Watford v Derby County preview with Hornets-watching Rams fan Jonathan Rodgers

A brief look at the league table and the stats at whoscored.com show that Watford are a fearsome outfit.   In fifth place with 21 points from 11 matches and unbeaten at home, they have already doled out two sound thrashings – a 6-1 demolition of Bournemouth at Vicarage Road and a 5-1 romp at Barnsley – helping to make them the division’s top scorers at this stage (one goal ahead of Burnley and Derby).

They get off more shots per game than anyone else in the Championship and are top when it comes to hitting the target, too.  Their passing accuracy is also the highest in the division.  So there are obviously plenty of attacking threats in the team and high levels of technical quality for opponents to contend with.

Jonathan Rodgers is a Derby fan who lives in Watford and regularly attends their home matches with his Hornets-mad better half.  Despite the logistical challenges involved, he is also a current Rams season ticket holder.  There can’t be many people better placed to give us a scout report on the home side ahead of our next match, which I am convinced is going to be one of the toughest we will face all season.  

I tipped Watford for automatic promotion this summer and at this stage, it certainly looks like they will be challenging to go straight up come May.

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DERBY COUNTY BLOG: Who are the players most likely to cause us problems on Saturday?

JONATHAN RODGERS: Let’s just say there are quite a few….

Ikechi Anya (Scotland, 2 caps, signed from Granada) – Probably my favourite Watford player since the Pozzos took over.  Nominally a wing back, he is more of a Road Runner-esque speedy winger.  If you want an idea of what he’s capable of, look at his recent goal against Barnsley – an 80-yard run, capped with a smart finish.  He’ll be up against Craig Forsyth.  Good luck, Craig…

Fernando Forestieri (Italy U’21, signed from Udinese) – An impish second striker, capable of just about anything.  Tricky and capable of scoring or creating a goal out of nothing.

Gabriele Angella (Italy U’21, signed from Udinese) – Classy central defender, but also a regular goal threat from set pieces and scored twice against Bournemouth.  Let’s hope that McLaren has had some success in resolving our defensive frailties at corners.

Troy Deeney (signed from Walsall, pre-Pozzo) – Bullish, direct, powerful striker, who scored 20 goals last season and has five already this season. Holds the ball up well and is a good finisher who can smash them in from well outside the box.  Having a good season, but often left isolated up front.

Almen Abdi (Switzerland, 6 caps, signed from Udinese) – Not sure if he’ll have recovered from injury, but if he plays, will cause us problems with his passing ability.  Player of the season last year, contributing ten goals from central midfield.

Diego Fabbrini (Italy, 1 cap, signed from Udinese) – I’ve got to mention this guy because I think he’s brilliant.  Mainly used as a substitute so far, he plays the same withdrawn striker role as Forestieri.  Can change a game when Zola chucks him on. Almost balletic in the way he plays.  Falls over as much as Chris Martin, but does it more gracefully [Fabbrini has won 16 free kicks for Watford this season, way behind Martin, who is easily the most ‘fouled’ player in the division with 38 free kicks won.  Forestieri is Watford’s top free kick winner, with 26 – DCB].

DCB: How has Lewis McGugan looked since his transfer from Forest?  

JR: He’s played in every game, scored a few goals (including a sublime free kick against Forest), but I think he’s flitted in and out of games so far.  I genuinely don’t know what to make of him, so I asked a couple of Watford experts for their thoughts: –

JAMIE LUCK (@JLuck15) – “He’s a bit like a Championship Lampard, in that you always feel like a chance or two will fall his way.  He’s very good technically, can beat players, cross and shoot – and is not as weak or lazy as some Forest fans would have you believe.

“In our system, he has to put a shift in defensively and be disciplined, which Zola will have no problem getting out of him.  I think we will see the best of him when he’s allowed to be the most advanced midfielder (i.e. when Abdi returns and we become more settled as a team)”.

MIKE PARKIN (@RookeryMike) – “Flatters to deceive a little bit.  He can be a bit anonymous and can lose the ball quite easily, though he is undoubtedly a huge talent and has settled in well.  Scoring four goals is a decent return and set piece goals always catch the eye.

“The style of play Watford employ definitely suits his game and if he can cut out losing the ball cheaply, he’ll be a great player for us.”

DCB: Although they haven’t been particularly leaky at the back, one potential cause for optimism on the Derby side is that Watford haven’t kept many clean sheets this season.  Are there any obvious defensive weaknesses in their side?

