Yves Bissouma: The Reemergence of the Malian Midfield Machine

With 18 goals scored, eight conceded and 20 points garnered so far from a potential 24, Tottenham Hotspur have enjoyed a dream start to the new Premier League campaign and currently sit first in the table, level on 20 points with North London rivals Arsenal — the only other undefeated team in England’s top-flight — two points above Manchester City, and three above Liverpool.


The arrival of new manager Ange Postecoglou has occasioned a change in a style of play with a new brand of attractive, free-flowing football and positive results for Spurs who currently seem to have bounced back from a disappointing 2022/23 season that saw them finish eighth miss out on European football. One player who has been at the heart of the Tottenham Hotspur revelation this season is Malian midfielder Yves Bissouma. 


The 27-year-old joined Tottenham last summer from Brighton in a deal reportedly worth around £25 million, which looked like a bargain at the time given how highly the midfielder was rated by everyone who had seen him play for the Seagulls under Graham Potter. Having grown up in Ivory Coast and Mali, Bissouma made the move to Europe in 2016, spending two years at French club Lille before making the move to Brighton, where he emerged as a revelation in midfield and a key force in their ascent in England’s top-flight.


With sagged shorts, socks rolled up to the knee and dreadlocks, Bissouma didn’t just stand out for his physical appearance but also the relative ease at which he carried on with both offensive and defensive duties even against high-level opposition. After four years at the Amex, Bissouma joined Spurs with plenty of high expectations but failed to establish himself as a regular under Antonio Conte.


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He did struggle with injuries last season, missing up to 15 games across all competitions with an ankle fracture, but he still could not make the starting line-up on a regular basis even when fit, falling behind Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Rodrigo Bentancur and Oliver Skipp in the pecking order and starting just 10 out of his 23 Premier League appearances and making just three substitute appearances in the UEFA Champions League.


As early as September 2022, Conte voiced concerns about Bissouma’s inability to meet his tactical demands, stating: “The only player that is struggling a bit with the tactical aspect is Bissouma, but also he is improving a lot in every aspect. I am sure when we start again and play 12 games, for sure he is another player I can count on but I try to take the best decision for the player because I want to protect the player.”


The Italian manager had always played with two central midfielders in his famous 3-4-3 formation with both midfielders needing to have high levels of defensive awareness and this was exemplified in his 2016/17 title-winning side at Chelsea with N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić as the regular starters, two players who were to a very large extent regarded as specialists in the defensive phase and this was most likely an area Bissouma was deficient at. He never met the tactical requirements in his first season as even under Conte’s assistant and eventual successor Cristian Stellini as well as interim coach Ryan Mason.


Fast forward to around a year after his move to Tottenham Hotspur, Yves Bissouma is back to his best and enjoying life on the pitch again. With effortless press resistance, unmatched energy and grace under pressure, Bissouma is back to that form that made him one of the Premier League’s most coveted midfielders. The Malian’s stock is at an all-time high, and after playing the full 90 in their opening day draw at Brentford, his performance in the second match of the season against Manchester United certainly set the tone for a season that has turned skeptics into believers.


Bissouma lined up alongside Pape Matar Sarr and James Maddison in midfield against United’s trio of Casemiro, Mason Mount and Bruno Fernandes, and it’s no gainsaying that the Spurs midfield came out on top. Bissouma ran the show on that day; his press resistance helped Spurs beat the press on numerous occasions and his elite ball-carrying made him a handful for the opposition, it seemed almost too easy for Bissouma as he literally enjoyed himself against Man United, paving the way for a 2-0 victory.


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He continued his impressive performances as Tottenham won 2-0 at Bournemouth, prevailed with a 5-2 comeback win at Burnley, and beat Sheffield United 2-1 in the latest comeback in Premier League history. He was arguably the finest performer on the pitch at the Emirates Stadium, showcasing his elite press resistance and ball-carrying abilities against Arsenal’s high-intensity pressing, with the two sides settling for a 2-2 draw.


Tottenham would follow that up with a 2-1 victory against Liverpool — who fell to 10 men within 26 minutes and 9 men within 69 minutes — as a last-second own goal from Joël Matip saw Spurs get their first win over Jürgen Klopp’s side since 2017. They opened October with another strong result, taking the lead within 52 minutes via Mickey van de Ven and holding onto a 1-0 victory at Luton Town, despite playing the entirety of the second half with 10 players after Bissouma picked up a second yellow for simulation.


Bissouma’s ill-advised sending-off should not diminish the 27-year-old’s importance in Tottenham’s stellar start. Under Postecoglou, he is currently playing the best football of his career. He is averaging 3.2 tackles per game, a figure only bettered by Marvelous Nakamba (4.5), Vitaliy Mykolenko (4.5) and João Palhinha (4.7) in the Premier League, whilst his 1.6 interceptions per 90 put him in the top 20 for the league. He’s no slouch on the ball either, ranking 10th with 2.1 successful dribbles per game.


The Tottenham midfielder has won 92.5% of his duels, a percentage higher than Declan Rice (80.4%), Rodri (30.5%), Casemiro (28.1%), Moisés Caicedo (75.6%) and João Palhinha (86.8%), whilst only Palhinha has recorded more defensive actions (99.0) than Bissouma(88.4). Also highlighting one of Bissouma’s biggest strengths, he has unsurprisingly recorded more progressive carries (92.3) than Rodri (90.6), Rice (41.1), Casemiro (30.1), and Caicedo (28.7).  


The statistics and data also show clearly where he might need to improve as he’s currently second-best to Rodri in the passing game. The Spaniard’s forward pass percentage of 97.6 edges Bissouma’s which currently stands at 93.0% and the Manchester City man is also ranked higher in key passes (75.1) than Bissouma (56.1).


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The Malian also falls behind four of the compared defensive midfielders in the area of progressive passes (75.5) with Casemiro (91.4), Rodri (86.8), Rice (83.1) and Caicedo (82.2) all edging him out. It is however safe to say that these weaknesses are not very visible in a Tottenham Hotspur side that possesses the quality of Sarr and Maddison in midfield with both players’ key passes at 82.9 and 88.8 respectively.


These players may not be the best one-touch passers in the Premier League but their level of quality is very visible. Elite ball carriers and decision-makers in midfield with Bissouma at the base of the trio being the fulcrum and the glue that holds Postecoglou’s team together. The 27-year-old midfielder is racking up numbers that are above average in literally every index that defines a modern-day defensive midfielder and not just that, he passes the eye test with flying colours. 


After missing out on Europe for the first time in 14 years, Tottenham are reaping the rewards of a bold managerial appointment. For a team that has not won a trophy since the 2008 EFL Cup, whose last FA Cup win came in 1991, and whose second and final top-flight league title came in 1961, Spurs fans have been used to disappointment and near-misses, but they are nevertheless daring to dream under Ange Postecoglou. The Australian has not only transformed the club’s fortunes and energized a once-despondent fanbase — he’s managed to give Yves Bissouma a new lease on life.


By: Moses Onyilo Adikwu / @Moe_Adikwu

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Walton – PA Images