The first of our Report Card articles. From Almunia to Merkel
1. Manuel Almunia
Last season’s hero has turned into many a fan’s villain this year. The experience he’s brought the squad has surely been invaluable though.
I am not sure I agree with the fans that pin the blame on Almunia for the loss of a hatful of points this season. There were a lot of supporters calling for him to be dropped following the 4-2 away capitulation at the hands of Nottingham Forest for example, suggesting that somehow the four goals conceded in the second half after a largely comfortable first were down to Almunia’s inability to come off his line to collect crosses. I can’t say I agreed with their sentiments then or now.
The truth is, Almunia does often look like a confidence man, and when the confidence goes – the 1-0 loss at home to Bolton springs to mind here – it really does head for the hills.
Perhaps his critics are so quick to get on his back because of the high standard he’s set for himself. It’s my opinion that we haven’t had a better ‘keeper since Ben Foster, and the couple of howlers he’s let in this season pale in comparison to the competition he’d have faced should he have joined in Loach’s day, for instance (sorry, Scott…).
Yes, he hasn’t been at his brilliant best for the entire season, but that triple save at Bournemouth following a penalty that would’ve put the Cherries ahead cannot be forgotten, and Almunia’s willingness to tell it how it is to the press is refreshing and necessary.
I like his style. Philosophical with the media, drifting between human and superhuman on the pitch. If he stays another year I’ll be happy, but I would understand him moving on if he wants to retire or the club wanted to add to the squad in this area.
2. Reece Brown
The forgotten man.
Having plied his trade on loan at Carlisle United since March, his only appearance came from the bench away at Reading in the heady days of the first part of the season, where we managed to score late goals too.
It doesn’t seem likely we’ll be seeing much more of young Reece Brown, given the circumstances.
3. Héctor Bellerín
I was surprised and gutted in equal measure when Bellerín returned to Arsenal in February.
Bellerín was pacey, technically gifted, and was aggressive when he needed to be. A big part of our incisive counter-attacking play, he contributed to an excellent goal that epitomised Zola’s shackle-free ram-raid football away from home.
Though I feel we didn’t really get too much of a chance to see what the youngster could do, I do feel he could break into the Gunners squad in the next year or two. Perhaps another loan will come before that. Probably not to Watford though I feel.
4. Gabriele Angella
Scored more goals than any other Watford defender in a single season since Danny Shittu’s nine goal haul in 07/08 with eight, including a quite magnificent Goal of the Season.
A heavyweight with a deft touch, you might say. You certainly won’t see Shittu flicking in a goal in off the upright like Angella did against Forest any time soon anyway.
And what a pleasure it is to see the Italian score; if not for the goal itself but for the celebrations afterwards. Gabriele Angella loves scoring goals.
His first year in England has been excellent. Angella is an assured centre half that can be relied on for a towering header at either end of the pitch (see above goal tally), as well as a cool head in high pressure situations at the back. He is exceptional on the ball for a defender, and though his form may have dipped somewhat around the midway point of the season, so did the form of the majority of the squad.
When he keeps it simple, Angella has an uncanny knack for choosing the right pass to move the play from defence to attack, with his longer balls – used more and more as the season went on – finding their intended target more often than not, which is more than you can say for poor old comparison tool Danny Shittu. (I’ll stop now, Dan.)
His driving run into the opposition half away at Wigan which led to our opener sums up his best attribute: Angella takes the game by the scruff of the neck when others don’t. An attribute many fans will have you believe only Troy Deeney has in this squad, but I disagree.
For me, Angella is a player that could do with another year in the Championship. He has been reported as a potential transfer target for some Premiership clubs, but I feel a move to the top may be a bit too soon for him. I said the same thing about Mike Williamson though and his Newcastle move did him no harm, so what do I know? The main thing is that he is important to us, and I hope there are no offers tempting enough to see him leave Vicarage Road any time soon.
5. Essaïd Belkalem
His eight appearances this season have, bar one, been underwhelming at best. His tendency to give away free kicks and even the odd penalty hardly fill me with confidence.
