Marc Guéhi craves invisibility on the pitch. Which might sound weird given the showiness of the professional world he inhabits, the presumed need to be seen to be doing heroic things as often as possible. Yet the more the England and Crystal Palace centre-half talks, the more it makes sense and the more it chimes with who he is and where he has come from: his steady and inexorable rise. Not to mention where he intends to go.
“I think Paolo Maldini said something like: ‘If you have to make a tackle, you weren’t in the right position in the first place’,” Guéhi says, during a break in preparations for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia. “If a defender can go in a game and seem to be absolutely nothing then he is doing absolutely everything right. Obviously there are times when you might have to make a last-minute tackle because of whatever is happening but if I can avoid being seen in a game, as crazy as it sounds, I am doing my job.
“How do you learn this? There are top players here [with England] you can look at, there is positioning, there is communication – speaking to the players in front of you, putting them in positions to do your job potentially, if that makes sense, so you don’t have to do it; so the opposition can be stopped higher up the pitch. There are loads of things.”
Speak to anybody who knows Guéhi and the same descriptions recur – diligent, balanced, understated. Listen to him and it is remarkable to think he is only 23 and yet, by extension, entirely unsurprising that his managers for country and club, Gareth Southgate and Roy Hodgson, have come to count on him.
Guéhi has been a fixture in Southgate’s squad since his first call-up in March 2022 apart from when it mattered the most – for the World Cup in Qatar last winter. It was a rare setback in a thoughtfully curated career and there has been an increasingly clear sense since then that he has established himself as the first reserve in central defence behind John Stones and Harry Maguire. With Tyrone Mings out for the season, Southgate’s other options are Lewis Dunk, Fikayo Tomori, Levi Colwill and Ezri Konsa. Stones, Dunk and Colwill are currently injured.
“The trait of my life is that everything has been quite steady,” Guéhi says. “Growing up I was never pushed on too soon or left behind. It was always quite steady. In the Chelsea academy, going out on loan [to Swansea], steadily playing game after game for them and gaining confidence. Getting the move to Palace [in July 2021], finding my feet in the Premier League and now coming here with England.”
It is not to say that the road has been entirely smooth. It had to have been a wrench to leave Chelsea, having joined them at under-eight level and moved up through the ranks; the club negotiated matching rights on any future bid should Palace sell.
Guéhi brings up something he has not previously mentioned in public – the difficulties he endured at Swansea after he went there in January 2020. He started five matches for them and was then dropped from the squad for the next four, leading up to the first coronavirus lockdown and the shutdown of football.
Guéhi was 19, living alone in a new city and he admits that his confidence was knocked. Perversely, the lockdown was good for him, especially as he (just about) got back to his parents’ house in Surrey to spend it there. He was able to reflect and reset and, when football restarted, he forced his way back into the Swansea starting XI and finished the season strongly.
“It is like building calluses but in your mind,” Guéhi says, of the development of his mental strength. “Going through those moments does help you. You might have a bad game but you remember what you’ve gone through before and you almost put it to bed and go: ‘I just need to prove myself in the next game.’ Moving steadily …”
What has helped to keep Guéhi grounded is his Christian faith. His father is a pastor and the family rule, as Guéhi puts it, was “God first”. He learned to play the drums at church, which he attended regularly, and there were times growing up when it was hard for him to play football on a Sunday.
That would change, of course; slowly but surely, with the quiet inevitability that defines him.