The most gifted players shine through when it matters, take a game by the scruff of the neck and perform to such a standard to win it almost singlehandedly. On Friday night, Carrow Road was made well aware that it was witnessing an individual who has plied his trade alongside the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
As the bottom two in the Premier League locked horns, with Watford travelling to fellow early strugglers Norwich City, forward Gerard Deulofeu ridiculed his involvement in such a low-lying clash. He proved his calibre by scoring the opener after an impressive solo run and teed up teammate Andre Gray for the second to secure a first league victory of the season for the Hornets.
But more than anything, the Spaniard demonstrated both his resolve and his unwitting commitment to the cause of lifting his team out of the relegation zone. He ran until his heart was bursting and earned his early substitution in the 70th minute after a genuinely match-winning performance.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, Deulofeu chose to accredit the victory to collective endeavour rather than his own technical expertise. After three winless months to begin 2019/20, this was the timely result the team had been seeking, and their exertions were finally rewarded.
“We have been working really hard for it," he said. "This was a big final for us because if we didn’t get the three points we could have remained like this for the season. It was really important.”
The reward of a well devised game-plan
Except for the dismissal of defender Christian Kabasele in the second half, an event which complicated matters heading into the final 35 minutes, the encounter in Norfolk transpired exactly as head coach Quique Sánchez Flores and his squad would have hoped.
Pivotal to Watford's ability to steer the game into their favour was Deulofeu's quick-fire opener. Nestled in the net after just 76 seconds, it goes down as the second quickest goal the Hornets have ever scored in the Premier League, and it thrust the hosts onto the back foot almost instantaneously.
Then, when Gray doubled the advantage shortly after half time, it gave Watford sufficient breathing space to defend their lead even while navigating the closing stages with a man less than their opponents. It was ultimately a resolute defensive display which succeeded decisive moments of quality from Deulofeu and his fellow forwards.
“It was early, I think it was my first shot. You have to be ready and we made good pressure on the defenders so I thought I could score the first goal. After we finished it with a second goal from Andre to get the three points, and now we have to continue this.”
Watford looked well-drilled and suitably prepared for the problems the Canaries would throw at them. There is considerable quality within the Norwich ranks, and it was shown in glimpses particularly by the slick runs of Onel Hernández, but for the most part it was successfully neutralised by the Hornets.
The 25-year old believes his side's triumph was in part the result of apt instruction and diligence prior to the match, a testament to the work of Sánchez Flores whose failure to orchestrate a win brought his reign under recent scrutiny. Certainly, the first goal looked a consequence of strategy rather than chance.
“We knew they wanted to play from behind and we knew we had to be compact. We knew sometimes we’d have to put pressure to get to their goal and that’s what we did with the first pressure.”
Enjoying a new position
Deulofeu is a player who, by his own account, is content to carry out his duties from anywhere across the attacking lines, but he has benefitted from his deployment in a more central area in the last year or so.
Traditionally regarded as a winger, he was first granted the chance to play at striker under Javi Gracia, and struck a fruitful partnership with club captain Troy Deeney in attack towards the end of the previous campaign.
And the accession of Sánchez Flores has seen Deulofeu continue in his new role. In fact, a tactical reformation more or less necessitated that he did so, with the new five-at-the-back system comprising wing-backs rather than outright wide attackers.
The Spaniard admitted he is thrilled to continue conducting his functions from a more advanced role, not least as it has granted him with more plentiful opportunities to climb the scoring charts.
“I’m nearer the goal and I can get more chances," he said, before joking: "I run a lot, but I think I can run a little less than as a winger.”
Defeating Norwich lifted Watford up to 18th having been rooted to the foot of the standings since the second week of the season, and consigned the Canaries to their former position in the process. It may still only be as early as November, but it was as crucial as victories come in the lower reaches of the division.
With an international break now on the horizon, the focus in training will surely be on extending this singular yet significant victory into a positive run of form in order to climb the table. But for now, Deulofeu and his colleagues have at last earned the right to celebrate those long-awaited, precious three points.
“Finally, it’s a long time without a win and now we can enjoy it.”