Watford Season Preview: ambition at Vicarage Road

Watford finished 17th last season with 40 points, five fewer than the previous year. There appears to be a mainstream viewpoint from non-Hornets that the club’s fans and owners should by definition be happy with mere survival. Supporter Bradley Hayden, from superb Golden Boys site The Watford Blog, challenges that assumption and discusses why change was needed.

If Hull had beaten one of Sunderland or Crystal Palace, then it would have been us going down instead of the Tigers and Marco Silva might still be at the KCOM Stadium. Last season was one to forget and one which many Watford fans wanted to end. While injuries played its part, we went completely backwards on the pitch.

Our defence was leaking goals, there was little to no creativity in midfield after Pereyra picked up his injury and up front, we didn’t look like scoring. The style of play was awful to watch and there looked like there was no plan whatsoever. Players looked unsure of their roles and some of the performances over the season were completely forgettable. Whatever way you look at it, six wins in the league from December is relegation form. Added to that, early exits from the cup competitions and it’s a poor year all round. Towards the end of the season, we were hoping for other teams to slip up as our performances were just so poor.

Yet this was meant to be the manager who was going to take us to the next level and the season we were going to be challenging for the top 10. Considering some of the players we have, we shouldn’t have been near the relegation zone, so last season was a completely forgettable one.

What many people from outside Watford don’t seem to understand is that the Pozzo family have a lot of ambition with this club. Some feel that Watford should just be content with survival each year but that’s not the case. Our owners want to see improvement each year and are targeting the Europa League in a few seasons time. We’re not content just to sit here and make up the numbers. We want to achieve more than that. Yet any sign of ambition from a smaller team seems to be ridiculed, along with our owners which is a shame.

One of the bugbears with Walter Mazzarri was that he did not speak English or try to connect with fans. Are supporters more likely to warm to his replacement, Marco Silva?

I think so. A lot of fans have warmed to Silva already and he has made more of an effort to engage with supporters then Mazzarri did during a whole year here. I was impressed with the job Silva did with Hull and I wasn’t surprised that bigger teams were linked with him. It was, therefore, something of a coup that we managed to get him and I think we now have the right man in place. Hopefully, Silva will be the one who sticks around for a while and builds something at Vicarage Road, because we need to kick on and some stability now.

Hull’s players say that during training, Silva physically moves his players to the positions he wants them to be in. Was that kind of meticulous preparation missing at Watford last season?

Lots of players said Mazzarri was quite meticulous in his training too, but I think the fact Silva is quite a likeable figure and he can speak the language will go a long way with the players. There was plenty of rumours of squad unrest last season, as the players were exhausted by Mazzarri’s tough training schedule, according to reports. I think Silva will instantly command respect, but I think he’ll build up a real rapport with the players and the fact he can speak English means instructions will be clear. On plenty of occasions last season, players looked unsure of their roles and where they needed to be and there looked like there was a distinct lack of game plan too. I think the language barrier played a big role in that and the fact the players and the manager didn’t see eye to eye had a role too. So I think Silva’s meticulous training will be beneficial, but I think his likability and the fact he can speak the language will play a role too.

You conceded 68 goals last year, just under 1.8 per game. Do you need a long-term replacement for Heurelho Gomes?

I think it’s definitely something we need to be thinking about. Gomes has been a superb servant and been one of our most consistent performers since joining Watford three years ago. He’s a huge fan favourite and a really likeable member in the dressing room. But he’s not getting any younger at 36 and it would be a good idea to bring in a younger GK who can compete with him and will be our number one or future number one. This shouldn’t take anything away from Gomes as he’s been a great servant, but a long term replacement is definitely something we need to consider.

Centre-back Sebastien Prodl and ball-winner Abdoulaye Doucoure put in some good performances last year. Are they two defensive players who emerge from last season with some credit?

Absolutely. Prodl was our best centre back last season and was one of the very few who put in consistent performances on a regular basis. His performance up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic when we beat Manchester United last September, is one of the best I’ve ever seen from a Watford centre back during my time as a fan. He was immense. He’s strong and dominant in the air and also a calming presence at the back. Considering we got him on a free transfer two seasons ago now, I’d say he’s definitely one of the best signings the Pozzo’s have made. He oozes class and was our Player-of-the-Season. Plus, he could probably be a successful male model as well. What’s not to like?!

Had Doucoure come into the side earlier in the season, he would have been a certain contender for Player-of-the-Season. The fact Mazzarri left him out of the squad for so long bemused many and it looked increasingly likely that he was going to leave last January, which would have been a great shame as Watford fans would never have seen what he could do. Luckily that never happened and when Doucoure got his chance, he seized it with both hands. The Frenchman is so calm and composed in possession and has a great range of passing on him. He’s not afraid to get stuck in and do the dirty work, but he’s also not afraid to get forward too. It would be nice to see him score one or two more goals and goal scoring is something he needs to work on. But, if Doucoure keeps performing as he has done, then I’ve no reason to think why he won’t get a big move in a couple of seasons. Reminds me a little bit of Yaya Toure when he plays and at 24, he’s got bright future.

