Crystal Palace manager, Ian Holloway, has been critical of Watford’s exploitation of the loan system, which allowed them to bring 11 players in on loan.
Palace had gone two goals down before resiliently clawing back to draw the match 2-2, but Holloway felt aggrieved his opponents were allowed to field seven loan players. Cassetti, Chalobah, Abdi, Pudil and Vydra all started for the Hornets, while Battacchino and Forestieri came off the bench, meaning over half the players who featured for Watford were borrowed from other clubs.
The FA and the Football League have no rules limiting the amount of players a club can borrow from foreign clubs.
Watford’s connections to Italian club, Udinese, and Spanish side, Grenada, through their new owners, the Pozzo family, have allowed them to bolster their squad with loanees.
Holloway was scathing in his criticism of the legal loophole, which made these loans possible, suggesting it gave Watford an unfair advantage.
But instead of criticizing the system, Watford deserve praise for turning a catastrophe waiting to happen, into an unexpected promotion push.
The new owners were lambasted for sacking popular manager, Sean Dyche, at the end of last season, and appointing Gianfranco Zola. The former Chelsea legend had an unfairly poor reputation after a mixed tenure as West Ham manager.
The owners then proceeded to borrow wildly, meaning at one point in the summer, Zola had to cope with a squad comprising of over 40 players. The current first team squad has 15 nationalities represented, from Argentinian, Cristian Battocchino, to Swede, Joel Ekstrand, with most of the players still struggling to learn English.
Watford started the season with a brand new squad, a new manager and new owners.
I must confess I predicted a chaotic season, marred by sackings and disaccord.
However I’m very pleased to admit, I was wrong.
Gianfranco Zola, previously labeled “too nice to be a manager,” has brought the most multicultural squad in the Football League together, and turned them into the best footballing side outside the Premier League.
He has taken a gang of individuals, and transformed them into a free-flowing, attack-minded, passing team. Watford are playing the kind of delightful, one-touch, exciting football, all Championship fans want to see from their clubs.
The loanees have stepped up to the mark and brought an extra degree of class to the Championship.
Swiss midfielder, Almen Abdi, is part of an exciting generation of Kosovan-born Swiss internationals, which includes Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. He’s a skillful, cultured midfielder, who links play brilliantly.
Daniel Pudil is another intelligent footballer, who’s added an extra dimension to Watford’s entertaining midfield.
But the star of the show has been Matěj Vydra. The Czech striker is graceful, strong and fast, but more importantly, he’s a superb footballer, who should be playing at a higher level. His goal-scoring has bordered on the prolific and he oozes class on the ball.
Many Championship clubs have relied heavily on loans in recent years, but very few have done it successfully.
Cardiff City constantly brought in big name loans, only for them to flop. Leeds United have failed to secure and kind of continuity over recent years because they have relied too heavily on quick-fix loans.
But Watford have gone further than any other club, and their success this season is based on loans. As a long-term strategy this is extremely dangerous because it involved huge upheaval every summer, and endangers stability. But in the medium-term, it’s working very well, and this is testimony to Zola’s brilliant management.
It’s very difficult for any manager to integrate several loan players into a side, but Zola has managed it in spectacular fashion. For this he deserves a huge amount of credit. In a short amount of time he’s taken the average Championship squad which existed when he first arrived, combined it with some foreign acquisitions, and created something beautiful.
But can this free-flowing side achieve automatic promotion?
Cardiff look like certainties for promotion. They’re grinding out results, and on the rare occasions they slip up, the chasing pack aren’t punishing them. They’re now 11 points ahead at the top of the Championship, and look to be cruising towards the promised land.
However 2nd place is up for grabs, and with the likes of Leicester, Middlesbrough and Palace constantly dropping points, a solid end to the season would see Watford promoted automatically.
Consistency is a rarity in this league, and this season in particular, it almost seems as if clubs don’t want to go up. But the door is open, and Watford are one of a number of clubs who can go up if they just start stringing wins together.
If they eventually miss out on 2nd place, they’ll fancy their chances in the play-offs, where nobody will want to face Zola and his borrowed stars