What Is On-Pitch Success For Watford This Season?

Out went Rob Edwards. That was the final straw for most supporters. No matter who came in, even if it was the highly-rated Slaven Bilic, “Pozzo Out” would be on many people’s lips. Trust had once more been broken between the hierarchy and the supporters. Bilic has now lost more league matches than Edwards did in five fewer matches, so it is not as if the new head coach’s first impression has worked wonders or changed anyone’s opinions. 

This would be an absurdly long article if the discussion were focused on the ownership. That was the last article’s responsibility, so it is time to move away from focusing on that for once to reset the on-pitch expectations. Of course, the success of the club is significantly influenced by the hierarchy, but now that Bilic (or whoever the head coach is going to be soon) has his tools for the season, the focus is turned to the players. 

Unfortunately, the on-field issues have not made for impressive reading either. The Hornets sit 15th after 15 matches on 20 points, just 6 points above the relegation zone, and 7 away from the automatic promotion positions. With 19 goals scored and 20 conceded, neither the attack nor defense have been spectacular. In fact, 20 conceded is an astonishingly low, misleading number considering how porous the team has looked in defense. The attack looks prolific in some matches, with, when fit, Joao Pedro looking like one of the best players in the league, Yaser Asprilla showing tremendous promise, Ismaila Sarr’s ever-present threat, Ken Sema in fine form, Vakoun Bayo seeming like a solid signing, and Keinan Davis picking up from where he left off with Nottingham Forest. Samuel Kalu looked decent in his recent cameo against Millwall as well. There are still times, however, when the forward line has been wasteful. The issues, nonetheless, stem from the mostly non-existent midfield and defense.

Edo Kayembe has not proven himself as a consistent midfielder. Oftentimes, especially when building up from the back, he appears to shy away from the passing lanes, encouraging pressure from the opposition. Hamza Choudhury looks like a solid acquisition, with his defensive prowess looking stronger than most in the back-line (which, to be fair, does not say much). Having both Kayembe and Choudhury in a midfield of three, however, is begging for the team to be two separate, incohesive units. Davis too often has to rely on center-backs to play long balls forward to even stand a chance at getting touches, as the service to the front line sparsely comes from the midfield. 

When Imran Louza returned from injury, Watford looked like a cohesive, formidable, creative unit. He dictated the tempo of play. Coming off looking distressed against Millwall, there is a chance he is once more out for a prolonged period. When everyone is available, the midfield should have just enough depth to play at a sufficient level for the second tier. Right now, as has been the case all season, that availability is not a reality, and the midfield is near non-existent as a result. It is too dependent on Louza.

The defense is not hard to analyze. It has to be considered one of the league’s worst defenses. Regardless of the names on the team and their experience, the performances have been awful. Too many goals have been yielded by defenders simply not tracking their man or literally just watching the player shoot from one meter away (with multiple examples of each already provided this season).

The Club had the Championship’s best defensive record two seasons ago, so the hierarchy ignored the deeper statistics (and the eye test) which showed the defense was nowhere near as good as the goals-against column said. Thus, in the Premier League, the back-line conceded more than twice per match, on average, and did not keep their first clean sheet until February. Relegation came, and with the exception of Kourtney Hause, who has been injured for most of the time since his arrival, no defensive reinforcements came in. Mario Gaspar was a tremendous downgrade from Kiko Femenia and an appalling signing when Ethan Laird was thought to be nearing a move to Vicarage Road. Hassane Kamara has been forced to play right-back for most of the season. He simply is not meant to be a right-back and is nowhere comparable to the player he is in his natural position. Dan Gosling, a midfielder, is now playing right-back in order to allow Kamara to play on his preferred side. 

For a club that has spent nearly half-a-billion pounds in the past 10 years, to have to end a league match with a defense of two league debutants who had never played at a higher level, a left-back on the right side, and a center-back who is in the worst form he has been in since joining (in conjunction with the subsequent use of Gosling as a right-back replacement) is atrocious and a signal of neglectful investment. 

Many names in Watford’s attack stand out as players “good enough” for a push at the top 6. Louza in the midfield is notably talented (of course, only relevant when he is available), and Choudhury paired with him may be suited for a promotion charge. Kamara on his preferred side of defense can be Premier League level, though the defense as a whole – and a Louza-less midfield – have been playing at a League One level – with that likely considered generous by some. 

So, with an exciting attack that still sometimes lacks end product, an underwhelming midfield with its key piece missing for the next month, and a near-comical defense, what can Watford consider success? Based on performances alone this season, the only feasible goal would be squeaking out a promotion playoff spot. The automatic promotion spots are already further away than the relegation zone. The automatic promotion spot places are hard to predict, as the middle of the table is usually packed and the final spots are not decided until the final day. 

Even then, with all the variability in the league and the top teams not being overwhelming either, thinking about automatic promotion is still overly optimistic. Watford have not looked like one of the six best teams in the Championship. Not even a top-10 team. 15th in the table fairly reflects how the team has performed. Of course, it is still early in the season. With 31 matches left, anything can happen: there is still enough time for the top of the table to end at the bottom and vice versa. So, as tumultuous of a ride as the start of the season has been, it must not be forgotten that, at least until after the World Cup, time is not too much of the essence. With 25 matches after the World Cup interval, there is a natural break to the season. Points at the start of the season are worth just as much as points at the end, but at least now, there is time to turn the ship’s course for that second half of the season. 

