The following article is extracted from Get French Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Get French Football News 100 which focused on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2014 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2014 and published on the 5th January 2015. Idrissa Gueye ranked an impressive 40th in our 2014 index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Get French Football News 100, which was a four place improvement on his ranking from 2013.
During Lille’s incredible show of defensive prowess during the first half of the 2013-14 season, plaudits aplenty were handed out to an impressive back four and to Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, as the club reeled off an impressive eleven consecutive clean sheets in the league.
Playing deepest in a defensively minded 4-3-3, holding midfielder Rio Mavuba’s performances gained a fair amount of positive notice as well, seeing his off-and-on career with Les Bleus come into focus, being rewarded with his first trip to the finals of a major tournament, pipping Maxime Gonalons and Jeremy Toulalan, among others, to a substitute’s place on the plane to Brazil. Longtime team captain Florent Balmont was likewise praised, especially for his nascent ability to develop play going forward, notching a career high six assists and limiting Marvin Martin’s involvement. Little, however, was said about the third member of Lille’s diminutive midfield, perhaps because Senegalese international Idrissa Gueye’s contributions are in many ways the hardest to quantify.
A bit-part player behind first Yohan Cabaye and then Benoit Pedretti until the second half of the 2012-13 season, and already 23 at the point of seeing his first consistent run in the side as a starter, (and only then due to Mavuba being injured) Gueye has never been part of any “young talent to watch” list, his gifts not as immediately pleasing to the eye as the flash of some 18 year old winger, but has rather steadily built his reputation with metronome-like consistency.
Neither the deepest-lying nor the furthest forward of Les Dogues‘ midfield three, Gueye made the most appearances of any outfield player for Lille last season, and has yet to miss a match in the league this campaign, an impressive record, especially considering the team’s involvement in Europe and the League Cup, with an extra eleven matches played to date. In a team starved for goals, especially in the current campaign, the fact that Gueye had netted only once in his Ligue 1 career until three weeks ago, yet still kept his place in the side, is impressive indeed.
While merely playing in matches does not necessarily give weight to a player’s ability, as any player’s selection to the squad in a given match is the whim of the manager, that Réné Girard would so consistently select him, even when in need of more facility going forward, speaks volumes to the importance of his role on the pitch. As mentioned earlier, Gueye is neither a proper shield for the back four, nor does he take up an advanced role in support of the front three.
Although the phrase “midfield destroyer” smacks of hackneyed cliché, it suits his game to a tee, as his pace and anticipation in breaking up opposition attacks is superb, shielding the slower, older back four (and Mavuba) from quicker opponents by tackling at a rate that is among the best in the league for midfielders. Especially when considering that Lille essentially play with three defensively oriented midfielders, and those that out-rank him are employed in more positive systems that give them more responsibility.
Quick to charge into the opposition’s half to break up attacks before they can really get going, yet equally able to drop into wide positions to cover his own full backs as they get forward, Gueye’s unique blend of mobility, positional awareness and pace are what have made him indispensable. Combined with a canniness in the tackle that rarely sees him commit bookable offenses, it is no wonder that even the most fluid offensive sides struggle to gain some sense of continuity and shape against Lille.
Beyond merely being disruptive, however, this season and last have seen a marked improvement with the ball at his feet, becoming more eager to dribble at opponents, and while there is still room for improvement in this area, his low centre of gravity and speed allow for him to take players on with ease, signifying a burgeoning confidence and yet more room to grow.
While Gueye’s play has continued to grow in terms of its assuredness, especially going forward, the aforementioned fact that he is a near lock to figure in a given match has perhaps led to some overconfidence. As with more playing time has come a somewhat unnecessary fixation on playing long balls from deep positions.
Never in evidence under Rudi Garcia, this Hollywood side of Gueye’s game under Girard does not slot in at all well with the ethos that took him to where he is. As his passing accuracy has decreased with more playing time, so too has some element of his overall effectiveness, leading him to starting the odd match on the bench as the manager searches for the right balance in attack.
It is true that when these long balls are accurate, such as his chipped pass for Ryan Mendes’ goal against Toulouse a few weeks ago, Lille show great promise going forward, but as a quick look at the table will tell, the fact that Les Dogues have only found the back of the net fifteen times this year speaks for itself.
Perhaps Gueye himself is not to be faulted for this, as Lille’s lack of offensive firepower is all too apparent, especially with no room for the badly out of form Marvin Martin in a 4-3-3, and he feels the need to chip in as he can. However, this type of searching play has its obvious limits, especially on the counter, where a lofted ball can give a slower defender more time to react.
Again likely the combined product of Lille’s struggles to score in the post-Kalou, post-Payet era and his growing self-estimation of his abilities and role within the side, Gueye has also increased the number of shots that he takes per match since becoming a regular. While he does have a fairly strong shot, his accuracy is less than stellar, as his goal tallies readily demonstrate.
While it seems counterintuitive to lay blame at a player’s feet for wanting to help out his team, so much of Lille’s success last year was down to their organisation and the defined roles for each player that were a part of that. The more that Gueye diverges from that, despite his frustration with a lack of success, the less effective he will be. Perhaps if Lille can find a striker in the January window, normal service can resume for Gueye and his teammates, but until then, a bit of humility and knuckling down is needed in order for him to return to his very best.