Watford signed Philip Zinckernagel at the start of the recent January transfer window in a free transfer. His English move followed a season where he starred in a record-shattering FK Bodo/Glimt side, scoring 19 goals and contributing 24 assists in just 28 appearances in the Norwegian top flight. The right winger by trade was primarily deployed in a creative central midfield role for the Hornets, tallying one goal and five assists in 21 appearances across all competitions (averaging one goal contribution per 165 minutes).
With Zinckernagel being a versatile player and talented chance creator but Watford’s record-signing Ismaila Sarr occupying his preferred position, what roles could the 26-year-old play for the Golden Boys next season?
If Zinckernagel is mainly viewed as a right winger, the reality is that unless an unexpected Sarr departure occurs, the Dane would be his understudy. However, with AFCON running from January 9th to February 6th, Zinckernagel should get starting opportunities in his favorite role. He also is the one who will come into the starting eleven if Sarr has to miss more time for other reasons, such as knocks or rest purposes.
Zinckernagel will likely not be content with a backup role. The Club also knows a player with his creative eye should not be relegated to consistent bench minutes. Thus, they may look to play him elsewhere on the pitch as they did successfully last season.
Zinckernagel lined up as a left winger in his Watford debut against Manchester United in the FA Cup, showing glimpses of how dangerous his intricate dribbling can be to a defender in wide positions. His cross-delivered assist to Francisco Sierralta against Rotherham came at the end of a move where Zinckernagel found himself drifting into a wide-left position.
The Hornets’ left-winger scenario is still uncertain with transfers rumoured for reinforcements, Ken Sema not necessarily being a 38-match starter, and Joao Pedro and Cucho Hernandez both potentially challenging for minutes in the position. Zinckernagel could be viewed as yet another name able to provide starting competition to alleviate the necessity of bringing in a new left winger.
Right Center Midfielder
If Zinckernagel’s role for the Hornets involves playing in the heart of the pitch again, Xisco Munoz’s tactics will have a huge say in his positional assignment. If Xisco once more elects to opt for the 4-1-4-1 variation of the 4-3-3 he conjured to spearhead the Hornets’ push for promotion, then Zinckernagel’s role will still require a considerable amount of defensive responsibility. He would more likely play as the right center midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 because of his right-wing abilities when overlapping runs are made and the arrival of left-footed Imran Louza signaling the Frenchman will likely be the left center midfielder.
Starting minutes in this position, unfortunately for Zinckernagel, are also far from a guarantee. The fact of the matter is even though the former teammate of Jens Peter Hauge appears to have sufficient qualities to perform well in the Premier League, Gino Pozzo, Scott Duxbury, and Co. know they need to have much more than just eleven starting-quality players. Zinckernagel, if viewed as a central midfielder, will still, as of now, have to compete with Will Hughes, Nathaniel Chalobah, Imran Louza, Tom Cleverley, Dan Gosling, Domingos Quina, and Tom Dele-Bashiru. Even if the transfer window shuffles some of those players elsewhere, such as Hughes and/or Chalobah whose respective contracts expire next season, other midfield arrivals are expected to fill in the departing boots.
Center Attacking Midfielder
Like the other roles, Zinckernagel will have plenty of competition regardless of the position he is asked to play, such as potentially the number 10 role if Xisco elects to play the 4-3-3 with one true attacking midfielder (shaping up more like a 4-2-3-1 formation). This is the role Zinckernagel is best suited to centrally, as the defensive duty is more limited, and he has more creative freedom. His assist to Andre Gray against Wycombe Wanderers shows the intricate creativity he can provide from the center of the pitch. But again, there will be plenty of competition for the number 10 role if Xisco elects for a formation requiring one.
Most starting positions at Vicarage Road for next season are up in the air for players (or future arrivals) to stake their claim as a starter. The exact side fielded to play Aston Villa on August 14th is still impossible for even Xisco himself to predict.
Zinckernagel, if only viewed as useful in his most natural position, will be seen as Sarr’s backup. However, if the Club continues to utilize Zinckernagel in more innovative ways, he will most likely fall into the category of a useful rotational player able to fill multiple positions. And, as previously mentioned, when Sarr is on international duty with Senegal at AFCON, Zinckernagel will get his spotlight matches in the position where he has found the majority of his career’s success.