It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Watford. When the Hornets re-appointed Quique Sánchez Flores as Javi Gracia’s successor the hope was he would plug the holes in a leaking ship and steer it through choppy waters.
But six games on things have not progressed at the rate of knots owner Gino Pozzo and chairman Scott Duxbury would have hoped.
After ten Premier League games, the Hornets are winless and have five points. Only one of the last eight sides who failed to record a victory after ten matches survived relegation.
So the odds don’t look good for Watford. And it’s the odds Pozzo and Duxbury were playing when they decided to dispense with the services of the popular Gracia who, four months prior, had delivered the club’s highest Premier League finish and reached the FA Cup final.
The hope was Sánchez Flores’ return would lead to a tightening of the defence, as it had in his first spell between 2015 and 2016.
After all, Watford had woefully underperformed against their expected goals (xG) tally at that stage. If they could start to convert the high-quality chances they were creating and show more durability than wet tissue paper, they’d be OK.
The aberration at Manchester City aside, Watford have done just that. If we expunge that 8-0 drubbing from Sánchez Flores’ record momentarily, the Hornets have conceded at a rate of one goal per game.
However, the problem remains Watford have still only scored three goals in five Premier League fixtures under the Spaniard. In that time, Football Whispers’ xG model says the Hertfordshire outfit should have struck 7.38 goals.
That is a real issue.
As is the fact Watford’s xG per 90 has subsequently fallen from 1.34 while Gracia was at the helm to 1.23 since countryman Sánchez Flores replaced him in the Vicarage Road hot-seat.
When you look at Watford’s xG map under the new coach a pattern emerges. For a start: a high number of their shots have come from outside the penalty area. An average of 4.5 per 90 is the ninth-most in the Premier League since Sánchez Flores took over on September 7.
It’s also worth noting only two efforts have come from inside the six-yard box and not many have come from within the width of that area. These are the optimal places to be shooting from.
Yet if you analyse Watford’s xG map for Gracia’s four games at the helm this season, there is a stark contrast. Very few efforts were taken from outside the 18-yard box and while there were still quite a few from distance, there wasn’t such a high concentration.
The absence of captain Troy Deeney since the third game of the season has not helped matters. While the long-serving No.9 isn’t likely to break the ten-goal-a-season barrier, he brings much more to the side than goals. He is the focal point of the attack, occupying defenders, winning flick-ons and bringing others into play.
Without him, Sánchez Flores has tried to fashion a strike force of Danny Welbeck and Gerard Deulofeu. It’s former Barcelona starlet Deulofeu who has the highest individual xG of any Watford player this season (1.57) but he is yet to open his account.
The Spaniard’s wayward finishing means his post-shot xG, a metric which measures on-target efforts by their location in the goal, stands at 1.01. That’s an underperformance of 0.56 which is the most of any Watford forward this season.
Best chance-getters in the Premier League
From the 2017/18 season
Name xG90 Harry Kane 0.75 Sergio Aguero 0.73 Raheem Sterling 0.7 Mohamed Salah 0.68 Roberto Firmino 0.65
To make matters worse, former Arsenal forward Welbeck is now sidelined for ‘months rather than weeks‘ after damaging his hamstring in the recent draw at Tottenham Hotspur. With such a chequered injury record this was always an inherent risk with the England international but the timing could not be worse given Deeney’s continued absence and Watford’s profligacy in front of goal.
As for club-record signing Ismaïla Sarr, a combination of injury, a lack of pre-season and a necessary adaptation period have limited the £40million man to just 167 minutes of Premier League action.
That has left Roberto Pereyra playing as a makeshift striker alongside Deulofeu. Neither man is an out-an-out centre-forward and the lack of a more physical presence for them to play off is far from ideal. Particularly when Sánchez Flores preaches a more direct style of play than his predecessor.
In six games under the former Atlético Madrid coach, Watford have seen the number of passes they attempt drop from 441.25 to 412.16. Completed passes have fallen from 344.75 to 324.66. The number of long balls they attempt has crept up too, from 54.75 to 57.16.
Speaking following Tuesday’s Carabao Cup defeat at Everton, Sánchez Flores addressed the problem directly.
“I think our limitations come from our positions in the last third, because we have opportunities to finalise plays, not concede counter-attacks, even to try to finish our counter-attacks,” Sánchez Flores told the club’s website.
“I know we have quality in these positions but I can understand because it’s a long time ago since we won, a long time since we scored, so I understand how the players are playing under pressure.”
Over to you, Quique.