We learn from our duopolous local media that Quique Sanchez Flores is after a new long-term contract. The ‘tactical genius’ is, he says, in it for the long haul. One in the eye of the big clubs circling him.
But my question to you is, does he deserve one?
Although the nationals might occasionally paint them as such, the Pozzos aren’t trigger-happy fools, overeager to pull the rug on coaches as soon as they don’t meet fantastical standards set out for them, but neither do they overplay a bad hand.
Moving on from Slavisa Jokanovic in the summer, the one time the Watford owners have made a managerial move when they haven’t really had to, had an identifiable, if not overly justifiable, reasoning. Though he had won everywhere he had coached, it was thought that Jokanovic didn’t have the pedigree to entice and then integrate the kind of names that would be needed to move the club onto the next level.
Quique was the man for that, and in the first respect he has been reasonably successful. Who knows if we would have seen the likes of Etienne Capoue and Valon Behrami sign up if we hadn’t had the Spanish cap and Europa League winner at the helm. But can it really be said that he has brought these players on?
Capoue started brightly, presumably revelling in the released shackles of two years in captivity in Tottenham, but has fallen off massively since Christmas. Behrami also looked like he would be a key player, but has seen himself being overtaken by Ben Watson in the pecking order and is now a nice player to have when you’re starting four defensive midfielders, as Quique is wont to do. Other ‘big names’ like Jose Jurado – recruited, loved and laboured by the boss – and Jose Holebas started poorly and haven’t really improved.
Whenever Quique is questioned, the fact that we’re comfortably safe in the Premier League after our last two abortive visits is brought up. How can you complain?
But as the months have worn on, this argument has fallen flat. Because we’re not safe. We’re not safe because we’ve got nine points since Christmas, which by the next time we suit up will have been more than three months ago. It was at that time that our way of playing, which had got us a few good wins against the likes of Newcastle, Norwich, Sunderland and Villa, got found out. Since then we have been hopeless, hardly likely to score let alone win. Troy Deeney works to do everything on his own while the mismanaged Odion Ighalo lets him down by his side, as our midfield of defensive players stays ten yards behind the ball at all times.
At no point has it seemed like Quique might have the tactical nous to turn this around, to introduce an element that might catch some opponent on the back foot and reignite our season. But then again, how can you turn around a season if you can’t turn around a game?
We have earned a total of two points from losing positions this season. Two. Once a team has scored first, it’s game over.
And do we ever see a definitive change of shape? Do we see the big man Obbi Oulare come off the bench to try and change the way our attack is formed? Do we see the pace of Ikechi Anya give defenders something else to think about? Do we see the guile of Adlene Guedioura, the only of our attacking midfielders who actively tries to go in the direction of the opposing goal when he has the ball? Very rarely. One such time was as a last-ditch attempt to get something from 2-0 against Stoke this weekend. Within ten minutes of being brought on, Anya had beaten the fullback, put a dangerous ball into the box and we’d scored from our first proper shot on target.
I don’t want to make this about Jokanovic, but he rarely made a substitution that wasn’t geared towards more attack. If we were behind he wanted to get back into the game, if we were drawing he wanted to win, if we were ahead he wanted to put it out of sight. Quique just doesn’t make subs.
But, I hear you interject, we’ve just beaten Arsenal to make it to the FA Cup semi-final, on top of being almost safe from relegation but not really. Stop your whining.
It’s true: we were good against Arsenal. But that has really been the sum of our FA Cup run so far. We’ve stumbled past an uninterested Newcastle, we’ve dodged a not-particularly good Forest and we let a shambles of a Leeds beat themselves.
The last man to make an FA Cup semi, Aidy Boothroyd, doesn’t get that pinned to him when his name is getting dragged through the mud. Never mind that he did it with Moses Ashikodi and Anthony McNamee. Never mind that the season before he’d got us promoted with a squad expected to be relegated from the Championship. Never mind that in his Premier League January he couldn’t turn to a midfielder in his prime who’d played in one of the best international sides of all time to bolster his ranks, but had to make do with Will Hoskins and some low-stakes gambles from the French second tier. All Aidy is remembered for is Nathan Ellington – that £4 million albatross.
But we will let Quique get away with his glorious FA Cup run, continued by Danny Welbeck’s inability to stand upright consistently; a run which has barely seen the involvement of Steven Berghuis (£4.5m) and the aforementioned Oulare (£6m).
Now, I can’t fairly pin transfers on Quique (apart from Jurado), and have no access to the training ground, where everyone says he’s unparalleled, but there seems to have been no effort whatsoever to bring these two on. In fact, when Oulare has been given the opportunity to stretch his legs for two minutes at the end of games he’s looked genuinely dangerous. Not refined, not even good, but the boy’s sheer size has terrified the defences of both Swansea and Leicester. On both occasions things threatened to happen, bucking the trend of the preceding 87 minutes.
It’s this management of the players that aren’t in his eleven-man cabal that worries me, and should worry the Pozzos. Abdi and Anya both looked thoroughly pissed off on the touchline at Swansea, and the latter’s brother (for what it’s worth) has been quite vocal in his criticism of Flores.
Matej Vydra was shoved out on loan to Reading when the boss said he didn’t work hard enough to fit into Quique’s system in pre-season – a system that he then abandoned after a couple of games. He may not have pulled up any trees in the Championship (unlike Player of the Season-elect Fernando Forestieri), but wouldn’t it be nice to have a third striker at the club every now and then, for when Ighalo gets distracted by a mirror?
The management of Ighalo has been a big factor in our fall from grace. While he was always a good player on a great run of form, and so a drop-off was inevitable, the way that he has let the media slobbering get to him has brought the partnership with Troy crashing down, and with it all of our attacking prowess. That shouldn’t have been allowed to happen, and now it’s gone too far the other way. Upon receiving the ball now, Ighalo’s first thought is to play a pass, usually mistimed, always misplaced.
Wasn’t the management of great players what Quique was brought here for? Doesn’t he know the mindset needed to succeed in the top level?
This stream of consciousness is not me saying that Flores deserves the boot. It is me asking whether the Pozzos might be considering it. With Granada and Udinese both going up the spout, Watford need to succeed, and while we have said that 17th place would always be a perfectly good finish for this season, my arse it would.
Bournemouth have had their three best players out for virtually the whole season. Imagine Troy, Gomes and Cathcart being out since September. They were 18th at the beginning of December, with 10 points and no squad. They are going to finish above us. Comfortably.
We are 12 points off the relegation places, and will be saved (hopefully) by the sheer amount of crap teams below us. Will that be enough to save Quique? The team we have beaten this season are Swansea, Newcastle, Stoke (before they were good), West Ham (before they were good), Villa, Norwich, Sunderland and Palace. The bottom six, Liverpool and two teams that hadn’t yet found their feet.
The Arsenal FA Cup victory was the first time that we’d got so much as a draw off one of the top six, barring that West Ham victory.
Read those last two paragraphs again. They don’t strike me as the results of a man who should be counting his contracted chickens.