I’ll never forget the initial bravado and confidence of Issa Diop entering the Premier League.
Standing at 6’4″ and captaining Toulouse at the age of 21, we all thought that our then manager Manuel Pellegrini had laid his hands on an up-and-coming star in his summer spending spree.
But fast forward from his move to east London from France’s Ligue 1 in 2017 for a then club-record £22 million, we are now wondering which Diop will show up in matches.
Will it be Mourinho’s ‘monster’ who recently commanded the backline and served up a beautiful long ball to create a goal versus Leicester, or will it be the inconsistent liability that makes poor decisions, and let Fabianski be exposed during the Kidderminster match?
With a year and change left on his contract, only time and West Ham’s injury management will tell.
Cast your mind back to those early days though and the expectation was that we had signed a versatile young centre half who could play Pellegrini’s high line, play from out the back, and be able to bring in a modern era of defending, having seen Ginger Pele retire, and Winston Reid still entrenched at the physios.
It wasn’t just his transfer fee that set a club record – he was also the first West Ham player to score an own goal on his debut in a 3-1 Arsenal defeat.
But that stroke of bad luck was nullified when he thundered a shot into the net from 30 yards out in a cup tie against AFC Wimbledon, which gave us the motivation we needed to recover the game, win, and move onto the next round from a losing position.
We were further bolstered by his performance a month later in September during a home match versus Mourinho’s iteration of Manchester United, with a 3-1 defeat for the Red Devils where Pogba and Lukaku were both nullified.
In his post match interview Mourinho exclaimed of Diop: ‘He had a fantastic match. Congratulations to the scout that found a 21-year-old kid Diop — a monster who dominated in the duels.’
And in a match versus Tottenham in that same Autumn, Diop was also hailed the hero when he stopped Harry Kane with an impeccably-timed, last-ditch tackle that saw Kane’s breakaway halted in the box as he was winding up to shoot.
The pundits and fans alike thought Issa was the next big six transfer target and estimated his transfer market worth at somewhere near £70 million.
Somewhere in the thin space between Pellegrini’s high line and David Moyes’ defensive backbone, Issa fell from form, and it wasn’t just simple mistakes but a general onslaught of inconsistency, errors, and poor decision making.
Diop lost his defensive partner in Fabian Balbuena, and gained a partner in Ogbonna whose form increased until his injury this season.
With veteran defender Dawson or fellow Frenchman in Kurt Zouma for centre back partners, fans thought Diop might take his chance, find form and become a new number one centre back to replace Ogbonna.
But instead, we’ve seen shocking performances, like that in the match versus Kidderminster Harriers, where he looked shaky on the ball, gave up possession easily and was getting turned by sixth tier non-league players.
I personally think he should be tried out as a box-to box-midfielder, because there would be less last ditch pressure on him.
He could still defend, he can carry the ball up the field in long strides as we’ve seen him do in some matches, and he was originally positioned as a striker in his academy days.
With West Ham’s lack of squad options, perhaps he’ll play various positions other than just being our third or fourth choice centre back?