11 matches played. 21 points earned. Second in the table. After relegation, the threat of having the squad hollowed out, and not having a manager, the Hornets’ record suggests they have been able to reacclimate to life in the second tier with ease. To say they don’t deserve to be where they currently sit would be harsh, as the points have been well-earned. However, fans should not be deceived by the current table and think that the path to promotion is clear and easy.
Watford have had their fair share of ups and downs in the early part of the campaign. Three points on opening day versus Middlesbrough, a victory over archrivals Luton Town, and wins against both Coventry and Stoke by a score-line of 3-2 after being down during those matches highlight the triumphs. A last-minute draw against Bournemouth, a dropping of two points against Wycombe, and defeats against Barnsley and Reading underline the shortcomings.
The simplest way to evaluate Watford’s season to date is by reviewing the performance of each part of the team. So, let’s dive right in:
Goalkeeping and Defense
Behind the defense, Ben Foster has made some pivotal saves to help preserve results. He continues to age like a fine wine, and despite conceding four times in the last two matches, it would be wrong to not consider him one of Watford’s players of the season so far. Most notably, his performance against Blackburn, where he made numerous smart stops and even a penalty save, effectively gifted Watford at least two more points than they would have picked up if almost any other keeper were in net.
Vladimir Ivic has elected to put three center-backs in front of Foster in all 11 matches this season. The three primary center-backs at the start of the campaign were Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele, and Ben Wilmot, with Craig Dawson also a contender. However, Dawson departed to West Ham for the season and in came Nigerian International Team captain William Troost-Ekong, who has since deservedly worked his way into the starting rotation.
The defensive line was statistically the best in the league after the first five matches of the season, as Watford conceded only once. However, such defensive form has waned, as the Hornets have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last six matches. The backline is usually undone through set-pieces or counter attacks. When Watford are being dominated in possession, which is rare, they have been nearly impossible to break down. Not being exposed on the counter and marking on set-pieces will need to be the biggest point of emphasis in training during the international break.
The three center-back formations call for wing-backs, and although it can be argued they should be discussed with the midfielders or even attackers, it makes most sense, when considering the squad as a whole, to categorize them as a defensive force. Yes, Ken Sema, Watford’s player of the season so far, has gotten 4 assists, and been the key reason for several more goals. Kiko Femenía has also been dangerous when going forward. So too has Ngakia when he has played. But defensively, all have also been sound, and it is hard to recall many occasions where they have been beaten by their marker. The wing-backs have done their necessary defensive duties. However, there is an argument to be made that the use of wing-backs naturally leaves the three center-backs considerably exposed.
With Adam Masina out until 2021, Ken Sema has more than solidified the defensive duties on the left-hand side of the pitch (as well as attacking duties too – he has been top-quality in nearly every match this season in all facets of play). The right side of the defense has sparked some debate. The start of the season saw Jeremy Ngakia continuously in the starting 11, and he justified Ivic’s faith in him by putting in strong performances, both defensively and going forward. However, Kiko Femenía now seems to be Ivic’s first choice right-wing-back. Admittedly, Femenía is in fine form, but so too was Ngakia. The battle for the starting job will be something to keep an eye on, though such competition within the squad is not a bad thing.
Overall rating of the defensive unit so far: 7.5/10 (Strong, but has started to decline)
With the exception of a couple of matches early on in the season, Ivic has opted for three central-midfielders. The rotation involves Étienne Capoue, Tom Cleverley, James Garner, Will Hughes, Nathaniel Chalobah, and Domingos Quina. It also once included Tom Dele-Bashiru, who is now sidelined for an extended period of time with an unfortunate knee injury. On paper, in terms of player-by-player quality, it can be argued Watford has the best midfield in the league.
At times, that quality shows. Other times, Watford have been dominated in the middle of the pitch. The main concern in regards to the midfield was more apparent in the beginning of the season, when the Hornets were unable to link defensive phases of play to attacking phases effectively. However, the return of Étienne Capoue has more than remedied that problem (which was already being fixed by the time he came back into the squad as a starter), and with Will Hughes now back from injury, such linking of play should no longer be a problem.
Tom Cleverley, who took the role of captain in Deeney’s absence, has impressed with his leadership and composure. The biggest surprise surrounding the skipper was the attacking license Ivic has allowed him, which has resulted in Cleverley scoring twice so far, with chances to perhaps score even more.
