The Pozzo era has been one of the most successful periods in Watford’s history, however recent years has really begun to test the patience of fans.
Promotion in 2015 was a joyous occasion and ended an eight-year absence from the promised land, with five straight years in the Premier League being their longest stint in the top flight. Unfortunately, the Hornets succumbed to their poor performances during the 2019/20 season and spent their first season in the Championship in half a decade.
They were able to achieve promotion at the first attempt under the guidance of Vladimir Ivić initially before getting over the line under the inexperienced Spaniard Xisco Muñoz, but lighting struck twice and a second relegation in as many years means another promotion challenge is on the horizon.
Despite Chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury’s claims that the club would learn from previous mistakes, the inability to act on them resulted in the club being relegated once more in an even more dismal fashion than the last.
The appointment of Roy Hodgson in particular may go down as the worst appointment the Pozzo’s have made, potentially even the worst in Premier League history as they picked up just nine points from his 18 games in charge, with predecessors Xisco and Claudio Ranieri each picking up seven from seven and 13 games respectively.
However, the appointment of highly rated head coach Rob Edwards fresh off a League Two winning season with Forest Green Rovers promises a new era for the club. Those higher up have, for a long time, talked the talk, but this move is certainly a step in the right direction. Here’s hoping they can finally walk the walk.
How should Watford approach this summer?
Rob Edwards plays a high pressing, possession-based style of football but with the intention of producing some positive attacking play. Normally setting up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, Edwards’ system requires high fitness levels in order to carry out the high press, with each player being given a specific role to make his philosophy effective.
Starting in goal, a conservative stopper is opted for behind a back three that includes two wide centre backs that must be comfortable with carrying the ball in order to progress forwards and allow them to build from the back, with the central centre back playing a more defensive role in which he organises the backline and must be aerially dominant.
Moving up the pitch, the wing-backs play a crucial role as the main creators in the team, playing advanced and aggressive while the deepest midfielder is tasked with keeping it simple and winning the ball back.
The other two midfielders meanwhile are more involved with play; one being given license to roam forward while the other is more of a pressing ball carrier. Finally, two strikers are deployed in attack but must compliment each other, with one being a target man and one being a quick poacher.
When looking at the players Edwards currently has at his disposal in the Watford squad, some will be able to slot right in. January arrival Maduka Okoye is the perfect goalkeeper for Edwards and will be looking forward to finally appearing in a Watford shirt next season following his loan spell back at Sparta Rotterdam.
Francisco Sierralta should hopefully feature more prominently after a disappointing debut Premier League campaign that succeeded a hugely successful season in the Championship which saw him form part of the best defence in Championship history, although reinforcements should also be looked at.
Kiko Femenía would be a good fit for the right wing-back role but, at 31 years of age, he isn’t getting any younger and may opt to return to Spain for the first time since his arrival at Watford in 2017. However, on the other side, Hassane Kamara is one of few players that many fans are keen to see stay at the club.
Another one of these players is Imrân Louza, and he may benefit from a slightly more advanced role compared to the deeper position he was given in the Premier League. A player who would fit the attacking midfielder role to a tee is returning loanee Philip Zinckernagel, with the hope that he remains in Hertfordshire and helps achieve a third promotion in a row.
Additionally, João Pedro and Cucho Hernández are perhaps the two most highly rated players in the current Watford squad and could form an exciting partnership up front, with the former fitting into a tweaked version of the target man role if he is not deployed as the pressing attacking midfielder.
Who could leave Watford?
Already announced to be departing Vicarage Road is Ben Foster, Andre Gray and Nicolas Nkoulou, along with the loan spells of Juraj Kucka and Peter Etebo not being made permanent. Additionally, there are a number of youth players set to leave including Derek Agyakwa, Dante Baptiste, Jack Broome, Jack Burchell, Ryan Cassidy, Jimiel Chikukwa, Kamil Conteh, Kane Crichlow, Jordan Harrison, Dominic Hutchinson, Andi Janjeva, George Langston, Kyrell Lisbie, Kyreece Lisbie, Josh O’Brien, Adam Parkes, Dan Phillips, Maurizio Pochettino, Henry Wise, Will Hall, Freddie Moriarty, Enoch Muwonge and Ben Smith.
With Watford’s relegation, it is of course expected that a number of other players are set to be sold. Ismaïla Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis are the most notable, with a number of clubs likely circling to sign the two most saleable assets Watford possess.
Moussa Sissoko has all but confirmed he will depart too with links back to France likely to be concrete, with both him and Joshua King having relegation release clauses. Danny Rose was excluded from the 25-man squad for the second half of the Premier League campaign and is certain to leave after just a season, while Samir has been linked with a return to Udinese.
Tom Cleverley and Christian Kabasele come under the category of players who have been good servants for the club but it might be better for all parties if they move on, which also includes Adam Masina who hinted at his departure on social media and Kiko Femenía, who has been linked with a move to Spain or Italy.
Additionally, Philip Zinckernagel is a name on everyone’s lips regarding his future with a return to Nottingham Forest very much a possibility following a successful loan spell that resulted in the club’s return to the top flight after a 23-year absence.
Similarly, Adalberto Peñaranda and Ignacio Pussetto will likely move on permanently after loan moves of their own while Pontus Dahlberg should leave temporarily again, and Domingos Quina and Ashley Fletcher both have uncertain futures.
Other players who will likely have interest is João Pedro, Imrân Louza, Hassane Kamara and Cucho Hernández, however these are the main four players Watford should be the most keen to keep hold of at all costs and build the team around.
With the Watford squad very much in need of a rebuild, there are a number of players who could be targeted as they look to reset and return to the Premier League in a much better shape.
Not for the first time, centre back is a position earmarked as a key area for Watford to strengthen. Despite a successful 2020/21 season that saw the main back four of Kiko Femenía, William Troost-Ekong, Francisco Sierralta and Adam Masina concede the fewest goals in a season in Championship history, they are seemingly back to square one with a poor Premier League campaign. A new-look backline should be a priority, and signings should suit the back three system that Edwards will likely want to play.
- Comfortable on the ball
- Able to play in a back three or back four
- Strong with both feet
- Aerially dominant
- A leader
Straight off the bat, Edwards’ Wolves connection could be used to bring in an experienced head at the back that would be an instant upgrade. Available on a free transfer following his release from Wolves, Romain Saïss would be a valuable addition to the Watford squad and would offer consistency, reliability and versatility as well as leadership at the heart of the Hornets’ backline, helping to improve a defence which has been lacking for a long time.
Born in France, the Morocco international began his career at Olympique de Valence before signing his first professional deal at the age of 21 while with Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot, and made the switch to league rivals Le Havre AC two years later.
He impressed in Normandy and earnt a move to Ligue 1 side Angers, but caught the eye of Championship side Wolves during his sole season with Le Scoïstes and has since enjoyed a successful six years in England, making over 200 appearances as the club rose from the second tier to Europa League football and has been a mainstay as they have established themselves as a Premier League outfit after six years away.
Saïss has been a force to be reckoned with during his final season at Wolves, helping to achieve the fifth best defensive record in the division alongside Conor Coady and Max Kilman, with 31 starts to his name. He is always looking to physically impose himself on his opponents, but is a very effective ball winner with a tackle success rate of 63% last season, along with 2.70 interceptions per 90.
He is very committed to the cause and presses with purpose, as well as being constantly alert with his awareness and reaction time allowing him to deal with threats quickly and efficiently. He has an excellent understanding with his defensive partners, ensuring the backline remains a cohesive unit that remains compact to prevent opposition attackers from getting in behind and limiting openings as much as possible.
He is fearless in any kind of duel, but particularly in the air is when he is able to shine using his 6”2 frame to his advantage and making sure he is tough to beat, with a success rate of 2.79 aerial duels won per 90.
The 32-year old is also a competent passer who takes his time to assess his options and allow his side to build from the back smoothly, making 3.99 progressive passes per 90, along with a good range of passing that gives him the ability to play any kind of pass regardless of the scenario. Additionally, he will not hesitate to carry the ball forward if the opportunity arises with 2.43 progressive carries per 90.
Along with his ability to play in midfield as well as defence, the knack of timing his runs to perfection at the other end to score 15 goals for Wolves as well as being left-footed, Saïss is one of the more attractive options Watford could look at.
Additionally, his previous experience in a promotion race with Wolves in 2017/18 could come in handy, and they could do worse than a short-term deal on a free transfer for the Morocco international.
A veteran in English football, Gary Cahill is coming to the end of his career at the age of 36, but will be available on a free transfer following a successful campaign with AFC Bournemouth and could offer similar traits to Watford that he brought to the Vitality Stadium that saw him help the club return to the Premier League following two seasons away.
Beginning his career at Aston Villa, Cahill gained experience on loan at Burnley and Sheffield United before departing for Bolton Wanderers, impressing over four years that saw him make nearly 150 appearances and subsequently earn a move to Chelsea where he would make a name for himself over an extremely successful eight years, winning two Premier League titles, two FA Cup’s, one League Cup, one Champions League and two Europa League’s.
