Joao Pedro is the Watford forward no one is talking about – yet

·4-min read
Joao Pedro is the Watford forward no one is talking about – yet - GETTY IMAGES
Joao Pedro is the Watford forward no one is talking about – yet - GETTY IMAGES

No one is talking about Joao Pedro. And, for now at least, everyone at Watford wants to keep it that way.

Emmanuel Dennis has now departed. Ismaila Sarr may follow in the coming weeks. But it is the third of last season’s attacking triumvirate that has most potential to be a leading light for years to come.

In Friday night’s slender victory over Burnley, Joao Pedro was not at his best. There were occasional glimmers; a drive into space, Samuel Bastien held off, and then a sumptuous left-to-right ball that Sarr wasted; a burst of pace to charge down Connor Roberts; a cheeky flick to Ken Sema greeted by a Rookery End roar.

Largely though, it was a frustrating evening. Josh Brownhill and Taylor Harwood-Bellis both paid Joao Pedro close attention, allowing him neither space nor time. Burnley had done their homework. But Joao Pedro is only 20 years old. A lad learning his trade in a difficult division. This season should be the making of him.

He is a versatile forward, able to play anywhere across the front line, starting so far under Rob Edwards as the focal point of a three. “He’s best centrally in a trident with two forwards prepared to make runs behind defenders,” explains Roy Hodgson, Watford manager during the second half of last season. “Then he can drop and be a deep-lying target player.”

“Give him freedom to float,” agrees Eduardo Oliviera, who oversaw Joao Pedro in the Fluminense under-17s. “He wants to be part of the game every time. He’s not only good in the box, he’s good at building the game.”

Aged 10, Joao Pedro caught Fluminense eyes as a defensive midfielder, leading to him and mother Flavia Junqueira swapping a comfortable life in Ribeirao Preto for Rio de Janeiro’s harsher surrounds.

A teenage growth spurt stunted his progress, but at under-17 level Joao Pedro flourished. Initially, third-choice striker, Marcos Paulo - now of Atletico Madrid - was promoted and an opening materialised. “I gave him a chance, and he never came out,” recalls Oliviera.

The goals flowed freely, 29 that season, his side fired to the state championship final. Among supposed interest from Liverpool, Manchester City and Barcelona, Watford stepped in. Richarlison had previously trodden the same boards and Joao Pedro was signed in October 2018.

The deal was done ahead of the youth season closing, but Joao Pedro’s head was not for turning: “He said ‘Eduardo, that kind of money is changing my life, but I want more,’” Oliveria tells Telegraph Sport. “I want to beat records. But before that I need to step up and play in the first team for Fluminense’. He reached that goal because he kept his mind focussed on the process.”

Joao Pedro is the Watford forward no one is talking about – yet - PA
Joao Pedro is the Watford forward no one is talking about – yet - PA

Within months Joao Pedro was with the seniors, marking his debut with a headed goal two minutes after his introduction. Then came a spell of seven strikes in 12 days, including a hat-trick on his first start in the Copa Sudamericana against Atletico Nacional.

Finally linking up with Watford in late 2019, the world soon went into lockdown. Joao Pedro hired an English teacher and a personal trainer to move in with him. Initially, then-goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes acted as translator, but Joao Pedro now performs that role for others. And he gained seven kilograms of bulk, helping him adapt to English football’s physicality.

After several brief appearances during Project Restart, Joao Pedro was a mainstay of Watford’s behind-closed-doors Championship promotion (nine goals, two assists). Opening his account with the winner over fierce rivals Luton Town ensured that, whatever came next, his name would be remembered.

Joao Pedro’s first season in the Premier League was a struggle. His team limped to relegation and he was in and out of the starting XI. Days after his step-father Carlos had passed away suddenly, Joao Pedro netted the first of his three top-flight goals, that coming in a 4-1 victory over Manchester United.

He earned Hodgson’s trust though, starting nine of the final 11 league games. “He’s got all the things you are looking for in a forward,” Hodgson said. “He’s very skillful; he’s got a very good technique; he’s got good pace; and is able to run past people with the ball.”

And according to Oliveria: “He has the most important thing: the heart of a player. His focus is unbelievable. You talk to him pre-game and his eyes dilate. He wants to compete.”

That inner steel, the determination to be the best version of himself at everything, will serve Joao Pedro well.