The importance of psychology in sport is becoming ever more apparent. A wealth of research indicates that the mental constraints at the summit of any professional athletic discipline are cosmic, but that the ability to navigate and harness these can often be the key to success.
Watford's display in the 2-2 draw against Arsenal was a fitting example of just how crucial mindset can be in the multi-faceted, complex minefield that any single football match comprises. Players hurled into challenges and won, trusted their ability in possession, and exerted their influence on the game to an extent which they simply hadn't managed in the four games prior.
Arguably, this mental deficit which only seemed to be remedied on that sunny afternoon at Vicarage Road was the cause of the disastrous start to the campaign which continues to resign the Hornets to the bottom of the Premier League table. A vicious sequence of events saw Javi Gracia sacked and fellow Spaniard Quique Sánchez Flores reinstated at the helm.
Centre-back Christian Kabasele believes confidence, or its lack thereof, has been the main reason for his side's misfortunes thus far: "When you don't win games, it's always like this. We saw it last season, we were winning some games in a row and we had the feeling that we could beat everyone. This season, we have the feeling that we can lose against everyone."
Sometimes, though, excessive self-assurance can be precisely the downfall of any team, and perhaps the grounding process abruptly thrust upon the club's players, staff and supporters by a slow start to the season is just what's required to turn their fortunes for the better. Football never ceases to prove that complacency can be a silent killer.
"We took two points from the last two games," he said. "It's not enough, but it's a good start."
A welcome change
Aside from having already managed the club, Sánchez Flores has the perfect set of credentials to lead the Hornets out of the rut which resulted in the dismissal of his predecessor. Renowned for being a shrewd defensive operator, the 54-year old eked 31 shots out of his players on the Arsenal goal and the squad were visibly reinvigorated by his return.
In fact, never have two consecutive similar results ever produced such varying reactions than Watford's last two games. The draw at Newcastle United prior to the recent international break felt eerily like a loss — perhaps due to the impending departure of Gracia — but the points shared with Arsenal meant infinitely more. It marked the metaphorical beginning of the campaign in Hertfordshire, something which had been painstakingly delayed.
"It was like a win because we were 2-0 down and we came back against a good team. It gives us confidence. The next game, it will be really tough and we need to work with what we have done against Arsenal, especially in the second half. We have a really good squad and it's up to us to try to not concede too easily."
On the evidence of his tenure so far, Sánchez Flores has brought more than merely a tactical innovation to Watford, even if he shares a degree of stylistic similarity with Gracia. The two are distinctly unalike on both the training ground and the touchline, and Kabasele suspects that this methodological change has benefitted the squad who, nonetheless, warmed considerably to the previous boss.
"Quique is more vocal than Javi," the Belgian admitted. "Javi was a more quiet person that explained things more with calmness and now the new manager is more like fire, I would say. It's good because maybe we needed this change of approach to try to wake up everybody."
Watford now face perhaps the most daunting challenge the Premier League can offer as they travel to the Etihad Stadium to face champions Manchester City. The Citizens ran riot in the FA Cup final back in May, subjecting the Hornets to the joint-most emphatic defeat the showpiece occasion has ever witnessed.
Yet the picture is currently far less idyllic in Manchester — City's loss to newly-promoted Norwich City last time out gave title rivals Liverpool an early five-point lead at the summit, and manager Pep Guardiola will surely feel his side cannot afford to drop any more points in what looks set to be another enthralling race for England's ultimate prize.
"Of course it's City, one of the best teams in the league. And they lost their last game, so they will want to put things right against us. We will try to work for each other and that's what we try to do."
Unsurprisingly, Kabasele's personal objective for the season is to feature in yellow and black as frequently as possible. The 28-year old was a relatively regular component under Gracia last season but has been somewhat displaced by new recruit Craig Dawson at the beginning of this term. He capitalised on the injury absence of Craig Cathcart against Arsenal to regain his spot in the starting eleven, and registered an assured performance for his new head coach.
"Like everybody, the main goal is to try to play all the games," he admitted. "It's the choice of the manager, and I think he will always try to choose the better thing for the team and it's up to each player to be focused on their work and to try to help the team as far as we can."
And from a collective perspective, the Belgian has genuine faith that Watford can lift themselves from the depths of the unfavourable position they currently occupy. Certainly, despite becoming early contenders for relegation among many, few can deny that the Hornets will be able to exit that discussion if the calibre of performance against the Gunners can be replicated at various points in the indefinite future.
Furthermore, Kabasele believes the squad at the disposal of Sánchez Flores is simply too strong for them to be involved in a dogfight come the climax of the campaign. Just like last season, there is the expectation at Watford that they will be safe by then.
"When we see the players that we have in our squad: Gerard [Deulofeu], Maxi [Pereyra], Danny [Welbeck], Ismaïla [Sarr] — I think we have a lot of quality to not be involved in this relegation battle. But for the moment we are there, we need to try to be out of this zone as soon as possible and after we'll see what we can do."