This was the season everything was supposed to go wrong for Watford. Not only did they spend their summer bracing themselves for the onset of the potentially lethal second season syndrome, but they were doing so without the cool charisma of Hertfordshire leading man. Quique Sánchez Flores, who guided the Hornets to safety in their first season back in the top flight, was cruelly jettisoned before last season had even finished. In his place arrived Walter Mazzarri, a wizened, chain-smoking Tuscan, known for the kind of touchline meltdown that wouldn’t do much good at a time of footballing crisis.
Watford’s owners, however, had resolved that a shakeup was needed -- and certainly not for the first time. Since their last spell in the Premier League, which ended in 2007, the Hornets gone through 10 different managers; seven of those changes have been made since the Pozzo family took over just four years ago. And yet, their rise over the same period has been little short of remarkable. If it wasn’t already clear from the work they’d done at their other clubs -- notably Udinese and Granada (who they sold earlier this summer) -- they know exactly what they’re doing.
That, combined with the fact that Sánchez Flores had overseen a late-season nosedive of Pardew-esque proportions, meant that Watford supporters weren’t too upset to see a change being made. But with uncertainty inevitably comes unease, and Mazzarri still looked a huge gamble as coach. His greatest success had come in his spell at Napoli, when he turned a team spearheaded by Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamšík into one of Europe’s most devastating counter-attacking forces. But he’d done so with unorthodox tactics; his stubborn insistence on playing a three-man defense eventually proved his undoing, and he failed to replicate similar results in a later spell at Inter Milan.
There was the feeling that Napoli and Mazzarri had been a perfect storm. The players fitted the system, and the results followed from there. How would he manage in an entirely new league, trying to enforce an unusual tactical approach on a set of players still reeling from the departure of his Mazzarri’s affable predecessor? Fortunately, they were difficulties for which the Pozzos had prepared. They spent the summer assembling a squad that fit the Mazzarri profile, and if the first few games of the season are anything to go by, they’re going to reap the rewards.
Daryl Janmaat’s career had stalled badly as he turned in a series of disappointing performances in Newcastle’s relegation season, though he’s much better suited to the wingback role he’s been handed since arriving at Vicarage Road last month. Younès Kaboul looked shaky at Sunderland, but looks set to play a regular role in the center of defense over the coming season, with Miguel Britos, Sebastian Prödl and Craig Cathcart also all vying for a place in the back three. Up top, club-record signing Isaac Success looks to be a signing as much for the future as the present, though midfield dynamo Roberto Pereyra is surely going to play a starring role since arriving from Juventus for a bargain fee.
Not only are these astute signings, but they’re the finishing touches to a team that now looks unmistakably Mazzarri. He’s a coach who likes his wingbacks to have the attacking drive of conventional wingers: in Janmaat and José Holebas, those boxes are ticked. His midfield three is well balanced: alongside the attack-minded Pereyra is the anchorman, Valon Behrami (one of three Hornets players who played under Mazzarri at Napoli), and the box-to-box carthorse Étienne Capoue. Up top, Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo merely have to rediscover the form that saw them score a combined total of 28 of Watford’s 40 league goals last season.
Of course, there’s an important caveat: we’re still only four games into the Premier League season. Their only victory so far has come against a struggling West Ham, and their only other point against a Southampton side yet to find their feet under Claude Puel. There’s still plenty of time for things to go sour. But at this stage, it must also be said that such a downturn looks unlikely. Watford’s summer business is yet more evidence of their supreme organizational structure, with the club and coach looking in perfect harmony, and their poor performances came before their new signings had settled in. Who knows, perhaps Mazzarri will yet be able to reproduce his thrilling Neapolitan brand of counter-attacking football in the Premier League.