The role of a defensive midfielder is often a thankless task. Whilst strikers receive plaudits for scoring goals, wingers set stadiums alight with breath-taking skills, and centre-halves get to flex their gladiatorial muscles, a CDM quietly gets on with their role: crucially breaking up play, interrupting the tempo of an opposition, and thus creating an impetus for their own team to build on.
They rarely get celebrated. They’ll rarely gain any awards, but they are vital. At Crystal Palace they have had their own unsung hero this season playing in this role.
His name is Cheikhou Kouyate.
Hammers fans scratched their heads at losing a decent player but understood such a fee represented good business, especially as they had Mark Noble already at the club and a young Declan Rice coming through the ranks.
Palace supporters - having seen Chelsea loanee Reuben Loftus-Cheek thrive at Selhurst Park in the previous season - were surprised to witness such a significant sum of money being spent on another defensive midfielder, rather than an attacking one, especially as the club already had Luka Milivojevic in the first-team line-up.
However, Kouyate settled relatively quickly. In red and blue he went about his business without much fuss, helping Palace to secure mid-table finishes in efficient yet unspectacular fashion under the ultra-conservative stewardship of former manager Roy Hodgson.
From defence back into midfield
Last season, in Hodgson’s final year at the club, Kouyate was often employed as a centre-back, after the first-choice centre-back pairing of Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins often found themselves on the treatment table. Much like when playing in midfield, Kouyate rarely let his teammates down and instead gained praise for his competency at the heart of the back four.
However, it’s fair to say this year, under Patrick Vieira, Kouyate has thrived and played a pivotal role in the Frenchman’s first season in charge at the south London club.
Tasked with reducing the age of the first team squad whilst playing a more eye-catching brand of football, Vieira scattered his team with upcoming young talent, acquiring the likes of the impressive Marc Guehi, Michael Olise, and loan-signing, Conor Gallagher, in the summer transfer window.
Yet, for this evolution to run smoothly, Vieira knew he also had to lean on experienced players such as Joel Ward, Wilfried Zaha, James McArthur, and Kouyate. In Kouyate, Vieira inherited a player who would prove to be an unsung hero in a season of transition.
The Chelsea-loanee Conor Gallagher has arguably profited most from Kouyate’s solidity in the centre of the park. Gallager’s all-action displays, where he presses high on the pitch, harassing opponents and not giving them time on the ball, has only been made possible with Kouyate sitting behind him and covering the space the England international vacates. Such disciplined displays from Kouyate have not gone unnoticed, but he will rarely be the name on the back pages of Sunday newspapers.
Without possession, Kouyate reliably breaks up play, and while in possession, he knows his role is to pass the ball to more technically gifted players who can create opportunities for others.
His worth outweighs just the Premier League
Vieira clearly values Kouyate and it is no surprise considering Vieira was himself one of the world’s greatest defensive midfielders during his successful playing career. The Frenchman’s faith in Kouyate is paying off in his performances on the pitch, and not just in The Premier League.
In February, Kouyate won the AFCON with Senegal, the first trophy the football-obsessed country had ever won. Himself born in Senegal, Vieira was delighted for his player and understood what it meant to the West African country.
Speaking to the Official Crystal Palace website, Vieira recognised the sheer magnitude of Senegal’s victory over Egypt in the final but also indicated he was looking forward to his player returning to the club.
“We’ve been talking with a couple of messages,” admitted Vieira, delighted at the success Kouyate had achieved for his nation. “Hopefully I can get through to him for him to get back for the rest of the season! It’s time for him to really enjoy it because the nation was waiting for that for quite a long time.”
Upon arriving back at Crystal Palace’s training ground in Beckenham, all the players at the club formed a guard of honour in tribute to Kouyate's achievements with his country. A popular player in the camp, this was not surprising and the warmth and praise he received from his fellow teammates were heartfelt.
With his contract running out in the summer, discussions are underway between the club and the player’s representatives to look at extending Kouyate’s time at Palace. In what has been his best season yet, Palace fans will be hoping he does not call time on his Palace career just yet.
He may not be the jewel in the Palace crown, but he is clearly worth his weight in gold.