Behind the Badge, the NBC series documentary on Watford released earlier this season, opens with the side licking its wounds after a 6-1 loss to Liverpool. The international break gives the players an extra week to stew on the defeat and prepare for their next league match against Leicester City. The eagerness of the players to move on is overshadowed by the mundaneness of the day to day repetitions of a professional athlete: training sessions, medical attention, and trying to entertain teammates in between. A key theme from the documentary is the family atmosphere that defines the club from the board to players to cooks to matchday volunteers.
Watford’s documentary draws an obvious comparison to Being Liverpool, the 2012 documentary about Liverpool criticized for its lack of critical eye. Yet transparency is also a key Watford trait. The manager and players hold meetings with supporters once a month where any question or topic is on the table, for example. And while a goal of the documentary was to expose the club to American supporters, they made it a point to show the side after both wins and losses. The month long duration of filming spanned two wins and two losses, including an ill-tempered battle against Stoke City. Watford players and supporters will experience more losses than wins during a season, which is hardly the qualification to convince new supporters. The most important part is maintaining a level head and togetherness through the ups and downs.
English striker Troy Deeney is the captain, charismatic leader of the locker room, and the star of the series. But he is a rarity on the side. The makeup of Watford’s roster is a glimpse into how smaller sides survive in today’s globalized Premier League. There were some 17 different languages spoken on the side during the first half of the season. In their 3-2 win against Everton, they at one point had 11 different international players on the field.
New manager Walter Mazzarri added to the international makeup of the club this winter transfer window. The biggest addition is the mercurial M’Baye Niang, who just two months ago seemed to have turned a corner in his career, on loan from Milan. Mauro Zarate also joined from Serie A. The two Italians make up the new look Watford attack with striker Odion Ighalo’s $25 million transfer move to China. In another underrated move that looks more significant with midfielder Roberto Pereyra’s knee injury, Tom Cleverley was loaned from Everton.
Deeney said that Quique Sanchez Flores go at the end of last season was “crazy”, and others like Slaven Bilic and Ray Wilkins noted the achievement of keeping Watford from relegation. But the hiring of Mazzarri reflected the same makeup of their winter transfer additions: a one time, much-hyped prospect seeking to rediscover their way.
Antonio Conte is rightfully the Italian manager garnering attention in leading Chelsea on their way to a Premier League title. But the depth of Serie A managerial waters wouldn’t allow for such a simple story. Conte and Mazzarri are rivals over alleged 3-4-3 formation plagiarism when each managed at Juventus and Napoli respectively.
The tables were turned then with Mazzarri the hottest manager of the hottest team in Europe in 2011. It was his 3-4-3 formation featuring an attacking trio of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Marek Hamsik that lead Napoli to the Champions League round of 16 may have birthed the hipster soccer movement as the coolest club in the world and the answer to the eternal question “Who should I support if I’m new to soccer?”. Mazzarri wrote in his autobiography that Conte copied his 3-4-3 formation, and the relationship has been strained since (Mazzarri also pointed out that Stoke City mirrored his side’s 3-4-3 formation earlier this season). He also clashed with Jose Mourinho during those Serie A years at the turn of the decade, but then bonded with the Portuguese manager over their perceived unlikeability.
Mazzarri stumbled at Inter, leading to the indictment of being an overachiever at small clubs who couldn’t cut it at the highest stage. But the transition to Watford was smooth from a tactical perspective. Watford were one of the early adopters of the three player backline, and there was a commonality in directness Flores and Mazzarri. Flores built his side on direct play to strikers Deeney and Ighalo, the soccer version of the bash brothers. The duo combined for 28 goals and 10 assists last season, with Deeney assisting eight of his strike partner’s tally. Mazzarri’s 3-4-3 broke up the partnership but Deeney continued to spearhead the attack. The Italian also displayed tactical flexibility in switching to four defenders in a January win against Crystal Palace.
Whereas his previous Napoli teams were led by the dribbling thunder of the front three, this Watford attack is driven by the box to box midfielders Etienne Capoue, Valon Behrami, Pereyra, and now Cleverley. Niang and Zarate provide some approximation to those one player counter attacks driving the ball down the field and cutting it back to a trailing striker or midfielder we saw at Napoli - although their form is fleeting.
Watford have consistently sat around mid-table this season, and there is a gap separating them and the likes of Bournemouth and Swansea to sweat relegation. Similar to Las Palmas, any managerial style or formation is predicated towards the concrete goal of staying in the highest division. Pereyra acknowledged the differences between his previous club Juventus and Watford. That is the life of a mid-table player with no chances of winning trophies: play your best every weekend, make sure the side doesn’t get relegated, and maybe get called up to the national team or move to a larger club that summer.
Before Watford’s 2-1 win over Leicester City the match following their loss against Liverpool, the documentary flashed back to four years ago and still one of the most extraordinary endings to any football match in recent time. The two sides met in the semifinals of the Championship promotion playoffs. Leicester City missed a penalty kick in the 94th minute with Deeney scoring on the ensuing counter attack. Watford went onto the Premier League. Leicester City were promoted a season later, replaced Nigel Pearson with Claudio Ranieri, and won the Premier League three years later.
There’s a moment in third episode of Behind the Badge when Watford’s U-18s were preparing for a FA Cup match against Norwich City at Vicarage Road. Manager David Horseman, usually focused on development over results, admitted that going to the next round would provide a significant boost in team morale. They ended up losing 5-1. Horseman said in his post-match team talk that defeat was part of their footballing journey. In characterizing Watford as a family, there was an idea that a club can either win trophies by becoming a billion dollar world brand or stay local with mid-table results. The meaning is in surviving the Premier League for one more season.