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Spotlight: Welcome Back Watford

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After a forgettable season in 2016/17, Watford has jumped back on our fantasy radar, led by newcomers Richarlison and Kiko Femenia along with a few returning players.

Swansea City v Watford - Premier League
Richarlison has Watford back to making shirt-removing celebrations
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

There must be some wicked mix of science and voodoo that explains why a particular song gets stuck in your head, even though you haven’t heard it in seemingly forever. That just happened to me with the introductory theme from Welcome Back Kotter, and it got me thinking about Watford, which has beautifully returned to Premier League watchability and fantasy relevance after being a complete afterthought last season. And hey, I’m sure that the Hornets don’t mind being mentioned in the same breath as John Travolta and the rest of the “Sweathogs.” (Well, maybe not Horshack.)

Dashing Darlings of 2015/16

After earning promotion from the Championship with a second place finish in 2014/15, Watford returned to the Premier League in 2015/16 for the first time since being relegated in one-and-done, last place misery in 2006/07. The Hornets not only stayed up, but did so with aplomb under manager Quique Sanchez Flores, capturing the hearts of skeptical Premier League fans and fantasy managers alike. Watford finished in a very respectable 13th place, ahead of more familiar league sides Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion along with fellow newcomers Bournemouth and Norwich City.

The team was led offensively by Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney. After combining for 41 goals and 12 assists the prior season in the Championship, the dynamic duo adapted brilliantly to the severe step up in competition, totaling 28 scores and 10 helpers. Even so, the team’s 40 goals ranked only 16th best in the league as nobody outside of Ighalo and Deeney chipped in with more than two scores!!!

It was on the defensive side that Watford truly thrived, allowing the eighth fewest goals in the league (50, tied with Liverpool). Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes made the most saves (123) and tied for the sixth most clean sheets (11), delivering 157 points in Official fantasy. By comparison, that’s more than the best that Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet, Manchester United’s David De Gea, Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, or Southampton’s Fraser Forster has EVER earned in a single season. In Fantrax, Gomes netted 204 points, a fine value compared to the returns that season of more expensive keepers such as Lloris (237), De Gea (213), Manchester City’s Joe Hart (148) and Mignolet (142).

Defenders Craig Cathcart, Allan Nyom and Nathan Ake did little in Official, but their 215, 196 and 188 points, respectively, offered excellent value in Fantrax. Those returns were in the same ballpark as established players such as West Brom’s Gareth McAuley (233 points), Crystal Palace’s Joel Ward (230), Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand (229), Newcastle’s Daryl Janmaat (224) and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen (185).

Even so, the shine wore off as the season progressed, enough so that Watford sacked Flores in mid-May to widespread shock.

Dastardly Disappointments of 2016/17

Along with the entry of new manager Walter Mazzari, several changes were made in the summer of 2016. Of the regulars, Almen Abdi, Ake, Ikechi Anya, Jose Jurado and Nyom departed, while defenders Janmaat, Christian Kabasele and Younes Kaboul, midfielder Roberto Pereyra, and forwards Stefano Okaka and Isaac Success were brought in. Instead of building on the accomplisment of 2015/16, however, Watford took several steps backward as it flirted with relegation, finishing in 17th place in 2016/17 ahead of only the doomed trio of Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.

Watford again scored only 40 goals, but there was significant falloff from Deeney (who dropped from 13 goals & seven assists to 10 & four) along with near-total disappearance of Ighalo (from 15 & three all the way down to one & one!!!). With his head turned by transfer speculation, Iggy played only 18 games before leaving midseason for the yuan and smog of Changchun Yatai. Offensive newcomers Okaka, Pereyra, and Success were unable to make up for Ighalo’s lack of production, combining for only seven goals & three assists. Midfielder Etienne Capoue was the second highest scorer on the team with seven goals, but was fairly useless from a fantasy perspective as managers added him thanks to a four goal spree across the first five games only to see the mirage disappear with three goals in his last 32 appearances.

As bad as things were on the offensive side, the real problem came on the defensive end, where Watford allowed 68 goals, fourth most in the league. Gomes dropped from 157 points down to 113 in Official, while plunging from 204 to 101 in Fantrax (where wins and losses also factor in). Cathcart struggled with injury and played fewer games, dropping from 6.1 ppg to 4.3 ppg in Fantrax.

For the second straight season, the manager lost his job, though this time it actually made much more sense, with Watford desperately in need of rejuvenation.

Comeback Crew of 2017/18

As Marco Silva took charge, there were not too many notable departures over the summer, with only defender Paredes along with midfielders Nordin Amrabat, Valon Behrami and Mario Suarez leaving after having played significant minutes the prior season. The additions included defender Kiko Femenia (from Alaves of La Liga), midfielders Nathaniel Chalobah (via Chelsea, having last played at Napoli), Tom Cleverley (Everton), winger Richarlison (Fluminense of Brazil’s Serie A) and forward Andre Gray (Burnley).

