In the summer of 2018 Brighton & Hove Albion went on a fascinating shopping spree in their bid to consolidate themselves in the Premier League following a successful debut season in the top flight. The Seagulls ignored the tried and trusted names and sought out lesser known players from around the European leagues. One such name was Malian international Yves Bissouma, who made the move from Lille OSC for a fee of £15.2 million.
Bissouma has not yet made the central midfield spot his own since his move to the South Coast, as manager Chris Hughton has remained largely faithful to the players that secured Premier League safety last season. Sitting in 15th place, with a five-point cushion from the drop zone with a game in hand, it would seem Hughton’s strategy has been vindicated as he slowly integrates his summer signings into the side.
Still, through a mixture of substitute appearances and intermittent starts, Bissouma has played 1,194 minutes of Premier League action so far and has put up some interesting numbers on both sides of the ball. Continuing from some impressive-looking output for Lille, these numbers may have alerted some of the continent’s big clubs in La Liga or beyond to a potential young central midfield talent that can contribute to both the attacking and defensive phases of play. Indeed, before his move to Albion, he had been occasionally touted as a potential long-term replacement for Mousa Dembele at Tottenham.
The question therefore, is Yves Bissouma a potential top central midfielder in the making?
In terms of pure numbers, Bissouma has the output of a all-round central midfielder, which may arouse the curiosity of clubs who are looking for versatile, universal players who can fulfill a variety of roles in central midfield.
Defensively, Bissouma has contributed 5.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes for Brighton, and 4.8 per 90 minutes last season at Lille. This is a promisingly high volume for a young player in preventing opponents possession.
On the ball Bissouma is a prolific dribbler, with 2.1 successful dribbles per 90 minutes for Brighton this season, and 3.2 per 90 minutes for Lille in 2017/18. For a central midfielder, where space is at a premium, these are again promising looking numbers and perhaps point towards a player who can offer ball progression to complement his ball winning qualities.
The Malian does not offer a significant goal or assist threat, and is yet to register either for Brighton, after weighing in with 2 goals and 1 assist for Lille in the 2017/18 campaign. In terms of key passes, with 0.5 per 90 minutes this season, and 0.6 per 90 minutes for Lille last season, he is not a player that you are buying to make a difference in the final third.
On the face of it, he profiles like a player capable of winning the ball and taking it to the final third. Statistically speaking, there are similarities between him and the aforementioned Mousa Dembele.
With the statistics looking promising, flagging him up as a player who could have potential to play at a higher level as he develops as a player, it is time to give the central midfielder the ‘eye test’ to see what lies behind the statistics.
Ball winning and transition
The statistics show that Bissouma has a high volume of tackles and interceptions, but in order to mix it with the best, it is what you do with the ball once you have recovered it that really matters. It is one thing putting a foot in and creating a second ball situation, and another recovering the ball to establish possession for your team.
In this sense, Bissouma shows signs that he can recover the ball and instantly spring attacks. With the transition phase of the game being ever more important, this skill set is vital for central midfielders of the future.
Here he applies pressure from behind, and gets his body between the opponent and the ball, stealing it and immediately spinning away and dribbling out of pressure to put Brighton on the front foot.
In this instance Bissouma is tasked with man-marking a direct opponent in his brief stint under the tutelage of current Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa, famous for his man-marking defensive scheme. His defensive posture is excellent. He is positioned to be able to see both the ball and his opponent, and he is primed to press as soon as the ball moves.
Once again, the aim is not solely to simply break up the opponents’ possession, but to set up an attack for his own team. Here there is masses of space in behind to exploit once he has stolen the ball. He does not simply perform a block tackle, but quickly manoeuvres the ball out from the opponent’s feet to set up an attack of his own.
The result? He has the ball at his feet and instantly drives into the vacant space with the opposition back line exposed. One main benefit of this approach are that he can set up quick attacks upon winning the ball. This may also mean he is surrendering his field of vision in tackling the ball, so may not make the best decisions once he has the ball at his feet.
Far away from the manic man-oriented pressing scheme of Bielsa, here Bissouma is sat in a deep, compact 4-4-2 zonal defensive block that Hughton’s Brighton favour. Once the ball enters his zone, he is proactive in pressing his opponent. Even from a fairly long distance where he begins his press, he is still able to make a tackle.
This demonstrates a proactive approach that could certainly benefit a dominant, front-foot pressing team. However, this defensive action also showed flaws that may be exposed by higher-class opposition than a second-string Southampton side in the Carabao Cup.
As he leaves the block to press, he does not once check over his shoulders in order to close a passing lane. Fortunately for him, the opponents do not react and move outside his cover shadow as he makes a straight run to press the ball carrier. When leaving your defensive unit to press it is imperative to close off the passing options behind you, otherwise you are just sacrificing yourself. Better opposition may well exploit this in the future.
