Cheikhou Kouyate has been nothing short of a revelation since dropping into a role as the right centre-back in Slaven Bilic’s recently-introduced 3-4-3 formation.
The West Ham United favourite moved from a midfield role for the Premier League trip to Crystal Palace on 15 October, playing alongside Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna.
That game resulted in a 1-0 win, followed by an identical result at home to Sunderland at the weekend. Kouyate then started in the same position and scored in West Ham’s hugely impressive 2-1 EFL Cup fourth-round victory over Chelsea.
However, that will have come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the No8’s displays whenever he has lined up in defence previously.
Last season, Kouyate played at centre-half twice in a back three in February 2016 and the Hammers won both matches – 1-0 at home to Tottenham Hotspur and 3-2 away Sunday’s opponents Everton.
The previous campaign, 2014/15, the versatile Senegalese appeared four times at centre-back in the Premier League, scoring in a 1-1 home draw with Manchester United and keeping a clean sheet in a goalless draw at Southampton in February, before going down 3-0 at Arsenal but recovering to beat Sunderland 1-0 the following month.
Kouyate also started at centre-half in a 4-0 FA Cup defeat at West Bromwich Albion that season, but that was seemingly an anomaly as, in ten matches as a centre-half, the No8 has won six, drawn two and lost just two.
While his athleticism and ability to carry the ball forward have turned him into an international midfield player, Kouyate historically played in defence with great success at previous club Anderlecht.
In his final season with the Belgian giants, he started at centre-back all season as the Brussels club won the league title for the second straight year.
In the last three matches, Kouyate has been nothing short of immense, winning aerial duel after aerial duel, making a succession of vital clearances and admirably keeping his positional discipline and concentration.
The result has been two clean sheets and a meaningless consolation scored by Chelsea’s Gary Cahill with seconds of Wednesday’s tie remaining.
While detailed statistics for the EFL Cup tie are not yet available, Kouyate’s performances against Palace and Sunderland stand out.
In the former, he made eleven clearances, three interceptions, made one tackle and won seven aerial duels.
In the latter, he won a team-high six aerial duels, 13 headers in total, made a staggering 15 clearances,
three more interceptions and another tackle.
In short, Cheikhou Kouyate is a very good central defender!