Rewind to New Year’s Eve. Watford had just come off the back of an unfortunate and undeserved home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Vicarage Road. It had the hallmarks of what is now known as a typical Watford performance; it had grit, determination, and structure. How quickly things can change in the space of a few weeks. Watford were flying, the fans were bouncing, the players were singing from the same hymn sheet, whilst sitting in ninth place with 29 points.
On Monday night, at a cold and partisan Liberty Stadium in Swansea, Watford were undone and outfought by a Swansea City side fighting for their livelihoods and status in the Premier League. On the surface, this could be deemed a justified defeat. However, as the dust has come to settle on the result, it suggests that something more sinister is at work at the club.
Four defeats in a row—excluding a fortunate FA Cup win over Newcastle United—Watford find themselves in 12th and still with 29 points. This would get most fanbases talking and the Hertfordshire club is no different. Fingers have started to point towards certain players, with many at Jose Manuel Jurado, a recent acquisition from Spartak Moscow, and talk is that the Hornets find themselves in free-fall.
You might argue that this is being melodramatic, deliberately provocative, but following defeat to Southampton and Swansea away, and a poor performance against Newcastle, Watford have struggled to find the form that established them as a top ten team. Thus many believe Jurado is the problem.
Standing at little under five foot ten inches and weighing no more than 80 kilograms, not many would say Jurado has a physical presence on the pitch. Yet with a ten-year career playing first team football at Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Mallorca and Schalke 04 before moving onto Spartak Moscow, the 29-year-old has a footballing status to match some of the best players in the world. It was with much surprise that he chose to move to little old Watford at the start of this campaign but it showed his desire to link up with former manager Quique Sanchez Flores and to join the Pozzo party in Hertfordshire.
Many fans have commented that Jurado struggles with the physicality of English football, that he loses the ball too often, that his instinct is to look back rather than up towards the forwards. These views portray a lack of insight and knowledge about his role in the team. He is a reflection of Flores on the pitch; always looking for weaknesses. In simple terms, he is a thinker.
Jurado may only have two assists to his name this campaign but his movement and vision have been instrumental in guiding this Watford side to their current position in the league. The ball is his brush and the pitch is his canvas. Here is a man capable of painting the most beautiful of pictures and, like the Van Goghs of their time, he is being under-appreciated.
It isn’t just the fans that need to build trust and confidence with Jurado. On Monday night Troy Deeney dropped back into midfield as he attempted to dictate play. This congested the midfield, left Ighalo up-front alone, and only served to give Flores a headache. Deeney, the true revelation of this season due to his seamless adaptation to the Premier League, leadership and commitment to the club, must understand that each player has a role. His is to win the aerial battles, link up with Ighalo, and lead the line; all of which he has been doing up and until January. There is little doubt Flores has made him aware of this fact following the trip to Swansea, but it did serve to reaffirm the need for recruitment as Watford failed to counteract the aggressive style of their opponents.
Flores successfully implemented a regimented pressing game with Deeney and Ighalo at the helm in the first half of the season but, as the fixtures come back around, the club and Flores will need more than a few tricks up the sleeve in order to retain a mid-table position come the end of the season. Such new tricks seem destined to include the new signings of goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon from Sunderland and forward Nordin Amrabat from Malaga, who are more than capable of adapting to whatever system Flores chooses to implement.
In recent weeks it is evident that Watford have been missing Nathan Ake since his 62nd-minute sending off against Tottenham, and Flores has come to realise more than ever the lack of cover as well as strength in depth within his squad. 15, maybe 16 players are capable of playing within his structure and plans, but this does not include an additional forward.
During the FA Cup tie, Flores chose to experiment with 20-year-old Belgian Obbi Oulare as he sought to find a player capable of injecting impetus from the bench or in place of Deeney or Ighalo if something were to happen. It says a lot that he was taken off at half-time. Therefore it can be expected that the manager will look to bring in another two or three players. A forward if Amrabat is played in midfield, a wing-back to cover for Ake, and a midfielder to interchange with Watson as legs get weary.
Nevertheless, Flores has been found out. Deeney and Ighalo have struggled in recent weeks to make space for themselves, whilst the midfield have been pressed and hurried. Watford are no longer being afforded space and time to pick a pass, and Gomes is becoming ever-more relied upon. Such a necessary change of tactics was and is to be expected, it is the Premier League after all, but what makes a man an icon is not that which made them rise, but that which kept them there.
We will learn far more from Flores and this Watford team over the next month than we have over the previous five. Now is this time we see how far Watford have come under his stewardship. Are they a flash in the pan or a sustainable force in the Premier League? Are they a one-hit wonder or a team capable of playing any genre they see fit?