Does Daniel Bachmann Deserve To Be Watford’s Number One?

In Watford’s recent FA Cup third-round defeat to Manchester United, Daniel Bachmann was given the nod to start. Despite conceding early to an impressive Scott McTominay header, the Austrian shot-stopper had a remarkable match. Bachmann’s six-save performance, a match in which the Red Devils’ expected goals statistic was 2.16, gives Xisco Muñoz food for thought.

Should Daniel Bachmann Be Watford’s First-Choice Goalkeeper?

Bachmann Stakes His Claim

Following Watford’s narrow defeat against Manchester United, Bachmann told the club website, “I feel good, like I’ve got a good bit of form. Hopefully the tables will turn soon and I’ll be the one playing every three days and not every three months in the cup. That’s what I’m here for.”

The 26-year-old received plenty of advice from Heurelho Gomes and Ben Foster throughout his time with the Hornets. Even though one of his mentors is still Watford’s starter, he feels he is worthy of being the first choice. Although goalkeepers typically hit their prime years later than outfield players, Bachmann is far past his years of being a “youngster.” 

“Everybody wants to play and you always think you should be playing,” explained Bachmann. ”You know what you are getting into when you become a goalkeeper: you know there will be tough times along the way and you know it won’t be plain sailing. The tables can turn quickly and you have to be ready at a moment’s notice. I always train and prepare all week like I’m expecting to play.”

The Signs Have Been Showing For Years

Bachmann started his career in his home nation of Austria. In 2011, Bachmann moved to England from FK Austria Vienna’s U18 team to join Stoke City’s academy. After spending three seasons with their youth ranks, the Potters started loaning him out to gain first-team experience. Following loans to Wrexham, Ross County, and Bury, Bachmann joined Watford in 2017 in a free transfer. Despite only playing five matches for the Hornets since arriving, his ability to be a successful starter was proven two seasons ago. 

During the Hornets’ impressive 2018/19 campaign, Foster, Gomes, and now 21-year-old Pontus Dahlberg were the Club’s top three choices between the sticks. Having both Bachmann and Dahlberg in the books was nonsensical, so Watford struck a season-long loan deal with Kilmarnock. Bachmann did not feature in his first 11 matches in Scotland. However, once he made his breakthrough, he never looked back.

Bachmann started 25 matches in the SPFL, keeping 13 clean sheets in the process. After not letting in any goals in his first four matches, he only conceded 18 times. His efforts were pivotal in guiding Kilmarnock to a 3rd-place finish in the league (behind Celtic and Rangers) – the Club’s highest ever league finish on their largest ever points total. 

A jump from the SPFL to the Championship is not a straight side-step, as that is never the case when transferring from one league to another. The styles of play are not identical and the quality of the competition changes. Nevertheless, Bachmann’s success with Kilmarnock, where he became a fan favorite, shows he has what it takes to be the Hornets’ number one.

Admittedly, he is yet to keep a clean sheet for the Hornets. But, in the matches Bachmann has played, Watford’s best defensive line-up has not featured. For that reason, his shaky performance against Newport County, where he still made some impressive saves, can be excused. His performances against Oxford City and Manchester United prove that with a firm back-line, Bachmann is near unbeatable. 

The Form of Ben Foster

Bachmann is worthy and deserving of starting in the Championship. However, for Xisco, the question arises as to whether he has done more than enough good, or if Foster has done enough wrong, to warrant a change in starters. 

Since Foster arrived from West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 2018, he has started in every league match. In June, the 37-year-old signed a two-year contract which sees him with the Hornets until the summer of 2022. 

This season, Foster has made a handful of uncharacteristic mistakes. Giving the ball right to the opposition against Huddersfield ultimately was the final straw that cost Vladimir Ivic his job. Coventry City lobbed him with a header from 25 yards away. Jamal Lowe capitalized on Foster flapping at a cross to cost Watford three points against Swansea. So, from time to time, chatter about whether Bachmann should get the starting nod understandably picks up.

However, there are many occasions where Foster’s performances gifted Watford three points. From penalty-saving heroics against Blackburn to his countless point-blank finger-tip saves, Foster continues to age like a fine wine. The Cycling GK is yet to concede more than twice in any match this season – keeping nine clean sheets in the process. The Hornets have the second-best defensive record in the league. 

Foster For Now, But Bachmann Deserving And Not Far Off

Bachmann has certainly proved himself as a worthy candidate to start, but Foster has not done enough wrong to warrant a long-lasting change at this point. If Foster starts making more frequent errors and loses focus, then Xisco knows Bachmann is a talented option to be the new number one.

By next season, Bachmann needs to see consistent first-team minutes. At this pivotal junction in his career, he must get on the pitch as much as possible. If not at Watford, it is reasonable to suspect he would want to ply his trade elsewhere.

Watford know Bachmann’s value and talent. They would have let him leave long ago if they did not see a future for him at the club. However, Dahlberg, who spent the past season guiding BK Häcken to a 3rd-place finish (with the best defensive record) in the Allsvenskan, will also be eyeing up the starting spot at Vicarage Road next season. The hierarchy has created an impending selection headache when it comes to declaring Foster’s long-term successor. It is up to Xisco to decide whether Bachmann will get the head-start he deserves. 

A Review Of Watford’s 2020

Watford’s year was filled with more downs than ups. Through three managers, a global pandemic that shut the world down for months, and relegation, Hornets fans have held on strong and have kept their unwavering support for the Club despite the hardships faced. With 2021 approaching, it is a good time to review an eventful, unfortunate year:

January: the beginning of 2020 for sure feels much more than one year ago. The Nigel Pearson era had officially commenced at Vicarage Road. After the Hornets were nine-points adrift from safety on the 22nd of December, a 3-0 victory away to Bournemouth on the 12th of January capped off an impressive run of form which saw the Club rise above the drop zone. The first match of the calendar year, a 2-1 victory against Wolverhampton, was arguably Watford’s second-best performance of the season.

The month ended in stark contrast to how it started. The Hornets crashed out of the FA Cup after a first-leg comeback from Tranmere saw Watford ultimately losing the replay. A last-minute defeat to Aston Villa, following a hectic draw against Spurs, finished off the month. Still, belief in achieving safety was as high as ever.

February: the first day of the month, Watford took a quick two-goal lead over Richarlison’s Everton. The Hornets seemed destined for victory, but then all the hard work of the first-half was undone through two Yerry Mina goals in first-half stoppage time. A 71st-minute winner sunk Watford further into the relegation muck. Misfortune struck yet again the following match, as a late Mariappa own-goal prevented the Hornets from obtaining a much-needed victory against Brighton. The Pearson Effect completely wore off by the time Watford fell in a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford; they were back in the relegation zone.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR: when hope was dwindling, the last thing Watford wanted to face was an invincible Liverpool – a team that had only failed to win once on the season. A win for Klopp’s men would see them set a new record, as no team in Premier League history had ever won 19 consecutive matches. If there were ever a time to predict Watford would suffer defeat, this was it.

The world watched. Common football fans tuned in to see history. Arsenal fans eagerly watched, as their invincible season was in jeopardy of no longer being unique. No other match was on at the time, so many more turned on the television just to see how dominant Liverpool truly was. The discussion pre-match was never about who would win, rather, it was about how good Liverpool would be when they win. Until, of course, they did not.

