AFCON 2019: Will Senegal's unsung hero Idrissa Gueye finally get the credit he deserves?
African football loves to laud its superstars. Images, narratives and stories surrounding Mohamed Salah dominated the first half of this Africa Cup of Nations, while Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez have stepped into the limelight during the knockout stages following the hosts' early exit.
Now some quarters are billing Friday's final between Algeria and Senegal as a showdown between Mahrez and Mane -- a re-run of the epic Manchester City-Liverpool slugfest that drove that English Premier League title race last term -- but there are other players who deserve their moment in the limelight.
Algeria's Youcef Atal, before a broken collar-bone ended his tournament prematurely, lived up to his billing with excellent displays down the right, while Youcef Belaili has made up for lost time -- and overcome his troubled past -- to contribute a series of decisive performances for Les Fennecs.
Senegal's Ismaila Sarr has also demonstrated the qualities that have seen him linked with a series of European heavyweights over the past 12 months, while Ismael Bennacer appears close to securing a move from Empoli to AC Milan after some eye-catching showings in Egypt.
One player who continues to go under the radar, however, is Idrissa Gana Gueye, even though during the Africa Cup of Nations he's stepped away from his traditional role as anchor man and water-carrier -- a position that doesn't naturally get the pulse racing like other more attacking positions.
Gueye has been the lynchpin of this Senegal side, offering much more than mere defensive qualities as the Lions of Teranga have advanced to the AFCON final for just the second time in their history.
The 29-year-old Everton man has never been considered alongside the likes of John Obi Mikel, Yaya Toure or Michael Essien -- great African players in that position over the past 15 years -- but success in Friday's final could go some way in cementing his status as the finest African midfielder in the game today.
The search for a solution
There have been several fascinating talking points underpinning Senegal's journey to the AFCON final: Mane's absence against Tanzania; his missed penalties against Kenya and Uganda; the injury to Salif Sane, Kalidou Koulibaly's suspension for the final; and now Aliou Cisse's return to the final as a coach having been a defeated finalist as a player in 2002.
Yet Gueye's role in this side has gone under the radar.
Without a natural creative central midfielder, Cisse has had to adapt his strategy in order to prevent Senegal from getting bogged down in the middle of the park.
At the World Cup, he attempted to do this by pushing the full-backs forward to create greater width and more angles for the attack; Youssouf Sabaly and Moussa Wague both impressed in Russia, but the latter -- in particular -- has not had the same impact in Egypt.
After the victory over Tanzania, Cisse explained the strength of this Senegal team.
"The boys understand that, when the boys put their individual qualities to the service of the collective, Senegal become a very beautiful team," he said.
Gueye has been key to this philosophy.
A new role
During the 2019 AFCON, Cisse has demanded a slightly modified role from Badou N'Diaye, asking the midfielder -- who excels typically as an explosive presence, driving through the middle and arriving in the box late -- to see more of the ball, take his time in possession, anchor the midfield, and keep things ticking over for the Lions.
With Henri Saivet -- a wide forward earlier in his career -- reining in his attacking impulses but exploiting his energy and work rate to link defence and attack, Gueye has been allowed to take the most advanced position within the midfield three.
"I've got N'Diaye playing as the anchor man, which allows us to get forward, to attack, to get close to the opponents' goal and to try to score," Gueye told journalists earlier in the campaign.
"I'm trying to do my best to help my team, and I'm doing so by playing in this role. I'm very happy."
At times, he's even found himself operating as something of a No. 10, functioning in the half-space between the opponents' midfield and defence, seeking to create an overload in this area.
Cisse has seen the modified role as a return to Gueye's origins.
"He's the boy with the most appearances for the national team today in this side," the coach told journalists after the Tanzania win.
"He's an absolute framework [for this team], but beyond that, he's a guy with enormous offensive qualities; we mustn't forget this.
"I remember at Lille, where he was formed, he evolved in this [more attacking] role here, at Diambars; he began a bit higher up the pitch, and it was only when he arrived at Lille that he was used as more of an anchor man.
"It's true that what I ask him to do is to project himself a bit more, to avoid coming deep to collect the ball from the feet of [Kalidou] Koulibaly or Sabaly, but to find himself on the inside of the play and between the lines."
It's a notable show of faith in a player who's scored just three goals and contributed five assists in three seasons of Premier League action with Everton.
Senegal haven't been emphatically successful; they were defeated by Algeria in the group stage, laboured to break down a fairly limited Kenya side, and only defeated Uganda, Benin and Tunisia (after extra time) by one goal in the knockouts.
That said, Cisse has solved a problem that many of the teams at this tournament have had -- and Gueye has been his solution.
"He is a guy with enormous quality, who's capable of playing as a holding midfielder or much further up the pitch," Cisse told journalists.
"He's blessed with a great technique, which can allow him to play in pockets of space, and show a bit more creativity.
"He's scoring because he's getting forward as well."
A decisive contributor
The Everton man has responded to the coach's faith -- and the modified role -- with a series of notable contributions; he provided the assist for Keita Balde's opener as Tanzania were undone in their opener, before settling a cagey, tight contest against Benin with the winner in the Round of 16.
"As he has this ability to come back with the ball, in the spaces, he can interact with Keita Balde or a player like Mbaye Diagne," Cisse said.
"I asked him to be very close to the attackers, and I know he's capable of scoring goals as well.
"Technically, he's very talented."
Gueye was among Senegal's best performers in the win against Uganda, consistently breaking up the Cranes' attempted attacking build-up, and pressuring higher up the pitch in order to prevent the East Africans from settling into a rhythm.
Indeed, it was from this approach that the breakthrough came, as Godfrey Walusimbi was forced into an error, Senegal pounced, and Mane finished calmly to give the Lions the advantage.
"Uganda are a team that press very hard and take the game to you," Gueye said after the match.
"We tried a new approach by playing long balls and keeping it in their area. When we got it back, we pressed and went straight for goal."
More than a defensive Trojan?
While Gueye's defensive contribution has been important, he hasn't made anything like the volume of ball retrievals that he does in the Premier League, where his brief with Everton is much more limiting.
The midfielder's defensive statistics in the top flight in recent campaigns have been magnificent, with only N'Golo Kante, and latterly Wilfred Ndidi, rivalling the former Lille man for average tackles completed over the past four campaigns. Gueye topped the charts in 2016-17 and 2018-19, while finishing second behind Kante in 2015-16 and Ndidi in 2017-18.
Yet for a player recognised almost exclusively for his defensive contribution, Gueye has been asked to figure in a much more expansive role in Egypt, and he barely scrapes into the tournament's Top 50 most prolific tacklers.
If any of the clubs reportedly linked with a move for the midfielder are genuinely interested in recruiting him -- Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain have been named as primary suitors -- their interest has surely been piqued by Gueye's stellar defensive numbers.
Yet, as he's proving in Egypt, he's much more than a mere defensive player, and boasts the intelligence and technical quality to get the best out of his teammates higher up the pitch.
With Gueye injured, Senegal slumped to their only defeat of the tournament -- 1-0 against Algeria in the group stage. But with the battling midfielder back in the side -- as the heartbeat of this Senegal team -- they can realistically hope to clinch a maiden AFCON crown in Cairo on Friday.
It would be a fitting honour for a player who rarely gets the recognition he deserves, but who's proved in Egypt that he's much more than just a one-dimensional destroyer.