Watford are one of those Premier League clubs everyone seems to forget about – so you probably haven’t noticed their quiet transformation into Barcelona-lite.
Watford have long been an underdog. They were an underdog when Graham Taylor guided them from the Fourth Division to the First Division, they were an underdog when he had them challenging for the title and took them to Europe and the FA Cup final, and they’ve basically been an underdog every time they’ve returned to the top flight since.
And like many clubs in the Premier League today, they are merely supporting cast for the top six, occasionally part of the narrative when keeping up their habit of bloodying the noses of the big boys but mainly going unnoticed by anyone outside of Hertfordshire.
Well, I was at Loftus Road last week to witness a Ken Sema pirouette I was desperate to write about were it not for the fact it seemed to be missed by literally everyone else, and the week before that we did write about Watford on this site when Craig Cathcart – Craig Cathcart, for f**ks sake – helped set up their goal against Everton with a no-look backheel.
When a centre-back is doing things like that, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
Hardly anyone did, of course, but Watford were at it again on Friday night, thrashing Cardiff City 5-1 to go seventh and producing a wonderful 26-pass move for their fourth goal.
And who should provide the final of those passes but none other than man of the match and hat-trick hero Gerard Deulofeu, who Watford signed from, you guessed it, Barcelona.
Every now and again a footballer will emerge who is suited to the Premier League precisely because he shouldn’t be.
Sometimes it can be a battering-ram of a forward, a product of the lower-leagues who has the shock-factor in the top flight, but more often it’s the kind of flair player who pundits of the Proper Football Man variety dismiss from the get-go predominantly down to their lack of physicality: from that point on, either they receive criticism disproportionate to their performances, or they become David Silva.
Occasionally, though, we’ll find a player who fits that mould but who becomes a better fit for a club towards the middle of the table than one towards the top, taking the aspect of slaying top clubs which we normally associate with Champions League opponents and finding it a new home. Deulofeu is one such player.
When Barcelona exercised their buy-back option on him in 2017, any surprise at the move was not down to the Catalan winger’s talent or lack thereof.
His quality at Everton had been plain to see during his loan and permanent spells with the club, not least with a phenomenal defence-splitting ball to lay on a goal for Romelu Lukaku against West Ham in 2015.
It was like watching a chess move being played on a football pitch, such was the precision and matter-of-fact nature of the delivery.
He spotted point B before he’d arrived at A, and executed the pass as if there was never going to be another outcome or even another option.
It might be down to Deulofeu’s slight build, or his blend of an unassuming gait with an intelligent reading of the game – both in feeding team-mates and in winding up opponents – that his creation stands out as much as those occasions where he finishes off a move.
It’s also for this reason that it’s hard to watch him play and not be reminded of the reason he never cemented himself at Barcelona: the presence of another diminutive attacker who began in a similar mould but who went on to do far more for the club.
Even in a week when Deulofeu notched a hat-trick to secure a win on the road, Lionel Messi did the same and did it against stronger opposition.
But the stand-out moment for Deulofeu was not with any of his three goals but with his delightful, almost mocking assist for Troy Deeney to put the Hornets 4-0 to the good.
It’s his way of telling those watching his work is done, but he’s not going to leave just yet.
He has finished his exam early but has decided to stay in the classroom and throw paper aeroplanes at everyone sat there trying to get their own assignment finished in time.
To watch the assist within this context is bad enough: after collecting a dare we say Deulofeu-esque through-ball from Étienne Capoue, he holds a mouse trap out in front of Neil Etheridge and invites the Cardiff goalkeeper to make a stretch for the tasty cheese inside.
Etheridge has been in this situation before, and he knows it always ends badly for him, but maybe this time it will be different. It’s right there in front of me, he tells himself, and it’s so tantalising.
Zooming in on this moment is one thing, but then you realise it has arrived at the end of a 26-pass move in which Etheridge’s outfield team-mates have found themselves in the same position.
There’s having your legs give up on you towards the summit of a climb, but this is more like someone laying a tripwire across base-camp; it’s enough to make you question why you chose the path to begin with, but not enough to prevent you from taking it again.
“Oh, you want the ball, do you? Here you g… nah, just kidding.”
When we see a bigger team score this sort of goal – no, wait, when we see Manchester City score this sort of goal, because nine times out of 10 it’s them – we’re left impressed but unsurprised.
Part of this comes from the fact that City have so many different players both capable of such open mockery and actively willing to dick their opponents about in a way that’s both embarrassing and effective.
When it comes to Watford – and here you can substitute in one of at least 14 Premier League teams – you’ll expect to have fewer chances per game and therefore the temptation to just keep things simple and not leave anything to chance will grow.
You’re watching them spin the ball on their finger, but when you get close enough for a proper look you realise it’s just a balloon in front of you and the real ball is 50 yards downfield.
It’s easier to do this with your team three to the good, of course, but the more we see teams like Watford in Harlem Globetrotters mode, with players like Deulofeu pulling the strings, the better.
By Tom Victor