Have Watford Blown Their Playoff Chances?

Football fan running out of time

Heading into the Championship season, Watford were amongst the sides touted as potential challengers, if not for the title, then certainly to be in the mix for the playoff positions. After all, this is a club which has spent six of the last eight seasons in the Premier League, has the backing of the erratic but enthusiastic Gino Pozzo, and, despite losing a few star names, possesses one of the more eye-catching squads in the division.

Having bounced back at the first time of asking when relegated in 2019/20, hopes were high that a repeat performance would be in store last season, only for the Hornets to stumble to an underwhelming 11th-place finish – Slaven Bilić being the latest in a long list of managers to feel the Pozzo wrath as a result.

Following the end of Chris Wilder’s short-term steady-the-ship deal, former Barnsley and West Brom boss, Valerian Ismael, was the next brave soul to take up residence in the Watford managerial ejector seat. How long would he last?

A Slow Start

Valérien Ismaël
Valérien Ismaël (Jarlhelm | Wikipedia)

Having hauled in over £40m via the sales of João Pedro and Ismaïla Sarr, some predicted a significant summer of investment at Vicarage Road. However, having passed both the summer and winter windows, main arrivals Giorgi Chakvedatze and Mileta Rajovic cost only around £4 between them, with the bulk of the other business being free transfers. If Watford were to improve on last season’s display, the inspiration would need to come from the dugout.

Things couldn’t have started much better for the new boss, with Watford battering QPR 4-0 in their opener, although considering the subsequent desperate displays of the Hoops, that probably wasn’t as good a result as it seemed at the time.

Any excitement following that handsome win on Match Day 1 was short-lived, with Watford picking up just one win in their next 10 Championship outings – when stumbling over the line to see off Birmingham at home with two goals in stoppage time. Whilst the jury was still out on the new man, the tide was beginning to turn against him.

Hope Springs Anew in October

Sitting in 20th position at the end of that 10-match sequence – and only two points above the relegation zone – Ismael needed an upturn in fortunes, and quickly. Thankfully for the immediate job prospects of the Frenchman, the Watford squad chose this moment to finally begin playing like a team – winning six of their next 12 matches, losing only twice, and going relatively goal crazy with five-goal hauls against both Rotherham and Preston.

From the cusp of staring into the abyss, Watford had risen to seventh in the standings, to find themselves, somewhat improbably, only two points off the Playoff positions headed into the crucial Christmas/New Year period.

Playoff Hopes Fading Fast

Sadly for the Yellow Army, rather than building on that impressive pre-Christmas run, 2024 has witnessed Watford revert to their early season form. Since a 1-4 home humbling at the hands of Bristol City on Boxing Day, the side appears to have almost completely come off the rails.

Scoring more than once in only three of their last 13 fixtures, the goal-scoring exploits of their hot streak are a fading memory. In fairness, they have remained generally solid at the other end of the pitch, but that lack of a goal threat has contributed to a run of only two wins in 13, and a side seemingly going nowhere quickly.

Could They Yet Turn It Around?

Watford Stadium
Ungry Young Man | Flickr

Depressing as the recent sequence of results has been, fans may draw hope from the fact that the side showed such dramatic improvement following a similarly poor run of form at the start of the season. Could they do so again? And if they do, might it be enough to secure a spot in the Playoffs?

Sitting in 13th spot and a yawning 12 points off the top six at the time of writing, that prospect may seem remote. One thing is for sure, if they continue to play as they have been thus far in 2024, then they have no chance whatsoever. But, what if they were to regain their mojo and climb to the levels of that successful 7 October to 23 December period?

Any Hope in the xG Numbers?

To answer that question, we first need to judge how well Watford were actually playing at the time. Results are one thing, but was their increased points accumulation backed by an improved level of performance? We will turn to the Expected Goals (xG) metric to shed a little light on Watford’s up-and-down campaign. Let’s look at the figures before that run began, during the hot streak, and the dip in form since.

Period xG Per Game For xG Per Game Against xG Points Per Game
Start of Season 1.26 1.21 1.4
Hot Streak 1.45 1.18 1.54
Subsequent Dip 1.06 1.4 1.17

It doesn’t paint a pretty picture overall, with the above table suggesting Watford’s post-Christmas slump has little to do with bad luck. Creating fewer quality chances and conceding more, they haven’t been anywhere near their pre-Christmas levels and have, in fact, been significantly worse than at the start of the season.

Best Case Scenario

The most optimistic vision of the conclusion of the Championship season would see Watford immediately return to their peak form and maintain that level over their remaining 10 fixtures. In the unlikely scenario that they manage to pull that off, where can they hope to end up?

Currently sitting on 45 points, hitting the 1.54 points game level would see Watford end the season on 60 points – a total which would have seen the club finish 14th, 16th, 14th, 13th, and 15th in the last five Championship seasons.

There Is Always Next Year

Have Watford blown their playoff chances? You could argue that the club were never seriously involved in the race. Severely damaging their chances with that slow start, the pre-Christmas run flattered to deceive and was emphatically wiped out by declining levels in the New Year. Barring a miracle, the club must wait until 2024/25 to launch a realistic promotion challenge, more than likely under yet another new manager.