Slotting away the third and decisive goal at Newcastle on Saturday, his second for the club, Andre Gray immediately circled the goal and held his ears to the Watford fans located some miles above the pitch, fixing them with a steely death stare.
This was a response to the by-no-means universal but vocal derision of his contribution on the pitch, those that groan when the ball bounces off him, that squeal when he pings a chance past the near post and froth when he fails to pick a pass through a forest of defenders. Those that are so desperate for something to be wrong with this Watford season that they have picked him out as the weak link.
Sit a while with me (it’ll be about three minutes) and let me tell you why he is right and they (you?) are wrong.
While his summer move may not have been negatively received, Gray came with a number of built-in fail safes to incite those looking for excuses to criticise: The price tag, breaking Watford’s record by a fair heft; the Luton background, perhaps not much of an issue nowadays as we’ve left them at the other end of the Yellow Brick Road; and his past social media indiscretions, for which he has repeatedly plead contrition, and who am I to disbelieve him?
He was, indeed, the kind of striker that we had been missing. Not since Matej Vydra had a Watford striker been willing and able to play off the shoulder of a defender, bring the space behind the back line into play and force opposing defenders to play something other than what was directly in front of them.
Troy Deeney used to be able to do this to an extent in the Championship, but the step up has brought more wily foes (and perhaps a loss of a yard of pace and ten minutes’ of stamina) that force him into more of a big man box. Last season we were forced to make do with just him and Stefano Okaka – a player with a more expansive game than meets the eye (he was once memorably called ‘a fridge in a Watford shirt’) – but still not a serious speed threat.
And while Odion Ighalo was more mobile, he generally lacked the nous to pick up on the gaps and the speed to exploit them, preferring instead to utilise his scoop, quickly picked up on by Premier League defenders.
Now we have a new ice cream salesman in the shape of Richarlison, who has worked up a great relationship with Gray both on and off the pitch. The added speed and agility provided by these two, and Kiko Femenia on the right, have opened up whole new avenues against sturdy defences.
Now, this may come at the cost of a questionable first touch and the occasional example of profligacy in front of goal, but it also provides, I would argue, the key to progression that Watford sides have been missed for the last two seasons.
A cursory glance at the Newcastle game – in the end an extremely comfortable 3-0 – shows two superb chances fluffed to Ron Jeremy proportions: a left foot shot from a slight angle screwed wider than it started and a right footed effort placed delicately at the foot of Rob Elliot with the whole of the goal to aim at.
Both of these chances had two things in common: a) Gray had literally geological eras of time to pick his shot and b) both were created by runs from around, or in one cast beyond, the halfway line. The finishes weren’t ideal, but with any of our other strikers on the pitch (Richarlison notwithstanding) they simply wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Two more times, with the ball bouncing around the box Gray got in the way of better chances for teammates, once Will Hughes and once Tom Cleverley, who had done all the hard work himself. Again, not ideal, but when the ball is loose, I’d rather my strikers were around it.
He also scored a good goal.
It is hard to compare Gray’s output with the other strikers in the squad or with previous years, due to a lack of sample size for the others (three starts for Deeney, one glorious one for Okaka) and the fact that the supporting talent is so much better this season than last. But success this season is already looking like it will rely on Richarlison, who, not to get too cereal café on you, has far and away the most Expected Goals per 90 minutes of the squad (0.45, compared to Gray’s 0.35).
Gray has been on the pitch for four of Richarlison’s five goals, and while that doesn’t really mean anything (though he has been on the pitch for only three quarters of Richarlison’s game time), I would posit, eye-test-wise, that Gray’s movement, both vertically and laterally, has opened spaces for the Brazilian Lee Cook that might not have been there with another strike partner.
To throw some more stats at the wall to see if they stick: in Gray’s nine starts, Watford have won six and lost two, scoring 15 goals along the way (1.66 goals a game). On the flipside, we have yet to win when Deeney has started a game, and indeed have lost twice (and before you get all depends who you’re playing on me, one of those was Stoke), scoring a measly 1.33 goals a game. It’s not much, but still.
Gray’s work rate in the opponent’s half, closing down space for them creating space for us, perhaps goes largely unnoticed, but by dragging defenders out of position he provides a bit more room for Richarlison to build up a head of steam, a second more for Kiko to weigh up a cross or that extra yard for Abdoulaye Doucoure to work into on the edge of the box. His turn of pace provides an outlet for Tom Cleverley’s clipped balls over the top, but defenders must also be wary that he’s just as likely to turn the other way and come short for the ball.
I think, going back to those three things that weighed against Gray when he arrived, it’s the price tag that provides the biggest burden. To Watford fans, provincial yokels dining at a gala dinner attended by the opulent inhabitants of historic castles and McMansions, £18 million is an awful lot. You could get 12 Heidar Helgusons for that, or 72 John Eustaces if you really wanted to tighten up.
But transfer fees mean nothing now, with the size and diversity of revenue streams provided for Premier League clubs, figures attached to transfers have become as obsolete as hit points on a Pokemon card – it’s a nice figure to have, but nobody actually plays the game, so it’s all for show. Even in cases like Richarlison, where Watford can reasonably expect to coin in at least £40 million on a summer investment of £11 million within 12 months, the profit pales in comparison with the potential riches accrued through the TV revenue, prize money and marketing that his good performances can bring.
Premier League clubs will pay what they need to in order to improve, and Andre Gray, while maybe not the best at what he does in the league, has improved Watford, that’s all that really matters. The days of a few million pounds being an albatross around the neck of Nathan Ellington are over. Gray’s price tag has long been ripped off and forgotten about by most, and next summer he will be replaced as the club’s record signing, at some untold price inflating quicker than you can say Robert Mugabe.
Andre Gray has not scored many goals, and has missed some other ones. His touch may abandon him at times, and he is, to the great fury of the couple that sits in front of me, not six feet tall. But he is doing well, and will do better. And Watford are good, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.