A year ago, Will Hughes was a 16 year-old kid signing for Derby County as a first-year scholar. Before that, he was a Repton schoolboy, playing for Mickleover Jubilee.
Much has happened since then. He starred in the Rams’ FA Youth Cup win at Arsenal, was called up to play for England U’17s at the 2012 Algarve tournament, has been the subject of a scurrilous Daily Mail article linking him to Manchester City and Manchester United and, in no time at all, has established himself as a member of Derby’s first-team squad.
I first saw Hughes in a youth team win at Liverpool, in which he caught the eye as an all-action, committed midfielder, willing and able to press the ball against a side who had the lion’s share of the possession. Then Tommo went to see the kids play Sheffield United at Pride Park and texted me to ask who the midfielder with the bleached blond hair was, who had such good technique. By the middle of Tom Carroll’s unsuccessful loan spell last season, Tommo was asking what exactly the Spurs teenager could do that Hughes couldn’t.
After his first start for the senior team, against Peterborough United at Pride Park, I wrote that some of Hughes’ passing had ‘gladdened my heart’. Following last week’s pre-season friendly against Sunderland, the Derby Telegraph‘s Steve Nicholson said, “Vision and awareness of what is around you on the pitch are good qualities to have and I cannot recall Hughes giving the ball away.”
Thinking about it, I could only remember one misplaced pass against the Black Cats – an attempted through ball in a crowded penalty area – so I decided to use the ‘full 90’ feature on Rams Player to review the footage and see exactly how Hughes contributed, before he was substituted just after the hour.
Passes completed 42
Passes incomplete 2
Pass completion 95.5%
Cross complete 0
Cross incomplete 1
Took man on 3
Beat his man 3 (100%)
Shots on target 0
Shots off target 1
Tackles won 4
Tackles lost 1
Fouls committed 1
Headers won 1
Headers lost 0
The most important stat here, clearly, is the first one. Hughes found a white shirt almost every time he received the ball. Given that conceding possession is probably the worst sin a footballer can commit on the pitch, his ability to keep us ticking over by selecting the right option and executing the pass accurately could genuinely improve the team.
Hughes shows for the ball and is not afraid to receive it in tight situations. Without being startlingly quick, he is able to trick an opponent with a darting movement and managed to beat his opponent three times. The first time, he was unceremoniously fouled, but the next time, his dribble into the box left a trail of Sunderland defenders unable to lay a glove on him – and one on his backside – before he curled a shot wide.
I would be very surprised if Hughes doesn’t start against Scunthorpe United in the League Cup and there’s every possibility that he has forced his way into the reckoning for the first League encounter of the season too – especially if Jeff Hendrick’s wrist injury turns out to be problematic.
With Hughes now very much a first-team option, Nigel Clough can think about setting up with a midfield three (chosen from Hughes, Bryson, Coutts and Hendrick). With Ward, Jacobs and Robinson or Tyson playing further forward, we would be able to play a good possession and counter-attacking game in that formation, which may come into its own away from home.
Seeing Hughes play so well against Sunderland makes Nigel Clough’s willingness to part with James Bailey a little more understandable. Bailey, however, has played well when he’s been used in the first team friendlies so far and will be a very useful player to have in the squad if he stays.
It’s important not to get carried away on the basis of a pre-season friendly, but the technical attributes Hughes has developed are there for all to see. He will get hustled, harried and, frankly, kicked a lot more in a competitive Championship encounter than he did against Sunderland, but hopefully, he will have the composure to handle it. The early signs are really encouraging and he clearly has the potential to make a real impression this season.
Hughes’ emergence is a credit to Derby’s local scouting network and also to the academy staff who have helped to bring him on. Now that he’s a member of the first-team squad, let’s hope his rapid development continues, because he is a very talented prospect indeed.