Evaluating the Premier League’s Signing of the Summer

Emmanuel Dennis has been the Premier League’s best signing of the summer: there is no simpler way to say it. So far, he has been Watford’s best attacker and defender. The only player who surpasses Dennis, who has six goals and five assists, in goal contributions this season is Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (thirteen goals, eight assists). The Hornets signed the 24-year-old for just £3.6 million, making his phenomenal start to life in the Premier League even more impressive. 

Attacking Star Smashing Expectations

Dennis is only the sixth player in Premier League history to reach five goals and five assists in their inaugural 12 (or fewer) matches in the competition. That statistic alone shows how well he has hit the ground running since joining from Belgian side Club Brugge. However, a deeper look into his goal-scoring and contributing output reveals even more resounding conclusions than what the raw numbers can tell. 

The Nigerian forward has been beyond clinical in front of the net this season. With an Expected Goals statistic of 3.22, he has overperformed what is statistically predicted by 2.78 goals (source: Infogol). In other words, he is scoring nearly twice as much as what his chances would mathematically suggest he should be scoring, showing peak efficiency in front of the net. 

Even when shooting from difficult angles, his shots have significantly-above-average precision and accuracy. Exactly 50% of his shots have been on target, ranking in the 91st percentile for “Premier League attacking-midfielders and wingers” this season (with Dennis mainly lining up as a winger, admittedly also having spells of matches in the center of the attack. When discussing percentiles in this article, they all refer to the percentile of the group quoted above) (source: FBREF). His conversion rate of 0.21 goals per shot epitomizes his efficiency, ranking in the 93rd percentile.

In terms of chance creation, he has overperformed Expected Assists by nearly three, suggesting his teammates have inflated his assist output by putting away their own low-quality chances. Nonetheless, Dennis’ chance-creating prowess cannot be overlooked. Five assists in thirteen matches are no accident. Furthermore, his dribbling-with-pace talent has led to many solid chances, carrying the ball into the penalty area 1.73 times per 90 minutes (76th percentile). His 2.18 players dribbled past per 90 minutes (78th percentile) also shows the influence his individual brilliance has in sparking attacks. He also drew a penalty in the recent 4-2 defeat against Leicester City. 

Aerially, despite being just five feet, nine inches tall, Dennis has excelled, winning 42.6% of aerial duals (69thpercentile) and emerging victorious in 2.37 aerials per 90 minutes (94th percentile).

And, for many people’s favorite statistic, Dennis ranks highly. He sits in the 97th percentile for nutmegs per 90 minutes (0.82).

Phenomenal Defensive Prowess

The claim Dennis is Watford’s best defender this season is not difficult to substantiate. Especially since Claudio Ranieri took over (but even under Xisco Munoz), Dennis’ pressing talent and work rate have yielded tremendous dividends on both ends of the pitch. Especially in a team where a clean sheet is yet to be achieved in the league this season, quality defensive play needs to, in part, be evaluated by how an individual’s defending helped sparked attacking opportunities. 

Dennis’ tremendous defensive work must also be considered when evaluating his chance creation. He averages 0.18 defensive actions that lead to a shot attempt per 90 minutes (94th percentile), and 0.09 defensive actions that lead to a goal per 90 minutes (99th percentile). 

He tracks back well to sometimes tuck behind the fullbacks when most other wingers would stay higher up the pitch and not provide support. Dennis sits in the 94th percentile for tackles in the defensive third, with 1.09 per match. However, his best defensive contributions come in the press in advanced positions on the pitch. He averages 21.66 pressures per 90 minutes (90th percentile) and 7.37 pressures in the attacking third per 90 minutes (88th percentile). In terms of tackling in the attacking third, he averages 0.55 per 90 minutes, ranking in the 99th percentile. 

Oftentimes, attackers are solely evaluated by their attacking contributions. Doing so with Dennis would still show he has been excellent this season. Yet, when the layers are peeled back to reveal his defensive metrics, his output on both sides of the ball becomes even more magnificent.

Honorable Mention: Maxwel Cornet

Second place for Premier League signing of the season (so far) is Maxwel Cornet. The versatile winger signed for Burnley for a fee in the region of £13.5 million from Olympique Lyon. With five goals in just seven starts, he is scoring at a rate surpassing Dennis. Cornet’s defensive ability is also above average. Nonetheless, Dennis edges Cornet out on the basis of a considerably cheaper transfer fee, chance-creating prowess, and pure defensive/counter-attacking contributions. 

Both are names to watch intently for the rest of the 2021/22 campaign and beyond. 

Watford: the Premier League’s Jekyll and Hyde

Guest-written article by Ben Thornhill

Watford’s performances this season can be grouped into two categories. For the purposes of this article, we will call them Jekyll and Hyde

Jekyll4 wins with an xG above 1 (3 of those wins with an xG above 2).

Hyde: 7 defeats and 1 draw, all 7 defeats to nil, all 8 with an xG below 1 (5 of those with an xG of below 0.5).

The Jekyll performances (1/3 of the total) have included some scintillating counter-attacking football and have yielded a whopping 15 goals. 

The Hyde performances (2/3 of the total) have included displays where Watford have carried nearly no attacking threat and have yielded a paltry 1 goal. 

What can be made of this apparently schizoid outfit? How can they look so promising one week and then revert to something so unconvincing the next? This article will explore some possible explanations for this inconsistent outfit whose latest display (very much in the Jekyll category) versus Manchester United will have had Watford fans dreaming of Premier League safety once again. 

Relative Instability of Opposition 

Each of the Hornets’ victories this season have come against opposition with a high degree of instability. Aston Villa came to Vicarage Road shortly after the loss of Jack Grealish to Manchester City and, whilst they had spent a considerable amount of money on replacements, such as Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey, Villa were clearly an outfit that were going to have some teething problems, despite having a decent squad on paper. They have since parted company with manager Dean Smith following a run of five defeats, which backs up the point that they have also struggled to find their rhythm. 

