Cottagers Confidential: The last time we talked Watford were spinning their wheels outside of the playoff spots, no one was sure what to think about Slaviša Jokanović, and the expectations for the rest of the season were in Flux. Then they throttled Fulham 5-0 and have picked up 33 out of a possible 45 points. What changed and how do you feel about your manager now?
Matt Rowson: The most fundamental change has been in the spirit and common purpose of the side. Earlier in the season an oft-voiced opinion was that our team was somewhat less than the sum of its parts; winning games does tend to breed its own spirit of course, but Jokanovic applied some pretty bold surgery by excluding five players, perceived variously as negative influences or not contributing to the team positively, from training with the first team squad towards the end of last year. All five, including summer signings Keith Andrews and Lloyd Dyer, have since moved away from Vicarage Road. This weeding out of "bad apples" may or may not have affected morale directly in itself, but it sent a fairly clear message about who is running the show and as your question acknowledges our form has been impressive. We've scored 38 goals in those 15 games, and come from behind to win on five occasions in that period, including our last three away from Vicarage Road. From occasionally playing to the easy stereotype of a mercenary group without a common purpose, this Watford side has been calling on inspiring levels of bloody-mindedness. Slav isn't a pop star or a politician... his interviews, even allowing for him speaking a second language, are given with the air of a grumpy and distracted geography teacher and are refreshingly blunt, so he's not out to win friends but his stock is certainly rising. The other things that have changed owe something to that boldness... the emergence of Odion Ighalo, of whom more below, from the position of ostensibly being fourth choice striker and the development of a tactical flexibility that might see us lining up equally with a back three or a back four and with any combination thence onwards being examples. His changes might not always be popular or obvious - his approach to Rotherham's aerial threat was to field four centre-backs across the back, negating any width in our side and boring the Millers into submission, the dullest 3-0 win any of us will ever suffer. There are worse crosses to bear, mind.... and Slav's tactical changes during a match almost invariably change things for the better. So, yes, his stock is rising and automatic promotion looks like a very real possibility rather than merely something that the strength of our squad suggests should be possible.
CC: Before the season, we'd all heard of Matěj Vydra. But he's been the weakest of the three headed monster that has Watford with the most goals scored in the division. What can you tell us about Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney?
MR: "Three-headed monster" isn't quite right. The three forwards you mention are all in double figures,but the whole side is incredibly attack-minded; Almen Abdi, who scored the pick of the five at Craven Cottage, has seven from midfield, Daniel Tözsér's evil line in free kicks have helped him to five and Fernando Forestieri, now the fourth choice up front but a wonderful if undisciplined box of tricks, would have more than four with more game time. Not unreasonably, however, it's the lead strikers who grab the attention.
Odion Ighalo is a Nigerian who came in during the summer after four years in Granada, where he was hugely popular but only had one prolific season,and that in the Spanish third tier. He was fourth choice at the start of the season but looked positive and useful in his early cameos, a step up from imports similarly brought in from our sister clubs for support roles in recent years who haven't quite clicked. He grabbed his chance in the first team by scoring in a win at Cardiff just after Christmas, including which he has 14 goals in 9 league starts (plus one off the bench) since establishing himself - and 17 in total. Despite his moderate record at Granada he looks every inch a goalscorer... brave, positive, resilient, makes the run every time, finds space in the box, has a great touch and just bounces off people. Huge fun.
You mention Vydra as the known quantity, but Deeney is the longer established striker; this season's 14 and counting have made him the first player since John Barnes to hit double figures for us in the league for four consecutive seasons over which he has scored over 70 goals. That he is still with the Hornets is frankly a huge surprise; eight-figure bids were reportedly turned down last summer and a contract signed until 2018... a huge commitment from him to us and, I don't doubt, from us to him. He has recovered from a spell in prison for affray three years ago to captain the side; he's immensely strong terrific with his back to goal and the ball at his feet, kicks like a mule and is a very good footballer. Great foil for either of the other strikers.
CC: Fulham have a porous defense and Watford has the best attack in the league. That's a recipe for disaster. If you were in charge of a team facing Watford, how would you set them up? Are there any weaknesses that can be exploited.
MR: As Fulham fans may appreciate, we'd back ourselves against anyone in the division in an open game. We've toughened up an awful lot too - witness a recent 1-0 win scraped out of a physical battle with Blackburn - but are still most vulnerable against a physical side who don't give us any space. Norwich ticked both boxes, and got lucky too by winning an extraordinary penalty decision to give themselves the lead at Vicarage Road just over a week ago. After which... we displayed some lingering emotional brittleness by losing our heads a little and allowing Norwich to gallop away with it. We're also still vulnerable to aerial assault, so I'd imagine Matt Smith will at the very least warrant a place on your bench? It's misleading to suggest that we don't have good defenders - we're just an extremely attack-focused side - but if our vast squad is short of anything it's a brute of a centre-half, a role which Fitz Hall and Gabriel Tamas have both tried to fill in recent seasons before succumbing to injury. We don't have a lot of height. So... I'd probably set up with a disciplined defensive shape, look to deny space inside your own half and attack on the break with as many big ugly blokes flying at set pieces as you can manage. That, and trust to luck...
CC: If you could also predict a final score and lineup.
MR: Final Score? Don't know, but I'd fancy us against most comers at the moment, even those coming in on the back of an impressive win over Derby. No idea what side he'l pick though; defensive shape is anyone's guess, and up front he has to choose between Vydra, flame back on after two goals at Elland Road, captain and leader Deeney, vital in that win and in so many ways, and the prolific Ighalo. Ighalo having been rested at Leeds with a tight hamstring might be eased back via the bench. One of any number of possibilities is:
...but Slav has suggested a few changes from Leeds, which might suggest roles for midfield enforcer Munari, newly returned loan and vital alternative to Abdi, Adlene Guedioura, or of course Ighalo.