The mild-mannered but frank Spanish coach has transformed the Hornets with the kind of intensive coaching once employed by the Manchester United boss
It is common knowledge in Spanish football that few clubs develop more talented young footballers than Villarreal.
What is less well-known is that this small, working-class town on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean is also a breeding ground for talented young coaches.
Javi Gracia is one such example.
The man currently making a mockery of the Premier League formbook with Watford began his coaching career at Villarreal, in 2004. It was there that he learned and honed many of the coaching techniques that he employs today.
However, it was while working with Malaga that he first came to the attention of Gino Pozzo, the owner of both Udinese and Watford.
The Italian was impressed by Gracia’s methodology and also struck up an instantaneous rapport with the Spaniard’s entourage.
Pozzo ultimately decided to appoint Marco Silva as Watford’s new coach in May 2017, while Gracia embarked upon a brand new adventure in Russia with Rubin Kazan.
However, Pozzo continued to monitor Gracia’s progress.
He struggled at Kazan, though, frustrated by the fact that Russian sides are permitted a maximum of six foreign players on the pitch at the one time, as well as Rubin’s inability to compete with the likes of Spartak, Zenit, Lokomotiv and CSKA for the best domestic talent.
Gracia tried valiantly to build for the future by developing and strengthening the club’s Under-19 and Under-21 teams but he parted company with Rubin in June 2017 after a ninth-placed finish in the Russian Premier League.
He wasn’t short on suitors, though. Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Espanyol and Deportivo were all waiting in the wings, while Malaga were also keen to lure him back to La Rosaleda.
Sevilla was his preference but when a move to Andalusia failed to materialise, the idea was to wait for Real Sociedad for the following season.
However, all the while, Pozzo’s relationship with Watford boss Silva was turning frostier than the January weather, with the Portuguese coach having tried – and failed – to force through a move to Everton, only to then oversee a dire run of 11 games without a win.
Silva was unsurprisingly sacked. The only doubt lay over who would replace him at the helm. For Pozzo, it was a no-brainer: Gracia was named Watford’s new boss on January 21 of this year.
When he arrived at Vicarage Road, he found a team unsurprisingly low on confidence, having forgotten how to win games.
He was also acutely aware that he was the 10th manager to have been hired by the Hornets since the Pozzo family had taken over six years previously. He knew he would not have long to get Watford back to winning ways.
However, while Gracia may seem mild-mannered and softly spoken, this is a man who hails from Pamplona, where running through narrow streets in front of a host of fairly cheesed-off bulls is considered to be an annual rite of passage for testosterone-fuelled males.
Indeed, when asked about whether he was afraid of failure after taking the Rubin job, Gracia replied, “We run in front of bulls; what is there to fear anywhere else?”
He was, therefore, never going to feel intimidated by taking over a club in crisis at Watford.
But, his fearless nature aside, how has Gracia managed to turn things around so quickly?
Well, he’s done nothing sexy or fashionable; merely employed a combination of hard work and honesty.
Gracia is a thoughtful, serious man of strong core values. His principal asset is the meticulous work he does on a day-to-day basis.
Sincere and direct, he makes it clear to each and every one of his players exactly where they stand.
One of the first things Gracia did was tell Heurelho Gomes that he would no longer be Watford’s first-choice goalkeeper.
He then turned his attentions to Troy Deeney, frankly telling the forward what he needed to work on in order to improve his game. Deeney has responded wonderfully well to the constructive criticism and developed into a Premier League match-winner.
In short, Gracia has changed the entire dynamic of the club in just eight months by simultaneously imposing his authority on and winning over the players with his frankness.
Previously at Watford, dissatisfied players would take their grievances to the director of football, the general director or even go directly to Pozzo himself.
There have even been instances of players refusing to train if they disagreed with what the coaches were doing and, even more damningly, they did so without recrimination or consequence.
This blatant undermining of the manager helps explain the constant upheaval at Vicarage Road.
Now, though, it looks like Pozzo is losing – or, perhaps more accurately, is willingly and shrewdly handing over – much of the sway he held in the dressing room to Gracia.
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The penny, it seems, has finally dropped and he now realises that if he wants his coach to succeed, he has to back him 100 per cent.
As a result, Gracia has been granted the authority and space to do what he does best, namely improving players.
And who in the dim and distant past used to be exactly the same type of coach? Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho, Gracia’s rival in the dugout this Saturday.
The Portuguese used to be dedicated to helping players get the very best out of themselves by gaining small margins and maximising every attribute.
But Mourinho, like nearly all coaches, tired of such time-consuming work and began demanding finished articles, players who can make an immediate impact on a team.
That’s a far more expensive pursuit, of course, one which is only possible at elite clubs like Manchester United.
The Old Trafford outfit initially fulfilled their side of the bargain but now they want to see a return of the old Mourinho, and the kind of detailed coaching Gracia is now practicing and enjoying success with at Watford.
Of course, whether Gracia can become the first Hornets boss to spend more than 13 months in the hotseat under Pozzo remains to be seen.
However, he has shown in the past that, given time, he can make clubs a lot of money. Malaga earned some €50 million (£45m/$59m) – which essentially ensured their survival – by selling players that Gracia had taken in from the reserves and youth academy and turned into first-team stars.
Watford’s perfect start to the new Premier League season suggests he is capable of doing likewise in England.
The value of Gracia’s squad is already rising. The value of his Villarreal upbringing, though, has never been in doubt.