As the minutes ticked on through a chilly Monday night fixture at Brighton’s AmEx Stadium, Danny Ings, the one-time Liverpool striker, stepped up on his return from injury to slot home a late Southampton winner from the penalty spot.
The goal was neither wholly undeserved, nor completely unexpected. Both sides had been creating chances and a goal felt inevitable at one end or another, and Graham Potter’s side have very often failed to translate good performances into deserved points this season- their 3-2 defeat by Manchester United in which Leandro Trossard struck woodwork on three separate occasions serves as a key example.
David Coote’s decision to give the visiting Saints said penalty would attract great criticism, though minutes had passed before VAR came to its conclusion that Solly March had indeed fouled Kyle Walker-Peters inside the penalty box, and many found the call to be an especially harsh one.
Ultimately, however, the grossest injustice to stem from that contest was the superb Yves Bissouma leaving the pitch on the losing side. All evening, the Malian international had been outstanding in every aspect of the game.
Stats will never cover everything in a football match, but Bissouma’s influence is best summarised by the fact that he completed more passes than any other Brighton player that evening, won more tackles and had greater accuracy of passing than any player on either side. On top of that, he even managed to complete the third highest number of dribbles on the pitch.
While, in many ways, the ‘box-to-box’ central-midfield performances of Steven Gerrard and alike have been phased out in more modern football, Bissouma’s performance showed that (goalscoring aside) he can do it all.
In perhaps his most impressive single snapshot over those ninety minutes, the Brighton man slid in to tackle Saints’ winger Stuart Armstrong, glanced around to notice space occupied by his teammates in blue, and adjusted from slide tackle into counter-attacking pass all in one swift movement.Embed from Getty Images
It was the type of play that serves to showcase someone’s footballing awareness and intelligence: many players would be praised solely for making the tackle, and putting the ball out of play for a throw-in. What Bissouma did highlighted an acute understanding of where his teammates were, and of footballing risk and reward.
I had long before admired Bissouma and – aware of his relative youth (he turned 24 in August) – suggested he would be a Liverpool-esque signing for (m)any of our ‘top six’ rivals, all of whom are currently playing catch up on Jürgen Klopp’s team.
After all, Klopp’s sides are renowned for their energy levels, and that is especially true in midfield, where he traditionally emphasises work-rate and intelligence over technical ability. Importantly, that is not to say that Liverpool’s midfield lacks technical class, but Klopp definitely subscribes to the theory that talent without hard work is nothing.
Technically sufficient to fit in at a top six side, Bissouma brings this speed, desire and mobility in the middle of the park which the likes of Manchester City have seemed to lack as they have regressed to the mean over the past eighteen months. Watching last Monday’s display, however, it dawned on me that Bissouma might be such an obviously Liverpool-esque signing that he could be of use to… well, Liverpool.
Entering the 2020/21 season, it felt as though the Premier League Champions had greater depth than ever before in the midfield positions. With the much-heralded summer singing from Bayern Munich, Thiago Alcântara, seemingly only replacing the seldom-seen Adam Lallana it was debated whether Gini Wijnaldum could lose his place to the Spanish international, and the Anfield number five was consequently linked with a move to Barcelona.
Instead, Thiago has been plagued by injury and COVID-19, while other midfield options like Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta have all missed time through injury. Equally, Fabinho – regular starter at the midfield base of the Reds’ 4-3-3 – has been plugged in at centre-back to cover the health problems which have befallen Klopp’s defensive personnel.
Wijnaldum has thus started eighteen of the twenty Liverpool games in the Premier and Champions Leagues this campaign, reinstating a sense of his importance and reliability. Now, with just seven months left on the Dutchman’s contract, and no evidence to suggest that he will sign an extension, it feels imperative that potential replacements are considered.
To decide whether Bissouma represents a good potential Wijnaldum replacement, it is important to identify the current-Liverpool man’s key strengths, and assess how the Mali international stacks up in that regard. It is also worth noting at this point that statisticians often struggle when discussing Wijnaldum, because he appears to show up less impressively numbers-wise than he appears to on the pitch. Data collection is ever-evolving, but measuring intelligence and off-ball solidity remains difficult and not without limits.
