When Kalidou Koulibaly first arrived at Napoli’s training ground from K.R.C. Genk some four years ago, the Italian club immediately picked up the phone to his former employers and attempted to haggle back a portion of the relatively modest £6.5m they had splashed out on him.
“Aurelio De Laurentiis [Napoli’s president] wanted a discount on the transfer fee because I was 10cm shorter than he had read on the internet,” the nevertheless 6ft 5in Koulibaly later recalled. It was not the first time he had made something of a poor first impression. “When [Rafa] Benitez first called me I hung up in his face – twice,” he added. “I thought that it was a joke.”
In fact, poor first impressions seem to be something of a recurring theme in Koulibaly’s career. “As for [Maurizio] Sarri, at the start he didn’t rate me and I asked to be sold. The club objected and then he started playing me and I didn’t leave the starting XI even if I was exhausted. In the end he showed me another way of looking at football, some of the training sessions without opposition were crazy.”
And so it made for a refreshing change that in Moscow – on the biggest stage of them all with several European super clubs keeping an especially close eye on him – Koulibaly nailed the most important first impression of his career. This match was billed as Robert Lewandowski vs Koulibaly by those desperate to attach a sparkling European super club narrative to every game, and in this instance defence trumped attack. Koulibaly was outstanding, from beginning to end.
Those who have watched Koulibaly at the heart of Napoli’s defence this season will not have been surprised by the 26-year-old’s impressive performance. He has been outstanding for Sarri’s team this season, providing the rock solid foundation on which the team’s breathtakingly intricate attacking football is based. He was also responsible for the most exciting moment of their season – scoring a dramatic late header against Juventus to blow the Scudetto title race wide open – only for Napoli to drop points in their next two games and eventually finish second.
Koulibaly’s transformation from little known centre-back to one of the world’s most wanted players is all the more remarkable given the extraordinary demands Sarri’s system places on his two extraordinarily exposed centre-backs. His Napoli press aggressively in the opposition half with a high defensive line that would make even André Villas-Boas wince, with Koulibaly and his defensive partner Raúl Albiol also left vulnerable by the team’s overlapping full-backs.
The pair are also adept in possession, frequently receiving the ball from midfield as the team patiently recycles possession rather than lumping it long, as well as building play out from the back in tandem with goalkeeper Pepe Reina. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a more dynamic centre-back partnership in all of Europe.
These talents were on full display in Moscow against Poland. Granted, Senegal’s solid 4-2-3-1 formation offers him far greater protection than at the Stadio San Paolo – with goal scorer Idrissa Gueye and Villarreal’s Alfred N'Diaye stationed together in defensive midfield – but the side’s lack of creativity in the middle afforded Koulibaly numerous opportunities to demonstrate his passing ability, while he impressed coping with Poland’s aerial threat.
Poland struggled to truly test Koulibaly’s burgeoning defensive partnership with Salif Sané, who plays his club football in the Bundesliga with Hannover 96. In the first-half Poland’s attack of Lewandowski, Kamil Grosicki and Napoli colleague Arkadiusz Milik failed to create anything of note, with Koulibaly and co largely untroubled.
As an increasingly desperate Poland began throwing bodies forward in an erratic second-half, Koulibaly came under even slightly more pressure, but still the level of his performance did not drop. Perhaps he was fortunate to watch Łukasz Piszczek volley high and wide after allowing the full-back to find a pocket of space in the penalty box – while Milik evaded him only to shoot wide a few minutes later – but ultimately it was a relaxed, refined defensive performance.
Such was Senegal’s defensive dominance – and Koulibaly’s influence – that Milik and Lewandowski exchanged just one, solitary pass in the whole of the match. Their late goal came instead in rather fortuitous circumstances from Grzegorz Krychowiak, with Poland’s attack instead comprehensively shut down and unable to find an equaliser in injury time. This is a result that will have boosted Senegal’s confidence that they are good enough to win this group, perhaps even setting up a Round of 16 clash with England.
In short, it was a display that demonstrated perfectly why he would surely excel in the Premier League. Against Poland, Koulibaly got the basics right: confident under the high ball, dragging his team-mates into position and marshalling Lewandowski throughout.
Factor in the more expansive, elaborate side of his game that he has exhibited in the Serie A this season, and it becomes clear why clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have all been linked with a £60m move.
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