It was the jazz musician Miles Davis that said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterward that makes it right or wrong.”
If sacking Javi Gracia was a debatable bad note for Watford, the decision to appoint Quique Sanchez Flores as his successor was the follow-up note that confirmed it — his dismissal after 10 games confirmed earlier this week.
Watford’s methods, at times quite ruthless, have been questioned before. In 2012, the club exploited a loop-hole in the loan system to sign a dozen players from sister clubs Udinese and Granada, which in turn took them to the Championship play-off final.
Some of those loanees signed permanently and formed part of the squad that earned Watford promotion to the Premier League in 2015. The season itself was an oddity due to the fact Watford went through four head coaches on their way to promotion (bonus points if you can name all four).
Slavisa Jokanovic, the man that crossed the line with the Hornets was then let go after failing to agree to an extension and in came Sanchez Flores. Perhaps that is why the club lurched back towards a former manager as the heat from the relegation zone started to get a bit much.
One might argue that this is the consequence of Watford’s model. Under the guidance of the Pozzo family, the Hornets have cycled through 10 managers. Only two —Gracia and Gianfranco Zola— have surpassed 40 games. It would be easy to paint that as an early warning sign, but in truth, the club have only finished below fifteenth once in four top-flight seasons, with last season representing a high of 11th.
The problem with the methodology comes when you make a mistake, or you get comfortable. The focus appeared to shift slightly from the pitch this summer. Earlier in the year the club confirmed plans to revamp their crest. After studying thousands of designs it was whittle down to one, only for a fan vote to elect keeping the current badge.
On the field, the club’s transfer business was equally underwhelming. Watford have often had an eye for a bargain. Their transfer strategy is to buy low, sell high, and is best evidenced by the trajectory of Richarlison. The Brazilian netted the club £40million when he joined Everton in the summer of 2018. The club initially kept their powder dry, with the permanent signing of Gerard Deloufeu for £11.5million the one relatively major deal.
Again, there was no issue. Watford finished 11th and with an FA Cup final. While those were positive achievements, it was painfully obvious that the club could not rest on its laurels. The top priority had to be a high-calibre centre-back. Miguel Britos, a steady if occasionally rash defender, left the club on a free transfer. Ben Wilmot, signed from Stevenage, was still young and in need of developing.
In response, the club signed Craig Dawson from West Bromwich Albion for $6.8million. In isolation, it was not a bad move but only if it was supplemented by further defensive reinforcements. It wasn’t as if the club did not have money, they simply chose to invest it in Rennes attacker Ismaila Sarr. On Wednesday the club’s back four consisted of only one player they had spent money on. It simply isn’t fit for purpose.
In the club’s defence, they have also been unlucky with some key decisions this season as well as the loss of Troy Deeney to injury for several months. The 31-year-old has been an important figure for the Hornets since promotion, and is part goal-scorer, part enforcer, as he marshalls those around him.
As such, the decision to sack Gracia felt panicked, especially when considering the Hornets had the fifth best xG from open play at the time. It is perhaps understandable given how important Premier League status is to the club’s business model, but by coming to such an abrupt stop it caused a pile-up of bad decisions behind them.
The early front-runner to replace Sanchez Flores is Chris Hughton. A man described as a ‘safe pair of hands’ it’s debatable whether he has the ability to turn the ship around with his conservative brand of football and a defense lacking in quality.
Certainly his appointment would not feel in-keeping with the Pozzo family approach of thinking outside the box.
Sadly, as is often the case a team that is highlighted for their rise is just about to begin a descent (see Southampton). A few bad decisions pushed Watford over the edge, and without a financial safety net to right things they look destined to fall out of the Premier League.