After suffering the ignominy of relegation last season, Watford have bounced back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
The Hornets confirmed their promotion from the Championship on Saturday afternoon after Ismaila Sarr inspired a 1-0 win over Millwall at Vicarage Road, leading to obligatory post-match ‘we’re going up’ banners, stars soaked in champagne and Ben Foster vociferously vlogging.
Despite the immediate bouncebackability of Watford, Gino Pozzo stuck to script and upheld the club’s rotational policy in the dugout, parting with Vladimir Ivic in December and replacing the Serb with Xisco, the latter of whom will now be pitting his tactical wits against the likes of Pep Guardiola next season.
OFFICIAL: Watford have been promoted to the Premier League. pic.twitter.com/2miZgzJvSE
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 24, 2021
That mid-season wobble threatened to derail Watford’s quest for a ticket back to the big time, but as captain Troy Deeney would say, the players showed great cojones to weather the storm, assimilate Xisco’s tactical ideas and push for promotion.
Indeed, Deeney once again played a part for the Hertfordshire club, netting seven goals in the Championship to currently sit third as the highest scorer for Watford this season, but it was their Senegalese superstar Sarr who had the biggest role to play.
The 23-year-old looked destined to leave in the summer, with many believing the incisive winger was simply too good to be plying his trade in the second tier of English football, but he stuck around, and as it turns out, he was too good to be plying his trade in the second tier of English football.
Sarr has been simply sensational for Watford this campaign, fulfilling his role as club talisman, linchpin and reliable goal-getter, and probably adding an extra ‘0’ to his price tag in the eyes of Pozzo, who will be reluctant to entertain offers this summer when the rumour mill kicks back up.
Liverpool were the club most heavily linked with Sarr last summer, after Sadio Mane was videoed in the tunnel telling Deeney to “take care of my boy” during his side’s 2-0 win over the club at Anfield in December 2019, while the Watford tyro also called the Liverpool star his “big brother” that same month.
“Take care of my boy.”
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) December 14, 2019
However, former Watford technical director Filippo Giraldi has since revealed it was Liverpool’s North West adversaries Manchester United who were the club closest to securing a deal for Sarr in the summer, revealing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were “extremely close” to getting a deal over the line.
Giraldi told the Here We Go podcast in March: “We were extremely close, I was personally negotiating with them.
“We weren’t able to reach an agreement. And I think Ismaila is very young, he will arrive for sure.
“He missed probably an opportunity, but I think also for his football to stay here and get 10 goals and 10 assists, he’s deciding the league.
“I think for Watford in the condition they are at the moment, it’s lucky he stayed.
“I love Ismaila because he has the ability to affect the game every time he plays, and that’s quite rare. You see fast wingers becoming more and more important in physical leagues like the Premier League.
“I remember last year against Manchester United and Liverpool, he was the one with Gerard Deulofeu on the other side affecting the game and deciding the game every time.
“This type of player are players you have to try to maximise and protect them as much as you can.”
It was fitting, then, that Sarr scored the goal to send Watford back up to the Premier League, with his 11th-minute penalty against Millwall bringing up strike No. 13 of the season which, combined with his four assists, makes him the club’s most productive player this term with 17 direct contributions.
But, it hasn’t just been Sarr’s final product in the attacking third that has impressed, he has also lived up to the hype about his breakneck pace and dribbling virtuosity, underpinned by his 145 take-ons, the second-most in the Championship this term behind only Reading’s Ovie Ejaria (156).
Sarr has also created 11 big chances, the most at Watford this campaign and a stat bettered only by Liverpool’s stripling superstar Harvey Elliott (13), who is currently on loan at Blackburn, and Norwich fulcrum Emiliano Buendia (18).
Of course, regarding the latter, the Argentine was also inspirational as Norwich bounced back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, with Daniel Farke sticking around and producing heroics once again. So, with both clubs now back at the elite level, who should we be keeping an eye out for next term beyond Sarr?
Perennially linked with a move away from Carrow Road, Buendia has been the attacking heartbeat of the Canaries this season, combining telepathically with top scorer Teemu Pukki, and racking up a Championship best 16 assists, five ahead of his closest challengers Harry Wilson and Elliott (11 apiece).
His performances have also culminated in 14 goals, making him (30) second only to Ivan Toney (39) of Brentford for most direct contributions in the Championship this term, while he also ranks first for completed passes into the final third (708) — the only player with 600+ — the most completed through balls (10) — the only player with double digits for that particular metric — the most big chances created (as mentioned) and chances created (119).
Regarding the latter stat, he is the only Championship player this season to hit triple digits, while the Buendia-Pukki link-up has proven the most fruitful this season, with that particular combination resulting in eight goals, the second tier’s most prolific partnership.
Indeed, Emiliano would not look out of place in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles the fictional Buendia family, as he is a player who encapsulates the very essence of magic realism, making the seemingly surreal and fantastical possible on the pitch.
On loan from Tottenham, Oliver Skipp has proven a revelation in the heart of Farke’s midfield this season, combining brains and brawn to anchor the middle of the pitch for Norwich, while also providing the side with a metronomic presence, setting the pace and orbiting the centre circle with authority.
It is no mystery, then, that Jose Mourinho once dubbed Skipp a ‘future captain of Spurs’, with the Portuguese believing the youngster’s tenacious mentality underpinned his skipper material (pun very much intended).
Current Norwich captain Grant Hanley also chimed in with unreserved praise, saying Skipp “looks like he’s played at the top level for 10, 15 years. It’s hard to believe he’s still so young,” while midfield partner Alexander Tettey referred to him as a “machine”.
Incredibly, the 20-year-old has made the fourth-most tackles in the Championship this season (98), while he also ranks second for most completed passes (2,147) behind defensive teammate Hanley (2,434), and boasts a staggering 87.88% passing accuracy; the second-highest among midfielders with 30+ appearances.
His recent partnership with Kenny McLean (another to look out for) has been particularly fruitful, and if Farke can get Skipp back on loan next season (or even purchase the burgeoning starlet), then Norwich will have an excellent midfield core to balance the side.
Back to Watford now, and Nathaniel Chalobah is beginning to realise the once burgeoning potential that initially saw him rise to prominence at Stamford Bridge, before Chelsea’s notorious revolving-door loan policy and various injury issues stunted his progress. Such has been Chalobah’s influence this season that he has even captained the side on occasion, and could take on the responsibility next term with Deeney regressing to a peripheral role.
The 26-year-old, once capped by England in 2018, has been the vital artery of Xisco’s midfield, setting the tempo with distinction, gliding across the turf with silky footwork and beefing up the centre of the pitch with his ever-willing presence, not to mention chipping in with the odd banger…
The footwork from Chalobah for this goal 😵
The Watford midfielder scored in their win over Cardiff yesterday but the skill to make room for himself was everything 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/ttY53jrdwI
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) March 14, 2021
Finally, Watford fans will be in for a treat next season if Will Hughes and Chalobah remain injury-free. In tandem, the midfield duo are elegance personified and elevate Xisco’s side to new heights. Hughes has had his fair share of injury setbacks across his career — including this season — but on his day, he is a wonderful tempo-setter.
The 26-year-old has been a near ever-present in Watford’s midfield since the turn of the year and has played a crucial role in the club’s brimming start to 2021. Neutrals will remember his meteoric rise as a precocious midfield talent at Derby, and now diehard Hornets will be hoping he can really push on and take his game to the next level, which could be to join Chalobah as an England international one day.