This is when things start to get difficult. In the first of three matches against top-six sides, Reading travel to Vicarage Road on Friday night to take on Watford, who are sitting pretty in second place after last season’s relegation from the Premier League. The Hornets are in impressive form: Monday’s draw against Middlesbrough followed a run of six straight wins.
So what’s made them click, and will they seal automatic promotion? Mike Duffy from The Voices of the Vic podcast has his say.
How’s the season gone for you so far?
It’s been a topsy-turvy kind of season. Coming down from the Premier League will more times than not make you favourites to go up again depending on the squad you had.
On paper, the squad list we had released prior to the season starting was quite frankly ridiculous and almost felt illegal to have those types of players. That’s what non-Watford supporters thought anyway; we knew that we’d be losing around nine or so of the bigger named players.
We appointed Vlad from Maccabi Tel Aviv and it wasn’t to be for him which I’ll go on about in the question asked specifically about his reign at the club. It looked for a while that the playoffs might be the route back up for Watford, but of late we’re feeling happy again and there’s an almighty buzz coming from the Hornets camp!
What went wrong for Vladimir Ivic?
I think Vladimir was very much ‘the right coach at the wrong time’. We were told he was an attack-minded coach and his record was superb at Maccabi Tel Aviv (they conceded just 10 in the whole of 2019/20, something we nearly did in one game against Man City that season!). It was very obvious from the first few months that this wasn’t going to be the exciting, pressing, counter-attacking football we expected. He seemed quite happy to sit on a 1-0 win a lot of the time which is very unnerving watching from home!
I must give Vlad praise however when it comes to our defence. He certainly had made that rock-solid in his short time at the club and I think that’s a big reason as to why we’ve continued to be good defensively.
I do also feel a little bit sorry for Vlad because I could probably count on one hand where he had a full-strength side to pick from, so he was working with what he had available to him with some key players missing.
What have you made of his replacement, Xisco Munoz?
Xisco was very much the perfect “yes man” to bring it at the time of Vlad’s sacking. Vlad a stone-faced, very serious man. Don’t think we ever saw a smile from him at all. Xisco very much the opposite, very smiley and jokey in his first press conference with the club.
He was another young manager that the Pozzos managed to find. Xisco had just won the league with Dinamo Tbilsi in the Georgian League, another unknown manager from an unknown league appointed by the Pozzos so we were a bit apprehensive as to how this one was going to work out.
He had one hell of a baptism of fire in his first match as Watford head coach, no other than league leaders Norwich City at home on Boxing Day - a day when we usually can’t buy a win. However, we did get a 1-0 win and even after the first game there were glimpses of what was to come with Sarr even managing to run at his full back and not get so far before passing back and looking deject of any confidence.
The full-time whistle produced some lovely and refreshing scenes where all the players seemed to have a big surge of togetherness again and a new lease of life as well as all the players hugging the manager and getting along again.
Since then there were even shouts for Xisco to be sacked as the 4-4-2 system we tried out just wasn’t working for us and Xisco seemed reluctant to change. People were thinking that if we didn’t manage a result against Bristol City at home then Xisco should be gone. A formation change to 4-3-3 (something which we were screaming out for) and a 6-0 win was the beginning of the great run which saw us move through the gears in the coming weeks and really grab hold of that second-place spot.
Watford spent much of the season in the playoff places but have recently settled in second – what’s been the reason for that upturn?
As simple an answer as this may be, the formation change to 4-3-3 was so needed. The way it just clicked was almost as if we were kicking ourselves a little because if we’d have to played like that earlier in the season who knows what we could’ve achieved.
Who are the main strengths of this Watford side?
I’ll go with the generic answer of Ismaila Sarr to start with. I mentioned that earlier in the season he didn’t look confident at all and still to a certain degree I think he forgets just how fast he actually is but since Xisco implemented the front-three approach he’s gone from strength to strength and now has 10 goals to his name.
Ken Sema is another one who’s come back into the squad, after spending last season out on loan at Udinese, and he’s hit the ground running. Absolute work horse and has a decent bit of pace on him too. Loves an assist and has chipped in with the odd goal here or there too.
Joao Pedro’s goals have dried up a little bit recently which is a bit disappointing but I’ve no doubt he’ll be back in the goals soon. His first full season in English football after his arrival last year from Fluminense in Brazil and he’s put on 7kg of muscle to acclimatise to playing football in such a physical division. Not afraid to drop deep and try and win the ball and then bring others into play which is something we haven’t seen from a striker for so long.
Will Hughes just oozes quality and this formation switch to 4-3-3 has been a blessing in disguise for Will. He’s been absolutely tremendous and is another one who can sit as high or as deep as you want in that midfield three.
I could genuinely make a case for everyone in this squad - it’s a real team effort this season!
Any weaknesses that Reading can exploit?
If Reading can nick a goal before us then it’ll be interesting to see how we’d react. Before the international break, and with us being at home too, I’d have put my house on us to spring back into action but since the international break it does seem to have knocked our momentum just a tad.
How do you see the promotion race panning out for Watford and Reading?
Despite us being 10 points clear as I write this, I still will always fear the worse. Until it’s mathematically tied up, I will still worry of a late surge from Swansea or Brentford. Reading on the other hand face a bit of a battle on their hands as Bournemouth seem to be picking up form at the right time and Barnsley are absolutely flying.
If Swansea continue this dreadful run of form then I think that would pretty much guarantee Reading a playoff spot. Can see a Bournemouth v Brentford playoff final unfortunately guys. Reading to finish sixth but I’ve no doubt it will be an interesting end to the season in regard to the playoff race hotting up.
How will the game go, and what will the score be?
We need to up the gears a little bit more in this game. Yes we beat Sheff Wed but it wasn’t convincing by any stretch of the imagination, and then we drew to Middlesbrough 1-1 which isn’t a bad result in the grand scheme of things, so we now need to start using our amazing home advantage to full effect if we want to wrap up second place before the last game of the season. I’m going to predict a close encounter with it being Watford 2-1 Reading.