Sánchez Flores mulls over City humiliation
Photo by Getty Images/Chloe Knott - Danehouse

The clock display at the Etihad Stadium reads 85 minutes. Riyad Mahrez skims the ball across the surface to Kevin De Bruyne on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. The Belgian — who already has two assists to his name for the afternoon — teases away from Kiko Femenía and rifles past Ben Foster at his near post.

In football, a game of goals, it's precisely those that are some of the statistically rarest occurrences across 90 minutes. Yet as the ball rippled in the Watford net for the eighth time, the cheer from Manchester City's home support was one of fulfilled anticipation rather than surprise. In hindsight, the most unexpected element of that brutal Citizens performance was not that they scored so many, but that they didn't manage more.

Take nothing away from City, who had double figures beckoning after finding themselves five goals to the good with just 18 minutes gone, but this was the most abject of showings from their opponents. Just over four months since their national humiliation on the famous pitch at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final, another element of mortification must now be felt by all who hold an affinity towards the Hornets.

Post-match, manager Quique Sánchez Flores first and foremost felt the need to apologise to the Watford faithful having endured the club's most emphatic league defeat of all time: "We say sorry to the fans," he said. "We are working for them. We work for the fans and we try to make performances for the fans. When we disappoint the fans, we disappoint ourselves."

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A gruelling afternoon

Only four other teams in the history of the Premier League have conceded eight times in a single match and, ironically enough, City are one of them. Their day of despair was against Middlesbrough back in 2008 and it now represents just how far the champions have come since, but for Watford the current predicament is damning.

Since the opening day defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion — a surprising yet retrospectively fitting indication of things to come after the end of the summer brought optimism in the shape of apparently shrewd recruitment and a squad with renewed buoyancy — performances had been on an upward curve, culminating in an exhilarating second half display against Arsenal in Sánchez Flores' first game back at Vicarage Road. As such, this degraded display underneath the northwestern sunshine reverberated cruelly.

"It's a very bad day for us, for the team, for the club," said Sánchez Flores. "It's not good to concede this many goals. The first minutes were really, really hard for us — after we'd prepared the match, being clear with the idea we had to play to, we conceded very easy goals and in 15 minutes everything was done.

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"For me the feeling is that there wasn't a match. I prefer to see matches like this as an accident against one of the best teams in the world, but of course when you play Man City and make mistakes it's pretty dangerous."

It was hardly an ideal first away game in charge for Sánchez Flores who is now embarking on his second spell at the Hertfordshire helm, and the Spaniard often cut a helpless figure in the opposite dugout to compatriot Pep Guardiola who, for his part, manifested a degree of embarrassment as his side totally and utterly outclassed their visitors from the word 'go'.

And powerless the former was as City dealt Watford death by a thousand cuts. The visiting manager tried all within his power and in early desperation even opted to make a first half substitution, but his side's route back into the contest was non-existent.

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"It was difficult because every single goal came from a different reason," the Spaniard admitted. "One is a cross, another is a penalty, the other is a foul — all completely different scenarios. So it's difficult to say we know where is the problem. They were more quick, more clever, and it was difficult for us to stop this situation."

It's already more than 30 years since Watford last beat the Citizens, a Second Division triumph back in March 1989, and the aggregate score between the two in the nine encounters since the Hornets returned to the top flight in 2015 is now no less than 33-4. Never has there been a more appropriate example of the fact that, in football, there are certain teams that for others are utterly unbeatable.

"Last season the results against City were also not good, we conceded a lot of goals, so we need to think around that. I think we looked a little bit scared at the start of the match. But we will learn from this."

Moving forward

On a day where almost nothing went as planned, many aspects can be accredited with Watford's downfall: the team selection sprung surprises, defensive manoeuvres were often suspect, and it would be interesting to know how many of the players genuinely believe they left their entire  mental and physical capacities on the pitch by full time. Needless to say what spectators can infer.

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Sánchez Flores sees it as a joint-failure by all involved, just as it will be a team effort on the road to much-needed recovery. That path is treacherous, long and winding from here, but confidence in the camp reportedly remains strong, and previous years prove the Hornets have the players and astuteness to navigate the remaining 32 league games towards safety.

"Of course, this is a collective responsibility," he said. "We are a pack, and when we talk about the team, we talk about the pack. The strength of the pack is the strength of every person in the club and the fans are the most important part of the club.

"It's very sad because we didn't have any chance. We just need to say sorry to the fans, we will go for the next match as strong as we can, and we'll try to mend this situation."

That situation prompts the question of whether or not there is a deeper problem at Watford. Sánchez Flores was hired to solve the issues which had been glaringly prevalent during the doomed days of Javi Gracia's reign — he appeared to have achieved that objective against Arsenal, but each and every problem came back to the fore on a miserable afternoon at the Etihad.

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Certainly, the Hornets will need to find solutions — and quickly — if they wish to escape from the heated relegation dogfight which is now lying in wait. Both Swansea City in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the league on Saturday project two games far more winnable than any encounter with City, and Watford will need to capitalise in order to restore confidence and momentum and rid themselves of the current scrutiny.

"We need to change as soon as possible. We could keep around this result and situation for a long time, blaming people or whatever, but this is not a clever decision. The clever decision is to change as soon as possible from this one match, which was not a good representation of the team.

"We will try to learn from this result, we will try to improve and not repeat this."