Victory at Carrow Road over a beleaguered Norwich City was a vital three points for Watford but said as much about the opposition’s wobbly defense as it did any coherence in attack from the Hornets. Before deciding to part ways with Daniel Farke, Norwich were winless in 10 games having conceded 25 goals and were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League. 

On the face of it, a 5-2 victory at Everton, a first-ever Watford win at Goodison Park, was a huge win and Claudio Ranieri’s first for Watford. However, Everton were without key players – namely England international Dominic Calvert-Lewin and ex-Hornet Abdoulaye Doucoure. They also have an unpopular manager at the helm in ex-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who is finding it difficult to endear himself to the Goodison Park faithful. With no wins in their last six matches, Everton currently sit bottom of the Premier League form table and are sinking fast. 

Then came the 4-1 victory at the weekend over Manchester United. Again, this has to be slightly tempered by the abject display from an opposition who looked like they were waiting for a change of manager. The most damning statistic is United’s Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) – a measure of a team’s pressing intensity – of over 24. For some context, the majority of teams in the EPL tend to allow between 7-15 PPDA in most games. By contrast, United themselves allowed only 8.5 PPDA in their 4-1 victory against Newcastle United earlier in the season. So, whilst Watford were impressive, the victory has to be set against the backdrop of the turmoil at Manchester United, which saw Solskjaer lose his job the following day. 

Questions That Remain Unanswered

The fact remains that, whilst many of Watford’s performances this season have been alarming, results, to date, have been good enough to see them four points clear of the relegation zone. They also now find themselves four points off of Manchester United in eighth place. This can only be seen as “so far, so good.” However, if they really have turned a corner under Claudio Ranieri, there remain some questions that need to be answered:

Firstly, can Watford hurt well-organized opponents? In games when Watford fans might have hoped for better performances and more points (e.g., at home to Wolves, Southampton, and Newcastle, and away to Brighton and Leeds), Watford’s attacking threat was insignificant and it could be argued that they were lucky to glean the single point that they did from all those fixtures combined. These are the kinds of games so far this season where there has been a significant gap between expectation and performance. To date, it would have to be said that Watford have needed their opponents to have an “off day” in order to create chances and have looked out of their depth against teams who have a well-organized press. 

The second question that needs to be answered, and quickly, is: Can Watford keep a clean sheet? So far, the answer has been a resounding “no!” Narrow early season defeats were characterized by defensive lapses in possession and set-pieces which routinely undermined decent defensive work off of the ball. Under Ranieri, Watford shipped five goals against Liverpool and are still yet to keep a clean sheet. With Watford’s next three games being Leicester City (a), Chelsea (h), and Manchester City (h), it would take a bold fan to predict this run of 12 consecutive games without a clean sheet coming to an end any time soon. 

Signs of Improvement

However, there are signs that things might be improving for good. As predicted, under Ranieri, Watford have begun to press in packs higher up the pitch, most impressively in their last match against Manchester United. This puts more pressure on the opposition forcing them into errors in their own half, as seen from Tom Cleverley’s vital interception against Manchester United leading to Harry Maguire’s sending off. There is also an active form of defense, in contrast to the relative passivity seen under Xisco Munoz. The press against Manchester United helped to keep the ball in the opponent’s half and made Watford harder to play through, protecting the midfield and defense. 

As mentioned in a previous article, Watford were undermining themselves by playing out from the back with players who lack the technical ability to do it and regularly conceding goals from set-pieces. Under Ranieri, they have abandoned playing out with Ben Foster encouraged to be much more direct with his distribution – another tactic that helps to control territory and protect the back four. They are also yet to concede from a set-piece. 

The introduction of Nicolas Nkoulou in place of William Troost-Ekong over the past couple of games also looks to have had a positive impact. Nkoulou looks more composed than his teammate in possession, which has given the backline a calmer feel to it, even against “Big 6” opponents. There is some promise, then, that Nkoulou could strike up an effective partnership with either Francisco Sierralta or Christian Kabasele when they return from injury. All of this means that Ranieri is not just plugging the obvious holes seen under Munoz. With the introduction of Nkoulou, there has been a timely upgrade in personnel alongside a more effective press that is both protecting the defense and benefitting the attack. 

Conclusion

Although Watford’s best performances this season have come against opponents dealing with problems on and off of the pitch, the Hornets have still had the ability to put those sides away impressively. Without playing well on a consistent basis, they are still keeping away from danger and keeping up with the pack. Currently in the middle of an extremely difficult run of fixtures, they sit a respectable 14th in the form table, which has allowed them to keep their heads above water. Some of the changes that Claudio Ranieri has implemented have Watford looking less vulnerable and more purposeful and they are changes that increase their chances of answering those as of yet unanswered questions. The 4-1 score-line against a club the size of Manchester United could well be the fillip that this squad needs to kick on from being more Hyde and less Jekyll as they seek to find a consistent level of performance and develop a coherent identity as a team.

Statistical Assessment of Ismaila Sarr’s 2021/22 Campaign (Thus Far)

Watford’s recent 4-1 victory over Manchester United had many talking points, with the main one surrounding the subsequent sacking of Red Devils’ manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. However, many Watford supporters will be focusing on Ismaila Sarr: he missed a retaken penalty after failing to convert the initial penalty as well, but he more than remedied for his poor spot-kicks by scoring a classy goal to give the Hornets a two-goal lead. Nonetheless, Sarr’s performances as of late have come under question, though the goal against Ronaldo and Co. suggests his post-Xisco-Munoz skid of form is over. With the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United known to have been keeping an eye on Sarr for quite some time now, how has Sarr been performing beyond what the average pair of eyes can see?