Were Liverpool at the top of their game that match? Probably not. However, they had still comfortably won matches when not playing at their best. The true story of the match was not about how Liverpool underperformed: it was about how well Watford showed. Ismaïla Sarr was the name on everyone’s lips, as he slotted in two goals and assisted Deeney for the Hornet’s third. Some matches live long in the memory before eventually being forgotten. This match will live in eternity as one of the matches where heart, supporters, passion, and desire toppled over the omnipotent and unbeatable. It is one of those matches that will always stand in history to remind fans that “anything is possible.”

March: despite failing to keep the form from the match against Liverpool, and falling to defeat at Selhurst Park, Watford still found themselves above the drop zone when the virus infiltrated football. A match against Leicester City was around the corner until the season was postponed. Until when? Would the season be null and void? Only time could tell.

April: lockdown. The discussion about what should be done with the season heated up, with members of the Club advocating for the termination of the season with the current league table, or any metric where Watford would not finish bottom three.

May: similar to April. Discussions continued about whether the season should be continued. Progress was made.

June: football returns. On the 20th of June, after an over 100-day wait, the Hornets’ season restarted. A memorable draw against Leicester City saw Craig Dawson scoring an acrobatic last-minute equalizer, renewing the hope Watford could avoid relegation. However, disappointing defeats to Burnley and Southampton cast the Hornets’ Premier League status into serious doubt.

July: After starting the month with an expected loss at Stamford Bridge, Nigel Pearson’s squad seemed to steer Watford far-enough from danger by defeating Norwich City and Newcastle in back-to-back matches. Unfortunately, Aston Villa kept matching Watford’s progress. With three matches remaining, the Hornets found themselves precariously in 17th.

And then came the loss to West Ham, which was followed by the sacking of Nigel Pearson. His second Great Escape had fallen agonizingly short. Interim manager Hayden Mullins took charge. Manchester City, as per usual, breezed past Watford, setting up a must-win fixture in Watford’s final match of the season. Arsenal stormed out to an early three-goal lead. A Deeney penalty and Welbeck strike put the Hornets within two goals of safety with 24 minutes remaining, but the Hornets just could not find the goals they needed. Relegation was confirmed.

August: the hunt for a new manager was on. Avoiding a post-relegation transfer raid was pivotal to the prospects of the Hornets’ upcoming quest for promotion. The likes of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Pervis Estupiñan, and Luis Suárez all left on big-money transfers, and other notable departures included Gerard Deulofeu (on loan), Cucho Hernández (on loan), and Roberto Pereyra (permanently, for an undisclosed fee).

Watford primarily transacted with Pozzo-owned Udinese, bringing in William Troost-Ekong, Stipe Perica, and Francisco Seirralta. Other notable arrivals include 19-year-old British talents James Garner (on loan) and Jeremy Ngakia. The squad was set. A fair amount of profit was made, but not too much in terms of key-players was lost. And, unforgettably, Vladimir Ivic was appointed as head coach following his impressive time with Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

September: the new season had arrived. Whether or not Watford were true promotion contenders or simply just-relegated pretenders was to be proven. After an exciting preseason triumph over Tottenham, Ivic’s army was able to gain seven points from their first nine available, most notably earning a derby win over arch-rivals Luton Town. As per usual, Watford’s League Cup run was underwhelming (and understandably so, as focus was put toward league success, and the cup was used as a mechanism to play fringe players).  

October: the first and second losses of the season occurred in a month which featured six matches. A defeat on the road to then-league-leaders Reading was followed by back-to-back victories. The Hornets’ goal of the season so far came in the 1-0 victory over Derby, as wonder-kid João Pedro curled a shot from outside of the box (Watford’s first outside-the-box goal in the year 2020) into the top-right corner of the net.

A last-minute, controversial goal from Chris Mepham denied Watford three points against promotion rivals Bournemouth. A lackluster draw against Wycombe, followed by a defeat at Barnsley, was enough to start the dimmest cries of “Ivic out.”

November: the drop in form from the end of October quickly became a mere memory as the Hornets’ whole philosophy seemed to have changed. Ivic, whose attacking identity from Israel did not carry over, was able to get the best from his men going forward in the Club’s back-to-back 3-2 victories. The two following matches were boring (the only word that can be used to describe them) draws, and Ivic then capped off the month with a resounding 4-1 victory over Preston. He was subsequently given the manager of the month award.

December: despite the fact the point output Ivic was getting was good enough, the unexciting play and narrow victories continued to rack up calls for the Serbian head coach’s departure. A loss to Cardiff City in the first match fans were allowed back did not help Ivic’s case. A 2-0 victory against Rotherham slightly eased pressure on Ivic. Despite subsequently beating Birmingham City via a penalty which would not have been given with VAR, Ivic’s future still seemed uncertain. A controversial draw against Brentford, followed by an awful defeat at Huddersfield, sealed Ivic’s fate.

On Vladimir Ivic: do not be surprised to see him as a name heard quite frequently in the future. Ivic’s fluidity in tactics and strict-demands on his team can and will work with certain squads. Unfortunately for him, he was not the person most capable of working with the puzzle in front of him at Vicarage Road. There was a complacency Ivic had to deal with, so his sacking cannot be placed primarily on his wrongdoings. Change was inevitable, but Ivic is not to blame. Some squads take kindly to tactical adaptability. Others, less so.

Considerably unknown, unpopular amongst many fans, 40-year-old Xisco Muñoz was appointed as Watford’s new head coach. With such a limited, underwhelming past in managerial roles, it is not hard to see why the initial reaction was not pro-Xisco. But, even before his first match, many critics could not help but grow fond of him. His upbeat demeanor and optimism were unopposable. He smiled more at his first press conference than Ivic did during his entire time in Hertfordshire.

The optimism Xisco had from day one became tangible in his first match/Watford’s last match of 2020. In a promotion six-pointer, Watford toppled league-leaders Norwich City, and deservedly so. The Xisco era has officially begun at the Vic.

All in all, 2020 was a tough year for everyone. Some things cannot be prepared for. What truly matters in life came to the fore this year. Despite relegation and footballing disappointment, everyone learned that there are much worse scenarios in the grand scheme of things. This year’s relegation was not the end of a “golden era.” Rather, it should be considered the start of an exciting, new adventure.

When The Hornets Encounter Rough Waters, Does The Manager Always Deserve The Blame? Does Ivic?

Ever since the Pozzo family saved Watford from near-bankruptcy in 2012, the Club has followed a philosophy of continuously rotating management in order to yield success. And, despite the unorthodoxy of the Pozzo’s approach to appointing and sacking managers, the Hornets have found success in their methods, as the Team was able to spend five seasons in the Premier League and reach an FA Cup Final.

Unfortunately, as is true for most non-Big Six clubs, all good things must come to an end. Following relegation, Watford brought in young, relatively unknown Serbian manager Vladimir Ivic to guide the Club back to the Promised Land. When it became apparent the Team would not be firmly ensconced in an automatic promotion spot, some fans started to feel Ivic should be sacked. Yes, the season is not even halfway done, but such is the mindset fans acquire after being accustomed to the perpetual revolution of the manager’s door. Sure enough, on Saturday, Ivic was shown the exit.

Ivic’s style of play with Watford was not the most exciting by any stretch of the imagination, which gave more fuel to those calling for his departure. However, not giving him a bit more time can be seen as unfair and cruel. And, as Hornets fans observed last year, perhaps the manager is not the reason for a season’s misgivings. Three managers and a caretaker could not find sustained success (Pearson had a solid 10-match run before faltering), so should Ivic be getting the blame and the finger pointed at him as the reason Watford are not in first? Did he truly deserve to be sacked?

