By almost all measures, last season was a successful one for Watford. Eleventh in the Premier League represented their best top-flight finish since the mid-eighties, and they also made it all the way through to the FA Cup final before losing out to Manchester City.
The club’s mid-table finish was allied to mid-table underlying numbers. In terms of expected goals (xG), Watford had the eighth-best attack (1.23xG per match) and the sixth-worst defence (1.39xGC per match) in the division. The sum was a league 12th-best expected goal difference of -0.16 per match, pretty much in line with their actual goal difference.
But their form during the second half of the campaign raised some concerns ahead of the 2019-20 season. In terms of results, there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the first and second halves of their season. A four-point swing from 27 points in their first 19 matches to 23 points thereafter isn’t all that significant for a mid-table team. But their underlying numbers got conspicuously worse.
Through the first half of the season, Watford ran an average xG difference of 0.19 per match, the sixth best in the division, and superior to the figures of both Arsenal (0.14) and Manchester United (0.11); during the second half of the season, they had an average xG difference of -0.51 per match — the fourth worst, verging on relegation numbers. Their attack was pretty consistent throughout, but their defensive numbers plummeted. Over the final 10 matches of the campaign, they averaged nearly two xG conceded per match.
There is no immediately apparent reason for that defensive drop off. Watford suffered no major injuries during the second half of the season, and neither did coach Javi Gracia rotate especially heavily around the club’s FA Cup run. Watford handed a league-high 10 players 2000 or more minutes of action over the course of the campaign, although they weren’t unique in that — five other clubs also did so. But Watford undeniably altered the way in which they defended as the season went on. They began to defend closer to their own goal.
And less frequently break up opposition passing chains (PPDA = Passes per Defensive Action)
The result was that they conceded more shots (280 to 203), of better average quality (0.116 to 0.106 xG per shot), and went from conceding 21.55 xG in the first half of the season to 32.46 xG in the second.
With that in mind, defensive reinforcements looked to be a priority this summer. And at time of writing, at least, their one deal involving a fee was for a central defender. But it was not for an athletic one who might have more easily allowed the team to push up nor was it for a promising young defender with plenty of upside. Nope. Watford’s one and only money signing so far this summer is Craig Dawson, 29, from West Bromwich Albion. It’s difficult to describe him as much more than solid and experienced.
In attack, Watford’s best piece of business has been keeping hold of Gerard Deulofeu. Last season, he was the central figure of their attack. Despite only accumulating just shy of 2,200 minutes of game time over the course of the campaign, he still made a direct contribution to more goals (15) than any other Watford player. But it wasn’t just that. On a per-90 basis, he also led the team in successful dribbles, through-balls, shots, xG assisted (xGA) and final-third receipts, and ranked in the top two for xG and open-play passes into the box. His xG contribution (xG + xGA) of 0.56 per 90 put him 10th in the Premier League amongst all players who saw at least 900 minutes of action.
There were, though, the usual caveats with Deulofeu. His missed eight matches through injury, only completed the full 90 minutes in six of his 28 starts, and was substituted before the 70-minute mark on 10 occasions. His fitness issues are perhaps the primary reason why bigger clubs remain wary of him, and why Watford are able to count on a player of his quality. But it would also be fair to say that he would be unlikely to have the same freedom and importance he enjoys at Vicarage Road anywhere else. In that sense, it is a symbiotic relationship.
Andre Gray and Troy Deeney provided sufficient output between them to act as solid foils for him in attack, combining for 16 goals, while Roberto Pereyra also chipped in from midfield, scoring six goals off of 4.78xG. On a team who weren’t high volume shooters, but shot from good positions when they did, it was enough. Deeney also put in a strong defensive shift, although expecting him to continue to do so while carrying over 2,700 minutes at 31 years old and counting is a bit of stretch.
That is a problem throughout the Watford squad. Five of the seven players who saw most minutes for them last season were aged 30 or over. Overall, they had the oldest squad in the Premier League, with an average age (weighted by minutes played) of 28.8 — half a year older than the next oldest (Burnley). Just four players aged 23 or under received minutes, and only one of those, Isaac Success, saw more than 1,000.
The heavy investment of Watford’s first three years in the Premier League following promotion for the 2015-16 season seems to have given way to a more cautious approach thereafter, leaving an ageing squad where the drop off in quality from the starters to the substitutes requires players in key positions to accumulate heavy minutes. The regular midfield duo of Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue both saw over 3,100 minutes of action last season. It is possible to bumble along like that for a while with a competent coach and good players but it eventually becomes unsustainable.
The bottom line for Watford is that despite needing their squad to become younger and deeper, they’ve been almost entirely dormant this transfer window. Even the usual wheeling and dealing between the two clubs the Pozzo family owns hasn’t brought the influx of youth from Udinese that might have been expected. In fact, only nineteen-year-old midfielder Tom Dele-Bashiru, on a free transfer from Manchester City, has joined.
So what is the new season likely to hold for Watford? At best, you’ve got an ageing team capable of averaging out league average numbers over the course of the season to again finish in mid-table; at worst, you’ve got an ageing team unable to turn around the defensive downturn they suffered during the second half of last season and who are thus destined for a much more uncomfortable campaign this time around. Either way it’s likely to be a disappointing follow up to a season that saw Watford make great strides forward.
Update: Just before the transfer window closed, Watford acquired Ismaila Sarr from Stade Rennais. He’s 21 years old, a winger, and is the kind of young exciting player Watford need to be targeting as they look to turn their roster over.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association