Yet to keep a Premier League clean sheet this season and already needing to make an emergency center-back signing, Watford undoubtedly need defensive reinforcements if they are to avoid relegation this season. Their blistering attack is showing no signs of slowing down, but their defensive frailties have been costly on too many occasions already. However, the Hornets might look to sign Daniel Amartey from Leicester City, as per a Claudio Ranieri request, to ease those problems.
Lots of Interest Reported
According to TEAMtalk, the former Leicester City manager has asked the hierarchy at Vicarage Road about a potential January swoop for Amartey, a player the “Tinkerman” signed in the mid-season transfer window of the Foxes’ famous Premier-League-winning campaign.
Teams in Germany, Italy, and Spain are also said to be looking at a potential swoop for the 26-year-old.
Daniel Amartey to Vicarage Road Would Not Be a Shock
There are many pieces in place that could work to Watford’s advantage if they are to pursue Ranieri’s request. First, Amartey is out of contract at the end of the season, meaning a transfer would not be at full price. Even though Leicester City are looking to extend his contract as he has proven to be a useful squad-rotation player (appearing in 14 matches across all competitions this season), the prospect of guaranteed starting minutes at Vicarage Road could encourage him to stall on signing the extension.
Furthermore, the relationship between Ranieri and Amartey is thought to be strong. The idea of playing under his former manager could work to the Hornets’ advantage.
And finally, a reason overlooked by most has been Amartey’s agent: Pini Zahavi. Even though the super-agent is known for his overseeing of stars such as Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Watford surprisingly do have good links with him. Philip Zinckernagel – currently on loan at Nottingham Forest from Watford – is under the agency of Zahavi. Thus, Zahavi and the Hornets are already in close contact.
Strong Start Shows Necessary Traits He Would Bring to Vicarage Road
One of Watford’s biggest defensive problems has been an inability to build out from the back due to a poor range of passing from the center-backs. There is too much reliance on the midfielders and attackers to transition the phases of play. However, Amartey has a much-desired range of passing.
In his eight Premier League appearances this season, he has completed 56.29 passes per match (81stpercentile amongst the league’s center-backs) and has an overall pass completion percentage of 88.8% (79thpercentile). His total passing distance per match is in the 75th percentile, and his total progressive passing distance is in the 68th percentile.
Even though Amartey is expected to have better passing statistics considering he is in a Leicester City side averaging 55.1% possession per match, whereas Watford have an average possession of 44.3%, the disparities cannot be entirely accounted for by this possession difference alone. Simply put, Amartey is a much better passer than any of the Hornets’ current center-backs. For reference, Troost-Ekong averages only 30 completed passes per 90 minutes (23rd percentile), has an 80.1% pass completion rate (23rd percentile), and ranks significantly lower in the passing distance statistics. Craig Cathcart ranks below Troost-Ekong in all of these statistics. Amartey also ranks significantly above both in each of short, medium, and long pass completion percentages.
Amartey’s defensive ability also trumps most, if not all, of the current Watford center-backs’ respective talents. As Ranieri has asked for, the Hornets need a ball-playing center-back who helps develop possession while also knowing how to thrive in his high-pressing system. Thus, if Amartey is signed in January, it will not be too much of a surprise.
With Adam Masina out for the foreseeable future and Danny Rose yet to impress since joining in the summer from Tottenham Hotspur, the Hornets have a left-back headache on their hands. Yet to keep a clean sheet this season, defensive reinforcements are imperative in January if they are to want to have a solid chance at preserving their Premier League status.
Analyzing Reported Watford Transfer Target
Watford Take Aim to Sign Anthony Caci
According to Le10Sport, Strasbourg left-back Anthony Caci is a wanted man. With his contract coming to an end at the end of this season, there is not expected to be much of any chance that the French side retain him.
A host of Bundesliga sides have been vying for his signature since the last summer transfer window. Torino, Udinese, and Watford are now said to have joined the race for his signature. With the player edging for a move away, if Strasbourg do not sell him in the upcoming January transfer window, they will lose their youth product’s services for free.
A January transfer would likely come at a cut-rate price for the 24-year-old who has 16 Ligue 1 appearances this season (and 96 career Strasbourg senior appearances). He recently traveled to the Olympics with the French team, playing the full ninety minutes in all three matches.
Progressive Passer and Durable Defender
Caci will not be the fullback who racks up the assists and goals. However, his wide range of passing is useful at spurring counterattacks and easing the pressure on the backline. Defensively, he is robust and reliable.
When compared to Ligue 1 fullbacks this season, he ranks in the 95th percentile for progressive passes per 90 minutes, averaging 6.31 per match (source: FBREF). His 7.32 long passes completed per match rank in the 97th percentile. His total progressive passing distance per 90 minutes ranks in the 92nd percentile. For through balls and switches of play per 90 minutes, he ranks in the 90th and 95th percentiles respectively. His ranking in the 21st percentile for crosses per 90 minutes and 41st percentile for key passes per 90 minutes shows he prefers to make his impact from deeper-lying positions.
For most tackling statistics, he ranks between the 65th and 80th percentile. However, his pass-intercepting acumen is among the league’s best. Averaging 2.88 interceptions per 90 minutes, he ranks in the 97thpercentile. He is also yet to make an error leading to an opponent shot this season, showing his reliability and composed head, something Watford fullbacks have lacked at times recently.
He is also a defender who could quickly adapt to thrive in Claudio Ranieri’s intense-pressing system. Even though he would need to press significantly more under Ranieri than he currently has to at Strasbourg, when he does press in France, he has a notable successful pressures rate. Succeeding in 35.7% of his pressures, he ranks in the 78th percentile.
A Vicarage Road transfer is still many steps away from happening, but it is worth keeping a close eye on this potential move.