Key Statistics This Season 

In this campaign, Sarr has scored five goals in 12 appearances, overperforming Expected Goals by 0.71. He is therefore overperforming Open-Play Expected Goals by around 1.5 goals. The numbers show Sarr has been a more-than-efficient finisher.

The 23-year-old struggled to find form in Claudio Ranieri’s first four matches in charge, failing to find the back of the net against Liverpool, Everton, Southampton, and Arsenal. Against the Toffees, once Sarr was subbed off of the pitch, the Hornets scored four times in less than half an hour, raising an occasional question about the place the Club’s most expensive signing has in Ranieri’s side. His starting role was never seriously questioned, as he is simply too talented to not start every match he is fit, but whether he was as effective as he could be most certainly could be doubted.

Under Xisco, both in the Championship and Premier League, Sarr thrived. 10 of Sarr’s 13 goals in the second-tier last season came under Xisco (in the 23 matches he featured in). In the Premier League, Sarr scored four goals in Xisco’s seven matches in charge. 

The clash against Manchester United suggests Sarr’s readjustment to life at Vicarage Road under a different head coach is nearing completion. After all, Xisco’s system gave Sarr tremendous freedom on the wing without too many defensive duties, whereas Ranieri demands more defensive work, namely in the high press. There was consequently a learning curve Sarr had to endure. 

However, to say Sarr has not been strong when it comes to defensive work would be inaccurate. Even though Watford left-winger Emmanuel Dennis has offered more defensively when it comes to pressures and tackles (Dennis ranks in the top percentile for Premier League wingers this season in pressures per match, at 22.91 [compared to Sarr’s 17.21] and in the top four percent for tackles per match, at 2.39 [compared to Sarr’s 0.52]), there is still some impressive defensive work being done by Sarr too. Sarr ranks in the top four percent of Premier League wingers for “fewest times dribbled past per match,” only getting beat an average of 0.35 times per 90, showing his effectiveness when pressuring. He also ranks highly in pressures in the attacking third, averaging 7.17 pressures in the attacking third per match (in the top 16th percentile). 

Sarr has undoubtedly been clinical when it comes to overperforming Expected Goals and also has started to offer Ranieri what he wants on both sides of the ball. However, Sarr’s increased attacking prowess and finishing improvement when compared to his last time in the Premier League needs to be further discussed.

Comparison to 2019/20 Premier League Campaign

Sarr has already equaled his goal tally from the Hornets’ last Premier League campaign in fewer than half the matches. The winger also underperformed expected goals that season by 1.04, signaling he should have been more lethal in front of the net. As discussed above, he has gone from underperforming to overperforming, with the one season in the Championship (where he overperformed Expected Goals by 2.87) already proving to have been an unsuspecting perfect piece to his development. 

Statistics beyond Expect Goals further show the improvement he has undergone. In the 2019/20 season, only 29.5% of Sarr’s shots ended on target. This campaign, that figure has skyrocketed to 46.2%, showing his precision has improved. Two seasons ago, he averaged 0.11 goals per shot, compared to 0.19 goals per shot this season, signaling his lethality per strike has increased. In the relegation campaign, he averaged 0.38 goals per shot on target, whereas in the return season, he is averaging 0.42 goals per shot on target, demonstrating how his accuracy (as well as, once more, his precision) has developed for the better. 

The Hornets’ desire for him to be one of their key goal-scorers has subsequently led to a slight decrease in his tangible assist output (as well as him averaging one fewer cross per game, as his instruction is to play a bit narrower than under Pearson and test his luck more frequently). But, considering his Expected Assists has decreased by just 0.04 per match, the assist sacrifice is more than just made up for by his increased goalscoring capabilities.

Outlook at Watford 

If Sarr continues in the same manner he has started the season and builds off of the goal from Solskjaer’s final match as Manchester United manager, suitors in the upcoming transfer windows will continue to arrive in abundance. Even though his contract runs through 2024, it is hard to imagine that the Hornets will not receive an irresistible offer for his services before that point.

Watford will be hoping to at least hold Sarr until the end of the season and not lose him in January. Doing so will be pivotal in the push for survival. Staying in the Premier League also gives the Hornets extra leverage in negotiations, and they have already previously slapped £40+ million price tags on him (as per Adam Leventhal of The Athletic), so the desired fee will only increase considerably. In the event of relegation, leverage will be lost, but a sizeable fee would still be able to be secured. 

Nonetheless, it is hard to see a scenario where Sarr is at Watford beyond this season: he will not want to play another season in the Championship, and unless the Hornets can extend his contract, even if they stay in the Premier League, they will rather sell him for a maximum fee than wait until he has one year left in his contract upon the conclusion of the 2022/23 season.

Whatever happens, Sarr has a tremendously bright future and will be playing Champions League football in the coming years when a transfer does come his way. For now, Hornets’ fans should (as they know) appreciate every second they have with Sarr, for players of his caliber do not usually weather the storm of relegation and drown out the noise of transfers to bigger teams. This is likely his last season at Vicarage Road, though his place fondly in Watford folklore is already secured. And, if trends continue this season, his legacy may exponentially grow. 

What to Expect From Watford’s Goalkeeper of the Future Maduka Okoye

Watford recently signed 22-year-old goalkeeper Maduka Okoye from Sparta Rotterdam. He officially becomes a Hornet on January 1st, 2022, but he will spend the rest of the 2021/22 campaign with Sparta Rotterdam before returning to Vicarage Road in the summer to attempt to tie down the Hornets’ number one spot. The expected fee is in the region of £5 million. With lots of speculation surrounding Watford’s current goalkeepers, the arrival of Okoye provides some clarity. But what can be expected from the Hornets’ likely future starting goalkeeper?

