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How Watford Can Avoid Relegation Back to the Championship

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With the business end of the 2021/22 January transfer window upon us, there is still plenty of business yet to be done. As a newly promoted club, Watford will be in desperate need to continue improving after an extremely poor run of form has seen them slip into the relegation zone for the first time this season. The unimaginable wealth the Premier League brings makes it invaluable for the financial wellbeing of a promoted club, and relegation can be extremely damning after utilising the Premier League’s revenue.

This was evident after Watford’s relegation from the Premier League back in 2020, with a five-year stint at the highest level of English football coming to an end.

It was invaluable that they bounced back at the first attempt, something they achieved under the guidance of Xisco Muñoz who succeeded Vladimir Ivić in the Hornets hotseat. Xisco has since parted ways with Watford himself though, making way for veteran Claudio Ranieri to take over.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing though, as the Italian only managed to pick up two wins, going winless in the last eight games including a seven-game run of defeats that was ended by a 1-1 draw with relegation rivals Newcastle United. However, a 3-0 loss at home to Norwich City has now cost Ranieri his job, with the merry-go-round approach at work once again.

Although the results could be devastating for the club’s survival hopes, there were positive signs sprinkled on the overall poor performances at the start of his rein, looking a far better unit in attack with Emmanuel Dennis in particular shining after his summer move from Club Brugge. Ismaïla Sarr continued where he left off from last season’s Player of the Year winning campaign while Josh King has proven the doubters wrong after a disappointing end to his time with AFC Bournemouth and subsequent stint with Everton.

More recently too, João Pedro has begun to show why he should be considered one of the brightest young talents in the league. Moussa Sissoko has also proven to be a shrewd signing from Tottenham Hotspur and has gone up a level after Ranieri’s arrival, while Imrân Louza has started to look more and more at home in this Watford side as the season has progressed, filling in after the departure of Will Hughes and the injury to Peter Etebo as a reliable option at the base of the midfield.

Unfortunately, much of the positives end here, as the defensive side of things have once again been in freefall. They are still without a clean sheet, and are paying the price for another summer of little backing on a key area. It seems that the board deemed the best defence in Championship history good enough to compete at the highest level, but the side that conceded just 30 goals last season look a far cry from that now, with William Troost-Ekong, Francisco Sierralta, Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele all struggling, while a long-term injury has made the late arrival of Nicolas Nkoulou redundant.

It was crucial that some much needed acquisitions were made in the January transfer window, and luckily this has been done early. The only other defensive move made in the summer was the arrival of Danny Rose, but he has failed to perform and won’t play again for the club.

This highlighted the left back position as one in need of work, and brought the arrival of OGC Nice left back Hassane Kamara.

The Ivory Coast international is a versatile left-sided player, preferring to play as a defender in either a back four or a back three but his ability to get forward has seen him play in a more advanced position in midfield as well. He shows great adaptability to slot into any role and has impressed managers with his high work rate, looking to get up and down the pitch as much as possible. He is normally solid in duels despite his 5”6 frame, however his pride and joy is his offensive ability. The modern game is full of defenders who need to be able to contribute in the attacking phase and Kamara is no different. While playing under Patrick Vieira at Nice, the Frenchman’s preference for a possession-based game meant he would need to get relatively high up the pitch to influence the attack. He is lively and fast and uses these attributes to burst forward, carrying the ball well and making 3.56 progressive run per 90 combined with 3.66 dribbles attempted per 90 and a 68.92% success rate in 2019/20. He isn’t limited to being purely a good attacker. A key part of being a defender is of course defending and he is capable of doing what is required. He excels in the one on one situations, with his acceleration allowing him to take advantage over his opponent and rarely be outpaced, being dribbled past only 1.16 times per 90.

The former Reims player was also the most successful full back in sliding tackles with 1.56 per 90 and a 73.9% success rate. Kamara has been one of the best players in his position in the whole of Ligue 1 while at Nice, and with time to bed in should become a key figure in Watford’s survival hopes as they look to improve a weak backline.

Centre back is the one position many fans have looked at for far too long without much change, but, with Samir joining from Udinese, it seems this area is finally being looked at. After starting out at Audax Rio, he came through the ranks at Flamengo where he made his first team debut in 2013, and won the 2013 Copa do Brasil and the 2014 Campeonato Carioca with the club. After joining the Pozzo network in 2016, he was loaned out to Hellas Verona for the 2015/16 season before establishing himself as key part of the Udinese team the following year. He went on to remain in Udine for six years, making nearly 150 appearances for the club.

Samir is a quick, powerful defender who likes to compete in duels, and is comfortable in the air as well as with his feet. He likes to play out with short passes, and his ability to remain alert and read the game will come in handy as well. He is also a left-footed defender who has excelled in a back three, and will hope to be the upgrade in a department that’s been sorely lacking for years.

