By Shabab Hossain
Since their return to the Premier League in 2015, Watford have been the exemplar of a team good enough to stave off relegation, yet lacking the quality to truly compete with the top six clubs in the English Premier League.
With Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal all looking at their weakest for some time now, there’s certainly at least one European spot up for grabs. Watford though, have so far not shown the ambition that they are truly interested in that position.
Perhaps becoming too comfortable with the idea that they’re guaranteed a spot in the Premier League, both on and off the pitch, they have now fallen behind the likes of Wolverhampton Wolves, Leicester City, Everton and West Ham in the chase for a European spot.
Leicester added a huge amount of quality in the transfer window, turning Youri Tielemans’ loan move into a permanent one while adding Ayoze Perez from Newcastle to bolster their forward options. Everton snatched the wonderkid Moise Kean from Juventus, Arsenal homegrown talent Alex Iwobi and strengthened midfield with the arrivals of Andre Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin.
The Hornets, on the other hand, have not shown anything close to that kind of determination in the transfer market. Indeed, if it weren’t for the deadline day signing of talented prospect Ismaila Sarr, their most notable arrival would have been Craig Dawson.
Retaining their best player, Abdoulaye Doucoure, was possibly their biggest victory from the pre-season, but it is still not enough if they are serious about their intentions in the league.
It is still early into the season, but Watford’s results nor performances have been encouraging so far.
In the opening match, at home to Brighton Hove & Albion, they were clinically dispatched as they fell 3-0. In the past weekend against Everton, they failed to make the most of their own chances, with Bernard scoring the only goal of the match to leave Watford without a point from their opening two matches.
The loss to Brighton emphasises how small the gap is between mid-table and the lower rungs of the Premier League. With the television money that the clubs now receive in England’s top tier, their squads have never been stronger.
Now is not the time to rest your laurels and be content with a mid-table finish. Every team is improving significantly and standing still is effectively moving backwards.
Although Javi Gracia took Watford to the FA Cup Final in his first season in charge, after a full pre-season this time around, there’s nothing to suggest that there is now a clear style to this team. It relies heavily on the individual invention of Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pererya, but when those two aren’t near their best they look desperately short of creativity.
The Premier League is now home to some very talented managers that have proven credentials. Gone are the days of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis repeatedly getting the same old jobs – though Newcastle’s hiring of Steve Bruce is a solemn indictment of where they are as a club.
Now teams that are facing relegation have talented managers that are imprinting their philosophy in the club. Ralph Hassenhutl has made Southampton fans enjoy spectating their team again, while Graham Potter has turned Brighton into a very attractive and effective side with a short turnaround.
Even the promoted sides have successful systems and structures, like Sheffield United’s ‘overlapping’ centre-backs or Norwich’s intention to create space for their gun striker Teemu Pukki through their attacking full-backs.
What is the philosophy Gracia is trying to implement at Vicarage Road?
Letting Troy Deeney loose and rampaging against defenders in a very literal sense will no longer be enough, and the Hornets are still searching for their maiden goal this season.
The FA Cup finalists have been given a relatively easy opening four fixtures, with West Ham to come this weekend before a trip to Newcastle. However, if they are without a win following Matchday 4, the road only gets bumpier with Arsenal, Manchester City and Wolves to follow.
Which makes the game against the Hammers, who are also still without a win, so much more important. Three points and a strong performance and all these worries will be pushed away for the moment. Another listless display and this season could be a very long one for Watford fans.