We at ITWM Towers are nothing if not forthright, so let us say what we’re all thinking: the last month’s Matej Vydra – he’s been a bit… crap, hasn’t he?
Now, now, I know what you’re going to say: “How can you slate a guy who’s scored 20 goals in his first season at this level”, “typical kneejerk rubbish”, and of course, “Look at where we were last year, and you’re moaning that one of our strikers isn’t scoring a brace a game?” But, as it is international week and there is absolutely nothing to talk about (how about that San Marino side?), I will eschew your moaning about my moaning and plod on regardless.
From December 22nd to January 26th, the boy was untouchable. Five braces in five starts. Remarkable. It wasn’t just the goal tally that was impressive: Zola had previously commented on the need for him to drop back and help his team in other areas of the pitch – and Vydra was obliging. Over the course of that month, with an energetic Vydra harrying midfielders and sliding home goal after goal, Watford went from battling for a playoff place, to contending for the second automatic promotion spot. All was right in the world.
The alarm bells started to ring when the first game after that period – a 2-1 defeat of Bolton – the Czech only scored a single goal. Clearly something was amiss. Still, he was selected for his country’s international friendly against Turkey and impressed in his 56 minutes on the pitch. He returned, and everyone prepared for more fireworks. We’re still waiting for them.
One goal in the seven subsequent games is quite the comedown after the overwhelming high of January’s trip, but more worrying is that he hasn’t really looked like scoring – or doing much of anything at all. There was a time when the ball would fall to him in the final third and you could confidently set aside your flask of Bovril and programme in anticipation of applauding yet another goal, now – if he gets in a dangerous position, it’s far from a certain thing. The flash of blonde hair marauding around the halfway line to get the ball and start an attack has not been seen for a while, replaced by a disconsolate figure wandering and wondering when his mojo will return.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not the end of the world. It’s not the start of a downward spiral that will see Matej turning out for Potters Bar in a few years. But, with the promotion stakes so high, and hanging by a thread – it’s exactly what we don’t need right now. And if there’s anything that modern society has taught me, it’s that if anything is going even slightly wrong, then there must be somebody to blame.
So here are my hypotheses as to who and what is the reason for the fall of Matej Vydra…
Idle speculation and rumour-mongering, bah. Not our style. But, as an irregular companion to Vicarage Road who likes to think he knows football put it a few weeks ago – Vydra is playing like someone who’s had his head turned. I’ve never met the man, and as he is one of the few players who doesn’t embrace Twitter or give many interviews, cannot judge his personality, so it would be wrong to question his professionalism. Nevertheless, with his surge of form coming in the vast shop window that is the month of January, the interest of several big clubs around the continent was piqued. There was no official word from either Watford or Udinese, but it seems certain that there was at least one bid rebuffed. Desperate to stir up a frenzy, the media got involved, and started hyping up the striker, eager to get a good transfer saga going.
There’s no question that, when he’s on form, Vydra is too good for the Championship – he’s not quite at the level of some of his alleged suitors (your Romas, your Spurses etc) – but he’s a cut above this division. Even Glenn Murray. And since he’s only 20, he’ll get better. Sportsmen must have ambition, and by moving to Udinese at the age of 17, Vydra has shown that he’s not the sort of person to wait around and let an opportunity pass. Thus, if one of the aforementioned clubs was in for him, he’d be foolish not to want to strike while the iron was hot. The ligament injury that kept him out for nigh-on a year would also have been playing on his mind. Media hype and universal gratification this soon after his recovery was unexpected, and who knows when injury could take that all away?
I’m not saying that a big club has got into the head of Vydra, that he’s got his mind on his future rather than his present, but it’s eminently possible.
Few would argue with the season little Frankie has had. He’s got Watford playing football with a style of unprecedented beauty, he’s turned a season of transition into a promotion race and he’s done everything with a nervous laugh and the countenance of the cheekiest of chappies. But is he overplaying Vydra?
As we outlined in our Half-Term report, this season has seen Vydra play as many minutes of football (2589) than in his entire career put together (c. 2600). And this is the Championship, games come thick and fast and the opposition don’t take prisoners. To follow up a season that comprised of 5 minutes of Belgian football followed by a knee-ligament injury with such a heavy load of intense match action couldn’t possibly be sustainable, and we may be seeing the inevitable fatigue that comes with such a step up.