As mentioned, the departure of Hughes and injury to Etebo meant the defensive midfield position was alarmingly light, and Louza’s progression this season was a welcome and much-needed positive. He is currently off with Morocco at AFCON though, meaning it is once again light.

Edo Kayembe was identified as a potential replacement, and he was signed from Belgian outfit KAS Eupen. He looked at home on his debut at Newcastle, something which was an extremely welcome surprise with the lowest expectations of all the new signings, among an otherwise dismal display up north and followed it up with another promising performance against Norwich.

Born in DR Congo, the 23-year old played for a number of youth teams in his home country including AS Efokan, US Tshinkunku, SC Rojolu and Sharks XI FC, before making the move to Europe when he joined RSC Anderlecht, spending three years in Brussels prior to his move to Eupen. He is a versatile choice in midfield and has played in a variety of roles while in Belgium, claiming himself that he can feature in a box-to-box, defensive or more offensive position. He has a high work rate and is an accomplished runner, constantly looking to cover depth and make recoveries while his ability to hold up the ball and aerial capabilities despite a smallish stature make him stand out as a reliable option. He regularly looks to progress the ball forward with some smart passing in the final third, but it is his upper body strength and composure in possession that makes him stand out, able to hold off opposition defenders and always come out on top of 50/50 duels.

At such a young age and needing to make the big jump from the Belgian First Division there shouldn’t be too much pressure given to Kayembe, however he so far proven he can be the defensive midfielder Watford have been lacking for much of the season if he can become a consistent figure.

Although the attack is by far the least in need of reinforcements, Watford are on the verge of announcing the arrival of Girondins Bordeaux winger Samuel Kalu.

Born in Nigeria, the 24-year old began his career in the GBS Academy before moving to Europe with partner club AS Trenčín at the age of 18. His time in Slovakia brought impressive performances, leading to a move to Belgian side KAA Gent in 2017, and his displays earnt him another move to Ligue 1 with Bordeaux. 27 goals and 32 assists in 186 games piqued the interest of Watford’s scouting network and Kalu has been on their radar for a number of years, but their relegation in 2019/20 meant their interest wasn’t followed up.

Talks have begun to progress in recent weeks though with a deal seemingly close to completion. The relatively low cost of an initial £500,000 brings a potential high reward in terms of resale value, proving to be an attractive proposition to the club’s ownership. He featured primarily on the left in France, but he is a versatile attacker able to operate anywhere across the frontline. He likes to run with the ball with a high carry and dribble volume this season and enjoys deceiving his opponent to create space for crosses. He also shows hard work off the ball and remains active out of possession, utilising his pace in any scenario. End product may need to improve, but he will add improved depth in an attack that includes his countryman Dennis along with Sarr, King, Pedro, Cucho Hernández, Ashley Fletcher and Ken Sema.

Watford are still a relatively disjointed outfit in need of improvements. If they are to have to a valiant effort down the bottom of the Premier League, these four early signings shouldn’t be the end of Watford’s transfer business this month.

Manager

With Ranieri seemingly on the verge of departing, a new head coach will once again be walking through the door at the club’s training ground in London Colney. Although the results suggest it is the right move, the overarching issues go much higher than the manager. The board need to adjust their recruitment model, picking one continuous style to recruit both the head coach and players for and create a far more sustainable model.

The beginning of this will be with a new head coach, and it should be one that is willing to coach in the Championship should the worst happen but ultimately one that has the tools to keep the team up with a style that suits the current squad. A variety of names have been suggested including Frank Lampard, Fabio Cannavaro, Genaro Gattusso, Sam Allardyce, Wayne Rooney, Claude Puel, Nuno Espírito Santo and Rafa Benítez, but the ideal choice would be former Granada boss Diego Martínez.

The 41-year old is a young coach and fits the bill for a head coach who wouldn’t be in it for the short-term, while possessing the tools to keep the club in the Premier League as well as building a new identity and taking the club forward. He is the perfect progressive coach. After retiring from playing at the age of 20, he began his coaching career with CD Imperio de Albolote’s youth teams and moved to Arenas CD in 2004 where he became their first team manager after initially taking charge of the youth team.

He was named Motril FC manager soon after before joining Sevilla, and was part of the backroom staff initially before taking over the C team, and oversaw roles with the academy and the B team as well as replacing Javi Navarro as assistant to first team managers Michel and Unai Emery. He would begin his managerial career with CA Osasuna, but left after just a season. He went on to join Segunda División side Granada CF, and developed his reputation after an extremely successful spell. Despite operating on a shoestring budget, he achieved promotion in his first season and became the youngest manager in La Liga for the 2019/20 season. This fact didn’t faze the Spaniard though, as Nazaríes stormed to an incredible seventh place finish, qualifying for the UEFA Europa League in his debut campaign in Spain’s top flight, as well as reaching the semi-final of the Copa Del Rey. The subsequent Europa League campaign would see them knocked out by Manchester United in the quarter final the following season, before his memorable spell in Andalusia came to an end when he chose to let his contract expire in the summer of 2021.

