Can troubled clubs learn from Watford’s risk that reaped rewards?

On 6 December 2019, Watford named Nigel Pearson as their new manager. It was a risky move, but it wasn’t less dangerous than the decisions that the club had already made. Pearson was their third manager of the season following the abysmal re-appointment of Qique Sanchez Flores in September. It seemed that sacking Javi Gracia rashly, only a month into this Premier League season, was a mistake.

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On the day that Flores was sacked, the Hornets were rock bottom of the league with a measly eight points after 14 games (W1-D5-L8). The two games Hayden Mullins had as caretaker manager saw them on nine points before Pearson could get a hold of them. They were six points off safety. Not an impossible feat but, as someone said to me when Watford fired Flores, “Teams that change their manager twice in a season don’t stay up.”

And it wasn’t an easy start for the new manager, facing league leaders Liverpool away at Anfield. Despite an improved performance, poor finishing cost Watford and they ended up losing 2-0. At this point the Hornets still had just nine points from 17 games, – each of the nine previous teams to have this amount of points or fewer after 17 matches were eventually relegated.

The new approach paid off

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But Pearson transformed the team tactically. The squad had a lack of clarity over tactics shifting from their former managers ranging. It started with a 4-4-2 before Flores realised their defence was conceding too many shots from having four at the back (especially after they were thrashed 8-0 by Manchester City). It changed to a 5-3-2, which in principle worked, as they picked up several 0-0 results, but it wasn’t enough to get them out of trouble.

Pearson has brought it back to a 4-2-3-1 with Ismalia Sarr now involved, starting every league game under him, and Abdoulaye Doucoure as a number 10. Nathaniel Chalobah and Etienne Capoue protect the back four. These changes have seen their points tally rise from a miserable nine to 22.

These risks have paid off, as have Southampton’s, who along with the Hornets have won 13 points out of a possible 15. They’re now both out of the relegation zone. New approaches tending to tactical wounds like a first aid kit.

Standards have gone stale

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What of the teams that have dropped into relegation at Watford’s and Southampton’s expense?

Bournemouth have been in the bottom half in all but one of their four seasons in the Premier League, but this time they look at risk of going down thanks to an extensive injury list. With two wins in 16, questions are being asked about long-term manager Eddie Howe. To add to that there have been several occasions where they haven’t had a shot on target. Have his methods gone stale?

Then there’s Aston Villa- a team that has had the financial backing- but injuries to Wesley, John McGinn and Tom Heaton have made them look almost destitute. They obviously have the added challenge of being a newly promoted team and are in a far better position than Norwich, but Dean Smith has never been in this position before.

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Lastly, although they’re not in the relegation zone, Burnley have the second longest serving Premier League manager in Sean Dyche (after Howe), and are in a similar state as Bournemouth.

Finishing in the top half of the table just once in their most recent stint in top-flight football, they’re also looking like they could be among the relegation candidates; losing their last four consecutive matches. In their last 14, they’ve won four but lost the other ten.

It won’t be long until one of these teams look for something better, just as Watford have done, even if it was third time lucky.

Follow Jasmine on Twitter @_BabsJ

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