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Watford: 2018/19 Premier League Season Preview

At the nest that is Vicarage Road, the Hornets are longing for some managerial stability in the Premier League – with current manager Javi Gracia being their fourth manager in the space of three years in England’s top flight.

Watford have consolidated themselves as a solid Premier League opposition in recent seasons, but the yellow faithful will be hoping for consistency and equilibrium in the club; starting by not having to sack their manager by January and leaving the top flight status of the club in uncertainty.

Last Season

The 2017/18 season followed a narrative that Watford fans must be accustomed to by now – an extremely formidable start to the season that gradually began to deflate as the campaign went on. Watford fan and football writer Sean Walker spoke to 90MAAT and echoed the views shared by many at Vicarage Road: “Last season was an all too familiar story. The start of the season was tremendous; a point from Liverpool, two impressive away wins against Bournemouth and Southampton, we beat Arsenal, impressive performances against Chelsea, but once November struck it was all downhill. Marco Silva had his head turned, our injury record was getting worse each game and, eventually, Silva didn’t try.”

The first half of the season, especially the first three and a half months, was rather impressive from the Watford camp as they put in consummate performances in a difficult run of fixtures to start the season – with Abdoulaye Doucouré and Richarlison certainly the stand out performers under Silva. Sitting at 18 points and in 8th place by mid-November, their place in the Premier League for next season seemed secure and the future looked promising for the Hertfordshire club.

Meanwhile, in Merseyside, Ronald Koeman was relieved of his duties as Everton manager and Marco Silva was reportedly the Everton board’s desired replacement – turning the Portuguese manager’s head and disrupting the Hornets’ fine form. A run of thirteen league games with only one win ensued, including losses to Burnley, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield, Swansea and Brighton, and Silva was sacked during this period of poor form.

The Watford board looked to Russia and appointed Rubin Kazan manager Javi Gracia to steady the ship and accumulate the points needed to stay up – something he only just achieved and eventually led the club to a 14th place finish. Sean Walker told us, “Javi went back to basics to get the points needed to stay up – all at home though. We got one point away from home in 2018 and that is a major concern.”



Manager and Preferred Tactics

Spaniard Javi Gracia has yet to fully put his stamp on Watford Football Club, with the Manager being forced to play straight-forward, simple football at the back-end of last season to consolidate their safety in the Premier League, and will be looking to astound his doubters – particularly the betting companies who favour him to be the first manager in the league to lose his job this season.

During his tenure last season, Gracia was setting up in a variation of the 4-4-2, known in some corners as the 4-4-2 “double 6”, that played more central and rarely strayed to close to the touchline. This allowed Will Hughes, usually a more central midfielder, to occupy the right midfield position with Doucouré and usually Capoue holding the centre and Roberto Pereyra running down the left-wing but also attacking more centrally when possible.

This formation also optimises Troy Deeney and Andre Gray as the two strikers who both play well linking up with other players in attack but both aren’t really suited to playing as a lone striker.

Additionally, many Watford fans feel their midfield is much too strong and would be more efficient when played in a 4-2-3-1, utilising the fact that the Hornets’ midfield have been their most potent department in attack – central midfielder Doucouré being the club’s top scorer last season is a testament to that – and allows the defensive midfielders to distribute the ball to the players in front of them whilst also providing cover for the defence. However, with no player being apt for the out-and-out lone striker role, the contribution of the forwards may be greatly hindered by this formation.

In regards to which formation may be implemented, that’s anyone’s guess. With the right recruitment in attack, the latter may be the better option but it depends if Javi Gracia intends to continue where he left off last season and play with the 4-4-2 double 6 formation.

Key Players

In a largely erratic season with no real regularity in performances and results for the most part, one player that was usually dependable and staunch in the Watford line-up and stands out among most others is French midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré. The 25-year-old, who has shown to be adept playing both defensively and offensively in the centre of midfield, was Watford’s top scorer last season with 7 goals – albeit all were scored under the management of Marco Silva – as well as chipping in with 3 assists.

Doucouré also made the most passes with 2,244 (almost double that of Tom Cleverly who made the second most passes), the most tackles with 79 and the most interceptions with 54; all impressive statistics for a player attempting to carry a struggling Watford side. Garcia will most likely look to implement Doucouré in a distributing and intercepting central midfielder role rather than having him attacking far up the field like he did under Silva.

Whatever way Watford’s number 16 is included in the matchday squad, it’s almost a guarantee that his power and creativity will cause real distress for those who come up against him this season.