Martínez prefers to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation, placing a strong emphasis on defensive solidity and quick counter attacks, and led to Granada having the best defence in the Segunda División with just 28 goals conceded in 42 matches. After their promotion, Martínez has often gone with his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1, but has shown to be flexible and adaptable by experimenting with 5-3-2 and 4-4-2 formations depending on the opposition. They would look to press high and remain compact, stifling opposition attacks and breaking quickly on the counter. This was all at work in a 2-0 victory over Ernesto Valverde’s defending champions FC Barcelona, condemning the Catalans to their worst start in 25 years while seeing Granada move to the top of the table.

It is not necessarily easy on the eye, but the win-at-all-costs mentality is precisely what Watford are crying out for, and would be an unbelievable coup if they could pull it off. He has reportedly moved to St Albans in recent months and has spoken highly about the club, while the board are fans of him as well. It seems rather obvious, and would also prove to be the best decision Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury would have made for a long time.

Defenders

Although Sierralta impressed in the Championship, he has failed to match those heights in the few games he’s played this season. A switch to a back three should be on the cards, as it is a formation that suits many current players as well as the new signings, and should help bring back an element of rigidness and organisation to the backline. This does involve signing another defender, as Troost-Ekong although better in a back three both at Watford and Udinese is unreliable, while Cathcart isn’t good enough and Nkoulou unavailable.

Beşiktaş JK centre back Domagoj Vida has been linked with Watford over the last few weeks and would prove to be an experienced head in Ranieri’s backline, should he make the move to Hertfordshire. At 32-years old, Vida has certainly been around and has plied his trade for a number of clubs in Europe, including Osijek, Bayer Leverkuson, Dinamo Zagreb and Dynamo Kiev, before making the move to Turkey. He has also made nearly 100 appearances for his country, turning out for the Croatia National Team since 2010. In short, Vida is an out and out defender who wears his heart on his sleeve and will happily put his body on the line to stop his team from conceding a goal. He enjoys a last ditch challenge as well as a header, and is strong in both categories with his willingness to commit a foul if it means his side can regroup to defend against the subsequent set piece as opposed to conceding a good opportunity for the opposition to attack.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – DECEMBER 12: Domagoj Vida of Besiktas during the Turkish Super League match between Besiktas and Kayserispor at Vodafone Park , on December 12, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Seskim Photo/MB Media/Getty Images)

Joe Rodon signed for Tottenham Hotspur ahead of the 2020/21 season, but has struggled to enjoy an extended spell in the first team with the likes of Cristian Romero, Davinson Sánchez and Eric Dier all being preferred under both José Mourinho and Antonio Conte. After signing his professional deal in 2015, he was given his first team debut under Graham Potter and began to become a regular, going on to make 21 appearances under Potter’s successor Steve Cooper and even established himself as a mainstay in the senior Wales team at just 24 years old. He is a typical all-round defender with all the necessary attributes for a centre back.

He is tall, strong, quick, good in the air, comfortable on the ball and able to play with either foot, and has impressed with his ability both in and out of possession. When in possession, he prefers to keep his passes safe and short and is regularly successful in finding his intended target, while his calmness under pressure makes him the player more often to receive the ball from the goalkeeper when building out from the back.

He is versatile as well, with his ability to play with both feet allowing him to be deployed on either side of the centre back pairing. It also makes him comfortable defending balls played to either side and he can jockey his opponent in either direction without hesitation. He is keen to compete in a physical battle and win the ball as early as possible. He is very much a proactive defender, and has shown quick reactions and anticipation when defending against an attacking phase, with his ability to step around his opponent to win the ball without committing a foul being highlighted by his high number of interceptions won. In his first season with Spurs he averaged 2.6 interceptions per 90 in the Premier League, which was not only more than any of this teammates by a distance but also the highest rate of all players in the Premier League to make at least ten appearances during 2020/21.

Goalkeeper

Despite a superb breakthrough season in Watford’s promotion campaign, Daniel Bachmann has struggled to match those heights as he has tried to make the jump to a Premier League number one, while Ben Foster has for the most part been very poor as well. A goalkeeper should be high on the list of transfer targets, but with Watford’s Premier League status being uncertain along with Pontus Dahlberg and new signing Maduka Okoye waiting in the wings from next season, a temporary alternative for the rest of the season could be the way forward.

