In a recent press conference, when Vladimir Ivic was asked about whether he felt Watford had the depth to cope with the intense fixture list, Ivic replied, “I will prepare what we need, and what we didn’t do in the previous transfer window [we] will do now.” With the manager sending a clear message that he wants reinforcements arriving in January, the Hornet’s current squad needs to be assessed.
So far this season, Watford have performed well. Not necessarily astoundingly or exceeding expectations, but they have accomplished most of what they have needed to do to this point. However, with the top of the table jumbled, and no signs of the clustering going away any time soon, Ivic and the Watford hierarchy might see the January transfer window as the boost which propels the Club ahead in the race for promotion.
Despite the financial implications of relegation and the coronavirus, the Hornets have an edge on all other teams in the Championship due to their summer-selling profit. Among the sales of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Luis Javier Suárez, and Pervis Estupiñan alone, Watford were able to rake in well over 40 million pounds. This does not include the several-million pounds earned from the sale of players such as Dmitri Foulquier and Roberto Pereyra and the wage relief from the mass exodus of players on season-long loan deals. So, when it comes to the upcoming transfer window, Watford will likely have seven digits they are willing to spend.
When looking at the Club’s squad list, it is hard to point out clear weaknesses, as to be expected for a recently-relegated team that avoided a full-on summer transfer raid. Still, through the first three months of the season, some absences highlighted the areas which should be sought to be reinforced.
The main position fans were calling to sign in the summer transfer window was a left-back. Especially considering that Adam Masina was sidelined for the foreseeable future, a defensive reinforcement on the left-side seemed inevitable. However, when none came in, Ivic was practically forced to use three-center-backs and wing-backs. Such a tactical adjustment, which veered from his preferred 4-3-3 formation from his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, brought out the best in Ken Sema. Only recently did Ivic start experimenting with four-at-the-back despite Masina not yet returning from injury.
Playing with four-at-the-back has worked without a “true” left-back in the Team. Kiko Femenía has filled in admirably when called upon to play in his less-natural fullback position. Sema, one of Watford’s players of the season so far, also has performed phenomenally when instructed to play in the left-wing-back role. Now, Masina has returned to first team training and is on the brink of complete reintegration into the squad. All this begs the question: is a left-back reinforcement still necessary?
Yes, the main reason Watford were relegated was a false sense of security in depth (though that’s an article for another time). When everyone is healthy, then sure, it does not appear as if Watford need another left-back. But, if Ngakia, for example, is unable to play a match, then Femenía will have to start on the right side. Masina will have to come in on the left. One more injury and Watford will be unable to effectively use four-at-the-back. With fixtures coming thick and fast, depth is needed. The Club has two true, consistently playing right-backs on which they can count on, and even Marc Navarro if necessary. In the left-back position, Adam Masina’s health alone cannot be relied upon.
Should the left-back Watford sign be a big-name, blockbuster player who will demand lots of minutes? No. There are two routes the Team should explore. The first would be signing an older, experienced player who will be able to get the job done when called upon. The second would be signing a considerably younger player who, in the present, might be a risky purchase, but will have ambition and try to prove his worth when given the chance to play (such as what Watford did when signing Ben Wilmot in the summer of 2018).
Masina’s return will be like a new signing in itself. Sema and Femenía were up to the task when called upon to fill in on the left. Wilmot has even played a few minutes off the bench on the left side. But, for the sake of tactics and depth, a second true, senior-level left-back should be brought in to shore up the defensive ship.
The search for younger players, like when considering a left-back, is applicable to all business Watford should look to do in the January transfer window. Jeremy Ngakia and Domingos Quina are two prime examples of young players Watford brought in very cheaply and have made an impact this season. The Hornets should look to snap up a couple of young players and take the gamble that they can make a similar contribution in the coming months, especially since the transfer market and player values will still be impacted from the coronavirus. In the worst-case scenario, they will need to be further developed (as was the case with Wilmot) before being brought back into the squad in the future. The somewhat improbable stream of prodigal talent that has flown through Vicarage Road should see a new surge.
Besides a left-back and potential youth investment, one area Watford have lacked at times this season, and should consider investment in, is the goal-scoring department. The midfield, especially centrally, has beyond enough depth. And, on paper, the strike force does too. Between João Pedro, Troy Deeney, Stipe Perica, Andre Gray, Glenn Murray, and Isaac Success (who is set to return to action in the coming few weeks), the Hornets have a plethora of depth at central-forward/striker options. But, especially on the road, the well of goals has run dry. A logical conclusion would be that a prolific goal-scorer is what Watford need to make a true push for automatic promotion.
One area where reinforcement is not needed is the center of the attack. A prolific goal-scorer is by no means a “must have” in order to be promoted, especially with a manager like Ivic who is known for the defensive discipline in his sides. Last year, Leeds earned automatic promotion with their top-scorer having 16 goals, which is a fair amount, but hardly “prolific,” and they had no other player with double digit goals. West Brom also achieved automatic promotion with no player scoring over 10 league goals. That begs the question: if central-attacking reinforcements are not needed, then what is?
Watford need a new right-winger. No, this does not mean Watford need to replace record-signing Ismaïla Sarr. But, the man who endeared himself to football fans all over the world after he dismantled an undefeated Liverpool cannot be without support. Sarr’s stats this season aren’t jaw-dropping (nor are they uncharacteristically bad), though the fault is not his own. When the number of monthly fixtures approaches double digits, a winger whose speed is his biggest asset cannot be expected to produce top numbers when he is not being given ample rest. Even if this rest comes once every five or six matches, Sarr will not be able to perform at his best if he has to play practically every minute. Quina, a central-midfielder by trade, played on the wing recently as Sarr was sidelined with a knock, though it is clear that out wide is not where he is most natural nor effective.
Similar to the left-back reinforcement Watford should target, Sarr’s understudy does not warrant a large cash splash – unless, of course, Sarr makes an unexpected January departure. The player just needs to be able to fit Ivic’s system well and not drastically lower the Team’s level of play when put onto the pitch. If Sarr is able to get this occasional rest, he will be closer to 100% when he does play, something no Championship defense would ever want to encounter.
Despite Deulofeu, Deeney, and Sarr only playing 10 matches together last season, five of Watford’s eight wins on the campaign came from that span. As soon as one was unavailable, the Club could not cope. Yes, a Sarr-quality player on the bench is unreasonable and an untenable situation. But at the same time, someone who is naturally a right-winger and can get the job done well enough has to be there if Sarr is unable to play. Watford can’t yet again afford to be baited into having the false sense of security in their depth.
A center-back could also be arriving in January if the Club feels the depth in the heart of defense is lacking. In Watford’s recent victory over Birmingham City, two of Watford’s four regularly appearing center-backs were out with injuries, and only Francisco Sierralta was on the bench to help if one of Wilmot or William Troost-Ekong also got sidelined. A center-back reinforcement is not completely necessary, though should be taken into consideration due to this injury-driven lack of depth, injuries largely caused by the intense fixture list.
The Club will do whatever it takes to be promoted. The personnel in the squad are more than good enough to return to the Premier League, though reinforcements could only do a world of good. Any potential boost Watford can get in the race for the top needs to be grasped. Ivic and the Pozzos know what the Club truly needs.
In the beginning of February, the Team will look very similar, but it would be shocking if it were a carbon copy of today’s roster.