Emmanuel Dennis has been the Premier League’s best signing of the summer: there is no simpler way to say it. So far, he has been Watford’s best attacker and defender. The only player who surpasses Dennis, who has six goals and five assists, in goal contributions this season is Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (thirteen goals, eight assists). The Hornets signed the 24-year-old for just £3.6 million, making his phenomenal start to life in the Premier League even more impressive.
Attacking Star Smashing Expectations
Dennis is only the sixth player in Premier League history to reach five goals and five assists in their inaugural 12 (or fewer) matches in the competition. That statistic alone shows how well he has hit the ground running since joining from Belgian side Club Brugge. However, a deeper look into his goal-scoring and contributing output reveals even more resounding conclusions than what the raw numbers can tell.
The Nigerian forward has been beyond clinical in front of the net this season. With an Expected Goals statistic of 3.22, he has overperformed what is statistically predicted by 2.78 goals (source: Infogol). In other words, he is scoring nearly twice as much as what his chances would mathematically suggest he should be scoring, showing peak efficiency in front of the net.
Even when shooting from difficult angles, his shots have significantly-above-average precision and accuracy. Exactly 50% of his shots have been on target, ranking in the 91st percentile for “Premier League attacking-midfielders and wingers” this season (with Dennis mainly lining up as a winger, admittedly also having spells of matches in the center of the attack. When discussing percentiles in this article, they all refer to the percentile of the group quoted above) (source: FBREF). His conversion rate of 0.21 goals per shot epitomizes his efficiency, ranking in the 93rd percentile.
In terms of chance creation, he has overperformed Expected Assists by nearly three, suggesting his teammates have inflated his assist output by putting away their own low-quality chances. Nonetheless, Dennis’ chance-creating prowess cannot be overlooked. Five assists in thirteen matches are no accident. Furthermore, his dribbling-with-pace talent has led to many solid chances, carrying the ball into the penalty area 1.73 times per 90 minutes (76th percentile). His 2.18 players dribbled past per 90 minutes (78th percentile) also shows the influence his individual brilliance has in sparking attacks. He also drew a penalty in the recent 4-2 defeat against Leicester City.
Aerially, despite being just five feet, nine inches tall, Dennis has excelled, winning 42.6% of aerial duals (69thpercentile) and emerging victorious in 2.37 aerials per 90 minutes (94th percentile).
And, for many people’s favorite statistic, Dennis ranks highly. He sits in the 97th percentile for nutmegs per 90 minutes (0.82).
Phenomenal Defensive Prowess
The claim Dennis is Watford’s best defender this season is not difficult to substantiate. Especially since Claudio Ranieri took over (but even under Xisco Munoz), Dennis’ pressing talent and work rate have yielded tremendous dividends on both ends of the pitch. Especially in a team where a clean sheet is yet to be achieved in the league this season, quality defensive play needs to, in part, be evaluated by how an individual’s defending helped sparked attacking opportunities.
Dennis’ tremendous defensive work must also be considered when evaluating his chance creation. He averages 0.18 defensive actions that lead to a shot attempt per 90 minutes (94th percentile), and 0.09 defensive actions that lead to a goal per 90 minutes (99th percentile).
He tracks back well to sometimes tuck behind the fullbacks when most other wingers would stay higher up the pitch and not provide support. Dennis sits in the 94th percentile for tackles in the defensive third, with 1.09 per match. However, his best defensive contributions come in the press in advanced positions on the pitch. He averages 21.66 pressures per 90 minutes (90th percentile) and 7.37 pressures in the attacking third per 90 minutes (88th percentile). In terms of tackling in the attacking third, he averages 0.55 per 90 minutes, ranking in the 99th percentile.
Oftentimes, attackers are solely evaluated by their attacking contributions. Doing so with Dennis would still show he has been excellent this season. Yet, when the layers are peeled back to reveal his defensive metrics, his output on both sides of the ball becomes even more magnificent.
Honorable Mention: Maxwel Cornet
Second place for Premier League signing of the season (so far) is Maxwel Cornet. The versatile winger signed for Burnley for a fee in the region of £13.5 million from Olympique Lyon. With five goals in just seven starts, he is scoring at a rate surpassing Dennis. Cornet’s defensive ability is also above average. Nonetheless, Dennis edges Cornet out on the basis of a considerably cheaper transfer fee, chance-creating prowess, and pure defensive/counter-attacking contributions.
Both are names to watch intently for the rest of the 2021/22 campaign and beyond.
Watford’s performances this season can be grouped into two categories. For the purposes of this article, we will call them Jekyll and Hyde.
Jekyll: 4 wins with an xG above 1 (3 of those wins with an xG above 2).
Hyde: 7 defeats and 1 draw, all 7 defeats to nil, all 8 with an xG below 1 (5 of those with an xG of below 0.5).
The Jekyll performances (1/3 of the total) have included some scintillating counter-attacking football and have yielded a whopping 15 goals.
The Hyde performances (2/3 of the total) have included displays where Watford have carried nearly no attacking threat and have yielded a paltry 1 goal.
What can be made of this apparently schizoid outfit? How can they look so promising one week and then revert to something so unconvincing the next? This article will explore some possible explanations for this inconsistent outfit whose latest display (very much in the Jekyll category) versus Manchester United will have had Watford fans dreaming of Premier League safety once again.
Relative Instability of Opposition
Each of the Hornets’ victories this season have come against opposition with a high degree of instability. Aston Villa came to Vicarage Road shortly after the loss of Jack Grealish to Manchester City and, whilst they had spent a considerable amount of money on replacements, such as Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey, Villa were clearly an outfit that were going to have some teething problems, despite having a decent squad on paper. They have since parted company with manager Dean Smith following a run of five defeats, which backs up the point that they have also struggled to find their rhythm.
