The Season So Far
Watford have been the Premier League’s biggest underachievers so far this season, still winless heading into November having thrown away games they should have killed off and on their second manager of the campaign having become the first club to sack their manager this season. Few would have predicted them to go down, but now relegation is looking like a very real probability.
Even with the club’s form taken into account, Javi Gracia’s dismissal was a surprise to most: the Spaniard is hardly charismatic or a trailblazer, but he gave the team an identity, steered the club to a comfortable midtable finish and the FA Cup Final in 2018-19 and all reports seemed to suggest that he was popular with his players.
The shock was doubled by the announcement that Gracia had been replaced by former Hornets boss Quiqué Sánchez Flores, a boss far more popular for his dapper, smouldering looks than his tedious, defensive football, and one who hadn’t been missed since his departure. Since coming back, Sánchez Flores has made Watford harder to beat and nearly masterminded a season-changing win away to Tottenham.
Nonetheless, the sense that Watford is a club that is losing its way is getting harder and harder to shake. If their mind-boggling managerial turnover wasn’t evidence enough, look at the changes in their recruitment: gone are the season-changing low-budget, high-payoff Pozzo-network discoveries like Odion Ighalo, Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucouré; incoming are seasoned, mediocre veterans with no resale value whatsoever, like Ben Foster, Craig Dawson, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck. What’s the rationale here?
The Season Ahead
Sánchez Flores has been rushing Watford through a kind of back-to-basics mini-pre-season, focused on recovering the defensive competence they’d lost. An improved defensive return and consecutive home clean sheets have followed, as well as the aforementioned draw at Spurs, but at some cost at the other end of the pitch.
While they were making and missing avalanches of chances earlier in the season, now Watford don’t look like scoring anywhere near often enough to get themselves out of trouble. Unless Gerard Deulofeu produces one of his once-a-season Messi-lite moments of magic, or unless a particularly good set-piece is delivered, the Hornets are almost entirely unthreatening.
Sánchez Flores has chosen the easiest possible way to shore up the defence, playing a strikerless 3-5-2 formation in recent weeks. Three stoppers defend the penalty area, while ex-Blue Nathaniel Chalobah sits in front, and box-to-box players Will Hughes and Abdoulaye Doucouré shuttle up and down the pitch. Attacks come down the flanks, led by the marauding Deulofeu, Daryl Janmaat and Roberto Pereyra, who must by now be wondering why he left Juventus for this rabble.
It’s a stodgy, unambitious but undeniably safe setup and if Watford can learn to attack as effectively as they’ve been defending in this system, they can still get out of trouble. Winless after this much of the season, however, and with so little in the way of goal threat in the side, it’s looking like a tough ask.
Much like last weekend’s opponents Burnley, this Watford side are looking pretty mean at home and it would be a surprise if Chelsea open them up as well as they did the Clarets at Turf Moor. They simply don’t allow the space anymore, and they won’t be in any rush to open up, knowing that every point they gain now is doubly precious.
It’s worth remembering that while the likes of Deulofeu and Pereyra aren’t the most consistent players in the league, they do produce two or three moments each per season which beggar belief and win Watford points. Even if Chelsea shut the two down, one of them could still win the game in a split second.
On several occasions this season, Watford have squandered unbelievable chances this season and been punished by a sucker punch, a fluke or a defensive brainfart. In terms of Expected Goals, the Hornets have also proven spectacularly unlucky so far this season. According to xG, they should have scored seven more goals than they have done, taking them to twelve goals scored instead of five, and conceded a further four fewer. This would equate to an improvement of eight points, putting them in the top half of the table.
In spite of their position and their predicament, they’re not to be taken lightly.
The stench of relegation is strong in this one. Ben Foster and Craig Dawson went down with West Brom, Daryl Janmaat went down with Newcastle and the rest of the squad bears the scars of the worst and most humiliating FA Cup Final defeat in history. Watford are carrying so much mediocrity and so many ageing journeymen that it feels like they’re almost asking to play in the Championship next season.
Their lack of goal threat isn’t going cause Frank Lampard to lose any sleep either. With Troy Deeney looking more and more his age each year and André Gray never having lived up to his bizarrely high price tag, a transformative signing is needed in January to spruce up what’s been a very uninspiring forward line.
Finally, it’s also possible that what we’re seeing in the xG figures isn’t bad luck, but rank incompetence. In which case, Watford are exactly where they need to be, and they’ll continue to prop the table up until May.
No surprises on either side.
If Chelsea score an early goal, this could be another walk in the park for the Blues. The longer Watford go without conceding, however, the more they’ll grow in confidence. After coming so close to beating Tottenham in their last game against a top six side, they’ll be doubly motivated to get the job done this time.