His own fans call him ‘The Wall’. Diego Maradona once described him as “phenomenal, the best defender in Serie A” and asked for his shirt. The player in question is Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly.
For Barcelona supporters, the above information will no doubt provide them with much excitement, for the Senegalese has been linked with a move to the club. According to Il Mattino, the Catalan giants are keen to sign the central defender next summer, with a potential fee of €60million mentioned.
The rumours come on the back of a hamstring injury to Samuel Umtiti that could leave the current La Liga leaders without their best centre-back for around two months. At a pivotal juncture in the season their lack of depth in the defensive line has been exposed, and evidently, there is a need for similar problems not to crop up in future.
Koulibaly would provide an immediate solution. The thought of him playing alongside Umtiti at the heart of Barcelona’s back four is a scary prospect for opposition strikers to consider. However, there will undoubtedly be competition for the player’s signature, with Premier League sides such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City having previously shown interest.
WHO IS KALIDOU KOULIBALY?
Koulibaly began his career in France, where he joined Metz’s youth academy in 2009. He progressed to the first team squad and made his debut at the age of 19; it was clear early on to his manager Dominique Bijotat that the player was going in the right direction. “He was a step ahead of the others in understanding the game (and) listening,” Bijotat later reflected. “At that age, it was very impressive.”
Ultimately Koulibaly would make over 40 appearances for the club, captaining them in the process before joining Genk in 2012. He became one of many players to develop with the Belgian side before moving on to bigger things, signing for Napoli two years later.
To those that have followed the 26-year-old’s career in Italy, it has not always been smooth sailing. His debut campaign was littered with eye-opening mistakes – his positioning and possession game were not at the level required. Rafa Benítez, renowned for his strategising, was unable to maximise the centre-backs talents, leading to rumours that the player would be sold in the summer of 2015.
Norwich City and Southampton were among the interested parties, but Koulibaly stayed put. Benítez moved on and was replaced by Maurizio Sarri, who would transform the defender's career. Less than three years on and he’s regarded as one of the finest central defenders in the world. He’s also coveted by some of the biggest teams in Europe.
WHAT ARE HIS STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES?
During his early days with Napoli, the most obvious weakness in Koulibaly’s game was his decision-making. He didn’t know when or where to pass and was often intercepted as a result. He dithered, gave possession away cheaply and was regularly caught out of position. In short, he was highly error-prone.
Sarri has been able to turn the player’s fortunes around, however, primarily because his tactics suit the player’s strengths. A forceful, aggressive and physical centre-back, Koulibaly is well-suited to his side’s high pressing game. On top of that, he is extremely fast, meaning he is able to get back and cover even if the opposition play the ball over the top or in behind Napoli’s high defensive line.
If the 26-year-old’s defensive work goes unnoticed due to his side’s style of play, his passing game does not. He is one-quarter of a left-hand side also featuring Faouzi Ghoulam, a higher proportion than any other Serie A team – of the team’s attacks come down this side.
Koulibaly is the main starting point on the left, and he is highly effective in the role. Comfortable on the ball, he is able to drive forward into midfield, beat opposition men and provoke pressure. Alternatively, he is capable of scything passes through the opposition’s defensive block, and he also understands how to combine efficiently with team-mates to work an opening.
To underline his quality in possession, only one player in Europe’s top five leagues has averaged more successful passes per 90 minutes this term – Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi.
SHOULD PREMIER LEAGUE TEAMS SIGN HIM?
With his enticing mix of immense strength, real pace, aggression on and off the ball, superb control and a fine passing range, Koulibaly is a must-sign for all top clubs, across all of Europe’s five major leagues. They haven’t been linked, but Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Manchester United would all be better off for his presence in their starting line-ups.
The question, therefore, isn’t should Premier League teams sign him, but could they? The window of opportunity to bring the player in for a modest fee is long gone – two years ago he was considered expendable by Napoli, who had just finished fifth in Serie A; now he is a key player for a side currently sitting second in Italy’s top flight.
Koulibaly also extended his contract last year, agreeing a deal to take him to 2021. So if any serious English suitors wish to sign him, they should be prepared to part with large sums of money. Fortunately, given there is an argument to be made that the player is the best around in his position, his signature would be worth the outlay.