Affleck’s Angle: Deulofeu's Determined Defence
Kevin Affleck gives his take on the Hornets' quarter-final win over Crystal Palace...
There was a moment that summed it all up.
It wasn’t Javi Gracia making a bee-line straight for Heurelho Gomes at the full whistle, although that was nice. It wasn’t Étienne Capoue standing menacingly over the grounded James McArthur, although that kind of encapsulated how the Frenchman is towering over most other midfielders in the country right now. And it wasn’t Troy Deeney and Gomes, two titans of this platinum era for the club, sharing the sort of moment at full-time that makes you go, ‘I’m not crying, you’re crying.’
It had happened just seconds before half-time. You may have missed it had you headed off early for a comfort break or to devour one of the pies some Palace fans vowed to boycott.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka clipped the ball down the line and McArthur took advantage of the struggling José Holebas to surge from midfield into a decent amount of space down the vacant Watford left. He was clear favourite and would have had plenty of time to steady himself and pick out a cross. But then, out of nowhere, he was caught, stopped in his tracks and then dispossessed. Who performed this recovery act?
It must have been Capoue with one of his telescopic legs. Nope. Deeney hurtling back on one of his lung-bursting defensive runs and whipping up the crowd in the process? Wrong again. OK, it must have been Abdoulaye Doucouré then, sprinting across from midfield to put out another fire. No? Give up?
It wasn’t a bird, it wasn’t a plane, it was Gerard Deulofeu. Yes, that’s right, it was the Spaniard, not known for his defensive work, who was rolling up his sleeves and doing the dirty stuff. You almost had to do a double take.
Huge swathes of an appreciative Vicarage Road, who sometimes like a hard tackle or a no-nonsense clearance as much as they do a drag back or a nutmeg, stood up and applauded. Deeney, stood on the halfway line the lazy so-and-so, raised his hands above his head like cricket teammates on the balcony do when applauding a century. The captain then low-fived his strike-partner when Deulofeu trotted back to his rightful position. For some, it was more significant than his hat-trick at Cardiff as we know he can do that, we know he possesses the sort of gifts some players can only dream of. But what we needed to see, what his teammates needed to see, was that he was someone who could stand alongside you in the trenches. They know now.
Right there and then you had a snapshot of just what Gracia has done to this group, how he has created a bond and a spirit that no-one dares break, even the flair, fancy-dan players. Things might not be going for Roberto Pereyra right now but see just how hard he works. No-one wants to be the one who lets the side down, the one who isn't pulling their weight.
“Gerard sprints and defends in that situation and it was very important because it shows the character of the team and the ambition of the team,” said Gracia. “All of them have a high commitment and want to help the team.”
It was only one tackle, and one tackle clearly doesn’t make a season, but the portents are hugely promising. It was something Pep Guardiola, who oversaw Deulofeu’s rise through the ranks at Barcelona, saw coming at the Etihad Stadium last week.
“He is an incredibly talented player,” Guardiola said. “He is playing more centrally, closer to Deeney and is an incredible player with vision.”
Then came the key bit. “He is improving his maturity in defensive areas.”
That was Guardiola’s coded, coach-speak way of saying the penny is starting to drop for Deulofeu, that football is about what you do going both ways and sometimes what you do without the ball.
Guardiola, like most, feels there is something else going on here, that this rise up to eighth in the league and the thrilling run to the semi-final of the FA Cup isn’t a flash in the pan. Gracia is creating something for the long term, something replicable season after season. Guardiola first spotted it when Gracia was at Malaga.
“The results speak for itself,” the Manchester City boss said. “That Barcelona team [he beat 1-0 in 2015] had the most creative players I ever saw. So we [Man City] knew it was going to be so tough playing against Watford, one of the toughest opponents before the end of the season. There were no spaces. It was impossible.”
Gracia is clearly emerging as one of the sharpest tacticians around and also one of the boldest when it comes to selection. There were plenty, myself included, who thought it was unthinkable to leave Ben Foster out of the biggest game of the season and the most significant in just under three years. He just had to play, surely. This was no time for sentiment.
Gomes had even said in the week how Foster is the best ‘keeper in England and yet here was Gracia making the call of all calls and deciding it was time for the Brazilian. He didn’t even select Foster on the bench, keeping faith with Pontus Dahlberg in a move that would have done wonders for the confidence of the young Swede. Gomes could have got injured early on and then Dahlberg would have been thrown into the lion’s den. Gracia knew that, took it all into account and still opted for the 20-year-old. It was a nuance, something easily overlooked but one that spoke volumes for his man-management.
“The real beauty of this season has been the depth of the squad and the gaffer's determination to use everyone available to him, to let them showcase what good players they all are,” said Deeney in his programme notes.
The Gomes selection paid off spectacularly as Gracia knew how the crowd, who he is so in touch with, would whip themselves up into a frenzy at the very real prospect of this being Gomes’ last game at Vicarage Road. The farewell, set to one of the club’s favourite songs, added to the sense of occasion, stoked up an already febrile atmosphere and the team surfed to victory on the back of this emotional tide.
Gomes used to play for Tottenham Hotspur, and they are desperate to leave Wembley. Watford, on the other hand, can’t wait to get there with Gracia at the wheel.