Thursday 5 December, 8.00pm
Watford's 2019/20 season has been one to forget, and it could yet end in relegation, writes Alex Keble...
"They are outside the bottom three on goal difference alone, and in the midst of such volatility it would be naïve to assume the club will re-stabilise after a wobbly period for the current boss Nigel Pearson"
When Javi Gracia signed a four-and-a-half year contract extension in November 2018 Watford fans were hoping the Pozzo family's infamous trigger-happy days were behind them. The 2019/20 season has certainly put that idea to bed.
Watford have gone through four managers - three of them permanent - in a clumsy, chaotic campaign that could yet end in relegation. They are outside the bottom three on goal difference alone, and in the midst of such volatility it would be naïve to assume the club will re-stabilise after a wobbly period for the current boss Nigel Pearson.
Season so far
The first shambolic decision of the season, setting the tone for Watford's 19/20, was sacking Gracia after just four Premier League games. The club were rock bottom with one point, and yet the underlying numbers suggested they had been unlucky. After nearly two years of stability, Gracia deserved more time despite losing to both West Ham and Brighton at home.
His replacement, Quique Sanches Flores, was supposed to bring defensive resilience back to the team, a peculiar expectation given Flores' first Watford side were not particularly strong in this regard. Within a fortnight of his appointment the Hornets lost 8-0 to Manchester City, a result Flores simply couldn't come back from.
He lasted another 10 weeks before getting the boot, with Watford scoring just five goals and winning one of their eight Premier League games. The football was completely aimless, an ageing back four that hadn't been updated in years wedded to an attack that leaned far too heavily on Gerard Deulofeu.
And so when Pearson arrived in December Watford, with one win from 16 games, looked nailed on to go down. Remarkably, he pulled off the 2019/20 season's most impressive 'new manager bounce', winning 16 points from his first seven Premier League fixtures to all-but complete the great escape by mid-January.
He solidified central defence by implementing simple counter-attacking tactics that focused on sitting deep, pumping long balls up to Troy Deeney, and shifting the ball quickly out wide to Deulofeu or the much improved Ismaili Sarr. Pearson also moved Abdoulaye Doucoure into central attacking midfield, revitalising the Frenchman and making him the linchpin of the side.
But that wasn't the end of Watford's helter-skelter journey. Performances and results nosedived again, sucking them back into trouble... only for Pearson's side to beat undefeated Liverpool 3-0 out of absolutely nowhere.
It was a game befitting their bizarre and dizzying campaign of highs and lows.
Let's start with that astonishing destruction of Jurgen Klopp's side. Liverpool were on their way to an invincible season while Watford hadn't won in six. With the score 0-0 at half-time it looked like things would only go one way, but two goals from Sarr and one from Deeney sealed the result of the season.
The 2-0 victory over Manchester United was just as important for Watford, kick-starting the revival under Pearson courtesy of goals from Sarr and Deeney. It set the tempo, and the template, for what was to come: disciplined defending and streamlined attacking moves.
The 8-0 at the Etihad will live long in the memory. It came at a dreadful time, too, shortly after Watford had pummelled Arsenal in Flores's first game, coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. All momentum was lost and the Hornets were unable to recover from the humiliation at the hands of Pep Guardiola's team.
More generally, the performances of all of Watford's centre-backs have been disappointing. Not one of Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart, Craig Dawson, or Adrian Mariappa looks good enough for the Premier League. Will Hughes and Andre Gray have also endured particularly poor seasons.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Watford's only target, should the campaign restart, is to finish above three other clubs. They are currently fifth favourite to go down, priced at [3.1] with Betfair Exchange, which suggests their task is simpler than most.
After all, if you can beat Liverpool, surely you can collect another four wins against the likes of Burnley, Southampton, Norwich, Newcastle, and West Ham. There are a lot of six-pointers in Pearson's remaining games, giving them every chance of achieving their goal.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
The club must do better in the transfer market this summer if they are to avoid another troubled year. The defence badly needs upgrading across the back four, while central midfield has also gone stale and Watford lack a goalscoring striker. The current squad will only stagnate further without serious reinforcements.
In the medium term, their biggest problem is that Pearson was always a fire-fighter appointment. He is unlikely to get time to build for the future given he does not align with the Pozzo family's usual managerial preference. That means another decline, and another new manager bounce, is probable in 2020/21.
Watford are one of the few Premier League mainstays who will be happy to see the back of 2019/20. In the end, Pearson's string of wins in December and January might have done enough to stave off disaster, but it's been an unnerving rollercoaster ride for Hornets fans.
Gracia's harsh dismissal started it all, but the problem goes deeper than the Pozzo family's ruthless streak. Watford desperately need investment after resting on their mid-table laurels for far too long. In the Premier League, stand still and you drown.
Thursday 5 December, 8.00pm