The Premier League’s Newest Faces

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Idrissa Gueye at Aston Villa

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Back in the spring, we ran a piece about Tim Sherwood and his success at revitalizing Aston Villa’s offense. While Christian Benteke was a huge part of Villa’s success in front of goal, much of that came from an energetic and attack-minded midfield. So attack-minded, in fact, that the holding or defensive midfielder position was largely deemphasized.

For much of Sherwood’s reign, that role had been nominally filled by Ashley Westwood. While he was certainly the deepest-lying of Villa’s midfield four or five, he does not exactly excel at protecting the backline. For bigger games, Colombia’s Carlos Sánchez was brought in, though one gets the impression after his exceptional Copa America display that he didn’t have enough time on the pitch last season to prove his true quality.

However much Villa’s goals-per-game improved under Sherwood, their goals conceded per game actually increased slightly. It’s telling, then, that Villa’s first dip into the transfer market this summer has been for Ligue 1 side Lille’s Idrissa Gueye. The Senegalese defensive midfielder earned top marks throughout a season in which Lille otherwise struggled. He excels at tackling and interceptions, and can even act as a distributor when Villa transition into attack. He’s precisely the kind of presence in midfield Sherwood’s Villa so sorely lacked last season.

Villa’s unimpressive numbers in defense under Sherwood are enough to justify investment in Gueye, but it’s easy to imagine that the club might have also taken some inspiration from José Pékerman’s Colombia side in this summer’s Copa America. As we’ve covered extensively, Carlos Sánchez put on a surprising masterclass in defending high up the pitch before Colombia’s exit in the quarterfinals. Even if Colombia’s supposedly vaunted offense shot blanks, there’s no denying that the side was extraordinarily well balanced. Sherwood might be imagining a Sánchez and Gueye partnership in midfield that allows him to be all the more aggressive with his front four.

Next: Dimitri Payet