Vydra is Watford’s most dangerous striker – he’s the Championship’s most dangerous striker – but would it not have been better to give him breaks, to let him rest his knee and recuperate so that he could carry on being as deadly until the all-important end of the season? After all, it’s not as if we have a dearth of attacking talent waiting in the wings.
Come to think about it, that’s what Zola was doing up until December. Vydra and Geijo started the away games, and Deeney and Forestieri held fort at home. Everyone was relaxed, nobody was jaded, and results were getting got. So that means the problem isn’t Zola, it’s…
You, the one who brayed when Vydra was only on the bench at Bristol City, who moaned after that loss – the side’s second in eight games. Those eight games produced five wins, a draw away at a strong Burnley side and eighteen goals for, but a disappointing defeat to a relegation-threatened side and the knives were out. I know who you are, for I am among you. ‘You’ are me. ‘You’ are all of us.
Zola’s squad rotation wasn’t doing badly. It’s true that Deeney and Vydra had become the regular first choice partnership up front before that fateful night at Ashton Gate, but when the manager deigned to give both a night off, replacing them with a young Argentinian idolised earlier in the season and a bloke who scored 24 goals in 32 starts in the corresponding Spanish division not too long ago, it wasn’t good enough. ‘We’re up for promotion and throwing away matches by not playing our most potent weapons’.
Was that why, with a big game against Crystal Palace following the last international break, Vydra was flown home in a privately-chartered jet? Is that why Vydra has been run into the ground, why he no longer has the energy to chase around defenders and make runs into the opposition’s box at breakneck speed? Is it also why Fernando Forestieri, previously a regular, has looked so rusty of late, with his role reduced to cameos off the bench, and why Alex Geijo struggles to make an impact when he’s called upon to make a difference every month or so? All to sate our unquenching thirst for success?
Of course, there’s nothing we can do about it now. We are deeply entrenched in the section of the season wherein every game is a “Cup Final”. Every game needs to be won, the best side needs to be put out. But does that side, at the moment, necessarily include Vydra?
Singling Vydra out for an intense investigation, which I think we can all agree this has been, is harsh. But we worry because we love. Vydra has had the biggest fall, but only because he created such a high platform for himself. For the last month, the team just hasn’t been getting it done. Yes, before the Blackpool game, Watford had gone seven games undefeated, but ever since that Palace match – that international break – things have seemed a little off.
Two goals up against Palace and the world was at our feet, bowing down in supplication to the masterful display of the national game. Two goals later and the players seemed to be in the doldrums. Yes, in the next game Birmingham were routinely dispatched 4-0 at St Andrews; and yes, in the game after that a more resolute Ipswich went down 2-0 at Portman Road, but there wasn’t the same confidence. There was always the feeling, when a goal up, that Ipswich could get back into it; that we hadn’t done enough and would pay for our deceleration. On that occasion Nathaniel Chalobah scored to kill the game off, but the same thing happened at home to Derby as a two goal lead threatened to disintegrate before our very eyes.
From November to January Watford were destroying teams. Obliterating them. Now every game is tight, every final whistle welcomed with relief. Whereas in games like Leeds away and Huddersfield at home one goal was followed by another, and another, as the team kept attacking, kept trying to run up the score, now an opening goal is followed by a distinct change of pace. Is it complacency? Is it fatigue? I don’t know, but it’s a problem.
This problem is of course going to affect a poacher like Matej Vydra. He may have added a bit of defensive grit to his game, but his natural game is as a rapid striker, making runs in behind the back line, using his pace to bedevil defences and goalkeepers alike. He’s a peroxide Michael Owen. But if the team isn’t creating, isn’t flooding forward with the same force, how can he be expected to operate to capacity? Vydra relies on his teammates to create chances for him and too many are having bad patches. The injury to the ever influential Almen Abdi – The Professor – doesn’t help.
Is Vydra suffering from weariness, outside influences or an ineffective team? Who knows? What is clear is that Watford need him back to his devastating best if they are to challenge Hull, Forest and Palace for that coveted second spot, and all that delicious television money.