at Bologna for Gaston Ramirez and £3 million at Young Boys for Emmanuel Mayuka – but at least they’ve reached the big time.
And there is no debate as to who picks the team at Watford. Zola is given these players to bulk up the pool of talent available to him, but he’s under no pressure to actually play them. Nyron Nosworthy has held onto his starting spot despite pressure from a host of incoming defenders; Chris Iwelumo is fending off the new strikers; Marco Cassetti has failed thusfar to dislodge Lloyd Doyley. Zola plays who he wants. Some of the players that Nani has brought to the club have an awful lot of potential: Matej Vydra is already a hero in some parts, and Almen Abdi has a fair few admirers. If Bassini was still signing cheques his wallet couldn’t afford, we’d be signing nobody, and we’d have to make do.
It’s not ideal that so many players have been parachuted into the club from all corners of the globe, but it could be worse, it could be much worse.
I don’t want to be seen as a Pozzo apologist, the current situation at the club is not ideal, but I feel that an awful lot of the fans are confusing a different way of operating for a bad way of operating. This regime is not the status quo that we’re used to, but it’s what the club is, and we have to trust those that are in charge of it – at least for the time being.