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BCA: Papy Djilobodji - 'The Competition'

Why £8m means more than a new centre-back - it's an entire new ethos of competition in the defensive line.

We need to be very unlucky if we need Djilobodji in the team when we have John Terry, Gary Cahill, Zouma and Branislav Ivanović
Bit harsh, that. Serial feelings-offender José Mourinho (quoted from September) probably never wanted Papy Djilobodji at Chelsea last season. You know who did? We did! And here we are, one year later and the Senegalese defender who cost Chelsea only £2.98 million has been recruited to Sunderland for reportedly triple that amount.

And no, this is not an overly-inflated fee exemplifying the skewed market value of footballers in 2016 either. In fact, the argument here is that £8 million is not only a good deal for a reliable centre-back; but an immediate adrenaline shot-in-the-arm to a defence where competitiveness has been stagnating for years. Here’s why.

Back in January, Black Cats Analects applauded the arrival of Lamine Koné with reference to his undervalued record as one of the most consistent defenders in Ligue 1. He brought that good form to Sunderland and then some. But as good as Koné was over in France, one name would always appear above him in the stats and numbers: El Hadji Papy Mison Boncur Djilobodji. Aye.

Actually, between 2013 and 2015, Papy Djilobodji was just plain better than most defenders in Ligue 1 – if not all, you could argue. For FC Nantes (where he endured over a hundred Ligue 2 appearances for prior) the centre-back consistently ranked in the top seven for defenders in just about everything.

Even in brief, you get the idea. From the 13/14 season; Djilobodji ranked fifth best for most clearances, third best for minutes-per-interception (32); fourth best for most shots; the third best rate of take-ons with a 90% success rate; sixth best for minutes-per-aerial dual wins (30), and seventh best for headers won per game (3).

In the following season 14/15, again, it gets better. There, the Senegalese tallied fourth best for minutes-per-interception (27); second best for rate of clearances; third best for most shots; first for total successful take-ons; fourth best for minutes-per-aerial dual wins (28); with the fifth best rate for creating goal-scoring opportunities and the second most headers won per game in the league.

These are the accomplishments of a good defender in any league and of one too good to play just one minute in the League Cup 3rd Round. That’s how José Mourinho valued Djilobodji; so by January the player was shipped out on loan to relegation-threatened SV Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

To say that Djilobodji had a mirror-reflective half-season to Lamine Koné at Sunderland would be an understatement. From immediate first team starts to a relegation-deciding, goal-scoring, man-of-the-match performance on the final week; there is no disputing that many ‘Die Werderaner’supporters hold the same fondness for Djilobodji that we do for Koné.

But there’s more to the defender’s half-season Bundesliga venture than just the end-of-season headlines he created; because it was here where Djilobodji proved to not only be the best player for his club – again – but one of the better defenders in the division. Again.

Now, it’s important to note that a player on fewer matches can appear statistically better than a another more consistent player who has gone 90 minutes across a whole season, so look at it this way: Djilobodji played fourteen league fixtures for Werder Bremen, so against other centre-backs on as many or more minutes played, here’s how he compared.

On his 15/16 half-season, Djilobodji stacked up a 75% tackling success rate; notched the best minutes-per-interception rate in the division (22) on a total of 57; his cross-blocking every 315 minutes and shot-blocking every 96 minutes were of the higher rate in the Bundesliga. Offensively, he was also excellent; with the second best minutes-per-shot rate in the league (57) on a commendable 22 shots in half a season at a 45% shooting accuracy. He also had the fourth best successful rate for take-ons on an 89% success rate (he only failed once).  For aerial duals he ranked the league best for successful headers, on one every 17 minutes with a 76% accuracy – that’s five headers won per game (a great contribution in any league!).

Round that all off with Djilobodji creating the third most goal-scoring opportunities for defenders (again, in a half-season), and being second only to Jérôme Boateng for rate of chance creation in the Bundesliga, and we’re now talking about a player who has proven himself across two leagues, against some of the continent’s best attacking teams.

Add in the fact that, between January and May this year, Djilobodji also bettered the majority of Lamine Koné and Younès Kaboul’s own contributions at Sunderland – sometimes by double their numbers – and we go back to the original point.  If Koné only beat Djilobodji for tackling success and clearance rate last season, and we expect him to be a guaranteed first team starter this season, then what role does Djilobodji play at Sunderland if he was better at everything else?

Hopefully our new arrival is not the pre-emptive replacement for an outgoing Koné. Let’s assume he isn’t. We can expect Djilobodji will be considered ahead of John O’Shea but Younès Kaboul has had as good a season as anyone and doesn’t deserve to be removed from the first team.

And it is that uncertainty about what role Djilobodji will have this season that makes his signing so significant – the competitive luxury of having three consistent central defenders in a first team that can only accommodate two. How long has it been since we had that at Sunderland?

The verdict here is that it won’t take long for Papy Djilobodji to cement a first team role here. He really is that good. The defender is in the prime age and form of his career; as a twenty-seven year old, six foot two inch goliath of a centre-back; with a hellish eye for interceptions, the natural left-footed talent of not only being efficient at the back, but also ambidextrous on the ball and eager to play forward. Truly, the Senegalese international has all the traits of a player who has been one of the best defenders across France and Germany over the last three years.

Is £8 million a fee too high for one defender? Sometimes, but not this time; and for what good Papy Djilobodji will do for the competitiveness of our defensive options, this will be £8 million well spent.

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