The Little Engine That Could
The summer of 2016 was an optimistic one for the Goodison faithful. Roberto Martinez’s reign as Everton manager had ended with a whimper that May, much to the delight of the fans, and in came European Cup winner and ex-Barca ‘Dream Team’ member Ronald Koeman, freshly poached from Southampton. Alongside Koeman came Steve Walsh, chief scout for Leicester during their famous Premier League winning season, responsible for unearthing the talents of Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante. Together with the recent takeover of Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri, it felt as though Everton could finally take on, or at least match, the financial powerhouses of the Top 6.
And whilst the partnership of Koeman & Walsh wouldn’t live up to the hype expected (which will be saved for another article, because that’s a whole other can of worms), that summer proved to be a successful one of recruitment. Maarten Stekelenberg arrived from Fulham to replace the recently transferred Tim Howard, Yannick Bolasie made the switch to Royal Blue from Crystal Palace and, pre-ACL injury, had actually formed an effective and dangerous partnership on the wing supplying Romelu Lukaku, and future line leader Dominic Calvert-Lewin transferred from Sheffield United and saw a decent number of minutes coming off the bench and playing as a right-winger.
The most successful transfer of that summer however was that of Idrissa Gana Gueye. Signed from Aston Villa on August 2nd for £7.1million, eyebrows were initially raised. Questions of his quality had been asked since Aston Villa had been relegated the previous season, however, looking at his stats, Gueye proved to be an astute defensive midfielder in-spite of his teams performances. Gueye recorded the second most tackles that season with 144, coming only second to the world’s current best CDM N’Golo Kante, and was head and shoulders above the rest, the next closest being Lucas Leiva with 108. That season he averaged 4 interceptions per game, 0.1 fewer than Kante, showing a high level of positional awareness, and was dribbled past on average 0.9 times per game, less than Kante (1.6 times per game), Fernandinho (1.8 times per game) and Leiva (1.4 times per game). Relegated or not, it was clear that Gueye was a player more than capable of playing in the Premier League and had possibly flown under the radar of the Premier League’s bigger teams given Villa’s performances.
The Pivotal Pivot
Since his signing that summer, Gueye has been absolutely pivotal in Everton’s central midfield, being favoured by each Everton manager over the last 3 years, and has very rarely been dropped, playing in 33 games in each of his three seasons here. Whilst not usually contributing much in the way of goals or assists, his involvement in build up play can not be understated. With a successful pass completion rate of 85.1% over the last 3 seasons, and an average of 52.5 passes per game over the same time period, Gueye is more than just a destroyer and disrupter of play, and actively looks to contribute during transitional and build up play. His assist for Dominic Calvert-Lewin against Cardiff in Feb 2019 is a good example of his ability to both beat a man and find a successful pass, this one ultimately threading Calvert-Lewin through and leading to his goal.
For an idea of how good Gueye has been for us, see the below comparison between him, N’Golo Kante and Wilfried N’Didi over the last three years, two players of a similar nature who play in the same role.
||Idrissa Gueye||N’Golo Kante||Wilfred Ndidi|
|Tackles Per 90 mins||3.97||3||4|
|Interceptions Per 90||2.2||2.03||1.93|
|Blocked Shots Per 90||0.27||0.13||0.27|
|Dribbled Past Per 90||1.4||1.4||1.76|
|Clearances Per 90||1.27||0.9||2.73|
|Passes Per 90||52.5||60||47.9|
|Pass Success Rate||85.1%||88.67%||77.3%|
*All data taken from WhoScored.com
What can be taken from the data above, is how closely Gueye and Kante can be compared, despite the latter earning plaudits for his title winning season at Leicester and being purchased by Chelsea, there’s really not much separating the two. It should be noted however that last season under Maurizio Sarri, Kante played in more of an attacking midfield role, as opposed to his usual CDM position, possibly contributing to his lower ‘Blocked Shots’ and ‘Clearances’ statistics. Ndidi, whilst having a much lower pass success rate and looking to be more easily dribbled past, is only 22 years old, and will have plenty of time to mature and learn.
