Masina’s Moroccan Mobilization: Explaining And Analyzing His Call-Up

After months on end of club football, another international break has arrived. International team managers scrambled to submit their squads for a break filled with qualifiers for multiple competitions. One Watford player turned heads with his call-up. Adam Masina, who made his Italian Under-21 debut in 2015, is now on the Moroccan International Team. His inclusion is an eye-opener, and a pleasant surprise, for a key reason.

Adam Masina’s Mixed Season

Masina missed the first 19 matches of the season with a tendon injury. The left-back’s reintroduction to the squad was epitomized by his last-ditch challenge on Teemu Pukki to preserve a 1-0 lead over Norwich City in late December. When initially back from injury and in the starting eleven, Masina was in fine form. Kiko Femenia was thus able to move to his preferred right-back position – giving Watford one of the most, if not the most, dangerous right-side in the league.

The 27-year-old’s form started to dip. Some fans became disgruntled with his performances. He started to make poorly-weighted passes and misplace long balls more frequently. He uncharacteristically got caught out of position on a couple of occasions.

The string of somewhat shaky matches was quickly forgotten. Against both Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City, Masina scored the winning goal – with the goal in the latter being the Hornets’ first direct free-kick goal in nearly five years. He built up a positive head of steam, so an inaugural international senior call-up is deserved. But, breaking into the Italian International Team is tremendously difficult. Morocco, in need of left-backs, noted Masina’s eligibility and acted. Masina’s international switch, despite being unexpected, is permitted.

Explaining Why Masina’s Morocco Call-Up Is Allowed

In the September of 2020, FIFA’s 70th Congress met virtually. One of the topics discussed and amended surrounded a player’s ability to switch their international teams.

The rule now states that if, prior to turning 21, a player has played three or fewer matches for an international team in non-final competitive matches at the senior level, then he can switch his international team identity. Before the rule change, the law said one competitive senior international appearance is all it takes for a player to be bound to an international team for life.

Masina played six times for Italy’s Under-21 side. However, he never made a senior appearance for the Azzurri – meaning he was eligible to declare for another nation’s international team if, of course, he had a second recognized nationality. If he makes an appearance for Morocco during the international break, he will officially be bound to them for the rest of his career.

This scenario is almost identical to Jack Grealish’s. Masina is Moroccan-born but Italian raised. Grealish is English-born but with significant Irish heritage. Both played for one of their eligibilities growing up, but ultimately switched and declared loyalty to their birth nations at the senior level. It is not done too frequently, but it is not unheard of either.

Masina Made A Shrewd Choice 

Masina now has an increased chance of playing in major international competitions. Even as he is currently in a thrilling promotion race with Watford, being able to compete on the international stage will provide more uncharted footballing territory for Masina to explore.

And, simply stated, Masina has a significantly better chance of playing consistent international football with Morocco than he does with Italy. The North African nation is currently 33rd in the FIFA world rankings. Italy is number 10. 

Considering Masina is the only true left-back on the squad list for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations Qualifiers, his services in the starting eleven will likely be necessary. 

Overall, Masina has been deserving of a senior international call-up – even if he has not been the most consistent of performers. All things considered, Watford have been notably better since his return from injury. High-profile international action can also provide a player with much-needed boosts in confidence and form. Fortunately, Masina will be able to ply his trade for an international team that will be pursuing a likely spot at next year’s World Cup.

Jeremy Ngakia: The Young Star Waiting For His Time To Shine

When Jeremy Ngakia elected to not renew his West Ham United contract, David Moyes and many Hammers supporters were frustrated. The now 20-year-old signed for Watford on a free transfer in the summer. Even though he had only started five matches for Moyes, those matches were consecutive – partly done to try to convince him to extend his stay at the London Stadium. This season has proved that Watford were shrewd in securing his signature – even if he is not currently a consistent starter. 

Femenia’s Success Keeping Ngakia Sidelined

For the first 18 matches of the current campaign, Adam Masina was in the treatment room with a tendon injury. The Hornets’ clear-cut first two full-back choices, once Masina was injured, were Ngakia and Kiko Femenia. Both are right-backs by trade.

Vladimir Ivic, the head coach at the time, knew both right-backs’ attacking tendencies were perfect for his wing-back-requiring formations. Ngakia was primarily deployed in his natural right-defensive role, whereas Femenia was usually put on the left. 

When Masina returned, which nearly perfectly coincided with the appointment of Xisco Munoz, one of Ngakia or Femenia had to make way. As impressively as Femenia was playing on the left, starting a true left-back was optimal. Ngakia was the player to lose his spot – but at no fault of his own.

Femenia has simply been too good to drop. He performed well as a left-back, but he emerged as a player-of-the-season candidate in his preferred right-back position. His overlapping runs with Sarr and threatening attacking play, in conjunction with solid defending, have made him impossible to keep out of the starting eleven. Unfortunately for Ngakia, Femenia’s stellar form comes at the price of significantly decreased minutes. The Englishman’s quality, however, should not be forgotten during his spell behind the Spaniard. 

Ngakia Stood Out When Called Upon

After 37 matches, Ngakia has started 18 times, in addition to making six substitute appearances. 16 of those starts came in the first 22 matches of the campaign. 

Following the first few matches of the season, Ngakia was one of the Hornets’ best performers. His threatening attacking dribbles, which included noteworthy lateral changes of pace, called for excitement whenever the ball was at his feet.

