The managerial instability around Vicarage Road hit the headlines some months ago, with the ridiculous statistic of four head coaches in thirty-seven days making a mockery of Watford’s promising start to the season. Having lost only twice, Watford were on course for the promotion they had only just missed out on in Gianfranco Zola’s first season.
The appointment of ex-Barcelona player and Brighton boss, Oscar Garcia, was met with great optimism but sadly health reasons meant he could not stay on and respected coach Billy McKinlay was brought in. Despite a 2-1 win against high-flyers Brentford and an away draw to Brighton, McKinlay was shockingly sacked eight days later and replaced by the former Chelsea player, Slavisa Jokanovic. With less than half of the games in the Championship to come now, the Slovak’s tenure has had a mixed reception so far. Beppe Sannino had started the season brightly, and the Hornets were only a point off leaders Nottingham Forest prior to his departure, but his strict old-school approach lost him the dressing room.
In contrast, Jokanovic has taken Watford on a rollercoaster ride of inconsistency, from second, dropping to seventh before ending 2014 just about in the play-offs again. An excellent 3-0 win at Hillsborough gave hope, with returning star of Zola’s stellar first season Matej Vydra grabbing a goal. After that, Jokanovic and Vydra’s fortunes seemed to decline and from that point until the start of December, Watford managed only one win, and went on a four match losing streak, scoring only one goal at that time. The excellent 2012/13 season was built on the partnership between Troy Deeney and Vydra. When the latter left for West Brom, questions were asked of Deeney but the now club captain netted 24 times in the Championship, smashing his previous total of 19 as well as Vydra’s 20.
It was Deeney with the goals that dragged Watford out of this malaise with a rousing 5-0 win against Fulham at Craven Cottage, undoubtedly the highlight of the season, not only for the result but also for Deeney’s hat-trick. Since then, Watford have put a good run of games together over the festive period, only a home loss to Wolves denying them an 100% record. Deeney looked sluggish in that game, maybe unsurprising given that he has played every game since the start of November but the form of Vydra is a real concern. No goals since the end of October, and with promising ex-Udinese striker Odion Ighalo and the fan favourite Fernando Forestieri spending too much time on the bench, the fans are beginning to turn against Vydra and many were glad to see him dropped for the 4-2 win against Cardiff, another highlight of the season. It was no coincidence Ighalo scored on his first start in six games.
Indeed, Ighalo was rewarded with a start against Premier League leaders Chelsea and, along with the whole team, did Watford and all of the Football League proud. While Chelsea were poor in the first half, Watford were resilient and at times inspired, the 24 places between the two sides not evident at all. Big name players such as Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Didier Drogba were all on show but could not penetrate the Watford defence in the first half, Jonathan Bond making a fine save to keep out Drogba’s header.
At the other end, Watford were full of tenacity, with Deeney and Ighalo fighting for every ball and the two strikers produced the best chance of the half. Ighalo managed to determinedly fight off John Obi Mikel, Loic Remy and Felipe Luis and fed Deeney, who released the marauding right-back Juan Carlos Paredes, sprinting along the touchline (the width he offers has been a prominent feature of Watford’s play this season). The popular Ecuadorian’s cross couldn’t clear the first man but in the resulting scramble, Deeney had to use all his strength to fend off Mikel and then somehow turn and drill the ball back towards goal. Ighalo couldn’t get a touch and the Chelsea defenders watched on idly as the ball trickled agonisingly past Petr Cech’s far post. Chelsea were much stronger in the second half. Jose Mourinho called on his big guns Diego Costa and Willian, but still Watford defended resolutely, and it took an excellent 25-yard goal from Willian to break the deadlock. After that, understandably Watford’s heads dropped and goals from Remy and young centre-back Kurt Zouma killed the game.
So what next for 2015? There is a slight worry about the loan situation again which turned out to be so disastrous last season when many of the regulars in the 2012/13 season went back to their parent clubs. Players like Sebastien Bassong, Ighalo and new Crystal Palace loanee Adlene Guedioura, who has made a real impact since signing only a month ago, are all on loan contracts and preferably these deals could be made permanent, rather than making new signings in what is one of the biggest squads in the division. The FA Cup has gone now, as has the League Cup at the expense of Doncaster, so the only focus is on promotion. The Golden Boys have one of the biggest and best squads in the league, and Jokanovic will have to use it wisely and not just rely on past stars. It was good to see Vydra and Deeney rested against Cardiff, and hopefully Forestieri can get a run of games in his favoured striker’s position. Sitting fifth and with Jokanovic’s bad spell seemingly behind them, Watford are sure to be serious contenders for the play-offs.