The Improbable Rise Of Francisco Sierralta

19 matches. Seven starts. Left on the bench on the final day. Francisco Sierralta’s loan move to FC Empoli in Serie B in the second half of last season did not turn many heads. When he moved to Watford in the summer, most fans overlooked the 23-year-old’s arrival. After all, he was not even the most notable center-back from Udinese to join the Hornets in the post-relegation transfer window.

Sierralta Before He Arrived In England

Sierralta’s career started with Universidad Católica, a club based in Santiago, Chile. Granada, who were owned by the Pozzo family at the time, bought Sierralta at the end of 2014 for a fee in the range of 350,000 pounds. The Pozzos still own Watford and Udinese, but they sold Granada in 2016. 

Granada loaned him back to Universidad Católica for 18 months, though he ultimately only played two matches for their senior squad. The Spanish club subsequently loaned him to CD Palestino (also in Chile) for the 2016/17 season. He became a pivotal figure in their Copa Sudamericana squad which made a run to the quarter-finals. 

Upon his return to Granada in 2017, the Pozzos still sought to have the 6’4” defender on their books. They paid their former club a fee of 600,000 pounds for his signature. Udinese, the club the Pozzos elected to sign him for, then sent him out on a two-year loan deal to Parma. In his first season with Parma, he appeared 10 times to help the club earn promotion to Serie A. He made six appearances in the first-tier the following season.

Upon the conclusion of his loan, he was given a chance to break into the Udinese first-team. So, the still-young center-back spent the first part of the 2019/20 campaign with his parent club. However, after he only appeared once in a Coppa Italia match, the club sent him on loan to FC Empoli for the remainder of the season. And, upon the conclusion of that loan, he made the common switch from Udinese to Watford.

In international competition, Sierralta has represented Chile at the senior level on four occasions. 

Start To Life At Vicarage Road

His transfer to Watford was a result of the hierarchy wanting to move players; in other words, Vladimir Ivic, the Hornets’ manager at the time of his arrival, did not have a say in the move. So, when Sierralta arrived, the head coach did not feel obligated to give him too many chances – especially since Sierralta was not part of the Hornets’ preseason training.

When Sierralta’s former Udinese teammate William Troost-Ekong signed for Watford at the end of September, the Chilean became the Club’s 6th-choice center-back. Craig Dawson’s departure in the middle of October moved Sierralta back to 5th-choice. Regardless, Sierralta was nothing more than a depth player who was not in line for many minutes.

Like most fringe players, Sierralta was given the opportunity to show his abilities in Carabao Cup matches. He played the full ninety minutes in both of Watford’s Carabao Cup games, the first one being a penalty-shootout victory, and the second being a 3-1 defeat. Sierralta did not earn more chances in the league as a result of his cup performances.

Except for featuring for the closing stages of Watford’s 4-1 victory over Preston North End, Sierralta was kept waiting either on the bench or out of the match-day squad entirely. In Ivic’s final match in charge, Troost-Ekong picked up an injury in the 30th minute. With Sierralta being the Hornets’ only center-back on the bench, he was called upon. From that moment forward, Sierralta has not looked back.

Sierralta Stealing The Spotlight

Sierralta’s first league match with meaningful minutes ended in a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Huddersfield Town. Sierralta, however, did not look out of place.

New manager Xisco Munoz quickly took a liking to the Chilean. With Ben Wilmot being the Club’s only other fit center-back, Xisco had no choice but to start Sierralta. He starred in the 1-0 victory against league-leaders Norwich City. 

The Hornets’ subsequent 2-1 defeat against Swansea was a match in which Sierralta started as a result of his own form and talent, rather than as a result of injuries. Despite Troost-Ekong returning from his knock, Sierralta maintained his starting spot.

Since then, Sierralta has started the following five matches alongside Troost-Ekong. Wilmot and Craig Cathcart presently are on the outside looking in when it comes to the starting center-back spots, and at no fault of their own. Simply put, Sierralta and Troost-Ekong have been a nearly impenetrable force. In those five matches, the only goal conceded when both were on the pitch was from a corner against Manchester United in the FA Cup.

Sierralta sometimes starts matches in a somewhat concerning fashion, with either an awry pass or a poorly-timed challenged. But, his mistakes never compound. For the rest of the match, he becomes a rock in defense. His distribution is average, but he rarely loses an aerial duel. Further, his pace matches with some of the quickest attackers in the league. He frequently shepherds attacking players in dangerous positions into non-threatening areas of the pitch.

He is by no means flawless and does have his moments of uncertainty. However, he has earned Xisco’s trust and the starting spot. His rise to becoming one of the first names on the team-sheet is well-deserved and is justified for plenty of reasons. And, considering he is only 23-years-old, the physical defender only has room to further improve. 

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