The Perica Effect

326 minutes. One goal. One penalty won. The statistics tell an inaccurate, lackluster story of a player who, in actuality, contributes a significant amount. The truth surrounding Stipe Perica’s influence at Watford lies in his past.  

Stipe Perica Pre-Watford

The striker started his career in his home nation, Croatia, with NK Zadar. In his first season playing with their first-team, he scored eight times in 20 appearances. Chelsea took note of the then-17-year-old’s performances and paid NK Zadar a fee of around 2 million pounds for Perica. 

Perica then became part of Chelsea’s well-known “loan army.” He never set foot on the pitch for Chelsea. His first loan was to NAC Breda in the Eredivisie during the 2013/14 season. In 25 league appearances (only starting five matches), he scored six times and assisted once. Impressed with his performances, NAC Breda took him on loan the following season. In 10 league matches, Perica found the back of the net three times. However, his loan deal was cut short in January. After, Perica and the Pozzo family united.

For the second half of the 2014/15 season, Perica was sent on loan to Udinese. In nine matches, the still-young striker scored only once. The loan deal to Udinese ran through the 2015/16 season as well, a campaign in which he scored three goals in 13 matches. Impressed with Perica’s ability to perform at the top level despite his young age, Giampaolo Pozzo decided to fork out 4 million pounds to Chelsea to permanently sign Perica. 

His first year under full contract with Udinese proved why Udinese were willing to pay the hefty fee. In 27 appearances, Perica scored six times. But, what makes the output noteworthy is he only started five matches. The trend regarding Perica’s ability to score off the bench from his time with NAC Breda was continued. His 2017/18 season was underwhelming, only finding the back of the net once in 22 appearances. And so, to help Perica rediscover his goal-scoring form, Udinese sent him out on multiple loans.

His first loan saw him spend an unsuccessful half-season with Frosinone. He started six of their first seven matches, but following an injury, he was unable to break back into the starting eleven. The loan was set to be for the full season, though his being surplus to Frosinone’s requirements led to the termination of the loan. He spent the second half of the 2018/19 season with Turkish club Kasimpasa. Two goals in 12 league appearances set Perica’s career back on track. 

A loan to Mouscron in the Belgian first-tier last season signaled Perica’s full return to form. In 16 appearances, he scored eight times and assisted once, averaging one goal contribution per 109 minutes.

Internationally, Perica impressed for the Croatian youth ranks, scoring eight times in 12 appearances for his nation’s Under-21 side. 

Following Watford’s relegation, Udinese received Ignacio Pussetto and Gerard Deulofeu – two talented attacking players. So, Watford’s depth in attacking ranks was weakened, whereas Udinese’s strengthened. With the Hornets needing reinforcements in attack and Udinese no longer needing Perica, the closely-linked clubs agreed for Perica to go to Vicarage Road permanently.

Perica Impressing Since Arriving

Ever since Perica arrived at Watford, he has shown promise. At the time of his signature, many fans viewed him as “just another one of the typical, somewhat pointless ‘Pozzo transfers.’” This transfer quickly proved to be purposeful and beneficial for the Hornets.

The fact Perica has only scored one goal this season is not indicative of the influence he has made in England. If there were VAR/the linesman made the correct call, he would have scored a priceless winner against Brentford. 

But even with the officiating error, as that is just part of football without VAR, Perica’s contributions while on the pitch have been noteworthy. His goal came in a 1-1 draw against Bournemouth. Ismaila Sarr found himself with the ball in a wide position. Most of the time this season, when Sarr finds himself in that position, he has no options in the middle. However, this time, Perica was lively in the center of the box. Sarr threaded the ball to Perica, who then calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net. 

Perica’s aerial ability is sublime. Whenever he is on the pitch, the Hornets become more threatening from crosses. But, despite not being the most agile of players, Perica’s movement is almost always correct. From finding headers to drawing a penalty against Birmingham to making clever runs to latch onto the end of crosses, Perica has proven to be an expert at being in the right place at the right time. 

Further, Perica’s ability to get the ball on target is impressive. Around 57% of Perica’s shots are on target. Troy Deeney’s average is roughly 42%, Andre Gray’s is around the same as Deeney’s, and Joao Pedro’s is about 48%.

In terms of winning aerial duels, Perica averages 2.2 won per-90-minutes. For context, Gray’s average per-90-minutes is 0.7. Deeney’s is 4.6.

Between efficiency and aerial ability, Perica offers a different type of striker from Deeney, Pedro, and Gray. Perica has movement in the box similar to Pedro, despite being four inches taller (Perica is 6’4”). Of all the Hornets’ strikers, Perica’s qualities are best suited to lead the line on his own. 

Injuries Hampering A Potentially Prolific Season

Unfortunately for the Club and Perica alike, his season has been hindered by injuries. Perica has only started two matches in the league. From his red card in the Carabao Cup to dislocating his shoulder against Bournemouth to missing the past few matches due to another injury, Perica has been in contention for fewer than half of the Club’s matches this season.

But, even when fully recovered from injuries, Perica does not always start, despite his influences when on the pitch. This, however, is no accident. 

Super-Sub Perica Key To Promotion Prospects

Between Deeney and Pedro, the Hornets have two worthy starting strikers. Perica, also deserving of starters’ minutes, can thus be seen as a “super-sub.” As the 25-year-old’s career indicates, he performs best when utilized off of the bench. 

Three of his eight goals in Belgium came during cameos at the end of matches. Four of his six goals in the 2016/17 season with Udinese were as a substitute. Five of his six goals in the 2013/14 season with NAC Breda were in substitute appearances. So, historically, Perica has been best when coming off of the bench.

This is not to say Perica should not be given the opportunity to start. However, having a super-sub such as Perica could prove to be the difference-maker in the push for promotion. Whenever Perica has come off the bench for Watford, he appears the likeliest player to score. When given more chances, Perica will score more goals. 

The difference between promotion contenders and half-hearted hopefuls is the ability to grab points in the closing stages of matches. With Watford’s already strong squad able to field a starting eleven which does not require having Perica, utilizing the Croatian off of the bench significantly boosts the Hornets’ chances of grabbing extra points late into matches. He has done it across Europe numerous times before. Early indications from his time so far with Watford suggest he is well-equipped to do so again. 

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