Affleck's Angle: Consistency Is Key
Kevin Affleck reflects on the stand-out performer at the Cardiff City Stadium...
You would have thought Neil Warnock would be sick of the sight of Watford. After all, he has lost more times (17 in 38 matches) against the Hornets than he has done against any other opponent in his 39 years as a manager.
Yet, scratch beneath of the surface of his prickly exterior, and he seems to have a bit of a soft spot for the Golden Boys. No, really, he does. Check out his programme notes on Friday night. He trotted out the usual warm welcome to the opposition coach and staff from the template most programme editors seem to use, but then went a step further, in fact much further.
“Watford are the sort of club that clubs like us should aspire to be like,” he wrote. “They’ve established themselves in this division over a number of seasons and are now proving to be one of the main clubs next in line outside of that top six. Watford are proving what’s possible and their progress has been admirable.”
How about that, huh? Praise indeed from someone viewed as a bit of a curmudgeon. He didn’t stop there, either.
“My memories of Watford go back to when I was managing Burton Albion back in the 1980s,” he said. “I took a young Richard Jobson down to meet Graham Taylor and I was taken aback by what a family-orientated club Watford was. Richard ended up signing for Graham after watching a game with Sir Elton (he was starstruck I think!) and I’ve always kept an eye out for Watford's results since that time.”
These days Watford do not need a titan of the music industry to add a bit of gravitas and get a deal over the line. The ambition and infrastructure is enough.
“When I came back, even the training ground seemed to have a million new buildings bolted onto the side of the existing buildings,” said Ben Foster in an interview last week with the Evening Standard. “It is geared for European competition now, it is geared for fighting for the top ten in the Premier League season in, season out.”
It’s why the Hornets were able to sign someone of the calibre of Gerard Deulofeu, who was considered the hottest prospect in Europe in 2011/12. It was some coup, particularly for the £11.3million fee Soccerbase have it down as. Cardiff paid the same amount for Josh Murphy.
Deulofeu was named player of the tournament at the Under-19 European Championships in 2012 and Rafinha, his Barcelona teammate, said he’d win the Ballon d’Or one day.
Now, we’re probably not talking out of turn when we say that particular gong is one that may well just elude Deulofeu, but the fact he was even mentioned in that breath shows the gifts he possesses and the type of talent Watford are now able to attract. He’s only 24, too, so his best years should be ahead of him.
“I don’t think Gerard’s fulfilled his potential yet, which is frightening really when you see how good he is,” added Foster.
At Cardiff, on Friday night, Deulofeu looked every inch like a player who had been schooled at Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy. The dinked finish for the hat-trick goal, for example, was straight out of Lionel Messi’s playbook.
“He’s got that ability when he goes go through one on one to sit you down as a goalkeeper,” said Foster. “He fakes to shoot and then puts it in the corner. He’s got so much ability and is lovely to watch.”
He won't mind us saying he’s also infuriating to watch as he has all the ability in the world, but like a lot of flair players, you are just looking for him to turn it on more often.
“Consistency is the key for him,” said Jonathan Greening on BBC Radio 5 Live. “Sometimes when he played for Everton and Barcelona you didn’t know which player was going turn up.”
He’s been threatening to do what he did at Cardiff all season. He could have had a hat-trick in the first-half at Newcastle and should have scored early on at home against the Magpies and Burnley, and also at Palace away.
“He has missed chances in previous games, but has never shied away and always tries to improve,” said Troy Deeney. “You can only admire that. You have to tip your hat to him and he deserves all the credit he gets. In other games people have hammered him – I’ve probably hammered him – but he takes it on the chin. He wants to learn and he wants to progress.”
The biggest sign of him maturing and seeing the bigger picture of the team came not when he nestled the first in the bottom corner, not when he rounded Neil Etheridge for the second or when he cooly chipped in the third, but when he laid the fourth on a plate for Deeney with an unselfish piece of play. It was the goal that pleased Javi Gracia the most.
“In my opinion it was more important to assist after the three goals, to be generous and pass it,” said the Head Coach.
Gracia will just be relieved to finally get away from talking about missed chance after missed chance. Only Manchester City have squandered more ‘big chances’ than the Hornets this season. While keeping that sort of company speaks volumes for the quality and inventiveness of the Hornets’ attacking play, it is no consolation whatsoever when you are seeing point after point slip through the net because you can’t put the ball in the onion bag.
The funny thing on Friday night was that they actually had less shots on target than they did at Arsenal, Newcastle and Everton, and only one less than they did at Fulham. And yet they scored five goals. They were just more clinical, ruthless in fact, especially the rampant Deulofeu.
While everybody was justified in getting excited about the first top-flight hat-trick by a Watford player since Mark Falco in 1986, it’s important to sound a note of caution with the stat that five of Deulofeu’s six goals this season have come against two of the bottom four sides. It will fascinating to see if he can kick on now and strut his stuff in forthcoming games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.
“I have to show this every week,” he said in a recent interview with The Guardian.
How exciting the business end of the season promises to be for this club if he is true to his word.