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Watford are recovering, but do they really need to sacrifice their identity to stay afloat?

Quique Sanchez Flores

Watford signed off for the international break on a high, with that steadying 2-0 win over Norwich. Christian Kabasele complicated matters with that strange second yellow card towards the end, but Quique Sanchez Flores and his players got over the line and off the bottom of the table.

They return to face a run of fixtures which will likely determine the trajectory of the rest of their season. Home to Burnley on Saturday, away to Southampton the week after, and then, between daunting trips to the King Power and then Anfield, they’ll welcome Crystal Palace to Vicarage Road. A corner hasn’t been turned yet, but collect nine points from that run – or even six or seven – and Watford can start looking up instead of down.

If this storm is weathered, it will likely be because of defensive improvement. That wretched 8-0 defeat to Manchester City aside, Sanchez Flores has implemented a new resiliency of sorts. The clean sheet against Norwich was added to those earned against Bournemouth and Sheffield United and that reflects that they are now a tougher proposition.

Whether they’re defensively better or just much more negative is a different issue. The installation of a back-five has made a difference and seems also to have helped Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue recover their equilibrium and some sort of form in midfield. It’s a trade-off, though. The football is slower and more ponderous and Javi Gracia’s cavalier style is long gone. This will be a grind.

It’s good and bad news. Good, because 2019/20 is now solely about avoiding relegation and not conceding goals. But bad because these emergency measures and the employment of Sanchez Flores in itself feels like a default back to where the club was at the beginning of their Premier League growth cycle

That is how this seems. It’s the footballing equivalent of sending the fire brigade out to rescue a cat from a tree. Watford will likely survive this season, but this isn’t the only means by which that could have happened; the start to the campaign was awful, but it needn’t have prompted a full philosophical reset.

That it has is problematic, too, because Watford’s identity is important. Their business model is predicated on offering an attractive stage for players and, in some cases, an entry point into English football. It’s a simple, practical premise which shouldn’t be nearly as misunderstood as it often is The general aim is to strike a balance between maintaining a baseline of continuity within the side, and catering to the ambition of young players, while also, periodically, capitalising on those assets’ appreciation in value.  

The shame of this season’s regression is that Watford had that reputation. Until as recently as eight months ago, it was one of the best Premier League destinations for any player who wasn’t of interest to the top-six or who was deemed too much of a risk by that cabal. It still might be again – it’s a lovely club in a very appealing part of the country – but from a purely footballing perspective, a backwards stride is being taken.

And that isn’t just because of the results, but what those defeats have bred and what this immediate future is likely to look like.

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The most obvious point, of course, is that the side’s DNA has been reworked.  They play off the back-foot now and are likely to do so for as long as Sanchez Flores is in charge. That will change how they’re viewed by players, particularly those who play in attacking positions. It will change the dynamic with agents, too, who perhaps don’t see this side as quite the shop window it was. 

More troublingly, this burst of déjà vu has occurred at exactly the moment when Watford were thought to be evolving beyond their boom-and-bust cycles. Player turnover was calmer, the managerial rumours weren’t such a staple of club life, and there was stability in knowing that, from a stylistic point of view, one season was starting to look much the same as the next.

It doesn’t mean that the decision to replace Gracia was wrong, the timing was probably fair and right, but the return of Sanchez Flores invites the unhelpful assumption that nothing has really changed and that Watford remain as in thrall to their short, sharp shock culture as ever before.

Measuring the actual effect of something like that is difficult. It may not constitute a major obstacle, but – cumulatively – this rather panicked lunge has subtly set them back.  

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