In addition to the powerhouse of Doucouré, Watford’s formidable midfield will most likely also feature Nathaniel Chalobah in a defensive role to create cover for the defence as well as bossing the midfield, something the 23-year-old has exhibited before when coming through Chelsea’s ranks. Despite only making 6 appearances last season, Gracia is expected to utilise Chalobah as an engine in the middle of the park, tackling and covering defensive duties to then play the ball up the field to the attacking players.



Chalobah’s presence in the team also allows Doucouré to get further up the pitch, powering forward and maybe even have a shot at goal – something that was characteristic of him under Silva last season. Chalobah may only feature fully in the aforementioned 4-2-3-1 formation, but having him in the squad could be hugely advantageous for Gracia and Watford.

Rounding off the commanding central midfield trio is promising English midfielder Will Hughes, who will be looking to make himself a mainstay in the Watford line-up after featuring so prominently for Gracia at the back-end of last season and contributing with two goals and three assists in his 15 league appearances.

Despite filling in on the right side of midfielder at times last season, Hughes is much more adept to a central role and would flourish – as would the rest of the midfield – in the previously mentioned 4-3-2-1 formation. Hughes playing much more central allows him to pick up the ball in the middle of the park and carry it forward past players to create an attack; just how the 23-year-old was utilised when he was ever-present in the Derby County team before making the £8million switch to the Hornets.

Watford’s already recognise Hughes as a top talent and, with still much of his career ahead of him, the cultured midfielder will want to announce his presence in the starting eleven this campaign and secure a first team role for seasons to come. With so many key players making up Watford’s midfield, Javi Gracia should look to engineer his team around his midfield and control the play through these players so that the squad play to their strengths.

Captain

Troy Deeney etched his name into the Watford FC history books over 5 years ago when he scored that famous goal against Leicester in the Championship Play-Off final and secured Watford’s place in the top division of English football.

Since then, the man has lived and breathed Watford and has rightfully earned the honour, as such a loyal servant to the club and Watford’s record goalscorer and record Premier League appearance holder, to don the captain’s armband. However, the feeling around Vicarage Road is that the club desperately needs a new striker that can play on his own at the car end of the field; something Deeney isn’t exactly tailored for.

In Deeney’s expected absence, providing Gracia plays with a loan striker, and with Heurelho Gomes projected not to feature at all with the arrival of Ben Foster, the captaincy will likely fall to either Doucouré or Tom Cleverley – most likely Doucouré as he will feature the most. The French midfielder cuts a commanding figure in the centre of midfield and, despite packing in overall experience, he should do a decent job in rallying the troops and organising the team.

Transfer Activity

Whilst the reporting of Watford’s transfer activity largely centred around the departure of promising Brazillian winger Richarlison, some decent arrivals have walked through the doors of Vicarage Road this window as Javi Gracia attempts to bolster his squad.

Despite Richarlison putting in some fantastic performances at the start of the season and finished with joint most assists among Watford players along with José Holebas, the 21-year-old flourished under Marco Silva’s management and even struggled to feature under Gracia. Richarlison’s departure isn’t as much of a loss to Watford as it is a huge gain for Everton as he doesn’t fit Javi’s style of play.



In terms of additions, Watford seemed to have recruited well and bolstered positions that desperately needed some strengthening. The return of Ben Foster between the sticks is a great acquisition for Watford and will almost certainly mean Heurelho Gomes will lose his long-standing role in goal for the Hornets, with Foster improving the goalkeeping position by bringing both decent reflexes and diving as well as Premier League experience at the age of 35.

Moving just in front of the goalkeeper, the signing of Italian left-hand Adam Masina from Bologna looks a fantastic purchase and is a substantial improvement of a position that Watford have lacked quality in for some time. Swedish-Congolese winger Ken Sema also joined the club from Östersund during the window and looks a promising back-up midfielder but isn’t expected to feature much.
The huge flaw in Watford’s transfer activity is that, as of yet, they haven’t secured a new striker to fit in the side. This alone has the potential to greatly hinder Watford’s campaign as they may have to rely on their midfield to score goals again, something that led the side to struggle last season due to a lack of firepower in attack.

2018/19 Expectations

Whilst very few people believe that Watford will face a relegation battle this season due to the quality that the side certainly possesses, Javi Gracia’s failure to bring in an astute striker to compliment the talent on display in the midfield could really harm the Hornet’s chances of doing any better than lower mid-table due to a lack of an actual goalscorer in the side.

All of this is providing Watford choose stability over rash replacements in terms of management this season and place their faith in Javi Garcia to lead Watford to exceed expectations. In the hardest league in world football, you can only survive for so long by continually playing the managerial merry-go-round. Stability is at the heart of almost all team’s success to some degree, Watford need to try and acquire that stability.

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