Bridging the Watford gap: Forecasting the Pozzo era with Football Manager

Giampaolo Pozzo: adored by football hipsters and anti-money activists alike.

Last month, Watford become the latest addition to Giampaolo Pozzo’s stable of football clubs in a takeover that drew the attentions of football followers across Europe. The shrewd and well-respected businessman is now the owner of three clubs – Udinese, Granada and Watford FC – and many fans see the Italian and his methods as a beacon of hope within the modern game thanks to his teams’ successes through sustainability.

Purchasing his first club, Udinese, in 1986, Pozzo quickly set about turning the troubled club around following a betting scandal that saw them relegated to Serie B through a nine point penalty. Rather than taking gambles on future financial success however, Udinese built slowly and steadily, putting their faith in patient planning and careful management. This long-term, sustainable approach has enabled the club from the small city of Udine – home to just 100,000 people – to compete with the traditional giants of Milan, Turin and Rome for European spots. In 2006, 20 years on from Pozzo’s takeover, the club reached the Champions League for the first time in their history having enjoyed a spate of UEFA and Intertoto cup runs in the 90s. They have since repeated this feat twice, and will enter Europe’s premier club competition for the second season in a row in 2012.

These successes are largely due to the well-developed scouting network and youth development programmes that lie at the heart of the Pozzo family’s ownership strategy, the working process for which can be summarised as invest, develop, sell. Fed by a consistant stream of new, raw talent, from unknown or undervalued markets, the academies of Udinese, and since 2003, Granada, operate as grand youth refineries, turning their locally sourced and imported talents into highly sought after footballers, many of which are then sold on for a tidy profit to be reinvested back into the club. Watford’s excellent youth facilities were undoubtably one of the main attractions for the Pozzo group, but the Hertfordshire club’s Premier League pedigree will have been a draw too.

Having risen up from relative obscurity, The Hornets were one of the underdog success stories of the English football throughout the 80s and 90s, , punching above their weight thanks to the tactical genius of Graham Taylor. Considering the ever-growing riches and opportunities of the Premier League, Watford fans must be wondering just how far the efficient and effective Pozzo model can take their club? Will Watford become the English finishing school of the Pozzo’s footballing empire?

Is Zola the right man to lead the Watford “project”?

Besides finally being able to enjoy financial security, the supporters of Vicarage Road have already witnessed the benefits of their new relationships with Granada and Udinese, with seven players parachuted into the Watford squad on loan for the season. However, the new regime have also been critised for replacing the popular Sean Dyche with their own man in the dug out, Gianfranco Zola – a respected and well liked personality in the game but a manager who, to many, still needs to prove himself after being sacked from West Ham United. Will Watford FC rise again and return to the Premier League or are the Hertfordshire club set to become a subordinate feeder team to the main project back in Udine?

Using Football Manager 2012 and the Some Goals custom 2012/13 season database (accurate as of July 30), Watford’s next ten seasons have been simulated to see where the Pozzo model could take The Hornets.

Season 2012/13
Final league position
3rd with 82 points (beaten by Birmingham City in the play-off final)

After a successful first season, Almunia decided to extend his one-year contract.

Key signings (January signings are italicised)
Manuel Almunia – free
Fitz Hall – free
Almen Abdi (Udinese) – loan
Matej Vydra (Udinese) – loan
Steve Leo Beleck (Udinese) – loan
Daniel Pudil (Granada) – loan
Ikechi Anya (Granda) – loan
Simon Cox (West Brom) – loan fee £725K
Ben Parker (Leeds) – £120K
Robbie Blake – free
Haris Vuckic (Newcastle) – loan
James Hayter (Doncaster) – £45K
Key departures
Michael Bryan (Fleetwood) – free
Josh Walker – released
Prince Bubaben (Burnley) – £300K

While virtual Zola’s men may have been denied Premier League football due to their play-off final, Watford’s first season as a Pozzo owned club was anything but a disappointment. With a strong 3rd place finish, well above the previous season’s final position of 11th, Watford fans dared to dream.

Zola was applauded for his performance both in the transfer market and the dressing room, with the signing of Simon Cox on loan from West Brom giving The Hornets some much needed presence and sharpness up front. The Udinese and Granada contingent were also hugely influential, whetting the appetites for future temporary imports from Italy and Spain. Surely Premier League football would be just around the corner.

Season 2013/14
Final league position
15th with 59 points (12 points off the play-offs)
League Cup winners

Fitz Hall would see out the remainder of his career at Watford.