Victory at Carrow Road over a beleaguered Norwich City was a vital three points for Watford but said as much about the opposition’s wobbly defense as it did any coherence in attack from the Hornets. Before deciding to part ways with Daniel Farke, Norwich were winless in 10 games having conceded 25 goals and were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League.
On the face of it, a 5-2 victory at Everton, a first-ever Watford win at Goodison Park, was a huge win and Claudio Ranieri’s first for Watford. However, Everton were without key players – namely England international Dominic Calvert-Lewin and ex-Hornet Abdoulaye Doucoure. They also have an unpopular manager at the helm in ex-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who is finding it difficult to endear himself to the Goodison Park faithful. With no wins in their last six matches, Everton currently sit bottom of the Premier League form table and are sinking fast.
Then came the 4-1 victory at the weekend over Manchester United. Again, this has to be slightly tempered by the abject display from an opposition who looked like they were waiting for a change of manager. The most damning statistic is United’s Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) – a measure of a team’s pressing intensity – of over 24. For some context, the majority of teams in the EPL tend to allow between 7-15 PPDA in most games. By contrast, United themselves allowed only 8.5 PPDA in their 4-1 victory against Newcastle United earlier in the season. So, whilst Watford were impressive, the victory has to be set against the backdrop of the turmoil at Manchester United, which saw Solskjaer lose his job the following day.
Questions That Remain Unanswered
The fact remains that, whilst many of Watford’s performances this season have been alarming, results, to date, have been good enough to see them four points clear of the relegation zone. They also now find themselves four points off of Manchester United in eighth place. This can only be seen as “so far, so good.” However, if they really have turned a corner under Claudio Ranieri, there remain some questions that need to be answered:
Firstly, can Watford hurt well-organized opponents? In games when Watford fans might have hoped for better performances and more points (e.g., at home to Wolves, Southampton, and Newcastle, and away to Brighton and Leeds), Watford’s attacking threat was insignificant and it could be argued that they were lucky to glean the single point that they did from all those fixtures combined. These are the kinds of games so far this season where there has been a significant gap between expectation and performance. To date, it would have to be said that Watford have needed their opponents to have an “off day” in order to create chances and have looked out of their depth against teams who have a well-organized press.
The second question that needs to be answered, and quickly, is: Can Watford keep a clean sheet? So far, the answer has been a resounding “no!” Narrow early season defeats were characterized by defensive lapses in possession and set-pieces which routinely undermined decent defensive work off of the ball. Under Ranieri, Watford shipped five goals against Liverpool and are still yet to keep a clean sheet. With Watford’s next three games being Leicester City (a), Chelsea (h), and Manchester City (h), it would take a bold fan to predict this run of 12 consecutive games without a clean sheet coming to an end any time soon.
Signs of Improvement
However, there are signs that things might be improving for good. As predicted, under Ranieri, Watford have begun to press in packs higher up the pitch, most impressively in their last match against Manchester United. This puts more pressure on the opposition forcing them into errors in their own half, as seen from Tom Cleverley’s vital interception against Manchester United leading to Harry Maguire’s sending off. There is also an active form of defense, in contrast to the relative passivity seen under Xisco Munoz. The press against Manchester United helped to keep the ball in the opponent’s half and made Watford harder to play through, protecting the midfield and defense.
As mentioned in a previous article, Watford were undermining themselves by playing out from the back with players who lack the technical ability to do it and regularly conceding goals from set-pieces. Under Ranieri, they have abandoned playing out with Ben Foster encouraged to be much more direct with his distribution – another tactic that helps to control territory and protect the back four. They are also yet to concede from a set-piece.
The introduction of Nicolas Nkoulou in place of William Troost-Ekong over the past couple of games also looks to have had a positive impact. Nkoulou looks more composed than his teammate in possession, which has given the backline a calmer feel to it, even against “Big 6” opponents. There is some promise, then, that Nkoulou could strike up an effective partnership with either Francisco Sierralta or Christian Kabasele when they return from injury. All of this means that Ranieri is not just plugging the obvious holes seen under Munoz. With the introduction of Nkoulou, there has been a timely upgrade in personnel alongside a more effective press that is both protecting the defense and benefitting the attack.
Although Watford’s best performances this season have come against opponents dealing with problems on and off of the pitch, the Hornets have still had the ability to put those sides away impressively. Without playing well on a consistent basis, they are still keeping away from danger and keeping up with the pack. Currently in the middle of an extremely difficult run of fixtures, they sit a respectable 14th in the form table, which has allowed them to keep their heads above water. Some of the changes that Claudio Ranieri has implemented have Watford looking less vulnerable and more purposeful and they are changes that increase their chances of answering those as of yet unanswered questions. The 4-1 score-line against a club the size of Manchester United could well be the fillip that this squad needs to kick on from being more Hyde and less Jekyll as they seek to find a consistent level of performance and develop a coherent identity as a team.
Watford’s recent 4-1 victory over Manchester United had many talking points, with the main one surrounding the subsequent sacking of Red Devils’ manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. However, many Watford supporters will be focusing on Ismaila Sarr: he missed a retaken penalty after failing to convert the initial penalty as well, but he more than remedied for his poor spot-kicks by scoring a classy goal to give the Hornets a two-goal lead. Nonetheless, Sarr’s performances as of late have come under question, though the goal against Ronaldo and Co. suggests his post-Xisco-Munoz skid of form is over. With the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United known to have been keeping an eye on Sarr for quite some time now, how has Sarr been performing beyond what the average pair of eyes can see?
Key Statistics This Season
In this campaign, Sarr has scored five goals in 12 appearances, overperforming Expected Goals by 0.71. He is therefore overperforming Open-Play Expected Goals by around 1.5 goals. The numbers show Sarr has been a more-than-efficient finisher.
