On December 21, Watford unveiled Xisco Muñoz as their new head coach. Seen as a gamble by some but the gamble paid off handsomely. Now, a Watford Premier League return has been achieved at the first hurdle. But how will they fare back in the top flight?
Watford Premier League: Top-Flight Aspirations
The Key Man for Watford on Their Premier League Return
The mood at Vicarage Road is one of euphoria and joy. Watford booked their Premier League return after beating Millwall 1-0 thanks to a penalty by Ismaila Sarr, his 13th goal of the season. How fitting he was the player to clinch promotion. The Senegalese winger has been one of the team’s standout performers to propel them back to the Premier League promise land.
At just 23-years-old, he already has experience of playing European football with Rennes. There, he scored four goals in nine games to showcase his talent and ultimately secured his move to England. After another successful season, keeping hold of him will be pivotal to their chances of Premier League survival.
Watford’s Main Protagonists
The evergreen captain Troy Deeney continues to play an important role at the club. His seven goals in 18 appearances gives him another crack at the Premier League. He can also enhance his legend at the club going into his 11th season since signing from Walsall back in 2010.
Fellow striker Joao Pedro also must take the plaudits for Watford’s rise. His nine goals in 39 outings were vital in The Hornets’ successful season. It has been a fantastic season for someone so raw at just 19-years of age. More remarkable is the fact he is playing in his first full season in English football since his move from Brazilian Serie A side Fluminense.
Tom Cleverley, the club’s vice-captain, is a constant performer in the team, contributing to four goals in 33 games. His leadership and experience has guided Watford to an instant return to the top of English football and will play a crucial role upon their return.
Watford should have known that promotion was a real prospect when the club signed midfielder Dan Gosling in the January transfer window. He previously helped Bournemouth to promotion in 2014/15 when the Cherries were crowned champions. His two goals in 11 games contributed to the second promotion of his career.
Watford Premier League: A Collective Effort
Watford not only have to thank their key men but their main ingredient has been the collective effort. The club’s statistics since Xisco Muñoz took the reigns are noteworthy. He has gained 54 points since his arrival, which ranks them first in the Championship. The club have won 17 games in that time, which again puts them in first place. Watford have scored 38 goals, which places them in third place. The team returns to be number one in terms of the fewest goals conceded (13) and keeping clean sheets (14).
What Can Watford Realistically Expect in the Premier League?
Previously, Watford graced the Premier League stage for five straight seasons between 2015 and 2019. During that game, the club finished 13th, 17th, 14th, 11th and finally succumbing to relegation in 2020, finishing in 19th place.
The club must work creatively in the transfer market to bring in further top-level experience, with a defender, midfielder and a striker to alleviate the burden from Deeney and Pedro. However, Watford will be buoyed by the success of Leeds United who made only a handful of signings upon their return. They have gone on to enjoy an excellent season.
Cisco Muñoz is tactically astute, judging by his instant success in gaining promotion. Meanwhile, his tactics and man-management will be crucial to bed in their new signings and overall cultivate a winning ethos to ensure their Premier League stay is not a short one. If he and his team get to grips with the demands of the elite level then they have every chance of survival.
A First Month to Remember at Vicarage Road for the Spaniard
With his beaming smile and characteristic charm, the 40-year-old swung the Vicarage Road doors open with gusto and confidence. He promised in his first interview with Watford’s in-house TV channel that his team would ‘fight like animals’ and show ‘commitment and respect to the shirt.’
And the early signs meant he was fulfilling his word. His debut in the Championship came against leaders Norwich City. A stern test of the new managers’ credentials just five days into his reign. Yet, his Watford side produced an accomplished performance to overcome the league leaders. A solitary goal by Ismaila Sarr was enough to earn a tight 1-0 win, yet it was fully deserved. Three vital points and a clean sheet was just the tonic for the new boss.
Although the Hornets’ next game ended in a narrow defeat to fellow promotion chasers Swansea City, Watford bounced back to win their first game of 2021 – a 2-0 victory over Huddersfield Town courtesy of Tom Cleverley and João Pedro, which ensured back to back home victories.
And two wins would become three home wins on the bounce. Watford edged past Barnsley 1-0, thanks to a first-half penalty by captain and talisman Troy Deeney. Muñoz turned Vicarage Road into a fortress with three consecutive clean sheets for his Hornets side.
Sandwiched in between league matters was a plucky defeat at the hands of Manchester United in the FA Cup. The Red Devils came out on top at Old Trafford by a slender 1-0. However, Watford matched their more illustrious counterparts with 18 shots to United’s 19.
The Keys to Success for Xisco Muñoz
The head coach applied a rigid 4-4-2 formation, but his tactics brought a more attacking style of play than his predecessor. Moreover, his organisation and personality rubbed off on his team with three wins from his four league matches from his first month at the helm. The likes of Tom Cleverley relished a new managerial voice in the dressing room, with two goals coming from the midfielder. The new head coach brought the best out of his most talented players in Joao Pedro and Ismaila Sarr.
It is clear that promotion to the Premier League was the remit and anything less would have been seen as a failure. When Xisco Muñoz arrived at Vicarage Road, Watford sat in fifth place so to finish in second place is an impressive achievement. The play-off places, where Watford originally sat, are notoriously a dog fight. The likes of Reading, Bournemouth and, last season’s beaten play-off finalists, Brentford, were all occupying the remaining spots back in December. Therefore, the head coach will have privately been targeting an automatic berth, which from his initial month in charge, was attainable and turned out to come to fruition.
‘Fun Training Sessions’ the Norm
The new head coach brought positivity, optimism and adopting a ‘one-of-the-lads’ approach. This instantly endeared him to his players and lifted the mood at the club. These characteristics impressed the players with an increased application and determination in the training ground and on match day.
It is something which full-back Kiko Femenía, in particular, confirmed in an interview with the Watford Observer: “We’re really happy with him (Muñoz). The training sessions are really fun and enjoyable. We have lots of possession of the ball. From the previous ones, he is quite different but now we’re really focused and happy to work with him, to implement his ideas in our group.
“He has lifted the mood totally because he’s a really positive and fun person and he’s really close to all of us, which is a great thing.”
Therefore, that buoyancy gave Watford new energy and they managed to keep that momentum going all the way through to gaining a deserving promotion.
The Journey of Xisco: Tbilisi to Watford and the Premier League
Watford’s man of the moment arrived from an unlikely destination. His appointment arrived on the back of his successful spell in Georgia. Firstly, he spent four seasons as a player with Dinamo Tbilisi, where he won two league titles, two domestic cups and a Super Cup. He also finished up the league’s top scorer in two seasons. In the 2012/13 season, he scored 22 goals, which would be the best goalscoring total in his career.
He returned to the club in January 2019 as assistant manager, which yielded a league title after a three-year wait. Xisco Muñoz would depart but return for a third spell, then as manager, in August 2020. He achieved further success by winning as manager of the Georgian League Championship in December 2020. His eight wins from 11 matches were enough to reclaim their crown.
As a player, he was also a part of Rafa Benitez’s Valencia side that secured the La Liga and UEFA Cup double in 2003/04.