Affleck's Angle: A Rare Gift
Kevin Affleck dissects the Hornets' 1-2 loss to Chelsea, focusing on playmaker Roberto Pereyra's rare qualities...
It was a moment against Brighton on the opening day of the season that made you sit up and take notice. It came early on when Bruno clattered him near the touchline. Roberto Pereyra went down in a crumpled heap and you expected him to hobble off and protect his fragile body, like he had done against Crystal Palace at the end of last season. Ken Sema was even sent out to warm up.
But Pereyra got up, dusted himself down, gritted his teeth and decided to run it off. It was a line-in-the-sand moment. He's not looked back since and now with full trust in his body and able to sustain the odd kick both mentally and physically, he is starting to show everybody why Gino Pozzo and Filippo Giraldi were so excited to get him from Juventus for a fraction over £11 million in the summer of 2016. They knew what he was capable of as he'd done it for Udinese and then on a bigger stage for Juventus. Max Allegri summed up Pereyra's ability perfectly in an interview in 2015. “Roberto’s got great technique and an important quality: he always drives towards goal with great intensity”.
He's also got durability. When Juventus won the league, the Coppa Italia and reached the final of the Champions League in the 2014/15 season, nobody made more Serie A appearances for Juve than Pereyra.
It didn't take Derek Payne long to realise this was a player of rare gifts.
“He's the most talented player to play for this club,” said Payne. “His brain is so quick.”
Troy Deeney didn't need to thing too long about it when he was asked on Monday Night Football recently about the best player he has played with.
“Maxi Pereyra,” said Deeney. “People don't realise how good this kid is. He has played in a Champions League final and yet people look at it as if we just got him off the street. When Richarlison left it was like, ‘Oh god, how are we going to replace him?’. But Maxi is frightening. He can do anything. You know he is coming in on his right foot, but you can't stop him. He also does the hard work. He's getting back and doing all sorts. He's in our own box helping out. He's got that extra bit of quality and that's great for a team like us.”
We're starting to see those moments of magic on a regular basis and he's starting to develop quite a showreel. They are coming in all shapes and sizes. There was the volley from the corner against Brighton, the outrageous flick with the outside of his left foot against Wolves and then the waltz through the Huddersfield defence. The Argentine doesn't do standard goals, he likes to do something outside the box and stand out from the crowd, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the outfits he wears to training. He had all-luminous trainers on the other day. This is an individual with flair and, most impressively, he's not a flat-track bully. He scored a cracker against Leicester when they were the defending champions and has now rattled in goals in three successive games against Chelsea, with the latest probably the pick of the lot.
Craig Cathcart and the other dummy runners did the easy bit by creating the space for the Argentine at the edge of the box, but he still had an awful lot to do. It would have been easy to thrash the ball on the volley and hope for the best, but Pereyra managed to strike it with pace and precision, deliberately steering his volley between David Luiz and N'Golo Kante and into the bottom corner.
“We've seen some glorious volleys in the Premier League and that is right up there,” said BBC 5 Live's Conor McNamara. “Pereyra with an absolute screamer, it's right on the volley. It was like Paul Scholes all those years ago.”
That's now three goals from training-ground moves this season – Isaac Success against Huddersfield and Pereyra against Brighton and Chelsea – and that is confirmation there is plenty of hard graft and ingenuity going on at the team's base in London Colney.
“That's a training ground one,” said Pat Nevin. “That's not a fluke.”
Javi Gracia high-fived one of his coaching staff when that one from Pereyra flew in. It's moments like that must make all the long hours the coaches put in worthwhile.
“We scored it against Brighton and it was clever, but we've now used it against one of the top teams,” said Payne. “Set-pieces are important against top teams and we have caught Chelsea's analysts out there. It's not an easy skill with the ball coming out of the air, but his technique was superb.”
You can bet Pereyra takes a mean penalty, casual as you like but he won't get a sniff while Deeney is on the field. The captain rattled one in against West Ham and, on another night, could have been spotting the ball up again on Boxing Day. Gerard Deulofeu was adamant Luiz dragged him to the ground on 52 minutes. He was utterly dismayed, pounding the floor in frustration. He was still shaking his head five minutes later. Abdoulaye Doucouré sprinted 20 yards to plead with referee Martin Atkinson.
“When I saw it live I thought it was a penalty,” said Payne. “I've seen it again and I still think he puts his arm across him. He's blocked him off and I think it's a penalty. Luiz knows he's beaten for pace.”
Funnily enough (if indeed you can see the funny side of another non-penalty award), the incident was in an almost identical position to the one where Andrew Robertson felled Will Hughes.
“I think it was a penalty,” Gracia told BBC Sport afterwards.
Nevin, the former Chelsea winger, had no sympathy for Deulofeu, though.
“If that was a penalty, it's your own fault because of the ridiculous dive in the first half,” said the BBC Radio 5 Live summariser. “The referee is thinking, ‘this is a player trying to con me’. There was not much in it, really. Both of them have their arms locked.”
Speaking on Sky Sports, Steve Sidwell confirmed the slightly distorted view that exists that there is one rule for fouls inside the 18-yard box and another for fouls anywhere else on the pitch. “Outside the box, it's a foul,” he said, “but not inside the box.”
But that debate shouldn't detract from a night when we celebrated the artisans of the game, whether it be Pereyra, the bewitching Hazard and even Gianfranco Zola, one of the greatest technicians and schemers of them all. He was presented pre-match with a silver-collared Decanter and an expensive bottle of plonk by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Scott Duxbury in recognition of the intoxicating football played when he was manager of this club. It was a sign that, win, lose or draw, the club go about their business with a sense of style, just like Pereyra.