Sunday, 28 January 2018

Managing change

Reading the superb Graham Taylor In His Own Words over the Christmas holidays, at the same time as Marco Silva’s team was imploding, got me thinking about Watford managers and how that first golden era is connected to the current one – slightly less golden right now, it’s true, but still holding immense promise.

It’s simple enough, and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but in the current climate, it’s a point worth reiterating. The link is that, for a club the size of Watford to punch above our weight, we need to find a new way of running a football club; one that gives us an edge that other clubs, more hidebound by tradition, can’t or won’t emulate.

Back in the late 70s, Elton John gave Graham Taylor unprecedented power (and, lest we forget, more money to spend than any of his predecessors had enjoyed), such that he was able to make decisions about pretty much every aspect of the club. Elton trusted GT’s vision, and the manager picked up that ball and ran with it, taking the club with him all the way up the league and into Europe. I don’t believe any of the other iconic managers of the era, not even Brian Clough, had such wide-ranging power over their club. Elton took a gamble and GT’s passion, judgement, inventiveness, charisma and will to succeed did the rest.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years and Gino Pozzo has achieved a comparable feat by doing almost precisely the opposite to Elton. Recognising how much football has changed in the 21st century, the Pozzo model works precisely by minimising the power of the manager, who isn’t even called that any more; the fact that Watford now have a head coach isn’t just a question of faddish terminology, it recognises that Javi Gracia isn’t expected, or indeed allowed, to manage the club. He is merely the most senior member of the coaching team, there to decide on tactics, pick the players to execute them and do what he can to ensure they do that on matchdays.

The fact that Watford are now in their third consecutive season in the Premier League, despite the turnover in head coaches, is proof that it works. Make no mistake, the reasons we achieved promotion from the Championship were, in order of importance:
1) The Pozzos’ money and player recruitment
2) The players
3) The head coach

That’s not to say Slav didn’t play a crucial role. After all, he succeeded where Zola and Sannino had failed. But he simply added the last 5% that pushed us over the line, and the fact that Gino was happy enough to proceed into the Premier League without him suggests that his assessment of the head coach’s importance roughly matches mine.

Of course, this system only works if the head coach recognises and accepts this role. It’s still an alien concept to most people in English football and the media, as the coverage of Silva’s departure this past week amply demonstrates, which is why Gino continues to recruit head coaches from Europe. Let’s hope Javi is on board with the Pozzo model in a way that Silva clearly wasn’t, from the moment way back in August when he complained about Nordin Amrabat being loaned out without him being consulted.

The mark of how much has changed between the two most successful eras in Watford’s history is this: while one is indelibly linked with a single manager, the other depends for its continuation on a series of head coaches who will have done their jobs if, in another 40 years’ time, we can’t quite remember their names.

Monday, 1 January 2018

That was the year that was

On the face of it, 2017 was a reasonably successful year for Watford. Last season we retained our Premier League status, which was after all the object of the exercise, and the start of 2018 sees us sitting in 10th place. Another good year for the Pozzo project, then.

Well, up to a point. Your view of the club’s progress is inevitably coloured by the matches you attend, and this was a year in which I barely missed a home game, as well as making it to eight away fixtures. In all, I attended 30 Watford matches in 2017 (not counting the pre-season friendly against Real Sociedad), and saw just 10 victories; six in the latter half of last season, four so far in this campaign. And you know what? One win every three games doesn’t really feel like success to me. More like getting by.

There weren’t a lot of memorable moments, either. The two wins against Arsenal stand out, naturally, but I’m struggling to recall anything about the other wins I saw between January and April, apart from Jerome Sinclair’s solo goal against Burton in the FA Cup. Of the victories so far this season, away at Southampton was particularly enjoyable.

It’s not all about winning, of course, and there has been plenty of excitement and drama in games we drew or lost: the two games at Stamford Bridge where we threatened to pull off a shock, but ended up losing 4-3 and 4-2, and the three-all draw against Liverpool, spring to mind.

But there’s also been an awful lot of dross. You don’t need me to remind you how dreadful the football in the latter half of Mazzarri’s season was. More recently, our display against Swansea on Saturday was one of the dullest I’ve witnessed in a long time.

There’s always an excuse, though, and if there’s one word that seems to sum up Watford’s 2017, it’s injuries. There was that period at the start of the year when we lost Pereyra and then Zarate in rapid succession, and our ability to unlock opposing defences went with them. As for this season, our defence seems cursed, while any player who comes into the team and impresses is guaranteed to suffer an injury after a few games: Chalobah, Hughes, Femenia… At any one time, at least half a dozen important players have been unavailable for selection. In the circumstances, perhaps I should be grateful to have seen as many wins as I have.

Conspiracy theorists have linked the ongoing injury crisis to the departure of Head of Medical Richard Collinge at the start of last season, and maybe there’s something in that. What baffles and irritates me is the lack of clear communication about injuries. I appreciate that it’s not always possible to put a precise date on a player’s return to full fitness, but we get told so little, it’s not surprising the fans start to wonder what’s going on. When Nathaniel Chalobah was first injured, it was suggested he’d be out for about six weeks; more than twice that time has elapsed and there’s still no sign of him. Another example: a couple of weeks ago, Marco Silva suggested in a press conference that Will Hughes might be in contention to return against Brighton, yet he wasn’t named in the squad for that or the two subsequent games, with no explanation as to what’s going on.

At some point, it would be nice if someone from the club could give us their take on the ongoing injury crisis. Is it something to do with the way the players train (it was interesting to read in the programme the other day that Darryl Janmaat had barely had an injury in his career before he arrived at Vicarage Road), have we signed a lot of injury-prone players, or it really just down to bad luck?

In the meantime, Watford fans will continue to suffer more poor performances and results and keep reciting the mantra: things will pick up when our injured players are fit again. Except that day seems as far off as ever.