Perfect in every aspect of football.” Of all the tributes paid to Idrissa Gana Gueye for his impact at Everton – the new N’Golo Kanté, the signing of the season so far or an absolute steal at 6.3% of the cost of Paul Pogba, to repeat a few – none have been as hard-earned or important as Ronald Koeman’s description of his display against Middlesbrough last Saturday. And what does Gueye recall of the game? A missed tackle. Perfect does not sit easily with a perfectionist.
Everton were 3-1 ahead and comfortably repelling Middlesbrough’s attempts to get back into the contest when, to general astonishment around Goodison Park, their relentless midfielder slid into a challenge near the touchline and did not emerge with the ball. Gueye punched the pitch in anger as his opponent escaped. He broke into laughter in stoppage time when, having sprayed a pass out to Tom Cleverley, the realisation dawned that the Everton substitute was in the technical area waiting to replace Gareth Barry. They were the only slips in a performance that warranted high praise from Everton’s demanding manager and maintained the Senegal international’s seamless transition from Aston Villa. But that tackle …
“I remember the moment well,” the softly spoken 26-year-old says. “I am a perfectionist on things like that and I was very frustrated. I don’t like to lose the ball ever or lose a one-on-one. I’m usually quite good at getting my foot on the ball first time and controlling it under pressure but in this case it didn’t happen. I was annoyed when I saw him come away with the ball. I think that is a feeling I’ve had in me since I started at the academy.”
Gueye is referring to Diambars football academy 70km south of his hometown of Dakar. Established by Patrick Vieira, the former France goalkeeper Bernard Lama, ex-Benin defender Jimmy Adjovi-Boco and Saer Seck, president of Senegal’s football league, it provides selected young football talents with facilities and an education that is otherwise in short supply. Gueye’s signed Villa shirt is framed on the reception wall. Unfailingly polite, early for the interview – an exclusive in itself – the midfielder reflects well on Diambars’ mission, in the words of technical coaching director Moussa Kamara, to educate “model men for emerging Senegal. It’s not just about football.”
Diambars’ alma mater on Merseyside explains: “It was there I learned to press, run with the ball and be aggressive in possession. That’s something I learned from a young age. I went there as a 14-year-old and stayed until I was 19. We only saw our families during the holidays and that was tough but it was an important place to get an education in football. It taught you to have a lot of respect but it also gave you a lot of joie de vivre for the game, which is a great thing to have. The academy instilled in us the desire to develop, to progress and to achieve a professional career. It created for us a model of how to emulate the great professional players and we were surrounded by that all the time.
“I was more of an attacking midfielder than a defensive midfielder when I first went there but what encouraged me to change was that I wanted to have more time on the ball. For a lot of defensive midfielders it is just about blocking and intercepting, a purely defensive role, but I wanted to run with the ball and track back to recover the ball when I didn’t have it. Making runs and passes was always part of my game, before the defensive side.”
Gueye’s statistics against Middlesbrough are consistent with the start to his Everton career and underline why Koeman emphasized “every aspect” of his contribution to a fourth win in five Premier League games, one more than he experienced throughout last season with Villa. In keeping with defensive midfield duties, the £7.1m summer signing had more touches than any player on the pitch (106 to Seamus Coleman in second with 92) and produced more tackles and passes than any other Everton player (eight and 87 respectively. Barry was second on both counts with three and 68). Yet he also completed as many dribbles as Yannick Bolasie and Kevin Mirallas. “Yes, he wins a lot of the second balls and tackles,” Koeman said: “But he also showed composure on the ball, left, right and always trying to play forwards. He is a fantastic signing for the club.”
Gueye’s range perhaps explains why he distances himself from comparisons with Kanté. Steve Walsh, Everton’s new director of football, has shaped the career path of both, pushing his former club Leicester City to sign the France international and stating the case for Gueye on his arrival at Goodison. Otherwise, as Gueye explains: “I’ve heard this a few times but I wouldn’t say there is a real comparison between me and N’Golo. He is who he is and I’m my own player, but I can see the model and why people would say that. When I was younger the player I looked up to was David Beckham. I used to watch him play often, whenever I could, but when I switched to a more defensive position I began to look up to Lassana Diarra. He’s the player I tried to emulate.”
Gueye and Everton’s fine start to the campaign ended abruptly on Tuesday with defeat to Norwich City in the EFL Cup. Gueye, who turns 27 next week, describes the first reverse of Koeman’s reign as “a knock on the back of the head”. He explains: “It was a reminder to us that we have to always do things right and that the result comes down to the work rate you put in. We need to focus on that again at Bournemouth on Saturday.”
Everton’s astute purchase is drawing comparisons between his current club and the Lille team with which he won the French title in 2011, specifically the talent both possess in the final third, when he is suddenly called away for lunch at Finch Farm. Koeman demands that meals are taken together at Everton but lunch, it soon transpires, has been delayed so Gueye returns of his own accord to an interview that had appeared over. He is asked why he prefers Gana on the back of his shirt. He asks if he can put a few “thank yous” in print. It seems a reasonable exchange.
“Gana is my middle name and the name my father gave me in honor of my grandfather,” he says. “It was passed down to me as a mark of respect for my grandfather, though he never liked football. My father played and my two older brothers played but my grandfather no, he had no interest in the game at all. I’ve always lived for football, everyone in Senegal absolutely loves football apart from my grandfather!
“My big brothers played and although they didn’t get to the same level they were my role models. They are so happy for me now and, if this is the right place, I want to thank my family and friends for supporting me during a very difficult time last season at Aston Villa. It was a difficult period with the results and relegation and afterwards I was waiting for a new club to come in for me. They were all supporting me and praying for me and here we are today. I would also like to say thanks to the manager and Steve and everyone at Everton who made the move happen.
By the end of the season there may be accolades to accompany what resembles an acceptance speech for Gana Gueye.