Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 August 2020

Javi Gracia's sacking has the whiff of panic. His successor knows Watford's short-termism better than anyone

Gracia became the first Premier League manager to be sacked this season to be replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores, who was in the Hornets hot-seat for a year in 2015

Javi Gracia paid for Watford's poor start to the new season by losing his job on Saturday. Reuters
Javi Gracia paid for Watford's poor start to the new season by losing his job on Saturday. Reuters

Perhaps it was the second flurry of activity in Watford’s summer. There were 31 minutes between Saturday’s announcement of Javi Gracia’s sacking and the confirmation of the decision to reappoint Quique Sanchez Flores. Go back to May and, 27 minutes after trailing 2-0 to Manchester City at Wembley, a respectable, unremarkable scoreline, Watford had conceded a sixth goal to suffer the joint heaviest FA Cup final defeat in history.

Now Gracia has been consigned to the past. Perhaps his greatest feat was the beginning of the end. The first manager to take Watford to an FA Cup final in 35 years was the first to be sacked in this season’s Premier League. Gracia feels both likeable and luckless. Watford’s slow start was highlighted by others’ better form. Only they and Wolves are yet to win and the men from Molineux at least have three draws to their name.

The Spaniard seemed to have the worst of both worlds, not given credit in the bank for his past achievements but clearly faulted for a slump that bookended the summer. It is hard to escape the sense that he was not dismissed for taking one point from four games, but for a return of one in seven. The concession of eight goals thus far was worrying; worse is the reality Watford’s last clean sheet in the league came in February.

That statistic helps explain Flores’ return. Watford kept three clean sheets in his first five games in charge in 2015. The fewest goals they have ever conceded in a top-flight season was 50 in 2015/16, his sole year at the helm. And yet, if he is chosen to be his predecessor’s antithesis, they have common denominators.

Smiling diplomats may now share a certain fatalism. They can testify to football’s capriciousness. Flores, who left Watford soon after an FA Cup semi-final, replaces Gracia, sacked four months after an FA Cup final. Gracia had almost four years left on a contract that had a further option until 2026. Flores should be sufficiently schooled in the owners, the Pozzo family’s, ways to realise he will not be at Vicarage Road then, unless it is in his third or fourth spell in charge.

Watford have a deserved reputation as a well-run club but short-termism can be institutionalised. But if this reaffirms their ruthlessness, there is a whiff of panic. When a manager is sacked before two of the summer signings, Danny Welbeck and the club record buy Ismaila Sarr, have even started a league game, it feels a failure of planning. Yet while there is a revolving door to the manager’s office, this is a new situation. Watford invariably start seasons well, aided by a new – or, in Gracia’s case 12 months ago, newish – manager bump. It is a safe assumption they will spend autumn in the top 10. Now, instead, they are playing catch-up.

Gracia scarcely looked finished when he recalibrated Watford, moving to a back three, to get a draw at Newcastle United last week. Yet a manager whose reign peaked at Wembley, with the astonishing semi-final comeback against Wolves, was wounded by the FA Cup final thrashing; fatally, it transpired. His predecessor and successor inherits a quixotically compiled squad. The defence is not watertight. The strikers are not prolific. The strength lies in a group of midfielders that offer the force of Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure, the flair of Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra and the element of the unknown from Sarr.

Flores, the former Al Ahli and Al Ain manager who Stoke City wanted to appoint when they were threatened with relegation, will be charged with bringing pragmatism. But sympathy will be afforded to the harshly discarded Gracia, just as it was to Flores in 2016.

Updated: September 8, 2019 03:36 PM



Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email
Most Popular