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2018/19 – Watford Season Preview

Watford Premier League Preview

Founded: 1881

Nickname: The Hornets

Home Ground: Vicarage Road

Trophy Room: N/A

Manager: Javi Gracia

Current Squad

Watford FC Roster

Watford finished 14th in the English Premier League despite having a chaotic season. They even fired their manager Marco Silva half-way through the season due to poor form. A hot start to the season gave the Hornets a buffer that kept them safe from the relegation zone all season.

Watford are entering the 2018/19 English Premier League season with the same ambitions, to stay clear of the relegation zone and achieve a respectable league finish. I have prepared an overview of main Watford storylines and a short preview for the upcoming English Premier League season.

Previous Season Summary

Finish: 14th

For the third straight year in the English Premier League, Watford have managed to avoid relegation despite being one of the heavy favorites for relegation every year. The Hornets finished 14th in one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world despite limited resources.

Watford can thank several factors for the successful season, none more important than their hot start which put them in the position to look at their competitors in the rear-view mirror the whole time.

The Hornets opened the season with a 3-3 draw with the giants Liverpool. Actually, in the first 8 games of the season, Watford have lost only once, a 6-0 drubbing by the eventual champions Manchester City, but they have managed to win 4 games and draw another 3 games.

This run pushed Watford into 4th position in the English Premier League. Surely finishing this high was unrealistic and unsustainable, but it has given Watford a morale boost and determination to make it and stay out of the relegation zone.

What followed was a bad run of fixtures and form and Watford dropped 11 out of their next 15 games in the English Premier League. Even though their league position was still safe, Watford have decided that some changes had to be made and they have fired manager Marco Silva and replaced him with Javi Gracia.

After taking over for Marco Silva, Gracia guided Watford to 3 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss in the next five games. The uptick in form has secured Watford’s survival in the English Premier League and the team entered the last quarter of the season without a heavy burden of fighting off relegation.

Protecting their home field was also an integral part of Watford’s successful season. At home, the Hornets recorded 7 wins, 6 draws and 6 losses, compared to their away record of 4 wins, 2 draws and 13 losses. Home field advantage is extremely important for the teams with limited resources and without it, it is almost impossible to achieve ambitious goals.

Certainly, the highlights of the Hornets’ season were the wins against Chelsea 4-1 and Arsenal 2-1. The fan base got the taste of the Big 6 clubs and that leaves them hopeful and motivated for the next season.

Key Additions and Departures

Watford have been one of the most active clubs in the transfer market since the start of the offseason. Although they don’t have the resources to make blockbuster transfers and additions, they have still added players to their roster that can make a difference.

The major addition:

Was the transfer of right winger Gerard Deulofeu for a GBP 11 million fee from Barcelona. The right winger should be an immediate replacement for the departed Richarlison.

The second addition was left-back Adam Masina from Bologna in Serie A, on a GBP 5 million fee. He will also join the right back Marc Navarro who arrived from Espanyol for a GBP 2 million fee as well. Both fullbacks are expected to be a part of the defensive rotation at the Vicarage Road.

Watford didn’t stop there. They have also strengthened their midfield, by adding a left winger Ken Sema from Ostersund for a GBP 2.2 million fee. The final additions to the squad were an 18-year-old center back Ben Wilmot from Stevenage for a GBP 1.7 million fee and veteran goalkeeper Ben Foster who arrived via free transfer from West Bromwich Albion.

This wave of new additions was caused by a number of departures from the club as well.

The main departure:

Was the transfer of winger Richarlison who moved to Everton for a GBP 36 million fee, to rejoin his old manager Marco Silva.

Another winger has left the club, as Nordin Amrabat has moved to Saudi Arabia in a GPB 8 million transfer to Al-Nassr. Striker Mauro Zarate ha also left the club to join Boca Juniors in a GBP 2 million transfer. The final departure from Watford was goalkeeper Costas Pantilimon, who left the club on a free transfer.

Watford still might have a role to play in the transfer market, as they seek to improve their roster for the upcoming season. The Hornets could use more options in the attack and depth at the forward position. Same can be said for the midfield, where a more creative spark is needed if they hope to make a step forward in terms of their style of play.

Still, with the limited resources that they have, Watford might have to engage in talks with a number of bigger clubs to loan out some players that they might not be able to afford to sign at this moment. This would be the easiest way to add more talent to their roster.

Style of Play

Javi Gracia is one of the highly-regarded Spanish managers of the new generation. The 48-year-old manager has been nicknamed “the Giant Killer” due to his ability to defeat the elite sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona with vastly inferior clubs. Especially, during his spell with the Spanish side Malaga.