Successor for Bachmann and Foster

Recently, the future of Daniel Bachmann at Vicarage Road has grown unclear. With Ben Foster claiming the number one role under Claudio Ranieri (and controversially so), Bachmann is known to be disgruntled about the situation and is likely to seek a January departure if he does not reclaim the starting spot by the opening of the next transfer window. 

Foster is in the last year of his Watford contract, and he is known to want to go to the MLS upon the conclusion of his current deal.

Thus, the Hornets’ top two goalkeepers next year are likely to be Pontus Dahlberg (a 22-year-old currently impressing on loan with Doncaster, after impressive loans in Sweden) and Okoye. The two young goalkeepers will probably be competing with each other for the number one role regardless of what tier the Hornets find themselves in next year, with Okoye the new preference of the hierarchy and favorite to secure the starting job. 

High-Quality Shot-Stopper and Improving Cross Claimer

After spending time with Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, and Fortuna Dusseldorf’s youth teams, Okoye signed for Sparta Rotterdam in the summer of 2020. He has been an instant success in the Eredivisie. In his first season in the Dutch top-flight, he started 29 matches, keeping 10 clean sheets and conceding 37 times. The Nigerian International Team’s number one found himself in the Eredivisie Team of the Year as a result of his noteworthy performances. In 13 matches this season, Okoye has conceded 19 times, keeping two clean sheets in the process. 

Last season, Okoye had an impressive 67.4% save rate. This season, the number has gone up to 69.6%. For comparison, Foster’s save rate this season is 61.3% and Bachmann’s is 64.7%. What also must be considered is Sparta Rotterdam were promoted ahead of the 2019/20 season, thus leading to them being a team expected to be in the lower echelons of the Eredivisie (with Okoye being a large part of their recent successes). 

The 1.98-meter (6-foot, 6-inch) goalkeeper has also been rapidly improving when it comes to cross collections/aerial defending. Last season, he averaged just 0.1 “Good High Claims Per Game.” In the Championship, Bachmann, who was known for being very conservative when coming off of his line, averaged 0.5 Good High Claims Per Game. This season, Foster averages 0.7. 

However, Okoye has already tremendously improved in the area he needed to improve in most: this season, he averages 0.8 Good High Claims Per Game. PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper Joel Drommel averages 0.5 Good High Claims Per Game. Groningen goalkeeper Peter Leeuwenburgh averages 0.2 Good High Claims Per Game. Vitesse goalkeeper Markus Schubert averages 0.7 Good High Claims Per Game. Thus, Okoye ranks higher than many, if not all, other goalkeepers in the Eredivisie this season when it comes to successfully coming off of his line. Regardless of if the Hornets are in the Premier League or Championship next season, more certainty when defending crosses is needed: Okoye will already be able to provide that and is continuing to improve in that field. 

Super Eagles teammate and Watford center-back William Troost-Ekong echoed the notion that Okoye continues to improve, telling the Watford FC website, “He’s a very reliable goalkeeper with a huge will to learn, and I think he’ll add a lot of strengths to the squad when he links up with us next year.”

The jump from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is a big one. Even if Okoye winds up needing to make the step to the Championship for a season, the aerial factor of the English second tier is still just as prominent, if not a more pivotal part of the game, than in the top-flight. Still young with lots of room to grow (talent-wise, for he is definitely more than tall enough), if all goes to plan, Okoye will be the Hornets’ number one for many years to come – and possibly the only thing that could pry him away from between the sticks at Vicarage Road is a transfer to a European-competing team a few years down the line. 

Watford’s Obvious Issue

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. 

Everton vs Watford: Live Updates

Watford travel to Goodison Park in the second match of their Claudio Ranieri era. After a humiliating 5-0 defeat against Liverpool, the Hornets will be looking to bounce back against the other half of Merseyside – Everton – who will also be extra hungry for a win following a 1-0 defeat against West Ham.

Live Updates

FULL TIME: Everton 2-5 Watford

What a performance by the Hornets! Claudio Ranieri gets his first win as Watford head coach with a come-from-behind (and then some) victory at Goodison Park. In what was easily Watford’s best performance of the season, the tactical identity was there for all to see – high pressing, counterattacking football. Joshua King and Co. more than just got the job done.

Goal! Everton 2-5 Watford

Joao Pedro passes the ball across the top of the box to King, who then sits Keane on the ground and slots it past Pickford for Watford’s fifth. Yes, you ready the score correctly. 15 minutes ago, it was Everton 2-1 Watford 15 minutes ago. Now, Watford have a three goal lead (and Sarr was subbed off before the equalizer too, making the spectacle even more remarkable).

JOSHUA KING HAT TRICK! Everton 2-4 Watford

The scenes! King was not given the chance he wanted at Goodison Park with Everton, but he has more than proven his talent in Merseyside, but doing so with Watford! After a deflected Joao Pedro shot, King found himself with space and time in front of Pickford, who once more slotted it past the England number one. What a response and what a match!

GOAL! Everton 2-3 Watford

BFKDBFJDHBWUTWEF!!!! 88 seconds between the equalizer and the goal to put Watford ahead! There are still 10 minutes (not including added time) left, but King has scored what could be a massive goal for the Hornets! Dennis finds King on a scintillating counterattack. The Norwegian striker takes a phenomenal first touch, and then slotted it past Pickford with tremendous composure. What a dream return to Goodison Park for King (who gets a yellow card for his celebration).

GOAL! Everton 2-2 Watford

WATFORD RESPOND! Juraj Kucka scored his first Watford goal. Cucho Hernandez whips in a phenomenal corner kick, and the summer signing made no mistake with his header.

