This week Bruce Halling looks into the new regime at Watford, and offers his assessment of the first few months under the Pozzo regime.
The sale of Watford Football Club to the Pozzo family over the summer was intended to mark the start of a bright new era for the Hertfordshire-based Championship side, with the expectation of new investment into the team and promises of an ambition to take the club into the Premier League. It is still very early days, with less than half a season completed under the new ownership, but already there are signs that maybe the Pozzo era may not be as bright as what was initially hoped for.
Much has been made about the transfer policy of the club, which is something quite unlike anything that has ever been seen in this country before. Jibes have been made with reference to the club’s Football Manager sponsorship deal, but the truth of the matter is that what is going on at Watford is nothing like Football Manager. I’ve certainly never had as many loan players on any game as Watford do at the club at current – the number of loanees at Vicarage Road currently stands at 14, most of whom are on loan from Udinese and Granada – and I genuinely cannot see how it can be a good thing for the club.
Football League rules state that at least six of a club’s starting eleven must be ‘homegrown’ players. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be English, but that they have spent at least three years with an English club before the age of twenty one. As such, there is never going to be enough room in the team to accommodate all of these players. Take into consideration the fact that Manuel Almunia is the team’s established first choice goalkeeper, and loanees Almen Abdi, Matej Vydra and Daniel Pudil have all become regular starters for the club, and you are left with a situation where nine of the remaining loanees are essentially competing for one place in the team. This does make you question how much value there is to these players being at the club in the first instance if they are not likely to be playing regularly.
It cannot be making life easy for Gianfranco Zola. He currently has a squad of 35 players, which is frankly far too big for any club of any size in any division. If you include the seven currently out on loan, this brings the number up to 42. They say that the perfect scenario for a squad is you have competition for places for every position, but when you have a squad so big that you have, on average, nearly four players for each position, the benefits from this are far outweighed by the drawbacks. Football players want to be playing every week and when the squad is so huge that there is no way that you can accommodate everybody, those players who aren’t getting regular game time are going to be unhappy and unhappy players can have a destabilising effect on the squad. When you consider that many of the loanees will be expecting to be playing regularly at Watford, this makes the expectations of the players an even more difficult thing to manage.
Let us not forget, as well, that Watford are a club with a good reputation when it comes to developing and bringing through their own players. Ashley Young, Marvin Sordell and Adrian Mariappa have all come through the club’s academy and gone onto to other clubs, whilst current first team players Lee Hodson and Lloyd Doyley have also spent their entire career with the club. The reason the club have been so successful in bringing through players is because they have always been a club that have been willing to give younger players an opportunity to prove themselves in the team. Under the current situation, this is no longer possible and younger players such as Matthew Whichelow, Ross Jenkins and Britt Assombalonga have all had to go out on loan to other clubs in order to get regular games. While the experience they gain will no doubt hold them in good stead, the fact they are not training with their parent club means that, should they be given the opportunity within the first team squad, they will have to go through the process of bedding themselves back in with the squad at Watford – something which could be avoided entirely if the players were gaining the experience at the club in the way that they were in seasons gone by.
The sad thing is that this proud tradition of Watford’s may become a thing of the past. There is some doubt about how much control Zola even has over transfer policy. In an interview last month, Zola stated that the current club structure dictates that the team play in a certain way, with the club providing him with the best players to play in that particular way, with Zola given the responsibility to pick the players for the team. This seems to imply that the responsibility for player recruitment lies largely beyond Zola, and rather with the club’s technical director Gianluca Nani. This model is completely and inherently different from the traditional model used by English clubs, where the manager has much more overall control over player recruitment, and it is unclear whether this new model is going to be any more effective – or indeed, popular – than the tried and tested method previously used at the club. One thing is for sure, though. The Pozzo family are firmly in charge at Watford. Former manager Sean Dyche was quite unceremoniously removed from the post of first team manager immediately upon the commencement of the new ownership, with Zola placed in charge to be primarily a first team coach as opposed to a manager. He has been tasked to run the club in the vision of Giampaolo Pozzo and will simply do as he is told, regardless of the consideration of how things have always been done at Watford.
So far, although it is still early days, it doesn’t actually look as if there has been much of a progression. Yes, it will take time given the widescales changes that have been made at the club, but the most important asset any football club has are its fans. The fans will want to see that the club is progressing and there isn’t too much to suggest that the club is going to progress much, if at all, this season. Watford have been a solid mid-table side in the Championship in recent seasons, and at current it appears that mid-table is exactly where Watford will remain – at least, certainly for this season.