At lot can happen in two weeks - just ask any Watford fan. But with change often comes hope. Hope for better things, for better performances, for better memories. On Sunday afternoon that hope came in the shape of Quique Sanches Flores. And it’s not hyperbole to say, it’s exactly what the Hornets - their fans, the players, the hierarchy - needed.
Javi Gracia will consider himself unfortunate to have been sacked a week ago as he visited northern Spain for a short getaway. He had guided Watford to their first FA Cup Final since 1984 but the humiliation and subsequent over-reliance on those same players - with Ismaila Sarr and Danny Welbeck waiting in the wings - was to ultimately be Gracia’s downfall.
One man’s loss is another man’s gain, or in this case a club’s gain.
On Sunday afternoon Watford welcomed Arsenal to Vicarage Road. As ever with these two sides, it was to be anything other than friendly. In a pulsating affair where both sides will feel somewhat aggrieved to walk away with only a point, Watford will take away so much more.
Watford started the stronger of the two. Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu and Jose Holebas all went close before Arsenal scored against the run of play on 21 minutes as the Hornets went to sleep expecting a whistle that never came. One soon became two as Mesut Ozil, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang exploited a vulnerable Watford defence, lacking confidence and competence.
And yet, Watford kept creating chances. Andre Gray, Will Hughes, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Deulofeu all had chances before Watford eventually and deservedly got on the score-sheet. Cleverley, the midfield talisman in a vibrant and creative Watford performance, finally gave his side the clinical edge that has been missing so much this season. Going into the game, Watford were 7th in chances created but bottom of the league for goals scored and, therefore, chances taken. Cleverley’s low-drive underneath Bernd Leno was to be the catalyst for a Watford onslaught.
Kiko Femenia and Holebas surged forward. Flores brought on Sarr, Roberto Pereyra and Daryl Janmaat as Watford sought an equaliser. Chances came and went. Deulofeu went agonisingly close from 25 yards on more than one occasion, Sarr and Pereyra also missed opportunities, but it was the latter who would be the golden saviour to grab his first goal in 2019 and his 14th in a Watford shirt from the penalty spot, after he was brought down by a lunging David Luiz.
Watford could and should have won. Only Deulofeu and Doucoure will know how they didn’t as the game went end-to-end for the final 9 minutes. But the Hornets, for all their effort and persistence, could not find the winner they so much deserved.
So what can be taken from Watford’s point at home to Arsenal?
Tom Cleverley is Watford’s beating heart
701 days since his last home league goal, 90% pass accuracy, seven shots, five ball recoveries and one goal doesn’t even do Cleverley’s performance justice, but it reveals a lot about how good the Englishman was on Sunday.
Watford’s humble and unheralded work-horse showed the world the other side to his game, or should that read further side to his game as his heat map resembled a rash on Arsenal’s frail anatomy.
He had all the traditional hallmarks of his game, consistency, accuracy, tenacity and effort, but with those zealous traits we have come to expect from a Cleverley masterclass came further vision, confidence and creativity.
Cleverley was finally showing the potential Manchester United saw in him as a school boy, the attributes that saw him proclaimed the heir to Paul Scholes.
Seven years ago, he was learning from Sir Alex Ferguson and playing alongside the likes of Scholes, Robin van Persie, Ryan Giggs, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand. That season Cleverley made only 15 Premier League appearances due to injury, but the prophecy had been foretold. In his first season with the United first team, Cleverley had a passing accuracy of 91.5% and was hitting more passes per game than Scholes in the same team (70 to 63). The stats in the Champions league were even better with 93 passes per game to Scholes 58 and a joint 93% accuracy.
Fast forward to the present day and there will be those who believe, and rightly so, it’s not how you play football but what you do with it and even then Cleverley fairs well against his much-celebrated counterpart. In his 200 Premier League appearances so far, he has 14 goals and 13 assists, with 7,899 passes. His defensive record is just as impressive with 379 tackles at a success rate of 73% to his name and 189 interceptions. Whilst Paul Scholes finished on 107 goals from 499 appearances, including 55 assists and 9,746 passes, Cleverley has already surpassed Scholes’ defensive record with the latter making 369 successful tackles at a 70% success rate.
Cleverley may not be Scholes or even look like him, but to Watford his significance and stature to the side more than resembles the 'Salford Messi'.