The 23-year-old struggled to find form in Claudio Ranieri’s first four matches in charge, failing to find the back of the net against Liverpool, Everton, Southampton, and Arsenal. Against the Toffees, once Sarr was subbed off of the pitch, the Hornets scored four times in less than half an hour, raising an occasional question about the place the Club’s most expensive signing has in Ranieri’s side. His starting role was never seriously questioned, as he is simply too talented to not start every match he is fit, but whether he was as effective as he could be most certainly could be doubted.
Under Xisco, both in the Championship and Premier League, Sarr thrived. 10 of Sarr’s 13 goals in the second-tier last season came under Xisco (in the 23 matches he featured in). In the Premier League, Sarr scored four goals in Xisco’s seven matches in charge.
The clash against Manchester United suggests Sarr’s readjustment to life at Vicarage Road under a different head coach is nearing completion. After all, Xisco’s system gave Sarr tremendous freedom on the wing without too many defensive duties, whereas Ranieri demands more defensive work, namely in the high press. There was consequently a learning curve Sarr had to endure.
However, to say Sarr has not been strong when it comes to defensive work would be inaccurate. Even though Watford left-winger Emmanuel Dennis has offered more defensively when it comes to pressures and tackles (Dennis ranks in the top percentile for Premier League wingers this season in pressures per match, at 22.91 [compared to Sarr’s 17.21] and in the top four percent for tackles per match, at 2.39 [compared to Sarr’s 0.52]), there is still some impressive defensive work being done by Sarr too. Sarr ranks in the top four percent of Premier League wingers for “fewest times dribbled past per match,” only getting beat an average of 0.35 times per 90, showing his effectiveness when pressuring. He also ranks highly in pressures in the attacking third, averaging 7.17 pressures in the attacking third per match (in the top 16th percentile).
Sarr has undoubtedly been clinical when it comes to overperforming Expected Goals and also has started to offer Ranieri what he wants on both sides of the ball. However, Sarr’s increased attacking prowess and finishing improvement when compared to his last time in the Premier League needs to be further discussed.
Comparison to 2019/20 Premier League Campaign
Sarr has already equaled his goal tally from the Hornets’ last Premier League campaign in fewer than half the matches. The winger also underperformed expected goals that season by 1.04, signaling he should have been more lethal in front of the net. As discussed above, he has gone from underperforming to overperforming, with the one season in the Championship (where he overperformed Expected Goals by 2.87) already proving to have been an unsuspecting perfect piece to his development.
Statistics beyond Expect Goals further show the improvement he has undergone. In the 2019/20 season, only 29.5% of Sarr’s shots ended on target. This campaign, that figure has skyrocketed to 46.2%, showing his precision has improved. Two seasons ago, he averaged 0.11 goals per shot, compared to 0.19 goals per shot this season, signaling his lethality per strike has increased. In the relegation campaign, he averaged 0.38 goals per shot on target, whereas in the return season, he is averaging 0.42 goals per shot on target, demonstrating how his accuracy (as well as, once more, his precision) has developed for the better.
The Hornets’ desire for him to be one of their key goal-scorers has subsequently led to a slight decrease in his tangible assist output (as well as him averaging one fewer cross per game, as his instruction is to play a bit narrower than under Pearson and test his luck more frequently). But, considering his Expected Assists has decreased by just 0.04 per match, the assist sacrifice is more than just made up for by his increased goalscoring capabilities.
Outlook at Watford
If Sarr continues in the same manner he has started the season and builds off of the goal from Solskjaer’s final match as Manchester United manager, suitors in the upcoming transfer windows will continue to arrive in abundance. Even though his contract runs through 2024, it is hard to imagine that the Hornets will not receive an irresistible offer for his services before that point.
Watford will be hoping to at least hold Sarr until the end of the season and not lose him in January. Doing so will be pivotal in the push for survival. Staying in the Premier League also gives the Hornets extra leverage in negotiations, and they have already previously slapped £40+ million price tags on him (as per Adam Leventhal of The Athletic), so the desired fee will only increase considerably. In the event of relegation, leverage will be lost, but a sizeable fee would still be able to be secured.
Nonetheless, it is hard to see a scenario where Sarr is at Watford beyond this season: he will not want to play another season in the Championship, and unless the Hornets can extend his contract, even if they stay in the Premier League, they will rather sell him for a maximum fee than wait until he has one year left in his contract upon the conclusion of the 2022/23 season.
Whatever happens, Sarr has a tremendously bright future and will be playing Champions League football in the coming years when a transfer does come his way. For now, Hornets’ fans should (as they know) appreciate every second they have with Sarr, for players of his caliber do not usually weather the storm of relegation and drown out the noise of transfers to bigger teams. This is likely his last season at Vicarage Road, though his place fondly in Watford folklore is already secured. And, if trends continue this season, his legacy may exponentially grow.
Watford recently signed 22-year-old goalkeeper Maduka Okoye from Sparta Rotterdam. He officially becomes a Hornet on January 1st, 2022, but he will spend the rest of the 2021/22 campaign with Sparta Rotterdam before returning to Vicarage Road in the summer to attempt to tie down the Hornets’ number one spot. The expected fee is in the region of £5 million. With lots of speculation surrounding Watford’s current goalkeepers, the arrival of Okoye provides some clarity. But what can be expected from the Hornets’ likely future starting goalkeeper?
Successor for Bachmann and Foster
Recently, the future of Daniel Bachmann at Vicarage Road has grown unclear. With Ben Foster claiming the number one role under Claudio Ranieri (and controversially so), Bachmann is known to be disgruntled about the situation and is likely to seek a January departure if he does not reclaim the starting spot by the opening of the next transfer window.
Foster is in the last year of his Watford contract, and he is known to want to go to the MLS upon the conclusion of his current deal.
