Relegation to the Championship was never in the plans of owner Gino Pozzo, after overseeing the most successful spell in the Premier League in Watford’s history with 5 consecutive seasons. Unfortunately, poor planning and questionable decisions sealed the club’s fate, and a return to the second tier became a reality. The 2021/22 Championship campaign is on the horizon with the aim of course being to bounce back at the first attempt, and while the appointment of ex-PAOK and Maccabi Tel Aviv boss Vladimir Ivić is a positive one, along with the free signing of Jeremy Ngakia being a good start to the window, there are still a few areas that the Hertfordshire-based outfit need to strengthen in.
Watford’s defence being an issue is far from new, with the failure to upgrade last summer being a major factor that resulted in relegation. In Ben Wilmot, Craig Dawson, Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele, these are four capable Championship options and should be good enough when called upon. Despite this, a new partner for Ben Wilmot would be ideal. There are high hopes for the 20-year old and many expect him to be the first name on the team sheet regarding the defence, while his ability on and at distributing the ball suits Ivić’s system perfectly. Of the current crop though he is the only one that can boast this, and it would be useful to sign a similar player that can compliment Wilmot. Chile international Francisco Sierralta is reportedly set to join on loan from Udinese, and while his skill set is more suited to Ivić’s system than the others, there are question marks over how good he actually is. There isn’t a lot to go off regarding this, but time will tell. Should Watford choose to sign another centre back, one option could be Tosin Adarabioyo. The 22-year old has come off the back of a solid season on loan at Blackburn, but he’s heading into the final year of his contract with Man City and so they may consider cashing in. This means he wouldn’t be too expensive, with the possibility of a long-term partnership between him and Wilmot being an exciting prospect. Meanwhile, Daniel Ayala is currently a free agent and would be a more experienced option.
My choice would be Burnley’s Ben Gibson. A player that Watford had a failed attempt at a loan move for back in January, Gibson thrived for Middlesbrough but the consistency of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee has meant he’s struggled to have much of an impact since his club-record move to Lancashire. Despite this, he is better than Dawson and Cathcart and more reliable than Kabasele. He was captain at Middlesbrough which shows he has leadership qualities, something that could be especially handy if paired with the fairly inexperienced Wilmot, while it is nice to have a more balanced central defence with a left-footed centre half. Burnley may want to recoup as much of the £15m they spent as they can but this shouldn’t put Watford off. There’s no doubt how he’d improve the defence, and the experience of Gibson mixed with the excitement of Wilmot could form a strong partnership at the back.
The need for a left back comes down to outgoings. While it’s been reported that Watford are determined to keep hold of the exciting Pervis Estupiñán there is still a possibility that he leaves, while Adam Masina has been linked with moves back to Italy, something that you could see come to fruition. It could be argued though that a new left back could useful even if both stay, since Ivić prefers overlapping wing backs and Masina isn’t that sort of player. It is important to have a few good options in each position in such a demanding league like the Championship, and if this requires a different backup to Masina that fits the style more, it should be considered. Ryan Manning is someone who fits the bill here. He was linked with Watford a while ago and QPR look to be cashing in on a few of their better players, which makes me wonder if this could include Manning. His versatility could come in handy since he’s able to play in midfield, but he very much fits the profile of an attacking wing back who would suit Ivić’s system, while the price would be reasonable too.
My choice would be PAOK’s Dimitris Giannoulis. Someone who’s recently been linked with Watford, the Greece international worked with Ivić back in 2016/17 when the Serbian was in his first managerial role at PAOK, and while he didn’t feature much it’s important to remember he was only 20 at the time. Now 24, Giannoulis has become a mainstay in the PAOK backline, making 44 appearances last season. He gets forward well, is a good crosser, is comfortable on the ball and while occasionally inconsistent can be strong in the tackle. He isn’t amazing aerially but this is to be expected since he’s only 5”10, and I see shades of a left sided Kiko Femenía with better end product. As mentioned, it is important to have a few good options in each position and this would be just the case if they can go into the season with both Estupiñán and Giannoulis, as well as Masina as a slightly different option unless the board think he’s worth selling.
While a defensive midfielder may not be a priority assuming Étienne Capoue remains at the club, it would be useful to strengthen the competition. The only other out and out #6 at the club is Nathaniel Chalobah, who bar a spell at the start of 2020, has looked a shadow of what he was before his injury. Will Hughes can play there as well, but neither him nor Chalobah really have the passing ability required to play the in #6 role in Ivić’s system – a crucial part of it. Matty Longstaff could have been a decent prospect in this role, however following speculation of him joining Udinese and therefore a move to Watford, he has since signed a new deal with Newcastle; although he may have lacked the physicality to play there anyway. Someone who would have been perfect for this role however would have been Pape Gueye, so it’s a shame how that saga ended.