Another Manchester United youth product, on-loan James Garner has performed in similarly admirable fashion; he is an attacking force to be reckoned with. His set-pieces have a quality that Watford lacked in the Premier League. He and Cleverley have also been solid in their defensive duties as well. Neither have had jaw-dropping, stellar performance per se, but they are also yet to put in any considerably disappointing performances. When they have been called upon, they have done the job.
Chalobah and Quina are a bit of a different story. Fans had high hopes for both of these players coming into the season, as the readjustment to the Championship seemed poised to treat them kindly. However, Quina has struggled to find minutes after his starting spot was quickly taken away thanks to the form of the other midfielders. The physicality of the Championship appears to have challenged him. Still, Quina has immense quality and should not be forgotten, as he could very well find himself earning more time as a result of the squad rotation caused by fixture congestion.
Chalobah has also been a mixed bag. He had a slow start to the season, but lately has been building up a head of steam. Still, the return of Hughes and Capoue might demote Chalobah to the bench more often than the one-time capped England International would like to be.
After a rocky start to the season, the midfield has started to show the quality it possesses.
Overall rating of the midfield unit so far: 7/10 (somewhat strong, but trending positively)
The start of the season was worrisome when it came to scoring, as Watford only managed to score twice in their opening four fixtures. The past two matches have produced six goals, so the goal-scoring issues from the start of the season appear rectified.
Watford’s attack cannot be discussed without mentioning the influence Ken Sema has had, as discussed earlier. But another player who cannot be overlooked is João Pedro, the 19-year-old wonderkid who is Watford’s leading goal-scorer with four goals on the season. The young Brazilian’s intricate dribbling sequences and his ability to score in tight positions has earned him many plaudits, and his curling goal from outside the box against Derby was Watford’s first league goal from outside the box in over a year. Just let that sink in.
Ismaïla Sarr was one of the most discussed names in the transfer market, as he received serious interest from the likes of big clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United. However, Watford set a strict asking price for their record signing, and no team was willing to cough up the money during these financially uncertain times. Sarr quickly reintegrated into the squad, but has spent most of the time playing in a hard-to-define position. The best term to describe it is “attacker.” Sarr lines up in the middle to start the match, but is given license to drift out to either wing to use his pace to work his way behind the opposition defense. He has started to find goal-scoring form, having netted three goals in his last four matches.
The attack has also been without Troy Deeney, Andre Gray, and new-signing Stipe Perica for most of the season. All are set to be fully fit by the end of the international break, so Watford will be able to rotate the front-line more than they have been, which will help the Hornets continue their newfound goal-scoring form.
Overall rating of the attacking unit so far: 7/10 (somewhat strong. Similar to the midfield unit, it started off the season rather poorly, but has now been trending positively)
Ivic inherited a club that was on the brink of turmoil following an untimely relegation from the Premier League. Ivic knew the expectation would be for instant-promotion when he signed. So far, he seems to be the right man to lead the charge.
While managing Maccabi Tel-Aviv to back-to-back league titles, Ivic was known for his formational adaptability, but preferred to implement a 4-3-3 when possible. The Serbian has been more rigid with his tactical choices this season, electing a 5-3-2 in most matches (with the 5-2-3 appearing a couple of times at the start of the season).
The 4-3-3 is challenging when Watford’s only out-and-out senior left-back, Masina, is injured. Ivic still might elect to go for a 4-3-3 prior to his return, and have Sema or Femenía play on the left side of the pitch. But as of now, the adaptability Ivic was known for in Israel has not been demonstrated in the Championship. Whether that is for better or for worse remains to be seen.
In terms of being a character who can elicit a response from the players, Ivic certainly has what it takes to encourage them to fight. Yes, the draw against Wycombe and defeat against Barnsley might argue against this view, but the most recent two matches have shown that the players will not crumble when they fall behind. Right now, there is no longer a sense of “oh no, here we go again” when Watford are losing. To pick up six points in two successive matches after trailing in each tells one all they need to know about the fight Ivic can get out of his players.
Yes, Ivic has made some questionable decisions, such as benching Ngakia, failing to experiment with a 4-3-3, or slotting Chalobah into the center of the defense against Wycombe. Still, results are what ultimately matter. Ivic’s men are in second after 11 matches. Promotion is still a realistic goal. And for that, Ivic deserves tremendous credit.
Overall manager rating so far: 8/10 (very strong)
Some say Watford are lucky to be as high as they are in the table. Others feel the current standings are fully deserved. What cannot be doubted is Watford’s raw quality. The gears are in motion. Promotion is still the aim. The league table says it all. The numbers do not lie.