Quique Sánchez Flores
When Quique Sánchez Flores took charge of Watford in 2015, his tactic of choice was 442 with some slight variation here and there. Essentially though it was a back four, a double pivot midfield and an attack of two strikers. The wider midfielders saw some rotation but needed to work hard, possess pace and show the ability to narrow the space by playing more centrally at times. The team lacked true wingers and Jose Manuel Jurado ended up becoming a wide midfielder. Perhaps forced into this by the threatening striker partnership formed by Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, midfielder Almen Abdi also found himself pushed out wide. Ikechi Anya and Miguel Layun saw some games in these wide positions and even Etienne Capoue was fielded there on occasion!
In terms of playing style, it was a very negative, counter-attacking approach relying on the whole team to win the ball, quite often deep into their final third, and then move it as quickly as possible to the strike partnership up top, where the team’s main strength was. Between Ighalo and Deeney they scored 28 of Watford’s 40 goals (70%) with the next highest scorers boasting a whole 2 goals (Prodl, Abdi and Watson). During this time, Watford posted some of the lowest numbers for crosses, passes and chances created. They also had one of the highest foul rates, yellow cards received and penalties conceded, which portrays the bigger picture. Despite having a Spanish manager, they essentially played a throwback to a traditional English style of football. Mixed together, we saw a tough-tackling, direct approach mixed with a negative and counter-attacking defence; as if it were the love-child of Allardyce and Mourinho. The stuff of nightmares to some.
Sanchez Flores’ defence consisted of a back four. At right back, this was usually a more defensive-minded and tall player with very little assist threat. This player was Allan Nyom – a 6’’2 player who recorded just a single assist in the Premier League under Flores. Similarly, the left back spot saw some rotation, with Nathan Ake playing there for a large part of the season (27 games) and Jose Holebas filling in the remaining matches (11 games). This shows that Flores looks for a very defensive backline – willing to put a player adept at centre back to fullback, sacrificing creativity and threat for a more defence-minded player. At centre back, Flores found his most stable defender to be Craig Cathcart, with Miguel Britos and Sebastian Prodl sharing the games throughout the season.
With a dangerous partnership of Ighalo and Deeney up top, Flores was almost forced into a four-man midfield. A diamond may have suited in hindsight, especially without a whole lot of quality on the wings, but instead Flores decided to play four central midfielders in 442. Jurado and Abdi occupied the flanks mainly, both being more traditional central midfielders. Miguel Layun and Ikechi Anya acted as backup to these wider positions. Etienne Capoue quickly became the focal point of the pivot, with his midfield partner mainly being Ben Watson, and Mario Suarez later pushing for a place. Between these seven midfield players just five goals were scored.
At Espanyol, Flores mainly stuck to 442, very rarely playing 4231 despite having more wide options in Hernan Perez, Pablo Piatti and Jose Antonio Reyes. Leo Baptistao, Gerard Moreno and Felipe Caicedo acted as strikers. Strangely however, in a 442, Jurado (who accompanied Flores to Espanyol) found himself once again pushed to a wider midfield role. In defence, Flores still preferred a tall right back in Marc Navarro who stood at 6’’2. Club captain Javi Lopez found himself on the end of a horrible run of injuries that afforded Navarro to start so much. Incidentally, Navarro joined Watford after Flores departed Espanyol for Shanghai – he is now on a season loan to Leganes. On the other side of defence, the shorter and very young Aarón Martín was trusted at left back. In this first season, Flores guided Espanyol to an 8th place finish.
In his 2017/18 season, he opted to play with one striker in 26 of their 38 games, perhaps trying to move away from his traditional 442, venturing into other formations such as 433, 4231 and 4141. It was not a productive season compared to the previous year as Espanyol finished in 13th place. He left the club and by the end of 2018 was appointed as manager of Chinese club Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.
Shanghai (departed 15th July 2019)
For the most part, this was another unproductive season for Flores, but perhaps an opportunity to experiment with other tactics to improve on a stagnating managerial career. He played with a back three in defence for 9 of his 15 games in charge – with just three wins in total. In the other six games he jumped between his usual 442 and a one-striker formation, but failed to win any of these games. He left in July for personal reasons, with the team just lingering above the relegation zone in 14th place.
Return to Watford
On the 7th September, his return to Watford was announced with mixed opinions from fans after Javi Gracia was dismissed controversially. Watford find themselves bottom of the table with just one point, failing to win any of their opening four games (along with Wolves). It will be interesting to see how Flores fares out this time around with Watford, however I am not very optimistic of their chances. With the international break taking place, it gives the manager nearly a full week to work with the squad since most of them have no international duties. However, their next six fixtures aren’t the kindest start for the new manager: ARS, mci, wol, SHU, tot, BOU.
Interestingly, Watford haven’t got a great record against Arsenal, but Flores has a great record when faced against Unai Emery’s sides. They may opt to play ultra defensive football for the first few games (and beyond) until they are more accustomed to any new tactics employed. It will be exciting to see how Flores lines up now that they possess great talent on the wings in Sarr and Deulofeu, with Pereyra perhaps being fielded out wide in a Jurado-style role at times. Whether he will play two strikers up top remains to be seen, especially with Deeney only coming back from an injury. Deulofeu could go to a striker role or a right midfield role depending on tactics chosen.
In defence, Craig Dawson might move to right back considering his ability to play there in the past (with West Brom) and Flores’ preference for a tall right back in defence. We would assume Craig Cathcart would be safe at centreback with one of Dawson, Kabasele or Prodl partnering him (assuming the former is not used at fullback). Left back seems a tricky spot to call since Holebas is now 35, and was not preferred in that position back in 2015 when Flores was at the club. Adam Masina could be given a chance there if Holebas is out of favour, or Kiko Femenia might be swapped over as an inverted fullback. Flores might even opt for a back three similarly to how he lined up at Shanghai, which could really make the other positions hard to guess.
In conclusion, it would be wise to wait and see how Flores sets up his side for this tough run of games coming up, and if there are any changes as the fixtures improve. By Gameweek 8, Watford begin a much nicer run of fixtures, so it could be a chance to fit in a forward like Deeney or Deulofeu if they look to provide value. Should Flores opt for a back three, it may be an opportunity for Prodl to work his way back into the side as a 4.0m defensive option, but I wouldn’t be too hopeful of this for now. We may seem them cause problems for some of the bigger teams as they look to grind out 0-0 draws early on. We would expect their defensive stats to improve under Flores, but his history of attacking was primarily down to an incredible striker partnership between Ighalo and Deeney. There doesn’t seem to be any signs of that partnership right now, but perhaps something could blossom between the various attacking options they have. On the whole though, I think it is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.