Idrissa Gueye has been the ideal foil for the high pressing game that Marco Silva has instituted at Everton this season; a key factor in what has been a remarkable run of defensive form since early February, especially at Goodison Park, and a platform from which the manager can build for next season. But can the club keep him?
There was a fascinating article in the Irish Times the other week by Ken Early in which he observed just how much the English game has changed over the past decade or so; from one still adhering to a more traditional style back then to one now revolutionised at the top level by possession-based football and the art of the high press.
Early begins the piece by describing one passage of play in Liverpool’s recent 5-0 demolition of Huddersfield, one in which the reds’ orchestrated gegenpressing strategy snookered their opponents in their attempts to play out from the back — itself a tactic that has become much more prevalent in England’s top division — and ultimately led to the game’s first goal.
He also spells out how Manchester City’s devastating movement and cycling of the ball can tie their opponents in knots, the ultimate expression of “system football”, and the huge increase in the number of passes in Premier League games, particularly by the best teams, compared with a decade ago.
According to the stats Early presents, teams passed the ball 358 times per game on average in 2007-08 whereas last season the average was 453; a 25% increase at nearly 100 passes more per game, per team. City’s average in 2007-08 was “a full 50 per cent more than the best passing team of 10 years ago”.
The rise of system football means that the English league today has less broken play, and more periods of controlled possession. In 2008, Premier League teams averaged almost 24 tackles per game. By 2017-18 the average number of tackles had dropped by almost a third, to just over 16 per game. Huddersfield Town topped the tackle table in 2017-18, with 744.
That led Early to reference the recent exchange between Roy Keane and Gary Neville on Sky Sports following the Manchester derby in which the former, in typically forthright fashion, lambasted United’s players for not closing the ball down and attacking the player with it.
“There is a seductive simplicity about the notion,” Early wrote, “that it’s all about character and desire: desire to get to the ball, to make the tackle, to block the shot. But this ignores how the game has changed over the last few years. There’s still only one ball – but that ball is a lot more elusive than it was in Roy Keane’s day.”
Which brings into sharp focus the brilliance and importance of Idrissa Gana Gueye, a player who perhaps more than any other embodies a counter-weight to this evolution in the English game and who seems moreover to defy simple biology. For if it were revealed that the Senegal international was the subject of a scientific experiment to surreptitiously deploy the first bionic footballer into the Premier League, would any Evertonian be all that surprised?
A look at the top tackling midfielders across Europe’s top leagues reveals that Gueye stands out on his own as the best-performing player in terms of this metric averaging 4.3 tackles per game — three players, Leicester’s Wilfred Indidi, Bordeaux’s Otávio, and Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka are clustered behind him on 3.8 — and no one connected with Everton would be surprised to learn that. Gylfi Sigurdsson may cover more miles per game simply due to his more attacking role but Gueye is so often the disruptor in front of the back four, shutting down opposition attacks and tackling anything that moves in an opposition jersey.
As such, the former Lille and Aston Villa man is the ideal foil for the high pressing game that Marco Silva has instituted at Everton this season; a key factor in what has been a remarkable run of defensive form since early February, especially at Goodison Park, and a platform from which the manager can launch a genuine tilt at the top six and, perhaps, top four next term.
That’s if — and it is a big if — Gueye is still with the Blues come August. Serious interest from Paris St Germain during the most recent January transfer window almost paved the way out of Goodison for Gueye and it’s possible that with the season in what felt at the time like ruins following the debacle at Millwall and Everton’s exit from the FA Cup, he would have left had the French side met the asking price.
Gueye himself made no secret of his desire to make what he described as a “dream move” and the chances are PSG will be back this summer to revisit a deal. In the meantime, to his enormous credit and adding to the complexity of the situation, the 29-year-old has been in sparkling form. For those Evertonians who could make peace with letting go a player whose distribution at times could be suspect and who will be 30 later this year for a decent fee, they now have someone who has used the postponement (and even potential collapse) of his dream to spur him to new heights of consistency.
Since being told by Silva and Marcel Brands that he couldn’t leave in January because he was too important — and while others voiced their doubts that he was even worthy of PSG — Idrissa Gueye has gone about proving Everton’s case while also looking every inch a player capable of gracing the Champions League for the Parisian giants. He has matched or surpassed the defensive-midfield levels he had already established since arriving for a bargain £7.1m in 2016 with a string of excellent performances in recent weeks while significantly improving his passing. As if to illustrate his linchpin status, in Gueye’s absence in the home defeat against Wolves in February, Everton’s midfield was overrun by Nuno Espirito Santo’s well-oiled side. While the loss to Manchester City which he also missed was rather more routine, it’s perhaps no accident that Silva’s team haven’t lost at home since Gueye returned from injury.
That leaves the Blues with something of a conundrum. Gueye will be turning 30 in September but his energy, health and vitality continue to defy the intensity and demands of the Premier League and he is as vital to the way Everton currently play as anyone in the side. His ability to cover every blade of grass across the middle section of the pitch provides excellent protection to the back four and his disruption of opposition attacks allows the Blues to pivot in transition and catch teams on the counter-attack at the other end.
On the flip side, there is no telling when Gueye’s impressive powers will start to wane. He will have three years left on his contract when the 2019-20 season kicks off so there is little urgency on Everton’s part to cash in on him unless they feel he might have peaked but there is the open question of how Gueye might respond if he is denied a move to Paris a second time. Will he feel that the clock is ticking on his chance to play for a top Champions League club and would the hierarchy want to stand in his way?
No one is truly irreplaceable but some players come close to it — Gueye may not ever attain Ngolo Kanté’s genuine all-round abilities (his shooting leaves a lot to be desired and he isn’t the kind to play many defence-splitting balls) — but he is a rare breed nonetheless and while his departure would only be sanctioned for a large fee that could be reinvested in quality, he would be hard to replace like-for-like. Silva won’t want to lose the Senegalese and he will surely make that case to Gueye over the summer in the hope that he has seen enough progress under the Portuguese to believe that he could achieve his Champions League ambitions at Everton.
Ultimately, it could come down to a human decision — how badly will the player want any revived transfer to Paris this summer and to what lengths do Silva and Brands go to dig their heels in and insist he stay? Has enough progress been made over the final third of the season to make Gueye feel as though it really would be worth his while to stick around for an another season at least? Or does he feel like this would be his last chance to play Champions League football and would a massive bump in pay at Goodison sway this thinking?
We’ll find out soon enough but there aren’t many players in the current Everton squad whose departure would leave you with the question: now what?