Watford require continuity as well as a new manager

Words By Phil Costa Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 25, 2018
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When clubs part ways with a manager, the announcements are usually accepted in one of two ways. Shock – with the he deserved more time, who else is available and look at where they are questions being relayed. Then there’s acceptance – with form tables, disconnected dressing rooms and the net spend figures brought out in an instant. Marco Silva’s sacking was an odd one in the sense that both reactions were valid. Nobody remains entirely blameless, but there were arguments for him keeping his job and Watford making the right decision, all things considered.

From the outside looking in this just looks like a trigger-happy board getting rid of a talented, young manager in some bad form, but it’s clear that all wasn’t well behind the scenes. Silva is an ambitious character who saw Watford as the perfect stepping stone to a job with one of the Premier League’s top teams. But that ambition, the desire to run before he could walk, slowly changed his relationship with the club and those associated with it, to a point where separation was the only option.

When Everton first approached Silva in late October, Watford were fifth, having just beaten Arsenal and already benefiting from his meticulous, detailed coaching and ambitious style of play. It felt as if Gino Pozzo had finally recruited the right personality – as well as the talent – to take his club to the next level. His demeanour, non-committal stance and brazen flirting with the Goodison side however placed an unnecessary strain on his position and the players, which allowed an air of complacency to infiltrate what was previously an intense environment.

Five points in their last 11 games hints to a change in preparation, and it’s no surprise that Watford’s statement referred to Everton’s “unwarranted approach” as the “catalyst” which destabilised their whole season. Yet they still sat in 10th place when the announcement was made, and Silva will point to the fact that there have been injuries to key players. Nathaniel Chalobah started the season well before a fractured a kneecap disrupted any hint of midfield balance. Will Hughes, another summer signing, has struggled for fitness. Poor form in defence also lead to indecision over whether to utilise a back three or a back five and they never settled despite some impressive attacking play.

Looking beyond Silva, his dismissal after just six months in the hot seat was behaviour we’d come to expect from the Hornets’ hierarchy. Following Sean Dyche’s departure shortly after the Pozzo’s came in, eight managers have taken charge, although the figure is put into context to a degree with Beppe Sannino leaving amid tension with players, Oscar Garcia resigning because of ill-health after only 27 days, and Billy McKinlay a short-term appointment before Slavisa Jokanovic’s arrival.

Watford’s policy is to accept managerial shelf-life is increasingly short – as has been proved by Frank de Boer’s departure from Crystal Palace after only four league games, Craig Shakespeare’s sacking at Leicester City after eight and Koeman’s Everton exit after nine – and build foundations accordingly.

Club chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury told BBC Sport in October: “On the stability point, we take a view that the role of a coach, particularly at a mid-table club, is a short one. I think the lifespan is two years. They will either move on to bigger and better things or there will be problems and then you will look to move on and look in a different direction.

“If you take that pragmatic approach, and history suggests it is the right approach, whenever a coach does move on for whatever reason, the club and infrastructure around it remains so you can place in another coach to continue the development. We have shown over the past five years that the model works and we are actually a stable football club.”

An argument – well put forward and perfectly logical – except that Watford haven’t found it stable at all. In the last five years alone, they’ve finished 3rd in the Championship, 13th in the Championship, 2nd in the Championship, 13th in the Premier League and 17th in the Premier League. Granted, gaining promotion to the top flight from the second tier is difficult and teams with a similar profile to them are up and down, but in those five seasons they’ve spent upwards of £200m – £185m of which was spent in three.

Their managerial appointments are often continental which is adventurous, but the Premier League and England itself require significant adaptation periods. Quique Sanchez Flores was afforded a two-year deal on his initial contract, Silva the same, while Javi Gracia – appointed eight hours after Silva’s dismissal – has just 18 months. It’s important to have a modus operandi regarding your recruitment, but there’s a difference between changing the colour of your living room to freshen things up and frantically redecorating every six months.

Player recruitment is handled in a similar fashion, with underwhelming season-long loans preferred to long-term investments and ageing journeymen often coming in on short-term deals. How can you expect a squad to gel with such high levels of turnover? Mauro Zarate, Nordin Amrabat, Sven Kums and Molla Wague to name a few recent examples.

Watford are undoubtedly an attractive proposition for many managers and perhaps the change will refocus this team that are currently drifting, but consistency can be just as effective as spontaneity. The days when coaches constructed dynasties at clubs may be gone but the goal for Pozzo and his team must be to find someone they believe in and build around them, as everything is in place for this club to progress. It’s unlikely they’ll face the prospect of relegation but treading water in mid-table can become just as concerning.

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Marco Silva Watford
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