When the Gino Pozzo rocked up to Vicarage Road this summer and initiated more change than can be found in a programme seller’s fanny pack there were more than a few voices of doubt. The Harefield stuff, the never-ending horde of loanees, Sean Dyche’s exit and the diversifying of the hitherto fish and chips, stiff upper lip British staff were all sources of reservation for the onlooking support. But, just as with the soap operas that football often matches in drama, we were powerless to affect matters and had to take our place on the sidelines and watch how things unfolded – ‘time will tell’.
Now we’re six months into the season, which seems a good time to take a breather and see how things are going. You could just have a look at the league table – the true bearing of a football club’s success – and say that, looking well worth their 6th place, things are looking pretty good for Watford, but where’s the fun in that?
First, let’s look at the battalion who, at the behest of the Pozzos, grabbed their passports, packed a scarf and boarded a flight to start a revolution at London Colney – the “loanees” (with special guest appearances by the two free agents).
Appearances: 26 (0)
Briefly: Completely, entirely, constantly solid… most of the time.
A large part of growing up in Hertfordshire is being surrounded by Arsenal fans gloating about their glorious team romping to second place in the league – or crying about their terrible team limping to fourth place in the league – so it’s only natural to instantly downgrade any player being overhyped in the playground.
A large part of growing up in England is that all aspects of the media are so sensationalist that there are no good/alright/middling players – only demi-gods and donkeys. Because of this, it’s tough to get an accurate handle on a player like Manuel Almunia, a goalkeeper on a big stage making a few high profile rickets.
Save for a couple of ultimately-meaningless errors of late: letting Bakary Sako’s deep free-kick loop over his head and mishandling in the build-up to Brighton’s penalty a few weeks ago; Almunia has been a rock at the back. His handling is solid, he’s rarely at fault for goals (which makes him a nice change of pace from Scott Loach) and he’s a good vocal leader. At 35, he’ll have a couple of years left in him – be they in the Championship or the Premier League; and according to scholar Bernie Schotterl in the Charlton programme he’s very good with the young keepers. Jonathan Bond, still deputising, and looking assured on a big stage in the Etihad, will be keen to get a shot at regular first team football soon and though Almunia is doing a job now, it’s important that we keep an eye on the future goalkeeping situation.
So at this point, a solid goalkeeper with a pastoral approach to his understudies is exactly what we need.
Appearances: 14 (1)
Briefly: The glue that holds the back line together
ITWM’s reticence towards Almunia’s arrival was positively apotheosis-like compared to the horror at the signing of Fitz Hall. In our defence, Nyron Nosworthy and Lloyd Doyley were as-yet uninjured, Martin Taylor was still the big man on campus and it looked like only two of the vast central defensive corps would have a place in each line-up. But that’s no excuse for our undervaluing of Hall’s experience and no-nonsense playing style.
There’s not an awful lot more to say about Fitz. When he’s there he’s good in the air, fairly good on the ground and a stable and reliable core for the lesser experienced centre halves beside him to work around. When he’s not there, you notice – as evidenced by the four sloppy goals shipped to Charlton. All of the incoming defenders came with the basic description “cool head, likes to play the ball around” or “cultured”. This was all well and good, especially when we’re mucking around with this expansive style of ours, but it takes a Fitz Hall to tie it all together.
Like Almunia, Hall was given a one year contract, and although things are going well, Fitz may be weighing up his options as he looks for his last big contract (he turned 32 a couple of weeks ago), particularly given rumour of interest in his services from a few biggish clubs.
Appearances: 21 (2)
Briefly: An old hand that does what’s required
There are two types of Watford fan: those who think Marco Cassetti is a massive waste of space, a liability, an over-the-hill hack chasing his last pay-cheque; and those who think he’s an integral cog in what Gianfranco Zola is trying to achieve at the club. We at ITWM are in the latter camp.
35 he may be, his legs may be on their way out, and it is true, he is sometimes skinned for pace too easily, but he brings a consistency to the right side of the pitch, a cool head who knows what playing 3-5-2 is all about. Without him, we would be having to deploy young right backs unfamiliar with the role of wingback into a team full of unfamiliarity. Cassetti won’t be around forever, probably not beyond the end of this year, but his presence this season allows other players to be taught the in-and-outs of playing in a 3-5-2 behind closed doors, without the imposition of 15,000 critical supporters breathing down their necks.
