02/03: Preview: Watford
by Tony Wallis
The Vialli clearout now seems complete, with ten professionals (Blondeau, Galli, Vega, Wooter, Gibbs, Panayi, Noble, Okon, Issa and Neill) already gone. The time has come for new man Ray Lewington to make his mark, with Sean Dyche in, with Mark Edworthy reported arriving shortly. Assuming that no players are going to be signed for a little while and that those remaining who are still on the transfer list also stay for a while and Gifton re-signs, then what's the likely line-up for the start of the season? After all, we still have thirty-eight professionals reporting for training if I've counted correctly.
Alec Chamberlain, having signed a new one year contract, probably stays as number one 'keeper. Espen Baardsen, despite having two years still on his contract, will probably remain as back-up. I would expect him to leave eventually to further his international career unless he displaces Alec early in the season. As it's a bit too soon for Richard Lee to be anything but reserves number one and occasional cover for Alec or Espen - if Baardsen goes, we'll need another keeper. We'll need a 'keeper on loan anyway if one of the three gets injured.
Without Vialli, I doubt Filippo Galli will return. With Patrick Blondeau paid off and Wayne Brown having re-signed for Ipswich, we're looking a bit thin in the defender department. We're left with Paul Robinson, Neil Cox, Lloyd Doyley as the only defensive players with significant first team experience, and even that mainly as full backs. The arrival of Sean Dyche and reports that Mark Edworthy is on his way from Coventry are timely. Cover looks a bit thin - Matt Langston, whilst having signed a new contract, has been a professional for three years without so much as appearing on the subs bench yet, and he hasn't played since January. Jerel Ifil started three games on loan at Huddersfield at the end of last season, so is probably ahead in the pecking order. The remaining first and second year pros (Nick Williams, Nick Buxton and Jack Smith) probably need another season in the reserves, with the occasional first team outing if they do well. Perhaps worth a mention is Stephen Glass, who played reasonably well as a left wing back when we played probably our best football of last season. Another central defensive option eventually could be Gavin Mahon, but based on his performance against the Blades, perhaps midfield would be best for him!
Midfield is one area where we still have some squad depth. In defensive midfield we have two players, Richard Johnson and Stephen Hughes chasing one place, as I doubt Paul Okon will now return. Let's hope Johnno returns to his old form quickly and remains injury-free. Gavin Mahon may also play here, but further forward seems a better option for him. In any case, he's not expected back from injury before Christmas. Wide left we still have Stephen Glass and Lee Cook now joined by Anthony McNamee, although Macca may be better playing 'in the hole' behind the front two. In central midfield we still seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the moment. Of the famous five who were transfer listed in February, Allan Nielsen seems the most determined to stay. Micah Hyde and Paulo Vernazza, being similar players, have never seemed to gel in the same team but are still useful players - one covering for the other. Gary Fisken and Jamie Hand have played well when needed, but will probably be squad players this season. In any case, Fisken had knee surgery in the summer and won't be available until a few games in. We definitely have a weakness at right midfield. Jermaine Pennant was probably the only effective player we had in this position last season, but he is unlikely to return. Nielsen wasn't especially effective in this role, although Fisken and Hand played reasonably well on occasions. Perhaps one of those above will have to adapt their game to get in the team. Otherwise, a diamond formation in midfield looks a better bet, with the full backs providing the width. Again, Sam Swonnell plus the other four signed scholars (Barrie Matthews, Neil Saunders, Dominic Blizzard and Gary Cohen) probably have to make do with the reserves for another year, together with Nick Wright who, whilst appearing to be on his way out and unlikely to ever play again in the first team regularly, could be a strong influence with so many youngsters in the reserves.
First choice into the forward line for the past two seasons has been Tommy Smith. Whilst his form was poor by his own standards last season, he is still our best attacking option. With Gifton Noel-Williams out of contract and injured until Christmas, we probably need to retain Marcus Gayle in the side and continue to play him out of his preferred position as a target man. The alternative is Heidar Helguson, who surely doesn't deserve another season as super sub – however, his skill is not holding the ball up whilst others join him or providing flick-on's. Perhaps they should alternate, depending on the opposition's strengths. Dominic Foley finally deserves a run in the first team, or will he too move to QPR? Other than that we've four promising youngsters in the reserves in Fabian Forde, Jason Norville, Elliott Godfrey and Simon Patterson, although Patterson has been injured since September last year. One of them needs to make the grade as or we'll need to sign someone else as cover, or we may need to play a midfielder (Nielsen or McNamee?) up front if anyone gets injured.
So, with Mahon (and Noel-Williams) injured until at least Christmas, and Fisken out until September, we're left with a twenty-man first team squad for the pre-season leading up to the game at Leicester. Here's how I think they'll line up:
Team (4-4-2): Chamberlain; Doyley, Dyche, Cox(c), Robinson; Vernazza, Johnson, Hyde, Nielsen; Smith, Gayle.
Subs/squad: Baardsen; Ifil; Glass, McNamee, Cook, Hughes, Hand; Helguson, Foley.
In midfield I would play Johnson in front of the back four, Hyde and Vernazza in central midfield and Nielsen behind the front two. From the subs, Ifil is cover as central defender, with Cox or Robinson moving to full back if needed. McNamee provides an attacking midfield option central or wide left, Glass can play left wing back, left or central midfield, Cook as a left winger, Hughes as cover for Johnson and Hand for Vernazza or Hyde. Helguson and Foley provide fresh legs up front as and when needed. When fit, Mahon provides another option for any of the midfield, Fisken provides cover in central midfield and Gifton goes into the mix for the forwards.
The remaining fifteen pros form the core of the reserve side, supplemented by Academy scholars when needed: one Goalkeeper: Lee; four Defenders: Langston, Williams, Buxton and Jack Smith; six Midfielders: Wright, Swonnell, Matthews, Saunders, Blizzard and Cohen; four Forwards: Forde, Norville, Godfrey and Patterson.
Not a bad side, but very little strength in depth - a first team squad comprising two keepers, five defenders (including Glass), four strikers and nine midfielders! However, of the midfielders, Vernazza, Johnson, Hughes, Nielsen and Fisken all ended last season injured (or had just returned from injury) and Glass has returned to pre-season training injured: all will need to establish their fitness during pre-season. We also have a reserve team packed with first and second year pros. But the Baggies' squad was no bigger at this stage last season and remember what happened to them?!