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FEATURE | Issa Diop – West Ham are purchasing a future leader, but not a finished product

When asked ‘What type of player are you?’ an 18-year-old Issa Diop offered a characteristically concise and mature response. “I absolutely have to progress in all areas if I want to have a chance to succeed.” Rather than listing his strengths, of which he has many, Diop stuck resolutely to his progression and not how far he has come, an attitude that has come to define Diop as a player, a captain and, now, as a Premier League centre back.

That interview, conducted by prominent Toulouse fan site LesViolets.com in September 2015 upon Diop’s addition to senior team training – he would only sign as a full professional in November later that year – depicted a humble, focused and considered individual, ready to do everything he could to improve and aid “the club of my city”. Although Diop’s aims for that season remained modest; “to be able to train as much as possible with the 1st team”, make his senior debut and play a full season with the B team, by the end of the campaign more than 97% of fans surveyed on the same site saw Diop as indispensable and an undisputed first team starter.

With Dominique Arribagé’s incarnation of Toulouse struggling near the foot of the Ligue 1 table two months later and a host of more established players enduring a run of poor form, the manager turned, partially in desperation, to Toulouse’s emerging generation of young players. Cat-like keeper Alban Lafont (16 at the time) joined teenage midfielders Zinedine Machach, Alexis Blin and Yann Bodiger in taking a prominent first team role. In the vanguard of this youth influx was Diop.

Having warmed the bench for the first time in another drab defeat at Guingamp, TFC having not won since the opening day visit of St Étienne, Diop and Lafont made their senior debuts at Nice arrived at the Stade Municipal in late November. Both youngsters stood out in a crucial 2-0 win. Losing just once until the narrow 1-0 January defeat to PSG, Diop and Lafont have remained ever-presents since and are now the club’s premier assets and most important players, crucial to maintaining the its Ligue 1 status this year via the relegation playoffs.

Over the intervening two and a half years since Diop’s debut, Toulouse have lurched from the infuriatingly lacklustre to the ferociously stoic and back again, briefly threatening to challenge for Europe and twice bearly avoiding relegation, but Diop’s relative consistency has remained a prominent feature throughout, largely unaffected by his teammates often crumbling around him. Predominantly a right-sided centre back Diop has developed into a calm, resolute and intelligent defender.

While it would be easy to focus on his obvious physicality, a 1.94m frame and imposing yet rangy physique reminiscent of a basketball player remains one of many assets, Diop is perhaps most skilled in identifying threats and using his speed to support his ability to read play in swiftly disposing of them before calmly recycling the ball. Although his range of passing is still developing, longer balls are often wayward while an occasional proclivity to cheaply squander possession remains a slight issue, Diop is assured on the ball and more technically gifted in narrower spaces.

To his credit and also his (and his team’s) detriment, Diop is a proactive centre back, regularly breaking from position to nullify a threat and charging into midfield or the full back areas to firefight. When successful, this can amount to some spectacular, domineering defending. However, especially against sides more nimble in possession, Diop can occasionally become stranded and leave gaps, and his fellow centre back – the equally imposing Christopher Julien – exposed. A developing understanding of knowing when and where to do this has been a feature of his season, a campaign that has been an impressive one for Diop personally, if not for his club.

The last year has been one of development and a burgeoning sense of accountability for Diop, who married last summer at just 20, having been made captain by former coach Pascal Dupraz. After surviving dramatically on the final day after a 3-2 win at Angers in 2015/16, Diop explained: “I will remember it for a long time because it was a lot of responsibility, if we lost we could put people out of work.” An early tendency for rashness has been largely left behind too, although bookings remain frequent, a pair of sendings off for off the ball incidents at the start of his senior career are long forgotten, while individual displays, amid a torrid TFC campaign, have been remarkably consistent.

Dupraz thought highly of Diop, handing him the captaincy and stating last summer that “Diop will stay unless there is an offer we can’t refuse. Maybe some club will be willing to pay €50m-€60m for him and then the president may think.” The player himself has remained focused on improving and leading his team, often readily admitting where they both have fallen short. “A normal season, no more. Collectively, we could have done better, and personally, I still have a lot of progress to make. When you arrive at the highest level, there are expectations, it’s normal, you have to know how to respond. The coach Dupraz makes me understand it, but I am also sufficiently demanding with myself to work accordingly,” was the TFC captain’s honest appraisal of the 16/17 season, having regularly pointed out where he and his team could improve.

With London his destination, although still just 21, West Ham fans should note that Diop, a European Under 19 champion with France, remains something of a catch having been linked with a host of major European sides over the last two years, Barcelona notably tracking him for sometime. His style of defending will suit the slightly more open, entropic Premier League perhaps even more than Ligue 1’s rigid, conservative persona. Nevertheless, although he has grown significantly in the last 12 to 18 months, his development remains an ongoing process.

West Ham, uncharacteristically, may yet prove a snug fit with the arrival of the experienced and more considered management of Manuel Pellegrini. If the Chilean is given time to develop his team, the club and move away from the ubiquitous sense of chaos the London Stadium has endured recently, with Diop central to that admittedly nuanced process, the €25m West Ham might end up paying for the Frenchman could prove represent significant value. Nevertheless, however Issa Diop’s Premier League venture unfolds, his answer to the question “What type of player are you?” will remain the same.

 

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