“More needs to be done. We know that we lost a number six with Pierre Hojbjerg and we need an alternative in this position…”
Ralph Hasenhuttl made it clear throughout the delayed summer transfer window that bringing in a central midfielder was going to be key to strengthening Southampton’s squad going into this season.
The Saints were linked with the likes of Everton’s Tom Davies and Toulouse’s Ibrahim Sangare, however, it was Stade Brest’s Ibrahima Diallo who eventually made the move to the south coast, coming in for a reported £13.5m fee.
Diallo is a French under-21 international, making his debut at that level in an away win against Azerbaijan a month before his move to Southampton. This in itself is an achievement given the huge number of young French players emerging right now.
An AS Monaco academy graduate, a season-long loan deal in 2018 to Ligue 2 side Stade Brest was made permanent the following year as Diallo achieved nearly 1,500 minutes in his debut senior season. Brest achieved promotion that year and Diallo was rewarded with a similar amount of game time in his first top-flight campaign.
One of the reasons Hasenhuttl was so keen to bring in a defensive minded central midfielder was Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s move to Tottenham, but even before the Dane had left Southampton, the squad was thin in this position.
Stuart Armstrong is a capable central midfielder but Hasenhuttl sees his role in the squad as more of a wide playmaker, leaving only Oriol Romeu, club captain James Ward-Prowse and recent academy graduate Will Smallbone to fill two positions in a 4-2-2-2 formation.
Ward-Prowse and Romeu have well defined roles within the Southampton set-up, sitting behind Redmond and Armstrong in a narrow defensive shape, pressing opposition central and attacking midfielders and then moving the ball quickly. Although Ward-Prowse achieved a possession-adjusted xA value of 0.24 last season, many of the chances he created were from set pieces, leaving much of the responsibility of creating chances in open play to Redmond, Armstrong and Che Adams, with Danny Ings normally the man taking the final shot.
Romeu has a surprisingly high ‘passes into the final third’ stat (4.64 / 90 min) for a player who normally occupies a holding role, featuring in the top 25% of Premier League midfielders last season. Romeu is the player Diallo is most likely to compete with for a spot in the starting line-up and this underappreciated aspect of Romeu’s play is something Diallo has to be aware of.
Looking at Diallo’s profile (via Football Slices), he proved to be one of the hardest defensive midfielders to dribble past in Ligue 1 last season, and was a successful tackler. He’s also capable of finding a teammate with a simple pass to keep the game flowing and had more than 50 touches in two-thirds of his league starts (via FBRef). Southampton tend to play a high line, as Hojbjerg’s new club Spurs took advantage of earlier in the season, and so a defensive minded midfielder who successfully tackles and tracks attacking playmakers is going to help limit through balls into the space behind Jan Bednarek and Jannik Vestergaard.
It’s important to recognise that although Diallo played a significant number of minutes last season, Romeu more than doubled his output, although the curtailment of Ligue 1 is one of the main reasons for this. The main aspect of Diallo’s game that is likely to be scrutinised closely is how Diallo copes with the added expectation of pressing opponents when introduced to the Southampton starting line-up. This is something Hasenhuttl has coached his side to do impressively, and is one of the key aspects of their defensive ability.
Aside from the earlier mentioned Spurs result, Southampton have made a bright start to the season, most recently beating league leaders Everton convincingly. Diallo was awarded a few token minutes at the end of the game when the opposition were down to ten men and waiting for the final whistle.
It will be interesting to see how and when Hasenhuttl gives Diallo the nod to play alongside Ward-Prowse in the Premier League, but Southampton fans have a fantastic prospect on their hands, and watching the Frenchman in action will only add to the excitement once Saints fans can safely return to St. Mary’s.