Watford season preview: The perplexing issue of how to progress for Javi Gracia
Photo by Getty Images/David Rogers

It's nearly back. With the return of Premier League football just around the corner, the eager excitement and anticipation brimming from the hearts and minds of the fans of England's 20 elite clubs reach a new altitude.

This comes at a time when those affiliated with Watford may just have completed the reverse procedure, a gradual coming down to earth after a special 2018/19 campaign. The Hornets achieved their highest ever Premier League finish and points return and came within 90 minutes of securing a major trophy, reaching the club's first FA Cup final for 35 years.

It was a quietly historic year at Vicarage Road, and following on from such success will be onerous. Expectations are higher than recent memory can behold and the ambitious hierarchy will be keen to continue meeting them, but circumstances mean progression in the coming year may be harder than ever to come by.

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The Pozzo family, their associates, Javi Gracia, and the players will not relent — as owner Gino Pozzo and CEO Scott Duxbury proclaimed in a joint-statement back in May, "we said right back in 2012 that if we are together then we can achieve great things. We have — and we will continue to do so". But just how Watford keep punching above their weight remains to be seen.

Transfer business

The first signing to the senior team came in the form of know-how defender Craig Dawson, acquired to provide extra quality and reliability in the centre-back department. At 29 years old, the £5.5m paid to West Bromwich Albion represents a low-risk deal which is far more likely to prove canny business than otherwise.

Senegalese winger Ismaïla Sarr had been heavily linked to Vicarage Road for the majority of the window, and a move finally materialised on Deadline Day. Watford summoned up an initial €30m, a fee which far surpasses the club-record £18.5m paid for Andre Gray in 2017, but meeting those demands has given the Hornets a player which could be the difference between mediocrity and relative success in the coming season.

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The Hornets also brought in former Arsenal and Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck. The England international began the summer without a club after his contract with the Gunners ran out at the end of last season, but put pen to paper on a three-year deal at Vicarage Road.

Tom Dele-Bashiru, primarily recruited for the Under-23s, was held in high regard by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City but refused a renewal of his contract in the hope of finding more first-team football elsewhere, and it's something Watford seem keen to provide for him after the 19-year old penned a six-year deal.

Most notable on the exits front is the sale of Dodi Lukebakio who, despite playing just 15 minutes of Premier League football during his time at Vicarage Road, moved to Hertha Berlin for an initial £20m. The forward impressed on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf last year, contributing to 14 goals across the Bundesliga season, and attracted a host of suitors. Though clearly a promising player, Watford could not turn down the considerable profit available to them having signed for the 21-year old for around £5m just 18 months prior.

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In other departures, out of favour striker Obbi Oulare also left the club on a permanent basis, joining Standard Liége in his native Belgium for £3m, and Miguel Britos — something of a stalwart at centre-back since Watford's first season back in the top flight in 2015/16 — reached the end of his contract in June and is no longer with the club.

Meanwhile, loan moves were arranged for Jerome Sinclair, Ben Wilmot, and Marc Navarro, who joined up with VVV-Venlo, Swansea City, and CD Leganés respectively.

Sarr, Dawson and Welbeck are impressive signings, but the true achievement of Watford's transfer window was keeping hold of their most impressive stars from previous years — most notably, Abdoulaye Doucouré, Gerard Deulofeu, and Roberto Pereyra all remain at the club heading into the new season.

Where the season can be won and lost

In 2018/19, among the most remarkable feats of a truly memorable year for Watford was their statistically flawless beginning to the Premier League campaign — the Hornets won all of their opening four domestic encounters, and those precious 12 points went a long way to contributing towards the club's highest position and points tally since the top flight took on its current structure in 1992.

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Kicking the season off in that fashion for a second year in a row would tee Watford up perfectly for yet another successful season, though the visits of Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham United interlocked with trips to Everton and Newcastle United will prove challenging obstacles in their pursuit of doing so.

The Premier League's hectic festive schedule strikes yet again this year as the Hornets will face six matches in the month of December — with games coming thick and fast it will doubtless be crucial for Watford to amass as many points as possible during that period. The week before Christmas Day ends with a home encounter against Manchester United, then a trip to newly-promoted Sheffield United on Boxing Day is followed just 48 hours later by the visit of Aston Villa.

Given the nature of the current set of fixtures scheduled for May — when Watford will face West Ham, champions City and Arsenal — the Hornets will need to sit on a comfortable points tally heading into the final month of the season, and April will, therefore, be paramount in dictating their fortunes. Home games against Southampton, Norwich City and Newcastle are interrupted by a demanding away tie at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge, however, this could be one of the gentler sequences of fixtures at such a crucial point in the campaign.

One to watch

Craig Dawson

This is a signing Watford fans have been awaiting for what feels like an eternity. A dependable centre-back experienced at the highest level and the man to be entrusted with the job of shoring up a previously shaky Hornets backline.

Gracia, renowned for the defensive solidity he is able to instil into his players, watched glumly as his side conceded 59 goals in the Premier League last season, the eighth-worst record in the competition, but Dawson could be just the player to amend that flaw.

The 29-year-old played eight consecutive campaigns in the top flight and earned the majority of his appearances under Tony Pulis, becoming a stalwart in a consistently sturdy West Brom defence until the Baggies suffered relegation to the Championship in 2018. From then on, rumours linking Dawson with a return to the Premier League lingered until his eventual transfer to Vicarage Road in July.

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It represents business typical of the ilk preferred by Watford's scheming and shrewd owners, the Pozzo family. The fee of £5.5m — at least, when compared to that reportedly paid for compatriot and fellow centre-back Harry Maguire — is pennies for a player in the midst of his prime, and an intelligent deal in this ever-inflating market.

Potential wildcard

Domingos Quina

Though one of the lesser-known prospects in the Premier League, Domingos Quina is one of supreme talent and significant potential. In the season ahead he will surely be given the opportunity to shine by Gracia, a manager who displays a keen desire to continue the Portuguese midfielder's impressive development.

An impromptu signing on deadline day last summer, Quina went on to appear sporadically in both league and cup matches until a shoulder injury suffered in April saw him sidelined for the final weeks of the season. But the lack of minutes did nothing to dampen the excitement his raw ability incites in supporters.

His promise was shown especially by a small run of appearances in December, when Quina earned his first call to Premier League action and was markedly unfazed by the challenge. In addition to competing well against some of the league's most revered superstars, the 21-year old even notched a clever goal in the 3-2 victory over Cardiff City in which he was one of the standout performers.

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Though injury haunted him towards the end of he campaign, pre-season has proven that Quina is back fit and raring to go, and this could well be the year in which his deserved breakthrough into the first-team is fully accomplished.

What to expect

Although Watford are a club that, by their own account, always strive for progression and improvement, bettering their achievements of last term will be a heavy task.

As far as the league is concerned, the fruits of 2018/19 will be difficult to reproduce given the sheer amount of spending lavished by competitive rivals such as Leicester City, West Ham and Everton.

The Hornets have recently made up ground on the teams listed above by completing a couple of key signings before the close of the window, but they may still be some way behind. Therefore, a similar finish to the 11th position achieved last year would be the mark of a more than respectable season for the Watford.

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Given that league expectations may be somewhat moderated this time around, and taking into account the adequate squad depth and personality of Gracia — ever-keen to ensure cup competitions are prioritised equally alongside league exploits — the Hornets will surely once again place considerable emphasis on their advancement in both the EFL Cup and FA Cup in the hope of replicating their route to the final of the latter last year.

Predicted finish: 11th