Thus, the Hornets’ top two goalkeepers next year are likely to be Pontus Dahlberg (a 22-year-old currently impressing on loan with Doncaster, after impressive loans in Sweden) and Okoye. The two young goalkeepers will probably be competing with each other for the number one role regardless of what tier the Hornets find themselves in next year, with Okoye the new preference of the hierarchy and favorite to secure the starting job.
High-Quality Shot-Stopper and Improving Cross Claimer
After spending time with Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, and Fortuna Dusseldorf’s youth teams, Okoye signed for Sparta Rotterdam in the summer of 2020. He has been an instant success in the Eredivisie. In his first season in the Dutch top-flight, he started 29 matches, keeping 10 clean sheets and conceding 37 times. The Nigerian International Team’s number one found himself in the Eredivisie Team of the Year as a result of his noteworthy performances. In 13 matches this season, Okoye has conceded 19 times, keeping two clean sheets in the process.
Last season, Okoye had an impressive 67.4% save rate. This season, the number has gone up to 69.6%. For comparison, Foster’s save rate this season is 61.3% and Bachmann’s is 64.7%. What also must be considered is Sparta Rotterdam were promoted ahead of the 2019/20 season, thus leading to them being a team expected to be in the lower echelons of the Eredivisie (with Okoye being a large part of their recent successes).
The 1.98-meter (6-foot, 6-inch) goalkeeper has also been rapidly improving when it comes to cross collections/aerial defending. Last season, he averaged just 0.1 “Good High Claims Per Game.” In the Championship, Bachmann, who was known for being very conservative when coming off of his line, averaged 0.5 Good High Claims Per Game. This season, Foster averages 0.7.
However, Okoye has already tremendously improved in the area he needed to improve in most: this season, he averages 0.8 Good High Claims Per Game. PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper Joel Drommel averages 0.5 Good High Claims Per Game. Groningen goalkeeper Peter Leeuwenburgh averages 0.2 Good High Claims Per Game. Vitesse goalkeeper Markus Schubert averages 0.7 Good High Claims Per Game. Thus, Okoye ranks higher than many, if not all, other goalkeepers in the Eredivisie this season when it comes to successfully coming off of his line. Regardless of if the Hornets are in the Premier League or Championship next season, more certainty when defending crosses is needed: Okoye will already be able to provide that and is continuing to improve in that field.
Super Eagles teammate and Watford center-back William Troost-Ekong echoed the notion that Okoye continues to improve, telling the Watford FC website, “He’s a very reliable goalkeeper with a huge will to learn, and I think he’ll add a lot of strengths to the squad when he links up with us next year.”
The jump from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is a big one. Even if Okoye winds up needing to make the step to the Championship for a season, the aerial factor of the English second tier is still just as prominent, if not a more pivotal part of the game, than in the top-flight. Still young with lots of room to grow (talent-wise, for he is definitely more than tall enough), if all goes to plan, Okoye will be the Hornets’ number one for many years to come – and possibly the only thing that could pry him away from between the sticks at Vicarage Road is a transfer to a European-competing team a few years down the line.
At face value, Watford’s being three points clear of the relegation zone after ten matches does not seem so bad. Unfortunately, those ten performances suggest many reasons to listen for alarm bells, and the reasons for starting to hear them are not hard to find. And, with the Hornets’ next five fixtures coming against Arsenal, Manchester United, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Manchester City, Watford may find themselves slipping into the relegation zone sooner rather than later.
Midfield and Attack Good (Enough) for Premier League
The Hornets have one of the weakest squads in the Premier League when it comes to player-by-player talent, which is natural considering they were recently promoted and were stripped of lots of their core from the 2019/20 top-flight campaign. The midfield backbone of Will Hughes, Etienne Capoue, and Abdoulaye Doucoure is completely gone. Roberto Pereyra, Gerard Deulofeu, Jose Holebas, Craig Dawson, and more are no longer at Vicarage Road. Some have been amply replaced – others have not.
It was always going to be hard for the Hornets to replace their midfield three from the 2019/20 season. Capoue is now a Europa-League-winning midfielder, Doucoure was one of the best midfielders in the Premier League before his injury this season, and Hughes, despite having yet to play for Crystal Palace, is still difficult to find a suitable, talent-for-talent replacement for.
Nonetheless, their midfield should be “good enough” for a non-relegation Premier League club. Between Moussa Sissoko, Juraj Kucka, Imran Louza, Ozan Tufan, Peter Etebo (when he comes back from injury), and Tom Cleverley, there is sufficient skill in the midfield to stay in the top flight, especially considering the high-pressing type of midfielders Ranieri’s system calls for. It is a downgrade on the 2019/20 midfield, but it still should “get the job done,” especially for what Ranieri wants.
The attack is the one area of the pitch which has arguably improved: even with the departures of Deulofeu and Troy Deeney (albeit he was far from his prime by the 2019/20 season), there appear to be more potential goals in the attacking rotation (and better depth). Watford now have a more-experienced Ismaila Sarr, potentially-prolific Joshua King, future stars Joao Pedro and Cucho Hernandez, and the in-form, speedy Emmanuel Dennis. So, it is clear where the goals will come from, and it is hard to doubt there is sufficient quality to score “enough.”
Blatant Issue Continuing to Wreak Havoc Against Hornets
Watford are yet to keep a league clean sheet since their promotion. Between the sticks, neither Daniel Bachmann nor Ben Foster have impressed (especially the latter, who, regardless of his YouTube antics, has gotten worse positionally and judgmentally in-game since his stellar 2019/20 campaign).