My choice would be Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Dan Glazer. Glazer is a tough, aggressive and determined midfielder, making him an ideal replacement for Capoue if he can make the step up, and at 23, he could be a potential option going forward. He’s been Ivić’s main man in terms of build-up play, with a role that allows him to dictate play, get stuck in and roam the pitch, and his good form won him both the club’s and the league’s Player of the Season awards. Maccabi are reportedly looking to sell to bring in some money and could do so for £2m-£3m, and him being mentioned in the Athletic article when Ivić was announced makes me wonder if he’s someone we look at. Glazer is someone who benefited a lot from Ivić’s appointment in Israel, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on the shortlist if the new head coach gets some sort of say in transfers.
Similarly with left back, the need for a new winger depends on who goes. It is looking like Ismaïla Sarr will stay since nobody is willing to pay the £40m asking price, but that’s not to say that will remain the case. On the other side, Gerard Deulofeu has confirmed that he will leave the club; with João Pedro expected to be the replacement. With this in mind, it would be important to sign new winger to add more quality depth and competition to the squad. Ignacio Pussetto is reportedly returning to Udinese, Ken Sema has been linked away while Isaac Success and Adalberto Peñaranda aren’t reliable backups, so one more wouldn’t go amiss. Two potential options could be Jed Wallace or Joe Lolley, of Millwall and Nottingham Forest respectively. These are two players who are very good crossers of the ball and can take set pieces, something Watford have lacked since Almen Abdi left the club in 2016. What goes against them though is the fact they are both currently starters at their respective clubs, and if Sarr does stay they’ll only be looking for competition. I don’t see either of those players joining a club in the same league unless they’re guaranteed similar or more game time, which probably won’t be the case at Watford. Vitória’s Marcus Edwards is another exciting shout, although he’s probably out of Watford’s price range.
My choice would be Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Yonatan Cohen. Like with Glazer, Maccabi are reportedly looking to sell to bring in some funds and would also be available for around £2m-£3m. He’s had a very good season for Maccabi, scoring 13 goals and getting 12 assists in 39 appearances in all competitions. Able to play out wide or as a second striker, he looks to have good movement, is a strong finisher, can cross well and is also a capable free-kick taker. The fact he’s only ever played in the Israeli league means he’d hopefully be more willing to have a more rotational role than the three names mentioned above, which would be ideal. The Maccabi players clearly loved Ivić and like Glazer, Cohen benefited a lot from his appointment in Israel. As he knows Ivić he wouldn’t need to adjust to his system, while he also wouldn’t need to worry about a lack of sharpness as the Israeli Premier League has already started their campaign. For the price he could be available at, he is very much an example of low risk, high reward, and while it is a gamble, should Cohen successfully make the step up he’d be a very decent addition.
It will likely be very important that Watford strengthen their depth up top. With Troy Deeney wanting to leave, Danny Welbeck almost certain to go due to his wages and a relegation release clause in his contract as well as Cucho Hernández being unable to receive a work permit until January, it is feasible that they will be left with Luis Suárez, João Pedro, Andre Gray and Isaac Success. It is looking like Suárez will be first choice next season with João Pedro deployed primarily as a left winger, while the latter two could be good options in the Championship. It wouldn’t be a good idea to rely on them however. They’ve both massively split opinions from the Watford fan base and while they will have a point to prove, it is safer to sign a fifth striker to add even more competition. Ivan Toney would have been a potential pick but he has said he wants to go to the Premier League, and if he went to any Championship side it has looked like it will be Brentford. The recently linked Rhian Brewster would have been a great addition, however the chances of that transfer going through is minimal due to the number of Premier League clubs interested, the fact Liverpool would prefer to send him to a Premier League club and that Watford can’t guarantee him a regular starting spot due to their plans for Luis Suárez.
My choice would be Huddersfield’s Karlan Grant. At just 22 years of age he fits into the type of squad Watford are trying to build, and he’s proven himself in the Championship. He scored 19 goals in a poor side last season, being bettered by just four players in the entire division – made all the more impressive when considering the three players who scored more were all in sides who finished in the top 7, as opposed to Huddersfield’s 18th. He’s a very good finisher, has the pace to run in behind, possesses good dribbling and has the strength to hold up the ball, and it would be interesting to see how he can step up to a side who are aiming for promotion. He would likely cost around £10m, a good fee for a top Championship striker. If Watford can go into the season with Suárez and Grant as their main options, with João Pedro able to play a different role if necessary and Andre Gray and Isaac Success as backups, they could look in decent shape to be in the running for promotion.
If Watford are able to shift some of the dead weight or players on high wages and make some money off some saleable assets, as well as making use of parachute payments, the plan for their summer business will become slightly easier. This is mainly looking at the likes of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Roberto Pereyra, Gerard Deulofeu, Danny Welbeck, Daryl Janmaat and Kiko Femenía, as well as one of Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart. The above transfer targets are all relatively cheap, but that’s a decent amount of cash to play around with without selling certain key assets, such as Étienne Capoue, Will Hughes and of course Ismaïla Sarr. If it is spent smartly and in the right areas, Watford will have a very strong squad going into the season, and there is no reason they can’t bounce straight back up at the first attempt.