With the Watford game ahead, the team at FOAR have decided to launch a set of pieces every week looking at the tactics, stats, and key players of the opposition we’ll be coming across in the league.
Where are Watford now?
It’s been quite the journey for Watford, having secured their return to the Premier League with a second place finish in the Championship in 2015.
This was followed by a managerial shakeup, as the club chose not to renew Jokanović’s one year contract, and Quique Sánchez Flores took the reigns. However, despite the Spaniard leading Watford to a comfortable mid-table finish at 13th – their best final standing in the Premier league to date – and an F.A. cup semi-final, Flores was sacked late into the season.
While Flores’ departure seemed coldly unappreciative of his efforts, we can perhaps grudgingly admit that the club’s ruthless ambition eventually paid off with the appointment of Javi Gracia at the helm, three coaches later.
Twelve games into the 2018/19 season, Watford sit ahead of Manchester United at 7th, on twenty points, their best tally since the dawn of the Premier League era.
Javi Gracia – Shrewd Tactician and Giant-Killer
Appointed Watford Manager halfway into the club’s third consecutive Premier League season, Javi Gracia has impressed so far, with a 37.9% win percentage (from 29 games managed), a record unmatched since Jokanović’s departure.
A number of fans may remember his time at Málaga, but few outside of Vicarage Road will be aware of Gracia’s fascinating origin story.
A man without arrogance, Gracia is his own worst critic. Suffering defeat in two play-offs after taking Pontevedra, in the Spanish Segunda División B, to the league’s summit in his first season and achieving runner’s up in his second, the Spaniard left his first job in management, feeling he had failed the club. Pontevedra’s president did not share his opinion, but was unsuccessful in persuading him otherwise.
From club to club he has been flexible in adapting his tactics, to varying degrees of success, to suit the club and the available resources.
At Osasuna, for instance, his side played quite defensively. Following the club’s relegation that season however, he made the switch to Málaga, implementing a style involving a great deal more pressing, which left them a little open at the back during the first season.
The year after was a different story, as Gracia tightened up the defence, Málaga conceded only 35 goals in 38 games; the best defensive record outside the top 4 of Spain’s La Liga.
Tactically astute, Gracia has earned a great deal of praise within the footballing world. Darko Kovacevic, a former teammate of Gracia’s, had this to say:
“He was always talking, correcting, organising. He understood the mechanisms, tactically he was sharp, a leader. Sometimes, like with Diego Simeone who I played with at Lazio, you know they have something. Javi had that. I have a lot of faith in his ability.”
Like Simeone, Gracia made his name in delivering results against the big boys, albeit at a smaller club, demonstrating sheer tactical shrewdness in a shock 1-0 win at the Camp Nou in 2014/15.
That same season, Gracia’s Málaga had the best record against Barcelona of all the La Liga sides, securing four points from a possible six.
The following season, they snatched yet more points, this time from European giants Real Madrid in a couple of draws home and away.
The most obvious factor behind Gracia’s recent success with Watford, demonstrated early on in their 2-1 victory against Tottenham, has to be his favoured 4-2-2-2 in the Premier League.
Under this formation we can observe Abdoulaye Doucouré and Étienne Capoue as the two deep-lying, defensive playmakers (with a combined return of 8 assists between them).
Just ahead, Roberto Pereyra and – former Liverpool target – Will Hughes operate as ‘narrow’ wide midfielders; a somewhat contradictory term, but the best explanation for how Gracia likes them to play.
Without the ball, Hughes and Pereyra contribute to the press by drifting inside in a sort of ‘pincer’ move that squeezes the opposition midfield. Pereyra has adapted to this role particularly well, with his experience in central midfield proving vital in this regard.
As soon as Watford regain control of possession however, Pereyra hugs the left touchline whilst Hughes cuts infield. It is this level of movement, combined with clever triangles in the middle of the park, which not only makes it difficult for the opposition to track, but allows Watford to effectively utilise their full-backs by dragging the opposition into the middle of the park, as demonstrated to devastating effect below:
Hughes drifts inside and a clever diagonal is played by Capoue ahead of the advancing Janmaat who creates a goal-scoring chance down the right flank.
Unlike his predecessor, Marco Silva, who favoured setting up his teams with plenty of width, Gracia’s 4-2-2-2 encourages Watford to play more narrowly whilst using the space out wide opportunistically, as shown earlier.
It also forces the opposition to use the width available and play more crosses into the box rather than playing through the middle, which tends to suit Watford’s defenders.
One key area Gracia has addressed is set-pieces, making good use of Watford’s proficiency in aerial duels, and Hughes and Holebas’ quality in dead-ball situations. Watford have already scored four goals from set-pieces, two of which coming against Tottenham to secure three points.
Like at Málaga, Gracia has managed to make Watford more defensively compact in his second season and, rather interestingly, not at the expense of goals. In fact, Watford are actually a deadlier beast going up forward this season than last.
Across their thirty-eight league games last season, Watford managed an average of 1.16 goals per game alongside a not so favourable average of 1.68 goals conceded per game.
Twelve games under the belt in 2018/19 and Watford have turned this completely around with an average of 1.42 goals per game and 1.17 conceded.
Like our very own Jürgen Klopp, Gracia has made Watford’s pressing more organised and efficient, with the side playing less passes (avg of 390.42 compared to 411.95 last season) and having less possession of the ball.
THE MAN TO STOP IN A YELLOW SHIRT
After the most pleasant international break in recent times (from a Liverpool FC standpoint), the reds go to Vicarage Road for EPL resumption. Liverpool has to continue with the current momentum and extend the unbeaten run in order to keep up with (let’s not mention them here, yes? *Grins.
In order to stop the home side from derailing that ambition, the man “the reds” need to stop from having a good game is Roberto Pereyra. Doucoure, Holebas, Capoue and Troy Deeney too; but mostly Pereyra, who has been their standout performer this season. In 12 games, Roberto Pereyra, in the EPL, has scored 5 goals this season, creating 26 chances and three assists. Pereyra has completed 570 passes this season with a pass accuracy of 85%, of which 63% were forward passes. (Squawka).
No doubt, Pereyra has been the standout player for The Hornets this season; his versatility making him the quintessential midfielder, as he can play on both wings, through the middle of the park and has even been played as a second striker on occasion. Our midfield and defence has got to try as much as possible to deny Pereyra the space to run around and create; as well as keep him off the ball as much as possible.
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