A Brazilian Tragedy: Is Heurelho Gomes’s time at Watford over?

In Greek mythology, Orestes has a pretty hard time of it. The son of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and the one who’s a prat to Achilles during the Trojan War, he comes home one day to find out that his dad has been brutally murdered while he’s in the bath by the Queen, Clytemenstra, and her lover for a variety of reasons we won’t get into here – it’s all a bit Eastenders. In brief, he kills them both and then goes mad after being dogged by the Furies, then gets sentenced to death but then doesn’t get executed because the gods or something – they always sort stuff out in the end.

Anyway, there seems to have been a bit of regicide down at Vicarage Road of late. After a rough start of his own, Orestis Karnezis has deposed the hitherto undisputed number one Heurelho Gomes in nets, with no sign that the Brazilian will ever reclaim his throne.

The sub keeper is cursed to be thrust into action at the worst of times. More often than not they spend 37 and a half games of a season trying to keep warm on the sidelines with only lazily-attended cup games to get some blood in their legs. Then, when the big chance comes, it is rarely arrives with much notice. An injury or red card for the incumbent, both reasonable signs of defensive pressure, catapult our poor, cold, unready hero into the spotlight. (A previous cursee, Richard Lee, has recently spoken about this in the Guardian).

Much like Arlauskis, Karnezis had made his Watford bow in such a situation. While the shaky Arlauskis, playing with gloves of grease, came through his special day ultimately unscathed (though his reputation never recovered), Karnezis was not so lucky, playing a leading role in a 2-0 lead over an Everton that was just embarking on its quest to bollock up Watford’s season while doing its own no favours into a 3-2 defeat (honourable mentions to Jose Holebas and Tom Cleverley).

And that was that. The Greek Gary Plumley. Not up to it.

But another injury to Gomes, this time a back problem, has given Karnezis a lifeline and has shown us that it is perhaps not always fair to judge a player on an unexpected 20-minute outing on a November afternoon, without any experience of playing with the defenders on whom your club career may rely.

Since first deputising for Gomes in Marco Silva’s last game at Watford, the 2-0 defeat to Leicester at the end of January, Karnezis has been virtually faultless. In the five league games since he has only conceded three goals, totting up three clean sheets in that time, as many as Gomes has managed in his last 20 starts (awful defending and sulky Portuguese taken into account). But it is not (just) a case of Javi Gracia tightening things up at the back and first choice players coming back from injury. At odds with his debut, the Greek has exuded confidence throughout his possession of the gloves, especially at the nervy ends of tight victories. With three points on the line he has imperiously claimed difficult crosses with apparent ease and smothered late chances. Though Troy Deeney was given the Man of the Match award for the slim win over Everton last week for scoring the game’s only goal, it was Karnezis that earned the points and should have taken the whatever they get for that now home.

While he may not make some of the stops that Gomes might – stabbing an arm at a seemingly lost cause to poke the ball around the post – Karnezis offers, to my mind, the better all round package, a resolutely solid base on which to build a more solid side. Clearly this is how Gracia also feels at the moment. After some treatment, Gomes is now fit for selection but has had to settle for that fated spot on the bench in the last two weeks and will again have to watch Karnezis take to the pitch at the Emirates this weekend.

The end of Gomes?

Could we have seen the last of Gomes in Watford’s goal? Currently stuck on 99 not out regarding Premier League games for the club, he would become the first Watford player ever (since 1992) to reach his century if he can get onto the pitch in the next month (Deeney, on 95, surely will hit the milestone at Huddersfield in April, another suspension notwithstanding).

And of all the players to have represented the club in the three seasons since Watford returned to the top flight, none deserve this completely made-up accolade than Gomes. He has done nothing particularly wrong. A few rickets and poorly parried shots aside he can take no blame for the catastrophic few months Watford have just had, he is an enormously popular personality, both among players and fans and has been a leader and symbol of consistency during a pretty turbulent time for the club. But with Karnezis looking so assured and the team gradually pulling up after the season went into freefall before Christmas is there a good enough case for making another change at the back?

