The hiring of Javi Gracia at Watford showed a desire by the Pozzos to improve the Hornets defence, a change that was much needed with Watford conceding 44 goals so far this season – with only Stoke conceding more. Gracia came with a high pedigree in this regard – only Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid conceded less during his time at Malaga. So how did he set up his Watford team for his first game in charge, and is he the man to save Watford’s season with Watford only 4 points off the relegation zone?
The first thing I noticed about Gracia’s system was how fluid it was, switching between a 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 with relative ease.
For the first 15-20 minutes of the match, it was more a 3-5-2 with a backline of Christian Kabasele, Sebastian Prodl and Adrian Mariappa with Jose Holebas and Gerard Deulofeu (making his debut) deployed as wingers with Richarlison and Troy Deeney leading the lineup top.
Deulofeu would often fail to track back quick enough or would be too far up the pitch, causing the defence to shuffle across, with Mariappa acting as a makeshift right-back and Holebas dropping back into the left-back spot. This isn’t a fault on Deulofeu though and I feel this was a planned move by Gracia that was carried out well by the Watford defence both in communication and execution as it isn’t an easy thing to do.
When Watford aren’t hit by injuries (with 11 first team players out injured) their midfield is a key part of their game. Abdoulaye Doucoure has been instrumental since coming in half-way through last season and if Watford manage to stay up then he’ll have played a huge part in that. He was fantastic again last night and was my man of the match for Watford with the most tackles (3), the 2nd best pass completion (76%) and the most shots (4) helping his case as possibly one of the most underrated midfielders in the league.
Watford fans were critical of the Pozzos not signing a new striker in January with just 7 league goals between Troy Deeney, Stefano Okaka and big money signing Andre Gray so far. We got perhaps what was a glimpse of how Gracia will move forward in this regard last night with Richarlison often playing alongside Deeney in a duo. Also interesting was the number of players Watford committed into the Stoke box during attacks.
With Watford’s midfield outscoring their attack so far this season it’s an obvious place to Gracia to look to for goals, but with neither the strikers or the midfield able to score or even come close to scoring against the Premier League’s leakiest defence, fans concerns could be validated.
On the positive side, some of the movement and link-up play in midfield and up front was superb at times, with the highlight being this passage of play.
Watford conceded plenty of goals from set-pieces under Marco Silva, and it looks like that’s an area Gracia has looked at to make an immediate impact. Stoke only had 2 corners, but didn’t look like scoring either of them (despite having the best corner conversion rate in the league) – helped by Gracia’s defensive set-up which I quite like, with a mix between zonal and man-marking providing some much needed stability.
Although it’s very early in Gracia’s tenure at Vicarage Road, the early signs are good with Watford keeping their first clean sheet in the league since November 25th (a run of 12 games). The game itself was not a thriller, with the ball only live for a staggering 42 minutes of the match and I’d suspect both teams were both secretly happy for a point, however, the next 4 games are make or break for Watford and Gracia. Games against an out of form Chelsea, West Ham, Everton and West Brom a chance to pick up some much-needed points. If that doesn’t happen, however, Watford are in serious trouble.