F365 Says: Silva unearths treasure in Doucoure

Matt Stead

While his teammates were resuming their duties and the travelling support were treating St Mary’s to a rendition of his wonderful new chant, Abdoulaye Doucoure cut perhaps the only frustrated figure in yellow and black. The midfielder had just scored to hand Watford the lead against Southampton, but gave away possession within a minute of the restart.

It was one of only six passes out of 90 that Doucoure would misplace all game, the Frenchman otherwise directing proceedings on the south coast with consummate ease. It was a fly in the ointment, a tiny blotch on the report card, but one big enough to play on the midfielder’s mind.

“I think I have to improve in the Premier League,” he said after the game. “I have to work on that and at the end of the season you’ll see where I am. I want to be one of the best midfielders in the league.”

It was the sort of quote befitting Paul Pogba or Nemanja Matic. One could imagine Jordan Henderson or Emre Can holding such lofty ambitions, or Granit Xhaka making such claims. But an unheralded Frenchman arriving from a lowly Ligue Un club setting his sights so high?

Doucoure could be accused of harbouring ideas above his station, but he is simply hoping lightning strikes twice. “N’Golo Kante was the best player in the Premier League at Leicester,” he said of his compatriot, who joined the Foxes as an unknown at 24, the same age as Doucoure now. Kante moved for £5.8m, helped deliver the most historic top-flight title in history and was voted Player of the Year a season later. Doucoure joined a similarly middling club for a similarly middling fee of £8m from a similarly mid-table side in Ligue Un; it is an almost impossible path to follow, but achieving even a fraction of Kante’s success would be an accomplishment.

Doucoure will not guide Watford to Premier League title glory, but it is a wonder he has even managed to break through. The Hornets, along with Liverpool, courted him in 2015 before making him the most expensive player in their history in February 2016. He was then loaned straight out to Granada, and upon his return was faced with a new manager and new challenges. ‘Twas ever thus.

“As soon as we started pre-season, I saw that I was not in the plans of Walter Mazzarri, so I immediately wanted to leave in order to get playing time,” Doucoure said earlier this month; he was a record signing in February unwanted by June. It was not until January 2017, 11 months after he joined, that he made his first Premier League start.

Not that Mazzarri would give with one hand and miss the opportunity to take away with the other. “There are some things he needs to improve, like his shooting – he needs to score more – but he’s got a big future in front of him,” the Italian said after letting him in from the cold. Two goals in four games this campaign has already delivered the third-best return of his career.

It was not until April and May that Doucoure would be released from the shackles that had tied him down since arriving in England. Of his 14 Premier League starts last season, ten came in the final two months with Watford safe. Mazzarri did not scout nor sign the midfielder; he long sought to stifle him. But his most telling contribution as manager was to showcase Doucoure for his eventual successor.

Marco Silva has taken note. The Portuguese signed three central midfielders in the summer after being appointed manager, but Doucoure has played every minute of Watford’s wonderful unbeaten start.

To say the midfielder is grateful for a fresh start at Vicarage Road is an understatement. “I’m happy with the manager. He’s a very good guy,” he said earlier this season. “He’s instilled a very good spirit in the team and he pushes you to be at the top. The mentality has changed and the squad has too.”

Yet Watford’s stand-out player has been around for 18 months; only nine players have been at the club longer. He is a treasure buried by two managers but unearthed by the latest incumbent. Doucoure has found the perfect nest in the Hornets’ midfield under Silva.

Doucoure spoke of how “nobody knows me” after dominating Southampton, but that is more of a benefit than a hindrance. Kante flew under the English radar before winning the country’s top flight two seasons in a row with different teams. Watford’s midfield maestro is by no means on the same level, but if he shoots for the moon and misses, he at least has a chance to eventually land among the league’s stars. He certainly has the talent.


Matt Stead