After their recent 3-0 defeat to Norwich City and the subsequent sacking of Claudio Ranieri, Watford are one of the three favourites for relegation from the Premier League, alongside the Canaries and Burnley, with Newcastle United, despite their tremendous reinvestment, also still in the thick of the bout to avoid the drop.
However, for the Hornets, their circumstance appears to be increasingly dire, now two points from safety and having to learn new tactics under Roy Hodgson. So, what are the keys for Watford if they are to miraculously avoid a second relegation from the top-flight in three seasons?
How Watford Can Maximize Chances of Safety
New Coaching Staff Must Change Tactics and Philosophy
With Hodgson, former Hornets head coach Ray Lewington, and others coming into the Hornets’ camp, a change of methodology and tactics should be underway. Hodgson might be the only manager in the market who has more experience than Ranieri – especially when it comes to relegation battles.
The former England, Liverpool, Fulham, and Inter Milan manager most recently tended the Crystal Palace dugout, keeping them in mid-table of the Premier League and accumulating 162 matches for the south London side.
Ranieri’s high-intensity training will make way for Hodgson’s more methodical, technical, back-to-basics approach. And, with the Hornets frequently being their own worse enemy and making mistakes in Ranieri’s tactics, a simpler system is exactly what they need to minimise errors and maximise frustration for their opposition. The international break also provides a prime opportunity for a brief “preseason.”
The 74-year-old is tactically flexible, though, in recent history, he has preferred to field 4-4-2 lineups (with two deeper-lying central midfielders), making his teams amongst the most organized in the country, regardless of the individual talent within the squad. In a team that has lacked organisation when they have needed it most, Hodgson will give them just that. Xisco Munoz tried to win via wing play. Ranieri used his signature high-pressing, counter-attacking, intense brand of football. Hodgson brings the one thing they have not tried yet: sheer organisation and rigidness.
Integrate New Signings and Returnees as Soon as Possible
Even though Newcastle and Burnley have made, and are on the brink of, more impressive transfer business, and Watford are not making signings of Chris Wood, Kieran Trippier, and Mislav Orsic‘s quality, they still have brought in some talent which can make a notable top-flight difference.
Recent-signing Samuel Kalu provides both attacking depth and starting competition for the wings. He has lots of raw talent, and if given sufficient opportunities, he has what it takes to shine and add yet another dimension to Watford’s high-octane attack, even if Hodgson imposes his rigid system.
Hassane Kamara and Samir arrived as defensive reinforcements during this transfer window. They have both had mixed starts to life at Vicarage Road, but early indications are that Kamara is a clear upgrade on Watford’s other left-back choices, while Samir is well into the starting mix. Reluctance to play them should be no issue, however, as everyone is new to Hodgson, longer-serving players will not get priority.
When Ismaila Sarr returns from injury and the Africa Cup of Nations, Imran Louza returns from AFCON, and Peter Etebo returns from injury, all three must be integrated into the starting line-up as quickly as possible (while, of course, not rushing their returns too much). All three are must-starts for Watford when fit, so reluctance to play them can be detrimental. Louza especially thrives in 4-4-2 formations, as he found tremendous success in the left-centre-midfielder role in that formation with Nantes last campaign.
Watford Must Remain Rigid Regardless of Opposition
Maintaining their Premier League status will be difficult: their backs are well and truly against the wall. Nonetheless, a win in their match against Burnley could see them promptly back above the bottom three. Not all hope is lost.
One of Watford’s Achilles’ heel’s this season has been underperforming against teams around them in the table. Under Ranieri, the Hornets had good spells of matches against strong opposition but dropped all three points. However, the strong performances could not be transferred over into the more “winnable” matches, as the intensity and strengths seemed to falter.
Thus, under Hodgson, the Hornets must have a common system for every match, which includes not compromising their soon-to-be-rigid structure even in matches where they would back themselves to pick up all three points. It is not the time to gamble just yet.