Wat Now? Watford’s Battle for Survival Hinges on Vital Decision
One point in eight Premier League games, reportedly set to dismiss their second manager of the season, and now in the relegation zone. Watford are once again in trouble, but will yet another change of manager save them?
This summer felt like a fresh start for Watford. Following relegation from the Premier League in 2019-20, lessons were believed to have been learned with re-promotion at the first time of asking. With no fans in stadiums last season, it felt like the campaign in the second tier almost never happened, as crowds returned to see the Hornets impress on the opening weekend in their win over Aston Villa at Vicarage Road.
Then reality began to hit home. Three successive league defeats without scoring followed the 3-2 win over Villa on Matchday one, before a crucial four points were gained in matches against Norwich City and Newcastle United. Their season was only seven games in when Xisco Muñoz felt the ever-so-sharp blade of the Watford axe following an insipid 1-0 defeat at Leeds United.
The Watford Way
Owner Gino Pozzo and CEO Scott Duxbury have explained their ethos on head coaches many times in the past. It’s different to most other clubs, and that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Watford have been quick to act on poor performances since the Pozzo ownership began in June 2012, and more often than not their decisions have been justified down the line. Duxbury once told the BBC, “If you take that pragmatic approach, and history suggests it is the right approach, then I think it is only common sense you build a stable environment around the club so that if a coach does move for whatever reason, success or failure, the actual club and infrastructure around it remains so you can transplant in another coach to continue the development.”
Unlike some clubs, Watford see the head coach as a small part of the puzzle. Clubs have often struggled to cope with a manager being taken by another club, with playing styles so inherently linked to that coaching team, that when a replacement arrives, it can lead to a downturn in results and a struggle to come to terms with new ideas. Examples of this have been seen – albeit after unusually long and successful regimes – at Manchester United and Arsenal since the departures of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, but it’s also been witnessed at Leicester City following Martin O’Neill’s move to Celtic, Charlton after Alan Curbishley’s sacking and Wigan after losing Roberto Martinez.
With Watford’s trigger-happy ethos going against the grain of what English football clubs are ‘supposed’ to do, it’s obviously going to lead to bewilderment and humour at the expense of the majority. As Matt Rowson perfectly stated in a recent blog post on the club: “any single decision can be good or bad but changing the man when the job’s needs change seems reasonable enough and it’s not as if there’s any ambiguity about the way it’s going to work. If a head coach leaves Watford with a tarnished reputation, it will be well earned – being sacked by the Hornets is hardly a blemish in itself.”
Claudio Ranieri was the 14th different permanent manager that has taken charge of a league match at Watford since the Pozzo reign began in 2012-13 – not including the replacement of Sean Dyche by Gianfranco Zola in the summer of 2012.
Zola’s reign was the longest during this near 10-year ownership of the club (75 games), so when he was dismissed for poor performance in December 2013, it was hardly a sign of what was to come.
Before Gino Pozzo acquired the club in June 2012, Watford were in a poor state. Off the pitch, reports of financial instability were rife, but on the pitch, they’d done well in difficult circumstances with three seasons of improvement in the Championship under Malky Mackay – 16th in 2009-10 and 14th in 2010-11 – and then Sean Dyche – 11th in 2011-12.
The first season under the Pozzo’s rule ended in heartache with a playoff final defeat to Crystal Palace at Wembley, but Watford fans will always have the ‘Deeney Moment’ from the semi-final victory over Leicester City.
Since then, Watford have enjoyed two promotions to the Premier League, an FA Cup final appearance in 2018-19 – only their second in their history, after 1984 – and, in the same season, they secured their highest finish in the English Football League pyramid since 1986-87 under Graham Taylor.
In the nine campaigns before 2021-22 under the Pozzo ownership, Watford’s average position in the English Football League system has been 19th – up from an average of 31st in the nine seasons prior to their arrival. There is no question that they have improved Watford for the better on the pitch, with the improvements to Vicarage Road, and off it with the London Colney training ground.
Expectations have risen to a point that Watford’s natural position in the football pyramid is probably somewhere between the middle and top end of the second tier in terms of club stature. Of course, this changes with financial power, but it doesn’t take away the fact that the last decade in Watford’s history has easily been their second-best after Taylor’s first 10-season spell at the club between 1977-78 and 1986-87.
April 2019: The Turning Point
2018-19 felt like the season where expectations for Watford had to be adjusted.
A phenomenal start to the season set the tone, with four successive Premier League wins against Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Spurs saw Javi Gracia’s Hornets open the campaign with a maximum of 12 points, and they were only kept off the top of the Premier League on goal difference by Liverpool and Chelsea.
This start gave them the base to finish on 50 points and end the season in 11th position – both Premier League highs for the club. But a sensational 3-2 comeback win against Wolves in the FA Cup semi-final on April 7, 2019, was the zenith. At the time of that victory, Watford were 10th in the Premier League table, but the form club and just a point away from seventh place Leicester City. Finishing seventh would have secured European football for the first time since 1983-84, as would have a victory in the FA Cup final against the might of Manchester City. As it turned out, neither would happen.