After taking over the captaincy following John Terry’s departure ahead of the 2017/18 campaign, Cahill left Stamford Bridge two years later with 290 appearances to his name, coming on as a late substitute for his final game which came against Watford in May 2019. He went on to enjoy two successful seasons at Crystal Palace before joining Bournemouth in the summer of 2021.
Throughout his time at Chelsea, Cahill was often seen as the heir to John Terry, and although he never quite fulfilled these expectations, he proved to be a reliable option alongside him. He is very much in the mould of a typical English centre back, being particularly strong both in the tackle and in the air.
He tends to take a more conservative approach in defensive situations and is able to read a scenario well before diving in to a challenge, with a tackle success ratio of 84.6% last season showing he uses his experience well. He is a very commanding centre back with good positional awareness, and has certainly been one of England’s most reliable defenders over the last decade.
Unfortunately he has always lacked pace and is something which has been enhanced with age, meaning his inclusion in the backline does run the risk of being caught out easily. However, this can be rectified by providing a safety net around him, deploying him as the central centre back with two quick players either side of him to patch up his flaws, and allow him to lead the team as an unofficial captain in the heart of defence.
Cahill certainly fits the description of a Rob Edwards centre back in a back three almost perfectly, with the main exception being his ball-playing ability not being the best. However, his experience could be invaluable, and a short-term deal on a free transfer may not be the worst idea in the world.
Following Barnsley’s relegation to League One, Michał Helik will surely be one of the most attractive options for clubs to look at this summer as one of the best centre backs in the Championship over the past two seasons. Helik won many plaudits and helped the Tykes reach the play-offs against all the odds, however their relegation just a year later means he will be in high demand, and sooner rather than later one club will bring him back to where he belongs.
A product of the Ruch Chorzów academy, Helik went on to feature nearly 50 times for the club before making the switch to Cracovia after four years at the Ruch Stadium. He went on to make 88 appearances over three years and his performances caught the eye of Barnsley, who brought the defender to England in 2020. It was at Barnsley that he really moved into the spotlight, and he earned a call-up to the senior Poland squad in 2021.
Particularly in the 2020/21 season, it is clear that Helik is a very forward thinking player. Being deployed in the centre of a back three, he would normally be given license to bring the ball forward before assessing his options and playing a long ball to the intended target, with 63.1% of his passes being forward.
This was of course an important part of Valérien Ismaël’s more direct system at Barnsley, with the Frenchman’s departure to West Brom in the summer seeing this percentage drop to 47.9% last season, however it is clear that he has a good range of passing in his locker with a passing accuracy of 51.4%, despite it not necessarily being his primary role.
He is however a monster defensively, with his physicality giving him an advantage over any attacker and his 4.85 recoveries per 90 showing he is always alert. With Barnsley rarely having the majority of possession – averaging 44.8% – the back three must be constantly prepared to challenge onrushing attackers.
Helik’s approach is more on the aggressive side with 1.2 tackles per 90 compared to 0.4 blocks per 90 in 2020/21, suggesting he would look to make a challenge before allowing a shot or a cross to come in. Additionally, he is extremely strong in the air and makes full use of his 6”3 frame, winning 62.9% of his 10.05 aerial duels per 90. This is a positive at both in the ends of the pitch, as Helik has contributed to seven goals since arriving at Barnsley.
At just 26-years of age, Helik is reaching his prime and is clearly one of the best in the business at Championship level, making him an extremely attractive option for Watford to sign. He would undoubtedly be able to adapt to a new style, and his experience in a back three whilst at Barnsley stands him in good stead to make a smooth transition.
Fresh off a hugely successful loan spell at Huddersfield Town, Levi Colwill is bound to be hot property and could possibly be set for a move beyond the Championship. Nonetheless another season in the second tier could prove useful for his development before a Premier League club takes a punt on a player with just a year’s experience of regular football and is perhaps one to keep an eye on.
Born in Southampton, Levi Colwill is a graduate of the famous Chelsea academy having joined the Blues at Under-9 level after being scouted playing for City Central. He rose through the ranks at Cobham and joined Huddersfield on loan ahead of the 2021/22 season, making his professional debut for the Terriers in an EFL Cup match against Sheffield United.
Despite never playing professionally before, the 19-year old helped the club reach the Championship play-off final with 29 appearances, and his own goal in the final defeat to Nottingham Forest shouldn’t turn potential suitors off of a player with real potential.
A composed but colossal defender, Colwill is truly capable of outjumping, outmuscling or outpacing any attacker he faces, and has remained dependable and disciplined throughout his time at Huddersfield. He helped them improve on their poor defensive record in 2020/21 which saw them concede the most goals in the league with 71, and is simply an extremely well-rounded defender even at just 19 years of age.
He was at the top end of a variety of stats last season, winning 67.3% of his tackles as well as making 4.57 clearances per 90 and 1.42 interceptions per 90. He also made 5.02 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of 63.1%, showing his dominance in the air as well as on the floor. He is also able to contribute effectively further forward, benefitting from the way Carlos Corberán sets up.
Normally playing on the left-hand side of a back three, Colwill’s partnership with Harry Toffolo has been a key part of Huddersfield’s system, with the wing-back hugging the touchline and positioning himself in a very advanced role during attacking phases, meaning Colwill has the entire left half-space to carry the ball forward or pick a pass, allowing him to have a dribble success ratio of 76.5%, while 44% of his passes are forward.
The level Colwill is playing at despite being at such a young age is admirable, and is clear he is destined for big things. He is bound to break into the Chelsea team sooner rather than later, but a second loan away could be useful for his development. Championship clubs could benefit from his lack of experience to perhaps make Premier League clubs wait on him, and this is where Watford would need to be swift if they were able to secure his services.
Following a promising loan spell in Italy with newly promoted Serie A side Venezia, Ethan Ampadu could be available for a move should he be unable to feature regularly for Chelsea next season and could benefit from a loan spell at a leading Championship club as opposed to another relegation battle.
A product of the Exeter City academy, Ethan Ampadu appeared for the Under-18 side at the age of 14 and became the club’s youngest ever player when he won Man of the Match on his senior debut aged 15.
His evident potential was spotted by Chelsea, who agreed a deal for the then 16-year old in July 2017 where he made his debut two months later, making him the first player born in the 2000s to play for the Chelsea senior team as well as becoming the youngest player to debut for the club in over ten years, at the age of 17.
He would find limited game time out on loan at RB Leipzig during the 2019/20 campaign before enjoying more individual success on loan at Sheffield United at Venezia during the next two seasons, impressing despite his team’s respective relegations.
An extremely versatile player, Ampadu filled into five different positions during his time in Italy and was deployed at centre back, defensive midfield, central midfield, right back and even right midfield. It is the former two which he is most comfortable in, and it is telling that despite playing the majority of games in midfield while at Venezia, he has actually played most of his career at centre back with 63 in defence and 36 in defensive midfield.
He is able to switch between either role seamlessly, making him an extremely attractive option to have for any manager. He is an aggressive and proactive defender as shown by his 15.47 pressures per 90 during his time at Sheffield United, along with 57 tackles at a success rate of 63.2%.
Although he isn’t particularly tall for a defender, standing at just 6”0, he uses his speed and anticipation to his advantage to make well-timed interceptions and nullify the opposition, seeing him make 2.01 interceptions per 90 at Venezia and 6.07 recoveries per 90. Additionally, he has demonstrated a good ability to move the ball forwards by carrying it or passing and made 4.22 progressive carries per 90, 3.62 progressive passes per 90, 0.43 key passes per 90 and 0.69 passes into the penalty area per 90, while also showing his technical ability with a good range of passing.
The way Venezia set up required him to play lots of ball forward quickly and directly, and he made a significant contribution in attacking phases as a result. He has been able to display his array of passing while playing for one of the most direct teams in Italy and has certainly allowed him to develop. His tenacity and fearlessness has won him many plaudits, while his composure on the ball makes him a very good all-round player.
His loan spell at Sheffield United didn’t work out as good as it could have been, but there was enough in glimpses to suggest he is a player with an extremely high ceiling. Although his performances went up a level last season at Venezia, a move to a top-end Championship club could be the ideal environment for a player still just 21 years old, and allow him to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher, Reece James and Mason Mount as players who bettered themselves from second tier loans.
He has displayed maturity and effectiveness and would also slot into Watford’s defence perfectly having featured predominantly on the right side of a back three for the Wales National Team, making him a good fit for Edwards’ system while also offering the option to fill in the defensive midfield role that they need as well.
Another with the Edwards connection at Wolves, Dominic Iorfa is a full back turned centre back who broke into the Wolves first team shortly before Edwards arrived at Molineux and could be a perfect fit for the right centre back role in his back three system. Now playing for Sheffield Wednesday, he has developed into a reliable centre back and having been linked with them before, could be a surprise pick for Watford’s backline next season.