The youngster also has considerable pace, yet he is not weak either. Overall, the defender is very well rounded and up to the league’s physicality despite his age. His attacking prowess means he can effectively contribute as a right-midfielder if necessary.  

Ngakia oozed with quality when on the pitch, but ultimately, it was Femenia’s experience and added composure that saw Ngakia relegated to the sidelines. As previously stated, Femenia has beyond justified Xisco’s choice to start him at right-back: he and Sarr give Watford what is proving to be the league’s most dangerous right-side. Ngakia is doing nothing wrong and more than deserves to be a promotion-fighting starter – he is just unfortunate to be behind an extremely in-form Femenia. 

Player For The Future

Ngakia does for sure have room to improve – as do almost all 20-year-old footballers. But, the Hornets have no reason to worry if Ngakia does need to be called upon to start yet again this season. He is more than capable of sufficiently fitting in. 

As a youngster, Ngakia knows starting minutes will come in the future. Femenia is now 30-years-old, so it is not as if the Spaniard will still be Watford’s starting right-back in a few years. Ngakia’s performances show he is already able to be a starter. With more training, more cameos off of the bench, and even scattered starts, Ngakia’s limit is the sky. There are numerous reasons why Moyes yearned for him to sign a new contract. 

Watford’s future is unknown. The Club currently sit in the driver’s seat for the second automatic promotion spot, but anything can happen. Regardless of whether Watford get promoted or not, Ngakia has a future at Vicarage Road. His quality is there for all to see. His chances to shine will come. Whether his next breakthrough occurs in the Championship or the Premier League remains to be seen. 

Masina’s Monumental Free Kick: Goalkeeping Error Or Stroke Of Class?

Half of injury time had been played. Francisco Sierralta’s own goal was cancelled out by Nathaniel Chalobah’s phenomenal finish over 75-match-minutes earlier. The clash looked set to end in a draw, even after Ismaila Sarr was fouled just outside the top-right corner of the box. Watford only had a free kick. Cardiff would not have been the most worried: after all, the last time the Hornets scored directly from a free kick was in the April of 2016. 

Adam Masina, who had an otherwise quiet match, decided it was time to lift the curse. Following a half-step back and three strides forward, the left-back smashed the ball as hard as he could at the center of the net. Dillon Phillips, the Cardiff keeper, awkwardly dove as the cannon of a shot grazed his right bicep before slamming into the back of the net. The following celebration was the most passionate of the season – and rightfully so. 

But, was the curse-lifting goal a strike of quality, or did the Hornets get lucky (not that anything could change the magnitude, importance, and joy of the goal)? 

Should The Goal Primarily Be Called A Goalkeeping Error?

Phillips has performed well for Cardiff since first taking over for Alex Smithies following an injury. In 9 league appearances prior to the clash against Watford, Phillips conceded four times and kept five clean sheets. Heading into the match, the Cardiff goalkeeper was in fine form. 

Of course, he will have wanted to do better to keep out the free kick – especially considering the ball struck the center of the net. And, as the ball did brush off his bicep, it is evident a save was not the most impossible of tasks from the strike. Simply stated, some other keepers in the Championship likely would have kept the ball out of the net, given the shot’s central placement.

Further, the way Phillips set up his wall was too picturesque and not precise. A three-person wall looks good and is expected, but the goalkeeper did not ensure it was in a perfect position. At the moment Masina shoots, Phillips’s line-of-sight with the ball is blocked by the wall – particularly Will Vaulks. 

The issue from the slight misplacement of the wall was compounded by Phillips’s first step. As his left-hand side of the goal was completely open, he shifted his weight in that direction.  So, when Masina’s shot went back across the direction Phillips was falling in, all he could do was flail his arm. 

So, the main reason for Phillips not saving the ball goes down to his first step making his weight lean in the wrong direction and obstructing his view of the ball. But, perhaps Masina knew this movement was inevitable, and thus hit his shot accordingly.  

Masina’s Smack Of Superb Quality

Even though Phillips will have wanted to do much better, nothing can be taken away from Masina’s strike. The goal did have a goalkeeping error, but Masina deserves more credit than Phillips does blame.

Firstly, the pace the ball was hit at would make even the best of goalkeepers fearful. As he admitted Will Hughes told him, getting the ball on target was a must, even if it meant sacrificing perfect placement. So, Masina knew his best shot at scoring was power instead of top-corner precision, so he did just that. 

And, despite the strike going into the center of the net, accuracy was still needed. The ball was less than an arm’s length away from Vaulks (the player who was obstructing the goalkeeper’s vision). The ball then flew less than one meter away from Sierralta’s head – making Phillips’s movement even more unnatural because he thought a redirection was imminent.

The in-swinging curl of the ball, combined with the multiple near-misses, high velocity, and placement back where the keeper was coming from, made the free kick too difficult to save for Phillips. If Masina shot further to the right, the wall would have blocked the strike. More to the left, and Sean Morrison was there to clear it off the line. 

Phillips could have certainly done better, but nothing should be taken away from Masina’s powerful hit and particular placement (or lack thereof) to lift Watford’s free-kick curse – and he could not have chosen a better time to do so. 

Tom Cleverley: Not Abdi – Yet Sufficiently Similar

Almen Abdi: it is safe to say the vast majority of Watford supporters have fond memories when they hear that name. He is Watford’s most recent direct free-kick scorer (a goal that occurred almost five years ago). The former Switzerland international player’s attacking threat from the midfield made him a fan favorite. 

