Yes, they may have lost both of their league games against Manchester City this season, but Watford didn’t do badly at all.
We are used to seeing the Citizens swat teams aside by four, five, or even six goals at times, but the Hornets only narrowly lost both fixtures against Pep Guardiola’s back-to-back champions this term. Javi Gracia’s men lost 2-1 at Vicarage Road, and 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium.
They have 0 points to show for their efforts, but what they do have is a glimmer of hope and inspiration to take into Saturday’s FA Cup final against the same opponent.
Gracia must squeeze the positive elements of his side’s performances during those two defeats and utilise them in his gameplan for the one-off match that could see Watford lift their first ever FA Cup.
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Gracia must not attempt to play them at their own game, or he and Watford will lose heavily.
Two key aspects that happened previously must be focused on: Abdoulaye Doucoure making Guardiola’s life difficult in the 2-1 loss, as well as Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu’s combination play at the Etihad.
In the 2-1 loss, Doucoure had five shots, three of which were on target, and found the back of the net with one of them. The Frenchman was a constant menace throughout the game, winning two aerial duels and also making three clearances; the diminutive City midfield of Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho, and David Silva didn’t know how to deal with the powerful midfielder.
Watford left it too late to record a result on the day but it may well have been different had they realised how to hurt the Citizens a few minutes earlier. Plenty of Hornets supporters will tell you an equaliser was on the cards if the match was extended by 15 minutes or so.
At the Etihad, Gracia’s men were undone by a brilliant hat-trick from Raheem Sterling, but again they found ways to stun City on a ground where they only lost one game all season.
Deeney and Deulofeu were subbed on in the 66th-minute with City 3-0 up, and combined to score in the same minute as they entered the field; it was a long knock down from the big No.9 into the Spaniard’s path, who finished well.
Of course, these are two isolated moments from two different games, but Gracia is a good enough manager to collect the positive aspects of his side’s two defeats and turn them into genuine foundations for a solid game plan at Wembley this weekend.
So, what are the main things that Gracia should draw up on his whiteboard in the Wembley dressing rooms before the showpiece event?
Stay solid, compact and resolute.
Get Doucoure in advanced areas and give him free roam of the midfield.
Ensure that Deeney pins Aymeric Laporte back, similar to the way in which Fernando Llorente did after coming on for Tottenham against Ajax, where we know he will win most of his aerial duels against the Frenchman, who has wilted in high-magnitude fixtures already this season, most notably in the Champions League quarter-final against Spurs.
And lastly, make sure Deulofeu, the hero of the semi-final, stays close to Deeney and anticipates the flick on, where his pace will cause a lot of problems if there is space in behind. There most likely will be grass to eat into given Guardiola’s preference to play a high line.
Wigan did it against City way back in 2013, and Watford must believe they can do the unthinkable as well.