Gracia: "The truth is we need to improve"
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Gracia: "The truth is we need to improve"

Watford's head coach dissects last weekend's abject opening day and the upcoming trip to Everton.

Jake Horwood

The optimism prior to Watford's season-opening clash with Brighton & Hove Albion was remarkable. Vicarage Road was a buoyant and expectant venue ahead of kick-off as the new campaign got underway.

Why? It was the first competitive game back in Hertfordshire since that soul-destroying yet heartwarming FA Cup final defeat at Wembley Stadium, a sympathetic homecoming for those Hornets heroes. Furthermore, three new signings were revealed to their new supporters — the men tasked with catalysing Watford into a new era of heightened ambition and greater success, building on the fruits of the season before.

But all of it was short-lived. Brighton romped to a 3-0 victory, one which was widely regarded as the most surprising Premier League result of the weekend. It feels as though it's been an awful lot longer than a week since positivity was at its peak in the world of Javi Gracia and his squad.

The performance and subsequent result remain almost inextricable as the second match of the season draws close, yet the head coach insists this is not a time to ponder, but a time to persevere to produce more favourable outcomes as soon as possible.

"If you want you can be positive, if you want you can be negative, but I want to be focused on the truth and the truth is we need to improve," Gracia conceded. "We need to improve many things and we're working on that.

"We're working, trying to recover the best things we did in the beginning and trying to improve all the things we can do."

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Cohesion is key

Watford's starting eleven against Brighton featured just one new signing — experienced centre-back Craig Dawson slotted in alongside Craig Cathcart at the heart of the defence — but the team was virtually unrecognisable from that which performed so well in 2018/19.

Haphazard at the back, mundane in attack and peculiarly passive everywhere in between, it rivalled home defeats to Huddersfield Town and AFC Bournemouth as one of the Hornets' worst displays since their return to the top flight in 2015.

Even now, with the second game of the campaign looming, it's difficult to pinpoint just what went wrong for Watford on the day. Were Brighton simply too impressive; were the Hornets not fit enough; was their mentality incorrect; or was it merely a slow re-acclimatisation to Premier League action?

Regardless of the issue last weekend, Gracia believes the only way to set the record straight is to labour tirelessly until he and his squad manage to do just that.

"When we finished against Brighton, some asked about the players out of the team — it's not the solution. The main solution is to work during the week and to improve with all the players.

"All of them need to improve, including me — I'm the first one. I'm demanding with myself, I have to improve, I know it. But this week I was trying to analyse, trying to prepare as well as possible the next training, the next game, and it's the only way I know to improve."

The players felt the disappointment of the result just as strongly as the fans and the head coach himself. Goalkeeper Ben Foster said post-match: "We need to look at ourselves, we need to get back to doing the basics that we did well all of last season and put those into practice because if we carry on like we did today, it'll be a long old season."

Gracia and his coaching and analytical team called the squad in for a tactical briefing on the morning after the defeat to meticulously pore over the 90 minutes in an attempt to put a finger of the insufficiencies of the performance.

Aside from hard work, the Spaniard feels that the players must remain united in the aim to produce more positive results throughout the rest of the campaign.

"I think the players are in the same direction as me," the Spaniard said. "I'm not able to understand this team without that togetherness. I think we need it.

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"We're competing against clubs with more money than us, we're competing against teams with maybe better players than us, better coaches than us — we need that strength as a team, we need it. It's something we must keep during all the season if we want to achieve our objectives."

Injury boosts

As Gracia has already pointed out, it was not those that were absent from the matchday squad on Saturday who were responsible for the result — far from it. But the return of some key players, and new ones, too, will certainly bolster Watford's prospects ahead of their next game against Everton at Goodison Park.

"This week we have some little problems, but I think all of them are ready. There's different situations for all of them but I don't have any players injured."

Perhaps most notably, new recruit Danny Welbeck looks set to make his debut for the club. The striker has been nursed back to fitness by a combination of personal trainers and the club's physios having suffered a broken ankle in November last year.

However, club-record signing Ismaïla Sarr is still catching up to the rest of the squad with regards to his conditioning, and will not feature on Merseyside.

"Welbeck is training with us all this week, with the rest of the team. He is training well and I think he can help us in the next games because from what I see he is ready. Sarr needs time to be ready after a time resting, he needs time to recover to his best condition. I expect he will be ready as quick as possible."

Supporters were concerned when forward Gerard Deulofeu was substituted at half-time against Brighton, but Gracia insists it was just a bug and the 25-year old will feature as normal in the visit to his former club.

"Gerard had a stomach problem the day before. He was at the hotel, he didn't have dinner and he was in his room. At the end we decided he can play but we knew he made an effort and it wasn't possible to play all the game."

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In more positive news, left-back Adam Masina and midfielders Domingos Quina and Nathaniel Chalobah have all recovered from their respective injuries and could be in line for places in the matchday squad.

"Masina, Quina and Chalobah are well, only [Adalberto] Peñaranda is out of the team but the rest of them are training with the team all this week and they are available for the next game."

Grudge match

The upcoming game is one which carries added verve due to the past movements of current Everton manager Marco Silva. When the Portuguese sat at Watford's helm in 2017, the Toffees made an approach for his services which the Hornets claimed to be the reason for their dramatic nosedive in form in the months that followed.

And when Silva eventually moved to Goodison Park in the summer of 2018, a complex compensation case arose, the result of which being that Everton agreed to pay Watford a fee of £4m to avoid a formal inquiry into the hiring of the 42-year old.

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However, more than anything, Gracia believes his side's trip to the north-west will be challenging due to the quality of the opponents and nothing more, but is confident previous encounters indicate that the Hornets are capable of achieving a result.

"Everton is much more than simple, they have a good squad, a good manager, and all the games with them are very equal. Last season we won one game, we drew the other but we were winning until the last minute. All the games are very equal and I expect the same again."

The Toffees played their part in a goalless draw at Crystal Palace on the opening weekend, in which Morgan Schneiderlin was sent off and fellow midfielder André Gomes suffered an ankle injury. Both are set to watch the visit of Watford from the sidelines.

First and foremost, though, Gracia will be keen to ensure that his players make a return to the calibre of display which has become expected of them before concerning himself with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.

"It doesn't depend on the level of their team," he said. "In this moment I prefer to be focused on our team and to try to reach our level, to keep our level and it's the only thing in this moment that I'm concerned about."