In praise of Will Hughes

In their book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make a point about a ‘big English club’ that noticed its scouts who watched youth games often recommended blond-haired players – so much so that the club took the bias into account when assessing the scouting reports.

The conclusion was that blond footballers stand out because they are relatively rare and so more noticeable.

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This thought came to me on Saturday as Watford played Bournemouth, because my eyes were so often drawn to Will Hughes that I was trying to work out whether they were being disporportionately influenced by his hair colour.

That may sound a strange thought but all supporters watch matches with years of accumulated bias distorting their view. For example, some supporters praise perceived effort more than they logically should. A player who makes a futile but obvious effort to regain possession after giving away the ball gets a round of applause whereas the one who drops back into a pragmatic defensive position and bolsters the team’s effort to win back the ball from there does not.

As supporters we want to see effort as well as skill and, as a result, style counts for a lot. I am willing to bet that if Etienne Capoue ran in short, rapid steps rather than in his languid style, or charged to close down an opponent after making a stray pass rather than waving his arms in the general direction of one of his team-mates, he’d attract an awful lot less criticism. His style of play dilutes appreciation of what he actually does in a match.

Anyway, my conclusion was that Hughes was, by some distance, the most enjoyable Watford player to watch for the 75 minutes that he was on the pitch, and that had nothing to do with the fact he has hair brighter than the sun.

It was his first start since going off injured an hour into the Manchester United home match at the end of November and it surprised me that it was only his fifth Premier League start, so vivid were my memories of how well he’d played at Goodison Park and St James’ Park last year.

Hughes is not quick. He’s not big or imposing, although he is strong – wiry, probably – and difficult to knock off the ball. The threat he poses to opposition defences is not obvious but he has an elusive quality that makes the best attacking midfielders so difficult to contain. For defenders, it must be like grappling with a bar of soap in the bath. Just when you think you’ve got a grip, it slips away.

Where exactly was Hughes playing? It was hard to say. Just behind Deeney? False nine? False ten? Drifting in from the left? Or was it from the right? He seemed to pop up everywhere, and yet was rarely out of position. His ability to float added definition to the roles of the players around him too. Abdoulaye Doucouré, in particular, seemed to benefit from not feeling he had to be in two places at once. Capoue seemed content to sit a bit deeper and Roberto Pereyra was less isolated than in recent matches because Hughes managed to get the ball to him and bring him into the play in dangerous areas, notably with a little lay-off for Watford’s second goal.

By doing very little that is immediately obvious, Hughes seems to find space where others run into traffic. Sometimes he works the ball with neat, quick footwork but just as often he uses his body, throwing the sort of shapes you see from Dads on the dancefloor at weddings, allowing the ball to roll while his body puts defenders off the scent. When he’s trying to win the ball or bring it under control he doesn’t feel the pressure to do so with one definitive touch. He’s like Doucouré in that sense. He understands that sometimes a little toe poke, or a bounce with the sole of the foot to kill the pace on the ball and take it away from an opponent is enough. Then, after two, three, four touches, he’s suddenly wriggled free and the space has opened up around him. It’s a brilliant, almost indefinable skill.

Without getting too carried away – because he is far from flawless – Hughes is a player that makes you pay attention and it was clear that Watford became more predictable when he went off. It’s always slightly disappointing when the stand-out player leaves the field, as Hughes did after 75 minutes, but after so long out injured, and after three 20-plus-minute appearances as a substitute, he’d probably done enough for the day. What was puzzling, though, was the choice of replacement. Bringing on Stefano Okaka for Hughes was hardly like-for-like. It was akin to replacing a nimble little Lambretta with a milk float or bumper car.

And, of course, Okaka gave away the free-kick which allowed Bournemouth to pump the ball forward for their equaliser. Okaka does pay an unfair price for his size and style at times, but on this occasion he led with his arm and made the decision easy for the referee.

Once the disappointment of throwing away two points so late had faded, I was left with the sense that we’d seen an open, positive, attacking game as well as the hope that Hughes can stay fit for the remainer of this season and then become the fulcrum of the team next term.

The other thing I wondered was whether Etienne Capoue had dyed his hair blond in a bid to attract the attention of any scouts watching…

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It’s an unrelated point because the faux rivalry with Bournemouth is a peculiar phenomenon but it cannot be denied that the fact they are able to sing about having been champions and we are not is incredibly irritating. Watford were only a minute or so away from winning the title decider against Sheffield Wednesday in May 2015 and, in injury time, fell victim to a free kick that was put into the penalty area and the ensuing failure to clear the ball. Plus ça change.

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A comment made by a supporter at Watford’s At Our Place event this week caught my eye. I didn’t go to the event but followed on Twitter and so the way it was paraphrased may have shorn it of some nuance, but the essence was that the previous two home matches – the 1-0 wins over Everton and West Bromwich Albion – were boring.

It’s an intriguing thing, this. When the team is not winning, all that matters is the points. When the team is winning, we find other things to complain about and the idea of football as entertainment takes hold again.

It’s a generalisation, but while the money rolls in, the TV figures hold up and the stadia are (more or less) full, professional football teams have no obligation to entertain. Every place in the league table equals millions of pounds and so the accumulation of points does not need to be pretty.

Which is why Saturday’s game was so refreshing. An away team came prepared to play and, as a result, we saw some attractive movement and some clever use of the angles. But, on reflection, would we have preferred a downright ugly stop-start final 40 minutes?


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