It doesn’t take long in the company of Xisco Munoz to realise how he lifted the mood at Watford so quickly.
The Spaniard has an infectious smile when he speaks, and an enthusiasm for his work, his club and his job that shines through with every word he says.
“It’s my style in my life! This is how I am. I try to stay positive,” he tells Sky Sports. It is no surprise he is so happy at the moment. Watford are nine points clear in second place in the Championship, and are well on course for a return to the Premier League.
“Of course I have bad days like everyone, but I always try to give my best in all situations. It is important not to forget that we are working with people, and we all have our good moments and our bad moments, but we always have to support everyone.”
It is a rare thing for a manager to arrive mid-season at a club at the right end of a table, but that is the fortunate position Xisco found himself in in December, as he was put in charge of a supremely-talented Watford squad that were deemed to be underperforming under previous boss Vladimir Ivic.
They had only drifted slightly to fifth in the Championship, but the atmosphere had soured at Vicarage Road and there was clear intent in Xisco’s appointment announcement. He was certainly a left-field recruitment with limited managerial experience, but in just the second paragraph of the club statement it became clear why he had been brought in – the 40-year-old was described as having ‘an attacking philosophy to his coaching’. This was clearly the remit: Win, and do it in the right way.
He did just that in his opening game against Norwich on Boxing Day, and won four of his first five in the Championship. The real watershed moment came, however, with a switch in formation from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and a 6-0 drubbing of Bristol City in mid-February. While the move to a new system was important, Xisco doesn’t see it as being as pivotal as others believe to their current lofty position.
“It is not all about 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 5-3-2, it is about being adaptable to what you need and learning about different instances and playing against different types of teams,” he says.
“We tried with one system, and we have worked with others. Our 4-3-3 was very good and when we played this system we got a good result. But I don’t close my mind to other ideas, and because we have changed to this it doesn’t mean we don’t need to know about different systems. It is just about what is better for that particular game.
“The most important thing of course is to have good players, but the more time you have the ball then the more chances you have in the game to score.
“It’s also important the team understand the balance in offence and defence. If you have good players and a good defence then you are more likely to win games. You have to work hard, too.”
Tactical tweaks have helped to some extent, but it is his man-management skills that have also been key in getting the best out of his players. He is happy to offer advice, but also wants to help them find their own way.
“I may be older than the guys in the dressing room, but I don’t think I’m more clever than they are,” he says. “I say I was in the same position as them 10 years ago, and I try to offer advice and ideas, but if they don’t think it will work then they can take their own ideas.
“I try to stay honest with the guys, it’s important to do that. If you are honest with them, then they will be honest with you. When we were in difficult moments everyone gave their all to work and get us out of them. The players gave their best for the team.
“I know how they feel in situations because I was a player and I was there. But the most important thing is you see the positive in everything. You also have to understand that everyone makes mistakes, in football and in life. The important thing is we learn from those mistakes, and we build to try and give our best every day.”
While his title role is head coach of Watford, Xisco acts much like a manager in many ways, including his involvement in the reserve and academy levels at the club. He uses his personal Twitter account to encourage, support and praise, and speaks regularly with the youth teams at the club.
A cynic may suggest that a club with the hiring and firing policy of Watford makes such endeavours futile, but Xisco is the absolute antithesis of a cynic. He places utmost importance on the value of teamwork, and for everyone at every level to be pulling in the same direction.
“I feel very good at the training ground, and when I watch academy games,” he says. “We are like a family, and everyone wants the same objective. Everyone has to be together in the good moments and the bad moments. That is important for our goal.
“The most important thing of all is that when we play we do it with passion. To give your best you need everyone to show that.”
They are skills he may well have picked up from Rafa Benitez. The former Liverpool and Newcastle manager whom he played for at Valencia, and was part of the squad that won La Liga and the UEFA Cup in 2004. He has previously described his former boss as the man who made him in football.
“I was very lucky in my career to have some great coaches, but Rafa was different for me,” he says.
“He was a special man in that moment, and he changed my life in football when I was with him at Valencia. When we won La Liga and the UEFA Cup it was one of the best moments of my life. He showed me different things and he showed me football in a different way.
“Everyone knows about Rafa and the excellent team we had. For me it was a special moment in my career. Those moments change your life.
“Rafa and the players in that group showed me the mentality to try and be a winner all the time, and to realise the process is the most important thing to get to where you want to be. You need to understand to work every day to try and give the best. I learned that with Rafa at Valencia.”
Benitez was the last man to lead a relegated side straight back to the top flight via automatic promotion with Newcastle in 2017, and Xisco is well on his way to following in his footsteps.
With that would come the dream of managing in the Premier League, should they get over the line in the next six games.
“We are building the team,” he says. “We need to keep improving in all situations and give our best performance in every game until the end of the season, because we have a difficult job to do.
“But we also need to enjoy it, and play with ambition, because this group is very ambitious.
“It is my dream to be in the Premier League. I’ve worked very hard for this and it’s our goal to reach it. It is the most important thing for us, and right now it’s the most important thing I want in my life.”
It would be hard to begrudge him the success.