Watford shed revolving-door policy and enjoy best ever start to a season

Frank Dalleres
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Watford FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League
Roberto Pereyra (right) has helped Watford win their first three Premier League games (Source: Getty)
n among the multiple English champions in the early Premier League pace-setters, one place above last season’s runaway title-winners Manchester City, is an incongruous name: Watford.

With three wins from three fixtures so far, the unfashionable Hornets are enjoying their best start to a top-flight season.

Not since 1982-83, when a teenage John Barnes was defying impossibly small short to lay on goals for Luther Blissett in a side helmed by Graham Taylor, had they even started a campaign at this level with successive wins. These are heady times at Vicarage Road.

Read more: How Brentford play the transfer market to overachieve in the Championship

If Watford have been known for anything in recent years it is their revolving-door approach to both players and managers – although this summer saw a move away from that decidedly hit-and-miss strategy.

The number of players signed on permanent transfers was in single figures for the first time since they returned to the Premier League in 2015, while only one of them – goalkeeper Ben Foster – has started in any of those three wins.

Compounding this unfamiliar continuity has been the retention of manager Javi Gracia. Unlike his four most recent predecessors, the Spaniard, who took charge in January following the souring of Marco Silva’s tenure, has lived to see a second term.

Perhaps, then, toning down the slash and burn ethos has given Watford a better platform from which to start their season.

Supporters wouldn’t have to look far to see further evidence to support this theory: a few miles away, Tottenham have also shown the benefits of a settled side.

Like Watford, Mauricio Pochettino’s team have taken maximum points so far despite much consternation at their total absence of new signings during the summer transfer window.

Unlike the Hornets, though, who sold Richarlison for £40m, they have not had to contend with the loss of a key player.

Watford FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League
Javi Gracia has stuck with the 4-2-2 he dabbled in late last season (Source: Getty)

Aside from the league table itself, however, the early numbers offer few clues as to how this continuity has made Watford a better team.

In pass completion they rank 16th out of the 20 teams so far – down from 10th last season.

For shots taken they rank ninth in the division and for expected goals they rank eighth – both one-place improvements on last year but metrics which were already on the up from the previous campaign.

They have vastly outperformed their expected goals value of 4.31 with seven strikes – a discrepancy larger only at Everton.

That last statistic suggests Watford are either extraordinarily clinical or, more likely, should expect a drop in their goalscoring rate as the season progresses and they regress to the mean.

Perhaps there should be more credit for Gracia.

The Basque, 48, arrived to minimal fanfare seven months ago, his previous stints at modest Spanish clubs Almeria, Osasuna and Malaga and an underwhelming spell in Russia with Rubin Kazan marking him out as the latest journeyman continental coach to wash up at Watford.

His initial impact did little to dispel the notion that, like his predecessors, he would not get too acquainted with Hertfordshire: Watford lost eight of their remaining 15 games, winning just four, and didn’t score a goal away from home.

Some seeds were sown in that time that have since blossomed, however. Gracia began experimenting with a 4-4-2 formation that allowed him to play Troy Deeney and Andre Gray together, while former Juventus attacking midfielder Roberto Pereyra emerged as their trump card.

The Deeney-Gray strikeforce has spearheaded all three league wins in 2018-19, while Argentinian Pereyra has continued the scoring run that started towards the end of last season, with three goals already.

John Barnes
Not since the days of John Barnes have Watford started a season so well (Source: Getty)

Watford fans will be understandably cautious about reading too much into a promising start, having seen Silva guide them to fourth place after eight games of last season.

It appeared to herald a new dawn; three months later the Portuguese had departed following an extended flirtation with Everton, where he eventually took charge in the summer, saw their form suffer.

Gracia has also benefited from a gentle run of fixtures this month, against Brighton, Burnley and Crystal Palace.

We should get a better reading on Watford’s true level in the coming weeks – starting on Sunday, when Spurs visit Vicarage Road.

In 1982-83, Taylor’s team went on to finish second in the old Division One and it remains their best ever season in the top flight.

The outcome of the Tottenham match and subsequent fixtures against Manchester United, Fulham and Arsenal will determine whether comparisons with that side continue or this is revealed as another false dawn.

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