Opinion: Two months back at the helm - has Sánchez Flores delivered?
Photo by Getty Images/Simon Stacpoole - Offside

Nestled cosily into his dugout seat at Carrow Road, he cut a timid, somewhat submissive figure immersed in the bitterly crisp Norfolk air, but his internal thinking was far more assertive than appearances would care to let on. In front of his eyes lay a fixture of boundless significance, and he was in no two minds about his determination to emerge victorious from it.

A few stray passes in the opening exchanges threatened to derail the confidence and optimism he espoused, replacing them instead with the all-too familiar sensations of despondency and resignation. Not to jump the clock, which still only read fewer than 60 seconds, but it really did look like a clash between two teams languishing in the lower reaches of the Premier League table.

But then, Gerard Deulofeu robbed possession from Emi Buendía, skipped past Tom Trybull on the edge of the area and coolly dispatched into the net of Tim Krul to give Watford an early advantage over their hosts Norwich City. The travelling support leapt into ecstasy, their cheers piercing through the stone-cold silence of an otherwise impressive home crowd shocked into reticence.

No doubt Quique Sánchez Flores would have welcomed the opportunity to be among those rapturous celebrations but, in line with his professional duties, he remained calm and collected on the touchline, watching on quietly contented as Deulofeu wheeled away towards the corner flag.

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It was the first of two goals the Hornets would score on the night. When, early in the second half, Andre Gray doubled their advantage with a volleyed back heel — fortunate, but nonetheless admirable for its sheer audacity — Sánchez Flores caressed his facial features, possibly in an attempt to contain the wry smile. Victory looked in reach. However, Christian Kabasele's cynical lunge which saw the defender accumulate a second yellow card and an early bath just fifteen minutes later extinguished any danger of complacency creeping in. The stern expression resurfaced. As long as the ball was in play, there remained a battle for his side to prevail in.

And, lo and behold, they would. Yes, Watford secured their first win of the league campaign under the lights at Carrow Road, consigning to the history books a 15-game barren streak which stretched into the tail end of the previous season. The Hornets finally heaved themselves from the bottom of the table — a status they had now inflicted on their opponents on the night — and had done so by a routinely complicated yet infinitely satisfying 2-0 margin.

As Sánchez Flores made his way over to the 1,500-strong contingent that had made the Friday evening trek, the ice was broken. He shared an embrace with assistant coach Dean Austin and entered the pitch to do the same with the likes of Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes. He then joined the players partaking in the reciprocal applause between the exultant supporters and their triumphant heroes.

The Spaniard's grin, infectious and yet such a rarity so far this campaign, told a meaningful tale. Here was a man that, since his appointment to the helm in September, had worked tirelessly to hoist Watford up from the rut in which they found themselves, to little avail — until now. But of even more significance was the fact that the faith and warmth which had stemmed from both fans and directors towards the head coach during his first spell with the club in 2015/16 felt rekindled. Doubts will remain, and justifiably so, but there is now more assurance than previously that Sánchez Flores can ensure Watford's survival in the Premier League for a second time.

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Almost everything about the victory over Norwich was testament to exactly what the 54-year old has been striving to achieve. Firstly, a third clean sheet in five outings further marked the defensive reparation job which, at the beginning of the campaign, seemed unimaginable. Watford had conceded the third most goals in the league (8) after four games, but any witness to the matches in their totality feared it could have been considerably more. The tactical system of Sánchez Flores' predecessor and compatriot Javi Gracia had been worked out. Ambitious, attack-minded wing-backs were exploited, exposing centre-backs such as Craig Dawson — whose introduction to life in Hertfordshire following his summer transfer from West Bromwich Albion was less than jovial — while costly errors were rife.

Frailties in the back line were cited as a major reason for Gracia's dismissal during the first international break of 2019/20. Sánchez Flores, conversely, had been hailed for the defensive stability he managed to instil four years prior and was brought in to replicate it. After problems persisted initially — 12 goals were shipped in his first three assignments — a solution appears to have been found, with the Hornets more organised, more resilient, and less variable in guarding their own goal.

The defensive revolution has been an impressive feat, but it came to the detriment of ventures at the opposite end of the pitch. Goals are football's precious commodity. They are the one and only way to secure victory, something which became even more of a necessity as Watford continued to be stranded at the foot of the standings week after week.