Then again, the conversation about the hierarchy cannot be ignored here, as changing course requires them to take firm action – and different action from their usual philosophies. Trusting that that will happen, unfortunately, is, well, silly. All that can be hoped for is that the coach – whether it be Bilic or whoever – can get a response out of the players for the final run-in to accumulate as many points as possible. And, if at the end of the season, the Hornets finish in the top 6, then the season has been a remarkable success considering how it has started. Top 10, even if underwhelming considering expectations before the first match, would signal improvement from their current calamitous state. Promotion, if that is a miracle allowed to be thought of with this squad, would have to be considered the Club’s biggest accomplishment since Gino Pozzo took ownership. Of course, the goal remains promotion, but the high expectations for “success” must be lessened. 

The following question, regardless of if this article is intended to be about the squad itself, cannot be ignored: Does on-pitch success this season really matter if the same patterns are going to follow the Club because of inept ownership? The answer is for the individual fan to decide. 

Watford Football Club: An Inept Hierarchy Versus All

The world moves in mysterious ways. The world of football, especially as a Watford supporter, is no exception. A bit over one year ago, Cucho Hernandez cut in on his right foot from the left flank to curl in a wondergoal just seconds into his debut. The sun beat down on the Golden Boys that day. Xisco Munoz was seeing the squad play beautiful football with a firm connection to the fans. After a blistering final stretch in the 2020/21 Championship campaign to secure automatic promotion at the first time of asking, the “feel-good factor” was well and truly back at Vicarage Road. 

Three – sorry, now four (I had to edit this in the process of writing the article) – head coaches and a reportedly sacked, then reinstated, sporting director later, the Hornets sit 10th in the Championship, nine points away from the top of the table after 10 matches. With Ismaila Sarr, Joao Pedro, and Hassane Kamara staying, it seemed as if the Hornets should still have that extra edge in quality. The attack, although far from prolific thus far, have had their fair share of bright sparks. Unfortunately, the midfield and defense have been Watford’s Achilles heel – especially the latter.

The backline is not good enough for the Championship. If Kortney Hause can stay fit, that will provide a huge boost. The other center-backs in what is usually a back three, however, have been frequently letting the team down via cheap loss of possession, laziness in defending, lack of awareness, etc. Watford have been conceding goals that promotion-chasing teams cannot be letting up. Daniel Bachmann has had to bail the defense out on numerous occasions. 

But surely, with all the profits from the transfers of Dennis, Kamara, Hernandez, Samir, and more, there would be some reinvestment in the defense, right? Nope. The cheap, last-ditch route was chosen. Again, Hause on loan is a shrewd signing, though that came out of a lack of other options. The pressing fault Gino Pozzo is at in the transfer window was the signing of Mario Gaspar. When initially signed, the experienced defender sounded like a name that could put in a solid shift. But on the pitch, especially as a wing-back, he does not at all seem like a player recruited for Rob Edwards’ system – not that that system matters anymore. He probably will not work in the new system either. Ethan Laird appeared likely to sign for the Hornets, and letting that deal slip through has already proved costly. Laird has had a stellar start to the season for QPR.

If it was not clearly put: the defensive squad building has been atrocious. And not just recently. It has been since Watford’s initial Premier League promotion under Gino. Kamara, for sure Watford’s best defender, was forced to play in a right-wing-back role for much of the start of the season. If your most valuable defender cannot even be played in his optimal position, the transfer method is reckless. 

In the 2016/17 campaign, Watford’s main not-on-loan center-backs were Sebastian Prodl, Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele, Miguel Britos, Younes Kaboul, and Adrian Mariappa. Two years later, in the Club’s second most successful season, the center-back department consisted of Prodl, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa, Britos, and bright young talent Ben Wilmot. It is now the 2022/23 season, after another relegation, and Kabasele and Cathcart still are part of the rotation. Wilmot was transferred away a couple of seasons ago and a new youngster was brought in, but even when the veterans are underperforming, he too does not get a look in. 

Sheffield United splashed the cash to sign Anel Ahmedhodzic, a center-back who would have been perfect for Watford. Pozzo decided to go down the route of one late-window loan signing and just relaxing with who else did not leave. But it is not as if Pozzo did not want to spend any money. 5 million pounds were spent on striker Vakoun Bayo. However, later in the window, Rey Manaj joined for free from Barcelona and Keinan Davis (a very solid signing) joined on loan from Aston Villa. Why would 5 million pounds be spent on Bayo then, when other strikers were being brought in anyway, especially when it seemed like spending any money on fees would be a luxury? The attacking ranks, already with Sarr, Pedro, and Asprilla, seemed as if it would not require as much financial attention as the porous defense. This misallocation of funds all boils down to the agent Mogi Bayat issue, which is a story for another time (and not a good one).

The midfield also raises serious concerns about the approach – if there is one – to the squad building. Bringing in Edo Kayembe in January still does not seem as if it is a move that can reach a positive or negative conclusion. In some matches, he seems off the pace and untidy. Other times, he is the best player on the pitch, spinning around defenders and nearly being a reincarnation of Etienne Capoue for few-minute spells. The lack of consistency is still a concern, and his partnership with on-loan Hamza Choudhury is solid at best. Choudhury does provide a tenacity in defense and offers some relief for the back line, but in terms of attack, neither he nor Kayembe (with the exception of his spontaneous moments of genius) facilitates the best linking from defense to attack. Yaser Asprilla is frequently deployed in the attack midfield role to fill this shortcoming. His contribution to Keinan Davis’s goal against Sunderland is proof of his prodigal capabilities (a friendly reminder that he is 18 years old). 

