Almen Abdi is the best Watford player I have ever seen.
Let me clarify that, as I’ve been trying to in my own head for the past few days. Almen Abdi is not the most gifted or productive player at Watford, nor is he even the best midfielder, probably. But never have I seen a player playing for us that is so clearly the best player on the pitch as he was in his three Championship seasons at the club. The man is a first ballot hall of famer, if that Hall of Fame they made a few years ago has any such entry process.
He’s not strong, he’s not quick, he’s not really that skilful. He is but one thing – great.
And now he’s gone. Treading that increasingly well-worn path up to Sheffield Wednesday, where his fellow first-generation Pozzomon Fernando Forestieri is already pulling up trees. By the end of the season, there won’t be any foliage left in Yorkshire.
After the impact that Nando has made, Wednesday fans will be gushing at the prospect of Abdi’s arrival, and rightly so. Similarly, back down south there will be many recalling that sharp twang of heartbreak that one of the pioneers of Good Watford has departed. The two main protagonists of that game away at Charlton where we started to believe in the Pozzo project are gone, and have handed over the reins to the new class.
And yet for the similarities in their departure, indelible mark on the club and of course destination, the two are complete polar opposites.
Almen Abdi. What can you say about the man? Absolutely nothing. I’m sure he’s lovely, and if you catch him strolling round Belsize Park he’d give you all sorts of time of day. But, anomalous to virtually all other footballing heroes, his personality is introverted and hidden away, even on the pitch. Fan favourites are the ones who roar at fans, who boast about their trips to Asda on Twitter, who dive into crunching tackles – the ones that you think you know everything about, even from afar.
But Almen is the guy of whom, in their ill-conceived squad run-down before the Play-offs, Troy Deeney and Fitz Hall said that if it wasn’t for football would be sitting in his mum’s spare room looking at the wall (THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENED). The closest example I can think of is Heidar Helguson, a similarly guarded star who shunned the limelight, but even his personality was noteworthy in his numerous defying of the odds against larger, stronger defender – a camera-shy David, whose quiet persistence became his trademark.
On the pitch, Forestieri and Abdi are both brilliant, but their wonder lies in completely different places. Nando dervishes around, opening his locker and throwing its contents all over the place, often to little end. Almen, much like his personality, plays robotically. But in a way that makes you certain that man’s place on this earth is doomed and that the machines will soon take over.
To say that he is robotic is not to suggest that he’s awkward, slow or unwieldy. It serves to emphasise how bloody easy he makes everything look. If Nando is man – you can see the brain turning while he hops and skips and blunders to an often ultimately fruitless end – then Almen is his conqueror. Watch this goal, one of the most feted of Abdi’s, but utterly typical of his finishes.
No fuss. Touch, turn, hit. He calibrates and executes, perfectly. That a smile slips across his face as he wheels away in pre-programmed celebration is merely a momentary malfunction.
Sheffield Wednesday fans, who are just getting rid of Lewis McGugan after his two-month honeymoon came to a preening end right on time, might worry that they’ve been sucked in by YouTube montages of beautiful goals before. And, indeed, like McGugan, these hand-picked vignettes don’t tell the whole story.
You see, the curling strikes into the top corner and the weighted free-kicks falling just the right side of the post are just bonus features to the main show.
I wrote at some point in the first Pozzo season that Abdi is like the operator in those scenes of wartime phone transfers, keeping his head amongst a fug of activity and chaos and doing his incredibly fiddly job with an elegance that could easily be mistaken for simplicity.
An example of his effortless calm: the final day of the season against Leeds, when absolutely everyone around the country was losing their heads. Jack Bonham was shook in goal and causing worry among the defenders, Troy was on his way to a red card borne of frustration, and Jonathan Bond’s face was four times its normal size. No bother, Abdi steps up to the ball and sweeps it into the top corner. (Skip to 3:44 if you don’t want the rest of that day’s nonsense).
He passed and moved, always finding space and always finding his man. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes his game so effective: he’s not fast, strong or quick-footed. He doesn’t do many tricks, his passes aren’t especially showy, he’s just really really good – he’s always moving and it’s always in a forward direction, but in little bits and pieces, like a Rube Goldberg machine.
Abdi’s quiet hustle continued throughout his time at the club (we would have been in Premier League two years earlier if his foot hadn’t been knacked during the lost season of Zola and Sannino), even last year, when he was asked to do a completely different role that he was used or suited to.
Under Quique Sanchez Flores, serial misuser of players, Abdi was the shuttler, playing on the side of a midfield three and asked to protect whichever fullback was the most calamitous. His wings were clipped, but he still put everything into tracking back and hassling superior athletes, often with success. In the season’s seminal victory over Liverpool, Abdi epitomised the high octane pressing, with the highlight a crunching sliding tackle on the halfway line that caused the ball to dart all the way back to Heurelho Gomes in goal. The fact that that is the contribution he is remembered for and not any of the incisive attacking play in a glorious 3-0 victory shows both how he developed and how he was held back last year.
There are those that say he was peripheral, always on the edge of proceedings last season, testament to his inability to quite make the grade at the top table. Perhaps he no longer is the standout, in the Premier League you may not see five minutes and know he’s the best player on the pitch by a distance, but he still has the chops when used in the right way.
The odd time he was unleashed, he looked great. Playing in midfield away at Liverpool he was the creator and once again was at the heart of every forward move. It was like turning the clock back a year to when all our creativity wasn’t stifled by a scarf. Then he was subbed after 70 minutes and everything went rubbish again.
It is nothing short of a travesty that Abdi’s final game for Watford – the famous 3-1 victory over Union Berlin the other week – was played at right wing-back, but it is testament to his service and willingness to put a shift in wherever it was on the pitch. Putting such a creative, ostensibly undefensive and relatively immobile player in that position shouldn’t have worked. And, I mean, it didn’t. But he was a lot better at it than you’d have thought.
Almen’s departure is a great shame, a blow to the aesthetes of Hertfordshire, but if he’s not going to be used correctly here, I’d rather he went somewhere else to be brilliant.
But you do worry that while everyone gets eager about potential signings that can run rings around defenders or score from all angles or bring the ball out of defence with the grace of some kind of bird of paradise, we could miss that metronome that keeps everything together and moving as one. The link between the two that makes everything tick. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
For the second summer in a row, Sheffield Wednesday have nicked a player from us and a piece of my heart along with it. Nando wasn’t enough to drag them over the line last year, but they will absolutely walk the Championship this time around with Abdi pulling the strings. And I am already giddy with excitement for when they all come rolling in next season.
Almen Abdi was the first superstar of the Pozzo era, and played a leading role in enabling us to introduce more. Hopefully, he’ll be the second of the Chansiri regime in Sheffield. When you think back to how fun those first and third seasons in the Championship were, it’s tough not to get excited that the band is getting back together, even if it is in stripes.
We’re all Wednesday, aren’t we?