When The Hornets Encounter Rough Waters, Does The Manager Always Deserve The Blame? Does Ivic?

Ever since the Pozzo family saved Watford from near-bankruptcy in 2012, the Club has followed a philosophy of continuously rotating management in order to yield success. And, despite the unorthodoxy of the Pozzo’s approach to appointing and sacking managers, the Hornets have found success in their methods, as the Team was able to spend five seasons in the Premier League and reach an FA Cup Final.

Unfortunately, as is true for most non-Big Six clubs, all good things must come to an end. Following relegation, Watford brought in young, relatively unknown Serbian manager Vladimir Ivic to guide the Club back to the Promised Land. When it became apparent the Team would not be firmly ensconced in an automatic promotion spot, some fans started to feel Ivic should be sacked. Yes, the season is not even halfway done, but such is the mindset fans acquire after being accustomed to the perpetual revolution of the manager’s door. Sure enough, on Saturday, Ivic was shown the exit.

Ivic’s style of play with Watford was not the most exciting by any stretch of the imagination, which gave more fuel to those calling for his departure. However, not giving him a bit more time can be seen as unfair and cruel. And, as Hornets fans observed last year, perhaps the manager is not the reason for a season’s misgivings. Three managers and a caretaker could not find sustained success (Pearson had a solid 10-match run before faltering), so should Ivic be getting the blame and the finger pointed at him as the reason Watford are not in first? Did he truly deserve to be sacked?

Please consider the following analogy:

The dean of a university scribbles down a math equation, throwing in some tricky numbers and variables which seem like they could result in there being a solution. However, he does not check to see whether the equation is indeed solvable. 

Nevertheless, he brings the equation to one of the candidates for the new math professor vacancy at the university. After examining the equation for the rest of the day, the math professor concludes that the equation has no solution. With disappointment, the dean tells the candidate that he will not be interviewed further.

The next day, the dean shows the equation to another candidate and asks him to demonstrate his skills. This candidate is able to shuffle around some of the numbers and variables and feels as if he is nearing the answer, but then determines the equation cannot be manipulated any further. And so, the dean decides the candidate is not worthy of staying for the long-term.

Now, consider the ownership/hierarchy as the dean, managers as the candidates, and players as the numbers and variables. Who is to blame for the inability to decipher the equation? Is it the dean for writing a potentially unsolvable problem? Is it the candidates for not manipulating the question correctly? Is it the numbers and variables for being too tricky and abstract with which to work? In relation to football and the management of Watford: when the Club is underperforming, who should shoulder the blame?

As is possible for the analogy, the blame could be shared among all three parties. Or perhaps the equation was solvable and the numbers and variables were too tough for the candidate to rearrange correctly. Or there is a chance the dean wrote an unsolvable equation. Or possibly, the candidates just didn’t possess sufficient intuition to solve it. 

Watford often find themselves in this situation. Should the owners be blamed for neither giving the manager the right tools nor giving them enough time to find what works best? Should the manager be criticized for being unable to work with what he has? Should the players be subject to condemnation for not responding completely to the tactics the manager is trying to implement?

Worth noting is how Watford don’t give out the label “manager,” with it being a term that is more colloquial than official. Ivic, in fact, was not Watford’s manager (despite that being what fans, announcers, and journalists say and write). Rather, he was their “head coach.” So, especially in the Club’s case, the analogy makes sense in considering how it is the dean throwing forward the variables and numbers, in reference to the ownership and Team hierarchy being primarily responsible for the tools at the “manager’s” dispatch. 

Ivic was fired as the Hornet’s head coach after guiding Watford to 5th place after the first 20 matches of the season. When joining Watford after his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, where his side averaged 3.5 goals scored per each goal conceded, the expectations were that Ivic would pass along his high-octane attacking-style to the Hornets. At the same time, the other two parts of Ivic’s tactics that appealed to the Pozzos were his ability to field many different formations effectively, as well as the defensive discipline he wrested out of his players despite the attacking mindset of the Team.

When considering Watford’s status as a recently relegated team who avoided a post-drop transfer-raid, the expectation is that the Club should be competing for automatic promotion. After Watford lost some matches that they probably should not have under Ivic, and finding the Club nine points off of first place after 20 matches, the Pozzos saw this as enough of an indication that Ivic would not be the man to bring Watford promotion. But, fully blaming Ivic for his relative lack of success (even though being in a playoff position isn’t necessarily unsuccessful) is harsh.

Consider the last three matches in which Watford dropped points. In the 1-0 defeat to Cardiff City, the goal came from missed-marking on a corner kick. Against Brentford, the goal the Hornets conceded came from a penalty that was caused by an unnecessary handball. And in Ivic’s final match, a 2-0 defeat against Huddersfield, the goals let in were from a goalkeeper-miskick and an own-goal from a corner. What do all the point-dropping goals conceded have in common? They were a result of poor-marking/individual errors. While one can say a manager should bear some responsibility for individual errors (failing to instill discipline and focus), the times Watford have conceded as a result of Ivic’s tactical set-up/instructions are few and far between.   

With the names in Watford’s attack, one would expect a head coach to be able to get the Team scoring quickly and frequently, and perhaps Ivic’s successor will be able to do so. However, Ivic was not getting the clinical support he needed from his finishers. In the three matches discussed earlier, the Hornets took a whopping 47 shots. The only one to find the back of the net was a penalty. It would be incorrect to say Ivic did not set up the squad to get enough chances to score.

Ivic could very well be a case of a talented, young, ambitious manager who struggled to impose his rather unorthodox ways upon the squad. Maybe this just did not work out as a result of chance despite there being genuine effort by the players to conform. On the other hand, some players might not have been able to become fully invested in Ivic’s style and might have grown complacent post-relegation. 

The forced departure of Ivic is neither unreasonable nor is it totally impetuous. However, primarily blaming him for his “demise” (if one considers being 5th place a total disappointment even though it is still very respectable) at Vicarage Road would be cruel. He might not have put Watford in the position where the Pozzos would want the club to be by now, but in reality, the Club can’t mathematically be more than nine points (three games) from that place at the time of publication. But, especially with the Club’s sacking philosophy, when the season is not going to plan, change is imminent, and even if the head coach isn’t to blame, changing most of the squad is untenable. And so, as unfair as it may be, the head coach is the one given the boot. Unfortunately, that is what is quickest and logistically justifiable.

In football, it is extremely difficult to change the equation. Finding a new candidate is usually most efficient and, in most cases, most logical. At the same time, the search for scapegoats is a dangerous sport. Even if the candidate ultimately does not appear right for the job, there is still a fair chance that they were never deserving of the blame after all. 

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