It was not so long ago that Watford appeared to be the dead ducks of the 2019-20 Premier League campaign.
The Hornets started the season on a run of 11 games without a win which included an 8-0 trashing at the hands of Manchester City and home defeats to both Brighton and West Ham.
They appeared certs for the drop even at that early juncture and the off-field decisions just compounded the sense of hopelessness. Javi Garcia was sacked by phone while on a break back home only to be replaced by Quique Sánchez Flores, a man previously sacked by the club.
Needless to say, this reunion didn’t last long and so enter Nigel Pearson. The man who masterminded Leicester’s great escape in 2015 and set the foundations for what would become a historic 2016 title campaign for the Foxes.
His impact at Vicarage Road has been immediate and reformative, seeing the Hornets climb up the table faster than anyone could have hoped.
One defeat in seven and four wins later, Watford are outside the relegation zone and looking up rather than down. They may only be one point about the bottom three but recent performances, which include a 3-0 trashing of Bournemouth on the road and victories over Man United and Wolves, suggest they are very much trending the other way.
So how has Nigel Pearson turned them around in such a short space of time?
1. Manager, not a coach
In a recent BBC interview, Watford keeper Ben Foster admitted the Hornets had been crying out for a leader. Garcia and Flores were perfectly acceptable coaches but neither were, what you’d call, micro-managers. Pearson is just that: a man who wants to oversee as much as possible, and Foster feels it is having the desired impact.
“The difference between the previous two managers and Nigel… they were coaches but this club has been calling out for a manager. Nigel is a manager and takes complete control – timings, logistics, everything,” Foster said.
“Off the field, things started to creep in – sloppy things – and it gets worse and worse. It’s like a bacteria.
“The current manager has pulled everybody together. He makes an example of you if you do something wrong, so everybody thinks: ‘I’m not going to be that guy next time.'”
This leadership style seems to have given the whole squad a new sense of purpose, direction and, more importantly, a sense of accountability. If a player does not do his job, Pearson has no problems letting them know. Club captain Troy Deeney summed up Pearson’s approach in simple terms.
“He has hammered me a few times, but he has been brilliant with me. For the first time in eight years, I have been treated like a proper man,” the former Walsall man said.
“When you are captain, you do as you are told. If you are treated like a man and with respect, then you reciprocate that.”
2. Backroom experience
Pearson is no one-man band and wouldn’t claim to be one either. He brought with him an experienced backroom team that includes former Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare – one of only three English coaches to oversee a Champions League knockout game – along with Hayden Mullins and Graham Stack.
They all know what the Premier League is like and how to be a successful team at the top level. They are part of the whole setup Pearson has implemented and are men he trusts to maintain the rigorous standards expected.
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Pearson’s level of control is more about presence than anything else. He introduced himself to every single department at the club upon arrival and having a strong team to lean upon should help stay connected with all that is going on without becoming stretched too thin.
More importantly, all his staff are respected within their own right with each having achieved decent careers and a tremendous amount of combined knowledge.
3. Tactical changes
Pearson is more than a motivator and has made some important tactical tweaks to the way Watford play which have had a big impact on results.
Watford's Abdoulaye Doucouré is thriving in his new advanced role under Nigel Pearson with a goal and an assist yesterday! pic.twitter.com/uZfj3ss1wc
— Jonny Whitmore (@JonnyWhitmore14) January 13, 2020
Moving Abdoulaye Doucoure to a more advanced position has worked wonders. The Frenchman admitted it is a role he is more familiar with and this has helped the team created more chances, something they were really struggling to do prior to Pearson’s arrival.
When at Rennes, the 27-year-old played as a box-to-box midfielder rather than an anchorman. He has thrived playing further up the pitch and admitted to the Watford official website he prefers the new role Pearson has given him.
“I used to play in this position when I was in France,” he said.
“Now Nigel is playing me in this position. I will play wherever but I’m pleased with this position as I can get forward and also get back to protect the midfield.”
4. Capitalising on the existing talent within the squad
Abdoulaye Doucoure is not the only player to improve under Pearson. Both Gerard Deulofeu and club-record summer signing Ismaila Sarr have looked like different players in the last few games.
This Watford squad has plenty of quality and it was simply a case getting them to perform. They appeared to lack motivation and drive during their early-season struggles and going forward they were so, so poor – something Pearson has addressed without signing new players.
Watford had managed just five goals in the seven games prior to his arrival but in the seven since he took charge, they have hit the net on 11 occasions. This is partly down to the return of Troy Deeney but also because Deulofeu and Sarr are far more dangerous down the flanks.
Giving these key men confidence has been vital to the turnaround and making sure everyone knows their jobs and are organised is a big part of that.
“There’s going to be some players who have doubted their ability, or have not had opportunities,” Pearson told the Guardian.
“In cricket, they talk about batsmen playing themselves back into nick, and some of our players are going to have to play themselves back into form if that’s how you want to put it.
“But you can have players occasionally having an off day as an individual – if they’re still doing what the team requires in terms of the shape, in possession, out of possession, you can still function.
“Not to your maximum but you’ve still got a chance of getting results, just because the framework’s there.”