Discipline key to Sánchez Flores' Watford revival
Photo by Getty Images/Marc Atkins

Since his appointment in the summer of 2016, Pep Guardiola has enjoyed statistically unprecedented success with Manchester City, and in the last two years has claimed two consecutive Premier League titles with an average points haul of 99.

A pivotal factor in his achievements in the north west, one which is perpetually overshadowed by the aesthetic brilliance of their style of play, has been the firm maintenance of law and order at the training ground, on matchdays, and in the entire sphere of the players' professional lives — obedience is preferred, dedication is required, and both are expected to be displayed in abundance by those who wish to feature regularly in the Spaniard's plans.

While a compatriot of Guardiola's — Watford manager Quique Sánchez Flores — may espouse a distinctly different footballing philosophy on the pitch, there are certainly similarities in the way he operates behind the scenes.

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Sánchez Flores has identified discipline as an area which, if improved and preserved, could prove beneficial to the Hornets. As much as anything it is a question of cohesion, as the squad inherited by the 54-year old were visibly downhearted by an abject beginning to the campaign prior to his arrival in September.

“We need to introduce rules on the pitch and introduce rules off the pitch," he asserted. "I think it is better for the group because we are making it work and we are making a solid group. A solid group is not just on the pitch, a solid group is also in the dressing room, in the hotel, in normal life.”

Each of the reforms implemented by Sánchez Flores — and there have been a notable few, tactical and methodological, since he replaced Javi Gracia — is ultimately geared towards propelling Watford upwards in the standings. They sit at the foot of the Premier League, and will have to at least double their current tally of four points to escape the relegation zone.

“If they realise that we are all together, then we defend all together and it’s easier for us because it always give us the possibility to score, so we have the possibility to win.”

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The backing of the players

Of course, this is not the first time Sánchez Flores has overseen a revision of policy at Vicarage Road. He took the helm for Watford's inaugural campaign back in the top flight in 2015/16 and steered the club comfortably clear of safety using mainly the same set of guidelines, both on and off the pitch.

A player who was present under the Spaniard's previous reign — defender Craig Cathcart — believes the players acting as one was instrumental to their achievements three years ago, and is not surprised by Sánchez Flores' attempts to recreate the phenomenon.

“I think he’s trying to get that same unity we had last time," the centre-back said. "It’s just little simple things to bring us all together, it’s the way his style is, and I think it’s been working. That’s probably the thing he’s trying to bring back.

“It brings everyone together. We’re all eating at the same time and especially with no mobile phones at dinner time you have to talk to each other, which is helpful. It took a couple of meals for us to get used to it — a couple of lads were caught with their phones out and were told to put them away, but I’m sure as the weeks go on it will just be second nature.”

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Cathcart has noticed how the added emphasis on discipline has benefitted him and his teammates, particularly from a defensive perspective. The stats back it up, too: setting a freak result against champions City to one side, Watford have conceded an average of 0.75 goals less goals per game than they had before the departure of Gracia.

“We’re definitely really well organised. We can see it ourselves from the videos because we’ve been analysing every game we’ve played and we can see the changes and how they’re helping the team. We’re definitely more compact and we can press better off our shape, because we’re all closer together.”

Turning premise into practice, then into points

Theory and principle is all well and good but, as previously mentioned, the means are largely irrelevant so long as the end of securing Watford's top flight status for another year is achieved. Supporters are already resigned to the fact that football in Hertfordshire may not be at its prettiest in times approaching, but it's a sacrifice worth making if it brings results.

Now almost two months since the reappointment of Sánchez Flores, those results are expected to arrive sooner rather than later, however the Spaniard remains adamant that it will be a gradual but nevertheless productive undertaking.

“It’s impossible to get a solid team with convictions, ideas and habits in a small amount of time," the head coach said. "We’re looking for something stable for the future, not something for one match. Patience is key, always. I think it’s important everyone knows how the process is and what part of the process we are at. To get results for a long time, you need time."

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The Hornets will be hoping to pick up their first three points of the season when AFC Bournemouth visit Vicarage Road on Saturday. Though two teams that have tailed each other so closely in recent years, the Cherries have enjoyed a considerably better beginning to their campaign this time around, but the home side's recent improvement grants them optimism heading into the match.

Cathcart has been exposed to his fair share of difficulties throughout his career — he was relegated from the Premier League with Blackpool in 2011 — and feels there is a degree of inevitability about their occurrence, but remains devoted to Watford's cause of navigating their way up the table as quickly and smoothly as possible.

“You get these spells in your career," he admitted. "You have to carry on, pick yourself up. It’s a difficult spell, but I’m sure it’s going go turn. It’s something that’s on our minds. We want to win — we know it’ll be a difficult game, but it’s a game we’re going to go into positive and try to get three points from.”

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