Abdoulaye Doucoure continues to emerge in Watford's time of need
Javi Gracia put pen to paper on an 18-month contract, becoming the 10th manager to work under the Pozzo family at Vicarage Road since 2012. When you put that into perspective, it highlights the lack of long-term planning and stability that has somehow failed to hurt Watford in its quest for progression on a yearly basis.
As it always seems to be at Vicarage Road, time is of the essence. Gracia will be expected to settle quickly with fixtures coming thick and fast. We're well into the business months of the Premier League campaign. So, despite having an overall average squad, the 47-year-old will happily welcome Abdoulaye Doucoure's presence as a key player. Despite playing predominantly as a defensive midfielder, Doucoure has netted seven league goals this term, more than any teammate.
The midfielder turned 25 on January 1. He is reportedly set for a pay rise and improved contract terms. Given the Frenchman's recent form, that news comes as no surprise. Doucoure is certainly focused on his future.
"N'Golo Kante was one of the Premier League's best players last year, but I like to think only on myself and want to show my qualities. I work for that. I want to be one of the league's best midfielders, in the team, to be a leader. In the Premier League nobody knows me. I want to be one of the best but have to show it.
Four months on, he's asserted himself as one of Watford's most important players. Alongside summer acquisition Richarlison, he continues to improve with further minutes and valuable experience under his belt.
Quietly but clearly leading by example
Considering Doucoure signed for the club in January 2016, it's particularly telling he's only now being heralded as a quality midfielder. It was the most recently departed boss, Marco Silva, who granted him the platform to showcase his ability.
Under Walter Mazzarri, he played in a number of different positions, enduring a tough spell in which he played infrequently and often out of position. As such, Doucoure was unable to affect the game on either side.
This term, he's already played three more league matches and 700-odd minutes more than in previous campaigns. Finally deployed as a defensive midfielder, he had struck up a promising partnership with Nathaniel Chalobah before the Englishman's freak injury in late September.
Being given the freedom to free roam forward when paired with Tom Cleverley or more recently, Ben Watson, he's created more scoring opportunities while not abandoning his defensive duties. He works hard to intercept danger in its tracks.
The numbers speak for themselves:
|2016/17 (20 games)||2017/18 (23 games)|
|Successful take-ons||14||26 (81% success)|
|Aerial duels won||14||30|
[derived from WhoScored and Squawka, up-to-date as of 24/1/18]
It's unfair to suggest Doucoure is the answer to all of Watford's problems. He is not. Richarlison's influence during the early surge, and lack thereof since, are just as key. That said, it's easy to point out just how important Doucoure has become to the side. Even when the team is not performing collectively well there's an onus on him to produce in the middle third. He delivers with tough tackling and a physically imposing nature, or by spraying key passes forward like a deep-lying playmaker.
This increased sense of responsibility is one he relishes. Gracia's immediate task will be to improve confidence in the dressing room. He'll soon find he can rely on Doucoure to lead by example on the pitch.