When Papy Djilobodji became David Moyes’ first signing back in August I thought we had wasted a significant part of our limited transfer budget. I wasn’t sure how a Chelsea reserve commanded such a large fee - despite hearing that he had impressed at Werder Bremen over the second half of last season.
His performances for us at the start of the season did not make me want to change my mind. In fact, he looked rash, complacent, and guilty of making far too many individual errors. Games like Everton at home and Spurs away exposed his lack of confidence and lack of form. I’m sure I was not alone in thinking that he lacked the required ability and that he would never settle into our first team.
How wrong I was.
The upturn in his form started away at Bournemouth - that is when he started to look like he might justify the £8m price tag. He was dominant in the air and made three key interceptions in the second half, as well as thirteen clearances during the match.
And after that game - and what a game it was - he started to look more assured and more consistent. He was also particularly strong in the 2-1 win over Leicester. However, despite the massive turn around in his form, he had rightly not been our man of the match for any game this season due to the match-winning exploits of players like Defoe, Pickford and Anichebe.
The Watford game on Saturday was the first time he truly stood out as our best performer. He was vital to the defensive display that allowed us to hang on and secure three crucial points. If he had not been playing, I don’t think we would be celebrating a win this week.
He was a man-mountain when we needed him most. Against Watford, according to Squawka and WhoScored, he made 12 clearances, won 7 out of 10 headers, won 5 out of 7 tackles, and deserved a strong (and oddly precise) 8.13/10. Most of his key interceptions came in the last fifteen minutes of the game, when we had dropped deep and were desperately clinging on to the lead.
However, sometimes statistics can’t paint the full picture. His recent passing stats have been strong in terms of passes completed - but it is his use of the ball which is most impressive. He has been increasingly influential on the ball the past six weeks and looks confident firing the ball into Anichebe’s chest or feet so that we can move up the pitch. Of all our defenders, he seems to be the most assured in possession.
It will be a huge loss for us in January if Senegal decide to take him to the African Cup of Nations. In my opinion, his departure will impact us even more than Lamine Kone’s (especially as Kone seems to have one eye on Everton and the other on West Ham). This is something I never thought I’d say.
I’m not saying that he no longer makes mistakes. Nor that he won’t make more mistakes in the future. Ultimately, if he didn’t make mistakes, he wouldn’t be playing for us. The brilliant thing is how much he’s improved his decision-making and cut down on the individual errors. And he’s winning more headers, making more interceptions, and dominating the back-line more as well. Long may it continue.
The most telling thing for me is that back in September, I was worried when I saw his name on the team-sheet. Now, I’d be worried if I didn’t see his name on the team-sheet - just don’t expect me to spell it right first time!