Javi Gracia’s Watford are flying in the Premier League as we enter the first international break of the season, with four wins of a possible four to their name. Some say it may be a fluke, but you can only beat what is in front of you. Lewis Steele takes a look at Watford’s 4-2-2-2 and Javi Gracia’s styles that have overseen this superb start for the pre-season relegation candidates.
It took a matter of minutes after the full time whistle at Vicarage Road for the inevitable to happen. The headlines and office jokes we saw coming when the idea of Watford beating Spurs first came into our head: “Can Watford do a Leicester?”, with bookmakers offering odds of 500/1 for Watford to repeat ‘the miracle of 2016’.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It has been a great start, but ‘doing a Leicester’ won’t happen again, not in the next decade or so anyway.
Despite this, something, evidently, has been going right at Watford. After four games, The Hornets have maximum points thanks to wins against Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and most recently an impressive victory against Spurs.
The shortened odds for Watford may be the talk of social media, but another bookmakers tip is quickly looking ill found: Javi Gracia was the bookies favourite to be the first through the proverbial door and the winner of the ‘sack race’ of 2018/19.
That prediction is proving to be rash and the reason for that is the fact the Spaniard is probably the least known gaffer in the division. The Spanish coach had enjoyed stints at Malaga, Rubin Kazan and other teams across the continent, but is not a household name in management.
Although with no major top flight silverware to his name, Gracia made a name for himself when at Malaga for being a ‘giant killer’, often taking points off the big boys such as Barcelona, whom he got four points against in his first season at the club.
Before Malaga, Gracia won promotion with Almeria, adopting a 4-4-2 formation with Aleix Vidal and Charles as the strikers. Gracia left before the new season due to a rift with the board, who wanted to sell the players who got them promoted.
His sides press high up the pitch but in a staggered manner, forcing teams to go long, ‘like lions swarming over a gazelle’, as has been said by Spanish experts.
Gracia has an old fashioned view of the game, believing that the harder his teams work, the better results they will get, but in general he is a modern coach that relies heavily on high pressing off the ball and has a strong focus on analysis of future opponents to pinpoint weaknesses.
He wasn’t too dissimilar as a player, with a high emphasis on tactics and organisation.
“He was always talking, correcting, organising. He understood the mechanisms, tactically he was sharp, a leader. Sometimes, like with Diego Simeone who I played with at Lazio, you know they have something. Javi has that” said former teammate Darko Kovacevic.
Off the ball, for Gracia, the ‘pressing in stages’ is key.
The 4-2-2-2 system that Javi Gracia plays is a sister of the classic 4-4-2 that many English sides used in the first decade of the 21st century.
As is evident in the above graphic, Watford’s formation off the ball is this classic 4-4-2 with the two banks of four behind the ball, led by Deeney and Gray who initiate the pressing.
The narrow structure as is clear limits the opposition to pass from side to side, rather than advance via through-the-lines forward passes.
Most of the best attacking teams use fast, vertical passes. Watford’s setup meant that on Sunday, Spurs often had to pass in a U shape, which doesn’t really advance the play. The staggered system invites long balls, with Gracia placing trust in Cathcart and Kabasele to mop up said long balls.
The hallmark of a solid side looking for safety is normally this rigid defensive structure, making themselves hard to beat. However, what they do on the ball is what makes them stand out from a crowd of many candidates vying for a mid table finish.
On the ball, Watford have Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes who operate in ‘free roles’. Listed on the team sheet as wide midfielders, the duo drift inside and play as central midfielders, with the former scoring three goals in August, making him a candidate for the player of the month.
Both of these attacking midfielders have dual functions and both have played many games in their career in central roles.
In Will Hughes’ heatmap from the weekend win over Spurs (above), it is evident that although his primary position was in that deep defensive position on the right flank, but often he cut inside and affected the game from a central position.
In fact, the early season performances of Will Hughes have led to many questioning why he hasn’t been selected for the UEFA Nations League games by Gareth Southgate.
Against Tottenham, Hughes showed glimpses of his best and proved why he was brought into the Derby County side as a 16-year-old and won so many plaudits from such a young age. If he continues this form, he will certainly push for a place to fill the creative void in Southgate’s midfield.
Hughes and Pereyra are key to Watford. They cut inside, so the width comes from the full backs Daryl Janmaat and Jose Holebas, the latter of whom has four assists to his name already this season, level with fellow left-back Benjamin Mendy at the top of the assists charts in the division.
The dynamic full back duo will bomb up and down the wing looking to create goals on the counter attack. Often, only one of them will go, allowing Watford to always have a three man defence should they be countered on.
With the importance of the wing backs and the wide midfielders highlighted, the most important role in Gracia’s side is the two who patrol the centre of the park: Ettiene Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Football is Gracia’s life and passion, and his start to the season with Watford has been nothing short of exceptional.
His tactics bring a perfect balance – defensive solidarity and attacking prowess, caused by the use of positional play and interpretation of spaces.
By any standards, it is early days for Watford, but the tactics Gracia employs seem basic, but his players understand them and they are working to great effect.
Watford are eager to tie down the still young coach to a new deal, according to The Daily Mail, and that is testament to his early season form, driven by his well thought out 4-2-2-2 formation.