Stuart Reid throws light on the complete overhaul that Watford underwent at the hands of the Pozzos and how the changes have brought them to the cusp of England’s top division.
In late June 2012, Italian businessman Giampaolo Pozzo spent an estimated £12m to add Watford to his footballing empire, joining Serie A team Udinese and Granada in La Liga. His aim was to take Watford to the Premier League to use the riches that’d follow to benefit all 3 teams. Their first decision was to sack manager Sean Dyche, who had over-achieved to take Watford to an 11th placed finish, despite the sale of key players in Danny Graham and Will Buckley, and bring in fellow Italian Gianfranco Zola, who the newly appointed technical director, Gianluca Nani, described as being “perfect for the project”.
I delved into how the Pozzo family run their football clubs in one of my other articles but they run their clubs as profitable businesses, compared to the way most owners run football clubs, hemorrhaging money every season. They’re very good at it as well, consistently turning over a significant profit for Udinese, mostly through making a huge markup on player sales. They’ve done the same with Granada and also Watford in the short time they’ve owned the clubs, bringing much needed and wanted stability to the teams.
Whilst with Watford they haven’t sold many players for a significant fee, they’ve completely reshaped the squad. Out of the team that ended the 11/12 season before the Pozzos’ takeover, just 3 players remain; talisman Troy Deeney, stalwart Lloyd Doyley and youngster Sean Murray. The rest of the team were sent to the reserves, loaned out or sold. In came a ridiculous number of players from both Udinese and Granada, 11 in total, plus further reinforcements in terms of loans and free transfers from Premier League clubs. The quality of the players was also undoubtedly better (as seen by comparing where most of the players that left Watford are now, most are not getting games at Championship level and are scattered between League 1 and League 2). Not all the players fit in seamlessly; just 5 of the 11 have played a part this season but there was a significant improvement in the team’s play.
Gone was the standard mid-low table Championship formation of 4-4-2, in came a continental 3-5-2 system. The tactics also changed with the previous direct style of play replaced with an easy on the eye possession based system. Watford were the surprise package of the season, finishing the season in 3rd, losing out on automatic promotion on the last day of the season. A memorable play-off semi final ensued, before a disappointing defeat to Crystal Palace saw the Hornets restructure the team once more.
More departures and more arrivals saw Zola leave after a poor start to the season, with Giuseppe Sannino his replacement. Sannino’s typical Italian defensive displays saw the team play a lot more negatively than under Zola, as a result the team scored 11 fewer goals, plummeting to 13th position. Surprisingly the Pozzos kept Sannino and he rewarded them by winning 4 of the first 5 games of the current season before he bizarrely resigned with Watford sitting 2nd in the table, with many saying that he had lost the respect of many of the club’s players due to his “odd” managerial style, including getting the players to swear at him!
The Pozzos hired ex-Barcelona player Oscar Garcia who had impressed them with his time in charge of Brighton during Zola’s season at the helm, which is where Watford’s season takes an odd turn. Garcia resigned after less than a month in charge (with 5 points from a potential 9) after being admitted to hospital with chest pains and deciding not to resume with the role, he’s now declared himself fit to manage again. After Garcia left, Billy McKinlay who had been hired as a coach just 3 days before Garcia resigned was given the job as manager. The Pozzos sacked McKinlay just a week later citing it was “in the long-term interests of the club”, hiring ex-Chelsea player Slavisa Jokanovic as the club’s 4th manager in as many weeks.
Jokanovic was an odd choice for many of the fans. He’d done well wherever he’d managed with his first season as a manager culminating in a league and cup double with Partizan Belgrade. He managed to match the feat in his second season in charge before leaving. Three years passed before he got back into management, with Thai side Muangthong United. He stayed for a season, in which he not only won the title, but had an “invincible” season, going undefeated in the league, winning 25 out of 34 games. Unimpressive spells in Bulgaria and the Spanish Third Division followed before he joined Watford at the beginning of October 2014.
To say Jokanovic has forced a few people to reconsider their initial opinions of him would be an understatement, he’s reshaped the team, getting rid of the disruptive elements of the dressing room and along with Watford’s Director of Football has shored up the team with some inspired loan signings like Adlène Guedioura and Matthew Connolly adding great depth to the squad.
Jokanovic has also shown fantastic tactical nous, switching the team effortlessly between different tactical systems, with him favouring either 3-5-2 or 4-3-1-2 (although he has also utilised 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3). Changing systems so regularly adds an element of unpredictability to the side, which makes it hard for the opposition to try to plan against his tactics. It also allows him to utilise the quality within the team, most of which are current internationals. The strike-force is also incredible, with Deeney and new signing from Granada, Odion Ighalo both on over 20 goals for the season, with youngster Matej Vydra chasing behind with 14. It looks as if Jokanovic and the Pozzos have found the perfect blend of English grit and foreign flair, with the team conceding 15 goals less than under Sannino, whilst also scoring 13 goals more, with 3 games left to play.
There’s also been a number of off the pitch changes which has also helped contribute to Watford’s potential success. Watford are one of the only teams in the Championship to fly back from away games, their head of medical explained the reasoning behind this in an interview:
“It greatly helps the players’ recovery. If we can get back from Wigan on the plane in 40 minutes instead of sitting on the coach and getting back at four o’clock in the morning then that is perfect for the players. It benefits their sleep pattern and means it is easier to get them ready for the next game. Likewise, if we are travelling up the motorway on a Friday afternoon – and we know how problematic that can be sometimes with the traffic – then players could be sitting on the coach for four hours and they may be stiff because they have trained that morning as well. So flying is the best way to travel and it is a bonus that Mr Pozzo is allowing us to travel in that way as well.”
Alongside this they’ve spent an estimated £10 million to completely demolish and rebuild the stand on the east side of the stadium (named the Sir Elton John Stand after their famous ex-chairman), which was an eyesore and had been closed since 2008 as well as constantly being the subject of ridicule from away fans. The squad also shows a togetherness that is rarely seen in football these days, the harrowing attack on Watford fan Nick Cruyws has bought the team very close to the fans, with the entire team tweeting #fornicforpromotion at the same time as well as donating significant amounts of money to the donation fund that was setup for him.
The future is bright for Watford, with the Pozzos currently in the process of applying for Category 2 status for their academy who has produced such Premier League players such as Ashley Young and Marvin Sordell, as well as players-turned-managers Tim Sherwood and John Barnes. The academy looks promising with a couple of youngsters making their first team debuts this season. The partnership with Udinese and Granada will also allow them to stop some of their more promising youngsters getting poached via the EPPP rules, with youngsters Carl Stewart and Panos Armenakas already making the move to Udinese this season. The Pozzos seem intent on making their Premier League dream a reality, and with a scouting network for managers that seems to be as good as their player recruitment, it looks more like a matter of when, rather than if their dream becomes true.
Written by Stuart Reid
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