Born in Southend-on-Sea, Dominic Iorfa joined the youth team of local club Southend United before joining the Wolves academy aged 15, and broke into the first team following a brief loan spell at Shrewsbury Town. He quickly became the club’s first choice right back and made 20 Championship appearances in his debut season, winning the league’s Young Player of the Month award for January before making a further 42 appearances in 2015/16.
He would be sent on loan to fellow Championship side Ipswich Town ahead of the 2017/18 season where he played 25 times, but was unable to return to the Wolves team upon his return with the club winning promotion to the Premier League, and he moved to Sheffield Wednesday in January 2019. He has impressed at Hillsborough despite their relegation in 2021 and has made 90 appearances, being voted as the club’s Player of the Season in 2019/20.
During the early days of his career, it was noted how well built Iorfa was, with his size and muscles giving him a real presence despite being just 20 years old when he reached his final season as a regular player at Wolves. Along with his pace that shouldn’t be sniffed at, combine it all with his strength and it is clear to see why he was so highly rated as a right back.
His transformation into more of a central defender allowed him to use his attributes to his advantage and become very well-rounded. He had a tackle success rate of 65.1% last season and made 1.55 interceptions per 90, 3.89 clearances per 90 and 5.42 recoveries per 90, while also proving to be useful in the air with 6.14 aerial duels per 90 with a 58.4% success rate.
While at Wolves, he wasn’t restricted to the defensive side of the game and was given freedom to push higher with his main role being predominantly to carry the ball forward. This allowed him to hone his ability and use it to his advantage as a centre back, playing primarily in a back three at Hillsborough and building from the back effectively, with a dribble success ratio of 54.8% and 46% of his passes being forward.
Although it would be a big jump to go from Sheffield Wednesday to Watford, a move for Iorfa could be useful owing to his connection with Edwards and the fact he wouldn’t come at an expensive price, and he could slot into the right-sided centre back role with ease should they take a punt on the 26-year old.
With Kiko Femenía’s future uncertain and Jeremy Ngakia yet to prove he can make the right back spot his own, a right-sided wing-back should be a key position to strengthen in order ensure Edwards’ system works effectively.
- Good crosser
- Comfortable on the ball
The first Forest Green Rovers player Edwards could bring with him to Watford, Kane Wilson is perhaps the most obvious signing they could make. Following a League Two Player of the Season-winning campaign, the 22-year old will be available on a free transfer and is bound to have a whole host of potential suitors at Championship level, and Watford should surely be the favourite to win his signature with his former manager in charge.
A West Bromwich Albion academy graduate, Kane Wilson featured in the club’s pre-season tour of Austria in 2016 and featured against Paris Saint-Germain before making his competitive debut as a substitute in an EFL Cup match against Northampton Town, being named on the bench for their Premier League match against Middlesbrough five days later.
He would enjoy separate loan spells at Exeter City either side of a loan spell at Walsall, before moving to Tranmere Rovers temporarily in August 2019, departing The Hawthorns permanently a year later for Forest Green. His stock would rise dramatically while at The New Lawn, helping the club win League Two as well as being awarded League Two Player of the Season and being named in the League Two Team of the Season.
While a strong defensive player, Wilson’s magnum opus is his ability in the attacking side of the game, with his strength being his capabilities when he gets on the ball and looks to stretch the width of the pitch through his movement, usually looking to take a touch and attack down the outside.
He is able to use his size and speed to find space when 1v1 with a defender and has a good range of crosses, able to whip the ball across goal or play a deep cross towards the back post. He tends to position himself extremely advanced, making him the primary creator under Edwards, and doesn’t just use his speed to be dangerous but his skill as well.
He is comfortable on the ball and is able to travel with it well, allowing him to link play effectively with his 2.8 successful dribbles per 90 being the most in the league. He is also an intelligent player, able to add variety to his attacks as well and finding different ways to create chances, with good vision to play his teammates in behind in any scenario and as a result picked up more assists than anyone else in League Two with 13.
There is little doubt that Wilson will be moving on this summer, but the question is to which Championship club. It is unlikely that a Premier League side will be willing to take a punt on a League Two player, however the second tier is the perfect next destination for a player with a very high ceiling, and as mentioned, Edwards’ arrival at Watford makes it an extremely obvious move to make.
With a move to Udinese set to begin on July 1, there is a possibility of Festy Ebosele joining sister club Watford as a result. There is a handful of young wing-backs at Udinese who could follow the long list of players who’ve left the Dacia Arena for Vicarage Road, including Brandan Soppy and Leonardo Buta, but Ebosele is one who particularly catches the eye having spent last season at Derby County.
Born in Ireland, Festy Ebosele began playing football for Moyne Rangers where he spent six years before joining the academy of Bray Wanderers at the age of 14. He evidently impressed as he joined Derby two years later and went on to be a shining light in a dismal 2021/22 season that saw the club given a points deduction after being put into administration and subsequently relegated to League One, after spending 36 years above the third tier.
He made 37 appearances in his debut season as a professional though, and as a result of Derby’s financial woes, the 19-year old agreed terms with Udinese in March with the deal set to be completed next month.
Very much in the mould of an attacking wing-back, Ebosele has certainly been a spark in a poor Derby team since making his breakthrough in the 2021/22 season. Despite featuring as winger during pre-season, the 19-year old went on to make the right wing-back spot his own with 37 appearances in all competitions and won many plaudits for his performances.
He has been likened to Adama Traoré for his ball-carrying approach and made 5.99 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 41.9%, with his mobility and energy from deep as well as his willingness and enthusiasm to collect the ball and get forward proving to be a key part of Derby’s resurgence during the season.
Additionally, he can use his speed and ability to take on players to create openings and put good balls into the area, and there was a large onus on his capabilities in 1v1 scenarios with Wayne Rooney setting up to generate an overload on one flank to free up space on the other, with the wing-backs being their primary source of creation and therefore being a crucial role for Ebosele.
With Rooney primarily playing a back three system last season, this matches the way Edwards utilises wing-backs meaning a move would make a lot of sense. A deal for Ebosele depends on his willingness to return to England or if he was set on trying things out in a new country with a different culture, but nonetheless, it would certainly be a good option to explore.
Another option from Udinese, Brandon Soppy played 30 times in all competitions after arriving in Italy ahead of the 2021/22 season, however he played just 970 minutes as the majority of his appearances came off the bench. This could open up a chance for the Pozzo’s to move him to Watford ahead of their campaign in the Championship, with it being a good prospect to develop another young player in the second tier.
A product of the Stade Rennes youth academy, Brandon Soppy was called up to the first team ahead of the 2020/21 season and was named on the bench throughout the campaign, featuring a handful of times with nine appearances in Ligue 1 and two in the Champions League.
The 20-year old caught the eye of Udinese who snapped him up last summer, and he was primarily a substitute once again but this time enjoyed far more opportunities off the bench with 28 Serie A appearances.
There isn’t a massive sample size to judge Soppy having played less than 2000 minutes in his career, but it is clear he is a player with real potential. An aggressive wing-back, he has shown a good level of commitment with defensive duels and made 2.80 tackles per 90 with a success rate of 58.5%, while also having the alertness and speed to get out of danger with 5.53 recoveries per 90.
He has generally played higher up the pitch at Udinese compared to his position at Rennes, lending itself to him being highly mobile with a very competent ability on the ball, making 3.82 dribbles per 90 with a 48.2% success rate.
The France youth international has also shown a decent level of passing and is very forward-thinking, particularly at Rennes albeit with limited minutes, where he had a 70.5% success rate with forward passes and a 66.7% success rate with passes into the final third. These traits are very promising for a young wing-back and he will only get better with more game time and experience.
Soppy is certainly another player who could make the common move from Udinese to Watford, and it is not difficult to see why this may be considered. His ability is evident and he would benefit from a season at a lower level where he can play more regularly, and with the attacking responsibilities given to the wing-backs under Edwards he would almost definitely be a better player at the end of the season than at the start.
Loan moves to Swansea City and AFC Bournemouth last season brought Ethan Laird to the limelight to fans of the second tier, particularly impressing for the former to the extent that he was recalled by parent club Manchester United and sent back out on loan to promotion-chasing Bournemouth. With this in mind, another loan move to a club aspiring to be at the top end of the Championship table next season could be on the cards.
A graduate of the Manchester United academy, Ethan Laird was a regular in the youth team and eventually travelled with the first team to a Europa League match away at Partizan, making his first team debut in their penultimate group game at Astana with the club already qualified for the knockout round.
He would get his first taste of regular professional football on loan at MK Dons, featuring in all but one game after arriving in the January transfer window, before reuniting with manager Russell Martin at Swansea the following season and making a further 21 appearances before cutting his loan spell short to join Bournemouth, playing six times as they were promoted back to the Premier League.
At just 20 years of age, Ethan Laird has only played for three clubs professionally but has already impressed in his three loan spells in the Football League. His time at MK Dons allowed him to thrive in Russell Martin’s possession-based approach, and he continued his good form under the former Norwich defender when he followed Martin to Swansea at the start of last season.
