Le50 2016: Issa Diop – Toulouse FC
When you are struggling in the relegation zone, you want players who care, players who will wear the shirt with pride and honour. With Toulouse mired in a relegation battle for most of this campaign, 15 weeks into the season Dominique Arribage looked to his youth squad for answers and just in front of teenage goalkeeper Alban Lafont stood the unmistakable frame of Issa Diop.
Standing at around 6 foot 4, the centre-back, who has been part of his hometown club since he was eight years old, made his first start for Le Téfécé and – although they haven’t managed to climb out of trouble yet – Diop has since made that position his own.
“Issa was the real man of the match,” Captain Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro told the local press after the 2-0 win over Nice at the end of November. “I’ve started with a win and we didn’t concede, so it’s all positive,” smiled Diop after the victory. “Wearing the shirt to represent this city comes with great pride, emotion and happiness. It’s magic!”
The 18-year-old scored his first-ever goal the following week away at Troyes and, although sent off at the end of January against Guingamp, the towering defender has been almost an ever-present, missing only four games. Under both Arribage and Pascal Dupraz, it’s hard to imagine the defence without him.
Since making his debut against Nice, only three players average more clearances per game than Diop. Although that is to be expected playing in a team that is playing under pressure most weeks, his performances have still been impressive.
Towering in the air, he is also quick across the ground and does a very good job at getting his body in the way of shots or to intercept danger. It is clear that the teenager is still growing into his impressive frame. Sometimes he can look a little awkward or not take up the best position, but he is still learning the game and definitely has all the raw attributes that you would want in a powerful centre-back.
France has a tradition of bringing through defenders who are big, strong and good on the ball and the hope would be that Diop develops the latter as a strength, but that will only come with experience and time on the pitch.
He has come all the way up through the France youth set-up – from Under-16 to his current 12 appearances with the Under-19s. He played his part – scoring twice – as they secured qualification for the European Championships this summer.
At the start of the season, after recovering from a back injury, Diop’s only goal was to complete a full campaign for the Under-19 or CFA sides, it’s part of his humble nature that he didn’t expect to be at this stage so quickly in his career. However, it’s that unexpected grace and desire to improve that endeared him to Arribage and is why, unlike other younger players in the team, Dupraz has continued to select him.
Rather than pick out weaknesses in his game, the teenager was quick to point out that he needs to improve in every area if he wants to have a chance to succeed. That kind of maturity will be helped by the fact that has grandfather played for Bordeaux back in the 1970s – football is in his blood and you can see that he wants to continually improve and help the club that he loves.
Toulouse may not survive another season in Ligue 1, the odds are stacked against them and they are running out of time, but there is absolutely no way that any of the blame will fall at Diop’s feet. If they do drop to Ligue 2, they will need leadership to push them back up the ladder and Diop is the perfect man for the job.