This time last year, Watford were reeling after a nightmare Premier League campaign and fans just hoped that they could rebound in the Championship as yo-yo clubs tend to do. However, the Hornets experienced a similarly dismal showing this past season, chewing through three more managers, missing the playoffs, and seeing their hated rivals Luton Town achieve their first-ever promotion to the Premier League. Now, after an offseason of questions surrounding club culture, finances, and the future, Watford have begun a large-scale clear-out in hopes of forging a clear path for the years to come. With some of the toughest Championship teams in recent memory in their path, many Watford fans are more focused on the enjoyability of the football rather than success in the table. With yet another new manager coming in and a less familiar cast of players, what can Hornets fans expect from their team in another grueling Championship season?
Ismael enters his tenure at Watford coming off of a successful stint at Barnsley and a moderately disappointing run at West Bromwich Albion. His playstyle involves a high-energy press and opportunistic counterattacking. At first glance, this might look like a terrible appointment. Watford were many things last year, but “high-energy” usually wasn’t one of them. However, the departure of many of last year’s players may open the door for players who are more willing to accept a disciplinarian’s influence. So far this preseason, that looks to be working. Though they lost their most recent match to Crystal Palace 2-1, the Hornets always looked intent on attacking and put Palace in several difficult positions. Palace keeper Sam Johnstone made at least three wonderous saves to keep them in the game. Given Watford’s history with managers, It remains to be seen just how much time Ismael will get, but the early results look promising.
Despite so many questions being raised about his abilities, Daniel Bachmann appears to have secured the number 1 shirt and is in the midst of negotiating a new contract. His shot-stopping, which is considered his strongest attribute, occasionally kept Watford in crucial games last season, but he could only pull off these heroics sporadically. He often seemed skittish in his own box and would struggle to challenge crosses. His distribution was also highly suspect. Against Palace, he was surprisingly willing to come forward to retake possession. However, his lackluster passing did him in once again to set up Palace’s winning goal. Seeing as Bachmann has just signed a contract extension and received the captaincy, his improvements and flaws will be on full display. His apparent backup, Ben Hamer, is still a relative unknown for the Hornets. The 35-year-old only appeared in one game and allowed two goals last season, but also made four saves in that game. If Bachmann struggles early on, Hamer may be breathing down his neck. £5 million signing Maduka Okoye is off to Udinese after a few disappointing outings. While many of the fans had uncertainty about the keeper position, the show of confidence for Bachmann from management renders those questions obsolete. The team will have to trust Bachmann to backstop them toward success.
The midseason addition of center backs Ryan Porteous and Wesley Hoedt was a welcome respite from Watford's previous defensive struggles. Those two remain as defensive cornerstones, while many other pieces have departed. Christian Kabasele and Hassane Kamara have departed for Udinese, William Troost-Ekong for PAOK, and Craig Cathart and Mario Gaspar have also left. Watford’s defense was slightly above Championship average, allowing 1.15 goals per game. However, many of these goals were untimely, coming in the dying moments of games to spoil positive results. Academy product Mattie Pollock has seen some time in the preseason and should be a useful piece off the bench. The fullbacks are where the most changes come. James Morris and Ryan Andrews were impressive in their debut seasons, and each may compete for a starting fullback job. They provided an energy to the team which sorely lacked. On the right side, Portugese signing João Ferriera returns from injury. He was only able to appear in five games last season but does seem to have the quickness that will work well in Ismael’s system. Finally, New signing Jamal Lewis is the favorite to take over the left back position. His time at Newcastle yielded limited success, but his has proven to be an effective Championship defender through his time at Norwich. He is likely to be favored at left back over Morris, but both should feature heavily as the season progresses.
Club captain Tom Cleverley has retired, Dan Gosling has been released, and Hamza Choudhury has completed his loan from Leicester. Most crucially, João Pedro has been sold to Brighton. Thankfully, some of Moroccan international Imran Louza returns after an injury-riddled campaign. Canadian international Ismael Kone and Colombian starlet Yaser Asprilla round out what should be the starting midfield three. Defensive midfielder Edo Kayembe has played sporadically in the past few seasons but scored a cracker of a goal against Crystal Palace. If Louza’s injuries flare up again, Kayembe will see the pitch more than anticipated. Tom Dele-Bashiru, another box-to-box player who has struggled with injuries, will hopefully manage to stay healthy and provide off the bench. Academy product Jack Grieves has generated buzz as well and may nudge his way into the first team. Finally, Georgian international Giorgi Chakvetadze comes in at the number 10 role. Though he has also battled his fair share of injuries, he scored five goals with Gent in 2018 and looks to be an effective distributor. It remains to be seen whether he or Asprilla will occupy the 10 role, as Asprilla has also been utilized on the wing.
Longtime stalwart Ismaila Sarr is the most notable subtraction from this group. Although he was often maligned for his lack of production, Sarr achieved his second season with double-digit goals in his career this past season. Tom Ince comes in from Reading, where he scored nine goals last season. He will most likely take Sarr’s position on the right wing. On the left, fan favorite Ken Sema has shown his capability at Championship level, scoring four goals with eight assists last season. Brazilian youngster Matheus Martins could also challenge for that starting spot. At number 9, Vakoun Bayo and new signing Rhys Healey will compete for the starting job. Up to this point, Healey has been the far more clinical player, scoring 14 and 19 goals in his previous Ligue 2 seasons. However, Bayo has a significant size advantage. and scored a brace against Peterborough United in Watford’s most recent friendly.
Predictions show Watford finishing anywhere from playoff positions to a relegation scrap. This season will largely be about answering questions surrounding the club’s vision and assessing the current talent. Personally, given how the team seems to have taken to Ismael’s system, I think Hornets fans will be pleasantly surprised. Any number of factors could disrupt this, of course. Bad news from the injury bug or Gino Pozzo feeling the need to sack yet another manager could derail everything at a moments notice. On top of that, this looks to be one of the most difficult Championships in recent memory. Watford may not get promoted this season, but I expected to be infinitely more entertaining than anything we saw last year.