Mame Diouf and ball-retention issues

Let me preface this by saying that there’s a lot to like about Mame Diouf and, although it will likely appear that way, this isn’t meant to sound in any way damning.  Diouf is a good player and during his time at Stoke he has not only scored important goals, but has also shown an eclectic range of finishing.

What’s apparent, however - and this was exemplified by his performance against Liverpool this afternoon - is that the way he plays can be problematic for his side.

Mark Hughes nominally starts him as a lone centre-forward, with the objective of using his players to provide attacking support. But that kind of system only works well when the pivot - in this case Diouf - is able to not only hold the ball up, but also distribute economically.

Here is his pass-completion graphic from today (via Squawka):

Clearly that’s less than effective.

There’s mitigation, in that Liverpool are a fairly good side and they have a nice blend of physicality and energy between their centre-halves and defensive-midfielders, but Diouf still has to recycle the ball better if his side are to lay a glove on this kind of opponent.

Today was not absolutely typical of him and he was perhaps slightly more unreliable in possession than he generally was last season, but too often he surrenders the ball by making the wrong decision rather than actually being overwhelmed by attending defenders.

There are too many flicks, too many low-percentage moments in his game and, while he may have the technique to be capable of intricately linking the play, there is a time and a place for extravagance.

There’s nothing wrong with simple lay-offs or with playing the ball backwards; Stoke are a side who win games by building momentum and by stitching phases of passing play together - and for that to be successful they need a forward to conform to that approach.  They are not a team with an overwhelming amount of pace and so the emphasis must always be on ball-retention rather than on the quick creation of attacking space.

He’s a capable player and he will score goals again this season, but the difference between him being ‘capable’ and ‘very good’ is determined by this one issue.

Stoke are on the verge of being an excellent team - one who can reasonably expect to finish as high as sixth or seventh - and the better they become the more visible these imperfections are ultimately going to be.  As such, this criticism is only relevant because it appears to be an obstructing issue.

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