When Quique Sanchez Flores took over at Watford in the summer, many expected the club’s direction to change. He’s an exotic name, after all, and having managed Atletico Madrid to the UEFA Europa League crown in 2010, Flores came with a stellar reputation. Free-flowing, continental soccer was anticipated at Vicarage Road.
But the former Valencia and Getafe boss has taken this team forward in a way few would have expected. A glimpse at Watford’s league position heading into this weekend’s clash with Liverpool, occupying seventh place, is an emphatic indication that progress has been made by the club in a small space of time. But it’s not been enterprising progress, rather pragmatic.
Indeed, anyone who didn’t follow Flores’ career prior to his move to the Premier League may have naturally expected the manager to place an emphasis on technical traits, possession play and flair. But, if anything, Watford have become quintessentially English under Quique in the manner which they approach their football.
From the opening day, as they dug out a decent 2-2 draw against Everton at Goodison Park, there were signs Watford were a team to keep a close eye on. Since then, they’ve gone from strength to strength.
Most pertinently, Flores has the Hornets tremendously organized. This term, they’ve conceded a meager 16 goals from their 16 games, which is a record only bettered by five teams in the division. For a newly-promoted club, that’s excellent.
Of course, compared to most promoted teams, the Hornets, famously bankrolled by the Pozzo family, have spent much more than most on assembling a squad. But when you consider the seismic shifts in personnel at Watford during the summer, not to mention the 22 nationalities which the group is comprised of, it’s remarkable Flores has been able to attain such a high level of cohesion.
Heurelho Gomes, despite being much maligned, is a goalkeeper willing to come and take pressure off his back four, while Craig Cathcart at center back and Etienne Capoue in midfield provide a solid core for the defensive structure. The introduction of Nathan Ake in recent weeks has also given the Hornets some vital energy.
Flores has been happy to play with two center, forwards as well, which is a big gamble in a division like the Premier League, where securing the edge in midfield is often considering king.
Clearly, Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo have dovetailed superbly. The former is a player who draws opposition defenders with his neat link-up play, power in the air and understated ability to create chances. And it’s allowed the latter to prosper.
Indeed, there’s something wonderful about watching Ighalo, a skillful poacher who has netted an impressive 10 goals in the top flight already. The Nigerian possesses the dynamism to latch onto chances around the box, and when chances do come his way, the 26-year-old possesses a cool head.
As well as each of these strikers have performed, it’s tough to see them operating quite so well without the other in close proximity. Occasionally one has played a little more withdrawn, or one has been stationed in a wider position, but Flores spotted the makings of a partnership, one which has been allowed to flourish with a sturdy defensive shape providing vital insurance.
It’s enough to cause even the finest teams in this division problems, including Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who visit Vicarage Road this weekend looking to cope with a Hornets team that have totted up three successive wins. It’s testament to an excellent job done by Flores, arguably the finest of any manager in the division.
Of course, shock pace-setters Leicester City have been guided superbly by the amicable charm of Claudio Ranieri, who has helped add the gloss to a team which turned a big corner under Nigel Pearson. But Flores walked into a division he’s never managed in before to take over a squad of new players totally unfamiliar with one another.
The early foundations put in place may not be spectacular, but already it looks enough to keep Watford afloat, thus entitling them to the substantial windfall which will come the way of all top flight teams next summer. Perhaps most encouraging, Flores’ willingness to instill fastidiousness and focus into this squad gives the team foundation for further growth.
For a club which triumphed in spite of furious instability in the year preceding their promotion (Flores was the fifth Watford manager in a remarkable 12-month period), some overdue consistency was vital. The Spaniard has brought this crucial concept to the club. Subsequently, the Hornets now seem here to stay.
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