Cheikhou Kouyate's duties belong in midfield - with Arsenal display showing promise
(Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside - Getty Images)

In midweek, Crystal Palace faced a visit from Arsenal, as Selhurst Park limbered up for Roy Hodgson's last home game at the eminence of the south London club he called his own; a penultimate swansong to his illustrious managerial lifework. 

But the manager's final year in the Premier League has been anything other than plain sailing. Clubs up and down the country have been gripped vehemently by the poisonous difficulties of injuries and illnesses during the 2020/21 campaign. 

While some club's medical gluts have been more well-documented than others, the fact is, every outfit has been chastised. For Hodgson and his Eagles team, the dilemmas have bestirred most salient in defence.

This has seen Kouyate's role in the anchorage of the midfield mutate to a central defensive duty for most of the season. With Gary Cahill, James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho having their extensive bouts with injuries this season, Kouyate has had no choice but to deputise at the axis of defence, playing regularly alongside Scott Dann

However, a chafing Achillies injury for Eberechi Eze forced Hodgson to reevaluate his system, and so the roles of the players at his disposal were also reconsidered. The conventional 4-4-2 system was dropped, and a midfield three was preferred, introducing the Senegalese powerhouse to the midfield for the first time in what seems like a blue moon. 

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Cheikhou Kouyate was signed by Roy Hodgson in the Englishman's first full summer transfer window, and since then, the Senegalese international has entrenched himself as a high-principled harness within the Crystal Palace ranks. 

Being a reliable and hardworking lynchpin in midfield, and having been initially signed for his ability to act as an extra barrier, positioned in front of the defensive line, it seems like fate that the stars have aligned for Kouyate to finish his playing days under Hodgson in the role he started in. 

  • One of Hodgson's most reliable stars

Ahead of kick-off against Arsenal, Hodgson confirmed his departure from Crystal Palace at the end of the season to the wider public. Given the kind-hearted nature of the Englishman, it was hardly surprising that a lot of players that have been guided by him stepped forward to heap their praises on the veteran.

“He’s been like a father to me, not only a manager,” Kouyate outpoured over his coach. But why would Hodgson treat him with any less attention? The Senegalese has been one of the coaches most reliable components during his days at Crystal Palace.

Every successful football team has a hardworking, industrious player like Kouyate. In Hodgson's scenario, his laborious signing has hardly missed a game since moving to south London.

His record speaks for itself. 

Having only missed five league games in the last two Premier League seasons, Kouyate has proved indispensable under his manager, becoming a key figurehead in everything that Hodgson has achieved during his reign in Croydon.

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However, the midfield natural has only been given his desired role on three occasions this season, even though he has looked just as comfortable at the back. 

  • Arsenal performance

In his return to midfield, Kouyate looked in his element against the Gunners, controlling the midfield and dictating play for large periods of the game.

The 31-year-old won 10 duels, obtained a passing accuracy against a high pressing attack of 74%, and was all round one of the highest performers for an Eagles side that crumbled at the final hurdle.

The obvious difference when Kouyate was shifted back into midfield was the structure of the Palace team. Across the whole season, there have been question marks over the midfield situation, with drab performances against the likes of Liverpool showing that Hodgson had lost his midfield sturdiness this season.

Luka Milivojevic has failed to live up to his expectations of reliability this season, but the return of Kouyate in midfield added an extra shield to the struggling defence. 

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Palace won the ball higher up the pitch, limiting the pressure that the backline had been dealt with for the majority of the season. It was the Senegalese's performance against Mikel Arteta's team that highlighted his potential to return to midfield under the new manager.

  • Palace's need for a rebuild will help Kouyate back into midfield

It has been a well-known fact for a long time now that Palace must undergo a major squad overhaul in the summer, perhaps the biggest since their 2010 summer.

As the futures of many players are still hanging in the balance, Roy Hodgson has closed the curtains on his tenure, leaving much to be speculated in the 2021 summer.

The defensive positions will particularly be assessed over any other, with aging centre backs weighing down the club with their luxurious contracts. With younger and fresher centre backs on the cards, and the increased involvement of Jesurun Rak-Sakyi in the first-team, it would seem that Kouyate's natural midfield role will be restored.

It remains to be seen who will stay at the club as the senior centre back, but it looks more and more likely that a younger addition will play alongside them, with a lack of speed being exposed at the back.