An international break coupled with a struggling Watford team often sees the head coach depart.
This time, the club’s technical director, Ben Manga, left instead.
The spotlight now turns not only to Watford’s return on the field — at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday — but also to how the departure of Manga and other staff affects the club’s scouting and recruitment.
Manga leaves with assistants Helena Costa and Raffael Tonello after just under 10 months following their appointment on December 22, 2022. Their settlements are understood to be broadly agreed, but discussions continue between the trio, representatives and the club.
Still in the UK, all three have been told to longer attend the club’s training ground as they are not required to work their notice period. Manga is entitled to full pay until he finds alternative employment; he has a contract until 2027. The precise agreement reached with Costa and Tonello is unclear at this stage.
In addition to Manga, Costa and Tonello — all arrivals from Eintracht Frankfurt — Watford took on eight extra scouts, who have also been relieved of their duties. Unlike the technical director and senior recruitment staff, the scouts — covering Europe, the US and South America — were employed as freelancers and their dismissals were less complex.
It was Gino Pozzo’s decision to dismiss Manga and his team but neither the Watford owner, nor any of the club’s hierarchy, has explained why so far in public. Instead, an unconventional step in communication strategy saw head coach Valerien Ismael comment on their behalf. “If you see something isn’t working out, for any reason, then you have to take a decision that you believe is the best for the club,” he said.
The Athletic has learnt that both sides of the equation — the club and those departing — accept the relationship was not working. Those who were brought in are understood to be philosophical about the decision and keen to move on from a frustrating period.
Manga’s title of technical director and his initial remit quickly became a bone of contention. With Cristiano Giaretta already in position as sporting director, there appeared to be duplication of responsibilities that caused confusion behind the scenes. Manga’s suitability for the role also warranted scrutiny; some inside the club were not convinced that his skillset was suited to regular team and managerial guidance, as well as heading up transfer negotiations.
When Manga and his team were settling in and trying to make their mark, Pozzo was back in Italy and not present at the training ground for a significant period. Having put the cat among the pigeons, the instigator was not there to guide and witness the impact. During a haphazard season with a struggling team and three head coaches, it was another decision seemingly made with not enough attention to detail.
Both the duplication and an apparent divide were exhibited when Watford played at Reading in February. As the squad took a look at the pitch, Giaretta stood in one dugout, while Manga and Costa watched on from the other.
During the January transfer window, Manga and his team were given licence to bring in two players, but neither worked out. Henrique Araujo (loan) and Joao Ferreira (£1.7million) arrived from Benfica but did not have the desired impact.
Bilic was on board with an additional striker in Araujo — widely regarded as a hot prospect in Portugal — but felt another right-back (Ferreira) amid a worsening injury crisis was not required. Soon after starting work, and prior to his official appointment, Manga was asked for his opinion on Ismael Kone of Montreal and endorsed the signing of the Canada international. The research was driven by the scouting department of Udinese, though.
While Manga was often used by the club to explain decisions that had been made in statements, it was clear behind the scenes that power lay elsewhere — especially when it came to the summer recruitment of the head coach and players. Manga was not against the appointment of Ismael and was part of the process, but he had recommended other candidates who did not advance.
When it came to players, Manga’s team built lists, travelled worldwide and offered recommendations, but did not have a material impact on any of the summer arrivals. They were on the periphery and, just two transfer windows in, their purpose appeared negligible. The summer drive was to clear out high earners, and replace and streamline the squad on a limited budget. There were six new signings: Rhys Healey and Jake Livermore (free agents), Mileta Rajovic (£1.3m, Kalmar), Tom Ince (£50,000, Reading), Jamal Lewis (loan, Newcastle) and Giorgi Chakvetadze (loan, Gent) plus Matheus Martins, who returned for a second spell on loan from Udinese.
The head coach was given more of a say, too. “Valerien Ismael has a wider managerial remit to influence the footballing set-up around him,” said the club statement which announced Manga’s departure.
“It was more a case of how we wanted to work, rather than anything to do with the people,” said Ismael.
Ismael, along with Pozzo, Giaretta, CEO/chairman Scott Duxbury and another influential voice at Watford’s top table, agent Mogi Bayat, made the calls this summer. The club leant on the pre-existing Pozzo scouting team operated from Udine, plus the UK department and other connections with agents.
The removal of Manga and his team essentially means that Watford are back to where they were during the summer of 2022. The composition of squads for the last three seasons has not led to success, with a Premier League relegation (2021-22) followed by an 11th-placed Championship finish (2022-23) and a current position of 20th in the second tier — though this season has a long way to go, and a January window may arm the squad with greater strength in depth.
Amplifying the voice of the head coach, who has been backed with an extended contract, appears a step in the right direction. But the same voices will recommend players and action moves unless any new faces are added to the mix.
Watford will continue to use the expertise of the pre-Manga joint Watford/Udinese scouting structure, which involves regular meetings, in addition to leaning on the UK department for recommendations. As it stands, Graham Younger — previously of Doncaster Rovers — is UK scouting co-ordinator overseeing the movement of a team including Jamie Freeman, Joe Simmonds, Alan Randall and Ian Nicholson.
If Manga and his team were not going to be relied upon, it makes sense to streamline the department, especially with the apparent duplication of scouting roles.
Ultimately it appears that Pozzo’s heart wasn’t in it. The construction of a road to a new recruitment policy began but was mothballed.
It means judgement on this season’s squad lies with the man at the top and the hierarchy he has streamlined.
Watford declined to comment when approached by The Athletic.
(Top photo: Getty Images)