Please consider the following analogy:

The dean of a university scribbles down a math equation, throwing in some tricky numbers and variables which seem like they could result in there being a solution. However, he does not check to see whether the equation is indeed solvable. 

Nevertheless, he brings the equation to one of the candidates for the new math professor vacancy at the university. After examining the equation for the rest of the day, the math professor concludes that the equation has no solution. With disappointment, the dean tells the candidate that he will not be interviewed further.

The next day, the dean shows the equation to another candidate and asks him to demonstrate his skills. This candidate is able to shuffle around some of the numbers and variables and feels as if he is nearing the answer, but then determines the equation cannot be manipulated any further. And so, the dean decides the candidate is not worthy of staying for the long-term.

Now, consider the ownership/hierarchy as the dean, managers as the candidates, and players as the numbers and variables. Who is to blame for the inability to decipher the equation? Is it the dean for writing a potentially unsolvable problem? Is it the candidates for not manipulating the question correctly? Is it the numbers and variables for being too tricky and abstract with which to work? In relation to football and the management of Watford: when the Club is underperforming, who should shoulder the blame?

As is possible for the analogy, the blame could be shared among all three parties. Or perhaps the equation was solvable and the numbers and variables were too tough for the candidate to rearrange correctly. Or there is a chance the dean wrote an unsolvable equation. Or possibly, the candidates just didn’t possess sufficient intuition to solve it. 

Watford often find themselves in this situation. Should the owners be blamed for neither giving the manager the right tools nor giving them enough time to find what works best? Should the manager be criticized for being unable to work with what he has? Should the players be subject to condemnation for not responding completely to the tactics the manager is trying to implement?

Worth noting is how Watford don’t give out the label “manager,” with it being a term that is more colloquial than official. Ivic, in fact, was not Watford’s manager (despite that being what fans, announcers, and journalists say and write). Rather, he was their “head coach.” So, especially in the Club’s case, the analogy makes sense in considering how it is the dean throwing forward the variables and numbers, in reference to the ownership and Team hierarchy being primarily responsible for the tools at the “manager’s” dispatch. 

Ivic was fired as the Hornet’s head coach after guiding Watford to 5th place after the first 20 matches of the season. When joining Watford after his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, where his side averaged 3.5 goals scored per each goal conceded, the expectations were that Ivic would pass along his high-octane attacking-style to the Hornets. At the same time, the other two parts of Ivic’s tactics that appealed to the Pozzos were his ability to field many different formations effectively, as well as the defensive discipline he wrested out of his players despite the attacking mindset of the Team.

When considering Watford’s status as a recently relegated team who avoided a post-drop transfer-raid, the expectation is that the Club should be competing for automatic promotion. After Watford lost some matches that they probably should not have under Ivic, and finding the Club nine points off of first place after 20 matches, the Pozzos saw this as enough of an indication that Ivic would not be the man to bring Watford promotion. But, fully blaming Ivic for his relative lack of success (even though being in a playoff position isn’t necessarily unsuccessful) is harsh.

Consider the last three matches in which Watford dropped points. In the 1-0 defeat to Cardiff City, the goal came from missed-marking on a corner kick. Against Brentford, the goal the Hornets conceded came from a penalty that was caused by an unnecessary handball. And in Ivic’s final match, a 2-0 defeat against Huddersfield, the goals let in were from a goalkeeper-miskick and an own-goal from a corner. What do all the point-dropping goals conceded have in common? They were a result of poor-marking/individual errors. While one can say a manager should bear some responsibility for individual errors (failing to instill discipline and focus), the times Watford have conceded as a result of Ivic’s tactical set-up/instructions are few and far between.   

With the names in Watford’s attack, one would expect a head coach to be able to get the Team scoring quickly and frequently, and perhaps Ivic’s successor will be able to do so. However, Ivic was not getting the clinical support he needed from his finishers. In the three matches discussed earlier, the Hornets took a whopping 47 shots. The only one to find the back of the net was a penalty. It would be incorrect to say Ivic did not set up the squad to get enough chances to score.

Ivic could very well be a case of a talented, young, ambitious manager who struggled to impose his rather unorthodox ways upon the squad. Maybe this just did not work out as a result of chance despite there being genuine effort by the players to conform. On the other hand, some players might not have been able to become fully invested in Ivic’s style and might have grown complacent post-relegation. 

The forced departure of Ivic is neither unreasonable nor is it totally impetuous. However, primarily blaming him for his “demise” (if one considers being 5th place a total disappointment even though it is still very respectable) at Vicarage Road would be cruel. He might not have put Watford in the position where the Pozzos would want the club to be by now, but in reality, the Club can’t mathematically be more than nine points (three games) from that place at the time of publication. But, especially with the Club’s sacking philosophy, when the season is not going to plan, change is imminent, and even if the head coach isn’t to blame, changing most of the squad is untenable. And so, as unfair as it may be, the head coach is the one given the boot. Unfortunately, that is what is quickest and logistically justifiable.

In football, it is extremely difficult to change the equation. Finding a new candidate is usually most efficient and, in most cases, most logical. At the same time, the search for scapegoats is a dangerous sport. Even if the candidate ultimately does not appear right for the job, there is still a fair chance that they were never deserving of the blame after all. 

The Transfer Market Is Marching Closer: Where Watford Should Look To Reinforce

In a recent press conference, when Vladimir Ivic was asked about whether he felt Watford had the depth to cope with the intense fixture list, Ivic replied, “I will prepare what we need, and what we didn’t do in the previous transfer window [we] will do now.” With the manager sending a clear message that he wants reinforcements arriving in January, the Hornet’s current squad needs to be assessed. 

So far this season, Watford have performed well. Not necessarily astoundingly or exceeding expectations, but they have accomplished most of what they have needed to do to this point. However, with the top of the table jumbled, and no signs of the clustering going away any time soon, Ivic and the Watford hierarchy might see the January transfer window as the boost which propels the Club ahead in the race for promotion.

Despite the financial implications of relegation and the coronavirus, the Hornets have an edge on all other teams in the Championship due to their summer-selling profit. Among the sales of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Luis Javier Suárez, and Pervis Estupiñan alone, Watford were able to rake in well over 40 million pounds. This does not include the several-million pounds earned from the sale of players such as Dmitri Foulquier and Roberto Pereyra and the wage relief from the mass exodus of players on season-long loan deals. So, when it comes to the upcoming transfer window, Watford will likely have seven digits they are willing to spend. 

When looking at the Club’s squad list, it is hard to point out clear weaknesses, as to be expected for a recently-relegated team that avoided a full-on summer transfer raid. Still, through the first three months of the season, some absences highlighted the areas which should be sought to be reinforced. 

The main position fans were calling to sign in the summer transfer window was a left-back. Especially considering that Adam Masina was sidelined for the foreseeable future, a defensive reinforcement on the left-side seemed inevitable. However, when none came in, Ivic was practically forced to use three-center-backs and wing-backs. Such a tactical adjustment, which veered from his preferred 4-3-3 formation from his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, brought out the best in Ken Sema. Only recently did Ivic start experimenting with four-at-the-back despite Masina not yet returning from injury. 

