After seven Premier League games, with the team 14th in the table, and within 24 hours of the final whistle blowing on a dismal defeat against Leeds at Elland Road, Watford sacked Xisco Muñoz as head coach and opened negotiations with Claudio Ranieri.
Should he be appointed, Ranieri would have the international break to introduce the players to his methods, followed by a nightmare run of eight games in which opponents include Liverpool, Chelsea, both Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Everton and Leicester.
Muñoz becomes the sixth permanent appointee to leave the club since May 2017 but, though the regularity with which Watford have changed their head coach since Gino Pozzo bought the club in 2012 has been widely mocked, the results have been impressive: two promotions, an FA Cup final and six seasons in the Premier League, with one relegation from which they immediately bounced back. Other than Sean Dyche – the first to fall, a week after Pozzo’s takeover – and Billy McKinlay, who lasted only eight days in 2014, it is hard to argue that any of their decisions has been premature. The issue has been not with the firing but with the hiring.
Ranieri, who turns 70 this month and left Sampdoria at the end of last season, is clearly not intended to be a long-term solution. His arrival would, however, comprehensively solve the most significant issue with Watford’s previous coaching team, which was inexperience and tactical naivety – just as Muñoz comprehensively improved upon the most obvious problem with his predecessor, the surly, sour Vladimir Ivic. And so the cycle will restart, with the new coach destined to last as long as it takes for his primary failing to be identified and become genuinely debilitating.
Though seven points seems a fairly healthy return from the first seven games after promotion, Watford’s fixtures have been kind and their performances poor, bar the visit to an even more hapless Norwich and an opening-day win over Aston Villa, who were dealing with a Covid outbreak and appeared to have been expressly set up for the benefit of Ismaïla Sarr.
In their last two games they drew 1-1 at home to Newcastle and lost narrowly at Leeds on Saturday, but in both matches were comprehensively outplayed, as they had been by Wolves and Brighton. In a statement Watford said that “recent performances strongly indicate a negative trend at a time when team cohesion should be visibly improving”.
For many who have regularly watched Watford over the nine months or so the surprise was not how quickly Muñoz was despatched but how long he stayed – and this despite accumulating the best win percentage of any manager in Watford’s history, leading the team to a promotion secured with a run of 14 wins and three defeats in 18 league games, and being a popular, warm and enthusiastic individual.
The team’s tactical disorganisation and their coach’s inability to remedy issues in-game was evident even during the canter back to the Premier League, when there were few genuinely impressive performances but, after a tactical reorganisation forced by injuries, an exceptional defence and in Sarr a player of outstanding quality in a pandemic-weakened division were ultimately enough.
Conscious of the manager’s popularity and the likely media backlash, Pozzo did not act over the summer but in the top flight the failings of a coach whose experience before arriving at Vicarage Road amounted to a handful of games in Georgia have been even more exposed.
“A wonderful journey [has] concluded in a way that I neither expected nor wished for,” Muñoz said. “I’ve got nothing but gratitude for the club that gave me the opportunity to start my first adventure in this exciting country. I will always be a Watford fan.”