Guardian writers’ predicted position 15th (NB: this is not necessarily Simon Burnton’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 17th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 1,000-1
Watford’s final pre-season friendly against Real Sociedad at Vicarage Road last Saturday doubled as a celebration of the club’s greatest manager, Graham Taylor. John Motson, a longstanding friend of Taylor’s, gave an address before kick-off. Taylor’s family was there, as were many of the people who played under him in his two spells at Watford. In his programme notes Marco Silva, the new head coach, wrote about a man he never met but in whose shadow he will labour. “I’ve only been here for a short time but it is already very clear to me the wonderful work that Graham did for this club and this town over many years,” he said. “It seems to me that he had a real connection with the fans, and I believe that is one of the most important things a manager can have. A team always needs its fans, especially in the difficult moments.”
The day was revealing in many respects but to those who followed the team last season this seemed a particularly pointed statement. Perhaps the most notable of Walter Mazzarri’s failures was his complete inability to connect with his team’s supporters. His bullish comportment, his refusal to admit to failures, his team’s inconsistent and frequently underwhelming performances, indifferent results and his inability to speak English all contributed to a relationship that was never more than cordial. During the six consecutive defeats with which Watford ended last season it soured further, so that by the time his departure was announced with one game remaining there were few who reacted with anything other than relief.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent the Italian was never suited to the job in the first place. A man such as Mazzarri, with a heavyweight ego and an abrasive personality, requires the time and support needed to assemble a squad bloated with believers and stripped of sceptics. Watford’s model requires a more flexible figurehead, a man who will take whatever he is given and find a way to make it work.
After Watford announced their decision to sack Mazzarri their chairman and CEO, Scott Duxbury, described the role succinctly. “Changing a head coach for us isn’t perhaps as dramatic and doesn’t have the upheaval that at other clubs it would,” he said. “[His job] isn’t about developing the academy, the infrastructure, the football in the community offering. That’s something that others in the football club do. All we want the head coach to do is develop the squad that’s given to him and get the best out of it and try to move the team forward.”
It is obvious what attracted them to Silva, who at Hull last season did precisely that. Hull were bottom of the table when he arrived in January, with 13 points from 20 games won at the rate of 0.65 points per game. By the time Watford departed the KCom Stadium in April having lost 2-0 to a side whose motivation and determination had not dropped despite playing most of the match with 10 men, Silva had won 20 points in 14 outings at 1.43 points per game. If that level of achievement could have been sustained across the entire season Hull would have finished eighth, eight points clear of the team in ninth. This he achieved with a poor squad further weakened in January by the departures of perhaps their two best players, Jake Livermore and Robert Snodgrass, blows mitigated only by the arrival of a few cast-offs from elsewhere, mainly on loan. His appointment was surely informed by what Duxbury and others saw that day, a positive impression that survived a disappointing conclusion to Hull’s season, in which they lost their last three games by an aggregate score of 13-1 and succumbed to a relegation that, by way of a silver lining, allowed Watford to appoint Silva without financial penalty.
It was the first and most important arrival in what has been another busy summer for the club. Their transfer activity has reflected two obvious desires: firstly, to reduce the squad’s average age which, at 28 years and nine months, was lower only that West Bromwich Albion’s last season; and secondly, to add more Englishmen to a side whose local talent was restricted for most of the last campaign to Troy Deeney, the peripheral Adrian Mariappa – a Jamaica international but born and raised in London and a product of Watford’s youth system – and Ben Watson. Though Mazzarri hardly helped the situation, the preponderance of itinerant ageing professionals surely contributed to the disconnect between team and fans.
Tom Cleverley, whose 28th birthday falls on the opening day of the season, answers one problem more than the other but is a full England international, and having won the player of the season award when on loan at Watford as a 20-year-old was eagerly re-embraced by the supporters when he arrived from Everton in January, a temporary move since made permanent. Nathaniel Chalobah, who has joined from Chelsea for £5.5m, is another former loanee, who excelled as a teenager as Watford reached the 2013 play-off final. Though his career has not progressed as meteorically as many expected, he has demonstrated in pre-season that he remains capable of reaching and exceeding those levels. Will Hughes, meanwhile, has shown only glimpses of his best form since suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury two years ago but at 22, and having played 165 Championship matches for Derby, he seems a risk-free acquisition, particularly at an initial cost of only £4.5m.
If the team plays, as expected, in Silva’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation Chalobah and Abdoulaye Doucouré will take the places at the base of midfield, with Cleverley and Hughes competing for the more advanced positions along with Roberto Pereyra, who has returned to fitness after the knee injury he suffered last December, the willing but limited Nordin Amrabat, the injury-prone Nigerian Isaac Success and Richarlison, the £11.5m signing from Fluminense who could be selected as a striker but seems more likely to play on the wing than down the middle. Étienne Capoué, who scored seven goals last season but contributed little else and has apparently had his differences with Silva, could play in any of the midfield positions, or indeed not at all.
The defence will look, at least in terms of personnel, much the same as it did last season, though given Watford conceded 68 times then – better only than Sunderland, Swansea and Hull – and were notably shambolic from set-pieces one hopes they will be better organised. Kiko Femenía, who started 28 games for Alavés as they finished ninth in La Liga, has arrived on a free transfer to compete with the offensively assured but defensively suspect Daryl Janmaat for the right-back berth, and reinforcements are also being sought at left-back – ideally on loan – but the club seems well stocked with competent centre-halves.
Last Saturday’s friendly – like their previous warm-up match, against Aston Villa, a goalless draw – made glaringly obvious their one very significant weakness: a disabling over-reliance on Deeney in attack, a situation worsened by the fact he is unlikely to be fit for the start of the season after a summer groin operation. In Stefano Okaka they have someone who can do a passable imitation of their captain but they lacked a player who offers a tactical alternative. In the first half against Real they played with Jerome Sinclair as a lone striker but the 20-year-old, whose seven league appearances last season lasted on average less than 20 minutes each, was a lightweight and ineffective presence.
On the eve of the season they moved to fix the problem by signing Burnley’s Andre Gray. Like Deeney, Gray was born in the Midlands and has a chequered past – the scar on his left cheek is the result of a stab wound sustained at the age of 18, when he was involved in Wolverhampton’s gang culture – as well as the further disadvantage of having previously played for Watford’s arch-rivals, Luton Town. However he has a fine goalscoring record, brings pace to a previously pedestrian attack and adds tactical flexibility, being able to play either in partnership with Deeney or instead of him.
The additions of Gray and Richarlison have made this the most rounded squad in Watford’s brief Premier League history, with the problems that affected the team and their supporters last season comprehensively addressed. As ever, with a new manager and several new players, the new season will be approached with considerable uncertainty. But perhaps not, on this occasion, with great concern.
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