Opinion: Three games into his Watford tenure, Hodgson should be doing his talking on the pitch

It would definitely be an exaggeration to say that Roy Hodgson is making enemies just three matches into his tenure as Watford boss, but he’s not gaining too many friends at the moment either.

Following the defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion in his home debut at Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon, the 74-year old didn’t hold back the punches in his post-match press conference, with the output of his forwards and the grievances of Hornets fans coming under fire.

Not that open criticism isn’t his right as manager of the football club — it’s just quite out of character for Hodgson.

He’s always been one to dispute the validity of questions from the press — “you’re asking me to start changing all the thoughts I have as a football coach and start thinking as a journalist,” he said in response to one on Saturday  — or to be transparent about it if he feels players aren’t doing or giving enough. But he’s probably never been quite as gung ho in a press conference as he was after the Brighton match. At least, certainly not three matches into a job.

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Perhaps the pressure of the task at hand is getting to him early, because the difference in tone from his first press conference as Hornets manager to his most recent is about as stark as it gets.

Previewing his inaugural match at the helm against Burnley — which ended in a goalless draw at Turf Moor — Hodgson was in fine form and distinctly upbeat, making analogies from Greek mythology, talking of his confidence in his suitability for the role, and reflecting on the next (and possibly final) chapter in his 46 years of football management.

A first clean sheet of the season in Lancashire then offered more reason to be optimistic, and Hodgson even remained mildly positive after suffering his first defeat in charge away at West Ham United: “We have to dust ourselves down, accept it wasn’t our night, and be happy with the fact I can already see our stamp on the team,” he said, referring to how quickly the squad had taken to the methods of him and trusty right-hand man Ray Lewington.

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So, what changed on Saturday? Well, clearly there was something especially ireful about the manner of the defeat to Brighton for fans, players and Hodgson alike. The 74-year old cut a despondent, frustrated figure as he addressed the media after the match, and his words echoed the sentiments implied by his body language.

One major topic of discussion centred around the output — or lack thereof — of Watford’s forwards in recent weeks. The Hornets are goalless in Hodgson’s first three matches as manager but the attack has arguably been misfiring for longer than that.

Emmanuel Dennis has perhaps been a victim of his own early success, with eight goals in his first 18 matches in a Watford shirt earning him the reputation as something of a talisman for the team — he hasn’t hit the back of the net in his last five now. Joshua King hasn’t scored since late November despite featuring in every single minute the Hornets have played since then, while Ismaila Sarr has been sorely missed due to injury and his participation at AFCON with eventual champions Senegal.

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It shouldn’t take 46 years in management to appreciate that Watford’s forwards need all the help they can get if they are to start finding the back of the net once again, but Hodgson was extremely keen to demonstrate that there was in fact very little he and Lewington could feasibly do to remedy the situation.

When asked why it is that Watford are struggling in the final third, Hodgson said, “we need to hope that our front players, who everyone tells me are very dangerous and very good players, enormous talents — they’ve got to do that for the team, for the club, because there is no amount of coaching that we can do that will change anything in that respect.”

That last line in particular probably isn’t a confidence-brewer for fans. If Hodgson and Lewington can’t do anything about it, then who can? They are guiding these players until the end of the season and attempting to shirk responsibility with just three matches elapsed won’t help their cause in the slightest.

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Plus, if it isn’t possible to coach goals into this team, perhaps another option would be to set them up in a way which is more conducive to success in the final third? Hodgson wasn’t a fan of that suggestion, either.

“If anything I would expect you to criticise us for being too gung ho and putting four out-and-out attackers on the field and playing with only two central midfielders. I thought that would be more of a valid criticism than saying we were too conservative.”

The trouble is that, in the above passage, Hodgson is referring to a particular point in the match when Watford were already 1-0 down and the momentum was entirely in Brighton’s favour. Having changed from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 at half-time with the introduction of AFCON participants Sarr and Imran Louza, he completed the gradual shift to four in attack when Joao Pedro replaced Tom Cleverley in the 70th minute.

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Many inside Vicarage Road might perhaps have felt that the full switch came 70 minutes too late given how the game had panned out, with the Hornets offering absolute nothing in the final third in what was a firm contender for the most comfortable match of Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez‘s career thus far.

The harsh truth is that time is running out for Watford to reach the points threshold for survival, whatever that may end up being, and the match with Brighton — albeit against a strong side who remain in the race for European football next season — felt like a crucial one, even if Hodgson claims not to believe in ‘must-win games.’

Watford have the worst home record in the division and it got no better on Saturday. With Anfield, The Etihad and Stamford Bridge, among others, all still to visit this season, the Hornets’ Vicarage Road will surely be the deciding factor as to whether or not they beat the dreaded drop. More than anything, then, it was just important to set the tone with the visit of the Seagulls.

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And perhaps the tone was set, but not in the way anyone associated with the Hertfordshire club wanted it to be. Saturday was men against boys, an established Premier League club against one heading straight back to the Championship, and it was a frankly horrid, mortifying sight for Watford supporters to behold.

Frustrations were palpable as fans began streaming out of the ground even before the final whistle. A sense of the inevitable is looming larger by the week but that didn’t make it any less upsetting to watch a team flounder as spiritlessly as the Hornets did on Saturday.

Again, the suggestion that fans may feel Hodgson’s rigid 4-4-2, with four workhorses and zero technicians across the middle, is stifling the team’s attacking potential didn’t go down well: “I hope they have a bit more understanding than that to be honest, and I’ve got quite a lot of faith in fans.”

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In his post-match presser, Hodgson condescended to his players and his supporters. That may be a reflection of the fact that defeat was still fresh in his mind, that emotion was still raw, or perhaps of his realisation of the true nature of the adversity Watford find themselves in.

But those comments, in that tone, aren’t going to engender the spirit and unity that the Hornets need in order to dig themselves out of this rut; they’re going to do the very opposite.

Because while supporters may have been pleased to hear the 74-year old openly criticise the forwards who — relative to their perceived ability on paper — have simply not been at the races recently, rebuking the perfectly valid suggestion that his tacts are hindering the attacking potential of the squad was a kick in the teeth for those who showed up at Vicarage Road on Saturday in the hope of watching a competitive team.

Of course, this approach is the one Hodgson took at Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace: defence comes first for Roy. He was successful in all of those jobs and there’s no shame at all in admitting to his methods. There is, however, high shame in shirking responsibility for the fact that his side has scored zilch goals in three matches and lost two of those as a result.

As Hodgson said in the inaugural press conference, “the proof of the pudding is always in the eating,” and his hasn’t been the most delicious dish thus far.

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It should be said that Watford fans have a lot more than merely the lack of goals to be frustrated about these days — there are many off the pitch concerns as well, such as those surrounding the recruitment policy or the short-term approach to head coaches. Obviously, none of that is Hodgson’s fault.

But from here on until the end of the campaign, the fortunes of this team will be down in large part to him and Lewington. If there continues to be no improvement from the previous regime, the buck does stop with them — and there would be no shame whatsoever in admitting that when things don’t go to plan.

Truthfully, it would probably be less of an annoyance to supporters for Hodgson to admit he’s got his work cut out than to call himself blameless after such a dire display. If 46 years in management should have taught a gentleman like him anything, it should be that.


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