Premier League 2019‑20 preview No 18: Watford | Football
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 11th (NB: this is not necessarily Simon Burnton’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 11th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1
Twelve months ago, as with every summer since their promotion, we predicted that Watford would go down. This year, we think a similar squad led by the same manager will finish just outside the top half. Clearly something has gone rather right in the intervening period. The Hornets have not been particularly active in this summer’s transfer market, but then there is something they say about things that ain’t broke.
Last season started with four successive league wins, catapulting the club into a position in the top half of the table that they would only surrender on the final day, and ended with a first FA Cup final for 35 years. Javi Gracia not only proved himself to be tactically astute and popular with both fans and media, his ability to keep his squad relatively content and well motivated over a long season convinced some at the club to declare him a master of man-management. It may have ended disappointingly, with three successive league defeats dropping them into a final position of 11th, followed by that miserable shellacking at the hands of Manchester City at Wembley, but there can be no doubt that it was the club’s most convincing season since promotion in 2015. So, why change?
While transfer deadline day has brought a squall of rumours the summer so far has been quiet, the club concluding a couple of free transfers, led by the eye-catching arrival of Danny Welbeck, while the £5.5m spent to bring the 29-year-old centre-back Craig Dawson from West Brom represents the sum of Watford’s confirmed spending on first-team players over the past two windows.
Like the signing of Ben Foster, who arrived from the same club last summer, Dawson demonstrates Watford’s belief that experienced campaigners at domestic clubs can sometimes rival South American teenagers for value. Dawson will bring experience and quality to defence as well as being an attacking threat from set pieces – his 12 top-flight goals put him among the 30 top-scoring centre-backs in Premier League history – and without being a particularly eye-catching or inspiring signing, he will improve what was a problem area last season.
For the second successive summer, the addition of pace and quality in wide areas was another priority. Last year they signed Gerard Deulofeu, in theory to meet this need, but he was promptly converted into a central attacker and, having become the club’s top scorer, is likely to stay there. The search for another winger led them to Rennes, with whom negotiations over a club-record deal for Ismaïla Sarr have been ongoing for several weeks without – just hours from the end of the transfer window – reaching a conclusion.
The 21-year-old is an exciting talent: tall, fast and tricky, the Senegal international can play on the right or the left – though he favours the former – and cross with either foot. He certainly seems capable of stretching defences in a way that Will Hughes, who was their first choice on the right last season, cannot. A late move for PSV’s Steven Bergwijn demonstrates the club’s resolve to improve their options in this position. On the other flank the classy but inconsistent Roberto Pereyra will find his place threatened by the arrival of Welbeck, who has the advantage of offering greater goalscoring threat but could also play at centre-forward.
Sarr is particularly adept at cutting infield before playing incisive passes forward, meaning that his arrival would not necessarily force a significant tactical change: Javi Gracia favoured a narrow 4-4-2 last season in which both wide midfielders, normally Hughes and Pereyra, spent much of their time infield, and the full-backs overlapped to provide width. It is notable that each of the three full-backs who saw regular game time both attempted and completed at least as many crosses last season as Hughes and Pereyra managed together (even Adam Masina, the reserve left-back, crossed more often than Hughes, who started nearly three times as many games in a more attacking position). The ideal recruit would be able to fill this same role, or that of a more conventional winger.
They have also signed the 19-year-old former Manchester City midfielder Tom Dele-Bashiru, who was out of contract, on a presumably generous six-year deal. It is easy to see what attracted them to the Nigerian youth international, who is strong on the ball, has excellent technique and an impressive burst of pace. It is less easy to see how they expect to use him, with central midfield the one position in which they possess an abundance of riches.
Despite Everton’s advances Abdoulaye Doucoure remains in Hertfordshire, having declared in January that “I think I will leave Watford” and “join a club playing at European level – my priority is a club in the Champions League”. Paris Saint-Germain, whose advances he was perhaps anticipating, moved instead for Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, and the Merseyside club are unable to offer the European football he seeks. Thus his partnership with Étienne Capoue so far remains intact; Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley and Domingos Quina provide excellent backup, now augmented by Dele-Bashiru and, assuming a winger is found, a displaced Hughes.
A year ago the attack was the most significant area of concern, but over the last season this has eased enough to allow the club to take a calculated gamble on an injury-prone forward in Welbeck. Across all competitions last season Deulofeu scored 0.45 goals per 90 minutes, his move to the centre proving unexpectedly successful. Even more surprisingly that figure was matched by Andre Gray, who compared with his first season in Hertfordshire was both more prolific and considerably more impressive in general play. Troy Deeney scored less frequently but his leadership, his work ethic and his contributions outside the penalty area continue to demand his inclusion. Welbeck, if that gamble pays off, is an excellent player who should be at his peak and will further improve their forward line.
There is also the prospect of João Pedro’s scheduled arrival from Fluminense in January. Watford completed a £2m deal for the then obscure 17-year-old last October, seven months before he made his first-team debut, which has come to look like money extraordinarily well spent. Should he succeed in getting a work permit – his low fee and presumably low wages will complicate this process, but probably not terminally – Watford will gain in mid-season a young player of enormous potential, a gifted finisher and a fine dribbler, good in the air despite not being particularly tall and with the potential to have an instant impact.
Many of the teams that finished around them last season have invested far more heavily this summer, but Watford are gambling on their squad’s strength and Gracia’s ability to extract it. Like last season, this campaign begins with the visit of Brighton. The Hornets will hope that it continues to feel familiar.