Exactly one year ago, Watford sat ninth in the table in the midst of their best ever start to a Premier League campaign. They would go on to battle audaciously to be the 'best of the rest' and even earned a place in the FA Cup final in May.
Yet European qualification slipped from their grasp in a dire end to their domestic season which culminated in humiliation by treble winners Manchester City in that showpiece occasion at Wembley Stadium and, since then, their fortunes have not yet recovered.
Eight games have elapsed so far in 2019/20 and the Hornets currently occupy the very foot of the standings, the only team yet to register a win and the only team to have resorted to a change of management in an early bid to rescue their season.
When Quique Sánchez Flores returned to Vicarage Road to replace former head coach Javi Gracia, the brief for his operation was clear: to steer Watford away from a relegation battle as quickly and smoothly as possible. That aim is so far yet to be realised, but the Spaniard insists the mood within the camp is one of commitment rather than concern.
“We are not worried, this is not a good word to represent how we feel," Sánchez Flores said. "We need to be responsible about the situation. We know what the situation is, the work is tough, but we know how we are working and we are working hard.”
A difficult challenge
England's top flight is a hunting ground for some of the world's most talented and rigorous technicians, and Saturday's visit to Tottenham Hotspur will see Sánchez Flores lock horns with one of the most-widely acclaimed of them all.
Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino has overseen one of the club's most consistently successful spells in its history since taking over in 2014 — including a fairytale journey to the Champions League final earlier this year — and his opposite number here is full of heartfelt praise for the Argentine.
“He is the best coach in the Premier League in the last four years, that is my opinion," he said. "When I was last here I was impressed in the way his team played. Of course now it’s a difficult moment for him and them, but for me he is still the best.”
The credentials of his opponent only adds to the challenge that Sánchez Flores and his players will be facing in north London. Regardless of their poor form, the Spaniard is anticipating a difficult afternoon.
One source of encouragement for the 54-year old will be last weekend's draw with Sheffield United. Profligacy ultimately cost the Hornets a vital win but they displayed sufficient defensive resilience to keep a first clean sheet since February, and the aim is now to work towards a permanent fix to what has undoubtedly been Watford's Achilles' heel in recent times.
“It will be really, really tough, like a war. It’s very important and it would be amazing if we get a good result. We want to be competitive and results depend on a lot of factors. We need to analyse the good things we did in the last match and keep going with the good habits.”
Suffice to say that, although Sánchez Flores has warmly embraced his return to Hertfordshire after a three-year absence, this is not the manner of situation he would have been keen to inherit. The test of keeping Watford in the Premier League in their first season after promotion was arduous enough, but the Hornets did not drop into the relegation zone even once in a strong inaugural campaign.
Since then, the club has irrefutably progressed off the pitch, but recent performances suggest that perhaps not enough has been done to improve their state on it. Reports from the Athletic have hinted that a January personnel overhaul could be on the cards — for Sánchez Flores, though, the assignment is simple: garner the full potential of a squad which has underperformed thus far.
“We are so far from where we want to be," he admitted. "I want to be very clear with that because it’s true and the players know that. It’s been really difficult for our supporters, for sure, but in football these kind of things can happen and all we can do is try to fix it as soon as possible.”
Sánchez Flores recognises the severity of the current predicament and appreciates the anxiety which is beginning to emerge from corners of the supporters, who fear that five consecutive, strong seasons in the top flight may draw to a close in May.
However, the Spaniard believes time remains ample that writing the season off already would be a premature resignation of defeat. No less than 90 points can still be won from here until the end of the campaign — Watford's head coach and players are devoted to the cause of accumulating as many as possible, and motivated by the gratification that doing so would engender.
“It is really early. This is a big problem in football, that people think the season finishes in September — there’s 30 games ahead, so it’s impossible think about what will happen. We have to think about the finish and how it could be a good end to the season, how we can improve and how proud and happy we will be if we are able to do this.”