This offensive style utilised a back three formation, and helped Laird showcase his attacking intent starting in Milton Keynes by giving him the freedom to get forward and subsequently seeing an upturn in the Don’s results. He has brilliant technique, and his ability to drop a shoulder and use a change of pace to beat defenders is one of his best assets.
He made 4.4 dribbles per 90 last season with a success rate of 43.4% while his progressive runs per 90 had a high percentile rank, along with his ability with both feet allowing him to make 3.39 crosses attempted per 90. As an attacking wing-back, he spends a lot of time in the opposition box and this is shown by him making the most number of attacking actions and offensive duels by a defender in the Championship, averaging 14.31 attacking actions per 90 and 15.94 offensive duels per 90.
He very much resembles a winger when he gets forward, with his blistering pace and ability on the ball allowing him to attack very effectively. Although his attacking mindset is what makes him tick, Laird knows when he needs to focus on the defensive side of the game as well and is a fantastic presser, making 3.5 recoveries per 90. This will surely have been enhanced by Scott Parker’s more defensive approach, along with giving him a role closer to a traditional right back in a back four during his short-lived stint with the Cherries.
Following Bournemouth’s promotion it seems unlikely that he will return to the Vitality Stadium next season, with the 20-year old playing significantly less football than he did at Swansea. Manchester United will be keen for him to continue his development out on loan though and increases the chances of him returning to the Championship for a second season.
A left-sided wing-back isn’t necessarily a priority position with Hassane Kamara hopefully set to remain at Watford. Nonetheless, depth could be improved with the signing of one and should be on the club’s shortlist this summer, while an adequate replacement should be considered if they are unable to hold on to their Player of the Season winner.
- Good crosser
- Comfortable on the ball
One player who could be earmarked by Edwards as someone he could sign for a second time is Ryan Giles, having brought him to AFC Telford United in 2018, and he has since gained Championship experience over the last two seasons with a number of loan spells.
A graduate of the Wolves academy, Ryan Giles won Academy Player of the Year for the 2017/18 season and was rewarded by joining the first team on their pre-season tour the following summer, later being named on the bench in several EFL Cup ties.
He joined Telford on loan for his first taste of senior football under Edwards before making his first team debut for Wolves in an FA Cup match against Shrewsbury Town, joining the Shrews on loan six months later. His time in Shropshire would be cut short due to an injury to Rúben Vinagre, but he returned to League One shortly after to help Coventry City win promotion, albeit in a curtailed season due to COVID-19.
Further spells at Rotherham United and Cardiff City preceded his move to Blackburn, and he has now played 74 times at Championship level with a team-high nine assists for the Bluebirds before he was recalled.
While at Coventry, Giles often pushed high up the pitch and often played as more of a natural winger, with his strengths certainly lying in the forward areas. He continued this into his time at both Cardiff and Blackburn with all three utilising back three formations, with Giles filling in on the left flank in all of them.
This shape gives him defensive cover, and it gives him the freedom to use his pace and dribbling ability to drive forward and act as his side’s primary creative outlet out wide. This saw him contribute nine assists in just half-a-season at Cardiff and establish himself as one of the best wide players in the Championship, although he is extremely versatile and has filled a variety of positions for both the Bluebirds and Blackburn last season.
He had a very high number of passes and crosses into the final third and had the highest xA per 90 in the division with 0.30, while averaging 3.02 successful crosses per 90. His deliveries have been a huge threat to the opposition’s defences and allowed primarily Cardiff to score a lot of goals as a result.
While he struggled at times to balance producing going forward and providing enough cover in his defensive work at Coventry, he has certainly developed as a player and it could be argued that his lack of defensive work was down to him being deployed so high up the pitch for much of his time out on loan. Nonetheless, he is one of the best in the business from a creative standpoint and is perfectly suited for the responsibilities at hand.
As a player Edwards knows well, Giles would be a good option that would make a lot of sense for Watford to sign, and Wolves would surely be keen for him to join a top-end Championship side to continue his development as opposed to another season at sides who finished 18th and 8th.
Like Kane Wilson on the other side, Scottish wing-back Nicky Cadden impressed for Forest Green Rovers last season and could be set to follow Edwards to Vicarage Road, with his performances for the League Two-winning side seeing him awarded Player of the Month for September as well as being named in the Team of the Season.
After spending time in the Motherwell academy, Nicky Cadden joined Airdrieonians following his release and went on to play for the club’s first team with 42 appearances to his name, before helping Livingston win back-to-back promotions as champions of Scottish League One and then runners-up in the Scottish Championship, defeating Dundee United and Partick Thistle in the subsequent play-offs.
He later joined Ayr United on loan before leaving the Almondvale Stadium permanently with Greenock Morton, but spent just a season with the Ton before leaving Scotland to join Forest Green in 2020. Like Kane Wilson on the other side, Cadden was integral to Forest Green’s title success last season with a similar role on the left flank, owing to the importance of the wing-backs to ball progression and creating opportunities for the strikers.
On both sides of the pitch the wing-backs are more or less auxiliary wingers in terms of their positions on the pitch, pushing up extremely high compared to the traditional wing-back, and it has allowed Cadden to find consistency in his attacking numbers as well as his willingness to get involved in the final third.
In 2020/21 he was the top wing-back in the division for assists when he contributed seven with 2.0 key passes per 90, and this number increased to 12 with 2.9 key passes per 90 after the arrival of Edwards, meaning that a high number of the chances that he created for others resulted in either a goal or a shot on goal. He is certainly a skilful but energetic and willing runner, and additionally has proved to be useful from dead ball situations with three of the four goals he scored in 2020/21 coming from free kicks, while his wicked deliveries from corners have seen him form a lethal partnership with the Forest Green strikers.
This last point could be particularly attractive for a Watford side who scored just one direct free kick since 2016, and like Wilson could be a fantastic option Edwards could bring with him to Vicarage Road this summer.
One player who has been heavily linked with Watford in the past is Hibernian left back Josh Doig, and he could finally make the move to Vicarage Road now that relegation has likely made him a first choice option as opposed to second fiddle behind Danny Rose and Adam Masina, with both expected to leave along with Kamara’s future being uncertain.
Having previously playing in the youth system of Hearts, Josh Doig made the move across Edinburgh to join rivals Hibernian, spending just a season in the academy before signing a three-year deal in 2020 as well as departing on loan to Scottish League Two side Queen’s Park.
He would break into the Hibs first team during the following season though, playing 35 times in all competitions with his breakthrough season seeing him win the SFWA Young Player of the Year award along with a multitude of links to Premier League clubs as well as Scottish giants Celtic. He remained at Hibs though and made a further 42 appearances last season.
Having established himself in the Hibs first team, it is clear Doig is a special talent and it isn’t difficult to see why. When going forward he doesn’t necessarily have the trickery or even pace to beat his man, but what he lacks in deception he more than makes up for in energy.
He is an extremely willing runner with good strength and is comfortable with both feet as well, always offering an outlet on the left flank. He mainly looks to join the attack late in order to utilise the space vacated in behind and tends to overlap or underlap to create 2v1 situations or create openings inside.
He certainly takes advantage of his teammates in a system who attack as a unit and is often involved with give-and-goes with a player on the inside, while he looks to make a run on the outside before keeping his final pass simple and accurate, and is backed up by his 73% passing accuracy per game.
The 20-year old remains composed and intelligent with his deliveries too, and is able to decide whether to send in a low cross or cut it back from the byline depending on the situation inside the box rather than putting it in mindlessly. Meanwhile at the other end, Doig is very capable in 1v1 situations, as he is both quick enough and strong enough to compete with any attacker in order to slow them down or obstruct them, as well as closing space down well and doesn’t dive in until he needs to.
There aren’t any major defensive deficiencies in his game, however at such a young age he isn’t perfect and is occasionally susceptible to feints or sudden changes of pace or direction.
Doig has a lot of great qualities for a modern day wing back and should be able to adapt to Edwards’ system if he was to sign. Whether he would agree to it is another question, but he would certainly be an exciting acquisition for Watford.
A player who brings such versatility he is an option on either flank, Sorba Thomas has had the season of his life after reaching the Championship play-off final with Huddersfield Town and the World Cup finals with Wales less than 18 months after leaving National League side Boreham Wood.
A return to Hertfordshire has been suggested with Watford having been linked before, and despite a move being very unlikely to take place is surely a player that has been mentioned higher up.
A Boreham Wood academy graduate, Sorba Thomas arrived at Meadow Park at the age of 16 after being released by West Ham United, but quickly recovered to rise through the ranks in Hertfordshire. He impressed in the youth team and earned a call-up to the first team where he quickly began to establish himself, featuring in the National League play-off final in 2018 before breaking into the starting XI on a regular basis over the next two seasons, and appeared 86 times in total.
