Will Hughes did not score or set up either of Watford’s goals against Tottenham on Sunday afternoon, but that did not matter to the attacking midfielder or to the fans who are taking him to heart. He was still given an emphatic standing ovation when he was taken off with four minutes left, the home crowd applauding his important role in this famous 2-1 win.
Everyone at Watford knows that Hughes can play. That was the reputation he forged as a youngster in the Championship at Derby County, a gifted two-footed creator, who can skip past opponents and kill them with the slightest bit of space. That is why he was in the Derby team from the age of 16, after all.
So far this season under Javi Gracia Hughes has shown that, not least with his crucial 20-yard strike in the 3-1 win against Burnley that really got their season underway. Gracia has been full of praise for Hughes and his incisive midfield play, hailing him as a “clever player who can see the spaces”, more typically Spanish than English.
This is why Hughes’ performance on Sunday was so impressive. Because it was his tireless work without the ball, in that tucked in role from the right wing, that was so important to Watford’s plans. Gracia knew that his players would have to run themselves into the ground to make it difficult for Spurs, to stop them from playing, but they did that.
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“Against Tottenham, you have to be very demanding in defensive work, and work very hard,” Gracia explained afterwards. “It was a game for Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra to work a lot and run a lot. We needed to close the inside gaps, because the mobility of Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Christian Eriksen, they create many chances playing inside. So we have to defend and run.”
But Hughes did that heroically, tracking up and down Watford’s right, teaming up with Daryl Janmaat, blocking Ben Davies from getting crosses in, tracking Alli’s forward runs. He was livelier and sharper than almost every other player on the pitch. Had he not been, Spurs would have found the space they need to hurt teams.
Not many sides manage to out-run Spurs, but the midfield of Hughes, Pereyra, Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure did just that. And the crucial moment in the game came with 20 minutes left when a tired Mousa Dembele lost track of Hughes and had to pull him back, conceding a needless free-kick. Jose Holebas curled the ball onto Troy Deeney’s head and Watford were level.
The whole performance – and the three that preceded it in the Premier League – make Hughes one of the in-form English midfielders in the Premier League. And performances like this will only lead to more calls – justified on this evidence – for him to be part of Gareth Southgate’s senior set-up.
Because it was obvious to everyone who watched England in Russia that the one player they most missed was a creative midfielder. Someone to help them to keep the ball, or to play that incisive pass, to create the open-play chances that England never managed to make. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard are both dangerous, instinctive players with a gift for arriving in the box at the right time, but ultimately they are too similar to give England any midfield balance.
That is why England need a more technical option, why Southgate has been such a fan of Adam Lallana, and why he was so disappointed not to be able to take Lallana to Russia. But Lallana has not been a regular for Liverpool so far this season, while Southgate now has two younger players who are featuring for this sides as alternatives instead. Leicester City have James Maddison, who has shone with his confidence, his competitiveness and his desire to get on the ball and try things so far.
Hughes' importance to Watford's hopes this season is fully appreciated by his teammates (PA)
Southgate has said that this international break has come around too soon for some highly-rated young players. But if Maddison and Hughes continue to play like this for their clubs, showing natural technical skill honed in the lower leagues, then surely those two deserve their senior chance before long. It is hard to imagine England will be any better off against Spain and Switzerland this month for not having Hughes and Maddison in their squad. England are not blessed with enough players this skilful, this clever, this good, for these two not to be picked.