Substitution (Everton): Alex Iwobi comes on for Gray

The creator of the first goal comes off for the former Arsenal player.

Substitution (Watford): Nicolas Nkoulou comes on for Ngakia

A Hornets’ debut for Nkoulou. Likely means a change in shape for the final 15 minutes.

Yellow Card: Richarlison

This time, Richarlison makes late contact with Dennis.

Yellow Card: Emmanuel Dennis

Dennis gets booked for a late challenge on Richarlison. 20 minutes to go.

Double Substitution (Watford): Joao Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis come on for Sarr and Tufan

Ranieri has to roll the dice here.

Goal: Everton 2-1 Watford

It just had to be Richarlison. Terrible goalkeeping from Foster gives the substitute the entire match to aim at for his header.

Substitution (Everton): Richarlison on for Gordon

The former Watford player comes on for Everton. A chorus of boos rings out from the away support.

King (Almost) Scores

Sarr played a beautiful ball into the box to King who had the goal at his mercy, but Pickford made a smart kick save to keep the score level.

Yellow Card: Allan

Everton players are hitting the ground quite frequently this match. Allan went down in the box, but the dive was not hard to spot, and Graham Scott brandished the match’s third yellow card.

Second Half

The second half is underway. It does not appear as if any substitutes have been made.

HALFTIME: Everton 1-1 Watford

After a quick start from the hosts, the visitors responded well and equalized via Joshua King. The possession is nearly perfectly split. Ranieri will be pleased as it appears his signature pressing tactics are being kindly taken to by the players. When Sarr and King press high up, they can be seen waving the rest of the team forward.

Masina and Cathcart have exceptionally responded to last week’s performance. Tufan looks up to pace. Sissoko is once more performing well.

Sarr, King, and Cucho will want to better link up on counterattacks, as the Hornets have done well to spur a handful which are yet to result in a goal.

For the Hornets, this is easily one of their best halves of the season: from a pure footballing standpoint – and not focusing on the scoreline – tactically speaking, it may even be their best to date. Watford are playing with a newfound sense of identity.

Everton have had a handful of chances, and it is hard to determine where the next goal will fall (if there is to be another). There is a chance former Watford player Richarlison comes off of the bench to give the Toffees an extra attacking edge.

Tempers Starting to Flare

Following a Troost-Ekong foul from a free kick, he then prevented a quick free kick by Keane, receiving a yellow card. A bit of shoving and words came after, with Cucho Hernandez a center of attention. It would not be a surprise if a few similar types of scraps occur in the second half.

Penalty Appeal – None Given

Gordon falls in the box with Kucka on his back, but the referee rightfully deems as if there was not enough contact to warrant a penalty.

Watford Tactical Update

The 4-1-4-1 formation looks very Xisco Munoz-esque at first glance. However, the instruction for higher, more intense pressing under Ranieri is evident. They are also possessing the ball much better, currently winning the possession statistic.

Yellow Card: Lucas Digne

The Everton left-back takes down Sarr on the counterattack, picking up the game’s first yellow card. The Hornets will be extra pleased he is the first man booked, meaning he has to be even more careful when defending Watford’s star.

Goal: Everton 1-1 Watford

THE GOAL IS GIVEN: that will feel extra sweet for Joshua King’s first Watford goal, scored against his former club! Fantastic response by the visitors! Cathcart gave the flicked-on headed assist.

VAR Check

Joshua King sticks the ball into the back fo the net following a free kick. The goal is disallowed initially, but it appears he is onside and that it will be given.

Save by Ben Foster

Watford’s number one makes a save on a shot from outside of the box. The effort was tame and near the center of the net, but Foster did well to parry the ball out of the danger area.

Goal: Everton 1-0 Watford

Demarai Gray bursts down the left-hand side of the pitch to assist Tom Davies who finishes from close range. Nightmare start for the Hornets.

Kickoff

Referee Graham Scott has started the match. Seamus Coleman captains Everton, while Moussa Sissoko understandably keeps the armband after being Watford’s best performer last week.

Starting Lineups

Everton: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Godfrey, Digne, Allan, Davies, Gray, Townsend, Gordon, Rondon

Watford: Foster, Ngakia, Troost-Ekong, King, Masina, Cathcart, Tufan, Sissoko, Sarr, Hernandez, Kucka

The Hornets have made three changes to the eleven who lost to Liverpool one week ago: Ngakia, Tufan, and King have come in for Femenia, Rose, and Dennis. The latter makes the bench, whereas the former two are out with injury. The main question marks surrounding the starting eleven fall on the decision to stick with Ben Foster between the sticks over Daniel Bachmann, Joao Pedro not being given the chance to play from the starting whistle, and Nicolas Nkoulou finding the bench but not starting ahead of Craig Cathcart (though this could be explained by him needing to reach full-match fitness). The return to full fitness of Joshua King is a huge boost.

The dismantling against Liverpool came when the Hornets went out in a 5-4-1 (which can also be considered a 5-2-3) formation with Ismaila Sarr as the central forward. Ranieri looks to have already rolled the tactical die, with a 4-3-3 the likely starting formation (and Sarr back in his preferred right-wing position).

Everton’s starting eleven is far from their strongest, with former Watford players Abdoulaye Doucoure and Richarlison not starting (the midfielder is out for an extended period, whereas Richarlison makes the bench after missing the last four matches with a knee injury). Yerry Mina and Dominic Calvert-Lewin also have not made the match-day squad due to injury concerns. Thus, the Hornets will be hoping this weakened Everton side has enough flaws to take advantage of to walk away with at least Ranieri’s first point with the Club.

