Some said he was overpriced. Others argued he’d struggle to settle. Still more suggested better alternatives were available. In the current market, what can £18.5m buy you? It does not guarantee match-winning quality. Watford have learned the hard way after acquiring Andre Gray’s services last summer.
About to enter the final year of his contract with Burnley, Gray rejected a new deal and made the lucrative switch to Hertfordshire in what was perceived to be an upgrade. May is almost upon us. Despite a promising start to the campaign under former boss Marco Silva, Watford find themselves a whopping 16 points behind Sean Dyche’s side. The Clarets sit comfortably in 7th and have qualified for next season’s UEFA Europa League. Gray must be pondering his luck.
With four goals and three assists in 28 Premier League matches this term, Gray’s stats in the final third don’t make for impressive reading. A year ago, Gray netted eight and created two more by this point in the campaign. Among other issues that kept him off the pitch, he missed four games to suspension.
Gray can be a difficult proposition for defenders to handle. He utilises his acceleration and physical attributes to evade or overpower markers. Perhaps this is why his efforts were much more appreciated at Turf Moor where the forward benefitted from tireless off-the-ball running. In possession, he was a primary source for goals.
The same cannot be said at Vicarage Road. The Hornets have a handful of players who can create scoring opportunities but not many who can finish. Abdoulaye Doucoure has been the club’s best this season, from a holding midfield role. He’s created 38 scoring chances. Richarlison on 26, Roberto Pereyra with 21, André Carrillo’s 20, and late arrival Gerard Deulofeu’s ten complete the primary contributors but, from well more than a hundred chances, Watford have only 42 goals.
All Gray’s strikes have come when he’s being deployed as the lone striker, predominantly in a 4-3-3 formation with wingers either side providing width. Previously, he would combine well alongside an attacking partner. He’s had to wait patiently and work hard from the front to fashion half-chances for himself in Hertfordshire.
Watford’s style does not compliment Gray’s strengths. It is both a gamble and long-term process for the player to acclimate to the new system. But even with that in mind, Gray is a scorer. He was brought into the side to finish. So, you can understand the frustration behind him squandering big chances. Despite clocking less than 1,500 Premier League minutes, he’s already missed six clear opportunities.
Since netting twice in two games against Manchester City and Southampton in January, Gray has not started a league fixture. He remains an unused substitute in six of their last eight outings. Brief cameo appearances aren’t the easiest way to make a match-defining contribution, although some players thrive in that environment.
Gray is not Olivier Giroud or even Jesse Lingard, however. More hesitant to take risks in an unfamiliar situation, Gray doesn’t run at defenders with the same intensity and purpose of seasons past. Cautious and keen to avoid needless mistakes, given just how unforgiving supporters can be, Gray’s confidence has withered.
Javi Gracia remains unsure about Gray’s long-term future at the club. He cannot guarantee him regular first-team minutes going forward.
“We will see at the end of the season if he prefers to change club, because he needs to play more and we can speak about it. In this moment, I will say I am very happy with him even if he is playing less minutes than others – I’m happy with his behaviour and attitude.”
Gray turns 27 in June. He likens himself to Jamie Vardy, given both forwards began their professional careers relatively late, after working through the non-league ranks. That journey at least taught Gray patience and perseverance. If he stays to fight for his place, it may pay off. Stefano Okaka has been disappointing.Troy Deeney continues to divide opinion. Jerome Sinclair is too raw. Opportunity exists for Gray to prove his critics wrong if he embraces the challenge.
Every player wants to feature regularly. Gray must know he could and probably should have done more this season. He certainly is capable. As his manager has said, the future is in his hands.