Defensive midfielders are often considered to be the unsung heroes of their respective teams; they usually fail to earn the plaudits of their more-technically accomplished teammates, meaning that their contributions are not easily recognised by people outside of the team. A player who consistently performs this role in a team battling relegation is likely to struggle for any recognition whatsoever, even more so if it is Empoli, who were relegated from Serie A after the 2016/17 season.
Senegalese midfielder Assane Dioussé El Hadji – or Assane Dioussé for short – is only playing his third season of senior football, but he has already demonstrated the qualities to become a fantastic performer in his role.
In July 2017, French side Saint-Étienne acquired Dioussé from Empoli for a reported fee of €5 million, and he has featured in four Ligue 1 games so far under Les Verts coach Óscar García, playing on the right side of a midfield trio also consisting of Ole Selnaes and Bryan Dabo.
Although he is not operating in his natural anchoring role in midfield, learning to adapt is nothing new for the Senegalese starlet.
Dioussé was born on September 20, 1997 in Dakar, Senegal, but immigrated to Italy in 2010, where his father had already settled. At 13 years old, he had a trial with Tuscan club Carrarese and then another with fellow Tuscans Empoli, the team he eventually joined.
He spent five years in the Florentine team’s youth system and was regularly selected for the senior squad in the second half of the 2014/15 campaign by then-coach Maurizio Sarri. At the end of that season, Sarri had left for Napoli and brought Empoli playmaker Mirko Valdifiori with him, leaving a void in the Tuscan midfield.
Marco Giampaolo succeeded Sarri in the Azzurri coaching role and decided to start Dioussé in their Coppa Italia clash against Vicenza on August 15, 2015, which they lost 1-0 to their northern Italian opponents.
The Senegalese youngster kept his place for the opening fixture of the 2015/16 Serie A season, which they lost 3-1 at home to Chievo Verona, but it was the following match at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan in which he came to prominence.
Empoli performed admirably in their 2-1 defeat to AC Milan, creating enough chances to earn at least a point for themselves, and arguably deserved a victory. One of the standout performers in that game was Assane Dioussé.
It was on that August night in which Dioussé’s characteristics were on display for everyone to see. At just 17 years old, he demonstrated his tenacious ball-winning abilities and his varied passing range. Although he did not make speculative long passes like his predecessor Valdifiori, he was able to play an array of short passes and occasional through balls.
Milan had opened the scoring early in the second half, but Empoli equalised soon after, and Dioussé was involved. His pass found veteran striker Massimo Maccarone, who then assisted for Riccardo Saponara.
The youngster featured regularly for the first 10 rounds of Serie A until he was sent-off in a 1-1 draw against Sampdoria, and he missed the victory against Palermo in the following week.
Receiving the two yellow cards against the Blucerchiati proved to be costly for him as Argentinian midfielder Leandro Paredes soon cemented his place in the centre of Giampaolo’s midfield trio, and Dioussé would only see five substitute appearances for the rest of the season.
Perhaps Giampaolo saw the sending-off as a sign of immaturity, but it must be said that the greater technical ability of Paredes allowed Empoli to be more fluid in their possession play. After the campaign concluded, Giampaolo left for Sampdoria and assistant coach Giovanni Martusciello took over in the senior coaching role. In the early rounds of the 2016/17 Serie A season,
Dioussé was used sporadically by the new tactician, who was experimenting with Jose Mauri as a deep-lying playmaker.
Mauri, naturally a box-to-box midfielder, struggled to adapt to the new role, and Dioussé managed to take his place in the team after starting as a holding midfielder in Empoli’s 2-0 defeat away to Napoli in Week 10.
Dioussé eventually played 33 league matches in the 2016/17 campaign and started in 26 of them. After the Napoli encounter, he missed two matches due to suspension while collecting a staggering 13 yellow cards. According to Squawka, he committed 54 fouls last season, highlighting the tenacity of his play, but he also completed 38 tackles, 13 blocks, 36 clearances, and 59 interceptions. Those interceptions formed nearly 55 percent of his defensive actions.
Throughout the 2016/17 season, Dioussé made 1,700 passes with 61.3 percent going forward and 38.7 per cent going backwards. He boasted a passing accuracy of 86 percent, with 1,354 of those passes being short and 68 of them being long. For a footballer better known for his defensive strengths, he also demonstrated some attacking strengths by successfully completing 20 out of 21 take-ons and making 11 key passes resulting in a goal, although he failed to register a single assist. If there is a glaring weakness in Dioussé’s game, it is his shooting, as he only took 10 shots in 33 games, with five shots going off target and another five being blocked.
It seemed like Empoli would survive relegation, but a 2-1 defeat to Palermo as well as Crotone winning 3-1 against Lazio in the final round of Serie A condemned them to Serie B. A player with the ability of Dioussé was always unlikely to languish in Serie B, and his former coach Giampaolo was keen to bring him to Sampdoria.
Nonetheless, Saint-Étienne acquired his services, and after six rounds, Les Verts sit third in Ligue 1. and the only game they have lost so far was a 3-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain, in which he did not feature for tactical reasons. He also earned a call-up to the Senegalese national team for their World Cup qualifiers against Burkina Faso. Barring any injury, expect him to do the same for two crucial qualifiers in October and November against Cape Verde and South Africa, Les Lions de la Teranga attempt a last-gasp push for a plane ticket to Russia next summer.
Assane Dioussé might be taking time to adapt to a new role and a different style of football, but with his physical strength and footballing attributes, he has everything necessary to become a top class holding midfielder.
By: Vito Doria/@VitoCDoria