Prior to the recent international break, Watford's slow start to 2019/20 looked to be picking up pace. The Hornets defeated Norwich City on their own turf at Carrow Road and headed into the two-week hiatus buoyed by the result, but well aware that they would require more of the same to heave themselves from the lower reaches of the Premier League table.
Victory in Norfolk lifted them from rock-bottom, where they had been marooned since the second week of the season, but they returned their instantaneously with an abject loss to Burnley at Vicarage Road. The foundations of a positive first half were derailed early in the second when Chris Wood put the visitors ahead in the 53rd minute, and later goals from Ashley Barnes and James Tarkowski conformed a first away win of the campaign for the Clarets — the Hornets have not triumphed at home in the league since April.
It represented a squandered opportunity for Watford to turn bounce into momentum, but head coach Quique Sánchez Flores, who had hailed the result a fortnight ago as an "important win," downplayed the significance of the recent defeat in his post-match press conference. There are still 75 points to be won before the curtain draws shut, and they remain his only concern.
“It’s football," Sánchez Flores told journalists, bluntly. "After the win in Norwich we didn’t think everything was solved, but after defeat we don’t think everything is lost. It’s a long race and we need to keep positive, thinking about how we can improve.”
A inextricably painful afternoon
In the first 45 minutes, it all seemed to be going so well for Watford. They entered half-time with the majority of the possession and had fashioned six attempts at goal compared to the solitary effort of their opponents. Gerard Deulofeu looked a threat going forward and the defence was holding its own.
The manner in which that all dissipated in the second half was perhaps as perplexing as it was frustrating for the home side. From the moment Wood's shot nestled in the net, victory felt impossible and even a point seemed unlikely. The inevitability and despondency of this season as a whole, which had almost vanished after the victory over Norwich, returned to the fore to devastating effect.
Sánchez Flores shared both the exasperation and bemusement of the supporters towards the result, but cites the breaking of the deadlock as a crucial turning point.
“It’s very difficult to explain the result," he admitted. "I don’t want to talk too much because it could sound like excuses. All I can say is in the first half we were happy. After their first goal, things changed, affecting a lot our mentality, our spirit, energy, and it was difficult. The other team got more power and more confidence. But still the result is difficult to explain.”
Reluctant as ever to make vindications, the reaction of Sánchez Flores was telling when the topic of injuries arose — he could only smile wryly and shrug. When Craig Dawson became a forced substitution with a head injury, it marked six matches in a row in which Watford have had to make a first-half alteration.
Of course, misfortune was not the decisive factor in their defeat, but Sánchez Flores was keen to emphasise the negative impact it had on the Hornets.
“It’s incredible. I don’t want the fans to think about excuses, but it’s incredible. Six consecutive matches losing players in the first half is not normal. Dawson was leading well the defensive line, playing very well, the best man in defence in the first half. But in the space of one moment he has to go out of the match. It made a big difference.”
The one beacon of hope on a gloomy and somewhat melancholy day in Hertfordshire was the return of club captain Troy Deeney. After undergoing knee surgery in August, the talismanic striker replaced Andre Gray with Watford one goal down in the 56th minute, and Vicarage Road watched on expectantly hoping the 31-year old would live up to his label.
But perhaps that was harsh. Deeney's first run-out in a Hornets shirt was unproductive and yet a catalyst for his full recovery in the near future, and Sánchez Flores appreciates that circumstances were not so kind to the skipper.
“Deeney wasn’t lucky today," he said. "We wanted to put him on in the first ten minutes of the second half and then we conceded the goal, so it was a completely different situation for him. He tried but of course he is still far from his best performance.”
Back at the foot of the table, the imposing threat of relegation continues to loom. Nonetheless, Watford will be presented plenty of chances to set their record straight in the coming weeks, with an intensified festive fixture list including a crunch tie against Southampton next weekend, followed by later encounters with Crystal Palace and Aston Villa.
However, given that Sánchez Flores has amassed an average of just 0.7 points per game since his reappointment in September, the prospect of the Spaniard delivering the much-needed revival may not be too feasible to many in Hertfordshire. Still, the head coach retains faith in himself and those around him.
“Football is very unpredictable. It’s about how you trust in the people around you, in the players and everything. I don’t have any doubts about the squad, I believe 100% in them, and I believe they can change this situation. But I’ve known since the first day this will be very difficult because it’s impossible to change the dynamics so quickly.”
He is just nine games into his second stint with Watford, and yet the likelihood of Sánchez Flores facing the axe should he fail to win on the south coast on Saturday is reportedly high. Unwilling to indulge in the speculation surrounding his position, the head coach reasserted his self-assurance but highlighted the mighty task that awaits him and his team.
“I am not worried about anything in my life, not anything," he said. "We are fighting against elements. It’s not an excuse, but it is like this. That is the story of this year.”