The heart of the defense has also not particularly improved. Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart are getting up there in age and past their primes (though there is more hope that the former can return to his best fitness levels). Cathcart’s performances have been particularly alarming. Francisco Sierralta was stellar last season in the Championship, helping Watford equal the best-ever Championship defensive record with only 30 goals conceded. However, he is yet to prove himself in the Premier League (albeit largely due to injury). William Troost-Ekong, also signed ahead of Watford’s recent Championship campaign, complimented Sierralta well in Xisco’s preferred partnership. Despite some strong Premier League performances, Troost-Ekong has lacked consistency. He passed the ball directly to Yves Bissouma which led to a goal in a clash against Brighton and did not close down Che Adam’s on Southampton’s lone goal at Vicarage Road, just to name a couple of questionable defensive choices by the 28-year-old. Nicolas Nkoulou has only recently signed and not made a Hornets’ start, so his impact remains to be seen. Craig Dawson – who departed in the summer of 2020 – has been a star for Europa-League-competing West Ham United.
The right-back position has arguably improved, with Kiko Femenia improving last campaign (although not finding consistency due to injury since promotion) and the rise of Jeremy Ngakia. The left-back position has remained the same in terms of talent, with Adam Masina and Danny Rose competing for the starting role (with Rose belatedly coming in at the expense of Jose Holebas).
The statistics show how alarmingly poor the defense has been this season. Watford have conceded the fourth-most goals in the league this season (18), with only Aston Villa (19), Newcastle (23), and Norwich (25) conceding more. In terms of Expected Goals Against, the Hornets are third-worst in the league, but only 1.21 xGA away from being the worst. Watford have yielded 18.68 xGA, while Norwich have conceded 18.91 xGA and Newcastle have allowed 19.89 xGA. That is not good company to be around.
Even though there is always room for the attacking ranks to improve (the Hornets are tied tenth for goals scored, overperforming xG by 1.68), if the Hornets cannot keep clean sheets and are giving away nearly two goals per match, then the Premier League may simply not be the right league for them. Their defense does not have to be impenetrable, but improvement is needed. Goals will come with the players and management they have. However, the porous defense does not appear solvable through their current squad’s individual talent alone. Whether the remedy is tactics, January signings, the return of Sierralta/introduction of Nkoulou, or a combination remains to be seen.
Watford travel to Goodison Park in the second match of their Claudio Ranieri era. After a humiliating 5-0 defeat against Liverpool, the Hornets will be looking to bounce back against the other half of Merseyside – Everton – who will also be extra hungry for a win following a 1-0 defeat against West Ham.
FULL TIME: Everton 2-5 Watford
What a performance by the Hornets! Claudio Ranieri gets his first win as Watford head coach with a come-from-behind (and then some) victory at Goodison Park. In what was easily Watford’s best performance of the season, the tactical identity was there for all to see – high pressing, counterattacking football. Joshua King and Co. more than just got the job done.
Goal! Everton 2-5 Watford
Joao Pedro passes the ball across the top of the box to King, who then sits Keane on the ground and slots it past Pickford for Watford’s fifth. Yes, you ready the score correctly. 15 minutes ago, it was Everton 2-1 Watford 15 minutes ago. Now, Watford have a three goal lead (and Sarr was subbed off before the equalizer too, making the spectacle even more remarkable).
JOSHUA KING HAT TRICK! Everton 2-4 Watford
The scenes! King was not given the chance he wanted at Goodison Park with Everton, but he has more than proven his talent in Merseyside, but doing so with Watford! After a deflected Joao Pedro shot, King found himself with space and time in front of Pickford, who once more slotted it past the England number one. What a response and what a match!
GOAL! Everton 2-3 Watford
BFKDBFJDHBWUTWEF!!!! 88 seconds between the equalizer and the goal to put Watford ahead! There are still 10 minutes (not including added time) left, but King has scored what could be a massive goal for the Hornets! Dennis finds King on a scintillating counterattack. The Norwegian striker takes a phenomenal first touch, and then slotted it past Pickford with tremendous composure. What a dream return to Goodison Park for King (who gets a yellow card for his celebration).
GOAL! Everton 2-2 Watford
WATFORD RESPOND! Juraj Kucka scored his first Watford goal. Cucho Hernandez whips in a phenomenal corner kick, and the summer signing made no mistake with his header.
Substitution (Everton): Alex Iwobi comes on for Gray
The creator of the first goal comes off for the former Arsenal player.
Substitution (Watford): Nicolas Nkoulou comes on for Ngakia
A Hornets’ debut for Nkoulou. Likely means a change in shape for the final 15 minutes.
Yellow Card: Richarlison
This time, Richarlison makes late contact with Dennis.
Yellow Card: Emmanuel Dennis
Dennis gets booked for a late challenge on Richarlison. 20 minutes to go.
Double Substitution (Watford): Joao Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis come on for Sarr and Tufan
Ranieri has to roll the dice here.
Goal: Everton 2-1 Watford
It just had to be Richarlison. Terrible goalkeeping from Foster gives the substitute the entire match to aim at for his header.
Substitution (Everton): Richarlison on for Gordon
The former Watford player comes on for Everton. A chorus of boos rings out from the away support.
King (Almost) Scores
Sarr played a beautiful ball into the box to King who had the goal at his mercy, but Pickford made a smart kick save to keep the score level.
Yellow Card: Allan
Everton players are hitting the ground quite frequently this match. Allan went down in the box, but the dive was not hard to spot, and Graham Scott brandished the match’s third yellow card.
The second half is underway. It does not appear as if any substitutes have been made.
HALFTIME: Everton 1-1 Watford
After a quick start from the hosts, the visitors responded well and equalized via Joshua King. The possession is nearly perfectly split. Ranieri will be pleased as it appears his signature pressing tactics are being kindly taken to by the players. When Sarr and King press high up, they can be seen waving the rest of the team forward.
Masina and Cathcart have exceptionally responded to last week’s performance. Tufan looks up to pace. Sissoko is once more performing well.
Sarr, King, and Cucho will want to better link up on counterattacks, as the Hornets have done well to spur a handful which are yet to result in a goal.
