Weak winter recruitment could ensure Watford enter relegation dogfight
Despite a downright turbulent finish to the 2016/17 campaign, Watford began the new season looking like the Premier League's surprise package.
The club had snatched highly rated Portuguese boss Marco Silva from the talons of FC Porto, Southampton, and Crystal Palace, to bring him to Vicarage Road. Under his guidance, the Hornets started with just one loss from eight league contests. They were sitting pretty in fourth spot in mid-October.
Unfortunately, the bubble burst. Too many tight losses and below-par displays followed. A run with just one win from 11 league matches saw Silva face the axe. The Watford board blamed the firing on a £10 million compensation advance from Everton, saying the approach had influenced Silva's loyalty. Former Malaga and Rubin Kazan boss Javi Gracia was drafted in, thank you kindly.
Gracia has a reputation for being a meticulous problem solver and an adept motivator. Upon his arrival in Andalusia, Malaga had already declined significantly from Manuel Pellegrini's 2012/13 Champions League quarter finalist squad. Gone were the stars of that regime: Isco, Martin Demichelis, Willy Caballero, Jesus Gamez, Joaquin Sanchez and the lyrically monikered Jeremy Toulalan.
With the budget depleted, Gracia near-perfected the tactical side of his game while implementing a number of cheap purchases and young prospects like Samuel Castillejo, Samu, and Pablo Fornals.
After achieving consecutive top-half finishes, the Spaniard spread his wings and followed the money to Russia. While his spell in the Motherland was as quick as it was forgettable, Gracia's marvellous accomplishments over a two-season spell with Malaga were suppressed rather hastily.
For a club of Watford's stature and ambition, coupled with their disastrous deterioration, Gracia is arguably a very fitting appointment. The Hornets spent big in the summer after pulling off their coup for Silva, shelling out in excess of £40 million in fees to attract Andre Gray, Richarlison, Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley, and Will Hughes to Hertfordshire.
However, January has represented a very different prospect for the Hornets. While four newbies arrived at Vicarage Road, the outlay was significantly reduced due to the massive summer expenditure.
The most high profile signing was undoubtedly Gerard Deulofeu. The Barcelona winger moved on loan for the season's duration. Joining him was Sunderland midfielder Didier Ndong. The Wearside club's record signing had suffered relegation to the Championship in his maiden year, and looked like doing it again, this time to League One.
While Deulofeu has top-flight experience for big clubs including AC Milan and Everton, the trickster has a reputation for inconsistency. With undisputed ability, the Gironan flatters to deceive all too often. The odd dazzling run covers for a lack of final product, passenger-like performances, and an evidently slack work-rate.
In case of Ndong, Sunderland fans were often divided by his presence. His desire and determination was never in doubt, but the Gabonese international was criticised for poor composure and influence during his year-and-a-half in the North East.
Other than the aforementioned duo, Gracia has only been given unknown Anderlecht youngster Dodi Lukebakio and IFK Goteborg rookie goalkeeper Pontus Dahlberg. Even then, Dahlberg was loaned straight back to the Swedish club until the summer.
With confidence devoid and spirits drained in the dressing room, Gracia has undoubtedly been handed the short straw going into the campaign's final four months. Ultimately, supporters must question whether their poor activity is down to an absence in club aspirations or that it had not recruited the right man for the job. The answer will arrive in May.