Old Trafford witnessed a strange spectacle last weekend. Manchester United, who was chasing fourth place on the inaugural day of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, sat behind the ball, playing almost entirely on counterattack at home. Against Watford.
Times have clearly changed in Old Trafford and the Premier League is no longer the personal value of United, but were still surprising 90 minutes. Watford played all the football, created practically every shot and forced his hosts into their more disjointed performance at home under Solskjaer.
They played beautifully. It was not just a good effort, in the sense of body-on-line, but a really composed display full of vitality and clever ideas. If they brought a more efficient touch to them in the M1, they would have taken the three points home.
Sometimes the potential of a team strikes you between the eyes. Far from the first six, where absurd summer spending and progress by numbers is an annual inevitability, the most valuable commodity is the direction – a feeling that a team has a plan, a method and wants to go somewhere other than just directly . seventh and then to the bank with another broadcasting fee. Watford has it.
More important and different from their previous seasons at the top, they also have continuity.
Before, the end of the season usually brought a change of manager and with that uncertainty. No matter how good the club's scouting networks are, it could only have been a stumbling block. The best players are typically attracted to permanence and generally are not inclined to compromise their future to lose the theory.
Obviously, Watford is a beneficiary of the wealth of the Premier League and has attracted a great cast, but that added definition can only help.
Perhaps it has not been enough of how exhausting the summers of transition were. If each preseason starts with a hard reset, in which existing formations and strategies are played out the window, much of the benefit that can be gained from June and July is lost by the time it takes to re-educate players and build new relationships.
There may be a lot of evidence to suggest that the short-acting and acute-shock model works, and that the mechanisms Watford used to initially remain in that league have their place, but the argument for stability is made.
Tuesday night was strange, not as impressive as Saturday. Fulham is a flawed side, but Watford spent most of the first half stumbling on his own feet; 1-1 did not go right off the bench to summon the hosts.
Javi Gracia made a quick adjustment: came Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu, the dictators of Watford's self-indulgent mood, and Daryl Janmaat and Andre Gray emerged. The effect was devastating..
Fulham was torn by the same purring football seen at Old Trafford and the goals scored by Deeney and Femenia, and an absolutely brilliant of Hughes, overthrew Fulham.
Gracia admitted that he was angry in the dressing room and angry at what he had seen in the first half.
The difference between the two halves actually spoke about their dominance over this group. One can imagine, for example, that all of their predecessors were in a similar situation in the past and that they too have thrown some language around the locker room. With little effect, however.
Watford's long and barren races in the second half of the season were notorious. This was about responsibility, or lack thereof, and that is what Grace's permanence defeated.
But that's about it too, and not just situational convenience. Gracia is a quiet trainer, he does not really use his emotions in front of the media, but he has an almost childlike enthusiasm for the game that occasionally saps into his monologues. He is very straight to the point. He does not hide behind arbitration decisions and does not even dwell on the superficial ones behind which so many of his peers seek refuge; it is easy to understand why soccer players like to play for him and why many of these individuals have improved since he arrived.
Tuesday's game was most notable for its effect on Fulham, of course, but the three points also took Watford past the previous record. On Sunday they head to Wembley and, while the town's residents were expelled last night, Que Sera Sera passed by Vicarage Road. What a contrasting moment this was; the stadium was practically empty, but the optimism at the end of the season is still new here.
The Watford has never been a club of chaos during its time in the Premier League, but has endured much flow and much uncertainty and yet now they are characterized by this relative tranquility.
I may have read this wrong, but this semi- final does not seem like an opportunity to do or die, or one last chance to get something before the house is completely burned. Instead, it is just another reference point on an upward curve. Lose and Grace will still be there in August, ready to go again with a team that is developing all the time.
Summer will not be without tests. Abdoulaye Doucoure will be the subject of serious interest of some great clubs and this reflects how excellent he is. Losing him would leave a big hole in the middle of the field and Watford would need the full extent of Pozzos' network of explorers to fill it. But the altered nature of this new age makes it a little less frightening.
Doucoure would be a difficult loss, certainly, but the process of replacing him – the literal acquisition and then the integration of a new player on the side – now seems less of a challenge.
If he leaves, Doucoure will charge a very large fee, and with the flexibility he allows, Watford will know what he's looking for in a successor. This is another great advantage of continuity: once a team has worked with a technician for a period of time, it ceases to be a vague concept. Instead, they become more role models and the key to their functionality is less of an enigma.
It is still important to be realistic and recognize that Vicarage Road is not one of the great theaters of modern football, however atmospheric, and that even in London Watford is not able to offer the most competitive salaries. However, they are becoming quietly recognized for being one of the best clubs in the country in reputation rehab and incubating developing talent.
Doucoure has become one of Europe's most wanted intermediaries. His middle-aged partner, Etienne Capoue, is finally fulfilling the promise he made in Toulouse. and Pereyra was really going nowhere at Juventus before arriving.
Deulofeu can be a maddening player, sometimes no one was able to fend off these step-overs, but he is now playing the best football of his career. Added to that, Will Hughes is in an upward spurt that threatens to lead him to the England team. If it were not for an injury, the same could have happened to Nathaniel Chalobah.
Sounds like a great place to play. It also seems to have acquired a new sense of order. Previously, the approach seemed to depend on playing talented players together with a well-regarded manager and waiting, season by season, that the result was positive.
And to give his debts to Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury, most of the time was. But without the clutter of an orthodox environment, progress has always seemed fragile and temporary. In the course of a season, the fractures would begin to appear and then, as relationships wore out and insecurities metastasized, whatever was being built would begin to fall on itself.
But no more, there is concrete in this structure now. Watford seems to have cured his imperfections and in so doing has become one of the few Premier League clubs that really makes sense.