Gracia: “They Will Be Very, Very Dangerous”
Watch Javi Gracia's pre-match press conference above, or read on below.
By Kevin Affleck
Javi Gracia remembers well the time Mark Hughes came to his home country and showed the Spanish a different kind of centre-forward play.
“I remember him very well,” said Gracia. “He was the No. 10 at Barcelona. I like British players when they went to Barcelona, Mark Hughes, Gary Lineker, Steve Archibald. They were good players. Hughes was a very good striker and I admired him a lot.”
Gracia was a callow midfielder making his way through the youth ranks at Athletic Bilbao when Hughes turned up in Spain in 1986, so he never got the chance to play against him. Now though, 32 years on, Gracia gets the chance to pit his coaching wits against Hughes in this country.
Gracia has already sampled the atmosphere at Southampton, as the FA Cup game against the Saints was his first in charge of the Hornets, but this time things are different. For starters, Mauricio Pellegrino is no longer in charge of the home side, as he was that day the Saints knocked the Hornets out of the FA Cup.
“They are a different team with different players,” said Gracia. “I am sure Southampton will be very strong. We need to pay attention, to give our best because I am sure they are going to press very high. They keep the good players they had from last season and they have a good squad. They need the result, they need the points and they will be very, very dangerous.”
The Hornets went into that game having lost eight of their previous 11 league games, but now the shoe is on the other foot. The Saints have won just one league game all season, are precariously perched just one point outside the drop zone while their consolation goal against Manchester City was their first goal of any sort in six games. But Gracia does not need to look very far for evidence of just how dangerous a wounded animal can be: Newcastle ambushed his side at St James’ Park last week, after all.
“I know it will be a very difficult game,” said Gracia. “We have to learn about the last game because we dominated the game, we thought we won the game and after we weren’t able to do it. We have to respect all the teams. They all have good players and if you don’t give our best we will not have chance to get the points from Southampton. We have to be very demanding with ourselves.”
The game against Southampton provides a good reference point of just how quickly things move on in the world of football. Only three members of the starting XI who played at St Mary’s last time out are likely to feature on Saturday, evidence of how the team and style of play have evolved under the Spaniard.
“It was my first game,” said Gracia. “We needed to know more things about the players, about the team and we needed more time. We prepared as best as possible, but we were very concerned about the first game against Stoke and the next one against Chelsea.
“In that moment, we needed to improve the performance, the results. We had a difficult situation. But working day by day and with a very good commitment from the players, we were able to get good results.”
Gracia has transformed things to such an extent that virtually the only gripe right now is the failure to take a multitude of chances. The Hornets have fashioned a combined 41 shots at goal in away games at Fulham, Arsenal and Newcastle yet have just one to show in the goals-for column.
“I think to create those chances is good,” said the Head Coach. “We have found a good balance in the team between attack and defending. After that, we need to improve. Everybody can see this amount of shots and we need to be more effective. But we have good players, good strikers and they have showed they can score. We scored five against Wolves and Huddersfield. I am sure we will score goals.”
Gracia was asked in the press conference on Thursday if he was targeting a Europa League spot, but as we know by now, the Spaniard is not into setting long-term targets and getting ahead of himself.
“The target is to try to win the next game and respect all the teams because we know if we don’t give 100 per cent in all the games, we don’t have the chance to get points,” he said. “We could see in the Newcastle game. We played well, we did many things well but it wasn’t enough to get a good result. We need to give our best and, maybe, we have the chance to get a good result.”
While he will not be drawn on qualifying for Europe or be pinned down on where he thinks his team might finish, Gracia does not feel his side should have an inferiority complex when it comes to the sides who occupy the top-six spots. After all, he said after the Huddersfield game that he feels he has a squad to rival anyone in the league and that he would not swap Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré for any other midfield pairing.
“There is a big gap between these six teams and the rest but, for me, when we start the season I don’t think about these six teams,” he said. “I try to win all the games we play. Even when we play against these teams you never know what happens. We try to be very demanding and win all the games we play.”