In the last few years, France have produced a significant number of elite players, which goes without saying. However, one area in which the national side have looked somewhat vulnerable in is the centre-back position. Despite having the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti to call upon, Didier Deschamps has struggled to identify his best pairing.
Many will put this down to inept coaching, but perhaps there quite simply isn’t an ideal partnership to field at the moment. Maybe the perfect blend does not exist within the current crop. Encouragingly, that could all be about to change with the emergence of highly-rated young prospects such as Dayot Upamecano, Jérôme Junior Onguéné, and Issa Diop.
The grandson of former Bordeaux player Lybasse Diop, who was the first ever Senegalese-born footballer to play in Ligue 1, 20-year-old Issa began his journey at local side Balma before Toulouse scouts snapped him up at just nine years old. He has not looked back since.
Diop is an imposing figure, and already possesses the ability to effectively bully opposition strikers out of the game. Physically, he is fully developed, which is not always the case with raw talents of his age group. This boy has all the key ingredients needed to succeed at the top level, which is exactly where he is destined to reach.
Considered to be a ball-playing centre-back, Diop is encouraged to be aggressive in his defensive work, mark attackers closely, put them under pressure quickly and prevent them from running at the rest of the back line. In possession, he is asked to play short passes into the midfield area, a skill which ought to stand him in good stead when he makes the step up to a more prestigious and therefore, more attacking team. In the modern game especially, centre-backs who are comfortable with the ball at their feet are in extremely high demand.
Generally speaking, his positioning is excellent for a 20-year-old. His in-game awareness and understanding is already exceptional, though of course the odd minor blip can still creep into his game. This is completely normal for a youngster. If and when his positioning is not quite up to scratch, his covering speed is so great that the potential danger can still be averted.
Moreover, his passing game is improving all the time, though he could be much more efficient in starting counter-attacks by improving and hastening his passes to advancing full-backs or attackers. Despite being so young, Diop has already been linked with a plethora of major European clubs who have identified him as one of the continent’s brightest defensive talents. Serie A giants Inter Milan have been reported on several occasions as being his most likely destination, with a bid of around €20 million said to have been on the table earlier in the summer. TFC coach Pascal Dupraz is on record as claiming his protégé will not be allowed to leave for less than €50-60 million. While the chances of a club of their stature raising that amount are slim, it does show just how highly regarded the player is.
Since his promotion to the first team in November 2015, Diop has managed to establish himself as a mainstay in the starting XI. His debut season saw him make 21 league appearances, as Toulouse narrowly escaped relegation from the top flight. A slight upturn in fortune last season led to a thirteenth-place finish, as Les Pitchouns continued to build around an exciting group of youngsters. Diop’s quality stretches beyond his impressive physique, as he has already turned in several displays of maturity beyond his years against high quality opposition. Nullifying the threat of a certain Edinson Cavani twice in one season made the headlines, but that only just begins to tell the story.
Despite finishing in the bottom half of Ligue 1 last season, the statistics show that Le Téfécé were in fact one of the most defensively sound teams in the division. In fact, only Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, Nice and Marseille conceded fewer goals. While it would be hyperbolic to claim this was all due to the emergence of Diop, it would also be foolish to dismiss the part he played. He was undeniably a pivotal part of French football’s most improved defence. To underline his continuous improvement, the youngster was then voted into the Team of the Tournament at the European Under-19 Championship.
In many respects, he embodies the footballing renaissance France is having at the moment. For a few years too many, the country stopped producing the type of players which made it so famous. That perfect combination of technique, skill and physical prowess went missing, but it is safe to say the nation’s youth development system is firing on all cylinders again. Diop is next in a long line of prospects who will stake his claim for a place in the French national team squad before long. The feeling is that another year of development in Occitania will prime him for the next step, whether that be at home or abroad.
By: Jordan Russell/@JordRuss96