The combination of Asprilla, Kayembe, and Choudhury, or sometimes Pedro dropping back in place of Asprilla, can work well enough at times. However, the apparent disjoint when trying to build up play from the back makes the team feel as if its attacking and defensive units are different teams altogether. The return of Imran Louza will hopefully solve more issues than one, as he is Watford’s best midfielder by a tremendous margin.

Perhaps the jigsaw of a squad is a byproduct of the defense being awful, but surely there are better midfielders that could have been brought in for cheap. And by “better,” this does not necessarily mean “more talented.” This is meant in terms of “better suited for Rob Edwards’ system.” But, of course, that previous sentence can be deleted. Initially, I thought the sacking was a joke. Yet, as per usual, the joke was the Club, as Watford were never going to properly back their head coach’s system, regardless of Scott Duxbury saying Edwards would be supported “come hell or high water.” Watford gave the “hell and high water” to Edwards and sacked him for it.

It seemed like some progress was going to be made through the removal of sporting director Cristiano Giaretta, but his rumored departure did not come to fruition. Thus, the only notable change made this season has been the removal of Edwards for Slaven Bilic. Admittedly, Bilic is not the worst of appointments, but at the expense of the rebuilding project fans were promised under Edwards is beyond unfair and untimely. 

“We felt Rob had enough time to show us the identity of his team, however performances haven’t reflected our hopes and ambitions,” claimed Pozzo in the sacking statement. This comes after just 10 league matches without the club’s best midfielder, a totally incapable defense with Hause only just being available for proper use, and a relatively young/inexperienced squad (in certain areas – obviously not the defense, though). Also, how does one establish a proper identity after fewer than a dozen matches? The only threat to “identity” at Watford, whenever there is any, is the ownership itself.

There is a reason Granada fans wanted the Pozzo family gone. Udinese fan protests reached levels unimaginable at Vicarage Road/in England before meaningful change was made. And now look at the disparities between the two clubs: the Italian side sit 3rd in Serie A with highly-respected sporting director Pierpaolo Marino having lots of control, while Giampaolo Pozzo sits in the back seat. Meanwhile, the Hornets have a blatant disjoint between ownership and those who actually matter on matchday. Giaretta’s most notable contribution at Watford has come via Instagram (if you know, you unfortunately know), Edwards did not have any transfer backing for his wants, and a return to the top flight is starting to feel like a distant prospect. The Club allowed to have an identity has prospered. Meanwhile, Watford sit as the family’s cash bag as the riches of even one Premier League season trumps the wealth accumulated in the Serie A manyfold. 

If Bilic turns the ship around and steers the Club back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, perhaps Gino will have redeemed himself. But even that is not enough. Watford supporters do need to be realistic, but that is understood: no one is demanding Gino makes Watford a consistent midtable Premier League team. Major silverware is still a dream all supporters have for maybe once in their lifetime, but again, no one is considering that a must. It is not as if fans are looking for Watford to be a powerhouse. They might not even be amongst the 20 biggest clubs in England (it depends on how much weight one puts on recency versus history). Fans just want to feel connected to the Club again. Without any identity, that is impossible to do. Edwards seemed to understand what was needed. He wanted to rebuild a connection with the fans. The brand of football he tried to implement was intense and would be easy to get behind if he did not inherit one of the league’s worst defenses. 

Edwards needed time – probably even more than a season – and that is okay. Success is not always what is most profitable at the moment. But again, immediate profit is what is being sought by the ownership. If Edwards was given multiple seasons to truly rebuild an identity at the Club, once promotion is then achieved, the prospects of a fruitful, longer Premier League stay significantly increase. If all resources are allocated to gunning for automatic promotion this season, that could have detrimental effects. If a Premier League return does not occur, which is starting to seem likely, then the season ends without a head coach, without many new funds, best players agitating to leave, and still, no identity is in place. If Bilic is to achieve promotion with the Hornets, herculean efforts would have to be made in the transfer window – with different approaches required by the ever-stubborn men in charge – to stand a fighting chance at safety. The likelihood is an immediate relegation would occur. And that leads back to square one, and there is still no identity. Just a bit of extra cash in the hierarchy’s pocket in the short term. If Edwards – or some other head coach – were truly backed and it took two or three years for promotion, but the time in the Championship allowed for a system/identity to develop, then the return to the top flight would have better chances at being successful. And regardless, there would then be a proven identity at Watford that could always be relied upon, yielding optimal results both financially and performance-wise. 

If the odds of promotion this season were highly in the Club’s favor if the trigger-happy approach is used (which is the approach once more in action), then an immediate return would admittedly be hard to spurn away. Unfortunately, the truth is that the squad just is not that good. The odds are no more in Watford’s favor this season under Bilic than they were under Edwards, though Edwards for sure had better odds at success in the much longer run if given the time. 

Some Watford supporters will tell you what is discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg with the current ownership. Others will say this is all nonsense and scold me for criticizing the person who saved us from Laurence Bassini. A few people will hopefully think this is spot on. Regardless of opinion, it is undeniable that these are not the best of days under the current regime at Watford. Times used to be much better, and thanks a lot for that, but the time to go – or undergo some miraculous soul change – has come. If the “identity (or lack thereof)” at the Club does not change, then its faces must. 

How Much Money Should Watford Seek for Emmanuel Dennis?

Relegation is not imminent, but the odds still say Watford are destined for their second Championship campaign in three seasons. Their placement in the English football hierarchy will determine the course of their summer transfer window: will there be star players arriving if safety is achieved or standouts departing if relegated? With the probability stating the latter situation is most likely, one name who will be on the top of other teams’ lists to swoop in for cheap will be one of the Premier League’s signings of the season, Emmanuel Dennis. 

