Looking at the graphic of his 97 passes during last weekend’s game with Plymouth, defender Wes Hoedt smiled initially.

And rightly so. After all, 81 of those 97 passes were accurate – more than double the number of successful passes made by any of the Plymouth players.

However, after studying the graphic some more, Hoedt sat back in his chair and said: “But 84% successful passes is not my best, I can do better than that.”

The Dutch international was named man of the match on Saturday with many Watford suppirters proclaiming it to be his best performance since he joined the club in January.

“I thought I had a decent game,” he said modestly, “whether it was my best performance for Watford I don’t know. It was certainly up there.”

One thing is for sure, talk about the style of play introduced by new head coach Valerien Ismael this season and Hoedt’s eyes light up. He loves it.

“This is how I used to play. When I came through the academy in Dutch football I always played like this. In Holland, that’s the basics to play out from the back,” he said.

“It was a bit different when I went to Lazio, because that is where I learned properly to be a defender. But we also played out from the back a lot.

“I thought it would be the same when I went to Southampton, but it wasn’t. It was a different style of play which didn’t suit me that well.

“When I went to Celta in Spain all the teams play that way so I had more time there doing the same thing.

“It was the same when I was with Antwerp in Belgium and also with the Dutch national team.

“Then my last two seasons at Anderlecht with Vincent Kompany as coach, it was exactly the same as we do now.

“It was nice that the gaffer brought it to this team. We want to do both: we want to press high and be a team that puts pressure on our opponents which forces them to make mistakes so we can pick up the ball high up the pitch – but also when we have the ball he wants us to play attractive football, the way it should be played I think.”

It’s a very contrasting approach to last season, and indeed to many recent campaigns, and even to the untrained eye the way that Ismael has the team playing is clearly not what the Vicarage Road faithful have become used to.

“The differences are obvious,” Hoedt enthused.

Watford Observer: In action for Southampton against Man City's Sergio AgueroIn action for Southampton against Man City's Sergio Aguero (Image: Action Images)

“We want to play now, and you’ve seen the big differences with the goalkeeper and that he actually needs to be next to our centre backs now.

“We don’t need to be shooting the ball away anymore where it’s unnecessary.

“Sometimes I think we still need to improve though, as we are still making sloppy mistakes. But that is part of the process.

“For me, in this style, it’s where the gaffer has put me in my strongest position. I can show my ability on the ball and help my team a little bit extra.

“I like to be on the ball playing football, but first and foremost I need to be a defender. The clean sheets count and they will help the team to win. I want to do everything possible to not concede goals.

“But secondly, I have always been a ball-playing centre-back. My background was a midfielder so I am comfortable with the ball.

“We trained all pre-season really well on this way of playing, and I know we didn’t have a lot of games for the fans to see in pre-season but we showed that in the games we played.

“I knew I was spot on, being back to my best shape.”

Nonetheless, it was Porteous who dominated the passing on the opening day of the season: he completed 89 of his 99 attempted passes for a 90% success rate.

“The first game of the season against QPR was actually difficult for me,” Hoedt admitted.

“The QPR gaffer and their striker both told me that the striker had been instructed to not leave me alone.

“Then it becomes difficult because you have their No.9 marking you all the time. But luckily we had Ryan on the ball a lot, and teams can’t easily mark both of us.

“That’s the good thing, because Ryan showed in the QPR game that he is comfortable on the ball.

“Now teams need to make a choice. If they do mark one then the other one of us is free, and if they don’t then we can both play.”

Watford Observer: Hoedt's passes v Plymouth (successful in blue)Hoedt's passes v Plymouth (successful in blue) (Image: @JordanWiemer)

One aspect of the new system that hasn’t clicked smoothly into gear thus far is keeper Dan Bachmann regularly finding himself with the ball at his feet, way outside his area, playing triangles with defenders and midfielders.

“I think it’s difficult for him because he isn’t used to it,” said Hoedt.

“He is an unbelievable goal stopper: I think he’s up there with the best, even in the Premier League.

“But he knows he needs to improve in the way we want to play at the back. I think he is doing it very well, but these things always go with ups and downs.

“It’s not that easy if you’re not used to it. He has the qualities though and I think he is showing it. More and more he is getting composed on the ball, and he picks out passes that he obviously wasn’t doing last year because he wasn’t asked to do that.

“I think we can be very pleased that we have such a great goalkeeper who is improving now with his feet.”

The Dutch defender also admitted the players around Bachmann have to make sure they don’t make it unnecessarily difficult for him.

“I think it’s a triangle, or maybe even four players, with the No.6, two centre backs and the goalkeeper,” he said.

“We need to fine tune everything between us. We have to get balance and get the feeling all together that we can do it.

