2019/20 in Review – Watford

A season rife with change and upheaval at Vicarage Road, Watford may yet find themselves facing relegation when the Premier League returns. Jamie Mcintosh takes a look back at how The Hornets found themselves in this position.

hornets

With three managers taking the Watford hot-seat in the span of just a few months, many rightly expected a difficult season for the Hornets.

Season Overview

A season full of ups and downs for the Hornets. They currently occupy 17th place in the table and are only above the relegation zone on goal difference. So should a team like Watford be in a relegation dogfight? Probably not, but it’s quite easy to see why they’re in one at the moment…

Watford broke their club record transfer fee in the summer window spending around £30 million on Senegalese forward, Ismaila Sarr. This added further optimism for the upcoming season, which was understandable considering the previous campaign where Watford finished in a respectable 11th place under manager Javi Gracia.

Gracia seemed popular with the players, fans and the media. He was highly praised regarding his man management skills, whilst managing a Watford side not graced with much natural talent.

Alarm bells were soon ringing however, after a 3-0 defeat on the opening day of the new campaign at home to Brighton. This was followed up by defeats to Everton and West Ham and a draw against a widely criticised Newcastle side.

So, four games in, and Watford had only picked up a single point out of a possible 12, scoring just two goals in the process. They seemed unfit and largely uninspired during those games.

As we all know, Watford are never scared to make a change in the dugout and once again, a manager at Vicarage Road was clearing out his desk. Gracia was sacked on the 7th September and was replaced no less than 30 minutes later by Quique Sanchez Flores – a manager Watford previously sacked at the end of the 2015/16 season.

His first game in charge was an encouraging 2-2 draw with Arsenal. Watford found themselves 2-0 down and in the end really should have won the game. They showed great fight to come back after a really poor first half. An 8-0 thumping at the Etihad followed the week after – more on that later.

Watford remained without a league win under Sanchez Flores until November, when they visited fellow strugglers Norwich City. They won the game 2-0, however they were dominated for large parts of it and only had 34% possession during the game. The fans didn’t seem to mind the lack of possession – their first win had finally arrived and they now had something to build on going forward.

Watford had my full backing as a neutral and I regularly tipped them to get out of the relegation zone to my peers on the radio. However, that win wasn’t followed up on and they lost four out of their next five games, drawing the other.

This led to the sacking of the man who had already been sacked but was brought back because someone else had been sacked….Yes, Quique Flores was gone and frankly, nobody was surprised that the bizarre reappointment had ended this way just 90 days later. Hayden Mullins took charge of the following two games, which resulted in a 2-0 defeat at Leicester and a goalless draw with Palace.

Watford were becoming a laughing stock in terms of off the field appointments and really needed a strong manager to get this team back on track. On 6th December, former Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson was appointed as the new manager at Vicarage Road. He was chucked in at the deep end, with his first game in charge being away to Liverpool. Unsurprisingly, Watford lost 2-0.

It’s worth noting that Watford’s talismanic captain Troy Deeney had been out injured up until this point and in my eyes, his absence played a big part in their poor form. Deeney returned to the starting 11 in December and following their loss at Anfield, Watford wouldn’t lose in their next seven games. Home wins over Aston Villa, Wolves and Manchester United were backed up by an impressive away win against Bournemouth. However, draws with Spurs (Deeney missed a penalty in this game) Crystal Palace and a plucky Sheffield United helped the relegation cause.

Watford should have picked up more points in their following two league games. However, a 95th minute Tyrone Mings goal saw them fall to defeat at Villa Park, before Theo Walcott scored in stoppage time to see them lose to Everton.

Watford produced a mixed bag of results following that Everton loss. A solid point away at Brighton showed clear improvement since the opening round of fixtures when Brighton thumped them 3-0. A poor performance at Old Trafford before bouncing back with arguably the surprise result of the whole season when beating Liverpool 3-0 before falling 1-0 to Crystal Palace in the final game before the suspension of football.

They currently sit 17th but I think their form has picked up since Pearson came in and in my eyes, they should have enough on the pitch and the right man in the dugout to guide them to safety.

Player of the Season- Ben Foster

This was a toss up between two players in Ben Foster and Gerard Deulofeu. However, I felt that Foster was slightly more deserving of the award.

ben foster

In a season with very few standout performers, Ben Foster has shown that he has a lot left to offer at the top level.

Everyone is well aware of Deulofeu’s talent, as well as the frustrating aspects of his game. At 26 years old, I feel he has/had the potential to be playing for a team higher up in the Premier League table. However, at 37 years old, Ben Foster has proved this season that he can still cut it at the highest level.

Considering he is in goals for one of the ‘lesser’ teams in the Premier League, you would expect him to be kept busy. You’d be correct, seeing as only four keepers in the league have faced more shots on target than Ben Foster. That being said, Foster has still come up with an impressive nine clean sheets for his side, only one fewer than the highly praised Dean Henderson and Kasper Schmeichel.