Playing with four-at-the-back has worked without a “true” left-back in the Team. Kiko Femenía has filled in admirably when called upon to play in his less-natural fullback position. Sema, one of Watford’s players of the season so far, also has performed phenomenally when instructed to play in the left-wing-back role. Now, Masina has returned to first team training and is on the brink of complete reintegration into the squad. All this begs the question: is a left-back reinforcement still necessary?

Yes, the main reason Watford were relegated was a false sense of security in depth (though that’s an article for another time). When everyone is healthy, then sure, it does not appear as if Watford need another left-back. But, if Ngakia, for example, is unable to play a match, then Femenía will have to start on the right side. Masina will have to come in on the left. One more injury and Watford will be unable to effectively use four-at-the-back. With fixtures coming thick and fast, depth is needed. The Club has two true, consistently playing right-backs on which they can count on, and even Marc Navarro if necessary. In the left-back position, Adam Masina’s health alone cannot be relied upon. 

Should the left-back Watford sign be a big-name, blockbuster player who will demand lots of minutes? No. There are two routes the Team should explore. The first would be signing an older, experienced player who will be able to get the job done when called upon. The second would be signing a considerably younger player who, in the present, might be a risky purchase, but will have ambition and try to prove his worth when given the chance to play (such as what Watford did when signing Ben Wilmot in the summer of 2018). 

Masina’s return will be like a new signing in itself. Sema and Femenía were up to the task when called upon to fill in on the left. Wilmot has even played a few minutes off the bench on the left side. But, for the sake of tactics and depth, a second true, senior-level left-back should be brought in to shore up the defensive ship.

The search for younger players, like when considering a left-back, is applicable to all business Watford should look to do in the January transfer window. Jeremy Ngakia and Domingos Quina are two prime examples of young players Watford brought in very cheaply and have made an impact this season. The Hornets should look to snap up a couple of young players and take the gamble that they can make a similar contribution in the coming months, especially since the transfer market and player values will still be impacted from the coronavirus. In the worst-case scenario, they will need to be further developed (as was the case with Wilmot) before being brought back into the squad in the future. The somewhat improbable stream of prodigal talent that has flown through Vicarage Road should see a new surge. 

Besides a left-back and potential youth investment, one area Watford have lacked at times this season, and should consider investment in, is the goal-scoring department. The midfield, especially centrally, has beyond enough depth. And, on paper, the strike force does too. Between João Pedro, Troy Deeney, Stipe Perica, Andre Gray, Glenn Murray, and Isaac Success (who is set to return to action in the coming few weeks), the Hornets have a plethora of depth at central-forward/striker options. But, especially on the road, the well of goals has run dry. A logical conclusion would be that a prolific goal-scorer is what Watford need to make a true push for automatic promotion.

One area where reinforcement is not needed is the center of the attack. A prolific goal-scorer is by no means a “must have” in order to be promoted, especially with a manager like Ivic who is known for the defensive discipline in his sides. Last year, Leeds earned automatic promotion with their top-scorer having 16 goals, which is a fair amount, but hardly “prolific,” and they had no other player with double digit goals. West Brom also achieved automatic promotion with no player scoring over 10 league goals. That begs the question: if central-attacking reinforcements are not needed, then what is?

Watford need a new right-winger. No, this does not mean Watford need to replace record-signing Ismaïla Sarr. But, the man who endeared himself to football fans all over the world after he dismantled an undefeated Liverpool cannot be without support. Sarr’s stats this season aren’t jaw-dropping (nor are they uncharacteristically bad), though the fault is not his own. When the number of monthly fixtures approaches double digits, a winger whose speed is his biggest asset cannot be expected to produce top numbers when he is not being given ample rest. Even if this rest comes once every five or six matches, Sarr will not be able to perform at his best if he has to play practically every minute. Quina, a central-midfielder by trade, played on the wing recently as Sarr was sidelined with a knock, though it is clear that out wide is not where he is most natural nor effective. 

Similar to the left-back reinforcement Watford should target, Sarr’s understudy does not warrant a large cash splash – unless, of course, Sarr makes an unexpected January departure. The player just needs to be able to fit Ivic’s system well and not drastically lower the Team’s level of play when put onto the pitch. If Sarr is able to get this occasional rest, he will be closer to 100% when he does play, something no Championship defense would ever want to encounter.

Despite Deulofeu, Deeney, and Sarr only playing 10 matches together last season, five of Watford’s eight wins on the campaign came from that span. As soon as one was unavailable, the Club could not cope. Yes, a Sarr-quality player on the bench is unreasonable and an untenable situation. But at the same time, someone who is naturally a right-winger and can get the job done well enough has to be there if Sarr is unable to play. Watford can’t yet again afford to be baited into having the false sense of security in their depth.

A center-back could also be arriving in January if the Club feels the depth in the heart of defense is lacking. In Watford’s recent victory over Birmingham City, two of Watford’s four regularly appearing center-backs were out with injuries, and only Francisco Sierralta was on the bench to help if one of Wilmot or William Troost-Ekong also got sidelined. A center-back reinforcement is not completely necessary, though should be taken into consideration due to this injury-driven lack of depth, injuries largely caused by the intense fixture list.

The Club will do whatever it takes to be promoted. The personnel in the squad are more than good enough to return to the Premier League, though reinforcements could only do a world of good. Any potential boost Watford can get in the race for the top needs to be grasped. Ivic and the Pozzos know what the Club truly needs. 

In the beginning of February, the Team will look very similar, but it would be shocking if it were a carbon copy of today’s roster. 

Watford’s New King? How Ken Sema Has Become Watford’s Unexpected Ace

13 appearances. Four assists. For a defender, these are stats one would expect among the top-rated in the world. In this instance, however, Ken Sema is the one with the impressive rate of setting up goals (as he also is deserving of another assist for causing the own goal when Watford faced Blackburn). When Sema missed three matches due to coronavirus, his absence was felt immediately. In two of Watford’s three matches without him, the Hornets were held to a clean sheet. So, was Sema’s rise to fan-favorite at Vicarage Road fortuitous or foreseeable?

The now 27-year-old versatile wide-midfielder started off his career with his hometown team of Norrköping in Sweden. After being unable to break into their first-team, he made the move to then second-tier side Ljungskile SK, where he played 70 matches, and notched 14 goals and 13 assists. Upon their relegation to the third tier, Sema was handed a top-tier opportunity to play for Östersund. 

His time with Östersund is when he made a name for himself. In 84 appearances, he scored 10 goals, which may seem like a regression from his output with Ljungskile. But, Sema’s eye for assists came to the fore in his time with Östersund as he was able to contribute 28 assists. He also notably scored against Arsenal in a Europa League match in the 2017/18 season. 

By the 2018 summer transfer window, Sema seemed destined for a move out of his home-nation. When Watford came knocking and offered Östersund a fee of just under 2 million pounds, Sema and the club could not say no. Despite Sema’s impressive performances in Sweden, the expectations for him coming to Watford were not too high. After all, he was Watford’s third most-expensive left-sided player signed that transfer window, with left-winger Gerard Deulofeu coming in on a permanent basis from Barcelona and left-back Adam Masina signing from Bologna.

And, in the 2018/19 season, Sema did what was asked of him. He was not stellar, though he was not out of place either. He played 22 matches in all competitions in Watford’s second-best season in club history. He played both on the left and right side of the midfield, which signaled the early shades of the versatility which contributes to his effectiveness today. He scored a screamer against Bournemouth and earned three assists that season. Despite him doing what was asked, he was not getting enough playing time at the pivotal junction in his career, so a loan move to Udinese (no surprise there) was in the cards. 

