Gracia: "Our team has high ambitions"
Photo by Getty Images/David Rogers

Gracia: "Our team has high ambitions"

The Watford head coach talks scheduling, new signings and future aspirations ahead of Saturday's season-opener.

jakehorwood
Jake Horwood

At last, the new Premier League campaign is upon us. Managers, players and supporters of England's 20 elite clubs return from the summer break and brace themselves for the nine-month rollercoaster ride that awaits.

For Watford, the season just gone was truly one to remember. Under the methodical guidance of Javi Gracia, the Hornets achieved their highest league finish and points haul in the top flight since 1987 and also reached the club's first FA Cup final in 35 years. The minimum expectations of any campaign, at any club, are to avoid regression, but emulating the success of last year will be no easy task, let alone improving on it.

One of the key factors as to why Watford enjoyed such a prosperous year in 2018/19 was their statistically flawless beginning to it. The Hornets won all of their opening four Premier League games to immediately secure 12 points which went a long way towards contributing to the fortunes they would go on to relish.

The opening game of 2019/20 pits Gracia's side against Brighton & Hove Albion at Vicarage Road, and the Spaniard is delighted of the chance to kick the season off strongly again on home turf.

"It's the best thing I saw when I knew the schedule," Gracia said. "The first game we're playing at home, that was the best thing for me. I like to play at home and to start the new season at home and we hope our supporters enjoy this game."

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Challenging opposition

In fact, the corresponding fixture last year also fell on the opening weekend of the campaign. That day, Watford waltzed to a comfortable 2-0 victory, thanks largely to a dazzling display from Roberto Pereyra who struck both goals at Vicarage Road. It was a fitting beginning to the season that would follow for the Hornets.

But the reverse fixture in February couldn't have been more different. On the balance of play, Brighton edged a scrappy affair which ended goalless only after heroics from Hornets goalkeeper Ben Foster.

Two days produced a couple of matches of starkly contrasting complexion in 2018/19, and that most recent encounter at the American Express Stadium indicates to Gracia that the Seagulls will prove a stern test in the game to come.

"I remember both games from last season," reflects the 49-year old. "The first one was our first victory last season, and the second one we didn't deserve that point because they played better than us, they created more chances than us but Ben gave us one point with his saves."

Brighton have undergone a significant transition period over the summer. Despite making four signings worth a total outlay of just under £60m, the most notable change took place in the dugout. Graham Potter takes charge of his first game at the helm on Saturday after replacing Chris Hughton, whose five-year tenure with the club came to an end in May.

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Watford will face a new entity at Vicarage Road, a team with fresh life breathed into its veins, guided by a manager with a powerful philosophical outlook on football and a tactical nous that has the potential to be problematic for other squads and coaches in the division.

"The next game will be different: different teams, different coach and some different players. I've seen Brighton play in pre-season and I know it will be a different game. They try to play with a passing game, an open game, sometimes with three at the back or a 4-2-3-1. It will be a good challenge for us."

New signings

Until the last two days of the transfer window, Watford's dealings in the market had been fairly modest. Craig Dawson was acquired from West Bromwich Albion to provide much-needed reliability and experience at centre-back and looked set to be the only arrival heading into the frenzied final stages of the window.

Then, in the space of 24 hours, the Hornets tied up two impressive deals for sought-after names.

First came Danny Welbeck, an England international who began the summer without a club after running to the end of his contract at most recent employers Arsenal. The striker joined on a three-year deal, and Gracia believes he has the quality to become a crucial player at Vicarage Road.

"He's a very important player, not only for me but for everyone in his country. He's an international player for England, a high-quality player and I think he's a very good player for us."

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Most notable of the incomings, though, was Senegalese winger Ismaïla Sarr. The 21-year old transferred from Stade Rennais for a club-record fee believed to be in the region of £30m. The Hornets had been chasing a deal for Sarr for the vast majority of the summer and finally secured the move on deadline day.

"He's a player with big offensive skills," Gracia said. "He can play on both sides: right, left, and even as a striker sometimes. He is very strong physically very fast and he's very good in the spaces.

"We saw him playing in the African Cup of Nations and in many other games. He's a young player, a good player and will be very good for the team."

The fact that Watford left a large proportion of their business so late in the window is an unusual way for the club's owners, the Pozzo family, to operate, and perhaps suggests the feeling in the hierarchy was that the squad already had sufficient ability and depth to meet the expectations of the forthcoming season.

Gracia certainly accepts that notion, and believes Watford are an ambitious entity regardless of the players — or lack of them — they choose to exchange.

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"The club doesn't need to sign players to show their ambition. We can see it keeping the players we have, important players, and now signing other players, new players. The mentality of the club is always ambitious.

"I'm delighted with the players I have," the Spaniard added. "The new players have a high quality and are very good professionals, but not only them — all the squad. We have kept the players we had from last season and I am happy with all of them."

The season ahead

Again, replicating the fruits of the campaign gone by will be no walk in the park. Watford's competitive rivals have lavished considerable amounts of money on a host of exceptional footballers. The quality of the league has been raised significantly, and certain teams face the danger of being left in the dust.

But the Hornets are not necessarily at that risk. Quite aside from the fact that they made up ground on their counterparts with their late dealings in the transfer market, they are a club, manager, and team that have consistently defied expectations, and there is no reason for them to cease in that achievement heading into their fifth consecutive Premier League campaign.

Their head coach is optimistic heading into the new season, and submits that the predisposed mental outlook of all associated with the club guarantees another enjoyable year somewhat regardless of what the campaign beholds on the pitch.

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"After pre-season the team is ready to compete and ready to play the first game. It was a good pre-season in terms of playing games and training. Everything was good and everybody is ready.

"Our mentality is the same as last season," Gracia asserts. "I always think our team has high ambitious but at the same time moderate expectations and, I'd say, low needs. This way we are able to achieve a good season."

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