Opposition Profile: Watford

Middlesbrough looks to crash the party as they face Watford on their 100th anniversary at Vicarage Road.



Middlesbrough finally broke their winless duct with a 2-1 win over Swansea City at the weekend. A victory that many believe to be a turning point for the side this season. However, their first win of the season is followed up by a formidable challenge—Watford at Vicarage Road.


Watford is on the cusp of joining a growing clan of yo-yo clubs. The Hornets spent just one season in the Premier League following their promotion in 2020-21. Despite an instant return to the Championship, Watford have a very impressive squad with several key players who should be in their trade consistently in the Premier League. They have one of the best squads in the division and provide a stern test to the best sides in the Championship. Unsurprisingly, many pundits have tipped the Hornets to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.


Watford will be in a celebratory mood tonight. The Hornets have spent 100 years at their stadium, Vicarage Road. So today's result will go into the record books regardless of how this season pans out, giving Watford all the more motivation to win tonight. On the other hand, Middlesbrough will be looking to hijack the party for their own celebrations should they make it two wins on the bounce.



Here's everything you need to know about Watford before kickoff.


Transfers:

Watford had a squad crisis last summer. The club's prolific buying had resulted in a squad that was bulging at the seams. As a result, they began the process of thinning out last season. Still, it took primary focus again this summer as a stacked squad of Premier League level earners is not sustainable at Championship level. As such, Watford has made quick work of selling some of its surpluses to requirements. Furthermore, by selling these players, Watford has managed to recoup some of their investments, with £54.29m coming into the club.



Of these departures, Emmanuel Dennis will be regarded as the biggest potential loss. While he didn't quite hit the ground running, he had the talent to be prolific in the Premier League. His potential to be a vital contributor in the top division earned him a move to newly promoted Nottingham Forest.


However, their outgoings have not been without controversy. Hassane Kamara was sold to Udinese for £17.01m before being loaned back to the Hornets for the rest of the season. At 28, it's doubtful that they decided to return him to Vicarage Road for development purposes. It calls into question why he was returned temporarily. Then there is the close relationship between Watford and Udinese. The two clubs have been closely tied for some time, throwing further doubt on the legitimate motives for the transfer. A sceptic may see it as Watford using their relationship with Udinese to keep a talented player at the club for their promotion charge without worrying about the financial implications of him staying at the club. Furthermore, they have benefitted monetarily from the deal in the process.

Despite prioritising outgoings, Watford has also brought in some quality additions. Vakoun Issouf Bayo is the only player that has joined for a fee from RSC Charleroi. However, his fee of £5.22m barely puts a dent in the side transfer income this summer. Bayo will add quality in depth to the forward line. But it's Mario Gaspar, from Villarreal, that is the most impressive signing. At 31, he may be past his prime, but when he was at his best, he was one of the best fullbacks in La Liga. This season, he will likely be seen as one of the best in the Championship.


Meanwhile, their signing of most considerable risk comes in Ray Manaj. The Albanian striker spent most of his career contracted to Barcelona without managing to stake a claim on a first-team role. However, in fits and starts, he has shown himself to be a capable striker at a lower level. The question is whether he can settle down and make it work at Watford.


Departures:

Arrivals:

Hassane Kamara to Udinese (£17.1m)

Hassane Kamara from Udinese (loan)

Emmanuel Dennis to Nottingham Forest (£13.32m)

Vakoun Issouf Bayo from RSC Chaleroi (£5.22m)

Cucho Hernandez to Columbus (£8.59m)

Rey Manaj from Barcelona (free)

Samir to Tigres UNAL (£5.85m)

Ben Hamer from Swansea City (free)

Adam Masina to Udinese (£4.5m)

​Mario Gaspar from Villarreal (free)

Mussa Sissoko to Nantes (£1.8m)

Korney Hause from Aston Villa (loan)

Philip Zinkernagel to Olympiakos (£1.8m)

Hamza Choudhury from Leicester City (loan)

Kiko Feminia to Villareal (£882k)

Keinan Davies from Aston Villa (loan)

Kwadwo Baah to Fortuna Dusseldorf (loan [£450k fee])

Joshua King to Fenerbahce (free)

Nicolas N'Koulou to Aris Saloniki (free)

Andre Grey to Aris Saloniki (free)

Rob Elliot to Gateshead (free)

Pontus Dalberg to IFK Göteborg (undisclosed)

Domingos Quina to Elche CF (loan)

Ashley Fletcher to Wigan Athletic (loan)

Jorge Segura to Independiente Medellín (loan)

Watford has also suffered from an ageing squad in previous seasons. They have succeeded in bringing down the squad's average age through their transfer business this summer. However, they remain one of the oldest squads in the league. This could be a jarring adjustment for manager Rob Edwards. The Welsh manager favours working with a younger squad. Nonetheless, Watford certainly has enough experience to draw on when pursuing promotion.


