Kalidou Koulibaly finally has his Premier League move after years of links with a transfer to England – and it’s no coincidence why clubs here have courted him so long.
One former manager, Carlo Ancelotti, once labelled Koulibaly one of the best defenders he had ever worked with. High praise from a man who has coached Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Sergio Ramos and Chelsea legend John Terry to name but a few.
In eight years at Napoli under Ancelotti and others, he has transformed himself from a little-known centre-back from Genk to one of the finest players in the world in his position. English clubs, well aware of his suitability for the Premier League, have courted him for much of that time.
Now aged 31 and in search of a trophy legacy in the final years of his career, Koulibaly has finally given in to temptation by rejecting a new deal in Naples to help Thomas Tuchel rebuild Chelsea’s backline. Tuchel’s Blues have been defined by their stoic defending, and he may have found his perfect fit to continue in that vain.
Known interchangeably as “K2”, after the world’s second-highest mountain, and “The Wall” by Napoli fans, his raw defensive statistics have not always matched his reputation in Naples and across Italy. He was widely touted with the club captaincy after the departure of Lorenzo Insigne earlier this summer, and was referred to as a “defensive dam” in the national press in the days building up to his move to London.
Giandomenico Costi, an assistant to Napoli’s then-sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli until last year, told Sky Sports Koulibaly’s arrival had landed Chelsea one of the world’s best defenders.
“He’s definitely among the top centre backs around,” he said. “He’s very strong physically. It’s so important in the Premier League, a little different to Italy, and he will be a perfect fit in England.
“During his time at Napoli, he’s improved every year step by step to get to the level he is at today and now he is the complete defender.
“When you play for one of the top teams in the world, you have to be able to defend one-on-one against the best players in case you get caught out on the break, especially with the intensity of the Premier League. He has all the tools to do it – pace, strength and positioning.
“He’s not the kind of defender to say, ‘Please help me, I’m worried about how to handle this forward’. He knows he can deal with them. He doesn’t really have any major weaknesses – he has too many good points for that.”
The progression to the defensive rock Koulibaly is today was laid bare by the player himself when recalling an early meeting with then-Napoli boss Rafa Benitez in 2014, shortly after he joined the club, leaving him in no doubt about the demands of elite-level football he would have to reach.
Coming from the Belgian top flight where his opponents were far less likely to press him into mistakes, he was told in no uncertain terms to keep it simple in Serie A – a lesson he has not forgotten.
“Rafa shut me in a room with the head of video analysis, and he was showing me all of my best plays. Sensational passes, dribbling, sliding tackles,” he told The Players Tribune.
“It’s hard to translate the next part, but he told me I won the ball back because of my strength and that if my opponent was smarter, I would have been in trouble.”
“He’s not the kind of defender to say, ‘Please help me, I’m worried about this forward’. He knows he can deal with them. He doesn’t really have any major weaknesses – he has too many good points for that.”
Not all players would take such criticism in their stride but the secret of Koulibaly’s rise stems from his desire to improve.
Even into his 30s and with his global reputation, he will remain eager to impress both Tuchel and his team-mates when he links up with Chelsea for their US tour ahead of the new season.
“He will be a pleasure for Tuchel to train him,” Costi said. “He leads by example. He won’t be shouting at anyone in the dressing room, but he will be a leader by the way he conducts himself on the pitch.
“He’s a great man too. He has really embraced the culture at Napoli, he speaks like one of the fans. They have grown to adore him – as well as being such a good defender, he has shown himself to be a wonderful person during his time there too.”
Much of the good feeling around Koulibaly’s personality has grown through his philanthropic work. Last summer he spent the close season back in Senegal, where he arranged for a ship full of containers bearing medical supplies, medicine and even two ambulances to be chartered from Italy.
He has embedded himself in the culture of the club and the city, and developed such a bond with both that earlier this week week manager Luciano Spalletti said the club would “never stop thanking him” if his move to Chelsea went through.
That mutual loyalty has kept him at Napoli longer than many would have expected, as after eight years in Serie A he has only one Italian Super Cup and a Coppa Italia medal to show for it. His dream had been to earn a trophy haul in that sky blue shirt, but something had to give.
Last month, Koulibaly rejected the offer of a new deal in Naples with that desire to win firmly in his mind. At Chelsea, Champions League winners a year ago and FA Cup and Carabao Cup finalists in 2022, he has certainly given himself a chance.
Although he arrives at Stamford Bridge already into his 30s, his determination and professionalism may give him more time to realise those dreams than his age would suggest, and can also explain what inspired the Blues to part with more than £30m for a player supposedly in his twilight years, and also entering the final 12 months of his contract.
“I think he can keep going for another five or six years,” Costi said. “It’s easy for him. He’s incredibly disciplined – Kalidou doesn’t eat anything bad, he doesn’t drink anything bad, he goes to bed early.”
The chaos around Roman Abramovich’s acrimonious departure earlier this year threatened to overshadow Chelsea’s summer business, but looks far behind them now with Raheem Sterling and Koulibaly through the door and more incomings to follow in the near future.
If Tuchel was having sleepless nights at the start of the summer, he may well be sleeping as serenely as his new centre-back now with the Blues’ rebuild job now well on track three weeks ahead of the new campaign.
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