As Watford suffered relegation from the Premier League, Sema was a consistent starter for the Pozzos’ Italian club. His positional adaptability became more apparent, as he played the majority of the season in the left-midfield/left-wing-back position, but also found playing time on the right side, in an attacking-midfield role, as well as in a defensive-midfield role. So, by the time he returned to Vicarage Road following Watford’s relegation, his inclusion in the squad for the upcoming season appeared a bit more inevitable. Still, the instant impact he has made was not foreseen by many. After all, he only had one assist and two goals all of last season.

This season, Sema has played primarily as a left-wing-back, albeit he also played in a more attacking role against Middlesbrough on opening day and in Watford’s 1-0 victory against Derby. But even when he hasn’t played in an attacking role, he has made immense attacking contributions. From his pinpoint delivery on his crosses and cut-backs to his unstoppable runs down the byline to his unmatched strength to hold off defenders, Sema has been a revelation this season. 

Despite all of his attacking acumen coming to the fore, his defensive soundness has been unsung. He rarely gets dribbled past and has great awareness to drop back after committing forward. When Watford win, he is usually at the center of the positives. When Watford get an undesired result, the blame cannot be put on him. 

Whether or not Sema’s run of form shows a new permanent class remains to be seen. There is always a chance that he has just had a good stretch of matches and then will go back to being the typical solid, reliable, but not necessarily draw-dropping player which Watford brought in back in 2018. But the improvement seems here to stay. 13 matches, all of them being positive, is beyond a good run of form. Even his performances for Udinese last season showed he has only improved after leaving Sweden.

Perhaps his assist output will be unsustainable, though even if his contribution rate declines, he can still be a crucial player to Watford’s successes. With Adam Masina returning, there is a high likelihood that Sema will become an even more attacking-minded player, which, if anything, will only increase the amount of times his name shows up on the stat-sheet with assists, or even goals. Furthermore, Sema might find himself playing elsewhere on the pitch as he has the ability to play in almost any position on short notice, as proved by his time with Udinese.

Regardless of whether or not Sema is moved to a more attacking role or is set to remain in a defensive-minded role, the strong Swede will be pivotal in Watford’s race for promotion. No, promotion does not depend on him, as such a task for this (or any) club cannot be dependent on a single player. But, if Watford do get promoted (or even if they don’t), he will be one of the first names that will come to mind for player of the season voting. 

Sema’s rapid rise was not improbable. The hints were there. Now, he is seizing the chances he is given, opportunities he truly deserves. 

Why The New Substitution Rule Will (Unfairly) Help Watford

The EFL has confirmed that for the rest of the 2020/2021 season, teams will be allowed to make up to five substitutions per match. Championship clubs additionally voted to allow nine substitutes to be named in the match-day squad. 

The Premier League is seeing managers go head-to-head on the issue of extra substitutions. The Football League has been able to avoid such conflict as the fixture congestion, in conjunction with the fact there was a shorter than usual preseason, was enough to convince a sufficient number of clubs to vote to revert back to Project Restart’s substitution rule, effective for the rest of the season. 

Watford are set to benefit tremendously from this rule change. Simply stated, Watford have one of the best clubs in the Championship in terms of player-by-player talent and depth. Having been recently relegated, the majority of the squad has top-flight experience, and many were consistent fixtures in Watford’s Premier League days. Especially as the Club was able to avoid a thorough post-relegation transfer-raid, Watford’s “second-team” is still good enough to compete with some lower-in-the-table Championship first-teams (after all, between Capoue, Hughes, Cleverley, Garner, Chalobah, Quina, and Dele-Bashiru, the center of the midfield alone is top-quality from first-choices to fringe players).

As with all other teams, one way in which the Hornets will benefit is there will be a better chance of preventing unnecessary muscle injuries as more players can be rotated onto the pitch. Excluding the goalkeeper, half of the starting eleven does not need to finish the match. The number of times clubs lose matches because one of their players cannot continue on but they have already used all their substitutions would only increase if this rule did not get approved.

Fitness is the main reason why the decision to add two more substitutions to matches was uncontested below the Premier League. However, the point of conflict in the top-flight is the very reason Watford will benefit from this rule. One of the most vocal opponents of the five-substitution rule in the Premier League is Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, who calls the main advocates for the rule change, including Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, “selfish.” The self-interest Wilder is referring to is in reference to how the “bigger” clubs would be able to rotate more big-money players into match-day action, which is unfair to clubs with lesser financial capabilities. 

Watford were one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League during their time there, but in modern footballing terms, the Hornets are one of the biggest clubs in the Championship due to their recent top-flight status and recent transfer history. Watford’s fifth substitute will likely have a much higher transfer value than would most other team’s fifth substitutes. So, inevitably, the fact Watford have more quality in their depth than most other teams means the ability to have more players involved in a match will be to their advantage. If Watford are chasing a game, they have enough quality attacking-minded players on the bench to provide them an extra boost. If Watford need to hold onto a narrow lead, the same would apply for defenders. At the same time, there would still be room for one or two more substitutes to replace players who pick up cramps or other injuries. 

As Watford fans have come to learn, Vladimir Ivic will not hesitate to change formations both between and within matches. This season, Watford have played in a 5-3-2, 5-2-3, 4-3-3, and in their recent triumph over Preston, a 4-4-2. The availability of extra substitutions will further allow Ivic to implement tactical changes during matches, as there is a better chance that, using the extra substitutes, the tactics will not require out-of-position players.

In the 42 day span from the 21st of November to the 2nd of January, Watford will have played 12 matches, an average of one match every 3.5 days. The fixture congestion the rest of the season offers is not much more forgiving. The rule change is necessary for the duration of the season, as has been agreed. And, even though clubs like Watford will for sure benefit, it won’t be of immense disproportional benefit in comparison to other clubs because of the fitness implications. If the five substitution rule is permanently instated in all leagues, then Watford might be better off without it.

The continuation of the five substitution rule beyond this season does not seem probable, especially considering the stalling and opposition it is seeing in the Premier League. However, the rule’s permanence is not totally out of the question. If Watford were to be promoted or in Sheffield United’s current position, then Watford would likely be backing Chris Wilder’s stance. In the Championship, Watford are at the top end of the bell curve of quality. In the Premier League, they were no further right than the apex. Extra substitutions in the top-flight would only benefit Watford from a fitness standpoint, as they would suffer from larger clubs’ ability to substitute on extra big-money players.

All in all, Watford will reap the rewards of the rule change through their depth, quality, and a manager who knows how to roll the tactical dice both between and within matches. If Watford were in the Premier League, then this rule would be unfavorable to them. But, for now, with promotion still the reasonable target, any such positive changes to the season could prove to be another number to unlocking the code to get back to the Premier League. 

Is It Time For A Change In Tactics?

In a poll administered by Watford Opinions, 90% of respondents believed Watford should shift to a 4-3-3 formation. 

Watford’s recent 1-1 draw to QPR saw some controversial tactics deployed by Vladimir Ivic. The Serbian manager elected to start the game with a 5-2-3 formation, which allowed Watford to have a formidable front three of Andre Gray, João Pedro, and Ismaïla Sarr. Pedro was a bit less involved in the left-wing position in comparison to when he starts matches centrally, but Sarr was getting plenty of opportunities to be both goal-scorer and provider. 

