Incoming: Gabriele Angella

When Martin Taylor was controversially sold on August deadline day last season (remember that uproar?), the problem that most fans envisaged was not that it left us bereft of central defensive talent for the season ahead but that it was depriving us of a reliable leader, a top performer in previous years, and was putting our eggs in the baskets of a whole bunch of untested players. Indeed, it was a position in which we were rather stacked: Doyley, Nosworthy, Hall, Neuton and Ekstrand were all primarily central players, and young talent like Hoban and Chalobah was peeping in too.

It turned out however, that Taylor’s move to Sheffield Wednesday didn’t work out. He was consigned to the bench early on and never regained his place in the team. Back here, Hall struggled with injury, Neuton too – amongst other things. Hoban muscled his way into the side early, and only ceded his place when a troublesome ankle injury got the better of him in February, and a month later Nosworthy injured his Achilles while on international duty with Jamaica. With Chalobah looking a natural midfielder, only Doyley and Ekstrand remained from this embarrassment of riches. Marco Cassetti was converted from right wing-back and Matthew Briggs was brought in on loan. Towards the end of the season, some sloppy defending lost games, and possibly cost us promotion. We weren’t low on quality, we were low on players.

Now it seems Neuton isn’t returning for another season, and Hall doesn’t seem to have signed a new deal, with doubts that he warrants a big wage if he can’t manage regular football. We need defenders, leaders preferably. And here comes Gabriele Angella.

The Florentine, previously at Udinese of course, was one of the names mooted to join last summer. In the end, the boys upstairs decided to send us Ekstrand instead and kept Angella for themselves. It seems to have been a wise move.

Angella has been a regular member of the Zebrette’s matchday squad in the year since our first influx of loans. Though he was mostly on the bench, he did manage to make eleven Serie A starts. For the majority of these he was deployed on the right side of Udinese’s back three, though he could be found on the left a few times and once as the libero in the middle.

Half of those starts came in succession in the first half of the season, before the fantastic run of late season form that edged the Friulians into Europa League qualification, and over the course of his 1071 minutes of league football, his defence conceded 17 goals – one every 63 minutes. At 6ft 3, Angella is taller than all but Hall of Watford’s current defensive corps, and used his height to win 58 of his 79 “headed duels” over the course of the year.

This aerial proficiency translates to the opposition box, where Angella nabbed four goals. Two of those came in a 2-2 draw at Chievo, where the defender had another perfectly good headed goal ruled out for offside. A very clear deficiency in Watford’s armoury last season was their complete lack of threat at attacking set-pieces; perhaps Angella’s presence will have a positive impact at both ends of the pitch.

Angella, born in Florence, came through the youth ranks of the Tuscan club Empoli, the former home of Fernando Forestieri and Antonio Di Natale, and made his senior debut for the club in an early season match against AlbinoLeffe at the age of 19. The Azzurri finished that 2008/09 season with defeat in the Serie B play-offs, of which the young Angella played in both legs, taking his start toll to thirteen for the season.

If the debut year was promising, playing semi-regular football for a successful side, Angella’s sophomore season cemented him as a reliable young Serie B talent. With his April birthday making him a young 20, Angella started 34 of Empoli’s 42 league games that year and broke into Italy’s under 21 squad, making his debut in Cardiff against Aaron Ramsey’s Wales. The 2009/10 season also saw another young Empoli youth product make a name for himself – Diego Fabbrini made his debut in August and went on to impress from the bench on 26 occasions, earning himself five late-season starts.

Empoli might have been excused for getting excited about having young, soon-to-flourish home-grown talents at either end of the pitch, but after just two games of the 2010/11 season Udinese came a ’knocking.

Entering into a co-ownership deal that cost around €5 million for both players, Udinese allowed Fabbrini to remain in Tuscany for another year, but Angella instantly made the move up to the north and to Serie A.

He did not have long to make his top level debut; two weeks after arriving at the club he was coming on as a second half substitute at the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium as Udinese tried to wrestle a point from Inter. Angella featured irregularly throughout the rest of the season, mainly making late cameos from the bench. An 8th minute injury to Andrea Coda meant that the defender was thrust into the antepenultimate game of the season at his native Fiorentina, one that Udinese had to win to keep up their hopes of qualifying automatically for the Champions League – a prize that came with third place in the division.

Injuries meant even more departures in the game, however, and not even the 83rd minute introduction of Matej Vydra, leaving Steve Beleck unused on the bench, could stop the Viola from running out at 5-2 victors.

The defeat left the little Zebras in 5th, with little hope of toppling Napoli in 3rd, but the injury to Coda meant that Angella would get his first Serie A start in the next match – a massive Stadio Friuli clash with 4th placed Lazio. Udinese stormed into a 2-0 lead through a Di Natale brace, but just after the hour, Angella chopped down Tommaso Rocchi to concede a penalty and, rather harshly, receive a red card. Udinese won 2-1, a result that would see them finish in 4th ahead of Lazio on goal difference, but Angella’s season was over.

The next year, it was decided that Angella should go out on loan in search of regular football, though he would stay in Serie A. Newly-promoted Siena – just an hour down the autostrada from Florence – was his destination, but his spell at the club was not successful. The loan was cut short in January after injury meant that Angella had made it onto the pitch in only two Coppa Italia fixtures. In order to get back to match fitness, the defender spent the rest of the campaign in the warm southern climes of Calabria with Serie B Reggina.

It was that summer, after making 19 starts and notching his first professional goal in his half-season return to Serie B, that we first encountered Angella. Now, a year later, he’s here.

Angella’s size will be useful to the back-line, and his experience of playing in the back three of a 3-5-2 means that he will be able to slot into our defence seamlessly. At 24, he’s still young and the 5-year deal he’s signed should see him spend the best years of his career in Hertfordshire.

The best way, however, to gauge a player’s quality is not by numbers, but by the opinion of those that watch them every week. The article on UdineseBlog that announced his departure was inundated with wailings and lamentations that the club was letting a player who many saw as the future of the Udinese back line. That’s Udinese – regular entrants into European competitions and one of the top sides in one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

He can’t be too bad.

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