Few pundits tipped Everton’s acquisition of Idrissa Gueye for £7.1m to be the signing of the season, but four matches into the new campaign and the Senegalese international is the early front runner.
The former Aston Villa midfielder was one of the outstanding players of 2015/16 despite his side’s horrendous season. The mainstream media largely ignored Gueye’s heroics in favour of analysing the catastrophe in all other areas of the pitch, overlooking his remarkable defensive statistics.
Only N’Golo Kante made more tackles and interceptions than Gueye last season, who amassed 248 in 35 league games. These figures have only improved now that the 26-year-old is playing under Ronald Koeman – a defensively astute tactician capable of getting the best out of his new signing.
At both ends of the pitch, Gueye has been the catalyst for Everton’s unbeaten start to the campaign.
The comparisons between Gueye and Kante are justified. Everton’s defensive midfielder flits around the field with similar omnipresence, reading the game several steps ahead of the opposition and performing the work of two midfielders.
He has already made 23 tackles this season, more than any other Premier League player (5.8 per game). This is the highest average in his career to date, largely because of the excellent double-pivot relationship he has forged with Gareth Barry.
Koeman has instructed these two to largely play simple passes, holding their defensive positions and stunting the counter attack of the opposition before it reaches the back four. It was this style of football that saw Victor Wanyama and Steven Davis excel under the Dutchman’s tutelage.
Everton had the sixth-worst defensive record last season (55 goals conceded) and made the fourth-most defensive errors (26, nine leading to goals), confirming suspicions that Roberto Martinez is unable to organise his defence.
Whilst Koeman would almost certainly have improved on these statistics either way, Gueye’s addition has undoubtedly been the single biggest factor in their resurgence. Everton have only conceded two goals so far this season – the fewest of any Premier League club.
Any Villa fan could have predicted Gueye’s success in defence, but what is more surprising is how effective he has been in helping Everton’s attack.
Firstly, Gueye’s energetic performances have freed Yannick Bolasie and Ross Barkley. Both players benefit from being allowed to roam further forward and abandon their defensive responsibilities, which is only possible with an extremely gifted player at the base of midfield. His burgeoning relationship with Bolasie is not unlike Kante’s with Riyad Mahrez at Leicester last season.
Playing with considerably more gifted attackers than he was at Villa, Gueye has also started contributed more frequently in the final third of the pitch. He is currently averaging 1.5 successful dribbles per match – the highest in his career – and has created six goal-scoring opportunities, including an assist against Sunderland last weekend.
Everton’s 3-0 win at the Stadium of Light was arguably Gueye’s most complete performance since moving to England. He was everywhere, completing 101 passes with 95% accuracy, whilst consistently shutting down Sunderland’s attempts to hit the Toffees on the break.
“He’s fantastic,” Koeman declared. “From the first day that Gana came in he showed what we need in midfield. The energy, how we pressed but also he kept the ball tonight. In every game he was the key player in the team and showed tonight that not only defensively he can be very good but also offensively with the great pass to Romelu Lukaku for the first goal.”
This is only the beginning. Gueye and Barkley should forge a stronger bond as time goes by, with the Englishman perhaps the most underwhelming player so far in 2016/17. There is still a long way to go before Everton are playing like a Koeman team, but this only makes their record of ten points out of a possible 12 all the more exciting.
With Gueye in the team, Everton’s dream of finishing in the top four – currently priced at 6/1 – doesn’t seem so far-fetched.