Blistering Start to Premier League Life Sets Watford Up for Substantial Profit

After signing from Belgian-giants Club Brugge for a fee in the region of £4 million, it took Dennis no time to hit the ground running. He scored the Hornets’ first goal back in the top flight, proving he was a force to be reckoned with in his debut. 

The versatile forward thrives in both wide and central positions, able to create and score at impressive rates from both. Tallying up nine goals and five assists this season, the 24-year-old – who had once been prolific in Belgium before off-pitch drama derailed his 2020/21 campaign – has proven the move for his signature was more than shrewd. However, that prolific output offered at the start of the season has dried up.

13 of his goal contributions came in his first 16 league matches. Since the turn of the calendar year, he has only scored once in eleven outings. He still tremendously affects the run of play in many matches via his ball-carrying prowess and defensive duties, but the drought in creation and scoring is hard to ignore nonetheless. Between the form of Cucho Hernandez, Joao Pedro, and Ismaila Sarr, it would not be a shock to see Dennis relegated to the bench to be a super-sub, on occasion, rather than an unremovable starter, in the last nine matches.

Scoring 1.77 more goals than expected this season, it is safe to say Dennis is able to make the most of the chances he gets: his notable finishes against Chelsea, West Ham, and Aston Villa – when he seemingly flew over Ashley Young to win a header – shows how he can create danger out of half-chances. Even with his form drying up, there is every reason for other clubs to believe the somewhat dormant force will erupt with new surroundings. 

His creativity has been an overlooked quality by many, with his goal-scoring form (or lack thereof) capturing the attention of most. Amongst Premier League forwards this season, Dennis ranks in the top fifteen percent (FBREF) for successful dribbles, fouls drawn, and shots that led to a subsequent shot attempt per 90 minutes. He ranks in the top five percent for forwards with nutmegs per 90 minutes (everyone’s favorite statistic – averaging 0.70 per match), players dribbled past per 90 minutes (2.69), as well as dribbles completed per 90 minutes (2.40). 

Managers demanding high-intensity defending from their attacking ranks will most certainly be keeping a close eye on Dennis’ departure situation. Placing in the top seven percent (of the same category) for pressures in the defensive third, dribbles contested, and tackles in the defensive third, it is impossible to ignore the defensive work he offers.

What Is the Right Price?

Determining Dennis’ true transfer value this summer has numerous factors to consider. Through a post-COVID transfer window, the player’s form at the end of the season in comparison to the beginning, the Hornets’ league status, player desires, suitors, and more, it is hard to name the perfect price for most potential Watford departures. Regardless, the Hornets will be able to sell Dennis for a fee many times more than they bought him for.  

While at Club Brugge, Arsenal attempted swoops in consecutive summers for Dennis. In 2019, Arsenal reportedly saw a £12-million offer rejected. The following summer, a £15-million offer was turned down. The summer after is when Watford signed him for just a fraction of those sums. 

Thus, the base the Hornets should seek for his signature is in the £15-million range. Even if Watford lose leverage via relegation, the fact offers were coming in for him in the turbulent summer of 2020 for £15 million means at the bare minimum, the Hornets should not even consider any less. Even with his abysmal 2020/21 season, Dennis proving he has what it takes to thrive in the best domestic league in the world means he more than made up for the transfer value he lost. The hierarchy took a gamble when signing him, but the payoff for the risk has proven more than worth it, whether it be in the form of safety or much-needed finances post-relegation.

Both Odion Ighalo and Richarlison’s English-top-flight careers had a similar path at Vicarage Road: a swiftly successful start to life in the Premier League was followed by a barren run. Ighalo was sold for around £20 million and Richarlison for around £35 million. This is not to say Dennis is a direct comparison to those two (Ighalo was two years older than Dennis presently is and sold to a massively subsidized Changchun Yatai, whereas Richarlison was just 21-years-old sent to an overly-ambitious Marco-Silva-led Everton), but this frames the fees Watford have previously received for players on similar trajectories.

A similar player to Dennis, in terms of age, position, defensive work, and ball-carrying ability, Dan James can also be used as a barometer for the fee the Hornets should seek. Again, this is not a direct comparison, and most would agree Dennis is the superior player, but keeping in mind the Hornets will lose leverage if (or when) relegated, their respective transfer fees should land in a similar range. After two years with Manchester United, with James having hot spells in both seasons but not without other long fruitless periods, the promising forward went to Leeds United in a roughly £25-million transfer. If that is what James went for last summer, Dennis should certainly call for a similar, if not greater, fee this summer.

When considering summer sales, whether it be for Sarr, Dennis, or other stars, expectations on fees must be toned down because of the implications relegation has. Nonetheless, a sale of Dennis should see the Hornets recouping around £25 million for his services – funds which would be pivotal in keeping the club in a solid-enough position to not be totally wrecked by relegation. The phone should be hung up if less than £15 million is offered, as no fair agreement will be reached with such a difference in valuation. However, Dennis can significantly increase that figure if he rediscovers his firing form from the first half of the campaign. 

Early Roy Hodgson Assessment: Better, but More Change Needed

In Watford’s first match under Roy Hodgson, they picked up a clean sheet. Yes, Watford lasted a full ninety minutes without conceding. Admittedly, it was against bottom-of-the-table Burnley who had recently lost their long-time best striker in awful weather conditions, but they nonetheless kept a clean sheet for the first time all season. Defensively, this was a step in the right direction. In 180 minutes of football under Hodgson, the Hornets have only conceded once (which was a shot that took an unfortunate deflection), a remarkable turn of events in the backline for the Hertfordshire outfit. However, what Hodgson has given them has detracted from other areas of the pitch, only shifting a balance rather than creating an outright better one. 

