Half-Term Report: Winners and Losers

Having looked at how the new guard have settled into life in leafy Hertfordshire, ITWM looks at which of last season’s squad have benefitted, and which have suffered from the new way of doing things…

Winners:

Troy Deeney 

There was a lot of debate over whether the club was right to retain the services of Troy after his conviction for a fracas in Birmingham city centre. The resolution of those in the anti-Deeney camp will have been severely tested since his return to the fold in late September, both because of his incredibly impressive form (11 goals in 22 games, 1 every 143 minutes) and, more importantly, his determination to put his indiscretion behind him and embrace his second chance in a hotly-desired profession. This is evident both through the team spirit he conjures and his interaction with fans on Twitter. Alex Geijo’s summer arrival heralded the advent of a new first-choice number 9, but Deeney’s renaissance has meant that the man that most had banked on to be the go-to guy going forward has only made 5 starts.

Even if you disregard his offence and subsequent stint in prison, Deeney’s performances this year have been revelatory. After struggling to cement a place in the team in his first year at the club, he snatched at the chance to replace Danny Graham as the club’s talismanic striker last season and proved many doubters wrong with his physical bludgeoning of defences yielding improved results. This year, however, he had shown that his bow has yet more strings. Though he often provides an injection of blood and thunder to an attack that is otherwise wine and jazz, Troy has shown a touch that is, as the saying goes, ‘great for a big lad’ and a finesse never before seen in the burly Brummie. The recent transitions of Rickie Lambert and Grant Holt from Championship battering rams to respected Premier League strikers suggest that Troy’s growth might not stop here, should Watford’s form spill over into a promotion.

Tommie Hoban

Nobody had Tommie Hoban in the sweepstake. Of the three players to have gone on loan to Wealdstone last season, Hoban was the least talked up. Stones fans reported the excitement and raw talent of Britt Assombalonga and of the maturity of Connor Smith, but Tommie’s spell seemed to pass by without comment.

Huddersfield away was the first instance of Zola fielding a 3-5-2, and with the abundance of centre halves at the club mostly injured (Nosworthy, Doyley, Ekstrand) or recently departed (the now long-forgotten Tiny Taylor) a third needed to be found. Enter Tommie Hoban, making his first appearance since coming off the bench at Preston to make his debut over a year prior.

We knew he was well thought of at the club, but surely it wasn’t worth changing the formation if it meant throwing a young and untested defender in at the deep end? But the formation worked, and so did Tommie.

A few months ago, Hoban was one of those youth players you don’t really expect anything from. There are youngsters heralded from upon high from the age of 16 and then there are Tommie Hobans, those who quietly develop and take their chance when they’re good and ready. A cool head, very good awareness and not bad at attacking a corner, Hoban looks a consummate pro, even though he’s only three months into his career.

The ‘injury’ that has kept him out for the last few weeks has come at an ideal time, coinciding with the return of Doyley and Nosworthy from injury. With squad depth like we have, there is no need to risk burning out a talent like Hoban’s.

The best thing about his emergence? It gives us a chance to stick two fingers up at Martin Samuel. He is proof that if youngsters are good and patient enough, they will be given a chance to shine.

Mark Yeates

Who foresaw this? Mark Yeates, that winger who hasn’t got the pace to beat a man on the outside, hasn’t got the trickery to beat a man on the inside and hasn’t got the cross to beat the first man with a delivery, has flourished among Gianfranco Zola’s wingless wonders. Written off by most, even before the summer’s injection of talent, Yeates seemed destined for an unglamourous League One side. Then fitness issues meant he had to play a part in the first few fixtures. “Never mind, he’ll be gone when such-and-such is fit” became “So he’s actually chosen Yeates?” became “No, you can’t drop Yeates, he’s doing too well.”

Moved into a more central position, Yeates’ lack of pace is no longer an issue. Those qualities that have been overshadowed by his inadequacies as a winger are finally showing. He has good vision and a neat little slide rule pass and the movement to do well in Zola’s compact and fluid midfield. He’s not going to pull up any trees, and with Cristian Battocchio starting to shine will most likely find his game time more limited as the season develops, but that he’s played as much as he has (15 league starts, 6 sub appearences) is already a win for him, and has shut up a lot of the braying public.

 

Going Nowhere:

Lloyd Doyley

It’s happened again. There were inklings that Lloyd’s testimonial against Spurs would be his swansong, that his role in the coming season would be a reduced one, if he featured at all. A couple of weeks into the season, those inklings increased into probabilities, as the full-back renowned for his less-than-stellar ball skills found himself trying to get into a team that didn’t play full-backs and focused on ball retention and controlled passing. But that doesn’t stop Lloyd.

Though not an ever-present, partly due to a calf injury that kept him out of action for a month and a half, Lloyd has reasserted himself as a prominent member of the group that have made the Watford defensive three such a solid backline in recent months. He’s worked on his composure on the ball – which reached its all-time high when a silky shimmy wrong-footed the rather more fancied David Silva in his comeback game – and has adapted once more to fit into a more central role. Lloyd is going nowhere fast. And that’s a good thing.

