By 90Min
September 06, 2018

Four games and 12 points into the new Premier League season and the Leicester comparisons are already coming in thick and fast for Watford. Memes and 'spooky' record comparisons are shared with wild abandon and emoji eyes on social media, Javi Gracia likened to Claudio Ranieri.

No pressure then.

Gracia has been in the Premier League for over eight months already, but now is the first time anyone outside of Hertfordshire has paid him any minds. 

His serious, furrowed brow and thin rakish looks give him the aspect of the default avatar in a football video game, while his media appearances and CV distinctly lack in bombast.

Michael Regan/GettyImages

His arrival at Watford last January, as a manager without any major honours, European competition experience or even any top flight top six finishes to his name, briefly raised eyebrows. Even his name seemed almost deliberately provocative to the old guard in the English media, but he was dismissed as just another of the Pozzo family's short-termist appointments, who would in all likelihood be gone within 18 months.

However, all this belies the fact that Gracia is a manager built for the Premier League, tactically and methodically, with a history of overachieving, developing talent and a reputation for giant killings.

The Basque former defensive midfielder started his coaching career in Spain's lower tiers with Pontevedra and Almeria - the latter he guided to La Liga only to leave before the new season started over a principled dispute regarding the board's intentions to replace the playing staff who had been key in promotion.

An up-and-coming coach with a growing reputation, Gracia got his chance in Spain's top flight when a crisis-stricken Malaga came calling in 2014. 

A year on from the Champions League quarter-final showdown with Dortmund, Financial Fair Play sanctions had seen the likes of Isco, Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal and many others leave La Rosaleda, while the board, jaded by UEFA's perceived slights, continued the brutal stripping of assets that ultimately led to relegation after Gracia left.

Gracia was told to work with the youth system and promote within to find new talent.

Despite posting spending figures that would impress Mike Ashley, he led Malaga to two solid mid-table finishes against the odds, while the hierarchy continued to rip the best of the squad (Juanmi, Sergi Darder, Samu Castillejo, Nordin Amrabat) out from under him and ask him to rebuild.

That he achieved such league finishes under the circumstances is remarkable, but what's even more impressive is that during his two-season spell with Malaga between 2014 and 2016, no team had a better record against Spain's top three. El Pais described Gracia's Malaga side as 'pure chloroform' for Barcelona.

In 2014/15, they were the only team to play Barcelona and not be beaten. Across two games, they even took four points from six and failed to concede at all against the European champions who routed Juventus in Berlin at the end of the campaign.

"I do enjoy that tactical challenge but we do that for every game whether it is Barcelona or Leganes," Gracia told Sky Sports

JORGE GUERRERO/GettyImages

As Ranieri held Andrea Bocelli's coat on the pitch at the King Power in May 2016, Gracia hauled Malaga kicking and screaming to eighth, conceding just 35 goals in 38 games, despite going the first six games of La Liga without scoring a goal. 

Two and a bit years on, Malaga are in Spain's second tier but Gracia is in the Premier League on the stage his abilities deserve. He is a meticulous planner, with tactical acumen, who under the Pozzo family has more resources as a coach than he has ever enjoyed before.

His compact 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 system is lending itself well to Watford's rag-tag assortment of journeyman talents and flourishing starlets, with Chelsea and Spurs already feeling the effects of Gracia's 'chloroform'.

"It’s totally different, I have to say,” full back Jose Holebas said of Gracia's impact this season, compared to last (via the Independent). “Totally different. When I see the boys on the pitch and in training now, it’s totally different. I think some of them now understand what it’s about to be in the Premier League.

“It’s a time now when we are creating a team, that is what the club is doing here. Trying to create a team, and step by step it’s coming.”

Title talk is fanciful. Gracia is not Ranieri and Watford not Leicester, but they might be Malaga - without the off field problems. 

If Watford achieve anything like the two top half finishes Gracia managed on Spain's south coast, while giving Hornets fans more major scalps to savour along the way, Elton John might want to consider an end of season serenade on the pitch at Vicarage Road, in place of Bocelli.

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