Key signings
Bradley Wright-Phillips (Charlton) – £230K
Radoslaw Majewski (Nottingham Forest) – £160K
Daniel de Ridder (Grasshoppers) – free
Joel Ekstrand (Udinese) – loan
Hernan Crespo (Lanus) – £120K
Alex Pearce (Reading) – £1.4M
Brett Holman – free
Wojciech Pawlowski (Udinese) – loan
Key departures
Ross Jenkins (Barnsley) – £450K
James Hayter – released
Chez Isaac – released
Britt Assombalonga – released
Rene Gilmartin (Crewe) – free
Robbie Blake (Crawley) – free
Craig Forsyth (Luton) – free

Although Premier League football once again eluded the new-look Watford FC, their season was one of unprecedented glory all the same. For the first time in their history, Watford had won a cup after beating Wigan Atheltic in the 2014 League Cup final at Wembley. Next season, The Hornets would be back in Europe for the first time in 31 years!

New striker Bradley Wright-Phillips looked to be a smart permanent solution to Watford’s troubled attack while free signings Daniel de Ridder and Bret Holman quickly asserted themselves as key men on the flanks. Elsewhere, Hernan Crespo brought in experience and a touch of glamour to the Watford bench and big money was spent on Alex Pearce in defense to partner Udinese’s Joel Ekstrand. An inconsistant but unexpectedly glorious season at Vicarage Road.

Season 2014/15
Final league position
5th with 79 points (beaten Ipswich in the play-off final)
Europa League
Group stage (beat Levadia (EST) in 3rd QF and Montpellier in 4th QF)

Orlando Sa arrived from Fulham but failed to lift Watford into the Premier League.

Key signings
Hogan Ephraim (QPR) – loan free £275K
David Perkins (Barnsley) – £35K
Orlando Sa (Fulham) – £1.1M
Stephen Dobbie – free
Ederson – free
Wojciech Pawlowski (Udinese) – loan
Vasilis Karagounis (Udinese) – loan
Daniel Pudil (Granada) – loan
Tom Heaton (Preston) – £1.4M
Key departures
Stephen McGinn (Southampton) – £230K
Manuel Almunia – released
Dale Bennett (Rochdale) – free
Brett Holman (Wolves) – £1.4M
Piero Mingola (Preston) – loan fee £9K
Joe Garner (Brentford) – £95K
Radoslaw Majewski (Birmingham) – £325K
David Mirfin (Hull) – £28K
Matty Whichelow (MK Dons) – £170K
Lee Hodson (Newcastle) – £5.25M
Scott Loach (Southampton) – £3.1M
Hernan Crespo (Oxford) – £500

At the start of the season, Watford’s expedition into the Europa League was viewed as a novelty distraction from the real goal of Premier League football by the majority of fans. A famous victory against Montpellier Herault SC in the third qualifying stage turned the first half season into a campaign fought on two fronts. Watford finished bottom of their Europa League group with a single point. Their hunt for Premier League football lead The Hornets to a 5th place finish and another play-off final at Wembley, this time losing out to Ipswich town.

Although having secured the services of forward Orlando Sa and goalkeeper Tom Heaton, Zola just couldn’t make the leap required to secure Premiership football. His cause wasn’t helped by the sales of key players Lee Hodson and Scott Loach in January either, with the Pozzo’s cashing in, for the first time, on the club’s assets. Criticism of the club’s owners and their business model was short lived however, as recently relegated Blackburn Rovers went into administration mid-way through February, receiving a 10 point penalty.

Season 2015/16
Final league position:
12th with 64 points (14 points off the play-offs)

Simon Church stayed at Watford for two prolific seasons before moving to Ipswich in the summer of 2017 for £1.6M.

Key signings
Lawrie Wilson (Charlton) – £625K
Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland) – free
Ben Hamer (Charlton) – £1.4M
Zak Whitbread (Norwich) – £575K
Romain Vincelot (Brighton) – £45K
Hal Robson-Kanu (Sheff Wed) – £1.2M
Dany N’Guessan (Millwall) – £60K
Simon Church (Peterborough) – £900K
Jacob Butterfield (Blackpool) – £275K
Nikos Giannakopoulos (Udinese) – loan
Key departures
Carl Dickinson – released
Stephen Dobbie – released
Troy Deeney (Derby) – £210K
Adam Thompson (Sheff Wed) – £160K
Alex Pearce (Ipswich) – £625K
Ederson (Bahia) – loan fee £180K
Piero Mingolia (Crewe) – loan fee £7K

Without the mitigating circumstances of a Europa League run or domestic cup success, the 2015/16 season was probably Zola’s first truly disappointing term at the club. Key defender Alex Pearce was sold off to Ipswich for less than half of what he was bought for two seasons ago while many of the new arrivals struggled to make an impression.

