Last March I took to these pages to inform you all that Quique Sanchez Flores’s time in charge of Watford was up. A few weeks and ample criticism later, it was leaked that the scarfed one would be moved on after, and I’m paraphrasing, Gino Pozzo read that rant and realised he was onto a loser.
Well, after a glance on Twitter to see quite a few people baying for the head of Walter Mazzarri, I thought it was time to arise from hibernation to give the official word from the managerial ombudsman: and lo wanting him sacked is stupid. Stop it.
If you believe that the club has been set up so that the head coach is just another module to plug in and play, then the problems facing the club aren’t in the coaching but in two of the areas that are meant to put things on a plate for him: the recruitment and the players’ healthcare.
Firstly though, I should point out that these ‘problems’ we’re facing aren’t actually that serious. We’ve just been thoroughly humped by a side that should feature in the top three at the end of the season, were the second best team in the country last season, and are run by the best English player since Gazza. The exact same thing happened last season.
On that occasion the team was sent out by QSF like Christians to the Colosseum, and they were duly gobbled up without a whimper or a touch in the Spurs half. On New Year’s Day we competed for half an hour, not really threatening but looking worth a point, until the defence fell asleep for a moment and never woke up. That will happen against good teams, especially when the side you planned to put out has to be changed to accommodate a husk of a footballer at the last minute.
The rest of the bad form consists of a draw at home to a side with a new manager in which we had two key players go off injured in the first 15 minutes and dominated for an hour (again not creating much); a defeat at Sunderland, who have found a modicum of form, in which we were comfortable for 45 minutes and then couldn’t handle the shock of going behind; a tight 2-0 defeat at Man City, who probably paid more for their kit man than we have for our front line, with a weakened side; and losses at West Brom and against Stoke that I can’t really remember but I’m pretty sure were indefensibly bad.
Sandwiched in between them was a really good win against Everton, where we responded to having more than one fit and capable attacker by scoring three goals. That, of course, is a situation that we have not been in since.
Barring the few fleeting glimpses of supposedly high-tech equipment gained through the NBC documentary that followed the club during November, I have no idea how physiotherapy at the club works. I can’t say how much of an influence Mazzarri has, and so can’t say whether he should be absolved or blamed for the injuries, but it is beyond obvious that the reason for our poor paper form is the loss of bodies.
When we have had a fit team and Mazzarri has been given his choice of players, we have looked like a capable team. Not world-beaters, but nobody expected us to do that. Prior to the beginning of the season we looked destined for a relegation battle. Now, that will only happen if things go really wrong (there is only one spot in the bottom three up for grabs now that Swansea and Hull have put their towels down and an awful lot of flotsam in between them and us).
No, the problem is the squad itself, or rather, the lack of one.
The Premier League brought in the 25-man squad to prevent the larger clubs from stockpiling talent and not using it, a plan that would supposedly benefit the smaller clubs like us (and Vitesse Arnhem). Even more to our advantage is the fact that under 21s are limitless – what a boon for an ownership that prides itself on getting young players with oodles of potential that they can develop and sell on.
However, rather than using our supposedly excellent scouting network to find youngsters to max out our squad, or our newfound wealth to entice British/home-grown players who want to step up to the next level (see Hendrick, Keane, Phillips), we have limited ourselves to a senior squad of 22, leaving three home-grown spots completely free.
Last season, when we had a miraculously injury-free season, our players (admittedly awfully rotated by QSF) were shattered by February. Nobody would have predicted the extent of our injury crises this season, but it couldn’t possibly have gone as well as last year, and so allowing the squad to enter this campaign as short on numbers as it was is absolutely criminal.
This failure therefore lies at the feet of Fillipo Giraldi and Luke Dowling and not the head coach, who is having to take on the busiest time of the year (for the first time in his career) with about 14 fit senior players.
The constant refrain as to why we never sign any English players is that they are overpriced and under-developed; we can get better players for cheaper from abroad. That may well be the case, but clutching so dearly to such a financially-minded approach is damaging our output, and hindering the club’s ability to make loads more money.
From sixth place onwards in the Premier League, the end of season prize money increases by about one million pounds for every spot. That means that if our last minute lint-roller of a consolation against Spurs puts us one goal better off that the team that finishes 15th, we could be in for £8.7 million rather than £7.4 million. There are minute margins between pretty handy windfalls. One extra win, gained through having enough players to give Etienne Capoue a few games off and trick him into thinking its August, could move us up three spots at the end of the season – another £4 million in the bag.
