Watford could hand a debut to Philip Zinckernagel in their FA Cup tie at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Saturday – the ultimate baptism of fire for their new signing from Norway.
The Hornets snapped the Dane on a free transfer from Eliteserien champions Bodø/Glimt following an exceptional campaign that saw him post an incredible 18 goals and 19 assists in just 28 league appearances. But just how impressive is the 26-year-old player and what has made Watford reward him with a long-term contract?
Following a second-place finish in the 2019 top-flight, Bodø/Glimt picked up their first-ever Eliteserien title last month following a very successful 2020 campaign. They won the league with a 19-point cushion over runners-up Molde and lost just one of their 30 games (a defeat to Molde in October) – this despite 2020 being only their third season back in the top-flight following relegation in 2016.
A couple of games into their first season back in the top-flight in 2018, Zinckernagel was signed from Danish Superliga side SønderjyskE and posted modest goalscoring numbers of six goals in both 2018 and 2019 league campaigns, with three assists in 2018 and seven the following season. However, 2020 was quite clearly his breakout season, under a more attacking philosophy deployed by former assistant Kjetil Knutsen in his second season in charge of the club.
Aided by the arrival of fellow Danish forward Kasper Junker, Zinckernagel formed a front three in a 4-3-3 formation with 21-year-old Jens Petter Hauge used predominantly on the left, until he was signed by Milan in October.
Zinckernagel’s tally of 19 Eliteserien goals in 2020 was only bettered by Junker (27) and Kristiansund BK’s Amahl Pellegrino (25), but the new Watford signing was the most prolific shooter both overall (122) and from outside the box (65).
One criticism of Zinckernagel could be that his shot selection at times could be deemed unwise. Of the eight players to score 10+ non-penalty goals in the competition last season, the forward had the lowest xG per shot ratio (0.09) and the lowest shot conversion rate (13.6%). This suggests that his propensity to shoot from range and more unrealistic shooting positions might see a downturn in goal figures if he were to continue this style in the Championship with his new club.
Last season in the Eliteserien, Zinckernagel averaged a shot every 20 minutes on average, which was more than any regular player in the competition. To add some perspective to this shot rate, the only players who have attempted a shot more regularly in the top five European leagues this season than every 20 minutes are Lionel Messi (14), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (15), Cristiano Ronaldo (17) and Kylian Mbappe (19).
Creatively, Zinckernagel was the standout performer in the Norwegian top-flight in 2020. He led the rankings for goal assists (18), chances created (96), chances created from open play (70), Expected Assists (12.4) and Expected Assists from open play (8.9).
Placing his accomplishments in relation to players the top five European leagues is obviously difficult, with Norway currently ranked 24th in the UEFA club coefficients. However, to give you a rough guide on how creative Zinckernagel was in 2020 for Bodø/Glimt, his average xA per 90 of 0.45 cannot be matched by any player to have played 1000+ minutes in the top ranked European leagues in 2020-21 and the closest to this are Memphis Depay (0.40) and Lionel Messi (0.38).
With an xG per 90 of 0.52, the new Watford player was the only player in the Norwegian top-flight in 2020 to excel both in front of goal and creatively bar Milan’s Jens Petter Hauge during his time as Zinckernagel’s teammate before his move in October (0.64 xG per 90 and 0.39 xA per 90).
Watford fans should be excited about Zinckernagel’s ball carrying ability, too. The attacking midfielder was lethal for Bodø/Glimt in 2020 when running with the ball at his feet, having 43 shots and creating 28 chances for teammates following a ball carry – both league-highs.
In addition to this, the Dane attempted the most take-ons (154) with a league-high 47 of these coming inside the box – an amazing 33 more than any other player in the competition, showing that he likes to drive into the box at pace with the ball.
With Watford needing some impetus towards their promotion push back to the Premier League this season, the signing of Zinckernagel could be a very shrewd bit of business. If he can combine with the known attacking talents that the Hornets already possess, he could prove to be the missing piece of the puzzle for Xisco Muñoz’s side.