For the Hornets, this is easily one of their best halves of the season: from a pure footballing standpoint – and not focusing on the scoreline – tactically speaking, it may even be their best to date. Watford are playing with a newfound sense of identity.
Everton have had a handful of chances, and it is hard to determine where the next goal will fall (if there is to be another). There is a chance former Watford player Richarlison comes off of the bench to give the Toffees an extra attacking edge.
Tempers Starting to Flare
Following a Troost-Ekong foul from a free kick, he then prevented a quick free kick by Keane, receiving a yellow card. A bit of shoving and words came after, with Cucho Hernandez a center of attention. It would not be a surprise if a few similar types of scraps occur in the second half.
Penalty Appeal – None Given
Gordon falls in the box with Kucka on his back, but the referee rightfully deems as if there was not enough contact to warrant a penalty.
Watford Tactical Update
The 4-1-4-1 formation looks very Xisco Munoz-esque at first glance. However, the instruction for higher, more intense pressing under Ranieri is evident. They are also possessing the ball much better, currently winning the possession statistic.
Yellow Card: Lucas Digne
The Everton left-back takes down Sarr on the counterattack, picking up the game’s first yellow card. The Hornets will be extra pleased he is the first man booked, meaning he has to be even more careful when defending Watford’s star.
Goal: Everton 1-1 Watford
THE GOAL IS GIVEN: that will feel extra sweet for Joshua King’s first Watford goal, scored against his former club! Fantastic response by the visitors! Cathcart gave the flicked-on headed assist.
Joshua King sticks the ball into the back fo the net following a free kick. The goal is disallowed initially, but it appears he is onside and that it will be given.
Save by Ben Foster
Watford’s number one makes a save on a shot from outside of the box. The effort was tame and near the center of the net, but Foster did well to parry the ball out of the danger area.
Goal: Everton 1-0 Watford
Demarai Gray bursts down the left-hand side of the pitch to assist Tom Davies who finishes from close range. Nightmare start for the Hornets.
Referee Graham Scott has started the match. Seamus Coleman captains Everton, while Moussa Sissoko understandably keeps the armband after being Watford’s best performer last week.
The Hornets have made three changes to the eleven who lost to Liverpool one week ago: Ngakia, Tufan, and King have come in for Femenia, Rose, and Dennis. The latter makes the bench, whereas the former two are out with injury. The main question marks surrounding the starting eleven fall on the decision to stick with Ben Foster between the sticks over Daniel Bachmann, Joao Pedro not being given the chance to play from the starting whistle, and Nicolas Nkoulou finding the bench but not starting ahead of Craig Cathcart (though this could be explained by him needing to reach full-match fitness). The return to full fitness of Joshua King is a huge boost.
The dismantling against Liverpool came when the Hornets went out in a 5-4-1 (which can also be considered a 5-2-3) formation with Ismaila Sarr as the central forward. Ranieri looks to have already rolled the tactical die, with a 4-3-3 the likely starting formation (and Sarr back in his preferred right-wing position).
Everton’s starting eleven is far from their strongest, with former Watford players Abdoulaye Doucoure and Richarlison not starting (the midfielder is out for an extended period, whereas Richarlison makes the bench after missing the last four matches with a knee injury). Yerry Mina and Dominic Calvert-Lewin also have not made the match-day squad due to injury concerns. Thus, the Hornets will be hoping this weakened Everton side has enough flaws to take advantage of to walk away with at least Ranieri’s first point with the Club.
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Claudio Ranieri’s reign as Watford head coach could not have started worse. The Hornets suffered a 5-0 (3.55-0.19 xG) defeat to Liverpool, with the Vicarage Road crowd’s only moment of applause after the opening whistle blew coming in the form of sarcastic cheers when Juraj Kucka hit a long-range shot into Kelleher’s arms. There were very few positives from the game for the Watford faithful, with the focus now turning to whether Ranieri will adapt to put in a much-improved performance against Everton next week.
Ben Foster: made a couple of smart stops, but was beaten five times, with questionable positioning on multiple occasions. Will be sweating knowing that Daniel Bachmann, now back from international duty, has the opportunity to win over Ranieri in training.
Craig Cathcart: will want to erase the match from his memory as quickly as possible. He was beyond embarrassed by Mohamed Salah on Liverpool’s fourth goal, defended poorly, and forced a rebound off of Foster for the visitor’s third. An abysmal overall performance.
William Troost-Ekong: was Watford’s best defender (which does not say much at all considering the scoreline) and the only one in the back three to win an aerial duel.
Danny Rose: was put in an extremely unfortunate left-center-back role against one of the best players in the world and looked well out of place trying to defend Salah. However, he was not given much help.
Adam Masina: an alarmingly poor performance from left-wing-back, it was not a shock when he was subbed off at halftime. Gave Rose zero support in defending Salah while consistently being caught out of position. Terrible performance.
Juraj Kucka: quiet appearance. Still has not come close to replicating his memorable debut performance against Aston Villa.
Moussa Sissoko: what a performance from Watford’s captain for the match. The former Tottenham player’s stellar showing was one of the few silver linings for the Hornets. Defended robustly, tried to create, and commendably transitioned phases of play (winning four dribbles in the process, three more than any other Watford player).
Emmanuel Dennis: uncharacteristically sloppy performance by the 23-year-old. Unable to combine with Ismaila Sarr on a couple of counterattacks in the early stages of the match.
Ismaila Sarr: not put in a position to succeed, as he was in a less-natural sole central-forward position. Did not get the service he needed. Almost scored a consolation goal, but Kelleher made a smart stop.
Cucho Hernandez: alarmingly frustrating performance for the versatile forward. Completed zero dribbles and looked for the back of the net on a couple of occasions where crosses were more advisable. Like Kucka, he has been unable to replicate what he showed in the opening-day victory.
