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Watford tend to do things their own way. It should come as little surprise they’ve made Le Havre midfielder Pape Gueye their first summer signing despite the global pandemic.
Quite when the 21-year-old will move to Hertfordshire or what division the Hornets will be in next year is anyone's guess. At a time when COVID-19's impact on football is still being felt, Watford have defied the odds. Again.
Clearly Watford think they have unearthed a gem. Few clubs – if any – of their size and reputation have such a sophisticated and wide-ranging global scouting network. By striking a pre-contract agreement with defensive midfielder Gueye, the Hornets have stolen a march on any other interested parties to secure their man.
The last major signing Watford secured from across the Channel saw Abdoulaye Doucouré join from Rennes in January 2016. The rangy midfielder has become the driving force in the Hornets’ midfield and if Gueye has anything like that level of success, he will prove a bargain.
Who is Pape Gueye?
Born in Montreuil in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, Gueye signed for Le Havre in 2012 as a 13-year-old.
The oldest club in France, Le Havre have a history of investing in their youth programme, producing stars past and present including Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, Benjamin Mendy, Ferland Mendy, Dimitri Payet, Steve Mandanda, Ibrahim Ba, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Lassana Diarra and Vikash Dhorasoo.
Gueye signed his first professional deal with Le Club Doyen in June 2017, a month after debuting in Ligue 2 against Chamois Niortais in a goalless draw towards the end of the 2016/17 campaign.
Gueye bounced between Le Havre’s first team and second string until last season when he stepped up to play 12 times in Ligue 2. 2019/20 was his breakthrough year, though, making 25 league appearances and captaining the side on a number of occasions despite being only 21.
Interest in Gueye has been rife for some time. A year ago, Watford were joined by Leicester City and West Ham United in monitoring the 6ft 2in defensive midfielder. More recently, Arsenal, Lyon, Milan, Sevilla and Udinese have joined Gueye’s growing list of admirers.
But it’s Watford who have beaten them all to the punch, tying Gueye to a five-and-a-half-year deal effective from July 1.
Strengths and weaknesses
The oft-repeated but never substantiated claim is he’s a cross between N’Golo Kanté and Pogba. Which makes a nice headline, in fairness. The lazy comparison to make would be with soon-to-be Hornets team-mate Doucouré. And while the pair occupy similar positions in front of the back four, they perform different roles.
An unsurprisingly dominant physical force given his size, Gueye plays off his left foot and his impressive range of passing is immediately his most noticeable attribute. Picking the ball up in deep areas, he is quick to get his head up and pick out the runs of team-mates further up the field.
Per 90, Gueye has averaged 43.65 passes this term, finding a team-mate with 81.7 per cent. Of those, 6.71 are considered long passes with an accuracy of 59.6 per cent. His range of passing is arguably better than Doucouré’s. The Watford No.16 tends to pick the ball up off the back four and play short passes to get things moving. In fact, it’s typically countryman Étienne Capoue who sprays the ball around for fun.
In the still below, taken from Le Havre’s 2-1 defeat to US Orléans earlier this year, Gueye demonstrates his awareness and passing ability in one move. He’s already scanned the field before the ball makes its way to him, then sweeps it out to the right and a team-mate barely in shot when he receives possession.
Going further back, to a 1-1 draw against Chambly in December, Gueye showed the variety to his passing by splitting two defenders (circled in blue) to find the run of a team-mate and put the visitors on the back foot.
As well as being an intelligent user of the ball, Gueye is good at breaking up play. He reads the game well, meaning his positioning regularly puts him in place to break up opposition moves and pick off passes.
This season in Ligue 2 he’s averagung 5.14 interceptions per 90, recovering the ball an average of 10.13 times in the opposition half while winning 55.1 per cent of the 6.91 defensive duels he contests.
Where does Gueye fit in at Watford?
The Hornets are well-stocked in central midfield. The aforementioned Capoue and Doucouré have been mainstays under Nigel Pearson, Quique Sánchez Flores and Javi Gracia. Will Hughes, Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley, Domingos Quina and Tom Dele-Bashiru ensure there is depth and variety.
Perhaps, the answer is that Watford are preparing for life without Doucouré. The 27-year-old was the subject of at least one offer from Everton last summer and has previously been linked with Liverpool, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain.
Nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that Gueye won’t be considered a first-team regular upon his arrival at Vicarage Road. Watford have a plethora of youngsters out on loan across the continent at various stages of their development.
Some return to WD18 – like Doucouré after a half-season loan at Granada, previously owned by the Pozzos. Adalberto Peñaranda, meanwhile, is a veteran of the Pozzo family’s loan policy and is now taking in his fourth temporary stop since signing along with Doucouré in 2016.
The reality hinges on something no-one knows: whether Watford will be a Premier League or Championship side next season. If they are unable to beat the drop it’s hard to imagine Doucouré coming on the magical mystery tour that is England’s second tier. Gueye could then succeed his countryman at the base of midfield.
Even if Watford secure their Premier League status, it’s equally conceivable the midfielder leaves the Hornets for bigger things. Gueye would be the natural successor.
But it’s almost irrelevant. The Pozzos sign good players first and foremost then park them where they’re needed most: either Watford or Udinese. Gueye is a good player – the rest can wait.