Ever since he was a bright young thing at the JMG Academy in Bamako, or when he was netting a decisive semi-final winner against the Ivory Coast at the 2016 African Nations Championship, he’s been a player of whom great things have been expected…one day.
Speaking last month, Brighton & Hove Albion coach Chris Hughton proclaimed how excited he was at the midfielder’s potential, with the 60-year-old manager clearly looking forward to the Mali international’s capacity to grow in the future.
“He is still learning,” Hughton told The Argus. “He is a wonderful talent, probably one of the most talented players that we've had here, but it's just about nurturing that one.
“He is still young, he is still learning the language and he will get better.”
Praise from Hughton, certainly, although reading between the lines, it’s clear that there’s a significant gap between where Bissouma is and where the coach believes he can be.
Hughton’s words, discussion of ‘nurturing’, would be appropriate for a player of 18, 19,perhaps, but at 22, Bissouma ought to be at a different stage of his development.
Which of these 21-22-year-old central midfielders have impressed you most in the Premier League so far this season?— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) February 25, 2019
Compare him with some of the other young central midfielders in the Premier League.
He’s the same age, for example, as Wilfred Ndidi, one of the division’s finest in his position.
Yet while Ndidi hit the ground running after swapping the Belgian top flight for Leicester, quickly establishing himself as one of the Prem’s most effective tacklers, Bissouma has struggled to make an impact.
Ndidi became so accomplished so quickly, that he almost didn’t fit alongside the other nominated youngsters when he was shortlisted for Caf’s 2018 Young Player of the Year award.
Even Huddersfield Town’s Philip Billing, playing for the worst team in the division and in his maiden Premier League season, has eclipsed Bissouma for defensive numbers so far this term.
While the Malian has averaged 2.1 tackles per match, Billing has managed 3.1 Similarly, the latter’s average interceptions of two per match is superior to 1.1 for Bissouma.
Comparing Bissouma to even younger central midfielders—players like Declan Rice, Ruben Neves, Matteo Guendouzi—does not reflect well on the West African.
He could argue, perhaps, that he’s not been given ample opportunity to impress, with only nine of his 18 league outings coming from the start.
However, for Hughton, there’s clearly room for improvement—both on and off the pitch.
“The game, particularly in the position he plays, is about a lot of aspects and you have got to do enough of those aspects well,” the former Newcastle United coach continued.
"At the moment he is still developing,” Hughton concluded. “I think once he gets a good grasp of the language he'll improve."
Even though his English may still be limited, and even though he’s yet to truly impose himself on Premier League contests, Bissouma still has his admirers.
One of whom, teammate Dale Stephens, has had the opportunity to witness Bissouma’s qualities up close, even if, again, he speaks of the box-to-box midfielder as though he were a much younger player.
"He's got bundles of ability,” Stephens told journalists, as per the Brighton and Hove Independent.
“He's still a young boy and is still learning, but I'm sure he'll be a massive asset for this football club.
“He's probably got the most ability in a young boy that I've played with,” Stephens continued. "He's got the ability of perhaps a winger playing in central midfield with the way he can go past players.
“His feet are incredible and I'm sure he's going to get better and better.”
Certainly, Bissouma appears to be turning the corner, and there are signs that he may demonstrate that he’s more than just pure potential before the 2018-19 season is over.
Brighton’s FA Cup run has afforded the former LOSC Lille man the opportunity to find his feet.
He was decisive in both of the Seagulls’ goals as they dispatched Derby County 2-1 in the FA Cup recently, playing in Anthony Knockaert for the opener before his long strike rebounded off the post into the path of Jurgen Locadia for the hosts’ second.
talkSPORT’s Perry Groves claimed at half-time that Bissouma had “run the game” against the Rams, demonstrating the kind of authority that he’s only shown in glimpses in the Prem.
Bissouma isn’t lacking confidence, but the FA Cup—he also scored in the Third Round victory over Bournemouth—has helped him to further integrate into this Brighton team.
"He's got everything you need to be a top player,” Stephens continued. “It's all about getting experience and minutes and I'm sure he'll get that here.
"A lot of the older players will have an influence on him and I'm sure the manager will speak to him about decision-making,” the midfielder concluded.
“As a young boy, it's not at its best at the moment but he'll learn that by playing more games and I'm sure he'll become a top player."
Bissouma, in principle, has the potential to surpass the likes of Guendouzi, Billing, and even Ndidi.
While he has the quality to impose himself upon a midfield and protect the backline in the way those aforementioned players ought to, he boasts the kind of technical class, footwork and shooting from range that they cannot match.
He can be a destroyer, a creator and a dynamic carrier—all rolled into one.
He’s just the kind of player that Brighton need to help turn contests in their favour as they look to pull their way away from the relegation zone.
At 22, it’s time for the athletic, talented Bissouma to prove that he’s more than just pure potential.