A freer role in attack during the first half of 2020/21 saw his performances go up a level, and he caught the eye of a number of Football League clubs before Huddersfield announced his signing in January 2021. His breakout came last season though, and he played a pivotal role in the Terriers’ promotion challenge with 51 appearances in all competitions.
The 23-year old is an extremely versatile player, able to play in any role on either flank or even more centrally too as long as he is given license to get forward. He is very direct with a good engine and is frequently looking to beat defenders out wide, using his pace and skill to be a constant threat down the wing and attempted 2.72 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 42.9%.
He is also an excellent crosser and has developed a reputation as a set piece specialist, creating a league high six goals from dead balls last season. With just 11 career goals he has had to make up for a lack of direct goal threat by contributing elsewhere, and it is his creativity in particular which has been a standout trait for the Wales international. His 11 assists last season from an xA of 8.2 was the fourth highest in the division, as well as creating more big chances than anyone else with 19.
Thomas’ stock has never been higher, making it very difficult to prise him away from Huddersfield, especially given they are fresh off a play-off final defeat. Nonetheless, his versatility would come in handy and he would relish the attacking responsibilities of a wing-back in an Edwards team, making him a brilliant option on either flank, although being right footed he may be better suited to the right-hand side in this team.
Of course he has recently agreed to extend his time in West Yorkshire as well, meaning the only thing really preventing them from any sort of deal are the financial constraints that come with relegation. If not now though, he is a player Watford should be constantly keeping tabs on with the prospect of bringing him back to Hertfordshire.
While Imrân Louza impressed at the base of Watford’s midfield last season, there is an argument to suggest he could be better suited to a more advanced role in the Championship next season should he stay.
With this in mind, a defensive midfielder should be high on the list of targets, and should be one that compliments Louza and allows him freedom in midfield, while ensuring there is a high quality player for a vital cog in Edwards’ system.
- Strong in the tackle
- Comfortable on the ball
- Safe in possession
With the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, there is bound to be a whole host of exciting new recruits in the North-East this summer, and as a result there could be many players leaving Tyneside too. One of these players could be Sean Longstaff, who hasn’t quite managed to live up to the hype despite bursting onto the scene in 2018/19.
He has still been a regular fixture in the Magpies’ team over the last few seasons, but starts began to become more sparing towards the end of last season with just 11 in 2022, and a loan move away could be possible depending on Newcastle’s business this summer.
A Newcastle United academy graduate, Sean Longstaff enjoyed loan spells at Kilmarnock and Blackpool before making his senior debut for the Magpies, impressing manager Rafa Benítez in pre-season. His breakout season came in 2018/19 before making 23 appearances the following season, and he soon started to be linked with a £50m to Manchester United. He stayed on Tyneside though, and is now approaching 100 appearances for the club.
For a long time, Newcastle sat very deep and looked to defend compactly under both Rafa Benítez and Steve Bruce, meaning Longstaff’s defensive numbers naturally increased due to the amount of defensive work he had to undertake. He is a midfielder who utilises the space around him without taking many risks, keeping his passes simple and rarely being caught out of position owing to the rigid structure that was implemented at St James’ Park.
As they would spend the majority of games without the ball there was a lot of emphasis on winning it back and starting a counter attack, and his 3.33 tackles per 90 with a 63% success rate shows he offers steel and grit in the centre of the park, along with 5.85 recoveries per 90 suggesting he is very alert and aware of his surroundings.
Crucially, he doesn’t get bullied and is more than capable of holding his own against any player in order to retain possession, holding them off before looking to progress the ball up the pitch. His defensive nous and ability to shield the ball shows he certainly uses his height and strength to his advantage, while he offers composure on the ball, work rate and distribution with the ability to spray passes to any part of the pitch if needed.
Keeping it simple and breaking up attacks is in the right mould for a defensive midfielder that Edwards likes, and Longstaff is a real engine in the centre of the park that is keen to do both of those things. Additionally, he will have had to adapt to Eddie Howe’s more possession-based system following Bruce’s departure meaning there shouldn’t be too much of a stylistic shift if he were to join.
There are question marks over how realistic this move could be, but the Saudi takeover means there are all sorts of answers yet to be given on Tyneside.
Versatile midfielder Krystian Bielik has made just 49 appearances since his move to Derby County in 2019, owing to an awful run of long-term injuries he has picked up. Nonetheless, he has shown his ability on numerous occasions and would surely be destined for bigger things if he wasn’t so injury prone. With this in mind, a move for the Poland international following Derby’s relegation to League One could be a risk worth taking.
After beginning his career for hometown club Górnik Konin, Krystian Bielik was spotted by Lech Poznań scouts in 2012 and later joined their academy, moving to rivals Legia Warsaw after two years at Stadion Poznań. He made just a handful of appearances for the club before catching the eye of Premier League club Arsenal, who completed the deal in January 2015.
He made his senior debut in the League Cup Fourth Round the following season but primarily featured for the youth team, before joining Birmingham City on loan in January 2017 and later to Walsall and Charlton Athletic, scoring and winning Man of the Match in the latter’s League One play-off final victory over Sunderland. His impressive performances at both centre back and defensive midfield convinced Derby to sign him on a permanent basis and he has impressed in his limited appearances due to a number of long-term injuries.
When not in the treatment room, Bielik is best suited to being the deepest midfielder on the pitch tasked with shielding the defence and giving license to those ahead of him to get forward. Making sure to anchor the midfield effectively, it allows the more advanced midfielders to play with more freedom without having to worry about their defensive duties, and the Pole’s imposing presence in the middle of the park aids this to a noticeable extent when he was unavailable.
Despite playing just 13 times in Championship during 2020/21, he averaged around six interceptions per 90 as well as carrying out a staggering 14 ball recoveries per game, and at 6”2 he is a perfect destroyer at the heart of midfield. He is an excellent ball-winner who constantly looks to disrupt opposing attacks, and there truly is few better at dominating the midfield and breaking up play.
His dynamism allows him to dictate the tempo however he wants, therefore ensuring stability for his side. Additionally, he is comfortable with the ball at his feet and completed the second-highest number of passes and the most final third passes in Derby’s squad in the same season, while in the season just gone he had an 83.3% passing accuracy.
He is the heartbeat of the Rams’ team and offers a perfect blend of physical dominance and technical prowess, while his calming presence in midfield is bound to come in handy too. Bielik could easily be a Premier League player in the making, and if he can overcome his injury problems he will be halfway there already. With Derby in League One next season, perhaps a punt worth taking for Edwards this summer.
A player who has won numerous plaudits since arriving in England, Gustavo Hamer has proven himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Championship and is now reportedly demanding around £10m. Whilst unlikely for financial reasons, the lure of a club who have spent just one of the last six seasons outside the Premier League could be convincing, but it would require a steep price for Coventry City to part ways with their star man, especially to league rival.
This transfer is unlikely to take place, but is still a player who should be considered.
A graduate of the Feyenoord academy, Brazil-born midfielder Gustavo Hamer moved to the Netherlands as a child and was initially rejected by ADO Den Haag, before rising through the ranks at De Kuip to make his professional debut in 2017 as a substitute in an Eredivisie match against Ajax.
He would later move on loan to Dordrecht and made 39 appearances as the club missed out on promotion after qualifying for the play-offs, but joined PEC Zwolle upon his return to Feyenoord. He enjoyed a successful two years with Blauwvingers, and came to England in 2020 when Coventry came calling where he has made 85 appearances.
A midfielder who caught eye in Holland for his work rate, flair and passing range, Hamer has pulled the strings for much of his time at the CBS Arena and has played an integral role in the Sky Blues’ success since their promotion back to the second tier.
Playing in a double pivot in front of a back three, he is a more than capable ball-winner with excellent distribution and has demonstrated his passing ability on numerous occasions, completing 47.59 passes per 90 with a success rate of 79.4% last season, outperforming his xA of 7.04 to contribute ten assists.
A further 10.35 passes into the final third per 90 and 2.89 into the penalty area per 90 shows his importance to Coventry’s approach, with his task of advancing possession being one that he relishes as well as being a real threat from set pieces with half his assists coming from dead balls.
His role as a ball carrier improves with agility and he is very adept at progressing the ball forward, although having completed 1.18 progressive runs and 1.39 successful dribbles per 90 since arriving in England it is clear he prefers to pass. He is a very exciting playmaker, but undertakes his duties at the other end as well.
He has averaged 8.3 defensive duels won, 4.78 interceptions, and 8.63 ball recoveries per 90 since signing with the Sky Blues, while his positional awareness has helped him become an effective ball-winner and his low centre of gravity allowing him to respond quickly to danger.
Gustavo Hamer is surely set to move to one of the big five leagues sooner rather than later, and Watford’s ability to convince Coventry to part ways is very questionable. It would certainly require them to have money in the bank, but however realistic it would be is an interesting option to explore nonetheless.
With the futures of João Pedro and Philip Zinckernagel uncertain, the need to reinforce the attacking midfield areas is enhanced with those two being the main options Watford could see deployed in the attacking midfield role.
