After ending the 2018/19 season as FA Cup runners-up and in 11th position in the Premier League, Watford supporters could have been forgiven for holding hopes of breaking into the top half of the division.
Instead, following a unique campaign at Vicarage Road in which three managerial changes took place, the Hornets finished second from bottom. Thus, the club suffered relegation to the Championship.
Watford Season Review: An Eventful Year Concluded With Relegation
Tale of the Campaign
Despite the relative success achieved in Javi Gracia’s first full season as Watford boss, the club sacked their manager. This was just four league games into this term, as the Hornets sat at the foot of the table with just one point to their name.
In an attempt to put an end to their poor start, Watford turned to Quique Sanchez Flores.
Flores was seemingly a good fit for the role given he had guided the Hornets to a mid-table finish back in 2016. But, he did not enjoy nearly as much success this time around. His side collected just one victory from ten league matches before he was sacked.
Watford owner Gino Pozzo then appointed experienced manager Nigel Pearson. Pozzo would have hoped the 56-year-old could take the club away from danger in a similar fashion to how he had helped Leicester City survive in 2015.
It looked to be an uphill task, but an excellent run of form over the festive period gave the Hornets a fighting chance. They earned 14 points from a possible 18; after a 0-0 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in mid-January, Pearson’s men sat one point and one place above the drop zone.
However, from that point onwards, Watford struggled for consistency. When the league resumed after a three-month break, they had work to do to avoid relegation. But, they managed only two wins from their final nine games. The club controversially sacked Pearson with two matches left. This left Hayden Mullins in interim charge, but he could not save the club from falling back into the Championship.
Slow Start Was Costly
As Watford’s fans contemplate their team’s relegation, it would be very easy to refer to the last nine games as a way of identifying where it went wrong. In reality, a lot of the damage to their Premier League status was done in the first half of the season.
The Hornets managed to win just one of their first 17 league matches, with the sole victory during that period coming at Carrow Road against Norwich City, who finished the campaign rock bottom.
Gino Pozzo’s decision to sack Javi Gracia after just four games was certainly debatable; his replacement arrived to face a very difficult first few fixtures. The most notable of these was a visit to the Etihad Stadium; Quique Sanchez Flores’ side lost 8-0 to Manchester City. This was a result which killed any hopes of building some momentum under the new boss.
Watford also suffered a particularly damaging 3-1 home defeat to West Ham United prior to Gracia’s sacking. Although, it was not evident at the time that the Hammers would turn out to be a rival for survival.
Vicarage Road a Fortress Under Pearson
From the moment that Nigel Pearson arrived as manager, Watford looked capable of getting the better of any team when playing on home soil.
At his disposal, he had a competent playing squad with lots of top-level experience. When the likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Roberto Pereyra and Troy Deeney were fit and on song, they were difficult to stop. Powerful midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure also provided a different attacking dimension from a deeper position.
Unfortunately, their system was not nearly as effective on the road; they ended the season with the second-worst away record in the division.
Player of the Season – Ismaila Sarr
Watford finished with the third-worst attacking record in the English top-flight for the season having netted just 36 goals in their 38 matches. Without winger Ismaila Sarr, they would have scored even fewer.
The Senegalese international joined for a club-record fee from Ligue 1 outfit Stade Rennais in August 2019. He took a couple of months to settle in properly. But, from the moment Nigel Pearson arrived, Sarr proved himself as a real talent.
His ability to run with the ball at an exceptional pace is a lethal weapon. Meanwhile, he also showed his versatility by featuring in a number of different positions across the Hornets’ frontline. A majestic performance against Liverpool in February deservedly earned Sarr many plaudits.
An overall return of 5 goals and 6 assists for a 22-year-old is impressive. However, whether he will play again for Watford to build on this record remains to be seen.
Game of the Season – 3-0 Triumph Over Liverpool
Before Liverpool visited Hertfordshire on February 29, the possibility of Jurgen Klopp’s side going the full league season unbeaten very much still existed.
Yet, it was at Vicarage Road where Watford ended that prospect; the Hornets produced their best performance of the season to defeat the Reds by a convincing margin.
On the night, the Hornets were in a clinical mood as they capitalised on rare mistakes made by the division’s best defence to seal a 3-0 victory. Ismaila Sarr was in inspired form as he scored two goals and also assisted Troy Deeney for the third of the evening.
While the attacking players took the headlines, Watford were also rock solid defensively; they restricted Liverpool to only one shot on target and seven shots in total.
What to Expect Next Season
According to The Athletic, Watford are set to appoint Vladimir Ivic as their new head coach. The 43-year-old Serb, who was most recently in charge of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, will reportedly sign a two-year contract.
Ivic will certainly have a big transfer window ahead of him, with changes to the first-team squad anticipated. Influential players such as Deeney and Sarr are likely to be too strong for several second-tier sides to handle. Nevertheless, it would not be a surprise to see either attacker leave.
If Ivic can make his mark early at Vicarage Road, the Hornets should be more than capable of launching a promotion push. This summer’s transfer window will be like no other, so if Watford can come through it without losing too many of their key assets, while also bringing in some fresh talent, they should be aiming to bounce back immediately.