Manchester United shot stopper Dean Henderson has failed to displace David De Gea of the number one spot since returning from his extremely successful loan spell at Sheffield United. He is keen to increase his minutes while United prefer a loan to a permanent sale, making this a rather obvious move. One of the biggest problems for Bachmann and Foster, and can be extended to both Dahlberg and Okoye as well, is their failure at commanding their areas. Bachmann often remains on his line and is far too hesitant and cautious while Foster is often overly rash and reckless. Henderson has shown he is far more comfortable and is ranked highly in terms of stopping crosses, normally coming further off his line to perform a defensive action similarly to Foster.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 30: Dean Henderson of Manchester United looks on prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Burnley at Old Trafford on December 30, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

In his debut campaign in the Premier League while with Sheffield United, Henderson was better than the league average at collecting crosses, boasting 7.5% compared to De Gea’s 4.9%. His biggest flaw is probably his tendency to punch crosses and set pieces for no reason when he could claim instead, but he is for the most part able to relive pressure on his defence well. In the same season, Henderson outperformed De Gea in many metrics, who would normally face a lower quality of shots than the league average including Henderson yet would have one of the lowest goals saved above average percentages in the league, compared to Henderson who had one of the highest.

In fact Henderson was statistically one of the best shot stoppers in the world in 2019/20. As for his ball-playing ability, he has had two completely different styles at both Sheffield United and Manchester United. With the former, he would be tasked with clearing the ball rather than playing it short or towards the wing-backs compared to the Red Devils who focus more on building straight from the back. However, he has a good left foot able to ping accurate long balls under pressure, and he isn’t afraid to escape pressure by taking a dribble past the press, showing his comfortability on the ball. Henderson would be the perfect temporary fix for a large issue in Watford’s defence, and with a loan bringing all sorts of potential options depending on factors which cannot yet be foreseen, it could be a positive move for all parties involved.

Midfielders

Although the likes of Sissoko, Louza, Etebo and Kayembe have impressed, a midfielder could still be on the list of targets for the winter window. Juraj Kucka and Ozan Tufan have both struggled for form while Tom Cleverley has shown he shouldn’t be starting every week and Dan Gosling has failed to be considered all season. A new midfielder to add a bit of steel into the centre of the park as well as a bigger goal threat could be appealing, making a move for Morten Thorsby a real possibility before the end of the window. The Norway international began his career in the academies of IL Hemming and FK Lyn before moving to Stabæk where he went on to make his first team debut. A move to the Eredevisie with SC Heerenveen rewarded his good form in Norway and he made over 100 appearances for the club.

He went on to join Serie A side Sampdoria and played under Claudio Ranieri. Thorsby is a high energy midfielder that looks to win the ball in the final third quite frequently, constantly getting forward to press high and join in the attack. He likes to make late runs into the box and use his height to get above his opponent and meet crosses first, which could add an extra few goals which could become invaluable. A move failed to come to fruition after Watford were first linked in the summer, but he would add more quality in depth and could prove to be an important addition to the midfield.

Versatility can be a very important part of any team and Huddersfield Town’s Sorba Thomas brings this in abundance. After being released from West Ham United’s academy, Thomas dropped to the non-league and joined the academy of Boreham Wood, where he rose through the ranks and broke into the first team, eventually becoming a key part of the side that achieved their highest ever finish to reach the National League play-off final at the end of 2017/18.

Initially featuring as a wing-back in Luke Garrard’s 3-5-2 shape, he would go on to be given more freedom to attack in his final season at the club, filling in as a number ten behind strikers Kabongo Tshimanga and Matt Rhead. He impressed drastically, and league clubs began showing interest before Championship outfit Huddersfield took a punt on the youngster. After being on the fringes of the first team in his debut campaign, he has had a dramatic rise and has become a key part of the team. Playing primarily as a wing-back once again, Thomas is one of the highest assisters in England this season with eight, contributing three goals himself as well to a Terriers side who have risen to sixth after battling against relegation last season. His performances earned him the title of Championship Player of the Month for August along with a Wales call-up, and he is clearly one of the brightest young players in the country.

He is quick, a hard-worker and has a good cross on him too, while his versatility and adaptability to play anywhere on the wing or in midfield is useful for any manager. Although likely not ready for the Premier League nor is it an area of priority, Watford would be a good opportunity for him to return to Hertfordshire at a much higher level, with a loan out back to the Terriers perhaps being on the cards to aid his development. The Hornets have been linked, and he would even prove to be a strong addition to the side should they fall to relegation come May.

These are the sorts of signings Watford need to make if they are to prove they are worthy of remaining in the top flight. Suring up a leaky defence is the priority, and if they can blend that with a hard-working midfield and talented attack, there is no reason they can’t begin to build once again.


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