Wijnaldum is one of Liverpool’s smaller players, certainly among midfielders, and there is a general sense that his lowered centre of gravity is key to his mobility and ball retention. Bissouma is slightly taller than his Dutch counterpart (181cm to 175cm), but does seem to shuttle across the turf equally smoothly and bears a decent resemblance in physical stature – it certainly could not be suggested, for instance, that Bissouma’s height hinders his agility, like it arguably does Fabinho. Wijnaldum battles brilliantly in the air considering how short he is, but Bissouma’s aerial win-rate is understandably even better (60% to 48%).
Wijnaldum excels in ball retention, and his pass completion accuracy of 91.7% is absurd for a midfielder, and the best in the Liverpool squad this season. Admittedly, the flipside of taking fewer risks in his passing is that Wijnaldum’s playmaking tends to progress the ball far less than that of his midfield teammates (145.3yds/90mins this season, less than half the respective totals of Henderson (419.7), Thiago (512) and Curtis Jones (308.5)).
This all serves to suggest that the emphasis on any Wijnaldum-shaped void would be on ball retention. And while Bissouma’s pass accuracy of 85.5% is lower than the Wijnaldum figure, it should be considered that Liverpool’s total pass accuracy as a team is significantly better than Brighton’s. Wijnaldum outperforms his team average by 8.91%, while Bissouma does so by 7.01%: not quite yet at Wijnaldum’s level, but notable, and in an upward trend over the past three seasons since his Premier League arrival.Embed from Getty Images
Equally, Bissouma (151.8yds/90) more or less matches up to his Dutch counterpart in terms of ball progression, and, again, that obviously comes playing for a Brighton side who progress the ball nearly 33% less than Liverpool does through an average game. The Albion number eight also completes a significant number of longer passes with a very good success rate, demonstrating that he has the range and technical ability to slot into a team that is often charged with switching the play around the pitch.
Wijnaldum excels in not losing tackles – that is not to say that he will make as many tackles as, say, Fabinho does when playing in midfield, but when Wijnaldum does engage Liverpool usually (79% over the last two seasons) come away with the ball. Bissouma makes more tackles than the former Newcastle man (2.57 to 0.89 last season, 2.50 to 1 this) but still has a very good win rate. His success figure of 72.9% would rank him third amongst Liverpool midfielders this season, behind only Wijnaldum himself and Thiago, whose data is obviously skewed by limited playing time.
One criticism that has been made of Bissouma by Liverpool fans whenever he has been mentioned as a possible target, is a belief that he lacks the fitness and intensity for a Klopp side – this notion is built on an infamous graphic in which Paul Pogba was shown to walk more often in-game than any other PL player… bar Bissouma.
Watching him, however, it seems as though Bissouma conserves his energy well so that he can arrive with speed and urgency wherever and whenever he is needed. In an ideal world I would touch on some stats relating to Bissouma’s mobility and average distances run here, to dispel this suggestion that he lacks intensity. Frustratingly, though, access to these data is difficult to come by.Embed from Getty Images
It is, however, made easily accessible in UEFA competition. Although I cannot prove that Bissouma does have the required fitness to fulfil Gini’s role, I can prove that Gini’s role requires less intensity in movement and more so in intelligence and awareness: among the Reds’ four most frequently-deployed midfielders in Champions League football this season, Gini (11.08km/90) covers less ground per 90 minutes than James Milner (12.73), Curtis Jones (12.09) and Jordan Henderson (11.82) by quite some distance, pardon the pun.
That would suggest that Gini’s role as the ‘enabler’ in this Liverpool side requires as much mental as it does physical discipline, and obviously nothing is more difficult to track in the world of football than someone’s individual footballing IQ.
With more and more reports surfacing to suggest that sectors of the Anfield side’s scouting network are focusing on the South coast sensation, the rumours would indicate that Liverpool’s renowned recruitment team are comfortable with Bissouma’s game intelligence.
And watching just ninety minutes of Yves Bissouma play football should be enough to convince you that he has as good a chance as anyone to succeed, stepping into Gini Wijnaldum’s fabled shoes.
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