At times this season, some may think the Hornets would be better off with a player identical to Abdi. Although that is true, the Hornets do indeed have a player who is not completely different – but offers even more too. 

Abdi’s Vicarage Road Success

Now retired following a spell with Sheffield Wednesday, Abdi initially joined Watford, from Udinese, on loan for the 2012/13 campaign. In the Pozzos’ first year of owning the Hornets, Abdi was an instant success. Including the three Promotion Playoff matches, the attacking midfielder scored 12 goals and notched nine assists in 42 appearances.

The Hornets subsequently purchased him on a permanent basis. But, Abdi’s 2013/14 campaign was largely interrupted by injuries, and he only managed to play 16 matches in all competitions. The following season, however, Abdi was back to being one of the Club’s most influential players.

In the 2014/15 promotion campaign, Abdi did not perfectly replicate his 2012/13 goal-contribution output. As impressive as nine goals and two assists from 32 appearances is for a midfielder, that output does not justify the true influence he had in the Club’s promotion season.

Apart from his set-piece brilliance (something no Watford player has replicated since his departure), Abdi was pivotal to so many of the Hornets’ attacking movements. Even with Deeney and Ighalo in the best form of their careers, Abdi’s vision and creativity were essential to Watford’s attacking juggernaut. 

In the Hornets’ first season in the Premier League, Abdi played 32 matches and scored twice. Although his performances were decent (but not overly impressive), Watford sold him to Sheffield Wednesday. The Club brought in Roberto Pereyra to try and fill the attacking-midfield void, but ultimately, Watford have not been able to get a truly like-for-like replacement since. 

However, this season, Watford do have an Abdi-esque player. Well, to an extent – the nearly perfect extent.

Tom Cleverley Providing Necessary Glimpses Of Similarity – And So Much More

When Deeney has been absent, Tom Cleverley has taken the captain’s armband and performed admirably. The central midfielder joined Watford, from Everton, in 2017. His first three seasons at Vicarage Road were largely hindered by injuries. By Project Restart, when he returned from a heel injury, he was firmly behind Will Hughes, Etienne Capoue, and Abdoulaye Doucoure in the pecking order. So, even though Cleverley’s experience and talent were known, he gradually became a slightly forgotten man. This season has revitalized his career. 

In 30 league appearances, the 31-year-old has scored four times and assisted two goals. When playing in Xisco Munoz’s 4-3-3 formation, the former Red Devil is the midfielder highest up the pitch. This was even the case in any of the other countless formations the Hornets have attempted this season.

From the advanced-midfield role, Cleverley sometimes provides the creative spark Abdi became known for. Cleverley’s vision and composure ensure he does not give the ball away during positive attacking movements. He is the Club’s leading central-midfield goal-scorer this season, with twice as many goals as second-placed Hughes. 

Before his recent minor ligament injury, Cleverley thoroughly usurped set-piece duties and started to look more dangerous with his deliveries. He has been the preferred set-piece taker for the majority of the season, but that preference recently became a practical exclusivity. Although the Club’s direct free-kick curse has not yet been lifted, Cleverley started to come a lot closer to scoring from the free-kicks. His corner kicks were more sparsely hitting the first-defender – a previously way-too-frequent occurrence from the Hornets’ corner routines. 

So, at times, Cleverley provides glimpses of what the Club has missed since the Abdi days. But, of course, Cleverley brings other talents to the table too. His defensive acumen is significantly better than Abdi’s, meaning Cleverley’s high-pressing from the attacking midfield is more dangerous than Abdi’s was. The former Premier League winner’s leadership traits have also made significant positive contributions to the Hornets this season. He is reliable no matter where he needs to play in the midfield, defensive or attacking-minded.

Philip Zinckernagel also has similar traits to Abdi. His delicate, genius, slipped-in assist to Andre Gray against Wycombe showed the similar creative aspects are there. And, with Cleverley sidelined for the next few matches, Zinckernagel will continue to have the chance to showcase his talents – and from there, further similarities may be able to be drawn. 

Overall, Abdi is a player hard to replicate. But, when the Hornets have needed a carbon copy, Cleverley has come close enough. And, of course, Cleverley offers many other different, necessary talents to the Club as well.

Defending Attacking-Mindedly: Xisco Munoz’s Latest Tactical Masterclass

Heading into the clash against Nottingham Forest, Watford were without many key players. Dan Gosling and Tom Cleverley were sidelined due to injury concerns, while Nathaniel Chalobah missed out thanks to a two-match ban. Carlos Sanchez had only just signed for the Hornets. So, Will Hughes was the Hornets’ only (senior) central midfielder with Championship minutes available for the match. 

Philip Zinckernagel played in a less-natural central-midfield position against Wycombe the match prior. Ken Sema slotted into the heart of the pitch on three occasions for Udinese last season. Nonetheless, the lack of true midfield depth appeared destined to haunt the Hornets. However, Xisco Munoz called for familiar, yet new, tactics – a genius choice which prominently helped Watford beat Chris Hughton’s side.

Tactics Temporarily Tweaked For The Better

Watford have picked up 18 out of 21 possible points since switching to the 4-3-3 formation – a large reason why the central-midfielder lack of depth is problematic. Any sizeable veering from the successful formation would be risky and most likely costly. So, even with a lack of true central midfielders available, Xisco fielded a variant of the 4-3-3 anyway.