Meanwhile, Imrân Louza featured primarily as a defensive midfielder last season and could be deployed there again, but his role is generally uncertain before pre-season kicks off. As a result, an attack-minded central midfielder would be perfect and should be an avenue that is explored this summer, even if it isn’t necessarily a priority.
- Good presser
- Comfortable on the ball
- Good range of passing
- Adds goals from midfield
Available on a free transfer, Joe Rothwell is bound to be hot property for potential suitors this summer having come off the back of an impressive season with Blackburn Rovers, and is surely set for a Premier League move. Despite this, Watford should be one of the club’s interested, even if they are unable to complete a deal.
After joining Manchester United’s academy at the age of six, Joe Rothwell signed professional terms in the summer of 2013 and was named on the bench for a match against Watford in 2016, following loan spells at Blackpool and Barnsley the previous year.
He would move to Oxford United ahead of the 2016/17 campaign and made 86 appearances, before making the switch to Blackburn after two years at the Kassam Stadium where he has featured more than 150 times over a four-year spell, prior to his departure in July.
As one of the highest rated players to come out of the Championship last season, Rothwell will be in high demand for good reason. He dribbles like he’s a winger, and is able to glide past players with a low centre of gravity allowing him to drive past anyone.
This is one of the traits that has made him stand out with a mesmerising ability to weave in and out of defenders with his intricate ball control, and he is always looking to get towards the penalty area as seen by the 2.64 progressive runs per 90 and 1.3 dribbles per game he made last season. Evidently he is very comfortable on the ball, although he prefers to progress the ball using take-ons this is no different for distribution.
With a tendency to go long from deep in midfield, Rothwell attempted 7.51 passes into the attacking third per 90 at an accuracy of 70.21% and had 1.7 key passes per game, making his influence on the attack clear as the main ball progressor from the middle third of the pitch, and also contributed ten assists from an xA per 90 of 0.18, overperforming with his average of 0.27 assists per 90.
The former Manchester United man has developed a large presence in the centre of the park and as a result has seen him improve the defensive aspects of his game, with a very good work ethic and desire to win the ball back that has seen him complete 48 interceptions and win 26 tackles.
He is also a very versatile player and is able to fulfil a number of different roles in midfield no matter what formation Tony Mowbray plays at Ewood Park, able to play in a double pivot or on either side of a midfield three. His attacking mindset as a primarily box-to-box midfielder allowing him to be a real threat in the final third, but makes him capable of replicating his performances in a more advanced role as well.
There is a rather low likelihood that Rothwell remains in the Championship next season, with his availability on a free surely being enough to convince Premier League clubs to secure his services after the season he had. Nevertheless, he would undoubtedly be an upgrade for Watford and would be a real statement signing.
One of the most exciting players in the Football League, Scott Twine has been a revelation since joining MK Dons in 2021 with an unbelievable 20 goals in 44 League One matches along with 14 assists. He was named Player of the Month for November after notching three goals and four assists and won both the league’s and club’s Player of the Season awards, along with the Don’s Young Player of the Season award and was named in the League One Team of the Season.
After starting out with Royal Wootton Bassett Town, Scott Twine caught the eye of Southampton and joined their academy before moving to Swindon Town in 2013. He progressed through their youth system and signed professional terms in 2017, going on to make 59 appearances over a five-year spell, spending time on loan at Waterford in between three separate spells at Chippenham Town.
He later joined Newport County on loan where he won League Two Goal of the Month for October and was eventually recalled in January 2021, still winning Newport’s Young Player of the Season award. With Swindon relegated to League Two, the 22-year old opted to leave, with MK Dons snapping him up on a free transfer.
An extremely versatile attacking player, Twine can fill in anywhere across the front four, although in Liam Manning’s 3-4-3 formation he would normally find himself as a left-sided attacking forward that drifts inside almost as a second striker.
First and foremost, he is very confident in his attacking capabilities and makes sure to offer efficiency in the final third, hence why he scored 20 goals from an xG of 13.65 last season while averaging just 3.13 shots per 90.
He also picked up 14 assists, which isn’t a surprise given he is always scanning the pitch looking for progressive runs before playing wonderful defence-splitting passes to pick out a teammate, with this ability explaining why he played 79 through balls last season.
Furthermore, he is also known for his comfortability with shooting from distance and by extension his ability on free kicks, which can sometimes be enough to win points on its own. The former Swindon man is incredibly comfortable on the ball as well, but is also eager to work hard and track back, combining his fabulous amount of ability with a good work ethic, and he is really a manager’s dream.
At just 22 years of age, the sky is the ceiling for Twine and he will be in incredibly high demand this summer. His creativity and ability in front of goal will be very difficult to replace which means MK Dons will likely demand a high fee, however he would be perfect for this Watford side and Edwards’ 3-4-1-2 shape isn’t too dissimilar to Manning’s system, allowing for a smooth transition into a higher division.
Young players in the Football League should be on the agenda, meaning the signing of Twine would very much suggest that they are on the right track.
After a successful loan spell at Sheffield United, Morgan Gibbs-White is bound to be linked with numerous Championship clubs along with some Premier League sides as well after helping the Blades reach the play-offs with 11 goals and nine assists from midfield. Watford could hopefully benefit from Edwards’ Wolves connection, and would be an excellent signing on loan.
Having signed for Wolves at the age of eight, Morgan Gibbs-White has played for the club’s academy at every age group before making his first team debut at the end of 16. Following their promotion in 2018 he impressed at Premier League level with 26 appearances, albeit the majority being off the bench, but won plaudits nonetheless as the club reached the Europa League qualifiers.
With Wolves recruiting more players to help balance the extra games, Gibbs-White soon saw chances become limited, and he left on loan to Swansea City ahead of the 2020/21 season. He would pick up an injury that kept him out for three months though and was soon recalled, but did enjoy a successful loan spell the following season at Sheffield United.
A standout performer for Sheffield United last season, Gibbs-White impressed with his forward-thinking mentality and trickery in the centre of the park but used this loan spell to add goals to his game, helping the Blades reach the play-offs with a career-best 11 goals.
This came at a rate of 0.33 goals per 90 which is higher than his xG per 90 of 0.27 from 2.4 shots per game, of which 36.36% hit the target. Additionally, he registered nine assists from an xA per 90 of 0.24 meaning he exceeded his assists per 90 of 0.27.
Although he was usually deployed as a flair player in a slightly deeper midfield role under Nuno Espírito Santo, he featured far more prominently as an attacking midfielder under Paul Heckingbottom and it clearly got the best out of him. He would be given freedom to drift into pockets of space without hesitation to run in behind, but he is able to use his intelligence to know when the right moment is, ensuring he is always available for a free pass.
It seems to be very instinctive for him as he displays good awareness and is able to notice the perfect opportunity to make a run. He is a very effective on the ball as well as off it and is very creative, completing 67% of his passes into the final third along with 3.31 crosses per 90 while ranking in the top 4% for smart passes and through balls per 90.
After perhaps the best individual season of his career, Gibbs-White could be in high demand, with Premier League clubs likely to be circling. However, there is a good chance Wolves may decide another loan towards a top-end Championship club would be more beneficial than a relegation battle, and allow Watford to swoop in to secure a signing of extremely high quality.
On the other side of Sheffield, Barry Bannan has been tearing up League One, proving that his ability warrants a higher division. While he isn’t immediately the most attractive signing for a club aspiring to be in the Premier League, a closer look would see that a short-term deal for the 32-year old would actually be a potentially smart move, with his performances for Sheffield Wednesday regularly at a level much higher than League One.
After winning three Player of the Month awards as well as being named Sheffield Wednesday’s Player of the Season and securing a place in the League One Team of the Season with nine goals and 12 assists, it is clear the Scotland international should not be playing in the third tier.
After starting his career at local youth team Lenzie Youth Club, he caught the eye of Celtic and signed for their academy, but two years later signed a deal with Aston Villa at the age of 14 after a successful trial. He made his first team debut in a UEFA Cup group stage game against Hamburger SV before going on loan to Derby County, Blackpool and Leeds United, and went on to play 82 times for Villa before his departure.
A move to Crystal Palace saw him reunite with Ian Holloway whom he worked with at Blackpool, but he would end up struggling for game time and returned to the Championship on loan with Bolton Wanderers, before moving to Sheffield Wednesday in August 2015. He has since made over 300 appearances for the club and was named club captain ahead of the 2020/21 season.
Bannan remains a superb technician, and is capable of playing in a deeper position as well as in a more advanced role. As perhaps the most important player in the Sheffield Wednesday team, he is the main driving force behind their attacking phases due to his ability to control the ball smoothly and either deftly guide it anywhere across the pitch or weave his way out of tight spaces using his close control and low centre of gravity.
He is excellent at orchestrating attacks as he looks to build with superb technique and brilliant range and is able to dictate the tempo well too. The 32-year old also has excellent vision, and is able to strike balls over an array of distances, making his distribution a serious weapon. In the 2020/21 campaign, he completed 11.43 long passes per 90 with a success rate of 46.6%, but the intent is always there to be forward-thinking and progressive.