In an Everton team that ranked 15th out of 20 overall last season for goals scored, Gueye’s defensive contributions can’t be overlooked. Whilst the centre back pairing of Michael Keane and Kurt Zouma was somewhat of a wall last season, without the destructive play of Gueye sitting in front of them, it’s arguable that our goals conceded would have far outweighed our goals scored. Everton conceded 14.2 shots per game last season, the sixth highest in the league, and without Gueye, that could have been considerably higher.
It is worth noting that in the 5 matches that Gueye did not feature in last season, Everton only picked up 4 points, a win and a draw both against the Huddersfield, conceding 13 goals and only keeping one clean sheet in the away fixture against Huddersfield. In the 33 games featuring Gueye, Everton conceded 33 goals, 1 per game, however without the CDM, this more than doubled to 2.6 goals per game. To put it simply, Everton concede far fewer goals when Idrissa Gana Gueye plays, and that can’t be stressed enough.
It came as no surprise then, after two and a half impressive seasons at Everton, that a top team would eventually come sniffing around the central midfielder. That team would eventually be PSG, who registered their interest with a £25million bid, in January of 2019. The bid was ultimately rejected, with the board declaring that Gueye was absolutely not for sale and was key to Marco Silva’s plans for the immediate future. Even after Gueye submitted a transfer request to the club, Everton stood firm and remained adamant that the player was not for sale, thus securing Gueye until at least the end of the season.
In a situation which could be compared to that of Ademola Lookman’s, after his transfer request was denied, it was almost expected that Gueye’s performances would drop off. That however has not been the case, with the past six months showing Gueye to be a true professional, and if anything, his performances have elevated during this time. A fine end to the season, as well as helping Senegal to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring the winning goal in the quarter-finals against Benin, has made his inevitable departure this summer, whilst still guttering, much less bitter than that of Lookman’s. It’s understandable that at the age of 29, as Gueye comes into the back end of his career at his prime, he wants to play in the Champions League and win trophies at a domestic level. With Everton still being a work in progress, now under the stewardship of Marco Silva and Marcel Brands, it’s feasible that Gueye won’t get that opportunity during his career if he were to stay here.
PSG renewed their interest in Gueye this summer and at the time of writing this piece, have tabled a £28million bid, which has reportedly been accepted, however Everton are currently attempting to find a replacement for Gueye before the transfer is completed. So, with that in mind, let’s have a look at some potential replacements that we’ve been linked to, and that I have picked out.
Filling The Void
I’ve compiled the below statistics of a few players from last season that I think would be worth considering for Gueye’s replacement. Obviously, Gueye has established himself as an elite CDM, so comparatively speaking a number of the players won’t be clocking the same numbers. However, understanding Brands’ policy of signing younger players with an intent to develop them into future top-level talents, I’ve taken age and potential as a main factor:
||Jean Philippe Gbamin||Wilfred Ndidi||Lucas Tousart||Yves Bissouma||
||Idrissa Gana Gueye|
|Club||Mainz 05||Leicester City||Lyon||Brighton||
|Appearances||30 (1)||37 (1)||20 (10)||17 (11)||
|Tackles Per 90 mins||1.6||3.8||2.5||2.2||
|Interceptions Per 90||1||2.2||0.9||1.2||
|Blocked Shots Per 90||0.2||0.2||0.4||0.2||
|Dribbled Past Per 90||0.9||1.3||1.1||0.6||
|Clearances Per 90||0.9||2.1||0.7||0.9||
|Passes Per 90||43||52.2||32.6||25.5||
|Pass Success Rate||80.4%||79.9%||87.3%||81.8%||
*All stats taken from WhoScored.com
Jean Philippe Gbamin
Seemingly Everton’s number one priority as Gueye’s replacement, having been heavily linked over the last two to three weeks, the Mainz defensive midfielder would be a direct like-for-like replacement. A quick YouTube search shows an astute and solid CDM, always looking to disrupt opposition play, using his impressive strength and speed when needed. Gbamin looks comfortable on the ball too, always turning when receiving the ball and looking to play it forward. However, as of the comparisons above, he may not necessarily be the best option available, being outperformed in all areas, and as the second most expensive player above, is he worth the money he’s valued at? I, obviously, am not a professional scout, so if Gbamin is the player that Brands and Silva are willing to put their trust into, then so am I.
