As the price tag for elite central defenders continues to soar with each passing summer, it is becoming quite clear that Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly is not only the Partenopei’s most valuable player, but perhaps even the best of his kind trotting the Italian peninsula as we enter the 2018/19 Serie A season.
The 27-year old Senegalese centre-half went mainstream last season in Europe as Maurizio Sarri’s dominant defensive force and a major contributor to their 90+ point campaign. Although the Azzurri came up short in their efforts to dethrone rivals Juventus, Koulibaly’s season-long form was as good as any defender in Europe last year and was exemplary of just how complete he has become at this stage of his career.
Since arriving in Campania four summers ago for a meager £6,5 million from French side Genk, Koulibaly has moved from strength to strength, showing both elite physical and technical quality and with the game recognition that casts him as one of the best models younger defenders should strive to emulate.
The former Metz player ticks off all the boxes you require of a top-flight central defender here in 2018, and the traits the world’s powerhouse look for when lodging massive bids.
From a pure physical standpoint, Koulibaly’s 1,95 metre frame makes him a handful to deal with engaging in aerial battles – both offensively and defensively. Look to his match-winning header at Allianz Stadium late last season to lift Napoli over Juventus as an example of what he is capable of on set pieces and corners, along with the fact he scored 5 goals from the back. When you combine his size, strength and ability to attack the ball in the air, you have a nuisance coaches and defensive units must scheme to combat.
Beyond that, Koulibaly’s a swift, classy operator on the ball with the unwavering confidence and handling in possession that made him one of the key cogs in the smooth-working ‘Sarrismo’ machine, completing an average of 91.2% of his passes in 2017-18 (via WhoScored).
In 2018, defenders certainly need to offer more than a crunching tackle or bullying effort to win possession. While Koulibaly is more than adequate with each, and can initiate build-ups and beat a press by virtue of his passing ability, there are still the fundamentals of defending that remain essential in today’s game even in this era of advanced statistics and analytics.
You cannot deny that while his technical and physical quality puts him right there amongst the best in Europe, it is also the awareness and positional sense to cover his ground defensively that puts him over the edge.Seldom do you see Koulibaly egregiously lunge into a challenge or stray out of position leaving himself vulnerable, which is sometimes underappreciated when you consider how much emphasis is laid into the technical aspects of the role.
Without question, the 59-year old chain-smoker Italian played a vital role in Koulibaly’s progression and maturity, much like with several in the squad during his tenure in Naples. We can be sure the Senegal international will be eternally grateful for Sarri’s tutelage, but now, Koulibaly will get the luxury of working with one of the world’s most winningest managers Carlo Ancelotti, who will undoubtedly have an impact in more ways than one as he enters the prime of his career.
In a summer where Napoli have lost two key figures in Sarri and Jorginho to Chelsea, it was imperative they retained Koulibaly at all costs, even if it required president Aurelio De Laurentiis to reject an astronomical €100 million bid. In doing this, it has been made abundantly clear that not only is Koulibaly Napoli’s most valuable player at this point in time, but also a defender who will likely become the most expensive of his kind when De Laurentiis feels he has been given an offer he simply cannot refuse.
For now, Neapolitans, Ancelotti and their entire defensive line will continue to show immense appreciation for Koulibaly and his influence at the heart of what fans hope will amount to yet another strong run towards winning a league title.
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