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Nigel Pearson

Watford, 2019–

If Nigel Pearson, appointed Watford’s manager only until the end of the season, was potentially identified because of his ability to limit the damage their 2019/20 so far represents and then to prepare them to challenge for promotion from the Championship during 2020/21, he has already given them hope of preserving their Premier League status. Pearson oversaw a similarly unlikely escape from relegation while managing Leicester in 2014/15, but that was a squad he had shaped. Javi Gracia was sacked after their first four fixtures of 2019/20 followed their disappointing conclusion to the previous campaign, and after Quique Sánchez Flores returned to succeed him, he had an even more damaging run of only one win in 10.

Their three victories from his first five league fixtures as manager mean that not only are Watford no longer bottom of the table, but that a further victory could even take them out of the relegation zone. Even then they will be far from safe, but they will have perhaps greater momentum than any of their rivals, which could prove crucial given their results prior to his arrival have given them so little margin for error before the season’s end. As with every other manager in England’s leading division, it is Pearson’s methods that are likely determine whether or not they succeed.

Long-term decline
Watford’s 2018/19, under Gracia (team shape, above), was widely considered a success. Their 11th-placed finish was the highest they have recorded in the Premier League, and they also impressively reached the FA Cup final. It should not be overlooked, however, that the latter largely provided a distraction from a poor run of league results which, with them continuing at the start of 2019/20, contributed to Gracia’s sacking.

The two victories they recorded during their final nine league fixtures of 2018/19 came against Fulham and Huddersfield, who had long been on course for relegation; they drew once, with Southampton, and lost the remaining six. From the start of 2019 until Gracia’s departure, in the same competition there had also been only three clean sheets, which included the three defeats and the draw he oversaw at the start of 2019/20.

If there had previously been suggestions that their FA Cup run had proved a distraction, confirmation that a wider problem existed came during those four fixtures, and the fact it took them until their 12th in the league before they recorded their first win – at struggling Norwich. In the previous 11 they had scored six goals and conceded 23. Sánchez Flores’ arrival led to a subtle improvement, particularly in defence, but by the point of his departure they were still on course for relegation.

Sánchez Flores’ return
In his attempts to strengthen what had been so unreliable a defence, the Spaniard reorganised his new team into a 5-3-2 formation (above) when they were without possession, ultimately pursuing a reduction in space behind and between his defenders. If, beyond their 8-0 defeat at Manchester City, that defence improved, the team’s results and performances remained inconsistent, something that was not helped by their struggles to create goalscoring chances.

That his team remained so deep, and behind a front two that most commonly consisted of Andre Gray and Gerard Deulofeu or Roberto Pereyra, meant that when pressure was absorbed they lacked a suitable target during moments of transition. Neither Gray nor Deulofeu convince when attempting to hold the ball up and link with others and, even if all three forwards possessed the pace to threaten, they too often lacked the necessary end product.

Troy Deeney’s absence undermined the Spaniard, but he persisted with an approach that didn’t suit those at his disposal. They remained deep and passive when they were without possession, and were regularly at risk of being broken down. That amid that they offered so little in the final third meant that results were unlikely to improve.

Pearson’s influence
The new manager’s first five league fixtures as Watford manager generated three victories, a draw, and a defeat, which came against league leaders Liverpool. He has organised them into a 4-2-3-1 when they have possession – perhaps similar to that sometimes seen under Gracia – and a 4-4-2 (above) when they are without it.

They are imposing themselves more, and creating more goalscoring chances. Deeney’s return to fitness has also been significant, and led to him operating as their lone striker while providing the outlet Sánchez Flores was deprived of. His aerial presence makes him a suitable target for Ben Foster’s goal-kicks – the flick-ons he provides complement Deulofeu and Ismaïla Sarr – and he also provides an aggressive press (below) and contributes to the defending of set-pieces.

Abdoulaye Doucouré has been given a different role within Pearson’s team, and is also proving influential. Where he had previously impressed as a deep-lying central midfielder, he is instead being used as the central attacking midfielder when they are with possession, and advances to alongside Deeney to press when they are without it. He provides excellent support around the striker, both in front of him to pursue knockdowns, and behind him if he flicks the ball on.

He has long been capable of timing runs into the penalty area before scoring, and has started to create more such opportunities for himself. His new position has also contributed to Will Hughes – and Nathaniel Chalobah, when Hughes is absent – playing alongside Étienne Capoue as one of two deeper central midfielders, giving Watford increased technical quality. The 4-4-2 Watford are using to defend with involves Deeney and Doucouré pressing opposing central defenders as a pair (above), where under Sánchez Flores there had been a more passive approach.

Their collective power immediately pressures opponents; the similarly athletic Sarr presses on one wing and Deulofeu from the other. This increased aggression has been consistent since Pearson’s appointment, and has contributed to an increase in turnovers, and goalscoring chances, in the final third.

Watford are playing with an increased intensity, both with and without possession, and during transitions (above). While they have possession in central areas they are capable of playing under high levels of pressure, and are demonstrating greater creativity. The pace so many of their players possess means that, beyond that, they are also finally posing a consistent threat in behind – one which could yet lead them to a further season of Premier League football.

Nigel Pearson

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