When Watford travelled to Newcastle United in the FA Cup on Saturday 26 January, they made 11 changes to their starting lineup and were lambasted for doing so.
Teams are often criticised for fielding weakened teams and not taking cup competitions seriously, but the criticism of Watford went a step further. Chris Sutton called the club a “disgrace” in his punditry for BT Sport, going so far as to say “I actually hope they get beat this afternoon”. Sadly for Mr Sutton, the Hornets won comfortably.
Sutton’s comments were uneducated and showed he had no idea of the strength of the team that Watford were putting out at St James’ Park. Because Watford manager Javi Gracia was not throwing in the towel with his changes. He made sensible alterations to his side and put out a team which he felt was capable of doing the job, while resting players who could do with a day off. After all, the game was on a Saturday and Watford were making a big trip to Wembley to face Spurs the following Wednesday.
The argument that footballers should be able to play twice in a week without issue is incredibly dated. Football these days is played at a far higher intensity than decades past, and although players are fitter nowadays and train daily, to play twice in a matter of days when your opposition has had a week to recover will always put you at a disadvantage. Watford will have expected Spurs to be resting players in their game, and they did.
But Tottenham lost and were knocked out of the cup at the hands of Crystal Palace. Watford, on the other hand, were able to beat Newcastle and still go to Spurs with a strong and fit enough team to put up a good fight. They were even leading until ten minutes from time.
This is a testament to Gracia and his coaching staff, and the way in which they manage their squad to ensure every player is ready to be called upon to do a job at any point.
Of the ‘weakened’ team that started at Newcastle, every outfield player had appeared in the Premier League this season. A number were even regular starters who had just been rotated out in the previous game. This is positive for Watford because, when you look at their squad list, you feel as though any player could come into the team and perform if called upon.
So Sutton can feel free to wish defeat upon Watford if he wants to. But if they lose, it won’t be because they’ve fielded a weakened side Javi Gracia is building a squad of players in which nobody is simply there to make up the numbers.