Iliman Ndiaye's transfer to Everton is a sign Sean Dyche wants to evolve in attack

When Iliman Ndiaye joined Marseille from Sheffield United last summer, he described the move as a “childhood dream”.

Despite being born in the Normandy city of Rouen, Ndiaye’s first football shirt was a Marseille one and he spent a brief period in their academy as a youngster.

Ndiaye had other interest last summer — notably from Everton, who had closely tracked his progress — but was swayed by the emotion of a move back to his boyhood club.

Yet less than 12 months later, the 24-year-old is an Everton player. After an underwhelming season in Ligue 1, where he started just 19 games and scored three goals, Marseille have chosen to cash in.

It is true that Ndiaye did not show the best of himself during his brief stint back at Stade Velodrome but Everton know the player well enough by now to see beyond the headline numbers.

While his versatility is admired by scouts, he was shunted across the attack and rarely allowed to settle in one position. Marseille are notoriously combustible and the constant upheaval — they had four managers last season alone — cannot have been helpful for a player trying to reacclimatise. Like Everton, the club have been looking to balance the books through sales.

Nonetheless, there will be excitement at Everton that they have finally managed to snare a top long-term target — and someone who should significantly improve their forward options.

One of the aims this summer has been to add extra threat and dynamism to a team that finished with the second-lowest goals total in the Premier League last season. The hope is that the Senegal international will help them do that.

Adept at driving forward and committing defenders but also hard-working off the ball, Ndiaye is an addition that feels like a natural evolution for this Everton side under manager Sean Dyche.

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Ndiaye’s Marseille career lasted just one season (Clement Mahoudeau/AFP via Getty Images)

Even by his own admission, Abdoulaye Doucoure has often looked like a partial fit at best for the role behind the striker in Dyche’s usual 4-4-1-1; a square peg in a very round hole.

With uncertainty around Amadou Onana’s future, there has even been talk of utilising Doucoure in his favoured deeper central midfield role where necessary — a switch that would make even more sense if Onana departs and Ndiaye returns to his Sheffield United form.

Here are Doucoure’s stats for the season.

Smarterscout gives players a series of scores from zero and 99, a bit like the player ratings in the FIFA video games but powered by real data and advanced analytics. These ratings relate to how often a player performs a given stylistic action (for example, the volume of shots per touch), or how effective they are at it (for example, how well they progress the ball upfield) compared with others playing in their position.

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Some of this may be about team style — Dyche, for example, prefers direct play to dominating possession — but Doucoure profiles as someone who struggles to retain, carry and receive the ball in advanced areas. In other words, to fulfil some of the usual attacking functions of a No 10.

While a dependable presence off the ball, and capable of dropping in to become a third central midfielder in games where Everton are under pressure, there was always going to be a trade-off when moving him further forward. There are limitations, particularly in an attacking sense, when playing in a makeshift role.

A regular contributor of goals in the first half of the season, Doucoure scored just once and provided just one assist in his final 14 games after returning from injury.

Ndiaye shares some similar traits, but looks a more logical fit behind the striker. Across 46 league games for Sheffield United in the 2022-23 season, he scored 14 goals and registered 11 assists, and netting a superb solo winner against Tottenham Hotspur in a last-16 FA Cup tie.

Asked how Sheffield United could navigate tricky Championship games while not playing well, midfielder Oliver Norwood’s answer was simple: “Give the ball to Iliman.” His former manager, Paul Heckingbottom, meanwhile, labelled him a “special player”.

“Everyone can see the tricks and ability with the ball,” Heckingbottom said. “And particularly the way he looks after it. But Iliman’s value for us is how much of a team player he is. His work and understanding of his role without the ball makes us a stronger team.”

Ndiaye was in the top three per cent of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues last season for possession won and averaged 5.5 ball recoveries per 90. He is a more natural fit than Doucoure in the No 10 role, thriving in a role behind the main striker for Sheffield United as they secured promotion to the Premier League.

Dyche places a similar stock on work ethic, but will no doubt be enthused by the prospect of adding a new dimension to his attack.

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Albeit in a different team and division, Ndiaye’s ball retention and receptions in the box totals were both significantly higher than Doucoure’s. His ability to drive from deep and beat players, honed during an unconventional pathway that took in a spell with Sunday League side Rising Ballers, should also allow an often one-paced Everton side to counter better next season.

How his style translates to the Premier League will be intriguing, given he made just one appearance in the competition to date (in the 2020-21 season). But provided he is used in a more withdrawn role and not as the main striker — note his low score for aerials — Ndiaye looks suited to Dyche’s fast style of play. He was in the top seven per cent last season among forwards for progressive passes and the top 10 per cent for progressive carries, showcasing a desire to progress attacks at pace.

Everton do not need another Doucoure, but it is creativity on top of off-the-ball work and versatility that have convinced them to bring Ndiaye to Goodison. After a lengthy pursuit and near-misses, they finally have their man.

The hope will be that he can provide the kind of spark in attack that they have long been missing.

(Top photo: VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

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