Last season, Watford tied the record for the best-ever EFL Championship defense, conceding just 30 goals in 46 matches. Thus, upon promotion to the Premier League, a safe assumption seems to be that the center of the defense does not need attention. Considering William Troost-Ekong and Francisco Sierralta joined after the Club’s 2019/20 relegation, a case can be made that the Hornets’ back line has improved since their last top-flight season. Nonetheless, the conclusion that center-back attention is not pivotal is likely a wrongful one.
Watford’s Under-Acknowledged Center-Back Shortage
The Hornets only have five senior center-backs: Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart, and Mattie Pollock. Five center-backs should be sufficient, but considering Pollock, 19-years-old, might be loaned out and the jump from League Two to the top-flight is nearly impossible to adjust to in one offseason, the Club effectively have four center-backs with sufficient experience to play consistent top-flight football (to be clear, Pollock definitely has the potential to eventually reach that level, though assuming he can do so immediately after only ever playing in League Two is a risky assumption for the hierarchy to make).
Cathcart, now 32-years-old, might be nearing the swan song of his career. He has looked alarmingly off the pace in preseason, most notably assisting Stevenage with an atrocious pass across the backline to allow their first-minute opener in a friendly. The experienced Northern Ireland international team player should be able to compose himself better in the top-flight, though there is a slight cause for concern about his readiness for the new season when he is called upon.
Kabasele missed a large chunk of last season with a knee injury, and despite starting the Club’s final two Championship matches against Brentford and Swansea, the strength of his recovery remains to be seen. However, the 30-year-old should be able to be relied upon when necessary in the upcoming campaign.
Sierralta and Troost-Ekong emerged as Xisco’s first-choice center-backs, though neither has played a Premier League minute in their respective careers. Sierralta’s improbable rise to Vicarage Road stardom makes his considerable lack of top-flight minutes easy to gloss over, while his European top-flight readiness is not yet known considering there are only 265 top-flight minutes to his name to examine from.
Troost-Ekong, despite performing well in the Serie A with Udinese, is not necessarily a guarantee to perform well in the Premier League. Furthermore, he is likely to miss out on a chunk of matches in the heart of the season to participate with Nigeria in AFCON.
Thus, each of the Hornets’ five center-backs has question marks to their names, even if the uncertainties are not the most obvious. And, considering Pollock is potentially leaving on loan or not yet ready for Premier League minutes and Troost-Ekong is destined to miss time during the season, there is already a portion of the campaign where the Hornets will need to effectively rely on three center-backs.
If injuries hit – which must be prepared for – the Hornets may be left in a situation where they have no choice but to rely on two center-backs for a long stretch of matches. If even just two injuries hit and, for example, Troost-Ekong is at AFCON, the Hornets may be left in a situation where a player from a different position needs to line up in the heart of the defense, which would be catastrophic in the Premier League.
Simply stated, the Hornets may have had a phenomenal defensive record last campaign, though defensive brilliance is far from a guarantee this season considering a shortage in depth and the question marks surrounding many center-backs’ names. Furthermore, the Hornets’ stellar defensive record from their brief spell in the Championship is likely misleading when considering how they actually performed.
Expected Statistics Suggest Watford’s Record-Breaking Defense Was Not Overly Impressive
Across both Vladimir Ivic and Xisco Munoz’s reigns as Watford head coach last season, the Hornets conceded an impressively low number of goals. However, the statistic which may be driving Watford’s choice to not prioritize signing a center-back this transfer window is in fact blatantly misleading. Even though the Hornets equaled the league’s best-ever defensive season, Expected Statistics (source: infogol) show Watford had a considerable amount of luck on their side as well.
Watford conceded six fewer goals than the next best defensive team (Norwich City) last season. But, when it comes to Expected Goals Against, the Hornets conceded six more expected goals than the expected best defensive team in the league (Brentford). With an Expected Goals Against Statistic of 47.3, the Hornets conceded 17.3 fewer times than statistics predicted.
Many factors play into all of the “Expected Statistics,” from poor finishing to luck to moments of brilliance. If the Hornets were to have an Expected Goals Against Statistic relatively near 30, then terms such as “luck” and “poor finishing from the opposition” could be ignored and the difference from reality could be attributed to natural variability. However, with a margin of 17.3 goals separating the reality from the statistically expected, the conclusion can be made with sufficient confidence that the Hornets were, statistically speaking, considerably lucky/blessed with poor finishing from the opposition on many occasions last season.
To provide comparison, Stoke City, who in reality conceded 52 goals, had a better Expected Goals Against Statistic (45.4) than Watford did. The Potters, unlike Watford, were unlucky, as their opposition scored at a considerably higher rate than expected.
The Hornets undeniably had an impressive season defensively last campaign regardless of what Expected Statistics say. What cannot be ignored, however, is a considerable amount of luck and frequent poor finishing from opposition statistically played into the record. In the Premier League, such luck and underperformance from the opposition in front of the net will not occur. So, if Watford are to be basing their lack of high-profile center-back recruitment on last season’s performance, then the hierarchy should perhaps reconsider where they allocate funds in the last month of the transfer window. Watford’s center-back department might have enough in it, though to say such soundness is anywhere near a guarantee would be a very bold and risky claim.