Watford was relegated from the EPL following the 2019-20 season, just one point behind 17th placed Aston Villa, but the Hornets secured immediate promotion back to the Premiership by finishing second in the Championship last season. A penalty-kick goal from Ismaila Sarr was enough to down Millwall and secure automatic promotion back to the Premier League with two games to spare.
The borough of Watford itself is a suburb of London, about 15 miles northwest of the city center. The club plays its home matches at Vicarage Road stadium there, which at 22,000 seats is one of the smallest in the Premiership. Nicknamed the Hornets, the club’s primary kit is yellow with horizontal dark stripes. The club is famously supported by Elton John who even spent time as chairman and can still be seen attending many home matches (Covid permitting).
Let’s take a look at their path back to the Prem, and what to expect this season.
Last Season (2020-21 Championship)
As previously stated, Watford finished in second place, six points behind champions Norwich City to secure automatic qualification to the Premier League.
Last December 21, Watford appointed Xisco Munoz, known simply as “Xisco”, as the club’s new manager, replacing Vladimir Ivic. Xisco, who took over with Watford in 5th position, was tasked with taking the Hornets up to the EPL.
Xisco’s changed Watford’s style of play. Under Ivic, the club deployed a 4-4-2 with emphasis on a solid defense. Ivic was satisfied with sitting back, keeping clean sheets, and hoping to nick 1-0 wins through quick breaks.
When Xisco’s appointment was announced, Watford fans were apprehensive. Placing the fate of a team chasing promotion into the inexperienced hands of an unknown man from an unknown league seemed risky. Indeed, Xisco played it safe when he first arrived, continuing Ivic’s 4-4-2 formation for his first six games. But results were mixed and the team lacked the attacking flair required to unlock defenses.
Already on the brink of being sacked, Xisco made the bold decision to bench the team’s two experienced strikers, Andre Gray and captain Troy Deeney. This allowed him to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, and the results were immediate: a 6-0 victory over Bristol City.
The new formation put young striker Joao Pedro in the front line, flanked by Ken Sema and talisman Ismaila Sarr. The move also added an extra body to the midfield, helping to dominate battles in the center of the pitch. The extra manpower in midfield also provided cover for fullbacks Kiko Femenia and Adam Masina to make overlapping runs. The tactical change led Watford to four straight wins, which set the tone for their late season surge to automatic promotion.
While credit should go to Ivic for helping to solidify the defense, which was the foundation of Xisco’s attacking team, the Hornets gained most of their points (54) after Xisco’s appointment. The club ranked first in the number of wins during that span with 17, and their total of 38 goals was 3rd best in the league.
Xisco’s style of play relies on a solid back line that conceded the fewest goals (13) and most clean sheets (14) in the league following his appointment. In addition, the Hornets’ +33 goal difference was third best in the league behind only fellow promoted teams Norwich City and Brentford.
The key player last season was Ismaila Sarr. Signed from Rennes in 2019 for £40m, he finally broke out last season and showed why Watford forked out a club record fee for him. It was fitting to see him be the one to seal Watford’s return to the Premier League via a well taken penalty kick. His thirteen goals and four assists were second to none in the Watford team.
Watford’s Top 6 Attackers (2020-21)
|Player: Ismaila Sarr|
|Player: Ismaila Sarr|
|Minutes played: 3,459|
|Goal + Assist per 90mins: 0.39|
|Player: Joao Pedro|
|Minutes played: 2,747|
|Goal + Assist per 90mins: 0.29|
|Player: Troy Deeney|
|Minutes played: 1,275|
|Goal + Assist per 90mins: 0.28|
|Player: Andre Gray|
|Minutes played: 1,278|
|Goal + Assist per 90mins: 0.28|
|Player: Tom Cleverley|
|Minutes played: 2,601|
|Goal + Assist per 90mins: 0.21|
|Player: Nathaniel Chalobah|
|Minutes played: 2,630|
|Goal + Assist per 90mins: 0.14|
This Season (EPL 2021-22)
Watford has been one of the busiest EPL teams in the summer transfer window.
Ins: Imran Louza, Emmanuel Denis, Mattie Pollock, Danny Rose, Ashley Fletcher, Joshua King, Kwadwo Baah, Peter Etebo, Jorge Segura
Outs: Craig Dawson, Ben Wilmot, Adalberto Penaranda, Achraf Lazaar, Carlos Sanchez, Jerome Sinclair
Though Norwich won the Championship last season, historically Watford has the better record of maintaining Premier League status. A study from FreeSuperTips has looked at every championship promotion club since the playoff system began in 1987. Teams promoted in second place will spend an average of five years in the top flight, longer than any other method of promotion. Clubs promoted as champions average one season fewer, while playoff winners have a typical stay of just two years, 61% of them going straight back down again (so don’t become too fond of Brentford).
The Hornets will be looking to emulate Sheffield United and Leeds who both got promoted to the Premier league as 2nd-placed teams and then finished in the top-10 in the EPL.
Led by mercurial captain Troy Deeney, Watford also looks the best bet among promoted sides based on Premier League experience. Excellent recruitment will also aid Watford’s chances of surviving the drop.
In attack, Captain Troy Deeney and Joao Pedro look like the go-to men. 19-year old Joao Pedro was a revelation for Watford last season. The Brazilian impressed in his first full season in English football since his move from Fluminense. He didn’t seems fazed by the highly physical football played in the Championship. Priced at just £5.5m in FPL, he has all the makings of a reliable and economical 3rd striker. He may also be on pens when Deeney isn’t on the pitch.
Watford’s favored penalty taker, Troy Deeney is also priced at an affordable £5.5m, making him another good option. However, with age and the switch in formation against him, he might have to settle for reduced playing time as a substitute bullying tired defenses.
Wingers Sarr and Sema are Watford’s best placed midfielders for FPL managers. Ismaila Sarr comes in at a relatively cheap price of £6.0, while Ken Sema is priced at £5.5m. Sarr was ever present in last season’s lineup, so I expect him to spearhead the fight to stay up this season. He could also take PKs when Deeney isn’t playing.
Tom Cleverley was the midfielder with most attacking contributions with four goals plus two assists last season. He also takes direct and indirect FKs. Former Chelsea midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah is also a suitable midfield option who chipped in three goals and an assist. Cleverley and Chalobah are both priced at £5.0.
In defense, Spanish defender Kiko Femenia looks like the best bet for fantasy managers. Right-back Femenia provided fours assists last season, and he looks like a nailed on starter.
Danny Rose’s move to Watford means there’s a bit of uncertainty in who is going to be the first choice left-back going into this season. Left-back Adam Masina was impressive last season, scoring two goals, but Rose’s arrival means that fantasy managers should watch a few games to see who starts.
If you are looking to double up on Watford’s defense, Nigerian center-back William Troost-Ekong is a good option who also looks like a nailed on starter. All aforementioned defenders are priced at £4.5
Statistics and information for this article were sourced from Fbref.com, transfermarkt.com, soccerway.com, watfordfc.com, amp.theguardian.com, sbnation.com, lastwordonsports.com, theformation.org, mirror.co.uk, Wikipedia.com.
What do you think about Watford’s fantasy assets? Do you think they have players that you can add to your squad? What player do you think will shine for the Hornets? Do you think Watford can survive the drop? Whom do you think will be the talisman for the Hornets this season? Please let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!