Relegation in 2019/20 ended Watford’s five-year stay in the Premier League, but they yo-yoed at the first attempt to regain their place in the top tier, finishing Championship runners-up in 2020/21. They came into the new season with plenty of optimism. Vladimir Ivić was a somewhat left-field appointment to lead Operation Bounce Back, but he did have trophies from stints in Greece and Israel on his CV. He also had what some pundits believed to be the strongest squad in the Championship, having retained the likes of Will Hughes and Ismaïla Sarr to terrorise second-tier defences. Watford’s start to their promotion push was ~fine. Nothing more, nothing less. They won games – nine of their first 20 – and positioned themselves in the promotion pack heading into Christmas. But both board and fanbase were becoming increasingly twitchy with performances, and the sense that Ivić wasn’t getting the most out of the players available to him continued to grow with every grinding – and, frankly, boring – game. Just 1.9 goals per game were scored in Watford matches under Ivić. Approaching the halfway point in the season, the underlying numbers pegged them as the 7th best team in the league, and that was enough for the Watford senior management -- not known for their patience with managers -- to cut ties with the Serbian. Ivić was sacked after 20 games with the team 5th in the table. Their chosen replacement for Ivić was even further out of left-field. So far left that it could’ve been right. And so it came to be, eventually. Xisco Muñoz joined from Georgian powerhouses Dinamo Tbilisi -- yes, Dinamo Tbilisi -- after taking just 11 games as a manager -- yes, just 11 games -- to kickstart their stuttering promotion campaign. To the layman, it seemed a risky appointment with so much at stake, and initial performances didn’t encourage. Results remained ~fine, taking 14 points from their first eight under Muñoz, but short of the standard required to close the gap on the automatic promotion places. The eighth game of Muñoz’s tenure, a 0-0 draw away at Coventry City, was the catalyst for the run that eventually took them back up. A turgid performance lacking any invention prompted senior players, feeling their chances of an immediate return to the Premier League slipping away, to insist that the team took a more front-foot approach going forwards. The results were instant. Muñoz switched the team from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 shape, and Bristol City were put to the sword. They never looked back. Watford became a relentless winning machine, taking maximum points in 14 of their remaining 18 fixtures to seal promotion. Their defensive record was critical to the promotion, something that should stand them in good stead this season. Ivić laid the foundations, but Muñoz improved the team as a whole, taking the handbrake off and allowing the players to express themselves while retaining their defensive solidity, even improving in this aspect. From the time Muñoz was appointed, Watford conceded just 15 goals and ~20 expected goals, both league-best rates over the 26-game period in which the Spaniard was in charge. The main driver of their exemplary defensive record was their ability to shut down the quality of chances created against them. Watford conceded 10.6 shots per game under Muñoz – 9th-best in the league in his tenure – but their xG per shot conceded was just 0.07, far and away the stingiest in the league. It became very difficult to create good chances against this team. A lot of this can be attributed to their defensive organisation and determination to reduce the sight of goal available to the opposition forward. When the opposition created footed shots in the box, Watford had an average of 3.8 defenders positioned deeper than the shot location, suggesting they effectively slowed the opponent attacks down enough to set themselves in a good defensive position. Consequently, this meant that Watford could get a defender between the shooter and goal more often than not, averaging 1.1 defenders between the ball and goalkeeper – something that would greatly reduce the quality of the opening. Footed shots in the box are the holy grail of chance creation, but not if a defender is blocking your way. The broken finger suffered by goalkeeper Ben Foster, one of few players in credit after the opening half of the season, in January could’ve been a blow to their promotion push, but replacement Daniel Bachmann rose to the challenge to make it a seamless transition. The data over Bachmann’s time in goal reflects his solid performance as Foster’s replacement and the solid performance of the defense as a whole. As a benchmark, Foster faced 2.5 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.70 per game, whereas Bachmann faced 1.9 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.43 per game. That is to say, the quality of shots on target that Watford’s opponents were generating were worth just ~4 goals every ten games once Bachmann took his place in net. Both keepers saved goals above expected based on the post-shot xG faced, but it’s clear that Bachmann’s time in goal was a freak outlier thanks to the protection afforded to him by the defence. Personnel & Transfers Retaining Ismaïla Sarr will be objective #1 for the Watford hierarchy this summer; to their relief there doesn’t seem to be any major interest in his services. Sarr’s contribution in the final third and penalty box was crucial to the Hornets’ promotion as he demonstrated that he was far too good for the Championship, predictably so, having been a more-than-capable Premier League performer in 2019/20. Sarr’s 17 goals + assists were five more than the next best in the Watford squad, and his ball carrying was a constant thorn in the opposition side. His quality in carrying the ball was evident in our possession value model -- On-Ball Value (OBV) -- numbers from last season. OBV estimates the extent to which an action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Sarr’s OBV/90 was the sixth-highest of all Championship players with >1200 minutes played last season, and his OBV/90 from carries was fourth highest. There are some concerns over the future of midfielders Will Hughes (2,118 minutes) and Nathaniel Chalobah (2,816 minutes), with both entering the last years of their contracts and reportedly exploring options elsewhere before committing. But central midfield reinforcements are already in place: Imrân Louza joins after some steady Ligue 1 performances for Nantes over the last couple of seasons, while Jan Kucka comes in from Parma as an experienced Serie A campaigner. A third midfield signing will be most familiar to English audiences. Peter Etebo’s name may ring a bell after a short stint at Stoke City that never really got going due to several managerial changes in the season he arrived at the club. A loan spell at Galatasaray in 2020/21 showed glimpses of what Etebo can offer as a defensive midfield enforcer, but the Nigerian is also capable of filling in as a shuttling midfielder with the ability to contribute between both boxes. Wide-attacker Emmanuel Dennis could be another one that people have a faint recollection of, having scored twice in the Champions League against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in 2019 while with Club Brugge. Dennis has played at right wingback, right-wing, and striker over the last three seasons, so provides versatility, but he struggled in the Bundesliga while on loan at FC Köln in the second half of the campaign, making just nine appearances over 495 minutes as Köln narrowly avoided relegation. It remains to be seen whether Dennis will be an automatic starter or a squad option at Watford, but his data over previous seasons suggest a capable dribbler with a knack of getting in behind the defence and onto the end of throughballs, qualities that would be welcome if they can add some goals to Watford’s survival bid. Josh King and Danny Rose bring Premier League experience to the dressing room. Projection After stabilising in the Premier League, the quality of Watford’s playing squad gradually declined and was a large factor in their relegation. Being objective, the current roster does not appear much better than the one that went down in 2019/20, but if they can continue good defensive habits built under Vladimir Ivić and improved by Xisco Muñoz, perhaps the Hornets can grind matches enough to stay in contention, relying on the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro to provide the goals at the other end to give them a chance of staying up. Given they finished 2nd in the Championship, it’s noteworthy that the betting markets rate Watford as the side least likely to stay in the Premier League, benchmarking them for a ~34 point season and 20th place. It’s perhaps understandable given there are still question marks over Muñoz’s managerial ability despite promotion; he improved the side, yes, but it was a side that was underperforming given their talent level before he arrived. Muñoz simply raised them to their par. Has he got the quality to give them an edge in a season that their squad looks one of the weakest in the league? We’ll soon find out.
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