Cassetti gets the job done, he defends ok, he attacks with class, and every so often manages to deliver a good final ball, but more importantly he is part of the process. Roma wasn’t built in a day.
Appearances: 12 (2)
Briefly: Composed and accomplished, until you’re 4-0 up
When he came in for the injured Neuton, we didn’t know what to expect. Carrying knocks and illness following his arrival, Ekstrand hadn’t had much of a look in at all – only five appearances in the match day squad – by the time he made his first start at home to Millwall in November. His form since then has been something of a pleasant surprise.
It would be amiss to attribute the fact that Watford have only lost twice in the twelve games that the Swede has started, winning seven, entirely to Ekstrand; but his influence is obvious. In the first few months the side impressed in fits and starts, but were let down by a fragile defence and an inconsistent attack. The continued gelling of the latter as the season has gone on has gained all of the acclaim from outsiders, but the sturdy base that has coincided with Ekstrand’s introduction has provided the jump-off point for the stylish brand of counter-attacking football that has wowed more than a few opposition managers.
For the most part, Ekstrand is without frills. Much like his defensive partner Tommie Hoban, he goes about nipping threats in the bud, with Fitz Hall mopping up anything that manages to develop into a threat. With those three, it often seems unthinkable that anything will be able to penetrate the central defensive stronghold. Perhaps this is emphasised by the contrast with Neuton before him, but there’s no denying that Ekstrand is perfectly suited to English football. He’s prone to switch off a bit when the team is coasting, which has cost the side a clean sheet in wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley. Still, who’s complaining?
Ekstrand should now be considered one of the priorities for securing on a permanent deal. Whether he’d be able to start regularly in the Premier League is uncertain, but at this level he’d walk into any team’s back three (they’ll all be at it soon!). If only he could get those thirty yard stingers an inch or two lower…
Appearances: 7 (1)
Briefly: Somewhere, a circus is missing its clown
I can’t believe that Neuton has only made seven starts for Watford. It seems so long ago that he was starting every game. Up until the foot injury that kept him out for two months, he was a first choice, preferred to Joel Ekstrand, and seemingly a permanent fixture in the team. Then Ekstrand came in, and was massively better.
When he arrived, we expected a Brazilian: good enough defender, but prone to maverick attacking surges. And that’s fine. Exciting. Brazil didn’t become the most revered and lauded footballing nation by creating sensible and functional teams, they played with joie de vivre and unbridled enthusiasm, and if getting that came at the expense of shipping a few soft goals, so be it.
But that’s not the case. He rarely ventures too far forward, he rarely overplays – but he also rarely defends. A liability in the air and susceptible to switching off completely with regards to marking duties, he’s the new Carl Dickinson.
But while Dicko partly made up for his defensive foibles with passion and a drive that served to ignite the crowd, Neuton simply makes his worse with clownish buffoonery, arguing with fellow defenders and play-acting to the referee. After his antics against Charlton, both Nyron Nosworthy and Lloyd Doyley, both making their way back to full match fitness after fairly long lay-offs, were preferred for the Manchester City game. It doesn’t look like that hierarchy is going to change any time soon.
Neuton may make a defender somewhere, but it won’t be in England.
Appearances: 2 (5)
Briefly: A classy player biding his time
Now, I’m going to level with you: due to work restraints in December, I’ve only seen Cristian in the flesh for a grand total of 7 minutes, coming on as a sub against Forest. In fairness, nobody has seen too much of the midfielder – only those who made it to his 90 minute run-outs at Blackpool and Middlesbrough and his reportedly impressive 20 minute spell at home to Barnsley will have been able to garner an impression.
He, along with Mujangi Bia, will be hoping to feature a lot more in the coming months, and will have gained confidence from increased activity over the Christmas period. That troublesome Mark Yeates still (rumoured January move pending) lies between him and his status as heir to the central midfield throne, though they offer different qualities, but with Nathaniel Chalobah coming to the business end of his first season as a professional footballer, and Almen Abdi, he of the weakened shoulder, being increasingly targeted by opposition destroyers, his time will come.