“The most important thing is that if Dan has the ball, we have to give him options. If there’s not an easy pass on then we should open up so that he can always find one of us.”

After seven weeks and two Championship games, where does Hoedt think the Hornets are in their transition to ‘Valball’?

“I think we are at a decent level already. Okay, we didn’t score against Plymouth but I thought we played some great football and that’s what the fans want to see.

“We have a proper structure now, and though it is still early I think everyone can see what the identity of Watford is going to be.

“That is all credit to the gaffer, who implemented that way of playing.

“We know it still needs some fine tuning, as we have different ways of pressing. We need to fine tune the moments in which we choose to use one of them.

“If we do that then that will give us time on the ball to pick out the right passes.”

This season hasn’t just been about change on the field of play. It’s been well discussed by Ismael and other key figures at the club that, behind the scenes, change was necessary too.

Not only in terms of significant player turnover, but also in attitude and mindset.

“I’m always open and honest: if you see close-up what has changed inside the club, then for the first time in years – and I’ve only been here for six months but other players tell me – there is a positive feeling in the group, and among everyone,” said Hoedt.

“The club have changed some things and put some tougher rules in for everyone. And that’s also come from the gaffer: he implemented a lot of things and changed a lot of things.”

One of those has been the head coach naming a group of six players who are his senior leaders.

“It was very nice for me this season to be part of the senior group,” said Hoedt.

“I didn’t know if I was going to stay, because you never know in football.

“The moment the gaffer came in he made it very clear to me he wanted me to be here, and he repaid that to me in the way I am in that senior group and the second captain.

“I like the responsibility. We have a group of six within which we have an amazing variety of players to cover the whole group.

“I’m getting older now! I sometimes feel that I am old because I am 29 and we have a lot of young players in the team. But 29 is still young for a centre back.”

What does being part of the senior group entail?

“We need to be the spokespeople to the group, and the spokespeople for the group towards the staff, the gaffer and the club, including with the board,” Hoedt explained.

“We have changed everything and made it in a way that is just normal. I mean normal manners, normal behaviour – things you should have as a professional football player but particularly as a human being.

“It’s working better for the team and we have a clear structure, and the senior group is just part of the wider group. If you have a problem which doesn’t necessarily need to go directly to the gaffer or to the board, then the players can come to the leadership group.

“It’s a great way of giving responsibility to the team itself, so that we take responsibility for our jobs and things are taken seriously.”

There have been several mentions of rules now being drawn up for the squad by the senior group.

“It’s really just normal rules!” Hoedt laughed.

“Like being on time for instance: if there is an accident on the roads or something, anything can happen. But we expect people otherwise to be on time.

“And I know it’s surprising that we had to put a rule in for timekeeping, but that’s unfortunately how bad it was. We cannot lie about that.

“I’ve been in the game a long time now, and when things are only going sideways then people start looking at the rules, people not being on time and making mistakes.

“But when you’re doing well, it doesn’t seem to matter if people are late.

“That’s what we have changed now, to ensure at all times there is basic respect for your teammates, for the staff, for the fans and for the club – and particularly for the badge.

“I think the club decided that they didn’t want to go any further in the direction they were. I’ve only been here for six months and I didn’t know what had gone before, but I had a feeling.

“So all credit to the gaffer and the players that we have all implemented a better way now.”

So who is in charge of collecting the fines?!

“It’s Ben Hamer that takes the money! I think he’s done that throughout his career!” Hoedt said with a chuckle.

“He collects the fines and he has a system in which he does it. It’s just a way of ensuring we all take responsibility for everything.

“We’d rather not have any fines to collect at all, because that means everyone is respecting the rules of the job.

“What you can see is that having these rules helps us on the pitch. We have a structure and a real team.”

Watford Observer: In action against Blackburn last seasonIn action against Blackburn last season (Image: Action Images)

Returning to on-field matters, and against Plymouth Hoedt showed not just that he can make a lot of passes in 90 minutes, but that he is very adept at pinging the ball 30 or 40 yards to a teammate.

“That depends on the game,” he said.

“If you’re playing against a back five then it will be different because the space is not there to do it.

“But on Saturday those longer diagonals were there. I’ve been doing that my whole career.

“It’s an option if you need to switch play or open up the game. It’s not my first go-to ball because I like to play between the lines and find a midfielder or a striker.

“But if it’s on then I think it can help us to be less predictable. If opponents know you can play that ball then they will automatically drop a little bit and that gives you more space and time for the midfielders to receive the ball.”

Hoedt’s athleticism also stood out on Saturday and that, coupled with his reading of the game, meant he always seemed to be where he was needed.

“If you look at my posture I’m 92kg and 1m 93cm, so it’s always been the case that I’m quick but I don’t look quick,” he said.

