How Good is Watford's Abdoulaye Doucouré?
Abdoulaye Doucouré is one of the more fascinating players going into the 2018–19 PL season. That might seem weird, given that he played on a Watford side that finished 14th last season with a -20 goal differential. As the big six clubs in the Premier League have separated from everybody else, it’s almost become a badge of honor if players are thought by the general public as the best player not plying their trade at a bigger side. From Riyad Mahrez (now at Manchester City) to Wilfied Zaha (linked with Tottenham among others) to Pascal Gross, there were several candidates that emerged last season.
Doucoure was included on that list. His scoring contribution of 10 combined non-penalty goals and assists along with general capabilities in disrupting play in the middle third made him one of the more hot properties come the end of the season. There have been reports of Watford rejecting offers and with every day that passes, it looks like Doucoure will stay with the club for another season. On the surface, that sounds great because Watford retained the services of someone that did good things for them. On the other hand, a lot of praise being put on Doucoure’s performance doesn’t exactly pass the smell test if you dig a little closer.
Doucoure wouldn’t be the first player to suffer from having a reputation that wasn’t backed up by his statistical resume. In the summer of 2016 both Andre Gomes moving from Valencia to Barcelona and Moussa Sissoko’s move to Tottenham, looked quite bad from a statistical perspective. Doucoure's output makes him a prime candidate to join them in dividing opinion this summer.
People who rate Abdoulaye Doucoure as a player think of him as something of an all action midfielder, an archetype of a player who can turn defense into offense in a blink of an eye. Players who can perform this role are ridiculously valuable, with N’Golo Kante being the preeminent example, and there have been enough glimpses here and there with Doucoure to think he could perhaps do it at a bigger club should that time come.
Doucoure’s ability to hound players in general is quite good, so much so that it makes up for the fact that his possession adjusted tackle and interception numbers aren’t anything to boast at from a central midfielder. He uses his solid mobility to bother opponents and make it uncomfortable to shoot or pass with him in the vicinity. His pressure map shows that he overall provided lots of value as something of a roamer defensively who made it tough on his opponents.
Doucoure's game ability to use his mobility to pressure opponents is something that would likely translate to a bigger club.
The other eye-catching feature of Doucoure's season for Watford was that he contributed 10 non penalty goals this season, which is not an insignificant figure for a player that nominally plays as a defensive midfielder. Being someone who can play that position and can contribute goals is valuable. In particular, Doucoure does a good job of making himself another player that has to be accounted for inside the penalty area with his runs into the box. He also generated the type of shots that one would expect from a deep midfielder, running into the open space near the penalty area that’s been vacated by the defense.
It's possible that with better teammates, would there be more opportunities for those type of shots to happen, and it's possible his shot quality would, on average, be better because of other factors like better spacing. Even with that said, it’s hard to ignore the variance which Doucoure benefited from when it came to his shooting. Unless you're willing to believe that he's so good as a finisher to be nearly two times his xG output, chances are that his goal tally will come down to earth unless he's able to generate better shooting opportunities.
That's the good you get with Doucoure, and it's not as if these aren't valuable traits to have. Having a midfielder with an ability to make runs into the penalty box along with being an active member defensively is something noteworthy. But, the deficiencies of Doucoure's game make his strengths not pop as much as perhaps they could. While Doucoure does have the ability to make incisive runs into the penalty box, his positioning further back during buildup play can leave a lot to be desired. In particular, one thing that was odd when watching Doucoure is that he loves to run back to receive the ball. This in of itself isn't a major problem, and it does partly explain why his xG buildup rate of 0.502 ranks among the 10 best rates for players not in a top six side.
But, his penchant for always moving backwards and at times even being parallel to the teammate in possession of the ball does himself a disservice. Just moving five to 10 yards forward to make it easier on himself and his teammates to receive the ball with space to attack the defense would improve his buildup play. Even though Doucoure may not be an amazing dribbler, he certainly can be enough of a threat and provoke the defense to close him down, which could lead to a disorganized defense. Here's an example from the very beginning of Watford vs Burnley; the ball is passed back to one of the Watford center backs and they have a three against one advantage. There is a lot of space in front of Doucoure and the potential for a third man run to occur and provoke the defense, but he doesn't move forward and it results in a failed long ball and turnover of possession.
Perhaps at other clubs he'll be told to be more aggressive with his positioning, and if that's the case, then this is becomes a moot point, but he could be better in this department. What is undeniably true is that Doucoure profiles as both a conservative passer and one that isn't good when trying to make high level passes, which should be enough of a red flag to warrant skepticism of his worth as a player. He'll show glimpses here and there of decent passing and getting the ball forward to his teammate in stride, but it's just glimpses. At his worst, watching Doucoure pass can be like watching a golfer hacking helplessly from a bunker. It just doesn't look smooth seeing him trying to get the ball out of his feet.
Given the flaws to his game, it's fair to wonder how much could Doucoure help bigger sides if given a prominent role on the first team. With his suspect passing and positional awareness, he doesn’t really fit for where football is at the highest level in both the PL and in European football. One player that I thought of that could serve as a comparison would be Paulinho, someone who performed fairly well at Barcelona last year. With the limitations that Paulinho had in possession, he was used best as someone who could wreak havoc and provide stability with his movements into the penalty box. That's how he ended up producing ridiculously high numbers. Maybe Doucoure could fulfill this role to similar capabilities, but it's hard to find top clubs having that specialized role available. Perhaps this is why we haven't seen a lot of concrete rumors involving Doucoure being linked to bigger clubs as the summer has worn on. At age 25, Doucoure doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a player who has a reservoir of untapped potential to his game, he’s more so a peak age player firmly in the prime years of his career.
There’s enough evidence to suggest that Doucoure is more or less an average PL player that has an inflated reputation that can be attributed to his goal scoring. While his positioning can be erratic, he does make nice runs forward which can help an attack. In addition to that, his work defensively in terms of pressure on-ball is legit. On the other hand, his play during possession is uninspiring, and his shooting in the grand scheme of things can be chalked up to variance more than something that’s sustainable moving forward. Combine that with the fact he doesn’t provide nearly enough equity in terms of driving play from deeper areas of the pitch (Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon is someone who does provide that dimension) to compensate for other possible deficiencies in his game, and it’s hard to come up with an argument other than Doucoure is a player who at around the level of where his talents suggest he should be. There’s nothing wrong with being an average player, but if we’re talking about the best of the best, Doucoure falls short of that standard.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association