Taking Jonathan Hogg’s place in midfield for the Middlesbrough game, he showed that he is more than capable to contribute to the counter attacking game that Watford adopt when playing away from home. As the game wore on and Boro chased the game and became stretched and scantily represented in midfield, he was afforded the luxury of space when receiving early passes from the brick wall of a back line. With this space he marauded around, picking pass after pass and looking a constant attacking threat. Hopefully, in the coming months, we’ll see this threat more often.
Appearances: 18 (1)
Briefly: Potentially, the future of England’s midfield
A defender, he ain’t. To restrain such dynamism in a back-line would be to the detriment of football as a whole. Readers of ITWM will be well aware of Chalobah’s qualities and just how highly we rate him. The extension of his loan deal until May will probably prove to be the highlight of Watford’s transfer window. We’ve heard it all before, skills and confidence that belie his age, athleticism, a cool head – Nat has the makings of a fine fine player: the type of player that has been missing from an England line-up for quite some time.
But there’s the problem. So impressed are we with the lad that his future is being written for him before he’s even played 20 professional games. In the last couple of months, there have been signs that he’s becoming a bit too over-confident. Against Charlton he was able to swan around the midfield with ease at first, but as soon as the Addicks got back into the game he disappeared – a similar thing happened against Manchester City. His age has been scoffed at with incredulity –‘he’s only 17?’, we said; but we have to remember that just because he plays like he’s in his mid-20s, doesn’t mean his body isn’t that of a teenager. In a recent interview, Jack Wilshere recalled advice from ex-prodigy Cesc Fabregas – ‘Take it easy, don’t play too many games’. By the time he turned 20, the Spaniard had started in 99 Premier League games for Arsenal, so he’d know about burnout.
Chalobah could be pivotal in the run-in this season, but it’s important that we utilise our large squad to make sure that he’s not out of the reckoning by March.
Jean Alain Fanchone
Briefly: Left back… in the changing room (only joking – he rarely makes it that far)
I wasn’t there for Fanchone’s sole turn-out for the first team – the 1-0 defeat to Blackburn – but by all accounts he wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately for him, Daniel Pudil is, along with Almen Abdi, the most consistent of the Pozzo Bunch. Perhaps his lack of action may also be down to his inadequacy.
We may never know. Whilst other lesser-spotted loanees like Battocchio and Bia have started to be more involved in matchday squads of late, Fanchone has only been called upon in times of dire need, and it seems inevitable that he will be on his way back to Udinese some time in the next month.
Update: A few hours after this article was published, Fanchone had his loan deal terminated by mutual consent. Before he had time to check back in at Udinese, they’d sent him to Nimes, currently 9th in Ligue 2 in his native France. Thus ends the legend of Jean Alain Fanchone.
Appearances: 23 (0)
Briefly: Good solid Championship wing-back.
In his time at Watford, Daniel Pudil’s seen a lot of new players turn up at Watford. Having officially signed on the 9th July, Pudil now has the right to call himself one of the team’s longest serving players, and after 23 league starts he feels like part of the furniture.
He started well, as a left back he was secure, if a tiny bit prone to being beaten for pace, whilst as a wing-back he was able to combine his ability to get up and down the touchline with a solid defensive capability. Of late, however, we at ITWM Towers have started having our doubts. He gets forward well, and through good timing of runs often finds himself in a lot of space – but his crossing is often poor. He defends well, and is a vital part of playing the ball out from the back, but is often caught out of position and can be entirely bypassed at times with intelligent movement from an opposition winger.
There is a lot of good about Danny Pudil, but not a lot of great. Perhaps that’s just familiarity. If you see a player enough times, you’re bound to notice his flaws. But looking forward, possibly to the Premier League, I’m not sure if he’ll command a starting place as he does now. Against Manchester City he had a shocker; James Milner acted as if he wasn’t there most of the time, and got results. Yes, it’s Man City, champions of all the land, but Pudil looked more out of place than anyone on the pitch, and was duly substituted at half time. Everyone has off days, but the constant exploiting of a problem that we’ve seen crop up before with Pudil was worrying.