The one appearance I was impressed with was a cameo at Oakwell. With the game seemingly won at 3-1, Belkalem was brought on with express instructions to keep Barnsley’s best chance of scoring – big Chris O’Grady – out of the game. Belkalem obliged, and was all over O’Grady for the final half an hour. Assertive, strong in the air, not a single mistimed challenge in sight, ‘this could be the start of something,’ I hastily thought.
On the whole it’s been a disappointing first year for a defender said to have been wanted by bigger clubs than us when he signed. He has of course been used sparingly, which may have affected his match sharpness. He often came into the first team after a long absence or following injury, but even so, I must admit I was expecting more.
Belkalem is on loan from Granada, so it isn’t clear whether he’ll be with us again next season. I’m not quite sure how well he’d fit into a squad playing in La Liga though so Watford is his most likely destination should he remain playing for a Pozzo-owned club post-summer.
His inclusion in the Algerian national squad for their World Cup campaign will be an excellent experience for him, and one hopes he’ll become a better player for it.
I am not giving up hope on you yet, Essaïd. And nor is my grandfather, who says you’re one of his favourite players – mainly due to how friendly you are at that cafe outside Watford High Street station apparently. Good on you.
6. Joel Ekstrand
A player who grew and grew last season, eventually comfortably becoming one of the first names on the team sheet, Joel Ekstrand’s second year in English football has not been quite so plain-sailing.
The Swede’s temper has risen to the surface several times this season, with petulant bookings coming at the end of numerous tense games – whether we are chasing points or hanging on to a slender lead, a flashpoint never seems far away.
Aside from the anger at the end of games, his calmness and confidence on the ball has sometimes been Ekstrand’s undoing, with individual errors proving costly throughout this campaign more often than last year.
However, when all is said and done, I wholeheartedly believe there is an outstanding player in there somewhere. Consistency is missing from Ekstrand’s game right now, but with the right attitude and more and more first team experience, I really think we could have a top class player on our hands.
Whether the coaching staff and owners have enough patience to see that great player come out at Watford remains to be seen however.
If the rumours about him wanting to leave are true, then we may end up losing him in the close season, but personally I hope Ekstrand knuckles down over the summer and preseason and comes back stronger for it.
7. Cristian Battocchio
Cristian Battocchio has really come into his own this year, having had more of a bit-part role to play in the 2012/13 season. Seemingly one of Sannino’s favoured players to play in a three-man midfield, Battocchio’s terrier-like attributes mean the diminutive Argentine-Italian is well suited to the fast paced and hurly burly nature of the Championship.
It looked as if he may be moved on in January, with a loan move to Serie B side Padova widely reported. But Battocchio has since put his stamp on the side, working well in Sannino’s energetic, pressing style.
He also put more weight behind the notion that ‘Cristian Battocchio only scores good goals’ with his five goals in all competitions this season. His first, and in my opinion his best, came at home to Bournemouth in the League Cup – a beautifully executed chip from the edge of the area. The second was a well-placed low shot from just outside the box to beat Wigan 1-0 at Vicarage Road. The third goal included a deft touch and tight finish at the end of a swift counterattack away at Leeds. The fourth was a powerful volley from 20 yards against Barnsley, and the fifth and final of the season was a confident finish following another lightning fast counterattack, this time at home to Blackburn.
Here’s to at least five more next season. Good goals only, you understand.
8. Alexander Merkel
Alexander Merkel’s loan spell at the Hornets was a bit of an interesting one. Like Belkalem, he came to us with something of a reputation without most of the fans seeing him play.
His first foray into Championship football ended with a straight red card following a tired and over the top sliding challenge towards the end of our home game against Reading, which ended in defeat.
Since his sending off, Merkel has not seen much game time. I feel he probably would have got more time under Zola due to his tendency to rotate the squad on a regular basis, but with the form of Battocchio and Tőzsér towards the tail end of the season, as well as the return of Abdi, Merkel found himself on the fringes for the majority of his time at Watford.
The glimpses we have had of the player have been promising, but he will need regular game time somewhere to live up to the potential he seems to have. Whether or not that’s at Watford remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the young German elsewhere come the start of next season.