Additionally, his set piece ability shouldn’t be sniffed at and tends to be a real tool. While still an extremely hard worker, age means he may not be able to move like he used to, but he has been able to adapt to his body and become a superb deep-lying playmaker with the ability to recycle possession and progress it up field with ease.
If he was five years younger, a move for Bannan may not seem so surprising, but he could genuinely be a smart pickup for the right terms, and act as not only a good squad option but also a mentor for some of the younger players Watford have in midfield.
Like with Josh Doig, this wouldn’t be the first time Watford show interest in Lewis Ferguson. Having handed in a transfer request following their rejected approach in May 2021, the club’s relegation could bring an opportunity to be an almost guaranteed starter unlike at Premier League level, and could convince Watford to make another attempt at signing the 22-year old.
Having initially been in the academy setup at Rangers, Lewis Ferguson came through the ranks at Hamilton Academical and made his senior debut in January 2018, becoming a regular in the team during the second half of 2017/18 with 14 appearances in all competitions.
He later joined Aberdeen on a pre-contract agreement and made his debut in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier against Burnley, scoring his first professional goal in the second leg with a stunning overhead kick. He would help the club reach the Scottish League Cup final in 2018 and was nominated for the PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year award the following year, going on to top score in 2020/21 with ten goals from midfield.
Ferguson has shown plenty of adaptability at Aberdeen and has been deployed in a range of different midfield roles, however he has always possessed an excellent desire to get forward no matter where he is played. While playing in deeper positions, his physicality allows him to retain the ball under pressure before deciding which direction to play a pass, but he will always make sure they are clean and accurate to avoid any complications for him teammates.
Nevertheless, he is very much a progressive midfielder and looks to get the ball forward whenever possible, particularly by utilising long-range switches which he ensures are accurate, showing his ability to pick out forwards wherever he is on the pitch. This is his primary source of progression, as he rarely looks to penetrate through the centre to avoid taking any risks.
Furthermore, he has added goals to his game on a more consistent basis over the last two seasons and increased his tally of ten in all competitions in 2020/21 to 16 in 2021/22, the latter being from an xG of 12.80 and from averaging around three shots per match with 41 on target, although most of his shots were attempted from outside the box.
He certainly has a good work ethic too, pressing well and showing good reactions when his team have lost the ball, along with his willingness to be aggressive and commit to a challenge – making 353 recoveries and attempting 252 duels.
Ferguson is a player who won’t shirk his defensive responsibilities but is at his best when given freedom to roam forward and makes things happen. He is very much in the mould of a deep-lying playmaker, but is still just 22 and has plenty of room to develop. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to renew the interest in him.
After impressing on loan at Barnsley during the second half of last season, Amine Bassi returns to a Metz team who have been relegated from Ligue 1, and as a result could be on the move once more. He would likely be relatively cheap, and would undoubtedly be a positive move for Watford.
After spending time in the academies of US Bezons, Racing and Épinal, Amine Bassi began his career at Nancy where he broke into the first team and made his debut at the end of the 2016/17 season against AS Monaco, going on to play over 100 times for the club.
He later made the switch to rivals Metz in May 2021, but was unable to nail down a place in the starting XI and joined Barnsley on loan, where he caught the eye despite their relegation to League One.
A prolific dribbler, this is perhaps Bassi’s best trait. He completed 75% of his dribbles while at Barnsley and was always forward-thinking, not just when being progressive on the ball but when looking to distribute it as well.
The Morocco youth international is an intelligent passer with a pass accuracy of 83.2% as well as completing 32.3 passes in the opposition half per 90, with a 74.2% accuracy, and it is clear he knows when to hold onto the ball and when to release it, something which he will have had to do in a lot of tight spaces whilst at Oakwell. He was at the centre of many Tykes moves, orchestrating the majority of attacks and using his close control to beat defenders with ease.
The 24-year old can certainly hold his own in possession and can be a very useful player to have at the top of the midfield three. He may need to add more goals to his game, but could be an exciting player to pick up after he impressed in glimpses since arriving in England in January.
With the futures of João Pedro and Cucho Hernández being uncertain, Watford’s hunt for a striker should be high up on the list of targets with all the other options likely to depart, while the need for a high-scoring striker for a promotion-chasing side has perhaps been reinforced by Aleksandar Mitrović’s astonishing 43-goal haul last season along with Dominic Solanke’s 29 goals seeing both players make up the top two with Fulham and Bournemouth respectively.
- Good finisher
- Suitable to Edwards’ system
With Reading’s financial woes and uncertain future under Paul Ince, Lucas João could be on the move with the Royals willing to let him go in order to get one of their highest earners off the wage bill.
With the striker entering the final year of his contract, he could available for a dramatically cheap price and could be really shrewd move. With 29 goals scored in his last two seasons, he would undoubtably bolster Watford’s options up front.
Born in Lisbon, Lucas João started playing football with amateurs Beira Mar Atlético Clube Almada before signing for CD Nacional in 2011, spending time on loan with SC Mirandela where he made his senior debut before going on to play 57 times for Nacional.
He later agreed a deal with Championship side Sheffield Wednesday and made the move to England in July 2015, making 127 appearances for the Owls which brought 29 goals, although he did briefly move on loan to Blackburn Rovers.
After four years at Hillsborough, the striker made the switch to fellow Championship side Reading, where he has scored 38 goals in 83 appearances, with his most successful season being in 2020/21 where his 19 goals saw the club narrowly miss out on the play-offs.
At his best, João is one of the most effective strikers in the Championship, and truly is a complete forward. At 6’3″ he is built like a physically imposing target man and yet performs more like a tricky, nimble playmaker, and he can be almost unstoppable when in-form.
He is capable of producing chances out of nothing and by extension, is able to create goals for himself, with remarkable agility, ability on the ball and a decent level of pace combined with his strength and height. His ability in front of goal is evident given he has managed to remain a relatively consistent goalscorer in a Reading team that has struggled to create many chances, and has averaged a shot accuracy of 46.6% over his three seasons with the Royals.
The 2020/21 season saw them create 51 big chances with João scoring 19 from an xG of 16.5, while they created just two less in 2021/22 despite a large drop off in overall form, and the 27-year old still scored ten goals from an xG of 9.10. Crucially, he consistently outperforms his xG because he scores goals from statistically unlikely scenarios.
His biggest problem is likely consistency, going ten games without a goal in 2019/20, netting just twice in his final 15 appearances in 2020/21 and four in his final 12 games in 2021/22, while injuries held him back in two of his three seasons since moving to the Madjeski Stadium. It is telling that the season he remained injury free saw him notch a career-best goal tally though, and is enough to suggest he hasn’t even reached his very best.
The Angola international is a proven goalscorer at this level, and offers enough experience to be able to help the younger strikers Watford possess as well.
He has all the attributes to slot into the target man role Edwards likes to deploy, however making it a more enhanced position with João able to act as more than just a basic target man. For such a cheap price, there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to prove a useful signing.
Following Peterborough’s relegation to League One, Jonson Clarke-Harris is likely to have plenty of interest having scored 12 goals despite the Posh’s shortcomings last season. Adding to his 31-goal haul the season prior that saw them promoted, there is no reason why the 27-year old can’t follow in the footsteps of Ivan Toney and leave Peterborough for a promotion-chasing Championship side.
After graduating from the Coventry City academy, Jonson Clarke-Harris played just once for the Sky Blues before joining Peterborough, but he was unable to make a single first team appearance during his first stint at London Road and moved on loan to Southend United and Bury in search of game time.
He would depart permanently in 2013 when he joined Oldham Athletic, winning Young Player of the Season at the end of his only season at Boundary Park with Rotherham United announcing his signing for a club record fee.
Despite this, inconsistent form in his debut season meant he was moved out on two separate loan spells with MK Dons and Doncaster Rovers, with the striker leaving the Millers permanently after six years with just ten goals to his name in 79 appearances, to return to Coventry after an initial loan that saw him help the club win promotion to League One via the play-offs. He would later move on to Bristol Rovers where he scored 27 goals prior to his return to Peterborough.
Clarke-Harris had big shoes to fill when he came back to Peterborough, with the 27-year old chosen to replace League One top scorer Ivan Toney following his move to Brentford. The future Championship record goalscorer notched 26 goals for the Posh in 2019/20 in all competitions, but Clarke-Harris had no trouble at all bettering their former star man, firing them to promotion with 33 goals in all competitions.
He had exploded upon his return and completely exceeded expectations, scoring a goal every 131.6 minutes in League One, before taking his form into the Championship. The Posh endured a dismal campaign in which they were relegated having scored 43 goals from 45 big chances, although 12 of these goals fell to Clarke-Harris.
The man who oversaw his best form was former manager Darren Ferguson, who deployed him as a lone number nine with a number ten acting effectively as a second striker, although he would be trusted to do all the work himself when formation changes saw the removal of this level of support.
