The Ken Sema Dilemma

With the Premier League season kicking off in three months, Watford have more than enough time to shape their ideal starting eleven. Some players’ names are written in permanent ink. Other players, such as Ken Sema, have a bit more uncertainty surrounding their name in regards to being a consistent starter. 

Sema’s Form of Success Changed as Season Progressed

Under the management of Vladimir Ivic, many players did not have their strengths catered to. One of the exceptions was Sema. The 27-year-old spent the 2019/20 campaign on loan with Udinese. When he returned to Vicarage Road, there were mixed expectations for the Swedish international player. From the first match of the season, even the high expectations were exceeded.

From a wing-back role under Ivic, Sema was able to balance his defensive and offensive duties remarkably – with more plaudits coming for the latter. After 12 matches, Sema logged four assists. His strong runs to the byline and dangerous low crosses in the box made him an early Player of the Season contender. 

His impressive run of performances was toned down following a three-match absence due to contracting coronavirus. He played five matches post-illness and pre-Xisco Munoz era, failing to score or assist in any of those clashes.

Xisco’s appointment as head coach offered Sema new territory, especially after the tactical change to a 4-3-3 formation. No longer needing to worry about defensive duties, Sema was able to stay in a true left-wing position for the entirety of matches. Although he only assisted once under Xisco, he also found the back of the net five times. However, there were a handful of matches where Sema seemed off the pace, making some supporters question why he was not given a rest. After all, starting 11 matches in 42 days is bound to lead even the best of players to look knackered. 

At the season’s conclusion, Sema finished with five goals and five assists. But, he is indeed directly responsible for more goals. For example, his cross to Sarr in the Hornets’ first 1-0 victory over Norwich City took the slightest of deflections, meaning he did not get credit for the assist. Also, his cross against Blackburn at Vicarage Road led to an own goal. His cross to Andre Gray’s goal against Coventry City also took a small, credit-for-assist-preventing deflection. Simply stated, at first glance, his numbers do not do his attacking contributions justice. 

Under Ivic, Sema was an assist king. Xisco guided Sema to finding the back of the net more frequently. Overall, Sema’s performances in the Championship were sufficient for a promotion-chasing side, but whether they make him a Premier League starting-eleven player is to be determined – something the Watford hierarchy will have to seriously contemplate ahead of making summer signatures.

Is Ken Sema Premier League Starting Quality?

Regardless of whether he is a consistent starter next season, it will be important to keep hold of Sema. His versatility is a trait the Hornets can tremendously benefit from. He can play anywhere on the left side of the pitch – including in defense – as well as a central midfielder. He can even slot in as a right-midfielder if necessary. 

Sema has already had success in a major European top-flight. His 17 Premier League appearances in the 2018/19 season for Watford following his arrival from Ostersunds did not make jaws drop. However, his performances made it clear he had the tools necessary for top-flight success. 

His 2019/20 loan to Udinese provides further evidence of his ability to thrive in top-flights. He played 33 times for the Pozzo-owned club, primarily playing as a left-wing-back. So, when Watford were relegated, the Hornets had another top-flight proven player in their ranks to help them push for a return to England’s top tier. 

The best evidence to support a claim Sema is indeed Premier League starting quality is by looking at Expected Goals and Expected Assists. Across 90 league matches over the past 3 seasons, Sema outperformed his Xg statistic by 2.66 goals – maintaining a positive residual with respect to the Xg prediction in all of the last three seasons (to be clear: in each individual season, he scored more than expected). 

Yet across that span, Sema played primarily as a wing-back. Spells as an out-and-out attacker primarily came in the second half of the promotion campaign – a period where most of the wide play went to the right side thanks to Ismaila Sarr. Still, Sema scored five goals this past season despite an Xg of 4.01. In terms of finishing, although he does not test his luck often, he is statistically overperforming. The Xg metric may admittedly be slightly misleading here due to his frequent deployments in non-attacking positions. 

Regardless of whether he is playing as a wing-back or out-and-out winger, his Expected Assists statistics are more prominently – and more importantly, considering his varying tactical instructions – highlighted. Over the course of the past two league campaigns, Sema’s actual assist count is much less than what is expected. As in, his strikers/teammates have considerably let him down in front of the net. Thus, his actual statistics show less than what they should according to the Xa statistic. Between his Serie A season and the Championship campaign, Sema notched 5.41 fewer assists than expected, epitomizing how his attacking partners have let him down on the end of his deliveries. 

So, when it comes to Expected Goals, Sema scores at an impressive rate. In terms of Expected Assists, he creates many more chances than scoresheets give him credit for. But still, even though the “expected statistics” signal he is overperforming/not getting enough credit, does that mean he is Premier League starting quality?

The answer is likely the following: it depends. If the season commences and he is Watford’s first-choice left-winger, it is not as if it will be detrimental to the Club’s hopes of survival. He will be able to get the job done and chip in with a few assists and goals. However, with Philip Zinckernagel bound to be vying for a starting spot, Cucho Hernandez and Joao Pedro potentially getting minutes out wide, and the prospect of new attacking signings, a starting spot is far from secure. 

Sema will – as he for sure knows – have to prove himself as the best man for the starting role. He has some evidence to back his claim, but not enough for him to be considered a sure-fire starter just yet. He has the foundation he needs for the role and currently has the upper hand. Summer transfers may change the picture if a true upgrade is brought in. However, that upgrade is not necessarily a must. Sema has proven himself as capable of being a good-enough Premier League starter. Whether or not the transfer window will change his importance to the Club remains to be seen. And, even if competition arrives, it is important to keep hold of King Ken regardless. 

So, simply stated, he has sufficient Premier League quality, but an upgrade is not ill-advised either only if the price is right. But either way, it is not a make or break position in the Hornets’ hopes for survival. Not signing a new center-forward, however, may prove to be a relegation curse, but that is a conversation for another time. Besides, early indications in the transfer window signal those in the Watford hierarchy agree. 

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