The Kalidou Koulibaly saga has been rumbling on for about three years now. It has knocked on the doors in every summer transfer window, as Napoli have always tried to catch some attention, create a bidding war and increase his asking price for potential suitors. That sentiment is reflected in every single statement that Aurelio De Laurentiis has given and his usual stubborn approach makes it seem pretty obvious.
With the passage of time, Koulibaly has aged, his contract is running down and his value has decreased as well. Napoli’s efforts to create an auction haven’t quite worked out. While Manchester City are still in the running, there’s a general sentiment amongst many that after three years, interest in the 29-year-old has only worn off.
In fairness, that perception is either down to a limited viewing of the Senegal international or an excessive consumption of FIFA 20, which has given birth to this idea that clubs should always sign players below the age of 27.
It is a cliche to suggest that Koulibaly is one of the best defenders in the world right now, but what would perhaps define him best is that he is a ‘Rolls Royce of a central defender’. He fits the profile of being a perfect Pep Guardiola figure and comparisons to Gerard Pique can easily be made. What he thrives on is breaking down opposition lines either carrying the ball or with his eye for reading a pass.
There were games this past season when Koulibaly hasn’t exactly looked his best. A case can be made of the fact that the 2019-20 campaign was probably Koulibaly’s worst over the last four seasons, partly due to injury in December, which meant he played just one game in 2020 before the June restart. The same can easily be said for the Partenopei themselves. It was a campaign which was marred with instability, boardroom friction, fractures between the owner, players and Carlo Ancelotti and a switch in mentality and style under Rino Gattuso.
One main issue under Ancelotti was the midfield combination in his favoured 4-4-2 shape. Due to the lack of a proper defensive midfielder, Napoli were constantly overrun in midfield and left Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas to deal with everything. Ancelotti even tried an advanced midfielder like Fabian Ruiz in the defensive midfield spot, apart from using Allan and Piotr Zielinski there anyway. The opposition would outnumber the midfield two and this became a common issue before Ancelotti got the sack following a Champions League win over RB Salzburg.
Gattuso came in and got every player on the club’s side once again after the whole training retreat row. He identified the midfield as the main issue that needed fixing. In came Diego Demme from RB Leipzig and long-term target Stanislav Lobotka joined from Celta Vigo. Demme has been silently crucial to their mini-revival and made Gattuso’s system look far more structured than Ancelotti’s was earlier in the season. Because of that, and of course the injury, it is hardly a coincidence that Koulibaly’s better performances have come in the second half of the season.
Every central defender in the world improves when he has the protection of the midfielders in front of him. Under Maurizio Sarri, Koulibaly played in a possession-oriented system that completed him as a footballer. His job wasn’t to constantly sit deeper and win aerial battles. The system played to his strengths. He had to move the ball forward quickly and use his smart reading of passing lanes to break the opposition down. He sought help from Jorginho’s progressive passing as well. He’s always been a threat in the air and what he did in the Sarri system is perhaps exactly why Guardiola likes him too.
Koulibaly and Jorginho would set the tone for Sarri’s approach. For a Man City side that was getting easily overrun this past season as a result of Fernandinho playing deeper and Aymeric Laporte’s injury, Koulibaly could be the perfect man to marshal the defence once the Brazilian starts doing the Jorginho job or Rodri grows into that sort of a player. So there is clearly a pattern here.
It is pretty easy to call Koulibaly ‘over-rated’ on the basis of his performance against Barcelona, which was poor. Again though, it comes down to the failure of the midfield in that game and a penalty which was rather unintentional. The Koulibaly-Manolas centre-half pairing hasn’t exactly been great either. The Greece international has been off it in many games himself.
There’s no denying that he isn’t getting any younger and won’t be as long-term a signing as someone like Pau Torres for Man City. But what they need is an experienced leader at the back, someone who can marshal his line the way Vincent Kompany did. Most of all, the player needs to know the system. As for Koulibaly, that is what he needs as well - someone who taps into his strengths and makes him do what Sarri allowed him to do. Guardiola would do just that.
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