Unfortunately, Chalobah suffered a serious injury early in the season, but the additions have integrated nicely with the returning players under Silva’s leadership. Watford sits impressively in eighth place after seven games. Aside from a 6-0 dismantling at the hands of first place Manchester City, the Hornets have acquitted themselves nicely, with three victories and three draws otherwise, highlighted by a spirited 3-3 home affair against Liverpool and a 2-0 win at Southampton.

The team has scored 11 goals which is good for sixth most (tying with Arsenal) in the league. And while it has allowed 12 scores, which is fewer than only two teams, half of that total comes from that one aforementioned City game. Watford has actually kept three clean sheets; only five squads have more. Perhaps most importantly, the team displayed intestinal fortitude following that blowout. Rather than hanging their heads or otherwise imploding, they followed up with a clutch win at Swansea and a comeback draw at West Brom in their next two away games.

Who Should You Consider for Your Fantasy Squads?

Watford has several players who should be on your fantasy radar if they are not already in your squads:

Richarlison (M/F)

Manchester United has famously scored 10 of its 21 goals this season in the 80th minute or later. But the Red Devils have nothing on Richarlison, who has been master of the dramatic with two of his three goals; in the past two games, he notched the winner at Swansea in the 90th minute, then followed that up with tying score at West Brom in the last gasp of extra time. The heroics at Liberty Stadium:

Sharing the team lead with three goals while also chipping in with an assist, the 20-year old Brazilian has established himself as a dynamic playmaker, replete with fancy footwork and inspired inventiveness. Notably, the late match hero has scored with variety, once each via left foot, right foot and header. Richarlison has demonstrated impressive industry, leading Watford with:

  • 23 shots
  • 20 tackles
  • 24 fouls suffered (compared to only five conceded)

Kiko Femenia (D)

Having played mostly in Spain’s second devision, 26 year old Femenia has enjoyed two seasons in La Liga, the first being with Hercules way back in 2010/11. After languishing in the reserves for Barcelona and Real Madrid, it took until 2016/17 with Deportivo Alaves for a return to the Spanish top flight. Between the two La Liga campaigns, Femenia showed what he can do going forward, combining for one goal and eight assists.

Coming to Watford, the Keekster immediately made the right back position his own. Femenia has contributed on offense:

  • one assist
  • two shots (one SOT)
  • 13 crosses
  • 236 passes (most among Watford defenders)

Meanwhile, he has also played disciplined defense:

  • 13 tackles
  • 15 interceptions
  • nine clearances
  • two fouls conceded (comparted to six fouls drawn)

Jose Holebas (D)

The Greek import is listed in the fantasy portals as Holebas, even though he sports Cholevas on his jersey. Much like Hannukah/Chanukah, however you spell it, joy tends to be the result.

Playing left back opposite Femenia, Holebas is comparatively a grizzled veteran at age 33. Demonstrating a nasty streak, Holebas has conceded 56 fouls while suffering only 32 in his two-plus seasons at Watford. More alarmingly, he has drawn 17 yellow cards in 50 games (but no reds, unlike flying karate kick back mate Miguel Britos).

This season, Holebas has been plenty busy on defense with:

  • 25 clearances (second most on team)
  • 15 tackles (second most on team)
  • 10 interceptions

Like Femenia, Holebas also gets up the pitch plenty. After contributing two goals & four assists in 2016/17, he has already nabbed a pair of helpers this season.

Abdoulaye Doucore (M)

The 24 year old Frenchman has a fairly mixed history. In 2013/14 and 2014/15 at Rennes (Ligue 1), Doucore combined for nine goals & 11 assists, so the talent for offensive returns is evident. However, he failed to score and had only two assists at Granada (La Liga) in the second half of 2015/16, while he had just one goal with no helpers at Watford last season.

This season, Doucore would seem to have made the leap with three goals to his credit already. This quality opener against Southampton stands out as the best of his trio for its combination of distance and degree of difficulty:

However, the underlying cold, hard stats instead may point to a disconnect. Doucore is on the ball a lot, leading the team with 441 touches, but all of that possession has only translated into six shots and not a single assist. Remarkably, all of his shots on target have found pay dirt. That efficiency (goals on 50% of his shots and 100% of his SOT) is wonderful, but simply is not going to continue. On top of that, he has conceded 11 fouls (compared to 2 suffered), along with 2 yellow cards.

However, you don’t have to pay nearly as much for Doucore as you do for the much safer Richarlison. If he picks things up or even merely keeps it going, you’ll be well rewarded, and otherwise you won’t be hurt much. Just be sure to go in with eyes wide open to the possibility that Doucore falls off sharply as a carbon copy of Capoue from last season.

Troy Deeney (F)

The Andre Gray transfer was a curious decision that may never be understood by anyone outside of the Watford brass. After Gray scored just nine times (adding only three assists) in 32 games last season for Burnley, Watford spent a club record £18.5m for him. Unsurprisingly, Gray has failed to make an impact in his new environs, with just one goal & one assist to his credit in seven game weeks.