Watford have a wealth of riches
As evident last season, Watford possess a wealth of match-winners and playmakers. However, the start to this campaign will have raised a few eyebrows and, with Gracia refusing to start Sarr or Welbeck, the board rightly questioned team management as players appeared flat and unmotivated - see Pereyra’s performance at Newcastle United.
All those worries and concerns were dispelled from the first whistle on Sunday evening as the Hornets swarmed forward and overwhelmed the Arsenal defence.
Flores’ plan was simple but effective: when one goes forward, one must stay back. This simple philosophy gave his creative players the freedom to attack with calculated risks, safe in the knowledge that a colleague will be covering them. This worked well with Etienne Capoue and Doucoure naturally pairing up, Cleverley working with Hughes, Holebas with Femenia. It also meant plenty of service from both flanks for Deulofeu and Andre Gray.
In doing so, Watford’s playmakers could break the shackles of Gracia’s disciplined structure. Capoue duly returned to the form that gave him the most interceptions in Europe last season. Doucoure showed the world why he is worth so much more than the £40 million Everton bid for him, with marauding runs from deep. Deulofeu showed the touch, drive and creativity that Barcelona were once so in awe of. Pereyra even looked like he cared, which made a nice change to recent performances.
All such players can be unplayable on their day but when working in unison and towards a common goal, there is no better sight in Hertfordshire.
The Flores Effect
53% possession, 31 shots with 10 on target - 23 after half-time, seven corners, three substitutions, one dazzling Deulofeu and a great game of football.
There is so much that can be taken from this game, so many statistics, so many stand-out performances, but what stood out was the stark contrast between this Watford display and the previous four under Gracia.
For all the vitriol and confusion amongst the less-informed observers of Watford, this game will feel like vindication for the club’s hierarchy. Quique is back and so is Watford’s mojo.
On his first return to Vicarage Road since departing in 2016, Flores chose a 4-2-3-1 formation to provide a balance between attack and defence. Deulofeu came into the starting line-up with Capoue playing a familiar holding role alongside Doucoure. Pereyra was exiled to the bench.
The changes provided Cleverley with a more central role going forward, whilst Femenia and Holebas were supported by a 5-man midfield when without the ball. It also meant much needed cover for a centre-back pairing of Christian Kabasele and Craig Dawson.
For the first 20 minutes, Flores’ changes paid dividends. Watford pushed forward and created chance after chance. Cleverley forced Leno into a full-stretch dive from 20 yards, Deulofeu worked the Arsenal ‘keeper from inside the box and Holebas blazed over from a good position. As the Gunners scored against the run of play and grabbed a beautifully worked second on the half-hour mark, Watford fans could be forgiven for thinking the worst. Capitulation and humiliation were to be expected as Flores backtracked to a 4-4-2 formation to stem the tide. Only, Arsenal kept coming forward. Maitland-Niles suddenly had space to roam and Sead Kolasinac pushed ahead of Dani Ceballos to press the Watford defence.
Flores would have been relieved to hear the half-time whistle as he reverted to what had worked so well in the first twenty minutes. He had been the first to blink but, in doing so, had afforded himself the virtues of hindsight. Unai Emery, however, didn’t see the changes coming and remained dogmatic in his philosophy and structure.
Watford came out of the traps as fast as they had in the first minute and thus began the unravelling of Arsenal and Emery. Aubamayang was starved of service as Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Ceballos were camped inside their own half, overrun by overlapping Watford wing-backs and a Cleverley both everywhere and anywhere. This gave Deulofeu the freedom of Vicarage Road and thus began the chaos.
Watford were well worth the 53rd minute gift from the Arsenal defence, but their second was all their own work, as should have been the third, fourth or even fifth goals on offer to the Watford strike force, in a dominant display of attacking football that left fans and pundits equally flabbergasted.
The Hornets exposed a new side to themselves, a new bravery and strength of character reminiscent of the F.A Cup Semi-Final comeback, but this time it came in the form of Quique Sanches Flores.
After such an energetic and creative performance, it would only be fair to leave the final words to the man who orchestrated it all, Flores, as he spoke to the media after the game: "I’m happy to be back, I feel like i’m in the right place again."
This writer couldn’t agree more.