Once again Bissouma shows his proactive nature in the defensive phase. Here he has moved from his central midfield berth to cover the wide area as the near-side Brighton winger has been caught upfield. While he leaves space in front of the defence to help the full-back out, he is quick over the ground and aggressive, noticing that the winger Andros Townsend is good one-on-one and does not want that to be exposed. Once again, Bissouma makes a successful tackle.
These few examples portray a player that is highly enthusiastic defensively, who actively seeks to go and win the ball and is comfortable in leaving spaces behind him when going to press. As mentioned, he has been coached by polar opposites in Bielsa and Hughton which may have developed in him a tactical flexibility in terms of their off the ball defensive schemes.
It may however have proved confusing for a developing young player. It will be interesting to monitor his progress under the cautious coaching of Chris Hughton, where the stats and the eye test perhaps show a player whose skill set may be best utilised in a pressing team.
Dribbling and ball progression
Once again, the statistics have potentially unearthed a player who is able to carry the ball, and dribble out of pressure in the most congested area of the pitch: central midfield. This is a pretty rare and under-appreciated skill set. In the era of highly coordinated pressing schemes, having central midfield players who can receive the ball in pressure situations and dribble through and out of pressure is a highly desirable trait.
If you can beat a wave of pressure through dribbling, there are often advantageous positions once you’re out the other side. Even by simply maintaining possession you can also help maintain control of the flow of the game, something the aforementioned Mousa Dembele could do expertly. Can Yves Bissouma offer something similar?
In this instance Lille have just recovered the ball and the ball is passed to Bissouma. Here he does not check his shoulders prior to receiving the ball, nor does he quickly notice the transition and pull into a position whereby he could open up and see the more of the pitch ahead of him. It is this split second that can set apart the good from the best in how they anticipate transitions and build a picture of what lies in the moves ahead.
Despite issues in how he receives the ball, he goes on to demonstrate the kind of ability that has put him in the top bracket of central midfield dribblers in terms of volume in his short career so far.
As the pressure from behind arrives, he is able to use his individual ability to outplay two opponents, using a sole role and a burst of pace to put distance between him and opponents. He accelerates into the space behind before setting up a dangerous counter-attack.
Similar to the previous example, Bissouma once again receives a straight pass from his teammate. In this case it would be unfair to say he could have provided a better angle, happening as it did only a split second after the transition, and demonstrates he is comfortable enough receiving the ball in tight spaces.
Once again he is able to beat an opponent as pressure arrives from behind, with a quick turn and electric burst of acceleration. In doing so he creates a promising attack for Lille with space to drive into.
As he accelerates away, he then dribbles to attract pressure in order to create space for a teammate to receive. Here he attracts three opponents whom he recognises are flat, and is able to slide the ball in behind them to an onrushing teammate.
What makes this scenario more impressive is that this was done as Lille held a one-goal lead late in the game. The Malian showed composure, skill and bravery to progress the ball and maintain possession in such circumstances.
In this scenario he demonstrates the ability he has in progressing the ball, whereby he is under pressure in his defensive third. He sees not risk but opportunity as he attracts pressure, quickly combining around the press with a teammate then accelerating beyond opponents.
The result of this is a promising attack. The opponents have changed from their defensive shape with the game in front of them, to running back towards their own goal.
It is clear that Bissouma has talent on the ball, and can successfully beat pressure using his individual skill and acceleration to burst away from opponents, enabling progression of the ball through the middle. There is not yet a great deal of evidence that he is skilled at dribbling from deep in compact defensive blocks, drawing opponents in and beating them to drive into the final third. This would be a huge asset to his game and something he should look to develop.
He could certainly aid this by developing his receiving skills, body positioning and scanning for opponents. Like many good dribblers he may lean towards using individual possession skills to cover up for game awareness, where it should complement it. Top level pressing teams will certainly exploit any weaknesses like this, and against the best opponents he will find it harder to beat them with such ease. Fortunately, he has time on his side to develop these skills, and it is hard to deny that there is raw talent there to work with.
How far can Bissouma go?
There is certainly a talented player that Brighton have on their hands. He remains very much a player to keep an eye on, both as he develops and in terms of whether Chris Hughton is willing to hand him more regular minutes in the Premier League. It is uncertain what the Seagulls expected of him upon making the move to the Sussex club, but there may be an issue in terms of the stylistic fit between Bissouma’s naturally proactive and enthusiastic game and Albion’s more reserved and cautious style.
Despite this, he is still racking up some impressive numbers on the face of it, with a good number of tackles and interceptions defensively and dribbles going forward. With Brighton’s style often surrendering possession in order to remain compact, it should be said the opportunity to tackle and intercept should theoretically be higher. Similarly, the opportunities to dribble should be less.
There are aspects of his game he will need to refine and develop. But as a relatively young player at 22, in a new country and most likely playing a style he is unused to, there is naturally going to be a bedding-in period. For now, he may have to remain a player on the radar of the top clubs as they monitor his progress.
It may be that a more compatible team in terms of style could present an opportunity to fully demonstrate his talents, should anyone be willing to take the risk. There is every chance that with the right coach and a compatible style of play, Bissouma has the potential to play at a higher level than he currently does.
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