If only Steve Walsh had continued as he began as Everton’s director of football.
In his two years at Goodison Park, Walsh oversaw a plethora of expensive failures join the club - Davy Klaassen, Yannick Bolasie and Ashley Williams to name only three – but it is easy to forget that his best signing was one of the first he brought through the door, and one of the cheapest.
To the passing observer, Idrissa Gueye may not have seemed a worthwhile investment two summers ago, even with a release clause of a mere £7.1 million.
Having joined Aston Villa the year before, Gueye was a mainstay in the shambolic Villans side relegated with a whimper; in the Premier League era, only Derby County, with an 11-point haul in 2007/08, and Sunderland’s 15 in 2005/06, have sunk lower than Villa’s pitiful 17 in 2015/16.
But in August 2016, Walsh and then-new Blues boss Ronald Koeman, felt Gueye could be the uncompromising, tough-tackling midfielder which so desperately eluded Roberto Martinez’s porous Everton side the previous year
To the surprise of some Evertonians, Gueye has, for the most part, proved precisely that.
In his debut season on Merseyside, no player completed more Premier League tackles than Gueye’s 135; not even N’Golo Kanté who, even in Gueye’s ill-fated year at Villa, was the only player to better his tackling and intercepting statistics, could surpass the spiky-haired Senegalese. After a 3-1 home win against Middlesbrough, lifting the Blues to second after five games, Koeman described his new addition as “perfect” in each aspect of football.
Last term, only the Foxes’ Wilfred Ndidi bettered Gueye’s 117 tackles and, in the embryonic stages of this campaign, the irrepressible midfielder already leads the way. The 19 tackles Everton’s number 17 has completed in only the last two games alone are more than all but ten players in the entire Premier League have made all season.
Gueye has patent detractors to his game; he seldom provides the sort of creativity delivered by Gylfi Sigurðsson and Richarlison, for instance, and after just four strikes in 79 Everton appearances, a Gana goal has become a collector’s item.
But Saturday’s 3-0 home win over Fulham epitomised all that is excellent about his game; facing a side who prefer to keep the ball at ground level, Gueye was always in for a busy afternoon, but put in one of his best performances in an Everton shirt to-date.
Sigurðsson understandably took the headlines for his brace, but Gueye outperformed even the Icelandic against the Whites. Tackles, particularly his exquisite sliding challenges, were timed to perfection, loose balls were intercepted comfortably, passes were weighted and aimed beautifully.
This was reflected in the statistics post-match; no other player gracing the glowing Goodison turf yesterday managed more passes or completed tackles, or won more duels, than Gueye.
The remarkable rise of Kanté, playing in the same position as Gueye, has perhaps starved the Blues midfielder of the credit he deserves. While Gueye has a relegation and seventh and eighth-placed finishes to show for his time in England, Kanté has been key to two title-winning sides at Leicester City and Chelsea.
But it would difficult to justify any claims that Gueye is not up there with the Frenchman as one of the league’s best defensive midfielders; in a period fraught with upheaval and turmoil for the blue half of Merseyside, he has been one of few positives almost constantly.
He might never be as appreciated as he should be by the wider audience, nor will he ever be Everton’s most exciting player to watch, but yesterday proved he is absolutely essential to how the Toffees play. The metronomic quality he brings to the side is indispensable and cannot be understated; when the Blues perform, so too, invariably, does Gueye.
One of the smaller players at the club at just five feet and seven inches, he does not have the archetypal imposing build of a defensive midfielder. But what Gueye lacks in physicality, he compensates for, time and again, with his work rate and ability.
He may be small in stature, but he is colossal in heart.