Player Zone: Why Chelsea, not Arsenal, should be eyeing up Watford’s Doucoure

As one of the driving forces behind Watford’s impressive 2017/18 campaign, which has seen them score the second-most goals of any team outside the top six and push strongly for a top-half finish, Abdoulaye Doucoure looks ready to take the next step in his career at the age of 25 – and the powerful Frenchman certainly isn’t shy about it.

As quoted by Sky Sports, he recently confirmed to Telefoot that Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are all keen on acquiring his services.

“It’s true that these clubs are interested in me. But I am at Watford and my focus is on finishing the season well and to maintain their Premier League status. After, when the club and I make the decision to make the next step, then that will have to be agreed but, for now, I am focused on Watford.”

Links with Liverpool and Arsenal particularly are of little surprise. Doucoure started the season by netting against the Reds in a 3-3 draw at Vicarage Road, while he was one of the key components in Watford recording a surprise win over the Gunners back in October. But in some ways, there’s a misunderstanding over the kind of midfielder Doucoure actually is, which is why another club on the receiving end of the Watford star’s abilities this season – Chelsea, who he’s bagged one goal and two assists against in the Premier League – should be looking to hijack the alleged pursuits of their divisional rivals.

6 foot tall, athletic, powerful and strong in the tackle, there’s an understandable assumption that Doucoure can be the holding midfielder Arsenal desperately lack. He’d certainly inject some much-needed physicality into their engine room, but to play him at the base would bet to alter Doucoure’s game somewhat. And if there’s one thing the Gunners don’t need, it’s another midfielder trying to impersonate an enforcer in the same way as Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny. Their team is crying out for a real master of the trade – someone who has already demonstrated the required discipline, defensive awareness and economical passing game.

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Perhaps Doucoure can be tailored into that kind of midfielder, but at this moment in time he doesn’t fall so neatly into the defensive midfield role. While he’s averaged a solid 2.3 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per match this season, his influence has been greater when using his physicality to dynamically burst forward as well.

That’s not only evident in the former Rennes man’s output – seven goals and two assists – but also in his averages. Those aforementioned defensive returns are juxtaposed by 1.5 shots, 1.2 created chances and 1.1 successful dribbles per match – a side of the game the deepest-lying midfielder shouldn’t be so involved in, especially at a club like Arsenal where there are more potent offensive threats further forward.

Indeed, Doucoure is much more of a box-to-box, which is why he’s instrumentally better-suited to what’s expected from midfielders in Chelsea’s engine room, whether that’s as part of a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. The clear comparison here is with Tiemoue Bakayoko; he was expected to be the dynamic driving force partnering N’Golo Kante, balancing out offensive and defensive demands. While the France international has struggled to meet those requirements since his move from Monaco though, his compatriot has provided a service largely matching them at Watford. What’s more, Doucoure’s best performances this season have come when there’s a three-man defence behind him.

The problem, of course, is that Chelsea have bought three central midfielders in the last two transfer windows – Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley. Likewise, uncertainty over whether Antonio Conte will still be there next season, and accordingly whether Chelsea stick with three at the back, poses another potential stumbling block.

But all three midfielders are yet to prove completely convincing options and none seem capable of mimicking the solidity of Chelsea’s midfield during their title-winning season while providing more mobility and offensive impact than Nemanja Matic. Doucoure strikes that balance and with his contract set to enter its final two years, the right offer could convince Watford to sell this summer.

Transfermarkt value Doucoure at just £10.8million too, which is well within Chelsea’s financial reach, although Watford could easily demand triple that sum for a player in such fine form – especially with so many clubs allegedly interested in a summer swoop. However, it’s clear he’s already considered moving on in the next transfer window, and few midfielders can pass up the chance to partner Kante.