Premier League

Hornets should break transfer record to sign the Ligue 1 Zaha

 • by Tom Bodell
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Watford are a club who play by their own rules in the transfer market. That means avoiding bidding wars, paying over the odds or even going after players in high demand. Allan Saint-Maximin breaks every one of those rules.

Yet, according to Sky Sports News, the Hornets will launch a £25million offer for Nice winger Saint-Maximin which, if successful, would make the Frenchman the club’s record signing.

That price-tag already represents a £7million increase on what the Hornets paid to sign Andre Gray from Burnley in 2017 and to complicate matters further, Newcastle United, Everton and Crystal Palace are all keen on the 22-year-old.

However, what does play into Watford’s hands is the fact Saint-Maximin is seemingly available after falling out with Nice coach Patrick Vieira last season. The Arsenal legend said: “Allan’s problem is unfortunately that he thinks his talent is enough to reach the very highest level.

“He must understand that he needs to work and to make sacrifices. He needs to suffer. And unfortunately, he is yet to understand that.”

A winger appears to be near the top of Watford’s shopping list. Rennes’ Ismaïla Sarr has been heavily linked with a switch to Vicarage Road this summer but, amid interest from Arsenal, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, he looks beyond the Hornets’ reach.

Nice winger Allan Saint-Maximin could be one player Arsenal could sign instead of Wilfried Zaha

The fact Watford’s recruitment department are even chasing a winger is significant. Last season head coach Javi Gracia tended to set his side up in a 4-2-2-2 shape with the nominal wide players – usually Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra – tucking in to play very narrow roles. That is reflected in the average width of Watford’s possession last term which stood at just 24.98m, making it the fifth narrowest in the Premier League.

The Hertfordshire outfit did add wingers last summer, though. Gerard Deulofeu returned from Barça on a permanent basis following a successful loan spell. But the Spaniard was gradually converted into a forward, enjoying his best displays alongside the hulking presence of Troy Deeney.

Ken Sema signed from Swedish fairytale side Östersunds too. The 25-year-old struggled in his first season in England, though he spent much of the campaign playing on the right despite being a staunch left-footer.

One suspects this year will be make-or-break for the six-cap Sweden international.

Nice winger Allan Saint-Maximin compared to Watford's wingers for 2018/19

The same can be said of Isaac Success. Like Deulofeu, the Nigerian can play up front or wide on the left with his combination of pace and power making him unplayable on occasion. But the 23-year-old has his foibles too and is prone to making bad decisions at crucial moments.

All of which leads us to the need to sign a more reliable wide option. It’s hard to imagine a Gracia side playing with two out-and-out flying wingers, but given the paucity of options available to the Spaniard it’s not a huge surprise Watford are looking to upgrade that area.

So what does Saint-Maximin offer?

He is an elite ball carrier. Only seven players in Europe’s top five leagues (Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1) completed more dribbles than the Nice attacker’s 4.45 per 90 last term, but none of those played more than his 2,910 minutes.

The Watford transfer target is keeping good company in that regard. That figure is on a par with Lionel Messi and eclipses Eden Hazard (4.24), Jadon Sancho (4.13), Kingsley Coman (3.89) and Ousmane Dembélé (3.66).

Saint-Maximin attempted the second-most dribbles of any winger in Ligue 1 (7.76 per 90) and unsurprisingly, therefore, was dispossessed on 2.47 occasions per 90 – the tenth-most in the French top flight.

Crucially, there was an end product to all that dribbling. Saint-Maximin was 11th for big chances created last season (0.34 per 90) and tenth for shot assists (1.48) while also getting off 2.31 shots. In total, he scored six times at a rate of 0.18 per 90, just shy of his expected goals score of 0.2.

Saint-Maximin fell some way short of his expected assists score (0.18 per 90) having recorded just three in Ligue 1, but that metric is predicated on the finishing ability of those the chance are supplied to.

Compared to Watford’s wide options Saint-Maximin’s stats make promising reading. He completed more dribbles than anyone else – comfortably so – while he’s only just behind Deulofeu for touches in the 18-yard box and just shy of Success’ key passes average.

Watford fans might not appreciate the comparison, but there is something of Wilfried Zaha in Saint-Maximin. The Crystal Palace flyer’s own numbers aren’t outstanding but his stock in trade is carrying the ball into dangerous areas and making things happen by disrupting defences.

That is just the kind of player Watford would benefit from; someone who adds an element of unpredictability into proceedings and one who gets backsides off seats to boot. And if the Hornets are prepared to break their transfer record, and all their rules of recruitment, he must be pretty damn good.

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