 

Losers:

Sean Murray

“That boy Sean Murray, he’s one of our own”. For five months the refrain rang around every ground that a reborn Watford trudged into. After a limp start to the season, the introduction to the side of the 18 year-old Murray in January seemed to rejuvenate the team and give them new lease of life. Suddenly we were more than a match for anyone. As the summer rolled on and the signings rolled in, there was one sure-fire fixture in the team: ‘this new guy can play wide-left, that will give balance to Murray on the right’, ‘oh good, with Murray putting crosses in, that guy’ll score a hatful’ etcetera etcetera.

That this hasn’t come to pass is not all attributable to the kid himself. Though he rose through the youth ranks playing all over the front line and midfield, all Murray knew in the professional game was the right wing – there was no need to shift him around last season, as soon as he set foot there, it was where he belonged. Now, there are no wingers and he’s had to adapt and show that he’s worthy of a place either in the midfield three (with established players like Abdi and Hogg, not to mention the ridiculously good Chalobah to displace), or as the big man’s foil up front (Forestieri and Vydra). In his one start since the change of shape at the backend of September, Murray looked a little lost as struggled to impact the game as a central midfielder in the 4-3 defeat at home to Charlton. His rustiness was to be expected, as he had only featured minorly for the previous two months, racking up five brief sub appearences since September 22nd.

There have been questions over Murray’s attitude, with lots of reports of the young Irishman going on too many nights out and generally taking his eye off the ball. Whether this is the case or not is uncertain, but if it were true, then it wouldn’t aid his cause of getting back in the side. Of course, being the bright young thing one minute and being on the periphery the next would be a blow, and with the praise that Murray was receiving last season, he could be forgiven for thinking that he’d made it.

Murray’s five year contract gives him ample time to develop at his own speed, and takes off the pressure to maintain/regain his initial form, but it is important that he doesn’t use that security as a crutch. Sean has the talent to go a long, long way in the game, and as with so many young prodigies it’s simply a case of harnessing and maximising that talent. After being white-hot from the outset, he’s gone off the boil of late, a loan deal to a Brentford or similar would serve to get him playing regular football and keeping his eye on the very attainable prize.

Jonathan Bond

To say Bond’s stock has fallen would be unfair. At 19, he is second choice to a former Champions’ League finalist at a promotion-seeking club and has, in his two games so far this campaign, looked solid (if we forget the wayward punch that gave Bradford a leg up on their remarkable Carling Cup journey). Most young keepers would kill to be in Bond’s position, but heading into the summer, before the arrival of the Pozzos, it looked like it could have been even better for him.

As Scott Loach fumbled his way through the season last year, with Rene Gilmartin looking on in gormless frustration, Bond was away on loan, quietly making his way up the pyramid. In the Blue Square Premier, his four games at Dave Hockaday’s Forest Green Rovers produced an aggregate score of 13-4 to the Watford FC Old Boys. From there he went straight to League Two Dagenham & Redbridge where, a 4-0 drubbing at Swindon aside, more positive results were forthcoming. A few weeks after his month in East London ended, he was parachuted into Bury to help them stave off relegation from League One. Success.

So going into the summer holidays, things were looking up for Bond. Gilmartin was released, and passed Bury on his way down to lowly Plymouth; Tomasz Kuszczak’s loan spell had finished and he was destined for bigger and better things. The one thing standing between Bond and a starting spot was the calamitous Scott Loach. Even if he hadn’t taken the number one spot from him, chances would be forthcoming throughout the season, as Dyche had shown that he did not completely trust Loach. Then came the Pozzos. Then Zola. Then Almunia.

Bond is still young, but his performance at Man City suggested that he’s more than ready to try his hand at Championship level. If Dyche had still been around, he probably would have done. Instead, he’s had to bide his time a bit longer. There have been rumours that, with his contract up this summer, he’s considering other options: Cardiff, with the mostly tepid David Marshall, seem a good bet. Almunia is only on a one year contract, so Bond’s future probably depends on what happens with that. Hopefully we get to see the young “Welshman” showcase his potential soon.

Prince Buaben

It’s hard to say how much the Pozzos’ presence has hindered Prince’s Watford career. It looked as if he’d play a significant role, at least in the early part of the season. But then he picked up a thigh injury right at the end of pre-season and hasn’t been heard from since.

That’s not quite true. Those that follow him on Twitter will have been privy to his frustration at being injured, and then his joy at finally getting back to training. He scored in a development game on the 4th December and registered his relief at being back, but it just hasn’t happened. Last season started the same for Prince: he signed and he got injured. After taking his time to get fit, he made his first start at the end of October and made an instant impact. In a team that wasn’t particularly good, Prince provided the bulk of the creativity.

