It’s a good job there are not extra points handed out in the Premier League for artistic impression as Watford would have won very few this season, if any. Teams often mirror their manager and for such a stylish man – the most debonair in the league, according to one national newspaper – Watford have played with precious little swagger this season.
But Quique Sanchez Flores knew they wouldn’t. He couldn’t, he figured, be expected to integrate 15 new players, ship a load out, keep the team in the Premier League and ensure it was all done with a sprinkling of panache. All in good time, he decided.
“When I came here we [my coaching staff] had to respect the competition, respect the style, respect the opponent and respect the style of the team from last year,” he said. “If I tried to change everything it would have been an amazing shock. The players know how we can play and they know the style is not complete but it is different. We have managed the period and the moments. Managers want to play with style but we played with the style of the players. We are building a new team and we needed to transform the squad. It requires more training if we are going to transform the style.”
Sanchez Flores assessed his options pretty quickly once he took over and decided it was best to build the team from the back. It’s what he did at Getafe in 2004/05 and it worked a treat.
“If you want to survive, and you are a humble team, you must create a good balance,” he said. “It is not easy to score and we know we need more goals from players in the second line, but if we want to attack well, we need to defend well. We always have good balance in defence and when you do that, you have the respect of the opponent.”
Watford got that from day one, earning it instantly after a 2-2 draw at Goodison Park on the opening day.
“He came in at the start of the season, with all those players, didn’t dive in and got himself three draws,” said Charlie Nicholas, the Soccer Saturday pundit. “He said to himself: ‘Right what have I got?’ He didn’t stumble across this formation, he adjusted it. He brought some physical players in and has a good balance. He never flaps, he never panics, he has been a delight. I have enjoyed Watford this season. They are not the most flamboyant team, but they have a real cool customer in control there.”
There is a theory that Sanchez Flores did not set out to build the side around Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. Ighalo, if you remember, started on the bench at Everton, with the head coach opting for a 4-2-3-1 with Miguel Layun and Ikechi Anya providing the width. Jose Manuel Jurado played just off the main striker, which is where Sanchez Flores had him down to operate from day one. Steven Berghuis backed up the suggestion that Sanchez Flores intended to play with more width in an interview with a Dutch publication this week. “The idea was 4-2-3-1 with genuine wingers,” he said. “I had confidence that I could show it.”
Berghuis and Victor Ibarbo were earmarked to play out wide but Sanchez Flores decided pretty early on they were not going to cut the mustard, well not yet with Berghuis anyway, and narrowed the focus as well as the formation. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat by asking the more tactically astute Deeney to drop slightly deeper to man-mark Jonjo Shelvey, when Watford were without the ball, at home to Swansea City and, with Ighalo scoring the winner, it turned out to be a winning formula, one you could say he stumbled across and one he has largely stuck with ever since.
“They set up absolutely bang on,” added Nicholas.
That isn’t always the case – Tottenham Hotspur away and Stoke City at home are two examples of where he got it badly wrong – but he’s got it right more often that he’s got it wrong. He’s still to show he can mastermind a come-from-behind win and it’s hard to imagine Arsene Wenger will not have learned lessons from the FA Cup ambush next Saturday, but Sanchez Flores is still on course to pull off what could be Watford’s greatest ever season.