AGONAsport Profile: Yacouba Sylla
AGONAsport’s Nick Tsambouniaris gives us the lowdown on the man that will replace Carlos Zeca in the Panathinaikos midfield, Yacouba Sylla.
On the 30th of August, 26 year old Mali international midfielder Yacouba Sylla became the 10th summer signing of Panathinaikos. Despite not being a veteran by any means, Sylla can be considered somewhat of a journeyman due to the fact that he has spent no longer than one season at his recent clubs since his days at Aston Villa. Sylla made his senior debut in the 2010-11 season with Clermont Foot in Ligue 2. He was lured to former European Cup champions Aston Villa by then manager Paul Lambert on deadline day of the winter transfer window in January 2013, signing a three and a half year deal. This was also amid interest from clubs such as QPR, Fulham, Udinese and Stuttgart. He was in and out of a struggling Villa team as the club limped to safety in the EPL, however his performances were enough to earn him his first cap at senior international level for Mali, despite appearing once for the French U21 team in 2011.
After a string of underwhelming performances where he failed to adjust to the pace of the EPL, Sylla was loaned out to Turkish club Kayseri Erciyesspor for the 2014-15 season. He credits this season for being important in his maturity as a footballer. After 27 appearances and 1 goal he was sold to Ligue 1 club Rennes in June 2015. One year later he was loaned out to Montpellier on a season long loan and he now finds himself in Athens with the Greens on another season long loan with the option to buy him in the club’s favour. He has since gone on to become a regular for Mali earning 28 caps to date.
As a central midfielder, Sylla’s biggest strength is his tough tackling and ability to sniff out danger from opposition attacks. This would be the primary reason he was brought to Panathinaikos by Marinos Ouzounidis, to fill the massive hole left by former captain Zeca. In this instance, he uses his size to his advantage. Dribbling is also a strength of his and he likes to play long balls in an attempt to start attacking moves. He is also not afraid to shoot from distance. Sylla is best suited to playing next to another fellow central defensive midfielder in a holding role in front of the back four, which he will get the chance to do with Dimitris Kourbelis as Ouzounidis favours a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Similar to his predecessor Zeca however, his aggressive and uncompromising displays lead to a high number of cards from the many fouls he commits. In a Panathinaikos team low on depth this will no doubt be an issue as it is hoped he and Kourbelis form a good understanding of each others’ games from the beginning to start climbing the ladder. His lack of pace may not be as much of a problem in the Greek Super League since most teams put a greater emphasis on defence, maintain their shape and hitting on the counter. However it could be a cause of concern in big games such as derbies against stronger opposition. Zeca was criticised for not doing enough in attack and based on his past, Sylla will be no different as reflected by his poor tally of goals and assists.
Another undoubted upside to Sylla is his happy-go-lucky personality and positive character. He has been a good presence to have in the dressing room everywhere he has gone and has been well-liked by his teammates. This bodes well for the culture of togetherness Ouzounidis is trying to foster. Even Sylla himself has stated that he is not one to over-think things and just wants to enjoy his football by being an important team player, as well as simultaneously enjoying his life away from sport. His humbleness and honesty should have him ready to make a mark from the beginning. In addition, he gets the opportunity to play with Mali international teammate and current Panathinaikos right back, Ousmane Coulibaly. The pair are good friends and it is expected Coulibaly will help facilitate a seamless transition to life in Greece and Greek football.
THE BIG QUESTION
At 26 years old Sylla is neither a rookie or veteran, rather he is approaching the best years of his career. Can he use the experience he has obtained by playing in three different leagues to make a positive impact on Panathinaikos and in turn persuade the club to buy him permanently after his loan spell ends this season? Rather than moving from club to club every year surely the player himself would welcome a sense of stability by being a regular fixture in the team and staying long-term. This is the opportunity Sylla has been presented with. Furthermore, can he be the type of leader his predecessor Zeca was? Panathinaikos lacks a natural leader now that Zeca has departed, so if he can also add that aspect to his game his impact in the famous green jersey may be even more significant.