He is excellent at creating space for himself as he is an intelligent player who knows how to position himself in attacking scenarios, while he is physical enough and commanding enough to be given plenty of freedom to judge a situation and what is required of him.
Peterborough were one of the worst sides in the Championship last season and struggled to adapt following their promotion, however Clarke-Harris still managed to perform to a good standard and could benefit from having better players around him.
The Posh very much played to his strengths, and he could get even better if the quality of the team he plays in is increased. Of the two striker positions Edwards likes to deploy he would likely suit the poacher role most, and he would undoubtedly make Watford a better team overall.
One of the most coveted talents outside the top flight, Antoine Semenyo impressed for Bristol City last season with eight goals and 12 assists, with the Robins braced for offers due to the amount of interest expected. Although the price is unlikely to be low, he is still a potential option Watford could look into.
Born in Chelsea, Antoine Semenyo made the three-hour journey west to join the Bristol City academy and made his senior debut on the final day of the 2017/18 season as a substitute, before gaining experience on loan at Bath City, Newport County and Sunderland.
His breakout season came in 2020/21 when he made 50 appearances in all competitions, before improving his output the following campaign with eight goals and 12 assists, and the versatile attacker is now on the verge of 100 appearances already.
To put is simply, Semenyo is a very exciting player. Normally being used as a central striker, he offers versatility to be able to fill in in wide areas or drop into the channels, and can really play anywhere across the front three.
He displays an abundance of adaptability owing to his strength and pace, and as a result is able to receive the ball with his back to goal or play on the shoulder of the last defender and cause problems in behind. He is not the tallest of players, but it means he is agile enough to be very difficult to contain which blends with his muscular build that allows him to compete with any defender.
The Ghana international is very capable of leading the line by keeping defenders occupied in areas of the pitch where they are uncomfortable, and his intelligent movement ensures his teammates can trust him to get on the ball in dangerous spaces where they can attack with confidence, either driving beyond the defence or holding it up so others can join him.
Additionally, he has a good eye for a pass when playing in deeper positions, and is able to create havoc in the final third with his vision and ability to find passing lanes for his teammates to run onto, averaging 0.36 assists per 90 from an xA per 90 of 0.17. Not only does he possess this level of creativity, but he is more than capable of finishing chances himself.
The 22-year old is able to generate real power and he likes to strike the ball quickly before the goalkeeper can prepare himself to react while also holding the necessary composure in front of goal. It is something which has developed over time, and as a result saw him enjoy his best season in terms of goal contributions where he averaged 0.36 goals per 90 from an xG per 90 of 0.3 having taken 0.36 shots per 90.
Semenyo might be a more pricey option, but he is an extremely well-rounded forward who is still at a very young age, and would certainly be one of the signings of the summer. Watford’s ability to complete a deal is fairly unlikely owing to the number of clubs likely to be interested, but nevertheless is a fantastic player to consider.
Fresh off a successful loan spell at Nottingham Forest, Keinan Davis will be eyeing up a move back to the City Ground for a shot at Premier League football. However, his time at Aston Villa has suggested he might not yet be up to it at that level with the 24-year old struggling to break into the first team
A move back to the Championship might be possible though, with his stint in Nottingham showing he is a good option to have for a promotion-chasing side.
Born in Stevenage, Keinan Davis was released by Darren Sarll in 2015 and briefly moved to Biggleswade Town, before joining Aston Villa’s academy ahead of the 2015/16 season. He made his Villa debut in 2017 under Steve Bruce and has gone on to play 86 times for the club, however he has struggled for form for much of his time at Villa Park since their promotion to the Premier League in 2019, and has only scored six goals for them.
A loan spell to Nottingham Forest was agreed midway through the 2021/22 season, and he aided their rise up the league with five goals in 15 appearances, with it culminating in a play-off final win which he played 66 minutes in.
After coming into a Forest attack which scored an impressive 27 goals in 18 games under Steve Cooper, Davis somehow managed to enhance it even more and give it a completely new dimension, with the Reds scoring a further 29 goals in the 15 games he appeared in.
The 24-year old has it all, whether he’s required to use his physicality or his technical ability or have an impact deeper or in the penalty box, nothing fazes the Villa man and it seems he has finally been given the chance to unleash his capabilities in a system that suits him. On many occasions he has shown composure under pressure, able to shrug off his opponent and breeze past them with ease to open up a range of possibilities ahead of him.
This sort of dynamism has allowed his teammates to trust him with possession in the final third and know to always be on the move when he collects the ball, as his speed and strength means he will always be able to make something happen.
Despite playing as a striker, Davis wasn’t in the team as a primary goalscorer – this role being given to Brennan Johnson – rather he was vital to their ability to create chances with some of the highest shot assists and expected assists numbers in the league.
Unlike at Villa, Davis has been given more freedom to showcase his ability and has proven he isn’t just a typical target man who has struggled to score goals, but rather plays a key role as a creative deep-lying forward, which as a result has allowed him to grow in confidence and enjoy the best season of his career.
With Villa on the rise in terms of recruitment, it is unlikely they will deem Davis good enough for a serious role in their team yet, while Forest may want to prioritise proven Premier League quality however interested they will likely be in re-signing him.
Another loan move to the Championship would certainly be beneficial, and with regular minutes from the start of the season this time he can surely only get better. He is someone who would suit the target man role in Edwards’ front two, but with the freedom to link up with his teammates and play a key role in chance creation once more.
After impressing on loan at Preston North End, Cameron Archer could potentially be a useful recruit to the Watford squad with the 20-year old likely available for a loan once again, and a move to a promotion-chasing team could be attractive for both club and player.
After a spell with local club Walsall, Cameron Archer started training with Aston Villa at the age of eight and progressed through the academy, breaking into the Under-23 side at the age of 16 before making his senior debut when he was 17 in an EFL Cup match against Crewe Alexandra.
He would gain experience on loan in the National League with Solihull Moors where he scored four goals in 27 appearances, before scoring a hat-trick in the EFL Cup second round for Villa against Barrow and again against Chelsea in the third round, prior to his Premier League debut at Old Trafford three days later. The 20-year old made a huge jump up from Solihull when he joined Preston on loan in January 2022, and he scored seven goals in 20 appearances.
A self-proclaimed dynamic striker, Archer has been able to combine a stocky, athletic build with genuine pace to be able to physically dominate defenders despite not being particularly tall, and has succeeded in adding the finishing touch as well. Seven goals from an xG of 7.2 for Preston suggests he is a consistent goalscorer with an excellent ball-striking technique to vary his shooting depending on the scenario, while he has also shown his intelligence and movement in behind to be a constant threat.
Normally playing on the shoulder of the last defender, he knows where to position himself in attacking situations and with a great burst of acceleration, he is a player who wants the ball played in front of him rather than to his feet, very much being in the mould of a poacher and attempting just 3.12 dribbles per 90 but having 4.9 touches in the box per 90. Despite his muscular frame he hasn’t shown much luck at holding the ball up, but he is still raw and evidently has a very high ceiling.
He would likely be the biggest risk due to his inexperience having only played half-a-season of senior football outside the National League, but Archer is clearly a talented striker who would have a lot to add to this Watford side.
There are question marks over how willing Villa are to loan him out again with Steven Gerrard claiming they would be interested in giving him some experience with their squad owing to how much he is valued, but Preston are unsurprisingly extremely eager in re-signing the 20-year old, while a loan to a top-level Championship club might prove an attractive move for the Villains.
If Watford are to compete at the top level again but on a consistent basis, they have to take advantage of their relegation and use this time in the Championship as an opportunity to reset, having an overview of their shortcomings in order to start a very important rebuild. As mentioned, getting Rob Edwards in so early suggests that they are on the right track, but it must be backed up with player recruitment as well.
The entire backline needs fresh blood, having remained stagnant with limited changes for a few years now. Ethan Ampadu, Michał Helik and Romain Saïss appeal the most, owing to their individual qualities, suitability to Edwards’ system as well as the low price likely involved for all three.
The obvious signing at right wing-back is of course Kane Wilson who should be the first name on the list of transfer targets, while on the left Ryan Giles is a promising player who has gained a good level of experience in the second tier, although the hope would be that Hassane Kamara remains at the club.
Krystian Bielik is perhaps a wildcard option for defensive midfield due to his injury problems, but genuinely could be a really exciting choice to bring in for a price that shouldn’t be too high.
A more attack-minded central midfielder is certainly needed to add quality competition and Morgan Gibbs-White on loan makes a lot of sense, with some of the alternatives being too expensive or unattainable due to competition from other clubs.
Lastly, a new striker would be useful to add firepower and competition up top and Lucas João is the obvious choice for such a cheap price, for a multitude of reasons including his ability and experience at second tier level being able to guide the younger strikers at the club.
Watford are in dire need for some smart recruitment, and hopefully with the transfer window yet to open there are plenty of plans in the works that are ready to go. Hopefully this brand new era doesn’t take too long to get going.
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