Yesterday, Watford Football Club announced that Head Coach Quique Sánchez Flores would be leaving the club following the last game of the 2015/6 season against Sunderland. Speculation had been widespread following a disappointing second half to the campaign, and despite a run to the semi-final of the FA Cup, Watford’s form in 2016 has been that of relegation candidates. The fans’ opinions had begun to turn against the former Valencia and Athletico Madrid coach, and a report from local newspaper WD Sport in recent weeks suggested the break clause in Flores’ contract, a clause inserted at the coach’s own request, would be activated in the summer.
As to be expected following such an announcement, there was heavy commentary on both social media and in the press. What was interesting was that most of the reasoned comment from Watford supporters was that it was probably the correct decision, whereas most of the talk against the decision was from those outside the club, whether that be twitter comments hoping for Watford’s relegation for apparently disposing of a successful coach, West Ham’s manager Slaven Bilic describing the decision as “sick”, and various “experts” adding their point of view on the various news channels. So we thought it was only right, that with more than 30 years of watching the club, that we weighed in with our opinion as well.
Let’s start by looking at a few facts. Many talked of Watford “sacking” their coach. Let’s be clear, this was not a case of “you’re fired, there’s the door…”. Even Flores has come out in the press and effectively said it’s the right decision. This was a decision made by consenting adults, there was a difference of opinion on the way forward for the club, and therefore parting of the ways was the only option. Flores now has the whole summer to find new employment, with a shortage of offers not likely to be an issue, and Watford can get a new head coach in place, with former Napoli and Inter coach Walter Mazzarri the likely choice.
Some have been pointing the finger at owner Gino Pozzo and his apparent trigger happy approach to head coaches. The talk of six managers in three seasons is a real favourite, but it overlooks the fact that Pozzo has only actually removed one manager who was under contract and by choice. Zola and Sannino both resigned, as did Óscar García on health grounds, the decision was made not to renew Slaviša Jokanović’s contract despite the Serbian getting the club promoted to the Premier League, and only Billy McKinlay was actually fired, and this having been offered the coaching job he was promoted from a week earlier. A man who knows what he wants and what is good for the club? Yes he is, and he is also a man who has earned the right to make such decisions, getting the club promoted and improving the stadium and training ground. A mad despotic owner in the style of Cellino at Leeds he is not.
But shouldn’t Watford be grateful to have survived their first season back in the Premier League with something to spare and a cup semi-final as an added bonus? Of course, and there is no doubt the owners and the supporters are thankful to Flores’ work, but evidence at the owners’ other clubs, Udinese and Granada suggests that sitting still is not generally part of the plan. Flores made the team an extremely tough unit to break down which helped get enough points on the board early on to never really be worried about relegation, and in January, when the transfer window opened, thoughts were turning towards pushing on in a second season in the Premier League. The Spanish head coach was given a big say in the players brought in, however the two main signings, Mario Suárez and Nordin Amrabat have been sparsely used, and in Suárez’s case, has looked some way off the required pace. Neither player is a youngster, and neither was cheap in terms of fee or wages.
It is perhaps Flores’ use of the squad which is one of the major factors under scrutiny. The club has a group decision making strategy on signings, a group that includes the head coach. Certain players signed last summer have had spells of being completely out in the cold – left back José Holebas, midfielder Valon Behrami, winger Steven Berghuis, and striker Obbi Oularé. Holebas returned to the squad for the away game at Chelsea at Christmas and has impressed when selected, but frequently left out in favour of the on loan Chelsea youngster Nathan Aké. Oularé was brought in for quite a hefty fee, and could probably have expected to have been used as a substitute with other strikers such as Matêj Vydra sent out on loan. His odd performances have been few and far between, and he has looked raw and out of his depth. Berghuis also failed to impress early on but has returned in the run-in looking stronger and gained the award for man of the match in the recent home game with Aston Villa, despite only playing for the last half hour. Nevertheless, he has still to start a league game even with Watford safe from relegation worries.
This is where Flores tactics come into question. He came to the club with a preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation, but that was switched to a mix between this and 4-4-2 to accommodate both captain Troy Deeney and striker Odion Ighalo. It’s the wide areas where question marks have come, with Flores’ use of Jose Manuel Jurado and midfielder Almen Abdi, neither of whom look comfortable in wide positions. It seems to be a case of square pegs in round holes to form a team that is struggling to create chances from wide areas. In other examples, influential central midfielder Etienne Capoue was played wide left, while wide options such as Berghuis or Ikechi Anya have been ignored, or in Anya’s case, used elsewhere. For me, either Flores should use a formation that suits the players – for me some form of a 4-4-2 diamond would be an example – or make use of the wide players he has at his disposal. His stubbornness at sticking with the same formula and out of form players no matter what, is something that has caused frustration amongst the support, and is something not unheard of in his previous coaching roles.
Flores has also shown little to suggest he has the ability to change things, particularly offensively, when plan A is not working. This was evident from early on when in goalless games against Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, strikers such as Vydra and Fernando Forestieri were left on the bench. Like for like substitutions are common, as are like for not like, with players put in unfamiliar positions to suit the formation. His choice of substitutes has also been odd, with three defenders on the bench against Aston Villa, and three full backs in the games following. He appears to be a coach running out of ideas and one unwilling to take risks to try and change things.
The club have talented players set to join in the summer, including the exciting Venezuelan Adalberto Peñaranda and his Granada team-mate, Issac Success, and the thought of them being left on the bench due to their inability to defend properly is an understandable cause for concern. Not one academy product has been included in a first team game this season, and while one could argue that there is a lack of players pushing forward their case for inclusion, one example of someone who may have been given a spot on the bench would be the under 21’s top scorer Alex Jakubiak, particularly with the club safe from relegation for several weeks.
Flores is a talented and well respected coach, both at Vicarage Road and in the game, and in addition, a charming and charismatic individual. However, for those that have been watching Watford this season, it is clear the team are in decline, and something needed to change. The dreadful performance in the cup semi-final against an equally out of form Crystal Palace was a low point for many, yet for the coach it was satisfactory. He has gained a great deal of affection from those at the club and this will remain, but the decision needed to be made now rather than a panicked call in the midst of a Premier League relegation struggle next season, which was looking inevitable. I believe that far from making Watford relegation candidates in 2016/7, it has given the club the opportunity to progress.
Before the decision was confirmed, Sunday’s season finale at home to Sunderland was a game that many Watford fans were dreading due to the poor form, particularly after a shambolic showing at relegated Norwich on Wednesday night. Now the supporters, the vast majority of whom have great affection for Quique Sánchez Flores and are grateful for what he has done for the club, are approaching the game in a far more positive frame of mind, looking forward to the future while able to say a fond farewell to a coach who, despite the poor run, has led the club to its sixth best ever league finish. With Watford’s opponents now safe from relegation, and both teams looking forward to another season in the Premier League, it should be a more open game and a positive, celebratory atmosphere.
Adios Quique and gracias.