Old Trafford witnessed a strange spectacle last weekend. Manchester United, who were chasing fourth place on the day of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unveiling, sat back behind the ball, playing almost entirely on the counter-attack at home. Against Watford.
Times have clearly changed at Old Trafford and the Premier League is no longer United’s personal ﬁefdom, but it was still a startling 90 minutes. Watford played all the football, created pretty much all the chances, and forced their hosts into their most disjointed home performance under Solskjaer.
They played beautifully. It wasn’t just a good effort, in the pat-on-the-head, bodies-on-the-line sense, but a really composed display full of vitality and smart ideas. Had they brought a touch more efﬁciency with them up the M1, they would have taken home all three points.
Sometimes a team’s potential strikes you right between the eyes. Away from the top six, where preposterous summer spending and progress-by-numbers is an annual inevitability, the most valuable commodity is direction – a sense that a team has a plan, a method, and intends to go somewhere other than just directly to seventeenth place and then on to the bank with another broadcasting payment. Watford have that.
More importantly and unlike their previous seasons in the top-ﬂight, they have continuity too.
Before, the end of the season typically brought a change of manager, and with that uncertainty. As good as the club’s scouting networks are, that could only have been a hindrance. The very best players are typically attracted to permanence and are generally not inclined to commit their future to loose theory.
Of course, Watford are beneﬁciaries of the Premier League’s wealth and have attracted a ﬁne cast already, but this added deﬁnition can only help.
Perhaps enough hasn’t been made of just how sapping those summers of transition were. If each pre-season begins with a hard reset, in which formations and existing strategy are thrown out the window, then much of the beneﬁt which can be derived from June and July is lost to the time it takes to re-educate players and build new relationships.
There may be plenty of evidence to suggest that the short, sharp shock model works, and that the mechanisms Watford used to initially stay in this league have their place, but the argument for stability makes itself.
Tuesday night was awkward, it wasn’t as impressive as Saturday. Fulham are a side full of ﬂaws, but Watford spent most of the ﬁrst-half tripping over their own feet; 1-1 didn’t ﬂatter the visitors at the break and the hosts deserved their boos.
Javi Gracia made a swift adjustment: off came Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu, the dictators of Watford’s self-indulgent mood, and on came Daryl Janmaat and Andre Gray. The effect was devastating.
Fulham were ripped apart by the same purring football seen at Old Trafford and ﬁne goals by Deeney and Femenia, and an absolutely brilliant one from Hughes, sent Fulham down.
Gracia admitted he’d been angry in the dressing-room and annoyed by what he’d seen in the ﬁrst-half.
The difference between the two halves really spoke to his hold over this group. One imagines, for instance, that all of his predecessors found themselves in similar situation in the past and that they too hurled some language around the dressing-room. With little effect, though.
Watford’s long, barren runs in the second-half of the season were notorious. That was about accountability, or the lack of it, and it’s what Gracia’s permanence has defeated.
But this is about him, too, and not just the situational convenience. Gracia is a quiet coach, he doesn’t really wear his emotions in front of the media, but he has an almost childish enthusiasm for the game which occasionally leaks into his monologues. He’s very to the point. He doesn’t hide behind refereeing decisions and neither does he dwell on the superﬁcialities behind which so many of his peers seek refuge; it’s easy to see why footballers enjoy playing for him and why so many of these individuals have improved since he arrived.
The game on Tuesday was more notable for its effect on Fulham, of course, but the three points also took Watford beyond their previous record points total. On Sunday they head to Wembley and as the locals ﬁled out last night, Que Sera Sera wafted around Vicarage Road. What a contrasting moment that was; the stadium was practically empty, but late-season optimism is still a novelty here.
Watford have never quite been a club of chaos during their time back in the Premier League, but they’ve endured a lot of ﬂux and a lot of uncertainty and yet now they’re characterised by this relative calm.
Maybe I’ve read this wrong, but that semi-ﬁnal doesn’t feel like a do-or-die occasion, or a last chance to achieve something before the house is burnt to the ground. Instead, it’s just another waypoint on an upward curve. Lose and Gracia will still be there in August, ready to go again with a squad which is developing all the time.
The Summer won’t be without its trials. Abdoulaye Doucoure will be the subject of serious interest from some very big clubs and that reﬂects just how excellent he’s been. Losing him would leave a big hole in midﬁeld and Watford will need the full breadth of the Pozzos’ scouting network to ﬁll it. But the altered nature of this new age even makes that slightly less daunting.
Doucoure would be a tough loss, certainly, but the process of replacing him – the literal procurement and then the integration of a new player into the side – now seems less of a challenge.
Should he leave, Doucoure would command a very large fee and, with the ﬂexibility that allows, Watford will know what they’re looking for in a successor. This is the other great advantage of continuity: once a team has worked under a head-coach for a length of time, they stop being a vague concept. Instead, they become more of template and the key to their functionality is less of a riddle.
It’s still important to be realistic and to recognise that Vicarage Road is not one of the great theatres of modern football, atmospheric though it may be, and that even just within London, Watford are not able to offer the most competitive wages. Nevertheless, they’re quietly becoming recognised for being one of the better clubs in the country at rehabilitating reputations and incubating developing talent.
Doucoure has become one of the most desirable midﬁelders in Europe. His midﬁelder partner, Etienne Capoue, is ﬁnally delivering on the promise he teased at Toulouse. and Pereyra was really heading nowhere at Juventus before he arrived.
Deulofeu might be a maddening player at times, nobody’s yet been able to coach away those step-overs, but he’s arguably now playing the best football of his career. Added to which, Will Hughes is on an upward surge which threatens to take him into the England squad. Had it not been for injury’s intervention, the same might have been true of Nathaniel Chalobah.
It seems like a very good place to play. It also seems to have acquired a new sense of order. Previously, the approach appeared to depend on throwing talented players together with a well-regarded manager and hoping, season-on-season, that the result would be positive.
And, to give Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury their dues, much of the time it was. But without the mastic of an orthodox environment, progress always felt fragile and temporary. Over the course of a season, fractures would begin to appear and then, as relationships frayed and insecurities metastasised, whatever was being constructed would begin to fall in on itself.
But no more, there’s concrete in this structure now. Watford seem to have cured their imperfections and in so doing become one of the few Premier League clubs that actually makes sense.