With Bournemouth’s meteoric rise from the brink of dissolution to the summit of English football dominating the column inches with regards to newly promoted clubs, it seems that we have been overlooking the introduction of one of the most unorthodoxly run clubs in England to the Premier League – Watford.
Whereas some English clubs, notably Tottenham and Newcastle, have adopted aspects of the “continental” approach to running a club, where an owner, Director of Football or some other high level committee controls the biggest decisions at the club, including player recruitment, leaving the traditional manager a marginalised and dispensable figure, Watford have taken this approach to the extreme.
Typified by their turnover of five managers in a season where they gained promotion to the Premier League, the Hornets appear to be making a success of a style shunned by the English footballing intelligentsia.
Their thriving in the merciless glare of the top flight could lead to a change in England’s approach to how a football club is ideally run.
Watford’s innovative leap began in the summer of 2012 with their takeover by the Pozzo Family, who also owned Italian and Spanish sides Udinese and Grenada from 1986 and 2009 respectively.
Whilst the family’s most active member, Gino Pozzo, certainly takes a more hands on approach than most Premier League owners, there is at least a clear and well functioning method to his approach, which has brought about great success.
The Pozzos’ general strategy centres round investing heavily in global scouting networks to prize talented young players relatively cheaply and then to sell them on for large profits.
Barring few others, Udinese are the world’s best at this, having had players such a Fabio Quagliarella, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alexis Sanchez drive European finishes in recent seasons, before departing to huge transfer fees.
As a result, Udinese maintained financial security during an era of famine in Serie A whilst managing to consistently secure top half finishes and feature in both the Champions and Europa Leagues. Clearly, if Watford could match anywhere near that then fans will be overjoyed.
The family’s other club, Granada, have also enjoyed relative success since their new ownership in 2009, leveraging their partnership with Udinese to gain promotion to La Liga for the first time since the mid 70s in the 2012/13 season maintaining that position.
However Gino Pozzo himself has indicated that he wants Watford to match the success of his Italian club, rather than his Spanish one:
If you look at the recent history of Watford the project was: we need to sell all our best players as soon as an offer comes because there weren’t the financial resources to hold on to them. Now the idea is to move the club to a different level where the player himself feels there are very few choices that are better.
We want those choices to come down to Barcelona, Real Madrid and so on. The players who leave Udinese are moving to AC Milan, Inter, Juventus or a couple of clubs in Spain and a few clubs in England.
There are some drawbacks of the Pozzos’ ownership structure that may cause a few murmurs of discontent at Vicarage Road.
First and most obviously is their tendency to rotate players around their three clubs. Though loaning players such as Matej Vydra from Udinese has been key in securing Watford’s promotion to the Premier League, such an approach does threaten continuity at the club.
The Pozzo’s ownership is one based on constant change, adaption and moving forward; however fears that, should Watford struggle, Udinese may get the pick of the better players, are not completely unfounded.
The second, and more substantial, fear is that differences between Italian and English football would mean that Udinese’s successes in Serie A may not be able to be translated to the Premier League.
For starters, many of the players who have defined Udinese under the Pozzo family, such as their biggest success story Alexis Sanchez, had been drafted in at a young age from South America.
UK footballing work permit laws would prevent many of these deals from happening for Watford, greatly limiting the effectiveness on an strategy based around thorough global scouting networks in England.
Indeed, we are already beginning to see the worrying consequences of this barrier to securing young talent in Watford’s transfer dealings this summer.
Rather than bringing in prodigious talent, Watford have sought after out of favour players who still have the past track record to suggest that they could make an impact beyond the fees spent for them. Valon Behrami and Etienne Capoue typify this type of signing.
The risk here is that the “hunger of youth” factor which so evidently propelled Udinese forward may be lost on this Watford side. The fact that new manager Quique Flores has come recently after a stint in the Middle East may further suggest that Watford are not running in as a forward thinking manner as their Italian sister.
Further concerns lie in more footballing matters. What kept Watford in promotion contention throughout their managerial influxes were an endless supply of goals. Their three strikers scored over 15 goals each, and this factor alone made success near inevitable.
However with the side now going into most games on the back foot, and new manager favouring a system with a loan striker, one must be concerned whether this strength will carry through into the coming season.
Though captain Troy Deeney is certainly Premier League quality, Vydra struggled at this level with West Brom recently and it will be Odion Oghalo’s first season in any top flight.
But perhaps what makes Watford fans most fearful, and what makes this club most intriguing, is that their approach has routinely failed in every other implementation in English football.
Their ten summer signings seems incredibly “Spursy”, Etienne Capoue could have just as easily been an overpaid QPR “bad egg” and the mere thought of five different managers in a season makes the orifice on any stadium seat pucker. But the Pozzos have had unmitigated success in all their footballing ventures.
Should they succeed on the most lucrative stage of all then it will be as an against the odds victory as any newly promoted side.
One thought on “Watford – Premier League guinea pigs”
Not a bad article but you’ve misunderstood the transfer strategy this summer for Watford. It was never to sign ‘young prodigious talent’ as we already had a relatively young group. The idea has been to sign players who should be at home in a top flight team, who have experience of international football and big games but not necessarily 35 years old. On paper we’ve done pretty well.
Equally we will never be the first port of call for young South Americans. Granada are the EU passport factory for them so they will always ping between there and Udinese. Where Watford will come in will be with players we can sign without work permits – North Europeans more likely to adapt to our climate and playing ethos – Dutch, Scandanavian, French etc. There’s still plenty of value to be found there if you have the standing to attract them while they’re young.