Defensive Stability Achieved

In Hodgson’s first two matches as manager of the Hornets, he has fielded a rigid 4-4-2 formation, naming three central-midfielders and Ken Sema as the middle four in his Watford debut, and fielding four central-midfielders in the second. In both matches, their backline consisted of new-signing Hassane Kamara at left-back, recently-arrived Samir partnered with Craig Cathcart at center-back, and Kiko Femenia at right-back. 

As mentioned, in two matches under Hodgson, the Hornets have only conceded once to a lucky strike, signaling an immense improvement defensively. Both times out, they conceded fewer than one Expected Goal, a feat achieved only four times in their first 20 matches (source: understat). 

The improvement in the defense is a byproduct of the tremendous boost Kamara has provided and the strict organization imposed by Hodgson. The defensive-minded middle four gives the Hornets a much-needed layer of protection for the backline, giving them more time to remain organized and track runners. Unfortunately for Hodgson, this is not without consequences.

Attacking Acumen Compromised

As the middle four have been so defensive-minded in recent matches, the front two have been cut off. The return of Ismaila Sarr from AFCON will provide much-needed help, but simply put, what Hodgson has given Watford defensively, he has taken away almost as much from the attack. 

Joshua King and Joao Pedro started as the lone two strikers against Burnley, whereas Emmanuel Dennis and King started against the Hammers. Both times out, the attackers were left too isolated. King would be tasked with holding the ball up for runners to arrive. Oftentimes, the support would not come, and when it did, it would go to the feet of midfielders who are not known for their attacking acumen. Pedro and Dennis were tasked with carrying the ball via intricate dribbles, only to frequently be let down with insufficient or unfavorable help arriving. 

Watford average just 0.635 Expected Goals per match since Hodgson arrived, coming against teams who are not necessarily renowned for their defensive strength. With such structure and defensive-mindedness coming from eight of the ten outfield players on the pitch – and sometimes more – there is no wondering why the attack has been suffocated. Of course, this has helped the Hornets become a much better team structurally and defensively. The attacking threat, however, has been compromised. If Hodgson is unable to find a way to start Pedro, Dennis, and Sarr together, then it seems unlikely that the current tactics will give them enough attacking threat, regardless of how much their defense will have improved. The Hornets were never going to be safe if they kept leaking goals. Now, the worry has polarly changed, as they will not be safe if they are incapable of finding the back of the net. Both extremes have been reached this season, so Hodgson needs to find the hopefully-achievable balance. 

What Roy Hodgson Needs to Do at Vicarage Road to Keep the Hornets in the Premier League

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.

Analyzing What Went Awry for Ranieri at Vicarage Road

Watford have become notorious for their vicious managerial philosophy. They are about to be on their third manager of the season, fourth manager in the past two campaigns, and seventh manager in the past three seasons. Claudio Ranieri was the most recent victim of the cut-throat Pozzo approach, but the sacking was necessary. So, what went wrong for the Tinkerman?

Underwhelming Options Harmed Ranieri’s Prospects of Success

Despite the Hornets making over one dozen first-team signatures between the summer and January transfer windows, both Xisco Munoz and Ranieri were still tasked with keeping a team in the Premier League that does not necessarily have sufficient Premier League quality.

When Watford were relegated, their midfield contained Etienne Capoue (now a Europa League winner with Villareal), Abdoulaye Doucoure (now at Everton), and Will Hughes (now at Crystal Palace). New-signings Moussa Sissoko and Imran Louza have performed well when called upon, but simply put, the midfield has tremendously downgraded since the Hornets’ last top-flight campaign, putting their midfield unit amongst the league’s worst. Juraj Kucka has not had a positive influence on a match since his Premier League debut, frequently caught walking around the pitch and poorly weighting passes. The same story is the case with Ozan Tufan. Peter Etebo’s injury did not help anyone’s case, but even if he were fit, the midfield would still be a downgrade from a couple of seasons ago by a considerable margin. An aging Tom Cleverley needing to start is not a good sign, while having Dan Gosling still in the squad is mindboggling. 

Defensively, the Hornets have been atrocious. They are yet to keep a clean sheet in the league this season. The defensive worries were there for the hierarchy to see even after the impressive Championship season (the Hornets conceded just 30 goals, a joint-Championship record, but they conceded over 17 fewer goals than expected, signaling lots of fortune on their behalf). The only defender signed in the summer transfer window was Danny Rose, whose time at Watford is already up due to his inability to find form. Hassane Kamara and Samir were brought in in January to sure up the backline, but it is too early to tell how much of an impact they will make. Nicolas Nkoulou was brought in as a free-agent, though his injury did not help Ranieri.

Between the sticks, both Ben Foster and Daniel Bachmann have not impressed. Many goals conceded this season could be considered “savable” if a more viable goalkeeper was in net.

The attacking ranks are the only department that appears to be of certain Premier League quality, with a healthy mixture of young talent, explosive stars, and experience. 

Overall, Ranieri, like Xisco, simply was given an underwhelming squad to begin with. With so many losses attributed to individual errors and a lack of quality, there is only so much a manager can do. It is impossible to implement tactics when the players make mistakes too frequently in the best domestic league in the world.