When I think of Troy Deeney at his best, he’s alongside a quicker strike-partner. How does Silva balance his preference for one striker systems with the political importance of keeping Deeney happy?

Deeney just needs more support. On plenty of occasions last season, Deeney had little to no support up front, meaning that he had no one to help him out. We just played long aimless balls up to him and expected him to hold it up, which never worked and never will do. Deeney isn’t Messi and we can’t rely on him to do everything for us. He needs support and runners who he can link up with. He also needs people who will be able to run on to his flick-ons. It looks like we’ll be playing a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, so it’s important that the wingers and the centre attacking midfielder are close to Deeney and are prepared to support him.

The Portuguese coach also likes full-backs attacking quickly to support breakaways. Does this suit the full-backs in your squad, such as Jose Holebas and new signing Kiko Femenia?

Definitely. I’d say Holebas and Daryl Janmaat are more comfortable attacking than they are defending. Neither of them are afraid to get forward and both can deliver a great cross. Sometimes they can be suspect defensively, but I think both are solid full-backs who could really thrive under Silva. Femenia actually used to be a winger but he’s got great tactical awareness from what I know, so it will be intriguing to see how he does and where we will use him. He can play as a right winger or a right back from what I’ve been told. I’d like us to bring in another left-back to compete with Holebas, as he’s 33 and isn’t getting any younger either.

Femenia was your fourth signing by 1st July – it took you until 21st July to sign four players last year. With Tom Cleverley and Nathaniel Chalobah already familiar with the club, has recruitment felt smoother this summer than last?

I’d just say that we’ve signed genuine quality and talent. Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes are two exceptionally bright young talents, who will undoubtedly, earn a move to a big club in a couple of years time if they perform well. Cleverley has had two loan spells with the club and while he isn’t the same player we had on loan the first time round, he’s a reliable performer and is also good on the ball.

Femenia has a lot of pace and performed well for Alaves last season, so there’s good competition for Janmaat there. Femenia could also play as a right winger too. He hasn’t played too much in pre-season due to injury so we will see. Bachmann is the only one who  probably won’t feature and is most definitely a signing for the future, but I’ve also heard he is a bright talent too. So I just think we’ve signed genuine quality so far and that’s what is needed. We need more genuine quality in our squad rather than quantity.

Another signing, Will Hughes, tends to work best in a fluid possession system when given the freedom to float into different areas and dictate play. Do you think you will have a setup that suits him?

I think we will. I think he will play in the CAM role in the 4-2-3-1. He came on there the other day in a friendly and impressed. He might not start for us straight away but I think Hughes will turn into a crucial player for us. If he and Chalobah have good seasons, they will have outside chances of being on the England plane for next year’s World Cup. It certainly isn’t inconceivable. I was really pleased that we signed Hughes. He’s a really young and talented midfielder and at £4.5m possibly rising to £7/8m, it’s a steal. I think he’ll do really well for us.

Hughes’ arrival means you’ve got plenty of central midfielders, but only two or three wingers. Are you hoping for another couple of wide men to come in?

Yes. We’ve been linked with a few. Markovic from Liverpool, Andre Carrillo from Benfica and Rachid Ghezzal who was previously with Lyon. So it’s clear we are going to sign a winger. I do feel we need to bring in another winger. Steven Berghuis has done well in the friendlies so far having returned from a loan spell at Feyernoord, but Nordin Amrabat has fallen away after a good start to the 16/17 campaign. We definitely need more of a cutting edge in the final third, so another winger is needed. I wouldn’t mind another striker either.

You won six of the 13 games that defender Craig Cathcart started last season. After the Northern Irishman signed a new deal, do you hope to keep him fit?

Yes. Injuries were a huge problem for us last season and Cathcart was one of many who struggled. Janmaat, Pereyra, Zarate, Kaboul, Kabasele, Behrami and Cathcart, among others, struggled with injuries last season. The Northern Ireland international played a crucial role in our promotion to the Premier League and continued his impressive performances under Quique Sanchez Flores back in the top flight. He’s not a big name, but Cathcart is a consistent and reliable performer in the squad. Whether he’s played as a centre-back or shunted out to right-back, you can always rely on Cathcart to put in a decent performance. Another excellent signing the Pozzo’s have made, given that we picked him up on a free transfer a couple of seasons ago. Hopefully we’ll see more of a fully-fit Cathcart this season.

Watford aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole?

The big teams have certainly spent a lot of money barring Spurs, and some other teams have made some good signings, so this season will be tougher than ever. The Premier League gets increasingly difficult every year and each team needs to strengthen if they wish to compete. This season, it’s difficult to call who will win the title. Manchester United and City have spent big, Chelsea have strengthened and Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal are all dark horses. So the Premier League will be tougher and more competitive than ever this time round.

Where will you finish?

12th

The Football Lab’s Verdict

With an exciting midfield led by better management, Watford should improve on last season, especially if Cathcart’s partnership with Prodl can be maintained. Forward and wide options are limited though, so the Hornets might not quite be ready for the top half – yet. 12th

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