Date: 1st January 2014 at 12:05pm
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Billy Hawkins returns from a Christmas break to reflect on the end of 2013 in his ‘Away From Home’ column

Billy Hawkins returns from a Christmas break to reflect on the end of 2013 in his ‘Away From Home’ column…

ASIDE from being engulfed by Christmas – and the return from University that bequeathed on me – the strange scheduling of football fixtures over the festive period doesn’t allow for the same weekly routine this column has taken. Instead of producing one article covering the draw at Ipswich – Guiseppe ‘Beppe’ Sannino’s first game in charge – it has concluded that this one will instead focus upon the emphatic Millwall victory and the tense draw against Queens Park Rangers alongside the Ispwich game.

Upon questioning whether to wait until the New Years Day game against Yeovil to write, I decided against it, allowing a thorough inspection of the first days of Sannino before welcoming the new year – and supposedly with it, new players.

The word around the web – me being unable to have caught any games whilst at home – is that Sannino has certainly had a positive impact upon the squad – both tactically and mentally.

The Ipswich game, just three days after his appointment, can be seen as both a come down from Zola’s management and a trial period for Sannino to asses the strengths and weaknesses of a severely under-performing squad.

The defence performed more solidly than it had done under the majority of Zola’s reign, although the five shots against was higher than in the previous match, Zola’s last.

The 3-5-2 of Zola’s tenure resembled a much more traditional 5-4-1 under Sannino, although the first team remained largely unchanged; the back five were inclined to sit deep and absorb pressure, with the wing backs resorting to a remarkably defensive role.

For all the defensive effort, a penalty was still conceded and it required a late strike from Troy Deeney – who showed a real desire to reach the ball first – to equalise. A fair result from a game in which the manager had little time to implement any personal strategy and was reliant upon Zola’s ex-management to pull through, who Sannino praised; ‘if we had of picked up three points today, it would have been because of Gianfranco’.

Following the Ipswich match, Boxing Day brought a 4-0 win over Millwall – a first home victory in five games, and a victory for Sannino on his home debut at Vicarage Road.

A result which arguably should have been more – the woodwork denying Lewis McGugan and Fernando Forestieri, and the referee denying a third penalty – victory certainly allayed any festive fears and seemed to show a return to confidence in many of the squad; a confidence severely lacking over the past weeks.

The positivity surrounding the squad casts the mind back to last season, and the strong homosocial brotherhood amongst the players apparent to the viewer; the team was the goal, not the self-absorbed individual. This lack of unison has cast doubts over the squad – and Zola’s man-management – in the first half of this season; and although only positive remarks have surrounded his exit from the club, there is something to be read into the correlation between Sannino’s appointment and the new sense of familiarity in the club.

The Queens Park Rangers game – a 0-0 draw against a side too good for the Championship – can be seen as a great result to round off a successful 2013.

Although missing top scorer Charlie Austin, a squad containing Niko Kranjcar, Joey Barton, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Robert Green failed to score at Vicarage Road and are starting to show their vulnerability; three games without a win over the Christmas period doesn’t bode well for Harry Redknapp’s promotion chasers.

For Watford, it is becoming more apparent that Sannino’s Italian methodology is starting to work; his defensive coaching restricted Q.P.R. to only one shot on target, a stat which has been a rare sight for viewers at Vicarage Road.

Yet, whilst his coaching style is reserved, his pitchside manner certainly isn’t. Forever pacing the touchline, shouts echo around the stadium organising a defence with the ease of a Subbuteo team. Certainly from the current school of tactically astute new-wave coaches, Sannino wears a suit as well as Andre Villas-Boas, and bears the guise of a man who will not rest until his vision is played out on the football pitch. Arrigo Sacchi would be proud.

To round off a longer – and much less in depth – article than I normally write, it would seem apt to play up Watford’s chances of success following the mood and morale changing festive period. Whilst it had been suspected that Zola’s losses were a ‘blip’ that would pass, they never did. Yet, under Sannino, victory has returned. It may be pre-emptive to suggest that the upward trajectory has returned – I kept believing Zola was on the right track even after numerous defeats – but all the signs point to a more successful second half of the season.

Is promotion a possibility again; well, as long as it stays a possibility, we should all be happy.