Monday marked a year since Marco Silva was removed from his role as Watford manager. On the same day, 21 January 2018, the Portuguese was replaced by Javi Gracia, reputable in the lower reaches of his native Spain yet known little in the nation to which he embarked. Needless to say, Gracia has made quite the impression in his first 365 days of Premier League management.
As conveyed in an official statement by Watford, a large reason for the split was, "an unwarranted approach by a Premier League rival for his services". Incidentally, that particular Premier League club, Everton, is where Silva now finds himself.
The Hornets endured a backlash of criticism and disbelief at their decision. Sitting 10th in the table, a fairly lofty position for a club that were on the brink of administration just seven years prior, neutrals, understandably, failed to conceive the nature of the action — though the agonising six-point gap to the relegation zone and consistently poor form in the preceding months must also be taken into account.
Such was the animosity both towards Watford Football Club and within its parameters that the man tasked with picking up the reins was paid little attention. Gracia took on his job with humble dignity, an embodiment of his management style in the year that would follow.
Since his appointment, the 48-year old has amassed 15 wins in 41 games — a statistic which is not overly impressive at first glance, though those victories have contributed to the club’s greatest ever start to a Premier League season which sees them lie in a Europa League spot with more than half the campaign passed. Impressive for a side that were widely tipped for relegation at the beginning of 2018/19.
Defying the odds, meeting specific criteria and bringing the feel-good factor back to a football club depressed by the season before — how has Gracia done it all?
Improvement in results
First and foremost, a manager — or head coach, in Gracia’s case — is appointed to win football matches. As noted above, the 48-year old has triumphed in roughly 37% of his encounters, but let’s add some context to that figure.
Gracia inherited a squad deflated and subdued by a prolonged poor run of form. The atmosphere in the dressing room was toxic. Silva had departed, leaving a number of his requested summer signings, including highly-rated youngster Richarlison, unsettled and visibly unmotivated. Simply by watching Watford it was possible to conclude that team cohesion was spiralling to a dangerously low level.
In his first game, Gracia locked horns with Paul Lambert and Stoke City. It was a dreary, lifeless and ultimately goalless encounter. Few were expecting the result that came just five days later when the Hornets romped to a famous 4-1 victory over the then-champions Chelsea. That was the night in which the affection between Watford fans and Gracia truly begun.
After that freak result against the Blues, the Spaniard steadied the ship — no more, no less. The gap to the relegation zone was maintained and stretched to eight points by the end of the campaign, when the Hornets finished 14th. Vicarage Road became a gruelling destination for away sides, though Watford’s form on the road continued to suffer. Gracia failed to triumph away from home in the first half of 2018, and this hindered his points tally from his first six months at the helm.
Although Gracia had extended the club’s Premier League status to a fourth consecutive season, the summer brought doubts about his ability to guide the club through 2018/19. Fears of relegation increased. A low-key transfer window dented confidence ahead of the new campaign, with many fans feeling that key areas in the squad, namely in the striker position, had not been addressed, while the mediocrity of the closing of the previous season promised little for the fresh nine-month rollercoaster ride ahead.
However, the former Malaga and Rubin Kazan manager clearly hadn’t read the script. Watford ran out victorious in their first four matches of the new season, defeating Brighton & Hove Albion, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur. The win over the Clarets was the first away triumph for nearly nine months, while beating Spurs under the glorious sun at Vicarage Road will live long in the memory for Hornets fans. Good form has largely continued throughout the rest of the season so far, bar a baron run in November and early December.
A key factor in the improvement of results under Gracia has been the revival of a number of players since his arrival. José Holebas and Étienne Capoue have dug up their Watford careers from the grave and are now two of the first names on the team sheet. Meanwhile, captain Troy Deeney, whose lengthy stint with the Hornets also seemed to be drawing to a close towards the end of last season, has rediscovered his scoring form and is once again a crucial component within the team.
Likewise, key playing partnerships have been forged, some of which seemed incomprehensible before he took over. His deceivingly complex 4-4-2 formation yields the most out of the best players in the squad. For example, Roberto Pereyra, Will Hughes and Ken Sema have been converted into effective wide midfielders instead of outright wingers or central operators, while Gerard Deulofeu has formed a constructive duo with Deeney in the forward line.
As such, Gracia’s innovative tactics, productive leadership and organisation of the squad can be credited with the improvement of results under his reign.
Understanding the ethos of the club
Watford are, in many respects, an unusual entity in English football. Their Italian owners, the Pozzo family, have employed a contemporary European model in their running of the club, one aspect of which is the ruthlessness with regards to managers for which they have been so lambasted in recent times.
It’s difficult to walk into a job knowing the margin for error is so low, knowing the criteria upon which you are based are marked to such a high standard. Gracia understands and accepts that he is merely a temporary cog in the whole functioning machine of the football club.
As the Spaniard described in the first interview after his appointment, “it’s a big challenge, but it’s a dream, too".
Another aspect of that distinct model is a frugal attitude towards investment. The Hornets made a profit of £13.4m on transfers in the summer, the second-lowest net spend in the league. Most — and this applies to a number of former Watford managers — would kick up a fuss about the lack of financial support, especially after such heated flirtation with relegation in the year before.
But not Gracia. It’s no surprise he didn’t request monetary backing: the Spaniard evacuated his position at UD Almería in the summer after gaining promotion because the board insisted on signing too many players. The message throughout the 2018 window was contentment with the squad at his disposal.
And this is exactly what has been the source of Watford's turn of fortunes under Gracia. Accepting, if not embracing, the lack of control he had over transfers allowed the 48-year old to focus meticulously on the squad in front of him, and the rewards of such frugality are being reaped as the season carries on.
Engagement with the fans
It isn’t just the Pozzo model of management that separates Watford from the rest at the height of English football. The core values within the club have been retained and revitalised by each generation of fans. The Hornets convey themselves as the “traditional” family club, so it’s crucial that these beliefs are upheld. Simply by wearing a scarf in honour of Graham Taylor on Saturday, Gracia demonstrated, in the simplest terms, that he ‘gets’ it.
It’s a severely underrated commodity; football is essentially a business fuelled by those who pay to watch it and, as such, a positive manager-supporter relationship is paramount, not least to the corporate success of a football club but also for the general ambience on match days. Gracia applauds the support after every game, he cites their importance in pre- and post-match interviews.
Perhaps this is more valuable to Watford fans than those of other clubs, but there’s good reason for that. The prior two managers, Walter Mazzarri and Silva, left on bad terms with both the executives of the club and the supporters. It’s refreshing to see someone come in and immediately and consistently recognise and appreciate those who follow the team up and down the country.
There’s a strong case to argue that Gracia will be the end of the revolving door analogy often associated with Watford. That’s not to say he’ll last in his position forever — managers of mid-table clubs generally have a shelf life of two or three years, and the Spaniard is expected to fill that as a minimum. But, crucially, he embodies the core values of the club that separate it from the rest. And that’s what makes him the perfect man for the Watford job.