Prior to the international break, Ivic was choosing to implement a 5-3-2 formation, which looked rather strong, considering Watford were able to go into the break with a two-match winning-streak. Nevertheless, fans were excited to see that the 5-2-3 was being employed against QPR, especially now that Étienne Capoue is back and fully integrated into the squad (so losing control of the midfield with one fewer midfield player wasn’t a major risk). Nevertheless, despite Watford having plenty of attacking threat in the 5-2-3, control of the midfield was absent. So, at halftime, Ivic decided to bring on Domingos Quina and Troy Deeney for Gray and Pedro in order to solidify control of the midfield by shifting back to the 5-3-2 formation.

The Hornets achieved control of the midfield, but only in the very center of the pitch. Instead, QPR looked to wreak havoc on the Watford defense by working their way down the flanks and putting teasing balls into the box, and were successful on a few occasions. Watford were pinned in their defensive blocking for nearly the entire second half. 

So, where did it all go wrong with the simple formation change? Ivic wanted to regain control of the midfield, but, in doing so, he sacrificed Watford’s attacking threat, which further allowed QPR’s pressure to be relentless. The second period of play resembled Watford’s play during Project Restart, which consisted of soaking up pressure and then hoping that “hoofball,” as fans have come to call it, would be enough to spark counter-attacks and pick up points. But, even in the Championship, that’s not a recipe for sustained success.

The 5-3-2 has worked this season for Watford, but QPR were able to counter it by not allowing the Hornets to have possession and by pressing whenever Ivic’s men would win the ball. When Deeney or Sarr received the ball in attack, there was very little support. And this is not to say Deeney and Sarr don’t have what it takes to score as the two up top, as both are quality players. The fact that Watford looked so poor after losing one attacking player is what makes one wonder if it’s time for a change in tactics.

The 5-2-3 saw a lack of control in the midfield. The 5-3-2 saw Watford lose their attacking threat and ability to counter-attack effectively. This is why a 4-3-3 formation, the formation Ivic utilized most frequently during his time in Israel, seems enticing. There are drawbacks for sure, including potentially sacrificing Sema’s ability to get forward from a defensive position (though he could play on the left-wing too) and needing to have the center-backs become reacclimated to playing with only one partner instead of two.

The positives of lining up in a 4-3-3, however, seem to outweigh the negatives. Midfield control would be solidified and attacking threat would be present. Sarr would get to operate in his preferred, most-natural right-wing position. The center-backs would enjoy more rest, as starting three center-backs in every match during a period where there are multiple matches per week is not sustainable from a fitness standpoint. Additionally, Watford’s center-backs have plenty of talent, so starting three for extra defensive solidity in every match does not seem practical when support is more needed in other phases of play. 

One main reason Ivic has not gone to the 4-3-3 yet is Adam Masina’s injury, as he is Watford’s only true, senior, out-and-out left-back. He is set to return within the next month. Still, Femenía has played well in the left-back position before. Ngakia could fill in on the right, as he is deserving of more playing time, and Sema could even be pushed forward to the left-wing role. Sema, who can play many positions, could also fall back into the left-back role. There are plenty of exciting lineup permutations Ivic can choose from in a 4-3-3. When Masina returns, the 4-3-3 is nearly imperative.

Watford have one of the best teams in the Championship on a player-by-player level. The Hornets have the personnel to score multiple times every match and never be dominated in the midfield. Ivic, in the past, has been known for his tactical unpredictability. Even with one of the best squads in the league, a change in tactics could very well be the slight edge Watford need to be promoted. A good squad alone is not usually enough. 

There is a reason Ivic is in charge. The coaching staff and hierarchy will know what’s best. But still, supporters are allowed to speculate and come to their own conclusions, and the need for a 4-3-3 is becoming a common consensus amongst fans. Do not be surprised to see it become the consensus amongst the people within the club in the very near future. Having Ivic, an expert in quickly training for a new shape, in charge means a new manager will not be needed to enable the squad to effectively implement such tactical changes.

Ivic used to roll the tactical die with frequency. Such gambles will likely be seen in the near future, with promotion as the attainable jackpot. 

Who is Watford’s Best Signing of the Past Decade?

The past decade has been a roller coaster ride for Watford. At times, the ride was one which induced fear and anxiety. Other times, it was one which created feelings of excitement and jubilation. Hundreds of players have come through the revolving transfer door at Vicarage Road in the last 10 years, but the “best signing” of all those players is a debate which will likely never have a uniform consensus.

When considering Watford’s best signing, the term “best,” as it relates to football, needs to be defined. If the definition is in reference to raw talent and trickery, players such as Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu come to mind. Those players also had arguably the best career résumé upon their arrival in Hertfordshire in comparison to any other signings Watford have made. Pereyra was Paul Pogba’s direct understudy at Juventus and even appeared in a Champions League Final, and Deulofeu was a La Masia graduate who enjoyed successful spells with Everton and AC Milan.

If “best” is in reference to the profitability of a player, players such as Richarlison are considered. Watford bought him for roughly 11 million pounds, and then sold him to Everton a year later for an estimated 24 million pound profit. If the size of the transfer fee is the benchmark for being the best signing, then Ismaïla Sarr (#1) and Andre Gray (#2) would be at the top of the list. 

When the criteria for determining the best signing are based upon finances and résumé, then inevitably, only players post-promotion in 2015 will be on the list. Other notable players pivotal to Watford’s top triumphs of the Hornets’ Premier League run are midfielders Will Hughes, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and Étienne Capoue – the latter arguably the best player in terms of consistency and reliability over the course of the club’s five seasons in the top flight. 

The five years of the past decade which did not include a spot in the Premier League cannot be disregarded. It is in this timeframe that Watford’s best signing of the past decade occurred. Honorable mentions signed before promotion are Craig Cathcart and Odion Ighalo. 

In football, when considering the “best signing,” it’s critical to consider the player’s cost to the club and his impact during his time there. When “2010-2020 Watford” is considered, the first player that comes to mind is Troy Deeney. So, wouldn’t he be the best signing? Unfortunately, Deeney signed for Watford in August of 2010, just outside the ten year window being evaluated. So, Deeney is eliminated from contention. Had he been signed 3 months later, he would be the best signing of the period. 

The best signing for Watford of the past decade is someone who the club gambled on. He might have only played for Watford in the swan song of his career, but his retirement kept getting postponed by his success with the Hornets. He cost Watford nothing, and he gave the club his everything. And it showed. 

Watford’s Best Signing Of The Past Decade:

Heurelho Gomes joined Watford in the summer of 2014 from Tottenham Hotspur. He had gradually fallen out of favor at White Hart Lane after joining from PSV Eindhoven in 2008. Former Arsenal shot-stopper Manuel Almunia decided to retire after two rather successful years with Watford in the Championship, leaving Gomes with big gloves to fill.

And fill those gloves he did. In his first season with Watford, he was able to help the club concede 14 fewer goals than the Hornets did the season prior. Most importantly, he was the shot-stopper that helped lead Watford to promotion. However, his most impressive season was yet to come: the club’s first campaign back in the Premier League.

In Watford’s inaugural season back in the top flight, nearly everyone predicted that Watford would be heading straight back down to the second tier. Gomes is one of the key players that ensured the predictions were far from accurate. In that first season back, Heurelho Gomes played in all 38 matches, and amassed a league-best 122 saves in the process. He also kept 11 clean sheets, and helped Watford have the second best defensive record amongst teams outside of the top six. 

