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Watford: BTSport.com's Premier League 2019/20 season preview

Even a 6-0 hiding in the FA Cup final couldn't ruin what was an impressive 2018/19 season for the Hornets. Javi Gracia's men will look to kick on even further this term as anticipation builds in Hertfordshire.

Last season's Premier League finish: 11th (W14 D8 L16 - F52 A59 - Pts 50)

Last season's top scorers: Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu - 9 (both 11 in all competitions)

To finish in the top half*: 11/4

First five fixtures: Brighton (H), Everton (A), West Ham (H), Newcastle (A), Arsenal (H)

Predicted finish (BTSport.com writers' combined prediction): 13th

Predicted finish by The Script: 12th

Transfers in: Ismaila Sarr - Rennes (£30m), lCraig Dawson - West Brom (£5.5m), Danny Welbeck - Arsenal (free), Tom Dele-Bashiru - Manchester City (free), Joao Pedro - Fluminense (£2.25m), Joseph Hungbo - Crystal Palace (free), Bayli Spencer-Adams - Arsenal (free), Sam Dalby - Leeds (free)

Transfers out: Obbi Oulare - Standard Liege (£2.7m), Dodi Lukebakio - Hertha BSC (£18m), Miguel Britos - released, Tommie Hoban - released, Pervis Estupinan - Osasuna (loan), Marc Navarro - Leganes (loan), Alex Jakubiak - Gillingham (loan), Ben Wilmot - Swansea (loan), Jerome Sinclair - VVV-Venlo (loan)

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Reasons to be optimistic

Fresh from their highest league finish in 24 years and just their second-ever FA Cup final, there’s a feel-good factor around Vicarage Road heading into the new campaign. No longer are they perennial candidates for relegation.

With Gerard Deulofeu, Roberto Pereyra, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue wearing yellow, Watford boast the most talented squad they’ve ever had in the Premier League era.

Club-record addition Ismaila Sarr, is a lightening-quick winger set to tear down the wing at Vicarage Road this season. The £30million man tore Arsenal apart while playing for Rennes last season in the Europa League and thrived at the 2018 World Cup with Senegal.

In Javi Gracia the Pozzo family have finally demonstrated their commitment to a coach, won over after the Spaniard implemented his innovative 4-2-2-2 system to great effect in his first full season.

The 2-1 home victory over Tottenham and the 5-1 hammering they delivered at Cardiff - Watford’s biggest ever Premier League victory - were two highlight results in a landmark campaign for the club.

The FA Cup semi-final comeback from two goals down against Wolves will live long in the memory. Deulofeu came off the bench to score twice in that match – the first an audacious chip, the second a burst into the box and deft finish. If the former Barcelona winger can reach that level consistently, Watford fans could be in for another special season.

Watford’s target must be to secure the final Europa League place. They fell just short last time out, occupying seventh with three games to go before three losses saw them drop to 11th.

By winning their first four top-flight matches for the first time in their history at the outset of the 2018/19 campaign, Watford quickly announced themselves as the Premier League’s new surprise packages.

And with the Hornets set to avoid each of the big six in their first four fixtures this campaign, another fast start may be on the cards in Hertfordshire.

Reasons to be fearful​

Watford had the oldest average starting XI of any team in the Premier League last season at 28 years and 323 days and the purchase of 29-year-old Craig Dawson has done little to remedy that problem.

Gracia will be dependent on key players Capoue, Ben Foster and captain Troy Deeney, all firmly in the twilight of their careers, to maintain that level of performance this term.

Once they confirmed their place in the FA Cup final, Gracia’s attentions turned firmly away from their Premier League campaign as Watford claimed just four points from their final six matches. The squad lack the depth to compete on both fronts and Gracia's options have not been bolstered in the transfer market at the time of writing beyond the capture of Dawson.

It pales in comparison to the business done by Everton and West Ham, two of Watford’s main rivals for the Europa League places and teams they must surpass in the battle for seventh.

