What does Ranieri’s arrival mean for Watford’s Nigerian contingent?
Watford’s official statement following Xisco Munoz’s dismissal on October 4 was particularly telling, if not damning.
The club pointed to their dreary performances and the absence of tactical cohesion at a crucial time for their decision to jettison the Spaniard who, in his 10 months in charge, guided the Hornets to instant Premier League promotion.
While there’s an inclination to criticise the hierarchy’s modus operandi and fondness for managerial changes, Goal highlighted the newly promoted side’s undercooked approach only two gameweeks into their return to the big time.
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In that 2-0 defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion, the Hertfordshire outfit’s pressing lacked any sort of integration and they were quite easy to play through at the Amex.
Despite claiming seven points from as many games, the Watford board have acted — hastily some might add — to let go of Xisco for the experience of Claudio Ranieri.
The Italian boss returns to England’s top division after over two years away and faces the tough undertaking of steering the Hornets away from the bottom three.
Naturally, observers will remember his last time in the Premier League with Fulham which didn’t go according to plan in just over three months in charge.
Admittedly, the former Leicester City boss faced a losing battle at Craven Cottage with the West London side’s mishmash of summer arrivals complicating what was always going to be an arduous campaign.
Ranieri did prove his mettle in his last two jobs temporarily at Roma and particularly at Sampdoria last time out. At Samp, the experienced tactician guided the Blucerchiati to a 15th-place finish in 2019/20 having taken charge in October with the Genoa-based side bottom in Serie A.
Last season, Sampdoria exceeded expectations to end ninth in the standings, claiming 10 more points than the previous campaign. The underlying numbers indicated Ranieri got Samp punching above their weight and the higher-ups in Hertfordshire will hope for the same this season, especially as the battle to beat the drop may be at its tightest in 2021/22.
Much of the Italian’s success will owe to star man Ismaila Sarr, who’s likely playing his final campaign at Vicarage Road with his form in the opening weeks of the season not going unnoticed. The Senegal wide attacker’s contributed to four of the Hornets’ seven league goals, demonstrating his importance to their survival hopes.
Only Mohamed Salah has hit the target more often than the West African, but the latter’s finishing so far outranks all but one player in the league—Bruno Fernandes.
Sampdoria’s success last term came about from an outperformance of their expected numbers in the final third, and Ranieri could look to Sarr to carry the can for Watford this term.
Having said that, the Senegalese can’t bear the responsibility alone. Emmanuel Dennis has blown hot and cold in the opening weeks but has often been in the thick of the action whenever Watford click in attack.
His PL debut caught the eye and, while he hasn’t had a performance to match that opening day showing over Aston Villa, two goals and an assist in seven games isn’t a bad return for someone playing in his maiden campaign in England.
Only Sarr has played more in-play passes leading to shot attempts on the Watford roster, while the Senegal man is the only one to outdo Dennis for dribbles preceding efforts on goal.
Ranieri mostly tended to utilise a 4-4-2 in his last job and it remains to be seen if he opts for the formation with the Hornets or adopts the 4-3-3 with Sarr, Dennis and Josh King in attack or the 4-2-3-1 Munoz opted for in his final games.
Formations will count for little, however, if the ex-Chelsea boss fails to get this group more organised and harder to play through.
Oghenekaro Etebo will play no part for a while in any potential revival at Vicarage Road owing to a lengthy layoff that’ll see him miss around five months of action. It’s a real shame for a player who’d wanted to test himself in the Premier League and finally got that chance on loan from Stoke City this summer.
Expected back around February, the dynamic midfield man could find himself on the outside looking in when he returns for the Hornets’ run-in.
One player who’s unlikely to be a peripheral figure under Ranieri is William Troost-Ekong, who’s thrived in his maiden year in the top flight. A mistake in that Brighton defeat aside, the centre-back has been one of Watford’s better players despite the club’s broader defensive disorganisation.
The 28-year-old leads for total blocks — eight of which have seen him prevent shots on goal, double the tally of Tom Cleverley and Craig Cathcart in joint-second — and his no-nonsense defensive style has seen him rack up 39 clearances.
Only two players outdo the Nigerian for volume of recoveries and the centre-back has won 76.6 percent of his aerial duels, outranked by two teammates.
Perhaps the underrated facet of Troost-Ekong’s game has been the intelligence of his pressing which has stood out amid the Hornets’ wider muddled approach out of possession. The central defender picks his moments to harry the opposition and a 46.9 percent success rate, significantly outranking the Super Eagle’s colleagues, validates the eye test.
While the arrival of Nicolas Nkoulou on a free transfer increases the level of competition at the back, Troost-Ekong’s showings so far ought to see him keep his place at centre-back.
Ranieri has emphasised the need for improved organisation across the pitch, a characteristic lacking in a Watford side that haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 17 Premier League games. The Italian has equally lauded the team’s attacking menace, before declaring a desire to get even more goals from his forwards.
The experienced boss has set a target of 40 points — a points tally that’s often enough to avoid the drop — and his African stars will look to play a part in making this a reality in a bid to avoid immediate relegation from the big time.