February 22, 2019, Watford are in seventh place and everything is right in the world. More than a month later and they’ve beaten Wolves in the most dramatic FA Cup semi-final in the history of the competition to reach their first FA final in 35 years and everything is still fine with the world.
Seven months and 27 games since that fateful day in February and things look exceptionally bleak for the Hornets despite Nigel Pearson’s appointment. They’re on their third permanent manager with Javi Garcia and Quique Sanchez Flores both unceremoniously walking away and have managed to win just four games since. To put that in perspective, Leeds United nearly won a promotion, then lost it, twice, and are now in contention for another. Fulham got relegated and are amongst the top contenders to get promoted yet again alongside, and more importantly, a seemingly resurgent Nottingham Forest.
But what really puts that into perspective is that last season’s rock bottom Huddersfield Town managed more wins (six) in the same period. It showcases the predicament that Watford find themselves in and it just might be the one that knocks them back down. Shocking, considering just how well the club was once run with the Pozzo family’s business model, alongside the Southampton’s, the one to follow. It was a pathbreaker and created new in-roads for clubs unable to spend the billions and trillions that the Premier League’s big boys could. Even the upper mid-table sides tried to follow the same route but somehow failed.
However, for the Hornets and the mid-tablers, it worked perfectly with them buying in bulk and at a discount, before selling them for incredible prices. That includes a sensational profit on Richarlison, Matej Vydra and Dodi Lukebakio with all three making no more than a slight impact on the side. However, it allowed them to survive in the Premier League with Southampton following something similar. The Saints used a brilliant network of scouts around the world to help them find the young talent and develop them into world-beaters. When that failed, the same network helped them find players like Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk, Victor Wanyama, and many others to develop and then sell for obscene amounts of money.
But then came about potentially the most devastating change a mid-table club could ever have, especially in the Premier League. A £1.4 billion deal, spread over three years, and the wealth was going to be equally divided amongst all 20 Premier League clubs. It was a landmark moment for the league, the clubs and the players but for mid-table sides, it effectively negated their models. Thanks in part to this and the world around them responding, the transfer economy bubbled and hit unassailable limits because less than a year later Neymar happened. The word unassailable here is doing a lot of lifting but that deal, and every subsequent transfer has, hit incredible limits.
Philippe Coutinho, Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ousmane Dembele, and Joao Felix were all sold for north of a £100 million. But two men on that list have struggled to do much, one is well past his prime and one may not be able to sustain the pressure of the tag. That plus the TV deal, for England, changed the way mid-table clubs had to operate because no longer could players be brought in for the bare minimum. They couldn’t be paid the bare minimum either and since then, no mid-table club has managed to sustain a run in the league. Stoke City tried to keep up with the trend and bring in slightly above average players for incredible amounts of money and they eventually found themselves staring at relegation.
Now, they’re on the verge of a double relegation with the Potters in 22nd place in the Championship. Sunderland did the same, got relegated twice in two years and are now struggling to find their way back up. However, the Black Cats had various other issues but much like Watford, it was their business model eventually failing that saw them fail to cope. History always repeats itself and for Watford, that’s exactly what is happening right now. The shadow of relegation looms glaringly over them and there seems to be nothing they can do to avoid it right now. Not even a managerial honeymoon might save them with Quique Sanchez Flores' lasting less than ten games.
Not only that, just like Sunderland, Swansea City, Middlesbrough and Stoke City, it has become rather painfully obvious that Watford and even Southampton’s model no longer works. But Watford have the added pressure of buying big and handing £60,000 to £70,000 a week wages to everyone they meet. It means that they walked into the season as the highest ever paid side that Watford have ever assembled in all the years they ever played football. Naturally, inflation plays a huge role in that fact but it’s still downright incredible that the Hornets managed to do that, pay Danny Welbeck north of £60,000 a week and buy Ismailia Sarr for a club-record fee.
It’s the biggest flaw in their model with it never accounting for the future but only for the present. Essentially, it’s the biggest pro is the fact that it would keep Watford afloat with a dependence on the players to keep them above. The change in the uncontrollable around them affected that and now unlike the league’s big boys and even the upper mid-table sides, Watford do not have unlimited wealth. They do not have £100 odd million to splash about in the winter window like a Manchester United, Arsenal or even an Everton might have. It’s the biggest advantage of being rich, you get possibly the greatest insurance policy against disaster and it's why Manchester United will never go down. At least, not now.
But being a mid-table side, Watford cannot afford that luxury, yet thanks to the new footballing world the Hornets having been spending money like they are more than just mid-table. Like the week they spent in seventh and one FA Cup final in 35 years affords them the luxury to do more than spend on the unknown recruits but instead on a player the world wants. That’s instead of making the smart decision to reinforce their defense with someone who’s not over the age of 30 and can survive in this fast-paced footbaling world. It’s one of the reasons they find themselves in the predicament they are in and one of the many reasons why mid-table clubs need to find another way.
They need to do more than just buy in bulk, sell at a premium and survive on the scraps. But for Watford, to do that now, might be damn near impossible. Either way, it’s a zero-sum game for them. If, somehow, Nigel Pearson and co manage to keep them up, then next season will be more of the same. And yet. And yet if they go down, they lose the likes of Ismaila Sarr, Danny Welbeck, Gerard Deulofeu, Andre Gray, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Will Hughes, Roberto Pereyra and a few others. Essentially their big men will have to leave because 1) their wage bill is not sustainable down south and 2) they are players who will find Championship football blasphemous to even say.
Just ask Stoke City. This is a massive undertaking and it might be even bigger than the one that saw them get promoted but it allows them the chance to build back up. It gives them a chance to adapt to the new market and find themselves a new business model before finding their way back up. Exactly, like the way Wolves and a once upon a time Watford did rather shrewdly. It’s why they need to not look at relegation like it’s a problem but instead like it’s a blessing in disguise. For that is what their reality looks like and accepting it now, helps their cause.