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Ismael bucking all kinds of trends in Watford upturn - Interview
Thursday, 11th Jan 2024 14:24 by Clive Whittingham

Watford have the same manager they did when we last played them, and Valerien Ismael has got the ball on the floor - to find out what on earth is going on at Vicarage Road we turned to our regular contributor Richard Segal and Cameron from The Voices of the Vic Podcast.

How's the season been for Watford?

RS: A season of two halves. Two wins out of the first 11 and the alarms bells were ringing. When losing 2-0 at Sunderland it seemed our nadir had been reached and the hour that Valerin kept the boys in the changing room for a few home truths changed the narrative. Since then seven wins and, bar a Boxing Day horror show against Bristol City, much more consistent team performances.

Cam: As you know full well it all started on the highest of highs for Watford. That 4-0 opening day win sold us a dream, but it was a while before we saw anything resembling that performance again. Things quickly became dull, and then concerning, and it was all turning a bit sour. Then came a bore-draw at Huddersfield and that seemed to be the last straw for Ismael. After that game he settled on a style that has us not only getting results but playing attractive football, and getting the best out of a lot of our players. Play-offs aren’t beyond the realms of possibility but we know we’re far from perfect, and this season is serving as a much-needed reset.

Watford in the league so far
Watford 4-0 QPR Dele-Bashiru 1, Louza 20, Martins 38, Bayo 43
Watford 0-0 Plymouth
Stoke 1-0 Watford Vidigal 53
Watford 0-1 Blackburn Hedges 72
Coventry 3-3 Watford Ewijk 41, Hoedt og 61, Godden 87 – Rajovic 35, 79, Martins 52
Watford 2-0 Birmingham Andrews 90, Rajovic 90
Watford 2-2 West Brom Ince 3, Martins 23 – swift 14, Wallace 17
Leeds 3-0 Watford Piroe 67, Byram 70, Anthony 89
Watford 2-3 Middlesbrough Bayo 19, Hoedt 52 – McGree 5, 12, Coburn 63
Sunderland 2-0 Watford Huggins 43, Ba 62
Cardiff 1-1 Watford McGuinness 26 – Bayo 54
Watford 1-0 Sheff Wed Asprilla 82
Swansea 0-1 Watford Sema 82
Watford 2-2 Millwall Asprilla 7, Rajovic 90 – Flemming 12, Harding 85
Huddersfield 0-0 Watford
Watford 5-0 Rotherham Rajovic 10, 45, Kaymebe 54, Ince 86, Martins 90
Leicester 2-0 Watford Vardy 76, pen 90
Watford 3-2 Norwich Kone 30, Rajovic 33, Asprilla 77 – Batth 3, Ui-Jo 12
Hull 1-2 Watford Twine 10 – Kaymebe 8, Hoedt 79
Watford 1-1 Southampton Healey 90 – Adams 56
Watford 1-2 Ipswich Asprilla 12 – Hirst 64, Morsy 80
Preston 1-5 Watford Keane 27 – Bayo 42, 71, Martins 46, Kayembe 53, Kone 77
Blackburn 1-2 Watford Wharton 3 – Rajovic 83, Healey 87
Watford 1-4 Bristol City Chakvetadze 49 – Pring 28, Hoedt og 45, Sykes 50, Weimann 83
Watford 1-1 Stoke Livermore 15 – Mmaee 34
Plymouth 3-3 Watford Azaz 20, Whittaker 27, Hardie 42 – Kaymebe 11, Kone 38, Andrews 57

Valerien Ismael football can divide opinion, what sort of style have Watford settled into this season? What's the fans opinions of the manager?

RS: Predominantly we have played 443 in possession and 451 out of it, a couple of criticisms would be at times his premeditated plans of making subs around the 55 mark ( a trick that worked well during the covid year at Barnsley) and our wingers playing on the opposite side of their stronger foot. On the whole I think the fans are happy with the progress so far, obviously being the Watford manager and him only having 28 games in charge we have yet to work out a song for him…

Cam: Because it’s the way football is now, Ismael has adapted his style to be much more possession-based and on-the-floor. He’s getting the midfielders much more involved than we’ve seen in recent years and they’re doing so to great effect. Something Ismael became known for was his high press, and while it isn’t as intense here as it was at Barnsley, it’s still a big strength of ours. Fitness is also a big thing of his: he’s turned the least fit bunch of players I’ve seen into proper athletes, and it’s showing with the amount of late goals we seem to score. However, I think there’s definite weaknesses, and teams can get at us. Bristol City got a lot of joy against us by stopping the midfield from playing, and we didn’t have too much of a response. Ismael’s subs can also be questionable to say the least. It’s safe to say the majority think he’s doing a fantastic job but there’s always room to improve.

