F365’s early winner: Watford, an away team transformed

Date published: Saturday 25th November 2017 4:57

This would have been an excellent week for Watford even if they had lost 3-0 at St James’ Park on Saturday. Chairman Scott Duxbury’s refusal to countenance any approach from Everton for manager Marco Silva, no matter how lucrative, should mean the end of this saga. Martin O’Neill is the latest odds-on favourite.

Silva may well leave Watford in the summer, but Duxbury’s strategy is to persuade his manager that he can dream bigger than a creaking Everton. Give Watford their best ever Premier League campaign, and Silva could have his pick of several jobs across Europe. A return to the Champions League is hardly out of the question.

On Saturday, Watford outclassed Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle United. Silva spotted that Deandre Yedlin is more of a sprinter than effective right-back, and time and again the visitors cut open their hosts with pace and incisive passing. There is a freedom to their play that is only possible when every member of the squad is enjoying their football.

The last time Watford managed ten or more wins in a top-flight season was 1986/87, the final season in which Graham Taylor was in charge before leaving for Aston Villa. They have now reached six by the end of November.

Plenty has changed at Watford since the departure of Walter Mazzarri. The players talk of a greater intensity on the training ground and a manager in Silva who is meticulous to the point of obsession about match preparation. It is reminiscent of his compatriot Jose Mourinho shortly after his arrival in England, when thick dossiers for each match raised eyebrows at Stamford Bridge.

Watford’s home form has been inconsistent, but away from home they are transformed. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have more Premier League away wins this season. In 2016/17, Watford took 12 points and scored 15 goals away from home. They have already surpassed the first total and equalled the second.

This is no fluke, either. In 2016/17, Watford averaged 6.8 chances created and had 3.5 shots on target per away game, but this season those averages have increased to 9.86 and 4.2. If that demonstrates the attacking improvement, the defensive changes are even more pronounced. From 15.6 shots faced per away game last season to 9.86 in 2017/18.

The most vital ingredient is confidence. Watford’s average possession away from home has increased by 7% from last season. They are putting together passing moves and allowing midfielders and full-backs to overlap rather than simply clearing the ball long to Troy Deeney. The biggest beneficiary has been Abdoulaye Doucoure, who almost left on a permanent deal to Lorient under Mazzarri. If the team is transformed, so is he.

“We need our time but I’m happy with what we’ve done now,” said Silva last month. “It is clear to me – it is a matter of mentality. You try to do everything well during the week. Football is about mentality and wanting to win.”

That assessment underplays Silva’s role. If this supreme away form really is just a question of “wanting to win”, it is the manager’s responsibility to inject that mentality into the players. Silva sees himself as a facilitator rather than authoritarian.

After a fortnight of concern that their manager would accept a promotion four months after arriving at Vicarage Road, the storm clouds have cleared and the sun is shining again; he is Watford’s Silva lining. For all the doubt over Silva’s acumen upon his arrival in England, in the subsequent ten months he has established himself as one of the bright young things of European coaching.

Daniel Storey

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