Pre-Season Report: Watford 2-1 Real Sociedad
By Kevin Affleck
Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil said before the game that he identified Javi Gracia’s ability to “find out the reasons behind things on the field” during their playing days together in San Sebastian in the mid-to-late nineties.
Watford’s Head Coach showed exactly what his friend meant in this final pre-season friendly by choreographing a second-half turnaround following a limp first 45 minutes to ensure his side at least go into the first game of the season with a bit of momentum and on the back of a come-from-behind win against a side who beat Real Madrid towards the back end of last season.
The Hornets were very much second best in the first half and really struggled to get a foothold in the game. It looked like being a tough afternoon had things continued in that vein. But whatever Gracia said at the break, and it’s likely to have been based around being more demanding and more compact, it did the trick as the home side looked a different proposition in the second period.
Like a Graham Taylor side, they fought their way back into things on a matchday to honour the club’s greatest ever manager with a bit of roll-your-sleeves up type football and levelled the match with a goal from Andre Gray at the start of the second period and one at the end to post a victory that shouldn’t be sniffed at. That’s now three wins out of four this summer and four goals for Gray. He can’t have done anymore to convince Gracia that he should partner Troy Deeney against the Seagulls on Saturday.
It was tough going in the first half against the very neat and nimble side from Spain. With Martin Ødegaard pulling the strings in the No. 10 role, Sociedad were easily the more progressive of the two sides and it took them just two minutes to force Ben Foster into making a save, the goalkeeper reacting at his instinctive best to keep out a header from Willian José.
Deeney did his best to spark his team into life and get something going. He thundered into Igor Zubeldia and Robin Le Normand to let the centre-half pairing know he was about and then crashed into left-back Aihen Muñoz in front of the dugout. This was no friendly for the captain, likewise for José Holebas who had a word with Portu after feeling the winger left a bit on him in one exchange.
The battle between the pair was a nice subplot of the first 45 minutes. The Watford left-back may be eight years old than the Spaniard but he showed his remarkable levels of fitness by catching up with his man after Ødegaard played him through. Portu was flagged offside but that didn’t matter to Holebas who didn’t want to rely on the flag of the assistant referee.
By that time, Sociedad were already a goal to the good after Mikel Oyarzabal put the visitors in front from the spot, sending Foster the wrong way after Ken Sema had fouled Joseba Zaldúa. Either side of that, there was a long-range shot from Mikel Merino, and one from close range from Ødegaard as Sociedad continued to prompt and probe.
It took the Hornets 18 minutes to force their first corner and the only thing that even resembled an attempt on goal was a cross-shot from Will Hughes that he hoped might sneak in the far corner.
Hughes often performs his best work when he cuts inside and he was on the ball early in the second half, releasing Gray with a slide-rule pass that enabled the striker to get a shot away and squeeze it past Alex Remiro at the near post. It was the sort of scruffy goal Gray gets regularly because he isn’t afraid to have a crack.
Gray just beat the despairing tackle of Le Normand on that occasion but the French defender managed to get a full block on an effort from Abdoulaye Doucouré minutes later – and it was just as well as the midfielder looked well placed to score from just inside the box.
It looked like the Hornets might kick on from there and take the game by the scruff of the neck, but Sociedad regrouped and forced Holebas to clear one off the line from Alexander Isak, Foster to make a save from José and then Craig Dawson to scoop one over his own bar. It was all hands to the pump for a brief period.
They proved to be very handy interventions indeed from the backline as it laid the platform for Gray, as he so often has at this place in the last eight months, to net yet another Rookery End winner.
HORNETS: Foster (GK); Femenía, Dawson, Cathcart, Holebas (Janmaat 84); Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Sema (Cleverley 76); Deeney (c), Gray.
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Mariappa, Success, Kabasele.