Will Ranieri Have the Tools to Fix Watford’s Broken Machine?

Guest-written article by Ben Thornhill

On Monday, Watford appointed Claudio Ranieri to the position of head coach at Vicarage Road. Famed for making harsh hiring and firing decisions that leave many onlookers firmly in the “he should have had more time” camp, Gino Pozzo has again pulled the trap door on a coach who, many argue, had done everything asked of him until now. However, for those who follow Watford closely, there have been some concerning trends in their recent performances, culminating in a humiliating showing at Leeds United last Saturday. The performance against Leeds was abject – it was like sending your latest prototype for high-speed testing and finding that the wheels fall off. They simply could not cope under the pressure and their performance, particularly when in possession, was catastrophic. This article will look at some of the on-pitch reasons behind the change and speculate as to how the man once dubbed “The Tinkerman” might fix Watford’s malfunctioning machine.

The Brief

Watford’s tactical plan to date has been to fall quickly back into a deep, narrow defensive shape in an attempt to be hard to beat and play on the counterattack. Munoz did a reasonable job of the defensive shape without the ball. They have not conceded as many goals as some of their direct rivals and their total xG against (11.28) is better than seven other teams in the division, including Arsenal and Spurs. This figure might be more impressive if other areas of Watford’s game were functioning properly and is a platform that Ranieri has to build on. 

The three areas Watford have struggled in this season are 1) serious dysfunction when in possession (particularly playing out from the back), 2) being vulnerable from set-pieces, and 3) lacking the pressing intensity to turn the ball over in more advanced areas to create more counter-attacking opportunities. Ranieri has great experience in addressing all these issues. 

So, with the appointment of Ranieri, the club’s hierarchy are not necessarily changing the game plan. They are bringing in someone with the precise skills and experience required to fix some of the most obvious problems from the latter part of Munoz’s spell in charge. The brief is to tinker with the existing parts of the Watford machine to get it running more smoothly. This may not necessarily require an overhaul or a complete change in style. 

Potential Indicators That Damaged Parts May Start to Function

Ranieri could not face a tougher start to his tenure in terms of fixture difficulty. Nonetheless, he has not inherited a squad whose morale is on the floor or a team in the relegation zone with a lot of catching up to do, so there is a little breathing space going into this daunting run of games.

Instead of looking at results and points accumulation, eyes will be on how the performances evolve.

First and foremost, it is likely that Watford will up their pressing game. To date, Watford’s Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA) – a stat that indicates how many touches of the ball a team permits the opposition to take before engaging them – has been high. Against Leeds, it was nearly 14. By comparison, Leeds allowed Watford fewer than 7 PPDA. This indicates Watford were taking a passive approach that invites opponents on. Ranieri is known for squeezing the pitch and getting his side to close down the opposition and prevent them from dominating central areas with the ball. Keep an eye on whether this stat considerably lowers as he works his methods in.

Attacking transitions are the second part of performances that must be focused on. Ranieri’s sides are known for quick and long transitions (as in, counterattacking from deep starting positions). This has been sorely lacking in Watford’s displays with the ball. They rarely look like a side who know where their teammates should be and, therefore, attacks have mostly broken down with ineffective passing or been broken up by opponents who press the ball more. Their paltry xG of 0.19 in their last outing against Leeds sums up their current lack of goal threat. Developing cohesive counterattacks that utilise the pace and technical ability of players like Ismaila Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, Joao Pedro, and Cucho Hernandez will be Ranieri’s most important task.

Thirdly, when looking at evolution of performances, there needs to be an abandonment of slow, ponderous build-up play that starts from the back. This was the obvious contradiction in Muñoz’s game plan. It makes no sense for Watford to attempt to pass through teams in the Premier League. The hesitancy on the ball of players such as William Troost-Ekong, among others, has led to unnecessary pressure and big mistakes in critical areas that have already cost Watford goals and points this season. Expect this to stop under Ranieri.

Finally, set-piece defending will need to be highlighted. The Hornets have to tighten up from dead-ball situations from which they have already conceded four costly goals this season. Quite how he will get a grip of that situation is difficult to say given that each goal Watford have conceded from set-plays has been attributable to different things: poor marking, indecisive goalkeeping, a player being unsighted and scoring an own goal, and players not clearing their lines. Thus, Ranieri has a job on his hands to make Watford look more competent at defending set-pieces.

Conclusion

When you analyse a Gino Pozzo managerial change, there are always reasons behind it. The media narrative that Watford chop and change coaches too frequently and lurch from one problem to the next is debatable. Under Gino, Watford has always taken a “horses for courses” approach where he often hires a man who has attributes that the incumbent lacked. Where Vladimir Ivic had created a negative atmosphere in the dressing room, Munoz came in with a smile and an openness to listen to players. Where Slavisa Jokanovic was tactically flexible and very attacking, Quique Sanchez Flores (mark 1) was rigid and knew how to organise a defence. Where Munoz lacks experience, Ranieri brings bags of it. 

There are still some doubts about whether Watford has recruited adequately and, ultimately, whether they have the quality to stay up. That is a fair point. This squad may be found wanting come the end of the season. However, the Watford hierarchy has identified problem areas on the pitch that can clearly be linked to coaching and tactical issues and has acted decisively with a clear game plan in mind. Watford fans should feel confident that there is more to come from this squad than has been seen so far this season – if Ranieri cannot improve performances, then it is likely no one else could.

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