The problem is that these days, with upwards of thirty pros vying for eleven places, amongst them several extremely accomplished midfielders, muscling your way back in after injury isn’t as easy as it used to be.  I would have put good money on Prince flourishing this season, and Mark Yeates dropping like a stone, but luck, and through it injuries, often contrives to upset the odds. It looks as if Prince will be off in the next few weeks, possibly back to Scotland where he made his name for Dundee United.

It’s a shame, because things could have worked out really well in this system for Prince – a good player with rotten luck.

Adam Thompson

Thommo is another one that has been unlucky with injuries. Since breaking onto the scene in the 2010/11 season, the 20 year-old has shown a lot of promise, both as a right back and a centre half. Two years on, however, it’s still promise. This is largely because he doesn’t seem to be able to get a regular run of games anywhere. In two separate stints at Brentford last year he made 16 starts, primarily as a full-back. Though he seemed to be doing well, his first spell ended in October, and he did not return to Griffin Park until the following February, seeing no action for his parent club in between.

Like much of the previous squad, he found opportunities limited and went out for a spell at Wycombe. He returned after two games, after being able to earn himself a place in a team featuring Gary Doherty. For a player who had shown enough potential to be given an international cap at the age of 18 (yes, yes for Northern Ireland – but still…) this was surprising. Still, he came back and made a few fleeting cameos against Wolves and Cardiff, but was shipped out again this month to Barnet. He made his debut as an 81st minute substitute, and returned to London Colney. Injured.

I, like a lot of Watford fans, can’t get my head around it. You can’t legislate for injury, of course, but why was Thompson going to a club as lowly as Barnet? He showed two years ago the raw talent to make it in the Championship, and although he didn’t get a whole year to flex his young muscles in League One, had not looked out of place at Brentford.

This very day it has been announced that Dale Bennett has permanently moved to Dave Hockaday’s Forest Green Rovers. Like Thompson, Bennett showed bright flashes here and there, but was unable to get regular playing time. Though strikers can be thrown on regularly here and there, and midfielders can be blooded gradually, defenders – especially those in a team really scrapping for points as Watford have been until very recently – are a lot harder to integrate. Throw them in too early and you put them at risk and face the possibility of ruining their confidence, as well as dropping points. It’s a lot safer to plump for the experienced heads. Tommie Hoban got lucky with an injury crisis, and showed what he could do to the extent that dropping him became unfeasible.

Adam Thompson shouldn’t be the next Dale Bennett. But he could be. He’ll go out on loan again, but for him to perform his way into the reckoning at Watford will be a huge ask. The club are onto a good thing with the Pozzo involvement, but it seems to be at the expense of fringe players mid-way through their development like Adam Thompson.

If you think we’re wrong or that there are other candidates for either category in the squad, leave a comment below…

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One comment

  1. Keith Hannigan · · Reply

    Good stuff. I very much enjoy your work. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you for writing for us.

    As to your specific lists, it really is an illustration of how much the bar has been raised, isn’t it? Players like Thompson and Buaben probably are/will be/should be solid Championship players. If you have a whole squad of guys like that with a little extra quality sprinkled in, you can avoid the drop. But do they belong on a team that expects promotion or (easy now) to be a sustainable Premiership side? Even if you squint hard, can you see them playing for Cardiff or Norwich or Southampton? Because that is our standard now. I like Buaben and thought he might succeed here, but who would you drop for him? What does he do for you that Battaccio or Abdi doesn’t do better?

    The real questions for me are Murray and Eustace. 10 months ago, Murray was our Chalobah, a scintillating talent advanced beyond his years. My speculation was that when the Pozzos looked us over, they saw Murray as the one great asset that they could reasonably expect to eventually realize an eight-figure return on and the player most likely to be stripped from us at some point to help Udinese make a push for another Champions League spot. Now, he’s invisible. Yes, he’s young, yes, long-term contract, yes, new system and difficult position but the vanishing is still quite troubling. Zola has gotten so much right that I’m reluctant to even suggest he’s mishandling this but really great players are usually pushing forward at this age, not falling back. Maybe it’s the kid’s fault for not applying himself, maybe he’s just a winger and we don’t use those, maybe he’ll come roaring back once he gets to play some, but do you feel anything like the optimism about his future that you did last Spring?

    Eustace is the other side of the coin. Is he just a little too old and limited to play for us now? I don’t think we know yet what Zola really thinks about John. Maybe it was just a lingering injury. Maybe he’s not fully fit yet. But the matches this month when you would have expected the manager to call on some inspirational bloody-mindedness, he played the children Chalobah and Battocchio instead, and with such results. I love Eustace but I have a growing concern that Zola thinks he’s just not quite good enough for what we are now and that his Watford career is going to peter out. He’ll get some substitution minutes and play on occasion as part of a rotation or injury cover but the days of him being the driving, indomitable heart of our team are over. That would a sad consequence of our new station.

    Eustace is the other side of the coin. I don’t think we know yet what Zola t

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