It is leap year Saturday, February 2020. Watford fans bounced away from Vicarage Road buzzing. Their side had just shocked champions elect Liverpool in front of the TV cameras courtesy of a sparkling Ismalia Sarr.
Nigel Pearson had them looking up not down; few could have predicted just how much the world would change.
Next time the ground was brimming, yes, they were a Premier League side. But that was almost 18 months on. We all know what happened in between, and, in footballing terms, the Hornets spent a gap year in the Championship. A new manager had been installed (naturally, it’s Watford – in fact they went through a couple) but despite securing a phantom promotion, Xisco Munoz was tipped to be the first gaffer out of a gig.
Many questioned whether he would last the summer, such is the Pozzo family’s propensity for trigger pulling. The smiley Spaniard’s future was cast into doubt literally as soon as promotion was secured, the topic broached in the post-match Millwall press conference.
But the Pozzos stuck with Xisco – and deservedly so – who has now negotiated the opening tranche of games with mixed results.
His arrival took everyone by surprise. Most turned to Google. Even that didn’t shed much light; his previous managerial experience amounted to a three-month stint at the helm of Dinamo Tbilisi.
Without his family, stranded in Spain due to Covid, and despite a relatively ropey grasp of English, Xisco flourished. The players warmed to his friendly nature immediately and he guided Watford to promotion at a relative canter.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) September 22, 2021
Last season’s post-Christmas run was largely based on defensive solidarity. Initially, Xisco favoured 4-4-2. But a rare home defeat by QPR, sandwiched by a pair of 0-0 draws on the road, led to showdown talks in the dressing room. The club could not afford to fail.
That, plus an injury to Troy Deeney, saw a switch to a three-man midfield. The result? Bristol City were swatted aside 6-0 and Watford never glanced backward. They were victorious in 14 of their final 18 matches.
By May Vicarage Road had become an impenetrable fortress, 19 home wins secured and only 12 goals conceded. Coupled with the mere 18 they let in one the road, they had the league’s tightest defence. Austrian Daniel Bachmann had come in for Ben Foster in goal (although the latter has recently won his place back).
Despite all that, doubts remained over Xisco’s aptitude. Nice guy they said, but tactically can he cut it?
Well they stunned Villa at home on the opening day, Sarr again impressing. The Senegal star with big money moves to Champions League outfits last summer; whether that was just hopeful beat dropping by an agent who knows. Regardless, he stayed and finished with 13 goals and four assists.
He bagged a brace last week at Norwich City, returning Watford winning ways after three straight defeats: a limp display at Brighton; a decent but ultimately fruitless showing at Tottenham; and a home loss to Wolves. They also got knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Stoke midweek.
What they lacked last year was fire power up top. Joao Pedro, a 19-year-old Brazilian, led the line and returned nine goals. He is not an out-and-out middle man though, and so they brought in Emmanuel Dennis (Club Brugge) and Joshua King.
Right from the off Dennis and Sarr struck up a good understanding. The former’s hold up play is excellent; at one point against Villa, he shrugged the giant Tyrone Mings off the ball. The last few games have seen Dennis play off the left, with King playing through the middle. Expect the same Saturday, albeit with some fluidity. Cucho Hernandez is a livewire off the bench.
Brand new Fan Cams now online!
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) September 19, 2021
Instrumental to Watford’s promotion were a pair of midfield men no longer at the club. Nathaniel Chalobah did the dirty work protecting the defence, while Will Hughes pulled the proverbial strings once Xisco deduced he was not inverted winger.
It seemed Hughes, still only 26, was finally going to fulfil his not insignificant potential. But the duo both refused new contract offers, Hughes despite a significant pay hike being tabled. Bridges were burned and off they trotted, Chalobah to Fulham on loan and Hughes to Crystal Palace permanently. Watford fans were concerned.
But they needn’t have been. In came Peter Etebo (loan) from Stoke City, Juraj Kucka from Parma and Moussa Sissoko from Spurs. Etebo is a Nigerian who brings a bit of bite. He is amongst the league’s leading pressers, although Watford generally have been less inclined swarm as a unit this time around. It’s only natural; one differences from the Championship is how clinical forwards tend to be. There is little room for error.
Veteran Slovenian Kucka has endeared himself to the fans whole hearted displays. No one in the league has successfully disposed more dribblers, while he is not afraid of a pot-shot at goal – albeit so far, rather wayward. That brings us nicely to Moussa. Now he may lack the raw pace that had St James’ gasping as he burned Ashely Cole many moons ago, but he could prove a canny buy.
At Tottenham (his debut, hours after he had signed despite Spurs believing it was too late for him to play – Daniel Levy doubtless had his pound of flesh) the ball fell to him on the edge of the box. Shoot the away end cried. Leaning back, Sissoko’s strike ballooned into the middle-tier. We all know how that will turn out come Saturday. Tom Cleverley is still there too buzzing around, while Ozan Tufan has finally made it to England and is expected to add quality.
At the back Kiko Femenia has just returned from injury. The right-back complimented Sarr perfectly last year; think Enrique / Gutierrez circa 2010. Matt Ritchie will need help at left-wing back, with the diagonal ball from Watford’s left back – currently another ex-Mag, Danny Rose – to be watched out for.
William Troost-Ekong is a giant of a defender but there is always a Mr Bramble style nervousness around him. He likes to play from the back, and should be targeted. Surprisingly, Munoz seems to have lost trust in his partner Francisco Sierralta, which is odd given he excelled having been brought in from the cold last season. Craig Cathcart has been preferred, and again he is a heavy mover.
First and foremost, Watford are seeking to stay up. Newcastle face a difficult, but not impossible task then. Too early to talk of must wins?