Managers who moan about the congestion created on their festive calendar by the oodles of football crammed in by the relentless FA should try having a large extended family. Given the choice between running around a muddy pitch for the third time in a week or sitting on a flower-print sofa in a distant corner of the country yakking it up about your new job for the umpteenth time and then having another game of Articulate*, even the fanciest of foreign Dans would have their boots on before you could mumble your way through a description of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
That, is why ITWM has been silent on the start of Beppe Sannino’s stint at the rudder of Good Ship Watford. The plan, until Yeovil’s tea towel flood defences succumbed to a New Year’s downpour, was to treat you all with a bumper crop of three match reactions in one. Instead, you get a brief overview of barely-remembered games from a week ago that you’ve probably all moved on from.
The first thing to say is that it’s all gone rather well for Sannino so far. A draw at in-form Ipswich was about as much as could have been hoped for given the form that went before it, and two clean sheets in the two ensuing games shows that the hirsuitless Italian is keen to address the defensive problem that has dogged us since last season.
The relative lack of goals is mainly a personnel problem. With Javi Acuña seemingly out of favour, Troy Deeney is the only senior striker at the club. It’s well established that we need a pacey striker to try and replicate the effect that Matej Vydra had last season, but we also need someone to fill the void when Troy hits on of his frequent cold patches. Last year, Deeney had Vydra, Geijo and Forestieri to push him to heights most probably hadn’t envisaged him hitting; but now, with the former two elsewhere and Forestieri tied up with proving his marked superiority over Diego bloody Fabbrini, there’s no competition for him. Mathias Ranegie will help in this department, though I’m reserving judgment before proclaiming him an asset football-wise.
In defence, however, we have more than enough to work with. Joel Ekstrand, as nightmarish as he has been in the last few months, is a good Championship defender; Gabriele Angella looks to have all the attributes to be a dominant defensive lynchpin; and Lloyd Doyley is Lloyd Doyley. A criticism of Zola’s coaching staff that has arisen since his departure is that it taught technique well, but not playing systems. This, perhaps, is why the defensive unit has been performing so far below its level of talent for so long. The constant tinkering of the back line was probably an attempt to find one that just worked naturally, now Sannino seems to have decided on his first choice and is clearly keen to mould them into a dominant unit.
That’s his intention at least. How well it goes is another matter. In truth, neither Millwall nor QPR offered too much of a test.
On Boxing Day, Danny Shittu’s early red card saw striker Jermaine Easter moved to the right wing where he sat, stranded, until salvation came in the form of substitution. The doomed Steve Lomas, however, made nothing but defensive switches in an effort to prevent the scoreline becoming embarrassing, meaning that for the final half an hour the back three were free to plan their trips to the post-Christmas sales as Steve Morison plodded around waiting for the chance that never came.
For all the tension-snapping joy that the trouncing of the Lions brought, we didn’t really learn an awful lot. Four goals, several interactions with the woodwork, a marginally disallowed goal and a botched penalty decision or two shows just how one-sided the game was. That Watford, without a home win since the mid 1980s, could play with such verve and joy was something, I suppose, and we also learnt that Ikechi Anya can, once in a while, give the ball a hearty thwack. But wins like this are games to be enjoyed, not analysed.
QPR, one would have thought, would present a much sterner test. Their host of questionably-sourced stars makes their midfield one of the most talented, if maybe not the most productive, groups in Championship history. But old ‘Arry, keen to add attacking options to his squad and never one to let ethics get in the way of his own gain, deployed Niko Kranjcar in the fabled False 9 role in an attempt to force Tony Fernandes’ hand.
The result was a dominant midfield with absolutely no end product. The ball found its way into the Watford penalty area on several occasions but with the podgy Croatian the furthest forward and usually a yard off the pace, Almunia and his defensive colleagues were rarely troubled. Redknapp did bung on a striker late on, but Andy Johnson’s diminished legs have rendered him fairly useless.
The QPR game was as interesting as it was event-lite. It was a game predominantly played in midfield, with George Thorne – soon to return to West Brom to fight for a first team place – and Sean Murray particularly bright sparks. Murray’s renaissance this year has been especially pleasing, and has even been strong enough to spark January transfer rumours.
As well as the crisp passing and bubbling goal threat that he has always possessed, the young Irishman from the emerald hills of Abbots Langley has added a dynamism to his game that is not unlike that of Jonathan Hogg. Last year, in Zola’s wingless wonders, Murray had nowhere to go. After flourishing out on the right, he was forced to earn a place in the centre of midfield and didn’t seem to have the pace or the hunger to make it there. He’s added both of these to become an increasingly promising central man.
There was a notably industrial tone to the majority of Watford’s attacking moves: Marco Cassetti was made to earn his new Christmas beard trimmer by chasing long diagonals from Angella and performed well, proving once and for all that he is a far more accomplished wing-back than he is centre-back, even at his age. Deeney was also tasked with reining in the long passes raining in. His hold up play was admirable and some of his knock-downs were right on the money for where any half-decent second striker would have been.
In a not-entirely-unrelated note, an injury to Forestieri meant that Diego Fabbrini was handed a starting spot up front. It would not surprise me if it was his last. So impotent was his display, so lacking in absolutely anything resembling decent footballship that his substitution by a seething Sannino was met with a collective sigh of relief by those watching. Fabbrini’s unintentional ability to elicit audible reaction returned after the final whistle when the typical hum of concourse chat was replaced by a collective gasp of disgust and bewilderment after Fabbrini was named Man of the Match.
That’s sponsors for you.
I do so hate being overly negative, and don’t like to repeat myself, so I’ll keep this rant brief. The summary for those who want to skip it is this: Joe Garner is ten times the footballer Diego Fabbrini is.
I watched the QPR game not from my normal lofty season ticket position, but from low down, behind the goal. While from high you get an idea of the pattern of play and who is and isn’t contributing, down by the action everything seems to be operating on a more immediate and individual level. Fabbrini is crap from both, but from my QPR perch I saw a different side of him; to be more precise, his complete lack of footballing intelligence. It’s not that he’s a bit of a hogger – to boil it down to playground parlance, not that he would rather round five defenders and curl it in the top corner than play a simple pass. The problem is that he has no idea what he’s doing on a football pitch. It takes him an inordinate amount of time to make any decision even when it’s glaring him in the face, and then he will, without fail, make the wrong one.
I’ve seen Fabbrini described as a gifted footballer with no end product. This is a half truth. When Forestieri arrived last year, he was a joy. He couldn’t shoot to save his life, and would usually end up losing the ball, but he could do things – completely pointless things – that make football worth watching. He brought a joy and innocence that overcame all problems with productivity. Fabbrini runs in a straight line, stops and loses the ball. He’s got a good first touch, I’ll grant you, but I can start a car – that doesn’t make me a good F1 driver.
Diego Fabbrini does nothing fancy, nothing exciting. He does nothing.
That’s the end of that.
This hasn’t really had a lot of structure to it. It could have been so poetic. Yeovil on New Years Day: a fresh start for the year and for our souls; a chance to put the worst result of Zola’s brief tenure behind us and look ahead to better times. Instead, what with the weather and all, it’s been a dump of the various thoughts I had over Christmas. Those I remember, anyway.
January brings a chance to freshen up the squad. A couple of new strikers will most likely be on their way in, as well as Alexander Merkel – “The Chancellor” – a deep-lying midfielder to take the place of Thorne and become our 5th attempt at replacing Hogg.
Here’s to a prosperous 2014. Let’s go get ‘em.
*Rest assured, I do think Articulate is the greatest game of all time.