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Spotlight: Watford

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Many expected the Hornets to go down this season. Instead they sport a perfect 4-0 record and sit in third place in the league table. Is this a fluke, or are Watford actually good?

Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure - Watford FC - Premier League
There has been a lot for Watford to be happy about this season. With four wins in four games, they’re off to their best Premier League start ever.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Last year Watford came roaring out of the gate. They lost just one of their first eight games in a streak that included a victory over Arsenal, and October saw them sitting in 4th place. But that red-hot start put manager Marco Silva on Everton’s radar, and by November the Toffees had begun to aggressively recruit him.

Everton’s interest in Silva became a distraction for the manager and his players, and after posting such an impressive record in their first eight games, they went on to lose ten of their next fourteen. Painfully, one of those defeats was to Everton, the very club that was courting their manager. Watford conceded the winning goal in injury time to squander a two-goal lead on their way to a 2-3 loss, and missed a penalty kick at the death that would have salvaged a point.

By the new year, the club had had enough, sacking Silva after a 2-0 loss to Leicester on January 20. He was replaced with Javi Gracia. In a classic example of new-manager bump, Gracia went 3-1-1 in his first five games, including a 4-1 victory over Chelsea on February 5th. But then the rot returned, with Watford taking only 5 points from the final two months of the season. The Hornets finished with the same number of losses as relegated Stoke and West Brom, but thanks to their early-season successes they collected enough points to finish 14th and were spared from the drop.

Gracia was Watford’s fourth manager in the span of three years, as the club frantically hired and fired gaffers in desperate attempts to find a recipe for success. Before Silva was Quique Sanchez Flores, who was sacked after finishing the 2015-16 campaign with 17 losses. And after the 2016-17 season they fired Walter Mazzari after he guided the club to a 17th-place finish with 20 losses.

Consequently, it was no shock when ESPN.com’s Nick Ames wrote this about Watford at the end of last season:

“Watford’s model eschews continuity, and it remains to be seen whether Javi Gracia remains at the helm next season. The squad will doubtless be refreshed once more, but it is hard to discern exactly what its style and personality are. (2018-19) could be a difficult campaign, and Watford are in line to be surprise strugglers towards the bottom.”

Indeed, Ames predicted that Watford would finish in 18th place this season and be relegated to the Championship. And in this summer’s NMA’s Staff Predictions article, I agreed: 18th place. NMA staff writers Darryl, Chris, and Stall also pegged the Hornets for relegation.

But what a difference a summer can make. Despite selling their best player (Richarlison) and failing to use the cash to bring in anyone of similar quality, Watford have raced out to a 4-0 start to the 2018-19 season, with left back José Holebas (1 goal, 4 assists), left wing Roberto Pereyra (3 goals), and striker Troy Deeney (2 goals, 1 assist) leading the charge.

The Hornets share their perfect record with only Liverpool and Chelsea, and sit behind them in the table only on goal difference. In 4th place, trailing Watford by 2 points, are Manchester City — the runaway champions of last year’s campaign.

And while it’s true that Watford’s first three opponents currently sit 14th, 15th, and 19th in the table, their fourth victory came against none other than Tottenham, who, like the Hornets, came into the match with a perfect record. So are Watford just a team who have three easy wins and one lucky one, or are they legitimate contenders for a top-half finish this season? Let’s have a look.

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The Players

Watford ditched 11 players over the summer. Almost none of them were anything but squad players, but there was one major exception: Richarlison.

Richarlison - Watford - Premier League - 2017-18
Richarlison as a Hornet |
Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

The 21 year-old Brazilian was the only Hornet to play every match of the 2017-18 campaign, and he ended the year on 5 goals. Unfortunately, most of his production occurred under Marco Silva, and his performances fell off a cliff during Javi Gracia’s reign, under whom he was often utilized as an impact sub. Nevertheless, the winger was Watford’s most gifted and exciting player, and his sale ostensibly left a gaping talent void in the squad.

But instead of bringing in another star of similar quality, Watford chose to use the proceeds from Richarlison’s £35M sale to reinforce depth all over the pitch. Except for goalkeeper Ben Foster, none of their 6 summer purchases are starters. Indeed, most NMA members probably wouldn’t even recognize their names. So we cannot attribute Watford’s success to the addition of new players — unless Foster is the secret sauce. If anything, the quality of this season’s squad is probably diminished compared to last year’s due to the absence of Richarlison.

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The Manager

Javi Gracia - Watford FC - Premier League
Javi Gracia applauds fans following victory over Crystal Palace |
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

The guy who has Watford off to its best top-flight start in history is the same guy who was at the helm when they took only 5 points from the final 9 games of the last campaign. Just like last year, he still favors a 4-4-2. And except for the goalkeeper, the players Gracia chose to start Watford’s final home game of last season are the exact same players he has chosen to start every one of their games this season. So because there have been no changes of style, formation, or player selection, we cannot put this season’s success down to a change in the manager’s ideas. Maybe he just needed an off-season to have those ideas take root?

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So What Is It Then?

If it’s not new players or a change in managerial philosophy, then what explains Watford’s hot streak? Is it CrossFit training? Probiotics? Elton John?

Watford v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

I think the answer is simply grit. Watford have won even though they usually do not dominate possession (they had only 34% of the ball against Spurs). They have won even though they have few, if any, marquee names in their side (there is no Harry Kane or Eden Hazard in the Hornets’ lineup). They have won even when they needed to come from behind (they were down 0-1 to Spurs after an Abdoulaye Doucouré own-goal). And they have won even when they were the underdogs (SportPesa pegged the odds of Watford beating Tottenham at 9/2).

Do not underestimate the power of team spirit. It was the wind in Leicester’s sails during their improbable 2015-16 Premier League title campaign. Last year it fueled a late run of form for Darren Moore’s West Brom that nearly resulted in a miraculous escape from relegation. And this year it is the propellant behind Watford’s overachievement in the face of everyone’s dour predictions to the contrary.

Will the Hornets, like Leicester, ride their self-belief to a league championship? Let’s be realistic: no way. Indeed, if their own history is any lesson, Watford will cool off mid-season, or perhaps even descend into a slump. But we’re just four games into the campaign, and they’ve already made it Crystal Palace clear that I made a mistake when I picked them to go down this season. They belong in the Premier League, and that’s where they’ll be again next year.

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How do you rate Watford? Are they for real? Or is their run of form just a flash in the pan? Will they stay up or go down? Are you backing any of their players for your fantasy sides? Let us know in the comments below!

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