The Mazzola Minute: Watford's Remarkable Rise

Leicester City’s improbable 2015-16 English Premier League title redefined the role of smaller-sized clubs in top-flight English football.

Currently dominated by a group of clubs known as the “Big Six” (Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool), the Premier League is notoriously top-heavy.

With only six clubs having won the title since the league’s inception (United, City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Leicester, and Blackburn Rovers), Leicester’s victory rejuvenated fan bases of smaller-market teams. The Foxes’ fairytale campaign has led to the search for “the next Leicester.”

Enter 2018-19 Watford, which you may know as the club once chaired by Elton John. With one notable exception, Watford has never been a major factor in top-flight English football.

In the 1982-83 season, however, Watford rode a hot start of four wins in its first five games to a second-place finish in the First Division (the Premier League’s predecessor).

To start the 2018-19 season, Watford defeated Brighton & Hove Albion, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, before finally falling to Manchester United.

The 2-1 comeback win over Tottenham stands out as an important win against a “Big Six” club and raised eyebrows around the league. Down after an own-goal in the 50th minute, Watford scored twice off corner kicks to seal victory.

If you weren’t keeping track, that’s four wins in the club’s first five games.

With many apologies to all the loyal (and bandwagon) Watford fans, your beloved club will not be matching that magical 1982-83 season, and they most certainly won’t see a turnaround akin to that of Leicester City in 2015-16.

On the other hand, as unambitious as it sounds, Watford has already taken key steps away from relegation and towards a middle of the table finish.

Southampton was the last team to escape relegation in the 2017-18 season, finishing with 36 points in 17th place.

Using last year’s table as a benchmark, Watford would only need to play at a 28-point pace for the rest of the season to equal Southampton’s total of 36 and hypothetically avoid relegation.

To exceed its 41-point total of last year (which netted the club 14th place), Watford would only need to play at a 34-point pace for the remainder of the year.

The sum of total player value offers a reasonable estimation of talent, and Watford’s £144.63m roster (as estimated by TransferMarkt) end in 18th out of the 20 Premier League clubs, and suggests that Watford is not an elite club.

With an excellent manager in Javi Gracia, August’s Premier League Manager of the Month, Watford has been able to somewhat offset their lack of individual talent.

Since Watford’s 2015 promotion to top-flight English football, Gracia is the first manager to survive the summer.

Gracia furthered this continuity by starting ten returning players, only adding goalkeeper Ben Foster in the transfer market.

Watford lost a young talent in Richarlison to Everton, but, should the forward not improve greatly in the coming years, the £40 million transfer fee could prove a savvy move.

Gracia’s unconventional off-pitch management techniques include fines for tardiness, mandatory yoga sessions, three-day-a-week meetings to analyze the upcoming opponent and training sessions (sometimes twice a day) on all four days leading up to a competition.

Gracia also puts great emphasis on nutrition and proper manners, seeking to build a healthy team culture. On the pitch, Watford employs an unconventional variation of the common 4-4-2 formation (four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards) in the form of a 4-2-2-2 formation.

Essentially, Watford sacrifices lateral spacing for a more compact central midfield.

Defensively, with to of the team’s starting XI measuring six feet or taller, Watford forces turnovers in a congested midfield.

Watford’s 20.4 tackles and 14.8 interceptions per game rank second and third most in the Premier League, respectively.

This defensive scheme eases the burden on their defenders, contributing to an excellent 8.6 shots allowed per game average, fourth fewest in the Premier League.

From these shots, Watford has allowed a total of just five goals across the first five games, a tally that is tied fifth-fewest in the Premier League.

Expected goals takes the sum of the probability that any given shot will go in for all shots in a game, approximating the aggregate quality of chances a team created.

With English football being such a low-scoring game, score-lines often do not mirror a team’s actual performance, and, as such, expected goals offer a clearer picture of the balance of play.

Watford’s 4.46 expected goals allowed (fourth fewest) suggests that the mere five goals allowed might, in fact, be a slight underperformance, solidifying the club’s claim to an excellent defense.

Offensively, on the surface, Watford’s ten total goals scored (tied-fourth most in the league) suggest a stellar attacking scheme.

Watford’s underlying offensive metrics, however, suggest a mediocre offense that has thus far overperformed.

The team’s 5.53 total expected goals ranks 11th in the Premier League, and the 12.4 shots per game ranks ninth.

Some teams do over-perform their expected goals significantly, but there is evidence to suggest Watford will regress to the mean in this regard.

In the 2017-18 season, for example, Watford scored 44 goals compared to 45.85 expected goals, a negligible difference.

Watford’s unconventional 4-2-2-2 formation is reflected in its preferred style of ball movement, with limited lateral spacing encouraging quick forward motion.

While the club’s 74 long passes per game is tied for second in the Premier League, its 286 short passes per game ranks 17th, and its 45.5 percent possession rate ranks 16th.

Furthermore, for a team relying heavily on longer passes, Watford’s 71 percent pass success rate unsurprisingly ranks 18th.

Just like with its defensive scheme, Watford’s congested midfield lends itself to an attack oriented around the center of the pitch, reflected in its tied for league-leading 29 percent of attacking direction in the middle of the pitch.

While Watford lacks the talent and attacking prowess needed to break into the Premier League elite, its excellent defense suggests that the club certainly won’t face relegation and has a legitimate shot at finishing in the top half of the table.