Another concerning statistic is the lack of shots Watford managed on goal in 2018/19 - just 437. Only Cardiff, Huddersfield, Brighton and Burnley attempted fewer and Gracia’s men were dependent on an impressive conversion rate of 12% to score their 52 Premier League goals.

Gino Pozzo appears to have turned a corner by handing Gracia a new contract but a leopard doesn’t change his spots. Since the Pozzos took charge in June 2011 they have made 11 managerial changes at Vicarage Road. Gino’s father Giampaolo has churned through 38 coaches in 37 years at Udinese.

One bad run of form will test the Pozzos’ patience and Watford’s newfound stability will be ended abruptly if Gino reverts to type.

Key man: Etienne Capoue

Deulofeu, Foster and set-piece specialist Jose Holebas all deserve a mention for their contributions but Capoue’s mature performances in holding midfield last season, sitting deep with Doucoure, were most impactful of all.

The ex-Tottenham man made 86 interceptions, more than anyone else in the Premier League, and completed 90 tackles – good enough for eighth-best in the division.

Capoue sat back and offered protection to Watford’s rearguard, giving his midfield partner more of a license to bomb forward. But while Doucoure’s form tailed off after a January flirtation with Paris Saint-Germain, Capoue’s remained consistent throughout the campaign.

The Frenchman scored some pivotal goals in Watford’s historic run to the FA Cup final, netting in the fifth round at Queens Park Rangers and again in the quarter-final victory over Crystal Palace.

“For me, Capoue and Doucoure are the best midfielders in this league,” Gracia said in April. That may have been hyperbole from the Watford coach but their partnership was among the most effective in the division.

For his experience, maturity and the stability he provides in midfield, Capoue will be the first name on the team sheet again in 2019/20.

The manager: Javi Gracia

“I knew about it when I came here,” Gracia conceded on joining a club with a notoriously limited patience with their managers. Watford are a club that last won promotion under four different managers, before promptly making another change before the start of the Premier League season.

So it is testament to the job Gracia has done at Vicarage Road that in April he penned a three-year extension, becoming the first coach to extend his contract under the Pozzo family’s ownership. At last, Watford appear to be embracing stability.

Of course it’s much easier when Watford performed as well as they did in 2018/19 - but Gracia has confounded expectations with more than just results.

Predecessor Marco Silva effectively abandoned ship once Everton came calling, while Walter Mazzarri neglected to learn English.

But Gracia has embraced every facet of the club, from mandatory yoga sessions to imposing his own fining system. “The people, the supporters and the players, all of them are enjoying it,” the Spaniard said after penning his new contract. “I’m happy because the club trusts me.”

The continuity is reflected in his Watford side on the pitch too. Gracia has stuck to the same system throughout the season, an unorthodox 4-2-2-2 system that concedes space out wide and uses inverted wingers. He doesn’t tend to rotate the key positions either with Deeney, Doucoure, Capoue and Deulofeu among his most trusted lieutenants.

His work in Hertfordshire has not gone unnoticed in the Premier League and Chelsea were keeping tabs before opting to appoint club legend Frank Lampard. Another season like 2018/19 and Gracia could become the first Pozzo manager to leave of his own accord.

Fans' view - Jerry Ladell - East Anglian Watford Supporters' Club

"It may not have ended how we wanted it to [with 6-0 FA Cup final defeat to Manchester City] but that can’t take away from what was a great season.

"Where we are in the league table and some of the performances we produced this season… it’s just brilliant at the moment, like in the 1980s under Graham Taylor.

"If we keep hold of Gracia we’ve got a really great chance of progressing and he’s already shown what he can do in his first full season.

"He always seems to suss out the opposition formations and he’s got all the players pulling in the same direction, whereas there always used to be fallouts.

"Of course if the manager continues to improve then other clubs will start sniffing around and it’s like that with our players too. Doucoure levelled off a bit last season after his links [with PSG] but I could see him going to the next level now. Capoue was consistently outstanding though.

"We don’t play any of the big boys till six games in so if we can get ourselves off to a good start I expect us to kick on and finish in the top half. That, and bloodying the noses of the top six, would be a really successful season for us."

*All odds correct with bet365 at time of writing

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