Gracia is an astute tactician, who spends hours and hours watching tape and finding the little details that might help him prepare his team better for the upcoming games. A real student of the game, Gracia has used a variety of formations to implement his high pressing system.

Traditionally, Javi Gracia’s teams mainly played:

In a 4-4-2 formation which he utilized to set up an intricate pressing system. He has modified the formation a bit at Watford, as he chose a 4-2-3-1 formation as the better fit for his roster and system.

The cornerstones of the system have remained the same as well. An intense pressing system is there and Garcia even insists on constantly pressing the opponents’ goalkeepers and forcing them to play long balls. He believes that long balls are logically less accurate and easier to intercept, thus regaining the possession for Watford.

In contrast to his predecessor Marco Silva, Javi Gracia does not use the width as a competitive advantage in his system. Gracia prefers suffocating the middle of the field and taking away any space for the quick passes down the middle or through balls. He would rather deal with players running into wide space and trying to stop the crosses into the box, than leaving the middle of the field open for play.

The keys to his system are the 2 central midfielders that are physical specimens and capable of playing box-to-box soccer at a high level. At Watford, the choice has fallen to Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure. Both players are excellent ball-winning midfielders that love to push forward whenever they can.

Up front, Garcia prefers to use a single central forward that needs to be an aerial threat and have the ability to hold up the ball, as the rest of the attacking options get forward. The forward has to be able to distribute the ball with accuracy and pounce on balls that end up in the penalty box.

Garcia is one of the few managers that is not focusing on the wide style of play, as the basis of his system. He prefers a more direct approach to attacking the opponent and using counter-attacks whenever possible.

The Spaniard has also been described as a players’ coach, as he puts a huge amount of effort and time in communicating with his players. He loves to develop players individually and use the youth system of the clubs he has coached at. This should particularly be a huge plus for Watford, who have limited resources for transfers every year and a development approach might be crucial for the long-term success of the club.

2018/19 English Premier League Season Expectations and Predictions

The expectations for Watford have not changed in the upcoming season. They are still expected to fight off relegation and secure another season of the English Premier League. This task will be as hard as ever since the new Premier League season is going to be more competitive than ever.

Watford have made some additions to their roster but none of them are household names that are supposed to make their roster suddenly much more competitive. If we add that they have just lost their best player from the previous season, Richarlison to Everton, there are many questions that the Hornets will have to answer during the season.

Javi Garcia has a huge task ahead of him since all three newly promoted teams from the English Championship have invested significant resources to make their roster immediately competitive and avoid the relegation zone right away. Of course, not all of these moves will work out but overall, they will make the relegation battle much more difficult than it used to be in the past.

The Hornets schedule is a mixed bag, as they start their 2018/19 English Premier League campaign by hosting Brighton & Hove Albion, traveling to Burnley and hosting Crystal Palace. This is a manageable schedule and Watford should be looking to gain as many points as they can from that set of fixtures.

What follows is much more challenging though. During September, Watford will face Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal. A brutal run of fixtures that should test Watford’s roster and let them evaluate how far are they from the elite clubs in the English Premier League.

Middle of the schedule is much more manageable and should offer more stability to Watford but the end of the season will once again bring a congested schedule full of teams that are expected to finish in the top 7 in the English Premier League.

It is still unclear whether Watford have completed their roster or they are still trying to add new players. The lack of financial resources posses a difficult enigma for Javi Garcia, as he will find it extremely hard to sign difference-making players at bargain prices.

One option could be to find suitable players that might be available for loan. A number of elite clubs in the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga or German Bundesliga have deep rosters where a number of younger players or backups are not getting a chance to prove themselves or get enough playing time. Targeting those players could provide a cost-effective option for Watford to infuse more talent into their squad without breaking the bank.

As it stands, I find it difficult to feel a lot of optimism for Watford or their ability to repeat a successful season in the English Premier League and stay clear of the relegation zone. The league is more competitive and most of their major competitors have spent more on players during the offseason.

Javi Gracia is a solid manager who has delivered time after time with underdog teams. His philosophy and attention to the details make him an excellent game planner and one of the best in-game adjusters in English soccer. Still, he is not a magician and he will find it very difficult to deliver the results that are expected of him.

Because of all this, I think that Watford will, unfortunately, be one of the three teams to get relegated to the English Premiership. Watford should finish 18th in the English Premier League and just miss out on the last place that keeps them in the top-flight soccer.

Projected Finish: 18th

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