Style of Play:

Rob Edwards built a reputation for being an approachable manager during his time in charge of Forest Green Rovers. He appeared to show a particular appreciation of the anxiety that comes with playing football. So instead of piling on the pressure, he looked to ease it, giving players more time to prove their worth before calling on his substitutes.



He matched this modern man-management with state-of-the-art tactics to truly align with the contemporary vision of England's most sustainable club. These tactics share a great deal of crossover with Chris Wilder's. He looks for his side to initiate high energetic presses to win the ball high up the pitch. Edwards also likes to push his wingbacks high up the pitch, providing the primary attacking impetus. Finally, Edwards wants his centre-backs to support these wingbacks with overlapping or underlapping runs up the pitch. All of these, while not identical, share the same principles as Wilder presents an interesting question over which coach is best at drilling these ideals into his side.


However, so far, Edwards' tenure at Watford hasn't followed the same pattern as his time at Forest Green. Watford has been very defensively resolute, with most games being decided by a one-goal deficit. However, their progressive runs, crosses per 90, winning possession in the final third, and xG indicates that the side is not yet comfortable with his tactics. Of course, this is expected; Watford is going through a period of change. But it makes them vulnerable at the moment, so it is a good time for Boro to face the Hornets.


Ismaila Sarr

Last season Aleksander Mitrovic was the player that was a mark above the Championship. The Fulham striker was inevitable in front of goal as he fired the London team to promotion. This season that title may well fall to Ismaila Sarr. The Senegalese attacking midfielder is regarded to be a phenomenal talent. He has been consistently linked with moves away from Vicarage Road, and these rumours only grow more intense following the club's relegation. It would take a considerable offer for Watford to consider parting with their key man. However, this remains a real possibility with increasing interest from Crystal Palace.


Whether Watford will retain their leading man remains to be seen. However, if he is in the black and yellow of the Hornets, then he has all the promise of having a phenomenal season in the Championship. In just four games at the start of the season, Ismaila Sarr has had three direct goal contributions (two goals and an assist). If he continues in this form, he will finish the season with 34.5 direct goal contributions (11.5 goals and 23 assists). This would be a phenomenal output and likely be spoken about alongside the previously mentioned Serbian.


Pace, movement and dribbling are Ismaila Sarr's strongest traits, allowing him to run at or beyond a defensive line. When Sarr has the ball, he is hard to stop with his close control and trickery making him a tricky customer for defenders. However, his direct style of football brings about the majority of opportunities. It forces defenders to back off or step forward, creating gaps in the defensive line that his relatively simple progressive passes can exploit. However, all of this is made possible by his match awareness, highlighted extravagantly by his long-distance lobbed finish against West Bromwich Albion.


However, Sarr can be too excitable when trying to get in behind, making him vulnerable to offside traps. The Senegalese International can be cut off at the source if he is marked tightly by the opposition. However, that is no easy task. Sarr's ability to find space through his movement limits the opposition's chances of being successful on this front.


Ismaila Sarr is a genuinely phenomenal talent that is a joy to watch. His future is undeniably at the top level; Watford fans will hope that that future can be with them.


João Pedro:

If Ismaila Sarr is to get a bouquet of assists this season, then Watford needs a sharpshooter capable of converting these opportunities. This responsibility will be shared across many forwards. However, Joao Pedro will be expected to bear that weight.



The Brazilian striker has got off the mark in impressive fashion this season with three direct goal contributions in five games (two goals and an assist). If he continued in this vein, he would be expected to make 27.6 goal contributions (18.4 goals and 9.2 assists).


Joao Pedro is another good dribbler of the ball, which he marries with a shooting ability to be lethal around the box. But his movement, particularly on the defender's blindside, turns him into a prolific force at this level. When given the space to run in behind the defence, Joao Pedro, more often than not, will come out on top over the defenders. It is hard to bet against the Hornet's forward from that point onwards.


Joao Pedro is not so good when playing with his back to goal. He doesn't have the awareness or strength to hold off the opponent, often resulting in a turnover. Equally, Pedro's lethal ability is subdued when they are forced to play against a deep defensive line, as it limits opportunities for him to run in behind. Despite being able to determine his influence this way, Pedro will wait patiently for a chance to strike or, failing that; he can release a long-distance shot that often calls the goalkeeper into a save.


However, Watford could also be set to lose their talismanic shooter. Newcastle United have shown an interest in the 20-year-old as they look to bulk up their attacking options following Callum Wilson's injury. Rob Edwards will be hoping that the big summer arrival of Isak will be enough to satiate their desire for attacking reinforcements. However, if Newcastle United decides to turn up the heat on their target, they could offer a deal that is too good to turn down.


Prediction: Watford 1-2 Middlesbrough

A one-goal deficit has decided every game involving Watford. That is unlikely to change against Chris Wilder's Middlesbrough. However, Wilder's side has yet to keep a clean sheet this season, which is unlikely to change against one of the best sides in the division. So, Middlesbrough will add to their win last time out, but their search for a clean sheet will continue.



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