Everyone wanted to know Watford’s secret after they won their opening four league games last season. Javi Gracia, an unknown quantity when he arrived in England in January 2018, had not taken long to become the toast of the town. An underperforming squad had been revived with a stringent fines system, the tactics were working and there were even suggestions that yoga was one of the reasons behind Watford’s success.
Fast forward a year, however, and Gracia is in danger of becoming the latest Watford manager to be shown the door by the Pozzo family, the club’s innovative but ruthless owners. The team have started with defeats by Brighton, Everton and West Ham, and the hierarchy’s hand may be forced if there is no improvement at Newcastle on Saturday afternoon. Another defeat and a new narrative will begin to take shape, depicting the fines system as evidence of excessive discipline, the tactics as too naive and the yoga as evidence of unforgivable eccentricity.
At which point: breathe. Gracia, who has done well since replacing Marco Silva, has not become a bad manager overnight. After all it is only 12 months since he signed a contract until 2023. The deal contains an option for a three-year extension and there is no great clamour for him to be sacked. The players back him and the Spaniard is popular with Watford’s fans, who enjoyed finishing 11th and reaching the FA Cup final last season. There were chants in support of Gracia during the 3-0 home win over Coventry in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday.
Other numbers are impossible to ignore, though. Statistics from Opta’s Matt Furniss show that Gracia has earned 31 points from his past 31 league games, with four of his eight wins coming against teams relegated last season. Furniss points out that Quique Sánchez Flores and Walter Mazzarri, both of whom lasted one season at Watford, picked up 36 and 32 points respectively in their final 31 league games and he adds that the only sides currently with worse records are Bournemouth and Brighton.
Look past the run to the FA Cup final, in which Watford were thumped by Manchester City, and it is clear that Gracia’s side have been off the boil for a while. They have not been shambolic, but something is not quite right. Perhaps it is simple: too many good chances are being wasted, putting strain on a jittery defence and leading to too many avoidable defeats.
The problem was apparent during last weekend’s 3-1 home defeat by West Ham. With the game level at 1-1 early in the second half, Andre Gray’s cross gave Will Hughes the chance to put Watford ahead in a league game for the first time since 20 April. Inexplicably the midfielder put the ball wide of the empty net. Vicarage Road howled in disbelief, then sighed when Sébastien Haller’s tap-in restored West Ham’s lead nine minutes later.
Little moments, big consequences. When Watford faced Wolves in the FA Cup semi-final in April, they were 2-0 down with 11 minutes remaining. The mood changed after a moment of magic from Gerard Deulofeu and Watford were reprieved when Wolves conceded a needless last-minute penalty. With a place in the final in the bag, it was possible to look past Gracia’s side slipping out of the top half during the run-in.
Now the small details are going against them and that late-season decline no longer feels like just one of those things, even if Gracia’s players have faith in their manager. “I have always believed in the team and the gaffer,” Adrian Mariappa said this week. “Sometimes the luck goes against you and in the Premier League there are fine margins. But you look at the performances of the last two games and we created a lot of chances.”
Which is all well and good, but hard luck stories are unlikely to wash with the Pozzos if results do not pick up soon. It is an unforgiving business and Gracia’s only way of surviving will be to tighten up a defence which has conceded seven times in three games, restore the imposing and talented Abdoulaye Doucouré’s focus in central midfield and get his side scoring.
The forwards need to take some responsibility for the slump. Troy Deeney, sidelined by a knee injury, is not the rampaging force of old and Gray has scored 13 times in 62 appearances for Watford, whose chance conversion rate is alarmingly low.
Perhaps it will improve when Danny Welbeck, signed on a free, is up to speed and Ismaïla Sarr, signed from Rennes for a club-record fee, has settled. Sarr marked his first start for Watford with the opening goal against Coventry and Gracia deserves time to integrate the exciting winger.
Yet the goodwill is not infinite. Given that daunting games against Arsenal and City await Watford after the international break, Gracia could do with handing the Premier League’s crisis baton back to Newcastle.