Watford set to give Quique Flores a fitting send-off versus Sunderland
Watford's final match of the season, at home to Sunderland, will be their last with Quique Flores as manager. His much anticipated departure confirmed on Friday. When the dust settles on this season, Watford can reflect on their highest league finish since 1987 and an FA Cup run to the semifinals. If you judged their performance purely on those measures then it would be very difficult to conclude that this campaign has been anything other than a resounding success. So how is it that Flores, whose team have comprehensively defied expectations, has failed to earn a second season in charge?
From the outside it looks like yet another reactive sacking by a Premier League club indulging the infantile demands of their fans, a move that Slaven Bilic described as "sick."
But the truth is that Flores has masterminded his own downfall over the past few months. The first half of the season featured Flores as the relaxed, smiling charmer. Everyone loved him, it was hard not to. Rarely without an arm around his players, or the opposition manager, indeed, he is arguably the most tactile boss the league had ever seen. But in the opening games it was immediately obvious that his priority was to make Watford hard to beat. The often chaotic -- you score three, we'll score four -- style of his predecessor Slaivisa Jokanavic soon became a distant memory.
Upon arrival he wasted little time in ditching two of the brightest attacking talents from the previous season in Matej Vydra (sent on season-long loan to Reading) and Fernando Forestieri (sold to Sheffield Wednesday). And his reluctance to trust players that didn't fit his rigid team structure would be a hallmark of the season. Even so, Watford enjoyed some excellent times from September to December. A run of four consecutive victories that culminated in a 3-0 win over Liverpool meant that survival was already in sight just before Christmas. Flores was relaxed, and rightly so. The pressure was off his team.
But the first sign of trouble emerged in January with two awful, listless defeats in quick succession at Southampton and Swansea. Previous dips in form had been quickly reversed, but these performances were worse than what had come before. Suddenly the team began to look tired and increasingly predictable. Odion Ighalo's form was the most dramatic symbol of his team's decline. In the first half of the season, Ighalo looked likely to score whenever the ball went near him; in the second half, matches often passed him by. It was left to Troy Deeney to carry the team, as he has so many times before, and it was mostly down to him that Watford secured the remaining handful of wins to guarantee Premier League status.
But any newly promoted team is going to experience a few dips in form. The tide didn't turn against Flores just because of results, it did so because he didn't appear willing to do anything to try and arrest the decline. The single most frustrating feature of his time in charge was his absolute refusal to contemplate changing a midfield which has consistently failed to sparkle for months. And most infuriating of all was his cast iron faith in playing Almen Abdi and Jose Jurado on the wings. At least Abdi has managed a couple of goals, but he is woefully equipped to excel as a winger, drifting inside at every opportunity. As for Jurado, he has taken a huge amount of criticism from the fans, and while he too is arguably being played out of position, his contribution of zero goals and zero assists from 30 appearances is an astonishingly poor return.
Both Abdi and Jurado have regularly been pulled off by Flores when his team needs a goal. A sign that the manager himself recognises their limitations as an attacking force. Their replacements in recent months have been Adlene Guedioura, Nordin Amrabat and Steven Berghuis of late. All three offer something much more positive and attack-minded when presented with open space to run into. And yet, week after week, Flores chooses to start Abdi and Jurado. No matter how they perform, and no matter what impact the substitutes make, it has absolutely no bearing on his team selection a week later.
The only conclusion from this trend is that Flores is an obsessively defensive manager. When he first arrived he said he wanted games at Vicarage Road to "be like theatre for the supporters." Such a statement is open to interpretation of course, and Flores may have had been thinking of a particularly dull play with a minimalist set and no plot. But sadly, it all feels like a massive anti-climax and a missed opportunity.
He bought himself the luxury of a meaningless run-in having all but secured survival by the end of March. This was the time to let the other players have their turn. Instead we got more excuses and were told that players were either not quite ready yet, or were just unfortunate because other players were in their way. Watford bought Berghuis because they saw a talent with potential. A classic Pozzo signing. Of all the players that he has neglected to use in recent weeks the treatment of Berghuis has been the most baffling, and surely didn't help his long-term prospects of keeping the Watford job.
His lack of flexibility will surely have alarmed the owners who have been planning for next season with more exciting talents from Granada due to arrive. If they did not feel Flores was the man to get the best out of their players then it is not surprising that he has been dismissed. That is how Watford are run now. How much say Flores had in the transfers is unknown, and he may have been unhappy with some of the players he was given, but for a newly promoted club he was presented with a very strong squad so can have few complaints there.
But regardless of whether you think Flores over or underachieved, he departs as a Watford manager who did what he was asked to do, with a handful of great memories to treasure. Home victories over West Ham and Liverpool were particularly good, but the win at Arsenal in the FA Cup was probably the best. In some ways it is better that his fate has been confirmed because the uncertainty hanging over the game on Sunday would have harmed the atmosphere. Now the fans can ensure he is given a proper send-off and he will have the chance to say goodbye properly, an opportunity that few managers are afforded.
On form Sunderland are certain to win, but maybe, just maybe, Watford's players will raise their game one last time for their manager.
Michael blogs about Watford for ESPN FC. Follow on Twitter: @Regista_Michael.