Why Watford’s Ship Has Slightly Steered Off Course

Watford started off their inaugural Championship campaign post-relegation in considerably solid form, picking up 13 points from their opening six matches. In those first six matches, which included victories over Middlesbrough, arch-rivals Luton Town, Derby County, and Blackburn, Watford only conceded twice. In their most recent three matches (at the time of writing), Watford have picked up two points. A draw against recently-relegated Bournemouth was not too much of a cause for concern. The draw against Wycombe and defeat at Barnsley, however, has started to faintly ring the alarm bells at Vicarage Road.

Ever since the Pozzo family became the owners of Watford Football Club in 2012, there has been an unspoken philosophy that bad times call for a change in management. Although Ivic’s job is currently secure and sacking him for the past three results would be beyond an overreaction, it is hard to bypass the thought of there being another manager at the helm for Watford this season if form does not improve in the next few matches.

Watford have established the fact that “success” this season is promotion, and “disappointment” is anything less than that. And, looking at the players Watford have, such a high expectation seems reasonable. The squad is littered with players who played a considerable number of Premier League minutes for Watford, players with experience in other top-flights, as well as some highly rated youngsters (including James Garner, who just won the Manchester United U23 Player of the Year Award).

When high expectations start to seem unrealistic due to a patch of bad form, wondering whether the Pozzos will look for someone else to lead the charge (for promotion) feels natural by this point. But, that is still an extreme that is a ways away from happening, and is likely not even a scenario that has seriously crossed the hierarchy’s mind just yet. Ivic will know of the Pozzos’ trigger-happy tendencies, so he understands he will need to re-steady the ship within the next several matches if his job at Watford is to have security. Again, Ivic being sacked is not imminent, nor should it be considered likely right now despite the past few matches, but if the run of bad form extends for several more matches, then perhaps the rumors of the axe will start to swirl. 

Why Watford’s Form Has Faltered:

Under Nigel Pearson last season, Watford found success in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which helped them climb out of the relegation zone by the middle of January despite being nine points adrift heading into their first match of the Festive Period, which was a contest against Manchester United. After Watford worked their way out of the relegation zone, form started to drop. Watford dipped into the relegation zone in the middle of February, but then an iconic victory over an at-the-time invincible Liverpool lifted the Hornets out of the drop zone. But in that match, Gerard Deulofeu suffered a season-ending injury, and his absence from the squad alone was enough to sentence Watford to the second tier. 

Why is an injury from last season relevant to a discussion about this season? The reason is there have been parallels between last season and this season which have both caused a drop-off in form, and the main parallel is the strict sticking to a given formation. Under Pearson, Deulofeu’s injury was not enough to convince him to try new tactics. The 4-2-3-1 was Watford’s only formation until Pearson got the boot, and by that time, it was too late to save the club from relegation. The 4-2-3-1 did not suit the route-one football Watford were trying to play after Deulofeu’s injury (arguably more “hoof-ball” than route-one), with Deeney as the focal point. Him having a strike-partner could have done the club a world of wonders, but Pearson did not even attempt to make that formational adjustment. 

This season, Vladimir Ivic has been insistent on using formations with three center-backs. The two formations he has deployed are the 5-3-2 and the 5-2-3. And, truth be told, the tactics seemed to be working. And perhaps they would still be if there was not a drop in form on an individual-by-individual basis. However, as Watford fans were reminded of during Quique Sanchez Flores’ second stint at Vicarage Road, looking back at what used to work tactically is not usually indicative of what will work in the immediate future. 

During Vladimir Ivic’s time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, he found most of his success utilizing a 4-3-3 formation. Many fans were expecting to see this formation used frequently upon Ivic’s arrival. With Adam Masina, Watford’s only true left-back, sidelined for the foreseeable future, doing a 4-3-3 would require having a make-shift left-back, so it is understandable that Ivic would try to experiment with formations that do not require that position. Adaptability is another thing that Ivic was known for in Israel, so to see him not even attempt a 4-3-3 in nine league matches/experiment with a make-shift left-back, as well as outright claim the formation will not change in the foreseeable future, seems to signal a shying away from his signature ambition. Ambition is needed for promotion.

Beyond a stubbornness when it comes to experimenting with new formations, another downfall in the past few matches has been a lack of depth in quality starting options. Some of Watford’s key players have not been available so far this season, and once other teams figure a system out and form starts to drop, not having strong enough reinforcements can lead to compounding issues. When the same/similar starting eleven has to play multiple times a week, fitness levels quickly drop.

Capoue’s return did coincide with Watford’s drop in form, but he will need time to reintegrate to get back to his best. The likes of Will Hughes, Andre Gray, and Troy Deeney, all have only just become available. Such reinforcements do signal positive things to come, as three quality players will now be thrown into an already competitive battle for spots in the starting eleven. Stipe Perica will soon be back in that mix as well.

An unwillingness to change formation and a lack of true depth has contributed to Watford’s recent disappointing results. From a less tangible viewpoint, a bit of the current form could be validly attributed to complacency. Now that Watford are back down in the Championship, they go into every match expecting a victory, as their squad list suggests they should. That notion, however, seems to go to the head of some players, which then sees the squad playing down to the level of their opponent, rather than being hungry to be the team that dictates how the game flows. 

In Watford’s recent draw to Wycombe and defeat to Barnsley, despite having the majority of possession, it was Watford’s opposition that truly controlled how the game went. Watford seem to expect an easy result, and such complacency leads to an inability to command games. Being reliant on other teams’ shortcomings rather than their own successes is not going to be enough to earn promotion. 

So, even if managerial stubbornness is a cause of the lack of form, some of the burden has to fall upon the players, as many of their individual levels of play seem to have lowered considerably across the past couple of weeks.

Do Watford Have What It Takes To Briskly Get Back On Track?

Yes. Form is temporary. Class is permanent. 

At the end of the day, Watford have arguably the best team in the Championship when it comes to raw talent. The key to success is being able to have those talents mold together to consistently grind out results, something that failed to happen last season in the Premier League. So, ample time should be given before truly stating that the ship has completely veered off course. Right now, the bow is just slightly pointing toward the side, but the end destination is still in the distant horizon. 

Maybe the three center-back formations are what Watford need after all. Perhaps this has just been a bad patch of form with no true explanation, as can happen for even the best of teams. There is a solid chance no immense change is needed. The club is not in desperate times. Vladimir Ivic still has the support of the hierarchy, and deservedly so. 

To achieve promotion, improvement is necessary, but Watford have all the tools they need, and Ivic is the handy blacksmith who can put things back into positive motion. 

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