I have a lot of time for Danny. He’s a family man, and takes pride in combining his home life with his professional one, which is rare for footballers these days, and he is definitely a good Championship full back. Whether he’ll be able to push on and improve on some of his defensive frailties is a different matter.
Appearances: 19 (1)
Briefly: A class above.
The three undeniable successes of the season, loan-wise, have been Vydra, Forestieri and Almen Abdi. In Vydra, you have the goalscorer – the guy who gets it done and wins matches. Forestieri is more of a showman, the dressing to the salad, the onion rings to the burger – he might not strictly be necessary, but you’re delighted he’s there. Almen Abdi falls somewhere between the two.
He is the metronome of Watford’s midfield. When it’s at its very best, flowing around in a flurry of short, incisive passes, Abdi will be there, conducting it all. Jonathan Hogg, the leader of the midfield, may be the heart, but the rarely ruffled Kosovan is the brains (Nathaniel Chalobah, with his swagger and vitality, would probably be best paired with a personal part of the anatomy).
So while Forestieri is the fun, and Vydra is the punch, Abdi combines the two to create an ability to conjure up assists and “key passes” in such a demure and laconic fashion that it becomes a joy to watch. Abdi came with high hopes: at an age where he should be reaching his peak and with some experience of European competition – and after taking a few games to fully get into his stride has not disappointed.
As part of the triumvirate outlined above, Gianluca Nani will surely be doing all he can to make Abdi’s stay permanent. But while the other two wear their hearts on their sleeves and, “Fessi” in particular, are clearly taking to England like a child takes to Toys R Us, it is hard to tell what Abdi is thinking. I’ve no doubt he could get a deal elsewhere should he want to. It strikes me that he’s something of a Dimitar Berbatov – a man who will pluck a ball out of the air with the outside of his boot, in the same motion flick it over the head of a nearby defender right into the path of a teammate, and turn around, give a half-hearted shrug and go off for a fag and a read of some Camus.
Geoffrey Mujangi Bia
Appearances: 0 (2)
Briefly: Running out of time to show what he’s got
For a fairly young player, coming over to a new country to play football must be daunting, to do so when there’s such competition for places must be extremely challenging, and to do so as a winger in a wingerless team must be nigh on impossible. It was not long after a fairly impressive debut on the flank of a front three against Bradford that Zola decided to change tack and go with a permanent 3-5-2 formation. With two ready-made wing-backs in Pudil and Cassetti, this meant that every other wide player was now playing catch-up.
While Sean Murray has the comfort of a five year contract whilst he goes about adapting, Bia has only a few months to persuade the coaching staff that he’s worth a permanent contract. A few recent forays as replacement for Cassetti have shown that he’s getting there, but he is a winger at heart and, like Ikechi Anya, is hindered from showing his full array of talents when deployed in a more defensive duty.
The second half of the season, when postponed games are rescheduled and first team regulars’ bodies start to fade, is when the large squad will come into its own, and when fringe players like Bia will get a chance to shine. Zola is clearly keen to find a place for him; he just needs to make sure he stays there when he gets one.
Appearances: 3 (7)
Briefly: Raw, at the age of 25.
Ikechi Anya is fast. Really fast. That’s a good start for a footballer. Heck, it’s often all a footballer needs (stand up Gabby Agbonlahor). We haven’t yet seen if Kech has any other facets to his game. Sure, he’s got a few tricks, and his change of pace is impressive, but I’m not sure he’s refined enough to really cut it as a top Championship winger.
There’s the other rub, we don’t play no wingers, and if he’s to fit in at wing-back, as he has done, well, a few times, he has to have a more rounded game. When he does play and gets forward, he needs to use his pace more. I’m sure he’s been told to a certain degree not to just bolt off up the pitch, as is evidenced by Pudil’s similar reticence to do so, but too often he is led down a corridor by a full-back instead of using what his mother gave him and skinning him with his speed.
I like Anya as a squad player, and he seems to be a lovely, humble bloke on Twitter. He’s a useful asset to have on the bench, and if we’re still in this division come summer, I can see him getting an extended deal.
