The Watford defence was a main reason for the club’s relegation from the Premier League last season. While the Hornets also struggled for goals, the backline were unable to manage clean sheets.
However, in the summer, Watford were able to keep hold of many of their most valuable assets and their defensive arrivals were even an improvement on their defensive departures. So much so that the Hornets finished the season with just 30 goals conceded.
Watford Defence: Premier League Standard Center-Backs Thanks to Relegation
Watford Back in the Premier League Due to Record-Breaking Defence
The club secured promotion to the top flight at the first time of asking with two matches to spare. After Xisco Munoz was appointed head coach following Vladimir Ivic’s underwhelming 20 matches in charge (albeit the Hornets were still in the promotion-playoff picture – admittedly on a downward trajectory), fears of a prolonged stay in the second tier gradually made way for optimism and hope. And, of course, the dreams of an immediate return to the Premier League came true.
Munoz’s high-octane attacking style of play relies upon utilising full-backs for overlapping runs and getting the wingers the ball as much as possible. Ken Sema and Ismaila Sarr (especially the latter – Watford’s Player of the Season) took kindly to the tactical focus. However, Sarr was Watford’s top goalscorer with 13 goals. No other player reached the double-digit mark. Sema and Sarr had a combined five-fewer assists than their combined Expected Assists statistic predicted, signaling poor finishing on other players’ behalf.
League leaders Norwich City scored 12 more goals than Watford. Third-placed Brentford scored 16 more. Even fifteenth-placed Blackburn scored two more.
As impressively as what Munoz, Sarr, and Co. did to improve the attack post-Ivic era, the Hornets’ defensive solidity is what ultimately led to promotion. Watford tied a Championship record of fewest goals conceded over the course of a campaign. Conceding only 30 goals (16 from open play), the club did not always need to rely on their attackers to score more than once. 11 of the Hornets’ 27 wins came by way of a 1-0 scoreline.
Perhaps Ivic’s defensive tactics were to thank for Munoz inheriting a strong defensive foundation. Nonetheless, the Spaniard uncovered a defensive gem barely touched by Ivic and conjured the perfect center-back pairing.
New-Signings Francisco Sierralta and William Troost-Ekong Shined in Promotion Surge
In the 2020 summer transfer window, as per usual, Watford made a handful of transfers with Udinese. Two players Watford brought in were center-backs William Troost-Ekong and Francisco Sierralta. The former had high expectations, as he impressed with Udinese and is more notably the captain of the Nigerian international team. The latter, however, was overlooked by most – Ivic included. His signature seemed a mystery to start with.
When Craig Dawson departed on loan (now permanently sold) to West Ham United, his arrival made a bit more sense. Still, Sierralta sat behind Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart, Troost-Ekong, and Ben Wilmot in the pecking order.
Troost-Ekong started 20 out of 26 possible matches under Xisco Muniz. Sierralta started all but two. Despite Sierralta garnering more of the plaudits due to his unexpected, improbable rise, both performed at a top-flight-worthy level. Neither player is flawless, with both sometimes shaky with passing the ball out from the back, but, with the exception of the occasional error (as every center-back has sporadic hiccups), both were aerially menacing and able to tame the pace of the Championship’s top attackers. The strong chemistry between the two was apparent in most matches. 12 clean sheets in 19 games paired together show how formidable of a partnership they are.
Watford Defence Better Off Now Than Their Last Premier League Campaign
Now, Watford face the waves of the post-promotion transfer window. Of course, Watford could opt to sign more center-backs for depth or improvements if the price is right. After all, the goal for the 2021/2022 campaign is to be in the Premier League for the following season, regardless of the means and the personnel. However, if Watford choose to stick with their current options, they should already have enough to tread safely in regards to the defence.
As mentioned, Troost-Ekong and Sierralta’s main weaknesses surround their occasional poor distribution. But, in the Premier League, Watford will not be controlling the match with possession as they did in the Championship. Watford’s need to be more direct will eliminate most of the opportunities for those errors. And, admittedly, no player or pairing can be flawless. Both of their aerial abilities and relatively decent paces will be pivotal in keeping Premier League attack forces at bay.
With Cathcart and Kabasele as proven Premier League defenders on the books as well, the Hornets have a core of four more-than-capable center-backs, with a new, strong pairing ready to continue their strong form in the top-flight.
The club also has Ben Wilmot, though Adam Leventhal of the Athletic speculates a departure may be in the cards for the youngster. He is likely Premier League ready too, so his potential departure would probably signal a new top-flight quality center-back coming Watford’s way. And, if he does stay, he is yet another talented center-back for the Hornets.
Relegation gave the Hornets the platform to try new recipes. Now, the final product is sweeter and has better consistency than the previous defensive concoctions.