“Remarkably Javi Gracia is only the bookies fourth favourite in the sack race, with Billy Hill and friends clearly forgetting how ruthless Watford’s owners are. If that straightforward looking start to the season fails to translate into points, then the scramble for the next unknown coach from overseas will begin. In each of the past few seasons Watford supporters have defended the high turnaround at the club, but when a team lacks identity and things start to unravel, these matters usually come home to roost. Prediction: 18th”
That’s Liquid Football’s 2018/19 Premier League Preview
Occasionally it’s easy to get things wrong. Think of David Beckham’s cornrows, for example. Or Liverpool spending £35,000,000 on Andy Carrol. Or Pro-Leave commentators insisting any negative impact Brexit would have on Britain’s car manufacturing industry was nothing more than Project Fear. Here at TLF, we like to consider ourselves reasonably knowledgeable when it comes to Premier League football, but when you get one of your predictions as horribly, horribly wrong as our ‘Watford to be relegated’ one, you have to hold your hands up. A cursory glance at the pre-season predictions of some of the leading voices in online football journalism does at least show we shouldn’t be alone in our repentance. BBC Sport correspondent Phil McNulty went one worse than us, and predicted a 19th placed finish for the Hornets. In his “way too early” predictions for this season, posted a day after last year’s Championship play-off final, ESPN reporter Nick Ames had Watford down for 18th, as did the collective minds of The Guardian’s sports writers, Eurosport, Forbes magazine, and Alan Smith in his predictions for Sky Sports. Daniel Storey, Ian Watson and David Tickner all tipped Javi Gracia’s team for relegation on Football365 before a ball had been kicked, while Four Four Two generously had them surviving a relegation scrap and finishing 17th. The 1-0 victory over former boss Marco Silva and Everton took Watford up to 37 points; enough to beat the drop in eight of the last ten seasons. With twelve games left to play. Watford aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.
So how did so many ‘so-called experts’ get it so wrong? The common theme among most of these predictions was the perception of instability at Vicarage Road. At the start of February, Javi Gracia became Watford’s longest-serving manager in the Premier League, taking charge of his 39th game in a goalless draw at Brighton which saw him overtake Walter Mazzarri, Quique Sanchez Flores, Aidy Boothroyd and Graham Taylor, all with 38 (for fans of football that existed before 1992, Taylor remains Watford’s all-time servant across three spells, while Boothroyd spent almost three seasons in the Championship with the club). With the caveat that only a handful of coaches have had the opportunity to lead The Hornets into a second season, it remains a remarkable statistic.
Many doubted that Gracia would even be in the job at this stage of the season. Of all the managerial appointments made since Watford’s return to the top flight in 2015, the Basque coach arrived as the least heralded. Those with little interest or knowledge of Spanish football pointed to his last posting, an underwhelming year in charge of Russian side Rubin Kazan, and immediately wrote him off as a cheap gamble brought in to arrest the dramatic slide suffered under Marco Silva. A 4-1 thumping of Chelsea in his first home game left naysayers with egg on their face, but a run of eight defeats in their final fifteen games, and an away record that had even Arsenal fans chuckling into their bedsheets, meant Gracia headed into the off-season with a P45-shaped target on his back.
There was also the matter of a seemingly ever-changing cast of players turning out at Vicarage Road. In the last two seasons, Watford have been second in the league for players used, with 28 and 30 respectively, and the ephemeral presence of the likes of Marvin Zeegelaar, Molla Wagué, Stefano Okaka and Mauro Zárate only further enforced the idea that Watford fan and Football Manager supremo Miles Jacobson had installed some kind of regen creator at the club’s training ground. In their first three season’s back in the top flight, Watford had welcomed fifty-five new players in either permanently or on loan, and while recruitment was comparatively austere ahead of this campaign, Gracia was still met with nine new faces come the opening day of the season. Keeping a squad of twenty-five senior players happy is a tall order, and as Flores discovered, can spell the end of a manager’s reign.
“What annoys us most is the media backlash we receive when the owners make a decision that is ultimately for the benefit of the club. If you look back not all of the coaches we’ve had have been sacked and whilst we’re used to the high turnover you’ll find that the majority of Watford fans understood the decisions and know that the owners have the club’s best interests at heart.”
Andy Lewers, The Hornets’ Nest
Since their takeover of the club in 2012, the Pozzo family have come in for criticism from almost all quarters of the game for their perceived short-termism. Neutral fans have branded Watford a club that “lacks identity”, while luminaries such as Ian Holloway have joined the queue to disparage the Italians’ approach to managerial recruitment – and he should know a thing or two about failing to last more than a season in the Premier League. Even Watford’s own players have questioned some of the decisions from top brass; Troy Deeney described Flores’ sacking as “a crazy one”, while Ben Watson warned against “chopping and changing managers every season” after Mazzarri was confirmed as Flores’ replacement. One safe haven from criticism for Gino and Giampaolo is in the stands.
