For young European football zealots in Africa the chance to play professional football in one of Europe’s elite leagues is often an impossibly exotic and daunting prospect. It is well publicised that elect European football has become a media frenzy and a place for rich tycoons to exercise their wealth to show whose trinket is shiniest and, from the outside looking in, it seems implausible that a top-flight club will ever take a chance on a talent from what, at times, feels like another world.
Assane Dioussé, a diminutive, combative central midfield player, is one of the few fortuitous young African players that has made a name for himself amongst Europe’s heavyweights; born in Dakar, Senegal, the 20-year-old as a teenager became a fixture in Empoli’s side just as they consolidated a mid-table spot in Serie A.
Perhaps Empoli’s stability at the time of Dioussé’s inclusion was no coincidence. He rose to fame during the 2015-16 season, the Azzurri’s second campaign back in the top tier after promotion from Serie B; he made his debut in August 2015 at the age of 17 against Chievo Verona, and has not looked back since.
Dioussé managed almost a half-century of appearances, 48 in all competitions to be precise, before attracting the attention of French Ligue 1 regulars Saint-Etienne last summer. He moved to France for a fee of £4.50 million. In the pantheon of great, energetic, central midfielders, there is a recurring theme: the number 8 jersey. From Steven Gerrard to Frank Lampard, and Andrés Iniesta to Juninho Pernambucano, a club’s number eight shirt often belongs to their enigma, their driving force, their all-action central midfielder; Dioussé fits the bill.
Standing at 1.75 metres, a good few inches below being six feet, Dioussé is fast, strong and has no qualms with making up for his lack of height with extra determination, fight and physicality, both on, and off, the ball.
Maybe he is a little too physical – a symbolic, albeit concerning, 15 yellow cards during his time at Empoli shows that he does not turn a blind eye to a tackle. Saint-Etienne’s manager, Óscar García, has used Dioussé’s dynamism to his side’s advantage – he played 90 minutes against last season’s surprise title challengers OGC Nice on debut in an impressive 1-0 victory. He performed admirably enough to earn starts against SM Caen and SC Amiens in the fixtures that followed but a prized appearance against the might of Paris Saint-Germain proved a step too far. Though, many would argue that Dioussé’s omission was not as a result of his ability compared to the stars of PSG, but was instead to protect him from a fatigue-related injury. It is easy to forget that he is still a very young player, such is his ability and physicality.
Saint-Ètienne’s season so far has surpassed expectations. Les Verts are looking up towards the main title contenders, namely PSG and AS Monaco, from a strong position – European football is by no means out of the question, despite the strength of the likes of Marseille and Olympique Lyon around them; Dioussé can hold himself partly responsible for his team’s success, given that he has featured in all but a handful of Ligue 1 rounds thus far.
Last season, Saint-Ètienne were leaky at the back. It is true that Ligue 1 has not reached its half-way point yet, but Dioussé’s arrival has triggered extra defensive stability; Sainte finished with a negative goal difference in ninth position last term. Compare that to this season – García’s side have conceded fewer goals than every team in the bottom half of the table, as well as Monaco, Lyon and Marseille.
Given that Brazilian left-back Gabriel Silva, who was signed from Udinese, was the only other defensive signing leading up to the current season for Saint-Etienne, their defensive fortunes could be attributed to the capture of Dioussé. He has provided the perfect defensive screen in front of the defence in Garcia’s chosen rigid system that relies on getting men behind the ball.
And, when his side do regain possession, Dioussé is able to link defence and attack efficiently. So far this season, he has maintained a passing accuracy close to 85%, and has averaged around 50 successful passes per match. Having completed only an average of three long balls per game, Dioussé has evidenced that he is capable of breaking up the play and then distributing it with ease to his teammates’ feet in tight areas. And his afore mentioned potential lack of discipline? He has averaged just one foul per game so far this season, which demonstrates an extra level of maturity. So it is clear, then, that perhaps the best is yet to come for Dioussé and Saint-Ètienne. His city of birth, Dakar, is miles apart, both literally and metaphorically, from Saint-Etienne, a teeming, bustling metropolis in the east of France.
Evidence of improved personal traits and statistics show that he is on an upwards trajectory, which can only be of benefit to García’s Sainte; Europa League qualification for the 2018-19 season is by no means out of the question, meaning that maybe, just maybe, Dioussé, a small, unassuming player from a city engrossed with crippling poverty and depression, could soon be mixing it with some of the greats of the current game.
By: Ryan Plant/@ryanplant1998