Premier League

Quietly impressive Gracia has made Hornets harmonious again

 • by Callum Rice-Coates
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If Javi Gracia signs a new contract with Watford in the coming days, as has been reported by Sky Sports, it will be a deserved reward for his impressive work at the club.

The Spaniard arrived in January, replacing the dismissed Marco Silva, and helped bring to an end a run of just one win in 11 games. Watford eventually finished in 14th, an underwhelming campaign after a promising start.

But Gracia, given time to implement his ideas over the summer, has truly made his mark this season. Watford are seventh in the Premier League, above Manchester United on goal difference. They look tactically accomplished and seem unlikely to drop off any time soon.

The most noticeable improvement under Gracia is a more structured, disciplined approach. Watford play in a narrow 4-4-2 system, which has proved difficult for most sides to break down (with the exception of an anomalous defeat at Bournemouth, who put four past them in early October).

Watford’s approach off the ball, though, varies. They are equally competent at sitting off and maintaining their defensive shape, or pressing high and attempting to constrict their opposition.

The latter is made clear by the number of times they win possession in the attacking third: 4.42 instances per 90 minutes since Gracia’s appointment, compared with 2.86 in the months prior to his arrival last season.

Gracia, clearly, has made Watford a more cohesive defensive unit. They have only faced 28 shots on target in 12 games, a total only Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool can better. And their total xG conceded in the time since Gracia’s arrival has improved from 32.44 to 29.86.

This might give the impression that Gracia is focused primarily on keeping things tight. He has certainly addressed any defensive deficiencies as a priority, but Watford remain effective going forward, too.

Troy Deeney and Andre Gray have formed a strong partnership, and the wide midfielders are given licence to roam and move inside, with Argentine Roberto Pereyra impressing in particular, with five goals this term.

Watford have created an average of 2.08 big chances per game so far this season. In the first half of last season, before Gracia’s arrival, they were averaging 1.21. They are taking more shots, too: 12.11 per game under Gracia, up from 11.47 beforehand.

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In all areas, then, Watford have improved. That is why they have started the season so well, and are harbouring ambitions of European football instead of looking tentatively over their shoulder at the bottom three.

The stability under Gracia makes a refreshing change for a club that have made a habit of changing managers every few months. That won’t be necessary if things continue as they are. Watford are in a strong position, with a coach who has hit upon a winning formula.

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