When the Pozzo’s purchased the club from Laurence Bassini, Watford had just finished 11th in the Championship; the fourth season in a row in which the Hornets had found themselves marooned in midtable. In 2009 the club had been declared “on the brink of administration”, and the loss-making Watford Leisure PLC continued to limp on for another eighteen months before Bassini completed a takeover for £440,000. Though able to stem the flow of cash out of the club, the Stanmore-based businessman’s tenure was blighted by farcical incompetence. Had the Pozzo’s not stepped in when they did, financial ruin would likely have been on the cards.
That’s not to say all of their decisions have proved popular. The Pozzo’s first meaningful contribution was to sack popular manager Sean Dyche and replace him with countryman Gianfranco Zola. A mediocre spell with West Ham aside, Zola’s managerial experience was limited to working with the Italian national team’s under 16s, but the Pozzo’s judgement looked sound as the former Chelsea star took the Hornets to the play-off final in his first season, eventually losing out to Crystal Palace. The following eighteen months would see the owners experiment with Giuseppe Sannino (resigned after eight months due to dressing room unrest), Óscar García Junyent (resigned after two weeks due to ill health), and Billy McKinlay (replaced after eight days), before settling on Slavisa Jokanovic as the man to take them to the Premier League. The Serbian duly did so, losing out on the title thanks to a final day draw against Sheffield Wednesday, but still earning automatic promotion.
“Having guided Watford to a comfortable mid-table finish the previous season Dyche certainly did not deserve to lose his job, but in hindsight it’s worked out for both parties. With Jokanovic it was sad because he had just guided us to the Premier League. Though, having seen how his Fulham side performed at the beginning of the season I’m glad we avoided that.”
Andy Lewers, The Hornets’ Nest
Jokanovic would not be in the dugout come August however, as a dispute over a contract extension for the former midfield hardman resulted in him walking away from the club. Enter Flores, who enjoyed a decent season at Vicarage Road, steering the Hornets to 13th alongside an FA Cup semi-final. On the surface, an impressive feat for a newly promoted side, but not enough to convince the owners to retain the Spaniard’s services for another season. It was perhaps Flores’ departure, more than any other, that earned the Pozzos a reputation for their revolving door policy, but scratch the surface and you’ll find method in the apparent madness. Whilst Flores had well to consolidate Watford’s Premier League status, he’d also marginalised many of his 27 man squad by remaining faithful to the strike partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. Behind the scenes, Flores was thought to give preferential treatment to certain players, and a quick look at the training statistics suggested that certain expectations weren’t being met. In short, Flores’ laid back attitude did not match the Pozzos vision.
Which is why the appointment of known disciplinarian Walter Mazzarri made a lot of sense. Mazzarri had built his reputation in Italy’s lower leagues before taking on the top job at Sampdoria, Napoli and Inter, winning a Coppa Italia and finishing second in Serie A while at the San Paolo. Unfortunately, Mazzarri’s all-stick-and-no-carrot approach didn’t play well with Watford’s star men and, alongside his inability to quickly learn the language, a 17th place finish fell well below expectations. Marco Silva brought promise of exciting, attractive, and sometimes kamikaze football. He left in disgrace after just eight months, three of which were spent fluttering his eyelashes at Everton. Though Silva certainly brought excitement back to Hertfordshire, the astounding loss of form that followed inquiries from Goodison Park rightly saw him shown the door.
Those critical of the Pozzo philosophy might be advised to check on the progress of those managers who’ve departed Vicarage Road. Silva’s Everton currently sit below Watford in the Premier League; Mazzarri’s Torino are in the top half of Serie A, but entertainment is at a premium – they’re currently averaging 1.16 goals per game; Flores has followed the money and decamped in China after disappointing at Espanyol; McKinlay has only added an eight month spell in charge of Norwegian side Stabaek to his CV. Only Dyche can be considered a misstep by the Italians, though in Burnley his gruffliness appears to have found a perfect fit.
What, then, have the Pozzos seen in Javi Gracia that their former employees failed to offer? Those expecting the former Malaga boss to win this season’s sack race failed to take into account the context of Gracia’s arrival last January. His mission was simple – to stop the rot created by Silva’s Merseyside flirtation – and he just about achieved it with a squad that wasn’t his creation, and using a system designed to grind out results. With a full pre-season in charge, and a chance to develop his own tactical plan with the players at his disposal, Gracia’s talent has shone through. Employing an unusual 4-2-2-2 formation, using Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra as narrow wide midfielders, Watford are more compact, harder to break down, and far deadlier on the counter. Stability has been instilled in the starting lineup, with nine players having started 20+ games in the Premier League this season. Unlike Flores however, Gracia doesn’t appear to have favourites, with only Ben Foster an ever present. Those on the fringes of the first team have been given ample opportunity to impress the boss in the cups, and key players have benefited from being rested. It seems no coincidence that Watford’s best ever start to a season came after a full summer with a familiar face orchestrating training.