After starting the previous five tilts, Gray found himself on the bench against West Brom, as Silva handed Deeney his first start. It could have been a verdict on Gray’s poor play, or it may have been a reward for Deeney’s doggedness that led to Richarlison’s winning goal at Swansea which unfortunately did not earn assist credit. Deeney didn’t really do much at the Hawthorns, at least according to the statistics. No goals, no assists, no shots, no fouls suffered or committed. As such, he only earned 2 points in Fantrax.

But in my eyes, the team simply looks better with Deeney than Gray. More muscular, less wasteful, and ultimately more dangerous. Deeney may not offer as much in open space, but is more adept as a hold-up or knock-on target and with combination play in close quarters. (In his more limited playing time, Deeney has averaged 0.25 passes and 0.46 touches per minute this season, compared to 0.17 and 0.28, respectively, for Gray.) Just take a look at how the Deeney to Richarlison to Doucore connection worked for the team’s first goal in the clawback against West Brom:

There’s no guarantee that Deeney will keep his starting spot. Silva could easily turn back to Gray, play the two forwards together, or go in an entirely different direction. It’s definitely in the wait and see category, but I like Deeney to stay in the XI. If he can produce anywhere around last season’s levels or approach those of 2015/16, he’ll give you strong ROI.

How Valuable are These Watford Players?

I’m certainly not going to go as far as saying super-cali-fragilistic-expiali-docious. After all, it’s not like you’re getting Kevin De Bruyne or Cesar Azpillicueta for peanuts here. But aside from Troy Deeney, who has played only limited minutes, there is easily demonstrable value here from this group of Watford players. Comparing price to production, a clear disparity exists, just calling out to be exploited.

Watford-Price v. Production.csv

Player FPL Pos. Price Pos. Rank Pts. Pos. Rank Fantrax Pos. Price Pos. Rank Pts. Pos. Rank
Player FPL Pos. Price Pos. Rank Pts. Pos. Rank Fantrax Pos. Price Pos. Rank Pts. Pos. Rank
Richarlison M 6.1 43 40 5 F 10.4 15 80 7
K. Femenia D 4.5 45 (T) 31 22 D 9.53 21 (T) 57 15 (T)
J. Holebas D 5.0 47 (T) 23 39 (T) D 7.39 56 53 21 (T)
A. Doucore M 5.3 83 (T) 38 6 M 6.47 46 35 35 (T)
T. Deeney F 6.4 26 9 38 (T) F 4.72 48 (T) 13 43 (T)

Official Fantasy

Richarlison, Doucoure and Femenia stand out with remarkable value in Official fantasy:

  • Richarlison (£6.1) has scored the fifth most points (40) among midfielders, while his cost is only the 40th highest for the position
  • Doucoure (£5.3) has the sixth most points (38), compared to a cost of 83rd most
  • Among defenders, Femenia (£4.5) has the 22nd most points (31) at the 95th highest price

Fantrax

In Fantrax, things are different, with Holebas standing alone with a huge disparity between production and price; the others offer merely fair to good value, with Richarlison the best option of the bunch:

  • Holebas ($7.39) ties for the 21st most points (53) while having only the 56th dearest cost among defenders
  • Richarlison ($10.40) has the seventh most points (80) among forwards but the 15th highest cost

It’s one thing to say that Richarlison is the 15th most expensive forward, but the absolutely astronomical difference in pricing tiers makes him even more attractive. He is roughly half the price of the top three forwards, while remaining substantially more affordable than five others who cost over $14.00:

  • Premium: Harry Kane ($22.07), Romelu Lukaku ($20.30), and Sergio Aguero ($20.15)
  • Mid-Priced: Alvaro Morata ($16.89), Gabriel Jesus ($15.82), Alexis Sanchez ($14.51), Alexandre Lacazette ($14.50), Mohamed Salah ($14.15), and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ($13.50)
  • Bargains: Chicharito ($11.95), Jamie Vardy ($11.85), Raheem Sterling ($11.80), Marcus Rashford ($11.64), Roberto Firmino ($11.80), and Richarlison ($10.40)

On top of that, he also offers a savvy alternative to Aguero, Lukaku and Morata who are injured.

What Does the Upcoming Schedule Look Like?

Watford has already played Liverpool, Southampton and Manchester City. So... clear sailing, right? No, sorry, the next two games are against Arsenal and at Chelsea. After that, though, things do clear up nicely for the next four: Stoke, at Everton, West Ham, and at Newcastle. If you wanted to wait until after the Chelsea game, though, I wouldn’t blame you.

After those six, the pattern repeats. The next eight start out with tough fixtures against Manchester United and Tottenham, while the following half-dozen get easier: at Burnley, at Crystal Palace, Huddersfield, at Brighton, Leicester City, and Swansea. All in all, four of the next 14 games are daunting, with 10 looking much friendlier. Not too shabby, eh?

[Note: Statistics were utilized from Fantrax.com, PremierLeague.com, WhoScored.com and Transfermarkt.com ]

Have you grabbed any Watford players for your fantasy teams already? Are you considering any at the moment? Is your focus instead entirely on other teams? Did reading this get the Welcome Back Kotter theme song stuck in your head? Let us know in the comments!