Watford‘s decision to appoint Nigel Pearson as their third head coach of the season was not met with universal acclaim.
In fact, some of us wrote about the decision at the time and, while it’s still early in his tenure, the 56-year-old has left plenty eating humble pie rather than mince pies.
Unbeaten over the festive period, the Hornets have gone from having a solitary win, nine goals and almost no hope of avoiding the drop to claiming three wins in quick succession and moving within three points of safety.
The job is far from done. As a seasoned escape artist, Pearson will be at pains to dispel any notion along those lines from the heads of his players. With 17 games to play, including trips to strugglers Bournemouth and Aston Villa in their next three Premier League fixtures, there’s a long way to go.
But Pearson has given the Hornets hope where there was none. And he’s done it by putting principles like hard work, organisation and commitment at the very core of what he’s implemented since succeeding Quique Sánchez Flores in mid-December.
A big factor in that has been the return of captain Troy Deeney. The skipper might not be the force of nature he was a few years ago, but his presence in training and on the field cannot be overstated.
An ever-present at Vicarage Road throughout the decade, the 31-year-old is the embodiment of Pearson on the field. He sets the standards, demanding the very best of himself and from those around him.
“The very first game at Liverpool I’ve seen him stick a rocket up somebody like you wouldn’t believe at half-time,” the 36-year-old said. “We’re doing really well, and he’s absolutely going after people and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, wow — I can’t let my standards slip here.’”
It’s no coincidence that since Pearson took over and Deeney returned to full fitness, the Hornets have been visibly working harder. In his five games in charge, the former Leicester City manager has seen his side reduce the average duration of their opponents’ possession from 13.3 seconds to 11.16. They’re also allowing fewer passes (4.73 down to 4.18) per possession too.
It might sound fairly simplistic, but that change in mentality has been evident in the number of tackles the Hornets are attempting, too. In Sánchez Flores’ final two games, wretched defeats to Burnley and Southampton, that figure stood at 19 and 24. In the seven games since, including two with Hayden Mullins in caretaker charge, Watford have only attempted fewer than 20 once.
But there’s been more to this turnaround than simply working harder and doing the nitty-gritty well. To suggest as much would be doing Pearson a disservice.
Sánchez Flores switched to a back five during his ill-fated second coming. There was no real tactical justification for that, it was simply that he didn’t trust a four-man defence – safety in numbers the prevailing ideology. But Pearson reverted to a back four, implementing a 4-2-3-1 system which, on paper, has always looked the best fit for this squad.
The big change has been releasing Abdoulaye Doucouré to play further forward as a No.10. The Frenchman’s partnership with countryman Étienne Capoue was one of the catalysts in Watford’s run to the FA Cup final and 11th-place finish last term.
By moving Doucouré forward, Pearson has freed a willing and powerful runner to get into the penalty area and, while his shooting boots have been missing for much of this season, Doucouré top-scored for Watford in 2017/18 with seven strikes.
Better still, the switch has killed two birds with one stone. Will Hughes has dropped further back and Hornets fans are finally seeing the best of the former England youth international alongside the languid genius of Capoue.
As we can see in the graphic above, Hughes’ defensive output has shot up. As well as attempting and winning more tackles, the former Derby County prospect is regaining possession more frequently in the attacking third (1.14 vs. 0.53), middle third (2.85 vs. 2.33) and defensive third (2.28 vs. 1.59) since Pearson was appointed.
Another beneficiary of the change of system has been £35million club-record signing Ismaïla Sarr. The Senegalese international would have been forgiven for having some pretty serious reservations about swapping Rennes for Watford earlier in the season but is quickly making up for lost time.
The 21-year-old was held back after taking his country to the final of the African Cup of Nations and did not start a Premier League match until September 28. By the time he’d been handed a second start, Javi Gracia had been replaced by Sánchez Flores who, again, only afforded the pacey winger a solitary start before being sacked.
Utilised on the right of a front three, Sarr has shown exactly why Watford were prepared to shatter their previous record fee (£18million for Andre Gray in 2017, in case you were wondering). On the left, Gerard Deulofeu has been released of the burden of leading the line in Deeney’s absence to focus on wreaking havoc. He’s even begun to track back – a surefire sign of Pearson’s impact.
Despite his lack of minutes (just 861), Sarr is sixth among Premier League attackers for attempted dribbles (5.01 per 90) and eighth for completed take-ons (2.61). There’s an end product too, with two of his three Premier League strikes so far coming in crucial wins over Manchester United and Aston Villa during the festive period.
History says being bottom at Christmas is an omen of impending doom. Only three sides have survived after propping the table up on December 25 and the most recent was Pearson’s Leicester class of 2014/15. On that occasion, the Great Escape started a lot later than this.
Could a Christmas miracle be in the offing?