When the richest clubs have gone looking for a centre-back in the last few transfer windows many eyes have been turned against a somewhat unheralded defender consistently impressing for Napoli. The 26-year-old Kalidou Koulibaly has been excellent in the last two campaigns under the guidance of Maurizio Sarri and slots perfectly into the Italian tactician’s tactical setup. Manchester City and Chelsea are two of the clubs that already in the summer of 2016 were sniffing around the Senegalese defender.
The links make perfect sense given both Pep Guardiola’s and Antonio Conte’s belief in progression of the ball from the defence and into midfield. Koulibaly is one of the best defenders in terms of passing and progressing the ball which makes it somewhat unfair to call him a defender as he’s just as much a playmaker who plays in defence.
Koulibaly joined Napoli from Belgian club Racing Genk in the summer of 2014 and had a season under Rafa Benitez for whom he made almost 40 appearances. After Benitez left the club, Sarri was put in charge and the contrast of playing styles could hardly have been greater. After the tactical schooling in terms of defensive positioning and discipline received by Benitez, Koulibaly has been educated in the benefits of building attacks from the back. Koulibaly is now constantly setting up attacks for his side and is remarkable in his passing to break opposition lines. He’s very aggressive in possession and is superb at finding passes through both the first and second line of pressing from the opposition. In the video below you can see a few examples where I’ve highlighted the number of opponents beaten by a single pass. And those examples are just from the last few games.
In Sarri’s vision of football, Koulibaly fits perfectly and his development over the last two seasons is a testament to the trust placed in him by his coach. The Senegalese defender has grown into one of the best ball-playing defenders in Europe and his ability might improve even further as the season goes on.
Koulibaly is not just aggressive in his passing however, he also takes any space granted to him by running into it with the ball. In the example below, the opposing team (OGC Nice) defends very deep and Koulibaly quickly takes advantage of the space ahead of him. He runs about 30 metres with the ball before finding a pass that breaks the midfield line of Nice.
Physically, Koulibaly is a giant at 1.95 metres. He’s very strong and strong in the air. For such a big frame he’s also reasonably quick. While his physique can dominate most opponents, it’s in his intelligence where he really stands out. In a possession-heavy side like Napoli, Koulibaly needs to be alert at all times in order to avoid being caught out with plenty of space behind him. Sarri’s team is very compact in their defensive structures and the reference point for the defensive line is the position of the ball and the midfield in front of them. This means it’s common to see lots of space behind Napoli’s defence, but they constantly push up and drop down to maintain compactness within their shape. Koulibaly’s intelligence in managing the defensive line and reading the game in regards to when to drop is evident in the below clip as he deals with a run from the opposing striker on a hopeful long pass from an opposition midfielder.
After winning the ball he doesn’t get rid of it, instead, heading it down to a teammate to regain possession and start a new attack. Elegant.
Another example of his intelligence is the way he reads when it’s appropriate to leave the defensive line to press or tackle. As Napoli always work with quite close distances between each other in possession, they are well positioned to counter press effectively. Koulibaly highlights this in the below sequence as Napoli has just lost possession and Verona starts an attack but he anticipates the loose ball and stops the attack.
In the end, you’ve now improved your knowledge of one of the best ball-playing defenders around. With another successful season at Napoli and the current rate of the transfer market, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Kalidou Koulibaly ends up as the first £100m defender next summer. With Koulibaly you get an excellent defender who is strong physically, quick and have superb intelligence in terms of reading the game and reacting to situations quickly. As well as a sublime defender you also get a playmaker in your defensive line, a passer who can eliminate six or seven players with only one pass along the ground. Those players don’t grow on trees. Koulibaly has the skillset to play in any league and any style of play but for the sake of football, I’d love to see him in a side that plays out from the back. That’s where he thrives and what he does best.
Napoli will hope they’ll be able to hold on to him next summer and hopefully they could, but the imminent target for Kalidou Koulibaly isn’t a move to a bigger club – it’s the Serie A title.