Tempting as it is to launch into an ill-tempered rant about yesterday’s performance (last time I did that, after the Millwall game, we beat Arsenal), I want to take the focus away from Walter Mazzarri and look at the squad he’s been given to work with. Because I don’t think the people at the club responsible for player recruitment have done him any favours.
One thing that struck me as I was reading the Watford player profiles in the Palace programme was the ages of our key players. It’s generally accepted that outfield players (goalkeepers are, as in so many ways, different) are at their peak between the ages of 26 and 28, by which time they’ve got the experience they need to play to their full potential, but their fitness hasn’t yet started to become an issue. Equally, it doesn’t hurt to have a few wise old heads to give the team a stable foundation, and a few younger players who are trying that little bit harder because they need to establish themselves.
The team Walter sent out yesterday, though, was decidedly on the older side. Seven of the ten outfield players who started are 28 or older, and Cleverley and Janmaat are both 27. Only Niang, at 22, comes into the ‘keen youngster’ category. It’s not like our subs’ bench was packed with youthful promise, either. Yes, Success is only 21, and the walking definition of a work in progress, but the other subs were aged 25, 27, 29, 31 and 32.
Does this matter? When we reached the Premier League, the club made it clear that they were going to give Quique a core of older players who were experienced at this level, to ensure that we survived that crucial first season. And it worked, too. But that strategy feels a bit redundant now, and I can’t help feeling that some of the older players are just going through the motions. They’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt, and Watford is just another payday. That’s probably monstrously unfair on some, but it might help to account for the listless, shapeless nature of our recent performances.
The other aspect of recruitment that annoys me is the failure to fill the squad. To recap, twice a season (at the end of the transfer windows), every Premier League team has to name a squad of up to 25 players over the age of 21, of whom no more than 17 can be ‘foreign’. (I’m not going to go into the definition of ‘foreign’ right now, or we’ll be here all day.) Only players from that squad, or who are under 21, can be selected for PL fixtures.
The squad Watford named on February 2nd had only 23 players, though, including no fewer than four goalkeepers. That means Mazzarri has only 19 outfield players from which to select 16 for each matchday. It doesn’t give him a lot of leeway when injuries start to bite, especially since Success is clearly the only under-21 player at the club who the manager thinks is worth a place in the team. As we saw at Christmas, it takes a full-blown crisis to persuade him to give our homegrown youngsters a chance to show what they can do.
The reason we named an incomplete squad, of course, is that Watford couldn’t find eight ‘homegrown’ players to name. As it is, we’ve got six: Deeney, Cleveley and Cathcart, who all play regularly, and Watson, Mariappa and Gilmartin, who only make the bench, let alone get on the pitch, in the direst of emergencies.
Those two spare places could have been filled with players who would give Walter more options to choose from, like – oh, I don’t know, maybe a proper, experienced defensive full-back, so that he doesn’t have to shoehorn Britos and Cathcart into that role when he wants to play 4-4-2.
I know the PL’s rules have made decent British players disproportionately expensive, and I know the Pozzo regime is very conscious of balancing the books. But in this case, I believe it would have been worth loosening the purse strings to give Walter a full 25-man squad to choose from, with a range of players that would at least give him the option of more tactical flexibility without putting square pegs into round holes.