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  • September 10, 2019

    Watford changed managers too early, or too late

    By Mike Goodman
  • What are Watford doing? The season is only four games old and the team has parted ways with manager Javi Gracia, bringing in Quique Sánchez Flores for his second stint in charge of the club. But, why? And more importantly, why now?

    Let’s get the most basic of basic things out of the way first. Watford sit bottom of the Premier League table with a single point after four matches. That’s almost assuredly why the move happened now. They’re one of only two teams, along with Wolves, that have yet to record a win this Premier League season. That’s bad! It’s also only four games.

    Just as importantly, during those four games, the team’s numbers have been fine. Defensively they haven’t been great, with 1.36 expected goals conceded the seventh highest total in the league. You’d hope for some improvement, especially since Brighton, Everton, West Ham and Newcastle aren’t exactly a murderers row of opponents, but it’s not a number that you’d expect to get you relegated.

    And in attack they’ve actually been quite good. They are actually improbably, the third best Premier League team when it comes to expected goals.

    The problem is, well, their actual goals aren’t living up to expectations. Get a job actual goals, stop hanging out on your parent’s couch playing video games all day.

    Even more specifically, it’s not like keepers are playing amazingly against them. A quick look at their post-shot expected goals shows that the post-shot value of their shots is significantly lower than the overall value.

    Eventually you really would expect that all those wayward shots that, so far, aren’t finding their way on net, to eventually even themselves out. Four games is only four games after all.

    On that level, then, this seems like the classic luck driven overreaction. A team lose some winnable games, and despite playing well enough to merit keeping a steady hand, ownership panics and changes the thing that it’s easiest to change. Over the side goes the manager.

    In a narrow sense that’s true, but in the broader sense there is a slight complication. A look back over Gracia’s time in charge shows a team that after an initial marked improvement defensively, has been trending the wrong direction since the beginning of last season, with an attack that’s not improving quickly enough to match it.

    Some coaches simply have short lifespans with a team. It’s not unreasonable to look at the last year’s worth of numbers and decide to move on. Of course, the last year’s worth of numbers were available four games ago too.

    Over the summer it would have been reasonable to look at the fact that Watford’s performances were trending downwards and make a change. It was equally defensible to look at the most recent season and decide a steady hand was needed. The team did finish 11th, and for most of the season were among a pack of midtable competitors that seemed more likely to move up the table then down. It makes sense to be cautious before changing course after a season like that.

    The problem is, having made the decision to keep Gracia, firing him after these four games, becomes fairly indefensible. The results so far this season don’t merit it. The only reason they don’t have more points is because some guys missed some shots, a thing which realistically has very little to do with the manager. But they fired him anyway.

    And changing managers mid-season (even only four games in) is a completely different animal than making an off-season change. If Watford had decided at the end of last year that Gracia wasn’t going to be coming back then they could have conducted a thorough process, looked at multiple candidates, weighed their options and made a considered decision. By waiting four games into the season, Watford forced themselves to act quickly. Now, maybe Quique’s second time around will be as good, or even better, than his first, and maybe if Watford changed managers months ago they’d have hired him anyway, but also, maybe not.

    There are, of course, always things that the public cannot know. Losing does strange things to a team. Maybe the balance of personalities in Watford’s dressing room were so fragile that four relatively unlucky games was all it took to shatter the team’s cohesion. Maybe Gracia showed signs of disinterest in preseason that hadn’t been present before. There are countless maybes that go into any decision to hire or fire people in positions of management. But, barring something untoward going on beyond the scenes it’s simply hard to see how this move really makes sense.

    In football, as in so much of life, the problem here is the process more than the end result. If these four games are enough to get Gracia the boot, then it’s almost certain that he should have been shown the door at the end of last season. Having decided to keep him then, it’s unfathomably short sited to now fire him thanks to this season’s results. It’s really not that hard to imagine what an unlucky four game stretch to start a season looks like. If your managers hold on his job is so fragile that that’s all it takes for him to slip over the edge, then it certainly makes more sense to just take the plunge before the season starts.

    None of this will necessarily prove fatal for Watford. While they’ve squandered a number of points already, they still have a squad that seems more than good enough to fend off relegation. They might have only a single point, but it’s not like they’re out of touch with the rest of the table (and how could they be, because again, four games). They’re one of nine teams with four points or fewer. The table has yet to define itself. On the other hand, the timing of this move is fraught. Watford’s next three matches are home against Arsenal, away to Manchester City and away to Wolves. Then the schedule lets up a little bit as they host Watford and Bournemouth in-between matches with Spurs and Chelsea. It’s not really until November when they play a run of easier matches with Norwich, Burnley, Southamption, Leicester, and Crystal Palace all in a row. Welcome back Quique!

    As the vast sea of midtable teams ebb and flow, it’s the accumulation of little decisions that build the bedrock for sustained success. Who gets to take a shot at cracking the top six if everything goes right, and who is one injury away from an unlikely relegation battle if it doesn’t is determined by the foundations that management lay. Firing Gracia now chips away at that bedrock of good decision making. Either he was enough of a problem to fire last summer, or he was good enough to survive the current stretch. Landing firmly in the middle is, barring extreme circumstances, self-sabotage. The fact that Watford might limp forward and survive doesn’t lesson that fact. Watford made a bad decision here. They had two reasonable options and they chose the third, a panic firing with no real basis in performance. That’s the basic blue print for how to turn a midtable team into one fighting a relegation battle.

    Article by Mike Goodman