The formation used can be better described as a 4-1-4-1, with Will Hughes playing in a deep-lying central-defensive midfield role. Zinckernagel and Joao Pedro played as the attacking midfielders. The change in formation was not much of a formation change at all: the 4-1-4-1 is simply a 4-3-3 with an attacking-minded midfield triangle (as opposed to a less polarized/flatter midfield). 

One key benefit to fielding Pedro and Zinckernagel as attacking midfielders is overlapping runs were more encouraged. Whenever Watford got numbers forward, having five attackers on the pitch helped the Hornets have more intricacy in attacking movements. Admittedly, Watford only scored once, but a handful of other decent chances were made – which was more than good enough considering a new, make-shift tactic was being used for the first time. After all, Pedro had never played as a central midfielder before the match. 

The main reason why having Pedro and Zinckernagel as attacking midfielders was tactically genius, however, is highlighted in the manner that the Hornets played without the ball. 

Midfield Tempo Nullification

James Garner returned to Vicarage Road for the first time since his loan with Watford was terminated by Manchester United. The highly-rated midfielder has performed considerably well since joining Nottingham Forest at the end of January. Hughton’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation allows Garner more time on the ball from a defensive-midfield role than he was offered with the Hornets. Xisco knew Hughton wanted to use their two deeper-lying midfielders to set the tempo of the match. Lining up in a 4-1-4-1 nullified that threat.

For spells in the second half, Nottingham Forest were in the ascendancy. But, for the majority of the match, Watford were dictating the play. The key reason for the Hornets’ controlling of the match is that Garner and Ryan Yates (who was subbed off in the 57th minute for Cafu) were unable to get the time on the ball they thrive off of.

By fielding two attacking midfielders, Garner and Yates were almost always suffocated by pressure as soon as they picked up possession. The midfield triangle fielded by Hughton’s side was nullified because the points of Watford’s midfield triangle matched up with the opposition’s. This did certainly give their attacking midfielder Filip Krovinovic more space to roam, but the ever-reliable Hughes dealt with him well. The subtle staggering of the midfield made all the difference in the match.

Defending Offensively 

In being forced to start two attackers in the midfield, Xisco knew the starting eleven was inevitably going to have a forward-thinking mindset. With five attackers on the pitch, the squad is naturally going to seek to pick up the ball in dangerous positions through pressing, rather than sit back and soak up the pressure. Through Pedro and Zinckernagel, Watford halted Nottingham Forest’s engine. By using an attacking-minded line-up and having the make-shift midfielders closing down the opposition’s defensive midfielders, the Hornets prevented Nottingham Forest from registering a single shot on target.

Proof Xisco called for an attacking-minded defensive tactic was when Sanchez entered the fray. “La Roca,” as he is nicknamed, almost exclusively played as a defensive midfielder throughout his career. But, when he came on for Andre Gray (and Pedro was moved to the central-forward position), Sanchez did not drop back to play alongside Hughes. He did not change the direction of the Hornets’ midfield triangle. From start to finish, Xisco ensured Garner and Co. could not dictate the tempo – exactly what Hughton knew he needed his side to do to get a result. 

The Hornets were forced into making midfield changes. There is a chance that the 4-1-4-1 is not utilized again this season. Still, Xisco cleverly used his limited resources and put together a subtle, yet applaudable, tactical masterclass. The Spaniard should use this match as an example that slight formational tweaks (while still sticking to a variant of the 4-3-3) can make all the difference in the push for promotion. 

The Lerma Lesson

In Watford’s recent defeat at Bournemouth, Jefferson Lerma may have “cheated” (the word being thrown around) and played the match in an immature, disgraceful manner. The referee may have made some questionable decisions. But, none of that means Watford are not to primarily blame for the result. Bournemouth and Lerma knew the Hornets were the stronger team in better form, so they knew the best way to win was by ensuring the focus of the match went elsewhere. Fortunately for the Cherries, Watford took the bait.

If the two clubs are to clash in the Promotion Playoffs, there is every reason to suspect Bournemouth will play the same way. The Hornets need to learn from the recent defeat if they are to achieve promotion, especially if the Cherries are in their path once more.

Lerma’s Antics Detestable – But Exactly What Bournemouth Needed 

Lerma hit the ground easily on many occasions. The main moment of controversy prior to stoppage time involved him and Nathaniel Chalobah. Both challenged for a ball in the air, to which Lerma whined after feeling the slightest of contact with Chalobah’s hand. The former Chelsea player resultantly misses the Hornets’ two subsequent fixtures, as the yellow card brandished was his 10th of the season.

Hornets players inevitably, and rightfully, complained whenever Lerma fell for the rest of the match. Lerma and his actions became the focal point of the game – exactly what Bournemouth wanted. As poor as his actions were, he ensured the Hornets’ quality could not come to the fore. It is a dirty way of playing football, but that does not mean it is not allowed – even if it should be outlawed. The antics were detestable, but from Jonathan Woodgate’s point-of-view, it is exactly what he desired. 

Watford’s Response Gave Bournemouth The Advantage

The resulting free-kick from Chalobah’s yellow card resulted in Bournemouth scoring the only goal of the match. Even if Lerma over-exaggerated and the official made the wrong decision, the Hornets only have themselves to blame for conceding. The free-kick was taken from Bournemouth’s defensive half, meaning there was especially no excuse for such poor marking. The defense switched off and remained stagnant, giving Arnaut Danjuma a clear sight at goal – with the assist coming directly from the set-piece. Watford only have themselves to point the finger at for conceding the goal. Switching off in the manner they did has no excuse. 

