In the previous weekend of Premier League action, public attention was mainly directed towards that titanic clash between title rivals Liverpool and Manchester City on Sunday afternoon. However, although Friday evening's fixture was irrefutably less glamorous, it quite arguably bore just as much significance.
The bottom two in the table locked horns at Carrow Road, with Watford travelling to meet fellow strugglers Norwich City at the floodlit ground, permeated by a tense and anxious atmosphere. As far as both were concerned, a draw would be insufficient and a loss detrimental to their cause to escape an impending relegation scrap.
As it transpired, the Hornets would return to Hertfordshire far more content than their hosts on the night. Goals from Gerard Deulofeu and Andre Gray set Watford up for a first league win of the season, which they would eventually secure by navigating the final 25 minutes a man down after the dismissal of Christian Kabasele.
To all onlookers, the victory appeared a timely reward for months of exertion after a poor start to the campaign left the team in a precarious position from the outset. Speaking to the club's Added Time show after the match, midfielder Will Hughes asserted it was the squad's mental capacity which ultimately got them over the line.
“We’ve been working hard all season, but the table doesn’t lie and we’ve clearly not been good enough," Hughes said. "We went to a tricky place, under pressure as well and going down to ten men with 25 minutes to go, everyone was thinking a bit on edge. I thought we dug in and showed a lot of character.”
Job done, belief restored
When Quique Sánchez Flores inherited the Watford helm from compatriot Javi Gracia in September, it was apparent that drastic changes would be brought about to lift the team after an abject beginning to the season — too many goals had been conceded, not enough were scored, and there was little to suggest the going was set to get any smoother for the Hornets.
The two months since his appointment have been a gradual building process in which Sánchez Flores has attempted to imprint his footballing philosophy, one which is strikingly different from that of his predecessor, on the squad and, ultimately, yield results by doing so.
On Friday evening, the structure finally appeared complete, and the flaws of the previous regime overcome. The attackers were effervescent and the back line resilient even after losing one of its component parts in the second half. Sánchez Flores undoubtedly prioritised defensive improvements in the wake of his employment, but a fine balance was struck against Norwich, and Hughes believes this was pivotal to the realisation of victory.
“The two-goal buffer gave us something to hang on to, especially when we went down to ten men. Saying that, I don’t think they troubled us as much as they could have in the last 20 minutes. They had a few half chances but I don’t think they opened us up when we had ten men. I think that was down to our shape — everyone knew their job to come through it in the end.”
Eleven games winless will inevitably take its toll on any team — verve and conviction were visibly lacking during Waford's barren run to begin the campaign, which did nothing to aid the upturn in form that was in increasingly pressing need.
However, both of the aforementioned traits were in abundance at Carrow Road, and the Hornets will hope that they can remain for the foreseeable future. Certainly, Hughes is assured in that it will have a restorative effect on the team as they seek to climb the standings.
“It’s only natural to have a confidence dip after such poor results in a row," the 24-year old said. "I don’t think the performances have warranted the results but that’s football, sometimes it goes for you and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s difficult getting that win after such a long time, going back to last season. Hopefully this will be a change and we can get our heads up and move up the table now.”
Building from here
The significance of the triumph over Norwich cannot be underestimated. The winless run has at last been consigned to the history books, the gratifying flavour of victory has once again been tasted, and fans are now more satisfied than ever that Sánchez Flores can be the man to fulfil Watford's short term targets. Nonetheless, this is just the beginning.
Despite the three points, the Hornets are another win away from 17th and the subsequent promised land of midtable. Teams in similar positions have shown they are perfectly capable of securing results here and there. In addition, more crucial matches are approaching as the fixture list intensifies before the end of the year, not least the next two encounters with Burnley and Southampton.
Friday was a small yet significant step, but the new objective is to discover a positive consistency. It's the only way to ascend the table which in turn, according to Hughes, is the sole focus on the minds of the players currently.
“It’s more relief than anything," he said of the Norwich victory. "We’re not kidding ourselves and we know we are still in such a difficult position. We’re still adrift from safety so it means nothing if we don’t go and replicate that against Burnley and Southampton. We’ve got to get our heads down and keep working hard and hopefully our luck will change and this can be the start to our season.”