LONDON – If Watford beats champion Chelsea on Saturday and other results go in its favor, the Hornets, who were promoted in May, could be in fourth place in the Premier League. For the record, they are words I never thought I would write.
Leicester City, which battled to avoid the drop last season, went into the Christmas period top of the Premier League (see previous paragraph — ditto) and for two such clubs to be in Champions League positions at the halfway mark defies every bit of football logic there is. It just does not happen, but it has.
Watford and Leicester were supposed to be battling against relegation, not rubbing shoulders with the big boys. Even Bournemouth, which also came up last season, is looking like it could enjoy a second year among English football’s elite.
Watford started the season with 16 new players, 22 different nationalities in its squad and a fifth manager in a year, Quique Flores, who had no experience of the Premier League.
What could possibly go right?
How about almost everything. After failing to win a match in August, Watford has since won eight. Only leader Leicester and second-place Arsenal have done better (nine).
The Pozzo family, which owns Watford, found the wage demands of Slavisa Jokanovic, who led it to promotion from the Championship, an offer it could refuse and in came Flores who, like Claudio Ranieri at Leicester, has been a breath of fresh air in a league too often dominated by the usual suspects. Flores is one of the nicest, most helpful, humble and charming people you could wish to meet.
Watford and Leicester, are proving that the so-called out of date 4-4-2 formation still has much to offer when used properly.
The Hornets captain Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo — the latter has scored 28 goals, more than anyone in English senior football during 2015 — lead the attack, but when the opposition has possession one drops back into midfield to do a defensive shift. Their work-rate is phenomenal.
Ighalo played his early career in Norway, joining Udinese in 2008. The Nigerian was loaned to Granada twice, Cesena and then Watford, the move made permanent in 2014.
Ighalo, who sends a significant chunk of his salary to relatives and charities back home in Lagos, was close to signing for Chinese club Hebei China Fortune after it had a £10 million bid accepted by Watford. The striker said he was offered “crazy money” to move, but did not fancy playing in an “uncompetitive league.” He rates this decision as “one of the best I have ever made.”
The Hornets have been both proficient and miserly when it comes to goals. Deeney and Ighalo have scored 17 of Watford’s 21 league goals, while only Manchester United has kept more clean sheets than Watford’s eight.
Born-again goalkeeper Huerelio Gomes was a borderline figure of fun during his six years at Tottenham and while he is still prone to the odd blooper, the Brazilian has become a cult hero at Vicarage Road.
“He is a good leader in the dressing room and on the pitch,” said Flores. “When he made a mistake against Leicester I just said to him ‘I love you more now than I did yesterday.’ “
Nathan Ake signed a five-year contract with Chelsea in August and was immediately loaned to Watford for the season. The fullback is another who is thriving with regular first-team football having played only five games for Chelsea in three years.
There was little to suggest when Craig Cathcart signed from Blackpool three years ago he would become a central defender of such influence, but under the Spaniard he is showing a solidarity and consistency few believed he possessed.
Etienne Capoue, who joined Watford for £6.3 million from Tottenham in July, has been a revelation as a defensive midfielder. The France international failed to establish himself with Spurs, but given the chance to play regularly Capoue is already a key player at Watford.
Flores — real name Enrique “but only my mother can call me that” — has football in his DNA. The son of Isidro Sanchez Garcia-Figueras, a former Real Madrid defender, he is the godson of the late, great Alfredo di Stefano. Having been in charge of La Fabrica, Real Madrid’s youth team, for seven years from 1997, his first senior coaching role was with Madrid-based Getafe before succeeding Ranieri at Valencia.
It was with Atletico Madrid, who he joined in 2009, that Flores won his first major trophy as a coach, beating Fulham in the Europa League final, while losing to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final.
Despite Watford’s high position in the league, the Spaniard’s feet are firmly on the ground. “Our target is to stay in the Premier League,” he said. “It’s very important for Watford that we continue growing. I am focused completely on this target.”
As 40 points is the accepted survival total, Watford needs 12 more from its remaining 21 matches, so the manager should be able to breathe a little easier by February.
In a sport where cynicism too often rears its ugly head, Flores makes you realize football can still be the beautiful game.
“I like the Premier League, the place I work in, the club, the players, I like everything,” he said. “I feel happiness around me. We are working with very positive feelings.”
Putting the word out: Louis van Gaal is set to be replaced as manager of Manchester United by Jose Mourinho, so we have been told all week.
The Independent claimed that United’s hierarchy had been given a private indication of Mourinho’s interest in succeeding van Gaal “should the Dutchman lose his job.”
Taking this at face value, the former Chelsea manager has effectively applied for a job that does not exist. Whatever one’s feelings about van Gaal as manager of United, it must be hoped whoever gave the “private indication” was told to go forth and multiply.
Van Gaal may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is the manager and the club should not entertain first- or second-hand indications that anyone is interested in succeeding the Dutchman . . . until he is sacked or resigns.
When searching for a successor to David Moyes, United believed Mourinho came with too much baggage which is a lot heavier now, and while the Portuguese’s pragmatic style of football can be initially successful, it is not what its fans have been weaned on.
United travels to Stoke on Boxing Day having won just three of its last 13 games in all competitions. There is an acceptance that van Gaal is running out of chances and he knows it, but the Dutchman is entitled to the courtesy of others not putting themselves in the frame if the worst comes to the worst.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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