Appearances: 14 (8)
ITWM (10.07.2012) ‘Incoming: Pudil and Vydra’ –‘he has … a fair amount of pace, and a pretty tasty finish in him.’ See? We’re not always wrong.
Matej Vydra is a goalscorer. Pure and simple. True, he doesn’t track back too much and you won’t find him diving in the way of shots in his own six yard box, but he is quick as lightning and twice as deadly. Give him a chance, and he’ll score. A shot conversion rate of 46.7%, the top in all of the 92 clubs, says it all. Only Tamas Priskin – or, at least, the Tamas Priskin of a few months in early 2009 – could rival him in the last few decades for ruthless finishing. His pace and intelligent runs create one-on-ones and his unerring confidence completes them.
After the Man City game, when Forestieri missed a gilt-edged chance to equalise, I read someone saying: ‘If that had been Vydra, he would have lifted it over the keeper…’. The brilliance of Vydra’s finishing is that he has no set style. Priskin would always vouch for the chip before anything else, but when the Czech goes through it’s just as likely to go through the keeper’s five-hole as it is to be curled into the top corner, clipped into the bottom corner or lofted over his head. This unpredictability makes him all the more lethal.
Some would say that Vydra has been under-utilised this season; that his record of a goal every 100.64 minutes (second only in the Championship to Palace’s Glenn Murray who bags every 91.73) suggest that he should have started many more games than he has. At the going rate, if he’d played for the same duration as Murray, he’d be sitting pretty on 20 goals right now. That, however, doesn’t take into account the position Vydra was in when he arrived at the club.
He had just turned 18 when he was bought for around €4 million by Udinese, having spent the previous two years finding his feet in the professional game with increasingly-regular game time at Czech Second division outfit Vysočina Jihlava and then the larger Baník Ostrava. After a year in the reserves, he was loaned out to Club Brugge but returned after one game with a ligament injury that would see him miss a year of football.
It’s easy to forget that Vydra is not yet 21, and though he has been highly rated for some time, he has not been exposed to this much regular football at any point in his career, let alone since his bad injury. So while we might see a good player and prolific goalscorer occasionally sitting on the bench, fans should be aware that the kid has already played 320 minutes more than in any other season in his career, despite not having any kind of pre-season and if we are to harbour hopes of promotion, we’ll need a goalscorer like Vydra to stay fit through May.
Appearances: 12 (2)
Briefly: A joy to behold
Ask yourself: why do you like football? What do you get out of it? Do you go to see your team win, or do you go for the act itself – to see a game taken up the world over played to levels you could only dream of attaining? If you’re only in it for the three points, Fernando Forestieri is wasted on you. Sure, he chips in with the odd goal, he can be a match-winner, but it’s his verve, his panache, his ability and tendency to do something completely unexpected that makes him who he is. And, by God, if he isn’t the most precocious little scamp…
Are there a few issues? Sure. When he first arrived he – let’s not beat around the bush – dived. A lot. But as he’s adapted to England he has developed grit, a bit of that bloody mindedness that is so often associated with these shores. Who could have foreseen him tracking back with such determination, putting his body on the line to prolong a budding counter-attack? And this, combined with his ludicrous balance, ball skills and indefatigable energy makes a pretty good player, and one that lights up any football match that he takes part in.
The announcement that he had signed a 5-and-a-half year deal with the club was made to great cheer among the masses, and no little resentment from the fans of other clubs looking in. And though they might leave Vicarage Road spouting about ‘that little Italian kid who takes the proverbial with his diving’, they want a player like Forestieri brightening up their Saturday afternoons. They moan because they want, he is the Cassio to their Iago, the Hey Arnold to their Helga. But they can’t have him – he’s ours.
And he’s great fun on Twitter (unless you live in Bristol).
Steve Leo Beleck
Appearances: 0 (5)
Briefly: A belligerent waste of talent
We haven’t seen nearly enough of Beleck to make a definitive judgement (39 minutes of league football, to be precise), but whether that’s down to the exceptional competition for his place or his talent is not clear. True, both Troy Deeney and, lately, Alex Geijo, have impressed in the big man role up front, but there is a lot to suggest that the young Cameroonian would have got more of a look-in if he’d pulled his finger out a bit more.