9 clean sheets is pretty impressive for a team hovering above the relegation zone. Having an in form Ben Foster in goals is huge for Watford’s hopes for survival. A worthy winner, despite a significant lack of competition.

Young Player of the season- Ismaila Sarr

It wasn’t until I looked at this Watford squad that I realised how old it was. There is a real lack of youth and it is something that probably needs looked at going forward.

sarr

Despite a rocky start to life in England, Ismaila Sarr was beginning to pick up form just before the pandemic struck. Watford will be relying on their record signing to hit the ground running when football returns.

Anyway, Ismaila Sarr. Watford’s record signing has been okay in his first season in England, but just okay – I feel as though he’s yet to justify the £30 million price tag. It must have been difficult for Sarr however, as he was signed by Javi Gracia who was then sacked just a few weeks later. He had to adapt to a new tactical system under Quique Flores, before having to re-adapt once again when he was replaced by Nigel Pearson. This is a lot to deal with for any player, but for a young player playing in one of the top leagues for the first time? It’s a lot to deal with, but after Pearson’s appointment, Sarr seemed to finally be turning a few heads as he began to strike up a decent partnership with club captain Troy Deeney.

Sarr has bagged four goals across three big victories for the Hornets, so there is plenty to suggest that he is improving after a slow start. If he carries on in the same way when football returns, his signing could turn out to be a shrewd bit of business.

 

Signing of the Season- Craig Dawson

As I said earlier, Watford broke the club record fee to sign Sarr and he is starting to hit form. However, the £5.5 million spent to sign Craig Dawson from West Brom is a much more reliable bit of business in my eyes.

dawson

Despite not featuring much due to injury, Dawson offers the intangible aspects of football in terms of a dressing room presence and quality leadership.

Dawson is an old fashioned solid centre half who, especially under Nigel Pearson’s management, should be a good acquisition. The 30 year old hasn’t been fit for the whole season and may not necessarily always be first choice. However for £5.5 million, I think he is a very good squad player and an experienced head to have in the dressing room. My only concern is his age and considering Sarr is only 22, you could argue he may turn out to be a better signing in the long term. However £30 million seems like a lot to me so I’ll stick with Dawson, considering the more reasonable fee Watford paid for him.

 

Goal of the Season- Gerard Deulofeu vs Norwich (A)

In a game of huge importance to both teams, Deulofeu gave Watford the perfect start. He robbed Emi Buendia just inside Norwich’s half and took off. Tom Trybull continued to back away from the Spanish winger, allowing him to cut inside the Norwich box and place the ball low into the bottom left corner.

Far from a wonder strike, but a complete solo goal from clearly the most skilful player in the team and, due to it’s importance at the time, it’s my goal of the season for Watford.

 

Flop of the Season- Quique Sanchez Flores

To be honest, there’s a few that I could have picked for this category. However, the man sacked after just 90 days wins it.

quique

Quique Sanchez Flores’ return to Vicarage Road was, in short, a disaster. One league win within a 90 day tenure resulted in his dismissal before the end of the year.

He was brought into save Watford after their poor start to the season, however he managed only one league win during his second spell at the club and was subsequently sacked after failing to deliver the much-needed spark.

The whole episode involving Flores was a strange one for many to understand. He had previously been sacked but then was reappointed during a time of crisis. Few were surprised when Sanchez Flores failed to lift the spirits and was ultimately sacked. A very poor decision from the board and one that’s best forgotten about from a Watford point of view.

 

Moment of the Season – Stopping an Undefeated Season

Fairly self-explanatory. A fantastic all round performance and a thoroughly deserved victory for Watford. Again, highlighting the Pearson effect as this performance showed a real desire to work for each other, something that was clearly missing prior to his appointment.

The first two goals came in the form of a brace from Sarr, with the second goal in particular being a lovely effort as the ball was lifted over Allison in the Liverpool goal. With a captain’s contribution coming from Deeney – which Sarr assisted – Watford did what seemed impossible and ended Liverpool’s hopes of an invincible season on a memorable evening at Vicarage Road.

 

Moment to Forget – Sheer Humiliation at the Etihad

I’ll keep this short and sweet. Another simple decision as City brushed Watford aside with ease in an 8-0 drubbing.

The Hornets saw Ben Foster pick the ball out his net five times after the first 18 minutes. A small bit of credit goes to the Watford backline, as they only conceded three more in the remaining 72 minutes of the game. While it’s understandable to come away from the Etihad empty handed, you really have to wonder what Sanchez Flores said in his team talk that cause that calamity. The real shock was in Watford’s total u-turn from the week before – they had battered Arsenal in the second half that saw them come back to gain a credible point. Many anticipated the same fire and determination from Watford coming into this fixture, but it didn’t pan out that way and it was just another sorry afternoon that Watford and Flores would want to forget immediately.

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