Not many clubs can attribute a single social media post to jinxing an entire organisation, but Watford seem to be a special case.
Following their FA Cup semi victory over Wolves, the club jokingly tweeted about their quest for European football. It backfired.
Watford took four points from their remaining six matches in the Premier League – only Brighton (3) and relegated Huddersfield (2) picked up fewer. They also went on to suffer the joint-heaviest defeat in an FA Cup final in losing 6-0 to Manchester City, replicating the defeat suffered by Derby County to Bury in 1903.
As can be the case, Hornets players became distracted by the huge occasion of an FA Cup final and their league form suffered. It was probably understandable, given that it was a Watford side that gave league appearances to only 25 players in 2018-19 – the fewest of any of their Premier League campaigns and even four fewer than in 2021-22 so far (29).
The Spaniard lasted just five more games as Watford manager following the cup final loss – four of them in the Premier League, from which he earned only a single point.
Gracia’s departure was to be followed by that of Sanchez Flores and Nigel Pearson in 2019-20, as Watford saw their five-season stay in the Premier League come to an end with a final day defeat at Arsenal in a Covid-19 hit campaign.
3 – Watford are the first side in Premier League history to see three permanent managers leave during a single season. Carousel. pic.twitter.com/U1Xjgxu5bP— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 19, 2020
Since that tweet from the official club account, Watford have won 13 of their 64 Premier League matches (D13 L38) – the exact same number that they had won in the top-flight in 2018-19 before tweeting (13 wins from 32 games).
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially in the banter era.
No Longer a Big Fish
Watford played out a Championship campaign in 2020-21 with a good number of players who’d previously played in the Premier League for them, including talents like Ismaïla Sarr, Will Hughes, Ben Foster, Etienne Capoue and Kiko Femenia at least participating in half of the season for the club. They were undoubtedly a big fish in the Championship pond.
Even when Watford announced their customary sacking in December with the departure of Vladimir Ivic, the Hornets were in fifth place and only four points off the automatic promotion places.
The arrival of Xisco ahead of the Christmas came as a huge gamble, with the Spaniard only having a handful of games under his belt as manager of Georgian club Dinamo Tbilisi but the gamble paid off.
Watford collected more wins (18) and more points (57) in the period under his management than any other Championship club, but it always felt that whilst he had raised the confidence and rapport of the squad, his tactical acumen was questionable.
The Hornets board gave him seven games at the start of the current Premier League season, but it didn’t come as a huge shock among fans when he was replaced during the October international break, with Watford on seven points from those seven matches.
The arrival of Claudio Ranieri was less curveball than the previous four previous appointments before him, with the Italian having orchestrated an escape from relegation at Serie A club Sampdoria only two years previous. They were bottom of the league with only three points from seven games when he took over in October 2019, and he successfully navigated their survival with a 15th place finish and seven points clear of the bottom three.
Since his arrival, Watford have won seven points from 13 games – the same tally as Xisco, but from six games more. This points tally is only higher than Everton’s (5) in this period, while the Hornets have conceded the highest average goals per game (2.31) under Ranieri.
The inability to keep a clean sheet in the Premier League this season has been Watford’s major downfall. In attack, Watford (1.15) have averaged more goals per game than top half clubs Wolves (0.90) and Brighton (1.05) but at the back they have conceded two per game and have an xG against of 1.71 per game on average – only lower than Norwich (1.73) and Newcastle (1.89).
They are the only club yet to keep a clean sheet in the Premier League this season and look like they could threaten the record low for an entire Premier League campaign, which currently stands at West Bromwich Albion’s two in 2010-11. The only team to ever go a top-flight English league season without a single clean sheet were Stoke City in 1889-90 (none in 22 games).
The Hornets have now gone 30 Premier League games without a clean sheet since the excellent but misleading 3-0 win vs. Liverpool in February 2020 – only West Brom have endured a longer such run in the history of the Premier League with 34 games in a row in 2011. 2021-22’s defensive display is a long way away from their successful Championship campaign where Watford conceded just 30 goals and kept 23 clean sheets in their 46 games – the best defensive record in the league.
Overall, this season, Watford have spent a league-high 45% of ball-in-play time in a losing position, while they’ve had the second oldest starting XI on average (28 years, 292 days) behind only Burnley. It is also only Burnley who have been more direct in possession than Watford this season, as shown by the team playing styles visualisation below.
The break in Premier League action has arrived just at a time where Watford needed to urgently press the reset button. There’s still time to bring in new playing staff with the January transfer window open for another seven days, while if they decide a new head coach is the way forward, they’ll have time to try and implement their own methods on the training ground. The return of star forward Ismaïla Sarr looks close enough to get excited about, while the return of the increasingly influential central midfielder Imran Louza from AFCON duty at Morocco next month will also provide a welcome boost.
With a decision about Ranieri’s future set to be made this week, the direction that Watford will go in seems to be in the balance. With or without Ranieri, you feel that more than the club’s luck needs to change if they are to avoid relegation.
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