*Email subscribers to Watford Opinions should refer to the website for the live match updates*

Watford Player Ratings in Humiliating Defeat Against Liverpool

Claudio Ranieri’s reign as Watford head coach could not have started worse. The Hornets suffered a 5-0 (3.55-0.19 xG) defeat to Liverpool, with the Vicarage Road crowd’s only moment of applause after the opening whistle blew coming in the form of sarcastic cheers when Juraj Kucka hit a long-range shot into Kelleher’s arms. There were very few positives from the game for the Watford faithful, with the focus now turning to whether Ranieri will adapt to put in a much-improved performance against Everton next week.

Player Ratings

Ben Foster: made a couple of smart stops, but was beaten five times, with questionable positioning on multiple occasions. Will be sweating knowing that Daniel Bachmann, now back from international duty, has the opportunity to win over Ranieri in training.

Rating: 4

Kiko Femenia: like most Watford players, his was a performance to forget. Four completed passes out of nine attempted is all that needs to be said. 

Rating: 3.5

Craig Cathcart: will want to erase the match from his memory as quickly as possible. He was beyond embarrassed by Mohamed Salah on Liverpool’s fourth goal, defended poorly, and forced a rebound off of Foster for the visitor’s third. An abysmal overall performance.

Rating: 3

William Troost-Ekong: was Watford’s best defender (which does not say much at all considering the scoreline) and the only one in the back three to win an aerial duel. 

Rating: 5

Danny Rose: was put in an extremely unfortunate left-center-back role against one of the best players in the world and looked well out of place trying to defend Salah. However, he was not given much help.

Rating: 3.5

Adam Masina: an alarmingly poor performance from left-wing-back, it was not a shock when he was subbed off at halftime. Gave Rose zero support in defending Salah while consistently being caught out of position. Terrible performance.

Rating: 3

Juraj Kucka: quiet appearance. Still has not come close to replicating his memorable debut performance against Aston Villa. 

Rating: 4.5

Moussa Sissoko: what a performance from Watford’s captain for the match. The former Tottenham player’s stellar showing was one of the few silver linings for the Hornets. Defended robustly, tried to create, and commendably transitioned phases of play (winning four dribbles in the process, three more than any other Watford player). 

Rating: 8

Emmanuel Dennis: uncharacteristically sloppy performance by the 23-year-old. Unable to combine with Ismaila Sarr on a couple of counterattacks in the early stages of the match.

Rating: 4

Ismaila Sarr: not put in a position to succeed, as he was in a less-natural sole central-forward position. Did not get the service he needed. Almost scored a consolation goal, but Kelleher made a smart stop.

Rating: 5

Cucho Hernandez: alarmingly frustrating performance for the versatile forward. Completed zero dribbles and looked for the back of the net on a couple of occasions where crosses were more advisable. Like Kucka, he has been unable to replicate what he showed in the opening-day victory. 

Rating: 4

Substitutes

Jeremy Ngakia: stuck in a strong claim for why he should be Watford’s starting right-back. Put in firm challenges, played smart passes, nullified Liverpool’s left side, and, well, he completed over double the number of passes in roughly half the time as the player for whom he was subbed on. 

Rating: 7 

Joao Pedro: looked lively in his few cameos on the ball. Fans will be hoping to see more of him imminently.

Rating: 6

Tom Cleverley: the half-time replacement for Masina was used to change tactics, though his presence was largely unimpactful. 

Rating: 5

Will Ranieri Have the Tools to Fix Watford’s Broken Machine?

Guest-written article by Ben Thornhill

On Monday, Watford appointed Claudio Ranieri to the position of head coach at Vicarage Road. Famed for making harsh hiring and firing decisions that leave many onlookers firmly in the “he should have had more time” camp, Gino Pozzo has again pulled the trap door on a coach who, many argue, had done everything asked of him until now. However, for those who follow Watford closely, there have been some concerning trends in their recent performances, culminating in a humiliating showing at Leeds United last Saturday. The performance against Leeds was abject – it was like sending your latest prototype for high-speed testing and finding that the wheels fall off. They simply could not cope under the pressure and their performance, particularly when in possession, was catastrophic. This article will look at some of the on-pitch reasons behind the change and speculate as to how the man once dubbed “The Tinkerman” might fix Watford’s malfunctioning machine.

The Brief

Watford’s tactical plan to date has been to fall quickly back into a deep, narrow defensive shape in an attempt to be hard to beat and play on the counterattack. Munoz did a reasonable job of the defensive shape without the ball. They have not conceded as many goals as some of their direct rivals and their total xG against (11.28) is better than seven other teams in the division, including Arsenal and Spurs. This figure might be more impressive if other areas of Watford’s game were functioning properly and is a platform that Ranieri has to build on. 

The three areas Watford have struggled in this season are 1) serious dysfunction when in possession (particularly playing out from the back), 2) being vulnerable from set-pieces, and 3) lacking the pressing intensity to turn the ball over in more advanced areas to create more counter-attacking opportunities. Ranieri has great experience in addressing all these issues. 

So, with the appointment of Ranieri, the club’s hierarchy are not necessarily changing the game plan. They are bringing in someone with the precise skills and experience required to fix some of the most obvious problems from the latter part of Munoz’s spell in charge. The brief is to tinker with the existing parts of the Watford machine to get it running more smoothly. This may not necessarily require an overhaul or a complete change in style. 

Potential Indicators That Damaged Parts May Start to Function

Ranieri could not face a tougher start to his tenure in terms of fixture difficulty. Nonetheless, he has not inherited a squad whose morale is on the floor or a team in the relegation zone with a lot of catching up to do, so there is a little breathing space going into this daunting run of games.

Instead of looking at results and points accumulation, eyes will be on how the performances evolve.

