Watford: side-step or step-back?
When the Watford board didn’t renew Quique Flores’s contract at the end of last season the general reaction was one of criticism and confusion – the team had just overachieved, with the Spanish manager leading the side to a comfortable 13th place finish without ever really being confronted with relegation in their first season back in the top tier. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, they did the same to Jokanovic – who is now succeeding with Fulham – after he lead the team to the Premier League in 2014-15 despite arriving in October as the club’s fourth manager in the season. Former Napoli boss Walter Mazzarri was the chosen one for the Hornets to rely upon this season but they now sit in 15th, with two difficult matches to go (Everton and City). So, we get it: the Pozzos (who lead Udinese and Granada besides Watford) like to switch up their staff. However, I decided to go beyond just calling the club a mess – which it effectively is – and try to figure out what happened between these two seasons and look at where to go from here.
There has been a huge turnover in personnel and Cathcart, Watson and captain Troy Deeney are the only three outfield players that are still at the club after their promotion season. They approached the English top flight by getting a series of experienced guys like Capoue from Spurs, who has turned out to be one of their most consistent players of the two seasons as an all-rounder in midfield, attacking-midfielder Jurado, who they proceeded to take a 7M€ loss on this past summer after he didn’t get a single goal or assist in over 2000 league minutes and Behrami who was always about an average defensive minded centre-mid and continued to be so. Steven Berghuis had just had an outstanding season with AZ with fantastic output for a winger – 15 G+A in around 1700’ – but as we mention so often the Eredivisie is a tricky league to pick out from and things didn’t work out for him in the Premier League. Neither Prodl nor Britos are outstanding centre-backs by any means but they had top league experience and I’ve seen worse acquisitions considering they arrived on free transfers.
While they weren’t high goalscorers under Flores, they were defensively organized – outside the top 5 only Southampton and WBA conceded less goals. Their characteristic counter-attacking style, serving the duo of Deeney and Ighalo and with the highest amount of long balls per match in the league has now changed to a slightly less effective one. Flores managed to guide Watford to survival while integrating a ton of signings in the first team, with recruitment both in the summer and January. To most people his sacking was a shock because, much like me, they didn’t understand what else could they have achieved last season besides their safe run. But if the board wasn’t satisfied with Flores’s job, how will they evaluate his replacement?
Again, in all fairness, Watford were never in the mix to go down this season either but the difference in numbers doesn’t show much progress. The problems come mostly from the creative end of the pitch, with a drop in both their Xg per match and in their Xg per shot, which combined with slightly improved defensive numbers lead to a -21 goal difference this season compared to last season’s -10. Watford have been taking slightly fewer shots from slightly worse positions – enough for a difference to be felt though and even more so with the lack of a great goalscoring run like Ighalo had last year. It has been reported that Mazarri fell out with Deeney something that doesn’t help either. Defensively one could even consider them somewhat unlucky, with the Italian manager actually improving their defensive Xg numbers but unable to stop them having the league’s 4th leakiest defence with 63 goals conceded, 13 more than last.
That lack of luck appears to continue as we look at their transfer market approach. Roberto Pereyra came in from Italian champions Juventus as the big signing of the Summer and, while 4 G+A from midfield in 1000’ showed end product the club needed, a knee injury ruled out most of his season. But Watford can’t blame it all on luck. Out of all the other major signings for the season only Kaboul and Janmaat have over 1000’ Premier League minutes. The January loan signings haven’t impressed with Niang contributing to goals in just two matches and seemingly disappearing on all others and Cleverley being okay at best. To look more positively here, the already confirmed purchase of the latter and option to buy Niang could at least be an initial step to revert the cycle on what is an aging squad. And we can’t talk transfers without a mention of the sequence of players that get bounced around the trio of clubs owned by the Pozzos: Udinese, Watford and Granada. Penaranda, Success, Kums, Doucouré, all players with interesting numbers in previous seasons elsewhere that are seemingly bought on one side to be loaned out to one of the others right away without ever really establishing themselves anywhere.
Overall there seems to be somewhat of a lack of direction within the club. They are the Premier League side that most lacks a project behind their team, or an identity. Again a change of the direction is needed and while logic might tell us that Walter Mazarri will get improved results if he stays with the team, someone with a grasp of the bigger picture might be able to move the clubin a positive direction with the funds from back-to-back Premier League survivals backing it up.