A lot. Simply put, Roy Hodgson has a lot he needs to fix if he is to guide Watford to safety in their final 18 matches of the season. Perhaps there is too much to change and no adjustments will change their fate. If Hodgson is to be the Hornets’ savior, there are clear tweaks – or complete revamps – he must make.
Organize the Defense
As almost all Watford fans are more than well aware of – and apologies for the reminder – they still have not acquired their first league clean sheet of the season. 20 matches played, 40 goals conceded, and zero clean sheets. With arguably the worst defense in the league, the need for change could not be screaming louder.
Watford’s defense was deceiving last season, as their 30-goals conceded was a joint record for a Championship campaign, though their Expected Goals Against Statistic was 47.3, showing lots of luck was on their side. The tangible record pleased the board, so they brought in Danny Rose (a conversation of a failed transfer for another time) and no other defenders.
The hierarchy realized their shortcomings of the summer transfer window via terrible defensive league form and signed left-back Hassane Kamara and center-back Samir to bolster the backline. Both are improvements on the squad’s previous options, but neither is enough to completely change the quality of the defensive unit. It is up to Hodgson to use the tools at his disposal to create the most organized system possible to minimize room for error and maximize teammate support.
With Hodgson preferring to line up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation (albeit with tactical adaptability if necessary), the backline needs to have more support from the rest of the squad compared to how they did under the Hornets’ previous two head coaches. Xisco Munoz’s defense in the top flight was frantic. Claudio Ranieri’s defensive philosophy called for high pressing, often leading to disjoint between the defense, midfield, and attack when the other team had possession. Hodgson must remain strictly organized with the Hornets to ensure the team’s defensive unit is a unit of 10, rather than multiple units spread across the pitch. Instead of several small layers of protection, Watford need a single, much firmer unit.
Watford’s backline can only improve a marginal amount in terms of quality: Samir and Kamara having more time to settle into the squad will help, but with the transfer window now shut, major defensive improvement is unlikely to come from an individual’s form. It is up to Hodgson to ensure the defensive unit involves the entire squad as a cohesive block, meaning the underperforming backline are not stranded. Counterattacking football is not necessarily jeopardized, but even if it were, the Hornets stand no chance of safety if the defense does not improve.
Methodically Mold the Midfield
If Hodgson elects to line up in his 4-4-2 formation, the two central midfielders need to be well adept at transitioning phases of play and defending deeply when needed. Two of Edo Kayembe, Moussa Sissoko, and Imran Louza must be chosen for the starting eleven, especially the latter considering his success in a similar system last season with FC Nantes. Peter Etebo could also find himself working his way into the starting conversation depending on how his recovery goes.
The Hornets have no shortage of midfielder options, but not all the options are interchangeable. Some players, such as Imran Louza, must start as much as possible.
The wide midfielders, even in a team that must be organized, should still be attacking-minded players. As in, when Ismaila Sarr comes back from AFCON, he must be played as the right midfielder and not as the striker (like how Vladimir Ivic tried deploying him in the Championship). The opposite wide midfielder must also have sufficient attacking prowess, rather than leaving the flanks too-defensive minded. A balance must be maintained and the stars must take their most natural positions.
Not much change is required in the attack, which is why it is all the more important for Hodgson not to deplete the starting eleven of attacking options. In a 4-4-2 formation, the Hornets must have four attacking-minded players to keep the balance of defense and attack not too lopsided in either direction. If anything, the extra attacking player when compared to a 4-3-3 could benefit the Hornets’ goal output.
Especially considering the ridiculous transfer window Newcastle United had, finishing the season above or in the 17th spot is looking like an increasingly tough task. Regardless of the formation Hodgson elects to field, one thing is for certain: the defensive philosophy must change, the midfield must mix perfectly between the defense and the attack, while the attack must maintain its threat while not separating from the defensive block. Safety relies on steadying the ship at the back. Rigid organization – Sean-Dyche-esque – is the Hornets’ best bet at accumulating as many points as possible. It is the one philosophy they are yet to try this season.