Reinforcements were brought in, most notably Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu to spearhead Watford’s attack and experienced Premier League defender Zak Whitbread and goalkeeper, Ben Hamer, continuing Zola’s trend of investing decent money on men between the sticks. Like their many other prospects and key signings, the four players didn’t stay long, and all left for Premier League or top Championship sides within one or two seasons for some small profit.

The following six years saw Watford’s league form decline, with the club even flirting with relegation between 2019 and 2022. Their highest finish over this six season period would be 11th, the same league position as when Pozzo had purchased the club.

After losing out to the Premier League’s yo-yo teams, Watford tried to find new value in the cast offs of the top flight.

The Italians’ operating model continued to reign over club policy however, developing and selling on players with mixed results and profit margins. As the year 2020 approached, Watford had gained a reputation as a last-chance half-way house for former hot prospects and fallen stars such as Ravel Morrison, Lucas Piazon and Wellington Silva. Zola remained in charge, and celebrated his 10th anniversary as manager in 2022.

Watford’s failure to push on and win promotion to the Premier League could be blamed on the club’s transfer strategy, that sold off many of their key players before they had a chance settle as a squad and bridge the gap to top-flight football.

The erratic financial riches of the Premiership played their part too however. Blackburn Rovers again fell into administration in 2019, with a relegated Fulham also suffering a 10 point penalty for financial issues in 2022. As the Premier League’s TV money coffers swelled, it seems clubs were happy to overspend and overreach their finances to try and remain in the lucrative top band of English football. In contrast, Watford’s finances remained solid throughout the ten seasons of the simulation. While some supporters may have been frustrated by a decade stuck in the npower Championship, the club’s first League Cup trophy, multiple appearances at Wembley and a memorable season of Europa League football would have gone some way to satisfying the fans. Compared to the money troubles that dogged the club before the Pozzo takeover, they were at least safe from financial oblivion and the anxious uncertainty of whether their team would continue to exist.

According to the simulation, it appears that in the reckless, big money madness of English football, clubs have to gamble with their sanity and solvency to make the jump into the top-flight. Without reckless investment, Watford FC’s promotion challenge may flounder into a well-connected, foreign owned take on Crewe Alexandria. As an experienced and successful club owner however Giampaolo Pozzo surely already knows this and understands that augmenting his working model with a little extra investment could be worth it considering the potential rewards of the Premier League. With the Pozzo model steering Watford to two play-off final appearances and improbable cup glory in the first three seasons of the simulation, a small financial push could be all the club needs to turn the drama of the play-off places into automatic promotion.

If they can make the step up, the stability of the Pozzo model could be a revolution in the Premier League. They just need the momentum to make it work.

What do you think of the Football Manager simulation’s results? Will the Pozzo family be a success at Watford?

Vote in our poll and leave a comment below.

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5 thoughts on “Bridging the Watford gap: Forecasting the Pozzo era with Football Manager

  1. Watford fans have in recent years become used to life in the championship with little expectation of promotion so they will have the patience to accept a steady improvement. My main concern is Zola I am like others yet to be convinced he is the right man. Hopefully he will enlist the support of an assistant manager with a good championship pedigree. Interesting journey ahead for Wafrord fans. I do not agree with the reply of ‘they will become a Championship feeder team for Udinese’. With Watford’s potential catchment area the payback from success is significantly greater at Watford.

    • Thanks for the comment Lol.

      I think if Watford can make the jump to Premier League sooner rather than later, their location and excellent facilities will see them make the most of the Pozzo ownership model and become a stable top-flight club. If they leave it too late though, the increasing gap of TV money income between the Premiership and Championship could see their progress blocked without major investments. This coming season the bottom team in the Prem will receive £61M compared to the few million clubs will receive for finishing at the top of the second-tier. As sustainable and wise as the Pozzo model may be, the stakes for other owners are only going to be higher, which in turn will ramp up the costs of gaining promotion. Hopefully Watford can prevail though, not only for the sake of their patient fans, but as an example of success through stability within the English game.

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