It only took a couple months for everyone to realize what had seemed obvious from the outset: that Gerard Deulofeu had made a big mistake coming back to Barcelona. Despite the Neymar departure and Barça’s subsequent struggles to lock down a replacement opening up an unexpectedly perfect avenue for Deulofeu to sprint his way into a prominent role at Barcelona, by about October it was clear that there was no place for the Catalan winger there. Once and for all, Barça and Deulofeu had to admit to themselves that Deulofeu was neither right for nor good enough to play for his boyhood club.
Thankfully, both parties moved quickly to end the relationship. While Deulofeu doesn’t have the skills required to fit into the current iteration of Barcelona, he’s still talented enough to play and flourish for good teams in the best leagues. So when Barcelona put Deulofeu in the shop window during the January transfer window, many suitors from all over Europe came to gawk and consider taking the 23-year-old home with them. Luckily for him and his sizable following of supporters enamored with his prodigious if unrefined gifts and charmed by his recurrent outbreaks of knuckleheadedness, Deulofeu ended up exactly where he needed to be.
Watford were the club that eventually took Deulofeu from Barcelona, renting him for a half season loan, and giving him an ideal platform for him to further develop and hopefully become the best player he can be. Watford and Deulofeu each offer the other a plethora of things that should prove invaluable in the process of both the club’s and the player’s ascent.
The primary benefit here will be playing time. Gerard needs as much time on the pitch as he can get, and Watford have a starting spot on the right wing just begging to be taken by a player just like Deulofeu. Complementing that is Watford’s aggressive, direct playing style, which is ideal for Deulofeu’s skillset. While the Spaniard didn’t fare all that well with Barcelona’s patient possession play, where his penchant for picking up the ball and darting straight for the touchline to whip in a cross was pretty much the exact opposite of what the team wanted from someone in his position, Watford will give him the freedom and space and responsibility to run at defenders to his heart’s content. And in the Premier League, where the majority of Deulofeu’s best performances have come during his spells with Everton, the speed, dribbling, and crossing that are Deulofeu’s hallmarks are the precise kinds of traits that tend to thrive.
Deulofeu has only been at his new club for about a week and already he’s been thrust straight into the starting lineup—and to fantastic effect. He looked lively in his first match as a Hornet against Stoke, demonstrating with his speed and willingness to run his legs off (more so when sprinting toward the opponent’s goal than in the other direction, though to be fair he’s much more defensively committed than he used to be) just why Watford brought him in. But it was his star performance yesterday against Chelsea that really drove home how ideal this move could prove for him:
Against Chelsea, Deulofeu was everywhere. He won a penalty, scored a goal, completed all four of his attempted dribbles, wreaked havoc with his dashes in between the soft spots of Chelsea’s defense, created four chances for his teammates, and was all around the most dangerous man in yellow during Watford’s surprise 4-1 win over the reigning league champions. The constant threat he posed to all areas of the pitch from his starting position on the inside-right channel was exactly what the club hoped to get when signing him. The freedom to roam and be himself is just what he needed in order to best express himself. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect fit of team, player, and league than Watford bringing Deulofeu back to the Premier League.
Returning to Barcelona was a move Deulofeu probably made more with his heart than his head. In the youth system there he was seen as basically a can’t-miss prospect, the heir to Xavi and Iniesta and Messi and Piqué and Busquets as legitimate world-class talents born and bred in the academy who would go on to become legendary players in the first team. The romance of that idea, of finally becoming the player so many dreamed he could be, must have been too much to resist, even when the Deulofeu that eventually emerged from La Masia wasn’t quite the one anyone predicted he’d be both in style and ability.
(Barça’s own interest in bringing him back was probably more pecuniary. The buyback clause the club had on Deulofeu was always going to be cheaper than what they could sell him for on the open market, even if he didn’t contribute that much to Barcelona this season. Just off the strength of his Watford performances and what those augur for the future there, Barça should make a pretty penny once they sell him for good next summer.)
Fortunately, though, it appears the decision to rejoin Barcelona won’t prove as costly career-wise as it might’ve. Deulofeu has already been liberated once more from his almost non-existent role in Barcelona, and he’s running free in England just as he should be. There’s still more than enough time for him to prove that while he might not be up to snuff for what’s required of a Barcelona player, Deulofeu at his best can still be a star in a team and league that better suit him.