By Kevin Affleck
It is important not to get carried away but Watford gave a thrilling signal of their individual and collective growth under Javi Gracia by coasting to a landmark win at one of the most notoriously difficult away grounds this afternoon.
High-class goals from Andre Gray, Troy Deeney and Will Hughes sealed a highly-impressive victory over Burnley and garnished yet another workmanlike and vibrant team performance. After showing they could do it with the sun on their backs against Brighton on the opening day, this team were challenged to demonstrate that was no flash in the pan and that they have staying power and the mental fortitude to turn it on away from the comfort of Vicarage Road.
They rose to the challenge in style on a typically grey day in Lancashire and the records tumbled. This was their first away win since November last year, they scored more goals in 51 minutes than they had done in their 13 previous away games combined and ended a run of 14 years without a win at this intimidating ground.
It was a classic away performance, full of defensive resilience and classic counterattacking play. Everybody rolled up their sleeves and put a shift in, not least the front two of Deeney and Gray who were a threat all afternoon. José Holebas and Craig Cathcart were mountainous at the back, Tom Cleverley and Nathaniel Chalobah will have a job getting in ahead of Abdoulaye Doucouré and Étienne Capoue if they continue to patrol the midfield like this, while Hughes and Roberto Pereyra got up and down in a manner you do not associate with players of their creative ilk.
What the result did confirm is that, with a full pre-season to get his ideas across and with a near fully-fit squad, Javi Gracia is getting a tune out of this group, got them working for each other, singing off the same hymn sheet, and buying into what he is preaching on the training ground. The Hornets look very well coached, everybody knows their job and there is a visible hunger about this group.
They are starting games on the front foot and determined to dictate proceedings and show what they are about. The opening to the game here was the sort that took your breath away.
Deeney had already teed up Gray only for Stephen Ward to block Gray's shot when the pair combined to devastating effect on three minutes. Gray played in Deeney down the right, charged into the box and met a pin-point fizzed cross from the captain first-time and volleyed it past Joe Hart without breaking stride. It was a goal of the highest class and the dream start for the Golden Boys. Gray's celebrations were muted as the goal came against his former club, but he must have been bursting with joy inside.
It was the first time the Hornets had found the back of the next away from home since January and ended a run of eight matches without a goal on the road. Moreover, it ended a run of 352 minutes without a goal for the Golden Boys at Turf Moor.
The lead, however, lasted less than three minutes after the Hornets were caught cold from a corner, James Tarkowski rising above Cathcart to nod past Ben Foster, who was rooted to the spot, and inside the unguarded right-hand post. It was a soft goal to concede, not one arriving from a brilliantly-worked training ground move, and Foster was furious with the nature of it.
Now with the bit between their teeth, Burnley tested Watford's defensive mettle with a series of balls into the box, particularly from the right. Cathcart cleared one away from inside his own six-yard box, the defender blocked a shot from Jack Cork and then unconventionally thwarted Jeff Hendrick. Foster had to scramble quickly across his line to palm way a free-kick from Johann Berg Gudmundsson that was just sneaking inside the near post while José Holebas brilliantly and bravely threw himself in front of Aaron Lennon when the winger looked set to convert a cross Hendrick had flashed across the face of goal. It was all hands to the pump at times.
But the Hornets had their moments on the counterattack, most notably when Deeney sought to find the bottom corner from distance after a length-of-the-field move involving Doucouré, Hughes, Pereyra and Gray, but Hart got down low to his right to prevent the striker registering his first of the season.
There was nothing the former England No. 1 could do, though, three minutes after the break as the Hornets made a lightning start to the second period, just as they had done in the first. Deeney turned executioner instead of architect this time, benefiting from a quite exquisite ball from Doucouré to beat Hart from six yards with a deft stroke of the outside of his right foot. It was the captain's first away goal since January 2017 and, quite rightly, he hurdled the advertising boards and celebrated wildly with the travelling fans.
If that goal was good, then Hughes' on 51 minutes was even better. Lowton experienced a moment of madness when he played a ball inexplicably across the middle of the pitch and Hughes was a grateful recipient. He shifted the ball onto his trusty left foot, ignored the angled run of Gray and unleashed a pile-driver of a shot that flew past Hart and crashed into the back of the net. The keeper stood absolutely no chance. Watford have now registered two goal-of-the-season contenders in successive weeks.
Watford were comfortable thereafter and never looked like relinquishing their lead. There were even “olé's” from the away end and chats of “we want four”.
Gracia showed his tactical acumen and flexibility by removing Gray, bringing on Ken Sema, moving Pereyra to the No. 10 role and congesting the midfield. Later on, he summoned Kiko Femenía from the bench, bringing him on for Hughes to lock down the right-hand side of the team. Gracia, just like the team, is growing by the game and we are starting to see what this lot, when fully-fit and on song, are really capable of.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes (Femenía 82), Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Gray (Sema 67), Deeney (c) (Success 88).
Subs not used: Gomes, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina.