Premier League

How Watford can replace Will Hughes

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When a team wins promotion, there’s always a select few players who are always linked with moves away. The selling club will always do everything they can to keep hold of their prized assets who helped them get to where they are, but this isn’t always an achievable feat.

Emi Buendia’s move to Aston Villa during the current window is a prime example, leaving his previous employers Norwich City despite the Canaries topping the Championship last season.

In Watford’s case, Will Hughes is this player. The 25-year old played a key role in the Hornets’ promotion charge last season, with his return from injury during the festive period coinciding with the arrival of Xisco Munoz to the Vicarage Road dugout and a subsequent upturn in form.

Playing at the base of a midfield three following the change to 4-3-3, the impact Hughes’ energy and tenacity combined with his vision and passing ability brought was the catalyst to the run that saw them secure promotion.

He is a real fans’ favourite, even taking the armband at times and has been touted as a future club captain on numerous occasions. He was initially expected to play a big role for the upcoming season, but there has been plenty of uncertainty regarding his future at the club.

His only pre-season appearance came for the U23’s in a defeat against St. Albans City and he has rejected a new contract with it set to expire at the end of the season, being linked with Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Fulham.

Despite an offer of a new five-year deal which would make him one of the club’s top earners, Hughes and his agent are reluctant to sign due to the terms in it and so he is yet to renew, with them looking at alternative options. With just a couple weeks until the Premier League opener against Villa, it is now crucial that Watford do the same.

The Parameters

  • Good ball-winner
  • Physical
  • High work-rate
  • Comfortable in possession
  • Premier League experience (preferable)

The Expensive Pick

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa has proved himself as one of the better midfielders outside the big six since arriving at Fulham. A dominant, physical midfielder, Anguissa offers height and tenacity in the middle of the park as well a real engine, and has impressed amongst two relegated sides in West London.

His performances have attracted the attention of many and with the Whites suffering another relegation last season, this interest is bound to heat up as the arrival of deadline continues to loom.

After joining the youth academy of Cameroonian side Coton Sport as an 18-year old, his performances caught the eye of Stade Reims in Ligue 1 and he subsequently left Africa to come to Europe.

A season in Northern France starring for the youth team earned him a move to French giants Olympique Marseille, making his first team debut in a UEFA Europa League tie against FC Groningen in September 2015.

Anguissa enjoyed a successful time at Marseille, making over 100 appearances in all competitions. His form won the attention of the Premier League, with newly promoted Fulham announcing his arrival in the summer of 2018 in a £22m deal.

Although he impressed individually, it wasn’t as plain sailing for the team. Slavisa Jokanovic lost his job early on with Claudio Ranieri taking his place, but the Italian Premier League winner failed to have the desired impact and was sacked himself in February with the team sat ten points from safety.

Assistant manager Scott Parker took his place and oversaw their relegation back to the Championship. With Fulham unable to shift him permanently, a loan spell to Villarreal took place, where he made 36 appearances as the Yellow Submarines finished fifth and reached the quarter-final of the Copa Del Rey.

A return to Fulham following their immediate promotion back into the top flight saw an improved campaign as they battled much harder against relegation. Although it wasn’t to be in the end, Anguissa stood out, playing all but two Premier League games.

Despite finishing down in 18th, Fulham’s performances during parts of last season were commendable to say the least. This was most notable during the winter period, with just four defeats between the start of December and the start of March.

Highlights included draws with Liverpool, Spurs and high-flying West Ham as well as a win at Anfield, with their defence playing a key role in these results.

Fulham conceded 53 goals during 2020/21, the 12th least in the league- certainly not a mean feat for a newly promoted club.

Although the likes of Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen deserve plenty of praise for this solidity (as well as Alphonse Areola in goal), it was equally the man in front of them that served a crucial part in their resolute nature.

One of Anguissa’s best traits is the sheer amount of running he does. His determination to win the ball makes him relentless and a real struggle to play against.

He is an aggressive presser, with his energy allowing him to constantly harrow the opposition, making 19.55 pressures per 90. This creates discomfort for the attacker, waiting for the right opportunity to time his challenge to perfection and win the ball back; a rate of 4.94 tackles and interceptions per 90 says it all.

This approach is evident in a phase of play against Leicester City as seen in the images below. Anguissa can be seen constantly on the case of the attacker, winning the ball not once but twice in the space of a few seconds to ensure possession couldn’t be overturned.

This relentlessness can be seen while he was playing for Villarreal also. In a game against Atletico Madrid, Anguissa watched as Diego Simeone’s side began a quick one-touch move, following the ball until Joao Felix broke through.

It was here that he began to chase the youngster, staying tight and refusing to give him a moment of peace until the danger had subsided, eventually forcing him wide and conceding a corner.

Positionally, he almost acts as a box-to-box midfielder at times, pressing high. He has the energy and dynamism to get up and down the pitch with ease, however, with Harrison Reed normally covering him if he starts to progress.

The majority of Anguissa’s tackles and pressures come in the middle third of the pitch, this being 1.60 per 90 and 9.57 per 90 respectively, but he has the intelligence to know when to stay deep.

This contrasts to his time in Spain where during his loan spell at Villarreal, Vicente Iborra’s role in the team meant Anguissa was picked to play in a slightly more advanced role.

This allowed his ball-winning ability to thrive higher up the pitch, creating dangerous opportunities for his side to exploit, something which was seen early on in the same game against Atleti.

An alert Anguissa pounced on a loose ball, taking it off the toe of the defender and using his body to shrug him off with ease, immediately taking it into his stride.

This highlights his comfortability on the ball, able to win it, then keep it and then begin an attack like it was effortless.

This comfortability is partly why he is held in such high regard, with his ball-carrying ability really standing on its own. He is an elite ball-carrier, completing the most dribbles in Europe’s top five leagues last season with 3.03 per 90 as well as making 6.12 progressive carries per 90.

With his calmness with the ball at his feet blended with his 6”0 frame and strength, it is very difficult to take the ball off him, as shown by the below scenario.

Starting well inside his own half, he progressed the ball quickly and evaded the challenge of the Leicester player in the process. This gave him the time and space to slide a ball through for the onrushing Ademola Lookman, who took the ball under control and slotted home to open the scoring against all the odds.

A similar scenario can be seen for Villarreal, taking possession of a loose ball and evading the challenge of two defenders this time to help begin a counter-attack, although in this case it failed to lead to a goal.

If Watford managed to pull off Anguissa, it would be deemed a fantastic coup that would play a massive role in their survival hopes.

With his ability to both progress the ball forward and win the ball, the Cameroon international offers everything that can be asked of for a defensive midfielder while his 25 years means he is at an ideal age for a Hughes replacement.

It can be argued that he is an upgrade on Hughes while also being a much needed physical presence that’s been lacking since the departures of the fantastic Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure.

His pressing style would complement the likes of Imran Louza and Peter Etebo, particularly the latter being an energetic midfielder who enjoys getting stuck in, with the potential to interchange with each other during different scenarios.

He also possesses Premier League experience at the bottom end of the table, something which would be invaluable for Watford.

With AFCON set to take place during the upcoming season his nation being Cameroon is a concern, however, owing mainly to the amount of African players Watford have already signed and have at their disposal.

He also won’t come cheap, with a likely price tag of up to £20m-£25m being out of Watford’s price range. If they were able to come up with the money though, there would be little doubt over how big a statement Zambo Anguissa would be, and would surely bring nothing but positivity and optimism ahead of the 2021/22 season.

The Safe Pick

Playing under Chris Wilder has perhaps brought the best out of Oliver Norwood. A defensive midfielder by trade, the Northern Ireland international has proved himself as a more than capable deep-lying playmaker who has been at the heart of Sheffield United’s success over the last few seasons.

Although the Blades find themselves a Championship team once again following their relegation last term, Norwood has impressed for the most part particularly in the 2019/20 campaign, and he may be an unpopular choice to consider.

Having come through the famous Manchester United academy, Norwood left for Huddersfield Town following three separate loan spells with Carlisle United, Scunthorpe United and Coventry City between 2010 and 2012, with no senior appearances for the Red Devil’s first team.

A drop to the Championship proved to be a breath of fresh air for the youngster, signing a three-year deal and making 90 appearances in West Yorkshire.

His good form saw him move to Reading in the summer of 2014 before signing for Brighton & Hove Albion after two seasons with the Royals. Norwood made 33 appearances in his debut campaign as the Seagulls won automatic promotion to the Premier League as runners-up, although he was soon deemed surplus to requirements.

A loan spell to Fulham saw another promotion, this time via the play-offs and then a third consecutive success in the Championship with a loan spell to Sheffield United, making the Championship Team of the Season as his side finished second.

The Blades soon made this move permanent, with an important role to come in the Premier League and the first time in his career that Norwood was trusted with an opportunity to be a mainstay in a top flight team, playing 70 times across the last two seasons. He also serves as vice-captain at Brammall Lane.

Sheffield United under Chris Wilder utilised their midfield in a similar way to Watford, particularly in their first season back in the Premier League.

Lots of switches and high pressure was a theme with Norwood at the centre of this, with John Fleck and John Lundstram normally being the ones to push further forward and either putting in crosses from deep or making late runs into the box.

This meant they needed one man to sit back and cover the defence. Despite this, Norwood is intelligent positionally. He reads the game well and knows when to let his teammates break forward while also knowing when start progressing himself, benefitting from United’s fluid system that sees players fill in for each other and interchange when out of position, with the aim being to maintain a rigid formation.

Norwood is best suited to being a deep-lying playmaker with this being his primary role, with the freedom to spread long balls out to the wingers after receiving possession.

He is always looking up to pick out passes, possessing a good range that allows him to have a variety of influences on the attack. He is always forward thinking and willing to make riskier passes if it means his team can create goalscoring opportunities, even when there are safer options on.

The numbers indicate similar with 18.08 long passes attempted per 90 telling the story in this regard, making 4.30 progressive passes per 90, 1.26 key passes per 90 and 5.31 passes into the final third per 90, as well as 4.58 switches per 90.

Set pieces are a strength for Norwood, primarily from indirect free kick situations or corners allowing him to swing the ball into the danger area from dead balls.

He normally prefers in-swingers, with this scenario in a win over Everton being an example. A simple corner routine saw the 30-year old put a cross into the perfect area for chaos to ensue, ending with Yerry Mina putting the ball into his own net to open the scoring.

As good as he is at progressing and distributing the ball, an important part of any defensive midfielder’s game is their ability off the ball. While Norwood isn’t a particularly physical, aggressive player, he is still comfortable at making strong challenges.

He is intelligent when facing the threat of an opposition attack, benefitting from Fleck and Lundstram always getting stuck in as well.

While they take up the bulk of the challenges that take place throughout a game, this normally leaves Norwood in the middle able to pounce on any loose balls and clear up any danger that isn’t dealt with, maintaining a superb reading of the game that allows him to press his opponents and time his tackles to perfection most of the time, rather than being rash.

This is backed up by his 1.18 tackles won per 90 and 1.62 interceptions per 90, but with 18.61 pressures per 90 and 2.47 clearances per 90. This can be seen best in a game against Everton during 2019/20.

Initially watching the phase of play unfold, Norwood tracked the ball well and was able to position himself in a way that brought him in the perfect place to make an important challenge just before half time as his team were defending a narrow lead.

It can be argued that Norwood could make a perfect like-for-like replacement for Hughes, for the time being at least. A younger option would be preferable especially with Hughes himself being just 26, but Norwood is 30 and would have to be a short-term option.

He would help with creativity in midfield though, with a superb passing range that could see similarities albeit to a lesser extent to when Etienne Capoue would spread long diagonals for fun from the base of the midfield.

Norwood isn’t physically huge but is still strong in the challenge when he wants to be, and could compliment the likes of Imran Louza and Peter Etebo in a trio that would offer a nice blend of energy and tenacity but with a positive technical aspect as well.

He brings enough Premier League experience with diverse circumstances having challenged for Europe and battled against relegation during his last two campaigns, and although Sheffield United will be determined to get straight back to the big time, he shouldn’t be out of Watford’s price range. Overall, it has all the makings of a potentially smart move.

The Wildcard Pick

Sam Allardyce hit the jackpot when West Brom announced the arrival of Celta Vigo midfielder Okay Yokuslu on a six-month loan deal. A physical, hard-working player who offers bite in the centre of the park and a reliable defensive option, Yokuslu played a key role in the Baggies’ improved performances during the second half of last season.

After arriving on deadline day of the winter window, the Turkish international joined a side deep in relegation trouble having conceded 50 goals already.

His performances in front of the defence helped to steady the ship a little, with a dramatic upturn in defensive solidity leading to just 26 goals finding the back of their own net for the rest of the season.

After spending his youth career with Karşıyaka S.K. and Altay S.K., he came through the ranks at the latter to make 35 appearances. He soon returned to Karşıyaka where he had a successful four seasons playing over 100 times, and a move to Turkish giants Trabzonspor followed.

It was here that Yokuslu caught the eye of teams in Europe’s top leagues, earning a move to La Liga in Celta Vigo after three seasons in Trabzon. He played 30 times in the league in his debut campaign amid a difficult season that saw Celta finish down in 17th.

A further 26 appearances came in 2019/20 but opportunities began to diminish after Oscar Garcia left the club, and he was soon loaned out to Premier League strugglers West Brom.

Okay Yokuslu of West Brom.
WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND – APRIL 12: Okay Yokuslu of West Bromwich Albion during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Southampton at The Hawthorns on April 12, 2021 in West Bromwich, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Yokuslu often looks to shield the defence first and foremost by cutting off passing lanes and winning the ball back. He avoids being rash and has a more cautious approach, preferring to put pressure on the attacker as opposed to diving in at the first opportunity, although he is strong in the tackle nonetheless.

This can be seen in the below image. In a match against Chelsea, West Brom had taken a shock 3-1 lead and unsurprisingly had plenty of pressure to deal with.

One phase of play saw Kurt Zouma take hold of the ball just in front of the halfway line and carry it forwards with momentum. Yokuslu came across and rather than sliding in, he put a bit of pressure on the French defender to force him to play it wide rather than risking giving away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box, with the eventual cross by Marcos Alonso being easily cleared.

It also shows him using his body well, with a physical side to his game that can invaluable at the base of a midfield.

The stats back this up too. Yokuslu made 18.16 pressures per 90 last season compared to 3.04 tackles and 2.63 interceptions per 90.

He made more tackles and tackles won, more pressures and successful pressures as well as more blocks and interceptions compared to his spells with Celta in both the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons after his move to West Brom, suggesting that the 27-year old suits the English game far more than the slower tempo of La Liga.

He was used sporadically by Eduardo Coudet after the Argentine’s arrival at Celta, bringing the move to the Midlands after a frustrating first half of the season in Spain in which he made just 14 appearances in all competitions, just four of them being starts.

Yokuslu is positionally disciplined, rarely crossing the halfway line unless there is an opportunity to do so. When tasked with sitting deep, he normally looks to mark space to ensure there is no way for the opposition to thread a ball into the path of the striker.

In the below image, Yokuslu has found himself in front of the defence with one Chelsea player directly to his left. His role in this phase of play is to prevent the man in possession from creating a goalscoring opportunity, with the way West Brom set up forcing the Blues to be more patient.

Another example shows Yokuslu with a different role, this time in a good position to prevent the man in possession, this being Alonso, from finding a pass into the middle of the pitch, with his only real options being to play a short but likely ineffective pass to the man ahead of him or to turn back towards the defender.

Alonso attempts to pass centrally regardless with the Turkish international able to hunt it down and make an important interception.

He does know when to push high up the pitch though, providing the intelligence to press high when necessary. In the below image in a match between Celta Vigo and Villarreal, a loose ball fell towards Yokuslu 30 yards from goal.

He was able to get stuck in and time his tackle to perfection to win the challenge, and despite the ball eventually being cleared he maintained the work ethic and energy to track back and return to his position to help prevent a counter attack.

As mentioned, Yokuslu’s priority more than anything is to shield his defence and break up play. He is comfortable on the ball but doesn’t tend to make risky passes, preferring the safe option more often than not and choosing to recycle the ball with short, safe passes to the other midfielders without having much of a major influence on build-up play.

This is indicated by a pass completion rate of 84.2% but making just 2.73 progressive passes per 90. His approach is best examined in La Liga where he played for a Celta Vigo side who averaged 53.7% possession.

In one phase of play against Villarreal, Yokuslu took hold of the ball inside his own half. As shown in the image below, the red arrows indicate three potential passing options he could have taken to progress the ball forward.

Instead he chose the route the yellow arrow shows, with a sideways pass to the centre back rather than looking to immediately create an opening.

For someone with his role and attributes, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however it is imperative that the system he plays in has more emphasis on other players to progress the ball, allowing Yokuslu to focus on his job of clearing things up at the back.

This element of how Yokuslu can be used in build-up play perfectly encompasses the role he is best suited to when his side are in possession. While off the ball he is able to use his ball-winning ability and physicality to take hold of it, this can’t be the case when his side are looking to progress it forwards themselves.

As shown in the image below, the 27-year old has positioned himself just in front of the centre backs who are playing the ball between themselves and the goalkeeper.

By covering this area of the pitch, he is able to pounce on any potential errors made with the two Villarreal attackers close by while also making himself open for a passing option should they need it, even dropping between the defenders at times as well.

Should Yokuslu come in to replace Hughes at Vicarage Road, there would have to be an adjustment to the way Munoz sets up with less emphasis on the #6 having a big role in build-up play. However, like Anguissa, he is arguably an even better ball-winner as well as offering a much needed physical presence that’s been lacking since Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure left the club.

The more advanced midfielders would be given more freedom to press as well, again with the emphasis on build-up play falling on their shoulders instead. This could even benefit the more technically gifted players such as Imran Louza and Domingos Quina as well as Peter Etebo being able to compensate for Yokuslu in that department.

What makes Yokuslu more of a wildcard option is that he has less Premier League experience than both Anguissa and Norwood. While this isn’t the be all and end all, featuring for just half a season in a relegated side makes it more of a risk as well as struggling for consistency abroad while with Celta as well.

With this being said, he impressed in a dismal campaign for West Brom. The Baggies are interested in bringing him back to the Hawthorns with a deal reportedly in progress although different reports state he wants a move back to the Premier League, and with their aim of an immediate promotion back to the top flight counteracted by Watford’s aim of avoiding relegation the other way, they would have to convince him of a stable position in the Premier League going forward.

With Yokuslu not figuring in the Spanish club’s plans for the upcoming season, a departure is very much on the cards and is available for up to a measly £5m. It really is a no brainer.

Alternative Options

Matt Grimes (Swansea)

Glen Kamara (Rangers)

Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen)

Jonjo Shelvey (Newcastle United)

The Verdict

Watford’s choice in how they replace Will Hughes could be the difference between their Premier League status for the 2022/23 season. It is invaluable they replace him wisely with a player who first and foremost offers what he can off the ball, but also being capable of playing in a side who are comfortable in possession too.

The most realistic of these looks to be Yokuslu, with there being heavy links in recent days- as well as a post on social media showing his agent at the club’s training ground spicing up the rumours.

Yokuslu would be an excellent piece of business for a very good price, while Norwood would offer a smart short-term option and Anguissa a dream signing that is likely out of their price range.

Whoever it is though, there will be a gap Hughes leaves that is difficult to fill. It has been a pleasure to watch the 26-year old over the last few seasons and wherever he ends up next, everyone associated with Watford will wish him all the best going forward.


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Main images credit: Embed from Getty Images

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