Watford’s 5-0 win against Rotherham United was eye-catching. Their biggest win of the season and first by that margin since 2015, when Charlton Athletic were on the receiving end.
But less is more at Watford at the moment. Less expectation, less stress, less panic.
Yesterday’s win, courtesy of two goals from Mileta Rajovic, who has six for the season, a maiden Edo Kayembe strike and late contributions from substitutes Tom Ince and Matheus Martins allowed head coach Valerien Ismael to reflect on the opening phase of his reign in a secure position.
The Ismael era is only 16 league games old, but a manager/head coach seeing out three international breaks is no mean feat at Vicarage Road, especially over the past four seasons.
Watford are 13th in the 24-team Championship table going into this final hiatus of 2023 and six unbeaten — their best run since the 2020-21 promotion season (eight) — including three wins in five.
“We are improving every block (of fixtures). We started strong with the first game (4-0 at home against Queens Park Rangers in August) which showed us what is possible with this squad, but it’s been a lot of work (since),” Ismael told The Athletic.
Watford’s record in those three “blocks”, before the September, October and November breaks? Five points from the first five games, five from the next six matches, 11 from the most recent five. That final set of games has, technically, been the easiest, with their opponents’ average position in the table being 19.8, lower than both block one (17.6) and two (8.8).
The hierarchy held their nerve, even backing their head coach with a new contract during a period when they dropped to a season-low of 21st, after losing successive matches against Leeds United, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
“We came out of the challenge when we lost three games very well with the mentality, we found the right solution for the players,” says Ismael. “It was a learning process, and now we feel that we are still moving in the right direction, the results show up and it’s a combination (with) the feeling within the club from the beginning.”
Ismael has been afforded time, and it’s helping Watford heal their trigger-happy wounds. “When you stick together, when you believe in the work you put in, when the players believe in themselves and when you are patient with young players then, at some point, you will get the reward,” he says. “At the minute, we’re getting the reward from our hard work.”
Having another international break clear of worries, disruption or managerial change means, as at other clubs, Watford can spend the coming days looking ahead. Perhaps towards their January recruitment to address the need for improvements in some areas.
Fantastic atmosphere at The Vic today! 🔝
See you after the international break. 👋 pic.twitter.com/pJMSSoCjek
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) November 11, 2023
“We start to assess, but we have to give the feeling to the players that we count on them,” Ismael says. “We are ready to give the chance to everyone, if you respect the rules for sure.”
It was a nod to discipline, which is a key Ismael tenet. True to his word, he has punished four players for timekeeping breaches: Imran Louza, Ben Hamer, Tom Dele-Bashiru and Ismael Kone. Rather than fracturing the group, he believes his actions have made it stronger.
“This is my mindset for sure, give you (the current squad) the chance, guys, to do it right (before thinking about introducing more new players). It’s something new and at the minute, I think the response is good from all the players, the attitude is good and now it’s about (continuing to) push and show the desire.”
The next phase of the season, starting at leaders Leicester City on November 25, kicks off a frenetic phase: 10 games in 38 days, ending with a trip to Plymouth Argyle on New Year’s Day.
“The next massive block comes with the big December month as always in the Championship,” says Ismael. “Now we’re more ready. We know the players more, what type of player we need in each game, when we (need to) change and when we (can keep them on the pitch) a little bit longer.”
Watford have nine players going away on international duty, so a smaller group will work with Ismael next week and there will be some time off to gather strength. By the end of this next block, which takes them up to FA Cup third-round weekend in early January, they’ll have a better idea of what they will be fighting for in the second half of the season. They are five points off the play-off spots, and 10 above the relegation places.
Ismael will have lofty ambitions. The hierarchy will want to build on this recovery after that difficult start. But even if it doesn’t end up with a push towards the top six, there may still be benefit in having an unremarkable season.
Some fans will understandably want this final year of Premier League parachute protection to be a concerted effort to get back into the big league. That may come, it may develop from these early foundations. But for the club’s reputation, it’s perhaps more important to see something through, for the first time in a while, come what may.
It has the potential to be restorative, even if not spectacular. Less (drama) is more.
(Top photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)