After a fairly dodgy start (our game not included) Watford actually renewed his contract just when they usually sack the manager - how and why did that happen?

RS: The board/owners were very happy with what they saw off the field, the lack of discipline which had haunted the club over the past few years was slowly being eradicated and instead of players being fined and it making not a bit of difference to their attitude the dropping of them seemed to increase the unity and subsequent results.

Cam: Trust me, we were all thinking the same thing. Last season we’d be onto our second manager by now, but it looks like Mr Pozzo has bucked his ideas up, and we’re sacking technical directors every other month now (we’re onto our third of the season). Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, and on that note I think Gino has realised that the managers might not be the problem. The whole culture looks to have changed and it sounds a much more comfortable environment overall, which has allowed Ismael to thrive. The new contract was a show of unity and a statement that change is in place, and I’m all for it.

Recent results look good, especially away from home, how you playing? What should we be expecting this Sunday?

RS: Yes the form away from home has been excellent, after going ten months without an away win to then winning four out of seven games on the road justifies the backing of the club to Val and also to his man management. After losing to Leicester he dropped our first choice keeper and captain Daniel Bachmann due to his lack of discipline, this is also after not picking Imran Louza for a similar poor attitude.

Cam: It took us nine months to get an away win and four come along at once. While Swansea was a scrappy, marginal win, in which we benefited from a questionable decision, the three wins since then have been much better performances. At Hull, Preston and Blackburn we were able to impose ourselves and play the way we wanted to, rather than succumb to the crowd like we have done in the past. None of the three were perfect performances, including the 5-1 win at Preston where we were under the cosh for the entire first half, but it’s encouraging to see us trying to play football away from home. Our defence has gotten leakier but we don’t find it hard to create chances, and so I suppose that 3-3 goalfest at Plymouth was a long-time coming. QPR will get chances against us, as will we against you, but our results are normally determined by which team is more clinical.

Any January rumours? What's needed?

RS: Well we would love another striker but I doubt that is going to happen, cover at left back and midfield would help.

Cam: January has been unsurprisingly quiet for us. No names have really been mentioned from any concrete source, but it’s known that a right back is on the agenda due to Jeremy Ngakia’s long-term absence. Midfielder Tom Dele-Bashiru has been filling in there and while he’s a talented lad there’s no question he’s out of his depth there (Chris Willock could have a field day). We’ve had issues all across the board really, with Jamal Lewis now seemingly injured and the only backup to Jake Livermore in midfield being a centre-back. Like nearly every club, our strikers just haven’t performed to a good enough standard so you’d like to think there’ll be some movement there. The only real move I expect, however, is for Imran Louza to be shifted out, though that could leave us somewhat short with Edo Kayembe now out injured too.

Ins >>> Mileta Rajovic, 24, CF, Kalmar (Sweden), £1.5m >>> Tom Ince, 31, RW, Reading, £50k >>> Rhys Healey, 28, CF, Toulouse, Free >>> Jake Livermore, 33, DM, West Brom, Free >>> Jamal Lewis, 25, LB, Newcastle, Loan >>> Giorgi Chakvetadze, 23, AM, Gent, Loan

