Premier League Team Focus: Can Javi Gracia buck the trend at Watford?

Premier League Team Focus: Can Javi Gracia buck the trend at Watford?
Alex Wrigley
Alex Wrigley
August 6, 2018
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Content Editor at Free Super Tips, Alex was born in the shadow of Old Trafford and is an avid Man Utd fan. After graduating from university he combined his love of football, writing and betting to join FST and now closely follows goings-on in all of the top European leagues.

For the fifth season in a row, Watford will begin their league campaign under the watchful eyes of a manager who wasn’t at the helm this time last year. This time around it’s Javi Gracia, who took charge in January, who will hope to please the ruthless Pozzo family enough to remain in charge for a second campaign.

Ever since the Pozzo takeover in 2012 it’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions for managers, players, and fans alike. They have taken The Hornets from a mid-table Championship side to one verging on a Premier League regular. This will be their third season in the top flight, but this stay in the lofty heights of the Premier League hasn’t stopped the Pozzo’s from dishing out managerial sackings at the drop of a hat. Last season was no different.

Marco Silva caught their eye as he unsuccessfully tried to guide Hull away from the relegation zone in 2016/17, so Watford decided to part ways with Walter Mazzarri and give Silva a chance at Vicarage Road. It certainly looked a shrewd appointment when the Portuguese manager oversaw four wins, three draws, and just one defeat in his opening eight Premier League games, but things quickly turned sour.

He was approached by Everton as they looked to replace the sacked Ronald Koeman, and this saga dragged on for a painfully long time. It unsettled the manager and the players, and the results suffered badly. Watford lost 11 of the next 16 league games, with a 2-0 defeat to Leicester being his final game in charge. At the end of January he was finally sacked, with the club citing an unwarranted approach for him causing a loss in focus and results.

Javi Gracia was handed an 18 month contract and given the task of salvaging Watford’s sinking season. He managed to do that, but in all honesty it was an unspectacular showing from the Spaniard. The Hornets won four of their remaining 14 Premier League games, losing seven times and finishing 14th, just eight points clear of the relegation zone.

He will be hoping that having a full pre-season with the players can make the difference here, but he’s got a huge task on his hands if he’s to be offered a new contract. Gracia is the ninth manager to be in the Vicarage Road dugout in the last five years, and Gianfranco Zola was the last manager to take charge of two pre-season campaigns in a row for the club all the way back in 2013.

Read More: Premier League 2018/19 Outright Betting Tips and Predictions – Winner and Top 4

Position last season: 14th

Top scorer: Abdoulaye Doucoure – 7 goals

Arrivals

Gerard Deulofeu – Barcelona (£11.7m)

Adam Masina – Bologna (£4.5m)

Ken Sema – Ostersund (£2.03m)

Marc Navarro – Espanyol (£1.8m)

Ben Wilmot – Stevenage (£1.53m)

Ben Foster – West Brom (Undsisclosed)

Departures

Richarlison – Everton (£35.28m)

Nordin Amrabat – Al-Nassr (£7.65m)

Mauro Zarate – Boca Juniors (£2.07m)

Costel Pantilimon – Nottingham Forest (Undisclosed)

Dodi Lukebakio – Dusseldorf (On loan)

Tommie Hoban – Aberdeen (On loan)

Jerome Sinclair – Sunderland (On loan)

Player to Watch

Abdoulaye Doucoure

While some of the Watford fans are bemoaning the departure of talented young Brazilian Richarlison this summer, plenty of others are happy with the fact that they have kept hold of Abdoulaye Doucoure. The 25 year old midfielder signed a new contract this summer, and it’s more than fair to say that he was Watford’s best player by far last season. Keeping him at Vicarage Road is the real coup for Watford this season.

He finished the 2017/18 campaign as The Hornets top Premier League goalscorer with seven goals in 37 appearances, including a fair few memorable strikes. He added three assists to that as well, but his game is far from limited to that of a goalscoring midfielder. His record of 2.1 tackles per game made him the 3rd best tackler in the side, and he topped the charts for passes (60.6 per game) as well. To put it simply, Doucoure was hovering around the top three for almost every statistic out there. The Malian was just everywhere at all times, and Watford will be desperately hoping he can keep his performances at that level this season.

The Season Ahead

Where are the goals coming from?

We already mentioned that Doucoure topped the scoring charts for Watford last season, and while that’s good from an individual point of view it bares rather poor omens for Watford as a whole. He’s not even an overly attacking midfielder, but his seven goal haul was enough to make him the club’s top scorer. Richarlison, now departed, was their joint second highest scorer with five goals, and he hasn’t found the net since November.

Troy Deeney and Andre Gray managed just ten league goals between them in a combined 60 league appearances (36 of them starts). Despite this, Javi Gracia has opted against any full blooded pursuit of a star man up top. Instead, the Spaniard has focused on improving their admittedly struggling defence and trying to replace Richarlison with 24 year old Ken Sema from Ostersund. Even their now-strengthened defence has problems, with three central defenders in their thirties now.

Watford scored 44 goals in 38 league games last season, which isn’t actually that bad of a record considering they finished 14th. However, 22 of those came in their first 13 matches, before Marco Silva’s downturn in form. That means the remaining 22 took a further 25 games to collect, and Gracia only saw Watford score 11 goals in his 13 games in charge.

You feel that both Deeney and Gray have more to give, but they were terrible at times last season and Gracia should be worried about relying on them to find the net. Gray scored a goal every 300 minutes last season, with Deeney even worse off with a goal every 368 minutes.

Even more worrying is the fact that Gray has the best minutes per goal record in the entire Watford squad, and Deeney is third. Just for comparative purposes we’ll look at West Ham’s tallies. The Hammers, who finished just one position and one point above Watford, had five players who registered a better minutes per goal ratio than Gray – Diafra Sakho (148), Javier Hernandez (193), Marko Arnautovic (211), Andy Carroll (249) and Andre Ayew (297).

It’s clear that Watford need to have somebody they can rely on up front, and it’s becoming clearer that Deeney and Gray are not those players.

Read More: Premier League Team Focus: Pocchettino running out of time to strengthen Tottenham

Watford predictions and betting tips

Relying on the midfield

It’s easy to just look at the doom and gloom surrounding Watford’s chances, but there are positives as well. Their centre backs, while getting on a bit, are still solid enough and will partner the excellent Christian Kabasele, and the signing of Adam Masina at left back is a very promising acquisition.

However, it’s their midfield that holds the true potential. We’ve already discussed Abdoulaye Doucoure’s importance, but he’s not the only one showing enormous promise in that position. Will Hughes spent far too much of last season on the sidelines injured, and while he was frustratingly inconsistent when he did get on the pitch he showed flashes of brilliance on a number of occasions. He’s just 23 years old, and you feel that with a more prolonged spell uninjured and in the team he could prove to be an excellent player.

The same goes for Nathaniel Chalobah, who managed just six Premier League appearances last season due to injury. A year ago the 23 year old former Chelsea player was called up to the England senior team, illustrating the high regard that Gareth Southgate holds him in. Unfortunately for Chalobah his season was over by September, but he’s back to full fitness now and will be keen to bring himself back into the watchful eye of the England boss.

Roberto Pereyra is often utilised slightly closer to the strikers, but he showed glimpses of his true quality from a central midfield berth too. His five goals was enough to make him the joint second highest scorer for Watford, and he actually contributed more than any other player outside the top six to expected goals buildup play. He may not be the finished article in the Premier League, but he spent two seasons around the Juventus first team just a few years ago, so there’s definitely something to nurture there.

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