Watford v Everton Preview: should Gracia start Gray?

On the surface, Everton have made progress under Sam Allardyce, but there is frustration among fans linked to the contrast between home and away performances.

Since the change of manager, The Toffees have accrued 13 points from five home games against teams outside the top six. In the last two home wins over Crystal Palace and Leicester, there has been tangible positivity about the way they have played.

Jonjoe Kenny pushed on from right-back to link up with Theo Walcott, Gylfi Sigurdsson found dangerous areas while the cavalier Tom Davies has interchanged closely with forward Oumar Niasse. The only players a great deal deeper in those games than Wayne Rooney, a predominantly attack-minded player, have been the centre-backs: two of Michael Keane, Ashley Williams or Eliaquim Mangala.

The man entrusted with filling the gaps in midfield was Idrissa Gana Gueye. Even the ex-Villa man’s relentless energy can add to the intensity of home performances against bottom 14 sides which, baring the below-par 1-1 draw with West Brom, have all been impressive.

The problem is that Allardyce hasn’t had the bravery to make the same demands of his players on the road. Granted, Everton have made trips to Anfield, Wembley and The Emirates in his tenure but this is not just a case of adapting to the opposition.

In late December trips to West Brom and Bournemouth, The Toffees fielded either three centre-backs or three holding midfielders, with the likes of Kenny, Morgan Schneiderlin and Cuco Martina also camped in their own half. Unsurprisingly, such tactics in those two games led only to a combined 13 shots, so the underwhelming return of one point was the most they deserved.

With some betting offers, Allardyce’s side are 9/5 to fail to score at Vicarage Road, where Watford have had a mixed start to life under Javi Gracia. His side recorded a striking 4-1 win over Chelsea, in which the intensity of their play was unyielding, with Abdoulaye Doucore setting the tone in midfield.

Otherwise though The Hornets haven’t created as many chances as they would have liked; a problem that dates to the final two months of Marco Silva’s regime.

Part of the issue, which hasn’t been helped by failings in the medical department, has been injuries. For example, Nathaniel Chalobah, who is hoping to return soon, offers more dynamism than Etienne Capoue and we saw some excellent performances from the Chelsea academy graduate back in August.

Similarly, the hungry Kiko Femenia, who is at the beginning of his Premier League career, provides width and forward invention from right-back, whereas Daryl Janmaat’s declining stamina implies that his top flight days may be numbered.

The other problem is Richarlison has looked a tad fatigued in certain games. While the Brazilian was a crucial part of the side’s early-season success, his goalscoring capabilities sometimes sees him elude criticism for occasional selfishness. Andre Gray has produced, considering the summer price tag, an underwhelming return of four goals and his profligacy has stopped him gaining a run of starts, which has in turn affected his confidence.

And yet, a fully self-assured Gray would add the kind of power and movement that might help the Hertfordshire outfit turn a corner. Watford have accrued 20 points from the 13 games the ex-Burnley striker has started, a return that would see them seventh over a whole season. By contrast, position rival Troy Deeney has started just two fewer games, of which only the Chelsea clash resulted in victory.

This game could therefore be decided based on whether Gracia goes with Gray – and whether Allardyce attacks away.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 1-0