At face value, Watford’s being three points clear of the relegation zone after ten matches does not seem so bad. Unfortunately, those ten performances suggest many reasons to listen for alarm bells, and the reasons for starting to hear them are not hard to find. And, with the Hornets’ next five fixtures coming against Arsenal, Manchester United, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Manchester City, Watford may find themselves slipping into the relegation zone sooner rather than later.
Midfield and Attack Good (Enough) for Premier League
The Hornets have one of the weakest squads in the Premier League when it comes to player-by-player talent, which is natural considering they were recently promoted and were stripped of lots of their core from the 2019/20 top-flight campaign. The midfield backbone of Will Hughes, Etienne Capoue, and Abdoulaye Doucoure is completely gone. Roberto Pereyra, Gerard Deulofeu, Jose Holebas, Craig Dawson, and more are no longer at Vicarage Road. Some have been amply replaced – others have not.
It was always going to be hard for the Hornets to replace their midfield three from the 2019/20 season. Capoue is now a Europa-League-winning midfielder, Doucoure was one of the best midfielders in the Premier League before his injury this season, and Hughes, despite having yet to play for Crystal Palace, is still difficult to find a suitable, talent-for-talent replacement for.
Nonetheless, their midfield should be “good enough” for a non-relegation Premier League club. Between Moussa Sissoko, Juraj Kucka, Imran Louza, Ozan Tufan, Peter Etebo (when he comes back from injury), and Tom Cleverley, there is sufficient skill in the midfield to stay in the top flight, especially considering the high-pressing type of midfielders Ranieri’s system calls for. It is a downgrade on the 2019/20 midfield, but it still should “get the job done,” especially for what Ranieri wants.
The attack is the one area of the pitch which has arguably improved: even with the departures of Deulofeu and Troy Deeney (albeit he was far from his prime by the 2019/20 season), there appear to be more potential goals in the attacking rotation (and better depth). Watford now have a more-experienced Ismaila Sarr, potentially-prolific Joshua King, future stars Joao Pedro and Cucho Hernandez, and the in-form, speedy Emmanuel Dennis. So, it is clear where the goals will come from, and it is hard to doubt there is sufficient quality to score “enough.”
Blatant Issue Continuing to Wreak Havoc Against Hornets
Watford are yet to keep a league clean sheet since their promotion. Between the sticks, neither Daniel Bachmann nor Ben Foster have impressed (especially the latter, who, regardless of his YouTube antics, has gotten worse positionally and judgmentally in-game since his stellar 2019/20 campaign).
The heart of the defense has also not particularly improved. Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart are getting up there in age and past their primes (though there is more hope that the former can return to his best fitness levels). Cathcart’s performances have been particularly alarming. Francisco Sierralta was stellar last season in the Championship, helping Watford equal the best-ever Championship defensive record with only 30 goals conceded. However, he is yet to prove himself in the Premier League (albeit largely due to injury). William Troost-Ekong, also signed ahead of Watford’s recent Championship campaign, complimented Sierralta well in Xisco’s preferred partnership. Despite some strong Premier League performances, Troost-Ekong has lacked consistency. He passed the ball directly to Yves Bissouma which led to a goal in a clash against Brighton and did not close down Che Adam’s on Southampton’s lone goal at Vicarage Road, just to name a couple of questionable defensive choices by the 28-year-old. Nicolas Nkoulou has only recently signed and not made a Hornets’ start, so his impact remains to be seen. Craig Dawson – who departed in the summer of 2020 – has been a star for Europa-League-competing West Ham United.
The right-back position has arguably improved, with Kiko Femenia improving last campaign (although not finding consistency due to injury since promotion) and the rise of Jeremy Ngakia. The left-back position has remained the same in terms of talent, with Adam Masina and Danny Rose competing for the starting role (with Rose belatedly coming in at the expense of Jose Holebas).
The statistics show how alarmingly poor the defense has been this season. Watford have conceded the fourth-most goals in the league this season (18), with only Aston Villa (19), Newcastle (23), and Norwich (25) conceding more. In terms of Expected Goals Against, the Hornets are third-worst in the league, but only 1.21 xGA away from being the worst. Watford have yielded 18.68 xGA, while Norwich have conceded 18.91 xGA and Newcastle have allowed 19.89 xGA. That is not good company to be around.
Even though there is always room for the attacking ranks to improve (the Hornets are tied tenth for goals scored, overperforming xG by 1.68), if the Hornets cannot keep clean sheets and are giving away nearly two goals per match, then the Premier League may simply not be the right league for them. Their defense does not have to be impenetrable, but improvement is needed. Goals will come with the players and management they have. However, the porous defense does not appear solvable through their current squad’s individual talent alone. Whether the remedy is tactics, January signings, the return of Sierralta/introduction of Nkoulou, or a combination remains to be seen.