Half-Term Report: Gianfranco Zola

By the time the summer transfer window finally slammed shut, those keeping an eye on Watford’s transfer activity would have needed four different appendages to count the players signing up for the first season of a brave new Watford world. With sixteen in total, it was not so much the quality of the players that was causing uproar amongst Watford fans and the wider football community, but the circumstances in which they were arriving. The same can be said of Gianfranco Zola’s appointment as Head Coach at the club.

It was not that he was considered inadequate for the post (though questions of his ability had arisen following his second season ‘failure’ at West Ham) and indeed many were delighted that a man of his footballing calibre and renown was donning a tracksuit bearing the insignia of little old Watford; what irked the watching many was that his presence was the symbol of the harsh dismissal of his forbear, Sean Dyche.

Too many times, football fans in this country have witnessed foreign investment arrive at a club and rashly dispose of the incumbent manager, only to appoint an unsuitable, if not inferior, successor: Steve Kean for Sam Allardyce at Blackburn, Sven-Goran Eriksson for Ian McParland at Notts County, Sven-Goran Eriksson for Paolo Sousa at Leicester. That the Pozzo family had a background in football was encouraging, but the decision to bring in a hitherto unproven manager at the expense of a man who’d worked wonders to get a rag-tag squad to a respectable league finish the season before rang alarm bells.

We wrote in the summer that the switch would probably work out best for both parties: Dyche leaving with his stock still high would be able to get a good job, and Watford could go forward with raised ambitions and a more expansive style with a manager who had been there and done that as a player. And that, pretty much, has come to pass. Dyche is now in charge of a better and more balanced squad at Burnley than the one he had last year. As you would expect with a good honest worker like Dyche, he’s sorted out some of their inefficiencies, as fansite NoNayNever summarised to us: ‘Much improved defensively, but now it’s time to release the shackles and add more creativity to the team.’ But would he have been able to accomplish what Gianfranco Zola has at Watford in so short a space of time?

I think it goes without saying, at least for the time being, that Zola’s stint in charge has been a resounding success. Sitting pretty in 6th place with a game in hand of all of the teams above them, Zola’s Watford have adapted to their unusual circumstances quickly to produce a winning brand of football that’s also easy on the eye. The season began inconsistently, with short bursts of impressive, continental stuff outnumbered by sloppy mistakes and the frustration at encountering solid defences and industrious midfields. This wasn’t helped by the fact that three players who are now fixtures in the side (Nathaniel Chalobah, Joel Ekstrand and Fernando Forestieri) didn’t show up until deadline day.

But the bursts got longer and more frequent. Since the beginning of November, when the side really got going, Watford have averaged the highest points per game in the division with 2.08 (Cardiff 2.07, Hull 1.93). In that same period they have outscored each and every team in English football, bar those minnows Manchester United who equal the Hornets with 32 in 13 games (both conceding 16).  Zola, way ahead of schedule, has moulded a team that’s fun to watch, wins games and is starting to get quite a bit of media recognition.

Championship league table from 1st November 2012 - statto.com

Championship league table (top half) from 1st November 2012 – statto.com

This style is one of the reasons that the Pozzos and Gianluca Nani were keen to get Zola in position at the club. It may be pandering to the stereotype of English football being overly self-assured and  primitive regarding tactics and the utilisation of technique, but to listen to most Italian managers is to hear talk of philosophies and a great understanding of the art of football, something you don’t get with managers as thoroughly English as Sean Dyche.

Dyche’s preferred style of football was not unattractive by any means, though he concentrated on being able to play a number of ways ‘to suit the situation’. Often this led to matches getting ugly: when a passing game did not initially work, long balls were often resorted to. With Zola, one gets a feeling of a more considered and sophisticated variation. Starting the campaign deploying a 4-3-3 formation, he soon shuffled the team to the 3-5-2 that he had prepared for during pre-season. It was not a rash move, a spur-of-the-moment attempt to increase the team’s fortunes but a readily-prepared Plan B that has become the lynchpin to our counter-attacking prowess.

Our tactical flexibility and strength in personnel means that we have become a team that has to be planned against. That might be the greatest statement of the team’s progression. In times gone by we have been the sort of team that turns up, playing the same old 4-4-2, with maybe a pacy winger there and a tricky striker there, but never have we been anything out of the ordinary, something that’s different to what opposition managers are encountering every week of the year. The teams that have really made the side look ordinary are the ones who have come to Vicarage Road with a devised gameplan, have packed the midfield and stifled the creativity and build-up of Abdi, Chalobah et al. It might sound odd, given the league position that Watford currently inhabit and the standard of players we’re now seeing pass through our club, but that, to me, is the most satisfactory thing about this most enjoyable season so far.

How much of that is down to Zola? It’s hard to say. Our great leap forward is of course thanks to the Pozzos parachuting in a payload of foreign starlets and backroom staff, but would the season have been as enjoyable as it has been so far had Dyche still been in the hotseat? Would we have gone to the Etihad to face the league champions and slung out an aggressive 3-4-3? Sure, it didn’t come off, but the reading of the teamsheet that day elicited more emotion – terror, mainly, but also excitement and amusement at Zola’s audacity – than entire matches during Dyche’s reign.

Of course, say the name Gianfranco Zola to any casual football supporter, and they won’t go on about his credentials as a manager of an unglamourous Championship club. No, Franco is English footballing royalty, and though his fame around the world was hindered somewhat by the generation of Italian forwards he was born into (Baggio, Mancini and Vialli), his is a talent still renowned around Europe. This too, was part of the package that was so enticing to the new owners.

It’s not clear how much say the players of the Pozzo familia have when a new home is suggested to them, but I have no doubt that the prospect of moving to a small town on the M25 (though no doubt it was advertised as London) was made a whole lot more enticing by the presence of a recognisable and eminent footballing name.  Using a famous manager for their pull factor is a dangerous thing, especially when you get saddled with aging names doing a favour to their agent or looking to pick up one last big contract, but Zola coupled with the Udinese recruitment system of importing promising young stars, means that the players being pulled are young and will be keen to impress their celebrated overseer.

And it’s not just players who benefit from Zola’s top-level experience and reputation. Having the Italian at the club has given the media a familiar face to latch on to. Watford have had their detractors in the written press and the lack of research done for other media coverage is often criticised by fans, but the presence of a man who is liked by virtually all of the bloodthirsty press corps (remember him bringing them tea outside his house when his West Ham job was crumbling?) is great for the image of the club. Imagine the ire that would have accompanied the Italian investment and mass of loanees if the manager had been someone like… Sven-Goran Eriksson.

And it’s easy to see why people warm to Zola. He’s softly spoken and well-mannered. The sheepish grin that accompanies an off the cuff joke in interviews is enough to melt the heart. I’d have him round for dinner in a heartbeat, and I’ve no doubt he’d be complimentary about the slightly overcooked lamb and would bring a lovely bottle of red with him.

There’s not really a bad word to say about Zola’s stint so far. His management of the unhelpfully large squad has been good, and there are few players who could feel aggrieved at how much game time they have been afforded. The results speak for themselves, as do the smiles that accompany the full-time whistle of most games. It’s a great time to be a Watford fan.

Now, who’d prefer it if Sean Dyche was still here?

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