I won’t go into too much detail since we’ve already analysed Ndidi against Kante and Gueye in this article, however it should be noted that he is the most like-for-like replacement on the market today. Justifiably the most expensive player in the above comparison, Wilfred Ndidi has bags of Premier League experience at the young age of 22, establishing him as Leicester’s starting CDM over the last three seasons. The acquisition of Ndidi’s services would not only benefit Everton for future seasons to come, but his potential development could see him becoming one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, best defensive midfielders, leading to a sizeable re-sale profit should the likes of Barcelona or Juventus eventually become interested. The question is however, would Leicester sell one of their better players to a team in a relatively similar position to them; looking to break into the top 6? It’s unlikely, and if they were, it’s fair to assume they’d be looking for much more than £31million.
The France U21 international is another player Everton have been linked with since the news broke Gueye’s impending transfer to PSG. Another young talent who has established himself as a regular starter in an impressively talented Lyon side, notorious for spotting and developing younger players before selling them on for good profits, Michael Essien, Miralem Pjanič and Karim Benzema to name a few. The stats above show the player to be defensively astute, blocking the most shots per game out of the the four comparisons whilst also being dribbled pass less than our own Idrissa Gana Gueye. During build up play, Tousart looks to have a keen eye for a pass, also having the highest pass success percentage, again, bettering Gueye, a skill which is a huge factor to be considered given Marco Silva’s patient, building-from-the-back style of possession-based football. Tifo Football reported in their 2018 video “Everton Under Marco Silva | Tactics Explained” that Silva’s favoured formation would be a 4-3-3, however he spent the majority of last season employing a 4-2-3-1, possibly due to “not having the confidence in his current central midfielders to play as a deep lying, play making defensive midfielder”. Lucas Tousart might just be the answer to that problem, and at the price of £18million, would be a smart and sensible purchase.
Not a traditional CDM, is Yves Bissouma, however I thought him still worthy of mention as a potential replacement. Signed by Brighton on July 17th, 2018, Bissouma was a ray of hope in an otherwise dreary season for the Seagulls. Drawing comparisons to Paul Pogba due to his strength, speed, and style of play, Bissouma operates more as a box-to-box midfielder, and has himself admitted that he needs to improve on the defensive aspect of his game. However, having already had a year in the Premier League, his statistics show a player of considerable talent already, even at the age of 22. He made an impressive 2.2 tackles per game, made the second most interceptions per game out of the above comparisons, and was only dribbled past 0.6 times per 90minutes on average, bearing in mind Brighton spent the majority of their games last season without the ball. This could be considered as a potential contributing factor to his low number of Passes per 90minutes. Whilst he may not a traditional CDM, Bissouma is a talented young midfielder who could potentially play anywhere across the middle of the park, and with the correct development, could go on to be one of the better players in the Premier League over the next few years, if the hype is to be believed. He also comes with the best song in English football, the Champs 1958 song “Tequila”, only with his surname replacing the titular word, that’s enough for me to want him in the Royal Blue.
It’s inevitable now that Idrissa Gana Gueye will leave Everton, he’s recently been spotted arriving at Paris Airport, presumably to complete his medical at PSG, which means it is absolutely imperative that Everton find a replacement for him as soon as possible. Whoever it is that comes in to fill that void, whether it be one of the above mentioned players, or someone else, they’re going to have very big shoes to fill, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they aren’t an immediate success. However, I have faith in Brands and our Marco, and I’m confident that they’ll make the correct decision, I just hope the rest of Goodison is as well.
During the ups and downs of the last three seasons (and let’s be honest, there’s been more downs than ups), Gueye has been one of the most consistent, hard working and professional players we’ve had, and has genuinely got us out of trouble through a number of his performances. When his transfer request was denied in January he didn’t let his performance levels dip, he maintained and improved during the back end of the season, further earning his big money move to PSG. It’s hard to see him go, and he’ll be harder to replace, but he deserves to play for a club at the highest level, and I’ll never be bitter about that.
Ciao Idrissa, ciao.