Javi Gracia’s Watford is a perfect contradiction. A team that plays a route-one 4-4-2 has no right to make football look as sexy as they, on occasion, do.
There should be little attractive about long balls forward, yet more often than not the Hornets have been an alluring anomaly. Their ability to harness a primal, sometimes even thuggish, physicality has brought them much success.
After allowing themselves to fall flat in the Premier League’s run-in, one game remains to define their season: the FA Cup. The bad news is that their opponents are one of the best teams the world’s oldest cup competition has ever seen.
Manchester City are unequivocal favourites to leave as victors on Saturday. To the recently crowned league champions, this should be a mere possession, another trinket.
Watford are a collective that will relish the opportunity to defy such expectations. They’re misfits, players who were discarded by their previous masters and never found a home anywhere else. None more so than Troy Deeney, the combative and controversial captain.
If Deeney were at a more high-profile club he would probably be the most hated player in the country, in the same way Luis Suárez and Diego Costa were during their time. To many Deeney’s a bully, a player willing to exact harm on any opponent standing in his way. Given that he was sentenced to 10 months in jail for kicking someone’s jaw in, the reputation is somewhat self-imposed.
In the last few months he’s tried in earnest to repair his image. A gregarious Deeney has shown up at charity functions and given insightful and candid interviews. He’s revealed his desire to leave a legacy, one which goes beyond being a footballer and a “tough guy”. He’s opened up about his drug-dealing father and the commonplace racism in England’s lower leagues — a plague too often ignored.
Whether you’ve been sold by this new roadshow or not, it’s hard to deny the effort the former bricklayer has put in to get to this point.
“I used to pay to play football. Twelve years ago I was paying £10 a week to play,” an emotional Deeney said after Watford beat Wolves in a cracking semifinal. “Now I’m going to be in the FA Cup final. It’s life. There’s always going to be setbacks. Don’t believe in Instagram when people go: ‘Oh, it’s all so easy.’ Everyone’s got bills, everyone’s got heartache. Everyone’s got problems. If you can stay the course and be true to yourself then everything will be all right.”
Deeney is not overly gifted, but his preferred partner is. Gerard Deulofeu was supposedly the “next Messi” at Barcelona. Fortunately for the Hornets, the latent talent that sparked the La Masia hype never truly dissipated. There’s a handful of players on the planet that have the technique to pull off the chip he executed in the semifinal against Wolves. His second in extra time underlined just what he’s capable of.
Any two of Étienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Nathaniel Chalobah form a no-nonsense pairing in the middle of the park. Their no-thrills approach in turn allows Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra to flitter at will on the flanks and come inside when need be.
Out wide, the direct running of José Holebas and Daryl Janmaat is enough to stretch the play and make room for those route-one passes into Deeney.
Capoue is a Spurs flop; Chalobah couldn’t crack it at Chelsea; Pereyra wasn’t good enough for Juventus and Hughes was a wunderkind who seemed to have lost his way.
What Gracia has done is get the best out of a set of individuals who surely felt scorned in one way or another. It’s an endeavour that offers a huge payoff on Saturday.
This is a team that often blurs the line between ruthless and dirty. They easily lead the Premier League’s indiscipline table, racking up five red cards and 89 yellows this season.
It’s that fierceness that has made this Watford outfit who they are. Knowing their identity and sticking to it is their biggest strength. Manchester City is an Instagram club, to use Deeney’s words. Proof that happiness lies in billions and a suave Catalan by your side. Watford is life. The journey will offer kicks to the shin, but as long as you get where you’re going, it will be all right.