Italian football can be argued to have peaked in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when its sides regularly qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League and (as it was) the UEFA Cup. Along with this success came a multitude of world stars attracted by the allure of playing in Serie A against the very best that European football could offer.
Fast forward just ten years and Italian football had experienced a significant slump, the quality of football on offer had regressed and clubs were struggling to make money, attendances in the stadium were also down due to instances of fan violence and the poor facilities on offer. This regression led to a shift in the quality of foreign imports available to Italian clubs as the very best on the continent now chose England, Spain or even Germany over a move to Italy.
Something had to give and in time it did. Italian clubs eventually turned their gaze inwards and realised that they could solve the issues largely from within. Eventually a core of clubs turned to their own youth players both to galvanize their fanbase and to provide cheap additions to their squads. Now as we look at Serie A clubs like Torino, Sassuolo and especially Atalanta are impressing onlookers with their young squads.
One of the keys to the Atalanta squad is an Ivorian midfielder who looks made to run the game in European football, that man’s name? Franck Kessie.
The Ivorian youngster has a physical build that brings comparisons with the likes of Patrick Viera and he has the capacity to dominate the centre of the park in the same way that the Frenchman did for years with Arsenal. He is equally comfortable in the defensive and attacking phases of the game and has shown little by the way of fear despite facing players with much more experience than he has.
Kessie has been strongly linked with moves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs already in his young career and it is unlikely that he will spend much longer in Bergamo. He has the physical and technical attributes required to shine in the higher tempo leagues like England and Germany but there remains a real possibility that he will end up staying in Italy with the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and AS Roma all expressing their admiration for the player already.
Makes runs in to the final third to support the attack.
Franck Kessie is very much a midfielder in the modern mould. He plays the box to box role for Atalanta which makes great use of his physical attributes as he covers the ground from his own defensive third to the final third.
He is often the player for Atalanta that drives the team forward and it is common to see Kessie win the ball then look to play a quick vertical pass in to the final third of the pitch before following his own pass both to support the attacking movement and to help create overloads against the opposition defensive structure.
As well as possessing physical and technical abilities Kessie is also well schooled in the traditional Italian school of football with a grounding in the tactical side of football allowing Kessie to understand how to position himself to break up opposition attacks and how to time his runs forward to ensure that he causes maximum damage to the opposition defence.
In this example Kessie has possession of the ball in the central area of the field and he quickly assesses the options that are open to him and sees the striker looking to make a diagonal run from the centre to a pocket of space in behind the opposition left back.
Kessie is accurate enough with his passing to drop the pass in to the space perfectly. Instead of simply sitting and admiring the quality of the pass however we then see the midfielder immediately burst forward looking to support the man in possession and taking up a central position to pull the defensive players to him.
This example sees the Ivorian midfielder in a much more advanced area of the pitch having burst from a deep position and carried the ball in to the final third.
When he accesses these areas though he is rarely flustered possessing the quality and composure to choose the correct option. Here he plays the pass through the defensive structure diagonally to a team mate before then bending his run and attacking the space at the side of the penalty area.
This run has the dual effect of giving the man on the ball an option to play the ball in to and dragging opposition defenders out of position and giving the man with the ball more space to play with.
On this occasion the opposition were in their attacking phase having played a high ball in to the centre of the pitch.
Kessie is able to overpower the opposition midfielders and come away in possession of the ball. For a young player to be so physically dominating in a tough league is telling but what is more impressive is that once again he assesses his options going forwards and chooses the correct one.
Instead of trying to play a rushed pass through traffic in to the advanced areas we see Kessie drive with the ball himself carrying it in to the final third and giving his teammates more time to gain established attacking positions.
Solid in the defensive phase
As previously mentioned Kessie is extremely disciplined tactically and he contributes well in the defensive phase of play.
Kessie has the capacity to play as a more defensive midfielder should his club require although that would of course negate some of the added value that he provides going forwards. He is often the first midfielder to contribute in the defensive press and he looks to win the ball from the opposition instead of simply looking to provide a barrier to the opposition.
Here we can see that Kessie is relatively isolated in a deep central position as the ball is played centrally by the opposition.
The overall structure from both sides it has to be said is poor but as the ball is passed laterally we see Kessie move quickly to get in front of the opposition player and steal the ball before transitioning to the attack.
Kessie reads the fact that the man taking possession is facing his own goal and is not positioned to have a clear view of the field thus triggering the pressing movement.
In this example Kessie is involved in the defensive phase in a much more advanced area of the pitch. This time the opposition are only just looking to move in to the transition from defence to attack and Kessie seizes the opportunity to counter press forcing an immediate turnover in possession.
When Kessie overpowers the man in possession of the ball he immediately creates an opportunity for his side to attack from an extremely advantageous position. He also has the composure and in game intelligence to simply slip the ball through immediately to an attacking player who is in space.
Creative and productive in the final third
As well as being strong in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch Kessie is also extremely impressive in the final third rounding off his ID as the perfect modern midfield player.
He is creative on the ball with the ability to create opportunities for teammates although if anything Kessie still needs to improve on his own ability to score goals from clear opportunities as well.
Here Atalanta are in a sustained attacking position having had to reset the ball to launch a second phase of the attack. As Kessie takes possession of the ball in space outside of the penalty area he has the quality to read the runs of the attacking players and identify the spaces that can be exploited.
He plays a very simply curled pass in to space at the front post for the attacking player to have an easy chance on goal.
On this occasion Kessie has possession of the ball in the opposition penalty area in a tight area with three opposition players closing him down.
Instead of playing the easy ball backwards or trying to spin and shoot as a lot of players would have in this position Kessie instead spins on the ball and drives through the pressing trap of the oppotion. With physical strength and a burst of speed he turns a relatively passive but advanced area in to a dangerous opportunity for the ball to be squared across the face of goal.
For a player to be only twenty years of age and already established as a key player for club and country says a lot.
Franck Kessie already has the full package in terms of playing in the midfield and the frightening part is that he is only going to get better as he gains more experience and eventually moves to a bigger side where expectations are raised and he is pushed to greater heights.
The young Ivorian midfielder is well placed to dominate the landscape of European football for years to come.