13 appearances. Four assists. For a defender, these are stats one would expect among the top-rated in the world. In this instance, however, Ken Sema is the one with the impressive rate of setting up goals (as he also is deserving of another assist for causing the own goal when Watford faced Blackburn). When Sema missed three matches due to coronavirus, his absence was felt immediately. In two of Watford’s three matches without him, the Hornets were held to a clean sheet. So, was Sema’s rise to fan-favorite at Vicarage Road fortuitous or foreseeable?
The now 27-year-old versatile wide-midfielder started off his career with his hometown team of Norrköping in Sweden. After being unable to break into their first-team, he made the move to then second-tier side Ljungskile SK, where he played 70 matches, and notched 14 goals and 13 assists. Upon their relegation to the third tier, Sema was handed a top-tier opportunity to play for Östersund.
His time with Östersund is when he made a name for himself. In 84 appearances, he scored 10 goals, which may seem like a regression from his output with Ljungskile. But, Sema’s eye for assists came to the fore in his time with Östersund as he was able to contribute 28 assists. He also notably scored against Arsenal in a Europa League match in the 2017/18 season.
By the 2018 summer transfer window, Sema seemed destined for a move out of his home-nation. When Watford came knocking and offered Östersund a fee of just under 2 million pounds, Sema and the club could not say no. Despite Sema’s impressive performances in Sweden, the expectations for him coming to Watford were not too high. After all, he was Watford’s third most-expensive left-sided player signed that transfer window, with left-winger Gerard Deulofeu coming in on a permanent basis from Barcelona and left-back Adam Masina signing from Bologna.
And, in the 2018/19 season, Sema did what was asked of him. He was not stellar, though he was not out of place either. He played 22 matches in all competitions in Watford’s second-best season in club history. He played both on the left and right side of the midfield, which signaled the early shades of the versatility which contributes to his effectiveness today. He scored a screamer against Bournemouth and earned three assists that season. Despite him doing what was asked, he was not getting enough playing time at the pivotal junction in his career, so a loan move to Udinese (no surprise there) was in the cards.
As Watford suffered relegation from the Premier League, Sema was a consistent starter for the Pozzos’ Italian club. His positional adaptability became more apparent, as he played the majority of the season in the left-midfield/left-wing-back position, but also found playing time on the right side, in an attacking-midfield role, as well as in a defensive-midfield role. So, by the time he returned to Vicarage Road following Watford’s relegation, his inclusion in the squad for the upcoming season appeared a bit more inevitable. Still, the instant impact he has made was not foreseen by many. After all, he only had one assist and two goals all of last season.
This season, Sema has played primarily as a left-wing-back, albeit he also played in a more attacking role against Middlesbrough on opening day and in Watford’s 1-0 victory against Derby. But even when he hasn’t played in an attacking role, he has made immense attacking contributions. From his pinpoint delivery on his crosses and cut-backs to his unstoppable runs down the byline to his unmatched strength to hold off defenders, Sema has been a revelation this season.
Despite all of his attacking acumen coming to the fore, his defensive soundness has been unsung. He rarely gets dribbled past and has great awareness to drop back after committing forward. When Watford win, he is usually at the center of the positives. When Watford get an undesired result, the blame cannot be put on him.
Whether or not Sema’s run of form shows a new permanent class remains to be seen. There is always a chance that he has just had a good stretch of matches and then will go back to being the typical solid, reliable, but not necessarily draw-dropping player which Watford brought in back in 2018. But the improvement seems here to stay. 13 matches, all of them being positive, is beyond a good run of form. Even his performances for Udinese last season showed he has only improved after leaving Sweden.
Perhaps his assist output will be unsustainable, though even if his contribution rate declines, he can still be a crucial player to Watford’s successes. With Adam Masina returning, there is a high likelihood that Sema will become an even more attacking-minded player, which, if anything, will only increase the amount of times his name shows up on the stat-sheet with assists, or even goals. Furthermore, Sema might find himself playing elsewhere on the pitch as he has the ability to play in almost any position on short notice, as proved by his time with Udinese.
Regardless of whether or not Sema is moved to a more attacking role or is set to remain in a defensive-minded role, the strong Swede will be pivotal in Watford’s race for promotion. No, promotion does not depend on him, as such a task for this (or any) club cannot be dependent on a single player. But, if Watford do get promoted (or even if they don’t), he will be one of the first names that will come to mind for player of the season voting.
Sema’s rapid rise was not improbable. The hints were there. Now, he is seizing the chances he is given, opportunities he truly deserves.