Ismaila Sarr Injury

Even though Watford’s attack is top-flight quality, the injury to Ismaila Sarr in the Hornets’ memorable 4-1 victory over Manchester United threw the Club’s season into turmoil. Without their top player for a prolonged period, the scintillating attack lost its most important dimension, leading to an only moderately-threatening frontline spearheading a squad with no creative forces behind it. Thus, Ranieri, Sarr, and all of Watford Football Club, were hard-done-by the injury. 

Preseason Program Prevented Proper Implementation of Tactics

Ranieri’s tactics are known: aggression, high pressing, counterattacking, and hassling the other team off of the ball. Nicely stated, too much of the Watford squad was not fit enough to play in such a system for a full ninety minutes every week. Of course, the team members are phenomenal athletes that the average person can only dream of achieving the same fitness levels of. Nonetheless, the Hornets’ preseason under Xisco required a less-demanding regimen than what Ranieri would call for. The implementation of his tactics was tricky due to not having much time to change the methodology and not having sufficient time to train the squad to the proper fitness levels/techniques needed for his tactics. 


Despite picking up just seven points in 13 matches, appointing Ranieri was not a bad decision at the time. There were spells of games where the Hornets were a notably better side than they were under Xisco. Ultimately, the underwhelming options are not Ranieri’s fault. Not having sufficient time to train the team to fit his tactics is not Ranieri’s fault. The frequent individual errors are not Ranieri’s fault. Watford needed change, Ranieri provided more discipline and positive football for spans, but he was ultimately let down by the squad the hierarchy gave him. Now, sacking him was necessary, for a manager can only work with the tools they have. Even though Ranieri was not the problem, it grew clear he would not be the solution with the given pieces either. 

Why Joao Pedro Is Watford’s Key to Survival

Emmanuel Dennis, Joshua King, and Ismaila Sarr are the three main names that come to mind when considering the Watford attack. However, an injury to the latter has demanded the former two to step up, as well as young forwards Cucho Hernandez and Joao Pedro. After missing the start of the season due to injury and needing a few matches to return to full fitness, Pedro has started to show the priceless value he can give the Hornets in their search for safety. 

Starred All of His Career Thus Far

Despite being just 20-years-old, Pedro is no stranger to being in the spotlight for his club. Watford officially signed Pedro for £4 million in the January 2020 transfer window, though they secured rights for the player one-and-a-half years prior. The scouting masterclass by the Hornets showed immediate dividends, with Liverpool at one point vying for Pedro’s signature from Fluminense, but they were unable to make a move as he was already set to be a Watford player. 

In Pedro’s first 200 minutes of professional football, he scored six goals and provided one assist for Fluminense, including a hat-trick in the Copa Sudamericana. His senior season with the Brazilian side did not see such prolificacy continue, though he nonetheless became a key fixture in their starting eleven.

Once he turned 18 and was thus eligible to move to England, he did not see the pitch too much for Watford in his inaugural English campaign. He made three cameos from the bench in the Premier League before Watford were relegated. 

Once in the Championship, Pedro played a key role in making sure the Hornets did not stay there for long. When he was on the scoresheet, Watford were golden. In 38 appearances, he found the back of the net nine times and provided two assists: in every match where Pedro notched a goal contribution, the Hornets won. Despite going on a dry run towards the end of the season, he was still a pivotal part of Watford’s push for promotion from the first whistle of the campaign to when a return to the Premier League was clinched. Only Sarr exceeded Pedro for Watford goals in the 2020/21 campaign.

Adjusting to Premier League Well

It took Pedro until the 14th match of the season to complete his first full-ninety in the top flight. Nonetheless, he was able to make the most of his opportunities before that point, using his cameos to show why he deserves a starting spot. He assisted as a substitute in a come-back 5-2 victory at Goodison Park. Against Manchester United, Pedro’s strong finish put the game out of the Red Devils’ reach. Then came his first full-ninety, a narrow 2-1 defeat against Chelsea on December 1st.

He has played as both a center-forward and left-winger this season, though the position is fluid during the match as his attacking partners rotate between the central and wide positions as part of Claudio Ranieri’s free-flowing counter-attacking football. He scored a wonderful goal from a tough angle against Leicester City in the FA Cup, and then he found the back of the net in what could be the kickstart to Watford’s season by equalizing deep into the game against relegation-rivals Newcastle United. 

Joao Pedro’s Versatility Necessary for Linking Play 

When all of King, Sarr, and Dennis are fit, it is expected that they would be Ranieri’s first three choices in the attack. However, Pedro has recently given Ranieri food for thought, with the Brazilian’s contributions showing the importance he has in the starting eleven.

His three league goal contributions this season were all important, and of course, as an attacker, he needs to be able to continue to find the back of the net and create. That is not at all a worry. The way he leaped for the header in Saint James’ Park to keep Watford (temporarily/for now) above the drop zone showed the mature-finisher’s head on young shoulders. His wonder-dribble against Tottenham on New Year’s Day when he ran through the entire Hotspur lineup before being fouled just outside of the box shows the footwork prowess he has. On many occasions, whether it be assisting Dan Gosling impressively for a pivotal goal in the push for promotion last year or this season’s passes in the final third, Pedro has proved he has an eye to create when it is needed.

The ability he brings into the starting eleven that no one else at Vicarage Road does is being well-equipped at picking up the ball in the middle of the pitch and linking play during counterattacks. He drops back well to defend in a Roberto Firmino-esque role, and when he is found in transition from the backline or midfield, his dribbling talent and vision allow him to create effective counterattacks. King is good at bringing the ball down and holding up play when needed. Dennis’ and Sarr’s dribbling-with-pace skills are world-class. Pedro is the one who combines dribbling with drop-back play in the most effective way. 