In fairness to Sánchez Flores, statistics would suggest attacking mundanity was already a factor prior to his arrival. The Hornets had scored the fewest in the division (2) when he reassumed his role, and had also accumulated the lowest expected goals record. However, there were more chances than figures alone would suggest, and many believed profligacy was a problem which would fix itself before long.

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Two goals in his first game in charge was an encouraging sign, though they did come against a feeble and frankly calamitous Arsenal defence. The deficiencies soon returned to the fore, with Watford scoring no more than two goals in the following six matches. Their most effervescent display came in the 1-1 draw at Tottenham Hotspur which, in hindsight, was a deserved victory squandered by wastefulness and erraticism in each final third.

The Norwich game, however, was far more pleasing in that regard. Goalscoring opportunities were both sufficient and taken when it mattered. A couple were scored, and at last it seemed as if the ultimate goal had been met: monotony made way for, dare it be said, shades of the abundant artistry that made last season such an enjoyable affair.

Even amidst their dire run of form, the belief in Watford's ability to at least show potency in the final third subsisted. With players such as summer recruits Danny Welbeck and Ismaïla Sarr as well as captain Troy Deeney at his disposal, the naturally defensive inclinations of Sánchez Flores' tactics were not expected to hinder attacking exploits to such a debilitating extent.

But as luck would have it, the three listed above have found opportunities to showcase their abilities scarce. Deeney underwent knee surgery in August and is on the brink of return; Welbeck limped off against Tottenham with a potentially serious hamstring injury; while Sarr reported to training late after his involvement with Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations. The latter also sustained an ankle problem in the recent international break. With goalscoring duties delegated to Deulofeu, Pereyra and Gray — none of whom warrant the label 'prolific' — difficulties in that area were somewhat inevitable.

Setting the list of absentees aside, misfortune can still be considered a factor both in Watford's faltering start to the campaign as a whole and Sánchez Flores' more than challenging reintroduction to Hertfordshire.

Firstly, there is the ever contentious topic of VAR. Most teams in the Premier League this season would argue the off-field referee operating digitally from Stockley Park has done little to aid their cause, and the Hornets are not exempt from those grievances. From goal-conjuring handballs from Isaac Hayden and Dele Alli to penalties-not-to-be from Jan Vertonghen, suffice to say the rub of the green has hardly tilted towards Vicarage Road.

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But it would be irrational to pin Watford's lowly position on an entity miles away from the pitches on which the players perform their duties. They dictate their own fortunes more than anyone else, followed then by the head coach. And Sánchez Flores was unlucky to inherit a squad depressed by an abject beginning to the season, as well as a supporter base equally disheartened and impatient. His status as something of a cult hero due to the successes of 2015/16 helped him in that regard, but the transition has nonetheless proved awkward.

As the weeks dragged on, fans began to lose faith. Retrospective reservations over the sacking of Gracia crept in, and many wondered whether there were more suitable managerial options available at the time when Watford were in the market. Little was made of the predicament from the perspective of the head coach, as Sánchez Flores continued to work diligently behind the scenes.

The result was that victory over Norwich, a small but significant step towards the delivery of the objectives the Spaniard has been assigned, ones which he has not yet achieved, but he may be on the correct path towards doing so.

This can only be the beginning. For Sánchez Flores and his squad to rest on their laurels now would be to submit to relegation just as the inevitability of that outcome was starting to diminish. There are more weighty fixtures approaching — Burnley and Crystal Palace both visit Vicarage Road before Christmas, while a trip to Southampton also awaits this month — and ground is still to be made on 17th and the subsequent promised land of midtable.

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Sánchez Flores will be well aware that his position at the club is as disposable as any other. Neither his short time in the job nor the recent glimmer of hope will protect him from removal if the Pozzo family and their subordinates deem it necessary. This is because avoiding relegation is not their only concern. From top to bottom, Watford's ultimate aspiration is to be the 'best of the rest' in the Premier League, and the 54-year old will need to prove that a squad under his dominion is capable of meeting that target in the long term. Else, his sacrifice is only a matter of when, not if.

But the only question currently on the lips of the fans is whether or not, in the here and now, Sánchez Flores can steer Watford to safety as he did so masterfully four years ago. Prior to the Norwich game, the consensus was negative — now, the debate has reemerged, and the head coach once again has the chance to prove that he truly is the man fit for the job.

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