(Writer’s Note: This is the seventh of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on Aug. 10. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page)
Manager: Javi Gracia (Hire Date: Jan. 21, 2018)
Tenure Length: 15th/20 in Premier League and 55th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 11-8-19, 41 points, 14th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 44
2017-18 Goal Difference: minus-20
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 4 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2015
Last Relegation: 2007
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Second-round loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Fourth-round loss (Southampton)
Watford made the most of its early season schedule, taking points in seven of its first eight matches. The lone defeat came in a 6-0 thrashing by Manchester City, and after a 2-1 victory over Arsenal on October 14, the Hornets were fourth in the table.
Nine days later, however, things fell apart dramatically after Everton sacked Ronald Koeman and began pursuing Marco Silva as his replacement, and that interest was returned despite Silva having signed on with the Hornets in May. Watford owner Gino Pozzo dug in his heels, turning down four Everton offers in compensation for Silva that reportedly started at £8 million and gradually increased to £15 million, ultimately sending the Merseyside outfit a cease-and-desist letter.
The fracturing of the locker room, though, proved too much to overcome as Watford entered a tailspin that included a 3-2 loss at Everton on November 5 in which the Hornets squandered a two-goal lead. They righted themselves briefly with back-to-back wins but then had eight losses in their next 11 matches (1-2-8) before Silva was sacked January 21.
Javi Gracia, who had been out of a job after parting ways with Ruban Kazan at the end of the 2016-17 season, took over at Vicarage Road and helped salvage some of the lost cause by claiming 10 points from his first five league matches to make sure the Hornets stayed in the top flight.
Once more, Watford faded down the stretch, taking just five points from its final nine matches (1-2-6). In 2016-17, the Hornets lost their final six league matches and they went 2-7-2 in their last 11 league contests the season prior while reaching the FA Cup semifinals.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
There is competition throughout the lineup, starting at keeper, where Ben Foster was brought in from relegated West Bromwich Albion, with Garcia not especially keen on incumbent Heurelho Gomes, who had mentioned the possibility of leaving Vicarage Road in the offseason. Pontus Dahlberg is in camp this summer, and the 19-year-old could be the No. 2 if Gomes does kick on.
The back four likely will be comprised of Daryl Janmaat, Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele, and Jose Holebas, and there is depth at the wide backs with new acquisitions Marc Navarro and Adam Masina.
Gerard Deulofeu made his move from Barcelona permanent for a reported £11.5 million and will be on one flank with veteran Troy Deeney on the other with Richarlison departing to Everton. Tom Cleverley is expected to miss the first few contests of the season after undergoing an Achilles’ procedure, which leaves Roberto Pereyra as the top playmaking option.
With Deeney underneath, Andre Gray should remain in the most forward role, and Ostersund signing Ken Sema could squeeze into the rotation.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
While Watford did bring in six new players, the obvious headline banner is the recent departure of Richarlison, who reunited with Silva at Everton with a transfer price tag of at least £40 million that could reach £50 million depending on incentives reached. While a player of his talent was going to kick on to a bigger club at some point, doing so this close to the start of the season — even with a staggering return on Watford’s initial investment — is a blow Gracia and the team will need some time to recover from and regroup.
There are some who will argue Richarlison’s departure is addition by subtraction given the mercurial Brazilian scored all five of his goals for Watford in the team’s first 12 matches and failed to register an assist in the final 21 contests as he fell out of favour with Garcia. Andre Carillo also has departed, with the Peru international going to Al-Hilal of the Saudi Professional League.
Of the newcomers, Foster may have the biggest impact as he returns for his second stint at Vicarage Road, having played for Watford in the Premier League in the 2006-07. He is a durable keeper, having missed only one league match in the last two seasons for the Baggies and still managed 10 clean sheets for a last-place side in 2017-18.
Deulofeu is technically a transfer in, though he did play seven matches for the Hornets last season before making his move from Barcelona permanent. It only seems like he has been around forever, but the 24-year-old has yet to perform at a level that matches his potential.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Abdoulaye Doucoure (MF)
Doucoure scored a team-high seven goals for Watford in his second season in the Premier League after arriving from Ligue 1 side Rennes, and he found a comfort zone in the latter stages of the season for the Hornets. Doucoure also showed a strong box-to-box presence and was unafraid to get involved physically, picking up 10 yellow cards last term.
While there have been rumours he may leave Vicarage Road before the transfer window closes, Richarlison’s transfer fee means Watford do not have to sacrifice the 25-year-old in order to land a striker should the right player come along.
Per Ladbrokes, Watford has been picking up steam in the wrong direction as one of the teams expected to be relegated. As of July 23, the Hornets were considered the fourth-most likely team to go down and were getting 15/8 odds. They were also fourth-most likely to finish at the bottom of the table at 7/1 odds and joint-third to finish in the bottom half of the table with Fulham and Brighton and Hove Albion at 1/10.
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 11 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) H
Aug. 18 — Burnley (7th) A
Aug. 26 — Crystal Palace (11th) H
Sept. 2 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) A
April 20 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
April 27 — Wolverhampton (N/A) H
May 4 — Chelsea (5th) A
May 12 — West Ham United (13th) H
No one ever likes to lose a talented player, but one gets the sense Richarlison’s departure to the blue section of Merseyside finally closes a chapter that brought nothing but aggravation and frustration to Vicarage Road for nearly nine months. There is a sense of “what-if” with the Hornets over the past few seasons as they have performed springtime fades in league play after reaching safety.
For Gracia, this is essentially a high-wire audition without a net since he is out of contract at season’s end after signing an 18-month deal to take over last January. He is the ninth manager at Vicarage Road since Pozzo took over in June 2012, and that list includes two current Premier League coaches (three if you count Sean Dyche, who was let go in July 2012). That track record has put Gracia as the most likely first sacking in the top flight, but a quick start before that away contest versus Tottenham could ease that pressure.
Watford does have pieces, but will those players mesh is still a very large question mark. Not having Cleverley as a steadying influence in the midfield early will pose some problems, and the Hornets will need talisman Deeney to find that 2015-16 form in which he totaled 13 goals and seven assists.
Gray must also prove a better return for the £18 million invested in him and recapture the 23-goal form he showed in helping Burnley gain promotion in 2016. Deulofeu needs to incorporate his creative play into the team’s framework so both can thrive in the attacking third.
The stability in the back four in front of either Foster or Gomes will provide some cover, but this will be another season where Watford needs graft and craft to reach 40 points once more.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City
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