The Hornets chased the match from that point forward. Still, the main focus of the match was on Lerma and his antics. It was hard for Watford to build positive momentum when the focus was not consistently on the football. In the 97th minute, Joao Pedro made a poorly-timed challenge on Lerma, resulting in his second yellow card of the match. 

Lerma’s antics slowed the match down the way he would have wanted them to. There is no claiming Lerma did the “right thing,” and there is no argument he played how he “should play.” Still, the bottom line is he did play in a condemnable manner. He was Bournemouth’s key to halting Watford’s progress. By changing the focus of the match, he got the visitors to take the bait. It is a cheap strategy, but clearly, it worked for the hosts. 

Watford Need To Focus Solely On The Football

Watford undoubtedly have one of the best, if not the best, squad in the Championship when it comes to individual-by-individual talent. Bournemouth knew their best chance at beating Watford was disrupting the flow of the football, as letting the game naturally play out would give Watford the upper hand. The Hornets’ success in the 4-3-3 likely would not be halted by the Cherries if external factors were not used.

Lerma was successful at being the “external factor.” Other teams want Watford to be distracted from the football. Anything to disrupt quality from coming to the fore is going to be sought by certain oppositions. By letting Lerma’s antics and controversy distract them from composed, methodical playing, the Hornets minimized their chances of success. 

Other clubs (such as Luton Town near the end of the season) might try similar, cheap tactics to get the better of Watford. If the Hornets come up against Bournemouth in the Promotion Playoffs, controversy and further antics are inevitable.

Watford need to let the football do the talking. The players need to take their anger and frustration out by playing with more intensity, not by coming face to face off the ball with the opposition. The last laugh will go Watford’s way if they keep their composure and let the talent, quality, and tactics conquer the disgraceful actions. Complaining and switching off is what rivals want to see. Other teams know Watford want a match where the football, not antics, does the talking, so it is the Hornets’ responsibility to ensure other factors do not change their focus. 

Lerma’s antics are not justified, but the Hornets let the focus of the match slip away from them. The Lerma lesson is about keeping composure, even when immediate retaliation is desired. The antics did not directly give Bournemouth the advantage: the Hornets’ disorderly response did. Watford need winning football, and nothing else, to be their form of revenge. 

The Quina Conundrum

In the January transfer window, Watford controversially sent Domingos Quina on loan to Granada CF with the hope that Quina would receive more playing time. Upon the closing of the transfer window, Watford had a mere four senior central midfielders: Will Hughes, Tom Cleverley, Nathaniel Chalobah, and Dan Gosling. Philip Zinckernagel, Ben Wilmot, and Ken Sema can all play in the midfield if necessary. Still, loaning out Quina came as a shock to some – and understandably so.

Quina’s Controversial Loan 

It did not seem like Quina, who made 14 appearances for the Hornets before acquiring a hamstring injury in the middle of December, was surplus to requirements. He started eight times out of 18 available matches under Vladimir Ivic – starting the season in a central-midfield role, but eventually being instructed to play in a less-orthodox left-midfield position. The 21-year-old West Ham youth-product scored in Watford’s 4-1 victory against Preston North End. 

Vladimir Ivic frequently rotated formations, but none called for Quina’s most-effective central-attacking-midfielder role. His creativity was frequently limited by his instruction in the tactics. Ivic’s fondness of James Garner did not help Quina’s case for minutes either. 

When Xisco Munoz came in, Quina was injured. But, come the end of the transfer window, he was near full fitness, while Watford did not have tremendous midfield depth. Indeed, the Hornets’ small-handful of midfield choices are amongst the best in the league (with Hughes being the Championship’s cream of the crop). Even with Dan Gosling coming in to provide necessary depth following Garner’s loan termination, Quina still appeared like an important member of the squad when fully fit. 

Quina was not in line to start every match, but, especially under the Hornets’ newly-preferred 4-3-3 formation, having a player of his talents in the rotation would be ideal. So, when Quina was sent on loan to get more playing time at Granada, many questions were raised.

The Loan Move Makes Sense, But Barely

Granada currently sit ninth in La Liga and just advanced to the Europa League Round of 16. Watford, of course, are competing for promotion back to the top flight. For a youngster such as Quina, it seems more minutes would arrive on a team of Watford’s present status. 

Expecting Quina to receive more minutes on a Europa-League-competing Spanish side is risky. Not that he does not have the talent, for he most certainly does. Simply stated, Granada already had more midfield depth than Watford (also with considerably talented midfielders, the most notable being Yangel Herrera).

Admittedly, training with a competitive La Liga side and obtaining a fair number of minutes will only do a world of good for his development. In the long run, this loan will prove to benefit both him and the Hornets. In Quina’s first start for Granada, he scored a wonder-goal. Further improvement is imminent and already showing. Thus, the conflicts regarding this loan are primarily in the questions, “Why not let him develop in the Championship? If Watford and Granada are offering him similar minutes, is it not better for Watford to keep their player for depth and added quality?”

Championship Is The Perfect Destination To Develop

The average competition in La Liga is of a higher quality than in the Championship. So, Quina going up against larger clubs will allow his technical ability, awareness, and vision to improve. But, those are aspects of his play which he already possesses in sufficient quantities. 

The main phase of Quina’s play that challenged him this season was the physical side of the Championship. If Watford are to return to the Premier League next year, Quina’s La Liga loan will make it so the adjustment back at Vicarage Road is seamless. But, if the Hornets fail to obtain promotion, it might still be hard for him to thrive in the Championship without getting used to the physicality. And, if Watford are promoted and Quina had stayed, the physicality improvement still would have only benefitted him.

Again, the loan to Granada is beneficial in more ways than one. But, keeping him in the Championship, on an individual level, would have helped him in other, arguably more important, aspects of play. The primary talking point when it comes to the loan, however, has to be surrounding Watford’s tactics and rotation.

Midfield Depth Shortage

Even if the loan to Granada is better for Quina’s development than staying would have been, the effects of the temporary departure can still harm Watford in more vital ways in the present. Between Hughes, Chalobah, Cleverley, and Gosling, the Hornets have a strong, in terms of talent and reliability, midfield rotation. But, the rotation is not deep. Against Blackburn, Chalobah needed to be rested, and the Hornets were left with no true midfielders on the bench. In a season with lots of fixture congestion, rest, and even injuries, are inevitable. Health/fitness alone should not be relied upon for Watford to sustainably use a 4-3-3 with true midfielders.

Yes, Wilmot, Sema, and Zinckernagel can play in the midfield if called upon. Nevertheless, having players out of their most natural position is far from optimal – especially for a team charging for the automatic promotion places.

When Quina was loaned out, Xisco was electing to utilize a 4-4-2 formation, so having four central midfielders was barely, but sufficiently, sustainable. With the 4-3-3 proving to be significantly more effective, the Hornets might come to rue loaning Quina out. Having him as a fifth midfielder, providing creativity and attacking threat whenever called upon, would only have been of huge benefit to the Hornets. Rotating the midfield would not be a worry and if multiple players needed to miss a couple of matches, natural positioning in tactics would not be jeopardized. 

Quality Loan – But Unnecessarily Risky

Quina being loaned to Granada shows the tremendous quality the youngster possesses. When he returns to Watford, he will have improved many aspects of his game and will be a huge asset to the Hornets, whatever league that may be in. In the long run, this loan has tremendous positives. But, in the present, the thought that the Hornets would have been better off keeping him cannot be avoided. The risk taken by sacrificing true midfield depth might prove to be a gamble that should not have been made. 



Give Zinckernagel Time: The Berghuis Debacle Needs To Be Learned From

28 appearances. 19 goals. 18 assists. When Philip Zinckernagel signed for Watford upon the opening of the January transfer window, many fans were expecting the Dane to make an instant impact. After over one month in England, Zinckernagel’s only start has come in an FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford. But, despite his lack of inclusion, the Club and supporters should not start thinking about giving up hope on Zinckernagel. A similar situation occurred at Vicarage Road a few seasons ago – a scenario with an outcome the Hornets continue to regret.

Zinckernagel “Adjusting” With Mixed Cameos 

“I think now is the moment to take it step-by-step, so he understands about the Championship. We need to have a good balance,” explained Xisco Munoz at the end of January. “He’s a good player and I think he can give us very good things but we need to take it step-by-step, game-by-game, and I’m sure soon he will be able to give us very good moments.”

Xisco’s claim Zinckernagel still needs to adjust to the Championship is understandable. Some factors need to be considered. Firstly, transferring from the Eliteserien to the physical Championship is a sizeable switch. Furthermore, the pitches in Norway are constructed with artificial grass, whereas pitches in England are made of real grass. So, inevitably, the right-winger (who can also play on the left and in central-attacking positions) had plenty of adjusting to do when arriving. Nonetheless, the adjustment factors still do not seem to fully explain his sparse minutes.

When Ken Sema was sidelined, many supporters expected Zinckernagel to be called upon to start. Instead, in Sema’s absence, Tom Cleverley and Will Hughes, both central-midfielders by trade, were given the nod in the wide position. 

In league play, across eight matches, Zinckernagel has played a total of 159 minutes for the Hornets – fewer than twenty minutes per appearance. 

In Zinckernagel’s cameos, he has had some notable moments – some bad, some good. Frequently when he receives the ball, the 26-year-old tries to pull out neat tricks to work his way past the defender. Sometimes, the gambles occur in dangerous areas and lead to chances for the opposition. Other times, his fancy footwork leads to goal-scoring opportunities for the Hornets. Against Derby County, he registered one key pass, one shot on target, and had only 11 fewer touches than Sema (who played an hour longer than Zinckernagel). In the match against Bristol City, Zinckernagel did well to keep-pace with Sarr to open his goal-scoring account for the Hornets.

His first touches on the ball in each match are usually questionable. But, by the end of the game, he is lively, up-to-pace, and threatening. However, once he has grown into the match, the referee’s final whistle-blow comes. Increased minutes are necessary. With tremendous fixture congestion, there is certainly not an absence of time to be distributed. 

Despite being a bit of a mixed-bag when coming off of the bench, Xisco needs to keep bestowing trust in Zinckernagel. The supporters need to as well. If the Club does not give Zinckernagel adequate chances, they risk repeating the Steven Berghuis debacle.

Watford Continue To Regret Misuse Of Berghuis

Berghuis joined Watford in the summer of 2015 for a fee of around 6 million pounds. 23-years-old at the time, the versatile Dutch right-winger had just come off of a campaign with AZ Alkmaar in which he notched 15 goal contributions in 19 starts. The future for Berghuis looked bright.

In Hertfordshire, Berghuis was not given many chances. In the Premier League, he played in nine matches – all coming off of the bench. He averaged under 25 minutes per appearance, contributing two assists in the process.