The good news for Gomes is that last week’s win against West Brom went a long way to cementing Watford’s place in the Premier League next season, and with a nine-points and eight-team buffer between them and 18th place safety should be assured with three or four games left in the season. But then a return to the side based on sentimentality rather than form would also speak volumes about the club’s plans for next season.

What about next season?

After a few years of half-heartedly creating a succession plan for Gomes, the club took real steps to firming up the future of the keeper’s shirt in January when it shelled out upwards of £3 million for Swedish teenager Pontus Dahlberg. Only 19, the presence of the highly-rated keeper (he made it onto the IBWM 100 for 2018 alongside Richarlison and Cucho Hernandez), doesn’t provide a certain answer for what the club will do this summer, but it does add a few question marks.

With investment in the midfield and attack made over the past few years (with the permanent signing of Gerard Deulofeu hopefully following this summer), and some fat stacks likely to arrive in an Abdouleye Doucoure-shaped briefcase, Gino and his gang will surely be looking to make some changes at the back at the end of this season, and that would include, you would think, taking the goalkeeper position to the next level.

Gomes has previously said that his current contract, which runs until summer 2019, will almost certainly be his last. Already 16 years deep, his career has had its own share of comebacks, as well as winning a bunch of titles in the Netherlands and over 250 games playing at the highest (sort of) level. But injuries are starting to become more and more common, including a few head injuries. The latest, a back spasm, ruled him out for a few games, and, now 37, these knocks and scrapes look to be taking their toll.

Karnezis himself, 33 in July, is no spring chicken, but finishing this season strong could prove a strong enough audition to pin down the role for the next season at least. He has expressed, for what it’s worth, a desire to stay past his season-long loan, and being on the books of Udinese I’m sure that wouldn’t be hard to arrange if the feeling amount the club’s management is mutual. Watford’s Italian cousins themselves, despite starting 40-year-old Albano Bizzarri for much of this season (an injury to whom gave Iker Casillas his first Real Madrid start, if you want an illustration of how old he, and you, are), have two highly rated young keepers of their own in Alex Meret and Simone Scuffet, so will have no need for Karnezis.

How the goalkeeper position is approached in the summer depends on how the club views Dahlberg. The Swede returned to IFK Göteborg straight after signing a five-year deal in January. Traditionally one of the heavy hitters in Swedish football, the club had a disappointing season last year, finishing 10th out of 16, and kick off the new campaign on 1 April, giving them at least a few months of Dahlberg.

Dahlberg, who has already played a starring role in the Swedish Cup (which runs in the months leading up to the league season), will be their uncontested number one for as long as he is there, and himself will be hoping that an upturn in fortunes will cement his place in Sweden’s World Cup squad this summer. The 19-year-old has already represented his country in a January friendly against Estonia and is one of a few hardly-capped keepers fighting to take over from the recently-retired Andreas Isaksson.

Dahlberg is certainly well thought of, both within Sweden and without, but the leap between a midtable Swedish side and a Premier League team more often than not under the cosh is colossal. Would he be ready for first team football come August, and if not would he be better served back in Sweden for a year or sitting on our bench?

If, as seems quite likely, the young Swede is not considered ready, the club must decide if another year of Gomes or Karnezis is the best option or whether it is worth finding another first choice that could take Watford’s defensive performance forward. Given Gino’s transfer policy has changed of late from scouring the world for young talent to just getting in players who had successful loan spells almost a decade ago it would not be a massive surprise to see Ben Foster back at Vicarage Road.

West Brom are down and Foster is the second best English keeper around. The fact that he is not included in the ridiculously ongoing argument over who should be England number one (it’s Jordan Pickford) because of his international retirement means that he has flown under the radar at times this season, but he is still shining in a bad bad Baggies team, evidenced by some great, lithe stops at Watford the other week, and has a good few years left in him. He may be two years older than Karnezis, but he is also better.

Amid years of revolving doors everywhere else on the pitch, and off it, Watford’s goalkeeping position has been a source of calm. Since joining the club in 2014, Gomes has faced only nominal competition for his throne, but with Furies thrown off, Karnezis has thrown his immediate future into doubt, and this summer could be plenty of players clamouring to take over the role. The next two months could determine who gets the part.

Exits, pursued by a bear.

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