What Is On-Pitch Success For Watford This Season?

Out went Rob Edwards. That was the final straw for most supporters. No matter who came in, even if it was the highly-rated Slaven Bilic, “Pozzo Out” would be on many people’s lips. Trust had once more been broken between the hierarchy and the supporters. Bilic has now lost more league matches than Edwards did in five fewer matches, so it is not as if the new head coach’s first impression has worked wonders or changed anyone’s opinions. 

This would be an absurdly long article if the discussion were focused on the ownership. That was the last article’s responsibility, so it is time to move away from focusing on that for once to reset the on-pitch expectations. Of course, the success of the club is significantly influenced by the hierarchy, but now that Bilic (or whoever the head coach is going to be soon) has his tools for the season, the focus is turned to the players. 

Unfortunately, the on-field issues have not made for impressive reading either. The Hornets sit 15th after 15 matches on 20 points, just 6 points above the relegation zone, and 7 away from the automatic promotion positions. With 19 goals scored and 20 conceded, neither the attack nor defense have been spectacular. In fact, 20 conceded is an astonishingly low, misleading number considering how porous the team has looked in defense. The attack looks prolific in some matches, with, when fit, Joao Pedro looking like one of the best players in the league, Yaser Asprilla showing tremendous promise, Ismaila Sarr’s ever-present threat, Ken Sema in fine form, Vakoun Bayo seeming like a solid signing, and Keinan Davis picking up from where he left off with Nottingham Forest. Samuel Kalu looked decent in his recent cameo against Millwall as well. There are still times, however, when the forward line has been wasteful. The issues, nonetheless, stem from the mostly non-existent midfield and defense.

Edo Kayembe has not proven himself as a consistent midfielder. Oftentimes, especially when building up from the back, he appears to shy away from the passing lanes, encouraging pressure from the opposition. Hamza Choudhury looks like a solid acquisition, with his defensive prowess looking stronger than most in the back-line (which, to be fair, does not say much). Having both Kayembe and Choudhury in a midfield of three, however, is begging for the team to be two separate, incohesive units. Davis too often has to rely on center-backs to play long balls forward to even stand a chance at getting touches, as the service to the front line sparsely comes from the midfield. 

When Imran Louza returned from injury, Watford looked like a cohesive, formidable, creative unit. He dictated the tempo of play. Coming off looking distressed against Millwall, there is a chance he is once more out for a prolonged period. When everyone is available, the midfield should have just enough depth to play at a sufficient level for the second tier. Right now, as has been the case all season, that availability is not a reality, and the midfield is near non-existent as a result. It is too dependent on Louza.

The defense is not hard to analyze. It has to be considered one of the league’s worst defenses. Regardless of the names on the team and their experience, the performances have been awful. Too many goals have been yielded by defenders simply not tracking their man or literally just watching the player shoot from one meter away (with multiple examples of each already provided this season).

The Club had the Championship’s best defensive record two seasons ago, so the hierarchy ignored the deeper statistics (and the eye test) which showed the defense was nowhere near as good as the goals-against column said. Thus, in the Premier League, the back-line conceded more than twice per match, on average, and did not keep their first clean sheet until February. Relegation came, and with the exception of Kourtney Hause, who has been injured for most of the time since his arrival, no defensive reinforcements came in. Mario Gaspar was a tremendous downgrade from Kiko Femenia and an appalling signing when Ethan Laird was thought to be nearing a move to Vicarage Road. Hassane Kamara has been forced to play right-back for most of the season. He simply is not meant to be a right-back and is nowhere comparable to the player he is in his natural position. Dan Gosling, a midfielder, is now playing right-back in order to allow Kamara to play on his preferred side. 

For a club that has spent nearly half-a-billion pounds in the past 10 years, to have to end a league match with a defense of two league debutants who had never played at a higher level, a left-back on the right side, and a center-back who is in the worst form he has been in since joining (in conjunction with the subsequent use of Gosling as a right-back replacement) is atrocious and a signal of neglectful investment. 

Many names in Watford’s attack stand out as players “good enough” for a push at the top 6. Louza in the midfield is notably talented (of course, only relevant when he is available), and Choudhury paired with him may be suited for a promotion charge. Kamara on his preferred side of defense can be Premier League level, though the defense as a whole – and a Louza-less midfield – have been playing at a League One level – with that likely considered generous by some. 

So, with an exciting attack that still sometimes lacks end product, an underwhelming midfield with its key piece missing for the next month, and a near-comical defense, what can Watford consider success? Based on performances alone this season, the only feasible goal would be squeaking out a promotion playoff spot. The automatic promotion spots are already further away than the relegation zone. The automatic promotion spot places are hard to predict, as the middle of the table is usually packed and the final spots are not decided until the final day. 

Even then, with all the variability in the league and the top teams not being overwhelming either, thinking about automatic promotion is still overly optimistic. Watford have not looked like one of the six best teams in the Championship. Not even a top-10 team. 15th in the table fairly reflects how the team has performed. Of course, it is still early in the season. With 31 matches left, anything can happen: there is still enough time for the top of the table to end at the bottom and vice versa. So, as tumultuous of a ride as the start of the season has been, it must not be forgotten that, at least until after the World Cup, time is not too much of the essence. With 25 matches after the World Cup interval, there is a natural break to the season. Points at the start of the season are worth just as much as points at the end, but at least now, there is time to turn the ship’s course for that second half of the season. 

Then again, the conversation about the hierarchy cannot be ignored here, as changing course requires them to take firm action – and different action from their usual philosophies. Trusting that that will happen, unfortunately, is, well, silly. All that can be hoped for is that the coach – whether it be Bilic or whoever – can get a response out of the players for the final run-in to accumulate as many points as possible. And, if at the end of the season, the Hornets finish in the top 6, then the season has been a remarkable success considering how it has started. Top 10, even if underwhelming considering expectations before the first match, would signal improvement from their current calamitous state. Promotion, if that is a miracle allowed to be thought of with this squad, would have to be considered the Club’s biggest accomplishment since Gino Pozzo took ownership. Of course, the goal remains promotion, but the high expectations for “success” must be lessened. 

The following question, regardless of if this article is intended to be about the squad itself, cannot be ignored: Does on-pitch success this season really matter if the same patterns are going to follow the Club because of inept ownership? The answer is for the individual fan to decide. 

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