Under new manager Walter Mazzarri, the following season was slightly less successful in terms of maintaining a respectable defensive record. Still, Gomes’ efforts allowed Watford to avoid a serious relegation threat (as much as one can say that about a club finishing 17th). Unfortunately for Gomes, he saw his starting spot slowly usurped by Orestis Karnezis in the 2017/18 season, though Gomes, 37-years-old by the end of the campaign, did start 24 league matches. Ben Foster’s arrival at the start of the 2018/19 season signaled an end to Gomes’ time as a starter for Watford, but he stuck around for the next two seasons as a reliable second choice, and helped Watford reach an FA Cup Final.

When a team which has the odds stacked against them knows it has a more than reliable keeper behind them, the whole squad is able to play better. From being a pivotal part of Watford’s 2014/15 promotion campaign to being one of the best keepers in the world’s best league, Heurelho Gomes is Watford’s best signing of the decade. It cost nothing, and Watford got everything they wished for. And then some. 

Watford’s Quarter-Season Report Card

11 matches played. 21 points earned. Second in the table. After relegation, the threat of having the squad hollowed out, and not having a manager, the Hornets’ record suggests they have been able to reacclimate to life in the second tier with ease. To say they don’t deserve to be where they currently sit would be harsh, as the points have been well-earned. However, fans should not be deceived by the current table and think that the path to promotion is clear and easy.

Watford have had their fair share of ups and downs in the early part of the campaign. Three points on opening day versus Middlesbrough, a victory over archrivals Luton Town, and wins against both Coventry and Stoke by a score-line of 3-2 after being down during those matches highlight the triumphs. A last-minute draw against Bournemouth, a dropping of two points against Wycombe, and defeats against Barnsley and Reading underline the shortcomings. 

The simplest way to evaluate Watford’s season to date is by reviewing the performance of each part of the team. So, let’s dive right in:

Goalkeeping and Defense

Behind the defense, Ben Foster has made some pivotal saves to help preserve results. He continues to age like a fine wine, and despite conceding four times in the last two matches, it would be wrong to not consider him one of Watford’s players of the season so far. Most notably, his performance against Blackburn, where he made numerous smart stops and even a penalty save, effectively gifted Watford at least two more points than they would have picked up if almost any other keeper were in net. 

Vladimir Ivic has elected to put three center-backs in front of Foster in all 11 matches this season. The three primary center-backs at the start of the campaign were Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele, and Ben Wilmot, with Craig Dawson also a contender. However, Dawson departed to West Ham for the season and in came Nigerian International Team captain William Troost-Ekong, who has since deservedly worked his way into the starting rotation. 

The defensive line was statistically the best in the league after the first five matches of the season, as Watford conceded only once. However, such defensive form has waned, as the Hornets have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last six matches. The backline is usually undone through set-pieces or counter attacks. When Watford are being dominated in possession, which is rare, they have been nearly impossible to break down. Not being exposed on the counter and marking on set-pieces will need to be the biggest point of emphasis in training during the international break. 

The three center-back formations call for wing-backs, and although it can be argued they should be discussed with the midfielders or even attackers, it makes most sense, when considering the squad as a whole, to categorize them as a defensive force. Yes, Ken Sema, Watford’s player of the season so far, has gotten 4 assists, and been the key reason for several more goals. Kiko Femenía has also been dangerous when going forward. So too has Ngakia when he has played. But defensively, all have also been sound, and it is hard to recall many occasions where they have been beaten by their marker. The wing-backs have done their necessary defensive duties. However, there is an argument to be made that the use of wing-backs naturally leaves the three center-backs considerably exposed.

With Adam Masina out until 2021, Ken Sema has more than solidified the defensive duties on the left-hand side of the pitch (as well as attacking duties too – he has been top-quality in nearly every match this season in all facets of play). The right side of the defense has sparked some debate. The start of the season saw Jeremy Ngakia continuously in the starting 11, and he justified Ivic’s faith in him by putting in strong performances, both defensively and going forward. However, Kiko Femenía now seems to be Ivic’s first choice right-wing-back. Admittedly, Femenía is in fine form, but so too was Ngakia. The battle for the starting job will be something to keep an eye on, though such competition within the squad is not a bad thing.

Overall rating of the defensive unit so far: 7.5/10 (Strong, but has started to decline)

Midfield

With the exception of a couple of matches early on in the season, Ivic has opted for three central-midfielders. The rotation involves Étienne Capoue, Tom Cleverley, James Garner, Will Hughes, Nathaniel Chalobah, and Domingos Quina. It also once included Tom Dele-Bashiru, who is now sidelined for an extended period of time with an unfortunate knee injury. On paper, in terms of player-by-player quality, it can be argued Watford has the best midfield in the league. 

At times, that quality shows. Other times, Watford have been dominated in the middle of the pitch. The main concern in regards to the midfield was more apparent in the beginning of the season, when the Hornets were unable to link defensive phases of play to attacking phases effectively. However, the return of Étienne Capoue has more than remedied that problem (which was already being fixed by the time he came back into the squad as a starter), and with Will Hughes now back from injury, such linking of play should no longer be a problem.

Tom Cleverley, who took the role of captain in Deeney’s absence, has impressed with his leadership and composure. The biggest surprise surrounding the skipper was the attacking license Ivic has allowed him, which has resulted in Cleverley scoring twice so far, with chances to perhaps score even more. 

Another Manchester United youth product, on-loan James Garner has performed in similarly admirable fashion; he is an attacking force to be reckoned with. His set-pieces have a quality that Watford lacked in the Premier League. He and Cleverley have also been solid in their defensive duties as well. Neither have had jaw-dropping, stellar performance per se, but they are also yet to put in any considerably disappointing performances. When they have been called upon, they have done the job.

Chalobah and Quina are a bit of a different story. Fans had high hopes for both of these players coming into the season, as the readjustment to the Championship seemed poised to treat them kindly. However, Quina has struggled to find minutes after his starting spot was quickly taken away thanks to the form of the other midfielders. The physicality of the Championship appears to have challenged him. Still, Quina has immense quality and should not be forgotten, as he could very well find himself earning more time as a result of the squad rotation caused by fixture congestion. 

Chalobah has also been a mixed bag. He had a slow start to the season, but lately has been building up a head of steam. Still, the return of Hughes and Capoue might demote Chalobah to the bench more often than the one-time capped England International would like to be. 

After a rocky start to the season, the midfield has started to show the quality it possesses.

Overall rating of the midfield unit so far: 7/10 (somewhat strong, but trending positively)

Attack

The start of the season was worrisome when it came to scoring, as Watford only managed to score twice in their opening four fixtures. The past two matches have produced six goals, so the goal-scoring issues from the start of the season appear rectified. 

Watford’s attack cannot be discussed without mentioning the influence Ken Sema has had, as discussed earlier. But another player who cannot be overlooked is João Pedro, the 19-year-old wonderkid who is Watford’s leading goal-scorer with four goals on the season. The young Brazilian’s intricate dribbling sequences and his ability to score in tight positions has earned him many plaudits, and his curling goal from outside the box against Derby was Watford’s first league goal from outside the box in over a year. Just let that sink in.

