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Nigel Pearson’s Watford revival: How has he turned it around?
Watch Bournemouth versus Watford live on Sky Sports Premier League this Sunday from 1pm; Kick-off is at 2pm
Last Updated: 12/01/20 12:57pm
Watford have picked up more points in their last four Premier League games than they had managed in the previous 17 this season. It is three wins in four now for Nigel Pearson.
Had the last of them - secured with 10 men against Wolves on New Year's Day - come just one day earlier then he would surely be set for the Premier League manager of the month award. Curiously, that would have been consecutive wins for Pearson - four-and-a-half years apart.
As has been much discussed, the 56-year-old Pearson has been a little unfortunate to have to wait so long for his next Premier League opportunity after winning seven of his last nine games as Leicester manager to keep the club in the top division.
That sensational sequence of results means that, if this current run with Watford is seen as a continuation of that, Pearson has picked up more points in his last 14 Premier League games than every current manager in the competition with the exception of Jurgen Klopp.
It is why there's a growing belief that another great escape is under way.
So how has he done it? The transfer window has only just opened but already Watford are unrecognisable from the miserable outfit that stumbled through the first half of the season.
Some of it must be put down to Pearson's motivational techniques with hard work back to the fore. Watford outran Wolves by 5.4 kilometres last time out, despite being a man down for the final 25 minutes of the game. They hung on in that one. Against Aston Villa, in a decisive 3-0 victory, Watford added a further two goals after going down to 10 men.
Results like this require buy-in from everyone and it is telling that it wasn't just the midfield workers, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue, who ran further than any Villa player in that win but Gerard Deulofeu too. The exciting wide forward is a mercurial talent but he is clearly on board - creating twice as many chances as anyone else on the pitch in that game.
Deulofeu also scored against Wolves having opened the scoring in the draw at Sheffield United as well. While Troy Deeney's return from injury has obviously helped solve the chronic goal shortage, Watford's improvement owes just as much to the fact that Pearson has not sought to curtail the attacking instincts of Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr on the flanks.
With the promising young Senegal international also having found the net in the home wins over Manchester United and Aston Villa, the forward trio have now scored seven goals between them in the last four games. As a result, Watford have gone from averaging a goal every other game to an average of two goals per game so far under Pearson.
That they have done so while tightening up at the other end is remarkable given that the fixture list has not been kind. Watford have had to play five top-half teams in their last six games but have conceded only once in their last four at home - and even that was a cruel deflection that took Pedro Neto's shot into the top corner of Ben Foster's goal.
Despite the red cards and a run that has taken them to Anfield to play Liverpool, Foster has actually had to face fewer shots on target per game since Pearson's arrival than he had before it. All the underlying numbers are encouraging. Expected goals are up. Expected goals against are down. This is a dramatic revival that looks to be built on solid foundations.
In order to make it happen, unity was essential. Everyone at Watford now seems to acknowledge that the club had been drifting and it needed someone to galvanise them. Easier said than done but leadership comes naturally to Pearson - something he explained over the course of a lengthy conversation inside the Watford dressing room last month.
It was about establishing a set of rules and behaviours that are right for our situation.
"I think I am pretty confident when I am stood in front of people but you only get one chance of a first impression," he told Sky Sports when explaining the decision to call a team meeting on his first day at the club's training ground in order to provide some direction.
"It was about establishing a set of rules and behaviours that are right for our situation. The aim was to get buy-in from everyone involved because we are going to need everyone.
"It is important that the people who work at the club and the people who support the club, engage with it too. It is the job of the players who go out on the pitch to give something that makes the fans go home thinking this is more like what we are about. This is us."
It is to Pearson's credit that he has not been heavy-handed in implementing that change. There has been the odd rollicking but he is someone who rates "the ability to stay calm" among his strengths too. Pearson can coax a performance from a player as well as shout one out of them. "I find it strange that people think who you are stays a constant."
As such, he is a difficult man to predict. While Craig Shakespeare has joined him as his assistant once more, there had been some suggestion that Kevin Phillips, the former Watford striker who also worked with Pearson at Leicester, would be a likely addition.
It would have been a popular move and an easy win with the Watford supporters given the team's struggles in front of goal. Instead, despite Phillips touting himself for the job, Pearson has placed his faith in Hayden Mullins and Graham Stack - retaining their services after the pair helped to provide some stability following Quique Sanchez Flores' departure.
"Change for the sake of change is dangerous," he told me. "Change for necessity? I will do that. But I don't want to overcomplicate it. Yes, you have to be constantly re-evaluating the situation and finding different solutions. But we have a good group of players, a good group of staff and a very loyal fan base. This is a well-run club."
This approach fits with how Pearson sees himself. He is a facilitator. Not here to overhaul Watford but to help the club maximise its resources once more. "I think it's important that myself and Craig Shakespeare help the people here find the answers."
The next question comes at Bournemouth on Sunday. Find the answer there and they will move above the Cherries and a step nearer to Premier League safety. After a hectic festive period that saw the players go 19 days without having one off, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A conviction that with Pearson at the controls, Watford are on the right track.