Outs >>> Joao Pedro, 21, CF, Brighton, £30m >>> Ismaila Sarr, 25, RW, Marseille, £11m >>> William Troost-Ekong, 29, CB, Salonika, £900k >>> Joseph Hungbo, 23, Show Off, Nuremberg, £200k >>> Domingos Quina, 23, AM, Udinese, Undisclosed >>> Maduka Okoye, 24, GK, Udinese, Undisclosed >>> Christian Kabasele, 32, CB, Udinese, Undisclosed >>> Ashley Fletcher, 27, CF, Sheff Wed, Loan >>> Samuel Kalou, 26, RW, Lausanne, Loan >>> Jorge Cabezas, 19, CF, New York, Loan >>> Joao Ferreira, 22, RB, Udinese, Loan >>> Kwadwo Baah, 20, LW, Burton, Loan >>> Ignacio Pussetto, 27, RW, Huracan (Argentina), Free >>> Britt Assombalonga, 30, CF, Antalyaspor, Free >>> Mario Gaspar, 32, RB, Elche, Free >>> Leandro Bacuna, 31, CM, Groningen, Free >>> Craig Cathcart, 34, CB, Kortrijk (Belgium), Free >>> Dan Gosling, 33, CM, Released >>> Tom Cleverley, 33, CM, Retired

Stand out players in the team?

RS: There is no doubt that Yaser Asprilla has the potential to be an outstanding footballer, hopefully another 18 months with us before we cash in. He dovetailed very well with Giorgi Chakvetadze (Dave) during the Stoke game before we were reduced to ten men and had to sacrifice our attacking plans. A big shout out also to Jake Livermore who I was very dubious about it after watching him at Stoke earlier in the season and seeing a double decker bus turn quicker, he has been outstanding recently.

Cam: As I said earlier the system we’ve employed does get the best out of a lot of our players. Yaser Asprilla is one in particular who seems to enjoy himself no matter the occasion. He’s our only real creative outlet at the moment and he’s fantastic at what he does, but Val is still managing his minutes as it’s easy to forget he’s still a kid. Giorgi Chakvetadze played his way into the team over the festive period and seems to fit this system to a tee with his ball-carrying ability and energy. Two more experienced players who have become integral to our away form are Wesley Hoedt and Jake Livermore. They were more or less a two-man defence at Plymouth the other week and between them they do a lot of work to both win the ball back and keep us ticking. When Hoedt in particular isn’t on his game, the whole team tends to suffer.

Weak links?

RS: Well we’ve conceded in each of our last ten since we played Rotherham and silly mistakes from the back does not have me holding out much more hope for clean sheets, I get the impression it won’t be nil nil on Sunday.

Cam: There are two key areas of discontent in this team. We seem to have a bit of a right centre-back problem, and Ismael has been tossing a coin between Ryan Porteous and Francisco Sierralta. The former is very rash and a lot of the goals you see us concede can be traced back to him being halfway up the pitch, but the advantages he brings on the ball are clear for all to see. Sierralta, on the other hand, is a terrific natural defender, especially in the air, but I just don’t think he suits the modern game like Porteous does, and he had a nightmare against Chesterfield. So whichever one of those two is picked, there is joy for you to be had. Obviously I can’t go over weaknesses without mentioning the strikers. Mileta Rajovic will start, though you might not notice him. Nine goals is an impressive tally but as long as your defenders can concentrate in their own box they’ll shut him down with ease, because he offers nothing 99% of the time. I know this is said about a lot of players, but it really is like playing with ten men. Just to add a small nitpick, Ben Hamer in goal is doing a fantastic job, but he’s got a clear weakness at that near post, which I’m sure is something QPR will look to exploit.

Revised expectations for the season?

RS: We will finish somewhere between 8th and 14th, you are only as good as your strikers and unfortunately in Bayo (suspended for this match), Rajovic and Healy they don’t have the quality to make us push for a play-off place.

Cam: The expectation is certainly mid-table, but it’s a more exciting mid-table than we first realised. We’ll continue to blow some teams out of the water, and then have the same done to us a week later. The ingredients are there for a play-off chasing team but I’m not sure this squad is quite ready for that just yet. As I’m expecting very little movement in the January window I struggle to see us finishing anywhere above tenth, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

Links >>> Watford Official Website >>> WFC Forums — Message Board >>> Watford Observer — Local Press >>> Voices of the Vic — Podcast

The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @VoicesoftheVic

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Ian Randall Photography

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TacticalR added 23:16 - Jan 13
Thanks to Richard and Cameron.

It seems that Ismaël has changed from his Valball days at Barnsley when he had players rushing forwards in packs. I think most people expected Watford to be near the top of the table because of the parachute payments. Even if that is not happening it sounds like Watford are at least entertaining to watch.

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