“I think also our preparation has been excellent. Whenever players or the Head Coach gets asked about why we’re doing so well there’s always reference to our pre-season. The squad prepared well, they compliment and work for each other and I think we have a Head Coach in the dugout who they respect and are happy to play for.”
Andy Lewers, The Hornets’ Nest
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Gracia this season. The occasional heavy defeat still rears its head, as Bournemouth discovered to their delight in October, while no points from their last six meetings with the top six is a disappointing return, particularly following the victory over Tottenham in September. There is, however, a platform to build on, and just as Watford’s fans have taken to Gracia, so too have the club’s owners. It appears that he, like they, understands the culture of the club, the importance of engaging with supporters, and respects the esteem of being Watford manager, rather than treating the job as a stepping stone.
“You need fans to identify with you, for there to be a synergy, that fans feel like participants. That’s the ultimate aim of a football team. Winning in any way, without a sense of conviction, is not a full happiness. You feel a little empty. Look, we’re professionals and above all we want to compete but that’s where satisfaction, true satisfaction, comes from. There has to be something more.”
When speaking about him, Gracia’s former teammates and players have described him as loyal, evidenced by his walking out of Almeira after guiding them to the Primera Division over a dispute with the board concerning an overhaul of the playing staff. Gracia believed his players had earned the right to represent the club in Spain’s top flight; his bosses disagreed, and he resigned. Given that Silva was sacked for his apparent lack of loyalty to Watford, its clear why Gracia appealed to Gino Pozzo. He’s described as being calm, having a cool head, but with an ability “to turn the screw when necessary”; seemingly the perfect middle ground between Flores and Mazzarri’s philosophies. He has plenty of experience managing at an elite level too, taking Malaga to back-to-back top half finishes in La Liga, and recording a famous victory over Barcelona on the way. Since his departure, Los Boquerones have struggled, and were relegated last season.
“Javi has brought a unity and connection back to the club that had faded under Silva. There’s such a positive atmosphere around the club at the moment and Javi deserves a lot of credit for helping to achieve that. To succeed at Watford it is important you interact with the supporters and engage in the community and he has embraced that with open arms.”
Andy Lewers, The Hornets’ Nest
But while Gracia looks ready to settle in for an extended stay in Herfordshire, don’t expect player recruitment to ease up. Though nine players arrived at Vicarage Road last summer, goalkeeper Ben Foster was the only one signed for the first team. The Pozzos model of ownership is rooted in their extensive scouting team, charged with unearthing gems from all corners of the globe, developing them into elite level players, and selling them on for a profit.
It’s a model that has worked well at Udinese who, having been taken over by Giampaolo Pozzo in 1986, haven’t been relegated in over twenty years. In that time, they’ve become self-sufficient, signing little known players for a pittance, and selling them on for profit. Alexis Sanchez is regarded as the Pozzo’s finest piece of work, joining the Zebrette for £1.5m as a teenager, and departing for Barcelona five years later for £30m, but there are myriad examples of the Italian’s scouting network coming up trumps. Gokhan Inler, Kwadwo Asamoah, Juan Cuadrado, Allan and Luis Muriel have all passed through the doors of the Stadio Friuli and been sold on for big profit, earning the club around £50m worth of profit to reinvest in new talent.
“Watford has always been a selling club, but I think lately we’ve gained a good reputation for young players to develop and further their careers. Players such as Chalobah, Hughes and Quina all joined Watford because they saw it as an ideal stepping stone, a club where they know they will get game time.”
Andy Lewers, The Hornets’ Nest
The Pozzo transfer model has already reaped rewards at Watford. Richarlison arrived a relative unknown at the start of last season, costing the club £11m. Twelve months on, the return on investment was nearly £30m, and there’s plenty more where that came from. Portuguese midfielder Domingos Quina has already established himself in Gracia’s first team, having arrived for just £1m from West Ham, while highly-rated Venezuelan striker Adalberto Penaranda is another that looks likely to rapidly gain value should he meet his potential. Colombian teenager Cucho Hernandez has made a big impression on loan at SD Huesca, and Ben Wilmott has been sent out to Udinese to continue his development. If all goes to plan, this next generation will not only serve Watford well in the Premier League, but also keep them ticking over financially.
If that sounds a little unromantic and soulless, then perhaps modern day football isn’t for you. By instilling their methods at the club, the Pozzos are safeguarding Watford against the kind of mismanagement that they discovered when they first arrived. In the days of superstates and oligarchs running football clubs, responsible owners are hard to come by, and the love and attention being poured into Watford is obvious to those who know the club well. The renovations on Vicarage Road carried out shortly after their takeover, followed by the naming of stands after two club legends in Sir Elton John and Graham Taylor shows an appreciation of the Hornets’ history, while every decision at boardroom level is made to benefit their future.
What the future holds for Watford remains to be seen, but with Gino Pozzo at the helm they’re in safe hands. Gracia has clearly done enough to impress the owner, but if and when his time comes to depart fans will be safe in the knowledge that its the right decision for the club, and this writer certainly won’t be tipping them for relegation again.