Watford’s move to part company with Marco Silva was called into question by journalists, pundits and supporters all across the country. Everyone other than Watford fans seemed to be utterly bewildered and failed to understand the logic behind the decision. Yet, since that day, it is the faith in the club’s methods that has prevailed over the pessimism.
Javi Gracia has, so far, done a remarkable job with Watford since replacing Silva. The team were in the jaws of a relegation battle before he took over, yet ten points from a possible fifteen leaves the Hornets in a comfortable position from which we can look down on the dogfight with smug grins upon our faces.
Here’s what Gracia has done to make a hero of himself so early on in his tenure at Watford:
Fortress Vicarage Road
Before the arrival of the former Malaga and Rubin Kazan head coach, Watford held the worst home record in the league. Although they took five points out of games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs, Vicarage Road became the favoured away day for teams in need of a result: Stoke, Huddersfield and Swansea all returned home from Hertfordshire with three points to show for their efforts.
The Swansea game turned on its head in the final five minutes, while Stoke and Huddersfield earned their wins with what can only be described as perfect away performances; they stopped Watford from enjoying their home comforts and exploited the weaknesses in our style of play.
What Gracia’s doing is making sure that there are less weaknesses for our opposition to exploit. Our defence looks more solid, more resilient and, for the first time in quite a while, it looks like our back line is finally operating as a unit instead of a number of individuals; our midfielders are beginning to press the ball more and more; and our forwards are finally building partnerships which are drastically improving our fluidity and dynamism in attack. Of course those nerve-racking moments when our opponents cut us open and look certain to score are still present however, with just three goals conceded in five games, we’re now finding ways of dealing with those scenarios, too.
This was something Silva was relentlessly criticised for during his spell at Watford. Whether it was making alterations to the team, defending set pieces or adjusting tactics according to the flow of the game, he always seemed to get it wrong. And this criticism was perfectly justified, too — the Hornets grew into an unwanted habit of throwing away leads in the dying stages of matches, which has had dire implications on our position in the league table: by my calculations, we would be comfortably ahead of Arsenal and just one point off Chelsea had we not picked up this habit.
Game management is the aspect that has been reformed most by Javi Gracia. His substitutions, most notably Stefano Okaka, have been tipping games in our favour, and once we’ve grabbed that decisive goal we’ve been hardy in our efforts to maintain the advantage — things Marco Silva simply didn’t seem capable of achieving.
Make Do with what You Have
It’s been another torrid season for Watford on the injury front. First team regulars such as Nathaniel Chalobah, Heurelho Gomes and, more recently, Gerard Deulofeu have seen themselves sidelined for lengthy periods of time. Silva struggled to cope with this and results subsequently suffered. Gracia, on the other hand, is using these injuries to bring the best out of a number of players left with a point to prove after Silva’s tenure. I’m talking mainly about Etienne Capoue, Orestis Karnezis and Adrian Mariappa.
Earlier in the season, Capoue was fourth-choice central midfielder at Watford, yet injuries to Chalobah and Tom Cleverley have given the Frenchman free passage up the hierarchy. He has now forged an effective partnership with compatriot Abdoulaye Doucouré in the heart of Watford’s midfield and the team is reaping the rewards brought from it.
On loan from Udinese, Orestis Karnezis has been understudy to vice-captain Heurelho Gomes for the majority of the season, perhaps due to a thirty minute horror-show endured by the Greek international in Watford’s 3-2 defeat at Everton in early November. Many Hornets jumped straight on to Karnezis’ back in the aftermath of that game, though another spell on the sidelines for Gomes has given Karnezis another chance in goal for Watford and he has been nothing short of exceptional.
And then there’s a fan favourite, a man with 250 Hornets appearances under his belt: Adrian Mariappa. It would be harsh to say the Jamaican was poor under Marco Silva, yet in recent weeks he has been one of the standout performers for Watford. For a relatively short centre-back at just under six foot, Mariappa wins an incredible number of headers, while his last-ditch tackles and fearless blocks in the penalty area have been vital in securing wins over Everton and West Brom.
The essence of this point is that Gracia seems to be getting the best out of the players at his disposal to ensure there isn’t a void left by injured regulars. If that’s not a brilliant quality in a manager then I’m not sure what is.
Getting the Fans on Board
In a footballing sense this is the least important point, however as a passionate supporter of the club this means a great deal to me. One of the first things Gracia said in his inaugural interview as Hornets manager was that “the fans are the most important”, and he has been complimentary of the Watford faithful ever since.
The words coming from Gracia’s mouth are so pleasing for a Watford fan to hear because they embody everything the club is about. Watford are regarded as one of the first ‘family clubs’ in England, not just in the sense that the club makes an effort to ensure that everyone feels welcome when following the team but also that the whole club — the board, the manager, the players and the fans — are a family, united in their love of Watford.