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Premier League 2016-17 preview No18: Watford

Watford manager Walter Mazzarri

Guardian writers’ predicted position 18th (NB: this is not necessarily Simon Burnton’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position 13th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 1,000-1

Last year, following Watford’s promotion to the Premier League, they brought in a new manager and 15 players. The pre-season favourites for relegation proceeded to finish in 13th, having never been troubled by even the faintest concerns of demotion, but far from being viewed retrospectively as a triumph, hindsight has lent the summer of 2015 the funk of failure.

In addition to the manager, half a dozen of those signings have left the club (three of them, to be fair, were season-long loans, though two of those lasted only until January), with more likely to follow. Whereas Miguel Britos and Sebastian Prödl, central defenders signed on free transfers, proved excellent acquisitions, the midfielders Étienne Capoue and Valon Behrami impressed inconsistently, and Allan Nyom careered gamely if not entirely convincingly up and down the right flank, the remainder either failed or were never given a chance to succeed. The intention had been to replace the great majority of the promotion-winning team but instead Watford relied on their existing players completely. Of the team’s 40 league goals, last summer’s signings contributed three.

Watford graphic

What followed was a season of two halves. After 19 games Watford were eighth and only two points from the top five. They then won four of their last 19 matches, the 17th-best record in the division, and from the start of March onwards they won twice in 11 attempts – beating West Brom 1-0 when Saido Berahino missed two penalties, and 10-man Aston Villa, the only team whose record in this period was worse than theirs, with two goals in the last two minutes. The argument for extensive change, overstated a year ago, seemed significantly more compelling this summer.

And so the team have been transformed once more, with Walter Mazzarri now in charge. In June Gino Pozzo celebrated the fourth anniversary of his takeover, a period that has brought great success but also a bewildering amount of churn. With people passing through the club like so many cuddly toys on a hyperactive Generation Game conveyor belt, supporters have struggled to form significant bonds with any of them, perhaps explaining their apparent lack of interest when the departure of the affable Quique Sánchez Flores was announced with one game of last season to play.

The one constant amid the chaos is Troy Deeney, the captain and heartbeat who has become, in part as a result of the Pozzos’ constant transfermongering but in part down to his own bloody-minded refusal not to excel, a totemic figure. The club’s equally stubborn refusal to entertain Leicester’s attempts to buy him, with a bid of £25m turned down in June and the player instead signing what has become for him an annual improved contract, is proof that his status is acknowledged. Deeney is not the most gifted player, not the fastest or the youngest, but for this club in these circumstances, he is above value. An even more generous bid from Shanghai SIPG for Odion Ighalo, last season’s top scorer, was rejected because the player’s stated preference for the Premier League over the Chinese Super League, no matter how lucrative offers from the latter may be, made the alternative pointless.

Watford graphic 2

The arrival of Mazzarri also prompts a significant tactical switch, with the team likely to start the season using the three-man defence that has served the managerial pit bull well in his career (a short but lucrative hiccup at Internazionale notwithstanding) and from which he derives considerable, almost paternal satisfaction.

“My formation gives me a tactical advantage,” he has said. “It was an idea that came from the need to counter the superiority of my team’s opponents. And I must say the formation is a source of pride. Since I started using it other important coaches have picked up on it – Antonio Conte has won three league titles with my 3-5-2. With my 3-5-2 Van Gaal took Holland to the World Cup semi-finals.”

He also trains his teams in alternative formations and can use several in the space of a single game, switching to 4-3-3 early in the friendly against Lorient. Mazzarri’s reluctance to promote young players into the first-team squad was criticised towards the end of his time at Napoli as well as at Inter, but is far from unusual among recent Watford managers.

To enable the team to play in Mazzarri’s preferred formation the club has been forced to add to their small collection of centre-halves (the Belgium international Christian Kabasele arriving from Genk) and of wing-backs, with Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Brice Dja Djédjé signing from Napoli and Marseille respectively. The complete absence of viable alternatives to Deeney and Ighalo that held the team back in attack at times last season has also been addressed, with Jerome Sinclair coming from Liverpool and the brilliantly named Isaac Success treading the recently well-trodden path from Granada. The 23-year-old midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré, renowned for an athleticism perhaps unsurprising in the cousin of the double World Championship gold-winning French hurdler Ladji Doucouré, signed in January but spent the second half of last season on loan with Success in Andalucía before making his way to Hertfordshire.

There remains a gap in the squad for a playmaker to operate behind the front two, perhaps the most important individual in Mazzarri’s favoured formation, with a variety of recruits rumoured but none yet acquired. The two players previously on the club’s books who might have auditioned for the role, José Manuel Jurado and Almen Abdi, have been sold, to Espanyol and Sheffield Wednesday respectively.

The shock of another remodelled squad, and the adoption of new tactics, could be eased by the fact three players – Britos, Behrami and Zúñiga – worked with Mazzarri at Napoli (though it would be perhaps wise not to pin too much hope on Zúñiga, whose past three seasons have been blighted by injury and tragedy – his father died suddenly in January aged 50 – and involved nine, 10 and eight club appearances respectively). The squad spent the first part of pre-season encamped in a Hertfordshire hotel receiving intensive instruction, a move about which Sinclair said “some of the lads are maybe not so keen” but which may prove worthwhile in the long run, assuming Mazzarri gets one.

It is the short run, though, that is of immediate concern. Friendly performances have been unconvincing, with a 2-0 defeat at QPR – a scoreline that barely reflected the Championship side’s dominance – particularly troubling. Unhelpfully, the season starts with an exceptionally difficult run of fixtures, with the first five league games including visits to Southampton and West Ham as well as home matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. The second group of five games features encounters with all three promoted sides, and games against Bournemouth and Swansea. A considered judgment of Mazzarri’s impact will thus become possible at the end of October.

Watford approach the season with a new manager and a reshaped squad, largely uncertain as to what may follow. It is an unsettling but by now familiar feeling. For all the turmoil Pozzo has earned a great deal of trust over the past four years; that, for now, is all they’ve got to go on.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Simon Burnton, for The Guardian on Thursday 11th August 2016 13.00 Europe/London

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