Watford, Javi Gracia and the 4-4-2

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Watford have started their 18/19 Premier League Campaign very well, winning 4 of their opening 5 games, including an impressive 2-1 victory against Spurs. This is Javi Gracia’s tenth managerial role in a relatively short career. He has managed in Greece, Russia and Spain, where, most notably, he lead Almeria back to La Liga in 2013.

Gracia has long been a fan of the 4-4-2, as it allows for two banks of four in the defensive phase, whilst giving licence for his wide players to drift inside and contribute further up the field in the attacking phase. A well balanced system, the 4-4-2 which Watford employ allows for tactical tweaks on a game-by-game basis, and gets the most out of the squad of players at Gracia’s disposal.

Watford’s defence utilises Daryl Janmaat and José Holebas at Full Back, two players more well known for their attacking exploits. Holebas leads the assist chart this season, with 4 already. They offer width in the attacking third, which allows for the wide midfielders Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra to drift inside and create chances for the forwards.

Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré provide a solid central midfield two. They are both comfortable on the ball, and have the necessary athleticism and work rate to help out in the attacking third.

Troy Deeney and André Gray have established a working partnership upfront, with Deeney’s physicality and heading ability complimenting Gray’s pace and movement to good effect.

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Watford’s 4-4-2. Left: Defensive Phase, Right: Offensive Phase.  

Defensive Phase.

Watford’s style of pressing is very interesting. Generally, Javi Gracia’s side tend to be very active in their pressing, and attempt to win the ball back quickly if the opportunity presents itself. However, should this not be the case, Watford will push into areas in order to force the opposition to go long, where Cathcart and Kabasele are tasked with winning the ball in the air. This style of pressing can be very effective at winning the ball back high up the pitch. They lead the Premier League on tackles, with 102, whilst also sporting the two players with the most tackles, Will Hughes and Étienne Capoue.

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Take playing against another   4-4-2 as an example. Here the opposition Right Back is in possession. Here, Deeney and Gray half press the opposition Centre Backs. Hughes and Pereyra in the wide positions threaten to push onto the opposition full backs, with Janmaat and Holebas ready to step up behind to cover. Should the opposition attempt to play out from the back, Watford are able to press and win the ball back. This is often enough to force the opposition to play it long, where Watford can regain possession through their strong and tall central defenders.

If Watford are forced to sit deep, such as they were against Manchester United and Spurs, they will try and hit their front two with long balls over the top, bypassing the midfield if a break looks likely.

Offensive Phase.

Gracia’s side are a lot more fluid in the attacking phase, relying on Hughes and Pereyra’s natural ability to find and exploit spaces in the opposition midfield. Capoue and Doucouré are tasked with covering these runs, and dropping into spaces that the advancing Full Backs leave behind. Against a back four, the high attacking runs of Janmaat and Holebas can create an overload, often leading to space on the edge of the box for Pereyra, Hughes or Gray to win knockdowns from Deeney.

The use of Janmaat and Holebas to offer width on the flanks, means that Watford’s wide midfielder can play a fluid role. Will Hughes on the right is a talented central midfielder, he can find spaces in-between lines in the central areas, playing quick one-two’s to quickly break through the opposition midfield. Roberto Pereyra’s long range shooting can also trouble teams from the right.

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Long balls can also be utilised to good effect, with Gray’s pace exploiting high defences,  and Deeney’s providing a focal point should the opposition sit deep to nullify Gray’s runs in behind. Gray is also capable of winning the ball in the air, which allows Watford to be somewhat unpredictable in their attacking approach. This combined threat means that Watford always have a way to break down teams.

Should the opposition press high, a long ball over the top can create a chance for Deeney or Gray. If the opposition decide to sit deeper, this creates space for one of the more creative midfielders to drift inside the lines and create shooting opportunities on the edge of the box. These quickly built attacks are very effective in breaking down the opposition. The Hornets have completed only 1,789 passes this season, more than only Newcastle and Cardiff, but they have made their passes count.

WAT 1-2 MU

Here is an example from the Man United game. You can see how high the Watford Full Backs are (circled). As they push into these positions, Nemanja Matić is forced to move across from DM to provide support to Valencia at Right Back. Troy Deeney’s run into the box takes the opposition back four with him. All of this creates a huge space on the edge of the box.

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Watford work the ball down the left and Doucouré get’s the ball in a dangerous position. You can see that the Manchester United back four is very deep, and Deeney has taken two defenders out of the game.

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The United midfielders (Pogba and Sanchez) don’t read the danger and can’t get across to the edge of the box in time. A simple cut back from Doucouré will find André Gray in plenty of space to finish.

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Under Javi Gracia this season, Watford have looked solid and organised, utilising two banks of four whilst out of possession. They aren’t afraid to give their creative players freedom, with the threat of direct long balls forcing opposition defences to sit deeper, thus allowing space in midfield areas. This allows them to have the flexibility to play quick approach play through Hughes, Pereyra, Doucouré and Capoue, as well as a more direct threat, whether that be a ball over the top for Gray, or a knockdown from Deeney for the others to profit.


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