Manchester United go to high-flying Watford wary to avoid Javi Gracia’s carefully laid traps

Miguel Delaney
Manchester United go to high-flying Watford wary to avoid Javi Gracia’s carefully laid traps

It was the word rather desperately used in self-defence by Jose Mourinho, in a moment that seemed to fully display just how uncertain things are at Manchester United right now, but it’s being used much more and in a very different way around Watford.

“Respect.”

That, according to senior figures at Vicarage Road, is the word you hear about Javi Gracia and his staff more than anything else. The 48-year-old commands it.

Maybe not all that well known outside Spain when he got the job in January, and easy to disregard as yet another easily dispensable and generic “continental Watford manager”, Gracia has earned the respect – and warm admiration – of everyone around the club for how he does things; how different he is. It has made some difference to the top of the early Premier League table, too.

There Watford sit, one of only three clubs posting a 100 per cent record along with Liverpool and Chelsea, and six points ahead of United – who come to town on Saturday.

Those contrasting situations have already made that fixture at Vicarage Road one of the games of the weekend, with a real buzz about it, to go with the buzz around Gracia’s side and a newly rocking stadium.

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There has been fanciful talk of “doing a Leicester City”, and it is a giddy question that Abdoulaye Doucoure has already been forced to play down in a press conference on the eve of the United game.

The likely reality is of course that they won’t come close to doing a Leicester, but then they don’t need such miracles to have a very impressive season, or to make this season much worse for Mourinho already.

United should very much beware. Beating such sides is actually rather standard for Gracia, as the win against Tottenham Hotspur showed.

While his Watford did lose to five of the top six last season, that was when he was still adjusting to the job and the country, and the supremely executed 4-1 win over Chelsea suggested what has come in his career so far and what may now come in future.

Gracia made a great virtue of such victories in Spain. In two seasons at Malaga, his side claimed a win at champions Barcelona and a draw at Champions League-winning Real Madrid, while beating Atletico Madrid in a year they made that European final. Arguably more impressive was his record in a season with an Osasuna that got relegated due to a host of other issues at the club. Gracia’s team were unbeaten at home against those three big clubs, and even thrashed Atletico 3-0, that in the campaign Diego Simeone’s team won the title. Vicarage Road may well present a similarly awkward venue for the top sides.

Those who have worked with Gracia speak enthusiastically about the “traps” he sets for such team, and how he relishes trying to figure them out. That is what he has spent the last week thinking about with United, just as he did with Spurs: where he can hurt them; where the weaknesses are. Mourinho is going to have to do something about that ponderously slow United midfield base, or else Gracia will likely find a way to really punish it.

He is more easily able to set such traps, though, because so much is well set up with the team.

It’s also, at last, a settled team. Since getting back to the Premier League in 2015, perhaps Watford’s only consistency – other than Troy Deeney – has been the constant change at the club, be that with players or managers. They had made a virtue of very high turnover, but only to a certain point, as they seemed to fade every season, perpetuating the cycle of having to recharge things again with renovation.

That has not been the case this year. This is actually the first time since 2013 that they have started a new season with the same manager that finished the last one, crucially meaning pre-season work isn’t the manager’s preliminary work with the squad, and strengthening the foundation.

“We are in the best condition because we have had a very good pre-season,” Doucoure explains. “Everyone was involved, everyone came back with a good mentality… last season was a bit strange because when he [Gracia] came, we were in a difficult position. This year was better because we start with all the team from pre-season. He can do everything he wants.”

It helps that he’s had everyone he wants too. That continuity extends to the team, as Watford have not had one of their typical overhauls. The only new signing that regularly features is goalkeeper Ben Foster, and players like Doucoure, Etiene Capoue, Will Hughes, Roberto Pereyra and – of course – Deeney have been allowed the time to become pillars of the team.

It actually says much that Gracia has started the same XI in every game so far, and the manager has previously had a lot to say on the wider meaning of this type of continuity.

One caveat to Watford’s recent rise has been that football figures have not stayed around long enough to form a bond with the support and add to the identity of the club, and this is something of genuine concern to the Navarra native.

“The communion is important,” Gracia said when at Malaga. “The objective is for our fans to feel participants in what we do: that’s the ultimate aim of any football team. Winning in any [old] way, without a sense of conviction and without winning over fans, without involving them, doesn’t bring complete happiness; you feel a little empty. Connecting with them is where true satisfaction comes from.”

That connection could certainly be seen against Spurs, will be seen on Saturday against United, and many around the club believe it fuels the greater cohesion that has also been seen in the team as well. It has helped fire and bind the energetic Diego Simeone-style 4-4-2.

“We look like a cohesive group where everyone understands what we’re doing, what role they have,” one Watford insider said. “I’ve never seen the spirit like it is now.”

Doucoure evidently agrees. “The manager is very obsessed with the details, making the shape for Watford. We concede less goals than last year, even if only four games. All the players are close together, and he wants us to be more clinical on the counter-attack and score more goals.”

From that strong base, it is easier for Gracia to apply his specific plans; to set his “traps”. He just has to wait and see if United walk into them.

At four matches in, this would usually be the kind of game where things start to level out, where the top sides reassert reality and get the results expected. That may well happened with United, even allowing for their problems.

If it doesn’t, though, that respect for Gracia and Watford will only grow – as will much more fanciful words.

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