Affleck's Angle: Wolves Away
Kevin Affleck dissects Watford's 2-0 win at Wolves
Javi Gracia arrived on these shores amid minimal fanfare and the little that was known about him was centred on his reputation for slaying the giants of La Liga.
He famously choreographed unlikely results against the big three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid while in charge of Osasuna and Malaga, with the zenith coming in 2015 when his Malaga side pulled off a 1-0 win at the Camp Nou against a Barca side who stormed to the treble that season.
But Gracia is showing he's much more than a giant-killer, capable of only getting teams to raise themselves for games against the big fish. He is now putting together a sustained body of work at Vicarage Road and developing a team with an all-court game, one capable of coming from behind to beat Spurs, one who led from the front at Turf Moor, that most awkward of venues, and one who won with something to spare at Molineux, a ground where even the free-scoring Manchester City tripped up.
He is starting to forge a reputation as a real alchemist and Watford's win on Saturday was the upshot of his homework and tactical planning. He turned down the chance to go back home during the international break, preferring instead to get to the root of the defeat to Bournemouth and plot the downfall of Wolves. He wanted to have something up his sleeve.
“We changed the shape because we needed to do it,” said the Head Coach, who crucially identified the possibility of joy in the space behind Wolves' full-backs.
The hosts would have been expecting Gracia to play with two up top, as he has done in every Premier League game this season, but oh no. The Spaniard resisted the temptation to pair Andre Gray with Isaac Success in the absence of Troy Deeney and instead pulled a rabbit out of the hat by playing Deulofeu through the middle. It was rough to leave out Gray on his return to his hometown as a Premier League player, but it's bold selection moves like that that set certain coaches apart.
Instead of doing the obvious and asking Deulofeu to get some chalk on his boots by playing out wide, he deployed his countryman in a central role. He gave Deulofeu license to drop deep, asked him to link the play and allowed him to cause havoc in that pocket of space between the Wolves midfield and defence. Their three-man defence were caught cold and just did not know how to handle the roaming Deulofeu, Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra.
“I touched the ball a lot because I played in a different position,” said Deulofeu. “I like to play there because I am really near to the area, to finish and I can touch the ball more. I can associate more with my teammates and I can find the best spaces.”
His availability and willingness to receive the ball in tight areas was a large reason why Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré failed to only complete 19 of 174 passes between them. Gracia knows a thing or two about the art of midfield play from his playing days with Valladolid, Real Sociedad and Villarreal, so he spoke from a position of strength when he assessed post-match just how blessed the Hornets are in that area of the field.
“It is a position where we have good players,” he said. “We have Chalobah, who is injured, but he is playing with England at a high level. We have good players in that position, but, in this moment, Doucouré and Capoue are playing a very high level.”
Indeed, they played so majestically and dovetailed so well that the lauded Portuguese pair of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho barely got a kick. Watford's French duo passed round them and won that all-important battle hands down, even combining for Capoue to guide in the first goal with laser-like precision.
“Abdoulaye gave me a nice ball and for me it was easy to shoot one touch,” said Capoue. “I just tried to hit the target. It went straight and I was so happy.”
You rarely see Capoue without a smile on his face, but he's beaming from ear to ear right now. Nobody has more interceptions in Europe than Capoue and he's clearly got the bit between his teeth right now. His laconic style can sometimes suggest he doesn't play with the same passion as others, but the frenzied full-time celebrations against Palace and Spurs put that to bed. He's playing with a real sense of purpose.
“We wanted to show we want to be above them,” he said, giving an insight into what makes him tick against Wolves.
Indeed, the Hornets are one place and one point above the Wanderers and have now won two of their past four away games. That's more than they managed in their previous 16 games on the road.
It was also Pereyra's first goal away from home in a year. “It was absolutely superb,” said Danny Murphy on Match of the Day of the delicious finish with the outside of his left foot. “I would never have tried that in a million years.”
Murphy also remarked how Watford started the match without Christian Kabasele, José Holebas, Troy Deeney and Andre Gray. It meant opportunity knocked for Adrian Mariappa, Adam Masina, Isaac Success and Deulofeu.
“They took their chance,” said Capoue. “We told them it was time for them to work and show what they can do. They did it very well.”
The four slotted in seamlessly, which was testament not only to their ability but also the way Gracia must be coherently getting his gameplan across to every member of the squad. It was all too much for Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo, who was comprehensively outflanked and outwitted. He made a change at half-time and another by the hour mark.
“As a team, they were better than us,” he admitted. “They began the game well, they were more compact and we made mistakes with our possession that allowed them to always recover the ball and go out and create some situations.”
Wolves had not lost at home since January 20, when Nottingham Forest beat them 2-0, but the Hornets not only plundered all three points, but restricted the home side to just one shot on target.
“Nobody else has gone there and managed to play that well,” said Murphy.