Watford are evolving, and the signing of Will Hughes signals a shift in the focus of the Hornets’ transfer strategy. Owner Gino Pozzo is increasingly targeting young, homegrown players.
Will Hughes and the Evolving Watford Transfer Policy
Marco Silva’s First Watford Signing
22-year-old Hughes was Watford’s first summer capture, signing from Derby County for an estimated £8 million fee. Amidst the inflation of the English market, this seems a shrewd signing. At the European Under-21 Championship, he briefly appeared alongside another Hornets signing, Nathaniel Chalobah. These two young English players are very different to the kind of signings the club have made in the recent past.
It’s easy to forget that Hughes is still only 22 years old; he made his debut for Derby at the tender age of 16. The Surrey-born attacking midfielder was monitored by various Premier League clubs, but Watford pounced. After 187 games and 12 goals for the Rams, Hughes saw fit to move on. The opportunity for top flight, first team football was took good to pass.
The playmaker got his first taste of senior team action in November 2011, as a late substitute against Peterborough. Then-manager Nigel Clough was impressed by his composed performances for the reserve team. An injury crisis prompted Clough to call on the teenager. He was also summoned to the England Under-17 squad in February 2012.
The following season, Hughes cemented his place in the Derby team. His first goal came against his new club, Watford, in September 2012. By the following May, he had established himself in the first-team, making 36 appearances and scoring two goals for the Rams. After the season had finished, he was drafted into the Under-21 squad for England’s qualifying fixtures. He remains the fourth youngest player to appear for the England Under-21s.
Hughes hoped to guide his beloved Derby to the Premier League, but series of play-off disappointments marked his time at Pride Park. The midfielder is ambitious and eager to ensure that he is not another young Englishman wasting his career on the bench. In an interview last year, Hughes expressed a note of caution against making the wrong career move:
“I think some of the young players now are happy to pick up the money, sit on the bench for the Under 23’s and wish their career away. They don’t think long-term that at 23 or 24 they could be without a club, struggling. I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
This signing marks another year of change for Watford. Marco Silva is striving to re-work the squad to fit his plan. Three Englishmen—Cleverley, Hughes and Chalobah—will fight for their places in the heart or midfield. Cleverley will sit in defensive midfield and Hughes will likely occupy an advanced attacking role, perhaps alongside Chalobah.
Style of Play
“I have spoken to a few people about the Prem and they say it is more of a chess game, more tactical, which probably suits me.”
Hughes has an excellent eye for a pass; a trait missing from the Hornets’ midfield for long periods last season. He does not possess an abundance of strength or speed, but makes up for this with his intelligence. With Cleverley and a tough-tackler at the base of the midfield next season, he is unlikely to need to track back regularly, negating his physical weaknesses.
Hughes is able to change the pace of a game with a swing of his left-foot. He has excellent vision and ball-retention skills and is not afraid to pass backwards. Regular goal-scoring is an area he could improve on, as he only scored 12 times in 187 appearances for Derby. The rare goals he does score are often spectacular.
Before Hornets fans get too excited about the transfer, it’s important to know that Hughes spent last season trying to regain form following a serious knee injury which ruled him out of the 2015/16 season. Hughes spoke in an interview with Rams TV (via the Derby Telegraph).
‘I’ve been in and out of the team. I know we have had three different managers but I haven’t played to the capabilities I can for one reason or another, and it has been a very frustrating season for myself and for the team.’
What to Expect
Hughes has struggled to recapture the form that attracted the elite Premier League clubs. He appeared 42 times last season as Derby finished a disappointing ninth in the Championship, but few of the Rams’ players exactly covered themselves in glory.
The youngster will benefit from a season of stability, something that Marco Silva will bring. In spite of his arrival in January, Silva quickly established an intelligent playing-style at Hull City and came close to rescuing them from relegation. The Portuguese likes his players to understand what they are doing, enabling them to analyse and make positioning decisions. He appeals to his players’ intellect rather than using a rigid dictatorial style, which tallies with Hughes’ easy-on-the-eye style. Competition comes in the form of Argentinian star Roberto Pererya, Etienne Capoue and Nathaniel Chalobah, until further squad changes are made or Silva selects a preferred formation.
The class of 2017/18 is likely to be quite different to the previous campaign, which ended with a whimper. Therefore, viewers should expect a more dynamic, shrewd side to appear at Vicarage Road next term. Watford owner Gino Pozzo will be working hard over the upcoming weeks to enhance the playing squad. Hughes’ own future in the game is bright.