Watford were as good as gone this time last month. As fans wallowed in their team’s misfortune, Nigel Pearson was busy plotting another great escape. Thus far, his arrival has prompted a quite remarkable turnaround. The Nottingham-born maverick has got the Midas touch when it comes to fighting relegation battles, and his latest assignment seems to have put Watford back on track in double-quick time.
Watford’s Great Escape Under Nigel Pearson
A Look Back
Reflecting on the start of the season makes grim reading for Hornets fans. Fan favourite Javi Gracia, the first Watford boss to last more than a full season since 2013, was swiftly shown the door in September having earned one point from their opening four matches. Indeed, Gracia was considered unlucky by many given Watford’s 13th place finish and FA Cup final appearance four months prior.
Curiously, Watford re-appointed former manager Quique Sanchez Flores just half an hour later. An 8-0 humbling at the Etihad the following week was an ominous sign of things to come. In truth, things never got off the ground for Flores. One solitary win earned him just three months in the dugout before the board decided to jump ship. The Pozzo family then turned to Nigel Pearson. This surprised a few, given the straight-talking Englishman had spent the last two years managing Belgian second division minnows Leuven.
The Pearson Effect
Pearson, last seen in the top-flight terrorising journalists before parting ways with Leicester, was a curious appointment at face value. However, his no-nonsense approach to management has noticeably galvanised a talented squad that was lacking direction. Flying 21-year-old winger Ismaila Sarr, a club-record signing at £30 million, had become something of a forgotten man under Gracia and Flores before his Watford career had even begun. Dressing room leader and club legend Troy Deeney was misfiring, and mercurial talent Gerard Deulofeu, electric on his day, was simply not consistent enough to turn his team’s fortunes around.
The ‘Pearson Effect’ was to change the tide for all three of them. The trio have bagged nine goals between them since his arrival in December. Whilst Sarr and Deulofeu have caused opposition defenders headaches in recent weeks, Troy Deeney looks back to his marauding best.
Pearson’s first action was to do away with Flores’ negative 5-3-2 formation, introducing his preferred 4-2-3-1 instead. He has not flinched since. This tactical switch, infinitely better suited to harness Watford’s most talented players, has translated into 15 points from Pearson’s first nine games in charge. Ultimately, this surge in form launched them out of the relegation zone just weeks after spending Christmas Day at the foot of the table.
Prospects of Survival
This Tuesday, Watford fell victim to a 95th-minute winner at Villa Park. There is no escaping the fact that being on the wrong side of an early-season ‘relegation six-pointer’ has landed them back in the relegation zone on goal difference. However, the game was not devoid of positives. Another goal for Deeney and an assist for Deulofeu indicates that their respective spells of good form continue. The arrival of winger Ignacio Pussetto from Udinese will be welcomed by many, but defensive reinforcements may also be required in the final week of the window if Watford are to fight their way to safety.
Manchester United, Liverpool and Leicester City are sure to put Pearson’s new-look side to the test in February and March. With Norwich City in deep trouble, Bournemouth lacking conviction in front of goal and Villa heavily reliant on Mbwana Samatta to make an instant impact, Watford’s prospects of survival are looking unquestionably better than this time last month.
Let us not forget that Pearson is no stranger to a great escape. Having assisted Bryan Robson with West Brom’s final day triumph in 2005, he was the main man when he repeated the feat with Leicester in 2015. Perhaps nobody is better placed to lead Watford to Premier League safety.