Deemed surplus to requirements by the hierarchy, Berghuis was sent on loan to Feyenoord for the 2016/17 campaign. After making 30 league appearances, scoring seven times, and assisting five goals, the Dutch club bought him for a fee nearly identical to the one Watford paid for him.

Watford not giving Berghuis adequate chances to prove himself, despite his promising future and impressive past, quickly came to haunt the Hornets. From the 2017/18 campaign forward, Berghuis has been amongst the Eredivisie’s leaders for both goals and assists. From the start of that campaign to the time of writing, Berghuis has made 108 appearances (in the Eredivisie) for Feyenoord. He tallied 57 goals and 38 assists in that span. That equates to one goal contribution every 97 minutes – a rate only the best of players produce.

Feyenoord’s club-captain is a prime example of a winger Watford did not give proper chances to shine. The Hornets need to learn from their Berghuis mistake by giving Zinckernagel enough time to showcase his talents and see if he is truly capable of competing for a starting spot in the long run. After all, he is Watford’s number seven.

Not enough time was given to Berghuis, and the long-lasting effect of not letting him grow into matches is the sour regret of thinking about “what could have been.” Cameos off of the bench are not enough for integrating and evaluating a player – especially when it comes to an attacker whose recent history shows promise.

Zinckernagel’s Prolific Past Cannot Be Overlooked 

The Championship and Eliteserien are very different leagues. The average team in the Championship is of a considerably higher quality than the average team in the Norwegian first-tier. And, of course, the style of play is different and physicality is more prominent in the English game. 

Still, Zinckernagel’s 37-goal-contribution season cannot be overlooked. Even in a Bodo/Glimt side which comfortably won the league, such an output is impressive. It provides proof Zinckernagel knows how to create chances and knows how to score. If such an output were easy, then the numbers would not be so notable and would not be so uncommon. There is a reason AC Milan coughed up 4.5 million pounds for Zinckernagel’s left-wing teammate Jens Petter Hauge – a player who had an output nearly identical to Zinckernagel’s.

The season before Berghuis joined Watford, he showed tremendous promise. His rate of scoring and assisting was proof. Zinckernagel has an equally, if not even more impressive, case of evidence to support his quality (it is important to mention his final goal for Bodo/Glimt came in December, so his “case of evidence” is as up-to-date/relevant as it gets). 

Zinckernagel might need more time to adjust to the Championship. Perhaps he is already up to his best. Either way, he needs to be given more time to showcase what he can do. There is no doubting his abilities – the numbers show he has what it takes to thrive. Even if Zinckernagel is only given a small handful of starts to prove himself (which he deserves to receive), that is better than what he is currently getting.

If Berghuis were given a couple of starts, who knows the positive contribution he would have made at Vicarage Road. Fortunately, with Zinckernagel, there is time to find out. Still, the currently-sufficient amount of time is slowly but surely ticking away.



Masina And Sema Need To Mirror Femenia And Sarr For Promotion

Watford have found a new identity since switching to the 4-3-3 formation. The change, thus far, has brought about a 6-0 thumping of Bristol City, which was followed by a 1-0 away victory against Preston North End. Although the goal in the latter came from a penalty, the reason for the Hornets’ newfound attacking threat relies on the usage of the wide areas. But, the best has not appeared just yet. 

Sarr And Femenia Provide Blueprint

Kiko Femenia and Ismaila Sarr have been standout performers for Watford on many occasions this season – with Femenia being the Hornets’ most consistent of players. Ever since Xisco Munoz decided to deploy a 4-3-3, both have further elevated their performance in the attacking phases of play.

Sarr had a mediocre match against Preston, but he was undoubtedly the Man of the Match against Bristol City. Femenia has performed admirably in both. Their link-up play and overlapping runs are what have propelled their success. The 4-3-3 is conducive to such movements, and Femenia and Sarr have adapted exceptionally. 

Against Bristol City, Sarr scored twice, notched two assists, and was primarily responsible for the match’s opening goal. The fourth goal is the prime example of Femenia and Sarr’s threat together – chemistry that needs to be replicated on the left side of the pitch.

For the fourth goal against Bristol City, at the beginning of the attacking movement, Femenia made a surge down the right flank. Sarr had the ball about ten yards behind Femenia, meaning Femenia was the furthest man forward on the right side following the overlapping run. Sarr then fed the ball to Femenia on the wing, who slowed down the play until Sarr made it into the box. Femenia delicately chipped a ball to Sarr’s feet near the byline. Sarr then had a wide-open Ken Sema to find in the middle of the box. Femenia and Sarr’s intricate movement and interplay allowed for the Hornets to score a goal of the highest quality – movements they will be able to replicate on a match-by-match basis. 

Even though Sarr was not as impressive against Preston, the overlapping runs from Femenia were still present and caused problems for the back-line. Sema and Adam Masina need to take note, as that bit of intricacy seems slightly less present on the left side.

Sema And Masina Need To Copy The Right

Although Sema and Masina have performed well as individuals in most of their appearances this season, there seems to be a bit of a disjoint went it comes to linking up in attacking play. Masina appears more reluctant than Femenia to make overlapping runs into attacking positions. On a couple of occasions against Preston, Sema and Masina’s miscommunications led to cheap goal kicks for the opposition.

Again, both have been phenomenal individually and have done their duties well. Masina has been robust and reliable in defense since returning from injury. Sema has continued to make his strong, calculated runs to the byline to fizz threatening balls across the box. But, to take Watford’s attacking threat to the next level, the two need to replicate the right side. In fact, Watford were able to take the lead the lone time they did mimic Sarr and Femenia successfully. 

