Football Features

How record-breaker Javi Gracia tamed Watford’s organised chaos

By Ben Green

Published: 13:28, 17 May 2019

It took 35 years, but Watford have finally returned to Wembley’s sacred turf for the FA Cup final, and they could go all the way thanks to the tactical ingenuity of Javi Gracia. 

The Hornets will contest the blockbuster bout this Saturday against Pep Guardiola’s seemingly immortal Manchester City, with the North West club looking to achieve an unprecedented domestic treble.

However, the Catalan coach will not be resting on his laurels when he faces his compatriot in the Wembley dugout, as Gracia has constructed a tactically-disciplined side brimming with talent, creativity and cohesion.

Since taking over in January 2018, the Pamplona-born tactician has revolutionised proceedings at Vicarage Road, transforming a once-stagnant Watford into genuine go-getters – a team with a purpose and direction. Despite slipping to 11th come the end of the season, Watford ended 2018/19 with 50 points – their highest total in the Premier League era and a figure not achieved by the club in the top flight since the 1986-87 season.

As a result, Gracia has become the first Watford manager during the Pozzo family era to sign a contract extension. 10th time’s the charm.

He is the 10th Watford boss during the Pozzo family reign since 2012 and would become the first coach to sign a contract extension in their ownership.

But how exactly has this cool and light-hearted character instilled a mean streak and menace into a Watford side potentially sitting on the verge of a first ever piece of elite silverware?

Coherence and consistency

Upon taking over from Marco Silva 16 months ago, the Hornets were enduring something of a downward spiral after such a positive start under the now-Everton boss, with the Hertfordshire club struggling for form and conviction.

But instead of tearing up the blueprint implemented by his predecessor, Gracia used the first few months as a sort of bedding in process, making subtle changes and “little touches“, tinkering with various formations – as well as personnel – and also getting to grips with the demands of arguably Europe’s most gruelling league.

A back-three and 4-2-3-1 were both experimented with, while Richarlison was deployed in several roles, as was Tom Cleverley, but not really to great effect as Watford tamely limped over the finish line last term, ending up 14th.

However, with a pre-season and three months under his belt to fully embed his ideas and administer his philosophy into the nucleus of his squad, Gracia has since made drastic changes, not only to the mentality but also the playing style of this year’s FA Cup finalists.

Among the key changes made has been tactical consistency (as well as discipline), with Gracia averse to straying from his trailblazing 4-2-2-2 system. A firm believer in the more traditional 4-4-2, Gracia has given this old hat formation a modern twist, pushing his wingers further up the pitch and giving them license to tuck in to midfield.

His inverted-winger system has given Watford a more domineering presence in the final third, but also created a greater sense of strength and presence in the middle of the park.

The fact that Gracia has stuck with the same system and pretty much the same personnel throughout the campaign means each and every player knows his role to a T, creating an aura of coherence and understanding between his players.

The defensive system

A special mention should first be made to Ben Foster who has made the No. 1 berth his own between the sticks, making more recoveries than any goalkeeper in the league (372) and pulling off the third-most saves (127).

As for the defensive system: for Gracia’s inverted-wingers to thrive, forward-thinking full-backs are imperative in order to create overloads in the final third and make quick transitions between the defensive and attacking phases.

Jose Holebas at left-back and a mix between Kiko Femenia and Daryl Janmaat at right-back have excelled. The former has been exceptional this campaign, delivering the second-most crosses of any defender this term (210) – Gracia will be relieved his final-day red card was rescinded by the FA.

The floated full-backs allow Watford to counter with great pace and venom, an aspect worked on greatly by Gracia according to Abdoulaye Doucoure, with his teammates working to be much “more clinical on the counterattack”.

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And that has paid dividends; in 2018/19, Watford created a total of 16 fast breaks, scoring three goals from those, compared to the six they created in 2017/18, which yielded just the single goal.

The reason Holebas and Femenia, or Janmaat, have license to get forward with such freedom is because of the double-pivot deployed in central midfield, with Doucoure and Etienne Capoue holding the fort assuredly in front of the defence.

The all-purpose midfield titans sweep up, recycle the ball and drive the team forward, but more importantly, they break down play if the Watford full-backs are caught out further up the pitch.

“All coaches are different but he is one of the best coaches I have had. He is up there with [Didier] Deschamps and Mauricio Pochettino.”

Capoue on Gracia’s influence

This season Capoue has more interceptions than any other player (86), as well as the fifth-most tackles as a midfielder (90), and third-most duels in his position (423) – Doucoure has also made a commendable 257 recoveries, seventh-most in the league.

By compressing the midfield with these two industrious and combative athletes, the opposition are suffocated when in possession, allowing Watford’s more creative outlets to wreak havoc…

Creative panache and captain hatchet-man 

For all the positive work of Capoue and Doucoure in midfield, Watford’s attackers have been insatiable this season, with Gracia formulating a perfect synthesis between old-school aggression and modern-day flair.

Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes have thrived in this system of fluidity and organisation. With the full-backs making lung-busting runs down the flanks, the two inverted wingers can drift inside and create space between the lines, functioning as decoys.

This allows the buccaneering defenders to sprint down the touchline and launch deliveries into the box for the physically-imposing Troy Deeney, though the Hornets have seldom looked to score by aerial means – instead looking to cut in and play through the middle.

Reason for this is Gerard Deulofeu, who has often partnered Deeney through the middle in a sort of big-man/small-man partnership, with the English forward working well in tandem with his more nimble Spanish counterpart.

The former Barcelona man is a product of La Masia’s aesthetic teachings and would probably consider crossing, Sam Allardyce style, a footballing sin. And the statistics show that Gracia thinks in a similar vein, playing to the strengths of his players.

In 2017/18, Watford delivered a total of 504 crosses from open play, scoring nine headers, while in 2018/19 they delivered just 361 (scoring eight headers), showing that although the full-backs get down the bylines at every opportunity, they often refuse to just pump hopeful crosses into the box, instead using intelligent play to cut in and create.

And Pereyra has been the star man in this operation; but that has largely been down to Gracia getting him into more dangerous positions. He made a total of 125 touches in the opposition box this season, over double the number he made in 2017/18 (61) – he also had more shots on goal (57 to 33) and created more chances (35 to 24).

But, for all Pereyra’s panache, Deulofeu’s mastery, and Hughes’ scheming intelligence, Deeney has often been the fulcrum, giving a Diego Costa-esque menace to this side. His bullish nature and aggression continue to cause defenders nightmares, taking the spotlight off his creative teammates.

The mercurial skipper has not only been moulded into a player with massive ‘cojones’ on the pitch by Gracia, but also one with more intellectual play. He won more duels in 2018/19 than in his previous campaign (269 to 168), showing he still has that aggressive streak in his game. But at the same time, Deeney won more recoveries (92 to 52) and more tackles (14 to 11), showing that he is working harder for his teammates, adopting a more selfless and mature role.

Making nearly double the number of passes (825 to 542) would also suggest Gracia wants his striker linking up play in more of a deep-lying role, rather than statically goal-hanging and waiting for a ball to come over the top.

And that has certainly paid off as Deeney scored nine goals and created five assists in 2018/19 (double his contributions in 2017/18) – the City defence will certainly have their hands full this weekend.