Jeremy Ngakia: stuck in a strong claim for why he should be Watford’s starting right-back. Put in firm challenges, played smart passes, nullified Liverpool’s left side, and, well, he completed over double the number of passes in roughly half the time as the player for whom he was subbed on.
Joao Pedro: looked lively in his few cameos on the ball. Fans will be hoping to see more of him imminently.
Tom Cleverley: the half-time replacement for Masina was used to change tactics, though his presence was largely unimpactful.
On Monday, Watford appointed Claudio Ranieri to the position of head coach at Vicarage Road. Famed for making harsh hiring and firing decisions that leave many onlookers firmly in the “he should have had more time” camp, Gino Pozzo has again pulled the trap door on a coach who, many argue, had done everything asked of him until now. However, for those who follow Watford closely, there have been some concerning trends in their recent performances, culminating in a humiliating showing at Leeds United last Saturday. The performance against Leeds was abject – it was like sending your latest prototype for high-speed testing and finding that the wheels fall off. They simply could not cope under the pressure and their performance, particularly when in possession, was catastrophic. This article will look at some of the on-pitch reasons behind the change and speculate as to how the man once dubbed “The Tinkerman” might fix Watford’s malfunctioning machine.
Watford’s tactical plan to date has been to fall quickly back into a deep, narrow defensive shape in an attempt to be hard to beat and play on the counterattack. Munoz did a reasonable job of the defensive shape without the ball. They have not conceded as many goals as some of their direct rivals and their total xG against (11.28) is better than seven other teams in the division, including Arsenal and Spurs. This figure might be more impressive if other areas of Watford’s game were functioning properly and is a platform that Ranieri has to build on.
The three areas Watford have struggled in this season are 1) serious dysfunction when in possession (particularly playing out from the back), 2) being vulnerable from set-pieces, and 3) lacking the pressing intensity to turn the ball over in more advanced areas to create more counter-attacking opportunities. Ranieri has great experience in addressing all these issues.
So, with the appointment of Ranieri, the club’s hierarchy are not necessarily changing the game plan. They are bringing in someone with the precise skills and experience required to fix some of the most obvious problems from the latter part of Munoz’s spell in charge. The brief is to tinker with the existing parts of the Watford machine to get it running more smoothly. This may not necessarily require an overhaul or a complete change in style.
Potential Indicators That Damaged Parts May Start to Function
Ranieri could not face a tougher start to his tenure in terms of fixture difficulty. Nonetheless, he has not inherited a squad whose morale is on the floor or a team in the relegation zone with a lot of catching up to do, so there is a little breathing space going into this daunting run of games.
Instead of looking at results and points accumulation, eyes will be on how the performances evolve.
First and foremost, it is likely that Watford will up their pressing game. To date, Watford’s Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA) – a stat that indicates how many touches of the ball a team permits the opposition to take before engaging them – has been high. Against Leeds, it was nearly 14. By comparison, Leeds allowed Watford fewer than 7 PPDA. This indicates Watford were taking a passive approach that invites opponents on. Ranieri is known for squeezing the pitch and getting his side to close down the opposition and prevent them from dominating central areas with the ball. Keep an eye on whether this stat considerably lowers as he works his methods in.
Attacking transitions are the second part of performances that must be focused on. Ranieri’s sides are known for quick and long transitions (as in, counterattacking from deep starting positions). This has been sorely lacking in Watford’s displays with the ball. They rarely look like a side who know where their teammates should be and, therefore, attacks have mostly broken down with ineffective passing or been broken up by opponents who press the ball more. Their paltry xG of 0.19 in their last outing against Leeds sums up their current lack of goal threat. Developing cohesive counterattacks that utilise the pace and technical ability of players like Ismaila Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, Joao Pedro, and Cucho Hernandez will be Ranieri’s most important task.
Thirdly, when looking at evolution of performances, there needs to be an abandonment of slow, ponderous build-up play that starts from the back. This was the obvious contradiction in Muñoz’s game plan. It makes no sense for Watford to attempt to pass through teams in the Premier League. The hesitancy on the ball of players such as William Troost-Ekong, among others, has led to unnecessary pressure and big mistakes in critical areas that have already cost Watford goals and points this season. Expect this to stop under Ranieri.
Finally, set-piece defending will need to be highlighted. The Hornets have to tighten up from dead-ball situations from which they have already conceded four costly goals this season. Quite how he will get a grip of that situation is difficult to say given that each goal Watford have conceded from set-plays has been attributable to different things: poor marking, indecisive goalkeeping, a player being unsighted and scoring an own goal, and players not clearing their lines. Thus, Ranieri has a job on his hands to make Watford look more competent at defending set-pieces.
When you analyse a Gino Pozzo managerial change, there are always reasons behind it. The media narrative that Watford chop and change coaches too frequently and lurch from one problem to the next is debatable. Under Gino, Watford has always taken a “horses for courses” approach where he often hires a man who has attributes that the incumbent lacked. Where Vladimir Ivic had created a negative atmosphere in the dressing room, Munoz came in with a smile and an openness to listen to players. Where Slavisa Jokanovic was tactically flexible and very attacking, Quique Sanchez Flores (mark 1) was rigid and knew how to organise a defence. Where Munoz lacks experience, Ranieri brings bags of it.
There are still some doubts about whether Watford has recruited adequately and, ultimately, whether they have the quality to stay up. That is a fair point. This squad may be found wanting come the end of the season. However, the Watford hierarchy has identified problem areas on the pitch that can clearly be linked to coaching and tactical issues and has acted decisively with a clear game plan in mind. Watford fans should feel confident that there is more to come from this squad than has been seen so far this season – if Ranieri cannot improve performances, then it is likely no one else could.