First and foremost, it is likely that Watford will up their pressing game. To date, Watford’s Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA) – a stat that indicates how many touches of the ball a team permits the opposition to take before engaging them – has been high. Against Leeds, it was nearly 14. By comparison, Leeds allowed Watford fewer than 7 PPDA. This indicates Watford were taking a passive approach that invites opponents on. Ranieri is known for squeezing the pitch and getting his side to close down the opposition and prevent them from dominating central areas with the ball. Keep an eye on whether this stat considerably lowers as he works his methods in.

Attacking transitions are the second part of performances that must be focused on. Ranieri’s sides are known for quick and long transitions (as in, counterattacking from deep starting positions). This has been sorely lacking in Watford’s displays with the ball. They rarely look like a side who know where their teammates should be and, therefore, attacks have mostly broken down with ineffective passing or been broken up by opponents who press the ball more. Their paltry xG of 0.19 in their last outing against Leeds sums up their current lack of goal threat. Developing cohesive counterattacks that utilise the pace and technical ability of players like Ismaila Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, Joao Pedro, and Cucho Hernandez will be Ranieri’s most important task.

Thirdly, when looking at evolution of performances, there needs to be an abandonment of slow, ponderous build-up play that starts from the back. This was the obvious contradiction in Muñoz’s game plan. It makes no sense for Watford to attempt to pass through teams in the Premier League. The hesitancy on the ball of players such as William Troost-Ekong, among others, has led to unnecessary pressure and big mistakes in critical areas that have already cost Watford goals and points this season. Expect this to stop under Ranieri.

Finally, set-piece defending will need to be highlighted. The Hornets have to tighten up from dead-ball situations from which they have already conceded four costly goals this season. Quite how he will get a grip of that situation is difficult to say given that each goal Watford have conceded from set-plays has been attributable to different things: poor marking, indecisive goalkeeping, a player being unsighted and scoring an own goal, and players not clearing their lines. Thus, Ranieri has a job on his hands to make Watford look more competent at defending set-pieces.

Conclusion

When you analyse a Gino Pozzo managerial change, there are always reasons behind it. The media narrative that Watford chop and change coaches too frequently and lurch from one problem to the next is debatable. Under Gino, Watford has always taken a “horses for courses” approach where he often hires a man who has attributes that the incumbent lacked. Where Vladimir Ivic had created a negative atmosphere in the dressing room, Munoz came in with a smile and an openness to listen to players. Where Slavisa Jokanovic was tactically flexible and very attacking, Quique Sanchez Flores (mark 1) was rigid and knew how to organise a defence. Where Munoz lacks experience, Ranieri brings bags of it. 

There are still some doubts about whether Watford has recruited adequately and, ultimately, whether they have the quality to stay up. That is a fair point. This squad may be found wanting come the end of the season. However, the Watford hierarchy has identified problem areas on the pitch that can clearly be linked to coaching and tactical issues and has acted decisively with a clear game plan in mind. Watford fans should feel confident that there is more to come from this squad than has been seen so far this season – if Ranieri cannot improve performances, then it is likely no one else could.

The Harsh Reality of Watford’s Xisco Munoz Sacking

Everyone knows about the Watford way when it comes to head coaches. Supporters often moan as most articles about the Hornets or match commentators unceasingly mention the managerial carousel. When a head coach is sacked, most non-Watford supporters go berserk about the cruelty of the sacking and how the style does not work. The Watford faithful, however, know that even if the system is harsh, it has still worked wonders for the football club. And, even though Xisco Munoz was loved by most, thus making sacking him feel even more wicked, the truth is the axe needed to be swung – and perhaps it needed to be even earlier. 

A Man Loved By All

Following the lackluster Vladimir Ivic reign in the first half of the 2020/21 Championship campaign, the talented Hornets’ squad needed a head coach who would provide ample motivation and tools to propel a firm push for promotion. After all, individual talent alone would more or less be enough for promotion: all that was needed was a man to rally the troops and give the players the right tactics to best utilize the stars. Ivic was despised by most players – he was hard to back. Xisco Munoz was the exact opposite.

The players loved him, but his connection with the fans – even in a period where fans were locked out of stadiums – was unmatched by any of his predecessors. He would constantly talk about how much he missed the fans. On social media, he would interact with fan accounts and even have direct message conversations with supporters. He was really hard to not have a soft spot for, as he was genuine in how he spoke and acted: it was easy to tell the constantly-smiling Xisco was not just putting on a show. 

Tale of Questionable – and Eventually Terrible – Tactics

Unfortunately, as much as everyone loved Xisco, it was clear the tactics were not what got Watford promoted: Sarr, Sarr, a fair amount of luck, Sarr, Hughes, a poorer second-tier than usual, and Sarr (again) are the main reasons Watford were able to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Even in the Championship, there were many matches Watford performed poorly in but were bailed out by, well, the fact they were in the Championship with a Champions League winger. 

Keeping Xisco in charge for the Premier League was a questionable choice to some – he undoubtedly was able to rally the troops and keep squad morale high, but in a league where all mistakes are punished, it was clear tactics would have to change: setting up as if the Hornets were still in the Championship would be calamitous. That is, however, exactly what happened. 

Newly promoted sides – especially ones like Watford, who are not necessarily strong in all departments – need to rely on high presses and/or threatening counterattacks to maintain their Premier League status. The one tactic that rarely works is trying to play possession-based football with one of the worst rosters in the league (a weak squad, which in fairness, is not Xisco’s fault. But still, a head coach is needed that can work with the pieces, as unfair as the pieces may be). 

In the Premier League, Watford have set up to play counterattacking football, but they then move the ball as if they want to be possession-based. Watford often give away the ball in the midfield as a result (as they do not have the midfielders to play such football). More alarmingly, the defensive line has given the ball away a concerning number of times thanks to trying to play possession-based football with defenders who, well, are better suited to blocks and aerial challenges than they are to passing. The poor-passing trends compound every match, something which is mostly down to Xisco for not demanding a switch in system that does not call for such risky, backwards passing patterns (as in, he was doing a Mikel Arteta when it comes to never learning the lesson of do not play out of the back with players who cannot play out of the back). 

