If there’s one thing Watford’s hierarchy know, it’s recruitment. Or so we thought.
At its best, the Hornets’ model since the Pozzo family’s 2012 takeover has been inspired. Find a rough diamond off the beaten track, polish him up and sell him on at a huge profit. At other times it’s been chuck enough muck at the wall and hope some sticks.
For every Matěj Vydra, Almen Abdi, Odion Ighalo or Richarlison there’s been a Neuton, Geoffrey Mujangi Bia, Jean-Alain Fanchone and Iriney.
That list is by no means exhaustive either.
But such is the impact of the successes, it’s easy to overlook those whose Vicarage Road careers have been instantly forgettable. Overall, owner Gino Pozzo, non-executive chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury and technical director Filippo Giraldi have credit in the bank.
But after this summer’s business, coupled with a six-game winless start to the Premier League season, that too is under threat.
It’s difficult to accuse Watford’s decision-makers of failing to invest in the squad.
Ismaïla Sarr became the Hornets’ record signing this summer in a deal which could reach £40million. And even though former England international Danny Welbeck was out of contract and has taken a pay-cut to sign, he will still have commanded a hefty signing-on fee and a heavily incentivised contract.
The problem, though, lies in where Pozzo, Duxbury and Giraldi saw fit to strengthen. Every club has a blind spot and Watford’s is centre-back. Since winning promotion to the Premier League in 2015, the Hornets have signed eight central defenders at an approximate cost of £16million.
Before this summer, when they forked out a fee reported to be between £5million and £6million for Craig Dawson, Watford hadn’t signed a centre-back at first-team level on a permanent basis since Adrian Mariappa re-joined the club on a free transfer in August 2016.
Yet in spite of this, Hornets supporters have been crying out for a central defensive linchpin for several transfer windows now. Sebastian Prödl and Miguel Britos have both suffered from injuries after impressive first seasons in England and the latter was released over the summer.
Prödl remains on the books in WD18 but hadn’t made a first-team appearance since last October prior to starting Tuesday’s Carabao Cup win over Swansea City.
Christian Kabasele, after a promising maiden campaign in the Premier League, has regressed and last season displayed questionable decision making to earn daft red cards in games against Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur. At 28, the Belgian is entering his peak and, while he’s failed to become the end product many would have hoped, he is arguably Watford’s most in-form central defender.
That does not speak volumes for Mariappa nor summer signing Dawson who has been nothing short of disastrous following his switch from West Bromwich Albion. The 29-year-old was supposed to be the experienced operator who would shore up a leaky defence but either he was never as good as advertised or has simply caught the same defensive bug which has blighted his new team-mates.
No-one emerged from the 8-0 humiliation at Manchester City with any credit. But Dawson was especially wretched as, time and time again, City players peeled off the back of him to score routine finishes inside the six-yard box. Quite what has happened to the former West Brom defender in his year in the Championship is anyone’s guess, but he looks a long way from the bread-and-butter defender who shone under Tony Pulis’ at The Hawthorns.
Underinvestment in defensive areas of the squad is not exclusively a Watford problem, mind.
When Liverpool paid a world-record £75million for Virgil van Dijk the reaction was mixed. Those sorts of fees are typically the domain of match-winners, attackers and creators. Yet the Dutchman has been a bargain and had a transformative effect on Jürgen Klopp’s side. Times are changing and van Dijk's success has paved the way for clubs to take defensive investment more seriously.
This week we learned via The Athletic that Harry Maguire was a Watford target when he left Hull for Leicester City in 2017. The Hornets, though, ‘preferred other candidates’. Fast-forward two summers and Maguire is an England international and the most expensive defender of all-time at £85million. No-one could have predicted a rise of that magnitude but the Hornets’ recruitment department won’t thank Adam Leventhal for revealing that gem.
Some fans have used that sliding doors moment as further evidence that Giraldi is not fit for purpose. But that is to oversimplify the Italian’s role. No one person has autonomy over Watford’s transfer dealings, it is a collaborative effort and Giraldi’s responsibility is identifying potential targets for the club. Whether or not they pursue the players he puts forward is out of his control.
Regardless, the idea Watford are adequately covered at centre-back is laughable. Recently returned head coach Quique Sánchez Flores used Tuesday’s League Cup win over Championship side Swansea to give Prödl his first minutes in almost a year – that is an indicator of where the Hornets are at in their desperation to solve this problem.
The Austrian shone in his first season at Vicarage Road under Sánchez Flores before losing his place to Britos who partnered Craig Cathcart in the second half of the season.
However, there was limited encouragement to take from the 32-year-old’s display. He was at fault for Sam Surridge’s equaliser, allowing the striker to run off the back of him and stab the ball home, and hardly laid down a marker which demanded his inclusion against Wolverhampton Wanderers in Saturday’s six-pointer at Molineux.
If bringing Sánchez Flores back to Vicarage Road was a welcome nostalgia trip for Hornets supporters, the fact the defensive unit still resembles the side of 2015 is a lingering nightmare.