There was a time when Will Hughes was ‘The Next Big Thing’ in English football.
Every member of what was then the ‘Big Four’ wanted the Weybridge-born midfielder who was tearing up the Championship for Derby County as a teenager. Hughes debuted for the Rams in November 2011. He was still only 16.
So it was something of a surprise when Hughes, then aged 22, joined Watford for just £8million in the summer of 2017. Injuries had played their part but, for a player tipped for the top, it was a somewhat underwhelming destination.
Since then, Hughes, now 25, has had to be patient. He waited until November for his Premier League start and clocked less than 1,000 minutes during the 2017/18 campaign. The majority of those came after Marco Silva’s sacking the following January.
Clearly, Javi Gracia saw something in Hughes. He was integral to the Spaniard’s 4-2-2-2 system last term, missing only six Premier League games. The former England Under-21 midfielder has been a regular again this term. Nineteen of his 22 league outings has been starts and he’s only been left out of the matchday squad on eight occasions.
What had been lacking was the sort of performance Hughes could hang his hat on. However, in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Leicester City, he picked his moment.
The fact Leicester averaged 68 per cent of the ball gave Hughes the opportunity to shine. But, alongside Étienne Capoue at the base of midfield, he worked tirelessly.
No Watford player made more tackles (4) or ball recoveries (8). Only left-back Adam Masina (3) could better Hughes’ pair of interceptions too. It was a disciplined, selfless and controlled display from a player who rarely stands out but for his shock of white-blonde hair.
Time and time again Hughes was in the right place at the right time to stick a toe in and break up play. It was no coincidence.
The graphic above shows the location of Hughes’ defensive actions against the Foxes. With Brendan Rodgers’ side dictating much of the play, the Hornets’ No.19 was forced to defend deep to protect the back four.
Capoue dovetailed alongside Hughes nicely with his defensive actions map showing a preference for protecting the left-hand side. It’s usually the former Tottenham Hotspur man who pops up all over the field putting out fires but he was uncharacteristically quiet in 77 minutes on the field.
This was not a one-off from Hughes. Ranked against central midfielders who have played in at least 20 per cent of available minutes, he sits 11th for successful defensive actions per 90 with 11.41. That’s more than N’Golo Kanté (11.17) and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (11.17) as well as midfield partner-in-crime Capoue (11.06). In loose ball duels, Hughes is sixth (1.89 per 90) among his midfield peers.
Having played as a narrow winger under Gracia, Hughes is now in what he describes as his ‘natural position’ and hopes his form for the Hornets could result in a first England call.
Speaking to talkSPORT, Hughes said: “Every player wants to play for their country. But at the moment it’s solely focused on Watford and making sure we stay up.
“But I’m playing in my natural position now which I haven’t been in the last couple of years, which has been quite frustrating but it’s something just had to get on with.”
For the time being, Watford’s hopes of survival are at the forefront of Hughes’ mind. Better still, the postponement of the 2020 UEFA European Championships could prove a blessing in disguise – if he can maintain this kind of form.