Whether he is deployed out wide or starts as center-forward, he always finds a way to drift into central-attacking positions to be a true, multidimensional catalyst for attacks. This season, for Premier League attacking-midfielders and wingers, he ranks in the top percentile for defensive actions that led to a shot attempt (source: FBREF), epitomizing how he retreats when necessary to defend and then spurs effective Hornets’ attacks. 

Even when Sarr returns, choosing a starting eleven will be difficult for the head coach. Pedro is showing why he can play an important role in Ranieri’s counter-attacking playing style. The sky is the limit for Pedro, and he may still be many years away from his prime. There is still so much for the youngster to learn, but the Hornets might need him to step back into the spotlight now, for if he does not, then Watford will likely be stricken with relegation, and perhaps even a Pedro departure. 

Why Watford Are Wise to Sign Hassane Kamara

With 18 matches played and a clean sheet yet to be achieved, Watford must bring in defensive reinforcements to bolster chances of Premier League survival. With only three points separating 20th-placed Norwich and 17th-placed Watford and only two points separating the Hornets from 18th-placed Burnley, Gino Pozzo must look at the January transfer window as the way to increase those gaps. Fortunately for Watford supporters, it seems as if the defensive reinforcements will be coming, with a notable left-back arriving likely to be shrewd business. 

Watford Reportedly Sign Hassane Kamara: What the Statistics Say

Left-Back Troubles

Even though center-back woes have been a main focus amongst pundits when discussing Watford, the left-back position has not helped any better defensively. Danny Rose is struggling to adapt to life back in the Premier League after his fallout at Tottenham. The much hoped-for return to full fitness is yet to occur. A horrific match against Manchester City, where he showed Bernardo Silva onto his stronger left foot, led to him being dropped in the subsequent match for 21-year-old right-back Jeremy Ngakia. Adam Masina has been a mixed bag this season. With frequent injury issues popping up and extra matches needing to be played – leading to fixture congestion later in the season – the need for a new left-back is clear.

Watford Set to Sign Hassane Kamara

According to Adam Leventhal of The Athletic, Watford have agreed on a deal for OGC Nice left-back Hassane Kamara. 

He initially signed for Nice in 2020, from Stade Reims, for a fee in the region of £3.5 million. After starring for Stade Reims, he picked up where he left off in the 2020/21 season, starting almost all of Nice’s matches and performing well. However, as Nice signed Melvin Bard this summer, the young left-back has been taking considerable minutes from Kamara, opening up the door for a transfer away.

Well-Rounded Defender With Attacking Acumen

According to FBref.com, when compared to all fullbacks in the top five major European Leagues in the past 365 days, Kamara ranks impressively in most metrics. His 1.11 shots per match ranks in the 91st percentile (for the given category above, as all statistics discussed will be in comparison to), while his goals-per-shot-on-target rate of 50% ranks in the 84th percentile. 

When it comes to passing consistency, he ranks between the 64th and 77th percentile for passes completed per match, pass completion percentage, total passing distance per match, passes into the penalty area per match, and crosses into the penalty area per match. Neither Rose nor Masina find themselves above the 44thpercentile in any of these statistics (and are significantly below that mark for most), showing Kamara’s passing ability significantly exceeds Watford’s current left-backs respective current abilities. Having more certainty when trying to build out from the back is a must for the Hornets, and Kamara will help provide that. Slotting in the 73rd percentile for dribble completion percentage and players dribbled past per match, his dribbling is also easy to rely on, further backing the claim of his reliability when in possession. 

Ranking above the 80th percentile for both tackles and pressures in the final third per 90 minutes, he will provide the pressing intensity that Claudio Ranieri demands from his players. Placing in the middle of the pack for most other defensive statistics while also impressing with 52.2% of dribblers tackled (70th percentile), Kamara will certainty bring defensive stability into the backline.

When looking at the statistics, Kamara does not overly-excel in one category while sacrificing another. He is above average in almost every metric that deserves consideration. What Watford need is consistency and reliability in the backline for the second half of the campaign: Kamara provides both of those.  

Five Major Watford Transfer Rumors Ahead of January Transfer Window

The December and January span of the season is often seen as the campaign’s most important two months: between highly-congested fixture lists and the January Transfer Window, the trajectory a team has for the second-half run-in is typically made or broken in this time. Even though some of Watford’s festive-period matches will have to be moved to a later date due to COVID-19 concerns, now is still the most pivotal junction in the season for change. With glaring problems in the defensive department, crucial signatures are a must if the Hornets are to maintain their Premier League status, or to even obtain their first clean sheet since their return to the Premier League.

Hornets Weigh Up Moves for Necessary Defensive Reinforcements

With more transfer rumors sure to spring up between now and January 31st, the first names to the transfer list are noteworthy and fit with the theme of needing strength in the backline. 

Football Insider claims that Watford have entered the race for Bournemouth center-back Steve Cook’s signature as his contract winds down. Simply put, the Hornets hierarchy eyeing up a move for a center-back is a good sign, but a move for Cook would signal desperation. Cook, who joined Bournemouth from Brighton in 2012, has been an ever-present in their starting eleven, including their five seasons in the Premier League. However, this season, Cook has only found the pitch four times. Cook has what it takes to playing in the Premier League once more, though he does not provide an upgrade on the Hornets’ current options and his lack of playing time this season could be harmful with the squad calling for a fully-up-to-speed defender as soon as possible. Furthermore, even if for a cut-rate price, signing a 30-year-old Steve Cook for a transfer fee and a long-term contract would not be financially shrewd. 

