In the past three years Watford have won automatic promotion to the Premier League, finished 13th in the top flight while reaching the FA Cup semi-finals, and once again retained their status among the elite. They are by any reasonable measure their three most successful seasons since, with the club ninth in the table, Graham Taylor first left them to join Aston Villa, 30 years ago on Thursday. And yet each of them has ended with the manager being told to clear his desk.
Walter Mazzarri is the latest to be given the bad news, the Italian having been summoned to the training ground in London Colney on Tuesday to be informed of the decision.
In the Italian’s first and apparently only season in England, Watford spent a single week in the bottom three – and even that was in August – effectively secured their top-flight status with six weeks to spare and became the only team outside the current top three to beat both Manchester United and Arsenal. Yet like Quique Sánchez Flores, the Spaniard who took charge last season, he enters his final weekend as a lame duck manager, his future already decided and disclosed.
In all there have been seven permanent appointments in the five years since the Pozzo family bought the club, with only the first, Gianfranco Zola, lasting longer than a year and the shortest reign, that of Billy McKinlay in 2014, ending after eight days. Under the Italians’ ownership Watford have earned a foothold in the Premier League, but also a reputation for dispensing with coaches at the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, with top-flight football, along with all its associated profile and profit, and the ability to live in north London on offer there is no concern that attracting a replacement will prove a problem.
Mazzarri’s departure will be mourned by few at Vicarage Road. A recent survey on a fans’ forum found 78% support for his sacking, with the manager’s inability or refusal to speak English in public – but for the answer to one question in one interview by the BBC last month – particularly influential in alienating supporters. It did not help his relationship with the players, either. In training instructions had to be relayed to English speakers by one of the bilingual players, while in matches Mazzarri had to be accompanied to the touchline by one of his coaches. Often the team’s performances looked as if something had been lost in translation, with their defending from set pieces particularly puzzling. Gradually, with the communication issues just one problem among many, the Italian’s relationship with his players started to disintegrate.
In Italy Mazzarri created a reputation, at least before his short and undistinguished spell at Internazionale, for improving strikers and fashioning exciting, high-scoring sides. There has been little sign of either trait during his time in Hertfordshire: Odion Ighalo, scourge of rival defences in the first half of last season, was sold to China in January having scored just once, while Troy Deeney has managed seven goals from open play and has started several recent games on the bench, to his great disgruntlement. Deeney’s underwhelming tally is less a reflection of his own poor form than the team’s inability to create chances for him, with Watford’s attacking play often as lacking in fluency as their manager’s press conferences.
There were certainly some highs along the way, with a thrilling and thoroughly deserved win against Arsenal in January and the three consecutive home victories that carried the team to 40 points and near‑certain safety among them.
However, Watford have found success hard to sustain: the win at the Emirates Stadium came two days after a dismal FA Cup defeat at Millwall, and those three home victories were immediately followed by a hideous 2-0 defeat at Hull, a side on their way to relegation who played with 10 men for more than an hour. Watford have lost all four games since, finally achieving consistency of the most underwhelming sort.
At Inter, Mazzarri created another reputation: for producing increasingly far-fetched excuses for his team’s failures, most notoriously blaming a draw with Verona on some rain. Ultimately this is the version of Mazzarri that Watford’s fans will recognise. When his side lost 1-0 against Liverpool recently, courtesy of Emre Can’s stunning overhead kick, Mazzarri told the media that “usually I don’t like to speak about luck but today we were completely unlucky”. It was a bizarre turn of phrase from someone who complained that his side were “unlucky” after games against Bournemouth, Stoke, Southampton, Chelsea and Hull, had “no luck at all” on a “very unlucky day” at Crystal Palace, were “not very lucky” at Swansea, and “missed a bit of luck” against Middlesbrough. In fact Mazzarri speaks about luck almost constantly, most recently moaning that the injury crisis currently affecting his defence is “very unlucky and I’m very angry”.
Others at Watford are far from convinced that the injuries are as unlucky as Mazzarri insists. Some, such as the serious knee problems that prematurely ended Roberto Pereyra’s and Mauro Zárate’s seasons, certainly seem unfortunate. But though it might not be as obvious as the number of goals they concede from corners, the quantity of muscular injuries sustained by Watford’s players is seen as another indicator of poor training methods. There are questions about both quality and quantity: Mazzarri’s recent decision to demand the players attend training on 12 consecutive days tested both the players’ patience and their endurance.
Mazzarri had been set no specific target before the season started. Survival was the least that was expected of him, but there was no exhortation to beat last season’s league position or points tally. He was expected to entertain and to impress, and in the end he achieved neither. Watford will hope the next man in the manager’s office is a considerable improvement. And if not, well, they can always find another.