JR: Watford typically deploy a back three and wing backs.  Earlier in the season, I felt the defence was a problem, with plenty of unfocused nonchalance from Angella and particularly Marco Cassetti leading to errors and the concession of goals.  More recently though, things have become more solid, with the Swede Joel Ekstrand [signed from – have a guess! – DCB] slotting into the back line.

Jamie Ward might have some joy against the right wing-back Anya – he’ll have a chance of winning a few headers, at least…

DCB: The Brazilian journeyman Iriney leads the Championship with an eye-catching 92.8% pass success rate.  You described him to me recently as a ‘midfield water-carrier’…

JR: I’ve had my doubts about Iriney all season, but actually thought he was Watford’s best player in the recent win against Wigan.  I didn’t call him a water-carrier in a derogatory sense, but he’s an archetypal holding midfielder, patrolling the centre circle and playing short passes to his colleagues, along with the occasional long ball.  That probably explains the passing statistic you quote.

He has vast experience, so I think he probably has a positive, Eustace-like influence on the team.  This said, he may not actually start against us, as Josh McEachran, on loan from Chelsea, played in the holding role in the away win at Huddersfield.

DCB: Christ, I didn’t realise they’d loaned McEachran as well…

I have had a couple of ‘debates’ on Twitter with Watford fans in the past and found them to be very eager to rebuff any criticism of their owners, the Pozzos.  One of the defences they have thrown at me is that the club still use a high number of academy products, despite the unique access they have to an international stable of talent from their ‘sister clubs’ in Italy and Spain.  

But I don’t think that many of their homegrown players feature regularly anymore?  For example, striker Britt Assombalonga decided to quit the club this summer for first-team football at Peterborough, rather than sit on the bench for Zola.

JR: I have to admit, I’m as much of a supporter of what the Pozzos are doing as any Watford fan, although I appreciate that the influx of players from Udinese and Granada may seem unfair to other clubs’ supporters.

However, there are still academy players in the side (Sean Murray, Lloyd Doyley), on the bench (Jonathan Bond) and knocking on the door of the first team squad (Luke O’Nien, Bernard Mensah, Connor Smith). In addition, the Eire U’19 cap Tommie Hoban had a good run in central defence last season, before suffering a nasty injury.

That compares favourably with most Championship clubs, including Derby, in my opinion.

DCB: The Hornets fans I asked seemed ambivalent about Craig Forsyth, but to a man, they adored John Eustace.  I’m sure that Eusty will be in for a really good reception when he trots out on Saturday.  What was it that they loved about him?

JR: There are at least two great Eustace eulogies out there from Watford bloggers.  There were a number of things that inspired almost universal affection and respect for him among the fans.  He was massively important on the pitch, doing the type of stuff that often gets overlooked but is hugely influential.  He was also a constant, experienced, authoritative presence at the club when it was going through a period of great change.

My abiding memory of him actually comes from Derby’s 2-1 defeat to Watford at Pride Park in 2011-12.  Eustace was simply brilliant that day, completely bossing Bryson and Hendrick in the centre and allowing the wingers, Murray and Alex Kačaniklić, to take us apart.

If Eustace had been fit last season, his influence would have certainly made Watford a bit more resilient and might even have helped them on to automatic promotion.

DCB: Attendances have jumped from an average of 13,453 last season to 15,593 so far this term, but the capacity of Vicarage Road – 17,477 – surely has to be a limiting factor in how far the club can go.  Have the owners said much about extending the stadium if and when they achieve promotion, or even building a new one?  In general, what have they disclosed about their long-term plans for Watford?

JR: What remains of the old East Stand is being demolished right now, in preparation for building a new 3,000-seat stand pretty quickly.  I’ve not seen any plans, but I understand there will be scope to build on top of that stand, in order to increase the capacity still further.  I’m really pleased about this, as me, the missus and best mate are often left sitting in parts of the Rookery End with restricted views this season.
The Pozzos are going to develop the club incrementally and not go for broke.  Thankfully.  I think there is possibly scope to increase capacity to 25,000 and that would probably be enough, even if they got to the Premier League.

As for the future, I don’t think that the owners have really stated any aims, apart from getting the club promoted.  I think that’s possible this season and after that, who knows?  Consolidation and then challenging for cups?

I have to say that the Pozzos come across as real football people and their “project” seems a pretty sustainable and successful way of doing things.  That’s what I want from a football club.

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