How Watford's new head coach Javi Gracia stunned Spain's big guns

GIUSEPPE MURO

Javi Gracia had a reputation for upsetting the big two in Spain during his time at Malaga, and Watford need his tactical nous to stop the top six in the Premier League during the run-in.

Watford still have to play the five sides below Manchester City and any points in those games would be a bonus for Gracia as he tries to steer his new club to safety.

But he has shown a knack of surprising the big guns. In his first season at Malaga, they were the only team not to be beaten by Barcelona.

Malaga took four points from six against the Catalan side in 2014-15 including a shock 1-0 win at Camp Nou.

In 180 minutes of football Malaga did not concede against Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. But they did not just defend at the Nou Camp and had chances to score more.

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They drew 0-0 at home and Barcelona managed just three shots on target over the two matches.

Barcelona went on to win the Champions League that season under Luis Enrique but Gracia produced two tactical masterclasses to stop them.

He set his Malaga up with two narrow lines of four to deny Messi space to dictate through the middle. His team were well organised and committed, allowing Barcelona space in wide areas but making sure they were tight and compact in front of their penalty area.

Gracia went on to prove those two results were not down to luck. The following season Malaga drew home and away with Real Madrid and also beat Atletico Madrid.

Unlike many Spanish coaches, Gracia is not obsessed with possession. In fact, his versatility is one of his strengths and he adapts his playing style to the squad.

A Watford side that has conceded 44 goals this season - more than every team but Stoke - will need some of that defensive organisation in their remaining 14 matches.

Gracia was appointed Watford head coach yesterday only hours after the club sacked Marco Silva and he takes over a side just four points above the relegation and still having to play Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United during a testing run-in.

The 47-year-old Spaniard was due to take his first training session this morning and start work on guiding Watford to safety after a run of one win in 11 League games under Silva.

Gracia is a former Spain Under-21 defensive midfielder who has managed a number of other clubs in Spain including Osasuna, Almeria and Cadiz.

He has been out of work since leaving Rubin Kazan after they finished ninth in the Russian Premier League last season and has said his first job at Watford is to restore the belief.

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“The most important thing is for the players to recover their confidence,” said Gracia, who begins his Watford reign with an FA Cup fourth-round tie at Southampton on Saturday.

“Do that, work hard and the results will arrive. It is not easy arriving when the season has started, but you must be ready. Watford called me and I am very grateful. I have plenty of energy to win the rest of the matches.”

Gracia was appointed on an 18-month contract yesterday after Watford moved quickly to replace Silva, who was dismissed after Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Leicester City.

Silva made an excellent start at Vicarage Road but won only three Premier League games after he wanted to join Everton when Ronald Koeman was sacked at the end of October.

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Watford blamed their poor form under Silva on “a significant deterioration in both focus and results” after the “unwarranted approach” from Everton.

As a player, Gracia was a defensive midfielder who appeared for Bilbao Athletic, Lleida, Valladolid, Real Sociedad, Villareal and Cordoba before retiring in 2004.

He went straight into coaching and was youth coach at Villarreal when Manuel Pellegrini led them to the semi-final of the Champions League.

His first managerial role came with a two-year stint at Pontevedra in the Spanish Second Divison and it was at Malaga where Gracia made his name

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