Everyone knows about the Watford way when it comes to head coaches. Supporters often moan as most articles about the Hornets or match commentators unceasingly mention the managerial carousel. When a head coach is sacked, most non-Watford supporters go berserk about the cruelty of the sacking and how the style does not work. The Watford faithful, however, know that even if the system is harsh, it has still worked wonders for the football club. And, even though Xisco Munoz was loved by most, thus making sacking him feel even more wicked, the truth is the axe needed to be swung – and perhaps it needed to be even earlier.
A Man Loved By All
Following the lackluster Vladimir Ivic reign in the first half of the 2020/21 Championship campaign, the talented Hornets’ squad needed a head coach who would provide ample motivation and tools to propel a firm push for promotion. After all, individual talent alone would more or less be enough for promotion: all that was needed was a man to rally the troops and give the players the right tactics to best utilize the stars. Ivic was despised by most players – he was hard to back. Xisco Munoz was the exact opposite.
The players loved him, but his connection with the fans – even in a period where fans were locked out of stadiums – was unmatched by any of his predecessors. He would constantly talk about how much he missed the fans. On social media, he would interact with fan accounts and even have direct message conversations with supporters. He was really hard to not have a soft spot for, as he was genuine in how he spoke and acted: it was easy to tell the constantly-smiling Xisco was not just putting on a show.
Tale of Questionable – and Eventually Terrible – Tactics
Unfortunately, as much as everyone loved Xisco, it was clear the tactics were not what got Watford promoted: Sarr, Sarr, a fair amount of luck, Sarr, Hughes, a poorer second-tier than usual, and Sarr (again) are the main reasons Watford were able to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Even in the Championship, there were many matches Watford performed poorly in but were bailed out by, well, the fact they were in the Championship with a Champions League winger.
Keeping Xisco in charge for the Premier League was a questionable choice to some – he undoubtedly was able to rally the troops and keep squad morale high, but in a league where all mistakes are punished, it was clear tactics would have to change: setting up as if the Hornets were still in the Championship would be calamitous. That is, however, exactly what happened.
Newly promoted sides – especially ones like Watford, who are not necessarily strong in all departments – need to rely on high presses and/or threatening counterattacks to maintain their Premier League status. The one tactic that rarely works is trying to play possession-based football with one of the worst rosters in the league (a weak squad, which in fairness, is not Xisco’s fault. But still, a head coach is needed that can work with the pieces, as unfair as the pieces may be).
In the Premier League, Watford have set up to play counterattacking football, but they then move the ball as if they want to be possession-based. Watford often give away the ball in the midfield as a result (as they do not have the midfielders to play such football). More alarmingly, the defensive line has given the ball away a concerning number of times thanks to trying to play possession-based football with defenders who, well, are better suited to blocks and aerial challenges than they are to passing. The poor-passing trends compound every match, something which is mostly down to Xisco for not demanding a switch in system that does not call for such risky, backwards passing patterns (as in, he was doing a Mikel Arteta when it comes to never learning the lesson of do not play out of the back with players who cannot play out of the back).
With the exception of the phenomenal opening-day victory against Aston Villa and routine, expected victory against Norwich City, Watford have been outcoached and outplayed thoroughly. A home clash against a Wolverhampton side who were yet to score in the season was unacceptable. A 1-1 draw with an awful Newcastle at Vicarage Road – after being thoroughly outcoached – was a beyond-flattering result for the Hornets considering they should have been many, many goals down after the first half (and were beyond lucky with how poor Newcastle’s finishing was).
The tactics against Newcastle were ridiculously poor – the midfield was non-existent and the wide players well-adept at counterattacking were sparsely utilized – and it was clear change was needed. But, when the Leeds United match came rolling around, Xisco had one of his worst – if not his absolute worst – match in charge as Watford head coach. The Hornets played as if Marcelo Bielsa’s famous high-pressing tactics were some sort of secret. Watford played the exact same way and style as they did against Newcastle. Xisco’s tactics that match – or lack thereof – were beyond baffling. Ambition and signs of change were absent. Subbing on defensive-minded left-winger Ken Sema for center-forward Joshua King while more-talented attackers Cucho Hernandez and Joao Pedro were on the bench was the final straw for many.
Watford have had a very easy start to the season when it comes to fixtures, and signs showed that under the current trajectory, it would be impossible to circle the matches where Watford could accumulate 33 more points (or anywhere near that sum, as Norwich appear the only team Watford might be better than under current tactics). Watford were thoroughly outplayed by Newcastle (who scored 1.62 more Xg than the Hornets in the draw) and tallied fewer than 0.2 Xg in their clashes against Wolverhampton and Leeds United. Simply stated, the trajectory and “process” could no longer be trusted if the Hornets wanted to maximize their chances at top-flight survival.
Sacking Story Continues
Xisco, at just 41-years-old, can definitely have a bright managerial future ahead of him considering how far he has come in such a short period of time. All Watford supporters will wish the much-loved manager all the best for the future, as regardless of his questionable tactics, he still steered Watford back to the Promised Land – an impressive, applaudable task regardless of how good the squad is.
Nonetheless, the managerial rollercoaster at Watford continues to push forward. But, as has been the case many times, keeping the ride in operation is often what must be done to keep the theme park open for years to come.