Success When Replication Occurred

The play which led to the penalty started with a Craig Cathcart long-ball in the direction of Sema. The Preston defender headed the ball to Tom Cleverley, who then headed the ball back to Sema. By the time Sema got the ball at his feet, Cleverley peeled out wide and Masina made an overlapping run (with Cleverley) to find himself five yards outside of the box in a central position.

Sema then found Masina in his dangerous position. The left-back then took two touches to give the ball back to Sema, who had peeled wide to give himself room to cross. Sema’s first-touch cross led to Joao Pedro being taken down in the box for the penalty. 

It was Masina’s run forward which was the key in the attacking movement. If Sema and Masina put together movements like this at the rate Sarr and Femenia do, it will be hard for even the best of defenses to halt what can become an attacking juggernaut. 

Wing-Play Key To Promotion 

The 4-3-3 formation gives Watford the perfect balance. The Hornets’ defense has been one of the league’s best all season. Having three central-midfielders guarantees Watford midfield dominance in most matches. So, the attack is what will determine if the Hornets are to return to the Premier League. If Watford continue to establish intricate wide play as their form of attacking identity, then the Club’s prospects of promotion will continue to grow brighter.



Role Models, Training With The First Team, Semi-Finals, Loan Move, And More: Exclusive Interview With George Langston

The mid-November day was just like any other for the Watford players who were not on international duty. The Hornets had secured a crucial victory over Norwich City the week before. But, for one person on the training ground, the day was unforgettable. On the 15th of November, 2019, George Langston signed his first professional contract with Watford. 

The now 18-year-old defender was an integral part of the Club’s run to the semi-finals in the 2018/19 FA Youth Cup. He joined the Hornets in 2016, following time with Tottenham Hotspur’s youth ranks. 

This season, Langston has trained frequently with the Hornets’ first team. Club management then determined he was ready to compete outside of just youth competition. On deadline day, he was sent on a short-term loan to National League club Wealdstone FC.

Watford Opinions had the honour of being able to ask Langston a range of questions – and would like to offer a tremendous thank you to Langston for his effort, honesty, and time. From major influences to trickiest players to excitement about his loan, be sure to read what Langston shared.

Langston On Playing With The First Team

Training with the senior squad is a huge step forward for any young player. From club veterans to players with high-profile careers to multi-million-pound signings, practicing with the first team offers an array of players to look up to. For Langston, the player he most admires and tries to replicate is Craig Cathcart.

Whenever you see him around the training ground – and I’ve been lucky enough to train with him this season – everything he does is for a purpose and is very professional,” explains Langston. “He works very hard and that is what I aspire to be and to carry those morals throughout my career.”

When asked about the trickiest player to defend against in training, Langston’s response might not be surprising.

“In the first team, they all have brilliant ability and are tough to mark but for me, the toughest was João Pedro. The way he always had control of the ball and knew how to dictate a defender was unbelievable. He was really a tough test – not to mention his movement in the box as well.”

But, Pedro is not the only player for whom Langston had tremendous praise. He made sure to give plaudits to his teammate in the youth ranks.

“In academy levels, I would say the trickiest player is Sonny-Blu Lo-Everton; like Pedro, he has the ball at his feet and is always in control of the situation. Sometimes, in training, the coaches call him ‘glue foot,’ as the ball is stuck to his feet when he dribbles.”

From White Hart Lane To Vicarage Road

One might expect switching from Tottenham to Watford to be a sizeable shift with a difficult transition. Langston, however, feels the move was smooth and another step in the right direction. 

“I wouldn’t say the transition was difficult because both academies wanted to play good football. The one difference I would say is at Tottenham, they focused on individual skills – whether this is dribbling or skill moves at a young age, along with some short-range passing. 

“At Watford, they really wanted to pass the ball about and be in a passing team which I liked. This [passing philosophy] started to help me develop tactically.”

Langston then mentioned how the timing/age of his academy switch might have been the reason for the differentiation in focus, rather than the clubs having starkly different approaches to youth development. 

Career Highlights

Although Langston is still in the earliest stages of his professional career, it is safe to say he has already had a few considerable highlights. 

“I would say signing my first professional contract at Watford is probably the highlight of my career so far. Especially being a local boy to Watford, it meant that little bit more to me,” explained the son of former Watford player Matthew Langston.

“Some honourable mentions have to be training with the first team for a period of time and learning off of them. The FA Youth Cup run in the 2018/19 season when we went to the semi-finals was just unbelievable and is a very, very close second. The whole journey was one of a kind and one that will live with me and is full of fond memories.”

On The Loan To Wealdstone

Langston’s feelings about his current loan-spell epitomize the youngster’s prospects. He has already made his league debut for the fifth-tier side – earning a place in the National League Team of the Week in the process. 

“[I am] really excited, as it is a very new experience and environment that I will be in,” exclaimed Langston. “I think it will help me massively; not just on the physical side, but mentally, as well as helping me to improve as a footballer overall. It will be a good test for me and one I want to try!”

His first loan as a professional footballer will further help him on his positive trajectory. If Watford and Langston continue to forge a strong relationship, the defender would love to stay at Vicarage Road in the long run. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: keep an eye on his progression. Langston’s exciting past and willingness to learn, adapt, and overcome, signals he has all the tools necessary to perform at the highest level in the future.