And so balking at the price of young English players is frankly ludicrous, especially when we’re getting tens of million just for turning up at the beginning of the season. In addition to this of course, EVERYONE COSTS A LOT.
There has been a general lack of investment in the playing squad in recent years, not in keeping with the rampant inflation of the transfer market. If you follow the general principle that prices for players has doubled in the past year or so, then in terms of value that we still hold as reasonable, Isaac Success, our record transfer, cost us about £6.5 million, and that was basically paid straight back to the Pozzos’ bank account (not the HSBC one). Given the possible rewards for doing anything well in this league, that is pittance, and so a lack of progress discerned by the fans and the board should be looking squarely at that.
To be fair to the Pozzos, this is untrodden territory for them. They’ve never had to properly compete in a top league before. Their practice of poaching young South Americans to grow up in Serie A and keep Udinese ticking along works a treat when selling players on is the best way of making dollar, but now, just as the money made by getting fans through the door on a Saturday is increasingly marginal to a club, the sell-on fees for players (barring the stratospheric ones that I think they hope for from Success) is too. In the Premier League points mean prizes, and that has seen the likes of Behrami and Kaboul, older pros with no money-making potential, come in.
To do this, of course, wages must be higher, and so while money may not be in the Pozzos’ mouths in the transfer market, these players are making a hefty wedge. The likes of Jeff Hendrick, who would have been very nice thank you very much this season, may require more of an initial outlay, but much less of a weekly one, and the energy and, as much as I hate to pigeonhole it, the familiarity with the cut and thrust of English football that such signings would bring would be paying dividends right now.
My desire to see more British players in the squad (I know Hendrick is Irish) is not ideological. I couldn’t care less about communication or the supposedly British quality of heart, and though I felt a frisson of excitement seeing Brandon Mason come on against Spurs (in what was a textbook ‘I need some bloody players’ statement from Mazzarri) it is clear that academies are simply not going to be a thing at top level clubs in the future. But the need for more homegrown players is practical, especially when our players can’t get through their pre-match keepy-uppies without buggering their hamstrings.
The recruitments bods seem to have realised this now, but it being January we’re going to have to settle for the likes of Henri Lansbury, a fairly good Championship player, rather than one who is properly ready to make the step up. This should have been addressed in the summer.
With Success looking like one of those players who’s never properly fit, and Okaka doing his reputation no harm by always being just off match fitness, we need a striker to partner Deeney, who can’t play up front on his own, and to put Ighalo out of his misery. With him on the pitch we’ve been effectively playing with ten men, and he needs to leave to regain something of the swagger that elevated him from janky poacher to a nice form player.
And in the middle, where Capoue has, like last year, fallen down to earth once the leaves turn brown, and we’re having to rely on Guedioura to be both tenacious ball-winner and silky ball-mover, neither of which he is quite up to, we are desperate for bodies. Pereyra’s season-ending injury has left a vital need for someone to link the midfield and attack(er), with Amrabat – part Garrincha, part Gareth Jelleyman – having to do it all himself.
That is what Mazzarri is having to cope with, and he’s making it clear to the Pozzos.
By highlighting this to all and sundry he is of course doing some damage to our side of negotiations, but changes need to be made. If Scott Duxbury is going to keep going on about how we’ve got the environment where things don’t go to pot when a coach leaves, we can’t neglect that environment and pin all failures on the coach who’s just working with what he’s got.
With this all in mind, to call for Mazzarri’s head after a month of disappointing results is ludicrous. Who do these people think would get more out of this squad? How would they turn a midfield of Guedioura, Capoue and Doucoure (because those are the only ones you have to choose from) into a side that would control the midfield against jobbers like Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen? How would they go about getting the ball into Troy’s feet when anyone who could do so has their hamstrings in the shop for repair? And what would they have him do with it once he’s got the ball on the edge of the area with nobody around him?
And if any of them thinks that Marc Wilmots, a man who turned up to a European Championship in charge of one of the most talented squads a football fan could conceive and completely devoid of any sort of plan, while managing to piss off virtually every single one of his players, could do better, then I would suggest to them that it’s time to put down the mulled wine.
Have a good year everyone, see you in six months when there’s something else to moan about.
Twitter N.B: maybe ‘morons’ was a bit strong.