Kalidou Koulibaly: The Senegalese chaperone
In what was an impressive and successful Chelsea debut, Kalidou Koulibaly is off the mark at Stamford Bridge. Following a spectacular showing at ‘Goodison Park’, it’s safe to say ‘The Wall’ has officially arrived. A move five years in the making has seen 31 year old Kalidou Koulibaly, at long last, make his long awaited and desired switch to London following a prolonged stay in Naples. The Senegalese captain has been linked to Chelsea, since the 2017 season, when then head coach Antonio Conte was at the helm.
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However, a move did not materialize, with Napoli pricing the defender quite high at an estimated figure of 80 Million euros.
Fast forward five years, the 'Blues' have now secured a move for the 6'1 versatile ‘Center-half’, with Thomas Tuchel adamant on gaining the defender's signature in his quest to build a Premier League winning squad, having just triumphed in the extremely competitive Champions League, a couple of seasons ago.
Koulibaly has long been an admired defender by the Chelsea board, with the club attempting to secure his signature on numerous occasions over the past five years. Yet the timing of his arrival at Cobham could not have been better.
In the aftermath of Chelsea losing two of their top three ‘Center-halves’ in Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger on a free transfer to the likes of Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, ‘blues’ boss Thomas Tuchel has had a crisis placed on his doorstep.
With Koulibaly possessing the ability to command a defensive line and holding expertise in playing at 'Left Center Back' (LCB), as well as 'Central Center Back' (CCB), the defenders’ arrival provides Tuchel with solutions that the Chelsea boss hasn't had at his disposal since he took charge of the team.
With his debut in front of the Stamford Bridge faithful on the horizon, let's take a look at what the veteran of the game brings to the table.
In the traditional sense, a 'Center-half' was primarily required to defend. Basically, win aerial duels, make tackles and prevent goals. In 2022, with football at its most advanced, the game requires players to be tactically and technically impeccable to say the least.
Football today, most importantly requires every player in a team to possess the skill of having good on-ball skill and command. Albeit, for a defender, this is of paramount importance, since attacks begin from the very back, and 'Centre-backs' play a pivotal role in the buildup of a team.
Koulibaly, on his day, is arguably one of the top three ‘Center-backs’ in the world. The weapons at his disposal, can only be matched by a handful of other defenders today. His tackling, reading and anticipation, interceptions, positional awareness, aerial prowess, on-ball ability, IQ and leadership are miles clear of his peers within the same segment.
Let's take a deep delve into what these facets are, and how Koulibaly excels at these for the club and country he represents.
Tackling: The art of tackling is often overlooked by the casual viewer. The significance of performing and exhibiting exceptional tackling technique can be a game changer at any given moment. This is due to the fact that a slight error in judgement, or miscalculation could impose upon the team, heavy damages and penalties. Tackling in itself is a craft that requires years of hard work and discipline to master. Factors such as timeliness, prediction, anticipation, confidence, vigilance and positioning all come into play, when executing tackles.
Koulibaly has an immaculate understanding of these factors, and as such, is able to exercise these tackles during in-game scenarios. The Senegalese’s long legs, stride, positioning enables him to challenge forwards, whenever he deems fit, thereby nullifying the attack, in a moments glance.
‘K2’ is a fantastic front foot aggressive tackler. His aptness to read the danger beforehand is phenomenal. As such, the defenders recoveries and slide tackling come in handy, during high intensity games against the very best Europe have to offer. He sprints with an intention to turn the tides for his club within the same phase of play. This element of his will prove vital for Chelsea, with the club having a prolonged history of being caught in transitions and counter attacks.
Reading and Anticipation: A defender, either in a formation of three defenders at the back (‘3ATB’), or merely two defenders at the back, (‘2ATB’) is required to have unblemished and flawless reading of the game. A modern day ‘Center-Half’ is expected to possess these traits, if they have the aspirations to succeed at top teams.
A player, with the knack and capability to possess these attributes, such as Kalidou Koulibaly are rare to come by. Koulibaly’s large frame, stature and agility for someone his size, makes it easier for him to make reads on plays, and act accordingly, thereby invalidating attacks, and retaining possession for his team.
The likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Marquinhos, John Stones, David Alaba and Koulibaly are some of the prime examples of world class defenders who have a great reading, comprehension and anticipation of the game.
Interceptions: An interception in play is caused when the team, out of possession, aims at retaining possession, through actions initiated by the forwards with the most common theme being exerting a high press on the opposition backline, causing them to play long to their forwards.
These long ball passes by the opposition often don’t find their preferred targets, and against the top squads in Europe, that possess phenomenal quality in their defense, the players are able to use their body and intercept these passes, whereby the team retains possession.
Kalidou Koulibaly is a player who is a supreme illustration of this aspect. His ability to pressurize his marker, whilst simultaneously using his body to get ahead of the attacker, enhances his ability to intercept the ball. Aligning the required aggression with the star’s defensive discipline, means, seldom do attackers get beyond Koulibaly to score.
Kalidou’s vigilance with regards to ball positioning makes him a formidable pillar who utilizes his mobility and agility to intercept passes to the strikers.
Positional Awareness: With his move to Chelsea now confirmed, Koulibaly will be right away integrated into a structure that places heavy emphasis on possession and ball retention. The complexity that arises with the shape is that the team will also employ a high line, wherein oppositions will be provided with the opportunities to hit them in transitions and on the counter attack, with their ability to disorganize the defense.
Kalidou’s vast experience and expertise in positioning grants the ‘Blues’ the privilege to implement and execute Thomas Tuchel’s high line build. The player’s positional awareness sanctions and permits more creative freedom for the midfielders in Tuchel’s system.
In addition, it also enhances Chelsea’s defensive capability by a lot, with the 31 year old’s ability to sense danger, providing to be a valuable tool, heading into the campaign.
Aerial Duels: Standing at 6’1, and weighing about 89 Kilos, Koulibaly possess staggering athleticism and agility. The player’s body stature means, he’s able to contest and more importantly win aerial duels, against the best attackers that Europe’s ‘Top five’ leagues have to offer. Although he’s shorter than the likes of Joel Matip, Virgil Van Dijk, and several other ‘center half’s’ that have graced the premier league, Kalidou exudes tenacity.
His strength entails him the opportunities to merely shrug aside his marker, before continuing on to win his battles. Moreover, Koulibaly has the capability to impose his dominance and influence in the air, which diminishes the confidence of forwards.
Ball playing ability: At long last, the mandatory requirement for any defender in a top club, requires them at the very best to possess proficient and sublime ball playing ability, and at the least, composure and level headedness to make passes.
This basically means, that the backline should not succumb to the pressure they face, and no matter the circumstance, should never deteriorate from what is asked of them. Which is to remain composed, and find solutions from the back, without misplacing possession.
Koulibaly is the epitome of a ball playing ‘Center-Half’. The player’s development under Maurizio Sarri, in the 2017-2018 campaign has improved ten fold to say the least. The tranquility displayed by the four time ‘Serie A Team of the Year’ member will prove to be influential in the build up phase Chelsea utilize.
IQ and Leadership: The in game IQ portrayed by Koulibaly is second to none. Every game, the Senegalese international participates in, his experience and leadership is displayed. Moreover, the ability through which the defender commands his backline, and fends off dangerous situations enable the team to take risks in the attacking third.
This is a fundamental requirement to have for a top defender, and more essentially for a ‘center-back’. Koulibaly’s high intelligence, behaves as an anchor, for his attackers to express themselves more freely, whilst simultaneously taking risky actions, due to their belief in Kalidou Koulibaly’s defensive adroitness.
The transfer of Kalidou Koulibaly to Chelsea will lay the foundation for a new era under Todd Boehly. It hints to a new, data-driven, and watchful model of business that will be run, with no excess funds deployed on unnecessary spending.
The former Napoli vice captain will go on to utterly shatter all expectations of him, and more notably all concerns about him that are set to be raised yet. Koulibaly, without a shadow of a doubt, will flourish under Thomas Tuchel’s system, and prove to be a cornerstone of the revolution that is set to take the league by storm.
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I remember Liverpool were after him last year before they had signed Ibrahima Konate, what a pairing he and VVD would've made. But great to see him play in the Prem nonetheless, supremely intelligent CB.