26th September 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
After putting in such an outstanding shift in Watford's stirring 3-1 victory over Manchester United from his holding midfield station, it's amazing to think that just a couple months ago Valon Behrami was seriously considering leaving the Hornets.
Under the stewardship of the now departed Quique Sanchez Flores last season, the Swiss international endured a nightmare campaign. As the season went by his relationship with the Spanish manager deteriorated at a rapid rate, especially after his sending off against Swansea in September 2015. Feeling unwanted, untrusted and unfairly treated by Sanchez Flores, the fiery midfielder, who also had to contend with frustrating injuries, didn't even speak with his coach during the final third of the season.
"We didn't find the way to speak to each other and have a common target," Behrami told the BBC. "I have my character and he has his own and we didn't talk for the last two or three months."
But with Sanches Flores being removed ahead of the 2016/2017 crusade and Walter Mazzarri being his replacement, Behrami, who was contemplating a return to Italy or going back to ply his trade in Switzerland, decided to stay. And with good reason too, for the pair enjoyed a brilliant relationship when they worked together at Napoli.
"We were together at Napoli and we had amazing season," said Behrami. "I know what he wants and he knows my qualities, so it's good for me. He always wants 100 per cent from you.
"I know the way he wants to play so it was great for me. Him coming here changed my mind. He is the kind of manager who wants to see a reaction, he loves to see the personality of the player. The other one (Sanchez Flores) wanted to keep everyone calm and quiet. And I'm not a very quiet guy."
Behrami's reunion with Mazzarri has proven to be a match made in heaven so far. Now, with the confidence of his manager, Behrami's cut a rejuvenated figure at Vicarage Road, as he's been a key driving force in Watford's promising start to the season.
His tireless, tigerish display against Jose Mourinho's men beautifully epitomised why he's such an integral component within Mazzarri's side. Sat at the base of Watford's three man midfield, the 31-year-old's aggressive approach constantly ensured life was very uncomfortable for United's attackers, in a match where his presence effectively unsettled his more fancied opponents.
While Behrami made a point of physically imposing himself on his adversaries at every available opportunity, applying a catalogue of ferocious tackles and interventions, he also deserves credit for his less heralded positional intelligence and astute reading of the play. By smartly and strategically choosing his moments when to apply pressure, pick up his man or hold his position, Behrami rarely allowed himself to be caught out.
Although his job limiting the impact of Wayne Rooney when he dropped into his area of patrol was vital in blunting the Red Devils' attack, his influence didn't end there. With United instructing their wingers, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, to persistently drift infield, this meant Behrami and his midfield colleagues had to keep their concentration at a high level. They impressively did so too, as Behrami's leadership and experience played a key role here, for he'd forever be communicating and gesturing with his teammates as to who to mark and where best to be positioned.
In addition, whenever Paul Pogba, the world's most expensive player, would push into his designated area of operation, Behrami showed no fear in getting stuck into the towering Frenchman too. One passage, in particular, illustrated what a nuisance Behrami was. During the second half, as Pogba embarked on one of his typically dangerous forward runs, Behrami charged in and began relentlessly snapping and kicking at his heels. Even though Behrami fell to the floor during his efforts to dispossess the £89 million man, he immediately got back up and kept going in his relentless search to win back the ball. Eventually, the referree awarded a free kick against the combative enforcer, but his aim of stopping the move and irritating his man had already been achieved. A rattled Pogba proceeded to shove Behrami in anger and received a yellow card for venting his anguish.
Indeed, these sort of relentless, dogged exertions by Behrami summed up his commitment and defiant mindset aptly.
Going forward, Watford's unflappable former Hamburg destroyer, who's quickly forming a formidable midfield trident alongside Roberto Pereyra and Etienne Capoue, appears primed to continue his sterling form. Interestingly, Behrami's also one of many former Serie A players, including Miguel Britos, Jose Holebas, Pereyra and Juan Zuniga, who are all demonstrating their worth to Watford's uniquely constructed side and relishing their chance in the Premier League.
Although it appeared unlikely Behrami would remain at Watford in the summer, it's great to see him back doing what he does best - providing a valuable shield to his backline.
Despite his family wanting him to return to Italy, Behrami's tough call to back himself to get his Watford career back on track under Mazzarri's familiar tutelage has undoubtedly paid off handsomely.
Last season's disaster is now a distant memory.
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Valon Behrami Rejuvenated Under Walter Mazzarri
26th September 2016. By Edward Stratmann.