‘Sources close to ITWM’ reveal that Beleck is both a big drinker and a big smoker. Neither of these are themselves necessarily a bad thing: Wayne Rooney chain smokes, and he’s not bad (he’d probably be a lot better if he didn’t of course, or eat too much, or wasn’t a massive knob – but I digress) but for a young player trying to muscle his way into a new team, it seems like an unnecessary hindrance. And his off-the-pitch conduct is something the management are concerned with, following an internal warning for his conduct away from the club. What they expected from a teenager from Cameroon given lots of money and a house to himself in a foreign land I don’t know.
As we mentioned in our ‘Incoming’ piece, Beleck got off to a slow start at AEK Athens, possibly while he settled in to living on his own in a new country – which seems be his problem now – but did eventually make an impact. And from what little we’ve seen of him, he seems to have some talent. Strong as an ox, good on the turn, but once again let down by naivety and petulance – he goes down awfully easily for someone as built as him, and generally in this country that won’t be as productive as in Italy.
His loan-within-a-loan to Stevenage (which has reportedly not gone down too well with the FA) will give him a chance to prove himself. He’ll still be operating in the same area, so can continue to adapt to life on his own in Hertfordshire and, given the scarcity of striking options for Boro, should get a fair amount of game time. That he wasn’t sent back to Italy shows that the club still retain hope that he’ll become an asset to the club.
Considering the large numbers of players and staff who came over from the continent in the Summer, that Beleck – who’s still only 19, of course – is having the biggest culture shock is something of a blessing. Forestieri adapted quickly given game time, and maybe Beleck will too, if he can muscle his way into the team. God knows nobody wants the second coming of Gifton more than me!
Appearances: 5 (6)
Briefly: Starting to find his feet
When Alex Geijo came to the club, it was as the saviour of our front line. Troy Deeney was in prison and his future at the club was uncertain, Joe Garner was the incumbent number 9. It was a sorry state of affairs.
By the time he found fitness following a summer of inactivity, Deeney was leading the line, leading the team, and had made his spot in the team undisputed.
Zola’s variation between set-ups home and away – suited to breaking down deep banks of defenders at Vicarage Road, and exploiting space for counter-attacks abroad – means that Geijo’s action has been limited mainly to away games. His fantastic touch and technique, matched with Matej Vydra’s intelligent runs and incisive pace, mean the two have combined to good effect. At home, where defences are more steadfastly set-up to prevent Watford’s potent attack, he has found space in which to work his magic hard to come by, when he’s gotten on the pitch at all. He has only spent 159 minutes on the hallowed turf, 90 of which came on New Year’s day against Charlton.
Troy Deeney has been preferred, with his combative style and physical prowess playing a large part in our good form, but against Charlton, Geijo showed that he too can have a big influence on the game if he’s afforded just a little time on the ball. He drops deep well and with livewires like Forestieri and Vydra alongside him, has good outlets for his creativity.
Injury notwithstanding, I would expect Troy to remain top dog for the rest of the season, with Geijo playing the role of stand-in, but he’s much more than a stop-gap, and if Deeney was to miss out on a significant chunk of games for whatever reason, I’m confident that Geijo could do a good job.
So there we have it. As unlikely as it might have seemed at the outset of the season, the majority of the 14 loanees have proven to be a success on the field. Of course, this favourable opinion is largely down to the fantastic form that the side have enjoyed since October, and that form is in no small part down to the players that were already here, the ones who have fought for their place and have retained a spine of the old Watford, to go with the intriguing new coating.
But what has made this season so enjoyable, other than the standard of play on the pitch, is that most of the players seem to have bought into the Watford Way. It wasn’t just for practical reasons that the surge of incoming players raised eyebrows, there was a real worry that the club’s identity would be eroded and that they wouldn’t get what the club means to the fans.
It is, of course, still early days in the Pozzo era at Watford Football Club, but so far, the players that have come in have been eager to interact with the community, have gelled well with the existing squad and genuinely show pride at playing for the club – one which most of them probably hadn’t heard of until they were told they were coming here.