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African All Stars

Dennis: Nonchalant marksman is making himself Watford’s star man

6:45 PM WAT 27/11/2021
Emmanuel Dennis of Watford and Nigeria.
Ismaila Sarr was tipped to step into the Troy Deeney-sized hole, but the former Club Brugge forward is making a name for himself in the Premier League

Troy Deeney’s Watford departure in the summer surprised observers not connected to the Hertfordshire outfit, particularly as the burly frontman’s talismanic presence was emblematic of the side in five Premier League campaigns.

His departure reverberated, but also somewhat signified the Hornets’ intention to finally move away from the style largely focused on the heavily-built striker.

Indeed, the seeds were planted after Ismaila Sarr arrived from Stade Rennes in summer 2019 and grew into a player the club could do without. Before a ball was kicked this season, the Senegal attacker’s 28 goal contributions outdid everyone at the club, with Deeney’s 17 involvements following the West African.

Naturally, the expectation was for Sarr to step into the Deeney-sized hole after the 33-year-old left for Birmingham City, the club he supported as a child.

However, Emmanuel Dennis’ impact in Hertfordshire is upsetting this particular applecart, albeit in a positive way.

There was a note of caution after an impressive 3-2 debut performance against Aston Villa in August, a game in which then-head coach Xisco Munoz’s show of confidence to start the new signing at Deeney’s expense was undoubtedly rewarded.

The Spaniard has now been jettisoned with Claudio Ranieri taking the reins in Hertfordshire. Dennis has not let up under the experienced Italian manager, rather he is becoming extra decisive and silencing murmurings that sprang up after his transfer was confirmed in June.

For someone who had netted twice in 23 appearances for Club Brugge and Koln and was slammed for his attitude, nine goal involvements heading into gameweek 13 is more than admirable.

For greater context, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (18) outshines Dennis, a situation that was probably not imagined in August.

Dennis’ return is all the more impressive when you consider the comparative quality of the Hornets to the rest of the league’s top sides and this is a debut campaign in arguably Europe’s most challenging division.

Indeed, the giant strides he has made has meant Watford supporters are not dreading the likely absence of Sarr for Sunday’s visit to Leicester City.

Interestingly, five of the ex-Brugge attacker’s last six goals or assists have been without the Senegalese on the pitch, a fact validated by Ranieri when asked about the Teranga Lion’s absence.

“Sarr and Nicolas Nkoulou are big misses, but I substituted Sarr twice, against Everton and Manchester United, and we scored [four times v Everton and two times v Man Utd],” the Watford boss said on Friday. “They are very important players for us but we have some players on the bench who are ready to play, and I’m sure they will give their maximum for the team.

“I love our philosophy and we must continue it. Sometimes you can press higher or in the middle third, but you must want to do something during the whole match, from the start to the end.”

Not only is Dennis scoring or assisting decisive goals but cannot be accused of not putting in the hard yards at the top end of the pitch.

The 24-year-old leads for volume of pressures and per 90 metrics, although there is a feeling this can be a bit haphazard at times, while an inclination to pick up bookings may cause suspension in key games at the backend of the season.

The principal pre-match storyline for Sunday’s clash is undoubtedly Ranieri returning to the King Power Stadium for the first time since guiding the club to an unprecedented title win in 2016, but the Super Eagles head-to-head adds another layer of interest to this gameweek 13 meeting.

Kelechi Iheanacho appears to be on the outside looking again amid Brendan Rodgers’ continued chopping and changing of personnel and formations, while Wilfred Ndidi netted a rare goal in Thursday’s 3-1 victory over hapless Legia Warsaw to move top of Group C in the Europa League.

Leicester’s last PL victory was a 2-1 success over Brentford in late October, and they will strive to end November with maximum points against another promoted side and one they tend to fare well against.

The Foxes have won the last five meetings at the King Power by an aggregate score of 11-1, last conceding in 2-1 triumph in November 2015, a record Rodgers’ troops will aim to sustain on Sunday.

Regardless, history-chasing Dennis will look to prevent another habitual loss at the East Midlands as he looks to become only the sixth player in Prem history to register five goals and as many assists in their opening 12 appearances or fewer, a feat he could match with a goal at Leicester.

Those raised eyebrows that greeted the arrival of the periodically casual Dennis have been replaced with deserved plaudits in Hertfordshire.

If he gives the Hornets reason to smile at a ground that has brought little joy since their last victory in 2013, expect the enthusiastic praise to grow even louder.