Affleck’s Angle: Stick Or Twist
Kevin Affleck puts Javi Gracia's squad management under the microscope...
Javi Gracia spoke, albeit briefly, this week about the last thrilling cup run he choreographed.
It came four seasons ago at Málaga when he steered the Andalusians to the quarter-final of the Copa Del Rey. They knocked out Deportivo La Coruña and Levante on the way to setting up a last-eight showdown with Athletic Bilbao, then managed by Ernesto Valverde, who is now, of course, in charge of Barcelona. Aymeric Laporte was part of the Bilbao backline.
Copa Del Rey ties are played over two legs. The first was goalless and Bilbao won the second, 1-0, thanks to a second-half goal from Artiz Aduriz. There really wasn’t much in it. It could have gone either way. The exit still rankles with Gracia, especially as Bilbao took advantage of the draw opening up to reach the final. (You see where we are going with this, now?)
“I remember it perfectly,” Gracia said with a slight tinge of regret in his voice. “We had a legal goal ruled out for offside. We deserved to enjoy the semi-finals then.”
Now, the result does not matter here. It’s water under the bridge. What is useful, though, is to see how Gracia approached things as he got near the business end of the competition, just like he is with this progressive Watford side. It might be akin to comparing apples and oranges, as La Liga and the Premier League present very different demands, but what this retrospective look does do, is give an indication as to how Gracia may tackle a quarter-final of the most famous cup competition in the world.
He made six changes for the first leg against Bilbao at La Rosaleda and five for the return leg at San Memes, so it’s not just at Watford where he likes to demonstrate the depth of his squad. It’s clearly his philosophy. Eight players played in both legs of the quarter-final and only three of those started the following league game, a 1-0 win over Valencia, which probably tells you the capability of the squad he had.
Gracia is a fast learner, a deep thinker and it will be utterly fascinating to see if his approach to cup games alters now the Hornets are one win from Wembley and two from a second ever cup final and the first since 1984. “We try to do it better now, in Watford,” he said when finally reflecting on the cup run with Málaga.
When does he pick his perceived strongest XI though, you know the one the punters can select eight or nine names for before the teams are announced an hour before a Premier League kick-off? Does he even select that team at all, or does he continue with the mix-and-match approach? Does it depend on who the Hornets draw? If it’s Millwall at home, does he select a similar team to the one he did against Queens Park Rangers? What happens if it’s Brighton away, for example? Do you play a different team to face Crystal Palace away than if you drew the Eagles at home? If the Golden Boys pull Manchester City away out of the hat, does he select a changed team because he knows the odds on a win are unlikely, or does he have to go full strength to stand a chance? It really is a minefield. Who he picks is likely to be the talk of social media and in the bars between now and when the tie takes place in the middle of March.
There will be some (Chris Sutton being at the top of the list), who believe Gracia should play his strongest XI available regardless of who the Hornets draw. Don’t leave anything to chance, don’t return to the training ground the day after the game wondering if things might have been different had you picked your perceived strongest XI. If you get knocked out fair and square playing your Premier League XI, then you can have no complaints. You did all you could. Does Quique Sanchez Flores wish, for example, with the benefit of hindsight he had gone with Heurelho Gomes instead of Costel Pantilimon in the semi-final against Crystal Palace in 2016?
Gracia sounded like someone who might, with hindsight, wish he had done things ever so slightly differently against Bilbao and again the following season when Malaga lost to lower-league Mirandes after Gracia made eight changes. He played his strongest XI in the match after the shock cup exit in 2016 and, low and behold, his best XI beat Atletico Madrid.
The Spaniard might need to partly shed his nice-guy image if he does play his strongest XI in the next round. He has shown a ruthless streak at times, particularly when dragging substitute Ken Sema at Crystal Palace and when hooking Gerard Deulofeu after an hour at Wembley. He also left Christian Kabasele completely out of the squad for three games recently and could find no place in the 18 for Nathan Chalobah on Friday. He also substituted Richarlison in each of his first five games in charge before leaving the Brazilian out altogether, so he’s not afraid to make the big calls.
If he is to start Abdoulaye Doucouré, Deulofeu, Roberto Pereyra and Ben Foster in the cup for the first time this season then Gracia is going to have to put a few noses out of joint, but then that’s why he's paid the money to be the Head Coach of this impressively-assembled squad. He’s juggled things so, so well thus far, steering the club to eighth place in the league and the last eight of the FA Cup. You’d back him to strike the right balance in the next round. The players get what he is doing. As Étienne Capoue said after the win at QPR, “everyone is on the same page.” Previously, the squad wasn’t even in the same library let alone reading the same book.
Take Miguel Britos, for example. He was magnificent on Friday, exactly what you’d want from a centre-half on a white-hot night like that in west London. He kicked and headed away everything and showed good composure on a frenzied evening when it would have been easy to lose your head. How he hasn’t been capped by Uruguay is a complete mystery. Domestically, he would be entitled to be banging Gracia’s door down after his towering performances against Newcastle and QPR, but he sees the bigger picture.
“This season I am not playing in the league, so it is a good chance to show the manager how I am,” said the centre-back. “The players that play less can show how they feel and show their quality. It is good for everyone to keep going.”
It’s the same with Gomes. He has only conceded two goals in five cup games this season, but he knows his place and is acutely aware of his role in this squad as back-up to Ben Foster and mentor to Pontus Dahlberg.
“It’s just about keeping [up to] Ben’s level,” he said. “He is playing very well, so when I came to a game like this I have to keep to his level. We are able to help each other. Every player wants to be playing but the most important thing is to respect the one who is playing.”
No-one can predict what Gracia will do, but the smart money would be on him picking Gomes in the next round. The Spaniard played his No. 2 keeper Guillermo Ochoa ahead of his No. 1 Idriss Kameni in every cup game during his two seasons at Malaga and he’s done the same in five cup games this season.
Besides, Gracia doesn’t view things in terms of first and second-choice players. He has complete and utter trust in every member of his squad, so much so that he advised against making any signings in January. He views the cup as a chance to give some minutes to players he just can’t squeeze into a highly-competitive Premier League XI and doesn’t view the team weaker for the changes. He’ll always point to the fact the apparent first XI lost at Newcastle and yet the much-changed side he fielded against the Magpies at Vicarage Road and again at St James’ Park, picked up a draw and a win.
“We are changing players, changing competitions. but always the team competes well and is always getting good results,” Gracia said. “I have the difficult decision to choose only 11 players, but they show we have a good squad. All of them deserve to play and deserve this recognition.”
Whatever he decides, you can bet your bottom dollar there will not be a repeat of the complete and utter mix-up at the same stage of the competition in 2016. Pantilimon incredibly only realised he was playing against Arsenal ten minutes before the players went out after Sanchez Flores caused confusion by mistakenly putting Gomes’ name on the tactics board in the hotel room.