With the exception of the phenomenal opening-day victory against Aston Villa and routine, expected victory against Norwich City, Watford have been outcoached and outplayed thoroughly. A home clash against a Wolverhampton side who were yet to score in the season was unacceptable. A 1-1 draw with an awful Newcastle at Vicarage Road – after being thoroughly outcoached – was a beyond-flattering result for the Hornets considering they should have been many, many goals down after the first half (and were beyond lucky with how poor Newcastle’s finishing was). 

The tactics against Newcastle were ridiculously poor – the midfield was non-existent and the wide players well-adept at counterattacking were sparsely utilized – and it was clear change was needed. But, when the Leeds United match came rolling around, Xisco had one of his worst – if not his absolute worst – match in charge as Watford head coach. The Hornets played as if Marcelo Bielsa’s famous high-pressing tactics were some sort of secret. Watford played the exact same way and style as they did against Newcastle. Xisco’s tactics that match – or lack thereof – were beyond baffling. Ambition and signs of change were absent. Subbing on defensive-minded left-winger Ken Sema for center-forward Joshua King while more-talented attackers Cucho Hernandez and Joao Pedro were on the bench was the final straw for many. 

Watford have had a very easy start to the season when it comes to fixtures, and signs showed that under the current trajectory, it would be impossible to circle the matches where Watford could accumulate 33 more points (or anywhere near that sum, as Norwich appear the only team Watford might be better than under current tactics). Watford were thoroughly outplayed by Newcastle (who scored 1.62 more Xg than the Hornets in the draw) and tallied fewer than 0.2 Xg in their clashes against Wolverhampton and Leeds United. Simply stated, the trajectory and “process” could no longer be trusted if the Hornets wanted to maximize their chances at top-flight survival.

Sacking Story Continues

Xisco, at just 41-years-old, can definitely have a bright managerial future ahead of him considering how far he has come in such a short period of time. All Watford supporters will wish the much-loved manager all the best for the future, as regardless of his questionable tactics, he still steered Watford back to the Promised Land – an impressive, applaudable task regardless of how good the squad is.

Nonetheless, the managerial rollercoaster at Watford continues to push forward. But, as has been the case many times, keeping the ride in operation is often what must be done to keep the theme park open for years to come. 

Time for Tufan

Watford currently sit 12th in the Premier League, four points above the relegation zone. However, there is still lots of concern about whether they have what it takes to maintain their top-flight status. In the Expected Points table, the Hornets sit 16th, 0.72 points above the drop zone. The Hornets’ biggest offseason-recruitment overhaul came in the midfield department, an area of the pitch Watford have struggled to dominate. However, Xisco Munoz has an ace up his sleeve who should finally see his first Premier League start.

Ozan Tufan: the Solution to Many of Watford’s Problems

Versatility and Upgrade

Watford signed Ozan Tufan on loan from Fenerbahce with an obligation to buy in the region of £5 million if the Hornets avoid the drop. The 26-year-old is a fan favorite for many of the Turkish giant’s supporters. His international team contribution also leads to him having a large fanbase thanks to making 64 appearances for Turkey, scoring nine goals in the process. 

Tufan has made 174 senior appearances for Fenerbahce, as well as 66 appearances for Bursaspor and 19 for Alanyaspor. He has frequently lined up as a number six, number eight, and number ten. He started his career considerably defensive-minded, though he has taken on more advanced positions and improved his attacking acumen in recent years. 

Apart from Tufan, the Hornets still have a healthy handful of midfield options. Moussa Sissoko, Juraj Kucka, Tom Cleverley, and Peter Etebo have been preferred by Xisco in the midfield three, with Imran Louza – the Club’s most pricey signing of the summer – only playing 45 league minutes so far. However, none of the other midfielders are what would be widely considered “well rounded.” Most are much better off of the ball – cutting off passing angles, pressing, etc. – than they are when in possession (Louza is the biggest exception, though he has struggled to find his footing in England). Thus, when the Hornets have the ball, the midfield needs to be bypassed in order to pose an attacking threat. Against some teams, the tactics work, but against most, they will not. A midfielder who can provide true stability – someone who can dictate tempo, pull strings, still defend, and more – is needed. The highly-rated Tufan is that man.

His debut in the Carabao Cup against Stoke City showed the composure he brings when on the ball, while he also displayed his creative eye and well-roundedness. The Hornets significantly improved in the clash against Newcastle when Tufan replaced Cleverley. Simply put, an inaugural Premier League start for Tufan against Leeds United next weekend should be on the cards, as Tufan ups the level of the midfield’s play in multiple ways.

Added Attacking Threat

As important as a solid-pressing midfield unit is in a league where Watford will not dominate possession, having to bypass the midfield in all attacks has led to the midfield losing shape and control anyway. A midfield creative force is needed to restore balance. 

In Tufan’s final 71 league matches for Fenerbahce, he scored 12 goals and provided 13 assists. In the 2020/21 season, he averaged 0.47 goal contributions per 90 minutes, a remarkable return for any midfielder, and especially for one who still has considerable defensive duties. Thus, Tufan’s attacking résumé in recent years is noteworthy. Despite only coming on for the second half of the match against Newcastle, Tufan’s four chances created were the most of any Watford player

If Xisco elects to keep Tufan on the bench for the start of the next match, many questions will be asked. From the Hornets undeniably having a better balanced, more useful midfield with Tufan dictating the tempo to his eye for the wonder-goal to his creativity, the potential reasons for keeping him out of the starting eleven are nearly non-existent.