Ismaïla Sarr was one of the most discussed names in the transfer market, as he received serious interest from the likes of big clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United. However, Watford set a strict asking price for their record signing, and no team was willing to cough up the money during these financially uncertain times. Sarr quickly reintegrated into the squad, but has spent most of the time playing in a hard-to-define position. The best term to describe it is “attacker.” Sarr lines up in the middle to start the match, but is given license to drift out to either wing to use his pace to work his way behind the opposition defense. He has started to find goal-scoring form, having netted three goals in his last four matches. 

The attack has also been without Troy Deeney, Andre Gray, and new-signing Stipe Perica for most of the season. All are set to be fully fit by the end of the international break, so Watford will be able to rotate the front-line more than they have been, which will help the Hornets continue their newfound goal-scoring form. 

Overall rating of the attacking unit so far: 7/10 (somewhat strong. Similar to the midfield unit, it started off the season rather poorly, but has now been trending positively)

Management

Ivic inherited a club that was on the brink of turmoil following an untimely relegation from the Premier League. Ivic knew the expectation would be for instant-promotion when he signed. So far, he seems to be the right man to lead the charge.

While managing Maccabi Tel-Aviv to back-to-back league titles, Ivic was known for his formational adaptability, but preferred to implement a 4-3-3 when possible. The Serbian has been more rigid with his tactical choices this season, electing a 5-3-2 in most matches (with the 5-2-3 appearing a couple of times at the start of the season). 

The 4-3-3 is challenging when Watford’s only out-and-out senior left-back, Masina, is injured. Ivic still might elect to go for a 4-3-3 prior to his return, and have Sema or Femenía play on the left side of the pitch. But as of now, the adaptability Ivic was known for in Israel has not been demonstrated in the Championship. Whether that is for better or for worse remains to be seen.

In terms of being a character who can elicit a response from the players, Ivic certainly has what it takes to encourage them to fight. Yes, the draw against Wycombe and defeat against Barnsley might argue against this view, but the most recent two matches have shown that the players will not crumble when they fall behind. Right now, there is no longer a sense of “oh no, here we go again” when Watford are losing. To pick up six points in two successive matches after trailing in each tells one all they need to know about the fight Ivic can get out of his players. 

Yes, Ivic has made some questionable decisions, such as benching Ngakia, failing to experiment with a 4-3-3, or slotting Chalobah into the center of the defense against Wycombe. Still, results are what ultimately matter. Ivic’s men are in second after 11 matches. Promotion is still a realistic goal. And for that, Ivic deserves tremendous credit.

Overall manager rating so far: 8/10 (very strong)

Some say Watford are lucky to be as high as they are in the table. Others feel the current standings are fully deserved. What cannot be doubted is Watford’s raw quality. The gears are in motion. Promotion is still the aim. The league table says it all. The numbers do not lie. 

Match Review: Watford Strike Late To Top The Potters

In a match that had officiating controversy and became impossible to watch for some, Watford were able to come out on top by a score-line of three goals to two. Going into the night, Stoke City were sitting level with Watford on points. Now, Watford are only four points off of league-leaders Reading. 

The match started off in nightmarish fashion for Vladimir Ivic. In the second minute of play, Stoke were able to unlock Watford following an intricate short-corner routine. Steven Fletcher finished off the move from point blank range to give the Potters the early lead. Watford quickly responded by ensuring they had the lion’s share of possession and subdued Stoke’s attacking chances to counter-attacks and set-pieces only. This response mirrored the rest of the game’s flow, which saw Watford end the match with 66% possession, as well as seven more shots attempted than Stoke. 

The hosts seemed to be struggling to erase Michael O’Neill’s side’s lead, as the visitors settled into a simple 4-4-2 defensive block that proved difficult to break down. Watford then were able to slip Ismaïla Sarr behind the backline, whose cross was deflected to the feet of Tom Cleverley. The former Manchester United player was able to make space and unleashed a powerful shot from the edge of the box off of Angus Gunn’s hand, and then the crossbar, to equalize. 

That goal is where the main controversy came in. After the shot cannoned down from the crossbar, it appeared to have hit the goal-line, but did not seem to be fully across. Gunn turned around to collect the ball and then was pushed into the net by João Pedro. After a few seconds of waiting, the referee looked at his wrist, and the goal-line technology said there was a goal. So, the official awarded the goal, as he decided that the initial shot from Cleverley was when the ball crossed the goal-line completely, and that the push on Gunn, which made the ball cross the line, was after the goal had occurred. There has been no footage released that gives a clear answer as to whether the ball did indeed cross the goal-line while in the air on the way down from the crossbar, which there is a reasonable chance it did. 

Not long after the controversy, the Hive Live service which Watford offers to supporters to live stream matches for a fee crashed. Most Watford fans then had to rely on the audio commentary to learn of what was happening. The rest of the first half was rather uneventful.

Watford forged ahead in the second half after Gunn took down Ismaïla Sarr following a defensive error which played Watford’s record signing in on goal. Young superstar João Pedro subsequently slotted away the penalty to get his fourth goal of the season. The goal was offset 20 minutes later when Nick Powell drove in an impressive 81st minute equalizer against the run of play.

The parity was broken in the 93rd minute of play. Watford were creating the bulk of the chances in the final stages of the match. With time almost up, the ball found itself under control on the left-wing. Ken Sema, perhaps Watford’s best player so far this season, seemed to be contained by a Stoke defender. Once Sema’s marker closed in on him, the Swedish International Team player expertly dropped his shoulder and used his strength to maneuver his way into open space by the byline, and then within the boundaries of the 18-yard-box. With a quick glance up, he spotted Sarr and delivered him a well-played cutback, which the 22-year-old winger neatly slotted away into the keeper’s bottom right-hand corner of the net.

Watford needed this result.

Indeed, the initial hopes for promotion could have been on the verge of being lost if Watford failed to put in a solid performance. After failing to pick up a point against Barnsley and suffering draws to Bournemouth and Wycombe, Watford looked as if their post-relegation/new-manager bounce/good form had come to an alarming end. This match, against a resolute, talented Stoke City team, re-proved that Watford do have what it takes to legitimately be promotion contenders.

Stoke City kept to their firm defensive shape throughout most of the match, so the fact Watford were able to score three times against them shows how the goal-scoring issues from the start of the season have been remedied. This goes down to both the players and the manager for making such an improvement in a relatively short period of time. Yes, Watford do have talented players and would expect plenty of goals with their current attacking options, but the expectation was not really coming to fruition at the start of the season. Now, it is. And, with Troy Deeney and Andre Gray returning, and Stipe Perica set to come back after the international break, Watford certainly seem to have more than enough reinforcements to continue the positive goal-scoring trend which was potentially started by this match (whether this truly is a “trend” cannot be determined with more accuracy until after Watford’s next couple of matches).

Vladimir Ivic’s main cause for concern will be the club’s defensive record. After securing four clean sheets from their opening five fixtures, Watford have failed to keep a clean sheet in their most recent five. Perhaps this will cause Vladimir Ivic to contemplate moving into his signature 4-3-3 formation for experimentation purposes. 

Despite the defensive woes, what this match proved is that Watford have what it takes to be one of the league’s best attacking teams. The opening few matches proved Watford have the capability to be one of the league’s best defensive teams. Right now, that perfect balance between attacking threat and defensive soundness has not been met on a match-to-match basis. However, there are lots of reasons to believe that such an equilibrium can be reached with considerable frequency.