If there is a particular formula for Premier League success, it’s unlikely you’ll find two people in football to agree on it.
Perhaps it’s the Liverpool model of allowing key structural decisions to be influenced by the thoughts (as it were) of Jamie Redknapp, a man with fewer lucid opinions than a single Coco Pop. Or perhaps rather it’s the Leicester City model of hastily swapping a furious lunatic for a kindly grandparent and letting the sheer relief propel you up the league. Maybe it’s simply the hypnotic crimson glow from a giant Dutchman’s brawny testicles.
At least everyone agrees what the wrong way to survive in the Premier League is. The Watford way.
Whether you occasionally brush your eyelids against the newspapers, dip a courageous toe into the mis-spelt fury of Twitter or simply allow Sky Sports News to vomit relentlessly into your crumbling soul, you’ve probably heard that Watford are a f*cking mess.
A brief dash through their crimes reads a little something like this. Hire a manager. Lose a manager. Hire another. Sack him instantly. Hire another. Get promoted. Get rid of him. Hire another. Buy 15 players. Spit into the hood of a pensioner’s cagoule. Maim a lollipop lady. Invade Poland.
Oh how we all chuckled. Silly old Watford, with their dizzying lack of structure and their contempt for old-fashioned values like team spirit. Let’s all put on ‘Circle of Life’ by Elton John and watch them disintegrate like a Twix that’s been hurled into the fiery path of an asteroid.
Except that hasn’t happened. Not even a bit. Watford currently sit in a ‘pretty ok’ 11th place. They’ve won four of their 12 games, but only lost four as well. They have the joint 4th best defensive record in the league and somewhat brain-bendingly, have shipped 11 fewer goals than Chelsea.
Admittedly, there are concerns too. Watford have scored only one more goal (11) than the worst team in the leauge (and possibly the world) Aston Villa, West Brom and Stoke. This is despite them creating more chances than teams like Manchester United, Everton and even the hipsters’ flavour of the month, Crystal Palace, who are still enjoying that honeymoon period in which fans forget that Alan Pardew has all the tactical nous of sedated lemming. This level of production has allowed them to squarely point the knobbly finger of reproach at their 36 per cent shot accuracy – the second worst in the division, behind famed chance-wasters, Villa.
But, even with a balanced view, this isn’t the hopeless, scattergun start everyone was absolutely positive they’d see from Watford. The Hornets, with their new manager and 15 new summer signings, should by all accounts be smashed and weeping at the bottom of the table, like a fat wasp trapped in a muffin.
Instead, Watford have made a decent start to life in the top flight. The new boss, Quique Sánchez Flores, (above) a man with a managerial record we will politely describe as ‘not brilliant’ (a Europa League win with Atletico Madrid the high point, a sacking from UAE side Al Ain the desperate low) has produced a settled, muscular and organised side. He’s also managed to get the best out of some unlikely performers.
His goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, was pretty much laughed (incredibly slowly for some reason) out of Spurs and yet has been a remarkably reliable presence. Etienne Capoue, whose own time at Spurs was torpedoed by injury and managerial shuffles, looks like the athletic end-of-level boss we were always told he was.
Almen Abdi is relentlessly crafty from the flanks, Troy Deeney is a massive bag of inspirational muscle up front and seven-goal Odion Ighalo has taken to the Premier League like an urban fox to an upturned wheelie bin.
Saturday afternoon represents a real opportunity to measure their chances of becoming the first Watford team since 1987 to retain a place in the top flight. And in their opponents, Manchester United, they come across the very antithesis of their unexpected over-performance – the Tony Soprano to their Tony from Hollyoaks.
United, with just three managers in a 29 year spell. That’s a tally Watford managed in little over a month last year as Billy McKinlay, Oscar Garcia Junyent and Giuseppe Sannino were all sent scrambling for the jobs section of the Evening Standard in the between August and October of 2014.
Despite Louis van Gaal giving the impression he’s constantly one incorrect thrown-in decision away from dropping his pants and declaring that he’s off to leave in a cave, surviving only by scraping owl feces off hay bales, there is the impression the club have a clearer direction than under David Moyes.
Despite the Scot apparently being a beacon of conservatism and defensive organisation, it’s LVG who has reduced the amount of gift-wrap goals handed to opponents. United have the best defence in the league (a fact that has been fact-checked for accuracy 18 times given its blatant mind-blowingness). Yes, they’ve become about as interesting as Michael Portilo talking about trains, but they also no longer look like Titus Bramble could really bring stability to the rearguard.
Despite the sneering, the grave prophecies and the general froth and spittle surrounding such a high turnover, Watford don’t even have the decency to fall to pieces. In fact, they’re precisely the sort of oddball proposition – like a bucket of mismatched Lego – that knows precisely how to kick van Gaal in the bitterballens.
And when you look at Villa’s listless flailing, or Steve McClaren, trapped in a job more complicated than his own comb-over, or Sunderland scientifically hoofing their way deeper and deeper into the void under Big Sam, perhaps a little bit of a chaos isn’t quite so bad after all.