Can Watford maintain quick start and learn the lessons of last season?
If just over a month ago, you had taken a poll over which teams would be the early pacesetters in the Premier League it’s highly unlikely that Watford would have featured on any list, even one compiled by the most optimistic Hornets fan.
In fact, boss Javi Gracia was the favourite to be the first manager to lose his job, especially working for the notoriously trigger-happy Pozzo family. Yet, here we are four games into the season and they sit joint top of the Premier League table with the maximum 12 points. The question is, how did they do it, and can they maintain it? But, they must also learn the lessons of last season when they also started quickly, before the wheels fell off, in spectacular fashion.
There are perhaps two key reasons behind Watford’s early success. The first was the decision to bring goalkeeper Ben Foster back to the club. Previous number one, Heurelho Gomes, although a club legend, was an erratic, often unreliable keeper, brilliant one game, error-prone the next. In fact, Gracia saw fit to drop Gomes towards the end of last season but the man who replaced him, Christian Karnezis, was only on loan. The signing of the more reliable Foster has given Watford a much more solid base to build on.
The second reason is more of a throwback to a previous footballing age. Gracia has, in these early games, set Watford up in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation that many thought had disappeared 10 years ago. The pairing of club captain Troy Deeney and Andre Gray has made Watford a much different side to play against. Most defences of today are used to dealing with just a single striker. By going with two Gracia has given them a new (or old) problem and Deeney and Gray look like the ideal partnership. Deeney, the old fashioned typical number nine, big, strong and good at holding the ball up, plus being a good finisher and Gray, quick, likes to drop deep and run the channels and also a good finisher. This poses questions that modern defenders are not used to being asked and Watford are taking full advantage.
Something else Gracia has picked up on is the inability of many Premier League sides to defend set pieces. Many observers felt that, at the age of 34, Jose Cholebas was unlikely to feature much under Gracia. Instead, he has become a key component of their early season form with his ability from a dead ball proving a crucial weapon, especially in the recent victory over Spurs.
In this regard, the international break could not have come at a worse time for Gracia and his men. When you are winning confidence and momentum builds and you just want the next game to come. This break could prove crucial because it may provide us with an idea of whether Gracia can maintain that momentum after the break. This is perhaps where the key lesson must be learnt.
We have been here before with Watford. Last season they also made an incredibly fast start before everything went spectacularly wrong and cost Marco Silva his job. Officially that club maintain that the root of this rot was Everton’s unwanted approach for, their now boss, Silva yet even after the appointment of Gracia, Watford didn’t see a vast improvement. In fact, Gracia has as many wins this season as he managed last season after his appointment in January.
So the signs are there for Watford if they care to heed them. If Watford does lose their first match after the international break, at home to Manchester United, then how Gracia picks his players up afterwards could have a vital impact on the rest of their season. If Gracia is unable to do so, or sides start to work out how to play against them (and we know that Mourinho is the master at tailoring tactics for specific opponents) then Watford could fall into the same trap and last season and Gracia might be the latest in a string of managers the Pozzo’s have put on the unemployment line.
If he can pick them up quickly and make the most of that two-man attack, with players like Isaac Success and Stefano Okaka, offering like for like alternatives, then, although the top four might be a step too far for the Vicarage Road outfit, a Burnley like season is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Then again, nobody expected Leicester to go all the way, so who knows, in football, anything is possible.