“Turning can be difficult and I had problems in the earlier stages of my career, but now I am all about having the right mindset from getting so much experience which means that I generally know what’s going to happen.

“My reading of the game came with experience, and luckily that part of my game is coming out now.

“All the pieces are fitting together now, but I have to be honest with myself – we are two games in. I need to do it for 46 games.”

When asked if all that running meant he was at the top of the distances covered, Hoedt explained it was a case of running smarter, not further.

“I often have discussions with the staff members who look at the numbers, and I always say if you get yourself in the right position then you don’t need to run a lot.

“I have been playing with people like Virgil Van Dyke and against the likes of Sergio Ramos when I was in Spain, and you learn that.

“Centre backs run the least of every player except the goalkeeper, and if you do things right you don’t need to run too much.

“You won’t get caught out often if you take up the right positions.

“With a full pre-season behind me and being fit without any issues, I feel I also have a different sprinting gear which I can go into if it’s necessary.”

Fans of a certain age will remember another central defender, John McClelland, who was often described by the late Oliver Phillips as having ‘telescopic legs’.

At times on Saturday, Hoedt also seemed to have the ability to stretch out another few inches of leg to make a telling tackle or interception.

“In one way that’s a plus, but it also means my turning point and centre of gravity are different,” he said.

“I’ve played a lot of games like I did on Saturday for Watford, but Saturday showed a little bit more. I had to make a lot of blocks and tackles, and I was often the last man.

“Then for fans what you are doing stands out a little bit more. It’s about reading the game, reading situations and then making the right choices at the right moment.

“The modern centre back needs to run more than perhaps players in that position did before, but if you have a lot of possession of the ball then you have to run less.”

Hoedt says that having a group of players at the back who can all, when required, hit a telling pass makes it harder for opponents to stop them.

“The good thing is that the four players I spoke about earlier at the back, we all work as a group and we can all do the same things.

“We don’t get predictable. If it’s only me playing long passes then within two or three games opponents will say if they close me down, they stop Watford from playing football.

“This is something we have shown now: we can all do it. Ryan can do it. Mattie Pollock, who has not started, he can do it and he is working very well in training.

“Then Sierralata, or Livermore, or Kayembe, they can all do that No.6 role.”

Last season Hoedt was vying for a central defensive position alongside Sierralta: this season the Chile international is playing a few yards in front of him.

“I think it’s the way the gaffer wants to play, he likes to have a No.6 who can play but who also has a lot of defensive qualities,” Hoedt said.

“I’m not going to talk too much about our tactics as I don’t want to help our opponents, but in general if we are pressing like you saw in games, then we have our No.6 who drops in to be our extra centre back.

“We are interchangeable and Sierralta has shown that he can do that because his defensive mindset is spot on.

“It’s been good in the games so far, but we can still improve the playing out part for the No.6, using him as a bounce ball and as the turning point of the team. In our team, the No.6 has a really big role.”

Watford Observer: Celebrating his first Watford goal last seasonCelebrating his first Watford goal last season (Image: Action Images)

On Saturday, when Hoedt crunched into a couple of big tackles, the Vicarage Road crowd responded by letting out a long shout of his surname.

“Yes it’s ‘hoot’ so the pronunciation is spot on,” the defender smiled.

“Last season, one game the announcer was reading out the teams and the fans were cheering every name, and then when it came to my name there was this ‘hooooot’. It sounded like booing and I had done something bad or they don’t like me.

“Obviously now I know that’s not the case and they are shouting my name. That’s nice. It’s always good to have a great interaction and connection with the fans. Football is nothing without fans.

“We saw that during Covid, how difficult it was for clubs to survive without fans. It’s good they are back in the stadium and that I am enjoying a good connection with them.

“Now when I do a big tackle or hit a good pass then I hear them screaming ‘hoooot’. It’s a great thing and I really appreciate it.”

There’s one other thing that Hoedt has added this season: a ‘man bun’!

“I have to say my hair at the moment is ridiculously bad!

“I am trying to grow it though. I’ve always said that I wanted to let my hair grow at least once, because I’ve always had short hair cuts.

“From like the age of 12, I always told my Mum that I wanted to see how my hair was when it’s long. But then when it got to the stage it’s at now, I got it cut again.

“So this time I am letting it grow, but my hair is nowhere near as long as Francisco or Vakoun.

“At the moment, my hair is just in a very bad state and I need to get through it.

“It’s funny because here I’ve been playing with a band around my hair on top of my head, and the games are on TV and everything, and I don’t mind if my hair looks ugly. Plus nobody says anything.

“Then I was back in Holland to sort out arrangements for selling my house, and I was walking around with the same band in my hair but everyone was looking at me. So maybe it affects me more to be seen in Holland with my hair like this!”