It isn’t the most eclectic CV in modern football. How could it be when Lassana Diarra continues to plot a rare path between superclubs, smaller outfits and whoever happens to be the newest of the nouveau riche in lesser leagues? Yet if Gerard Deulofeu is an inimitable player, his is another idiosyncratic journey: Barcelona B, Barcelona, Everton, Sevilla, Everton, AC Milan, Barcelona, Watford.
To do all that by 23 suggests that, if he plays for another dozen years, he could compile a career path that will be impossible to emulate. In July, a unique feat is possible: it would be utterly incongruous if Deulofeu becomes a World Cup winner with Spain when his most recent club appearances came on loan for Watford. In the meantime, he can join Luther Blissett and Filippo Galli in a select group to have represented both Watford and AC Milan. If the trio have few common denominators, Deulofeu’s appeal in part lies because he is so different.
An individualist in a team sport, a dribbler in a generation of passers, a product of La Masia who, in some ways, is a curiously anti-Barcelona player, doing things that definitive Nou Camp footballers like Xavi can’t but not what they can, he is an entertainer who fails the tests of pragmatism. His career statistics are unexceptional, but his displays can be captivating. He can require a ball of his own, run up blind alleys with dextrous control and considerable speed, take the wrong option and frustrate team-mates. He can also be superb.
Which can be forgotten. There is a temptation to ignore the highlights of Roberto Martinez’s spell at Everton, particularly the final two seasons, particularly where it concerns players – and this is category that also includes Ross Barkley – who are simplistically damned for failing to realise their potential. Deulofeu was a terrific substitute in his fellow Spaniard’s first year at Goodison Park. Returning after a season in Sevilla, he illuminated the early stages of the 2015-16 campaign and, if his decision-making was imperfect, he nonetheless provided a series of assists; his ability to commit defenders and thus free up space for others was a reason why he set up 12 of Romelu Lukaku’s goals.
Ronald Koeman marginalised him, something rendered stranger because he had bought Yannick Bolasie, another exuberant dribbler criticised for his lack of goals. And yet Deulofeu started last season as an unconventional striker, embarking on manic solo runs from deep. It made for terrific viewing.
It was only ever a short-term ploy, but most things with Deulofeu are: he has rarely started consistently anywhere apart from AC Milan. The unpredictability that can render him a dangerous replacement, ready to torment tiring defenders, may count against him. The talent that makes top teams sign him plunges him into competition for places with more reliable performers.
He could seem a luxury player, but there is a logic to parachuting him into a relegation battle. A capacity to conjure something out of nothing and a willingness to take on an entire defence single-handedly could allow the majority of a team to retain a defensive structure while he forages comparatively alone.
If recent weeks have highlighted valid criticism of Watford’s owners, his arrival illustrates the benefits. The high turnover of managers and revolving-door recruitment policy have left Watford shorn of identity; perhaps it creates a distance from the fans and contributes to the number of no-show performances.
Yet it is to the eminently well-connected Pozzos’ credit that no club of Watford’s size boasts such a gifted creative contingent. Richarlison, Roberto Pereyra, Andre Carrillo and now Deulofeu – even if undermined slightly when the striker is the more prosaic Troy Deeney or Andre Gray – comprise a genuinely exciting quartet.
Perhaps the best thing Javi Gracia could do is to liberate Deulofeu, to give him a licence to run and roam in the belief that extreme pace and skill, coupled with a fearlessness, could bring a brand of anarchy that, besides being highly watchable, could revive a faltering club and rejuvenate a career that has promised more than it has been allowed to deliver alike. Yet whether or not he does, neither joining Watford nor a loan spell suggest permanence. A king of stepovers may continue club-hopping to ever less likely destinations.