Whisper it but Javi Gracia’s Watford Could Be the New Burnley

Whisper it but Javi Gracia’s Watford Could Be the New Burnley

Wednesday, 29 August, 2018 - 06:00
‘I am happy with the group of players we have,’ Javi Gracia said of the Watford squad at the start of the season. Photograph: Dave Howarth/PA
London - Paul Wilson
It is still very early in the season and there is little more point in forming opinions than producing league tables after only two matches but there may just be time to say quickly and quietly that Watford have made a good start – they are up there with the Champions League contenders (and Bournemouth) with maximum points – and that Javi Gracia looks and sounds like the perfect antidote to the hum of rancorous mistrust emanating from Old Trafford.

This is not to suggest Manchester United should make a swoop for the Watford manager as soon as they tire of José Mourinho and his third‑season circus, just the opposite in fact. Gracia deserves to stay at Vicarage Road quite a bit longer after becoming the first manager in four years to survive a summer at the club: not since Beppe Sannino in 2014 (and the Italian was gone by the end of August) has anyone managed to finish one season at Watford and go on to start the next.

Gracia is Watford’s 10th manager since the Pozzo family took over the club in 2012, so he could have been under no illusions about the precariousness of the post he accepted in January. Yet though Watford will most likely continue with their hire-and-fire philosophy all concerned must be quite pleased with the way the latest appointment is turning out.

Watford found goals quite hard to come by last season, for instance, with Abdoulaye Doucouré finishing top scorer with seven. Yet in inflicting a first home defeat on Burnley at Turf Moor last Sunday, three different forwards got on to the scoresheet, all of them English. Remarkably, that was not only the first away win Gracia has seen since arriving in England, Andre Gray’s early strike was his first away goal. It was quite a good one, though, with an apparently rejuvenated Troy Deeney providing the assist from the right wing.

The plan Gracia has come up with to turn Watford into a more effective attacking unit involves playing both Deeney and Gray up front, not one or the other. This is hardly revolutionary thinking, it goes by the name of 4-4-2, but with creativity from midfielders such as Doucouré and Will Hughes just behind the strikers it seems to be working.

“I am happy with the group of players we have,” Gracia said at the start of the season. “What we need to do now is build them up into a good team.” You never hear Mourinho coming up with something so refreshingly straightforward, despite the eye‑watering amounts United have spent on Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku.

Mourinho is not happy with his team at the moment; more specifically he is annoyed at the perceived lack of summer strengthening and, even though he has had five transfer windows to correct any imbalance in the squad he inherited from Louis van Gaal, he still let his dissatisfaction be known in a way that has every chance of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not every manager would behave in the same way and it is hard to imagine Gracia being so negative in public even if he felt frustrated in private. You would not know from either the manager’s demeanour or the team’s early success that Watford lost a key player in Richarlison right at the end of the window, when there was little time to spend some of Everton’s £40m on a replacement.

The only significant new face in the starting lineup at Turf Moor was Ben Foster in goal, signed for £4m from relegated West Brom. The club did bring in a few players in the summer and Tom Cleverley and Gerard Deulofeu have still to return from injury but Gracia is firmly in the group of managers who regard themselves as improvers and organisers of any given squad rather than conduits through which stellar names might be attracted to the club. Mourinho has been in both camps in his time, – when winning the Champions League with Porto or the treble with Internazionale he was the absolute master of making the most of the players at his disposal – though to judge by United’s abject display at Brighton last Sunday those days are long gone.

Gracia is a bit like a Spanish version of Sean Dyche: frugal through necessity and fiercely loyal to players who can do what he asks of them. Perhaps the best example of this came when he quit as Almería manager during his time in Spain. He had just won the club promotion but the board, rather than sticking with the players who had earned the success, wanted to strip out the squad and buy in a team of players more suited to a higher level of football.

Many a manager would have been suited by that arrangement – some would even praise Almería for their realism and ambition – but Gracia instinctively knew he could not go along with it and so, after failing to change the club’s mind, he walked away.

This is Watford’s best start to a top-flight season since 1982‑83, when European football was achieved through finishing second to Liverpool and Luther Blissett emerged as Division One’s top scorer, but though Graham Taylor’s side won four of their first five league games that season they did not manage to open with three straight wins. A last-minute winner from Dennis Tueart at Maine Road broke the sequence in the third game. No pressure, then, as Watford aim to make it nine points from nine at home to Crystal Palace on Sunday.

It is tempting, though far too early, to suggest Watford may be the new Burnley this season, if not quite the new Leicester, though at this stage only one thing is certain. Gracia and his players have made a better start than might be expected of a side almost universally tipped for relegation.

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