The morning of the 18th of May, 2019. A morning most Watford fans will remember fondly, as they awaited the second FA cup final in the club’s history. The Hornets had just finished in their best ever Premier League position (11th) and were staring at domestic glory, and for the first time for decades, Watford were looking to be a serious contender for a European place.
Fast forward to one year later, and the club have just recently been relegated to England’s second tier after subsequently ending a dismal campaign in 19th place. It is a situation many football fans, and especially Watford fans, would not have considered, with ambitions at the start of the campaign including a breakthrough into the Premier League’s top 10. So what went wrong at Watford? And how can they bounce back following relegation? I answer this today for All Out Football.
The first of many mistakes that could be cited as a major factor in Watford’s relegation is recruitment, or lack of recruitment in this case. It was clear to the majority of the Hornet’s faithful that defensive reinforcements were required to meet ambitions set for the new season, with Watford conceding a multitude of goals in the business end of the prior campaign, ultimately costing them a European place.
But recruitment in this area never really came. Watford made only one defensive signing throughout the summer window in the form of Craig Dawson from then Championship outfit West Bromwich Albion. A modest fee of £5.5 million seemed to be decent business from the hornets. However, soon after the season commenced, it was clear Watford had made a huge error of judgement when being so lax with their defence.
Dawson was a slow, powerful centre half, sharing the qualities of his counter-part, Christian Kabasele. Whilst on paper this wasn’t an issue, it’s execution would ultimately cost beloved head coach Javi Gracia his job. Gracia favoured a high press, high line system which saw the pair practically on the half way line at certain points in the game. The consequences of this, however, proved to be dire. The slow pairing allowed for easy opposition tactics, with balls over the top and through the middle proving to be especially effective; the opening fixtures of Brighton and Everton highlighting this.
To summarise, the defensive recruitment did not match with the head coaches’ system, not only costing Javi his job, but also costing Watford relegation in the long term (recruitment is made by the Pozzo family, effectively meaning head coaches at the club do not get a say in transfers). You could say that attacking recruitment also let Javi Gracia down, with the clubs Chief scout, Filippo Giraldi, focusing far too much on the acquisition of highly rated Ismaïla Sarr from French top flight outfit Rennes. Whilst this looked, and ultimately was, a cracking signing, it again did not fit in with the way Gracia operated Watford, as the now former head coach operated without wingers.
Another baffling decision from the higher ups this season was the appointment of Quique Sanchez Flores as Gracia’s predecessor. This was to be QSF’s second stint in charge of the Hertfordshire outfit, following a 13th placed Premier League finish in his first campaign in England in 2016.
It can be argued, at the least, that Sanchez Flores partially achieved what he was brought in for. Under his guidance, Watford’s defensive woes were finally over. Utilising a back 3, QSF picked up many clean sheets during his brief spell back with the hornets. However, he could not turn around Watford’s dismal form, and as a consequence, he was axed just 10 games into his 2nd stint in charge. Sanchez Flores had effectively sucked the life out of Watford’s attack, proving to be inadequate given Watford’s situation. Watford needed victories, and under Flores, it was clear they weren’t going to get them.
One final factor in Watford’s fall to the championship can be linked back to Giraldi, Gino Pozzo, and Nigel Pearson. Becoming the next man to take the helm at the Hornets, Nigel Pearson instantly became a fan favourite, turning Watford’s form around in some style. Wins against United and Wolves, as well as fellow strugglers Bournemouth and Aston Villa, saw Watford climb out of the relegation zone for the first time in the 2019/20 campaign. All was looking up for the Hornets, and ‘Super Nige’ looked to be the man to guide them to safety.
Unfortunately, that proved to only be a fantasy. Watford’s form declined rapidly following a heartbreaking last minute defeat at Aston Villa, with a now famous victory against top of the league Liverpool proving to be the hornets’ only win in 12 games.
Watford would only go on to win two games following this result, against bottom of the table Norwich and a Newcastle side with nothing to play for, which proved to be too costly. Pearson was, to the displeasure of most of the footballing world, sacked with 2 games remaining in the Premier League. Interim head coach Hayden Mullins could not find victory in tough contests in the form of Man City and Arsenal, and as a result, Watford’s 5 year stay in the Premier League would come to a bitter and disappointing end.
The sudden decline in Watford’s form can mainly be linked to Gino Pozzo and Giraldi, and the way the club was run this season. The board and Giraldi would have a significant say in every aspect of the football club, including team selections and tactics. This proved to undermine Pearson, and his relationship with the Pozzo family began to deteriorate. Following the decline in their relationship, and a notable disagreement after Watford’s 3-1 defeat at West Ham, Pearson, along with assistant Craig Shakespeare, were dismissed. Pearson had lost both the board and the dressing room, and just could not stay in charge of the Hornets any longer.
So what now for Watford? With the club set to play in the second tier of English football for the first time in 5 years, a lot of work will need to be done by everyone related to the club in order to help them bounce straight back. The Pozzo family *must* change the way they run the club at the very least. Head coach stability would be ideal, but more importantly, they must let the new head coach influence incomings for the Championship campaign.
They must also allow complete and sole running of the football team to the head coach, and have faith he will make the right decisions on the pitch to aid Watford off of it. It is going to be a long and hard season for the Hornets, with star players destined to leave following their relegation. But with the right recruitment policy and philosophy, there is no doubt that Watford can bounce back into the promised land of the Premier League soon.
What do you make of Watford’s decline? Comment below!