16 times this season, Tom Cleverley wore the captain’s armband for Watford. In January, the Hornets signed highly-rated Danish attacker Philip Zinckernagel. Now, the two players could potentially find themselves in a battle for the final starting spot.
Cleverley Versus Zinckernagel Conundrum
Cleverley Returns From Injury
The skipper for the first portion of the season played 30 matches, scoring four times and assisting twice, before sustaining a knee ligament strain. He was set to return for the Hornets’ clash against Sheffield Wednesday a couple of weeks ago. A minor setback saw him require more time on the sidelines. But now, he is nearly back in contention for the starting eleven.
Cleverley and Reliability
Especially under Vladimir Ivic, Cleverley was firmly in the running for Watford’s player of the season. No matter the Hornets’ formation and who he was paired with, the 31-year-old always did what was needed. His robust defending mixed with his intense pressing and leadership made him undroppable.
Since the change of head coaches and the eventual shift to the 4-3-3 formation, Cleverley played as an attacking midfielder. Both of his assists came in the six matches he played under the new tactics. His partnership with Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah became formidable, as he re-usurped the captain’s armband following Troy Deeney’s injury. When his knee injury occurred, many questions were raised as to who should replace him, and whether they would be able to fill his shoes. In his absence, a January signing has filled in admirably.
Zinckernagel Having His Due Rise
Considering he was coming off the back of a 19-goals, 18-assists in 28 appearances season with Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt, many people expected Zinckernagel to make an immediate impact at Vicarage Road. However, his adjustment to life in England was slower than expected – giving Zinckernagel a harsh reality check.
The right-winger by trade, who can play on the left side of the attack or an attacking midfielder if necessary, saw his first nine league appearances in the form of brief cameos from the bench. Ever since he made his starting-league debut against Wycombe Wanderers, he has shown signs of why he was a star on an Eliteserien record-breaking team.
So far for the Hornets, from his less-natural attacking midfield position, he has five assists and one goal. His creativity, technicality, and flair make him a threat whenever he is on the ball. As he is naturally a winger, his overlapping runs with wide players often result in dangerous crosses.
Cleverley is more defensively sound, but perhaps Zinckernagel’s added attacking prowess is more pivotal to the Hornets’ success in the run-in. So, should Zinckernagel keep the starting spot, or is it time for Cleverley to reclaim his place in the starting eleven?
Zinckernagel Edges Cleverley Tactically
Xisco Munoz switching Watford to a 4-3-3 has come with its variations. One such tactical variation is the 4-1-4-1 (a 4-3-3 with an attacking-focused midfield triangle). Zinckernagel, an attack-minded player, is a threatening overlapping option and creates many chances from the centre of the pitch.
Cleverley’s goal return this season is decent for a midfielder, and his pressing helps spur some good attacking chances. It even led directly to a goal against Huddersfield earlier this season.
The choice between Cleverley and Zinckernagel goes down to whether a slightly more defensive focus is preferred or not. But, for Watford, they have found the most success as of late when more offensively oriented. With Chalobah and Hughes consistently starting, a truly creative attacking midfielder gives the first 11 the extra bit of cutting edge and lethality going forward.
This is a good conundrum for Xisco Munoz to have. Either option is beyond sufficiently capable of helping Watford in their push for a return to the Premier League. But, between extra attacking threat and Watford not needing to switch anything considering their current form, Zinckernagel should continue to get the nod. There is no reason to change already-working tactics. But, if Cleverley returns to the starting 11, Hornets’ supporters should not lose any confidence.
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