Gracia sees room for improvement after victory over Real Sociedad
Photo by Getty Images/David Rogers

This year's Graham Taylor matchday, for the first time since the fixture became an annual event, ended in victory for Watford as the Hornets triumphed 2-1 over Real Sociedad thanks to a second-half brace from Andre Gray.

The match was played in commemoration for Taylor, the club's greatest ever manager who passed away in 2017, but it also presented a valuable opportunity for coaches, players and fans alike to assess the performance of the squad in the final pre-season friendly.

With the Premier League set to return next weekend, supporters will have been eager to witness a respectable showing, and victory over a side of Sociedad's calibre certainly denotes just that.

However, manager Javi Gracia is adamant that there are still refinements to be made if the team are to be ready for the visit of Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday: "In this moment if you ask me about the game, the best thing is we have the possibility to improve many things. I'm sure we will do it."

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A challenging pre-season

Watford's summer fixture list pitted them against several top sides, and a handful of truly exceptional players. First, they faced Champions League semi-finalists Ajax and German outfit Bayer Leverkusen on their tour Austria, and after dispatching second-tier Queens Park Rangers last weekend the Hornets locked horns with yet more strong opponents in the shape of Sociedad.

Although they only achieved, by their own standards, a slightly underwhelming 9th-placed finish last year, La Real are a historically revered club with a host of stellar names including internationals such as Gerónimo Rulli, Diego Llorente and on-loan Real Madrid midfielder Martin Ødegaard.

Their quality was telling, particularly in the first-half when Watford struggled to wield their influence on the match — Mikel Oyarzabal's penalty before the break was the least the visitors deserved. But Gracia was pleased to hand his squad the chance to operate against opposition of such a standard.

"Real Sociedad were much better than us," the Spaniard conceded. "In the first half they played much better. Maybe in the second we began to control the spaces, we competed better, but it's always good to compete against teams like Sociedad who play with a high level. It's important to get good results for the confidence of our players."

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The same is true for the rest of Watford's pre-season encounters; Gracia believes that facing challenges in the form of high quality opponents is the optimum way to prepare for a new season, particularly from a psychological perspective.

"I'm really pleased with all the different moments against teams with a high level. They were good for us, all tough games. I prefer to play against these teams and it was good for us to have these experiences. We are now ready to compete."

Fitness concerns

Gray went on to be the crucial performer in an impressive result for Watford, but he may not even have started had Troy Deeney's regular striking partner, Gerard Deulofeu, been available for selection — the 25-year old was advised to sit the game out by club physios due to ongoing concerns surrounding a muscular problem.

Another expected starter, Roberto Pereyra, did not feature in the game having only rejoined first team training towards the end of last week due to his involvement with the Argentina national team at the Copa América.

"In this moment we have some players out with little problems, but I think all of them will be ready for the first game. Maybe Real Sociedad were a little bit more fresh than us, but we have a long season to play and we are in the right way. The process is important, the attitude of the players, and in this case we are in the right way."

Speaking specifically about Deulofeu and Pereyra — key players for the Hornets, and individuals Gracia will absolutely want at his disposal when Brighton visit next weekend — the head coach said: "Gerard is maybe training with the team on Tuesday. I think he will be ready.

"Pereyra finished later than the rest of the team. Now he is training in a hard moment, some days alone. He will be ready for the first game, not at his best level, but he will be ready to compete."

Questions were raised about the lack of substitutions used by Gracia during the game. Sociedad took a squad of 24 to Vicarage Road and every one of those players earned minutes on the pitch, while Watford made just two changes throughout the game.

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Gracia explains that this was done in order to bring the fitness of next weekend's likely starters up to its ideal level, and maintains that training sessions have been sufficient for the rest of the squad to reach the required condition.

"We trained yesterday and played a game at the training ground. Some players played 90 minutes today and I prefer to give importance to the minutes rather than substitutions or solutions to play better. The main objective today was the amount of players with 90 minutes."