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African All Stars

Bissouma vs Etebo: Midfield clash shows coaches' different styles

7:57 PM WAT 24/08/2021
Etebo Bissouma
The Mali star dominated the encounter at the Amex, while the Nigerian was handicapped by his head coach’s passive approach

The uniqueness of the sport is somewhat typified by the analogous game plans and trends throughout 90 minutes.

At times, you spot the tactical developments in the opening minutes while some matches take longer to get going for varying reasons.

Brighton & Hove Albion's 2-0 success over Watford in gameweek two of the Premier League falls into the former category, without a shadow of a doubt.

Inside the first five minutes, it was easy to tell how both sides were going to approach proceedings. With Graham Potter’s men, it was obvious the hosts would play on the front foot, looking to control possession and dominate the game in front of a raucous crowd.

On the other hand, Xisco Munoz’s men appeared content to sit off their hosts, seemingly reluctant to engage in the Seagulls’ half. The Hornets’ shape was clearly a 4-1-4-1, which morphed into a 4-5-1 for the majority of the opening half when they didn’t have possession.

Two African performances distinguished the head coach’s approaches at the Amex, with Yves Bissouma producing another stellar performance in the middle of the park to, again, question why none of the top sides have made a move for the Mali superstar this summer.

Conversely, Oghenekaro Etebo couldn’t get on the ball in his holding midfield role. Known for his box-to-box tendencies, the continued decision to play the Nigeria man at the base of the midfield against Aston Villa and Brighton certainly befuddles.

Having also been deployed in that role during pre-season, Xisco’s plan for the season is obviously to utilise the Stoke City loanee as a holding midfielder. Maybe it’s too soon to criticise the decision, but initial reservations aren’t out of place owing to the Super Eagle’s profile.

The Watford boss had spoken pre-match about the need to play with the same ambition they showed against Villa and pressed on attempting to try to replicate performances at Vicarage Road in away matches.

Xisco also commended Etebo’s Premier League debut, notably praising the on-loan midfielder’s work ethic and commitment.

“He played very well,” Munoz stated pre-match. “He was the balance, he was always in a very good position, always gave a very good chance for recovery and helped the other players. He was very good because he understood perfectly what we need to give more in front.

“His game was very clever. He didn’t have a lot of time with the ball, but he was excellent, it was what we wanted from him. He gave the team 100 per cent with full power in attack and defence.”

However, against Brighton, the Nigerian was restrained while Bissouma played assertively in and out of possession. Etebo was largely uninvolved in the build-up phase and rarely showed for the man with the ball, seemingly avoiding receiving the ball under pressure, turn and then carry the ball into midfield.

It’s no surprise he played only two progressive passes in the tea-time fixture, two fewer than the Seagull who played four. Interestingly, the Stoke loanee made no progressive carries for the entirely of the match. Bissouma made four.

The greatest example of the Brighton player’s confidence under pressure came in the 52nd minute.

After receiving the ball in his defensive third from Shane Duffy with Etebo closing in and Tom Cleverly looking to double-team on the Malian, the Albion man escaped with two touches: a flick to wrong-foot the Nigerian and, the second, a forward pass into midfield to release Alexis Mac Allister who was in acres of space.

That move ended with Aaron Connolly missing a gilt-edged chance to make it 3-0, and those few seconds exposed flaws in Xisco’s modus operandi.

Despite having five players in the home side’s third as the move developed, their press was half-hearted at best and non-existent at worst, allowing Duffy the freedom to pick out his assured teammate with ease.

They sought to press high but with little coherence. The defence line staying deep left a gaping hole in the middle after Etebo tardily engaged Bissouma, leaving Xisco’s team wide open.

Contrast that incident minutes after the break to how Brighton’s second goal came about four minutes before half-time.

Immediately William Troost-Ekong receives the ball from Daniel Bachmann in the Watford goal and Bissouma senses the out-of-options centre-back is about to play a reluctant pass to Cleverly, he harries the former Manchester United midfielder and duly intercepts, thus setting up Neal Maupay for his second of the season.

Noticeably, this could have been avoided if Etebo was confident enough to drop deeper and receive a pass under pressure. Predominantly, though, this exposed imperfections in the Hornets organisation and know-how against a well-organised team.

Brighton were more competent in their press — notably winning possession 39 percent of the time within five seconds of engaging the Watford player with the ball — while Xisco’s men struggled (27.5 percent success rate).

After only two games, Potter’s men currently rank third in the Premier League behind Everton and Brentford for the percentage of successful pressures, highlighting how Saturday’s showing was no fluke. In 2020/21, only Manchester City and Leicester City ranked higher, further emphasising the impressive work done by the 46-year-old English tactician.

Xisco may have lauded his team’s response after the interlude — and they were a well-timed Emmanuel Dennis run away from halving the deficit (the centre-forward was flagged offside) — but Brighton were worthy winners at the Amex.

In a sense, Bissouma and Etebo respectively characterised the superior integration of one team vis-a-vis another’s mish-mash approach.