According to Tuttomercatoweb, Claudio Ranieri is pushing for Watford to complete a move for 29-year-old center-back Omar Colley. For the past few seasons, Colley has been a consistent key figure for Sampdoria, especially during Ranieri’s two-year stay as their manager. He is under contract until 2025, meaning any permanent transfer would come near (or in) the eight-digit range. Considering the current financial situation Watford find themselves in amidst COVID-19 and the risk of another relegation, a move would more likely have to come in the form of a loan with a small fee or a loan with an obligation to buy if safety is achieved. Already playing 17 times this season and having a firm relationship with Ranieri, a temporary move for Colley would be an advisable piece of business. 

Mike McGrath of the Telegraph states that Watford are eyeing moves for Arsenal defender Sead Kolasinac and Tottenham defender Joe Rodon. A loan move or cut-rate price transfer for the soon-out-of-contract Gunner, who primarily plays left-back, (another position requiring attention) but can also play center-back, would likely not be hard to agree on. Arsenal no longer need the 28-year-old, while Watford need reinforcements in both of his strongest positions. However, he has been injured for the past month after suffering an ankle injury on international duty. With a timeframe for return still not perfectly established and the Hornets needing quick change, a move for Kolasinac could be decent in the long term if the price is right but does not fit the view of quick changes.

A loan move for 24-year-old center-back Rodon would be a wise deal to wrap up as quickly as possible. Now dumped out of the Europa Conference League, the minutes at White Hart Lane this season will be few and far between, so a loan move to Vicarage Road to further develop the young defender’s skills and increase his transfer value would be perfect for all parties. The Welsh International Team player has already proved his is a level above the Championship and good enough for the top-flight, and he still has room and the ability to further improve. Unfortunately for the Hornets, they are not in pole position for his signature, as cash-injected Newcastle lead the race, with Leeds and Brighton also keeping tabs. 

Watford Want Welsh Winger

Simon Jones of the Daily Mail suggests Watford will monitor the progress of 22-year-old winger/wide-midfielder Sorba Thomas for the rest of the season. The Welshman joined Huddersfield Town in January from non-league side Boreham Wood, though he struggled to break into the first-team in the Championship in the second half of last campaign. However, this season, Thomas has started off superbly, scoring one goal and providing nine assists in 24 matches across all competitions. This form has warranted an international call-up just nine months after he left the fifth tier of English football. Watford are sure to already have kept their eye on him for some time now considering his non-league club was also from Hertfordshire. However, if this transfer were to happen, it would more likely happen in the summer if safety is secured.

Many more names will come through the rumor mill: some names will be true links, a couple will hopefully become reality, and many will prove to be nothing more than fleeting whispers. It remains to be seen which category these names fall into, but they are all situations worth tracking.

Watford’s COVID Catastrophe Leads to Problematic Postponement – Opinion

The match scheduled for December 15th between Burnley and Watford was officially postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Hornets’ squad. The measures to push the match back were necessary – as player safety, of course, comes first – but how the postponement occurred was calamitous. 

Necessary but Communicative Catastrophe

As an outbreak of COVID-19 is hitting the Watford squad, the moving of this game was necessary to ensure the safety of many. Even with more and more players becoming vaccinated, the virus is still highly contagious and needs to be taken seriously to protect those who are at risk of further complications. It is important that football matches do not quickly become “super spreader” events. 

Having a match pushed back is never an enjoyable experience for supporters: days are spent waiting in anticipation of a given match-up – especially the case for this relegation six-pointer – so when the league announces the game will have to be moved, there is an inevitable disappointment. However, the way Watford went about dealing with this outbreak has not been anywhere near responsible enough.

The traveling supporters had to make a 220+ mile, 4+ hour journey north to Turf Moor to be able to roar on the Golden Boys. For most of the day, all seemed well. As the sun started to set, the typical pre-match supporting nerves started to kick in. Then came the notification.

Two hours and sixteen minutes before kickoff, the Club took to social media to confirm that the Premier League had determined the match needed to be postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Watford squad. Just 136 minutes before kickoff, the Club confirmed that the match was called off. The thousands of traveling supporters, who spent nearly double that time just to get to Burnley, had to turn around without seeing a minute of football.

Again, safety has to always be the priority, and, currently, a COVID-19 outbreak in a squad should require a postponement of games until the outbreak passes to ensure there is no extra spreading. But the fact it took the Club until just over two hours before kickoff to confirm the outbreak and postponement of the match is nothing short of appalling for numerous reasons.

There should have been much more notice given to the public about this outbreak. It is impossible to suggest that Watford only learned of the outbreak 136 minutes before kickoff. It is super unlikely, especially under revamped testing protocols, that this outbreak was only discovered within the past 24 hours. While definitive conclusions cannot be made just yet, the one certainty is that the Club could have, and most certainly shouldhave, given the public (especially the traveling supporters) much more notice of the outbreak. No, the Club does not owe it to the public to disclose every medical issue within the squad. But yes, it is the Club’s responsibility to ensure that traveling supporters know the status of their trip much more than two hours ahead of time, especially when the cause for postponement is not something that spontaneously appeared in the moment. The Club must have known about the potential problem long before they considered informing the fans that there was even a slight chance of the game being canceled. 

The ruined plans and money spent for the trip to Burnley is not a reason as to why the game should have gone ahead: once more, safety must come first. However, the fact the Club actively knew about the issue and neglected to warn supporters until it was too late for them to turn around and save their money and time is nothing short of unprofessional and condemnable.