First Team 24/12/2018

Affleck's Angle: No Secret To Success

By Kevin Affleck

It came just over three minutes into a post-match interview with Jon Marks. You had to listen again and perhaps even for a third time just to make sure you heard him right and that he did give you a peak behind the curtain of what is said on the training paddock and in the sanctuary of the dressing room.

“I tell them many times: first quantity and after quality,” said Javi Gracia. “First we have to work, to be demanding, to be very concentrated and after that, I'm sure our quality will appear and we are able to score and to win.”

And right there, you had the Head Coach telling you exactly how he makes this Watford side tick, how he's got them all at it and how's he got them all singing from the same Christmas hymn sheet. 

It's how he's got José Holebas catching up with Michail Antonio after giving him a head start and then out-muscling the strapping forward. It's how he's got the former Greece international stretching every muscle in his neck to beat Andy Carroll, that giant of a centre-forward, to a header. It's how he's got Abdoulaye Doucouré coming close to scoring his third in four games one minute and then the next, nipping in front of Chicharito just as he's about to pull the trigger in his own six-yard box. It's how he's got Roberto Pereyra, one of the most gifted players to ever wear this treasured yellow shirt, to do the ugly stuff and get his side out of a tight spot deep in their own corner on a couple of occasions. It's how he's got Troy Deeney and Ken Sema to run their socks off and be OK with being substituted before the end, knowing it's about the team and how vital fresh legs are in their high-octane approach.

“The lads wanted to run through brick walls for each other,” Ben Foster told BBC 5 Live after the game.

And, perhaps most significantly, it's how Gracia has got the unused subs and those not even in the squad celebrating at full-time like they had played 90 minutes. Pontus Dahlberg and Domingos Quina both bounded onto the pitch arm in arm after the final whistle and then there was Foster jumping into the arms of Heurelho Gomes.

“The Head Coach has got them all working together,” said Derek Payne on BBC Three Counties Radio. “He deserves a lot of praise. He had the summer to work with the group and he has brought them together and got them to battle to win games. He has added resilience and they want to wear the shirt and play with pride. He deserves a lot of credit.”

The unflappable Gracia is not one for displays of emotion, well not in front of the camera anyhow. He likes to retain an air of calm, of a man in control, but he let his mask slip ever so slightly at full-time when he responded to the applause of the away fans with a triumphant fist pump. He was entitled to as it was a mighty fine win. And it's Christmas, after all.

Gracia deserves a huge amount of credit for what went on at the London Stadium. He said at least half a dozen times in his pre-match press conference that his team “are ready”. And boy were they. He had conjured up a plan to succeed where Newcastle, Fulham, Cardiff and Crystal Palace had failed in recent weeks. He had been in the ears of Kiko Femenía and Ken Sema all week about doing a job on Felipe Anderson. West Ham's £38 million man barely got a kick.

“We had to be ready,” said the Head Coach. “Kiko knew today he had to concentrate.”

The two goals they conceded against Cardiff also concentrated minds. Holebas, in true Holebas style, called the collapse against the Bluebirds “unacceptable”. “We need to learn from these mistakes,” he added. 

And they did just that, with a little help from their Head Coach who wasn't going to let the fact they scored three crackers against a newly-promoted club mask the reality they had conceded two goals in each of their last five games.

“We needed to be more demanding defensively,” said Gracia. “This week we have talking about that. We've worked defensively and today we have been very organised, knowing how important it is to concentrate in every play.”

It helped that Étienne Capoue was back intercepting attacks with his telescopic legs. He was majestic once more and we're running out of superlatives to describe the level of his performance. There was one particularly perceptive interception on Anderson just before half-time that was so crucial and so immaculately timed that Deeney felt compelled to run over and shake his hand as the half-time whistle went.

“Caps was great today,” said Deeney.  “Anyone that knows football properly knows how he broke it up, kept us going and he was a proper leader.”

A leader, huh? Who would have thought we'd be saying that about the laconic Frenchman this time last year?

Who also would have thought that this club would one day be blessed with players of the calibre of Gerard Deulofeu and Pereyra? The link-up play for the penalty was good, but the way they dove-tailed for the killer second was the sort of thing you see in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Had, say, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang linked-up like that for Arsenal, pundits would be purring and be talking long into the night about the telepathy of the former Dortmund teammates. It is a goal that deserves to replayed again and again. 

“It was a thing of beauty,” said BBC Three Counties sports editor Geoff Doyle before handing over to Payne. “It was wonderful to see two players on the same wavelength. They are two very talented players , with great feet and great football brains. It was a really, really good goal.”

The presence of Pereyra and Deulofeu in the ranks, and the fact Gracia can bring an England international off the bench and leave another at home, is why Deeney bristled at the suggestion afterwards that the team would have bitten your hand off had you offered them 27 points after 18 games.

“No,” said Deeney, “because there is a quiet confidence in the squad. People look at us as this little team but look at the players we have got, look at the squad we have got. We're not a little old club anymore. We've got to start growing and believing we can be that team.”

And it all starts with a bit of old-fashioned hard graft. “There is no secret, no special plan,” said Gracia. “It's the ambition and desire of the players.”

First Team 23/12/2018

Deulofeu: “We Fought Really Well”

See Gerard Deulofeu's post-match interview above.