Sometimes life seems to throw the perfect juxtaposition at you. But it’s not always as gleaming as you think.
This week, the news of two shocking yet unsurprising Premier League happenings did just that: Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United and the sacking of former Watford manager Marco Silva.
Shocking because Sanchez looked for all the world as though he was going to join Manchester City, or because Silva had started so impressively with the Vicarage Road club. Yet unsurprising because of the ferociousness of the Chilean’s desire to leave Arsenal and the fall from grace the Portuguese has suffered since his interest in jumping ship when the Everton job was available before Christmas.
These two very different cases suddenly came to be understood in similar ways by their sheer proximity to one another: Sanchez and Silva, the Premier League’s mercenary duo. That’s probably an unfair characterisation of what happened – especially with Sanchez – but it’s stuck.
And yet neither of these men are the most unfairly characterised of the whole saga.
That title probably has to go to Watford Football Club itself, the subject of numerous vindictive think-pieces and half-baked ‘hot takes’ over the last few days.
Having the temerity to sack their manager after a run of only four wins in 17 games has been deemed as further evidence of a club wedded to short-termism. And in order to illustrate that fact further, the most-used stat has to be one claiming that the Pozzo family – Watford’s owners – have gone through ten managers since their arrival in 2012. Unkindly, both Oscar Garcia, who took charge of four games before stepping down due to ill-health, and Billy McKinlay, one of his coaches who took charge of just two games, are included. Eight managers in five-and-a-half years might not be a whole lot better, but using the inflated version stat shows this is about agenda setting, not fairness.
The fact that modern football itself is firmly wedded to a principle of short-term gains is presumably just an aside in all of this, but Watford have been made the poster boys. Ironically, though, it is the Hornets who are one of the the most guarded against the excesses of the modern drive to win at all costs.
Whatever you think about the fluid nature of Pozzo family’s conception of football club ownership, you can’t deny it is firmly set against short-termism as a core principle. Managers and players may come and go at speed, but the overarching plan makes them one of the best-organised clubs around: there is a very obvious long-term plan.
Indeed, just compare Watford’s slick Sunday with the sackings of most other managers in the Premier League this season. Everton lasted over a month in limbo after sacking Ronald Koeman. In that time, David Unsworth presided over just one win (technically, his second win in charge came after the appointment of Sam Allardyce) and an embarrassingly early exit from Europe. Recently, Stoke City went through three managers before finally settling on Paul Lambert. Watford, instead, sacked Silva and within minutes news came through that Javi Gracia, a man on few Premier League radars but who is clearly well-known to those who make the decisions at Vicarage Road, was set to be appointed.
What Watford have done, then, is set an identity for the club above the level of the manager and the players. Usually, when a club appoints a manager, they look for one who can instil an identity into the club. Then, once that’s done, they aim to carry it on. Manchester City’s appointment of Pep Guardiola was a search for a playing style now implemented by the coach. The next man will have to hold the skills to carry on the same work.
At Watford, no coach has done that job. Instead, the manager, just like the players, are brought in simply because they fit in with the identity of the club and the way it likes to operate. Most teams do it with players, identifying a pool of footballers they’d like to sign. The Hornets seem to do it with managers, too.
For what it’s worth, i’m not a huge fan of operating in the way the Pozzo’s do. To me, it seems a little corporate – loaning a player from Udinese to Watford feels a bit like an investment bank moving one of its employees ‘to the Watford office’ for a few months. But just because I don’t buy into the method doesn’t mean I have to falsely characterise it as something it’s not. Over the last few days, plenty have done that.
But what makes it worse is that it’s been done for a particular reason. Watford are being portrayed as a club who show a lack of commitment to their managers and their players, and who are attempting to maintain their Premier League status simply for the money it generates. They’re being made the pin-ups for a dystopian future of unfeeling football, and that’s not fair.
And when you actually look at what’s happening, Watford are one of the few clubs around who have a solid long-term plan. Perhaps the Alexis Sanchez furore coloured the debate, but mercenary or not, the sacking of Marco Silva should not be a chance to make a football club out to be something it’s not.