In an incredible twist, Javi Gracia has been sacked as Watford manager to be replaced by the returning Quique Sanchez Flores.
Gracia, who only mere months ago was linked with the Chelsea job, guided the Hornets to last season’s FA Cup final and for a long time, they were serious contenders for a seventh-place finish until a late-season slump saw them slip to 11th.
The start of this season has continued in that vein, with Watford sitting bottom of the table after four games, taking just one point so far. Still, Gracia’s sacking feels like a very harsh one.
But in the Premier League, and at Watford especially, there’s no room for sentiment. Flores will need to work fast if he is to change the fortunes of the Hertfordshire club, lifting them out of the relegation zone and back into the battle for a top-half finish.
So, just how big is the task at hand for Flores and what qualities will he bring to ensure the job he carries out is a good one?
The most glaringly obvious problem Flores will need to address is Watford’s defending, or lack of it. The Hornets have already conceded eight goals in four games this season – only Chelsea (9) and Norwich have a worse record – and the final few games of Gracia’s tenure were marked by sharp changes in system in what could be perceived as a desperate attempt to find balance.
17:30: Watford announce the departure of Javi Gracia as head coach.
18:01: Watford announce Quique Sánchez Flores as their new head coach.
31 minutes. ⏱ pic.twitter.com/mI31IpH0Dr
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) September 7, 2019
The Spaniard stepped away from his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation to experiment with a diamond formation in the defeat to West Ham, while he played three at the back in the 1-1 draw with the Newcastle.
The former decision left Etienne Capoue with a proverbial ocean of space to try and cover which, of course, he simply wasn’t able to on his own. As a result, Watford were horrifically exposed to turnovers with their full-backs still pressing on without thought of the space they left behind them. The latter system yielded a point but, at times, had an unnerving air of unfamiliarity and disorganisation to it.
There haven’t been too many individual mistakes or “howlers” from Watford players, more a lack of defensive cohesion and organisation – every time a ball goes into Ben Foster’s penalty area, there is a collective gasp on the terraces, with no Watford defender taking leadership or ownership of the backline.
But while Watford’s defence needs some serious stitches, their attack must also shed itself of an over-reliance on Troy Deeney and rediscover its clinical streak. So far this season, Watford have fired 23 shots off target in the Premier League – the fourth-highest number in the division – and have a horrendous 32.35% shooting accuracy (excluding blocks); only Leicester (31.58%) perform worse in this regard. When the chances come, Watford are wasteful and it costs them dear.
And then there’s Deeney. The 31-year-old is not the most glamorous of footballers but his importance to Watford cannot be overstated. Deeney created more chances from open play (42) than any of his teammates in the Premier League last season and despite his massive bulk, is a brilliantly versatile forward.
Whether you want to put it in behind, keep it on the floor or have a striker coming off the frontline to create space for quick inside forwards a la Roberto Firmino, Deeney can do it all. The likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Andre Gray and Roberto Pereyra may grab the headlines, but they profit greatly from Deeney’s hard work and technical expertise.
But at some point, to be a successful side, this has to change. Liverpool have Mohamed Salah but when he’s not there, they also have Firmino and Sadio Mane. Scaling back a little, Wolves have Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves, while Everton have Gylfi Sigurdsson, Richarlison, Alex Iwobi and Moise Kean. It often feels like Watford only have a multifaceted attack because of Deeney, the sooner Flores can change this, the better.
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Rehiring a manager who was clearly at odds with the club’s ownership last time may seem like insanity but there is some sense to Flores’ appointment. During his previous season in charge at Vicarage Road, Flores was able to mastermind eight clean sheets in Watford’s first 17 league games and the ability to build a solid defence is one of his defining managerial traits.
In terms of shape, we should see a smooth transition from the Gracia era into the second Flores era. Although Flores is a very adaptable manager who prefers to tweak his system to counter a specific opponent, he generally favoured a 4-4-2 formation during his previous tenure.
This will favour Watford’s midfielders, with Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure able to shield their back four together, rather than being stretched too thin on their own. And it shouldn’t take long to find stability in defence, thanks to Flores’ expertise in that area coupled with the similarities in structure between himself and his predecessor.
Where things may be a little tougher is in solving Watford’s Deeney conundrum, which could prove to be defining in terms of success or failure. A hallmark of Flores’ previous season in charge was his powerful strike partnership of Odion Ighalo and Deeney which wreaked havoc on defences, even if only for a short time. The cornerstone of that partnership was Deeney, with all of his physicality, work rate and intelligence.
But it’s important to once again remember how tactically flexible Flores is. The 54-year-old will not hesitate in dropping star players in favour of a change of system for the good of the team, so don’t be surprised to see him switch to a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1.
In these systems, any number of forward could be deployed for Watford: Pererya as a false nine, Deulofeu running off the last man, or one of Gray or Deeney playing as a target man to service those around them. Flores even has the pace of Danny Welbeck at his disposal, with the 28-year-old now fit and ready to go after making a couple of substitute appearances.
The summer addition of Ismaila Sarr can also be seen as a very generous parting gift from Gracia, leaving Flores with a lightening fast forward who is equally as threatening when racing for the byline to pick out a cross as he is driving inside to go for goal himself. 4-4-2 may not suit Sarr’s skill set but a three-man forward line certainly does.
The Senegalese has been used sparingly thus far but it won’t be long until he is fully fit and adjusted to the demands of English football, opening up a whole new dimension in the Watford frontline.
Flores will undoubtedly want to put his mark on his team as soon as possible but, with Arsenal at home, then Man City and Wolves away to come in his first three league games, he might be better served simply unifying a club turned on its head.
Watford fans are unsurprisingly perplexed, angered and upset in equal measures at the departure of Gracia, while Flores returning to the club has left some of them scratching their heads. If Flores can quickly get a functional side together and pick up some points in those three games, or even put in strong, promising performances, that’s a step in the right direction and something the fans can get behind.
And we all know just how much Watford love a cup run, Flores himself guided them to an FA Cup semi-final last time he was in the dugout. Sandwiched between their trips to the Etihad and Molineux is a home tie against Swansea in the League Cup third round, a perfect chance for Flores to show Watford fans he has ambitions beyond basic stability, and that he wants to bring success and silverware to Vicarage Road.
Flores is up against it from the start but if he can get the fans behind him and tighten up that leaky defence, he might just have a chance of building on the good work put in by Gracia before him.